Infinite Avengers by Hickman and Yu

“I rescue the helpless. I raise up the hopeless.
“I don’t measure people’s lives. . . I save them.”

In this set of issues we reach the pivot point for the whole Infinity-Everything Dies series. The cover intends to remind readers of a scene I didn’t mention in my post New Avengers: Everything Dies, because a guy doesn’t want to give a whole story away. But I guess we have to go there now.

Captain America was one of the Illuminati faced with saving Earth from incursions from alternate Earths in other universes (see first post for more). He suggested using the Infinity Gauntlet, and when that didn’t work, he argued against considering necessarily evil options. “I know you,” he said. “You’ll create a doomsday weapon on the possibility of needing it, and then, one by one, you’ll talk yourselves into using it.”

At the other members’ consent, Dr. Strange wiped his memory and sent him away.

The timeline of these issues falls at the end of the middle of the fourth set of New Avengers issues, A Perfect World. There we see Tony Stark working with bruises and a bandaged nose. He tries to roll it off as wounds from the crisis they have just been through, but the truth is Hawkeye pummeled him for getting the everyone into this cosmic mess. That fight occurred as a result of Cap remembering everything he had been encouraged to forget and accusing Stark of working with Reed Richards and the others to destroy parallel Earths in order to save ours.

And they hash it out with their fists. Boy! These supers can’t resist flexing on each other. “You know I’m right! Look at my muscles!” I guess they know the fans are watching. It isn’t any better than the argument clichés that were used here and in other issues that escalate the tension without following an argument.

But maybe that flows with the sci-fi philosophical reasoning or leaping that abounds in this story. In the midst of Avengers flexing on Iron Man, the Time Gem reappears in Cap’s hand, and in blazing light they jump forward in time to meet new, future Avengers. They start talking about timelines, traveling between space and time, time as an organism not a measurable concept — it can make you ask questions. And everyone else seems to know all about it, but hey, this is just a comic book. You need to be moving on. [Flash!]

Now that I’m writing about it, I remember that I usually dislike stories with narrating characters who calmly explain what that freak of nature actually is and why it happened to you and maybe something about purpose; if they mention a prophecy, I’m out. It’s ugly, unnatural exposition. Am I reading or watching the annotated edition of this story? But with all of the exposition in these issues, I didn’t mind it. I wanted an explanation.

Pretty sure I didn’t get one.

What Cap gets is moral clarity of a sort. He remembers who he is now, and he’s going to take his righteous standard back to that shadowy group who think they can act alone.

Amazon Prime Film Review: ‘Kitchen Stories’

Among the responses to my Spectator article on the Lockdown earlier this week, someone suggested I should watch the Norwegian movie, Kitchen Stories. I viewed it today (note: it’s not free. I had to spring a couple bucks for rental). It’s an interesting and affecting comedy of very simple manners.

Director Bent Hamer had read about Swedish studies of the efficiency of housewives after World War II (efficiency studies were all the rage in those days). He wondered what would have happened if somebody had studied single males the same way. So he came up with this story about Swedish researchers going to Norway to test the gold standard of single males, Norwegian Bachelor Farmers. The idea is for each researcher to camp in a trailer next to his subject’s house, and sit all day in an elevated chair to chart how the man uses his kitchen. Researchers are supposed to have no personal interaction with the subjects in any way.

Researcher Folke Nilsson drives with a caravan of others (much is made of the fact that Swedes drove on the left side of the road in those days, while Norwegians drove on the right) to the rural village of Landstad in Norway.

(Here’s a detail most English-speaking reviewers won’t know: “Landstad” is familiar to Norwegians as the last name of Magnus Brostrup Landstad, a pastor of the Norwegian-Danish state church. He is best remembered for compiling Landstad’s Hymnal (1869), which was the standard hymnbook used by Danish and Norwegian Lutherans for more than a hundred years [in America too]. The original Norwegian title of this film is Salmer Fra Kjøkkenet – Hymns from the Kitchen.)

Folke sets up at the farm of Isak Bjørvik, who has changed his mind about participating, and refuses to let him in the house at first (he’d been told he’d be given a horse, but it turns out to be one of those red-painted wooden Dala Horses they sell in Scandinavian gift shops). He finally relents and lets Folke in, but then stays out of kitchen as much as possible. Instead he bores a hole of his own in the ceiling so he can spy on Folke from upstairs.

