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Sunday, March 27, 2016

Superhero Recommendations for Non-Geeks

I was always a comic book geek; I just didn't admit to it until I got older, discovered the Internet and watched animated series that came out in the late 1990s and early 2000s. These days, nobody should have any problem admitting to being a comic book geek now that superhero shows and movies are all over the place.

There are those people who still haven't paid much attention to such shows and movies, though, whether it's because they have no interest or they find that there is just too much to learn or understand in order to appreciate them. For those who have no interest, there probably isn't much I can do to spark your interest.

But for those who think it's too complicated or that you have to watch everything to understand what's going on, that's not really the case. The majority of the shows and films out there are ones that you can watch on their own without having to go out and buy all the graphic novels from the past or invest in those encyclopedias for the DC or Marvel universes.

There are a few shows and movies that I recommend to those people who don't know much about superheroes, but will give you a good exposure to their worlds while giving you good material you can relate to -- material that doesn't require you understand everybody's origin or all the trivia that gets tossed around.

My recommended list of shows and films:

* Justice League animated series: The series does a good job establishing its characters without having to spend too much time getting into everyone's backstory. And while some of the episodes date back to earlier animated series, you get enough explanation within the episodes to understand the basics and allow you to follow the rest of the story. The series does have an issue with some deus ex machina endings early on, but that diminishes over time and you can watch relationships unfold between the characters. And they keep the characters grounded in reality.

* Young Justice animated series: This series focuses on characters who aren't as well known outside of comic book geekery but spends more time exploring how teenagers act and putting over the storyline that sometimes the traditional method we believe works best, doesn't always work that way. The writers do a good job making characters relatable, to the point you aren't going to worry about the trivia that surrounds the characters in the comic book world. They also do a good job keeping the main storyline for the season moving forward while tying things up within each episode.

* The Flash live-action TV series (2014): A quick bit of trivia: There was a live-action series based on the superhero that ran in the early 1990s, but the one to track down if you are exploring superheroes for the first time is the current series. You get into the origins of Barry Allen, aka The Flash, and how he learns to uses his powers, but the meat of the series focuses on Barry's relationships with other people and how deeply he cares for his fellow human beings. The series does a good job exploring complex issues without making Barry a brooding character. It has a light-hearted tone but it takes itself seriously only when the story calls for it.

* The Dark Knight live-action movie: The best of the movies based on DC Properties. It does a very good job keeping The Joker a mysterious character. It doesn't get into his origins because it doesn't have to. And while it's the second movie in a trilogy, one doesn't have to get into Bruce Wayne's backstory to understand what is going on and what he is faced with. The acting is very good and the writing and directing are strong, and it gets across the idea that humanity will win in the end despite how hard somebody may push for a different outcome.

* Captain America, The Winter Soldier live-action movie: The Marvel Universe movies work well because, while they may be part of a series, they can each stand alone, too. The second Captain America film focuses on a relevant storyline about how far one should go to keep everyone safe, particularly when we find out the enemy we thought we were protecting ourselves against was working from within. Again, one doesn't have to understand anybody's origin in order to understand the premise or why the characters act the way they do.

* Guardians of the Galaxy live-action movie: What makes this movie so great is it took some Marvel superheroes who wouldn't be known by people who don't follow comic books and made them characters those people could relate to. The storyline falls into a more complex one that rides through most of the Marvel movies, but it works fine on its own. More importantly, it's a fun film overall, in which nobody is taking themselves seriously, yet the characters are still allowed to shine and even come across as sympathetic. It's the perfect example of how somebody can take material that may not be well known to anyone outside the comic book world and put it into a context that allows people who aren't comic book fans to enjoy it.

* Justice League: The New Frontier animated film: One of the first animated films DC rolled out that went straight to DVD, New Frontier is based on the graphic novel of the same title. It takes the characters and puts them into the late 1950s, a time in which Americans were worried about Communist threats, and the superheroes are forced to deal with how Americans behave, how they view others and the world around them, and how the superheroes have to deal with them. One doesn't need to read the graphic novel first to understand the material; all they need to know is about the various issues that impacted the United States throughout the 1950s and how they influenced people.

