On Tolkien, Old Friends, and the Resiliency of Magic

This post is reblogged from a Magic: The Gathering forum in which I participate. Though it’s relevant to this blog’s interests and themes, consider yourself warned: those who have never slung spells at their friends in a dingy nerd-gaming store may find the following rather arcane.

For reference: orco (Quenya, pl. orcor, orqui) and orch (Sindarin, pl. yrch) are the two most common Elvish words for the servants of Morgoth and later Sauron, in the Common Speech often named “goblins.” Any distinctions between them (orc, goblin, hobgoblin, uruk, etc.) depend strongly on dialect/locality and refer only to variations in size, intelligence, breeding, or superficial features. “Orc” is merely the Westronized (read: Anglicized) form of the Elvish words, and thus can indeed be interchangeable with “goblin” depending on context.

51DVTBCQ4WL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Freshman year of high school I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time, and so began the rest of my life. I remember one school night sitting in the Maple Grove Barnes & Noble, comparing The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game Core Book and the Star Wars Roleplaying Game Revised Core Rulebook. I had been a fan of Star Wars for a lot longer than Tolkien, but at that point in my life there was no contest. It was a question of, “Will we play both, or will we just play LotR?”

Core rulebooks are expensive. I made the correct choice, and every Friday night onward I was in Stu’s dining room narrating a fellowship of absurdly overpowered heroes through the dangers of Tolkien’s Beleriand. We didn’t understand the rules very well early on, so Stu was routinely decapitating eight orcs with a single swing of his Dwarven axe and my wizard guy collapsed mountainsides to save the company from the minor inconvenience of finding an easier way around.

Subtle and quick to anger, and such.

Then senior year came along, and Magic: The Gathering started to creep into our circle of friends. For some I suppose that should read “started to creep back in,” but I had never played before. I vaguely remembered a bunch of nerds at a certain lunch table every day in middle school slinging their spells at each other, but beyond that I’d had no exposure. I find a lot of memories from high school harder and harder to access these days, but somehow I ended up at the Maple Grove Shinders buying the Elvish Rage and Zombies Unleashed preconstructed decks from Legions. We can partly blame my fondness for tribal decks on Tolkien, and partly on the Onslaught block, the most tribally-oriented bunch of expansions up to that point in Magic’s history.

blastodermMagic and I got off to a rocky start. On the one hand, it was great for spending early mornings in Wahlin’s classroom and avoiding the majority of our graduating class, most of whom I considered to be wankers anyhow. (Some I still do.) Many a time do I remember sliding two of those shamefully cramped desk-chair hybrids together, climbing in across from Stu and praying for a Blastoderm (which I had added to my Elf deck) so I could wreck his mono-red burn. I also enjoyed attending the Shinders Legacy tournaments, though I can’t ever recall doing particularly well until I turned my vanilla zombies into Zombie Clerics and started sacking Dark Supplicant to dig Scion of Darkness out of my library (who generally turns up with a horde of 2/2 Zombie tokens thanks to Rotlung Reanimator). I also had a B/R Dragon Reanimator for a while, which in hindsight I imagine was quite a pile, but could swing for lethal on turn 3 (Dark Ritual –> Buried Alive into Reanimate or Exhume targeting Bladewing the Risen andDragon Tyrant). It also allowed me to play 4x Terminate, which still remains on my shortlist of kick-ass creature removal.

But on the other hand, Magic also started creeping into Friday night LotR RPG, which as Narrator and resident guy-who-likes-Tolkien-so-much-he-learned-to-speak-Elvish I was decidedly not happy about. Roleplaying games are time-consuming affairs, and they require a lot of preparation; folks have to create characters, order pizza, make sure there are approximately 10,000 cans of Mountain Dew in the fridge, and so on.

So those of us not directly involved with LotR preparations camped out at one end of Stu’s massive dining room table and started dealing 20 in the meantime. As you might guess, the Magic-fever was virulently contagious and LotR-night quickly devolved into nine guys sitting around that same table in a massively-multiplayer Mexican standoff.

I’m not saying I didn’t have fun, but in a way Magic was the demise of a Friday night ritual that to this day claims the lion’s share of my favorite memories with the guys I still count as my best friends.

entombBut it was already senior year, and change is the only constant in the universe. The Geek Squad dispersed to their chosen institutions of higher learning, and I dropped out of Magic for a while, returning to it briefly with some guys in college, and again a couple years later when I discovered Reanimator (possibly my favorite pet deck of all time) was stomping the shit out of Legacy after the unbanning of Entomb and by adding blue for (surprise!) Force of Will, Daze, and silly things like Mystical Tutor — which was later banned, largely for the ridiculous ease with which it fetched every single answer AND every combo piece Reanimator cares about.

Several hundred dollars later, I stopped just long of 4x Polluted Delta and just short of 4x Underground Seas when I realized I wasn’t having any fun. A lot of the guys I was playing against at Monster Den in Minneapolis were incorrigible douche-bags, and moreover they spared no expense on their combos, while I simply could not justify paying over 150-200 dollars for a single scrap of cardboard. I was “employed” by AmeriCorps. What had I been thinking?

Luckily Magic cards don’t depreciate, and I recouped a lot of my financial losses and, incidentally, some of my self-respect. There was also the added bonus of getting back in touch with Derek, whom I hadn’t seen very much through my college years. I remember Jack playing some variation of Dead Guy Ale somewhere in there too, and maybe even Stu behind the wheel of Zoo.

Anyway, we tried LotR RPG again here and there, but it’s hard these days to make a game like that stick. People have jobs, people have kids, and some of us have a lot longer journeys to undertake than others. Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game was never the same, and at this point I suppose I regard its passing with an appropriate symmetry to Gandalf’s final words on the shores of Middle-earth: “Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”

But the brevity of a single game of Magic has allowed it to outlive the more involved of our nerdy pastimes. When the Sundering Seas of modern adulthood deign to part we can still fling elves and orcs and lightning bolts at each other without feeling like our time is at a premium, and without feeling burdened by the frustrating notion that our story will end prematurely — as they almost always did anyway with tabletop RPGs, even back in high school when we had all the time in the world.

And Peasant Magic specifically accommodates the other reality of living in a capitalist society: money. We’re all paying off school loans or a car; some of us are public school teachers or we work for non-profits; some of us have kids and a mortgage, for chrissake. Peasant means everyone has equal potential to build and play the best deck in the format, regardless of whatever other financial concerns they may have — which in turn means that the emphasis is on having fun and spending time with friends. (Sometimes I think it should be called Proletariat Magic, but we’ll not speak of politics where Having Fun is our primary concern).

Whew. Sometimes… I get really serious about stuff. To lighten your mood, I submit these cards for your amusement. Feel free to call the goblins “orcs”; they already hate you anyway.

Because It’s Not Funny: Why No One Should Ever Read “The Killing Joke” Again

I bought this comic sometime in 2008 or 2009, during its most recent resurgence to popularity. As The Dark Knight‘s release date approached and Heath Ledger revealed it as a source of inspiration for his upcoming performance, Moore and Bolland’s 1988 one-shot (re)surfaced as the definitive depiction, “easily the greatest Joker story ever told.” The Killing Joke is a bizarre, brutal carnival ride of a comic book to be sure, but it doesn’t add anything meaningful to the characters it involves and torments and maims.

It does a lot of subtracting. It robs a beloved heroine of her dignity and the use of her legs. It lowers the Batman to the Joker’s level of depravity. And it diminishes the value and complexity of one of the most compelling villains in comic books.

Why does anyone like this comic? Why did I like this comic?

Until sometime last year, I would’ve sung the same praises everybody sings of The Killing Joke. But last year I did some reading, and I did some thinking, and I changed my mind. I took my copy of this wretched mistake of a Batman comic down to my local Half Price Books and received quite a fair sum of cash for it. (My copy was hardcover, you see. I hate hardcover comics anyway.)

The reading I did was mostly of the Gail Simone variety. She’s currently writing Batgirl in DC’s New 52 lineup, and she is the coiner of the comic-book criticism called “women in refrigerators,” which basically argues that, just like in real life, comic book men treat comic book women like shit to be used and thrown away.

In The Killing Joke, Barbara Gordon aka Batgirl is having some hot chocolate and hanging out with her police-commissioner dad Jim Gordon when the Joker shows up at their door and shoots Barbara through the spine. While his goons drag the commissioner away, Joker strips Barbara naked and snaps those photographs we see him leering about on the cover.

