Album Assignments: Breakfast In America

This week, my friend Robby wrote me with a suggestion. “A weekly adventure,” he called it. The game is to take turns assigning each other an album to listen to, on a weekly basis, and on Monday he gave me my first assignment: Breakfast In America by Supertramp. I am up for this kind of fun, and I decided to go one better and write a little bit about the albums too, at least when the spirit moves me.

Breakfast In America was a really big album. Huge. But it was really big in 1979, a few years before I was really dialed into music. Consequently, my impressions of it from the time are glancing. I remember seeing a big display in a mall record store and thinking, “What’s with the lady and the tray? Is that orange juice?” Hey, I was 9. Anyway, once I was in high school I revisited the record, thanks to the public library, and came to really love it, and also to appreciate its fantastically clever cover. It’s also one of my favorite albums in the world to sing — I had such a great time this week rocking out to it. Anyway, I’ve been living with this album for many years, and know the songs pretty well, but it’s not one of those albums I know backwards and forwards. That comes into play in a moment.

See, I first tried listening via Spotify, but forgot that unless you pay Spotify some money every month, it throws commercials at you every 3 songs. Not a big bother when you’re listening to it like radio, but a major annoyance when you’re trying to appreciate an album. Then I remembered I have the album on my iPod, and was soon happily playing it in my car. But something seemed a little… off. I knew all the songs, but I must have misremembered the running order. I was composing paragraphs in my head about how peculiar it was to have “Take the Long Way Home” as the third song on the album, and how “Just Another Nervous Wreck” was a strange closer, and so on, until I finally realized (after a couple of times through, mind you) that my iPod was on shuffle mode. D’OH!

That experience led me to appreciate just how good the running order is on this album. Not something I normally notice, but it’s beautifully crafted. The long slow buildup of “Gone Hollywood” kicks off Side 1 (remember, this was put together when albums still had sides), matched by the long slow buildup of “Take The Long Way Home”, which opens side 2. “Gone Hollywood” has another companion piece, too — the album begins and ends with the only two songs co-written by the band’s two songwriters, Rick Davies (no relation to Ray or Dave) and Roger Hodgson. On the first side (after “Gone Hollywood”), Davies and Hodgson alternate songs, and on the second side they each get a pair of songs, before combining in “Child Of Vision”, which expresses itself as a conversation (or argument) between the two of them.

Album cover for Breakfast In America

About those two. Davies and Hodgson have very different voices, very different sensibilities, and they complement each other beautifully in this band. This time through, they were feeling like expressions of elemental Earth and Air to me. Davies is very rooted in the physical, its pleasures and hardships, and sings in an earthy baritone. Hodgson, on the other hand, is much more spiritual, and sings in a voice two steps from the angels. They’re both great songwriters, and the interplay between them sets up a tension that makes the songs and the overall album feel really dynamic.

In the end, I tend to gravitate towards Hodgson over Davies, though I do appreciate Davies, even if I’m not always sure what he’s up to. “Goodbye Stranger” seems like such a quintessential expression of silk-shirted, hairy-chested, medallion-wearing 1970s playboy masculinity that I can’t quite tell whether he’s parodying the character or embodying him. Most of the way through, he’s smoothly defending being a womanizing commitment-phobe, but there’s a moment, at about 4:30, when the whole thing feels like it drops off a cliff into an unsettling minor key, casting a shadow of doubt on every claim. Then the propulsive beat kicks back in, and a guitar solo streaks down the road, following the character to his next conquest.

Still, when it comes right down to it, for me, Breakfast In America is about two songs, both by Hodgson: “The Logical Song” and “Take The Long Way Home”. The opening chords of “Take The Long Way Home” create a portentous mood, like a heavy cloud, and then the purest, sweetest harmonica pierces them, like a shaft of bright sunlight, buoyed by joyful piano. It gives me chills. It’s perfect. The words to the song reflect that contrast too. It’s a feeling of disconnection I think we all experience — one part of your life can feel so good, so affirming, so uplifting, and then just like that, you run into someone who has a very different view. All of a sudden, their doubt exposes your own, and it all seems hollow. What’s the answer? Take the long way home. To me, it means finding a place in yourself, by yourself, where you know what’s true, how you can be satisfied. You’re not always there, but you point yourself in that direction. That’s how you get home.

“The Logical Song” talks about a different kind of disconnection. For me it evokes the last chapter of The House At Pooh Corner, which I’ve written about before. That transition point of leaving pure childhood behind, entering into a world that requires you to be “sensible, logical, responsible, practical,” has an unbelievably piercing poignancy to me. It is a deep, deep feeling, and I don’t think I can ever write about it again as well as I wrote about it in that blog entry, so I’m not going to try. All I can say is that Hodgson nails it, and I feel it every time, and it is the sweetest ache. That song is about as good as songs get. Watching Dante go off to school again this week, I feel it all over again. When we cry out at night, needing desperately to figure out who we are, songs like this let us know we’re not alone.

The Annotated Annotated Watchmen 17 – The Superhuman Crew

Once there was a man who revolutionized his field. Emerging from a working-class background in a desolate town, he absorbed every bit of knowlege he could, and in his youth joined a community of like-minded artists. Eventually he found work in the big city, and began attracting notice in his chosen arena. The pace of his creative genius accelerated, and soon he was releasing one brilliant work after another, in rapid succession. Each one individually was a mind-blowing leap forward, and taken in totality they completely upended everyone’s assumptions about what was artistically possible in the domain.

He took a genre that was considered disposable trash aimed at children, and made it matter, bringing a highly literate and literary sensibility it had never seen before. With humor, drama, and passion, he got the world’s attention on not only his own work, but the possibilities it implied for the entire medium. He emerged from this period an indisputable legend, and no matter how many fallow years or bizarre religious conversions may follow, nothing will tarnish that accomplishment.

This man goes by the name of Bob Dylan.

I think it’s easy to see why Alan Moore admires and appreciates Dylan, going so far as to quote him for two different epigraphs in Watchmen, a distinction matched only by the Bible. Moore is the Bob Dylan of comics, and has come to struggle similarly under the staggering weight of his well-earned prestige and fame. But enough of the parallel, let’s dig into the inspiration for Chapter 1’s quote and title. Be warned that spoilers abound below for Watchmen.

Chapter 1 of Watchmen is titled “At Midnight, All The Agents…”, and the annotations quite rightly inform us that the quote comes from “Bob Dylan’s song ‘Desolation Row‘”. Of course, the “Bob Dylan” part isn’t terribly hard to track down — he’s cited in the final panel of the chapter, with a fuller version of the quote: “At midnight, all the agents and superhuman crew, go out and round up everyone who knows more than they do.” (This is actually a misquote in several areas, as we’ll see below.) But “Desolation Row” is a huge song, a 10-verse epic that clocks in at 11 minutes and 21 seconds. So we’ve got a little room to expand – let’s have the full stanza! It’s the 8th one in the song.

At midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory
Where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row

“Desolation Row” was released in 1965, a pretty good year for the agents and the superhuman crew. That year, Goldfinger broke box office records around the world, becoming the fastest-grossing film of all time. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was a cultural phenomenon, spawning merchandise ranging from t-shirts to board games to record albums, not to mention a host of imitators and parodies. Meanwhile, in the superhero comicbook world a revolution was in swing, led by Stan Lee and his Merry Marvel Marching Society. Superheroes were popular not just with kids, but increasingly on college campuses as well.

Dylan’s lyric punctures this euphoria in a way that partly foreshadows Watchmen. Here, the heroes of 1965 aren’t targeting bank robbers or the world-shattering conspiracies or what-have-you, but rather “everyone that knows more than they do.” They are the agents of anti-intellectualism and anti-creativity, enforcing hegemony on behalf of an Establishment status quo. All those smart people get bound to a machine, inside a factory, their art and intellect caged in symbols of capitalism, regimentation, and meaningless work. And it only gets worse from there, as more Establishment figures descend from Kafka-esque castles with kerosene, surely in preparation for something like a holocaust. The agents and superhumans work for these insurance men, ensuring that nobody escapes the consequences of enlightenment.

It’s also hard to escape the Vietnam draft angle on this verse. In 1965, the United States began calling up 35,000 young men every month to fight in the Vietnam War, a war against the specter of Communism, at least as it was perceived by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. It was an insurance man’s war — a premium paid in lives, year over year, against the hypothetical catastrophe posited by the “Domino Theory”, the notion that if one republic falls to the Red Menace, a chain reaction would ensue and next thing you knew we’d be the only capitalist democracy in the world, drowning in a sea of red. The agents and superhuman crew were full participants in this narrative, battling one Communist menace after another in their comics, movies, and TV episodes. In addition to the actual government rounding up young people, these stories were doing cultural work to get kids on the government’s side.

The skeptical view of spies and crusaders in “Desolation Row” informs Watchmen too, though the book’s superhuman crew is far less monolithic than Dylan’s. The Watchmen character closest to what Dylan describes is surely The Comedian, who spends his time “working for the government… knocking over Marxist republics.” He would have no compunction whatsoever at rounding up whoever he was told to round up, and bringing them wherever he was told to bring them. Then there’s Ozymandias, who indeed spends much of the book rounding up artists, scientists, writers, and even the head of a dead psychic. They may or may not know more than the so-called “world’s smartest man”, but he certainly puts them to work in his island factory, and then destroys them with fire. Nobody escapes Adrian’s “lethal pyramid.”

Still, the title appears on page 6 as a caption to Rorschach, and it is Rorschach who ventures forth at midnight, rounding up the superhuman crew themselves. It’s certainly safe to say that Dr. Manhattan knows more than Rorschach does — he knows more than anyone does, though that knowledge doesn’t prevent him from being surprised sometimes, nor from sometimes enforcing the state’s agenda for a while, just as The Comedian does. And of course Ozymandias knows more than Rorschach does, since he is after all the author of the murder mystery Rorschach is attempting to solve through his midnight maneuvers. All these stories meet at the book’s metaphorical midnight, when the superhuman crew themselves know more than everyone else, and allow none to escape their pact of secrecy.

That final panel misquotes the lyric, skipping the definite article in front of “superhuman”, substituting “go” for “come”, and “who” for “that”. However, there may not be much to be drawn from that fact — in the original comic version of Watchmen #1, the final panel is simply black, with the doomsday clock at the bottom. Quotes appear in that final panel in every subsequent issue of Watchmen, so apparently the DC editors decided to alter the final panel of #1 to match. That it misquotes the song is likely nothing to do with Moore, and everything to do with imprecise editorial work.

As long as we’re looking closely, though, let’s observe that in this verse, Desolation Row isn’t the place to escape from, it’s the place to escape to. Every verse in the song ends with the words “Desolation Row”, and in this case it stands outside the nightmarish factory, as an unreachable alternative to the horrors within.

So what is Desolation Row, anyway? To find out, let’s start at the beginning. Here’s how the song opens:

They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town

“Postcards of the hanging” is an image for which Dylan critic Mark Polizzotti has an explanation. In Polizzotti’s book on Highway 61 Revisited (the album which “Desolation Row” closes), he tells of a lynching which occurred in 1920 in Dylan’s birthplace: Duluth, Minnesota. Six young black circus hands were accused of sexually assaulting a white teenager. Three of the accused men were dragged from jail by a mob numbering in the thousands. They were beaten, and hung from lampposts. According to Polizzotti, “A photograph of the incident, which circulated widely as a commemorative postcard, shows a crowd of Duluthians proudly posing around the three limp bodies.” (Highway 61 Revisited, pg. 134)

This horrible image leads off a parade of grotesques, which the verse winds up with, “As Lady and I look out tonight from Desolation Row.” Once again, Desolation Row is placed outside the realm of horror, as the observation point in which the song’s narrator stands. So, in some sense, it appears to be the everyday world, or at least the narrator’s place in that world. It’s a grim vantage point because of all the human cruelty and evil that surrounds it.

The image won’t be pinned down so easily, though. In other verses, it’s where Cinderella sweeps up after ambulances carry away a misguided lover. It’s where Einstein used to play the electric violin, an image evocative of both Nero and of Dylan himself, who was in the midst of shocking his audience by playing an electric version of his chosen instrument. It’s the site of a carnival to be attended by the Good Samaritan, the forbidden zone for Casanova, and a taboo peepshow for Ophelia. As all these archetypes come into play, and as the prepositions shift around it (from, to, about, on), the notion of Desolation Row transcends any sense of physical place. It is, instead, a state of mind.

Desolation Row is how it feels to see black bodies swinging from lampposts in your hometown. How it feels to watch young men die in the name of a paranoid fantasy. How it feels to see potential scholars and artists locked into roles they didn’t choose, their minds’ gifts and their true selves ignored in favor of what their back and hands can do before they break. How it feels to watch love carried away in an ambulance. How it feels to be Cassandra, speaking the truth but never believed. “How does it feel?” cries Dylan in “Like A Rolling Stone”, the song at the other end of Highway 61 Revisited. How it feels is Desolation Row.

