Monthly Archives: January 2015

Book Review: The Hobbit Party

If you have followed my blog for a while now, then you know I am a big fan of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. I think I have read many parts of The Lord of the Rings at least twenty times – each! The Hobbit I have not read quite as much, though Peter Jackson’s film trilogy based on that book has got me cracking it open every now and then to double check certain details.

Although I enjoy Middle-earth no end, I know that I do not qualify for admittance to the Elves’ society (High or Silvan), I am not a dwarf and – sadly – I do not even qualify as a hobbit (especially in size). So I think I am therefore stuck with the Rohirrim or the other, lesser denizens of Gondor (those who do not have Númenórean heritage and who, therefore, live about as long as everybody else today does). Of the two, I probably fall in with the lesser men of Gondor, though I do not suppose I would mind being a part of the Horse Lords’ society. Ah, well, we cannot have everything we want.

All this needless blather about Tolkien’s masterpiece aside, why am I even bringing it up? I am bringing it up in relation to a book I read recently by two Tolkien scholars. The book is called The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot. Its authors are Jonathan Witt and Jay W. Richards.

And before you have the chance to suppose that I would burden you with a book only about numbers and charts and graphs, readers, perish the thought! Not only do I find such books dreary and headache-inducing, I would not drop any such volume on anyone else’s lap (although I might make an exception in Loki’s case). The Hobbit Party is not a volume that relies heavily on either numbers or graphs to make its points. Its two authors vivaciously explain what they – and others – have discovered in Tolkien’s massive, marvelous magnum opus.

“But why should anyone study The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings,” some people ask, “especially in order to make a statement about subjects that are anything but fictional (such as economics and war)? That is for economists and scholars to debate, not fiction analysts!”

Oh, but how widely these people miss their mark! They forget, quite easily, that Tolkien himself was a scholar. Specifically, he was a pioneer in the study of language (this branch of learning’s official title is philology), and he had a great store of knowledge about many things himself, including war. Tolkien was a British soldier who served in the dark, wet, horror-filled trenches at the Somme in World War I. He knew war better than many people – especially those who ran that particular debacle that was given the deceptive title “The War to End All Wars.”

Mr. Witt and Mr. Richards explore the landscape and history of Middle-earth throughout The Hobbit Party, covering everything from government to war, from death and immortality to economics, all in the light of what they know Tolkien knew. The Hobbit Party is an essential companion to Tolkien’s work. It is not the essential companion – there is never going to be a book big enough to do that job – but it is a book whose reading will greatly illuminate the points Tolkien was trying to make in the great epic so many have come to love.

On a final, minor note, you may ask why it is I picked up this book, readers. The reason I wanted this book was the same reason I have reread parts of The Lord of the Rings so often. Through his fantastic modern myth, Tolkien was trying to teach his readers something – or several somethings – that were very important to the readers’ well being and to the well being of the following generations of readers.

In my own readings of the trilogy, I found several of those things, some of which I have shared in posts and on a page on this blog. There are more; I just have not taken the time to type them up yet. But, despite all these little breadcrumbs I found scattered throughout the novels, I knew I had only scratched the surface of what Tolkien was trying to tell me. I knew there was more in his novels, more levels of truth I had to dig for.

But, in some places, I have been afraid to dig too deeply on my own. If I were to find more truth but misunderstand it when I found it, and pass this misunderstanding on to others, then no matter my good intentions I may cause pain and sorrow that could be avoided. And so I have looked for a companion digger – or diggers – to help me understand what I have found in my excavations.   Mr. Witt and Mr. Richards are two fellow Middle-earth spelunkers who have not only discovered the same jewels I have, but who have gone even deeper in and found larger gems! For that reason I recommend their work to you, readers, so that when you next journey into Middle-earth, you will know where to dig for the treasure Tolkien left behind for us to discover. Therefore, readers –

The Mithril Guardian

(bowing)

At your service!

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Jedi “Unattachment” – More than Meets the Eye

CS 2

I cannot say that I took to George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels (Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith) very much. In fact, the three movies tend to turn my stomach. I do not know why, but for the most part I cannot enjoy them as I still enjoy the original Star Wars trilogy.

Even so, they at least explain the lead-up to the original trilogy (on paper they do it even better than they do on film). One part of the prequels, though, never quite made sense to me. This was the idea of the Jedi avoiding attachment to someone or something (mostly the former).

Yes, yes, I know. The whole idea of “suppressing emotions” is supposed to be part of the Jedi way and all that jazz. But the Jedi are not Vulcans. Besides, Jedi are supposed to trust their feelings, right? And if, as I learned recently, the Dark Side of the Force is marked by the emotions of wrath, hatred, anger, lust, and practically every other bad feeling you can think of, then what kinds of emotions is the implicitly “Light” side of the Force marked by?

I am an odd little person. These kinds of inconsistencies always puzzle me. So there I sat, mulling over the Jedi’s statements about avoiding attachment, about the emotions surviving Jedi are said to feel in some Star Wars fiction I have read lately, and about the emotions that fill the Dark Side, trying to figure out how it all added up.

I came up with an answer a little while ago. I do not know if it is the right answer, but it seems to balance out the inconsistencies well enough that I think it could be an acceptable answer.

In these stories I have read (Last of the Jedi by Jude Watson and Rebel Force – author forgotten 😔, which are surprisingly adult in scope for children’s fiction), former Jedi can temporarily become overwhelmed with grief due to the fall of the Jedi Order and the loss of their fellow Jedi. On its face, this seems to directly contradict the Jedi’s whole “don’t get attached” argument. If Jedi are supposed to remain emotionless, why do they feel this way at all? Why, in fact, does Yoda react so badly when he feels the deaths of his fellow Jedi through the Force in Revenge of the Sith? (Part of that is probably because so many Jedi Masters, Knights, apprentices, and Force-sensitive children were killed. Obi-Wan reacted pretty badly when Alderaan was destroyed in A New Hope; it stands to reason that a lot of Jedi dying one on top of the other would create quite a stir in the Force, too.)

In fact, if you were to take the “don’t get attached” statement on its face, then no Jedi should give a hoot about the death of another Jedi, about the Republic they have sworn to protect, or even about their apprentices.

Well, we all know that that is not true. Obi-Wan even gives us the ammunition for it in Revenge of the Sith when he says, “You were my brother, Anakin! I loved you!”

How well does that square with the “don’t get attached” mantra? On its face, it does not. When you dig a little deeper, though, things begin to make a little more sense.

I was surprised when I learned that one of the emotions that marked the Dark Side was lust. I knew from the films that “anger, fear, aggression” and a few other things were part of the Dark Side, but lust never crossed my mind. Thinking about its inclusion under the umbrella of the Dark Side, however, everything suddenly clicked into a sensible order.

We all know that, if a Jedi were to fall in love, he has to be ready to handle the other emotions that come with it – such as protective fear and other dark temptations. If he fell into any of these snares then he might fall to the Dark Side. Palpatine, after all, converted Anakin to the Dark Side through the young Jedi’s overprotective fear for Padmé Amidala. Since Anakin fell into darkness through fear, others could easily fall into darkness if they were not careful.

Now we go back to what I mentioned earlier – that Jedi who survived Order 66 (the kill order for the Jedi that Emperor Palpatine implemented in Revenge of the Sith) often experience grief over the loss of their fellow Jedi, the destruction of the Jedi Order, and the Republic in general. If you were to take the “don’t get attached” dictum at face value, then a Jedi could not possibly love anyone or anything, as I said above.

Yet these Jedi do feel love, for you cannot have grief if you do not have love. If you have no love, then you have no reason to grieve. Lust, fear, anger, and the other Dark Side emotions do not leave a person with grief. But love does.

So did I just pop the Jedi’s “don’t get attached” argument? Sort of, but not quite. Allow me a moment to quote a great, Ancient “Jedi Master” – Plato: To love rightly is to love what is orderly and beautiful in an educated and disciplined way.

What does this mean? It means that the “don’t get attached” Jedi stipulation translates as: “Love what is orderly and beautiful, but do so in an educated and disciplined way.” That is, do not let the negative emotions that come with love distract and destroy you. The whole reason Jedi were supposed to avoid marriage was not because they had to avoid love; it was so that they could keep their love disciplined and orderly and avoid the Dark Side’s fish hook lure of fear, protectiveness, and other temptations. To love in an “educated and disciplined way” is the exact opposite of the Dark Side; the Dark Side is poison, but love is power.

In this light, the entire Jedi Order, not to mention the “Light” side of the Force, makes much more sense. The Dark Side is marked by everything negative, while the “Light” side is marked by self-sacrificing, disciplined, love. And while the Jedi may suffer, in the end, because they serve this kind of love, they will always triumph.

Now, maybe this is not the way Lucas and millions of his fans understand the “Light” side and the Dark Side of the Force. This is just what I have come up with in my thoughts about the story. You can take them or leave them, as you wish. I just wanted to get this idea out of my system. So, until we meet again…

May the Force be with you, readers!

The Mithril Guardian

Han and Leia

“Make some light.”

The Tale of Despereaux

“Why would you save me?” Despereaux asked. “Have you saved any of the other mice?”

“Never,” said Gregory, “not one.”

“Why would you save me, then?”

