A number of years ago I watched an event called the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). By now there have been dozens if not hundreds of UFC matches. The brand is a global juggernaut. But in 1993, this was the very first outing of what would come to be elevated to the sport known as Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA. While I had originally set out to write this essay on the topic of ‘what I’ve learned’ in this phase of my martial arts journey, let the record show that the first thing I’ve learned is that I’m actually old enough to refer casually to a martial arts tournament that is now twenty-three years old and that I watched on a VHS tape. Wow.
The rules were hazy: there was something about no biting or eye-gouging, everything else, it appeared, was on the table. There were no restrictions on styles, the event appeared designed to throw as many styles into collision as possible. Dumbfoundingly, there were no weight classes. The whole thing felt very hastily-rigged and danger prone. Unbridled injuries seemed inevitable.
Victory in the ring could be achieved in one of two ways: a knockout or submission. Submissions were typically achieved through a painful joint lock maneuver or oxygen deprivation. Yielding would be performed by “tapping out” or verbally giving up to the opponent. A referee would be in the octagonal cage, patented as “The Octagon”, to enforce these rules and ostensibly protect the fighters. Critically, the matches would occur in succession, meaning a winner would continue on to the next match, would very likely still be bearing the fatigue and injuries that the previous match had cost him.
It was chaos. I’m talking about Sumo wrestlers tossing Karate guys in a locked cage. Western Boxers trading blows with Kickboxers. Greco-Roman wrestlers versus Kung Fu. Street brawlers versus everyone. Total anarchy. And there was drama, upsets. For example, the 650-lb Sumo lost to some biker-looking Karate guy because the biker beat him into submission with his own visibly broken arm. These must have been the kind of hand-to-hand battles not seen since the Roman Coliseum. There were bloody faces, competitors spitting out teeth. Bedlam.
It’s important to note, this was amazing not least for the spectacle it provided, but because there was an academic, martial-science aspect to the proceedings that answered some of the oldest questions known to man: who would win in a fight? The boxer? The wrestler? (Probably the wrestler.) Does karate even work? (Yes!) Is Muay Thai everything they say? (Yes!) Is a black belt enough? (No!) Does the Title “Grand Master” necessarily mean you are any good? (No!) Many of these matches or combinations had just never been broadcast. Now, here it was.
And finally, the biggest question of all: given that we’ve found contenders from varied martial arts all over the world, what is the answer? Which is the most effective martial art?
The shock of shocks turned out to be not that one scraped its way to the winning spot but rather, the surprise was in how clear and unambiguously this question was answered. For its time, this question was resoundingly answered: the answer was, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and it wasn’t close.
In 1993, few of us in the USA had heard of the Gracie family, now a globally recognized Brazilian martial arts dynasty. When they entered the arena, several brothers and cousins in white hoods walking hands-to-the-shoulders of the brother before them like a clan of warrior monks, the effect was one of intrigue. Who were these guys? They seemed to pass in order of size, biggest-to-smallest, so that the smallest one in the lead to which all hands pointed, Royce (pronounced ‘Hoyce’) was being presented to the Octagon like an offering. They seemed to know something that we didn’t know. Indeed, entering Royce, not even their heaviest or most accomplished guy, seemed to be a defiant gesture of its own. “You don’t need our best guys,” it said. Any one of us can win this thing.”
Their style was, to the eyes of the broader world, new and self-invented, though this wasn’t really true. It was an offshoot of one of the oldest Japanese Martial traditions, Jiu-Jitsu, which came from feudal Japan. The Gracie family professed to have mastered a reinterpretation of the style local to their country, so-called “Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu,” or BJJ. In practice, it seemed to bear very little relation to the original Jiu-Jitsu, combining stand-up Judo with a kind of martial wrestling that focused on grappling from the ground to achieve arm- and leg-locks, holds, and painful submission techniques. One of BJJ’s signature positions, the Guard position, inverted the principle that the man on the bottom was losing, as BJJ practitioners seemed to dominate from the bottom, occasionally even submitting their opponents from had been considered, until then, a submissive position. The keys to this style appeared to be the BJJ practitioner’s ability to a) take their opponent to the ground, b) establish their dominance when on the ground, and c) their patience in achieving this goal. Once an opponent was taken down, however, the match looked a lot like a guy in a karate uniform struggling with a man-sized Anaconda. Valiant, sure, but the outcome isn’t in doubt. The only question is how long it’s going to go on.
Over several matches, Gracie dominated his category. While there were matchups for the history books up and down the card, Royce cooly drilled through his opposition, making his way to the finals with an icy determination that made his ascendancy inevitable. Early on the question became, not ‘could he win’, but almost immediately, ‘who will be fighting Royce?’ Clearly, if he intended to stand and exchange punches and kicks, he would be destroyed, but this wasn’t his plan. Many times he took punches and kicks– some that would have KO’d any other fighter– but he was able to still establish the lock and take his opponent to the ground, where he could take all the time he needed, play his game. No one seemed to have the tactics available that would stall his assault.
This was a signal moment in the history of the martial arts. For historical and geographical reasons, most styles had been constrained to fighting other people from the same style or nearby styles for hundreds of years. While there were inter-style tournaments, these were few and far between, and the early-90’s was still in many ways a pre-Internet era. There is also an uncanny effect when one trains with partners of the same style, in which they start to move and operate alike. Having different styles in direct contest is both invigorating and can be psychologically quite dispiriting for the loser. One of these people really has learned a skill that works. And the other is at least made to feel as if they have wasted what is probably a considerable amount of time perfecting something that is demonstrably inefficient to its purpose.
