A Fact-Check for the Four-Color World

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

A Belated Thank You

This is long overdue, but I wanted to extend a great thanks to the folks who linked to us here as we were getting off the ground. It was heartening to see support and enthusiasm, and writing is a whole lot more pleasurable when you know someone's reading.

So from all of us here at SoD, a big "Thank You!" to:

Jessa from blog of a bookslut
Chris from Chris Karath's Blog
Johanna from Cognitive Dissonance
Greg from Delenda Est Carthago
Stephen from Greenflame
Greg from Howling Curmudgeons
John from Kung Fu Monkey
Kitty from Metrokitty
Neil from Neil's Journal
Lena from Nostalgia Nook
Scott from Polite Dissent
Dorian from postmodernbarney.com
Mike from Progressive Ruin
David from skiffy
Michael from Tales to Mildly Astonish
Heidi from The Beat
JDonelson from The Pickytarian
Des from Without Me You're Only You

and anyone else I may have missed. I'm just sorry we didn't express our gratitude earlier.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Kryptonian Astrophysics 101

Before I was a political science major in college, I did a stint with physics and astronomy. It's rare that I can put that to use, but this provides me with a limited opportunity.

In Superman: Birthright, Mark Waid tweaked Superman's origin story. Some of his biggest changes came in his alterations to Krypton. Not only did Waid tweak the look of Krypton, but he also made some changes to its physical nature.

Perhaps the most obvious of those changes was Waid's relocation of Krypton to another galaxy. Both Pre- and Post-Crisis, Krypton was located in our Milky Way Galaxy, about fifty light years from Earth. It was also within Green Lantern Tomar-Re's Sector 2813. This particular distance played a big role in Action Comics #600, when Kryptonite radiation reached the Earth fifty years after the planet's explosion, encouraging Superman to visit Krypton's remains. (Superman Adventures #3 also had a low-key and somewhat touching variation on this.)

Birthright moved Krypton to the Andromeda Galaxy, the Milky Way's nearest galactic neighbor. However, "nearest" is still pretty far in astronomical terms: Andromeda is 2.2 million light years away from the Milky Way (and with very little in-between). The in-story reason for this was to provide an explanation for why Krypton had not made any interstellar contact with other inhabited worlds. Jor-El states that Kryptonians had searched for signals of intelligent life for centuries, with no luck.

(This makes for an interesting question about DCU cosmology. The DCU's Milky Way is covered up in alien races. The DCU's Sol System alone managed to produce at least two inhabited planets. In Legion Lost (a mini-series which drove home the point of how far apart galaxies really are), aliens were found in another galaxy. DCU planets, at least in two galaxies, are a fertile breeding ground for life. So why does the Andromeda Galaxy, with twice as many stars as the Milky Way, have just one?)

But what works in service of one part of a story can create troubles for another. The Andromeda Galaxy is over 2.2 million light years from Earth, but is only 125,000 light years across. Jor-El is concerned about whether his son will survive the journey, but opts to send him to a place almost 20 times as far as any planet in his own galaxy. When Jor-El depressingly tells Lara that Earth is "far," he's not exaggerating.

In fact, it's so far that there's no possible way he could produce a picture of Earth like he does on page 10. Imagine taking a good clear photo of Pluto...if Pluto were 1.6 billion times as far away. It ain't happening. The light bouncing off the planet gets too diffused by that point to produce a visual image. It creates a dichotomy: Krypton is so scientifically advanced that it can take a snapshot of a planet in another galaxy, but is fairly incompetent when it comes to geology and space travel. (The Superman animated series had a novel solution to this seeming inconsistency in the Brainiac computer. The animated Krypton was fully scientifically capable of diagnosing the planet's problem, and of addressing it, but their folly was in trusting a machine that lied to them out of its own self-interest.)

And if Jor-El could produce a photo, one would assume he should've also known that the Milky Way was full of inhabited worlds. That may or may not be the case, because any information Jor-El had about the Milky Way would necessarily be two million years out-of-date. Any light or radio transmissions would have taken that long to reach Krypton. If Jor-El's photo of Earth had been even closer, he would've found the inhabitants to be Homo Habilis, the first human species. In past continuities, Jor-El picked Earth because of its hospitable environment. But in Birthright, Jor-El's only stated reasons are Earth's gravity and sun, both of which apply equally well to Mars or Venus, to name two.

(Continuity sidebar: The DCU's Mars had reached the peak of civilization hundreds of millions of years earlier, and was still going strong while Earthmen were just coming into existence in 2.2 million BC. Jor-El got an unbelievably good picture of Earth, but somehow failed to notice that the next planet over was a highly advanced civilization.)

The distance also means that Kal's ship travelled a long, long, LONG way to get to Earth. Since I'm skeptical about a prototype spaceship holding up for well over two million years in transit, the trip would have to involve some sort of warp speed or wormhole or other sci-fi travel device (as most recent continuities have used). Unfortunately, issue one doesn't directly support either of these. Rather, it shows the ship passing a bunch of planets, as if in normal space.

However, let's assume that Jor-El's ship *did* travel faster that light (through hyperspace or whatever). Let's say that little Kal was in suspended animation, and that the trip took 10 years. That would mean that the little prototype ship that could was travelling at a speed equivalent to 150 trillion mph, or about 220,000 times the speed of light. At that speed, you could travel from Earth to Pluto in about 1/14 of a second. Kryptonians may not know much about making spaceships, but they can sure make 'em fast.

Traditionally, Krypton's sun was a red giant star. Birthright officially established that the Kryptonian sun was a red dwarf star. Red dwarfs are fairly common, and at least one is known to have a planet.

But red dwarfs are also fairly unimpressive as suns go. They're small, only about 1/10 to 1/3 the size of our sun. And they're dim. Really dim. They put out less than 1% of the light that our sun does. Unless Krypton's orbit hugs its sun awfully tight, water on Krypton's surface would freeze.

A closer orbit would mean that when Jor-El refers to Krypton's history spanning "ten thousand orbits," that translates to substantially less than 10,000 Earth years. This page, addressing the red dwarf star I linked to above, puts the orbital period for an Earth-type planet at 24 Earth days. That would make Jor-El's "ten thousand orbits" into a mere 657 Earth years. The great era of Kryptonian civilization seems less impressive.

(Then again, Al Schroeder argued that Siegel's Krypton more likely had a red dwarf sun than a giant, but for evolutionary reasons.)

And while Waid made Krypton's sun smaller, he also tinkered with Krypton's makeup. Post-Crisis, Krypton was roughly Earth-sized, and as seen in Starman #51, it had gravity similar to Earth's. Jor-El states that Earth has gravity equal to 0.03 of Krypton's. This means that an object on Krypton's surface would weigh more than it would on the surface of our sun. We're talking powerful gravity here.

Unfortunately, without knowing Krypton's mass or size, it's impossible to say exactly what this means for the planet. If Krypton is made of the same rocky elements as Earth, and has the same density, then it would mean that Krypton's diameter is 33 times that of Earth. About three times the diameter of Jupiter. Or in other words, that Krypton is the same size as, or bigger than, its own red dwarf sun. Some gas giants may be able to reach that size, but solid planets can't.

The other possibility is that Krypton isn't much bigger than Earth, but is extraordinary dense. As in thirty plus times as dense. Unfortunately, normal matter doesn't get that dense. The Earth is the densest planet in our solar system, with an average density of 5515 km/m3. The densest known elements are iridium and osmium, with densities about four times that of the Earth's. Nowhere near thirty times.

Professor Jim Kakalios had a theory pre-Birthright to explain this quandary, and that was to suggest that Krypton had a neutron star at its core. And he suggested that this could also explain why Krypton exploded. I think that ends up making Krypton's gravity too strong (as in a couple of hundred thousand times Earth's gravity), but he's a physics professor and I'm a physics dropout, so I'll cede to him for now.

Krypton's extreme gravity would also result in a really nasty escape velocity for Kal's spaceship. Earth's escape velocity is 11.2 km/s. Krypton's escape velocity would probably be somewhere in the neighborhood of 600 km/s. Maybe that's why Krypton had such difficulty with spaceflight: they couldn't successfully get anything into space to start with.

