Archive for February, 2013

Who watches the Watchmen?

If anyone came up to me and asked me to choose a graphic novel to teach in a class full of kids who have never picked up a comic before in their lives, I’m not 100% sure Watchmen would be #1 on my list. Granted, it would depend on what grade level we’re talking about, but Watchmen is a work with enough layers in it that, off the bat, it could possibly scare some people away from further pursuing comic books ..Wait, I’m supposed to be arguing in favor of reading this, aren’t I? Okay, okay, let me try again: if someone who was a fan of literature, particularly gripping, true-to-life, and even dark literature walked up to me and asked me to choose a graphic novel to usher them into the world of comics.. Watchmen would be pretty damn high up on the list of recommendations, just short of Marvel’s “Civil War” and Frank Millar’s “The Dark Knight Returns”.

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Why should someone who doesn’t read comic books read Watchmen?

I’m sure some of my audience members are pretty tired of me raving about comic books, so let me explain to you why fans of reading should look into Watchmen as a true, legitimate “graphic novel”. First off, “graphic novel” to me is a political term. It’s a term we use to dress up the word “comic” in its Sunday best, so people won’t scowl at it and turn up their noses. And for the most part, I hate the term – but here, it truly applies. Watchmen has the length, the social commentary, and the critical acclaim to earn my calling it a “graphic novel”. Quoting Wikipedia, Watchmen was the only graphic novel to appear on Time‘s 2005 “All-TIME 100 Greatest Novels” list. If you are put off of comic books because of the cartoony costumes, the bright colors, and the seemingly always light-hearted “good guys save the day” approach.. then Watchmen may just be right up your alley.

Watchmen could be successful utilized in history classes, philosophy classes, communications classes, and of course your literature classes. It contains more layers in it’s 12-issue initial run than any of the Twilight books stacked together. The very serious issues of nuclear war, ethical treatment of criminals, the degeneration of our society, and our tendency towards “hero worship” is all examined under a microscope, with plenty of graphic material to boot. The book tackles the main idea that, if we place all of our faith into a choice few people, who will police them? More importantly, how will we ever learn to solve our own problems? Though the discussion topic here is superheroes, this is something we do in our modern day lives. The President, Congress, the military – we expect these people to solve each and every problem we have without flaw. When will we instead rely on our own capabilities? The people we put up on pedestals are human too, so when we place all of our eggs in their metaphorical basket, they are destined to fail.

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The Characters, and why they aren’t your typical Supermen:

The heroes of Watchmen still don the occasional ridiculous costume (or in once instance, none at all), but the spandex and the bright colors are by no means the focus here. In an alternate history where vigilantism has been outlawed and the Cold War is still roaring strong, our heroes are above all human, and save one character, none of them are all that super. Each character has their own distinct personalities and flaws, and serves as a commentary on the society around them.

  • Dr. Manhattan was caught in an accident that involved molecular tampering – and was granted god-like power over matter as a result. He simultaneously exists in all spaces and times at once, and he constantly has to wrestle with whether he is still human. More importantly, if he should still care at all about these creatures that he should squash with the blink of an eye. He is essentially the living doctrine preventing WWIII, being one of the two heroes working under the U.S. Government.
  • The Comedian is a nihilist with a pension for killing the bad guys. Unlike his counterparts, he has discovered the meaning to life: there isn’t one! Life is just a big, dark joke, and the sooner people embrace that, the sooner they will be able to enjoy what little time they have on this meaningless dirtball of a planet. The Comedian’s pension for death has him as the 2nd of two heroes working under the U.S. Government.
  • Rorschach is a man with a deeply disturbed past who skulks the streets at night killing low-level scumbags: drug peddlers, rapists, killers. He is one of the only Watchmen to continue operating outside the law, and he never compromises. Ever. Like the ink blots he dawns on his face, the world for Rorschach is black and white. End of story.
  • The Nite Owl is an everyman with nearly limitless funds who serves as a Batman-type character (without the tragic past). He wrestles with a mid-life crisis unlike anyone has seen before: he hung up his cowl when the law asked him to, but now what does he have to do with his life? The Nite Owl as a persona is all that keeps him from being a boring, average everyman.
  • The Silk Spectre is the only female member of the Watchmen, having (begrudgingly) inherited the mantle from her mother. She is the lover to Dr. Manhattan, and is often snide and snappy with her fellow Watchmen, seeming to only want to lead a normal life.
  • Ozymandias is possibly the world’s smartest man, and one of the only Watchmen to retire before it was required by the government. He has utilized his intellect to start one of the most successful business corporations in the world, but how does a man who is smarter than everyone else on the planet connect to other people?

