CAN ANYBODY FIND ME SOMEBODY TO LOVE?

It’s the homeless man in the Santa outfit screaming “Make it straight!” who wakes her up, not cop knocking on the car window.

“Make it straight!” he howls at the cars as they blast down Fourth Avenue, near the place where Brooklyn runs into the sea. “Make it straight! Make it straight! This street got to be straight! Ain’t got time for crooked streets no more! Ain’t got no time for for shoes! Don’t make me take off those shoes, I can’t do that!”

That’s when the cruiser turns into the parking lot of the CVS, a big white Ford with fearsome blue letters on the doors: NYPD: COURTESY. PROFESSIONALISM. RESPECT. The lights are on, but not the siren. She figures he’s here for the wino, who stands bowlegged like a gunslinger from a cowboy movie in front of the car so it can’t drag its butt in off the street.

The cop just hangs out, waiting for the guy to leave, which he does, after a minute: a blueshirt, either Jacob or Bill, comes out of the employee entrance to the store with a sheaf of cardboard boxes and Drunk Santa hurries over to ask him about something. Jacob/Bill is already shaking him off as he approaches and shifts gears to whiny begging. The cop parks the cruiser, leaves the lights on, slams NYPD and starts walking toward the LeSabre.

Oh, shit, she thinks. She has to pee, all of a sudden, and her back hurts. Sleeping in the back seat of this stupid car her stupid father gave her for her 16th stupid birthday has hurt her stupid back, on top of every other stupid thing. She doesn’t pretend to be asleep, although she considers it. She just watches the cop walk over, big blue bomber hat with its silver badge on the forehead covering most of his face. He’s talking into the radio on his shoulder and looking right at her. She doesn’t move. He walks up to the car and looks inside. She still doesn’t move. He knocks on the rear driver’s-side window, a inch or two from her face, and she rolls it down a crack with a very old-fashioned hand-crank.

“Can you step out of the car, please, Miss?”

“I’m a ma’am.”

“Can you step out of the car, please, Ma’am?”

“I don’t want to let the heat out. And my husband has the keys.”

The cop leans down, and he starts to say, “Ma’am, I’m going to need you to step out of the car,” but he only gets to “step” before he sees what’s going on. He pushes the call button on his walkie, then thinks better of it, and lets go. His badge names him DeCesare. He is in his fifties, or his alcoholic forties. He has seen some shit, in his time.

Here is what gives Gus DeCesare pause: half-lying on the back seat of the cetacean 1998 Buick under a Spider-Man comforter and six carefully arranged bath towels, wearing fingerless gloves and a threadbare dull green hoodie that probably used to be black, is a petite woman—barely a woman, 18 at the absolute oldest—who is, even through the comforter, as pregnant as pregnant can be. She has dark hair and very dark brown eyes, almost black, and looks Hispanic to his careful eye although he has offended a number of Asians this way. The car’s interior contains most of the detritus of a cramped studio apartment, with a laundry bag hanging over the back of the driver’s headrest and a number of paperback comic books with library stickers on the spines piled up behind the back bench, dangerously obscuring the rear-view morror. There is a purple plastic rice cooker plugged into a cigarette lighter adapter, and several burnable CDs on the floor with Top 40 names Sharpied on them. The passenger’s bucket seat is reclined, presumably so a second person can sleep here in considerably less comfort. An honest-to-god New York State marriage license is laminated to the backrest of the bench with clear packing tape. He leans close enough to see the name on it: Fakhouri.

Goddamn it, this is the right car.

“Are you Maria?” he asks.

“Am I being detained?”

“Hold on,” he says. Then, into his microphone, “There’s nobody here.”

“I am too here,” she says.

There is a burst of static from the walkie and DeCesare rolls his eyes and ducks away from the car, saying, “Negative, negative, just some kid.” When he comes back he looks at her sternly, as cops practice doing in the mirror. “Ma’am,” he begins.

“If I’m not being detained, I don’t have to talk to you,” Maria says.

“Ma’am, this car has been reported stolen.”

Before she can respond, there is a commotion over near the front of the store and the old wino is pointing at the car, talking to a huge Middle Eastern man in a blue polo shirt and khakis, bearded, also very young, should probably be entering his second semester of college and not here at the CVS. The young man is looking daggers at the cop.

“Hey!” he shouts as he walks over. “What do you want, man? That’s my car.”

The cop relaxes into a stance that puts his hand a lot nearer his gun and the girl in the car starts to shake. “Is this your car?” he asks the young man as he gets nearer, as though he hadn’t heard him.

“Yes! That’s my car and that’s my girl and that’s all our shit in there!”

“Show me the keys.”

The young man angrily digs into his pocket and thrusts a keyring into the cop’s hand, as if that proves it. The cop inspects it for a Buick key, finds one, calmly twists the key off the ring, and hands the ring back to the young man. The young man, who is also wearing a badge, which says Yusuf, gets confused, then angry.

“What the fuck, man!” he says. “You can’t just take our car!”

“This car has been reported stolen by the title holder,” the cop repeats.

“I didn’t steal this car!” Yusuf says. “This is my wife’s car!”

“Sir, you need to listen carefully to me: the man who holds the title on this car has reported it stolen. That person called the precinct. He said he thought a Middle Eastern kid who might be a terrorist stole it. He gave us the tag number and the name of the supposed terrorist. He said he thought whoever stole the car might resist arrest, and that we should be prepared to protect ourselves. The complainant, a 40-year-old male known to the precinct, has two priors for domestic disturbance and no fans in this parking lot. One of his kids went missing, nobody’s looking real hard for her. Am I making myself clear?”

Yusuf is looking at his shoes.

“I’m sorry,” says Maria.

“I thought he might stop hating me,” says the boy.

“Are you the father?” asks the cop with a half-laugh, as if that explained everything.

Yusuf raises his head and DeCesare realizes that the younger man has been hunching over, a lot, probably so he doesn’t intimidate the customers or freak out his supervisor. Now that he rolls back his shoulders, he has a surprising height advantage, and DeCesare curses himself for letting him come so close. He might not be able to draw his gun if something stupid happens.

“I will be,” says Yusuf proudly, looking down his nose at the police officer.

“That’s good,” DeCesare says calmly, beaming information at Yusuf with a laid-back gaze. Nobody here wants any trouble, he thinks loudly, especially not with a baby on the way. Everything’s cool. “I found this car here, but there was nobody in it,” he says. “Maybe there wasn’t even any stuff in it. I couldn’t find the keys. I called a tow truck, and they came and took it away.”

The cop turns around slowly and walks back to his cruiser. “Negative,” he can be heard saying into his walkie. “Negative, negative. Send a tow. Yes, there are Muslims here, this is Bay Ridge. Throw a rock and you’ll hit a Muslim. Muslims and firemen, that’s the whole fucking neighborhood. No, not the residence, take it to impound.”

Yusuf leans over to the window. “I’m telling Anthony you’re going to be in the back until I get off,” he says. “I’ll come back out and get the rest of the stuff. Don’t lift anything.”

He looks angry, so Maria gets a grip. She cranks down the window a little more and kisses him.

“That’s my son in there,” he says. “Nobody touches my son or my wife.” He kisses her in return, quickly, then walks back toward the store. As he does, she begins gathering everything in sight into the laundry bag, and making split-second decisions. The CDs can’t come except the new D’Angelo record and the KRS-ONE and the Queen. Fuck it, none of the comic books. No more library. She’ll tell Anthony to come out and get them if he wants them. Anthony’s okay. Their latest phone. She pulls on Yusuf’s sweatpants and a pair of gold tennis shoes. She leaves his jeans and his two cool t-shirts, takes his slacks and his black socks and his one shirt with buttons on it, and she throws the Spider-Man comforter around her shoulders. After a moment, she brings the towels, because she keeps having this feeling that they’re not going to make it to the hospital in time. She doesn’t know why she thinks this. She brings no clothes for herself; she is hoping she’ll die tragically in childbirth, leaving poor weeping Yusuf to care for their beautiful son all alone, and her son will grow up to be president, and she’ll look down on them both from heaven because honest to God, life is too hard. It just is.

There is another knock on the window.

She looks up and Drunk Santa is standing there, smiling in what he probably thinks is a friendly way but is actually a totally terrifying way. She shakes her head. He makes the “Oh, come on” face and mimes cranking the window down. She cranks it down a tiny, tiny sliver and says “Fuck off and die.”

“Girl, don’t be like that,” Santa says. “When they gonna make these roads straight, huh? Crooked roads, that’s dangerous. I been homeless a long time, man. I been in the desert. I got a question for you, if it’s not too much trouble.”

Maria does not say anything.

“You got any hot sauce?”

Maria laughs, and Santa laughs back.

“No shit, I need hot sauce! You know those little centipede things with the billion legs that run up and down your walls at night?”

Maria grimaces. Her backache is back.

“Man, I eat those things by the dozen. Protein, you feel me?”

Maria does not feel him.

“I just—they don’t go down right without hot sauce. And I think mmmmaybe that cop mighta kicked you outta your car, so if you’re just gonna leave some hot sauce in there, maybe I can take it with me?”

Maria asks herself what she’d want her son to do in this situation, and she goes through the big pleather pocket in the back of the passenger’s bucket seat until she finds a bottle of Frank’s and three string cheeses. She gives them all to Santa, who says “Thank you ever so kindly” and skips off, literally skips down the sidewalk, yelling, “Make it straight! Make all this motherfucker straight up in here!”

She laughs, and she reminds herself that there’s always somebody that’s got it worse than you do, and sometimes those people are happy, so maybe you should be happy too. She gets out of the car and leaves the door open. Maybe she can at least run down the battery before the tow gets here and he’ll have to jump it when it gets back to him. She takes the bag, because she can hear the truck coming, and it’s really heavy, and oh god her back. She grabs a couple of comics for Anthony, some Silver Surfer stuff. She’s just going to gank some Pepto when she gets inside and anybody who wants to say shit to a pregnant lady about shoplifting antacid can kiss her Puerto Rican ass.

Yusuf comes out and she sees him about to scold her for lifting the bag of their stuff, and then she sees him notice the tow truck pulling into the lot, and he grabs the bag from her and hustles her in through the employee entrance as though the tow truck driver was going to arrest her. Maria can hear Santa, still, a little. Be good for goodness’ sake, she thinks nonsensically, and giggles a little.

*****

Anthony is being a huge dick about them sleeping there that evening, even though they gave him all the comics they had.

“I’ll get fired,” he says. “And you’ll get fired, too man. I’m sorry.”

“I can’t sleep on ‘I’m sorry!’” roars Yusuf. “My baby can’t eat none of your ‘I’m sorry,’ shithead!”

“I’m sorry,” says Anthony, but he doesn’t look sorry anymore. “You need to go. Go to a shelter. There’s a shelter like three blocks from here. I gave her the address like a week ago.”

“She’s pregnant!” says Yusuf. “We don’t want charity!”

“Well, you need some charity!” says Anthony. “Also they love pregnant bitches at shelters! You’ll get the fucking president suite!”

Then Yusuf starts to look really, really angry and Maria grabs his arm and gives Anthony the bird and he keeps trying to apologize but they turn around and start walking toward the shelter, which is down on 90th Street, Maria knows. It’s ten blocks, not two, which still isn’t that far but Maria is fucking waddling. She hates it so much. She wants to hold her baby in her arms, and godDAMN, her back hurts. She is really starting to worry that it’s not just her back hurting, and then they get to the shelter, an uninviting, unlabeled blood-brown metal building on an ugly corner of an ugly street, and it’s locked. But all they have to do is knock, Anthony had said. Knock and they’ll open right up for her.

There is a bullet-headed white guy looking through a tiny little window at them. He takes one look at Yusuf and says, “No more room, man, sorry. There’s a 24-hour diner down the street. Go hang out there until a spot opens up for her.”

“My wife’s cold, man,” Yusuf says. “It’s cold out here, come on.”

“This is a battered women’s shelter. You touch that pregnant girl?”

“What? No!”

“Okay, then she’s not a battered woman. No way can you come in here, though, ever. Sorry, man.”

“Please, boss.”

“Son, I’m not even supposed to be talking to you. I don’t know how you found this place but it’s a secret. Wrong people find out we’re here, this building turns into fucking Die Hard.”

And Yusuf does something Maria has never seen him do before: he begs. Can’t you see she’s pregnant, man, please, I’ll do anything, I’ll work here for free, I got the new D’Angelo record, I got clothes, I done all kinds of shit before and I’ll do it all for you, I lied, I hit her just last week, open the door and I’ll show you the bruise, just let her in, please, don’t let me in anyway I’m a shitty husband, but the door is shut and the window is shut, too, and she can hear footsteps receding.

It is really cold.

She tells him it’s time to go somewhere else, and she kisses him on the cheek, and he just looks destroyed.

They don’t even get a seat at the diner. They look homeless. They are homeless.

She sees a pretty white lady walking down the sidewalk past the diner to the subway as they emerge into the cold, and she decides to try something.

I am a white lady, she tells herself. I just paid for a cheeseburger and french fries with half a bottle of ketchup, and I way overtipped. My husband just ate the lamb platter. We are prosperous and unshady.

She kisses Yusuf again, and then she lets go of his hand. He doesn’t move, he just slumps against the window of the diner. She covers him with the Spider-Man comforter and strides over to the white lady. I am wearing high heels, she thinks to her feet.

She walks briskly up to the other white lady and says, “Excuse me, sorry to bother you, we’re trying to find the shelter? Not the one on 90th, we’ve just come from there and they didn’t have what we wanted.”

“Oh my god, there is an AMAZING one over on 68th,” says the white lady.

Holy shit.

“68th and what?”

“Uh, fifth ave, I think? They’re so good, seriously. They do great medical, too. They close up in an hour, though, so you’d better walk.”

She gestures at the bumper-to-bumper traffic apparently caused by an accident somewhere down the avenue. “Good luck! Bundle that baby up!” And she vanishes down the subway entrance in a cloud of money like Maria’s fairy godmother.

She walks back to Yusuf. “There’s a shelter on 68th,” she says. “It’s a long way, but we can make it if we hurry.” He doesn’t move. “Baby,” she says gently. “Baby, we’ve got to go. Please. It’s cold.” Yusuf stares into space, sad and ashamed. Maria is really worried now. Her back super hurts. It’s like being on the period that killed the dinosaurs. “Baby, please. There’s a hospital there.”

Yusuf sits like a lump. Maria has seen him do this before; he gets really depressed. He was actually on an antidepressant for a little while when they were both working, but then they stopped being able to afford that, and then he would only buy the best prenatal whatever and so they stopped being able to afford their apartment, and then the doctors’ offices started calling them at work about bills—and this is with Obamacare—and so on and so forth.

The worst part is that she feels like there’s probably someone somewhere who would help them if that person knew where they were and what they’d been through. She just has to find that person.

Please, Maria asks this person, telepathically, like Jean Grey or Emma Frost, Please, if you are that person, do something to make my husband move.

And a miracle happens, and something reaches out to her, and gives her the eleven words to move her adoring husband from his catatonia and to an action that will save them both:

“Help me, you son of a bitch. My water just broke.”

*****

Man, of course it’s an animal shelter. White ladies do not know where the really good homeless shelters are.

It was kind of awesome being carried down the stairs to the subway and propped up against the turnstile in the sopping Spider-Man comforter while Yusuf set off the emergency alarm and then picked her up and carried her majestically over the threshold like the 95th Street Subway Station was their marital dwelling. Romance is where you find it.

But yes it’s an animal shelter. And here is why she loves her husband: Yusuf sees, very clearly, on the sign, “BAY RIDGE ANIMAL HOSPITAL,” and he just charges right in anyway.

It’s clean and quiet in the waiting area, with fluorescent lights in a drop-tile ceiling and several blue, cushioned chairs in a square around two coffee tables with Time magazines and Vanity Fairs from 2011 on them. Nobody is there, but everything is still on.

“Help us,” he announces to the empty waiting room. “My wife is going into labor and we cannot go to the hospital.” He doesn’t say can’t or won’t or doesn’t when he’s being grand; she suspects that when she really goes into labor he’ll start talking in the third person like Doctor Doom.

The vet comes into the waiting area and opens his mouth to deliver a very, very reasonable explanation about why he can’t deliver a baby here, this being a hospital for animals, not people, and as she feels her heart prepare to sink, it just hits her and she screams like she personally developed and invented screaming. Somebody is opening her box like it’s Christmas morning.

The doctor and Yusuf just start taking orders from her like she’s in charge and three male CUNY PhD biology students (she later learns) who are writing a paper on something insufferable come out of the back holding little grey kittens and the doctor shouts “WASH YOUR HANDS” and it takes the brighest of them about three seconds to take stock of the situation and tell the others what to do. She is going to name the child after him, she decides. Dogs start to howl from another part of the shelter, in sympathy. Cats get upset because the dogs are howling.

Yusuf carries her through the normal-looking door from the waiting room and down a hallway, into a sterile operating theater with linoleum tiles and a window in one wall that opens into a neighboring office. There are machines with tubes and digital readouts mounted on poles that stand on wheeled crossbars, and a flat shelf that runs the length of the room with an old CD player on it. There is a huge flat stainless table bolted into the tile right in the middle of the room, where Yusuf puts her down and stands behind her and grips the table on either side of her body with his big hands, as though he is going to rip it out of the floor if anybody does anything to her except deliver her baby. She leans back into him and screams again.

*****

What do you want me to say? It hurts, a lot, more than anything has ever hurt anyone.

It never stops.

When it does stop, though, there are literally babies and kittens together, and it is cutest thing on record. Or the kittens are cute. The baby looks kind of red and scrunched, but he is also the most beautiful person who ever lived, like if God was a baby. The vet makes them swear on the Holy Bible—he actually produces a Bible, from inside a desk somewhere—never to tell anyone—anyone—what he’s done there today. One of the grad students asks how he’s going to write about the experience that way and the vet just says, “Consider it a practicum” in a very dry way, and the other two grad students chortle knowingly and go off to calm down the frightened cats and the enthusiastic dogs.

There is banging. The vet gets up to answer the door, which he has locked, obviously, and it is a man from the Lebanese restaurant and butcher down the street, who has heard the screaming. He literally forces his way into the office with his belly and then charges back to the makeshift maternity ward, where sit every last one of the bath towels in a blood-soaked heap, and Maria, on the table, nursing the baby, at which point one of the grad students comes back in and announces that the ambulance won’t be there for an hour. The doctor curses him with a string of Cantonese that makes everyone in the room flinch, despite no one else understanding what he’s saying, even though Yusuf is swearing up, down and sideways that he will protect the vet from anyone who tries to harm him.

Yusuf turns to face down the intruder and recognizes him. The man starts to talk very fast to Yusuf in Syriac and then runs out the front door. Yusuf grabs Maria’s hand and they whisper to each other for several minutes in their own relational argot (Engrabiol? Spanglamaic?) while the grad students talk about what it all means. The dogs have more or less chilled out. The cats are nursing grudges. There is a moment of peace.

It is a good moment.

Then fourteen, count ‘em, Lebanese men troop into the animal shelter, each bearing a leg of lamb or a lamb chop or ground lamb paste, and they all start talking at once, in Syriac and English, about whose fault this is, and how shameful it is that their baby is born in a place like this, and who is this boy from their country who has no place to take his wife, and what it all means. Then a few minutes later their wives show up and start yelling at all the men.

The baby does not cry.

The grad students try to find presents for it. One has a brand new bottle of Green Irish Tweed; another has an old silver dollar in his wallet; the third has some really nice artisanal patchouli oil. They present them to Maria and Yusuf with great ceremony.

Somebody puts on some Queen.

On old iron stilts on the roof of the building, in flickering neon, is a bright yellow star.

Above that, who knows?

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DO YOU HEAR WHAT I HEAR

“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and refusing consolation, because they are no more.”

—Jeremiah 31: 15

“You would like to place Zubaydah in a cramped confinement box with an insect. You have informed us that he appears to have a fear of insects. In particular, you would like to tell Zubaydah that you intend to place a stinging insect into the box with him. You would, however, place a harmless insect in the box. You have orally informed us that you would in fact place a harmless insect such as a caterpillar in the box with him.”

—memorandum, Jay S. Bybee

4. As Lewis turns, he sees a tall man hurrying down the steps toward the water where the huge ships are passing slowly under the crumbling bridge, their decks piled with containers bound for Bermuda or Saigon or the Panama Canal. The Verrazzano still burns eight weeks after the last salvo, occasionally dripping red-hot chunks of tarmac in slow motion onto the ships below. Last month, one freighter arriving from Shenzhen caught a huge piece of molten pavement as the wide boat floated on its way under the bridge toward the terminal. It sank flaming before it reached Bayonne, a viking funeral for 1.1 million video games, 5,600 large orange stuffed dogs, and 31 men ranging in age from 19 to 64. A passenger, a Middle Eastern man in his fifties, survived, and was detained, though there is no suggestion that he had been involved in the fire that consumed the ship, which had an obvious cause, or any other manner of harm. He is said to be badly burned. Lewis is worried about the man; one of his grad students advocated causing a public fuss at the college over it.

The steps lead down from a foot-bridge that arcs over the highway running along the water; between the highway and the bay itself is a sidewalk, where people used to jog and walk their dogs. Now nobody comes out here any more, except Lewis, and him, only to catch the disgusting fish. With his rod propped against the railings, Lewis watches with clinical interest as the man and a companion—short and fat, who follows him at a slower pace—clamber over it, a few yards further down the sidewalk. Beyond the railing there is a drop of eight or nine feet; there is nothing but rocks below the wall, Lewis thinks. Then, out of old habit, he looks with a laboratory eye, for what he is not used to seeing, and notices a dinghy, perched on the rocks below the railing. It is hastily painted matt black except for several scrapes where yellow rubber can be seen through it. A man stands on the rocks by the grounded dinghy, nervously fingering the cord around a very old motor he has hauled up out of the water and into the boat. A pair of oars, for stealth, sit in its shallow cavity.

