Dehumanizing by Distance

A long time ago, I read an article (which I lament not bookmarking, because I can never find it now) that discussed a study regarding how drivers viewed other drivers as compared to how they viewed pedestrians. The findings of the study were basically that drivers viewed pedestrians as more human, and thus afforded them more forgiveness and lenience if the pedestrian made a decision that the driver viewed as stupid. Conversely, other drivers were viewed as less human, more likely to receive the driver’s anger and contempt. The thought process was that, when we’re locked away inside of metal vehicles, we have difficulty seeing each other as fellow human beings, and are more likely to become enraged and even violent with each other.

That study stayed with me, because I think that it’s onto something. It’s easy to feel hatred toward someone with whom we can’t relate or find common ground, and distance simply makes it psychologically more difficult to relate or find the common ground. When we have metal walls between each other, we become less than human in each others’ perspectives.

It turns out that it’s not just physical barriers that accomplish this dehumanization. The pandemic showed us this, I think, as we desperately turned to video screens to maintain some level of human contact, while realizing how poor a substitute it was for keeping in touch with our loved ones. The distance, the resolving of a person that we know into pixels, somehow alters our perspective of that person. If it’s someone that we don’t know, exponentially more so.

This is what I thought about when I read this article about the expansion of the use of drones in the war in Ukraine. This war, which, like most wars is completely senseless, has been the first wide-scale use of drone technology in full scale combat. Soldiers are taking other soldiers’ lives without ever being in shooting distance. They simply watch on a video screen as they pilot an airborne weapon from miles away, applying a video-game style of lethal force with real-world consequences.

Theologically and philosophically, I’m a pacifist. As all human beings are created in God’s image (even when they’re driving the other car), I don’t see God leaving open the option of taking another life. I see that principle as being as old as the Ten Commandments. This is why I see armed combat as wrong, because inherent in the action is the presupposition that the life of the person on the other side is somehow worth less than one’s own. The soldier from the other side is not another father, sister, or loved one. They are the other. They are the enemy.

We are currently seeing the largest war in Europe since World War II, and, like many wars, it’s simply about a dictator’s power grab. While I am forced to recognize the reality that armed conflict is necessary at times in order for a government to defend the citizens of its country, I think that a war fought by remote control is worse than the savagery of trench warfare. It is cold, and calculating, Human lives are eliminated with no opportunity to surrender or yield. Were a miracle like the Christmas Truce ever to be in the inclination of either side, it would be impossible to realize through a television monitor as one pressed the button that took more lives.

Lives that aren’t seen as lives. Just pieces being removed from the game board.

As I consider this through the lens of Advent, I ache for the time when our swords are beat into plowshares. Then, at least, we will be beyond the point of constantly trying to kill each other. In the meantime, let us pray that this war ends soon.

Thoughts on Black Panther II: Wakanda Forever

When someone passes, they leave a void in the lives of those around them. When that person is a performing artist, and they are known for a role that was deeply impactful to a huge audience, that void is magnified exponentially. That was the case when Chadwick Boseman, who played the role of T’Challa, a.k.a. the Black Panther, passed away in 2020. He drew us into a classic character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe before appearing in his own film, Black Panther, which I would argue is possibly the best film that Marvel has produced. As fans around the world reeled at the news, many of us wondered what would happen to the character, to the story arc?

The worst thing that directors can do in a circumstance in which an actor, especially an actor who has mastered such an important role, passes, is simply re-cast the role and continue the story arc as-is. With few exceptions, audiences just won’t be on board. The beauty of the art form is that the character has now come alive for us, embodied in this actor, and, Time Lords aside, new faces might be accepted, but they just don’t work in the long run.

That’s why I think that Wakanda Forever is exactly what the story needs, and what audiences need, as the MCU moves forward. This story is about the void. It’s about those left behind. It’s about a nation and a people that still need a hero, but find that hero to be suddenly taken away from them. This is a story about mourning. It is a hero story without a hero.

