Thursday, 27 May 2010

Comics: Daredevil: The Man Without Fear - and the cat burglar with her eyes on the prize

Today I want to mention some great graphic novels I’ve read, such as the first massive Daredevil Omnibus by Alex Maleev and Brian Michael Bendis. (If I know you and you want to borrow this, just ask - you won’t be disappointed.)

The first story in the volume, Wake Up, has to have some of the best, most emotional and expressionist comic art I have ever seen, and is very well suited to this interesting mystery about just what a child has witnessed Daredevil doing. It shows up the moral grey areas in Daredevil’s violent war on crime. As for the rest: Bendis takes the well-known rivalry between our vigilante hero and Kingpin to an interesting place, when an ambitious young gangster starts on the scene and orders a hit on both of them, in a classic moment of betrayal. Watching Kingpin being cut down in such an underhanded way is like the people turning on their “Caesar” of crime. Where will it lead?

Daredevil lurches from one crisis to another and his reaction to his law partner Foggy when things start to throw their futures into uncertainty is very memorable. What an excellent piece of character-driven crime fiction this is! Towards the end, when Daredevil faces the new Yakuza, it seems to become more than a book should be, movie-like, yet different to a neatly-tied-up movie, perhaps like a carefully plotted TV series - always building on what has been set up and surprising you by revealing has been going on in the hero’s personal life. There is a further volume by this creative team, so I look forward to getting hold of that one in the future.

And now for something stylistically very different to the realism of Daredevil: Selina’s Big Score – This is a great heist story, following all the traditions of that genre, keeping us guessing about whether the criminals will make it out alive. The idea is for Selina Kyle (having a break from being famous burglar Catwoman) has to make some money quickly – and masterminds a plot to steal from Gotham’s gangsters from a train heading in from out of town. Darwyn Cooke, who worked on both the story and the art, shows he can use multiple character narratives well to grab our attention, to show the character’s conflicting desires, and to raise the stakes – they all need this job to come though – and the tension ratchets up towards the finale.

Cooke’s art is at his best here, infusing everything with his unique mood and style – I love it! The story is collected with some of his other comics work in a collection called Batman: Ego and Other Tails – but while Batman: Ego is a fairly interesting look at Bruce Wayne’s war on crime, Selina’s Big Score is better told and paced, and full of energy. So forget Ocean’s Eleven/Twelve/Thirteen and go for something a little more dangerous, but just as colourful and fun.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Book Review: The Ballad of Halo Jones

Why is this acclaimed graphic novel worthy of such high distinction? Perhaps it’s because it is one of the few *true* science fiction epics in that form, which has a beginning, middle and an end? Perhaps it’s the crazy concepts, from the haunting tale of the person whose gender has been erased, to the “forever” time-altered charge into battle in the Crush (on a planet with dangerously high gravity levels). Perhaps it’s the satire about our lives that gets us, and the way writer Alan Moore has thought up a world with a ring of truth about it, down to the details of the way people gossip and use slang. Perhaps it’s due to the strong female protagonist, as it was unusual in 1984 for a comic book to have a female hero – and one whose heroism is highly relatable, as she tries to escape the structures and characters which hem her in and want her to “fit in” and degrade her. You see, this future “Ballad” is, like all ballads, about a journey – and the toil along the way.

The plot of the three books

The story starts in the Hoop – a hi-tech slum floating near Manhattan – where Halo Jones (pictured right) lives with her friend Rodice, and are caught up in poverty and unrest. The people seem enslaved either to the various gangs and factions in the Hoop or to a materialistic code of values, which fools them into accepting the way things are – in fact they have ways of altering themselves to forget and fit in (the “safest” way in the crime- ridden area). When disaster strikes, Halo confronts the world outside the hoop (at the end of book one), and boards a space cruiser. She now is working as a waitress for the rich to pay her way out of poverty and gain control of her life – and a measure of freedom seems in her grasp. But by the end of book two she finds herself battling some more everyday problems that threaten to enslave her: the dullness of unemployment and purposelessness – and alcoholism.

