Tag Archives: DC Comics

Jack Fisher’s Weekly Quick Pick Comic: Wonder Woman #71

Once a week, comic book fans rejoice as pencil, ink, and imagination come together to bring us a batch of new comics. Whether they involve superheroes, gritty crime drama, sappy romance, or talking ducks in ties, great comics take many forms.

As someone who awaits every Wednesday like Christmas, I make it a point to select one comic from this crowded field that helps make the day feel uniquely festive. It doesn’t always involve superheros gods, demigods, and talking animals. This week, however, that’s exactly what “Wonder Woman #71” contains. That’s not an exaggeration. This comic contains all of that, along with a uniquely impactful story.

The Wonder Woman comics have always been more fanciful than most, even without its former allusions to BDSM. When Wonder Woman isn’t fighting alongside the Justice League or going toe-to-toe against cosmic threats like Darkseid, she often deals with the divine mischief caused by her divine heritage. Since the arrival of writer, G. Willow Wilson, there has been plenty of mischief to go around.

For the past few issues, Diana has been investigating some decadent happenings in a small town called Summergrove. At first, it doesn’t look quite as dire as some of the other godly influences that Wonder Woman has dealt with. The people of this typical community have just become a bunch of free-wielding hippies, randomly pursuing every decadent desire that enters their mind, among other things.

It’s not quite as pornographic as it sounds. Wilson manages to keep things PG-13, for the most part. However, the free loving and utter disregard for Western propriety are just part of the issue. This major disruption in a community not used to public nudity isn’t due to some sudden realization that Puritan traditions are asinine. It’s a direct result of Atlantiades, the god of lust and desire.

Aside from being the offspring of Aphrodite, as well as the kind of deity that aspiring erotica/romance writers could worship, Atalantiades presents a unique challenge to Wonder Woman. Yes, she’s causing real harm to innocent people and their families by exercising her divine power, but she’s not doing it directly, nor is she doing it out of malice.

She is, like many gods in both the world of DC Comics and beings of mythology, unaware of how her power influences frail mortal minds. She doesn’t see ordinary humans with the same care and concern as Wonder Woman. Whereas Diana respects and protects them, gods like Atalantiades pity and manipulate them.

It puts Wonder Woman in a tricky position of convincing Atalantiades that what she’s doing to the people of Summergrove is wrong. The past couple issues have steadily revealed how bad things have gotten. Families are being torn apart and the community is collapsing around itself as people just abandon their responsibilities and ignore all consequences to their action.

It may seem fun, but even the most free spirit of individuals can’t avoid consequences. That’s what it means to be human. However, Atalantiades and the rest of her divine brethren don’t understand that the way Wonder Woman does. Their divinity means they don’t have to deal with the same consequences. They only have to worry when those consequences impact other gods.

That’s another lesson that Atalantiades has to learn the hard way. While Wonder Woman helps her deal with the damage she did to Summergrove, her activities obscure another emerging conflict centered around her mother, Aphrodite. This conflict has higher stakes and greater consequences, mainly because it involves unleashing a mythical beast.

It’s this culmination of consequences that helps “Wonder Woman #71” stand out. There are plenty of stories that involve Wonder Woman fighting mythical beasts and protecting people from unholy manipulations. However, she ends up having to do both here and she can’t resolve both solely through fighting.

Wonder Woman can do a lot of incredible feats, but she doesn’t absolve people or gods of consequences, nor would she if she could. She can’t fight Atalantiades or the people she has influenced, but she can convince her to take responsibility. That’s not as easy as a simple scorn or lecture, but it does make for some revealing exchanges.

Wilson, like many other accomplished Wonder Woman writers, explore the unique and strange perspective of divine beings like Atalantiades. That’s understandable because they’re not mortal. They don’t see mortality, desire, and consequences the same way an ordinary person in the suburb sees it. In many respects, it reveals just how unique Wonder Woman is because she goes out of her way to relate to ordinary people.

Atalantiades makes clear that she doesn’t see love and desire the same way as Diana. Throughout this story arc, even other gods like Aphrodite go out of their way to denigrate Diana’s perspective on matters of love and mortals. She sees it as something empowering and intimate. They see it as something chaotic and corrupt.

Wonder Woman #71” doesn’t entirely resolve that argument, but it does make a compelling case for each side. Atalantiades demonstrates what happens when love and desire run rampant. It’s sexy and even humorous, at times, but it’s also flawed and Wonder Woman helps belabor that.

As more consequences of Atalantiades’ actions play out, Wonder Woman has a chance to make her point in other, more direct ways. This is also where the artwork of Tom Derenick and Xermanico get more vibrant as divine debates turn into divine clashes. It helps highlight how strong Wonder Woman can be with both her words and her fists.

Wonder Woman #71” is not the endgame of this larger story surrounding Atalantiades and Aphrodite, but it is definitely the most dramatic. Wilson explores some pretty heavy topics in this story, touching on gods, love, and the frail mortal beings that get caught in the crossfire. It puts Wonder Woman in some difficult situations in which her compassion has to be as strong as muscles.

As always, she rises to the occasion and inspires more awe and wonder in the process. That’s what makes her Wonder Woman.

 

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Jack Fisher’s Weekly Quick Pick Comic: DCeased #1

It’s Wednesday and for comic book fans, it’s basically a holiday that doesn’t require decorations, greeting cards, or annoying commercials. Every week brings something new and with many people still recovering from the impact of “Avengers Endgame,” myself included, the world needs something to help us move forward.

With that in mind, this week’s quick pick offers something that is the dramatic antithesis of a bittersweet ending to an 11-year movie franchise. “DCeased #1” is not the kind of story that will lift your spirits or trigger tears of joy. It’s a different kind of story that seeks a different impact and, much like “Avengers Endgame,” it succeeds.