So the cover of the The Killing Joke is us looking through Barbara’s eyes, naked, humiliated and paraplegic, dying on her father’s living room floor. DC threw their most popular Bat-family heroine under the misogynist Joker-bus just to make a point: That Joker guy? He’s a sicko. When Alan Moore pitched the story to DC’s executives, they (allegedly) replied, “Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.”

Later in the comic we learn Joker is only using Barbara to torment her father, with whom he has much older beef. But he’s just trying to make a point: even the sanest person can lose their marbles over a single, horrible day.

The only thing I can appreciate about this comic anymore is how it’s so ironically meta: Alan Moore uses Barbara Gordon to make the point that Joker’s a sicko by writing a story in which Joker uses Barbara Gordon to make the point that anybody can turn into a sicko. Only it’s worse when Alan Moore does it because he’s a real person and (allegedly) not a sicko.

(For the record, Watchmen is fucking brilliant.)

So I’ll ask again: Why does anyone like The Killing Joke? It’s gratuitous and vile, and we’re still only talking about the first of my three complaints. 

Back to the refrigerator for a sec. Batgirl is arguably the highest-profile incident of this nauseating genre trope, despite not being the one it’s named for. But in the New 52, Gail Simone has taken Barbara back to the streets of Gotham, giving her back the cape and cowl no other woman has ever worn with so much style and character. Except now she’s got confidence issues, survivor’s guilt and an entirely rational fear of guns. She’s a real person, which tends to set her apart in a world where dudes (and dudettes) can bend steel with their bare hands.

I liked Barbara Gordon as Oracle, but 26 years after Killing Joke, we can be honest about what her new alter-ego really was: a Band-Aid on a wound that ran a lot deeper through DC and comic books in general than anybody realized at the time.

On to gripe #2: Moore makes Batman complicit in Joker’s violent misogyny.

Killing Joke has this weird ending where Batman catches up to Joker in his creepy Carnival-o’-Horrors and like, doesn’t kick the living shit out of him. I mean, this fucking piece of trash has just humiliated and brutalized two of his closest friends and partners in crime-fighting, damaging them both for life. You can’t unring the bell, and all that.

Of all the ways I relate to Batman as a character, our mutual disgust and hatred for victimization is the most visceral. That uncontrollable blood-red rage that grabs you by the gut when something bad is happening to somebody and nobody’s doing anything to make it stop. When I watch movies or TV shows where one person in a position of power abuses or tortures another, the following thought crosses my mind 9 times out of 10: “This show could really use more Batman right about now.” Batman doesn’t exist because his parents got shot. Batman exists because Bruce Wayne watched his parents get shot and he couldn’t do anything to stop it, and one day he decided that should never, ever happen again to anyone else.

All this is to stay: Joker should be lying in a bloody, broken heap by the last frame of this comic, possibly dead. Because if anything could force Batman to break his one rule, it should’ve been this. But instead Bats tries to talk it out with the craziest crazy in all of comic books. Joker is somehow lucid for a moment and says “Thanks but no thanks” and then tells Batman a joke.

And Batman laughs. He has a good guffaw with his ol’ buddy the Joker and then sends him off with a pat on the shoulder (literally — see image). HAHAHA, Barbara Gordon’s crippled for life, HAHAHEE. Hilarious.

I should note that my personal Bat-hero Grant Morrison sees it differently, and as usual, iconoclastically so. Seriously — listen to the clip. It does dramatically change how we could talk about this comic.

Or at least, it would change things if DC hadn’t decided to adopt Killing Joke into their mainstream canon, meaning Batman cannot possibly have killed the Joker at the end of this comic as Morrison suggests. Which means the only other interpretation is the one where Batman is a heartless bastard and the Joker wins, because he finally got his arch-nemesis to crack a smile.

That’s not my Batman. My Batman never lets the Joker win. My Batman is the one Neil Gaiman wrote in his fucking legendary story-to-end-all-Batman-stories Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader:

“Smile, damn you, why don’t you smile?!”

“Because it’s not funny.”

So here’s gripe #3, and it is a minor gripe compared to the others: The Killing Joke makes Joker boring. He tells Jim Gordon this origin story about being a shitty comedian who got mixed up with some gangsters and had “one bad day,” unceremoniously toppling him off the proverbial sanity-wagon. But he also says “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice,” implying the whole thing might be a fabrication.

The point is there’s a bunch of missing variables. We don’t know for certain who the Joker is, or why he is, and I don’t think we ever should know. Origin stories give a character their raison d’être; they let us get inside their heads and they tell us why these people choose to paint on some tights and leap over tall buildings and such.

But why would you ever want to be inside the Joker’s head? And who cares what lives in there anyway? Could anything explain (much less excuse) the fact that he’s killed and maimed and tortured hundreds of people?

In one of its many claims to greatness, The Dark Knight takes Moore’s multiple choice idea seriously and pairs it with the single most important truth about the Joker, which so many comic writers (including Moore) have either ignored or failed to understand:

Luckily Heath Ledger’s performance doesn’t have much of anything in common with The Killing Joke; his Joker is far more dynamic and unpredictable and unsettling, without any of the casual misogyny.

Bottom line: don’t buy this comic, don’t read this comic, and don’t let it slide if you see this comic on your friends’ bookshelves. It bears some discussion; most people probably just gloss over the poor treatment Barbara receives because it’s the Joker and he’s “supposed” to be like that, but sexualized violence against women absolutely isn’t okay.

If you must read the Joker, pick up these instead, and if you must read Alan Moore, read Watchmen.

Actually, you should read Watchmen either way.

A Matter of Time: Golden Age Hero vs. Modern Age of Comics

Though it seems strange to say, over the past few years I’ve acquired an appreciation for Superman. Especially in contrast to other DC characters; many of my favorite comic books feature Superman not as the main protagonist, but as an icon the other heroes measure themselves against. They look up to him, they’re jealous of him, some even hate him, and sometimes all at once.

Superman is a mythical creature who signifies a mythical age. A man who can bend steel in his bare hands, but who also bends over backwards to be kind and good to his fellow Earthlings all day every day? Sometimes we can barely find those qualities in a real-life person, even without the bent steel part. Superman may draw his superpowers from our yellow sun, but he draws his gravitas from our nostalgia.

If we watch Man of Steel hoping for just a flashier update of Richard Donner’s acclaimed series, we’re bound to be disappointed. And that’s what I was, for a while. We often think of Superman as the brighter side of a dichotomy with Batman; hope vs. fear, compassion vs. vengeance, blah blah blah. For the first few years after their debut, Batman and Superman both lived and worked in Metropolis, but occupied different thematic venues (i.e., night and day). So there are certain things we expect from a Superman movie, and very few cultural icons carry as much baggage as the Last Son of Krypton. But that’s okay. He can handle it. Or can he?

“Bright” Man of Steel is not, and that can be pretty jarring at first. “Fun” is not even necessarily a word I’d associate with this movie. But I would call it serious, and realistic.

Superman Returns got at least one thing right: it tried to imagine a world after Superman (for a little while anyway), where the greatest superhero of all time had vanished and humanity was once again left to fend for itself. The 1996 limited series Kingdom Come shows us what happens when the World’s Finest Heroes retire, leaving the job of saving the world to a younger generation of “heroes” who have no role models and no moral compass to guide them — and the world nearly goes to hell because of it.

Man of Steel is a mirror image of those stories: Earth is already a dark place, and somehow Clark Kent from Smallville, Kansas needs to learn how to fit into it. It seems like it’d be much harder to fix a world that’s broken than it would be to start fresh, and that’s where both the Man of Steel and Man of Steel struggle mightily (and sometimes fail) to convey their meanings. In Zack Snyder’s vision, Superman isn’t the herald of a Golden Age; he’s displaced and dispossessed in both space and time, adrift in the dark, gritty Modern Age of Comic Books.


For all his attempts to hide himself away, Clark Kent repeatedly collides with (some lazily stereotypical) signifiers of The Modern World: he sticks up for a waitress when a diner harasses her, but steadfastly refuses to hurt anyone; he goes down in flames with an oil rig while saving its workers, whom his shipmates and a rescue party were happy to abandon. The military feels threatened by him, and DC Comics’ most famous reporter wants to expose him. As a child, his peers and sometimes their parents treated him like a freak or an act of God. Even Jonathan Kent tends more toward covering up his son’s abilities rather than praising him for doing the right thing. The film screams at us: this Clark Kent guy just doesn’t belong.

