Yes This Really Happened

Yes, This Really Happened: Wolverine Finds Jesus

To observe Easter, I decided to share the most important and unlikely story of conversion in the history of the Christian religion.  Of course, I’m referring to Nightcrawler’s conversion of Wolverine in that episode of X-Men: The Animated Series. As bizarre and forced as it sounds, the episode does more or less fit with the canon of the comics. For starters, Nightcrawler has been well-established as a devout Catholic. In fact, one story from Chris Claremont’s original run in Uncanny X-Men had Nightcrawler suffer a devastating crisis of faith when the X-Men encounter a literal god-like being called the Beyonder, which is one of the very few stories I’m aware of that tries to examine what living in a universe populated with cosmic beings not at all shy about intervening in human affairs does to believers in real-world religions. Likewise in the comics Wolverine has also been more or less written as an atheist or at least a cynical agnostic, although this again raises the question of how easy it is to deny the existence of any higher power when your career often has you in the same room as the real Hercules and the Norse god of war. At the same time, out of all the angst-plagued X-Men, Wolverine probably does have the most reason to doubt the existence of a loving God. This is the guy who lived through two World Wars, had metal bonded with his entire skeleton, whose metal claws burst through his flesh and skin every time he has to use them, and is in love with a woman who is not only married but periodically dies, gets better, and dies again.

Titled “Nightcrawler,” the episode has the remit of introducing to the animated universe Nightcrawler, who isn’t yet a member of the X-Men (and if I remember right never becomes one in the course of the series, even though he wears his X-Men costume in this episode). Like in the comics, we first see Nightcrawler in a small German town, being chased by people who look a lot like the extras playing European peasants in just about any Universal horror movie from the 1930s (to be fair, they looked like that in the comics too). Unlike the comics, where Nightcrawler just happens to be rescued from the mob because Professor Xavier needs a few dopes to send on what might be a suicide mission, this time Nightcrawler is found by Rogue, Gambit, and Wolverine, who all happen to be on a ski trip in the German Alps. So, here’s a question: why is Wolverine being a third wheel? The characters’ dialogue even comments on this; Gambit makes a joke about Wolverine being their chaperone. Does a prudish Professor Xavier, possibly taking his own sexual frustrations out on his students, have a “no fraternizing” policy so strict even Bob Jones University could take notes from it? I prefer to think that Gambit forgets about the whole “Don’t even try to reach first base with Rogue because she’ll unintentionally absorb your powers and memories” thing so often that Wolverine always has to be at hand to threaten to perform an impromptu vasectomy should the need arise.

The plot kicks in when Wolverine overhears two skiers talk about demon-sightings and insists on investigating with Rogue and Gambit in tow. I have no idea it was intentional, but I like that the episode doesn’t even establish if Wolverine suspects that the rumored demon might be a misunderstood mutant. He’s so badass he’s just always looking for new things to kill! Anyway, because apparently parts of rural Germany still don’t have roads or trains the three have to ski all the way to the village. I suspect this unlikely scenario was put in just to set up something to appease all the Gambit-haters out there, a scene where Gambit accidentally slides down a steep hill and slams into a pine tree. This sets up what is easily the best line in the episode, courtesy of Wolverine: “Man doesn’t break a sweat against Apocalypse or Magneto. So what nails him? A pine tree.”

After getting on the wrong side of an avalanche to boot, the three end up in the town’s monastery where Gambit is treated by the monks. Wolverine tries to get information on the alleged demon, only for one of the monks to reply that he doesn’t know of any demon (it’s a nice touch that technically he isn’t lying). Also, just in case you are already thinking up jokes about Rogue being in a monastery, the show’s writer has beaten you to it. A monk gently insists that Rogue, whose ski suit has had its sleeves ripped off, cover herself, to which Rogue remarks, “Don’t want to make the natives restless!” There you have it; even the G-rated, toned-down animated series has to acknowledge Rogue’s hotness. Anyway, another monk, Reinhart, who overhears that conversation, tries to murder Gambit, but Rogue happens to be checking in on Gambit and gives chase. Rogue accidentally runs through a door the monks built so that Nightcrawler could climb down the monastery’s walls and falls, but Nightcrawler, not knowing that Rogue can fly, uses his teleportation power to “save” her. Once the obligatory misunderstandings and fights are over with, Nightcrawler explains and flashes back to his origins (for those of you well versed in your X-Men continuity, in the flashback there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by Amanda Sefton). Wolverine is exasperated by Nightcrawler’s forgiving attitude toward his bad circumstances and the bigotry he’s faced: “We’re mutants! God gave up on us a long time ago!” To help prove Wolverine’s point, a village mob whipped up by Reinhart attacks the monastery, but Nightcrawler is ultimately vindicated when Reinhart, horrified that he and his mob’s actions have caused a fire that destroys much of the monastery, begs forgiveness from Nightcrawler. As the X-Men leave, Nightcrawler hands Wolverine a Bible. Later when they move their vacation to Paris, Rogue is surprised to find Wolverine praying and reading the Bible in a church.

