Saturday, February 06, 2016

The State of Comics Blogging

Dave Lartigue closed Dave Ex Machina yesterday.

That's a part of what made me fire up the old blog machine this morning, and definitely part of what made me look at the sidebar. Clicking those links is a depressing enterprise. Less than half of the main blogroll is still active, and several of those post about as sporadically as I have been.

It's not too hard to see why, really. I can't speak for everyone, but I started this blog when I was in college and had tons of free time for writing. Eventually I grew up, I got a job, I got married, and all that meant less time for sitting in front of the computer or reading comics. My "to read" pile is basically a longbox and a half at this point. I suspect the same is true for a lot of the folks who fired up comics blogs in the halcyon days of the mid-'00s. A lot of the rest got snagged up by larger sites like Comics Alliance and Comic Book Resources and Newsarama, where they're still doing comics blogging, but under a bigger umbrella.

A lot of content has moved to other platforms, too. I spend a lot more time on social media than I do on Blogger, where it can sometimes feel like you're shouting into the void. Places like Tumblr and Twitter are good for short-form content and jokes that once would have been blog posts here, and allow for more quantitative feedback in the form of likes and reblogs.

Personally, I know I've never been good at finishing things or following a project through to the end. I've still got some ideas for this blog, and I'm not ready to let go of the format just yet. I'm certainly not ready to put a pin in it and close things down with that sense of finality, not when there's the possibility that I'll change my mind in six months. But the comics blogging landscape is different than it was five years ago, and it's littered with abandoned residences.

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Sunday, January 03, 2016

2015 In Review

Happy New Year, everybody! I've made it my resolution to write more, and while I don't know if that'll translate to more posts on this increasingly depressing blog, but it would be difficult to do less writing here. It's not for lack of trying; it's mostly for lack of time.

But enough excuses, I'm going to share some thoughts on the past year, in the traditional form: a best-of list. The major caveat here is that I haven't read as much of what came out this year as I'd like, so I may be overlooking some gems that I didn't get around to reading.

Best Ongoing Comic Series: Unbeatable Squirrel Girl by Ryan North, Erica Henderson, and Rico Renzi.
This has not been a great year for my reading of comics. My to-read pile has been mostly just getting larger, and even books that I once would have read as soon as I got back from the comic shop have started gathering dust. Marvel's made that a little easier to get past with their digital copy codes, allowing me to read most Marvel books without having the physical copy present, but I still have to pick and choose what to spend my time on. And I always pick "Unbeatable Squirrel Girl" when it's an option. North and Henderson are both great for their own individual reasons, and together they've made Marvel's most surprising must-read book. It's consistently fun and funny, using obscure Marvel characters and continuity in new and fun ways. It's an all-ages book that never feels like it's talking down to the audience or oversimplifying the shared universe. It's given us Chipmunk Hunk and Koi Boi. If you're not reading it, what are you even doing?

Best Superhero TV Series: The Flash
This has been a banner year for superhero TV. Marvel's Daredevil and Jessica Jones have been incredible character studies that do things like "grim 'n' gritty" and "street-level superheroes" ten times better than most of the comics and media adaptations which have tried those things before. Agents of SHIELD continues to be fairly watchable, and I hear good things about Gotham even though I lost interest. But holy cow, The Flash. Aside from a few missteps, The Flash is the first superhero adaptation since Batman: Brave and the Bold which doesn't feel like it's ashamed of the sillier aspects of superhero comics. Sure, they made Firestorm an acronym (a common trope we see in comics adaptations, though I'm hard-pressed to see how it makes things less silly) and made Grodd a government experiment, but then they dropped full-on Earth-2 and Gorilla City in like it's no big deal. This show feels like a breath of fresh air, and I can't wait to see where it's headed next.

Honorable Mention: Supergirl
Supergirl is just about everything I want from an adaptation of a Superman Family character, including the single best portrayal of Cat Grant in any medium in the last 20 years or so. I feel like it's still finding its legs a bit (that love triangle has got to go), but it's well on it's way to being not just a great, fun superhero show, but the best Superman-related media in well over a decade.