And to close with, here are a couple of good articles on Superman and physics (in addition to those linked to above). They deal more in 'how could Superman's powers work' than I did, though.

The Science of Superman
The Science of Superheroes

Monday, March 21, 2005


My last three legal reviews went Manhunter-Millar-Manhunter. So it's time for another Mark Millar book. This time, it's Wolverine #26. Specifically, this (rather fatalistic) line:

"The X-Men make you do a will at 14."

If you die without a will ("intestate"), then your estate automatically passes to your natural heirs. Each state has a statute defining who those heirs are, and in what order they're considered. This describes the New York statute. If the deceased leaves a spouse, then the spouse (and any children) take the whole estate. If there's no widow or widower left, then the children get everything. If there are no children either, then the deceased's parents get everything. If the parents are already dead, then any siblings split the estate. And so on.

Most people die without wills. It may not be the wisest financial decision, but the succession laws often give the property to the people they'd will it to anyway. And some people don't have much of an estate to will.

With the exception of Warren Worthington III, I'd never really pegged any of the teenage X-Men to be independantly wealthy, so I'm skeptical that they have their own estates to will. If their parents gave them their money, then it's natural for that money to revert to the parents, as it would without a will. If Professor Xavier is somehow compensating his teenage wards for risking their lives before reaching the age to drive, then the Xavier School shouldn't be worried about black helicopters as much as little ladies from DFCS and child welfare.

Maybe the teenage X-Men are just willing their knick-knacks and trophies from adventures to each other. A will devoted to sentimental items rather than wealth. That would explain the need for a will without an estate, but it still wouldn't be binding.

Because in New York, you must be 18 to create a will. A will from a 14-year old is legally void.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Manhunter #8: The Trial of the Shadow Thief, Part 2

"Trial by Fire Part 3"
Writer: Marc Andreyko
Artist: Javier Pina and Jimmy Palmiotti

Has it been a month already? Well, now we come to the second installment in the trial of Carl Sands, the Shadow Thief, for the murder of Firestorm.

When last we left our avenging attorney, Carl Sands was about to be abducted by the terrorist Cheshire. For better or worse, Kate Spencer (as Manhunter) intervenes and fights off Cheshire, and ensures that Sands remains in custody. The trial eventually resumes, but the courtroom scenes this month take up only a handful of pages.

We see a couple of last month's visual blunders repeated again. Sands is still dressed in his orange jail jumpsuit in the courtroom, and is still confined to a tube for some reason. His attorney must not care much about how his client looks to the jurors.

There's another little mistake that could also be blamed on the artist. When Kate fails to arrive on time for trial, her co-counsel asks to speak to the judge at the bench. But only the prosecutor approaches, and the defense attorney doesn't. Judges don't talk to counsel separately; whatever is said to one, the other is entitled to hear.

Kate finally arrives, and calls her next two witnesses: Felicity Smoak-Raymond and Edward Raymond, Firestorm's step-mother and father. Their testimony is truncated for the sake of space, but what they have to say basically boils down to:

1) The victim, superhero "Firestorm," was actually Ronnie Raymond.
2) Ronnie was a great guy and a great son.

Thus, during her first two days of direct examination, Kate has called four consecutive witnesses who know absolutely nothing about the crime in question. It's not even clear that they were in the same state, or even the same part of the country, that the murder took place in.

The question that the jury is supposed to decide is whether Sands caused the death of Ronnie Raymond with a malicious intent. Despite calling four witnesses, Kate has provided the jury exactly zero evidence relevant to determining the answer to that question. None of the four saw the killing. None of the four have testified about the killing. None of the four have provided any testimony that Sands acted malciously. So far, all the jury has heard is "Ronnie was a great guy, and Sands is a crook."

And this is not merely a poor tactical move on Kate's part. The testimony of both of Ronnie's parents is wholly objectionable. All they have to offer up is character evidence of their son, the victim. That sort of testimony is certainly appropriate during the sentencing phase following a conviction, when the jury can hear about the character of the victim in deciding whether they should impose the death penalty. Killing a well-respected member of the community is more likely to get you executed than killing a local thug. But the victim's character is all but completely irrelevant and inadmissible at trial. That Ronnie was a good son may affect the punishment imposed on Sands, but it tells the jurors absolutely nothing as to whether Sands killed Ronnie.

With three witnesses in a row offering nothing but character evidence on the victim, the defense attorney ought to be getting hoarse from objecting constantly. Heck, he should've objected to them taking the stand at all, because they possess no information that's legally relevant to the murder in question. But he doesn't make a peep. If Sands actually does get convicted, he has an excellent appeal based on the ineffective assistance of counsel (as Slam pointed out last time).

The only substantive testimony the Raymonds have to offer is the true identity of Firestorm. Secret identites are something that real courts don't have to deal with, so this point takes a bit of hypothetical thinking.

Firestorm died by exploding, and thus left no body (the jury knows this, but only because of Kate's opening statement). Witness testimony from those who saw the explosion would probably suffice to show that a death actually occurred (even if Kate hasn't called any such witnesses yet). The criminal charge as filed would state the identity of the victim. Sometimes, victims may be vagrants or unknown persons. "John Does." That the state doesn't know the victim's true identity doesn't necessarily prevent a prosecution from proceeding. And here, based on the 'surprise' testimony, it certainly seems that the charge against Sands was for causing the death of "Firestorm," and not of "Ronald Raymond."

And that might be acceptable, if the state was truly ignorant of the victim's identity. But it's made pretty clear here that the state knew full well that Firestorm was, in fact, Ronnie Raymond. The state has to submit a prospective witness list before trial, and the Raymonds must have been on it. The defense may or may not have known, but the public clearly did not.

What would be the legal ramifications of this, if any? The defense had a right to know if the state knew, and if the prosecution failed to disclose that information to Sands' attorneys, that's probably a recipe for trouble. But even if both sides knew and kept it to themselves, that still creates problems.

Since Kate planned for the identity information to come out at trial, that identity is very relevant during jury selection. Jurors were assuredly asked whether they had ever encountered 'Firestorm' in any way, to determine whether they might be biased. But what about jurors who might have known or been related to Ronnie, and didn't know he was Firestorm? A juror's sudden revelation that he does, in fact, know the victim is potentially a source of great bias. Granted, the chances of such a familiarity are relatively slim (though he did work with the Power Company in San Francisco for a time), but it's still a very important boilerplate question, and the failure to ask it is a huge legal oversight. If just one juror did know the Raymonds (or even if one of the struck jurors knew the Raymonds), that alone could lead directly to a reversal and a retrial.

I also feel that this is poor tactical move on Kate's part. If she wanted to put a "human face" on Firestorm, then she could have done that from the start. Ronnie Raymond's name could have appeared on the charge, and she could have repeated his name over and over during her opening statement. That way, 'Firestorm' would be humanized from the very start, and not from the third witness on.

That's it for this month. Maybe next month Kate will finally call a witness in this murder trial who has something to say about, y'know, a murder.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Profile: Jinx

Although I have yet to tackle a subject, I feel I should jump on the profile bandwagon.

My Blogger ID is Jinx, my real name's Mandy (though to the other authors, I’m better known as Phoenixrising), and I'm a 24-year-old journalist and political junkie working out of Milwaukee.

Credentials: I have two journalism degrees from Kent State University (BS in print, MA in online) and am getting geared up to go for round three later this year. I have interned as a reporter for a few Cleveland-area business magazines, the Cincinnati Enquirer and put in three years at the Cleveland NPR affiliate covering (primarily) state/local politics. I also started and edited Fusion magazine, an independent service publication about sexual minority issues. I currently work as an online reporter/producer for the website of a 450,000-circulation daily newspaper, where I focus on local news, politics and community blogging.

When my “real job” isn’t distracting me, I hope to post here not only about print/broadcast/online journalism myths, but also about inconsistencies with politics and government operations.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

The Ultimates #3: The Trial of the Incredible Hulk

The Incredible Hulk may have never gotten his day in court on TV, but this month he finally finds himself in a courtroom in the Ultimate universe. Granted, the reader is only treated to about four pages of that nine-day trial, but thankfully, two of those pages can be read for free at Mile High's Marvel Firstlooks.

