The Twelve – A Review

I can’t seem to get away from J. Michael Straczynski’s work. After his long tenure on Amazing Spider-Man and his current runaway hit, Thor, he now tackles the high though achingly familiar concept, The Twelve. The story begins in Berlin during the final days of the Nazi regime when twelve heroes independently descend upon the SS headquarters and fall victim to a Nazi trap. The Twelve are Rockman, Black Widow, Blue Blade, Master Mind Excello, Mr. E, Laughing Mask, Dynamic Man, Firery Mask, The Witness, Captain Wonder, and the Phantom Reporter. These were heroes from the Timely Comics era, Marvel Comics’ predecessor. Placed in “freezing tubes” to be defrosted after the Americans leave Berlin, the plan goes awry and the Nazis never come back for them. The US military is called in after the chamber is discovered by a modern day construction crew and they discuss whether or not they’re going to thaw them out. Then again, considering these are the times of Civil War and Secret Invasions, it’s not like trust in super heroes isn’t at a premium. Awakened, the story revolves around how the Twelve react to the future and how the current heroes react to the past.

We have a long time fascination with the World War II era/The Greatest Generation. It was a simpler time we often long for, when good guys and bad guys were clearly delineated. After all, the Nazis were and are the quintessential evil villain. The idea of altruistic relics of the past confronted with the cynical reality of the present/their future has been done since Captain America was frozen in ice and awakened in a time not his own. Told from the point of view of the Phantom Reporter, a “tourist,” or a costumed hero who tags along with major heroes, The Twelve has a reporter’s feel and tone.

Everyone has a secret, something he or she is running toward or from, as they try to figure out where they fit in this new world. Squadron Supreme and even Rising Stars, in retrospect, either look like they were practice runs for this series or Straczynski going back to his familiar themes, putting different heroes through same paces. Since this is a finite series, it can’t be a matter of all set-up and no payoff.

“But there’s something we can give you that’s more important that money or a place to live. Purpose. We can give you purpose again. The world needs people like you, maybe even more than it ever did before.”

In taking 40s era heroes, patriots of a simpler time, and transporting them to now, The Twelve examines what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost as a people. It’s easy to view a bygone era through rose tinted glasses. The 50s-era show Mad Men looks like a grand old time, until you ask yourself “where are all the black folks?” (oh yeah, they’re in the back at the bus still). Instead of sexism and racism, our culture wrestles with terrorism, the erosion of civil liberties, and the loss of national optimism.

The Gospel has power to transform individual and society, so traditions and mindsets need to be periodically examined to see if they remain relevant. For example, some commands in Scripture are time bound and culturally limited. It is dangerous to ignore the voice and lessons of tradition. At the same time, we need to recognize when it is time to jettison traditional beliefs. Culture shouldn’t determine theology, but the impact of culture on the biblical writers and all biblical interpreters (us) shouldn’t be ignored. Many cultural issues, from the role of women to the issue of slavery, have had to be re-examined over time through our culturally impacted lens of Scripture.

Yes, this kind of story has been done been done time and again and your gut instinct might assume this to be a generic Watchman retread, but the characters are intriguing and Straczynski manages to balance sophistication and fun. I love the art work, especially the expressiveness of faces. I’m hoping that all of the potential of this book is fully realized.

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The Amazing Spider-Man: One More Day – A Review

“One Last Stab through the Heart”

I love J. Michael Straczynski. I have to begin by making myself clear on that point. I’ve been a fanboy since his Babylon 5 days and have followed his comic book work from Strange to Squadron Supreme, Book of Lost Souls, Silver Surfer: Requiem, and Thor. And I’ve loved his work though I could see how some might find fault with some of his long-winded stylings. He sometimes takes a long time to get to the point, in the name of character development … I get that.

However, I even I must admit, his Spider-Man run was messed up. I’m talking nearly as bad as that overly drawn out “Am I really the clone?” business from a few years back. Maybe that’s not entirely fair (can you hear my inner fanboy still trying to spin things?). There was a lot of good work, quite a few stories that were excellent. But when I think back on the major developments of Spider-Man under Straczynski’s run, it boils down to three major events: “Sins Past”, “The Other”, and “One More Day”.

