Friday Feature: The Amazing Screw-On Head

This week’s Friday Feature is not a tough sell.

Mignola’s Hellboy, after a scrap.

Mike Mignola is already well loved in the comics community.  His art is  easily recognizable and stylized in a way that it seems everybody loves. He’s best known for writing and drawing the Hellboy series, which gained a boost in popularity with the 2004 movie of the same name.

Hellboy has spawned a handful of popular spin-off series, including B.P.R.D., Abe Sapien, and Lobster Johnson.

In my opinion, however, Mignola’s best work is found in The Amazing Screw-on Head and Other Curious Objects. The title story is about a plucky automaton  working as a sort of secret agent for all things paranormal directly under President Abraham Lincoln. He begins the story as nothing more than a robotic head bouncing around on, you guessed it, a screw! When he gets ready to go into the field to take on the evil Emperor Zombie (!) he selects a body from a collection (with the help of his butler “Mr. Groin”) and threads himself into it.

If you’re not already interested . . . well I guess this week’s feature isn’t for you. Amazing Screw-On Head is a ridiculously pulpy, campy, sci-fi adventure story. It reads a little bit like you’re being dropped into the middle of a 1950’s radio serial. All of the characters understand why whatever is happening is so very dramatic, but you don’t – at least not at the beginning. You feel caught up by page four or five, though, and then you’re just along for the ride!

The rest of the stories in the collection are basically disjointed, although there are little things that tie them all together. My favorite of the secondary stories is called “The Magician and the Snake.” This one was co-written by Mignola and his daughter, and the youthful innocence that permeates the story is a real delight to read.

So pass up on that second classy cocktail this weekend, and zip by your local comic book shop to pick up this phenomenal collection!

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Trust Me, I’m not a Fungi

BIG GIANT-SERIOUSLY DON’T READ THIS SPOILER WARNING FOR THE LAST OF US

I killed a man yesterday…and I am okay with it.

What’s more concerning is that I felt righteous in my act of violence.

But let’s backtrack a bit shall we?

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The Last of Us is a Playstation 3 exclusive from Naughty Dog, makers of Uncharted, Jak and Daxter, and the original Crash Bandicoot. The game takes place in a near future setting where cordyceps have ravaged the planet by mutating and infecting humanity and society, as we know it, is struggling to survive. It’s not a happy place, and Joel, our main character, is not a happy person.

We meet him at the beginning of the outbreak, living in Austin with his daughter and his brother living nearby. Within minutes of starting the game, we see Austin crumble, his daughter shot, and time jump ahead years and years into the future…

…with him staring at an empty bottle.

Yeah, Joel is not in a good place.

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Nonetheless, the game continues and through a series of events you end up traveling with Ellie. She’s a young girl who never knew the world before things went to hell, has a mouth like a sailor, and a secret of her own. She’s immune to the infection. Thus the real thrust of the adventure kicks in; you are to take Ellie cross country to the base of “The Fireflies;” a resistance group still working on a cure.

Suffice it to say, you both make it, but not unscathed. Joel wakes up in a room surrounded by guards, and is told in no certain terms that he cannot see Ellie. The reason being, she is being prepped for surgery to remove her brain to find out what causes her immunity. They tell me I can do nothing about it. They’re wrong.

I kill the first guard without thinking; after he tells me where Ellie is…

I snap the necks of a couple of guards who see me as I continue to get closer…

and once the alarms sound, I make sure no one is left to tell where I went…

…because NOTHING is going to stand between me and that girl.

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I finally get to the operating room, where two nurses and the surgeon await. I shoot one of the nurses to prove I am not joking around, hoping that they will get the picture, but the Doc pulls a scalpel on me. So I drop him and the other remaining nurse, and take Ellie away from there.

I killed those men and didn’t bat an eye. I felt righteous in my vengeance, and I KNEW I was doing the “right” thing. That’s what it felt like, at least. After all this time, I couldn’t let them lay a hand on this little girl that I had come to love and care for. Hell itself could not stop me in that moment.

Yet; let’s look at this objectively…

-I murdered the only people left looking for a cure to the infection

-I killed one of the last brain surgeons on the planet

-Any hope humanity may have had, is now gone because of my actions

I am not the “good guy.” I am most definitely the “villain.”   ….and I am okay with that.

————————————————————————

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This is not the first time that a “protagonist” turns out to be something “other,” in any art form. One only has to look to The Road (a big inspiration for the game) and stories like Watchman to see the trope used in similar ways. Yet, what makes The Last of Us so amazing and worth the discussion is that it puts the actions in the hands of the player.

In other media, we see the drama play out, and we are merely observers to the actions.  We see the characters rationalize their behavior, and we follow along. Yet, in a game-space it is the player that acts and rationalizes the actions that he/she must take. The greatest games have narratives that ensure that the player rationalizes those actions.

Nothing could be worse for game’s narrative than ludonarrative dissonance. In other words, for there to be a disconnect between player actions and narrative direction. It is jarring and can take the player out of the moment; to the detriment of the game. An easy example of this is Grand Theft Auto IV‘s Niko Belic, who bemoans his life of violence; but continues to commit heinous acts. Because there is a perceived gap between the Niko that the player sees and the Niko the player controls, there is less investment in the proceedings.

GTAIV

What The Last of Us does so incredibly well is not only remove that dissonance, but have such a strong narrative and emotional component that by the time end game occurs there is no question of what needs to be done. For hours and hours of gameplay, TLoU actively builds the player’s relationship with Ellie. There are optional conversations with her, comics you can pick up for her, and small personal moments that draw you into this relationship.

It is a credit to the creators and writers that by the end of the game, you not only want to protect Ellie, but are willing to kill for her. A few games go that far and are that successful with their stories; but none have ever staked the future of humanity on them.

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In a world full of terribly tragic things, gore, and violence; Ellie gives Joel and the player hope. You see people die all around you, you kill just to survive, and one little girl and her book of bad jokes is the only thing that makes this place a little brighter.

The true horror of The Last of Us isn’t the violence, but rather the fact that it is a world that makes good men do bad things…

…it makes the player do BAD things.

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This is something that only this type of art form can do. The player is complicit in the actions of the character, rationalizes those actions, and completes them. That’s not something that can be done in books or movies, and is one of the reasons this story is so powerful for so many.

As gaming continues to “grow up,” we’ll continue to see more mature and different types of stories come out of that growth. The Last of Us isn’t a flash in the pan, but the vanguard of a new type of storytelling. It is definitely something to experience on your own, and something to look forward to in the future. I look forward to the next time I can wake up after beating a game and realize that I am the bad guy….

Friday Feature: Batgirl vol. 1

Ok folks.

I have an apology to make.

I’m late to the party. Not “fashionably” late, where everybody has just gotten there and has asked the host if you’re coming, just to have you walk in and they all say “HEEEY THERE HE IS!” No this was the other kind of late, the kind where you’re driving the van and everyone has been waiting for you and trying to call for hours, but you were asleep or picking your nose or maybe you couldn’t put down Call of Duty because you finally have a positive K/D ratio, and you’re not giving it up.

What party am I so late to? Gail Simone‘s new 52 Batgirl.

Batgirl #1 (2011)

Finally, 2 years later, I read Batgirl vol. 1 in trade paperback thanks to my co-blogger Jonny’s recommendation.

For those who don’t know the character, Batgirl (Barbara Gordon, daughter of Commissioner James Gordon) has been through a lot. She was shot and paralyzed from the waist down by the Joker in an infamously brutal story by Alan Moore, and for a long time she was wheelchair-bound. Fortunately for Gotham (and the Bat-family) she kept using her (practically super-human) brain for good by becoming Oracle, the information hub/designated hacker/all-around-genius for all the Gotham heroes.

But with the arrival DC’s new 52, we fans were blessed with a return of Babs Gordon to the street-level crime-fighting for which she was born! By some miracle (which I don’t fully understand, and neither does she), she has regained the use of her legs and fully intends to put them to use. She expresses very early in the comic that she “didn’t even know how much [she] missed it.”

My DC pull list for the New 52 has varied some as titles and teams change, but my consistent pulls have been BatmanAnimal ManSwamp Thing, and Wonder Woman. With the exception of Wonder Woman (and on some rare occasions Swamp Thing) I’ve been reading a lot of really tragic stories coming out of DC recently. Bruce Wayne and Buddy Baker have had a really bad couple of years.

The end result of that is that my favorite heroes have been seeming really hopeless lately. Animal Man, Batman, and Swamp Thing have gotten to a point where they really don’t enjoy what they do.

The wonderful thing about Batgirl is that she really loves being Batgirl! She caries a youthful innocence, determination, and hope into the streets of Gotham, a city that characteristically saps hope from its citizens.

The story arc that is collected in Batgirl vol. 1 is not a “happy” story, by any stretch of the imagination. The villain against whom she fights is cold, destructive, and unsympathetic. But when Batgirl gets on the motorcycle with Nightwing (Dick Grayson, the original Robin), you can’t stop yourself from smiling…

 

So stop what you’re doing and go to your local comic book shop, and pick up the new 52’s Batgirl, by Gail Simone and Ardian Syaf. You won’t be disappointed.

Doctor Her?

The Doctor isn’t God, but he might be the closest we’ve got.

Other potential deities in the nerd pantheon are either too distant – like big-headed Uatu the Watcher, “forbidden to interfere;” or they’re too human — “little-g” gods like Thor who are limited in power and knowledge and bound up in our petty human dramas.

The Doctor, on the other hand, comes pretty close to my idea of God — wise beyond human conception, unrestrained by human limitations like space and time, and yet deeply in love with the created universe, especially the brief and beautiful lives of human beings.

As a student of theology, this may be part of why I am so troubled by the Doctor Who fans who scoff at the idea of a female Doctor.

For the uninitiated (get ye to Netflix), when the Doctor “dies” he regenerates a new body, retaining his essential personality and memories but taking on a new physical form.  Eleven actors (all men) have portrayed the character thus far in different regenerations.

We now know that the next iteration of the Doctor will again be a man, but when the new Doctor’s identity was still up in the air, I participated in the wild speculation around who would be the next to pilot the TARDIS.

“Why not a woman?” I wondered along with other enthused fans.

In a great episode written by Neil Gaiman, “The Doctor’s Wife,” the Doctor mentions a Time Lord called The Corsair whose regeneration shifted from male to female. Clearly changing genders, just like changing hair, height, skin color, etc., is possible for Time Lords.

The eleventh Doctor wonders if his new regeneration is a girl when he feels his new hair

Yet some fans have a visceral, negative reaction to the idea of a female regeneration of the Doctor. Here’s a sampling of opinions culled from fan forums:

“Making the Doctor into a woman…would make nonsense of a character that has a long history. It would purely be pandering to the politically correct lobby whose sole aim seems to be to ruin everything for everyone. They should simply accept it – some characters are male and some are female and that’s just the way it is. Making the doctor female would be a sure fire way of making the show jump the shark.”

“You’re right, it would be stupid. I mean, River Song and the Doctor would turn into a gay couple. How would we explain that? It would just be weird. I would prefer the show be canceled than the show continue with a woman. By the way, I am NOT sexist.”

“Regenerating the Doctor into a female Doctor would absolutely ruin the show. I wouldn’t watch it, nobody I know would watch it. It’s just a terrible idea and would be the downfall of Doctor Who. As much as I like boobs as a guy, just keep the females as the non-doctor characters.”

To counter these incredibly convincing (“lolz, bewbs!”) points, I would argue that the character would not lose anything that makes the Doctor “the Doctor” if she regenerated as a woman.

As with every new individual who takes on the role, a woman would bring fresh nuances to how the Doctor is played, but in the hands of a capable actor, the core of the character we love would remain the same.

To state otherwise implies that a woman could not be what the Doctor is; that a woman could not be brilliant and arrogant and courageous and charismatic and compassionate and broken and vulnerable and powerful and awe-inspiring. That’s sexist nonsense — we have seen all these characteristics in the women on the show, and, more to the point, in the women in our own lives.

