By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

Political humor is a wonderful and necessary rhetorical tool in shaping our perceptions about politics and politicians.

Growing up in the 80s/90s, I was shaped in part by the many hilarious impersonations of politicians by one of America’s most notable comedic institutions: Saturday Night Live. A number of SNL’s most famous impersonations have become more ingrained in our culture than the actual politicians.

Still today, when I hear George H.W. Bush I first think of SNL’s Dana Carvey:

And Carvey again for Ross Perot:

Ross Perot

“Can. I. Finish?”

And Jon Lovitz as Michael Dukakis:

 

These days, it seems nearly impossible to separate Sarah Palin from Tina Fey’s brilliant impersonation of her:

Sarah Palin

When done well, political humor reveals critical truths about politicians, policies, laws, and societal injustices, all in a way that makes us laugh and makes topics a bit more palatable and approachable. Even scorching criticism can be made to seem charming in the right hands; Fey’s Palin is a good example. In some ways, so is Jimmy Fallon’s Trump impersonations, like when he played Trump with the cast of Full House.

 

Or back in the 90s when Phil Hartman’s Bill Clinton stopped in McDonald’s to sneak food off of customers’ plates:

phil_hartman_clinton

In this way, humor invites a larger audience into important discussions. Upon taking over The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon was advised by his predecessor Jay Leno to lengthen his monologue because it isn’t just a source of laughter, but also as a way to inform people about the news of the day. And the same can be said for other famous sources of political humor like The Daily Show and The Onion.

However, I wonder if our round-the-clock access to social media, communication, and information has created a detrimental excess of political humor.

This week provided one possible example.

On Monday night, Donald Trump’s wife Melania spoke at the Republican National Convention. By the time I woke up early Tuesday morning, reports were posted everywhere that she had plagiarized a portion of her speech from a Michelle Obama speech. By the time I arrived at work, I had already seen countless posts across social media making fun of Melania and the situation. When I checked social media at lunch, the flood of jokes had not even slowed, nor had they when I checked social media again in the early evening. The jokes were coming from all levels: from regular folks to major publications and shows.

Not even 24 hours removed from Melania’s speech, I already thought, “Okay, the jokes have been absolutely beaten to death.”

Just to be clear, I have no allegiance or affiliation to either political party or candidate, and my example is not a veiled defense of Melania or the situation. I am all for anyone and everyone calling out any politician or any of their associates who do or say anything wrong, and I want people to be able to have productive dialogue about important issues. And that’s really a major part of my concern with the excess of humor.

Political humor, when done well and delivered in the right doses, inspires productive dialogue. But the well done doses are now surrounded by floods of other material, much of which is unfunny, and some of which can even be insulting and inflammatory, which just serves to shut down dialogue, not inspire it.

Partly, the poor material is a product of the “writers”; there is obviously a world of difference between John Q. Facebook trying to be witty and the professional writers developing material on shows like SNL, The Tonight Show, and The Daily Show.

Plus, on social media, many of the posts are just playing to the lowest common denominator to get attention and more ‘Likes’ while having zero concern for promoting thoughtfulness and dialogue.

Ultimately, the comedic congestion can turn important issues into white noise, meaning the inspired political humor that is aiming to be informative and transformative is getting partially (or completely) lost in the buzz. And if the flood of voices “kill the joke” so quickly, are people burning out on subjects before ever taking time to give the subject some proper thought and conversation?

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

As a student of history, I am usually pretty dubious about claims to novelty.  When someone says ‘There has never been a time/event/thought/argument like this before!!’, my first thought is usually ‘You sure about that?’ But, there are times when professions of originality are justified. No matter what the cliches claim, history doesn’t simply repeat itself ad infinitum.

This political season has had a number of ‘never-befores’.  Just because it is a ‘never before’ though, doesn’t mean that it will be a ‘never again’. The most revolutionary aspect of this election cycle, and the one that will be with us for the foreseeable future is the role social media is playing in our political culture.  This blog post will be the first in a number that will explore the sometimes exciting, sometimes troubling innovations in the quickly developing realm of social media politics.


To label social media politics as revolutionary is not hyperbole, nor is it surprising. Social media has revolutionized so many parts of our lives, why not mainstream electoral politics?  However, what is shocking is the transformative figure at the forefront twitter-social-network-icon-vector_652139of this revolution. It is not some youthful radical Congressional candidate from Berkeley or Brooklyn. No, this revolutionary figure is a 70 year-old angry dude who, prior to last year was best known for a reality television series and a combover.  Of course, I refer to Donald Trump.

Since he entered the race for the Republican nomination last June, Trump has continually been underestimated.  Over and over, political prognosticators have made two incorrect, though related projections.  One group of media fortune-tellers simply believed Trump would inevitably lose because of his ‘lack dailynewstrumpof a filter’.  According to this mainstream assumption, Trump would say too many offensive and/or ridiculous things, and the inherently moderate American voter would surely turn away in disgust.  That did not happen in the Republican primary, and these prognosticators were forced to reassess their beliefs….but only slightly. The Nostradamus crowd predicted that once Trump had to deal with the larger American general electorate, he would either veer to the center. The assumption was that Trump would batten down the hatches, go middle of the road, or inevitably face defeat. If the latest polls are any indication, these ‘expert’ opinions may be proven wrong as well.  What the nation’s political commentators never grasped was one of the  reasons Trumpists love Trump: The man never does what most rational observers would expect.