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So is there a point to all of this? Why should someone read this?

My bottom line is that Watchmen should be read because it’s a complex work. If it were a novel without the graphic part, I feel like it would fit right in with naturalist works like those of Jack London or Ernest Hemingway. Maybe that sounds crazy, but this novel tackles some heavy material. Compromise being the difference between life and death to a man who never compromises; World War 3 being prevented only by the presence of a single man in the entire world, mid-life crisis, abandonment issues from having no father or an abusive mother, and being the smartest / loneliest man on the earth. The outlook is bleak for these characters and this world. Is there even a point in trying to save a world that is so rotten to the core by human corruption and filth? What if you approach it like it is; just a big joke? These are the questions one is dealt when reading Watchmen, and they will weigh in heavily on your soul when you are through.

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Besides, doesn’t this seem more interesting than reading The Scarlet Letter or The Grapes of Wrath? If you can confront real-world issues in ways that don’t put real-world people to sleep, don’t you have a responsibility to do as much?

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“Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.” – John F. Kennedy

Man, what a week it’s been. Mid-term is pretty much college student-ese for “ride the wave until break”. This is the halfway point, as well as the point where apathy begins to rise exponentially. I’m saying this all because my reading for YA lit this week wound up falling to the back-burner in favor of some other stuff, like a mountain of a 4-hour online midterm for American Lit, or studying for a test we have in my Ethics class.. the Tuesday we get back from break. I can hardly contain my excitement </sarcasm>.

Backburner aside, I give The First Part Last props in two different areas: the first being that Bobby and his friends aren’t depicted as thugs, gang members, “gangstas”, or any of that stupid shit that always has to be included in “urban” novels. Shockingly, some people do lead normal lives that have nothing to do with killing one another (though I’ve considered it..). The second area I speak of is the fact that this is a novel from the perspective of the single father.. not the mother. Neither of the parents here are depicted as evil, villainous, or cowardly. The moral of the story seems to be “shit happens”, but instead of the apathetic version of it, it’s instead “shit happens, and sometimes you’re stuck with it!”

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Um. I think biologically, we’re obliged to consider it less disturbing.

Let me just say that a tale like this, however simultaneously depressing and inspiring it may be, is like a horror story to me. Did you know that last year, the projected cost of raising a kid from birth to age 18 was $250,000 dollars? $250,000 dollars! I know I don’t have that kind of cash burning a hole in my pocket, and I already get too little sleep as it is. The genepool and I have come to the agreement that I will be making no contributions to said pool.

Back to the story, Bobby’s struggle is a noble one. He decides not to run from his problem (as the stereotype and our absent-minded society would have you believe), but instead buckles down to handle it. Something this novel made me think of – I don’t think dads get enough credit. Bobby is downright terrified, and wants nothing more than to have his old life back – to pass the buck to his mom and get off scot-free. But he doesn’t. He spits in the face of every “absent black father” stereotype, doesn’t preach (abortion is brought up in the novel along with adoption), and he doesn’t skip town or kill himself.

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Is this racist or am I just reading it wrong?

In it’s entirety, I enjoyed “The First Part Last”. It offered up a familiar situation in our society from an unfamiliar perspective. I may be slightly biased, since I am, last I checked, a man, but regardless. Back to the backburner!

Officium

One man can be a crucial ingredient on a team, but one man cannot make a team.” – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

So last summer we all had our minds blown by the amazing team up of the genius-playboy-billionaire, the man out of time, the god of thunder, the master assassins, and the man with an incredible temper. But before that happened, piece by piece, we were told their individual tales. While movies like Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America did well at the box office (and with audiences), The Avengers shattered records across the board. People just could not get enough of the superhero dream-team. Thanks to the success of the Avengers, Marvel is currently working on “Phase 2” of their films (consisting of Cap 2, Iron Man 3, Thor 2, and the Guardians of the Galaxy), and there are even some stirrings on DC’s side of the fence with Man of Steel due out in June.

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So I wondered: why are we so attracted to superhero teams? What is it that makes Iron Man and Cap fighting side-by-side so much cooler than Iron Man tackling his problems alone? After spending all week reading the new Justice League and reading an exchange between Superman and Wonder Woman, I think I’ve got it figured out: we like seeing superheroes banter back and forth with each other not only because it’s 150% badass, but because there’s a dynamic between them that they don’t share with most “normal” people.

Think about it: Captain America can’t get drunk because of his body’s superhuman abilities. Superman is a god-like being among mortal men. Tony Stark has an intellect that far surpasses any other human’s, and Cyborg (Teen Titans, anyone?) can’t ever take his superheroic “costume” off. Who are these people going to relate to? Sure, they’re in love with “normal” people and have families with “normal” people in them, but how would they shake the feeling of being alone in an expansive world with no one like them? We like watching these superhumans fight side-by-side because in a really strange way, we can project ourselves and our friends onto them. We can relate to their struggles (albeit in a much different way) and to their loneliness, and we get giddy when we see them find others like themselves.

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Plus, it’s always fun to see our heroes have their buttons pressed by someone who isn’t a supervillain. Batman and the Green Lantern, Iron Man and Cap, the friendly quarreling provides great comic relief in times of holy-shit-the-world-is-ending stress. The clashing personalities and conflicts that arise make for some hilarious moments. Superhero team ups give us the chance to see that despite their super qualities, under the armor and the spandex they are still human.
..or Kryptonian.

Theam

 

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Let me start off by saying two things about Sara Zarr’s “Story of a Girl”. One: holy crap I cannot describe in words how glad I am that Deanna in this book actually speaks like a teenager. How many teenagers do you know who would rather say shoot than shit, darn or dang than damn? None. That is the true answer. If you dispute this, you are a liar, or it’s just a matter of time. The second thing I need to say is that I think this story provides an interesting parallel to “Speak” by Laurie Anderson. Deanna and Mel are almost total opposites, but they’re in similar predicaments. Around the wonderful world of high school, they’re both the talk of the town. The difference between them is that Deanna’s dilemma is known right out of the gate and the story deals with her attempts to mend her broken relationships and tarnished reputation. Mel, however, hasn’t even reached this stage, because she has yet to tell anyone.

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Not to be confused with the song that turns up if you even frickin’ TRY to google the title.

I thought the dynamic between the characters in this story was really unique. Tommy isn’t some rubbing-his-hands-together supervillain or anything like that, and he even expresses a smidgen of regret when he mentions that he’s glad he doesn’t have to feel like shit every time Dee looks at him. I’m glad the story managed to avoid some of the cliches of the bad guy being bad again at the end, getting caught, and the camera zooming out while happy music plays in the background (I know that this sort of thing happens in real life as well, but come on, it’s practically chickflick gold). I was also impressed that the ending didn’t suddenly find the shitty parents and the ostracized friends instantly reconcilling with Dee. Rather, their relationships are implied to be on the road to healing, but they won’t get there without efforts on the part of all involved. The characters aren’t perfect, and they all have their own quirks that make them good – and bad people.

 

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Above: An artist’s rendition of what does not happen in most romance novels.

One part that thoroughly disgusted me on multiple levels is where Bruce (I think his name is) just straight up shoves his hand between Dee’s thighs. Ignoring my disgust for that, I almost feel a greater disgust knowing that no one stomped his teeth in afterwards. Jason seriously just scolds him after that and tries to console her with some weak-ass words? Really? Aren’t they supposed to be best friends? I hate being the “if it were me” guy, but seriously, that shit would not fly. Even worse, everyone else around does nothing about it. Everyone just sits and stares slack-jawed. Sadly enough, this is probably about what would really happen. Seems like people constantly think they’re looking at their lives through a TV monitor.

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Repulsion for worthless sacks of skin aside, on the whole, I did enjoy “Story of a Girl”. I think Dee as a character handled her situation extremely maturely (for the most part). She obviously has her moments, like needlessly berating Lee or pleading with Darren to live with them, but she really makes attempts to move past her negative experiences. There are several moments in the novel where weight is slowly lifted from her shoulders, piece by piece. It’s a start.

Promoveo Promovi Promotum

“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” – Mark Twain

One common topic that has come up in our discussions about young adult literature is that of death’s presence; his very, very frequent presence. It seems as though authors have a hard time hitting home emotionally without having to axe some beloved character. It happens in The Hunger Games, the Outsiders, the Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.. the list goes on and on. We are bombarded so frequently with death that we’ve actually reached a point where it no longer surprises us anymore. Whether this is good or bad is up for grabs; some say death is a part of life, but I like to think that horrendous, disease-ridden, bullet-to-the-face death should still surprise us when it happens.

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Superheroes are ordinary under the surface. Pain and pleasure are specific to no one.

As you can probably imagine, death in comic books is by no means a new thing. Oftentimes, (like in Marvel’s Civil War), main characters are killed off in attempts to shake things up in a continuity that consists of godlike beings and infinite destruction; obviously, surprise is hard to come by when you live in a world where the Hulk has wrecked your car more than you have. Death as a device in comic books is an entirely different monster. People die and are resurrected in the most obscure ways: fountains of youth, time travel, etc. etc. While it is an initial shock when your favorite caped crusader is unable to cheat death for the 6,000th time, it is almost never permanent. Because of this, comic writers have to rely on other ways to leave lasting scars on our heroes. I know I’ve been making a lot of Batman references as of late, but one of the newest issues of Batman, “Death of the Family”, does this perfectly.

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Eventually, either the cat or the mouse will lose.

This is an issue in both comic books and in conventional literature: how do you shock an audience that has seen it all? How do you shake the reader awake after they’ve seen countless deaths, horrible break-ups, life-altering trips to the doctor, so on and so forth? The key after getting people so used to explosions and door-busters is subtlety. That’s right. Subtlety. Famous musical producer Rick Rubin once said that a whisper is just as powerful as a scream, and when it comes to issues like death, this is equally true. The truly unexpected is that which creeps up on you, not that which parades up and down the street. In “Death of the Family”, the Joker successfully kidnaps all of Batman’s closest allies: Afred, Robin, Batgirl, Nightwing, etc. The beauty in the Joker’s plan is not the physical damage done, however. The Joker, a character known for being chaotic and wreckless, deliberately attacks the Bat-Family’s emotional cohesiveness. He shatters their faith in Bruce Wayne, leaving the group fractured, and taking away the few anchors that Bruce has left to normalcy. Someone being literally dead is tough to deal with, but what if you are emotionally dead to someone? What if someone you loved and trusted was revealed to be your greatest threat? That almost makes death seem like a better alternative.

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It’s called the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.

Discretion or not, some people will ask if we should be getting used to death at all. Sadly, whether we should or not, we are. Death is an issue that we can’t just sweep under the rug. Like all ugliness, hiding it away will not resolve the issue. Maybe when a character in our latest novel dies, rather than be focused on the plot twist that occurs because of his absence, we should empathize with those around him. Superman’s accidental killing of his wife and child in “Injustice” isn’t just a great M. Night Shamylan-styled plot twist, it’s a horrific tragedy the likes of which no man (human or not) should have to face. Cape and tights or not, if you shed a tear at all when *SPOILER ALERTS for Catching Fire and The Outsiders* Cinna met his gruesome end or when Johnny finally succumbed to his wounds from the church, *END SPOILERS* then there shouldn’t be any reason you can’t empathize with a man who has lost his family and his city in the blink of an eye. We like to think that we’re all some kind of men and women of steel; that we haven’t any time for death, and that death is operating on our schedule. But that’s just it, we aren’t invulnerable. We aren’t supermen. We expect death to come beating down our door and giving us several weeks notice, but like I’ve said, he works discreetly. Even if we were invincible, as we’ve seen, even gods can be brought to their knees.

