Friday, April 24, 2015

April 2015 Workshops, Conferences, etc.

Last Saturday, I was invited to give a two-hour Creative Writing workshop to a small group of BCS students; I even prepared a handy handout featuring a variety of writing exercises for the occasion. The contents of the workshop were inspired by Northrop Frye's archetypal criticism, which I tried to make more accessible by avoiding as much of the scholarly jargon as possible. All things considered, I think it went relatively well. 

Yesterday I gave a talk at Université de Sherbrooke's fourth annual Conference on Contemporary Religion, in which I used Frye's Anatomy of Criticism to call attention to the reificatory tendencies of structuralist concepts of myth in the works of Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell. I also attended a number of talks, including a fascinating discussion of a study of secular magical objects.

A few days ago, Sacred and Sequential published an interview with Sordid City Blues author Charles S. Snow. I get credited for the interview, an honour which I feel is somewhat undeserved. My contribution to the piece was rather limited to writing the questions: in all honesty, it was Mr. Snow -- and Sacred and Sequential's editor A. David Lewis -- who did most of the work.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Will Christian hipsterpreneurs save capitalism? (The answer may shock you.)

Patheos is a strange, cacophonous place, like a religious equivalent of BuzzFeed. Such circumstances often create fascinating spectacle.

One of Patheos' contributors, the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, recently produced this piece on millenials, culture and capitalism, trying to underline alleged contradictions, seemingly in an effort to reconcile American youth with the Protestant work ethic.

It makes little sense to point out contradictions when considering phenomena that do not lend themselves to anything approaching an unbiased, unified interpretation. The expectation that social movements – let alone generations – are (or should be) ideologically or theologically coherent strikes me as misguided. Our irreducibly complex societal dynamics cannot be appropriately apprehended by such a naïve epistemology. The search for reductive coherence is especially problematic in a technologically-advanced secular context that allows for multiple non-congruent axiologies.

It is certainly not clear to me that there is any meaningful comparison to be drawn between the hipsters' ethos of Bourdieuan cultural capitalism (Christian or otherwise) and the charitable activities of million-dollar corporations. One might even suggest such practices are antithetical.

I could say that insofar as sophistication is understood to supersede conventional notions of capital/profit in the millenial ethic of consumerism, millenial ideology/theology does not actually redeem capitalism – certainly not integrally, at any rate. I could say that, but I would prefer not to express myself one way or another on the subject; doing so would mean venturing into the rarefied realm of sheer speculation. Judgments derived from unstructured observation and second-hand data are too much like foregone conclusions; I believe our intuitions regarding social reality deserve to be subjected to much more rigorous empirical testing.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

How Catholic is "Marvel's Daredevil"?

In  her review for Patheos, Kate O'Hare writes:

I’ve seen five episodes, and Murdock, played by British actor Charlie Cox, has gone to Confession once, in the pilot — granted, he’s seeking absolution in advance, and he’s told that’s not how it works — and then there’s the above quip about Catholicism, from a later episode. But, other than that, faith doesn’t seem to be a big topic of conversation.

I concur that Catholicism is mostly there for flavour in the first few episodes.

Religion and religious narratives eventually become the show's foremost source of moral clarity, the standard according to which the main characters (Murdock and Fisk) make sense of their actions. Father Lantom has a number of encounters with Murdock, and his religiosity comes accross as the lifelike expression of a complex, living faith that has successfully undergone the harsh test of experience. Fisk delivers a thought-provoking monologue on prayer; in the final episode he has a striking moment of lucidity in which he quotes the parable of the good Samaritan at some length.

All things considered, I thought it was refreshing to see a show in which religion is not short-hand for inflexible or naïve dogmaticism. I was impressed with the way death had deeply-felt impacts on character development and plot; I find television writing does not usually dedicate much time to the theme of mourning.

Friday, March 20, 2015

"You see a Hulk, you run."

Overwhelmed by academic commitments and an overabundance of television (besides other distractions) I have had to put off reviewing the comics I have read over the past two weeks. I endeavour to correct this situation with this post. The following is a review of Soule, Pulido and Wimberly's She-Hulk (volume 1: Law and Disorder), Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky's Sex Criminals (volume 2: Two Worlds, One Cop) and Jonathan Hickman's Pax Romana. The title of this review is uttered by Herman Schultz (the Shocker) in She-Hulk #5

“Lady, all I know about you is that you're tough as hell. Guys like me, we got a list of people like you. Like a rating system. You got your Daredevils, your Iron Fists – those guys, you fight. Maybe you get lucky, or maybe you're actually good enough to beat 'em. Now, any Hulk – lady, dude, red, green, purple – you see a Hulk, you run."