River Song and Amy Pond are just two of the great number of diverse and well-rounded women on Doctor Who

Turning back to the metaphor of the Doctor as God, we can gain insight into what’s behind this reservoir of fanboy freak-out from Elizabeth Johnson’s seminal theological work, She Who Is. In her book, Johnson critiques the historical use of exclusively male pronouns for God and constructs a feminist theology that images the Divine as She.

While the idea of a female Doctor may seem “stupid” to some Whovians, the idea of a female God seems outright heretical to many Christians. But the knee-jerk revulsion for the feminine comes from the same source: the androcentrism of patriarchy.

God is depicted as exclusively male in many of the most influential images produced by Western culture

As Johnson writes, “Feminist theology exposes the ruling-male-centered partiality of what has been taken as universal and the interests served by what has seemed disinterested.”

In patriarchal cultures,  male is seen as “neutral,” while female is seen as “other.”  So while God as male is normalized, God as female is seen as an example of “the politically correct lobby whose sole aim seems to be to ruin everything for everyone.”  Within a patriarchal framework, God as female is seen as transgressive because women’s experiences are not seen as normative human (read: male) experiences.

Which make sense of the fact that, within the Christian tradition, the aspect of God that has been most frequently associated with the feminine is the Holy Spirit, which is not personified as a human, but most commonly depicted as a dove. Similarly, the TARDIS, a genderless object, is also associated with the feminine. In the (arguably sexist) nautical tradition, the Doctor refers to the TARDIS with feminine pronouns, and in the aforementioned episode “The Doctor’s Wife,” the TARDIS appears as a woman when it takes human form. Women cosplaying as the TARDIS is a pretty common sight at conventions.

The TARDIS in human form

I’m not saying that these costumes aren’t super cool, but it is problematic that we see hundreds of women TARDIS costumes for every one worn by a man – it’s taken for granted that women are more suited to portraying an object. This is an admittedly minor, but obvious example of the way in which the feminine is marginalized through our use of language.

As Elizabeth Johnson points out, the language, symbols, and imagery that we use in daily life have the power to shape our reality. Speaking of God exclusively as He “serves in manifold ways to support an imaginative and structural world that excludes or subordinates women. Wittingly or not, it undermines women’s human dignity as equally created in the image of God.”

The exclusion of women from ordination is one glaring example of how this subordination has functioned in many Christian communities. More violent examples include medieval “witch burning,” as well as the minimization and denial of domestic abuse and sexual violence within modern churches. The list, unfortunately, goes on.

Illustration from a later edition of the Malleus Maleficarum, a medieval witch hunting handbook

While the message board users quoted above, along with religious fundamentalists, may disclaim that they are “not sexist” when they cling to symbols that are exclusively masculine, their insistence that women are unfit to be reflected in the face of a beloved figure perpetuates the sexist ideal that women are inherently less-than and intrinsically other. By clinging to “tradition,” they create communities that exclude and devalue women, both implicitly and explicitly.

Defining our most important cultural symbols as exclusively male is a crucial pillar of patriarchy. Geek culture has done a lot better than the Christian Church in this regard — Superman is not threatened by the existence of Wonder Woman; there is enough room for both Aang and Korra; Buffy kills a vampire as effectively as Blade. Nevertheless, like Christianity, the geek community has sacred cows of androcentrism that reveal the ways in which women are still marginalized within our subculture.

It’s long past time to move forward. If Doctor Who teaches us anything, it’s that thinking inside the limited confines of black and white boxes holds us back from experiencing a universe that is infinitely variable and endlessly surprising, full of mystery and joy and new discoveries. Letting the Doctor try on a pair of XX chromosomes would not be the end of the world. It would be different, and unpredictable, and exciting — which sounds a lot  like the Doctor we know today. So what are we waiting for?  Allons-y!

Friday Feature: Erika Moen

Long before I started spending my babysitting money on graphic novels, I became acquainted with sequential art through the wonderfully egalitarian medium of the webcomic.   As a teenager cultivating my taste for bizarre humor, I loved webcomics like Cat and Girl, Scary Go Round, Dinosaur Comics,  and  Wigu.