“Yours is the rarest love of all. Pure, unconditional and made holy in the eyes of He who I hate most.” –Mephisto

With “Sins Past” we have him revisiting the idea of Peter Parker’s long lost love, Gwen Stacy. The girlfriend whose life was tragically cut short by the Green Goblin, the life Spider-Man was unable to save. The memory of her loss has haunted him almost as badly as the death of his Uncle Ben who pushed him into becoming Spider-Man in the first place. But the idea of their relationship being desecrated, that she had kids via Norman Osborne … I still feel dirty over that entire episode.

Then came “The Other” storyline. Back in the mid-to-late 80s, after Alan Moore revealed the Swamp Thing to be a plant elemental, a lot of DC heroes were suddenly revealed to be elementals of some sort. It was a bit of a mini-fad. The Other felt like a weak, and late, jump on to that. That somehow Spider-Man derived his powers from some sort of spider totem and that he had to fully develop into the rest of his potential … I’d like to forget any of that happened.

Which brings us to “One More Day.” Apparently it was decided that we’d like to forget a lot of what had happened with Spider-Man. Aunt May, the woman who had raised Peter Parker, is near death and no one can save her. Desperate to save her, Peter Parker makes a pact with the devil (Mephisto) to trade her life for the love he shares with Mary Jane, his wife. In other words, because Peter Parker, an adult now, is so afraid of losing his parent (which mind you, not only do we all have to face that eventually, but it’s not like Aunt May hasn’t already died before), he’s willing to trade his entire relationship with Mary Jane, effectively erasing everything through their marriage.

“There will be a very small part of your soul that will remember, that will know what you lost.” –Mephisto

There are just some character re-boots that have left bad tastes in my mouth. Some done in the name of a company-wide edict to revamp characters after a reality altering event (think ever DC character after any of their “Crises”). Sometimes you can lay it at the feet of a writer wanting to take the character in a new direction/put his own stamp on the character (think John Byrne on … just about anything. I still haven’t forgiven him for taking over the Incredible Hulk, Wonder Woman, or Doom Patrol and “fixing” books that didn’t need to be fixed). Straczynski’s run feels like a bit of both (the stench of editorial mandate is all over this). And overall, just as bad. The word that comes to mind is disrespectful.

There. I said it. It’s taken me a long time to be able to finally say it, but it’s done.

Silver Surfer: Requiem – A Review

Written by: J. Michael Straczynski
Art by: Esad Ribic
Published by: Marvel Comics

“Silver Savior”

The only cool thing about the Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer was the appearance of the Silver Surfer. Indeed, the Silver Surfer has enjoyed decades of popularity, including long solo comic runs, which somehow has never translated into a larger scale production (there was much talk of a Silver Surfer movie during the 80s and 90s that never saw fruition).

Silver Surfer: Requiem strikes as an odd way to capitalize on the rising tide of his popularity. Not to mention that it is difficult to write poignant, meaningful stories with near-omnipotent characters in a medium where death means little to nothing. Yet, we’re made to get emotionally involved with the life and death of Norrin Radd, the man within the Silver Surfer. Once again, J. Michael Straczynki’s (Book of Lost Souls, Strange) brand of self-important dialogue again matches nicely with his choice of subject.

Reminiscent of the Jim Starlin classic, The Death of Captain Marvel (now rendered moot with his recent return), the Silver Surfer is dying. The silver coating is breaking down, with the symptomatic effects of a fast progressing nerve degeneration disease. What we are left with is a series of good-byes as the measure of a life is reflected upon.

The Silver Surfer first experienced a born again moment with the Fantastic Four. Until then, he was a man who sacrificed his life for those of his people, opting to become the herald of the planet devourer, Galactus, so that sentient lives could be spared. However, he strayed from that mission, but got back in touch with the man he was supposed to be and the life he was supposed to lead after contact with the Fantastic Four.

We don’t dwell on death too much. It’s probably a a survival mechanism since if we focused too much on it, we might become paralyzed with fear. But that very fear of death can be the springboard to greater life. It allows the mundane to become meaningful. It allows us to get the perspective of the possibility of being fully alive.

“Here is the cycle of life writ large. To be born in fire and live in the bright flame of our passions, illuminating the world around us. We live and die in fire, knowing that when we die, we are reborn in the minds and spirits of those who will follow the path we have lit for them across the ages. The path that one day calls all of us home at the dying of the light.” –Silver Surfer

Living life in light of death means appreciating our friends and family with the time we have to spend with them. Time is a luxury, one we may not have in abundance. Living life in light of death means to love, to let people know how you feel, and live in light of an eventual good-bye. It means living life with no regrets. So that leaves the question “how are you going to spend today?”

