March 2016


The best Catwoman comic may not be a Catwoman comic at all.  Of the ones I’ve read, I liked Darwyn Cooke’s the best. But I found a book that is just what I think Catwoman should be: Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover’s Bandette. It started as a webcomic, but it’s now available in two hardbound volumes.

bandette rembrandt

Bandette is a Parisian teen girl thief.  (Her real name is Maxime Plouffe.)  The first two chapters set the tone: she breaks into a mansion, steals some Rembrandt minatures, gets seen, escapes, helps out her police friend with the aid of her teen irregulars, talks to her rival (whose nom de vol is Monsieur), flirts with her friend Daniel, and earns a death sentence from a villain named Absinthe.

It’s fun, it’s well done, and it’s completely weightless.  No grimdark at all, at least in volume 1– Absinthe seems no more dangerous than Mr. Rastapopoulos in Tintin. Can you tell I’m sick of grimdark?  Not long ago in the DC universe, Joker apparently cut his face off.  And then his face became a McGuffin for awhile, and then he got it back again.  Back on his face, that is.  I guess that’s pretty crazy, but a) it’s a steal from another media property; and b) it’s really pretty dumb. It’s grimdark as the camp body horror other half of Batman 1966.

I’m guessing Tobin has read some French BDs… the fact that the police inspector’s name is BD may be a clue; also the Tintin-level mixture of humor and adventure. Bandette also owes something to Irma Vep, classic catsuited French thief.  Tobin has everyone talk as if poorly translated from French:

Daniel: But what is this list?

Bandette: Is it not obvious, Daniel?  It is a mischief list!

Daniel: A mischief list?

Bandette: Yes, it’s very exciting! It’s a listing of items owned by Absinthe.  …It would be the height of folly to attempt to steal them.

Bandette aims to do just that, of course– she has a very high opinion of herself. Which in a real person is not a very attractive quality, but she somehow pulls it off, perhaps because the fun she’s having is so contagious.  (When she visits Monsieur, to propose a mutual challenge, she starts off by asking if he has any cookies.)

I picked it up on the strength of Coover’s name– I loved her Small Favors, and few artists are so good at drawing cute girls. But she can draw much more: big-nosed Parisian cops, middle-aged master thieves, Parisian rooftops, etc.  It’s stylized but beautifully drawn; it fits the story perfectly.

I think what goes wrong in most of the Catwoman books I’ve seen is precisely the lack of lightness.  It’s fine if things go wrong– that’s what makes stories.  But I want her to be smart, witty, resourceful, a little cocky, and graceful and admirable as a thief– like Bandette.  There’s no need to give her the same traumas as Batman.

(I was at the library today and volume two was unavailable.  So these remarks are based on volume one.  If she runs into Joker in the next book, it’s not my fault.)

The one DC book that captures some of this lightness is Amanda Conner’s Harley Quinn. A recent episode had Power Girl hit by a space alien and lose her memory.  She wakes up in Harley’s back yard, and Harley convinces her that she is actually her loyal sidekick.  Wacky is hard to pull off, but Conner gets just the right balance, I think.

I finished reading the Ramayana. Or at least I think I did.  What I read was a modern retelling, The Ramayana: A Modern Retelling of the Great Indian Epic, by Ramesh Menon. The author explains that previous retellings were “too short” as well as too Shakespearian, while he finds scholarly translations lacking “poetry and mystery”, and even more archaic in language. Besides, who has really read Rāmāyaṇam except those who have plowed through its 24,000 verses in Sanskrit?

(By the way, you might like to know that the accept goes on the antepenult: ra-MA-ya-na. Same rule as Latin, actually: two final short vowels in CV syllables are unstressed.)

