Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Punisher: Working Class Superhero

Recently, I re-read the savage takedown Eileen Jones wrote of The Dark Knight Rises. It's still worth a read, just for the way Jones points out the ridiculous anti-99% themes shot through the film, but also how it highlights the starkly fascist undercurrents of all superhero fiction:

We all know who’s “good” in The Dark Knight Rises, no matter what their tiresome human frailties are. Batman/Bruce Wayne, Commissioner Gordon, the “angry orphan” who sees himself in Batman (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), John Blake aka soon-to-be-Robin, Batman’s faithful flunkies Alfred (Michael Caine) and Lucien (Morgan Freeman), and all the cops who fight on Batman’s side, upholding law ‘n’ order no matter what.

Batman, despite his huge popularity on the internet, has been and always will a fundamentally fascist fantasy. A man who inherits wealth and privilege and uses all of that to overcome his deep psychological scars following the murder of his parents by dressing up in a gimp suit and assaulting poor people.

The Dark Knight surpassed the usual reactionary storytelling of the superhero medium thanks to the performance of Heath Ledger and Christopher Nolan heavily cribbing from the Michael Mann masterpiece Heat. The Dark Knight Rises suffers not only for a lack of Ledger but also being saddled with the duties of a trilogy - tying everything back to the B grade first half of Batman Begins. And if that weren't enough, they had to go and try to crib from the Charles Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities where the long suffering French peasantry are portrayed as bloodthirsty monsters by "a master of lurid melodrama [Dickens] who was all for incremental social change but got very, very squeamish about revolution, no matter how necessary and justified…"

So let's take a look at Marvel's black-clad vigilante, The Punisher. Like Batman, he targets strictly human criminals and their organizations, but unlike Batman he just plain shoots 'em. This usually makes him a "darker" character among comic book fans, since they have all the literary tastes of a third grader, but what really makes the character more mature, and less of a power fantasy, is his own tragic biography. Frank Castle returns from three tours in the Vietnam War to witness his wife and children shot to pieces in front of him. Deep institutional corruption and the meager means of a retired soldier leave no Castle no other way of seeking justice but his own ingenuity and lax American gun laws.

In this way, The Punisher is not only a much more realistic costumed hero - Who really thinks they can take on armed gang members with bat-themed boomerangs? - but also something of an insurgent hero. From his first appearance in the 1970s to the celebrated MAX imprint, The Punisher has targeted one organized crime syndicate after another. The mafia, the yakuza, the Irish Mob, Jamaican Yardies, even Albanian human traffickers - all "bad guys" who thrive by exploiting the disadvantaged on one hand and striking backroom deals with established power structures on the other. In the 1970s, the Costa crime family was considered untouchable thanks to their ties to the New York City government.

Wealth and privilege in service of acquiring more wealth and privilege at the expense of the powerless. And The Punisher kills them.

This makes him a murderer and a criminal. Other costumed vigilantes, like Batman and fellow Marvel third-stringer Daredevil, technically break the law in their crime fighting but they always deliver their enemies to the authorities - authorities who routinely extract confessions from innocent people, when not just murdering them in cold blood. The Punisher reflects these realities with his simple decision to bypass a broken system. Revolution is not pretty but when change cannot be achieved through traditional means it becomes necessary.

And ultimately, Frank Castle does what he does because the world has left him no choice. Bruce Wayne can throw aside his cape and cowl, go running off to the Riviera with a dozen lingerie models, and nothing will stop him. Frank Castle, who served his country faithfully only to see his whole life shattered in an instant of random violence, has absolutely nothing to live for except his personal war. He can't buy his way out of being prosecuted himself for his vigilantism, nor can he find a livelihood with only a soldier's skills - supplied by the same state that declares him a villain for killing wealthy white people as opposed to poor Vietnamese. The contradictions of a capitalist system leave him with no options but to fight or die.

Though teenage boys will disagree, you would never want to be Frank Castle. Ray Stevenson, who played the character in Punisher: War Zone, explicitly described him as a tragic, even broken individual. For all his guns and skulls he is not a power fantasy but a grimly logical necessity in a world that cannot adequately police the predations of either black markets or the more legitimate kind. This makes him unique among costumed heroes, the norm being colorful bullies for the status quo: He may not be the hero American comics want but he is certainly the hero they need. And deserve.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


On Sunday, to the delight of satirists and snarky assholes everywhere, Ted Cruz announced his candidacy for president. And thus was born the mocking hashtag of the year -

Ted Cruz has as much chance of being president of the United States as a Black African has of striking it rich in Silicon Valley. That's more than popular wisdom, that's mathematical fact. Only a meager minority of his own party can even tolerate the guy, let alone would actually like to see him in the Oval Office. The big money bosses in his own party think he's a yutz and the reaction from Democrats at his announcement has been "Oh yes oh yes oh yes! We could run Joe Biden against this dork and still win!"

So expect Candidate Cruz to be a thing well into next summer.

As I've said before, all the PAC money driving campaigns these days doesn't so much allow rich idiots to circumvent democracy as just make elections even stupider. The presidential election was already a goddamn mess - both Bush and Kerry had to sit town to a chat with Dr. Phil in 2004 - but now the party bosses can't even filter out the no-chance loons.

That's why Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum hung on so long in the 2012 primaries. A cantankerous old git who thinks he's smarter than he is and a Howdy Doodey fascist, and they were continually running neck and neck with White Obama. Not because they could rally enough support but because enough billionaires are sufficiently insane to keep paying for their names on ballots.

Everything Cruz will do in his already failed bid for the presidency will be what he's already been doing - vacuous statements, pandering stunts, and generally being an ass. Anyone in their right mind should be ignoring him but, thanks to an increasingly tribal political culture and the Democrats' failure to run anyone appealing, you're going to see some real piss and fire on social media as your friends and family debate how stupid Cruz is or how he plans to beat Hillary.

That's the ugly thing about Ted Cruz the candidate, the normalization of absolute bullshit. He'll never get the nomination anyway, but he's here now and there's bound to be some heir to wealth and privilege who either liked the massive Federal deficit caused by the 2013 shutdown, or they think funding Tim Calhoun's presidential aspirations will be good for a laugh. And instead of just laughing at this prick, all the nominal liberals are gonna man the trenches to explain why Clinton II is the better choice.

Fuck America.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Medicare Scam

Congressional Republicans, bored with their high school antics, have decided to take another stab at Medicare. Meaning Obamacare because there has been no greater bete noire of the American Right since Bill Clinton's cigar.

But in the process, they're talking about "privatizing" Medicare. I'm sure that has Daily Kos and Mother Jones in a tizzy because, for whatever reason, they're dedicated to defending these holdovers from the last Democratic presidents with any balls. However, I'm here to tell you that not only is this not worth the fight but the fight happened twenty years ago and Medicare is already tied deep into the for-profit health insurance racket.

For a little over four years, I was a Medicare contractor. Not for the insurance parasites - I was with the company that made the software said parasites used to upload their annual Screw Grandma plans to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid web service. So most of my time was spent recalibrating the "rules" of the software to auto-reject anything that went against Medicare policy. As that policy is always in flux - Part D, the drug benefit introduced in 2004, changes every year - I was always busy and usually drinking heavily.

But that was just eleven months out of the year. Every May, I got to live out every American's fantasy of telling insurance companies "You can't do that." And they had to listen! Because, owing to the same glorious outsourcing craze that makes being a US diplomat so exciting, we were also the government's official help line for when people couldn't make heads or tails of this brutally unintuitive and usually bug-ridden software. And even if they could make sense of it all, they usually wanted to illegally overcharge beneficiaries.

Let's say that again - Medicare is already privatized and insurance companies intentionally violate the terms of their own government contracts to turn a profit on sick old people.

That's the ugly truth of this program and also how you saw all those shrieking ninnies in 2010 crying "Keep yer gubmint hands of mah Medicare!" The government does indeed take a hands off approach to one of its few universally popular programs, all to fill the Humana and Kaiser coffers. Whether this submerged state dickery is really better for citizens or at least more efficient isn't really a consideration by anyone in power in America. It's just the same old rent-seeking behavior of a privileged few, same as they've been doing for generations. That it results in less of the aged dying in the streets is incidental.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

C'est Arrivé Près de Chez Vous

The one thing literature can do better than any other artistic form is show just how wretched and contemptible humanity can be. And no literature does that better than Russian literature!

The Little Demon by Fyodor Sologub is one of those picaresque adventures, centering on a feckless anti-hero and his shenanigans. Only there is no adventure, all the action taking place in a stagnant provincial town, and the schoolteacher Peredonov quickly advances from anti-hero to outright villain as his mind deteriorates. Often compared to Gogol's Dead Souls, Sologub's novel is much closer to "Diary of a Mad Man" but with grim reality instead of wackiness - Peredonov's psychosis involves both delusions of grandeur and exponentially growing paranoia, until he believes the only means of freeing himself from some hairy little pest is to burn down the town hall.

What makes Peredonov stand out most though is that he does not stand out. A muddling mediocrity, his stated plans to marry the shrewish "cousin" Varvara is roundly mocked by his own social circle form the very start of the novel and he routinely is outsmarted by his own students. He takes revenge in petty and sneaky ways, tormenting Varvara with the notion that he might not marry her aging and bony ass, paying nightly visits to the parents of his students and convincing them their boys have been very bad in school, regardless of how they actually behaved, and getting other hands to deliver the savage blows he longs to deliver himself. At every turn, Peredonov seeks first and formost to feel superior by causing others pain.

Sologub's harsh satire comes in with how this pettiness is perhaps the only quality he shares with his own dim neighbors. Varvara herself perpetuates a hoax against Peredonov, convincing him she's in good with some princess and will get him a respectable government appointment if he hurries up and ties the knot. Varvara's "friend" Prepolovenskaya convinces the neurotic woman to scourge herself with nettles as a means to "fill out" and be more physically appealing. And then there is everyone else in town, constantly sniping at one another and jockeying for position.

Perhaps the only truly good person in the whole mess is the schoolboy Sascha, at all that means is he's the biggest victim. A quiet and shy boy, he first is persecuted by Peredonov's mania that he is secretly a girl, only to wind up the plaything of the debauched Liudmilla and her sisters who dress him in petticoats and kimonos while not so secretly lusting after his virginal flesh. The abuse he suffers from Peredonov and his own peers in fact drives him towards the sexual abuses of Liudmilla, who first presents herself as a friend and confidante, ever drawing the boy in deeper through emotional blackmail and occasionally outright physical violence. Sascha wants to be a good boy, wants to please the worldly and beautiful Liudmilla - and likely desires her as his own sexual desires are just beginning to manifest - and so compromises himself in a society that places great emphasis on the appearance of propriety while indulging every base vice they can imagine.

This comes to a head in a costume pageant, held in the very hall Peredonov soon burns down. The mad schoolteacher has been working hard to endear himself to the luminaries of the town - a succession of idiot caricatures, in the fine tradition of Dead Souls - but can muster little more than the grumblings of an angsting adolescent when present in the largest social gathering of the year. Meanwhile, the actual adolescent Sascha is smuggled in by Liudmilla and her sisters who have dressed the boy up in a geisha costume. This makes him the bell of the ball, inflaming the men and enraging the women, and stirring up a riot as people tear at his skirts and seek to unmask him - a death sentence for a sensitive boy in such a brutal town.

But even Sologub allows for some virtue in his world. Sascha, despite his forced corruption by the sisters, retains a goodness and sincerity that not even the benevolent school headmaster can match. Similarly, the actor who saves him recognizes that he is a boy disguised as a woman but gently laughs it all off, swearing to keep the secret because "I was a boy once too." Human frailty and wickedness may be a product of base desire, but just a little sense of common humanity is all it takes to elevate people to virtuous behavior.

In that way, Peredonov is the most evil of men because he is the most selfish. Tormenting his students and spinning tales of persecution to the authorities is all well and good, but arson and murder finally expose him as the monster he truly is to a lax society already crawling with petty little demons. He is not some aberration but the logical extension of the poshlost - the self-satisfied wickedness - of all the other, respectable characters. As Sologub explicitly said of his novel, "it is about you."

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Golden Age of Video Games

There was a thread in one of the dumber corners of the internet last week full of sad sacks who can't talk to girls lamenting the current state of their toys. Turns out video games are too girly these days or whatever, though the long lost belle epoque of video gaming was, according to these professional victims, about a decade or so ago. Now I ain't no fancy-pants mathemetician, but wouldn't that make 2005 the year they're pining away for? How can they miss God of War and Guitar Hero when there's a new version pumped out every year with monotonous regularity?

So today, rather than a real post, we're gonna take a look at the actual Golden Age of Video Games:

Chrono Trigger
The JRPG everyone forgets. Rather than split the world into an isometric map and a battle screen, it integrated both into a single view so you could actually side step the damn random encounters if you wanted. Throw in an endearingly ludicrous plot full of time travel and frog knights, and you'll forget that you renamed one of the characters Nypps.

"Your turn, Anuss!"