“People can’t change what they are until and unless they understand what they can be. “ –Spider-Man

For the Silver Surfer, it meant living a life of freedom. He held to a vision of peace. The Sentinel of the Spaceways is the personification of hope who models what people should aspire to be. He has the power to rip apart the sun, yet he uses his cosmic might to defend the innocent and the oppressed. His life echoes the story of Christ in that he left a mark “to remind them of the man who had made peace his cause, his life, and who had ultimately died in its service.”

“The light of hope, the light of love, the light of possibilities.” –the Watcher

Straczynski wrings genuine moments of emotion out from the smaller encounters in the Silver Surfer’s journey. He understands what makes the Silver Surfer great and serves it up on a platter. Esad Ribic’s painted art elevates the book to near mythic heights and is truly lovely to behold. Captures the cosmic aspect of the Surfer, yet grounds it in a hyper realism. It’s a simple story that frames the life of the Silver Surfer. Predictable, but merely an exercise in prose, as no character is truly in jeopardy at the height of their popularity.

Book of Lost Souls – A Review

Writer: J. Michael Straczynski
Artist: Colleen Doran
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Price: 2.99
Release Date: October 26, 2006

“Maybe interesting things happen to you all the time, you’re just not paying attention.”

With that we enter into J. Michael Straczynski’s (Squadron Supreme, Strange, Amazing Spider-Man) new world, The Book of Lost Souls. In a comic book landscape dominated by the spandex wearing folks, we have an all-too-rare dark fantasy entry, and Marvel’s second title in their creator-owned imprint, Icon. The Book of Lost Souls has a familiar feel to it, at least for those fans of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (or his novel, Neverwhere) or even Straczynki’s own Midnight Nation, both of which Straczynski seems to crib from.

The premise features a tragic, dark hero in the form of Jonathan (who looks a lot like Poet from Rising Stars), who lived at least a century ago, who finds himself in our modern world after a near death experience. Joined by his constant companion, Mystery, a talking cat, together they intrude into people’s lives. He suddenly has a purpose and a sense of mission as he comes to grips with who he is and who he is meant to be and find others like him. Straczynski slowly, emphasis on SLOWLY, builds a supernatural mythological world within an urban environment; a world within a world that promises that reality isn’t always how it seems.

The book is hard to get into. It may be the heavy inks on the art that doesn’t sit well with me. The dialogue and plot both lean too much on the vague, lacking some of the crackle I’ve come to expect from Straczynski. The potential downside to a creator owned book is that there is no one to reign him in from some of his excesses. However, I can’t complain about typical comic book story-telling styles and then turn around and complain too loudly when someone tells their story outside of convention.

“Everything starts with the book.” –Mystery

Jonathan clings to the story that undergirds his faith, this Book of Lost Souls that gives him purpose, without making it into something that not only is it not, but it never claims to be. It’s not an answer book for every question in your life or to govern every aspect of your life. It is not an encyclopedia. It’s not a scientific text. It’s not a history treatise. It’s not a self-help guide. To treat it as such would be to drive out the mystery from his life. The book is a collection of stories that should be an arrow, not a destination, an arrow pointing to a fuller way to live.

“We are all loved to the degree that we are mysteries … Some of us have to be answers and answers are always less interesting than mysteries.” –Mystery

Caught up in a greater story, Jonathan feels the pull of good and evil on his life, as to all of the “lost souls” that he encounters. For example, there is the presence of the Dark Man, who seems to represent temptation. He is a spiritual principality (“powers and principalities. But we all look alike in the dark. And here, in this time and this place, it is always dark.”); though other voices speak into his life, like the ways/mindset of the world and even his own weakness. However, there are other voices, voices of truth, voices of love, which he has to remind himself of: “And that voice, that truth, that love…is a promise…that even in darkness, doubt, or pain…we do not fight alone.”

The lost souls are trapped in empty lives: relationships that poison them, drugs, the “I am not …” lies (false ideas of themselves, false ways of seeing themselves), not knowing if they are running away from something or toward something else. They are people without hope. The “lost souls” are often on a road whose passage from it can only be paid in blood, finding themselves at crossroads when presented with the choice, the way out. So often when presented with a choice to a better way of living, they choose “the devil they know” and continue on their meandering road. Jonathan, like a Gaiman-inspired Christ, comes to give them hope, their dreams back, a new lease on life.

