Sunday, March 1, 2015

Drugs, Freedom, Prison, and the Doobie

The United States is quickly changing.  With Gay marriage and LGBTI rights, with a variety of national first ever achievements by women and minorities, the US seems to have embraced the change that President Obama promised when he was campaigning back in 2008.  Obviously, not everything promised comes true.  And it was doubtful that in 2008 most people could have foreseen the green wave of marijuana legal use laws coming into power in various states and perhaps even the District of Columbia, the nation's capital.

But just because marijuana is being legalized doesn't mean America is going to hell.  There have been dystopias written about such a world system, and they are frightening, and not for the fact that I believe they can happen, but for the writing and true horror expressed in those stories.  If you count alcohol as a drug, and it is, and tobacco, we've had legal drug use for centuries.  And we should be honest about marijuana use as well, there has been a mostly don't get caught but just be discreet use of the product attitude for about 30 years.  

I've posted the covers of a number of books related to the topic, and I'll mention, in brief why you might find them of interest, with regard to this subject.

Narcopolis by Jamie Delano is a wild tale that is not a cautionary tale about drug use, but rather, it is a speculative look at how a society might use drugs to make their world a utopia, and how others might not agree with that world view. This clash leads to some dramatic dissonance between reality and the comfy place the drug world allowed the society to experience.

Kallocain by Karin Boye is about how fear, conformity and the use of and prevalence of a drug called Kallocain draw citizens into a web of distrust, rather than safety or comfort.  It is a fantastic look at how honesty and trust cannot come from force or from the use of truth serums.

Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas by the Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson is said by some to celebrate the world of drugs, and gambling and violence.  But what it really gets into is the desire to live free from laws and to exercise that freedom, regardless of the possible harm to one's body, or reputation.  Many mistake it for what it is not, which is, a road trip book.  It is an example of how we as a being chafe at authority and use whatever means available to escape it.

Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, Jr. is slightly similar to Fear and Loathing, in that it presents a world that is pumped with violence and drugs.  However, there is no way this book is misunderstood as anything other than what it is, a cautionary tell from the streets, about drugs, prostitution and violence.  There is a cycle on the street that people get hooked on drugs, then are forced to prostitute their bodies, and then are kept in line as prostitutes through violence.

The Filth is a comic book graphic novel by Grant Morrison and Chris Weston. Morrison gets at modernity's real issues, and drugs are both good and bad in that assessment.  Drugs are used to dull the minds of the genius in this world, they keep the minds of that group under mediation psychotropic drugs make sure they never stray.  Other medicines, perhaps like the ADHD medicine we hear about, keeps children who used to be thought over active but creative, from reaching their peaks of achievement.  But drugs open the minds of people, allow them to escape the drudgery of this existence, and by that, they can rise above the Filth of this existence. 

A Scanner Darkly by Phillip K. Dick demonstrates how wild drug use can be, as in this work both the protagonist and antagonist share a common foe, and share a common goal, despite being at odds.  I can't reveal more without revealing spoilers but... Drug use here is at the heart of the novel, it causes people to perceive the world differently, and causes effects such as paranoia and fear at degrees far higher than normal.

Kiss My Asbo by Alistair Fruish is a work that covers a society thoroughly infiltrated by drug use, crime, and the iron hand of the government.  Take the blue pill, and get out as fast as you can.

Confession of an English Opium Eater, Thomas De Quincey's autobiography, is an extraordinary work of power.  It shows the effects upon a life of Opium use, how it ravishes his life, but since it was not yet illegal, nor worried over, it was thought to be a means of examining life through a different medium.  It was seen by some artistic people as a clue that opium and other drugs opens the gateway to the subconscious as well as a direct corridor to the creative center.

William S. Burroughs was a JUNKY was the second book written by Burroughs, and it covers the sorrow filled existence of a heroin addict.  It was originally published under a pen name, it was considered a work of great controversy due to the direct and ugly world that was exposed.

Batman: Venom by Dennis O'Neil and many others, is a comic book tradepaperback (TPB) story that demonstrates the power and corruption, as well as the addiction that follows the use of the drug Venom.  This drug later is used to power Kane, a very dangerous opponent. 

Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh  Whereas JUNKY by Burroughs was controversial in its time, Trainspotting told of a much larger tragedy, filled with immense amounts of human lives wasted by the addictions they had, mostly by heroin, but other addictive behaviors as well.  To ignore the heroin use and try to say the work is about anything else would be a joke.  The run down areas of Edinburgh and other areas, and abject poverty serve as a backdrop of the hopelessness that allows and encourages people to dispose of their lives, and not try very hard to get it back.  Some do, of course, but many get addicted again, and others get involved in other sorts of behaviors.

BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley is less a book about drug use as it is a book about a dystopia where drugs are used as part of the way humans are stripped of their individuality, made to sleep at various hours, for the state's benefit, and to gain better abilities at whatever society needed them to achieve.  The book is magnificent, easily one of the best of all time.  It isn't however, the best of the books regarding drug use.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Although Poplitiko has had many authors

Currently we are just two and sometimes three authors.

