What to Do With the Time That Is Given to Us: Processing Reality Through Pop Culture

So, three weeks ago the world imploded for a lot of people. Donald Trump became the president-elect of the United States, defying poll estimates and data guru predictions. Two weeks out, I’m still processing my own grief, and the waves of bad news that have followed only make that harder – antisemitic white nationalist Steve Bannon as chief advisor, climate change denier Myron Ebell nominated as head of EPA, out and out racist Jeff Sessions as attorney general pick. It looks ugly. And the left has been doing a lot of soul-searching – or, alternately, a lot of infighting – about what went wrong, and what we do now.

This conversation has gone a lot of directions, but the one I want to focus on now is the only one I feel somewhat equipped to write about: the argument about pop culture as a distraction. Opiate of the masses. Etcetera.

The basic gist of this point of view is that by engaging with literature and other media as a point of contact with reality – dystopian fiction has been a particular target of this conversation – people are creating distance between themselves and the horrors of the real dystopia that lives all around us. People of color in particular have written about the ways in which dystopian fiction is a white fantasy about a world that already exists, where the violence against black and brown people in the United States is suddenly extended to white people as well.

Additionally, as Claire Fallon writes in the article linked above, comparing fiction with reality (i.e. comparing Donald Trump to Voldemort or President Snow, in two popular examples) can breed complacency and inaction.

In Harry Potter, evidence suggests, children learn to practice empathy for those unlike themselves. But it’s also, ultimately, a comforting children’s saga. In the series, there’s a clear villain, Voldemort, and a small clutch of heroic figures battling against him. Voldemort doesn’t win in the end. If Trump, as some have rather glibly put it, is Voldemort, then it’s hard to imagine Trump winning in the end either.

If we assume that the narrative will provide a hero to save us, she argues, then what motivation is there to act to save ourselves?

It’s not a new argument. In 1944 theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote in Dialectic of Enlightenment that what they called “the culture industry” produces standardized culture as a factory produces standardized goods, for the express purpose of manipulating the masses into passivity.

To be entertained means to be in agreement…amusement always means putting things out of mind, forgetting suffering, even when it is on display. At its root is powerlessness. It is indeed escape, but not, as it claims, escape from bad reality but from the last thought of resisting that reality.

I think there is certainly something to all of this. For people scared for their lives, references to “Dumbledore’s Army” can feel flippant, trivializing. And it is certainly worth discussing the homogeneity of many of these narratives. And if people experience catharsis through a fictional story about the overthrow of the First Order, perhaps they will lose the sense of urgency that drives rebellion in real life. It is also worth considering the typical frame of “good vs. evil” in these comparisons, a simplification that is vastly more complicated in the real world.

But I don’t think that’s the end of it, and ultimately I don’t think it’s helpful to be so blithely dismissive of the role culture plays in politics (and politics plays in culture). All culture, like it or not, is political, and our interactions with it are politically driven – even if that interaction is simply “I want to not think about reality for a while.” And that’s not how I’ve seen fiction being used in the aftermath of this election.

Fiction can be a way of understanding and mediating reality – of processing catastrophe or pain. Turning to a familiar story can be, rather than an opiate, a way of making sense of what’s happening – a way of providing a framework for a world that seems to have been shaken to its roots. When reality is terrifying and strange, it is human to search for ways to make sense of it, and pop culture is everywhere, a deeply embedded part of our daily lives. We know those stories. They make sense.

The day after the election, I spent most of the day sobbing, and I know I wasn’t alone. The place I found comfort was in poetry – first, Mary Oliver (“Wild Geese” is a poem I always come back to for comfort) and then, J.R.R. Tolkien. I read, repeatedly, a poem Sam Gamgee recites at one of his darkest moments. The portion that spoke to me most:

Though here at journey’s end I lie
in darkness buried deep,
beyond all towers strong and high,
beyond all mountains steep,
above all shadows rides the Sun
and Stars for ever dwell:
I will not say the Day is done,
nor bid the Stars farewell.

I saw numerous people on social media sharing other quotes from Lord of the Rings as well, movies and books – the quote the title of this post is taken from frequently among them. People reaching for a familiar script for comfort, and more than that, for understanding.

Lord of the Rings is frequently framed as a simplistic story of good conquering evil. As anyone who makes the mistake of bringing up Tolkien around me learns, however, the truth is far more complicated than that. There are two warring impulses in Tolkien, constantly in tension – a deep pessimism and a need for hope. It is often forgotten that Frodo’s victory – if it can be called his victory – costs him everything. He returns to the Shire a shadow of his former self, and ultimately has to leave the mortal world forever. In The Silmarillion, the cost of the victory over Morgoth is the destruction of huge swaths of the world. The battle against evil is neither easy nor simple, and Tolkien acknowledges that. The story that underlies Lord of the Rings isn’t one battle, good vs. evil, good victorious. It is a constant uphill slog, unrelenting and often thankless.

Much like politics. Maybe now’s a good time to quote from another pop culture touchstone: Captain America. In 2012’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, in which an American icon destroys a government agency corrupted by Nazi expies, Steve Rogers breaks in to appeal to the good people still left.

If you launch those helicarriers today, HYDRA will be able to kill anyone that stands in their way. Unless we stop them. I know I’m asking a lot. But the price of freedom is high. It always has been. And it’s a price I’m willing to pay. And if I’m the only one, then so be it. But I’m willing to bet I’m not.

Hey, will you look at that. A call to arms to act against a government betraying the people it promised to protect.

All right, maybe now I’m being flippant. But the point is: people use fiction to make the insensible sensible. That’s one thing, and that has value of its own. Fiction can be a powerful interpretive lens and means of understanding oneself, the world, and others. People also use fiction to inspire themselves, to reflect, to find role models both positive and negative.

I am not arguing that consuming a piece of media, or drawing lines of comparison between media and real life, is somehow on par with direct action. It isn’t. But acting as though people using pop culture as a way of making meaning are universally anesthetized to reality, as though Hunger Games comparisons at Vox are a symptom of the rot at America’s core, as though young people rallying around a fictional organization is meaningless or actively harmful, as though “politically useless but personally uplifting” renders an interaction worthless or worthy of condemnation-

That just seems unnecessary.