Lewis leans over the railing himself to watch as the two try to lower themselves onto the rocks, the tall one helping his companion over the rails, the fat one trying to move quickly and comically pedaling the air, seeking purchase on the rocks a few feet below. Lewis does not particularly like or trust strangers, especially not at the moment, but no fish are biting. He reels in the drowned bug impaled on his little fishing hook and shoulders the rod; he picks up the five-gallon paint bucket he has optimistically filled with clean water for his catch, and he walks down toward the pair trying to get into the boat to see if he can help. The thinner one, he sees as he gets closer, has brown skin and curly black hair. The companion’s face turns away quickly; something he’d mistaken for a belly shifts under a too-large coat.

Lewis hears shouting from further up the walkway; one man in uniform is berating another man in uniform for something. Lewis has almost reached the pair trying to board the boat. The shouting intensifies. Lewis worries that he has left his driver’s license up the hill in his apartment and that this will complicate any interaction with the police, although these men do not appear to be NYPD.

He comes up close enough that he will not need to shout over the traffic to be heard. “Need a hand?” he asks in conversational tones. The man looks up at him, and then at the bridge, where the uniformed figure being dressed down sees him, suddenly, and points over his superior’s shoulder.

*****

5. Lewis’s death comes as a shock to Peter. Peter still is not recovered as he sits with the emitter turned on, staring straight ahead, talking to Lewis, who is not there. Guiltily, he dials a vitally important phone number he has forgotten until now to call but it doesn’t even ring; it only makes a garbled, electronic sound like a violin in jello. The emitter makes no sound at all, gives off only a very faint blue light. It merely troubles the atmosphere in front of it, in a wave of visible distortion like heat, though the area is very cold in front of the dome-shaped enclosure where Lewis’s pet particles may or may not move. The apparatus looks like a flashbulb from an old movie; Peter has plugged it into a wall outlet and will catch hell from the chair of the department when the electric bill comes due, he knows. Lewis is in enough trouble for insisting that the retransmitter stay on permanently. But Lewis is dead.

No other lights in the laboratory are on. He ought not to be here. He has brought with him a large pipe wrench he used to fix his radiator three years ago; he keeps it in case he needs to storm the barricades, he tells his fellow TA, Ana, who visits his apartment sometimes, like a zoologist examining the habitat of a promising primate.

Peter Gorman, doctoral candidate in physics, drinks a bit more of the bottle of bourbon he took from Lewis’s office, using the keys he got from the cop yesterday. He has been here more or less since he got up, eating nothing, drinking to excess, slurring his imprecations at the  absent older man, lecturing about the inhumanity of the less-24s decree and the fate of the Rahebs. He refers Lewis’s ghost back to the front page of the New York Times the week previous, the now-famous photo of a woman in jeans and a t-shirt named Rachel something kneeling, pleading before a man in SWAT armor who holds her off with one hand, a heavy white cloth bag in the other, a little foot clearly pushing down on the interior of the bag. He lists Lewis’s failings mechanically, his lecture a tour de force assembled around the gaping hole of Lewis’s death: The raft, the bay, the misunderstanding with DHS, the manhunt for the dangerous, vanished migrants. The emitter pulses blue. No one is there. Peter is drunk.

His mentor was cautious, and as apolitical as you could be and still look at yourself in the mirror, or so Peter has always felt. Peter would bellow to Lewis about the procedural stupidity of the EL faction in their eternal war with the AR party, often while wearing one of many t-shirts with a huge, stylized L on it, Lewis sitting patiently in his office and looking closely at him as though worried that Peter might actually jump out of his skin in an especially vigorous fit of rage.

Physics were not politics, Lewis would say, again and again, a bromide that only further caffeinated Peter, who told him that of course everything was political especially the hard empirical truth, that facts necessitated action, that the action must be taken, and he would soon write strong words telling everyone so. A man who proved out theoretical particles should understand that, he would tell Lewis in scolding tones, in an effort to at least squeeze a little anger out of his moral lodestar, a tactic that had never worked before and would not work now.

And write Peter did, reams upon reams. The police came to visit him twice; Peter loved that and as soon as they’d first left his apartment, *which they’d entered without a warrant*, wrote about it in florid detail. He had hoped for criminal charges from the state against himself, ideally of sedition, and a trial, where he would represent himself, but none came, only silence. He felt very white and privileged and that made him angrier and he wrote more, interviews with union leaders and heartbreaking profiles of prisoners’ mothers, for newspapers and for magazines and on his blog, but nothing helped. No one cared. Why read when you’ve won? he asked himself bitterly. Why learn anything new?

The theft of the retransmitter had enraged him the most. Peter was certain its inconvenient timing had been intentional and not a coincidence; Lewis was fairly confident that the little device, which he’d assembled in the housing of a television, had been stolen and fenced in a more traditional fashion. Crime was on the rise. Everyone knew who to blame, but no one agreed about who that was.

The cop who came at the end of Christmas break to visit Peter the second time, on behalf of Lewis, was a local man; Peter had seen him around the neighborhood in bars and getting coffee. They’d bonded over the awful thing at the Rahebs’ Middle Eastern deli just a few days earlier, Peter remembered. He had reached unsuccessfully for some requisite anger at authority and greeted the man, whose name he couldn’t remember. The cop was tall and Hispanic with a manicured moustache and a dimpled chin, his hair cut close, skinnier than most of the gym rat guys who patrolled and lived in the area around the bridge, where they loved to blast up 4th Avenue in the dead of night in crouching blue or black American sports cars, their windows tinted, mufflers packed with glass to make a sound like a lawnmower constantly about to start.

“I got bad news,” the cop had said with practiced sincerity: “Your friend Lewis Rathburn is dead. I’m real sorry. I brought his effects because I thought you might not wanna come down to the station, so you just have to sign this.” He held up a form. “You’re his emergency contact at work and I knew your name when the lady at the college told me.” Peter signed and stared, stricken. “Teresa felt bad after that thing you wrote about her getting on your case,” the cop continued. “I don’t blame you, but you know. She doesn’t ask for those jobs, nobody does. If we didn’t have to clear the fuckin’ ticket pad we wouldn’t do that shit either.”

“How did he die?” asked Peter.

“Ohh,” the cop said, and sighed. “Some DHS guys shot him a couple weeks ago. It’s really confusing. I’m sorry it took so long to get in touch with you. He wasn’t carrying ID. It wasn’t one of us. I hate those dudes. Not all of us hate them but I do. Write about it if you want, just don’t put my name in it.”

“I won’t,” said Peter. “Thank you.”

“You want a drink or something?”

They went down to the bar across the street, in an old fire station, where there were theatrical moans from the crowd of Giants fans every time the game was interrupted by the news: there were more fires, none close by, some in places Peter had visited, some man-made, some caused by unseasonable drought. Radiation abatement programs on Staten Island desperately needed volunteers over the long holiday weekend and for New Year’s Eve. The images Peter imagined and the images he saw between downs and forward passes ran together; he ordered them each a double scotch but the cop insisted on paying.

It was good to talk to the cop. The demise of the deli had been unnerving and he’d spoken of it to no one, not even Lewis. Samir and Samia Raheb, the two Sams, had simply been gone one day last week, as had their staff; no one was sure exactly when. The store had stood open, unlocked and unmanned until Peter noticed it was open on Sunday. Samir, the gold crucifix always around his neck, would never have opened the store on Sunday, not at gunpoint. Peter saw the cop standing outside in his NYPD Scuba Team t-shirt. He looked at Peter.

“Stinks in there,” he said. “All the food’s spoiled.” Peter stood and watched while the cop called it in; the dispatcher said a report had already been made.

“When?” the cop asked. Two weeks ago, the radio said.

“Fine,” said the cop. He and Peter carried the trays of spoiled crab cakes and spoiled bhaba ghanouj and spoiled pork chops and spoiled walnut paste and a huge vat of cold tomato soup that smelled like death. He emptied them all into reinforced black trash bags they found under a sink with dirty dishes still in it in the back of the store.

“Isn’t this evidence?” Peter asked. “Shouldn’t you put up crime scene tape?”

The cop looked at him steadily and Peter had the impression, not for the first time, that a person he had just met was trying to decide whether he was an idiot or a troublemaker. “I don’t think so,” the cop said. “If there’s an investigation, you can give a statement and say I told you to do all this.”

“*If* there’s an investigation?” Peter insisted. “Why would you not investigate an obvious missing persons case?”

“That’s a good question,” the cop replied, and emptied an awful-smelling tray of stuffed previously green squashes into one of the trash bags. Peter was stricken. He had loved the squashes, now he would never eat one again.

He didn’t say anything else; they finished throwing away the food in silence. When he was done, the cop had hugged him with such suddenness that Peter at first resisted, then hugged back.

“They had a nephew,” the cop told Peter. “Yusuf. Sweet kid. Worked at the CVS, gigantic chip on his shoulder. They haven’t heard from him in a bit and they’re worried with all the shit. Do you political guys ever hear from people in trouble?” Peter shook his head. Us political guys usually just talk to each other and fight on Twitter, he said. “Okay, well, here’s the nephew’s phone number,” the cop said, and scrawled it on the back of a business card, with his name on it, which he thrust at Peter. Peter took the card.

“I can’t call him,” the cop had said. “Somebody else has to call him.”

Peter remembers it as a strange moment.

*****

6. In the bar, Peter thanked the cop for the drink and asked him how he’d been. They talked and bullshitted and complained about what an awful season the Giants were having, look at them, the fucking Atlanta Falcons are murdering them, they’re like if the Washington Generals were a football team and everybody else was the Globetrotters.

“What do you do?” the cop asked. “I thought you were a poli-sci guy but Rathburn was physics.”

Rathburn was the smartest person alive, Peter told him, smarter than anyone in the world, maybe smarter than Einstein. What happened to him? You have to tell me.

“It’s the thing with the Rahebs,” the cop says. “The Sams. There was all this bullshit about them having a less-24 hidden, God only knows how anyone got that idea. And most of the guys in the 68th won’t take people’s less-24s. They know that’s not right. I mean a few guys will. The ones you’d expect. I guess, it gets really easy to get a promotion if you do it, even, like, once, so that’s why. I guess they hope all the higher-ups will eventually be those guys, who’ve done it at least once and know what it’s like. But so now they have Feds come down here and chase people around, make a big fuss, tell everyone they don’t just get to obey the laws they like, your less-24s are the next generation’s domestic threats, that’s how we got into this mess and blah blah blah.

