On Morality 1: I’m Better Than You

Morality. The big topic. The reason I put “philosopher” in the title.

For me, morality is the most worthwhile topic philosophers have tackled over the centuries. The basics of right and wrong and the infinite permutations therein. That and whether meaning in language is arbitrary, intrinsic, or both… but I figure that’s more of a niche interest. Lets talk about the more popular thing.

The true nature of morality is something I ponder a lot. My basic theory is that morality is about real world outcomes– actual effects matter more than the theoretical things we are afraid of. It’s a question of who is helped– helpless people?– and who is hurt, qualitative and quantitative. I think of this approach as “reality-based morality.”

Could I possibly be more arrogant?

When the phrase “the reality-based community” came into parlance during the W. Bush years it seemed funny. After the invasion of Iraq in a search for imaginary weapons of mass destruction (or, as W himself put it, because “that man tried to kill my daddy”) it truly seemed like Liberals had a monopoly on reality– or at least like fundamentalist* conservatives had decided to opt out. We still haven’t recovered from that disastrous era of invasion and deregulation. Our country’s objectively, statistically much better off than it was after 8 years of W, which formed a 21st century nadir for America and ‘Merica alike.

8 years later, I still feel right on a fundamental, instinctive level. Because of course I do. Having the courage of your convictions means believing you are on the side of right, goodness and Team Valor**, that every blow you strike is “For the Horde!” Almost none of us are Death Eaters in our own view; in spite of all the human race’s infighting, our guts tell each of us that we’re part of Dumbledore’s Army. It’s part of how we get out of bed in the morning.

Today, I can hear the arrogance behind the jokes. The claim that anyone who doesn’t see things my way is not just wrong, but deluded and ignorant. I hear it coming from the Bernie Bros who won’t let go on the floor of the Democratic National Convention. I hear it in their detractors’ voices.

You can’t compromise with crazy people; you can’t negotiate in good faith with the devil. These narratives have poisoned all sides of American politics, paralyzed our nation, have made many of our supposed leaders into trivial beasts, prouder of their supposed “purity” than of any real world accomplishments.

I’ve come full circle, back to reality-based morality. What have you achieved? Who have you helped? They’re just better questions to ask than “Did you show them? Show them all?” will ever be. In the first case you may or may not be a hero, but in the second you’re definitely Lex Luthor.

Not exactly the poster boy for “Reality.”

Looking at these problems, it’s easy to be discouraged if not terrified. It’s not like we don’t have genuine enemies to unite against, but we can’t stop making up imaginary crimes to accuse each other of. Genuine problems like a major presidential candidate’s apparent bromance with Vladamir Putin isn’t helping either.

So, let me end with this link to a story about cops and Black Lives Matter members having a cookout together as a reminder that our divisions are often arbitrary. We’re not enemies, we’re Americans. We’re people who love life and family, for ourselves and others. Very few of us are genuine fascists or secretly trying to promote Sharia law in rural Kansas. Let’s try to appreciate the absurdity behind our rhetoric and to genuinely appreciate each other.

There are, of course, plenty of people I personally think are stupid. Or wicked. Or Wrong. But I also believe this:

We’re better than the worst of us.

If we act like it’s true then it becomes true.

*I don’t mean religious fundamentalists here. Their reality is different from mine, but as long as they don’t try to hurt anyone I can respect that. Any ideology can have its own fundamentalists, though, and conservatism is no exception.

**Some teams are arbitrary. We still take the teams, and loyalty to teams, seriously even when this is true.

On Games 1: Poké Problems

Like the rest of the world, I’ve been enjoying the magic of Pokémon GO, with its power to put a pissed-off Bulbasaur on my toilet. It’s fun, it’s addictive, it’s utterly broken.

No seriously. On top of the facts that it heats my phone like an extra 10 degrees, devours battery and data like a combo bowl of M&Ms and Reese’s Pieces, it also breaks more often than it works. As a trained professional, I’m providing this troubleshooting guide to what might be stopping all of your GO.

Problem 1– The Loading Screen:

I think eLoginFailvePlayerInfoFailryone’s aware of this problem. Pokémon GO is currently the world’s most downloaded app, and the servers are under tremendous strain. While there are plenty of complaints about how Niantic should have prepared for this level of success I honestly can’t blame them. It’s hard to prepare for what looks like unprecedented success. Trust me, humans– they want you to buy more Poké Balls. They’re working on it.

That said, the most common versions of this problem are the errors “Failed to log in,” “Failed to get player information/game data from server,” and the ever popular “just shows the load screen forever. Should I restart it? I… I think the bar moved… crap, crap, crap, my eyes are drying out, crap.”

Solution: Tapping the green “Retry” button usually works for the failed login error. It’s to the point where I’m actually relieved to see that error, since it’s basically self correcting 3/4 of the time. “Failed to get player information from the server” means it’s time to close the app and restart it… many many times. Maybe you’ll get it! Maybe the servers are down!

(On an iPhone or iPad, double-tap the home button and swipe up to close the app, return to your desktop and tap the app to relaunch it.)

Problem 2– Location Updates are Forever:

updatingpokeball

Now you’re in the game, you can see your little duder running around on a map and HOLY CRAP THAT’S MY STREET but in cartoon form, still that’s pretty cool! Why is there a white Poké Ball in the top left corner of my screen… just rolling and rolling, never moving? My wife just caught a Pokémon, I can’t see it. Everyone’s pointing and laughing, I’ll never catch ’em all, is this a nightmare? WHAT IS HAPPENING?

Solution: Oh, that’s just the game not being able to locate you via your GPS signal. And since everything in the game is based on your physical location, you can’t encounter Pokémon, Pokéstops, etc. You can now play the game, you just can’t experience any of its content.

At a guess, this problem is usually server side– you’re in the game but it doesn’t really have room for you. It could be on your hard drive, though, or on the network. So I’ve really narrowed it down to “…problem?”

Close the app and relaunch it, with the understanding that this is probably either a problem with your signal or the Niantic servers. Hope you really liked Problem 1, you’re about to see it again.

 

 

Problem 3– Touchscreen, Schmuchscreen

Suddenly, your phone buzzes– there’s a Pokémon! Some kinda little worm guy. That’s crazy funny. Okay, now I just tap him. And tap him. Crap, why can’t I… my map doesn’t move when I touch it. I can’t look at my Pokédex or anything. The touchscreen is frozen!

Solution: As far as I can tell, this either happens when your touchscreen has been latent for too long– which can mean minutes after launch, apparently– or when your phone detects a Pokémon. Which, you know, is when you’re most likely to touch your screen. The touchscreen works fine in other apps– feel free to put on some music or whatever– but not in Pokémon GO.

Probably a local problem.

Close the app again, hope you can log back on (you can’t).

Problem 4– Being On Any Network Ever

If you decide to get your Pokés on at home, odds are good you’ll be on your own wireless network. Makes sense– why pay for data when you don’t have to? It’s an exercise app, though, and you’re going to walk around outside. This is the job you’ve signed up for. Unfortunately, one of the best ways to trigger problem #2 or #3 seems to be switching networks.

Wireless networks can be a problem. I also like to use Xfinity hotspots in my travels; they experience the exact same difficulties.

Equally fun, being in the app seems to make me lose networks– or at least notice it every time the network drops me– and keep me from acquiring new networks, cellular or wireless.

Solution: Well, feel free to restart the app. Sometimes it works and when things work they’re awesome. Alternative therapies include listening to a podcast and walking back home.

Problem 5– Visiting Pokéstops

Pokemon Go Pokestop

Pokestops have worked for me 4 times. 4. The single digit. Either I get one of the above errors or the image won’t load; I spin the spinner, it says try again later. Sometimes it turns purple.

My theory is that Pokéstops require a little bit more memory loaded onto my phone than ‘Mons do. This somehow breaks reality.

I do not want to pay money for Pokéballs, man. Don’t make me do it.

Solution: SIRI, HOW DO I MURDER POKESTOP?

Problem 6– Catching Pokemon

My favorite thing that breaks the game is the core element of the game. Most of the time the screen just freezes (return to Problem 1) but sometimes the Pokéball will just roll past the Pokémon… forever. If I lift my camera I can just watch it disappear over the horizon. On my favorite occasion, a Spearow escaped the Pokéball, flew into my camera and just stayed there, snapping at me, the Pokéball trembling behind it.

Schr_Poke

So this is the best as well as the worst. But, y’know, also the worst.

Solution: HAMMERS

 

                NO WAIT EXPLODING HAMMERS

On Death 3: Crime and Punishers

Amazing_Spider-Man_Vol_1_129_002

Everything involving race, police, and guns in America is now officially insane.

Black Lives Matter has helped illuminate an apparently neverending series of unprovoked executions of young black men by police– most recently Philando Castile, whose death was livestreamed on Facebook and… may have actually made a difference. On top of this, another horrifying twist. There have now been 2 separate cases of riflemen targeting police officers– one at a Black Lives Matter protest, the other in a town where such protests have been ongoing after police killed yet another black man, Alton Sterling, while he was restrained and on the ground.

Both the Dallas sniper, Micah Xavier Johnson, and the Baton Rouge shooter, Gavin Long, were military veterans. We’re running out of good guys with guns.

So, naturally, I’m going to talk about Netflix and comic books.

The Punisher is one of Marvel comics definitive badass characters. Introduced in 1974, he was a plain villain at his inception. A “bad guy with a code,” to be sure, but still just a hit-man with some very confusing moral stances. As I understand it, his character killed people for money– you know, like a violent criminal?– but drew the line at disrespecting an honorable opponent by cheating at murder. Unexpectedly, but unsurprisingly, the character was a huge hit. So he kept appearing, making his journey towards the Dark Antihero end of the spectrum. In the process he acquired a sympathetic “working class Batman” backstory, an alter-ego (bereaved war veteran Frank Castle), 4 different comic book series– one written by Mike Baron, whose psychotic comedy hero The Badger is a perfect parody of Dark Antiheroes– 3 generally despised feature films, and now he’s a major character in season 2 of Netflix’s Daredevil. He’s about to have his own Netflix series as well.

90% of the time, I hate this guy. He’s really not my kind of superhero– mainly because HE’S A VILLAIN. MURDERERS ARE VILLAINS, OKAY?

When we base our ideas of right and wrong on which team someone plays for– The Avengers, the cops– then we are seriously on the edge of losing it. And based on how much Americans love revenge stories– like Death Wish, like The Punisher’s core story, like the bizarre number of Taken films– we’ve been on the edge of losing it for a while.

So I don’t like The Punisher because I think he’s a symptom of a larger problem. I also don’t like him because he is made of guns. Even when he became a demon-hunting angel– yeah, that happened– The Punisher was made of guns and that’s a basic fact that will never change.

If you’ve ever read a superhero comic then you know that guns are badguy weapons– I know “badguy” isn’t a real word, stay with me here. Worse, guns are used almost exclusively by henchmen and thugs– nuisance badguys that even street level heroes like Batman and Spider-Man mow down in double-digit quantities while thought ballooning or cracking jokes. They’re literally irrelevant to Superman and only an interesting problem for The Flash. A brief history of guns in comics is probably worthwhile– but also a different essay. So here’s the gist: unless it’s hidden inside of an umbrella or something ridiculous, guns rarely even injure superheroes, and as a kid I understood why.

Guns aren’t cool enough to hurt superheroes. My dad owns guns– lots of guns. My dad’s also a 6′ 4″ black belt in kung fu, you understand, but as a teenager I couldn’t imagine him taking down Bouncing Boy, much less Batman. Literally almost any adult in the U.S.–including the people who infuriate you because they can’t comprehend 4-way stop intersections, including the guys in the fail videos who jump off their roofs with skateboards like it’s a good idea that will definitely work out– can own a gun. They’re not cheap, but they’re not prohibitively expensive. Compared to laser gauntlets and mind-control gas, guns are obviously way down the list.

They may not even be as cool as this guy

They may not even be as cool as this guy.

Until The Punisher, of course. Once that door was opened, the grim and gritties got out. Lady Justice, Crimson Avenger, Grifter– the homicide heroes, almost always wielding guns.

It wasn’t new, not really. Comics have their roots in pulp fiction– again, I really need to do that brief history of guns in comics– and heroes like The Shadow and The Spider loved guns. But still, for several decades, comic book guns were decidedly not cool.