But is he really who we think he is? My first reactions were skeptical. How could Superman allow his Pa to be sucked up by a Kansas twister? How could he be so willing to snap General Zod’s neck? These scenes seem to fly in the face of Superman’s core identity; I even called the film “character assassination” on Facebook. But when we view the movie through the lens discussed above — if we see Henry Cavill’s Man of Steel as an anachronism in an age of moral ambiguity — the movie makes a lot more sense. To his credit, Cavill channels Kal-El heroically; every grin and every grit of his teeth could have jumped straight off the pages of your favorite issue of Action Comics. Too bad he doesn’t have a little more to say; Zack Snyder’s Superman is a rather quiet fellow.

Back to the scene with General Zod. There’s an inherent contradiction among our many expectations of the “S”: the notions that Kal-El is at his best when he’s a down-to-earth “human” character, but also that he never, ever makes mistakes (especially not big ones) are mutually exclusive. If we’re looking at a rebooted origin story of Superman, maybe we should see some kind of pathos that can drive him to become the symbol of hope that the movie so desperately pursues.

Michael Shannon is everything I hoped he’d be as General Zod.

Granted, Man of Steel forgets to play with the thematic importance of Zod’s death amidst a frustratingly hurried conclusion; we only get to imagine what impact it might have on our hero, and that’s just plain bad form on the filmmakers’ end. Maybe Kal-El swears to never again be a bystander while innocent people suffer; maybe after killing the only other Kryptonian left in the universe, he vows never to take another life. As a fan of DC Comics with a good deal of Superman backstory under my belt, I probably have an advantage in projecting where the character could go from here. Other moviegoers may just be left feeling angry and betrayed.

There will be sequels, of course. Hopefully we’ll learn about the consequences of General Zod’s murder in the next installments; given Zack Snyder’s history, though, I think we can expect further Super-movies to be as cold and detached as this one. It’s more operatic sci-fi tragedy than soaring super-adventure, a characteristic cranked to full volume by Hans Zimmer’s stirring score. Man of Steel is something new in the Superman canon, which seems exactly what it wants to be. Whether we like it is, I think, a matter of time — can the Last Son of Krypton forge a place for himself among the dark, cynical superhero narratives of our modern age, or is he better left as an icon of brighter days?

*          *          *

As a postscript, let’s talk about Zod’s death for a bit. Man of Steel wants us to believe that Superman made the only choice that would save human lives: Zod had just finished declaring that he would stop at nothing to kill every last human being as vengeance for banishing his compatriots to the Phantom Zone forever, telling Superman their fight will only end when “you die, or I do.”

So: the gateway to the Phantom Zone is permanently closed, and no Kryptonian technology remains with which Kal-El might safely imprison Zod, a warmonger-general ascended to godhood in the light of Earth’s yellow sun. The only other conceivable solution to this situation would be for Superman to fight Zod (but not kill him) forever. Literally. I would have been thrilled with that ending, as it would’ve signified a terrific break from predictable superhero-movie conventions, one that might’ve even rivaled the truly awe-inspiring conclusion of The Dark Knight. But it also would’ve precluded a sequel, which is of course unacceptable to Warner Bros. and company.

Our hangup with Zod’s murder springs, of course, from Superman’s conviction that no one has the right to kill. Though the film fails to give the scene it’s due time and consideration, are we not big enough to forgive Superman? (He would certainly forgive us if we were wearing the cape.)

Obviously there’s no right answer, and I don’t think I know where I stand on it yet. All I can add right now is this: our other silver-screened superheroes certainly do not measure up to the high standards we have set for Superman — in fact, they don’t even come close. Here are some body counts from other comic book movies, courtesy of allouttabubblegum.com. Take these numbers with a grain of salt, and keep in mind that personal responsibility for various deaths amidst the carnage of an action movie is usually debatable:

Wolverine in X2 (2003): 11

Hal Jordan in Green Lantern (2011): 3

Peter Parker in Spider-Man 2 (2004): 0

Steve Rogers in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011): 26

Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk (2008): 25

Bruce Wayne in

Batman Begins (2005): 20

The Dark Knight (2008): 1

The Dark Knight Rises (2012): 2

The Avengers (2012)

Steve Rogers: 17

Bruce Banner: 29

Natasha Romanoff: 27

Nick Fury: 3

Thor: 187

Tony Stark: 678(!)

Tony Stark in

Iron Man (2008): 56

Iron Man 2 (2010): 0

Iron Man 3 (2013) numbers were not available, but they’ve got to be high — at least as high as the original.

Again, many of these are debatable; the only ones I can discuss with any certainty are the Batman films.

The Avengers: applying lethal force to all non-humans (except Thor) since 2012.

The Batman Begins count of 20 occurs in Ra’s al Ghul’s monastery; Bruce Wayne detonates those explosives, yes, but is he directly responsible for killing al Ghul’s horde of ninjas? And would the filmmakers really have been so sloppy, considering it was Bruce’s refusal to kill someone that sets off the whole action scene in the first place? Must he save each and every person in the scene to not be considered a murderer? Curiously, this body count does not include Ra’s al Ghul himself, who dies under almost exactly the same circumstances at the conclusion of the film (“I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you”).

The one death in The Dark Knight refers to Harvey Dent, which is also questionable. Dent was about to murder Gordon’s son, and Batman had no way of knowing the fall would kill his erstwhile friend, who had already suffered some extremely traumatic injuries. Batman survives the same fall himself only seconds later.

In The Dark Knight Rises, the two deaths attributed to Batman are Talia al Ghul and her truck-driver henchman; Batman fires rockets at the truck carrying the nuclear weapon, the truck crashes, and its occupants die as a result (besides Jim Gordon, who was not wearing a seatbelt and therefore survived). But suppose some police officers were to use force to stop a suspect’s speeding vehicle from hurting innocent people, and the suspect dies in the resulting crash, would they be accused of murder? There’s probably some legal precedent either way, but as of this writing I haven’t researched it at all.

Anyway, what I’m getting at is that it’s not the fact that Superman kills Zod that upsets us; it’s the fact that he made a conscious decision to do so. But does that really matter in comparison to the mass murderers and genocidal maniacs (coughTonyStarkcough) of other recent superhero movies? I don’t know. You tell me.

Star Trek Into Soullessness: Good Riddance to J.J. Abrams

As I write this I am listening to the Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan soundtrack via YouTube, and I find it a significantly more stirring experience than watching Star Trek Into Darkness, J.J. Abrams’ recent bungling of arguably the most important science fiction franchise ever.

In place of “franchise” above, I considered using a word like “universe” or “mythos” (the latter of which I don’t feel very appropriate for Star Trek anyway), but didn’t end up replacing it because that’s what Star Trek has become: a franchise to occupy Abrams’ time while he waited to get hired for the indefinite number of cash-cows Disney wants to throttle out of Star Wars.

Consider the following from Abrams’ recent interview on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart:

“I never liked Star Trek when I was a kid… It always felt too philosophical for me… Some of the writers loved Star Trek, I wasn’t a fan, my producing partner never saw it.”

Everything about these statements is problematic if you understand what’s important and beautiful about Star Trek. To Jon Stewart’s credit, his response was “I stopped listening to you when you said you didn’t like Star Trek,” but the reason why is somewhat lost in the rest of the conversation.

And lest ye readers now proclaim in Abrams’ defense, “But that’s, like, what any fanboi/grl would say about their nerd fiction of choice,” you are totally right. So can we agree that each fiction, and perhaps particularly sci-fi and fantasy, has some sort of nebulous essence or heart, without which they are fundamentally changed?

Star Trek without philosophy — by which I assume we mean a thoughtful blend of rationality, ethics, and compassion — is not Star Trek. It’s like Reese’s without peanut butter, or Back to the Future without Marty McFly. In other words: empty.

In my review of Abram’s previous “Trek” film, I mentioned that further entries into the series should return to some of the TV show’s thematic roots. Seems like they tried with Into Darkness, but ham-handed character transplants and sometimes nearly verbatim scene-stealing from previous (real/good) Trek films doesn’t count.


Except that’s one of the film’s biggest problems. It’s not really a spoiler, because wrangling trendy British bloke Benedict Cumberbatch (“he’s so hot right now“) and calling him “Khan” doesn’t fucking mean anything except that you’re fresh out of good ideas and you’re trying desperately to retain what tenuous cred you had with real Star Trek fans.

