Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!


Comics for 29 December 2004

It's the fifth week in a month, so the Big Two think they need to come out with "special" events. This week Marvel brought out a bunch of "What if?" comics, letting writers speculate on how the Marvel Universe would have changed if certain things had happened differently. "What if?" has been an ongoing series twice, and some of the stories were pretty interesting, but unfortunately, the concept usually ends in one of two ways: the status quo is pretty much reinforced, or the world ends. This week, we had stuff like "What if Aunt May had died instead of Uncle Ben?" and "What if Jessica Jones had joined the Avengers?" None of these titles held any interest to me, so I skipped them all. It's just an interesting thing when there's a fifth week of a month. The market is so glutted with titles, you think Marvel and DC could spread things out a little instead of adding "special" titles. Their publishing schedule means nothing anyway, so why not?

Moving on, this week's comics:

303 #2 by Garth Ennis and Jacen Burrows
$3.99, Avatar

Another good comic that will be overlooked. Whatever you think of Ennis, he knows war and he knows action. I refuse to buy Punisher because I think he's the worst character in major comic-book history, but Ennis is still one of my favorite writers. After an introductory issue of this series in which only one person got shot (shocking!) this issue ratchets up the body count. We start with a typically anti-American shot (I have nothing against anti-Americanism, it's just that sometimes it's so stinkin' obvious -- let it go!) when the Yanks bomb a village just for the hell of it (well, not really, but for a stupid reason) and some ugly carnage ensues. The Russian star of the book (I can't be bothered to see if Ennis named him) says "The Americans do as they please here. Have done since the fall of Kabul." I wonder how many innocent people he killed when the Russians invaded Afghanistan in the 1980s? But I don't want to get too political here, so I'll move on. The Russians get to the airplane that has crashed, but the English have already gotten there. The Russians think the English have been sloppy in their sentry positions, but it turns out to be a trap. Much more carnage ensues. Then the Americans arrive, and interestingly enough, more carnage ensues (I'm not being sarcastic; everyone here is supposed to be allies, so all the carnage and who causes it is surprising). We're still not sure what's in the plane, and that's the central mystery of the book. The book ends with the Russian major (I still think he should be a sergeant, but what the hell) wounded and worried about the arrival of the Americans. 303 is a five-issue (or maybe 6?) mini-series, so there's a lot more going on, and it will be neat to see where Ennis goes with this. I still wish Avatar books would get more publicity, because even though 303 isn't the greatest book in the world, it's still interesting, and it's the kind of book that Ennis does better than pretty much any comic writer around.

Quit City #1 by Warren Ellis and Laurenn McCubbin
$3.50, Apparat/Avatar

This is the second of Ellis's four titles he's releasing under the Apparat imprint, which are, according to him, based on comics as they would have been if superheroes hadn't taken over the market. The first comic was about a sort-of psychic policeman, and Quit City is about aviator heroes like the Blackhawks, but with a modern sensibility.

The story is about Emma Pierson, who quits a high-profile job with Aeropiratica, Ellis's version of the Blackhawks. She returns to her home town (Oakland) and meets up with old friends. There's a mystery involved, but the story is more about Emma and who she was when she left and who she has become now that she's back. It's an interesting little story that, unfortunately, is probably not worth the $3.50. This is partly because the story is somewhat slight, although parts of it are emotionally wrenching, and partly because the art is so poor. Ellis can praise McCubbin in the afterword all he wants, and she's not the worst penciller, but her people look weird. Occasionally parts of bodies are out of proportion, and she draws some people like they're looking into a fish-eyed lens, with the nose huge and the sides of the face stretching to infinity. It's jarring and not really appealing.

Anyway, Ellis is still working on Ultimate Fantastic Four, so if his quieter writing isn't for you, go buy that. This issue, for all its faults, reminds us why Ellis is a good writer to begin with.

Supreme Power #14 by J. Michael Straczynski, Gary Frank, and Jon Sibal
$2.99, Marvel

I read a review complaining about how slowly this series was going, which is valid, but unlike some other series that go slowly, I like how this series is unfolding. Yes, JMS takes his sweet old time, but each issue seems to reveal a little bit more and still has something to push the story along, so despite the glacial pace of the book, it still holds my interest.

This issue is no exception. Blah blah blah, the government is incompetent. Blah blah blah, they should have made Hyperion more of a weapon and less of a human. Then, just when you say "Enough!" Dr. Steadman says something very cool about they plan on finding Hyperion, who's about to throw down with the super-powered serial killer our heroes have been tracking. Then comes the big fight, and I don't think I'm being too iconoclastic when I say this might be the best superhero fight since Miracleman #15 (Kid Miracleman destroys London). The power and glory of the superheroes is shown, but also the casual disregard for anything in their way. It's really excellent. There's even a moral crisis when Hyperion, Nighthawk, and Blur finally take the bad guy down. And then Dr. Spectrum shows up and it's back to blah blah blah, how do we jail these superpowered beings? So. On balance, an excellent issue. For once, it didn't advance the plot all that much, but JMS and Gary Frank (who I assume is responsible for the book's erratic schedule, since his artwork is clear and beautiful and never looks rushed) make up for it with the fight scene. Marvel's MAX line has been hit and (mostly) miss, but this title makes me hope it continues.

Ultimate Nightmare #4 by Warren Ellis, Trevor Hairsine, and everyone and their mothers inking
$2.25, Marvel

I don't know what to say about this. It's okay, but just kind of there. This is the kind of book I would buy if comics were still 75 cents and never think of it again. So why am I buying it when it costs $2.25? Beats me. Maybe it's one of those things like inertia, which kept me buying Amazing Spider-Man (not the current run, the one back in the 1990s) long after it turned to crap. I don't know. Again, this book is okay, and I have some faith because Ellis is writing it, but man -- not only has it been a while since the last issue came out, but apparently this is the first series in a trilogy of series that continues with Ultimate Secret (kind of like Claremont's X-Men: The End trilogy of series. What's wrong with Marvel these days? Can't anyone tell a story in two or three issues?). Anyway, the Captain America, Black Widow, Colonel Fury, and the Falcon are wandering around the underground Russian complex at the same time the Jean Grey, Wolverine, and Colossus are. Natasha keeps blaming Captain America for the horrors they find because, apparently, she's crazy. Is it Captain America's fault that the U.S. government turned him into a super-soldier and then the Russians decided to copy them? According to Natasha, yes. Meanwhile, Jean is disgusted with Wolverine because, you know, he slept with her even though he joined the X-Men to kill Professor Xavier. Nice that someone remembered that, even though it was four years ago. And I think Jean should let it go. She's the teenaged slut who jumped in bed with Logan the second Cyclops had his back turned (that always disturbed me about that story -- Jean and the rest of the Ultimate X-Men are supposed to be teenagers, yet Millar had Jean sleeping around -- I'm not terribly prudish, it just seems like it could have been dealt with differently). Anyway, both groups fight horribly disfigured monsters, and Jean hears something in her head, and the X-Men finally discover what's going on, but it's on the last page of the book, so we'll have to wait until next month (or whenever the next issue comes out) to find out what it is! Oh, and Captain America meets the twisted, disturbed Russian version of himself. Sort of cool.

I don't know. If Marvel is going to simply let their writers write for the trades, why come out with monthly books at all? I'm trying to decide whether or not I should buy the hardcover version of the first 13 issues of the Ultimates. Can you imagine how cool that would have been to read if they had simply released it like that? If Millar and Hitch, instead of making us all wait for months between issues (because Hitch is, you know, an artist and can't be rushed or anything), had just sequestered themselves for a year and cranked the whole thing out? I don't know, I know the future is in trades, but if you're going to continue to release monthly "pamphlets," at least make it sort of worthwhile.

Happy New Year, everyone! Since everyone else is doing a "best-of" list, maybe I will too. Not that anyone cares!


Are We Not Men?

I read an interesting article in the October issue of History Today magazine (vol. 54 no. 10). The article, by Erica Fudge, is in response to the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. In the article, Fudge asks why animals aren't included in the dictionary. She goes on to examine a couple of famous animals and then examines what it means to have a "biography" written about someone (or something). The interesting part of the article is about the nature of animals and what it means to be an animal as opposed to a human being. She quotes several philosophers who have questioned human superiority. Pierre Charron in 1601 was asked about the need to compare humans and animals, and he answered: "But who shall doe it? Shall man? He is a partie and to be suspected; and to say the truth, deales partially therein." Michel de Montaigne wondered about his pets: "When I play with my cat, how do I know that she is not passing time with me rather than I with her?" An English text from 1590 attributed to Walter Ralegh states: "For why should I presume to prefer my conceit and imagination, in affirming that a thing is thus, or thus, in its own nature, because it seemeth to me to be so, before the conceit of other living creatures, who may as well think it to be otherwise in each one nature, because it appeareth otherwise to them than it doth to me?" All of these philosophers are building on Sextus Empiricus, who wrote around A.D. 200.

This is all well and good, you say, but who cares? Well, it's important because of the way we look at the world, and whether we feel that animals have any more intrinsic right to live than humans do. Many feel that they don't. Others, who contribute to Greenpeace and don't eat meat, feel animals are at least equal to man (and in some cases, superior). My point is in popular culture, you don't often get anything but a "human-centric" vision of the world, and that's an issue, because how can we look at our planet without accepting that we are in the minority?

Interestingly enough, The Matrix and some comic books do a better job of addressing man's place on Earth and his relationship with the other living creatures on the planet than more "serious" forms of literature. In The Matrix, there's the famous speech by Agent Smith about man being a virus. Obviously, this line was written by a human being (unless the Wachowski Bros. are actually machines; has anyone ever confirmed their species?), but it tries to look at humans and animals objectively, from outside the equation, which is what Charron was saying 400 years ago -- men are obviously going to prefer the human species, because you stick with your own kind. The Matrix, by using machines as the arbiters, comes up with a new and frightening examination of the human condition (maybe it's not new -- the Wachowskis could have stolen it, I suppose). Whether you agree with it or not, it does destroy an old paradigm that perhaps has outlived its usefulness. Do we hear anything about this in philosophic corners? Beats me -- I don't hang out in those corners.

Meanwhile, the world of comics continues to push the envelope on what can be done in fiction. Comics, because of their less-than-stellar reputation among academics (even among those people who accept science fiction or fantasy), can get away with stuff that more respected writers wouldn't dream of doing. Therefore, we can read stories from an animal's point of view that attempts to actually discover the animal's point of view rather than just anthropomorphizing the said animal. Neil Gaiman did this in Sandman #18, "A Dream of a Thousand Cats." The cats are not presented as little cartoon humans, but as predatory and alien, which ought to be disturbing to anyone who reads it. Many people wrote in claiming all the right things -- they didn't own their cats, their cats owned them, that sort of thing -- but at the end of the day, do we really understand our pets? Gaiman attempts to get inside the head of a cat, and the result is one of the most memorable stories of the series.

