Eight Common Internet Safety Violations That Make Me Cringe

AUTHOR’S NOTES: Firstlly, there is some disturbing stuff in here, but this entry is all about keeping yourself and others safe from the disturbing stuff. I’m not sharing any lurid stories or anything like that, but there is information about why some common mistakes are dangerous, and I know I found some of it freaky when it was first explained to me. Finding out how little privacy we have can be paranoia-inducing and frightening. But if you think you’ll be able to handle it, if you won’t be specifically triggered by these issues, I urge you to take a look anyway, and maybe pass on some of these tips.

Secondly, I want to make clear that when someone is tracked down through the internet, and victimized in some way, it is NEVER the victim’s fault. It is always, ALWAYS the fault of the perpetrator who takes advantage of the situation.

I’d just like to see it made a little tougher for those bastards to do, is all.

A while back, I had to take a course for my professional development credits on internet safety. Through this and a subsequent course I completed voluntarily, I actually became certified to teach internet safety to teens and adults along with other content. It became an interest of mine, and I continued to do research on the topic, including research on how agencies like the FBI work to protect people who have (inadvertently or otherwise) exposed their personal information on the internet, or people who have had it exposed by others and are seen as high-risk for targeting by violent crime. I also learned how information is gathered about people from their public information on the internet, and it gave me chills.

As a result of that training, I completely freaked out when the GoogleBuzz debacle happened, and here’s why. During the brief period when GoogleBuzz existed, before Google realized they weren’t going to win any love with the way they were going about starting a social network, scrapped the plan and started over with what eventually became Google+, all account holders with any Google service were automatically signed up with Google. You may remember this, if you were an account holder – you received a message saying your account had been activated, and you could deactivate it any time you wanted. Here was the real issue, though: information about each user was added automatically, extracted from the user’s emails, messages, etc., and posted publicly. After an immediate privacy and security outcry, these items were all made private, and were only public for a few hours at most, so in all likelihood the personal safety of users was never really compromised in any major way, and in fact the whole thing disappeared just a short while later.

So if it was all taken care of, why was I so upset? Well, here’s why: those few hours were enough for automatic information aggregators. Information aggregators are computerized search bots which gather information about people automatically from text available on the internet, and keep them for privately owned business services which sell them to people, for the profit of the business owners. The few upsides: the business owners can’t actually view the data themselves; all data beyond certain basics is restricted access and requires a license for private investigation; because the whole system is automated, there are often errors in the data gathered. But if you want to see something terrifying, look yourself up on Spokeo.com, the easiest to find of those services. You’ll probably find a mix of frighteningly correct and hilariously incorrect information about yourself, all available for anyone who knows your name or enough other information to search you by.

Ah, you say, but I don’t use my real name on the internet, and there’s no way to find me other than that. Maybe so. Maybe you’ve done a really good job of protecting yourself. But many people I know who have prided themselves on protecting themselves really well have fallen into some very basic schemes that could harm themselves or others, or have revealed important information about themselves without thinking about it. Here are some of the ways I’ve seen people make major internet safety mistakes without realizing it:

1. Posting “Missing Persons” graphics from unknown sources

Okay, this is the one that’s most likely to get someone hurt that you don’t even know, rather than you or a friend. Some of these are completely legitimate, others are made and posted by abusers or stalkers looking to track down victims, or simply people who have lost custody battles and such trying to find their way around legal restrictions – but without more information, we should really assume for the safety of the people in those photos, that those restrictions are there for a reason.

I completely understand the urge to help in these situations – hearing that someone’s loved one or child or pet or whoever is missing is a wrench, especially if you’re imagining yourself in either position in that situation. You have the best of intentions when you re-post these, and I respect that.

And sometimes, re-posting them is a good idea. But here are some precautions you need to take first:
Step 1: Do a reverse image search, to check and see if it’s actually from the police. If it’s an official police post, please go ahead and share.
Step2: Search the person’s name in the photo, and see what information you can find about the case. This may give you enough information to determine whether or not you should share the image.
Step 3: If there is a number, search it. If you get a law enforcement agency, or a child services agency, or a school, go ahead and share it. If it’s a law office, you’re probably okay as well, especially if the law office is mentioned on the image.
Step 4: If it’s not an official police photo, and you can’t find the case on the net, and there’s no phone number on the image, just something asking people to post information if they see the person/pet/whoever, OR if there’s a personal phone number on the image (i.e., someone’s house phone), DO NOT SHARE IT. Those are all red flags.
Step 5: If there’s an image of a person that says “Please contact police if you see this person, they’re missing,” go ahead and share it. The worst that happens there is that someone sees the person, calls the police, and it turns out it’s not actually real, and some time is wasted. All the police I’ve talked to about this have said they’d rather have their time wasted a little than have people not call when they think they have a lead on a missing person. (By the way, call the non-emergency number. They’ll know if it’s real, and they’ll direct you appropriately.)

2. Claiming to be a local fan of a specific sports team

I understand that sometimes local fans of whatever team consider themselves to be more “authentic” than fans from out of town. They’re fans because these are the guys and gals from the home turf, not because the team racks up wins. Okay, fine, that’s awesome, I’m glad you love your team. I’m glad you have something you’re interested in that gives you joy and pride, and that you can bond with friends over. I think it’s great.

But please be aware that when you say you’re a local fan of a sports team, you’ve just given away your location to every information aggregator on the internet. They do actually look for information like sports teams precisely because local sports loyalty is such common information to find posted publicly, and now someone trying to find out information about you knows the basic area in which you live.

