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Welcome to The Stag Blog’s series dealing with portrayals of the end times in movies, novels, docudramas, documentaries, instructional pamphlets and films, songs, and memories. The focus will mainly be on nuclear fears during the Cold War, but we will also branch out into some asteroids, aliens, or plagues. Let’s keep it loose.

Guest posts are particularly welcome on this subject — give me your best nuke movies, your memories of hiding under desks, or your childhood (or adult) worries about alien invasion.

Today I wrote four mini reviews of two books and two movies  — they cover nuclear war, alien invasion, a vampire plague, and a comet. All four of them are worth three out of five stars, worth reading or watching, but ultimately sort of unsatisfying. Post your howls of outrage in the comments.

61aUlQj4PSLI Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954):

Though I am a good Twilight Zone fan and Matheson wrote some of my favorite episodes, I learned about the ending in the original novel through a Cracked.com list some years ago. This, contrary to the half-assed 2007 Will Smith movie (which started quite good), is that (spoilers) Robert Neville, the vampire slayer hero of our story has turned into an ironic villain once he is the new minority in vampire society. One of the novel’s high points is that Neville is well aware of how darkly amusing that is, and even dwells on it before he dies.

Though the novel has good details of the zombie-vampire plague, and describes the monotony of Neville’s life so well that it is almost a fault, something about it remains unsatisfying. Its scope is so limited, and every chapter and section seems to end with Neville getting smashed, then restraining himself from running outside to feed himself to the vampires. The whole thing is clearly influential in terms of both vampire, zombie, and post-apocalyptic fiction, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been done better in later works.

Also, apparently the various loose movie adaptions all changed Neville to a scientist. That would make his autodidactic solving of the plague’s mystery a lot more believable. I can’t quite buy how in the book Neville seems to have begun his task with no scientific knowledge at all.

Oddly enough — if only because this feels very Hollywood — the most emotionally powerful bit is when Neville finds the stray dog, and when he loses it again. His desperate hope, and his careful patience in building up the dog’s trust, only for it all to go to hell at the end, is one of those perfect apocalypse fiction moments. Neville’s tiny interactions with the dog are more moving than the destruction of the whole damn world.

51NVOjbTQJL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey (2013):

This is a YA (that is to say, for teens more or less) novel that starts off feeling new and terrifying, but gradually goes downhill once the plot starts moving. This is the story of Cassie Sullivan, a 16-year-old who is alone and surviving on an earth that is nearly extinct of real humans. An alien invasion has brought “waves” of attack that began with an EMP attack that disabled all electronics, and has culminated in extraterrestrials who look a lot like humans roaming the countryside. The final twist — the title reference — is that aliens have managed to trick the survivors into picking each other off through paramilitary training.

The opening scenes are phenomenal in their bleakness; Cassie and her father walking home from school after the EMP, the plague that kills her mother, the mysterious army of apparent survivors who move in to eliminate a refugee camp, the simple fact that the alien ships spends a week in utter silence, lurking above the earth, when they first arrive — there is some great stuff here. I read it all with an unpleasant feeling in my spine, which is all I ever want in such works.

And that it goes all YA-ish. As a character, Cassie has to walk a careful line between credible teenager that was, pre-invasion, and current grim survivor in a new world. And she does more or less. But the mandatory trimmings of a love triangle and an attractive young man who isn’t who he seems don’t pack the same weight as the opening chapters of horror did. The plot really gets going when Cassie begins her quest to free her little brother from alien captivity, and though there is no reason to believe that the aliens would be flawlessly competent, it seems like they should be able to counter Cassie and friends’ revolutionary actions a bit better. The book also drags when it leaves her head and enters that of the other two members of her unfortunate triangle.

Things pick up in the final after a draggy second third, but I was almost disappointed to learn this was just part one of a planned trilogy. I rather liked things ending with a moment of quiet relief for our survivors, but with the overriding knowledge that humans are completely fucked.