The story does not build heavily on recent events in the world of DC Comics so if you haven’t kept up, you won’t be too lost. It’s very much a self-contained story that takes a particular concept that’s unique to the DC Universe and twists it in ways it has never been twisted. The results are brutal, terrifying, and a sight to behold, albeit a morbid one.

Writer, Tom Taylor, has a rich history of taking certain concepts within the superhero genre and re-imagining them in new, compelling ways. He did it with his criminally underrated run on “Superior Iron Man” and “DCeased #1” definitely has traces of those themes.

It starts with something familiar. The Justice League has once again defeated Darkseid. In terms of standard operating procedures in the DC Universe, that’s akin to paying your taxes or getting your driver’s license renewed. However, this typical triumph isn’t the end of the story. It’s just the beginning and it gets very dark, very fast.

At first, it has all the makings of another elaborate plot by Darkseid. He’s always had plenty of that. Being a god-like bringer of death and destruction, he always seems to have something going on and never lets defeat by the Justice League hold him back for long.

Then, his plan goes horribly and shockingly wrong. I won’t spoil the details, but what happens to Darkseid, and later everyone on Earth, strikes at the foundation the DC Universe. Like many other superhero comics, there are a special brand of physics in play, many of which would make Einstein’s head explode. However, when those physics are defied or subverted, bad things tend to happen and this might be the worst.

This isn’t the kind of impact that gives an all-powerful, obscenely-evil character like Darkseid an insane power boost. This is something that torments even the most villainous beings as much as its most virtuous heroes. Gods, demigods, aliens, Amazons, billionaire playboys, and even average people on the street are all equally vulnerable.

For once, there’s no evil figure to fight. There’s no devious villain to outwit or overpower. This is a force of nature that hits anyone and everyone. It’s akin to gravity, light, or taxes. Nobody can escape and nobody is immune.

While the concept of “DCeased #1” may seem like apocalyptic disaster porn, its dramatic structure keeps it from getting too gratuitous. Taylor demonstrates a refined understanding of how certain concepts work in the DC Universe and artwork by James Harren and Tervor Hairsine give rich details to some bleak undertones. Taken together, it creates a dark story that has just the right impact.

Whether you follow the comics or only watch big budget superhero movies, it’s easy to get caught up in the standard tropes of superheros. We expect them to fly in, save the day, or even undo the damage if things get too bad. There are any number of stories like that, especially in the DC Universe. That’s why a story like “DCeased #1” can be so refreshing, even when it deals in such dark themes.

This isn’t a case where we can expect the mightiest heroes in DC to save the day, smile for the cameras, and go back to their lives as mild-mannered reporters. This is a devastating cataclysm for which there is no going back. There’s a uniquely surreal impact to watching this world of mighty superheroes succumb. It’s not just different for the sake of being different. It shows us a different aspect of these characters and this world.

We all know what happens when superheroes save the day. Most people have seen that story in some form or another at some point in their lives. “DCeased #1” dares to ask what happens when superheroes can’t save the world. It’s not that they fail. Technically, they’re not even defeated in the mold of Darkseid beating up Superman. Things just go horribly wrong due to forces beyond their control.

In a world full of god-like super-beings from various planets and universes, this level of destruction has quite an impact. Beyond being the antithesis of the classic hero-saves-the-day narrative, “DCeased #1” presents a story that requires these heroes to reveal a different side of themselves. We know how they are when they’re at their most triumphant. Now, we get to see who they are when all hope is truly lost.

It’s a story worth telling and, if your heart and soul can handle it, “DCeased #1” takes the first step in this utter deconstruction of the DC Universe. It’s a dark, grim sight to behold, but one that brings some welcome novelty to superhero comics.

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Shazam! Review: A Simple Formula For Maximum Fun

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When a particular genre becomes over-saturated and overdone, it’s tempting to try and reinvent the concept in hopes of striking a new chord. It’s especially tempting when so many others have risen the bar to such an insane extent that success can only be measured in billions instead of millions.

It would’ve been easy for a movie like “Shazam” to give into such temptation. With the recent success of “Aquaman” and “Avengers Endgame” set to break all sorts of box office records, it seems like this movie has to do something extreme, just to stand out. How else would it succeed in such a crowded market in a golden age of superhero movies?

That was my greatest concern before I saw “Shazam.” As much as I loved the trailer, I was worried that this movie would try so hard to stand out that it would overlook the part of actually being a fun cinematic experience. That sort of oversight has been plaguing the DC Extended Universe since “Man of Steel.”

This picture sums up the issues nicely.

Well, having seen the movie, I’m happy to say that none of those concerns were founded. In fact, I’m elated to report that “Shazam” is another big win for DC Comics and superhero movies, as a whole. However, it didn’t win because it reinvented the genre or did something radically different. It won because it followed the basic formula for quality superhero movies and had fun along the way.

It helps that the core appeal of Shazam, as a character and superhero, is that it approaches heroics with a childlike playfulness. Billy Batson, the alter ego of the titular hero, is not some jaded adult like Batman. He’s not even a boy scout idealist like Superman. He’s just a kid and one who got dealt a bad hand, for that matter. Being both an orphan and a troublemaker, he sees the adult world through very different eyes.

That’s a novel perspective, to some extent. Every other superhero movie, even going back to the era of Richard Donner’s “Superman,” has framed the idea through an adult lens. It always starts out as something simple. An individual gets superpowers, they start carrying out simple acts of heroism, and those acts eventually get complicated, as often happens with adult issues.