The opening splash page of the issue of of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan U.S. Courthouse in Manhattan. This is a real, and relatively new, federal courthouse, as seen here:

I'm not sure if Bryan Hitch used the same angle, so you can be the judge of his attention to detail.

As in Manhunter, the defendant is on trial for murder in a federal court. Based on Matt's closing, it sounds like he must be on trial for all 800 murders. But I've dealt with federal jurisdiction before, so I'll talk about the trial's location.

Unlike Manhunter, I think Banner would have a good case for a change of venue. Banner, as the Hulk, killed some 800 people in Manhattan, which is where this court is located. Manhattan Island is only 12 miles long, so the Hulk's murderous rampage was practically up the street from the courthouse. There must be a phenomenal amount of prejudice against Banner there; I can't imagine him getting a much fairer trial in Manhattan than Osama would. Jury selection alone must have been a nightmare, trying to find twelve people who weren't somehow acquainted with a victim. Jurors may well pass by some of the buildings the Hulk damaged on their way to court. The protesters on pages 1 and 2 might well have walked there from their homes. Moving the case to a different venue, at least out of Manhattan, would certainly be merited.

The first thing that catches my attention in the courtroom are the multiple TV screens with Bruce Banner's face, because Banner is not in the courtroom but rather is sitting in a cell in the Triskelion. In real court, a criminal defendant has a right to be physically present at his trial, because of the Constitutional guarantee to confront witnesses.

The exception to this rule is when the defendant continues to disrupt the proceedings. Courts have been known to bind and gag defendants to keep them in line, but that tends to be more than a bit prejudicial in the jury's eyes. So if a defendant refuses to be quiet, he can be removed from the courtroom in order to ensure that the trial can continue uninterrupted. Bruce seems too quiet to be disruptive enough to be removed, and since we join the trial at its start, he hasn't even had time to do so.

But people in the real world don't transform into unstoppable monsters when they get upset, either. That's a situation our courts have never had to deal with, but which a comic universe court must address. If the defendant could unconsciously turn into a rampaging beast at any moment, then that would sure as heck be disruptive to the process. And given that the risks of that potentiality include the deaths of every person in the courtroom, then it's plausible that an Ultimate universe judge would require the defendant be kept in a secure location, with full observation of the proceedings (given that the Ultimates were watching the trial, I'll assume that Bruce had a TV to watch).

Just as in the regular Marvel Universe, Matt Murdock seems to be the only private attorney in Ultimate New York, as well.

Matt makes two objections during the first minute of the prosecutor's opening statement. Objections during opening statements can be tricky. Sometimes an attorney will say something out of line (like referring to inadmissible evidence), and an objection is merited. But unnecessary objections that get overruled can make an attorney look bad, moreso than a failed objection during questioning. I think Millar wanted to squeeze in some exposition through the objections, but as a result I daresay Matt doesn't make a good first impression with the jury here.

(On the flip side, while Matt was a little objection-happy here, he was just begging for objections during his closing argument later in the issue. Matt's soliloquy about why he and Foggy took the case, and how much they believe in Banner's good character, is personal opinion that has no place in a closing argument. Such comments encourage the jury to decide the case not on the facts presented, but on the feelings of the attorney. The prosecutors must've been napping.)

His first objection strikes me as odd. The prosecutor says that Banner committed his crimes "in his drug-induced Hulk state," to which Matt objects "My client has never been diagnosed as chemically dependent." No one said anything about dependency. The judge makes the right call, but Millar makes Matt look sloppy.

During his second objection, Matt is holding a folder about the super-soldier serum marked "Top Secret." Really secret, that. I wonder if it's in braille.

We cut back to the Ultimates watching the trial on television in the mansion. On the next page, they catch Thor on 60 Minutes talking about how the trial is being "televised 24/7."

State court trials are occasionally televised, as are some federal civil trials. But federal criminal trials are never televised. That's been a federal rule since 1946, about the time that broadcasters started asking to put television cameras in courtrooms. As far as the federal courts are concerned, cameras negatively affect witness testimony and lessen the dignity of the courtroom.

Even assuming that that rule is different in the Ultimate universe, the Ultimates themselves probably shouldn't be watching. Given that they were the ones who took Banner down, there's a pretty darn good chance they'll be called as witnesses. And unless Matt or the prosecutor had a lapse at the start of the trial, at least one of them should have asked for the court to impose "the rule," and exclude all witnesses from hearing testimony. Listening to other witnesses is considered to run the risk of tainting or affecting later testimony. And I can't imagine that someone excluded from watching the trial in person would be permitted to watch it on TV. Fortunately, we don't see them watching any more than a few minutes of an opening statement, so maybe they behaved themselves for the rest of the trial.

Millar avoids the problem of dragging the trial out by only showing an opening and closing statement. This avoids making too many trial mistakes (though you can see he still made a few), but it also leaves the reader to wonder exactly what Banner's defense was. We do get some hints, though.

For most crimes, including murder, there must be both an criminal act (actus reus) and a criminal intent (mens rea). If a defendant killed someone, but did so purely by accident, then they lack the necessary mental state to have committed murder.

The prosecutor's opening analogies about alcohol and drugs aren't really in his favor. "Is a homicide not a homicide if you're under the influence," he asks. Well, sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't.

Intoxication is not an excuse for killing. But proof of intoxication can raise doubt about the defendant's malicious intent to kill, drawing the 'mens rea' aspect of the crime into question, and thus resulting in the crime of manslaughter rather than murder. The defense can argue that the serum impaired Bruce's judgment, and he never formed a coherent criminal intent. However, he admitted to Betty Ross that he took the serum in order to provide the Ultimates with a high-profile combatant. Her testimony could go a long way towards showing that he became 'intoxicated' with the serum intentionally, for the express purpose of causing harm.

Both in the prosecutor's opening and Matt's closing, it's admitted that Bruce actually did kill 800 people. So the defense isn't denying the act. Instead, based on a few of Matt's comments, it seems that the defense argument was that Banner was not in control of himself during his rampage, and never meant to kill anyone. That Banner lacked the necessary mens rea. And so Matt more or less asks for a conviction on the lesser charge of manslaughter (presumably, 800 charges of manslaughter).

Clearly, the jury didn't buy that defense. 800 unintended killings is a big pill to swallow.

After Matt's closing argument, Nick Fury visits Bruce's cell with a bottle of wine, telling him that the case was thrown out on a technicality. They toast, and after having a drink, Bruce falls unconscious to the floor. Nick had drugged the wine, because in fact, Bruce was convicted and sentenced to death. His unconscious body is then transported to an aircraft carrier, which is then blown up with a nuclear bomb (in the Ultimate universe, they can afford to sacrifice their largest military ship for the sake of an execution).

Aside from the obvious issue of the appeals process, and Bruce not being allowed to watch his verdict being read (both of which play into Millar's ending, but could've been done differently), there's a more subtle error in this sequence. Death penalty cases have two jury phases: a trial phase, and a sentencing phase. At the end of the trial, the jury deliberates and decides whether to convict or acquit. If they acquit, then the show's over and everybody goes home.

But if they convict, then comes the sentencing phase when the jury must decide whether to impose a prison sentence or death. So the jury gets to listen to victim accounts, and family testimonials, and see other evidence that may not have been presented (or allowed) at trial. The defense will try to mitigate all of this by bringing in witnesses who can testify to the good character of the defendant, friends and family who'll say that he doesn't deserve to die. They could spend days just watching home movies from when the defendant was a kid.

And they may hear from the defendant himself, asking for mercy. Because just like during trial, the defendant has an absolute right to participate in his sentencing. He gets to watch and listen to everything up until the last of the evidence is shared and the jury makes its decision.

Bruce, clearly, was denied this right. Probably because from all appearances, he didn't have a sentencing phase. The jury looks to have handed down one decision: 'We find the defendant guilty, and sentence him to die.' The fear of a 'Hulk-out' might allow for his exclusion from the courtroom, but it wouldn't allow for him to be railroaded like this. He was never allowed the opportunity to ask the jury to spare his life, or to present any evidence in his favor. He never got the chance to defend his life in court.

