Monday, March 29, 2010

The End is Near

At the turn of ever Millenium we have predictions of dire end to the world. There is a localistic belief that our time, our place is the most important, and thereby, the pinnacle.

We've been hearing on the news that 2012 fears come from a number of factors, the Mayan Calendar ends, at the end of 2012, a variety of pseudo science gurus tell us that Nibiru, a planet that will destroy the earth in a great collision approaches, and that the end this time is unavoidable.

But the fact that people watch documentaries about some prophecy of disaster doesn't mean it is likely, nor does it mean that there is anything to suggest that popular culture is doing anything but reflecting what we are thinking about. That is, no matter what is reality, the job of media is to entertain, and it does so by thinking about what you are thinking about, and giving you information in that regard. Even if it isn't news, or reality, if you are interested in it, their job is to feed that.

So is 2012 false? I guess we will find out for certain, soon enough. But Y2K was mostly false. And contrary to numerous predictions, Jesus hasn't returned yet, that anyone knows. But they will, however, keep predicting it.

When the end DOES come, I suggest it won't be nearly so dramatic, nearly so complete, or nearly so predictable. It will happen, I am relatively sure, but just how? How the hell do I know?

But I do know that Zecharia Sitchin and Erich von Däniken make money when you believe their theories, and they sell books and documentaries, to you. They have understood your fears, and they desire your money. So give it to them if you like. But if the end is near, I would suggest that they have no clue more than you what will be the cause.

Mike Grell upon the passing of Dick Giordano



I just learned that legendary comic artist Dick Giordano died of leukemia this morning. I can't tell you saddened I am by the news and how much it meant to me to have known and worked with him. He was one of my heroes, a major influence in my career and an amazing artist whose genuine love of comics showed in every stroke of his brush. A giant among giants.

It was Dick's collaboration with Neal Adams and Denny O'Neil on the ground-breaking series GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW that made me decide to get into the comic business. When I finally met him in New York in 1973, I found him friendly, funny and always willing to take time to show a youngster a few tips. It was Dick who taught me that balloons should be treated as part of the art and that their placement is critical to the readability of the page. He never gave me the impression that I was wasting his time, while I hovered over his shoulder and asked him a million questions... not that he heard them all, anyway. His hearing was already failing, but his talent never did. The work he did in his later years, especially on MODESTY BLAISE, was nothing short of magnificent.

Although we rarely collaborated on art, I had the honor to write many GREEN ARROW stories which Dick inked over Dan Jurgens' pencils. It was Dick's support and influence that made it possible for us to push the envelope and do stories that would otherwise never have made it into print.

When I was asked to return to THE LEGION OF SUPERHEROES and draw the Lightning Lad & Saturn Girl wedding sequence, I agreed on one condition - that Dick would be the inker. Dick was happy to oblige and for about ten minutes I was overjoyed. Then it hit me - my drawings were going to be inked by the best in the business. Let me tell you, I sweated bullets over every line I put down, wondering what Dick would think of it.

The truth is Dick was such a terrific artist, anything you handed him turned out looking great. His artistry showed in his ability to turn a wide variety of pencil styles into inks that were dynamic and readable back in the day when paper quality was poor and printing left a lot to be desired. He once told me he actually preferred looser pencils that allowed him more freedom of interpretation. And when he did it all - pencils AND inks - he was matchless.

When the names of the giants are written - Jack Kirby, Wally Wood, Steve Ditko and the rest of that great generation who built the comic industry - Dick Giordano's name surely belongs among them.

Mike Grell

Friday, March 26, 2010

By Your Command -- Part 7

"Ghosts in the Machine" (108)

Is Joseph Adama the new Prometheus?

It is an interesting question. Uranus, the first king of the Titans, the proto-race of deities in ancient Greek mythology, is overthrown, mutilated, and killed by one of his sons, Cronus. Cronus himself, after becoming the tyrant that his father was, is likewise deposed by his own son, Zeus, the first of the new race of gods, the Olympians.

With the original deities cast aside and Zeus firmly ensconced as the head of the new pantheon, Prometheus, one of the remaining Titans and something of a Loki figure, decides to characteristically wreak havoc on the newly enthroned divine ruler: he steals fire from its secure location on Mount Olympus, beyond the meddling touch of puny mortal man, and bestows it (back) upon humanity as a gift. Angered at his forefather’s transgressions, Zeus condemns him to be eternally punished: lashed to a rock in the Caucasus, by day his liver is ripped out and devoured by an eagle; by night, his vital organ is regenerated (the Titans are immortal, after all), allowing the pattern to be repeated ad infinitum.

(It is at this point, even before a wayward Joseph Adama enters the picture, that the story of Prometheus holds a significant amount of relevance to the Battlestar Galactica mythos. Ronald D. Moore, the [co] creator of both BSG and Caprica, has said in his numerous podcast commentaries that man’s creation of the original race of Cylons all the way back on Kobol – which, according to Colonial legend, earned them the ire of the gods and caused them to be cast out of the gods’ dwelling place – was inspired by the mischievous Titan’s snatching of the divine primordial secret; the ultimate sacred flame is that of the spark of life itself, of course, even if it is used to fuel mechanical bodies instead of biological ones [“Sometimes a Great Notion,” 411].)