MV5BMTkwMzEzMTI4N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDc5Nzk1MDE@._V1_SX214_Ladybug, Ladybug directed by Frank Perry (1963):

This small Cold War panic film waffles between righteous antiwar flick and precious propaganda. The plot is simple: an alarm is tripped at a country school (filmed in Pennsylvania) and a few phone calls by teachers and the principal (played by Mr. Feeney from Boy Meets World, FYI fellow-millennials) suggest this may not be a drill. The teachers are told to walk the students home in groups, and that’s the whole thing. Some of the kids are unafraid. Some are deadly seriously and slightly too well-spoken. A female teacher stuck in heels for the long walk is not comforting; the fear in her eyes shows. The groups get smaller and smaller as kids go home to tell their doubting parents what has happened.

The cinematography is lovely and menacing. The acting is occasionally a bit theatrical and 60s-earnest, but everyone (the kids are mostly amateurs) carries it as well as could be expected. The dialogue is hard to trust as really realistic, except when I remember how everyone claims kids during the Cold War used to say “if I grow up” not “when.” (Remind me to check on the realness of that.)

A highlight is the completely heart-breaking moment when a little girl runs home to tell her mother about the alarm, and she is dismissed. Mom is a completely believable, harried, old-school mother; her daughter is a believably desperate little kid who just wants the older people to understand what is happening. It’s a basic, banal conflict, except that the stakes are apocalyptically high.

Things peter out a bit when the alarm is revealed to be a mistake (probably). The moody conversations during the students’ long walk don’t have the same terror then. The confusing and ambiguous ending is also unsatisfying. I like question mark endings in terms of Lost in Translation or Jim Jarmusch pictures of humanity that leave people after spending a while with them. But I prefer to know whether a nuke was dropped on some children or not.

MV5BMjE4NDE3MjA1NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwMjQxMDM5._V1_SY317_CR4,0,214,317_Deep Impact directed by Mimi Leder (1998):

Oh, the warring comet movies of 1998. In some ways I should just embrace Armageddon for its unsubtle, Aerosmith-sountracked picture of Bruce Willis saving the earth. But Deep Impact is better and worse of a film, in that it manages to provoke some human feelings, but it still wallows in disaster movie absurdities.

Ever since I was little, I was disturbed by scenes of panicked masses in movies. Even in movies I knew were cheesy, I was troubled by the unhinged hysteria and the general trampling each other bits of humanity. Deep Impact has those action-packed scenes, but it has something worse — it has waiting. In fact, most of the movie is about waiting for the end. And that is the most disturbing part about the anticipated apocalypse, trying to figure pit how to live while it inches closer (this is why On the Beach is so good).

The movie follows three main stories: Elijah Wood as the youth who first spots the comet; Tea Leoni as the reporter who breaks the story (this is the only film in which I have ever liked her, maybe because with a bob and a character profession as a cable news reporter, her stiffness magically changes into hey, she’s my old journalism adviser who used to work for CNN!); and finally, the least interesting, the team of astronauts who are going to save us all from doom. The movie also includes the gravitas-tastic Morgan Freeman as the president, with various side characters.

I don’t know that I could defend the whole movie — certainly not Elijah Woods’ last minute, highly bullshit efforts to rescue his ladylove Leelee Sobieski. Except that the moment where Sobieski’s parents put her on Woods’ motorcycle, pass her her little sibling, and basically pry her fingers away as she hysterically says “I’ll see you soon” is lovely and gets me in the gut every single time. As is the moment when the parents, instead of fleeing in vain from the comet-made tidal wave, just turn and smile into each other’s faces at the end.

Less effective, but still powerful is Leoni’s characters’ end. And there are the visuals — the last-minute helicopters in the sky over New York City; the crowds of hysterical people trying to enter the sanctuary of the caves (though in real life I think there would be a lot more soldiers machine gunning people)… and they all work too well for something so popcornish. They have no business working at all in a cheesy, impossible action movie. But they are like the extras and the secondary characters in Titanic who act circles round the main characters and the tedious love story plot. They give heart and stomach-churning anxiety to what may be a crap movie in the end.

Half-good movies are more frustrating than entirely awful ones. But halfway good movies can still raise a chill and make me think about how people spend their last moments before the end of either their world or the world entire. Deep Impact does this, and that’s not bad for a summer thriller.