It became apparent almost immediately that certain arts had flourished perhaps because they had never been challenged. Equally, that others (BJJ and Thai Kickboxing come to mind) have been through the crucible and within the rules of their practice, “just work.” One of the first outcomes of the Gracie dominance over the next few UFC contents was the merging of these winning styles into a composite: Greco-Roman wrestling, BJJ and Sambo for the ground, Dirty Boxing, Muay Thai and Western Boxing for stand-up striking. This became sanded down and optimized into what is known as modern Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA, to which BJJ contributes a significant amount of DNA. (MMA isn’t a fixed category, and continues to incorporate material from all catalogs.) Accordingly, in this cross-pollination, the past 25 years have been as vibrant as any in the history of the martial arts.
The events I describe above are now part of the historical record, written about in a few books, told and retold in dojos the world over, available to see on youtube and in documentaries. The field has changed. Most arts have by now incorporated techniques to defend against the tactics used by Gracie; certainly, no serious contenders stand to be surprised by them anymore.
I should say that the UFC has long since instituted a series of sweeping changes intended to protect the fighters and their careers, such as weight classes, rounds, and banning a significant number of dangerous or unsporting moves. I’m not interested in competing in the UFC. I’m too old, I’ve got too much else going on. Still, the results seemed inarguable. Whatever it was the Brazilians were doing would now need to be studied by any serious martial artist. I and many others would need to get up to speed.
If you are interested in learning about what BJJ looks like when practiced, view this video.
All this to say, it was then that I knew I would come to train in this style, but I wouldn’t return to it for another 22 years.
I love to train, it’s how I go to the gym. For the last ten years I’ve been training near-continually if I wasn’t going to the gym instead, and like other athletes and martial artists, when I don’t, my life starts to fall apart at the edges. I’ve trained now in Kenpo Karate, Hapkido and Arnis, Western Boxing, Greco-Roman Wrestling, and Russian Systema for 5 years. I’ve sampled Sambo and (Japanese) Jiu-Jitsu. Ever since I saw Royce Gracie’s maneuvers in UFC 1, I knew I’d end up at least trying BJJ when the opportunity presented itself, but I had a lot of other arts that I wanted to investigate in the meantime; basics to be covered. What it meant to punch, kick, how to protect your head and body, gain loose hips and strong legs, what it meant to manage one’s breathing, take a hit. How to stand. Where to stand. How to move.
When I divorced, I spent the first year getting up early in the morning to visit my daughter and get her ready for preschool. By the time I arrived at her house at 7:30, I was coming from a 5am boxing class. I was running on fumes, reorganizing my life, bouncing from apartment to apartment and survived on credit. There were a lot of times I could have fallen down; in many ways, that boxing class was the only thing that held my life together when everything else was cracking. Yes, because of training I’ve saved myself from injury by falling or flipping the right way, yes, because of training I was able to fight off physical opponents, yes because of training I’ve been able to protect women from being assaulted on the subway. But that year, boxing saved my life. You must train as if your life depends on it, because sometimes it does, but probably not in the ways you think.
Over a year ago I joined a BJJ Club in Brooklyn. I was freelancing from a home office for the summer, and it looked like I’d be continuing that arrangement for the near future so I was able to attend a dojo that is not only in Brooklyn, but also, critically, close to my apartment. While this is a very trivial point and shouldn’t be the basis of how to choose a school, you want to make it as easy for yourself as possible, because you will start to get tired, comfortable, you’ll start to plateau, and you just want attending to be easy (class itself should not be easy, but getting in the door should be). Half of winning is in the architecture. Also, most of the arts I quit were due to changes in my life circumstances or geographic changes that made attending the school impractical, such as traveling overseas, moving or switching jobs.
When I joined, I resolved to follow the practice I learned when training martial arts that didn’t offer belts. That is, commit for a year, don’t question the course but just keep going, then take stock, review a year later and then check-in at intervals thereafter. Part of this is because without belts there was no way to know when you were leveling up, but also because belts are artificial, time is not, and finally because there is a built-in insecurity behind training in the martial arts. You’re never really sure this stuff ‘works’, and if you aren’t careful you can spook yourself into thinking that what you are doing is valueless and leave before you are actually qualified to assess what you’re doing.
Some suspension of disbelief is necessary. A lot of material that comes to us from previous generations is simply untested, a lot of it is suspect (e.g. knife defense) and some of it is, from a modern self-defense standpoint, kind of superfluous (e.g., forms, ancient weapons, etc). When I moved on to train in Systema, I conferred with previous instructors. While none had much opinion on Systema, citing mixed reviews, I was explicitly told, “Go to Renzo Gracie’s BJJ academy in NYC. While I can’t tell you about the other stuff, his is a system that works.”
Five years later I left Systema not least because I had reached a plateau, but also because given the amount of time I had put in, I simply should have been a better fighter. I wasn’t sure that what I was learning worked, and I became increasingly concerned that I was wasting my time. Having left that practice, I’m able to assess that 40-50%% of what I was learning there was very useful indeed, and another 50-60% was at best partially effective. To tighten up that 60% I would need instruction that wasn’t locally available, which meant I had hit a plateau. I started looking for other schools, that was when I tried boxing and came to BJJ a few years later.
In the case of BJJ, I needn’t have worried. The curriculum clearly works and is tested in stress situations every class.
One of the biggest changes I’ve seen in my own martial arts since starting BJJ was a reduction in the amount of force, but a corresponding increase in the output or effect. Efficiency has improved.
Another element I was looking to change was to be able to rely on more technique and less strength in training. I never wanted to use strength in my martial arts, this is because, on the one hand, strength is momentary or illusory. You age, you get injured, you gain and lose weight. Part of the purpose of training in the art is knowing that you’ll grow old with it and that strength won’t always be there for you. But the other side is that mere strength and force are a reliable indicator that you are doing it wrong; you are inefficiently positioned, you should move to a position where less effort is demanded. You’re fooling yourself. Timing, precision, relaxation, are better goals. BJJ is great for developing these characteristics, and I’ve seen an improvement over the past fourteen months.