It plays out a lot differently in the real world. As I learned at a fairly young age, shooting guns in the real world is a lot like having a super power. You aim, squeeze and *BOOM* a milk carton on the other end of a field explodes! Birds fall out of the sky! Old bowling pins keel over, steel targets make a very satisfying ‘ding!’ It’s fun and exciting and… powerful. It makes you feel like you’re in command of something profound. Because you are. In the real world it’s hard to imagine something as deceptively easy to use but still as deadly as a gun.

In movies and on TV having a gun has become even more like a mutant ability than in real life. Movie heroes famously don’t have to worry about things like aiming and reloading– if the script says you get the badguy, you get the badguy. They don’t have to worry about the deafening noise from anything larger than a .22– they can fire a 12 gauge in an enclosed space and just keep conversing or interrogating like everyone still has their sense of hearing. Range, wind, maintenance– these are rarely issues for anyone on a big or small screen. I could talk a lot about the treatment of guns in the Daredevil series specifically– worth noting, disappointingly uneven give the level of realism the series strives to lend to actions, consequences, and violence as a whole– but I think The Punisher is again more relevant here.

As I’ve already noted, The Punisher’s first appearance– he wouldn’t be Frank Castle, wouldn’t have a human-type name for years– was in 1974, the same year Charles Bronson’s most famous film Death Wish came out– a revenge film about a family man who turns into a vengeance machine with guns. Dirty Harry had come out in 1971; Taxi Driver was yet to come in 1976. The latter is more a criticism of the cult of the gun-toting hero, but given Deniro’s charisma in the role of Travis Bickle, it’s also easy to mistake Bickle for an admirable guy. Not good, but… attractive. In 1970s cinema men with guns were cultural icons, heroes; they got shit done. In a case of totally not coincidence, the mid-70s is also when gun ownership peaked in the United States— more than 50% of all homes owned at least one functioning firearm. Not surprising– domestic terrorism was on the rise, the US had a historic number of prominent serial killers– plenty of whom used guns. People wanted to feel safe… and powerful. It was natural, if not necessarily intentional, that this would bleed into the violent world of superheroes, especially Marvel comics, which were known for giving their heroes “relatable” problems like poverty, alcoholism and Hulkism.

Ugh. My hair does that when I Hulk out, too.

Ugh. My hair still does that when I Hulk.

A past steeped in violence and trauma, a present based on rage and fear and guns– it was a natural progression for the character. It’s not like Americans have stopped loving their guns– well, a noisy quarter of us, at least. The Punisher’s popularity as a character has waned as well. I kinda hope that the Netflix series’ competent handling of the character doesn’t lead to any sort of revival for him. I don’t think it bodes well for the real world when Frank Castle is in ascension– or for comics for that matter. In real life over the last several years we’ve seen a lot of “good guys with guns” turn out to be… complicated. Cops, soldiers, neighborhood watch… some seem like kids who’ve been conditioned to be afraid. Others seem a lot like The Punisher, but with a lot more racism and without the code of honor. Even when he was a pure villain, The Punisher wouldn’t have shot a helpless man in the back while someone else straddled him. Young black men dying just because they happened to have a taillight out makes less sense than any comic book plot– makes less sense than the sudden deployment of murderbots by police, which also now somehow a thing. I can’t speak to the motives, of course, but I don’t think that matters– we still have too many black men shot by cops, and in just the last two weeks the reverse suddenly very publicly became true as well.

How do you stop a burgeoning shooting war? Police in other countries have declared war on their own citizens many, many times. How do we keep things from getting worse before they get better?

Here’s my radical question: does it make sense that every cop carries a gun into every situation? I know what happens when an untrained idiot at a nightclub pulls out a gun. It’s the same thing that happens when New York police opened fire on a shooter in 2012— bystanders get shot. That’s starting to look like a best case scenario. Maybe, since having a gun in a holster doesn’t keep anyone from getting shot, cops need to start leaving their guns in their trunks when they’re on patrol. Maybe there should be special gun-trained elites within the police force, like in Ireland.

Huh. The Washington Post is also asking the same question. Huh.

On my end, this is a half-baked idea. I know this. I also know Congress has forbidden the CDC from researching gun violence upon penalty of having its funding cut– basically the death penalty if you’re a scientist. Plus, there are no rules or requirements for local police departments to turn in reliable numbers on police shootings. The only way we can get an idea of whether this might work is by looking at other countries. We literally can’t do any kind of cost-benefit analysis without bringing down the wrath of both law enforcement and the NRA, so the job gets even harder. What I do know is that cops having guns on their hips didn’t save lives in Dallas or Baton Rouge.