So, since Abrams’ himself has invited the comparison, let’s compare.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan wrestles mightily with the concept of mortality; in fact, nearly every plot element in the film revolves around this single theme. The very first scene introduces the “Kobayashi Maru,” a test that evaluates how up-and-coming Starfleet officers face certain death, a test which the captain of the Enterprise notoriously defeated; Kirk and “Bones” lament getting old right after the ever-cantankerous McCoy gives his old friend a pair of antique eyeglasses for his birthday. Even the Chekhov’s gun is codenamed “Genesis,” invented to create wondrous new life but also capable of utterly erasing it. All of this drives the film to its heart-rending and well-known conclusion: the demise of one of the most beloved sci-fi characters of all time. I can’t even think about that scene without getting all misty-eyed; Spock’s unwavering altruism contrasts gorgeously with Khan’s hunt for petty revenge.

Star Trek Into Darkness begins with its head held high, espousing the pits and precipices of the Prime Directive and rehashing the fundamental differences between Kirk and Spock. But then “John Harrison” blows up a secret Starfleet weapons factory, and Into Darkness decides it wants to be about terrorism. And warmongering, and the militarization of a beloved exploratory institution, and other trendy shit that every other dumb-ass bullet-riddled action-adventure movie since 9/11 has wanted to be about. Star Trek Into Darkness could be read as a reflective title: this movie unceremoniously tosses Trek’s customary high-mindedness into oblivion in favor of (shocker!) mostly boring, predictable, belabored action scenes.

On to the films’ antagonists. When the eponymous villain of Wrath of Khan reveals himself on the dead planet to which he was exiled, he drives home the last nail in Kirk’s as-yet proverbial coffin. Not only is Kirk’s mortality catching up with him, but his past is, too. (The dead planet Ceti Alpha V and its “exploded” sister, Ceti Alpha VI, offer a cosmic perspective on the film’s theme — even worlds must eventually die.) There is a history between these two old foes that the audience can feel, even if they haven’t seen the original episode featuring Khan Noonien Singh, a genetically modified superman from late-20th century Earth’s Eugenics Wars. Khan seems genuinely anachronistic in the 23rd century of the U.S.S. Enterprise: he is cunning and ruthless, possessed of a tyrannical arrogance. He represents the worst of the world in which we currently live, and that’s what makes him unique in a future where humanity constructs, or more pointedly, can afford to construct massive spacefaring vessels solely for the endeavor of exploring the universe and for the betterment of all humanity.

But in Darkness, Khan is not unique or anachronistic. Everybody and their mums is out for blood in this picture. Khan caps good old father-figure Chris Pike, so Kirk wants to whack Khan. Admiral Robocop– er, Marcus holds Khan’s super-groupies hostage, so Khan wants to hurt Marcus. Kirk pulls a Spock and gets himself irradiated saving Enterprise, so Spock blames Khan and tries to beat him to death with his bare fists in the most absurd, un-Trekish action scene in the whole movie. And lest we forget, the Big-Shot Fucking Admiral of Star-Fucking-Fleet (which defends the 23rd-century version of the UN, for fuck’s sake) wants to spark total war with the Klingon Empire. These are not the ethics of Star Trek. These are the barbarisms of the Dark Ages. This is a movie about weregilds in space.

Further — it doesn’t really mean anything at all that “John Harrison” turns out to be “Khan.” Star Trek II rekindles a rivalry and enmity 15 years old that fits perfectly with the film’s thematic interests. Into Darkness, on the other hand, merely pays lip service to one of Trek’s most iconic villains. Had “John Harrison” neglected to reveal his “true” identity, the film still would’ve played out in exactly the same way. Cumberbatch, while a terrifically compelling actor, isn’t given much at all to work with. He’s a glorified Rambo who is denied even the chance to utter any of the real Khan’s most memorable lines or sentiments. (I mean, as long as you’re recycling the entire latter half of Khan for your “new” Trek movie, you might as well use the good stuff, right?)

It is bitterly ironic that while Abrams really, really wants Into Darkness to be hip and cool and bad-ass, he fails to do justice to easily the most bad-ass character to ever appear in Star Trek. I mean seriously, while he might be a huuuuuge tool sometimes, Khan Noonien Singh is the reigning BAMF of the Alpha Quadrant, even when you just consider some of his dialogue, particularly in the following scene, which I would rather watch 14 times in a row than sit through the 127 minutes of Into Darkness again:

All of this ranting is to say: J.J. Abrams has abandoned the heart and soul of why Star Trek is important in pop culture. Real Trek looks forward to a future in which war, poverty, and disease are extinct on Earth; in which the petty concerns of individuals like Khan do not threaten the stability or justice of society as a whole; in which we reach ever farther in our understanding of the physical laws of the universe and leave those barbarisms of a war-torn planet behind us where they belong.

True Trek celebrates the intoxicating truth that we are the only species among millions on our world across billions of years who have cultivated the knowledge and the skill to strap ourselves to a bomb, hurtle into outer space, and come back safely with new knowledge that will benefit all of humankind. Star Trek Into Darkness is a rather aptly named film after all — it chains us in the darkness of our own real world, and we’ll never leave that world behind for a better one if this is all we can muster from the brightest, most hopeful science fiction franchise of all time.

The Apocalyptic Physics of J.J. Trek

Suspension of disbelief is the willingness to disregard one’s critical faculties and believe the unbelievable; sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment. In Star Trek, this is most frequently required where space travel occurs. We accept that since the U.S.S. Enterprise represents the pinnacle of 23rd century human technology, it can do things that our current space-faring vessels can’t. The Enterprise can generate artificial gravity for its passengers; it can withstand extremes of temperature, energy, and gravity in interstellar space; it can warp space-time to traverse distances that would otherwise be prohibitively vast. And most importantly for this blog post, the Enterprise has propulsion systems that automatically stabilize the vessel against any gravitational forces in its immediate vicinity.

All of these fictional technologies are so commonplace in space-travel sci-fi that they represent the status quo of the genre. But as soon as you turn those technologies off, the Enterprise is just another (admittedly high-tech and oddly-shaped) piece of space-junk that must obey the laws of physics, some of which we’ve known about for hundreds of years; laws like the conservation of mass or momentum are taught in high school classrooms, and it can be awfully jarring if they’re suddenly and brazenly broken on the big screen. Cue the following scene from Star Trek Into Darkness:

When Admiral Marcus’s U.S.S. Vengeance pursues the Enterprise and knocks it out of warp, the two ships seem to end up in a more or less stationary position on the far side of Earth’s moon. A string of various action sequences later, Enterprise loses main power, deactivating those automatic propulsion systems above; Enterprise begins to succumb to the gravitational forces nearby.

Okay, that’s legit; many other sci-fi movies just ignore gravity altogether. Except then the Enterprise begins to fall not toward the nearest massive body (i.e., the Moon), but toward Earth, which is a minimum distance of 384,400 kilometers (238,900 miles) away. What’s worse, Enterprise “falls” to Earth’s atmosphere in what could not have been more than 4 minutes of screen-time (and that’s being generous), which would mean that Earth’s gravitational force can accelerate “914,442 metric tonnes” (over 2 million pounds) to a velocity of more than 5,766,000 kilometers per hour or 3,585,000 mph (assuming the ship reaches such a velocity almost instantly, with almost no acceleration time). This is of course completely absurd and highlights the rather sloppy continuity editing that plagues both of Abrams’ Trek movies, so let’s do some math to find out how long it should take an object to fall to Earth from that distance, because we’re smart people and that’s why we like Star Trek. All of the following calculations ignore all gravitational effects other than that of Earth, because it’s easier (I have no idea how to calculate multiple gravitational influences on the same object), and because that’s what J.J. did. So there.

Acceleration of gravity (g) in meters per second per second = GM / d², where

G = the universal gravitational constant (6.673 * 10-¹¹N-m² / kg²)

M = the mass in kilograms of the larger object, in this case, Earth (5.98 * 10^24)


d = the distance in meters from the center of the object to the center of the Earth, (in this case, roughly 384,400,000m).


G * M / d² = 0.27m/s²

Therefore, completely ignoring the fact that Earth’s gravitational pull would steadily increase to 9.8m/s² as we near the surface (and would therefore increase the object’s velocity and decrease fall time), after 1 second of direct free-fall toward Earth from a distance of 384,400,000 meters, the Enterprise would be traveling at 0.27m/s. At 10 seconds, 2.7m/s. The formula for distance traveled by a free-falling object is as follows:

d = 1/2gt², where

t = time (240 seconds, or 4 minutes, the maximum fall time from the scene in Into Darkness)


1/2 * 0.27m/s² * 240² = 7776m, or 7.78km.

