Month: April 2004

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Jonesing For “Normalcy”

(Soundtrack: Sheryl Crow–Self-Titled)




“America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy…”
–(Warren Gamaliel Harding)

Leave it to Grant Morrison to exploit the latent potential in this factoid: the term “normalcy” was foisted upon America by executive fiat–and by the same president that took the country by the hand and led it into an unprecedented orgy of repression: Prohibition.


In our Derridean times, it’s a given that the “privileged” term in a binary relationship is always “contaminated” by its opposite number. So “good” is “tainted” by “evil”. Masters are dependent upon their slaves. And 1984 is actually fascist pornography.

That last example is introduced by Sir Miles, an unpleasant denizen of Morrison’s Invisibles


I’m not really prepared to discuss The Doom Patrol or The Invisibles yet–this is just a preliminary exploration of one key aspect of Morrison’s aesthetic. To wit:


Postmodern artists are exceedingly prone to Scooby Doo-style debunking excercises. Take American Beauty, for instance, the ultimate nineties deconjob. The film charged into the culture war, “empowering” every marginalized term in sight by knocking binaries on their heads with movie-of-the-week subtlety.
I despise its validation of the “I’m a freak and I’ll never fit in anywhere” mindset. This is all well and good when you know that, by the end of the movie, the bad repressed nazi guy is gonna crack and be dragged away, leaving the “meddling kids” in possession of the screen and the audience’s sympathy. However, in real life, the determination–amongst many of the most intelligent people in our society–to remain “alternative” at all times is the single greatest impediment to change.


Talk about your binary quandaries! You can’t be “alternative” without a “mainstream”. This is why Grant Morrison is so important. Here’s a guy that no “conservative” could possibly accept as “one of their own”–and yet, he triumphantly declares, in all of his work, “this is not alternative–this is for everyone!”

In Morrison, the struggle is not between “freaks” and “normals”–it’s between binary logicians and those who come to realize not only the bankruptcy but the true immorality of this mode of thinking. Morrison doesn’t wait until the end of his stories to “reveal” that his custodians of the status quo are at least as conflicted/fucked up as his punks–it’s all right there on the surface. “Mr. Jones” is a perfect example of this: “Hi Honey! I’m home!” [what–no laugh track?–let’s try that again “honey”–get with the program!]…


Morrison’s oeuvre (what I’ve read of it so far, anyway) is not a deconstruction of “normalcy”, it’s a dismissal. And he’s right. That’s not a word.



Good Afternoon Friends!
Dave

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Update(circa 2pm): If you’re interested in the topic of superheroes as mythology, you can’t do better than this Jason Kimble post


Fragments? Sure. Are we Ruined?


(Soundtrack: Hole–My Body, The Hand Grenade)


I don’t know what (if anything!) you folks got out of yesterday’s discussion, but I’ve concluded that I focused my attack upon the wrong end of the “modern mythology” formula… “Mythology?” It’s a chimerical word. We gotta get rid of it!

But how about that “modernism”?


I’m particularly indebted to Bruce Baugh’s helpful suggestion that 20th century encyclopedistes of myth were, for the most part, depressed modernists seeking to hold the “center” in place. I like to think of the corporate superhero universes as “postmodern” (or “poststructural”), and this is why I disagree so strongly with Richard Reynolds’ Campbellian reading.


Joseph Campbell is the ultimate modernist–at war with the “superstructure”/”false consciousness”. There’s only one hero see? And there aren’t many archetypes, either. Just focus kids, that modernist light will see you through the haze of multiplicity. It’s comforting, I suppose… I work at a bookstore, and believe me, I know that, in many ways, we’re still living in a Campbellian universe–every second item I sell purports to tell its purchaser what “type” of person he/she is. What’s your aura? What’s your inner child? What’s your freakin’ blood type profile, for chrissake!

Whatever “mythology” once meant to those who actually lived in ancient Greece, Scandinavia, etc., in the 20th century it came to mean a system that helped make sense of the world and defined a place for every person in it. If you figure out where you “fit in”, you’ll be happy…


Of course, I think all of that is a snare and a delusion. Any time you think you’ve found your niche in the universe, you’ve actually found a coffin. Go ahead and get in if you want to, but don’t be surprised if it gets a bit claustrophobic in there. Not to worry–fresh air awaits you in Heaven!