With a character like Billy, things never get that complicated. Again, he’s a kid. Even in his heroic form, he sees conflict with a childlike simplicity and “Shazam” captures that simplicity perfectly. The movie doesn’t deviate much from the details and themes of the source material. Concepts like the Rock of Eternity and the Seven Enemies of Man are present and accurately portrayed.

Such details may not matter to those unfamiliar with the comics, but such accuracy is largely a bonus. What really makes this movie work is how it follows Billy’s journey and not just the one he undergoes as a hero. His evolution when he’s not a magically-endowed superhero is arguably the most meaningful aspect of the story.

When we first meet Billy, it’s hard to discern whether he has the spirit of a hero. He’s no upstanding boy scout. In fact, he’s very much a troublemaker who’s willing to thumb his nose at police, break the rules when it benefits him, and run away from anyone who tries to help him. However, he never comes close to crossing that might send him down a darker path.

It’s that trait that sets him apart from his villainous counterpart, Dr. Sivana. While he’s no Thanos, he demonstrates that he’s a lot like Billy in a few key aspects. He’s given a chance to become a hero, but is unable to refuse the temptation that often comes with immense power. That failure haunts him and pushes him down a darker path.

For a time, it seems as though Billy could walk a similar path. When he first gets his powers, he reacts in ways that most would expect of a 14-year-old boy. He tries to buy beer. He tries to make money. He even ventures into a strip club. It’s hilarious and cute, but it also establishes the perfect tone for a movie that avoids complicating the standard superhero narrative.

Within that narrative, there’s a hero who makes choices and learns from his mistakes. There’s also a villain who makes choices and refuses to learn from them. When they eventually clash, it’s a flashy spectacle with simple, understandable stakes. It’s no Battle of Wakanda, but it doesn’t have to be.

The look of someone who DIDN’T get to work with Josh Brolin.

From the moment he first gets his powers to the final showdown with Dr. Sivana, Billy develops into his own hero, but never loses his childlike mentality. He’s not forced to grow up too fast, nor does he have to abandon the civilian life he’s trying to establish. Whereas being Bruce Wayne is often an inconvenience for Batman, being Billy Batson is necessary for Shazam.

This shows in the seamless characterization provided by Asher Angel, who plays young Billy, and Zachary Levi, who plays Shazam. At no point does either manifestation feel like a different character. They both wield the same childlike charisma as they navigate their superhero journey. The same lovability that made Levi so great in shows like “Chuck” help him and Angel bring out the best in Billy Batson.

When the movie begins, it’s not clear that Billy has what it takes to be a competent hero. Trying to determine his worth is like trying to determine if some random 14-year-old will one day play in the NFL. The odds are against them, but the potential is still there. By the time the credits roll, the message is clear. Billy has the spirit that Shazam was looking for and you can’t help but root for him.

At its core, “Shazam” checks all the right boxes for the classic hero’s journey. Billy Batson is perfectly poised to take that journey and not just because he’s one of many orphans who become superheroes. The movie doesn’t try to subvert these tried and true tropes. If anything, it embraces them and dares to have a little fun along the way.

It’s easy to share in that fun. The humor is exactly what you would expect of a movie that involves 14-year-olds getting superpowers. It’s serious when it needs to be, but never too serious. Given the grim and gritty settings of other DC Extended Universe movies, it’s a breath of fresh air that the superhero genre badly needed.

It’s not without its flaws. Some details of Billy’s life are underdeveloped and glossed over. There were also inconsistencies with Dr. Sivana as well, but none were egregious to the point where they derailed the movie. It simply stuck to a simple formula, mixed in a few twists along the way, and made the most of what it had to work with.

If I had to score “Shazam,” I would give it an 8 out of 10. It didn’t reinvent superhero movies or raise the bar. It was simply a fun, entertaining movie that gave a character with little star power a chance to shine. It even managed to accomplish all this without trying too hard to make him like Batman. For a DC Comics movie, that alone is a major accomplishment.

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Jack Fisher’s Weekly Quick Pick Comic: Detective Comics #1000

Every Wednesday, a new batch of comics enters this world and makes it a little more awesome. However, it’s not every week that an iconic character achieves an incredible milestone that only one other superhero comic has achieved to date. There aren’t a lot of characters who could hope to achieve such ratified status, but if ever there were someone equipped for that journey, it’s Batman.

Today will likely go down in history as one of Batman’s greatest triumphs and he achieves it without the aid of Christopher Nolan. That’s because on this day, Detective Comics #1000 came out. Beyond just being a landmark issue that celebrates the legacy of Dark Knight, this comic helps remind superhero fans of every generation why Batman has endured.

From the triumph of “The Dark Knight” to the lasting damage done by Joel Shumacher, Batman has navigated many eras over the years. However, like Superman and Wonder Woman, he has never deviated far from his core persona. He’s a detective, a symbol, and a personification of vengeance against egregious injustice. No matter the time, place, or culture, there’s always room for that kind of crusade.

Detective Comics #1000 helps affirm that by telling a collection of short stories by some of DC Comics’ top writers. None of these stories really tie into one another and they don’t have to. It’s just not possible to capture the breadth of Batman’s legacy in just one story, no matter how many members of his iconic rogues gallery enter the picture.

Instead, each story is crafted in a way that helps capture a critical element of Batman’s never-ending crusade. A story by Scott Snyder helps highlight Batman’s unparalleled detective skills. A story by Warren Ellis highlights Batman’s ability to strike fear in criminals. A story by Christopher Priest show show Batman’s humanity is as strong as any one of his skills.

Each story carries its own weight, in terms of drama and impact. They present some of Batman’s best traits alongside his greatest weaknesses. They never give the impression that Batman is too powerful or too capable. At the end of the day, he’s still human. He has very human vulnerabilities and not just compared to the heavy hitters of the Justice League.