Over in Animal Man, Grant Morrison was exploring weird stuff all his own, not all of it animal-related. As the title goes, however, so go the stories, and he did explore quite a lot of animal issues. Most of it was from a human view, however, as Buddy Baker learns how he can better relate to animals. However, in issue #15, "The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea," Morrison attempts to get inside the head of a dolphin. Buddy goes to Norway to stop a traditional dolphin hunt, and both sides of the argument for and against the hunt are given and examined. At the end, a dolphin takes center stage and we see how Morrison believes it would act. One can argue that this is Morrison imprinting his beliefs on how the dolphin would act on the animal, but it is still an attempt to show how dolphins are different from humans. More recently, in We3, Morrison goes further into the heads of animals, and, I would argue, more successfully. His dog, cat, and rabbit each have a unique personality, but they are each truly alien from distinguishable "human" traits. It's a chilling look at what we, in our haughtiness, would consider "normal" house pets.

The point is, we need these forms of literature to challenge us. Movies and comics can bring extraordinary philosophical viewpoints to a more mainstream audience, and we need to accept them and examine them (more than one person has pointed out the Randian tone of The Incredibles, for instance) so that we can have greater insight into our world. Is that such a bad thing?


Where the Iraqi Things Are

With many apologies to Maurice Sendak:

The night Rummy wore his ugly gray suit and made mischief of many kinds and another, his president called him "WILD THING!" and Rummy said "I'LL GET CHENEY!" so he was sent to bed without getting Cheney.

That very night in Rummy's room a desert grew and grew and grew until his ceiling hung with palms and the walls became the world all around and some airspace tumbled by with a private, taxpayer-funded airplane for Rummy and he flew off through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the Iraqi things are.

And when he came to the place where the Iraqi things are they roared their terrible fatwas and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible American-supplied guns till Rummy said "BE STILL!" and tamed them with the magic trick of promising them free elections and economic security and they were frightened and called him the most Iraqi thing of all and made him king of all the Iraqi things.

"And now," cried Rummy, "let the wild insurrection start!"

"Now stop!" Rummy said. "Uh, guys, you can stop now ..." and he tried to send the Iraqi things off to bed without their supper. And Rummy the king of all the Iraqi things was lonely and wanted to be where someone would accept that you go to war with the army you have.

Then all around from far away across the world he smelled good things to eat so he gave up being king of where the Iraqi things are.

But the Iraqi things cried, "Oh please don't go -- we'll shoot you up -- we love you so!" And Rummy said, "No!"

The Iraqi things roared their terrible fatwas and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible American-supplied guns but Max stepped into his private taxpayer-funded airplane and waved goodbye and flew back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night of his very own room where he found his Presidential Medal of Freedom waiting for him and it was still shiny.


Post-Christmas thoughts about dead people and "supporting our troops"

Happy Boxing Day, all. I have some iconoclastic thoughts today.

Reggie White died this morning. As an Eagles fan, I loved Reggie White when he played for Philly and never forgave him for leaving the team and going to play with Nancy-Boy Favre in Green Bay. I guess it was his right as a free agent, but damn those were some good defenses in Philadelphia in the early '90s. So he's dead at 43, of a massive heart attack.

My thought is: how's that God thing working out for his family? White was a good Christian, and got in a bit of trouble a while back for saying some obviously anti-gay things. Whatever, he can have his own opinions. He seems like a good Christian, and God apparently wanted to hang out with him in heaven, because God didn't care about his wife or his two children. Now, I suppose they're not hurting for money, since White made a crapload of cash during his NFL career, but it seems kind of capricious of God to "bring Reggie home" when he had so many responsibilities down here. It's just another example of one of two things: a) God doesn't exist; b) God's a mean son of a bitch. Which one makes you feel better?

Meanwhile, all good Americans, whether they are conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, black or white or yellow, are supposed to support our troops. It shows that you are a caring person and that you can rise above the partisanship that this illegal war has engendered and that we're not going to spit on our troops when they come home like we did in 'Nam. It's not the troops' fault that Bush sent them over to Iraq to prosecute his war that proves to his daddy that he's a real man. The troops are doing their job and we need to respect that, because they are dying to protect our freedom.

Fuck 'em.

Shocking, I know. Don't I care about our troops? Well, no. They're freakin' soldiers, people! This is what they are supposed to do! It sucks and all that they're paying for Bush being a macho asshole, but most soldiers, I would bet, went into the armed forces to learn a trade and get some money for college. Others like shooting things. Well, the first group -- maybe you should have thought that you might actually have to go off to war. The second group -- congratulations, you get to shoot things. We have a volunteer army! The only people I have any smidgen of sympathy for are for those who have already completed their tour and have been cycled back over there or never left. Yes, that's a little bit of a shame, but apparently it's not terribly uncommon to happen. So, once again, fuck 'em.

"But they're fighting for our freedom!" Well, I don't know about you, but I wasn't aware that Saddam Hussein was infringing on my freedom at all. Maybe in some abstract way, he was, but so is Bush (and in a more concrete way), and nobody's deposing him. You can argue that it's a whole domino thing, and if Saddam stayed in power, the whole Middle East would become tyrannical (whoops, too late) and eventually, we would elect Hitler to run things here, and you can argue that Saddam was the inspiration behind September 11 (if you're stupid, you can argue that), but those are all weak arguments. The fact is, the troops in Iraq are not fighting for our freedom. They might be fighting for Iraqis' freedom, but that's certainly a different thing. Therefore, I don't support the troops.

Maybe I should. Maybe if I don't support the troops, some day they won't support me. Maybe.


Comics for 22 December 2004

Just a few this week:

Black Widow #4 by Richard K. Morgan, Goran Parlov, and Bill Sienkiewicz
$2.99, Marvel

More of the same -- intrigue, mystery, sex appeal, chicks kicking ass -- everything you could want from a Black Widow comic! More excellent art. The story moves along nicely, although I'm still wondering what connection the girl Natasha saved at the truck stop has to the story. There's also a retcon ("retroactive continuity," but in comic book circles, it's used as a verb) to Natasha's past which makes a good deal of sense, if you think about it. She also learns there have been many Black Widows, which also makes sense if you think about it. Morgan takes a swipe at Rucka's Black Widow, as well. We don't learn all that much more about the mystery in this issue, and like in a lot of 5- and 6-issue mini-series, there has to be at least one holding pattern issue. This is better than some, but that's what it is -- an issue in a holding pattern. Good stuff in the context of the larger series, but just kind of there as a single issue.

Catwoman: When in Rome #3 by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale
$3.50, DC

What can I say? It's pretty to look at. Again, not much happens in this issue. Lots of big pages of Sale art that looks nice, and the Riddle exits the story (presumably he'll be back, or else why was he there in the first place?) just as the Cheetah enters. Yes, the Cheetah. Sigh. Selina implies that she knows Bruce Wayne is Batman, but again, this is supposed to be a story from long ago (I think) and she's not supposed to know his little secret. Sigh again. If I weren't a sucker, I'd stop buying this. But I'm hooked now. Flee while you can. Your lives will not suffer if you don't own this.

JLA: Classified #2 by Grant Morrison, Ed McGuinness, and Dexter Vines
$2.95, DC

It's so nice to see a writer who knows when to just throw everything at the canvas and see what sticks. Morrison has three issues to tell his story, but I bet another writer (Bendis and Ellis, I'm looking at you) would have already written four issues with the material we've gotten in the first two issues. JLA: Classified is just a fun book, full of wonder at the whole superhero conceit. Morrison still can't let the Crisis on Infinite Earths go, as he places the JLA (who were missing last issue) on an attoscopic Earth in the infant universe of Qwewq (yeah, I don't get it either -- but I don't care!). Apparently Gorilla Grodd had lured them there with the help of a super-villain named Black Death. Back in our world, Grodd and Neh-buh-loh are busy eating superheroes (that would be Grodd, who in one panel sucks on the leg bone of an unidentified hero) or turning the Ultramarines into their mindless slaves. Batman sics the robot JLA on them, but that doesn't work, and at the end, the real JLA turns up to kick ass. Next issue: a big old-fashioned throw-down between the JLA and the Ultramarines!

This sounds wacky, and it sort of is, but anyone who is a fan of superheroes should read this. Morrison (who might actually get me to read Superman when he takes it over) knows what he's doing, even though it appears he's insane sometimes. McGuinness's art is wonderful, as well, as he shows the world on which the JLA is trapped (a world without superheroes, by the way) in pages of sixteen panels that make the reality of our world (if that's where Morrison's going) claustrophobic compared to the wide open extravagance of the DC Universe. The art, combined with the story, make this one spectacular comic.

Go read it!


Comics you should own

I've been wanting to do a series of critiques of comic books that I think are important for comics fans to own. Some of these will be ones non-comics fans can read as well, and I'll point that out when they're featured here. I'm going pretty much in alphabetical order by title, so the first one is ... (drum roll, since I know everyone's waiting with baited breath)

300 by Frank Miller (story and art) and Lynn Varley (color)
Dark Horse Comics, five issues

300 came out in 1998 and has been collected in a beautiful "wide-screen" hardcover, so it's not too hard to find. It's a perfect book to give to a non-comic book fan, since it's a graphic retelling of the Spartan defense at Thermopylae in 480 B.C. and has nothing to do with any other comic book. It's also one of Miller's most exciting works. If The Dark Knight Returns is his magnum opus, this ranks right behind it (I've never read Sin City, by the way).

The story is pretty straightforward, and Miller outlines it well in issue #1. The Persian king Xerxes wants to take over the world. He sends a messenger to Sparta telling them he wants a token gesture of submission. The Spartan king Leonidas kills the messenger and prepares for war. Leonidas plans to stop the Persian advance at a narrow pass through the mountains, a pass bordered on the other side by the sea. The Persian numbers will not be a factor because of the little space, and Spartans will kill them easily. As most people should know but don't (don't get me started on public education in America), the Spartans held the pass with only 300 soldiers and drove off the Persians, with the cost of their own lives. It was enough to preserve Greek independence (or, more accurately, the independence of many Greek city-states) and usher in the Golden Age of Athens later in the century. The defense of Thermopylae, along with the Battle of Salamis, where Xerxes's navy was decisively beaten, are two of the most important events in Western history.

Miller's telling of the story is boldly done. His art has evolved since his early days on Daredevil, and even since Dark Knight. In this book, he has turned the pages into a grand palette for his bold vision, with double-paged spreads that look even better in the collected edition (I don't own it, but I've looked at it). Miller puts a great deal of power into each page, and it shows. This is mythic storytelling to match the mythic subject matter. We see the young king kill a wolf in a flashback story told by an old man to emphasize Leonidas's initiation into Spartan society. The legend of the king is only emphasized with his treatment of the Persian ambassador.