Kurt Wilcken and I have known each other since 2002.  I've known Paul Ewert since 2007. (Or so.)  And I've known Poplitiko Emeritus Author Marc Kleinhenz since 2008.  All of the staff here are people I trust, OK, what the hell, I love em.  I love them all like Pac Man loves to eat those dots on the screen.

Anyhow I am here to briefly announce that I have an Amazon author page.

 I will be back soon with more thoughts about popular culture.  

(Edward Burne-Jones: The  Holy Grail: The arming and departure.  A tapestry)

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Smile of the Bat

Strangely enough, I didn’t read many comic books as a kid, with the exception of my Dad’s collection of POGO books in our basement and the comics pages of the Sunday newspaper.  I’m afraid I had a kind of snobbish attitude towards them; I read real books, like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.  But on one occasion, my parents bought my brother and I each a comic book and those books, although I can’t say exactly changed my life, stayed with me in my imaginations and my memory.

One was an issue of BRAVE AND THE BOLD featuring a team-up between Batman and the Atom in which Batman winds up in a coma and the Atom helps him solve his own murder by shrinking down to microscopic size and running around on the surface of Batman’s brain to stimulate it into moving his body.  The other was a DETECTIVE COMICS which featured the epic conclusion of Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson’s Manhunter series.  The Manhunter/Batman story in particular impressed me with Simonson’s stunning artwork and I tried lifting some of his visual techniques in some of my own cartoons.

But there was more to those comics than that. This was during the mid-’70s, when DC Comics was putting out 100-page issues, cram-packed with reprint goodness.  In addition to the featured story, those two comics also included, between the two of them, a surreal Golden Age Spectre story, Steve Ditko’s origin story for the Creeper, the Viking Prince, the Golden Age Green Lantern’s first battle with the Sportsmaster, and a fantastic story in which Dr. Fate and Hourman team-up to fight not just Solomon Grundy, but a zombie Green Lantern.  My brother and I must have read and re-read those two comics for months.

But in some ways the strangest story of them all was a reprint of an old Batman and Robin tale from the ‘40s.  To explain why, let me back up a bit.

The first thing that struck me when I read those comics was the ears.  DC had recently re-designed Batman’s costume giving him a cowl with eight-inch long bat-ears pointy enough to put someone’s eyes out.  The second, and more significant thing I noticed was how serious Batman was.  I was familiar with the TV Batman, of course, who would smile and shake hands with Robin before proceeding to beat the snot out of criminals in the animated opening; but in the ’70s DC went through a process of trying to de-silly the Darknight Detective..  This Batman wasn’t just serious, he was positively grim.  The way Walt Simonson drew him, Batman was frowning so hard it looked like his face was going to break.

But one of the comics, I forget which one now, also had a Golden Age Batman story in which he and Robin match wits with a couple villains I hadn’t heard of before named Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee.  This looked more like the Batman I’d been familiar with.  His ears were a reasonable length and didn’t look like they were compensating for anything.  He could joke with Robin while punching out thugs.  He actually smiled.  This was a Batman who clearly enjoyed his work.  The cognitive dissonance between the two stories was enough to give my poor 10-year-old brain whiplash.

It was many years later that I started seriously reading comic books; about the time Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS came out in fact.  If the Batman of the ‘70s was grim, Miller’s Batman was ultra-grim:  a bitter and angry, obsessive old man in a corrupt and crime-ridden city.  Miller told a powerful story and his comic was certainly ground-breaking.  DARK KNIGHT RETURNS is a good comic, but I’m not sure I’m so happy with its Batman becoming the Definitive Batman.

DARK KNIGHT RETURNS was set in a Gotham City that was dark and crime-ridden because it had deteriorated since Batman’s retirement.  Succeeding writers decided that Gotham was always a dark and corrupt city.  The DARK KNIGHT Batman was a bitter old man who’d been stewing in his obsessions for decades.  Later writers grafted this attitude onto the present-day Batman.  And then there’s the whole thing about his relationship with Superman.  There once was a time when Superman and Batman were buds, and regarded each other as peers.  DARK KNIGHT played up their differences, and it’s Bruce Wayne was contemptuous of Clark Kent. Now, granted, Miller handled this well, and gave the reader the sense that there had be a friendship between the two men at one time; and his portrayal of Superman is more sympathetic than perhaps a lot of readers have given credit.  But that hasn’t stopped other writers from seizing on this antagonism as the defining dynamic between the two characters.

Max Alan Collins, a prolific mystery author who has also written comic books, was once asked to write an introduction for the trade paperback compilation volume of DARK KNIGHT RETURNS.  The piece he wrote was rejected, and he later claimed it was because in the introduction he said that Frank Miller’s dark and psychotic Batman and the campy Adam West Batman from TV were both legitimate interpretations of the character.

A similar sentiment was expressed in an episode of the animated series Batman: The Brave and the Bold in which the Bat-Mite directly addressed Batman‘s fans:

“Batman's rich history allows him to be interpreted in a multitude of ways. To be sure, this is a lighter incarnation, but it's certainly no less valid and true to the character's roots than the tortured avenger crying out for mommy and daddy.”

