Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Social justice and the Christian

The day’s work done, I sought the theatre. As I sank into my seat, the lady shrank and squirmed.

I beg pardon, I said.

“Do you enjoy being where you are not wanted?” she asked coldly.

Oh, no, I said.

“Well, you are not wanted here”

I was surprised. I fear you are mistaken, I said, I certainly want the music, and I like to think the music wants me to listen to it.

“Usher,” said the lady, “this is social equality.”

“No madame,” said the usher, “it is the second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.” -W. E. B. Du Bois, "On Being Crazy"

Depending on what circles you travel in, 'social justice' is a divisive concept in the Christian church.

What is 'social justice'? People may try to argue the definition but I'll simply go by the Oxford definition: "The objective of creating a fair and equal society in which each individual matters, their rights are recognized and protected, and decisions are made in ways that are fair and honest." The earliest instance of the term may be an 1848 article by a Jesuit priest, Luigi Taparelli.

The question is... why are some self-professed Christians against social justice? One can certainly find plenty of examples of Jesus preaching on caring for the poor. And justice? Heck, Isaiah said "He will proclaim justice to the nations" (Isaiah 42:1) Jesus preached against injustice too, as in his criticisms of the Pharisees, the ones who because of their positions should have been right with God: "You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former." (Matthew 22:23) One of the great life verses of the Bible even states: "He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8)

We see time and time again that God loves justice and that He desires for us to as well - that he desires to bring true justice to the Earth. And of course, the most wonderful thing about God is his grace to us - that He will spare us from what justice would otherwise demand - for "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make Him out to be a liar and His word is not in us." (1 John 1:8-10).

So then, we Christians have been saved by a loving God, but we exist in an unjust world where individuals are told they matter less than others, where rights are unequally applied and decisions are made which are unfair or dishonest. If the Christ-life dwells within us, surely we ought to dislike these things and so stand with those who are for social justice?

Not according to some.

I beg you, look for the words "social justice" or "economic justice" on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes! If I'm going to Jeremiah's Wright's church? Yes! Leave your church. Social justice and economic justice. They are code words. If you have a priest that is pushing social justice, go find another parish. Go alert your bishop and tell them, "Excuse me are you down with this whole social justice thing?" - Glenn Beck, 2010

Beck is a Mormon but has been popular among conservative Christians. One need only enter the phrase "social justice is not the Gospel" into Google to find a number of Christian websites railing against the concept of social justice. One argument I spotted states: "You can eliminate every single thing Jesus ever said in his life about the poor and social justice, and still you will not undermine his main message one bit." Is that true? Hm. I seem to recall "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." (2 Timothy 3:16-17) So what are those 'good works' Timothy wrote about?

I'm going to talk about James. James is not a popular epistle amongst some Christians because James advocated, well, y'know, works. Getting up and doing something. The human animal has never loved work. Martin Luther famously denounced James as an "epistle of straw" because:

In a word St. John’s Gospel and his first epistle, St. Paul’s epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that is necessary and salvatory for you to know, even if you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine. Therefore St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it. - Martin Luther

There are two dangerous ways we could treat James - the first would be to reject it because we don't believe works matter. The other would be to over-inflate it, to create a belief system where we think we are saved by what we do - an attitude a surprising number of Christians do hold.

So let's not start with James after all - let's start with St. Paul: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." (Ephesians 2:8-10) That, then, is the tension we Christians have to resolve; we are saved by grace for works. The second should be the logical progression from the former.

To James, then: "Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder." (James 2:12-19)

This is not something James invented out of whole cloth, this is a teaching supported by the Gospel - one of those passages people would like to 'eliminate.' “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:41-46)

What we do with the grace we have been given - the works we perform because of the Christ-life within us - matters. Should we Christians care about social justice, then? Yes, 100%. It does not matter if we do not feel we are one of those people treated unequally, for "And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?" (Matthew 5:47) Jesus tells us time and time again to do more than what is asked of us, to walk the extra mile (Matthew 5:41), to give generously without expecting a return.