It’s where you stand, outside the horror but seeing it clearly, framing it with symbols. What becomes clear from this observation point is that we are the authors of our own nightmares. As Polizzotti puts it, “the fault lies not in our political or social institutions, but hopelessly, irrevocably in ourselves.” (Ibid., pg. 138) Or, in the words of another Desolation Row denizen:

I’ve mentioned lots of famous characters, both real and fictional — Cinderella, Ophelia, Einstein, Casanova, and so forth. There are plenty more in the lyrics of “Desolation Row”, such as Cain and Abel, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the Phantom of the Opera. In fact, the agents and superhuman crew are unusual in the song for being referred to as a general category rather than a specific example. Dylan puts these figures to work as archetypes, fundamental examples of concepts such as poetry, romance, doomed love, brilliance, and so forth. However, we never find them doing quite what we expect — they’re placed well outside their usual stories. Pound and Eliot are fighting in the captain’s tower of the Titanic. Einstein wanders around disguised as Robin Hood, smoking and reciting the alphabet. And then of course there are those fascistic superheroes. Dylanologist Clinton Heylin sums it up: “Dylan relies almost solely on placing familiar characters in disturbingly unfamiliar scenarios, revealing a series of increasingly disturbing canvases.” (Revolution In The Air, pg. 248)

Ring any bells? Alan Moore didn’t have the familiar characters available, though not for lack of trying. Instead, he reflected the Charlton characters just enough to open up their connections to much broader categories. As Dave Gibbons puts it, “The Charlton characters were superhero archetypes. There was the Superman figure, the Batman figure…. We realized we could create our own archetypes and tell a story about all superheroes.” Except, these superheroic emblems weren’t doing their usual thing, but instead find themselves in disturbingly unfamiliar scenarios, such as the extreme grimness of Rorschach’s “origin”, Silk Spectre’s Tijuana Bible, and the Vietnam killings of Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian. Watchmen‘s world is a lot like that of Dylan’s song, but the only observation point is from outside the book. Even Mars isn’t far enough away.

In the tenth and final verse of “Desolation Row”, Dylan shows his cards at last, letting us know what he’s been doing in the other nine. The cultural tokens fade away, the symbolic giving way to the personal:

Yes, I received your letter yesterday
(About the time the doorknob broke)
When you asked how I was doing
Was that some kind of joke?
All these people that you mention
Yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces
And give them all another name
Right now I can’t read too good
Don’t send me no more letters, no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row

It doesn’t really matter whether he’s talking about people in his life or talking about the condition of humans in general — what matters is that he has to rearrange their faces, and give them all another name. That’s what Cinderella, Einstein, and the rest are up to — new faces and new names for the “lame” people he’s all too familiar with. Through this rearrangement, draping the people he knows in symbolic clothes, and sending them out to make their way in a world of horrors, Dylan lets us see the things we know ourselves in a startling new light.

New faces and new names are a core trope of the superhero genre, too. What Dylan does to his subjects, superheroes do to themselves — changing their faces with masks and cowls (or perhaps just strategic eyewear removal), and declaring new names, new identities for their heroic undertakings. The characters in Watchmen have certainly done this, sometimes more than once — Sally Juspeczyk sets aside her ethnic Polish surname for the flashier “Jupiter”, and then throws a Silk Spectre on top of that. In response to the Keene Act, some then rearrange again, going back to their old names. And finally, after attaining and then shedding an archetypal identity, a few transform once more, into the ultimate expression of that archetype. Dr. Manhattan goes from godlike to simply god. Ozymandias builds a futile monument for the ages. Rorschach becomes a blot.

Pulling back one more level, we can see that Watchmen itself does this. It rearranges the faces of the Charlton heroes, giving them all new names. And in an even larger sense than this, it invites us to view superheroes from Desolation Row, rearranging the face of the entire genre.

Previous Entry: Housekeeping, and Some Notes On Method

The Annotated Annotated Watchmen – Housekeeping, and Some Notes on Method

Projects have a way of going fractal on me. When my Magical Randomized Reading Selector came up Watchmen, I remembered that I wanted to reread the book with the annotations alongside. So I googled up “Watchmen annotations” and found what seemed to be the most up-to-date version, a page calling itself “The Annotated Watchmen v2.0.” Basically someone took the existing annotations, farmed them around to a bunch of people for further comment, and collated the results, right in time for the 2009 Watchmen movie. So I printed out the chapter one notes and started into reading, only to find that the annotations themselves referred to a bunch of other works, various texts that had informed Watchmen, or at least so the notes claimed.

I was, at the time, looking for something to write about. Hey, I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to track down those other works, read them (or watch them, or listen to them, or whatever), and write little essays about how they interconnect to Watchmen? So I started into that, and I was right — it was fun.

I posted my first entry in the Annotated Annotated Watchmen series in October 2012. That’s an eon ago in Internet years, and sure enough, some things have changed. For one thing, the Annotated Watchmen v2.0 page at http://www.csd.uwo.ca/faculty/andrews/AnnotatedWatchmenV2/ is no more. Now visitors to that page get a very unfriendly “Access forbidden!” message. Disappointingly, even the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive seems to have only spotty captures of the page — in particular the “spoiler version”, which includes information that gives away some of the book’s plot, was never archived.

Meanwhile, I find myself falling backwards into my own fractalism. Where in the early entries I would read a book or watch a movie, then write, now I seem to be reading five books full of background alongside the basic text, before writing a word. I think this really amped up around the DC Universe entry, as I found that I simply could not make heads or tails of the material by itself. Background research was vital. Same with the Bible — I never did much Bible study, and I couldn’t write authoritatively about Revelation without some study of the context.

Perhaps strangely, I’m having even more fun than when I started. I feel now like I’m conducting my own independent college degree, giving myself a course on something and then writing a final paper. The thing is, now the essays are coming 2-3 months apart rather than 1 month apart. At this rate, I’ll be writing them for another 5 years. At least. But hey, as long as it’s fun, I’ll keep going. It’s not like I’m doing this for the money and the fame. 16 essays in, I’ve reached a milestone: finished with chapter one. Ha! (Though in fairness I do think this chapter is thicker with references than many others, partly because it addresses some things — like the Charlton references — that span the entire book.)

All that said, I’m making a couple of changes. First of all, due to the aforementioned web volatility, I’m switching from the spoiler version to the non-spoiler version of the Annotated Watchmen v2.0. Luckily, the Internet Archive did preserve the non-spoiler version. Let’s hear it for the Internet Archive! I’ve updated all the entries to point to the Archive version of the annotations, and also added some cross-referencing here and there among the essays, including links at the end of each one to the previous and next entries. Oh, and I fixed the occasional infelicitous phrase when I just couldn’t help myself.

Finally, when I first headed down this road I decided to eliminate texts I had already read/heard/whatever. However, I’m finding the process rewarding enough that I’ve decided to put those works back in scope. So for chapter one, that means the title quotation of Bob Dylan, and the page one allusion to Taxi Driver. Consider that a sneak preview of the next two essays, and then it’s on to chapter two!

Next Entry: The Superhuman Crew
Previous Entry: Let’s See Action

Scattered Thoughts From a Fleetwood Mac Concert

I saw Fleetwood Mac in Denver on Wednesday night, April 1. It was actually their second Denver stop on the same tour. This is the “On With The Show” tour, in which Christine McVie has rejoined the group and is touring with them again, something I never thought I’d see happen. They came here initially in December, and the cool thing about them coming back just 4 months later is that demand was greatly attenuated by the first show, and consequently I was able to get much better tickets — 10th row!

Now, normally at a concert I’m pretty absorbed by the music, but even so there’s some part of my head that occasionally perks up and writes out a little post, live-tweeting its comments back to me. Here are some of the things it had to say this time:

  • Before the show — somebody behind me just said, “Oh my god these seats are so close! THIS IS THE GREATEST DAY OF MY LIFE!” Heh. It feels pretty good when somebody behind you is super-excited about their seats.
  • I’ve had this thought at pretty much every Fleetwood Mac show for the last 20 years: I can’t believe these guys are still doing this and still sound so good.
  • Christine, until you came back, I never realized just how much I’d missed you.
  • This is the exact same show I saw in December, and not just the same set list, but the very same between-songs patter.
  • Lady to my right: No matter how many times you insist to your two friends that they are about to start “Black Magic Woman”, they are never about to start “Black Magic Woman”, and they never will be about to start “Black Magic Woman.”
  • There are all these graphics that show up behind the different songs, and I don’t object to them. In fact, some of them (like the ones for “Rhiannon” and “Tusk”) I quite like. But the giant Lindsey-head that floats above the group during “I Know I’m Not Wrong” is both super-weird and super-freaky.
  • Lindsey's floating head

    Do not arouse the wrath of the great and powerful Oz!


  • Okay, man and two women to my right. Think about this. In the middle of a huge arena, with a rock and roll band playing fifty feet away from you, has got to be one of the hardest places in all of Denver at this moment to carry on a conversation. And yet, you persist in trying to have one, which means you are SCREAMING at each other through many songs. Did you seriously pay gobs of money to do this? Wouldn’t you be more comfortable outside?
  • GOD I love hearing “Sisters Of The Moon”. Even though Stevie can’t hit the high note on it anymore, it is still so good.
  • And now: Deep Thoughts, with Lindsey Buckingham.
  • Oh my god you three to my right! It was one thing when you were shouting shit to each other during “Everywhere”, but do you have to do it during the quietest moments of “Landslide” and “Never Going Back Again”? I feel like saying to you, “Hey, I’m having trouble hearing you over the music, can you speak up?” But because I do not want to get into a conflict and thereby miss even more of the show, I will just seethe over here and write nasty things in my head about you.
  • Stevie tells a story before “Gypsy” that is way longer than anything Lindsey says, but while I’m tired of hearing Lindsey talk before he’s even done, I could hear Stevie tell this same story over and over again and still be rapt. I know, because this is the second time I’ve heard it, and I love it just as much as the first time. Plus, afterward she sings “Gypsy”!
  • Christine: Still Perfect. Stevie: Still Spellbinding. Lindsey: Still Soloing.
  • Oh, I see, lady to my right. You meant “Gold Dust Woman” the entire time. While I will grant you that they are both Fleetwood Mac songs, they are so not at all the same song. Plus, I’ll bet you don’t even know that “Black Magic Woman” started out as a Fleetwood Mac song.
  • The thing Stevie does on this tour during “Gold Dust Woman”, where it is as if she is possessed by all the dysfunction of the worst versions of herself, is so theatrical, so disconcerting, and so awesome.
  • “World Turning”: Hooray! 10-minute session of Mick playing drum solos and grunting into his head-mic: Boo! This is such a buzzkill, and I have never seen Fleetwood Mac leave it out. At least he’s not getting up in front of the stage and tapping electronic drums built into his clothes anymore.
  • Woman in front of me, you have seriously had that Fleetwood Mac tote bag over your shoulder for the entire show. Wow. That is some serious dedication to your pre-show merch purchase.
  • “Don’t Stop” is so much better now that Christine is back.
  • It’s amazing how Stevie and Lindsey can still summon the drama for “Silver Springs”. Boy, it must really suck to have an ex as a lifelong co-worker.
  • Ahhh, final encore. “Songbird.” Except… where’s the baby grand? And why is Mick coming back out? Oh no, he’s launching into his same-as-ever show-closing monologue! But what about “Songbird”? Noooooo!!! Oh man, what an anticlimactic disappointment at the end of a show that actually has Christine in it.

    [I researched this later and learned that they dropped it from the set list about a month ago, and that Christine is thought to be nursing a hand injury. I wonder if she has some kind of repetitive-stress thing? Even so, I wish she would just come out and sing it with Brett Tuggle on piano, but I think that kind of solo spotlight is not her cup of tea.]

The Annotated Annotated Watchmen 16 – Let’s See Action

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s spoilers for Watchmen, and they’re coming this way! We’re through the actual comic book section of Watchmen #1, and on to its wonderful prose supplement, the first two chapters of Hollis Mason’s autobiography, Under The Hood.

