The Nature of a Hero in Iron Man

In preparation for the opening of the Avengers film in the upcoming weekend, and in true geek fashion, I’ve been embarking on a week-long series of watching the rest of the Avengers cinematic canon in order, from Iron Man through Captain America. So far, I’m two films in since Thursday. My ingenious plan to take over the blogosphere that is resulting from this is to do a short post for each of the previous films, and how they relate to my thoughts on the nature of a hero. Then I’ll post a review of the Avengers film when I’ve seen it (disclaimer: I’ve been known to skip opening weekend in order to enjoy a film with the absence of opening night insanity. Time will tell if I do this for the Avengers…my excitement may just win out, in this case).

I began my retrospective, then, with Iron Man. Tony Stark is the first Avenger we see in the film histories, and he is at his narcissistic best when we meet him. Thriving on a business of arms production that he inherited from his father, reaping the enormous financial benefits of a corporation that makes weaponry for war zones and sleeping at night in a sort of willful ignorance about the sticky ramifications of where his weapons may be ending up for less than honorable purposes. Not until Stark is captured by terrorists who intend to force him to build his weapons for them does he see his technology in the use of the other side, deployed for the slaughter of innocents and perpetuation of nefarious regimes. We know, of course, that it is in this captivity that he builds the prototype armor that will evolve into the Iron Man identity, and he does so with the assistance of a fellow captor. During his escape, his fellow captor (who claims to have met Stark years ago at a formal function, but who Stark cannot, of course, remember), sacrifices himself in order to assure Stark’s success. With his dying breaths, he tells an already guilt-ridden Stark that he has been given his life back, and that he should not waste it.

This is beginning of the end for Tony Stark’s intentional naiveté, and he begins to ask questions of what his company is doing. Suddenly, he is able to see that his technology can be found in various war zones being used by evildoers, and he vows that his company will stop making weapons. When the company continues its weapons business in spite of him, he assumes the Iron Man identity to use his own technology to defeat what he has already built, taking on a singular focus of ridding the world of an evil that he created (he tells Pepper Potts later in the movie that this is “all there is”).

Tony becomes a hero when he chooses to live out the forgiveness that he has received, to act out redemption on whatever parts of the world that he can impact. Of course, he does not experience a complete change: we still see an arrogant and self-absorbed Stark in the second movie. Tony Stark, however, assumes the mantle of a hero because he has been forgiven much, and chooses to not waste the redemption that he has been offered.

Going in order, my next post will on the Incredible Hulk.

Photo Attribution: mikequozl


I’m re-visiting a topic that I wrote about recently because…well, because I think that it’s a topic that deserves discussion, and also because it re-surfaced for me this week when I read this memo from the faculty advisory council of Harvard detailing how the subscription prices that the school pays for academic journals have reached a level that is unsustainable.

Now, this is a bit of a sticky subject, partly because I’m a writer, and because I have several friends and a spouse employed in academia. Let me say up front that I recognize that getting an author’s writing into the hands of readers in published form is not an inexpensive process. I also recognize that professors and researchers perform a critical public service and should be paid well, and, as with nearly any profession that provides critical public services in the U.S., they are grossly underpaid now. I recognize that publishers must earn enough money to cover the costs of distribution and to pay their marketers and editors and designers, etc.

All that said, though, I have a problem when businesses opportunistically seek to earn a profit from critical public services, and an increasingly large profit, at that. University professors are conducting their research to contribute to the development of their disciplines. This is how knowledge grows. All of these disciplines, whether they are arts, humanities, or sciences, are components of our society at large. Thus, while the professors’ teaching is reserved largely for those paying for a seat in their classroom, their research is conducted for the public good, and, in the case of public schools, are funded at least in part by public money.

We consider access to our culture’s literature to be a right, not a privilege. That is why publicly funded libraries exist (although some areas have tragically chosen to curtail that funding). I would argue that access to research conducted for the public’s best interest is also a right. To take research that is conducted, written, and reviewed for accuracy by peers, all for the public good, and trap it behind a paywall that, by definition, limits the number of people who can access it, is an approach that I find to be misguided at best, and reprehensible at worst. Yet, just as publishers have moved to rob the public of its right to read literature by limiting ebook access to libraries for fear of losing profit, so do some academic publishers appear to be limiting scholarly pursuits by placing exorbitant prices on their subscriptions.