“I mean it’s literally word for word the same lecture from each of these interchangeable assholes. It’s not always the same guy but it might as well be. They go home after a few days and we get to clean it up and of course everybody fucking hates us because of them.” The cop empties his tumbler. “I had a domestic homicide last month, I couldn’t even get the *neighbors* to talk to me. They just ‘weren’t home.’ I mean what am I, gonna bang on people’s door shouting ‘I know you’re in there’ like somebody’s crazy drunk boyfriend? That one’s still open. Probably will be until the guy does something else. I mean, I know who did it. The whole family knows. But I have no evidence. Because nobody trusts anybody now.

“So yeah the Rahebs are gone somewhere. I don’t know where, but at least whoever’s there’s got good food.” The cop grins and looks at Peter for affirmation and doesn’t get it. “It’s fucked up, though,” he concedes. “We all know it.”

*****

7. Ana finds Peter before anyone else does. He is hungover, or rather, has been drunk all night, and is too stupid with it to fight her taking away the bottle, which, blessedly, still holds enough liquid to suggest that Peter will live. She gives him the bag of McDonalds she really, really wanted to eat herself, because who needs to take your ungrateful not-a-boyfriend to the ER for alcohol poisoning first thing on Tuesday. He can chew, at least, she observes. She considers telling him he has a class today and thinks better of it; instead she guides him up to Lewis Rathburn’s office, which is empty, and arranges him on the pine-and-vinyl love seat opposite the window, under a framed photo of Richard Feynman at the chalkboard. She goes to the bathroom, dumps out the ridiculous spheroid bottle of Blanton’s into the sink and fills it with water, then puts it next to the love seat on the floor. He says something she likes to believe is “thank you.”

She goes back downstairs to survey the mess; Peter appears to have smashed poor old Lewis’s pride and joy, which he swore up and down proved the existence of theoretical particles by emitting them, which Ana’s own mentor, the amazing Harriet King, often said was putting the cart before the horse, with a chortle that makes Ana hate her a little. Harriet is a truly gifted scientist, someone for whom the answers to brain-destroyingly complex logarithmic equations are as self-evident as the color of a flower. Ana has the fingerprint of this quality on her own brain, too, she knows; it is not a trait much admired in women, who do not get to be irascible geniuses, only bitches. The sorority of arithmetic savants is a small one and she is happy for her membership in it, though she does not agree with Harriet that Lewis’s penchant for gadget construction makes his intellect less pure. She wonders if this dumb thing really did give off Cherenkov radiation. She resolves to leave it for whoever comes down to the lab next. Perhaps it will be the soulless asshole cops who refuse to protect the locals from the less-24s policy the way they swore they would. Perhaps it will fuck up their investigation. Perhaps they will unjustly imprison Peter, who would love that.

Ana sighs and picks up the broken pieces of the machine and puts them in the HAZARDOUS bin, wincing each time she touches something and leaves a fingerprint. There is a janitor’s cart outside, so Ana props the pipe wrench up next to the broom and leaves. She is late for class; her good deed for the day is done.

*****

1. In the dream, in a white room, Maria sees a box made of plywood and pine two-by-four frames, a blue paint bucket filled with water on a stool next to it. A hose from the bucket leads into the box, and two wires, one black and one red, lead into the top of the box from a disassembled electrical outlet in the wall. The box is shorter than she is. She realizes Josh is with her, standing knee-high next to her. He does not exactly walk yet so much as hurtle, every journey as likely as not to end with him on all fours laughing and saying “Whoops!” His vocabulary is limited, and that word is his favorite.

Maria looks at the box for a long time. Josh watches, too. It is a strange sight and he has a fistful of sweatpant for consolation and stability. Then, without warning, the box’s sides slide away smoothly, screws sheared off with little pinging sounds, each moving softly in a different direction. Inside the box, curled into the fetal position, is her husband Yusuf’s uncle Ara, who has been expected by his sister Samia for months now. Samia is one of Yusuf’s aunts; Yusuf has a huge family but no parents – everyone is an uncle or an aunt or a cousin.

Maria has never met Ara but she knows this is him; she can tell by his wings of blue flame. Five large, shiny spiders are walking on him, on his hip and his flank and the side of his neck, questing worriedly, unsure of where they are and why. Ara lifts his head and looks over at Maria and smiles happily. He brushes the spiders off his body and tries to stand up, though he staggers as he does. He seems not to have stood for a long time.

She feels the telltale release in her pantleg as Josh starts the voyage toward Uncle Ara and his spiders. An odd thing about her little boy is that he must help anyone who seems unhappy, immediately, whether it is another child with a skinned knee or Yusuf staring glumly at his phone. Usually he helps by patting the appendage closest to him, which, she admits, is comforting. She tries to tell him no, but her mouth has something wadded up inside it. Ara is on one knee, breathing heavily; Josh topples in his direction, falling twice and pushing himself back up until he reaches his second cousin and pats his calf with a chubby hand. Maria loves him so much. She spits out the object in her mouth – it is a little scroll of what feels like leather. She opens it, looks at it, and then up at Josh and Ara. One by one, the spiders pick their way fussily up the electrical cords and make their way into the wall. Ara is sitting more easily and Josh is trying to climb up his knee. Ara streches his wings luxuriously; the blue light from them intensifies, and from it Maria can hear a voice.

“…couple who run the falafel place, the one on 95th and 5th,” the voice is saying. “I had to empty the whole store out, Jesus. Jesus. It was so awful, Lewis. Somebody thought there were hidden babies there. I don’t know, as a nation, what we’re…”

There is more but Maria cannot make it out. Ara is motioning with one hand for her to sit next to him, the other hand steadying Josh, who is standing on Ara’s lap with a loook of concentration on his face as he tries to balance.

Maria sits down before Ara, who smiles. He bends to pick up Josh and Maria can see horrible burns on his back, where his wings meet his shoulders.

The voice intensifies but it is harder to hear; Josh jumps from Ara’s hands to Maria’s lap, where she almost doesn’t catch him. He chuckles and she and Ara share a smile. Then Yusuf is shaking her awake.

“We have to go,” Yusuf says. He has been watching TV they bought at the pawnshop, he tells her, the one that doesn’t work. It started ringing, he said, he’d thought it was his phone, but when he answered the phone, the broken TV showed a weird program, just a guy slightly offscreen talking about them, about how the police know they’re there. It must be a way to freak us out, Yusuf says. The whole thing was tinted blue, for some reason. It was on a really high channel that usually just gets static. “Whoever was talking clearly thinks my aunt and uncle are dead,” he says.

“Baby, you were dreaming,” Maria tells him. “I had a dream, too. It was a good day, remember? They let Ara out. Maybe it’s not going to be that bad.

“That’s a good idea,” Yusuf says, and pulls out his phone. He has a conversation in Syriac, which Maria hates; she knows more than he thinks she knows, though. She can tell that it is Ara on the other end. She goes and picks up the baby, who seems just fine with bunking in the basement under a deli with only a space heater and some stuffed animals Maria hopes to throw out very, very soon. Lately Yusuf has become obsessed with “go bags” and emergency first aid; Maria has insisted they make a special go bag for the baby. It is powder blue and has elephants on it and Yusuf pretends to be annoyed by it, but he also stocks it with applesauce. Josh is not sleeping, but not crying, either. He is so good.

“Let’s go. Ara will meet us. He can get a boat tonight.”

“Go where?” Maria asks.

“Down the coast,” Yusuf answers. “Ara knows a place.”

There is noise above them; up the ladder, Maria can see blue and red lights through the crack in the hatch that opens on to the sidewalk.

*****

2. ABSTRACT: A tachyon is a theoretical particle that can travel faster than light, necessitating a receiver-retransmitter of a tachyon or tachyon impression, here assumed to be Cherenkov radiation, that must receive-retransmit those impressions before their emission. It is therefore assumed to collapse a number of necessary superpositions, invalidating probability-based branches of contemporary physical scienctific inquiry including the Minimal Supersymmetric Standard Model and regressing the entirety of particle physics as far back as the Newtonian era. In this paper I will argue for the continued existence of superpositions even with tachyon interference. In this paper I propose that the act of turning on the receiver-retransmitter now running in our physics department, where it broadcasts on a number of known and demonstrably safe EM spectra, in fact heralds a new epoch in physical science. Its transmissions are for now garbled by their backward journey but, I will here demonstrate, inarguably of human origin. These transmissions cannot affect a past in which there is no receiver to witness them and so cannot correct mistakes or alter our lives. Nevertheless as the loop of communication with our children and our children’s children widens, our knowledge might increase infinitely, as we are able to separate generations of communication doubtless being sent back to us, to this one, most vital point in our history. It is a difficult task but I hope I will have the help of my colleagues in it. These moments of understanding are rare in the sciences, and often received with fear and anger by the men and women who have worked so diligently to understand the model I will show has failed. The new model, I believe with the full weight of my understanding, is good news for all people.

*****

3. Having been warned in a dream, Yusuf goes first across the walkway, quickly. Maria follows, with Josh concealed in a carrier under a big black poncho. They descend the stairs to the sidewalk that borders the water. When he was a boy Yusuf would have loved the thought of leaping across it, a knife in his teeth, onto the rocks to board the stealthy boat with his valiant cousin Ara. Now he cannot get enough air into his lungs and feels guilt with every step he takes away from his beloved and their child. Ara sees him; he lies low in the boat. There is an old white man fishing a few yards away.

He can hear sirens behind him.

What Evil Lurks in The Hearts of Men

mandarin

I. 

It’s hard to think of a more perfect synecdoche for the American superhero comics industry than C.B. Cebulski, recently named editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, admitting his first day on the job that he spent more than a year writing comics under the name Akira Yoshida in what we’ll generously call a Japanese idiom.

Cebulski, of course, is not Japanese.

According to comics columnist Rich Johnston, who broke the story through industry news outlet Bleeding Cool, Marvel talked up “Akira Yoshida” as though he was a one-in-a-million prodigy; “He was someone from non-English speaking country who could write well for an American audience — something Marvel had struggled with in the past when seeking authentic voices,” Johnston recalls being told. 

“Yoshida” was writing Japanese-flavored work for Marvel about the villainous ninja clan called The Hand in 2004 near the beginning of a manga boom in the US book market. Manga had become especially popular among younger readers and women; Cebulski’s tenure as editor of Marvel’s manga efforts—the company welcomed him to the fold as “C.B.-san” in a press release—had not brought the company the new market it expected.

As a fake Japanese man, Cebulski got quite a bit of work set in Japan and about Marvel’s Asian characters, of whom there are many. The Hand are a creation of writer-artist Frank Miller; other Asian or Asian-ish characters are the work of Don Heck, Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby and others white artists. Some—Miller especially—have worked to bring Japanese work to American readers and to absorb not just stereotypes but artistic substance from Japan’s own venerable comics traditions; assessing their accomplishments alongside the work of their peers in Japan is complicated.

But only Cebulski managed to create an Asian character who literally drew a paycheck for him.

Cebulski started out working on a Manga-ish series called Darkstalkers for Canadian artist Pat Lee’s now-defunct company Dreamwave. When he got to Marvel, Cebulski gave a lengthy interview in character as Yoshida, saying he’d been introduced to American comics by his father, who worked in “international business” and would bring them home to Japan from trips abroad. 

People claimed to have seen Yoshida in Marvel’s offices; according to Johnston, that person was a Japanese translator. For years, editor Mike Marts swore blind he’d eaten lunch with Cebulski’s pseudonym; he, too, may have dined with the translator.

II.

Orientalism—the patronizing depiction of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures in Western literature—is older than C.B. Cebulski; it’s older than Marvel Comics, too. It’s certainly older than pulp characters that filled matinees and newsstands in the 1930’s but it might be worthwhile to start with those rather than trudge all the way back to Kipling and Sax Rohmer, because the pulps are where comics were born. 

The Shadow learned how to render himself invisible “years ago in the Orient.” Doc Savage found himself embroiled in some plot or other in Asia or on the Arabian peninsula about twice a week. Flash Gordon battled a space emperor with long, thin mustaches called Ming the Merciless. The Green Hornet’s martial artist houseboy Kato was so much cooler than the Hornet himself that the role catapulted Bruce Lee to stardom when the character got a TV show in the 1960’s, but (white) billionaire playboy Britt Reid was in charge in the 1930’s and he stayed the boss until very recently.

That’s not to say that these characters and stories aren’t fun. They’re loads of fun. Orientalist window dressing is one of a dozen expedient narrative gimmicks to get the reader to buy Shiwan Khan’s piranha-infested moat or to explain away ridiculous nonsense like the neato power to read minds. It’s effective because the reader is likely to think, “Oh yeah, that sounds like something that would happen in a mysterious place where I don’t speak the language.”

The problem with that narrative device and not with, say, a time machine, is that there are people underneath it, with stories that aren’t about piranhas. Some of them even create comic books in a distinct tradition.

Though they share DNA, contemporary superhero comics differ from pulps in that they are about a whole new class of character, rather than a wealthy eccentric who makes the New York crime blotter more exciting. Among superheroes, Orientalist caricatures are presented alongside aliens, demigods and robots—this guy has claws that come out of his knuckles, that one is a despotic cyborg from outer space, and that one… well, that one’s Chinese. 

Marvel has tried to smooth this sort of thing over but it’s hard to know which way to jump; the grief the company caught for casting a white woman as Doctor Strange’s mystic mentor The Ancient One is probably nothing compared to the wrath that would have rained down on it for casting a person of Asian descent in the role. And, largely for the worse, the Mysterious Asian is integral to Disney’s precious proprietary stockpile of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko creations. Most people have forgotten that Mickey Mouse is, at base, a blackface caricature; it will take a while longer to forget that Iron Man spent many, many issues fighting The Mandarin.

III.

Authorial impersonation is practically its own genre of prank, and it exists on a continuum of outrageousness from clever commentary to queasy appropriation, depending on who is doing it, how, and why. Stephen King, on being told that the horror market could only sustain a single book a year bearing his name, consigned his pulpier efforts to a lesser byline, Richard Bachman. J. K. Rowling, anxious to keep writing murder mysteries after her first attempt failed to elude the shadow of Harry Potter, began publishing mystery fiction under the name Robert Galbraith. 

These deceptions are harmless, even instructive—King’s second name became such an open secret that he developed a distinctive style for it. Rowling ignited a conversation about whether or not her work would have been received as well had it had a woman’s name on the cover instead of man’s (it probably would have, so long as it wasn’t Rowling’s own; the best authors in the mystery genre are and have nearly always been women).

But there are less comfortable examples. A poet named Yi-Fen Chou published a poem called “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” that was selected for the 2015 Best American Poetry collection; Chou turned out to be a white man named Michael Derrick Hudson, who was hoping he could get his poem read more closely if he could convince editors it was the work of a person belonging to an underrepresented minority. Yale’s Joe Scanlan, who is also white, created the character of a black artist named “Donelle Woodford” to whom he credited some of his own collage work, and who was played by black actresses who wrote the character with him. In an interview he said he’d hoped the project would prove that “a white man and two black women can acknowledge their unequal power relations and still decide to happily work together, because something might be accomplished that is greater than that inequity.”

Cebulski’s deception is a sort of hybrid of those two pranks, combining Hudson’s invidious aspirations with Scanlan’s theatrical flair, and all in a professional context far shorter on irony than the conceptual art world. 

The notoriously tyrannical Bill Jemas, at the time occupying the editor-in-chief job to which Cebulski has just been elevated, would surely have fired Cebulski, whose small, experimental imprint that wasn’t working, for writing comics freelance under his own name. Marvel editors weren’t allowed to write for their colleagues, either. 

So Cebulski created a character who, in hindsight, looks about as plausible as Ming the Merciless: an Asian guy who writes in an exactly American style and makes a lot of mistakes about Japanese culture, which supposedly produced him. From his position overseeing Marvel’s attempts to reach American fans of Asian culture, Cebulski would have understood the demand among editors for competently written stories that could exploit the growing popularity of manga, and he really had lived in Japan. 

It was a bad decision, but one that made a certain amount of tactical sense: That land over there, where I don’t speak the language and mysterious things often happen—perhaps it produced this extremely implausible person who appeared out of thin air with the ability to decorate Western comics plots with detailed manga window dressing.

IV.

Pulp characters have been through a number of resurrections; they’re quite durable, like superheroes, but they’re also troublesome. They are different from superheroes, who live in fantasy worlds with rules that don’t resemble out own at all. Both are inextricable from the need for a faraway land filled with villains, heroines, and magic, but pulps are, perhaps, a little more honest about where that desire actually points: The reader believes deep inside that this land is somewhere close by, on earth, if we could only reach it—not in the shadow dimensions or on a distant planet. Our neighbor who talks funny—we think he’s a cartoon villain with a long mustache. This sort of belief is, I would say, a primal, fundamental cruelty, not a product of culture.

It is an evil, not to put too fine a point on it, that lurks in the hearts of men.

Cebulski’s grift succeeded because it depended on his readers—and, apparently, some of his bosses—to approach Yoshida they way they would a foreigner, with an expectation of the exotic and a patience for amateurism. “It wasn’t transparent, but it taught me a lot about writing, communication and pressure,” Cebulski told Johnston. “I was young and naïve and had a lot to learn back then.”

There should be space for marginalized artists, and it shouldn’t be taken away so that white people using pseudonyms can benefit from low expectations while they learn about communication. But it’s worth understanding why Cebulski was able to do this so easily in the first place: This isn’t a problem with comics. It’s a problem with people who love them.

And with people generally—me, for example. I love the pulps. I love the old ones and I like reading the new ones and every time I pick up a new reimagining filled with the exploits of some problematic old hero, I hope that the author will have been able to rescue him from the embarrassing menace of Shiwan Khan, Fu Manchu, Ming or Akira Yoshida.

These villains were invented to be inscrutable and sly, and it turns out they are wilier than ever their inventors intended—they keep on killing the Shadow, Doc Savage and the Green Hornet with Western bigotries that look paler and less appetizing each time. We know how to read old adventure stories, forgivingly or prosecutorially as we see fit, but we don’t quite know how to write new ones yet. We can create new characters, but we can’t escape our influences, whether or not they’re racist. Try to purify art, and you’ll destroy it. Start over with a different set of matinee idols, and they will turn out to have feet of clay, as well. 

Frank Miller proposed an interesting solution to some of these tensions with Sin City, a hard-boiled detective series that incorporates the visual grammar of manga. His peers Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, too, have spent twenty years tirelessly trying to find progressive expressions for old adventure novels for their League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, turning the original white savior, Ayesha from H Rider Haggard’s “She,” into a cold-blooded villainess while making Jules Verne’s terrifying Captain Nemo into the patriarch of a heroic dynasty of stateless Indian nobility. These are answers to the questions of appropriation and racism that come not just from careful study of art, but from moral reflection, as well.

The writer Garth Ennis reworked the Shadow recently, setting most of his story in meticulously accurate historical renderings of of China and Japan, with the Shadow himself the weird foreigner. It’s a clever inversion, drawn by Aaron Campbell; while it doesn’t work completely, Ennis has an unobstructed vision for what makes the Shadow tick, and that gives the tale a foundational honesty that has a greater capacity to redeem its beloved lead character than all the self-righteous think pieces on the internet.

It’s this: One of the villains, a likable Chinese gangster named Kondo, knows the Shadow from before he was Lamont Cranston. What secrets, Kondo asks him during their showdown, did the Shadow learn when he learned to cloud men’s minds?  

“Whoever it was. Wherever they took you,” Kondo asks. “What the hell did they make you into?” Knowing his enemy is about to die, the Shadow finally tells him the whole truth.

“They taught me to recognize evil in the hearts of men,” he says, “by looking into my own.”