The Spartans march north to meet the Persians, and Miller again uses his art to convey to magnificence of the army. Leonidas is part of the army, yet still above it as its commander, and his strength and leadership are present throughout the book. He is a man ahead of his time and of his time, as shown clearly by his treatment of a crippled and deformed soldier, Ephialtes. This young man tells the king about a path around the gates that can be used by the Persians to outflank the Spartans. He is belittled by the captain of the army, but Leonidas knows that this information can be useful and asks Ephialtes more about it. He admires the young man, who has worked hard to become a soldier despite what Spartan society (and, to a certain degree, today's society) thinks about a less-than-perfect physical specimen being somehow less than human. Although Leonidas shows remarkable compassion for the soldier, in the end, he points out that as a consequence of his deformity, Ephialtes cannot join the Spartan phalanx, since he cannot hold up his shield. The phalanx is what makes the Spartans so formidable, and it cannot have anyone out of place. In despair, Ephialtes throws himself off a cliff. Leonidas does not mourn him.

This is a short episode in the book, and soon, the battle begins. Miller shines in drawing the bloody confrontation, as the faceless Persians in their "fancy" armor (the Greeks fight almost naked) swarm like flies over the hill, while the Spartans stand in their phalanx, ready for battle. Miller contrasts the brave Spartans, who are free soldiers, with the cowardly Persians, who beg for mercy the instant things don't go their way. It's an interesting theme of Miller's work, one which I will return to. After the initial stages of the battle, Leonidas goes out to parley with Xerxes. Here Miller again shows the contrast between the two sides. Leonidas, as we have seen, is part of his army, fighting alongside his men, remembering all their names. Xerxes, who is drawn more like an African than an Asian, is carried to the battle on a huge throne carried by dozens of Persian slaves. He is all pierced more than a punk rocker and bedecked in a golden robe. I don't know if Xerxes was actually as fey as Miller makes him seem, but he's trying to make a point, and he makes it magnificently. Leonidas, of course, rejects all of Xerxes's offers to back down, and nothing comes of the meeting. Xerxes then throws his elite shock troops, the Immortals, into battle. The carnage is again lovingly rendered. Leonidas allows himself a glimmer of hope.

We know, however, that he's doomed, and so we see Ephialtes, who has survived his plunge off the cliff, abasing himself before Xerxes and telling him about the path around the gate. (Xerxes has a great line here -- he tells Ephialtes, whose deformity causes him pain, that "cruel Leonidas demanded that you stand. I only require that you kneel.") When it is discovered that the Persians are surrounding them, the other Greeks want to retreat. Leonidas, in typical Spartan fashion, tells them that Spartans don't retreat, and they prepare for the final assault. Xerxes gives them one last chance, but they opt for glory. The one Spartan who leaves (Leonidas orders him) tells the story as an inspiration for the Greeks a year later, when Xerxes was finally defeated and driven from Greece, ensuring the rise of the West.

It's a well told story, and the major facts are correct, although I don't know how much of it is fictional. It's interesting to see most of Miller's favorite themes throughout the book and how he incorporates them. The major theme is that of duty and honor and freedom. Of course, the Spartans at this time weren't really any more free than most people in the world -- even the Athenians, with their democracy, had a severe limitation on those who could vote. But it's the freedom of the Spartans that makes them such good soldiers -- Miller continuously contrasts them to the slaves of Persia, who break at the first sign of trouble. They have no duty to a cause or honor, so therefore they have nothing to fight for. It's not terribly subtle, nor is it completely axiomatic that those who fight for a cause will fight better than those who do not (the French Foreign Legion being a modern example of mercenaries fighting well), but it is an important theme in Miller's works and begs the question of what he's trying to say about the modern world. There's also the question of whether the Persian army was really that bad -- it's true they lost at Marathon in 490 and at Salamis and Plataea in 480-479, but Darius (Xerxes's father) and Xerxes himself conquered quite a large empire in the sixth and fifth centuries, and surely it couldn't have just been because of their numbers? It's also true that plenty of Greeks fought on the side of the Persians. Real life, as usual, is a lot messier than fiction. Miller conveniently ignores those facts because they don't fit with his message.

Other common themes of Miller's work are here -- a sort of fascism, the feminization of weakness, the masculinization of females, and homoeroticism. King Leonidas is a good king, but that doesn't mean he's not an absolute ruler. As usual with many writers, Miller seems to have a predilection toward benevolent dictatorships. Writers don't seem to like democracy because too often people don't vote the way they think is right. Leonidas is the ideal king -- strong but fair, fighting with his men, refusing to turn back, honoring duty and courage above all else. Miller's interest in a fascist kind of state isn't as obvious here as it is in some of his other work (Dark Knight and its sequel, for instance, and even Elektra: Assassin), but it's still there.

Miller also exhibits a strange kind of thinking toward weakness and females. He tends to make weakness a feminine characteristic, even as he makes his women more masculine. As noted above, Xerxes is very feminine compared to Leonidas, and Xerxes wouldn't dream of entering the battle. Ephialtes is weak as well, and what he wants in return for helping Xerxes -- the usual, money, women, and a uniform -- are subtly scorned by Miller because obviously Ephialtes didn't earn them. Ephialtes is the only Spartan who betrays the king, and it's somewhat disturbing that he's also the only Greek who's not a perfect physical specimen. Perhaps in the context of the book it makes sense, but as history tells us, plenty of Greeks were willing to sell out, and I'll bet none of them were deformed. It says a lot about Miller that Ephialtes caves in so easily, especially since we see that he has tried all his life to live up to the Spartan ideal. This feminine weakness is obvious in other Miller works, most notably in Dark Knight. The Joker, who has always had an aura of androgyny, is extremely so in Miller's story, and he's weak (he kills people by poisoning instead of "fixing them with his hands" like manly man Batman). Of course, the Joker is very feminized quite often, such as Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum, but I'm not ready to delve into that here.

Another theme briefly explored in 300 is the masculinity of women. The only women to appear in the book are the priestesses who advise Leonidas against going to war (because they've been bribed by the Persians) and the queen. The queen, especially, embodies the true Spartan ideal of duty and honor, telling Leonidas the standard line about returning with his shield or on it and hiding her tears from him, because, again, weakness is a feminine attribute, and his females must be strong, which is a masculine attribute. Miller has never written females particularly well, with his women being either a stand-in for a male character (Carrie Kelley in Dark Knight, who was prepubescent anyway -- and don't get me started on Selina Kyle's cameo in that book) or created simply to be killed (Elektra). Even if you like those characters (and I do), he does try to "turn the male" by not really allowing them to be women. Carrie Kelley isn't really a girl, she's Robin, and Miller made her female just to jolt Batman fans. Elektra renounces her feminine side when her father is killed, and "becomes male" by training to be a ninja. I don't want Elektra to settle down with Matt Murdock -- that's not what I mean when I say she rejects her feminine side. I'm saying that she becomes what Miller thinks is a good character by studying what he thinks of as masculine things -- again, duty and honor (to her dead father).

This is strange, since there's a strong theme of homoeroticism throughout 300 and throughout Miller's works. Obviously, it's tough to avoid it when you're writing about ancient Greece, since they were big on that, but I still very much doubt that the king would meet the Persian ambassador wearing just a cloak around his shoulders and everything else hanging out. I could be wrong, and Miller has written that he did a lot of research for the book, but it seemed strange to me. The Greeks also march across terrain and do some fighting in all their glory. Miller seems to revel in drawing naked men. This ties into the brotherhood of the army and how there's a blatant hatred of the ostentatious femininity of Xerxes and the Persians. It's not new in Miller's work (nor in many comic books, where the two main protagonists -- mostly men -- are more interested in each other than women), but it's prevalent here because of the subject matter. It's not necessarily homophobic, but I wonder how Miller would respond if called on it.

300 is a strong book that offers a worldview of both the ancient world and an idealized modern world. The art is gorgeous and the story hums along to its triumphant conclusion. The hardcover is $30, which is a pretty good bargain. Comics fans should definitely track this down, and non-comics fans will find a history lesson and a rousing adventure story. Any questions?


I'm curious

Today I am curious about many things, such as:

Some people seem to think Christmas is under siege (Bill O'Reilly, I'm looking at you). Now, how Christmas could ever be under siege in our fair land is beyond me, but let's say it is. First of all, no one would ever allow Christmas to go away -- people like their day off, and if we all canceled Christmas because it's a religious holiday, how would we watch Shaq and Kobe throw down? That would be horrible!

But let's look at Christmas. I don't need to tell you that nobody actually knows when Jesus was born (if he was born at all, but let's not go there). Christmas is a symbolic holiday that was fixed over 300 years after Jesus lived by good old Constantine the Great, Roman Emperor, who was a devotee of the cult of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), and desired conformity above all else in his big old empire. Christians weren't going away, so why not take their story of a resurrected god (not the only resurrection story in the Middle East, but the one with the most staying power), and combine it with elements of -- wait for it -- the sun returning after the winter solstice! Hey, Jesus had a big halo, you couldn't look directly at him (at least Paul couldn't, the big wuss), and he came back. So the festival to welcome back the sun became the birthday of the Big Guy. It worked. They ran with it.

But yes, I will admit that Christmas is symbolic. It's not the point to nail down the specific day. We celebrate the birth of the Savior of Mankind -- whenever he happened to tumble down Mary's birth canal and into the dirt. It's a time to reflect on what horrible people we are and how we should dedicate our lives to Jesus. Fine. What I don't understand about people writing petitions to Macy's and Bill O'Reilly wailing about menorahs in the windows and kids not being able to sing "Silent Night" is, how is this celebrating the spirit of Christmas? Are we all going to dedicate our lives to Jesus because Macy's tells us to have a Merry Christmas instead of telling us to have Happy Holidays? Are we going to reject Jesus because we just can't resist those damned dreidels? I would think that good Christians would be happy that Macy's isn't involved in wishing Merry Christmas, because, according to the Bible, Jesus and his gang were ardent socialists (explain that, Pat Robertson!), and Christians should reject mass consumerism. Why don't these holier-than-thou types who want us to promote their version of Christmas watch the Charlie Brown special and read the Grinch again? Yes, those tales are overtly Christian, but they're more about realizing that intangible things (no matter what religion you are) are more important than materialistic things -- and materialistic things include menorahs, Christmas trees, and Jesus fish.

Other things going on:

I'm curious about our president. Sure, I don't like our president, but we're stuck with him until January 2009 (so far away!) so let's make the best of it. At his press conference yesterday, he said Donald Rumsfeld cared about the troops. Well, of course we all care about the troops, but only one guy is in position to make sure they are protected from, I don't know, bullets, and that guy was asleep at the wheel. It's nice that he cares, however. I'm sorry to break out the Hitler analogies, but that's like saying Adolf cared about his dogs. Who cares? I don't care if Rumsfeld doesn't care about the troops. He could hate the troops, for all I care. But he had a job to do, and he didn't do it. In the real world, that gets you fired. In Washington (not just Bush's Washington either), it gets you a medal (probably).

