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Monday, May 11, 2015

Divergence and Daredevil at Primary Ignition!

Today's post is mostly a plug, as I haven't written a new post in a couple of weeks, and those of you who follow me on Twitter already know about the news I have to present here. Simply put, is up and running again, with Rob Siebert at the helm once more, and I've returned with him.

Two new reviews with my name in the byline have been published, with more to come. The first such review was on Divergence #1, a Free Comic Book Day issue that DC Comics put out for the occasion, featuring new happenings with Batman, Superman, and the Justice League.

The second such review was on Marvel's Daredevil, a new Netflix original series based on the comic book property of the same name. It's pretty much what I always wanted from a live-action treatment of Batman, but just wasn't possible even in the Nolan films.

In sum, go read these reviews and get my rambling opinions on this stuff, straight from the horse's mouth. I assure you, gentle readers, new blog posts are on the way!

Also, happy Mother's Day to all of you mothers out there. Hi, mum.

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Air Nomads and Religious Vegetarianism

In the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the quasi-extinct culture of the Air Nomads are portrayed as a society of peaceful, fun-loving monks. They are known to travel extensively, are the only one of the Four Nations to be composed entirely of benders of their respective element, and have a penchant for fruit pies. But one other trait distinguishes them from all the others: They are all vegans. Or vegetarians, or what-have-you.

It's no secret that the world of Airbender (created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko) draws heavily from medieval East Asian culture. Indeed, this unique choice of source material is one of the cornerstones of the success of the series. The mythologies and histories of Japan, China, India, and other East Asian cultures are ripe with storytelling possibilities to draw from. The fact that DiMartino and Konietzko (the latter of whom is a vegan) are the most visible Western creators to do so is a credit to their ingenuity and talent.

However, looking back on the series, particularly the Air Nomads, I began to wonder just how true to their inspirations some aspects of this incredible fictional world were. Maybe it was something I read about vegetarianism in my college Nutrition class, but my curiosity was piqued. So I did a little investigating, and found some things that surprised me, if only just a little.

The Air Nomads, a monastic society, are obviously based off of Tibetan Buddhist monks, right down to their clothing and architecture. On the face of it, Buddhist monks are known to adhere to a code which prohibits the killing of either man or animal. However, as usual, the devil is in the details. Within Buddhism, there are multiple schools of thought regarding exactly how far this code applies. Insofar as I can understand, most divergences in this area of Buddhist doctrine stem from a disagreement over whether the no-kill rule logically extends to not eating meat. Put simply, one school of thought believes that the eating of certain meats (such as pork, chicken, or fish) is okay as long as the Buddhist eating it didn't know it was killed on their behalf, while another believes that a moratorium on the consumption of all meat is implicit in the reading of their sacred texts. And that's all without getting to the Tibetan school of thought which allows for the consumption of both meat and alcohol, a big deviation from these other two which I have been able to identify.

It's a bit complicated, involving a depth of understanding about Buddhist theology and doctrine that I won't even pretend to have. As it applies to the Air Nomads, who are obviously heavily inspired by Tibetan society, I can make a slightly swifter judgment. If the Air Nomads were based primarily on Tibetan Buddhist monks, then their sacraments endorsing vegetarianism, let alone veganism, make little sense. Tibetan Buddhism, as stated, allows for the consumption of meat. The 14th Dalai Lama has encouraged vegetarianism, while still acknowledging it as optional, to the point of regularly eating meat himself. The reasons that vegetarianism is optional in Tibet is for reasons both religious and practical. Tibetan Buddhism follows a school of thought originating from Northern India called Vajrayana which makes vegetarianism unnecessary. More pressingly, vegetables are scarce in mountainous regions such as Tibet, thus requiring less stringent traditions.

So, assuming DiMartino and Konietzko did their research, their incorporation of veganism into the fictional society of the Air Nomads may instead come from the culture of Hindu priests. I talked with an acquaintance who formerly resided in India, and she informed me that when it comes to adherence to the dietary laws of Hinduism, the different castes of Hinduism vary greatly. The priest caste ardently practices vegetarianism, no doubt because they can afford to do so, but not uniformly. Lower castes, however, are allowed to eat meat and dairy. Even these general rules of thumb differ heavily region-to-region.

My acquaintance's son resided in a region near the Ganges River, one of the most polluted rivers in the world by his account, which kept the consumption of fish down. Meanwhile, this 2006 survey tells us that only about 31 percent of Indians are vegetarians. That's all without accounting for Jainism, whose most devout adherents pursue the goal of non-violence to the point of using feathers to sweep insects out of their way wherever they go and wearing head coverings to avoid inhaling small insects. They're all either vegans or lacto-vegetarians, going even beyond that by not eating garlic or other root vegetables so as to not do harm to plants!

Tibetan Monks
In view of all this, the Air Nomads, like most of the other cultures depicted in Avatar: The Last Airbender, are a composite culture which contain elements from Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. This fictional society does not conform to any one specific religion, but is syncretic. This explains why the Air Nomads place great value in meditation and piety, abide by strict dietary regulations, and yet are able to kick serious tuckus through the use of magic kung fu.

