Thursday, January 24, 2008

Facing the Reaper

"You get what everyone gets. You get a lifetime." ~ Death, THE SANDMAN, "The Sound of Her Wings" by Neil Gaiman.

I faced my mortality in a new way last night. The character I role played in our Dungeons and Dragons game died.

I turned 60 last October. I have a slightly enlarged heart, which is not life-threatening but does cause high blood pressure. Roulette has me on a low sodium diet because sodium causes water retention which exacerbates HBP. I need to exercise more, as fat shoving against organs and heart also raises blood pressure. That diagnosis didn't affect me much. Even the passing of Luta's brother didn't hit home as far as my own mortality was concerned. It took the death of an imaginary character to do that.

You have to understand, the way most RPGers play it's search the dungeon, kill the monster, find the treasure, repeat. Our amazingly talented and inventive DM (1) Orryn calls that a dungeon crawl, or Orc-and-pie (2), and when we role play, we role play. We create backstories and personalities for our characters. I played Taryn Darkeyes, girl thief (3) and tomb raider.

Here's Taryn's story:

"Mellisande Flesk was born to a wealthy family of Alchemists, a bright, blonde and black-eyed child. As is so often the case, prosperity was no guarantee of happiness. Mellisande's mother was narcissistic, self-absorbed and more concerned with her rank, social standing and money than with her three children. Her father disappeared when she was eight. Her older brother had become reclusive and secretive.

"Mellisande despised her father and her brother as weaklings. The only person she cared anything for was her little sister Kylie, although even they were never close. At age 15 she pilfered some of her brother's necromantic artifacts and scrolls and sold them to a sorcerers' guild. She stashed most of her profits in a cave known only to her.

"When Mellisande was 17, Kylie was struck with a wasting illness. She half suspected it was brought on by neglect and depression, but she returned to her cave, took some of her loot and bought rare medicines for Kylie. These she presented to her mother, who at the time was planning to attend a gala festival in a distant kingdom, and was intent on debuting her coming-of-age daughter there. Mellisande wanted nothing to do with it. She hid out in her cave. After one month, she returned home. She found that her younger sister had died. Her mother, absorbed by her plans for the festival, had never given Kylie the medications.

"Mellisande knew she could not stay there another minute. She helped herself to a few sacksful of the family riches and left for good.

"No sooner had she reached the nearest city than she was set upon by a local gang, beaten and robbed of all but the profits she had stashed in her cave. She limped back to the cave to heal. She lived two years in the wood, leaving her cave only for occasional forays for supplies. She picked up a few wilderness skills and learned to be self sufficient. Finally she went to the city to live as a street thief. After several run-ins with the law, she apprenticed herself to a local thief. In her spare time she learned to appraise magical relics for their resale value, and changed her name and looks.

"Mellisande was now Taryn Darkeyes, and she used one of her father's potions to permanently dye her yellow hair black. By age 25 she has travelled far from her erstwhile home. Taryn specializes in stealing and reselling magical artifacts. She carries several weapons she uses to intimidate bigger, stronger foes -- not to say that she isn't good at using them as well. She is resolved to be tougher than anyone she knew and to survive at all costs.

"She has no use for laws, loyalties or morals. Taryn worships no gods. The only ones she has any respect for are gods who represent nature and travel."

I gave her a pretty miserable life.She started the game as a bitter and lonely person, joined the adventurers' party in hopes of earning enough money and finding enough salable magic items to retire away from the world. My eventual plans were to retire her after the adventure as a druid, at peace in the forest.

She died in a battle suddenly and unexpectedly, taking cold damage from monsters called frostshades, fell unconscious and failed the final dice throw. She never even got to say any sarcastic last words.

We have a board at Prismatic Tsunami where we post in character. I wrote down her imaginary last words. I didn't expect to publish another fiction piece so soon after last week's but I'll let you read it. Remember Taryn is as much an atheist as you can be in a world where the gods are real.
So, I'm dead. Didn't see that coming.