Nothing has displayed Trumpian ‘irrationality’ more than the candidate’s Twitter account. Like all social media, Twitter allows the user to instantaneously respond to external events, or share individual thoughts and personal desires. Trump tweets have allowed America to see the ‘realDonaldTrump’.  But Trump’s Twitter has become much more than simply a tool for his personal attacks, or a display of his psyche. Trump has  transformed the social media tool into a personal permanent propaganda platform. In this, he seems to eerily understand our media saturated environment better than any major political figure in recent memory. Here is how it all works:

  1. In 140 characters, Trump shoots off 3 or 4 controversial messages a week, knowing full well the media echo-chamber will spread his message to the masses.
  2. His twitter followers see his tweet, and adopt his political lexicon.
  3. However, many of these ‘followers’ are not Trumpians. Some are social media watchdogs who wait for the candidate to write something outrage.
  4. These people then retweet the original tweet with criticism attached, sending it to a whole new audience.
  5. Eventually, social media news platforms of both political stripes pick up the tweet, share it, and pass it on to an even more diverse audience.
  6. Lastly, once these platforms are all writing similar articles, the largest outlets get involved.  When Trump’s tweets get enough traction, it gets splayed in the MSM (Main Stream Media) of major Newspapers, TV and radio. And just like that….billions upon billions of humans can’t stop analyzing Trump’s latest statement.

This methodology of political propaganda is obviously cunning.  But, there is a very strange paradox wrapped into this method as well. Trump’s social media campaign speaks to his voters and, perhaps even more importantly, he speaks in the voice of his voters. Trump provides quick-hitters in black trump-twitterand white absolutes. After all, there can truly only be absolutes in the Twitter-verse; in 140 characters nuance is all but impossible. For a very large portion of humanity living in a confusing time of change, this absolutism is obviously reassuring. However, for many of the people Trump is speaking to and for, the original medium he is using for his message is one of the most troubling symbols of our rapidly changing world. For a great number of Americans who wish to ‘make America Great Again,’ social media is an enemy. It is understood by wide swathes of Americans as THE vehicle feeding our nation’s already intense narcissistic tendencies. Even more mysterious is that one of Trump’s most important demographics has no experience with using social media at all. Last year, when Trump was still fighting for the Republican nomination, almost 40% of his supporters were over 65 years old.  These same 65 year-olds are generally the ones who, at the very least, don’t have a strong connection to social media.  According to Pew Research, only 9% of Twitter users are over 60 years old. 91% of Twitter users are ‘kids these days.’

So, what is happening?  That is a much more difficult question to answer.

I think part of the answer can be found in the duel nature of social media in our political culture. It is both a source of enlightenment, and also a source of paranoia.  Perhaps investigating this duality in my next blog will shed light on this paradox.

 

 

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

When Paul Gaszak and I started this blog 4 years ago, we did so with the goal of avoiding ‘controversial’ and ‘political’ topics. Of course, this has not always been possible.  Completely ignoring the aforementioned two topical realms pretty much closes off most blog possibilities.  Our blog’s discussions of race, education, food, history, science and pop culture can’t help but be political. These topics themselves are politicized in our culture.  Plus, would you really want to read this blog if those topics were never discussed? Our subjective viewpoints make this blog interesting; without them, our little venture would be pretty lifeless. All in all though, I think we have fulfilled our initial promises. We have kept out of many of the ugliest political controversies that seem to rock our world on an ever more common basis.

But, times change and so do politics. As anyone can see, this election year is unique.  I capitalhave been dying to write about it, but we have that whole ‘no controversy’ goal. What to do, what to do?

I’ve decided to start anew….kinda.  With this post, I am creating a new subsection of the Turtle titled ‘Politics 2016’.  ‘Politics 2016’ will be devoted to analyses of the coming November elections, and the state of American politics generally.  Of course, I will be voting and I have an interest in who wins the upcoming election. I fall on one side of the political divide, and I’m sure many readers fall on the other. Hopefully though, the posts that appear on our blog will not identify any Map_of_the_District_of_Columbia,_1835sort of partisan alliance. There will be no hyping of one candidate or the other. There will be no soap-box stances taken on any particular ‘contentious’ issues. This subsection will simply deal with the changing face of American politics, and our larger political culture.

This will be a challenge.  Can this challenge be faced without generating nasty political rancor?  I don’t know. But, I feel it is necessary to try, both for our few readers and for my own mental stability during this crazy election cycle.

So, join us, won’t you?  And, if you have something to add, please do!

