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Thursday, March 25, 2004

Black, White, & Shades of Grey

Time for more useless superhero trivia, I think. Let's look at characters of colour - that is, comic book heroes with "Black" or "White" in their names. How many are truly black, and how many white? And what does it mean? Let's explore...

First, an experiment: think of a black superhero. First one that comes to mind. I'll wait.

...okay. Who did you think of? I'll bet the character was male, and had "Black" in his superhero name. Furthermore, I'll bet you chose the Black Panther or Black Lightning. Maybe the Black Vulcan, if you watched Saturday morning cartoons.

But how many black characters use "Black" in their sobriquet? Let's find out...

"Black" Characters

Black Canary: Heroine. Wears a black (well, maybe dark blue, depending on the colourist) costume; white as Karen Carpenter.

Black Cat: Heroine. Wears a black costume; white skin, red hair.

Black Cat (II): Another heroine. Also wears a black costume; white skin, white hair.

Blackhawk: Hero. (Collectively: Blackhawks.) A whole bunch of white guys, except for a token Asian. Wore black costumes, flew black airplanes.

Black Goliath: Hero. Grew big. An actual black guy. If he were white, would he be called "White Goliath?"

The Black Hood: Hero. White guy in...a black hood.

Black Jack: Hero. Was not black. Wore black hood.

The Black Knight: Hero. White guy in black suit of armour.

The Black Knight (II): Hero. Ditto. Descendant of the first guy; joined the Avengers.

Black Lightning: Hero. Wears a black costume, and is in fact black. Angry, dedicated schoolteacher by day, ass-busting crimefighter by night. If he were white, would he be called "White Lightning?" Hmmm...that would give a different impression.

Black Manta: Villain. Wears a black deep-sea diving suit, and is in fact black, though this wasn't revealed for many years. (I remember being surprised myself when I read the revelation in the 70s.)

The Black Musketeers: Heroes/Heroines. No, I'm not kidding. They're black, and they're musketeers. They help out the Black Panther.

The Black Panther: Hero. Wears a black costume, and is in fact black. Leader of a fierce, technologically-advanced warrior tribe in Africa.

The Black Pirate: Hero. Wears a black costume, has a black beard. (No relation to Blackbeard the pirate.) White guy.

Black Racer: Force of nature. One of the New Gods; wears a goofy skiiing outfit, acts as the angel of death for the DC universe. Has black skin.

The Black Talon: Villain. An actual black guy, formerly known as The Black Rooster. Again, I'm not kidding.

The Black Terror: Hero. Wears a black costume with a skull and bones motif. Not a pirate. White guy.

Black Vulcan: Hero. One of the Super Friends. Actually black. Cheap Black Lightning knockoff for the cartoon series; the creators didn't want to spend the money to actually purchase the rights to the Black Lightning character.

The Black Widow: Heroine. Wears a black costume. Redheaded spy; white.

Black Bolt: Hero. Black costume, white guy.

Vykin the Black: Hero. One of the New Gods. Yeah, he was black, literally. The token black.

"White" Characters

White Witch. Heroine. A white witch in a white costume. Member of the Legion of Super-Heroes.

Black Characters who don't have the word "black" in their codename:

Amazing Man (II): Hero. As far as I can remember, the only black member of the Justice Society of America. And only retroactively, at that.

Blade: Hero. Maybe you've seen the movies, where he's played by Wesley Snipes. Black guy who hunts vampires.

Brother Voodoo: Hero. May as well be called the black something-or-other, since this name doesn't afford much more dignity.

Cottonmouth: Villain. Has "bionically enhanced jaws." A black character named "Cottonmouth?" This just isn't right.

The Falcon: Hero. Sidekick to Captain America. Has a falcon.

The Human Top: Hero. Spins around. Maybe "The Black Tornado" would have been a better name, at that.

Icon: Hero. Superman analogue; a shapeshifting alien who took the form of a black man, since this was the first example of a human he'd seen.

Moses Magnum: Villain. Holy cow, what a cool name. Too bad his costume is so lame.

Power Fist: Hero. Jive-talkin' hero, in fact. Costume has a disturbing chain motif, though perhaps this is a subtle statement of taking back the chains...or something.

Rocket: Heroine. Sidekick of Icon.

Static: Hero. Has a pretty good cartoon at the moment.

Steel: Hero. Wears a suit of armour. Played by Shaq in a terrible film that really did an injustice to a great character.

The Super Harlem Globetrotters: Heroes. Remember the cartoon? The Harlem Globetrotters received super-powers and fought crime around the world, living up to their name, I guess.

Tyroc: Hero. Sonic scream powers. Wears a white costume; member of the Legion of Super-Heroes.

Whitewash: Hero. Well, more like a comic sidekick. Terribly stereotypical; thankfully hasn't been seen much since his creation in the 40s.

