“World Saved, Humanity Lost” (Superman vs. The Elite)

I just finished watching Superman vs. The Elite, an animated adaptation of What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way? Although Action Comics #775 was published in March 2001, six months before the Twin Towers fell, it’s arguably even more timely now.  At the time it was written as a repudiation of the ‘grim and gritty’ style of comics, seen in Warren Ellis, Mark Millar, and especially Frank Miller, who saw principled heroes like Superman as fools, too weak to “finish the job” and kill the bad guys.

No, eleven years later, it feels more like it’s speaking to America, as we’ve bombed and droned and surveilled and tortured, all in the name of protected “the good guys, namely us” (to quote the leader of The Elite, Manchester Black).

The Elite are a band of incredibly powerful anti-heroes who divide the world into “good guys, namely us” and bad guys, and then proceed to destroy the bad guys, with no hesitation, no remorse, and little care as to the consequences.  Their leader, Manchester Black, has psychic and telekinetic powers unrivalled in the D.C. Universe, and he sees no problem with using those powers to coerce, kill, or even torture, as long as his victims ‘deserve it.’

And the thing is, he’s at least partly right.

The movie, especially, takes time to show that the justice system doesn’t always work, that prisons aren’t escape-proof, and that former or escaped inmates can re-offend, often in horrific ways.  Manchester Black isn’t a straw man, or not entirely.  He’s got A point … but I think he’s missing The point.

Superman initially works with The Elite, but quickly realizes that their goals and ideals are incompatible with his.  The movie actually has time to show this in more detail, including scenes of a rescue mission that wasn’t in the comic, one in which they have to cooperate to save the trapped civilians. The movie also gives more time for Superman to explain his position: he doesn’t “fix” the world because he doesn’t think it’s broken.  He knows there is terrible poverty and suffering, but he believes in humanity’s potential to grow and help its own, without needing a caped dictator force them.

Although Superman tries to convince The Elite to mend their ways, Manchester Black is too egotistical, too powerful, and too sure of his own rightness to listen.  Ultimately, it comes to a head, with Superman and The Elite set to fight at dawn.  That night, Lois asks him if he can’t just let someone else handle it, call in the Justice League, or something.  Superman observes that people need to know someone believes in right and wrong, that someone believes in them, and their ability to do the right thing.

I won’t give away the ending, or any of the really emotional points of the story.  But every time I think about it, I am more impressed.  Superman, the ultimate action hero, confronts the myth of redemptive violence head-on, smashing through it like a cheap cinder-block wall.  He confronts cynicism, armchair-macho vigilantism, misanthropy (and the corresponding misogyny that so often goes with it).

And that’s something I hope to someday be able to do.  Not that my goal is to comic-book characters (though I’d jump at the chance to write Superman), but I’d love to be able to so clearly show both sides of something, tell a story with great economy and impact, and convey a message or premise I believe in, all the while telling an engaging and entertaining story.  And that’s part of the reason I keep writing.  I may not be there, but I won’t get there without practice.  Nobody’s born awesome, well, except maybe Superman.


Fire in the Fields Underneath the Blazing Sun (Theme Music Monday)

I first heard this song in 1988, at age 13, and it fired my imagination like few songs had ever done.  The first verse talks of a people defeated and enslaved, but not broken.  Even as they suffer “for someone else’s selfish gain” they sing songs to their God.  The second is darker, more metaphorical, with its talk of “chambers made for sleeping forever.”  It was not until I was somewhat older than I understood what that meant (“waiting for the train labeled with the golden star” should have clued me in, but I was thirteen).

Though I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t get the historical references (the Jews’ enslavement by the Pharoahs of Egypt and the Holocaust, respectively) at first, the sentiment and imagery struck me to my heart.  This was the universal cry of outrage at human cruelty: “Man hurts man, time and time again, and we drown in the wake of our power. Somebody tell me why?”  But more than that, it was the hope that comes from faith.  Even at thirteen years old I could understand that.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the album, and especially the song, “Lead Me On” jump-started my dream of writing.  Though at thirteen, I was hardly writing prose, I began to compose narratives, imagine characters, and inhabit the themes.  I suppose I would be writing if I had never heard “Lead Me On,” but I think I would be a very different writer, a very different person.

It was while listening to this album that my mind started to imagine Tarafore, the fantasy world of my young imagination.  While many things have changed, the image of a group of warlords rising up to break the world, the conquer, to enslave, stuck with me.  The themes of faith against tyranny, sacrifice against cruelty, hope against domination have informed my writing – my best writing at least.

I believe in this song.  This song is a part of me, a part of who I am.  It’s one of those things that’s helped shape me.

Would I Spend Forever Here and Not Be Satisfied? (Theme Music Monday)

It had to come down to this, the song that is not a part of any one book I write, but everything I write, the song that is as fundamental to my imagination as reading C.S. Lewis, watching the first Highlander, or hearing the legends of King Arthur.

Sarah McLachlan’s 1993 U.S. breakthrough song, Possession.


I had heard sweet-sounding music.  I had heard dark music (though, frankly, not so real and thoroughly dark as an obsessed and ultimately suicidal stalker).  But I had never heard the two brought together so powerfully.

Although I don’t usually like music videos, I’m glad I saw this song first.  The American video (shown above) conveys the intricate dysfunction of the lyrics.  Close ups of Sarah’s face create an sense of intimacy, a sense of being closer than we actually are, putting us viewers into the shoes of the stalker.  But the film is marred, intentionally distorted, projected over moving sheets and rough walls, then filmed again, producing a surreal face-scape and mindscape.

I was eighteen years old when I first heard this song.  Prior to fall 1993, my musical tastes were mediocre at best, with a few bright spots.  I mostly listened to whatever was on the radio, and gravitated toward the shoddy hard-rock of the era (okay, Metallica has never been shoddy in concert, but they were the exception).  Aside from Peter, Paul, and Mary, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Amy Grant, and Heart, my musical tastes sucked.

Then I saw Possession, and everything changed.  I became enthralled by powerful, complex lyrics, complex but understated musical compositions, and emotionally charged music.  Granted, I still liked hard rock, but Queen and Meat Loaf (okay, nothing understated about him, but still) became more interesting than typical radio songs.

My imagination shifted, and although I was still a dumb kid and an awful writer, a corner had been turned.  VH-1 played it between midnight and 2 am almost every night, so I stayed up late, losing sleep just for the chance to see the video, to hear the song.  I never thought I would be one of those people who says that a song changed their lives, but this one did.  No joke, no kidding.

I’ve seen Sarah McLachlan in concert three times, in 1994 on her Fumbling Toward Ecstasy tour, in 1999 at the Lilith Fair, and in 2011 on her Laws of Illusion tour.  Possession has blown my mind every time.  It still does something to me every time I see the video, every time I even hear the song.

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