Monday, November 18, 2013

Two New Poems



Penny Henny
The routine of
Chicken sexing
Is elementary and well known.

Barnyard beauties
Bearing eggs

And with legs
Crossing roads.

For a price you
Can get what you
Want; thigh or
Breasts to go.

Now once and again:

A quarter or
A dime sometime
For a penny hen. 

-C.E. McAuley


The Trap

A covered up
Hole in the jungle
Complete with a
Complement of spears
Erect
This is not a
Snatch and grab

This is not absolution
To the well-studied
Eye the trap is vehemently
Apparent – so simple to avoid.

But you are on the other side. 

-C.E. McAuley

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Nobody Wants To Read Your Blog




By C.E. McAuley
 
Nobody wants to read your blog. This is the painful truth that all bloggers, myself included, have to deal with. So it is with great appreciation that I embrace all of you who, actually, read this blog. 
I once wrote a piece for the Fall Literature Edition of alternative news weekly that “Literature is Dead – And So Are You”. So it’s within the same mood that I approach the topic of nobody wanting to read anyone else’s blog.

At some level this is natural and everybody knows it. Writers want to write and some writers want other people to read their writing. Fine.

But, do other people really want to? Really? Like, um, really, really, really?

I approach most blogs, my own included, with a spirit of “I’ve gotta update this damn blog or else it will be hopelessly out of date and those people who are not reading it will continue not reading it. Nobody’s leaving any comments. This isn’t doing anything great for my ego. Why am I doing this to myself? Why am I doing this to my readers – be they real or imagined?”

Is blogging dead? Prince said something to the effect that the Internet was over. That’s, certainly, a broad statement. Sometimes having a blog feels a bit like being on LinkedIn. It’s just something you have to do.

Then, of course, there’s the issue of content.

Not everyone is going to like everything. Some people will be offended. Most people won’t care. Norman Mailer said “Never equivocate.” That might cost you a job, dear reader, if the folks on LinkedIn like that you have a blog, but don’t like the content of it.

We live in a society, now, where there is a constant stream of information. Most of it is irrelevant. But, somewhere amidst the noise and the chatter there’s truth. And truth needs to be spoken. Or in the case of blogging written and read. 

So speak your truth. I’ll be reading. And writing.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

To Write or Not to Write About Sex Clowns?


.
Part of the writer’s art is knowing which subjects to choose to write about. Sometimes the choice is right in front of one’s face. Sometimes it’s a little more difficult. Such was the case when I heard an old friend had become a “sex clown” in San Francisco, and another writer I know wanted to do a story on the turf battles that take place within the belly dancing community of the Bay Area.

Of course, when I hear anyone has become a sex clown I’m interested as a writer and, well, a potential consumer. However, I don’t take anything at face value so I decided to do what any good writer would do and follow up with this old friend who had seemed to have found a new vocation in the city by the Bay.

My e-mail to him was simple: “I’ve heard you’ve become a sex clown. If this is true I want to write about it.”

A bit later I received a response telling me that he had never heard himself referred to as a “sex clown or sex klown.” The K, I learned, is preferred by the clowning or klowning community. What he then described to me seemed more like an exotic form of performance art with an erotic aspect to it. Though, he did admit that he would be lying if he said his “grease paint” has not touched some “breasts and booties”.

I like it, I told him. I like it a lot. So I thought about it for a bit. This is where the belly dancers come in.

I was having drinks with another writer and his girlfriend who, among other things, is a belly dancer and my favorite vegan smoker. I was told a mutual friend of ours wanted to write about the turf wars of belly dancers at different Indian restaurants in the Bay Area. However, my dancing friend said she would only talk about it if it was completely off the record and her name wasn’t used in the article. That’s when I came to a great realization about the core of feature writing that I’ve known for quite some time but could finally verbalize:

Feature writing, to be non-exploitative, needs to be of as much benefit to the subject of the article as it is to the reader and the writer. Otherwise, the only purpose it serves is to give the readers “content” – to enter into someone else’s world and steal their souls for a byline without knowing what the repercussions might be.

Which brought me back to the subject of sex C(k)lowns.