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

This weekend, I’ll be voLUNTerring, once again, for the Logan Square Arts Festival, in the beer tent on Friday night from 4:30-7:30pm—stop by!

Volunteering in my neighborhood is something I see as my responsibility as a civic-minded individual fond of building and enjoying the profits of a strong community, and it’s fun!

logan1

“The monument” in the park in the center of Logan Square, where people congregate and enjoy life in our beautiful corner of the world.

I love my neighborhood—Logan Square—where I have lived since relocating to Chicago in 2007. I’m thoroughly at home in this place. Many of my closet friends live here, too, and we can walk easily to visit one another on weekends. The numerous joys of neighborhood living include running into friends on the streets, at cafes and bars, in the parks, and on the train.

Over Memorial weekend I encountered two friends who quickly and eagerly encouraged me to join them at the BBQ where they were headed. Just this week, I was pausing at an intersection to look at a rose blooming along the fence at the corner at Kedzie and Fullerton. My friend Joey was passing. He said hello and we stopped to catch up and we discussed the book he was reading. I could recount an infinite number of frequent and lovely encounters I share with friends and neighbors; we should all be so lucky!

logan2

 

Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, a gift bestowed on urban citizens that yields incredible benefits; unfortunately, the plague of neighborhoods has always been and will always be gentrification.

When I moved into Logan Square, I paid a reasonable rent, $800 per month for a one-bedroom apartment. Without such a low rent payment, I’d never have been able to stay in the city and build a life here. That particular apartment’s rent was increased to $850 a month the second year. The third year, I was extended the surprising offer of $1050 per month, an increase of $200 in 12 months; I certainly hadn’t experienced a $200 increase in salary. I moved to another apartment elsewhere in the neighborhood. The rental company, the reviled M. Fishman, was able to rent out my far-from large or luxurious place for $1150 that year. Due in part to this unchecked and illogical increase in rents, the current going rate for renting a one bedroom apartment is a ludicrous $1400 per month.

M. Fishman has the distinction of being the worst landlord in Logan Square, perhaps all of Chicago. Anyone who isn’t in his pockets truly despises the man’s business practices. He was instrumental in driving rent prices up and hard-working low-wage workers (including college students and artists) and middle class (healthcare professionals, educators, lawyers) residents out. In fact, a local artist made artwork depicting the ways M. Fishman’s prices were forcing locals out of the area; the young woman’s art was selected for display in the local Art Fest a few years back. As a board member of I am Logan Square, one of the festival’s sponsors, Mr. Fishman objected. The artwork stayed. It was he who was asked to leave (he was asked to step down from I am Logan Square). I’ve heard a rumor that the man has chronic insomnia; trouble sleeping seems a most appropriate condition for him.

Despite my manifold connections to the community, I’ll have to leave Logan Square soon. Other friends and neighbors left long ago. Many young couples found the escalating rent too much to pay. The family who lived on the first floor of my current building was forced out due to a huge rent increase just last month. They had lived in their apartment for twenty years, raising a daughter who now attends RMU, where I work as a professor.

Meanwhile, terrible, and tremendously costly, building projects are invading Logan Square. In addition to being hilariously over-priced, the truly hideous “towers” condominiums projects are effectively ruining the view of the city visible down Milwaukee Avenue. I expect even the head foreman would confess that the buildings are ugly.

highrise

Well, this corner used to be cozy. . .

I enjoy living simply, and I respect my neighbors, whether they have more or less than I do. Apartments are the happy households of countless Americans. Not everyone will have a house, but everyone needs a home. Neighborhoods benefit from the investments, both economic and intangible that contented neighbors bring to a community. Indeed, it is the diversity of a neighborhood that makes it strong, which is why building and renting to members of only one economic stratum strips a place of both personality and heart.

What is lost when truly rooted residents are forced out cannot be quantified. Perhaps that is why so many people have difficulty understanding the real value of a neighborhood.

logansq2

 

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

Punctuality and productivity are crucial skills for a purposeful life, and I am a champion of reliability and consistency. My friend Hanna once remarked that if I say I’ll be somewhere at 11:00am, then that’s exactly where you’ll find me. I consider this a ringing endorsement of my character.

Nevertheless, a drawback to precision can emerge when I forget to relax and savor life’s little moments.

Recently frustrated by noncompliance with my desire to “press on” to the next destination because there was “no need to linger,” I was reminded by my wonderful friend Kris that waiting a few minutes would do no harm.

At Sunday brunch, I was urged by wait staff to “take my time,” since there was “no rush.” These messages are both slightly comical and abundantly necessary for a regimented individual like me.

Over the long holiday weekend, I was reminded to “relax,” which, ironically, always has the opposite effect. Relaxation simply must come from within; however, it can be summoned by a pleasant reminder.

no hurry

Thus inspired, I decided to slow down. Given the early arrival of balmy temperatures, the time is ripe to downshift into the slower pace of lazy, hazy summer days. Following Walt Whitman’s lead, I shall take time to marvel at a blade of grass while I “lean and loaf and invite my ease.”

I recall the absolute delight of meandering through the woods during my childhood. I had hours and hours to fill, no destination, no boundaries. Ian Frazier’s sweet essay “A Lovely Sort of Lower Purpose” discusses these same unintentional rambles; coincidentally he also grew up tramping through the woods of Northeastern Ohio. Certainly, a walk in the woods is a worthy way to invite leisure. In fact, I recently learned that the Japanese advocate healing through “forest bathing,” called Shinrin Yoku.

relax2

A bottle opener also makes an excellent book mark.

These days, the way I achieve relaxation of the meaningless sort involves taking a blanket, and few beers, and a good book to the park to sit under a tree: reading, thinking, drinking, and soaking up the subtle beauties of Chicago’s neighborhood parks. Two weeks earlier, I’d done just that, and snapped a photo of my version of aimless contentment. Indeed, on any sunny day, Palmer Square Park positively overflows with layabouts.

With this renewed intent to behave less intentionally, I go forth into the summer months determined to do less and enjoy more.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

There is a specter haunting the world of academia, and college professors are wailing with fear and frustration. Every few months, the opinion pages of such diverse publications as The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal and the Chronicle of Higher Education bemoan this specter.  50 year old college professors fill the pages of these prestigious productions with 6a6151155fbde50cec7b9616661c1448d3374fa7op-eds categorically stating that today’s ‘college students can’t write.’  If you don’t believe me, the weblink attached takes you to 78 million screeds lamenting the lost art of the sentence, the paragraph and the essay. Peruse your pick, and fear for the future.

Personally, I find such concerns to be generally overstated and misplaced. I read thousands of student journals and papers every year, and I have seen very little decline in the standard and quality of student work.(In fact, it has generally been the opposite) Some students are good writers, some are not so good writers. Some are good because they try hard at it, edit furiously and understand how to analyze ideas. For those who are not so good, I find it often comes down to simple laziness.  A proofreading here and there never hurt anyone, but there are some students who can’t take the time.  It doesn’t mean they aren’t good writers. It just means they have no problem turning in mediocre work. That is their prerogative.

Most concerns about the lost art of writing feel there is more to this issue than just laziness. However, these concerns are often based upon misguided notions. For one thing, there seems to be a belief that college students in the past wrote Dickensian prose and essays that would put Virginia Woolf to shame. This is ludicrous.  The conservative linguist John McWhorter illustrated this in his intriguing 2013 TED talk ‘Txting is Killing Language. JK!!’ About halfway through his 13 minute lecture, McWhorter illustrated that our concern about the lost art of writing is by no means novel.  In 6 quick examples, McWhorter quotes professors and educators from the past 2000 years that sound incredibly like the Cassandras of today. See the queued up clip below:

So it seems that  professors have  always complained about their younger charges’ writing skills. As McWhorter displays, this has much to do with the simple fact that language and linguistics change over time.  But, I think there is something more to it. It’s difficult for humans to believe that what they know now, they have not always known. Ask a professor or teacher about their undergrad writing skills. I guarantee most believe their writing ability at 19 compares favorably to their abilities today. After all, if you are a good writer at 40, you must have been a good writer at 19….right?

Just recently, I was reminded of the much messier reality. When I think back on my undergrad writings it is with rose-tinted glasses.  I mean, I got a bunch of A’s on my college papers after-all!  So, imagine how flummoxed I was the other day when I stumbled upon on old box of 20 year old papers I had written as a junior in college.  Woah!  Pretty ugly!  The work was not terrible by any means, but it was not quite as magical as I recalled. In fact, most of the writing looks pretty similar to what my own students produce today.  To be honest, many of the papers I grade are much better than what I did 20 years ago.  There is no shame in this.  As a 20 year old college student,  I was a different person than my present day self. In college I was just starting to develop many skills in life. Writing was just one of those skills.  The college students that I see today are in the same boat.  They’re 20 years old, and still learning.  It is ridiculously inane to profess an absolutist belief about their abilities at this point in their life.  To say they ‘can’t write’ is at best a misplaced prejudice. At worst it is a sign of outrageous egotism.  Unfortunately, those 78 million Google hits fall under both categories.

My suggestion to the writers and readers of that litany of op-eds?  Before getting too concerned about the end of writing as we know it, look back at your own work from college. You may be in for a surprise.

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

This Tuesday’s Google Doodle for Teacher Appreciation day offered an awesome opportunity to ponder the power of tremendous teachers everywhere.

doodle

How cute is this?

As a teacher, I have the good fortune of working with extraordinary teachers. My colleagues in The College of Liberal Arts at Robert Morris continuously inspire me and my teaching practice. My fellow teachers are exciting, creative, funny, and smart. Naturally, all of the regular Turtle bloggers top my list of coworkers whose contribution I hold in high esteem (MSJ, Paul, JJS, Dr. Stern, Mick, Ellen). Many more colleagues in the College of Business, Health, and Design impress me with their ability to encourage and empower their students every day.