Other curiosities about the president: he actually told the press they wouldn't get him negotiating with himself. I have a visual of that, and it's pretty funny. You would think the one person Bush would like to negotiate with is himself.

He also refused, during the election season, to discuss various things that might have made him look bad. Apparently Iraq's security forces are a bunch of cowards, and the training of them is failing. I don't fault Bush for not discussing this -- why he want to make himself look bad? But don't we have media for that? Couldn't they have bugged him about it?

Support for the war continues to plummet. Support for Bush's Secretary of Defense continues to plummet. It's only been six weeks since the election. I wonder how many people want a do-over.


What kind of country are we living in?

From the 18 December 2004 edition of the Arizona Republic:

"Nearly half of all Americans believe the U.S government should restrict the civil liberties of American Muslims, according to a nationwide poll.

The survey conducted by Cornell University also found that Republicans and people who described themselves as highly religious were more apt to support curtailing Muslims' civil liberties than Democrats or people who are less religious.

... The survey found 44 percent favored at least some restrictions on the civil liberties of Muslim Americans. Forty-eight precent said liberties should not be restricted in any way.

The survey showed that 27 percent of respondents supported requiring all Muslim Americans to register where they lived with the federal government.

Cornell student researchers questioned 715 people in the nationwide telephone poll this fall. The margin of error was 3.6 percentage points."

I'm not all that surprised, but I am very sad about this. If I need to explain to someone why this is wrong, you probably need to move to North Korea or someplace like that. Is this why we elected a morally strong president? Do I want to live in this country anymore? What happened to America?


Comics for 15 December 2004

Lots of stuff this week, including quite possibly the worst single comic book ever published! And I bought it!

Captain Gravity and the Power of the Vril #1 by Joshua Dysart, Sal Velluto, and Bob Almond
$2.95, Penny-Farthing Press

This is the kind of book that DC and Marvel (especially Marvel, since DC does a lot of stuff like this) should be publishing. That's not to say that it's an excellent book -- it's pretty good, and I recommend it -- but that it's something different. It's a rip-off of lots of other stuff, sure, but it's a fun rip-off. And it's beautiful to look at.

Dysart is the writer of Swamp Thing these days, and he has written a Demon mini-series, but I know him from the late, lamented Violent Messiahs. He's exhibited a sick, twisted kind of brain, which is cool, but in this, he opts for straight-forward adventure, and it's fine. He rips off the Rocketeer and the Indiana Jones movies, so if you like those, you'll probably like this. It has Nazis, archaeology, beautiful 1930s starlets, slightly sinister government spies, and dark magic. The best parts of the book deal with the "secret identity" of Captain Gravity, because Joshua Jones is black. He's friends with Chase DuBois, the beautiful starlet, but he's not her boyfriend, although it might be interesting to see that. There's also a good deal about the Jews fleeing Germany and how Joshua feels about Nazi Germany and his own country. Dysart doesn't get into it too much, but it's nice to see, because it hints at something deeper in the story than just an archaeological romp through Egypt fighting Nazis. Like I said, it's a rip-off, but I like it.

Velluto's art is fabulous, evoking the whole 1930s milieu, especially the Hollywood system in place back then. I haven't seen Velluto's art in a while, but it's very nice. I look forward to the rest of the story, and I continue to hope Marvel realizes they can tell stories like this and not be stuck in a superhero universe. I'll probably hope for a long time.

Daredevil #68 by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev
$2.99, Marvel

Boy, that's a nice cover. Really neat.

I'm always afraid that Bendis is going to do something like this. "Like this" means tread water. That's what this issue is, treading water. Okay, he ties it back into the White Tiger storyline from a few years ago (now I have to go re-read them -- thanks, Bendis!), but not a whole hell of a lot happens here. Matt is still getting the snot kicked out of him by Melvin Potter, and we still don't know why. Alexander Bont is still enjoying it. We see a fight between the Gladiator and Daredevil from the "1960s," and Maleev's art style is as enjoyable as ever, but it really doesn't need six pages of the issue to show the fight. In a flashback, we see Matt chatting with Agent Del Toro, the FBI agent, who's related to the White Tiger and wants Matt's help with the White Tiger amulets, but again, we don't need three pages of Foggy and Matt talking about her before Matt meets with her. It's annoying.

Bendis does this occasionally, and the payoffs to his stories don't always live up to his setups. It's all part of the whole "decompressed" storytelling that I hate so much, and this is his most egregious example on Daredevil in a while. It's still a good book, and the art is still fantastic, but I'm worried.

Ex Machina #7 by Brian K. Vaughan, Tony Harris, and Tom Feister
$2.95, Wildstorm

So much going on. You hear that, Bendis (and Ellis, I suppose)? SO MUCH GOING ON. Sure, there's not wall-to-wall action (there is a fight scene, but it's short), but there's still a lot going on. And you have Tony Harris art for seven straight issues! Oh, the largesse!

In the past (2001), Mitch meets with Jackson Georges of the NSA, with whom he met last issue. Georges tells Mitch ... well, nothing, because before they have a conversation, nasty German agents dressed in black with gas masks on come crashing through Mitch's window, and he has to take care of them (with a device that prompts the funniest line in the book). Then it's back to "the present" (2002), and Mitch is debating the issue of gay marriage, and all his staff thinks he's nuts for even considering presiding over one. It's a really interesting discussion, and it again points out that realistic politics can show up in comic books and not kill the momentum. Sure, it's six pages of talking heads, but they all have something interesting to say, and although the plot might not be advanced, you don't care. We then switch to the subways, where last issue the strange sign that has something to do with Mitch's powers show up. There's some neat brutal violence, and it's actually creepy how Vaughan and Harris pull it off. At the end, Mitch gets a date! Since earlier his sexuality was discussed, I'll let you buy the book to find out if his date's with a man or woman!!! Oh, the secrecy!

Harris is on art. What more do you need to know? In case you didn't know, I really like this book. It's one of the best out there. Don't buy Amazing Spider-Man, buy this!!!!

Human Target #17 by Peter Milligan and Cameron Stewart
$2.95, DC/Vertigo

Human Target is why I won't be buying Milligan's X-Men. Why should I? Will he be able to write as challenging and twisted stories for Marvel as he does here? I doubt it. This is a stand-alone issue (people can still write them!) with art by Cameron Stewart of Seaguy fame. Stewart's art is fine, but like Pulido and Chiang, the regular artists on this book, it's not the reason to pick up this book. Milligan's stories are.

Christopher Chance is hired by a woman in the Witness Protection Program. She's unhappy with the protection she's getting (she testified against her husband, a punk crook who still has a lot of friends on the outside), so she wants Chance to remake her. Chance gives her lots of tips on how to become someone else, sets her up in a business, and gets her some plastic surgery. In a nice Vertigo-like twist (the movie, not the comics imprint), she happens to look suspiciously like Chance's "wife" Mary (who's still alive, by the way, and still living with Chance). Lots of twisted things happen, some rather predictable, some not. The ending is pretty bleak, but this wouldn't be a Vertigo book or one written by Peter Milligan if it wasn't bleak!

I still really like this book (some day I'll rank the comics I currently buy, if that's possible), but I hope Milligan is going somewhere with it. I would love if he had a whole grand storyline worked out and that Human Target is meant to be finite (like all comics series should be). He's doing a wonderful job exploring identity and what it means to be someone and how people can hide their real selves or whether we actually have real selves at all (lots going on in this series) without sacrificing sex and violence (it's a Vertigo book, after all), but I don't know how long he can do it, or what point he's trying to make. Milligan is a good writer, but he lost his way a little with Shade, the Changing Man, although he ended it nicely, and his last Vertigo title, The Minx, never got a chance and was cancelled before we could see where it was going. So while Human Target continues to be one of the smartest books out there, I wonder where it's going. I have no doubt it will be an interesting ride.

Ocean #3 by Warren Ellis, Chris Sprouse, and Karl Story
$2.95, Wildstorm

Ellis has so many wacky science fiction ideas floating through his head that he probably can't wait to throw them at the wall and see what sticks. Here it's people who voluntarily give up their personalities when they go to work for a corporation so that the company personality can be downloaded directly into their brain. This way, they can also receive e-mails and such straight into their consciousness. Spooky. It's an okay issue, although why the manager gets knocked over when he's about to kill Kane is a bit confusing. It just seems like Ellis would be better served writing graphic novels, because I'm sure this will read better in the trade paperback. It's a perfectly serviceable chapter in a grander story that could have been told in half the time. Again, the scourge of decompressed storytelling.

I'm sorry for harping on it so much, especially because I'm not the first. I've been re-reading Ellis's work on StormWatch, and the man can write a damn fine compressed story. He also should have some clout in the marketplace, so I guess doing a six-issue mini-series instead of a four-issue (into which he could probably fit this story) is his idea. I don't know. I like Ocean, and it's nice to see science fiction done well in comic-book form (for which I would think it's suited), but by the time this series is done, I'll have spent 18 dollars for a serial that, if collected as prose, would probably be 150 pages and cost 10 bucks. Frustrating.

Trigger #1 by Jason Hall and John Watkiss
$2.95, DC/Vertigo

This is an interesting first issue of an ongoing series, and I'm actually pretty keen on seeing where it's going. Lots going on in this issue (I suppose the compare/contrast between compressed and decompressed storytelling is the theme of this post), and I like most of it. It's a science fiction title in the tradition of 1984, and both Hall and Watkiss make it soar. I only know Hall from his mini-series Beware the Creeper, which was very good despite having absolutely no connection with the Creeper, and Watkiss has been around for a while, doing some issues of Sandman and a few of Starman some years ago. This art is excellent. It's chock full of details, very moody, very Blade Runner-ish, and futuristic without being too alien.

The story appears simple, but has a lot of layers. There's a corporation, Ethicorp, that wants to make everything bad go away. To this end, they employ "triggers," people with guns who can kill anyone who's "bad." Of course, bad is a subjective term, which I'm sure will lead to all sorts of problems, but from what I can see, "bad" means watching pornography and questioning authority. These "triggers" are, of course, not recognized as being real, but a nosy reporter is asking the wrong questions of the corporation, which will probably lead to trouble for her, and Carter Lennox, our ostensible "hero," is looking for answers in a world where everything is homogenized and finding out the "triggers" are all too real. Carter is at the center of the story. He reads actual books instead of downloading them, he wants to leave "the city" and get away from the crushing conformity of it all, he's estranged from his wife, who wants to reach him emotionally but no longer knows how, and he's having weird sex dreams. I put "hero" in quotes because we're not sure about Carter, and there's a twist at the end that makes us wonder what exactly is going on. Like I said, on the surface, it looks like a simple story, one we've seen before: lone individual against "Big Brother" (which is even referenced in the story). However, there is more happening here, and it's an intriguing brew.

