Sunday, August 24, 2008

A Massive Military Buildup

Where does the officers corps of the imperial army in Star Wars come from? In the prequels the Clone Wars are fought entirely by Jedi, drones, and the clone forebears of storm troopers. The clones even have separate names, ranks, responsibilities. But at the end of Sith Tarkin is overseeing construction of the Death Star, dudes have uniforms, rank, a whole bureaucratic substructure independent of the Senate, the Jedi, even Vader. And there's no sense at all of the storm troopers in the Original Trilogy having any kind of officer corps.

Part of the drama of the original trilogy is the tension between Vader and the uniformed non-clone military. Also, the fleet is composed along racist lines: no unhelmeted clones, no non-Caucasian aliens. (The Bounty Hunters are dismissed as "scum.") Where do these guys come from? Are they conscripts? The mobilized remains of a brownshirted imperial militia?

Along with the retarded faceless droid armies in Phantom Menace and after, not exploring the encroaching militarism of the Empire is a serious oversight. It's not just a political failure that produces the empire -- it's the seizure of the mechanisms of force and the elimination of the Jedi as a competitor on the legitimate use of violence. As someone interested in how armies work, and fictional representations of soldiers and officers, I love the intimations in the OT and feel that very large gap in that part of the story.

Armies I think have to be seen as an emerging theme of the comics as well, and in some sense superhero stories are inherently anti-military. Obviously the recent Iron Man film addresses this head-on, but you also have The Hulk, Captain America, Nick Fury and SHIELD, and so on.

There is a utopian imagination at work whereby we seem to dream of a world where right-minded, ultrapowerful civil servants (whether Supermen or Jedi) eliminate the need for standing armies, traditional manifestations of force, and hostile international/intergalactic relations.

The great counterexample might be the Green Lantern Corps, a kind of armed invisible UN that is designed to keep the peace but also act as a kind of nuclear deterrent against interplanetary (as opposed to merely global and local) aggression. The Green Lanterns effectively seem to recognize each planet/sector as sovereign and world wars as local affairs in which they need not interfere.

And so, as with Star Trek, international or interethnic conflicts get allegorized as conflicts between actual aliens, while Superman, Batman, and friends are available to deal with local petty crime.

Star Wars may be the only manifestation of an honest-to-goodness civil war where the conflict between superhuman beings (the Sith and Jedi) are played against the backdrop of a purely human conflict between two organized armies. The events intersect but they do not determine one another. Even the destruction of the second Death Star has nothing to do with the Jedi or the Force really; it's Ewoks and rebels killing storm troopers, and a non-Force wielding fleet whomping the Death Star and Imperial troops.

So: how do these armies get started? (The rebel army is even more of a mystery.)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Why Superheroes and Politics Don't Mix

John August, "Aquaman is a Pescepublican":
Recent articles about the political leanings of popular comic book characters got me thinking about the uncanny valley between fictional and real-world ideologies. We’re happy to have characters speak in broad terms — “With great power comes great responsibility” — but the minute they start referring to specific issues, we become very uncomfortable.

How does The Flash feel about immigration? Is Wolverine pro-choice? Does Black Canary support the First Amendment rights of hate groups? We don’t know, and really don’t want to know....

I’d argue that the thematic success of comic book characters, and comic book storylines, comes from how closely they can approach the line separating Real from Too Real, without crossing it.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Up in the sky! It's a band! No, it's a supergroup!

Carl Newman on guitar. Neko Case on vocals and tambourine. Dan Bejar on vocals and some weird gourd-like rhumba shaker. Yep, that's the makings of the Canadian supergroup The New Pornographers. They've produced some of the finest pop albums of the last decade and I can't imagine a modern musical landscape without them. But who in the world would have ever predicted that this precise collection of folks (including Blaine Thurier, Todd Fancey, Kurt Dahle, and Kathryn Calder) would get together and make such sweet noise?

Our earlier post on countermusicals attempted to open the door of our fictional musings to explorations of fiction and counterfiction in music. A question posed there, and a question that is posed daily amongst fervent music geeks, was, and is: If you could construct your own supergroup of existing musicians, alive or dead, who would you choose and how would you arrange them? Much like crossover comics where fans finally get to see Spiderman team up with Green Lantern (I honestly don't know if that ever actually happened) for a token adventure, imaginary supergroups are your chance to bring your favorite musical worlds (pop or otherwise) together to play in tandem and fulfill your fantasies. Take your favorite guitar player and place him/her in front of your favorite drummer, behind your favorite piano player, your favorite harpsichordist, next to your favorite avant-garde vocalist. There are no rules. Just be sure to specify Beatles or Wings-era McCartney if you choose to go down that path.

To start things off, let's see what kind of band I can piece together. On guitar I'm tempted to go left with Johnny Greenwood or right with Doug Martsch, but I think my best bet is with J Mascis. I want there to be some cohesion in my group (sonic cohesion, not play-well-with-others cohesion), so I'll forgo obvious vocalist choices like Björk or Mark Kozelek and just stick with Robert Pollard (circa 1992). (Hamilton Leithauser a close second there for vocals.) Drums are easy with Glenn Kotche. We'll place Kathy Foster on bass guitar for sheer hotness, but also for excessive radness. To round out the sound, I'll also put Spencer Krug on the keyboard, but we'll restrict him to his more straight-ahead playing of Wolf Parade as opposed to his explorative Sunset Rubdown work.

