Monday, March 02, 2015

THE B-LIST: COMICS THAT WILL NEVER BE MADE INTO MOVIES #02: LOIS LANE #102 & 103 (1970)

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If you peruse any websites dealing with comics these days, you’d be hard pressed to find one not bemoaning the perceived shortage of titles featuring a woman as the lead character. If you ask me, there’s more now than there ever was, it’s just that not enough people buy them to keep them going for too long. That wasn’t the case a few decades ago, however, when two of the longest running titles in comic book history starred a female protagonist. One was Wonder Woman, who got her the first volume of her own book in 1942 and kept it going until 1986. The other, believe it or not, was Superman’s gal pal, Lois Lane, whose solo title ran for an impressive 137 issues between 1958 and 1974.

Actually, it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. As Michael L. Fleisher’s Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes Vol. 3 pointed out, Lois Lane is, “second only to Superman himself, the single most important person in the chronicled adventures of Superman, fulfilling as she does the tripartite role of Clark Kent’s journalistic colleague, Superman’s romantic pursuer, and the person most tirelessly determined to verify her long held suspicion that Clark Kent is secretly Superman.”

Of course, the character having been around since 1938, it got harder and harder over the years for her writers to come up with new and interesting ways for Lois to fulfill those three roles, especially the romantic one. I mean, just how many different ways can there be for Lois to get into trouble simply because she was feeling unappreciated by Superman. So perhaps it’s forgivable that by the 1970s, Lois’ scribes were creating stories in which one of the world’s smartest and most capable women was doing incredibly stupid things like… getting engaged to Satan.

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Well, almost. Perhaps I should explain. You see, in Lois Lane #102, Lois is saved from a grisly death, not by an inattentive Superman, but rather by a dashing man in a turban named Rajah Satdev (apparently decent names were as tough to come by as new plots during that time period). And not only is the enigmatic Satdev handsome and courageous, but he also seems to be a good luck charm, as anything Lois wishes for in his presence is almost instantly granted. He’s almost too good to be true.

Which, of course, turns out to be the case. Lois being Lois, she can’t help but try and learn what secret the Rajah has been hiding from her, so she sneakily removes the man’s turban and slippers while he dozes on the beach, revealing the horrifying truth that he has horns and cloven hooves. A tail pops out of his pants for good measure as well. Upon awakening, Satdev informs Lois that her actions have doomed her, and bestows upon the reporter a demonic visage similar to his own. Superman finally shows up and begins to mock the alleged Prince of Darkness (In Lois’ magazine, Supes was often portrayed as something of an arrogant jackass), but the Rajah purposely ricochets a blast off Superman’s chest, seemingly killing Lois.

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As issue #103 picks up the story, we find a distraught Superman trying to commit suicide (your hero of heroes, ladies and gentlemen) as punishment for Lois’ death. But rather than sensibly poisoning himself with some of that Kryptonite that’s always lying around, Superman tries electrocution by lightning storm instead, inadvertently starting a forest fire in the process. After snuffing out the flames, Superman decides to do something more productive and returns to Lois to marry her dead body (he’s not a licensed minister, though, so I don’t think the ceremony is legal).

Once the obviously insane Superman leaves the scene, Rajah Satdev returns and awakens the not-so-dead Lois with an incantation. Informed that she must now spend the rest of her existence as a devil at Satdev’s side, Lois faints dead away just as a pillar of fire engulfs the pair, transporting them to their new home.

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And here’s where things take a neat little twist. Instead of waking up in Hell as expected, Lois finds herself on the planet Nferino (DC really needed to hire someone just to come up with names) surrounded by a planet full of people with horns, hooves, tails and (yes, finally) pitchforks.

As Satdev quickly explains, the benign scientists of Nferino had previously visited Earth thousands of years in the past in the name of peaceful exploration. Unfortunately, the various peoples of Earth were freaked out by the visitor’s inhuman appearance and seemingly supernatural powers, and reacted violently. The disappointed aliens returned to their home world, leaving nothing behind but the memory of demonic looking creatures in red jump suits. “So that’s how the myths of horned devils arose!” exclaims Lois.

