Elliot S! Maggin’s Weblog

How does Superman fly?
Tue December 27, 2016
Written for Quora.com October 8 2015
0 responses
For a long time I’ve supposed that Superman has a good many capacities that he’s not yet aware of. Kryptonians aren’t like the rest of us. They’re not bound by the dimensional constraints we’re used to. I’m not sure this new “super-flare” idea is in line with that notion, but listen:

We Earth folk are four-dimensional creatures in an 11-dimensional universe. We can navigate height, width and depth pretty well, but we’re tacked to a common framework in time. We’re all in the same “temporal field,” but the differences among us have to do with the relative boundaries of the time we inhabit. That doesn’t mean we’re not creatures of time as we are creatures of the other three dimensions. It just means we are not in control of our passage through it. For an analogy, when we are falling, our ability to navigate the vertical dimension is limited, but that doesn’t make us two-dimensional while we’re falling. When we perceive that we’re physically stable, we’re still falling through time out of control yet we nonetheless perceive and can measure the temporal dimension. Conceivably – and in my view likely – there are consciousnesses abroad in the continuum who are able to navigate time as well as some other dimensions of which we have no perception on other than a mathematical level.

As for Kryptonians, even in the crippling environment of their home world in the light of a red giant star, they can theorize and perceive along multiple-dimensional fields. They have to be able to do that or they’d be unable to pursue stable lives on a world like Krypton. Spending his formative years on Earth, this one Kryptonian is able through natural, ad hoc means, to extend his senses – as well as senses of which we are generally unaware – to navigate among dimensions over which we have no control or practical perception.

So the means through which he “flies” is not analogous to the flight of a bird or a plane. He is simply unbound by gravitation and conventional notions of dimension when he has the will to assume that condition. His flight “speed” is virtually unbound as well. He doesn’t actually teleport, but in a practical sense within the constraints of human perception, he might as well. When I wrote the Superman series, our general assumption was that Superman can actually move at up to eight times the speed of light – but in a physical sense, both the capacity to exceed light and the limitation to a factor of eight are ridiculous and arbitrary. We were even aware at the time – ten or more years before an elite coterie of physicists heard Ed Witten’s M-Theory create a unified perception of super-strings by applying it to an 11-dimensional continuum – that the boundary of the speed of light times eight was a metaphorical affectation.

But now, with the advent of super-strings and M-Theory, we are possibly on the edge of super powers ourselves. Perception is power.

Years ago, I asked my rabbi buddy to teach me Kabbala. He wanted to know why I wanted to study the Zohar and I said it was because I wanted magical powers; I wanted to fly. He said that was a lousy reason to study that stuff but I insisted that was the reason, and I convinced him to teach me a bunch of untranslateable stuff anyway. I’ve been reading a lot of physics too.

I’ll try and keep you posted.

Realism is Unrealistic
Thu December 15, 2016
In answer to: “What explains the growing realism in comics? For example, in early comics Superman is near invincible save kryptonite. In later comics, however, he meets much fiercer opposition to the point where he actually dies.”
0 responses
There’s nothing realistic about what’s growing in comics. What you appear to be asking about is rather cynicism and a dismissive sentiment with regard to the examination of the moral and ethical choices that came to characterize comics during a more traditional period.

With regard to realism: I’ve got a friend who wrote Superman stories for a while before I did – wonderful Superman stories. I’m not sure, but I think I learned how to write them from him. My editor got into the habit of assigning Superman stories to me, though, because my friend and predecessor hated writing for the character. “Too powerful,” he said. “Batman is much more realistic.” So he went off and spent the next 20 or 30 years writing Batman stories.

Two things I never understood were (1) what Superman’s exalted power ever had to do with how difficult it was to tell his stories and (2) in what sense Batman was somehow more “realistic.” Here you’ve got a guy pretending to be a gazillionaire playboy pushing his mind and body to the extremes of human potential, spending his fortune on a collection of antisocial bat-toys and living in a vermin-infested cave underneath his palatial colonial-era family estate. I don’t buy it. Never did – except when I was about 9 and had a disturbingly vivid dream about my dad and me riding whirly-bats around Brooklyn and fighting crime.

The advent of what people – just as disturbingly – call realism is probably a function of publishers and producers so desperate to gather an audience that they’ll vault as far over the top as they can reach to grab the audience by the gut. Internal consistency is much more realistic than facile pathos. It’s unrealistic for Superman to hear Lois calling for help across an ocean and half a continent and not notice either (1) his mother doing the same thing from across town or (2) a bomb ticking under his nose.

Someone noticed not long ago that Batman movies were doing better than Superman movies, that Avengers movies were doing better than Nicholas Sparks movies. So someone resolved to take the one element he or she noticed about Batman and Avengers movies – not even something unique to them, but the first thing that could be perceived as specific to them – and apply that to other characters, whether it was appropriate to those characters’ milieu or not. So you get a dark, “realistic” Superman the colors of whose costume aren’t even right.

