Monthly Archives: February 2009

America’s Finest

While writing my last entry (‘til deathrays do us part), I began to ruminate on the popularity of Batman over that of Superman, specifically in the United States. In most ways, Superman seems as if he should be the absolute king of all superheroes. He is the prototype for the entire genre and as far as the stories go, he is acknowledged as such. Not only that, but he is often cited as the ultimate immigrant, the only true pillar of virtue in the universe and the embodiment of the “American Dream”. If this is truly the case, than why do Americans prefer The Dark Knight to The Man of Steel? I believe it is (in part) because Batman embodies the American Dream in a far more accessible manner.

As I mentioned before, the journey of The Last Son of Krypton is often presented as the ultimate immigrant success story. Not only does he successfully assimilate into American culture, but adds his own knowledge and strength to the tapestry that is this great nation. I don’t think that this point is disputable, but it isn’t inherently relatable. Yes, the majority of the population finds its roots in other countries, but many of us were born within U.S. borders. Our ancestors gave us their traditions, but we cannot all empathize with their hardships. Additionally, even immigrants aren’t necessarily prone to reject an American born figure especially if they buy into the other aspects of the story. Basically, Superman is the ultimate immigrant story, but that positions him no better than the American born Batman.

Another aspect of this American Dream is living up to ones potential. In normal circumstances, triumph in this area typically garners economic success stories. Within the largely symbolic genre of superhero fiction it is perhaps better represented by the literal triumph over the evils of the world and the characters own condition. This is where Batman begins to gain ground on Superman. Yes, Superman does fight a never-ending battle, and one that he is often winning in, but his starting point is a bit more advanced. Superman is essentially never threatened physically; in turn, all of his real problems are philosophical. Superman can do anything; the hard part is figuring WHAT to do. In theory, this should be no less interesting than other stories. The problem is this type of narrative is very difficult to write and suffers from being done very badly over and over again. On the other hand, Batman starts where any of us would. Not only does he triumph over the tragic death of his parents, but he brings himself to such a high level of perfection (both mentally and physically) that he can stand side-by-side with men and women who can travel faster than light and punch through mountains. Yes, The Caped Crusader is blessed with the benefits of being able to afford anything he needs to achieve these goals, but I think the majority of the audience accepts this as a necessary resource to bring oneself to the pinnacle of human potential.

The American Dream also calls for the creation of a positive family legacy. The pioneer of the group is always credited with this and it is a very important part of the realization of an American Dream. Both Batman and Superman’s biological families are already portrayed as men and women who have already accomplished this. Jor-El is a respected scientist and member of the ruling class on Krypton. Thomas & Martha Wayne are respected philanthropists in Gotham before their tragic deaths. There have even been some apocryphal writings on the history of the Kents. However, it is their deaths that start the new dreams. New families start when people begin to wear symbols on their chests. To be clear, anyone who is around for the beginnings of the superhero can be included in this family. For Batman this is Alfred and for Superman, the Kents. However, it is now the burden of the hero to create the new family legacy. Superman does create a legacy, but it is an odd one. The Legion of Superheroes, teenage superheroes from the future who see Superman as a legend and recruit Superboy (Superman’s adventures when he was a boy!) serve as the philosophical children of Superman. Once again, this is a concept that should work but is haunted by writers’ difficulty to grasp the philosophical side of the story. Once again, Batman gets an advantage because of this. I would say one of the big differences between Batman and any superhero is public awareness of his supporting cast. Anyone who is aware of Batman will most likely be aware of Alfred, Gordon and Robin if nothing else. These characters, both literally and potentially, provide infinite extension of the bat-family legacy. Not only that, but many of these characters have or have had their own solo books. The Bat-Family is always in action, Superman doesn’t have that.