Accordingly, the movie begins letting the audience experience the grief of the loss, giving us a few moments…not rushed…to mourn with the rest of the characters on the screen, before being thrust into the aftermath of T’Challa’s death. The central character here is Shuri, T’Challa’s sister, and, while we’re introduced to new characters such as Namor the Sub-Mariner and Ironheart, this is very much her story. The through-line is her grief, and the nation-state conflicts and political power-struggles between Wakanda, Talokan, and the United States are really just vehicles to walk her character through the grief process. The action sequences mostly concede (final climactic battle excepted) to character development, especially the Wakandan characters that we’ve seen in previous films, which really gives the audience something to digest. It is difficult to watch a hero film without a hero, difficult to sit with that emptiness of grief, but it is the only way to give this story arc the treatment that it deserves and, given other recent catastrophic failures in this phase of the MCU, I’m both relieved and respectful that the writers did so.

This film is more, though. It deals with the natural human reactions to trauma: confronting the collision of faith and empiricism in un-answered prayers, and the desire to strike back at the world in anger. More than grief explored, Wakanda Forever is a story of faith vs. uncertainty, and, perhaps most of all, a morality tale on the dangers of seeking revenge.

It’s not that I didn’t have problems with the film. While I think that the depth of not only African but Aztec cultures are beautifully presented, the decision to make Namor and his people not be from Atlantis just didn’t work for the comics purist in me. I can see why the decision was made from a writing standpoint though, as it wouldn’t be seen as original given that DC got there first.

All in all, though, Wakanda Forever stands out for me in a Phase 4 that has been, at best, about 50% worthwhile. This was a fantastic film with which to end this phase, and, above all, it pays respect to Boseman’s legacy with the character, while building a solid foundation for where the new Black Panther will take us. I highly recommend this film.

Priorities, Remixed

I had planned to go to a movie today, but I didn’t.

Stay with me, I’m going somewhere with this.

The movie was Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. While about half of Marvel’s phase 4 has been underwhelming, I’m excited about this film. I was looking forward to seeing it tonight, but I didn’t, for a variety of reasons. I’ve travelled quite a bit in the last week. We had an annual Ikea run on Saturday (what used to be an annual event), and spent the night setting up new furniture. Our 6-year-old randomly decided to set an alarm clock, which went off at 0-dark-thirty after I’d been up really late anyway, and I was just wicked tired. I decided to help with dinner instead. All good reasons to skip a movie that I can easily catch later.

This film has already been in theatres for a week as a I write this. So the fact that a Marvel movie has been playing that long without me in an audience, and then I postponed it likely another week….well, if you know me at all, you’ll appreciate the paradigm shift.

There was a time when Marvel film releases were on my calendar and planned for weeks or months in advance. We were in the theatre on opening weekend. If there was a scheduling conflict, the other thing was shifted. Child care was booked and confirmed. Think of it as the Superbowl, but for geeks, often followed promptly by a review of the movie on this very blog. That really hasn’t been the case lately. It’s part of a post-Covid mental shift for me. As with many, I’ve just re-prioritized things. I still really want to see this movie, but I’m also really happy that I took the afternoon and had a relaxed dinner with my family.

When Black Widow opened in theatres during the pandemic, I was still very uneasy about venturing back into that environment. I waited three weeks to see that film, and only then during a sparsely attended matinee. This for one of my all-time favorite characters. I never saw Spider-Man: No Way Home in the theatre due to the virus…I (im)patiently awaited it’s Blu-Ray release. And now Wakanda Forever. Which, as much as I want to see, I’m honestly just questioning if I want to make it to a theatre, less now because of concerns over the virus, but more because there are just so many other priorities, things that would have been shifted three years ago in favor of the movie, but that are now reasons why the movie hasn’t happened.

I love the experience of going to a movie. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t call myself a movie lover, but the experience feels similar enough to attending live theatre that I’ve always enjoyed it. Now that I’m on the other side of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, however, I find myself thinking, can I just wait until this is streaming somewhere?