Look: sometime ago, when it looked like a guy named Michael Dukakis was a shoo-in for president, a team of designers decided that red white and blue were too harsh for the tube. So they covered that year’s Democratic convention in bunting colored rose, eggshell and turquoise because &helip; whatever. It was all downhill from there.

When you change the essential nature of a recognized concept – in the name of realism or perceived public mood or wackadoodle objectivist personal philosophy – invariably you screw it up royally. You can get away with giving James Bond actual feelings for Jinx, or Batman burning down and then rebuilding Wayne Manor, or having Einstein discover baby Kal-El’s rocket before the Kents did, if it makes a good story. But you can’t change Bond’s preference for weaker martinis or Supes’ code against killing or anything else that is fundamental to the character in the name of realism.

And don’t get me started on why it’s more likely we’ll actually see a Superman flying over our cities someday than a Batman motoring through them. But it is – Denny. Call sometime and I’ll explain that too. Friday afternoons are usually pretty good.

A Muslim Registry?
Sat December 3, 2016

0 responses
In the past century a major western country had what was effectively a dictatorship evolve from the results of an ill-subscribed election in which a party with totalitarian and nationalistic inclinations, including exclusionary ideologies based on race, came to power. Generally, I reflexively tell people that the first advocate who tries to draw an analogy with the Nazi model automatically loses the argument, but we reserve the Nazi analog for only the most extreme of public positions for a reason. When there is an actual correlation between a fascist policy and the expressed policy of a heretofore respectable political entity, there is no choice but to draw attention to the comparison.

In the recent American presidential election two major candidates, Jeb Bush and Donald Trump, proposed to restrict entry to the country on the basis of religion. Trump went so far as to propose an actual database of Muslims based on the assertion that this specific group of people need to be kept track of, on suspicion of their collective responsibility for some future incidences of civil instability. There is reason to suppose that plans for such an accounting (I write this in late November, 2016) are underway at this date.

Certainly there have been other examples of institutional hostility on the part of the United States government, many of them ongoing, against groups of people for reason of their ethnicity. People have routinely been deprived of life, freedom and property in the United States by or with the complicity of civil authorities. This has often happened in other countries as well. The closest parallel, however, to the compilation of extensive personal information to track the locations of members of an ethnic group following a bath of public dogma hostile to that group, is the use of painstaking clerical tactics on the part of German fascists to locate, set apart, exterminate and keep exacting records of the disposition of European Jews.

When German conquerors secured control of Denmark they issued orders, as they had elsewhere, that on a certain date all Jewish Danes would henceforth be required to wear yellow armbands with a Star of David in public to – identify them to German authorities. Legend holds that at the suggestion of the Danish King Christian X, on the appointed morning hundreds of thousands of urban Danes – in numbers obviously greater than the number of Jewish citizens in the country – showed up in workplaces and markets sporting yellow armbands. I had a friend who was there – in Copenhagen that day – and she told me that it happened. She is convinced it saved her life.

I’m not Muslim and probably couldn’t convince many people I am, but if there comes to be a registry of Muslims in the United States I expect to add my name to it. Given the sophistication of clerical practice since the 1940’s, that may be little more than a token gesture. But many of us will do a great deal more than that to make sure that such a database is never compiled, because people get killed that way.

We have witnesses.

How to Write
Mon September 26, 2016
In answer to the question: “How can I tell my 15-year-old daughter she is awful at writing?”
0 responses
Here’s another little essay I posted on Quora. It got picked up by HuffPost and a magazine called Fatherly. I wrote it, as it happens, on what would have been my dad's 95th birthday.

========

Everyone is awful at writing. It is a highly sophisticated, unnatural and acquired skill. You need to make sure your daughter understands this.

When my son was eight I taught him to play chess. That is, I taught him the moves, even some fine points and a few tricks like en passant and fool’s mate. I told him that he was a very very bad chess player but I was careful to specify that I was a very bad chess player. He first beat me at a game when he was thirteen. Now he’s thirty-one and he can beat me consistently. He is a bad chess player these days and he would probably be better at it, as would I, if we played more often – preferably with people better at it than we are. We don’t have time for such nonsense because we’ve got jobs. He’s a doctor and I make up stories. Arguably, my job is more complex than his, but we’re both much better at what we do for a living than at playing chess, and we don’t much mind that.

As it turns out, he’s a pretty good writer and I’m clueless about doctoring. I suspect he’s a good writer because I actually taught him and his sister (and anyone else who’ll listen) how to write. You don’t learn that stuff in school, although you should. Teaching it takes about two hours, followed by unending years of practice. Here’s how it works:

Writing is about the structure of thought. You can express and support any single idea – true, false, ridiculous, it doesn't matter – in three sentences. You must present those sentences in the progression of a statement, an explanation and an illustration. Statement/explanation/illustration are the names I give this structure when I first explain it, but after a while I make it clear that you can also call these things thesis/antithesis/synthesis, or decision/conflict/resolution, or act one/act two/act three, or any of myriad labels we have put on such elements of structure in their various contexts. Ideas, as we are able to understand them, have a fractal structure; they are composed of the rays of triangles leaning on each other, just like geodesic domes and the universe.