Green Lantern (III): Hero. John Stewart was once the "emergency backup" for Earth's Green Lantern, Hal Jordan. Later on, he became a fully-fledged, full-time Green Lantern in his own right, and in fact it is the John Stewart Green Lantern who is currently being used in the popular Justice League cartoon.

XS: Heroine. Super-speedster. Member of the Legion of Super-Heroes.


Okay, there are lots of characters who use the word "black" in their codename, most of them white. But there are very few characters who use "white" as an adjective - only one that I could even remember.

What if writers felt the need to apply the "white" descriptor to white characters? How do these names grab you?

White Superman (YEESH! Don't even go there)
White Batman (Doesn't make sense)
White Wonder Woman ( it sounds like a porn star name)
White Flash (Hmm. Sounds kind of cool, I guess...)
White Spider-Man (uh-huh)
White Canary (Might actually work, I suppose; makes as much sense as Black Canary)
White Dr. Doom ("White Doom" might be cool, not to mention politically astute)
White Shadow (Hey, wasn't that a TV series?)

Well, no surprises here: comics, at least in their early years, were clearly as racist (if mostly unconsciously) as any other medium of the day. Fortunately, there are many more black comics heroes these days - great examples like Icon and Steel, positive role models with non-stereotypical day jobs. (Publisher and architect, respectively.)

Still, as one minority gains footing, others lag behind; there are still relatively few Asian or (openly) gay superheroes, and even fewer Native Americans. But, one by one, they do appear. Whether they will take hold of the public consciousness like Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man...time will tell.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Dance of the Pants

A couple of blahgs back, I related the tale of our attempt to see Bubba Ho-Tep. My charming, beautiful and intelligent girlfriend thought that the poems were brilliant, but a little fact, from her perspective, the facts of the matter were

"I look like a shrew in those emails!" she said.

"Er..." I replied.

Okay, full disclosure time. While I genuinely wanted to see the movie, the truth is I'd had a long, stressful week, and by the time Friday rolled around, Sylvia's reluctance to go (though she would have gone had I really wanted to) presented the perfect opportunity to weasel out and just stay home, while assigning the blame to my innocent girlfriend. Mea culpa! I am shamed.

Furthermore, Sylvia wishes to make it clear that Paul's "Lose pants to make show" line clearly implies that she wears the pants in our relationship. The truth is, we both wear the pants.

Well, not the same pair of pants. Not at the same time. And she wears designer pants, while I wear sweats.

Amusingly, Sylvia rattled off a poem about the event:

Don't know what to say
Can't make a haiku
But you're totally off base
So screw you!

P.S. I am too punctual!

(And as a matter of fact, she is quite punctual.)

For the record, my Squishy McMonkey is very good about letting me do whatever I want to do, and I do feel bad that I gave anyone the impression that she wouldn't have happily indulged my geeky film fetish. For crying out loud, she watches Deep Space Nine with me now and enjoys it as much as I do! That's relationship gold, my friends.

So now you know the sordid truth, dear readers. And I know that I'm going to suffer merciless ribbing for jamming out on the movie. I'm wincing already.

Hey, I think I've posted for three or four straight days now..! That's gotta be some kind of record.

Until tomorrow...

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Space Cases

Several of my friends and colleagues - people I admire and respect - have opined that space travel is a waste of money, that the resources we devote to putting a man on the moon or space probes on Mars could be better used on Earth, presumably to shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, and so on. In other words, we should solve our problems at home before we start doing extraneous things like investigating outer space.

I've always been a space buff, so naturally I find this attitude somewhat shortsighted. But as a person who believes in social justice, I'm willing to ask myself if exploring space is worth the costs.

President Bush has asked Congress to increase NASA's budget from 15.4 to 16.2 billion dollars. That's a lot of cash, and sadly, thanks to Shrub's complete ignorance of rational space policy, much of that cash will probably be wasted on flashy projects designed not to advance science, but to score propaganda points and enrich aerospace firms (which donate millions of dollars to the Republican party).

That aside, let's pretend that 16.2 billion could be used only for experiments and programs that promise to deliver real results that will expand our knowledge of the universe. What kind of return are we getting on our investment? (And yes, even though I'm a Canadian, I do mean "we," even though my taxes aren't being touched by NASA. If we take a global perspective, we have to realize that resources diverted in one nation - and benefits accrued by that nation - affect all of us.)

Well, over the years NASA and other space agencies have given us reams of data about the composition of stars and planets, a much greater understanding of weather patterns on our own planet (including crucial environmental data), communications satellites, and various spinoff technologies that we use in everyday life. (Though some argue that such spinoffs could have been developed more efficiently with R&D programs devoted specifically to the invention of the spinoffs.) Space missions have also given us thousands of remarkable photographs, from the Earth/Moon shots of the Apollo missions to the Hubble Space Telescope's awe-inspiring vistas of deep space.

