Friday, May 29, 2015

History Post: Khaemwaset

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

When I was in high school, I read Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem Ozymandias for the first time. It became the first and probably still only poem I know by heart. Coincidentally, I also read Watchmen for the first time that same year, wherein a super-intelligent hero goes by the alias Ozymandias.

I learned quite a bit about the real Ozymandias- Ramesses II. Despite Shelley making him synonymous with great rulers forgotten by the world they once ruled, he was not. In fact, he's still quite renouned as one of the most powerful kings in antiquity. Heck, he's a major character in the most popular book ever written: he's the Pharoah in Exodus.

I started using the name Ozymandias online shortly after that. Not really that seriously- I had the teenage tendency to just glom onto whatever I liked at the time and use it as my screen name. It just so happened that that was pretty much the last time I did that so it stuck.

However powerful and interesting Ramesses II was, though, he wasn't the person in his family I like most. Dude had a few sons and daughters- somewhere between 40-50 total. And not all of those sons were destined for the throne, obviously, not least of which because he lived to be 91 and outlived at least 10 of those sons.

One of those sons was Khaemweset. He never took the throne- he died well before his father did. So he got to spend his whole life as a member of the royal family without any particular responsibility. He took one up of his own choosing- history.

Ancient Egypt is popularly viewed as one big lump of history. Pyramids, Pharoahs, the Sphinx, all of it took place in the same big nebulous 'ancient Egypt.' Reality, of course, is far different. The life of Ramesses II took place 1000 years after the Great Pyramids were built. His son spent his entire life looking up at them and was determined to make sure they were understood and not lost to history.

He studied them, learned everything he could about them from local legends and what was already known at the time. He restored them as best he could do they could weather the sand and ages. Whenever he learned new facts, such as the names of kings entombed within them, he carved their names into them so they would not be forgotten.

In that big nebulous area of the past we simply refer to 'ancient history', Khaemwaset was the most determined ancient historian. While his father was poetically linked with the ruination of monuments, he will be forever linked with their preservation and study.

Friday, May 22, 2015

A Second Chance for Diversity

Back in 2010 a social media grassroots campaign formed around the fact that Sony was rebooting the Spider-Man franchise. The idea: why not cast Donald Glover as Peter Parker? After all, the defining features of Peter are that he's smart, a bit of a nerd, but wise-cracking and fun. He grew up in a working class neighborhood in New York City, an orphan raised by his aunt and uncle. Also, he got bit by a scientifically improbable spider. Nothing about the character was defined by his skin color- he was white because he was created by white dudes in the early 60s, but that description could easily fit someone of pretty much any race- after all, it's NYC.

In fact, that issue is something that has plagued comics. It was 40 years before Batman had a recurring black supporting character. Shakespeare's works have more prominent people of color than the original Justice League (or, for that matter, the current Justice League too.) The origins of nearly all popular comics come from a time where it was literally unthinkable to make a main character anything but white- simply put no one thought of it. Yet those characters and stories have endured for nearly 80 years in some cases and, while we live in an era where it's okay to reimagine Hamlet as a lion, it's not okay to reimagine Peter Parker as black.

Except while the Peter Parker campaign failed, not everyone in Hollywood is pushing against it. On The Flash, Iris West (pretty much originally conceived as "Hey, The Flash needs a Lois Lane") is played by Candice Patton. On the upcoming Supergirl show, Jimmy Olson is going to be played by Mehcad Brooks. We've seen our first glimpse of the new Hawkgirl in the season finale of the Flash- the Earth 2 version of Kendra Saunders, now represented by Ciara Renee. The (awesome) DC TV universe isn't the only place this is happening, either. Ben Urich in Daredevil was played by Vondie Curtis-Hall (brilliantly). Ultimate Nick Fury has been the MCU's most constant companion, and they very pointedly chose to pretty much make the Sam Jackson version the canon Nick Fury across all of their properties.

Meanwhile, canon characters of color are being raised to greater prominence. Age of Ultron ended with Falcon and War Machine being part of the New Avengers. On Flash, Cisco Ramon (who was considered so offensively stereotypical in his original comic incarnation that artist George Perez refused to draw him) is a main character and extremely well liked by fans. Agents of SHIELD brought Daisy Johnson front and center.

It represents an attempt to say "Hey, for whatever reason (racism) these stories were completely white the first time they were told. Let's try again." And while it's far from perfect (notice how no one mentioned is the main character), it's better. It's an admission that the original stories came from a worse time for a lot of people- and that adapting them to a new medium means we can do better this time around.