Correspondingly, strength’s little cousin, aggression, is also something that I thought I had mostly pushed out of my martial arts practice, which I was surprised to discover had returned when I started to practice BJJ. The working hypothesis is that this is because of BJJ’s proximity to wrestling, which trained a lot of aggression and explosive speed into my muscle memory, you just need this intensity to be able to step into the ring, let alone to win in a competition. This just had to be unlearned to allow a lot of the softer sensitivity-training to sink in. This is a tough one: once you start to get moving with somebody it becomes hard to not go for open moves that become apparent, and one must learn to suppress the competitive instinct in favor of opportunities for better movement, but it’s worth the effort because it allows your body to memorize the movements without the background noise of trying to ‘win’, and so significantly accelerates the learning process.
I haven’t escaped this, but I see it, I look for it, I try to work around it. Sometimes it creeps in as simply as feeling my own mortality, knowing I’m in an exercise class, and just wanting to really get the most out of this body, see what it can do and use the aggression as a way to push myself, and that’s great, but my long-term goals are softer. (So to anyone who I messed up while getting there, sorry.)
The times I’ve lost sight of this even for a moment– those are the moments in which I’ve injured myself, and this is mostly-but-not-just a coincidence. Tension, reliably, leads to injury. Twice this has happened, and both times put me out for multiple classes. Not a lesson my ankle, elbow, or knee need to relearn.
My confidence on the ground has gone up a good deal, and as a former wrestler, that’s a big thing to say. I feel like I know something about the shape of my partners’ bodies the way your feet know the stairs to your apartment, this hip will tend to be here, that joint should be there. I don’t need to search for these things as hard as I used to anymore, I can feel them by touch and see them with peripheral vision. This is clearly the product of practice, and I wasn’t able to do it when I walked in the door (unless I was standing up).
Most of all, the single facet of the practice most taken to heart is the way the dedication that BJJ demands translates. The school tracks white belts’ attendance with stripes in a way that is not canonical to most BJJ schools but to remind the student of their commitment and their progress. I can look at my white belt (now tinted dark gray from the mat) with nine red stripes and a few black stripes and know that this means there were ninety-odd occasions that I thought I had something else to do and still walked into the dojo and got my thing done. I didn’t see improvements as they happened, no single time was the one that got me over. But It’s proven that I can point myself at a goal that is well out of view and just keep coming at it. I can, as the saying goes, eat the elephant, bit by bit. This is the discipline that one needs to finish a novel, learn an instrument or to get that promotion. And this is a kind of discipline that is impossible to fake or come to unearned– you know you can do it because you know you can do it.
The New York Times seems to have caught on to what I have been saying all along: that candidate Hillary Clinton has a Lisa Simpson problem.
For those of us who watch The Simpsons, this rings true almost instantaneously. Lisa is brilliant, she’s insightful, she is tireless, she is optimistic. She can be relied on to come up with the most sensible plan. She’s always done the reading, she’s always hunting for the extra credit. She transcends the term kiss-ass because her interests coincide with the teacher’s, and she couldn’t give a damn what the teacher thinks because she doesn’t have to. She knows she’s right. Lisa seeks progress, not out of a need for self-aggrandizement, but out of love. She is, truly, surrounded by idiots.
This is also what makes her irritating.
Lisa courts controversy on the Simpsons not because what she wants is wrong. The problem is that she makes everyone else feel worse about themselves. She swims through their malaise unaware, their desire to pull her down to earth, to knock her down a peg, buoyed only by her optimism and goodwill. Everyone usually knows she’s right, and it isn’t the point. Her idealism isn’t just inappropriate, it’s irrelevant.
What they need from her isn’t a plan, what they need is for her just be one of them, to stop acting so high-and-mighty. This is Springfield,for God’s sake. There’s no room for greatness. What you must do, to survive here, is accommodate yourself to mediocrity.
Is this starting to sound familiar?
Here’s a favorite quote (heavily paraphrased):
Principal Skinner: “Finally, Lisa falls from her high horse!”
Lisa Simpson: “But, if I change the plan this way, we can still do what I proposed!”
Skinner: “Aaaaand up she climbs.”
Feels reminiscent of Clinton being bombarded by a non-scandal, doesn’t it?
This is what Trump understands. So long as he can keep her boxed-in to the role of the class nerd, he has half a leg to stand on, or at least, some ready roles that the audience understands. As Krugman puts it at the top,
“I still don’t fully understand this hostility, which wasn’t ideological. Instead, it had the feel of the cool kids in high school jeering at the class nerd. Sexism was surely involved but may not have been central, since the same thing happened to Mr. Gore.”
I tend to agree. The sexism that turned against Hilary Clinton was absolutely unmistakeable. But the core of the problem that she was made to bear wasn’t that she was a woman, it was that she was a nerd: out of touch, clueless, trying too hard, uncool. (She was also, variously, an evil genius, corrupt, a shrew, a harpy, a neoliberal hawk, and so on, given the variety and wide scope of the insults, probably all too much to cram into this metaphor.)
Trump, meanwhile, is the classic bully. Seeing him play the role of Nelson Muntz was obvious, without too much embellishment.
The question really is, which Simpsons character was Bernie Sanders?
I’m a longtime Daredevil fan. I liked the comic: “Daredevil: The Man Without Fear” in the 80’s and 90’s. It had ninja action, the ‘blind radar’ shtick, acrobatics, a dark, urban severity. I wanted to love Netflix’s version of it. In the end, I just liked it. Tepidly. As in, “Yeah, pretty much, I guess.”