Looking for an adventure, Halo Jones then joins the army – and this final book shines the most for me. It is a scathing attack on the inequality of war, the evil of it and how it can brainwash the soldier, and make them unfit for normal life. In a few pages we can sweep the galaxy, or focus on the significance (or not) of one battleground and one fallen enemy. As we begin to respond to the ideas here, it evokes disturbing and uncomfortable images from today’s wars – what anguish should we feel over the need for our young men and women to go to war and to live that different kind of life – that “necessary evil”? Have we forgotten that these wars (necessary though they may be) have a devastating impact on the lives of the people of the countries where the fighting is going on? Finally (spoiler warning), the folly of war stares at us from the final pages, when it is deemed that the war was carried out in an illegal way. What was all the fighting for after all? It should never have been allowed. What does man fight man for anyway? What purpose does it serve?

Letting the book raise some questions

Told in short black-and-white chapters, this impressive tale starts slowly but ends up with some short episodes that say more than whole novels, in terms of the way they mimic the real world and confront us. How can we escape a mindset of materialism and avoid settling for the entertainment culture that surrounds us? Is that what life is really about? And can we really have control of our lives, in the final analysis, or are there limits we come up against?

Where do we look for real freedom, and the ability to live full lives of purpose and joy?

On that last one: I know to whom I am looking – the one who came to offer just this to us if we accept his verdict on our lives and turn to follow Him. Receiving what Jesus offers does not require being brainwashed, made to "fit in" to an oppressive system, or dragged through hell, or in fact any kind of work on our part. His gift to us of reconciliation with God is free, and simply must be accepted.

But knowing Him and all he's done changes us, and soon we will be unhappy with the way we have been living, we will be stretched mentally, emotionally and physically to live the kind of full life of joy and hard work and pain and love that Jesus lived. To live in community, doing the will of the one who rules this world and who actually does know best for us - and cared enough to come to die for us. Let's not throw our brains away and live passively following the world.  Let's engage with him and what he is really offering us. Let's go to the places Jesus wants us to go to.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Poem: "How to handle it"

I've been reading a book called How to Write Poetry from Bloodaxe Books. I'm not clear how helpful it's been, but at least after a few weeks of having to get on with life stuff, I've had a chance to get writing again. Here's a poem I wrote last night called "How to handle it", though I'm not that happy with the title...

Still in the bedroom
Standing taut,
Blinkers put paid to
Anything much.

Ought to sit down,
Organise it.
Push off to town,
Carry out this

Open-ended exchange.
Meet the people,
Book the car,
See what's gathered

There on each shelf,
Where I see them
Ready for my study,
Grasping topics

One by one now,
Actual limbs moving
In a mind's eye
On a spot,

Feeling about
For the handles,
Carrying out
What I forgot.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Living in relationship with God - more from New Word Alive 2010

I seem to have some impressions still to post about New Word Alive this year. Here's a taster on the teaching from the Psalms, hope you find it useful to think through/pray through. You can order copies of the talks to listen to in various formats from NWA's website.
  • From Nigel Stiles in one of the main meetings – we learned from Psalm 42 and 43 (all one poem/song really) that we will need to be pushy with ourselves in difficult times telling our souls, right as they struggle, what we know about God, what we have to base our lives on. So much has been revealed to us about God’s character in the Bible, in history, most of all in Jesus who rose from death. 
  • Feelings of pain needn’t be a taboo subject in the church – they mustn’t be if we are to be real with each other and honestly help each other look to our Rock, God. And we know Jesus suffered taunts against His perfect nature, he suffered huge humiliation being stripped and hung up on the cross, total abandonment by men and even by his loving Father on the cross as he bore the curse of sin, and a crushing of his very soul. He knows pain. As he had hope of being with his Father again, so can we – he will bring us with him to a perfect kingdom where love will last and life will be strong, and funerals and mourning will be something "we used to do" in the old days. What a great hope we have! What a spur to our souls in the midst of hurt.

