December 13, 2005

"Ernest needs" - Playing the "Needs Meme"

Silly but fun: enter your name and the word 'needs" into Google and see what you get...

In order, my top seven results are:

1. Ernest needs to handpick current and future leaders by identifying critical...

2. ...Ernest needs to explore activity-based budgeting—calculating the actual costs of last year's products, services and consumption...

3. ...Ernest needs $39000 to attend his first year at the Ontario College of ...

4. Ernest Needs a Kidney.

5. Ernest needs help.

6. Ernest needs a family who can provide a lot of nurturing, love, attention, and patience.

7. Ernest needs to know what might happen before The children find out...

December 10, 2005

Still Waiting - The Bagnell Taser Case Continues

Robert Bagnell died in Vancouver on June 23, 2004 after being Tasered by police.

Reposted from A. Cameron Ward, Barrister and Solicitor, "Commentaries"

"Nearly 18 months after Robert Bagnell died suddenly in his Vancouver rooming house, Regional Crown Counsel of the Criminal Justice Branch, Ministry of Attorney General have advised his family that 'no charges will be approved for prosecution.'

"Robert's parents and sister are now looking forward to a mandatory coroner's inquest, where they hope to uncover the facts related to Robert's untimely death. The BC Coroners Service has not set a date yet. So far, the family has learned that Robert was unarmed and lying on the floor in the presence of at least five police officers when two of them shot him repeatedly with Taser weapons, apparently to subdue him so he could receive medical attention.

"Robert Bagnell is one of at least 160 North Americans who have died after being shot by the Taser, a high tech police weapon that emits a 50,000 volt electrical charge designed to incapacitate and inflict excruciating pain on, but supposedly not kill, the subject. This year alone, 66 people, including four Canadians, have died after being Tasered.

Critics, including Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, say that insufficient safety testing was done on the weapons before they were deployed by police forces in the United States and Canada. Police forces in Chicago and Montgomery, Alabama have discontinued use of the weapon, citing safety and liability concerns.

Meanwhile, people keep dying. The latest was race car driver Dale Earnhardt's first cousin, Jeffrey D. Earnhardt, 47, who died last Thursday, December 1, 2005, in Orlando, Florida after being shot twice by a police Taser.


Robert Bagnell, 44, died on June 23, 2004. The Vancouver Police Department (VPD) initially told his family that Robert died of a drug overdose, then a month later revealed to the media that they had Tasered him twice just before he died. Another month after that, the VPD acknowledged that he was not a threat to anyone and that he was not involved in the commission of a crime when they sent an ERT (SWAT) team into the washroom Robert was in. The police said Bagnell was shocked with 50,000 volts so they could "rescue" him from a "fire" in his building. The family is skeptical of these claims, but it has been unable to obtain autopsy reports or get a coroner's inquest scheduled, even though one is mandatory."

Related Links:

Is a Taser Enough Force? - Part 2

Journey from Dark to Light: A Web Tribute to Bob Bagnell

December 05, 2005

Superman: Triumph of the Geeks

The Canada Post stamp commemorating Superman

Material for this rant about Superman, history, and national pride came from the book Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones.

Superman's creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Seigel have often been described as the two kids from Cleveland who dreamed up the "Man of Steel". But unlike Jerry Seigel, Joe Shuster wasn't actually from Cleveland. Joe was a Canadian.

In recent years, the Canadian Government made a point of reminding us that Joe Shuster, the artist who for many years drew that strange visitor from another planet, was actually born in the far-off land of Toronto, Ontario.

In 1998, Canada Post issued a stamp commemorating the 60th anniversary of the genesis of Superman. I bought a t-shirt featuring artwork from the stamp at the Postal Outlet in my neighbourhod 7-11. Not long afterwards, I saw a TV commercial depicting a young Joe Shuster saying goodbye to his cousin Lois, and waving a sketch of his new superhero character as he left on the train to Cleveland. The dramatic little scene closed with the words " A Part of our Heritage." It actually made me feel rather proud to think that one of the collaborators of a character strongly identified with the U.S. was a Canadian.