Whenever I use the term “postmodern”, people get annoyed, but there’s nothing really new in “pomo” thought. Yeah a lot of the terms are newfangled, but the ideas go back to Plato’s opponents, the Sophists. And they really began to come into their own–on a popular level–with the Protestant Reformation. As far as I’m concerned, the most pernicious idea ever conceived is the “Great Chain of Being”: you know, God at the top, beasts at the bottom, humans somewhere in the middle, and all partaking of the same essence. Everything is really one thing. “Postmodernism” is an attempt to rescue “sophistry” from the pejorative connotations attached to the word by Plato. And one of the greatest blows ever struck against monism is the “no-prize”!


Since the dawn of human history, authors have been “cooking the books”, making certain that the sacred texts “mean” what they want them to mean. Radical Protestantism serves them raw. The “priesthood of all believers”–the idea that every reader of the Bible is free to make what he or she will of it–led to some pretty deluded stuff, but it was worth it. Let’s not forget that it also led directly to liberal democracy.


The “no-prize” goes all of this one better. By incorporating criticism into the scriptura themselves, and acknowledging that no one was really at the helm of the narrative ship, Marvel set sail on the “drift” that modernists aimed to still.



Good Afternoon Friends!
Dave

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Modern Mythology? Fuck No!

(Soundtrack: Heavens to Betsy–Calculated)


I first encountered Richard Reynolds’ Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology in the Concordia stacks about 7 years ago. It’s a well-written, earnest piece of Campbellian scholarship–and I disagreed with it in an insanely visceral way.


I still do.


If you ask me, Reynolds actually does what I’m always accused of doing–i.e. exhalt these texts to a preposterous level of “significance”. Reynolds absolutely buys into the high art/low art binary–i.e. “high art” as cultural “base”, “low art” as mere superstructure–and he argues strenuously in favour of placing superheroes in the former category.

And he’s certainly not the only one in thrall to this way of looking at the issue.


In the infamous Ninth Art thread, Alasdair Watson made this claim:

I am not covinced that the a serious dissection of nature of faith, to use my earlier example, is going to be well served when the protagonists must dress in spandex and fire lightning out of various orfices. I’m sure it’s not impossible to do, but I think it’d either come across as a bit of a joke – (see Chuck Austen’s recent religion-based storylines for examples), or kill the franchise, because lets face it, people come to the X-men for costumes and ass-kicking, not existential crises. Which is my point about not being allowed to do certain things with a given franchise.



So. In order to break out of the “light entertainment” box (“transcend the genre” as they say), a superhero comic book would have to tackle a “serious” issue like “the nature of faith”. And without getting “jokey” about it either!



Well, that’s exactly what Richard Reynolds says these comics do! After all, this is a guy who describes every issue of Damage Control as a “canonical text”. And of course I find that just as laughable as I’m sure Alasdair does.


Here’s what Mark Gruenwald had to say about this, way back in the eighties:

Super hero comics have sometimes been described as “modern mythology”. I am not certain who first spoke of them in those terms but it seems that I first read these references in the mid-60s when Marvel Comics first became a media phenomenon. The surface similarities between our modern day super heroes and the gods and heroes of ancient myth are undeniable: both contain larger-than-life characters in fantastic situations. Indeed, my own interest in mythology undoubtedly sprang from the same basic impulses as my interest in super heroic fiction in general. However, super hero comics are not modern mythology, and here’s why:

The manner of creation is different. Myths are the product of many minds reworking the same basic material orally through successive generations until they are finally written down. Super hero comics are the product of only a few minds working directly for the print medium.



The purposes of myth and super hero comics are different. Myths were created to explain nature, rationalize the metaphysical mysteries of existence, and instruct and enlighten their audience about life and human nature through the use of allegory and symbolism. Super hero comics are created to entertain their audience and, once in a blue moon, get is to think while it’s being entertained. Myths are not without entertainment value (to those they were created for as well as today’s audience) but comics are strictly for their entertainment value.