I recommend Trigger for the time being. I know this is an ongoing series, but I don't know if this issue is "part one of five or six" to see how popular it is. It would be nice if this begins a story that lasts a long time, with little bits and pieces shown over time (Fallen Angel has worked like this, although it's not burning up the sales charts). I'll keep checking it out for the time being, and hope for the best. A good start.

Identity Crisis #7 by Brad Meltzer, Rags Morales, and Michael Bair
$3.95, DC

Sigh. I waited until the end do go over this, the last issue of Identity Crisis, which is probably the worst issue of any comic book this year, and might just he worst single issue of any comic in the past decade. I'm not counting self-published crap, obviously, but stuff that actually counts. Man, this is bad. More than that, it's offensive on so many levels. I just can't get over it.

Okay. Spoilers ahead, although it's crap, so who cares. Jean Loring, Atom's ex-wife, is the killer. Yes, Meltzer cleverly set up the Atom last issue, but it's not him, it's Jean. Why? BECAUSE SHE WANTED TO GET BACK TOGETHER WITH RAY PALMER!!!!! Read that again. Carefully. Now, in my world, guys have a great difficulty getting laid, and I imagine it's pretty much the same for a nerdy scientist dude who's claim to fame is not getting BIGGER (if you catch my drift), but getting SMALLER. And Jean, apparently, dumped Ray (I don't know her backstory, but that's what I hear), so it's not like he moved on or anything. So why didn't she just suck it up, say she made a mistake, and try to reconcile? Why, because she's insane. And where would be the story in that? So instead of just faking her hanging (which she did), she kills Sue Dibny ("I-I didn't mean to ..." she whimpers when Ray finds out), hires Captain Boomerang to kill Jack Drake, and sends the gun to Jack Drake so he'll kill Boomerang. This is how people reconcile in Brad Meltzer's world.

It's disgusting. This is what happens when editors, desperate for sales, allow non-comic-book writers to write flagship titles. I have no problem letting established writers from other genres write comic books, but editors have to step in and say, "You can't shit all over DC history like this, man. Write something within the context of our history." It's like recent Stephen King books -- he has so much power that editors are scared to say, "Well, Mr. King, it's a fine book, but could you cut 800 pages to bring it down to 500?" Someone, if not Mike Carlin, the series editor, than someone higher up the food chain, should have put a stop to this. I can deal with Sue Dibny being brutally killed (not to mention raped in the past). I can deal with a desire to "explain" why villains in the 1950s and '60s were so goofy (who cares why they were -- didn't Crisis on Infinite Earths wipe all that out anyway?). I could even deal with Ray Palmer being the killer, or even Jean Loring. But put them all together, with reasoning behind it, and this becomes an exploitative piece of crap that was written simply to cull some characters from the DC Universe, create a new, perhaps less lame Captain Boomerang, and prove once again that heroes suck. I don't mind superheroes acting less than heroic -- I once really liked The Authority -- but this is just crass. Meltzer has made me hate Oliver Queen. I used to like Oliver Queen (on a side note, I just re-read The Longbow Hunters by Mike Grell -- talk about a great Green Arrow story). I also hate everyone in the Justice League who did this to Dr. Light and Batman. I want Batman to kick the crap out of all of them. Yes, Batman had all those defenses against the Justice League and was thrown out of the League because of it, but he didn't freakin' use them! And Meltzer said to himself, "Hmmm, there's some interesting relationships in the DCU -- the Dibnys, Tim Drake and his father -- I think I'll destroy them all for no real good reason." Someone should have stopped him.

This is horrible. To compare this to Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns (which DC would love) is an insult. I'm even thinking of ripping up all my copies and mailing them back to DC. It would only be a symbolic gesture, of course, because DC apparently doesn't care about its readers (unless they're crazy, like the obsessive people who love Hal Jordan), caring only about the buzz they get in newspapers across the country. Blech. Avoid Identity Crisis #7 at all costs. Come to think of it, if the series had ended with issue #6, it might have actually made a more interesting series. Not a good one, but a more interesting one. But this? Blech.

Can you tell I didn't like it?


American Gods

I was watching a piece on fake sports memorabilia on ESPN yesterday, and how many people are getting hosed by unscrupulous merchants selling baseballs autographed by sports stars that aren't (shocking!) real. My response to these poor people who are buying fake memorabilia?

Fuck 'em.

Yes, it's sad that they are getting hosed. But, as the guys on ESPN said, caveat emptor. (Actually, they used the not-as-cool English equivalent, "Let the buyer beware," or, more precisely, the even-lazier, "Buyer beware.") However, I'm not terribly concerned with them, and they can whine all they want about mean old merchants selling them fake crap. There's even a FBI task force dedicated to tracking these people down. Good use of your tax dollars.

I'm more concerned with the idea that you can find some kind of fulfillment in your life buying a baseball signed by Mark McGwire or Barry Bonds for $7500. I know Todd McFarlane is obsessed with sports memorabilia and buys all the important home run balls he can get his hands on, but Todd McFarlane has more money than he knows what to do with, so whatever. I would be mystified by the obsession with sports memorabilia in this country, but it makes sense when you think about it like this:

It's worship.

I know it's not a new thing to say that Americans worship money. However, I don't think it's really money that Americans worship. It's celebrity. Again, not a necessarily novel concept, but it's a good point to make. We worship these people, and any celebrity-related items. Ed Harris's socks just got auctioned off, for fuck's sake. We have a perverse desire to own things associated with gods on earth, because these are our religious relics.

Relics are interesting things. Back in the Middle Ages, churches would try to accumulate relics of saints to attract worshippers. Priests would steal relics from other churches, or make them up. Pieces of the True Cross scattered throughout Europe would fill up a forest. It was a crass move to draw illiterate peasants who desperately wanted to believe in something better into a church so they could give a portion of their meager earnings to the bottomless purses of the church. Disgusting, really.

Nowadays, we're smarter. God doesn't exist, or if he does, he's an absentee landlord. We don't need going to church and giving up our hard-earned money to priests who rape choir boys. We're smarter than that.

We worship celebrities. Celebrities are a tangible presence in our lives, and their relics can give us the same thing holy relics gave churches a thousand years ago: borrowed glory. We believe, because we own Madonna's underwear, that maybe Madonna might some day show up, praise us for owning her underwear, and take us away to share her otherworldly lifestyle. You can't challenge someone with that, but that's really what's going on. It's not like the Bible Belters are immune to this, either. Sure, they all have their Jesus bumper stickers and other showy Christian symbols, but they all worship celebrities like Dale Earnhardt. ESPN has even sanctified him with a TV movie.

Don't give me this crap about getting back to wholesome American values. We're a crass society, and we'll continue to be a crass society. It's only going to get worse, too, since we have more choices on television and in music, and we have to fill that time with more celebrities. Fame is the new religion in the U.S., and even those people who claim they want good Christian values aren't above it. Deep down, we desire to worship. We desire to fawn over people we think are better than we are. Jesus was better than we are, so we fawn over him. Barry Bonds hits home runs farther than we do, and even though he cheats, we still worship him because he must be a better person than we are. Julia Roberts accomplishes the impressive task of squirting out two (!) kids, and media outlets fight for the privilege of taking the hellions' picture!

This is what we are. Embrace it. Gods walk among us, because we have created them. That's another reason why we love to tear them down. We grow up and realize our gods are human, so we destroy them. But the desire to worship is still there, so we create more. Jesus has no chance stacked against gods we create ourselves.


What we're teaching our children

Every parent ought to know that their kids learn from what they see and overhear, not from what you tell them directly. If you do tell your kids something directly, you need to repeat it for at least a year before they get it through their heads. If you tell your kids something and then act in opposition to that, more than likely they will follow your behavior rather than your words. It's just truth, man. And, of course, culture and the world teaches our kids a whole hell of a lot. With that in mind, here's what we're teaching our kids these days:

1. Money and fame are paramount in this world. We know Barry Bonds is cheating, but we don't boycott baseball games in which he plays. We know the people on reality shows are acting without any regard for common decency, but because they win a million dollars or a job with Donald Trump, we don't condemn them. We know that NBA players are spoiled little children, but we don't boycott the games. Why? Because they are rich and famous. We want to be like them. Our kids learn values from them, and also from us, who tell them it's okay to cheat and act like children as long as it makes you rich and famous.

2. Freedom is fine, as long as it's "our" definition of freedom. Everyone's talking about what a "miracle" Afghanistan is because of their successful election. It's a little early for that judgment, but when the only viable candidate is the U.S.-sponsored one, it seems a little silly to be talking about a "miracle." Lots of places have had successful elections, and a year later, some general takes over. Meanwhile, in Iraq, are we really going to allow a leader to be elected who isn't an American toady? In our own country, we teach our kids about freedom of speech and the right to bear arms and illegal search and seizure (well, we're supposed to), but we also tell them, in America, some people cannot be romantically involved with each because they're "abominations," we tell them that criticizing the president is unpatriotic and wrong, and we tell them that laws governing decent treatment of prisoners don't matter. Maybe I'm giving kids too much credit to believe they're that involved, but the still see some of this.

3. "Morals" count, unless someone has different ones. Desperate Housewives is a huge hit in the South and Utah. The divorce rate is highest in the Bible Belt. I would bet there are more abused wives in the South as well. NBC and CBS aren't running commercials for a church that desperately wants to show that Christians can be inclusive. We rail about Nicollette Sheridan jumping naked into a black man's arms but buy our children Britney Spears records. Parents are suing Wal-Mart (not a bad thing, in my opinion) because they were shocked to hear "fuck" on an Evanescence album, but they smoke and drink in front of their children. Hypocrisy goes unnoticed.

4. My country, right or wrong. What's wrong with teaching our children that? What if your country is wrong? Can you not comment on it? Quashing dissent is the sign of weak countries. I thought all the patriots in our country say we are strong. So why are they afraid of criticism? Patriotism is a dangerous thing -- just ask the countries of Europe prior to World War I, or the Germans in the 1930s and 40s. They were pretty patriotic. Our children are learning that challenging authority is absolutely wrong. Many parents probably want to drill that lesson into our kids, but teenaged rebellion is a part of life. They'll grow up to be mindless drones soon enough. They need rebellion. By teaching them early that they must be mindless drones in the service of their country, we get, well, mindless drones. It's nice to see soldiers daring to stand up to the Secretary of Defense. Give him hell, guys!

I'm not a great parent by any stretch of the imagination. First of all, my daughter is only 2 and doesn't do a whole hell of a lot. Second, I only have one child, so it's a little easier than people with more than one. However, I know that my daughter is learning from me every day, and in ways I can't imagine. I hope I don't censor what she listens to and watches when she's a teenager. My parents didn't, because they trusted that I would make the right decision. I hope my daughter will also have an internal moral compass that will make her a good kid. We'll see. I do know that she's going to learn a lot more from me than I think, and I take that seriously. I wish more parents did too.