Beyond not being bulletproof, there are many instances that show he’s still someone who was deeply scarred as a child. The murder of his parents still haunts him. There are times in which he fails to cope with it, as nicely shown in a story by Denny O’Neil. At the same time, however, that loss and the pain it causes still drives him to be Batman.

In many respects, Batman is more true to his persona than Bruce Wayne. If anything, Bruce Wayne is the real mask. When he’s not wearing his cowl, he has to be someone else. He has to give the impression that he’s a successful, functional adult who got over the murder of his parents long ago. That has never been the case for Batman.

After 1,000 issues of Detective Comics, it’s abundantly clear that Batman does not see injustice the same way others do. People suffer tragedy and injustice all the time, both in the world of superhero comics and in the real world. Most people are content to let the authorities and the justice system deal with it. Batman isn’t most people.

In his world, the crime-ridden metaphor that is Gotham City, the authorities are corrupt and the system is flawed. Unlike people of lesser means, he’s in a position to actually do something about injustice. As Bruce Wayne, he can help improve the economy of the city. As Batman, though, he can make it so other children don’t have to watch their parents die.

It’s a powerful message full of powerful themes. They’re as relevant today as they were 80 years ago when Bob Kane and Bill Finger first created Batman. Injustice and tragedy know no single time, race, culture, or gender. They affect everyone and Batman stands on the front lines to fight it.

More than anything else, Detective Comics #1000 reminds us of why we want Batman on the front lines of that crusade. He’s capable of confronting the worst of the worst in terms of criminals. He’s also compassionate enough to understand and empathize with those who have been affected by injustice. It’s how he’s able to recruit and inspire others like Robin, Nightwing, Batgirl, and Catwoman.

Over the years, he’s even managed to carve out an extended Batman family, of sorts. It’s not the same as the family he lost, but an incredibly touching story by Tom King and Tony Daniels shows just how much it means to him. It helps give balance to someone who can be a hardened crime-fighter one moment and a caring friend the next.

Not all the stories in Detective Comics #1000 are so serious and dramatic. The story by Paul Dini provides some colorful humor that shows that even the gritty world of Batman isn’t prone to a few absurdities. Batman himself doesn’t deny this. He just embraces and accepts it as part of his never-ending crusade.

It’s hard to imagine any crusade lasting 1,000 issues and spanning eight decades, complete with campy TV shows and genre-defining movies. The universal nature of Batman’s crusade against injustice helped fill those issues with so many iconic moments. This landmark issue shows why that crusade is poised to endure another 1,000 issues.

The struggle never ends, but he never gives up. He can’t and he won’t. He’s the goddamn Batman.

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The Secular Theology of “Lucifer” (The TV Show)

lucifer

What happens when you die?

Does our consciousness live on in some form?

Is there a way in which people who escaped punishment in life ultimately face it in death?

These are distressing, but profound questions that form the backbone of nearly every major religion. From the major Abrahamic faiths to the lore of ancient civilizations, there are many ways to approach this question. We all contemplate our mortality at some point and wonder/dread what will happen after our mortal bodies fail us.

Even some non-believers have mused about it at some point. Whereas religion tends to speculate wildly on the possibilities, an secular view of the afterlife isn’t too different from how it views deities. In the same way there’s no evidence for any gods or supernatural forces, there’s no evidence that consciousness exists outside the human brain.

That’s what makes the recently-canceled, but saved by Netflix show, “Lucifer,” such a compelling contributor to this age-old question. Beyond Tom Ellis flexing his uncanny charm, the show achieves something remarkable in how it approaches gods, angels, demons, and the afterlife. I would even go so far as to say that it crafts a theology that affirms secular values over those of any religion.

By that, I don’t mean that “Lucifer” glorifies atheism or non-religious worldviews. If anything, one the show’s common themes is that glorifying any worldview is pointless. It’s surprisingly balanced in how it portrays religious and non-religious characters. The show contains respectable believers like Father Frank Lawrence and deplorable non-believers like Jimmy Barnes.

When it comes to addressing those age-old questions about deities, the afterlife, and morality, though, the show crafts a mythos that doesn’t play favorites. In the world of “Lucifer,” it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Christian, Muslim, Scientologist, Buddhist, or Pastafarian. Your life and your afterlife are subject to the same standards.

To understand those standards, it’s necessary to understand the influences of the show. Before Tom Ellis put on an Armani suit, the story of Lucifer Morningstar emerged in a the critically-acclaimed graphic novel, “The Sandman.” Even if you’re not a comic book fan, I highly recommend this book. There’s a good reason why it’s in Entertainment Weekly’s 100 best reads from 1983 to 2008.

While there are many differences between this comic and the TV show, the core tenants are the same. Lucifer Morningstar once ruled Hell, but decided to abandon that role and set up shop in the mortal world. Much like Tom Ellis’ character in the show, this version of Lucifer resents the stereotypes and misunderstandings surrounding him.

He’s not the source of all evil. He’s not the Lord of Lies, either. In fact, Lucifer has his own personal code of conduct and chief among that code is not lying. It goes beyond just telling the truth, though. Lucifer doesn’t sugarcoat anything, nor does he tell only part of the story. He tells the truth in the clearest, harshest way possible.

The show captures many of these elements. In the first episode when he meets Detective Chole Decker, he says outright who he is and isn’t coy about it. While she doesn’t believe he’s the actual devil, he sets a similar tone in how wields the truth. He’s not afraid to shove it in peoples’ faces and let horrifying realizations do the rest.