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The funny thing is, as loopy as this story obviously is, it’s really about as good a guess as any as to how the devil of the Bible came to be portrayed in popular culture as some cloven-hoofed horned dude in red tights. Needless to say, no such description appears in scripture because, as a being of pure spirit, Satan has no actual physical appearance. But such a fact makes it kind of hard for artists to create paintings and illustrations dealing with the Devil. For that, you need a visual shorthand.

Serpents, dragons and goats, all common symbols of paganism, were the preferred imagery for Satan up until medieval times. But as the middle ages progressed, it’s commonly believed that artists drew upon a number of sources to create a more human looking devil. The horns, hooves, and tail are purported to have been taken from pre-Christian depictions of fauns and satyrs. The pitchfork supposedly comes from the ceremonial trident sometimes carried by the Greek lord of the underworld, Hades. And as for the red suit, that’s mostly attributed to red being the color of blood and fire. It might also reference the red dragon in Revelation 12:3.

But at the end of the day, that’s all speculation. For all we know, the silly image of a red-suited Satan really did come from ancient man’s encounters with an alien race. And oddly enough, in the one-in-a-gazillion chance such a bizarre premise turned out to be true, it still wouldn’t contradict anything the Bible has to say about the murdering, deceitful spirit that is Satan. So, in a completely ridiculous story, that whole part about the alien devil race is actually the most sensible part. It certainly makes more sense than a suicidal Superman marrying a corpse.

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Which, by the way, he seems to have completely forgotten about by the time the next storyline rolls around. Instead of legalizing those heartfelt vows he made, Superman takes the time instead to berate Lois’ womanly driving skills. Jackass.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

SHORT FEATURE: QUEEN - RADIO GA GA

Among the many, many documents to come out of Vatican II was a short little piece entitled the Decree on the Means of Social Communication wherein we’re told “decent radio and television programs should be effectively supported, especially those suited to the family. Ample encouragement should be given to Catholic transmissions which invite listeners and viewers to share in the life of the Church and which convey religious truths.”

I’m not sure my appearance on The Drew Mariana Show counts as decent or that it conveyed any truth beyond the fact that I probably made a good choice in not making The B-Movie Catechism a podcast, but you can drop by Relevant Radio’s archives (http://relevantradio.com/audios/the-drew-mariani-show) and decide for yourself. My segment appears during the first hour from the Feb. 23rd broadcast.

In case you’re wondering, I received the invite due to my recent article for Aleteia in which I discussed God at the Oscars. I can’t say the article itself was any more decent than my radio performance, but at least it was coherent. For Drew’s listeners, alas, I’m afraid all they probably heard was a bunch of… wait for it… radio ga ga…

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

THE JUKEBOX HERO HYMNAL: Hymn 023: Glory, Glory/Jesus On The Mainline by Rebirth Brass Band

Shrovetide, Fastnacht, Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras… whatever you want to call it, Catholics all over the world can’t seem to resist indulging in one last bacchanalian blow-out the day before Lent kicks in. Within the context of the Church’s teachings on moderation, of course. Right?

Anyway, you’d be hard pressed to find a bigger Mardi Gras celebration than in New Orleans, so in honor of the festive occasion, we’re adding a little music from The Big Easy to The Jukebox Hero Hymnal this week in the form “Glory Glory/Jesus on the Mainline” by the Rebirth Brass Band.

Nobody really seems to know where “Jesus on the Mainline” originated. The earliest known recording is believed to be by Mississippi Fred McDowell, who laid down his version of the track sometime in the early 1950s. It seems likely, though, that the song is much, much older as it structure follows the call and response form of the gospel/work songs commonly sung by field hands.

Jesus is on that mainline, tell him what you want.
Jesus is on that mainline, tell him what you want.
Jesus is on that mainline, tell him what you want.
You gotta call him up and tell him what you want.

You see how it works, you can pretty much add any verse you want based on your situation. Some popular lines over the decades have included…

Now, if you're feeling down and out,tell him what you want,
If you're feeling down and out,tell him what you want,
If you're feeling down and out,tell him what you want,
Call him up and tell him what you want.