04_top10postapocalypticbooks1Welcome to The Stag Blog’s series dealing with portrayals of the end times through movies, novels, docudramas, documentaries, instructional pamphlets and films, songs, and memories. The focus will mainly be on nuclear fears during the Cold War, but we may branch out into some asteroids, aliens, or plagues. Let’s keep it loose.

Guest posts are particularly welcome on this subject — give me your best nuke movies, your memories of hiding under desks, or your childhood (or adult) worries over alien invasion.

This week, we have a guest post written by Brian Martinez! His topic is the completely wonderful, eerie, horrible, stayed-up-until-dawn-to-finish-it novel A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Martinez advises that those who wish to remain unspoiled might want to stop here.

The Cold War was still a thing when I came of age in the 1980s, but by then it had taken on a slick Hollywoodized gleam, captured in movies like WarGames and Red Dawn and even (God help us) Rocky IV. The closest I came to a nuclear holocaust was losing my last city in Missile Command. It never felt as palpably close as it must have in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when Joe McCarthy looked for Communists under every rock and typewriter, and schoolkids practiced “duck and cover” drills in case the Russkies unleashed the Big One. That was the Cold War observed by Walter M. Miller, Jr., who went on to write a series of novellas, first published in science fiction magazines, that became A Canticle for Leibowitz. Published in 1960, and a winner of the Hugo Award, it is one of the definitive novels about a post-nuclear apocalypse. I first read Canticle in high school and have re-read it several times since, and it has not lost its power to evoke both laughter at humanity’s foibles and sadness at its prolific and horrifying talent for self-destruction.

Miller himself participated in some of that destruction, serving on a bomber crew in World War II, and taking part in the bombing of an ancient monastery allegedly being used by the Germans for strategic purposes during the battle of Monte Cassino. The experience helped shape the focus of his novel: a monastery established in the aftermath of a major nuclear war, dedicated to preserving what scientific knowledge remained after the so-called “Flame Deluge” had destroyed most of it. The monastery’s founder is Leibowitz, a Jewish engineer who, like Miller did following World War II, converted to Catholicism, and made it his mission to save any books and documents he could find, which became the “Memorabilia” and the monastic order’s raison d’être.

The central theme of Canticle is the cyclical nature of human history — its birth, rise, eventual destruction, and rebirth. It starts a few hundred years after an event common to many religious mythologies: a creator-deity, pissed off at its creation, triggers some type of calamity (usually a flood, or “deluge”) to wipe the known world away, aiming to rebuild it better than before. In Miller’s novel, it’s humankind who sets off the Flame Deluge to scrub the world clean. It leaves behind few survivors, many of whose descendants suffer from horrible genetic mutations due to radioactive fallout. Others, blaming advanced technology for allowing nuclear weapons to proliferate, begin the “Simplification”, a mass destruction of books and other stores of knowledge, hence Leibowitz’ desire to protect as much of these materials as possible. He is eventually martyred for his cause.

Canticle is told in three acts, each separated by about 600 years; the first, “Fiat Homo” (Let There Be Man), is analogous to the beginning of a new Dark Age, where the church is the main cultivator of knowledge, and guards access to it jealously; much of the population remains uneducated, focused on daily survival. Life is a Hobbesian experience, brutish and short. The second section, “Fiat Lux” (Let There Be Light), is a renaissance period, as the church slowly opens its Memorabilia to the outside world, inevitably bringing it into conflict with the rise of increasingly secular city-states (in particular, Texarkana, ruled by the ambitious Hannegan). After Hannegan proclaims that his city is no longer subject to rule from New Rome, the church excommunicates him, declaring he no longer possesses the moral authority to rule. Finally in “Fiat Voluntas Tua” (Let Thy Will Be Done), civilization has reached 20th-century levels of technology and beyond, with starships and human colonization of space — and again, nuclear weapons. The Flame Deluge ultimately has not changed the course of human history; it just set the mile marker to zero.