Where did they go wrong?
How to Know You’re Dealing with a Comic Hero
Comics are mythological, and they follow certain very old patterns. Here are some ways to know you are dealing with a comic archetype.
Any good hero has a costume that protects his identity. The mask, a necessary staple, allows the hero to be more than the individual, and helps to cement their particular iconic language. If there is some other symbol or logo on their costume that can give them iconic significance, the mask itself can be superseded or minimized, as in the case of Superman or Green Lantern. Color also does a lot of work here, and Daredevil, while the interlocking DD of his logo is red-on-red, the entire costume is (in the comics) a very full red color. From a brand standpoint, Daredevil ‘owns’ the color red in the Marvel universe, the way Facebook ‘owns’ blue on a web page. Single-color costumes are rare, and the DD costume is the rare exception.
Another detail that almost always fails the transition to from comics to cinema is the comic convention of white eyes. Masked superheroes are typically drawn with no visible pupils or irises, whereas in their cinematic versions, eyes are shown as, well, eyes, with the actors possibly face-painted beneath the mask to soften the gap between mask and face. In DD’s case, they used red glass. The Daredevil of the comics series had another interesting detail here, as the mask was a single piece of fabric that covered his eyes, because he is blind. It was never well-explained why his enemies never seemed to catch on.
In the Netflix series, Daredevil wore a black ninja-like costume for most of season 1. Officially, he had no costume until the very last episode. Clearly, the writers wanted to hook the audience by making the process of acquiring it a plot-point, and part of me believes they felt they needed to lay the trap and get the audience committed before showing them a costume that a less invested audience might find stupid-looking or silly, knowing poor costume choices have sunk plenty of franchises.
As a plot-point, it works. The costume looks great, and it answers a question that the series in constantly asking itself, i.e. “how can this guy take another beating?” The answer: lightweight body-armor. But that also means they spend 90% of the first season not establishing the foundations of the iconography and visual palette that a superhero series needs.
This is critical. The way the hero fights tells us everything about his personal style. Does he fight hand-to-hand? With a sword? A gun? A boomerang? A shield?
In Daredevil’s case, his weapon is his billy club. Concealed as a blind man’s cane, the billy club is a multipurpose weapon. Its foundation is a multi-part staff: two, sometimes three separate staves. It also doubles as nunchuks, can be rejoined as a single piece to make a staff, it’s wired to a climbing grapnel, and seems to have retractable cording of varying length. It’s strong enough to be used as a climbing tool and block bullets, but light enough to be thrown, ricochet off of walls, spin, bounce and block. A versatile weapon that is also instrumental in getting around town. So far so good.
Once again, the creators of Marvel’s Daredevil apparently thought this could be withheld until the last episodes of the second season. I get what they are trying to do, but I’m shocked they as TV people thought they had that kind of time. Aaron Sorkin has observed that a play is the hardest entertainment to abandon, and a TV show is the easiest. And yet this seems like a decision that could only ever be made on a show the creators were certain people would binge-watch. What are you saving the ammunition for?
Instead, we’re left with punch after punch after punch. Had Daredevil had this weapon to start, not only would we have been able to use the fighting style he’s known for, we would have been able to avoid a lot of the ‘bloody beatdown syndrome’ the show seemed to suffer from, and seen more of the way he is supposed to travel in the bargain.
Heroes travel in style. James Bond has his Aston Martin. Batman has the Batmobile. Spider-Man and Iron Man hit a double here by having their means of travel also double as an offensive weapon. On the topic of Spider-Man or Iron Man, their means of travel is also something they needed to master, and as their mastery is earned, becomes something the audience is allowed to share in the exhilaration of.
Daredevil’s means of travel is especially exhilarating, a mixture of aerialism and urban free running, in which he combines his cables and acrobatic maneuvers to make the cityscape into a personal obstacle course. He leaps from rooftops, vaults walls, flips from fire escapes, swings from water towers, and catches clotheslines and flagpoles. A typically dynamic Daredevil pose is one that puts him in an impossible, death-defying aerial maneuver, especially on the comic’s covers, which always raise the question, “how is he going to land that?”
Why was this not taken advantage of more frequently in the TV show? Obviously it is difficult to do, and some amount of special-effects will be needed. But this isn’t under-seasoned, it’s a total omission. With the exception of a car chase in which Matt Murdock follows a Triad car to a drug warehouse, there is essentially no acrobatics on the show whatsoever, except for the occasional Kung-Fu flip. This is a miss, and a huge part of what makes Daredevil, well, you know.
Any reason these guys couldn’t be put in a red suit for the occasional key stunt?
Daredevil never had the same clear essence as a lot of other properties. He’s often called Marvel’s Batman, so consider. Batman has already been done, and re-done. You’ll notice that each time Batman is re-imagined, a new aspect of flavor is drawn out. The original TV series was comedic, and had a rollicking, self-aware aspect with a ludicrous ‘rogues gallery’ of villains. The Keaton movies were self-serious, but ballooned, gothic, almost stagelike in their dark melodrama. The Schumacher versions were neon, toy circuses. The cartoons are timeless, intertwining classic cars and 30’s clothing with the elements of modern life, such as cell phones and the internet. The video games are high-tech, showcasing the slick weaponry and vehicles. The Nolan films are the most human-scaled, a moody introspection on a very troubled man named Bruce, who has this weird, obsessive thing that he does. Each incarnation takes a different vantage point, each makes a specific evolution with its times, and yet all of them are recognizably the same character.
Daredevil has a comic, a movie, and now a TV show, and only the comic has ever really managed to scrape the essence of something distinct and original, whereas the other media offer a photo carousel of snapshots we’ve seen before and better in other places.