It's not that social justice is a bulletproof concept which cannot be perverted - I'm sure there are those who use it as a cudgel to strike others, just as some Christians try to pervert the Bible. But when someone claims they are suffering due to inequality - why would we turn a deaf or disbelieving ear to their pain?

I think there are a lot more Christians out there who are pro-social justice than there are anti; here's one at Huffington Post and here's a scholar arguing via John Calvin.

We want grace for ourselves; we want justice for ourselves; we are slow to grant these liberties to others. But if we are true followers of Christ, this should really not be a matter of opinion: "But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven." (Matthew 5:44-45) I am a straight white male who lives a pretty comfortable life; I try to help those less fortunate than me because I believe that it how Jesus wants me to behave in my life. I can support the concept of 'social justice' as defined at the top of the page through the use of scripture. Can you dismiss it as easily?

Monday, April 16, 2018

Take four rights and you're back where you started.

Why do some creative people reject opportunities to change directions?

The combination of art and commerce has never got along entirely smoothly. Many creative people working in the entertainment industry are not in a position to control the decisions made about the properties they are employed on. People working on a radio program, television program, comic strip, film or comic book are frequently a hired hand who must temper their sensibilities to what the owners expect or else be out of work.

People who have toiled long within these fields on other people's properties often yearn to seize the means of production for themselves, to leave their former owners and create something wholly original in which they have a larger say in about creative decisions.

When creative people leave a property they were well-known for and move into something else, they don't necessarily continue in the same oeuvre which made them famous. When Dennis Weaver left Gunsmoke, it wasn't so he could star in a different western program; when McLean Stevenson left M*A*S*H his next show wasn't another army/medical comedy; Alex Raymond's post-Flash Gordon work was not science fiction.

But occasionally, creative people leave the property they were best-known for to take on exactly the same type of material they had been doing before. It can pay dividends; when Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll wanted to move their radio program Sam 'n' Henry from local broadcasting to national they couldn't because they didn't own the property; quitting the show, they developed a brand-new program which was basically the exact same thing with different names: Amos 'n' Andy. The latter show lasted 30+ years.

But more commonly, it doesn't work out; another radio show, The Great Gildersleeve was perhaps the first spin-off show (from Fibber McGee and Molly) and certainly established many of the tropes which spin-off programs use to this day. However, star Harold Peary - who had been playing Gildersleeve first on Fibber McGee, then on his own show and in motion pictures - wasn't satisfied with the level of creative input he had (among other things, he wanted more opportunities to sing). Peary left The Great Gildersleeve and launched a new program, Honest Harold; but Honest Harold was basically the exact same program - Peary played the same type of character and even employed some of the same supporting cast members. Meanwhile, Willard Waterman replaced Peary on The Great Gildersleeve and did a fine imitation of Peary; audiences had spent years bonding with the character of The Great Gildersleeve and were loathe to accept an impersonation, even coming from the man who created the original; Honest Harold flopped and Peary never had another hit.

When Image Comics launched in 1992, the founding seven creators played mostly within the same kind of stories they had been producing as hired guns for Marvel Comics (but with graphic violence). As Peter David observed at the time:

So when a creator boldly announces that he’s off to start his or her own line, my presumption and hope is that it’s going to be something new and visionary. It doesn’t have to be highly marketable. Indeed, Marvel and DC’s main flaw is that titles are expected to draw significantly higher sales than an independent would reasonably expect for his piece of the market pie. So “Hard Boiled” doesn’t have to sell like “X-Men.” No one expects it to.

If Todd said, “I’ve been dying to do a good romance comic,” I’d be thrilled. If Erik said, “My life’s goal is to produce a solid western,” I’d be impressed.

So what’s Image publishing?

Superheroes.

Young superheroes. SWAT Team superheroes. Young freelance superheroes. A group of superheroes.

I mean…haven’t we got Marvel and DC for that? Why have X-Force clones when we’ve got X-Force?

