Live Long and Prosper

“Live long and prosper.”

Introduced in the STAR TREK episode “Amok Time” Spock spoke these immortal words along with the iconic Vulcan hand gesture.

Leonard Nimoy borrowed the hand gesture from a Jewish blessing and it has since grown an identity of its own. But it’s those words that speak to me.

All I really want for anybody is for them to live long and prosper. In fact, that is the ultimate goal of the entire staff of “Be A Better Geek” (yes, I’m counting the cat as a team member) and I hope of anyone who follows this site. I want people to be able to live their own lives and be able to find joy, love, compassion, good health, generosity, and hope in their lives. To me the greatest ideal is to help others also find that and to be able to be unburdened by fear of others or personal growth. I hope that in some small measure my words help to cultivate that search for joy and community growth.

And to acknowledge the obvious elephant in the room: yes, it affects my ideology. My social and political views are guided by the goals set forth by the Vulcan greeting. Yes, there are people whose ideologies are in direct opposition to myself. There are people who I think prosper, economically or politically, by exploiting others. But I do not wish harm upon these people. I’ve heard people wish suicide or diseases on their enemies. I have watched people die by the grips of depression or terminal disease and I wouldn’t want that for anyone. But I do want my ideological and philosophical opponents to find a sense of humility and compassion for their fellow humans. Perhaps they should study the character of Spock. He was a scientist, a compassionate friend, and an inspiration to many generations. And thanks to him we have the most important words in geekdom.

Geek in the Streets

One of the papers I wrote in college was about Roger Corman and his thematic use of outsiders in his films like the bikers in “Wild Angels,” the hippies in “The Trip,” and the beatniks in “A Bucket of Blood.” I can’t say that marginalized people is what initially drew me to his films but I have always been fascinated by outsiders and members of counter cultures.

I wasn’t a hippie, a beatnik, or a biker but as a geek in western Lawrenceville, Georgia I definitely felt like I was outside of the mainstream. I didn’t care about sports, especially the semi-religion of college football. I didn’t enjoy outdoor activities like fishing and didn’t go hunting with my dad. And though I went to church at that time I wasn’t Baptist or Methodist so I wasn’t even in the popular religions. I would later learn that there were other parts of the city and county that weren’t quite as southern, white working class as the area I grew up in but I was smack dab in the middle of what natives called “Dawg County” and my best friend was a cat named TJ. In middle school I met a few people who watched some science fiction movies and introduced me to “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe” but it wasn’t until I got into high school that I found other kids who read comic books.

These days my nickname is SpaceCat. Back then it was “long-haired, hippie faggot*.” I was called lots of names. I was picked on frequently. I can’t say that whether I delved deeper into a world of comic books and fantasy more as an escape from the bullying or that being a geek attracted the bullies. I was especially awkward thanks to being on the autism spectrum and being overweight and without any athletic ability.

I didn’t fight back. I got angry. I got depressed. And I pushed away from people who didn’t share my interests. But I still wanted to have friends. And in high school I found them in 2 places: honors English and at the comic book store. I have lifelong friends to this day from those places. Keeping it 100 here: the kids at the comic book store were a little less motivated than kids in honors classes. And in the early 90s comic book stores were almost entirely patronized by boys and men. “Elfquest” and “Sandman,” which had substantial but still minority female readership, were the exception to the rule but mostly comics were marketed towards and purchased by males. Lots of hypersexualized women and musclebound men with guns were the popular fare. Now that I look at it now the industry created this echo chamber where they thought only boys read comics so they only made comics for boys. But since I hadn’t had much experience thinking out of the limited androcentric worldview I just thought comic books were cool and I was disappointed that there weren’t more girl readers. That’s why ComicsGate and the whole gatekeeper mentality seems so backward to me now. I wanted to share my passion with girls because, let me tell you, I wasn’t sharing ANY passion with girls. But more on that later.

*I detest this word. Yes, I am primarily heterosexual and I know that a lot of people use that term because in their eyes it’s demeaning to be called gay. I didn’t pursue their perceptions of masculinity and it fed into their bullying. I think homosexuality, heterosexuality, asexuality, and pansexuality are all awesome and cool and so it hurts to know that a person would be marginalized and treated poorly because of one of them. I can’t imagine how hurtful that word is to members of the LGBTQA community.