Best Superhero Movie: Ant-Man
This wasn't exactly a big year for superhero films, so of the two I saw, I thought Ant-Man was better. It was fun, funny, well-paced, and it introduced a bit of legacy into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, helping to better tie together the increasingly sprawling timeline. Hopefully the next film will give us Janet Van Dyne and give Evangeline Lilly more to do. That this movie wasn't just "The Wasp" is its biggest failing.

Best Superman Series: Superman: Lois & Clark
I honestly think this year's been a pretty good one for Superman, all things considered. He's had a rough time of it since before the New 52 reboot, but this year's stories have been pretty solid. The "Truth" arc is somewhat controversial, but like "New Krypton" a few years ago, I'm willing to give a shot to stories that try new things with the character (within reason, of course). The arc has been a nice, stealthy way to bring the spotlight back onto Superman's supporting cast, who have been rather ill-served by the last several years of comics storytelling. But it also raises rather uncomfortable questions of putting genies back in bottles, meaning either inevitable retcons or piecemeal nonsense like when Wally West and Peter Parker had their secret identities restored. It'd also be nice if they weren't still persisting with the Superman/Wonder Woman romance, which seems forced and cursory even in its flagship title.
But Lois & Clark, only a few issues in, is a nice breath of fresh air. While it's purporting to bring back the "old" Superman, the pre-New 52 married Superman, with wife and child in tow, it's doing precisely the kind of new take on things that I've been enjoying in "Truth." A Superman who's lost not just a world, but a universe, working in secret to ensure what went wrong in the old timeline goes right, now? It's a bit of Quantum Leap, mixed with a bit of what this Superman did way back in the Byrne reboot. It's also easily Jurgens' best writing in years. I've enjoyed quite a few of the New 52 Superman stories, but this comic felt like coming home.

Biggest Surprise: Star Wars
Not even just the new film. The beginning of the end of my Star Wars fandom in the late '90s, when I couldn't finish "Tales from the Empire" and had no interest in the Hand of Thrawn Duology. I was still pretty into Star Wars, mind you, reading older novels, running RPG campaigns, and seeing the movies in the theater. I really liked The Phantom Menace; I saw Attack of the Clones twice in the theater (once at the midnight opening). While Revenge of the Sith didn't exactly kill what remained by that point, it didn't leave me with much enthusiasm for that universe. It would be years before I actually engaged with Star Wars media again in any fashion.
But this year, I decided to revisit the movies, in preparation for The Force Awakens, a film I was actually optimistic about. For the first time, I felt like I could pin down exactly what were the problems with the prequels, and I actually appreciated what they got right. Moreover, I recognized that I liked the wrong two back in the day, and that
aside from some really dumb bits, Revenge of the Sith is easily the best of the three.
I also started in on Marvel's Star Wars comics this year, on the recommendation of my local comic shop guy, and while I was really skeptical at first, I've enjoyed it all so far. I've never been much of one for Star Wars comics; reading Dark Empire early on turned me off to the whole enterprise. But putting top talent on the books (not to mention sweeping away decades of dodgy Expanded Universe continuity) was the shot in the arm necessary to make this new Expanded Universe feel fresh and fun. As with Superman, I feel like I'm finally seeing new things being done, new stories being told, with these familiar characters, and that's really vital.
And then The Force Awakens hit, and I quite liked it. I'm hesitant to say that, since my track record on critically evaluating the Star Wars films is not great, but I enjoyed the movie and look forward to seeing it again, perhaps with a more critical eye. Honestly, though, just returning to practical effects made a world of difference.