…as well as one that gets right to the point…

If your soul's in danger, tell him what you want,
If your soul's in danger, tell him what you want,
If your soul's in danger, tell him what you want,
Call him up and tell him what you want

Now we’re supposed to pray at all times, but as Lent is often seen as a time of spiritual renewal, prayer is especially emphasized. So for the next 40 days, be sure to take advantage of the fact the Jesus is on that mainline and be sure to call him up. The line’s never busy.

“The Lord is near to all who call upon him, to all who call upon him in truth.” (Psalms 145:18, NABRE)

Saturday, February 14, 2015

NOW SHOWING AT A BLOG NEAR YOU

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Well, after a little work related hiatus, I’m back over at Aleteia this week. Now, the big release this weekend is “Fifty Shades of Grey,” but after reading about the book when it was released, and after seeing the cringe inducing trailers for the movie adaptation, I just couldn’t. Maybe if it had a guy in a rubber monster suit, but probably not considering what they’d likely use it for. Instead, I decided to take a look at “Old Fashioned,” the faith-based alternative which tells the tale of two people attempting a non-sexual courtship. Like other recent movies made by evangelicals, it tries hard to cut down on the preachiness and stick to the story. And like those others, it doesn’t quite succeed. Still, it’s got its good points and its fine for Christian date night.

If you’d rather just avoid the theaters altogether and watch something at home for Valentine’s weekend, then K. V. Turley over at Catholic World Report has just the film for you. “Casablanca,” he finds, is a deep portrayal of love and the struggle to do what is right in the face of passion and temptation. Plus, let’s face it, it’s just a cool movie.

Not so cool, at least according to many of my fellow critics, is “Jupiter Ascending,” the latest science fiction epic from the Wachowski brothers. It currently holds a 22% Rotten Tomatoes rating, which makes it one of the worst reviewed movie so far this year. That’s bunk according to The SCi-Fi Catholic, who finds the film to be a fun popcorn flick with a surprisingly strong Catholic message.

Probably not so Catholic will be the message carried by “Lucifer,” the adaptation of the Sandman spin-off comic which featured Satan abandoning Hell and moving to Los Angeles. Over at The National Catholic Register, Matt Archbold discusses the creative minds behind the show and finds little hope that the finished product will be a morally uplifting affair.

If that’s the kind of film you’re looking for, then your best shot is stop by the Bible Films Blog. This week, Matt Page is elated to find that Mark Goodacre’s Celluloid Jesus pages are back. Matt particularly enjoyed the discussion on the parallels between “Jesus of Nazareth” and “Life of Brian,” and has a few things to add on the topic.

And finally, as I’m sure you’re aware, the Academy Awards are just around the corner. Like most people, you probably didn’t see the majority of this year’s nominees for best picture (I’ve seen them all, but I like to suffer for my art), so if you’d rather see some praise directed towards movies audiences actually bought tickets for, why not stop by Catholic Skywalker’s place where he’s handing out his annual “Kal-Els.” And yes, he explains the name.

And that should keep you busy reading until we meet again. See you then.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

PULP CATHOLICISM #107

Pulp Catholicism 107

THE B-LIST: COMICS THAT WILL NEVER BE MADE INTO MOVIES #01: WORLD’S FINEST COMICS #240 (1976)

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When director Zack Snyder appeared at last year’s Comic-Con and showed a thirty second clip from the upcoming “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” you could hear the fangasm from the other side of the country. At last, DC comic’s two greatest heroes were together on the big screen, and it looked like they were about to throw down. Of course, thirty seconds of film isn’t much, so moviegoers will just have to wait until 2016 to see who would win in a fight between the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel.

Comic readers, on the other hand, have already seen that scenario play out quite often. In fact, director Zack Snyder has been quoted as saying Frank Miller’s much lauded “The Dark Knight Returns,” in which a kryptonite armed Batman beats Superman to within an inch of his life, is a direct influence on “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Given that, it seems likely the upcoming movie will be dark, gritty, and unrelentingly grim. That’s fine, I suppose, but the truth is sometimes I’d really like to see some of the kookier comics I read as a kid make their way to the big screen, comics like World’s Finest Comics #240. But… it ain’t ever gonna happen, not with stories like this one.