Ravana and Rama

The story, for an epic, is simple enough.  Ravana, the king of the rakshasas (the race of demons or perhaps daemons), makes a tapasya— a period of penance and self-mortification.  He has ten heads; after each thousand years of tapasya, he cuts off another head and throws it in the sacrificial fire.  At the end of ten thousand years, he prepares to cut off his last head. Shiva appears and grants him a boon. He asks for strength above all creatures.  (He also gets his nine heads back.)  Unsatisfied, he sits for another tapasya, this time to Brahma, the Creator.  When Brahma appears, he asks for the boon that no god may kill him, no rakshasa, no asura or daitya or gandharva or any other divine or demonic being. This granted, he goes off to conquer the three worlds– earth, heaven, and hell.

(If you’re a conworlder, pause to admire that opener.  Would you have created an origin story like that for your Big Bad? Where he takes a perfectly valid spiritual path to get his superpowers?)

He has made only one mistake: thinking them beneath him, he omitted to ask for protection from humans.  Or monkeys, for that matter.

Eventually Ravana’s crimes (what are they?  we’ll get back to this) become too much, and the gods petition Vishnu for relief.  He agrees to incarnate as a human being, one who will eventually slay Ravana.  His avatar will be Rama, son of king Dasaratha of Ayodhya.

The overall bones of the story are already in place, but some more complications are needed. Rama must go on a few missions to get out of the palace and level up. He meets Sita, daughter of the king of Mithila.  As Rama is the perfect man, she is the perfect woman, and an avatar of Lakshmi.  They are married right away.

The king has three wives, and one of them is tempted by her evil servant to ask for a boon.  This is to send Rama into exile for fourteen years and make her own son Bharata crown prince. She had saved Dasaratha’s life once, so he has to fulfill her wish; Rama, being perfect, acquiesces gracefully.  He takes Sita and his brother Lakshmana, goes into the jungle, and lives like a rishi, a holy man– wearing barkskin clothes and dreadlocks, hunting to support themselves.

Even this is too much bliss for a heroic character, and after Rama gets into an altercation with a colony of 14,000 rakshasas and kills them all, Ravana takes notice– and kidnaps Sita.  Oh, now it’s on, ten-head dude.

So how is it?

Initial reaction: those ancient Indians knew how to epic.  If you like big fantasy epics you’ll probably dig it. In fact it’ll probably satisfy your fantasy hunger better than (say) the Morte Darthur, or the Iliad. Bronze age or medieval warfare, after all, is just humans of similar powers and mentalities killing each other.  In the Ramayana you get different species, magical powers, and excursions into spirituality and romance.

If you’re used to fantasy, you probably crave unusual worlds, but may balk at unusual narrative conventions. A traditional epic was normally told to people who already knew the story, so there is no attempt to hide how it ends. It’s also a religious story, and there’s little of the modern interest in finding the sins of the good and the charms of the evil. For that matter Menon is quite happy to tell you, and often, that Rama is good and Ravana is evil.

I’d also say that Menon hits a sweet spot of modern but not slangy English. Epics shouldn’t sound dusty.

I did see one review that mused that Menon might have tried too hard to Westernize the source materials. Maybe it seems that way if you’ve chewed on the original, or on more scholarly translations, but for the rest of us, Menon’s version is plenty non-Western. The one criticism I’d have, in fact, is that he is a little too devoted to Sanskrit terms.  I understand the impulse– Sanskrit is beautiful, and mistranslation or poor translation can be heartbreaking.  But I don’t know that it adds that much to have Sanskrit terms that are simply glossed “weapon” or “lake” or “trident”.

(I do have to say that Book Six goes on for a long, long time. It’s the final battle, and it takes over a hundred pages.  Every single one of Ravana’s family and commanders has to go up against Rama and his army. If you like superhero comics or movies, it’s basically that. But I tire of superhero comics, too.)

Good and evil

In some ways Ravana is the prototype of an evil overlord. But in many ways he’s not.

