Taking It Away Too Seriously

4 01 2020

Dear readers, for a variety of reasons, I have decided to stop posting to this blog.

I will continue to write the posts as I have done– sporadic variations on pop culture reactions, political rants, and personal stories– but they will now appear along with all my art content at patreon.com/aethernaut.

Any blog post that would have appeared here will always be accessible, free of charge.

I will also be copying some of my most emblematic past posts to my Patreon, just in case this WordPress blog gets eaten by the ever-evolving internet while I’m not looking.

I hope you’ll come on over and check in once in awhile. But even if you don’t, thanks for reading thus far!

Best wishes,

–Neal

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My Friend Matt

11 11 2019

Image may contain: 1 person, grass, tree, plant, outdoor and natureThis Veteran’s Day I’m remembering my friend Matt, who killed himself last spring.

There is a lot I want to say about Matt. I’ve actually been trying to write this post for months. It’s really difficult. Obviously it’s a sensitive subject for all sorts of reasons, and my reactions can easily stray into inflammatory territory. But if I’m going to post anything, today is the day to get my act together and post it.

Matt was my neighbor for many years. He and his wife Barb were two of our closest friends in Portland. Their dog and our dog were best friends. Our families hung out a lot– ate dinner together, played pub trivia, sometimes just stood in the driveway and chatted away the hours.

Matt was the first veteran I became close with. I came of age as uncompromisingly anti-war. I would never attack a veteran, verbally or otherwise, but before I got to know Matt I tended to think of armed forces personnel as cogs in a terrible machine. Being Matt’s friend obliterated my preconceptions. I admired him a lot, and I have new admiration and respect for veterans since knowing him.

Matt was a very chill dude. He was kind. He was fun. He played bass. It suited him well– he was not the flashiest member of the band, but quietly the coolest. He was a friend you could count on for anything. His job was teaching kids in a juvenile correctional facility. He had bottomless compassion for those kids and for everybody. He had this quality that I aspire to but will likely never achieve, of knowing exactly what to do in a bad situation, and doing it without hesitation.

Here’s the really scary truth about Matt. As time went on, his PTSD got worse, not better. The events of his tours became more distant in time, but their grip on him got tighter and tighter, until they became too much for even the rock of Gibraltar. He knew his students depended on him. He knew what it would do to his wife to find his body. The last thing he wanted was to cause his loved ones, or anyone, so much pain. But the war finally gave him no other choice.

And he’s far from alone. Every year, 7,000 veterans die by suicide. That’s twice over the death toll of 9/11, every year. The very people sent to avenge our greatest loss to terrorism, and to ostensibly protect us from further acts of terrorism, are killed by the conflicts they lived through. Two World Trade Center’s worth, every year.

Matt did not get the support he needed when he came home. Barb is not getting the support she needs now. On top of dealing with her tragic loss, she has to fight to receive the benefits owed to Matt and his family. She’s still fighting, all these months later.

There’s no excuse. For all the lip service our so-called leaders give to veterans, they are hung out to dry when they come home. If we’re going to presume to send our people off to fight in deadly conflicts, we have to do everything there is to do to keep them safe for their whole lives. Because for too many, the conflict never ends.

I miss you Matt. Thanks for the good times, and for everything you taught me. Be at peace.

 





Stuff I Like: Captain Marvel

9 06 2019

Latest in an ongoing series of trying to cheer this blog up just a tad, and also in a series of woefully timed movie reviews

Yes, we finally saw Captain Marvel (not Endgame yet, it’s tough when you’ve got a little one, but hopefully soon).

