Sunday, April 29, 2007

Down in the dumps in the penny press!

An article in the latest issue of Harper's couldn't help but attract our attention here at Stevereads. It's by Gary Greenberg, and it's called 'Manufacturing Depression.'

Greenberg is a practicing psychotherapist, and for the purposes of preparing his article, he gets himself qualified for Massachusetts General Hospital's Depression Clinical and Research Program. The qualification is based on his showing at least two out of the nine symptoms for Minor Depression listed in the latest DSM of the American Psychiatric Association.

Just so we're all completely clear on what we're talking about here, let's list the symptoms that qualify you for this disease:

1. Sadness
2. Diminished Pleasure
3. Weight loss or gain
4. Trouble sleeping
5. Fatigue
6. Malaise
6. Guilt
7. Diminished concentration
8. Recurrent thoughts of death

A minimum of two of these symptoms will get you well on your way to being diagnosed with Minor Depression, a 'condition' which the DSM currently considers 'provisional' - meaning it lacks "the five-digit code that allows doctors to bill insurance companies for treatment." Greenberg's fairly obvious implication is that this approval is only a matter of time. In fact, the implication of Greenberg's entire article is that the gigantic amount of money involved in the medical and pharmacuetical world not only influences but dictates what constitutes medicable mental illness.

Here's Greenberg on the whole subject:

"In this nondescript office building beside the towers and pavilions of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, these dedicated people do research that determines whether drugs work - which is to say, whether drugs will come to market as government-sanctioned cures. In the process, they turn complaint into illness, and illness into diagnosis, the secret knowledge of what ails us, what we must do to cure it, and who we will be when we get better. This is the heart of the magic factory, the place where medicine is infused with the miracles of science, and I've come to see how it's done."

Once he's described his symptoms to the doctors involved in the study, they classify him not with Minor Depression but with minor Major Depression, which qualifies him for all kinds of drugs - or placebos, depending on which he's given (which is something even the doctors involved don't seem to inside info on).

And that's the crux of the whole article: placebos. Here's Greenberg again:

"In fact, in more than half the clinical trials used to approve the six leading antidepressants, the drugs failed to outperform the placebos, and when it came time to decide on Celexa, an FDA bureaucrat wondered on paper whether the results were too weak to be clinically significant, only to be reminded that all the other antidepressants had been approved on equally weak evidence."

Greenberg adds a footnote to this that deserves quotation too:

"The advantage of antidepressants over placebos in those trials was an average of two points on the HAM-D, a result that could have been achieved if the patient ate and slept better. The average improvement in antidepressant clinical trials is just over ten points, which means, according to Irving Kirsch, a University of Connecticut psychologist, that nearly 80 percent of the drug effect is actually a placebo effect."

That's pause-inducing stuff. Assuming Greenberg doesn't have any hidden agenda, assuming that unnamed FDA bureaucrat in his private communique doesn't have any hidden agenda, that's pause-inducing stuff.

We here at Stevereads have a long personal history with Clinical Depression ('major' or 'minor' it doesn't matter - if Greenberg's article says anything, it says that) - not personally, but through many, many friends. They span the spectrum of all humanity, these friends and friends of friends: from teenaged girls whose hormonal hurricanes ought to disqualify them from any drugs whatsoever, right up to the father of a former friend, whose basso profundo backporch wisdom was, his son averred, from time to time utterly halted by clouds of black depression.

We've seen co-workers simply stop showing up for work, thereby sacrificing their position. We've seen grown adults squander entire days, entire days, spooning themselves ice cream and watching old reruns on TV in the dark. We've seen fully functioning adults with good jobs and good families break down in uncontrollable tears with no visible provocation.

In all this time, that former friend's sagacious father has been our single and only cautionary tale, and even in that case, there's some cause for concern. And with everybody else we've ever known who claimed to be suffering from 'clinical depression,' the problem runs unsolvably deeper.

The problem is those placebo results. If placebos are out-performing drugs on a regular basis, there's one conclusion that becomes utterly inescapable: something's going on that ISN'T MEDICAL. If all those patients taking placebos were being treated for neck tumors, the placebos would have their normally-negligible effect on the final data. Again, if the placebos are regularly out-performing the medicine, the patients involved AREN'T SUFFERING FROM A MEDICAL CONDITION.

In 2007, saying something like that is equivalent to insisting that the sun revolves around the Earth, but nevertheless. Nevertheless, sugar pills don't reduce tumor growth.

The very hint of this suggestion causes hackles to rise ferociously everywhere, we've found. People are fierce in what they've seen in friends in loved ones - or what they've felt themselves. Time and time again, we've heard of the 'miraculous' effect antidepressants seem to have on those who need them: panic attacks finally controlled, chaotic thoughts finally subdued, wandering listlessness finally banished.

Normalcy, but not exactly. The crabgrass is eliminated from the lawn, yes, but so too are the grasses and flowers. The desperate lows are eliminated (or at least ameliorated) by drugs, but so too are the personal reservoirs of nerve and clutched-at optimism that allow the vast numbers of non-medicated to deal with life's setbacks and disappointments and unfairnesses.