Further Reading: Harry Potter and the Conscience of a Liberal” by Laurie Penny on The Baffler, “Donald Trump’s Dystopias” by Sophie Gilbert from The Atlantic, “Harry Potter is Actually a Great Narrative Frame for Good and Evil” by Emily Temple on LitHub.

And for something completely different: “Look, All I’m Saying is Let’s At Least Give Nyarlahotep A Chance” by Andrew Paul on McSweeney’s.



Why Couldn’t I Keep My Phone?

N.B.: I debated back and forth about writing this, and debated about posting it as well. Ultimately I decided to do so, if only because I wanted to express my frustration and anger, but I wanted to note that my aim is in no way to discourage anyone from seeking help, and that I recognize that this is a singular experience with a singular institution, and I cannot necessarily make any sweeping judgments based on that. However, based on what I hear from others, I don’t think it’s as unique an experience as it should be. 

Last week I spent two hours at a psychiatric hospital. I’ve been thinking about it off and on since, and decided to write something about it – if for no other reason then to help myself process what was a nightmarish experience, for all it was only two hours and chosen voluntarily (thus putting me ahead of many others).

The reason I went in the first place is shockingly mundane: I’d run out of one of my medications and needed an emergency refill, and the only way I could find to do that was to go to a CPEP, or Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program. (The funnier part of this story is the fact that the reason I was out of my meds in the first place is more or less the reason why I take them to begin with. You can see the problem here.)

I walked to the CPEP near to my apartment after work. I started getting nervous pretty quickly, standing in a foyer while I was checked in. Between me and the hospital was a locked door. There was an irrational part of my brain that was convinced I was going to end up involuntarily committed and was trying to make plans – would I be able to tell my girlfriend? My parents? It had been a really, really rough week for me, mental health-wise, and while at that time I was doing better than I had been, it still freaked me out.

A nurse came and retrieved me, taking me through the locked door (which then locked behind me). I waited in the hallway and watched an elderly woman change into a hospital gown, her clothes and other belongings signed over, presumably for safekeeping. Holding onto my tote bag (containing, to wit: wallet, two books, phone, and headphones), I started to wonder what I’d gotten myself into. Were they going to take my clothes? My belongings? I asked the nurse with me if I would have to give up my stuff, and she said they would take “some of” it. She asked why I was there – I told her, trying to laugh, that really I just needed a medication refill.

I ended up getting to keep my book and my wallet, and I kept my clothes on. No phone, though. (That made me anxious, too. What if someone tried to call me? What if my girlfriend got worried? It wasn’t just a matter of simple communication, either – having my phone taken away made me feel powerless, isolated.)

I waited in a hallway again, seemingly because the rooms were all in use. “We’re going to put you in a brief room,” the nurse said, which didn’t really mean anything to me, but I nodded, because when I’m scared I tend to clam up. In retrospect there were probably a lot of questions I should’ve asked – when can I expect to see a doctor, what kind of protocol do I have to go through – but I didn’t. I just waited.

The nurse did the usual weight-height-blood pressure check, had me sign a host of forms, and ushered me into a waiting room without saying anything further. Confused and nervous, I sat down and waited.

Another note – there was no privacy. When I was being weighed it was in an open room almost immediately adjacent to the doorway. The waiting room was across from that room. While I sat there, several police officers and EMTs walked through and out the door – a door that had to be unlocked by one of the staff.

I had my book, at least. I read, but as time went by I got antsy. I know about hospital wait times, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt so profoundly ignored as I did for that first hour, sitting and waiting for someone, anyone, to tell me what was going on, when I was going to see someone, when I could get my medication and go home. Eventually I stood up and went out into the hallway, because the longer I sat the more anxious I got. I couldn’t sit still, I couldn’t focus on my book, small sounds started to grate.

I stood there until someone noticed me, and then asked politely what was going on and when I might expect to see a doctor. “Oh, it could be a couple hours,” said the staff member who had taken my stuff.

I was a little incredulous, and I was starting to feel claustrophobic, trapped. I expressed a wish to leave, which was largely ignored. At that point a doctor who was just passing by stopped and asked why I was there. When I told her, she took me across the hall into the waiting room and asked me a series of standard questions, what medication I was taking, what pharmacy I used, the psychiatrist I usually saw. It was fairly clear she hadn’t been assigned to me. She assured me that she’d send a prescription over, and it would be just a little bit longer. The same doctor came back maybe twenty minutes later to confirm the pharmacy and tell me that she’d sent the prescription and I just needed to be released by one of the nurses.

Finally feeling like something was happening, I sat down again and read for a while. I kept having the urge to check the time, wondering if my girlfriend was freaking out about the fact that I wasn’t home yet. I could feel my blood sugar plummeting, since I hadn’t eaten since lunch and didn’t have any food on me.

Someone came in and asked me a few questions, set up an appointment the next week, and left. Someone else came by and confirmed who I was, but when I started to ask what was going on she said that she was just checking where all the patients were and walked away.

The overwhelming feeling I had was that I’d been abandoned. Cut loose. I felt confused and powerless and anxious, completely isolated. When I asked what I was waiting for, I got vague answers or dismissals. Someone said I was waiting for “aftercare”. Someone else said the nurse needed to discharge me. What either of these things entailed, or whether I needed to go somewhere or say something, was never made clear.

The impression overall was: we don’t care. We don’t have to listen to you, or worry about your feelings. I went into the CPEP feeling nervous but relatively okay. I left furiously angry, anxious, and on the verge of tears. After two hours, and as someone lucid and able to advocate for myself.

It scares me, the idea that this is what healthcare looks like for mentally ill people in dire straits – people who are sick, who are suffering. As I burst out to my girlfriend upon arriving home, “if I hadn’t been depressed and anxious to begin with, I sure as hell would be now!”

I understand lack of funding and lack of resources. I don’t feel like I can personally blame any of the staff at the facility I visited. But I can say that, when I was assured by the doctor I spoke to that “if things get worse, you can always come back here”, even as I nodded and smiled the foremost thought in my mind was “no way in hell.”