Where am I? It looks like an endless plane of ash, flat, no mountain, hill or crevice as far as I can see. No stars in the sky. Nothing moving; nothing here to move. Is this where you go when you've abandoned all the gods, the ones who punish and those who comfort?

All I ever wanted out of death was rest.

What am I? A shade, an immortal soul, the last sparks of thought in a dying brain?

Don't know how the gang's gonna make it without me. Ah, who am I kidding? Ji will get them through. He's the only one who believes in something besides himself, er, herself. Arathorn, despite his delusion that he's the boss of us, is a survivor. Arathorn. We never liked each other,yet it was Arathorn who carried my body out and did his best to revive me. Ulfgar can blunder through anything and Aust will never get close enough to peril to be in real danger.

They'd better miss me, though.

Hell, I'll miss me.

I hope they can use my magic stash. Well of course they will. That bunch'll loot my body before it's cold.

Cold. That's odd. I died of cold but I don't feel cold now. I don't feel anything.

What's that over there?

Is that -


Farewell, Taryn.

It wasn't till I composed that piece that it hit me how close to being me Taryn was. I went to bed last night, started to compose Taryn's post, and could not sleep for tears.

When I fail my final dice roll, it'll probably be like hers - never knowing what hit me. It occurs to me that if I don't get any last words in I'd better let my friends and family know now how much I love and respect them, and that I'm happy with my life here and now.

It's not silly to me mourning a make believe character, because I don't think she's the only one I'm mourning.

What did Taryn see?

Could have been anything, an eddy in the ash, a tear in her eye, oblivion roaring in, a god, a soul-devouring monster, or Kylie. I'm not telling because I don't know. God or an afterlife may be in doubt, but I believe there is always Mystery.

As Heinlein said in THE NOTEBOOKS OF LAZARUS LONG: "Soon enough you will know."

(1) Dungeon Master, the person who runs the game.
(2) Monster and reward.
(3) A thief in D&D is the character who uses stealth, opens locks and disarms traps.

Monday, January 14, 2008

A Shark's Tale

Something different this week. An online group I'm in is trying to put together an anthology of new stories about old comic book characters. I submitted this one. When I realized that it had some of the mythological and philosophical elements we discuss on the blog, plus a dash of Richard Bach, I decided to post the story here.

This is a first draft, and there's no assurance the project will get off the ground. The characters are in the public domain as far as I know.

So, for your consideration, "A SHARK'S TALE" starring The Shark and the Magician from Mars:

He awoke with a shudder, coughing and spitting up salty water.

"Sit up, son," rumbled a rough-hewn man's voice. "You'll drown yourself all over again."

At the same time he felt gentle palms resting on his bare shoulder and the back of his neck where water ran down from his wet hair. He was lifted gently to a sitting position. There was a sudden pain in his right side. A hand - definitely not one of the soft ones that had helped him up - pounded his back heavily and he coughed again, but no more of the ocean poured out.

He noticed his nakedness except for a pair of latex trunks. "Where's my wetsuit?"

"Had to remove it," the man's voice said. "Too much blood."

"It was necessary, in order to treat the wound." The second voice was a woman's, calm, confident, reassuring. Just listening to her, even before her words sank in, made him feel like everything was all right.

He looked up for the first time. The man leaning over him was also in swim trunks, but he did wear one other thing. A mask. A freaking mask. It was a silly thing to have on in the middle of springtime, nowhere near Hallowe'en even if they celebrated it in this country. Somehow, though, it didn't look silly on him. It was somehow impressive, like an aquatic Lone Ranger. The man had a full, though not long, beard shot through with iron grey.

When he turned to look at the woman beside him his side flared in pain.

"Ahhh! Hell! What was that?" He leaned to take the weight off his side. "What took a bite out of me?"

"Tuna fisherman," the masked man said with a slight smile.

Zak paused. Memory lost to the blur of pain swam back. Yeah. The fishing boats. We were ... where's the rest of us? Fear left his tongue suddenly dry. "Haddie ... Karl ... Allie ... "

"We'll take care of them," the man said. "We brought you here because you needed treatment and ... we have something to tell you. You took a spear in the side."