That emphasis on hard truth, both in the show and the comics, closely mirrors a secular approach to reality. It doesn’t matter how strongly you believe or don’t believe in something. The truth doesn’t change. People can spend their entire lives avoiding it, making excuses or crafting elaborate mythologies.

Whether someone identifies as atheist or agnostic, the premise is the same. If there’s no verifiable evidence, then you can’t say something is true. That leaves a lot of uncertainty about the nature of life, the afterlife, and everything in between. For many people, that’s just untenable and that leads to all sorts of contemplation and speculations.

It only gets worse when there’s considerable evidence to the contrary, which those who cross Lucifer often learn the hard way. While the comics touch on this to a limited extent, the show is much more overt. It often occurs when Lucifer flashes his true form to others. Most of the time, their reaction is one of unmitigated horror and understandably so.

These people, whether they’re cold-blooded killers or schoolyard bullies, just got a massive dose of exceedingly heavy truth. They just learned that the devil is real. Hell is real. Angels, demons, and deities are real. That also means it’s very likely that there’s some form of life after death. For those who have done bad things, that’s a genuinely terrifying prospect.

The details of that terror are explored throughout the show, especially in the first and second season. It’s here where the show distances itself from the fire and brimstone of the Abrahamic faiths. It even differs considerably from the hellish visions of Eastern religious tradition. To some extent, it takes the ethical concepts of secular humanism and crafts a prison around it.

That prison doesn’t involve pitchforks, fire, or monsters who chew on the souls of history’s greatest traitors. In the divine world of “Lucifer,” Hell is dark domain in which the souls of sinful mortals are punished for the misdeeds they committed in life. How that punishment plays out varies from soul to soul.

In the first season, Malcolm Graham spends a brief time in Hell, relatively speaking. He describes it as a place that takes everything someone loves and uses it to torment them. In his case, he freely admits that he loves life. As such, he is starved and isolated so that he cannot experience it or its many joys. It’s an extreme form of solitary confinement, which is very much a form of torture.

On top of that, time flows differently in Hell. Even though Malcolm wasn’t there for very long, he conceded that 30 seconds felt like 30 years. That doesn’t necessarily mean it moves slower, though. Time is simply a tool with which to ensure the effectiveness of the punishment. Lucifer, himself, finds this out in Season 2, Episode 13, “A Good Day To Die.”

For him, time becomes an endless loop of sorts. In that domain, he continually relieves the moment he kills his brother Uriel, one of the few acts in which Lucifer feels genuine regret. It keeps on happening again and again, evoking the same anguish. It’s like the movie “Groundhog Day,” but one in which people constantly relieve the worst day of their life.

These kinds of punishments are certainly worthy of Hell. They’re harsh in that they’re customized torture that’s specific for every damned soul. It’s a lot more flexible than the elaborate Hellscape described in “Dante’s Inferno.” However, there’s one important aspect to this punishment that puts it into a unique context.

The specifics are revealed in Season 3, Episode 7, “Off The Record.” Lucifer reveals to Reese Getty that the devil isn’t the one who decides which souls end up in Hell. No deity decides that, either. Ultimately, it’s the individual who makes that decision, albeit indirectly.

When humans transgress in the world of “Lucifer,” there’s no cosmic judge keeping track of their misdeeds. What sends them to Hell is the weight of their own guilt. Even when they pretend they don’t feel it, like Malcolm Graham, it’s still there. They’re just ignoring it or avoiding it. When they die, though, it ultimately comes back to weigh them down.

This means that punishment in Hell isn’t technically eternal, which I’ve noted is critical if the concept is to have any meaning whatsoever. Lucifer even says in the same episode that there’s no demon army guarding the gates of Hell. The doors are opened and unlocked. Those damned souls are free to leave, but they never do. It’s their own choices, guilt, and regret that keeps them damned.

That means the deeds that send people to hell are subjective and contextual. It’s an outright rejection of the universal morality that many religious traditions favor and an affirmation of the more nuanced ethics espoused by secular humanism. Both the morality and the theology of “Lucifer” depends heavily on the situation, intent, and consequences of someone’s action.

In the world of “Lucifer,” a priest and a porn star can both go to Heaven. It’s strongly implied that Father Frank Lawrence went to Heaven after his heroic actions in “A Priest Walks Into A Bar.” It’s also implied in “City Of Angels?” that there’s a distinct lack of porn stars in Hell due to all the good works and joy they bring to people in life.

At its core, “Lucifer” frames damnation as an underlying consequence of individual actions. Everything begins and ends with the individual. What they do, why they do it, and the consequences they incur are primary criteria for how souls spend their afterlife. In both the comics and the TV show, Lucifer is a champion of individual choices and all the implications that come with it.

This emphasis on the individual effectively tempers the influence of any deity or supernatural force. Even though gods and angels exist in the world of “Lucifer,” they don’t make choices for anybody. Granted, they can have major influences, as shown in episodes like “Once Upon A Time.” At the end of the day, it’s still the individual who is ultimately responsible.

This secular approach to theology works because individual actions are the only deeds we can truly quantify. It creates criteria under which neither atheists nor believers have any clear advantages. How they live their lives and how they go about making choices is what determines whether they face punishment after death.

It still has some problems that the show has yet to address. It doesn’t indicate how Hell handles people who are incapable of feeling guilt or otherwise mentally ill. It also doesn’t reveal how Heaven differs from Hell, although Lucifer implied to Father Frank that it’s more boring than Hell. Hopefully, that’s just one of many other themes that get touched on in Season 4.

Whatever the flaws, the unique take on theology and morality give “Lucifer” a special appeal for both believers and non-believers. It presents a world where those profound questions I asked earlier have answers. No one religion got it right and atheists aren’t at a disadvantage for not believing. That may not sit well with some, but it affirms a brand of secular justice that judges every individual by the choices they make.