There's a horrible-feeling moment that comes to everybody eventually. Most people slam into it directly after they graduate from college and realize they are now expected to deal with every single one of life's cold demands entirely on their own, outside the umbrella of their parents. But of course the moment can occur at any time in young adulthood; the point is, there comes a moment when every person in the West (needless to say, 'clinical depression' is, in terminology and manifestation, almost entirely absent from the East or Middle East) realizes on some level that they CAN'T GO BACK. They can never return to the time in their lives before they stood bare before bill-collectors, landlords, angry employers. Anybody who's ever stared at a bill they can't possibly pay has yearned to return to that carefree time (even, it should be pointed out, if they've never in fact experienced it before).

And it's more than that. Look at that list of so-called symptoms again: who HASN'T felt at least two of those conditions every day of their lives?
Or three? Even persistently? We've been told, by those personally involved, that 'clinical depression' feels different from this, feels different from simply feeling these things: that sufferers feel these feelings have utterly taken control of their lives - that such feelings aren't just temporary weather but seem permanent and unopposable. We have nothing but sympathy for the afflicted and their friends and loved ones, but we humbly suggest that the bathos of their plight has been buttressed over the past thirty years by the medical, psychiatric, and especially pharmacuetical concerns operative in this country and abroad - concerns that have learned, to the cynical health of their bottom lines, that offering people pricey medical RELIEF from the fact that life doesn't always leave its denizens feeling absolutely, resolutely and at all times happy and content is an extremely lucrative endeavor. But we reserve the right to at least CONSIDER the possibility that people so inclined will grasp at the so-called history, the so-called medical credibility of having a name and documentation and the appearance of clinical viability to make what they feel less ... debatable? blameful? shameful? ... to others and to themselves. We reserve the right at least to WONDER if those afflicted might, just might, feel slightly better saying 'I have clinical depression and don't feel like getting out of bed' than simply 'I don't feel like getting out of bed.'

It's a sad subject either way, but we can't help but wonder what doctors a century from now will make of so-called clinical depression. We can't help but wonder what you, our loyal readers, have to say on the subject. But we'll give the last word to Greenberg, since he opened this particular can of worms:

"I am already deflated when I arrive for my last interview. Of course, there's no place in the HAM-D to express this, to talk about the immeasurable loss that I think we all suffer as science turns to scientism, as bright and ambitious people devote their lives to erasing selfhood in order to cure it of its discontents."

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Comics! 52, Wonder Woman, and screwing up!

Well, it was only a matter of time before we here at Stevereads were disappointed by more than one DC comic at a time. The company has lately been on an unprecedented roll, and such things always come to an end, or at least falter and fumble. Such is the case with the latest batch of comics purloined by Elmo from Pepito while he was sleeping.

It's not all bad news, of course. The Judd Winick/Scott McDaniel run on Green Arrow is still unflaggingly fantastic, for instance. Winick is so good at dialogue that the requisite action sequences - though wonderfully rendered, of course - feel positively redundant. Oh, make no mistake, there's a plot going on here - but even so, the prospect of Winick writing the chemistry between Green Arrow and Black Canary, who guest-stars next month, is mouth-watering in and of itself.

Same thing with the latest Green Lantern Corps, written by Dave Gibbons and drawn by Patrick Gleason - this title is as epic as it gets, convincingly so, driven by gigantic cosmic plotlines and delightfully rendered personalities. Gibbons has crafted an enormous plotline that fits the cosmic nature of his title perfectly.

But it's slim pickings elsewhere. The ongoing 'Trials of Shazam' title continues to be incomprehensible; Captain Marvel is the wizard Shazam? Captain Marvel Junior is a newer, skinnier Captain Marvel? No, no, no .... these old Fawcett characters aren't meant for any kind of radical change. And even if you DO subject them to radical change, you have to plan it better than our present writer - none other than the very same Judd Winick - has bothered to do. It CAN be done (just look at the huge improvements made to other Fawcett characters! The renovation of the Question over in '52' has been nothing but sure-footed, and what better improvement to the character of Blue Beetle could be conceived than a bullet through the head?), but it's not being done here.

Likewise the affairs over in Geoff Johns' Teen Titans, where Al Barrionuevo's pencils are so violently incoherent that Johns' writing can't do much more than offer a guided tour through a Kandinsky print.

So too the concluding chapter of Brad Meltzer's first arc on 'Justice League of America,' a decided epilogue of a thing in which we see our team first fully assembled, amidst much conversation, virtually none of stands in character (same goes for the artwork, in which every single person is of the exact same build and height, despite any sensible person's awareness that, of course, Wonder Woman is taller than, say, Green Lantern ... or that Superman is taller than, say, Speedy - now called Red Arrow).

Still, these things are comparatively minor compared to the grave missteps happening elsewhere in the DC lineup.

For instance, the latest '52.' The ball it dropped a couple of issues ago is here spiked, deflated, and ripped to leathery shreds.