And that's a technicality that should've gotten him out of the death penalty, at least for a little while.

Profile: Slam Bradley

This whole thing raises the question...why should you care what I have to say?

I currently make my living as a Deputy Prosecuting Attorney in a small county in Southern Idaho. I've been prosecuting for three years. My primary areas of concern are all juvenile matters, all Child Protection Act matters, all misdemeanors and infractions that take place in the County, all post-conviction relief matters, all appeals to the District Court, and roughly a quarter of the felonies, most particularly those dealing with child abuse and endangerment. I probably average 15 hours a week in the Courtroom. Prior to being a prosecutor, I spent 3 years in private practice, focusing largely on issues of water law and administrative matters, but also having a significant caseload in small contract matters, family law and crop loss cases. I got my law degree from the University of Idaho, graduating number eight in my class.

Admittedly I don't read a lot of new comics. And there are other attorneys here that you'll hear from more often. Chances are that I'll piggyback on Loren a lot and I hope he doesn't mind my kibbitzing. I hope that my trial experience will come in handy in looking at the law as it is portrayed in Comics.

Whatever Happened to Ned Flanders?

The Simpsons Super Bowl episode.

Tivo means never seeing things when everybody else does. So I finally watched the Simpsons Super Bowl episode tonight, and aside from it not being very funny (the Simpsons hasn't been very funny at all this season, has it?), it had a gigantic flaw right in the middle of it. They seem to have replaced Ned Flanders with a soulless lookalike.

For 16 years, Ned Flanders has soldiered on, sticking to his principles and turning the other cheek no matter what. All of a sudden he's making ghastly bloodbath Bible story movies (tip of the hat to Mel Gibson), but even worse, he's *GASP* changing the text of the Bible! Ned might possibly film a gory movie, but he would stick to the story; he's a stickler for accuracy.

I can only assume that the writers couldn't be bothered to do any research into the gruesome tales to be found in the King James, so they just made up their own versions of some stuff they half-remembered from sunday school. There's no other logical reason for the scenes they came up with; Solomon did suggest cutting a baby in half, but only to determine who the real mother was from their reactions. The Simpsons' version was just pointless.

Rather a pity, since there are some stories in the book of Judges that would curl Wes Craven's hair. For example, Judges 3:12-30 tells the tale of the defeat of Moab, including this bit:

As the king rose from his seat, Ehud reached with his left hand, drew the sword from his right thigh and plunged it into the king's belly. Even the handle sank in after the blade, which came out his back. Ehud did not pull the sword out, and the fat closed in over it. Then Ehud went out to the porch; he shut the doors of the upper room behind him and locked them. After he had gone, the servants came and found the doors of the upper room locked. They said, "He must be relieving himself in the inner room of the house." They waited to the point of embarrassment, but when he did not open the doors of the room, they took a key and unlocked them. There they saw their Lord fallen to the floor, dead.

Nice, huh? Can't you see Comic Book Guy playing the king?

Or how about this one, from Judges 4:
Barak, the leader of the Israeli army, has defeated the armies of Sisera. Sisera seeks refuge in the tent of an ally. The ally's wife, Jael, invites Sisera in, gives him something to drink and a place to sleep. Then...

But Jael, Heber's wife, picked up a tent peg and a hammer and went quietly to him while he lay fast asleep, exhausted. She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died. Barak came by in pursuit of Sisera, and Jael went out to meet him. "Come," she said, "I will show you the man you're looking for." So he went in with her, and there lay Sisera with the tent peg through his temple--dead.

There's a particularly gross one in Judges 19-20, but I'll leave that as an exercise for the student. If you're wondering what is the point to these hideous tales, I'll just mention that most chapters in the Book of Judges begin and end with the words "In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit." There's a lesson in that.

But I digress.

The point, and I did have one, was that the producers sold out the character of Ned Flanders by having him engage in behaviors that go 180 degrees opposite to everything we know about him. Yes, he's frequently narrow-minded and judgmental. Yes, he could find himself making horrific movies of Bible stories, full of death and blood and scattered entrails. But the fact is, you're more likely to find Ned passed out on the floor of Moe's tavern with a transvestite hooker than to find him rewriting Bible stories to make them more gory, especially since he'd know perfectly well where the really awful stories are. The result is a real lowering of the formerly high standards the Simpsons once reached for, and the betrayal of a formerly well-delineated character for the sake of a few lame jokes.

Ned deserved better than this.

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Monday, March 07, 2005

Profile: Corrina

I'm a little late with this. Possibly it might have been better to list my credentials before writing an article but I do have a tendency to do things backwards.

I have a degree in journalism from Boston University's College of Communication. While I was in Boston, I interned at the local New York Times office, which is not nearly as glamorous as it sounds. It mainly consisted of cutting and clipping documents from local paper's for the office's 'morgue' files. The NYT has an interesting method of training reporters: interns do no writing. Those hired out of college are called editorial assistants and have to do a lot of the research work for the staff writers. After a while doing that, you might get an article of your own but without a byline. The editorial assistant in the Boston office at the time seemed to do most of the work for the senior reporter. The junior reporter (Matt Wald, still with the paper) did his own work. And I got to clip articles and do some odds and ends. Probably these days, there's someone assigned to research blogs and websites.

After graduation, I worked for a respected weekly in New Jersey, The Bernardsville News, mainly covering school boards, municipal meetings like town councils and zoning boards. (Which left me, sadly, with far more knowledge of zoning laws than I ever wanted.) I also had a chance to write some features and the occasional breaking news. After five years, I felt like I'd learned all I could learn and moved onto a daily paper, the New Jersey Herald. There I got a chance to do more breaking news to go along with the municipal news, got to cover for the court reporter a few times and cover a murder trial, and basically got to meet all the local politicians, including Jim Florio (ick!) Bill Bradley (condescending but smart) and Christie Whitman (personable and smart.)

I also wrote book reviews for the Newark Star-Ledger but while that paid well, it's not really experience that will help me with articles here.

My expertise is going to be on print reporters (like Lois and Clark) rather than broadcast reporters, which is really an entirely different profession.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Is Batman Nuts?

Is Batman Nuts?

This question gets asked pretty frequently these days. Or, an answer in the affirmative is often taken for granted. Lots of fans and even some pros characterize Batman as being crazy. However, the rationale given for this judgment has often had little to do with the realities of mental illness. The obvious “He dresses as a bat” doesn’t really apply, unless we want to argue that all comic characters are nuts, and that frankly doesn’t get us anywhere. “He’s obsessively focused on his mission.” Well, yeah, but one can say the same about a lot of professional athletes (or fans), and so long as this “obsession” doesn’t really cause significant impairment, it doesn’t rise to the level of a psychiatric disorder. “He shuts himself off from having close relationships from other people to focus on his mission.” Well, maybe. But missionaries do that, too, and we don’t necessarily consider them nuts. Or, people note – with increasing frequency – “Batman behaves like a dick. He manipulates and emotionally abuses those closest to him.” This does start to suggest mental illness, but it doesn’t really capture the whole of what is portrayed with Batman.

There are lots of things about comics that can’t really be explained in or equated to real-world terms. For example: What is the physics behind all the extra mass gained when puny Bruce Banner turns into the Hulk? But, since being “nuts” – i.e., having a mental illness or psychiatric disorder – is a condition which exists in the real world, we can actually examine the comics in attempt to come up with an answer as to whether Batman is “nuts” in real world terms.

First, some Terminology
“Mental illness,” “mental disorder” and “psychiatric disorder” are terms I’m going to use more or less interchangeably. As defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM, current edition IV-TR), these terms refer to a condition characterized by abnormal emotional, cognitive or behavioral functioning of a sort which causes the afflicted individual to experience either significant distress or significant impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning. “Significant” in this context means just that – significant, as opposed to trivial. Somebody with poor social skills may be socially awkward or unpopular, but still able to make and maintain some degree of relationships. A person with significant impairment of social functioning is mostly or completely unable to maintain such relationships in any healthy, harmonious manner.

A Quick History of Batman
History is important here, because if one is going to talk about whether or not Batman is nuts, one must first define which version of Batman we’re talking about – and that really makes a big difference.