He sensed more than felt the woman's light touch on his shoulder. He turned just his head this time to protect the side that hurt.

" ... because you stayed to defend your friends," she told him. "It was a very noble thing to do."

He didn't quite register her words because her face had caught him from the moment he saw her. She was beautiful in earthy and unearthly ways at once. Her dress was exotic.

"Are you all right, Zak?"

"Hah!" came from the masked man. "She still doesn't know the effect she has on people. Especially boy people. Sorry, son."

The use of his name had snapped Zak out of it. "How do you - no, who are you people?"

"Ever hear of The Shark?" the man asked in a slightly offended tone.

"You're The Shark," Zak stated with a yeah-right inflection. "The Shark is a myth, a seagoing urban legend."

The man shook his head ruefully. "I wasn't a legend during the war. A mystery man, sure, but everybody who read the papers or watched the newsreels knew about me. The enemy sure knew The Shark! I messed up Nazi and Japanese naval plans pretty good."

"The Shark. Is real."

"Course, I've been under a lower profile since then. Myths tend to fade when people stop believing. There's been a distinct lack of mad scientists and Martian invasions these days, and the latest war ... let's just say deserts aren't my area of operations." The Shark - against his stubborn will, Zak was starting to accept him as that - paused in what seemed like a haze of nostalgia. "But I keep busy. There's still crime on the seas, pirates, smugglers, whatnot. And shipwrecks and disasters. I was in New Orleans helping survivors, but I got a lot of dirty looks because I hadn't averted Katrina. Some even blamed me for her."

"Huh," Zak responded. "Even The Shark can't be everywhere." He continued to amaze himself, but somehow there was no doubt left in him that this man was The Shark. The freaking Shark!

He turned carefully to the woman, who now knelt beside him. "And who's she - Super Ann?"

"She's our Martian invader," The Shark rapped, with only a glint in his masked eyes betraying his humor. "They make 'em cuter these days."

"Shark!" the woman reprimanded. To Zak, "I should heal you now."

Zak glanced at the red-soaked dressing on his side. The red was deepening, and he felt dizzy. The pain was like fire when he shifted even slightly.

The woman was looking calmly at the wound. She didn't do much, just sort of waved her hands at it. Zak couldn't help staring at that amazing face and form, so intent on her that he didn't even feel the pain ... No. Wait. He DIDN'T feel any pain. It was gone and he barely even remembered it. He looked down and saw his own intact, bare flank.

"The dressing's gone," he murmured. He seemed more surprised at that than the raw, bloody wound being completely healed.

"I'm not a Martian invader," the woman said with tolearnt amusement. "You probably don't know me, my career on Earth was even shorter than The Shark's. I was the Magician from Mars ... ?"

Zak gave her a blank look. She laughed.

"Never heard of me, huh? I had to return to Mars in the early forties. Trouble with the green Martians. My sister was instigating again. I had to enlist the aid of my ... " Her face lit in a radiant grin. " ... finny friend here; he'd fought green Martians on earth before."

Zak looked even blanker after the explanation. "Your sister is a green Martian? You're not green. Unless that's 'green' as in ecologically friendly, am I babbling?"

"Oh, no ... There are two species on Mars, not just one human race with minor differences like on Earth. The greens are a whole different branch of evolution. They tried to invade Earth in the forties, but The Shark stopped them. My sister, who goes by The Hood, was a revolutionary among the human Martians. She tried to enlist the greens to her cause. Am I going too fast for you?"

The Martian woman paused. Zak was trying his best to take all this in.

"I was born Jane Gem35. My father was Martian and my mother was Earth human. Somehow their combination of genes plus exposure to a certain ray gave me the ability to ... alter reality. Like magic. I put down my sister's plans on Mars, then visited Earth and helped in your World War II. When she returned from the 'dead' and joined with the greens I went back."

Zak looked from The Shark to the Magician from Mars. "Wait, wait! There's no life on Mars. The Mariner probes - "

Jane smiled. "Alter reality?"

"Oh. Yeah. So, the greens are evil?"