The problem is Black Adam, of course. A couple of issue's ago he was captured by the mad scientists on Oolong Island, including the Marvel family arch-villain Dr. Sivana, who's been busy torturing Black Adam ever since. In this issue we see him clamped to a table being electro-shocked while Sivana gathers up his various devices, saying he's 'bored' with torturing Black Adam.

Sivana is exercising the better part of valor, because Oolong Island is being taken by the Justice Society. Just as he's leaving, he's snatched into the air by Atom-Smasher (or whatever he's called this week), who forces him to divulge Black Adam's location.

Which might not seem like a problem, but oh! It is! Not only is it completely illogical that Atom-Smasher wouldn't, you know, HOLD ON to Sivana one he caught him. No, the real problem runs much deeper: nothing should have happened to Black Adam in the first place.

DC has a limited roster of class-A powerhouses, after all. There are all sorts of characters in the upper echelon - Power Girl, Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Junior, Grace over in Outsiders, Supergirl, Martian Manhunter, etc. But the class-A's have always been fairly limited; these are the characters whose sheer amount of physical power obliges the writer to re-work the normal storylines. Normal storylines like 'character gets captured by bad guys and has to be rescued by his friend.'

The list isn't long. Superman sits at the top of it, of course. Wonder Woman (when she's portrayed well, which we'll get to - hoo-hoooooooo, will we get to it). Captain Marvel. Darkseid. Alan Scott (for those of you holding out for one of the leotardy Green Lanterns, we here at Stevereads have only one word: oh please). Bizarro. Solomon Grundy (PRIOR to his idiotically wasted recent turn in Justice League). And, for better or worse, Black Adam.

Black Adam, who's therefore immeasurably strong, fast, and invulnerable. Meaning, you're going to have to do better than ordinary-looking metal shackles to hold him while you TORTURE him for DAYS. Meaning, it isn't possible for such a plotline to happen in the first place. Power Girl, yes. Martian Manhunter, yes. But not Black Adam, who's not only invulnerable (and therefore, you know, invulnerable) but also strong enough to make any kind of simple metal shackle a little silly.

What happened was the writers of '52' lost their nerve. They created a perfectly compelling scenario: what would happen if a class-A character were driven over the edge (note: NOT driven insane)? What would happen, in other words, if somebody killed Lois Lane?

If such a thing DID happen, it's a lock-solid certainty that Superman WOULDN'T a) be captured, b) be tortured for DAYS OFF CAMERA, and c) need to be helplessly rescued by other people. Not because he's Superman, but because he's class A - he represents simply too much power for such plotlines to make any sense. The writers of '52' had a chance to explore what would happen to the DC continuity if a class-A character went off the rails - they came close, but then they drew back.

Black Adam's sworn mission is to kill the 'people responsible' for the death of his wife and family. OK, fine - but the people responsible are the mad scientists who created the creatures who did those dastardly deeds. That is, the scientists on Oolong Island. Nobody else. And yet, at the end of this current issue of '52,' there Black Adam is, portentiously intoning 'They wanted a war - I'm going to give it to them.'

Given the events of this particular issue, the only allowable 'them' here would be the Chinese government, which covertly sponsored one of those evil scientists. That's tenuous - the scientists worked together, after all - but even if we accept it, why would Black Adam? He was being helplessly tortured while the JSA was discovering the link between China and Oolong Island - his only legitimate target would still be the scientists themselves, presumably starting with the one Atom-Smasher let go.

So: the next issue of '52' had better feature Black Adam squaring off against the Justice Society as they try to stop him from killing all the evil scientists they've captured.

Eddy Barrows' artwork, however, remains superb.

But hoo-boy, if this issue stumbled on the problem of handling an A-list character, the latest issue of Wonder Woman doesn't just stumble - it falls flat on its face and slides all the way down the hillside on its boobs.

You'll have seen the little news blurbs - Wonder Woman is currently being written by bestselling author Jodi Picoult. We here at Stevereads don't wish to generalize, but nevertheless: every single time a bestselling author takes over the writing chores on a comic book, they suck at it with an ironclad, forge-bellows level of suckery.

The reason is probably easy to figure: they think they're slumming, so they bring the middlingest of their game to the task, confident that it won't show. As any long-time comics fan could tell them if they bothered to ask, it shows. Oh, how it shows.

Not that Wonder Woman has ever been an easy job. Only comparatively recently has DC editorial policy seemed to give her the credit that's been due her for so long; only comparatively recently has she been consistently portrayed as entirely A-list, Superman's equal in sheer power (we here at Stevereads have a pet theory on the subject: we think the process was sped up by the overwhelmingly favorable response garnered by the 'Justice League' animated series, which gave its viewers a gloriously badass version of Wonder Woman - culminating in eight shiningly magnificent minutes in the second season of 'Justice League Unlimited' - eight minutes every fan of the character should waste no time in Youtubing).