Honorable Mention: Secret Wars
It's not quite over yet, but Secret Wars is easily the best crossover event comic I've read since...well, a good long time, anyway (I admit, I haven't gotten around to all those Convergence tie-ins, or the miniseries). This year, I went back and read Hickman's whole Marvel opus, from Fantastic Four and S.H.I.E.L.D. on up through Avengers, and it was truly amazing to see how early he was laying the seeds of this event. All the tie-ins I've read have been pretty good, but the main book is where the real meat has been, and I'm excited to see how it all ties up.

And I think that about wraps this post up, too. Only two more posts to beat last year's number.

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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Justice League: Adults and Teenagers

So, I picked up Justice League: Gods and Monsters. For awhile, I was buying all the DC Direct-to-DVD films, and that new Batman Unlimited joint was the first one I sat out on. I was going to bow out on this one too, but the concept seemed interesting and I liked the prospect of seeing Timm's animation style again.

It is a very mixed bag. Spoilers ahead.

The thing to really like about it is that it's an "evil alternate universe Justice League" story without the "evil." The universe here is built to defy easy moral dichotomies, like a more morally gray version of the Justice Lords story. The Justice League still fights for a sense of justice, but more brutally. The ultimate demonstration of this is in the origin of this world's Wonder Woman, whose origin is steeped in a much less Manichean Apokolips/New Genesis conflict.

The character hooks are pretty standard Elseworlds concepts—what if Superman were General Zod('s kid), what if Batman were a vampire, etc.—mostly stuff we've seen before in other stories. Wonder Woman is both the biggest departure from the original and the one that's hardest to identify as a spin on the basic character concept. Consequently, though, I think she's the most interesting of the main cast, because her story's the most different from what's come before.

The bad is that it all feels like that style of "edgy" that a thirteen-year-old boy comes up with. There's a lot of curse words that feel really forced, some surprisingly graphic violence, and somebody drew really crude nipples on Platinum of the Metal Men. In every frame she's in. And all along the way they throw in references to recognizable characters with a kind of "look! look! recognize that guy? Eh? Eh?" There's a lovingly lingering shot of an ID card reading "VICTOR FRIES" in an early scene, and it's only there because he's a scientist working in the arctic.

It's not a bad movie, even if the moral at the end is mega-dumb. But it's also not what I imagine anybody wanted from a return to Bruce Timm's animation style. If I'd watched it first, I probably would not have purchased it, but it's an interesting little Elseworlds story that has some neat ideas and moments. And, like any Timm project, it looks great. I just wish it were more actually-mature and less what-a-teenager-thinks-mature-is. Because weirdly that makes it considerably less mature than most of what has already been done in the DCAU.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Spilling the Secrets

Marvel announced today what's been rumored for some time, that the upcoming Secret Wars storyline will be the "end" of the regular Marvel and Ultimate universes. I have more thoughts on that, which I'll post later, but for now I thought I'd make some predictions.