Review: “HEATHEN Vol 1” by Natasha Alterici and Rachel Deering (Vault Comics)

After the recent announcement that “TWILIGHT” director Catherine Hardwicke has signed on to make the an adaptation of Natasha Alterici’s fantasy comic book “HEATHEN” the following summary was given in IndieWire:

“The story follows fierce Viking warrior Aydis, who is scorned by her village for kissing another woman and declares a one-woman feminist war against the ultimate patriarch, Odin, the god-king of Asgard and all-seeing father to thunder-god Thor.”

What a pitch! I immediately ordered a copy of the collection of the first 4 issues of the comic. After reading the collection you couldn’t find a more succinct, accurate description of the narrative. Of course this is just the first 4 issues of the comic. Since then 2 more issues have come out and it was recently announced this year that issues 7-12 are to follow.

The heathen in question, Aydis, is the daughter of a respected warrior of a Viking community. She flees her tribe because of an earnest, loving kiss to another woman setting up her story of adventure and self discovery. Elements of Norse folklore, with immortal warriors, Valkyries, and enchanted animals act as a backdrop to what is essentially a tale about finding empowerment in yourself and loved ones, embracing your individual journey, and rejoicing in your sexuality, whatever it may be. It’s not an overly complicated story but it’s an earnest one.

It’s unfortunate that the world is filled with myopic individuals and communities that want to set limitations on self exploration and want to place obstacles to growth and experience. And while that myopia may be of many different stripes in “HEATHEN” that limitation is the socio-religious regulations set forth by their chief god, Odin. And given that Odin is one-eyed, and therefore of singular vision, it is no surprise that Aydis knows to bring about liberation to herself and her community she needs to begin by destroying the source of patriarchal oppression, the aptly named All Father.

On a strictly formal level I want to give an appreciation to Alterici’s art. Her artwork has a graphic quality that brings to mind the clear storytelling of Alex Toth and David Aja. And while she still plays around with the illusion of space the intentional flatness of the artwork gives it a storybook quality that makes “HEATHEN” feel as much as fairy tale as it does a comic book. It has an overt sexiness to it, as it should given the storyline, but it isn’t played for licentious reasons. It shows sexuality in different forms, and all of them are about love – a love of others and a love of self. Given the positivity of that message it should come as no surprise that the book was recognized by the American Library Association YALSA in 2018 as one of their “Great Graphic Novels For Teens.”

“Heathen” is available at your local comic book store!

Tarzan and the Tarnished Idol

Writing about Edgar Rice Burroughs in the last “Be A Better Geek” I hit upon a topic that I want to explore further. While particularly relevant to geeks it speaks to a nearly universal human experience: idol worship.

Elmo Lincoln, star of the silent “Tarzan of the Apes” (1917, dir Scott Sidney)

In the previous post I mentioned how I think that there are Burroughs apologists who want to downplay the racism in his books. I claim his works are openly racialist in content while others think it’s an exaggeration or even a projection of the biases of people always trying to find racism in things. Obviously, I think I’m right and I think the evidence is overwhelming.

But here is a point that I failed to mention: I love reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’s books. I read “Tarzan of the Apes” 3 times while I was in high school. I had an actual, private conversation with “JOHN CARTER” director Andrew Stanton about our love of “A Princess of Mars” and the should-have-been Martian franchise that he proposed to Disney. As problematic as I find the ideologies reflected in ERB’s writings I still find his books quite enjoyable.

Burroughs brought a sensationalistic, mysterious tone to the adventure novel. He may have had his societal biases reflected in his work but he was also writing escapist fantasy. If you love space opera then you owe it to yourself to read his books. They are fun and descriptive, fast paced and action packed. The dude could spin a yarn. His influence is immense, particularly on another problematic writer whom I love even more, Robert E. Howard. You can love Tarzan and hate the racism surrounding the character and the culture from which he was created.

In the debate regarding separating art from artist I choose this compromise: be inconsistent and be flexible. Be okay with yourself for responding to different parts of art (like stories of Tarzan hunting) but also remember that just because some part of a book or movie or song resonates with you doesn’t mean that you have to fully endorse the creator. That’s how we fall into the trapping of idol worship. Maybe it’s an American quality, I’m not sure. But because we identify such emotional connection with the art we love we then project that love onto the artist. Sometimes this may be deserved. But other times it causes us to think un-clearly about the creator. I think we don’t want to acknowledge their faults because we fear that it can undermine our own emotional connection to art.

I think that’s a valid fear. An individual who once was a major influence on my world at large has turned out to be a terrible person. I can’t speak their name now. I can’t think of them without disgust. But I don’t beat myself up for their actions. But because I don’t hold them or any of the activities that I did identify with as sacred I am okay letting them go. Yes, you want to acknowledge the influence of others on your life and celebrate positive contributions. But it’s unhealthy and unsatisfying to base your own joy and self worth on the achievements or failings of others.

Fully engaging with the art and recognizing its faults is good practice for examining our own lives. You can still find areas in your life that need improvement without sacrificing your self love. For me it is a love of self that gives me the fortitude to address some of my shortcomings.

Mermaids, Vampires, and Jungle Kings

A Note from the Author:

In order to try to meet the demands I have placed for myself in releasing new blog posts I decided that I should go ahead and write some material in advance. I imagine this is an open secret among content creators. Anyway, I wrote something last week to be published this week that seemed to be prescient.

News coverage regarding the 2 mass shootings that occurred last Saturday showed us an ugly side of our American psyche. We know that one killer was a misogynist. We know that the other killer was a white supremacist. And as it just so happens my next few entries are about elements of racism and sexism within geek culture.

Geek culture is influential, powerful, and (often) intellectual. Let’s use these qualities for positive cultural change.

Halle Bailey was cast to play Ariel in a remake of “The Little Mermaid” and people lost their minds. People who could be spending time working to improve their own lives or the lives of others chose to devote time to expressing their anger at the casting of a young black woman in a role previously portrayed as an animated white woman. I don’t think it’s necessary to regurgitate all of their criticisms except I would like to isolate one comment that comes up A LOT when it comes to casting or presenting a character as a different race or ethnicity than has been previously portrayed:

“What if they cast a white man to play Blade?”

From "The Tomb of Dracula" (Vol. 1) #10 (1973)

So often have I heard people playing the Blade card. Maybe I just happen to notice this one in particular because, and you can put this on a poster board of personal quotes for my eventual memorial service, I LOVE BLADE. I love the character as presented in Marvel’s “Tomb of Dracula” series and I am an even bigger fan of his portrayal by Wesley Snipes in the New Line Cinema “Blade” movies. Some people rise to the occasion of fleshing out a fictional character. Wesley Snipes made the coolest Marvel superhero EVEN COOLER. Snipes is also very dark-skinned which, I presume, is why he is always the target of this particular re-casting trope. Alternatively, perhaps even more predominantly than Blade is, “what if we cast a white man to play Shaft?”

With that in mind let me flip things a little: what if we cast a black man to play Tarzan?

Right off the bat let me address the most controversial aspect of Tarzan: was his creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs, a racist? Just as with anyone who is heroic or an idol to people Burroughs has his apologists who will say something like “he wasn’t any more racist than anyone else in his era.” Since “Tarzan of the Apes” was first published in 1912, smack dab in the middle of the Jim Crow era, it stands to reason that “not anymore racist” was still pretty racist.

Do I think Burroughs was a racist? He might not have been a Klansman but Burroughs still romanticized the majesty of white people. Whether it is Carson Napier, John Carter, or Lord Greystoke himself Burroughs made his tales about a rugged white man, whether of noble birth or southern American aristocracy, who goes to a wild, untamed world and by his sheer will and determination becomes a leader. Yes, lots of stories are about the one person who changes the tide of things because dramatically it is easier to identify with fewer protagonists. But in an age of imperialism when Burroughs could have written a story about a lone black native being brutalized by whites he instead wrote about the lone, noble white boy who would become a king. And he didn’t even become King of the Jungle because it was his ambition or lineage. Tarzan was just being himself and so became the monarch. Is that the commentary of society by a white supremacist? It may not have been his ideological assertion but it certainly was a reflection of Burroughs’s existing bias.