You expect Sauron’s lair to be hard iron and rock, all midnight black and lava red. Ravana has a city, which is… preternaturally beautiful. It’s rich and lovely, and full of happy rakshasas.  Ravana knows his Vedic lore, and he has his own rakshasa brahmins.  He’s described as regal and magnificent, and he certainly has the unforced loyalty of his family, his commanders, and his army. We’re even told that many of the women in his harem submit to him quite happily, sighing only that his visits are so infrequent.

So what is his crime?  Well, he’s a warmonger, of course, going so far as to attack and defeat Indra in heaven, and Yama, Death himself, in hell. This is hardly a sin, however– conquering people is pretty much how an emperor is expected to behave.

Rakshasas do have a nasty habit of eating rishis. They like interfering with the rishis’ sacrifices and meditation, and even more than that they like eating animal and human flesh. That’s pretty bad, but you could also say it’s their role in the ecosphere.  Rather like Greek polytheism, Hindu cosmology comes across as ethically neutral.  Gods can sin; demons may be wise kings or scholars; the great trinity will grant boons to anyone who can muster a tapasya. And they’re all related anyway. (Ravana is the great-grandson of Brahma.)

Ravana’s big failing, it turns out, is women– of many species.  To be blunt, he’s a rapist.  Though by the time he meets Sita, this has already bitten him where it hurts: one of the husbands he’d wronged curses him, and this is a world where curses hurt: if he rapes another woman his heads, all ten of them, will explode.  So when he kidnaps Sita he doesn’t try to force himself on her; he merely tries every variation of threat and cajoling for months on end. His wiser councilors tell him, not to ease up on the rishi-munching, but to return Sita and apologize to Rama. But he’s fallen in love with her and is willing to fight to the end.

To clarify, as a religion of course Hinduism is very pro-virtue (dharma). Humans are supposed to be virtuous.  And gods are too… when they do sin, they have to do penance or suffer.

The problem of Sita

For a modern reader, the most disturbing aspect of the story are instances where, after Ravana has been defeated, Rama makes a big deal of Sita spending so many months with Ravana, and being tainted.  The text is quite clear that Sita is entirely innocent.  In both cases Rama claims that he never doubted her, but has to be severe in order to put other people’s doubts to rest. And I’m sorry, avatar of  Vishnu or not, that is a dick move.

One of the instances is in the 7th kanda or book of the poem, and supposedly there are doubts that it was original. (The story really ends with book 6; the 7th is largely a prequel, telling the story of how Ravana got to rule the three worlds, and includes a few stories of what happened during Rama’s 10,000-year kingship.)  The other instance may be an interpolation as well… or the fact that people say so seems to indicate that disquiet over the treatment of Sita isn’t new.

Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues is a response to Sita’s mistreatment, and a lot of fun in itself.

Connections

One of the more enchanting bits of the Ramayana is the nature of Rama’s army: besides his brother, it’s all monkeys.  (His brother Bharata is ruling back in Ayodhya, and it doesn’t seem to occur to anyone to send a human army.)  Rama makes the acquaintance of Hanuman, a vanara or intelligent magical monkey, and he leads him to the king of the monkeys. They turn out to be a pretty good set of allies, and as they remind Ravana, he forgot to ask Brahma to protect him against monkeys, too.

This raises the question of whether Sūn Wùkōng, the Monkey King of Journey to the West, is based on Hanuman or on any of the other vanaras. They both have transformation powers, they both help achieve a spiritual mission, they both have magical leaps, they both combine heroism with a little mischief, they both were more arrogant in their youth.  Buddhists don’t directly read the Ramayana, but versions of the story are popular in Buddhist areas, and the Monkey King probably owes a large debt to Rama’s helper.

More speculatively, I wonder if the avatar idea influenced Christianity. The Ramayana was written no later than about 300 BC, at a time when Hellenic kingdoms bridged the gap from the Mediterranean to the Indus. That gods could take a temporary human form was of course no great imaginative leap, but the Hindu idea was of a god living an entire human life, fully human and not always conscious of his divinity. It seems like a strange idea to have occurred to strict Jewish monotheists, of all peoples.