Dom Zerchi, the abbot of the Order of Saint Leibowitz in the final act, comments on this apparent futility, after a retaliatory nuclear strike (“Lucifer has fallen” in the vernacular of the time) has wiped out Texarkana:

“What’s to be believed? Or does it matter at all? When mass murder’s been answered with mass murder, rape with rape, hate with hate, there’s no longer much meaning in asking whose ax is the bloodier. Evil, on evil, piled on evil….And Christ breathed the same carrion air with us; how meek the Majesty of our Almighty God! What an Infinite Sense of Humor–for Him to become one of us!–King of the Universe, nailed on a cross as a Yiddish Schlemiel by the likes of us. They say Lucifer was cast down for refusing to adore the Incarnate Word; the Foul One must totally lack a sense of humor! God of Jacob, God even of Cain! Why do they do it all again?”

Zerchi is my favorite character in the book. Bold, acerbic, and world-weary, he gamely stands on the foundation of his church’s doctrine even as the world literally explodes into chaos around him. Of the abbots chronicled in the novel, he is the most at odds with the state. When a doctor employed by the “Green Star” relief agency (the book’s analogue to the Red Cross) arrives at the abbey to assess victims of the nuclear attack, Zerchi enjoins him not to recommend voluntary euthanasia for any of his patients, no matter how grim their prognosis. He has some choice words for the government’s approach to dealing with nuclear disaster instead of preventing it in the first place:

“The very existence of the Radiation Disaster Act, and like laws in other countries, is the plainest possible evidence that governments were fully aware of the consequences of another war, but instead of trying to make the crime impossible, they tried to provide in advance for the consequences of the crime. Are the implications of that fact meaningless to you, Doctor?”

Eventually the doctor does break his promise, recommending that a young woman and her child, both suffering from severe radiation poisoning, visit the euthanasia camp down the road from the abbey. This sets up yet another confrontation between Zerchi and his novices and the state agents protecting the “mercy camp.” It is clear the Church can no longer reconcile the natural laws which “bind men to Christ” and the laws of man, who allow nuclear holocaust and then sanction death for those unlucky enough to survive. But as the Church views itself as eternal, by then it has already made plans to continue its existence off-world, if need be.

If this sounds like an exigesis more than a review, perhaps it’s because Catholic doctrine and imagery permeate Canticle. As an atheist I will not pretend to have any deep understanding of Roman Catholic teachings, but I still find Miller’s exploration of them fascinating. The Church of Canticle is an eternal force in the world, changing little from one age to the next. Miller liberally uses Latin throughout the story, even though the real Catholic Church had begun to abandon its use in everyday liturgy shortly after the novel’s publication. It gives a strong impression of traditionalism which helps ground the dynamic rise and predictable fall of civilization. Miller leavens it all with humor and sharply witty dialogue. Even though the technology of Miller’s future world seems overly mechanical and unimaginative by today’s science fiction standards, it readily fades into the background, bringing into focus what really matters in the book: its ideas.

In each era of the story, the monks of Saint Leibowitz and their leader struggle with the temptations of the world while maintaining their devotion to Christ and the mission of their order. Miller confronts them with some tough questions — What is the nature of humanity? How does one recognize the inherent dignity of other humans? What moral authority grants states the power to govern? Will science and technology ultimately set humankind free, or enslave it and eventually, condemn it to destruction?

To his credit — and the reason why A Canticle for Leibowitz remains such a powerful and affecting novel more than a half-century later — Miller never answers these questions definitively, save perhaps the last. The nuclear explosions which light up the horizon at the end of the novel is Miller’s affirmation that humankind is doomed to self-destruction. It proved a sad foreboding of the author’s own life. According to author Terry Bisson, Miller faded from the science fiction scene following the release of Canticle, and had alienated himself from fans and fellow writers, as well as his own family. Suffering from depression following his wife’s death and his own health issues, Miller committed suicide in 1996 (a grim irony given the passionate opposition to suicide in Canticle’s third act). He left behind an unfinished novel, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, which was completed by Bisson and published the year after Miller’s death. There was no happy ending for Miller, nor for humankind in Canticle — but its story may yet begin again.

Brian Martinez is a full-time software developer, part-time blogger, and donktastic poker player. He lives in Denver. He blogs at The Libertarian Standard and his own site, A Thousand Cuts. Follow him on Twitter as well.

Saoirse Ronan as Daisy, some Brit as her sexy, sexy cousin.

Saoirse Ronan as Daisy, some Brit as her sexy, sexy cousin.

Welcome to The Stag Blog’s series dealing with portrayals of the end times through movies, novels, docudramas, documentaries, instructional pamphlets and films, songs, and memories. The focus will mainly be on nuclear fears during the Cold War, but we may branch out into some asteroids, aliens, or plagues. Let’s keep it loose.

Guest posts are particularly welcome on this subject — give me your best nuke movies, your memories of hiding under desks, or your childhood (or adult) worries over alien invasion.

This week, the subject is the new movie How I Live Now, and the 2004 young adult novel upon which it is based. It is a story of war, moving to a new country, and why sometimes you just need to sex up those relatives who catch your eye.

Apocalypse cinema or television (or even books) lives for the money shot — be it grand destruction of a famous monument, or a more humble bit of well-written or captured horror. The movie How I Live Now has two types of sequences, the bleak and the bucolic. It does them both very well, but in the end, though it’s better than the Meg Rosoff YA novel upon which it is based, the movie falls apart for similar reasons. It’s as flimsy as its anorexic, neurotic heroine, and though it tries to find a hard-ass center, there just isn’t much to it.

In each medium, 15-year-old Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) is a cold New Yorker. She is sent to  her cousins’ in England to get her out of the way of her father and stepmother. She killed her mother at birth, and therefore has issues. Meanwhile, war is looming, not that any teens give a shit. Upon arrival (in the book), she drops her American ‘tude approximately four minutes after meeting her wood sprite cousins. In the movie, this include annoying Issac who precociously drives at 14, scrappy Piper, sevinish and a bit of a Mary Sue, and Edmond, the dreamy, disturbingly attractive cousin. Yes, Daisy and Eddie hook up. Yes, it’s a little weird. But it wasn’t the dealbreaker for me that it was for, say, this io9 writer. It just isn’t enough to be the whole heart of the story, except, too bad, it is.

Daisy has a relatively endearing run-off sentence style in the book. But her narrow eye becomes less appealing — and much more contrived — after the fourth time she conveniently decides to ignore an adult’s explanation for what exactly the fuck is going on with this war business. Her obsessive focus, useful in surviving, if not contextualizing, is turned into an acknowledged character trait in the movie (basically OCD), but anything from her view still feels shallow and myopic.

The book just rakes on the cliches of the faeryland of England. There are more cousins there, and the cliches are divided up between them. Eddie has the mysteriously telepathic powers. He just gets Daisy, man. His twin, melded into him for the movie, is the obligatory strong, silent, and Dickon-esque type. And yes, I could choose to see this as so deliberate an homage to The Secret Garden that it is acceptable. But I can’t. If only because all that English shit was so appealing to me as a tween, I can’t. Edmond has a falcon, for fuck’s sake. I can’t stand it. He speaks to cows. The Secret Garden plus nukes sounds great. Why don’t I buy it?

The movie initially seems more promising — tightening things, and letting the loving, but not syrupy shots set the scene. And the English cottage is falling down, and there are dishes in the sink. Piper is a dirty-faced, solemn, kind, but human ginger, not a pixie making every soldier fall in love with her. The war situation is not treated quite as much as an excuse for playing Lost Boys as it is in the book. And the moment when we know something is wrong is treated with the gravity required . The paradise of a day at the swimming hole, during which Daisy begins to accept her God damned magical surroundings, is stopped by a rush of wind, darkening skies, and falling ash. We don’t even see the mushroom cloud. Little Piper, of course, calls it snow. It gives the necessary chill down the spine, and it gave me false hope that the movie was going to get away from the book more than it did. But again, if you want your doom and gloom money shots (and I do), the movie does come with that.

