Friday, February 24, 2017

"I reject it." Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus review

Yesterday I mused about objectivism in the comics; today, it's libertarian Christianity! Why am I making these choices?

Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus is the most recent graphic novel by Christian-Libertarian-Canadian-Cartoonist Chester Brown. In a way, it's a response to his book Paying for It, an autobiographical work where he depicted how he gave up on dating and began seeing prostitutes instead; included in the book were many scenes of him arguing in favour of prostitution to his friends.

Since then he's entered into politics and Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus is a sort-of political manifesto for the decriminalization of prostitution. I'm not especially well-informed about the matter politically but Brown framed his argument by invoking the Bible and that's something I possess a smattering of knowledge in.

The book is a series of vignettes which retell particular stories from the Old & New Testaments. Some of them will be very familiar and represented pretty much the way you remember them; other stories have been altered so as to fit Brown's thesis on prostitution. Every chapter is either a story connected to prostitution or a story about a disobedient person being rewarded (the parable of The Prodigal Son is perhaps the best-known of these and Brown does include it).

The connective tissue is Brown's belief that Jesus' mother Mary was a prostitute. He notes that the women Ruth, Tamar, Bathsheba and Rahab all appeared in Jesus' lineage as told in the Gospel of Matthew and each women could be considered like-a-prostitute (Rahab literally was; Tamar posed as one for a deception; Ruth and Bathsheba had extra-marital sex, which is a bit flimsy so far as the argument goes). To Brown, the reason Matthew listed women in his genealogy was to subtly hint to his readers that Mary had been impregnated by some guy prior to her marriage to Joseph. To this end, Brown retells the story of Joseph learning of Mary's condition, revised to include the prostitution.

Brown's argument that people "find favour with God because they oppose His will or challenge Him in some way" first turns up in his revision of Cain & Abel where he posits Abel did wrong by keeping animals, yet when he made an offering of his sheep to God, God was pleased with him, which disturbed Cain (leading to Abel's death). Like so much of his arguments, it seems ad hoc post ergo hoc. Brown is determined to win his argument, so reframes the scriptural accounts to suit his predetermined agenda; there's nothing in Genesis to suggest it was wrong for Abel for keep sheep, but because God tells Adam to toil for "the fruits of the soil," Brown assumes the omission of livestock in that mention indicates there was a law against it. What we find instead is that Cain was hard-hearted, much like the older brother from the Prodigal Son. This is an attitude which comes up again and again in the Bible and is one of the linchpins of Jesus' teaching - that following God's word is insufficient if one is doing so expecting a reward, notoriety or is any other way closed-off in their heart.

Brown also recounts the parable of the Three Talents but instead of the Biblical accounts he turned to an apocryphal source, the Gospel of the Nazarenes. Normally, the story tells of 3 servants given different amounts of money; the first doubles what he's been given, likewise the second and the third hides the money, fearful of losing it; the master is upset with the third and gives his money to the first. In the Nazarean account, the first doubles the money, the second hides the money and third spends it all on pleasure. The master rewards the third by giving him the second' money. Says Brown, "I almost immediately became convinced that this was how Jesus actually told the tale."

If the Nazarean account were valid (we don't actually have a copy of it, only references to it) then I would point to the moral of the story being similar to that of the Prodigal Son - that if the master (God) is indeed merciful to the one who wastes his reward (man) then there is a message of penitence in the story, not to tell us that we can break God's laws and it's okay but that we can break those laws and, if we appeal to his mercy, will be okay.

I can easily recommend Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus if you want a book to fight with. Ultimately, however, it's designed to persuade you over to Brown's perspective by one of the oldest tricks in the book - saying Jesus is on his side.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

It's no Mystery, Man.

The most recent issue of the fanzine publication Ditkomania recently published its 95th issue with a special look at philosophy in Steve Ditko's comics. I am not one who enjoys Ditko's philosophy (objectivism), especially not in the manner by which he delivers his ideas, usually by way of kicking over a straw man. Overall, I find objectivism incompatible with my own morals. Still, I enjoy Ditko as an artist and value his perspective even though I'll never share it. It was with some trepidation that I approached Ditkomania #95. One article in particular stood out.

In an article titled: "Steve Ditko: The Other Side of the Conversation," Gavin Callaghan looked at various comic books which had some reference to objectivism. Some of these were very interesting, such as his look at the Werewolf by Night villain Hangman, whose objectivist slant wasn't obvious to me. There's also an interesting review of a Star Trek comic which criticized objectivism in way which Callaghan admitted made good points. However, Callaghan truly did not care for a comic called Mystery Men which was published by Marvel Comics in 2011 by writer David Liss and artist Patrick Zircher. For some reason, Callaghan did not credit Zircher or other artists of the stories featured in his article - strange, considering that as a Ditko fan he should be aware that much of what ends up on the page is due to the artist.

Mystery Men turned up in this article solely because objectivism's creator Ayn Rand appears - not identified by name, but with dialogue which clearly points to her identity. In the comic, set in 1932, Rand belongs to a boardroom of prestigious Americans (others may likewise be actual figures from the time but none I could identify) who are being led by the General as part of a cabal to use black magic on behalf of the demon Nox. The boardroom is likewise partnered with the Nazi Party. Callaghan rejected this interpretation of Rand as she was against superstition. Okay, fair enough, although this is a fictional universe where magic is real so it's not quite the same thing. The boardroom members are also proposing a business-military alliance which Callaghan says Rand would also have been against; fair enough.

But in the course of the review Callaghan goes off-topic to deliver a rant against one of Mystery Men's protagonists, a masked vigilante called the Operative. The Operative is meant to be a throwback to the early heroes of the comics and the pulps who had little more than determination and a mask. The Operative is a normal man dressed in a suit and who wears a mask. We first meet him in Mystery Men #1 as he's in the process of stealing jewels from a wealthy woman, justifying it to himself as "This -- this Depression, they're calling it -- is crushing those people down there on the street. But up here in the penthouses, it's jewels and champagne. You can't tell me that's right. So my little capers... well, let's just say I have no trouble sleeping at night." The money the Operative obtains from the jewels is then used to save tenants from being evicted from an apartment building whose landlord has been jacking up the rent. Callaghan complains of this scene:

"Never mind the fact, of course, that these rich people PAY for everything they BUY - thereby providing a living to those from whom they purchase such services. This source of income was an especially valuable thing during a depression; but Liss does not seem to understand this basic economic fact."