There has to be a better way than this.

About the title of this essay: I’m aware of the “millennials and their phones” jokes that would be easy to make. Maybe it would even be fair. On the other hand – like it or not, in this day and age cell phones are a major means of communication. They mediate huge forms of social activity and enable a large portion of our communication.

There’s a movement that advocates going screens free as a healthy act. I have found it healthy to step away from my devices when I can. But that is a choice.

Having that taken away – not, perhaps, against my will but without the option to say no – underlined the painful, isolated feelings, and the sense that I was being treated as something other than a complete adult. In one gesture I lost both a chunk of personal autonomy and all ties to my community. Humans are social animals, and a support system is vital for mental well being – but suddenly I couldn’t reach mine.

I have a hard time understanding why, in asking for help, I was (however temporarily) signing away that much.

Currently Reading: October 2016

And finally I come to a month where I read some books that I really liked! I’m so happy to finally feel like I have some things to talk about (positively) in one of these posts, after the recent slew of disappointments (most not even severe enough to trash talk, just sort of a mild let-down.

As I march toward the end of the year (and presumably a “best of” list, as I did last year) I continue to chip slowly away at my to-read list while steadily adding more things to read. I’m hoping that with my bad-luck book streak possibly at an end, I’ll be able to dedicate more time to reading.

Maybe next year I’ll even try to be systematic about it.

The Winter Prince by Elizabeth Wein

This was a recommendation received via a care package from a friend. I’d never heard of this book before (shockingly enough, given that a) I love books inspired by mythology and b) my favorite character in Arthurian legend is a tie between Morgan Le Fay and Mordred) and that made it especially exciting to discover a new gem. Fairly short and a quick read, leaning heavily on Welsh versions of the Arthurian mythos, The Winter Prince follows Medraut, Arthur’s bastard son, and his complex relationships with his younger half brother Lleu and his mother Morgause.

Any books about complex, messy familial relationships, particularly between siblings, tend to capture my heart, and this was a lovely one – gracefully written with a beautiful arc to the end. Usually first person narration is a turn off for me, but Wein made it work perfectly, and Medraut is a sensitively sketched and compelling character to follow.

Apparently there’s a series, but I’m less interested in the following books – this one feels like it stands best on its own.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson

This year has kind of been “the year of Lovecraft retellings” (between this one, Lovecraft Country, and The Ballad of Black Tom) and more specifically “the year of looking critically at Lovecraft through retellings”. I think I recommended the other two books mentioned above, and I’m also, perhaps predictably, recommending this one. The title is a play on a lesser known Lovecraft novella called “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath”, but instead of following that story’s male protagonist as he explores the strange and treacherous Dreamlands, Vellitt Boe follows an older woman whose student has absconded to the waking world with a dreamer.

Kij Johnson takes the reader through landscapes that will be familiar to readers of Lovecraft, but with a different tilt in perspective. The journey has all the strangeness and grotesquerie of the original Lovecraft while offering something entirely fresh and different.

Non-Lovecraftians can probably enjoy this one as well, though they may want to have a search engine handy for some of the creatures and names referenced, and perhaps glance over a primer of Lovecraft cosmology. Though personally I remember liking “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath”, so if you’re not actively opposed maybe give it a read – and then come back to this book.

The Graveyard Apartment by Mariko Koike

Quite frankly, this book scared the pants off me in a way a book hasn’t managed to do in a long while. The only reason this one dropped from a five star to a four star was some awkwardness in the translation (mostly the rendering of what I’m guessing is a familial honorific with “Sis”) but the story itself? Dang.

The basic concept is fairly straightforward, almost cliche – a family moves into an apartment building adjacent to a cemetary, only to begin to notice strange happenings afoot. Koike’s storytelling, however, builds the tension masterfully, and explanations that might dilute the fear are kept minimal. The family itself is haunted as well by their past: Misao and Teppei married shortly following the suicide of Teppei’s former wife while they were having an affair.

The pacing and gradual amping up of the tension were probably the biggest winners when it came to this book, though the visual of [spoiler] the window covered by ghostly handprints was another thing that’s going to stick in my head for a while. While it suffered from some awkward writing (that I attribute mostly to the translation), this book was eerie enough for me to feel it’s worth recommending.

Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

So I’m finally dipping my toes into Brandon Sanderson waters, after years of only having read the Wheel of Time books he worked on. This book is…kind of a weird one for me to recommend, because I have two major caveats. The first is that I am somewhat disappointed by the way the question of the major antagonist’s identity was solved. (I had a much more thematically interesting idea in mind, honestly, but that’s because I love stories of corrupted ideologues who still, somehow, believe they’re doing the necessary thing.) The second is that I’m not really a fan of mechanical magic systems, and this book definitely features a mechanical magic system, with a great deal of verbiage dedicated to explaining exactly how it works.

That said – it was a good book, and once I was hooked I was hooked to the end. The characters are delightful, and there was one twist toward the end that I actually didn’t see coming at all (though in retrospect I probably should have).

I don’t know that I’d say I’m thoroughly onboard the Sanderson train yet, but I’m definitely intrigued, and planning on picking up the next book in the series (just as soon as I read these other five).

That’s all for October. My planned reading for November (as always, subject to change) includes The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente, The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu, and possibly The Rhetorics of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn.

It’s in a Word, Or It’s In a Look: Mental Illness and Horror

For someone who would describe herself as a fan of horror, there are remarkably few titles I can actually list as favorites. Both in movies and books, I feel like I’m often disappointed when it comes to the available offerings. There are a few reasons for this – the perennial problem of the disappointing reveal is one. For instance, I was really enjoying the movie The Conjuring until the explanation came around. It probably says a lot that my favorite works are those that explain nothing – even as they leave me frustrated they’re also much scarier as a result (Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree comes to mind – I’ll be talking about her more later on.). Another is what I’d call “great concept, lackluster execution” – where I can feel the seed of a good idea but the way it plays out is either cliche, or boring, or falls back on tropes I dislike.

But another thing I run into problems with on a relatively consistent basis is the relationship between horror as a genre and mental illness.

