The Way of the Word

25. May 2011

Review: X-Men First Class

USA/GB 2011. Directed by Matthew Vaughn. Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon. Runtime: 127 Minutes

The year is 1962. Concentration camp survivor Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) has become a Nazi hunter. He is specifically after one person: Nazi scientist Klaus Schmidt (Kevin Bacon). His quest seems to come to an end when he discovers that Schmidt now calls himself Sebastian Shaw and is in Miami, FL.

The year is 1962. CIA agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) is investigating the mysterious Hellfire Club, which is run by Sebastian Shaw. When she discovers things that are patently impossible (how can a man have red skin and a tail, and transport someone else 3000 miles within a few minutes?), she seeks out the help of a geneticist who specializes in mutation: Charles Xavier (James McAvoy).  He agrees to help her out in this case, and they track down Shaw.

Arriving at the same time as Lensherr. Despite Erik’s best efforts, Shaw escapes. But Charles has a plan: Shaw has a team of superpowered mutants on his side. The obvious conclusion is that Xavier assembles his own team to deal with it. And so, Xavier and Erik find and gather a group of young, powerful mutants to fight Shaw’s group.

The situation becomes desperate when Xavier discovers that Shaw plans to manipulate the USA and the USSR into starting a nuclear war, which will reduce the world to ruins — but ruins that Shaw will rule. The newly formed, barely trained and still unnamed X-Men dash to Cuba to stop Shaw.

X-Men: First Class is technically the fifth movie in the series (after the original trilogy and the Wolverine movie). This is usually the point where I wonder: does the world really need another (insert franchise name) movie?

In this case, the answer is a resounding YES. X-Men: First Class easily outshines and outclasses not only all the previous X-Men movies, I would rate it second only to The Dark Knight. The movie does everything right.

Instead of a superhero movie, X-Men: First Class is a thriller where the protagonists happen to have superpowers. The stakes are high: the survival of the world. And the events actually happened, sort of: the Cuban missile crisis is an historic event, and it almost did cause a total nuclear war. The difference between the movie and the real world was that there were no mutants involved in the real world event. (That we know of. 😉 ) The movie does not rely on big, splashy special effects. Which means that when they do present a big splashy special effect (yes, I’m talking about Magneto raising a submarine from the ocean), it packs quite a punch. The chilliest and scariest moments, however, involve Magneto and a small coin.

X-Men: First Class focuses on the characters. This is mostly an ensemble piece, so it’s clear that not all the characters get equal time. At the center are the relationships between Xavier, Erik and, to an extent, Shaw. Vaughn doesn’t forget the X-Men, however. Each of the young mutants has their own storyarc, which is compellingly told and actually brought to a conclusion. The young actors who play the X-Men sell their roles completely. As the audience, you invest feelings into all of them, you want to see what happens to them, what becomes of them. Even in those cases where you know, such as Magneto and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), you can’t help an emotional investment in the outcome. Taking, for example, the moment when Mystique discovers that the boy she likes is just like everyone else and considers her real form ugly, that the only one who actually accepts her for what she is is Erik… you, as the audience, can actually feel her heart break.

It’s the bad guys who get the short end of the stick here, Riptide for example doesn’t get any lines at all. But it doesn’t really matter, because they only exist as foils for the heroes. The only villain who matters is Shaw — and that is because of his personal connection to Erik.

If Michael Fassbender weren’t already a star, I’d call this his breakout performance. His portrayal of Erik Lensherr/Magneto is compelling, conflicted, nuanced. His relationship with Xavier is a mutual brotherly love, two men who want the same thing, but because of their opposite pasts see the future differently. Xavier is a sheltered rich kid, who sees people as inherently good. Erik, as the concentration camp survivor, has seen humanity at its worst, and his views are colored accordingly. At the end, when the X-Men reveal themselves to the world, one man’s views will be proven right.

