Category Archives: Blog

Mythological Beasts And Spirits: Norns

Norse mythology seems to have been developed more recently than Greek mythology, and some of its entities apparently reflect this. For example, the Norns bear certain similarities the the three Fates. The Norns are also female spirits, a trio of sisters whose names exhibit wide variations in spelling, depending on the source. I will use the names from the glossary at the back of my copy of the Poetic Edda: Skuld, Urth, and Verthandi. These three were said to determine the fates of gods and men. They spun these fates by Urd, the well of destiny at the a base of Yggdrasil, the tree which connects the nine worlds. Those of you who have seen The Avengers: Age of Ultron might recall a scene which alludes to the Norns and Urd without explaining them.

For my story, The Fear of a Farmer (copyrighted but not yet published), I took some artistic license and moved them out to sea. There, they utter false prophecies to dissuade the hero from his appointed task.

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Norns from The Fear of a Farmer (Copyright: Robert Lambert Jones III).

Here is a portrait of one of the Norns. I wanted to show more facial detail to develop her visual character.

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A Norn from The Fear of a Farmer (copyright: Robert Lambert Jones III).

After I had done this, I looked up some paintings by more regarded artists. I was interested to compare my black and white renderings to theirs. This one is supposedly titled The Norns and was allegedly done by Arthur Rackham. I can verify neither the title nor the artist. I have my suspicions since the style of this one is so different than that of another one attributed to him.

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Here is an eerie depiction of the Norns over a cradle.

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The Norns (1889) by Johannes Gerts.

The Norns in this picture are shown at the base of Yggdrasil. Well, technically, Yggdrasil was an ash tree, not an oak.

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The Norns Uror, Veroandi, and Skul under the world oak Yggdrasil (1882) by Ludwig Burger.

Another black and white….

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Die Helden Und Gotter Des Nordens, Oder: Das Buch Der Sagen (1832) by Amalia Schoppe.

… and a couple in color.  Both are titled (guess what?) The Norns. I’m fairly confident that the first of these actually is by Arthur Rackham. The second was also attributed to him, but I am not as confident of this. It is, however, an interesting abstraction that plays on the imagination.

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In both of these examples, I like the ethereal use of color. Additionally, the utilization of silhouettes in this last illustration adds to its effectiveness.

One more portrayal…

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The Norns by C. E. Brock.

… and out.

Next week: another mythological being.

 

A Film Of Her Own (Part 3)

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Now for an analysis of the actual movie. Although the majority of the critiques I have read are effusive in their praise, there is an undercurrent of criticism. One is that the Wonder Woman movie (Warner Brothers) has nothing new to offer. I am reminded of how fickle critics can be. Make a movie that’s too different, and you have “a poor sense of genre.” Make it too formulaic, and it’s “more of the same.” I honestly thought that this cinematic effort struck a good balance between the extremes and that it actually was an original treatment.

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Keep this in mind: it’s a superhero movie, for crying out loud. Their will always be similarities such as a backstory element, the conferring or possession of superpowers, and external as well as internal conflicts. One review I read accused this movie of being too much like Captain America, down to the wartime settings and unorthodox support teams. While there are similarities, I really felt that this was its own story. The test I apply is that I could not predict what would happen as I watched the plot unfold. I will also add that Wonder Woman is at least comparable to Captain America (which I own and have enjoyed repeatedly) in terms of quality. Both are nice period pieces with fanciful embellishment. This is the first effort by the DCEU which I would consider comparable to the output from Disney Marvel. They still have a long way to go in developing their extended universe, but this was a definite step in the right direction.

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The combination of a World War I setting with themes adapted from Greek mythology invoked the neoclassicism of the early twentieth century. It was certainly one of the better applications of this that I have seen, and the special effects seemed appropriate to the plot, purpose, and themes of the story. Unlike a few reviewers, I was not put off by the CGI during the climactic battle. For once, I found the imagery of a DC film visually satisfying and easy to follow. This film also established a distinctive style of graphic art that I hope will persist in the DCEU.

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I found the mythological concepts enjoyable, particularly the reveal of Ares. He was admirably portrayed with nuance and depth. Although many already know who played him, I will refrain from mentioning the actor to avoid spoiling anything for those who don’t know and who have not seen the movie.

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The action sequences were good. The portrayal of trench warfare and civilian and military casualties was realistic enough to make me wince, and there were subtle touches of humor at the right times. An amusing sequence where Wonder Woman as Diana Prince attempts to make sense of women’s fashion is a nice contrast to the battle scenes and depictions of devastation.

