Friday, March 06, 2009

Camera Obscura: The Superhero Decadence of The Watchmen

It is most satisfying to see so many news and media outlets talking about writer Alan Moore's 1986 graphic novel "The Watchmen", which is arriving as a big-budget studio movie this weekend across the nation and the world. Moore - who no longer owns the rights to the story he created and won't see a penny from the movie or the merchandise - must still take some joy in the fact that his work is creating an even larger debate today than when it was first released.

I was among those who bought each issue of The Watchmen when it came out, one at a time, waiting each month for the next chapter, a process which took over a year to complete. The nerdy fanboy in me knew that Moore's creation was based on superhero characters from the old Charlton Comics company. And I had already become a fan of the very imaginative narrative experiments in comic book form Moore had created in his run on the odd tale of "Swamp Thing." He took a minor character and made a mythic, Lovecraftian phantasmagoria whose sum far exceeded its parts. Those familiar balloons inked with the dialog and thoughts of comic book characters were turned into prose, rupturing those balloons into a near-Joycean stream of consciousness.

He was the New Kid in Town and was beyond bold in his approach.

There were countless hours in 1986 and 1987 spent lounging about the boxes and stacks of plastic-wrapped comics and magazines in a variety of local comic shops where we would dissect and debate each issue of The Watchmen. The story of this limited series was a murder mystery, but it was also a dense and layered commentary on comic books, comic characters, heroics and myths, power and the abuse of power, satire, politics, science fiction, tragedy, and even on the very structure and form of comic books. (See here for more)

The cover illustration by Dave Gibbons on that first issue, shown above, was a sly pun in itself -- meant to indicate the "doomsday clock" closing in on midnight, it is also a spatter of blood on a smiley face button, a remnant of the murder of a brutal and hateful 'retired' superhero named The Comedian. And it rests in the gutter, in a pool of blood from the dead Comedian. It's also, like a movie, the first 'shot', and each image after on that first page is a 'dolly-out', as if the camera were pulling back further and further, which then places the button as a but a tiny speck seen from the window of the Comedian's apartment, now a murder scene.

There was nothing like it before. There were a few old school comic fans who did not like Moore's work one bit. In a way, Watchmen was too hip for the room, but sales of the issues and collected graphic novel were huge. DC Comics earned some credibility among us discerning readers - which they promptly trashed by invoking a clause in Moore's contract that allowed them to keep the rights to the tale simply by publishing reprints year after year. Moore lost control and eventually accepted his fate and demanded his name be removed from future printings.

For many years tales of movie adaptations rose and fell away. However, this weekend will see a 163-minute version of the story hit movie screens. Critics just do not know what to make of this movie -- will audiences get it even if they didn't read the books? Will they like it if they did read the books? Is it a good film, a great one, a mindless jabber of ideas? As cinematic as much of the design and imagery of the comic might be and adaptable to movies - it was a creation specifically for comic panels and colors and mythology.

I hope it sends even more new readers to the novel.

I hope audiences and fanboys and critics talk and debate the movie for some time.

There are ideas in the story which are meant to disturb and rattle the status quo. And I have always been a supporter for that. Someone asked me once, "Why do you like to rattle people's cages?" and I replied "Why are people living in cages?"

Double-Digit Unemployment Hits East TN

Layoffs and business closings in January have taken a steep toll in East Tennessee:

Kingsport’s January unadjusted unemployment rate moved to a five-year high of 10.5 percent — up from 8.1 percent in December.

Morristown had the highest jobless rate for area cities — 15.2 percent, up from 12.1 percent in December.

Johnson City and Bristol were the only cities in the region with jobless rates that stayed in the single digits for January. Johnson City’s unemployment rate was 7.0 percent, up from 6.0 percent in December. Bristol’s jobless rate was 7.1 percent, up from 6.0 percent in December.

Knoxville’s unemployment rate was 10.6 percent, up from 8.9 percent in December.

Sullivan County, which has the fourth-lowest unemployment rate in the state, posted a 6.9 percent January rate, up from 5.7 percent in December.

