Thursday, May 24, 2012

Seeing Marvel’s The Avengers

Seeing Marvel’s The Avengers:

The characters in the new Avengers movie worked well together, and that’s why the movie works. And partly why I’ve seen it twice in theatres. (The other part was, I wanted to take my best friend along the 2nd time.) It’s a great film! Every superhero was at their best! It’s loaded with action, jokes, and heroic exploits for our times.

I’ll be honest, I knew the Avengers only from secondary media in my childhood. Videogames and small appearances on TV. (With Spider-Man.) But, I’d never read their comic extensively until about 2007, when I started to collect comics again in search of the Hero’s Journey, and because they were fun. I can only say that I once told everyone I liked Iron Man the best, prior to ’07, and then realized I was basing that opinion solely on Captain America and The Avengers for Super Nintendo!

Now that each individual Avenger has had their own movie in addition to this blockbuster, and now that I’ve had time to more or less familiarize myself with these characters, I can honestly say that every piece of the movie felt great. It’s action-packed, it’s culturally and socially relevant, and it’s even funny! They started off fighting, exposing their character flaws etc., but eventually put their differences behind and unite to fight off an alien invasion led by Loki. And every character has their comedic moments. Without giving spoilers, with Cap, it's about how old he is, with Hulk, people always try to make him angry. With Thor, he's all brawn and no brains, Iron Man is made fun of for being rich and arrogant. (But, so cool!)

“Okay,” you say. “So, it was action-packed and funny, but you’ve described almost 90% of all action movies. What makes this one so great?” Well, I’m trying not to give spoilers, so I have to go into the experiences of seeing the movie. The first time I went to see the movie, I had a hot dog in the theatre, and pulled up to about the third row and there were a few empty rows. The 2nd time, I had popcorn and it was packed. Both times though, my attention was figuratively GLUED to the screen for its nearly 3 hour run time. So, I think at least part of what makes the movie work is the pacing between the action, the story (Ooo, Ah!) comic relief, (HAHA; there were some good jokes here. I laughed out loud for about 15 seconds maybe three times, punctuated by little chuckles throughout.) and the big climax. (BOOM! BANG! POW!)

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how it incorporated the Hero’s Journey. These heroes from different backgrounds all put aside their differences to fight for a Greater Good. But, they all have to get beyond their perceived flaws first, in order to become one and realize they’re fighting for the same things. And the characters connected so well, whether in conflict or camaraderie, that I never lost interest. Each one had a message for the other about their flaw, and they played well off of each other. So culturally, I think this movie’s about the need to work through differences, but it does it in such a way that it doesn’t stop the action to make its point, as other movies do. And I came out of the movie theater both times with renewed faith that a hero story really can save the world.

All those elements that fit together, are in my opinion, what made it a deserving world record-breaker. (One of the few movies to top one billion dollars worldwide, I hear, behind The Dark Knight.) It’s so fun and spectacular to look at. So I always get asked who my favorite Avenger is now. I have to say I like them all because each one had a message and kicked butt. I’m sorry, no spoilers! But, I’d have to say Captain America is probably most like me, in his loyalty and dedication to keeping the group focused on its goal. Sorry, Super Nintendo-era Iron Man! And yes, I plan on getting the video when it comes out!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Beckderf A Comic Book Presentation at the Wexner Center OSU:

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Beckderf

Derf Beckderf is an unassuming man in a black shirt, jeans, and horn-rimmed glasses. The first thing he clarified in that sparsely populated gray-walled Wexner Art Center. where splotches of psychedelic art were like quilt patterns, is that he’s usually a humorist, and this graphic novel actually has very little violence. But, he went to high school with Jeffrey Dahmer and was his friend. The book is based on ideas and memories of Jeff in high school that “foreshadow his slow turn into the abyss." So, as you read on, the comic, as well as Dahmer’s behavior, gets darker, both in art and in presentation.
In high school, Derf was a member of the Jeffrey Dahmer Fan Club. Their function was to sneak Dahmer into high school pictures, photos, and just goof around with him.
“Jeff was a lonely kid.” said Beckdorf. “Probably the loneliest kid you ever saw.” So, because he had friends high school was, Beckdorf says, probably the happiest time of his life. He always had a schtick going to make people laugh, or mask that he was always drunk. Sometimes, he’d baaa! like a sheep, or fake epileptic fits, or “the spastic tics” of cerebral palsy. Outside of his group, where he was wearing these masks, he would be alone in the woods, playing with road kill, consumed by profound boredom in the small town of Bath, OH.

