Game On.

Note: I’ve written several things since it, but consider this blog a direct follow-up to Game Over.

I hate hypocrisy. I suppose that’s nothing original to me, but it bears mentioning, because it’s one of the most consistent and important parts of my life. And since what I’m about to say may be construed by some as hypocritical, I’ve taken a lot of time to figure out how to say it, and while I might not have nailed it, hopefully I’ll have done at least my best to convey why I don’t see myself as a hypocrite — that the possibility of me being called one weighed into my decision to say it anyway.

If I ever pursue a course of action which is inconsistent with something I’ve said (particularly something I’ve published), I strive to make sure that it’s a matter of progress rather than regress, that where I’m going is a step forward from where I’ve been rather than a setback to a prior position.

Over the last few days I have had some very choice words to say about Marvel. Actually, I’ve had such words for them for a long time, but those words in particular were a bit more concrete. Their implications, resounding. And they weren’t, as I recently pointed out, the first of even their kind; I’d approached swearing off Marvel before on abuse terms and then promptly regretted it.

This time, I’d like to say the difference was my fervor, but it wasn’t. No, the real difference was audience, and in particular solidarity: my post accomplished more than establishing my ire with the company; it established the commonality of the brutal Marvel experience. In the mouth of a guy who has barely been reading comics for four months, folks who’ve spent their whole lives reading comics found their own feelings put into words.

I suppose one might argue that in a way, me choosing to read Marvel comics after all — and especially any time soon — would undermine all that. But I think the opposite may be true. I think by uncovering how widespread this issue is, and getting so many people to say “good point, you’re right,” I discovered something which legitimately needs to be addressed and resolved, something which could only ever be changed from within, with a strong voice that is informed enough to know what it’s talking about, with firsthand knowledge to lend specificity to its claims.

What I realized, in a roundabout way, is that Marvel fans needed a voice like mine speaking out on their behalf more than they need me to boycott the books — books which, ironically, many who agreed with and supported my own declaration still plan to buy and read themselves. If they can agree with what I said and still justify buying Marvel comics, why can’t I?

I knew going back to Marvel was a possibility for me. And that is why I left a very clear backdoor within the words of my declaration: the countdown/continue analogy was more than mere metaphor; it was the acknowledgement that I hadn’t committed permanently to the end of this “game.”

Who among us has not said, in various ways, “I hate this game,” “screw this, I’m done,” “this game sucks,” when confronting a difficult or unfair opponent, only to a moment later overcome the challenge after trying again in spite of ourselves, and perhaps even recommend the game to a friend? It happens in games. It happens throughout life. As one commenter noted, doing things which piss us off is hardly unique to the process of selecting comics. Why should coping with that be okay everywhere else, but not here?

I have allowed myself to be an emotional victim in my relationship with Marvel pretty much since the beginning. And the thing I finally realized is, if I’m going to be miserable pining after the books I’m not reading, then my boycott hasn’t changed anything for me, because Marvel still has the power to make me feel unhappy, even when I’m ostensibly asserting myself. And that is just stupid.

So today, I’m putting in my final two quarters. I’ve read the strategy guides, and I have a better idea of the trials and tricks this particular game involves. I think I may be able to beat this game, but as with anything in comics, that’s a long-haul proposition, because it’s going to take a lot of time, and it’s going to take a lot of support. But I think if there really are people out there who are tired of being abused by Marvel, and still love Marvel characters, they can be rallied together. Their voice can be heard. They can make companies like this (I haven’t forgotten my DC friends) listen, but it won’t happen through individual boycotts or laughably-unsupported petitions.

I’m not saying I’m a leader. I’m still quite wet behind the ears. But clearly I’m onto something which people can get behind. And none of us want Marvel to die. We just want Marvel to be better, to lead better. They depend on their fans for survival. I say it’s about time those fans began discussing a way to exploit that and make something happen. And I want to be part of that. Which means I want to be able to be, and stay, a fan, throwing full weight behind the good Marvel does and turning my rants up to eleven when discussing the bad Marvel does.

So many people claim to have been inspired by comics, to be better people because of them and their community. If today’s comics are failing to provide that kind of inspiration or hope, we shouldn’t quietly cancel our pull lists or curse about it to ourselves on message boards and irrelevant blogs. We should find more effective channels to amplify our opinions and DEMAND something better.