In the four minutes (max) that it took this scene to play out in the movie, Enterprise would not have traveled even 8km. Let’s solve for “t” instead, to get an idea of  how long it should take the Enterprise to hit reentry. And just to be generous to J.J. and friends (and to avoid an obnoxiously long calculation), let’s assume a maximum, constant acceleration of gravity regardless of distance from the Earth (9.8m/s²), rather than beginning with 0.27m/s² and increasing our “g” value as Enterprise gets closer.

t = √[2d /g]

d = 384,400,000m

g = 9.8m/s²


1/2 * 9.8m/s² = 4.9

384,400,000m / 4.9 = 78448979.59

78448979.59^0.5 = 8857.14s, or just under 2 1/2 hours to plummet at the maximum possible Earth-acceleration of gravity from the Moon to the surface of the Earth. (Again, this assumes no other gravitational forces are acting upon the starship, which would not be the case in reality.) For some perspective, it took Apollo astronauts between 2 and 3 days to return from the Moon. Here’s why they took the slow train on the way back.

If you’re accelerating at 9.8m/s² for 2.5 hours in a vacuum, you continually accelerate until you hit some kind of resistance (i.e., Earth’s atmosphere). Enterprise‘s velocity at reentry can be calculated quite easily:

Vƒ = gt, where

Vƒ = velocity at reentry, or “final” velocity

g = 9.8m/s²

t = 8857.14s


9.8m/s² * 8857.14s = 86799.97m/s, or over 194,000 miles per hour. This answer violates the maximum Earth impact velocity (72m/s) for an object orbiting the Sun, which the Enterprise would be if it was stationary relative to the Earth and the Moon. However, given J.J.’s claim that Enterprise could somehow plummet to Earth in the space of 4 minutes (requiring a speed in excess of 3 million miles per hour), and because it’s more fun, we’ll go forward using 86799.97m/s as our final velocity at impact with the Earth.

To put some perspective on this, NASA’s space shuttles reentered Earth’s atmosphere at about 7800m/s (17,500mph) and executed several wide S-shaped turns in order to decelerate in time to land safely and dispose of their massive amounts of kinetic energy. The kinetic energy of the Enterprise, a 914,442 metric-ton starship reentering the atmosphere at 86799.97m/s, can be calculated as follows:

KE = 1/2mv², where

KE = kinetic energy in Joules

m = mass of the object in kilograms (914,442,000kg)

v = velocity of the object in m/s (86799.97m/s)

1/2 * 914,442,000kg * 86799.97m/s ^2 = 3,444,810,365,833,443,300 Joules of kinetic energy. Rounded to the nearest ten-quadrillions, that’s 3.44 quintillion Joules.

One metric ton of TNT releases a little over 4 billion Joules when detonated. The above kinetic energy of the Enterprise upon slamming into the Earth’s atmosphere would be equivalent to the detonation of an 823-megaton bomb (823 million tons of TNT). The largest nuclear weapon ever detonated to date was Tsar Bomba, with an estimated yield of 57 megatons; it produced a fireball 5 miles in diameter, a blast radius of 22 miles, and more limited damage at a range reaching hundreds of miles. If we guess that such destruction would increase in more or less direct proportion to the yield of the explosion, an 823-megaton detonation would produce a fireball 65 miles in diameter (Earth’s atmosphere is about 62 miles high); Enterprise‘s shock wave would level everything within about 312 miles of ground zero, equivalent to over 300,000 square miles (an area larger than Texas); and the range of limited damage and fallout would span continents.


And none of these calculations assume, as we must, that when Enterprise‘s warp-core containment fails an additional anti-matter detonation of indeterminate size and intensity will occur.

What they do assume is that Enterprise would explode somewhere in the atmosphere, breaking apart without impacting the surface. But why should we assume that? According to Abrams himself in the opening sequence of Into Darkness, the Enterprise is perfectly capable of planetary reentry. And elsewhere in Trek canon we find further examples of starships entering a Class M atmosphere without disintegrating; see Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek Generations, in which both ships suffer massive damage to their hull structures before beginning reentry. What if the Enterprise‘s hull, shields, and/or structural integrity allow it to pass through the atmosphere more or less in one piece?

Using this website, we can estimate the crater dimensions, thermal radiation output, seismic effects, ejecta, and air blast intensity at varying distances from ground zero. Assuming the following parameters:

distance from impact = 500km (311 miles, on the edge of our estimated blast radius above)

projectile diameter = 370m (the longest dimension of Abrams’ reinvented Enterprise)

projectile density = 4328.76kg/m³ (average, according to this site again)

impact velocity = 868km/s

impact angle = 90° vertical

target type = sedimentary rock (with an average density of 2500kg/m³)

Here are the highlights (full results here):

The final crater left by the Enterprise would be roughly 55.4km (34.4 miles) across and 991m (3250 feet) deep, melting or vaporizing 377km³ (90.4 cubic miles) of the matter at ground zero.

The visible fireball at 500km away would be 100.2km (62.2 miles) in diameter, and even at this distance the thermal radiation exposure would exceed 52 million Joules per square meter for over 15 minutes. This equals over 49,000 BTUs per square meter. According to my calculations, this would raise the ambient air temperature to something over 2250 degrees Fahrenheit. For over 15 minutes. At this temperature and duration, all exposed organic material is incinerated.

The impact of the Enterprise under these parameters would register 9.3 on the Richter scale, but damage due to seismic shocks would be minimal at a distance of 500km. Several minutes after impact, the area would receive a fine dusting of dust and debris reaching up to 4.08in thick.

25 minutes later, the blast of displaced air would arrive at 196m/s (439mph), gutting or leveling nearly all man-made structures. Up to 90% of the trees hit by this air blast would be blown over, and the rest completely defoliated.

Some margins of error in this scenario:

First, we should remind ourselves that modern astrophysics tells us that the maximum Earth impact velocity for an object orbiting the Sun is 72m/s; I have yet to discover why this is true, and if any readers could enlighten me I would be most appreciative. If the Enterprise is assumed to be “orbiting the Sun,” then we must reduce our impact velocity drastically, which would also drastically reduce the ship’s kinetic energy upon impact. Enterprise is not an especially large object, at least in terms of giant hunks of menacing space-junk that might hit the Earth, and most of its destructive power would come from the excessive velocity we calculated above.

Second, the listed “diameter” and density of the Enterprise are not necessarily very accurate; they are merely really good estimates regarding a fictional spacecraft (from one of the most devoted fan bases in the world). Enterprise is not a “solid” shape, meaning that it contains far less mass than a spherical object of similar diameter; we would find more reliable results if we could calculate using total mass rather than diameter.

Barring any of these margins of error, though, we can expect total annihilation of an area larger than Texas and global fallout produced by superheated debris being flung into the upper atmosphere and raining down all around the world, creating a literal firestorm that would ignite vast wildfires anywhere the ejecta returns to ground. Depending on the location of ground zero, casualties could be in the billions (especially if population growth continues into the 23rd century).

Though most available studies on potential climate changes due to such a disaster use much larger objects in their calculations (>1km in diameter), we can assume catastrophic loss of plant and wildlife in the ecosystems immediately surrounding the blast radius, with the possibility of food-chain disruption and extinction of some species. Secondary loss of environment and agriculture would occur across the globe.

The Earth Impact Effects Program features a Google Earth plugin that allows you to pinpoint an impact anywhere on Earth using latitude and longitude. The same input parameters as above are applied; they have even included a drop-down menu to view the radii of various effects (crater, air blast, etc.). Here are the results if the Enterprise in our above calculations were to strike the Earth at Starfleet Headquarters in San Francisco, CA. The City by the Bay is incinerated along with basically the entire West Coast of the United States.

And here are the results if we use J.J.’s apparent velocity from the film, something around 3.5 million miles per hour (the speed that could allow the Enterprise to reach Earth from the Moon in under 4 minutes). In this scenario, note that

a) the air blast at first looks smaller than the previous scenario, until you zoom out and realize that it’s glitching the plugin and it actually covers the entire globe,

b) the final crater would be 353 miles wide and over a mile deep, with 1,060,000 cubic miles of matter being melted or vaporized on impact, and

c) the thermal radiation from such an impact would apparently incinerate all of North and most of Central America.

It took me a several hours over the course of two days to relearn some basic physics, do some arithmetic, and type this out. Apparently J.J. was too busy with blowing shit up and telling Alice Eve to strip down to her skivvies and couldn’t be bothered to stop and consider how ridiculous this scene is.

Ironically, we are now forced to wonder why Admiral Marcus would wake up a 300-year old genetically modified superman to build top-secret weapons so he could blow up the Klingons when really, he could have just set his big jet-black spaceship on auto-pilot and programmed it to ram into the Klingon homeworld at warp speed. I guess you don’t get to run the show at Starfleet by being good at physics.