"No ... oo ... " the Magician replied softly. "Most greens and humans are decent, peaceful people. As with certain groups like your Muslims on Earth, a few crazy radicals give them a bad name. The worst thing such zealots do is not their acts of violence, but the hatred they brew among peoples who would otherwise be friends. But we've settled all that since the forties: Mars is at peace now."

Zak was rubbing his soggy hair, feeling his scalp for bumps. Nothing. Maybe he wasn't suffering from a concussion.

Okay. This was real. But there were other realities too. Nasty ones.

"Haddie ... my friends," he grated. "They ambushed us. Spear guns and hooks! They were going to kill us."

"You were protesting the slaughter of dolphins," The Shark said.

"Peacefully," Zak amended. "We were unarmed."

"Of course," the Magician from Mars said levelly. "And you were doing more good than you know. Dolphins are as sentient as we are! But to the fishermen they are dumb animals, and their livelihood is in their catch."

"They shouldn't be allowed to kill sentient beings!" Zak interrupted. "Liveelihood or no livelihood."

"We're with you," The Shark said, arms folded over his chest. "Protector of the seas and all. The fishing crews were trying to scare your people off. Once it gets out of hand, violence likes to escalate. I don't know what set if off, but you took the first spear."

Zak looked shocked.

"When you spouted blood and fell into the sea ... well, they're rough men and they won't want witnesses."

"Did they - ?"

The Shark cut him off grimly. "Nobody did anything since you disappeared, thanks to Jane."

"I suspended time," the Magician said almost in embarassment. "But when I let it go again, they'll try to silence them."

"But you're gonna save them, right?"

"No," said The Shark.

"You are," said the Magician from Mars.

Zak was getting tons of experience practicing his blank stare.

"Tell him!"

The Shark unfolded his powerful arms. "I'm getting old. Did you ever hear how I became The Shark?"

At Zak's head shake he went on.

"There's been a Shark since there were oceans. Neptune selected the first one. Since then - "

"Neptune," Zak stated.

"Neptune." The Shark nodded. "Since then when a Shark is ready to retire, he assumes the role of Neptune and picks the next Shark. I got selected in 1939 and I've been going since then. Fighting Martians, sea monsters, looney scientists, dictators, pirates, disasters. I'm ready to neptune out."

"Oh, great," Zak muttered. "And I'm the Chosen One. The Buffy of the Seven Seas."

It was the Martian woman's turn to try on a blank gaze.

"Cultural quip," The shark said wryly. Back to Zak, "We picked you because you are already started. You love the seas. You fight against the polluters and slaughterers of sea life."

"But not wearing a mask and ... and swim trunks, and bashing heads! I'm not exactly a man of action."

"No," mused The Shark. "You are a man of learning. You know science and technology and legalese, and you have thev guts to take on the people who'd spill them for you. The big monsters these days are the pig-headed politicians and the greedy conglomerates that'd despoil the seas, and the world, for profit."

"Don't rant," shushed the Magician from Mars. To Zak, "That makes you the perfect Shark."

"With a few super powers tossed in," The Shark grinned.

Zak stared sharply at him. "Super powers like what?"

"Your basic defender of the deep tricks. Breathing under water of course. Strength, super-fast swimming, commanding sea creatures, teleporting from one body of water to another."

"You're kidding."

"Nope. All you leave behind is a little puddle of water."

Zak shook his head in disbelief, not at what The Shark said but at the ease with which he was accepting it.

"So are we gonna rescue my friends now or what?"

"I thought we'd take you to the Shark's Teeth - "

"Shark's Teeth."

"Your new domain, son. Give you a few months' training, then Jane'll let time go, you teleport in and - "

"Hold it. Training, that's fine, super powers good too, the whole Shark gig sounds decent, but how am I supposed to concentrate on training when my friends are in danger?"

"Time is stopped!" The Shark repeated, exasperated. "You could train for years and they'd still be safe until she sets it in motion again."

"Shark," the Magician soothed. "He's right. We can't expect him to focus until he knows his friends are safe." She looked at Zak. "I can send you to them now. Are you ready?"