Characters moving into the Post-Secret Wars Marvel Universe

  • Miles Morales: Pretty much a given, right? I have to imagine that a major driving force behind this whole event was how to salvage Miles from the smoldering, decaying wreckage that is the rest of the Ultimate Universe. How Miles will fit into the universe going forward, who knows?
  • Spider-Gwen: Basically another given. Marvel already teased the idea of bringing back Gwen Stacy in this story (perhaps more than one), and with a character who's such a breakout hit already, they'd be fools not to fold her into the Marvel Universe proper. How she'll interact with Spider-Man and the rest of the Spider-Family is anyone's guess, but we've had a universe with a Jean Grey dealing with fallout from her dead counterpart for a couple of years now, so that's not too surprising.
  • Japanese Spider-Man: We can hope, right?
  • Professor Xavier: Dead since Avengers vs. X-Men, Chuck seems like the likeliest resurrection, possibly leading a rebooted younger X-Men or something. I hope we don't see too much rebooting (because rebooting always leads to repeating), but I'd be surprised if this weren't what all the Red Onslaught stuff were all ultimately leading to.
  • Jean Grey: Another candidate who seems likely, given how long she's been off the table, and the kind of opportunity this story presents.
  • Doctor Octopus: Dead since the end of the Superior Spider-Man series, Spidey's greatest foe isn't likely to stay gone for long (and didn't the last time he died). Frankly, I'd like to see Ock return sooner rather than later, and in a newly rejuvenated body.
  • Uatu the Watcher: Someone's got to keep track of whatever universe(s) result from this shebang.
  • Ben Reilly: Something about Spider-Verse has made me weirdly nostalgic for Ben, and I've found myself with a perverse desire to revisit the Clone Saga. Bringing Ben and his kickass costume back would satisfy my craving, at least, and would allow us to have an Avengers team made up entirely of Spider-People.
  • Dum-Dum Dugan: I've said since the spoilers came out of Original Sin that the whole "Dugan was just an LMD" (and, for that matter, "Nick Fury's Infinity Formula wore off") plot element would be gone with the next retcon. Well, here's the next retcon. Maybe it'll happen, maybe not, but it's among the easiest plot annoyances to fix.
  • Thor Odinson: Thor has been Mjolnirless for a couple of months now, for reasons that have yet to be entirely explained. I'm really enjoying Aaron's run, so I'd actually be pretty bummed to see the status quo reset so quickly, but I can also imagine that Marvel wants their universe looking pretty cinematic by the time Age of Ultron hits theaters in May.
  • Tony Stark, No Longer Superior: This one's a bit dicier; since it seems like Tony's probably going to be at fault for Ultron in the movie, it might work well to have jerkass Tony in the comics too. But I'd be surprised if he weren't back in the red-and-yellow armor by May.
  • Steve Rogers, Captain America: Much like Thor, I'd like to see Falcon keep the armor for awhile longer, but I won't be shocked if Steve is rejuvenated and shield-wielding come May.
  • Mary Jane Watson-Parker: It's unlikely, to be sure, but at the very least now would be a good time to make it so that Peter and MJ at least never made a deal with the Devil to avoid a divorce.
Continuity Changes
  • Nick Fury, Sr.: Marvel's been angling for awhile to make Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury the official one of the regular Marvel Universe, first by introducing his long-lost son and putting the original in the toybox for awhile, then by making him the old "Man on the Wall" and then "The Unseen." Now would be the perfect time to re-write history so that Nick Fury has always been a darker-complexioned fellow, which may likely mean erasing his World War II service. This may be the biggest hurdle against bringing Dum-Dum back, since he may be left back with the Howling Commandos.
  • All-New X-Men: At this point, it'd be a little surprising to see either the young All-New X-Men team or their adult counterparts removed from the universe, but I have a hard time imagining us going forward with two teams of the same characters functioning in the same universe at the same time. Then again, it's entirely possible (given the structure of this event) that Marvel's not using Secret Wars to streamline timelines and eliminate characters, in which case we may very well end up with more than just two teams of time-displaced X-Men working in tandem. Might be nice to clear up some of the more complicated characters, even if it means making Rachel and Miles's cold-opens less entertaining.
  • Captain Marvels: I wouldn't be surprised at all to see a streamlined timeline where Carol Danvers was only the first or second Captain Marvel, and not the latest in a relatively long legacy.
  • Jarvis: I suspect we'll see something closer to the cinematic universe, where Jarvis the Butler is a contemporary of Howard Stark's, and J.A.R.V.I.S. the computer construct serves Tony and the Avengers.
  • S.H.I.E.L.D. everywhere: Similarly, to bring things more in line with the MCU, I suspect we'll see a lot more SHIELD integration into everyday superheroics, similar to the way the Ultimate Universe worked.
  • Hydra everywhere: And where SHIELD goes in cinematic terms, Hydra can't be far behind.
  • Inhumans everywhere: Marvel's been pushing the Inhumans hard, and I think we might end up seeing some kind of synthesis of Inhumans and Mutants, or the revelation that a lot of the characters we thought were Mutants are actually Inhumans, or something in that vein. There's already apparently some movement in that direction for Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, and this would be another way for Marvel to break off from the Fox-owned licenses.