This blog post was shamelessly inspired by the op-ed that ran in the New York Times on October 26th, titled “Mental Illness is Not a Horror Show.” The author, Andrew Solomon, discusses a VR attraction that took place in an asylum, featuring “the world’s worst psychiatric patients”.

Oh, dear.

Of course, asylum-based horror is nothing new. Endless video games take place in asylums haunted by the ghosts of malevolent former inmates; the movie Grave Encounters featured ghost hunters who encountered evil inside an abandoned asylum. Some takes on this genre, to be fair, draw on the documented atrocities and cruelties perpetuated by staff of psychiatric institutions (some of which are far from solely historical) – but they also tend to feature inmates in starring roles as monsters.

Nor is this kind of role limited solely to asylum-based horror media.The specter of mental illness lurks in the “mad” monsters of many a horror movie – Michael Myers of Halloween is an escaped mental patient, and even movies that don’t make the connection explicit often do so by means of coding characters as insane, or linking (for example) demonic possession with mental illness.

So, what’s the problem with this? It is well documented that people with mental illnesses are on the whole more likely to be the victims of violence than the other way around. By portraying mental illness as linked to evil and violence, a stereotype is being perpetuated that designates the mentally ill as inherently more dangerous than others, predisposed to “snap” and murder people, more akin to demon than human. But I’m not just writing this article to castigate horror for the way it deals with mental illness – many others have dissected that connection. I’m here to think about alternatives.

Just as discussion of “feminist horror” has opened up, I’d like to talk some about a horror that doesn’t exploit the mentally ill and what that might look like. There’s one easy way to avoid it that maintains the spooky-scary feel of an abandoned asylum from the 19th century: pointing the horror in the other direction, where it isn’t about the inmates but about the system.

Solomon makes a point when he observes that one of the reasons mental illness is so scary is the permeability of its boundary – people are constantly aware that they, too, might be betrayed by their brains. The lack of understanding we have of the causes of mental illness only amplifies that fear, and by otherizing the mentally ill perhaps that fear can be assuaged, marking a clearer line between them and us, the healthy and sick. 

But why not direct that fear differently, looking instead at the long and true horrifying history of the treatment of the mentally ill? Instead of pointing at a group as an example of what people fear to become, why not point at what could happen to any one of the 57.7 million people (in the US alone) diagnosed with some kind of mental disorder? After all, if we fear losing our minds, how much more frightening is the idea of someone attacking you at your most vulnerable, or those who are meant to help turning on you instead?

But even more appealing than that alternative is a concept I think was best explored in two of my favorite pieces of horror media: The Babadook and The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan. In the former, Amelia, whose husband has recently died struggles to raise her son, Samuel. Amelia is exhausted and beleaguered, isolated and lonely, frustrated by her son’s erratic behavior – and haunted by the Babadook, a peculiar creature that seems to have emerged from a mysterious picture book.

The titular being could be seen as representative of a number of things, but one of the most resonant for me was the idea of the Babadook as a form of mental illness (right down to the ending – the Babadook lives in the basement, seemingly domesticated but still present, accepted and recognized.). Much of the horror in The Babadook relies on the fear of the unseen and Amelia’s uncertainty about what is happening, whether any of her experience is real or an artifact of her struggle to cope. It is exacerbated, too, by her lack of support from relatives and community.

Unlike other movies involving possession or mental illness (frequently dissociative identity disorder, sometimes called “schizophrenia”), we never lose sight of the fact that Amelia is the protagonist. Even when she is possessed by the Babadook, the viewer is as terrified for her as of what she might do. At one point, she even says to her son, “I’m sick, I need help,” acknowledging that she is aware of her own loss of control. Rather than turning to the trope of “and they themselves were the murderer the whole time!”, The Babadook keeps its sight on the idea that the Babadook is at once a part of Amelia (when she is possessed) but also a kind of external opponent. As the article linked at the end of this post explains:

With the Babadook being a reality within the film, we as the audience cannot dismiss it as fantasy. This is something that is key to much of Western society’s treatment of mental illness, particularly depression. It can, bizarrely, often be dismissed as fantasy because there are no physical symptoms, and sufferers expected to “man up” or “get a grip”. […] The Babadook using the monster to represent Amelia’s mental breakdown gives a fresh and realistic portrayal of mental illness, as within the film it hasn’t been “made up”, and is a tangible, frightening, and very real threat, despite its physical ambiguity.

In The Red Tree, writer Sarah Crowe moves to an isolated house after the suicide of her long term girlfriend, and becomes obsessed with a tree in the yard. The novel remains ambiguous throughout, even to the ending, about if there is anything truly supernatural going on or if it is rather a development of her trauma and loss. Is her obsession with the old oak a sign of its malevolent influence, or is she seeing malevolent influence as a way of externalizing her inner demons?

My experience of mental illness bears some similarity to both Sarah’s and Amelia’s, albeit with less supernatural strangeness. Sometimes it feels like my brain is trying to kill me, or that I can’t trust my own perception and beliefs. I can simultaneously know that something I’m thinking is incredibly distorted and also believe it with complete conviction; or anxiety kicks in and my heart pounds and I can’t breathe even as I know I’m completely safe. My thoughts seem unreliable and I’m not sure I can trust myself at all. It’s terrifying.

A horror that relies on this kind of uncertainty – the inability to trust one’s own perception, the gnawing anxiety that your experience may not be what you think it is – is where horror lives for me, and where I see potential for horror that doesn’t exploit the mentally ill but can still exploit the horror of mental illness. It puts the viewer in a position to create sympathy for those who might regularly experience that kind of instability, rather than provoking disgust or revulsion. It positions mental illness as a quality that need not be equated with evil or violence, and the mentally ill as potential protagonists rather than monsters or murderers.

It may not provide a convenient opponent for the hero to kill, but in my opinion it makes for a much scarier – and richer – story.

