BOOK REVIEW: Batman: Year One by Frank Miller, et. al.

Batman: Year OneBatman: Year One by Frank Miller

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Amazon recently had a sale on classic Batman collections in celebration of the Caped Crusader’s 75th anniversary. I bought a few titles, including this one.

Batman: Year One is Frank Miller’s vision of the hero’s first year of crime fighting. Unlike the first movie in the Nolan trilogy, Batman Begins, there’s no backstory about Bruce Wayne’s training. The comic begins with Bruce Wayne beginning to go on the equivalent of self-sanctioned “neighborhood watch” rounds in Gotham’s seedy underbelly. He’s in his planning and research phase, and only quasi-reluctantly gets into brawls with street thugs. His goal is, ostensibly, intelligence gathering.

Miller’s work isn’t aimed at a boyish market. From the intimation of underage prostitution to themes of marital infidelity to the unsubtle homage to Edward Hopper’s famous painting Nighthawks, this book is directed at a more mature reader. It’s grittier, but Batman hasn’t yet become so sophisticated as to abandon wearing his underwear outside his pants.

The four chapters that make up this graphic novel parallel and twist together the stories of Jim Gordon and Bruce Wayne as they each begin their Gotham crime fighting careers. In many versions of the Batman mythology, Gordon is a young cop who helps boyhood Bruce Wayne on the night his parents are killed. This is one of the ways in which the Miller version differs. In Batman: Year One Gordon is a detective who moves to Gotham from Chicago at about the same time Bruce Wayne is sticking his toe in the waters of Gotham crime. This comes in handy for Miller later in works like Batman: The Dark Knight Returns in which he is able to have a geriatric Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon coexisting.

The interests of Gordon and Batman only align at the very end of the last chapter. Until then, Gordon is trying to find and apprehend Batman like all the other cops. In fact, Gordon is leading the crusade against the Dark Knight when his bosses still have little interest in it—until Batman crashes their ball.

There are no supervillains yet—only corrupt cops and organized crime. Bruce Wayne, who adopts the guise of Batman only after a bat flies through his window (never heard of that happening), gets off to a rough start. He isn’t yet the phantom nightmare that he will later become, and is still learning his lessons. In his early encounters with criminals, he prevails mostly by being able to take a punch.

Besides Bruce Wayne’s inner monologue being a bit ham-handed, I enjoyed this work. The ham-handed inner monologue is—no doubt–intended to convey that Wayne is a man of thought as well as a man of action, but it’s hard to believe that someone who could transform himself into the Batman would be that riddled with doubt. That said, the dialogue is better written than the typical comic. There’s not a lot of the “As-you-know-Bob” dialogue that often plagues this genre.

If you’re a fan of the Dark Knight, this is worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes by Deepak Chopra

The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes: Harnessing Our Power to Change the WorldThe Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes: Harnessing Our Power to Change the World by Deepak Chopra

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This is Deepak Chopra’s attempt to capitalize on society’s fascination with superheroes. By “capitalize” I’m not necessarily saying to “make money off of,” but perhaps to “use to his advantage in conveying his lessons.” [I’ll leave it to the reader to make judgments about the former.] There are books on the physics of superheroes, the philosophy of superheroes, and the mythology of superheroes, so why shouldn’t there be a book on the spiritual life of superheroes?

The book uses both the superheroes of mythology—i.e. Indian, Greek, Judeo-Christian, Muslim, and others—as well as the superheroes of comic books. While Chopra’s knowledge of the former is considerable, he enlists the co-authorship of his son Gotham (not named after Bruce Wayne’s hometown) to offer insight into the latter.

This book is also intended to capitalize (again, take that as you see fit) upon Chopra’s best-selling book, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, but without rehashing the same laws. The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes format is as straightforward as its title. There are seven chapters, each corresponding to one of Chopra’s laws. Said laws address balance, transformation, power, love, creativity, intention, and transcendence.

As I read the book, there was something that rubbed me the wrong way about the writing. It wasn’t that I had major disagreement with Chopra’s ideas, but rather the way he was stating them. At first I thought this was the use of gratuitous assertion. He often began chapters with detailed statements about what superheroes are, do, believe, and understand without much—if any–substantiation of these claims. However, as I got into the first chapter I noticed that he would put one section in each chapter that discussed an example in-depth, offering at least anecdotal support for his claims.

This still left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. It was because he used general statements like “superheroes know…” and “superheroes understand…,” and then provided a solitary example that fit his statement well, but leaving a vast cast of heroes that didn’t. It seemed a low form of inductive reasoning. In other words, he was attributing an enlightened way of thinking and acting to characters like Hulk and Wolverine.

