Deserved / Undeserved

If you must only subscribe to one rule in life, "Don't be a jerk" would be a worthy rule. It is a catch all that covers a wide array of sins. Living by the jerk-less mantra would lead to healthier relationships between parents and children, stronger romances between lovers, happier neighbors, lasting valuable friendships, more satisfying employment. Society in general would benefit.

Revelers would not riot after their favorite team won a championship game. Disenchanted populations would not protest (and most likely would not feel disenchanted). Mass shootings would not occur. Racial violence would never be an issue. Political bodies would have productive discourse and they might actually accomplish something worthwhile.

That only happens if everyone aspires to the same goal. Such utopic dreams are only possible if everyone agrees that kindness and justice and faithfulness are more beneficial than power and greed.

Unfortunately, charity and goodwill are not attributes that can be legislated. Governments cannot force its citizens to be pleasant and happy people. No law on earth can compel anyone to act in the interests of others above their own self interest.

As much as I believe generosity and compassion contribute to a better way of living, there is nothing illegal about the opposite. It is perfectly legal to be a scumbag. In this world, there exist law-abiding bigots. There are rude and arrogant people who have never committed a crime.

There are also well-intentioned people who pursue kindness yet screw up and inadvertently come across like a jerk. Everyone makes mistakes.

Where the law has punishments, there are natural consequences for being a jerk. Broken relationships. Failing finances. Ostracization. Overcompensation. A lifetime of regrets. These results often work slow and unseen giving rise to the illusion that the morally corrupt get everything they want while the righteous and innocent suffer.

That is difficult for people like me. I have an over-inflated sense of justice. I want to see people get what they deserve. I enjoy being an agent of instant karma. One of my favorite words is "schadenfreude." However, I will be the first to admit such perspective is not the best method of living life. I could demonstrate more grace (which I do so much more now than I used to). It is a process and change takes time.

Sure, I would love to see victims triumph over their bullies. I would love to see Donald Trump spend half of his fortune on a hopeless presidential campaign. I would love to see dishonest news channels lose viewers and ratings. I would love to see the most haughty athletes, musicians, and actors be humbled. All of which leaves lives in tact. Those are damages which could be repaired.

Somethings cannot be fixed. There are retributions which leave scars of both the literal and figurative variety. Lives have been lost or fractured over the most petty offenses.

Let me be clear, no one deserves to be physically injured for their lack of kindness. No one deserves to be shot for being a pain in the ass. Acting petulant is not a capital crime. No one should ever be killed or wounded for being a jerk.

It is time we stop victim-shaming. It is time we stop sympathizing with people who abuse their power at the expense of others. If a child, student, subordinate, or random citizen is defiant or non-compliant of the request of a person in authority, it is the responsibility of the authority to deescalate the situation - something that is never accomplished through violence.

Whether you are the sheriffs deputy that detained and harassed a couple of kids as if they were drug dealers because they made a joke about Nickleback, a security guard that maced peaceful protesters, a campus resource officer that aggressively wrestled a stubborn kid out of her desk, or a billionaire using your twitter feed to taunt and belittle anyone you think is a loser or hater, you are not solving anything. You are only making matters worse.

If we want a better society, the people best suited to make a positive change are the people with power. We need selfless political leaders. We need good cops to outshine the bad ones. We need parents, teachers, pastors, corporate CEOs, and entertainers who will lead by example. Those with power and authority should rise above expectations and be a catalyst for healing. They need to stop being jerks.


At the coffee shop

Barista: "You want something?"
Me: "I do."
Barista: "One moment" (finishes up someone else's order) "OK, what can I get you."
Me: "I need caffeine."
Barista: (laughs)
Me: "White chocolate, white coffee, mint, iced."
Barista: "Mocha, latte, breve?"
Me: "Surprise me."
Barista: "Four shots?"
Me: "Absolutely."
Barista: (makes drink, hands it to me) "Everyone is super tired today. You too?"
Me: "Yup."
Barista: "Not able to sleep last night?"
Me: "No, just hanging out with friends - stayed out far too late."
Barista: "Ah, self inflicted."
Me: "Yes, it's my own dang fault."

At least I'm willing to admit it. And I regret nothing.

*photo courtesy of Foodspotting


Family Friendly

Sharing music with other people is one of my favorite things. I love introducing friends and strangers to new tunes and old favorites.

Looking back, the most rewarding job I have ever had was as a DJ. I do miss that job. It didn't pay much and it consumed every Saturday night. But it was a lot of fun.

Since quitting that job to raise a family, I have rarely returned to my place behind a mixer. Giving my time to provide the musical entertainment for a friend's or family member's wedding, once for a youth group dance party, and I did it again today for a company party.