Could we make do without all this? I suppose we could. It's possible that understanding the nature of the universe is something we could learn in a thousand or ten thousand years, long after we've sorted out our problems. Perhaps it's not fair for us to delight in this new knowledge or to vicariously launch ourselves into space along with those daring astronauts - not when our neighbours are wondering where their next meal is coming from. I have to admit that I've had these doubts myself.

But let's see what else we're spending our money on.

Let's the last three months of 2001, Coca-Cola enjoyed sales of $941 million. In just three months, human beings spent nearly a billion dollars on a soft drink that isn't even good for them. In fact, we're spending $60 billion a year on soft drinks.

One useless product that we can easily do without dwarfs NASA's budget. If we must eliminate space travel so that all that money can be devoted to solving Earth's problems, so too should that $60 billion we spend on soft drinks. There's just no excuse.

We spent over a billion dollars to see one movie: Titanic. Nearly that much to see three, the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

While we're at it, we should eliminate:

video games ($9.4 billion annually - nearly the size of the NASA budget)
NHL hockey ($2 billion)
Hallmark greeting cards ($4.3 billion annually - a quarter of the NASA budget - ONE greeting card company, producing one of the most wasteful and useless products on the market! And since Hallmark claims it has 50% of the greeting card market, I assume we're actually spending $8.6 billion a year on cards.)*

...and on and on it goes, including the US military, with an annual budget of $400 billion, more than every other government on Earth combined. The sheer waste and futility boggles the mind. How much are wealthy collectors willing to pay for rare works of art? Millions? Tens of millions? Why aren't we outraged that that money isn't being funnelled to worthy causes?

I think the lesson here is this: human beings spend a disproportionate amount of their intelligence and talent, not to mention the Earth's resources, on frivolity. Just as I defend NASA spending, I'm sure others can find reasons to support professional hockey and greeting cards.

But let's not kid ourselves. Even if every government on earth suddenly decided to cancel their space programs, the money saved wouldn't be diverted to feeding the hungry, healing the sick, or housing the homeless. More than likely, we'd all demand tax cuts so that we could buy more DVDs or books or Silly Putty.

I'm not alone in that. I'm just as hypocritical as everyone else.

But please, guys. Let's not single out the space program. At least our adventures in space have given us some genuinely worthwhile scientific insight. And perhaps more importantly, they've helped raised the consciousness of thousands of people, helping us see our Earth as one world without borders, a world that needs to be protected from our own shortsightedness. And we really can't predict the other benefits that may come from our exploration. Perhaps the answers to our problems can't be found on Earth; perhaps we need to look beyond our own horizons.

*Figures compiled from the New York Times, Advertising Age, Hallmark, and my own memories of box office figures. Come on, it's a Blahg, not a scholarly journal.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

When commenting on a friend's romantic relationship, Constable Odo once said, rather cynically, "You want to attend the baseball game, she wants to listen to Klingon opera. So you compromise...and listen to Klingon opera."

Odo was right in one sense; relationships are all about compromise. But that's not always a bad thing.

I like to wear sweats. They're comfy. Sylvia hates them and threatened to burn my only pair. So I offered to compromise: I'd only wear my sweats around the house or while going out on my own, never when we're in public together. She accepted the deal, and now she's happy, I'm happy, and my sweats are happy. And, at least when I'm with her, I look like less of a slob in public, which may have unforeseen positive consequences, though I can't imagine what those may be. (I can think of one downside: it seems to be that slobs are less likely to get mugged, since the muggers figure you can't possibly own anything worth stealing.)

Sylvia always looks great when we go out, and it doesn't really cost me anything to compromise, aside from a little comfort. And Sylvia assures me that if she takes me shopping, she'll find decent slacks that provide both style and comfort. I'm sceptical, but we'll see.

I guess you could say that Sylvia wears the pants in our relationship. But that's okay - I don't sweat it.

Unless, of course, I'm in private. ;-)

Sunday, March 21, 2004

The Ballad of Bubba Ho-Tep

A bunch of the guys went out to see Bruce Campbell's latest masterpiece, Bubba Ho-Tep, on Friday night. Sylvia and I were going to go, and so were my brother and sister-in-law, but one thing led to another and, sadly, none of us made it. However, the fiasco inspired some poetry from my friends Pete, Mike, and Paul.

Mike suggested that we should all arrive at the Metro Cinema 5:30 to get our tickets. However, I knew there was no way I could get from St. Albert to Edmonton, pick up Sylvia, and then get to the theatre by that time; I suggested the earliest I could be there was 6:30.