And the audience will see where Magneto’s coming from. Because Erik Lensherr is a thoroughly sympathetic figure. He doesn’t trust humans, and when the proverbial chips fall, he’s the one who is proven right.

The movie also manages to balance all that gravitas with a lot of humor. It’s a good kind of humor, though, the kind where you laugh with the characters and not at them. One of the funniest scenes is where the kids are in the CIA compound, showing off their powers. Kids will be kids. And let us not forget the cameos. One in particular had the entire audience howling with laughter. “Go f**k yourselves.” You’ll see what I mean, and you can’t tell me you didn’t laugh.

In summary: X-Men: First Class is an extremely well written, well acted and well-directed thriller with superpowered protagonists that manages to get the audience involved in the destinies of each of the characters. It ties neatly into the other movies (only two minor continuity quibbles remain unresolved), but stands out as the best of them. As a matter of fact, X-Men: First Class sets the blue-gold-standard for this year’s superhero movies — and frankly, I don’t think the others can beat it. Among all the other superhero movies, I rate this second only to The Dark Knight.

Verdict: extremely recommended.

21. January 2011

Extinction Event

Misanthropy Week concludes. An Extinction Event is a catastrophic occurrence that wipes out most life on Earth, leaving the survivors to fill the now-freed ecological niches.

The most famous Extinction Event is the one that killed the dinosaurs 65 Million years ago. It paved the way for the evolution and domination of the mammal. That’s us. It wasn’t the first, though. There were altogether five or six of the darn things.

Yes, that’s right: it has happened five or six times that most life on Earth was wiped out, basically cleaning the slate for the next try. The Discovery Channel’s website has a very nice interactive graphic about it, so I’m linking here instead of repeating the list.

Here’s the timeline.

Done? Quite interesting, isn’t it?

You ask why this is relevant? Because we’re currently in the middle of another Extinction Event, one that rivals the dinosaur-killing one in magnitude.

I’ll grant you that the site this link leads to is biased, but they are mainly a link collection, so you can look at the data they’ve collected and make up your own mind.

Sadly, the cause of this Extinction Event is obvious: the human race. In between wiping out everything that we can’t make useful, either for sport, or because they’re food competitors, or because they’re in the way, or because we’re afraid of them, or yes actually to feed our ever-growing numbers, or simply because humans don’t need a reason to kill anything, it’s what we do; and simply not giving a damn about the consequences of our actions, we’re busily destroying pretty much all life on this planet. If this keeps up, we’ll be there sometime in the 22nd century, and that’s an optimistic estimate.

Sometimes, when people say that god put us here for a reason, we just don’t know its plan, I think that his plan has become fairly obvious: every couple of million years, god becomes bored with its creation and decides to wipe everything out to start over again.  This time, it just happens to be one of the species that does the wiping out, we, instead of an asteroid, or a change of atmospheric composition.

So, yes, there is an Extinction Event going on. And we’re it. And we’ll have wiped the slate clean for the next step in evolution, whatever is going to end up filling the ecological niches the mammals and birds and reptiles that we’re wiping out are freeing up, in about a hundred years or so.

By then, this planet will no longer support life as we know it. Who knows, it might be anaerobic microbes who will end up as the dominant species. Again. Because they were the dominant species before Earth developed oxygen, you know.

But, seriously: if we’re the Extinction Event for this geological era, don’t you think we should hurry this up and get it done? Anything else seems so needlessly cruel.

Oh, wait. I forgot who I’m talking to for a minute. Needlessly cruel, that’s us, that’s two very fitting words for the human race.

20. January 2011

Conspiracy Theory

Misanthropy week continues. There are some things that you need to remember, always:

1) You need to pay very close attention to how a politician says something, instead of what they say. Back in 1989, then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl told the press that they would not raise or create new taxes to pay for unification. The way he said it made me think that, “Then they’ll call it something else.” It turned out I was right: a few months later, they annouced the “Solidarbeitrag” (Solidarity Contribution) to pay for it. Technically, it was not a tax raise, and it was not a new tax.