When your primary audiences are wedding receptions and school dances, your music selection skews to family friendly selections. Some people surprise me. I am not sure why anyone would want Garth Brooks' Friends in Low Places played at their wedding, but it happens. Or a guest who repeatedly requested AC/DC's You Shook Me All Night Long despite the bride's request for no rock'n'roll (and eventually offered a $20 tip if I played it). Also, I don't care how nicely you ask, I will not play Marvin Gaye's Lets Get It On at a high school prom.

Most crowds are easy. There are some variances, but certain sets of songs that are safe for most groups. Classic rock, country music, and some indie rock for older audiences; punk-pop, top 40, and EMD for younger crowds. As much as I enjoy hip-hop, I avoid playing rap music because, well, language.

Today's company party was a family event. There were hordes of kids running around while their parents socialized. Considering the demographics of those in attendance, most of the music I played was recorded during the 70's and 80's.

Yet some people surprise me.

Folks filtered through the food line while David Bowie's song Changes played over the speakers. One guy made a bee-line from the chili filled slow cookers to my table with a question on his mind.

"Snoop Dogg?" He asked. I thought he was making a joke about the current musical selection.

"No," I answered, "David Bowie. But you're close."

"No, no, no. Can you play Snoop Dogg?" He said.

"Sorry, I don't have any Snoop Dogg with me."

"You don't have any Snoop Dogg?"


"Bummer." Pause. "How about Insane Clown Posse?"

"No. This is a family event. My music is as family friendly as possible."

"Oh. Well that sucks." He then walked away dejected. Not just to sit down and eat his chili, but out the door never to return.

Some people surprise me. Some people have an odd definition of "family friendly."


What Is Pop Culture?

The fifth week of class was my favorite. We looked at the emerging trends in comics that appeared in the 60s and 70s that have stuck around through today's books. In our assignment, we had define pop culture and determine if it is something that was created in the 1960s.

In the simplest definition, pop culture (pop being short for popular) is about the thoughts and ideas that drive a culture – primarily in the realms of popular arts and entertainment. Pop culture is formed by the trends, sounds, and images that shape the opinions and attitudes of large swaths of a populace.

With that perspective, pop culture could exist in any era of history. In theory the gladiatorial games during the 1st and 2nd century could be deemed pop culture of the era as it was designed to entertain the masses of the Roman Empire. However, in ancient times and through most of the Middle Ages, entertainment was a luxury that was only afforded to a select few. What we could classify as popular during their time would not have been available to anyone with a nomadic lifestyle, or the slaves, the farmers, and the lowest members of society. Culture was reserved for the elite: emperors, kings and queens, and wealthy merchants.

By the time history reaches the Renaissance era, we begin to notice a division of high culture to entertain the aristocrats, and low culture for the commoners. It is during this time that the Catholic Church was commissioning artists like Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni and Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci to create masterpieces of art – paintings and sculptures to adorn St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican and other cathedrals across Europe. Art was paid for by the bishops, cardinals, and popes of the church to shape the culture and to influence the monarchs.

Yet as technology and practices in agriculture, worker’s crafts, and metallurgy improved, coupled with better living conditions and increased health, peasants of the Renaissance era possessed more recreational time than many of their stature in prior generations. They began to seek out their own form of entertainment. While high society would entertain themselves with masquerades and balls, the common people would attend festivals and gather at the tavern. Soon they would find their own version of culture, often venues of entertainment considered too low brow for the upper classes of society. Writers like William Shakespeare (and later Charles Dickens) catered to these lower class tastes – and it is their work that has endured due to their popularity among the poorer and larger segments of culture.

All history considered the term popular culture did not come into use until Dickens’ time. The industrial revolution gave common citizens more spare time, more opportunities for education, and greater desire for entertainment. This gave rise to minstrel shows and vaudeville. Improved technology moved the forms of mass entertainment to radio, magazines, movies, and television. During the first half of the 20th century, comic books began to be an influencing medium of popular culture.

From the folk songs sung in medieval taverns, to the traveling Wild West shows in the American frontier, to Marvel Comics’ first Fantastic Four issue in 1961, the common thread of all pop culture is that it was never intended to entertain the highest echelons of society. Pop culture was always meant to reflect the attitudes and values of the ordinary people, common folks. It was always a dumbed down version of what was available to the upper class.

Clearly, pop culture has existed long before modern times. However, the cultural revolution of the 1960’s transformed how all of society viewed pop culture. During the sixties, pop culture was mainstreamed more than it ever had been before. Certain elements found simultaneous success as both high and low culture. The creators and innovators of pop culture began to be more influential. Through Beatlemania, artists like Andy Warhol, filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, and the musicians who performed in front of 400,000 people at Woodstock, the art and ideas of pop culture were at the forefront of shaping history.

