Sunday, November 24, 2013

Toward the Future of Asgard!

The past few entries here have been pretty heavy, so today I’d like to write about fun things.  Sounds like a case for comic book movies!

Rather than review Thor II: The Dark World--we all know it was awesome and if you say otherwise you’re just trying to be the cool naysayer and it’s not working--I’d like to think about what could come next for the cinematic Odinson and how it could connect to the future phases of the Marvel franchise.

Thor has never been at the top of my list of heroes to follow, but we’ve had our moments together.  Back when I would get my mom to buy me whichever comic was most colorful at the grocery store, I picked up more than a few early-90s issues of the Mighty One.  Later, when I got into the Avengers, I recognized how Thor’s special Asgardian braggadocio and courtly attitude added some needed epic fantasy sensibility to the proceedings.  Then there was, of course, “Heroes Return,” when Thor got a new series helmed by Dan Jurgens--the guy who killed Superman--a new artist in always-spectacular John Romita Jr., a new alter-ego, new enemies...the whole nine.  I had to pay attention for that. It was a really good run that got me to look a little more closely at the narrative and creative history of the Thunder God.

So I feel slightly qualified to offer a few possible story-elements to fill out the next Thor movie.  (Possible spoilers for The Dark World from here out, as well as some comic book storylines from the 80s and 90s.)

Beta Ray Bill wields the power of Thor

The Marvel movie universe has so far conveniently glossed over a significant implication to the inscription on Thor’s hammer: “Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.”  That means that Chris Hemsworth isn’t the only guy in the universe who can potentially enjoy swinging the uru hammer--Beta Ray being another possibility.  The alien champion of a race whose homeworld was destroyed by some Asgardian demonic shenanigans, BRB and Thor came into conflict in the comics when the refugees began to encroach on Earth’s airspace.  Proving himself noble and valiant, Bill was able to sling Mjolnir with the best of them--convincing Odin to give him his own weapon, Stormbreaker.  After their initial dust-up, he and Thor became fast friends and allies.

Why introduce him to the MCU, though?  Besides filling out the cosmic scope of the movie universe and Thor’s adventures in it?  To show moviegoers the possibility that, should Thor go down, someone else might, just might, be able to pick up his hammer and carry on the fight.  This would be a great setup for a future Avengers movie moment, since Captain America is another being who has proven worthy of possessing Thor’s power.

(Some folks are hoping for this to occur in Avengers 2: Age of Ultron, but I think it would come off as too much of a deus ex machina without establishing that a select few beings are capable of the feat besides Thor.  YMMV.)

Expand (and reduce) the supporting cast

The Thor movies have had a tough row to hoe when it comes to populating Thor’s life.  He has no shortage of interesting friends, enemies and romantic interests, but how do you walk the line between Asgardian fantasy and earthly realism?  Filmmakers have succeeded fairly well so far (more in the second film than the first, in my opinion), but only if you really shut off certain critical parts of your brain.  There’s a lot of stylistic whiplash between the two worlds, especially since our hero, so far, is very solidly part of only one of them.  To that point, and since the end of movie two has seemingly set up the main conflict of part III as Thor vs. Loki again, I think Thor 3 should focus on Asgard, reducing Darcy and her intern’s intern and Erik Selvig to cameos while significantly boosting Lady Sif, to the point where she feels like a real person than like a warrior princess archetype.  Meanwhile, with the Earth cast reduced (and Frigga gone, RIP), there’s room in Asgard for another ally whose presence I have missed amidst all the Warriors Three slapstick: Balder the Brave!  He’s kind, courageous, and easy on the eyes, as well as being a crucial part of Asgardian myth, comic book and otherwise.  He’s sort of Asgard’s other golden child--where everyone idolizes Thor and looks forward to his rule, Balder is the one that everyone loves.  That makes his tragic end in Norse myth--at Loki’s hands--extra sad, a storyline that would play well on the big screen.  (And hey, the Norse death-goddess Hela could have a role then, too!  She and Loki would make a great uneasy alliance.)

They could even play closer to the myths than the comics do and make Balder another of Thor’s brothers, allowing for some appropriate and dreamy stunt casting--Chris Hemsworth's brother Liam.

Thor, Frog of Thunder

Loki once turned Thor into a frog.  Yup.  Awesome, huh?  Ignore all that stuff about his frog friend Puddlegulp being another transformed human--talk about mammal-washing what should be an empowering amphibian story.  It’s bad enough Thor already comes in as the air-breathing savior, we don’t need the main frog character being another human too! How condescending!

For the record, I’m being entirely sincere about that.