For purposes of this essay, I’m talking specifically about the version of Batman presented in the comics published by DC Comics, Inc. I’m not talking about the version from the old Adam West TV show, or the one from the Tim Burton movies, or even the excellent version from BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES and JUSTICE LEAGUE (or, for that matter, the one seen in the comics based on those cartoon shows). I’m talking about the guy who appears monthly in BATMAN and DETECTIVE COMICS and GOTHAM NIGHTS and JLA and in numerous other DC books every month.

As originally presented by Bob Kane, Batman was a rather grim fellow with a mission. Crooks had killed his parents, so he decided he would avenge their deaths by hunting criminals. We in the real world might question the wisdom of his deciding to do so by dressing up as a bat, but such things make sense within the context of the fictional setting Batman inhabits, so we won’t go there. Other than his costume, he didn’t seem particularly bizarre back then, nor obsessed, and he became remarkably less grim pretty quickly, when he picked up a kid sidekick in Robin. There was an obvious affection between the characters back then (no Wertham-wannabe comments, please), and a lot of humor. Batman didn’t seem crazy at all back then, at least no more crazy than any action, pulp or comic hero, and especially not when compared to his opponents. Two-Face, the Joker, the Riddler… those guys had some screws loose. The worst one could say about Batman in comparison was that he had a rather corny sense of humor.

For decades, this more or less continued to be the case. Through the “time travel and weird aliens” stories of the 50s, into the “dark detective” stories of the 70s and well into the 80s, Batman mostly seemed to have his act together. Bruce Wayne occasionally dated, and while his relationships never quite seemed to work out, this mostly seemed to reflect the demands of his career (superhero) rather than an inability to connect to people. He had relationships, both romantic (Kathy Kane, Silver St. Cloud) and friendly (Commissioner Gordon, Superman), and his relationships with Alfred and with Robin were generally pretty family-like. He also maintained functional professional relationships (with Lucius Fox, for example), and when Doug Moench was writing BATMAN, the character’s long-standing “will they or won’t they” relationship with Catwoman had become a real relationship. She even learned Batman’s secret identity. Despite continuing to fight the Joker, Two-Face and new villains such as Maxie Zeus, the Film Freak and Nocturna, things actually seemed pretty good for Batman back then. The original Robin had grown up, gone to college and become a successful superhero on his own, trading in the short pants, elf boots and name to become Nightwing.

Then came the one-two punch of CRISIS ON INFINTE EARTHS and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS.

CRISIS represented DC’s attempts to clean house and toss out unwanted aspects of prior continuity. Batman’s continuity wasn’t entirely erased and rewritten, as were the histories of Superman and Wonder Woman, but there was an immediate change in the tone of his adventures, starting with Doug Moench’s departure. Catwoman was brainwashed by Dr. Moon and the Joker, who turned her evil again but made her forget Batman’s secret identity in the process. It appeared that the editors at DC wanted Batman to live in a darker, lonelier world.

At the same time, Frank Miller’s excellent THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS prestige-format miniseries (hereafter abbreviated as DKR) hit comicdom by storm. Miller’s tale of a dystopian-future version of the DC comics milieu presented an aged version of Batman who had gone bitter in his retirement and from seeing the world turn to crap around him. When he eventually emerged from retirement, this future-Batman was more brutal than any version presented in the comics since the very earliest tales. This was a Batman who injured foes with impunity, who was hunted by the police and who fought Superman as an enemy rather than associating with him as a friend.

This was the portrayal that lesser talents immediately started to mimic in the mainstream Batman comics.

The problem here is that Miller never intended his version of Batman to be the default or “mainstream” one. That should have been clear from his later BATMAN: YEAR ONE storyline, in which the setting was rather dark, but Batman himself was an optimistic figure who brought hope to the corrupt Gotham City. But the people behind the monthly Batman comics seemed to miss this point entirely. They piled on the grim and dark stuff, figuring that was what made DKR so popular. Thus, in short order Jim Starlin gave us a rewritten version of Batman taking on a second Robin (Jason Todd). Pre-CRISIS, Jason had essentially been a clone of the original Robin, Dick Grayson. Starlin’s revisionist Jason was a rough street kid who wasn’t’ above taking justice into his own hands – or, on one occasion, dishing out death to a criminal. Starlin and artist Berni Wrightson also gave us THE CULT, a miniseries which featured Batman being psychologically broken and brainwashed by cult leader Deacon Blackfire. And then Starlin and DC’s editors gave the fans the choice (via a 1-800 number) of whether Jason Todd would live or die. They chose death, and the comics featured the Joker beating Robin to death.

Even through all this, though, while the Batman stories tended to be fairly grim, and while Batman never really regained the close friendship with Superman which the two had shared pre-CRISIS, Batman himself seemed fairly sane. He recovered from the events of THE CULT, and while he went through a somewhat morose period after Jason’s death, this was reversed by the arrival of a new Robin (Tim Drake). But then the writers kept piling on tragedy after tragedy.

First was the “Knightfall/Knightquest/Knight's End” saga, in which a new super-villain (Bane) with ties to Batman’s past released all Batman’s foes and sent them against him, then broke Batman’s back. He was crippled for a time but eventually recovered, at which time he had to fight to reclaim the Batman mantle from a brutal pretender who’d taken it on in his absence. Then a plague (created by perennial arch-foe Ra’s al-Ghul) hit Gotham, killing hundreds. Then came the “No Man’s Land” storyline, in which Gotham was destroyed by an earthquake, degenerated into brutal anarchy and was abandoned by the US Government. This storyline included, among other events, the death of Commissioner Gordon’s wife, at the hands of the Joker. Shortly after “No Man’s Land,” Gordon himself was nearly killed, and was forced to retire. Then Batman’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne, was framed for murder, resulting in Wayne spending some time in custody, then escaping and spending some time on the run. During this storyline, he lost yet another person close to him (almost-romantic-interest, Vesper Fairchild). He also declared, for a time, the intent to stop being Bruce Wayne at all - to give up even a pretense of normal life to dedicate himself to just being Batman.

This declaration – which he made to his various allies (Robin, Nightwing, Oracle, Huntress, etc.) but eventually recanted, can also be regarded as when Batman started seeming a lot more nuts. During and after the “Bruce Wayne: Murderer/Fugitive” storyline, Batman’s demeanor toward his allies was markedly different than it had been in the past. He started keeping secrets from them. He became more distant. He even fired Tim Drake from his Robin role for a time, putting Tim’s girlfriend (Stephanie Brown, formerly Spoiler) into that role – only to demote her again, almost immediately.

And that led into the recent “War Games” storyline, in which Stephanie Brown, in attempting to prove her worthiness to be Robin, launched a secret plan Batman had created but never implemented. This plan resulted in a full-out gang war that took the lives of numerous criminals and several Gotham PD officers and also featured Nightwing getting shot, Stephanie being murdered, Oracle’s secret headquarters being destroyed and Batman and all his allies being hunted by the Gotham police. Through it all, Batman bossed around, lied to and manipulated his allies, generally acted the cold-hearted ass, and eventually let everyone down. He wasn’t there to prevent Stephanie from being tortured by the sadistic Black Mask, or to prevent him from inflicting the wounds that caused her death. Batman’s actions during this storyline caused a rift between him and Nightwing and consciously kept Tim Drake from being by his girlfriend’s side as she died. This has strained the relationship with Tim and with the current Batgirl, and resulted in them and Oracle leaving Gotham City.

More recently, in OUTSIDERS #21, Batman and Nightwing had a conversation about some of Batman’s other behind-the-scenes manipulations – in this case, secretly funding Nightwing’s hero team, the Outsiders. In this issue, Batman actually apologized for keeping that secret from Nightwing, but asserted that the secrecy was necessary, and that Nightwing shouldn’t trust anyone – even him.

And what led him there is a whole ‘nother thing.

