The Measure of a Man

“The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in combat.” — Navy SEALs

Somethin’ a little different for ya, this week.

I don’t usually go for “macho” stuff, but I recently bought The Ultimate Man’s Survival Guide by Frank Miniter, ‘cuz I thought there might be some helpful — or at least interesting — tips in there. He writes about survival skills, first-aid, firearms, hunting, fishing, athletic advice, hand-to-hand combat, cigars, alcohol, romance, some philosophy, et al. I’ve only read the Introduction, so far, but I found a passage I thought I’d share. Following an anecdote about when he actually ran with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, Miniter asks the question, “So how do we become men when there’s no test to pass?”. Of course, he answers his own question, which I reproduce for you here….

Despite the lack of a rite of passage, being a man is something we try to achieve, at least the best of us. And there’s more to being a man than climbing the Matterhorn, shooting 100 on the sporting clays range, or dropping a bully with a right hook. There’s being a father, a husband, a good brother, and citizen. Being a man is being a mensch. Being a man means doing the right thing regardless of who’s looking; it means biting the bullet and taking the hit (in life) even when you’re not going to profit — especially when you’re not going to profit.

Being a man means suffering in silence, knowing how to keep your mouth shut, but still not being afraid to speak up. It means being the white knight, Robin Hood, George Washington, and Roland all rolled into one. It means speaking softly, yet carrying a big stick. It means knowing how to say you’re sorry, and mean it. It means keeping your own counsel and knowing when to seek advice — very tricky life stuff. It means understanding the words “Duty. Honor. Country.” It means having the know-how to solve a crisis. It means not panicking in an emergency. It means being a hero when no one is looking. It means knowing how to survive, lead, and show others the way.

Being a man means standing your ground when you must, but not seeking glory by harming or dominating others — a man is never a bully. The underlying reason Ahab in Moby Dick is a monster, not a man, is because he holds his wrath higher than the lives of his crew.

Being a man means finding the correct path even if you don’t have a guide. Hamlet doesn’t become a man until he dies, because, left fatherless, he is forced to take the steps to manhood alone and so attempts immature machinations before standing up boldly for justice and then dying as a man of courage and honor. Characters such as Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye are tragic because they’re rudderless in adolescence and so, like Hamlet, tread a dark path to manhood. Others, such as Harvey in Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous, become men because a man takes the time to show them the way.

Being a man means having the moxie to choose your own destiny. Gus in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove is a man because he controls his emotions and makes the decision to go up against a group of outlaws alone in order to free the damsel-in-distress. Then he affirms his manhood by not wallowing in his heroism or making the event about himself. In fact, Westerns have retained their popularity because cowboys are our white knights, men who stoically follow a masculine code of honor. Many of John Wayne’s characters were men who lived by a tough, manly code, a set of rules often not taught to youth these days. Today, the American male has no code. We have laws, but legalism is a poor substitute for a code of honor, because legality doesn’t always parallel morality.

The ultimate man, as reconstructed in this book, is that “one thing” Curly referred to as the meaning of life in City Slickers. He is virtue and action forged into something we can comprehend without advanced degrees in a dozen fields. He is an evolving concept characterizing right and wrong in a heroic, comprehensible figure; he is someone to look to and question as we encounter worldly problems.

He is fundamental because, despite the absence of clear rites of passage, every male must learn how to be a man as best he can; after all, such knowledge isn’t written in our genetic codes. Training shapes a soldier, a poet, and a boxer, not just courage, intellect, and brawn. Indeed, the American who wouldn’t be a man and run with the bulls failed himself because of his ignorance. Knowledge instills confidence. Through understanding comes self-reliance. That American’s fate in Pamplona could have been mine, but because I understood what was happening, I steadied myself with the knowledge of what had to be done to survive. That’s what this book is about….”

I might quibble a bit here and there or want to add qualifiers, but all in all, great advice.

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Superpowers and the Second Amendment

Once again, this week I’d like to look at some material from the book The Law of Superheroes by lawyers James Daily and Ryan Davidson. We have already examined some Fifth Amendment issues and some Eighth Amendment issues in the world(s) of comics. Next up, it only makes sense to address where the Second Amendment might have something to say about the use of superpowers….

Although some superheroes and villains have powers that are harmless or at least not directly harmful to others (e.g., invulnerability, superintelligence), many have abilities that have no or only limited uses apart from harm (e.g., Superman’s heat vision, Havok’s plasma blasts). Although the government may be limited in its ability to discriminate on the basis of mutant status or innate superpowers, could the federal government or the states regulate superpowers as weapons without running afoul of the Second Amendment?

The Supreme Court has relatively recently addressed the Second Amendment in two cases: DC v. Heller*1* and McDonald v. City of Chicago.*2* The first case dealt with the District of Columbia’s ability to regulate firearms, and (broadly speaking) the second case applied the same limits to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment. In particular, Heller held that the District of Columbia’s ban on possession of usable handguns in the home violated the Second Amendment. From those decisions we can get a sense of how a comic book universe court might address the issue of superpowers as arms.

The Scope of the Second Amendment

First, let us begin with the text of the amendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”*3* This is a notoriously difficult sentence to interpret, but here is how the Court defined the individual terms.

“[T]he people” refers to people individually, not collectively, and not only to the subset of the people that could be a part of the militia.*4* “Arms” refers broadly to “weapons of offence, or armour of defence” and “any thing that a man wears for his defence, or takes into his hands, or useth in wrath to cast at or strike another,” and it is not limited to weapons in existence in the eighteenth century.*5* Interestingly, this suggests that defensive powers may also be protected by the Second Amendment, but for the sake of brevity we will only consider offensive powers as those are the kind most likely to be regulated.

“To keep and bear arms” means “to have weapons” and to “wear, bear, or carry… upon the person or in the clothing or in a pocket, for the purpose… of being armed and ready for offensive or defensive action in a case of conflict with another person.”*6* Taken together, the Second Amendment guarantees “the individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation,” but the right does not extend to any and all confrontations — there are limits.*7*

The Court first addressed limitations established by past precedents: “the Second Amendment confers an individual right to keep and bear arms (though only arms that ‘have some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulate militia’).”*8* Further, “the Second Amendment does not protect those weapons not typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes, such as short-barreled shotguns.”*9*

Beyond that, there are lawful limits on concealed weapons as well as “prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”*10* Perhaps most importantly for our purposes, there is a valid, historical limitation on “dangerous and unusual weapons.”*11*

With the scope of the right established, let us now turn to whether the government could regulate superpowers under the Second Amendment.

Regulating Superpowers as Weapons

We may start with the presumption that a superpower may be possessed and used for lawful purposes such as self-defense. The question is whether a given power fits into any of the exceptions that limit the Second Amendment right.

The Human Torch

“Concealed Weapons”
First, many superpowers could be considered “concealed weapons.” Before the Human Torch shouts “flame on!” and activates his power, he appears to be an ordinary person. Could the government require a kind of Scarlet Letter to identify those with concealed superpowers? The answer is a qualified yes. The Constitution would not tolerate requiring innately superpowered individuals to identify themselves continuously. That would seem to violate the constitutional right to privacy and the limited right to anonymity. Furthermore, simply keeping concealed weapons is allowed (e.g., a hidden gun safe in a home). The real objection is to concealed weapons borne on the person in public.

Thus, the calculus changes when a superhero sets out to bear his or her powers against others in public (e.g., goes out to fight crime). Luckily, many superheroes already identify themselves with costumes or visible displays of power (e.g., Superman, the Human Torch). Beyond that, most states offer concealed carry permits to the public, usually after a thorough background check and safety & marksmanship training. It may well be that the Constitution requires that if a state will grant a concealed carry permit for a firearm then it must do the same for an otherwise lawful superpower.

“Typically Possessed by Law-Abiding Citizens for Lawful Purposes”
Whether this limitation encompasses a given superpower may depend on the number of superpowered individuals in a given universe and the balance of lawful superheroes to unlawful supervillains. If superpowered individuals are relatively common, which seems to be the case in the Marvel Universe, for example, and superpowered individuals are generally law-abiding and use their powers for lawful purposes, then superpowers would seem to be protected by the Second Amendment. If, on the other hand, superpowers are very unusual or if they are typically used unlawfully, then the government may be able to regulate such powers more extensively.