2) When a government has found a way to worm its way into your wallet, they’ll keep their fingers there forever. The Solidarbeitrag was originally supposed to last five years. That was in 1990. Last year, 2010, the government announced that they might be able to do away with it in 15 years. Perhaps. Don’t bet on it, though.

3) It doesn’t matter who you vote for, because they are all controlled by the same campaign contributors, sponsors and lobbyists. And you don’t get to vote for those.

I’m a cranky old man, and as such, I reserve the right to be upset about the generation that follows mine. The kids whose only ambition seems to be to find out how drunk you can get without falling into a coma. The kids who don’t want to make any effort to succeed at anything, because they’re spoiled brats who expect to be handed everything on the proverbial silver platter. The other kids who know that there is no silver platter, so their only ambition is to beat up as many people as they can get away with. All of them aren’t really interested in getting an education. Half of them believe they won’t need one, the other half belives it won’t do them any good anyway.

If those brats are the future, then we’re even more royally screwed than I already thought. But then again, that’s what our parents probably thought about us, and look at how we turned out.

Okay, their fears were totally justified, doesn’t mean that ours are.

Okay, whom am I kidding.

The thing is, however, that this is exactly how the politicians, or rather the corporations that control our politicians, want us: uneducated, ignorant and unthinking. Because if you’re not trained to think for yourself, you’re much more easily manipulated.

The corporations and the politicians, they want us stupid.

I’m sure you know the feeling: you’ve seen a movie or a TV show, and you thought, “Wow, that was so bad, I feel my braincells dying.” Don’t tell me you didn’t notice that movies have gotten increasingly stupid over the last few decades. And don’t get me started on TV, specifically the so-called reality TV. If you get your news from the internet, you probably know the phenomenon that you half-glimpse something that sounds important, but by the time you manage to move your cursor it has already been replaced by the latest celebrity gossip and you can’t find it again because it had originally only half-registered on your consciousness anyway. Even if you manage to avoid all those traps, there aren’t just all those pundits/commentators out there who tell you what and how to think, there are also all those who listen to those commentators who told them how and what to think, and who cheerfully spread that gospel, and you’d better listen to them or else.

You know what? If I were conspiracy minded, I’d smell one. (For the record, I’m not. I like conspiracy theories, but mostly as fodder for story ideas.) I’d look at the schools, how they are ideologically influenced, and ideologically influencing. They promote boredom, not curiosity, they don’t encourage the kids to think and to find things out for themselves. Rather, they encourage the kids to not think for themselves, to just accept whatever crap they’re fed. The media promote that way of life. Its not important to think, to be critical, all that is important is to look good, to be wealthy and famous. Someone has it better than you? Keep your place, but do be envious. Listen to the politicians who control your world. You’re not sure who you can trust? Trust that pundit on that TV station that tells you how you should see the world, just like everyone else in your peer group. Don’t think, they know better. Trust them. Sure, that politician over there seems dumb as a doorknob, and her only qualification is that she used to look pretty once upon a time, but you can trust her, she parrots the same stuff that your pundit says. The pundit who is paid by the company that owns shares in the companies that pay for the politician’s career. Of course the politician will later repay those generous contributions, either by elevating the corporation’s leaders into government, or at least by looking away when those corporations do something that would get you locked up for life and beyond. Because, hey, that corporation paid for the politician, and should get their money’s worth, right, and besides it’s far more valuable than water or land or some dumb fishes, or even you, or how much were you worth on the stock market today?

As I said, if I were a conspiracy theorist, I’d smell a conspiracy behind the rise in stupidity of the human race.  But I’m not a conspiracy theorist. There is no conspiracy. We’re doing it to ourselves, and those who can simply exploit what we do. Because exploitation, that’s what they do best.