“This is the thing about the sex clowns,” I told them. “I need to gain their trust. I absolutely need the trust of the sex clowns for this to work. Otherwise, it’s just going to come out as an exploitation piece by some outsider to their world. It has to be to some benefit to them – some authentic look at them in the same way if being a part of the article on belly dancer turf wars doesn’t work for you, doesn’t benefit you in some way there’s no point in taking part in the article no matter how good of an idea it is.”

Your subjects should not be injured by a feature about them – like it’s some kind of smash and grab scenario.

This brought me back to the sex c(k)lowns again.

Did I really want to do what I had to do in order to bring true justice to this story? Did I want to do what I had to do to earn the trust of these klowns? I knew my old friend would probably vouch for me as a standup guy. But it had been awhile since we talked, and I didn’t exactly know what I was getting myself into. And more than likely it was going to require many trips into San Francisco at night to become a part of the scene. I might even have to become transformed into a klown to report on this phenomenon from the inside.

Would it be worth it? Would I lose myself in this “klowning”? I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t even sure if I had the emotional stamina for it; the, as Dr. Hunter S. Thompson would say, true grit necessary for the assignment. This was, as he might have offered, pure gonzo journalism or, in this case, pure clown shoes journalism.

Does one even go into this kind of assignment sober, I wondered? Should I hire a driver? Should I try to infiltrate or remain an interested outsider? What happened if sex really was involved and this wasn’t just some quasi-innocent form of performance? What if, as someone asked me at a recent party, it was really prostitution? What’s the difference, I was asked, between a stripper coming over in a costume and doing a dance before doing the whole room? About 25 clown noses, I thought.

Was it really for me to judge? Did I care whether it was technically prostitution or not? What did it concern me if clowns danced around and then had sex with each other and members of a private party? I’m not the law.

And then I remembered the eight year recurring nightmare I had as a child. In the dream I was trapped with a clown who would ask me a question as a giant, comical clock loudly ticked down. I would have the dream for years, staring into this huge eyes, his exaggerated eyelashes fluttering, his springy orange hair quivering with impatience—and run out of time, every time. Finally, I answered the question.

No, I can’t remember what the question was.  But, come to think of it, maybe these clowns do need policing. The psychic trauma police, perhaps. 

Indeed, I don’t like clowns. I think they’re freakish. I once had a dental hygienist who was a Clown for Christ – one of these people who dresses as a circus clown to spread the Gospel of the Lord with grease-paint, rubber noses, giant ruffles and good intent. She even told me that I could use the power of my mind to straighten out my wisdom teeth so that I would not need surgery. This, of course, did not work.

It seems that to go in with the clowns – whatever kind of clowns they may be—is to go deep into a different world; a place somewhere between sane, delighted laughter and hysterical giggles. Maybe the world’s just not ready to hear about this story.

(Originally published March 28, 2013 at PopMatters.com)

Red Menace in the Mirror: Identity, Politics and Identity Politics in Superman Red Son


Perhaps more than any other superhero, Superman has come to represent the ‘face’ of meta-values in America. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the character’s pursuit of “truth, justice and the American Way” began in Action Comics #1 on June 30, 1938. What followed is an incomparable leap into iconographic history and modern mythology the likes of which have not been replicated. Though many other comic book superheroes are known throughout the world, Superman remains the most identifiable and the most uniquely American.

After his first appearance it would only be a year later that The Man of Steel would appear on his own radio program and then in classic Max Fleischer cartoons of the 1940s and 1950s. Version after version of Superman followed. His universe expanding onto television in 1951 with George Reeves in the title role and (following a Broadway musical in 1966) onto the silver screen in 1978 with Christopher Reeve in Richard Donner’s Superman leading to a film franchise which ended in 1987 with Superman IV: The Quest For Peace. All the while animated series continued to run over the decades including the popular Super Friends (which ran from 1973 to 1984) and featured Superman and other major DC Universe characters. The small screen grabbed The Man of Tomorrow up once again with Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993). The WB’s Smallville, which began in 2001 and is still running, showed Superman was still relevant in a new century and helped create an atmosphere for the character’s resurrection on film in Superman Returns (2006) directed by Bryan Singer and starring Brandon Routh in the lead role.