In New Cap City, it is more than likely that Cerberus, the cross-dressing, drag-queen, cabaret-singing host of the nightclub Mysteries, asks such a broadly theatrical question of Joseph – is he a member of the old gods come to torment the new in order to help the most recently created lifeforms? – just for theatricality’s sake; the club’s whole show, from the asking of the riddle to the bursts of flame in the background to the promise of hidden insights into the ever-elusive meaning of the game, is meant to make money, to draw a crowd, just as much as Wednesday’s happy hour does. But it just may be that Cerberus stumbled upon something much more profound than his MMO bromide usually provides, as had happened when Tamara took the stage and inadvertently revealed her ability to “transcend life and death.”

If Zoe Graystone is the Holy Trinity, the mother of life everlasting, then the living avatars are her sacred flame (“Maybe [Tamara’s] found the answers that everyone’s searching for,” Cerberus says after a gun is pointed in his face. “Or maybe she is the answer”). Joseph finds himself in the avatars’ domain – the virtual equivalent of Olympus or Kobol, take your pick – to snatch her back to the land of the living, to remove the digital ghost from a physical machine, making him, indeed, a new Prometheus for a new round of celestial bloodshed.

But Cerberus isn’t done providing us with narrative fodder for comparative mythological analysis. The transgender host derives his name from the three-headed beast that guards the gates of Hades, preventing those who have made the voyage across the river Styx – which holds another intersection with the Battlestar material in the form of the Tauron funeral rite (“Gravedancing,” 104) – from escaping back to the realm of the living. Although the nightclub incarnation of the sentry of the dead doesn’t do nearly as good a job as his legendary predecessor, he still manages to somewhat obfuscate Joseph – and to pepper him with some insights into the nature of reality, whether it be virtual or inner, to boot.

There are other mythical runners entered into the mix here. Hercules, the fabled half-human son of Zeus (possible intimations of Battlestar’s Hera here), doubles as Prometheus’s ultimate savior in this telling, slaying the eagle that comes daily to feast on his vital organs. Hercules, of course, in the original Greek myths, is known as Heracles – the wimpy, pimply teenager with the silly hairdo in Caprica who initially acts as Adama’s guide through the murky underworld that is New Cap City.

And, of course, the whole thing comes full circle with cross-dressing Cerberus’s reference to the gods overthrowing the Titans in his riddle to Adama (the first confirmation we have of the Titans even having an extension in Colonial religion at all), a nice metaphor for the constant cycle of violence and usurpation that plagues all of the gods’ creations throughout the twenty-thousand-year sweep of the BSG narrative, from Kobol to Cylon Earth to the Twelve Colonies to final Earth. And it even manages to contain overtones of Bill Adama’s speech about parents visiting their sins upon their children – something which both Joseph and Daniel Graystone know all too well now – from Battlestar’s pilot miniseries, tying all of Ron Moore’s mythology together as well as that of a Greco-Roman nature.

But where, exactly, will this crescendo of mythical underpinnings climax at – and when? Is it possible to know Adama’s ultimate fate, as well as that of Tammy’s (and Zoe’s and Daniel’s, of course), from the allusions to famous Greek heroes and their (mis)adventures?

The mid-season finale, which arrives (early) with the next installment, will undoubtedly start to deliver on all this foreshadowing. But the real answer may very well lie in Cerberus’s final speech to Joseph:

“The game speaks to all of us – differently. Changes us in ways that we can’t expect. Stick around long enough, it’ll happen to you.”

It already has.

Friday, March 19, 2010

By Your Command -- Part 6

"The Imperfections of Memory" (107)

Tomas Vergis developed a meta-cognitive processor, something that not even the mighty Graystone Enterprises had managed to do, but he can’t get it to function properly.

Daniel Graystone crafted a fully functional robotic body, capable of the most impressive speed and reaction times, but it is incapable of sentient thought, rendering it so much scrap metal.

Zoe Graystone programmed a “living avatar,” a perfect digital replica of one’s personality, but it cannot exist outside of V-World, leaving it stranded in cyberspace.

When all three separate elements are brought together in perfect alignment, suddenly a thinking, feeling, precision-aiming and arm-ripping Cylon is created – a living being, complete unto itself. Although the series has spoken of trinities before – Lacy Rand called her robot-moribund friend a composite of the flesh-and-bone Zoe, the living avatar of Zoe, and the metal-and-chrome Cylon shell (“Rebirth,” 102) – this is a true-blue Trinity, even if one that is not necessarily Holy (just like everything else in the Battlestar Galactica mythos), and one whose components of mind, body, and spirit closely relate to the classic archetypes of both ancient and modern mythology, ranging from Christianity’s Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit to the Matrix trilogy’s Matrix, Zion, and Zero-One. These past seven episodes have been, more than anything else, the story of how these elements fall together and form the prototype of the first artificially intelligent being; the remainder of the season will undoubtedly follow the expansion of the one to the many, giving rise to a small collective of personality-driven Cylons (which may or may not include Tamara Adama).

It is interesting to note how Battlestar, produced previously but chronologically subsequent, picks up from where Caprica already ends, extending The Matrix’s template – just as that trilogy showed how the three disjointed facets of mind, body, and spirit reconnected in peace to forge one whole and holistic personality, BSG was the story of man and machine joining together, figuratively and literally, to create an entirely new epoch with an entirely new civilization to fill it and give it voice. (That that civilization and voice looked and sounded almost exactly like the previous one[s] is the fundamental contrast between Ronald D. Moore’s story, an inherently pessimistic one, and the Wachowski brothers’ tale, a fundamentally reaffirming one.)

