Knowledge of the Hidden: The Occult and Superheroes

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In my town there is a small shop right at the end of Main Street called The Crystal Fox, whose contents really fit its charmingly ethereal name. In “The Fox” you can find all sorts of gems and stones meant for attuning different aspects of your personality, a full guide to chakras and meditation, incense for protection against vampires, books containing accounts of communing with spirits and the gods of old. I even once spied a man consulting his invisible fairy friends as to which type of channeling stone would be best for him! What is it that drives people to places like this? What does the theme of the occult offer to those that seek it out? What compels someone to be so in touch with their imagination, that realms not meant for us become accessible, even familiar?

When one peals back the layers of narratives we have surrounded ourselves with regarding death, god, the afterlife, the motive becomes clear: the appeal of occultism lies in its mystery, in its broaching of the impossible, in its journey to places we can never go. The word “occult” is Latin for “knowledge of the hidden”, and this is exactly what people seek when they delve into the occult. This desire for discovery, for fright, for strangeness is best served in the realm of comics, where anything that can be drawn on paper (or filmed for the screen) becomes possible. In a world where anything is possible, the occult pushes the limits of not only the physical, but of the spiritual, where true discomfort lies.

And it is by facing this discomfort that we gain some sense of control over it, the more fleshed out the narrative the more able we are to “understand” it. Death becomes heaven and hell, suffering becomes a hex or curse, even the weather becomes a portent of things to come. This sense of control is seductive and motivates the reader/watcher to place themselves deeper into the representations provided; this is why intellectual properties based around occult themes can have such rabid fan bases.

This becomes clear throughout the history of the occult in pop culture, from an exploitative thematic used to pump up the controversial nature of pulp fiction publishings to its highly commodified nature today. Even in the mid-1900s there was a burgeoning interest in the work of occultist luminaries such as Aleister Crowley or masters of occult fiction such as H.P. Lovecraft, both of whose works are responsible for greater ripples throughout popular culture that we see today, in a sense they even developed into full blown subcultures. These men provided answers (both in a fiction and nonfiction context) to some of the deep, troubling questions that are inherent to humanity; and their work as well as work like it set the stage for a modern obsession with magic, darkness, the afterlife, what have you.

However, as serious as those two representatives of the genre are, like with most developing thematics in the modern day the genre became much friendlier, much more approachable, in a sense: commodified. Horror became the go-to genre for a cheap thrill. Serious exultations on the nature of the afterlife became second in importance over time to the joy that the aping of such seriousness provided via films like Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice. Lydia Deetz is no less an explorer of that other realm than a narrator out of a Lovecraftian story, however, the tonality had completely changed, it had become approachable, and the necessity for something more shocking took form not in the mystery of the unknown, but in the form of increasing gore. Commodification was not just thematic (the lightening of the genre simply allowed for such): the real result can be seen in Halloween stores and Hot Topics across America. This has reached a fevered pitch in recent history too, simply look at the entertainment juggernaut that is the Harry Potter series: not only in the form of seven books and eight movies, but by the fact that you can purchase in real life almost anything witnessed in the story, not to mention visit a physical representation of it in the form of a theme park!

These results make it clear that occultism has reached a peak level of cultural relevance, notably in recent pop culture, however, how has this manifested in the world of super heroes? A myriad of interesting ways actually, most notably with the induction of DCs (now passé) “New 52” reboot of their comic universe. One of my favorite properties (which I will discuss more roundly soon), Justice League Dark, appealed enough to readers for its first issue to be one of the top 100 best-selling comic books of 2011. For a completely new title (one that was designed to launch with “The New 52”) this is fantastic, and shows a clear interest in the subgenre in the medium of comic books. Even the big bad from the first storyline, Enchantress (a large figure of the occult in comics herself), gets a role in the upcoming Suicide Squad movie.

This trending towards that topic can be seen even more recently with their relaunch of the Doctor Fate book in 2015, also, the character’s extensive inclusion in animated properties, specifically Young Justice. This representation of the character truly touches on some of the darker thematics associated with him: a concentration on the possessive nature of the character, the embodiment of the unknown and unknowable in human form, even the sacrifice on most make while facing the dark energies of the occult. This is not some cookie cutter magician being portrayed; this is a genuine explorer of the dark and vast adventures outside of human experience.

