Saturday, 27 June 2009

Challenging, engrossing, surprising, deep - Vertigo comics. But are they any good?

The publisher Vertigo has brought comics some great adult fiction, including the noir crime thriller 100 Bullets, an apocalyptic drama about the last man left when all the other males die on earth (Y: The Last Man), the topical political thriller DMZ, the wonderful Fables universe, and of course, Alan Moore’s work including the freakish Swamp Thing, which explores humanity’s relationship with the earth, and comes to some strange conclusions about what makes a human.

Here’s a few I’ve looked at in the past few months.

The Sandman (1989-1996) – This is must-read fiction, fascinating and strange. I have only read the first two volumes so far, so expect me to post more on the series another time, but how can I sum it up? Basically it is a tragic epic which explores how Morpheus, the lord of dreams (pictured), is imprisoned for 70 years, and then has to regain his power to rule the land of the Dreaming and all its errant dream-creatures, and all its effects on the human world (the Waking). So there are heavy elements of horror, especially in the chapters I have read, and fantasy, too, as Morpheus, still weak from his ordeal, relies on his wits to face a demon in hell, making an enemy of Lucifer in the process. I love the way Morpheus’ quest interacts with the life of a fairly normal teenager, Rose Walker, in volume 2, and the oddball characters thrown together into the story are really engrossing to read about, especially when we know there is a bigger picture than many of them do. An exceptional, and highly literate, comic series from author Neil Gaiman.

Crossing Midnight volume 1: Cut Here (2007) – This short book by Mike Carey introduces us to Japanese siblings Kai and Toshi, and to problems far bigger than they can deal with alone, as they try to protect their family from a cold-blooded spirit who the family owes a formidable debt to. The art is impressive at times in its summery, watercolour-like inks, but other times a little too plain. But what’s most interesting is the way the story blends surprising and unusual Japanese supernatural archetypes with the idea of the all-important struggle to protect the family unit – a theme which really matters to children the age of our two young protagonists. We begin to feel for them as their separate personal quests seem to spiral out of control. One or two breath-taking moments and surreal twists stand out, however it starts to feel a little jumbled towards the abrupt ending, and I almost feel that, with a one or two less explicit images (there’s not many anyway), it could have been better aimed at a younger crowd, as a more serious book to read compared to another “Goblins vs Bat above a high school with the world in the balance” kind of comic book!

The Other Side (2006-07) – Now I don’t usually like war movies that much, finding them too relentless and disturbing. But this self-contained comic miniseries is the best kind of war fiction, and works really well, showing us at every level the differences in the two armies in the Vietnam war, how they were recruited, how they coped mentally, whether they were disillusioned with their command or not (in both cases, the answer is yes, to different extents), and what their values and attitudes to war and human life were. The latter point is quite scary – especially in the way the US army encourages its members to dehumanise their enemies, to live with their weapon, and not seek anything higher than killing the opposition.

The writer, Jason Aaron, is one of comic’s new talents, and he really cares about the subject, and I think he shows well how both sides are brainwashed in different ways. He has clearly researched well, and the feverish illustrations by Cameron Stewart clearly show the horror in Private Everette’s face, the gory zombies he imagines coming after him, or the determination and comradeship on the side of the People’s Army of Vietnam, as they head to meet the besieged US troops. It’s interesting to see the mixture of noble ambition and bizarre superstition on the side of the Vietnamese, compared to the moral collapse and bitterness depicted amongst the cynical US troops. What a way to treat a generation of young men.

The Invisibles, volume 1: Say you want a revolution? (1994-95) – Another series by off-beat comics writer Grant Morrison, it seems to be all about defying authority; subject matter that is ripe for teens and 20-somethings, one might cynically think! It actually starts with a teenager from Liverpool, who is considered “invisible” or worthless by his mother and his society partly because he and his two friends are full of anger and vulgarity, deciding to burn down a school just for the thrilling feeling of freedom (I think). So far, so A Clockwork Orange. Before long though young Dane is recruited by an anarchist group under “King Mob” who seem to fight supernatural powers and groups that try to control the world’s population. This is where it gets strange. He is then tutored by another “invisible”, a crazy homeless old man, who seems to make no sense at first but gradually helps Dane see past the current reality using what I think is a drug, and other “techniques”, so that he sees the magic in the world, and is more open to the experiences available to him. And I didn’t understand the part about John Lennon.