The unemployment rate in other Northeast Tennessee counties was:

•Washington County — 7.4 percent.
•Carter County — 9.1 percent.
•Grainger County — 12.4 percent.
•Greene County — 14.1 percent.
•Hamblen County — 10.4 percent.
•Hawkins County — 10.8 percent.
•Johnson County — 12.4 percent.

The Combined Statistical Area of Johnson City-Kingsport-Bristol TN-VA had an 8.3 percent jobless rate last month — up from 6.6 percent in December. Knoxville’s CSA was slightly higher at 8.7 percent. (Source)
Some Tennessee legislators continue to reject and refuse stimulus payments aimed at unemployment insurance benefits, though I see few from the cities and counties above, except for Knoxville's representatives and one each from Kingsport and Bristol. You stay classy, guys:

• Harry Brooks (R-Knoxville)
• Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville)
• Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville)
• Eric Watson (R-Cleveland)
• Susan Lynn (R-Mt. Juliet)
• Eric Swafford (R-Pikeville)
• Debra Maggart (R-Hendersonville)
• Richard Floyd (R-Chattanooga)
• Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol)
• Joe Carr (R-Lascassas)
• Jimmy Eldridge (R-Jackson)
• Tony Shipley (R-Kingsport)
• Vance Dennis (R-Savannah)
• Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough)
• Glen Casada (R-Franklin)
• Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga)
• Mike Bell (R-Riceville)
• Joey Hensley (R-Howenwald)
• Phillip Johnson (R-Pegram)
• Curtis Johnson (R-Clarksville)
• Jimmy Matlock (R-Lenoir)
• Curtis Halford (R-Dyer)
• Beth Harwell (R-Nashville)

(list via KnoxViews)

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Burchett Calls Out TVA 'Bozos'

State Senator Tim Burchett was moving forward new legislation demanding protections for people and the environment from TVA regarding TVA's coal ash storage -- calling them out as bozos and arrogant for their inept handling of the massive coal ash spill in Roane County in December 2008. Video and audio of the committee hearings where Rep. Burchett spoke on SB 1559 is here. Comments from Burchett begin in the last 10 minutes of the meeting.

Sadly,Sen. Ken Yeager, who represents Harriman, moved to delay the bill, saying that the mayors in the affected communities might have some suggestions for elements to add to the legislation. Of course, Sen. Yeager has no idea what those suggestions might be. He would have actually needed to have spoken with the gentlemen in question. At best what he wanted was to delay action on the legislation.

At RoaneViews this week, Sen. Yeager is cited for his failures to stand for the best interests of his constituents and his desire to protect coal companies instead.

Meanwhile, Senator Boxer is pushing a resolution demanding TVA actually fulfill the leadership role given them by Congress and for the EPA to start doing their job and start checking the safety of the nation's hundreds of coal ash dump sites and draft new rules to contain these toxic disasters in waiting. Again, RoaneViews has the details.

R. Neal posts
that over 100 environmental agencies have signed a letter sent to the EPA likewise demanding changes in coal ash storage:

The disaster at TVA's Kingston plant dramatized the need for federal standards for safe disposal of these wastes, which are virtually unregulated by the EPA. After eight years of counterproductive backpedaling, we are confident that you will chart a new, responsible course for the Agency by supporting the adoption of standards, whether reflected in legislation or new regulations, that reflect the gravity of the situation and are guided by a consistent set of principles."

Kudos to those elected officials who have been taking action to eliminate and reduce the dangers of these toxic dumps -- but where are Tennessee's federal officials? Sympathetic words and promises make nice media quotes while legislation creating much needed change actually gets the job done. In fact, all of Tennessee's legislature needs to come out of hiding and serve the state by requiring TVA to be accountable for their actions.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Fox News Dreams of High Speed Rail to Hookers

Maybe I should say "Lies" rather than "Dreams" since the folks at Fox News just made up the whole story about a high speed rail line (which was first, falsely, claimed to head to Vegas and now, falsely again, goes to a Nevada brothel.)

Steve Benen has the details:

Check out this exchange between Fox News's Megyn Kelly and Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) on the omnibus spending bill pending in the Senate:

KELLY: It's a super railroad, of sorts -- a line that will deliver customers straight from Disney, we kid you not, to the doorstep of the moonlight bunny ranch brothel in Nevada. I say, to the moonlight Bunny Ranch brothel in Nevada. So should your tax dollars be paying for these kinds of projects? [...]