What makes the sixties unique when looking at modern pop culture is the decade’s lasting impact. If you trace the lines of who influenced who, most musicians can point to The Beatles (either directly or indirectly) as their inspiration. Today’s directors can trace their influences to movies from Stanley Kubrick, Sergio Leone, Alfred Hitchcock and their work from the sixties. Current comic books (and the related cinematic universes) owe their heritage to the teamwork between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby at Marvel, and the revival of the Justice League of America at DC during the sixties.

More than any other era of history, the sixties have left a bigger footprint. Many of the legendary figures we see in the movies, watch on TV, and read in comic books have roots in the revolutionary culture of the sixties.


Superheroes in the Age of McCarthy

In our fourth week of class, we studied the gap between the golden and silver ages of comic books. This was a time of declining sales and American fear. In our assignment we looked at how the government, educators, and the medical profession viewed comic books and whether the Comic Code Authority fixed things or made it worse.

World War II had ended, but America was far from being a nation at peace. The USA was in a nuclear arms race against the USSR and many Americans were caught up in a red scare – believing Communists could be lurking in every neighborhood and plotting their scheme to destroy the American people. During this time, the common citizen raising a family found another threat to the American way of life: kids being kids and teenagers doing what teenagers do. The boisterous behaviors of minors were interpreted as juvenile delinquency.

The leaders in both suburban living and global politics were afraid of shifting dynamics. When people in power face fear, they do what comes easiest – they find something to blame. The targets for these post-war fears were Communism and comic books.

Like witchcraft, heavy metal, and violent video games have been subject to blame for deviant behavior in other eras of American history, comic books were an easy scapegoat. The tales told in comics were becoming more varied – no longer about patriotic heroes fighting against the Nazis. Comic pages were beginning to include lascivious scenes, and stories of horror or crude humor. The older generation did not comprehend what comic books were or why young people found them so entertaining. They did what has happened many times in America, people villainized that which they did not understand.

The biggest response out of the medical profession was the book ‘Seduction of the Innocent’ by Dr. Fredric Wertham. The claims in his book lead to the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. The government and medical treatment of comic books during the era of McCarthyism was little more than a witch hunt that preyed on the paranoid fears of the times. Much of the evidence presented was done in a manner of confirmation bias – the harder they looked to find something wrong with comic books, the more likely they were to find something that matched their preconceptions.

photo courtesy of Comic Book Justice

The comic book industry had been branded as subversive and they made attempts to promote their educational value with little success. Some educators may have seen value in comic books as a resource, but the scare tactics of the US Senate and Dr. Wertham proved far more convincing and schools predominantly avoided the use of comics.

Advertising educational benefits was not the only attempt the comics industry made to save itself. Many heroes like Superman rebranded their image to promote good health and family values. Yet the comic book audience shrank, attacks against them for series like Tales from the Crypt continued, and the industry was facing the possibility of government regulation. To prevent government interference, the Comics Magazine Association of America created the Comics Code Authority as a way for the industry to censor itself.

At the beginning, the CCA saved the comic book industry. It provided an opportunity for self governance so that publishers, writers, and artists could work within a known construct without government control. But anything that is good could turn bad eventually, and I feel that is what happened with the Comics Code Authority.

courtesy of Head Stuff

A few publishers found the CCA liberating, but others struggled. Publishers who could not find ways to adapt completely went out of business. There were two major publishers that rebelled against the CCA and published their titles without the CCA seal. And yet another – Educational Comics, converted their Mad Comics title into a magazine format to avoid the CCA restrictions.

Individual artists and writers struggled to work with the Comics Code Authority. All books had to be submitted to the CCA to be screened for approval. Anything that did not pass CCA review was sent back to be revised. For many comic creators, this increased their workload. Those who could adapt stayed, but many quit and went to work for other mediums within the publishing industry. In the long run, it paid off. The CCA was revised several times and eventually abandoned. Readership stuck with the industry through the changes and rebuilt the industry into an empire.


The Religion that Created Comic Book Heroes

The third week of my class analyzed the early writers and artists that helped build the comic book industry. They were predominantly Jewish immigrants or first generation American Jews. Our assignment was to determine why Jewish Americans found success in comic books and how other religions influenced the industry.

During the first half of the 20th century, Jewish immigrants coming to the United States faced strong discrimination and antisemitism. As minorities and outsiders, they worked to build their own industry in places where negative attitudes of society would not have accepted them. This led to Jewish dominance in the film and banking worlds as well as the creation and increased popularity among comic books.