By itself, “X City metropolitan area” may not be a huge deal in terms of tracking you down. But combine that with “so proud of my students – the soccer team I coach just won second place in the state today,” which you share on your carefully locked down Facebook, which someone else shares on their not-so-private Twitter, to congratulate you. Now the information aggregator, or someone tracking you, knows what school you teach at. And a person can probably find your photo and name on the school website. And if you were a Google member at the time of the GoogleBuzz debacle, they’ve now found your name, address, and telephone number at that time. If your number is in the phone book, it’s probably also now available on the internet for anyone to find, based on, say, “local Orioles fan” and “coach of the 2nd place soccer team in the state,” through information a friend shared about you in all innocence from your original post made with all due precaution.

3. People putting info about themselves in publicly-posted email addresses

This is a twofer, actually, because there are two separate problems here. I’ve seen people combine this one with #2, also, using email addresses with a formula of “localsportsteamfan@domain.com” and it makes me cringe every time.

First of all, you should protect your personal email address in public places; internet harassment is becoming more and more of a safety issue these days, and access to your email is one of the easiest avenues by which someone can seriously inconvenience you and try to silence other activity you may participate in. I’ve received some (relatively mild, compared with others’ experiences) harassment since my Gamergate post, but fortunately my current email address has been shielded from it. All harassing emails have gone to an email address I no longer use precisely because it was compromised.

Secondly, don’t put personal information about yourself in any email address you’re planning on giving out to anyone you don’t know well. It can be used to find out other information, similarly to what is illustrated above. The four most common examples I see are these: a) teens using their age as a number in their address, which can attract predators; b) people naming an interest, which can be used to become close to them in an online conversation; c) identifying occupation, which can be combined with other information to reveal more than you want; d) identifying information you don’t want employers to see, such as political leanings or disability information.

4. Athletes posting their jersey numbers

This is another that’s often combined with the email address issue.

If you participate in any form of community athletics, your team probably has a website. If you are part of a college, university, or any other level of academic institution, and participate in their athletics, your team almost definitely has a website. Photos showing jersey numbers, or photos captioned with jersey numbers included, are really common. Once someone is able to track you to your location, they can identify you by your photo, and then simply turn up at your practice and identify you visually. At which point, you’re at risk. Fortunately, this is actually one of the safety violations the FBI looks out for, but FBI intervention at exactly the right time is obviously not something you want to depend on.

5. Posting selfies that include where you’re staying when you travel

Oh gods, this one makes me want to shake people. I see exactly where the urge to post these comes from, because there are a lot of awesome hotels out there that have wonderful character and look really cool in the background of pictures of you and your friends. There are places that you stay over and over again, that become a home away from home. There are places you’ve been excited to stay for as long as you can remember, and you’re finally getting an opportunity to stay there. I get it, I really do. There are places I’ve stayed that I’ve taken pictures of, just like that.

But please, for the love of all that’s holy, don’t post those pictures publicly while you’re still traveling! If you must post them publicly, which I don’t recommend anyway, keep them private for your safety, post them after you get home. If it’s a place you stay repeatedly, don’t reveal that in any public place. You do NOT want someone to be able to track you to where you’re staying. It’s one thing to post a selfie of yourself with some awesome monument – yes, anyone in NYC for the first time is going to post a selfie with the Statue of Liberty in the background, anyone in Paris for the first time is going to post a selfie with the Eiffel Tower – and nobody is going to automatically assume you’ll go back to that location, so it’s not going to help anyone find you who might be looking. Those selfies, while I still don’t recommend posting them publicly at all, and still preferably not until you’re home, are still vastly safer than the hotel pictures.

While we’re on this topic, don’t post your future travel plans in public places. Just don’t.

6. Putting personal information in photographs taken at home

This is a shockingly easy one to do by mistake. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve emailed a friend to say, “Hey, you want to take down that photo of yourself outside your house – not only can I see your house number, but the street sign with the name on it is reflected in the window, so someone can get your whole address.” Or “be careful with that photo of your new hairstyle, your driver’s license is sitting on your desk, reflected in the bottom left corner of your mirror.”

Before you put any photograph of yourself on the internet in a public place (again, a practice I discourage in general, in the strongest terms possible, i.e., IT’S FUCKING DANGEROUS, DON’T EVER DO IT, keep your photos private), go over it carefully to make sure you’re aware of any and all details about you that can be gleaned from it. Are you wearing a sweatshirt that can identify your current school or athletics team? Is your house number or car license plate visible? Are you wearing a name tag or badge of any kind that reveals anything about you? Is there a “happy 24th birthday” sign or something like that in the background which gives away your age?

7. Assuming that because you posted something privately, it will stay private

This one makes me sad, because it should be okay to do this, it really should. But unfortunately, people make mistakes.

Two rules to remember:
Rule 1: The Internet Never Forgets.
Rule 2: The Internet Is Always Public.

Keep in mind that just because you posted something privately, someone else may not know as much as you do about internet security, and may re-post something by copy/paste, or by transferring from one platform to another, without taking proper precautions, and now that personal photo you took is available for all to see. This is how careers are ruined, people. Be careful. Because once something is out there, you can’t take it back. And it’s not just stalkers or whatever that can make this happen – sometimes it’s just someone who doesn’t know how to update security settings.

If nothing else, the number of people who share those Facebook copyright hoaxes every time they come around, should indicate how much of a danger this really is.

8. “I’m not worried – I can defend myself at home.”

Okay, don’t. Just don’t.

All right, fine. Maybe you have a semi-automatic and three handguns at home, and you’re trained to use them, and you have six guard dogs and four black belts. Awesome. Good for you. And I mean that in all seriousness, as long as you’re practicing proper safety with all of those things. I’m glad you’ve taken precautions to defend yourself.

