Wallpaper of the Week: Batman

June 19, 2009

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FROM JASON’S WALLPAPER FOLDER — There used to be Hercules, Arthur, Marduk, Beowulf, Conn of the Hundred Battles, Odin, Samson, Huangdi, Odysseus, and all the other heroes of ancient legend.

When you think about it, Batman is cut from the same literary cloth. Comic book characters are just modern mythological warrior-heroes. It’s enough to make you wonder whether Zeus was just a very popular-selling title of the time.

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And why does the Dark Knight resonate so well with us? Probably because he embodies good intentions clothed in lawlessness. Batman is an ends-justifies-the-means personification. He’s the animated Jack Bauer, carrying out swift street justice using the tools of evil — fear and pain and malice. He’s a natural (and as a vigilante, wrong) reaction to our overburdened, over-bureaucratized system.

So, because his goals are so honorable, we find ourselves rooting for Batman’s antisocial behavior, ignoring how illicit are his activities, how every criminal he captures would be released due to lack of proper arrest and Mirandizing, and how he quite possibly has split personalities or other forms of schizophrenia. We even justify his actions as moral instead of reclusively egoistic and dangerous.

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But that’s television for you.

It was that medium that lured me to Batman in 1992, with Batman: The Animated Series‘ “dark deco” styling and gritty storytelling. Here was a cartoon with noir pacing, relying more on the Bat’s detective skills and character development than explosions (though those were to be found as well).

Warner Bros. let Bruce Timm make a mature, sophisticated take on what superficially could be described as another “underwear” superhero; part of that came from elaborate and often sympathetic retellings of classic villains’ backstories. There were the go-to baddies, sure: Catwoman, Penguin, Joker, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, Mr. Freeze, The Riddler. But some of the best episodes of TAS focused on obscure ones such as the Clock King, Killer Croc, the Ventriloquist, HARDAC, Hugo Strange, Red Claw, and the Sewer King.

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And some of the most interesting twists came when the right question was posed: Was Batman really that different from the criminals he fought? Motive counts for a lot, true, but means and method are also very important. There’s also the Frank Miller alternative to¬† consider: Could Batman actually be insane?

While we’re thinking about Batman and comparative ethics, have some fun with these wallpapers, conveniently sized to 1024×768.

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Read This: Inside-Outside by Philip Jose Farmer

June 12, 2009

insideoutside01FROM JASON’S REPLENISHED BOOKSHELF — Take heart, the banana-hammocks shown on the cover are never actually described inside the book. Or if they were, I repressed those memories.

No, what gets top priority description-wise in Philip Jose Farmer‘s Inside-Outside is the vicious, artificial world of Hell, where humans and demons suffer side-by-side.

It’s a cavernous and barren dessert domain, revealed mid-novel to actually be (spoilers here, folks) the hollowed inside of an asteroid where souls are imprisoned more or less as laboratory animals at the whim of a highly-advanced alien race.

In many ways, it’s a pre-treading of Farmer’s Riverworld Saga — not a re-treading, because he published Inside-Outside seven years prior to To Your Scattered Bodies Go. It also seems to foreshadow the route writer-director Alex Royas would take more than two decades later in Dark City (1998).

Farmer gets credit for being a master of American science fiction, but in my mind he’s not so much a crafter of great stories as he is a crafter of great fantasy settings. A good 80 percent of Inside-Outside is spent tromping through the bowels of Hell and meeting its challenges, not actually getting answers to the teleological puzzles the netherworld presents.

insideoutside02This is where Farmer succeeds: His version of the afterlife is like the third panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights brought to life. It’s debased. It’s surreal. It’s pain and doubt and vice at every turn.

But it’s also a tangible world ruled by its own peculiar physical laws, not some protoplasmic spiritual dimension, even though there are unearthly monsters a-plenty.

Corporeal though it is, Hell is lavished with religious iconography. I mentioned the demons; there is also a baffling and perhaps ghoulish Christ figure, stone idols, sewers filled with Inferno-esque denizens, the curse of eternal life through resurrection from the dead, machine-made “souls” reminiscent of Scientology’s so-called thetans, and (for all intents) omnipotent alien “gods” with their own agendas.

As well as Farmer creates his environment, he doesn’t do a terrific job of sculpting characters. There’s nobody to like in this novel. We have a protagonist, sure, but he’s a spiteful, violent, selfish brute. Jack Cull is not really a hero, although technically you could probably say he’s on a hero’s quest.

Cull is looking for hope, but by book’s end he does not find it — in fact, he finds the opposite, that he is doomed to help his masters subjugate other races to a grinding, pathetic Purgatorio for their own supposedly “ethical” but still very, very flawed reasons.

And it’s all due to a big mistake. With a big twist in the final 10 pages (again, spoilers), we find that Hell is not really the afterlife… Cull and everyone else are alien-made souls who have never lived, and who were injected with false memories of time on Earth. The planet has long since been destroyed by nuclear war, and there will never be more human babies born in which Cull and his companions’ souls may be placed.

Which makes for a fun trip down the peroverbial rabbit hole.

It’s a good read for atmosphere, if nothing else. And at just 169 pocket-sized pages, it’s a quick read (I think I buzzed through in five or six hours). That’s not bad for $1 spent on the spinner rack at my local Half Price Books.


Even after all these years, news myths thrive

November 25, 2007

bostonnewspaper.gifFROM JASON’S SNAP-BRIM HAT AND TRENCH COAT — Seriously, folks. The first American newspaper, Public Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick, was printed in Boston in 1690. You’d think 317 years would be long enough for people to figure out how this business works.