For my money, the peak Daredevil era was the 70’s-80’s. Frank Miller gets a lot of credit for the Man Without Fear, but this was a rehash. I also have to absolutely point out the work done here by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev’s, as well as Brubaker. If anything made him cinematic, ready for TV primetime, their work was it.
What is the flavor?
The Street. This is one area where he really has it down. Daredevil is Hell’s Kitchen the way Batman is Gotham. Hell’s Kitchen is fully realized, with its own history and backstory, supporting characters, bystanders. Ironically, it suffers perhaps from being too fully realized: since it corresponds to a real place, and that real place has essentially gentrified into history, the cables needed to suspend disbelief here show signs of strain.
Here’s a version that never was: Director Joe Carnahan’s pitch which places the story in 1973. Carnahan gave us a sizzle reel that encapsulates everything about the era that Daredevil was born into, and the flavor that he absorbed.
Seeing this really drives the point home that it’s possible that the character, at his best, symbolized a bygone New York that it’s just impossible to sell in a modern context, when Hell’s Kitchen is now called “Clinton” and the Manhattan of The Warriors, Super Fly and Death Wish is long, long gone.
The senses. Yes, Daredevil is blind. More importantly, however, all of his other senses are superior, and he has radar finely-grained enough to block arrows and bullets with his club. That means whenever we encounter a scene from his perspective, it should have a sound profile, a scent palette. It should be tactile and raise the skin. Is should happen, not bounded but peripheral vision and the direction of his head, but in a 360-degree, sonar-like totality, with no upside-down or right-side-up. He does not see the world in the way that we do, and this should present a director with constant opportunity for new creative executions.
This was, frankly, almost totally overlooked on the show. Aside from the occasions where the protagonist can hear off-camera antagonists, there’s a disappointing thinness to the sense-palette, which seems like an chance for any interested director to have a lot of fun. Whoops.
Ninjas. by ninjas I mean less oriental mysticism, which is really Iron Fist’s and Shiang-Chi’s territory, and more just what we can call ‘antagonists of phenomenal prowess.’ One of the most magical elements of Daredevil’s Hell’s Kitchen is that yes, there are secret Ninja societies like the Hand, but there are also vagrants with baseball bats who perform at a supernatural level (Wildboys), S&M Swordswomen (Typhoid Mary), Mafia assassins galore (Bullseye), government super-mercenaries (Bullet, Shotgun, Bushwhacker). These are the kind of fights that happen at hand-to-hand scale and are interdependent with his aerial skills. The crimes Daredevil solves are street crimes, not megavillains.
Sex. The Daredevil brand has always been more adult, compared to the infinitely-adolescent Spider-Man. The action on the rooftops of Hell’s Kitchen often gets hot, with love triangles and forbidden encounters and a near-infinite supply of Femme Fatales. Elektra, Black Widow, Typhoid Mary, Karen Page, Black Cat have all graced the rooftops of Hell’s Kitchen. Somehow, things never work out.
Sacrifice. Characters in Daredevil die. Sometimes they are broken before they die. Karen Page’s character in the comics undergoes one of the most Requiem for a Dream-like descents of any modern comics character, as the Kingpin has her strung out on drugs and performing in porn for drug money before she contracts AIDS and ultimately dies from an overdose. Matt Murdock suffers, and the people around him suffer, too. This was something the TV show didn’t shy away from, although they wisely kept Karen Page’s character in-play, as one of the lighter elements in an otherwise heavy show. Curiously, the Ben Urich character does not die in the comics, whereas in the Netflix show, he does.
Righteousness. Daredevil isn’t one of those heroes who suffers from too much introspection or crises-of-clarity. He sees a problem, he punches it. He will always do what he sees as “the right thing” even when it isn’t the heroic thing. He once pointed what he thought was a loaded gun at the Punisher and pulled the trigger. He became the King of the Hell’s Kitchen underworld in a misconceived attempt to reduce crime. He has a very, very well-developed sense of right and wrong, especially so long as what he intends to do is what he thinks is ‘right.’ So far as I know, Daredevil is the only hero who has had other heroes stage an intervention to tell him “you’re out of control, chill the hell out,” to which be basically told them to screw themselves. This isn’t a guy you want getting his hands on Sauron’s ring. He will (and has) turn NYC into Hell on Earth if he thinks it will reduce muggings. It is not a coincidence that Daredevil is loaded with Catholic iconography, and that the character Matt Murdock is himself Catholic. Self-doubt isn’t the issue, here.
As to these characteristics, With the exception of the sense palette, I tip my hat. The Netflix series actually really nailed the rest of the elements. However, they are out of balance. The resulting product is too dark.
The magic of Daredevil relies on the interplay between excitement and dread. Exhilaration– as expressed by weightlessness, aerialism, daring, unbounded physical restraint– against dread: the bureaucratic confinement of the legal system, the will of the powerful, the terrorizing, the Kingpins. That victory against all odds– even for the poorest, the underdogs from the wrong side of the tracks, the handicapped and underestimated– victory is possible if you have the heart, the will, and the fearlessness. The show delivers on its fair share of dread, but unfortunately, where the counterbalance of exhilaration is called for, they deliver mere violence instead. The result is, disappointingly, more weight. One of these ingredients is overpowering, and the other, the other seems to have been almost totally forgotten.
There’s plenty to thrill here, and accolades the fight scenes have received are well-deserved. But as to whether anyone has yet quite captured the essence of what this character was at his best, unfortunately that note still hasn’t been struck. There’s still season 3. I guess.