"Doesn't matter!" Zak rapped. "Do it."

"I will. But not as Zak." She raised an arm in his direction.

Zak didn't feel a thing, but when he looked down he saw himself wearing the costume of The Shark. He lifted his hands, felt the blue mask across his face. He did seem stronger, more powerful. He stared at his hand, flexing his fingers. They were webbed.

"I'm going to transport you now," the Magician warned. "Shark and I will teleport ourselves. Go!"

And Zak saw blue ocean over his head and darker blue below him. He had no difficulty breathing. He hurled himself at the surface above and came bursting out of the sea in a spout of water, to the scene he last remembered.

Twilight. Haddie, Karl and Allie were on a slime-slick rocky point above a sudden fall to the sea. A motley mob armed with spearguns, pikes hooks and scowls faced them. The fishermen had come around the point on some tall rocks that jutted from the deep below them.

Everybody's eyes turned to the sudden sound from the sea. The wave from zak's appearance washed them with salt spray. One of the fishing crew pointed a shaky arm at him and yelled, "Oceaan duivel!"

Zak astounded himself by plummeting down onto the rocks in front of the fishermen and landing on his feet without losing his balance.

"Back off," he said calmly. "There's no need for violence. The guy you hit with the spear is all right and he's not going to be pressing charges."

The mob roiled in anger and confusion.

He heard Karl yell, "They don't understand you!"

"I can tell them!" Allie cut in. She shouted something that sounded like gibberish to Zak, but he remembered that she knew the local language.

Her words didn't seem to impress the seamen. They waved or aimed their weapons. Zak tensed. He fixed his gaze on the angry fishermen and noticed something in the water beyond them.

Fins. Real shark fins. The fishermen were on a lower strand of rocks that the sea water lapped against. The sharks circled just beyond the rocks. Zak wondered. He couldn't summon sharks. Yet. The Shark and the Magician from Mars must be around here someplace.

"They may not understand us," he said over his shoulder. "But they'll understand them." He pointed behind the mob's backs.

Yells of terror and anger erupted from the men. The rocks trailed back away from Zak and his group into shallows and then sandy shore, and the fishermen scrambled for it.

They halted on the safety of the sand and threw vile looks and curses back at him. Then they bran, vanishing around the rock precipce.

Allie retained enough composure to yell, "Where's Zak? Who are you?"

"Zak's fine. He'll be away for a while. I ... had to take him to a treatment center, he'll contact you when he's able."

"But who are you?" Karl demanded.

Zak wished he had a silver bullet or a shark's tooth to hand them. "You ever hear of The Shark?"

"The Shark? The folk hero from the forties?" Karl answered.

"No!" Haddie and Allie replied almost in unison.

Zak tensed himself to dive. He waved a half salute at the group and said, "You will."

He hit the sea feeling more at peace than ever in the green-blue depths. Glancing about on a whim he saw The Shark swimming powerfully at his right side and the Magician from Mars encased in a transparent shimmering sphere to his left.

The Sharks Teeth turned out to be a series of interlocking underocean caverns where Sharks were trained and based. They emerged into dry air inside the caves.

"You two are dripping," the Magician frowned. She waved her arm and they were dry.

The Shark looked different. He no longer wore the blue mask but a longer whiter beard and red trunks.

He's Neptune now, Zak thought. God help us, this is all real. He's not The Shark any more, I am.

I'm the freaking Shark.

"Let me get this straight, um, Neptune. You're going to train me to turn into a puddle?"

Neptune laughed. "Takes practice, son. Lots of practice."

Zak looked at the Magician. She was so beautiful but, "Aren't you his age?" he asked. "You look, what, eighteen? Twenty?"

She smiled a little wickedly. "Magic," she smiled.

"How do you do it? Reset reality? Can you train me to do that?"

"I'm afraid not. It's partly in my mixed Earth-Martian DNA. But it's also spomething that your Hindu holy men understand, and your quantum physicists are beginning to. It has to be learned early, before it's too late."

"Too late?"

"Yes." The Magician from Mars sent him another mysterious smile. "Reality can be made and unmade, but you have to start doing the impossible before they tell you it's not possible."