“Because you, mouse, can tell Gregory a story. Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark. Begin at the beginning. Tell Gregory a story. Make some light.” – From the “First Book” of The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo

Dean Koontz: Relentless

Dean Koontz' Relentless

I am a late-comer to Dean Koontz’s fiction. Being a romantic, I am not that inclined to crack open so-called “horror fiction,” even when it is written by a remarkably sensible person. However, perusing the library’s shelves opens one to all kinds of things, and this last time I was at the library I happened across Mr. Koontz’s book Relentless.

I cracked open the hardcover book and read the inside blurb (never start a book without reading the blurb on the back or on the inside; it is like checking the menu to see what you want to order at a restaurant). Relentless was intriguing to me because it was about an author, his wife, and their genius-level six year-old son literally being hunted down by a professional book critic. “That’s interesting,” I thought. “I know some critics have it in for good writers, but I have never heard of a critic carrying it this far.”

And, having read Relentless, readers, I can honestly say I never want to meet such a critic during my stay on this earth. Ever.

Relentless centers on the man of the family, Cullen “Cubby” Greenwich (where on earth does Koontz come up with these names?). His wife was given the name Brunhild when she was born, but she understandably uses the easier moniker Penny. Their six year-old, a rival to Tony Stark, is named Milo. Their non-barking dog is named Lassie, even though she is not a collie.

Cubby is an author, having just completed and published his sixth tome. Relentless begins with him promoting this book on the radio from home, and then going to breakfast in order to shake off his self-promotion guilt. Before he has a chance to start on his pancakes, though, the phone rings and his editor tells him she has sent him three reviews of this book. The last review, she tells him, is by a man who never likes stories similar to Cubby’s.

Well, Cubby goes to his computer and reads the review, against Penny’s advice, and finds that the man who lampooned his book: a) does not seem to understand its point; b) writes using very poor syntax, and c) actually does not seem to have reviewed the book at all, instead focusing on the publication letter that gets sent out to reviewers with newly published books.

From there, things go downhill fast. I will not spoil anything else about the story, readers, but let you pick up the book yourselves and read it, if you so desire. It is a very good book. I started reading it in the library and, before I was a page into the story, was laughing so hard I annoyed all the patrons around me. Relentless is a thrill ride that is as persistent in its humor as it is in its suspense. Dean Koontz, I tip my hat to you, sir! It is a rare author who can teach a lesson through a scary story, while managing at the same time to keep the reader in stitches.

Until next time, readers!

The Mithril Guardian

Quotable Quotes #4

In endowing us with memory, nature has revealed to us a truth utterly unimaginable to the unreflective creation, the truth of immortality. – George Santayana, Spanish philosopher

Conscience makes cowards of us all. –William Shakespeare

It is far better to be alone than to be in bad company. – George Washington

Only man clogs his happiness with care, destroying what is with thoughts of what may be. – John Dryden, English poet

Easy reading is damn hard writing. – Nathaniel Hawthorne

I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned. – Edna St. Vincent Millay

Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once. – William Shakespeare

One’s friends are that part of the human race with which one can be human. – George Santayana, Spanish philosopher

And say my glory was I had such friends. – William Butler Yeats, Irish poet

Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured. – Mark Twain

A wise man thinks it more advantageous not to join the battle than to win. – Francois de la Rochefoucauld

With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come. – William Shakespeare

As a cure for worrying, work is better than whiskey. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Three Marvel TV Series

When I was small, I had “pokey fingers.” I had to touch practically everything. If a lamp shade had a texture that felt intriguing, I had to keep rubbing it. If a particular toy had a waxy feel to it, I had to keep handling it. I had to keep petting the neighbor’s cat or dog, I had to touch every other toy in the toy aisle at the stores, etcetera ad infinitum.

I have never quite outgrown this urge to keep fingering things that look like they have an interesting texture. Now I can look at many different physical objects without touching most of them most of the time (yay). I have gotten over my “pokiness.” One thing that reminds me of this youthful fascination is my attraction to the realm of stories. I cannot drop a story idea or a character that is interesting; I have to keep turning it over and over in my mental hands, poking and prodding it until even I am fed up with it. But once picked up, an idea or a character is even harder for me to release than that lamp shade or those toys I once handled when I was small.

I cannot say exactly why I have such a hard time letting go of these stories and characters. Perhaps it is because somewhere in my mind I am still a small child who looks on stories as elaborate Russian dolls – open the first doll and you find another one inside, and then you repeat the process until you reach the last doll.

Only, some characters do not seem to have a final hidden doll. Some stories always seem to have an extra surprise buried in them that I never saw before. No matter which way I slice it, there is always something new to be found in a previously explored good story. So I spend more time on them looking for the final doll than I probably should, until I get tired, distracted, or interested in something else entirely.