  • Richard Cunningham and Richard Coekin were excellent on Psalms 90 and 103 (now 2 of my favourites) – showing us the great magnificence of God: let’s stir up ourselves to praise Him with all of our beings, and also let’s ask Him for true wisdom in this mixed-up world.

  • And here is the fourth and final video interview I took this year:

    Monday, 10 May 2010

    Our God is an awesome God

    Recently I preached on Psalm 21 and was challenged to the heart to consider the power of God, and all the many benefits of knowing Him.

    • He brings salvation to those who trust him.
    • He deals with our greatest enemies for us - those of death and sin.
    • He is our life. Out of his generosity he goes before us to bless us and gives us eternal life.
    • Like the king in the psalm, God has won us incredible riches in heaven (see Ephesians 1 for instance). This is the weight of glory to look forward to.
    • He works with his hand of power to protect and preserve his people. Even if things are tough and we struggle or are in pain in this life - our souls are secure with Him.
    • He is the Most High, and the Lord of the promises of the Bible - and so we will not be overcome by any other power if we are safe in Him. There is no-one higher. It's entirely by his help that we are secure. He is so strong one day all who oppose him will know him acting against them to destroy them. This is a holy God of power and might - power for his people and against his enemies. This is THE God of the world and it's good to know him and his work for us.
    • Our struggles are not purposeless, but part of God's plan for his people to see him better and glorify him. God wants the Israelites in this situation to see all that God has done for them - so they trust and have confidence in Him, the only one who is a true, secure Rock for humanity. The pattern is that the king has great joy in God's power and in all he has received from God.
    • God intervenes in our lives to position us in places where we will glorify him and know his benefits and his work in our lives. He is our strength to do good and he is behind every success. We must depend on Him!

    I also love the joy we see in this song, which the people of Israel would sing, and specifically their joy about their king's relationship with God (see pic above). There's a kind of pride about it: "Our king trusts in God and will never be overthrown!" Their security comes from their King's relationship with the LORD God.

    Likewise for us as Christian believers today. We know our security lies in having a king, King Jesus, who has the best relationship of all kings with the Lord his Father in heaven, and who has made us his people, a people of privilege, sharing in his blessings now and in the knowledge of the secure eternity we have to look forward to. Let's go praise our Father and our King!

    The talk in full should be added to Solent Evangelical Church's website soon for you to download. It's a little bit technical and could definitely have used more illustrations!

    What worked in Iron Man 2?

    So I went to see Iron Man 2. I really liked it, despite some obvious problems with the narrative, and over-reliance on CGI near the end.

    Here are some brief impressions: 

    - It's great fun I think, and I like how it picks up on some of the history of the character of Tony Stark. They have got an interesting mix of his large ego and self-destructive behaviour in there.
    - Some of the action is pretty thrilling, eg. the chaotic bit on the Monaco race track.
    - This sequel has kept the sense of humour from the first film, which is a definite plus. The humour didn't edge too much into "dumb" for me, though that's a matter of personal opinion. Particularly the parts with Black Widow provided some well-timed gags in the middle of some cool martial arts.
    - Overall the sequel tries to add in too many ideas and doesn't develop some of the subplots satisfactorily in the second half eg the idea that Tony is going to benefit the world by carrying on his father's legacy. The way they deal with the new enemy Whiplash at the end is pretty disappointing - he goes from having the upper hand as a resentful genius to being beat up far too easily.
    - I like the way they are continuing to develop Tony Stark's relationship with his secretary Pepper Potts - this is an aspect that really adds to the humanity of the film. 
    Verdict: 7 or 7.5 out of 10 because it's a good Iron Man film. Now I'm looking forward to Thor!