In chapter 2, Mason starts with stories of his grandfather’s moral sense and his own experience on the New York City police force, cites with his love of pulp adventure fiction like The Shadow, and finally builds to a rather shamefaced declaration of his crimefighting career as Nite Owl I: “Okay. There it is. I’ve said it. I dressed up. As an owl. And fought crime.” From there, he explains that it was Action Comics #1, from April 1938, that began his owlish career:

There was a lot of stuff in that first issue. There were detective yarns, and stories about magicians whose names I can’t remember, but from the moment I set eyes on it, I only had eyes for the Superman story. Here was something that presented the basic morality of the pulps without all their darkness and ambiguity. The atmosphere of the horrific and faintly sinister that hung around The Shadow was nowhere to be seen in the bright primary colors of Superman’s world, and there was no hint of the repressed sex-urge which had sometimes been apparent in the pulps, to my discomfort and embarrassment. I’d never been entirely sure what Lamont Cranston was up to with Margo Lane, but I’d bet it was nowhere near as innocent and wholesome as Clark Kent’s relationship with her namesake Lois.

As the annotations point out, Action Comics #1 was “the first appearance of Superman and perhaps the most important single work in the development of the superhero.” So I read it. And Mason is right — there’s a lot of stuff in there, but the 13-page Superman story is clearly what’s important. So I’ll maintain a focus on that, and not worry too much about Pep Morgan, Zatara, Scoop Scanlon, Tex Thompson, Sticky-Mitt Stimson, and all the rest.

Actually, it’s probably more correct to say “Superman stories”, plural — in those 13 pages we get Superman’s origin, Superman saving a woman wrongly convicted of murder, the introduction of Clark Kent, Superman defeating a wife-beater, the introduction of Lois Lane, Clark and Lois going on a date, Lois getting kidnapped, Superman defeating the kidnappers, and Clark getting sent to the fictional South American country of San Monte but instead heading to Washington D.C. and tackling congressional corruption. In modern comics, it would probably take a year to tell all those stories.

So what did Hollis Mason see in that first issue, and how did it influence him? Page one features an extremely compressed version of Superman’s spaceflight from “a distant planet” (not yet Krypton), and his incredible powers emerging in childhood and adulthood. There’s even “a scientific explanation of Clark Kent’s amazing strength”, invoking the proportional lifting and jumping abilities of ants and grasshoppers — unknowingly foreshadowing the strength and agility of a certain bug-based character of the future. But Clark’s abilities aren’t the ones we’ve come to know today. There’s no heat or x-ray vision, no super-hearing or super-breathing or super-thinking. He can’t even fly. The story says he can “leap 1/8th of a mile; hurdle a twenty-story building,” but he wouldn’t hover or swoop in the comics until years later.

Still, what’s clear is that, like Hugo Danner before him, Clark Kent has powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Hollis Mason, a mere mortal himself, couldn’t have hoped to compete. Even though Superman’s powerset is far from what it would become, it was well beyond anything Mason would ever achieve. In fact, when a real super-being does come along, Mason realizes immediately that he is suddenly irrelevant: “The arrival of Dr. Manhattan would make the terms ‘masked hero’ and ‘costumed adventurer’ as obsolete as the persons they described.” So Superman’s superhumanity couldn’t have been what inspired Mason to his own crimebusting career. But Superman was more than just strength, speed, and toughness.

Once the story proper kicks in, we find Superman carrying a bound and gagged woman, then leaving her on the ground so he can burst into the governor’s house, breaking down first a wooden door then a steel one. He shrugs off a bullet and tosses off a few sarcastic quips in the process of bringing a signed confession to the governor, who is the only one that can pardon an innocent woman about to be electrocuted. A couple of the panels even helpfully provide an inset clock, ticking down to midnight, showing how many minutes Evelyn Curry, the innocent woman, has left. (Hmm, now where have I seen that image before?) The guilty woman, according to the note Superman leaves behind, is “bound and delivered on the front lawn of your estate.”

Panels 1 and 2 of Action Comics #1, page 4

So here we have Superman using those incredible powers and abilities to prevent an injustice, save an innocent, and punish the guilty. It’s a theme that will repeat twice more in the issue. First, Superman interrupts a domestic violence incident (to which he was tipped off as Clark Kent), throwing the abuser against the wall with a cry of, “You’re not fighting a woman, now!” Later, he apprehends some gangsters who have kidnapped Lois, chasing down their car and destroying it by hand. In all cases, Superman’s powers dictate the way he does things — hoisting cars and people above his head, facing down bullets and knives without flinching, overcoming opponents by pure brute force. However, those powers do not dictate what he chooses to do. After all, Hugo Danner had those same powers, but he sure never dressed up and fought crime.

Superman decides, according to the origin, that “he must turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind.” The reason for this decision is not made clear, and it’s difficult to discern whether Clark Kent would be a do-gooder if not for his powers. But those stories, of protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty, speak to a deeply held desire within us, certainly within Hollis Mason. They remind him of “juvenile fantasies” like saving pretty girls from bullies, or teachers from gangsters, and lead him to wonder whether he could make those fantasies come true.

Here is where the “basic morality of the pulps” comes into play. Doc Savage swore to “think of the right and lend my assistance to all those who need it, with no regard for anything but justice.” The Shadow admonished us that “the weed of crime bears bitter fruit.” And by issue #6 of Action Comics, Superman’s raison d’etre coalesced into some version of:

Friend of the helpless and oppressed is SUPERMAN, a man possessing the strength of a dozen Samsons! Lifting and rending gigantic weights, vaulting over skyscrapers, racing a bullet, possessing a skin impenetrable to even steel, are his physical assets used in his one-man battle against evil and injustice!

Nite Owl’s abilities are very different from Superman’s, but his mission is not. He surely didn’t have the strength of a dozen Samsons, but what he did have was a deeply rooted desire to help the helpless and oppressed, and to fight against evil and injustice. He waged this battle with nothing more than his fists, really a far braver battle than Superman’s, as Mason was so much more vulnerable. And yet, wasn’t Hollis Mason doing this already as a policeman? Why, after a day of fighting crime in regulation blue, did he need to dress up as an owl to fight crime at night?

Well, for one thing, there’s a clear appeal in Superman’s directness. No policeman could have saved Evelyn Curry — the time was too short and the barriers too great. As for the wife-beater and the kidnappers, a cop might have stopped them, sure, but he would be denied the visceral satisfaction of meeting their violence with violence. And as for going to Washington and threatening lobbyists, forget it. Superman was unconstrained by rules and regulations, and in his identity as Clark Kent, could seek information and situations that would allow him to do his thing. Hollis Mason never comes out and says so, but I think it’s safe to imagine that he might have longed for the kind of freedom enjoyed by Superman in his battle against evil and injustice.

Still, that longing may have remained unexpressed if not for Hooded Justice, who was the first to tie the strands from Action Comics #1 into a shape that could exist in Mason’s world: physical power, fighting evil, with a concealed identity. Mason sees Hooded Justice as “the first masked adventurer outside comic books,” and says, “I knew I had to be the second.”

Last time, I cited Adela Yarbro Collins talking about apocalyptic fiction as a way to “overcome the unbearable tension perceived by the author between what was and what ought to have been.” In Superman, and Hooded Justice, Mason sees a different path to overcoming that tension. He doesn’t have to destroy the world. He doesn’t even have to destroy himself — just hide himself a little, and create a persona that allows him to author the change he wishes to see.

Yet in doing so, a different tension arises. Mason makes a point of mentioning his relief about what is left out of Action Comics #1: darkness, sexuality, moral ambiguity. And yet Hooded Justice has all these things in spades. Far from “bright, primary colors”, he’s draped in darkness (with, okay, a long pink cape for some reason.) He’s not the least bit afraid of devastating violence, crippling and hospitalizing his victims. And in his baleful gaze at the Comedian’s nasty jibe, it’s clear that this man is well acquainted with the “repressed sex-urge”, an urge deeply entangled with his darkness and menace.

watchmen-ch2-pg7

Embedded within Hollis Mason’s dual inspirations is a contradiction. The very things that Mason was so relieved to see absent from Superman’s bright, primary-colored world, are there from the beginning in his own. From what we can see of his career, he seems to have tried to provide the counterpoint, to project a chaste and cheerful image — the perfect Silver Age crimefighter. And yet darkness and ambiguity are all around him, even in his compatriots the Minutemen, from the frightened, mentally ill Moth to the cruel, grinning Comedian. It only gets darker from there, and his namesake Nite Owl II is pretty much the post-Minutemen poster boy for repressed sex-urge.

It’s worth noting, though, that the early Superman isn’t entirely devoid of these things either. No, we don’t see a lot of sexuality coming from him, at least not when he’s in the tights — all his interactions with Lois seem to aim at getting rid of her as quickly as possible. Clark, on the other hand, does keep trying to date her, but self-sabotages his way out of every encounter, presumably to maintain his secret. This portrayal is in keeping with the audience Siegel & Shuster were aiming at: 10-year-old boys. The mysteries of sex are buried deep, only called dimly and distantly by images of Superman carrying helpless women, and being fawned over by Lois.

Darkness and ambiguity, on the other hand, are more present than you might expect, or at least so it appears when reading the stories today. In the first 12 issues of Action Comics, there’s nary a supervillain to be seen. Instead, Superman seems to be working through a list of social ills similar to Captain Metropolis’ bulletin board, except that his board has labels like “gambling”, “reckless driving”, “slum housing”, and “corruption in college football.”

He goes about these crusades in some unexpected ways. For instance, to fight slum housing he… destroys all the houses in the slums! “When I finish,” he declares, “this town will be rid of its filthy, crime-festering slums!” And indeed, as the helpful captions explain, “During the next weeks, the wreckage is cleared, emergency squads commence erecting huge apartment-projects… and in time the slums are replaced by splendid housing conditions.” Thanks, government of 1939!

Now here’s how he fights corruption in college football. He kidnaps a low-performing scrub from a college team, drugs him to keep him docile, and then replaces him on the team, thanks to the magic of “make-up grease-paint.” From there, he follows a rather complicated scheme of making the former scrub into a star, threatening to expose the corrupt coach of the opposing team, then winning the game on the scrub’s behalf while resisting the rotten coach’s hired thugs.

In fact, Superman is full of threats in those early days — he’s constantly suggesting he’ll kill or badly injure anyone who gets in his way. He gets a warmongering munitions magnate onto a boat heading into the war zone by saying, “Unless I find you aboard it when it sails, I swear I’ll follow you to whatever hole you hide in and tear out your cruel heart with my bare hands!” This is quite a long way from today’s morally pure Man of Steel. In fact, it’s a little closer to the second Nite Owl, in pain over Mason’s murder: “I oughtta take out this entire rat-hole neighborhood! I oughtta… oughtta break your neck, you… you…”

Panel of Superman's threatening Norville

One more note about Action Comics. Just as issue #1 gave us the first superhero, issue #13 gave us the first supervillain: the Ultra-Humanite! Ultra was a reflection of Superman, right down to his name, but where Superman had strength, Ultra has “the most agile and learned brain on earth!” But, as he goes on to say, “unfortunately for mankind, I prefer to use this great intellect for crime. My goal? Domination of the world!!” Bald-headed and brainy, Ultra goes away a handful of issues later, to be replaced by Lex Luthor, for whom he was clearly the prototype.

Thus, an archetypal conflict was encoded very early on in the genre: brawn vs. brains. Somehow, brains frequently ended up on the evil side. As goes Action Comics, so go its successors… Watchmen included.

Next Entry: Housekeeping, and Some Notes on Method
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Geek Bowl IX answer recap

And now, the Geek Bowl IX answers!

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Geek Bowl IX question recap

Well, another Geek Bowl is in the books, and once again, I am happy. We didn’t win, but we came in 2nd place! Given that 134 teams played, and that the 2nd place prize is $3000, we feel pretty damn good about that. This year, sticking with the “Mothra” theme from last year, we were “The Mothras of Retention.” (No, not that kind of retention. Like, retaining facts. Come on.) We had the same lineup as last year, and boy do I love this team. Not only is it a great mix of specialties and styles, they’re also just a lovely group of people, with whom I always enjoy spending time. Not a blowhard or prima donna in the bunch. Oh, and did I mention that they’re all really frickin’ smart? Oh my god, I can’t even tell you. (But I’ll try.)

Mothras Of Retention team photo

L to R top row: Larry, Don. Bottom row: Brian, George, Jonathan, me

This year the bowl was in Albuquerque (henceforth ABQ), at an Indian casino called Isleta. I drove down from Denver, which was mostly fun. I’m always up for a road trip, but boy is there a whole lotta nothin’ between, let’s say, Colorado Springs and Santa Fe. (Uh, no disrespect to anybody’s town in “driveover country.” You could make a case for Pueblo.) Anyway, I got into ABQ around 5:30pm and checked into my hotel. (As always, hat tip to the awesome “name your price” feature on Priceline.) Teammate Don is a former ABQ resident, so he made reservations for us at a great New Mexican restaurant. Our team met up with another team, comprised of a couple former members of the Anti-Social Network and the friends they recruited to play along. That team’s excellent name: “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Rutter.” Also, teammates Brian and George had brought their wives, and Don invited a couple of ABQ friends. It was a big table. Great meal, too.