Recently, the IDENTITY CRISIS miniseries, authored by Brad Meltzer, revealed that at some point in the past, Batman found several of his superheroic comrades in the Justice League of America attempting to magically brainwash a supervillain, Dr. Light, and that when Batman attempted to stop them from completing this deed, they instead incapacitated him and magically erased his memory of their misdeeds. Over time, however (as hinted in IDENTITY CRISIS and several subsequent comics), this memory alteration started to come apart. The comics haven’t shown when this happened, or how, or just how much Batman knows to this point. But it’s clear that he knows something was done to him by his supposed allies, and that this awareness has instilled in him some lack of trust, and even a sense of paranoia.

Batman Today – Nuts or Not?
Before I get into whether Batman is nuts right now, I should say a few things about what he’s not.

Batman is not psychotic. Psychosis refers to a state in which one is out of touch with reality, or unable to perceive reality accurately. Psychotic people experience delusions (bizarre, clearly untrue beliefs) and hallucinations. That’s not Batman.

Further, despite all the traumatic events he’s experienced – all the way back to witnessing the murder of his parents – Batman does not suffer from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Given all he’s been through, he probably should have PTSD, but he clearly doesn’t. He lacks most of the symptoms that characterize this disorder – amnesia, exaggerated startle response, sleep disorder, difficulty concentrating, uncontrollable emotional outbursts, etc. He does have some symptoms characteristic of trauma-reactions – decreased participation in significant activities (his life as Bruce Wayne), feelings of detachment or estrangement from others – but not enough to say that his recent behavior reflects the onset of PTSD. Rather, I’d argue that it reflects an exacerbation of preexisting personality traits, transforming them from something relatively functional to something clearly pathological.

Let’s talk about what made Bruce Wayne into Batman. Young Bruce saw his parents murdered. He spent the next twelve years of his life (according to BATMAN: YEAR ONE) making himself ready to pursue a one-man vigilante crusade against crime. He spent this time studying science, law enforcement and forensic techniques and criminal psychology. He spent it training under the world’s greatest martial artists, escape artists and detectives. He spent it making his body and mind into a weapon.

This is not exactly normal behavior, mind you. It suggests an unusual degree of devotion to a single goal or mission and a degree of perfectionism that will drive a person to the limits. At the same time, keep in mind that for most of his career, Batman has been portrayed as pretty functional. He’s usually dedicated himself to his war on crime to a degree that left him little time for leisure, friendship or even rest – we’re told Batman has in fact mastered certain mental disciplines which allow him to get by on as little as one hour of sleep a day – yet at the same time he has previously made solid decisions about his business holdings and maintained some healthy relationships.

In the annotations for the most recent edition of his Batman graphic novel ARKHAM ASYLUM, author Grant Morrison wrote:
I figured that anyone who had gone so far and been so successful in his quest to avenge his parents' death and to help other people would have ended up pretty much straightened out. Bruce Wayne would only have become conflicted and mentally unstable if he had NOT put on his scary bat-suit and found the perfect outlet for his feelings of rage, guilt and revenge.

In other words, Grant Morrison’s take on Batman is that having his mission and dedicating himself to it kept him sane. I tend to agree. This is both consistent with how Batman has been historically portrayed, and consistent with the way real-world people sometimes deal with trauma. PTSD isn’t the only way people respond to trauma, thankfully. Some people deal with in part by attempting to master themselves, take control over their lives and change their environments, seeking to avoid further trauma and/or prevent the same thing from happening to others. Such folk are often very serious, driven and focused; they display tendencies toward perfectionism and always seek to have a plan in place to deal with whatever comes up.

In other words, they tend to be a lot like how Batman has often been portrayed over the years.

In a lot of ways, Batman through most of his history can be regarded as something of a successful case of the obsessive-compulsive or “type A/overachieving” personality – someone who has some traits of that personality style, but not to a degree that really qualifies as pathological. That itself is a tough balancing act in the real world. The same overachieving, perfectionist tendencies which allowed Batman to be Batman and which sometimes allow real-world people to succeed in tough settings (business, Hollywood, sports) often bring about personal ruin. At best, the person with this personality style has to carefully balance the demands of a healthy, functional person with the heavy drive to succeed. And, when success is elusive or things simply don’t work out, the person just tries harder, to the point that things become unbalanced. One can look at the current portrayal of Batman as him having become unbalanced in that manner.

As outlined above, in the recent past Batman has portrayed as more of a control freak, more distant, more manipulative, more secretive and more focused than ever on his mission at cost to his personal relationships. He’s tended to be more rigid, more demanding that others do things his way, less willing to delegate to or plan with others. In other words, he’s gone from having obsessive-compulsive personality traits to exhibiting full-blown obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. In addition, he’s also recently made some statements approaching overt paranoia – though, given that his fellow Justice League members really did screw with his mind, this is perhaps understandable. One can certainly understand how so intelligent and introspective a person as Batman might get driven a bit nuts by the idea of someone messing with his mind.

It’s also worth noting that Batman’s deterioration is being depicted as impacting other characters he interacts with. In BIRDS OF PREY #79, Black Canary confronted him on his treatment of Oracle and Huntress. While this is somewhat ironic, given that Canary was among the Justice Leaguers responsible for the memory wipe that is apparently part of what has made him so dysfunctional, it is certainly warranted given the depiction of his relationships with those characters, both associates of the Canary. More tragically, Batman’s dysfunction is impacting the current Robin (Tim Drake, who took up the mantle again after his girlfriend’s death). Aside from losing his girlfriend, Tim’s father was killed in IDENTITY CRISIS. Batman subsequently offered to adopt him, as he had Dick Grayson. This was shown in ROBIN #134, which revealed some pretty mixed feelings on Tim’s part. On one page, Tim expressed joy over this… yet a couple pages later he expressed frustration and distrust over how Batman had managed the events around Stephanie’s death. The flip-flop is striking, and while it may simply reflect inconsistent writing, it is all too similar to the sort of emotional turmoil one observes in victims of emotional abuse – which, frankly, is a fair characterization of how Batman’s behavior toward Robin and his other allies has been depicted of late.

In Conclusion,
I would argue that throughout most of the character’s history, Batman has not been presented in a manner suggesting him to be mentally ill, but that the current version does appear to exhibit a significant degree of psychopathology. The never-ending fight against crime, the losses, the personal injuries, the trauma, the betrayal… it would appear they’ve all taken a toll, as Batman has gone from being depicted as a driven but relatively healthy person to a withdrawn, disconnected, estranged and personality-disordered individual. Not psychotic, but not well. A little bit nuts, in other words.

I suppose this is what too many comic book writers regard as realistic, and you know, I suppose it is, in a way. Any real person exposed to as much stress and trauma as has Batman would have almost certainly developed some pretty severe psychopathology by now (not to mention having been rendered brain-damaged and crippled long ago, but that’s a whole separate topic). However, I don’t think this particular sort of realism really adds anything to Batman as a character or to his adventures. Despite the nature of this blog, the other contributors and I all recognize that only a certain degree of reality really needs apply to the adventures of folk who fly about in their long-johns, use magic rings to fight crime and – in this case – dress up as bats.

Here’s hoping Batman finds a competent therapist and gets better soon. I really miss the old Batman, the one who trusted his friends, hadn’t pushed everyone away from him and seemed a much more likeable guy… a hero and a detective, not a bitter, paranoid near-hermit.

I would like to acknowledge that many folk at CBR have made comments and observations which helped shape the thinking which went into this essay. Special hanks are due to Chuckg, BcAugust,chaosburnflame, Gordon Smith, Expletive Deleted and bannermanonemillion.

Profile: JeffreyWKramer

Credentials: MA, Clinical Psychology (Southern Illinois University @ Carbondale, 1990).

I have almost 15 years post-grad-school experience as a mental health professional, mostly working in community mental health and hospital settings, with some work within corrections settings as well. I am licensed as a mental health counselor in the State of Iowa. I've also been an educator, both as an adjunct college prof and providing continuing education re: mental health issues to mental health and medical professionals.

In my clinical work, I specialize in doing relationship counseling and in working with survivors of trauma and abuse and individuals with chronic mental illness and personality disorders. I'm very knowledgeable re: psychiatric diagnosis and forensic mental health issues and am also very knowledgeable about psychological testing in general, and very experienced with many of the standard psychological texts. I've co-authored a few clinical research papers (fairly minor ones, really) and the article on the Rorschach Inkblot Test in one of the previous editions of the MENTAL MEASUREMENT YEARBOOK (a standard reference book in the field of psych assessment). I do my best to keep up with research across the entire field of psychology and related disciplines, and particularly that relating to clinical issues.