19. January 2011

Homo Moronicus

Misanthropy week continues. Back when I was young, Homo Sapiens was translated as “knowing man.” Even at the time, that would have been my early- to mid teens, I joked that that label fit – knowing things doesn’t mean you understand them.

Imagine my surprise when a couple of years later, Homo Sapiens was suddenly changed into “wise human.”

Wise? Really? You serious? Honestly, I don’t see that. I mean, look at the standard definition of “wisdom”:

Wisdom is a deep understanding and realizing of people, things, events or situations, resulting in the ability to choose or act to consistently produce the optimum results with a minimum of time and energy. It is the ability to optimally (effectively and efficiently) apply perceptions and knowledge and so produce the desired results. Wisdom is also the comprehension of what is true or right coupled with optimum judgment as to action. Synonyms include: sagacity, discernment, or insight. Wisdom often requires control of one’s emotional reactions (the “passions”) so that one’s principles, reason and knowledge prevail to determine one’s actions.”

Be honest: does that really describe humans? I’m talking about the human race as a whole. The human race that is in complete denial of the fact that we’re making our own planet uninhabitable for the sake of our immediate convenience. The human race that indifferently uses up all the world’s resources because, hey, who cares. (With some nations  even taking pride in being the ultimate resource waster — really, pride.) The race that takes those places that don’t have any resources to exploit because, since those spots are worthless anyway, they’re perfect for storing an increaing amount of (mostly toxic) waste. Just so long that it’s out of sight; let the future generations worry about the consequences. Not to mention all the pollution that results from wanting a quick buck, so let’s cut costs. (Here’s looking at you, BP.)

Does that sound wise to you?

Under the circumstances, it’s no surprise that the human race as a whole seems to be getting dumber. Or at least increasingly less willing to apply ourselves. Some people blame the media. They claim that we get so barraged by information from all over that the degeneration of our attention span to that of the average fruit fly is the logical consequence. Evolution in action. The same people claim that in order to capture what’s left of our attention for even the fraction of a second that we can still muster to apply is, one has to be increasingly loud, irritating and, well, stupid. Because, according to this theory, we no longer have the attention span to think about issues. It’s more like, there’s this issue, and what do they really… oooh, shiny…

That doesn’t explain the rise of sub-standard role models, though. When I look at the media, I don’t see anyone who can function as a role model. I see braindead celebrities who are not famous for doing anything, they’re just famous for being famous. I see politicians who, instead of standing up for something and inspiring us, are in it for the quick buck, the media appearance, personal power. Our supposed leaders might as well borrow a page from the Formula 1 racecar drivers and wear stickers of their sponsors on their suits. They no longer care about issues, all they care about is feeding their power base what that power base wants to hear, so that the power base will keep them in power. It doesn’t matter to them that their frequently hateful rhetoric (some of them sound like the reincarnation of Joseph Goebbels, and they aren’t even Nazis, they are just feeding the same base emotions) can incite murder and destruction. All they care about is the spotlight.

I’d say that it’s a shame that we want leaders whose only qualification is that they are hateful and even more stupid than we are. But then I remember that we keep those people in charge, which does lead to the implication that no, we are still stupider than they. If we weren’t, we’d get rid of them, put them back into the backwater obscurity where they belong.

It is, however, something of a trend. It seems that we can no longer tolerate heroes who act brave, heroic, considerate. Heroes who have values and principles. Heroes who, in other words, are better than we. Instead, what we look to as heroes are farces, caricatures. We don’t look to them for inspiration, we look down on them, we despise them, we feel not admiration but contempt.


Is it because it makes us feel bad to see that there are those who are better than we? There used to be a time when heroes served, as I said, as role models. As inspirations. We looked up at them and resolved to be better than we are, to become like them.