The Book of Lost Souls starts off uncharacteristically slow and unengaging for a J. Michael Straczynski project. Almost as if it takes its audience for granted, that his fans will forgive him the slow start so that he can tell the story he wants to tell. Yet there is too much exposition and if feels too … intentional. It’s heavy-handed – the reader knows they are going to be getting a message. As introductions go, there is not enough plot nor enough characterization. Just mood and portents. But I’m willing to wait for a Straczynski payoff.

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Squadron Supreme

Writer: J. Michael Straczynski
Artist:
Publisher: Marvel MAX

There does seem to be a bit of a convergence of ideas, a trend of superheroes submitting to (or registering themselves for) government oversight. This is probably a commentary in itself on how we see (fear) government: we can’t just have a group of powers walking around uncontrolled, unregulated. The New Avengers. Powers. Ultimates. Now Squadron Supreme.

Squadron Supreme is an ersatz version of DC’s Justice League of America (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc.) done for Marvel Comics (Hyperion, Nighthawk, Power Princess, etc.). This current incarnation of the Squadron Supreme re-visits the threads from Mark Gruenwalds legendary Squadron Supreme mini-series, a pre-Watchman look at super heroes operating in “reality”; and examines the question of how long would super-heroes remain under the control of anyone else before they decided they knew best to solve the world’s problem. How long before supreme power corrupted supremely?

It has taken a long time to get here. The comic book started as Supreme Power, which laid the groundwork for Squadron Supreme, then the story ran through a couple of mini-series, before becoming Squadron Supreme. All this to say that the story moves at a deliberate pace we’ve come to expect as typical of J. Michael Straczynski stories. He took six issues to re-tell the origin of Dr. Strange. Rising Stars could have easily been trimmed by a third were it not for his devoting whole issues to exploring a character, even peripheral ones. However, that’s what we want from Straczynski: character driven stories over flash-bang plots.

As another consideration, the characters he’s (re-)created are far from the one-dimensional copies of existing heroes they once were. They have been completely re-imagined. From Hypericon as the alien outcast (distrusted as opposed to being embraced as Superman is) to the quite possibly mad Princess Power, their relationships with one another are absolutely fascinating to watch.

“We are the message and fear is the communications frequency of choice.” –Hypericon

Their first missions operating under the mandate of the U.S. government were to Africa, Middle East. Even the heroes wrestled with the idea of them being dispatched to fight “the other” and the attitude behind it. Such events lead them to already begin to consider the repercussions of their actions and whether or not this is the best way for change to be accomplished. While it may be only a matter of time before they throw off the yoke of such colonialistic action, this brand of imperialism is long entrenched.

An aspect of colonialism is its conquest mentality that works by making other cultures less than human, debasing one while exalting the colonizer’s. The western imperialist colonizers viewed Africa, for example, as an untamed land with ungodly people; that there was nothing good in this dark and scary continent–other than its resources–and that its people were entirely under the power of the devil. Ironically, the United States is a revolutionary country in that it threw off the shackles of its own colonial masters. The hypocritical conceit of the country was that while our founding fathers held that all men were created equal, they also held slaves. That central kind of hypocrisy affects the character of a nation; finds its way into the system of the society, the hearts and minds of the individuals that make up the system and becomes ingrained.

Somehow, we have to get from this sort of mentality to joining in a ministry of reconciliation.

For reconciliation to be done, there has to be a coming together of equals. For things to be on equal terms, there has to be a relationship not built on fear or oppression. There must be a recognizing and respecting of each other’s stories. So there is a continual cycle of hostility, racism, hatred – these things make it impossible to just “forget” the past. We need a tool more active than simply “forgetting.” When I look at how Jesus started the movement that eventually became the church, it’s important to note that it began by changing the hearts of a few individuals. The individuals formed impacting communities. Then the communities impacted the social order. Your identity, your individual stories, are caught up in a greater story.

Long term, it would be better to embrace a path of peace and forgiveness, quietly working to change people’s hearts while they go about their mission. However, since this is a super-hero comic book, the characters will have to wrestle with how or if to use their power to force their will on others. And we will have to wait to see it play out and the consequences of that course.