Today’s Russian doll – or rather, dolls – are three different Marvel TV series. I do not suppose many people would be interested in this subject (unless they have children), but as I said, once I get hold of a story or a character (or, worse, a set of characters) I have a very hard time letting them go. So I am sorry, readers, if you find this subject beyond dead boring. I do not – not as things stand now. Eventually, I think I will go as deep as I can into Marvel’s characters and then, finally, let them go. But so far, every time I think I have reached that point, something always brings me back.

It appears that I am stalling. Well, readers, here I go. You may follow me, or not, as you wish. This is going to be a long post.

Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes

Avengers Earth's Mightiest Heroes!

Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes was a children’s show that ran from about 2010 to late 2012. It wrapped up sometime after Marvel’s The Avengers was six or eight months old. The animation was not top-notch, but in comparison to some other shows I have seen advertised, it was a definite improvement over the norm.

As a story, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes was fairly strong, from my perspective. Heroes followed the comics as closely as it could, using the “mainstream” Marvel Comics as the series’ backbone while adding some frills from more recent comics (Tony’s attitude and personality, Hawkeye and Widow’s S.H.I.E.L.D partnership and her betrayal of him, as well as the Skrull invasion).

So as a story, the series had a lot to work with in terms of plot. In terms of character, it excelled in several key points. For starters, Tony and Cap were much more respectful of each other in this series. Tony could mouth off and behave like a good-natured jerk, but he never “dissed” Cap in front of the other Avengers or in private. Why the writers have made him so much snarkier and disrespectful of Cap I do not know. It was nice in this series to see Iron Man defer to Cap’s greater experience and knowledge with good humor, the way he used to in the original “mainstream” comics; something that subsequent cartoon versions of Tony Stark have not done – not on a regular basis, at least.

Another plus to this series was Wasp. Portrayed in this series as feisty and as ready with a quip as Hawkeye, Wasp added a fun, generous, and feminine grace to the team that no other female member of the Avengers in the series seemed to achieve. Her woman’s instinct and ability to become serious was perfectly balanced by an easy laugh and a good sense of humor (which could become hilariously funny when she was fighting the bad guys).

Four other good characterizations in the series’ favor were Cap, Black Panther, Thor, and Vision. Although portrayed as somewhat quiet and distant at first, Cap grew to be the same sort of person he has been in the comics for the last seventy-odd years. Having Cap behave in his usual reserved but simultaneously kind and approachable manner was a “good mark” for the story, even when he was ‘replaced’ by a Skrull in the first season of this series and who posed as him for a good chunk of the second season.

Panther and Thor added the dignity of royalty to the series, along with some witty dialogue from time to time. Thor very rarely allowed himself a joke and had the weightier grandeur, while Panther’s kingly decorum was softened by his barb-infused friendship with Hawkeye and Tony Stark. Where Thor was the counterweight to Tony’s bouts of silliness, Panther stood in the middle of the scales of humor and gravity, proving that one actually can be dignified while making a joke or poking fun at someone.

Vision only arrived in the second season of the series, but he still had time to more than make an impression on this member of the audience. Vision possessed Panther’s gravity without the benefit of the other’s experience. Built by Ultron, Vision was a fully-formed adult who lacked the experience a human acquires growing to adulthood. Cap and the Avengers were instrumental in teaching him that humanity is a gift more than it is a flaw, and watching Vision trying to puzzle out his enemies – later his teammates – like an odd math equation was great. If Whedon and Bettany can imbue Vision with that same sense of childlike wonder and incomprehension mixed with adult power, I will be not only very impressed but extremely pleased.

The final star on Heroes’ record is the friendship that sprang up between the Hulk/Bruce Banner and Hawkeye. In Heroes, Hawkeye is practically taken straight from the early comics. He is an irascible jerk who usually speaks before he thinks, in part because he’s so overconfident, in part because past betrayals have made him wary of trusting anyone who shows up and says they just want to help him out. It takes some work, and he does not lose his propensity for either being testy or overconfident, but eventually Hawkeye does prove he has the fiber to be an Avenger, and a darn good one at that.

Similarly, the Hulk and Banner are very like their original counterparts in the comics. Banner does not like his alter ego initially; the Hulk feels vulnerable while Banner is in control, and Banner feels he cannot keep command of a situation when the Hulk is running the show.

How do these three temperamental people (Hulk/Bruce Banner and Hawkeye) become friends? In Gamma World, Part 2, Hawkeye has to go in search of Banner to stop the Leader from taking over the world. He and the Hulk trade temper tantrums, which convinces the Hulk to let Banner have control, as Hawkeye had hoped it would.

From there, the three move on to become great friends. Hawkeye gets along better with both the Hulk and Banner in Earth’s Mightiest Heroes than he does with almost everyone else in the series.