In most comic book universes powers are both relatively common and normally used for good, suggesting that they do not fall under this exception. However, if certain kinds of powers are more commonly associated with law breaking, then perhaps those powers in particular may be regulated, though in our experience powers of all kinds seem evenly distributed between heroes and villains.

“Dangerous and Unusual Weapons”
Here we come to the catchall. Superpowers are certainly unusual in an historical sense,*12* and they are unusual in the sense that in most comic book universes superpowered individuals are a minority. But perhaps it is the nature of the power that counts. If a superpowered individual is approximately as powerful as a normal individual with a handgun (though perhaps one with unlimited ammunition), is that really so unusual?

Wherever the line is drawn, it seems clear that at least some superpowers would qualify as dangerous or unusual weapons (e.g., Cyclops’s optic blasts, Havok’s plasma blasts). These are well beyond the power of weapons allowed even by permit, and their nature is unlike any weapon typically owned by individuals or even the police and military.

Havok vs. Cyclops

The Nature and Scope of Regulation

Given that some powers are likely to fall outside the protection of the Second Amendment, how could the government regulate them? We’ve already discussed the issue of concealed powers, but what about powers that fall into the other two exceptions?

The government would take a page from the way it regulates mundane firearms. First, all possessors of potentially harmful powers could be subject to a background check if they did not have the powers from birth. If they failed the background check, they could be forbidden to use the power (although use in self-defense might still be allowed by the Constitution). A registration scheme would be likely, subject to the limits discussed in reference to the Keene Act.

Second, exceptional powers could be subject to a permitting system including more thorough background checks and training requirements. Some powers could be expressly prohibited outside police or military use.

Third, superpowered individuals who have committed crimes — with or without using their powers — may be forbidden from using them or even be required to have their powers deactivated, if possible, in keeping with the Eighth Amendment issues discussed earlier. Following the decision in United States v. Comstock*13* it may even be permissible to indefinitely detain a superpowered criminal after his or her prison sentence was completed if it was not otherwise possible to prevent future criminal acts.

What about uncontrolled powers, for which merely forbidding the use isn’t enough? This probably falls outside the scope of the Second Amendment and is closer to the law of involuntary commitment. If a superpowered individual is a danger to himself or others, then he could be required to undergo de-powering treatment or be incarcerated for the individual’s protection and the protection of society.

There may be an alternative to incarceration or de-powering. In the real world, specialized drug courts offer treatment and rehabilitation rather than punishment for nonviolent offenders. “Super courts” could work with institutions like the Xavier Institute, which aims to teach mutants to control their powers and use them safely.

Thus, the Supreme Court’s current view of the Second Amendment, though politically contentious, would give superpowered individuals significant protection to keep and use their powers largely free from government regulation or interference, with some important limitations.


*1* 554 U.S. 570 (2008)

*2* 561 U.S. 3025, 130 S. Ct. 3020 (2010).

*3* U.S. Const., amend. II.

*4* Heller, 554 U.S. at 581.

*5* Id. at 582.

*6* Id. at 584 (quoting Muscarello v. United States, 524 U.S. 125 (1998) (Ginsburg, J., dissenting)).

*7* Id. at 591-96.

*8* Id. at 595 (quoting United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174, 178 (1939).

*9* Id. at 625.

*10* Id. at 627.

*11* Id.

*12* Not counting the Marvel Earth-311 continuity, in which superpowers appeared in the Elizabethan era. Neal Gaiman, Marvel: 1602 (2006).

*13* 560 U.S. (2010), 130 S. Ct. 1949.

There ya go! I feel a little better about using my superpowers in public, now. 🙂

P.S. As much as I’d love to discuss Second Amendment rights in general, I strive to keep real-world, political controversy out of this blog for the most part. So, if you comment below, please keep this in mind. Thanks!

Supervillain Sentencing and the Eighth Amendment

A couple weeks ago, I cited some material from the book The Law of Superheroes by lawyers James Daily and Ryan Davidson. This week, I have reproduced another section on a subject I’ve been thinking a bit about lately, especially the part about supervillain prisons.

On the “Supergirl” TV show, the DEO keeps various alien criminals — escapees from the crashed Kryptonian prison — that they have recaptured. As a government agency, presumably they have some legal basis for this. But, the heroes on “The Flash” have no governmental authority (as far as I can tell), yet they imprison captured supervillains — and keep them in very small cells. On “Arrow”, Oliver Queen doesn’t take many prisoners, but he has been known to keep one or two (e.g., Deathstroke) in a secret, underground cell on the island of Lian Yu. (Though, that may have been in association with A.R.G.U.S.) It makes me wonder if any of the villains/criminals’ right have been violated. (Not that I have much sympathy for them.)

What if the state attempted to imprison an immortal supervillain for life? Or tried to execute a nigh-invulnerable supervillain? And what about special supervillain prisons? Finally, could a supervillain’s powers be forcibly removed? Besides the practical problems involved with imprisoning an immortal, all-powerful villain like, say, Galactus, there are also constitutional issues to consider. The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.” In the examples above, how would the courts rule?

Immortal Supervillains and Life Imprisonment

Life imprisonment appears to have emerged in the nineteenth century as an alternative to the death penalty. The Supreme Court formally recognized it as constitutional in 1974.*1* For most people, a sentence of life without parole is really just a sentence of a few decades. The issue is not limited simply to life without parole, either; courts can and do hand down consecutive life sentences. A defendant convicted of multiple serious crimes that do not reach the level in which life without parole is permitted may still be sentenced to enough prison time to guarantee that he’ll never be released, e.g., six twenty-year terms to be served consecutively. He’d have to come up for and be paroled for each one in turn, which amounts to a life sentence.

But what about an immortal (or at least very long-lived) supervillain like Apocalypse? Even a very young man who gets life without parole will rarely see more than five decades in prison. Which is bad, but it’s an entirely different kettle of fish from seeing fifty decades or five hundred decades. Is this cruel and unusual punishment?

It may very well be, especially given the ongoing debate about the practice of incarceration in general. There have been cases in which judges have ordered the release of large numbers of convicts due to prison conditions, especially overcrowding.*2* But that aside, it seems plausible that the Supreme Court might well rule that imprisoning someone for centuries, in addition to being completely impractical and phenomenally expensive, is crueler than simply killing him or her. Thus, if capital punishment is unavailable as an alternative to an eternity in prison, whether because no capital crime was committed or because the jurisdiction does not allow capital punishment, then a very long but finite sentence — or at least the possibility of parole — may be constitutionally required.

Nigh-Invulnerable Characters and the Death Penalty

While many superpowered characters are tough, most can be killed through conventional means when it comes right down to it. However, others may either be unkillable (e.g., Doomsday, Dr. Manhattan) or extremely difficult to kill (e.g., Wolverine). In the case of a character with a healing factor like Wolverine’s, none of the most common modern methods of execution would work: shooting, hanging, lethal injection, electrocution, or the gas chamber. Decapitation might work (Xavier Protocol Code 0-2-1 mentions this as a possibility for Wolverine), but no one’s tried it.

This uncertainty is problematic, because while the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the constitutionality of the death penalty and has never specifically invalidated a method of punishment on the grounds that it was cruel and unusual,*3* it has stated “[p]unishments are cruel when they involve torture or a lingering death.”*4* Decapitation has been specifically cited as a form of execution that is likely unconstitutional for being too painful.*5* Another hypothetical example is “a series of abortive attempts at electrocution,” which would present an “objectively intolerable risk of harm.”*6* Since we don’t know if a given method of execution would actually work for a regenerating or nigh-invulnerable supervillain, trial and error would be the only way to determine an effective method. Since regenerating characters are often unaffected by drugs, it may not be possible to mitigate pain. It seems likely, then, that the courts would rule that trying to carry out the death penalty would be unconstitutional for those who are unkillable or almost unkillable.

Interior shot of Negative Zone prison

Supervillain Prisons

Many supervillains could easily break out of a normal prison, so many comic books have developed special methods of incarceration to handle people who can fly or walk through walls. One example is the Marvel Universe’s Negative Zone, which housed a prison during the Marvel Civil War. Although conditions at the Negative Zone prison were similar to a normal prison, the Zone itself seemed to negatively affect some people’s emotions and mental health. Is it cruel and unusual to imprison people in such a place?

In short, probably not. Even regular prisons are seriously depressing, so it’s already going to be difficult to prove that a prison in the Negative Zone is worse enough to be considered cruel or unusual punishment. As the Supreme Court has said:

“The unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain… constitutes cruel and unusual punishment forbidden by the Eighth Amendment. We have said that among unnecessary and wanton inflictions of pain are those that are totally without penological justification. In making this determination in the context of prison conditions, we must ascertain whether the officials involved acted with deliberate indifference to the inmates’ health or safety.”*7*

Furthermore, to be “sufficiently serious” to constitute cruel and unusual punishment, “a prison official’s act or omission must result in the denial of the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities.”*8* Minimal is the right word; prison officials “must provide humane conditions of confinement; prison officials must ensure that inmates receive adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care, and must take reasonable measures to guarantee the safety of the inmates.”*9* This is a very low bar.

The emotional effects of the Negative Zone are not really part of the punishment but rather a side effect of the place. Because the Negative Zone is the only suitable prison for many supervillains, the side effect is arguably necessary. Further, the side effects are not controlled or intentionally inflicted by anyone. Thus, the effects are not inflicted wantonly (i.e., deliberately and unprovoked). Offering the inmates adequate living conditions and mental health care to offset the effects of the Negative Zone could probably eliminate a charge of deliberate indifference. Finally, it would be difficult to argue that imprisonment in the Negative Zone denies the minimum civilized measure of life’s necessities. “The Constitution does not mandate comfortable prisons,” as the Farmer court noted,*10* only humane ones, and the Negative Zone is probably not bad enough to run afoul of the Eighth Amendment under the circumstances.

Forcible Removal of Superpowers

The DC supervillain Timothy Karnes had the power to transform into a demonic superbeing (Sabbac) by uttering a word of power. After being caught by Captain Marvel and transformed back into his human form, Karnes’s larynx was surgically removed in order to prevent him from turning back into Sabbac. Is this cruel and unusual?

A real-world parallel is chemical castration, where convicted sex offenders, usually pedophiles, are treated with a hormonal drug routinely used as a contraceptive in women. While it has four side effects in women, in men the drug results in a massively reduced sex drive.

Sabbac (Timothy Karnes version)

About a dozen states use chemical castration in at least some cases, and there does not appear to have been a successful challenge on constitutional grounds. This may in part be due to the fact that a significant percentage of the offenders who are given the treatment volunteer for it, as it offers a way of controlling their urges. If the person being sentenced does not object, it’s hard for anyone else to come up with standing for a lawsuit.*11* Either way, despite health and civil rights concerns, this appears to be a viable sentence in the United States legal system.

But is should not be hard to see that physically and permanently removing someone’s ability to speak is not exactly the same as putting a reversible (or even permanent) chemical damper on their sex drive. It’s entirely possible to live an otherwise normal life with a low sex drive, but being mute interferes with essential daily activities in a far more intrusive way. So while the idea of physical modification to the human body is not unconstitutional on its face, it remains to be seen whether this degree of modification would be permitted. For example, while chemical castration appears to be constitutional, it’s pretty likely that physical castration would not be. We can only say “pretty likely” because Buck v. Bell, a 1927 Supreme Court case that upheld (eight to one!) a Virginia statute instituting compulsory sterilization of “mental defectives,” has never been expressly overturned, and tens of thousands of compulsory sterilizations occurred in the United States after Buck, most recently in 1981.*12*

On the other hand, Karnes isn’t your run-of-the-mill offender. He’s possessed by six demonic entities and capable of wreaking an immense amount of destruction. Part of the analysis in determining whether or not a punishment is cruel and unusual is whether or not the punishment is grossly disproportionate to the severity of the crime.*13* This is, in part, why the Supreme Court has outlawed the death penalty for rape cases. If the crime as such doesn’t leave anyone dead, execution seems to be a disproportionate response.*14*

The Eighth Amendment also prohibits “the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain,” including those “totally without penological justification.”*15* Here, though, there is a clear penological justification, namely the prevention of future crimes, and the laryngectomy, a routine medical procedure frequently used in those suffering from throat cancer, could be carried out in a humane manner without the infliction of unnecessary pain.

There are other criteria by which a punishment is judged, including whether it accords with human dignity and whether it is shocking or contrary to fundamental fairness. But in a case like this, necessity goes a long way, especially because the purpose of the operation is not retributive punishment but rather incapacitation. If the only way to prevent Karnes from assuming his demonic form is to render him mute, then it’s possible that the courts would go along with that, particularly if it proved impossible to contain him otherwise and the operation was carried out in a humane manner.

However, what if taking away someone’s powers could be done with no other side effects? In X-Men: The Last Stand and various stories in the comic books, someone develops a “cure” for mutation, which removes or mitigates a mutant’s powers without really affecting them in any other way. This is far more like the chemical castration situation, but unlike that, a “cure” wouldn’t even remove any functions a normal human has. It’s very unlikely that a court would recognize this as being unconstitutionally inhumane, provided their offense was serious enough to justify this rather harsh sentence.


*1* Schick v. Reed, 419 U.S. 256 (1974) (holding that reversing the Presidential pardon which reduced a death sentence to life without parole would be unconstitutional).

*2* See, e.g., Brown v. Plata, 131 S. Ct. 19190 (2011).

*3* See Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35, 48 (2008) (“This Court has never invalidated a State’s chosen procedure for carrying out a sentence of death as the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment.”)

*4* Id. at 46.

*5* Id.

*6* Id.

*7* Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 737-38 (2002) (holding that handcuffing an inmate to a hitching post outdoors for several hours with inadequate water and restroom breaks violated the Eighth Amendment) (quotations and citations omitted).

*8* Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 834 (1994).

*9* Id. at 833.

*10* Id.

*11* “Standing” is essentially having the right status to bring a lawsuit. Under Article III of the Constitution, courts only have jurisdiction over “cases and controversies,” and the Supreme Court has interpreted this to mean that the plaintiff has to have suffered some kind of actual injury. So a person can bring a lawsuit on the basis of injury to himself, but generally lacks “standing” to bring a lawsuit on the basis of injuries to someone else. The injured person has to do it. In this case, the mutant being sentenced would have to bring the lawsuit on his own behalf, so if he consents to the procedure, no one else is going to be sufficiently injured to have “standing.”

*12* Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927); Paul A. Lombardo, Three Generation, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell (2008) (documenting the history of compulsory sterilization in the United States); Eugenics Victims to Get Apology, Eugene Register-Guard, Nov. 16, 2002, at 2B (noting that sterilizations occurred in Oregon through 1981).

*13* Ewing v. California, 538 U.S. 11, 21 (2003).

*14* Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. 407 (2008) (“As it relates to crimes against individuals… the death penalty should not be expanded to instances where the victim’s life was not taken.”).

*15* Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 737-38 (2002).

Wow, that’s a lot to digest. But, I feel like a learned something — or, at least, got a better feel for how some of that legal stuff works and how it might work in a world with superpowered beings. I hope some of you are getting something out of these posts, too, ‘cuz I’ve got one more scheduled for a couple weeks from now. TTFN…

Evidence, Telepathy, and the Fifth Amendment

I recently started reading a book I found at the library titled The Law of Superheroes. It came out in 2012, but this was the first I’d heard of it. The authors, James Daily and Ryan Davidson, are a couple of lawyers who are also big-time comic book fans. They decided to combine their two areas of expertise to “explain and explore the hypothetical legal ramifications of comic book tropes, characters, and powers, down to the most deliciously trivial detail.” Pique your interest?

“You’ll learn about the basic principles of law in an engaging and accessible way through comics — from alternate universes and copyright laws to shape-shifters and witness testimony to contracts with the Devil.” (from the front cover flap)

I’m not very far along, but I found the following discussion/explanation — actually combined from two separate sections — interesting and thought I’d share it….

 

At first glance, a psychic would seem like the perfect solution to many evidentiary problems such as lying on the stand or failing to tell the truth. But would using a mind reader to verify a witness’s testimony actually stand up in court?

Relevance

First we must ask “is the evidence relevant?” Only relevant evidence is admissible, and Federal Rule of Evidence 401 defines relevant evidence as “evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence.” This is a very low bar, and Federal Rule of Evidence 402 provides that relevant evidence presumptively admissible. But the question must still be asked, “Is a psychic’s claim about the contents of another person’s head relevant?”

We think the answer is yes. The psychic could be lying, but that’s true of any witness, and the jury must judge the psychic’s credibility just like any other witness’s. The psychic could be a fraud, but the judge could require that the psychic’s powers be proved prior to offering the substantive evidence. Federal Rule of Evidence 901(a) provides “the requirement of authentication or identification as a condition precedent to admissibility is satisfied by evidence sufficient to support a finding that the matter in question is what its proponent claims.” By way of example, Federal Rule of Evidence 901(b)(9) gives “Evidence describing a process or system used to produce a result and showing that the process or system produces an accurate result.” The accuracy and reliability of a psychic’s power fits that example.

Exclusion under Federal Rule of Evidence 403

Relevance is only the beginning of the analysis, however. Relevant evidence may be excluded under Federal Rule of Evidence 403 “if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury.” Of these, unfair prejudice is the greatest risk here.

The notes on Federal Rule of Evidence 403 state that “‘unfair prejudice’ within its context means an undue tendency to suggest decision on an improper basis, commonly, though not necessarily, an emotional one.” A fact finder might unfairly prejudice a party by giving undue weight to the testimony of a psychic, possibly completely ignoring the testimony of the original witness. Psychics, after all, have supranormal abilities, and juries might be somewhat awed by them to the detriment of other testimony. However, “in reaching a decision whether to exclude on grounds of unfair prejudice, consideration should be given to the probable effectiveness or lack of effectiveness of a limiting instruction.” It may suffice for the judge to remind the jury that it should also consider the testimony of the original witness.

Professor X

Personal Knowledge

Federal Rule of Evidence 602 requires that a witness have personal knowledge of the matter being testified about. This means that a fine but important distinction should be made. The psychic would not be testifying as to the actual events the original witness had personal knowledge of. Instead, a psychic would testify about his or her personal knowledge of what he or she read in the original witness’s mind. It’s the difference between Professor X’s saying “Magneto killed Jean Grey” and his saying “I believe the original witness remembers seeing Magneto kill Jean Gray.” This is a great example of why a psychic verification of a witness’s testimony does not mean that the witness’s testimony is necessarily accurate. Everything the psychic testifies about is ultimately coming through the lens of the original witness’s senses, understanding, and memory.*1*

Hearsay

Now we come to one of the biggies. The general rule under Federal Rule of Evidence 801 is that “‘hearsay’ is [an oral or written assertion or nonverbal conduct of a person, if it is intended by the person as an assertion], other than one made by [the person who made the statement] while testifying at the trial or hearing, offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted.”

It’s a complicated definition, to be sure, but maybe we don’t have to address it. A person’s thoughts are not an oral or written assertion, nor are they a nonverbal action intended as an assertion. Of course, it is likely that in a universe with psychics and telepaths the Federal Rules of Evidence would be amended to include such things. Given that, let’s complete the hearsay analysis.

Assuming thoughts fit the first part of the definition (i.e., they are an assertion), then we know the second part fits as well, since the psychic is not the person who made the statement. The final part is whether the psychic’s testimony is offered to prove the matter asserted. For example, when Professor X says, “The witness remembers that Magneto killed Jean Grey,” is that being offered to prove that Magneto did, in fact, kill Jean Grey? We think the answer is no; rather than being offered to prove that Magneto killed Jean Grey, the psychic’s statement is only offered to prove that the witness is not lying. In lawyer-speak, we would say that the statement goes to the witness’s credibility, not the truth of the matter asserted.

The Fifth Amendment

So far we have assumed that the psychic was being used to verify a witness’s truthfulness. But what about using psychic powers to extract information from a witness who refuses to testify, such as a witness invoking the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination? [Now, we’re getting into some matters of constitutional law.] Before pursuing this, we must first ask what the Fifth Amendment actually protects.

X-ray brain connect

The Supreme Court has held that “the privilege protects a person only against being incriminated by his own compelled testimonial communications.”*2* So what is a testimonial communication? The Court explained in a later case that “in order to be testimonial, an accused’ communication must itself, explicitly or implicitly, relate a factual assertion or disclose information.”*3* There are many kinds of evidence that are non-testimonial and may be demanded without running afoul of the Fifth Amendment, including blood, handwriting, and even voice samples.*4* Perhaps the best example of the distinction between testimonial and non-testimonial communication is that requiring a witness to turn over a key to a lockbox is non-testimonial, while requiring a witness to divulge the combination to a safe is testimonial.*5*

We need not wonder whether reading someone’s thoughts counts as testimonial communication, however. As the Court explained, “The expression of the contents of an individual’s mind is testimonial communication for purposes of the Fifth Amendment.”*6*

One might be tempted to argue that the Fifth Amendment shouldn’t apply because the testimony is the psychic’s rather than the witness’s (i.e., the difference between the witness’s saying “I saw Magneto kill Jean Grey,” and the psychic’s saying “The witness remembers seeing Magneto kill Jean Grey”). However, the Supreme Court actually addressed this issue in Estelle v. Smith.*7* In that case, a defendant was subjected to a psychiatric evaluation, and the psychiatrist’s expert testimony was offered against the defendant. The Court held that the expert testimony violated the right against self-incrimination because the expert testimony was based in part on the defendant’s own statements (and omissions). Thus, using an intermediary expert witness to interpret a witness’s statement will not evade the Fifth Amendment.

So psychic powers could likely not be used to produce evidence from a witness who invoked the Fifth Amendment. And, believe it or not, this issue actually has contemporary resonance. Although a far cry from the kind of psychic powers that Professor X is capable of, rechnologies like functional MRI (fMRI) may someday see regular use in criminal investigation. However, scholars and commentators are divided on whether fMRI-like tests fall under the scope of the Fifth Amendment (i.e., is it more like a blood sample or like speech?).*8* Time will tell whether the Fifth Amendment protects people from unwanted mind reading or not.

*1* In fact, Magneto was once suspected of killing Jean Grey, but the killer was actually an imposter, Xorn, who was killed by Wolverine for his trouble. See Chuck Austen et al., Of Darkest Nights, in Uncanny X-Men (Vol. 1) 442-43 (Marvel Comics June-July 2004).

*2* Fisher v. United States, 425 U.S. 391, 409 (1976) (emphasis added).

*3* Doe v. United States, 487 U.S. 201, 210 (1988)

*4* Id. at 210.

*5* Id. This distinction is of vital importance in the era of password-based encryption, and it is not entirely clear whether the Fifth Amendment protects passwords. One court decided the issue by holding that the defendant need not give up the password but rather only produce the contents of the encrypted drive. In re Boucher, No. 2:06-mj-91, 2009 WL 424718 (D. Vt. Feb. 19, 2009). Thus, the protected evidence (the contents of the defendant’s mind) remained secret while the unprotected evidence (the contents of the drive) were discovered.

*6* Doe, 487 U.S. at 210 n.9.

*7* 451 U.S. 454 (1981).

*8* See, e.g., Benjamin Holley, It’s All in Your Head: Neurotechnological Lie Detection and the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, 28 Dev. Mental Health L. 1 (2009); Matthew Baptiste Holloway, One Image, One Thousand Incriminating Words: Images of Brain Activity and the Privilege Against Self-incrimination, 27 Temp. J. Sci. Techj. & Envtl. L. 141 (2008); Dov Fox, The Right to Silence as Protecting Mental Control, 42 Akron L. Rev. 763 (2009).

Was that suitably geeky for you?

P.S. If you’re interested, Daily also blogs on occasion here.

Notable Genre Anniversaries in 2018, part 3 of 3

“What folly is it in me to write trash nobody will read. All my many pages — future waste of paper — surely I am a fool.” — Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, in her journal (1825)

Final installment, this week, for the list I began a couple months ago. Unforunately, we missed a couple great anniversaries last year — namely, Bram Stoker’s original Dracula (1897) and the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes in print (1887). However, we still have some oldies to celebrate. First off, though…

Superman (1938, 1978): 80 & 40 years

It is difficult to overstate the popularity and impact that the superpowered hero known as ‘Superman’, created by high-schoolers Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, has had since his debut in Action Comics #1 back in May (cover-dated June) 1938. Tales of the Kryptonian, Kal-El, and his alter-ego on Earth, farmboy/journalist Clark Kent, have abounded for 80 years. Comic books & strips, novels, radio, TV (live-action and animated), movies, video games, even a Broadway musical, and tons of related merchandise — the character, along with his allies/colleagues and enemies, has become one of the biggest pop-culture icons in the world. He ranks first on IGN’s Top 100 Comic Book Heroes; he was named the ‘greatest comic book character’ by Empire magazine; and various Superman works and/or their creators have received numerous industry awards. The character, his popularity, and his symbolism (American, messianic, etc.) have been analyzed by everyone from literary critics to philosophers & theologians.