This isn’t limited to static pages, however, as we will see our first big occult-based hero blockbuster later this year with Doctor Strange. Truly, a film showing the epic nature of occult powers hasn’t been properly do-able until recently with the technology and computer graphics afforded by modern filmmaking. Maybe we can see for the first time, the closest we can in pure physical reality at least, the grand nature of the world-bending (literally, in the case of the trailer) powers suggested by the subgenre! The focus of such a film will need to be wide-ranging, and it will be interesting to see how director Scott Derrickson handles that.

That would not be the first foray of film into the world of the comic book occult, however, lest we forget 2005’s Constantine, an uneven if enjoyable foray of this subgenre into moving pictures. The same character, however, might be having a much more pronounced impact recently thanks to what was considered a fantastic representation in the recently cancelled TV series Constantine. Matt Ryan’s portrayal of the character was much, much closer than Keanu Reeves’ in the film version and good enough that it has bagged him a spot as the voice of John Constantine in the upcoming DC animated feature Justice League Dark.

As much as Doctor Strange will be the big reveal of the occult to the larger audience of the world, the Justice League Dark animated feature serves as a sort of culmination of these occult themes for fans of the genre. The comic book itself set the stakes for how a comic book can be “dark” (just look in issue #1 of the comic, when to show signs of the world going mad, a reference to “cows giving birth to meat slicers” is made). This property is meant to appeal to adults, clearly, however it also is looking for the visceral horror of the mystery and shadowed darkness of humanity that occult themes offer. The Justice League Dark property even has enough thematic sway and darkness to lure in the interest of one of today’s best horror directors, Guillermo Del Toro, and while the rumors of him directing a DCEU movie for the supernatural squad seem to have fallen through, just the fact that a face of horror such as Del Toro is looking at this shows how thematically ripe it is.

While animated features don’t retain the following of much larger live action features, the world of Justice League Dark is one that deserves to be explored. Also, its production heralds a sort of concentration on the subgenre of the occult that fits so well into the world of comic books and superhero movies. The Walking Dead has been the best-selling comic for a while now, I think in no small part due to its approach to the darkness and mystery described above. However, this is not just a genre for realist dramas; the nature of superhuman interaction itself seems to be destined to brush with the supernatural, something that has already been accomplished successfully in the medium and, I hope, will be fleshed out with the varied occult titles to be released. In the end, what is more appealing to the base desires of humanity than the ideas of the unknown, the enigmatic, the shadowy, the strange? How deep can super heroes now delve into not only the nature of what it is to be human, but what it is to be superhuman or even supernatural? It remains to be seen, but to be sure, this is a theme that deserves exploration, and if the creators of these worlds want to breach the realm of the truly unexplainable and mesmerizing, this is where they have to begin. Maybe, in the end, they can find some of that knowledge of the hidden.

Nerd Culture Critique: Race Bending is never OK except when it is

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So this past weekend news began to circulate that actor, Michael B. Jordan has officially signed on for the character of Johnny Storm aka The Human Torch in the Fantastic Four reboot. As most of you know Johnny has always been a white, blond haired, blue eyed character since his first appearance in 1961. So naturally there has been a large level of discuss as to whether this is the “right” thing to do. A large amount of the nerd community has spoken out against the casting when Jordan was even rumored to be in the running. So let’s explore this phenomenon on race bending characters and see what is really going on here.

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Since Blade was made into a live action film the sub-genre of comic book movies has taken off considerably. 1998 was the genesis for the explosion of superheroes movies that we know and love today. The Wesley Snipes lead movie was based on a half vampire/half human comic book character who was black and an absolute bad ass. I remember seeing this movie and being very surprised that 1. it was even being made due to its violent material. 2. that the lead is unapologetically black. Snipes isn’t some actor who might be mistaken for half white, or be considered “passable.” So to have him as the lead for this comic book movie was pretty great. Now flash forward to today and the major studios are struggling to get a comic book movie starring a black character on screen...how odd. The reason I mention Blade at all has less to do with his place in kicking off the comic book movie phenomenon, but rather that his name is brought up constantly when it comes to changing the race of comic book characters on screen. I have read many comments to the effect of “what if they changed Blade to a white guy?” Well this is actually a fairly complicated issue that I plan to explore. The history of film and of America in general plays a large part of why that answer is not a simple one. If you believe its a simple yes or no than I would argue that familiarizing yourself with history is highly important.