After that, about half of us headed to a house rented by Shane Whitlock and his wife, where a towering collection of trivia minds ate awesome food, drank good wine, and answered question after question, most prominently a Buzzer Battle tournament run by “Not Rutter” member Bill Schantz. There was also a really fun pub quiz created by Jeremy Cahnmann, whose game you should totally check out if you’re ever in Chicago. Ah, a fine time indeed. The next day I slept until 10:30am, which I mention because it is an AMAZING occurrence which never ever happens in my life anymore. The team got together at 4:30pm to run warmup rounds for 90 minutes or so, and then it was on to the main event!

As we gathered near the door, George passed around a small sheet of paper, upon which he had written down some guidelines that we’d always talked about but never formally codified. We quickly came to call them the Commandments, and here they are:

  1. Read/listen to the damn question.
    1. Read it again.
    2. Pay attention to the category.
    3. Don’t interrupt the question/audio. Let it finish before guessing.
  2. If you think of an answer, say it/write it, so the whole team knows.
  3. Everyone look over each answer sheet before turning it in.
  4. If the answer is a name and surnames are enough, don’t write the first name.
  5. If spelling doesn’t count, don’t sweat it.
  6. If an answer is used once in a quiz, nothing prevents that same answer from being used later in the same quiz. (The Quincy Jones rule – so named because QJ was an answer twice in one Geek Bowl.)
  7. “No” is not enough. Offer a solid alternative or a clear reason why the suggested answer is definitely wrong.
  8. Avoid facetious answers.

Following all these rules consistently is a lot harder than it sounds, and in fact we flubbed one of them one time at this Geek Bowl, but more about that in the answers post.

The event was held in a large auditorium, which apparently serves as a Bingo hall most of the time. It was very well suited for this night — good sound, lots of space, broad tiers with no fixed seating, friendly staff, etc. As has been the case for the past few years, the Bowl itself was very, very well-organized. Geeks Who Drink (GWD) has really got this down to a science now, and it came off expertly. The big change this year was that they had a headlining musical act, an outfit known as The Dan Band. In case you’ve never heard of these guys (I hadn’t), they’re a comedy/music group led by a guy named Dan Finnerty, who dresses like a gas station attendant (literally) and sings all songs by women. They were the wedding band in Old School, and also appeared in The Hangover. Knowing nothing else about these guys, I feared they would be boorish and obnoxious, but they actually turned out to be pretty funny and charming. As Don pointed out, the concept could be done in a very lazy way, but these guys weren’t lazy. For instance, their opening number — a medley of “Genie In A Bottle”, “No Scrubs”, and “I’m A Slave 4 U”, was proficient and professional, from the actual instrument-playing band to the smooth choreography. Sure, it’s a goof to have this guy singing these songs, and he throws in a lot of “fuck”s, but they don’t expect the gimmick alone to do the work of the act.

The Dan Band

In fact, the same thing can be said of Geek Bowl itself. As I’ve said before, the signature GWD tone is “self-consciously edgy”, but as time has gone on they’ve gotten a lot less self-conscious. I even noticed a considerable difference between this year and last year in terms of the questions. Last year had a round about nasty team names, songs about sex, and historical figures’ faces Photoshopped into vintage porn. This year had half a round about incest, and that’s about it for the raunch. It used to feel like GWD had a compulsory smut/obscenity quota, and that it could get in the way of, y’know, actualy having good or interesting trivia questions. Now it feels like they’ve got good question writers who don’t happen to be constrained by the bounds of good taste, but aren’t particularly obligated to leap over them either. (Nothing against sex and swearing, by the way — these are a few of my favorite things, actually — I just don’t like it when they feel mandatory in writing.)

Now here’s the part where I copy/paste and adapt the rules & disclaimers from last year’s post. If you don’t care, you can skip ahead to the questions, directly after the video.

As I’ve done in previous years, I’m going to recap the questions and answers here. A few caveats about this, though. First, the Geeks are pretty careful about their intellectual property, and the agreement we’ve worked out is that I won’t post these recaps until at least a week has elapsed since the Geek Bowl. (Though all things considered I’d have a hard time getting this together in less time anyway!) Second, I consider these recaps a tribute to the excellent question writers of the Geek Bowl, and an advertisement for a really fun event, but I am in no way officially associated with Geeks Who Drink, and I have not been supplied with question material. The recap below is not a verbatim representation of the Geek Bowl 9 questions. They are reconstructed from my notes and memories, which are very fallible. This year I had the bright idea of taking photos of some of the question slides — cameras are allowed at Geek Bowl as long as they can’t receive data. However, even those slides are very frequently paraphrases rather than verbatim reproductions of the questions as read. I am certain I have left out some of the cleverness, some of the humor, and some of the pinning precision. Anything in the questions and answers below that is wrong or crappy is my fault, not theirs.

Here’s the format: each team has its own small table, with 6 chairs. Quizmasters read questions from the stage, and the questions are also projected onto large screens throughout the venue. Once all the questions in a round have been asked, a two minute timer starts, by the end of which you must have turned in your answer sheet to one of the roaming quizmasters. (Though the final round has a 5-minute timer.) The game consists of 8 rounds, each with its own theme. Each round contains 8 questions — usually, each question is worth one point, so there’s a maximum possible score of 8 points for each round. However, some rounds offer extra points — for instance, Round 2 is traditionally a music round, with 8 songs played, and one point each awarded for naming the title and artist of the song. In a regular GWD pub quiz, it’s only Round 2 and Round 8 (always the “Random Knowledge” round) that offer 16 possible points. However, in this year’s Geek Bowl, one other round was upgraded from 8 potential points to 15 — we could see from the pre-printed answer sheets that question #8 in Round 4 would have 8 answers, for a total of 15 answers in the round.

Finally, teams can choose one round to “joker”, meaning that it earns double points for that round. Obviously, you’d want that to be one of the 15 or 16-point rounds, unless you really believed you wouldn’t score above 8 in any of them, which is highly unlikely. We discussed our jokering strategy ahead of time, and decided on thresholds. The Round 2 threshold was 14 — in other words, if we felt very confident about 14 out of 16 answers in Round 2, we would joker it. We didn’t end up settling on a Round 4 threshold, but it turned out not to matter. We probably would have jokered on at least 13, and failing that we’d automatically joker Round 8.

Now, for posterity and enjoyment, the questions of Geek Bowl 9. I’ll note our team’s experiences in [square brackets.] As I did last year, I’ll put the answers in a separate post, since this one gets long enough as it is.

Round 1: Duking It Out In The Duke City
Albuquerque is apparently nicknamed “The Duke City”, so this round was all about dukes.

1. Born in 1899, Duke Ellington came to be a major participant in the “Renaissance” of what New York City neighborhood? [I think all of us answered this one in unison.]
2. If you wanted to correctly spell the name of Duke University’s basketball coach, how many “z”s would you use? [I’m so out on questions like this, but between Larry, Don, and Jonathan, we got there.]
3. Patty Duke played both roles, Helen and Anne, in separate film versions of what play?
4. Here’s something you won’t understand: what band, on the album track following “How I Could Just Kill A Man”, sampled the song “Duke Of Earl”, by Gene Chandler? [We were clueless on this one. Took a wild guess.]
5. Due to a 1982 contract dispute, cousins Coy and Vance briefly replaced what TV siblings? [Brian (who served as our scribe) actually has a running “Coy and Vance” replacement joke on one of his podcasts, — I think he was writing the answer before they finished asking the question.]
6. Which was longer, the infamous gap between Duke Nukem 3D and Duke Nukem Forever, or the infamous gap between Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion albums and Chinese Democracy? (Just answer “Duke” or “GnR”.) [We guessed wrong on this one.]
7. What “P” word means the entire system of noble titles? [Slam dunk by George.]
8. According to Channel Islanders, and despite her presumable lack of male sex organs, who is the Duke of Normandy?

[Not our best round. We ended up with 6 correct answers.]
See the answers

Round 2: Dude Sings Like A Lady
Round 2 is always a music round, and for the last few years, they’ve had 8 different live bands each play about 25 seconds of a cover version of some song, and then performing that same 25 seconds again. This year, though, since they’d gone to the trouble of obtaining a “name”(ish) band, Round 2 was all about The Dan Band performing snippets of 8 different songs. Same approach — about 25 seconds, repeated once. The extra twist was that the round was “Bechdel Tested, Mother Approved” — true to The Dan Band ethos, all the songs were both by women and about women. The round description made a fairly big deal of specifying that we were to name both the song title and the “original female PERFORMING artist” for each tune, for reasons that will become clear below. As usual, this round can’t be described without giving away the answers, so here for you are the 8 Dan Band songs of Round 2:

1. Katy Perry – “I Kissed A Girl”
2. Alanis Morrisette – “Thank U”
3. Destiny’s Child – “Independent Women” [Because of the whole “female PERFORMING artist” thing, we debated whether to put Beyoncé, but decided that no, dammit, Destiny’s Child was the correct “performing artist” for that song.]
4. Kristen Bell – “Do You Want To Build A Snowman?” [So this was why they emphasized “PERFORMING artist” so much in the explanation — they wanted us to be sure to name the person singing the song, not the movie character. Don had an incredible pull on this song.]
5. Alicia Keys – “Girl On Fire” [The team was debating the exact title of the song, but I was quite certain that it’s “Girl On Fire.”]
6. Shania Twain – “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!” [A new corollary for the commandments — if spelling doesn’t count, punctuation counts even less.]
7. Melissa Etheridge – “Like The Way I Do” [This one couldn’t possibly have been more in my wheelhouse, though Brian clearly knew it too.]
8. Whitney Houston – “The Greatest Love Of All”

[We felt really, really good about this round, and jokered it without hesitation. We were right to do so, as we aced it. So that gave us 32 points, plus our previous 6 made a total of 38.]

Round 3: Red Or Green?
Round 3 at Geek Bowl is pretty much always some kind of 50/50, speed round, or multiple choice situation. This year it was a 50/50, based around New Mexico’s official state question: “Red Or Green?” In case it’s not clear, the question refers to what kind of chile you’d like on your food. (Though when I was asked on Friday night, I was also offered the option of both!)

1. Who bought Reddit in 2006: Condé Nast or Yahoo? [We guessed wrong on this one, and I’m sorry to say I was one of the ones steering us wrongward.]
2. Which team wore a green shirt at the 2014 World Cup: Italy or Mexico? [Don’s a soccer guy, and was all over this one.]
3. Which chain has more U.S. locations: Red Lobster or Red Robin?
4. In which book did the Red Wedding occur: A Clash Of Kings or A Storm Of Swords? [Don is also a Game of Thrones guy, and once again, was all over it. Go Don!]
5. Did Greenpeace’s initial cause concern nuclear testing or whaling?
6. Not including gulfs, which has more Red Sea coastline: Egypt or Saudi Arabia? [Jonathan drew a map for us that looked not terribly different from the one that accompanied the answer.]
7. The Green Book is the credited work of which controversial political figure: Gerry Adams or Moammar Qadaffi?
8. Which color of light is most conducive to photosynthesis: Red or Green? [Jonathan got to this by knowing about optics, Brian got to it by knowing about the habits of Colorado pot growers. We all got to it! (Not that Brian is a Colorado pot grower, mind you.)]

[We got 7 of 8 here, for an updated total of 45.]
See the answers

Round 4: The World According to LARP
Now, here is where things started to get seriously awesome. I mean, they were already good, but this is where they started to get awesome. This round was done all in cosplay, with each new cosplayer coming out and defeating the previous one, and then asking a question, in character, somehow related to the character. Not only that, sometimes the character was a clue to… well, you’ll see. Now, my account of this is going to be a little bit compromised by the fact that I was furiously taking notes while it was going on, but I’ll try to give you the gist.

The first thing that happened was a wizard took the stage, with resplendent robes and staff and so forth. After an impressive pretend-magic display, she asked us this question:
1. With a name that comes from the Latin words for “heap” and “rainstorm”, what kind of cloud normally produces lightning?

Suddenly a knight emerged, in full Crusades regalia! A mighty battle ensued, in which the wizard was struck down, the knight emerged triumphant, stepped to the microphone, and asked:
2. While we were killing Muslims during the Crusades, Paladins like myself called them by what slightly longer term, which is the same as the name of the quarterback on the show Friday Night Lights? [I knew the word, Don and Brian know Friday Night Lights. Cross-referencing FTW!]

Like a shadow, like a ghost, the ninja struck. The knight never stood a chance. Over his dead body, the ninja asked:
3. Speaking of things white people know nothing about: every year, dozens of people go to the Aokigahara Forest to do… what? [Boy did we struggle with this one. I’ll put the full story in the answers post, but suffice to say we got it wrong.]