However, humanity transcends science. Gradually, through small acts of kindness, the two men develop a grudging tolerance for one another, and then genuine friendship. Folke breaks all the rules of the study, finding himself in need of friendship in his own right. This angers the local postman, Grant, who up till now had been Isak’s only friend. Grant looks at first like a comic character, until we learn his background. Grant takes direct action to show his displeasure.

Kitchen Stories can be taken on many different levels. It could be seen spiritually, sociologically, or philosophically (the researchers are proud “positivists”). You could even approach it from a quantum physics perspective – the act of observing an object alters that object. It was a touching and amusing movie, and I recommend it, with cautions for language (in subtitles, of course – they’re not bad but I could have done better) and adult themes.

8 Lies about God that Sound Like the Truth

  1. God just wants you to be happy.
  2. You only live once.
  3. You need to live your truth.
  4. Your feelings are reality.

Sound familiar? That’s four of the eight statements that sound true enough but are actually lies that author Jared C. Wilson lays out in his latest book, The Gospel According to Satan: Eight Lies about God that Sound Like the Truth. The gospel-saturated author of many books explains the intent of each lie and how they undermine God’s will in our lives.

Kudos on the cover design that pushes me to turn the book on its face whenever I have it out. You could call that a drawback, but wouldn’t this be a great book to leave on top of the Gideon Bible in hotel room drawers?

Some of the points touched in the book:

  • Does God just want you to be happy or is your unhappiness a symptom of misplaced priorities or even a difficult calling? Could your happiness be the main thing drawing you away from him?
  • What do you justify with #YOLO? Is it godly living or self-indulgence?
  • What you call your truth may be relative, but the truth is not. Unfashionable? Sometimes. Reliable? Definitely.
  • Your feelings may not mean what you think they mean. They need biblical interpretation

Jared writes with light-hearted quips from our culture, quotes from contemporary and classic authors, and vulnerable illustrations from his own life.

When I’m not priding myself on being more whatever than others, I hate myself for not being whatever enough. The weird thing about humility is that the more you think about it, the more it goes away. That’s me.

The other lies he tackles:

  1. Your life is what you make it.
  2. You need to let go and let God.
  3. The Cross is not about wrath.
  4. God helps those who help themselves.

I found his exploration of problems with the clichic “let go and let God” eye-opening, and the next chapter on substitutionary atonement should be understood by everyone. Heartily recommended.

Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross

Artist Scott McCloud writes of his friend Kurt Busiek and their enjoyment of comics as teenagers. He says they wrote a series together of an epic battle that destroyed their high school and many landmarks of their Lexington, Mass, hometown. He and Busiek had an agreement, he says, that he would write critically acclaimed comics and Busiek would write the popular stuff that made money, but with Marvels Busiek has produced an award-winning, fan-loving hit that has sold like lemonade on hot day in a freedom-loving town in these blessed states of America.

Marvels tells the human side of living in New York City with superheroes, aliens, and mutants emerging in the world. Photographer Phil Sheldon hopes to land a gig as a war correspondent, but when the offer comes, he declines because The Human Torch and The Sub-Mariner have begun to fight through the skies of their city.

“… repeat the latest developments: The Human Torch had imprisoned The Sub-Mariner beneath a sheet of flame in an update reservoir, but the undersea dynamo freed himself — even as the Army bombed his fiery prison!”

Phil: “Blast them! Look at us — just sitting here waiting! There isn’t a thing we can do — and this is our city! Our world! Who gave them the right to just come in and take it away from us?!”

Over four collected issues, Phil works through varying emotions about the “Marvels,” his term: who or what they are, public reaction, and his own responsibilities. He doubts, he fears, he falls into public outrage at the mutant X-men and hurls a brick at Ice-Man. Then he rallies and writes a book about them that features his photography.

I looked up this series collection after listening to a Stitcher podcast based on it. Marvels reads a bit like the story of a Frenchman who survives WWII rolling overtop of him. It doesn’t tell much of the many stories it references. We just see something blow up down the street and empowered people we may or may not recognize rushing toward it.