Now I should start off by saying I won’t snark on this episode, because honestly it isn’t that bad, and there are several areas in which it could have been a hell of a lot worse. In terms of animation, stories, and reaching an all-ages audience, X-Men: The Animated Series wasn’t in the same league as Batman: The Animated Series, but it generally managed to have solid dialogue, characterizations, and plotlines that revealed genuine creative effort, and not just people trying to siphon off what was then comics’ biggest cash cow. In fact, since through a good part of the series’ run the “X-Men” comics themselves were in a creative and editorial quagmire that spawned many go-nowhere plotlines and character derailments, one could make the argument that at the time the series was in a few ways better than the majority of the comics, not counting the series’ watered-down adaptations of classic X-Men stories like The Dark Phoenix Saga and the original Proteus story (I can get leaving out the part where Proteus attempts to rape his mother while possessing the rotting corpse of his father, but did they really have to make him into just another troubled, misunderstood teen?). This episode did have its flaws, including some Belgium-sized plot holes like: 1) Did Reinhart just not know that Nightcrawler was living in the monastery all that time? I know the animation makes the monastery look like a palace, but come on, especially since it would have been hard to explain away the door that led to a fifteen-foot drop. 2) Why did he try to kill Gambit in the first place? Possibly he was actually aware that Nightcrawler was there all along and was trying to protect the monastery from the potential scandal, but none of this is ever made clear. 3) So Gambit and Rogue are not all that concerned that Reinhart tried to murder Gambit? Granted we don’t know if Reinhart is taken to jail or thrown out of the monastery or whatever, but it’s funny that the attempted murder is never brought up again. I guess the X-Men just take that kind of thing in stride.  Despite all that, the episode actually holds up reasonably well, especially if you don’t focus on the contrived action aspect of the plot.

Of course, we’re not here to talk about plot holes, but about Wolverine’s conversion! Now naturally the whole episode will lead a bad taste in your mouth if you’re just opposed on principle to your entertainment proselytizing you. Also if you look at an interview about this episode with its writer Len Uhley it’s clear that the Powers That Be at FOX supported the episode’s message, good will that likely would not have been extended to, for example, an episode with Storm teaching someone about her vague New Age-y goddess worship religion. Still, this isn’t like Jack Chick or even like a Christian version of Captain Planet, and the episode manages to do surprisingly well with the issue of religion…until the last scene, but I’ll get to my issues with that in a minute. Even if you object to the content, for a Saturday morning action cartoon the episode does take a somewhat mature if too fleeting look at what’s its like to have bigotry and violence sour one on the whole idea of religion, and to have another person overcome such experiences through some kind of faith. Now because of the limits of the medium they can only depict these ideas with the broadest strokes, and even with the carte blanche the showrunners were apparently granted it still seems like they couldn’t get perfectly explicit (that Jesus guy is never mentioned, although Nightcrawler does get to mention the idea of original sin, and Wolverine never comes across as a bona fide atheist), but still it is heavy stuff for a cartoon run at a time when, say, Nintendo of America turned all the churches in Final Fantasy into “clinics” (leading to the nonsensical plot point where a vampire went out of its way to burn down a clinic, but I digress).