Monday, January 7, 2008

The Stuff Heroes Are Made Of

"I based Superman on Samson and Hercules and every other strong man I ever heard of." ~ Jerry Seigel

"Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power... The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman." ~Dr William Moulton Marsten

“As far as I am concerned, the first episode of Buffy was the beginning of my career. It was the first time I told a story from start to finish the way I wanted.” ~ Joss Whedon

Last time we discussed how stories affect people's lives. The modern mythmakers' lives affect their stories, too, in telling ways.

Superman was created by two young men in high school, Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster. Seigel was a glasses-wearing mild mannered reporter on the school newspaper. Shuster was a muscular body builder. Seigel had a crush on a girl reporter for the same paper, and her name was Lois.

There were more personal factors that shaped the Man of Steel. Both young men were sons of immigrants, so Superman was the ultimate immigrant - from another planet. His survival of dying Krypton relected the life-out-of-death motif of ancient myths. The drawings of his tiny ship issuing from the exploding planet and plunging into the round Earth where he is nutured to manhood are symbolic of seed fertilizing womb. At the same time they reflected the reality of a European homeland dying in the toils of war.

Krypton was a perfect world, a heaven in the skies. The family suffix of Superman's father Jor-el and his own Kryptonian name Kal-el sound almost angelic, like Gabriel. "El" means "of God." As mentioned in my earlier blogs, Superman's origin echoes that of Moses. Cast adrift in a basket to save his life, Moses lived a "secret identity" among the Egyptians, keeping his god-given powers secret.

The Nazis who were ravaging Europe called themselves supermen. Seigel and Shuster's hero may have been a way of thumbing their nose at that conceit, like saying, "You're no better than us! We're all supermen under our hats and glasses."

Seigel's father was fatally shot in a robbery, so the idea of a bulletproof man must have been a powerful one to him. It may also have inspired Superman's crime fighting career.

Other powers such as flying, super-speed, and x-ray vision were added later. The original Superman was simply a super-powerful man who could "only" outrun a train and leap tall buildings in a single bound. A bomb could penetrate his skin. Flying was added in the cartoons and radio series for dramatic effect, and his powers were upgraded over the years until he could survive at the sun's core and demolish whole solar systems.

Superman's opposite, Batman, was literally created by committee. Writers and artists like Bob Kane, Bill Finger and more threw in ideas from earlier iconic characters: Zorro, Robin Hood, The Bat, The Shadow, Sherlock Holmes, Craig Kennedy and Jack Armstrong (1). But they serendipitously created something more than the sum of its parts. Batman was a powerful symbol of Jungian psychology.

Bruce Wayne, living in a respectable mansion and donor to deserving charities, represented the Conscious mind, the face we all present to the world. The Batman lived in the subconscious, the Bat Cave literally underneath that facade. He was the darker, aggresive Id.

The third in comics' archetypal triumverate, Wonder Woman, was created by a psychologist. Dr William Moulton Marsten(2) wanted a hero who used love and understanding instead of violence. His wife Elizabeth said, "Fine. But make her a woman."

Where Superman and Batman were based on harder, colder science and reason, Wonder Woman was magic. The Man of Steel and the Bat relied on strength and weapons. Wonder Woman used "loving submission" to bring peace to "Man's World." She was strong enough, granted at birth the power of Hercules, wisdom of Athena, speed of Mercury and beauty of Aphrodite by those selfsame gods. She was not immune to bullets, but skillful enough to bounce them off her bracelets; she didn't fly but she was graceful enough to ride the air currents.

Wonder Woman's Amazon culture was, of course, taken from Greek mythology, but it reflected Marsten's home life as well. He lived in a polyamorous relationship with two strong women, Elizabeth and Olive. It was Olive's silver bracelets that inspired the heroine's magic ones.

Marsten said, "Give them an alluring woman stronger than themselves to submit to, and they'll be proud to become her willing slaves!" and his characters, mostly her boy friend Steve Trevor, got tied up a lot, but his "loving submission" meant that he felt the key to peace was submission of the self to a wiser, loving authority for the good of society.