FRANKS: The majority leader of the U.S. Senate, Harry Reid has fought for this publicly and is committed to this project, even in the face of criticism.... If this is something that is truly the priority of the majority leader of the US senate, it's pretty late in the day, Megyn.

I love the way Megyn Kelly adds "we kid you not" while blatantly lying to a national television audience.

But notice the evolution of the lie. First, the non-existent project was in the stimulus bill; now it's the omnibus. First, the HSR was headed to Vegas; now it's Carson City. First, Reid was quietly sneaking this non-existent spending into law; now he's fighting for it publicly in the face of criticism.

Republican hacks like Kelly and Franks aren't just lying, they're getting their own lie wrong, screwing up the manufactured controversy that they helped create.

In an apparent attempt to win some kind of irony award, Kelly asked Franks about how to hold lawmakers accountable for made-up earmarks that don't exist outside Republican talking points and the GOP's cable news channel. Ali Frick noted Frank's unintentionally hilarious response: "Fortunately, people like yourself and Fox News are a tremendous help in that regard because they tell the people -- you know, sunlight has a way of being an accountability all by itself."

Newspaper Praises Racist Jokes?

The MTSU poll released Tuesday shows the state's new Republican-majority Legislature gets low approval numbers (34%) and that support for Obama is 11 points higher than the percentage of state residents who voted for him, higher still when ranking Obama's ability to handle the economy, foreign policy and ethical standards.

But what headline does the The Kingsport Times-News place on this survey?

Obama's popular in Tennessee, but so are racist jokes"

Either that's a sign of an uneducated editor or a spin so twisted a person could throw out their back trying to make the comparison. (NOTE: A screen grab from the page I saw this morning is presented at the end of this post.)

The survey does say that 1 in 6 people polled claim they have made a joke about Obama's race -- that's 16.6% -- not "popular" by any math.

Michael Silence notes too that the headline in the Tennessean mangles the numbers:

Obama's popular, but so are racist jokes"

That's really pathetic, and wrong. Both newspapers should be ashamed.

Highlights from the survey:

The poll found that 53 percent of Tennesseans now approve of Obama, even though only 42 percent of them voted for him just four months ago.

Fifty-seven percent express confidence in his administration’s ability to manage American foreign policy. About as many, 59 percent, express confidence both in his administration’s ability to improve the economy and to manage the federal government. And 61 percent express confidence in his administration’s ethical standards. Fifty four percent of Tennesseans say Obama is doing enough to cooperate with Republicans in Congress, but only 24 percent say congressional Republicans are doing enough to cooperate with Obama.

The poll assessed public opinion on a number of issues likely to be taken up during this spring’s state legislative session. For example, 62 percent of Tennesseans say grocery stores should be allowed to sell wine if they are located in areas that already allow the sale of alcoholic beverages. Education ranks highest on the list of things Tennesseans say state government isn’t spending enough money on. Fifty-one percent say Tennessee is spending too little on state universities. Fifty-four percent say the same about community colleges and technical schools, and 62 percent say it about elementary and secondary education. Highway construction ranks lowest, with only 25 percent saying the state should spend more.

Furthermore, 52 percent say abortion should be legal under some circumstances, but not others.

Full survey is here.

UPDATE: The Huffington Post picks up this story as well, featuring some comments from Dr. Ken Blake, director of the MTSU poll:

It seems that Tennessee is awash in jokes about Obama's race even though most people say they don't tell them and most people say they don't find them funny," says Ken Blake, director the MTSU poll. Blake says he and his colleagues set out to quantify attitudes toward racial jokes in the wake of some high-profile gaffes, such as that of Tennessee Republican Chip Saltsman, who distributed CDs of the infamous "Barack the Magic Negro" song.

Blake's poll report says the gap between racial-joke-telling and racial-joke-enjoying suggests people tell racial jokes about the president even though they consider the jokes inappropriate. Or, Blake tells the Huffington Post, "It is possible there is truly a small core of people who broadcast these jokes to everyone else."

Monday, March 02, 2009

Facepalm - The Only Response

I hit the wall of Stupid after reading this.