Two marks of Hawkeye’s friendship with the Hulk and Banner show through in later episodes. When Cap tries to teach Tony to box without his armor in the first season of the series, Hawkeye and Hulk sit in the rafters over the gym to eagerly watch the billionaire leader of the Avengers get his clock cleaned by Steve, who is being as easy on Tony as he feels he can be. In the second season of Heroes, just before the Skrull invasion becomes public knowledge, Hawkeye is on Banner-watching duty when the latter gets his once-a-month reprieve from being the Hulk.

The setting is not to Hawkeye’s tastes, since Banner’s idea of a day off is fishing on a quiet lake, whereas Hawkeye would probably rather be practicing his shooting or blowing something up. Later in the episode, Banner is jabbed with a serum that prevents him from releasing the Hulk. The Avengers must then work to protect him from the new Red Hulk, who is seeking a fight with Ol’ Green. For once Banner is not able to transform into the Hulk when he really has to. But Red Hulk is determined to fight the Hulk, so he picks Hawkeye up by his right arm – his shooting arm in this series – and starts squeezing. That does the trick, and Red Hulk gets more than he bargained for once Banner releases the Hulk in a fit of rage to save his friend.

Since Hawkeye is my favorite Avenger, this was the biggest selling point of the series to me. I am all too sorry that this friendship has not carried over into subsequent series very well, but you cannot have everything in life. Where would you put it?

Still, I am hoping someone can set this friendship up again in some future series. Hawkeye and Hulk seemed to get along so well in Heroes because of their shared quick-tempers, and Banner put up with Hawkeye’s temper better than most everyone else, probably because he knew it was often more bluster than real rage. Either that or someone who is “always angry” understands someone else who is seemingly constantly irritable better than people who are not endlessly touchy.

All these digressions aside, Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes was a pretty darn good series. I was sad to see it end; mostly because I had a feeling that whatever followed it was going to fall short of the high water (or high character) mark which Heroes had set. Still, the fact that it was made at all indicates there is hope. If they did such a good job on this series, then a subsequent series has the potential to come close to equaling Heroes’ at some point in the future. The only hard part about that is waiting for such a series to be written!

Avengers Assemble

Marvel's Avengers Assemble!

The second Marvel TV series I thought I would make mention of is Avengers Assemble. If you have followed my blog from the beginning, then you probably know that I wrote a post about the first eight episodes of this series when it first aired waaay back in 2013. I cannot say that all my questions about the series have been answered, or that it has satisfied all my wishes for the characters it presents, but I am getting ahead of myself.

Assemble is the series Marvel designed to take over for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. At the same time, this new series was meant to capitalize on the success of Marvel’s 2012 blockbuster The Avengers. Because of this, the Avengers’ roster in Assemble is dramatically shrunk from the one seen in Heroes. The team’s lineup is the same as in The Avengers with the exception of Falcon being part of the cartoon team. This is not, however, the same Falcon we saw and enjoyed in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This Falcon is instead a greenhorn seventeen year-old who occasionally brings his mother’s oatmeal raisin cookies to the Avengers’ Tower. (And yes, the whole team salivates over those cookies and is quite willing to fight over who gets how many.)

I do not enjoy Assemble as much as I liked Heroes, though it is not a terrible series. In fact, Assemble has had several stellar episodes. I will not list too many of the episodes here, but I think episodes like Hulk’s Day Out, Planet Doom, The Ambassador, All-Father’s Day, Crime and Circuses, Valhalla Can Wait, Ghosts of the Past, Nighthawk, and most recently, The Age of Tony Stark, are pretty good installments in the series. Most of these are stand-alone stories and bear no relation to the overall plot arcs of Assemble’s separate seasons, which is actually part of what makes them so wonderful for me.

This is not to diminish the general plot arcs of the series; I simply prefer these episodes because they are good character episodes which show the heroes at their best, in the moments when they are growing. A strong overarching plot is great, but once a writer sacrifices the characters’ growth just to keep up with the plot, they are in big trouble. By doing this they kill the very thing the audience is interested in: how the characters evolve and grow as people.

This leads me to the facts about Assemble which I am unhappy about. As I said, Heroes was a winning series for its characters and the way they interacted with each other. Assemble has these as well, and some of its moments are truly fantastic, especially in episodes like Planet Doom and The Age of Tony Stark. But sometimes it is hard to find that positive aspect in Assemble because the characters are suffering from an overdose of juvenile humor.