The second story arc concerns an Invisibles mission back in time to the French Revolution, which gets really unpleasant in places, but I quite liked the discussion between Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley showing their longing to reach for (or work towards) a better world. What do we make of all this? Well, I guess this rambling and bizarre collection is not one I really would recommend overall, although similarities to The Matrix and conspiracy culture means it does capture the spirit of some people’s anger and how they seek freedom from restriction. Also, bear in mind, Wikipedia says Morrison claims to have had a magical experience writing the comic, and based it on what some aliens told him when he was abducted. No wonder it makes little sense!

Sunday, 21 June 2009

If machines ran the earth, there wouldn't be Sony branding on the technology

My dad didn't want to see Star Trek, and John Woo's epic Red Cliff was on too late, so last night we went to see the new Terminator movie, which was an entertaining way to spend two hours. Lots of action in a similar vein as the last 3 movies, but involving a bigger variety of machines, and some engaging new characters.

I think the build-up, when Marcus, Star and Kyle are on the road, is probably better than the climax, for which by the very nature of the plot there is no long tension-building chase between the combatants. A number of minor things bugged me in the movie, but it had a few nice touches, such as the line "Do you think humans deserve a second chance?" - which is deeply ironic, when you understand the context.

The film also left me wondering if the series has ever told us what the machines are actually planning to do with the earth once humanity has been exterminated - why have they left it such a wreck? Anyone got any ideas on this? What have these machines been programmed to do again - wasn't it something about make the world a better place?

Did anyone else think as well that there is a strange ambivalence in the movie about what makes someone human? For instance in the ending and this idea that having a human heart makes someone pretty human, and yet also the idea that human bodies are mere resources to be used in the fight for survival?

I guess I'm going too far into it, the main aim is clearly to set up fights in a war and leave us thinking Connor has reached a significant victory. And it does this in an exciting way, leaving things wide open for sequel number five!

Saturday, 20 June 2009


How thick is the wall
I am up against,
And what will it mean to me?
Will it provide
A spine-straightening brace?
A fatal blow to the side?
An embrace of rooted, underbelly rest?
What angle does it claim
Of its subject: me.

Just discovered this short thought I wrote and saved in July 2007 on my laptop and forgot about. Doesn't it capture the challenges of engaging well with a problem, and having the right perspective on it? And it warns us how thoughts like this can easily make everything about little old "me" rather than the big picture which should inform my thinking and what I put my energy into...

Friday, 19 June 2009

Emotions in manga look like this

This is a good guide for anyone like me who didn't know, for example, what the lines meant which show a character is "crestfallen" in Japanese manga or anime :)

Speaking for Jesus

Sometimes in non-Christian circles I say something about my beliefs or even something fairly ordinary about my church that gets me noticed. It can even be that occasionally I am conspicuously not taking part in a certain type of conversation because I am a Christian, and suddenly this gets me noticed – and often on these occasions, because I am not (yet!) naturally the type of person to springboard off that and lead a conversation about faith, something rather bizarre happens: Someone makes a comment which shows me they have just judged me and my faith.

“So you are like this then: [insert some unhelpful stereotype].” “So you were brought up in it then - your parents were quite strict, were they?” (the demeaning idea that I have swallowed everything I've heard uncritically, or blindly followed my family/church teaching and being shackled my whole life by a restrictive rule-book/perspective). Or “My cousin is a Jehovah’s Witness and they don’t let her…” or “My life philosophy is …” or “You believe this (X) too, don’t you?” “Does that mean you can’t do Y? Don’t you ever want to? What’s wrong with it? Do you think we are all scum then? Are we all going to hell then? [laughter]” and so on!

Why does this part, where non-Christians start to make their own huge, uninformed judgements about you, happen at all?

OK, so it’s partly lack of knowledge; they strike out at similar things and get it wrong. Also, in my experience, it can happen because of sincere disagreement with Christianity, but more often it is done out of a desire to voice an opinion about life/relationships with others/God which is supposed to prove me wrong in some way and make the speaker look good and his/her lifestyle seem OK. It’s about fun and self and control. They have rarely even got to the point of considering the facts at this stage. Quite often it also becomes a chance to make jokes at what seems rather bizarre to them to start with and which they are uncomfortable talking about.

Now I can’t believe I’m the only one who has been in one of these uncomfortable situations – finding I miss the chance to speak about my faith and then having someone else speak about theirs (or against mine) in my stead?

So this post, which is already getting quite long, is about taking control in conversations – something I need to encourage myself, and other believers, to do!