Zzap! The phaser blast of a dour Klingon proved in short order that no pajama-wearing human is a match for an honorable descendant of Kahless The Unforgettable. The Klingon approached the mic and asked us a question… in Klingon. We could make out the words “falcon”, “eagle”, and “kestrel”, but that’s it. Then on the screen behind her appeared a translation:
4. What bird is biologically closest to a falcon: a hawk, an eagle, or a kestrel?

Klingons are strong with honor, but you know their challenge area? Friendship. Especially the magic of a magical friendship, which can really be magically friendly, and magical. Thus it was that a very approximate human equivalent of a My Little Pony character defeated the Klingon, and asked:
5. Ponies are defined as measuring less than 58 inches at what specific shoulder area, which the composer of “Lean On Me” would be proud of? [I knew the “Lean On Me” part, and as soon as I thought of it the horse part made sense.]

POW! What puny pony can withstand the full fury of the Rampaging Hulk? Down went the pony, and Hulk asked:
6. WHAT 2012 NBC DRAMA CENTER ON KATHARINE MCPHEE TRYING TO PLAY MARILYN MONROE IN BROADWAY MUSICAL?

You have a Hulk? Well we have a Quiz-Bot! A large robot, carrying a large pencil in one claw and a large drink in the other, with a digital crawling display on its chest reading (I think) “42… 42… 42…” battled the Hulk. Hulk is strongest one there is, but Quiz-Bot is smartest one there is, and it was victorious. It asked us:
7. In statistics, the standard deviation is signified by what 18th letter of the Greek alphabet?

Finally, the players’ mom stepped onstage. Everyone got up, and she distributed some tasty snacks from her purse to all players. Everyone munched happily, while she strode to the mic. Remember how I said that we could see from the answer sheets that question #8 in this round would have 8 possible answers? Well here’s that question:
8. Besides Barbara Walters, name eight of the nine women to date who have been panelists on The View for more than one season. [The full team collaborated to come up with seven, and at the last minute Brian pulled an eighth. WHOO!]

[A strong round – we got 14, raising our total to 59.]
See the answers

Round 5: LandMark Wahlberg
This was a video before and after round. The idea is that we’d see a landmark, and then a famous person would show up in the frame. The name of the landmark and the name of the famous person would have a common sound — not necessarily a common word. They even provided an example — a shot of Machu Picchu, and then a cutout of Yo-Yo Ma climbing it. The answer: Yo-Yo Machu Picchu.

The video was quite well done indeed — funny, clear, and well-clued, with very satisfying answers. The questions went fast, but we got them well enough. It was pretty much everything you could want in a video round, and with any luck at all the Geeks will post it on YouTube, as they’ve done with previous years’ Geek Bowl video. In the meantime though, all I can do is provide the answers:

1. Kanye West Point
2. UluRuPaul
3. Westminster Abbie Hoffman
4. Mount Vernon Davis
5. La Sagrada Familia Earhart
6. Hagia Sofia Loren
7. Dome Of The Rock Hudson
8. Notre Dame Edna [I recognized Notre Dame right away, and then Don Kreskined “Dame Edna.”]

[We aced this round. 59 + 8 = 67 total points now.]

Round 6: The Round You And Your Sister Have Been Waiting For
This was a round on inheritances and incest — that old-time GWD spirit shining through, or at least partway through.

1. According to the King James Version of the Bible, “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit” what?
2. Named Adult Video News #21 All-Time Greatest Porn Film, what 1980 family fuckfest shares its name with a family board game from Hasbro? [Oh, Geeks. Then again, George later said, “I had it at ‘family fuckfest.'”]
3. Named for a geneticist called Reginald C. Something, what’s that quadrilateral chart that biologists use to determine the likely genotype of offspring? [Jonathan came through here.]
4. A pair of federal agents encounter an inbred Pennsylvania clan called the Peacocks in “Home”, a classic 1996 episode of what TV series?
5. A product of over 100 years of inbreeding, the drooling, slow-witted Charles II was the last Hapsburg to rule what nation?
6. Owners of most of Colorado’s sports teams, plus a few others, the Kroenke familly actually got most of their cash by marrying into what Southern family? [Larry knew this one right away.]
7. Unpublished for almost 150 years, The Inheritance was the first novel by what precocious teen, who later quite extensively covered the March family? [Yay, a literature question! I had this one right away, and Jonathan was a half-second behind me.]
8. What famous actress thankfully inherited her looks from her mother, Marcheline Bertrand, rather than her father, the title star of Midnight Cowboy?

[Another perfect round for us. 67 + 8 = 75.]
See the answers

Round 7: Bust A Movie
Okay, so I’ve been a trivia guy for a long time. I’ve seen a lot of great, clever concepts for questions and had a lot of fun. And I am here to say that Round 7 of Geek Bowl 9 was, I think, my favorite trivia round I’ve ever seen. As the moderators explained, “We’ve had video rounds, audio rounds, movie rounds, singing rounds, celebrity rounds, and lots more. But tonight, for the first time ever, we are having a dance round at Geek Bowl.” Here’s what this means: GWD hired a dance troupe called the Keshet Dance Company to re-enact 8 dance scenes from movies. Players had to name the movies.

Keshet was phenomenal — exuberant, fun, and accurate. They drew enthusiastic cheers throughout, and a MASSIVE, IMMEDIATE standing ovation at the end. God, I loved it. My descriptions could not possibly do justice to the round, but lucky for me, there is video!

The dances in that video are slightly out of order from how they were performed at the event, and there’s also one dance missing. But don’t worry, I’ll break it all down in the answers post.

[Brian was an absolute star on this one, naming 2 dances the rest of us didn’t know at all, and getting there first on several others, even sometimes before they started dancing. Thanks to him putting us over the top, this was another perfect round for us, bringing our total to 83.]
See the answers

Round 8: Random Knowledge
Round 8 of any Geeks quiz is always called “Random Knowledge”, and random it is. At a regular pub quiz, it’s 8 questions whose point values vary anywhere between one and four, for an ultimate total of 16. At Geek Bowl, the Random Knowledge questions are all worth two points each. In addition, at Geek Bowl 9, the Random Knowledge round was EXTREMELY FREAKIN’ HARD! There were 16 points theoretically possible, but according to their official recap post, the highest anybody scored was 13, and the average was SIX points. Out of sixteen. It was brutal. And here it is:

1. According to Statista.com and several other sources, what two countries have the most Facebook users?
2. Which two cable shows were the last ones to win the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Drama series more than once?
3. a) What is the relative minor key of C-major? b) What’s the mathy-sounding name of the wheel that shows the tones of the chromatic scale with their major and minor relative tones? [Hooray for Jonathan, who spent his middle and high school years as a cellist.]
4. a) The Pleiades and the Crab Nebula are both in which Zodiac constellation? b) The Australian flag features the Southern Cross, otherwise known by what Latin name?
5. a) Now in Lebanon, what ancient Phoenician city lent its name to the purple dye favored by ancient rulers? b) Chemically, that dye owes its color to the presence of what halogen element?
6. a) What sort of environmental sensor did Apple add to the iPad Air 2? b) To the nearest hundred, what was the U.S. retail price of the original entry-level iPad?
7. a) The Bhagavad Gita takes the form of a conversation between a Hindi prince and his driver, who is actually what deity? b) They spend a lot of time discussing what Sanskrit word, which signifies the Hindu concept of “what is right”?
8. a) Half the people currently on the International Space Station are from what country? b) Since it’s expedition #42, they made a mission poster that’s ultimately based on the works of what novelist?

As with last year, there was a pre-emptive tiebreaker, a great idea to reduce the awkwardness of two teams standing on stage answering an extra bunch of questions. Also like last year, this was a convoluted and time-consuming question:

Take the number of ounces in a bomber of beer (B), then subtract the number of living original members of the Wu-Tang Clan (W). Multiply the difference by the number of landlocked member countries of the European Union (E). Add to the product the number of seasons the show Gossip Girl (G) ran. Or, in simplified form:

[(B-W) x E] + G

Thankfully, this round had a five-minute countdown to write down answers rather than two minutes.

[We scraped out of this one with 8 points. I sure am glad we didn’t wait to joker! So, our final Geek Bowl score was 91.]
See the answers

And there they are, the questions of Geek Bowl IX. If and when the Geeks release new video from the rounds, I’ll incorporate it here. Until then, see you next year!

$3000 novelty check made out to Mothras of Retention

The Annotated Annotated Watchmen 15 – The End Of The World As We Know It

“To me, when we talk about the world, we are talking about our ideas of the world. Our ideas of organisation, our different religions, our different economic systems, our ideas about it are the world. We are heading for a radical revision where you could say we are heading towards the end of the world, but more in the R.E.M. sense than the Revelation sense. That’s what apocalypse means — revelation. I could square that with the end of the world, a revelation, a new way of looking at things, something that completely radicalises our notions of the where we were, when we were, what we were, something like that would constitute an end to the world in the kind of abstract, yet very real, sense — that I am talking about. A change in the language, a change in the thinking, a change in the music. It wouldn’t take much — one big scientific idea, or artistic idea, one good book, one good painting — who knows?” — Alan Moore, 1998

Today’s topic, friends, is the end of the world. I say unto thee: behold and beware, for I bring you multitudes of Watchmen spoilers. Also, I suppose, Bible spoilers? Can the Bible be spoiled? Besides via misinterpretation, I mean? :)

The Christian holy book is at issue today because of an observation made by the Annotated Watchmen, v2.0, about page 24 of chapter 1:

The band name, “Pale Horse,” refers to Revelations 6:8, where the fourth horseman of the Apocalypse, Death, is said to ride a pale horse.

watchmen-ch1-pg24-panel1

(The words “Pale Horse” are partially obscured in this panel, as frequently happens in Watchmen, but they show up plenty of other places, such as emblazoned above the dead bodies in Chapter 12.)

So, in quite a tonal switch from reading DC and Charlton comics, I read the Bible. Well, the last book of it anyway.

It makes sense that Watchmen would refer to Revelation. They are both stories of apocalypse, and not in the R.E.M. sense either. The modern meaning of “apocalypse” relates to catastrophic destruction, irrevocable change, the end of the world. But etymologically, “apocalypse” derives from Greek, meaning “uncover” or “reveal.” The book of Revelation encompasses both senses of the word. It describes destruction on an epic scale, with God visiting one catastrophe after another upon humanity — the earth quakes, the waters turn to blood, meteors fall and set the forests ablaze. Locusts with human faces and scorpions’ tails boil from a bottomless pit, slaughtering people alongside avenging angels, amid fire, darkness, starvation, drought, hailstones, and disease. These themes repeat throughout the book, starting with the four horsemen representing conquest, war, famine, and death. At the same time, Revelation is, well, a revelation, partly because it was revealed in a vision to its writer, John of Patmos, and partly because it demonstrates the final judgment of God, the creation of the New Jerusalem, and the vindication of Christian believers, who are of course separated from the Earth before all those horrible things happen to it.

Watchmen certainly includes the horror; Moore and Gibbons devote six splash pages in a row to making sure we know it as Chapter 12 opens. However, in the first of many inversions of the Biblical model, Veidt’s apocalypse is explicitly antithetical to revelation, demanding instead that everyone to whom it is revealed either keep it secret or be destroyed to preserve the secret. Revelation 12:9 refers to Satan as “the deceiver of the whole world”, and describes how he is defeated and thrown down to earth by the archangel Michael. The book equates deception with evil, and describes Jesus as bringing a fierce and disturbing truth — it refers no less than five times to a sword coming from Jesus’ mouth. Salvation of the world depends on this truth, and on the overthrow of Satan the deceiver.

In Watchmen, though, Veidt is the deceiver of the world, and in his mind at least, he deceives the world in order to save it. “Unable to unite the world by conquest…” says Veidt, “I would trick it: frighten it towards salvation with history’s greatest practical joke.” The sword comes not from Adrian’s mouth, but from somewhere altogether more hidden and secret — the bottom of the world. Not only that, he makes the other characters complicit in his secret, asking “Will you expose me, undoing the peace millions died for? …Morally, you’re in checkmate.” And the other characters agree, all except for Rorschach, who meets his own personal apocalypse at the hands of the book’s most godlike character. Where Revelation shows war in heaven, Watchmen‘s pantheon reluctantly unites, after destroying its lone dissenting vote.