How's that? Now you try.

Thursday, August 7, 2008


See! The Parallel Universe Film Guide.

But would they want to be a famous novelist?

When asked what superhero they'd most like to be by Entertainment Weekly, John McCain and Barack Obama both said Batman.


Back in May of this year, Scarlett Johansson released an album titled Anywhere I Lay My Head featuring the actress's interpretation of ten Tom Waits songs. When the album began generating headlines, I remember Tim suggesting that he would be much more enthusiastic about an album of a slightly different sort. (The discussion actually dates back to the November 2006 release of the Joanna Newsom album Ys.) Tim's observation was that a great many songs by Joanna Newsom were actually ready-made for cover treatment by Waits -- the song we kept coming back to was "Sawdust and Diamonds." On the flip-side, it also seemed fitting for Newsom to try her hand with some of Waits' song catalog.

The Waits vs. Newsom discussion was refueled this week by NPR's "All Songs Considered" concert series release of a recording of an epic Tom Waits performance at the Fox Theater in Atlanta. The concert recording and Waits' performance was so remarkable that Tim and I couldn't help but fantasize further about the notion of a collaboration of covers between Waits and Newsom. With the recent birth of this very blog, there was an immediate connection to be drawn between Counterfictionals and what we might now dub as "Countermusicals." In the spirit of what Counterfictionals has set out to do, I see a lot of fertile territory out there for documenting those discussions we have all had so many times before:

  • If you could create your dream supergroup, who would be in the lineup? Who is on drums? Vocals? Lead guitar? Bass?

  • What band or artist do you wish was still around making music today or what artist vanished before their potential creative zenith? Nick Drake? Kurt Cobain? What music would they be making now?

  • The Beatles? Dream up any sort of scenario with these guys and then just ask the magic question of "What if?"

  • To demonstrate -- not that I need to -- let's go back to the example Waits and Newsom. In plotting our dream album of cover songs, we managed to plot Waits interpreting "Sawdust and Diamonds" and then Newsom putting some harp over her singing "Sixteen Shells From A Thirty-Ought Six." Beautiful. My favorite Waits song, though, is most certainly "Downtown Train." I suggested to Tim that this would be a track that I'd love to see covered by Newsom. Tim responded in saying perhaps a female vocalist might actually get the gender (assuming heterosexual relationships) right on "Downtown Train." The lyrics as sung by Waits:

    Outside another yellow moon
    punched a hole in the nighttime, yes
    I climb through the window and down the street
    shining like a new dime
    the downtown trains are full with all those Brooklyn girls
    they try so hard to break out of their little worlds

    You wave your hand and they scatter like crows
    they have nothing that will ever capture your heart
    theyr'e just thorns without the rose
    be careful of them in the dark
    oh if I was the one
    you chose to be your only one
    oh baby can't you hear me now


    Will I see you tonight
    on a downtown train
    every night is just the same
    you leave me lonely now

    I know your window and I know it's late
    I know your stairs and your doorway
    I walk down your street and past your gate
    I stand by the light at the four way
    you watch them as they fall
    they all have heart attacks
    they stay at the carnival
    but they'll never win you back


    Will I see you tonight on a downtown train
    where every night is just the same you leave me lonely
    will I see you tonight on a downtown train
    all of my dreams just fall like rain
    all upon a downtown train

    Considering that "Downtown Train" hit #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1989 only after being covered by Rod Stewart, I think this is a poetic jumping-off point for the discussion on Countermusicals. Rod Stewart wasn't afraid to ask "What if?" and it garnered him a #3 hit. That's probably not a big deal for Rod, but as far as opening the floodgates of this blog, it might be a big deal for me.

    Wednesday, August 6, 2008

    On a slightly different note. . .

    Chuck Dixon (DC Comics writer) on Batman's religion:

    Graham Nolan and I had an ongoing argument about whether Bruce was raised Catholic or Protestant. I recently conceded to Graham than he must be Catholic. No Protestant ever suffered guilt the way Bruce does.

    So what would you do with religion in a comic-book universe? (This may be a more interesting question in the DC universe than the Marvel universe, where all the pre-Christian deities—Zeus, Ra, Odin—are semi-active characters.)

    What religion is your favorite character? (Click here for a cheat sheet.) How do you know and how does it affect how he/she operates? (Keep in mind for the purposes of this question, "religion" is cultural as well as theological.)

    Superman orgasm=apocalypse

    A humorous thought experiment on the Man of Steel's reproductive capabilities: "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex" by Larry Niven

    One should not think of Superman as a Peeping Tom. A biological ability must be used. As a child Superman may never have known that things had surfaces, until he learned to suppress his X-ray vision. If millions of people tend shamelessly to wear clothing with no lead in the weave, that is hardly Superman's fault.