But sometimes people go to the wrong house, and someone else gets hurt. Or maybe someone you live with gets hurt while you’re defending yourself. Or you get hurt while they’re defending themselves. Or maybe whatever happens, doesn’t happen at home. Or maybe someone gets to your house before you get home from the grocery store, and now those handguns are used against you. It is flat-out impossible to plan for all contingencies, and there are safety issues for other people than yourself.

Wouldn’t it be better just to avoid the issue altogether and protect your personal information on the internet?

Giant Hellblazer Re-read Part II: Issues 4-12: Newcastle: A Taste of Things To Come

Author’s Note: This is the third of a series of entries covering a full re-read of Hellblazer from start to finish, including side stories. I promise, it won’t be the only thing on this blog, there will be plenty of other things posted here as well.
Also,
Hellblazer is disturbing. It’s excellent horror. There’s a reason it was marketed for mature readers. That’s all the warning I’m going to give.

This entry covers issues 4-12, the rest of the first year of Hellblazer. This is the first long arc, though the arc never received its own title, and includes one of the most important pieces of information about John Constantine’s history: the Newcastle Incident. The hardest thing about analyzing this arc is remembering to focus on issues other than issue 11, “Newcastle,” which deserves, and will receive here, its own focus. That issue is aptly subtitled “A Taste of Things To Come,” a title which would have worked just as well for the arc as a whole.

I am posting this entry before the episodes of NBC’s Constantine which introduce some of the major elements of this plot, primarily because I expect that there will be very little in common between the two. I have several reasons for this prediction: 1) there is no way that NBC will be able to represent the events of Newcastle without significantly watering them down, as this is still network television; 2) the upcoming episodes are based as much on the issues of Saga of the Swamp Thing featuring these characters as they are on the issues of Hellblazer, and I expect that the Invunche/evil goddess plotline will take precedence over the Resurrection Crusade and Zed (see below); 3) viewers of the TV series already know information John learns for the first time in this arc of the comic, so by necessity the series is going to have to take a different line. This is therefore one of the arcs I am really getting a chance to post for the initial reason I am doing these entries in the first place: to make the summaries and comparisons available to people who may not have the time, resources, or inclination to go pick up 300+ issues (there are side stories, after all) of Hellblazer based on a television that might still be canceled (please, NBC, show some sense and let it live).

That summary here is going to be a bit long, because it’s an unusually long arc, nine full issues. There aren’t many stories in the history of the series that go this long. Issue four begins with Gemma, Constantine’s niece, bemoaning the fact that her family has been caught up in the Resurrection Crusade, an evangelical pyramid prayer scheme, and their directives have uprooted the life she knows and restricted the freedoms to which she has previously been accustomed. Desire to rebel against her family causes her to wander into danger, in the company of some young women who claim that they are allowed to do whatever they like now that they are married to a mysterious man. Meanwhile, John falls in with a young artist named Zed, who accompanies him to Liverpool when he rushes there upon hearing that Gemma has disappeared. John and Zed barely save Gemma from strangulation by the mysterious Man, whose house is burned by the militant wing of the Resurrection Crusade. John, more than a little suspicious of the Crusade, begins investigating them, and promptly discovers horrors including soldiers from Vietnam brought back from the dead by the power of pyramid prayer, whereupon they return to their hometown and commit atrocities identical to what they did in Vietnam, as the dead are unable to tell the difference between past and present. Constantine decides to put a stop to the Resurrection Crusade’s activities. Zed is harassed and eventually kidnapped by them as well, as her mysterious past appears bound up with their activities; they begin to work at brainwashing her to become “the Mary,” giving her a central role in their upcoming plans. John, meanwhile, is consumed by guilt as his attempts to uncover the Crusade’s headquarters result in multiple deaths, causing him to nearly commit suicide by throwing himself from a moving train. The demon Nergal makes himself known to Constantine, and John accepts the demon reluctantly as a temporary ally when Nergal offers to heal Constantine’s wounds with a demonic transfusion in exchange for some assistance. Constantine sleeps with Zed, preventing the Resurrection Crusade from using her as a vessel for conception with an angelic partner, and then offers his body for use by the Swamp Thing, who possesses him in order to conceive a child with his wife. He thus prevents both Heaven and Hell from achieving their aims. Nergal is displeased that John has double-crossed him, and swears revenge, but inadvertently reveals that he was the demon involved with the Newcastle incident which has so haunted John. The actual nature of that incident is finally revealed, as well as the trauma of John’s time in Ravenscar afterward, and John is finally able to pursue revenge on Nergal. With the help of the last surviving member of the Newcastle crew, Ritchie Simpson, John does so, destroying the demon completely, but causing Ritchie’s destruction and damnation as well.

For the first time, in this arc we see Constantine caught between the forces of Heaven, as represented by the Resurrection Crusade, and the forces of Hell, as represented by the Damnation Army, while he struggles a) to keep his loved ones from becoming collateral damage, b) to keep himself alive while being targeted by forces far more powerful than himself, and c) to keep the forces of Heaven and Hell reasonably balanced so neither can proceed to treat humanity as a doormat. These motivations will remain a part of Hellblazer from this point onward, and many of Constantine’s methods, views, and choices as established here become the basis for his story later in the series, as do the consequences of his actions.

This arc also introduces some of John’s family: his older sister, Cheryl, who loves him but doesn’t understand him, who sees him as a source of strength and feels guilt about it, and for whom John cares deeply; her husband, Thomas, a weak man who is easily led by promises and flashy religious stunts; their daughter and John’s niece, Gemma, a justifiably resentful girl whose curiosity is clearly going to get her into trouble on numerous occasions, and whom John loves dearly. Constantine’s family is clearly going to be an Achilles heel: he is willing to drop everything and run to their aid as the story begins.