* Wonder Woman animated film: A hidden gem among the animated films DC released on DVD, this does get into the character's origin story but spends more time examining how Diana first comes to explore the world outside Themiscayra, particularly how she figures out how to relate to men. That subplot is what makes the film work so well, along with some great voice acting. I think it's one of the more underrated films DC put out and it's worth tracking down.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Hogan, Gawker And The Problem With "Drawing Eyeballs"

The verdict announced in former pro wrestler Hulk Hogan's lawsuit against Gawker, in which a jury concluded that Gawker had indeed violated Hogan's right to privacy after Gawker published an excerpt of a sex tape involving himself and his former friend's wife, some questions have been raised about what this means for First Amendment rights.

As someone who has a background in journalism and written for newspapers for more than 20 years, I have sometimes asked myself the question as to where to draw the line regarding the responsibilities that come with freedom on the press. One of the questions that I think should be raised is whether or not something is truly newsworthy.

Gawker has gained a reputation for posting stories about various celebrities caught in embarassing situations or saying things that they probably shouldn't have said. There is a valid argument to be made that we all need to be held accountable for the things we say or do, particularly if those things have a direct impact on somebody else.

But does that really apply to the Hogan sex tape?

One doesn't have to look too far to find situations in which Hogan said or did something that he shouldn't have. A perfect example was when Hogan went on the Arsenio Hall show back in the early 1990s, proclaiming he had never used steroids. He contradicted those statements when he was called upon to testify during a trial in which WWE (then the World Wrestling Federation) President Vince McMahon was accused of distributing steroids. Hogan's admission gave enough evidence that Hogan was far from being this upstanding role model that he had portrayed during his height of popularity in the mid-to-late 1980s.

And while some may argue that allowing Hogan's right to privacy to trump Gawker's ability to publish something it can verify to be true, could mean Gawker could be shut down in a more serious matter, that doesn't mean Gawker should be allowed to do whatever it wants, any more than somebody claiming a right to privacy should be allowed to do whatever that person wants. An elected official who believes a transaction with a massive campaign donor should be kept private faces a higher standard: That elected official can shape policy that can affect many people and there is enough reason to believe the donor wants to influence that policy. Thus, there is a benefit to the greater good of society to make that transaction public and to hold the elected official and donor accountable.

But who exactly benefits from the release of the Hogan sex tape? If Gawker is honest, the only real benefit gained there is the ability to draw eyeballs to its website.

It's true that any publication, whether print or online, needs to draw readers in order to pay its bills, everyone who works for a publication needs to ask whether there is a greater benefit gained from releasing information and how that greater benefit will apply. Those who follow the mindset of only wanting to draw eyeballs, no matter the cost, may make questionable decisions and do more harm than good.

I have seen some good content from Gawker and the sites it oversees, but I believe the staff often falls into the trap of wanting to draw viewers at the expense of anything else. This means misleading headlines, useless information and material that is designed more to embarrass somebody than to hold them accountable populates the site. Gawker is not the only site to fall into these traps, but when it does fall into these traps, the staff needs to be held accountable, just like anyone else, be it a public official, a celebrity or a private citizen.

The temptation to "draw eyeballs" can be hard to resist, but those involved in any form of journalism must resist it if they want to be trusted to put out a product that truly informs people and serves the greater good. Those that only care about the number of viewers at the expense of everyone else become nothing more than gossip sites, drag down the quality of journalism and don't really provide a benefit beyond just "drawing eyeballs."

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Education And Persuasion, Not Coercion, Remain The Best Methods

Donald Trump's Presidential campaign has drawn protestors to his recent campaign rallies and one was cancelled after Trump couldn't deliver his speech over protestors who spoke loudly. The next thing you know, verbal altercations between Trump protestors and supporters became physical.

Make no mistake: I don't agree with many of the things Trump says and, in some cases, he is wrong, bottom line. With that said, the price we have to pay for First Amendment rights is that Trump is allowed to speak his mind.

At the same time, protestors are allowed to peacably assemble and they can't be removed from the rallies, no matter how much Trump supporters may not like it. And the protestors have to deal with Trump supporters and whatever peacable means they demonstrate to back him. But once the protestors become disruptive to the point Trump can no longer speak, they have crossed a line, just as supporters who decide to punch out a protestor have crossed a line.