In one conflict between Galactus and The Fantastic Four that appears to spell the end of the world, Phil runs home to spend whatever minutes he has left with his wife and kids. But the world doesn’t end, because the Marvels save it with every ounce of skill and luck they have.

The book doesn’t end on that note, because not every hero’s story moves from victory to victory, and Phil’s emotional turns flow naturally as he and the world react to many fantastic events. Fans of golden age comic book superheroes will love this gorgeously produced tale of a photographer who fights to see to wonder in the age of supers.

‘Insidious,’ by Brett Battles

Brett Battles is the author of a successful series of thrillers about a covert operations “cleaner” named Jonathan Quinn. I like that series very much. Insidious is the second book in a spin-off series about Quinn’s former assistant, Nate (have we ever been told his last name? I can’t recall). Quinn and Nate have kept their distance from one another to an extent since the death of Liz, Nate’s girlfriend and Quinn’s sister. So Nate is operating on his own more often now.

In Insidious, Nate is out jogging in the Hollywood Hills one morning when he spots a backpack discarded beside the path. Investigating, he finds the dead body of a young woman at the bottom of a hill. After helping the police with their investigation, Nate figures that’s that.

But his Thai friend Jar feels differently. Jar is a young woman, a computer genius with autistic traits who has been slowly coming out of her shell and growing closer to Nate. Jar shows a surprising interest in the case. This girl, she discovers, was living under a false identity. She was actually the central character in a sensational police case some years back. She had been kidnapped and held prisoner for months, then had miraculously escaped, though her captors were never identified. Now she has been murdered. For very personal reasons, Jar grows obsessed with discovering who killed her, and making sure they face justice.

What can Nate do but help her? Along the way he will not only learn the shocking motive behind the girl’s kidnapping and murder, but also some painful secrets from Jar’s own past.

I found Insidious totally engaging, and moving in parts. I recommend it highly. Cautions for the sort of things you’d expect.

‘Inheritance,’ by Allie Ray

A friend suggested I read Allie Ray’s novel Inheritance, because its main character is a Swedish immigrant named Lars. It displays a promising talent.

Lars Gustafson is an undertakers’ assistant in the small town of Osceola, Nebraska in the early 1930s. When a prosperous local farmer named Harold Eklund is found shot to death, his bloody head frozen to the dining room table in his freezing house, Lars is expected to thaw the head loose with warm water so the body can be removed. This gives him time to examine the crime scene, and he notices some curious details.

Lars is no detective. But he’s smarter than people think, and for some reason – perhaps it’s his large size and quiet manner, or perhaps his difficulty speaking English which makes people assume he doesn’t understand them – he hears a lot of secrets, and some people even confide in him unbidden. And so, over a period of time, he begins to put together the story of events 15 years before that resulted in the shooting of Harold Eklund. Possible motives center around Harold’s predatory business practices, and his manipulation of family members, including his handsome Southern son-in-law and his beautiful daughter. There are a lot of secrets surrounding that family, and nobody involved is an angel.

I give author Allie Ray high marks as a wordsmith. Her prose is generally superior, especially for a young writer. Her characters are well drawn. She knows a lot of local history, which adds to the verisimilitude of the story. (She should, however, have studied firearms a little more. Her assumptions about the power of a .22 caliber rifle will make gun owners laugh.)

The greatest weakness of the book, for me, was in its ending. It didn’t wrap things up properly, at least for this reader. The final resolution was unclear to me, and I wasn’t certain whether that was intentional. Or why it would be.

Still, as a second novel by a young writer, Inheritance was quite impressive. Cautions for rough language and adult themes.

For your Spectation

I have a new piece up at The American Spectator Online today. I was worried it was a little too personal for the venue, but the editor told me it was “the best piece I’ve read in a long time.” Which is always nice to hear.

Anyway, it’s about the Lockdown and living in fear. Because fear is a subject I know all about.

I hope I’m open-minded enough to listen to experts. However, when an “expert” starts telling me the only way to prevent Gotterdammerung is to increase the size and power of government, I start reaching for my skeptic’s hat. I wear that hat a lot nowadays.

I’m not an epidemiologist, as you’ve probably guessed.

But I do know about fear.

And what troubles me most about our current predicament is that we’re being governed on the basis of fear.

Read it all here.