But yeah.  It would be stupid for this to be the entire movie, of course.  But I think it would make for an interesting middle act--Thor in his righteous rage, having discovered Loki in Odin’s place, very haughtily and arrogantly attacks him with his muscles--allowing Loki to best him with cunning and magic.  Rather than kill his brother (because secretly hey he meant all the mushy stuff in Thor 2), Loki decides to teach Thor humility by transforming him into a modest creature and sending him to live among them.

Loki doesn’t account for the fact that Thor is at his best when forced to confront his limitations, and he often finds new reserves of strength in his own humbling.  Earning the respect of the frogs, they help him find a cure for his state, blah blah magic handwave, lots of cuts back to Totalitarian Asgard with Sif and Heimdall leading underground resistance and the Warriors Three rallying the hinterlands.  Thor’s froggy exploits are played for frog-out-of-water laughs but are strangely emotionally effective at the same time, I’d hope.  And at a critical moment during a conflict between a restored Thor and Loki, the armies of frogs arrive to turn the tide!  It’s enough to put a frog in your throat.

It could be silly.  It could be cute.  It could be good, for something different in our superhero movie fare.  It would also be a good way to honor the creator behind this story (and Beta Ray Bill), Walt Simonson, who is viewed as one of the visionary artists and writers in the Thor canon.

A rival pantheon

One of the fun things Thor has allowed in comics is the exploration of other mythic pantheons beyond the Norse.  Thor has made allies and enemies among many of Earth’s other gods, and among some made up for comic book purposes.  Introducing another pantheon would add texture to the MCU’s canon of ancient-gods-as-alien-beings.  Would the Olympians be a race similar to the Asgardians who settled in a pocket dimension accessible only from Earth?  Would the Egyptian gods of the Nile have mastered the power of life and death?

There are a few good possibilities.  If the movie brought in the Greek pantheon, that would give us the opportunity to meet Hercules, an ally and longtime member of the Avengers in the comics.  But many of Marvel’s versions of the Greek gods come off as redundant next to the Asgardians, and might not add enough to the movies.  Even Hercules is pretty much Thor without the hammer, cape and brains.

The Egyptian gods, frequent foes of the Thunderer, are much more unique and interesting.  The snake and death themes prevalent with their leader, Seth, would make for a dark film, along with his powerhouse aides, Grog, Gog and Magog.  I have a particular fondness for the storyline centered around Thor #400, which gives the opportunity to introduce a favorite Avenger of mine--the Black Knight.

But perhaps the best route would be to utilize one of the fictional pantheons that has bedeviled Thor through the years.  My choice would be the Dark Gods.  They were a part of that Dan Jurgens run that I enjoyed so much, but film writers could really take them in any direction, story-wise.  Where they would make awesome foes for Thor is in the visual splendor they would afford to the screen.  I mean, look at these guys--they’re Kirbyesque wonders.

Suggested reading: Thor: The Dark Gods (though it might be better to track down and read all of Thor vol. II #1-13) and Thor vol. 1 #387, 389-390, 393, 395-400

EGO!! The Planet that Lives!!

(To be serious, I love Ego.  He’s so ridiculous.  And a friend of mine has hopes that a future Avengers movie could reflect Planet Hulk/World War Hulk, which I think could create some nice synergy with an Ego storyline.)

Suggested reading: Fantastic Four vol. I #234-235

Blake.  Dr. Donald Blake.

Or somebody.

Part of comic-Thor’s mythology has always been his conflicted relationship with Earth.  This has been attenuated by his periods of residence here--either by choice or by decree, either with full knowledge of his pedigree or as an amnesiac.  Whatever else happens in Thor 3, I think it should end with Thor on Earth, ready to build a life there with Jane (sorry, Sif), and getting ready to deal with Earthly concerns.  This would be a nice change of pace for the character, humanizing him, really locking in his love for the planet, its people, and one particular lady.  It’s also not outside the realm of possibility that viewers will have Asgard fatigue after three films based mostly in its fabulous halls.  Time to let Thor thunder among the mortals for a while.

Until it’s time for Ragnarok.


I’m off to Miami for Thanksgiving with my boyfriend.  Probably no post next week as a result--sorry, my legions of fans!  Have a happy Thanksgiving, if such is your cultural norm.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

FAU Library Denies Access for Maybe Legitimate Reason; Still Fails All Around

A very unfortunate thing happened at the Florida Atlantic University library a few weeks ago.