As Dan Slott, the man who continues to find new ways to kill Peter Parker, boldly declares all over his social media, “haters gonna hate.” If that’s all we can do — be predictably angry, but little else — then maybe his smugness is justified. But even if a guy like Dennis Hopeless mocks it, we do have power. Fan outrage DID get Gail Simone her job back. But only because that outrage gained traction, and made itself indisputably known.

I’ll be honest. I don’t know what sort of channels I expect to find, or how much support I can actually rally. I don’t know if I can convince people to drop books they might enjoy for a greater good — though that hasn’t stopped me from trying before. I don’t know what “winning” looks like because, like I said, I’m new to this — but the fact that I’m new and said something right away and had old-timers respond “finally, someone gets this” suggests that my newness isn’t going to preclude doing something useful.

If nothing else, I have never felt so strongly about something and then just let it go away. I will find a way to win this “game” if such a way exists. And if one doesn’t, and I find myself beaten back down to the Game Over screen?

Well, like I said, I’m using my last quarters. There’s no back door this time.

Thanks to everyone who has responded to me in the last week, regardless of what side of the aisle you were on. I hope those who supported me are able to still do so; if not, I understand. Meantime?

Game on.

Marvel NO: Redux…Two?

I have to admit, I’ve been extremely encouraged over the last couple weeks by the responses I’ve received from people on a variety of the things I’ve written. I never really know for sure where the line between “sobering observation” and “eye-rolling emo pity party” is, and I know I’ve danced on and over it before. So whenever I post something negative, and receive feedback from people which says, in effect “thank you for putting into words the things I’ve been feeling for a while,” it serves as a sort of justification that I’m not just moping for the sake of it in my own subjectively awful haze. Sometimes things actually do suck, and sometimes I identify them accurately. That’s pretty nifty.

On the other hand, it does make attempting a change of heart or finding a middle ground rather difficult, because people who stand by you and cheer you on for taking a difficult stance may feel betrayed if you ever take a less extreme stance down the road. Words like backpedaling and compromise become loaded with a stigma, which is unfortunate because it should be praiseworthy for a person to admit they went a little too far. The alternative is being goaded into a corner and making indefensible statements that you don’t even personally believe in, maybe never did.

I wrote “Uncanny Marvel NO.” in a fit of passion, incensed at the notion that…well, I think it’s fairly blatant what had angered me to anyone who read it. It served a purpose. It spoke my mind and it said a lot of things I consider very true. And because it was a response to someone else, it was timely, and I can’t know for sure what waiting a few days would have done to my clarity or my arguments.

Still, I do wish I’d gone back and read the previous “Marvel No” entry first.

Because I would have discovered a shocking parallel between the events that led to yesterday’s blog and the events that led to the Redux one. In both I noted the cyclical, abusive nature of my relationship with Marvel. But whereas Uncanny Marvel NO encapsulated my resolve not to let myself remain a victim no matter how much I want to keep reading Marvel books, Marvel NO: Redux encapsulated the weakness that follows the declaration, and the very crawling back I called inevitable in Uncanny. It encapsulates precisely how I feel today, seeing people talk about how fantastic today’s new issue of All-New X-Men is, being reminded that that awesome all-female X-Men book comes out in a few weeks, and wanting almost desperately to just say “screw it” and go ahead and end my little “boycott” before I’ve even begun.

I’m actually a bit terrified at my own self-awareness. I wrote this the first week of January, but I may as well have written it this morning:

Here I am, having teetered on the edge of actual — that is, clinical (and I know the signs, because I’ve been there before) — depression because of what Marvel is doing. I’ve had, comparatively, the highest-profile split I could have. And yet rather than saying “good riddance” and moving along, I find myself actually wishing I’d said nothing, glancing through the proverbial store window at the latest Spider-Man or Deadpool stories, and knowing deep down that I’ve already given up. Everything I said last week was true, and that’s not enough to keep me caring.

So what, right? This is no great moral victory or loss. I think we can all roll our eyes a bit and say, “well, that just happened,” and then a month from now I’ll be talking about this great thing Chris Yost is doing in Scarlet Spider, and none of us will think twice about it.

Yes. This is precisely how I feel. “Everything I said…was true, and that’s not enough to keep me caring.”

No one was watching when I wrote those words in January. A lot more people were watching yesterday. Many of them voiced their support and solidarity.