‘Woe To the Scribes and Pharisees,’ by Daniel Taylor

And who or what is God anyway? A word they used to always capitalize but now is frequently printed in lower-case—god—as in, a god among many gods, none of them real. Personally, I’m sticking with the capital even when not believing there is such a being, because I want my nonbelief to be about something important. Who wants to disbelieve in a lower-case god?

Daniel Taylor is a Christian writer with whom I have theological differences. But I enjoy his novels. Which wouldn’t bother me if I weren’t an ideologue. If I knew the religious beliefs of most of my favorite fiction writers, I’m sure they’d give me a sudden appreciation for Taylor as a brother. It’s only among the brethren that I get all religiously partisan.

Anyway, Taylor’s Jon Mote series is an enjoyable sequence of mystery novels (this is the third) about a troubled and God-haunted man who was once possessed by demons and has been exorcised, but who still declares himself a skeptic. As Woe To the Scribes and Pharisees begins, he seems to be getting his life together. His wife Zee has returned to him, and he has a responsible editing job with a Minneapolis publishing house that specializes in New Age books. They have recently decided to tap into the huge Bible market, by publishing one of their own. This will be a Bible for the new millennium, a Bible acceptable to everyone. However, discovering the expenses involved in producing their own translation, they decide to license one that already exists. They go to Dr. Jerry DeAngelo, a retired TV preacher who appears to be sort of a cross between Pat Robertson and Billy Graham. Dr. DeAngelo published a paraphrase of his own some years back, and now he’s agreed to license it to Jon Mote’s company, with certain stipulations, including his own participation on the revision committee. Which will consist of Christians spanning the continuum from far left universalist to far right fundamentalist.

It goes even worse than you might expect.

They aren’t very far into their editorial meetings before one of their number, a liberal theologian, is found dead in a rest room, the apparent victim of a heart attack. Only Jon notices a cryptic message written in soap on the mirror, which makes him suspicious, though he can’t figure out its significance.

Then a celebrity pastor (sort of a Joel Osteen stand-in) who had agreed to endorse the translation (before it’s finished, of course) dies in what looks like an accident.

And that’s not the last of the deaths. Eventually, while snowed in in a northern Minnesota lodge, they will all realize that these deaths have been murders, and that the murderer is among them.

Author Taylor does an excellent job portraying the debates between liberals and conservatives, and he does it so well that I suspect every reader will think the author secretly agrees with him. The book as a whole consists largely of a series of Socratic dialogues, in which principles of biblical interpretation are hashed out pretty thoroughly and fairly.

What I fear is that Woe To the Scribes and Pharisees is too talky for the average reader, especially for non-Christians. I wish non-Christians would read this book, but I’m not sure they’ll tolerate all the God talk.

Christians, I think though, will take to it pretty well. I know I did.

As always, the real hero of the story is Jon’s “developmentally disabled” sister, Judy, who cuts to the core of matters through her pure and simple love of Jesus, unencumbered by doubts or sophistication.

I highly recommend Woe To the Scribes and Pharisees. Cautions for challenging and mature themes, and some rough language.

‘Dodge City,’ by Tom Clavin

Long ago, based on an article I read in some magazine, I joined the anti-Wyatt Earp party. Anti-Wyatt people like to point out that Wyatt Earp was primarily a gambler, not a lawman – he was never the marshal of anyplace, though he was a deputy off and on. Also that the story of the Gunfight at the OK Corral (which took place not in the corral, but in a nearby vacant lot), is told in so many contradictory ways that it’s impossible to get at the truth, but that the Earps’ conduct is suspicious at best. And that Wyatt’s famous vendetta ride, though understandable in light of the murder of one brother and the maiming of another, was entirely extralegal and far from a law ‘n order affair. And, oh yes, there’s evidence Wyatt was a pimp, at least for a while.

Since then I’ve softened a bit. Wyatt was no Hugh O’Brien (that’s the guy who played him on TV, for your kids out there), but neither were his enemies – white hats were hard to find in them parts, in those days.

My real favorite Wild West lawman is Wild Bill Hickok. And yet I keep picking up books about Earp. Maybe because there are more mysteries in his story. I’m still trying to get to the bottom of him.

So I picked up Tom Clavin’s book, Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town In the American West. It has its virtues, but in terms of a search for the facts, I think it’s a step back rather than forward.