My past teaching life in Ohio, Florida, and elsewhere in Illinois was equally enhanced with wonderful educators who helped form my curriculum and understanding, many of these past coworkers remain among my most trusted friends.

My personal experience with teachers has been rich and varied. Most of my closest friends currently are or have been teachers (too many to list; we teachers stick together!).  Over the years we discussed, at length, the countless joys and frequent frustrations teachers endure.  Ultimately, teachers are my tribe.

Thinking back on my most memorable teachers calls to mind not precise details, (who taught me fractions? I have no idea). Instead, the larger lessons emerge, and with them the recognition of the ways they suffuse all that I am and do. To honor the teachers who shaped my life, I contemplate and celebrate the knowledge they so generously shared with me.

adjunctaward

Mrs. Debbie Bernauer was an incredibly kind and supportive third grade teacher. The woman went so far as to attend one of my softball games. This compassionate commitment is typical of the best elementary school teachers who devote a marvelous amount of their time, talent, and energy to the children they teach with boundless love.

In Middle School, Mr. Johnson taught the behaviors of critical thinking and the importance of the preparation a good education can provide. A history and government teacher, his favorite phrase was “There’s nothing constant except change.” This sort of philosophical wordplay stayed with me across the years. His side job as a farmer no doubt helped underscore his tendency to address the cruel realities each life was bound to encounter.

Many of my teachers at Brecksville-Broadview Heights high school are still vivid in my memory: how extraordinary!bee

My long-suffering Math teacher, Mr. Sycz, worked tirelessly to help us grapple with geometry, algebra, and calculus, which resulted in a much easier encounter with college math requirements.

My choir teacher, Mr. Valley, was a fixture throughout all four years. Choir class concluded my day, and I still highly recommend singing every afternoon. His enthusiasm for music and the program resulted in the growth and development of remarkable range of musical opportunities. He expanded the choir, band, orchestra, and song & dance team, the delightful “Music in Motion” in his time, long before Pitch Perfect made singing cool.

Mr. Chordas’ intense approach to education was endlessly inspiring. A brilliant history teacher, he also taught a psychology elective senior year that offered an intriguing peek into the life of the mind.  The biggest impact on my learning was a result of his model of excellence, curiosity, and openness.

Mrs. Ford was the woman who helped me love language and literature. She planted the seed for my future in teaching. In her class, we read widely, the classics: Milton, Chaucer, Shakespeare; moderns and contemporaries: Steinbeck, Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, and Alice Walker. Conversations of the texts, followed by writing copious journal entries molded my thinking and my life. I’ve kept a journal ever since her class.

In college, I learned from many different teachers, all of whom knew a great deal, but I did not make the effort to develop a meaningful relationship with most of my professors, the exceptions being Kathy Fagan and Christopher Highley. No doubt the sheer size of The Ohio State University makes creating a personal connection more difficult. I regret not having sought ought my professors for advice and guidance.

In graduate school, the bond between professor and student evolves. The exchange of information tends toward a cooperative learning of equals working side by side. At Cleveland State University, I had the benefit of an extraordinary English Department filled with professors who were thoughtful teachers and accomplished writers: Dr.  Neal Chandler, Dr. Leonard Trawick, Dr. Daniel Melnick, Dr. Rachel Carson, Sheila Schwartz, and the brilliant Dan Chaon.  At Kent State for MLIS, my thesis advisor and favorite professor, Dr. Jason Holmes, guided my every step, a kindness for which I shall be forever grateful.

Teachers create an incredibly positive impact on the individual and the world; I remain humbly in their debt and happily among their ranks.

Cue Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.”

By Scarlett DeRousse, RMU Student.

America: land of the hot dog, apple pie, and the nation’s favorite pastime: baseball. As April rolls in, all is normal and well as the first pitches are thrown, and American cities can begin to hate each other once more. A wave of excitement and hope sweeps across the nation as fans root for their currently flawless team. But this excitement is not as strong anywhere as it is in Chicago with the Chicago Cubs. Writing for the Tribune, David Haugh saw that”the enthusiasm of Cubs fans made its presence felt in the first outing of 2016″.  Of course, a “blank slate” is nothing new for the Cubs, but it is April so their hearts are in October. I guess Nelson Algren was speaking the truth when he said that “Chicago is an October sort of city even in spring”. This time, though, it is not just fans who are living on hopes of the future: According to Haugh, “On day one, the Cubs already were thinking as if it will be a long one”. Last years near success, changed the team’s focus to “staying fresh for September and October”. It is a long time until October’s playoffs, but all eyes will be watching the Cubs, especially in Chicago and St. Louis.

cubs11

during game four of the National League Division Series at Wrigley Field on October 13, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.