Indeed, Rob Liefeld's Youngblood was made up of characters he had originally created as unused redesigns for titles like Legion of Super-Heroes and Teen Titans. Violence aside, there was very little different between X-Force and Youngblood, aside from fan investment in existing characters and publishing identities.

Sticking with similar type of material leads to creative people being typecast; when Johnny Weismuller left the Tarzan films to be Jungle Jim, he merely left one type of jungle hero films for another. Basil Rathbone suffered from being typecast as the detective hero Sherlock Holmes in film and radio; he finally abandoned the role to take on the part of... detective Basil Rathbone in the radio series Tales of Fatima, doing absolutely nothing to halt his typecasting.

For contrast, look to Jack Webb, who started in radio with the serious news-commentary program One Out of Seven, then the very-burlesque humour of The Jack Webb Show. For a time he settled into programs where he played wry private detectives - Jeff Regan, Pat Novak, Johnny Modero - but broke out of those parts with his show Dragnet, a successful attempt at a grounded police drama. Even with the fame of Dragnet, he didn't simply branch out into other kinds of cop dramas - his other big passion project was the jazz/crime series Pete Kelly's Blues.

I had some understanding of this when I worked at Marvel - I didn't want to be known just as an Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe guy, so I jumped at the chance to write introductory text in Untold Tales of the New Universe, to write the trade dress for trade paperbacks and step outside my comfort zone for properties like Anita Blake and Image's Proof. If you intend to be considered a creative person, you can't simply toil at the same kind of thing from project to project - not if you want to be considered vital. Do the same thing for too long and people will assume that... well, that's all you've got to offer.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Starlin's Thanos, part 10 of 10: Forever Infinite.

Need to catch up? Part 1: The Mad Titan and the Cosmic Cube; Part 2: Chaos Meets the True Neutral; Part 3: Laid to Rest; Part 4: The Gloves Are On; Part 5: The Power Glove; Part 6: They Bite; Part 7: The Holiest War; Part 8: Gazed Too Long; Part 9: False Conclusions

And just like that, Thanos was everywhere.

He was in Brian Michael Bendis & Mark Bagley's Avengers Assemble; he starred in a mini-series by Jason Aaron & Simone Bianchi; he was the instigating antagonist of Jonathan Hickman & Jim Cheung's line-wide crossover Infinity; and he was in a post-credits scene at the end of 2011's hit film The Avengers.

Where Thanos wasn't was under Jim Starlin's thumb.

The courtesies previously granted to Starlin were now clearly on the skids; creators (such as Hickman & Cheung) had no problem with altering Thanos' costume, sending him after the Infinity Gems again and otherwise treating him as a constantly-restless would-be conqueror.

Starlin hadn't even been given notice that Thanos would be making his big screen debut and it rankled him; fortunately, with all the cash Thanos was bringing into Marvel, there was a little to spread around. Starlin had spent most of his time since the Thanos ongoing working for DC Comics, but Marvel hired him back to run a series of original graphic novels starring Thanos.

The first three novels tell one long story of Thanos battling Annihilus. They are titled: Thanos: The Infinity Revelation (2014), Thanos: The Infinity Relativity (2015) and Thanos: The Infinity Finale (2016). Starlin drew the first two books, but brought in Ron Lim to draw the third (all inks by Andy Smith). Marvel was definitely banking on the combination of Thanos + Starlin + Infinity to once again = $$$$. For his part, Starlin brought in elements from the contemporary Marvel cosmic titles, using the Annihilators and Guardians of the Galaxy teams.

Between the graphic novels Starlin authored tie-ins; first came Thanos Annual (2014), drawn by Ron Lim and inked by Andy Smith; set following Thanos' defeat by Captain Marvel, it has Thanos encounter his future self from The Infinity Gauntlet, who tries (and fails) to enlighten his younger self.

Next came Thanos vs. Hulk #1-4 (2015), drawn by Starlin and inked by Andy Smith; finally there was Infinity Entity (2016) #1-4, drawn by Alan Davis and inked by Mark Farmer. The collaboration between Starlin/Davis/Farmer seemed a happy one as soon after they reunited for the mini-series Guardians of the Galaxy: Mother Entropy.

