Friday, December 28, 2012

Friday Mad Science: Power, The Hunger Games, and the Big Lie

In addition to all the nonsense normally associated with Christmastime, I've spent the last two weeks engrossed in the first two books of the Hunger Games trilogy.  My wife and I watched the movie a few weeks ago, and as I noted here at the time, I was a little underwhelmed.  But then my daughter Hannah finished reading the first two novels out of the Harry Potter series, and I started looking for something new for her to read because, bottom line, I don’t think a nine-year-old is quite ready to deal with some of the stuff that’s in the later half of the Potter books.  I tried lots of different books for her, but of the choices I gave, she was most interested in The Hunger Games, probably because she’d heard of it on TV, but my wife asked me to screen the novels myself first before handing them over.  So…
The Hunger Games is a much better book than it was a movie.  Virtually all of the scenes in the book have been repeated in the movie, but the movie doesn't succeed half so well in showing Katniss’s paranoia and the multitude of conflicting emotions that run throughout the story’s narrative.  So for me, the stuff in the book is more interesting because it makes more sense.  There's a more logical flow there.  
Unfortunately, I didn't like the second book nearly as much.  The first half of it was interesting enough, in a Twilight/teen romance kind of way, but then the second half essentially re-ran the first book’s plot before breaking the paradigm in a way that would have been far more interesting had it happened earlier in that second novel.  So yeah, I liked the bit where we see our heroine alternately trying to either love the boy that it would be politically expedient for her to marry or escape from a life that she finds suffocating and ultimately hopeless.  I guess this is what teenage girls fantasize about—having multiple boys fall madly in love with them, but in the fantasies, it’s only the ones they’re not allowed to be with who’re truly exciting.  But then that all changes, and suddenly we’re in The Hunger Games redux, and it’s not the same the second time around.
With all of that said, what’s clear by the end of the second book is that these characters are stunningly ignorant of the larger world of which they are a part, and that they exist that way because that’s the way their government wants them to be.  By the time I finished Catching Fire on Christmas Night, I had about decided that the book itself is basically a political allegory for the lives of the citizens of North Korea.  I mean, it’s all right there.  Rampant starvation, workers worked to the bone to support a privileged class of elites living in the Capital, a huge standing army that seems to exist mostly to keep the native populace at bay, rumors of a better life somewhere out there if only you have the courage to believe in such a thing.  And it’s all held together by the human need for stability, the idea that even what we have now—bad as it is, what with starvation and occasional child-sacrifice—is still better than the unknown.  Because the unknown is scary.
I think this is the brilliance of this Hunger Games idea, the thing that makes the books resonate at such a base level with so many people.   This idea that as bad as things are, the alternatives—though we can’t articulate what they might be—would be worse.  And ironically it’s this thing, that we can take your children, and there’s nothing you can do about it, that’s the linchpin   It’s so horrible that it actually reinforces the control.  That you would do anything to change this if you could, but the fact that it’s still going on means that you can’t, so why dwell on it.  Don’t rise up, don’t fight, don’t resist.  Don’t seek change.  There’s nothing you can do about any of it.
All of which reminded me of the NRA’s position after Newtown.
It’s the same thing, really.  Guns are a part of our culture, there’s nothing you can do about it, and a world without guns is even scarier than the world that we have right now.  After all, there are Bad People out there.  And yeah, we have the occasional truly horrific massacre, but take away our guns, and then you’ll see something really awful.  So awful, we can’t even articulate what it is.  And anyway, this is the way the world is; there’s nothing you can do to change it, so don’t fight, don’t resist.  Just accept what we say, as awful as it is.  The fact that it’s still going on means the problem itself must be intractable.
This is the kind of thing you have to buy into in order to believe in a world where we need to put more guns in schools, where what we want are more gunfights in classrooms.  You have to believe that there is nothing whatsoever that you can do to make the world a better place, that the answer to school violence is even more school violence, that other people’s mental illness means you’re better off being ready to kill at a moment’s notice—anywhere, anytime.
The sad thing is that this is what people think.  They stick their heads in the sand and call themselves Realists.
*Spoiler Alert*
Fair warning: this next bit is about Spider-Man #700.  If you plan on reading that issue but haven’t had a chance yet, do yourself and come back later.
The Humberto Ramos variant cover for ASM #700.
By now you must've at least seen coverage of the events of Amazing Spider-Man #700, ostensibly the last issue of the series and the issue in which Peter Parker “dies.”  Well, to be fair, he doesn’t exactly die.  Dr. Octopus uses some kind of mind-switcher technology to switch bodies with Parker when his own body starts failing, so that when Doc Ock dies at last, it’s Peter Parker’s soul that’s along for the ride.  And viola, we have a new Spider-Man, Dr. Otto Octavius, who’s now using Peter Parker’s body, memories, and super-powers to be his very own brand of Spider-Man.  But being a megalomaniacal super-genius, he vows to be a better Spider-Man than Parker ever was, hence the title of the new series that’s replacing “Amazing”, “The Superior Spider-Man.”
It’s been a pretty good build up, and as you may know from my post about it a few weeks ago, I loved the actual brain switcheroo issue, #698.  In a sense, I feel like that’s the one that should have been issue #700, just because it was the one that blew my mind.  This one… well, there were only two ways of playing it, and they chose the way that ended with the villain coming out on top, ostensibly the more “shocking” of the two endings.  But it wasn’t exactly a shock.  At least for me, the way it played out was more the logical extension of a lot of foreshadowing—and Marvel’s evolving corporate reliance on shock value storytelling—making the actual story itself kind of a letdown.
Which is to say that the Marvel Universe has been a pretty shock-filled place of late.  After all, this is the same company that killed off both Captain America and the Human Torch at some point in the last five years, only to bring them back within the next eighteen months.  So in that sense, this ending was the one that I think most fans were both expecting and dreading.    I mean, they always say that “dead means dead,” but unless it’s Brian K. Vaughn who’s doing the writing, it’s never really true.  At this point, I don’t know that anyone expects that Peter Parker is going to stay dead—certainly I do not, and in fact, I think the seeds of the resurrection were planted right there in the Death Scene—but still.  As I was reading issue #700 myself, I kept waiting for the final swerve that was gonna make this story something other than the long-built-up death of a beloved character, something done to cause a temporary sales spike and drive interest in a book without changing the very nature and value of the star character’s long-term brand.  Ultimately, though, I’m not sure that that’s what we got.
I guess my issue with ASM #700 is that it didn’t feel like the end of an era and the start of a new one.  What it felt like was the end of the Second Act of a very long Three Act Play.  That’s actually fine.  Certainly there’s nothing wrong with either confounding my expectations or telling the kind of long, drawn-out serialized stories that, really, only ongoing monthly comics can tell.  But I’m frustrated, too.  Because if this story wasn’t The End, it was still an ending, and it was one in which the bad guy won.  Decisively.  
After fifty years, Peter Parker went out on his back, beaten by his second-worst enemy.  The end.  
And yeah, I agree that there are a lot of new storytelling possibilities here, that this is a chance to make the title fresh and new and to explore some previously unimagined vistas in what is a vast but well-worn piece of ongoing storytelling terrain, and that stuff is fine.  But it still aggravates me that this is one of Marvel’s longest running titles, that it stars the company’s most popular character, and still, at the end of the day, that character got beat like a chump and dumped for a newer, more jazzed-up version of the same thing.  I even realize that this is how I’m supposed to feel, that ASM writer Dan Slott intentionally set us up to feel bad, that this was a long-running story that ended negatively, and that if it didn’t piss you off and depress you, then really, Slott hadn’t done his job very well.  Bottom line, this is how you are supposed to feel at the end of Act 2 of a Three-Act Play.
None of that actually helps, though.  I still feel used.  
In the comics, Cap was shot by a brainwashed
assassin.  That the event happened was groan-
worthy.  But the way Ed Brubaker and Brian
wrote about in Captain America and
The New Avengers was very good.
Honestly, the difference between this story arc and The Death of Captain America story arc was that when Cap died, I wanted it to mean something, but ultimately it didn’t, and when they brought Cap back so quickly, I felt betrayed.  Granted, it was an expected betrayal, and actually, the execution of the arc itself was very good.  But still.  This time, it’s like, “How the Hell can you let it end like that?” and even with me knowing that this probably isn’t the end, that Peter Parker is certainly going to come back, probably in as little as eighteen months, and even with all of that, it’s still like “Eighteen months?  Doc Ock gets to win for eighteen fucking months?!  Fuck that!”
Like I said, I can practically see the story beats in my head, and I’m still reacting exactly the way I’m supposed to.  Ultimately, that probably means that this isn’t just a good issue but actually a great one.  But still…  Ouch.
Well, that’s only two items, but it comes out to be almost two thousand words, and that’s plenty.
Have a great weekend and a Happy New Year!