A discussion on this blog about religion and fictional monastic orders wouldn't be complete without a Christian view on the subject of religious vegetarianism. While several Christian sects, ranging from Benedictine monks to Seventh Day Adventists, encourage or even mandate vegetarianism, the Bible's teaching on it are clear enough. God gave humanity permission to eat meat after Noah's flood (Genesis 9:3), and although He prohibited the Jews from eating certain animals, He never prohibited the consumption of all meat. Jesus later declared all foods clean in a vision given to the Apostle Peter (Acts 10:10-15), and is recorded in the Gospels as eating fish (Luke 24:42-43) and lamb (Luke 22:8-15). He also served bread and fish during the feeding of the five thousand (Matthew 14:17-21).

In one particularly notable passage, found in Mark 7, Jesus made the larger point that it isn't what a person eats that makes him "unclean," but what comes out of the person from within. As it reads there:

And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride,foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."

Image 1 courtesy of Image 2 courtesy of

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Superman: Birthright and Superman for All Seasons: A Tale of Two Takes on an Icon

Author's Note: I am holding off on my long-promised post on the Air Nomads and Religious Vegetarianism, for the sake of obtaining more in-depth information about the subject. Until then, please enjoy this post about Superman.

I've written about Superman movies before, but I've never really written about Superman himself, let alone Superman comics. But over the last week or so, I've finally gotten around to reading Superman: Birthright and Superman for All Seasons, a pair of pretty notable Superman stories. The former was written by the esteemed Mark Waid, while the latter was written and illustrated by the equally esteemed team of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, respectively. This latter pair was also behind Batman: The Long Halloween and Batman: Dark Victory, the former being one of my favorite Batman stories. Meanwhile, Waid has written or co-written such great stories as Kingdom Come and 52, as well as acclaimed runs on The Flash, JLA, and also Daredevil over at Marvel.

Getting back to Superman, these two stories both helped to define Superman in comics in ways that were both hugely significant and hugely differing. Today, we will examine the differences between Birthright and Seasons as stories, as well as their respective takes on the world's most iconic superhero.

Right off the bat, Superman: Birthright is very different from Superman for all Seasons. Birthright was spawned in the early 2000's and ran for 12 issues. It was, at the time, meant to be the definitive superhero origin story for Superman, a concept which even then had been done literally dozens of time. Comics scholar Chris Sims notes that even before Birthright, Superman: Secret Origin, and Superman: Earth One all came about, both he and a friend agreed that the last thing they wanted to see in comics was yet another Superman origin story. Exactly why he believes this is beyond the scope of this post, but you can read all about it here. (A word of warning: I'll be citing Mr. Sims a lot in this article.)

Birthright's take on Superman's origin story seeks to capture the feel of Superman is a more "toned-down" and "realistic" way, which is generally code for our hero constantly expressing angst at his predicament. The edition I read stated that Birthright was specifically designed to mirror the approach that the odious Smallville was taking, which is never a good sign. Even the art has that weird, edgy, penciled look that was common in its day, leftover from the exaggeratedly grim and gritty feel that nearly all 90s comics had.

In the hands of a lesser talent, this might lead to what happened with Man of Steel. Not Mark Waid though, oh no. He manages to successfully present a version of Superman that is largely true to the character, yet at the same time mess it up just enough to make is significantly imperfect. Birthright's main problem in this regard is that it keeps looking for explanations and justifications for details that don't or shouldn't need to be explained or justified. The classic example, as indicated by Sims, is the rationale behind putting a giant red "S" on Superman's costume. There's a lot of ballyhoo about it being some kind of Kryptonian crest or a symbol of hope or whatever stupid crud they routinely pull out of their butts at the DC editorial offices, but Sims has a simpler explanation: He wears an "S" on his chest because "S" stands for Superman. There. Done. Mystery solved.

One thing that I actually did like that Waid elaborated on more fully was his explanation of how Superman's Clark Kent disguise manages to fool his coworkers, who are all reporters. It's brilliantly done, with Clark putting a lot of effort into it and nearly blowing it more than once. However, it leads to the one thing which I really don't like about Birthright, and it's not even in the story itself, but in the afterword: Waid goes out and states flatly that Clark Kent is the "mask" and Superman is the real man.


Aside from the obvious play for the appeal of Batman, a strategy makes minimal sense for reasons that we won't go into right now, the idea of Clark Kent being the "mask" and Superman being the "real man" is plainly flawed. It all boils down to Superman and Clark Kent being two sides of the same person who acts differently around different people, ditto for Batman and everyone else. The fact that Mark Waid of all people bought into it is beyond me.

Birthright itself is workable, enjoyable even, but still flawed. It focuses on how Superman would supposedly be found scary by the denizens of our oh-so-scared-and-paranoid post-9/11 world, and ever so trusting of a bald, corporate elitist like Luthor. I quickly debunked this idea when I asked my mom, no comic book aficionado, if she would be freaked out if Superman touched down in our backyard. The answer: Not if he looked like the Christopher Reeve version. Bingo! Guess what Birthright's Superman looks like? Sure, the folks in the military might be a bit spooked, but who's going to be scared by a guy with no mask flying around wearing a big red cape helping people?