Now, I know that Assemble is for young children, and that children respond well to humor. I also know that I probably should expect nothing less than this humor in Assemble. In fact, as I said above, I did expect it. I could not have anticipated exactly what it would look like, but I sensed it was coming. And as for Assemble being geared toward a young audience, the fact is that Heroes was also aimed at youngsters of generally the same age as those who watch Assemble. I cannot understand why one series treated children intelligently but the subsequent series treats them juvenilely and relies heavily on infantile jokes, almost to the point that the characters and story are buried underneath an avalanche of laughter. All I know is that it happened.

My biggest problems with Assemble’s giving the heroes an immature sense of humor is not focused on Cap (who has kept his integrity through worse storms), Tony Stark, Thor, the Hulk, or even Falcon. Every last one of these, aside from Cap, has bouts of infantile humor which are either easily explained or part of the way the characters are currently designed.

It makes perfect sense that Falcon, being a seventeen year-old genius, retains a youthful sense of humor. Thor and the Hulk’s constant competition for the title of the strongest would, of course, lead them into embarrassing scrapes that they would (eventually) laugh about. Tony has been revamped as a playboy with a snarky and, at times, childish sense of humor. Cap has a sense of humor, too, of course. He just does not let it control him.

My biggest problem with the series, however, is the treatment of the Avengers’ two super spies: Hawkeye and Black Widow. The writers may have given Hawkeye an almost fraternity boy sense of humor in order to make him appear more likeable to younger children, perhaps afraid that his original, prickly personality might turn youngsters “off” of him. Nevertheless, I find the fact that they usually make Hawkeye the focus of a joke, the center of foolishness, or a complete prankster very annoying.

The archer has always had a sense of humor and a quip to lighten almost any tense moment, but he has never been a joke. Turning him into one rubs me the wrong way and dampens my enjoyment of an Assemble episode even before it starts. So far his most serious moments have been in Planet Doom, Crime and Circuses and Beneath the Surface. The first of these three episodes showcases a changed world where the Avengers were never formed, and where Hawkeye is a battle-weary resistance fighter with little reason to be anything but serious. Crime and Circuses shows Hawkeye’s painful Assemble back story (his history was full of bruises and betrayals even in the original comics), which is of course a sobering trial for any character. The third episode which shows him finally demonstrating the more serious side to his personality is Beneath the Surface.

Hawkeye seems to be presenting Marvel with a huge dilemma these days. Originally a testy, brash jerk, Marvel made him taciturn and suicidal in its Ultimates comic line. Now, in the “mainstream” comics and Assemble, they have gone from making him a laconic tough guy or a prickly pear to portraying him as the supreme April Fool’s day prankster.

I like neither extreme of the character; Hawkeye is not a blond version of the Punisher, nor is he a fraternity fool. If Marvel wanted to soften his thorny personality, there were better ways to do it. Until they can find a way to balance his humor with his serious side, it appears Marvel’s portrayals of Hawkeye are going to leave me disgruntled for a long time.

Assemble’s portrayal of Black Widow is also in need of some work. While Widow is not a bubbly or giggly woman by any stretch of the imagination, Assemble tends to make her appear overly serious and unwilling to even smile. Black Widow is certainly cynical and solemn, but she is also as ready with a wisecrack as her old partner, Hawkeye. And she certainly does not lack the capacity to smile at a joke.

On top of that, instead of showing Hawkeye and Widow as partners who respect and value each other, Assemble treats them like siblings who cannot make peace, even in the deadliest of situations. Widow almost constantly rides Hawkeye like a big sister trying to control an unruly younger brother; in the comics and other stories the two have had their differences, but they never reached this scale of immaturity (to my knowledge). Also, in episodes Molecule Kid and Beneath the Surface, where the two have to work almost exclusively on their own, they behave like a long-suffering married couple. Throughout these episodes they are constantly arguing, with Widow almost endlessly reprimanding Hawkeye for his immature behavior.

What is so annoying about this is that Widow actually has a sense of humor, one she is rarely allowed to exhibit in Assemble. Though more formal than even Cap in certain respects and tending to be pessimistic, Widow is not the coldly superior older sister she is portrayed in Assemble. The writers for the series are so busy trying to make her superior to the men on the team that they fail to show her for what she is: her male teammates’ equal. Instead of obviously standing over her teammates like an Amazon queen, which the writers doubtless hope she will, in Assemble Widow comes across as the petulant older sister more concerned with getting everything picture perfect and controlling her rowdy brothers rather than in doing what she has to do with her own style and flair.

This is grossly unfair to the character, not to mention to women, but it does not appear that anyone else has really taken notice of it. Widow is a great character, but in Assemble her ability has been diminished to fit a stereotype, the same way that Hawkeye has been reduced to the Avengers’ version of the class clown.