In college my comic book money ran out again, and I found myself in search of a webcomic that could fill the void in my life.  I was lucky enough to discover a webcomic jewel, Bucko, by Jeff Parker and Erika Moen.  It’s the tale of a hapless Portlander who finds himself solving a crime with the help of Etsy crafters, a Suicide Girl, and a gang of Juggalos.  If you’re not sold on that description, our tastes obviously diverge considerably.  

When I finished Bucko, I needed more, so I went back to Erika Moen’s first webcomic, DAR: A Super Girly Top Secret Comic Diary.  DAR is the opposite of Bucko; a sincere picture of a young woman’s journey through life.  Funny, heartfelt, and honest, it stands up with the work of Ariel Schrag and Alison Bechdel in the tradition of queer women’s autobiographical comics.  Since Moen wrote and drew DAR over the course of several years, the reader gets to see her artistic style evolve and mature, mirroring Moen’s own personal growth.

Moen’s current project is as unique and innovative as her work has been in the past: Oh Joy Sex Toy (nsfw) is a sex-positive, feminist webcomic that discusses sex toys, queer-friendly porn, pole dancing, safe sex, birth control, and a whole array of  interesting sexuality-based topics. Moen’s illustrated characters are diverse in body type, gender, race, and sexuality, so unlike mainstream sex ed and erotica, Oh Joy Sex Toy truly reflects the rich diversity of  human sexual experience.  It’s fun and educational for adults of all genders, and fills the important role of providing easy-to-understand, shame-free information about sexual health.  

Between Bucko, DAR, and Oh Joy Sex Toy, you’re bound to find a comic by Erika Moen that you love – and they’re all available free of charge through her website, www.erikamoen.com.  It’s great to know that when I can’t afford to keep up with all 15 X-Men titles, there’s still a whole world of comic joy out there for me to discover, being created by people with delightfully unique perspectives.

X-Folk are Everyfolk, or, “Why God Needs the X-Men”

One of the magnificent things about comics is that they’re free to explore and challenge our preconceptions in unexpected ways. Often we don’t even know we’re being challenged.

Since their creation in 1963, the mutant super group “the X-Men,” have represented nearly every marginalized group in society. Racial discrimination, religious discrimination, and discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation are all seen in the gutters of X-Men books.

The last X-Men movie, “X-Men First Class,” did an exceptional job of drawing parallels between the growing mutant community and the victims of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps. In this context, we learn a lot about Magneto’s past and his motivation for becoming the “villain” we know in the other X-films.

Magneto in God Loves, Man Kills

Several of his memorable lines point toward the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews.

As Charles Xavier is thinking of using the Cerebro device to find other mutants, Erik (the future Magneto) asks,

Can we [help them]? Identification, that’s how it starts. And ends with being rounded up, experimented on and eliminated.

As Erik suspends a barrage of missiles pointed at the the ships that had fired them at the mutants on shore, it’s Charles who speaks up:

Charles: Erik, you said yourself we’re the better men. This is the time to prove it. There are thousands of men on those ships. Good, honest, innocent men! They’re just following orders.

Erik: I’ve been at the mercy of men just following orders. Never again.

This is one of the most explicit allegories to real life prejudice that we find in X-stories. It’s worth noting that Katherine “Kitty” Pryde (aka Shadowcat), “The most Jewish superhero that has ever lived …” (according to a current writer of the X-Men) is the de facto leader of the primary X-Men team. For a bit more about Kitty’s Jewish identity, check this out.

Just about every marginalized group can sympathize with the X-folk and their struggles, but recently the adventures of the X-Men have been most akin to those in the modern LGBT community.

LGBT youth (and adults) are subjected to a gamut of social challenges that hetero-normative youth are not. They are much more likely to face bullying, physical and emotional violence, and suicide attempts than are their straight peers.

They are forced to the margins of a society that doesn’t understand them, hates them, or fears them.

The mutants of the X-Men face physical violence quite often. “Sentinel” (giant, mutant-hunting robots) attacks are a commonplace reality for mutantkind, and there are often efforts to “cure” mutants to normalize and integrate them into human society.