I fully intend to see Wakanda forever in the theatre (and wow, is it difficult to avoid spoilers for this long). I’ll probably post a review here when I do. I miss that buzz of seeing some of my favorite characters come to life on the big screen, the excitement of being there as soon as it is available, but other things have taken its place. I guess that, no matter how much I wanted…and I think that many of us did…the end of the pandemic to bring things full circle to exactly the way they were before, it’s simply not the case. Different things have changed for all of us, and won’t be the same. I question how much longer movie theatres will survive, and that is a thing that has shifted for me. My movie-going habits won’t be the same.

Interestingly, life still goes on, and I’m even the better for it.

Travel Log: Portsmouth, NH

After more than two years of doing almost no travel, we had a busy summer. Multiple trips through the summer and early fall, both for vacation and family events, were tiring, but also life-giving. I had just started to include travel logs of the places I visit here on the blog when the pandemic shut down our lives. I’m really happy to be able to post one again.

One of our trips this summer was to Portsmouth, NH. I’d been through Portsmouth before on a couple of occasions…a quick visit on earlier vacations, a work excursion taking some students to a repertory theatre production…but I hadn’t really spent time there. We had a great time exploring the city and experiencing what Portsmouth has to offer.

Portsmouth, NH harbor
A view of the harbor in Portsmouth. Many boat tours launch from here, and there are a lot of restaurants just out of view.

Portsmouth isn’t a large metro area, but it’s close to a lot and has a lot going on in it’s own right. Just an hour north of Boston, and less than 20 minutes to one of the best beaches in Maine (I’ll get to that in a bit), you’re close to a lot, but there’s so much going on in Portsmouth that you may be too busy. This is the centerpiece of New Hampshire’s coastline. There are several tech companies with offices here, a great arts scene with theatres and galleries, and the seafood is fantastic. A lot of these I had experienced before when dropping by, but when spending time here, what surprised me the most was it’s history.

Portsmouth holds a lot of history from the country’s founding, as well as a lot of Naval history and history in the ship-building trade. We love seeing historical attractions on family vacations, so this trip wouldn’t have been complete without seeing Strawberry Banke, a working reproduction of an original settlement in the area, complete with authentic period homes and reenactments. You can easily spend a day there, especially with kids, and the gardens are a stunning on a summer day. I was lost in conversation with some of the staff about the history of Portsmouth a couple of times. It’s well worth the visit.

Dining is a great experience, as well. There are multiple gluten-free restaurants in the city, and we had no issues getting seated on the water even without a reservation to enjoy some of the best seafood I’ve had in some time.

I also recommend just taking a day to walk around downtown. There are some quirky little art installations that seem to pop up where you least expect them, very interesting architecture in places, and some great cafes. There are also a lot of good local shops to patronize. As you would expect in New England, Portsmouth is a very pedestrian-friendly city.

We also found ourselves only a quick 20-minute drive away from one of our favorite summer haunts, York Beach, Maine. If you’ve never been to York, that would be a post of it’s own, but it’s very much worth the drive if you’re in Portsmouth, as I’ve found York to be some of the best beach in New England, as well as being home to the Goldenrod candy shoppe. Spend the day at the beach, then leave the hustle and bustle and be back to Portsmouth in time for dinner with no problems.

We very much enjoyed Portsmouth. Even though it’s a small city, we still didn’t manage to see everything that there is to see there, and I’m sure we’ll be back. If you’re looking for a place to visit in New England, I recommend you visit, as well.

A Review of “Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art”

Cover of Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. Fair use for review purposes.
Cover of Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. Fair use for review purposes.

My very first comic book was an issue of X-Men. I grew up in a town with no comic shop, but one of the larger grocery stores had a healthy magazine rack and included a weekly stock of comics. I was hooked in a way that is difficult to describe. Much to my parents financial chagrin, I accompanied my mom on the weekend grocery shopping excursions faithfully, and I couldn’t wait to get to that store and to the comics. There was always something that I wanted to read.