Comics 10/24

the wild storm.jpg
Void, from The Wild Storm #3 variant by Jim Lee
  1. Kill or Be Killed, the new series by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, is two paperbacks’ worth of issues deep and so I picked the first volume up. Brubaker and Phillips remind me very much of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, in that they pair a consummately adequate writer with an artist who is doing something really rare and wonderful and stylish and so I tend to endure the plotting and dialogue rather than enjoy it, but it doesn’t matter at all when faced with the beautiful art. Phillips, I think, is drawing with a computer now—there’s a telltale thing that happens when you digitize line widths that makes them come out weirdly uniform. It looks worse on some artists than others—Jesus Merino’s Astro City stuff is a bit distracting, for example—but Phillips pulls it off. Anyway I feel like I should briefly drop in a disclaimer observing that neither Loeb nor Brubaker’s writing is contemptible, merely undistinguished to a degree that constantly reminds a reader that the script would suffer not even a little as a teleplay. But those two guys are the primary collaborators of two really astounding artists so I recommend Loeb’s Hulk: Gray and Catwoman: When in Rome—both very solid, fun-to-read books—and Brubaker’s Sleeper and Fatale, the former being a clever superhero narrative and the latter being a time-hopping horror-crime tale that I really enjoyed. I’ve found Brubaker’s warmed-over roman noir style to be kind of samey, though, and I enjoyed The Fade Out basically in spite of him; his protagonists are always such insufferable dickheads. This time he may have out-dickheaded himself: His main character, Dylan, is a vigilante who runs around blowing away “bad” people; Brubaker is not a dummy and the book is loudly telegrpahing that it will question what exactly it means to be a bad person, and there is a supernatural aspect to our hero’s motivation. The problem is the hero: He is not merely a murdering punk but also the whiniest little incel in comics and the net effect, which I’m not sure is intentional, is that he seems like someone who actually would go on a killing spree on an Eliot Rodger model. Anyway the art is terrific.
    1a. Actually please just read Graham Chaffee’s fantastic To Have and To Hold from earlier this year instead. It’s very much as if James M Cain wrote comics.
  2. Along thematically similar lines but as different as possible in execution, Rick Veitch has finally returned to comics publishing through Amazon’s print-on-demand service, and let me tell you, demand it I do. Veitch is one of the most talented cartoonists alive and his incredibly weird sensibility has given the world some graphic novels that I think will probably stand the test of time alongside crazy shit like Jim Woodring’s beautiful Disneyfied hallucinations. This time his subject is a sort-of-Superboy character with a lot of the same gross impulses as the Kill or Be Killed protag, but much stranger. Veitch has written two mind-meltingly weird but ultimately cohesive superhero graphic novels, Brat Pack and The One, the first being an intensely sordid deconstruction of all the sexual undertones in comics and a solidly pointed piece of industry criticism, to boot; the second is just a good graphic novel about the evolutionary end of humanity. One thing I truly love about Veitch is that he’s perfectly happy imagining changes to the status quo in his narrative so huge that they end the story, or the industry, or the species, and I guess it’s inevitable that his new book, Kid Maximortal, would attempt to end the superhero genre. It’s a sequel of sorts to his Superman riff, The Maximortal, which I believe is due for a new edition from IDW, and both read a lot like literary criticism, if literary criticism had fun characters and didn’t make any more sense than it had to. The new book has two plot threads totally overcome by heavily symbolic surrealism and a third, based on the life of Jack Kirby, that is an expertly rendered and deeply felt bit of realism. I wish the whole thing cohered narratively with more attention to plot and character and less to theme. Veitch isn’t bad at plot or character; he’s just less interested in them than he is in, it has to be said, the extremely well-traveled path of comics-as-comics-criticism. It’s still worth reading and has a ton of goodies in the back, among them his manifesto and a bunch of pin-ups of Swamp Thing and his and Alan Moore’s wonderful Greyshirt character, as well as a terrific old story from Heavy Metal where the robot characters speak in bar codes. I recommend it very, very highly, if not unreservedly.
  3. I discovered to my delight that I’m a book behind on Kurt Busiek’s consistently good Astro City; the series is always so much fun that I find myself occasionally saving it for a day when I’m depressed. Busiek is one of the best pure writers of superheroes alive; Alan Moore is, at his very best, a masterly horror writer, and Neil Gaiman is a fantasist, but Busiek seems to have been genetically engineered for the sole purpose of writing colorful super-characters, and the 13th volume of the series, Honor Guard, sees him stretching out into different varieties. One thing that distinguishes Busiek from other contemporary superhero writers is that he remembers there are influences deserving of his (and the reader’s) attention beyond Jack Kirby. There’s a quasi-Edgar Rice Burroughs story in this book, and one with some anime influence, and a less successful tale about an Australian guy with the power to shrink. It’s a catch-all collection, bringing together a bunch of one-off stories, and I miss one-off stories in these days of infinitely long crossover series, so I was pretty happy to read it. The art is by Jesus Merino, as mentioned above, with Tom Grummett, one of DC’s better and least-sung workhorses, and a couple of other guys I’d never heard of—Joe Infurnari and Gary Chaloner. The final story is a real knockout, and repositions an old foe of the super-team of the title as a new ally; it’s surprisingly moving. I’m looking forward to digging in to that 14th volume I hadn’t spotted on the shelves yet.
  4. As the retro marketing train slowly and disturbingly approaches my young adulthood I keep running across comics projects that play on my fond memories of 1990’s comics with upsetting precision. The best of these is absolutely The Wild Storm, a 24-issue, ugh, maxi-series, I’m sorry for that word, it sounds like an expensive bacteria panel your doctor runs when his first two diagnoses fail, merging all the disparate high-concept characters from Jim Lee’s ridiculous Wildstorm Universe into a single cohesive narrative. This is an insane task undertaken by an insane man, Warren Ellis, who remains a writer whose work I will read in pretty much any form, prose or comics. Ellis is particularly interesting because he and Alan Moore came along at a time when Wildstorm, which had formed because Lee and a few other artists were sick of being shortchanged by Marvel and wanted to own the characters they drew, needed some solid writing to guide what would otherwise have continued to be very shoddy knock-offs of Marvel’s several X-Men teams. The comics had been mildly fun for a while before Moore and Ellis came along but the artists had largely either moved on to greener pastures or gotten so wealthy they didn’t need to work for a page rate anymore, and without Lee’s over-rendered art, it was clear that there wasn’t a lot holding, say, the WildC.A.T.S together conceptually. Moore and Ellis reinvented the WildC.A.T.S and Stormwatch respectively and turned the whole superhero universe into a big Le Carré-but-with-heat-vision spy story of double agents and shadowy intelligence operations that stretched across time and space in sci-fi ways. It was great; I still go back and reread old issues from time to time, and it launched a number of worthy careers, notably Brubaker and Phillips’s (see above). In the new book, Ellis, with a really remarkable and precise artist named Jon-Davis Hunt, is weaving together a big, action-packed super-narrative that thus far focuses on Angela Spica, a character who went by The Engineer in Ellis’s great superhero book The Authority 17 years ago, and treats the various super-teams as rival intelligence firms looking for competitive advantages with Angie and her budding science-powers caught in the middle. I dig it a lot.
  5. Garth Ennis is suddenly everywhere: With the mildly shadowy comics company Aftershock, he has a moderately preachy spy-comedy comic called Jimmy’s Bastards with art by Russ Braun, whom I like (I find this book very funny not least because of Braun’s gift for faces; many of you may not, which would be reasonable, and I may be ashamed that I found it funny in ten years, the way I feel about Ennis and the late Steve Dillon’s Preacher now); he’s doing a very enjoyable Hanna-Barbera-branded Dastardly and Muttley comic for DC because God is cruel; and best of all, he’s returned to a character everyone now loves to hate because of the dumb Netflix TV show, The Punisher. Disclosure: I love The Punisher. I am a pacifist and do not like violence in real life one little bit but Ennis’s take on the character is just devastating in the pathos he manages to wring from a stoic serial killer. Part of it is that Ennis is an annoying military history wonk and he can go toe-to-toe with anybody who cares to try on the topic of World War II aircraft or machine gun manufacturing contracts (this is what ruined the pacing of big sections of his series The Boys at Dynamite, incidentally; he got so interested in making up plausible fake military-historical details that he completely derailed the story he was telling), and Frank Castle—The Punisher—is a canonically a Vietnam veteran. So Ennis has set Punisher: The Platoon during the legendary Tet Offensive, and it’s killer so far, largely because he’s working with the amazing Goran Parlov, an artist who didn’t get a chance to hit his stride while he was working monthly with Ennis on the last few arcs of his justly celebrated Punisher: MAX run, almost certainly because of deadlines. Even there, he was doing suspiciously good work; it turns out that when he has a decent lead time, his stuff is genuinely beautiful. (Attentive readers already knew this from Starlight, but Ennis writes a better story than Mark Millar in general.)
  6. I thought I’d mention that DC has reprinted Alan Davis’s gorgeous JLA: The Nail series in an oversized hardcover; it’s a spectacular book and Davis deserves a place in the pantheon alongside other writer-artists of superhero stuff like Frank Miller and Walt Simonson. For a few years not long ago Marvel seemed to happily publish basically whatever Davis wanted to draw; that was a good policy and I hope they re-adopt it or someone else comes along to do likewise. Anyway I thought I’d list my favorite Justice League stories because that dumb movie is coming out. Here they are:
    1. JLA/Avengers
    2. The Nail
    3. JLA: Earth-2
    4. Heaven’s Ladder
    5. New Maps of Hell
    6. Formerly Known as the Justice League
    There’s only six of ’em. Them’s the breaks.