I think the key to the Operative's actions in the opening is that he's stealing jewels, not money. The Operative's anger appears to be against those who have inherited wealth, rather than earned it. The Operative is later revealed to be himself a child of privilege, the son of the book's lead villain the General. Callaghan complains about this, though I'm not certain why (he goes from complaining that the Operative is "very wealthy" to a discussion of the General, then about Rand and doesn't return to that point; it looked like a setup for arguing the Operative was a hypocrite but the accusation is absent). The story is very clear that the Operative uses money to help those less fortunate, expressing indignation at those who "don't know what it's like to grow up poor or to claw for everything in life." That actually sounds like an endorsement of objectivist thought to me - not the robbery, but the ideal of earning wealth with one's own effort rather than by right of birth; isn't that something objectivists hold sacred?

The Operative's status as a thieving outlaw seems to draw from the tradition of Robin Hood and A.J. Raffles (both were born to privilege but turned to crime - although Raffles used crime primarily as a diversion, not actually wanting the money or using it to benefit others). On that note, Callaghan turns to Steve Ditko himself in a form of Appeal to Authority:

"Of course, Steve Ditko had already deconstructed this erroneous myth of the Robin Hood (and his just redistribution of wealth) long before, in his story 'Count Rogue', published in Mr. A #4, way back in 1975."

Steve Ditko had an opinion on something? Shoot, better pack it in, boys! It is not necessary for the audience to agree with the Operative's actions. I wouldn't want to be robbed by him simply because he judged someone more worthy of my wealth. In fact, the Operative goes on from issue #1 to become a crime fighter instead of a thief-with-a-heart-of-gold and that journey seems important to me - that he rises above his initial station to later help others. I know, altruism is likewise held in contempt by objectivists and they are also against characters with gray morality (hence the condemnation of the Operative for being other-than-white), but to the rest of the world the Operative is a crook with a barely-justifiable cause who later finds a better cause to fight against (his father).

Callaghan scoffs further at the idea "How the General expects the Depression to actually HELP commerce is left unexplained, although such conspiratorial thinking is typical of the Chomskyan left." I don't know what that last invective means but it is true that some people profited from the Great Depression, just as some recently profited from the recent housing collapse. In the case of the Great Depression, it didn't necessarily mean overnight profits, but for those who could afford to invest and play the long game there were businesses, properties and resources available for a pittance. The General is not proposing the Depression would help commerce - he's proposing it would help him and his allies.

Callaghan continues on to compare the Operative to the Khmer Rouge as an Ad Hominem Attack:

"Ultimately, Liss's 'Operative' vigilante is just a step or two up the rung of the leftist ladder from the Cambodian Khmer Rouge dictatorship in the 1970s, who also sought to build a more 'just' society by exterminating those whom they saw as an overly-wealthy middle class (killing over a million people in the process). Certainly, the Operative is more of a villain than Ayn Rand herself ever was."

How do you even begin to address the comparison of thieving = genocide? This was the point where I knew I had to compose a response because it's such a maddening, reductive argument. Perhaps I can attempt to construct this from an objectivist viewpoint; to an objectivist, A = A. To me as a Christian, sin = sin. Therefore, the crime of thievery = genocide. So far so good. But likewise, Ayn Rand committing adultery = genocide. Ayn Rand promoting a philosophy of selfishness in opposition to the Golden Rule = genocide. That is, Ayn Rand was but a mere human being and I reject her (and Nietzche's) belief in the greatness of man, rather I believe in the democratic equality and falleness of men, the equality of sin, the equality of mercy and the equality of the final judgment. Stealing from others is wrong from an absolute moral sense - it is unnecessary to draw comparisons to genocide and it speaks to a weakness in Callaghan's argument that he deemed it necessary to invoke the Khmer Rouge in order to fashion a straw-man argument against the Operative, rather than confine his diatribe to the Operative's own words and actions. As a whole, I feel Callaghan's review of Mystery Men is too quick to find fault with the book and too angry at the author for holding different social viewpoints.

In conclusion: There's a lot more to Mystery Men than the Operative or Ayn Rand (the Operative is one of 5 featured heroes) and it's an interesting attempt to craft super heroes who fit the 1930s, especially from a 21st century perspective (the heroes include a black hero and a female hero in order to comment on 30s-era racism and sexism). The economic downturn of 2008 - fashioned by the laissez faire system Ayn Rand admired so much - no doubt influenced David Liss' own commentary on the Great Depression and the disproportionate power wielded by the wealthy over the middle-and-lower classes. You can purchase the series on Comixology and can learn more about Ditkomania here.

I have now officially spent more time thinking about Mystery Men than anyone other than Liss or Zircher.

Monday, February 20, 2017

[Redacted] Is Love! Part 3 of 3: "Raw Passion"

Okay, now for the story which first prompted me to devise the entire '[Redacted] Is Love!' series. We're going to look at "Raw Passion," a story attributed to Manny Stallman which appeared in True Love Problems and Advice Illustrated #24 (1953). It deals with a matter which definitely challenged the mores of the Comics Code Authority, featuring as it does, a man who bullies a woman into dating him.

We open on our heroine Jane as she is arriving at a party when a big blond man accosts her: "Why go to that party alone when you can have a good-looking escort like me?" He introduces himself as Dyke Sanders, an engineer and mutual friend of Anne Wilson, the person whose party Jane is going to. Dyke admits to stalking her: "I've been following you for blocks -- because as soon as I laid eyes on you, you did something to met that no other girl ever did!" Jane allows Dyke to accompany her to the party because although she admits in the narration captions to being afraid "it was a thrilling fear." At the party, Anne tells Jane she's lucky to have been noticed by Dyke: "Dyke's impulsive and over-emotional, but he's one of the best-looking men in town, and from what I've heard, one of the most successful!" Dyke indulges in some passionate kissing with Jane at the party.