Now we tear them down to our level, or even lower. Is that because it requires an effort to aspire to something, an effort to be better than we are? And we can’t make that effort, because Jersey Shore is on, and it’s far better to mock those idiots on the screen rather than put in an effort to make the world a better place. It’s far better to choose as our leaders people who are even more stupid than we are (or so we think), because those leaders are folksy and might have a beer with us because deep down they’re no better than we are. (If you really think that, dream on. Those folksy folks will never dirty themselves by consorting with the proverbial unwashed masses. That folksy act is just an act, to make you vote for them.)

Or do you choose morons for leaders because they make you think that, since they are no better than you are, it might just as easily be you in charge? Dream on. The simple fact that you choose an unqualified moron as your leader proves that you’re at least as unfit to lead as they are.

The deeper problem with this, however, is that we are on a downward spiral. Instead of looking up, striving to be better, we tear everything down so far that we can look down on it. We ignore the fact that by doing so, we reduce ourselves, so the next time something tries to raise us up from the muck into which we voluntarily jumped, we tear that down too, and trample it down even farther, sinking even deeper ourselves. It’s a downward spiral in which we’re trapped. We can still get out, but we’d need to make an effort.

We don’t want to make that effort. And that, precisely, is why “wise human” doesn’t apply to us, never mind how often we repeat that phrase. We’re not wise. We’re exactly the opposite. We could be wise, though. We could change, we could improve ourselves. All it requires is the will to do so, the will to make that effort.

However, I’m a Star, Get Me Out of Here is on now, right?

18. January 2011

Legally Entitled

Filed under: Commentary,general,politics,review,Uncategorized — jensaltmann @ 10:31
Tags: , , , ,

Misanthropy week continues. I mentioned yesterday that the fact that we need laws is testament to our failure as a species.

You probably at least know of the seven Cardinal Sins: pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth.

I’d call those the baseline attributes of humanity.

So, of course there is some regulation required for human behavior. We can’t manage it by ourselves. And I admit (knowing from personal experience) that sometimes, laws are the only thing that stand between us and being screwed over by the rich and powerful. Not always: it’s exactly the rich and powerful who make those laws, so they are naturally skewed in their favor; nobody does anything that goes against their personal interests.

Still, once a certain baseline is established, laws become redundant and oppressive. Do we really need (as we have in the EU) laws that regulate just how much a cucumber may be curved? I don’t think so, Tim. If you don’t like the curve of a cucumber or banana, just don’t buy the damn thing. There’s no law needed for that.

So, what about laws that interfere with our personal lives in ways that don’t affect anyone but ourselves? You can’t pretend there aren’t any such. There are plenty, initiated and powered through by people and groups who believe that their values, morals, prejudices and phobias are so utterly Right that they need to be imposed on everybody.

I’ll use marriage as an example, because that is screwed up on so many levels. For one thing, marriage is absolutely unnecessary. You love someone, you move in together, you live together, you fall out of love and split up. If you feel the need to, you can have your relationship blessed by a priest. Other than that? It affects only you two and your eventual offspring. Of course, since those separations usually end in both sides trying to destroy one another, it makes sense to set up regulations for how to do such a separation; it might even save lives. In that regard, it makes sense to treat marriage like a business contract.

But beyond that? Your marriage is none of my business, so it requires no further regulation. And yet, there are interest groups who believe that they not only need to but have the right to codify their morals, ideas, prejudices and phobias to make your and my life more difficult. By insisting on laws, rules regulations for something that does not affect their lives in the slightest.

Take this guy, for example: Lee Jin-gyu, a man in Korea who married his pillow. Or the Japanese man who married a video game character. I’ll leave your value judgment to you and withhold my own. Because at the end of the day, there is only one factor:

Is it any of our business?

Does it affect your life or mine (beyond the two minutes required to read each of the articles I just linked to)? No. It absolutely doesn’t. The fact is, it only affects the lives of those two men. (And perhaps their parents, if they hadn’t already abandoned all hope of ever being grandparents.) It makes them happy, and it doesn’t cause anyone any harm. So should there be laws against it?