Shouting down somebody whose views you don't agree with, or even views which most agree are wrong to hold, is a form of coercion. Ditto for anyone who tells somebody scheduled for an appearance that they are not allowed to discuss a particular viewpoint or anybody who resorts to physical attacks to retaliate against somebody who holds an opposing viewpoint.

I am a believer in education and persuasion to get people to understand why certain views and language are unacceptable. Educations means taking time to explain why certain views are wrong to hold, by using facts and research to support that explanation. Persuasion means getting a person to understand why the view is wrong through explaining what is a better way to convey a viewpoint or communicate with people.

Coercion is the easy way out. Sure, you don't want to hear somebody throwing around racial slurs or stereotypes, but implementing a "zero tolerance" approach is only going to be met with more resistance. It also means you aren't truly promoting one of the basic ideas behind the First Amendment: That ideas should be freely exchanged and open discussion is important to evolving as a society.

When I entered college, I didn't know everything there was to know about the world. I still don't know everything there is to know today. That's no different from anyone else. Yet what happens when colleges decide that certain topics are not to be discussed whatsoever because those running the colleges don't want anyone to get upset? How can one truly learn more about the world around them and why certain things shouldn't be said without allowing students and professors to openly discuss things and reach a better understanding about how to communicate?

And while it's often difficult to get points conveyed to a person who is convinced that what he or she believes in is absolute and should never change, any response or method that results in coercion is not going to convince the person to change his or her mind. In some cases, there may be no guarantee to can change that person's mind. But you have a better chance of doing so through education and persuasion, than you ever will through coercion.

Coercion is easy to do and requires little to no thought. Education and persuasion are difficult and require more thought. But, ultimately, the latter two are the better route to go.

And as much as we may not like to hear what certain people have to say, we must recognize that they have a right to say it. If we want to prove them wrong, that requires us to use reason, research and facts to do so, things that take time to put together. Simply shouting those people down may not require time, but it's not the right way to do it.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Authoritarianism And Writing

I found this article about the rise of American authoritarianism to be a fascinating read. What made it fascinating was not just what it says about how the 2016 Republican Presidential nomination race is taking shape, but about so many of the books I've read and the movies I've watched.

There's a theme of authoritarianism that runs to a degree in books such as The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner and Divirgent, and in the Star Wars franchise and Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier. The whole idea of how fears about change and threats abroad can lead to the rise of a push to keep people safe, to prevent change or to ensure little deviates from what certain citizens believe should remain societal norms, result in the rise of such leaders who promise to protect those norms and keep people safe.

Authoritarianism certainly allows for an author to present a natural conflict in a story: A character who sees an issue with societal norms and wants to push for change, coming against those in charge who want to keep those norms in place. The character has legitimate reasons for pushing for change, while those in charge having their reasons for not wanting things to change.

What was interesting about the article, though, is that those citizens who do tend to favor authoritarianism have legitimate worries. These worries are not really touched upon in the books or movies I've mentioned, but raise the interesting point about what happens once somebody who holds absolute authority is removed from power. It's likely those people who would embrace authoritarianism will still exist, whether they were among those in power or not.

But this leads to the question about what happens when authoritarianism does prevail. As we have seen in history, ideas are shunned, difference of opinion is not allowed and conformity is pushed ahead of curiosity. That's not a field in which writers can flourish, of course.

Yet while I would believe many writers would openly reject authoritarianism, I wonder how many have those deep-rooted fears the article discusses. It's possible that even those who present conflicts such as those I've described may be prone to letting deep-rooted fears dictate the type of leader they wish to follow.

I don't necessarily believe it's reflected in writing, either. It's possible for a writer who doesn't embrace authoritarianism, or doesn't allow their fears and worries to cause them to accept certain positions, would consider making an authoritarian a protagonist. And a writer who may allow that could still write a story in which the authoritarian is the antagonist.

One thing is certain, though: Authoritarianism presents a natural conflict for a writer to explore. I imagine we'll see more of it in books, movies, TV shows and other media.

In the meantime, it's worth asking how much we want to embrace authoritarianism or let our fears lead us to decide who we want to support for elected office. After all, no writer wants the exchange of ideas to go away any time soon.