Of course, over those eight decades, Superman has been portrayed on-screen (and on-air) by many actors. Bud Collyer was the voice of Superman/Kent for the radio serials and Fleischer cartoons in the 1940s. With the jump to movie serials, Kirk Alyn assumed the role, followed by George Reeves, who continued into the first TV series. There have been and are others. But, arguably the most-beloved actor to portray the Man of Steel was Christopher Reeve, who starred in probably the two most popular Superman movies: Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) and Richard Lester’s (w/ Donner) Superman II (1980, but released 1981). Thus, we have our second anniversary, i.e., 40 years since the debut of the Reeve/Donner ‘Superman’. Most fans would agree that Reeve’s portrayal was the best. When you add screenwriting by Mario Puzo (and others); co-stars including Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Glenn Ford, Terence Stamp (and others); and terrific set designs, cinematography, and musical compositions by John Williams (that theme music still gives me goosebumps); it’s no wonder that these two films are so popular and, perhaps, iconic in themselves.

King Kong (1933): 85 years

Yup. It has been 85 years since the giant, quasi-gorilla first showed his ugly mug in theaters. Kong was the brainchild of aviator/adventurer and American filmmaker Merian C. Cooper (who the ‘Carl Denham’ character was based on). Inspired by a book he had as a child about the adventures of explorer Paul Du Chaillu in Africa, as well as an encounter with baboons as an adult, Cooper eventually developed and produced his “giant terror gorilla picture”. Cooper even came up with the iconic ending first, in which Kong climbs a NYC skyscraper with the leading lady (literally) in hand, fights off warplanes, and falls to his death(?), with Denham uttering the memorable pronouncement, “It was beauty killed the beast.” Novelization of the film was actually published a few months before the film was released.

Despite his aggressive behavior, Kong’s solitary life and tragic death, along with certain anthropomorphic traits, endeared him to movie audiences. The big ape went on to star or co-star in several sequel and remake films, animated series, novels, e-books, comic books, and video games over the years. (There was even an Australian musical adaptation back in 2013, and there’s an upcoming Broadway musical planned for later this year.) I, for one, remember thinking it was scary-cool when I first saw the original movie as a kid. The Toho version of Kong (which fought Godzilla and other giant creatures) was dopey-looking, but the one from the 1976 remake was scary-cooler! (I need to watch those again….) The latest version, though, is the biggest and baddest!

The War of the Worlds (1898, 1938, 1953, 1988): 120, 80, 65, & 30 years

With this one, we break the centennial mark! As was common practice back then, the tale was first serialized in magazine format (in the UK & US in 1897), but the completed The War of the Worlds was first published in hardcover in 1898. Its author, of course, was one of the fathers of science fiction, H.G. Wells, who had already found fame as a futurist writer with The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), and The Invisible Man (1897) — all now considered genre classics. An avid follower of Charles Darwin, his works (which included other genres) often reflected a distinctly Darwinian worldview. With its plot of a Martian invasion, this particular novel…

“…has been variously interpreted as a commentary on evolutionary theory, British imperialism, and generally Victorian superstitions, fears and prejudices. At the time of publication, it was classified as a scientific romance…. The War of the Worlds has been both popular (having never been out of print) and influential, spawning half a dozen feature films, radio dramas, a record album, various comic book adaptations, a television series, and sequels or parallel stories by other authors. It has even influenced the work of scientists, notably Robert H. Goddard, who, inspired by the book, invented both the liquid fuelled rocket and multistage rocket, which resulted in the Apollo 11 Moon landing 71 years later.” (Wikipedia)

Three of those adaptations are particularly noteworthy. (Well, to me, anyway.) Of course, 1938 was the year that Orson Welles perpetrated his infamous radio dramatization. As per Wikipedia,

“The first two-thirds of the 60-minute broadcast were presented as a news bulletin and is often described as having led to outrage and panic by some listeners who had believed the events described in the program were real. However, later critics point out that the supposed panic seems to have been exaggerated by newspapers of the time seeking to discredit radio as a source of information.”

The first on-screen treatment came in 1953, when Gene Barry and Ann Robinson starred in a pretty good film adaptation of The War of the Worlds. But, the one I remember best is the live-action TV series (1988), which was a sequel of sorts to the 1953 movie. The premise was that the Martians had not all died in the 1950s, and the survivors had gone into hiding/hibernation after their defeat. Adrian Paul and Philip Akin were in it (and would both later star in “Highlander” (1993)), but the stars I remember were Jared Martin and Richard Chavez. And, to this day, my brother and I can elicit a chuckle one from the other by mimicking the Martians’ guttural oath, “To life immortal!”

Around the World in Eighty Days (1873): 145 years

It is only fitting that French writer Jules Verne, another “father of science fiction”, has an entry in this list. The idea of traveling around the world was popular in those days, and others before and after would publish both fictional and non-fictional accounts. But, Verne’s was clearly the most popular and longest lasting. More adventure novel than sci-fi/fantasy, it followed British gentleman Phileas Fogg and his new French valet, Jean Passepartout, in their exploits as they attempted to win a bet to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days. What happens next involves several colorful characters, dangerous encounters and near-misses, a bit of romance, and a *lot* of time spent on trains and steamships (and a few other things). (Note: The hot-air balloon from the 1956 movie was never used in Verne’s novel.) I haven’t read or watched the story myself, but it sounds like an Indiana Jones adventure, but very different. 😉

At the time it was written, things were very difficult both for France and for Verne personally. But, the writer was intrigued with recent technological breakthroughs and excited about exploring them in his new book. As noted by Wikipedia,

“Rather than any futurism, [Verne’s most popular work] remains a memorable portrait of the British Empire “on which the sun never sets” shortly before its peak, drawn by an outsider. It is interesting to note that, until 2006, no critical editions were written…. However, Verne’s works began receiving more serious reviews in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, with new translations appearing.”

There have been many films (live and animated), cartoon series, theatrical adaptations (yes, including musicals), and radio productions. In fact, the first radio adaptation starred Orson Welles (as Fogg) and began the week before he did The War of the Worlds.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818): 200 years

Two hundred years! Holy cow!

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was a mere 20 years old when the first volume of her novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus was published anonymously on Jan. 1, 1818. Quite an accomplishment! Even at such a young age, Shelley had already lived a life full of tragedy and scandal, which figured into her famous tale. According to English professor Karen Karbeiner:

“[T]he novel is her only work to remain in print since its first publication…. From the start, we have been eager to help the monster live off of the page, to interpret the tale for ourselves. Within five years, the first of what would eventually be more than ninety dramatizations of Frankenstein appeared onstage….

Frankenstein is a nineteenth-century literary classic, but it is also fully engaged in many of the most profound philosophical, psychological, social, and spiritual questions of modern existence…. By combining never-before-combined ingredients from her diverse reading, Shelley broke from established tradition and even concocted a new literary recipe known today as science fiction.”

Just as an aside, Victor Frankenstein’s monster (aka “creature”, “daemon”, “wretch”, etc.) does not have the familiar flat-top skull, greenish skin, or electrode bolts protruding from its neck, as seen in the Universal films starring Boris Karloff. It is also quite emotional, sensitive even, and teaches itself to read and speak quite eloquently.

I finally decided to read the novel myself and am working my way through it now. (Technically, I am reading the 1831 revised edition.) The pre-Victorian writing style is a bit wordy but elegant in its own way. I guess you might say that speech moved at a slower pace than it does today, as is true for most things. But, if you like historic period pieces or fantasies that take place in ancient Europe or other lands, you might enjoy the rhythms and picturesque style. But, I have to warn you, it is a tragic tale, and not just for the creature.

I hope you enjoyed this series, dear readers. Maybe, like me, you’ll be inspired to pick up an “old” classic and give it a try.

A New Era for Valiant Entertainment

Valiant Comics were cool.

Solar, Man of the Atom. X-O Manowar. Bloodshot. Harbinger. Rai. Shadowman. Eternal Warrior. Archer & Armstrong. Etc. Lots of great art and great stories, all in a cohesive universe! They even had a different look and “feel” that set them apart from other comic universes.

“The mainstream titles were becoming overwhelmingly art-driven. We wanted to offer the public something that had been lost, namely well-written, character-driven stories.” — Bob Layton, writer/artist and former Senior V.P. of the original Valiant

Solar #3 (1991)

I remember when Jim Shooter and Steve Massarsky launched the new company in the early 1990s, following a failed attempt to buy Marvel Entertainment. (Well, technically, Voyager Communications was founded in 1989, but the first books under the Valiant Comics imprint came out in 1991.) They began by licensing a couple older characters — Solar, Man of the Atom, and Magnus, Robot Fighter — that were originally published by Gold Key Comics in the 1960s. I never really got into Magnus much, but I loved the god-like Doctor Solar. And the artwork by Barry Windsor-Smith and Bob Layton? Awesome!

The company attracted some talented creators, both new and veteran, and the stable of characters and titles grew. Diamond Comics Distributors named it Publisher of the Year in 1993 and, at some point, Valiant became the third largest comic book company in the world. Shooter was forced out in 1992 and Acclaim Entertainment bought the company in 1994. Of course, Acclaim cancelled a few titles in 1996. Acclaim went bankrupt in 2004, and that’s about when I lost track.

I heard about the new Valiant Entertainment which started up in 2005, but I didn’t realize that it was formed by two mega-fans who bought the old company’s assets. (However, the licensed characters Solar, Magnus, and Turok were not part of the deal.) Dinesh Shamdasani and Jason Kothari weren’t even out of college when they put together the winning bid. (Actually, they came in 2nd, but the winner pulled out shortly afterward.) They built up a senior advisory board consisting of several former Marvel people and chaired by former Marvel CEO Peter Cuneo. They enticed Marvel’s Warren Simons to join as Executive Editor and eventually put together a stable of enthusiastic and award-winning creative talent, publishing their first comics — reboots of four of the original characters — in “The Summer of Valiant” in 2012.

“It was abundantly clear to me that these guys had a tremendous love for both the medium and Valiant’s characters. They wanted to build the company with a commitment to compelling stories above all else. As an editor who strives to put out great comics on a monthly basis, this was music to my ears.” — Warren Simons

Of course, remember that I said that Valiant Comics were cool? That’s because I haven’t read any from the last few years, so I can’t judge them from personal experience to say if they still are cool. (I am aware that Quantum & Woody, unfortunately, has become politically-charged, insulting to certain groups, with disappointing art and humor. I don’t know about the other titles.) However, they must be doing something right. The new Valiant proceeded to win Publisher of the Year, set sales records, and was the most nominated publisher in comics at the 2014, 2015 and 2016 Harvey Awards.

When Valiant re-launched in 2012, it was also announced that big-screen films were in development for the Bloodshot and Harbinger properties, with names like director Brett Ratner and producer Neal Moritz attached. Other film projects were announced in the ensuing months. Then, in March 2015, Valiant Entertainment got “an undisclosed nine-figure investment from Chinese entertainment company DMG, the co-producers and co-financiers of Iron Man 3.” The money was earmarked for TV and film development, “which one assumes includes the currently-in-development Shadowman, Bloodshot and Archer & Armstrong.”

“[T]aking a stake in the last independent massive comic universe is a strategic investment for DMG that will produce movies and TV that are both appealing and relevant to a global audience.” — Dan Mintz, CEO of DMG

Bloodshot #2 (2012)

As per comicbook.com’s Russ Burlingame,

“The deal likely means that DMG will co-finance all of the projects and assist with international distribution and exhibition[, including in the huge Chinese market]. DMG and Valiant will also be pursuing Chinese licensing for Valiant properties beyond film in publishing, animation and theme parks, as well as toys and apparel.”

That was three years ago. Now, we come to the latest bit of major news on the Valiant front….

In January of this year, DMG Entertainment went from owning 57% of Valiant Entertainment to owning it all, thereby providing Mintz’s “filmmaker-run studio with a treasure trove of world-class intellectual properties and establish[ing] DMG as one of the most valuable and innovative media companies in Hollywood…. The Valiant acquisition is the latest in a string of high-profile strategic moves from Mintz and DMG, the global entertainment powerhouse valued at more than $6 billion. In addition, the company has continued to expand its purview with new initiatives in intellectual property, virtual reality, e-sports and live attractions based on top-tier global franchises, including Hasbro’s “Transformers.””

“Our priority is to build upon Valiant’s vast universe of characters from a filmmaker’s perspective. I’m excited to immerse Valiant’s fans well beyond the stories we tell cinematically — from publishing to gaming to theme parks and beyond.” — Dan Mintz

According to the Wikipedia summary of the deal, Valiant CEO/CCO Dinesh Shamdasani, COO/CFO Gavin Cuneo, and Chairman Peter Cuneo will transition out of the company, though the first two will continue to serve as consultants. No word, yet, on new management, but presumably Mintz will serve in at least a couple of the top spots. Valiant’s publishing team, however, will remain in place, including Publisher Fred Pierce and Editor-in-Chief Warren Simons.

I have no idea what kind of a reputation Mintz/DMG have as filmmakers or businesspersons. (Iron Man 3 and Looper were good and fairly successful, but not great.) I have to say, though, that this sounds like a fantastic development for the Valiant properties to get the stable financial and creative backing they need to proceed with the TV and film productions — probably more. Mintz sure sounds enthusiastic, and I hope he is as driven to make quality, story-driven productions with these characters as everyone from Shooter & Layton to  Shamdasani et al. have been. I hope-n-pray that the film/TV adaptations stay faithful to the comic sources, so that longtime fans can enjoy the original characters they… we… grew to love. And, of course, it would be nice if the comics themselves continue to be well-written and entertaining (and hopefully not objectionable) for all.

Notable Genre Anniversaries in 2018, part 2 of 3

This week, we continue the list I began last month, celebrating anniversaries of some of the more significant genre works. Care to share in some nostalgia?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968): 50 years

This sci-fi/”philosophical fiction” novel was by the legendary Philip K. Dick. I never actually read it, but years ago I did watch the 1982 movie adaptation, Blade Runner, starring Harrison Ford. (I have not seen the 2017 sequel, Blade Runner 2049.) The character of Rick Deckard is probably Ford’s third-most famous role, after Han Solo and Indiana Jones. I enjoyed the dirty, dystopic look of the movie, the dangerous, fugitive androids, and the action scenes. (Couldn’t tell you how faithful the movie depictions were to those in the book.) For some reason, though, the ethical and philosophical questions just never appealed to me, so I’m not a big fan of Blade Runner. However, I realize that a lot of people are, and the film has become somewhat of a cult classic within sci-fi fandom. The novel was nominated for a Nebula Award in 1968 and thirty years later won a Locus Poll Award, placing 51st among “All-Time Best SF Novel(s) before 1990”. Interestingly, the novel has also been adapted for radio, audiobook, theater, and comics; there are three book sequels, as well, written by K.W. Jeter.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1948, 1953, 1968): 70, 65, & 50 years

This one is a bit unusual, in that there are actually three connected anniversaries. Seventy years ago (1948), 30-year-old Arthur C. Clarke wrote a short story titled “The Sentinel” for a BBC competition. He lost, but the story “introduced a more cosmic element to Clarke’s work.” (It was eventually published in 1951 with the title “Sentinel of Eternity”.) Five years later, Clarke had a short story titled “Encounter in the Dawn” (aka “Expedition to Earth”) published in the magazine Amazing Stories. These two stories are considered the primary bases for much of 2001: A Space Odyssey, though elements were also borrowed from several of Clarke’s other writings.

2001 was a concurrently-developed, joint project with filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick and Clarke collaborated on the screenplay, and (at the same time) they originally worked on the novel together, too. But, for a number of reasons, Kubrick ended up focusing on the film, while Clarke focused on the book (and retained sole author credit). Kubrick’s cinematic masterpiece was released in May 1968 to mixed reviews, but it developed “a cult following and slowly became the highest-grossing North American film” of the year. Since then, it has become widely recognized as one of the top films of all time. As per Wikipedia, the film “deals with themes of existentialism, human evolution, technology, artificial intelligence, and the existence of extraterrestrial life. It is noted for its scientifically accurate depiction of spaceflight, pioneering special effects, and ambiguous imagery.” And who can forget that theme music, eh?!