Also found here for the first time is Zed, the first ongoing romantic figure found in Hellblazer. She’s a great character, with powers of her own, who isn’t willing to be a damsel in distress and is more than willing to call John on his bullshit. She was a clear choice for female lead for NBC’s Constantine, and it looks like the show is going to be tackling this storyline soon, at least in part.

By far the most important part of this arc, more important than any other character introduction or plot point, and arguably the single most important part of Jamie Delano’s entire run on Hellblazer other than the establishment of John Constantine as protagonist, is issue 11. This is one of the few issues to be collected in more than one trade paperback; in addition to being in The Devil You Know, this issue is also found in Rare Cuts.

A more specific look at the events and characters of Newcastle is in order here.

It is established clearly before the issue even begins that something happened at Newcastle which scarred John very deeply. John goes searching for the memories, to remind himself, and we get our first hint at just how bad it’s going to be when the flashback opens with a look at all six of the crew: John Constantine, Judith, Frank, Benjamin, Ritchie Simpson, Anne-Marie (whose ghost we’ve seen as a nun haunting Constantine, but she’s not a nun here – first bad sign, whatever happens here is going to change her in a very fundamental way), and… uh-oh, that’s Gary Lester, already doing drugs but seeming mostly functional. The shock of seeing how different Gary and Anne-Marie are from their first appearances in issue 1 is a brilliant, concise signpost.

This is immediately followed by another: the sight of a young, confident, already angry but still hopeful John Constantine who believes that he can make everything okay.

This is quite possibly one of the most terrifying concepts in the entire series. We are given a moment of quiet interaction among the characters, to realize that in the next 30 or so pages, we are going to see the single event that will cause Anne-Marie to become a nun, Gary Lester to become a non-functional junkie, and John Constantine to become the bitter, self-destructive, nightmare-ridden wreck we know and love.

The crew break into the Casanova Club (“Casanova,” translating roughly to “Newcastle,” very clever, Mr. Delano) where Mucous Membrane made its debut, and things start to go wrong immediately. Anne-Marie, a psychic, senses that horrors are occurring. They discover, in the cellar, an awful conglomeration of slaughtered people, and upon returning upstairs, they find the club owner’s daughter Astra, dancing, possessed. She tells a harrowing tale of sexual abuse brought to an end by the terror elemental she has summoned, but which she can no longer control. John confidently plans a summoning of a demon to drag the terror elemental away, and takes control of the situation. Unfortunately, nothing goes as planned, because he does not know the correct name of the demon he is summoning. It toys with all of them, drags Astra to hell, taunting John with the possibility of her rescue. John makes a spectacular attempt, returning only with her severed arm when he fails. As the perspective returns to the present, we find out how all the members of the Newcastle crew fell into destruction, and John plots his revenge on Nergal, whose name he finally knows.

This event is the foundation for the entirety of John Constantine’s later career and story. It represents the first time John sets out not to simply con but to actually destroy a being much more powerful than himself, and for a motivation as personal as revenge. It represents John’s greatest failure, the guilt from which he will never recover. This event is the source of his insanity, the reason he spends two years in Ravenscar Secure Facility for the Dangerously Deranged. Again and again, stories about Constantine will return to this event and this location. The death of Astra is not the most horrible thing that John Constantine ever witnesses or is party to, but it is the first of the major catastrophes of this type in his life, and as such it holds tremendous significance.

Many comic book heroes have an event in their histories that defines their motivations. The death of Bruce Wayne’s parents is probably the most famous example. The events at Newcastle fill this role for John Constantine.

Straddling the Privilege Line: Thoughts on Intersectionality

CONTENT WARNING: Discussions of various kinds of discrimination in the entry and probably the comments as well..

In the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and in the wake of the Rolling Stone journalistic debacle concerning the rape culture at UVA, I have been doing a lot of thinking about the ways in which I benefit from privilege, and the ways in which I do not, and the ways in which those things intersect. There are a number of ways in which I personally have benefited greatly from the cultures of power that come with my race and financial background and education, but at the same time have suffered for my gender, disability, and religion. As I consider these items individually, I also realize the ways in which they intersect with one another. Intersectionality is taking center stage in more discussions of privilege, which is great, but there is one type of intersectionality which I haven’t seen discussed elsewhere, which I will be attempting to discuss at least somewhat here: the intersection of privilege and lack of privilege, in the same person. This is sufficiently complicated that a single blog entry, even the full biography of a single person far more complex than I, can’t even begin to cover it, but I’m hoping to at least get some readers thinking, maybe get some discussion rolling.

I have to begin by listing some of the ways in which I am, and am not, privileged in my own life. Compiling this list took some serious soul-searching, and some careful thinking about detail, and some research. Some of these items were obvious; others, not so much.

Ways in which I am privileged:
I am white.
I am cisgendered.
I am straight.
I am monosexual.
I am a native speaker of the local vernacular.
I am monoracial.
I can read and write.
I speak without impediment.
I can use all five senses to a societally functional degree.
I have a fixed address.
I have a driver’s license and a personal vehicle.
I am married.
I am in a monogamous relationship.
I am in a same-race relationship.
My age is between 18 and 50.
I have a college education, and an advanced degree.
I was raised by my biological parents.
I am a natural-born citizen of the nation in which I live.