I feel like this is the superhero movie I’ve always been waiting for. This is Powers with a capital P; flying, glowing, hurling bolts of energy, kinetic and colorful and fantastic. In general, a very large chunk of on-screen superpower action boils down to elaborate martial arts.  I enjoy that stuff too, but I’ve been starving for some serious energy projector action and cosmic eye candy. Sure, we’ve seen Thor and Doctor Strange and Ant Man do otherworldly stuff, but their movies had story issues that bugged me. Plus, all the other heroes have at least one gadget (except the Hulk, and I love the Hulk, but we’re largely back to hand-to-hand pummeling here). Which again is great and all, but to me, inherent powers are the real juice in the superhero fantasy.

As gratifying as the powered action is, the movie only soars because Carol/Vers/Captain Marvel is a person, a distinct, fleshed-out character, flawed and admirable and funny and sad and awesome. I’m so happy she’s a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe now. It’s funny that the only character named Marvel has never been a household name like Spider-Man or Captain America. Still, Carol Danvers makes a great standard bearer for the whole enterprise.

I can’t wait to see her interact with the other characters. As I’m sure most of you already have. Someday, Endgame, someday…





Impeach? Impeach.

2 05 2019

Should Congress start impeachment proceedings against Trump? I’ve been going back and forth on this question, but I have now concluded that they should. Here are some thoughts.

First, it’s important to understand what impeachment is, and what it is not. Impeachment is not removal from office; It is a process of charging and investigating, that may or may not lead to conviction and removal from office. The House brings the charges, and the Senate decides whether to convict.

Our Senate is all but certain to protect the President. Even if they weren’t, impeachment proceedings would be unlikely to conclude significantly sooner than the 2020 election. And a decisive public vote against Trump remains the most crucial objective.

So why bother with impeachment? Why not just focus on the election? Because this administration’s offenses are too grave to let slide. Notwithstanding AG Barr’s gross mis-characterization of the Mueller report (and the subsequent failure of the media to lend any clarity to the report’s implications), Trump is a daily assault on the integrity of our government. That assault must be answered every day, in every meaningful way available. This is precisely the moment that impeachment proceedings were designed to address.

Sure, there are risks. A long impeachment fight could be damaging for democrats in 2020. But inaction is far more dangerous. Inaction will assuredly embolden Trump to ever more egregious transgressions. Articles of Impeachment would send a message to the President, the country, and the world that America still values the rule of law. Impeachment proceedings are necessary to uncover the full extent of wrongdoing in Trump’s campaign, election, and governance. And all members of Congress would be called to make a choice, go on record, and cement their place on the right or wrong side of history.

Risk is not a sufficient reason to shirk duty. Bernie Sanders suggests impeachment would draw the focus away from health care and economic equality. So, keep talking about health care and equality. Take action to keep those conversations alive. Paint a clear picture of a platform that benefits all Americans. Make the quest for justice at the highest levels part of that picture.

Yes, it’s a lot of work. The times call for strenuous resistance. We can all help.

The Clinton impeachment backfired on Republicans. The Nixon impeachment generated needed momentum for the truth. Neither instance bears much resemblance to today. A more immediate, and more instructive figure is Merrick Garland.

Republicans flat-out stole a Supreme Court nomination from Obama. The Democrats let it happen, thinking a big divisive fight would be worse. Now all branches of government are compromised. At a time when our institutions are under attack, they are also at their weakest. Democrats cannot make the same mistake again.

To paraphrase Aragorn, the big divisive fight is upon us, whether we would risk it or not.

There must be consequences for Trump. He must be removed from office, then prosecuted and punished. Anything less guarantees that we will have future presidents every bit as corrupt and contemptuous. However, the next one will not be nearly so incompetent. We need impeachment proceedings to gather all the information, shine a light into all the dark corners, declare that such wrongdoing is unacceptable, and arm ourselves for the legal battle with ex-president Trump.

Our problem is bigger than Trump. Our problem is a polarization so extreme that thoughtful, caring people will justify the most abject cruelty if it means scoring points against the other side. Trump is the drill bit boring through the norms and institutions that hold our country together; resisting and evicting him are necessary, but not sufficient. Healing our country may take a generation or more. It will require ongoing efforts on multiple fronts. Right now, what’s required is the clear commitment to the rule of law that impeachment proceedings would demonstrate and demand.