Soule is exceedingly adept at weaving together character exposition and fast-paced narrative: consequently, the latest adventures of Jennifer Walters (aka She-Hulk) should prove enjoyable to just about any human-like creature with a functional heart and brain. Soule's plot is precipitated by an unfair performance review after which Walters leaves her law firm to fend off on her own. Serendipitously, Holly Harrow, the widow of a small-time supervillain, seeks compensation for use of her deceased husband's technology by a Stark Industries subsidiary. After using her Avengers connection to settle out of court, Walters uses her payment from the case to start her own practice. Strange cases have a way of finding her – strange cases and bizarre people, including the sardonic paralegal Angie Huang.

The first four issues of She-Hulk are illustrated in Pulido's vibrant pop-art style; Wimberly's art in issues 5 and 6 has a different, more psychedelic energy which suits the narrative direction, though the transition is indeed jarring.

♀♀♀♀: Soule's She-Hulk features a variety of different relationship styles. Walters' practice is located in DUMBO, in a building for superpowered professionals owned and managed by Xavier Institute alumna Sharon King. For a secondary character, Sharon King is singularly fleshed-out; her interactions with Walters, though warm, give some idea of the potentially fraught relationship between landlady and tenant. Walters' connection to Wildcat is similarly multi-faceted – simultaneously professional and amicable. Paralegal Angie Huang's quiet but zealous devotion to her employer is fascinating. 
0: This comic is not explicitly LGBTQA-inclusive
πππ: The mystery that is Angie Huang and Hei Hei the mystical monkey is one of the driving forces behind She-Hulk's plot. Idea Hive, Sharon King's building, is home to an extremely diverse group of tenants. Doctor Kevin Trench (Nightwatch) also makes an appearance.

Despite the critical and popular enthusiasm surrounding it, I was not... turned on... by Sex Criminals' first volume. Though I was certainly able to appreciate Fraction and Zdarsky's energetic style of graphic storytelling, the way in which the creators flout sexual taboo did nothing to impress me. Fortunately for mature readers everywhere, the plot thickens in Sex Criminals' second volume – the introduction of more complex themes (such as the ambiguous relationship between physical intimacy and emotional attachment or the partners' mutual responsibility for their mental health) makes for more substantial fare. Far from detracting from the book's humour, the added seriousness tends to complement it by contrast.
♀♀♀♀: Suzie Dickson makes up with a friend with whom she had something of a falling out during the first volume.
0: This particular volume of Sex Criminals is not explicitly LGBTQA-inclusive. The previous one made a passing allusion to youthful same-sex experiments.
ππ: Sex Criminals vol.2 features a secondary character of African descent and a vaguely middle-eastern villain; other than that, it is all very white. 

A conceptually-dense formalist experiment in Alternate History, Pax Romana's narrative is driven almost entirely by its heavy-handed prose. The book does not function at all like a customary graphic novel: it dispenses with sequential art altogether, unravelling the plot through a series of still-frames crowded by speech bubbles, excerpts from fictional history books, and conversation transcripts – most of it turgid, pseudo-Hegelian nonsense. The entire narrative rests on two assumptions: 1) that the highest echelons of church hierarchy are necessarily the most conservative, seeking the preservation of the institution at any cost, and 2) that the rulers of ancient Rome could find it in their episteme to embrace with eagerness the methods and values of a technologically-superior invader. Both assumptions are likely to strike the literate reader as misapprehensions, and whereas some might be willing to suspend disbelief in order to take part in Hickman's experiment, I personally could not derive much enjoyment from such a cynical view of human potential. Though Pax Romana's technologically-accelerated civilisational project has colonized both the moon and Mars by 1421, we are to regard the outcome of the whole process as a dystopia insofar as imperialist autocracy remains the dominant political and religious paradigm.

As the thought-experiment of a singular creator, Pax Romana is a work of considerable complexity. Complexity, unfortunately, does not mean nuance, and on the whole Hickman's revision of history is as mean-spirited as it is implausible.

♀♀: Though the series spans hundreds of years, it manages to feature only two female characters – only one of whom has any impact on the plot. 
0: This comic is not LGBTQA-inclusive.
πππ: One of the four artisans of the Pax Romana is of African descent; there are also vague references to a break-away African civilisation.

Idiot Box Pull List – Week Of March 15th, 2015

Beware the ides of March! With the addition of iZombie and the return of The Flash and Arrow after a two-week hiatus, this was an extremely busy week in the world of comics-derived television.