Note: The header image is from Neverending Nightmaresa horror game drawing on the creator’s experience with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Further Reading: Mental Illness and ‘The Babadook’ by Hannah Spencer, Why is Mental Illness Scary? by Praveen R.Krambam, and Nobody Wins When Horror Games Stigmatize Mental Illness by Ian Mahar

“The House Always Wins”: Agency and Metafiction in Journey Into Mystery and Loki: Agent of Asgard

Comics have a long history with using metafiction (that is, the reference within a work of fiction to that work’s status as a work of fiction). Deadpool’s fourth-wall breaking is an obvious example, but even earlier than that Sensational She-Hulk was lampshading comic conventions and Animal Man confronted writer Grant Morrison in an issue of his own comic. One of the most interesting places this has shown up recently, however, as well as one of the more subtle, is over the course of a story arc spanning three years about one of Marvel’s major supervillains.

Loki in his most familiar incarnation first appeared in Journey Into Mystery #85 in 1962 as a fairly stock supervillain: Thor’s sworn enemy (the “jealous younger brother” angle came later).

Loki makes his first dramatic entrance. (Panel from Journey into Mystery #85)

Over the years, Loki changed somewhat to become more complex – more background was added to his story, making him Thor’s younger half brother, jealous of Thor’s success. A notable moment for the character occurred in Thor #353, where he joined Thor and Odin in defense of Asgard against the fire demon Surtur, if only for selfish reasons.

However, the real turning point came in Siege #4 during the 2010 crossover event. Loki, seeing the destruction of Asgard at the hands of the insane superhero Sentry, attempted to defeat him using the power of the Norn Stones, sacrificing his life in the process. Not long afterward, however, Thor searched for Loki and found him reincarnated as a child, possessing all of his past memories but (relatively) innocent. (It was revealed in the oneshot Siege: Loki that Loki made a bargain with Mephisto (then ruler of Hell) and Hela (the Norse god of death) to write his name out of the book of death, thus leaving ambiguous the possibility that his death was planned ahead of time.)

His reasons for doing so? The desire to escape his fate. After cycle after cycle of Ragnarok, Loki wants to change but is unable to, just like the other gods:

“For the first time in history, the Asgardians think themselves free from the whip of destiny. We are free…yet Asgard remains. Even here, on Midgard’s lowly soil, we are as we are. Balder is good. Thor is noble. And Loki…is Loki.”

Superhero comics are narratively conservative. What this means is that things tend not to change – characters don’t stay dead for long, heroes might change names or costumes but tend to return to their original forms eventually, heroes tend to stay heroes and (most crucially) villains tend to stay villains. Even when character development happens it is frequently rolled back or undone later.

Continue reading

Currently Reading/Watching/Playing: September 2016

The fact that we’re here, almost at the end of October, and I’m only just now managing to put together this post, tells you a great deal about both the state of my life lately and the state of my reading list last month.

Maybe I’ve become a more discerning reader who is more easily disappointed by books? Or maybe I’ve just been unlucky. Since I could only come up with two titles that I felt were worth recommending (The Last Days of New Paris by China Mieville and The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan, for the curious), I’m filling the space with something different: a short media guide to the recent things I’ve been doing with my free time, other than just reading.

So if you’ve ever wanted to hear my podcast recommendations, here’s a post for you!

PODCAST: I’ve picked up podcasts basically in the last six months, and already found a small number that I really enjoy, but my rec here has to go to Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men. I’ve never been very deep into the X-Men part of the Marvel Universe (with the exception of Laura Kinney and some very basic background reading), so I went into this podcast more or less cold – and it’s been a delight. Hilarious, insightful, and a joy to listen to, Jay and Miles have now put out over 130 episodes delving deep into the complicated continuity of the X-Men in comics, including a number of creator interviews with some fantastic folks (Al Ewing, Kris Anka, G. Willow Wilson, and Chris Claremont, to name a few). If you, like me, love comics, superheroes, and analysis of both, go here. Thank me later.

TV SHOW: Okay, this is cheating since it dropped at the very end of the month and I didn’t technically finish watching it until October, but I have to give this one to Luke Cage, which took all my excited expectations and blew them out of the water. This show was fantastic in basically every way, delivering on its promise and creating a new hero I can’t wait to see more of. Between Mike Colter as the titular hero, Simone Cook as Misty Knight, Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple and Alfre Woodard’s stunning performance as Mariah Dillard, a mid-show twist that I did not see coming, and some incredible visuals and musical performances throughout, this show was a winner.

COMIC BOOK: Limiting myself to one title is hard, but since Monstress was on hiatus for the month I’ll go to All New Wolverine. I’ve loved the book since the start, and even in the midst of a line-wide crossover Taylor managed to keep the tone moving and make the story a cohesive part of Laura’s continued growth. The beginning of the “Enemy of the State II” storyline starts slow, but I am looking forward to seeing where it’s going – and how Laura will deal with the consequences.

VIDEO GAME: This is cheating a little bit, but I’m currently replaying the Mass Effect trilogy and very much enjoying it. It’s definitely holding up to another round, this time with a renegade Shepard and (thus far at least) no romantic entanglements. It was extraordinarily difficult not to romance Liara again, though.

I think that about covers it for my media consumption, since I don’t think I’ve watched a single movie in maybe two months. I’ll see you in six days when the October post (hopefully) goes up.

Currently Reading: August 2016

My long dry spell of mildly disappointing books seems to be coming to an end at last. I continue to try to whittle down my to-read list (only to add five books every time I browse a bookstore, which, considering I work in a bookstore, is kind of an issue). The current number is 179. It’s slow progress.

Three relatively recent releases make up my list of recommended reading for last month, one of which is a sequel I debated over including and decided to shout out anyway.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. I don’t read a lot of sci-fi – for a lot of reasons, not least the fact that I tend to enjoy it less as a rule, as well as a certain amount of unfortunate association with obnoxious gatekeeping male nerds. Lately I’ve made a few forays in that direction, however, including Ann Leckie and a few others. This book was kind of a random pick that I chose because one of my friends was raving about it online one night and almost the next day I saw it on display.

I’m glad I did. The plot of this book, such as it is, isn’t terribly significant – it is very much about the journey, and even more about the relationships between the people on the journey. An odd, misfit crew on a long journey through space, Chambers makes convincing, likable characters who also diverge in interesting ways, creating some genuinely alien species and a universe that feels full of wonder.