Comic book publishers started by reprinting backlogged Sunday comic strips, but quickly ran out of material they could use. They needed new characters and original stories. Rival publishing companies began hiring young writers to make content for the comic book marketplace; in order to compete they looked for talent who couldn’t find work elsewhere. These writers were often Jewish because of antisemitic practices in mainstream publishing and media.

The early Jewish immigrants and first generation Jewish Americans were perfectly suited to create the superheroes we still love today. Their religious heritage was filled with epic stories of men and women who were heroes of their faith. They grew up learning of Jacob wrestling with God, Joseph sold into slavery then rising into a position of power under Pharaoh’s command, Moses leading their people out of Egypt, the prostitute Rahab helping smuggle Hebrew spies out of the city of Jericho, David slaying the giant Goliath, and Esther who married a Persian King and saved the Israelites from the schemes of the King’s grand vizier. In comics, they created mythical heroes that could rival the legendary stature of the stories they were taught from the Torah and other scriptures.

Their position as an American minority also helped shape comic book characters. While most of the superheroes were not overtly Jewish characters, the culture that created them are evident. Steve Roger’s diminutive size before taking the super soldier serum played into Jewish stereotypes. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster designed Superman as an outsider who would be a champion for the American people; this showed how possible it was for culture to embrace an alien in both the literal and figurative sense. Many of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s characters embraced this dichotomy of being a hero and an outsider at the same time: Thing, Spider-Man, and The Hulk. This approach is most easily demonstrated through the X-Men – as mutants they were born different just like Jews were born into a different culture. The X-Men also portrayed a group of heroes who fought to help and protect people who feared them, much the same way most antisemitism was rooted in fear.

photo courtesy of Marvel Comics via Adherents.com

The early comic books were written by more than just Jewish immigrants. Part of the explosion and growth of the industry was due to writers coming from a multitude of religious and ethnic backgrounds. However, Christian authors had a different approach to comic books. For many of them, they saw comic books as a tool for evangelism or created books marketed solely to Christian audiences as an alternative to the more recognizable and popular heroes. These titles, like George A. Pflaum’s Treasure 'Chest of Fun & Fact' or Educational Comic’s 'Picture Stories from the Bible' couldn’t compete with bigger titles like Batman and Iron Man. Christian themed comics had a smaller share of the market and struggled in sales.

However, Christianity’s influence is seen in the world of Superheroes – even in characters created or written by Jewish authors. Batman, Nightcrawler, Daredevil, and Bruce Banner all have Catholic backgrounds. Superman’s adoptive family was Methodist. Protestant origins have been written into Spider-Man and Captain America’s stories. Regardless of whether or not Christian writers are involved in the creation of comic book heroes, their religious dominance in America will be felt in the pages of comic books as it is an art-form that largely reflects American culture.


Superheroes in the Depression Era

The second week of class reviewed the young comic book industry and how it blossomed during the Great Depression. Our assignment was to explain why comics thrived during that era of history.

When looking at the depression era, many Americans view the 1930s through distorted lenses of revisionist history. We have romanticized the existence of mobsters, speakeasies, and bootlegged liquor. This Hollywood version of the Great Depression does not reflect the harsh reality many Americans faced during those years; the trials of the average citizen inspired and helped spur the proliferation of the earliest comic books.

The consumers of that day were facing rough times. Banks were failing, construction work slowed, wages plummeted, and farmers faced severe drought. The number of unemployed workers ranged from 13 to 15 million, many of whom became homeless. Due to prohibition laws, the criminal element in cities flourished. They took advantage of tough economic times and preyed on those all ready devastated by financial downturn. But these were not the idols we see in film; they were the most wanted by law enforcement. Many people were harassed, violated, and intimidated by the mafia. People feared them and believed that there was nothing the police could do to control the mob.

Comic books provided these people the possibility that a hero could exist to fight for them and stand against these violent criminals that controlled their communities. In poverty, Americans found comic books readily accessible; the comics were cheap and distributed through newsstands. Kids who were not old enough to work understood the struggles their parents faced and comic books gave them the perfect method to escape and hope for something better than their current circumstances.

photo courtesy of The History Rat


Ancient Mythologies & Modern Superheroes

As mentioned in my previous post, most of my August and September was wrapped up in a Smithsonian/edX pop culture class. To be honest, it has been a little hard getting my feet back under me since then. There are Seahawks games to watch. Kids who need help with homework. Extra time devoted to exercise and healthier cooking. And it really feels good not not be writing for a few days. Nice little break. Until I get my groove back, allow me to share what I composed for my class.