The history of white actors dressing up as people of other races and playing to ignorant stereotypes is long and complicated. From blackface performances to award winning films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s. A film having easily one of the most disgusting portrayals of east asians to date. Did you know that John Wayne played Genghis Khan once...seriously? Yeah it happened. These are the type of whitewashing issues that have permeated Hollywood for decades. Is it ok? Well at the time it was seen as absolute fine. The American populous saw no issues with these traditionally black, asian, native american, etc characters being played by white men and women in face paint. Think of it as “ignorant kabuki theater.”

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But that was a long time ago, can’t we just move on from that? Well, not just yet. In the introduction of our most known characters during the 1930s through the 1960s in comics there are little to no characters that aren’t white. The entirety of the Justice League and Avengers are all white and mostly male; two women between both teams. So the reason why isn’t really that hard to understand. At the time of their creation American culture was pretty well steeped in whiteness. Other cultures were greatly marginalized. If you doubt this, then please take a look at Mad Men on television right now. This takes place during those times. Not too many minorities around are there? The 1950s/60s America was dominated by white men when it came to businesses and power. So the creators of our favorite characters were all white males, and wrote for a white male audience. The circumstances that got us there as a country are obvious and we don’t need to go into that, but we should recognize it. The overall theme of the 1950s and 60s could have been “All White Everything.” There is equally important point to be made that women suffered during these times as well. That is why we see both Marvel and DC still struggling to make more female characters relevant to their fan base.

After the televised civil rights battle of the 1960s I guess Marvel and DC realized that black people existed and hey maybe they read comics too! So we get the introduction to some iconic black characters. Marvel introduced the likes of Black Panther (1966), Falcon (1969), Luke Cage (1972), and Blade (1973). DC comics brought in John Stewart (1971), Black Manta (1967) and pretty much no other mainstream black characters until the 1990s. Asian heroes like Shang-Chi (1973) from Marvel have always been second tier. Shang-Chi’s creation could largely attributed to the Kung-Fu craze in the 1970s. Sunfire (1971), Mandarin (who is half Chinese - 1964) also could make the limited roster of memorable Asian characters that have been created. Seeing a pattern yet? Latino characters fared even worse; Sunspot (1982) is really the only fully Latino character that is even remotely recognizable from Marvel in years. There are others who are half latino but known who are from two latino parents. Mixed raced characters of note are Miles Morales and Sam Alexander, both newly created characters in 2011. So when it is stated that we can just choose originally black, latino, or asian characters to put on screen I laugh. The list of viable minority characters that would even generate the kind of enthusiasm of a Thor, Captain America, Superman, Batman, etc is pathetic at best.

Create new characters that are minorities and put them in the movies? Well sure that seems very simple to do. Just create a character out of thin air who the audience is suppose to immediately attach to and desire to see a two hour film about, seems reasonable (sarcasm heavily implied). Sure this works with other movies. Most movies have characters that are created out of thin air. However, when you put the stamp of Marvel or DC people expect to already know these characters or be able to read about them in some comic book. Look at easily the one of the most popular new characters in all of comics, Miles Morales AKA Ultimate Spider-man. He is a fantastic minority character. However, he is a derivative from a well known character. Spider-man is one of the most beloved heroes bar none in all of comics. It isn’t much of a surprise that a well written derivative of the character would do well. Miles has his own personality and style, but there is a built in fan base all ready the second he walks on to the scene. What completely new character has caught on to that level in such a short timeframe? Spoiler alert, NONE!

So this brings me back to the original point of the article, should changing the race of some of these comic book characters be allowed when they do live action movies? My answer is yes. Should minority characters be changed to being played by white actors? My answer is no, with a caveat. Is a character like Blade largely focused on his blackness? The answer is no it isn’t. However, characters like Black Panther, Luke Cage, and Falcon do matter. Their race is central to who they are. Those characters were born out of the aftermath of a hard fought struggle of race division in the 1960s and 70s. To not understand that is just ignorant. Does it seem fair that minority characters these days don’t get changed while traditionally white roles do in comic book movies? Well I would argue it isn’t about fairness. Its more about the pendulum swinging to equilibrium. If all things were equal in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s when these iconic characters were created we wouldn’t have seen an all white Justice League, Avengers, or Fantastic Four for example. Times are changing and the country is looking less white everyday. Comics have always worked to reflect what is going on to a degree in real life. That is why you see the introduction of characters like Miles Morales, Sam Alexander, and Cyborg. The vast majority of new characters being created are non white or of mixed race. This isn’t a gimmick this is a reflection of America.