Clarke’s novel was published in June/July that same year. There are many differences with the film, since Kubrick deviated in places from the early drafts that the novel is based on. Some were due to creative/stylistic differences, while others were more practical (i.e., because of the difference in media). Naturally, the novel has more emphasis on narrative and is able to flesh out some things that are left somewhat vague or mysterious in the film, which “is a mainly visual experience where much remains ‘symbolic’.” Three sequel novels were written, but only the first of them, 2010: Odyssey Two, has so far been made into a film (1984).

Planet of the Apes (1963, 1968): 55 & 50 years

Only a pair of anniversaries this time. Pierre Boulle’s original La Planète des singes novel was published in 1963, with an English language version close on its heels. Within a few years, the book was adapted for the silver screen, and the first Planet of the Apes movie debuted in April 1968. It spawned four sequels, then a short-lived TV series, followed by a short-lived animated series based on the original movie. I don’t think I ever watched the animated show, but I loved the movies and the live-action series as a kid/teen. Wonderful performances by movie & TV stars like Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowell (who returned for the live-action show), Kim Hunter, James Franciscus, Maurice Evans, and James Whitmore, all lent an air of respectability to what could have been considered goofy kids’ stuff. Plus, the writing was pretty good, and the action and adult themes (e.g., slavery, bigotry, nuclear war) made the content pretty grown up.

I finally read Boulle’s novel about 10 or 12 years ago and enjoyed it. You might, too. But, don’t expect it to be the same as the films. Many of the same elements are there, and anyone familiar with the films and/or TV series will quickly identify versions of the characters and events they know. But, there are also many serious differences. It makes me wish that a new and more faithful adaptation of the novel might be made. Maybe one day. Meanwhile, not only can we still enjoy the old films and TV series, but we have the terrific new series of PotA films — three, as of this writing. (We won’t talk about the 2001 movie by Burton and Wahlberg, though it had some positive points.) I think it might also be time for me to read Boulle’s novel again….

Avengers (1963): 55 years

Confession time: Originally, I was going to celebrate Spider-Man’s debut here. But, then I remembered that The Amazing Spider-Man #1 (1963) wasn’t the first time Spider-Man appeared. That was in Amazing Fantasy #15 the previous year.

But, the Avengers, “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes”, did debut with the first issue of their own title in 1963 (cover date Sept.). They might not be quite as iconic as ol’ Webhead, but given the team’s popularity these days, they certainly merit the attention. I was a “Marvel Zombie” from my pre-teen days, and the Avengers was one of the earliest books I collected and one of my favorites. I mean, how could you not love a team that included Iron Man, Captain America (as of issue #4), and Thor, among others? Even the Hulk was a founding member, though he quit at the end of issue #2 and would go on to fight against them on occasion. The team’s ever-changing lineup meant readers got to see many superheroes (including the occasional rehabilitated villain), new and old, work and fight together. They also had some of the most fearsome arch-foes, like the Masters of Evil, Kang the Conqueror, and the Kree. I haven’t kept up with the Avengers in recent years, but I do have a lot of great memories of roughly 3 decades’ worth of stories. Plus, of course, we get to see them live-in-action in the theaters these days. Avengers Assemble!

Iron Man (1963): 55 years

While Iron Man #1 didn’t premiere until 1968 (directly following the Iron Man and Sub-Mariner one-shot), the character of Anthony Stark and his armored alter ego actually made their debuts in Tales of Suspense #39 (1963). I’ve written about the character briefly before. Tony was equal parts brilliant and screw-up, playboy and warrior, arrogant jerk and kindhearted philanthropist. He had the rugged good looks and engineering genius, with all the money and toys a guy could ever want, yet he was insecure and battled his own “demons”. In other words, he was very “real” — a flawed hero, but not an anti-hero — and that’s part of what made him so interesting. I don’t think Robert Downey Jr. quite captures the character I remember from the comics, but I do enjoy finally getting to see him on the big-screen. If only they would see fit to add Mrs. Arbogast to the cast…. (In fact, I have a story idea that could do that, but that’s a whole ‘nother post.)

X-Men (1963): 55 years

As with the last two entries, I was a huge fan of the Uncanny X-Men waaay before the first movie (2000). I wasn’t around for their 1963 debut, but I did start collecting them back in the ’70s. Again, they were one of my favorites, possibly even edging out both Avengers and Fantastic Four for favorite team title. I started reading it shortly after the best X-Men lineup debuted — Cyclops, Storm, Wolverine, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Banshee, Phoenix, and, of course, Professor X. Those were some classic stories with classic art, by creators like Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum, John Byrne, Terry Austin. Ah, those were the days…. There was just something about Marvel’s (not so) Merry Mutants, the “outcasts” of the Marvel universe, that appealed to me. They had some of the coolest powers and costumes, and the stories were well-written, with characters that became increasingly complex — sometimes for the better, sometimes not — over the years. Good times!

Alright, folks! I’ve rambled on long enough. Hope you enjoyed Part 2. I’ll talk about some really old stuff in Part 3 next month….

Minecraft Religion

“Minecraft is so open any player can design a world, [a]nd whenever things are open, religious people tend to use it to express themselves.” — Vincent Gonzalez, creator of religiousgames.org

Many moons ago, I went through a phase where I played a lot of Tetris — to the point where I dreamed about it — and Duke Nukem. I also played some Pong, Asteroids, Centipede, and maybe a little Frogger and a couple others, way back when. But, as I’ve mentioned before, I never really got into gaming — not even when the more sophisticated stuff came out. My brother was into it for several years, so I would occasionally watch him play and talk about avatars and MMORPGs, while he would occasionally let me jabber on about comics. (I did get him to read a few, I think.)

As a member of the “Geeks Under Grace Community” Facebook group, I also see posts from others talking about various games and platforms, new and old, asking for recommendations, etc. I wouldn’t exactly say I have my finger on the pulse of the industry, since I don’t really know what’s going on and couldn’t tell you the difference between a PlayStation and an Xbox. But, it is a reminder of how big that industry has become and the many, many different types of computer games there are out there. Plus, the GUG Community predominantly consists of Christians (as hinted at by the “Under Grace” phrase), so it’s interesting to “hear” how my fellow-geeks integrate their Christian faith with their various geeky fandoms.

I suppose that was why I was intrigued by an article I came across from the Religion News Service by Kimberly Winston, who normally writes about atheism and freethought. It was about Minecraft — yes, I knew what it was… sorta — and, in particular, how many players express their religious beliefs, or lack thereof, through the “skins” and things they build in the game. (Forgive me if this is old news to you.)

As many of my readers probably know, Minecraft allows players to use virtual bricks to build “buildings, plants, people, anything, in mostly primary colors.” Some versions allow people to go on adventures, too. Many players who hold to various religions also use the game to discuss and otherwise express their beliefs, including creating religious figures (e.g., priests, monks, imams, rabbis, angels, Jesus) and both real and imagined places of worship and contemplation (e.g., churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, cathedrals), some of them quite complex. They also build whole cities and “Bible lands”. It turns out that Christianity is by far the most represented.

But, why do they do it?

“No one’s pastor is telling them the best way to minister to people is to pretend to be Jesus in a Minecraft world. So the question of why people want to dress up as Jesus and go around in Minecraft is hard to say.” — Vincent Gonzalez

There are a few theories. Gregory Grieve, a religious studies professor at UNC-Greensboro, has studied the phenomenon for decades.

“For most people, their virtual lives are an extension of their real lives. Among Christians it was a place for proselytizing and a place for meeting people they would not otherwise meet. People who are religious just see these games as an extension of their religious practice.”

 

Professor Rachel Wagner from Ithaca College has her own hypothesis.

“Even if they are ‘open’ in the sense of allowing players to construct entire worlds for themselves, as Minecraft does, games always offer spaces in which things make sense, where players have purpose and control. For players who may feel that the real world is spinning out of control, games can offer a comforting sense of predictability. They can replace God for some in their ability to promise an ordered world.”

Some have created faith-based Minecraft “servers”, where likeminded people can build and adventure together with a more specific set of rules (e.g., “no profanity”). For example, ChurchMag created a Christian-oriented Minecraft server for its community. According to editor Eric Dye,

“We can build things in it, like themed cities, and there is actually a church. It is not like we have church services or anything but it seemed something fun to have. It seemed fitting. That is why you see religion manifested in Minecraft — it is just an extension of people’s interests in what they create.”