“Above all, do no harm.”

I say thee nay.

The same thing, to pick a more hot-button example, goes for gay marriage. While I did say above that the very idea of codifying marriage is mostly superfluous, that codification is fact, so… In the case of gay marriage, we have exactly the scenario that I describe above: interest groups (be they politically conservative, religious or simply arrogant busybodies) that try to impose their values and phobias on others, by way of creating laws that are not required to oppress people who just want to live like everyone else: legally with the person they love. Now, if a gay couple gets married, that doesn’t affect your life or my life in the slightest. It has no influence on my life, it has no influence on my marriage, it has no influence on my sexual identity. Or yours.

In summary, it’s none of my business. Like those two otaku who marry pillows or video game characters, if it makes them happy, why shouldn’t they do it? Now, I’m half of a biracial couple. There were times when that was illegal. I’ve read (but didn’t bother to confirm) that there are places where it still is. It shouldn’t be, though, because so long as my wife and I entered the marriage of our own free wills, it’s nobody’s business who we married.

24. September 2010

Q&A With Jim Turner

A couple of days ago, I reviewed James M. Turner’s autobiographical novel Beyond the Comfort Zone.

For those who like e-books, the book is also available for the Kindle.

Jim took the time to answer a few questions about the book and the story behind the story.

1) What compelled you to write Comfort Zone?

I knew it was an interesting story involving important social issues and I didn’t want the events and things brought to light in the book to be just consigned to the memory banks. I’m not a great lover of quotes, but I will say this: All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

I think that applies to the writing of the book. I’m aware that I have possibly put myself in jeopardy by writing the book, but you either stand and do something or you look away. I couldn’t do that.

2) It seems odd that, as a performing artist, you would choose to write a book about your experience, rather than try to turn it into a movie. Why did you make that choice?

A movie is a very different proposition from a book. It involves a lot of other people right from the start of the process. For myself I needed to feel confident that the story stood up as a narrative that would hold together for the course of a book. After that, making the leap to film is in some ways easier because the plot is mapped out and the book fits neatly into three acts I think. Going: Book, screenplay, film is a lot easier than trying to go in the opposite direction.

3) Will there be a movie, eventually?

I can’t guarantee that there will be a movie. But I am in talks at the moment with three prospective film makers. I would like to think a movie will see the light of day at some point. As anyone who’s read the book or knows me will testify – I don’t give up easily!

4) How authentic is your story? To which extent did you change real events (if you did)?

Some of the names are changed to keep the individuals concerned safe. The final timeline is condensed a little, but not much. Other than that the events rolled out just as they did in the narrative of the book.

5) You said that writing the book required two years and was emotionally very exhausting. How did you see it through?

Through gritted teeth! Application of disciplines I learnt as both an athlete and musician. Each word written is one step closer to the finish. Don’t procrastinate, stop whining, get on with it – that’s my mantra.

6) Have you been back to Thailand since then?

Yes I try to get back as often as possible, it still feels like my true home which is strange as it is so very different from where I was born. Home is where the heart is I suppose.

7) Are you still in touch with Franco, Nok and Jack? Where are they now? Do you know what became of Franco’s Contact?

Nok is married, happily I hope. Jack has moved on to fight battles elsewhere. The contact’s future was set out when he made the choice to cross that border. I feel sure that he is languishing in a Thai prison somehwhere, and I’m still not sure how I feel about that, though not having participated in the trial I don’t know for certain.

Franco? Franco has melted into the background somewhere. I was in fairly frequent contact with him until some months ago. His whereabouts are a mystery. I wish him safe passage wherever he is.

8) You’re still involved in the fight against this child trafficking, I gather? Although no longer so directly?

Well just having the book out for people to read is an involvement by increasing awareness. But, I guess you are refering to my establishing a fund to help both the unfortunate victims of not only trafficking but any child who needs a better start in life to overcome the cards that fate has dealt them. I’m hoping to either support existing establishments or, if the funding levels allow it, to create my own infrastructure. People can read about it at the link further down the page.