What are your predictions for the post-Secret Wars Marvel Universe?

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Friday, November 07, 2014

Examine Dragons

I'm sweeping off the dirt and dust
I wield a trowel and I use a brush
I'm checking in the specimens

We're clocking out, packing up, then heading back in a microbus
This is it, archaeologists

I'm in the lab, I drill into the bone
Enough to keep my error low
Wonder what's its true age, what's the true age
Gonna find the true age, find its true age
Whoa, oh, oh, oh, oh, whoa, oh, oh, oh, it's radiometric, radiometric
Whoa, oh, oh, oh, oh, whoa, oh, oh, oh, it's radiometric, radiometric

It's in your food, don't you know,
It's a different carbon isotope
It soon decays to nitrogen

I'm cutting off, grinding up, reducing it to a graphite dust
Send it to the spectrometrist

It makes you up, we find it in your bones
And leaves and shells and thatched-roof homes
Helps us find the true age, find the true age
Calculate the true age, learn the true age
Whoa, oh, oh, oh, oh, whoa, oh, oh, oh, it's radioactive, radioactive
Whoa, oh, oh, oh, oh, whoa, oh, oh, oh, you're radioactive, radioactive

One way to know when something died:
The ratio of carbon nuclides

It's breaking up, it lets electrons go
Enough to turn a neutron pro
Helps us find the true age, find the true age
At least within a date range, specific date range
Whoa, oh, oh, oh, oh, whoa, oh, oh, oh, it's radioactive, radioactive
Whoa, oh, oh, oh, oh, whoa, oh, oh, oh, we're radioactive, radioactive

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Impetuousness of Youth

Dracula slipped silently into the bedroom where Van Helsing lay sleeping. The Count felt undignified, breathing through a gas mask he’d salvaged during the Great War, and hoped that his aged foe wouldn’t wake to see him in such a state. With haste, he stripped the hanging cloves of garlic from the walls and threw them out the window. Dracula removed the unsightly mask and set it gingerly on the floor, then approached the bed.

Van Helsing slept fitfully, his breathing ragged and raspy. He had grown frail with age, and time raced against cancer to claim his final breath. Hands that once were so strong, wielding swords and stakes and silver, were now gnarled by arthritis, and Dracula imagined they could scarcely hold a pencil. He stood over the bed for a long moment, then cleared his throat. 

“Van Helsing.”

The old man stirred slowly at first, but quickly returned to himself. Neither sickness nor age could dull the edge of those steely eyes, which glared at the undead Count in the moonlight. 

“Come to gloat?” hissed the doctor. “Or to finish me off?” 

“Neither,” said Dracula. “I’ve come to help.”

“I’ll not sell my soul for the Devil’s brand of help.”

“I am not—“ Dracula stopped, composed himself. “You’re dying, Van Helsing.”

“And not by your hand, no matter how you’ve tried!” 

“I know,” Dracula said. “We’ve chased each other for…what, thirty years now?”


“And this is how you wish to end it?”

Van Helsing gave Dracula a puzzled look, then stifled a hard cough. “My friends and family are here, Dracula. Soon I will see my wife, my daughter. I am surrounded by love, Dracula. I would not expect you to understand.”

Dracula looked for a long, silent moment out the window at the crescent moon. “Let me turn you.”


“Let me give you back your health, your youth.”

“Go to blazes, creature.” 

“You can send me there yourself! I can cleanse your sickness, give you the strength to fight once more!”

Any angry curse Van Helsing might have uttered was swallowed in a coughing fit. Dracula waited until he finished.

“Van—Abraham—if you could have cured your wife’s illness, if you could have revived your daughter, would not you have done so? Would not you do anything in your power to save them?” 

Van Helsing thought for a long time, and were it not for his labored breathing, Dracula might have thought he slipped away there and then. “Any earthly thing, yes," he said finally. "But I would not save their bodies only to damn their souls.”