 





Thanos

24 11 2018

Thanos’ plan makes no sense. The infinity stones give him godlike power. If he really believes there are too many life forms in the universe, then instead of killing off half of all life, he could make the universe twice as big. Or he could double the amount of resources — maybe create a double of every planet, but with no people, just more space and minerals and water and what-not. There are any number of alternate solutions to the problem he imagines, given access to godlike power.

I don’t say this as a criticism of Infinity War. Thanos is insane. His plan proves it.

I would have liked to see someone (Gamora, maybe) argue with him about his plan, and propose some more benevolent course of action. I don’t fault the movie for not doing this. Anyone who knows Thanos would know there’s no talking him down. But such a scene could be instructive in dealing with fascists. Because fascism is insane the way Thanos is insane.

It’s pointless to argue with fascists. They may present their beliefs as based on reason, but when confronted with actual facts their arguments fall apart. So a fascist won’t argue logically. He (it’s most likely a he) will instead deflect, deny, distract, go on tangents, make ad hominem attacks, and generally do everything except deal with the real-life implications of fascism. Unless he is talking to other fascists, in which case the violence and cruelty are precisely the point.

I believe some fascists can be brought back down to Earth. The best way I can imagine to do it is to be different, and be their friend. Fascism is an emotional belief. It can only be dispelled with firsthand emotional knowledge that comes from diverse personal relationships. If there’s someone in your life like that, please stay strong and stay connected.

Fascists in positions of power are more like Thanos. Nothing but resistance will do.





When Will Blood Outweigh Bullets?

16 11 2018

Mass shootings are more and more commonplace, and still our congress does nothing. The political calculus is insurmountable. The NRA and the gun industry just have more influence than human blood and breath. Or so it seems.

I asked myself, what will it take to change the equation? Do the dead and the bereaved just need to greatly outnumber the gun advocates? How long until we reach that point, if we haven’t already?

I was going to pose the question as a brief pithy post on social media, but I thought I should at least try to dig into the numbers first. Not surprisingly, the question quickly became far too complicated to address in a single sentence.

Be aware, as always, I’m not a journalist. I don’t have the time or resources for anything but an abstraction that nevertheless will at least point to the truth, to the best of my ability.

Also, I was quickly reminded in my Googling that hard data around guns is scarce. The CDC is forbidden from from studying the impact of guns on public health. No one knows exactly how many guns we have in America. Only in the last few years, as national leadership has utterly failed to address the rising body counts, have private citizens taken it on themselves to track and analyze mass shootings.

Given all that, here’s what I got.

Best estimates generally agree that about 52 million households own guns, about 45% of America. I have to admit, I was surprised that nearly half of American households own guns. But I don’t have a quarrel with simple gun ownership. I believe that the majority of gun owners are fine and decent people, who would not oppose common sense gun regulation, let alone open fire without dire provocation.

Much of the resistance to gun regulation comes from the NRA. As mass shootings have become a national norm, the NRA has pushed farther and farther into extremist policies and dehumanization of gun control advocates and shooting victims. The influence of the NRA is a brick wall in Congress that few candidates and zero legislation can get past. So, for my little thought experiment, the people that the dead and bereaved have to outnumber are the members of the NRA. They don’t give an exact figure anywhere to anyone, but their website says “nearly five million members.”

The Gun Violence Archive tracks injuries and deaths by shooting, going back to 2014. They record the total number of shootings, then break it down into deaths, injuries, death by age groups, officer involved shootings, defensive shootings, mass shootings, and other categories. By virtually all measures, the numbers keep ticking up, except for the current year.

gun stats Agun stats B

 

I don’t have the statistics skills to do any kind of extrapolating, so I’m just looking at averages. I started with the total number of deaths, then subtracted suspects shot by officers, home invasions, and defensive shootings. There is a lot of nuance within each category, not to mention the overall total, but to me this seems like the best snapshot of preventable, unjustified shootings. The average per year: 7,934.

gun stats C

At that rate, it would take 630 years to reach 5 million dead, the same number as members of the NRA. But the number of dead isn’t strictly what I’m after. My original question was about voters; how long until those directly affected by gun violence outweigh those who advocate for unrestricted gun rights?