Alas, what DC editorial policy giveth, Jodi Picoult taketh away. Her Wonder Woman simpers with chickchat, brims with bromides, and worst of all, is a weak-ass little girlscout who allows herself to be taken captive by the US government and callously tortured whenever she opens her uppity mouth to her male captors. Again, the easiest way to reveal the utter poverty of the storyline is to picture any writer writing anything even remotely similar about Superman.

Superman who, as a character, has been around the longest (with all due respect to the Shadow and Doc Savage), the one who started it all. For seventy years, Superman writers have had to test their inventiveness AGAINST the granite cliffside of his level of power. Ditto, come to think of it, for Captain Marvel writers down through the decades.

Not so Wonder Woman's writers, who, when faced with a thorny plot-challenge, have overwhelmingly chosen to simply dial down her power-level (or worse, dumb her down intellectually). A present-day comics reader would like to think such days were long gone, but it turns out that in Jodi Picoult, the '40s live on.

Fortunately, slumming, showboating bestselling authors never hang around for long. We can only hope that in the two or three issues remaining to her, Picoult doesn't a) contrive to permanently remove Wonder Woman's powers (so that she can for the eight hundredth time learn 'proportion,' 'balance,' or 'humanity') b) contrive an entirely new origin story for the character (aliens? mole people? clandestine MEN?) or c) KILL the character, probably at the hands of a gun-wielding lowlife.

Then she'll be gone, and some professional comic-writer will step in and take over, and with any luck, we'll all get back to a Wonder Woman who's as powerful as Superman or Captain Marvel, a character who's grappling with her role in Man's World, her diplomatic duties, her status as an ambassador of peace versus her status as a costumed crime-fighter.

Until then, it's this stupid, ineffectual little debutante in a tiara. In the meantime, at least Brad Meltzer's (gasp - another bestselling author) Wonder Woman over in Justice League isn't (yet) embarrassing herself all over every issue. Yeesh, but a sister deserves better.

Friday, April 13, 2007

The End of Civilization in the Penny Press

Ominous rumblings and portents all across the range of the Penny Press last week, with only your humble (Ok, alright, maybe not so much) scribe to connect the dots.

The harbinger appeared first in the TLS, a brief article by Nicholas Clee concerning electronic copyright issues and Google's quest to make all the books in the world (at least, the ten percent to which they have access) available to all the people in the world (at least, the ten percent who have the Internet).

Clee examines the pros and cons of the cases currently pending and comes to temperately melancholy conclusion:

"Piracy will certainly be widespread on the internet. Protecting texts against it is a huge problem, not only because of the skills of the hackers, but also because digital rights management (DRM) systems are unpopular with consumers. However, it remains likely that most people will continue to buy texts from official sources. Let us hope simply that the dominant official source for books is not Google. Or else we shall all have to find another way of earning a living."

This is grim enough - after all, Google won't be the only avenue for acquiring books as long as, well, books are still kicking around - but it gets its pictorial equivalent over in the New Yorker, where the always-reliable Bruce McCall depicts a futuristic library reading room almost completely devoid of books (the little old lady trying to read is being forcibly ejected while we watch). The marble overhead is engraved with names, but they aren't Socrates and Plato and Erasmus - they're O'Donnell, O'Reilly, Winfrey. And the aisles are still marked History (American Idol, Anna Nicole), Autobiography (, Nonfiction (Youtube), but the designations are hardly comforting. In the bottom corner there's a rumpled bin of actual books, with a sign that says 'Bums Only.'

Those of us who adore not only reading but books themselves, the darling, adorable physical objects they are - repositories for our handwritten marginalia over all the times we return to them, repositories where our bookmarks, our expired train tickets, even our food stains, from meals long forgotten, end up - well, we might find such a future alarming. For all of technology's incredible advances, we would hate to lose our old friends. Their loss would be, in fact, immeasurable.

We here at Stevereads would heartily like to believe McCall's picture is completely dystopian. But over in New York magazine, there's an article by Clive Thompson about the battle between Viacom and Google over Google's parenthood of Youtube, the revolutionary video-sharing website from which we here at Stevereads have derived so much pleasure (live tornado footage! Live lightning strike! Live shark attacks on live victims!).

Thompson approaches the issue not as clash between legal entities but as one between anthropological ones - nerd logic versus Big Media logic - and he's very good, very glib about his taxonimonies:

"Nerd logic holds that smart ideas deserve to trump dumb ones. Indeed, nerds are fierce believers in meritocracy. This is self-serving, of course: nerds love the idea of intellectual Darwinism because they think they're smarter than everyone around them, thus fated to win every contest."

Thompson believes that even though the two anthropological cultures - nerd and Big Media - will never understand each other, they will eventually reach a modus vivendi. That's at least a hopeful prognosis, although we here at Stevereads fail to see how such a thing could ever come to be - after all, those keypoint clips Youtube broadcasts from countless users? The keypoints to last night's 'Lost' or 'Battlestar Galactica'? Not to mention the literally countless other show clips (and there are sites much worse than Youtube, sites where whole SEASONS of shows are available at the touch of a button)? That's all copyrighted material - meaning some creative person (or a group of them) worked hard to make it, and with any luck they were well-paid for doing so. Well-paid or not, they were certainly PAID. If you record, if you download, hell if you even LOOK at that content, you're stealing from those people. The size and legal clout of Google doesn't change that, although judging from this article, Google seems to think it should.