Stray Thoughts 10/15

dirty harvey

  1. Several actresses say the vastly wealthy and influential movie producer Harvey Weinstein raped them. Further reporting by Ronan Farrow, himself something of an expert on sexual malpractice among celebrities, suggests that Weinstein had most of the movie industry help him arrange liaisons, often in hotels, with young women who wanted to act or had begun to act, and then he tried to coerce them into giving him “massages” or watching him jerk off or having sex with him, and when he could, he raped them. Asia Argento and Rose McGowan, two women who, queasily, were 1990’s avatars of the same very particular kind of noirish beauty—dark-haired and -eyed, petite, pale, tattooed—have accused him of forcing himself on them. The details are annihilatingly vile: Argento said that she despairingly returned to Weinstein to give him more sex after he first raped her, because she felt that she had to. Everybody knew, and everybody is shocked; everybody helped, and everybody is concerned. It is a web of complicity and wickedness that stretches through the film and television industries and crosses borders into real world-political power, which, make no mistake, Weinstein had; the details of the fat, wealthy, legendarily crass producer forcing himself on starlet after starlet have a sort of operatic, Dickensian putrescence about them. Weinstein’s professional demise—and he has been expelled from the Academy and denounced by all of his closest colleagues including his brother—is said to be the first of many, but it feels too late.
  2. What are we to do with his movies? One of the dangers not just to his victims but to the world of allowing a voracious sexual predator to carry on unopposed for decades is that his legacy, however tainted, must be reckoned with, because it is so huge. Does he deform the entire canon? It’s a question that is often asked of work by, say, Alfred Hitchcock or Woody Allen or Roman Polanski, but those men are individuals and their work can be isolated and watched with a responsible skepticism. Weinstein had approval over a staggering number of films and he legendarily recut many of them—what does that mean?
  3. Shortly after the Weinstein piece broke, a Buzzfeed article announced the existence of a list of “Shitty Media Men” who had mistreated the anonymous women who contributed to the list. The bar for adding a name was apparently very low; the accusations ranged from “flirting” to “creepy af in the DMs” to anal rape, and choking a woman unconscious, according to multiple writeups by women who had presumably seen the list. I haven’t seen it; I’m told it was expressly forbidden to share the list with a man though some women seem to have done so. I don’t have access to what people have been calling “the whisper network” the way women do but I have good women friends who’ve confided the occasional coded warning about more than one high-level male journalist, and of course I listen to gossip; there are people I’m curious about. A male friend who’s been looking for work for a long time worried to me that he’d done or said something wrong and not known about it and that perhaps this was why he was having such trouble getting hired; I understand his queasiness—the job market in journalism is dreadful right now and if you’re naturally awkward or even inclined to worry that you’re awkward, you’re now terrified that someone mistook your awkwardness for a gross come-on that is being circulated among people who might be looking at your resume with no chance for you to correct the record or even apologize. I also understand that this seems like a perfectly acceptable risk to the people whose physical safety is on the line.
  4. There is a huge clash of cultures going on quietly in journalism at the moment, between, on the one side, the crabby, middle-aged, proudly dysfunctional generation of forty- and fiftysomething men and women—but mostly men—who, now un-rehireable, cling to jobs for which they fought their way through the ranks by being harder-nosed and less shockable and more dogged than all their peers; on the other are the  serious, health-conscious, aggressively well-adjusted, perfectly dressed, workaholic, politically sensitive generation of twentysomething women—and they are almost all women—going to absolute war for $30k-a-year jobs covering the open sewers of politics and culture. The former are flamboyant and uncensored in their personal lives and meticulous and dry in their prose and the latter are bomb-throwing opinionators on the page and champions of workplace hospitality in person, and the two groups don’t particularly like each other, largely because of the economic scarcity created by the ongoing slow-motion collapse of the industry. Each group is fanatically idealistic and each rolls its eyes at the other. And the former, frankly, is used to being aggressive and boorish and not suffering any consequences and now it is probably time to pay the piper; if the latter is often prosecutorial, naive and self-righteous, it seems to contain fewer actual rapists and it certainly won’t countenance them when they’re sniffed out. They need older allies, and male ones.
  5. Here is a grotesque article by Adrian Vermuele, a conservative Catholic who holds an endowed professorship at Harvard Law. In it, Vermuele praises the erudition and moral acumen of Carl Schmitt, the chief jurist of the Nazi Reich, while supposedly deploring everything Schmitt’s moral acumen directed him to do, namely support the Nazi Party until 1936. Schmitt’s support was rewarded, as Vermuele notes, with “thirty pieces of silver;” those pieces were hand-delivered by Hermann Goering, who gave Schmitt a position at the University of Berlin recently vacated by an exiled Jewish social-democrat named Herman Heller, among many other tainted honors. Incredibly, Vermuele seems to think Schmitt is a source worth citing on the topic of moral compromise and its limits; he suggests making expedient political alliances based on Schmitt’s 1923 essay about Catholicism.
    I’m only going to say this once but I hope anyone reading this will pay close attention: If your church is slowly Nazifying and the chief thinker of your nation’s nascent far-right movement, Steve Bannon, claims to be a member of it to almost no objection, and, rather than devote all your energies to expelling that person and everyone who agrees with him from fellowship, you choose to whine about creeping progressivism, Jesus and I think you would be better off with a millstone around your neck. That is all.
  6. On Thursday while I was listening to CNN play, repeatedly, the recording of Harvey Weinstein trying to browbeat an Italian 22-year-old into fucking him, I suddenly realized that many years ago a slightly older man had made a point of touching me more and more intimately and kissing me surreptitiously at times when I couldn’t object without making a scene, often while we were around other people in our peer group who might have thought it was consensual because he had spread rumors about my sexuality. Or they might have felt too awkward to interfere. Perhaps they didn’t notice. Without ever indicating that he knew what he was doing, he explained to me that he had done similar things as an authority figure and gotten into trouble for it, which made him fear for his safety. I let him touch me because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings and I didn’t want to damage our relationship, which was the key to a lot of other relationships, which he knew; he also knew that I was straight and I tried to remind him of this. I let him kiss me without comment at least once though I certainly didn’t kiss him back and strategized about how to avoid being near him after that (I failed in that). Ultimately he stopped because a woman I was friends with publicly told him to, not because I was brave enough to stop him, because I wasn’t.  When I told him privately afterward that yes, I wanted him to stop, he grew very angry with me and spent several months after that pointedly excluding me from things our friends were doing together. Realizing that this was not misunderstanding but some mild form of predation, years later, feels deeply bathetic; what a dumb thing to be upset about. It was unwanted kissing and feeling my leg, and then some unpleasant social consequences; that was all. I wasn’t a child, I was a young man. Nobody raped me. Women I know personally or professionally have been through so much worse, some of them several times. I do know it made me ashamed of myself for a long time and it took many years for me even to identify the behavior. I feel conflicted even writing this much about it; gay men are in much more difficult circumstances by default than straight ones—what right do I have to share even these details? What if they identify him to the few people we still mutually know? What if he reads this and recognizes himself? Will he suffer consequences for something he probably regrets and I doubt he ever did again? I don’t know. Ultimately I do know that it happened to me, so I get to talk about it.
  7. Of course, the question of where to do the talking is a reasonable one. There aren’t really informal networks of conversation around this stuff for men; there are men-only abuse survivor support groups but they tend to be for people who have suffered unspeakable, unforgivable things. Women, much better at this sort of thing, shut men out for understandable reasons. Being male feels inescapably shameful; one thing women have said is that men rarely suffer consequences for sexual impropriety but if you have any sort of a soul there are internal emotional consequences, both for collective guilt at the privilege of manhood, for memory, of mean or badly calibrated jokes, and then of course there is the garden-variety fear and shame that accompanies the memory of being weak or gullible enough to fall prey to another man, which is a peculiar kind of exceptionally humiliating defeat. And then there’s the feeling that it’s wrong to call down another man for doing something like that—what if he didn’t know he’d done it? Do you want every unkind thing you’ve ever said or done trotted out? No, of course not. Better to be silent. These are all emotional consequences, not financial or physical consequences, and perhaps it’s not right to conflate all of them, but they are all weirdly, inescapably a part of the complex and isolating trap of masculine sexuality. Patriarchy, ultimately, destroys everyone, men, women, children.
  8. Actually, men don’t really have a place to discuss sexual behavior at all beyond the conventional truck stop hooting and hollering we’re supposed to perform, more to ward off suspicion from each other than for the benefit of any women who are subjected to (and certainly unimpressed by) it. Luckily for me, I have very good, close male friends these days—not many, but a few—who can serve as sounding boards. It’s been mentioned more than once that the conversation about sexual assault and harassment tends to focus on women, as though it was a disease specific to their sex and not something men do to them. Why don’t men talk about it? Why don’t men call each other down for participating in it? One reason is that we often don’t know. Men don’t brag that they raped someone; they brag that they slept with someone. We are acculturated to spread myths of desirability about ourselves, not stories of cruelty, or at least that’s true in my circles. There do seem to be other circles, like the one in which the president moves, where it’s common practice to proclaim abuses as though they were conquests; men with a predator’s eye for weakness are usually astute enough to spot a potential narc, as well. So that’s the form of the problem.
  9. The form of the solution is to raise our sons better, I think—to encourage them to admire beauty, to value gentleness, to seek comity and peace. I love my own son more than I love my life, and I hope he grows up to rat out Harvey Weinstein.

Stray Thoughts 9/16 — A Real American Hero

I’ve gone pretty far afield on here from comics, which are this blog’s stated purpose. It’s not for want of trying: I’ve taken a couple of not especially successful swings at larger essays, which make me tired to think about—someday, hopefully, they’ll see the light of day—and I’ve also written quite a bit about politics at my current port of call. I’ve also profiled Chris Ware, the remarkable cartoonist behind Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, and a few other truly brilliant comics, notably Lint, which I think is probably a landmark of the kind we will look back on in 20 years as critically important to the development of comics as a form. The profile isn’t out yet—probably in the next week or so—but it was a tremendous pleasure to report. I’ll drop the link in here when it goes up.

  • Of course, comics can be political. Here’s Aubrey Sitterson, who writes GI Joe for IDW Comics:

And here he is again, after he gets ratioed:

Then a staggering number of people flooded his mentions and the mentions of his publisher, IDW, demanding that he be fired, proclaiming his tweets to contravene the spirit of the property he works on, and demanding apologies.

I’ve avoided writing about this for a couple of days partly because I wanted to get my thoughts in order but also because I didn’t want to be intemperate, which I think often has the effect of alienating people who might otherwise listen to your argument. GI Joe is an important touchstone for a lot of men in their thirties, and they perceive the comics series in particular as a zone outside of politics where they can comfortably read a good story without having to worry that they’re being judged, an increasing worry among white conservatives who feel that the walls are closing in on them, culturally speaking. There’s a lot of nostalgia for the toys and of course the old cartoon we all watched as kids; most of these people are probably about my age and probably look like me, and when they see Sitterson, they don’t just see a random guy on Twitter, they see someone who is steering a narrative with which they have a deep connection that reaches all the way back into grade school.

The first comic I ever got that was my very own and not my dad’s was a copy of GI Joe #50, and I have a pretty solid collection of the toys. So I definitely understand the appeal of the franchise.

Anyway, those people can all go fuck themselves. Go watch some goddamn drone strike videos, you gaggle of unbelievable little assholes, and think about how in less than two years the people who were born on 9/11/2001 will be eligible for service in a war that we will almost certainly still be fighting because in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, people were so filled with respect and remembrance of the fallen and national grief that they allowed themselves to be goaded into blowing up mosques and hospitals in Afghanistan for the length of an entire childhood. This guy lived in lower Manhattan during the attacks, his feelings about them are more valid than yours by quite a bit.

But beyond that, aren’t these the same shrill children who think Milo Yiannopoulos’s fans shooting people at his rallies is free speech? Aren’t these the people throwing enraged tantrums at the prospect of video game characters without erect nipples? If you make a Venn diagram of people shit-talking Chelsea Manning on Twitter and people who are offended that the GI Joe guy thinks 9/11 remembrance on social media is self-involved bullshit, it just looks like a circle.

What depresses me most is that this same crew was defending Frank Cho and Howard Chaykin and all the other middle-aged guys whose politics are out of fashion and whose work now offends a sizable portion of the readership. Everybody has a right to offend someone else’s sensibilities, apparently—just not yours. As someone who had the Tout Est Pardonné issue of Charlie Hebdo shipped to him from France and donated enough to the Mike Diana documentary Kickstarter to get a drawing, I often wish we lived in a grownup country where someone could see a cartoon that offended him and then go about his day without trying to burn all the copies of the cartoon or make the artist homeless, and not this artistically desiccated Puritan hellscape.

One thing that’s particularly dangerous about this is that the superhero and, by extension, GI Joe audience actually is pretty right-wing. A boycott by these people might actually have an effect. It’s all adolescent male fantasy that complements feelings of powerlessness; there are sizable minority readerships—women, black people, actual children—but the comics industry really does cater to guys about my age, mostly by nostalgizing every product in the worst possible way. That’s the most effective way to appeal to a huge swath of America, I think: remind them of a time that never was, when things were better than they are now. That way they can keep their precious grudges and lash out at anybody actually trying to tell them about the world they live in today.

Do you ever think about how genuinely brave the great American artists must be, to be able to carefully examine a culture to such a degree that you can’t escape the fact that it hates you for simply existing, and then hold up a mirror to it? Kara Walker, we are not good enough for you.

It’s the certainty in the backlash to Sitterson that gets to me, I think—there’s barely any discussion of the content of the tweets, it’s just “disrespectful.” Nobody interrogates whether people deserve respect for having died in a particular way or what the expressions of that respect look like and whether that is the same thing as what they ought to look like. There’s just this inchoate grievance, prowling the digital world in search of prey. I wish it was an exclusive function of the online right but it isn’t.

At any rate, if you really think the liberalizing culture is attacking you, maybe you could think about changing. Is your deeply held conviction that Muslims are evil something that affects the way you live your daily life? How about your dislike of abortion? Your suspicion of the gay agenda? Are they really things that make you a braver, better, more generous person or are they just ways of itemizing the various times you’ve felt wronged, you’ve been denied something important, and are you personalizing them because you’re angry and don’t know why?

Perhaps you could quietly stop talking about those things and see what happens. Maybe you’ll find some friends who aren’t 3.75 inches tall and still packed in their original plastic blister cards so the rubber bands holding their torsos together don’t degrade.