The bottom line, this is a great comic. Adult themes explored in adult ways, you wouldn’t recognize these characters as the JLA-ripoffs they once were. These are fully fleshed out characters telling stories we’ve seen shades of in some of Straczynski’s previous (and best) work. The art has the force of almost being its own character, unobtrusive and clean, with a realistic style to it. I will say that it may be best to wait for the trade paperbacks of this one. The individual issues are frustrating, not quite providing enough story (or maybe it’s the sheer anxiousness of wanting to keep reading more of it) to justify the month to month wait. Basically, it’s the same reason I now only watch 24 when I buy the collected seasons. Read back-to-back, Straczynski once again proves why he is such a fan favorite.

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Spider-Man: The Other

Writers: Peter David, Reginald Hudlin, and J. Michael Straczynski
Artists: Mike Deodato and Joe Pimentel, Pat Lee and Dream Engine, and Mike Wieringo and Karl Kesel
Published by: Marvel Comics

“Evolve or Die”

Spider-Man has seen a variety of changes over the years. He’s had multiple arms, been a giant spider, worn an alien costume, and then there was the clone saga (oy! The clone saga). Obviously not afraid of messing with the mythos of Spider-Man (since many fans still haven’t forgiven him for his retro-fitting of the story of Gwen Stacy), Straczynski has been working toward this story for years.

“Never understood. What you were. What you are. What you are becoming.” –Spider Spirit

The heart of the story revolves around the idea that Spider-Man’s powers are totemic in nature. Expanding the mythos into one of archtypes. DC comics went through this trend in the late 80s/early 90s as several of their characters were revealed to be elemental in nature (Swamp Thing, Red Tornado, Firestorm, etc.).

Since this story was going to fundamentally change the very character of Spider-Man, the story ran through all of his major titles: The Amazing Spider-Man 525-528, Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man 1-4, and Marvel Knights Spider-Man 19-22. The storyline also got to utilize the talents of three fan-favorite writers: Reginald Hudlin (Black Panther), Peter David (Incredible Hulk, Fallen Angel, X-Factor), and J. Michael Straczynski (Rising Stars, Strange).

“You treated the gift that you had been given as though it were a toy. You did not look too deeply into what you had become of what you could do. You committed the crime … of superficiality.” –Spider Spirit

The Other follows Spider-Man’s spiritual journey as he searches within himself, learns who he is, and is led to confront both the “spider within” as well as the Spider Spirit. You see, Peter Parker (Spider-Man) was guilty of something that many folks are guilty of when it comes to their spiritual life: no self-examination. He never questioned, never dug deeper. While having a simple faith is good, being simple about one’s faith is not. Part of him was afraid of finding answers that might be disturbing. Instead he chose to not look beneath the surface, accepting the limits of what he thought he could do, and place his faith in a comfortable box.

He abandoned the journey of becoming a disciple.

The best way for me to think about discipleship is in terms of apprenticeship. I’m a student, Jesus is the teacher, and my goal is to become as much like him as possible. Discipleship would involve a changed in three areas: belief (we turn to Christ, expressing our desire to see him as he is, not simply how he’s been represented to us), behavior (our lives become slowly transformed, centering our lives around living out the kingdom mission; putting feet–action–to our faith and knowledge), and belonging (we join a specific faith community).

Discipleship, simply defined, can be seen as a process of how we transform everything we do in order to “take on,” or becoming more like, Jesus. You figure out what it means for you to live and work in light of being a blessing to your neighbor and to the world. It takes time and in our culture’s need for immediate gratification, we’ve forgotten that this can be a long process.

“You’ve got what every human being has asked for: a fresh start, a clean slate … You’ve been reborn.” –Tony Stark (Iron Man)

The end goal is for Spider-Man to be born again. Literally “Reborn as what? And perhaps just as important … why?” he asked before being baptized in the Hudson River. He becomes healed, inside and out; free of the past, of the person he was as he embraces the person he could be. Like many on a deepening spiritual journey, Spider-Man discovers new gifts, develop new spiritual fruit if you will.

All told, The Other’s story could have been told in a lot fewer issues, the story felt a little padded. Peter David, no stranger to writing Spider-Man, is great, but the story rather drags a bit when written by Reginald Hudlin. J. Michael Straczynski’s issues are back to the typical Straczynski sense of pacing. However, no one loses sight of what makes Spider-Man great: he’s a regular guy simply trying the best he can.