And, in turn, comics have started to try- at least Marvel has. The current comic Avengers include Ms. Marvel (aka Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American from New Jersey), Nova (aka Sam Alexander, a Latino teenager from Arizona), and Miles Morales- the Ultimate Spider-Man inspired by the campaign to make Donald Glover Spider-Man.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Failure in Kirk's Success

I keep thinking about the recent Trek movies. I don't know why, but I can't get them out of my head and how much I'm disappointed in them. One of the things that keeps bothering me is Kirk. Not Chris Pine's portrayal of him- that's fine, but his hero's journey. In the Original Series, Kirk was successful through force of will. He broke rules because he thought it was right. He fought monsters and won because he was very good at that double-fisted smash move. He did things well and was rewarded for doing them.

The new Kirk is portrayed as someone whose destiny it is to follow in his alternate universe version's footsteps. The end result is a Kirk who never really earns his place. He's the Destined Hero, someone that shouldn't exist in Trek or, if it does (e.g. Benjamin Sisko) it's accompanied by a more more philosophical look at it- one that questions out understanding of reality (e.g. Benjamin Sisko is the destined hero because he was the one who revealed to the prophets that he was their destined hero and oh my goodness non-linear time is confusing.) Now, for a while that's where my annoyance ended. They broke something Trek-like.

Recently I've reconsidered that its even a little bit worse that that. Kirk is the poster child for privilege now. This is a guy who keeps getting every chance. Pike gives him a shot in the bar because of his father. He gives him command of the Enterprise because of a lucky guess. Spock Prime interferes with the timeline and tells him to take command again because of alternate universe Kirk. Prime manages to get Kirk yet another chance after he's demoted for breaking the Prime Directive just because of a feeling.

Kirk gets every goddamn chance to succeed and we're supposed to be happy when he does. Of course he does. Everyone keeps letting him! People refuse to let him fail because he's the special boy. He didn't actually work his way up to his status, he kept being placed in the exact position to be the guy who gets the glory when there's success. The original Kirk would fail and work his way back to success. He was flawed and worked past his flaws. He was a great captain because he was a great captain, not because everyone else believed he should be. The only time I can remember Kirk being handed a role for success because of who he is was Star Trek 6- he was given the ambassadorial position because he was so renowned as a dude who hated Klingons. He was given the role because his personal failings made his success more meaningful, not because he was a great man destined for greatness.

New Kirk never worked past anything personal to succeed. His failure to uphold the Prime Directive didn't come into play when fighting Admiral Robocop. His brash and lewd behavior wasn't an impediment to beating up Tattoo Romulan. New Kirk gets to be the same jackass he always was, but in a position for everyone to constantly praise him. Nothing learned, nothing gained, just the enthusiastic support of his peers because he happened to be the captain of the flagship of the Federation at the right time.


Monday, May 11, 2015

Podspeed you! Black Emperor

Paul F. Tompkins is, these days, pretty much renowned as the patron saint of comedy podcasting. He'll show up on pretty much any podcast, be charming and funny as hell, and leave you wanting more. His original podcast started 5 years ago as maybe one of the most ambitious comedy podcast projects yet created. Each episode involves a recorded sketch from his variety show in LA, a conversation between some of his ridiculous stable of improv characters, and a phone call to his good friend Jen Kirkman, all of which are strung together by his trademark hilarious stream-of-consciousness ramblings scored by Eban Schletter (who is only the best.) Though the podcast has been defunct for 2 years now, after the end of its second season, it still stands as a great piece of entertainment and, hey, the fact that it has an end might be a bonus- it's not a permanent commitment.

Comedy Bang! Bang! regular Lauren Lapkus presents a idea for a podcast that ends up being a bit too risky to always pay off. Known for her absurd characters on CBB, she ran with that idea into make a podcast where she's always playing a new different character as a guest, while a new person each week is the host of the show. As a result, each episode is only as strong as her guest. She needs someone and a premise to play off of so if her guest(host) isn't up to par, the entire episode falls flat. That said, if the guest(host) is up to snuff, it wildly succeeds, especially when seasoned podcast veterans or her friends in the Wild Horses UCB improv group are in charge.

Janet Varney is a comedian and actress of some note (and the voice of Korra in Legend of Korra!) but she shines particularly brightly as a podcast host. The JV Club invites women of Hollywood onto the show to discuss their childhoods, school, and lives before they because famous. Varney pulls it off with wit and a friendliness that seems to set her guests immediately at ease and creates fun, funny personal conversations. Each episode ends with a game of MASH, a uniquely clever way to dig a bit deeper and learn more about each person. It's breezy, but very entertaining,