And so many civilians– I can’t say this enough, mostly black men– are dying on a whim.

I’ve known a lot of police, sheriff’s deputies, campus cops. They’d come to our house nights and weekends when they needed a search warrant. We’d chat at the circulation desk and close down the library together. NCSU’s campus police investigated every single stolen book bag diligently without complaint, and when I couldn’t identify a thief based on mugshots they didn’t say an unkind word. The off-duty officer– memorably and legitimately named Sergeant Slaughter– who used to help me close down the country club– among other things, I tended bar– would shoot the shit with me for about an hour every night I worked. He was and doubtless is a good guy; when my apartment building burned down I was incredibly happy to see him on the scene. My exposure to police has led me to a simple conclusion: cops are people.

People mostly do the jobs we ask them to do. If we ask them to help we get helpers. If we tell them to punish the unjust we get punishers. Dating back to at least 1492– the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition– the punishers haven’t worked out so well.

As a society, as a world, we need police. We need safety and justice. Life is punishment enough. We need to say farewell to the punishers.

On Entertainment 1: Regretflix

Immediately after the anniversary of our nation’s birth, we’re now basking in the afterglow of horrible events. Police manslaughters or murders in two different states; a war veteran sniper murdering police officers at a peaceful protest in a third. Hopefully we’re taking a moment to look at our lives, look at our choices.

A light distraction is in order.

What are Regretflix? Well, now that I’ve written this article I see that they are both an entry in Urban Dictionary and a Twitter hashtag so GOOD LUCK CHANGING THE ACCEPTED DEFINITION, ME! (With confidence) Regretflix are the movies and series you regret not watching, the films that came and went in your Netflix queue, movies you wanted to watch but never quite pushed the button on. So they vanished, unannounced and unviewed. Alas.

They could as easily be films and shows that you regret watching, but I’m making up the word here, I make up the rules. It’s always more interesting to think about the ones that got away.

Here’s a list of my greatest “shoulda, woulda, coulda” movies that silently vanished from my queue.

Top 10 missed Netflix regrets:

10) For All Mankind (2013)

mankind

This documentary about pro wrestler Mick Foley, the sensitive souled writer who portrayed Mankind–a frighteningly deranged schizophrenic in leather mask– in the ring. Foley is an eloquent crusader for children’s charities and for victims of sexual abuse and should cause even dumbasses like Scott Adams to reconsider what it means to be a Social Justice Warrior.

I didn’t know any of this until my wife told me about Foley. I put it in my queue so the two of us could watch it together, where the 2 hour 14 minute film languished and then disappeared into the wilderness of *shudder* Amazon Prime. Actually, we could probably watch it on my in-laws’ Amazon account.

Huh.

 

9) A Town Called Panic (Panique au Village) (2009)

ATownCalledPanic

When I was living alone I actually watched about 20 minutes of this surreal French stop-motion adventure about plastic toys Cowboy, Indian, and Horse attempting and failing to live fairly ordinary lives in their picturesque village. I’d gotten into the bad practice of trying to read the internet while I watched movies, and that made the subtitles too difficult for me. Then I was working on my Master’s thesis. I blinked and it was gone.

 

 

 

 

 

8) Kill, Baby… Kill (1966)

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The creepy image of a doll’s face staring through a window on Netflix previews arrested my attention. Speaking as a horror fan, though, good horror films are so hard to find. I was afraid to take a chance. It turns out that Kill Baby… Kill, the story of a murderous little girl ghost apparently embedding silver coins in her victims’ hearts, is one of the most influential films in the history of horror. Even Fellini cites it as a major influence, as do Scorsese and Lynch. A surreal occult murder mystery that is almost always in the top 100 list of the greatest horror films ever made.

Oops.

 

 

 

7) Man on a Wire (2008)

manwire

In 1974 high-wire walker and artist Phillipe Petit somehow strung a tightrope between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers and illegally performed– suspended in space– for nearly an hour. He was arrested and released; all charges were forgiven after he did a free show for children in Central Park. And guess what? Petit and his cohorts filmed the preparation, the smuggling, the performance, the aftermath. Complete with recreations, this is a valiant attempt to recreate the complete experience of what it was like to be Petit that day, or at least what it was like to be there when he committed his great guerilla art crime.