As time goes on, Jane notes their relationship has nothing substantial - all they do is make out, they don't converse. Dyke doesn't care. Jane is also upset by how jealous Dyke can be, growing angry when he thinks someone is staring at Jane and once starting a fight with another man for brushing against his elbow. After that latter incident Dyke admits he's glad Jane saw it: "It's a warning to you that I'll never let you go!" Dyke is going on a business trip to South America for 5-6 months and warns Jane "if anyone tries to take you away from me -- I'll kill him!"

Separated from Dyke, Jane finally realizes how terrible he is but she's afraid of what might happen if she dates someone else. Jane does begin seeing other men but she's withdrawn during those dates. Finally, she meets Todd and he becomes close to her, demonstrating he cares for her. Todd is even ready to propose to her, but when Jane receives an angry letter from Dyke wondering why she hasn't been writing him she fears what Dyke will do to Todd. Wishing to protect Todd, she doesn't tell him about Dyke.

Jane goes to see the newly-returned Dyke and tries to explain she's in love with someone else, but Dyke flies into a rage. "You'll never see him again! You're going to marry me -- tonight!" He grabs her by the throat and begins to throttle her, but Todd suddenly appears and attacks Dyke: "You murdering swine! I can kill too -- not to destroy love -- but to protect it!" Dyke is beaten and slinks away while Jane tells Todd the whole story. Todd notes "What good is my love -- if you won't let it help you?" And so the couple are given a happy ending.

Now, in 1956 Harvey reprinted this story in Love Problems and Advice Illustrated #42 as "Man Fashion." Yes, "Man Fashion." Hang on to your hats (and your three-piece suits)! As you can see above, the introduction is quite different - instead of Jane's words talking about her love for Dyke, we're told "he knew how a woman liked to be treated" and instead of Dyke threatening "if anyone so much as touches you while I'm away -- I'll kill him!" He simply states when he returns they'll get married. Not quite as enthralling, is it? Jane's face has also been touched up to appear happy instead of afraid.

The introduction of Dyke in this version is a joke; instead of forcing himself upon Jane he greets her with "I beg your pardon -- you must be Jane! I've been waiting for you --" and explains he was sent by Anne to drive her to Anne's party. To drive her to the party she's already at? Pretty lame revision, CCA. This time Dyke doesn't admit to stalking Jane and drives her to Anne's party (even though the first panel of the story clearly depicts Jane about to enter the party). In this version Dyke's actions are the same but Jane doesn't resist his advances - basically, the entire story rehabilitates Dyke from being a domineering alpha male.

The panels of Jane & Dyke kissing at the party have likewise been altered. Their relationship proceeds somewhat differently as in this version they aren't constantly making out. Once again, Dyke is seen being jealous and roughs up the man who brushed against him, but this time his warning to Jane before he leaves for South America is that if anyone tries to take her away from him: "I won't stand for it!" From there events proceed the same as Jane becomes involved with Todd, then receives word Dyke has returned.

Once again, we have the CCA stepping in to minimize the violence to the point where Jane seems almost pleased to have Dyke's hands around her neck (her fetish?). Todd comes to the rescue stating: "Hold it, fella! I can fight too -- not to destroy love -- but to protect it!" And the story ends the same way.

The original story is, I think, useful to its intended audience, to tell girls that if they feel their date is placing strong pressure on them, behaves irrationally and jealously and has no interest in conversation then maybe it's not a healthy relationship. The revised version has no point to make - just that, hey, your date might get violent one day from out of nowhere and you might prefer dating someone else for no reason. Stuff happens, I guess. This revision really lets Dyke off the hook, making him calm and reasonable in panels where he was previously forceful and domineering.

Of all things, they didn't think changing Dyke's name was a priority? I'm just juvenile enough to grin every time his name appears.

Thank you for indulging me as I journeyed through these poorly-made CCA revisions in old Harvey romance comics. May you find love [redacted], [censored], and forever [rewritten]!

Sunday, February 19, 2017

[Redacted] Is Love! Part 2 of 3: "I Was Reckless with My Kisses!"

I'm back again with another look at 1950s Harvey romance comics and how reprinting pre-code stories under the CCA wrecked the original intentions of the stories.

Today let's examine "Reckless with My Kisses!" from Hi-School Romance #27 (1954) by artist Ray Bailey.

Our protagonist, Janet, is a flirtatious teenager. In the opening scene she's on a romantic hayride with a boy named Corey, kissing amongst the hay. Later we see how aggressive she is with a dance partner, to the point where the man is almost afraid of her. But one day she's on a park bench with a boy named Roy Jansen and he turns the tables by trying to force himself on her. "Since when are you so choosy with your kisses?" he wonders. Janet leaves him and thereafter resolves to repair her reputation. It sounds like the story's over, but we're only on page 2!

Janet takes up a job as a baby-sitter and quickly finds employment for Tom Weldon, a young man about her age who has two young siblings he must care for since their parents' deaths. Janet enjoys caring for the two kids and soon finds herself drawn to Tom. Tom doesn't seem to notice Janet's interest so Janet finally decides to go back to dating, accepting an invitation to a dance with a boy named Andy. At the dance, Janet sees Tom with a date and is quite perturbed. Andy feels spurned by Janet's lack of interest in him and starts to become violent. Tom drives Andy away then reconciles with Janet, telling her he had been in love with her but hadn't realized she loved him too. So they kiss their way to a happy ending.

When the story was reprinted in Hi-School Romance #53 (1956) it was retitled "Reckless Boy... No Kisses!" This awkward title suggests Harvey was penny-pinching their budget on reprints by altering as few letters as possible. The title also suggests a change in focus from the original story, that the men of the story will be "reckless" rather than the female protagonist. This time, Janet is a college student who is a "careful shopper." Her date in the hay ride is Andy and instead of them making out, he's asking her to marry him but Janet is considering her options.