My role here will be to comment on the depiction of matters related to psychology and mental health in comics stories.

Getting it Right

Birds of Prey #69-73

One of the things I intend to do here from time to time is point out cases where somebody gets it right. Since religion is one of those topics I've staked out for myself here, I'll go ahead and take it on now.

Religion is one of those areas that's just chock-full of landmines; not only are there thousands of varieties that look very similar but have distinctive marks, there's a whole lot of opinion and tradition that most people will totally miss. For example, the Steve Martin movie about a fake faith healer, Leap of Faith. They may have gotten all the details right about the methods charlatans and grifters use, but the major plot point is something that (a) could never happen and (b) most people would never notice. The movie is at least 10 years old, so I won't be spoiling anything by revealing this bit, but if you don't want to know, skip ahead to the next paragraph now. Okay. We're all alone now. In the movie, Steve Martin fakes a miracle by repainting the eyes on a giant crucifix he uses as set dressing, so he can later "notice" that the statue has opened its eyes in a miraculous demonstration of the faith healer's power. The problems with this bit are that no Pentecostal/Charismatic tent revival show would ever display a crucifix, and no such group would ever look for or accept miraculous signs involving statues. The crucifix is a Catholic symbol. Protestant churches, and especially pentecostals, would have an empty cross, signifying the risen Christ, and would consider the "miracle" of the crucifix to be idolatry. See, a trivial detail of cultural difference utterly shatters the premise of the film. They could have asked one of the phenomenal gospel singers who appear in the film to fact-check it, but apparently they didn't, and it hurt their credibility.

So, who gets it right in comics? Kurt Busiek springs to mind. Astro City's vampire-priest The Confessor is a nuanced look at questions of faith and sacrifice, and the details are right. Likewise The Crossbreed, his creationist spin on the X-Men, which perfectly captures the right tone and has the characters adhere to biblical teaching. My only quibble there would be naming the "angel" (winged girl) Mary, as Mary wasn't an angel. Given that there aren't any female angel names mentioned in the bible, that's a tricky one to solve, so I'll let it slide.

Mark Waid and Alex Ross, in Kingdom Come, did an excellent job of finding parallels between DC's characters and the Revelation of John, and the character of Reverend McKay was every inch a minister in the Unitarian-Universalist tradition (understandable, since Alex Ross' father was the basis for the character).

But the one I want to talk about at the moment is Birds of Prey. In a recent storyline ("Between Dark and Dawn," issues 69-73), the Birds infiltrate a cult that they believe is responsible for the suicides of several teenagers. Their suspicions prove to be correct, but the plot is really incidental to the topic here.

Early on in the infiltration, Oracle informs Huntress that "Second Heaven Redemption Farm" is "a cult, not a church." Huntress replies "sometimes that's blurry thin line, in my opinion." But is it?

Actually, that's a pretty accurate statement for Huntress to make, speaking from her experience as a life-long Catholic. Distinguishing cults from churches is not something that the Catholic church spends a lot of time on; in their view, there is Catholic and everybody else. Picking through the details of some other religious group is not high on their priority list, so it's quite natural and accurate that Huntress wouldn't know how to spot one.

Before we go any further, I'd better define my terms.

There are two primary definitions of the word "cult": Sociological and Theological. Most Christian groups that concern themselves with the subject stick to the theological definition, which in a nutshell is any group that claims to be Christian while teaching doctrines that are incompatible with or contradictory to the doctrines of the New Testament. That does not concern us here, so we won't spend any time debating who is or isn't a cult.

We may safely assume that Oracle is using the sociological definition of the word. A brief summary of that definition is "Any group (religious, political, psychological, or otherwise) which exercises significant control over the thoughts, feelings, and actions of its members by use of deception and manipulation, without the knowledge or consent of its members." Under this definition, what makes a particular group a cult is not so much its beliefs, but what it practices.

The writer of Birds of Prey, Gail Simone, wisely avoids a lot of potential traps by not going into much detail about the cult's beliefs apart from saying that they believe superheroes are angels. She could have spent some time looking for Bible verses that could be distorted to fit the thesis, but that would have just opened up a lot of opportunities for accidental offense and revealing of a possible lack of in-depth knowledge on the subject. There's something to be said for keeping it simple.

(Interesting aside: there is a verse in the New Testament that includes a word that could be translated as something approximating "super-heroes;" a pat on the head and a cookie to the first person to find it.)

But I digress.

Other examples of Simone getting it right: Huntress never once refers to "going to church;" she always phrases it as "attending Mass." That's a tiny detail, but it helps to sell the character and story to those who know the difference. Likewise the fact that Vixen, a woman who channels animals and borrows their natural abilities, is able to reconcile her essentially pagan powers with the teachings of her minister father, where a lesser writer would have her summarily reject him completely. This was a refreshing change form the norm.

Getting back to the cult, there are particular characteristics that all cults share to some degree or another. Leaving aside doctrinal disputes, these are the signposts that can tell you if the group you belong to is actually a toxic cult, and the ways that Simone includes these points in her story.

AUTHORITARIANISM. A cult is built around the teachings and personality of a particular person, and absolute loyalty to that person is required. These leaders use guilt, fear and intimidation to manipulate members and keep them in line. "The Sovereign," leader of Second Heaven, does exactly this. He controls his followers through violence and terror on the part of his goons, while portraying himself as a minster of love and peace.

ELITISM. Cults indoctrinate their members that they alone are right. The top leader who is portrayed as perfect and therefore beyond reproach is the bearer of God's truth. The movement is God's means of fulfilling his purposes on earth. Once again, Simone is right on the money. The leader alone has special revelation from and direct contact with his god.

SPIRITUAL DISILLUSIONMENT. The group becomes the center of one's life and personality. It also becomes the center of one's Spirituality. The motivating force. The only truth. To leave the group is therefore to reject the truth with all its accompanying consequences. Those who leave suffer a great deal of Spiritual Disillusionment. They feel an unbearable separation from God because in their minds, the group and God are synonymous.

MORAL CONTORTION. Deception is often used in different ways particularly in recruiting new members. At first sight the members of the group appear very pleasant and friendly. They seem to offer a love and care that most people havenever experienced. But this only lasts until you have been recruited and then they are out to get the next victim. The new member is now quickly put to work to recruit more people. Violating the law when necessary is done readily with no thought given to the moral aspects. The logic is that the cult is answering to a higher law and need not worry about the laws of man. Honesty and integrity are optional. The group will also employ any means to protect itself from threat. The leaders will do anything from misinformation to outright lies in order to cover up their wrongdoing. When there is a problem members are only told that the problem is with someone else outside the group.

FINANCIAL DISHONESTY. If there is an area where the cult leaders' double standards are exposed it is in the area of finances. This is basically the automatic result of a non-accountable leadership that believes that the end justifies the means. All too often we notice that leaders of these cults live in a luxury that is not only far beyond the reach of their followers, but that is also offensive to the world around. Although the leader of this cult is not shown flaunting his wealth, he is blackmailing the parents of the teens he has lured in.