The first week was about the beginning of the comic book industry. We talked about the first heroes to make their way into pulp magazines and how the comic creators found inspiration in the gods and demigods of Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology. Our first assignment was to find similar inspirations behind our favorite heroes (or villains or anti-heroes). The first of my geeky course work begins below.

The comic book characters that I am drawn to are those that wrestle with issues of faith and spirituality. Using their superpowers to fight against super villains often contradict their religious tenets; the conflict between their belief in pacifism and the moral responsibility to protect those who cannot protect themselves creates a tortured soul that I find endlessly fascinating.

One of my favorite characters frequently faces tension between being a hero and a man of God: Nightcrawler. As a mutant, Nightcrawler's abnormal features have been evident since birth. He has furry blue skin, yellow eyes, pointy ears, fangs, three fingered hands, and a long arrow tipped tail. Despite being a devout Catholic and his studies to become a priest, most people are afraid him because of his demonic appearance.

Nightcrawler's abilities make him an expert in combat and stealth tactics. Agile, flexible, and dexterous. He has heightened sense of balance and night vision. He can blend into shadows. But his most noticeable power is the ability to teleport short distances by briefly slipping through an alternate dimension.

In mythology, many gods were known for showing up out of nowhere but these sudden arrivals were not ascribed to teleportation. However, Islamic tradition (also found in earlier Persian and Arabic mythology) describe an order of beings that were able to teleport. These creatures were called djinn.

The djinn were beings somewhere between angels and demons. They were created by God – granted intelligence and free will like humans. With free will, djinn could be either benevolent or evil. They were often thought be the source of power for magicians and fortune tellers.

The Quran states the djinn live in an unseen world and were made of smokeless fire that could exist in both the physical and non-physical realms. Reports of their tangible form varied from dragons, to dogs, to the shape of men. Muslim lore lists the djinn as one of five different types of demons and describes them as travelling ceaselessly. Aladdin's story in Arabian Nights tell of djinns able to transport themselves from the Orient to Northern Africa in an instant.

The djinn serve as a perfect model for Nightcrawler. Djinn were of the order of demons, and Nightcrawler possesses a demonic appearance. He shares intelligence and free will with the djinn, and chooses to be altruistic. When travelling with Wolverine, Nightcrawler frequently engages in practical jokes much like the djinns that assisted magicians. The teleporting ability mirrors that of the tale from Arabian Nights. The unseen world of the djinn is similar to the alternate dimension that Nightcrawler uses to teleport. When teleporting, he disappears in a cloud of atmosphere that smells like brimstone; matching the smokeless fire of Islamic scripture.

The djinn have other connections in the Marvel universe - primarily Nightcrawler's parents.

Mystique was his mother. Like Nightcrawler, Mystique’s skin was blue and she was frequently considered a demon by locals. However, she is a shape shifting mutant that can alter her physical appearance. This mirrors the myths of djinn that could change their form. She uses her ability to mislead and fool unsuspecting people like the djinn’s use of magic. Her djinn like powers give her the ability to blend into the shadows by camouflaging herself. Mystique is given the same options to be good or bad just like the djinn. While she spends most of her life as a villain, she occasionally uses her power to help others and even temporarily joins the X-Men as a heroine.

Nightcrawler’s father, Azazel, has the most direct connection to the djinn. His name was taken from ancient Hebrew scripture. In apocryphal tradition, Azazel is a fallen angel and leader of other rebellious angels called Watchers. In Muslim culture, Azazel is an early name for Iblīs. Iblīs was a djinn who rebelled against God by refusing to bow down to Adam and was the one who tempted Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. Iblīs is the devil of Islam and the leader of Shayṭān djinn.

In comics, Azazel is the leader of the Neyaphem – demonic mutants from biblical times. His intentions are the same as Iblīs: to do evil. Azazel’s appearance is similar to Nightcrawler – only with red skin. And both characters share the ability to teleport. Azazel also shares Mystique’s power to disguise his appearance. And he inherited Iblīs’ immortality and ability to manipulate minds.

The mythology around djinn does not reveal much weakness. They seem to be all powerful creatures, yet their power does not extend to be greater than God’s. Marvel’s Azazel experiences this weakness first hand as an angelic army of mutants known as Cheyarafim defeated the Neyaphem and banished them to an alternated dimension.

For Mystique and Nightcrawler, having the demonic appearance of djinn is one of their biggest weaknesses. For this reason, people fear them and both have faced existential crises reconciling their purpose with their image. Mystique used that struggle in nefarious ways, but Nightcrawler pursued God and turned his weakness into a quest to be a force of good.

* Image courtesy of Marvel Comics Database