They exist on the margins of a society that doesn’t understand them, hates them, or fears them.

On a fairly regular basis, the X-Folk fight against a suspicious government that fears their difference, but one story in particular highlights another source of prejudicial fear: Religion.

A 1982 Marvel Graphic Novel, X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, tells the story of the mutants’ encounter with Rev. William Stryker and his “Stryker Crusade” against mutants. Stryker himself primarily uses rhetoric and sermons to literally demonize mutants. He insists that they are spawns of the devil.

The Stryker Crusade, on the other hand, has much more direct methods. The comic actually opens with two crusaders murdering two mutant children and leaving their bodies hanging from a playground swing-set, adorned with a plaque that reads “MUTIES” (a slur for mutants). Much of the comic centers on the X-Men team trying to outmaneuver the crusaders who are hunting them while Charles Xavier tries to change the public opinion of mutants.

It’s grim enough to see this kind of violence in the fictional realms of comic books, but let’s not forget that there are real people that suffer violence just as horrific as that in God Loves, Man Kills. Russia’s recent anti-gay law has effectively sanctioned violence against LGBT people in Russia, but let’s not believe that America is exactly immune to homophobic violence. On the religious front, some of the rhetoric that Stryker uses is literally identical to some that is used in some real churches today to stir up hate for LGBT people.

For me, as 21st century justice-minded Christian, I’m deeply offended when religious texts and rhetoric are used to diminish the humanity of others. For this reason, and others, I believe we need the X-Men.  It may not look like much, but what the X-Men do is offer an entertaining way to invest in justice.

When we see the clearly good people of Xavier’s team hunted down because of some basic part of their identity over which they had no control, we need only turn our heads before we see clearly good people in real life harassed and battered over an aspect of themselves over which they had no control and with which there is nothing wrong.

Even if you’re not particularly religious, some part of this should ring true to you. All of us who participate in the primary Western culture have seen it. Whether motivated by religious duty or some other pull toward justice, we all must do what we can to ensure that people whether alike us or not, are not marginalized based on an “accident of birth.”

I’ll leave you with this impassioned speech by Kitty Pryde:

Check out X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills to see what happens next!

Friday Feature: FTL

Here’s a real life situation I encountered this week, and I think it’s pretty universal:

You’re sitting in your room lazily watching Star Trek: Voyager when you hear the peerless Captain Kathryn Janeway say something like, “reroute all available power to the shields and begin charging phasers!” You begin to think to yourself, “Gosh, I wish I could reroute power through some stuff and charge things to shoot other things…”

Well, the good news for you is that there’s a game that lets you do just that!

Enter the video game, FTL: Faster Than Light.

In video-game classification, FTL is a roguelike space-sim with simplistic graphics and a high degree of difficulty. Its almost flash-game-like graphics make it a very unassuming title in the ever-highly detailed landscape of AAA video games, but as I mentioned when I recommended the Infinity Engine, graphics don’t make a game!

And it’s also worth noting that FTL is definitely not a AAA game. It was kickstarter funded and can now be purchased on GOG.com for a whopping $9.99, but I’ve seen it dip down to $2.49 during their more aggressive sales.

FTL has a vague background story-line but the real fun of the game comes in the trial and error execution. When you play FTL, you’ll almost certainly lose the game a handful of times before making it to the final level. The random encounters and equipment drops mean you can never really count on having the same ship more than once.

Your starting ship isn’t much, but it gets the job done until you find some more impressive equipment.

Occasionally this is a frustrating aspect of the game. It hurts to have a really awesome layout and a great crew only to have your ship boarded by insectoid aliens that just tear it up from the inside out. Sigh.

Such as war, they say.

Dying is just part of the game! Eventually you learn the best way to deal with certain problems, but prepare to see your ship blow up a few times before you do.

BUT, even when you lose a really good setup, you won’t lose much time. The game can be completed in about an hour and a half (if you make it to the end) so you’re rarely going to be giving up more than just a little while and, if you’re anything like me, you’ll enjoy the process!