One great virtue of Dodge City is that it provides a lot of context. Although the narrative is centered in Dodge, it sends feelers out to touch on a lot of places that involved the main characters through the second half of the 19th Century. I appreciated this; I know my Old West fairly well, but my sense of what was contemporaneous with what was improved.

The book’s particular virtue is that, instead of concentrating on the almost mythic figure of Wyatt Earp, Clavin also keeps his eye on Wyatt’s close friend Bat Masterson. Masterson has gotten too little attention, and Clavin makes a good case (with which I tend to agree) that he was the more accomplished of the two. For one thing, Bat was actually an elected sheriff, at least for a while. But he was also involved in more adventures, from the legendary Adobe Wells fight to various manhunts, shootouts, and arrests as a lawman. William S. Hart knew both men, but it was Masterson he identified as his character model.

The great weakness of Dodge City is that it scores low on the factual scale. Clavin treats these men as if they were career lawmen, men on a mission to bring peace to the frontier, like in the movies. I don’t think you can honestly make that case. His account of the feud with the Clantons is routinely biased toward the Earps. And there are simple mistakes of fact. I’m not a “real” historian, but Clavin’s accounts of events involving Wild Bill Hickok and Billy the Kid are wrong in important details, to my best knowledge. (Although I could just be behind on the scholarship. It keeps changing. But Clavin does not inspire my confidence as scholar.)

Dodge City has some value for the reader looking for a sweeping overview of a colorful time and place in our history. But if you’re looking for objective scholarship, I’d suggest you look elsewhere.

New Avengers: Other Worlds and A Perfect World

Jonathan Hickman put a poetic balance in his New Avengers: Illuminati tale of the end of universes. Several times we read Reed Richards saying, “Everything dies. You. Me. Everyone on this planet. . . . eventually the universe itself. This is simply how things are. It’s inevitable. And I accept it, but what I will not tolerate–what I find unacceptable–is the unnatural acceleration of that end.”

The select men who form the Illuminati fear they must do horrible things to avoid the death of their instance of Earth (explained in an earlier post). So far they’ve only had to destroy planets that were dead or dying. In Other Worlds, the Black Swan tells them of a device she calls a mirror that allows someone to see into realities or universes. Because in this type of sci-fi all you need is to conceive of a thing in order have a working device in the next few days, they build this device and begin scanning for incursion points on other Earths. In this way they see other societies with other heroes being invaded by the horrifically deadly agents they have only heard about: Mapmakers and Black Priests. In the second book, Infinity, they return to Black Swan after defeating Thanos, and she ridicules them. Why worry about a dog when you have a demon charging you? she asks, because what’s coming is irresistable death.

It’s never clear whether she is shooting straight with them, and as the weeks burn up they see potential threats that only make them fear the worst. In A Perfect World the worst comes in the least acceptable form. The next world incursion is not filled with abominations but with heroes who could be their superiors. Are they willing to destroy a good world to save their own this time?

In this other version of Earth, we read Dr. Richards’ dialogue with a different spin from a Superman-like figure called Zoran, the Sun God.

“Everything lives. It lives before it dies and we are judged by what we do during that time. Like a brilliant, life-giving star, we illuminate the universe, chasing away the shadows. We create life and then celebrate that creation.”

After reading Zoran’s hopeful words, I thought they may right every wrong, even if it took turning back the clock. But now I see this is only part of a much longer story. It probably won’t turn hopeful or patch certain holes in character arcs. Maybe the bottom line comes from one of the characters, who said these men were not heroes but kings. Kings have authority from birth and do not reason within normal human morality; they commit necessary evil to defend their people, and even though you may be able to argue that certain acts were not necessary, if the people are safe, then the actions were acceptable.

That’s more like embracing the shadows than chasing them away.

Free-Lancing, and ‘The Girl Hunters’

Happy Friday. Some people still have Fridays, I’m told. Such people are described as Essential. I am not worthy, I am sure, to unlace the latchets of their sandals.

I was busy yesterday, though. The translation job I got had me working 12 hours straight, pausing only for meals and comfort stops. Also to open the windows, because the day was beautiful.

I won’t say it’s a joy of the free-lancing life, but it’s certainly one of its qualities, that much of the time you wish you had work, and then occasionally you have too much. The big stars can regulate their own schedules, but the rest of us are carrion birds, on the watch for cadavers of opportunity.