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In my opinion, this film is worthy of a theater viewing. I thought it was entertaining, and I appreciated the respectful treatment given to this iconic character. Initially short on experience, she is also portrayed as informed and intelligent, and the state this movie leaves her in by the end begs for more stories to develop her possibilities. If you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend that you do, whether in the theater or as a rental, depending on availability.

The lady is waiting…

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A Film Of Her Own (Part 2)

The Wonder Woman movie (Warner Brothers) met my expectations and then some. It also satisfied my hope that this character would receive respectful treatment. Among those who should receive credit for this, I think Patty Jenkins, the director, should obviously be mentioned.

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Another of my suspicions was confirmed, as well. I already felt that Gal Gadot had good screen presence, but given a decent script, she can also act. Allen Heinberg wrote the screenplay of the story by Zack Snyder, and the script enabled Gadot to show some emotional range as well as wry humor. She also did her own stunts, and was credible in the action sequences. While her physique was not considered by some fans to be muscular enough for this role, I found it interesting that her body type actually wasn’t very far off from that of the original comic book character. I know I held the following panel up as a sexist stereotype last week, but I think it helps to confirm the point I just made.

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Additionally, DC Comics seems to have followed the lead of Marvel Comics by redesigning the look of a superhero to resemble the cinematic imagery.

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A number of characters paid homage to the Golden Age version of Wonder Woman. Chris Pine did a typically good turn as Steve Trevor…

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… and Lucy Davis was cast in a more dignified portrayal of Etta Candy.

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As Sir Patrick Morgan, David Thewlis was excellent, and I enjoyed seeing him in the role of a more mature character.

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Overall, I thought the movie passed the villain test. Elena Anaya was suitably creepy as Dr. Poison. While a little more one-dimensionally written, the German officer, Lundendorff, was well-acted by Danny Huston. The sequence when he dances with a disguised (well, sort of) Diana Prince is palpably threatening.

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Queen Hippolyta is played by Connie Nielsen, and her warrior sister, Antiope, is played by Robin Wright.

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Said Taghmaoui, Eugene Brave Rock, and Ewen Bremner (pictured left to right on either side of Chris Pine and Gal Gadot, below) constituted an admirable and rag tag support crew whose characters were surprisingly well-developed for the amount of screen time they were given.

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The cast was impressive, and the script and acting were good. Okay, this is fun, so I’ll drag it out for another week.

 

A Film of Her Own (Part 1)

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In the beginning – well, 1941, actually – Wonder Woman was unleashed on the world of men. Although her original adventures were set during the time of World War II, her movie debut was shifted to World War I, but this is beside the point I want to make first. Her initial presentation during the Golden Age of Comics was a nuanced contradiction between feminism…

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… sexist stereotypes…

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… and worse.

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The approaches and themes used in her portrayal made at least the pretense of an effort at being mature…

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… or lapsed into the juvenile.

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This variety and disparity of treatments has continued through various incarnations. What I’m trying to say is that from this beginning concept and simple artwork  grew an iconic image that grew larger and more nuanced than even her creators, William Moulton Marston (writer) and H. G. Peter (artist), envisioned. Once in print, she escaped their mental bounds and entered into the synergistic collective of her readership. Individuals interacted with this character until, today, she has come to represent different things to different people.

For this reason, any adaptation of the comic to the silver screen would be likely to generate both praise and criticism. Gal Godot looks the part. She doesn’t. The movie is an original breath of fresh air for the superhero genre. It isn’t. The CGI is appropriate for the plot. It’s over the top. It’s kind of hard to blame us for our conflicting expectations of the first movie about Wonder Woman. After all, so many of us think of her as ours.

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Whether you approve or not, this cinematic effort is considered socially significant because it is the first major movie of this genre where the main character is female (I’m not going to count previous efforts such as Elektra). The DCEU of Warner Brothers beat Disney Marvel to the punch on that one, and I suppose it’s only right from an historical perspective.

The “battle” over this representation will continue next week…

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Wonder Woman (2017) Gal Gadot

Recovering Ideals (6)

The fifth segment of DC Comics’ The World’s Greatest Superheroes by Alex Ross and Paul Dini starts with a section titled, Justice League of America: Secret Origins, which provides backstories for additional members of the Justice League. Besides Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman (who have already been introduced), we are also presented with The Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Martian Manhunter, Green Arrow, Hawkman, The Atom, and Plastic Man.

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On an additional two-page spread, some additional characters with more minor roles are shown. These include Adam Strange, Zatanna, Metamorpho, Elongated Man, Phantom Stranger, and The Red Tornado.

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Once we’ve gotten the band back together, Liberty and Justice, a story involving the Justice League, follows. Along with some good action scenes…

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… there is the main story line, which deals with how the Justice League deals with the outbreak of a mysterious extraterrestrial virus which immobilizes its victims without killing them.