Ways in which I am not privileged:
I am female.
I am physically disabled.
I have a mild learning disability.
I have a mild mental illness.
I have no children, either biologically or by adoption.
I am unable to have children biologically.
I wear glasses, and am unable to wear corrective lenses that are not visible.
I am non-Christian.
My spirituality is hybrid – meaning, I identify with more than one faith.
I am in a multifaith marriage.
I do not own a residential property.
I am a teacher, an occupation which is under constant political attack.
I am a union member, a position which is under constant political attack.
I am unemployed.
My field of study is outside the STEM fields, the “core” curriculum fields, and the vocational fields.
My Southern heritage is identifiable by my accent.
I am overweight.
I have obvious Russian heritage.

I am sure that if I took months, years longer to write this list, I could continue to add to both parts of it. I am sure that some readers are looking at some items on it and wondering, why does this item afford privilege, or why does that item imply a lack of privilege. If so, feel free to ask.

I’m also sure that there are some of you out there who are bristling because you share some of the traits on the “privileged” list, or who do not share some trait on the “not privileged” list. Let me make something clear to you: I do not apologize for any of the traits on either list. These are simply descriptors of who I am. For example, I do not feel that I need to apologize for being either white or straight. Neither makes me a bad person. But both make me a person who inherently befits from systems created for the benefit of people like me, at the expense of people who do not share those specific traits. I do not have to feel shame at being white in order to acknowledge my white privilege; I do not have to feel guilt at being straight in order to acknowledge my straight privilege. You don’t either. I don’t think you have anything to apologize for by virtue of your gender, or race, or sexual orientation. Your actions and attitudes are what matter, and the same goes for me. For a great reference on this, see John Scalzi’s article “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is,” here. The article misses some complexities of privilege, and many, many types thereof (there are many types of privilege besides sexual orientation, race, and gender) but it’s just meant to be a starting point, and it’s a great one.

Having traits that fall on both sides of the privilege line gives me a very important obligation when dealing with issues in my life: I have to figure out which issues are at play. It is important, in order to make sure that I don’t take a passive (or even an active) role in institutional racism, that I take care not to appropriate issues of race as issues of gender, or disability, when supporting a friend who is targeted with discrimination. It is also important that I be careful not to misinform others, lest I put them in a position of inadvertently doing the same for some other issue, when I speak of discrimination of which I have myself been the target.

I believe it is also vital that society begin to acknowledge the ways in which items of privilege can actually intensify the ways in which lack of privilege affects certain individuals. A high-profile example in recent news has been the scapegoating of union workers in the aftermath of the Eric Garner case. The generalized anger at the miscarriage of justice has been directed at unions, which are already the target of a significant amount of rhetoric aimed at reducing their power and staining the reputation of all those associated with them, placing those who participate in any form of organized labor, particularly those in any part of the public sector, in a position of lack of privilege. Law enforcement, as authority figures, are also given a form of privilege, and as such, this intensifies the anger at the role of the unions in such problematic cases.

A more common situation of combined privilege and lack, where the latter is intensified by the former, is one I find myself in. I benefit from the privilege of my age. Being between the ages of 18 and 50, I am part of the age bracket which is the target of most marketing. Television ratings focus on my age group. Political advertising and polling look more closely at my opinions than at the opinions of those outside my group (though this is changing – more on this shortly). At the same time, because I am unable to have children, the fact that I am in the age when I am constantly asked when I will be bringing the next generation into the world, when, as a woman, I am seen as failing to fulfill my obligations to society on some level because I am unable to have children, my age actually makes that part of my lack of privilege more intense. I have actually seen this come up in a professional scenario: for various reasons, I had to reveal to one of my superiors exactly why I had been absent from work and in the hospital, and when the reason turned out to be related to gynecology and miscarriage, my right to confidentiality was in fact completely disregarded. For months, I was treated differently by everyone who knew, as if my failure to have children meant that I was less competent at everything else I might do; once I was even told to my face, in public, that perhaps, if I couldn’t have children of my own, I shouldn’t be supervising other people’s kids, because there was no way I would ever fully understand them. If my age were not within the bracket when I am “expected” to produce children, this would not have been an issue. I know many other women who have gone through similar experiences.

Another aspect of the privilege discussion which I feel has gone woefully unremarked, is the degree to which some of these categories are in flux. The degree to which it matters that I am obviously Russian changes with global culture and politics. Overall, age is gradually becoming less of an issue, though nowhere near quickly enough. Particularly in the marketing arena, companies and campaigns are realizing that focusing exclusively on the 18-50 bracket is self-defeating, and are branching out. Unfortunately, workplace discrimination and other forms of abuse against both children and older citizens are still far too rampant. It is my hope that the pervasiveness of marketing will actually be a force for good in this particular case, and that marketers’ realization that people of other ages are also people with their own needs and desires and complex lives, will push the same realization on the rest of the public.

One of the most interesting parts of the realization of the divided issues of privilege and lack, is the visibility of different kinds of progress. So many different campaigns, with different degrees of success, at different stages of development, are available for observation, study, and, of course, participation and support. It’s delightful to watch new groups emerge as their issues are finally acknowledged by enough people to from a widely visible activist community, and it’s exciting to learn those new perspectives. All of these groups are doing things differently, and we all have things we can learn from each other – but only if we maintain a clear awareness of what is really going on with all of our lives, even when that involves some unpleasant mirror-gazing.

Giant Hellblazer Re-Read Part I: Issues 1-3

Author’s Note: This is the first of a series of entries covering a full re-read of Hellblazer from start to finish, including side stories. I promise, it won’t be the only thing on this blog, there will be plenty of other things posted here as well.
Also,
Hellblazer is disturbing. It’s excellent horror. There’s a reason it was marketed for mature readers. That’s all the warning I’m going to give.