So what if Tarzan were played by a black man? It would be more than an aesthetic choice, wouldn’t it? The story is explicitly about the Lord of Greystoke, by definition an English noble and therefore inevitably a white man. In 1912 English noblemen were white men. BUT let’s say the Greystoke family was black. It would mean that we somewhere must delve into the world of speculative history. Just like novels about “what if Nazis won WWII” or “what if the Confederacy won the Civil War” speculative history is an excellent way to look at the events that shape the world and offer social criticism. So what I’m saying is if you want a black Tarzan then you have to completely change the story of who Tarzan is. And, frankly, I’m okay with that! It’s all fiction, right? Go ahead and play around with it. Tell new stories and explore new ideas. Heck, as an alternative you could keep Tarzan white and say “what if Tarzan landed in South America” or something. I just want the story to be good.

So let me go back to Shaft for a moment. Who is Shaft? Well, in the theme song for the motion picture he is explicitly identified as “the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks.” So chances are you’re not going to cast Don Knotts to play Shaft. But here’s what we know about the character Shaft as presented in his fictional world: he is a private investigator living and operating in Harlem. We also know that he is put in between two explicitly racially identified organized crime rings, one black and one white. We know that tensions are escalated and his actions will help stop a race war in New York City. Quite honestly I don’t know what John Shaft is like in the original book that introduced the character because I haven’t read it and it isn’t in print. But I know this: he’s a black private detective in Harlem. SO what does this mean? It means that in every existing media, in every incarnation, John Shaft is a black man in Harlem and that aspect of his character helps create the character’s environment, motivations and narrative events. Could you then cast a white man to play Shaft? Well, in theory you could but if you were to keep all of the above characteristics in place you would have such a casting disconnect that it would have to be one amazing performance by your actor to make it believable to your audience.

You could, however, make a character named John Shaft a white man. He wouldn’t be in anyway similar to the Shaft we know and love because that character is specifically black. Of course white John Shaft would likely be as vanilla and as uninspired as Phil Collins’s recording of “You Can’t Hurry Love” (thanks to the “Your Favorite Band Sucks” podcast for reminding us of that travesty).

But now I have to answer: what about a black actress playing Ariel? To begin she’s a mermaid and she can look however the artists want her to look. There is nothing in her story that makes her black and there is nothing in her story that makes her white. The color of her skin is not an essential aspect of her character. Her purpose, after getting kids to buy a billion dollars worth of merchandise, is to be a character that mostly young girls but anyone else can watch, identify with emotionally, and root for. In the animated movie she happens to be white, sure. But that’s an aesthetic choice that was made primarily by white people. And, like Burroughs, they probably weren’t more racist than anyone else at that time, but they saw white as their default setting. Fortunately we live in a world where that is becoming less of a default setting. In fact, I think white people need to learn to openly embrace fictional characters of different skin colors and appearances because it will help us develop our empathetic abilities.

As for Blade? The challenge you present yourself there, regardless of race, is that you have to somehow cast someone to play a Blade that is as cool as Wesley Snipes’s portrayal and as the character himself says, “some motherfuckers are always trying to ice skate uphill.”

Chewie, We’re Home

Now I bet you’re asking “why don’t he write?” Sorry, I know a DANCES WITH WOLVES reference isn’t exactly geeky or especially cool but it came to mind and I’ll just have to work through the inner agony I’ve caused myself.

But, yes, I’m aware that I haven’t posted in a while and it’s been nagging on me. But I have a few good reasons. One is that I’m working very steadily right now. When I started “Be A Better Geek” it was during a hiatus from work and so I had plenty of time on my hands. But once I start working, well, everything falls to side.

