Everything is Batman

Everything is Batman: A companion piece to Episode 5: The Joke Written by Derek Jones

 I just googled, "How popular is Batman?" The simple answer is, a lot. The first published comic book appearance of Batman was May of 1939, followed by a solo title in 1940. Since 1943, 13 live action or animated movies were made starring the Caped Crusader, 5 since 2005. Also, in 2018 Warner Brothers has slated another live action Batman movie. Lego just followed up its smash hit, The Lego Movie, with a Batman movie that made 53 million dollars in three days! Even Batman as a Lego has captivated our collective imagination and delighted audiences. No matter where we go, what we do, where we look, Batman has become America's Dark Knight, he is the superhero darling of our imagination. I'd like to think he's the American Achilles. Achilles’ deeds, immortalized by the epic words of Homer's Iliad, captivated the Ancient World and served as the template for all heroes, as Batman does for us today. For a thousand years, everyone recited the words of the Iliad, just to remember the heroism of Achilles and his tragic fall during the sack of Troy. One could argue that many Ancient Greek myths serve to detail the lineage of the heroes who would sail across the sea to fight in the Trojan War. The tales of Perseus, Hercules, Jason, Theseus and so on, are the origin story, the build up of the final act of Ancient Greek heroism: sailing across the Mediterranean Sea to retake Helen and burn Troy to the ground. If one endeavors to understand the psyche of the Ancient Western World, one must look at it through the prism of Achilles. A story resonates and holds on to the collective imagination of a society for a reason. Often, that reason is reflective and aspirational. The hero of the story reflects a crucial aspect of cultural identity and can only succeed if they aspire to become the best versions of themselves. In the case of Achilles, he is a proud warrior who fearlessly leads his troops and has the blessings of the immortal gods that equip him with invincible armor. Achilles is the ultimate Ancient Greek man, and what person in the ancient world would not romanticize their actions as they attempt to reflect an Achilles image?  
    The ancient world is very different from the world we live in, and if we can learn about the ancient world by understanding Achilles, what does our understanding of Batman teach us about ourselves? In other words, why Batman? There are a ton of really smart people who have looked at Batman and given amazing answers to Batman's astounding popularity. As a comic, he's always well drawn, with amazing writers giving life to the art work. In movies, film greats such as Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan have put their full creative prowess behind the character, reimagining and reinvigorating Batman for subsequent generations. Many people point out his lack of superhuman powers. This appeals to us, because somewhere deep down, believing in Batman means believing in humanity’s power to save itself. It isn't some fluke science experiment that goes wrong that enables Batman's journey into superhero status, he isn't from another galaxy, he can't read minds or fly, heal or teleport. Batman is a hero because he chooses to be. His choice to dawn a cape and mask separates himself from so many other heroes. What would Peter Parker be if a radioactive spider didn't bite him? More importantly, we know what he would not be: Spider-Man. What if planet Krypton didn't explode? No superman. What if Reed Richards went to space and the radioactive blast that gave him superpowers missed him and his family? Bye bye Fantastic Four. Because Batman chooses heroism, he represents the epoch of American rugged individualism coupled with self-determination. If Bruce Wayne lives a double life and fights super villains by sheer force of will, anyone of us can do anything. 
    We also have some of the greatest villains to pit Batman against. I have a theory about why his villains are so good, and it starts with understanding that all great Batman narratives are tragic. We all know what happened to Bruce Wayne, who watched his parents’ brutal execution. Faced with horrific trauma, Bruce Wayne becomes Batman, to avenge his parents, heal from his loss, and prevent others from a similar dark fate. Tragedy allows Batman stories to appeal to adults as much as they do to children. And with the rise of Batman, so rises the villainy of Gotham City. Each great Batman nemesis is part Batman, and Batman is always walking the line between hero and madman. Take for example, the Riddler. The Riddler has no superpowers, is ingenious, inventive, and cunning. However, because of his crime-ridden pathology, he leaves clues that invariably lead Batman directly to him. The Riddler could plan the perfect crime, but his compulsion to challenge Batman always leads to his capture. The Riddler needs Batman as much as Batman needs the Riddler. The duality of Batman manifests in his relationship with himself, as Bruce Wayne, his relationships with Alfred, Robin, and every twisted villain who plans Batman's downfall. But it's so very tragic. The Riddler hates Batman as much as he needs him, his compulsion to tackle Batman's weaknesses is a curse, and because of it, the Riddler-- and Batman-- will never be free. This is not a very new idea, after all, Achilles also needs Hector
    In Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight, when the Joker finally gets to talk to Batman, the Clown Prince pontificates about how much he needs Batman, and without Batman his life is boring. "Kill you? What would I do without you?" the Joker says. Indeed, what would we all do without Batman? There is so much more one could say about this hero. But one thing we can not deny, Batman is here and here to stay. He is the hero we need, the hero we deserve, and he is going to delight our imaginations for a long time.    