“How Do You Kill A Superman?” the title of the story asks, and as you might expect, Batman has an answer (because he’s BATMAN!). When an eight-footed space cat with a mutated brain takes control of Superman’s mind (yes, comics really did used to be THAT much fun) and forces him to menace the Earth, Batman receives an executive order from the President of the United States to find the Man of Tomorrow and execute him. I guess you don’t need a vote from Congress to declare war on Superman.

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Tracking Superman to the shrunken bottle city of Kandor tucked away inside the Fortress of Solitude, Batman finds that the city’s artificial red sun not only robs his friend of his super powers, but unexpectedly also frees his mind from the control of the mutated eight-footed space cat (I could write sentences like that forever.) Though he has no memory of his heinous acts in the outside world, Superman agrees to remain in Kandor forever where they have declared him their sovereign (did I forget to mention on top of everything else that happens in this story, Superman is inexplicably crowned king of Kandor).

The mutated eight-footed space cat is having none of that, however, and teleports Superman out of Kandor so he can wreak more havoc on Earth. Realizing the situation is hopeless, Batman first tries to shoot Superman (no, really) the next time he returns to the bottle city, and when that fails, manages instead to jab him with a poisoned needle, killing King Kal-El instantly. That’s right, with a tear in his eye, Batman flat out ices his best friend.

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Fortunately, even as Batman prepares for his inevitable execution, the only mostly-dead Superman reverts to normal size and regains both his senses and his invulnerability (which is good news for him, but not so much for the small cramped bottle city he was inside). Just before the mutated eight-footed space cat (okay, I’ll stop) can make a meal of the miniature Batman, the fully recovered Superman swoops in and saves the day, basically by threatening to snap the creature’s neck. Even with the happy ending, though, it doesn’t change the fact that Batman (for real, in continuity, not an imaginary story) assassinated his best pal with nary a second thought because the government told him to.

World’s Finest Comics #240 was written by the late great Bob Haney, a man considered a mad genius by some and a complete menace by others. During his infamous run on World’s Finest, Haney was notorious for completely ignoring the current characterizations of his two leads as they were being written in other titles. That’s why you have Batman brandishing a gun and agreeing to kill someone at the behest of the powers that be, and you have Superman threatening to murder a sentient creature with his bare hands if it doesn’t behave itself.

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But that’s one of the interesting things about old stories like “How Do You Kill A Superman?” Besides the fact that they’re just plain fun, a lot of these old tales can sometimes challenge our ingrained notions about certain characters. When “Man of Steel” came out in 2013, a lot of digital ink was spilt over the fact that Superman killed General Zod in the film, mostly in the form of pronouncements that ol’ Supes would never do such a thing. And yet, if you read back through Kal’s comic history, you find that he’s offed a number of folks over the years, including Zod at one point. Batman’s record is even bloodier.

You know, sometimes it’s not a bad idea to have our nice little images of someone shaken up a bit. Take Jesus for example. Despite the never ending push to portray him as some sort of a laid back pacifistic hippy, the Bible actually shows Jesus getting extremely proactively pissed off quite a few times. In Mark 3 he is described as getting vocally angry over The Pharisees’ hard hearts, in Mark 11 he curses a fig tree after it disappoints him, and in Matthew 21 he looses his cool and violently puts a hurt on the moneychangers in the temple. So many people try to dismiss the idea of an angry God as an Old Testament construction, but the fact is, if you bother to actually read the Gospels, Jesus had no problem going off on people when it was proper to do so.

Of course, that “proper to do so” is the tricky part, isn’t it? The Catechism reminds us that by themselves, “strong feelings are not decisive for the morality or the holiness of persons; they are simply the inexhaustible reservoir of images and affections in which the moral life is expressed. Passions [of which anger is one] are morally good when they contribute to a good action, evil in the opposite case.” Jesus, it’s safe to say, knew when and how to properly express his anger. The rest of us, well, we have to be careful of things like anger without just cause (Matthew 5:22) or lingering animosity (Ephesians 4:6). Still, it’s not bad to be reminded every now and then that simply feeling anger, even acting on it, is not necessarily a sin.

Does that mean it’s okay to bodily threaten a captive mutated eight-footed space cat if it steps out of line? I’ll let you make that call.