(WPTV) Turned away for looking like a woman. That is what a gay, male Florida Atlantic University student claims happened on Wednesday at the campus library.
Abdul Asquith said he was trying to check out a laptop to study for his communications classes.
"She looked at the ID and looked down at it. She said, 'You sound, look and act like a girl and in this ID is a man, therefore I'm not giving you a laptop,' " said Asquith.
Asquith said he was wearing an FAU hoodie, shorts and had his long hair pulled back. (
Asquith apparently made his way through several levels of what he and the media refer to as librarians, each impugning his identity, before he was finally allowed the use of a laptop.
I have two rants to deliver on the subject of this appalling story: first, about the library staff’s ignorant and hurtful behavior, and second, about deeper issues of perception and trust that the incident places in stark relief.
The incident: A breakdown of librarian values

The following is predicated on the assumption that the staff who denied Asquith a computer were, in fact, making the call on the basis of discomfort with his gender expression.

I’m sure that there are plenty of librarians out there who would personally disagree with my avowed progressive, humanist philosophy, a personal philosophy that nevertheless deeply informs my approach to librarianship.  It’s entirely possible to be a good librarian without having voted for Barack Obama or whatever other political benchmark you want to set.

That said, there’s a certain minimum standard we need to meet in order not to betray the ethics of our profession, and that standard does align with a liberal worldview.  It’s right there in the very first point in the ALA Code of Ethics:

  1. We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests. (emphasis mine)

So, I’m sorry--whomever you pull the lever for, whatever you rally for, whatever unfortunate opinions on issues of race, gender, sexuality, etc. that are counted as a-ok wherever you were raised or currently live--you have to leave all that baggage at the door when you walk into the library, because if not, you are going to be a terrible librarian.  And we all want to be good at our jobs, don’t we?

I’m really trying not to have a big subjective political screed here, but our professional forefathers got together decades ago and looked at what we do and how we do it and laid out, in simple terms, the basic things we must accomplish in order to consider that we are doing our job ethically.  If you have a serious issue with ‘unconventional’ gender expression and you can’t look past it for eight hours a day, you should perhaps consider another profession, one that isn’t so rough on your prejudices.

Again, I’m sure that lots of librarians who are perfectly decent human beings hold differing thoughts and feelings from me, and then manage to behave appropriately and helpfully to all patrons they encounter at work.  But the folks at FAU failed that big time, even if they denied Asquith the laptop under the most generously-assumed version of events, and we should talk about why and how that happened.


To be sure, this would not be the only time that libraries have flirted with the worse angels of the American character.  During the Jim Crow era, many southern libraries and library systems practiced segregation--but even then, it was recognized that this spat in the face of library ideals, and libraries ended up desegregating at a much faster pace than other institutions.

Now, I have more than a suspicion that at least a couple of the ‘librarians’ who behaved so execrably to this student were no librarians at all, but most likely FAU students hired to man the various service desks, or possibly paraprofessionals.  That doesn’t get the FAU librarians off the hook, though.  If we are going to populate library service jobs with non-librarians--as is increasingly the case--we need to make sure that those employees are as on-board with our professional ethics as we are.  We’re not really fulfilling our role, and the ALA code of ethics, if we are letting anyone make our patrons feel uncomfortable or unwelcome in our institutions, chilling their pursuit of information and entertainment and building walls between libraries and some of the most information-hungry segments of society.

That is the main issue, and whether or not discrimination was intended, FAU should apologize to the individual affected and to the community at large (which I cannot find any indication that they have done).  The fact is that the appearance of discrimination is troubling enough, as is the appearance that the library and university don’t care enough to bother setting the record straight.  Which leads nicely to my second rant...

The aftermath: An imbroglio of public perception

And now to address the controversy under the assumption that staff did not intentionally discriminate against Asquith.

Despite the awful way this situation was handled, some commenters have pointed out at least one justification for the library’s vigilance, if not the tactics employed--a justification I am inclined to be sympathetic to, as it corresponds with efforts to carry out and protect the library’s mission.  Basically it boils down to protecting the library’s property from what employees perceived as a possible fraudster--an individual misrepresenting him or herself as a student to gain access to potentially valuable equipment.  This is possibly, then, a case of the failure of appropriate training, and not one of sexual identity discrimination (another point that makes me feel that these weren’t actual librarians, as we tend to be sensitive to the need for verification before denying access to anyone).  And yet nowhere is there a statement from the library or the school explaining their rationale, however misguided, for challenging Asquith’s right to equipment--leaving a resounding silence filled with uncomfortable questions.

(And can I say, for just a moment, how stupid it would be for a female identity thief to present the ID card of a male student in order to pull off this fraud?  I know that criminals have done dumber things, but really, let’s think this through before jumping to point ‘z’ here.  Yet another factor that leads me to believe that these were not librarians, and probably not adults, but, in fact, somewhat dull student assistants who really should have gone to a supervisor immediately.)