The Walking Dead S5 E14  Spend

On closer inspection, it looks as though there may be some worms eating away at the shiny apple that is Alexandria...

Summary: Darryl and Aaron leave on a recruitment mission. Abraham is rewarded for his extraordinary leadership at the construction site. Rick investigates the sabotage of Jessie's owl sculpture. On a mission to find components for Alexandria's failing power-grid, Aiden's lack of judgment costs him his life; Nicholas' lack of judgment, compounded with cowardice, causes Noah's gruesome demise. Father Gabriel has a crisis of faith in both God and humanity. While attempting to strike a friendship with Carol, Sam reveals troubling information about his family life.  

Notable line: "Mother d**k." Cornered by the decaying legions, Abraham finds comfort in poetry.
Memorable moments: Eugene, who had previously made a great show of his cowardice, rises to the occasion and saves lives.

♀♀♀♀: Francine's introduction could serve as a study in the art of establishing a character in very few lines. Deanna Monroe is still a major player in Alexandria.
RRR: Tara makes adorable quips at Noah when he voices baseless insinuations about her innocent questions.
ππππ: Glen and Noah make an excellent team until Nicholas ruins everything.

. . .

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. S2 E13 – One of Us

Summary: Cal recruits "gifted" individuals to wage war on S.H.I.E.L.D., breaks into an underground containment facility to release a person whose voice can induce catatonia. Agent May brings in her former husband, Dr. Andrew Garner, to work on Skye's psychological profile for S.H.I.E.L.D.'s index; Skye struggles to control her powers. Agent MacKenzie holds Hunter captive for a time and, having little choice, has Mockingbird make the arrangements to bring him in to "the real S.H.I.E.L.D." Cal and his band of misfits lure S.H.I.E.L.D. onto a football field. Gideon the teleporter intervenes.

Memorable moments: Dr. Garner and Agent May's relationship is one of the main foci of this week's episode. Many of the agents are eager to discuss it, though perhaps none so much as Skye: "Did you guys have actual conversations?" she asks Dr. Garner. "You know, like pillow talk – or was it just pillow stern looks?"

♀♀♀♀: Agent May and Mockingbird are given ample opportunity to demonstrate their physical strength and mental fortitude. Mockinbird and Agent Simmons have a heart-to-heart about Fitz which reveals considerable emotional depth. Simmons' complex relationship with the recently-mutated Skye becomes somewhat less coldly professional.
0: This episode is not explicitly LGBTQA-inclusive.
ππππ: Agent May and Dr. Garner are indubitably the stars of this week's episode. Agent May's fight with strongman Francis Noche is intelligently choreographed to showcase their unique fighting styles.

. . .

The Flash S1 E15 – Out of Time

It is a very strange magic trick where all the cards are placed upon the table before the tablecloth is whisked away.

Summary: In a flashback sequence, we witness the apparent aerial demise of Mark Mardon, the canonical Weather Wizard. One year later, Barry, Iris, Linda and Eddie are having an awkward double-date at the bowling alley. Mark Mardon appears at the morgue to torture the coroner for the identity of the detective who shot his brother. While running at superspeed to the morgue, the Flash catches a strange glimpse of... himself. The Weather Wizard attacks the CCPD precinct; he fires a lightning at Joe, but Captain David Singh pushes him out of harm's way, sustaining considerable damage to himself in the process. Using a device created by Cisco, the Flash stops the Weather Wizard, but lets him escape in order to take Captain Singh to the hospital. Veteran journalist Mason shares his suspicions regarding Dr. Wells with Iris; Iris shares those suspicions with Kate and Cisco; Cisco investigates and discovers a red herring in the containment field. Dr. Wells walks in on the Cisco sleuthing and  vibrates his hand through his heart. The Weather Wizard captures Joe, ties him on a barge in the waterfront, and summons a tidal wave to destroy Central City. While running to create a wind barrier to deflect the tsunami, Barry slips through time, winding back at the beginning of the episode.

Notable line: "Being his fiancé makes him family, doctor." Detective Joe West, LGBTQA ally.

♀♀♀: While it is permitted to depict women who have internalized misogyny (i.e.: Lynda talking to Iris about "the typical weird crap that women do to each other"), it would be refreshing to see women have more positive interactions. On the bright side: Kate plays an active role in Cisco's investigation. 
RRR: Captain Singh is unambiguously depicted as a hero and his fiancé has verisimilar conversation with Barry.
ππππ: Iris and Joe's father-daughter relationship is entirely believable. Both Cisco and Captain Singh play important roles in this week's plots.