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The JLA must provide crowd control in addition to their efforts at finding and administering a cure for the disease.

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The artwork is beautiful (what else?) and the pacing and style differ from those of the previous four stories. There is more dialogue, and there is less narrative. The plot is necessarily more cluttered due to the number of outstanding characters.

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This was a fun, visually satisfying read. I liked the ethics of the story as exemplified by two ideas. One is the value of family and personal relationships in providing the basis for heroism. As I’ve said before, you can’t truly care about the masses without caring for individuals. Relationships with spouses, children, and friends indicate who we are. How can we truly be  heroes when neglecting or abusing those closest to us? The second idea is the recurring theme of superheroes becoming most effective if they work with, rather than above, ordinary human beings. It affords them their greatest power (political leaders, take note). This reminds me of the recognition in Christian doctrine of God placing the limitation on himself that human beings must cooperate with him voluntarily.

Next week: back to the modern pantheon of cinema.

Recovering Ideals (5)

The fourth story in DC Comics’ The World’s Greatest Super-Heroes by Alex Ross and Paul Dini is Wonder Woman: Spirit of Truth. The plot follows the pattern of giving the backstory first. In this case it is the founding of Themyscira by the Amazons on Paradise Island followed by the creation of Diana from clay by her mother, Hippolyta, the Amazon queen who has been empowered by the goddess, Aphrodite. Continuing the pattern, the story moves on to the recurring theme of the series.

As is probably evident by now, the recurring theme in this collection is the difficulty that superheroes have in dealing with the attitudes of the people they are trying to serve. This goes beyond getting human beings to behave. It is impossible to over-ride free will and force people to receive the right help in the right way. Our species can be funny that way.

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Although there are plenty of instances where Wonder Woman can do her normal superhero thing, there are others in which her efforts are not well-received.

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Take, for instance, this sequence where she prevents a tank from crushing a girl. The recipient of her heroism runs away from her in fear.

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Artist: Alex Ross (Credit: DC Comics)

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As another example, a Muslim crowd takes offense at her appearance and looks upon her activity as meddling by a cultural outsider. Instead of a hero’s welcome, she is greeted by a hail of thrown rocks.

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Humbled and frustrated by these incidents, she (as Diana Prince) confers with Superman (as Clark Kent). I think their appearance here in their “secret identities” is effective because it reinforces the advice he gives her. Having been humbled himself in the first story, he mentions that it would be more effective to work beside people rather than above them. In other words, identification helps bridge the gap in perception between ordinary individuals and those who are extraordinary.

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There are some interesting portrayals of Wonder Woman trying to become more involved with humanity by working in war zones as an explosives remover and (as in the illustration below) a nurse.

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The following sequence in which she prevents the use of women as a human shield is perhaps one of the better known from this story.

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I really liked the approach of inserting this character into real world situations (of which I have shown only a few). I also liked the idea of a nearly perfect character of mythological origin concealing her supernatural ability in an effort to communicate more effectively with people.

Next week: the final story of this excellent graphic novel.

Recovering Ideals (4)

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The third and fourth stories from DC Comics’ The World’s Greatest Super-Heroes have the most mythological themes. This week, we’ll take a look at Shazam! Power of Hope by Alex Ross and Paul Dini. This features a mistreated boy named Billy Batson who can transform to an adult superhero by pronouncing the name of a wizard.

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You want mythology? This story has it. The wizard’s name is Shazam, an acronym derived from the names of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury. Billy becomes Captain Marvel, “earth’s mightiest mortal”, whenever he says this name. Since he exists alternately as a boy and a supernatural man, he has the characteristics of both. Even as an adult, Captain Marvel shows childlike sensitivity.

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There are plenty of action sequences, but what affected me the most was the theme of Captain Marvel interacting with children in a hospital. The captain is advised by Shazam, the wizard, before embarking on this mission.

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After he has been at the hospital for a while, there is a charming sequence showing the response given by the soul of a boy in the body of a man when he finds himself in a more adult situation: that of being affectionately thanked by the pediatric doctor of the children’s ward. It is innocently nuanced.

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Well, I might as well admit it. The following sequence made me tear up (that’s masculine for “cry a little”). My wife is a school nurse, and this reminded me of a story she told me about one of her students.

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The theme that I found the most powerful is that sometimes Captain Marvel isn’t enough, and it takes an ordinary boy like Billy to solve a serious problem.

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It takes a human being to reach other human beings. In this sense, the incarnation in Christian doctrine makes sense to me. One of our greatest superpowers is that of being a friend.