* * * * *

When Earth, the thirteenth colony, peopled entirely by a synthetic race known as the (first-generation) Cylons, stood on the brink of nuclear annihilation, two angels, dispatched by that mysterious divine entity called the gods by the Earthlings, warned only five individuals of the impending doom. They were instructed to build an ark and to bear witness to the utter destruction that life can oftentimes bring (upon itself, if not by divine invocation).

When the Twelve Colonies of Kobol likewise faced nuclear devastation three millennia later, two more angels flitted about the divine’s creations, attaching themselves to one human and one (third-generation) Cylon. Rather than simply warning them of the encroaching desolation, the celestial beings instead manipulated, lied, and otherwise lead their chosen subjects through the post-apocalyptic landscape, helping them to become leaders of their respective societies, to merge the two together into one, and, above all, to preserve the sacred flame of life, both theirs and their peoples’.

In “The Imperfections of Memory,” Amanda Graystone is visited by the “ghost” of her dead brother. The first time this happened, some years ago, others around her assumed it was merely a manifestation of a mental breakdown; this time, the one quickly becoming closest to her, Sister Clarice Willow, just may assume that it is an emissary of the one and true God, dispatched to Amanda to help her carry out His plan – the creation and rise of the (next) Cylons.

It just may be that angels are walking upon Caprica years before they alternately grace and haunt Gaius Baltar.

Friday, March 12, 2010

By Your Command -- Part 5

"Know They Enemy" (106)

The Soldiers of the One want to live forever.

And they’re acquiring the means to do it, too. The late Zoe Graystone’s program for creating a “living avatar” will mean not only that any soldier they lose can continue the good fight ad infinitum – particularly useful for an organization that sends young suicide bombers out into the field – but any individual, presumably, who they deem valuable enough to have his consciousness enshrined in digital infinity can now essentially live forever.

But Sister Clarice Willow clearly sees it as something much more: “the continuation of the soul into eternity.” This is a highly fascinating point and the grandest, densest, most potent plot development the series has yet to offer up; whereas Daniel Graystone and Joseph Adama’s initial, visceral reaction to the digital doppelgangers of their daughters is dismissive and, even, traced with contempt, and whereas greater Colonial society blames technology writ large for the frailties of the human condition – as so perfectly and elegantly embodied by Baxter Sarno – the monotheists willingly and willfully embrace the technological extension of one’s personality, even going so far as to say that it is simply another vessel for the soul to inhabit. The differences – and the cultural ramifications – between the two religious factions could not be greater.

There is an interesting wrinkle here in the Battlestar Galactica mythos. On Kobol, some three or four thousand years ago, the twelve tribes of man created a synthetic race and endowed them with the ability to download their consciousnesses into new bodies when the old ones were irreparably damaged, creating the phenomenon of resurrection – a practice which eventually became lost to the first Cylons but was itself resurrected by the Final Five members of their race. On Caprica, all these millennia later, the Colonials are slowly going about the same process all over again – but, this time, without the added element of sentient machines. All of this has happened before, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to happen exactly the same way – yet.

* * * * *

Although the titular antagonist in “Know Thy Enemy” is undeniably Tomas Vergis, head of Graystone Enterprises’s rival Vergis Corp, there is a far more interesting – and potentially far more dangerous – foil that this episode introduces.

As Clarice Willow begs for more time from the Conclave, the governing entity of the STO (and another new element established in this week’s installment), in order to reconstruct Zoe’s pathway to apotheosis, Barnabas Greeley is planting and detonating more and more bombs. As Clarice advocates a more subdued presence amongst the streets of Caprica City in the wake of the maglev attack, Barnabas is pushing forward as bombastically as possible. As Clarice attempts to get Zoe and other key personnel off of the planet and to the monotheistic safehouse on Gemenon, Barnabas has his own people sacrifice their lives to their cause – even if it means sacrificing Clarice’s people’s lives, too.

Even though audiences had not realized it until this week, it is the clash between these two terrorist cell leaders that had put into place the series of events that started the series. It is undoubtedly a conflict that will continue to propel the forces of history as we head to the mid-season finale just a few short weeks away and, beyond that, to the season finale proper.

It may even end up being one of the major developments that helps the soon-to-be-born Centurions accept the leadership and en masse rebirth of the Final Five eighteen years hence.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Now THERE'S a Bat-man

Well, it’s official: Christopher Nolan is back for Batman 3.

While the sly writer-producer-director didn’t technically confirm his presence in the director’s chair for the sequel to 2008’s The Dark Knight in his exclusive interview yesterday with the LA Times, he’s very much involved in the scripting of the film – being co-writer of the previous two movies, he’ll more than likely carry the same credit for this outing, as well – which all but guarantees that he’ll helm the picture, too; what production, from Memento (2000) to Inception (2010), has Nolan written that he hasn’t also directed (besides Insomnia [2002], that is)?

His return as director is the latest in a long string of firsts that Batman 3 provides for Warner Bros’s lucrative film franchise. Its star is the first actor to portray the titular character three times; its writing team (always some combination of David Goyer and writing siblings Jonathan and Chris Nolan) is the first to pen three Bat-films; its plot is the first to provide a definitive ending for the story of Batman.

