Category Archives: Cartoons

Church Vampires

For people my age manga is a new form of reading that is easily ignored. Although I’ve read a graphic novel or two, “comic books,” no matter how adult the theme, seem juvenile. Note that word “seem.” I do know some younger folks, and one of them insisted that I read Kouta Hirano’s Hellsing. This particular friend is as interested in vampires as I am, and, knowing my history with religion, suggested this might down my alley. Dubious, I gave it a try. In this manga universe Hellsing is a Protestant organization for fighting vampires and ghouls (non-virgin vampire victims who come back as zombie-like creatures who are very hard to stop). Their activity is in England, but when they cross into Ireland they encounter a Catholic organization that kills all vampires, including the “secret weapon” of Hellsing, who is indeed a vampire.

What made reading this tale so interesting is that the reader’s sympathy is drawn to the Protestant sect. The Hellsing characters are engagingly drawn—handsome or beautiful, resilient, and naturally good fighters. The Catholic characters are ugly and maniacal. They kill all monsters, regardless of their “heart.” In this the direction from the movie Van Helsing is reversed. There Van Helsing is a hireling of the Catholic Church who won’t kill a monster unless it’s evil. The idea of the graphic novel is that religious rivalry runs deep between these two Christian organizations. Thinking about this, I wondered how Christianity might look to someone from Japan. In this context, it makes sense. Christian missionaries penetrated east Asia from both Protestant and Catholic evangelistic efforts. Although they worship the same deity, they are quite different religions. At least it must look so to anyone not raised in this strange milieu.

Colonialism, in all its forms, has forced peoples to make decisions about new religions in a somewhat violent way. Imagine someone confronting you with your way of life and warning you that you’re going to suffer never-ending torment unless you accept a faith of which you’ve likely never heard. Then you discover that there are two very different versions of that faith that mutually condemn each other. The natural result, if you acquiesce at all, would be to choose the one that either makes the most sense, or the one that got to you first. Hardly the way to gamble with eternal life. I’m not sure Hellsing is intended as commentary on the experience of the colonized. It seems reasonable to me. And if vampires are a problem, you’ll want to be sure to select the right belief system the first time around.

Beautiful Beast

Like most kids in America I grew up with some form of Disney. We couldn’t afford to see many movies, but those we could often originated from the acknowledged master of childhood viewing. When I became a parent I naturally turned to Disney as one of the components of constructing a happy environment for my own child. Who doesn’t want better for their children then they had themselves? This was, however, in the days of VHS tapes. Disney frustrated more than one attempt to see a movie that was currently “locked in the vault”—a marketing tool used to glut the already overflowing coffers on demand. The heart wants what the heart wants, as the saying goes, and you knew that if you didn’t purchase the movie when it was available you might never see it again. Regardless, Disney does produce memorable work.

One movie that we missed until the vault unlocked was the animated Beauty and the Beast. We didn’t want to send the message that girls should be the captives of men, but Belle is a strong character, and we eventually realized that withholding much of childhood culture would isolate our daughter from what everyone else knew. Old habits die hard, as Disney knows. Our daughter is now grown, but a new Beauty and the Beast is in theaters and what was once vault material has softened into nostalgia. Recently I’ve begun to notice differences between original films and remakes when it comes to religion. In the new Beauty and the Beast there are only a couple of such instances, but they did make me wonder. In the opening sequence, as Belle is returning her book to Père Robert, a large crucifix stands in the background. Indeed, the camera keeps Belle off-center so as to make the cross obvious in the scene. Clergy and books make sense, and, of course, Belle offers to sacrifice herself for her father—a biblical trope.

When Gaston riles up the angry villagers, Père Robert is once more shown, objecting to the growing violence. Then, unexpectedly, as the castle transforms at the end, a gold finial of Michael the archangel slaying the dragon appears atop one of the towers. Again the symbolism is clear as the beast has allowed Gaston to escape, but the 45-inspired antagonist, unwilling to let grudges go, shoots the beast anyway. As the movie opens the famous Disney castle shows itself topped with that same finial. Is there a deeper message here? It’s just a children’s movie after all. Yet Père Robert is black and there are two interracial couples in the film. We should be, if I’m viewing this correctly, entering into a more tolerant and accepting world. Prejudice has no place in fantasy. Or reality. There are dragons to be slain here. If there is a deeper conscience at play it’s likely only to be found locked away in a vault.

Terms of Interment

In an early episode of The Simpsons Marge is commissioned to paint a portrait of Montgomery Burns. Angry with him because of his constant treatment of others as beneath him and his glib superiority granted by wealth, she paints him old and feeble, naked as he climbs from the shower. The crowd present for the unveiling is appropriately shocked. Marge explains her motivations for the painting and one of the voices in the crowd affirms, “He is evil, but he will die.” That scene was brought back to mind by an article a friend sent me on Archaeodeath. As someone who’s volunteered on an archaeological dig, I understand that the past is a history of death as well as of life. We read what historians choose to preserve. And, as Professor Howard M. R. Williams points out, the tomb often tells a tale that requires some subtlety in reading.