PSYCHOLOGICAL MANIPULATION. This is perhaps the most important danger that cults are associated with. Cults use mind control i.e. the group exercises undue influence over its members and impairs their ability to think for themselves. All cults lie to and manipulate people - their own members and outsiders in order to further their own ends, which are rarely the same as their publicly stated reasons for existing. Simone's cult leader has an added advantage here, low-level psychic abilities that allow him to control his followers to a degree that Rev. Moon can only dream of. Here are the techniques cults (including this one) use:

a) Group pressure
Cults capitalize on people's basics nature as communal animals and the need to make a good impression, to fit in and to get along with others. Much work is done in groups, and often the individual is allowed little time on their own to think or analyze. The cult members here are shown living in dormitories and traveling in groups at all times.

b) Removing people from their ordinary spheres.
By taking people out of their normal social environment they become that much more susceptible to pressure. This is done by persuading an individual to join one of their communal houses, where independent thinking and action becomes almost impossible. Again, accurately portrayed.

c) Love bombing
A member is made to feel that they are deeply and unconditionally loved they are hugged often, told what a great person they are, and how much they have to offer. This appeals both to an individual's vanity and also to their insecurity. The love is very far from unconditional however, as anyone attempting to leave the group or criticizing an aspect of the group will soon realize. All pressure can be brought to bear, and life made utterly miserable for the one who wishes to leave. Love is withdrawn and replaced by an almost demonic anger. This cult's motto is "Love above all things," a pleasant sounding, vaguely biblical phrase that hides a number of traps. For example, what is the object of this love? The leader? God? Others? Self? Love must have an object. It also neglects the fact that true love, spiritual love, is bound by ethics and morals; if one truly loves, one must be truthful in love. The "love" peddled here is toxic.

As a Christian, amateur student of comparative religion, and comics fan, I am very much impressed with the care and research that went into this story. It could easily have been a cliched rehash of Guyana or Waco, or an opportunity to bash mainstream Christianity under the guise of taking on the evil cult, but neither of those even threatened to rear their ugly heads.

More telling, I've never yet seen Simone get a detail wrong. Okay, once. In one issue of this run, one of the followers calls the cult leader "Father." That rang false to me. Cult leaders usually go for a more exalted title, such as Sovereign. Pretty trivial, huh?

And that's what doing it right looks like.

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Saturday, March 05, 2005

Magicians beat Martial Artists. Wha!?!

I remember reading JSA #3 or 4 (feel free to correct) where the JSA was fighting Mordru over Dr. Fate. In a couple panels, Wildcat takes down Mordru with a tackle & just before he could pound him, Mordru teleports him to someplace else. I was like "....wha?" The way Wildcat tackling Mordru down was drawn, it looked like a rushing shoulder tackle right into the abdomen/diaphram area. Now, speaking from personal experience, I'm not going to be thinking about my next trick on the way down. I'm going to be thinking "Sweet Jesus! Anyone get the plate of that Mack truck? I think he stole my lungs." The only thing Mordru would be doing after that is puking up what he ate last.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Profile: Dread

After those neat profiles, mine is gonna be kinda lacking. I don't have much in the way of credentials. I have a degree in math, minor physics. And it's almost 30 years out-of-date by now. The good thing is, I can still pretty much tell you when the numbers don't add up. Of course, in a universe where a man can fly, or stretch his body like rubber, or turn into helium or ignite into flame, pointing out errata in the numbers and physics of the thing seems kind of . . .

. . . well, we'll just see what pops up as we go along, shall we? It's going to be one of those fine and indefinite lines that you're going to have to cross, I'm afraid.

I can probably lend some versimilitude about guns in comics, too. I don't have the same kind of pedigree that MacQ has in archery, though. All I know about them is based on experience, and research born of fascination.

Wow, am I the lame one of the group, or what?

"Million Dollar" Medicine

Tuesday's Atlanta Journal-Constitution (registration required) ran a guest column from a local doctor about the award-winning Million Dollar Baby. In it, the good doctor does exactly for the movie what we're doing for comics here:

"Unfortunately, the medical premise of Million Dollar Baby is dead wrong..."

And fair warning: while I haven't yet seen the film, I believe this column deals heavily in spoilers. But it's interesting to see someone doing a similar factual critique of a movie, and a very lauded one at that.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Profile: Royal

Okay. Let's see if this sticks.

My name is Royal Burnell III. I'm a 27 year old bartender. I'm also a recreational judoka. Have been ever since I was a child under my father, who runs a school for a university. I have also been taught Catch As Catch Can Wrestling by my grandfather. Catch is wrestling with submissions. I've also studied a bit of Freestyle Wrestling, Jiu-Jitsu, Aikido & Muay Thai. My interest waned a bit until 2003 when I saw my first Mixed Martial Arts match. I was instantly hooked. Mixed Martial Arts is a sport that puts two fighters of different disciplines in a ring to battle out to see who wins. I promote the sport anytime I can.

What I bring to the table is my knowledge of CQC or Close Quarter Combat. Fighting isn't just punch, punch, kick, kick. There are many different sides to it. I hate using this phrase but fighting is "a human chess game". There are many ways to end it. I also bring Martial Truth. Martial Truth is fight philosophy. It's why we fight & why we fight that way. Sifu Bruce Lee accidentally founded the idea when he was forming Jeet Kun Do and has been studied on & off since then.

I think Mac & Loren covered why we 're doing this blog. All I have to add is that I'm also doing it to help the common man better understand martial arts & hope that it will end some myths. I also hope that it will make common man & martial artist more comfortable to be around each other.

I think that's it.

Good enough?

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

More on Journalists in Comics

Ah, broadcasters winning Pulitzer Prizes.

This is the same mistake Greg Rucka made when he brought back Vesper Fairchild into the Batman mythos, just before the Murderer/Fugitive arc.

Though it was one of many.

First, Vesper had been altered from late night talk show host to print investigative reporter. That's like turning Larry King into Kolchak.

Second, Vesper apparently is tremendously talented at this print journalism thing because she won the coveted Pulitzer in about six months.

Third, Vesper's methods of investigation as a reporter are laughable in Rucka's arc on DETECTIVE. She talks to a clearly questionable witness and sets up a camera on a random building, hoping to get a photo of the Dark Knight. (Who then obliges her by showing up but that's another story. We're talking her stupidity here, not his.)

Also, the use of the camera makes Vesper even more multi-talented, as she's gone from talk show house to hard-news print investigator to photojournalist. All these disciplines are so different, that there are separate majors for them at journalism school.

Though despite all this wonderful talent, Vesper's stupidity seems to trump all and she gets brutally beaten and killed as a result.

Probably by some reporter angry that she stole his Pulitzer.

To give Rucka some credit, the reporter currently running around in the Rucka/Brubaker book, "Gotham Central," is very realistic and very human. He's willing to cut the cops some slack and sit on a story because he trusts them and wants to build a relationship but then he's appropriately angry when things don't work out and he ends up at the top of his editor's shit list.
One writer who did get the difference between journalists and photojournalists correct is Darwyn Cooke in "DC: New Frontier." Lois does the copy aka the words, at all times.

Jimmy always has his camera and he's the one getting the photo credit. Not once do you see Lois try to mess with it. And Jimmy's skill with his chosen profession is very clear. He can't do Lois' job but she can't do his either.

Profile: MacQuarrie

Since Loren got the ball rolling on the profiles, I'll go ahead and follow up wiht mine....

So far I've only written about archery, but there are a number of other areas I'm qualified to nit-pick (though I also intend to write a few pieces about comics where they got it right).

I'm 46, married almost 20 years, father of three (all of whom are archers, as is my bride), and have earned a living as a graphic designer/illustrator/cartoonist since 1978. I took up archery on a whim as a father-daughter thing about five or six years ago, eventually going on to get my level 1 certification from the National Archery Association. That sounds like it's really important, but it isn't. Level 1 is basic safety instruction, the knowledge you would need to teach Cub Scouts at summer camp. That's why I said I'm an instructor, not a coach. In other words, I'm competent at the sport and trained to recognize when somebody is doing something dangerously wrong, as on the cover of that "Teen Titans Go!" issue.

Other areas I am capable of discussing include religion (raised Catholic, married to the granddaughter of Orthodox jews, dabbled in New Age, passed through various Pentecostal, Evangelical, and Charismatic churches before settling on non-denominational Christianity); trademark and copyright law (hard-won knowledge gleaned in a year-long fight with the Pasadena Tournament of Roses); advertising; parenting; and random other trivia that may crop up along the way. Aside from that, I'm not at all afraid of looking stuff up, so if something smells wrong and I'm not expert about it, I will consult some experts (thank you, Google) and get the facts.

For the record, I don't believe there is anybody involved with this project who comes in looking to trash people or projects. Our goal is to inform, entertain and elevate the medium of comics. When they get it right, we'll say so.

And that's all you need to know about me. But if you're starving for more, my semi-occasional ramblings can be found in Rant-Man's Notebook at Monkey Spit.