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Mors expectet

“The worst guilt is to accept an unearned guilt.” – Ayn Rand

Only in the plains of Nebraska have I ever seen such a scene as this: in the middle of Winter, the sky is divided in two. About 1/4th of it is blue and sunny, but that part is far off in the distance. The part that hovers over me, of course, is gray and lifeless, and snow lightly drifts down to earth. Two completely contrasting behaviors coming from the same sky. What a sight. I thought of this as I read a part in Laurie Anderson’s novel “Speak”, where Mel is talking about Winter air being easier to breathe.

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The novel in its entirety feels gray. I don’t mean this in a negative sense, I mean Mel’s drifting through a painful day-to-day existence just feels.. gray. It isn’t purely dark, but there isn’t much light either. The whole novel is stuffed with some powerful and clever images: cracked, dry lips; a dead tree having its branches trimmed away; bare, white walls. There are very few moments of the sun peering through the clouds when it comes to this novel. In the past, I’ve talked about books being able to teach us to better empathize with people. The high school version of me would probably have read the synopsis to “Speak” and rolled his eyes, chalking this up with the likes of Twilight and other generic teen-girl books. Thankfully, the college-me has a little bit more sense, and despite the serious subject matter, actually enjoyed this book quite a bit (I’m talking in the third person still, what the what).

I’ll tell you one thing, this novel pretty much reaffirmed my hatred for middle school. And my hatred for parents in books. No parent in any novel ever has ever listened to what their child has to say, it seems, and it gets pretty tiresome at times. Apparently every parent ever is a self-absorbed asshole with the biological capability to have kids but the maturity of a whining 13 year old. Current parents and parents-to-be alike: if you ever saw scratches on your child’s wrist, and said “I don’t have time for this”, there are no words awful enough to describe what you deserve to have done to you. Principals and guidance counselors and parents are supposed to be helpers. Children are supposed to feel safe in a school, but the sad fact is that many don’t. In a school system that favors popular kids and that puts empty-headed coaches in teacher’s places, how are kids who aren’t like Nicole supposed to feel like they can get through to anyone? Plus, I’ve always questioned the humanity of In-School Suspension. In the novel, it’s a solid white room where you are forced to sit. In my school, it was a pink room, and I was only in there once.

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 *spoiler alert: vulgar language ahead*
I fucking hated middle school, because I was surrounded by idiotic, superficial, and moronic people not unlike the characters in “Speak”. People who are only concerned with their own interests, their own gains, who spit on anything remotely unfamiliar. One would think that if Mel’s friends were indeed such good friends, maybe they wouldn’t have invited her to a high school party in the first place. Or maybe they would not be all pissy over her calling the cops on a party that they didn’t even throw, and didn’t even get caught at. I want to crack all of these characters in their teeth. You would think at least one person in this damn world would have the common sense to notice that Mel’s introversion is not just teenage angst and that there is more there. I know it would have made for a much different novel, and it wouldn’t have been the right thing to do, but I found myself wondering how the book would have ended if she had killed Andy’s worthless ass with that glass shard.
I have never been one for shying away from gritty realism. Sherman Alexie’s book is often attacked for freely mentioning masturbation, and this book has faced the same thing because of a rape scene. News flash to these sheltered, yuppie fools: this is real life. This is the life we live. These things happen. You plugging your ears and stomping your feet doesn’t change the  fact that the world can be an ugly place. These scenes might make people uncomfortable or make them squirm, and I think that’s a great thing. People need to squirm. When you’re so sheltered that you try to change every instance of the word “nigger” in Huckleberry Finn to “slave”, we have a serious problem. Sweeping something under the rug doesn’t get rid of it. It only makes a bigger mess. This is why we must speak for those without the voice to do so. Rachel’s complete and total disbelief of Mel drew the line for me – I wanted nothing more than for Mel to deliever a tremendous middle finger to all of her former “friends”.
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Effero

“There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.” – George Bernard Shaw

Since we seem to be tackling the reoccurring themes of death and despair in this class, I decided to continue the tradition along with my latest comic book series, as well as continue the saga of continuities with “evil” Supermen. Injustice: Gods Among Us is a prequel comic book to a video game that’s coming out in April (wow, how much nerdier can I get up in here?), but despite being a vessel to deliver a story to a video game, it holds no less weight than its predecessors.

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So, what’s happening this time?