First, let me say that while I didn’t have problems with the episode itself being overtly Christian-y, I did take issue with the fact that the message did force both Nightcrawler and Wolverine to act wildly out of character and being reduced to mouthpieces. Now I know it’s not easy to get any message across in a half-hour TV show, especially one as heavily under the scrutiny of censors and watchdog groups as shows ostensibly for children, but was it really necessary to have Wolverine act like a 17-year old who just read The God Delusion for the first time? One monk brings up God, and Wolverine gets all sarcastic as if he felt provoked that God of all things gets mentioned in a monastery. Just in general Wolverine’s whole attitude to Nightcrawler doesn’t ring true to the character; not only how he’s depicted in the comics, but in at least a couple of other episodes of the show as well. Yes, Wolverine is someone who has been turned into a hard-edged cynic by experiencing first-hand more than a century’s worth of fighting, suffering, and atrocities, but his long life and being involved in just about every major conflict in the twentieth century has also made him exceptionally open to other cultures and points of view, best shown by his total immersion in Japanese culture.  So the bottom line is that the episode does work with Wolverine having a grudge against the Christian God, but it doesn’t ring true at all in how Wolverine expresses it. In fact, I finished the episode wondering why the writer didn’t just use Gambit, who would have had Wolverine’s skepticism and anger but not his worldliness, and leave Wolverine out of the story entirely. I guess having Canada’s favorite native one-man army open his heart to Jesus is much more impressive than doing the same with freakin’ Gambit, but still…

That said, how the episode distorts Wolverine isn’t quite as bad as what happens with Nightcrawler, who is unrecognizable compared to his comics counterpart. Here Nightcrawler is a soft-spoken, pure pacifist, whose every other line of dialogue is a Christian adage about love and peace. In the comics, Nightcrawler is someone who coped with his monstrous looks through not only his Catholicism, but by developing a romantic, flirtatious, devil-may-care persona. You do get one small hint of this when Nightcrawler addresses Rogue as Fräulein as he kisses her (gloved) hand, but it’s passing. To put it another way, Nightcrawler’s faith is just one facet to his character; there are other things he can talk about!  In sum, in the comics he’s like most real-life Christians (and Muslims, and Hindus, and Wiccans, and etc., etc., for that matter).

The lack of subtlety, while understandable, really comes to a head in the last scene with Wolverine kneeling in the Church. I know it’s meant to be a shocker, and it’s definitely the one image that caused me to even remember that this episode existed. Still, from a creative perspective, it’s a little too on-the-nose. Plus it reminds me a bit too much of those unlicensed “Calvin and Hobbes” prints that show Calvin kneeling before a cross. It all just screams: “Look, kids, even your favorite rebel without a cause kneels before God!” The problem is just as in his fictional universe Calvin, whether or not the reader chooses to believe that he’s saved, will forever torment his teachers, parents, and Suzie, Wolverine will only keep killing busloads of people (or, in the animated series’ case, really enjoying lots of bloodless violence). It doesn’t speak well of the transformative power of the Bible, you know? Regardless, it’s still a lot of fun to imagine what Wolverine would sound like in confession:

Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. I have killed 67 ninjas and dismembered 24 others. Also I have lusted after Scott Summers’ undead wife in my heart and I slept with Ms. Marvel yet again. Oh, and does killing an army of Skrulls count as a sin since they’re aliens?

Cultural Trends

A Lamentation for the American Soap Opera

Recently ABC announced that it was putting the ax to two soap operas, One Life To Live and All My Children, both of which had been running since the ’60s. “Soap operas!” I bet you’re thinking, if not bellowing as you slam down a fist. “Who the hell cares? Let ’em die!” Definitely soap operas have a bad reputation, but I’ll tell you why even people who would hesitate to watch them, even if they had a gun pointed at them, should care. First, though, let me lay down some context…

It’s been said that we are witnessing a Golden Age of Fandom, where those formerly considered nerds and geeks can both openly discuss their obsessions in most forums and have said obsessions all but infinitely catered to by the Internet, if not the media in general. There isn’t much arguing with the fact that the Internet has made it much easier to level up from dabbler to expert, especially if you have money to throw around at eBay and Amazon and the like, but there are still certain sub-genres that can be taboo. Even with Hollywood’s on-and-off love affair with superheroes, in some quarters the actual readers of superhero comics are at best cultural misfits and at worst all male,T&A-chasing misogynists (a stereotype which, to be fair, a few writers, artists, and marketing gurus at DC Comics and Marvel and some fans themselves have not helped dispel). Unless you’re a male teenager, in blue collar company, or both, you might have to joke or depreciate yourself when you mention that you’re a pro-wrestling fan. Last but not least, there’s the entertainment taboo that I’m writing to mourn…soap operas.

One would be hard-pressed to think of a visual genre more generally reviled than soap operas without maybe having to mention various forms of extreme pornography. People of all sorts of tastes and political and philosophical leanings uphold soap operas as the trashiest of trash culture, the absolute nadir of American entertainment (well, maybe; “reality” TV has fought and is fighting hard to take that honor). Not to go all fancy, ivory tower academic on you all, but it is interesting that soap operas’ low status does coincide with the fact that they’re a genre that’s both negatively gendered and classed, much the same way superhero comics and pro-wrestling are. Just as comic book fans are seen as unemployed, sexually stunted losers and pro-wrestling fans are poor, rural rednecks, soap opera viewers are supposed to be all under-educated and under-sexed grandmas and housewives. It’s also worth mentioning that all three have the unique appeal of offering complex and organic mythologies, which is completely engaging when you’re a fan but maybe a little off-putting when you’re a curious passerby trying to understand the appeal in the first place. Even superhero comics, which out of the three has had by far the most success in keeping up with the broader media through films and TV adaptations, has that nasty, unending problem of “accessibility.”

My own appreciation of soap operas was inherited. Since both my parents worked full-time and my grandmother lived next door, I spent many afternoons as a kid in the late ’80s and early ’90s watching Days of our Lives (DL), One Life to Live (OLTL), and General Hospital (GH) with her. I’m grateful for that, especially since “One Life to Live” taught me all about camp. After all, it was a show that often centered around the eternal feud between two grand dames, the saintly but strong-willed Vicki Buchanan and “original diva” Dorian Lord…excuse me, Dr. Dorian Lord. (I’d agree with the Moral Guardians that gender-inappropriate exposure to OLTL made me gay, except I’m sure S.E. Hinton’s homoerotic classic “The Outsiders” already did that). Not to say that DL didn’t have its delightful campy side; who can forget Mafia stereotype/Gothic villain/supervillain-in-all-but-name Stefano DiMera or Steve Donovan, the British spy who had a butler named Alfred? Even though it was the most popular out of the three, my grandmother and I were usually least enthused about GH, although we did get a kick out of the antics of the Quartermaines, who were in some ways the standard dysfunctional, jaded rich family that appeared in every soap opera, but they were hilariously self-conscious (some might say Genre Savvy) about it.

What made soaps so weird and appealing to my young self wasn’t that they were Harlequin romances in TV form, which is still the widespread preconception, but that they often had a weird and schizophrenic mishmash of different genres and tropes. Sure, they were still predominantly focused on love and sex, but since the late ’70s soaps, already responding to the fact that women were less homebound than ever, started expanding beyond domestic drama into strange waters. GH (in)famously pitted its premier couple, Luke and Laura, against a Greek criminal mastermind armed with a weather machine (yes, really). In the mid-’80s DL sent its cop characters to some pretty beach locales to investigate a crimelord in an obvious aping of “Miami Vice.” Other soaps became as much about corporate intrigue and backstabbing as about family melodrama. And it worked! The ’80s/early ’90s were undoubtedly when American soap operas hit their peak. While they were still stamped firmly with the label “lowbrow,” they still got a bit of positive mainstream attention here and there, probably most famously in the 1991 movie “Soap” which was both a parody and a homage, and inspired ratings-grabbing prime time imitators like “Dallas”, “Dynasty”, and “Melrose Place” (which caused so much painful inner turmoil over gender appropriate entertainment choices for Jerry Seinfeld).