  1. That's what's so funny about this, that the fan boys know exactly what's going to happen. In all honesty, it would be so much more clever to follow Peter Parker in Dr. Octopus's body, especially since no writer was interested in writing the dying Doc as anything but the desperate lunatic. Instead of a Kraven's Last Hunt, Slott's chosen a Clone Saga.

  2. Yeah. I mean, like Slott's writing a LOT, but it just kind of hurt how this broke off at the end. But we'll see. I also thought Spider Island was a stupid idea... Until it wasn't.

  3. Dude, you read my mind on ALL OF THIS! XD Least of all was the NRA, but I'm right there with you. Spidey...I think you captured the thirtysomething voices of America, not least of all is Stephen Wacker (editor) saying that if you don't like the Spider story, you're a 43+ fan and we don't need you anyways. (seriously, the CBR forum is filled with his zingers).

    The Hunger Games reviews are interesting. I found that I liked the trilogy a lot more after being away from it for a while. And I'm not ashamed to admit that, almost in the same way that I'm not interested in reading a Doc Ock lead Spider-man, I actually almost didn't read the last two books because of how Katness was dogging Peeta at the end of book 1 and for most of book 2. I don't think he's a very deep character, but I guess he was the one I identified with? And I guess I didn't want to read about Katness dogging out my boy! :P

    I thought the tension with the unknown was really cool and I think Suzanne Collins wrote some stuff on child soldiers in Africa before Hunger games, for what that's worth. I don't mind saying either that that scary unknown factor is something that I've bitten in my own little fantastic tale as well. ;)

    Anyways, loved today's piece, as usual.

  4. Thanks Alan. I'm glad I struck a chord with you.

    Speaking personally, I definitely WILL be reading Superior Spider-Man. I trust Dan Slott to bring this story home, and I want to be there when he does. I guess what bugs me more than anything is this whole idea that, This is The End, there's no more Spider-Man when, clearly, this was NOT the end. This was either the beginning or the ending of Act Two.

    On the other hand,