It is this last one, of course, that is the most intriguing. The last Batman story? It’s something that DC Comics has rarely attempted to do in 71 years of spinning Batman yarns, with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) the only major entry. Just how, exactly, Nolan manages to resolve the adventures of Batman and his assorted cast of characters already provides the biggest amount of narrative tension, a year-and-a-half before the movie even bows in theaters.

While the exact nature of the ending is a huge question mark – one meant for the Riddler to deliver to audiences next summer? – the overall structure of the film’s story is easy enough to see, most especially because of Nolan and company’s adherence to the holy trinity of “Year One” graphic novels: Miller’s Year One (1987) and Jeph Loeb’s The Long Halloween (1996-1997) and Dark Victory (1999-2000). The three comics tell of Batman’s dramatic entrance, the gradual degradation of the Falcone family’s hold on – and, thus, the splintering of organized crime overall within – Gotham City, and the meteoric rise of the costumed supervillian, starting with Catwoman and the Joker and quickly expanding to include the likes of the Mad Hatter, Mr. Freeze (the one antagonist confirmed to not be in the new movie), and Solomon Grundy. Expect to see the last vestiges of Gotham’s Mafia completely swept aside, either by the gallant Commissioner Gordon or the outlaw Batman, with the door possibly left open for the continuing adventures of costumed adventurers on both sides of the moral divide (if, that is, Bruce Wayne does not give up the cape and cowl for good, as happens – more or less – in The Dark Knight Returns).

And then there’s the other holy trinity, the filmic trilogy that has served as template for many a movie series since its conclusion nearly thirty years ago: the original Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983). Its last installment, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, shows us that things get worse before they get better; Batman 3’s beginning should likewise be dominated by a resurgent Falcone crime syndicate, trying to ride the wave of public outcry against Batman as thoroughly as possible, before it is inexorably and irrevocably decapitated.

The first complete Bat-story on the silver screen to be told by one single creative team – it is enough to get anyone excited, even with the dark cloud of Goyer’s continued involvement in the process. Nolan chronicled the very beginning of Bruce Wayne’s journey as a costumed vigilante – yet another first for the movies – in 2005’s Batman Begins; now he decisively ends it.

Here’s to hoping that decisive is, indeed, the appropriate word to describe the denouement.

Friday, March 5, 2010

By Your Command -- Part 4

“There Is Another Sky” (105)

Daniel Graystone’s corporation was birthed on some technological product – what, exactly, has not been disclosed as of yet. It was raised to new levels of commercial success with the various virtual reality nets, which it licensed to developers, and the holoband, the device it sold (and, perhaps, continues to sell) to access them, over the past several years. Now its financial future lies solely with the Cylons, a race of unquestioning mechanical workers, maids, and soldiers.

There is a nice little intersection here of fact and hypothesis, historical comment and futuristic supposition. The intrusion upon and manipulation of copyrighted materials or legal spaces, the growing demand of services rendered freely by younger and younger individuals, and the spontaneous creation and exponential expansion of a hacker culture popping up around a technical device are all ripped straight from the headlines of any newspaper from the past fifteen years. Graystone Enterprises, in this regard, is a surrogate for AOL; Daniel, a proxy for Bill Gates. They are both testimonials to the still-murky cost and cultural legacies of the inexorable movement from physical atoms to digital bits.

This societal reflection, what Battlestar Galactica did so deftly for the entirety of its run, is, of course, overlaid with the strongest foreshadowing of the First Cylon War the series has heretofore offered – and the first unequivocal statement, if not tacit judgment, of just why the conflict has to erupt. In the pilot, two grieving fathers conspire to extend the digital versions of their daughters to the realm of the flesh and blood (or, at least, the metal and chrome), a thoroughly honest and imminently understandable, if not also at least a marginally provincial, desire. Should the rise of the Cylons and the subsequent fall of mankind have proceeded from this emotional impetus alone, the vagaries of fate and the laws of unintended consequences would have largely been to blame. But Graystone’s tirade to his board of directors is neither innocuous nor naïve; it is calculating, self-promoting, grandiose, ego-driven – and predicated upon a foundation of complete and utter subservience of an entire people. That Graystone simultaneously flaunts the obvious and impressive sentience of the being in front of him while degrading and condemning it to the life of a slave is the final nail in humanity’s coffin – and its innocence.

* * * * *

Individuals muddle their way through an immersive and highly realistic simulation based off of real-life geographies and societal developments, knowing their objectives but not the point behind them. It is a premise that either Franz Kafka or Samuel Beckett would be proud to own, and it is a solid, if not subtle, counterpoint to the oftentimes equally haphazard meanderings of the characters in the real Caprica City.

That V-World is more real to the flesh-and-blood Heracles and the really-real world holds more primacy to the digital Tamara Adama is ironic and also extremely telling; it loosely delineates a hazy line of muddied grays that entrenches all of the characters to one degree or another, driving them to alternatively abandon their families or suicide-bomb a commuter train.

It also represents a possible area of compromise between the biological and the mechanical, the physical and the digital, the material and the substantive. It’s simply a shame that this nebulous region isn’t explored by all and sundry until the very end of Battlestar’s run, after wars have claimed an inordinately high number of lives on both sides of the spectrum.

After which it starts all over again, ten thousand years later.

