Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Newspaper’s Best of the Worst

One reason why web comics are often superior to dead-tree newspaper comics is the uncensored nature of the internet. Web comics can be raunchier, meaner, more specialized, smarter, and bigger. Yet over the century-plus of newspaper comics in America, some rather despicable characters made it onto the funny pages. As Groucho Marx showed us in cinema, mean is often funny.

Here is a list of curmudgeons, pranksters, scrooges, ravers, and lunatics from the newspaper world, who all share in common a warped, and rather dark, view of things.

12. Foxy Grandpa

Foxy Grandpa was the original. He was not the first trouble-maker on the page (that probably goes to Hans and Fritz Katzenjammer) but his slyness makes him standout. He premiered in 1900, and quickly got the best of his family.

11. Uncle Duke

Over 40 years, Duke has changed quite a bit. Initially a Hunter S. Thompson spin-off, he’s become a conniving representative for questionable moral choices. Duke’s embittered nature for dues owed has few rivals.

10. Hawthorne

Not surprisingly for a hermit crab, Hawthorne is crabby by nature. The world sucks, his friends are idiots, and he has anger-management issues, pinching toes of the unsuspecting to vent his frustrations of living in a tropical paradise.

9. Porky Pine

Unlike A.A. Milne’s Eeyore, Porky Pine is in no way cuddly. With a consistently downbeat view of the world, the other residents of the Okefenokee do their best to put up with the perpetual downer. For his part, Porky Pine usually stays out everyone’s way.

8. Ignatz Mouse

Ignatz throws brick at Krazy Kat. Krazy Kat assumes brick is a love-token. Officer Pup arrests Ignatz for hurting his sweetheart. The same story, every time, but Ignatz’s cunning and schemes to wallop Krazy makes it original and amusing, every time.

7. Charlie Brown

Charlie Brown’s utterances, “Good grief!” and “Augh!”  have become cultural touchstones. Nothing goes right for Charlie Brown, and as such he faces the world with humbug, periodically building up self-worth, only to have the football swiped from beneath him.

6. Popeye

Far away the best mutterer in the history of comics, Popeye is a wonderful curmudgeon and jerk, right from the start. He does not suffer fools, and has no time for yellow-bellies and sissy stuff. Of course, we know better, that he does have a heart (for Olive Oyl).

5. Flip the Clown

Encountered by Little Nemo in Slumberland Flip is such a jerk he has ‘Wake Up’ even written on his hat. He comes up with scrapes, cons, and grifts, to which Nemo succumbs. Indeed, he is even instrumental in making sure Nemo doesn’t meet the princess. He stands as one of the best conmen of the papers.

4. Citizens of the Far Side

The Far Side has no recurring characters, but nearly all of its inhabitants are total weirdos. It’s incredible the strip made it into print at all. Every week the cast was being tortured, killed, humiliated, and maimed by the other residents of the Far Side. As one person wrote in, “Sick, sick, sick.” But funny.

3. Calvin

Calvin is annoyed at the world, since he views it as an adult through a child’s body. Cranky, moody, easy to anger, and generally pessimistic, Calvin provides real reasons and issues to be frustrated with. His ‘the world sucks’ is based on a lot of evidence.

2. Bill the Cat

Bill is a certifiable lunatic. With a cockeye stare and his tongue sticking out, it’s a wonder he was allowed in the comics at all. (Especially worrisome since he wasn’t house-trained.) He is the antithesis of the cute and cuddly that infests the comic’s page.

1. Huey Freeman

Premiering on the national stage in 1999, Huey Freeman became the new voice of a generation that was pissed off. We often forget, with the popular television show that followed, that Boondocks was a comic for seven years. Huey feels isolated from his country, his neighborhood, and even his family. From his isolation on the mountaintop of justice, he preaches the curmudgeonly gospel. During those bleak Bush years, it was a welcome relief.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

UNESCO and National Parks Map

Here's something I haven't been able to find online: a composite map of both America's UNESCO sites and National Parks. Parks are shown in black, and UNESCO in red, with joint in green.