Superman has consistently appeared in comics since 1938. His history and evolution as a character and mythological figure is a compelling (and encyclopedic) portion of cultural history. Over time his powers at first increased (the character could not fly until his animated run) then decreased into order to create a more vulnerable Superman in the mid-1980s, leading to Superman’s death in 1992 in a battle against the character Doomsday and return to life in The Death and Return of Superman (1993). Despite the multitude of fairly consistent depiction, however, Superman has remained a reflection of American idealism (or his creators’ vision of that idealism). While the character tends to reflect major streams of the cultural discourse of whatever era in which he finds himself (WWII, The Cold War, 21st century globalism), a transcendent sense of justice is consistent throughout.

Yet, how has that idealism evolved over time? For instance, can anyone imagine today’s Superman going after “Japoteurs”? And yet such was the case in the Cold War-era animated series; a reflection of racism and the popular mind-set of the time period of a nation at war. By the early 1970s when Superman meets up with Jack Kirby’s hippie-esque “Forever People” he is depicted as out-of-touch with the youth culture, representing the other-side of the Generation Gap. Now that Superman’s vision has transcended the Cold War and, to some extent, the Stars and Stripes altogether and embraces today’s global perspective.

Indeed, what do truth, justice and the American way mean in the 21st century’s global village? Today’s Superman is not on the hunt for Osama bin Laden—he leaves that to the military. But, he is contending with a world of “supermen” in the current comic series New Krypton. Perhaps the most innovative and thought provoking Superman storyline in decades, New Krypton puts Superman contention with a planet filled with his own kind, where sinister factions are set on threatening the people of earth. Superman circa 2009 is a superhero who embodies a sense of justice that is more humanistic and less nationalistic in nature. And, yet, does Superman have a Kantian ‘true’ nature? Is Superman uniquely American or Humanistic or, might it simply depend, both for The Man of Steel and for each of us, on where we first landed?

This crisis of identity is posed by Mark Millar’s vision of a Stalinist Superman having landed in Soviet Russia at the peak of the Cold War. In the non-continuity tale Red Son penned by Millar with art duties by Dave Johnson and Kilian Plunkett, Superman’s Humanistic ideals come into direct confrontation with his nationalistic ones.

The major conceit of the plot sees Superman crash-landing in the Soviet Union instead of the United States during the reign of Joseph Stalin. Enough said. One might at first expect him to either grow up spouting Stalinist propaganda or being part of a resistance against the dictator. Millar provides what is, at first, a quite innovative alternative. Superman is still Superman. Raised on a collective farm in Mother Russia, Superman comes into his powers and grows up with the desire not only to help those in need in his own country but the evil capitalist Americans as well. Simply put, he will help anyone in need. In this ingenious way, Millar taps the nature versus nurture debate around Superman’s heroism, leaving the reader to decide its outcome.

Meanwhile, in the United States during the Eisenhower Administration, the government turns to Dr. Lex Luthor to find a way to end this Superman threat seen by the United States government as the ultimate Soviet weapon against truth, justice and the American way. Luthor, who in this alternate world is married to Lois Lane, is still as much of an egomaniac as ever. The only difference from his criminal depiction in DC continuity is that he is now working for the government as the world’s greatest scientist. He devotes himself to finding a way to destroy Superman the Soviet Menace. Again, how much of Luthor’s behavior is within his inherent nature and how much of this race to destroy Superman is Millar’s commentary on the nature of a capitalistic society and America during the Cold War and its impact on the individual?

With government bailouts of the private sector on everyone’s minds and people from across the world wondering what might happen next, Millar’s storyline stands out as one to reflect on during a time of economic crisis. More importantly, though, Superman: Red Son takes us directly not simply to a debate about capitalism versus socialism or communism but to a far more profound discussion; that of nature versus nurture in the role of humans and superhumans alike.

While the Superman of Red Son began his journey outside of the realm of politics, with Stalin’s death Superman becomes the leader of the Soviet Union. Mark his premiership by the use of his superpowers to create a socialist utopia that, he hopes, will eventually come to dominate the world. This is the fascinating break in character that is most compelling. Also it is with this recasting of Superman as Socialist ‘visionary’ that the inspired-ambiguity of the storytelling becomes paramount.