Above, you can see Janet in the original story, intimidating one of her dates. Now look below and see how the CCA changed it:

She's not flirtatious at all! Janet has been rendered pretty chaste in this revision. In the park bench scene, once again it's Andy who proposes to her and she flees, then becomes a baby-sitter, the caption remarking "I decided it was useless to look for the man in my life.. he would find me." From there, the story is much the same, except for when Andy gets violent. Here's his assault on Janet in the original comic:

And now, here's Andy menacing her in the reprint:

The dialogue surrounding the incident is also fixed, Tom's "Leave her alone, you swine!" becomes "You should learn some manners!" and Janet's fear that Tom "thinks I'm a hussy" becomes "what he can think of me going out with a boy like that?"

As in so many CCA romance stories, effort is made to render the story's ideal couple a pair of perfectly chaste individuals; even in the original story, Tom looking after his significantly-younger siblings was done to make him appear as a bachelor father. Ergo, by marrying Tom, Janet would have a family without ever having to engage in sex with him. What a perfect relationship! In the reprint, Janet is likewise made chaste and virginal by removing her flirtatious behaviour so that she no longer has a character arc but is instead a flatline which crawls along the pages until the men decide how the story ends.

By altering their stories for the CCA Harvey may have been upholding the "decency" which the CCA desired but the clumsiness of the edits in these stories make Harvey's late 50s comics look crude and trashier than anything they printed before the Code.

One more Harvey comic tomorrow - and I guarantee, it's the wildest bit of comics censorship yet!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

[Redacted] Is Love! Part 1 of 3: "Unfaithful"

Recently the Digial Comic Museum website celebrated Valentine's Day with a few hundred public domain romance comics. I indexed many of them for the Grand Comics Database and there were a few comics which stood out to me.

I'm not an expert on romance comics but I find what happened to the genre after the implementation of the Comics Code Authority (CCA) in 1954. The horror comics produced by E.C. Comics were notorious in their time for the violence they displayed, yet many fans who are in-the-know realize that the horror stories produced by Harvey Comics not only matched them for gore, but frequently outdid them. But the CCA weren't out to police just the horror books. The impact on romance titles wasn't quite as clear to me until this recent batch of romance books. In CCA-approved science fiction & fantasy titles the lack of blood and violence was obvious. How did the romance books change? Fortunately, Harvey has provided an easy means for us to gauge that.

Y'see, though Harvey kept publishing a lot of romance comics under the CCA, they weren't producing many new stories and by the mid-to-late 1950s most of their romance stories were pre-code comics which had been revised by the CCA. That the stories had been altered became obvious to me because the stories had been altered all over the place - story titles were clumsily relettered, dialogue balloons changed, art touched up.

I'm going to look at three Harvey romance comics which were printed before and after the Code and note how the comics were changed. Let's start with "Unfaithful" from Teen-Age Brides #7 (1954) drawn by John Prentice just before the Code arrived.

This is the story of Rose and her husband Jim. We open seeing them married and quite in love, but by the third panel their marriage has reached a point where the love seems to have gone out of their relationship. Rose decides to glamorize herself to regain Jim's affections, but one night at a party she walks in on Jim kissing a woman named Cora. Rose is humiliated and upset. Jim explains Cora had dared him to kiss her fun and apologizes. Rose forgives Jim but the next morning she treats him with restrained contempt and as time goes on continues to throw barbed comments at him. Eventually, Jim has enough and decides to leave Rose. He notes Rose didn't truly forgive him for his actions and he can't deal with her constant suspicions and hurtful comments. Rose apologizes and asks for another chance; they embrace and promise to try again.

Now we move to 1957's reprint "Ever Faithful" as seen in True Bride-to-Be Romances #22. Right here you can notice how hastily-made the new title logo was fashioned as the word "Ever" doesn't match the font of "Faithful." The content of this issue is largely the same except for one panel - and unfortunately, it's the panel which the entire story spins around.

Above is how the scene of Jim kissing Cora appeared in "Unfaithful." Now, here's how it appeared in "Ever Faithful:"

Even though the point of the story is that Jim once kissed another woman, the CCA stopped short of depicting this. It's not that they were against showing kisses but that they were evidently against a married man kissing another woman. This kind of ruins the entire concept of the story and suggests Harvey should've simply refrained from reprinting it.

Part of the problem of this reprint is that it reduces protagonist Rose's agency to be even smaller than it was before. Women in romance comics don't tend to have much agency no matter whether they were before or after the CCA, but post-CCA books rendered matters a bit more problematic. The people who chastised comic books as trash literature which rotted the minds of impressionable young people certainly wouldn't have seen anything wrong with the typical outcome of a romance comic book plot - the man and woman united in a happy marriage with the husband's authority established alongside the wife's subserviance. There's nothing wrong with the outcome of "Unfaithful/Ever Faithful" except that it was the outcome of pretty much every happy ending in the CCA's romance comics. If the woman accepts the man's authority, it's a happy ending; the woman who tries to be indepedent is humbled by the story's end and regrets her actions, fashioning the bittersweet ending. You won't find many stories where the woman decides she's happier in her career than as a domesticated housewife.

Indeed, the way "Ever Faithful" lessens Jim's transgression diminishes Rose still further - her bitter recriminations against Jim are the same but in the reprint she's upset at him for something that almost happened. Essentially, the CCA has gaslighted her; did Jim really betray Rose or was it all in her mind? The censors have decided against her!

Yet for all this, "Unfaithful/Ever Faithful" is a pretty mild edit. Tomorrow, we'll look at another Harvey romance comic story which is much more messed-up.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

I'm back on the Marvel Appendix!

I have a long history with the Marvel Appendix, having spent many years there writing profiles on obscure Marvel super heroes; it was my work there which led to my becoming a writer for Marvel's Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and the eventual realization that working on comics was not the life goal I thought it was.