* * * * *

A dominant theme in the podcast commentaries given by writing executive producer David Eick and directing co-exec producer Jonas Pate has been that of simplifying the convoluted for a general television audience. How do they clearly and immediately differentiate a scene set in virtual reality as opposed to one in real life? After several episodes filled with behind-the-scenes debate and, we are told, trial-and-error, the producers derived a solution they were all equally happy with: an abstract animated sequence that would precede each VR scene, even if it’s at the top of an act, fresh from the cleansing wash of a commercial break.

There is only one fundamental problem with the arrangement: this equation of simplicity, density, and appeal is a logical fallacy. Beyond the argument of the actual intelligences of audiences – an admittedly dubious one, if politics are any sort of indicator – there are the realities behind Caprica’s viewership. Those who tune in to Syfy, and do so religiously, (a) spell the term Sci Fi; (b) are intimately familiar with the concepts of virtual realities and avatars (another element that Eick and Pate endlessly prattle on about, thanking their lucky stars that James Cameron was nice enough to explain this particularly esoteric term to the entire American populace for them); and (c) have watched enough television to understand its assorted language of auditory and visual cues to know when they have entered an alternate space, such as a dream or – yes – an MMO. There are wide swaths of the audience who will be quite literally bored to tears with Professor Eick’s Pop Culture 101; all of those NASCAR dads and Sarah Palin moms who would, possibly, need such remedial instruction are never going to let their TVs stay on Syfy long enough for good old Mr. Neilson to register their ethereal presences. Rather than opening the show up to hypothetical segments of the audience, Eick, Pate, Jane Espenson, and the others are alienating the only viewers they have and ever will get.

The corollary to the producers’ final solution being superfluous is its being obnoxious. It is heavy-handed, repetitive, and most certainly artificial; it tears the viewer out of the experience rather than immersing him in it. Eick and his partner-in-crime, Ronald D. Moore, always intoxicated themselves with the notion that Battlestar Galactica was a subtle, sophisticated series that tackled complex issues in subtle, sophisticated ways. Whether valid – or even true – or not, a cute, animated title card is something that BSG would never have allowed. For a series that strives to raise the franchise’s narrative to a higher level with a far greater focus on character and emphasis on integrated storylines, it is sinking to that most awful of refuse heaps in terms of actual execution: the lowest common denominator.

Perhaps it is this that helps to explain its lackluster ratings thus far.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Mark Herringshaw is a friend of mine. He is an author and Christian, minister and speaker. I respect him very much. He wrote a book called THE KARMA OF JESUS and it is a very powerful work. But if you believe in Karma and not so much Christian beliefs it will provide a challenge for those beliefs. The term Karma is unavoidably present in many conversations and works in this world. The concept of it is perhaps often misstated or misunderstood, but it too exists in great numbers. This is a work that addresses a phenomenon in popular culture, and I felt it a worthy issue to discuss at a site such as our own. That and I got a copy of it to read and I read it cover to cover without break, it was compelling, and, a bit troubling.

Alex Ness: Whatever possessed you to write a booked called “The Karma of Jesus?”

Mark Herringshaw: The brainstorm sideswiped me after I was heckled in church. I am a pastor and I was speaking during a worship service when a young man in his twenties spoke up out of the audience and began peppering me with questions about the differences between Christianity and New Age thought. I invited him to come up afterward to talk. He told me his personal story, and along the way I discovered that he anchored his life on his understanding of Karma. As I listened, I suddenly thought of a way to explain the Christian way of seeing the world in his language. That’s the backdrop of the book – the essence of our actual dialog, where I introduced to him the idea that Jesus invites us: “dump our Karma.” I don’t know how our conversation has ultimately impacted him, but it changed me and the way I understand my role as a follower of Jesus.

AN: If Karma is so intertwined with popular cultural thought, do you write this in attempt to detach culture from that? How is that working out for you?

MH: I believe I’m following an ancient tradition of Christian communicators who’ve dared to borrow pagan language to communicate orthodoxy. In the New Testament itself the Apostle John used the Greek concept “logos” to explain Jesus. He starts his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Logos… and the Logos became flesh.” Logos came from Greek philosophy and it meant “the organizing principle of the world.” John swipes this word and uses it to describe Jesus. No, I’m not trying to detach “karma” from the popular parlance; I’m doing with Patrick in Ireland did when he baptized Celtic symbols like the shamrock to explain the Christian vision. Christianity is very elastic. What we believe doesn’t change but the way we “incarnate” it in culture always does. My job, as a Jesus-follower is to translate Jesus, without distorting him. Our culture now idolizes elements of the ancient idea of “Karma.” Ask people and they will tell you: “Good comes to those who do good, and trouble comes from trouble.” That’s our ethical system today. So, in The Karma of Jesus I present a classic interpretation of Christ’s life, teachings and death starting from the language of modern New Age spirituality. It’s my assumption that Jesus is always the answer; I just have to know what the question is. The question today is, “Karma’s a bitch; What the hell can I do about that?” Answer: “dumpyourkarma."

AN: People use the word “Karma” in many ways. What does it actually mean, in your frame of reference?

MH: Karma is an ancient Hindu word; the complete concept is very complex. Most religions, including Judaism and Christianity include some tenet similar to the concept of Karma. When we experience trouble, we imagine there must be some cause. A shattered relationship, financial struggles, health problems, family strife – Why? What’s the reason? We also want to know if there is a way out? It’s almost instinctive to explain our troubles by saying, “We reap what we sow,” or “The piper has to be paid,” or “The chickens always come home to roost.” We seem to understand that if we act well, blessings come back to us; if we act badly, problems come back to us. This, in its simplest form is “Karma.” Again, I know it’s much more nuanced than this for those who spend a lifetime exploring the depths. But in a popular sense, this is what I mean when I use the word.