Of the 67 unique sites supposedly of greatest cultural and natural value I have been to 17 or just about one quarter (Acadia, Shenandoah, Monticello, Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall, La Fortaleza, Virgin Islands, Mesa Verde, Saguaro, Petrified Forest, Redwoods, Yosemite, King's Canyon, Pinnacles, Sequoia, Canyonlands, Arches). How many have you seen?

Monday, February 3, 2014

Western Tradition Compendium: Comnena

Comnena – Alexiad

Kings and queens, knights and dragons, serfs and Vikings – these are the typical images of the middle ages in Europe after the fall of Rome. But when it collapsed, around 500, half of the Empire lived on. Constantine shifted the official capital to Byzantium (later Constantinople, later still Istanbul) in 330, and under Heraclius in the 600s the empire distinguished itself as ‘Byzantine’ from Roman ties. (Traditions remained. Comnena refers to her husband by his honorific ‘Caesar’ throughout.)
            The Byzantines spoke Greek, were Christian, and had cultural connections to Europe. A number of Byzantine chronicles exist, but none is so interesting at the Alexiad, regarding Emperor Alexius I, written by his princess daughter, Anna Comnena (1083 – 1153). In it is a particularly remarkable account of the First Crusade, one of the most important and defining actions of the Middle Ages. The Byzantines found themselves at an unusual crossroads, with tens of thousands of European crusaders marching through their land on the way to the Holy Land. The Byzantines were a wealthy empire, as the western Europeans had rediscovered only recently, and were made nervous by the invader’s presence.
            Around the millennium there was an assumption that the world was going to end. As such, a large volume of holy pilgrims went to Palestine seeking to be present when Jesus returned. But the End did not come. Instead, what they found there was a wealthy Eastern church, and a variety of other, forgotten Christian sects. When Alexius I petitioned the western Europeans to help against the Turks the rift between churches was still very decisive. But Pope Urban II had lifted a prior excommunication on the eastern emperor, and so pledged support, and told the knights “God wills it.”
            The Crusades were critically important. (The idea that Christians could kill was rather novel.) Perhaps they were due to a psychological rift, in that the Book of Revelations had said the Prince of Peace would return after a thousand years, and his not doing so caused Europeans to lash out against the Muslims and Jews. The First Crusade was successful, in that they captured Jerusalem. But the initial holdings would not last, and as the Crusades continued, until nearly 1300, the Muslims retook the territory. All the same, this exchange of culture, travel and trade, and rediscovery of the Greeks and Romans, would lead to the Renaissance. The Crusaders went to the Levant a variety of ways, by land and sea. But they always came back through Italy and the Papal States, to report to the Pope and give tribute. So it is not surprising that the Italian city-states would begin to rise in prominence during this period.
            Byzantine culture wouldn’t long survive the Crusades. They had fought the Normans for years when the Crusaders showed up, led in half by Norman princes. Indeed, part of the First Crusade saw a renewal of this conflict. In 1453 the last Byzantine holdout, the city of Constantinople itself, fell to the Turks. In English ‘byzantine’ has come to be synonymous with the devious and intricate. The court politics and the centuries-long shuffle of Roman customs have always been looked down upon from a Western European point of view. (Part of this seems due to jealousy, that the Byzantines had gold in their coffers while the western kings lived in dreary castles.) Yet that the Byzantines were a critical part of the Western heritage shouldn’t be forgotten. Their last legacy would be by marrying the daughter of the Byzantine Emperor to Russia’s Ivan III. With this symbolic movement, in 1472, Russia took on the Eastern Orthodox religion, proclaimed Moscow the third Rome, and adopted the double-headed eagle as their imperial symbol. (The title of ‘czar’ was also a connection to Byzantine and Roman ‘Caesar’.)