“I don’t need your permission, you know,” Dracula threatened. “I could turn you now, and you would spend every night for eternity chasing after me, avenging your own soul. You would never forgive me for robbing you of paradise."

“Then do it, demon.” Van Helsing tore at his shirt, exposing his neck with trembling hands. “Or have your words more teeth than your jaws?”

Dracula felt the rage rise up at the old man’s obstinate impudence. He lunged forward, before sentimentality could blunt his resolve, and had nearly reached his old enemy’s throat when he caught a glint of reflected moonlight at the corner of his eye. Van Helsing swung with all his diminished strength, but the sharpened silver cross found no target, only shapeless mist. 

Dracula solidified by the window, stooping down to retrieve his gas mask. He paused and looked back to his old adversary. Any words he might have said stuck, clotted and dry, in his throat. He dove out of the window in silence, and nothing more passed between them.

Dracula visited Van Helsing’s gravesite only once, and only briefly. A silver-tipped crossbow bolt broke his reverie, sailing past his head so closely that it nearly parted his hair. He spun around, hissing. Dracula was not surprised to see Quincey Harker, who had been expertly trained these last twenty years by old Van Helsing.

Dracula was surprised to see the young boy holding the crossbow.

“Good shot, Bram!” Quincey clapped his son on the shoulder. “But aim for the heart, not the head.”

“Yes, father,” said the child, loading another bolt. “I shan’t miss this time.”

Dracula leapt upward and soared into the air on leathery wings, feeling a weariness that no fresh-drawn blood would ease. 

The vampire withdrew to his estate, staying only long enough to arrange long-term travel to Geneva. More than a century of rumors whispered between Swiss schoolchildren or around campfires had transformed Castle Frankenstein into a thing of horrifying legend, untouched even by those who might seek to tear it down. Dracula was one of few old enough to remember the true story of that house, and one of even fewer estranged enough from humanity to know its sole occupant. That building, once a laboratory, now a hermitage, would offer Dracula the solitude he so craved.

Adam Frankenstein proved a gracious host, and welcomed even what little company Dracula provided. But weeks turned into months, and Dracula spent more and more time in his coffin. He refused to eat, even as Adam broke his exile to retrieve fresh goats and sheep to satiate his guest’s hunger. 

“Vlad, you have to eat something,” Adam pleaded through the thick wooden door. “Come on, it’s still bleating.” 

There was no response. 

“I know what you’re going through, believe me. Come out, and we can talk about it.”

After another moment of silence, Adam unlocked the door and led the goat in. “I’m going to leave this here for when you get hungry.” As he left, he turned back to face the coffin once more. “You can’t spend the rest of eternity locked up like this, Vlad. I’ll be here when you’re ready.”

The readiness was slow in coming. Dracula would eventually eat the meals Adam left for him, but never even left the basement chamber anymore. Adam knew what it was like to want solitude, to lose loved ones, even to watch the endless years pass steadily by. But he did not know how to help, so he turned as always to his library. He read for days.

The letters and telegraphs and messengers had all been sent weeks before, and with the night finally approaching, Adam felt an unfamiliar feeling of excitement. His plan was meticulous, and would surely bring an end to Dracula’s depression. The guests began arriving an hour after sunset, with the moon glowing full and yellow, low in the autumn sky. Adam greeted them at the door, each ghoul and ghost and creature, some familiar, some he’d only heard of through stories. Crackly phonograph music echoed through the castle, and Adam wondered what stories the villagers might tell of the strange night when monsters reveled at Castle Frankenstein. 

Adam stood once more outside the wooden door to the basement chamber. “Come on, Vlad. Everyone is here for you. They want to meet the great Count Dracula!” 

“Go away,” Dracula muttered, barely audible over the thumping music from upstairs. 

Adam's enormous shoulders dropped, but he was resolute. “I’m going to go back upstairs. If I don’t see you up there in ten minutes, I’ll drag you out of that coffin myself.” 