As Spock would say, “Fascinating…”

So, my questions to you readers are, “Have any of you experienced, or even participated in, this sort of religious expression in Minecraft or other ‘open’ games? If so, did it seem odd to you or “natural”? Did it cause any sort of awkwardness among players?” Anything else you want to share, feel free. Thanks.

Notable Genre Anniversaries in 2018, part 1 of 3

My, how time flies!

It really is amazing to think back at all of the many books, comics, TV shows, and films from the sci-fi/fantasy and action/adventure genres that I have enjoyed over the decades. And those are just the ones I liked! There are plenty more that I never knew of, didn’t have a chance to sample, or just never interested me, but others have enjoyed them. It is even more amazing to consider how far back these genres reach, especially when you include genres like Gothic horror, Victorian sleuths, “travellers’ tales”, and other early adventure novels. Even further, if you go back to the fantastic myths and legends of old, from the pagan pantheons and tales of “brave Ulysses” to those of King Arthur and Robin Hood.

Not long ago, I became aware of a few of the more “modern” stories & characters that were having notable anniversaries this year. (Well, really just some multiple of 5, to be honest.) I tracked down a few more and decided to present brief comments on each, spread out over three, non-consecutive posts. Beginning with the most recent and working our way backwards, we have…

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993): 25 years

Debuting Jan. 3, 1993, DS9 was the third live-action TV series — fourth series overall, including the animated one — of the über-successful Star Trek franchise. It was unusual for a number of reasons. For one, it took place primarily on a space station rather than a ship, which was a somewhat daring move for CBS/Paramount. Previous series (and movies) had always been centered on a ship named “Enterprise”. Could this new setting really work? Would fans accept it? Much of the general tone and many storylines were a bit “darker” than fans were used to with previous series. Flawed characters, along with recurring themes of war and moral ambiguity, were of particular concern. Some people are still turned off by that, while many others have come to embrace the differences. It was the first Star Trek series to air without the involvement of ST’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, and some claim it goes against his vision. Indeed, Roddenberry is on record as having expressed some reservations early on, but he eventually signed off on it before his death in 1991. The show also had a Black man as the senior officer, which was still a bit of a risk back then and all the more a triumph in the show’s success.

Me? I loved the show. I mean, it was more Star Trek, and it even started before The Next Generation was over! Like with any new show, it took a bit of getting used to, but the writers and cast all found their groove. (Not that every episode was a gem, of course.) I got used to the idea of most action taking place on a space station (and one with a nasty history at that), as opposed to a space-warping starship of exploration. It made for different types of stories, while maintaining the overall feel and shared history of Roddenberry’s universe with The Federation, Starfleet, and other familiar organizations and races. The characters grew on me and many other viewers, and they became just as beloved as those from earlier Star Trek series.

DS9 may not have been quite as popular as its predecessor series, but it was nominated for many awards and even won a few. It’s a little hard to believe it has been 25 years since it premiered, though!

Babylon 5 (1993): 25 years

The regular series actually premiered Jan. 26, 1994, but the property debuted with the TV movie Babylon 5: The Gathering on Feb. 22, 1993. Audiences were introduced to several of writer/creator J. Michael Straczynski’s beloved characters — i.e., Cmdr. Jeffrey Sinclair, Michael Garibaldi, Lyta Alexander, and ambassadors Delenn, Mollari, G’Kar, and the mysterious Kosh. Others — i.e., Lt. Cmdr. Susan Ivanova, Vir, Talia Winters — first appeared in the series premiere, while still others — e.g., Dr. Stephen Franklin, Lennier, Na’Toth, Capt. John Sheridan, Zack Allan, Marcus Cole, Bester — would not show up until later episodes, even later seasons.

Although DS9 debuted first, Straczynski (aka JMS or “Joe” to the fans) had shopped his concept around in the ’80s, and there was some controversy over whether or not the Star Trek folks had ripped off the idea. Personally, I didn’t think the similarity went very far past centering on a strategically-located space station frequented by various star-faring races. That basic idea had been done many times before in sci-fi in various media. Plus, it just seemed like an unnecessary cause of strife between fans who thought they had to favor one over the other. I liked both.

Besides, there were other differences that set B5 apart, like the fact that it was the first series planned from the start to have an overarching, 5-year arc, with long-term narrative threads. The dramatic setting was an elaborately constructed, fictional future, implemented with great care for detail, diversity, and history. The grown-up, character-driven storylines were often deep and thought-provoking, while the aliens and their ships were some of the best-designed in the industry. The show garnered multiple awards over the years, mostly for the writing and the groundbreaking CGI effects. It is no wonder that many Babylon 5 fans rival those of Star Trek, Star Wars, or Doctor Who, in their “intensity” and loyalty.

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983): 35 years

This second sequel to the original Star Wars (aka A New Hope), was actually declared to be Episode VI, since it completed the middle trilogy of an originally-envisioned trio of trilogies. (Though, I have also heard that creator George Lucas said, no, it was just the first two trilogies, and he didn’t expand his story ideas until later. Or, something like that.) Continuing the blockbuster Star Wars series, RotJ (aka simply “Jedi”) added to its menagerie of alien creatures, planets, technology, and lore. It showed us Han Solo’s fate (from the Empire Strikes Back cliffhanger), the blossoming romance of Solo and Princess Leia, the latest efforts of the Rebel Alliance and the Empire, and the continued Jedi training and maturing of the now cybernetically-enhanced Luke Skywalker, culminating in his confrontation with Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine.

While generally not rated as highly as the first two films of the franchise (especially among those who find Ewoks annoying), RotJ was nevertheless a fairly satisfying conclusion to that first three-part story arc. I, for one, look back on it fondly as an enjoyable part of my teen years.

Battlestar Galactica (original series) (1978): 40 years

Creator/producer Glen A. Larson finally got financial backing for his Mormon-influenced sci-fi concept — originally called “Adam’s Rib” — thanks to the success of the original Star Wars. Yes, this was the ’70s, so some of the writing was a bit hokey, and the tech looks almost as laughable to our 21st-century eyes as that of the original Star Trek and others from the ’60s and prior. But, it was a big-budget science-fiction show that took place far from Earth, had spaceships, robots, a few alien creatures, cool F/X, and it was just a lot of fun for young genre fans like me. The series only lasted one full season, debuting Sep. 17, 1978, and ending on Apr. 29, 1979. If you’re “old” like me, you might remember that they then showed a condensed version of the 3-hour pilot as a movie at theaters starting May 18, 1979. (Technically, this was also how it premiered — in Canadian theaters — before the TV series began.)

I recently finished re-watching the whole original “Battlestar Galactica” series for the first time in, well, nearly 40 years! For its era, it actually holds up pretty well. (It even won “Best New TV Drama Series” at the 1979 People’s Choice Awards.) The writing and acting weren’t too bad, really, especially when compared to its ill-conceived spin-off, “Galactica 1980”. I’m working my way through that later one now, and while I enjoy seeing a few familiar faces and the flying motorcycles are cool, let’s just say I’m glad there were only 10 episodes. (I sure did love it as a kid, though!)

OK, that’s it for Part 1. I’ll continue some time next month with a few more anniversaries of note. ‘Til then…

Top 20 TV Theme Songs from ’70s Action Shows, part 2 of 2

As promised, this week we continue our nostalgic countdown — or is it a countup? — of 1970s-premiering cops/detectives TV shows that had particularly cool, memorable theme songs. You ready to lay down some happenin’ tunes? Groovy!

Let’s get to it…

 

11) The Rockford Files (1974-1980)

 

12) Police Woman (1974-1978)

 

13) S.W.A.T. (1975-1976)

 

14) Baretta (1975-1978)

 

15) Starsky & Hutch (1975-1979)

 

16) Quincy, M.E. (spun off from “The NBC Mystery Movie”) (1976-1983)

 

17) Charlie’s Angels (1976-1981)

 

18) CHiPs (1977-1983)

 

19) Vega$ (1978-1981)

 

20) Return of the Saint (1978-1979)

 

So, whaddayathink? Feel like chillaxin’ with some ’70s cop-show goodness? Or, maybe in the mood to boogie at the local disco? (Good luck with that.) Anyways…

I gotta split, dudes ‘n dudettes. Peace out!