Like every political leader before him, Superman cannot get the full consent of the governed. But, knowing what is right for the populace he sets off to build his utopia. Not only does he force the Soviet people into a slavish reliance upon him, but also he sentences dissidents to be turned into ‘Superman Robots’ (lobotomized and reprogrammed to agree with his political philosophy and to serve the state in a productive capacity). In his effort to create a socialist utopia, Superman’s nature has been corrupted. At this point in the story, he does not deviate from his path. While he thinks of his actions as righteous the view from the outside paints him as an egomaniacal dictator the likes of which the world has never seen. He will not invade the United States however, the last main hold out of democracy and capitalism, because he wants to ‘win the argument’ without force of arms. Superman cannot see what he has become. A final confrontation between Superman, Lex Luthor and a pantheon of some of the most prominent characters in the DCU is bound to happen and, as always, the fate of the world is in the hands of a just a few.

So what are readers to make of Millar’s commentary on the idea of nature versus nurture in the far-more-than political commentary that Superman: Red Son becomes? Superman is not simply a Stalinist stooge. Lex Luthor’s ambitions, though egomaniacal and often destructive, lead to a new philosophy of “Luthorism” that has far-reaching results. Is Superman, by nature, a hero? Is his become corrupted a function of his becoming leader of the Soviet Union? Or is Millar saying something more? Is it possible that Superman is not inherently good after all and that in the right circumstances or following the proper social conditioning, Superman could become a force for totalitarianism? Under certain conditions, is Luthor’s rise to greatness, the defeat his greatest foe and through sheer force of ego and intelligence and the creation of a veritable a paradise redemptive of the American Spirit? How far are these characters guided by their natures and how much so by social conditioning?

Ultimately, the question of nature versus nurture will likely never be answered. Social scientists debate the issue incessantly. While nurture is noted as a far more influential force for human behavior than any inherent ‘human nature’, many top scholars will not even posit any inherent ‘human nature’. The very real fear of essentializing groups of humans and fear of attributing negative characteristics to them permeates such hesitations. Indeed, it is this sort of essentializing that can lead to widespread displays of human depravity such as slavery, the slaughter of native peoples and the Holocaust. An alternative position suggests a combination of nature (biology) and nurture (socialization) to make each of us who we are as human beings.

In presenting Superman as a Soviet hero Millar is bold enough to ask the question and enter the debate not only concerning capitalism and communism but, more broadly, issues of identity, and personal development in the face of socialization.

(Originally published August. 18, 2009 at PopMatters.com)

The Horror of Science and Magic in Hellboy


In 1993 the so-called New Age had started to peak – not quite, but almost. The mid-nineties however were, for all intents and purposes, a beautiful time. The Hippies were still middle-aged. Psychics could be found on just about every corner, eager to give a past-life reading for the right price. Healing crystals, incense and talismans of all sorts could be found in this fusion of east meets west, meets normal meets paranormal. Some folks even wore fairy wings to festivals, flowed freely to the vibe of the universe and still left their doors unlocked.

Fascination with the supernatural had been a long-standing trope of comics, film and television but would see a bold flowering in such shows as The X-Files and the birth of the world’s greatest paranormal investigator, Hellboy. But, like the much touted optimism of the hoped for Age of Aquarius, the neo-Hippie Renaissance that crested by the mid-1990s came crashing down in a hail of self-help bullet-style books and largely became a money-machine monster far more insidious than any horrific evil coming from the other side. By the publication of Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, the New Age had come to a close even before millennial madness could start.

Hellboy however, not directly tied-in with directly espousing the philosophy of the New Age or Scientism, became one of the great artistic and cultural products to survive the era.

It is not surprising that in the supernatural foment that permeated much of the mindset of the 1980s and early 1990s, Mike Mignola would give birth to Hellboy, a joyous play on mad-Nazi scientists, secret government departments, other dimensional beings, mad Russian monks and paranormal friends. The Hellboy stories would not only survive, but flourish, seeming ever more relevant than many other works that share that cultural crucible.