            Anna Comnena, our chronicler, was not some submissive girl who loved her daddy. Indeed, she was extraordinarily well-educated, and a skilled physician as well. There is an interesting amount of debate as to whether she plotted in the death of her father. She would end her last days instead in a convent, but she seems to have come quite close to having become de facto Empress, for which there were numerous precedents in Byzantine history. As far as style goes there are a few considerations to bear in mind reading the Alexiad. Obviously, with her husband going off to war, and as part of the royal family, she has an important first-person view, with obvious sympathies and subjective interests. Also, some of the accounts happened when she was a child, or later when she was in the convent, and so are second-hand. But the selection following deals with the arrival of these Crusaders and the Byzantine’s perception of them, and therefore is not plagued by this latter difficulty.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Western Tradition Compendium: Virgil

Virgil – Aeneid

When we think civic pride, we think of the nation. Nationalism is the pride in one’s nation that allows politicians to say why we are more blessed than our neighbors. Yet while civic pride arose first in the west with the Greek city-states, it is not from them we get the term. ‘Civic’ finds it root in ‘civis’, the Latin for ‘citizen’. And so, with the Virgil’s great epic of civic pride, we enter the world of Rome.
            Aeneas, our hero, flees the wreckage of Troy, Homer’s Ilium, and ends up on the coast of North Africa, Carthage, what in modern times we call Tunisia. It is particularly fitting that these are the two places Aeneas had lived before Rome, for in early Roman history the Greeks and Carthaginians will play the defining roles. Virgil’s epic ties up these animosities nicely. The Greeks, to whom the Romans owed much culturally (as any student of mythology knows), were represented by the wily Odysseus who burned the tragic city of Troy. In historical reality the Romans achieved quite the political coup in 148 BCE – they finally subdued the Greeks in the fourth Macedonian War, and two years later defeated Carthage in the third and final Punic War. Carthage was once as powerful as Rome, with impregnable walls, a mighty navy, and a threatening location barely more than fifty miles from Sicily. In Virgil the interlocking of these two power’s fates is seen in the tragic love of Carthage’s Queen Dido for Trojan Aeneas, who abandons her on the shore, restless for better things – namely Italy.
            By the time Virgil’s poem was complete the Republican phase of Rome was at a close. For some 500 years Rome had been a Republic, but our poet carefully also includes in his myth the foundations, genealogically, of the Julio-Claudians: arguably the west’s most famous ruling dynasty. Virgil (70 BCE- 19 CE) lived to see the rise of Caesar and Augustus, and made sure the epic of the Roman people was tied to their fate. Unlike the Greek works we’ve seen, the Aeneid is designed to give rise to a mythological shared past to an increasingly diverse people. Expansion of Roman territory had been largely completed under the Republican state. (For example, after defeating Carthage and famously salting the earth that naught might grow, the Romans decided to set up camp, with North Africa as the breadbasket for the Republic’s hungry citizenry.) Rome in Virgil’s time stretched from Egypt to Spain, Syria to France. It was not its full historical extent, but with such widely different peoples a unifying epic may have come as some relief to Augustus, attempting to rule the largest domain seen yet in the western world.
            Yet from the burning of his city, to tragic love, to fighting off the native Italians and subduing the peninsula of the Latins (which comprises half the epic) – Aeneas’ conflict ends on a positive. Through the strife Aeneas eventually ends the war, kills the bad guy, and can settle his new homeland. So with Augustus, who ruled from 27 BCE to 14 CE, the wars against his rivals and subduing of the continent ended in the ‘pax romana’, a period of stability and relative peace that would last for hundreds of years in the continent and Mediterranean.