The Trespasser by Tana French. I have consistently really enjoyed Tana French’s mysteries, and feel like she only continues to improve since (the acclaimed but relatively disappointing to me) In the Woods. The Trespasser is no exception. The narrator is Antoinette Conway, who the faithful Dublin Murder Squad reader will remember from The Secret Place (but this book stands alone just fine).

Wary, brash, sometimes evasive, on the verge of leaving the squad because of harassment from her fellow detectives, Antoinette takes on what she thinks is one last case – a simple domestic quarrel gone sour. It quickly gets more complicated than that, and like French’s other books twists on itself more than once in unexpected directions, while also providing deep and satisfying character development and lively, engaging prose.

The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin. The sequel to the Hugo Award winning The Fifth Season, which I adored (as I have loved all of Jemisin’s work), I should note that The Obelisk Gate did feel like a step down from the first book – but from Jemisin that still leaves an exceptional read. The Obelisk Gate brings in the daughter of the first book’s Essun, reveals more about the history of the world itself, and sets the stage for what is sure to be an earth-shattering (ha, ha) conclusion to the series.

Two other books I also enjoyed, but that didn’t quite meet my mark for singling out here: Four Roads Cross by Max Gladstone, the fifth in the loosely connected Craft Sequence and direct sequel to Three Parts Dead, and Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine, a ferocious and lovely poem exploring the ways that microaggressions steal the voices of black people in the United States.

At the moment I seem to have fallen back down the Lovecraft hole, almost finished with In the Mountains of Madness, a slightly uneven biography/study of Lovecraft’s influence, and planning to next read the collection of criticism The Age of Lovecraft. Other planned reads include Planetfall by Emma Newman and assorted nonfiction, though I fully expect my plans to be derailed when I spot something new and shiny I just can’t resist.

Until next month.

Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: Even an Avenger Can(‘t) Die

Avengers #11-15 are an odd set of issues. The last five to feature the first iteration of the team (before a shuffle happens in #16), they mostly feature few one offs with various villains, most of whom will come back but none of whom are particularly memorable at this point. On the other hand, Wasp gets to do things! Sort of. Sometimes.

One note/correction to earlier recap posts – Kang the Conquerer and Immortus are the same person, sort of. Or, Immortus is Kang’s alternate future self. Both are the same character as Rama-Tut from Fantastic Four #19 and also the same character as Iron Lad of the first team of Young Avengers. Comics are fun and trying to make sense of continuity is an exercise in futility. I will continue to try to do it anyway!

Kicking things off in Avengers #11, which introduces the first of what are to become many, many guest appearances of Spider-Man. He has to start appearing in every book at some point, right? As far as I can tell, this is one of the first series where Peter Parker guest stars in a book other than his own.

Continue reading

Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: Zemo and the Masters of Evil

Here we are, for the second edition of Elise Reads the Avengers, and the continuing coverage of the wild and (sometimes) wonderful Silver Age. In these five issues, the series starts to find its footing, with the appearance of some recurring villains and a more credible threat – although abrupt end of issue solutions continue, and Wasp still doesn’t get to do much.

The cover of Avengers #6 promises “more super heroes, super villains, and more super bonehead mistakes”, and it certainly delivers on…some of that. After opening with a brief reminder of how Cap Wants Revenge on Zemo for his role in killing Bucky back in the 1940s, we travel to the wilds of South America to meet the man himself, wearing one of the best supervillain outfits there is, and what basically looks like a bucket made out of fabric over his head, though he calls it a “hood.”

After literally using the backs of some South American natives as a boardwalk, Zemo proceeds to discuss how he is desperately searching for a solution, because apparently his reason for wearing a very stupid hood is that it is literally stuck to his face. While working as a scientist for Der Fuehrer [sic], Zemo wore a purple hood with his Nazi uniform to disguise himself from his enemies, despite the fact that really, a purple hood makes you stick out more. But when Captain America spilled a bunch of experimental “Adhesive X” on him, the hood ended up stuck, where it has apparently been for the last twenty years.

The main question that comes to mind is: what kind of nefarious plans did the Nazis have for super strong glue? 

Regardless, this is Baron Helmut von Zemo’s backstory. A major Captain America villain and recurring Avengers villain, and while he’s got the whole “Nazi” thing going for him, his major claim to fame is that he was making very strong glue and got a hood stuck to his face.

Joining him, without much introduction, is the first iteration of another name that’ll keep coming back: the Masters of Evil. They don’t actually call themselves that in the comic (probably a good PR move) but Black Knight, the Melter, and Radioactive Man, all former opponents of solo Avengers, attack them under the leadership of Zemo (who seeks to kill Captain America). They are…not a very impressive team, as might be guessed by the fact that one of them is just named “the Melter”. This Black Knight is a different one from the one who later becomes a superhero who will be on the Avengers himself (that one is Dane Whitman, this one is Professor Nathan Garrett).

Impressive or not, however, they do succeed in miring all of the Avengers in the aforementioned Adhesive X, which would be a problem except that Paste Pot Pete has a special dissolving agent. Paste Pot Pete, a minor supervillain here offered parole for unsticking the heroes, later changed his awful code name to the slightly less awful “Trapster”, which is less hilarious but also less memorable.

All in all, this was a weird issue.

Avengers #7 opens with Tony being suspended because he didn’t answer an Avengers call over in his own comic, probably because his heart is malfunctioning (as the exposition helpfully informs us) and no one must know that Iron Man & Tony Stark are the same person! Oh yes – that’s currently the state of Iron Man’s secret identity, which will be true for the next long, long while. Given that Iron Man comes back later in this issue to help save the day, and his suspension never comes up again, I’m not entirely certain what the point of suspending him is, unless perhaps it’s just for continuity purposes.

That done, the team splits up in a move that everyone knows is going to end poorly, Rick Jones cosplays Bucky (to Steve’s displeasure) and everyone else goes off to do their own thing somewhere else.