*          *          *

But wait! Bonus round!

In the scene from Into DarknessEnterprise is traveling at 3.5 million miles per hour when it reaches Earth. If we assume that this velocity is still slow enough that the crew actually have the time to process what is happening and react accordingly before impact, then we would need 3.44 quintillion Joules of energy to bring the ship to a full stop before it hits the atmosphere, at which point it’s already “Kobayashi Maru” for the Enterprise and her fearless crew. If we also assume that, based on my recollection of the film, we only have 5 seconds in which to complete this maneuver after engine power is restored, then:

3.44 * 10^18 Joules / 5 seconds = 6.88 * 10^17 Joules per second, or 688,000 terawatts. Another post from a previously quoted nerd-site argues that at a comfortable cruising speed, the warp core of the U.S.S. Enterprise-D (four generations of technology later) produces about 7.1TW. In the year 2006 the entire human race consumed only 16TW of power.

Bonus round 2:

In order to accelerate the Enterprise to 3,585,000 miles per hour over a distance of 238,900 miles under gravitational force alone, the Earth would have to be orders of magnitude more massive. To solve for the correct mass of a stellar body that could accelerate an object to these speeds in such a small period of time, we’ll need to return to our equation to find the acceleration due to gravity above. Our goal is to find “g” in the calculations below, which we can then use to find “M” in the very first equation we solved above (acceleration due to gravity at varying distances from the larger object).

d = 1/2gt², or

g = 2d / t²

t = 240 seconds (4 minutes)

d = 384,400,000m


2 * 384,400,000 / 57600 = 13,347.22m/s², the acceleration due to gravity required to accelerate an object fast enough to travel 384,400km in under 4 minutes.


g = GM / d², or

M = gd² / G

We know all of these values except “M”, so:

13,347.22 * 384,400,000² / G = 2.96 * 10³¹ kilograms, or, rounded up, a 3 with 31 zeros behind it. For some perspective, the mass of the Sun is roughly 1.99 * 10³ºkg.

The Schwarzschild radius is the radius of a sphere such that, if all of the mass of an object is compressed within that sphere, the escape velocity from the surface of the sphere equals the speed of light. In other words, any object that occupies a volume smaller than its own Schwarzschild radius is a black hole. The Schwarzschild radius is calculated as follows:

r(s) = Schwarzschild radius

c = the speed of light in a vacuum (299,792,458m/s)

r(s) = 2GM / c²


2 * G * 2.96 * 10³¹ / 299,792,458² = 43,970m, or 43.97km (over 27 miles).

The Earth’s radius is 6371km (3959 miles), so according to J.J.’s new film it falls short (or rather long) of the Schwarzschild radius. However, with a mass of 2.96 * 10³¹kg (and assuming the real-life volume), the Earth would have a density of 2.69 * 10¹ºkg/m³, which approaches the density of some portions of a neutron star.

An Earth of this density would have an escape velocity of about 25,000km/s, or nearly 56 million miles per hour. This is roughly 1/6 of the speed of light, which maybe seems a bit prohibitively high for the residents to invent space travel. Or do anything else, for that matter.

This has been fun. I’ve relearned a lot of physics and I got to pick on J.J. Abrams and his fucking hipster glasses at the same time. In the future he should either do a better job than Scotty at keeping the engines on the Enterprise running, or do enough math that any English major with Google and a calculator can’t make an ass out of him.

Continuity Crisis, Vol. 2 — Zero Hour: Crisis in Time

Zero Hour: Crisis in Time was so utterly boring and stupid that I dare not discuss it here for fear of losing my already admittedly miniscule readership. Instead, watch this immensely entertaining YouTube video (which incidentally summarizes the important parts of Zero Hour starting at about 12:05).

Stay tuned for further entries in the “Crisis” series as well as a revised format of my Batman canon. Enjoy “The Death and Return of Superman”!

Late-Nite TNG: “Remember Me”

Yes, I know it’s not late-night anymore. But I watched the episode last night, so sue me. Anyway, in my continued explorations of Batman and the DC Comics world at large, I have come across a trend called “Women in Refrigerators,” which as you might guess relates to some pretty sickening treatment of female characters in superhero comics. Most disturbingly, some of the comics I had intended to include in my Batman Comics Canon are accessories to this misogynist genre trope.

More on that to follow, but by 7 o’clock last night I was so depressed reading about how frequently this trend occurs that I needed to expose myself to something on the other end of the feminist spectrum. Where, oh where do I turn? To science fiction, of course. To its great credit, sci-fi has long been one of the leading genres to feature women not just as token representatives of their gender, but as normal, complicated, fully-actualized people. And which TV show was a pioneer even within science fiction?

I selected the fourth-season episode called “Remember Me” mostly because I hadn’t watched any of Season 4 recently and I couldn’t remember the plot of this particular episode off the top of my head. One of the nice things about TNG is that it’s not a serialized show, so you can skip around to find an episode you haven’t seen in a while.

Anyway, the plot runs as follows: Dr. Beverly Crusher is accidentally trapped in a static warp bubble during one of her son Wesley’s experiments with the warp drive in Main Engineering. Strangely, Dr. Crusher’s existence inside the warp bubble creates an alternate reality based on her thought patterns at the moment of the accident, which happened to revolve around the gradual loss of friends and coworkers we all experience as we get older. In this alternate reality, the crew and passengers of the Enterprise begin disappearing at an alarming rate, until eventually she is the only crew member on a starship capable of comfortably transporting over a thousand people. Even more bizarre is that as people vanish, none of the remaining crew members (or the ship’s computer) remember that they ever existed at all.

Naturally, this leads to Captain Picard and the other crew members being skeptical of Dr. Crusher’s claims that the crew is disappearing, but instead of dismissing her as a crazy lady and packing her off to the proverbial loony bin, her crewmates take her seriously and attempt to help her investigate the phenomenon. Captain Picard is on her side right up until he finally disappears, too, having previously stated: “Beverly, your word has always been good enough for me.”

Dr. Beverly Crusher, last woman standing in an alternate reality.

It would have been soooo easy for this episode to devolve into a gaggle of mostly male Starfleet officers wringing their hands and declaring “Dr. Crusher’s gone batty! Whatever can we do to fix her poor, confused little mind?” But, in stalwart Star Trek fashion, the writers took the high road. After everybody has vanished, Dr. Crusher kicks her brain into high gear, asking pointed questions of the ship’s computer to deduce exactly what is going on. The two clues that allow her to figure it all out reveal themselves when she inquires 1) what is the mission statement of the Enterprise (to explore the galaxy) and whether she is qualified to accomplish that mission all alone (no), and 2) what is the nature of the universe, to which the computer responds, “The universe is a spherical region approximately 705 meters in diameter.”

The first clue allows her to confirm that she is not losing her mind, and the second narrows down the problem to an all-too-measurable extent: the universe is collapsing around her, progressively erasing everyone on the ship (presumably she is immune to these effects because it was her mind that created this reality in the first place).

Don’t go towards the light… Wait wait no! Do go towards it! Hurry up, your universe is collapsing!!

Over the course of the episode, Dr. Crusher experiences all the emotions we might expect of someone in her situation: confusion, stress, frustration, fear. And, like any reasonable individual, she does briefly consider the possibility that she might be going crazy. But for the most part she remains calm, rational, and professional, as evidenced by her quick thinking and sound deductive reasoning as the show nears its conclusion. And let’s not forget that her alternate reality was precipitated by her consideration of a fear that everyone must face at some point in life: that we will eventually lose the people we love.

While all of this is going on inside the warp bubble, the crew on the real (or rather, original) Enterprise are able to figure out what happened to Beverly, and for her part, she correctly assumes that the odd “atmospheric disturbances” she has witnessed were her crewmates’ attempts to retrieve her from this alternate dimension. She leaps through the gateway back into her original reality just as the warp bubble finally collapses, and all is returned to normal on the Enterprise.

It’s a credit to this television show and Star Trek as a whole that we can select an episode more or less at random and it will present its female characters in such a positive, well-rounded manner. This episode also passes the Bechdel test with flying colors as Dr. Crusher consults Deanna Troi, the ship’s counselor, about her mental stability (or the possible lack thereof). Just off the cuff, I would expect most other TNG episodes to pass the test as well.