9) What’s next for you? Will you ever tell the tsunami story?

Next is my TV series and a couple of other films I’m involved with the production of. I’ve got another fermenting idea for a fictional thriller, but the Tsunami story? I don’t know. I’m not sure I can rake up that particular emotional adventure any time soon.

10) If anyone wants to help these children, what can they do? To whom can they turn?

Well, they can donate to my fund here if they specifically want to help children in South East Asia, or, of course there are many children focussed charities out there that offer a broad range of support for children in need. Two that spring to mind are ‘Children in Need’ and ‘Save the Children’

23. June 2010

Made of Fail Backstory: The Forest for the Trees

We have a nice scandal here in Hamburg. I’m afraid I can’t find a link in English, so you’ll have to take my word for it — or have this German text translated.

Bascially, the story is this: the Hamburg borough of Wilhelmsburg is going to host the Internationale Gartenschau (IGS) in 2013. That means, of course, that they are going to build an event park in that borough. Theoretically a good thing.

If only…

The problem is that they want to set the park up in a forest. The forest had been created in 1983, from funds that had been freed up when Hamburg did not get to host the IGS. There are 4,500 trees there. The IGS plans to chop down about half of them to build their event park.

Let me repeat: the International Gardening Show plans to cut down over 2,000 trees in a park/forest, in order to build a park.

If that isn’t Made of Fail, I don’t know what is.

2. June 2010

Backstory: Made of Fail – I Quit!

When I do a Made of Fail strip, I try to stay away from politics. There are several reasons for that. One is that what’s important and topical in my country might be totally incomprehensible in yours. Another is that there is simply too much Fail in politics; I would be unable to keep up. The third and most important is that I prefer “personal” fails. They are more universal, and therefore funnier. The neighbors with the noisy sex life? I’m sure everyone can relate.

That said, sometimes I simply can’t resist to use something political/topical for a Made of Fail strip. The airline security fail a few days ago is one such things. The situation made the news all over the world, so I felt everyone would get the joke. There are a few topical Fail strips coming up that I believe I managed to make comprehensible. If not, there’s always this Backstory blog post to explain things.

That said, today’s strip is a topical strip about a very recent event in German politics: on Monday, Germany’s president Horst Köhler resigned from his office. Basically, he said something about war that’s pretty much known by everyone with a brain. Public reaction as, “Don’t diss the troops!” To which his reaction was to step down because, basically, “I don’t get no respect and I don’t need the grief.”

Wow. Talk about classy –not. Rather, talk about a political personal Fail. Which is why I felt the need to interrupt the two-parter I had originally intended to conclude today and bring you a parody of presidency fail.

By the way, due to technical reasons, the above link is a dynamic link. If you’re reading this after Wednesday, June 2, please use the date-select on the webcomic to find today’s strip. Thank you.

I conceived of and produced I Quit within one single evening session. By my standards, that’s fast — I usually need at least two evenings to produce one strip.

4. March 2010

Generation Swipe

There are two very similar cases under general discussion these days.

Comic fans talk about Nick Simmons, son of KISS memberGene Simmons, who copied several manga (mostly Bleach) to make his own comic Incarnate. When caught, Simmons issued a non-apology.

Germany has a similar case, but involving prose not comics. 17 year old supposed child prodigy Helene Hegemann, daughter of German playwrite Carl Hegemann, wrote a book, which was fawned over by critics, became a bestseller and was nominated for a major German literary prize. Like Simmons’s comic, however, it soon turned out that Hegemann’s novel was also swiped from other sources. Like Simmons, Hegemann doesn’t see why that is a bad thing.