In 1978, Beckdorf explains there was no social safety net for children of absent parents. The parents just weren’t around, and Jeff would just wander the woods after school picking at road kill. The style of Derf’s comic book is to blend memoir and journalism. To recreate that lonely experience of the 1970s, both for people who remember it and for people to young, to present what it was like by evoking his memories. So, there was an investigative quality to his art, though not incriminating. In his words, “If you weren’t there, you can be glad you weren’t.” He explains that it was the Stoner Era, so maybe that’s why his drinking went unnoticed, aside from his schticks.

His drinking also masked his dark thoughts and repressed homosexuality. Going through records and talking once again to his former club members, Jeff had fantasies of necrophilia (which he of course later fulfilled; mercifully, no pictures in the comic depict that.) first in high school. Interestingly, he was a big guy, so nobody picked on him, and Beckderf said “There was no revenge fantasy.” He didn’t “get revenge on society, and he wasn’t picked on.” In the last page of the comic has the words “and the rest of his life would be a living hell.” with Dahmer’s face completely dark.

Derf says that Jeff was just a normal kid who led “pretty much the same life as I did; grew up in the same town, fathers were both chemists. But where life paths took us was worlds apart.” He claims that the last photo he has of Jeff in a graduation cap was “his last photo as a human being.” and that after he was separated from his friends “his humanity just fell off in chunks.”

This talk was definitely not what I expected: a “human” comic book perspective of Jeffrey Dahmer in expressionist style. Derf himself plays the role of comic relief. I expected it to be a violent, gritty comic. It was not. It turned darker. But, it never lost its human tone, painting Jeffrey Dahmer as a lonely kid. Also, I never knew he faked cerebral palsy. Interestingly, many people who I think were expecting the comic to be violent left, and we even had a heckler who kept ranting about “The System @#*&ed him up!” who had to be confronted outside by police. Derf even said “Hey, no more comments from the peanut gallery, please!” but the guy would not stop, and was escorted out.

All in all, I’d say the presentation taught me a lot about blending memoir and journalism. Because that’s what I do. Except here we have a very sinister-seeming man, who was remembered as a friend. A lonely kid. And it also cemented in my mind the power of the image not necessarily the word (though that’s what I do.) to represent experience, so the appropriate medium for that is the comic book/graphic novel.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Thought Experiment: Robert Nozick's Experience Machine

   Well, I couldn’t go to the Barack Obama rally at OSU due to bad traffic and marathon runners. So, I spent most the day playing with Robert Nozick’s thought experiment, The Experience Machine. If there were a machine that could lock you into a simulated experience, any one you wanted, would you plug in? This thought experiment was first introduced to me in 2005, so my go-to response was from equal parts William Gibson and The Matrix. No, I said. I personally wouldn’t plug in, but I think it’s wrong to assume that no one could benefit from plugging in, since it could help a lot of people, and we’re already half-way plugged in, anyway. Mercifully though, you can log out of the internet. Here, it would be such a waste of my mind, I’d be bored all the time.

If such a machine existed, I think it would have therapeutic potential. One that perhaps Nozick didn’t see. He, in my mind, assumes able-bodiedness, claiming that a person in the machine would appear to us to be a “indeterminate blob”. Remember, this thought experiment was before The Matrix. Or maybe even Neuromancer. That ignores the evolution of the machines along with the humans. When I think of a person today, it seems to me they are more reliant on machines. And certainly I’m reliant on a machine. I grew up with my chairs, and I’ve treated them like new skins every 5 or 6 years. So, I think some of his argument reveals able-bodied bias. I almost consider myself something of a cyborg-like being. Poetics aside, my reliance on my machine doesn’t make me a blob. But, I still can’t imagine a world where Stephen Hawking were plugged in. It would be the loss of a great mind.

I can see that the machine would have therapeutic aspects. For my body it might be good. But not for my mind. I could only imagine what a waste it would be for disabled people who live full lives and want to be with people. Still though, you could leave the machines open for those whose lives are beyond repair. But there’d have to be a long checklist for the requirements. And probably a long waitlist. So, people could decide to cancel it before, but not after you've been plugged in.

Thought experiments reveal how we think. In that experiment, you could see some of my experiences too. But, I think this experiment reveals in me once and for all, that I am a philosopher of disability. In the years I grappled with it, my process has always been the same, and sometimes my love of sci-fi wins out over philosophy. So, this answer is a negotiation between the two. I don’t think that it’s wrong to want to plug in necessarily (as Nozick sets out to prove.), but the want needs to be carefully considered. And like it or not, we’re kind of temporarily plugged in every day to a simulated experience; the digital. Don’t you think it’s best we enjoy it?

Link to original Thought Experiment PDF: