Wednesday, October 31, 2012

On Listening

The Author's Files now takes a break from a series of comic book reviews to share the following encomium/maxim essay, written in the classical style.  I was motivated to write an essay on this topic because I think it's undervalued in today's society, especially among teenagers.

A wise woman once said, “The secret to talking is listening.”  To master the art of beautiful speaking, one must acquire an attentive ear as well as an eloquent tongue, for the skill of locution requires one to hear the words of others.  The benefits of listening are numerous and the detriments of neglecting it abundant.  The man who listens to others will have the prized ability to endear his friends and understand his enemies, but he who shuns the wisdom of listening will only offend his friends and foes, gaining neither knowledge nor respect.

The man who listens has several advantages over the man who does not.  On the simplest level, the attentive man has a much more intimate connection to his friends than the man who doesn’t listen; this is evident because humans desire companions who can articulate their own beliefs but also hear opinions contrary to those they hold.  The most agreeable individuals open their ears to conflicting mindsets and worldviews, even those with which they disagree.  Likewise, good friends not only share experiences from their own lives but more importantly commit to hear stories they have not heard; those joined in true friendship must be willing to listen before they speak.  Yet there is a greater value to listening than mere popularity: knowledge.  In the act of listening to his adversaries, the attentive man acquires a better comprehension of their stance and all its flaws, and thus simplifies his burden to refute their arguments.  An old maxim counsels people to keep their friends close but their enemies closer, and the wise man, by allowing his enemies to explain the rationales for their positions, keeps them far closer in his mind than he would if he were to ignore their false teachings.

The man who fails to listen to others invokes enmity and embraces ignorance.  Through his adverse habit of interrupting and talking over others, he will frustrate his friends and distance his foes even further.  He who interrupts the conversations of others exposes his blatant disinterest in their concerns and suggests that his thoughts are more important than anyone else’s.  This disposition is perceived by all as rude and off-putting; thus, people are less likely to befriend a man who is unwilling to listen to them.  Furthermore, the man who despises listening is more prone to ignorance than his fellows, for by refusing to hear the arguments of his opponents, he handicaps his ability to rebut them.  In contrast, the man who has lent his ears to both sides of a given issue is better equipped to argue against either of them.

In the same way that good generals look to history for the best strategy to seize victory instead of relying on their own intuition for success, so too does the man who listens obtain more wisdom than the man who brashly talks over others.  For he who has studied the mistakes made throughout history is less likely to repeat them, and he who notes the words of his friends can acquire twice the knowledge he’d otherwise possess.

There are many current examples and political figures one can draw upon to demonstrate the wisdom of listening.  Mike Rowe, host of the popular television show Dirty Jobs, knows that an attentive ear is more valuable than an active mouth.  Although Rowe is the only man on the show whose name is nationally recognized, he acts mainly as an observer while allowing the American workers he meets to do most of the talking.  In this way, he learns more about the dirty careers central to his program and conveys more information to his audience.  The 4th century saint, Basil of Caesarea, also deemed it wise to hear voices of different ideological leanings.  In his address to young men on the right use of Greek literature, he recommended that Christians read the myths of the pagans as long as they kept their souls oriented in the right direction, towards God.  In contrast to these two figures, talk radio is populated with rude and intolerant people who have no intention of hearing viewpoints different from their own.  One example of this set is Clyde Lewis, the host of a nationally syndicated radio program called Ground Zero.  One October night, Lewis was crafting a somewhat paranoid case for stopping the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (or drones) in military operations; he expressed his opinion by employing faulty logical reasoning and mentioning fairly suspect evidence that drones are computer-operated and kill 3 times as many civilians as militants.  His claims went mostly undisputed for the first half hour, but when 2 callers phoned in to deconstruct his arguments, Lewis erupted into an uncontrolled furor, yelling over his guests and denying them any opportunity to make their points.  In so doing, Lewis not only lost a chance to learn the truth about drones, but also harmed his reputation in the eye of his listeners, many of whom will never tune into his program again.  One can also see the prudence of listening in recent presidential debates.  In the first presidential debate of 2012, Mitt Romney surpassed Barack Obama in persuasiveness and delivery partly because he paid attention to the incumbent’s statements and responded to all of them directly.  Obama however just reiterated the views he expressed formerly whenever he spoke, never refuting Romney’s points.  If he had listened closer to the arguments Romney made, Obama might not have lost so much ground in the polls after the debate.  But if Obama showed an abject ineptitude for listening, his running mate Joe Biden displayed an complete aversion to it.  When debating Paul Ryan, Biden closed his ears to the words of his opponent, laughing openly at them and deriding them as “malarkey” and a “bunch of stuff”.  Even more egregiously, the cranky old man went out of his way to interrupt Ryan at every possible moment, 82 times in total, instead of listening and patiently waiting for his turn to speak.  As a result, Bite-Me lowered his standing even further in the public eye, an impressive feat given his past blunders, and came away as the clear loser of the debate in gentlemanly conduct.

Thus we see that it is better to give attention than to receive it, for wisdom is derived from listening, not speaking; but men who interrupt and speak over their associates draw only irritation and resentment.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Comic Review: Halo Helljumper

Definitely a step above its forerunner (pun intended) Uprising, Helljumper is a worthy adventure for Halo fans who liked ODST.  Spread across 5 issues, it covers an earlier mission of two of the game’s heroes, Dutch and Romeo.  The novel opens with a distress call from an arid human world called Ariel; the ODSTs are summoned to investigate the situation.  Landing on the surface of the planet, they’re puzzled by a startling absence of human life, finding only one corpse that seemingly died from fright.  Entering the underground facilities of the planet, they happen upon several platoons of Covenant forces, commanded by several relentless Elites.  In the violence that ensues, Dutch and Romeo are separated from the rest of their squad and forced to unravel the devious schemes of the Covenant on their own, confronting legions of enemy forces all the while.

Helljumper will certainly entertain the reader, though it will not educate him.  The writer, Peter David gave the briskly paced story a heavy does of action and mystery that does justice to the original game.  Its central characters prove themselves adept in many kinds of combat, from planting mines to kamikaze-crashing Covenant dropships into their foes, but they also possess a resolute fraternal bond that no hostile threat or amount of bickering can undermine.  The book replicates the game’s themes of courage and camaraderie quite well, a feat that Uprising failed to achieve. It also has some good comic-book one-liners:

“While you’re looking, also see if you can find either civilians or hostiles.  You know which ones to shoot, right?”
“This is ridiculous – our platoon is god-knows-where, presuming they managed to clear the blast --- there’s Covenant running around, civilians are missing and maybe being tortured --- and I’m playing twenty questions with a grunt?”

The book’s artwork, by Eric Nguyen, is also impressive, if not completely unique; the ODSTs are drawn well and the Covenant soldiers are exceptionally portrayed as the fearsome menaces they represent in the games.  Stronger and swifter than their human adversaries, the Elites are no pushovers in this book, as Romeo and Dutch deduce the hard way.  Battle scenes are complemented with a good deal of purple blood and gore, so much at times that it seems excessive, but the intensity of ODST’s combat is captured nonetheless.

The book fall short in some areas, the most notable flaw being an awkward subplot involving a relationship between Dutch and a female member of his squad, a relationship so strong it induces Dutch to request withdrawal from the UNSC when his special friend gets injured and has to leave the military.  If anything, this functions as a compelling argument against sexually integrated armies.  It’s also regrettable that the novel only probes the background of Dutch and Romeo, neglecting to incorporate any of ODST’s other characters, such as Buck, Mickey, or Dare into the plot.

Overall, though, Helljumper is a quick and fairly enjoyable read that should be embraced by fans of the Halo universe.  It’s not a terrific graphic novel and the $20 retail price is too high, but for $10 it merits a look.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Comic Review: The Dark Knight Returns

If there were a prize for the most overrated comic book, The Dark Knight Returns would claim it with little competition.  Frank Miller’s long and incomprehensible story about Bruce Wayne’s return from retirement is fraught with mutant gangs, nuclear warheads, exploding dolls, topless Nazi-girl thugs, drive-by news reporters, and middle-aged crime fighters who never stop whining about how old they’re getting.  It’s a mess.

The premise of the novel is that the ascension of a new criminal gang called the mutants prompts a middle-aged Bruce Wayne to don the Batsuit again after a ten-year withdrawal from vigilante work.  As if the mutants weren’t a big enough burden, he also has to foil the evil plots of Harvey Dent, who has undergone an external but not internal recovery from the accident that left him disfigured and wrathful.  Batman’s age cripples his ability to fight the terrorists of Gotham, but a teenager girl with her own Robin costume enthusiastically offers to assist him in his war on crime.  While some in Gotham are pleased at the Batman’s return, others resent him as an oppressor of the weak, an illegal vigilante, an agitator of crime, and a “social disease”.  The moral ramifications of using violence to fight violence is a theme that pops up in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, but that movie handles the controversy far better than Miller’s comic book, which comes off as redundant, indecisive, and tedious.

The primary error of the Dark Knight quadrilogy is probably that its author tries to juggle too many characters, which prevents him from developing any of them very deeply.  On the villains’ side of things we have Two-Face, the mutants (who speak in an indecipherable dialect), Selina Kyle (who inexplicably decided to trade in burglary for pimping), the Joker, and the Soviets, while on the opposite side we have Batman, Robin, Green Arrow, Lois Lane, and Superman – these are just the main protagonists and antagonists.  Why Miller decided to include Green Arrow and Superman in a Batman novel instead of just writing a Justice League series is beyond my comprehension.  At any rate, Superman’s presence is entirely superfluous except to create an excuse for a final battle between him and Bruce, which also has no purpose and makes no sense given that both men could do better things to serve their country in the wake of a nuclear explosion.  Another major problem rests in that the book is extremely hard to follow; most of it is written in tiny windows that don’t allow a lot of detail and the scene changes every 2-4 frames, hopping from Batman’s escapades to the issue’s main villain to Superman to James Gordon to news reporters and back again.  Many times Batman will appear in some situation, mournfully holding an American flag for instance, and the reader will have no idea how he arrived there. The editing is sloppy in that respect.  In addition, the book has more than its fair share of conceited, incoherent monologues from Gordon and Bruce, which are accompanied by frames that jump between the past and the present.  This merely adds to the confusion.

The political messages of the novel are mixed: on the one hand, it mercilessly ridicules those who defend terrorists because they’re “victims” of discrimination and oppression.  The Joker’s doctor, Bartholomew Wolper, is the story’s prime example of terrorist-sympathizers, who passes his patient off as a misunderstood “victim of Batman’s psychosis”.  In one of the novel’s higher points, his life ends ironically and disturbingly at the hands of the very man he sought to vindicate and release.  On the other hand, Miller takes delight in mocking Ronald Reagan for no apparent reason and extols FDR as the man all presidents should emulate.  Like many liberal works, the novel is filled to the brim with foul language, most of which isn’t warranted.

In summary, I can’t fathom the many accolades that critics and readers have given to The Dark Knight Returns.  The novel is dull, exceedingly long, disjointed, convoluted, and improper.  Then again, perhaps it’s just too sophisticated for me to understand, like Barack Obama’s many profound tirades about capitalism.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Comic Review: Halo Uprising

In layman’s terms, Halo: Uprising  a pile of crap.  Our beloved Spartan hero Master Chief graces the cover of all the issues in the miniseries, but hardly appears in the actual comics.  In fact, four fifths of the pages devote themselves to the misadventures of two young humans, a hotel concierge and music artist, in Covenant-occupied Cleveland and the romance that spontaneously blooms between them in a matter of hours.  The writing is abysmal and the plot without direction, just like the main characters, who run around the city streets aimlessly for 4 issues asking each other tirelessly, “Where are we going?” and reliably responding, “I don’t know.”  The book claims to be the tie-in story for Halo 2 and 3, but fails miserably in that respect.  What it does accomplish is a meaningless and utterly implausible subplot involving a Key of Osanalan (which is an annoying word to read either in your head or out loud).  The alien alliance known as the Covenant learns of this artifact through brutally interrogating a human prisoner, who tells them that the key is located in Cleveland.  Accordingly, the Covenant invade the city, crush the UNSC opposition, herd the civilians together, and promise rewards to the one who will find the key for them.  The hotel worker, Ruwan (which is a male name, I guess), informs the artist, Myras (a popular 26th century name for girls), that the key is an imaginary object made up by him and his brother, the aforementioned prisoner, in their childhood days.  He then takes it upon himself in a random, inconsistent change of character to rectify the mayhem he feels he’s propagated in order to save the world he formerly thought to be devoid of reason and purpose.  Meanwhile, Master Chief mows down waves of grunts and brutes aboard a Forerunner ship in a manner that befits his superhuman physique but seems absurd to anybody who’s played the Halo campaigns on the legendary level.  At the end of the series, the Chief jumps from the ship and plunges toward Earth in a desperate, last-minute attempt by the writer to link the comic to Halo 3.  The Key of Osanalan, however, devolves into a rabbit trail with no connection to the rest of the trilogy and no bearing on the human-Covenant battle for Earth.

There are several glaring problems with the plot.  Why would the Covenant give so much effort to obtain a key of dubious strategic value that’s not even certain to exist?  Why would the brutes pay heed to the rambling thoughts of a man they had tortured halfway to Hell?  How would either of the two brothers recall the name of a fictitious object they had created as preteens in their pretend war games?  As for the romantic element I mentioned previously, it makes the love story of Halo 3: ODST seem moving.  It takes the two protagonists all of 3 hours to start kissing and discussing marriage. Jersey Shore is more realistic: the stars of that show head straight for the bed without even bothering to talk marriage.