So when you hear someone get so angry over the fact that Johnny Storm is going to be black just shake your head and ask them why they are so angry about it. If the answer is “because he isn’t black in the comics” then just walk away. Or on second thought ask them if they were that mad when this happened (all white actors playing a different race):

Burt Lancaster - Native American (Massai 1954)

John Wayne - Mongolian (The Conqueror 1956)

Marlon Brando - Japanese (The Teahouse of August Moon 1956)

Charlton Heston - Latino (A Touch of Evil 1958)

Mickey Rooney - Chinese (Breakfast at Tiffany’s 1961)

Elizabeth Taylor - Cleopatra (Cleopatra 1963)

Laurence Oliver - Black (Othello 1965)

Peter Sellers - Indian (The Party 1968)

Jennifer Connelly - Latino (A Beautiful Mind 2001)

Josh Hartnett - Inuit (30 Days of Night 2007)

Ben Campbell - Asian (21 2008)

Justin Chatwin - Asian (Dragonball Evolution 2009)

Jake Gyllenhaal - Persian (Prince of Persia 2010)

Everyone in The Last Airbender

Carey Mulligan - Latino (Drive 2011)

Jennifer Lawrence - Non white, olive skinned character (Hunger Games 2012)

Ben Affleck - Latino (Argo 2012)

Just to name a few.

Lastly, go back and think about how many minority comic book characters you can name who are even remotely still talked about today that predate the 1960s. If you know of any please let us know in the comments. At the end of the day, minority heroes are few and far between. Just because a standard was set 50+ years ago doesn’t mean things can’t change. For the record the last time Fantastic Four was on the big screen one of the main cast wasn’t white. In case you didn’t know Jessica Alba is Latino. So I guess the argument comes down to who passably white at this point, right?

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A Visit to Baltimore Comic-Con 2013!

Baltimore-Comic-Con-620x250 Another year in Baltimore means another visit to the local Comic-Con. Now our comic convention isn't the Great-Big-Giant-Deal that San Diego and New York Comic-Cons are but they are still fun. We have a few awesome guests and comic creators hanging about their booths but rarely anything huge. This year Stan Lee and Kevin Smith were planned to appear but Stan Lee canceled. I'm fine with that as both of these guys charge a TON of money just to say hi and get an autograph. I went without and simply enjoyed the show floor.

So aside from buying all kinds of stuff you don't need but really, really what is there to see? Costumes, my friend! The cosplay at this convention keeps ramping up each year. There was a time where you'd barely see any but these days you can't walk five feet without seeing a new person dressed as an awesome character. With that in mind I had my camera and my handy press badge to let people know I wasn't just a creeper and I took a whole lotta pics so we could share some of these guys with you. And wow, there are some great costumes to share this year. Enjoy. I know I did!

Why Some Comic Book Characters Should Not Have TV Shows

The Flash Earlier this week The CW announced that it has plans to possibly bring The Flash to the small screen. With the relative success of Arrow, the Warner Bros owned television station is feeling like this superhero thing on a small scale is a pretty good idea. Having a 10 season run of the incredibly popular Smallville doesn't hurt things either. So its only a matter of time until we see the Scarlet Speedster make his way to The CW. Many fans of the character are excited but unfortunately, I am not one of them. The CW has a poor track record for these super hero based shows. The 10 season run of Smallville might have been a financial success but frankly that show was terrible. Under the guise of a superhero drama, it was more of a teen aged angst ridden weekly program. However, with the success of Arrow (note: I'm not a fan, read my review of it here) The CW is on track to try and make magic happen again with The Flash.

There are numerous style and capability reasons why I think a property like The Flash should stay far away from The CW. However, lets take a look at some of the more obvious reasons. Many point to Arrow as being a fine example of how The CW has been producing a quality super hero show. I wholeheartedly disagree with this sentiment. While I don't like the show I can certainly appreciate the reasons why people dig it. However, with a show like Smallville I don't get it. The massive difference between a show about Green Arrow and one about The Flash is simple: super powers. Green Arrow is just some guy with human capable skills. The Flash can run so fast that he phases through objects. Putting that or just his normal running speed onscreen will be highly expensive and difficult. Take a look at the last time The Flash was shown on television (Smallville):

Do we really want this? Do you think that every time The Flash runs on this proposed show he will get some super fancy vantage points? No, you will get those terrible looking blurs and that HORRENDOUS slow motion running. As a fan, I don't want this. These are the type of things that help diminish the impact of seeing superheroes in movies. Terrible treatments like this might get fans excited but this only helps to shorten the life span of these type of properties in the mainstream.