The cultural bases of a body of myths and a body of super hero comics are different. Virtually everyone in a given culture had a basic knowledge of its culture’s myths. In our culture, the majority of the population only has a passing familiarity with a handful of the beter known characters (Superman, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, etc.). Mythology was common knowledge, super hero comics are an esoteric interest.

At the core of each myth are its culture’s universal truths, whether the myths are believed to be literally true or but symbolically true. In super hero comics, only the very young or naive believe the stories to have literally (or even figuratively) happened or the heroes to be real people. Myths were meant to be believed on some level; comics are meant to entertain on some level.

That sounds more like it, no? Mythology comes into being in order to justify the ways of God (or fate) to men and women–and that’s not what super heroes are about.

But here’s the thing–since the Reformation, all of the most cogent thoughts in the West have been wrecking balls aimed at mythological structures. Oh sure, there was a lot of mythologizing going on in the 20th century (Nazism, monotheistic fundamentalism of all stripes, “Gaia theory”, essentialist gender theory, etc.) but all of it was (and is) either counterproductive or just plain evil.


I prefer a metatext that is generated by the profit motive–we’ve all had enough of the “prophet motive”, haven’t we? I’m an unabashed supporter of “pure narrative”–is it any wonder that Morrison and Auster are my two favourite writers these days? Don’t bother me with what “you think”. Whatever it is, we both know it’s “wrong”. The most “serious” thing a storyteller can do is tell a story. End of story.

The real difference between mythology and Marvel is that, while the former is a “closed system”, the latter is wide open. Obviously, myths are the products of many minds–but myths qua myths certainly aren’t perceived that way. Mythology is a “homogenous” body of work, the structuralist’s dream come true–it is taken for granted that, given enough time, a rigorous exegete could tease THE meaning out of the canonical writings.

But the Marvel Universe is a poststructuralist field of narrative. It may be the product of fewer minds than the norse legends, but, contra Gruenwald, that is not the way it appears to the public. The fault lines are clearly visible in the credits and the lettercols.


“Why does Thor look like an overweight croquet player in the latest issue of Strange Tales Stan?”


“I don’t know Frantic One, ask Sturdy Steve!”


The multiple founts of inspiration within the “batty bullpen” were glaringly apparent in the early Marvels, and that’s what makes these stories more than mythology. The Marvel Universe, like our own world, is built out of parts that coexist on the same plane without fitting together. As far as I’m concerned, that is Stan Lee’s main achievement. He’s the anti-Tolkien! He presided over (and contributed to) the creation of a metatext that opened itself up to “the higher criticism” from the get-go! And the highest criticism is reinterpretation.

Good Afternoon Friends!
Dave

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I guess this answers my question/confirms my nightmare re:Tales To Astonish

The spectacular life and times of Jack Kirby, the legendary forefather of American comic books.

For fifty years, Jack Kirby drew more pages than any other comic book artist. As talented as he was prolific, Kirby was responsible for many of the most well-known and beloved superheroes in popular culture.



With his first writing partner Joe Simon, he created Captain America, DC Comics’s Sandman, and the lucrative genre of the romance comic. In the 1960s, Kirby paired with Stan Lee to develop a pantheon of heroes that included, among others, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, the X-Men, Thor, Iron Man, the Avengers, the Silver Surfer, and the Inhumans. Together with Lee, this artist and writer forever changed the American comic book by introducing angst-ridden heroes, sympathetic villains, and a dynamic visual style that has influenced every artist who followed.



The inspiration behind The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Jack Kirby has been hailed by Wizard magazine as Without any doubt the single most important creator in the History of American Comic Books. In Tales to Astonish, Ronin Ro chronicles Kirby’s poverty-stricken origins in the Lower East Side, his early commercial triumphs and failures, his renowned partnership with Stan Lee, his continuing artistic innovations (the production department hated him for pasting photographs into his pages), and his lengthy legal battles with Marvel comics over the ownership of his original art. An insightful portrait of one of its most enduring—and overlooked—artists, Tales to Astonish is also a lively, novelistic account of the comic book industry, from its inauspicious origins to its sensational successes.