For a school of the economic stature of Harvard to declare the subscription prices of academic publishers unsustainable is indicative of a very, very serious problem. Yet, acceptance of publishers supporting these business models seems to be so widespread as to even have Congressional support. Is the goal to preserve an academic, ivory tower elite by also preserving a public that remains largely illiterate of new research in various disciplines by virtue of the fact that it has no access to that research? Doing so smacks of pre-Reformation church practices of perpetuating Scriptural illiteracy and subsequently selling indulgences.

As I know many professors, I can tell you that this is not the goal of the researchers. They, like artists, are interested in their work being available for the public to engage, and for the public to walk away from this engagement growing as human beings. As with artists, though, researchers are subject to the fact that distributing their work places them at the whim of publishers who sometimes place needless limitations on who can read their work.

I’m happy to see that Harvard is encouraging its faculty to seek publication in open access journals, because they have the academic and cultural prestige necessary to help force this into common practice. I believe that open access should be the future of academic publishing. What this looks like for professors and researchers, I don’t know.

What I do know is this: as new ways of instant distribution and communication have become ubiquitous, both traditional and academic publishers must stop dragging their feet in embracing and adapting to new models simply because they fear some of their precious money slipping through their fingers. Doing so will result in more authors and researchers choosing to simply bypass them altogether to place their work into the public sphere. Adapting to concepts like open access is in everyone’s best interest.

And by “everyone,” I mean all of us.

Photo Attribution: G&A Sattler

The Fallacy of Formulae

Not far into the rhythm of my week, I was startled to see the news that no Pulitzer prize is being awarded for fiction this year. Apparently, for the first time since 1977, the jury concluded that none of the finalists were worthy of the award.


I think “wow” because I also read this very thought-provoking post hypothesizing how the Great Gatsby, a novel that few would dispute as an American classic, would have an enormously difficult time being accepted for publication today by any mainstream publishing house because it was not formulaic. That is, it didn’t contain the elements needed to ensure sales.

It’s that last part that concerns me: the literature that passes successfully through the gatekeepers of mainstream publishing and into the hands of a nation of readers (although that part of our population is tragically shrinking) is passed, in (large) part, on the ability of the novel to sell. That’s because publishers seem to be far more interested in making money than in circulating quality literature, just as are record labels or movie production studios guilty of this in their own realms. This is, I’m convinced, the phenomenon that drives Hollywood to produce such vast amounts of garbage, while depth thrives at indie film festivals.

Now, I don’t intend this post to be a debate between the merits of traditional publishing and the merits of self-publishing. I’m just expressing concern that a jury of reviewers, in looking over our nation’s literature for a year, cannot find anything worthy of the honor of this prize. Nothing. As a nation, from a literary standpoint, we didn’t cut it. Yet, sales of books thrive, partly because sex sells, as do other formulaic components, and partly because genre fiction far eclipses literary fiction on the shelves of most bookstores (I think of the three consecutive shelves of YA at my local Barnes & Noble, for example). And that’s the problem, isn’t it, with genre fiction? Formulaic components.

Please don’t hear this as being a slam on genre fiction, either. I write genre fiction. I grew up on genre fiction, and I love it (science-fiction, specifically). I just recognize that, while certain formulaic elements make up certain genres (the predictability of James Bond-style espionage books, for example, or murder mysteries), the risk of using these formulae for the profit of publishers is a “dumbing down” effect of the literary landscape at large.

Good writers should be paid well for their craft, as should any good artist. However, when profit is the driving motive for writing (or recording, or painting, fill in other mediums of expression here), the culture is in trouble. So many authors whose works we consider “classics” today didn’t write for the money, and often didn’t receive much, either. Their stories, though, helped shape a national psyche, and continue to contribute to our journey through the human experience.  Were this the driving motive in Hollywood, I imagine we would see significantly fewer big-action, huge-explosion movies with cheesy lines.  Were it the driving motive in literature, I’m confident that we would see a great deal less vampire fiction.

Not everything can be reduced to a formula. I think that formulaic elements can be used successfully in storytelling, but, like the spices you use when cooking dinner, using them sparingly is best. Otherwise, the taste becomes overwhelming.

Photo Attribution: balise42

Rewinding to the Little Things

Any poet, I think, would tell you that the little things are of utmost importance. It’s occurred to me lately that it’s the little things that we had once known, but have since forgotten, that are of enormous importance. Or, at least, the things of which we need to be reminded.