Rorschach himself is the book’s prime examplar of the moral sense on display in Revelation. In many parts of the New Testament, Jesus’s teachings complicate and problematize the old vengeful approach of the Old Testament God. Take for example, this excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5:38-42

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”

(All my Bible quotes are from the English Standard Version, BTW and FWIW.) But in Revelation, no cheeks are turned. The book couldn’t be more dualistic. God and Jesus stand on one side, Satan and his beasts on the other. Babylon the whore stands on one side, New Jerusalem the bride on the other. The 144,000 of Israel, along with a “great multitude” of the faithful from every nation are preserved in heaven, while the rest of humanity is condemned to round after round of torture and disaster. No Limbo, no Purgatory. Nobody gets just a mild punishment. Nobody even repents, despite what you’d have to think are some pretty convincing reasons to give it a shot:

The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk, nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts. (Revelation 9:20-21)

(John of Patmos really loved lists.)

In other words, as Rorschach’s journal tells us just a few panels down from the first Pale Horse reference:

watchmen-ch1-pg24-panel6

(The word “Armageddon” itself comes from Revelation too — it’s the gathering place of the armies of evil in preparation for their final battle: “And they assembled them at the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.” (Rev 16:16))

In fact, Rorschach’s journal has another connection to Revelation, in which God several times makes the point, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” (Rev 21:6) So if God is the Alpha and Omega of Revelation, what is the Alpha and Omega of Watchmen? Why, it’s Rorschach’s journal. Chapter 1, page 1, panel 1, at the very top of the panel, reads: “Rorschach’s Journal. October 12th, 1985”. Then, at the very bottom of the final page of the final chapter is an image of Rorschach’s journal. In between the word and the image lies the full comic, the rest of the world. Watchmen‘s world leads us to wonder: what if God were like Dr. Manhattan? But Revelation presents a God who is much more like Rorschach, preserving the innocent and casting all the rest into a lake of fire.

Watchmen itself is an inversion of Revelation — all flawed humans and shades of grey, which contrasts so well with Rorschach’s dualism and the usual Good vs. Evil conflicts previously inherent to the superhero genre. In fact, one could argue that both Revelation and the general thrust of the superhero genre are expressions of the ancient combat myth pattern, which follows a familiar trajectory. Biblical scholar Adela Yarbro Collins, who has thoroughly made the case for Revelation’s connection to combat myth, maps out this trajectory:

A rebellion, usually led by a dragon or other beast, threatens the reigning gods, or the king of the gods. Sometimes the ruling god is defeated, even killed, and then the dragon reigns in chaos for a time. Finally the beast is defeated by the god who ruled before, or some ally of his. Following his victory the reestablished king of the gods (or a new, young king in his stead) builds his house or temple, marries and produces offspring, or hosts a great banquet. These latter elements represent the reestablishment of order and fertility.

(Crisis And Catharsis: The Power Of The Apocalypse, pg. 148)

Now, superhero stories don’t tend to be festooned with dragons, Fin Fang Foom aside. But if the dragon in ancient tales stood in for a force too overwhelming for ordinary humans to fight, then supervillains fill that role nicely. They threaten to overthrow whoever’s name is on the cover of the book, or that hero’s home city, country, planet, or galaxy. A mighty battle is joined, and the hero or team often is defeated or nearly defeated, before coming back and defeating the villain, restoring order. Due to the serial nature of the comics, we tend to skip over the final portion, since we understand that restoration of order is only temporary until the next issue arrives. Still, the X-Mansion gets rebuilt again and again, the Fantastic Four affirm or restore the safety of their children, and the Justice League shares convivial bonhomie at the beginnings and/or endings of its stories.

No such celebration happens in Watchmen, because the dragon is not defeated. Veidt carries out his plot and succeeds. He does not reign in chaos, but creates a fragile order based on deception. Moore upends the familiar and comforting story arc we’ve come to expect, and asks us whether we really wanted that story anyway. He shows us gods whose reign brought fear and uncertainty to their kingdoms, and were deposed (with varying degrees of success) by their subjects. But in their absence, the world finds still more chaos, brought about by ordinary human avarice, venality, and lust for power — no dragon necessary.

Indeed, Veidt sees himself as the king of the gods, and from his point of view the story does follow the combat myth pattern — he even throws a party for his scientists… as a means of killing them. He believes himself to have built a New Jerusalem of the world, but several signs point to his fallibility, the great distance between himself and the God of Revelation. Watchmen‘s most godlike figure questions the worth of Veidt’s plan, and the final scene intimates that the house of cards will tumble. Even Dan and Laurie gesture at fertility in the denouement (Dan’s comment, “Y’know, maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea of your mother’s…”), but immediately turn away. (“Children? Forget it.”)

In her study of the psychological power of apocalyptic tales, Yarbro Collins tells us, “The task of Revelation was to overcome the unbearable tension perceived by the author between what was and what ought to have been.” (Ibid, p. 141) Ozymandias authors his apocalypse for the same purpose, hoping to finally prove to the Comedian in his head that he wouldn’t just be “the smartest man on the cinder.” The artificial space squid’s appearance at the Pale Horse concert associates Veidt’s plan with Revelation’s fourth horseman of the apocalypse, and let’s not forget that John of Patmos saw those horsemen as a good thing, since the faithful would be spared from their destruction. John’s apocalypse never came, and Adrian’s is a pale shadow of it, because contrary to his apparent beliefs, Ozymandias is no savior, and certainly no god.

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It’s Never Over

It’s another year of music from me, and this year I think a little bit of a theme emerged in a few songs: saving people. If there’s one overriding neurosis in my life, it’s my desire to rescue the people I care about from the danger they’re in, at least as I perceive it. Or sometimes even people I’ve just met, or never met. I could blame it on too many superhero comics, but I suspect the cause and effect goes the other direction. In any case, this is not the worst personality flaw in the world, and in fact I think it has some pretty positive aspects, but I do have to watch it, lest it override my better judgment. For instance, it drew me into and kept me trapped in a very toxic relationship when I was in college, and has sometimes prompted me to lead with my emotions at work rather than my rational brain — not always the most productive approach. So I maintain awareness, and do a reality check every so often, but it’s no surprise that I find myself drawn to songs about transcendence, or pulling people out of the dark. This is not a “concept mix” by any means (except for the usual concept: songs I listened to and loved in the last year), but I find this theme recurring in several of the songs that compelled me.

1. Melissa EtheridgeEnough Rain
Case in point. Melissa came out with 4th Street Feeling in the fall of 2012, but in my typically belated fashion, I listened to it in early 2014. I don’t think it’s one of her stronger works, but it’s flawed in some interesting ways. Like this song, where the speaker is reaching out to a troubled friend. “Haven’t you had enough rain?” she asks, implying that the subject wallows in misery, but the metaphor is telling. Somebody who is suffering from a mental or physical illness (or a spicy combo plate of both) can no more shut off their suffering than somebody who’s sick of bad weather can say, “Okay, I’ve had enough rain.” Well, I guess they can say it, but that doesn’t make the rain stop. A close friend of mine went through a lot of trouble with a sleep disorder this year, so the line “Don’t go back to sleep” hit home with me. But when it’s raining, it’s raining.

2. Arcade FireIt’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)
Here’s the rescue-iest song of all the rescue-y songs. I reviewed an IF game that invokes the Orpheus myth, and part of what I wrote is pertinent here, so let me quote myself: “I identify very strongly with the Orpheus myth. There have been various times in my life… when I find myself questing about desperately to find the magic that will retrieve a loved one from the underworld into which they have descended. And even when it seems like I’ve succeeded, it is very difficult to maintain a belief in that success.” This song speaks directly to that experience, making the point that unlike finding your way out of Hades, when it comes to ongoing relationships, there is no finish line. Crises come and they pass, and they do the damage they do, some of which might even be averted by great effort on everyone’s part, but there’s no crisis that we can call final, save of course for the end of life itself. Because I’m in the midst of an ongoing Watchmen analysis project, I’m strongly reminded of Dr. Manhattan’s final words to Adrian Veidt: “‘In the end?’ Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.” Needless to say, I love this song. It’s probably the thesis statement of the whole mix, and hence its title.

3. The CureThe Hanging Garden
As Arcade Fire emerges from the underworld, The Cure dives deep into it. I revisited their album Pornography this year, and my GOD is it dismal. I don’t mean it’s bad — it’s excellent — but it is just the pits of depression. Even for The Cure, it’s a depressing album, and that is saying an awful lot. But this song has always stood out to me. There’s a reason why it was the single. Where the other songs are dirgelike, it is propulsive, and angry where the other songs are helpless. I mean, yes, the animals are still screaming and dying, but those drums carry me through.

4. David GilmourMurder
Robert Smith and Roger Waters know how to be depressed. David Gilmour, on the other hand, never quite got the knack. Even this song, meant to be an angry cri de coeur, tends to feel mostly mellow. But I absolutely love Gilmour’s voice, and his guitar playing evokes emotion from me like no other guitar player I have ever heard. Gilmour and Waters needed each other, and on their own neither one ever reached anywhere near the heights of Pink Floyd’s best work. But after they split, I was never able to tolerate a Roger Waters solo album, whereas I could listen to Gilmour’s over and over, which I did again this year. This is a little odd for me — I always think of myself as a lyric person first, with music a distant second. But with Gilmour, the music makes up for even the most labored lines. The sweeping crescendos in this song get me every time.

5. Death Cab For CutieWhy You’d Want To Live Here
I embraced Death Cab a few years ago, and since then I’ve been slowly making my way through their catalog. This year I spent a little time with The Photo Album, and this song jumped out at me. It’s a scathing anti-L.A. track, and while I’m no L.A.-hater, Ben Gibbard does a fabulous job of making me want to hate it. A great riff, a great melody, and most especially great lyrics sung in Gibbard’s sweet-angry voice, with (again) a giant sweep into a bridge full of spitting venom, make me put this song on repeat.

6. Stevie Ray VaughanWall Of Denial
Less a song about saving somebody else than saving yourself, Stevie Ray wrote this song (and many others on the In Step album) to document his own recovery from alcoholism. By coincidence, I happened to be listening to this album when a friend of mine disclosed that he had finally faced and surrendered to the reality of a lifelong addiction that had controlled him for decades, and entered a 12-step program. As I talked with him, these lyrics kept ringing in my head, so much so that I was practically reciting them by the end of the conversation. I’ll always associate this song with that day in 2014.

7. Cocteau TwinsHeaven Or Las Vegas
Rememember when I characterized myself as somebody who cares about lyrics much more than music? I still believe it’s true, so how is it that I have always been utterly enchanted and fascinated by The Cocteau Twins, who are notorious for having absolutely incomprehensible lyrics? I tried to learn any of the lyrics to their Heaven or Las Vegas album, only to find that they almost never print their lyrics, and even their most ardent fans, who put together encyclopedic web sites full of lyrics, tend to say stuff like “These lyrics transcriptions are almost purely hypothetical… what you see is what I imagine them to be, or what I have managed to piece together from my own ideas and those of others.” Nevertheless, I can’t get over how gorgeous this gibberish sounds. Apparently I am large and contain multitudes. Also, I had a stroke of amazing luck when I was in Vegas for a conference in 2014, so that’s why I picked this song in particular.

8. PinkWicked Game (live in Melbourne)
I finally got to see Pink this year, and while my seat wasn’t the greatest, I still had a great time. Being up in the rafters isn’t so bad when an artist can fly. :) She played lots of hits, and lots of tracks from her latest album — there’s some crossover between these categories. But for me the most memorable moment was when she played this cover. First, I love it when an artist does the unexpected in concert, either a surprise cover or an album track you’d never expect to hear. Second, in keeping with this song’s sexy image, the staging for this tune involved Pink doing various trust falls and being caught by a cadre of men, then hoisted, passed around, flung, etc. Whew! It was a whole thing. Here, it looked like this. Kinda stuck with me.

9. The Alan Parsons ProjectGames People Play
I am a fan of The Alan Parsons Project. In fact, the first CD I ever bought was their their Best Of album, partly because their sound is so clean and full at the same time — that was the first digital music I wanted to hear coming out of my own speakers. After spending time with both “Best Of” volumes, I dove deeper into their albums, mostly on cassette at the time. I’ve been slowly replacing those, going digital with them once again, and this year I spent some time with their Turn Of A Friendly Card album. They did such a beautiful job of braiding some of the very disparate strands of music from their time — progressive rock, California harmonies, disco, funk, soul. Soul and prog are not normally heard in the same sentence, let alone the same song, but many Alan Parsons songs, especially those with Lenny Zakatek on vocals, marry them effortlessly. “Games People Play” is a perfect example, and I’ve never gotten tired of it.

10. Jonathan CoultonYou Ruined Everything
When Jonathan Coulton’s daughter was born, he quit his job as a computer programmer to become a full-time musician, figuring that if he didn’t go for his dreams immediately, he’d never have the courage to do so at all. Besides, he wanted to set a good example for her, trying for the brass ring. I just read an Alan Moore biography that says he did pretty much the same thing — quit his day job as soon as his first child was born. I am risk-averse, and cannot relate to these people, but I do relate to this song. It’s a love song Coulton wrote to his daughter, about how a kid changes everything, into something often even better than before.