How the Mighty Have Fallen

A companion piece to Episode 4: Rock Bottom. Written by Laurel Hostak

"What prompts one person to act boldly in a moment of crisis and a second to seek shelter in the crowd? Why do some people become stronger in the face of adversity while others quickly lose heart? What separates the bully from the protector? Is it education, spiritual belief, our parents, our friends, the circumstances of our birth, traumatic events, or more likely some combination that spells the difference? More succinctly, do our hopes for the future hinge on a desirable unfolding of external events or some mysterious process within?”

Madeleine Albright, Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War 1937-1948

I am a huge Joseph Campbell fan, and his name will continue to pop up in this blog and on the Midnight Myth Podcast. It's hard to talk about myth and storytelling in a modern context without citing The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell's theory of the archetypal hero's journey. He argues therein that world mythology tends to conform to a universal structure, dubbing it the "monomyth," and draws several comparisons from the ancient to modern pop culture applications of that universal structure.

On this week's episode, we spoke about some of the trials our favorite heroes endure along that universal journey, and we met them on common ground. This ground was what we called "Rock Bottom." Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

We know that all heroes must face obstacles, and that conflict is an essential element of any storytelling. In Screenwriting courses I took in college, professors broke story structure down in this simple way:

Step one: Get your hero stuck in a tree

Step two: Throw rocks at your hero in the tree

Step three: Get your hero down from the tree

Or, an explanation of the hero's journey I've always liked, Jeffrey Schecter's Four Archetypes: Orphan >> Wanderer >> Warrior >> Martyr

In other words, our hero begins alone. Looking out for numero uno. Sometimes literally an orphan (Bruce Wayne, Harry Potter, Dorothy Gale, etc...). Disconnected from others or from a cause in life. Then our hero receives a call to adventure and sets out willingly or is cast into a significant journey. Along the way, our hero finds the inner strength or passion to take up a righteous or important challenge. Fights for it. Then, makes a powerful sacrifice for this cause or objective and either wins or loses with honor.

What we're looking at this week is that decisive moment between the hero's last two phases, warrior and martyr. In the stories we examined in Episode 4, including Hercules and the movie Gladiator, and countless others across time and cultures, this moment is one of incredible suffering. Our hero has lost everything and now faces the question of whether to pick up the sword again for a final battle. Whether to make the noble sacrifice or to surrender in disgrace. Hercules and Maximus are epic heroes. They embody strength, determination and force of will. They are also creatures of intense suffering, upon whom grave misfortune has been wrought by outside forces. When they hit bottom, they hit hard. These are men who lose their entire families pretty close to the BEGINNING of their stories. How much worse can it get for them? Quite a bit worse, it turns out, as both quickly lose their autonomy, their sense of worth, and faith in their gods.

So why keep going? Why do Hercules, Maximus, and the countless heroes who follow in this tradition stand and fight when all is already lost? What do they have left to fight for? Maximus continues to fight for the souls of his brothers in arms, for their freedom as much as his, for the honor he has earned. Hercules perseveres in pursuit of that most elusive arc, redemption.

In the above quote, Madeleine Albright asks a similar question of us--why do some of us hide from challenges, and others face struggle with grace and renewed strength? What is the difference between someone who stays there at the bottom of the wall, surrenders, and someone who finds the strength to crawl out? I tend to wonder what makes a real-life Warrior-Martyr. We may not be epic heroes of myth and war, preternaturally gifted, or the children of Olympians, but there is a reason we still connect to these stories of persistence. We know that in the noblest hearts there burns a light that cannot be extinguished. What sets a hero apart is the strength of that flame, the audacity to fan it, and the purity of that intent. It is a bravery to which we all aspire.

Out of the Chaos

A Companion Piece to Episode 3: Detected

Written by Derek Jones 

    At many points in life, I sit back and gaze at the stars. Sadly, I've been a city guy for the past 15 years, and star gazing often doesn't work well. The glow of the city is just bright enough to dim out the diamonds of the night sky. However, when I'm under a clear night sky and I can witness the awesome beauty of our galaxy, I'm overwhelmed about the sheer size and scope of existence. Sometimes (but not always), I get an extreme sense of anxiety because the night sky reminds me that Earth is simply one small rock of billions floating around stars. The universe often feels like a chaotic place, where natural forces determine the destiny of us all. The feeling of dread when one contemplates their own cosmic insignificance is fairly universal. It fuels and drives us all. Some go mad under the weight of it, some are driven to unusual and dogmatic doctrines, while others choose to stifle this dread in blissful ignorance. I think this anxiety of awareness, the dread of knowing that I am just a minuscule part of a cosmic play that may or may not have meaning, drives me to stories. Stories can offer escape, but more often offer something more valuable: psychological sublimation. I can sublimate this dread into a story which has a definitive temporal framework. Stories begin, have middles, and end. Within the temporal framework, there is always a high degree of control. Regardless of the medium, the story is always within tight control of the story's author/director. In this way, the end of a story is always a foregone conclusion, a representation of a type of imaginary determinism one where the audience scribes a character's illusory freewill.  
    This gets me to Sherlock Holmes and the narrative of the detective. To understand Holmes, we must first ask, what is a detective? A detective, as defined by the dictionary is: "a member of the police force or private investigator whose function is to obtain information and evidence, as of offenses against the law" (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/detective). To put it differently, a detective brings justice to right injustice by collecting verifiable data gathered scientifically (evidence) which will stand up under intense scrutiny (a court of law). A detective brings order to chaos. When a crime is committed, the victim has fallen to the chaotic elements of human society. No one chooses to be victimized by crime, and often times the victim is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Out of the chaotic event, the detective analyzes the situation, looks for evidence in precise and exact details, and brings order to the situation. Based off of the evidence, a determination is made about who perpetrated the crime and an arrest is made. If the detective did his/her job correctly, the evidence will lead to the criminal's punishment in the form of a conviction in court. Out of the chaos of the crime, comes order. Sherlock Holmes is a fascinating character, one whose brilliance has entertained generations of people. But I would surmise that it is his ability to bring order to chaos that gives him such a longstanding and widespread appeal. The interpretation of Holmes is very diverse, but what prevails in every iteration is his ability to see clues where others cannot. He effortlessly sees order where everyone else sees chaos, and it has fascinated audiences since the 19th century. 
    So remember the next time you feel small, it's because you are. But that's ok. Chaos is so intermingled with order that even a drug addicted genius can become the greatest detective in popular culture. I don't pretend to have any answers to the great questions that accompany humans on our journey through this thing called existence. But chaos is manageable, and from the utterly unpredictable there comes predictable, just as in the eye of a hurricane. Perhaps detective stories live in that calm, reassuring all of us that knowledge can bring justice to the unjust.    

Princess: Blowing up the template

A companion piece to The Midnight Myth episode 2: Princess Theory. Written by Laurel Hostak.

Princess is a complicated word for me. I was raised on the Disney animated classics, and I love them. I looked up to Belle and Ariel and Jasmine. It was very important to me to see these beautiful, charming women who were more than just their looks. Belle is smart, she reads. Ariel is curious, she seeks out adventure and questions authority. Jasmine is restless, she longs for autonomy. But at the end of the day, these were love stories. They were about scoring the handsome prince (or peasant) who might give her what she's missing. I think of Shakespeare's comedic cross-dressing heroines--Viola of Twelfth Night, Rosalind of As You Like It. Those girls ride off into the sunset with a handsome hubby too. But does anybody really think the self-involved men of those stories are going to keep such headstrong, resourceful women satisfied? Are they going to settle down and be good little wives?