In Superman's early years, the first stories in Action Comics in 1938 said that the name of Clark Kent's employer was The Daily Star. This is likely a reference to The Toronto Star, Joe's home paper. Later on, the name was changed to the familiar "Daily Planet". Any vestigial references to Canada (which you'd have needed a microscope to have noticed in the first place) disappeared over the succeeding decades as Superman grew in the American comic marketplace, and evolved into an American icon, fighting for "truth, justice and the American way".

When Christopher Reeve used those same words "truth, justice and the American way" in 1978's "Superman: The Movie", it grated on me a little. Like it or not, I will freely admit to feeling skepticism and even anger towards the "A word" when used to refer to a particular ideal of morality or social values. To be fair, this might be resentment or frustration from what I'd call "Canadian Second Banana Syndrome" - the sense of having one's cultural identity overshadowed or even drowned out by an incessantly more dominant one. (Hey - I do whine about this from time to time...)

Anyway, at 12 years old back in 1978, I wondered why a figure like Superman, who is basically a demi-god on Earth, would bother to limit himself to only "the American way"? That phrase never seemed to refer to all the Americas, North and South either, but just the one that starts with "The United States of".

Superman's story is really an immigrant's tale. He came from an alien land, disguising himself and hiding (or even denying) his cultural heritage in order to be accepted into a new society. Joe was an immigrant to the U.S. himself, when his family moved from Toronto to Cleveland when Joe was in his high school years. Immigrants could relate to Superman, with their sense of cultural background coming into relief against the requirements of a large homogeneous society of American nationalism.

The "American way" expression used by Supes is a narrow association of Nationalism more suited to the post-WWII era. I guess it might have sounded a bit naive or refreshingly charming to movie audiences back in 1978, hinting perhaps at less cynical, less complicated set of values. But since that time, Superman has evolved into more of a universal, global icon. So, who's "way" would he be fighting for now? Questioning this leads us to where Frank Miller took Superman in "The Dark Knight Returns", where Superman was only allowed to operate as a Superhero if he defended U.S. interests and enforced a form of Cold War detente, where he serves as the ultimate weapon of mass destruction or mass peace.

Joe met Jerry Seigel at Glendale High in Cleveland, and they shared a geekish love of pulp fiction and fantasy stories. In many ways, they were each like that skinny little guy from the old Charles Atlas ads that you might have seen in comic books. Superman was Seigel and Shuster's symbol of freedom from and triumph over marginalization. The skinny guy getting sand kicked in his face was Joe and Jerry and every kid reading it, and the perfect physical specimen punching out the bully in the last panel was Superman and every other hero that made a geek feel empowered and accepted.

Jerry Seigel always had first billing before Joe. I might speculate that the quieter, less self-aggrandizing Shuster didn't mind who's name went first, so long as he was credited as one of the parents. I'll allow myself that blatant Canadian stereotype of the passive, polite Canadian "nice guy".

Joe's long-time collaborator, Jerry Seigel, fought tenaciously over the years to have his and Shuster's names restored to the masthead as the original creators of Superman. By 1975, with the help of friends, other artists and writers across the entertainment industry, and from the newer generation of management at DC Comics itself, an agreement was reached between Seigel, Shuster and Warner Brothers, who owned DC Comics and the stable of characters. The comic books and the credits for "Superman: The Motion Picture" would include the words "Superman created by Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster". The comic book geeks had won back official recognition for their character. By all accounts, relations between the Seigel and Shuster families and Warner Brothers/DC are fairly healthy and vibrant. Detente.

Joe's last interview (and he rarely ever gave them) was in 1992. Legally blind, he gave one last interview to the newspaper which he had sold in the streets of Toronto at the age of nine: the Toronto Star. "There aren't many people who can say they're leaving behind something as important as Superman," he said. "But Jerry and I can, and that's a good feeling."

Sources and Related Links:

The Original Superman, C. 1933 to 1938
Whatever Happened to the Heroes?
The Death of Christopher Reeve
127 Reasons why Superman is a Dick.