In Hellboy: Seed of Destruction Mignola and John Byrne put forward a fusion of the paranormal and evil Nazi science. This first graphic novel not only provides Hellboy’s origin, but also establishes a dynamic between magic, horror and science that would continue throughout the series. Hitler’s dalliance with the supernatural and Nazi attempts to harness that power are well documented. Often parodied, they form the basis for such films as Raiders of the Lost Ark. With the Nazi construction of the Ragna Rok Engine in Seed of Destruction (a machine meant to bring about Hitler’s triumph) the commentary on science itself is fairly negative. Science and technology, in this case, are used as a means for harnessing evil supernatural forces to work in concert with the earth’s ultimate evil. and, yet, from that we get the surprising birth of Hellboy in the earthly realm.

In fact, nowhere in Seed of Destruction is there any positive benefit of science shown. Though readers do see the American-based Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense investigate any baddies that may come from the other side that, ostensibly, threaten American interests or, generally speaking, life on earth.  However while science, at least in the wrong hands, is always depicted as something evil, paranormal creatures such as heroes Hellboy, Abe Sapien and Liz Sherman are shown as being different but characters of freewill who have chosen to use their (super)natural powers for good and the benefit of others. There are other, far less positive, supernatural role models as well.

By the time Mignola reaches 2001’s fan favorite Hellboy: Conqueror Worm there is a full-flowering of the evil science versus benign (though power-punching) paranormal beings as heroes. Now, it would be a gross oversight to say that paranormal beings in general are treated as warm and cuddly in Mignola’s world of Hellboy. The worst foes of the world’s greatest paranormal investigator are, ultimately, always supernatural in origin. Between the Nazi lab, a destruction-bringing space capsule, Doctor Von Klempt (literally a brain in a vat) and his mechanized ape Kriegaffe Number Ten - Conqueror Worm shows readers science as once again in league with evil and the evil aspects of the supernatural.

So where does this leave Hellboy and its commentary on the magic and the supernatural, and the potential horrors or mysteries of the paranormal and the world of science?

While Mignola depicts the paranormal as having both good and evil sides, in Seed of Destruction and Conqueror Worm science is purely in league with evil.  The Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense is based mostly in the scientific paradigm. Investigation of the paranormal usually involves the most useful form of tech just as it usually involves explosives when Hellboy and friends get in over their heads. Scientists are not the heroes in the Hellboy setting – the compelling characters with abilities beyond those of average humans have that honor. Often, Hellboy himself is at odds with the Bureau and at the end of Conqueror Worm he, in fact, quits. Hellboy himself is not about science. The Hellboy stories are about good triumphing over evil. And with his choice made to discard rather than embrace his role as Beast of the Apocalypse, these stories are equally about the capacity of the individual to chose their own destiny.

It has often been said that the paranormal or the supernatural are aspects of nature that human beings simple do not yet understand. There have always been those who either, based on their own alleged experiences or open-mindedness, have embraced some or all claims of the supernatural while others rejected most or all aspects of the paranormal as being unproven by science. Rational skepticism and secular humanism provide worldviews that do not take the so-called paranormal into account. Scientism holds an iron-fisted grasp on the dominant world view in science: if it cannot be proven quantitatively and replicated, then it does not exist. However, research into the paranormal continues as the so-called fringes of science and scholarship.

Hellboy presents readers with a world where science and the supernatural interact; where they coexist and one can be used to influence the other in powerful ways. What we as human beings do not understand is always mysterious at first. It can be labeled as paranormal or supernatural or it can be simply called what it is: the unknown. Hellboy helps keep the magic and horror of these unknown realms alive with artistry and spunk. Happy Birthday, Hellboy.
(Originally published Aug. 27, 2009 on PopMatters.com)

Celebrating the Death of the Dark Knight – and His Rebirth


Batman holds a place in the popular mind so strongly, it might seem that the character emerged out of the mythological ether of the Olympians without beginning or end; never born and never to die. Like Baudrillard’s simulacra, it is easy when considering icons such as Batman to forget that they are the products of human imagination and therefore not mere copies of, in this case, the archetypal that have no existence apart from their presence in the pages as the millions images sold in comics. With so strong a resonance to the popular culture, for all intents and purposes, Batman is not merely a simulacrum: Batman lives.