Looking back, with all the Bechdel-test-failing, romance-obsessed, two-dimensionality of those Disney princesses, it's important to remember that they're actually an improvement on some of the earlier ladies. I'm looking at Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora. I'm not trying to shit on any of these movies, they're from a different time and they were absolutely revolutionary in terms of their technical and visual achievements. Creating realistic and fully dimensional characters wasn't necessarily priority numero uno for the company pioneering cel animation in feature films. Hats are, and will always be, off to you, extremely talented artists and technicians. But it's been a long road to gender equity in storytelling, and there's still so much work to be done.

Obviously, Disney didn't invent princesses. But the word "princess" and Disney are inextricably linked in modern culture--it's hard to think of one without thinking of the other. And the thought takes you to familiar images. Ball gowns. Tiaras. Sparkles. Bows. Ponies. Pink. They are the ultimate study in femininity. They are, for too many young girls, the definition of female.

This is why Princess Leia is important to me. I first saw Star Wars when I was maybe seven or eight. She's the first face we see, and she's on a reconnaissance mission, wielding a blaster on a ship full of armored imperial dudes. She wears a modest white dress, a symbol of her purity. She talks back to the big guy. Leia's utmost allegiance is to the rebellion. She is here to shut you down. She is here to blow up the patriarchy. She happens to be a princess.

I don't think it's a mistake that the details of Leia's royalty are pretty scant. It doesn't really come up too much over the course of the films. She is Princess Leia and that's that. We do see her consistently assume responsibility in any situation. She shows extraordinary leadership, from her "don't just stand there, find something to brace it with" moment in the trash compactor to the Battle of Hoth, where the rebel general defers to her authority. She is the most important person in any room. But is that because of the title? I don't think so. I think Leia would be who she is with or without the hypothetical crown. The title isn't for her--it's for me.

After Carrie Fisher's death, Twitter user @anne_theriault posted a stream of tweets explaining her belief that "General Organa was Carrie Fisher's Most Important Role." It's a beautiful tribute, and I don't disagree. Anne writes "She's not young. Not wearing a gold bikini or a robe. She's dressed to do what she's been training her whole life to do: lead the rebellion." If you want to hear me pick apart the objectification of women in the Star Wars universe, I can do that. I could discuss the slave bikini until the sun blows up. And I could go on for days about poor George Lucas decisions. But I'd argue that calling her Princess Leia was a good one, and that title means something really powerful to me.

I've read a lot of Czech fairy tales and legends in exploring my national heritage, and it strikes me how many of them center around princesses. And these are not just king's daughters who pine for true love and go to royal balls. These are girls who rule countries, unite warring tribes, and outwit the devil himself. Studying these stories has made me realize that the word Princess means different things to different cultures.

The simplest definition: the daughter of a king and queen

The American definition: the beautiful daughter of a king and queen, who embodies quiet femininity and probably requires the love of a prince to reach her full potential; also a derogatory term for an effeminate male or a spoiled young woman

The Czech definition: the daughter of a king and queen, who has serious power

There's a petition circulating these days (I first saw it on Nerdist) to make Princess Leia an official Disney princess. At first I was kind of tickled but not particularly interested in signing it. It kind of reminded me of posthumous canonization. A symbolic gesture, but would it mean anything to me? Probably not. Yet as I write this, I find myself wanting to seek out that petition and add my name. To see my blaster-wielding, force-sensitive, leader-of-the-resistance, haver of the tumultuous, epic love affair with Han Solo (because sometimes women really can have it all!) heroine alongside an ever-growing, ever-diversifying cast of fierce females would be significant. It would help to expand the definition of princess.

Create your amazing female character. Give her a blaster. Or let her wear pants. AND a dress. Let her sparkle if she wants or command rebel armies if she wants. She can even do both and it's not a contradiction (Princess Bubblegum, anyone?)! Figure out who she is and THEN call her a princess. That's how we rewrite--or maybe even destroy the template. Blow it up like the Death Star. That's how we change the definition. That's how Princess Leia did it.