However this tangle works itself out - whether all parties settle amicably on some kind of compromise arrangement or whether the whole concept of copyright transforms into some entirely new form (the latter is our bet here at Stevereads), it tempts you to get all nostalgic for the good old days (not TOO old though! You'd still want to in the comparatively recent era when American works were legally protected from copyright piracy in the UK, for instance). Joan Acocella does that kind of pining in a piece in last week's New Yorker in which she laments the demise of the mechanical typewriter. The points she makes will be all but unintelligible to most of our readers, who are younger than the Internet:

"Consider, for example, our physical involvement with the typewriter, which stands in relation to our connection with the P.C. as a fistfight does to a handshake. On the P.C., we use the same typing skills that we used on the typewriter, but the contact is not the same. We run our fingers lightly over the keys, making a gentle, pitter-patter sound. On the typewriter, by contrast, we had to stab, and the machine recorded our actions with a great big clack. We liked that. The noise told us that we had achieved something. So, in large measure, did the carriage return - another line done! - and the job of changing the paper - another page done!
"Which brings us to the white page. Mallarme spoke of the uncertainty with which we face a clean sheet of paper and try, in vain, to record our thoughts on it with some precision. As long as we were feeding paper into a typewriter, this anxiety was still present to our minds, and was relieved in the pointillism of Wite-Out, or even in the dapple of letters that were darker, pressed in confidence, as opposed to the lighter ones, pressed more hesitantly. A page produced on a manual typewriter was like a record of the torture of thought."

We here at Stevereads are, to put it mildly, familiar with that torture. Nobody currently reading this blog will recognize the term 'nul-time,' but once upon a time, to a small group of readers, that term described a series of science fiction potboiler novels. Those novels were fraught with action and cheesy dialogue and fairly addictive cliffhangers, and each and every one of them was composed on the same old manual typewriter - and their author, not the most mechanically adept person on Earth, could take that typewriter apart and put it back together, knew every piece and part of it blindfolded. There was NOBODY ELSE directly involved in the running of the machine; paper, ribbons, and replacement parts had to be bought, yes, but the actual production of text, the slow accretion of those 'nul-time' novels, was entirely located between author and typewriter. Unlike the P.C., where texts are hackable, deletable, and in any case completely reliant other people and other technologies in order to be TRANSMITTED anywhere.

Don't mistake: it would be foolish to go back. In the typing of this blog entry alone, an astounding, wopping, eye-popping THIRTEEN THOUSAND typos were made (TWENTY-ONE in this sentence alone)(FIVE in the word 'sentence' alone). In the era of manual typewriters, each one of those errors would have required at least a solid 45 seconds to fix. That adds a couple of HOURS to the composition-time of a medium-length piece. In the Internet era, those typos achieved only a Platonic level of existence in the first place and were instantly corrected.

That alone would be reason never to go back and never to WANT to. But even if that weren't enough (if, for instance, you made fewer frickin typos), there's still the fact that typewritten material GOES nowhere. It's no good stubbornly continuing to send telegrams when everybody around you is using cell phones. There's a point where nostalgia becomes weirdly fetishistic, and people still using manual typewriters for active prose have long since passed that point.

Still, Acocella is right: there was a purely tactile satisfaction in using a mechanical typewriter that's now gone forever from the act of writing. Somebody should hold a wake for it, because it was a good and steady friend to writers for a hundred years.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Comics! the kingdom of frustration!

Frustration was the key to the last batch of comics young Elmo swiped from my archnemesis Pepito. Not frustration over the SOURCE of said comics - I make sure to shake the Pepito-germs off them before reading - but rather with the CONTENT. Let's take a brief survey, shall we?

Take, for instance, the week's best comic: the first issue of the 'new' Fantastic Four, with wonderful, Whedonesque dialogue by Dwayne McDuffie and very good Alan Davis-esque artwork by Paul Pelletier. For those of you not keeping score, the 'new' part here is this: Reed and Sue Richards have decided to leave the team temporarily, and their spots have been taken by the Black Panther and Storm. So far, so good: always interesting to see Storm outside of the X-Men, and of course the presence of the Black Panther (especially the character as he's been portrayed for the last few years at Marvel - intelligent, capable, regal) is always in this title.

And the issue itself is great - full of shot and incident, with a final panel that alone is worth the price of admission (plus, the cool little detail of having the team adopt black uniforms as a tip of hat to the Panther was neat). So where does the frustration come in, you ask?

It comes from the fact that such a roster-change would never really happen. Not only is it unrealistic to think the ruler of another nation would have the spare time to lead a super-team, but it's impossible to believe the Black Panther would simply put aside the differences between himself and Reed Richards and just move into the spare bedroom. The Panther is opposed to the whole idea of government registration for super-beings; Reed was one of the idea's main architects. The way the whole issue seems to have been swept under the rug all across the Marvel lineup is very frustrating, even in so good a comic as this one.