            The ancient world has left us with five epic poems, the two from Homer, one from Virgil, one from Ovid, and one from Lucretius. Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ is a work of great beauty, but little historical value. Lucretius’ philosophical epic will be dealt with later. As such Virgil’s work is that last literary epic we will encounter for nearly a thousand years. But more than that it represents one of Rome’s most lasting legacies to the ideas that shape western civilization: pride in one’s nation, in part through a shared, semi-mythological past. Anyone who has translated the French national anthem or seen Leutze’s ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’ knows the legacy of Virgil’s epic in modern times.

Western Tradition Compendium: Darwin

Charles Darwin – On the Origin of Species

Darwin’s magnum opus is some 600 pages long. It deals with the noticeable distinctions and classifications of animals. The language can be technical, and remarkably dry. Published in 1854, it is a remarkable text. On barnacles.
‘The Origin of Species’ meanwhile wouldn’t be composed for another five years, fully twenty years after he began writing up his account of the HMS Beagle’s voyage. Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) was a biological expert (who determined, to undermine some of Darwin’s ideas, that there is no such thing as a fish – the term is too broad to have scientific meaning) and commented in an essay as to why Darwin took so long to write up his theory of evolution:
            “Thus Darwin waited – so the usual argument runs – simply because he had not completed his work. He was satisfied with his theory, but theory is cheap. He was determined not to publish until he had amassed an overwhelming dossier of data in support, and this took time.
“But Darwin’s activities during the twenty years in question display the inadequacy of the traditional view. In particular, he devoted eight full years to writing four large volumes on the taxonomy and natural history of barnacles. Before this single fact, the traditionalists can only offer pap something like: Darwin felt that he had to understand species thoroughly before proclaiming how they change…”
The great English biologist later commented he considered the work on barnacle to have little value. New looks at Darwin’s notebooks from the 1830s suggest a different answer to why he waited: fear. Namely fear of that his particular evolutionary theory (for there were competitors at the time, and predating his writing) was too materialist. Gould suggests that Darwin feared his explanation proved that matter comes before the spiritual, the latter being a by-product of the physical. That was the radical idea – not evolution – the idea something so complex as the brain could be determined by natural forces alone.
Others agree with Gould’s interpretation of Darwin’s materialism as the reason for his delay. However, once it was published so began a very public debate regarding evolution and whether human beings, made in God’s image, could be just material constructs of a ruthless process. Scientifically, of course, there is no debate. Evolution is the explanation for the diversity of life on the planet and the origin of life on the planet.
For a simplistic example of evolution at work, consider the flu. The influenza virus, a living organism, is not particularly complex compared to a radish, polar bear, or human. As such it can change with alarming frequency: come winter a new round of flu vaccines is needed, every year. Satirist Gary Trudeau put it nicely in the Sunday funnies, when a doctor is treating a creationist for tuberculosis he asks if he wants him “to treat the TB bug as it was before antibiotics, or as the multiple-drug-resistant strain it has since evolved into.”  Although, tragically, a number of anti-vaccine lunatics are causing rise in preventable diseases and child deaths due to some idealistic commitment to a fundamentalist cause. In one city recently nearly a thousand children ended up with whooping cough, potentially fatal – due to ignorance. This unfortunately wasn’t the Taliban’s control of vaccinations in Pakistan (that was polio) but instead in San Diego, California.
The idea that science is somehow pick and choose is woefully misguided. You can’t accept that scientific method, inquiry, and experimentation has given you the automobile and light bulb, but that evolution is bunk: this is the mark of the oblivious and unknowing. Those who profess as such don’t understand science, and therefore, not knowing, should study for themselves the real answers, or, barring drive and curiosity, accept the expert’s words which state that evolution is obvious, and that we’re surrounded by examples of it.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) perhaps foresaw the culture wars that would arise from his biological research in the Pacific. Materialist evolution has made our selfish little species radically rethink its presumed privileged place in the world. We are no more worthy of life than a snail. We were not, literally, created a day after the animals. And that’s humbling for those who wish to exert their will upon their domain. Would Darwin have thought, though, nearly two hundred years later, in the 21st century, some still refuse to acknowledge his findings?