. . .

iZombie S1 E1 – Pilot

I have not yet read iZombie; I am given to understand the television adaptation is only very loosely based on the comic.  

I was afraid the writers would overuse zombism as a metaphor for the post-modern crisis of meaning. Thankfully, such apprehension was unjustified; it is simply not that kind of show. The new CW series is funny, which is not to say that it cannot also pull some serious heart-strings. My fan senses were tingling throughout the pilot; Liv's sarcasm is reminiscent of Daria's, and her zombie powers borrow some of the most interesting elements of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse and Chew

Summary: Before her accidental, second-hand exposure to the zombifying drug utopium at a boat party gone tragically wrong, Liv Moore had her life under control – a promising career in medicine, a gorgeous fiancé. Five months after the incident, she is coaxing through unlife, working at the morgue under motormouth Dr. Chakrabarthi, avoiding physical and emotional connection out of fear of being found a zombie. After discovering she can access the memories of the brains she eats, she plays a decisive role in Detective Clive Babineaux's investigation of a call girl's murder, thereby finding a new zest for life.

Notable line: "Liv, you ate the girl's temporal lobe. Going to the police with her potential murder is the least you can do." Dr. Chakrabarthi's enthusiasm is the perfect counter-point to Liv's cynicism.

♀♀♀♀: Liv has a number of verisimilar exchanges with female friends and relatives.
0: This episode is not explicitly LGBTQA-inclusive
ππππ: Clive Babineaux and Dr. Chakrabarthi's work relationship is like something out of The Office.

. . .

Arrow S3 E16 – The Offer

The long-awaited answer to the previous episode's question.

Summary: "The tale to be told begins thus." Imitating his namesake's temptations of Christ, Ra's al Ghul promises Oliver great power, taking him for a grand tour of his operation – including the legendary Lazarus pit – before releasing Diggle and Merlyn as a show of good faith. Upon their return to Starling, Thea resists the temptation to slit her murderous father's throat. Back at the Arrow cave, Nyssa reacts favourably to Thea's confession. Oliver, Roy and Laurel are not entirely successful at preventing the robbery of a shipment of industrial-grade diamonds. After dropping off gift-wrapped miscreants at the SCPD precinct, Captain Lance tells the Arrow "some variation of go to Hell" for having failed to inform him of Sarah's death. After Murmur and his band of trigger-happy thugs shower the SCPD with diamond-tipped bullets, team Arrow and Nyssa al Ghul swoop in to save the day; the minions who get away later get a fateful visit from Ra's. In the flashback sequences, Oliver has a run-in with a revenant while attempting to reunite Akio with Tatsu and Maseo.

Notable line: "I did not defy death just to become an instrument of it." It seems Oliver's mind was made at the start of the episode: I wonder whether the subsequent tergiversation was absolutely necessary.
Memorable moment: Roy has some very comical lines; it is refreshing to see his character expand beyond the tragic range.

♀♀♀♀: Nyssa, Thea and Laurel all have meaningful exchanges. Felicity explicitly emphasizes that she is defined by the causes in which she believes, not only the relationships in which she chooses to involve herself.
RRR: Nyssa gets a fair bit of screen time; her feelings towards Sarah motivate many of her decisions.
πππ: Diggle and Akio play a significant part in this week's plots.

. . .

Powers S1 E4 – Devil in a Garbage Bag

Summary: Successive interventions on Wolf's brain have induced faster regeneration, and so the superpowered menace breaks out of his lobotomy-induced coma. A select few members of the Powers Division are sent in an attempt to contain him. A fair few are eaten alive, possibly as a punishment for a lifetime of cussing every five seconds.

♀♀♀♀: This week's episode is a soft "pass" as far as the Bechdel test is concerned; Retro-Girl speaks to her secretary, addressing her as Eva. Other women (Deena, Calista, Chaos Chick) also play arguably significant roles.
0: Were we to get any sort of confirmation that Royale and Simons are in fact "a thing," this episode would be LGBTQA-inclusive.
πππ: Though Deena Pilgrim is still something of a sidekick, she does demonstrate a certain degree of agency. There is at least one other person of colour on the task force to neutralize Wolf.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Idiot Box Pull List – Week Of March 8th, 2015

Despite the noted absence of both The Flash and the Arrow, it was a busy week in the world of small-screen super-heroics.

On a tangentially related note, someone applied the Bechdel test to all of (the new) Doctor Who. The results are surprising.