Don’t get me wrong; the Grim and Gritty Post-DARK KNIGHT/Post-WATCHMEN Era has produced some really good stories; but I can’t help but think something has been lost too, and that something is a sense of Joy.  Batman used take some pleasure in his work; He used to be able to relax.  He used to be able to smile.

There was a classic Batman story from the ‘70s in which Bruce Wayne takes some disadvantaged Gotham kids out on a camping trip, and he overhears them talking about the Batman.  Each one has a different , fanciful idea about what the Batman is really like.  Bruce changes into his costume and comes out to surprise the kids.  “Actually, Batman looks like this!” he says.  The kids laugh:  “You can’t fool us, Mister Wayne!”

It’s hard to imagine the current-day Bruce Wayne taking time off from his War on Crime to organize a camping trip or putting on his costume to give some kids a treat.  Nope, he’s too busy wallowing in angst and grim determination.

Which I wouldn’t mind if it gave us good stories and if this uber-grim attitude was confined to the Bat-Cave, but one of the downsides of the Grim ‘n’ Gritty Era is that it has given writers the sense that Gloom equals Realism and if Dark Angst works for Batman, it should work for other heroes too.  This is why the Man of Steel movie gave us a Superman dressed in a costume of reddish-grey and bluish-grey,   Back in the early ‘90s, the short-lived TV series based on THE FLASH tried to look as much as possible like Tim Burton’s Batman, set in a city of eternal night.  The newer TV series is a little wiser, allowing Barry Allen to run around in the daytime occasionally, and giving him some fun in his life as well as angst.

I suppose it’s too late now to avoid sounding like a Cranky Old Fan.  But I like my comics and my heroes to have a sense of Joy about them.  I don’t insist that they all be “Bwa-ha-ha” funny like the old JUSTICE LEAGUE INTERNATIONAL, or that Batman fight goofy space aliens as he did in the 1950s.  But I would like some sense of fun; some sense that the heroes are allowed to enjoy themselves on occasion.

I’d like to see Batman smile a little more.

The Source waters and the branches of the river

There is truism that, there is nothing new under the sun.  That is, everything comes from a previous source and follows a pattern or path that repeats a theme that was created eons ago.

Pygmalion, a play, and book by George Bernard Shaw refers to a poem by Ovid, from ancient Rome, about a sculptor who created a piece of art, and fell in love with it.  

A favorite work of art that I adore is Edward Burne-Jones "The King and the Beggar-Maid, is not only fantastic, but it tells a story that is said to echo to the present, but has tendrils that explains the basic story of a high classed person dealing with a lower class person, only to learn how magnificent the person beneath the assumptions of class is.

The 20th century has shown us numerous examples, in both higher to lower, and lower to the higher class movement.  As well, the examples of the higher class teaching the lower falls into gender separations as well, with men teaching women, and women teaching men, and to throw a curve, ... the 3 Stooges were taught by a Professor and his daughter.    If everything has a beginning, we can thereby trace it from the current stream back to the source.  Part of the great adventure of popular culture, we can find and watch and consider all of it.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Battle of the Berezina, or So you think you are cold

End of November, 1812... Napoleon and his Grand Armee begins a retreat from Moscow, having hurt, but never destroyed the Russian Empire.  During the retreat of Napoleon's army from Moscow, his forces had abandoned many things, including most of its bridging supplies.  Fortunately for Napoleon his general in charge of such things, General Jean Baptiste Eblé had held back just enough of such in case of the inevitable emergency.  And there would be one, because Russian territory was large and every land has rivers.

As the army was retreating, some were fighting a rear guard action, against a Russian force that was hungry for vengeance, and to evict the invaders. Napoleon was concerned about the battles, but now, his forces in early winter, cold and freezing weather, approached a river that was open, but moving, freezing cold, and dangerous.

The crush of oncoming forces behind his 60,000 men forced Napoleon into making desperate commands.  He sent various forces in different directions to distract his enemy.  Meanwhile General Eblé sent his force of Dutch engineers into the waters of the Berezina river, where they set up a 100 meter bridge, in waters that were going to kill them from the cold.

Swiss units in the Grand Armee of the French were sent to hold out against the constant attacks and kept the Russians from breaking through.  From their original number of 8000 they numbered a mere 300 by the end of the action at the Berezina river. 

The bridges were holding, and the army poured across, but it was not a victory, nor defeat in military terms, much like Dunkirk in the Second World War, Berezina was realization of a disaster that could have been, and relief for the disaster that did not occur.

A poem was written for the Swiss units who fought so hard and were left with so few, by Ludwig Giseke

Our life is like a journey
Of a wanderer through the night;
Everybody carries something on his way
That causes him to grieve.
But then unexpectedly do fade
Night and darkness before us,
And the sorely troubled find
Solace to their sorrow.
Fearless, fearless, dear brothers,
Abandon the anxious worries;
Tomorrow the sun will rise again
Friendly in the sky.
Therefore let us move on;
Do not retreat disheartenedly!
Beyond those far heights
A new happiness awaits us.