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Recovering Ideals (3)

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The second story in DC Comics’ The World’s Greatest Super-Heroes is Batman: War on Crime by Alex Ross and Paul Dini. My next few paragraphs might strike you as an odd way to introduce this comic, but I had the idea of referring to a personal experience and decided to go with it.

Last week, I mentioned that I had been jumped and that, in the process, my jaw had  been broken. Six individuals were responsible, and I could have been even more seriously hurt if one of my friends (who had some martial arts training) hadn’t pushed them off of me. That was on the second to the last day of the spring semester during my freshman year in high school. I spent the first six weeks of that summer sucking baby food through a straw since my jaw was wired shut. Almost two years later, I was jumped again, but the consequences weren’t as serious on that occasion. Someone approached me in the school restroom and hit me in the forehead, just above one of my eyes. He then grabbed a janitor’s drum and threw it at me. He was shorter than I was, and I blocked it back over his head, whereupon he ran out the door. As in the first case my assailant was not from my high school. He had entered the building without a visitor’s pass.

Without prolonging the story with unnecessary details, the identity of my attacker was discovered, and he was turned over to the juvenile authorities. My father was a state legislator, and he accompanied me to the hearing where I was asked to testify briefly. I was looking face-to-face at the young man who had accosted me without provocation. The questioning board was familiar with him to the point of addressing him on a first name basis.

Something bothered me about the hearing. Although I hadn’t been seriously hurt, he could have done serious damage to someone smaller. What bothered me wasn’t that I shouldn’t have pressed charges. It was that, in a situation where it was my word against his, there was no other evidence. I’m white (at the time, politically connected because of my father), and he was black. Since the board was already familiar with him, and since I was unlikely to have known him due to the fact that we went to different schools, I seriously doubt that the authorities in this case were racist. I know juveniles are handled differently by the legal system, but at the age of sixteen, I was asking myself about the precedent of someone being found guilty on nothing but the testimony of one witness.

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This was my most intimate exposure to our system of criminal justice, and it gave me a hint of the enormity of the problem. Let me make an awkward attempt at a transition here. Although a skilled and highly-trained man instead of an all-powerful being, Batman’s challenge is similar to the one faced by Superman in the previous story about which I posted. He can only save individuals. There are too many individuals to control and protect, and it would be totalitarian to attempt controlling all individuals. This thoughtful character is studious, dedicated, and astute, but he can only do so much. His efforts have left him baring scars, more so than gratitude, for his efforts at intervention.

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After a back story which includes the murder of his parents, we find him during a regular visit to their place of burial. I found this imagery compelling. The picture I found was of a French translation, but the original is obviously in English.

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This treatment of Bruce Wayne/Batman strikes a good balance between the original character as created by Bob Kane in the Golden Age of Comics, the version with which I grew up during the Silver Age of Comics, and the more currently pervasive approach of The Dark Night Returns by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson.

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There is one sequence which shows Batman attempting to talk a young man out of pursuing the wrong path. I found the monologue a bit stilted and unlikely, but I am reminded that I have thought from time to time about the seven guys (six first, one two years later) who jumped me. Are they still alive? Did anyone reach them before it was too late?

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I think it is appropriate to end with the following image of Batman surveying Gotham below him. Not only is it a beautiful illustration – it also conveys the magnitude of what he faces.

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Recovering Ideals (2)

Immature idealism, while not without value, has some problems. Perhaps greatest of these is that it is self-aggrandizing. The immature often turn their ideals back toward a pride in themselves. As an example, helping others can be done with the aim of seeing oneself as one who helps others rather than out of a genuine concern for others. Many who claim to love the masses do not love the individuals of whom the masses are composed.

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Consider the following quote from The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis:

“She’s the sort of woman who lives for others – you can tell the others by their hunted expression.”

It’s not until we get to know individuals and connect names with faces that we can experience a more genuine compassion. Superman: Peace on Earth, the first story from The World’s Greatest Super-Heroes (DC Comics) by Alex Ross and Paul Dini,  begins in this way when Superman rescues a starving girl and delivers her to a shelter where she can receive food.

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This leads him, as Clark Kent, to do some personal research into the problem of world hunger and its causes. Based on his recent experience, he is particularly moved by photographs of starving individuals, particularly children, and, as Superman, he becomes motivated to seek world-wide cooperation in gathering food and solving the problem.

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Initially, his efforts are gratifying.

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One panel that impressed me shows him descending past Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor), the huge Art Deco statue of Jesus Christ in Rio de Janeiro, with a large container of food held above his head.

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A second problem with immature idealism is impatience. This often stems from pride and the related desire for the singular, heroic act which, in turn, feeds that pride. Within the one day that Superman set aside for his task, he realizes that it will not be enough. The problem he is attempting to solve is simply too great.

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Even he can’t be everywhere at once, day after day. He discovers the host of complications which frustrate efforts at charity in the real world: fear and suspicion among intended recipients, bottlenecks imposed by corrupt governments (some of which use starvation as a tool for controlling their populaces), and the unwillingness of those who are capable of lending assistance. It had been his hope that the world would follow his example, but much of the food goes to waste.

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A powerful being can control humanity about as effectively as a human can control ants. They just don’t follow orders very well. Should one leave the ants to work out their own issues or choose to crush them? This hints at the difficulty absolute power might face in persuading people to receive help and to stop harming and exploiting each other. This reminds me of when I was in track practice at my high school and saw a friend of mine being jumped. This had happened to me one year earlier, and I had ended up with my jawbone being kicked into three pieces (prior to having it wired shut by an oral surgeon). A teammate and I rushed to break it up, and we were joined by a star player from our state-ranked basketball team. The three of us had a devil of a time getting the attackers to stay off of their intended victim. We simply didn’t have enough hands, and they kept going around us. To use our fists would have been to become what we were fighting. A passing motorist even tried to help us, and we eventually succeeded. My teammate and I were not small, but I remember feeling inadequate despite our superior size and strength (one of the young thugs only came up to my shoulder). I wonder what God must think whenever we act out. I’m glad he doesn’t just crush us.

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Solving human problems requires the coordinated and persistent effort of other human beings: human beings with ideals, the courage and commitment to act in accordance with them, and patience for the long haul. Even at that, we can only help and influence those we can, and some still might not respond. Using this as a major component of a superhero story is a challenging approach because it puts responsibility right back on us, including those of us who believe in, and pray to, God.

Recovering Ideals (1)

I’d like to expound on the DC Comics Universe of my childhood. I realize that we all have different perspectives and that reality as any one of us sees it is not necessarily reality as it is.  At the age of ten, my friends and I were idealistic. Police and soldiers were good people who protected us and only used violence when justified. Authority figures were also good and acted in our best interests. We read DC Comics, especially Superman but also Batman and Wonder Woman. Back then, heroes were heroes, and we believed in “truth, justice, and the American way.”

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We were children of the Silver Age of Comics. For capes, my friends and I wore towels either tucked into our tee shirts or carefully safety-pinned around our necks, and we argued about who got to be the real Superman. Well, yeah, sometimes we squabbled or even fought, but we were good kids. My best friend and I volunteered to be traffic safety crossing guards (the diagonal belt and badge were cool), and our group in general befriended and stuck up for the little guys and the outcasts. One of our friends was so overweight he looked round, but we never made fun of him. We defended him when others picked on him. We had empathy and conscience, and our pre-adolescent society was one of inclusion and safety.

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Then came junior high school, high school, and increasing social pressure with its trademark betrayals and altered values. We became overshadowed by an awareness of racism, riots, the protests against the war in Viet Nam, abuses of power by our government, and the Kent State shootings. Resistance to the status quo became the new coin of the social realm. Some of my friends’ parents started getting divorces. With this greater awareness and disillusionment, we lost a good many of our childhood ideals.

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Even now, society tends toward the sarcastic and the cynical. We’ve been let down so many times that our first reaction is often skepticism when we are confronted by something good. I have noticed a trend in which people discard ideals on the basis of other people failing to live up to them. Very recently, I have had to remind myself that the ideal society of my youth never really existed, but that isn’t the whole story. I knew people, including my own parents, who truly lived by their ideals, and there were enough of them that they made the world better. The value in an ideal is that when people reach for it, society is better off. When a good ideal is discarded, too many people stop trying.

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Getting back to my DC aspirations of the Silver Age, I recently purchased and read a graphic novel that brought all of it back. The World’s Greatest Super-Heroes by Paul Dini and Alex Ross does a masterful job of combining the historical ideals of perhaps the most iconic superheroes in comic book history with a modern awareness that the world we live in is indeed a very flawed place. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel are featured in narratives which apply their virtues to real world problems with understandably mixed results. What I like about these stories is that they use fictional characters to focus our attention on the potential hero within each of us and that they do this without being heavy-handed.

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This is one of my favorite graphic novels, right up there with Kingdom Come and Marvels (my opinion, of course). And guess who the illustrator for both of those was? The panels are visually satisfying, the writing for the most part substantial, and the stories entertaining. In upcoming posts, I will examine some of the individual stories in this impressive collection.

Oh, and fifty-three years later, my buddies and I are still close.