The Justice League are all going about their respective businesses, and Superman has just discovered something amazing – his super-powered hearing picks up two heartbeats coming from the love of his life, Lois Lane. Supes is going to be a daddy! Thrilled, he confides in Batman and asks him to be the godfather (awww), actually making Bats crack a smile. This happiness is fleeting at best, because unfortunately for Metropolis (the fictional city that Superman lives in / protects), the Joker has come to town. Supes’s best friend, Jimmy Olsen, is gunned down while taking pictures for a job (at the newspaper), and Lois Lane is kidnapped. Needless to say, the Justice League doesn’t take this lightly. Through some crazy combination of convoluted planning, the Joker uses the Scarecrow’s (another Batman villain) fear toxin, a chemical agent that makes people see their worst fears become life, and infuses it with Kryptonite. When Superman swoops in to Lois Lane’s rescue, the Joker blasts him with the fear toxin, making him actually believe Lois Lane is his most formidable enemy. Supes carries who he believes to be his enemy out into space in order to protect Lois Lane, and in a Joker-like twist, he is actually the cause of her demise.. and the death of his unborn child.

Adding another layer to the sheer ridiculousness, the Joker has hidden a nuke somewhere in Metropolis: one that’s wired to go off when Lois Lane’s heartbeat stops. In the blink of an eye, the Joker takes Superman’s family and his city away from him. Why? “Because it was easy.” Needless to say, Superman doesn’t take as much lenience with the Joker as Batsy has. After putting his fist through the Joker’s heart, Superman decides he has had enough of pretending to be on a level playing field with mankind and tolerating their misbehavior. Enlisting the help of the Justice League (with the exception of Batman), Superman forms.. wait for it.. a totalitarian world police force! I know, it seems like I’m going all Red Son on you. Just wait, it gets better.

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And this is literature why..?

Obviously, Supes’s decision doesn’t run well with everyone. Heroes like Wonder Woman (who herself is Amazonian, not human) obviously side with Supes, believing mankind to be inferior and unable to police themselves. Heroes like Bats, Cyborg, and the Flash however cannot condone Superman’s actions. Oh shit, we’re gonna go all Civil War on you here! Superman and his totalitarian forces VS. Batman and his resistance (similar to the anarchist Batman in Red Son). Since this practically is Civil War, we can pull the same themes from it: betrayal, paranoia, and a blurred line between right and wrong. Superman’s methods are strict and unfeeling, but his reasoning is justified: people like The Joker have been allowed to hurt others for far too long under the watch of people like Batman. The man is wrecked with grief: he was forced to kill his unborn child and his wife. No one could ever recover from that, not even a Man of Steel. Here’s another huge theme in Injustice: loss. The split between the Justice League causes friends to lose friends, and the entire story is driven by Superman’s being unable to cope with his loss. But it’s not exclusive to heroes: Harley Quinn loses the love of her life when Superman plows his fist right through the Joker’s chest. Have you ever seen Superman sport 5 o’clock shadow? It’s not pretty.

Also like the Civil War, since the lines between good and evil are blurred, so are the lines between friend and foe. Did you ever think you’d see Batman and Lex Luthor fighting side by side? How about Batman and Harley Quinn? This is much more than another Civil War grab, this is different. Superman has justification for what he is doing, but Batman refuses to step down from his ideals. Young adults are constantly having to fight for their respective beliefs against naysayers, and sometimes it feels like we really are up against Superman. Death, loss, betrayal, confusion, “cliques” (heroes and villains, anyone?), beliefs.. are these not the exact themes we have encountered in our other readings?

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The Verdict? (to be continued!)

As of right now, the Injustice comic arc is still continuing. We have not reached a conclusion to our story, and most likely won’t until April when the Injustice video game actually comes out (fun fact for any video game fans among us, Injustice is a fighting game made by the producers of Mortal Kombat). Regardless of this, I absolutely love Injustice. It takes the quintessential “evil Superman” line we’ve seen before, but gives a reason for it we can relate to. Most of us can’t relate to being crusaders for Socialism.. but we can all relate to the loss of a loved one. Imagine if you were the reason for that loss.. what would you be driven to do?

Si vis pacem, para bellum