I haven't worked on the Marvel Appendix for quite some time but as they near their 10,000th profile I came back to help celebrate the occasion; I wrote profile #9,994: M'Tuba, a character from Lorna the Jungle Girl who became Marvel's first black adventure hero to star in his own comic book story.

Perhaps I'll continue to provide new profiles for the Appendix. In any event, cheers to you, Marvel Appendix!

Friday, February 10, 2017

Why I (unexpectedly) stuck with Halo

Although my family had a Nintendo Entertainment System I didn't keep up with the way gaming technology advanced through the 1990s - most of my experience with gaming consoles was on the NES with only brief asides to friends' homes to see what the next generations of consoles could do. My younger brother was a little more committed to gaming than I was and by the 2000s he had adopted the Xbox as his console of choice. When I would visit him in the mid-to-late 00s he would insist on my joining him to play his games. Frankly, I would have been almost as happy to simply watch him play.

My brother truly enjoyed the Halo games and it became the game he wanted me to play when I visited. However, I had no particular experience or interest in the first-person shooter. I found the controls confusing and unwieldy and my brother, in his haste to get the games going, wouldn't give me space to test the controls. I recall playing Halo 2 with him during one of my visits but I was wholly detached from the experience as I struggled with the controls. I had no interest in the cut scenes and opted to "skip" every time one appeared.

Some time later my brother convinced me I should buy an Xbox 360 so that he and I could play games together online. He mellowed my resistance by finding a used console for sale at a very good price, but the only games of his which I had enjoyed were the Star Wars Battlefront titles and I couldn't get a copy of those games for love nor money. One of my friends was into Assassin's Creed at the time and loaned me the first game of that series; my brother alerted me to a sale on Halo 3 where I got a copy for $20. Although I still had no particular interest in the game I conceded as it would at least be a game I could play with my brother.

In my first few months as an Xbox 360 owner my only diversions were Halo 3 and Assassin's Creed. I approached Halo 3 with a greater degree of caution; how would I ever adapt to the controls? Wasn't there some way I could play it outside of first-person perspective? I had no interest in the player vs. player mode (where I was hopeless) but resolved I would play one mission of the campaign each night and give up only when I reached a point I could not get past.

My first major discovery from playing the game solo was that I needed to invert the controls. Perhaps no long-time Halo player can appreciate this, but my ability to enjoy the game transformed dramatically when I could rely on aiming my character's weapon at my enemies instead of my knees. Further, I didn't skip the cut scenes this time; I was committed to "one campaign mission on normal difficulty per night" so I took the time to appreciate the story which had been crafted around the action scenes. I began to appreciate the elegant design of the game - that despite being in a 3d environment the correct path to follow was usually intuitive, that weapons worked differently and had particular uses in certain situations.

On my ninth night of Halo 3 I reached the second-last level and there hit a roadblock. Time and again I would try to pass the same checkpoint, fail and respawn. I had reached the point I had previously anticipated and decided to give up on the game. The next day I started up Assassin's Creed instead.

And yet, I wasn't quite done with Halo 3. I felt a compulsion to go back and finish the campaign. But how? How could I get past that frustrating checkpoint? What could I possibly do differently? I asked my brother and he had nothing to contribute. I should have simply carried on with Assassin's Creed but my mind kept going back to Halo 3. I'd formed a connection with that game - a sequel - which I had failed to make with the latter game, despite taking it from the beginning. One week after giving up on Halo 3 I returned and I got good; I realized my problem was ammo and trained myself to be more efficient and learned how to score headshots; I finished the rest of the game that night.

What did I find so compelling about Halo 3 while Assassin's Creed came up short? It's not so much about the gameplay - I appreciate both modes and initially I preferred AC's third-person view. Primarily my preferences come down to the protagonist. The lead character in Assassin's Creed is a jerk - a loudmouth who is needlessly abrasive towards his allies yet blindingly naive to his superior. Throughout that game when the lead would speak I usually rolled my eyes; what a wanker. By contrast, Halo 3's Master Chief seldom speaks in the game and when he does speak, it's very succinct. It's actually quite appealing and immersive to me - after all, the Chief is meant to be the player's avatar in the game so any kind of disagreeable personal traits would make that player-to-avatar connection disjointed. Or desynchronized, as Assassin's Creed would term it. I never cared for the protagonist of AC, but in Halo 3 I found a hero big enough to be imprinted with all the qualities I wanted to see.

Obviously, every Halo fan could see the Master Chief differently; perhaps you think he's a total bro who does the Dew and uses his helmet as a bong. Maybe that's a valid interpretation from where you sit; as we Halo fans say, "opinions are like guns: everyone has two" (we need to work on our catchphrases). What, then, did I see in Master Chief during Halo 3?

Trait 1: Forgiveness

In the opening of Halo 3, the Chief has just been reunited with a squad of soldiers led by Sgt. Johnson. Accompanying the sarge is an Elite, one of the enemies of humanity, the battlefield commanders of the Covenant. The Chief grabs a pistol and has already jammed the barrel under the Elite's jaw when the sarge calls the Chief to back down: "The Arbiter's with us." When the Chief does not change his stance, the sarge continues: "Come on, now. We've got enough to worry about without you two trying to kill each other!" The Chief finally releases the Arbiter who, somewhat contemptuously remarks of the attempt on his life: "Were it so easy."

Throughout the game, the Chief and the Arbiter have to set aside their personal feelings for the sake of their common foes - the Covenant and the Flood. In 1 player mode the Arbiter only appears during the game for particular moments, sometimes disappearing for a full level or two. And at some point - amidst all the near-death experiences and fate-of-the-galaxy drama, the Chief and Arbiter begin to respect each other. Their altered relationship becomes clear in the eighth mission when a temporary truce with the Flood ends as Flood surround the duo; the Chief and Arbiter stand back-to-back, braced for combat and clearly trusting each other.