Which brings us to Superman for All Seasons.

Seasons isn't so much an origin story as it is a summation of who Superman is and how he came to be. Everything from the narrative structure to the art is focused on producing a story which does this. The logical result of this methodology is that Seasons is nothing at all like Waid's pseudo-dour Birthright. We see Superman through the eyes of his family, friends, and that one bald guy who's his biggest enemy. Loeb and Sale specifically note that they wanted the art to be reminiscent of Norman Rockwell paintings, which gives us an incredible effect. It's homely, warm, inviting, emotional, and poignant. Heck, it's even fun!

One thing that makes Seasons such a classic is that it doesn't fall prey to the trap of obsessing over details which ultimately have little relevance to the story. Instead, its story and visuals primarily focus on developing the characters, creating memorable scenes, and communicating a rich narrative. As a result, the small details that fill up the background in these 4 issues give it a richness that Birthright could barely accomplish in 12. Every character from the Man of Steel himself to Smallville's local minister all stick in your mind and are beautifully rendered. Every panel gives us something visually worthwhile to look at. The stories this four-issue series tells us are breathtakingly engaging and a pleasure to read. There's no fretting about how Clark got his journalism degree or why he decided to be a superhero. Why he did it is decided in 2 pages -heck, I doubt it was that many- more effectively than Birthright's 2 or 3 issues devoted to the subject.

Most of all, there's a sharp contrast given between Superman and Lex Luthor. We're not given a totally solid explanation about why Superman and Luthor are at odds (we rarely are), but it's made clear that Luthor's an evil bad guy who firmly believes himself to be the good guy, and there's no tragic backstory given to justify what a jerkhole he is. He's just like that, and because of him, Metropolis is initially a fairly disagreeable place to live. That is, until Superman shows up.

To be fair to Birthright, elements of that story sort of leak into Geoff Johns' Superman: Secret Origin, which I believe is the best Superman origin story which I have yet read, though there are many out there. In truth, Secret Origin combines a lot of aspects from both Birthright and Seasons, such as Clark and Luthor knowing each other as children, or Superman's behavior as Clark Kent being at least partly natural and genuine, respectively. This results is a story which is decidedly above par, but not quite on the level of a classic like Seasons.

In the end, while Birthright does have some things going for it, I'll definitely choose Seasons any day of the week as my choice interpretation of Superman. It just has so much more life and energy that Birthright only dreams of having. They're both good, but only Superman for all Seasons is a truly great interpretation of an American icon. I'm just glad that I finally read it.

Image 1 courtesy Image 2 courtesy

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Little Picture: A Look at Grassroots Movements in West Hill

Urban Family founder Paul Patu speaks
at the Secondary Learning Center

As those of you who follow me on Twitter may know (@levi_sweeney), I was originally going to do a post on the Air Nomads and Religious Vegetarianism. However, I would instead like to write a somewhat belated post concerning a more pressing matter. It's about "the odd social issue" advertised in the blog description at the top of this page.

This last week, I received a flyer and a questionnaire in the mail from Skway Solutions, asking questions about possible solutions to problems in our community. I live in the West Hill area, a chunk of unincorporated King County stuck in between Seattle and Renton. The area has it's fair share of problems, such as poverty, crime, and truancy, among other things. Apart from one or two community meetings, I'd never thought to get involved much in helping to solve any of these problems. I helped my dad during the West Hill Annexation vote in 2012, but that's about it. But the aforementioned flyer was an invite to an open house at a local school, offering food, door prizes, and a community forum. Intrigued, and out of the dojang for a while due to a knee injury, I decided to go.

When I arrived at the school on Thursday, the first thing that struck me was that most of the assembly was made up of minorities. I, white as an onion, stood out like sore thumb, being one of only seven or eight white people out of fifty attendees, the majority of whom were either black, Hispanic, or of mixed ancestry, with a couple of Asians scattered here and there. I don't really know what I'm supposed to take away from this observation. At any rate, I made fine friends with some of the people there, and they all seemed good and friendly. A few were trying a bit hard to pull off that gangster, tough-guy look, but I doubt there was much bite to be found. I sat next to a guy named Corey who said that his grandfather was trained by Bruce Lee. He even had pictures on his cell phone! Man, that sounds so cool.

The other thing that was particularly noticeable was that most of the attendees were either children or teenagers. I was expecting this before I arrived, as the event was dubbed "Teen Talk," meant to engage youth of the community in the process of addressing West Hill's problems. There were several adults in the audience and adult speakers, but much of the discussion was coordinated by members of the Skyway Youth Neighborhood Council (SYNC), a cadre of young activists trying to help further change in the community for the better.

After a meal and acquainting period, SYNC invited audience members to answer into a microphone their own answers to questions projected onto a screen. Questions included, "What barriers do teens face in the community?" and "Why should teens be involved in their community?" Each answer was given a round of applause, including mine. I answered the first of these questions with a basic assessment of the obvious: joblessness led to crime, which is a problem. I elaborated that the citizenry should be informed and involved in the issues of today, as the Founders intended, lest a "political elite" take power and begin running the country however it wanted. (Oh, wait a second...)