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Strange

“Beginnings and Endings”
written by J. Michael Straczynski and Sara Barnes
art by Brandon Peterson
published by Marvel Comics

Marvel Comics’ sorcerer supreme, Dr. Strange, has been one of the most under utilized (when not completely mishandled) characters in their super hero universe. Partly this is because creators typically don’t know what to do with him or have no particular take on his mission and motivations. They don’t know who he is; for that matter, neither does most of modern day comic fandom. We see him in his typical role, support character in other people’s books, called in when their adventure has taken a mystical turn. Well, J. Michael Straczynski (Dream Police, Rising Stars, Supreme Power, Amazing Spiderman) and creator of Babylon 5, reintroduces Dr. Strange to a new generation of readers and fans in the book simply titled Strange.

The story is a familiar one: brilliant and selfish surgeon, Dr. Stephen Strange, gets into a senseless accident that destroys his hands and his career. In his attempts to find a cure, and reclaim the life he thinks he wants–in effect, a second chance–he comes to realize that he’s been sought/groomed by each side of the ancient war between shadow and light.

For the sake of the collected trade paperback market, the story takes six issues for what was done in one back in the day. Not much new is done with the character here, but like the character-driven emphasis that typifies Straczynski’s work, the characters are deepened and are given clear motivations and real backgrounds. What is interesting is how the characters are fairly unlikeable (Strange, Clea), still a cypher (Wong), or are given modern sensibilities (like the almost too hip Ancient One). Though the dialogue sometimes suffers from being too … weighty, the book still manages to inject a bit of fun and wit and remains quite engaging throughout.

Another trademark of Straczynski’s work is how it is grounded in a spiritual sensibility. Dr. Strange seeks (and becomes) a spiritual healer, a caretaker for the soul sick. His role in life is to pursue becoming a nexus, a guardian at the gate between the forces of night and day until all worlds are called into account. We’ve been given gifts for a reason, for the sake of others. Stephen Strange falls into the trap many of us fall into. Full of pride. Successful as modern society defines success: money, freedom, women, able to isolate himself from the rest of the world. Trying to fill a hole that will not be satisfied. However, when all is said and done, this is a book about two things: figuring out your true calling and becoming a disciple.

“Life is about the journey, not the arrival.” -The Ancient One

Dr. Strange is a man of regrets. A powerful theme in the book is how it is his journey, mistakes and all, that make him into the man he is and should be. We have free will and with that free will comes a simple choice. Having essentially two paths, we have to choose which master we want to pattern ourselves. “The Ancient One” or ourselves. Yes, ourselves. The “Evil One”, the Dreaded Dormammu, didn’t try to convert Strange to “the dark side”, but merely needed to keep Dr. Strange focused on himself and his own wants. That kind of self-focus keeps us from not only seeing where we are, but keeps us from fulfilling who we should become. Doing “what thou wilt”, we then “default” onto the path of “Dormammu”.

Like Dr. Strange, it’s too bad that we often have to get to the end of our rope in order to find ourselves and our purpose. We walk in our selfish worlds, not realizing our true state of being hopeless, lonely, empty, and lost. We need to come to the same realization that Dr. Strange comes to, learning that one lesson that while we may not be able to fix what’s wrong with the circumstances of our lives, we can be healed. Look at this prayer, this cry of his heart:

I’ve spent my whole life chasing what i thought mattered, without understanding that I was in love with the gold that covered the bars of my life that I didn’t care that i was living in a cage. A cage of my own making. So I am a fool twice over … I don’t know if I’m up to this, if I’m doing the right thing or not, I just know that i have to try.

“Some journeys shouldn’t be walked alone.” -The Ancient One

The other theme of the book involves what it takes to become a disciple. We don’t often count the costs of becoming disciples, rarely realizing that it requires sacrifice, a “willingness to do what is right, not just what is easy.” As Baron Mordo, a disciple who stumbles and betrays the Ancient One, points out, many have that power, but few answer the call to serve. Becoming a disciple involves changes in several areas of your life:

-belief (we turn to Christ, our “Ancient One”, expressing our desire to see him as he is, not simply how he’s been represented to us)
-behavior (our lives become–slowly–transformed, centering our lives around living out the kingdom mission; putting feet–action–to our faith and knowledge)
-belonging (we join a specific faith community).