Villains, Podcasting, and Elections

    Podcasting has been on my radar for awhile. When I first learned of the medium, I instantly knew that I would one day start my own. I have a background in audio, from years of being a unsuccessful punk and hard core drummer, I love to write, and I love the sound of my own voice. Doing a podcast seemed like the natural culmination of my previous creative endeavors. It wasn't until I met Laurel, when I realized that making a podcast was do-able. In Laurel, I met my ultimate partner, someone who's intelligence and talent challenged me while simultaneously being the most supportive partner, friend, and lover any man has ever had. Together, we both love stories, and believe that stories have to power to influence, mold, and change our lives. Life often feels like one is a log floating down a vast and rock laden river, with no guarantee that the current will avoid smashing us into oblivion. To me, a good story is the lifeline that helps me steer through the rocky current of life. It keeps me from hitting the rocks, and when I inevitably falter and find myself off course, it's stories that get me back on track. I'm also a student of history and everything I'll talk about in this podcast will have that filter on it. A great work of history blends finding the fundamental causal veracity of human events with a narrative prose that delights the imagination as much as it feeds the intellect. A historian is equal parts philosopher, detective, and story teller. Each part of a story is tied to it's other parts-- there is no beginning without a middle and an end-- in the same way human events are linked to our history. In this respect, I believe understanding stories, who tells them, how they tell them, and when they tell them, gives us a unique insight into ourselves. To the best of my knowledge, all human societies have had storytellers to impart wisdom, delight and inspire imagination, cathartically help cope with loss, and help us remember why we are the way we are.
    So this first episode is about villains, and Laurel and I were inspired by the 2016 US presidential elections. As we watched Democrats and Republicans make the case to the American people to vote for their candidate, one thing became increasingly clear: no matter who won, one side believed the other was villainous. President Elect Trump made the case that Clinton's life was one of exploitation and self-aggrandizement at the expense of the American people. Meanwhile, Clinton made the case that Trump was a womanizing narcissistic businessman who could not be trusted with the power of office. This left me asking, who was the villain in the story of the 2016 election? I started doing some reading on how a villain is constructed in melodramatic story telling. The melodramatic villain is signaled to the audience by a visual or audio cue, such as a man in black twirling his mustache to dark music. But it isn't enough to look or sound evil, a villain has to have some type of action that hurts someone or something. In other words, the audience only knows who the villain is when they have a victim, a person or persons caught in the villains path. The victim's suffering makes way for a hero to avenge and right the wrong done by the villain. The hero can sometimes also be the victim, who in the face of suffering takes matter's into their own hands and restores balance by defeating the villain. But in all cases, it's the villain's actions of hurting another that calls the hero into action. Think of it like a triangle, with the hero at the top of the triangle, connected to both the villain and the victim. Every story doesn't follow this exactly; sometimes there are anti-heroes (like Tony Soprano from HBO's the Soprano's or Alex, from A Clockwork Orange). But most stories adhere to this basic principle on some core level. Looking back at 2016, it became clear to me that Donald Trump was able to create this kind of a narrative. Trump argued that Clinton was a villain, a selfish establishment political force, and the victim was the American people. Trump argued that Clinton, as the ultimate face of Washington elites, had allowed American jobs to disappear. Trump time and again reiterated that America was losing because of Clinton and those like her, making him the hero that could avenge the victimized American people. He did this so effectively, that his base of supporters stuck with him despite many political gaffs, allegations of misconduct, and evidence of avoiding taxes (to name just a few). It was precisely this rhetoric of melodramatic villainy that helped him carve a path to the White House.
    One final thought: elections are complex and I'm not an expert on politics. Sometimes villains look the part, other times it isn't clear who the bad guy really is. All of us get it wrong from time to time. I'm not trying to argue that Trump was right or that Clinton was right (just to be transparent with those of you reading my blog, I voted for Clinton). I think what matters is that understanding stories can help with navigating the complexity of political rhetoric. Thinking critically takes practice, and it's important in all aspects of life.