11. The Magnetic FieldsGoin’ Back To The Country
The Magnetic Fields’ album Love At The Bottom Of The Sea is 15 tracks of typical Stephin Merritt cleverness. I spent some time with it this year and this song called out to me. Merritt is a modern-day Cole Porter to me, with rhymes so literate and clever that they’re the intellectual version of fireworks. “Let Laramie take care of me til they bury me.” I also love Shirley Simms’ voice on this and all Magnetic Fields songs she sings.

12. RodriguezCan’t Get Away
I had a long journey with this song. I saw Searching For Sugar Man in late summer of 2012, and wrote about it here (well, back when “here” was LiveJournal) a couple of weeks later. I was surprised and honored to get a response from Eva Rodriguez, the artist’s own daughter, who shows up quite a bit in the film. I enjoyed the music too, so put the soundtrack on my wish list. By the time I’d gotten it and worked through the backlog in front of it, 2014 had arrived. There are quite a few songs on that soundtrack that really resonated with me, so it was a bit of a toss-up to decide which one to put on this mix. The melody of this one hooked into me, and I found myself singing it at odd times throughout the day. I love the sense of foreboding and doom in the lyrics, the sense that when something is ingrained in you, it doesn’t matter how far you run.

13. “Sirvana”Cut Me Some Slack
Dave Grohl’s documentary film Sound City is about the studio where dozens of classic albums were recorded, including parts of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. It’s got tons of great commentary by Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Trent Reznor, Paul McCartney, and a bunch of others. Of course I was going to love it. The other part of the plot, though, was that Grohl recovered the Sound City’s big mixing board after the studio went under, and recorded an album’s worth of new music with his various guests, using that board. Consequently, the Sound City soundtrack has some pretty special moments, including a new Stevie song that doesn’t appear anywhere else. However, this song stands out for me, even above the Stevie tune. It’s Paul McCartney basically taking Kurt Cobain’s place in Nirvana — Grohl on drums and Krist Novoselic on bass. That sludgy Nirvana sound, with the rockin’-est possible version of Paul Freaking McCartney singing lead, is AMAZING. To me. I didn’t even know that version of Paul still existed. I love the way he sounds on this track.

14. TotoRosanna
Toto was one of the first bands I ever got into — their Toto IV album was huge in 1982, when I was 12 years old and just starting to tap into popular music in any kind of attentive way. I played that LP over and over, starting with “Rosanna” and going through to “Africa“. I wasn’t terribly taken with the music they made after Toto IV, but I never stopped liking that album. Still, I hadn’t heard it for quite a while when I started learning a little more about Jeff Porcaro, their drummer. My friend Trish’s son is a drummer, and through him I learned that Porcaro is seen as a virtuoso, a genius among drummers. It’s not the sort of thing I have an ear for, but when I watched a video about how he created the Rosanna beat, I was able to get the sense of why he’s so revered, and why that beat is seen as such a challenge. Last year, my Sony credit card rewards people ran a deal that essentially resulted in me getting a bunch of free CD’s from them, including “The Essential Toto.” I listened to that CD this year, and heard the song with new ears.

15. Thompson TwinsIf You Were Here
I think the Thompson Twins are a pretty underrated band, and this is definitely one of their most underrated songs. Its music feels intimate and romantic in an 80’s, 16-Candles-Soundtrack kind of way, but its lyrics are just the opposite — detached, depressed, uncertain. I burned a CD of soundtrack songs this year, and this was the one that jumped out at me. Its contradictions hook me.

16. Florence And The MachineShake It Out
And now, a return to transcendence. Florence Welch’s voice is perfect for this song, gathering in power (and multi-tracked) as the synths swell, the drums kick, the choir bursts free. I never fail to get gooseflesh at “tonight I’m gonna bury that horse in the ground” — such an incredible image. I want nothing more than to pull that devil off people’s backs, but Florence acknowledges the truth, and ownership, of that situation: “Looking for heaven / found the devil in me / Well what the hell / I’m gonna let it happen to me”. I can’t hope to keep up with this song vocally, but I love to sing along — it feels like flying.

17. The Beach BoysDon’t Worry Baby
So, on one level, this song is about racing cars, male competition, and teenage insecurity. But after those opening lines, nothing else matters. “Well, it’s been building up inside of me for oh, I don’t know how long / I don’t know why but I keep thinking something’s bound to go wrong.” Who can’t relate to that? Plus, it’s just one of the most beautiful damn melodies ever, matched with a perfect vocal.

18. StingSomeone To Watch Over Me
I first learned this song through Sting’s version, and it wasn’t until I heard Ella Fitzgerald’s that I understood how Sting’s gender-flipping of the song did some damage to it. It was originally written to be sung by a woman, which is how it got internal rhymes like “a certain lad I’ve had in mind.” Somehow “a certain girl I’ve had in mind” doesn’t quite have the same snap. But in another way, the flip is rather subversive. “I’d like to add her initial to my monogram,” Sting sings. How often do we hear that sentiment from a man? In any case, I love this song, whoever is singing it. And I feel it too — each of us needs someone to watch over us, even those of us who are self-appointed guardians ourselves.

The Annotated Annotated Watchmen 14 – Across The Universes

I grew up a Marvel kid. I can absolutely tell you the names of every founding member of the New Mutants, or where Spider-Man went to college, or why the Avengers first got together. I knew about DC heroes like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, but I latched onto Marvel first (or maybe it latched onto me), so I never read a lot of DC comics, and that pattern continued through most of my life.

That’s not to say I didn’t give them a chance. My youthful comics obsession led me to check out pretty much every comic-related book in our local library (Dewey 741.5, baby!), which included a number of DC-oriented books. This was in the mid-to-late 1970s, when superhero comics still lacked the cultural cred (and numerous trade paperbacks) that would get actual stories stocked on public library shelves, but I checked out the Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman editions of the Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes several times each. Maybe the word “encyclopedia” got them in the door. Anyway, I dutifully read up, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that compared to my beloved Marvel heroes, the DC stable was just kind of… flat. Bland. Corny. And worst of all: silly. (The contemporaneous Super Friends cartoon, with its Wonder Twins and their super-monkey, surely didn’t help matters.)

What I didn’t realize back then was that DC was paying the price for blazing the trail. Those heroes had come along first, and by 1960 had become the Establishment against which Marvel rebelled, with their “real people and real problems” approach to superhero stories. In comparison, DC looked stodgy, and they were. Not only that, DC had learned to tread carefully in the wake of anti-comic hysteria and the Comics Code Authority. Their heroes were, in fact, flat, bland, and corny, to ensure that they would remain inoffensive and therefore not a target for any further congressional hearings. Not only that, the 1966 Batman TV series ushered in an arch, campy approach to masked heroics that drove the stories’ tone in the same direction. For a while, they got to explore territory that Marvel was (mostly) ignoring, but the Batman fad was short-lived and led to an even deeper crash.

Add to this the fact that they had already lived through one boom-and-bust superhero cycle. After Superman’s introduction in 1938, followed by Batman, The Flash, Wonder Woman, and others in the next few years, superheroes were big business in the comics industry, and DC (known at the time as National) had the vast majority of popular superheroes. They published many adventures of these marquee stars, and pulled them (as well as a number of lesser lights) into a supergroup called the Justice Society of America. Superheroes and groups like the JSA were the perfect American power fantasy at a time when the world seemed enmeshed in a stark good-versus-evil struggle, and they dutifully marched (or flew) off to fight Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini as well as the usual legions of scheming supervillains and ordinary crooks. However, after World War II ended, the country’s mood shifted, and superheroes seemed to lose their luster. By the late 1940s, DC had ceased publication of all but a few superhero titles. The Golden Age was over.

About a decade later, though, editor Julius Schwartz decided to give superheroes another try, with a revival of The Flash. The new Flash had a different identity, different costume, and different origin than the Golden Age Flash — about the only thing they had in common was the power of super-speed. Heartened by the story’s success, DC revived and revamped more heroes, and brought back the supergroup concept, though this time they were called the Justice League rather than the Justice Society. The stories caught on, and superheroes came charging back. The Justice League in particular inspired Stan Lee to try doing a supergroup his way, from whence sprang the Fantastic Four and the whole ever-lovin’ Marvel Universe.

In a brilliant move, Schwartz found a way to bring his Golden Age heroes into the new DC continuity, and once again The Flash was the key. In a 1961 story, Schwartz directed writer Gardner Fox to have The Flash “vibrate his molecules” (as it were), resulting in a sudden and unexpected teleportation into a parallel Earth. There on “Earth-Two”, he meets the Golden Age Flash, and the two of them team up to save the day before the newer Flash returns to Earth-One. The story was a smash success, and once again, success spurred expansion of the concept. So it was that a couple of summers later, DC published “Crisis on Earth-One!” and “Crisis on Earth-Two!”, a two-part story in the Justice League Of America comic, in which villains from Earth-Two find their way to Earth-One, defeating and imprisoning the JLA inside its own headquarters. Batman suggests that they conduct a seance, using a magic crystal ball left over from some other adventure, and from there they use the crystal ball to summon the JSA from Earth-Two! The two supergroups team up, defeat the villains, and set everything back to status quo.

The next summers brought “Crisis on Earth-Three!”, “Crisis on Earth-A!”, “Crisis Between Earth-One and Earth-Two!”, and so forth. Every summer, for years, some crisis prompted somebody to cross the “vibrational barrier,” and the JLA and JSA met to adventure across various alternate versions of the primary world. It quickly became clear that the DC Universe was no longer just a universe — it was a multiverse, teeming with parallel Earths. There was an Earth whose JLA was villainous, an Earth where the Nazis won World War II (featuring the Freedom Fighters, heroes acquired from the defunct Quality Comics), an Earth with the Charlton Heroes, an Earth with Captain Marvel and the Fawcett heroes, a post-nuclear-war Earth, an Earth where Superman was raised by apes, and so on, and on, and on. After a while, the concept had clearly become a victim of its own success. The surfeit of Earths was confusing, unfriendly to new readers, and, again, oftentimes just silly.

In 1985, DC decided to remedy these problems via a landmark 12-issue “maxi-series” called Crisis On Infinite Earths. Lots of stuff happened in this story, and it made such a big impression that despite the fact that there had been about a zillion story crises leading up to it, now when people say “Crisis” in reference to DC, what they mean is Crisis On Infinite Earths. Fans routinely refer to “pre-Crisis” and “post-Crisis” DC continuity. The biggest change of all was that it eliminated the multiverse. Due to the cosmic machinations of a Big Bad and a reality-shattering battle that ensues, all but five Earths get destroyed, and those get fused into one single Earth. The JLA, the JSA, the (Captain) Marvel family, the Freedom Fighters, and the Charlton Heroes all existed together, and none of them ever remembered having been apart. There were no more crises, because there was no more barrier to be crossed.

Harbinger explains the history of New Earth, from COIE 11.

So it remained, for about 20 years. But big-business superhero comics are a cyclical milieu, and no possible attention-getting or moneymaking idea remains untouched forever. DC pulled in thriller author Brad Meltzer to write a dark, violent JLA story that he cleverly titled Identity Crisis. That story began a long “uber-crossover”, in which crossover events were no longer events, but rather one long mega-story along the spine of the DC universe, divided into major movements which sometimes piled atop one another, sometimes contradicted one another, and always tried to be ultimate and unmissable, with mixed results. Following directly on the heels of Identity Crisis was Infinite Crisis, in which characters from Crisis on Infinite Earths checked in on 20 years of story development, and were disappointed in what they saw. The resulting battle ended with Wonder Woman, Superman, and Batman all taking a break from the hero business for a while. Of course, DC couldn’t exactly write their books without the main characters, so they invoked a time-jumping gimmick. Suddenly all the books were branded “One Year Later” — a year’s worth of continuity had elapsed and there were various changes in the status quo, but the heroes were back.

The story of the missing year is chronicled in 52, a yearlong, 52-issue series in which (as you may have deduced) a new issue was released every week. The biggest effect of 52 is that it undoes the major change of Crisis On Infinite Earths by restoring the multiverse, or at least a portion of it. Due to some stuff that happened during Infinite Crisis, and a rampage by a giant worm that eats time and space (no, really), the DC Universe was full of differing parallel Earths again. 52 of them, to be exact. (Funny coincidence, that.) And this, my friends, is where the Watchmen annotations finally come in, continuing their discussion of the Charlton heroes:

Completing the circle, in the 2007-2008-2009 DC Crossover series 52, Countdown to Final Crisis and Final Crisis, it’s established that Earth-4 is the new home of different versions of the Charlton Comics heroes homaged in Watchmen. Writer Grant Morrison notes that Earth-4’s Question owes a certain amount to Rorschach, while in Final Crisis: Superman Beyond (2 issue limited series, writer Morrison), the Captain Atom of Earth-4 looks and acts much more like Dr. Manhattan than he does any previous version of Captain Atom.