But the frustration was by no means limited to Marvel Comics, oh no. DC had a strong lineup last week, and the strongest books were also the most frustrating.

Take '52' for instance. Last time around, the title lost its nerve at the last minute when it came to the whole Black Adam plotline. He drove toward Oolong Island, tossing aside every defense the evil scientists gathered there could throw at him. His cause was righteous - avenging his wife - and for once his Superman-level powers weren't being soft-pedalled. But then when he finally reached the men who created the monsters that killed his wife, the DC writers lost their nerve. The bad guys zap him with what looked like a remote control for the VCR, and down he went - something that never would have happened to Captain Marvel or Superman in the same situation. And this current issue was even worse - in it, Black Adam is being tortured OFF PANEL. All we learn about it is that his screams can be heard all over the island. In other words, bad guys win completely. Very annoying, to turn from that travesty to anything else in the issue, although in all fairness it should be pointed out that there's a wonderful sequence centering on Bruce Wayne getting his Batman mojo back.

And speaking of Batman! Over in his own title, frustration reigns supreme. And again, it doesn't have anything to do with how well-executed the issue itself is: Grant Morrison's scripting is just dandy (he writes a convincing Bruce Wayne, which isn't, apparently, as easy as it sounds), and Andy Kubert's pencils are breathtaking (this is the wrong book for him, of course - he does a great job because he ALWAYS does a great job, but a Batman book isn't a good fit). No, the frustration comes from a couple of egregious missteps in the plot-sequence, the kind of missteps you just can't overlook.

Like the part where Batman is examining a squalid potential criminal hideout when he's snuck up on and SURPRISED by a gigantic thug in a Bane getup ... a gigantic, steroid-crazed thug who couldn't realistically sneak up on my 210-year-old mother. And as if that weren't bad enough, during he ensuing fight, the thug gets the upper hand by ... wait for it ... yanking on Batman's cape. Not yanking on it with a special phase-inducer, or yanking on it at super-speed, or anything like that. Nope. Just plain old yanking on it. To say the least, that's pretty frustrating.

But most frustrating of all is last week's issue of venerable old Action Comics, written by Dwayne McDuffie (there's that name again) and drawn by Renato Guedes. It's a story called 'Intermezzo,' in which Pa Kent tells Ma Kent about an adventure he had with their son Clark some years ago. The REASON it's called 'intermezzo' is because it's a little interlude set against the backdrop of the title's main story. And that's the source of the frustration: that main story should be the biggest cross-over event in the DC universe, not the province of any one title, even DC's oldest. Not one nor two but DOZENS of Kryptonian criminals break free of the Phantom Zone and come to Earth intent on conquest? Surely that is the ultimate nightmare scenario, the ultimate reason why groups like the Justice League exist in the first place? And yet here it's presented as just another storyline, locally contained in Action Comics.

The problem with such a storyline, great as it is, is that if it's done realistically it can have only one ending.

Dozens of psychotic Kryptonians intent on conquering Earth. Conjure with that for a moment, those of you who are so inclined (that's you, Kevin ....). Each one with the powers of Superman, so who's up as Earth's first and only line of defense? Wonder Woman and Batman, yes (anybody discounting the latter would be pretty damn dumb), perhaps Captain Marvel and maybe, just maybe the other Marvels. Alan Scott definitely, Hal Jordan possibly. Doctor Fate, if we still had a Doctor Fate. Black Adam, Solomon Grundy, and Lex Luthor (see above) if we include bad guys. And that's it. Conventional human forces would count as nothing, and apart from that, have I missed anybody? Supergirl, perhaps? Certainly Raven would be effective against Kryptonians gone amok. But no more. Nightwing, Robin, Starfire, Metamorpho, Green Arrow, Red Arrow, Black Canary, the Question, Doctor Midnight, Red Tornado, Wildcat, the Martian Manhunter, the Flash, the Atom, Aquaman, Wonder Girl, Steel, Catwoman ... you name it, it's no contest. And that means it's about ten against dozens. It SHOULD be the DC storyline to end all storylines, so it's frustrating to see it being done in such a piecemeal stoner fashion instead.

Better luck next week, I'm certainly hoping.

In the Penny Press! Three Coins in a Fountain!

Three points of interest in last week's New Yorker, each more disturbing than the last.

The first up is David Denby, the reliably schoolmarmish maiden aunt of movie-reviewing. In the issue in question, he reviews 'Shooter' and '300' - and oh, he isn't happy about either. Like every other reviewer in the country, he mysteriously, inexplicably, unaccountably refuses to call Mark Wahlberg a BAD ACTOR. Denby goes only so far as to say "Wahlberg has an unpretentious air about him," which is similar to all the other softpedalled evasions various critics have been using. The origin of this is not far to seek: Wahlberg got an Oscar nomination for 'The Departed.' It wasn't in any way conceivable on the face of the planet a SENSIBLE nomination - the so-called performance was cussing only - but it instills FEAR in the trembling hearts of professional movie reviewers, an inherently cowardly lot (with one or two notable exceptions, as the readers of this blog well know). That nomination means the utterly talentless Wahlberg will be treated to nonsense phrases like 'has an unpretentious air about him' for at least a few more crappy movies, instead of anybody just saying he can't act worth a crap.