More than the foolish bouts between Thor and the Hulk, more than Tony’s irritating repartee, more than Falcon’s youthful humor or Cap’s supposed stoicism; the reduction of Widow and Hawkeye to mere tropes and stereotypes absolutely grinds my gears. Assemble has proven it can give the characters a good showing, despite its heavy reliance on childish humor. I wish that the writers would wake up and realize what they are doing to the series but, unfortunately, I do not think I could make them see this. To change course at this point would also upset the whole applecart and very likely ruin the series. So, no matter how aggravating Assemble becomes, this is what I have to live with at the moment.

No, it is not the worst thing in the world – to be sure it is not! But I do hope Marvel’s next Avengers series actually treats the characters with real respect and not with an aura of intelligentsia-slimed derision. After all, the success of Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes proves children are not stupid. They like character illustrations just as much as adults do. That Marvel treats Assemble in this manner is not just insulting to its characters; it is also highly insulting to their target audience. Alas, audiences today are regularly insulted. It is too bad that the audience of children must suffer as the adult audience does.

Marvel DISK Wars: The Avengers

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x1m0ku5_disk-wars-avengers-opening-hd_shortfilms

Lest you think, readers, that I am totally despondent over Marvel’s current treatment of its characters, I can assure you I am not. I am very frustrated, but that is not the same thing as despondent. Frustration means one is dissatisfied with what one has, while despondent means one has given up all hope of ever gaining a thing. I am not satisfied with Avengers Assemble as it stands; I think it could have been done better. But I have not despaired and given up hope that Marvel can tell good stories.

Part of the reason for this is that I have found a third Avengers series which does satisfy my tastes for good storytelling on several levels. It has good characterization and strong plots. That series is Marvel DISK Wars: The Avengers.

DISK Wars is a series focusing on Marvel’s Avengers that is written, directed, and animated in Japan (when I watch it, I have to rely on episodes with English subtitles). Marvel has been teaming up with artists in Japan for the past few years, and in this way has made at least two animated films and three or four different animated television series. These last formats focused on the vampire hunter Blade, the X-Men, Iron Man, and Wolverine. DISK Wars is targeted at Japanese children of roughly the same age group as those for whom Assemble’s writers aim to please, but DISK Wars treats the characters and its audience with more respect than Assemble does.

My past experiences with animated Japanese TV series, namely the original Speed Racer and Zoids: Chaotic Century, led me to the supposition that this Avengers series might not be too bad. Japanese authors in these previous series had not disappointed me and, while I certainly cannot vouch for all animated TV series from Japan, I had a feeling DISK Wars could turn out about as well as Speed Racer or Zoids had. So far I have not been disappointed, though I am wary of committing myself totally to this series because, as I have said, so far it has not disappointed. I do not want to give full support to a thing only to find out later that what I thought was unobjectionable needed a second – or a hundredth – opinion confirming or disproving my own. Time reveals all things, so I shall only share what I have observed so far.

The name DISK Wars comes from a particular device Tony Stark and a Japanese scientist, Dr. Nozumo Akatsuki, developed to contain super villains. These devices are triangular containers about the size of a wristwatch’s face called Digital Identity Securement Kits – or DISKs for short. By pointing a DISK at a villain – or a hero – and saying “D-Secure,” one can digitally capture a villain or hero in digital suspended animation. To release a villain or hero, one has to raise the DISK above their head, call out the name of the villain or hero in the DISK, and throw the DISK to the ground with the command “D-Smash!”

It sounds a little odd to us here in the West, I suppose, but I do not think it is a terrible idea. A friend of mine likes to refer to this series as “Avengers: Pokémon Style,” and I suppose that friend is not wrong in naming it so.

DISK Wars begins with Tony Stark inviting Dr. Akatsuki’s two sons, Hikaru and Akira, to a party/presentation revealing the DISKs to the world. As with any carefully laid plan in history, this one goes down the drainpipe fast. In the middle of the celebration, Loki crashes the party and uses villains captured in DISKs against the heroes. Then, holding Pepper hostage to force the heroes to submit, Loki captures every hero present – Avengers and other heroes as well – in DISKs. Only Spider-Man avoids being “D-Secured.”

Loki’s plans, however, also have a monkey wrench thrown into them. Actually, make that five monkey wrenches. Hikaru and Akira, along with three other kids who won tickets to the party, end up with five of the Avengers’ DISKs. Akira gains Iron Man’s DISK while Hikaru receives Thor’s. The other three children – Edward Grant, Chris Taylor, and Jessica Shannon – each receive Hulk’s, Captain America’s, and Wasp’s DISKs respectively. Since the heroes are trapped in the DISKs, they have to partner with these five children in order to battle Loki and other villains throughout the series.

There are more particulars to the story, but if I have whetted your curiosity with this cursory explanation, readers, I will avoid spoiling the fun you will have hunting down the details on this series yourselves. Suffice it to say that DISK Wars has impressed me fairly well for two reasons.