Just this month, Starlin/Davis/Farmer united yet again for Thanos: The Infinity Siblings, yet another original graphic novel. According to Starlin, this graphic novel is actually setting itself up as the middle part of a trilogy (the earlier Revelation/Relativity/Finale being the first third). How many combinations of 'Infinity __________' can Marvel publish? I suppose we'll find out. The new graphic novel is quite good and, for the first time, shows Starlin taking an interest in Thanos' brother Eros as Eros finally matures and demonstrates some careful long-term planning - and the two brothers are even united in common cause. Starlin once again demonstrated some good faith to other creators as he utilized the costume & thralls Hickman & Cheung had given Thanos during their Infinity.

Starlin remains somewhat short-tempered when interviewers ask him about Thanos, but if he truly means to continue his current storyline over the next few years, I'm all for it. Keith Giffen aside, I haven't found that Marvel has any authors willing to grant Thanos the wit, intellect and sense of wonder that Starlin imbues his creation with. Thanos is best left in Starlin's hands, as other creators tend to simply retread The Infinity Gauntlet (and only the first 4 issues of the series at that).

Very shortly the feature film Avengers: Infinity War will reach theatres. The fortunes of that film will no doubt determine a portion of Thanos' future in the comics.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

"They worship a criminal?" Usagi Yojimbo: The Hidden #1 review

Usagi Yojimbo: The Hidden is a new 7 issue mini-series by creator Stan Sakai, continuing the tales of his rabbit ronin from the Usagi Yojimbo ongoing series. Like the earlier Usagi Yojimbo: Senso, this series replaces the ongoing for its duration. Likely this is meant to help raise the title's profile in the hopes that new readers might finally sample Usagi when they see the new #1. Hey, whatever brings in more fans; I would be very happy if Sakai kept writing & drawing Usagi Yojimbo until his death (and hopefully no one will continue the series without him).

Over the decades Sakai has written many multi-part stories in Usagi Yojimbo; so what makes this tale worthy of a seven-issue telling? The story is somewhat unusual in that the subject is the spread of Christianity during the age of feudal Japan. Sakai had earlier used this subject for a single tale where the Christian element was a last page surprise reveal. This time, Christians (or 'Kirishitans' as the characters call them) are front and center.

If you saw Martin Scorcese's recent film Silence - then, hi, you must be the other one. As in Silence, one of the methods the Japanese use to ferret out Christian believers is to demand they tread upon an image of the cross. In this story, Usagi is simply confused when it occurs; he knows nothing of Christianity and has no idea what kind of loyalty test it is meant to be.

The best part of the comic is Usagi engaging in a conversation about the Christians with his friend Inspector Ishida. As Ishida explains Christian beliefs, it becomes clear neither of them can quite grasp how the faith functions - their own Buddhist beliefs are simply too incompatible. It's particularly interesting to note they can't understand why Christianity's deity could be considered a model person when he was punished as a criminal. Heck, there are plenty of Christians who fumble with the idea of Christ's crucifixion.

Usagi Yojimbo: The Hidden is published by Dark Horse Comics. You should give it a shot.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Starlin's Thanos, part 9 of 10: False Conclusions

Need to catch up? Part 1: The Mad Titan and the Cosmic Cube; Part 2: Chaos Meets the True Neutral; Part 3: Laid to Rest; Part 4: The Gloves Are On; Part 5: The Power Glove; Part 6: They Bite; Part 7: The Holiest War; Part 8: Gazed Too Long

'The End' was an unusual series of Marvel titles which began in 2002 with Incredible Hulk: The End, an adaptation of a prose story Peter David had written about the Hulk's final days on a desolate, mostly-uninhabited Earth. Soon, Marvel began churning out additional 'The End' titles, often written by the present-day scripter of the character's home title. The control over these titles was somewhat suspect, as two entirely different 'The End' stories appeared for the Fantastic Four, but it was an interesting idea to imagine how Marvel's heroes would end up if their stories were ever permitted to end.

In 2003, Jim Starlin followed up The Infinity Abyss with Marvel Universe: The End (again scripting/penciling with Al Milgrom as inker). Unlike every other entry in the title series, this was not an alternate universe tale. Yes, virtually every major character in the Marvel Universe dies, but they are then brought back to life, not unlike The Infinity Gauntlet. And sure enough, Thanos and Adam Warlock were once again present.

The early issues of the 6-part mini-series deal with Akhenaten, an Egyptian pharoah possessing cosmic power from the Heart of the Infinite. When he's finally dealt with, Thanos inherits his power and is once again the most powerful being in the universe. Naturally, once again he realizes he can't handle the weight of all this power and gives up on it.

This led directly into a Thanos ongoing series in 2004. Starlin wrote & drew the first six issues with Al Milgrom as his inker. Thanos picks up immediately after Marvel Universe: The End but also picks up some loose ends from The Infinity Abyss. Thanos' primary motivation in this series is to seek redemption for what his Thanosi clone did over in Dan Jurgens' Thor. In the course of this, Thanos discovers Galactus is pursuing the Infinity Gems while a being who consumes entire realities spurs him on.

As Starlin has frequently chosen to ignore how other writers treated Thanos (likewise Adam Warlock), it is interesting to note how generous Starlin was in Thanos to pick up on the events of Thor. Also, the recap of Thanos' origin in the first issue makes no bones about identifying Thanos as an Eternal, something which Mark Gruenwald had come up with and which Starlin had previously distanced himself from; he even identifies Thanos as possessing a 'Deviant gene.'

The Thanos series did well enough but Starlin had a falling-out with Marvel after the sixth issue. Marvel chose to continue the series without him (bringing in Keith Giffen as writer and Ron Lim as artist) and Starlin politely wished Giffen well with the series. Giffen's Thanos #7-12 wound up building towards a new attempt to develop a Marvel cosmic line, resulting in the Annihilation event which would eventually birth Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning's Guardians of the Galaxy, stories which caught the attention of Marvel's new motion picture line, the ultra-successful Marvel Studios. More about that in our conclusion.

Next Thursday: Forever Infinite.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Dark Reign Files is on Comixology!

So, here's Dark Reign Files on Comixology. I had a lot of fun coming up with the concept behind this book - that the super-computer villain Quasimodo had been contracted to analyze villains for Norman Osborn (at the time, Quasimodo hadn't appeared in comics for 8 years). I wish we had been given enough money to afford original art for the cover - the collage looks cheap. But I had a blast with this one; the introduction page is one of the funniest things I wrote for Marvel.

Straight from the files of Norman Osborn! The Dark Reign's chief power broker assembles a case study of professional criminals on the superhuman grid -scrutinizing threat, loyalty, influence, power, and expendability. In the words of the Green Goblin himself: "Our purpose is to know our enemies - and our enemies' enemies - as we do ourselves."

Pick it up at Comixology!

Friday, April 6, 2018

Now on Comixology: New Avengers: Most Wanted Files

This one came to our handbook team in an interesting way; our editor, Jeff Youngquist had just approved one book we'd requested, but hit us with New Avengers: Most Wanted Files as our penanc (that is, he said, "but you have to write this"). I had to make the deadline early because of my brother's wedding and I was pretty stressed out as I wrote the entries I had promised to cover. It's always left a bad taste in my mouth. Anyway, now it's preserved forever online!
An essential companion to NEW AVENGERS, SPIDER-MAN: BREAKOUT, TOXIN and more! Revelations, clarifications and explanations abound as Marvel shines its searchlight on the jailbreak of the century! In the tradition of SECRET WAR: FROM THE FILES OF NICK FURY and SECRETS OF THE HOUSE OF M, NEW AVENGERS: MOST WANTED features HANDBOOK-style bios of all the escapees, from the Answer to Zzzax!

Check it out at Comixology!