I have no idea why soap operas suffered a sharp decline, both in ratings and in cultural currency, starting in the later ’90s. Conventional wisdom is that changes in demographics, mainly more and more women joining the 9-to-5 workforce, is responsible, but that doesn’t explain why soap operas (including American soap operas) remain popular in other countries like Germany and Argentina that underwent similar changes or why their decline wasn’t more noticeable earlier. Hopefully some fledgling sociologist or cultural historian is already spending way too much time thinking about it. My own guess is that it has more to do with changes in the culture of the entertainment industry, specifically the growth of its near-psychotic obsession with the holy 18-to-39 male demographic, and because of writers like James E. Reilly in DL, who took the chaotic blending of genres I loved so much to extremes that pissed off longtime viewers by making stories about demonic possession, UFOs, and mysterious mute women living in swamps (he went on to create the short-lived sub-cult hit and bizarrely ultra-Catholic soap, “Passions,” which had among its regular cast a Satanic witch and her living doll Timmy). Whatever the case, soap operas started floundering badly about the time I started watching them again after a years-long hiatus, because they offered something that was lacking in prime-time television. Yes, the budgets were lower and the acting was often worse (especially among the male models and ex-porn stars who were often recruited to try to grab back wavering female viewers), but honestly it offered a variety and a manic, unpredictable creativity that was lacking more with every year in prime time television. The shows had gone down in quality in about every possible way since when I watched them on the floor of my grandmother’s living room, but I still had more fun watching them than most of the things the networks had to offer in the evenings.

But, like I said, I’ve come to praise OLTL and AMC, not to bury them. In fact, I’m convinced they, like Caesar, were struck down before their day had really come. OLTL was actually experiencing something of a revival under a critically respected head writer and was going up in the ratings. The fact that both shows are being replaced by a trendy cooking show (with the atrocious name “The Chew”) and yet another “reality” show about health and fitness is another damning piece of evidence. Perhaps the decision to cancel was motivated by the comparative cheapness of “reality” TV compared to scripted fare, but my suspicions are raised by the fact that the only surviving ABC soap will be GH, which years ago stopped being a traditional soap opera and turned into a z-grade imitation of “The Sopranos” (no, I’m not exaggerating). Maybe The Powers That Be were relieved to jettison a genre they saw as fit only for aging trailer park housewives, maybe not, but either way I doubt that the sour taste that comes with the phrase “soap opera” wasn’t a factor. With OLTL and AMC gone, there are now only four American soap operas left at all. “The Young and the Restless” and “The Bold and the Beautiful” might actually be around for quite some time, since they command a pretty sizable following in the international markets (I’ve been told that they love “The Bold and the Beautiful” in Germany), but DL, NBC’s last daytime soap, has had its budgets cut down to the bone and is likely the next on the chopping block.

Now that brings us to the question, “Why the hell should I care?” Because it means that it’s one more way that network television will become a less diverse, less interesting place. The decay of the soap opera genre is another validation for the studio executives who pursue fads and short-term profit over the long-term strategy of building and nurturing loyal niche audiences, the same people who have turned A&E into just one of the 90-plus channels that show almost nothing but “reality” shows and reruns of police procedurals. Even if you actually downright hated them in the same way I hate “Super Nanny,” even though I never watched it and never will, barring the possibility of severe brain injury, you have to still appreciate that they were there, an off-kilter option in a bland landscape of “Law & Order” reruns and shows whose entire raison d’etre is showing washed-up celebrities. Look at what the shows are being replaced with; it’s not an exaggeration to say that the two shows are being cut down to make way for literally more of the same, and that they’ll be lucky if they last until the next big TV fad comes along. For that reason I feel bad for the shows’ fans and their cast and crews. In the end, though, I also feel just a little sad that I’ll no longer get to imagine how my fiery Southern grandmother would have reacted to Dorian Lord’s latest antics or if she would root for Dorian against the ever stuffy Vicki.


Let Loose the Filth!

I know so many people, especially from my generation, have already made a hobby, if not a career, out of digging through the cultural trash heap, but, hey, what does it hurt to have just one more archeologist of  junky pop culture on the Interwebs?

Well, I do already run  (irregularly) The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, which is dedicated to the kind of off-Hollywood and off-kilter films that got me through an adolescence spent in Middleburg, Nowhere.  So this blog is going to be the vehicle for my obsessive crackpot thoughts about “trash culture” in general, from buff, anti-corporate, motorcycle-riding mice from Mars to trashy ’90s gore comics and everything in-between.

All that said, hello!  Hopefully this blog will have a longer lifespan than the vast majority of my projects.