They survive. And still have a good time for a bit. Daisy burns her pass to go back to America because Eddie is now her whole world. But soon enough, scary soldiers (still British, though) come to separate the two boys and two girls. And that’s it for the plot, really. It’s all Daisy and Piper being shoved away into a creepy old English house, being sent to sort potatoes on a farm, and planning their escape back to their home. In some ways, the movie’s choice to ignore some of the details of the book make it better, or at least less maddening that Daisy has no questions about what the hell happened to her new country. The shots of wrecked countryside seen flickering through her window when she and Piper are taken are effective, showing enough for horror, but not enough for clarity or contrivance that she doesn’t see the whole picture.

But it’s still too little. There’s an enemy, at one point they “take [a] checkpoint.” A neighbor boy is shot, in the head, and is actually show still alive on the ground for a few seconds, groping in the mud. Same with the eerie details of a downed plane — the first object Daisy and Piper see is of an oxygen mask lying in the woods. Shudder. And the same with the moment when Daisy has to dig through a pile of bodies to make sure it’s not her cousins. It’s flawlessly-crafted, in the vein of the opening of the pilot for The Walking Dead, but much starker. Yet, it’s still just a nightmare moodpiece. (This is a problem for apocalyptic fiction — that dread is unsustainable — and why it so often delves into survivors sniping. And why the fiction that doesn’t do that is something special.)

Too many sad pop songs over beautiful landscape. Too many montages. How I Live Now doesn’t commit the unforgivable sin of putting conspicuous music over its worst bits, but the filler feels like all music sometimes. The frantic, whispered voices in Daisy’s head that were supposed to represent her OCD and anorexia worked better than I would think. I appreciate that she didn’t warm up and become hero mom figure to Piper like she did in the book, but some sign of caring about the red-headed moppet wouldn’t have been amiss. Ronan is good, the Brits are all decent. Nobody is stilted, but nobody is exceptional.

And though the lovely cinematography of the movie makes the book’s flimsy plot seem more substantial, it had the same endless problem. I want to know more about the war. And I want more than a teenager falling in love with a place and her cousin, then being taken away, and having to walk back for a week over broken landscape. Piper and Daisy seem exhausted, in book and movie, but I still want to say, dammit, have you not seen Rabbit-Proof Fence? You pansies think a week of walking in England is bad? Somehow, again in both mediums, the characters treat the situation too heavily and too lightly. And nobody ever asks what’s going on. I don’t care how hot your cousin is, I don’t care you much you miss him, you take the time to fucking ask an adult who nuked London.

165341)  Cigarette Smoking Man (The X-Files)

Strangely calm — maybe it was the Canadian accent — and occasionally vulnerable (seemingly) in later seasons, there was something compelling about this guy. We seem him as the top villain for Mulder, but then we see that he is just a part of the much bigger conspiracy. He’s the guy they go to for clean-up and it has cost him a normal human existence. His centric episodes are never dull. (Always wondered why he didn’t just take out Mulder, though.) He smokes not like a villain trying to intimidate someone, but like a man with all the time in the world, who isn’t even thinking about any of it.

2) Darth Vader (Star Wars)

Iconic, duh. Think of him in the first movie when he’s the terrifying cyborg, but is beneath Grand Moff Tarkin. And he has that strange commitment to this mysterious religion. We learn more about him. He blows up a whole planet. He can choke people with his hand. He is willing to get into a TIE Fighter and fight — albeit, not very well. And though people usually mock Mark Hamill’s acting when he discovers the terrifying truth about his parentage, well, think how you would feel. Look at Luke Skywalker’s reaction and realize, it’s serious, horrifying stuff to be the son of this man.

3) The Joker (The Dark Knight)

The late Heath Ledger really did deserve those accolades, regardless of their inevitability after his tragic death. Ledger plays the Joker in a transformative, uncomfortable, annoying (those fucking sounds he makes, aaaugh!) disturbing way. It’s such good acting that it’s fun to watch. He’s the best part of the movie, and is on my short list of highly praised things that are not remotely overrated. The greater meaning of the anarchic character isn’t important. Just fucking watch him act.