It continues to the ninth mission as the Chief ventures alone into the Flood-dominated vessel High Charity to rescue Cortana. Near the end of the level (in 1 player mode) the Arbiter suddenly reappears to prove cover for the Chief as he evacuates the soon-to-explode ship; Cortana is surprised when she detects the Arbiter's presence; "Who would be crazy enough to come in here?" The Arbiter coming to the Chief's rescue unbidden is a further sign of that growing trust. As the final level begins, a cut scene depicts the Arbiter throwing a rifle to the Chief as they prepare to destroy a Halo ring. The game ends with Master Chief missing in action; the Arbiter attends a solemn ceremony on Earth's in the Chief's honour. A final conversation between the Arbiter and the Navy leader Lord Hood sums up the change which the Chief & Arbiter's relationship underwent over the course of the game, with Hood noting his own prejudice against the Arbiter.

Lord Hood: "I remember how this war started. What your kind did to mine. I can't forgive you... but you have my thanks. For standing with him to the end. Hard to believe he's dead."
Arbiter (wistfully): "Were it so easy..."

As noted, the Chief is not particularly talkative and there is no moment where he unearths his feelings about the Arbiter and the evils he was responsible for while loyal to the Covenant. Instead, I interpreted the Chief through his visuals and his actions; he doesn't forgive the Arbiter with words but demonstrates his trust and acceptance with actions. They respect each other as equals (why not? they have the same button controls) and let the past rest. At one point, the Chief gambles the survival of Earth on a hunch - his trust for Cortana - and the Elites support him without reservation, while the Chief's own superior, Lord Hood, is dubious. As the Chief accepts and trusts others, they accept and trust him.

Trait 2: Perseverance

Oh, sure, perseverance, the Chief's got that in spades, what with the events of Halo 3 taking him from Africa to two different space stations and a number of ships; his adventures have a huge scope and he never backs down from the challenge. But when I say he has perseverance, I mean he persists when all reason suggests otherwise. Is it too much to call Master Chief an existentialist hero? What? It is? Too bad, I'm going with it. Master Chief embodies the attributes of Soren Kierkegaard's existentialist hero, what we call "a knight of faith." Like Kierkegaard's hero, the Chief labours towards his ideal without the promise of reward but is kept aloft by the ideal itself.

Throughout Halo 3 the Chief receives strange communications from his friend Cortana, of late a prisoner of the Flood. The messages are brief, disjointed halves of old conversations and remembrances. Later, the Chief receives a message from Cortana which, if obeyed, could leave Earth vulnerable to an attack, but as a prisoner of the Flood it isn't clear whether Cortana is in her right mind, if she can be trusted. Finally, in the ninth mission the Chief boards High Charity to retrieve Cortana. Snippets of Cortana speaking in a disarming way appear through the level as she seems to have no memory of who the Chief is; still, the Chief moves forward. The Flood's Gravemind contacts the Chief to taunt him, boast of Cortana's corruption and assimilation; the Chief moves forward. Even before the eventual rescue of Cortana (who was not nearly so assimilated as the Gravemind thought) I had become impressed with the Chief; he is true to his word and true to his comrades in spite of all the attempts to dissuade him. He fights on even when all testimony suggests there is nothing to fight for.

Trait 3: Trust

Lord Hood: "Earth... is all we have left. You trust Cortana that much?"
Master Chief: "Sir. Yes, sir."

I've written about trust in the previous two entries but it really deserves some space of its own where Cortana is concerned. At the time I played Halo 3 I wasn't aware of how the Chief & Cortana's relationship had been previously portrayed, nor did I know the specifics of the Chief's promise near the end of Halo 2. That did not matter for my purposes; as I have stated, the Chief is someone who both gives and receives trust. He faces the horrors of a ship full of zombie-like Flood, through seemingly endless muck all for the sake of Cortana and in spite of her seeming-insanity. And, as I came to realize upon reflection, Cortana had been resisting the Gravemind all that time because she believed in him - which was not misguided.

Cortana: "You found me... But so much of me is wrong, out of place... you might be too late..."
Master Chief: "You know me. When I make a promise..."
Cortana: "...You... keep it."

There is a sense that Master Chief is honourable and honest, very straightforward in how he approaches others. He's confident in himself, sure, but more than that he makes others confident. The Chief will absolutely honour every promise and achieve every goal he sets out to do, which leaves his allies to simply do their part. He's reliable, for want of a better word.

Trait 4: Comfort

Related again to the above is the comfort he lends to Cortana, the calm, reassuring way he speaks to her. Soon after being reunited with her, he makes a joke - the one time in Halo 3 where he is less-than-serious:

Cortana: "Got an escape plan?"
Master Chief: "Thought I'd try shooting my way out. Mix things up a little."

At the time, Cortana is still reeling from the trauma of fighting against the Gravemind for however-long she was on High Charity. The Chief seems very concerned about her fragile emotional state, first stooping down to place himself at eye level to her hologram as he reminds her of his promise to her, then cracking a joke as they prepare for combat. Later, he consoles her prior to the Halo ring's destruction:

Cortana "If we don't make it --"
Master Chief: "We'll make it."
Cortana: (short pause) "It's been an honor serving with you, John."

At the very end of the game's cut scenes, the Chief and Cortana have been stranded in space aboard a crippled ship. They've been listed as "missing in action" and thought dead. There's very little chance of their being rescued and the Chief seems resigned to their hopeless fate as he hangs up his weapons. But then he offers a final word of comfort as he enters stasis to await rescue.

Cortana (whispering) "I'll miss you."
Master Chief: "Wake me... when you need me."

For Master Chief, there is no life but that of a soldier; when Cortana tells him the war with the Covenant and Flood is over he seems almost sad as he concedes, "It's finished." What purpose does his life hold without a war to fight? In that sense, it's logical for him to place himself into stasis like King Arthur, to be awakened in the hour of humanity's greatest need (or Halo 4, whichever comes first). But when he's around Cortana the Chief demonstrates his softer, human, emotive side. For her sake, he closes with words of comfort; even if there isn't a battle to be fought, he'll be there for her, knowing well the strain she's already undergone and being cognizant that as an AI, she has a limited lifespan which will probably be played out entirely aboard the crippled ship lost in the void of space.