Never a great fan of the wealthy, some years ago I visited Sleepy Hollow. It was before the television series began, back in an October when the mind begins naturally to turn to death. I’d always liked the story by Washington Irving that had made this quiet town famous and it’s really not hard to get there from New Jersey. While in town we visited the famous cemetery, in search of Irving’s grave. Others are buried there, too. High on top of a hill stands a palatial tomb to some Rockefeller. As Prof. Williams makes clear, all must die and all tombs lie. Those who insist on the most opulent tombs are those who routinely overestimate their personal importance. So it is my mind turns from Montgomery Burns to Cyrus the Great.

There was a time when world conquerors possessed a dose of humility. It may seem strange in today’s world that an Iranian (in the days before there was an Iran, designed as it was by Europeans) would be considered a benevolent dictator. Cyrus reversed the deportation rules of the Babylonians and Assyrians. Subject peoples were permitted—encouraged even—to return to their lands. He even federally funded the building of temples and, to translate, centers for the arts. Cyrus understood that grateful people make good subjects. When Cyrus died, after being king of the world, he was interred in a decidedly understated tomb outside Pasargadae where, according to one account his inscription read, “I am Cyrus, who founded the Persian Empire. Grudge me not, therefore, this little earth that covers my body.” Archaeologists uncover the dead. Those who bill themselves grandly, as the diggers understand, seldom deserve the glory bestowed by their own minds. Marge Simpson, as usual, is a voice of wisdom.

Some president’s tomb

We Are an Island

moana_teaser_posterApropos of both building your own deity and Disney, my family went to see Moana. Now, I have to admit up front to being a bit behind on my Polynesian mythology. Scholars of the history of religions feel terribly insecure if they don’t read the languages or haven’t spent time with the culture first-hand. I’ve seen the Pacific Ocean a few times, but never from the point-of-view of an islander. In fact, one of the areas of growing interest in biblical studies is the interpretation of Holy Writ by islanders. Their perspective, it seems clear, is different from others in more populated land masses. So Moana, which delves into Pacific islander mythology, was a brand new world for me. More than hearing about the demigod Maui, it was a chance to consider what destruction of our ecosystem looks like to those who have more limited resources at hand. Those who, when global warming really kicks in, will be the first to become homeless.

One of the strange things about living in the post-truth world (defined as the world after 11/9) is that many movies, novels, and other creative explorations I encounter seem to underscore the demon we’ve invited in. Moana is about a girl who saves her people, but she only does so by defying the man in power. Had she not journeyed beyond the reef, her people would’ve starved on their island. Meanwhile the big white man prepares to assault the White House and all that our founders held dear: an educated leadership. Progress. Fair treatment for all. Someone needs to remind these short-sighted individuals that every landmass is an island.

As we approach the end of 2016 it’s time to think of where we’ve been. At the theater, an ad by Google showed the newsworthy events of the year. There could not have been a better rendering of the high hopes with which we began and the sorrow with which we’ve come to an end. Our scorn of education has caught up with us and we’ve asked “the man” to please destroy our world and enslave our women and deport anyone who’s different. We need a lesson in how to build better deities. We need to be willing to admit that a girl might know more than her father. We need to learn the wisdom of the islanders.

Lions and Lambs

This brief break between Christmas and New Year’s Day, taking into account the vacation days expended to enjoy it, is a time filled with movies, reading, writing, and sufficient sleep. In short, it’s like a dream. I’ll get around to addressing the movies eventually, but right now one in particular is on my mind: Zootopia. Disney movies weren’t a big part of my childhood. We did watch the Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights, but movies were an expensive treat. I remember seeing The Jungle Book, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and Herbie the Lovebug. When we could afford a movie, it was frequently at a drive-in where a carload was cheaper than individual seats. I missed several of the childhood western canon—I never saw Mary Poppins until I was in college. Becoming a parent in the 1990s meant becoming conversant with Disney.

zootopia

Oh, I’ve heard the conspiracy theories: Disney is “the evil empire,” part of the Bilderberg Group, the Illuminati, and any number of other collectives that want to run the world. They have access, we are told, to the young and a reach that excludes few before the age of ten. I know little of Disney’s business practices, but Zootopia suggests to me that they are telling our children the right message. The movie follows the ambitions of Judy Hopps, a bunny that want to be a police officer in Zootopia, the largest city in the animal world. Threatened and bullied because she’s a girl, and small—traditionally prey—she nevertheless overcomes the obstacles necessary to meet her dreams. Once she meets success, however, she finds herself engaging in prejudice against predators. Species profiling takes over and the white sheep (literally) take over.