“In baseball, as in life, all important things happen at home,” and so my heart is with my home team in St. Louis. I was raised on the bleachers outside those dusty fields, so naturally I have a love of the game. Unfortunately, I ended up in the city of my home team’s rival. My presence in Chicago for everything else grew and intertwined myself deeper with the city, but my love of the game has never made me feel more like an outfielder. As the season takes it opening, I become a little less Chicagoan.  I love this city, but I hate it’s team.This part of myself, however, is at risk with the potential success of the Cubs. This side of my identity is built on the confidence against my new town, and the win of a World Series would crush my St. Louis pride. Would I be a Cubs fan? Absolutely not! It would, however, take away the superiority and confidence I receive as being a Cardinals fan.

However, with a history like the Cubs, it is unlikely they will make history.

While the Cubs may have been caught up in their fantasies last season, reality hit like a st_louis_cardinals_fans_23bnne8z_s9dcey67fastball. Apparently, that reality wasn’t hard enough to crush the hopes for next season; that hope is over 100 years old, so its doubtful anything can. Even I, a Cardinals fan, cannot deny their potential. But I am no Cubs fan, so I live in reality; that potential is nothing more than potential. The Cubs may be able to get close this season to winning it all, but close doesn’t make dreams come true. The Cubs will lose, I will stay rooted in my Cardinal identity, and I will always root root root for my home team.

By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

(This post is a response to “Superhero Movies are Rarely Super” by Michael Stelzer Jocks.)

Yesterday, my dear colleague Michael Stelzer Jocks wrote about how superhero movies are rarely super, and I feel compelled to respond. I am a lover of superhero films (the only thing I want for my birthday on May 5 is to see Captain America: Civil War that night), and I am familiar with the genre both as a fan and as a writer/teacher of Science Fiction (SF) & Fantasy. However, I am not an apologist for the genre. So, allow me to respond to some of the points made by MSJ.

“There seems to be no end in sight to our nation’s endless desire for…the spate of ‘superhero’ movies that just keep racking up box office records.” – MSJ

First, the desire for SF & Fantasy films (of which superhero films are a subgenre) is not restricted to the United States. Of the top ten films with the highest worldwide grosses of all-time, eight are SF/Fantasy films. The highest grossing superhero movie is Marvel’s The Avengers, which earned $1.5 billion dollars. Of that total, 41% was domestic, which means it grossed nearly $900 million outside of the United States.

Avengers Poster

Also, while we are in a golden age of superhero films, cinematic adaptations of comics are certainly not new. Just to name a few, there is the classic Adam West Batman TV series of the 60s, Richard Donner’s Superman film in the 70s, and Tim Burton’s Batman film in the 80s.

The success of superhero films, like all films, has been dictated by the quality of the film’s writing, direction, and acting. Countless comic book adaptations have been financial and/or critical disasters, such as last year’s Fantastic Four, Halle Berry’s Catwoman, Ben Affleck’s Daredevil, and the infamous Joel Schumacher Batman films of the 90s. So, you are correct: not all superhero movies are super.

However, what has driven this golden age of superhero films is not a blind interest in comic book stories, but rather studios finally treating these stories with care.

A great example is Deadpool, 2016’s surprise hit. The Deadpool character was, prior to the film, virtually unknown to the general population. Even to comic book fans, Deadpool would classify as a C or D-level character in the Marvel universe. For iconic characters that all people know, like Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man, audiences will flock just based on the name value of the character. Deadpool’s success was not due to a craving for comics; it has a sharp, hilarious script that is well-paced and well-acted. Positive word of mouth drove that film’s success, not opening weekend name value (like Batman v. Superman).

Deadpool

The same can be said of Marvel’s Iron Man. Now, in 2016, Iron Man is well-known to all moviegoers, but when the first Iron Man film was released in 2008, Iron Man was a character known largely only to comic fans. There was plenty of skepticism even among comic fans about how a “lesser” character could carry a film; yet, director Jon Favreau and star Robert Downey Jr. made a wonderful movie that caught fire and led to the current Marvel Cinematic Universe.

“Putting [Batman and Superman] in the same film would be like plopping Indiana Jones down in a James Bond movie. What is the point? It reminds me of when Scooby Doo would inexplicably team up with Sonny & Cher or the Harlem Globetrotters. Come on! Why are these people hanging out with meddling kids and helping solve mysteries? I say again, ‘ridiculously asinine’.” – MSJ

Superman and Batman sharing a film is not at all like Indiana Jones and James Bond appearing in the same film. The general movie-going audience has become accustomed to superheroes being segregated into their own films, but that is a product of film studios and business, not the source material.

Superheroes have always shared the same “universe” and regularly interact in all mediums (comics, cartoons, video games) except films, where dollar signs and film rights had kept characters separate until Marvel Studios started their cinematic universe in 2008 with Iron Man, which paved the path to The Avengers in 2012. The first time “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” combined in the comics was 1963, nearly 50 years before it finally happened on screen.

Batman and Superman appeared together for the first time in a comic book in 1952, a whole 64 years before the Batman v. Superman film.

Sup and Bat

Indiana Jones and James Bond were written by different authors for different mediums and never had a connection. They were never meant to share a story or screen, unlike comic book characters.