While the character has evolved since he first appeared in the pages of Detective Comics #27 in May 1939, created by Bob Kane and the uncredited Bill Finger, to filmic and televised incarnations such as Adam West’s campy 1960s version of the Bat, to Tim Burton’s brooding auteur vision of Gotham and Christopher Nolan’s 21st century re-iteration of filmic Batmania, the character has always served a central psychological purpose to the culture; that of filtering our darkest impulses for revenge into a framework for justice.

Indeed, it is vital never to forget Batman’s ever-present darkness while he triumphs over evil. He’s not friendly and not meant to be your friendly neighborhood crimefighter. Like darkside rocker Jim Morrison, who often invoked the rock star as shaman-who-harnesses-the-dark-powers motif, Batman has always had a shamanic or even demonic streak that sees him presented at times like an incarnation of the supernatural, like some version of Fate come to exact vengeance. Batman is darkness and justice that has, since the character’s inception, flowed through the blood stream of the popular culture from the pages of comics to the big screen while maintaining the integrity of his initial creation as a pulp superhero. 

Evolving over time, Batman first emerges as a Golden Age superhero that captured the popular mind. Like many others, in 1954 the character came under criticism in the book Seduction of the Innocent by Fredric Wertham for the alleged homosexual subtext of the storyline. While the book helped lead to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, Batman survived along with his youthful sidekick Robin and the additions of new characters such as Batgirl in 1961. Despite the popularity of the Adam West television series in the psychedelic 1960s, the early part of that decade presented perhaps the nadir of Batman’s popularity in the world of comics. By decades end, writers such as Denny O’Neill hoped to bring the character back to his vigilante roots and, from 1969 on, the world of comics saw a stark distinction between the televised man-in-tights and the caped crusader appearing in the pages of DC Comics.

For most current readers, the Batman strand picks up again with the rebirth of the character in two powerful storylines; that of The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller (1986) and The Killing Joke by Alan Moore (1988). Both storylines presented a darker, grittier and far more disturbing version of Batman than ever before and paved the way for Tim Burton’s creepy cinematic version released in 1989 (creating Batmania for a new generation of moviegoers and comics readers). 1988 also saw DC Comics give readers the chance to vote on whether or not the, then, current Robin embodied by the character Jason Todd should die. Their answer? Yes. The same year’s Batman: A Death in the Family saw the caped-crusader lose the second Robin and emerge violent and volatile into the 1990s.

The world of Batman remained strong throughout the ‘90s most notably with storylines such as 1998’s “Cataclysm” which finds Gotham City the victim of an earthquake and cut off from Federal Aid. The presaging of the botched Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is almost uncanny. While spin-offs of Time Burton’s two Batman films continued throughout the decade they, once again, began to devolve into the realm of parody, most notably in Batman and Robin (1997) which, effectively, ended the Batman film franchise for almost a decade until the release of Christopher Nolan’s Batman re-boot Batman Begins in 2005. While both the characters of Batman and Superman, for instance, have seen ebbs and flows in their popularity and depictions over the decades both in print and on screen, each character has maintained a place in the pantheon of modern mythology.

Batman has always represented Superman’s Jungian Shadow—a dark, vigilante counter-force to the shining light of truth, justice and the American way. The Dark Knight has also always represented our own shadows, our desire for vengeance and justice at times in our lives when the normative codes of society would not suffice. While his non-superhero alter-ego Bruce Wayne would always face the day as a symbol of conventional success-overcoming-tragedy, Batman would be Wayne’s true face; the tortured soul with whom we could identify and sympathize, the orphaned child made superhero seeking justice beyond the bounds of the social order. For generations, readers have reveled in Batman’s mythological archetype of the dark hero, indeed, one who nurtured others such as Dick Grayson (the world’s original Robin) while remaining a loner with total devotion to his self-imposed mission. A world without a Batman is unbalanced and out of control. It’s a world without a shadow, a world without an archetypal symbol for us to indentify and through whom to feed our darker impulses for a moral retribution. Yes, the world needs a Batman. And now, after decades in print and in the popular mind Bruce Wayne—the world’s Batman—is dead.