The Walking Dead S5 E13 – Forget

Summary: During a secret meeting, Carol, Rick and Darryl hatch a plan to liberate handguns from Alexandria's control; upon the plan's completion, Darryl refuses to take a gun, deciding instead to abide by Alexandria's rules. Aaron and Darryl go hunting together, attempt to capture a wild horse before losing him to the zombie hordes; later, the two have dinner with Eric, and Darryl agrees to replace Eric as a recruiter. Deanna throws a party; the survivors have varying degrees of difficulty adjusting to polite society.

Notable lines: When he utters "[t]he more they're out there, the more they become what they really are," Darryl is almost certainly not talking about horses. Likewise when he says to Aaron: "You were trying to help him."
Memorable moment: By threatening Jessie's son, Carol demonstrates that she is willing to go at any length to ensure her group is safe. In the words of a fellow fan: "When the bogeyman goes to sleep, he checks under the bed for Carol."

♀♀♀♀: Much of the episode focuses on Sasha's problems with adapting to civilized life, and a number of women interact with her in a more or less direct attempt to relieve that tension. Michonne is shown to be the most eager to embrace her new, more peaceful existence.
RRRR: Aaron features prominently in Darryl's plot; the two discuss their similar status as misfits. He also exchanges words (or rather: meaningful glances) with his partner Eric. Tara does not really stand out in this episode.
ππππ: Sasha's PTSD is probably the episode's most poignant plot. A touching moment occurs when Noah tries to leave the party only to have Glenn and Maggie talk him out of it, reminding him that they are "in it together"; the scene was reminiscient of many conversations I have had with parents and siblings at extended family gatherings.

. . .

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. S2 E12 – Who You Really Are

The second half of this season is certainly giving more attention to supernatural elements.

Summary: When an amnesic Sif appears on the shores of Portugal, the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are called in to help. Through investigation and deduction, the agents figure out Sif had been sent to track down a Kree. Mockingbird and Skye locate the Kree, but Skye's powers manifest uncontrollably, and the alien escapes. Later, the agents catch Bintak the Kree as he attempts to recover a crate containing six diviners – "enough," he tells Coulson et al, "to create an army." Bintak restores Sif's memory, and in the course of their interaction, discovers that Skye has been terrigenized. A battle ensues over the course of which Skye demonstrates that she is not a threat by showing her willingness to sacrifice her freedom and well-being. Sif departs to Asgard with the Kree. In a conversation which Skye has the misfortune of overhearing, Fitz demonstrates he is basically the only compassionate person in Coulson's employ. Mockingbird and Agent Mackenzie are still up to something nefarious, and apparently it involves rendering Hunter unconscious.

Notable line: "There are tides in the universe that you cannot swim against." Sif, imparting cosmic wisdom.
Memorable moments: Every scene with Sif.

♀♀♀♀: Somehow, Agent May seems to understand what Skye is going through without needing to be told, but this does not prevent them from having meaningful interactions. Sif, Skye, May and Mockingbird all have undeniable chemistry.
0: This episode is not explicitly LGBTQA-inclusive.
πππ: Agent May features prominently in this episode, as does Agent Mackenzie.

. . .

Powers S1 E1-3 – Pilot, Like a Power, Mickey Rooney Cries No More

I have not yet read Powers, though it has certainly been on my list for some time. Based on the critical literature and Brian Michael Bendis' reputation, I can only assume the comic is a perfectly decent deconstructionist take on the superhero. Unfortunately, Powers' translation to television has spawned a plodding behemoth of awkward character exposition. The giant's feet of clay is plot, which is remarkably thin and inchoate, and driven by some very uneven dialogue.

Notable line: Though most of Powers' characters seem content to mumble expletives, some hold a more sophisticated discourse. The teleporting Royale – probably the show's most interesting character – frequently waxes philosophical. "The secret to doing everything that you are capable of," he tells his protégée, "is to understand how little time you have."
Memorable moment: I'm sure there were some, but none readily come to mind.

♀♀♀♀: Calista's interactions with Retro-Girl shows the remarkable depth – and strength – of both characters.
0: This series is arguably LGBTQA-inclusive in that Calista has suggested Royale and Simons are in a relationship. While Royale and Simons do interact, Calista may not be the best judge of such things. Saying that Royale is "identifiably LGBTQA" would certainly be a bit of a stretch at this time.
πππ: Considering how her subordinate status is frequently emphasized, it is hard not to think of Deena Pilgrim as Detective Christian Walker's side-kick. That being said, they did cast a person of colour when the role did not absolutely call for it.