The message of not assuming someone is a slave to their “biology” is a powerful one. Nick Wilde, the fox that assists Judy to her goal, becomes a victim. The only way forward for Zootopia is to recognize that profiling—gender or species—is wrong. Since the story isn’t preachy, it’s all the better. Watching unchecked prejudice surging through our political machinery today, it was difficult to believe that this movie was released all the way back in March. The prey animals are the majority, and they feel threatened and so follow the leadership that controls, deports the predators who’ve been law-abiding citizens all along. Only when we once again see shrews living peacefully next to elephants, rabbits, lions, and polar bears, do we get the sense that everything’s as it should be. I know nothing of Disney’s business practices, but with messages as important as this, I have but few worries.

Charlie Grinch

There were probably about half-a-dozen animated Christmas specials I recall watching as a child. The two that became fixtures, and remain part of my present holiday ritual, are It’s Christmas Charlie Brown and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I remember watching them from early days—of course you had to wait until their respective channels announced their advent in TV Guide (just writing that makes me feel older than the Grinch). Commuting wasn’t an issue then, so watching television was as common as candy canes and hopeful stockings. As an adult, though, you see things you overlooked, or simply accepted, as a child. I guess that’s what “believing in Christmas” is all about. The willful suspension of disbelief.

I’ve commented on these Christmas specials before. Charlie Brown has so many inconsistencies that an old biblical scholar can’t help but think of J, E, D, and P. What does the signage on Lucy’s Psychiatric Help booth really say? How many branches are on Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree? How does Sally get to the school before her big brother? The animation is clearly a little off—Lucy appears to emerge from the center of her booth’s wooden top as she gives advice to the woeful Charlie Brown with his Trump’s-been-elected-type depression. Still, Linus’ rendition of Luke’s Christmas story brings it home every time. Compare that with the Grinch.

Those who see a war on Christmas (there’s not) seldom cite the Grinch. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is entirely secular. No mention of a special birth. No angels or shepherds. Just a mean old man and his dog. The Grinch shares with Charlie Brown its message of looking beyond the commercialization of Christmas. In the case of the much better animated Grinch (although I still can’t figure out why that one Who’s hat repeatedly flashes from white to blue and back) it would seem that religion matters less than spirit. The Who’s Christmas song with its strange, non-English words, is a celebration of difference. Diversity. Even that angry old man who would steal Christmas itself is welcome in the end. The only war on Christmas is one that has been spawned in the imagination of those who fit the Grinch’s description in Thurl Ravenscroft’s rendering of Dr. Seuss’s lyric. Those my age will understand, and unless you were born yesterday, I suspect that you’ll get my meaning.

Comic Culture

KrakowKryptonPerhaps the most obvious deviancy in my otherwise conservative childhood was MAD Magazine. I honestly suspect my parents didn’t know that it wasn’t just another comic book. I read it—like I read everything—religiously, and I was fluent enough in the lingo to discuss it intelligently with my sixth-grade teacher, a fellow fan. Having made that admission, my reading of comic books was muted since we lived in a town with no literary aspirations or conveniences. There was no book store, or even magazine shop, let alone a public library. We were one of the towns Carnegie left behind. Still, I was draw to MAD contributor Arie Kaplan’s From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books. Over the past few years I’ve been reading academic treatments of comics as, with my beloved monsters, the high-brow academy has come to view low-brow as “culture.” (I learned the term “high-brow” from MAD, by the way.) As I grew into an Episcopalian, I tended to leave these markers of my shameful past behind, but now I’ve come once again to embrace them.

One of the odd things I’ve noticed about Jewish (and other “outsider”) analyses is just how deeply felt the anti-semitism of our culture is. This always strikes me as odd as, although it is hard to believe, I was raised to be non-prejudicial toward anyone else. (Poor folk are often that way; we know our place, beneath others.) I never felt superior to Jews, African Americans, or women. I was in awe of them. Maybe MAD helped. As Kaplan points out in his treatment, much of the comic industry was Jewish in origin because so many Jews were kept out of other businesses in New York. (Well, there is Diamond District, but let’s stick to publishing.) With few options, poor immigrant kids turned to cartoons. As a child in a humble household I often took out my frustrations by making my own comic books. I can understand the catharsis.

With the current glut of superhero movies, it may be hard to imagine a time when comic books and their denizens were considered utter foolishness. Now they’re big money. It’s not so much that the mighty have fallen than it is the humble have been exalted. I haven’t really read comic books since I was maybe fourteen. Up to that point, however, they got me through many a difficult time with the belief that there was someone out there watching over me. No superheroes ever delivered me from my troubles, but belief was sometimes all I needed. I can understand why those who are discriminated against would turn to this medium for release. Faith and fantasy share more than an opening syllable, for those with eyes to see.