December 01, 2005

Little Hidden Sins: Sin City (and pulp) Revisited

Violence in Velvet - real cheesy pulp crap...

This is a continuation of my previous review of the movie, "Sin City", and a rant about pulp fiction in general.

When I first reviewed the movie "Sin City", I was severely put off by the portrayal of women in Frank Miller's grim and gritty world. The Vancouver-area missing women case with it's enigmatic DNA evidence and ghoulish rumours about Willie Pickton's pig farm (where the DNA evidence against him was gathered) were still fresh in my mind then, so watching a portrayal of a psychotic woman-killer doing his deadly deeds on an old farm hit me as sickly coincidental and put me off the movie big-time.

The violence of Sin City was excessive, and every male seemed to be a one-man killing machine. The story and characters seemed like 1940s stereotypes and that pissed me off. However, the movie's visual style was beautifully stark, unlike any movie I had ever seen.

A few months later, something happened to further tweak my attitude. My wife fell in love with the story, and bought the entire set of original graphic novels by Frank Miller. She read them from end to end in sequence, reciting detailed descriptions to me of the scenarios with analyses of her favourite characters and their motivations. (We had each enjoyed a similar obsession with Lord of the Rings a few years earlier.)

So when my turn came, and I got my hands on Miller's Sin City books, I gained a new appreciation of what he was trying to say and for the style in which he was trying to say it.

The Rodriguez/Miller movie, while beautifully-made and relatively faithful in it's own right, seemed pale in comparison to Miller's original books. Miller's intense, high contrast graphic style is striking and even more effective on the page than on the screen. Reading his drawn lines on paper feels personal, almost intimate, like the nuance of someone's individual handwriting, written in their diary.

Around this point, I decided that I had become burned out by reading way too much physics and math, and so "pulp" became my little reward to myself - my flavour of the month in fiction. I started reading and re-reading pulpy detective novels like "The Big Sleep" and "Poodle Springs" by Raymond Chandler, "The Thin Man" and "The Maltese Falcon" by Dashiel Hammett and everything by my favourite thriller author, James Bond creator, Ian Fleming.

I succumbed to the outdated, sexist, stereotypical world of loner tough guys, alluring dames, dumb cops, and wide-eyed children. The best pulp authors leave some complexity and contradiction in the characters and situations which make you think about the irony of life. The worst authors don't want to confuse the reader - just offer some emotional payoff using familiar imagery and expectations. Painted in such stark contrasts, the pulp world can look very black and white indeed, and very deducible.

In spite of the violence, melodrama, and near-ancient stereotypes portrayed in these stories (some admittedly 70 years old by now), I do feel within them a sense of longing for a simplistic, violent past life. But that is what fantasy is for. And who the hell am I kidding anyway? I wouldn't last 5 minutes against some vicious asshole like Mike Hammer (the original novel version, not the one played by Stacy Keach on TV).

I also picked up this little piece of crap 1959 novel called Violence in Velvet by Michael Avallone, featuring a stereotypical gumshoe named Ed Noon. I think this could be the worst detective novel I have ever read. It contained the most shallow stereotypes, an inhuman, two-dimensional main character who is prone to self-satisfied rantings about morality, and a one-dimensional little kid character who, while much of the story revolves around her, is the least realistic thing in the whole book. It was horrible, laughably so, but it still contained the basic elements of the pulp detective genre. It also served as a beacon of hope to me: If this crud could get published, I might be able to write something better than this dude, and get my own fiction published one day! (You can be the judge of this yourself...)

This whole rant must be about guilty little pleasures. Some women enjoy cheesy romance novels with Fabio arched masterfully across the cover. Some men relish a trenchcoated, gun-totin' loner who would break Fabio's beautiful ass in the back of an alley on a dark, stormy night in the lonely city.

Ian Fleming once admitted that his novels were best read in privacy, like in bed at night, or on the train going to work in the morning. I guess it's about the little tastes and desires, the personal sins, that you wouldn't want to share with somebody else.