Overall, this was a great episode — I had forgotten most of the important plot points, and it serendipitously satisfied my goal of engaging with some good feminist fiction. I’m thinking this “Late-Nite TNG” thing might have to become a continuing mission (pun intended), as I tend to get the urge to watch some Trek quite frequently. Anyway, until next time,


Homage to the Old-School: Ra’s al Ghul, the JLA, and the Black Casebook (Batman Canon IV)

Yup, I just got done hatin’ on the Silver Age, and now I’m about to tell you about three collected editions featuring many comics straight out of the corniest, campiest era of Batman ever.

But first I should spend some time exploring why I don’t particularly care for the old-school of comic books. The most obvious reason is, of course, that I did not live through the period(s) in question, and therefore cannot relate personally to the social and cultural climates from which those periods’ comics arise. I have a couple of uncles who have loved comic books all their lives, and I’ve heard them mention more than once how important the 1960’s Batman TV series was to them, despite the fact that it’s frequently singled out as the campiest piece of superhero fiction ever created. “Camp” can be a relative term, though; I loved Batman Forever when I was a kid, but now I can barely sit through the first five minutes.  Our perceptions of our favorite media change not only with time, but also in comparison to other media of the same style or genre.

First impressions are also significant. I imagine it was hard to take Adam West seriously when this was my very first experience of the Dark Knight, at the ripe old age of three:

Thus began an entire childhood of running about in cape and cowl, growling “I’M BATMAN” at everybody dense enough to ask the obvious question: “And who are you supposed to be?” My mom has a framed picture of me wearing my “Batman face,” an expression I apparently assumed so often that it warranted a nickname and a professional photography session.

Anyway, the most important thing I want to mention regarding Modern vs. Silver is that in recent years Batman’s writers have emphasized his absolute dedication to doing what’s right, regardless of the consequences. Batman never compromises, and he never, ever gives in. This trend effectively redefined Batman’s war on crime, if “crime” it can still accurately be called; he doesn’t just go after gangsters and murderers anymore. If an amoral CEO is dealing weapons under the table, the Batman will take him down. If the police department is plagued by cops on the take, he and Jim Gordon will clean house. And if the United States government becomes a police state, then the goddamned Batman will spark a goddamned Bat-revolution.

I prefer the realism of the Modern Age, as the Batman character and his mythos are extremely receptive to hyper-realistic depictions of urban crime and its root causes. Christopher Nolan’s Batman films would not exist without the Modern Age of Comic Books, period. But just because many of the older stories toss credibility out the window doesn’t mean we can’t find some of them to appreciate. The following three volumes showcase some entertaining yarns from the Golden and Silver Ages, and they also set up a few plot points that will become very important later on in my customized Bat-character arc.

Batman: The Black Casebook

I was pretty skeptical when I first picked this one up, and I certainly wouldn’t call it a “must-read,” but I ended up liking it enough to include it in my collection. The Black Casebook collects 12 stories from the early 50’s to the early 60’s in which Batman experiences exceedingly bizarre and/or improbable occurrences. Most of them prominently feature Dick Grayson as Robin, which is a dynamic (get it?) that is pretty hard to come by in Modern Age comics, and the best of them try to play up the father-son relationship between Bruce and Dick. There are even a few touching moments between Batman and Boy Wonder amidst all the excessive camp.

But what I really like about The Black Casebook is that it provides a fine example of a retcon done right. In writing his “conclusion” to Modern Age Batman, Grant Morrison decided to completely ignore Crisis on Infinite Earths and directly connect these 12 comics from the Golden and Silver Ages to his contemporary work on the Batman family of titles. It lends a sense of mystery to these tales; it retroactively deepens their potential ramifications across 50 years of comic books. We can also read them as an expression of the extreme mental “stress and shock” one would certainly experience in leading a life like Bruce Wayne’s… Did all of these stories really happen, or is the Batman just a little bit batty? We’ll never know (although Morrison does hint at some of the answers in his landmark series Batman: R.I.P., to be discussed here at a later date).

JLA: The Greatest Stories Ever Told

I may not read their comics as exhaustively as I do Batman’s, but the heroes and heroines of the Justice League of America are important figures in Batman’s career, and as such I thought it appropriate to grab a compendium of some of their greatest adventures together. Like The Black Casebook, this collection also contains a few stories that would eventually become significant (and sinister) in the Modern Age. Not much more to say about this one; it’s fun, it’s lighthearted, and full of the action and heroics we expect from the Silver Age.

Batman: Tales of the Demon by Dennis O’Neil

Here at last appears one of the Batman’s greatest foes, as created by legendary DC writer Denny O’Neil: Ra’s al Ghul, which translated from the Arabic means “Head of the Demon.” This trade paperback collects the very first few stories featuring Ra’s and the League of Assassins. Some people complain that these stories feel more like a 007 film plus a cape and cowl, and they’re right, but I don’t mind. They showcase Ra’s as an equal intellect to the Batman and introduce his vile brand of “eco-terrorism” to the comic book world.

That concludes our foray into the Golden and Silver Ages of Comic Books. From now on, all of the titles in my Batman collection will be post-DKR. Next up: Dick Grayson’s swan song as the Boy Wonder in Nightwing: Year One.

Continuity Crisis, Vol. 1 — Crisis on Infinite Earths and the Last Gasp of the Golden Age

In 1985, DC Comics turned 50 years old. The age of the superhero had arrived with Superman in Action Comics #1, April 1938, and in the intervening 47 years the Man of Steel and his Super Friends forged a phenomenally popular and pervasive industry that has been dubbed the contemporary American version of myth-making. Legions of comic writers and illustrators wove a comically complicated web of their heroes’ origins and motivations, usually with little concern for consistency either within or across each individual character’s storyline. Meanwhile, DC amassed its wealth and acquired several smaller comics publishing companies, including Charlton Comics, which at that time owned the rights to characters such as Captain Marvel and the Blue Beetle. However, none of these other intellectual properties had yet been integrated with DC’s primary publications, meaning that they remained isolated from the stories (and therefore much of the success) that DC’s other characters enjoyed.

In other words, in 1985, DC’s comics were a clusterfuck — that is, more so than they had been before. The Bronze Age of Comic Books  (c. 1970-1985) also saw a shift toward darker, more realistic characters, the revival of horror and science fiction titles long banned by the Comics Code Authority, and a simultaneous rise in the success of independent publishers. Further, DC was bleeding revenue at the hands of Marvel Comics, whose onslaught of diverse, dynamic and socially relevant characters since the early 60’s had stolen much of the market DC previously dominated. All of these pressures combined to prompt some rather drastic measures: DC’s editorial and writing staff decided to destroy the Multiverse.

Like I said. Clusterfuck. “Worlds lived. Worlds died. The DC Universe was never the same.” So ran the tagline of 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, a “12-part maxi-series” intended to unify all of DC’s various continuities and publications into a single, more or less internally consistent storyline. The DC “Multiverse” would be reduced to a DC “Universe” in which all characters could always interact with each other without resorting to inter-dimensional travel as a plot device.

For your convenience I present to you (so far as I know) the Internet’s shortest summary of Crisis:

The Anti-Monitor, aka Generic Jumbo-Sized Super-Villain, attempts to destroy all the parallel universes ever. Barry Allen aka the Flash runs really really fast. Supergirl punches Anti-Monitor really really hard. Anti-Monitor deep-fries Supergirl with his Generic Eye-Beams. Anti-Monitor has a Plan B, but the Flash runs really really fast and blows it up. In fact he runs SO FAST he melts himself or something (see image). Wally West aka Kid Flash earns his big-boy pants and becomes the Flash fo realz. The Spectre arm-wrestles Anti-Monitor for the fate of the remaining universes. Not even kidding. Spectre wins said arm-wrestling match and Superman of Earth-Two, aka the original Supes from Action Comics #1, punches Anti-Monitor really really hard. The remaining parallel universes and their respective heroes get magically retconned so they’re a single universe and they always have been. Everybody else who ever appeared in DC Comics never existed in the first place.

The end.

At last, DC could publish all their intellectual properties in the same storylines on a clean slate, all while making truckloads of money on their epic blowout year-long purging of any and all characters who had failed to be popular in the last 30 years. In other words, they could legitimately ignore anything from the Golden Age (and some of the Silver, too) because it never really happened anyway. I guess if I were a writer at DC, I could choose to see Crisis as a liberation of sorts, freeing me from the constraints of mid-20th century world events and zeitgeists that no longer held much relevance to a 1980’s reader. Crisis does help to clear away some of the decades-old detritus DC Comics had collected by 1985; but like even the best of spring cleanings, it never lasts — life goes on, and eventually you find yourself sweeping up the same old dust-bunnies all over again (or perhaps more accurately in DC’s case, sweeping them under the rug).