A better analogy would be to take the process in the opposite direction. Imagine if George Lucas had written Star Wars initially as a book, but Warner Bros. purchased the film rights to Luke Skywalker and 20th Century Fox had purchased Han Solo. Then, for 50 years, the studios made films independent of one another in which Luke and Han could never share the screen, because it would result in endless legal battles. After 50 years, casual moviegoers who weren’t familiar with the source material would find it perfectly normal that Luke and Han aren’t sharing the screen; they’d be their own, independent SF/Fantasy space opera franchises. Meanwhile, fans of the source material would be left daydreaming about seeing Luke and Han together in the Millennium Falcon up on the big screen just as was always intended.

Han luke

“Why are Batman and Superman fighting?” -MSJ

Let me make something clear: Batman v. Superman is a terrible film. I saw it twice in the theater, and was not biased against it. I love the Batman character and wanted the film to work. However, the writing, direction, and editing are all terrible. The acting has some horrible failings, as well. In total, the film failed miserably to properly represent why Batman and Superman would ever come to blows.

However, let’s look to other superhero films that have tackled this concept successfully.

Whether in superhero films, other storytelling genres, or just real life, it is very possible for “good guys” to have ideological differences that put them in different camps, if not outright conflict. This has been well-depicted in a number of superhero films, particularly both Avengers films and Captain America: Winter Soldier. Throughout these films, the heroes all mean well, but they do not see eye-to-eye at all times about what is right. The growing tensions of what’s right and wrong are what precipitate the conflicts in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War.

Civil War

Thus, heroes being in conflict is not absurd – it’s good storytelling. It is actually a sign that the characters are well-rounded, that they have personalities and beliefs that make them much deeper than just their SF/Fantasy superpowers.

“But my real problem with most superhero movies…is the fact that they center around boring, lifeless characters. Action movies must be more than just action. Adventure movies must have interesting, complex protagonists that face and overcome challenges. In other words, human beings need to run the show. Superman? The Hulk? Thor? An all powerful alien, a freakish monster, and a god? There is no complexity here. There are no challenges these beings can’t easily overcome.” – MSJ

Oh, Michael. Your limited viewing of superhero films is really showing on this statement. One of the most important reasons that we are in a golden age of superhero films is because of precisely the opposite of what you claim here. As you stated, “Give me a ‘superhero’ movie in which the hero is more human than super!”

They’re all around you. You cited two wonderful examples in Netflix’s Daredevil and Nolan’s Batman series, but those just scratch the surface.

In any SF/Fantasy story, the key is to speak to the human element. As readers or moviegoers, we marvel at and enjoy the lightsabers and high-tech suits of armor, but those aren’t the elements of the story we, as humans, connect with. It’s the emotions, relationships, and themes we grab hold of. Likewise, in superhero movies, there is always the “supervillain” but the best superhero movies have much deeper, human conflicts. Here are some examples of the human emotions and conflicts:

  • Peter Parker is dealing with his love life and regrets over how he failed his family. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 is a love story about Peter struggling with how his life and responsibilities always seem to prevent him from being with the woman he loves.
  • Tony Stark is tormented by his consciousness after the death and destruction that resulted from his actions (which is somewhat Dostoyevskian, Michael, which you should appreciate). Tony even deals with PTSD in Iron Man 3. A famous story-arc in the comics, Demon in the Bottle, deals with Tony struggling with alcoholism.
  • Scott Lang in Ant-Man is an ex-con trying to regain the life he lost due to his troubled past, and all of his “heroic” actions are prompted by wanting to be a good father to his daughter, who lives with his ex-wife and stepfather.
  • Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy struggles to hold onto the memory of his mother who died of cancer when he was a child.
  • Bruce Banner in The Hulk is struggling with his own isolation from others.
  • In the popular TV series The Walking Dead, which is also a comic book property, fans understand that the the real danger is not the zombies; the zombies are sort of peripheral, especially since they’re slow-moving and easily dispatched. The real danger is other humans, and how some people and societies can fall to pieces when pushed into a corner.
  • Captain America is a kind-hearted, scrawny guy who feels powerless to help others when that’s all he wants to do. Michael, as a History Professor, you should love a tale about a guy who wants nothing more than to serve his country in WW2 as he watches everyone, including his best friend, get shipped off to war.

I even like to use Captain America as an example of leadership in my classes. In The Avengers, there is genius Tony Stark, Norse god Thor, the monster Hulk; yet, it is Steve Rogers, the guy who was born scrawny but with a big heart, who is the leader. Even with his superpowers, Cap isn’t the smartest, fastest, or strongest of the group. He is sort of the Average Joe of the team, but he is the one who commands the respect of the group, because he does what any real person can: be a good person, have conviction, and fight for what you believe in.

Avengers Cap

Moviegoers will never have real superpowers, but we understand these human moments, and the better comic book films/TV shows are packed full of them. Superhero movies are no longer just mindless action set pieces with empty scripts and ample explosions…they’ll let Michael Bay corner that market.