But no — those old misconceptions about non-existent laws that supposedly limit what may be published continue to prosper. Many still don’t understand exactly what it is that reporters do. And too many people out there still think they are entitled to absolute privacy, no matter what the circumstances.

I run into these misguided myths and attitudes of entitlement nearly every day in the course of my work as a journalist. They annoy me. Hopefully, these few points will enlighten the billions who read Quaedam every day:

1) “You can’t print that! It was off the record!”

reporter.pngThere is no such thing as this chimerical “record” that pop culture has created. But thanks to old noir films featuring grungy, stereotyped reporters with press cards in their hats, people believe that “on the record” and “off the record” are relevant and binding concepts.

The Deep Throat scenario from All the President’s Men has ingrained this fallacy into the minds of three generations. Woodward and Bernstein’s method was the gross exception that proved the rule.

True, we do use the term as an informal agreement of confidentiality, but the fact remains that the record has no legal bite. Stating that something is off the record does not necessarily make it so. It is up to the reporter’s discretion to decide whether to grant a self-imposed moratorium on information.

If ever we do accept a statement as off the record, it is in exchange for either better information or a favor. I’ve agreed to put irrelevant information off the record just to bank against a source I may need down the road.

The only negatives consequences of using of-the-record info are loss of reputation and potential loss of that source in the future. Sometimes those losses are acceptable if the trade-off is big enough.

Statements made in public are never off the record, though. I once had a police chief walk by me in a city council meeting, muttering under his breath that a council member was an idiot because he would not increase his police budget. I printed that the chief called the legislator an idiot in public, and the he was irate. He tried to claim the comment was off the record because he did not intend for it to be heard. Too bad.

2) “You’re not allowed to put my child’s name in the paper.”

There is no law against publishing the names, crimes, or other actions of juveniles. Newspapers typically volunteer to withhold the names of people under the age of 18 who are charged with a crime or sexually victimized.

This, however, is not an absolute, and is left open to the discretion of the editors and publishers. Often, children who are charged and tried as adults will be named. Young people who are hurt in accidents or by criminals may also be named.

Reporters do not need special permission from parents or guardians to print the names of children. In some cases, however, there may be special rules surrounding coverage of juvenile courts. As always, judges have the final say in how proceedings are covered. There is also an element of forgiveness on the part of newspapers — mine, for example, does not cover juvenile courts unless there is a compelling public interest.

I recently covered an incident in which a 16-year-old boy was accused of shooting his parents. His mother was killed almost instantly, and his father (who was shot in the face) survived after being hospitalized for a month. We thought it prudent to print the boy’s name when he was charged.

superman.png3) “Reporters are private investigators.”

I am not Clark Kent, nor am I Kal El. It is not my job to solve crimes or catch criminals. I do not track down leads about where your husband is sleeping these nights, unless your husband is a an on-duty police officer soliciting prostitutes instead of patrolling the streets.

If you don’t want it published, don’t call me. If you want someone to help you find order, call the police. If you want someone to help you find justice, call a lawyer.

Many callers to my office want an intermediary to help make their problems go away. That is not what reporters do. We take information and transform it so the masses care and understand an issue. Reporters are professional gossipers with social and financial agendas.

A couple once called me complaining that a city had violated a contract to build a road in front of their house (they allowed the city to build a water tower on their land in return).

I made inquiries at the mayor’s office to find whether the allegation was true, and the next day cement trucks rolled into said neighborhood to pour the road. Once they were gone, the couple called to tell me they didn’t want the story in the paper, and even mentioned legal action.

I laughed and ran the story. I didn’t put pressure on the government for their gain. I did it for mine.

4) “My paycheck is none of your business.”

Anyone can be elected to public offices in America — that’s the biggest advantage and most dire curse of a democratic republic.

Unfortunately, it means too many yokels with no understanding of civics or the law gain power. I deal all the time with backwoods office-holders who don’t understand public records and attempt to deny access. The big-time politicians also try to claim ignorance of the Freedom of Information Act and open meeting laws.

“Sunshine Laws” (like Ohio Revised Code section 149.43) make it very clear what are the rules of the game. Any document used in the course of conducting public business is a public document. That means e-mails, pay stubs, budgets, court papers, police reports, internal memos, personnel files — even Post-It Notes! — are open to purview.

Every last scrap is my business, with notable exceptions: Social Security numbers, bank account numbers, and information related to security measures may be redacted.

A city auditor once refused to tell me to whom the government was loaning tax money. She said finances and loans were not the media’s concern. I quickly disabused her of that notion. She refused to comply with Ohio law several times (while I recorded her refusal), but reneged when I contacted county and state ethics authorities. I found out she was loaning thousands of dollars to business owners so they could fix their facilities.

5) “You ruined my life by putting that in the paper.”

No, I didn’t. You ruined your life by having sex with that high school principal on his desk during school hours. It was already over when that teenager walked in and saw you; all I did was tell the people who pay the principal how their tax money was misspent and their trust was violated.

There is an implied Constitutional right to privacy in the no-quarter clause of the Second Amendment, but that does not compel the media to help the accused or public figures save face. Once an individual gains a certain amount of notoriety, is given responsibility to uphold the public trust, or is charged with a crime (this is not an exhaustive list), they are subject to scrutiny.

The public’s right to know how its resources are handled and what events have or could compromise its safety outweigh the right to an individual’s privacy.