While I was working, I streamed a curious old movie on Amazon Prime: The Girl Hunters, a 1963 Mike Hammer flick. What makes it memorable is that the creator of the character, writer Mickey Spillane, played his own creation in this one.

The story involves PI Mike Hammer waking up from a long drunk to find that his secretary Velda is dead, and that his cop friend Pat Chambers now hates his guts. Then Mike gets a hint that Velda might be alive. He will, of course, steamroll anybody who tries to keep him from finding her.

As a late semi-noir, The Girl Hunters isn’t bad. It was produced by an English company, and the obscure cast (except for Lloyd Nolan and Shirley Eaton, who’s best remembered for getting painted gold in “Goldfinger”) turn in solid work. Spillane himself is better than you might fear. He gets his words in the right order, and generally keeps his facial expressions and body language consistent with them. His big problem is that he has zero charisma. He’s not good looking enough to be a leading man, and on top of that he isn’t likeable. You wouldn’t trust this guy to watch your suitcase in a train station.

But the production’s not bad, the music’s good, and the script is adequate. Worth watching mostly for the novelty of the thing.

Bible Translation Can Be Murder

John Wilson describes Daniel Taylor’s new novel Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees, the third in a mystery series featuring Jon Mote, an amatuer dectective in the Minnesota area. Mote is something of an academic and is currently working as an editor for a publishing house. Wilson writes:

When his employers decide that they want a piece of the lucrative if already crowded market for Bible translations, Jon is drafted to serve as a non-voting member of the committee that will oversee the new translation. “The word is, Mr. Mote, that you grew up among the fundamentalists. Those are your people. We need someone on our side who understands them.” Of course, Jon didn’t grow up among “fundamentalists,” but his bosses aren’t interested in such fine distinctions.

Wilson calls it hilarious, but having not read it myself I can’t say how light-hearted or overall comical it is. It’s new today.

Daniel Taylor’s first novel, Death Comes for the Deconstructionist, won the Christianity Today 2016 Book Award for fiction. Lars reviewed it and Do We Not Bleed? in earlier posts.

Happy at Home, staying at Home

Here’s a little Latin you may find useful when you’re working from home, recovering at home, taking refuge at home, or being confined at home.

Domi manere convenit felicibus. — It befits those who are happy at home to remain there.

I hope that’s true for you; it’s not true for too many, because as Ovid says, “Dos est uxoria lites,” that is, strife is a wife’s dowry. May that not be your home, for domus sua cuique tutissimum refugium (every man’s home is his safest place of refuge).

Remember that a friendly house is the best of houses (domus amica domus optima), but remember also that pain compels all things (dolor omnia cogit).

You may find it useful to say to yourself and others:

  • Dominus vobiscum (The Lord be with you)
  • Dominus providebit (The Lord will provide)
  • Dominus illuminatio mea (The Lord is my light)
  • Deus det [nobis pacem] (May God give [us peace])
  • Deus propitius esto mihi peccatori (God be merciful to me a sinner)

Here are a few others words you may wish to repeat, echoing the wisdom of the ages.

  • Honesty is the poor man’s pork and the rich man’s pudding.
  • Hope is grief’s best music, but help which is long on the road is no help.
  • Keep a thing seven years, and you’ll find a use for it.
  • Little fires burn up much corn.
  • Love your neighbor, yet pull not down your hedge.
  • Many a man asks the way he knows full well.

Found in W. Gurney Benham’s A Book of Quotations: Proverbs and Household Words (Photo by Drew Coffman on Unsplash)

A librarian’s best friend

I’m in haste tonight. Got a translation assignment, and I think I may have promised to deliver faster than I should have. So time’s wingéd chariot is tailgating me like a Ferrari on a blue highway.

In lieu of anything original, I’ll share this nice article from Atlas Obscura about the curses medieval scribes placed in books, so that people wouldn’t steal or mangle them.

“These curses were the only things that protected the books,” says Marc Drogin, author of Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses. “Luckily, it was in a time where people believed in them. If you ripped out a page, you were going to die in agony. You didn’t want to take the chance.”

No Amazon link. I checked and Drogin’s book is very rare and copies are expensive. At those prices, they should have their own curses.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture