Category Archives: Myth and Reality

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.

jla 3

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.

jla 1

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

jla 9

jla 7

jla 8

jla 6

… 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.

jla 4This daunting challenge is worsened by widespread panic, military over-reaction, looting, and other forms of criminal activity.

jla 11

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

L_J E 68 69.TIF

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.

jla 2

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.

Advertisements

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.

wg12

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.

ww9

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.

goddess-12
Artist: Alex Ross (Credit: DC Comics)

ww 4

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.

ww 3

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.

ww 2

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.

ww8

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.

ww7

 

ww5

ww6

ww10

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)

shazaam 3

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.

shazaam 10

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.

shazaam 8

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.

shazaam 5

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.

shazaam 1

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.

shazaam 4

shazaam 2

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.

shazaam 7

shazam 6

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.

shazaam 9

Recovering Ideals (3)

batman 2

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.

batman 3

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.

batman 7

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.

batman 8

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.

batman 4

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?

batman

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.

batman 1

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.

wg2

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.

wg8

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.

wg5

Initially, his efforts are gratifying.

wg4

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.

wg3

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.

wg7

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.

wg9

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.

wg10

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.”

superman

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.

wg13

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.

wg11

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.

wg12

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.

wg1

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.

Magic And Miracles (4)

sorceress 3
The Magic Circle by John William Waterhouse

Following last week’s thread, what is the difference between praying for a miracle and casting a spell? I can only give you my impression/opinion. Let’s start with magic. One of the characteristics of magic that strikes me as different from Christianity has to do with manipulation. It seems to me that the sorcerer, sorceress, warlock, or witch sees himself or herself as mastering a skill or craft which makes possible the manipulation of people, nature, circumstances, and even supernatural entities.

sorceress 5
Sorceress by Frank Frazetta

To the extent that Christians try to cajole God for favors, I think they are behaving more like magicians than disciples. God is not a trained animal act, and he does not perform at our bidding. Does this mean that he should not be asked to intervene? Not necessarily. It depends on three things as I see it: what we are asking for, our motivation for doing so, and our attitudes about ourselves in relation to God.

William Blake
William Blake: Jesus giving sight to Bartimaeus

Without requiring all of my readers to believe as I do, I think it is helpful to look at how the scriptures describe (often by implication) the nature and purpose of miracles. In my own reading and contemplation I have settled (again) on three characteristics. First, miracles provide genuine help to those who need it. Second, they reveal some aspect of the character and nature of God. Third, as a result of this, they require something of us in the way of humility, commitment, and submission to a higher authority. Assuming (again, as the scriptures imply) that this authority is benevolent and has our truly best interests at heart, God should not be expected to conform to our limited and often misguided agendas. You may not believe he exists, but if you do, this has to be considered.

grace
Grace by Rhoda Nyberg (painting from 1918 photograph of Charles Wilden taken by her father, Eric Enstrom)

Some of you may remember that in a previous post (THE GODDESS MENTALITY – PART 3 from this same Myth and Reality category) I stated that I do not respect powerful people simply for being powerful. Seeking supernatural empowerment in and of itself can be very destructive. What if we get what we want? Will we use it for good or ill? Are we even in a position to be able to tell the difference?

giovanni_lanfranco_-_miracle_of_the_bread_and_fish_-_wga12454
The Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes by Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1674)

It makes sense to me that God’s gifts, however commonplace or unusual, would be granted on his terms. Finally, by asking for the wrong things or for the right things for the wrong reasons, do people simply delude themselves and thereby compromise their abilities to function in the real world? On my ABOUT page, I say something to the effect that fantasy can give us a beneficial perspective  from which to examine reality. When fantasy becomes too much of our reality, the balance shifts toward distortion and dysfunction.

Okay, enough of the heavy stuff. I promise to  lighten things up and have more fun next week. Teaser: So what does Wonder Woman look like?

Gadot-Wonder-Woman1

 

Magic And Miracles (3)

I remember when a former colleague first came to our campus to interview for a position in Sociology. I had noticed in her curriculum vita (that’s academic for “resume”) that her dissertation topic was on magic and witchcraft, so I asked her about it. Her response: “I’m not a witch if you’re worried about that.” I wasn’t, and she went on to explain that she was studying it as a sociological phenomenon. All the while, I was thinking of that scene from Monty Python (those of you who have seen it know which one).

The Sorceress (2002) from the He-Man/Masters of the Universe series

In later discussions, as I remember, she explained to me that most Wiccans were women and that many of them had been physically or sexually abused. Wicca appealed to them as a means of empowerment in the face of some very unpleasant circumstances in which they felt otherwise powerless. Note that she did not say this applied to all Wiccans but that it was a prominent trend among those practicing this religion.

The Sorceress Greek by John William Waterhouse

We have a prestigious lecture on our campus which is given every two years. She was awarded this lecture by vote of our faculty and chose this area of interest as her topic. I remember that during the talk she blurred the boundaries between magic and other religious faiths, and that got me to thinking. Are those who pray for divine intervention, sometimes in the form of miracles, doing essentially the same thing as those who recite incantations or pronounce spells?

Medea by Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandysk (1866-1868)

To answer this question, I narrowed it down to a comparison between belief in magic and the one religion with which I am most familiar: Christianity. So what is the difference between spells and prayer for miracles?

Sorceress by Rafaella Picca

I can see now that this is going to require more explanation than I originally thought, so I will continue this discussion next week.

Magic And Miracles (2)

I can’t say whether the above picture is genuine or whether it’s been altered, nor did I find any credits for the image. Probably fake if someone held a gun to my head and made me guess. It does, however, provide an example of a modern trend: the alleged return to pagan worship by various groups of individuals.

Return of the Hellenes devotees (photo not credited)

Let me offer a few examples. In Greece, The Return of the Hellenes “worships” the twelve main gods of the Greek pantheon and was founded by Tryphon Olympios, a philosophy professor. In Iceland, the Asatru Fellowship similarly uses members of the Norse pantheon. Both groups have revived certain rituals and traditions from these ancient religions, but they see their “gods” more as metaphors and ideals than as deities. Wicca not only features an odd collection of beliefs and practices borrowed from various sources but also shows what I would call considerable internal variety and inconsistency depending on where it is practiced.

Asatru Fellowship procession (photo by Eran Livni)

Some may see it as a matter of degree, but generally missing from the above examples are the true worship of supernatural deity and the adherence to historical canon and doctrine which are characteristic of major religions. These modern phenomena are more like a customized re-invention of older systems of thought, and they tend to cherry-pick various beliefs and practices. There is a modern tendency to go cafeteria-shopping for a religion that satisfies one’s desires and expectations, but this practice begs the question of how anyone can worship something they made up themselves. The same can be said for the redefinition of older faiths, the “now it means this” phenomenon.

apotheosis
Apotheosis of Homer by Jean-Auguste-Dominique- Ingres (1827)

I wonder how many people who refer to themselves as pagans have actually studied the pagan philosophers, learned the tenets of pagan religions, or even familiarized themselves with such works as the Edda, the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer, the Aenid by Virgil, or The Metamorphoses by Ovid. I’ve known a few people who have done these very things, but there are posers in any religion.

Ulysses_and_the_Sirens_by_H.J._Draper
Ulysses and the Sirens by Herbert James Draper, c. 1909
athena inspires odysseus for vengeance
Painting by Jan Styka in which Athena inspires Odysseus to take vengeance

Then, of course, there is the issue of intellectual sincerity. What do the adherents of these modernized, ancient beliefs actually believe? Are they  genuine, or  are they participating in pseudo-intellectual forms of cosplay? These are fair questions to ask anyone who professes a belief in the supernatural, myself included.

muse
The Muse (1895) by Gabriel de Cool

Perhaps this is what one of my former students meant when she said something like, “I wanted to deal with people who knew what they were talking about,” when explaining to me why she had decided against the Wiccan religion after looking into it. Let me add that I have had a number of students who were Wiccan and that we got along well. I found them to be creative, intelligent, and likeable people. Some were even very studious in learning more about their beliefs, and one of those later converted to Christianity. Please don’t think that I’m trying to be insulting or derogatory when I point out differences between modern religions and those which are more traditional.

herbert-james-draper-lament-for-icarus
The Lament for Icarus by Herbert James Draper

Next week, I’ll continue with a more direct discussion of what the title of this series actually means.

Magic And Miracles (1)

Moses Delivering the Ten Commandments by William Hawkins
The Temptation of Christ by Ary Schefer, 1854

As an educator and as a casual observer of popular culture, I believe that our society is overly dependent on passive entertainment. We view more than we read. We assume more than analyze. Don’t get me wrong. If you’ve read very many of my posts in the past, you know that I love some of the entertainment that’s out there. My concern is the degree to which we are dependent on it.

In the biology courses which I teach, I emphasize the scientific method of thinking, its limits, and how this relates to our perception of reality. We currently have a problem with scientific literacy in America, but arguments which merely appear more scientific are given more widespread credibility.  I call this faux intellectualism the “culture of the scientific.” It’s more a statement of style than of content.

Additionally, our emotions influence our perception of reality. We believe in things we want to be true. Conversely, we disbelieve things we don’t want to be true. From this perspective, truth is often perceived as inconvenient, but consider the alternative. Ignorance can hurt or even kill us, and denying the existence of something doesn’t prevent it from affecting us if it’s real.

Finally, there is what sociologists term the “social construction of reality.” We tend to believe what those whom we identify with believe or what the majority of people believe, and that can sometimes get us into trouble. Metaphorically, the blind can lead the blind. Truth is not established by majority vote, and history is replete with cases involving individuals who went against the status quo and were later vindicated.

I have described a cultural mash in which our shared perception of reality is affected by at least four factors: our desire for and orientation toward entertainment, a “culture of the scientific” among the scientifically illiterate, emotional preference, and the social construction of reality. Within this context, society has grown increasingly incredulous about the existence of spiritual beings and the occurrence of miracles. This has been accompanied by a general drift away from the tenets of Judaism and Christianity. Historically, the two most prominent lines of thought in the development of western civilization have been the Greco Roman and Judeo Christian traditions.

Gods of Olympus, 1534-35 Giulion Romano
Gods of Olympus (1534-1535) by Giulio Romano
the-ascension-1801
The Ascension by Benjamin West, 1801
SchoolAthens
School of Athens by Raphael
The last supper
The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci

Ironically, western culture has shown an increased sympathy for Islam (with notable exceptions) and an increased interest in magic, paganism, and witchcraft even as it discards Judaism and Christianity as being irrelevant, superstitious, or worse. Please note what I am not saying. These are trends among diverse individuals who happen to exist in significant numbers. They are not the product of widespread, monolithic group think.

christianhinduspagans

Okay. This is my teaser. I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this, but I’ll pick it up again next week.