Other writers told stories of how they created their heroes, some of them doubtful. Gardner Fox saw a bird fly by and snatch a twig and turned it into Hawkman swooping down to catch criminals. Bill Everett fell overboard as a Merchant Marine and was pushed back up by a wave that felt like a hand lifting him: he created Sub-mariner, prince of the deep. Carl Burgos on a hot day felt like he was burning up and came up with the Human Torch. And some of our greatest modern myths were less nobly inspired, like Tarzan whose creator realized, " ...if people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines that I could write stories just as rotten."

The movie "The Thing from Another World" was based on the sf story "Who Goes There?" by John W Campbell. Campbell was raised by his mother who loved him and her twin sister who despised him. He literally grew up not knowing if the person he was looking at was real or an evil alien shapeshifter that looked like her.

Mary Shelley attended medical demonstrations of electricity stimulating muscle movement in corpses, and wrote FRANKENSTEIN. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based Sherlock Holmes on his deductive abilities of early forensics specialist Dr Joseph Bell. Doyle worked as Bell's clerk, transcribing his affairs as Dr Watson did Holmes'.

Joss Whedon didn't like the way women were portrayed as victims in slasher and horror movies, so he took a simple cliche and reversed it. "Blonde girl walks into alley and gets killed by monster" became "blonde girl walks into alley and kills monster." From there he unfolded a whole mythology of Slayers, Watchers, demons, vampires with souls, Powers That Be and hell dimensions. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has become the iconic role model for young women that Wonder Woman was. Whedon has said about one of Buffy's inspirations, Kitty Pryde of X-MEN, "She was an adolescent girl finding out she has great power and dealing with it," which pretty much sums up BUFFY. Last week's blog has an example of how that has inspired one person.

(1) Craig Kennedy solved crimes with science and inventions in fiction, and Jack Armstrong was a sports hero and adventurer, "The All American Boy" on radio.
(2) Marsten also invented the lie detector. It would be tempting to tie that in with Wonder Woman's magic lasso that made people tell the truth, but that was a revision for the tv series. Originally her lasso just made people obey her.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Living the Myth

"The universe is made of stories, not atoms." ~ Muriel Rukeyse

"Facts don’t persuade, feelings do. And stories are the best way to get at those feelings." ~ Tom Asacker

"Life itself is the most wonderful fairytale of all." ~ Hans Christian Andersen

Once as a weather forecaster in the Air Force I was asked for a weather briefing for a flight to Spokane WA. The pilot was a very distinguished looking Colonel. When I entered his destination as SKA (the 3-digit airport code for Spokane) he remarked, "Did you know that Ska means vulture in Tarzan's ape language?" I had to reply, "Sir, you are probably talking to one of the few people on this base who knows that."

Taking hotel reservations by phone, I once had an older caller who griped and complained about everything: location, the room type, price etc. When I offered his confirmation number it was a long string of numbers and letters, and he grumped about that too. For some reason I commented, "Yeah, it looks like a Captain Midnight decoder message."(1) At this he mellowed out completely and said in a wistful voice, "Ah, the Captain is dead now, but it's good to know someone remembers him."

The heroes and monsters we create in our modern myths reach deep into our minds and affect lives in a real way. I've heard from dozens of people whose morals were shaped more by Superman, Spider-man, Doc Savage, Sam Spade and the like than by any number of Sunday sermons.

The most obvious example is the Star Trek subculture, and not just the fan groups or the Las Vegas attraction. There is the story of the sick child whose remission was helped by believing that a pet "tribble" depended on the child's life energy to survive. The naming of the first space shuttle ENTERPRISE(2), cellphones designed after Trek's Communicators, and the many NASA scientists and technicians whose careers were inspired by the series are a few examples. Even Stephen Hawking, the genius quantum physicist who said "My goal is simple. It is the complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all," and the only person to play himself on STAR TREK was a fan.(3) STAR TREK also made an impact on society with television's first interracial kiss between Captain Kirk and Lt Uhura in the 60s episode "Plato's Stepchildren." We take it for granted today, but it was pioneering so few decades ago. (4)

Popeye has something in common with Captains Kirk and Picard: they are all modern takes on the myths of Odysseus and Jason. Popeye in his original comic strip form was a sailor to far lands and strange encounters with creatures like the Jeep and the Goons(5). And if Tarzan was zen, Popeye had to be a profoundly enlightened being with "I yam what I yam, an' that's all what I yam." But he has inspired people in other ways. An internet acquaintance of mine has a disability called Hypokalemic Periodic Paralysis.