So, on top of all the other failures here, we have a failure of that activity that we as librarians seem to have an ongoing problem getting right, despite the exhortations of our most visionary library school instructors: PR.  This has been a disaster of perception not just for the FAU library, but for librarianship as a whole.  I don’t know about you, but I have a problem with colleagues who cause comments like this and let them go unaddressed:

“Three different librarians?  Wow.”

“Asquith: 1; Library Nazi: 0.”

Now the librarians are stupid? Time to run for the border.”

(All from the comments section of the story on ThinkProgress.)

All three of these representative reactions demonstrate a different PR nightmare that FAU could have ameliorated with a sincere and accurate statement responding to the controversy.  The first quote demonstrates the uncritical view that anyone working in a library is a librarian.  The second shows what may be a pre-existing animus towards libraries (perhaps another symptom of the same kind of anti-librarian sentiment I explored in this post), or at least a willingness to ascribe a general skepticism of authority figures to librarians, as well.  Finally, the third quote, perhaps the most upsetting of all, seems to come from someone who initially had faith in librarians’ positive role, but for whom that faith was shaken by our complicity in the mistreatment of Asquith.

Why, why, why, FAU?

It would be so easy to set people’s minds at ease, let them know that this isn’t what librarians are all about, and that you will try to fix the issues at your institution.  But no--nothing.  Please let me know if I missed it somewhere, but I have found nothing by way of a response.

And if they think that there’s no reason to respond to such a “small” story that has no doubt been blown out of proportion by at least one “liberal media source”--sorry, no.  Even if ThinkProgress hadn’t picked the story up, FAU still owes its community an apology.  That done, the library owes our profession a signal of its efforts to restore the reputation that its failings have marred.

This isn’t the only recent story that paints librarians in a bad light and has left a bad taste in the public’s mouth.  Remember the librarian that “robbed” a child of his reign at the top of the summer reading program?  At least that library responded to criticism, to its credit, but for some reason our message has less of a chance of bursting through the narrative when it comes to negative PR.  We do a great job with the positive stories most of the time, for which I am grateful, but the negative stories catch us flat-footed and paint us as totally out of touch--even when there is another side to the story.

What a disaster. And what's worse, now there's ammunition people can use against us from both political sides. There are the perennial rightward attacks about too much access and the children, my God, the children! (as most recently embodied in the current dust-up in Illinois where it's claimed that libraries allow kids to access porn)--now there's a little more weight to the paranoid Left's potential criticisms that we are yet another institution that punishes diversity, no matter how isolated such instances are, and no matter how much evidence there is that we are actually, generally, great allies and resources for everyone in the American tapestry. Check out LAMBDA for one great recent example of our efforts as a profession to reach out.

So, FAU library and librarians, you have failed.  If your administration gagged you and you went along with it--sorry for the rough decision, but, well, fail.  

And I think that’s it.  That’s what gets in the way of librarians really fostering an ability to “do” PR and shape negative public perception in positive ways.  That’s why we might be okay as long as we’re promoting cutesy and successful kids’ programming, but we’ll always be behind the curve when it comes to image damage control.  This is it: we don’t want to rock the boat.  We want to believe that if we keep our heads down, it’ll all go away and everything will work itself out.  Anything else is just too uncomfortable.

Until the profession can move beyond this discomfort en masse, we’ll keep sending mixed signals as in the Asquith case, and we’ll keep leaving too many resounding gulfs of unanswered questions.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Assault on the Librarian High Holy Days

If you are at all attached to the library world, you know that we celebrated Banned Books Week about a month ago--and the word really is celebrated.  It’s no exaggeration to say that the seven days at the end of September are the high holy days of the desk set, a time when we are positively aquiver with the energy of intellectual freedom and democratic values.  My rhetoric here may be verging on the parodic, but as a new librarian of less than a year I can tell you that I’m being completely sincere.  Banned Books Week is the time when the librarian’s public duty comes into crystal focus, and when we are able--encouraged, even!--to shout it out to the world, rather than toil in obscurity, as is our usual habit.

I was surprised, then, while perusing my usual online literary haunts and their enthusiastic Banned Books coverage, to find a disturbing undercurrent of suspicion and resentment towards librarians in the comments sections.

One level of this opposition to our message I can kind of understand--it amounts to a matter of branding.  We call it “Banned Books Week” but much of what we talk about at the end of September every year is actually book challenges.  Of course we cover the bans as well, and in great detail, but the week is about pushing back against all forms of and attempts at censorship, and “Banned Books Week” is quite a bit pithier than “Banned and Challenged Books Week.”  Frankly it’s surprising that librarians, as  a usually persnickety-with-accuracy body, hasn’t insisted on renaming it “Banned and Challenged Media Week,” since we certainly don’t limit ourselves to concern only with the censorship of books.