And this.

And this.

Which meant the only response I could offer was Facepalm. (click to embiggen)

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Online Writing Challenges The World

"A word to the wise is infuriating" -- Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

A fascinating collection of topics about newspapers, individual rights (of expression and of fair trials), about the online world of writing and commenting and more -- all are part of a post from R. Neal at KnoxViews regarding arguments in court about Knoxville media sites and the Christian-Newsome murder trial.

First, the case has without a doubt generated an enormous amount of local and national press and plenty of very angry public outcry, whether online or off. Attorneys for the defense want the judge in the case to prohibit online comments at media web sites which report on the case, or establish stronger tracking identification for those who do leave comments.

I see little way past the notion of prior restraint of speech on this topic - banning media or any online outlet from publishing comments or even articles seems a no win to me. Likewise, for courts to dictate the standards and practices regulating individual or media websites would not be good for free speech rights in general. Truth be told, these kinds of cases regarding online comments and online writing are being brought out in courts on an almost daily basis. What one court rules today, another may overturn. And there is such an enormous range of writing on the Internet, that courts have for the most part been approaching the concepts involved in a case by case basis.

Courts have been circling around all manner of online actions for some time, whether it's file sharing or copyright issues, threats, ownership of content, and even governmental data mining.

The sheer volume of even the most random of online activities creates even larger amounts of data about usage and traits which many businesses value. Recently, Google announced they are considering keeping a record of individual activities for up to two years for users of their services. That's a vast amount of info and, as mentioned, can be incredibly valuable.

Comments which I have read at the Knoxville News Sentinel on all types of stories range from insightful to ignorant, and part of me thinks that in addition to allowing readers to flag comments as inappropriate, the newspaper could be more active in eliminating some useless or hateful comments. However, I also know that they are simply providing a space where uncensored public viewpoints can be presented and there is value in that both for the readers and for the newspaper, which need eyes on their pages to build revenues.

I chose to delete comments on my page regularly, sometimes because it is advertising spam and sometimes because it is hateful and inflammatory. Sometimes, I have removed just plain stupid comments because, well, because I can. This is my page. The role a media web site takes, however, is different.

The other issue which the KnoxViews post mentions is shameful lack of ability to correctly identify what is a "blog" and what is not. Writing comments on a "blog" or on a story on a media site is not "blogging". I offer commentary here on all manner of topics, and I comment on other pages, but the two acts are not the same.

And I am utterly in agreement that the words "blog" and "blogging" are awful. And if I had a better word for it, I would try and copyright it and market it.

I describe what I do on my page (and the paid work I have done at other sites) as Online Writing.

We live in a very rare time - people of all ages and temperaments have the ability to create, publish and distribute information and ideas via the Internet, a massive minute-by-minute rush of words and ideas which are not controlled by any save those who create it (and in some cases by the agencies, such as Blogger, which offer the platforms for such creations).

This new age is a very real challenge to all commercial and traditional publishers, a challenge to readers, a challenge to leaders in government and business, and to our society in general. The worst mistake will be to cage it all up and attempt to move backwards towards pre-Internet days.

There is also a real challenge to all of us who use the Internet - will we continue to create as we see fit or be forced to create what others demand?

The debate which has been raging for some time about online writing and blogs and anonymous comments and anonymous bloggers reminded me of something I had read a few years back regarding the prominence of anonymous and signed pamphlets which rose to prominence in the 1600s and 1700s. A book on preserving books and publications from the early 1900s by A.R. Spofford offered this view of the value of information published and distributed by individuals and not companies:

Strike out of literature, ancient and modern, what was first published in pamphlets, and you would leave it the poorer and weaker to an incalculable degree. Pamphlets are not only vehicles of thought and opinion, and propagandists of new ideas; they are often also store-houses of facts, repositories of history, annals of biography, records of genealogy, treasuries of statistics, chronicles of invention and discovery. They sometimes throw an unexpected light upon obscure questions where all books are silent. Being published for the most part upon some subject that was interesting the public mind when written, they reflect, as in a mirror, the social, political, and religious spirit and life of the time. As much as newspapers, they illustrate the civilization (or want of it) of an epoch ..."