With all that said, I think The CW and other channels have a place in the superhero marketplace. Marvel is introducing their Agents of SHIELD television show this fall and they are going about it in the proper way in my opinion. Taking non-super power people in the Marvel universe and making them the show's focus. Sure there will be some powered characters, but they will likely be "monsters of the week" instead of the main characters. DC should follow suit and shoot for lesser knowns in their universe or lower powered ones. My suggestion is a team up show with Booster Gold and Blue Beetle. These two jackasses are lesser known to the general public, but could be done easily with a television budget.

Blue Beetle Booster Gold

So at the end of the day, there are far better picks for a television show than just the members of the Justice League. If you want to expand the movie universe you don't take heroes who will likely be huge movie projects and scale them down to only be rebooted and retold later to confused audiences. You choose characters that have ZERO chance of being on the radar of the average Joe. Hopefully if the show is successful people will clamor for a movie. Warner Bros is working on saturating the market with low budget, poorly acted, and poorly directed series that will only hurt their brand and the live action super hero genres in the long run. Do better WB! Demand better fans!

Why Do Super Villains Tell Their Plan?

watchmen_still10 In the climax of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ masterpiece Watchmen, Nite Owl II and Rorschach confronted Ozymandias. It was a scene we’ve seen before. Heroes figure out what is going on and confront the villain. Aware of their approach, Ozymandias doesn’t only prove equal to the task but he easily dispatches of them. With his former teammates lying prone he reveals his master plan. What makes this scene so iconic is that it flips a common comic book trope on its head. He goes through his entire plan, but he differs from most villains in comics in that it was too late for his plan to be stopped. Remove that difference and we’re still left with a man who had to share his plan with those who tried to stop him. Why is it that super villains find the need to share this? To get to the root of this we first have to understand the difference between heroes and villains. In a work such as Watchmen what separates good from evil is left up to your perspective. Ozymandias is willing to kill three million people to save more. Rorschach is deemed a hero despite being a full on bigot. It attempts to give a realistic representation of the shades of gray that exist in life. In comic books the lines between good and evil aren’t so vague. Superman is good. Spider-Man is good. Some such as Wolverine, Batman, and Punisher get dangerously close to the lines but are also ultimately good guys. They are heroes in the sense that they are doing what they do to protect others. They often find themselves whether willingly, or not so willingly, teamed up for the cause of saving the world. While there are rough patches they manage to work things out. Teams such as Justice League of America and the Avengers are formed of superheroes that, mostly, swallow their ego and bounce ideas off of each other to come up with the most effective way to overcome the challenge. This is not to suggest that super-villains. There are examples such as Spider-Man’s Sinister Six, Flash’s Rogues Gallery, the X-Men’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, and so on. What we consistently see is a clear-cut leader and his followers (Magneto with the classic Brotherhood of Evil Mutants), and lesser villains who join together to thwart a common foe (Sinister Six, Rogues). An example that proves how bad an idea it is for powerhouse villains to get together is displayed with the Secret Society of Super Villains. A fantasy dream team of villains put together to combat the Justice League always found itself strife with battles of ego between the likes of Darkseid, Lex Luthor, and Gorilla Grodd among others.

At the core a villain doesn’t want to share credit, and doesn’t want to feel threatened. Most of all when they succeed (for they never consider defeat) they don’t want to share any of the world that they now control. So they plan, and plan, and plan. Their minions (or followers if minions is too dismissive for your tastes) carry out their work and they are mostly isolated from the rest of the world.

A byproduct of not wanting to share credit of the spoils is the lack of equals that they respect to tell them how great the idea is.  The yes men who surround super villains will deliver praise, but no matter how self-absorbed they are aware of the reason why this praise is delivered. So back to the initial question: why would a super villain share their plan with their rival before (or after) it is completed? In truth it is because whether or not they’d like to admit it the hero is the closest thing the villain has to an equal. To let them die, or for the plan to succeed, without the hero knowing everything that went into it would leave their accomplishment devoid of that acknowledgement.

Where the heroes have a process of multiple eyes, and ears to come up with the best plan to save the world, the villain only has him or herself.  Despite Watchmen holding itself a part from the rest of the genre of superhero comics, it held true here. He shared his plan the same way Dr. Doom has on countless occasions in battles with the Fantastic Four. And the reasoning is simple: to feed their ego. Not only are they about to win, but also there’s nothing they could do. This is validation for all their planning. Proof that they can go about this all on their own.