Paul responded thus:

Earl and girl are lait,
What's milk got to do with it?
Worst haiku ever.

I then emailed this message:

Update! Sylvia's not coming. Too geeky, apparently. On the other hand, this means I don't have to pick her up, so I should be able to reach the theatre by 6.

Prompting Paul to reply:

Earl loses the girl,
This hastens his arrival --
Lose pants to make show.

And Pete added his own haiku:

Earl arrives dateless.
More speed is now possible,
Chicks can't be timely.

Along with a bawdy limmerick:

There once was a man we called Earl,
who had recently found a nice girl,
while she swallowed the geek,
thought his movies were weak:
Solo Earl gets to see Elvis hurl.

And finally, a sonnet:

Shall I compare thee to the Evil Dead?
Thou art more Kingly, man of rock and roll;
Ash never had a J.F.K. with soul,
and Bubba Ho-Tep's gore is much less red
than those who've lost their chainsaw-taken head.
This movie's sidekick passed the grassy knoll,
did Oswald's bullet make him black as coal?
Who cares? We are by Campbell's Elvis led.
The Mummy might in fact a Deadite be,
Bruce Campbell once more fights for liberty --
And so the two have more in common than
they did when this discussion first began
Yet I'll miss the shotgun tagline "Groovy!"

And then, sadly, I had to send this:

Ack! My whole house of cards has come crashing down. Sylvia's out, my brother is out, my sister-in-law is out, and I am out. :-P

Looking forward to the haiku for THAT...

To which Mike responded:

I can't remember the exact form, but here's my attempt:

EARL SUX0R5! D000000D!

And Paul wrote:

Earl causes four outs,
That's a good baseball pitcher --
But a bad army.

I'll have to ask the guys how the show was...

Thursday, March 04, 2004

The End is the Beginning

Jim Hole once asked me if I ever skipped to the last page of a book to read the ending.

"I might as well read the whole thing backwards," I said, "you'd spoil the whole book, knowing the ending right at the start."

"Maybe," he said, "But the beginning would sure be a surprise!"

I thought about that conversation tonight as I was doing laundry and watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I came to Buffylate; I started watching it in season five, kept watching through the series' end, while at the same time catching up on the old episodes by watching the earlier seasons on DVD. Tonight, having just finished the final episode of season four, I realized that I have come back to the beginning of my Buffy experience - smack dab in the middle of the series.

Watching the first four seasons while knowing the ultimate fate of the characters adds a certain resonance to the proceedings; every line, every action, every revelation is coloured by my prescient knowledge of what's to come. This is especially rewarding with a show like Buffy, where story arcs were planned so far in advance. Emotions are more poignant, and the story's texture becomes deeper, more rich.

I guess this is why I keep my books and comics; the stories are always new, even if I've read them many times before. Reading A Princess of Mars at twelve is very different than reading it at thirty; you could even argue that the book was read by two entirely different people, two individuals merely perceived as a single entity because we share a few common memories and some physical characteristics. Whether Earl at twelve and Earl at thirty were the same person or not, the experience of absorbing that book was different each time, and each experience had its own rewards. We start out younger than major characters, seeing men and women in their twenties as impossibly wise and ancient; and then we suddenly discover, years later, that we have become a year or two older than those same characters. Our heroes and villains become our contemporaries, even our peers.

Stephen Hawking once theorized that at the end of the universe, time would start running backwards, and it would seem quite normal for us to assemble from ashes, grow younger and more vital, then smaller, smaller, more and more helpless, until at last we retreat into the womb and shrink to nonexistence, finally dividing into sperm and egg. If time really does work this way, if our experience of life is an illusion forced upon us by our physical limitations, then maybe reading books or watching television shows out of sequence isn't such a crazy idea. Perhaps we'll get to see it in the "right" order, eventually...even if we have to wait a few billion years.

I guess when you read a book for the first time, the book informs your life and alters your perception of the world. But when you read it again, your experiences suddenly alter your perception of the book, and the expected suddenly defies all expectations. We see what was once invisible, and perhaps lose sight of what once was clear. The same must be true when we examine any work of art.

I have a pretty large collection of books and movies, and sometimes people ask me if I've read them all, and why I don't just sell them off after I've seen them once. I think I have my answer now. My books, my comics, my movies - they are a part of me. They've helped me grow. They connect me to my past and hint at my future, and I hope that when at last I die, I'll have just finished a wonderful story, perhaps a tale that takes me back to the very beginning of it all.

I'll read The End, and then...

The End.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Thought for the Day

As men and women are wont to do, Sylvia and I were discussing male/female stereotypes today, one of them being the supposed unwillingness of men to display their emotions. I tossed off a line I quite like:

"Just because you feel love for someone doesn't mean you have to express it!"

I got a pretty good dirty look for that one. Hee hee.