Chopra and his supporters might make the claim that saying, “The Hulk understands X [insert any of the laws here]” doesn’t necessarily mean he understands them as an intellectual exercise, but rather that he shows this understanding through his behavior. Let me give a story that may make my meaning clearer.

An economist is giving a lecture on consumer behavior. Someone in the audience says, “Professor, how could consumers possibly behave in the way you suggest? Your theory requires complex Lagrangian optimization mathematics, which very few of them understand?”

The Professor replies, “Most of them don’t understand Newton’s work either, but they obey the Law of Gravity without fail.”

I thought about Chopra’s statements from this perspective, but concluded that his point was probably something entirely different. As an author of self-help books about the mind, when Chopra says “Superheroes understand X,” he’s not saying “Each and every superhero understands X,” but instead he’s saying, “If you want to be a superhero, you need to understand X.”

Accepting that that’s what Chopra meant, only one more qualm with the book remained. Laws can be clearly stated (OK, perhaps not tax law, but laws of physics—which seem to be more the kind of law he seeks to emulate), but Chopra’s discussion of his “laws” is vague and ill-defined. Each chapter begins with a large-font italics statement. I don’t know if this is supposed to be “the law” or not. It usually begins with a definition (some vaguely stated) and then statements that superheroes comport themselves in accordance with said definition. Maybe the unstated laws are supposed to be, “Superheroes live a life of balance,” and so on for the other chapters. As one trained as an economist, I’m well-aware of the wide-spread overuse of the term “law,” and maybe the ill-defined nature of Chopra’s laws is a recognition of this.

This book is written for Chopra’s usual audience of seekers of enlightenment. I don’t know that it’ll do well with hard-core science fiction or comic fans, and I don’t know that the Venn intersect of “spiritual self-help readers” and “comic book fans” is as big as Chopra would like. (But, I could be wrong.) Some of Chopra’s ideas about the potential spiritual ramifications of “quantum entanglement” are quite popular with sci-fi fans, but I’m not sure that that offers this book a clear audience. (It might. Chopra is a trained physician, and has some scientific bona fides—unlike many who share shelf space with him and who exist in a spiritual plane entirely unrelated to the world as we know it.)

All this being said, there are some thought-provoking ideas in this book, and the superhero and mythological examples help entertain and—in doing so—become the spoon of sugar that makes the medicine go down. Another testimonial is that I read most of this book in a single sitting, and I tend to jump from a chapter in one book to another book unless something really holds my interest.

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2013 Superhero Movies

2013 will be a big year for superhero flicks. There will be two films in The Avengers domain. The third Iron Man film will be out at the beginning of the summer and Thor: The Dark World is out at year-end. Given my preference for superheroes that don’t wear tights as outer garments, I have to say that Iron Man 3 is shaping up to be my favorite. The Wolverine is also unlikely be in tights in this personification, but I’ll go into that one with low expectations. (Don’t disappoint me again, X-men. Actually, I liked First Class, but the others were making me consider a life of  super-villainy.) I’m not big on gods as heroes, but that’s just me.

I am serious about having high hopes for Iron Man 3. The trailer suggests they are putting Stark in his darkest hour. Hopefully, they won’t entirely lose the trademark humor of the franchise. Having said that, I think some enhanced tension could be good. I don’t know why they couldn’t find a Chinese guy to play Mandarin, but it’s a good arch-villain and will be mirrored by some brawn. (I’m not down on Ben Kingsley. I loved him in Ghandi. I just think we should have left casting Caucasians for non-Caucasian parts with 1950’s Westerns.)

I recently did a post on the Man of Steel. As I suggested, I like my superheroes more flawed and vincible (it’s  a word, and it doesn’t mean capable of being turned into a Vince.) It sounds like they’ve made efforts to build tension, but in the trailer we pretty much see that as superman v. man conflict (which doesn’t sound like a thrill-ride.)  I’m leaving room to be pleasantly surprised.

The most tight-lipped franchise is that of Kickass 2. I don’t know if that should be taken ominously or not. They may have been so surprised by response to the first that they don’t want to jinx things.

Iron Man 3 (May 3)

Man of Steel (June 14)

Kickass 2 (June 28)

The Wolverine (July 26)
(This is not a trailer, but it’s a summation of movie’s development that is humorous in places.)

Thor: The Dark World (Nov 8)
Also not a trailer