The first part of this entry covers the first two issues of Hellblazer, “Hunger” and “A Feast of Friends,” upon which the Constantine episode named after the latter was directly based. For arcs adapted into the TV show so directly, I will be providing comparison notes as well as stand-alone analysis of the arc in the comics.

The last part of this entry covers issue 3, which is a standalone issue, the first of many in the series.

The first issues of such an iconic series deserve their own close look, as this pair of issues has a special place in comic book history. For most readers today, these issues, as the first two included in the volume Original Sins, are the standard comic book introduction to John Constantine as a character. When reading, though, it is important to realize that this was originally just an introduction to him as a protagonist rather than a side character. DC Comics was betting on the character’s popularity from Alan Moore’s work on Saga of the Swamp Thing to really get the series launched, and then for word of mouth and positive reviews to get new readers from there. The early issues, before the series became part of the Vertigo lineup (indeed, before the Vertigo lineup even existed), were part of the shared DC Universe, and it shows at various points, but these two issues are just to establish John as the main character of his own story.

The DC execs were aware, though, that if they didn’t refer to recent events of Swamp Thing, they’d have angry fans writing in to the letter columns (hey, remember when those existed?) and the whole project could be put in jeopardy. So issue 1, “Hunger,” starts us off a bit in medias res, with Constantine recovering from a victory against some of the major Swamp Thing villains that did not come without massive personal cost to him and those he loved – a pattern which becomes familiar, the more one reads of Constantine’s story. John is haunted, literally, by those he has sacrificed to achieve his ends.

For all those who had read about John Constantine in Swamp Thing, and been interested by his story and his perspective, it must have been an awesome moment to realize that not only is he the protagonist, he’s also the narrator of Hellblazer. From issue 1, we’re treated to a semi-lyrical, bitter, sarcastic, self-deprecating, and still shockingly candid narration of John Constantine’s thoughts and emotions, creating a breathtaking contrast between what we as readers are allowed to see, and the walls he builds between himself and the rest of the world. We are allowed to see the ghosts that only John can normally see; we are treated to the inside of his head, when others are kept out with his sarcasm, grins, and cigarette smoke. The point when, very early on, John sobs himself to sleep after being wished a good night by the ghost of a former lover is our sole warning of the experience we’re letting ourselves in for, by reading this series.

There’s a reason John Constantine has often been referred to by fans as “DC Comics’ whipping boy.”

The basic premise of this story is as follows: John Constantine comes home to discover an old friend, Gary Lester, curled up in his bathtub, absolutely covered in insects and strung out on heroin. After defumigating his apartment, he discovers that Gary has released a hunger demon from Sudan, which he had initially trapped inside a bottle. The demon is causing a deadly pandemic of consumption: a man starving to death in a restaurant while eating his way through the menu several times over; a body-builder who devours himself alive; a jeweler who dies from eating gemstones; a collector who perishes after literally chewing through his collection of comic books. Constantine is has two concerns: a) getting Gary out of his apartment, and b) keeping the hunger demon from destroying everything and everyone. He seeks out the aid of Papa Midnite, a wealthy and powerful magician with a penchant for strong ritual magic. Together they come up with the way to eliminate the demon: trap it inside the body of the man who let it loose in the first place. At first, John has little sympathy for Gary, who seems to be more concerned with his next fix than with the potential destruction of the human race; but as Gary appears increasingly pathetic and afraid, we see that this isn’t going to be easy. But Constantine follows through, tricking Gary into believing that he’s being led to his next fix, and instead imprisoning him inside MIdnite’s clubhouse and inviting the demon inside. In true Constantine fashion, he won’t let himself look away, and drinks and smokes his way through Gary’s grisly end. In the final panels of the comic, we see that Gary’s ghost joins the others haunting John.

There is one major fact that is brought home to readers meeting our protagonist for the first time through this story: he is a stone-cold bastard when it counts. Because we have the perspective of going into his psychology, we can see that John isn’t entirely unscathed by sacrificing Gary to his demons – literally – but at no point does he even hesitate to follow through in doing so. Constantine isn’t an easy man to read, and he’s definitely not an easy person to like.

All of which makes Chas all the more interesting as a character: Constantine’s oldest friend, his getaway driver, and the one person upon whom John can seemingly depend for absolutely anything. Magic isn’t his mindset or his place; he’s an ordinary guy, a cabbie, and he works with the material he can see and touch in front of him. And yet, he survives and sticks by John through thick and thin, even when John acts in a manner that would drive anyone else away. We get our first look at this relationship as well, though Chas has only a very minor role to play in this arc, and Chas is already someone whose fate and history we wonder about.

Chas is one of the most important differences between the comic and TV versions of the John Constantine story, but oddly enough not in this particular episode. He’s pretty much written out with the flimsiest of excuses on the show (in reality, apparently actor Charles Halford was juggling multiple projects and the script was simply written with the knowledge of his unavailability). He’s anything but normal on the show, in ways that haven’t been revealed as of this writing (shortly after the airing of episode six of Constantine).

John and Gary have their differences as well, and they make for a very different version of this story. In terms of plot, there is one huge change in the adaptation: the sacrifice to the demons is Gary’s own choice, in the end, although he is conscious of the fact that he has been to some extent manipulated into making that choice by John’s own plans. John is still cold and manipulative in many ways, but since the showrunners made the (wise, I think) decision not to have a voiceover for the entirety of the show, the only way we can see his inner conflict over the situation is for it to be displayed externally, and we see tears in his eyes at several crucial moments – something Gary Lester in the comics would never have had a chance to see. At the same time, it makes more sense, because this version of Gary is much more sympathetic, both to us and to John. He’s seriously screwed up after “the Newcastle incident,” about which we know much more in the TV version in episode four than we do by the conclusion of the first two issues of the comic, and has gotten himself into the situation with the hunger demon in a desperate attempt to atone for what he sees as his own part in that debacle. He makes mistake after mistake, but it is clear that his intentions are in the right place, unlike the Gary from the comics whose focus is always on his next fix.