One, the Avengers’ characterizations in DISK Wars are all spot on, or close enough to it. As someone I know pointed out, the Japanese are experts at writing comics, so it is unlikely that they would mangle a TV show based on someone else’s comic book stories. All true, but this tells you what a bad state our writers have reached. Our comic book writers are often quite willing to turn the characters they are supposed to preserve and strengthen inside out. Seeing Cap, Wasp, Hulk, Thor, and Tony reacting to a situation or a person as they should due to their respective past characterizations is almost bitterly refreshing for me. The characterization of Spider-Man, Black Widow, and several other heroes is also nailed almost perfectly, though Hawkeye is once again just a little too serious.

Second, I enjoy the way the DISK Wars’ writers show how the characters mature throughout the series. The kids bonded to the Avengers are naturally forced to grow up and become complete persons in the course of their adventures. But an interesting aspect to this is how the Avengers are forced to mature through their partnerships with these children.

Being bonded to Akira, Tony has to take responsibility for the headstrong youngster, something that seemingly softens his attitude toward children – if not towards fathers and fatherhood. (Marvel loves to give their characters daddy issues so much that is has become aggravating.) Thor is forced to keep his eagerness for battle and glory in check; otherwise he will land Hikaru in trouble. The fact that the two each have a younger brother who is a pain (Loki more so than Akira) also helps Thor to grow up and realize he is not alone. Cap is forced once again to mentor a youth, though Chris proves to be a harder man to mold than Bucky because of his stubborn determination to be his own man, not dominated by others.

Similarly, Hulk has to learn to keep his temper in check with Edward “Ed” Grant. Ed is the youngest and smallest of the children, and therefore the one most likely to be paired with the Hulk just to satisfy everyone’s desire for poetic irony. While learning to go easy on Ed, the Hulk comes to understand that he does not necessarily have to be hard on everyone to be a tough guy – as Ed points out through his actions rather than through any of his direct statements. Everyone knows the Hulk is not to be messed with.

Wasp matures less noticeably than some of the other Avengers, since she is already a well-balanced character. Partnered with the self-centered rich girl, Jessica, Wasp more often acts as a teacher/older-sister/mother-figure for her partner. Still, lest others think me grasping at straws to describe what is not present, allow me a moment to point out that this is also growth. It is no mean feat to fill three roles at once (!), and on occasion Jessica’s behavior has demanded Wasp be teacher, sister, and mother all in the same instant. And, on some occasions, Jessica gets to turn the tables and repeat one of Wasp’s lessons in such a way that Wasp also learns something.

Other Marvel heroes in the series are also forced to stretch themselves beyond their comfort zones in dealing with the Avengers’ partners. Spider-Man, who is arguably one of the Marvel heroes most at ease with children, becomes something of an older brother figure for all five kids in the early episodes. Meanwhile Hawkeye, who is a staunch S.H.I.E.L.D. agent in DISK Wars, stays out of the team’s hair for the most part.

Regarding Ed and Hikaru, however, he makes special drop-in visits or speeches to boost the two boys’ confidence (probably because his own confidence has rarely – if ever – flagged, and he knows that confidence is essential in doing anything well, especially when one is fighting the good fight). The almost paternal friendship he forms with Ed is especially enjoyable (for me, anyway). While they do not appear to be as attached to him as they are to Spider-Man, all five children still come to rely on Hawkeye throughout the course of the series. It is a reliance he neither scorns nor complains about, he just accepts it and stays as faithful to the kids as he can.

Black Widow also gets introduced to the children. Where the others recognize the children as smart individuals, Widow at first sees them only as kids. When their unshakeable faith in their friends later proves correct, she is forced to realize (without saying as much) that childlike faith really can move mountains – or even remove “Venom-ous” symbiotes! Heck, even the Guardians of the Galaxy take to the children and grow because of that affection.

It is a pity Marvel’s other writers have not tried exploring these kinds of stories over the past few years, readers. After all, if there is one thing I have learned lately, it is that human beings are happiest when they are growing and developing – not just physically but mentally and in spirit. Therefore, the stories that make us happiest are the stories where the hero grows, where he or she learns just what they are capable of, just how much they can give. The process of becoming a complete person is hard, for them and for us. But, as the saying goes, “No pain, no gain.”

The growth of Marvel’s characters was very apparent in Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, but it is much hampered in Avengers Assemble. DISK Wars is, so far, the only current Avengers series where real growth, no matter how slow it may seem, is actually allowed. Maybe, someday, our writers on this side of the Pacific will remember how to let their characters mature and become strong. Then the stories they write will become really interesting, readers!

Until next time!

The Mithril Guardian