4) Cersei Lannister (Game of Thrones TV show)

Not the sadistic King Joffrey? Not the real power, Tywin Lannister? Nope. Give me Cersei, because we see her struggling to be a villain. She’s a woman, she’s maybe not as smart as she thinks she is, but she’s wily enough to fight hard for what she thinks is hers. She’s funny as hell. And she loves her scary-ass son, because he is just about all she has, but she knows he’s sick. She knows how women gain power, but she still yearns to be playing at the big kids table. You see her when her villainous swagger is on, and you see her being completely dismissed by her father and intellectually trailing behind her brother. She’s fascinating. And she has the world’s most flawless bitch face.

5) O’Brien (1984) and The Operative (Serenity)

Like all good top villains in a dystopia, O’Brien knows all the counter-arguments with which our hero has struggled. He knows them all and can beat them with authority, charm, conviction, and the terrifying certainty of his position. He inflicts the pain, and he is someone to whom Winston Smith can finally speak freely. He knows what he does and he does it because power exists to keep itself alive. No grand motives. Just keeping the system going.

The Operative sees even more clearly than O’Brien does that he does terrible things. But he thinks he is doing them to build something better. Yet, he also thinks there is no place in that world for people like him with so much innocent blood on their hands. He’s the mechanism for improvement at a terrible price, but he has no illusions about being warmly invited into into the new society. Strange character. Very human for a villain, but very frightening.

6) Angelus (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

God damn was he a better monster than a hero. Bland, self-hating (understandable, but still), earnest, when he had a soul, he was playfully sadistic without one. He tortured a woman into insanity, he toyed with a lovesick Giles (best character) after killing his ladyfriend. The contrast between that guy and the guy trying to do right makes even the dull fellow more interesting, just because we know what nastiness is inside of him.

What are some of your favorites, dear readers?

This is strangely moving. For Holy Thursday, Pope Francis washed and kissed the feet of 12 young detainees in an Italian prison. Two of them were women, one was even Muslim.

And this is still...cool. And it’s also moving. Not all of Christopher Hitchens’ anti-religious pontificating was interesting to me, but his simple profanity, the simple “no, fuck you” as the correct response to Abraham’s order to kill his son Issac speaks volumes. That, offense or not, dear Christians, is what you say to God. That is what you say to anyone who tells you to kill your child. (Jesus, I don’t know, I feel like he had a little more autonomy in the whole crucifiction situation. Maybe I don’t get the trinity.)

Now, a lefty might say that who cares if the Pope washed some damn feet of poor juvenile delinquents — why doesn’t he institute some policies that would help them not be there in the first place? And indeed, the Catholic Church is not necessarily a net gain for the world. But young Roma immigrants in prison are pretty low on the totem pole of life. To see a man who is supposed to have a direct line to God kneeling before people like that seems to be a step in the right direction. And it seems beautiful. Humility in a way that’s not just a lazy word for someone who seems pious.

Besides, it’s easy, I suppose, to sass back to God in theory. Both acts are symbolic after all.

Hitchens’ stance on religion only really offends me when he acts as if non-believers should express nothing but hostility to any religious person they happen to meet. That’s absurd, if only because if I acted that way towards people with whom I disagree on huge issues (oh, say, the Iraq war) I would have exactly three and a half friends. Letters to a Young Contrarian Hitchens is my favorite. It’s from the post-Socialist, pre-9/11 period during which Hitchens’ love of humans, his desire for them to be free (before that was muddled up in his need to smash Islamic theocracies left and right) and his outrage over (his understand of) God as this 24/7 North Korea was highest. And it’s often a strangely beautiful, bracing attitude, even when I don’t always agree. Even his offense over the idea of Jesus sacrificing himself, being tortured, for Hitchens is great in its cussedness. He’s right about so many things, and I’m not an atheist.

I’m not an atheist and I have nothing but sincere feelings when I look at Pope Francis washing the feet of those kids. Even as I overthink those feelings.

The thing is, Hitchens at his heart seemed incredibly optimistic about people. “No, fuck you” in response to a theoretical and theocratic request to kill his children is love. But kissing the feet of kids who may have nobody in the world, who may have done bad things, poor, immigrant, oppressed kids, that’s love, too. Even if you’re doing it because you’re “supposed to”, because some old, stupid book, some ancient voodoo told you to, kissing those feet is love and it’s loving people.