More than anything else, Lucifer Morningstar is a champion of deep desires and hard truths. He opposes anyone who tries to dictate someone’s decision or fate, be they a devil or a deity. People who do bad things are ultimately punished, but not by him. In the end, he really doesn’t have to. An individual is more than capable of creating their own personal Hell.

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Five Comic Books I Would Recommend To Bill Maher

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I love comic books.

I love superhero movies.

I love geek culture and actively participate in it.

I also understand that there are people who don’t share those passions. Some may even see them as childish and foolish. That’s perfectly fine. It doesn’t make them a bad person, by default. It doesn’t even mean I can’t get along with them or agree with them on other issues.

The fact I have to make that disclaimer only makes the current state of affairs more frustrating. I feel it’s more necessary now because I’m about to address a topic has evoked all the wrong emotions for all the wrong reasons. Normally, my first instinct is to avoid such controversy, but since it involves superhero comics, I feel inclined to respond.

It started late last year with a blog post by Bill Maher, a late night talk show host for the long-running HBO series, “Real Time With Bill Maher.” That blog post came shortly after the death of Stan Lee and, without going too heavily into details, attacked the culture behind comic books and superhero media.

Many took that post as an insult to the legacy of Stan Lee. Having read that post multiple times, I really didn’t get that sense. I won’t deny that I took some offense to it, but I’ve read far more offensive things in the comments section of YouTube videos. The fact that it got such a visceral reaction only skewed the conversation even more.

Then, this past week on his show, Mr. Maher finally addressed the issue again in the closing commentary on his show. If you haven’t seen it, here it is.

The long and short of it is his commentary had less to do with Stan Lee and more to do with people who think comic books warrant serious cultural weight. He goes onto bemoan how people cling to the things they loved as kids as a way of avoiding the adult world. It’s less an indictment on people who like comics and more a criticism of people who whine about adulting, in general.

To some extent, I understand his criticism. There are people in this world who try to avoid adult responsibilities at every turn. They don’t want to deal with the harshness of the real world and cling to fantasies about having superpowers that render those problems moot. Even as someone who loves superhero comics and movies, I think that’s an issue for some people.

For most people though, it’s just fun. Mr. Maher seems to completely overlook that. I don’t care how old you get. Having fun is fun. Comics are a lot of fun to read, follow, and enjoy. The more “serious” pieces of literature that he recommends in his commentary probably have plenty of merit, but they’re not nearly as fun.

The idea that he finds superhero media as childish is understandable. Bill Maher is over 60 years old. For most of his life, comic books and superheroes have been for children. It’s only within the last 30 years that they’ve matured to a point where they appeal to all ages, so much so that they’ve raked in over $20 billion at the box office. You don’t make that much money on childish things.

In addition to box office billions, some comics have gained serious acclaim. A select few have even been recognized as some of the greatest literary works in the past 100 years. I doubt Mr. Maher is aware of this because most of these amazing works happened after he became an adult. I imagine that if you were to ask most people his age, they would agree that comics shouldn’t be considered serious literature.

I respectfully disagree with that notion and I know many others disagree as well. That said, I doubt anyone will ever convince Mr. Maher that he’s wrong. He has made his politics very clear on many occasions and I don’t doubt he’ll say other offensive things in the future.

At the very least, I can offer Mr. Maher some perspective. I believe that, if he were to give comics a chance, he would see their literary value. He may still think they’re childish, but I think he would have a greater appreciation for the medium, if only because he sees how it has evolved since he was a kid.

What follows are five comics that I would personally recommend to Mr. Maher. I feel these books would help show just how salient comics can be in terms of society, politics, and art. While I doubt he’ll give them a chance, I hope others who share his sentiments take a moment to see why comic books and superhero media have become such an integral part of our culture.


Watchmen

This is an easy choice and not just because Watchmen routinely ranks near the top as on of the greatest comic books of all time. This seminal work by Alan Moore and David Gibbons actually speaks to the same criticisms that Mr. Maher levied against superheroes. Watchmen is, at its heart, the ultimate deconstruction of the entire concept of superheroes.

This story isn’t just about heroes fighting villains or heroes fighting other heroes. Watchmen is a story with deep, philosophical overtones about what it means to wield power and make peace in a chaotic world. It casts a harsh light on the dangers of relying on superheroes or super-powered beings to solve big problems on the global stage. It’s a sentiment that Mr. Maher himself has made on more than one occasion.

Being a political person, I believe Mr. Maher would find a lot to enjoy about the world of Watchmen. Beyond the art and the complexities of the story, it has a message that goes beyond good guys fighting bad guys.

In many respects, Watchmen was the comic that broke all the rules and ushered the medium into a new era. It proved that a comic could make serious contributions to the world of literature. Between its unique place in the history of comics and the awards it received, I think Watchmen can prove to Mr. Maher that comics can be great works of art that tell relevant messages for the real world.


Sandman

This is another series that routinely gets mentioned in discussions surrounding the greatest comics of all time. Like Watchmen, Sandman pushed the limits on what a comic book could be. It’s not a standard superhero comic. It’s not about heroes searching for some ominous glowing object, which is something Mr. Maher pointed out in his criticism. Sandman is deeper than that.

The writer of Sandman, Neil Gaiman, dared to craft a more mature fantasy. This is a world where mythological figures like Morpheus, Lucifer, and even characters from the bible interact with one another in a complex narrative that provides insight into spirituality, religion, and philosophy.

I believe that insight would appeal to Mr. Maher more than most and not just because he’s a self-admitted stoner. Say what you will about him, but he’s a very intelligent man who went to an Ivy League school. He also majored in English, which I think would make Sandman that much more appealing to him.