Oh well… There’s no close-reading on that menu. I’m sure I’ll read it anyway. I’m as fascinated by spandex vorticism as the next person. (will there be any discussion of Kirby as a modernist?) But overlooked? By whom? Certainly not by the people that will bother to read this book! (where’s that Ross Andru study I’ve been dreamin’ of?) At least we can hope that Ro will delve into the influence of Warner Bros. films (especially the Dead End/East End Kids) upon the King.



take care friends!

Dave

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Do People Know About This?



We’ve got a few copies on order at the store, so I’ll definitely get a chance to read it when it arrives–whether I have money at the time or not! My worry is that, like the Spurphael book before it, there will be way too much “behind the scenes” material, and a sad lack of focus upon the comics themselves, or even the influences upon the creators from outside of the comic book world… We’ll see! I’ll tell ya: I wouldn’t be concerned at all if J.W. Hastings had written the book. He seems to be one of the few Kirbyites who prefers to discuss the man’s vision than his martyrdom. (check out that astonishing blogroll!)



Enjoy yourselves out there friends
Dave

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I’m Sure Adam @ Completely Futile Would Disagree But…



It seems I’m not much of a geek (4.93097%–Poser), according to this test anyway…(link via Johnny Bacardi and Mike Norton)



I’ll say this:


My score would have been much more impressive if they awarded points for wasting hours arguing with angry “indie” artists on Ninth Art & TCJ messageboards (unquestionably the “geekiest” thing I’ve ever done!)


Busy today–I’ve just finalized my August living arrangements in East Lansing, MI without leaving the computer console! (that sounds pretty geeky too, doesn’t it?)



Have a good weekend friends!
Dave

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Forget Bill, Kill Quentin, He’d Love It!

(Soundtrack: Ramones–End of the Century)


Ah, the great Tarantino debate… It doesn’t make much sense for me to be wading into this, because I haven’t seen either of the KB‘s, and I’m not planning to any time soon either–however…


Look, Sean Collins has pulled so many of my terminally overstated opinions re: the metatextual grandeur of Marvel/DC comics back from the brink of incoherence that I wish I could return the favour here, but there’s really no way to defend this manifesto:

It’s really for the best if you ignore the people who didn’t like Kill Bill Volumes One and Two, which taken together comprise one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.



I do, however, wish I knew how people can watch a movie in which bad behavior occurs and, because they find the film amusing on some level, deduce that that bad behavior is being endorsed–particularly in an oeuvre like Tarantino’s, in which characters who refuse to renounce violence and deceit are inevitably punished for that refusal. (You want to see a movie in which gratuitous violence is immorally played for laughs? Rent any of St. Mel’s Lethal Weapon flicks.)



Personally, I’m sure I’ve enjoyed reading about KB2 far more than I would enjoy actually seeing the thing. I find Rose’s western theory really interesting, and Aaron Haspel’s description of Tarantino as a “prison thug with a MOM tatoo” is just great–in fact, I would describe the director as filiopietistic in more ways than one (film history is the madonna–he’s the whore). J.W. Hastings also takes a few good “emperor has no clothes” shots at QT.


Here’s my take, based upon the man’s oeuvre, pre-KB: I loved the Pam Grier/Robert Forster aspects of Jackie Brown, I like the Bruce Willis/Maria de Medeiros scenes in Pulp Fiction, and I pretty much despise the rest of it. But not because I find his work confused, or too slick for its own good, or anything like that. I think there’s a very clear message behind the films–I just hate it, that’s all!


I would never describe QT as a “nihilist”. He’s a gnostic. I agree with Sean that there’s a purpose behind all of the gore, but I don’t agree at all that these are morality plays, meting out comeuppances to “people behaving badly”. No way. QT thinks this world is a hell, and the films cook up situations that are meant to make the kitchen too hot for even the devil to stand. This is the “act out your baseness” school of exorcism. Forget about pandering to the worst in other people. Pander to the worst in yourself. That way lies salvation.

I think the Hopper-Walken scene in True Romance sums up QT’s philosophy perfectly. State “the facts” in as confrontational a manner as you can–make your enemies laugh before they crucify you, and set those kiddies’ ids free! You can’t say Tarantino doesn’t “think of the children”, can you?