To answer that, I can only estimate. Those directly affected would include all the loved ones of the dead, all the injured, and all the loved ones of the injured. I think a safe and conservative estimate would be that for every death, 20 other people feel traumatic loss. That’s 158,680 people, which adds up to 5 million in 31 years.

Honestly though, I think it’s more realistic to assume that for every person killed, 100 others would either know that victim personally, or feel a loss through some other connection (an injured party, proximity to the location, a shared interest or workspace, etc). In that case, the traumatize would outnumber the NRA in just over 6 years.

Then we have to ask, what year to we start counting from? When did our epidemic of violence start, and when did it spiral out of control? There’s no way to definitively answer those questions. If I had to choose, I would choose the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012. That singularly horrifying event should have been the moment when gun regulation finally got some traction. Instead, it became a painful, sickening object lesson on the values expressed in our national policies.

If my estimates are correct, then now is the time we should start to see some progress. And there is some evidence that progress is starting. In the 2018 midterm elections, over 1,000 candidates in state and federal elections ran and won on platforms of gun control.

Our years of inaction convinced the Parkland students to mobilize, because no one else would defend their lives. Many others are equally fed up and fired up. We’re not there yet, but I’m seeing signs that our reckoning with unfettered deadly weapons is on the horizon.





Trump Incites Terror. He Must Go.

29 10 2018

First things first: vote next week. There is a lot of work to do, and it will take many years, but we all have a crucial opportunity to staunch the bleeding next Tuesday. Vote.

In the last week, we’ve had a spike in domestic terrorism. I’m quite certain there is more to come. More bombs, more bullets, more cars plowing through people. It’s no mystery where it’s coming from. The hate and rage fueling the violence has been stoked for decades, by Fox News, Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove, and so on. Trump is just the latest in line, but he is the loudest and most persistent. And he’s the president, which lends a (false, but convincing) air of legitimacy to the rhetoric of terror.

There hasn’t been much talk of impeaching Donald Trump. It’s a problematic gambit at best. If Democrats don’t control both houses of Congress, it’s unlikely to succeed. But I reject the argument that impeachment will only inflame Trump’s base, leading to everything from energized Republican voters to violence in the streets.

Violence in the streets is here. We have nothing to gain by appeasing the domestic terrorists in Trump’s base. Every rally he holds protected by the secret service, every tweet he sends from the White House, every second he’s in office encourages more deranged white middle-aged men to cross the line into barbarism.

We should send them an unmistakable signal that violence against any of our citizens will not be tolerated. It’s a very simple message, devoid of moral, legal, or ethical ambiguity. There must be consequences for the perpetrators, and also for the instigators. It’s long past time for any and all office holders to get on the right side of history, or get kicked to the curb.

Vote them out now. Impeach and prosecute later. Regulate the goddamn weapons. And join in the long process of changing hate into understanding, one soul at a time.





Letter to my Senators

10 07 2018

Here’s a letter I sent to my senators. Feel free to share/appropriate/whatever.

Dear Senator,

Only one thing matters in the debate over Justice Kennedy’s replacement: when Mitch McConnell and congressional republicans refused to even hold hearings for Merrick Garland, they stole the nomination from President Obama. This action was unprecedented, unwarranted, and surely illegal. Almost equally outrageous is that the action went uncontested. Such blatant disregard for the rule of law cannot go unchallenged. The fact that it happened in 2016 is no reason to abandon the issue. Nothing is normal anymore. There are serious questions about the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency. The institutions that keep America strong and free are under attack. I urge you to take this opportunity to demand the least of appropriate consequences for the egregious actions of Mitch McConnell and associates: no one fills the seat unless it’s Merrick Garland, or unless Donald Trump is cleared of collusion.