After the open forum, representatives of SYNC, Alajawan's Hands, the Skyway West Hill Action Plan Committee (SWAP, an arm of Skyway Solutions) and Urban Family all gave speeches, highlighting their respective organizations' efforts to improve conditions in the community. SYNC is educating youth on various hazards related to gang violence and delinquency. Alajawan's Hands, also known as the Alajawan Brown Foundation, is offering tutoring, scholarships, and various charitable activities. SWAP representatives discussed the economic challenges facing the West Hill area, and ideas concerning how to mitigate them. Urban Family, who probably had the biggest presence at the event, spoke about what they've been doing to keep kids on the right path, deter gang violence, and generally improve conditions in the community. They showed a nice video featuring their accomplishments, and scenery around Skyway. It was almost surreal to watch, as I drive past these places all the time, and now I'm watching them on a video, probably recorded while in a moving car.

After the speeches, there were some cultural displays courtesy of a Somali immigrant organization from over in I think Rainier Beach, featuring a poetry reading and what I believe was a traditional Somali dance. Let me tell you, it makes any dancing I've seen look pretty sub-par. When the meeting was officially adjourned, I stuck around to talk to a gal from SWAP named Andra. I asked her about the idea of annexation, and she stated that she was a "neutral" on the subject, being neither for nor against it, but was mainly concerned that the interests of the people of West Hill be addressed. As it is, annexation won't be on the discussion table for a while now, since it the vote failed back in 2012.

I came away from this event with a different outlook on the way things ought to be around here. On the one hand, I had always embraced the idea that annexing West Hill into Renton would be good for the community. Andra herself said that King County has failed to provide basic services and law enforcement to the West Hill area. But I've always been the sort of guy who looks at the big picture. I read the Wall Street Journal and WORLD Magazine. I follow national and global news avidly. When election time rolls around, I gear up for local politics as a matter of course. I have to vote, after all. But apart from a few stints here and there, I've never really been a part of a local, small-scale, grassroots campaign. Attending this meeting, I've glimpsed what that atmosphere, that culture, is like. I think that it can be a powerful force for conservative, free market political reform. You may ask, "What's new?" My point here is that I've never fully understood the concept of a grassroots effort, and now I've gotten a front row seat.

Going back to the annexation thing, I still believe that it's West Hill's best bet. On the City of Renton website, an article on the subject of annexation reads, "The City's policy stance has been to welcome areas that wish to annex but at the same time Renton must maintain service levels to current residents. Annexation is ultimately a choice of area voters." Now that I've had a glimpse of the grassroots activity going on in the Skyway/West Hill area, I'm beginning to understand why that initiative may have failed. 

My father, his friends, and myself in a minor capacity, worked very hard to secure victory with the 2012 West Hill Annexation Vote. We distributed literature, put up signs, did door-belling, and may have run a call center. But there wasn't the streak of enthusiasm brought on by your typical grassroots campaign, not enough of the youthful energy I saw at the Teen Talk event. I can't help but wonder that if we had worked with the local grassroots organizations, organized rallies and speeches, reached out to the community in much the same way as these organizations are doing now, that they would have succeeded. The initiative lost by about 10 percent of the vote, 680 votes to be specific.

But here's the thing: The people of West Hill want to combat their problems. They're open to solutions, which was plain to see at the meeting on Thursday. And if they're open to solutions, to positive change, then maybe a real difference can be made. Concerning the providing of services, Renton Mayor Denis Law noted in his 2015 State of the City address earlier this month that "the culture for quality service begins at the top." In our present state of affairs, King County Executive Dow Constantine is the guy at "the top." I don't know much about him or his policies, but I understand that he's focused on increasing the efficiency of the bus line and combating climate change. While that is neither here nor there, what I do know is that Mr. Constantine is not focused on helping the citizens of West Hill. I for one don't want to wait around until he does want to help us. 

Ladies and gentlemen, it's time to try something new.

Follow Levi on Twitter at @levi_sweeney, and submit questions and post ideas with the hashtag #QLevi

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Metal Clan and Utopianism

A couple weeks back, I ended my post on Zaheer and Zen Anarchism (that sounds so fun to write) with a promise that the next time I wrote about The Legend of Korra, I'd talk about the Metal Clan. That day has come, and I now plan onc talking about how the Metal Clan relates to the philosophy of Utopianism.

Utopiansim refers to the belief or philosophy surrounding the concept of utopia. Utopia itself is defined by as "an imaginary place in which the government, laws, and social conditions are perfect." Christian philosopher and apologist Dr. William Lane Craig defines Utopiansim as "arrival at... a kind of perfect world, a paradise on earth, as it were—the perfect society." Although this precise term wasn't coined until English philosopher Thomas More wrote the book Utopia in 1516, the idea of utopia has been around since Plato's Republic at least, which dates back to around 380 B.C. Utopia has been discussed in various other literature and other media across the centuries, and in the modern era has led to the development of the respected but relatively new genre of dystopia. The Legend of Korra provides in Book 3: Change an example of what is for all practical purposes a utopian society: Zaofu, home of the Metal Clan.