Yet, after a brief period of private mourning and jockeying for position among an array of contenders the world has a new Batman in the form of Dick Grayson, the original boy wonder turned Nightwing joined by Damian Wayne, Bruce’s son, as the Dark Knight’s latest sidekick in the reboot series Batman and Robin, written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Frank Quitely; a series that seems poised to finally evoke a new and vital aspect of the Batman mythos. 

Dick Grayson assuming the Batman mantle represents a strong mythological theme replete throughout history; that of the son killing the father to assume his rightful place in the cosmos or, in this case, the more benign motif of the son taking over for the father in Grayson’s assuming the cowl. Add to that Bruce Wayne’s biological son as the new Robin and there’s an undeniable mythological progression occurring here along with an unstated question: What happens when the sons replace the father?

And it is this concept of the generational shift that has broader cultural implications for all of us. If the world needs a Batman and ‘Batman’ is dead, there must be someone to carry on his vigilante tradition. Each of us has faced or will face this same dark, frightening and potentially liberating theme: how do we take the tragedy of loss and ascend to our rightful place in the world? How do we honor the past and our loved ones while making this new world our own? 

Morrison depicts Grayson as tentative and uncomfortable with his newfound epic responsibility. He cannot be Bruce Wayne’s Batman, he can only somehow try to become his own. Meanwhile, Damian Wayne is an impetuous, undisciplined, nearly malign, sidekick who is adolescent and out-of-control—putting missions and life at risk. In his own mind, in the arrogance of youth, he himself is ready to become Batman. Meanwhile, Grayson cannot take the place of, or be, a father-figure to him. This is not a Batman Redux. This is the story of two sons learning to live within the legacy of their father while also transcending it and live with each other. For readers, it is also the story of learning how to live with loss, step into themselves and live their destinies.

It would be easy to simply dismiss the Death/Rebirth of Batman story arc as a mere marketing ploy meant to boost sales, but that would diminish the profound importance of this shift in the mythos of the Dark Knight. The tortured inner world of Bruce Wayne has always been the central motivating factor behind the character of Batman. While Dick Grayson was also orphaned, he has undergone transformations from Robin to Nightwing and now to Batman, completing a seemingly pre-destined arc. However, the psychology of Bruce Wayne is not the psychology of Dick Grayson.  Nor is Grayson’s that of Damian Wayne. While each character faces, or has faced, pain in their origin story Grayson is a slightly less Dark Knight than Wayne. He is seemingly less shadow and more light. He serves a different mythological function than Bruce Wayne. He may, in fact, be Batman as redeemer both of Bruce Wayne’s legacy—threatened by the many false heirs to the throne—and of the petulant Damian. Will Bruce Wayne return? Perhaps. But, the new mythology of Batman will remain.

In the hands of Morrison and Quitely this rebirth of Batman and Robin (and, yes, the title itself is significant because the two characters are joined together both in their shared mission for justice and shared loss of their father) there is a strong chance that the mythology of Batman will emerge permanently changed. And this is as it should be. No longer will Batman only be the Jungian shadow to society, he will now be us as we search for our path and for ourselves in a world that, all too often, seems wrong.

(Originally published Nov. 3, 2009 at PopMatters.com)

Iconic Spider Jerusalem and The New Journalism


There’s someone every journalism student should know. An iconic figure who commands respect and admiration. Someone whose journalistic philosophy of complete dedication to the truth at any cost should be admired and emulated. Someone who always carries a bowel disruptor to waylay enemies. That someone is Spider Jerusalem. Strange as it may seem, fictional journalist in semi-dystopian future Spider Jerusalem is a role model not for kids, but for adults.

Exploding from the pages of Transmetropolitan (1997-2002) created by writer Warren Ellis and artist Darick Robertson political journalist Spider Jerusalem – the future’s answer to Hunter S. Thompson mixed with a touch of Che Guevara with a rock star craving for drugs and strange experience – is forced to return to the City from his Mountain refuge. Soon finds himself going head to head with a corrupt soon-to-be president nicknamed: the Smiler (by Jerusalem himself). His column “I Hate It Here” is beloved by those the Smiler refers to as The New Scum – the city’s dispossessed masses.

The dystopic future created by Ellis and Robertson contains bizarre mutations of today’s social norms, new drugs, and transhumanist inclinations. Yet it also contains the same bizarre perversion of basic humanity seen in contemporary society and politics.