My Grandma keeps on suggesting that I read the newspaper funnies, so I must remind myself that not all comics are terrible. Please wince as I recklessly call graphic novels comics, but nobody who loved Calvin and Hobbes and Foxtrot as much as I did as a child could every consider “comic” a pejorative, so don’t even worry about it.

In website form:

Mitch Clem: maker of Nothing Nice to Say and My Stupid Life, the latter of which I have read through more times than I can count. Occasionally I worry over him, when he draws something too real. Often he just writes ska-pickle jokes, or jokes about stupid, loitering punks. Sometimes I don’t get the punk rock specific joke, unless it is making fun of Against Me! or Tim Armstrong. Clem helped me learn about the existence of the edited for TV Big Lebowski. Plus, this is hilarious.

Bonus: Clem’s fiance Nation of Amanda, who watercolors his comics and just seems amazing in internetland and as a character in “My Stupid Life.” I just want them to be punk and artistic and happy together forever and ever.

Kate Beaton: How much do I love Kate Beaton’s Hark, a vagrant series? Almost enough to look up Canadian history references. Almost. She’s feminist, she’s funny, she is a giant nerd for history, a love which she mixes weirdly with pop culture and literary references and jokes about Canadian politeness. Her art is awesome, with a deceptively simple, Quentin Blake-esque style. Plus, she made the greatest mocking of/tribute to the Kennedys since that time Garrett Quinn wouldn’t stop doing a Ted Kennedy impression on the way to LPAC. Also, she invented “I had fun once, it was awful,” so fuck you, Grumpy Cat.

In book form:

Anders Nilsen’s Dogs and Water — I once read it when I was really depressed, and it didn’t help, but I still got pleasingly lost in the troubling, spare  mysterious world of this comic. Something has happened — or is happening — and a lone individual, plus a teddy bear, is wandering a barren, post-war, post-apocalypse landscape.

Tintin — particularly Tintin in Tibet, The Blue Lotus, The Crab with the Golden Claws, basically anything with a lot of opium in the subplot, and at least some minority characters portrayed as heroic, not just as racist as fuck-all stereotypes (Japanese people, holy shit, Herge. You should have met some real ones). I read these books when I was little. They’re racist, violent, make light of alcoholism, and opium smuggling is a subplot in what seems like every other book. They’re also beautifully drawn, funny, and the adventures within each volume’s 62 pages inspired half the games I played as a kid (stuffed animals always had to jump/fall down a waterfall, ideally after being chased by someone gun-toting). And 1) Yes, Tintin was a journalist who never wrote a story and that was bizarre. And 2) Tintin in the Land of the Soviets sucks, but it does have a reference to Soviets taking wheat from Kulaks and letting them starve. I mean, Herge got it before The New York Times did, that’s all.  And 3) No, I didn’t watch the movie, and I just don’t want to.

Guy Delisle’s work, mainlyPyongyang: a Journey in North Korea. That is the book that got me fascinated with that world’s most fucked up nation. Delisle has more of that simple style I love. The French Canadian draws himself as big-nosed and quizzical  the backgrounds in simple black and white, sometimes with pale greens or tan. But nearly all of the most fascinating details of North Korea, from the hideous food, to the fact that Pyongyang is almost dark at night, I first got from Delisle. He’s a great person to travel with in comic form — the drawings are a bit childish, but the grim point of North Korea comes across all too effectively. 

Jeff Lemire: Beaton is the Canadian comic artists to make you happy, Lemire is the one who will just make you weep, but then feel kind of good, but still lonely, but lonely in a beautiful kind of way. Ugh. His Essex County is just wonderful. I need to read all of Sweet Tooth.

Also read: Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde, for real comics reporting on the Bosnian war, and Peter Bagge’s compilation of reason comic: Everyone  Is Stupid Except for Me. 

And a special shout-out to the first comic I ever bought: Batman vs. Tarzan. It’s true.

Besides this comic book about The Carter Family (I love a world where that exists) which I intend to read on the train home from California, what should I be reading that I did not include here?