"I eat cans of spinach. The Potassium in the Spinach makes me visibly and actively stronger, because my disability is affected by my Potassium levels.
"(The condition is) caused by Ion Channel DNA mutations... Ion Channels are what determine if you can control your muscle status. When they malfunction, your muscles may become ridgid, flacid, or switch between the two states rapidly uncontrollably.
"I wish I could ask the creator of Popeye if he experienced symptoms like my disability and found that Spinach made him feel better... (6)
"Me: Sitting in a chair unable to stand and barely able to move my hands, eat Spinach, bounce out of chair and go play Ping Pong really well for a few minutes, and then go back to being weak until I have something else with Potassium.
"Anyways, I swear I saw Popeye cartoons like this just with him not being so weak.
Overall Popeye inspired me to eat my Spinach and that is what good Heroes do!"

Gloria Steinem, the founder of modern feminism, read comic books as a child but was dismayed at thje superheroes who solved everything with violence. She wrote:
"I am happy to say that I was rescued from this plight at about the age of seven or eight, rescued (Great Hera!) by a woman ... she was beautiful, brave, and explictly out to change 'a world torn by the hatreds and wars of men.' She was Wonder Woman.
"Wonder Woman symbolizes many of the values ... that feminists are now trying to introduce: strength and self-reliance for women, sisterhood and mutual support among women, peacefulness and esteem for human life."

A lot of young women have found a role model in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In a recent interview on NPR, 17 year old Brittany LaBrake said, "I just really loved to watch it 'cause of her story and how she's such a strong person, she's like 15 years old and had to be a Slayer, had to give up her social life so she could fight vampires and save the world ... She had a lot on her plate at a young age and I feel like that's basically my story too." She wasn't talking about slaying monsters, but dealing with three siblings and irresponsible parents. "I just feel like her story is kinda like my story."

In the British census of 2001, 390,000 people across England and Wales listed their religion as "Jedi." Yes, it was an organized campaign and some people did it just to annoy the government, and it didn't have the intended effect of making Jedi an official religion, but it reveals the hold that our modern myths, and their nondogmatic spiritual ideas, can have.

Us geeks who love comics and movies and science fiction and fantasy may have the basis for a secular spirituality that may be better for us than all the churches in the world. After all, we have one major advantage over organized religions: We know our myths aren't real.

(1) Captain Midnight was a 1930s-40s radio hero who sent kids who listened a Secret Squadron decoder ring for Ovaltine labels; then broadcast messages in code with clues to his next episode.
(2) Which backfired on the fans who wrote NASA to name it. The ENTERPRISE was a prototype that never went to into space.
(3) On a tour of the set, when Hawking passed the warp drive engines, he commented, "I'm working on that."
(4) The series has been less successful at introducing gay characters. Although creator Gene Roddenberry wanted to, the networks refused. They used allusions and parables involving asexual, tri-sexual, and gender-bending aliens, but never got to just dropping gay crewmembers into the cast, like Rickie on MY SO-CALLED LIFE, and accepting them without making an issue of it.
(5) And in fact introduced those words into the English language. The original jeep was a GP (general purpose) vehicle that could go anywhere, so that soldiers nicknamed it jeep after Eugene the Jeep in Popeye, who could teleport and walk through walls, and go anywhere. Alice the Goon and her people were big, burly and scary-looking.
(6) Which is possible. EC Segar had an undiagnosed long time illness and died of liver disease. PP was not well known then, and diagnosis overlap is known with a condition that can affect the liver.