AN: Why is our culture so fascinated with Karma?

MH: The word “Karma” is chic. It seems to explain everything, I suppose. And more, it promises me some control over my own destiny. Karma gives me a kind of roadmap for mastery. It may take me a eons, but at least it gives me direction. We like this. Google “karma” and you could get 106 million results. Not bad for an arcane word coined 4,000 years ago to describe a concept almost impossible for westerners to fully grasp. Now alongside belief in a God who communicates, cares, makes choices and prefers one thing over another, many have added faith in “Karma” – a belief in the sovereignty of cause and effect. In order to communicate the gospel in this environment, we have to take into account the belief in Karma and go from there. Again, I’m starting here and using this as a bridge to talk about – and hopefully better understand – Jesus. That’s the essence behind my book.

AN: You suggest in your book “The Karma of Jesus” that there is a certain symmetry by which karma works that is broken by Jesus. What do you mean by that?

MH: I’ll defer to Bono. We know Bona as one of the most recognized icons in the world. In recent years the lead singer of the rock group U2 has leveraged his astounding pop status to become a potent political voice and advocate for social justice and humanitarian causes. At any given moment he might be spotted lampooning a rogue third-world dictator, serving soup at an inner city shelter, doing a benefit concert for a 400 year old pub housed slated for demolition, or spewing challenges to the CEO of a pharmaceutical company. Bono claims a moral anchor for this influence on his deep conviction in the necessity of justice in the world, here and now. And he builds this conviction from a forceful, consuming faith in Jesus Christ. Bono sees himself as Jesus’ agent of revolution. In my preparation for writing “The Karma of Jesus” I read Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas. Assayas, who is not a confessing Christian, records an interview with Bono in which he discusses the implications, here and now, of the sacrificial life of Jesus.

Bono: …It's a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people, but the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma… I really believe we've moved out of the realm of Karma into one of Grace… You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics—in physical laws—every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It's clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I'm absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that "as you reap, so you will sow" stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I've done a lot of stupid stuff…. I'd be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. I'd be in deep shit. It doesn't excuse my mistakes, but I'm holding out for Grace. I'm holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don't have to depend on my own religiosity…. But I love the idea of the Sacrificial Lamb. I love the idea that God says: Look, you cretins, there are certain results to the way we are, to selfishness, and there's a mortality as part of your very sinful nature, and, let's face it, you're not living a very good life, are you? There are consequences to actions. The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world, so that what we put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death. That's the point. It should keep us humbled… . It's not our own good works that get us through the gates of heaven…When I look at the Cross of Christ, what I see up there is all my s--- and everybody else's. So I ask myself a question a lot of people have asked: Who is this man? And was He who He said He was, or was He just a religious nut? And there it is, and that's the question. And no one can talk you into it or out of it.1

From Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas, by Michka Assayas, copyright © 2005 by Michka Assayas, Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Page 225-227, 228.

AN: Doesn’t the fact that with Karma you get moral people and with Christianity you get guilty people seeking forgiveness suggest to you that one is a positive belief and the other negative? How do you suggest we view this otherwise?

MH: I guess I’m not convinced that Karma is really about morality. It’s about functionality – what works. And yes, most religions include some tenet compatible with the ancient Hindu concept of Karma.

By that definition Karma represents the accumulation of all the effects of all the actions of my body, mind, and intuition. As ocean waves rolling toward the shore build up sandbars beneath the surface, so my actions and their results accumulate and build up tendencies that determine the course of my future. Karma is also more than personal… It encompasses the action-energy of everything that has ever occurred past or present, connecting every event back to the influences causing that event, and forward to all results triggered by it. The universe enforces this responsibility one way or the other.

The piper has to be paid. The chickens always come home to roost. Meaning… If I tell a lie, a lie will be told to me. If I give, something will be given to me. When someone slaps me on the cheek they deliver payback, not offense. I am at fault. I bring my own reward. I hold power. I bear responsibility. When I make a mess, I have to dispose of it… somewhere. I own my own garbage.

But… Here’s the crunch: Karma creates problems as well as explains them. If I reap what I have sown, I’m accountable for every consequence – even an unintentional one. How can I escape living with and paying for mistakes I’ve made? What escape do I have when Karma exacts payback for the smallest white lie? What pardon can I gain when even when my best efforts to do good generate more trouble?

Karma brings bad news. The problem is real. My garbage has to go somewhere. I cannot wish it away. Is there any way to remedy the curse of Karma? Eastern religions offer the solution of reincarnation: We return to try again, and eventually – hopefully – escape the cycle of perpetual action that perpetuates Karma. But even the wisest teachers of this philosophy doubt if salvation is assured.

AN: You’re saying that “Grace trumps Karma.” Isn’t it a bit foolish, to argue one unproven religious principle with yet another one? Karma exists or doesn’t every bit as much as Jesus.

MH: I won’t argue that from the realm of ideas. I can only say what I’ve experienced, personally. Karma leaves me in debt, but Grace in Jesus really works, practically I mean.

AN: How is that working out for you, personally?