This isn’t written with the intent of bashing Superman; in fact he’s one of my favorite characters and there isn’t much I would change about him or his supporting cast. I just think it’s important to analyze why the public perceives characters as they do. Batman is a far more functional in a traditional sense and more writers are able to write him effectively (especially when they actually know the material they are working with.) I’m also not claiming that there is no fan base for Superman, it just needs to be recognized that it may take a bit more care to bring him back into the spotlight. We can believe a man can fly again.

Vinny’s unrelated Video Pick of The Week!

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Learn By Fragging

Online gaming can make you a less self-centered douche!

Since Vinny and I began this little ‘project’, all of my posts have dealt with my observations and feelings on music – i.e. what I like, what I don’t; where I think popular music is going, and so on. That’s all well and good, but a comment on my last post (Paul Picks Up The Pieces) reminded me that I’ve got plenty more to say about our multifaceted 21st century culture. As such, I will stick with something I know – something cozy and close to my heart: the endless killing fields of multiplayer online gaming.

Some of my earliest and happiest memories are of squeezing the trigger on a plastic light gun, vainly attempting to kill ducks flying across the small screen in my bedroom. My hand/eye coordination in those days was pretty atrocious, so when I actually took one of the quacking bastards out it was cause for celebration. For the time, it was a blast, but the limitation was how solitary my joy was.

The problem: single player games rewarded you with an ending and games with a 2-4 person multiplayer mode usually had you competing against the other players for a high score. Plus, it didn’t extend farther than one room and one television screen. Mario and Luigi could take turns doing ‘shrooms and making passes at the princess, or if you were cool enough to have friends, you could get a 4-player game of Goldeneye going in your living room. You’d play a few rounds, make fun of the dorky kid who constantly blew himself up with the rocket launcher, then have to stop playing because Mom asked you to explain why Jimmy was in the corner crying. (Who the hell invited him anyway?) When it was game over, you compared scores, and that was it.

Now, a couple decades later, games have skyrocketed in terms of content and complexity, but there’s still one ultimate goal that developers strive to give the player: the feeling of validation one gets after a job well done. That can be accompanied by the gnawing pain of defeat when one’s performance wasn’t up to par – but then, what would games teach us if we always won?

The big difference in 21st century gaming is that a game’s “ending” or getting the best score are no longer the primary points of validation. They’re still part of it, but the most important focus of modern gaming is that feeling you get after capturing the last flag with your squad of 12 through the use of combined arms and superior teamwork. Games have always been goal oriented, but now instead of the Doom one-man-army approach, there’s the Day Of Defeat U.S. Army approach. Gaming is no longer just an escape. If you play from the right perspective, it can be an exercise in humanity.

For simplicity’s sake (and because I have the most experience with them), I’ll only discuss online FPS-type (First Person Shooter) games. To be clear, I will say that many single-player shooters should absolutely be praised for their ability to tell stories, create suspense, and just be fun, but replaying the same campaign over and over will never be as fun as playing on a server full of human players with human advantages and human flaws.

For instance, Half-Life 2 was an excellent piece of gaming and storytelling. HL2: Deathmatch is the multiplayer component of the game, and while it has the expected fragfest-type game play, none of them hold a candle to Counter-Strike’s objective based play, or Day Of Defeat’s territorial tug of war.

I suppose a counter argument might be that circle-strafing a few newbs and racking up kills is a fun way to blow off some steam, but I can’t see how that feeling could last for very long. It’s just point-click, point-click, and repeat. Is it therapeutic? Maybe. But is it mentally satisfying? No.

Where is the tactical depth? Where is the communication? Where’s the suspense of trying to desperately defend the last flag and turn the game around? Racking up kills just doesn’t hold up against a game where relying on your teammates is the path to victory (though playing with a good team and losing anyway is rewarding in a certain way, too.)

I see it every time I log onto a DoD server: one person is the machine gunner, suppressing the enemy team, another is a rifleman picking off targets from long-range, while a third is assaulting a position and capping a flag. Now and then there’s the guy who runs off by himself, trying to be a hero, but his inability to be a team player puts everyone but the enemy at a disadvantage.