The story in Sandman is not something most children will understand or appreciate. Even most adults may struggle to make sense of the various themes that Gaiman explores throughout the book. It’s a powerful story, but one that works best in the medium of comics. I think if Mr. Maher gave Sandman a chance, he would see that.


X-men: God Loves, Man Kills

Even though Mr. Maher singled out superheroes as the most childish element of comics, I believe there are still a select few that would still appeal to him, if only because of his political leanings. Mr. Maher has always identified as a liberal and routinely espouses the value of liberal principles. He grew up watching the civil rights movement unfold and it has clearly had an impact on him.

That’s exactly why a comic like X-men: God Loves, Man Kills would resonate with him. Even though it follows many common superhero themes, this classic X-men story by legendary X-men writer, Chris Claremont, goes much further in linking the struggle of the X-men with that of civil rights.

This story is less about the X-men fighting killer robots and more about confronting the depths of human bigotry. In addition to providing the inspiration for “X2,” it explores a kind of bigotry that feels like it was ripped from the real world. It even throws religion into the mix with the introduction of Reverend William Stryker, a man who has drawn more than a few comparisons with Vice President Mike Pence.

Mr. Maher will probably notice those parallels more than most. He has made no secret of his disdain for organized religion and the people who use it to justify their bigotry. X-men: God Loves, Man Kills tells a story of just how dangerous that kind of religiously-motivated bigotry can get. Even though it’s still a superhero story, it doesn’t hide from the real-world parallels.

Good literature, whether it’s a comic book or a novel, often reflects the controversies of its time. The X-men were created right at the onset of the Civil Rights Movement. Stan Lee has gone on record as saying that elements of the X-men were inspired by real life heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. As both a proud liberal and a critic of religion, Mr. Maher will find plenty to like about this classic X-men story.


All-Star Superman

This story might be the toughest sell for Mr. Maher. However, I think if any comic can demonstrate the value of superheroes, it’s All-Star Superman. This love letter to Superman and all the fanciful themes surrounding him is a celebration of the ultimate hero. Even if Mr. Maher thinks idolizing heroes is dangerous, I think even he’ll appreciate why Superman is such an icon after 80 years.

What makes All-Star Superman special isn’t in how it depicts the Man of Steel at his best. It’s not just about him saving the day, defeating Lex Luthor, and winning the love of Lois Lane. More than anything else, the story that Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly tell demonstrates just how much Superman inspires those around him.

Throughout the series, there are many great moments that are full of heart, hope, and compassion. Some of it is cartoonishly over-the-top, but it never feels corny. There’s never a point where Superman takes a moment to tell a bunch of kids to eat their vegetables and stay in school. It doesn’t try to make Superman someone he’s not. He’s the ultimate paragon of virtue and this series just runs with that.

To further raise the stakes, this version of Superman is living on borrowed time. As powerful as he is, he has saved the day one time too many. He basically has to do what he can with what little time he has left to make the world a better place. It’s an endeavor that even Mr. Maher can appreciate.

More than once, Mr. Maher has tried to inspire others to be better. Even if his efforts are politically motivated, the will to inspire is something he’s always shown, going back to his days on “Politically Incorrect.” Even if he thinks Superman comics are for kids, he can still appreciate Superman’s efforts to inspire the good in others.


Y: The Last Man

This is another acclaimed comic series that doesn’t rely on superheroes, fancy costumes, or superpowers. At a time when gender politics are such a hot topic, a series like Y: The Last Man is more relevant than ever. This beloved comic by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra takes issues surrounding gender to an apocalyptic extreme.

As someone who has routinely criticized how the debate surrounding feminism and gender has evolved, I believe Mr. Maher will find a lot to like about Y: The Last Man. This is a story that puts men and women in the ultimate bind. One day, without warning, every creature on Earth with a Y chromosome just keels over and dies. Only one man, Yorick Brown, and his pet monkey, Ampersand, survive.

The story the follows is both a fight for survival and a critical insight into what happens when gender dynamics operate in extremes. The world that Vaughan and Guerra show just how much men and women rely on one another without realizing it. When one is completely removed from the equation, it pushes people beyond the brink.

At the same time, it shows just how resilient people can be in terrible situations. The will to survive knows no gender. It can bring out the best and the worst in someone, but the best is what usually keeps driving us. Mr. Maher has often spoken urgently about issues like climate change. The apocalyptic setting of Y: The Last Man shows why that urgency is necessary.


Again, I don’t expect Mr. Maher to change his mind on much. He has made it abundantly clear in the past that he is very set in his ways. However, if he is genuinely open to seeing the merits of comic books, these titles should help. Comic books may have been for kids when he was a kid. They have since become so much more and their legacy, like that of Stan Lee’s, will continue for generations to come.

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The Future Of Villains And Villainy

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What is happening to villains these days? That’s an entirely reasonable question to ask. Over the past decade, we’ve seen a remarkable shift in how we approach villainy in movies, TV, comic books, and video games. I’m not just talking about the superhero media, either. However, that happens to be the most visible manifestation of this change.

As a long-time fan of both superheroes and quality villains, I welcome this change. At the same time, I’m curious about where it’s leading and what it means for the future. Villains are as old as storytelling itself. From the Bible to “Star Wars,” these stories work best when there’s villainy to oppose the unfolding narrative. Villains have always evolved alongside the heroes that oppose them, but that evolution seems to be accelerating.

I’ve discussed the unique journey that villains undergo and how they set themselves apart from heroes. Traditionally, a villain’s primary purpose was to both oppose the hero and highlight how heroic they are. The sheer malice of characters like Lex Luthor help contrast the pure selflessness of characters like Superman. It’s easier to appreciate those heroes knowing they have to deal such malicious opponents.