MH: I’ll offer a story, not an argument: Somewhere a woman named Roxanne sits alone at night trying to silence the voices in her head. One of those voices is mine. I no longer know where she lives. I don’t know if she beats her children, cuts herself, drinks vodka for breakfast, or writes hateful emails to advice columnists. I wouldn’t be surprised at anything of the sort. I wouldn’t be surprised at worse.

I have not seen Roxanne since a clear, crisp Friday afternoon in March, 1974 when she got stepped off our school bus for the last time, the day she left our school. I drove her away.

I never intended to hurt Roxanne. We were bumbling through our 8th grade year at Soulsbyville School in the Gold Rush country east of Sonora, California. Roxanne had a disability. Her right hand hung at her side and she walked with a limp. She had large beautiful sad eyes, and she seldom spoke. We rode the same bus every morning and afternoon 40 minutes each way, weaving in and out of the little valleys where hearty and reclusive Californians had tucked away their homes. I got bored on those long drives. Generally, when I get bored I make trouble.

I grew up in a family of teasers. My father, who had the kindest of hearts loved to raise reactions with little ornery jests. I learned early that affection comes with a jab and a snicker. Herringshaws give this kind of attention. We tease.

I remember feeling uncomfortable with Roxanne’s sullen silence. She would sit in her seat alone, coddling her useless hand looking guarded and suspicious, staring out the window at the green and rocky hills of the Tuolumne. No one spoke much to Roxanne. She said even less. I remember thinking she needed attention. I decided to give he some. I started to joke with her.

I gave her a nickname which I can’t recall now. I sat near her whenever I could and peppering her with playful banter. She’d tell me, beg me to leave her alone, but her rebuffs only made me more resolved. I know now – and probably knew then – that some of my barbs crossed the line into meanness, some even to abuse. But no one corrected me and I never corrected myself. Then one day Roxanne stopped riding the bus. Her parents removed her from the school and she disappeared from my life.

At the time I didn’t see a connection between my banter and her departure. I felt no responsibility. I never intended to hurt anyone. It was all in good sport. But in the years that followed, as my conscience and imagination matured I sometimes playing back the mental tape of those bus rides and I saw clearly the brutality I had helped heap on Roxanne. I had not caused all her pain. I had not intended to chase her off. But that was the result.

And what is life for her today? I don’t know. But I do know that I am part of a vast and complicated equation of pain she almost certainly still lives beneath and perhaps passes on to others. If tried fairly in a court, I would suffer conviction by a jury of my peers because my teasing had brutal unintended consequences. I might plead “I never meant to…” But that would not matter. I’d be made to pay reparations with interest and I’d go bankrupt.

I should be damned to hell or if I were Monist to 10,000 reincarnations to pay for this. But the reality is, I’ve been released of culpability. I know it! I couldn’t live with myself but experientially, I don’t have to! That’s what Jesus has done…

AN: Have you considered whether or not this treatment by you of Karma is just another in a long line of attempts by Christians to co-opt powerful, indigenous positive moral structures to replace them with Christian ones?

MH: I’m co-opting the language but not the moral structure of Karma. I admit this up front. As I said, I’m following an ancient tradition of Christian communicators who’ve dared to borrow pagan language to communicate orthodoxy. Christians have no problem admitting that Truth can reside in other belief systems. The Bible doesn’t tell us details of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, though the worldview offered in the Bible is thoroughly consistent with this scientific reality. Truth is truth. We’ll take it and leverage it wherever we find it. There’s a certain self-evident element about elements of the Karma principle. Christians offer a different solution to the problem – we don’t accept reincarnation as a solution for instance. We believe reincarnation simply stalls off the fundamental issue while Jesus’ death and the offer of grace settles the matter in time and space. We like to say that “Jesus is the answer; what’s the question?” In this sense Christians feel free to play in any sandbox. And when we do we’ll find ways of seeing Jesus there. There’s a Christian sociologist named Don Richardson who says that every individual and every culture has “eternity written within.” Christians can therefore readily engage any religious or moral system in conversation, because almost all of us agree upon the root of the problem – humans have screwed things up. But then Christians will offer a different solution, a unique and surprising one of grace and forgiveness in one perfect and divine human being who lived in real time and in a real place.

In the New Testament itself the Apostle John used the Greek concept “logos” to explain Jesus. He starts his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Logos… and the Logos became flesh.” Logos came from Greek philosophy and it meant “the organizing principle of the world.” John swipes this word and uses it to describe Jesus. No, I’m not trying to detach “karma” from the popular parlance; I’m doing with Patrick in Ireland did when he baptized Celtic symbols like the shamrock to explain the Christian vision. Christianity is very elastic. What we believe doesn’t change but the way we “incarnate” it in culture always does. My job, as a Jesus-follower is to translate Jesus, without distorting him. Our culture now idolizes elements of the ancient idea of “Karma.” Ask people and they will tell you: “Good comes to those who do good, and trouble comes from trouble.” That’s our ethical system today. So, in The Karma of Jesus I present a classic interpretation of Christ’s life, teachings and death starting from the language of modern New Age spirituality. It’s my assumption that Jesus is always the answer; I just have to know what the question is. The question today is, “Karma’s a bitch; What the hell can I do about that?” Answer: “dumpyourkarma.”

AN: If Karma isn’t necessarily correct, it is at least a more consciously moral way to live than Christianity. How many wars were fought over Karma versus say, doctrinal difference or ritualistic Christian debate?