And as I sat there today, wanting to renege, I started to ask myself some questions. “No great moral victory or loss,” I said in January. As I mull it over, I ask myself: so if, after all this ranting and discussion, I were to just give up right now and continue reading Marvel comics as if nothing had happened, what exactly would that mean? Would it make me a hypocrite? Or is there a line between hypocrisy and a changed mind? Or has my mind not changed at all, just my resolve — and if that’s the case, is weakness the same as hypocrisy if it entails not being able to follow through with what you planned to?

Furthermore, whom would I be letting down? Myself? The people who stood up for me and agreed with me? Both? Neither? And if I’m hurting myself, why is it that I don’t care nearly as much about that as I do about looking like a liar? If people supported me because they wanted to see me do what made me happy, then wouldn’t they support me regardless of my decision? Or was my abuse parallel so shockingly accurate that I only think reneging will make me happy, but in fact I really am setting myself up to be abused for years to come?

This seems so ridiculously unimportant because it is, at the end of the day, a matter of whether some random guy living in a suburb decides to buy a couple comic books or not. This isn’t the same as domestic abuse. But from a psychological perspective I can’t help but wonder how different it actually is. Confronted with the reality of my situation and the duplicity of my desires, it’s still taken everything in me today not to give in. I’ve even spent some time trying to reinforce my decision by making it clear in various contexts that Marvel is no longer in the picture for me. But tonight, sitting here, I wonder if that was all just a hideous case of denial, and before I knew it I was looking through Facebook pictures of my ex through rose-tinted glasses. Maybe it’s because of that tint that I can’t see the bruises that are still on my arms from yesterday’s fight.

I’m at the point where I legitimately don’t know if I want resolve to go through with my boycott or an okay to surrender and run backwards on my own word. The only thing scarier than that reality is the fact that my acute awareness of it doesn’t make it any less of a reality. And suddenly I realize that an abuse victim isn’t a victim because they don’t know they’re being abused, but because they don’t have the strength to get out of the situation. Recognizing that kind of weakness is hard, and it’s a vulnerability — particularly because it involves the tractability of my word — which is honestly very difficult to own up to.

The excuses I made for myself a few months ago still sound incredibly attractive, maybe even flat-out true. Acknowledging the ultimate futility of one person boycotting a company as large as Marvel, I suggested pursuing creators whom I respected regardless of the books they were writing or the companies they were working for. One easily produces a ridiculous hypothetical situation for making that sound easy: if my best friend were to start writing X-Men, would I really refuse to read it because it was a Marvel property?

That’s not going to happen, but the principle remains intact: supporting the person who’s producing the work and trying to remain blind to the entity which ultimately has the power to make them stop or change what they’re working on with impunity.

So I return to the spirit of the protest. With Arena it was to try to pressure Marvel into changing its course. But this is more like an addict trying to wean himself off of a life-controlling substance. The thing itself may not be innately harmful, but overexposure or dependence definitely is. So if my boycott isn’t a moral one so much as an endeavor to protect myself from harm I could have avoided by not growing too attached, then it would not be unreasonable to permit myself “safe” stories — contained arcs, for example, or maybe even stories with characters who are already dead and thus I don’t have to worry about them being ruined just after I’ve come to love them.

Or if I could simply cauterize my emotional connection a bit — get myself to the point where I, like the many who have either ridiculed or simply been disappointed by me, could appreciate a story without caring so much when things went badly. In the abusive relationship analogy, it’s a matter of either walking out, or (if I am capable) refusing to let myself be a victim — asserting myself, becoming stronger, and not letting Marvel have all the power over how I feel at any given time. If I can stay happy in spite of the bad, or stay angry (when it’s useful) in spite of the good, then a life-long cold turkey diet is hardly necessary. I don’t know. I really don’t.

I know most people don’t care but out in deference to those who did speak up on my behalf I feel compelled to let people in on my (long-winded and scattered) thought processes and at least acknowledge that I feel more conflicted about it than my original words might have let on. And I guess to some extent it’s also a cry for help, a petition for advice. I have no way of knowing just how much stock anyone out there put in what I said. Maybe no one really cares. But I’d hate to look like a turncoat to someone who just got really excited to finally have someone fighting on their side. And I’d hate to make a decision which ultimately allows me to get more hurt down the road, and look back, and know that I could have prevented it.

I said yesterday that this was probably my last chance, and that if I got over it “Marvel would own me for life.” So I guess the question is, was I right? Is it possible for me to assert myself here and maintain some form of relationship? Or will I doom myself to submission by lessening the hardline nature of my originally-proposed stance?

I’m serious. I honestly do not know.