Guess I shoulda watched it.

 

 

6) The Station Agent (2003)

station_agent

We all know him as brilliant drunk Tyrion Lannister, but The Station Agent is the film that launches Peter Dinklage’s film career. A comedy-drama about a little person who tries to isolate himself to grieve after he loses his only friend only to find that his overly friendly neighbors make isolation impossible.

I think I saw a trailer for The Station Agent when I went to an arthouse showing of Lost in Translation (2003– that long?). I recognized Dinklage from Living in Oblivion (1995) and was interested to see what he could do in a starring role. The film entered theaters, left theaters, made it to Netflix, exited Netflix.

We now all know what Dinklage does in a starring role– he owns it! This is another one that’s meandered over to Amazon Prime if you’re interested.

 

5) Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

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Of course I’ve seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit, both on video and in the theater. Of course I have. I loved it and love it still. The classic Toontown Noir about washed up private dick Eddie Valiant uncovering a Chinatown-like plot to displace and destroy the minority Toons by destroying L.A.’s streetcar system and profiteering off the creation of the suddenly “necessary” highways that now plague L.A. with traffic jams.

You know, a genuinely funny comedy where a cartoon rabbit being framed for murder is small potatoes next to the crime that… actually happened in real life.

I’ve seen the movie, I know the movie and– again– I love the movie. I haven’t seen it in over a decade. Somehow it sat in my queue for 2 years, often considered but never viewed. Just knowing it was there made me smile. How much more would I have enjoyed actually watching it?

 

4) Wild Style (1983)

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For the past year or so I have enjoyed the Ed Piskor’s mesmerizing multi-volume comic book history of hip-hop, Hip Hop Family Tree. Incredibly well researched but also somehow built entirely out of anecdotes, the series repeatedly references Wild Style as one of the great break out moments in hip-hop culture. Breakdancing, graffiti, and– yes!– Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels o’ Steel. The story in this film doesn’t matter to me– this was my chance to see Lee Quinones with a spraypaint can, to see the Cold Crush Brothers in their prime, to see the Rocksteady Crew rock steady!

I noticed it on Netflix in early June, didn’t watch it right away. It vanished and I can’t even find it on the “Leaving Netflix” lists now. Like a ghost, man. Like tears in the rain.

 

 

3) All-Star Superman (2011)

AllStarSuperman

Forget the big screen portrayals of the Man of Steel– literally. Obliterate them from your mind. Earth’s future may depend on YOUR HEROES, the heroes you personally hold to and believe in, the heroes we will become. That’s what comics writer Grant Morrison wants us to know about superheroes.

His portrayal of Superman in the mini-series All-Star Superman is one of Morrison’s great achievements. A pastiche of Superman’s Silver Age tropes– Jimmy Olsen trying on identities and superpowers like new suits, Lois Lane loving Superman while trying to unmask his deceptions, Lex Luthor consumed with arrogance and brilliant murder plots, Bizarro Superman leading an entire Bizarro World– combined with an image of Superman as a nearly perfect, loving god. It’s not one for the history books, it’s one for the mythology books.

The direct-to-video animated film– like many of the DC animated films– is so much better than any version of Superman to grace the big screen. I watched this movie, once. Along with the lesser light Superman vs The Elite I wanted to watch it again and again, to share it with my wife and friends. Nothing lasts forever, but with a script torn directly from Morrison’s comic pages, I still want this film to last forever.

It makes me want humanity to last forever. I’m a born misanthrope, so think about that for a while.

 

2) Mad Hot Ballroom (2005)

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My wife loves So You Think You Can Dance. We watched a season together and, as almost always happens when she shares something with me, I was an easy convert. A documentary about elementary school kids training for and competing in a frantic ballroom dance contest seemed like a perfect follow-up. However, we watch TV together less than either one of us would like– a side effect of having a toddler– and when we do watch something we usually don’t have the energy to go through any kind of decision making process. It’s usually a sit-com, something we’ve watched together before. And I like New Girl, I like Parks and Rec.

I just think we should have shaken things up and watched this is all.