Meanwhile, on Asgard, Enchantress and Executioner are being exiled from Asgard for attacking Thor. Enchantress (also known as Amora, like amor, for love, get it) is primarily a Thor villain, characterized mainly by her overwhelming lust for Thor and determination to make him hers. Executioner (also known as Skurge, like scourge, because he’s mean, get it) is her beefy muscle, primarily characterized by his overwhelming lust for Amora. We also get a great family resemblance shot of both Odin and Thor pointing dramatically and declaiming in this issue, which is apparently a genetic trait.

(Side note: Loki pops up in the background to cackle in a sinister fashion about how Enchantress and the Executioner only attacked Thor because he made them do it. Oh, Loki, you cad.)

Of course, Enchantress and Executioner find their way to meeting up with Zemo, who is looking for some new henchmen-slash-co-workers, and they quickly team up. Seeing her chance, Amora tracks down Thor while he is on his own, and hypnotizes/brainwashes him into seeing the Avengers as enemies, which leads to a…mildly anticlimatic flight because the light of the sun apparently dispels evil hypnotic influences, which seems like good information to remember. Successfully un-brainwashed, Thor uses Mjolnir to make a space warp, which it can apparently do? The ship carrying Zemo, Enchantress, and the Executioner is warped to an unknown location.

One common trait of these early issues seems to be the introduction of a new villain, an extensive fight, and a rather abrupt solution. This is probably a side effect of another trait of Silver Age comics, which is their sheer density – each issue contains a complete story that might in a modern comic be spread over a complete arc. This story, for instance, concerning Iron Man’s suspension, Zemo’s recruitment of Enchantress/Executioner, Thor’s brainwashing and the inter-hero battle, would probably take several issues to write in today’s pacing, but at this point it’s all finished in one issue. There are benefits and drawbacks to this compact style of writing, but personally I find that it ends up feeling a little rushed most of the time.

Another note about the current form of the Avengers team is the state of leadership, which rotates from member to member. We see Wasp advocating for a permanent leader, but as of yet no one’s taking her up on that. So far, notably, Wasp has not been a team leader. You may also note that I have not mentioned Wasp much so far, and that is because she still isn’t getting to do much other than make periodic stereotypically “female” comments about clothing and boys. Her and Hank Pym’s relationship is also not yet defined – there have been some hints toward romance but nothing definite.

The next issue, though, Avengers #8, introduces yet another Avengers villain who will bedevil them through the modern era: Kang the Conquerer. Kang, a time traveler from the year 3000, previously appeared in Fantastic Four working with Doctor Doom and as the time-traveling Pharoah Rama-Tut (in an issue that has been rewritten several different times). He also, according to his narration, traveled to the far future and took over a dying Earth, and is now back to take over present Earth! Kang is kind of a continuity snarl that no one needs right now, so we’ll leave that alone and just focus on this specific story, which is fairly basic.

Kang the Conqueror announces his intent to take over the Earth using his superior future technology, with which he manages to handily best everything that comes at him – including our heroes. Wasp gets to again attempt heroics, but has to be rescued, because Silver Age comics. Eventually she’ll get to do stuff! I assume. However, she does remain uncaptured, unlike the other Avengers, and she and Rick Jones escape to attempt retaliation of their own.

This is a perfect opportunity to give Janet a chance to shine on her own, but of course that isn’t what happens – Rick fetches the Teenage Brigade and Wasp’s contribution is to bring Ant Man a weapon. By pretending to join Kang, the Teenage Brigade enters the ship and frees the other Avengers, who manage to defeat Kang the second time around.

I feel like I am expected to care about Rick Jones, but I really don’t. It seems as though he’s meant to be the point-of-entry character for the presumed reader of the comic – the young boy – similar to the role Kitty Pryde played in the second team of X-Men. In this, though, he just feels out of place and uninteresting, since his character is basically “plucky teenage sidekick” who doesn’t even have the bonus of making bad puns a la Dick Grayson as Robin.

Having handily defeated Kang, the Masters of Evil return in Avengers #9, which introduces yet another character in his first incarnation (who will be back again). This is Wonder Man, otherwise known as Simon Williams. Simon Williams was an inventor who embezzled funds from his company after Tony Stark’s work rendered his own worthless.

On trial for embezzlement, his bail is paid by none other than Enchantress, who offers him revenge in the form of being bombarded by experimental energy by a Nazi scientist, making him an invulnerable being of ionic energy known as Wonder Man. However, it seems Simon didn’t read the fine print, because the ionic energy will also kill him without an antidote that only Zemo possesses. There is no way this could possibly go wrong. Also, I am sure this is all legitimate science.

By attacking the Avengers, Zemo creates an opportunity for Wonder Man to “miraculously” save them, allowing him to infiltrate the group. However, it really seems pretty unnecessary since the only thing Wonder Man really does is lure the Avengers to South America, which can basically be done by telling Captain America “hey, Zemo’s in South America” as far as I can tell. Also, Wasp is literally damseled for this (as in, kidnapped and tied up by Zemo), oh boy. This was the first reference I’ve spotted to the Wasp’s Sting that becomes Jan’s primary offensive power, though, if only to note that she can’t use it.

The Avengers are handily beaten, Iron Man mostly by the use of…a giant magnet. There seems to be kind of a weird fascination with magnets at this point in continuity – Mjolnir is a magnet, a giant horseshoe magnet is basically sufficient to defeat Iron Man, and over in X-Men Magneto’s powers are basically magic, because you can do anything with magnets. This might also be a time to note another interesting character detail that’s been disgarded since – at this point, when Thor is separated from Mjolnir for 40 seconds he reverts into his Donald Blake persona. I wonder if that changes only when he and Donald Blake are “officially” separated after Thor: Disassembled or if it gets dropped before then.

Anyway, once the Avengers are all beaten Wonder Man realizes that he’s been working for a Nazi and turns on Zemo – or actually mostly because the Avengers were honorable foes, which is something multiple opponents have counted on, in case we weren’t sure. Tragically, however, Simon Williams perishes due to not receiving Zemo’s antidote in time. He’s dead forever. Really.

(He isn’t.)