Zaofu is a community made up largely of metal and earth-benders, founded and led by some of the descendants of Toph. According to its leader, Suyin Beifong, it is a place where everyone is encouraged to strive for their maximum potential. She also states that it is "the safest city in the world." Indeed it is, as it contains elaborate security measures, such as retractable metal roofs over the city, metal-bending powered gondolas for entry, and a crack squad of metal-bending police, though Lin Beifong doesn't think much of all this. What's more, it's implied that all or many of the city's earth-bending inhabitants have learned Toph's ability to detect lies in other people through earth-bending, providing a neat incentive for the residents of Zaofu to never fib. Zaofu is evidently a meritocracy, housing some of the world's finest scientific minds, including a certain Howard Hughes-esque businessman who we haven't seen since the Book 2 finale. Thus, for all intents and purposes, Zaofu is a utopia, most likely following the philosophy of classical liberalism (not to be confused with liberal progressivism), perhaps not intentionally established, and not stated outright by the characters, but definitely meeting much of the criteria.

But here's the catch: Utopia, by its very definition, is imaginary, just like Zaofu is imaginary. But unlike many imagined utopias, Zaofu's status as an ideal society is subtly deconstructed by pointing out one of the principle holes in the proposal of utopia: Who's going to make it all happen?

Many utopias, especially those based on the principles of socialism, profess that given the proper conditions, a classless, stateless society will emerge in which everyone works for the common good. Of course, this has never happened in reality, with attempted experiments with such models resulting in oppressive dictatorships such as Soviet Russia, Maoist China, Revolutionary France, and countless other nasty historical episodes. The main problem with this idea is that human nature is, by default, self-serving and uncharitable. The only way to organize a group of such creatures to work for the common good is through coercion, such as in a dictatorship or an oligarchy. But if that happens, then the ideal of a classless, stateless society is lost, and the whole experiment is for nothing. Due to their inherently faulty natures, the economies produced by socialism and its ilk generally descend into kleptocracy, or in a few extreme cases, anarchy. In many cases across the modern developing world, multiple dictatorships have risen and fallen in succession, calling to mind the French proverb, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." As Lois H. Sargent wrote in her essay "Anyone for Utopia?" in 1977, "Utopians seem never to give thought to the mechanics of management and operation of their imagined systems."
Cincinnatus (519-430 B.C.)

Part of the reason societies like the Soviet Union developed into dictatorships was because the dictators in question typically don't want to relinquish their power. (The rest of the reason for these particular events have to do with a discussion of Communism, which is beyond the scope of this post.) Rare in history is the benign ruler who, when given absolute power in a time of crisis, resists the temptation to take hold of it until someone else can take it back by force. The Roman statesman Cincinnatus (519-430 B.C.) comes to mind, as does George Washington, who refused the opportunity to become King George I of America after the American War of Independence. In the Soviet Union, people like Lenin and Stalin, despite their ostensibly sincere belief in the Communist Utopia, were evil tyrants who used their power to bring about many deaths, if for Lenin it was thousands and Stalin millions. Later Soviet dictators weren't much better, using their power to line the pockets of they and their friends while the people lived in squalor. 

It is this element of corruption which all dictatorships and oligarchs have in common that exposes a chief vulnerability of any kind of utopia. In The Legend of Korra, a principle leader of Zaofu is revealed to have been in league with the villains. The reason this is significant is because it shows that Utopia can't be accomplished as long as there are imperfect humans trying to make things perfect. All civilizations have rulers, and if a ruler is corrupt, the whole civilization will be corrupt along with him. As we have seen, corruption is often the case in dictatorships. Imagine if the aforementioned Zaofu leader had used his position to accumulate illicit wealth, curry favors, accept bribes, or pervert justice for his own ends, which nearly does happen? What would we make of this Utopian community then?

The other big problem with Utopianism, an extension of the problem outlined above, has to do with the nature of government. Government is designed to restrain the corrupted nature of man, as the founders of the United States set out to do, with successful results. The American experiment is unique in that it went about this task by restraining the government; that is, by setting in place certain safeguards, such as separation of powers and elected representatives, so that the government would not grow too big or oppressive. The founders had no illusions, however, that they could produce a perfect society. James Madison, widely known as "the Father of the Constitution," wrote in The Federalist #51, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary." The long and short of it is that there will always be iniquities in any society made up of imperfect men. Even the nation of Israel, whose law codes (forming the first five books of the Bible) were provided by God Himself, and was supposed to be a model for the rest of the world, was a less than perfect society, frequently veering into apostasy, war, civil unrest, and other blights, to the point of being split into two separate kingdoms after the death of Solomon. (See 1 Kings 12)

Oddly enough, Israel in the days of the judges was little more than a loosely federated coalition of tribes led by a council of elders, and yet things were usually just as chaotic then as they were during the period of the kings, if not more so. (See Judges.) Thus, not even a semi-democratic theocracy such at this could bring about Utopia, not by a long shot! If all of this tells us anything, it's that there is no hope of a truly perfect society, not one made by human hands, until the coming of the Lord in His power, when there will be a new Heaven and a new Earth. Imperfect man can never make anything truly perfect, permanent, or stable. This world is, after all, transient and temporary.

In sum, we see from The Legend of Korra than even a society as wonderful and idyllic as that of the Metal Clan is not invulnerable to fault. For all its veneer of Utopia, it is still shown to be fallible in some key respects. It brings to mind another location from Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra's predecessor. This location, the city of Ba Sing Se, is a dystopia controlled by the villainous Grand Secretariat Long Feng, who through the use of the Dai Li, the sinister secret police, claims to be maintaining "an orderly utopia. The last one on Earth." Unfortunately, poor Long Feng is just as deluded as Marx, Wells, and Lenin. The only Utopia to ever exist will come at a time when all of them have faded away, and this one will never fade away: The kingdom of Christ, the Son of the Living God. And unlike any human made utopia, its coming is inevitable and everlasting.

Follow Levi on Twitter at @levi_sweeney, and submit questions and post ideas with the hashtag #QLevi

Image 1 courtesy Image 2 courtesy

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Big Hero 6: The Myth of the Corporate Supervillain

Warning: Minor spoilers for Big Hero 6 lay ahead.

I was pretty excited when Big Hero 6 won this year's Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Not only did it totally deserve it, but it did it while marking a significant milestone in comic book movie history: It is the first adapted superhero property to win an Oscar, the second, after Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight in 2008, to win any Oscar for anything superhero-related. And it really did deserve it. It has a compelling story, a world which was interesting to watch and beautiful to look at, a charming cast of characters to relate to, and some great emotion and deep themes. It even managed to deliver a pretty unique take on several common superhero tropes. It's the last of these that I want to talk about today, specifically concerning the character of Alistair Krei, voiced by Alan Tudyk of Firefly and Serenity fame.

In Big Hero 6, Krei is a businessman who runs the technology company Krei Tech. Krei first appears as an interested party who wants to buy the new robotics technology invented by Hiro Hamada, the film's protagonist. Hiro declines the offer on the advice of his brother Tadashi's mentor, Professor Callaghan, the scene setting up Krei as the film's obvious bad guy. But surprisingly, it turns out to be a red hearing which the  characters as well as the audience buy into. It's also a neat subversion of a trope which has been played out many times before: the Corrupt Corporate Executive.

The Corrupt Corporate Executive is often used in works of fiction as a stock character who is typically bald, fat, smoking a big cigar, or some combination thereof. Quite plainly enough, this character is a corporate executive who engages in villainous activities, which may or may not be related to their profession. Examples readily abound all across fiction, including Lex Luthor of DC Comics, Hiroshi Saito and Varrick from The Legend of Korra, Norman Osborn, Justin Hammer, Bolivar Trask, and whoever is running Roxxon at any given time over at Marvel, and even Jon Spiro from Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl.

Typically, corrupt corporate executives in fiction are greedy, obnoxious, dishonest, and evil. They will go to any lengths to make an extra buck, up to an including everything from cooking the books to mass murder. Some even commit the unpardonable sin of *gasp* making and selling weapons. Obviously, they are usually motivated by monetary gain, and they are typically psychopaths who routinely abuse their employees and customers, and use their vast financial resources to cover up their dirty deeds.

But I have a news flash for writers who like to write corporate bad guys this way: This is not what real corrupt corporate executives, I believe, are even remotely like.

My first objection is a matter of logic: How on earth would someone who does half the things that, say, Lex Luthor does have any hope of succeeding in business? Business is a very teamwork driven industry, and being greedy, obnoxious, dishonest, and evil is not a good way to get people to want to work for you, or for that matter, buy stuff from you. I mean, would you honestly want to do business with Justin Hammer or Jon Spiro, the latter of whom has blatant mob connections and the FBI and CIA breathing down his neck, but still somehow remains a successful businessman? I certainly wouldn't. The notion that people like them stay in business by spreading a bunch of money around is plainly laughable, as it could obviously cost more to bribe their way out of trouble than it would by simply playing by the rules. The International Chamber of Commerce, in a plain statement of the obvious, has said of corruption as related to public relations, "Enterprises seen to be doing business with integrity are more likely to attract and retain highly-principled and motivated employees as well as ethically-oriented investors. In contrast, companies confronted with corruption cases have faced reputational damage."

Secondly, even the corporate executives who are corrupt in the real world aren't out poisoning the reservoir, or knowingly selling dangerous products to the unwitting public, or hiring spandex-clad thugs to intimate business rivals, all of which are crappy business models. The ones that do do things like that get shut down fast or are fined into oblivion, and often for even smaller slights than that. Oddly enough, I can't remember the last time Pfizer poured cyanide into the reservoir for some reason. No, corporations that engage in illegal activity are a bit more mundane in their lawbreaking. The International Chamber of Commerce defines corruption as "the abuse of entrusted power for private financial or non-financial gain. It diverts resources from their proper use, distorts competition and creates gross inefficiencies in both the public and private sectors." It is furthered categorized as bribery, solicitation of bribery, or extortion.

What does this mean? It means that a real life corrupt CEO isn't plunking down bags of cash to hire supervillains to scare his business rival into a buy out, or being overtly hostile during a hostile takeover, or stealing an inventor's property for sinister purposes, as the heroes in Big Hero 6 suspect Krei of doing. At least, not in America. Don't ask me what it's like in China or Venezuela or Brazil, because that's a whole different pie. No, your average corrupt corporate executive is engaging in a little "creative accounting," moving the numbers around to disguise the company's profits. Maybe he's helping the mob launder money if he's a bit more adventurous. If she's a little lower in the hierarchy, it could be embezzling. Bribing a government inspector? It happens. It all boils down to the simple fact that if you're an exec, and you do something illegal, it's not probably not going to made into an movie, and you're going to be unceremoniously carted off to a minimum security prison really, really fast. Which brings us to the next hurdle of being a corrupt corporate executive: anti-corruption programs. 

Most major, profitable companies have some kind of anti-corruption program. Whether these programs are effective or not is debated, but it's a good sign that they exist at all. Even if they aren't particularly good at detecting corruption, when the company begins to go down the tubes thanks to corrupt executives, these guys are usually there to blow the whistle. In short, if anti-corruption programs don't take down a bad exec, the company will implode on its own, kind of like what happened with Enron. The point is, bad behavior among corporate big wigs usually comes back to bite the perpetrators in the end, and as a result is plainly more trouble than it's worth. 

Which brings us back to Krei.

Krei isn't given a whole lot of analysis in the film, largely existing as the aforementioned red hearing. He's affable, ambitious, mildly smug, a little feckless and implicitly intelligent. I mean, he built up his own tech company and was involved in a teleportation project with the military, so he has to be a clever guy. But he's not the film's villain. He doesn't actually do anything illegal, or even wrong. We only know what his "bad" qualities are based on what the film's real villain says about him, and this villain isn't exactly an impartial judge of character. The closest he gets to being bad is a tragic accident in which he was only vestigially responsible for, if only because the film's real villain blames him for it. The point is that he's not a corrupt corporate executive. He's not even such a bad guy! In fact, the only reason that Hiro and his friends think Krei's a bad guy at all is because Fred, their resident comic book geek, points out the villains of a lot of comic books are actually corrupt industrialists. It's a clever and funny way of subverting a by now very tired superhero cliche.

In the end, Big Hero 6 is a fine entry into the Disney animated cannon, being a fun, rollicking, emotionally deep film that sucks you in and keeps you glued to the screen the whole way through. It's beautiful to look at, engaging to watch, and provides fun for the whole family. I wholly recommend it as entertaining, innovative, and uplifting. I'd love to see where they go with a sequel.

Fun fact: This isn't the only animated Disney flick that Alan Tudyk has lent his voice to. He also voiced the slightly more villainous Duke of Weselton in Frozen. Oddly enough, he also voiced Superman in Justice League: War.

Follow Levi on Twitter at @levi_sweeney, and submit questions and post ideas with the hashtag #QLevi

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Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Legend of Korra - Book 3: Change: Zaheer and Moral Syncretism

I'm not gonna lie, Book 3 of The Legend of Korra is easily the best season of the show that I've seen yet. I haven't seen Book 4, however, so I'll have to wait until then to judge whether or not this is in fact the best season yet. A word of warning though: Due to the nature of the post's content, some substantial spoilers regarding Zaheer's motivations will be mentioned.

The Legend of Korra - Book 3: Change is everything that this sequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender was hyped to be from the start: bigger, better, and more beautiful than we've seen yet. Taking place a couple weeks after the events of the sadly mediocre Book 2: Spirits, we see that Harmonic Convergence (long story) left dozens of random non-benders across the world -including Tenzin's brother Bumi- with the ability to airbend. This prompts Korra, Mako, Bolin, Tenzin, Asami, Bumi, and Jinora to embark on a quest to gather the new airbenders and rebuild the Air Nomads from the ground up. Unbeknownst to them, however, a mysterious warrior poet named Zaheer (voiced by Henry Rollins) has broken out of prison under the watch of the strangely incompetent White Lotus, with airbending abilities of his own. He pulls together his own team of elite benders to strike at Team Avatar for enigmatic purposes. Will Korra and company succeed in their quest before Zaheer achieves his mysterious plan? (Good grief, I'm beginning to sound like Shiro Shinobi.)

Aside from the intense emotion, high drama, funny dialogue, stunning visuals, great voice acting, and cool action that is by now par for the course on this show, Book 3 boasts what is quite easily the best villain we've seen yet. Unalaq and Vaatu were just two more generic evil bad guys at the end of the day, and Amon, while getting an awesome build-up, was the victim of a lousy payoff. It didn't help that he and Tarrlok went out kind of stupidly, and don't even get me started on Hiroshi Saito. Zaheer though, Zaheer is a whole different animal. Zaheer is quite easily one of the best TV villains I've seen yet, and the best I've ever seen in an animated series. I'd even say that he's one of the best villains we've seen in the entire Avatar-franchise, up there with Azula, Long Feng, and Ozai. What makes Zaheer such a great villain? Simple: He has the most complex, well-developed, interesting, and well-executed motivation we've ever seen on this entire show, and in my book is tied with Zuko for that category in the entire franchise.