Straw Men & Fire

Matthew 3:11

“Remember, remember, the fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and Plot. I know of no reason the Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot.”

Most people, if they’re being honest, are only familiar with these words because of 2005’s V for Vendetta, a movie they likely enjoyed, featuring a protagonist for whom they likely rooted. It is a very violent film, based on a very violent comic book, both of which have achieved great popularity in spite of the fact that, at base, V for Vendetta is a celebration of terrorism and anarchy; so much so that the Guy Fawkes mask worn by the story’s lead has become the symbol of international cyber-terrorists “Anonymous.”

Intriguingly, though most can quote the poem few seem to actually remember the reason for its inception; they remember November 5th, but they have forgotten why it mattered: a terrorist plot was ended, a person who would cast a nation into bloody chaos was prevented from doing so. Regardless of how you feel about the authorities against which Fawkes (or V, for that matter) rebelled, you’re a strange person if you are truly pleased by the idea of blowing up unarmed civilians. Somehow the victory of the real November 5th is trumped in this movie by its reversal: a terrorist plot successful, for which its audiences cheer, and for which the date is now remembered; fiction has usurped reality, and the message of the poem now serves an antithetical purpose to its creator’s intention.

The interesting thing about V for Vendetta, then, is how it glorified Guy Fawkes — traitor and anarchist — in a way which the world at large seems to have embraced. Today it is not uncommon to come across a person wearing a trademark mask of the man’s face, symbolically becoming him. But for years the only thing people wanted to do with Guy Fawkes was to burn him. And every year, on November 5th, remembering him, that’s just what they’d do: create a straw-filled effigy, and burn it, as if in some token way the burning of a straw man were the same as actually destroying perfidy and anarchy.

As a culture, we seem intent on repeating this act, not yearly but daily. We see violence and evil all around us, sometimes manifest in truly ghastly ways, and our reaction is not to root it out of our hearts and minds but to find a scapegoat somewhere and toss it on the pyre. For over a century, America’s pyre has been stoked with art. And as the flames climb, they don’t consume the true violence in the world; they merely illuminate its daunting, terrifying scope.

One of the greatest mysteries to me is how easily people conflate depictions of violence with condoning violence. I’ve met many a person (particularly in Christian circles) who seems to be of the mindset that watching a violent film or television show (nevermind playing a game) is inherently wrong, that exposure to the violence is akin to delighting in it. In the whitewashed fantasy world wherein these people would have all media reside, there is no violence, because violence can never breed any good.

I find the Christians the most entertaining, in that respect, because my immediate response is to question whether they’ve ever read the Bible. If a work of art is inherently sinful because it shows atrocities (and may, even, suggest that those atrocities are acceptable), then what of the Old Testament? What of the crucifixion? What of the fates of the apostles? Surely God knows that showing these things is an affront to God?

I don’t mean to equate Yahweh with Ares, but I think it’s rather laughable to suggest that violence is inherently useless in the telling of stories. It is, and always has been, a part of life, and the question ought not be “is it violent” but “what does its use of violence communicate?” In the case of scripture, the violence merely illustrates the consequences of man’s disobedience, and affords a contrast to the paradise Christ will usher in in the end of days. It illustrates the suffering undergone by a scapegoat so that the true perpetrators may avoid the fate they deserve — and, of course, hopefully repent. If there were no violence, there would be no power in reconciliation — without war, the value of peace is unfelt.

We understand when we read the Gospel, or when we watch The Passion of the Christ, that the violence was necessary to facilitate a greater good. But what of travesties? What of events like those in Aurora, in Newtown? Is there anyone so jaded as to say children needed to die? That they deserved it? I suppose there probably are such jaded people, but then there are Guy Fawkeses in every culture. The rest of us, those with compassion and reason, shake our heads in disbelief.

To some extent, the year’s violence continues to illustrate the same thing as did the blood-soaked wars of the Old Testament: the wages of sin, the constant consequence of rebellion, the result of generations pushing God out of their lives, hearts, and minds. That is not to say that tragedy is revenge: God is not reactionary, He does not say “oh yeah? well how do you like this?” like some petty schoolboy. It is rather more like we have removed the guard rails along a narrow mountain road, kicked God out of the driver’s seat, and then wondered why the un-steered car was not miraculously kept from flying off a cliff. Bad things happen when God is kicked out of our lives — not because he sits there on the side of the road with a remote control and veers us into hazards, but because of the inevitability of driving blind. It is culture in general that is to blame for what has happened — innocent lives are the collateral damage of the bad decisions made by generations past and present.