Okay, so maybe you’re still wondering what the hell I’m getting at. Yes, I prefer online FPS games where cooperation is paramount to success. But, there is actually an underlying social/cultural importance. (What? Games are culturally relevant?!)

Co-op online gaming is challenging a generation of people to work with players they don’t know and wouldn’t necessarily associate with in pursuit of a common goal. Sure, the goal may be artificial, but the underlying lesson is that “pwning” (while sometimes fun) is much less important than having the ability to effectively think, communicate and work with other people.

So, next time you see a teammate shooting at Nazi’s, be a friend – give him some covering fire.

-Alex

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’til deathrays do us part

Last night a friend of mine told a story concerning a panel at this past weekend’s New York Comic Con in which fans had argued over the merits of a certain web slinger’s married and single states. Essentially, no conclusion could be met since the room was filled with both single and romantically attached fans. A desire to connect with the protagonist exists within all of literature but is heightened within the superhero genre. This is in part caused by the breadth of choices one has in selecting a superhero tale to read (or watch for that matter). In a sense, there is a superhero for everyone and this often causes the reader to select a character that they feel represents their own situation. Threaten to change that relationship and you will meet fervent opposition. This is not to say that all superhero weddings have been met with disdain. Multiple Flashes, X-People and Emerald Archers have made their vows without much controversy. However, there are certain unions which still come into question with support on both sides of the argument. For time’s (and my own sanity’s) sake, I will address only one of these, the one that is perhaps the most important.

Lois and Clark. No matter how you slice it, this is THE relationship in superhero history. The struggle of the secret identity against the desire to live a normal life was an absolute in Superman comics over many decades. In 1996, DC Comics finally bit the bullet and married the two characters in regular DCU continuity. Since then, two arguments have been made. The dissenters call for the return to the pseudo love triangle between the brash and beautiful Lois, the meek and kindly Clark Kent and his messianic alter ego. The supporters tend to embrace the idea that this marriage can lead to new, exciting stories taking the last son of Krypton to new heights.

I’ll start with the dissenters because they have a strong argument for a number of reasons. One is that the un-wed Superman is the most familiar version of the story to the public.  Lois’ constant belittling of Clark juxtaposed with her worship of Superman is simply iconic and it should be no surprise that much of the audience would wish to sustain this. Another argument is that the removal of Clark’s longing to have a meaningful relationship with Lois makes the already god-like Kal-El that much more difficult to relate to. In the unmarried state, Superman can be portrayed as the man who seems to have everything but, in truth, is lacking in the one thing he really wants.

The counter argument to this is typically pretty simple, but has its value. If we all know that Lois and Clark are in love, why not let them get married. It opens up opportunity for new stories and new concerns for The Man of Steel. Additionally, Superman’s villains (especially the more powerful types) have a new target that actually bleeds. Superman becomes more relatable in this scenario because it forces him to expand his mortal family. Superman now has more than just his human parents to worry about when Braniac takes over the internet. This also opens the door for little half-Kryptonians, a topic covered in many of the 60’s “imaginary stories”, but let’s save that argument for another day.

I suppose that you are looking for my opinion by this point and the truth is I don’t really have one. I have read amazing stories using both scenarios and I feel that if the writer has something valid to say under either condition it will work out fine. The idea of Superman is bigger than the scenarios he exists in. A great Superman story is a great Superman story forever, whether Lois and Clark remain married until the end of time or if the marriage is ret-conned next year. This is not to say terrible decisions cannot be made *cough* mullet Superman *cough* but these modern myths always seem to correct themselves somehow. Superman was here before most of us, and will outlast all of us. The same can be said for characters like Spider-Man, who in recent years didn’t have too many great stories in either situation. It just takes one writer to put things back on track. At their best, these characters come from a very honest place and should never be limited unless the change will violate the character’s essential traits. Superman can’t kill, but maybe he can get married.

I would love to hear your thoughts. Keep reading! -Vinny

and now, my completely unrelated video pick of the week

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Paul Picks Up The Pieces

And makes them rock.