But as bad as that-all is, Denby's ultimate reaction to 'Shooter' and '300' is even worse. He lowers his granny glasses down to the tip of his nose and pronounces that these two movies together "feel like the products of a culture slowly and painfully going mad."

Geez. Go to bed, Aunt Bea. They're only movies.

More disturbing was Jane Kramer's piece about the relationship between the forces of radical Islam and those of the Vatican, in the person of the current Pope, the Nazi Benedict XVI. Kramer tries her level best to portray things in a calm, reasonable light, but it completely doesn't work.

Try as she might to paint a veneer of civility over everything, Kramer can't really disguise from her readers the plain fact that the great religion of Islam is currently being spearheaded - and gaining its characterization in the West - by a narrow cadre of reactionary fanatics intent on violence and radicalism ... and that the great religion of Roman Catholicism is currently being spearheaded - and gaining its characterization in the Middle East - by a narrow cadre of reactionary fanatics intent on wealth and insularity. Not since the Battle of Lepanto have the two religions been in a worse position to talk to each other.

The blame is about equal, but it need not have been, if another man sat on the throne of St. Peter. The former Cardinal Ratzinger, in his brief time in charge at the Vatican, has proven even less interested in the daily lives of ordinary Catholics than his predecessor - which, during his predecessor's long and oblivious life hardly seemed possible.

But the problem is deeper than the fact that Ratzinger clearly prefers the palaces-and-parades style of Catholicism of earlier centuries. Nazis share a particular mindset that's disasterous in the present crisis: they not only aren't willing to entertain the viewpoints of others, they regard the EXISTENCE of viewpoints different from their own with a loudly snickering contempt. The Nazi Pope Benedict XVI is no different in this regard - at the exact moment when all men of influence on both sides of the question should be striving to develope some kind of dialogue, both side are afflicted with leaders constitutionally incapable of doing so.

In a perfect world, Ratzinger would be sitting in a Swiss jail for his orchestration of the murder of Pope John Paul I. Alas, this isn't a perfect world. One almost envies the Buddhists.

But the most disturbing thing in this issue of the New Yorker wasn't an article at all but a picture accompanying an article. The piece is a profile of British chef and all around lout Gordon Ramsay, about what an ogre he is to his loyal staff, how gratuitously vicious he is to his loyal staff, etc.

You're supposed to come away hating Ramsay, a petty tyrant made possible only in the ridiculous micro-culture of haute cuisine. He's a blip (that is almost certainly the ultimate source of his much-vaunted all-purpose rage) and of no consequence whatsoever, so that's not the disturbing part.

No, the disturbing part is the accompanying photo of Ramsay. He's standing against the grey steel backdrop of a restaurant's kitchen, and he's holding a little lamb up to his chest. The lamb is alive and looking in the direction of the camera, and the composition of the piece is so elegant and strong (it's by the always-reliable Jillian Edelstein) that you're a minute before you realize that you're not looking at a cuddly picture - Ramsay is holding up a MENU ITEM.

It's a quietly staggering image, not least because of the horrible portrait of the human in the frame. Most of you will never have spent any quality time with a lamb, so you'll be unaware of their nature. If so, allow us to confirm what your own eyes can tell you: they're open-hearted and goofy and entirely GOOD. They lose some of the goofiness when they grow up into sheep, but they still stay entirely good.

In that photo, Gordon Ramsay is holding up the best invitation to vegetarianism imaginable. Because it's not just the ogre Ramsay - it's every three-star restaurant, it's every no-star restaurant, it's every snack-shack and kiosk and McFranchise from one end of the world to the other. That lamb's innocent, goofy face - the face of a PERSON, someone markedly different from the other lambs with whom she was born -(and, needless to say, someone very different from Ramsay) represents the right way, and Gordon Ramsay with his puffy carnivore's face represents the wrong way.

Here in America, at least on the two coasts, the choice is always there and always easy: don't be Gordon Ramsay. Eat no meat harvested from innocent, loving beings, eat no bloodkill. You can go the whole length on your own if you so desire - you can disavow everything that isn't strictly vegetable and leave it at that - but at the very least, you can - we all can, no matter how enamored we've been in time of bacon, that sacred provender of the gods themselves - skip all bloodkill, regardless of how we might once have loved such things. Let that poor doomed lamb, not the Gordon Ramsay inside, have the final say.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Books! The GOOD book!