Comics for 8 December 2004

Tough week. I have a lot to say about Barry Bonds, but I haven't found the time. Maybe this weekend. In the meantime, here's what was in my box this week.

Angeltown #2 by Gary Phillips and Shawn Martinbrough
$2.95, DC/Vertigo

I wasn't sure if I was going to get issue 2 of this mini-series, but I decided to go for it -- what the hell, it's only money. I'm glad I did, because the mystery deepens in this issue (as it should) and becomes more interesting. Phillips is still not breaking any new ground, but he keeps all his balls in the air well, so it's a pretty good read. Hollis continues to dig into the murder, he beats up some more thugs, the lesbian bounty hunter gets information from a cheerleader, and we learn some interesting things about Monica Orozco. There are lots of characters here, and it's tough to keep them straight, but Phillips keeps things humming along nicely. This is a rare book in that it doesn't feel padded to fill out five issues. There's a lot going on.

The draw for me is still Martinbrough's art. It's rough and dark and although all the women have large breasts, they still look real and different from each other. The darkness feels palpable, and although part of the theme of the book is the dark underbelly of the City of Angels, Phillips wouldn't be able to pull that off without Martinbrough. It adds a lot to the book.

We'll see if the mystery continues to play out in a satisfying manner. I guess I'm on board for the whole story, so I hope Phillips can make it worthwhile!

Fables #32 by Blll Willingham, Mark Buckingham, and Steve Leialoha
$2.50, DC/Vertigo

It's really astonishing how good a writer Bill Willingham is, since he originally made his name as an artist and, as far as I know, didn't write anything on a consistent basis until Fables. To see his art, buy the first five issues of Elementals (the series goes downhill quickly after that, but the first five are excellent) or Justice League Annual #2 (from 1987 or '88). They're pretty cheap. I don't know why he doesn't do art anymore, but it would be neat to see him do a guest issue on Fables.

Anyway, this continues to be the best book out there that comes out on a regular basis (sorry, Rex Mundi and Planetary), and this issue continues to ratchet up the tension. I like books like this, because even when Willingham is simply building the tension in a multi-part story (for the inevitable trade paperback), lots of things are happening. He's not just padding to fill a long story, he's actually setting up a lot of stuff. Prince Charming is beset by protesters who are a bit put out by the fact that he hasn't been keeping his campaign promises. Everyone's still wondering what Boy Blue is doing. One of Bluebeard's treasure rooms is missing. Some old guy is killed by an invisible foe (I won't give away who he is, because it's kind of neat). On the farm, Snow White receives a note from the old witch (Frau Totenkinder, a very funny play on words) about her children, and a visitor arrives at the end of the issue, which surely will cause more problems. Lots going on.

I don't really want to say much more, because this is just such an involved and interesting book. Buckingham continues to impress with his artwork, and Willingham, as usual, is in total control of everything. The last thing I should mention is James Jean's beautiful cover. He's been doing the covers for a while, and they're stunning. I only mention it because Wizard magazine named Michael Turner best cover artist of 2004. That's just crap. Anyway, Fables continues to shine.

Noble Causes #5 by Jay Faerber and Fran Bueno
$3.50, Image

This was kind of a surprise, since the last issue just came out, but what the hell. This wraps up the whole murder story, and it's a fine conclusion, I guess, but it's not really the book's strength. I mean, sure, you need action and intrigue, but this book is more about the soap opera stuff going on, and Faerber pulls a weird surprise in that region out of his butt at the end, which I wish had been telegraphed a little more, because it seems to come, well, out of his butt. So anyway, the murder mystery is solved, we learn some more interesting things about Cosmic Rae, Doc is still going through some problems, and Invincible guest stars. It's kind of gratuitous, and I don't like it. I suppose if it helps sales, fine, but I doubt if Invincible is blowing away everyone on sales in its own right, and here, it's just a weird scene. It doesn't ruin the book, but it's a bit strange.

It's an okay issue, but, as usual, it's tough to buy it because of the price. I'm going to buy it for a while, but unless it starts blowing me away, I may drop it. It's sad, because it's a nice book, but it just costs a lot.

Rising Stars #23 by J. Michael Straczynski and Brent Anderson
$2.99, Image (through Top Cow and Joe's Comics -- so many imprints!)

The penultimate issue of the series is nicely done, if a little by-the-numbers. There are many portents, and deadly serious dialogue, and smoke-filled rooms (I'm totally not kidding; it's like JMS pulled his bad guys out of the 1950s). However, it's still good reading, and JMS manages to pull of a surprise at the end when we're sure we know what's coming. I won't give away much more of the story. The art is better than last issue, because the heaviness of Anderson's art is more relevant to this issue than last. There's some interesting political stuff here (not as well done as Ex Machina, but not bad), but JMS's attempts to make the bad guys justify themselves is kind of lame. I know he doesn't agree with them, but their reasons are kind of stupid, and it's difficult to believe everyone going along with it. It's still a good issue. We knew from the beginning of the series that it wouldn't end well, and the shit hits the fan now. Next time, I feel that things will get worse. I'm just psychic that way.

Samurai: Heaven and Earth #1 by Ron Marz and Luke Ross
$2.99, Dark Horse

As Marz puts it in the book, the world really needs a comic book about a Japanese warrior traveling in Europe, written by an American and drawn by a Brazilian. He's joking, but he has a point. More comics should be like this, simply because it's not just another spandex and steroid superhero comic. This is a wonderful book, and it's something everyone should pick up.

Marz is probably most famous for turning Hal Jordan into a mass murderer, which is kind of a shame. I always liked those three issues, but that's neither here nor there. He's been a good writer for a long time. Here, he sets up a nice story, which takes place in Japan in 1704 and involves a Chinese invasion. I don't know if the Chinese were invading Japan in 1704, but I don't care, because the situation rings true. We have a noble samurai and a siege that the Japanese know will end badly, and although samurai are supposed to die nobly in the service of their lord, through a twist of fate, the samurai (Shiro) survives and undertakes a mission to save the love of his life, the Lady Yoshiko, who has been taken by the Chinese. It's a nice story, and Marz brings a strange time and place to life through his dialogue.

The art is spectacular. I can't recall seeing Ross's art before (and I'm surprised he's Brazilian, because that's not a Brazilian name), but I look forward to seeing the rest of this series. His battle scenes are brutal and beautiful, and the Japanese fortress prior to the battle is rendered in fabulous detail, showing the interesting dichotomy in the Japan of the shoguns -- violent men with a great appreciation of delicate art. It's a gorgeous book. Ross even does a nice job distinguishing between the Japanese and the Chinese, for those racist people who think they all look alike. It's stunning.

Dark Horse has apparently given up on ongoing series in favor of mini-series. That's fine, as long as the quality is this good. This is an excellent beginning to what I hope will be a great mini-series.

X-Men: The End Book One: Dreamers and Demons #6 by Chris Claremont, Sean Chen, and Sandu Florea
$2.99, Marvel

It's over, and I can rest. For those who thought Claremont hit his nadir with Sovereign Seven or his brief second run on X-Men, I give you X-Men: The End. I don't even want to review this. It makes me sad to think that the man who gave us Rogue and Wolverine together in Japan wrote this.

Anyway, people we don't know or don't care about die (Annie the Armenian nurse's kid and Wolfsbane, for instance), as Stryfe, Genesis, and Madelyne Pryor wreak havoc on the X-mansion. Who cares? The only interesting thing in the book (and it's not that interesting, just more interesting than the rest) is when Madelyne screams that she's Scott's wife, and he promised to love her forever. It's a nice touch, although you can't really blame Scott for moving on, since Madelyne's supposed to be dead (although I guess he should have guessed she'd come back to life -- it's the X-Men, after all!). At the end, things blow up, and we set up the (sigh) next 6-issue mini-series. I won't be there. It's sad.


Comics for 1 December 2004

Another week, another bunch of pamphlets. Here we go!

Detective Comics #801 by David Lapham, Ramon Bachs and Nathan Massengill
$2.95, DC

The return of an old favorite. I haven't bought an issue of Detective since Rucka left (#775), but I used to buy it religiously, back when I could afford to be a completist without regard to price. Since comics became a little more dear, I was forced to reassess my affection for Batman comics, and found them wanting. I got the Loeb/Lee run on Batman, but wasn't all that impressed, and that's been pretty much it for a few years. This issue begins Lapham's year-long story on the title, and although I've never read anything by him (not even Stray Bullets), I know his reputation and decided to pick this up.

The story doesn't really blow you away, but it does establish Lapham's credentials as a hard-boiled fiction writer who gets Batman pretty well. Any Batman writer has to understand why Batman does what he does and how he goes about doing it. The early part of the issue is excellent. Lapham and Bachs show us just glimpses of Batman, but they reveal his effect on the citizens of Gotham very well. There's also a nod to the fact that he can't save everyone, which leads to the end of the book and a prelude to next issue. It's a nicely constructed comic, with a somewhat inside-out storytelling style. Batman doesn't even get his man, really, although the "bad guy" does meet justice. Robin even shows up at the end. Nice to see him.

Lapham also tries his hand at Bruce Wayne, in a central section that sets the whole plot in motion. Every writer of Batman tries to make Bruce Wayne a more prominent figure, with mixed success. I don't know if Lapham is going to do that during his run, but here, his depiction of Bruce is a mixed bag. Bruce is sufficiently disgusted with a gathering of Gotham's moneyed elite, and he's sufficiently noble enough not to get involved in what looks like a land grab. But his interaction with Haddie McNeil, the spoiled 14-year-old who drinks and seduces men (and might be the Gotham version of Paris Hilton?), seems off. Bruce has never been really this vindictive, has he? Batman maybe, but it seems that Bruce is a little more compassionate than he is here. It's a nice scene, but it does end with Bruce not looking like the good guy. Maybe that's the point.

The art is very nice in this issue. There are a lot of little panels, so there's not a lot of chances for the "wide-screen" art that's so popular these days, but the cramped style works here, because it makes Gotham feel claustrophobic, which is the effect Lapham and Bachs are going for. The details are excellent, and the fact that we get only really two good views of Batman in the entire book make him even more mysterious and menacing. A Batman sticking to the shadows is always more interesting visually than a Batman in full view, and Lapham and Bachs understand that.

I recommend this issue, especially for those like me who haven't bought a Batman book in a while. It's a good start to a 12-issue run.