Thank you!





Want some art?

19 06 2018
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This is the kind of thing I will draw for you, subject to your request. We’ll talk.

Hi readers. Would you like a drawing? I will draw you something. And send it to you. Make a pledge to my Patreon at any level before July 1st, and you get art. Boom!

What’s a Patreon, you may ask? Is that like a Patronus? Kind of, if Dementors are all the things getting in the way of independent artists practicing their crafts.

Patreon is a way to directly support artists like me by making a monthly contribution in the amount of your choice. In return, you get access to patron-exclusive content and other goodies. (Please click here for the full list of rewards.)

It’s also a community building device. I’ve been supporting several artists on Patreon for some time, and thanks to their insider posts and messages, I’ve gotten to know them and their work much better. I plan to use Patreon to foster a close relationship with my audience, as well as to generate the resources to crank out comics faster and better. There will be tangible merchy rewards as well– notably the aforementioned, limited time offer. Sign up now, at any level, and get an original drawing! Black and white, 7.5×8″, 1-2 characters, either according to your request or my questionable judgement. Once you’re a Patron, we can exchange messages and hash it out.

1v58a

A page from Æthernaut, my primary comic project

To my readers who have already pledged; Thank you!! I am humbled and honored by your support. If pledging is not for you, a tweet or a Facebook share of the link is also super helpful! If you just wanna read my blogs and comics and not be bothered, well, thank you as well! Making comics is something I have to do, and having people read them makes it worthwhile. So please know I appreciate all of you.

Thank you!

 





Jessica Jones S2: Has All My Pet Peeves, Is Good Anyway

17 06 2018

Jessica Jones Season 2 is not about saving the world from aliens, or the city from ninjas, or the neighborhood from ruthless real estate developers. It’s about coming to terms with trauma and power. It’s a human scale story with super-powered people who are eminently believable and compelling. I liked it more than any Marvel tv series, except maybe The Punisher. Which is weird to say, because Daredevil, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist are some of my favorite comic characters. It’s also weird because JJS2 includes all the pet peeves I’ve been grinding on ever since Heroes got everything all wrong. Let’s go down the list.

1. No costumes, no logos, no hero names. Here’s the thing about superheroes: historically, they are ridiculous. The whole idea is juvenile. But, over time, the audience has matured* and demanded that superheroes mature as well, becoming something greater than throwaway entertainment for young boys. And storytellers have obliged, in many different ways, with varying results (I’ll resist the urge to start cataloguing them here.) In many cases, storytellers’ first step is to dispense with the costumes and hero names.

I can see the logic; the tights are embarrassing, the names are silly, and both just highlight the infantile roots of the superhero. That’s flawed logic though. It strikes me as an outsider’s logic, a poseur’s logic, the logic of someone who wants to sell something to an audience without understanding that audience. The names, the costumes, and the logos are characterization devices. With one look at a superhero costume (especially in the act of using their powers) we know everything we need to know to jump into the story. From that point, our expectations can be fulfilled, subverted, expanded, or whatever the story requires.

In The Punisher and season 1 of Daredevil, the lead character only shows up in costume in the final episode. In all the other Marvel/Netflix series, costumes are absent. The Defenders goes so far as to openly mock the idea of costumes. It’s supposed to be witty, and sort of meta, and inject some true-to-life atmosphere, but it struck me as a played-out tactic. Huge audiences have already accepted Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Captain America. To assume that a costume gets in the way of telling a solid, relatable story is just dumb.

Jessica Jones of course never wears a costume, and never uses any name but Jessica Jones. But it works. The costume is not something her show is running away from. She is just better suited to bluntly asserting her everyday identity in all situations.

2. No supervillains. Too often, superhero stories amount to the heroes fighting amongst themselves, or fighting for nothing more than to retain ownership of their powers. Ant Man is just Hank Pym and Scott Lang trying not to let Ant Man technology hurt people. Iron Man, Iron Man 3, and Avengers: Age of Ultron are, similarly, about cleaning up Tony Stark’s messes. Daredevil Season 2 is mostly infighting between Daredevil, the Punisher, and Elektra. And the whole point of Civil War is heroes in conflict with each other. Which is certainly a rich vein of story to explore. But if the heroes have no reason for being other than mitigating their own existence, the whole thing becomes an exercise in irony.**

Again, I get it. Here in the 21st century, supervillains are even more ridiculous than superheroes. The classic tropes around threatening the world into submission with some doomsday device just don’t make sense any more. The evils that plague us are impersonal and institutional, corruption woven together with legitimacy in a complex web, unsusceptible to the kind of straightforward and gratifying solutions that superheroes are designed to provide. But let’s be honest; this state of things is not new. And it doesn’t make supervillains dramatically impossible, just more challenging. Surely there are ways to embody and personify entrenched corruption, duplicitous media, climate destruction, and so on. To simply not provide a hero with a combatable nemesis is just a failure of imagination.

In JJS2, pretty much everyone treads on all sides of right and wrong. The closest thing to a villain is Dr. Malus, and even he is difficult to write off as irredeemable. But again, in this case, it works. Jessica is up against herself. She’s trying to figure out how to live with her power and come to terms with her past. Malcolm, Trish, and Alisa all function alternately as helpers and hindrances, while their own struggles parallel, intersect with, and illuminate Jessica’s. There’s just no call in the story for a Kingpin or The Hand.

3. Misused/underused powers. Like costumes and hero names, powers can (and should) be a window into the character’s nature. They also should be visually interesting; both comic books and film/video are visual media after all. In general, superhero movies and shows lean heavily on choreographed martial arts. I enjoy that kind of thing, but I also want to see energy beams and inhuman forms and general weirdness. And much of the time, there’s plenty of that other stuff on screen (my favorite thing about Ant Man was the feast of micro-scale imagery). But sometimes it’s clear that fancy fist fighting is standing in for the more expensive-to-produce special effects. Or worse, standing in for creative application of powers (Daredevil is a big offender here).

Jessica Jones’ powers are barely even defined. She’s strong and she’s durable. It’s kind of a minimal default power set, without any thematic rationale like unbreakable skin or spider-strength. The Defenders suffers from a lack of differentiation among its characters. All four heroes do essentially the same things most of the time. I waited in vain throughout that series for a demonstration of Jessica’s superior brute force.

But yet again, what bothers me elsewhere does not bother me in JJS2. Jessica’s broad-stroke powers are her blessing and her curse, a metaphor for all kinds of power people wield and the repercussions of doing so. Which is a common theme with superheroes (hello, Spider-Man’s catch-phrase) but it’s not often explored with the depth and sensitivity of Jessica Jones.

I’ve been nursing a grudge for years against properties that “get superheroes wrong.” There’s no point to such grudge-holding in any case, but it’s clear to me now that I don’t have to cling to any criteria for what makes a superhero story. There is such a wealth of on-screen material out there now… lots of it is still bad, but lots of it is really, really good. And a lot of the good stuff is looking for new angles on the genre, much as the comics started doing in earnest 30 years ago. Ever since 2002’s Spider-Man, I hoped the movie adaptations would follow a similar path to sophistication, only faster. 16 years later, on the whole, storytelling on the screen is rivaling–even exceeding–that of the comics.

Once in awhile, you get what you wish for.

*”Mature” is an odd way to describe staying attached to the comics of our childhoods.

**I’m all for irony. I’d love to see an absurdist superhero movie. But that’s not what Marvel or DC are doing.