I also wonder if JRR Tolkien ever read some version of the Ramayana. The idea of multiple sentient races, some close to God, some near-demonic, was not commonplace in fantasy before him, and there it is in the Ramayana. The general atmosphere– an evil lord far to the south, kings in exile, valued and powerful gurus, numinous elder races, key actions by eagles, various ages of the world each declining from the last, all remind me of LOTR. I’m reminded that C.S. Lewis’s brother in his childhood was fascinated by India– it doesn’t seem like a huge stretch that a British writer in the time of the empire might have heard some of these stories.

Finally, if you’re an AD&D player of my generation, you will remember rakshasas from the very fine illustration of a tiger rakshasa in the Monster Manual. They are a little underpowered, and I don’t know where they got the tiger bit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I used to do Traveler’s Guides to the US elections, but I stopped when US politics got even more depressing. However, the rise of Trump seems to demand some effort, especially since I think it’s widely misinterpreted.

trumpo

A lot of people are outraged over Trump, and for good reason: he’s a bad man. The thing is, they’re outraged for different and in fact completely opposed reasons.  Liberals hate him because he’s a blowhard racist and proto-fascist.  Conservatives hate him because he’s not extreme enough.

Now that Trump has won 10 states and has a large delegate lead, it’s evident that he’s not going away by himself. The Republican establishment is in a tizzy— today Mitt Romney is giving a speech attacking Trump. I see too much of the narrative that Trump is somehow the crazy outlier and that one of the establishment candidates would be more moderate.

This is absurd: the other candidates are even crazier and Trump’s support is greatest among (Republican) moderates. The most dedicated evangelicals, the scrap-the-gummint libertarians, the nuke-em-all neocons, all hate Trump because he is less committed to their orthodoxy than the other candidates. Very conservative and Tea Party voters prefer Cruz.

This doesn’t mean Trump is actually moderate, just a foul-mouthed Bush Sr.  If elected, he would do bad things.  But these are precisely the bad things that any Republican candidate would do, and which he would do because he agrees with the GOP Congressional leadership: pass a huge tax cut for the rich, name a neo-Scalia to the Supreme Court, repeal Obamacare, ignore climate change, deport illegal immigrants, build a wall on the border, reverse gay marriage, restrict abortion, be aggressive abroad, and return to torture.

(Whether he or any GOP president would actually be able to get those things passed is another issue.  The Republicans have 24 Senate seats in contention— won during the 2010 election, which was far friendlier to the GOP. The Democrats only need 5 seats to take control of the Senate.)

When the other candidates criticize him, it’s always from the right. Cruz has called Trump’s immigration policy “amnesty”, and he and Rubio have pledged to immediately deport DREAMers (i.e. children and students). Cruz isn’t just against illegal immigration, but wants to reduce immigration period (hey, who needs a growing economy?).  When Trump stated, accurately, that Bush didn’t keep us safe from terrorism and ignored warnings about Osama, Rubio was outraged and blamed 9/11 on Bill Clinton. Trump has claimed he could produce an Israeli-Palestinian deal, while Cruz and Rubio assert the standard GOP line that it’s impossible to negotiate with the Palestinians. They attacked Trump in the last debate for not being sufficiently callous about universal health care. Both want to reverse the Iran deal, so Iran can go back to developing nukes. For Rubio, austerity budgets and giveaways to the rich are not enough; he wants a balanced budget amendment and to eliminate the estate tax. Both of them have condemned Trump for speaking up for the non-abortion things Planned Parenthood does.

Explaining why they hate Trump, conservatives like Erick Erickson and Rick Wilson accuse him of being pro-abortion, pro-gun-control, and for single payer health. (All calumnies, but it shows what direction they’re attacking from.)