Discipleship, simply defined, can be seen as a process of how we transform everything we do in order to “take on,” or becoming more like, Jesus. You figure out what it means for you to live and work in light of being a blessing to your neighbor and to the world. It takes time and in our culture’s need for immediate gratification, we’ve forgotten this.

Strange is a wonderful comic book about self-discovery and magic. While I’m not quite down with the light saber action of their magic fights, it is certainly entertaining and worth wrestling with. Then again, J. Michael Straczynski rarely disappoints.

Rising Stars

AmazonI originally wanted to do a review of J. Michael Stracynski’s comic book, Rising Stars, and the television show The 4400 since they cover the same territory and have basically the same sort of spiritual connections. But as there’s already a review of The 4400 (which is essentially Rising Stars: The TV Series, minus the spandex) I can focus on the comic book.

Rising Stars drew some early comparisons to Watchmen, which was fair to neither it nor Alan Moore’s seminal work. The only valid comparison is that Rising Stars, for its 24 issue run, started in 1999 and didn’t finish until this year, which sounds like the release schedule I remember Watchmen being under. With three, 8-issue acts, the story feels a little padded (it could’ve been told in 12-16 issues). However, as long-time fans of Stracynski know, he does character-, not necessarily plot-, driven stories (Amazing Spider-man, Babylon 5).

Rising Stars follows the journey of 113 people. A force struck the town of Pederson, Illinois—an event referred to as The Flash—and every in utero baby at the time was affected. Cloistered together, to be studied and for society’s protection, they grew up together. Some became heroes, some criminals, and some tried to be ordinary. The story is about a group of people given gifts, how they touched the world, and how the world touched them.

“The power was different for each of us, formed and shaped by our personalities just as we were shaped by the power.” Poet

AmazonWhat we come to find out is that their energy, the source of their powers, binds them. It was also not inexhaustible: as they use their abilities, they drain that “battery.” However, when one of them dies, that person’s energy is transferred equally to the rest of them. Or, as Poet put it,“We are finite in number and duration.” This is an important aspect of the series, as it provides the motivation behind a lot of the Specials’ internecine squabbles, as well as stoking the fears of the rest of the world.

“We’re in a spiritual war, a war of possibilities, one world or another and nothing in-between. Well that war has just come knocking on our front door, son. It’s time to take a side, and that’s just what we’re going to do.” Reverend William Kane

As previously mentioned, the series is made up of three, 8-issue acts. Act I traces the development of the Specials from accepted (albeit suspicious) anomalies to a threat. This is when they suspect that they have a call, that the power that imbued them was conscious at some level, directed, and gave out their gifts with a purpose. During Act II, the Specials wage a war within their ranks. Only through much bloodshed is their higher calling glimpsed and they figure out their purpose: a mission to change the world. As Patriot puts it, “The time for words is over. Time now to make a difference. Time to go to work.” Act III sees them fulfill their mission and what it means to the world.

“We cannot change the world… if we do not begin with ourselves.” Poet

AmazonThe Specials are “the elect.” The term “elect” is one of those Bible words that signifies a group that has been picked out or chosen. The Church, the world-wide body of people who claim to follow Christ, is sometimes considered the elect. Too often this has led to having the attitude and image of the church as a country club because those that have been elected, or chosen, have forgotten that they have been called for a purpose, not to form a club that keeps “undesirables” out.

More pointedly, the Specials, during the second Act, can’t act as a unified body. Their gifts are squandered in petty bickering, endless divisions, and power brokering. Almost too late do they realize that they have been gathered in order to be sent. The Church, too, needs to be missional, to be a particular people, empowered for the sake of the world. They need to remember that they are filled with God’s power and presence and purpose. They are to work towards a new heaven and new earth, to set an example, and to lead the mission while inviting others to join.

AmazonFor too long, the Specials had retreated from the world, into their “Special ghetto,” never engaging with the world around them. All this taught them was to fear the world and they had little to no sense of how to relate to it.

The good news was that there was still time for them to fulfill their purpose.

Free yourself from the burden of my fear… from the concerns of an old man. Look at the world anew.” Dr. Welles

The Specials from Rising Stars, like The 4400, are a perfect picture of the Church. They are to be a force unlike the world has ever seen. We each have our own gifts and an obligation to use them. We can say all we want, talk as good a game as anyone else, but when all is said and done, it is what we do with our gifts that define who we are.