“Inhaltlich finde ich mein Verhalten und meine Arbeitsweise aber total legitim und mache mir keinen Vorwurf, was vielleicht daran liegt, dass ich aus einem Bereich komme, in dem man auch an das Schreiben von einem Roman eher regiemäßig drangeht, sich also überall bedient, wo man Inspiration findet. Originalität gibt’s sowieso nicht, nur Echtheit.”

(Translation: “Content wise, I consider my actions and work method totally legitimate and do not find myself to blame, which might be because I come from a field where you also approach the writing of a novel more like a director, so you help yourself to anything where you find inspiration. There’s no such thing as originality anyway, only authenticity.”)

I notice several similarities in these cases: both are about the same age. Hegemann is 18 by now, Simmons is 21. Both have (more or less) famous parents who themselves work in a creative field: Hegemann’s father is a writer, Simmons’s father is a musician.

(Which means both fathers need to reflect on how and why they failed to teach their child to respect the intellectual property rights of creators.)

Both, when caught out, do not acknowledge that they have done anything wrong. Instead, both seem to feel that what they did is perfectly all right.

The main difference is in the reaction of people around them. Radical Comics, who published Simmons’s Incarnate, pulled Simmons’s comic from their line-up and make an effort to talk with the creators whose work Simmons swiped.

Hegemann’s publisher Ullstein reacted not by taking the book off the market (which would have been the honorable thing to do), but by adding a listing of “sources” that Hegemann used to the fourth printing of her novel.  Instead of acknowledging that stealing is wrong, Ullstein went to the offensive and turned the accusations into a debate on the meaning of plagiarism in modern times: the file-sharing culture.

Apparently, the judges of the Leipziger Book Fair’s Awards Jury agree with Ullstein’s defense. Hegemann’s book was — and still is — a finalist for their literature prize, worth €20.000. The fact that Hegemann, to put it crassly, didn’t write her book but instead copied & pasted it doesn’t bother them at all.

Another case of plagiarism, that of Jens Lindner’s Döner for One, had a different ending: publisher Piper recalled the book and apologized to the writer of the original. Writer Jens Lindner also apologized. Sort of. At least in his apology, he acknowledged that what he had done was wrong. But then, Lindner is a different generation from Simmons and Hegemann.

That, I think, might be the difference. Perhaps Ullstein is right, and the jury of the Leipzig Book Fair has a correct grasp on how western culture is developing, and it’s just old fogeys who still place any value in intellectual property. Perhaps it is really so that the future of creating is no longer creating, that it will all just be about copying and pasting what others created into a semi-new context. Bascially, creating without effort. After all, why make an effort and spend years to learn and practice a craft until you’re good enough, if you can get some instant (although fake) recognition practically overnight.

Or perhaps Ullstein, the critics and the Leipzig Book Fair jury are just exercising damage control: never admit that you were wrong.

(As a snarky aside, I can almost agree with one thing she said: the part about the lack of originality. Have you looked at bookstore shelves recently? Doesn’t the selection within the various genres seem very homogenous? But that’s a different blog post for a different time.)

The question the Simmons and Hegemann cases raise are, in my opinion, decisive questions: do copyright and ownership of intellectual property still matter? Is making your own effort still something worth doing? Is a culture based on stealing the intellectual property of others worth preserving? Is it even a culture at all?

If Simmons and Hegemann are really the harbingers of a shift in Western culture, if they are just the first and biggest example of what we would need to call Generation Swipe, then I no longer fear for our culture. I give up on it. A culture based on theft is no culture at all, and not worth preserving.

Me? I confess I’m tempted. Just take a couple of Ullstein books (since they are so relaxed about copyright and IP) and copy & paste the contents into something resembling something original. Get a publishing contract, literary recognition and major literary awards. After all, the alternative is to work hard on each story that I create, get rejection upon rejection, and fade into unrecognized obscurity.

I think I’ll go with choice #2. I’m shallow enough to want the adulation of the crowds, but not shallow enough to want it at the cost of my soul.

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