The Masters of Evil retreat to fight another day, though, ending this set of issues with probably the weirdest one I’ve read so far. Opening with a classic “oh no! The Avengers fight amongst themselves!” sequence that turns out to just be them training against each other (Steve continues to establish himself as the team badass, complaining that he could only defeat the other four for 47 seconds rather than a minute). Mostly it just serves to remind the reader of the team order and set up the next story, which is mostly about a new recurring villain.

This one is Immortus (the Master of Time! the one who rules Limbo, where things never change! as the narration helpfully informs us) and he’ll be back. At this point he doesn’t get a lot of backstory – he’s mostly just an evil dude who makes a petition to join the Masters of Evil, who demand he prove himself by defeating the Avengers.

Oh, but first the Executioner fights Paul Bunyan.

I love this issue, you guys.

Basically, Immortus’s schtick in this issue is summoning various figures from across time to fight on his behalf. In order to lure the Avengers into his trap, however, he places an ad that basically amounts to “free superpowers at this address!” Rick Jones decides this sounds like a great deal, mostly because he wants to join the Avengers, and runs into Immortus, where he fights Atilla the Hun.

Rick Jones fights Atilla the Hun. Yep. Honestly I don’t even know what I like best about this.

With Rick Jones having been captured and sent to the Tower of London (explaining this issue feels kind of like explaining comics, in a nutshell), Captain America goes looking for him only to find Immortus – and apparently just believes a random, weirdly dressed dude when he says that the Avengers sent Rick Jones to be imprisoned as a means to control him? This is not a high point for Steve Rogers’ critical thinking skills.

At any rate, he obediently brings the Avengers to Immortus, who then declares that the Avengers will have to each fight a “specially selected foe from the past” before he returns Rick.

In a very civilized manner, the Avengers proceed to do single combat with Immortus’s chosen champions. Ant-Man and Wasp fight Goliath, Iron Man fights Merlin, and Thor fights Hercules – all of them, of course, manage to defeat their chosen foe. Also, Ant Man uses himself as a stone against Goliath, which is kind of a highlight. Meanwhile, Captain America gets transported back to the Tower of London, where he fights his way through the guards and returns with a rescued Rick Jones.

With Immortus defeated, disappointingly, this fantastic plot concludes with Enchantress transporting everyone back in time to before Immortus contacted the Masters of Evil, this time ignoring his transmission. This is an anticlimactic end to this issue, but I am now thinking what other historico-mythological figures I want to see superheroes fight. You know, because.

Overall, this second set of issues sticks out mostly for the introduction of longer term opponents of the Avengers – the Masters of Evil, Zemo, Immortus, Kang the Conquerer. Not much else changes here – the issues are a little more connected, sequentially, and it feels more like the characters are better defined – with the exception of Wasp, who even more than in the first few issues stays underwritten and is given little to do. The fact that she doesn’t get her own individual fight with Immortus is emblematic of her status on the team as primarily adjunct to Hank. At this point, Rick Jones is more of a character than Jan is, which bugs me.

Pun not intended.

Next Up: Spider Man guest stars! Count Nefaria is, surprisingly, a bad guy! The Watcher makes an appearance, and even an Avenger can die (no they can’t).

Currently Reading: July 2016

Not much of an introduction to offer this month, except to note that my reading continues to be slow – though part of that may be because I caved and bought myself a Marvel Unlimited subscription and now have started on a new reading project in terms of comics. 

A sidebar that if anyone would like to follow my reading, including the books I don’t highlight here, my Goodreads profile is public and I periodically write reviews over there (that don’t always end up on here).

Loot by Sharon Waxman. I picked this book up on a bit of a whim. A few years ago I remember visiting the British Museum and having the peculiar experience of looking at a number of the artifacts – the Elgin Marbles, most famously, but also a great deal of the Indian art – and having to wonder how much of this was stolen? Sharon Waxman explores the restitution debates as it relates to great museums like the Met, the Louvre, and the British Museum, tracing the development of the antiquities trade through colonialism to the modern day.

Her lucid, engaging writing style drew me in, and her complex portrait of what can seem a simple, black and white issue (on either side!) seeks to navigate a way forward that preserves art while also offering a chance at justice for countries that suffered, and continue to suffer, extensive looting for their antiquities.

It will make your next visit to a museum a little weird, though. I know I plan to examine the notes about provenance more closely next time I visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar. I reviewed the first book in this couplet, which takes place in the same universe, shares one character, and is loosely connected in terms of events, a few months ago. I emphasized the language as one of the best things about it, and that remains true in this book, which is less a single narrative than a collection of four perspectives on one war, with four different women. Samatar has a unique way with words that makes her writing a pleasure to read – it’s like basking in the sun, a thoroughly pleasurable experience but not necessarily a quick or engrossing one. The way she writes about narratives, though, and her stylistic shifts between the four characters, is a fascinating show of writerly dexterity.

And none of this is to dismiss the plot – the story of a struggle for rebellion, both within and without, and how it reverberates through the life of four differently placed women, is a beautifully told one.

Heroines by Kate Zambreno. My feelings about this book are more complicated than a straightforward recommendation – there were things about it that set my teeth on edge. Sometimes it felt needlessly elaborate, the writing a little too self-conscious, the style a little too flourishing, and Zambreno’s anti-psychiatry stance made me ever so slightly twitchy. However, all told it was a book that got me fired up, got me thinking, and resonated with me in a lot of ways.

Both a history of the neglected wives of famous modernists – Vivienne Eliot, Zelda Fitzgerald, Jane Bowles, and others – and a self-reflection on her own life as a writer and a woman, Zambreno’s book takes a tour through the confluence of madness and femininity, and the pathologization of women writers.

We glorify our male literary hysterics who often channel women and condemn our female literary hysterics. They can play women, fetishize her excesses. Make fun of her frivolity. They don’t have to be women. A colonizing or appropriating of the feminine.

A worthwhile read for any student of the literary, any writer (especially the women) and honestly anyone to whom anything at all of this sounds interesting.

I am currently reading The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and plan to pick up The Twelve Kings of Sharakhai next, though I’m also feeling a bit of a hankering for some young adult fiction and have heard that Marie Lu wrote a series featuring a female villain in the making, which sounds very much up my alley.