Like Chrono Trigger, after one too many magic mushrooms. One of the few JRPGs to do things differently, weaving the typical "children destroy God with the power of love" plot into a surreal suburbia worthy of David Lynch. And the final boss battle is technically an abortion.

Jason Vorhees runs a meth lab while you talk Carlos Santana down from the roof.

Earthworm Jim
Before Commander Shepherd, before Master Chief, the fate of the universe rested in the robot hands of a sour-faced worm. Jim took on slimy aliens, cybernetic crows, and cows in his quest to make the universe safe for annelids. And he never needed no dang quick time events or crafting - he just blasted the crap out of everything! Or wip it with his own head!

Wip it good!

Another game to get the modern remake treatment, though with much more going on. Conrad must piece together his shattered memory while exposing a vast conspiracy of slimy reptoids who seek to conquer humanity. It's Total Recall meets David Icke!

Bonus Pitfall nostalgia.

Ghouls 'n Ghosts
Technically Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts because everything was just so goddamn super back then. Double-jump your way to victory against the undead hordes and save the Princess... then do it all again if you even want to face the proper Final Boss. And kids these days think Dark Souls is rough...

In my day, we took on The Catacombs in our underpants!

Out of this World (Another World)
A gorgeous and nuanced platform adventure that punishes any misstep with instant death. Not because it's going for realism - your physicist Lester drives a Ferrari into the opening cutscene fer Chrissakes - but simply because they want you to fully appreciate how it would feel if you were suddenly whisked from your humdrum life off to Another World. It would feel terrifying.

It took most kids about a year to figure out this part.

Super Mario World
The apex of the Mario franchise. It's all been downhill since. Ditching the raccoon tail for a proper cape and stacking that with a sidekick much more endearing than that tagalong Luigi. Also marks the last good time you're trying to rescue Princess Toadstool instead of that blonde pretender to the throne.

And who could forget these huge honkin' assholes?

Zombies Ate My Neighbors
The most fun zombie game ever made and still the only good one. The bizarre monsters and equally bizarre means of blowing them up almost take a backseat to the gleeful mocking of American suburbia, from the shopping mall to the beach to the spaceship where your hayseed uncle got probed.

...This seems a little unfair.

Remember, these are all the Best Games Evar by strictly objective analysis. If you disagree, you are wrong and a bad person.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Happiness in Slavery

Fifty Shades of Grey has generated think pieces and article comments that are all united by their utter cluelesness. Twilight Fanfic du Jour is not some bold new take on sex, it's not some triumph of erotica, and it sure ain't the downfall of cinema. It's just another spank fantasy with nothing of substance to say.

So today we're going to examine a spank fantasy that has very much to say - Story of O!

Original title Histoire d'O, it focuses on the willing sexual slavery of a woman known simply as O to one powerful man after another. Beginning in Roissy - a little bit finishing school, a little bit Hellfire Club - the titular O is conditioned to be ever ready for oral, vaginal, and anal intercourse by a succession of nameless gentlemen who frequent the club, including the lover, René, who presents her in the first place.

Tellingly, O is not pursuing this on her own but is in fact following the wishes of René. Her subjugation to other men is presented as his will, to which she willingly complies. After she graduates from Roissy, she returns to René as a child returns to her father and continues to obey him in their ensuing adventures through the underground BDSM scene of mid-20th Century Paris. In the course of this, René eventually presents O as a "gift" to his elder brother, Sir Stefan. O, being a good girl, does this for René but ultimately grows to love Sir Stefan instead and attends the advanced slavery course at Samois, culminating in a literal padlock on her vagina.

Like all the best French writing, sex is front and center through all this but serves more to illuminate human nature. O's devotion to René at first makes things appear as just a kinky romance but her switch to Sir Stefan demonstrates that this is just as much about power. Anyone familiar with BDSM is going "Well duh!" right now but Story of O does not leave this at merely the fantasy level, where modern BDSM fearfully clings. Rather, the novel is a critique of power dynamics from the sexual to the economic. O's subservience to the men in her life is nothing but the logical extreme of actually existing patriarchy, where a woman's highest desire is pleasing men.

The insidiousness of this system is highlighted by O presenting her ravaged body and pad-locked pussy as her own choice to a horrified fashion model - not just demonstrating how people can internalize the culture that oppresses them but also the murkiness of trying to reconcile the personal with the political. Though O is degraded further and further into an object over the course of the narrative - not once is she even given the dignity of a full and proper name - but she willingly allows this out of her declared love. Who can say she doesn't honestly feel for René and Sir Stefan? Is this still slavery if it's not only accepted but actively sought by the slave?