Saint Augustine speculated that evil is, like cold, not a thing but rather an absence, of God rather than of heat. It is not so much that we, as humans, are evil as it is we lack God, and therefore lack good. And while some people — as the Newtown shooter — lack the capacity to differentiate, plenty of other acts of violence are perpetrated by people who have no such lack but act anyway. Just as not all mentally ill people will do terrible things, not all terrible things are done by mentally ill people.

Whether you like it or not (and who would), “normal” humanity is Godless, and therefore prone to bad things. Anyone who disputes this is welcome to observe any young child, who must be trained over the course of years out of an inherent posture of disobedience and selfishness. The first word many children learn is “no,” because they’re constantly doing things they oughtn’t; once they’ve learned it they immediately turn it back on us, refusing to do things they ought.

I’m not unique in suggesting the ills of this nation (and by extension, the world) are due not to religion (as John Lennon banally chooses to “Imagine”) but rather to its lack. In his parting words as President, George Washington notes that

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?

Washington’s aims were broader in scope than mine here — I’ll leave his suggestion that anti-religion and anti-American are synonymous to linger — but the salient point is that if our country or world seems to be coming apart at the seams, the first question we ought to ask is whether we’re being true to a system of living which believes that absolute good and evil exist and that there is a higher power to which we are accountable for upholding those absolutes.

For in a world of moral relativism, in which “what’s good for you may not be what’s good for me,” and where every person lives however he or she sees fit, there is no basis for denouncing another’s decisions, even if those decisions include slaughtering other people. Because true tolerance demands that no worldview, however abhorrent from our own, is condemnable, absent a metric for condemnation. The extent to which we feel compelled to cast judgment mirrors the extent to which relative morality is a sham. If you felt anger or resentment in the wake of the Newtown shootings, you don’t actually believe people should be able to live as they please. In which case I suggest you figure out who or what determines what’s absolutely right or wrong.

The existence of absolute truth (and thereby our culpability) is a tough pill to swallow. We are by nature arrogant, and though we will never come close to producing anything so grand as a planet or galaxy we still think ourselves incredibly awesome, and praise one another as such. When bad things happen we refuse to look within but point to external sources as the corrupting influences that tarnish our otherwise perfect Selves.

This is why, in the wake of Newtown, a new rallying cry seems to have gone out (not least of which — and this not lacking in irony — from the NRA) to cleanse ourselves of those filthy things called video games, whose depictions of violence are destroying our youth and leading to tragedies that could have been prevented.

Aye, games.

Just this morning I read an article about a movement in Connecticut to gather and, quite literally, incinerate violent video games. Despite explicit assurance that other media are equally viable for burning (books, the obvious analog, are not mentioned), and that this isn’t meant to suggest that games are actually related to the shooting, the implicit message of this and similar rallies is that the violence of our youth is due to entertainment; the unstated suggestion is that were there no games to corrupt the kids, schools would be peaceful.

You see, games are merely this generation’s Guy Fawkes effigy, burned at the altar where television, film, the novel, and the theatre have all taken their sacrificial place. Just last night I saw an episode of The Twilight Zone in which a community’s hysterical jingoism (and a death or two) were all instigated by one boy’s enthusiasm for a comic book. This story was written over fifty years ago; had the episode been made today, I have no doubt the boy would have been a fan of Call of Duty. Sadly, I also have little doubt that the true message of the episode — our frightening capacity to be carried away by a fear of the unknown Other — would have been lost behind the scapegoat’s specter.

Now, I have no qualms with people whose reaction to overt displays of real-life violence is a revolt against unnecessary exposure to violent entertainment. One can only stomach so much. And when it comes to what much violent media communicates via its violence, it’s undoubtedly true that many games, films, shows, etc. say nothing at all at best, and glorify violence at worst. Moreover, as most violent media (of the truly graphic variety) is made by, for, and marketed towards adults only, I’m fully behind any movement which removes that content from the hands and eyes of children.

But let us keep two key points in mind as we raise our pitchforks and cheer while the effigy burns.

First, depictions of violence can be used for valid, potentially redemptive purposes, and the inclusion of brutality does not always (or even often) correlate to acceptance or celebration thereof.

Second, a straw man is a straw man. Destroy all the violent media in the world and there will still be violence in the hearts of men, because they are spiritually cold. Doubtless the world’s problems can be solved by baptizing them in fire; all that remains is recognizing what kind of fire that is.