Dracula pulled the lid of his coffin closed even tighter, hoping it might seal out the noise, but the acoustics of the chamber only amplified the caterwauling, the unfamiliar rhythms and melodies, which in turn amplified his feelings of isolation. Ten minutes was all he could stand. 

Adam was undeterred by Dracula’s reticence. He had one last card to play, one which relied on Castle Frankenstein’s ancient harpsichord, lovingly restored over these last several weeks, and a piece of 15th century dance music popular in Wallachia during the adolescence of one Vlad Tepes. Adam had merely dabbled with the instrument before, but was sure his skills were up to the task. He turned off the phonograph and urged the guests to be quiet, then sat down at the bench, gingerly playing the instrument with fingers that seemed far too clumsy for such nimble motions.

Dracula threw open the coffin lid, raising a hand in rage. But before the cry could escape his parched lips, he heard a familiar tune, plucked out on metallic strings, and was transported back to his boyhood so many centuries ago. Memories flooded his mind of a time before blood and bats, a time when he could dance in the sunlight on a Carpathian mountainside, a time when he was truly young and not merely ageless, as Adam played a song that Dracula had long thought lost to the mists of history. 

The guests clapped as Adam finished. He backed gingerly away from the harpsichord and turned around to face the crowd, seeing a disheveled, emaciated Dracula standing at the top of the basement stairs, smiling wistfully, with tears in his dark eyes. Adam returned the smile.

“I always wondered,” Dracula said, embracing his hulking friend. “Whatever happened to my ‘Transylvania Twist.’”

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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Mind of Steel

I used to view Superman's super-intelligence as one power too many, a silly relic of the Silver Age, like super-ventriloquism. It's mostly a consequence of growing up with and idealizing the Byrne-era Superman.

The last time I really remember feeling that sentiment was when the power was reintroduced back in "Up, Up, and Away." Busiek & Johns did a great job of making the power make sense, and the more I've thought about it since, the more I think that Superman needs to be super-intelligent.

I think about superheroes a lot, and something I find particularly fascinating is the concept of auxiliary superpowers: abilities that don't show up in the Who's Who or OHOTMU lists, but are necessary for the character's other powers to work.

So, for instance, anyone with super-strength must have some degree of invulnerability, because otherwise their tendons would tear and their bones would break every time they flexed. The Flash must be able to selectively alter friction and relativistic effects, or he'd catch fire and approach infinite mass every time he got moving fast enough1.

Superman's super-intelligence is a similar ability. Consider super-speed: the Flash can shift into a sort of "speed mode," where he perceives everything moving at a crawl. Superman, presumably, doesn't tap into the Speed Force, and we have no indication that he has that ability. In order to accomplish feats at speeds similar to those traveled at by the Flash, his brain would have to have super-fast processing ability. This gives him super-fast reaction time, and explains why he can do things like read and type at superhuman speeds. Without this aspect of super-intelligence, his super-speed would be useless at best and dangerous at worst.

I dislike the tendency to treat Superman's super-senses as things he can turn on and off, though I understand why especially early writers would treat them as such. You can't consciously decide to stop seeing the color red, for instance, or to stop hearing certain frequencies of sound, and I don't know why we'd expect Superman to have that ability either. But what we can do is focus our eyes on certain things in our field of vision, depending on distance, and we can sometimes tune out noises and sounds, especially constant, repetitive ones. So the No-Prize explanation is that Superman has learned to mostly tune out the sounds of insect wing-fluttering and the continental plates shifting, focusing his hearing on the sounds that are less constant.

In order to do this, his brain must have super-executive functions, able not just to process that information quickly, but to make sense of it, assigning degrees of importance and drawing Superman's attention to where it's needed. Part of that process is done by comparing sensory input to prior inputs--to memories.

The process of memory formation is complicated, messy, and dependent on the kinds of memories being formed, but part of the process of changing something from short-term to long-term memory is repeated passes through certain structures of the brain. There is a certain logic to thinking that this process would happen faster for Superman, given his brain's faster processing speed and increased need to sort through sensory input, but I'm no neurologist, and I'm getting into the area where I feel like I might just be pulling stuff out of my red shorts.

The case for Superman having perfect recall is shakier than any other part of his super-intelligence, but that also allows for a little flexibility in storytelling. It's easy to imagine that Superman can hold more things in his short-term/working memory--even if he couldn't necessarily hold more items in said memory at once (and I think he probably could, given the usual attention issues he already has to deal with), his processing power means he could be switching between items in his attention fast enough that it would seem like he was holding more items in his working memory. But as with humans, not everything necessarily makes the transition from short-term to long-term memory. So maybe he doesn't remember in issue #647 how to do a surgery he performed back in #328, but it's the same way you might have to look up the phone number for the pizza place every time you call.

From a narrative and theme perspective, I do think the idea that Superman has perfect recall of everything that happened anywhere around him on Krypton is pretty eye-rollingly silly. Remembering the minutiae of Krypton since infancy robs some of the tragedy of Krypton's destruction, and distances Superman from his human roots2. As much as I've come to embrace the Bronze Age, I'm still a firm proponent of the idea that Superman's powers should grow as he does, rather than having full-powered Superbaby on day one. His memories of Krypton, of his parents, should be fragmentary and fleeting, like any person's memories of early childhood. Krypton, for Superman, should be a place that he's studied, but not one that he remembers thoroughly.

Back to the main point, I think the trickiest part of "super-intelligence" is actually figuring out what that means--and that goes for the other smartest guys in the DCU too, like Batman and Lex Luthor and Brainiac 5. "Intelligence" isn't just one thing, but a combination of traits, and I think understanding what aspects of intelligence each of these super-intellects excels at is important. Superman's good at problem solving, with strong lateral thinking skills and an ability to make connections, in addition to having a keen journalistic and scientific mind and enhanced processing power. Batman's the world's greatest detective, brilliant at deduction, reading people, and predicting what's likely to happen in any given situation--usually by gaming out every possibility well ahead of time. Lex Luthor is a cunning manipulator, able to identify and exploit weaknesses in anyone, in addition to being one of the most brilliantly inventive minds on the planet. MacGyver can make a nuclear weapon out of some paperclips and rubber bands; Lex Luthor could turn the same materials into a time machine with enough parts left over for a jetpack. Giving Superman super-intelligence doesn't have to diminish these other characters, so long as we actually understand what that entails. In Coluan terms, Superman is probably somewhere around a 7th-9th-level intellect.

The issue of super-intelligence is an interesting one, but as far as I'm concerned, it's a necessary power, and a natural consequence of other powers we take for granted.

1. I realize that canonically, the Flashes have a "frictionless aura," but that wouldn't explain how they're able to get traction or grab things, or do those tricks with rubbing sand at super-speed to make glass. Hence, there must be a degree of selective control over this ability.

2. I also think it removes some of Supergirl's uniqueness. One aspect of her character that has only really been explored in recent years is that she grew up on Krypton, spent her formative years there, was immersed in Kryptonian culture and society. She's a teenage superhero "A Little Princess," orphaned and left to fend for herself in a strange land, without the comforts of home. She should be the one who remembers Krypton, not Superman.

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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Outlander and Time Travel

I saw a preview for the new "Outlander" TV series ahead of "Guardians of the Galaxy" at my local theater, and my initial impression was that it was an interesting idea: having someone from the past travel back in time further into the past.

Upon thinking about it for another moment, though, I realized that's how most time-travel-to-the-past stories are, and how all of them become that in time. I love "Back to the Future," and even though I was scarcely two years old in 1985, I still think of it as a kid from "the present" going back to the past, when we're now nearly as far removed from 1985 as 1985 was from 1955. One of my favorite TV series of all time is "Quantum Leap," and while I still think of Sam's home time as the future, 1995 is twenty years behind us.

It's an interesting wrinkle to the time travel motif, that such stories require the reader to do so much time traveling of their own.

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