Dave Intermittent wonders how we are supposed to take such cartoonish violence seriously–but that’s gnosticism in a nutshell. It’s everything horrible taken to its absurd extreme. This is seriousness masquerading as play. So, no, the violence doesn’t have a point, but I’m not making a “style over substance” argument here–the violence is the point. And I say: “fuck that”. I believe in the seriousness of playfulness. And I don’t like suicide bombers. You don’t make the world a better place by adding to the body count.



Good Afternoon Friends!
Dave

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What “Continuity” Is, As We Grow Older
(Soundtrack: Weezer–Maladroit)

“Continuity” is a straw that stirs addled neurons all across the spectrum of commentators upon the superhero genre. It’s “too involved” and is driving the kids to seek the more immediate pleasures of Manga (if that’s what they want–who cares?)… it’s an info-crutch for nerds who can’t bear to think about the details of their own lives (again, do you really think that these nerds would be “okay” if Marvel & DC would just stop referring to their own corporate pasts?)… it’s a sham anyway, because, you know, the kids grow up while the adults stay the same, and it’s always “now” (but you know, the same thing goes on in Peanuts–which I love, by the way–not to mention a lot of other revered strips. In fact, in the medium as a whole, series like Cerebus–in which the characters do age at a regular rate–are more the exception than the rule…and there’s nothing wrong with either approach, as far as I’m concerned…)

Darren Madigan, the fanboy’s fanboy, has written extensively on this subject. When Madigan is on, there is no purer–or more intelligent–exponent of the demented impulse to reify past narrative. For Darren, the Silver Age stories produced at Marvel and DC are actually scripture, and the world they describe is more real to him than the one he is forced to share with us. But let’s hear it from the man himself (and I urge you to read everything at the Calliope Martian Vision site–Darren & I don’t agree on anything, but that stuff is awesome–especially the Englehart piece):


There are other names and labels that the It’s Just A Story Contingent likes to affix on real, actual superhero comic book fans like me: anal, obsessive, compulsive, humorless, inflexible, lacking in a sense of wonder… and none of these are labels I, or you, if you are like me, particularly want to have applied to us, either. But the most stinging indictment, the most persuasive and telling, the one that makes those of us who truly care about continuity become very meek and quiet about it whenever a covey of Grant Morrison fans are slapping each other on the back and hooting like spavined whelk over the utter brilliance of the latest issue of whatever it is Morrison is ignoring continuity on this month… is that statement that we are childish, and immature, and bratty, and acting like a little kid, when we insist that Superman or Green Lantern or Green Arrow should continue to behave in a manner that they have heretofore been established consistently as behaving in.

…when you treat the adventures of Spider-Man, or Green Lantern, or the X-Men, or Batman, as Just A Story… you are intrinsically saying, Those People Are Not Real. The World They Live In Is Not Real. It’s just fiction, that people like you or me, or, actually, people dumber, and with much less talent than you or me, can manipulate as suits them to make money for themselves and other people higher up the food chain.

In other words: “It’s just a freaking STORY, fanboy. LIGHTEN UP.”

This is entirely unacceptable to me.

Okay, look, I know they’re fictional constructs created, for the most part, to sell magazines and merchandise and make a bunch of people a lot of money. The… Grown Up… in me knows that.

But the grown up in me isn’t the part of me that reads and loves superhero comics. And the grown up in me, in this regard, can go soak his head.

The reason I love continuity is that deep down inside, the little kid that loves superhero comics is absolutely certain that THOSE GUYS ARE REAL. That THEIR WORLDS ARE REAL. That, if you could build a machine to cross the dimensions (just like THEY do) you would, somewhere, find an actual, objective, existent DC Earth-whatever, and an actual, objective, really and truly, honest to Irving Forbush, Marvel Universe.