Fallen Angel #18 by Peter David, David Lopez, and Fernando Blanco
$2.95, DC

This is the last issue of the "Hurlyburly" storyline, and it wraps up a number of things set in motion at the beginning of the series. It also marks a hiatus in the series, as David has said on his web site that Lopez and Blanco have some other work to do because they believed the title was canceled, so issue 19 of Fallen Angel won't be out until March. It remains a mystery why DC doesn't publicize this series more. David continues to be one of the most innovative and interesting writers in comics, yet his series keep getting canceled. It's sad. Go buy every issue of Fallen Angel! You won't be disappointed!

Things wrap up, as I said. We learn the true nature of Bete Noire. We learn what horrific crime drove Shadow Boxer away from home. We learn the fate of Shadow Boxer. We learn the fate of Lee's baby. We still don't know what exactly Lee is, or what happened to her, or what role the Hierarchy plays in all this, but that, presumably, is stuff for another day. This would be an unsatisfactory ending for the story, since there still are so many questions. I hope that in the next few months DC gets off its collective ass and promotes this book. Fallen Angel is a provocative and challenging book, and we need more of those in the current comics climate.

Hunter/Killer #0 by Mark Waid, Marc Silvestri, Joe B. Weems, and Matt Banning
$.25, Top Cow/Image

And then there's Hunter/Killer, which is neither provocative nor challenging. But it's a freakin' quarter! How can you go wrong?

Silvestri's art has never really made me tingle, even when I was slavishly buying Uncanny X-Men way back when. He's gotten better, but it's still just kind of there. Pretty to look at, but nothing that blows me away. I do not understand why these Image guys (Lee, Silvestri, Larsen to a lesser degree, Liefeld, and all of their ilk) feel the need to dress their superheroes in ridiculous outfits. Samantha, the first Hunter/Killer we meet, is supposed to be some covert agent of the government, but she's dressed like a science fiction whore. It's laughable, and not in a good way.

So what happens in this short teaser for the ongoing series? We see an operation to take down a rogue ... whatever the hell she is, some kind of alien, maybe? go horribly wrong. Samantha Argent, the field operative, is supposed to round up this alien thing (who's a shapeshifter posing as a waitress at a coffeehouse), but another Hunter/Killer, known as Wolf, gets to her first and kills her. Ooh, that Wolf, he's a baddy! We also meet Ellis, who lives in Montana with his parents and apparently has a handy bottomless pocket from which he can extract anything that happens to be pertinent to the situation. Pretty cool!

That's it. It's not a long book, and it's not really that good, but like I said, it's a quarter, and it's a clever marketing ploy. DC and Marvel have done this with some of their books, and I wonder why they don't do it with more of them. It's nice to promote Batman or Daredevil with cheap books, but wouldn't it be nice to see a 10-cent adventure of, say, Fallen Angel (to return to a theme)? This book might not take off, because Silvestri's an artist, don't you know, and can't be rushed, but it's smart to try to lure people in this way. Pick it up and judge for yourself. Waid has an interesting track record, and he's got some interesting concepts here. Why don't more publishers do this with more books?????

The Intimates #2 by Joe Casey, Giuseppe Camuncoli, and Sandra Hope
$2.95, Wildstorm

Casey continues with his balls-to-the-wall storytelling in the second issue of The Intimates, as Punchy and Duke formulate a plan to get inside Mr. Majestic's secret headquarters in Mt. Rushmore while Duke deals with a personal problem, and Destra and Empty Vee gossip. Again, not a ton of plot, but it feels more frenetic than it really is, thanks to the CNN-style crawl at the bottom, which again offers subversive advice and factoids about the characters. They really have to change the colors on the crawl -- the white text is very difficult to read. We get a tiny bit more about Kefong, the new guy, but we're still not sure if he's supposed to be sinister or not. The issue also ends weirdly, stopping, it seems, in the middle of the story. It's as if Casey was writing a nice long story and they told him, "We're stopping this on page 22 no matter where you are!" It's strange. Still, this is a good issue, with lots of doubtlessly important details about seemingly superfluous stuff, very nice art, and all sorts of potential. Of course, so did Wildcats 3.0, and that died an ignoble death. It would be very nice if The Intimates could find an audience.

Noble Causes #4 by Jay Faerber and Fran Bueno
$3.50, Image

Boy, I don't like the cover on this issue. I know there's usually at least two different covers for each issue of Noble Causes, and I don't like this one. I like my covers to have a vague connection with what's going on inside, and this one doesn't. Oh well, I can deal with it.

I'm worried about the future of Noble Causes, simply because it's $3.50. It's not exactly worth it, but it's still a good read. I'm sure if I will continue to buy it, but for now, I'm intrigued. We have three stories going on here, and all are interesting. Krennick is still wanted for questioning in the murder of the prostitute who was dressed like Zephyr, and we find out that he has a long-lost sister. The real Zephyr helps Detective O'Mega find him and bring him in, so I'm sure the mystery will start to resolve itself in the next issue. Meanwhile, on the alien world where Frost, Rusty, et al. have gone, personal issues continue to intrude on the mission. Last issue, Frost and Cosmic Rae were separated from the rest of the group, and Celeste is stirring the pot by telling Rusty that his girlfriend will soon be hooking up with Frost. Rusty's suspicious since he's already been cuckolded once by Celeste, so he's worried. Frost and Rae, however, are just talking, but then they're attacked, and we learn something rather interesting about Cosmic Rae. Finally, Doc and Gaia are out on the town, and Doc thwarts a bank robber and exposes the fact that he's not exactly what he seems. Many balls up in the air from Jay Faerber!

The art, which has never been the title's strong point, is still serviceable. It's blocky and a little to cartoonish for my tastes, but it doesn't detract from the story, and at least all the characters are well defined. Like I said, I'm still curious enough about what's going on to buy Noble Causes, but it would be nice if it weren't such a drain on my wallet.

The Question #2 by Rick Veitch and Tommy Lee Edwards
$2.95, DC

The art in this title is still gorgeous, and if possible, it's even a little nicer than last issue. Edwards is really blowing me away on this, and it would be nice if the industry would take notice and let him work on a high profile book after this. It's almost worth the cover price.

The story remains interesting, as pieces come together a little bit, and Vic Sage learns a little more about what he's doing in Metropolis. Lex Luthor is suitably businessman-like, and Lois Lane is the valiant reporter who actually asks newsworthy questions instead of fawning all over Luthor (wish-fulfillment on the part of Veitch; most reporters today are simply hand puppets), and Superman shows up, although he's mostly a blur, which is how I like him -- I've never been a Superman fan, and I like when writers depict him as a god-like presence who flits through your consciousness, does his save-the-world thing, then disappears. It's a pretty cool way to show him. The things I didn't like about the story: Vic Sage's ridiculous narration. I know Veitch has worked with Alan Moore, but that doesn't mean he's mastered Moore's purple prose. Here's an example: "What do you fear, oh hardened arteries clogged and choked with trans-fatty human deposits?" I mean, come on! Comic book characters don't even talk like that! It's really distracting, and takes you right out of the story. Just shut up, Sage! The other thing I don't like is the feng shui thing that crops up. Blech. It's just silly. That said, the mystery is interesting, and the way the bank robbers distract Superman is neat, and things are moving along. I'll keep reading, probably 65% because of Edwards' art. It's that cool.

The Ultimates Vol. 2 #1 by Mark Millar, Bryan Hitch, and Paul Neary
$2.99, Marvel

The Ultimates is the highest-profile book coming out this month, and the big question is ... Is it worth the wait?????

Well, sort of. The first 13 issues of The Ultimates was supposed to be a new threshold in comic book, with Millar's over-the-top scripts with actual world-shaking threats and Hitch's widescreen pencils, one issue of which apparently takes six months to finish. It started well, and looked fabulous, but ... the Hulk storyline was excellent and fun, but the aliens infiltrating the Nazi party? It's been done, at least in the X-Men/WildC.A.T.s crossover, if not elsewhere. I don't like attributing Nazis to aliens, because it shortchanges the horrors humans can perpetuate on each other. But that's neither here nor there. The Ultimates Vol. 1 ended weakly (I respect the French a lot more than most Americans, apparently, and though Captain America's joke at their expense easy and, more damning, totally out of context for him) and the press releases for the new version don't fill me with confidence. The trial of the Hulk? Personal issues? Thor's origin sounds kind of cool, but if Millar's going to keep going to the Hulk well, he's going to run dry soon.

So how does this issue stand up, with all that? Well, it's beautiful. I've been a fan of Hitch's since his Marvel U.K. days (Motormouth, anyone?) and he keeps getting better. His attention to detail is fantastic, and his action sequences are second to none. You can just stare at his panels for long minutes and soak up the minutiae. The story is, well, just a lot of exposition, even Captain America's foray into Iraq to save some hostages. Seems The Ultimates are only supposed to be used on domestic problems, but Fury said screw it and went ahead anyway. More power to him. There's also a scene with Captain America dating the Wasp, and Henry Pym showing up at Bruce Banner's cell and going all Ant-Man on him. I'm not sure what's going on here, since the last time we saw Henry Pym, Captain America was tearing him a new one after he beat up Janet, but what do I know? Let's hope Millar tells that story. Bruce Banner's alter ego is revealed and things go FUBAR, but the nicest scene in the book is Thor's dinner with Volstagg, during which we learn interesting things about Loki and what he's planning to do to Thor. That's the coolest thing in the book.

It's a nice book. It's not the greatest thing in the world, and it might be prudent to buy the hardcover collection, the first of which is gorgeous. I don't know how long it's going to take to come out every month, since Hitch is so slow, but we'll see. It's going to sell a ton of copies, but it would be nice if Millar could show some of the brilliance he's capable of rather than trying to be a comics rock star. We'll see.


Why Desperate Housewives isn't an amoral show, and those people who think it is need to shut up

Yes, there's sex. Yes, there's adultery. Yes, there's murder. Yes, there's lying and drug use. Yes, I am a man and I watch the show. So what? You think Americans invented all that stuff? You think baby boomers invented all that stuff? Perhaps you should read Homer.

Anyway, that's not the point. It's not even the point whether Desperate Housewives (and I can see I'm going to get tired of typing that, so from now on it shall be DH) is a good show. It's not as good as some people think, and it's not as bad as others think. The point is that, with last Sunday's episode, this became an even more MORAL show than it already was. Moral, you say? But-but-but- the sex! The adultery! The murder! How can it be moral? Well, let's take a look.

Susan (Teri Hatcher, who appears to be channeling Lucy Ricardo in this role) finally gets into Mike's house. She accidentally finds stacks of cash and a gun. Through ridiculous circumstances, she falls through a floor and is hanging between one storey and the next while Mike is not home. All with the money and gun in his sink, which is where she placed it, briefly. Mike comes home and rescues her, sees the money and gun, and orders her out of the house. Susan, who has been pursuing a relationship with Mike and had finally received an invitation to spend some time "in wine country" with Mike, is devastated. She sputtered about finding the stash being an accident, but Mike didn't want to hear. She left, but not before pointing out that Mike never tells her anything. Later, Mike shows up at her house, saying he'll tell her anything she wants to know, but Susan doesn't want to hear it. She just drags Mike inside and the two bump uglies (with some nice camera work to juxtapose their hot 'n' steamy sex with the murder taking place, presumably at the same time). All is well in Susan's land. (Yes, I'm aware of the tense changes in that paragraph, but I'll ignore it if you will.)