Recently this piece in The Guardian caught my attention. In it, Alan Moore, notable author of Watchmen, V for Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and all-around high priest of counterculture and geekdom, is attributed the following incendiary quote on the state of the comic-movie supercomplex:
“To my mind, this embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence,” he wrote to Ó Méalóid. “It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by DC or Marvel Comics. I would also observe that it is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times.”
While I find Moore’s premise to border on melodramatic, there’s no denying he’s on to something. To any faithful observers of the genre, we need to know that we are approaching Peak Superhero, and fatigue should set in, perhaps sometime before this summer.
As of this writing, we have the following movies currently playing or approaching this summer:
Batman Vs. Superman (DC)
Captain America: Civil War (Marvel)
X-Men Apocalypse (Marvel)
Suicide Squad (DC)
While audiences will continue to fill seats, odds are some of these are just going to fail. Audiences loved Deadpool. It had fresh elements: it broke the fourth wall, showed irreverence to the studio properties, with loads of sly winks, Easter eggs, sex, violence and SFX and relentless action. It was notably given an R rating for this reason, and the director of Guardians of the Galaxy quickly followed up with a plea that the studio not try to copy its success, for predictable reasons:
“Over the next few months, if you pay attention to the trades, you’ll see Hollywood misunderstanding the lesson they should be learning with Deadpool,” Gunn wrote. “They’ll be green lighting films ‘like Deadpool’ — but, by that, they won’t mean ‘good and original’ but ‘a raunchy superhero film’ or ‘it breaks the fourth wall.’ They’ll treat you like you’re stupid, which is the one thing Deadpool didn’t do.”
Great. That said, let’s not pretend that Deadpool presented us with a anything resembling an answer to Moore’s challenge. Deadpool was light, it was fun. It was witty. No, it didn’t tell us anything about the Way We Live Now, like Watchmen or V For Vendetta, Moore’s best-known properties, did. Moore’s accusation stands. (UPDATE: All of these movies have now arrrived, with Suicide Squad opening this weekend. Its reviews are in, and surprise, it sucks.)
I loved comics well into my teens, and lapsed sometime around college. I rediscovered what was happening in the Marvel Universe on my iPad, and spend hundreds of dollars amassing collections to back-fill the gap. I’m what Marvel’s marketing plan calls a ‘lapsed reader,’ which is to say an adult, gainfully employed, who can be hooked via the Tablet experience with some preview titles, and pushed via clever marketing to re-enter the brick-and-mortar comic stores and make the purchases that keep the delicate symbiosis of the industry moving.
While many comics fulfill Moore’s label of being ‘adolescent entertainment,’ at least as many do aspire beyond. Image comics’ The Walking Dead was the last great comic series I’ve seen, mainly because it isn’t a comic series in the traditional sense, and fastidiously broke every rule those genres have to offer, killing each of its darlings in turn, and presenting us with the bleakest possible view of the present alongside the most hopeful possible backdrop. What could be worse than seeing your family killed by being eaten alive on one hand, or beaten to death on the other? What could be more hopeful than the task of rebuilding civilization?
This kind of recklessness-in-service of a message is what audiences reward in these peaceful times, and I submit that it is no coincidence that the other great success of this book-to-TV era is Game of Thrones, a series that follows, and breaks, the same rulebook. Credibility is gained in these pieces by a willingness to be so honest with the audience that anyone can die at any time. This is simultaneously exhilarating and contrived.
In the big-comics world, multi-issue storylines that cross titles are called ‘story arcs.’ The last great stroy arc I read to come out of Marvel was Civil War, a story arc that seemed to be a direct response to 9-11. It’s absolutely worth mentioning that Civil War went completely differently in the comics than in the films. In the comics, a detonation by a super-villain causes a mega-death event in Stamford, Connecticut, provoking a Superhuman Registration Act that uncannily follows the Patriot Act of the early 2000’s.
Civil War is now about 10 years old. They’ve done a lot of okay work since then, but that was one that seemed to really take a hard look inward, most especially on Thunderbolts, which took a dark turn unlike anything seen in the superhero comics since Watchmen, and likewise making a statement of intent by killing or maiming old heroes like Jack Flag. The Thunderbolts’ job is to enforce the Superhuman Registration Act, and they are all villains turned government agents, essentially Marvel’s answer to Suicide Squad. The hook is, of course, that they hunt heroes, some of whom they kill. It was a high watermark of invention and storytelling at Marvel, but I’m sorry to say I haven’t seen its like since it was written.
The point I’m making here is the cultural elitist in me wants to agree with Moore’s prediction, and I feel the palpable sense of exhaustion that the genre is starting to bleed from it’s pores. Can we really watch Batman’s parents be killed one more time, in one more way, the way we were treated to at the beginning of Batman vs. Superman? Is Avengers; Infinity War going to have something really new to show us? Spoiler Alert: No.
And yet, the genre has proven incredibly resilient. Part of this, in my estimation, is that they let the comics lead. Comics are published monthly, they are cheap, and the decisions made in them are remarkably impermanent. Superman has been killed, only to return as all heroes do, with new costumes and new powers. Batman has been maimed. There are something like six different Spider-Men running around. The comics can take extraordinary risks that, if they don’t pay off, have lower commercial consequences than a failed summer movie. Moore himself once observed that he had never learned to write rough drafts, the punishing pace of the industry simply didn’t leave time for it.
The comics have a barometer for the risks the studios are willing to take, and are now written with that expressly in mind: the costs to get on the board publishing a comic are well worth it, when you can tell a studio acquisitions head that you have an audience of 50,000 loyal subscribers who have already validated “Squirrel Girl” in the marketplace. A Squirrel Girl movie is under discussion, by the way. Squirrel Girl.