Humans receive information in only one way, and that is in the form of a story. We are hard-wired to do so. When we try to convey information in the unstudied, slipshod manner that we are inclined to present before we stop for a moment and organize it coherently, our readers fill in the blanks we leave behind with their assumptions rather than our logic. So people conclude, quite accurately, that we are bad writers, that we make no sense. We are bad writers when the readers and the hearers don’t understand what we are trying to tell them.

Look at any good essay or story – any effective joke or magic trick, for that matter. You’ll find that structure in it if you pick it apart a little. Every editorial in a newspaper is three or four paragraphs. The first is a statement, presenting its premise. The second, the explanation, is an expansion on that premise, a case for it in macrocosm. The third is an illustration, a specific microcosmic example of the generalities that the first two paragraphs expressed. Maybe there are a few illustrations, each supporting the initial premise. Maybe there’s a concluding paragraph that simply restates the premise in light of the case that the essay has made.

Lincoln learned this stuff on the judicial circuit in Illinois. He read law books and told long silly stories on the road, as the legends hold, but he also read and studied Euclid and he applied geometric principles to non-mathematical ideas. Everything he wrote and pretty much anything he said by the time he burst into the popular consciousness in 1858 – every state of the union report, every throwaway aphorism – fits snugly into that structure.

Jefferson knew it too, although I have no idea where he picked it up. The Declaration of Independence is probably the most effective essay written in the English language. It starts with a statement of purpose, talk about rights and natural law and the fact that we are separating from the kingdom that first planted us here. It goes on to expand that into a series of generalities about self-evident truths, an expression of philosophy. And Jefferson follows that with a series of twenty-nine specific illustrations of the king’s overstepping of his privileges under that premise, supporting – necessitating, in fact – the establishment of an independent state. He concludes by restating the premise in the strongest, most poetic terms he can muster. Not only did young Jefferson get the structure, but it is clear that he practiced a lot along the way. He knew, by the age of thirty-three, how to apply the poetry.

That’s the thumbnail version of my two-hour routine on writing.

You need to tell your daughter this stuff. You need to tell your daughter’s teachers this stuff. My daughter is twenty-four these days, and a terrific writer. She wasn’t when she was fifteen but she figured it out. I’m still working on getting her to try her hand at chess.

All posts since 2/6/2009:

Tue December 27, 2016 How does Superman fly?
Written for Quora.com October 8 2015
Thu December 15, 2016 Realism is Unrealistic
In answer to: “What explains the growing realism in comics? For example, in early comics Superman is near invincible save kryptonite. In later comics, however, he meets much fiercer opposition to the point where he actually dies.”
Sat December 3, 2016 A Muslim Registry?
Mon September 26, 2016 How to Write
In answer to the question: “How can I tell my 15-year-old daughter she is awful at writing?”
Thu July 28, 2016 Remarks on accepting the Bill Finger Award
San Diego, July 22 2016
(+2)
What I plan to do about it - Intellectual Property (3 of 3)
Fri July 8, 2016 Hillary’s Character Flaws
In answer to the question on Quora.com: “Is there a different standard of law and Department of Justice media treatment for Hillary Clinton?”
Fri June 10, 2016 Elliot S! Maggin, Richard E. Hughes to Receive 2016 Bill Finger Award (+5)
A lot of very formidable people have gotten this thing. I should probably be more impressed with myself.
Thu May 26, 2016 From Quora.com 5/26/16 (+2)
How much should the cultural circumstances in which a comic character was created determine how others write the character in the future?
Sun May 1, 2016 That’s My Boy!
Jeremy goes on a field trip
Thu April 28, 2016 To clarify ...
So maybe I’m getting a bit detailed about this ... but still 
Wed April 27, 2016 Intellectual Property (2 of 3) (+3)
Who owns the comics? There’s a coherent case to be made that creators own what they create. We plan to make that case.
Mon April 11, 2016 Of Course There Must Be a Superman (+2)
If he didn’t actually exist we’d have to create him
Mon April 11, 2016 Intellectual Property (1 of 3) (+3)
Asserting a claim on certain characters and concepts
Sat April 9, 2016 Stare at this picture long enough and you’ll see a giraffe
Wed April 6, 2016 Lorem Ipsum (+1)
What does it all mean?
Sat November 7, 2015 Everyone is Awful at Writing (+1)
Sometime in 2015 someone asked how to tell his 15-year-old that she is an awful writer. I told him.
Tue June 29, 2010 The new New Journalism
Check out Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone
Sun August 9, 2009 Why This Has Been Delayed
Lancer on a hiatus
Tue June 16, 2009 National Health Care
What are you afraid of?
Thu February 19, 2009 The New Colossus (+1)

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