John himself goes through a very different series of psychological contortions over the course of the story, between the two versions. In the comic, he has to deal with the fact that he is forcibly sacrificing a former friend to a hideously evil force, and with the fact that he does so in the hope that Gary will die without ever realizing it. In the TV episode, he puts on a spectacular display of a redemptive story arc, a realization that people are capable of change, which turns out to be entirely fake – but then has to deal with the fact that his manipulative con job has inspired an actual turnaround in Gary, even if not in himself. Both are typical of the character, in different ways, but the TV version is definitely focusing on the gentler, kinder aspects of his character while the comic takes pains to introduce readers first and foremost to the fact that John Constantine is dangerous. Of course, there’s also a key difference here in that “A Feast of Friends” is not the introductory episode in the TV series – and the fact that it’s highly unlikely that any network TV series would start by deliberately introducing its audience to one of the least likeable aspects of its protagonist.

That’s Hellblazer for you, though, right there – this arc is the only heads-up readers are going to get, that this is not a series that’s going to flinch from anything, and if you’re looking for moral black-and-whiteness, for a superhero who will go out and be noble and shining and glorious, well, this isn’t the series for you. Given which, it’s easy to see why the series was so groundbreaking from its earliest issues, and why it eventually became one of the six starting series for the Vertigo lineup and later would be identified as the singular flagship title for the label.

Issue 3 is a serious contrast from the first two, being overtly political and full of ridiculously over-the-top imagery that nonetheless makes its point: politics are hell, says Jamie Delano. Literally, in this case. Ha. Ha.

One would expect an issue about demon yuppies rigging an election in favor of Margaret Thatcher to age less well than this issue has. But while this is definitely one of the least subtly political issues of Hellblazer, it actually holds up reasonably well, simply because John’s experiences are so well unfolded for the reader. This is a brilliant example of character-based storytelling, and establishes that this series is first and foremost about its protagonist doing awesome things, and everything else is, to some extent, incidental.

A bit of summary: John is tipped to investigate the deaths of a number of yuppies in poor areas of London, by his friend Ray Monde, who trawls newspapers for unusual patterns. He discovers a pair of demons collecting souls for their master, Blathoxi. Constantine returns home, summons Blathoxi directly rather than going through his underlings, and offers up his soul to the demon. John’s eagerness to sell his soul indicates to Blathoxi (as intended) that John might have inside information that the Conservative party, which Blathoxi has backed in an attempt to shore up the UK soul market, might actually lose the election, and the demon pulls out of the market immediately. John is thrown back into his apartment, which is now full of angry demon yuppies who want his blood; his life is saved by Blathoxi, who turns up to drag his employees back to hell for punishment, because he doesn’t dare let on that John has successfully conned him. John is left hanging upside down from the ceiling where he can do nothing but watch the election results come in as Thatcher wins again.

It’s amazing how the same metaphors are still used to talk about politics almost thirty years later: people selling their souls, people being morally bankrupt, buying and selling elections, that helplessness that makes watching the numbers on an election come in a special kind of torture… and as a result, this issue holds up because the reader can play a form of mental Mad Libs with it. It doesn’t have to be about Thatcher anymore – fill in the candidate of your choice. It doesn’t have to be about her brand of economics – fill in the policy of your choice. The fact that this story is only a single issue long means that Delano didn’t take very long to actually discuss any of the policies under criticism, with the result that even if one disagrees with him, one can still pretty much ignore that and enjoy the humorous last panel, when John realizes he can’t reach the TV to turn it off, and has to just watch the election results until dawn. Ugh. Torture indeed. (As an American reader, I’m imagining not being able to turn off Fox News on election night… I can imagine plenty of people would feel the same way about MSNBC. I don’t know what the channels are in other countries, but I am sure they exist.) And yet, I think anyone sufficiently politically minded has been there, in some sense.

It’s also an interesting moment for John Constantine, because we have to ask ourselves why it matters to him. He spends so much time insisting that he doesn’t care about anyone, he’s concerned only for himself, and the world can go to hell for all he cares. Why, then, does it bother him to watch the elections turn out in a way he doesn’t like? We get our first example of John’s own narration lying to us, and of course to himself, about his own motivations. This is a signpost for future issues, if we’re watching carefully: don’t trust the narrator.

Why Is Bad Quality More Acceptable In Old Sci-Fi?

Author’s Note: Contains spoilers for a really bad episode of the most recent season of Doctor Who; if you actually care about the show, I recommend ignoring this warning, because dear sweet gods that episode was bad and maybe now you won’t have to actually watch it. Also spoilers for some episodes of older and newer Star Trek, not that the basics of the plot really mattered in the stories under discussion.

I recently sat through one of the worst episodes of Doctor Who I have ever had the displeasure of watching. The episode in question was “Kill The Moon,” near the midpoint of series eight, starring Peter Capaldi. Even Capaldi’s superb acting couldn’t come close to saving this episode. I sat and stared in disgust for the entirety of it, and would honestly not have cared much if the human race had been extinguished in the episode, because the whole premise was so ridiculous that I found myself unable to suspend any disbelief. To give you an idea, I am arachnophobic to a point that can actually be considered a mental illness, but the giant spiders crawling all over the moon for some reason (still not entirely clear on why, honestly) didn’t bother me in the slightest.