First of all, two caveats:

• Listening to what other people think is a way of valuing them and loving them, and questioning them will also give you an idea of where they are coming from. So there is a place for working hard in conversation to find out what is important to those people whom God loves who we are speaking to, as we present to them why we live for Jesus, and what that means. Of course, this doesn’t mean being a wet blanket. We must stand firm in our convictions at this stage and not just blindly agree to everything, but show that, while we are engaging with what they are saying, we think Jesus is real and must follow his way.
• Our sinful natures mean we can want to take control for many wrong reasons. For instance I may want to speak up (or write, like on a blog!) simply out of impatience and to make things better for myself. I might say something, not so spiritually dead people see who Jesus is and what he has done and begin to love him, but so that they see I am right and get on my side in the debate. I might in short want others to agree with me to make things more convenient, and so I can get people off my back. Peter didn’t see it this way when he wrote 1 Peter 3:14-18. We need to know that it is better to be gentle and to love others, and suffer for it like Jesus, than bully others to be “right” and have an easier life. Taking control of conversations must be done for the right reasons.

Having said all this, part of loving people is persuading, explaining, pleading with them and showing them why we believe in the gospel. And the only way others will see why Jesus is worthy of their full attention, their time, their lives, is if we jump in and take the opportunity.

Can I suggest quickly pointing to Jesus? “He is the reason I am a Christian today. I wouldn’t keep living following Him, apart from the fact that I think that when he lived as a man on earth 2000 years ago he showed that he was God /the only way to know God.” Or something along those lines. And with confidence in your voice!

Don’t let them get away with saying the message of the Bible has been changed over the years – they haven’t looked into it if they say this, and you can just firmly inform them that the records we have are accurate and were checked and re-checked when copied out to the next manuscript, and that the oldest ones are used today to give us our modern Bibles. More importantly, point to the fact that the first churches started because people were utterly serious about Jesus rising from the dead and that is our hope today too. If we lived roughly 1970 years ago, we could have seen Jesus die and then be alive after death, we could have touched Him and heard Him, and got to know Him. So, somehow like this, we can feel our way back to the point of talking about Jesus!

The aim of pointing to Jesus is to get our friends to look again, as adults, at what Jesus really did, and to think about why He did it and what this shows about Him, and about God. God really wanted to have us as His children. He sent His Son to die for us.

Another approach is to look at humanity and what we are doing with our lives, the world, and our relationships. The Bible would say we are designed to know God personally, and it is our rebellion from Him that is the root of evil. It’s pretty evident in the world. We can talk about the evil in the news, and our own idolatry, making our wants King and hurting those we love. We can talk about the possibility of being restored in God’s sight, forgiven and set free from the power of addicting sin. We can speak of personal battles won by God’s power*, such as battles of faith in prayer and battles against sin, as God has over time helped us become more like our Lord Jesus. We can speak of our connection to our Maker, our privilege of knowing Him.

Also, when friends try to justify their own anti-God lifestyle in what they are saying, you could try being really blunt and asking what this lifestyle is really getting them. Do they have good relationships? Is there something that has become obsessively important in their lives? Do they know where they are heading in the future, or what their purpose is in the world? Is their lifestyle going to win them any points with God? Do they know what he really thinks about it? What about death? Let them know about heaven and hell, so they are prepared.

I’ve already said I’m not a natural at this. And I know one or two people who I really, really struggle to respond well to. But it is important enough to write about and spend time thinking about, and perhaps this could be a starting point for discussion. Any ideas?

*I heard an example from this excellent talk about a man on death row in the USA who became a Christian and stopped pleading insanity, although it was advised by his lawyers, because he knew it was a lie, and he didn’t want to lie any more! People really do change when God works in them.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Poem: On the parable of the sower

Fresh blood, fresh ground.
Fresh ears and different hearts
Where words, buried, move without a sound.
Elsewhere they lie flat, dying,
On the shut-off surface,
Or beaten over, replaced by a lifelike thing
Or a gasping pursuit,
Watched over with sadness.

Call: “Down, deep,
Push out your thirsty feet
Find soil that’s not dust
Spread an inch, take a hold.
Take no prisoners, use all as fuel
As you climb into the glorious air
To the glorious sun.”

Take passenger mineral and jetty the rest
Where does it move? Your shape fills out - how?
And where will it grow next season?
Up, push up, and stretch an arm out
- captivated by the open way above.
Grow pleasing in service, seeing fruit bud and scatter out,
Walking in sower-like love.

I'm not sure I'm 100% happy with this poem, yet (eg. last stanza) but try reading it out loud to get a feel for the sense of excitement I wanted to create about the growth of the "word" from the Matthew 13/Mark 4 parable.