There’s a lot more there, and it’s all fun! Of course, I disagree with every last syllable of it–but you decide for yourself! One interesting thing about all of this is how closely Darren’s attitude tallies with the “sophisticated”/TCJ point of view on superhero comics. Kirby, Ditko, etc…these guys were masters of the universe, and they created something beautiful, innocent and untainted by their incompetent epigoni… There’s a glossary entry in Seth’s It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken that basically whines about how the big corporate Marvel of today is pissing on his childhood memories…

The Madigans and the Seths take completely different angles of attack, but their point of impact is the same–Seth wants comics to “grow up” (and I like his work, but I don’t think he has anything interesting to say about superheroes–like a lot of other people involved in this debate, he’s way too close to the issue, and he has no perspective whatever); Darren just wants the silver age superheroes to stop–they belong to him and to his generation–“you want superheroes you fuckin’ little brats? make up your own! Peter Parker is sixty years old now and he’s tired, see? And believe me–there’s nothing elastic about Reed Richards anymore. Just ask Sue. Everything you see printed about these folks these days is a goddamn LIE!! Marvel has all of us in a Liddleville/Matrix headlock and they’re making us see things that just aren’t REAL… The Infinity Gauntlet actually took place on a geriatric bocci ball court in Long Island–but THEY prevented you from seeing it that way…”

That’s Darren’s story and he’s sticking to it.

Okay. Now, enter Tim O’Neil. What does he think about all of this? Well, basically the same thing (except he’s a little younger than Darren). The fact is that, immediately after complaining about the “intensely, painfully retarded fanboys” who cannot accept change, Tim proceeds to confess that he is appalled by John Byrne’s plan to “retcon” Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol out of existence! See, Morrison’s run is the “real” Doom Patrol! In this case, Tim sounds like just as much of a reifying fanboy as Darren does. Ditto all of those people out there who revere Kirby, but hate his descendents with an unnatural passion.

Now listen, I would bet my life that Byrne’s DP will suck in comparison to Morrison’s, but that doesn’t make it any more or less “real”… I hate to keep invoking Magritte, but goddamn it the man continues to be relevant. There has never been, and never will be, a “true story”. A story is a story. Truth is something else entirely. The “Continuity” vs “Imaginary story” binary is absolutely worthless, as far as I’m concerned. You read all the time how Marvel’s “continuity revolution” in the sixties brought a new “realism” into comics. I disagree completely. In fact, I think it did the reverse. By cramming the panels with footnotes, hovering over the pictures in self-reflexive narrative captions, orchestrating almost continuous x-overs, and allowing readers to reason their way into the stories through the lettercols–Stan Lee actually played up the textuality of his work.

So, what is “continuity” then? Well, at this point, I think it’s something like T.S. Eliot’s “tradition” in microcosm. To get the most out of reading a Marvel or DC comic, you have to be familiar with where it fits into the history. And I’m not talking about character histories here, I’m talking about interpretive histories. Actually, the proper term for this isn’t history at all–it’s historiography.

My reading of Gruenwald’s Captain America is enriched by my understanding of how radically his interpretation differs from Kirby’s or Englehart’s version of the character. And if I have the time and money, I will certainly read Kirkman’s Cap, because, whether I wind up liking the issues themselves or not, I will still derive a certain gratification from thinking about them in connection with what has come before. This is why I believe that Darren is dead wrong when he claims that Grant Morrison doesn’t care about comic book history. Of course he does! He just doesn’t reify the past. He jumps into it for a healthy swim–he doesn’t drown himself in it. And, like Emerson, he begs you not to reify his own work by transmuting it–through the alchemy of reverence–into quicksand. What the hell else was the finale to Animal Man about?

At this point, I think we can just retire the term “continuity” anyway–“awareness of tradition” is a more descriptive term for the phenomenon, in this age of continual (and overt) “retcons”… The onus is now on the readers, not the editors. And if that alienates readers who don’t want to do “homework” before they can begin to enjoy the issues–so be it! And if that means the whole genre is doomed–well, that’s just the way the continuity crumbles, right? Blake isn’t really BLAKE unless you’ve read Milton–and Animal Man isn’t ANIMAL MAN (although, I firmly believe that, even to the uninitiated, it can still be Animal Man!) unless you’ve read Crisis and old Supergirl adventures that featured Streaky the Super-Cat… Oh yeah, let’s get rid of “retcon” too–it’s just “reinterpretation”, people. And what’s wrong with that?

Good Afternoon Friends!
Dave