It’s hard to imagine what the response to all this outrage and the threat of boycotts will be. I hope Sitterson doesn’t get fired. The line of argument from the trolls seems to be that they don’t get enough comics anyway because of all the SJWs at Marvel and DC ruining things and why does IDW have to make some PC hipster the writer of GI Joe.

And the answer is that war-loving tragedy respecters can’t spell, let alone write compellingly, because compelling writing requires the ability or at least the inclination to understand other people, and further that there’s nowhere written the obligation to publish one thundering dickhead for every reasonable person in order to be fair to thundering dickheads. There is no need to scrupulously represent their beliefs, that is why they are dickheads.

Here endeth the lesson.

  • An editor whose name I’ll spare the association with mine published a list of the ten best American comic book artists ever, and I liked it so much I had to publish one of my own disagreeing with his. Please note that they are AMERICAN comic BOOK artists, so Herge, George Herriman, etc are not eligible.

    Robert Crumb
    Jack Kirby
    Harvey Kurtzman
    Jaime Hernandez
    Daniel Clowes
    Wally Wood
    Frank Miller
    Walt Kelly
    Will Eisner
    Jack Cole

    And for the record, for comic strips:

    George Herriman
    Winsor McCay
    Charles Schulz
    Kate Beaton
    Bill Watterson
    Gary Larson
    E. C. Segar
    Berkeley Breathed
    Frank King
    Walt Kelly again

  • I’ve been meaning to do this for a few months: In the almost exactly two years I worked for the business section of The Guardian, my wonderful editor, Dom Rushe, was kind enough to let me wander off the biz beat to the arts desk and write about comics, more or less whenever I got an itch to do so, and so I took a great deal of pleasure in abusing my Guardian email address to book interviews with all my heroes. The arts section guys, Alex Needham, Lanre Bakare and later Ben Lee, were amenable to this and occasionally used me to do entertainment stories they actually wanted, too—I’d worked for Variety and Adweek before I joined the paper—which was fun and a good use of muscles I didn’t, and don’t, want to let atrophy. Anyway, the work below was way off the reservation but I remain grateful to my bosses for letting me do it. For better or for worse, of the 561 pieces I wrote while I worked there, the 15 below felt the least like work. There’s stuff I wrote for the business section that I think remains my best writing and reporting, including articles that had a direct effect on the issues I was writing about, hopefully in a positive way. These pieces, though, were personally very important to me before I even picked up the phone to make the first call, and they form a discrete body of writing I’m very proud of.

Criticism:

An essay on Charles Schulz, Peanuts and the movies, which is probably my favorite piece of my own critical writing

Feature stories:

Gary Panter and Songy of Paradise

Dan Clowes and Patience

Daily news:

An obituary for Jack Chick

An story about Robert Sikoryak’s adaptation of the iTunes Terms and Conditions on Tumblr, which he has since published as a graphic novel

Q&As:

Dan Clowes

Emil Ferris

Dash Shaw

Al Jaffee

Ben Katchor

Matt Furie

Mike Mignola

Adrian Tomine

Kate Beaton

Dan Clowes (yes, again. Would you interview Alfred Hitchcock more than once if you got the chance?)

Lists:

My best of 2016

My beginner’s guide for grownups reading comics

 

On the Nashville Statement

YouTube
Jove looks down at the original humans, each of them a partnered pair, in an animated sequence by Emily Hubley from John Cameron Mitchell’s musical film “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” (2001)
When the earth was still flat,
And the clouds made of fire,
And mountains stretched up to the sky,
Sometimes higher,
Folks roamed the earth
Like big rolling kegs.
They had two sets of arms.
They had two sets of legs.
They had two faces peering
Out of one giant head
So they could watch all around them
As they talked; while they read.
And they never knew nothing of love.
—Stephen Trask, “The Origin of Love” (1998)

 

I personally like quite a number of conservative Christians. I find them to be very sincere people, by and large, who have large chunks of their personal identities invested in the idea that they consider the nature of right and wrong with a special care. And yet I often find myself wishing that I never had to think about them again.

The problem tends to come about because the above belief in one’s own personal commitment to morality works in the negative, as well: Christians also think that no one else thinks as hard as they do about what’s right, and what’s wrong, and what the difference between the two concepts is, and that anyone who is not a Christian, or who is a different kind of Christian and has come to a different conclusion, is not merely a person with different moral priorities and perhaps even a broader life experience, but someone who is deceived and worthy of course of compassion but never compromise. Compromise would be cruel—you can’t split the difference between right and wrong.

This gives rise to a persecution complex which, taken without understanding the train of thought that terminates there, can confound. The evangelical subculture controls every single branch of government and most statehouses, so it’s fair to say that we live in a state of Christian apartheid, where the mongrel majority made up of Catholics, mainliners, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and of course atheists and people who just don’t care very much about religion are regularly bent to the will of Southern Baptists, conservative Presbyterians, Seventh-Day Adventists and the odd Pentecostal who dictate national and international policy. And yet talk to Christians and they will tell you they are under siege.

At base, conservative American Christians hold a strong belief that persecution by The World—that’s us, fellow mainliner/Catholic/Jew/whatever, that’s you and me—will always irrationally hate true Christians—that’s basically all Calvinists and some scrappy free-will Baptists who like power—because they/we cannot stand the sound of the Truth in our ears. It is just too terrible to us to hear the Gospel of Jesus in our fallen state and so we assault the helpless bearers of capital-G Good News from all sides and ultimately martyr them, so blind is our rage.

That there are still mild public concessions to gay people trying to quietly live out their span of years with their beloved wives and husbands is, to evangelicals, proof of their coming martyrdom: Openly gay people demonstrate the reality of a teeming subculture enslaved to its own lusts of which these are probably the least shameful—see the right-wing subcultural obsession with child molesters, notably Pizzagate—and ready at any moment to boil over into armed conflict.

It’s a reason so many Christians are also gun enthusiasts. They genuinely fear a militant uprising by gay people, black people, or Antifa. (I should say that this is by and large a white phenomenon purely in its political expression but not exclusively white by any means.)

So when a bunch of Lifeway theologians like J. I. Packer and James Dobson and RC Sproul join forces with conservative media creatures like Al Mohler and Marvin Olaksy (disclosure: I used to write movie reviews for Marvin’s Christian weekly, World, which does some good reporting on the church, though it is reliably wrong about the color of the sky when it comes to extramural politics. That’s not much of an excuse; I’m very ashamed of that association now.) to create something pretentiously called “The Nashville Statement,” I feel a sort of preemptive fatigue, as though a million Thanksgiving dinner eaters started talking about partial-birth abortion at once, and then were silenced.

The Nashville Statement is the usual contemptible publicity seeking by the usual contemptible suspects, minus, blessedly, the humanitarian and fathead Franklin Graham, to whom the Lord must teach humility in his own time, and not mine. Its signatories are mostly megachurch pastors of the Considered Intellectual variety, with a lot of notable Never Trumpers like Russell Moore, whose signature I think is the gravest disappointment.

I don’t know why I’m being coy here; the content is just the political stance, deceitfully couched as an ecumenical stance, of a few dozen tremendously arrogant people on the subject of whether or not Christians can participate in consensual sexual relationships with their partners if they happen to be gay. The arrogant people in question, none of whom are personally gay, say they can’t, and, in a particularly galling “article X,” say that anybody who disagrees with them isn’t a Christian, which doubtless comes as a real shock to, I don’t know, Jesus, among others.

It’s taken me a long time to write this and the reason it has is that I don’t like giving this sort of thing oxygen. It is a transparent bid and effective bid to get space on op-ed pages and funding for anti-gay lobbying groups in order to try to drag the culture back toward a time when you could beat the hell out of somebody for kissing his boyfriend in public and no one would care. Again, this all comes because these people have taught each other that whenever someone disagrees with you, no matter whether that person is standing in front of you yelling in your face or has never met you and is whispering her disagreement to someone else who has never met you, you are being attacked. Mohler, in the op-ed linked above, says the Nashville Statement is mere self-defense: “[W]e now face challenges to biblical teaching that require an unprecedented level of specificity,” he writes.

What I find so intolerable is the kindness. Lord knows there are bigots in the world; we see them every day, masturbating on the subway or doing something simple like giving a press conference in the Oval Office. Mohler, Moore, Piper and their ilk want us to know that they want gay people to be murdered in the streets for their own good, that they want the partners of AIDS sufferers locked out of the ICU on the grounds that only immediate family can be admitted, yes, but also, they feel they ought to be thanked for it. They don’t expect to be thanked, of course, because of the inexplicable hatred the world has for them, but they want us all to know that they deserve it and that deep down, we know they deserve it, too.

So I guess in the face of this all I can do is entreat my fellow Christians who read this stuff and find it persuasive and come down on the side of Mohler and Moore to do me a single courtesy, and that is to follow the shunning principle described in Matthew 18 and deployed as a cultish disciplinary tool in megachurches: Please break faith with me. Do not return my phone calls or emails, remove me from your list of friends on Facebook, tell people you’ve never met me before if my name comes up in conversation. Leave my company forever, if you “deny that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.” I assume that is how you would treat your gay friends and neighbors, or your gay sons or daughters, so you can go ahead and lump me in there with them.

Notably, there is no Houston Statement from any evangelical leader of note. The environmental crises that led to record flooding; the near-prohibition on zoning regulations in Texas that allow corporate waste to seep into neighborhoods; the deregulation of facilities like the Arkema chemical plant, which dumped toxic chemicals into the water and air as it exploded during Hurricane Harvey; the problem of majority non-white and poor neighborhoods bearing the brunt of the destruction; these are all policies that consistent Christian support for Republican and libertarian policies in Texas has helped to bring about.

The primary mode of Christianity, despite what the Mohlers and the Moores of the world preach and demonstrate in their personal comportment, is not accusation. It is confession. The Christian church is always in the process of self-perfection; its goals for earthly improvement are internal, not external. Of course, anyone with a sufficient lust for power can turn the mechanism of confession into a tool of control and can argue without too much effort that the pastorate is the part of the body of Christ where individual men and woman stands in for God. But that is a lie. The truth is that we are all called to confess our own sins, not our neighbors’ sins.

And so here is one of mine: When I was close to evangelical Christians, I was not enough of a bulwark for the gay men and women I knew among them. I did not understand the intense fear of people like me—not people who hated them, people who were straight and didn’t understand them—that governed their lives, and I did not understand how easily the intensity of that fear drove them away from a church that, though callous and infested with power-hungry and cruel leaders like the signatories of the Nashville Statement, had still been assembled around the truth of the love of Jesus for sinners. Now that I am on the outside, I see more clearly what I could have and should have done better, but the truth is that I always knew what the right thing to do was, even when I didn’t do it.

That is why I find it so vital to renounce the Nashville Statement as the work of preening, pitiable, selfish men, covetous of power and control, who worship no God above themselves.