After I finished watching, though, a thought struck me. The premise of the episode is absolutely awful: the moon is a giant egg waiting to hatch a giant alien that’s the last of its species, apparently, though how the Doctor knows that is unclear since it is otherwise a complete mystery to him, an alien that will do something to earth, maybe possibly, so, uh, maybe the human race will have to kill it, or not, except that shouldn’t be an issue because the Doctor is either a jerk or an idiot, and I as a classics major should not have enough knowledge of biology and physics to figure out this problem faster than the Doctor and all the scientists of earth, and meanwhile there are single-celled spiders infecting the moon for no good reason. But it’s awful in a way that would have been perfectly at home in classic Doctor Who with a less annoyance-filled version of the summary. And I would have watched it and laughed hysterically and enjoyed myself greatly.

To make things more complicated still, there are exceptions to the old-good-new-bad rule. There are some really awful episodes of new Who, which are still fun to watch, particularly in series one. Anything involving the Slitheen, who wander around with zippers in their foreheads (and oh, did the special effects department love that shining blue light effect, they’d never had a budget before – they had a special effect, and by god they were going to use it, over and over and over….) was frankly kind of ridiculous, even coming on the heels of mannequins trying to take over the earth, but it all still worked somehow. My initial theory was that it was due to expectation of that kind of campy quality from fans of the classic show, but new viewers seem to feel the same way.

Which leaves us with the same question: what makes bad science fiction palatable, and why is it so much more common to find it in older work?

Doctor Who makes a great test case for old science fiction versus new science fiction, simply because it’s the same franchise. For the same reason, Star Trek and Star Wars do admirably for the same purpose, and are worth spending some time discussing here.

I love Star Wars, and always have. But you will not find me claiming that even the original trilogy is made entirely up of brilliant films. Groundbreaking, perhaps, but this is not the same as brilliant. Of the original trilogy, I have always maintained that the only one which is objectively high quality is The Empire Strikes Back. I love A New Hope in particular, and always will, but I can’t claim with a straight face that it’s actually a good movie, in pretty much any respect. Frankly, Revenge of the Sith is a better film – but its flaws are much harder for me to accept. I thought at first that it might be due to the fact that I hadn’t watched A New Hope in a long time, but upon re-watching it, I find I love it as much as I ever have, and am willing to ignore flaws in it that I am incapable of not raking over the coals in more recent films in the franchise when the exact same mistakes appear.

I find I have the same expanded tolerance for artistic mistakes in early Star Trek. I am more able to accept that women on the original Star Trek cling to Captain Kirk and say, “I’m frightened, Captain,” all the time, where women looking ethereal with their hair blowing in the wind of new planets as they model their pretty skirts in Star Trek: The Next Generation bothers me intensely. In part, I am able to excuse the politics of the earlier show because of its earlier context, but the fact that it’s also just plain poor writing bothers me less in the earlier show – and this is just one example of many.

Star Trek gives us a lovely additional gold mine of opportunity in terms of discussion: episodes of old Trek and new Trek which are not only from the same franchise but based on the exact same concept, sometimes openly so. There are episodes of the original series which are the subject of episodes in later series – only changed from drama to comedy, because really, who could possibly take seriously the concept of water with a molecular difference that makes people drop their inhibitions and go crazy. And yet, “The Naked Time” is one of my favorite episodes of the original Star Trek, precisely because of its variety in the way the characters are affected, and what is revealed about each of them. Okay, yes, the crazy-making-water is absurd, but it’s just a mechanism, it doesn’t actually matter. But when unlocking its mysteries becomes a central concept in “The Naked Now,” in Star Trek: The Next Generation, it can only be handled as comedy.

And now, I think, these three franchises between them have provided us an answer key.

Modern science fiction takes itself seriously in its details. A film that claims to have science of any variety will have any inconsistencies pulled apart by fans. A film that does actually have real science will be combed carefully by popularizers of science and roasted if the opportunity arises. The explanation of “it just works that way, okay?!” is no longer acceptable. Many viewers I know, myself included, have a certain tolerance for that kind of explanation, but once it goes beyond that line – and I’m not even exactly sure where the line is, except that I’d be willing to bet it’s different for every viewer – any science fiction that uses that explanation, must either be bad, or be deliberately comedic.

The reason “Kill The Moon” failed utterly as an episode was the fact that it attempted to take itself seriously. The Robin-Hood-themed episode earlier in the season fared much better, because it was unabashedly silly for most of its run time. “The Naked Now” is ridiculous and delightful. A lack of imagination plus a consistently deadly serious attitude, combined to produce a thoroughly unappealing atmosphere for much of later Star Trek – and the times when this is not true, those episodes are amazing to watch.

It’s kind of sad, the idea that we can’t take the explanation of “it just works that way, we don’t understand why” seriously anymore. Part of it, I think, is that actual science has progressed so far in the last forty years or so, and knowledge of science has become so popularized through the work of people such as Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, that we’re able to accept older science fiction as being the product of a culture that didn’t have as strong a foothold in science fact. Even so, today’s viewers seem to have a seriously deflated view of how much people actually knew in the 1960’s, or what people were willing to accept. When we look at awful special effects, and someone points out, “oh, but it was much more impressive back then,” there are still plenty of examples where, at the time of a movie’s release, people didn’t think it was any more realistic than they do now – they were just more able to focus on the creativity than on the need for realism.

And that, I think, is the answer I’ve been reaching for.

And yet, I wonder what might have been, had the Star Wars prequel trilogy tried to simply offer a rollicking good time instead of trying to make Serious Social Commentary.