We hear at Stevereads hope someday to write as rattling good a yarn as the Bible. It really is the trump, as Bertie Wooster (or Sebastian, if you want to bring in fictional characters) might say: it's got romance (though doomed and too often fraught with leprosy), action (including feats of espionage, derring-do, and high adventury, a disproportionate number of which deal with leprosy), a healthy bracing of moral precepts (including how badly you have to screw up to get leprosy), and a helpful smattering of hygiene tips (leprosy again). Considering its perennial spot atop the international bestseller lists, anybody could be forgiven for wishing they'd written it themselves. Even J.K. Rowling, it may be somewhat doubtingly proposed, must envy God.

Still, He gets the credit: the Earth, the Heavens, Sudoku, and ... the greatest book of 'em all.

Of course Biblical scholars (including my esteemed colleague Bathsheba) will say the Bible isn't, in fact, a book - that it's a compendium of books, a library between two covers. As such, it would seem to call for a brace of entirely different, entirely separate translators, each slaving away on their separate works. Alas, this wonderfully various Bible (a spectacular IDEA, in case any of the publishing hotshots who routinely monitor this site are wondering whom to credit with it) has yet to be made, so we're left with all the other efforts out there - from the almost unbelievable, heroically solitary efforts of errant individuals (William Tyndale and Desiderius Erasmus, take a bow!) to the austere corporate board-members throughout the ages who've come together, sometimes under uncomfortably intense scrutiny, to do the job together. The original texts are an almost unbelievable mish-mash, especially if you're trying to be philologically trustworthy to them all, and even moreso if some of them are linguistically impenetrable to you personally. Erasmus, for instance, tried very hard to wrap his mind around Hebrew (well, tried as hard as he was inclined to, which, after three ages of Latin and, gawd help us, ancient Greek, might not have been all that much), but he ended up relying more than was perhaps seemly on previous dog-eared Latin translations of the Old Testament.

There are about six humans alive on the planet today who can read up on the Bible in all its original texts and incarnations. Everybody else - including, we suspect, all you loyal ewoks out there reading this entry - have to rely on the artificial products of other brains.

And such an array of artificial products! Bibles are a growth industry like no other in publishing, with shelf upon shelf of different choices before the wary potential reader.

Most of these choices aren't really choices at all, just infinite permutations on the current fad of boneheaded niche-penetration: the black woman's Bible, the teen Bible, the lesbian Bible, the diabetic's Bible, ad nauseum. Also, a vast number of Bibles in bookstores today - especially those spawned and embraced by American evangelism - can scarcely be called Bibles at all, they've been so bowdlerized and contemporized and simplified (all with the goal in mind of making the Bible a COMFORTABLE book, something it never has been and never could be).

No, what we're really talking about here is SCHOLARLY EDITIONS of the Bible, for readers who want to take it seriously as a work (or many works) of literature. Some of you will know that we here at Stevereads have an abiding preference for the venerable King James version, its rolling cadences of gorgeous prose and verse still as thunderously good as when they were first assembled.

But we realize that some of those rolling cadences will sound a trifle archaic to the modern ear, and so we recommend the Jerusalem Bible, our candidate for the best of all 'modern' Bibles.

La Bible de Jerusalem was first published in French and given a definitive accompanying English translation in 1966, long before any of us were born. It has generous notes and maps and introductions and critical apparati, all of which will be a boon to modern readers. But the main thing we here at Stevereads like about it, naturally enough, is the clean, dignified sweep of its freshened prose. Modern readers have enough obstacles to enjoying the Bible as a work (or many works) of literature - surely grappling with Jacobean syntax should be left to the real enthusiasts.

Here are a few examples, to give you all a better idea of what kind of differences we're talking about. Take this helpful injunction, from that laff-riot of a book, Deuteronomy:

"When two men are fighting together, if the wife of one of them intervenes to protect her husband from the other's blows by putting out her hand and seizing the other by the private parts, you shall cut her hand off and show no pity."

Here's the corresponding passage in the good old King James:

"When men strive together one with another, and the wife of the one putteth forth her hand and taketh him by the secrets, then thou shalt cut off her hand, thine eye shall not pity her."

Or take another example, this one from a New Testament assurance made by Jesus:

"Come to me, all you who labor and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light."

Here's the King James:

"Come unto me, all ye who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

Of course, no amount of modernizing can 'improve' on perfection, and sometimes the King James is simply perfect. So although we here at Stevereads heartily recommend the Jerusalem Bible the next time it crosses your path in a used bookstore, we'll end this long-delayed entry with a comparison in which it's conspicuously the loser. We're fickle that way.

From the Jerusalem Bible:

Yahweh is my shepherd,
I lack nothing.

In meadows of green grass he lets me lie.
To waters of repose he leads me;
There he revives my soul.

He guides me by paths of virtue
for the sake of his name.

Though I pass through a gloomy valley,
I fear no harm;
beside me your rod and staff
are there, the hearten me.

You prepare a table before me
under the eyes of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil,
my cup brims over.

Ah, how goodness and kindness pursue me,
every day of my life;
my home, the house of Yahweh,
as long as I live!

And the King James:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures;
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.
Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies
Thou anointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.