MH: I’ll give you your critique that wars have been fought over Christian doctrine. That’s irrefutable. But to assume from that Christianity itself is morally inferior to other systems is an illogical jump. We need only examine history to discover that proportionately, Christians have, on the whole contributed to more than they have diminished the world’s status. Christians have built more hospitals and schools than adherents of any other belief system. We rescued unwanted babies in Rome, set up make-shift hospitals in the middle ages in plague inflicted European cities, and today, in the battle against human trafficking we’re doing much of the dirty work of rescue in the back allies of Bangkok.

Karma of course does offer an alternative moral standard, but it’s a standard of utilitarianism that has no bend in it. No bend but a lot of break. Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith has written a book called “Souls in Transition” about the religious and ethical views of young adults in America. Smith did a longitudinal “National Study of Youth and Religion,” using statistics and face-to-face interviews to paint a picture of the moral and spiritual lives of 18- to 24-year-olds in America. Smith concludes that "emerging adults" tend to hold to a vague moral reasoning. The dominant metric they seem to use in deciding right from wrong, is a strange marriage between “if it feels good do it,” and “karma” – “do it if it works.” The problem, answered one of his respondents: “Karma’s a bitch.”

Indeed it is. I agree that Karma is a predictable moral standard, but it’s a brutal standard that never bends or makes exceptions or takes appeals or tardy slips. Screw up and there’s a price to pay. The Bible offers a similar bold exactness it calls “righteousness.” But the difference is that for in Christianity there’s a Person behind the standard, a Lawgiver behind the Law who can, out of love and mercy find a way to both keep the Law and bend it, which is what he does in Grace and in Jesus.

AN: Can a Christian believe in Karma too?

MH: I think Christians have to believe in the verdict that Karma levels against us: we screw up and we have to pay for the price. We don’t however believe that the universe is merely mechanistic. We believe that a person, not a machine lies behind things. So yes, I as a Christian do accept that all actions have consequences and I’m responsible for all of mine. But it’s God, a person, who hold me to that standard and can, by choice, intervene in his own established process. This, we believe is where Jesus comes in. If Jesus lived perfectly, he also loved perfectly. Such perfect love came with a perfect desire to share that love and to share the outcomes of his perfect life. In the language of today’s New Age culture Jesus had “perfect Karma.” His perfect love would lead him to want to give this away for the sake of others. So when Jesus died on the cross he became the “toxic waste dump of the universe.” He takes all the horrible consequences of our choices and gives us his purity in exchange. Jesus gets my punishment; I get his goodness, peace and joy. His grace trumps my Karma.

AN: As you know I am a Christian. But my worry is that in an attempt to write what is a very interesting book, and one that I find convincing, it could wound instead of heal. How do you leave people unbruised but interested enough to explore further?

MH: I don’t think there’s any way around getting bruised. Life is tough. We get beat up. The unique thing about Jesus is that he blatantly brings the bad news before the good news. He offends us, but the truth sometimes really is inconvenient. I find Jesus refreshingly honest. There’s no blind Pollyanna platitudes in his words. He’s straight up about injustice and the dark intentions of the human heart and corruption in powerful places and the grief inherent in the death of the young. Jesus faces facts and I find that this gives me courage to be honest as well, about my life and my world. Stuff is screwed up and I’m partly to blame Okay. That’s the bad news. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He goes forward to solve the problem. He bruises us with a naked blast of truth, then he resolves it in a surprising and loving way: He takes the bruises on himself.

700 years before Jesus lived the Hebrew prophet Isaiah wrote about the one day coming Messiah. Christians believe Jesus is that promised One. Isaiah said (Isaiah 53),

He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

There’s no promise we won’t get bruised. In fact, the bad news is we all are and must be. The good news follows though. Jesus takes the bruises for us. We can trade places. He already has. We just need to follow suite and make the exchange.

Mark’s site
the book

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Virgin is dead, Long live the Virgin

A few years back (2006) someone had a good idea. The mythic figures and ideas that existed in the culture of India seemed ready made for adaptation to comics. Since this website considers all aspects of popular culture, the example of Virgin Comics is vital. You see, the American direct comic market is insular, xenophobic, and slowly being strangled by publishers trying to squeeze the very last dime from the same customers.

Virgin Comics tried to expand the market, tried to do so using unfamiliar figures, but focusing upon templates that Americans could understand, and did so with a talented group of creators. But readers vote with dollars...

The Devi was a warrior figure, involved in intrigue, given a portion of the divine figure's powers, to stop an enemy of the Gods. She was beautiful, and very able to bring the battle to the enemy.

Snake Woman was a figure from myth who was able, in times of stress, and hunt, to transform from human form to that of a snake. In the comics, she is a young woman in Los Angeles, who is both killer, and vigilante.

The Sadhu was a being of infinite lives, wisdom and strength. He stood astride the generations, and his goal, whatever else is going on, is to sever his connections with the past, and become timeless in wisdom and mental power.

Ramayan 3392 A.D. was the title that showed the flexibility of the stories, and the epic power available for adaptation. The post apocalyptic world had seen nuclear wars, drought, famine, plague, and the Gods fought over the future of the world.

And now, Virgin Comics is gone. But, you can find much of their product, including TPBs, single issues and more, on, and a wide variety of comic stores, and used book stores. Why should you? Because whatever their level of success, and market entry, the work was good, different, and worth your time.

Monday, March 1, 2010