Would Trump get behind Paul Ryan’s budget? He’s less likely to do so than Cruz or Rubio; he’s really not against big government or the middle-class entitlements. Cruz doesn’t just want a tax cut; he wants a 10% flat tax and no IRS.  (I guess the tax would be implemented as a tip jar.)  Would Trump start wars? He’s the one who’s been ragging on Bush for the Iraq War; Cruz has promised to “carpet bomb” the Middle East.

Trump has burned a lot of bridges with GOP leaders, but so has Cruz, to the point that Sen. Lindsay Graham remarked, “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate and the trial was in the Senate, nobody could convict you.” It would have seemed insane a year ago to predict that a GOP candidate would do well by purposely feuding with Fox News— but nobody can say Trump isn’t media-savvy.

So what’s wrong with Trump? In my sf novel, I suggested that it’s less of a problem for a conservative leader to be immoral than to look ridiculous.  Trump is ridiculous.  He’s angry and unfocused, doesn’t bother much with consistency or truth, responds to all disputes with schoolyard insults. He just doesn’t do gravitas.

The GOP establishment hates him partly because he doesn’t care much about GOP orthodoxy, and because they can’t control him. They’re not bothered by his racism— all the GOP cares about is white men anyway.  They just wish he’d learn to express it in more filtered and conventional terms.

For thirty years the GOP has valued, above all else, tax cuts, deregulation, free trade, and a non-expanding government— basically, what the rich elite want.  Cultural concerns are thrown on to attract actual non-rich voters, but tossed away when inconvenient— which is why the GOP base always hates the GOP establishment. Though Trump doesn’t leave the conservative church, he is something of a heretic.  He doesn’t care about (all of ) “movement conservativism”; he doesn’t want to drown government in a bathtub; his statements on free trade veer toward protectionism.

The GOP is torn between libertarianism, the religious right, big business, and right-wing populism. Trump is best understood as the voice of the last group. Rather like Bernie Sanders, he resonates with the many white people (the majority, really) who feel left behind by modern plutocracy.  Of course he’s a businessman himself and doesn’t promise to reduce inequality, but he speaks to people’s feelings that they’ve lost something.  Cruz and Rubio have done nothing to connect better with these people, and I don’t think Romney attacking their champion will do any good either.

It’s been a crazy year, but it’s not crazy in the same way as 2012, where the GOP electorate flirted with various not-Romneys and then selected the establishment candidate.  But if they wanted an extreme candidate, they’d’ve gone for Cruz. (And there’s very little air between Cruz and Rubio.)  They wanted a non-establishment candidate— and to the extent Trump differs from the rest of the field, it’s not that he’s crazy, it’s that a) he’s unfiltered, and b) he’s not (quite so) tied to GOP orthodoxy.

What happens now?  A lot depends on whether the GOP falls into line behind Trump or not. The party decided to have an early convention, in July, believing that the bruising 2012 fight didn’t allow enough time for intra-party wounds to heal.  That’s looking like a mistake now: is just four months enough time for Romney and other party elders, to say nothing of the other candidates, to rally enthusiastically at a Trump coronation and focus happily on Hillary?  That’s kind of their job, but (say) Romney’s speech today is going to make excruciating contrast to Romney’s speech at the convention.

(The Plan Z of the establishment, if Trump wins a plurality but not a majority of delegates. seems to be a brokered convention. Hoo boy, does that seem like a poor plan. Trump voters are supposed to fall in line and vote for Mr. Establishment after their man is robbed?  If anything could actually break the party in half, that would do it.)

Edit: Forgot to add that Trump is just an intensification of GOP strategy for the last eight years: rile up the base’s anger, encourage government dysfunction, court white men by opposing every other group, aggressively disregard the facts.  The elite doesn’t like someone doing all this even better than they can.

Also, in the GOP debate last night, the position of the other candidates was that Trump was a dishonest con man who couldn’t be trusted to be president, and that they’d be voting for him in the fall. They really deserve the drubbing they’re getting.