While the personal and sexual dimension of power in Story of O is explored in every direction, the economic dimension is critiqued more subtly and through strategic omission. At the very start, René does not himself drive O to Roissy but hires a cab. All the other gentlemen at Roissy carry themselves with the stiff confidence of the upper classes, indulging in and abusing the women who are made to dress as eroticized servants and obey. Not once does O encounter a man from the laboring classes - indeed, Sir Stefan is blatantly of a high patrician class and even exerts power over other men, particularly his younger brother René. Yet many of the other women O encounters, from her horrified model friend to the other girls at Samois, could easily be from less privileged backgrounds. The Samois girls in particular reflect the suggestibility and dependence of teenage runaways picked up and turned out by pimps, seeking some purpose in life and finding it in complete submission to those society deems their betters.

The novel ends with O reduced to such an object, so lacking in agency, that she requires Sir Stefan's permission to die. She never once protests this condition as to do so would be asserting herself as an independent being in her own right, with desires independent of serving those in a position of privilege over her. That she nominally chose this course only raises the question of if the world ever really gave her a choice from the start.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015


The ridiculousness of 1980s American cinema is well documented. Rugged beefcakes with guns as big as their biceps mowing down commies, darkies, and other assorted scum while indulging in homoerotic subtext. The action films of the Reagan years all follow this sordid pattern, all reflective of the triumphant and sexually confused Republican epoch.

Yet there's very little on the action films of the waning 1970s, despite the seeds being very visible. Chuck Norris did his best work in this era, right about the time karate peaked in popularity and the vast Sullen Majority craved some alternative to the moral complexity of the New Hollywood productions. They got that with Chuck and his roundhouse kicks of justice, just as much as they did with Clint Eastwood's .44 and Charles Bronson's celebration of vigilantism.

Good Guys Wear Black is a prototype of the loudly fascist 80s Action Films to come. The title itself is a reference to Norris and his entirely black-clad black ops team, whose final mission in Vietnam goes awry because of meddlesome DC bureaucrats. It's a staple of American reactionary cinema that the failure in Vietnam was the fault of inadequate will on the part of the politicians and media - the Dog Ate My Bazooka defense - rather than the clear military superiority of the NVA and Viet Cong. Because the outside world is never real to provincial idiots, beyond its utility in presenting neat little moral lessons about Honor and Duty and whatever. This narcissistic fantasy has persisted right up to the present day, with both The Hurt Locker and American Sniper turning the black comedy of the Iraq War into just another sump for bathos over Our Poor Hometown Boys.

While it certainly follows this modern script, Good Guys Wear Black deviates somewhat in two important factors. First, it is much more a thriller than a balls-out action flick with Norris getting wind that his old team is being bumped off, necessitating a cross-country investigation to determine not just the who but the why. Though this does allow for thrilling ski chases and one-on-one roundhouse duels.

Second, and most striking, is the film's blatant anti-establishment sentiment. Following the failed Vietnam mission, the story jumps ahead several years to find Chuck working on his PhD in political science, teaching classes on how the Vietnam War was a horrible mistake. After Reagan took office, you'd only ever hear that statement in an action movie either uttered by a peacenik strawman or followed by "because we didn't nuke the shit out of 'em!" The villain, the very same bureaucrat who sold out the Black Clad Heroes, is not some sniveling weasel anomaly but so much the norm of America that he's about to be appointed secretary of state! Rather than the triumphal tone of Commando or Top Gun, Good Guys Wear Black feels both weary and frightened of the very nation and people Chuck Norris would later celebrate in his films.

However, these symptoms of the Bad Old 70s are still overshadowed by the visceral power fantasy on which 80s Action would very soon be based. Chuck, realizing he'll never get The System to punish his nemesis, resorts to straight up murder. Gleefully and without consequence. The assassin is revealed to be another of the titular Good Guys, the lone Asian one, and Norris kicks his head off before his motivations can be revealed as anything other than The Untrustworthy Yellow Race. And while Norris romances a woman who survives all the way to the end of the film, he reserves all his true affections for his male former comrades and the One Good Bureaucrat who serves as his accomplice at the end.

Good Guys Wear Black is a fascinating look at just how the typical action films from the Reagan years to today developed. And it's not half bad as far as 1970s thrillers go.