According to a column by Jerusalem, “Yesterday, here in the middle of the City, I saw a wolf turn into a Russian ex-gymnast and hand over a business card that read YOUR OWN PERSONAL TRANSHUMAN SECURITY WHORE! STERILIZED INNARDS! ACCEPTS ALL CREDIT CARDS to a large man who wore trained attack cancers on his face and possessed seventy-five indentured Komodo Dragons instead of legs. And they had sex. Right in front of me. And six of the Komodo dragons spat napalm on my new shoes.

“Now, listen. I’m told I’m a FAMOUS JOURNALIST these days. I’m told the five years I spent away from the City have vanished like the name of the guy you picked up last night, and that it’s like I never left. (I was driven away, let me remind you, by things like Sickness, Hate and The Death of Truth.)”

Despite his supposed misanthropy, Spider Jerusalem does not hate people or society as much as he hates stupidity, knowing ignorance and inhumanity. Spider Jerusalem, strangely enough, has a passion for humanity and society and is willing to put his life on the line for Truth. As Transmet was ending its run in 2002 a sort of death was coming over American journalism. Call it the Death of Truth, perhaps. Call it the sort of thing that would drive the likes of Hunter S. Thompson and Spider Jerusalem mad. In the wake of 9/11 much of the national press corps seemed to turn over their journalistic ethics and quest for truth in return for the ink and ratings access to a corrupt Presidential Administration would bring. The tough questions stopped being asked at the very time they needed to be asked. People who spoke their minds (Bill Maher for example) were branded anti-American and punished for their opinions. 

Legitimate, professional journalists (as HST might have denounced in his typical Hard Man of American Letters style) had turned themselves over to suckle from the great teat of State. What followed was signed agreements and codes of conduct in return for becoming embedded reporters in the second major news event of the last decade: The Invasion of Iraq. After the general misconduct of prisons like Abu Ghraib, enhanced interrogation methods like waterboarding and violations of human rights in detention centers, an Orwellian nightmare of authoritarianism became ever more easy to believe. In that time journalism did need a role model.

Spider Jerusalem and in his almost perverse passion for finding and reporting the truth at all costs would make a powerful icon and an implicit remainder of journalism’s core ethos in such times. Ellis and Robertson’s creation offers certain crucial insights into journalistic values. It gives readers the idea that in journalism, truth is the only thing that should matter. That journalism is dangerous and good journalists are also dangerous. That good political journalism will make you enemies. Bad political journalism will make you friends.  And, finally, journalists are very much crusaders constantly fighting the Sickness, Hate and The Death of Truth. So be on the right side of the fight.

Transmet reads and looks as good as it did over ten years ago. But the darker lesson seems that though Transmet was primarily meant as a metaphor for contemporary culture, we are ostensibly continuing to spiral into the perverse version of society that it depicts within its pages. And yet, there remains no Spider Jerusalem in sight.

The tough love of Ellis and Robertson’s opus places self-reliance high on the agenda. Americans are always looking for a Messiah instead of looking within. They cannot seem to stand the idea of peering, even momentarily, at the realities of their own existence. While we have moved into a new era, Sickness, Hate and the Death of Truth still exist and they’re still driving the Spider Jerusalems of the day away from “the City” and up to the mountain.

Spider Jerusalem had the capacity to come face to face with the ugly truths that rule our lives. In this respect he becomes an agent of change, preaching a strong gospel of social responsibility: If you’re not a journalist who is willing to do this, get out now. Become something more benign like a custodian—still helpful, but in less of a position to do great harm to society.

In birthing Transmetropolitan, Ellis and Robertson created an iconic universe and with it a character that has proven to be prescient. There is an enduring quality to the work here, the clang-clang-clanging of truth. It is this fierce pursuit of the Truth and this enduring hope of better yet to come what will continue to make Transmetropolitan iconographic in the years to come. The battle for journalistic integrity should never end. And as long as the battle continues so will Transmetropolitan and the legend of beyond-gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem who Ellis envisions as, “cheap, but not as cheap as your girlfriend.”

(Originally published January 13, 2010 on PopMatters.com)