The illustrations of the comics are passable but bland when juxtaposed with the distinctive, edgy artwork of The Killing Joke or The Long Halloween.  Vivid colors are absent, character designs are boring, and the urban setting lacks the same aura of majestic vastness that New Mombasa and Alexandria inspired in ODST and Reach.  Even the Bionicle comics, illustrated by a variety of talented artists including Carlos d’Sanda, Randy Elliot, Stuart Sayger, and Pop Mahn, do a far better job of transporting the reader to an incredible fantasy universe.

In conclusion, Halo fans shouldn’t waste their time with this drivel.  Those who wish to connect the dots between the Halo 2 and 3 would be wiser to play through Halo 3: ODST.  Like the original animated Clone Wars series, ODST masterfully depicts the events that lead up to the trilogy’s finale and the discovery of the portal to the Ark.  Its art design, in-media-res storytelling, and character development are all superior to that of Uprising and combine to make it the best Halo game of all.

Now if we only had a Transformers 2.5 to show us how Sam Witwicky broke up with Megan Fox…

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Comic Review: The Killing Joke

Before watching Christopher Nolan’s unparalleled masterpiece, The Dark Knight, I had made very few ventures into the world of comic books.  In truth, the only comics I’d ever read were the free Bionicle ones written and illustrated for Lego, and while those were fine in their own way, their primary purpose was more to promote a line of products than to tell a compelling, thought-provoking story.  The aforementioned movie inspired my dad to open his sarcophagus of childhood comic books; from it he drew a graphic novel entitled The Killing Joke that he bestowed on me for my reading pleasure.  Thus my “love” of comic books began.

The Killing Joke, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland, is a superb work in art, storytelling, and character analysis.  Although it’s technically a Batman graphic novel, the book is really an in-depth origin story about the Joker and the motivation for his crimes.  Moore uses an unconventional narrative structure that jumps between the mayhem and destruction wrought by the Joker in the present day and the acts that lead up to his tragic moral demise and unnerving disfiguration.  As we learn, the Joker was once a married man who tried without success to get a foothold in comedy.  Facing looming debt and the disruption of his family’s home, he turns to some crooks in a Gotham bar for temporary relief.  With the hope of securing a better future for his wife and children, he agrees to execute a petty crime at a chemical factory; no more shall I spoil.  Some years in the future, the Clown Prince of Crime engineers a diabolical plot to expose the true nature of mankind.  The Joker perceives an inherent weakness in man, a tendency to devolve into the most barbaric and irrational state given overwhelming pressure.  “All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.”  In order to prove his thesis, the Joker captures Commissioner Jim Gordon, Gotham’s paragon of nobility and justice, and subjects him to grueling emotional torture that’s meant to shatter his resolve, nullify his mind, and throw his world into chaos.  Whether the Joker succeeds and whether Batman defeats him I leave for the reader to discover.

This is a brief but fantastic story which develops a sophisticated, believable, and genuinely frightening villain who has a grander agenda than the acquisition of mere money or power.  Moore accomplishes an unusual feat in writing a comic book that demands the reader to ponder a philosophical topic, viz. the “basic goodness” or inherent corruption of man, a theme that reverberates prominently in Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece The Dark Knight.  The author, being a secular liberal, seems to disagree with the Joker’s view of mankind, whereas the writers of the movie present a somewhat more cynical stance: even the greatest man can readily succumb to corruption and his baser impulses.  Nonetheless, The Killing Joke could conceivably function as a launch platform for debate among peers who enjoy philosophy.

Those who read comic books for entertainment alone will admire The Killing Joke for its exceptional art, brisk pacing, and catching writing.  True to his name, The Joker carries quite a few funnies up his sleeve, which sometimes act as comic relief but most often exist purely to reinforce his depiction as a psychotic, cruel sadist with a twisted sense of humor.  Batman is not the real focus of the novel, but fans can rest assured that he gets his fair share of punchy one-liners.

“Why aren’t you laughing?”
“Because I’ve heard it before… and it wasn’t funny the first time.”

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Animation Montage

The following video contains a series of stop-motion movies made by me and my brother several years ago.  He plotted and animated all the movies up until the clones feature, while I edited them on the computer, unevenly cropping out bedroom in the background, adding special effects, splicing all the images together, incorporating sound, and creating credits.  John Williams deserves mention for the music.

Admittedly, most of those could use a little work.  This, however, is possibly the most amazing fight ever made with Lego bricks.  Based loosely on the video game, The Force Unleashed by Fancypants:

The Duel, directed by Namchild, is another brilliant action short with Legos.

The following is a behind-the-scenes documentary by Nick Durron of the best zombie movie ever.  The film sold so well that a sequel by the name of Zombie: Exodus was produced; it's also worth your time.

For those who want to see more Lego films, I recommend scouring the archives of Bricks In Motion.  Some of these movies have become immensely popular on Youtube, most notably Lego Black Ops, which deservedly has 16 million views but is a little bloody to post on The Author's Files.