It’s February! The time of year when temperatures drop to their most unbearable levels and we’re supposed to replace the warmth of our malfunctioning heaters with the warmth emanating from our hearts. What a bunch of delightful bull-crap. No, Valentine’s Day doesn’t make me feel warm and fuzzy, but I’ll tell you what does – pop songs rearranged and made into beautiful, much less simplistic, pieces of hard rock candy.

To reiterate a point I made a few weeks ago: modern pop music is dying a slow, painful death. The only cure would be a complete change in thought both on the part of the recording industry and musicians all at once. It isn’t going to happen, at least not in such a complete and obvious way. That said, not all pop music is necessarily bad when placed into the right hands. Obviously, this is something that runs on a case by case basis, and therefore I will once again be using examples familiar to me in order to get at the larger picture.

A couple years ago I discovered the guitarist Paul Gilbert during the last stop of the G3 Tour, and ever since he’s been the model I hold a whole host of other musicians up to. His technique, skill, range (with regards to his ability to successfully write and play music from varying genres), and his stage presence are in my mind unequaled. In the late 80’s, after his tenure with the metal band Racer X, he joined Mr. Big, a group who ran the line between pop, hard rock and hair metal. Well, let’s face facts – at the dawning of the 90’s that was popular music.

Their one relatively successful radio hit in the U.S. (they had a much larger following in Japan) was a song called “To Be With You” . It’s upbeat. It’s sweet. It’s a love song through and through. If the verses were shared, rather than dominated by frontman Eric Martin’s smooth (yet somehow raspy) set of pipes, the tune could easily fit into the Backstreet Boys library. A song like “To Be With You” would normally sicken me, but in my quest to explore the “essence of Gilbert”, I stumbled across something interesting.

I’m not entirely certain when the DVD was recorded, but sometime after his break from Mr. Big, Paul participated in a show called “Guitar Wars”, where he performed a very different version of the aforementioned song. The Van Halen inspired rendition is perhaps a bit ironic, as one will notice the opening riff is taken from “Ain’t Talkin About Love”, though the reason it resonates with me so well lies elsewhere. Here, have a listen:

Firstly, he begins the song in a minor key, which I think lends the tune a certain sense of desperation that just isn’t present in the original. That little added sense of danger turns the sickly sweetness of the original on its head. Paul throws in embellishments on the guitar from the very beginning, making the song sound thicker, and during the verses the chords are played in arpeggios rather than just strummed, which I think helps to change what was once a simple tune into something much more technically and artistically worthwhile.

Paul’s style of singing also throws away the fluff of the song’s previous incarnation. His voice is raw, which certainly fits better with hard rock, but it also adds to the atmosphere of the lyrics. Eric Martin’s vocals sound very confident, like the song’s subject female only needs a little pep talk to find her way into the arms of the right man – the way it’s sung sounds almost deceptive. Paul, on the other hand, first sounds as if he’s defending someone rather than giving a motivational speech, then with the chorus makes the longing and desire sound right. I wish I had better words for it, but the rawness of his voice makes the revealing words in the chorus sound more sincere.

To top it off, the accompanying harmony vocals of bassist Mike Szuter, and the fact that Paul manages to sing and solo at the same time make this version really dynamic. Though, if one is a fan of  Mr. Big’s version, Paul does throw in the original guitar break towards the end as a nice tip of the hat.

I suppose after looking at pop music through a rock filter, I’d have to say that in some cases there are songs that have actual potential. The song might need a hard rock makeover, but I cannot ignore the fact that it had its origins in the pop world. Of course, that still means that most of what’s out there is complete and utter garbage, but once in a while I’m surprised by what happens to catch my ear.

-Alex

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Bear With Us!

Greetings readers!

Both Vinny and I have ideas in the works, but a combination of school, work, and other outside responsibilities have prevented us from getting more done here.

However, expect more within the next couple days.

-Alex

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