Then, something remarkable happened. Audiences began demanding more of their villains. It wasn’t enough to just have a villain oppose a hero. People began wanting villains who were understandable and even relatable to some extent. Ironically, they wanted a villain they could root for.

That helped lead to characters like Walter White from “Breaking Bad.” His impact was so profound that I even called his influence the Walter White effect. However, I think there were others who paved the way for Walter White. If I had to pick one villain that helped kick-start this trend in villainy, it would be Heath Ledger’s Joker from “The Dark Knight.”

From this portrayal of villainy, the emerging state of villains emerged and it may very well set the tone for the future. On the surface, this version of the Joker wasn’t too different from the one who had existed in the comics for years. He’s dangerous, destructive, murderous, and callous, like many villains. Unlike most, though, he does what he does with a laugh and a smile.

What made this version of the Joker so memorable was the principles behind his madness. To him, society is corrupt and people aren’t inherently good. As such, he seeks to point out how laughable it is when others try to save it. Batman’s crusade against crime is the biggest joke of all, which helps drive their rivalry.

It’s a philosophy that few other than terrorists and extreme nihilists would buy into, but it’s one that’s understandable to some extent. We don’t have to agree with them or their methods. We just have to see their twisted logic. They can’t just be standard James Bond villains whose motives are indistinguishable from fascists, communists, or terrorists. There needs to be something more personal at work.

We saw plenty of that in 2018’s biggest movies. From “Black Panther” to “ Avengers: Infinity War” to “Incredibles 2,” the villains all had something personal at stake. Erik Killmonger saw his villainous actions as heroic. He wasn’t out to just take over Wakanda. He had a vision in mind that felt justified to some extent, especially to those familiar with real-world historical injustices.

Thanos raised the bar even more in “Avengers: Infinity War.” He never tries to come off as a hero, but he never sees his actions as villainous, either. In fact, when heroes like Dr. Strange call him out, he frames his desire to cull half the population in the universe as mercy. For him, it’s simple math. Half a population is better than no population at all.

These motivations, as devious they might be on paper, have some semblance of merit to it. Both Thanos and Killmonger think they’re doing the right thing. That significantly impacts how the heroes in their stories go about thwarting them, although I would argue that one story was more complete while the other remains unresolved.

In “Black Panther,” T’Challa doesn’t just stop at defeating Killmonger. He actually sees some of his enemy’s points and takes steps to address them. He doesn’t revert things back to the way they were. Wakanda doesn’t return to the same isolated state it had been at the start of the movie. Instead, he seeks to find a middle ground. That, I would argue, is the new template for how heroes defeat this kind of villain.

The resolution in “Avengers: Infinity War,” however, is not as clear. That’s largely due to the story not being complete. There is a sequel planned, but at no point in the three-hour spectacle did the Avengers attempt to prove Thanos wrong. They only ever tried to stop him. That oversight has not gone unnoticed by audiences.

This, in many ways, sums up the new dynamic between heroes in villains. It’s no longer enough for heroes to just defeat their adversaries. It’s not even enough for villains to be exceptionally devious. There have to be larger principles at work. It can’t just be reduced to general greed, ego, or bullying.

Thanos seeks to kill have the population because he believes that it’ll prevent the complete extinction of all life.

Erik Killmonger seeks to empower oppressed minorities to right past injustices.

Dr. Doom seeks to conquer the world because a world under his rule is the only one free of suffering and want. That’s actually canon in the comics.

It’s makes crafting compelling villains more difficult, but at the same time, it opens the door to more complexity. On top of that, it demands that audiences think beyond the good versus evil dynamic that has defined so many stories, going back to the days of fairy tales. It’s a challenge that some are certain to fail. Some already have, sadly.

It also sets the tone for future forms of villainy. How that villainy manifests is impossible to predict, but given the current trends, I think there’s room to speculate. At the heart of this emerging villainy is the idea that the current system just isn’t working. It’s so bad that the only viable option is to destroy and rebuild it. There’s no room, whatsoever, for reform.

This is where the heroes will have to evolve, as well. They can’t just play “Super Friends” and save the day. They have to actually make meaningful changes to move society forward. King T’Challa did that at the end of “Black Panther.” Other heroes need to be as willing. Otherwise, they won’t be able to call themselves heroes. They’re just defenders of a status quo may not be working as well as they think.

It’s an ideological struggle that parallels many real-world struggles. People today have less and less faith in established institutions. As a result, more people are falling sway to populist rhetoric that promises to break down the current system entirely. By and large, people today aren’t content with just preserving things as they are. They seek more meaningful change.

That presents a serious problem for heroes and a golden opportunity for villains. Historically, heroes haven’t been able to effect change beyond a certain point. Some of that is for logistical reasons. A hero can never create a functioning utopia without ending the story completely, which is something major media companies cannot have. There’s too much money to be made.

Logistics aside, the future of villainy will have plenty of raw materials to work with and plenty of societal angst to draw upon. Heroes who save the day, but do little else won’t be able to call themselves heroes in the world currently unfolding. Villains who have a real vision with understandable motivations will find themselves with more supporters than before.

It’s no longer taboo to root for the villain, especially when the heroes don’t confront the flaws in their rhetoric. In what seems prophetic now, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” may have put it best when Ultron stated:

“I’m sorry, I know you mean well. You just didn’t think it through. You want to protect the world, but you don’t want it to change.”

That’ll be the key to the future of villainy, change in a world that resists too much of it happening at once. It’ll make for some complicated villains, but it will definitely make the struggle of heroes even harder. However it plays out, I believe it’ll be worth watching.

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