These gambles pay off, and, alongside the fact that comic writers are some of the most liberal-minded people in America, they have been notably present at the forefront of society’s hard conversations, tackling issues that are right on time. It was Green Lantern and Green Arrow that were first in the industry to talk about the shame of heroin addiction, X-Men tackled Civil Rights head-on, presenting us with the Martin figure in Professor X and the Malcolm X, in Magneto. Alpha Flight had the first out Gay character, the X-Men had the first gay wedding. And now they are dead-center in the culture wars again. Lady Ghostbusters? Nonsense, here’s Lady Thor. The role of Ms. Marvel is now held by a Muslim teenager, Kemala Khan. Iron Man is passing the reins to a female, black MIT student. These changes are obvious, they are appropriate, and they reflect the changes of Marvel’s diversifying audience. But let’s not kid ourselves that they aren’t risky. Every one of these moves easily deserved its own tense editorial staff meeting, and every one has generated its own tweetstorm of recrimination from the not-so-remote corners of the internet. And every one of them could be course-corrected in a month, if they didn’t work out. The risk is simply lessened. Yes, the comics are the creative engine, but they are also now an incubator for film, TV, and toys. The business has reshaped itself completely to be cinema’s farm team, the NCAA to 3-D Digital Surround IMAX’s NBA. Some would say that’s where the most vital games are, have always been, played.
As a consequence we have seen spacemen, raccoons, squirrels, talking trees, diverse representation, an embrace of digital, a globalist perspective and an ongoing grapple with ascendant militarism, paranoia, and post-911 anxiety.
Is this not “a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times?”
I wrote a blogging application sometime around 2004 or 2005. Prior to launching it on our Social Media site, my boss at the time asked me, what should we call this? A lot of people are calling these ‘Weblogs’ or ‘Blogs.’
Now, this term was perfectly well-known at the time, if not in fully common usage. There were popular blogs that were clearly ‘weblogs’. I was a dedicated reader of Suck.com. The term, however, was still somewhat ill-defined– if enthusiastically received by early-adopting-marketing types who were all too eager to be on the ground floor of finally making ‘fetch’ happen.
“That’s ridiculous. I call these Journals. Get it? Because they are like a Journal.”
“I don’t think so. Journals sounds dull. Blogs is gaining steam. I think you might be wrong about this.”
“It sounds like desperate internet marketing. Journals is what they are. Not diaries, not Blogs. Journals.”
(To his credit, we went with Blogs.)
So: another example of my being on the wrong side of history, yet again.
Given the recent Trump phenomenon, the political-correctness backlash, and the counter-charge that liberals routinely and unfairly deploy the accusation that conservatives are racist, I wanted to take minute to grapple with this one, and make a few prescriptions from a rhetorical perspective.
Short answer: no, conservatives are not intrinsically racist. And less and less. There is a new generation of ‘lite’ conservatives that will have a significant market position if they can successfully inhabit an racially/ethnically/LGBT* inclusive platform, while keeping other traditional republican positions. If successful, this group will also pull center-right democrats from the herd. This will be a space to watch.
But there’s still a divergence here that’s easy to spot. Let’s start with, “what do liberals and conservatives mean when they talk about someone being racist?” Because there appears to be a nontrivial difference.
Many liberals, and most anyone who attained a liberal arts degree after 1995, have a pretty good vocabulary to talk about the particular permutations of American racism. They might know about Jim Crow laws, the history leading to the 60’s, they may have some background about the Civil Rights movement, Brown v. Board of Education, know the forms of housing discrimination, banking discrimination, redlining, predatory mortgages, and can talk with some base fluency about structural racism, or know what is meant by ‘white privilege.‘ There is exhaustive scholarship on this, and to deny it in this day and age is to row against history. The classic, magazine-compact summary of a perfect storm of these factors is still Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article about Chicago housing: The Case for Reparations .
So liberals educated in the discipline have a vocabulary they can deploy to describe racial events in a scholarly way, much like philosopher can point to something and say, oh, that’s empirical, that’s phenomenological, we can say, oh, that’s redlining. Or, that’s discriminatory. We can identify these events in-the-world. There is a discipline that describes them. While there are some conservatives really up-to-date on this stuff, these ideas are so left-centric that knowing them or having them is almost enough to make you a liberal, though I wish this weren’t true.
The conservative vocabulary for forms of racism isn’t as nuanced. Conservatives rarely acknowledge the structural elements at play in what is called Institutional Racism. It’s quite possible to benefit from a racist society, and have no idea that it is working to your benefit, indeed, and critically, if it’s working properly you aren’t supposed to. Many liberals believe this to be the case, and many conservatives do not, and this is a main point of divergence. Either you believe white privilege (for example) is something that happens, or you don’t.
By contrast, the conservative storyline takes hard work, grit and most importantly, personal responsibility as the elements that carry the day. Outside factors, like those listed above, are disadvantages (if you acknowledge they exist, many conservatives don’t), but hey, everyone has disadvantages, even if they aren’t applied equally. It is the process of your story to apply discipline and perseverance to surmounting these obstacles. Then you’ll be, oh, paid what you’re worth, a Self Made Man, a Maker Not a Taker, and so on.
So if, according to the conservative storyline, the only events that befall us are those that arise from our choices, the only real way to be a racist is to be a cognitively committed racist, which you might even state openly, whereas to the liberal mind, it’s possible to be acting in a racist way simply by being insufficiently self-aware of one’s role in a racist system at any given moment.
This means for liberals, you might not think of yourself as a Klansman, but can take a racist step, and be acting in a racist way that– to your own misfortune– you did not even intend.
To the conservative, that doesn’t happen. If you are racist, it took a certain level of cognitive intention to get there. Somebody telling you that you have done a racist thing is typically a case of someone just being too sensitive, too ‘politically correct.’ I am not committed to the idea of inequality of the races. I am not a Klansman, ergo, I am not racist. Indeed, I believe in justice and fairness. I judge people individually.