I think the persistence of the Banned Books name is a testament to the historical importance of drawing attention to the anti-intellectual, anti-democratic process of book banning, often manifested in earlier decades by that most egregious of acts, the book burning. Fact of note: well-known enemy of intellectual freedom Anthony Comstock, usually citing a prohibitively broad definition of ‘lewdness,’ is responsible for the burning of some 15 tons of books.  (  Think about how many that must be, and under what loose strictures they were allowed to be snatched from public use in actions sanctioned under federal law.  There’s no more effective way to ban a book than destroying it.

This is the cultural and social context librarians are drawing from when we set aside a Banned Books Week. The intensity of the rhetoric is commensurate with the importance of the cause.

Just because one form of book banning is more destructive than another is not to say that degrees of censorship must be recognized, but that is a notion that seems to inspire another thread of protest among the uninitiated.  In a comment to an article recalling a Canadian school’s ban of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, some readers took issue with the idea of glorifying a struggle against a seemingly minor instance of censorship.  One said, “Being taken off a library shelf, or out of a school, really doesn't count as 'banning'. Can't we reserve Banned Books week for works that suffered actual and serious censorship?”  And another: “I have to agree with @4 and @6 about the meaning of banned books. The kids at the school which decided not to carry H2G2 still had legal and easy access to the book through their city/county library and through bookstores. It may be that looking at books that were ‘banned’ on a large scale in North America does not turn up sufficent [sic] candidates? In which case, we can celebrate the freedom of expression we have instead of trying to invent cases of censorship.”

These, then, are criticisms based on scale--the appearance that anecdotal instances of book banning and challenging do not warrant the attention librarians lavish on the issue; the idea that these piddling cases of intellectual violence just prove how well our democratic access to information is proceeding, giving us cause to celebrate rather than to despair and militate.  

While seemingly reasonable at first blush, I have to push back against this.  As the author of the piece, Alex Brown, wrote in response to these critics, “I don't think you can argue that one book is ‘more banned’ than another. If it's banned, it's banned, no matter the scale. The refusal to allow access to material, regardless of the size or perceived level of importance of the library, is what's key here.”  Exactly.  There’s no such thing as “major” and “minor” censorship.  The damage that could be caused by the removal of a single book from a single free, publically accessible source is incalculable because it is unknowable.  Critics speak in the same article response thread of the option of finding a school-removed book over at the public library or the bookstore and possibly (though unmentioned by these folks) online--but we must not make assumptions about the bereft student’s ability to travel to a different library, or to pay for a commercially-available copy, or to search for a digital copy.  Many of us are lucky that these considerations are not prohibitive to us, but it’s a failure of basic human decency to assume the guy next door has the same capacity as we do.  This is to say nothing of the fact that a book removed is a book torn from the universe of browsable, serendipitously-discovered material.  A reader is obviously not going to seek an alternate means of access to a material he did not know he was looking for in the first place.

All of this is to say, in short, that yes, a single book removed from a single institution is a big deal in ways we cannot truly quantify.  All assaults on the intellectual freedom represented by access to materials, whether in a single library, a library system, or across a nation, are equally destructive.

Even more frustrating to me are those sly commenters who insinuate that librarians have some sort of anti-religious, and specifically anti-Christian, vendetta afoot which we prosecute via manufactured outrage over book bans and challenges.  As if all the challenges made on moral grounds are somehow our fault and we only publicize them in order to--what, pull the veil off religious zealots’ attempts to ban books under the radar of public attention?  Sorry, I find it funny and ridiculous to be blamed for documenting actual phenomena by the perpetrators of said phenomena, but I digress. I’ve lost track of the comment that leveled this charge--maybe it got deleted?--but there was more than a whiff of self-righteous indignation to it.

Anyway, I feel like this is a case of methinking thou art protesting too vociferously--revealing more about yourself than the group you’re feeling persecuted by.  ALA doesn’t keep tabs on the religions of the people lodging complaints about books--I’m quite sure most librarians in the wild don’t ask--so you really needn’t worry about one librarian-blogger’s (very perceptive and I’m sure anecdotally correct) offhanded observation about the moral motivations of a not-insignificant number of library challenges.

Maybe instead of worrying about witch-hunts at the hands of the dreaded librarians, you might chat with your co-congregationalists about how better to handle the palpitations caused by the third-hand discovery that Neil Gaiman used the word “whore” in a YA novel that one time.