But what is that motivation, and why is it so important to Zaheer's character?

As any seasoned writer who might be reading this blog would know, in a story, character motivation is everything. Without a motivation, a character is just a random blip on the screen with no purpose and no place in the story. They're just there, doing nothing, affecting nothing, and that makes for a pretty boring story. Believe it or not, making up a character motivation is a lot harder than it sounds if you're a writer. I can't begin to tell you of the ribbings I endured in an old creative writing class I took a few years ago that stemmed from my characters having terrible, poorly thought out motivations. Simply put, the better motivation a character has, the better odds he (or she!) has of being a great character. And remember what Zaheer has?

That's the thing about Zaheer though: His motivation is so complex and mysterious that even Korra and the rest of Team Avatar doesn't know what's driving him and his pals until about halfway through the season, and even then it blows their minds even more than it does the audience's. The long and short of it is that the guiding philosophy of Zaheer's group is that the natural order of the world is, in fact, disorder, and that they are on a righteous mission to topple all the world's governments and throw the world into anarchy. Throw in a smattering of humanism, and you've got what amounts to Zen Anarchism, which is probably the most bizarre philosophical label I've ever seen, discussed, or otherwise conceived of.

It's also inherently unworkable.

I don't know exactly what the show's illustrious creators (Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko) were trying to do when they introduced Zaheer, but Zen Anarchism as a practical philosophy is fundamentally irreconcilable with its very self. Zen, insofar as I understand it, is the attainment of wisdom through meditation, which in Eastern philosophical thought is basically thinking really, really hard. Anarchism, on the other hand, advocates for a stateless society where no government exists, based on the premise that any kind of governance only leads to more suffering, which is right where Zaheer stands. But the entities that cherish the obtaining of knowledge and wisdom, such as institutions of higher learning and many religious bodies, are historically shown to be byproducts of an established society in which there exists some sort of governing authority. The environment of peace and safety required to pursue a Zen-like lifestyle is unattainable in an environment of anarchy. As James Madison wrote in The Federalist No. 51, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary." 

If men were angels. The key problem with with Zaheer's outlook is that he's got all backwards. Men aren't angels because of bad governments; certain governments are bad because men aren't angels. One particularly memorable scene from episode 3 of Book 3: Change ("The Earth Queen") features Team Avatar arriving at Ba Sing Se. In an obvious parallel to a similar scene in Book 2: Earth of Airbender, they come into the city, only to find that it's a old, broken down cesspit of poverty and pestilence, ruled over by a despotic dragon-lady of a monarch who bleeds the people of their tax-money and then leaves them to rot. The message: Things haven't changed at all. If anything, they've gotten worse. In universe, the Ba Sing Se of 75-plus years prior was, in Troper parlance, a Crapsaccharine World. At least there was a semblance of order, and things were relatively safe and peaceful. Now, it's a full-on kleptocracy, where the kingdom and its citizens are the chattels of the Earth Queen. 

Does this mean that all government is inherently bad? Not quite. While any human effort to erect a lasting authority based on its own principles, borrowed or invented, is doomed to fail, almost any government is worse than no government. An every-man-for-himself mentality, where the rule of law is defined by who carries the biggest stick, is unquestionably a chaotic nightmare that only a shortsighted fool would really want. Look no further than Somalia. Is Zaheer such a shortsighted fool? He's no dummy, but I think we'll have to wait until Book 4 to find out the real answer to that question, owing to the inevitable consequences of the back half of Book 3: Change.

In short, man was never meant to live apart from his neighbor, a situation which Anarchism cannot resolve. You can talk all you want about mutual cooperation without government, but again, men are not angels. A mirror of the ultimate authority is needed if the ends of God are to be met, that is, if mercy, justice, peace, love, and gentleness are to be the ruling attributes of a society. The common refrain in the book of Judges was, "In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes." Scary, huh? In the book of Romans, Paul wrote, "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God." Jesus Christ himself said in the book of Luke, concerning taxes, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” Zaheer may think he knows what's best for the world, but Korra and company would be happy to know that he's wrong, rightfully rejecting Zaheer's worldview.

In sum, Zaheer has great appeal as a villain. He's smart, cunning, cool, has a complex and compelling motivation, and feels like a flesh-and-blood person. He's not a megalomaniac like Ozai, nor is he a destructive tyrant like Unalaq. He has a lot more in common with Amon than anyone else, even though they fall on two opposite extremes of the ideological spectrum. He even has a girlfriend, for Pete's sake! (Incidentally, I think that "The Earth Queen" features the franchise's first onscreen lip-lock between two consenting adults.) I love how he quotes poetry and airbends like a boss, because he's just that awesome. It helps that he has some real badbutt friends. His "philosophical mumbo-jumbo," as Korra put it, may be unsound, but he's nonetheless a very charismatic villain.

Next time, we'll be talking about another interesting faucet of The Legend of Korra: The Metal Clan.

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