(Now is a good moment to say not all liberals or conservatives think this way. I’m not painting with too broad a brush, but this is definitely a fat magic-marker. There are some, albeit few, conservatives who are deeply concerned and up-to-date with racial justice discussions, and plenty of otherwise liberal racists, to say nothing of liberal overcompensators who see the actions of structural racism at play in their cup of coffee. Not the point I’m making.)
The good news for the liberal method is that one is not cornered, and can usually revise their behavior if they so choose. This may involve momentary humility, but otherwise not too much ego-driven dissonance. Phrases like “check your privilege,” while deeply irritating, are a nod to the kind of quick reassessment that is possible in the liberal view. Liberals rarely think of themselves as racists, but feel attuned to its latency, and when they are, they feel pleased to think that they are at least capable of changing. Racism isn’t a terminal point, it’s a process that we need to be alert to, an ongoing negotiation with our psyche. We were all fed the same bad programming, and we have the tools to evaluate it. Indeed, sometimes no change will be necessary. The bad news for liberals is that this also means they toss around a word with an academic meaning in a way that devalues its social meaning, which is akin to an insult. Sometimes, confrontation is needed. Politics, however, is a science of persuasion.
The conservative method breaks but does not bend. Because racism is perceived as a commitment to an idea that they don’t feel they hold– you can’t accidentally wander into it. Accordingly, as a logical matter, it’s quite difficult for a conservative to ‘be’ racist, they can only be ‘a’ racist. That is, if I say I’m not, that would have to be the end of the discussion. My intentions, my responsibilities, aren’t accidental.
No wonder that the liberal accusations of republican racism don’t land, because they make conservatives feel cornered and unfairly tarred, and thus call the whole observation into question. It pushes too hard, if only because liberals don’t know how hard they are pushing. That flexibility is part of the worldview liberals think is shared. It’s not.
The Trump phenomenon also draws from this well. People can only feel cornered so many times before they are compelled to back to the corner and hold the position. To have the target of the critique come to identify with the critique out of exhaustion or confusion is exactly the last outcome anyone should want.
Conservatives now take the idea that they may be engaging in racist demagoguery, for example, unseriously and wear the criticism as a badge of pride. They call this ‘not being politically correct.’ It’s a clean way for them to defang the critique without having to change, and it does the job. The message is extremely successful. You don’t need to change to meet the world, it promises. This was done to you. You haven’t done anything wrong, have you? (No!) Well, OK then.
Liberals will have a part to play, here, not because we’re wrong, but because we want to be effective and get the message through, and the message isn’t about Trump the man or the next demagogue to come along. The message is what qualifies as acceptable and unacceptable behavior, and reaffirming what our values are. Standing for something is what gets people activated, not knocking down a target (although that’s hand-in-hand).
We are trying to persuade, not accuse. So our strategy has to be to use language that is procedural, process-oriented, changeable, and focused on our ability to identify him by his deeds, not our ability to read his heart. Being critical of deeds triggers less ego defense, besides which, being a racist isn’t a permanent condition and should have as many exits as possible. This flexibility is the enduring advantage of a liberal mentality. If you’re not right, get right.
The final point here is that confronting the man-as-message instead of the content of the message leaves the field open for the next person to come along with the same message, repackaged and calling the last instance an unexpected aberration. Neither Ted Cruz’s stance on immigration nor Marco Rubio’s are an improvement, in case you haven’t been paying attention.
Trump the man isn’t the problem. American animus, and the way he plays it, is the problem.
So: Trump isn’t “an” Islamophobe. Trump “takes an Islamophobic step” by suggesting policy proposals that assume all Muslims share the same intentions toward the United States based on the actions of a few and collectively punishing them all.
Trump isn’t “a” racist for suggesting that most of the Latinos coming across the border are murderers and rapists. He “makes a racist argument” by doing this. None of us know what Trump thinks, indeed some of us suspect him to be a cynical manipulator who could care less about Latinos one way or the other. But we sure as hell know what he’s saying, and we aren’t having it.
Were I younger, a hardliner, I’d find this an insufficiently muscular approach to confronting a reckless proponent of dangerous ideas. I’ve come to see this as an error of perspective. This isn’t a military engagement and victories are not won in an instant. This is democratic persuasion, which almost never happens in real-time, but gradually. We need the tent to be big and our ideas clear, so we can draw some of his supporters back to the light, or, at least, out of the abyss. We don’t need to be the best at insulting our opponents, or shoving them out. We need Trump to lose, yes. More to the point: what we need, is to win.
Her eyes narrowed like a cat’s. “You won’t be removed. I have it on good authority they find you too valuable to take out of the game entirely. But you will be reallocated, probably to site-manage an emerging markets facility. Bangalore. Tbilisi. Timor.”
“I suppose that should come as a relief.”
“I know things about this rebellion, Mark. It’s out of your hands. It’s over your head. I also know that Ava won’t consider the possibility of not going when they punt you. She’ll follow you there, or anywhere. I picked a good one for you. But read the signs. Obviously you were set up. You were beaten. Cut your losses and go home.”
“Where are you going with this, Katie.”
“I’m telling you you don’t get the girl this time. Leave her behind. When she offers to pack up and follow you, you aren’t going to let her. You’re going to leave her here and I promise I’ll find someone else for her. Another shooting star.”
So, that was it: she was hedging her bets. Ava still might be worth something to her.
I’ve published my classic story, “A Company Man”, on Amazon today. This is for Kindle users and is a scant 22 pages (plus/minus). Priced for a buck and a half, it’s easy to read, cheap to buy.