Cortana's presence in Halo 3 points to another side to the Chief, of another identity he could have as a feeling human being - the person who Cortana (and she only) refers to as "John." Despite being a computer program, Cortana is modeled after her human makers and experiences the full range of human emotions. She draws those emotions out of the Chief and he, in turn, helps her cope with her feelings. They rely upon each other, to some extent and that bond - that relationship - that's what drew me in to Halo 3. Perspectives on that bond vary amongst Halo fans - some want them to be romantic, comradely or fraternal. The giant space marine in armour is in love with the computer program inside his helmet; 'twas ever thus. I don't care what form their affection takes: I simply appreciate that they like each other. And that, more than anything, made me want to spend time wearing the Chief's boots.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying: I didn't think I'd enjoy playing Halo but it turns out, I do. I still do.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Unearthed: Morlock 2001 and the Midnight Men #3

Why, hello there! I promised you another installment of Unearthed which would delve into those kooky 1970s Atlas Comics, didn't I? Well, we should first recap where we've been:

The Hands of the Dragon #1

The Destructor #1

The Destructor #2

The Destructor #3

The Destructor #4

Tigerman #1

Tigerman #2

Tigerman #3

This time will be a little different as I'm not going back to the first issue of the particular series to follow it from its origins. As you my have noticed, much of my interest in Atlas is to see what Steve Ditko drew for them, which leads us to Morlock 2001 #3, the last issue of that series and the only one Ditko drew. When Mike Sterling recently blogged about this comic I knew I had to see it for myself. So, my ability to recount what happens in this story is somewhat hampered by the fact that I haven't read Morlock 2001 #1-2.

The word "Morlock" naturally comes from H. G. Wells' first novel, The Time Machine. Pairing that public domain moniker with "2001" would hopefully attract either fans of The Time Machine or 2001: A Space Odyssey. But to what end?? To what end?!?

Thanks to my comrades at The Grand Comics Database I can at least know who was responsible for issues #1-2; Mike Fleisher wrote #1-2 & Al Milgrom penciled them. Both men contributed a lot of work to Atlas but it's not for me to say whether their Morlock 2001 was to their credit or not. Let's proceed by examining the cover of Morlock 2001 #3... or, rather, as the cover puts it, Morlock 2001 and the Midnight Men #3! Yes, we've arrived at the point where the series is being retooled, much as the other Atlas books were frequently tinkered with.

The GCD credits the cover to Rich Buckler; our protagonist, Morlock, is lying front and center on the cover which is a good prominent location for him. Unfortunately, he's flat on his back as a masked man declares "To save Morlock I had to kill him!" Which naturally prompts:

This isn't a bad cover at all - it does prompt the reader to pick it up and find out what's going on - is Morlock dead? Are the Midnight Men booting him out of his own comic? A flea-sized company like Atlas had the freedom to tear down its heroes which Marvel & DC comics of the time would not.

The story is titled "Then Came the Midnight Man," courtesy of writer Gary Friedrich, penciler Steve Ditko and... oh my goodness... BERNIE WRIGHTSON as inker! Mr. Wrightson has, unfortunately, announced his retirement from comics this week so this an appropriate time to appreciate his work, especially for the rarity (or is that oddity) of him inking the legendary Ditko. We open on Eugene Whitlock in his private library as a caption informs us in this world, books are banned (so toss Fahrenheit 451 in the blender with the other sci-fi properties I listed). Two men clad in black who represent the Thought Police (add 1984 to the heap) discover Eugene with his treasure trove and accuse him of "high treason," then execute him by turning a flamethrower upon him. I'd like to note above how the credits appear on the covers of the falling books. I like it when a little effort is made to insert the credits into the story.

Outside the home we have our hero Morlock, a man wearing a mix of light & dark blues and silvery hair. Morlock is seeking out Whitlock, hoping Eugene might help him. It seems Morlock has a strange condition where he transforms into a "bestial vegetable form!" (I dunno, maybe toss in Howard Hawks' Thing from Another World?) and while Morlock has a serum to inhibit this transformation the serum is almost gone and he's due to transform soon. Morlock hears Whitlock's screams and realizes he might be too late so withholds using up the last of the serum, figuring that in his monstrous form he might save Whitlock or at least kill the Thought Police. At this point a caption asks "Confused? Well, if you missed our first two issues, hang in there! We promise all will be made clear pretty soon -- we hope!" signed by editor Larry Lieber. Here, Lieber demonstrates some good editorial instincts much like those of his brother to welcome in first-time readers - such as me, 40 years later.

Morlock makes it about five steps before transforming into a monster (no idea what happened to his clothes). He grows two additional arms and looks rather tree-like, similar to what was hinted on the cover. Friedrich's script goes all in: "a nightmarish change from bodily tissue to rotting fungus!" He doesn't look that awful - Ditko was no Bernie Wrightson - but the scripting puts the reader into our hapless hero's shoes to comprehend what it is he's going through. Inside the home, the Thought Police are burning the books when one of them announces a monster has appeared and eaten one of their ranks. The leader sets out to investigate musing "the law says all Thought Police are trustworthy -- and that means I gotta check... even though I know the guy's lost his marbles!" But sure enough, there's Morlock eating one of the Thought Police by pressing it into his body. At this, the leader freezes in place, unable to move. The other Thought Police run away as Morlock winds up eating the leader as well. "His flesh is instantaneously melted by enzymes secreted from the monstrosity that holds him captive -- and in liquid form that flesh is quickly absorbed into the vegetable body of Morlock!" Can you imagine how ghastly this comic would look if Wrightston had penciled it?