The goofiness of Susan's pursuit of Mike does not obscure the realistic aspects of it. She may act wacky, but we understand, because of her obvious issues with her ex-husband and her protective instincts when it comes to her teenaged daughter. This is a woman who has been hurt by the husband going through the mid-life crisis and buying a sports car and hooking up with a younger woman (who, interestingly enough, is far less attractive than Teri Hatcher), and she is nervous about being so overtly interested in Mike. This is the kind of behavior, I would argue, that women are forced into. Edie, played ridiculously over-the-top by Nicollette Sheridan (of Monday Night Football fame), aggressively goes after Mike, and she is an object of scorn and derision by the main foursome of the show. She is also an object of scorn and derision by the viewing audience, who sees her as a slut. It remains a stupid dichotomy in our society that men who act like Edie in pursuing a woman are seen as "knowing what they want," but Edie is seen as a shameless mattress-back. The fear that Susan feels is also evident in her desire to know more about Mike. She really doesn't have a leg to stand on -- he just moved in, he's asked her out but they haven't even been on a date yet!, and she should have just left his stuff alone -- last time I checked, having stacks of cash and a gun around the house wasn't illegal. But her desire to be with Mike is clashing with her desire to feel safe -- passion and comfort struggling with each other. It's an age-old question -- which do we want? Do we want the newness of a fledgling relationship, where we can't keep our hands off each other, or do we want security, where we know the other person will be there no matter what? Susan, who has been damaged before, wants to skip the passion and go straight to the security. Her hormones won't let her, though, and she ends up making the beast with two backs even though Mike hasn't made her feel any safer.

Meanwhile, Lynette (Felicity Huffman) is still having problems with her kids. For people like me, with only one child, her situation allows me to feel morally superior, just like I do whenever I read about people having problems in the newspapers. Why? Because she chose to have four children! Now, apparently, there's one older child, although he's rarely seen. He, I guess, is not a problem. Then there are the twin boys, who are pure evil. Then there's the baby. Now, you could argue that she had one, saw that it was good, and wanted another. And twins just happen. But why have another? Just because you want a girl? Okay, it's fiction, but I feel the same way when I read about people in the paper having financial difficulties because they can't feed their eight children. Good God, people, did you ever think of stopping? Anyway, back to Lynette. She has been taking ADD medication to keep up with her kids (a nice if somewhat obvious ironic twist after she decided not to medicate her kids with the same medicine). Apparently, ADD medicine acts as speed if you don't have ADD. She's not sleeping at night and crashing during the day. In a nice scene, the previous week her husband (who will forever be Gay Matt from Melrose Place) almost got her to admit her problem, but was saved by the hit-and-run outside). Now, she's strung out. She contemplates suicide, in a weird scene with Mary Alice, the show's MacGuffin who killed herself to kickstart the whole series, appearing outside her window and handing her a gun. It's a strange scene, because it's played almost comically, but it gets across Lynette's disassociation from reality. She doesn't kill herself, however, instead giving her kids to Susan and driving off in her mini-van. Later on, when Susan and Bree find her, she's sitting on a soccer field weeping. She whines about how hard being a mother is and that no one else ever has any problems, and Susan and Bree both tell her about their troubles when their kids were young. Considering how Gay Matt compared Lynette unfavorably to Bree the previous week, it's a nice touch that she admits to problems. Lynette asks why they never told her, and they say it's not something anyone likes to talk about, to which Lynette replies that it's something they should talk about. It's a heartfelt cri de couer that sums up the show's message -- people who live near each other and consider each other friends can be just as shut off from each other as strangers, maybe even moreso. DH shows us people who share an intimate secret -- the mystery of Mary Alice -- but no one knows that Lynette's abusing drugs or that Gabrielle is having an affair. People in our world have secret lives, and that's okay, but it's also important to make sure people don't feel isolated. Lynette, because of her success in business, cannot make that leap of faith and confide in her closest friends, because she doesn't want to feel like a failure. Similarly, despite having the most healthy relationship with her husband of the four, she can't get across to Gay Matt what she's thinking and feeling. Yes, Lynette whines a lot, and next week gets a nanny (if she was such a success and Gay Matt obviously has a decent job, why didn't she do it earlier, many people will say -- including me), but a real-life solution isn't the point here. The kids are just a metaphor for the image we show to the world and the image we show ourselves. This is an honest portrayal of the isolation we as Americans feel because of our loss of community and our perceptions about weakness in the face of adversity.

Bree, meanwhile, has been having marital problems with Rex, perhaps the dumbest character in television history (not dumb as in bad, but dumb as in mentally deficient). Rex has sexual problems, but won't admit what they are, even though Bree (Marcia Cross, another Melrose Place alum, as well as another of Jerry Seinfeld's girlfriends, although not as famous as Teri Hatcher) is trying to get him to talk. Another case of not trusting those we love. However, their marital problems take a back seat this episode to deal with the hit-and-run of Gabrielle's mother-in-law, a crime perpetrated by Andrew, Bree's son. Bree and Rex decide to cover the crime up by taking Andrew's car (bought for him by Rex when he and Bree announced their divorce in a all-too-real ploy to buy his son's love) into the "bad" part of town (since Wisteria Lane seems to exist in some weird sort of Never-Never Land, this is quite laughable) and leave it so it will be stolen. This, amazingly enough, works. The real problem they face is that Andrew seems not to care that he almost killed a person (and still might; Mama Solis is in a coma). Bree wrestles with her conscience over whether to turn Andrew in or not. He says that if he doesn't care about Mama Solis, he learned his values from Bree, so what does that say about her? This story had the potential, last week, of being farcical -- look how Rex and Bree try to circumvent the law! -- but Marcia Cross, who is excellent in this role, invests her struggle with such emotional intensity that we're drawn into her Hobson's choice. This is something parents may have to face -- what do you do when your children do something wrong and don't feel any remorse for it? Do you turn them in originally, or turn them in after it's apparent they feel they've gotten away with something? Andrew comes off as a punk here, and I'm not sure it's totally consistent with the character, but this part of the episode is brutal when you examine it as a parent, because it's one of those things that you can imagine happening.

Finally, there's Gabrielle (Eva Longoria). Eva Longoria is superb in this role, unless she's a bitch in real life and is just playing herself (my wife and I have always suspected Ben Affleck is an asshole, which is why he plays them so well). It's tough to have any sympathy for Gabrielle, who's carrying on an affair with her landscaper, an underage teenager, making her a statutory rapist at least in Arizona, and I suspect in a bunch of other states as well. Her mother-in-law found out about the affair last week, took a picture, and ran into the street, where she was plowed over by Andrew. At the beginning of this episode, Gabrielle does the logical thing: takes the camera before calling 911. So she's off the hook there. Mama Solis is in a coma, however, and this gets Gabrielle's loverboy thinking that maybe their affair isn't such a great idea. He tells her he went to confession, told the priest everything, and never wants to see her again. We'll see if his raging teenage hormones can keep that promise. Gabrielle talks to the priest, and finds out she can confess on her deathbed and still be forgiven. Ah, the great out for Catholics! Meanwhile, her husband, Carlos, is fretting about his mother. Wouldn't you be?

This is the story that perhaps has garnered the most attention on the show, simply because it is, after all, statutory rape (I'm sorry for harping on it, but where I used to teach, there were plenty of 15-, 16-, and 17-year-olds getting pregnant with their 18 or older boyfriends, and it made me sad). The interesting thing about it is that Carlos isn't a bad guy. Yes, he makes up for not being around more by buying Gabrielle stuff, even though she's told him that doesn't work. And he did beat up the gay guy that he thought was schtupping his wife (which was pretty funny, after all). But he loves her desperately, and she doesn't communicate with him. She's not necessarily a bad person either, just lonely. She obviously loves her husband, but does not get the attention she needs. Gabrielle's high-maintenance, but at some point, the gifts stopped doing it for her. These are two people who don't communicate on anything but a superficial level, because the indication is that when they were married they were happy with superficiality. Now, Gabrielle wants more, but so does Carlos, as we find out when he announces rather suddenly in front of the van de Kamps (Bree's family) that he and Gabrielle are going to start a family. This is news to Gabrielle, and the whole scene degenerates quickly. Carlos is a mama's boy, but he's also a man who has never been taught how to treat a woman like anything other than a saint or a whore. That's thanks to Mama Solis, who killed her husband when he starting fooling around on her. Carlos obviously has sex with Gabrielle, but he also doesn't realize that she has needs beyond being put on a pedestal. It's interesting that in this little triangle, John (Gabrielle's sex toy) is trying to do the right thing, even though, technically, he's not doing anything wrong (he's not committing adultery, even though, as he's Catholic, he shouldn't be fooling around period, and anyway, he should be a hero around school for nailing an older hottie like Gabrielle). It's got "Lumumba moment" (a situation from which no good can come) written all over it, but we'll see how it turns out.

I haven't even gotten into the central mystery of the show, Mary Alice's suicide. Yes, we learn a little more about what's going on. No, Shaft doesn't kill Edie, because she didn't send the note to Mary Alice. Yes, Paul is creepy and he's kind of out of control. Yes, Mrs. Kravitz probably had it coming. Mary Alice, although annoying as a narrator, remains a fascinating puzzle, and another reason this show is a moral show. She was obviously an unhappy person with a sinister secret, a husband prone to violence, and an obsessive and disturbed son. This is another facet of the theme of DH, namely, keeping secrets from those closest to us.

All of these plotlines serve to remind us that America today is a deeply disturbed country. We no longer have a sense of community within our neighborhoods, and even though the women on DH know each other (unlike most of us and our neighbors), they don't really know each other. Desperate Housewives reflects American society, it doesn't create it. We still have not come to terms with successful career women, whether they remain in their careers or leave their careers to raise children. We have not come to terms with children who do vile things and appear to have no remorse whatsoever. I refuse to blame my former students for everything they do, although they do have to take some responsibility. We have failed them, and they are simply reflecting our morals. Andrew is right when he asks his mother who the monster is, and Bree has no answer for him. People who look simply at the surface of the show are, like the women on Wisteria Lane, missing the point. Desperate Housewives is sensationalistic and salacious. What television show isn't? On Seinfeld, the four leads had sex with the entire population of New York, but no one said it was destroying the moral fabric of America, probably because it was a comedy and there were no consequences. On Desperate Housewives, there are consequences, which makes this an interesting show and a show that makes us more uncomfortable than we'd like to admit.