So what do I do that would suck up all of my time? I work in the film industry, specifically in the Locations Department. I say “film” broadly because almost all of the work I have done is for television. There is a long-term dependability that you get from working on a TV show with a lot of episodes. Both TV and film have their advantages and disadvantages but the pace of TV is exhausting. Making 45 minutes of screen-worthy stuff in 8 days means you move at a breakneck pace. Do I love it? Much of the time I do. Recently I encountered a bunch of stuff that really hit me in the gut but I will talk about that at another time. Right now I just want to share a note of positivity.

You might be asking “Chuck, what does this have to do with geekstuff?”

I like that word, by the way. “Geekstuff.” I’m going to keep using it.

As luck would have it I have worked on a lot of shows of interests to geeks. I’m not going to name drop but I’ll say that I have shared parking lots with zombies, vampires, werewolves, witches, demons, inter-dimensional horrors, at least one gargoyle, big name make up wizards, and a self-proclaimed king of the world.

And what did I do after we all parked? For quite a long time I cleaned their bathrooms. I handed out safety vests. I picked up trash and set up tents. I’ve shoveled up the goo they’ve left behind. Thus far I have only disposed of one dead bird. I don’t do quite as much of that now. Now I find places for these folks to park, where to put those bathrooms, and spots for their trucks. Sometimes I locate places to film. I’m particularly proud of one hero location that pops up regularly on a TV show that some of you probably watch.

Right now I’m working on a 70+ hour work week. We bought tickets to go to New York City in October and I plan on checking out the King Kong setup they have at the Empire State Building so I’m happy to put in those extra hours. But it means I don’t get to write this blog as much as I like. For that, I apologize, but know that my heart is here with you.

Oh…and another reason I haven’t been writing as much…eh, I’ll tell ya later.

Flash Gordon! An Intro into Space Opera

It has recently been announced that Fox, now a subsidiary of Disney, has hired Taika Waititi to develop an animated feature about Flash Gordon. For those of you that enjoyed his earlier work with Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok this will come as welcome news because he has already demonstrated an aptitude for space opera.

In the late 20th century, following the success of STAR WARS space opera became one of the most visible of science fiction sub-genres. Just in the decade following we saw blatant rip-offs like Battlestar Galactica and the more bizarre Star Crash. The literary origins of the genre began to develop in the 19th century when the different components, like space travel, alien civilizations, and futuristic settings were appearing in different stories. In 1928 all of these finally found their way into the first of the Skylark series of stories by E. E. Smith. Space travel! Interplanetary war! Questionable literary value! The stage was set for space opera to flourish.

Intended to mock the serialized melodramatic nature of soap operas, the term “space opera” was introduced by writer and fan Wilson Tucker. Though perhaps a bit more action-heavy, the term fits well because whether it’s Buck Rogers or The Princess of Mars it’s all pretty much melodrama in space. Space opera doesn’t usually involve itself much into the speculative nature of so-called hard science fiction though it does often rely on super advanced technology as plot devices. Since intergalactic space travel is, at the time of this writing, a physical impossibility, you sometimes have to take liberties with your star hopping adventurers and thrill seekers.

The comic strip Flash Gordon came into being in 1934, the creation of Alex Raymond. It was essentially an imitator and then solid competitor of the Buck Rogers comic strip. Buck Rogers, like much of the early space opera, came from a pulp magazine. Like the Skylark series it first appeared in Amazing Stories. My first exposure to Flash came not from the 1980 feature but from reruns of the animated series by Filmation. I wouldn’t come to see the film or the movie serials until I reached high school.

People love space adventures. Whether it’s Space 1999 or Cowboy Bebop or Guardians of the Galaxy or Saga action and romance in a spacey setting will always find an audience. I myself love space battles, outre costumes, and weird space aliens. If I could I could become an expert on any single genre it would likely be space operra.

Like I said in the title, this is simply the briefest introduction to space opera because it is a hugely important facet in the tapestry of geek culture. There have been at least a dozen references to creators and creations in this post and each one of them may, at some time, get more space for discussion or examination by Be A Better Geek. Right now the goal is to just plant seeds. Feel free to follow BABG on Twitter @better_geek and please SHARE THIS POST!