So, possessing very little of the background provided above, I read 52, Countdown To Final Crisis, and Final Crisis. I found them utterly bewildering. We pick up on various characters dealing with developments that are never introduced or explained, because they happened in other books. Characters arrive in dramatic splash pages, with zero explanation as to who they are. Moments of unexplained history get casually referenced, like the untranslated French or Latin phrases that used to pepper literary novels. It gave me a real sense of what it must be like for a new reader to try to pick up a Marvel comic and understand what the hell is going on. These big event comics are the most heavily advertised books in the business — and sometimes garner mainstream press due to killing off some character, or making somebody gay, or what have you — but they are the very worst books for a new reader to pick up, because they presume a graduate degree in fictional universe history. You’re far better off with a copy of Watchmen, in which every reader of Chapter 1 starts on equal ground. Ironically, these are the very sorts of problems that Crisis On Infinite Earths was written to alleviate, but today’s crossovers complicate rather than simplify their universes.

Lucky for me, learning more superhero stuff doesn’t exactly feel like a chore, so I read a lot of background material and then returned to the crossovers. This time they made more sense, though not complete sense. There’s still a whole lot I don’t know, and the works themselves vary pretty dramatically in quality. In particular, Countdown to Final Crisis is rather a mess, starting out as a mirror-image of 52 (another weekly series, but this time starting at #52 and ending at #1) but changing title halfway through, and (quite literally) pushing characters around on a chessboard without much regard for the accuracy, consistency, or integrity of their portrayals. However, there was also plenty of interesting stuff to be found in the various series, some of which relates pretty directly to Watchmen. From here on out, you’re in a spoiler zone for Watchmen and all DC crossovers.

First of all, despite the annotations’ suggestion that 52 is what established the Charlton heroes on Earth-4, that designation happened way back in Crisis On Infinite Earths. Issue #1 of Crisis appeared in April of 1985, a couple of years after DC had acquired the Charlton heroes, and a little over a year prior to the first issue of Watchmen. Crisis #1 marks the introduction of Blue Beetle as a DC character, and thus the introduction of Earth-4, though it isn’t named as such until issue #7. Of course, Earth-4 gets wiped out a few issues later, as cataclysmic events force the five surviving universes into one, combining the histories of different stables of heroes. That’s what brings the Charlton heroes into the DC universe, a fusion which wouldn’t have happened if Alan Moore had been allowed to use them for Watchmen. But since Watchmen ended up with original characters, The Question and the rest ended up in the DC universe. In fact, The Question ends up being one of the main characters of 52, but more about that in a bit.

So Crisis took up most of 1985 and the beginning of 1986. Watchmen started in the middle of 1986 and went through to the middle of 1987. In between landed Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, its beginning slightly overlapping the end of Crisis. Where Crisis was concerned with cleaning up the wacky mess that had been made of the DC Universe, Watchmen and Dark Knight wanted to interrogate the superhero genre itself, to reveal (among other things) the political, sexual, and moral implications of a world where people got dressed up in tights and punched each other. All three series were extremely popular, which meant that while Crisis made way for new stories, those new stories were ushered in by Dark Knight and Watchmen.

Unfortunately, many of the writers who followed in Miller and Moore’s footsteps did so based on a rather shallow reading of their work (especially Watchmen), taking the dark, oppressive atmosphere but leaving out the variety of viewpoints and the psychological depth. The result was a wave of “grim and gritty” comics. Formerly simon-pure heroes became morally grey. Already morally grey heroes got really morally grey, sometimes becoming outright villains, or at least crossing boundaries that were formerly sacrosanct. The hair, the muscles, the guns, and the shoulder pads all got a lot bigger. Violence, gore, and horror climbed steadily. What would the heroes of an earlier era think of what they had become? Infinite Crisis would dramatize the answer.

Cover of Infinite Crisis trade paperback

Infinite Crisis was conceived as a kind of sequel to Crisis On Infinite Earths, and a marker of its 20th anniversary. At the end of Crisis, a few characters had walked off stage: an alternate Superman & Lois Lane (from Earth-Two, making them the Golden Age versions of the characters), an alternate Superboy (from Earth-Prime, where he was the only superpowered person), and an alternate son of Lex Luthor (from Earth-Three, where alignments are reversed and his father was the sole superhero fighting evil versions of the Justice League.) They all went to a netherworld “heaven” outside the universe proper. In Infinite Crisis, we learn that they’ve been watching how Earth-One has developed (and perhaps devolved) since, and they eventually come to the conclusion that they made a terrible mistake leaving its heroes on their own. These personifications of the pre-Watchmen comics era decide that it’s time to turn back the clock, to return the world to its more innocent times.

But of course, the genie is out of the bottle, and they themselves are part of the post-Watchmen landscape. Superboy-Prime’s rage amps up and up with his frustration, and he ends up going completely berserk battling Earth-One Superboy and a bunch of Teen Titans. In a heated moment he actually decapitates some poor D-list superheroine (albeit accidentally.) Try finding that in a Silver Age comic. Similarly, Earth-Three Luthor turns out to be the evil mastermind behind the whole thing (a 180-degree pivot from his Crisis persona), ruthlessly kidnapping heroes and eventually smashing planets together trying to create the perfect Earth. Earth-Two Superman finally decides he’s fighting on the wrong side, and sacrifices his life to defeat Superboy-Prime.

Several times in the course of the story, the Crisis exiles claim that Earth-One is a corrupting influence, and that it has ruined its heroes. In the context of the story, we’re meant to understand that this is a delusion, and that those characters are, at best, tragically misguided. On the symbolic level, though, I wonder. Superhero comics really did change forever in the mid-eighties, and Watchmen was one of the prime reasons for that. Once that book took superheroes apart, something shifted between writers and audience. Part of it was writers chasing the enduring success of Watchmen by imitating it (often very poorly), but part of it was an audience for whom simple good vs. evil conflicts seemed to have paled. If Earth-One is the superhero mainstream, it truly is a different place now, and while people are still writing stories with that more innocent feel, they are exceptions and curiosities. Our heroes will never again be “big, brave uncles and aunties”, for better or for worse.

52 reinforces that point. With the superhero “Trinity” gone, and much of the rest reeling from the events of Identity Crisis and Infinite Crisis, 52 weaves a story from multiple viewpoints, each of which explores the nature of heroism, much like another book I could mention. 52 is no Watchmen — for one thing it’s far more sprawling, and far, far less self-contained — but it does visit some corners of superheroism where Watchmen didn’t travel, or at least not much.

For instance, Watchmen treats superheroes as a strictly American phenomenon, but 52 casts its net wider. We see the Great Ten, a Chinese supergroup with names like “August General In Iron” and “Accomplished Perfect Physician.” The group finds itself autonomous from the rest of the superhero universe, as China signs the Freedom Of Power Treaty, which bans foreign superbeings from operating within its borders. Beyond that, one of the series’ major plot threads is the ascension of Black Adam (basically Captain Marvel’s evil twin) to the throne of the fictional Middle East country Kahndaq. Adam starts out as a ruthless dictator, but his brutality becomes tempered by love, and he empowers a former refugee to become his queen Isis. Of course, love interests are always in the comic-book crosshairs, so Isis dies and Adam goes berserk, murdering pretty much an entire country and decimating the army of superheroes which comes after him. It isn’t until Captain Marvel sneakily changes Adam’s magic word that the madness stops.

Thus is each book a product of its time. Watchmen was a British writer’s dystopia of American dominance granted by godlike superpowers, and the missiles that could fly when that dominance evaporates. 52 isn’t fretting about nuclear war, but it is quite anxious indeed about a rampant Middle East, its power unleashed in a fanatical campaign of revenge killing that slaughters the innocent population of a nearby country. It is surely no coincidence that the writing team of 52 is 75% American. (The other 25% is Grant Morrison of Scotland, about whom more in a moment.) While Watchmen envisioned the national god as detached and unemotional, as indifferent to humanity’s fate as an atom bomb, 52‘s national god is motivated by the deepest human sins — lust, wrath, pride. He is a nihilist, a terrorist.

52 also marks the final destination of the Denny O’Neil incarnation of The Question. Charles Victor Szasz dies of lung cancer, high in the mountains of Tibet, passing his mantle to an alcoholic and lost Gotham City detective named Renee Montoya. Szasz becomes Montoya’s mentor over the course of 52, always peppering her with the question, “Who are you?”, until she finally answers it by becoming the new Question. By this point, The Question was just the most recent of the Charlton characters to become unrecognizable or extinct. The Ted Kord Blue Beetle is killed in a one-shot called Countdown to Infinite Crisis (not to be confused with Countdown To Final Crisis). Captain Atom bounced back and forth between hero and villain several times, and at the point of Infinite Crisis had flipped into a different identity called Monarch, then gone AWOL into another dimension. Nightshade had joined a team called Shadowpact, which got written out of the DC Universe for a while simultaneous with the publication of 52. Peacemaker had died in an early 90s issue of Eclipso, and Thunderbolt never made much of impression on the DC Universe in the first place. 20 years of continuity past Watchmen had killed, erased, or transformed most of its inspirations.

Enter the new Earth-4. By the end of 52 there’s a new 52-world multiverse, and world #4 in this lineup is pretty clearly shown to contain versions of the Charlton characters, which hew much more closely to their original versions rather than the DC mutations. But they can’t really be the original versions, not in this post-Watchmen world. Grant Morrison says in a post-52 interview that the idea of this “Megaverse” was to allow DC a banquet of franchise opportunities — “If you miss Vic Sage as the Question, you should be able to follow the adventures of Vic’s counterpart on the Charlton/Watchmen world of Earth 4.” However, a few breaths earlier in that same interview, he avers that “If you think you recognize and know any of these worlds from before, you’d be wrong,” insisting that the concepts would be revamped and rethought.

Those imagined franchises never launched, so we didn’t get to find out what that new “Charlton/Watchmen” world was like. However, we do get a taste of Earth-4’s Captain Atom in another Morrison series, Final Crisis, or more specifically, an offshoot of it called Final Crisis: Superman Beyond. In that book, certainly one of the trippier superhero comics I’ve ever seen, Superman travels in the interstitial spaces between the 52 universes, a space the book calls “The Bleed.” He’s accompanied by four alternate supermen:

The last of these, “Air Force captain Allen Adam, the ‘quantum superman’ of Earth 4,” clearly owes far more to Alan Moore than to Steve Ditko. He is clothed, and he shares his name with Captain Atom, but otherwise he is straight-up Dr. Manhattan. He’s blue. He’s got the image of a hydrogen atom on his forehead. His size varies depending on necessity or mood. He says stuff like “Allow me to demonstrate quantum super-position as used defensively,” at which point he replicates himself into a bunch of duplicates. He also says this, to the super-evil antimatter Ultraman: “I am the endgame of the idea that spawned the likes of you, Ultraman. I am beyond conflict.”

Superman, Captain Marvel, Ultraman, and Overman are all the “mightiest mortal” of their respective earths. But quantum Adam is no mortal. He is, essentially, a god, and perhaps beyond good and evil, as a certain Mr. Nietzsche might say. But Morrison plants some seeds to problematize that notion as well. First, there’s the fact that Adam takes drugs to “dampen his quantum sense to acceptable levels.” Why would a god need to do such a thing, unless there were some human part of him, struggling to mitigate the full experience of divinity? Second, he does become a force for good in the end. He fuses Superman and Ultraman for a moment, releasing tremendous energy from the matter/antimatter blast. He does this in order to help Superman obtain some “bottled Bleed” in order to save Lois Lane’s life, for which purpose Adam must obtain enough energy to “broadcast [Superman’s] pure essence to a receiver in a higher dimension.” His final words in the series? “Only Superman can save us now.”

It’s tempting to think that Morrison’s version of Dr. Manhattan is partly Captain Atom, but I would suggest that in fact, Moore’s character has these same qualities. He is not beyond emotion — witness his freakout at the press conference when he is told that he caused Janey Slater’s cancer. As much as he pretends to be above emotion, he can be far from rational when under duress. Also, his insistence on keeping Veidt’s secret at the end, and his murder of Rorschach to ensure the secret would stay safe, suggests that (perhaps due to Laurie’s revelation on Mars) he still has a vested interest in protecting humanity.

Of course, almost immediately afterwards he departs our galaxy, just as Captain Adam in Final Crisis: Superman Beyond says, “I must return to my world.” But unlike Dr. Manhattan, we may see the “quantum superman” again — if 52 and its successors prove anything it’s that in the DC Universe, nothing ever ends.

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