Within the house, Whitlock gets up, now just a featureless mass of pink flesh. He's surprised to find he survived being burned alive and muses "I must be close to death! But the shock syndrome will not allow my mind to accept it!" Noticing his clock has stopped at 12:00 he adopts the codename Midnight Man (meanwhile Midnight calls his lawyers) and resolves to raise up an army which will combat the Tribunal which leads the Thought Police. Exiting his house he finds Morlock standing before him, but Morlock collapses to the ground and shrinks back to his human form. Elsewhere, the Thought Police who fled from Morlock return to the Tribunal (three men who sit behind chairs which conceal their faces; The Prisoner?) and relate what happened. The Tribunal believe them, but blow up the policemen's car to keep them silent about Morlock. And with that, the Tribunal begin a recap of what happened in Morlock 2001 #1-2, which is great for people such as I. It seems Morlock emerged from a giant plant pod which came from space (Invasion of the Body Snatchers?). The Tribunal attempted to place Morlock under their control and sent a female agent to win his trust; when Morlock learned she was spying on him for the Tribunal he turned into his monster form and killed her (recalling this recap comes from stories written by Mike Fleisher I'm unfortunately reminded Fleisher was judged a misogynist for the way he depicted female characters in his comics).

Anyway, back to Morlock; he's human again and clad in his blue duds once more. Although Whitlock's home is gone he has "great refuge" located underground and opens a passageway to the "emergency underground railway." Wait a minute, if he had all these elaborate underground spots why couldn't he have hidden his books down there? Morlock revives as Midnight Man leads him down the steps into the Great Refuge (Inhumans not included). Below, it seems the "railway" was literal as the passage connects to the old subway tunnels of New York and a train car carries Morlock and Midnight Man to their destination.

We return briefly to the Tribunal who are upset to learn Whitlock's corpse was not found in his burned home and there's also no trace of Morlock. Back to the Great Refuge and it seems two days have passed. A female follower of Whitlock's (apparently his opposition to the state consisted of more than book ownership) spends some time with Morlock to befriend him. She should be safe, Fleisher's not writing now. Elsewhere, Midnight Man gathers his followers in a cavern looking something like he's about to begin a witch's Sabbath - but really, he's there to show off his new costume (at least he finally got dressed!) complete with an "MM" over his navel. He's a super hero! A super hero with the power to inexplicably survive third degree burns! Midnight Man summons his followers to join his "revolutionary army" against the Tribunal. He calls his army "the Midnight Men" claiming it's because it's similar to the "Minutemen", but I think he must have read the cover.

Midnight Man returns to Morlock and Felicia (thus naming his female follower) and finally explains he's Eugene Whitlock (Morlock stayed with him for two days without having this conversation?). Midnight Man explains his goal of overthrowing the Tribunal and Morlock agrees; "Our cause is the same!" Midnight Man hopes he might find a means to control Morlock's transformations but warns his plan will mean risking Morlock's life. But back again to the Thought Police - who have found the secret tunnel entrance outside of Whitlock's house! The Tribunal is pleased at this news as the Thought Police pour into the tunnels.

Midnight Man explains his plan to Morlock: there was a second plant pod next to Morlock's which is still in the Tribunal's custody. If they can capture that pod he can cure Morlock; the pod is heavily guarded, but the plan goes no further as the Thought Police break into Midnight Man's base, setting off alarms. The Midnight Men surge into battle but as Midnight Man goes to join them Morlock starts to transform again. "Help me -- don't let me become -- a mindless monster -- again!" With the serum depleted Midnight Man can offer only one solution to Morlock's trouble: "All I can do is to bring your torment and suffering to an end, forever!" So saying, he shoots the monstrous Morlock to death. Yipe! Looks like the Midnight Men really are taking over this comic!

As Midnight Man races to enter the fight, behind him Morlock's body reverts to its human form. Midnight Man doesn't believe his Midnight Men stand a chance against the invading Thought Police so there's only one solution: "Destroy our refuge -- and myself and my followers along with it! With the pressing of this button -- all hope for free-thinking mankind is ended! Yet -- better death than slavery on the surface!" So Midnight Man pushes the detonator and thus, the horribly disfigured person who wears a mask has activated a bomb to seemingly kill off the entire cast (Beneath the Planet of the Apes). Is this the end of Morlock and the Midnight Men? According to the final blurb, "Don't bet your last two bits on it!" They promise more next issue, but... there is no "next issue." I guess Morlock and Midnight Man are both dead. The Tribunal won. Well ain't that a kick in the groin?

There is a letters page in this issue and much of it features complaints about issues #1-2. More than one reader complains about Milgrom's art ("I happen to be an Allen Milgrom fan, but the stuff is not up to par" writes one). Complaints are also raised about the obvious recycling of other science fiction concepts ("In fact, you should give George Orwell some credit in the front of your mag. It is obviously based on his world of the police state and 'double think'" writes another). Another complains about the poor distribution of Atlas Comics, finding it difficult to locate them on the stands. Indeed, the staff at Atlas complained about Marvel deliberately flooding the marketplace with additional titles (mostly reprints which were cheap to produce) to help crowd Atlas off the racks.

Thoughts: Gary Friedrich has his detractors but I am not one of them. As the many quotes I pulled may suggest, I enjoyed his scripting, especially when he delved into the horror of Morlock the muck-monster. I don't know quite what to make of Midnight Man but there's something endearing about the idea of this character who is introduced seemingly to be bumped off on page 1 but instead becomes a costumed freedom fighter who basically takes over the book. The many obvious allusions to popular science fiction films & novels don't really help the story but I imagine most of them came to Friedrich from Fleisher.

Much as I love Ditko's artwork he's not quite right for muck-monsters. Ditko could do horror - his work on the Warren mags proved that - but a plant-like monster needs to appear soft and round on the pages, which is an ill match for Ditko harsh, triangular lines. Wrightson helps to some extent and his influence is most keenly felt on Midnight Man's burns. Ditko's more in his element with the Thought Police and the Tribunal who both look like they stepped out of one of Ditko's breezy sci-fi strips.

This brings my series of Unearthed posts on Atlas Comics to an end, for now. Unearthed will be back eventually. If you liked this, make sure you've read my other Atlas posts which I linked above.