Now, I think that comics is like any other artistic medium: whether or not you are drawn to it is a matter of taste. In a similar way that film, sculpture, or poetry may or may not be something that particularly engages you, comics sort of is or isn’t. And that’s fine. Inherent in that idea, though, is the supposition that comics is an art form in its own right, a medium deserving of the same respect as any other form of art or literature. And, as with other mediums, even if it isn’t to your taste, learning an appreciation for the art form is culturally important.

I, like many readers at their first exposure, just naturally grasped the way in which the stories and artwork flowed. I was far too young to articulate any sort of theory about usage of line, color, or pacing, but it worked. The stories captivated me, enchanting my imagination with a concept of good vs. evil that would later inform not only my entertainment choices, but my theology and worldview at a very practical level. Comics, especially superheroes, are something about which I’ve been passionate ever since.

That’s why I’m sort of surprised that I didn’t know that this book existed until recently. Understanding Comics was written as I graduated high school. Certainly, there are parts of the book that feel dated now. However, this is an absolutely essential read for putting into serious language why this art form works so well for so many of us. Central to this is that McCloud insists from page 1 that comics is to be taken seriously as an artistic medium. There is no room to conclude otherwise in his thesis, which is as it should be. He argues strongly for comics’ recognition as art, not just as pulp or “the funnies” as some see it, and does a great job of backing his assertions.

The beauty of this book is that it is written in the medium upon which it seeks to expound. That is, it’s essentially a nonfiction graphic novel, which I find to be ingenious for a couple of reasons. First, it immerses the reader into the art form. I don’t know of another art criticism text that does that (perhaps because other mediums can’t do it…?). Secondly, it uses the medium to illustrate the points. The beauty of comics, after all, is that literature and art intertwine, and the author’s choice here is a very practical application of that flexibility.

McCloud begins by defining a vocabulary for comics, and moves into discussions about the use of line, color, and how the artwork interacts with the language. This is a deceptively academic treatment of the subject, as he spends a significant amount of time working through a language development theory, with the written word as an ultimate abstraction of iconography. This works by example to prove the author’s point on legitimacy of the art form, as well: the very language used is painting the picture…quite literally…for us, drawing the reader in to inhabit the points being presented. That’s what makes comics such a powerful medium, in my opinion…and in the author’s…the direct interaction with the reader on so many different levels, an interaction that I would consider unparalleled in any medium other than theatre.

McCloud spends a chapter discussing how line enhances the mood of the story, replete with examples of lines illustrating anger, peace, anxiety. He walks through a fascinating history of how line work has developed through the history of art in general, and specifically in comics from artists in different geographical areas and cultures.

My favorite chapter, I think, is devoted to the gutter. The gutter is unique to comics: the space between panels in the layout of the page. Things happen in the gutter that require the reader to fill in with their imagination. Time passes in the gutter. McCloud argues that the physical space of the gutter is used in the same way as time is used in film. Examples of how panel layouts further stories are presented in fascinating detail.

I think that my one criticism of the book is that McCloud’s definition of art is far too expansive for my taste. He spends time unpacking a theory of what makes art, but backs himself into a trap composed of overly broad brush-strokes. Essentially, anyone doing anything for a purpose of understanding something is doing art. He also defines a process through which art is made that succumbs to the fault of many academic texts on the arts: a rigid definition of process for a creative instinct that defies process almost by definition.

Nobody is perfect.

Recent film successes and a pandemic have drawn new fans to comics. People are discovering the medium in earnest who have never been interested before. Those who are engaging comics for the first time will be curious, and will benefit a great deal from McCloud’s work. Those of who have loved comics for most of our lives will also…I have already found myself drawing greater understanding and appreciation from my weekly pulls having finished his work, and am re-reading some classics through a new lens.

In short, if comics interests you at all, I strongly recommend Understanding Comics as a read that will be well worth your time.