I was taking a walk over the weekend to enjoy the sudden appearance of beautiful weather in the Southeast, when, as I passed through the parking lot between our apartment and some of the adjacent apartments in our complex, I saw a plastic soda bottle stuffed full of leaves. It was lying in the midst of some branches with a sort of pool of leaves around it, and you could almost imagine the young child collecting leaves for his elementary school science project or something of the sort. In fact, as there are a lot of young professionals with families in our apartments, there were several children running around nearby on that sunny evening, and I imagine that it was likely one of them. I wish that I had taken a picture, because the entire event just seemed so carefree.

Similarly, I was walking around the apartment entertaining our daughter (read: having her on my shoulder because she didn’t cry there) and looked out of the sunroom window to see a little girl across the parking lot ordering some papers that she had been drawing on, or some similar activity, when her (I presume) mother and brother caught her attention, and she ran to greet them…totally forgetting about the papers, which proceeded to travel away on the wind.

This sort of makes me think of the time my parents gave me a balloon when I was very young. I took it outside and into the backyard of our rural home to play with it, and promptly let the string slip through my fingers. Away went the balloon. Much sadness and an improbable theory that perhaps a passing airplane would assist me by catching my balloon ensued as my parents gently tried to explain to me that the balloon was lost, but that there would be others.

I have a thousand other memories of childhood, and have occasionally written about them here, that obviously made a lasting impression on my life. Yet, I tend to forget them…that is, they aren’t in the forefront of my memory unless something specific triggers them. When they are triggered, I find myself blooming in the innocence with which life was enveloped then…a poetic sort of event. Since we had our daughter, I’ve been much more likely to recollect these sorts of things, because watching her innocently explore her new world leads me to relive what it was like to explore mine.

There’s something disproportionately large about the experiential gap between what we know and what we know with certain life events. When Karen and I were married, I was told by many wise people that marriage was a “lot of work.” I went into the marriage with my eyes wide open, knowing that it would be a “lot of work,” and prepared to dive headfirst into whatever that work might look like. About a year in, there were times when I thought, “wow…this is a lot of work!” What I had known only as a cognitive theory previously, I now knew experientially, and it was an entirely different level of knowledge.

I remember others telling me that being a parent is difficult, that it is wonderful, and those sorts of things. I knew they were meaning well and speaking the truth as they knew it, but I honestly always thought that they were being a bit melodramatic.  Now, only six months in, I recognize that this is difficult! And also wonderful beyond anything that I could have imagined.

I’m glad that this incredibly difficult, incredibly wonderful way in which my life shifted sideways leads me to recall those more innocent moments, because I want our daughter to have just as many amazing memories from her childhood. Those are the memories that I have a role in making now.

There’s something wonderfully poetic about that.

Proximity and Progress

When you put these sorts of things into perspective, its really incredible to think that what was seemed so amazing around the time that I was born is now so commonplace that the generation following mine has difficulty imagining life differently.

And, yes, as a science-fiction fan and writer, I think it’s really cool that a science fiction author was the one predicting these sorts of things.

I don’t think most of us question the enormous benefits that these technologies have brought to our lives. When our creative impulses strike, writers, photographers, designers, painters and musicians now have the means to share our ideas and our works instantly with others via the very blogosphere in which you now read this. Writers publishing their work, or musicians selling their recordings, have never had easier methods to do so because of our communication technology. The fact that our family can watch our daughter grow by way of regular video calls or photos in a shared Dropbox folder is something that can be invaluable.

Still, I think that it’s important to think about the limitations of digital communications. They are, after all, intended to augment the human experience, and are not to be used as a substitution or replacement for the human experience. Dave Reinhardt wrote a thought-provoking post about how this shows up in a theatrical performance over on Transpositions last week. One of the words that he used perfectly identifies the point that I’m trying to make when I talk about the “human experience,” and that is “space.”   Communication is always deeper when we share the same space, partly because a huge amount of interpersonal communication is nonverbal, but also because we can interact physically when share the same space. When my parents held our daughter during last weekend’s visit, it was a much deeper experience for them than the previous months of seeing her on Skype.

Even when, as Reinhardt mentions, the physical proximity is within the venue of a performance space, there’s something different. Listening to your favorite band’s album, after all, is a more limited experience than seeing them perform that same music live.

There’s so much that can be accomplished so much more easily, especially in our professional lives, today, even more than Clarke imagined. As such, though, there’s more importance to remembering the balance. We have to allow time…in fact, we have to intentionally create the time…to share the same space with each other, because that is what is critical to the human experience. That time of physically sharing space should be more frequent than the digitally augmented time together whenever possible. The trick is to let our humanity be experienced more fully, not to let it be unintentionally limited by the very advances intended to let it grow.