But Crisis on Infinite Earths is fan-service, nothing more or less. It accomplished what it set out to do, paid homage to a precious few of DC’s most popular heroes, and provided an epic send-off for the ones they wanted to retire — Barry Allen and Kara Zor-El being the most prominent examples.

But Crisis is almost completely inaccessible to the newbie DC reader, which is ironic, since one would think a single DC Universe would be easier to get your head around than an infinite number of Multiverses. I can geek out pretty hard over DC superheroes, and even I had to consult the Wikipedia summary before I really felt like I understood what the hell happened. Further, three-dimensional characters are all but absent from this series, with the exception of the two Supermen (Kal-El and Kal-L) and Supergirl. Everyone else in the story falls squarely into the category of “Person-Shaped Plot Device.” The Crisis is too epic for its own good: the range of emotions our beloved heroes might feel at being helpless to stop the literal end of the world(s!) is lost amidst full-page battle scenes and rapid, confusing plot exposition. But then, the self-acknowledged goal of the maxi-series is to remake the entire DC Comics continuity in a mere 12 issues, so maybe a little character development is too much to ask.

Earlier we discussed the idea that Crisis may have provided DC’s writers with some badly-needed breathing room, and that it would inevitably be a temporary relief at best. But DC’s superhero comics were not only stagnating in their own convoluted history; they were also adjusting to the rising popularity of the more adult and socially relevant themes of the Bronze Age. In this light, Crisis seems to harbor a very conservative, reactionary motive: to unite the Multiverse under a single, defining, and incontestable history, i.e., what is called the post-Crisis DC Universe, before the whole thing just became too fractured to repair. Crisis explicitly states the original 1938 Superman (Earth-Two/Kal-L) is the greatest hero of not just his own Earth, but all of them, ever. And the modern, mainstream Superman’s defining moment of the series comes at the death of Supergirl: Kal-El, the Man of Steel who would live on into the present day, mourns the passing of not only the Last Daughter of Krypton but also the passing of an age. On the other hand Batman, easily the most popular comic book character ever to represent a darker, more ambiguous view on morality and justice, is barely present in Crisis at all.

To me, the differences between the Golden and Silver Ages are largely commercial — that is, the Silver Age saw a new surge in the popularity of superheroes, solidifying the genre as a hallmark of American culture and giving rise to Marvel, the other contemporary giant of comic books. But I find the heroes themselves to be largely interchangeable. Superman of 1938 believes in pretty much the same thing as Superman of 1970: truth, justice, and the American way. Throughout most of the Golden and Silver Ages, Batman is frequently referred to as a “masked lawman” or even a legal deputy of the Gotham City PD rather than the dark, threatening outlaw he has become since the 80’s. When I consider the thematic differences between different periods in comics, I frequently feel like there are only three: an “early” period corresponding to the Golden and Silver Ages, a “modern” period for the Modern Age of Comic Books, and a “bridge” or “middle” period standing in for the Bronze. In other words: old-school, new-school.

Crisis can be read as both a celebration of and an epitaph for the old-school of superhero comics, as represented by Kal-L and Kal-El: the elder Superman succeeds in saving the world one last time before soaring off into the metaphorical sunset, while the younger carries forward the elder’s ideals — just the same as he always has. A poetic farewell to the early years of the Superhero? Sort of, but in the end the story boils down to the Who: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

Luckily, 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths didn’t galvanize the industry to launch a neo-Silver Age, which meant that the Bronze Age of Comic Books could resolve into the Modern Age, heralded by the sound of shattered plate glass.

The Original Boy Wonder (Batman Canon III)

Just like campy fetish-villains, there are also some good guys you just can’t avoid in the grand scheme of Batman. Luckily, the powers-that-be (or were) in the Modern Age of Comic Books took a cue from some of the old-guard of the Bronze Age and carried forward the darker, more serious tone that began appearing in the 1970’s. As we’ve already seen, stories like Batman: Year One and The Man Who Laughs are a direct result of that trend. But if there’s one character in particular among the Bat-family whose popularity has done nothing but skyrocket since the Modern Age “officially began,” it’s Robin.

Btw, I’m not linking to all these Wikipedia articles just for kicks — they can help to explain all the thematic and stylistic changes comic books have exhibited over the years, and they can provide some insight into the zeitgeist of their respective time periods. I guarantee this is not the last time I’ll mention some of the differences between various eras in American comic books.

In “current” DC Comics “continuity” (read the above links and you’ll get why those c-words are in quotes), there have been five different incarnations of the Robin character. We’ll talk about at least two more of them later in this series, but for now we’re talking about the one, the only original Boy Wonder: Richard John Grayson.

Dick Grayson first appeared as Robin in Detective Comics #38, April 1940, a mere 11 issues after Batman’s debut, making him the longest-running secondary character in the Bat-family, longer even than Bruce Wayne’s lifelong friend and guardian, Alfred Pennyworth. Dick has served many roles over his 72 years at Batman’s side, including but not limited to surrogate son, crime-fighting partner, stalwart ally, and stand-in Batman. In recent years, he’s been more than a stand-in, having taken over the mantle of the Gotham Batman after Bruce Wayne’s disappearance in Final Crisis and his subsequent creation of Batman, Incorporated.

His role as Bruce’s first and prodigal son is particularly important to the deepening of the Batman mythos. Dick and Bruce both suffer similar tragedies at similar ages; they are both orphans with no remaining blood ties; they fight tirelessly to prevent anyone else from having to grow up without their loved ones. But where Bruce is grim and often pessimistic, Dick has ever remained the lighthearted optimist. This is perhaps the very reason he’s retained and even amplified the more or less universal popularity he’s always enjoyed — Dick Grayson makes friends with everybody, and he’s always there when you need him, but he can be every bit as dedicated and deadly serious as his mentor.

The comics I include as Dick Grayson’s induction into the Bat-family have two things in common: first, they present Robin as a legitimate, intelligent, capable character — most emphatically NOT the “Boy Hostage,” as Harvey Dent has often dubbed him. It’s also important to me that any comics featuring Dick acknowledge the strong father/son bond he and Bruce have developed. No matter their differences, no matter the odds, Batman and Robin-I/Nightwing always reconcile with each other, and they’re always there for each other. How else would we define family?

Second, Dick Grayson lightens up the tone of Batman’s adventures. While I’m a self-professed adherent to the “dark, avenging creature of the night” brand of Bat-comics, there is an unavoidable element of camp in any comic book series, and when he’s done well, the Robin character serves as the primary mesh between the Dark Knight and some of his more preposterous escapades, particularly if we want to explore any of the early years of Batman’s publications (see the next entry in this series for more).

Batman: Dark Victory by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale

Completing the Loeb/Sale trilogy, Dark Victory deals with the fallout from the collapse of the Falcone crime family. It’s another murder mystery, and this time the victims are all on the right side of the law. With Batman, Jim Gordon, and Harvey Dent estranged after Harvey’s rampage in Long Halloween, somebody else has to become the glue that holds the good guys together. (Guess who?) Themes of loneliness and isolation abound until Dick Grayson suddenly appears in Bruce’s life, offering a fresh, youthful perspective in the fight against crime and refocusing the Batman on why he does what he does. Loeb nails Dick’s trademark sense of humor, a character trait that has lasted since the earliest days of the Dynamic Duo.

Robin: Year One by Chuck Dixon and Scott Beatty

I just read this comic recently, and I was thoroughly impressed. It explores the Batman and Robin team from Dick’s point of view, with a good bit of narration and reflection from Alfred as well. Dick proves himself as a solid detective and crime-fighter, going up against Bat-villains that frequently seem too silly for Batman (Mad Hatter, anyone?), but the story still retains a grim feel. (The Hatter, for example, is kidnapping young girls to be sold into slavery, presumably sexual.) Year One also includes Dick’s first, nearly fatal encounter with Two-Face, which will be referenced by many subsequent comics. Overall, the series successfully balances Dick’s youth and enthusiasm with the Modern Age’s reinvention of Batman as the dark, menacing, and sometimes morally ambiguous figure we recognize. Additionally, Robin: Year One meshes its art styles with those of Batman: Year One and the Loeb/Sale titles, meaning it fits well both thematically and visually into my collection of Bat-family comics.

Next time, we’ll indulge some of the 1950’s and 60’s flights of Bat-fancy while setting the stage for some events that will take place much later in our Batman’s character arc.