 

 

1) Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2008-2011)

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Some are born to the manor; my little girl is born to the nerdhouse (which is metaphorical, not a real thing). She hasn’t really seen any Batman or read any Batman because she’s not quite 3 years old. She’s finally at the point where I think she could really enjoy this Batman series– the funny, lighthearted animated series where Batman may be serious-faced all the time, but almost everyone’s funny. Here Batman is as comfortable patrolling near space in a Batrocket or secret Nepalese temples as he is prowling the mean streets of Gotham. When it’s good, it’s the funniest Bat-Thing since the Adam West series, it’s a great gateway to comics geekery for an inquisitive kiddo. It features Neal Patrick Harris hisownself as a musical villain in a light opera episode for Crikey’s sake! I want her to love superheroes, not to take them seriously.

She’s watching old Powerpuff Girls now, lighthearted cartoon violence and funny superheroes. She want to be Blossom when she grows up. She’s finally ready. Now I can share this with… where? Where’d it go?

NOOOOO!!!

On Heroes 2: Tick-le Me Fancy

tick

My friend Steph pointed out a critical omission from my essay on funny heroes. The subject of a successful comic, several spin-off series, an animated series and an underfunded live-action sit-com, Ben Edlund’s The Tick is too significant to ignore. The hero whose power set can be summed up as “nigh-invulnerable” + “I. Am. Mighty!” and whose moral compass always points to “Spoon!” is perhaps the greatest of all funny heroes. While the character himself is– and is partnered with– a lovable loser, he hardly belongs in the same category as Bananaman or The Inferior Five. He’s closer in spirit to The Venture Brothers (which Edlund has also had a hand in creating), though unlike VB his stories are not about failure but about unlikely triumph. I can’t think of another franchise that so perfectly combines loving genre-mockery with truly likable heroes. Cult hero? Most certainly. The Saturday morning cartoon was the highest profile product with The Big Blue Bug of Justice’s name on it, and it lasted 2 seasons. But oh, it is so good… and it isn’t even the best example of Tickness.

If your local library does not have The Tick: The Complete Edlund Edition then buy it for a loved one and then read it yourself. I’ll say nothing against the animated series and little against the Warburton live action, but nothing compares to those original issues written and drawn by Ben Edlund. It ends on a cliff hanger, which is sad but I understand it– Edlund started making TV money and has since written/produced for such luminaries of geekdom as AngelFirefly, and many of the best and funniest episodes of SupernaturalThe Tick comics were both a means to an end and a labor of love. Tracing the character’s path of development in the comics is as fascinating as it is hilarious, as he starts out as a super-powered mental patient (but, you know, funny), transitions immediately to nigh-invulnerable Daffy Duck (or, as Superman-spoof Clark Oppenheimer observes, Woody Woodpecker), before meeting his loyal sidekick Arthur and finding a kind of equilibrium. The Tick will never be in touch with reality or truly competent, but he is among the best superheroes in his world, the most competent in a world where superheroes are more of a burden than a blessing.

The pudgy hero we need AND deserve.

The pudgy hero we need AND deserve.

Why is The Tick funny? The character himself is magnetic– it’s obvious that he does have a sort of greatness to him. He’s more Powerpuff than Gadget, more Freakazoid than Ambush Bug. With accountant-turned-sidekick Arthur there to dilute his terrible enthusiasm, to provide reason to an unreasonable world, he can actually help solve real problems. He also looks like a superhero and acts exactly like he thinks a hero should– 7 feet tall and bulging with improbable muscles, nothing ever hurts The Tick for any appreciable amount of time. Doing things properly– witty repartee, letting villains escape so you can fight them again later, obeying convention at all times– is far more important to The Tick’s original incarnation than anything concrete like ending poverty or saving the world. He’s unimaginative but deranged, with surprising bursts of creativity applied to minor problems– fighting muggers with noogies– and bigger problems ignored or otherwise left to burn themselves out. He’s certainly Good, just in the least inspired way possible.

In short, he’s a typical superhero stripped down to bare bones, set down in a world as ridiculous as himself.

Edlund displayed an impressive mastery of superhero tropes from the beginning. His early pairing with ninja-teen Oedipus Ashley Stevens to take on an incompetent ninja clan was a parody of Frank Miller’s Elektra storyline in Daredevil, but not knowing that didn’t make the comics less funny. A bunch of ninjas disguised as a hedge sells itself.  Likewise, the mad scientist filled town of Monolith, Iowa and over-the-top hero-hater The Chainsaw Vigilante were full of references and subtexts but required zero explanation to enjoy. Absurdism taken just far enough, they were easy to laugh at but also had a way of sticking inside the human mind, forcing us to think about all those gems Edlund effortlessly snuck into them.

Oedipu aka Not Elektra

Oedipus aka Not Elektra

The Chainsaw Vigilante-- exactly what he sounds like.

The Chainsaw Vigilante– exactly what he sounds like.

There are signs in the comics that the original vision for The Tick was weirdly dark. Short mini-comics embedded in the issues– a weird post-apocalyptic version of “Yogi’s Ark” called “Perfect Place,” a horror comic about The Red Eye that is less parody and more unadulterated oddity, at least until Tick and Arthur pick up the titular character hitchhiking and give him the full Woody Woodpecker treatment. Then there’s the original intent behind Arthur. I read an interview once where Edlund confessed that he’d planned to kill Arthur after a few issues, to take the character and make him a voice in The Tick’s head. He was supposed to become a giant inside The Tick’s mind, Tick’s image of a perfect superhero directing Tick to do terrible and heroic things. Oh yeah– and there were hints that Canada was turning into an authoritarian evil, opening Amish internment camps. Stuff like that.

I’m glad the comic and character went in a different direction– by the late 1980s comics fans were already drowning in darkness and grit– but it’s interesting to know those layers are there. To know that even the airiest parody can have textures and angles best left unexplored. Clay Griffith actually created a near-perfect parody of grim 90s superheroes in the Tick spin-off comic The Man-Eating Cow. His reformed “too mean for prime time” hero, The Crime Cannibal served as both a stand-in for The Tick and as a naive hero trying to keep others off the dark path he started down. A combination of great dialog and skillful manipulation of tropes made this and Griffith’s Paul the Samurai series worthwhile reads. Unfortunately, they were short-lived, but they live on in my heart.

I’ve met Edlund and Griffith. When I was working as a library assistant at North Carolina State University, I had the good fortune to glance at the ID I was checking books out to and recognized Clay Griffith’s name. When I unashamedly asked the tall, bearded Southern gentleman before me if he had written the Man-Eating Cow comics, he soberly replied that he had. Over the years I’ve made a point of it to say hello at conventions, keep up with his writing. I’m not really a fan of the Vampire Empire novels he and his wife have authored, but I think they’re worth mentioning. I’m still looking for their Deadlands novel, Banshee Screams.

I met Edlund very briefly at Comic Con; he was signing books at New England Comics’ table. He looked tired, as tired as day 3 awash in a sea of nerds can make a man. There was no sign identifying him, no line. My late friend Christopher J. Reilly had written a Tick story and sent me over because he knew I was a big fan. Ben was gracious as he grunted and signed a book I bought specifically for that purpose– I was well past my autograph hunting stage at that point, but this was special to me. I told him that The Tick had inspired me to write comics, something he’d heard a thousand times before. He still gave me a small smile. I wish I’d mentioned that I thought “Smile Time” was the best episode of Angel, Firefly’s “Jaynestown” some of the best writing ever on television.

Ah well. We do what we do. Thanks for all the Ticks, gentlemen.

There was a more recent “New Tick” comic book series, written by Benito Cereno and drawn by Les McClaine in a convincingly Edlundesque fashion back in 2010. It deserves a mention, but I haven’t read it. It’s already over and was never collected into a trade so I’m probably not going to go looking for it. Arthur’s death was apparently a plot point in the series– a plot point that Edlund specifically considered and rejected– so there’s another reason not to bother. I am looking forward to the upcoming Amazon live-action series. The Tick’s absurd humor is different from most current superhero comedies– instead of over-the-top violence, The Tick typically brings bizarre banter and ridiculous non-threatening villains. Early press for the upcoming series does indicate that this series is going to be darker than its television predecessors. Obviously that could go in a bad direction but, as I’ve noted above, the original comics had their bizarro dark side so I’m hopeful. Especially with Edlund in the creative mix, the Amazon series could be the best Tick-thing in a very long time.

Man, I hope he fights Multiple Santa.