“See, I like some superhero movies/shows; I just don’t care much for most superheroes” – MSJ

I am biased in favor of superhero movies only in that that I will often give films in the genre a chance before casting judgement, but then I judge them on their own merit. This year, Deadpool was outstanding; Batman v. Superman was terrible. I am thrilled for Captain America: Civial War; I am extremely skeptical about X-Men: Age of Apocalypse. The best superhero films are funny, heartfelt, emotional, resonant, and exciting. They are no longer just “good” genre films; they’re great films, period.

Give some of the better properties a chance, Michael. If you need a viewing list for homework, let me know.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

The other day our illustrious Editor-in-Chief of RMU’s student newspaper, Kevin Morales, asked me if I would like to write a quick word regarding why I don’t particularly enjoy superhero movies.  I thought, ‘sure, I’ll play the contrarian’. And evidently, not liking superhero movies is a pretty rare stance these days.  Marvel and DC Comics have taken over Hollywood, and there seems to be no end in sight to our nation’s endless desire for new tales taken from comic books.

marvel

So, what is my problem?

Before I get into why I generally ignore most of these movies, I feel I must make one thing clear.  I am not necessarily a movie snob. I like a good number of movies that have been critically panned. Every movie I see doesn’t need to be an art-house flick. Also, I am not one who despises or mocks ‘nerd culture’. Sure, I really can do without Lord of the Rings, but I like Harry Potter.  I don’t go for Star Trek, but I love Star Wars.  Avatar? Oh goodness no! The Matrix?  Oh, heck yeah!  So, you see, I don’t reject sci-fi and fantasy out of hand. I like some, I loathe some.

Which brings us back to the spate of ‘superhero’ movies that just keep racking up box office records.  I think Kevin assumes I hate all within the genre, but that is not true.  In fact, I love some superhero stories.  Hey, I saw Tim Burton’s Batman on opening night in 1989! I even bought and proudly wore a Batman t-shirt after seeing that seminal film. But, that love doesn’t automatically extend to all Batman stories. I most definitely do not have any desire to see this new Batman v. Superman flick.  I’m avoiding that one like the plague.  There are a couple reasons why.

First, it just looks like a ridiculously asinine concept.  Why are Batman and Superman bat superfighting?  Scratch that; I really don’t care. Any explication of the plot will be absurd. Putting these two characters in the same film would be like plopping Indiana Jones down in a James Bond movie.  What is the point?  It reminds me of when Scooby Doo would inexplicably team up with Sonny & Cher or the Harlem Globetrotters. Come on!  Why are these people hanging out with meddling kids and helping solve mysteries?  I say again, ‘ridiculously asinine’.

But my real problem with most superhero movies, and this includes Zack Snyder’s new Man of Steel vehicles, is the fact that they center around boring, lifeless characters.  Action movies must be more than just action. Adventure movies must have interesting, complex protagonists that face and overcome challenges. In other words, human beings need to run the show.  Superman? The Hulk? Thor?  An all powerful alien, a freakish monster, and a god?  There is no complexity here. There are no challenges these beings can’t easily overcome.  They are superhuman, and hence, you get a snowball effect of absurdity. Since humans would be squashed like a bug by these characters, you are forced to provide them with superhuman enemies.  Evil geniuses, other aliens, or, yes, fellow deities. One Norse god fighting another; one alien fighting another.  Why should I care again?

Give me a ‘superhero’ movie in which the hero is more human than super!  No films have Batman-the-jokeraccomplished this better than Christopher Nolan’s adaption of Frank Miller’s ‘Dark Knight’ series.  The Batman/Bruce Wayne in Nolan’s films is emotionally and mentally fragile. He is complex.  Sure, you know Batman will win in the end. But Nolan creates realistically troubling adversity for his hero. He wants you, the viewer, to ask questions. Are you sure Batman’s vigilantism is a positive thing?  Is he obsessed with justice so much that it will destroy him and all he loves? And, what about Batman’s relationship with his arch-nemesis, The Joker?  Perhaps Batman should have killed The Joker?  The Joker, like Batman, is mortal. He is not some demigod or alien.  These films then illustrate the struggle of man v. man, not monster v. monster.  For goodness sakes, by the third installment of the series, Bruce Wayne needs to get a knee brace if he wants to keep fighting villains! Can’t get much more human than that.

In this same vein, Netflix’s Daredevil series is similarly successful.  Of course, Daredevil has some ‘superpowers’; a never quite defined sixth sense that allows him to predict landscape_xlargemovements and foresee actions.  But, the show illustrates the challenges of these ‘powers’. The character must train himself to use this power, and prepare himself physically to fight the evil all around him. He does not have super-strength, super-speed or the ability to shoot lasers out of any orifices. Since he is just a man with some unlikely mental abilities, Daredevil doesn’t automatically win all his fights. Out on the streets of NYC, he usually gives worse than he takes, but he takes quite a bit.   He comes home with scratches, bruises, sprains and breaks. Daredevil could lose. The tension is real.

See, I like some superhero movies/shows; I just don’t care much for most superheroes.