Presidents Donald Trump and Lex Luthor: separated at birth?

Did Superman writers create President Donald Trump? NOT FAKE NEWS!

What becomes a super-villain most? Or: who becomes a supervillain most?

In the Oxford University Press anthology Our Superheroes, Ourselves (2013), edited by Robin S. Rosenberg and dealing with the social, political and psychological aspects of those brightly-coloured metaphors on legs, an essay by Robert J. Sternberg offers a handy guide to the common characteristics of super-villains like Lex Luthor, Dr Doom, The Green Goblin, Magneto and various James Bond bad guys.

Some of these characterics seemed eerily familiar, so I’m taking the liberty of quoting Dr Sternberg’s checklist in the hope of solving the mystery

  • Massive egocentrism. They believe that they are the centre of the universe and literally try to place themselves at the centre of the human universe. They see others as tools to serve them.
  • Lack of conscience. They really do not care what happens to others as long as their ego needs are met. If anything, they enjoy seeing others suffer [ …]
  • Exploitativeness. They exploit people shamelessly to their own ends. They have no qualms about using other people for their self-glorification and in the service of executing their plans.
  • False omniscience. They believe that they are either all-knowing or so hugely knowledgeable that there is little they can learn from anyone else. They often fail to learn from experience, which can further lead to their doom.
  • False invulnerability. They think that they are all-powerful, failing to recognize their own weaknesses.
  • False omnipotence. They believe that they are, or at least should be, all-powerful.
  • Ethical disengagement. They leave ethics to others; they have little or no sense of ethics of their own.

Hmmmm … the mists are clearing … all this definitely reminds me of someone …

Phun Phact # 1: Back in the 1980s, when the illuminati of DC Comics decided to reboot their flagship character, Superman, writer/artist John Byrne, to whom the future of the Man Of Steel had been entrusted, also decided on a makeover for Supey’s nemesis, Lex Luthor. Formerly a genius-level mad scientist in and out of jail so often that sometimes he didn’t even bother changing out of his prison greys, he was now reinvented – in the wake of Gene Hackman version from the Christopher Reeve-era Superman movies – as a megalomaniac billionaire tycoon whose superpowers were unlimited amounts of money and malevolence.

He thus became DC’s incarnation of Bad Capitalism, as opposed to the Good Capitalism represented by billionaire philanthropist Bruce (Batman) Wayne; just as, over at Marvel, Norman (Green Goblin) Osbourn was the evil twin of Good Capitalist and reformed arms dealer Tony (Iron Man) Stark. Byrne later revealed that his model for the ‘new’ Luthor was New York property developer Donald J. Trump.

Phun Phact #2: In several early-2000s storylines, Luthor actually became President of the United States, ruthlessly exploiting the powers of his office to pursue his various and nefarious schemes and agendas before being driven from said office by the revelation of high crimes against not just the USA but Planet Earth and much of the galaxy. (Marvel’s Norman Osborn had to content himself with becoming Secretary Of Defence.) Well, fancy that …

So maybe there’s still hope. In the meantime, despite my fondness for the nickname ‘Mafia Don’, I may start referring to him as ‘Lex Looter’. Or, better still, ‘Lex Loser.’

Charles Shaar Murray mourns the passing of the NME print edition

The NME of my NME is …

David Bowie, NME, Charles Shaar Murray

Guess who got THIS scoop

Don’t start me talkin’ … I’ll tell everything I know. Because there’s so much things to say …

The news that the NME – where, during my twenties and half of my thirties, I worked and played and did my best to mess with the culture for fun, profit and the chance to make the world, in small and peculiar ways, a better place – has ceased to exist as a printed thing after many years of slow and steady decline gives rise to a plethora of remixed emotions.

Is it like seeing a dear old friend, braindead and paralysed after a protracted illness, having life-support finally switched off? Nahhhh … way too morbid, not to mention too melodramatic. I guess it’s more like passing somewhere you used to live and, even though you’re well aware that different people live there now, that the locks have long been changed and that you’re glad you moved, it’s still a shock to discover that it’s now been converted into a branch of Poundland.

Nevertheless, the NME is still a part of me, and some aspect of me is still a part of the NME. It was where I discovered that – despite all evidence to the contrary – that there was something I could do which people liked, and seized, with both hands and both feet, the opportunity to be part of an attempt to reboot an ailing and obsolescent music paper on the brink of potential cancellation into a mass-market underground-press rock rag capable of capturing the imagination of a significant chunk of the nation’s smartest and most inquisitive yoot-dem.

Long story short: we did it. And when I say ‘we’, I mean those who were there when I arrived in the summer of ’72 (Alan Smith, Nick Logan, Tony Tyler, Roy Carr, Julie Webb, Robert Ellis, Fred Dellar and others), those who arrived soon after I did (Nick Kent, Joe Stevens, Pennie Smith, Neil Spencer, Ian MacDonald) and them what came along in the next few new waves (Andrew Tyler, Mick Farren, John May, Pete Erskine, Chris Salewicz, Tony Benyon, Kate Phillips, Julie Burchill, Tony Parsons, Paul Morley, Ian Penman, Paul du Noyer, Anton Corbijn, Danny Baker, Chalkie Davies, Mat Snow, Barney Hoskyns, Chris Bohn … the list goes on and continued to do so long after my own departure ). No single one of us ‘was’ the NME. None of us ever could have been. We all were. And we all made contributions to building this … thing … which were as irreplaceable as was the thing itself.

If it hadn’t been for the NME, I have no idea what my life would have been like (apart from grievously bereft of sex, drugs and rockanroll). And I know that the demise of Printed Stuff is about as inevitable as a very inevitable thing can get, and that there’s no use crying over spilt beans and the passing times.

So let’s raise a glass and/or spliff for those no longer on the set: I.Mac, the Terrible Tyler Twins, Micky Farren, poor old Pete Erskine, Fiona Foulgar, the recently departed and already massively missed Cliff White.

Most of us had fun. A few of us (not me!) got rich. All of us made a difference.

Songs? Try The Beatles’ In My Life, Dusty Springfield’s Goin’ Back and Johnny Cash singing Kristofferson’s Sunday Morning Coming Down for how I feel now. For how it felt then … compile your own playlist, depending on when your own zeitgeisty NME ‘then’ was. Mine would run from Starman and All The Young Dudes to Ghost Town and The Message.

NME was a perfect storm, coming together from a set of social, cultural, technological and economic conditions which had never coincided before and will never coincide again. One of our distinguished alumni recently suggested bringing together the survivors of the 70s team for ‘one more issue’ but hey, fugeddaboudit … you can’t dip into the same river twice, or expect to look into the mirror of your teenage bedroom and see the same face again.

(Unless, that is, you could bring back I.Mac, the Terrible Tyler Twins and Micky F from wherever they’re currently hanging out …)

We only meet at funerals

Fewer of us each time

At every station somebody leaves

Approaching the end of the line …

These we have loved, these we have lost along the way … and the stars look very different today.

Charles Shaar Murray NME

Pic Pennie Smith

Indiana University’s Ku Klux Klan mural: intent vs impact

Thomas Hart Benton, A Social History of Indiana, “Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press” (1933), detail, at the University of Indiana. Courtesy of Bart Everson, via Creative Commons.

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis …

Your starter for ten: the above Latin aphorism is (a) the title of the second album by the late Keith Emerson’s pre-ELP prog band The Nice; (b) a saying by Hippocrates (better known for his medical activities) which literally translates as ‘Art is long, life is short’, or (c) both of the above.

Excellent! Now, let us proceed.

First of all, what the sage sayeth is that while the human lifespan is by definition limited (and I speak as someone closing in on three-score-and-ten), works of art can long outlive those who created them, whether we’re talking millennia-old cave paintings, the music of David Bowie or the writings of Hippocrates himself. Which is why our species has culture, history and collective memory. What the sage doesn’t say is that a work of art stays the same (well, it did before remixes, remasters, ‘director’s cuts’ and ‘ultimate editions’ became the new norm) while the world around it changes. By the same token, the intent of the artist may not have changed, but the impact which it has on its environment is forever in flux.

Case in point: a recent news story concerning the above mural panel, painted in 1933 by Thomas Hart Benton, in a classroom in Indiana University. It depicts a Ku Klux Klan rally juxtaposed with an injured black child being cared for by a white medical nurse while a sympathetic white journalist takes notes. Students, angered and upset by the image, have demanded its removal. A full account of the controversy can be found here; briefly, the clash is between the artwork’s status as a historical artifact and the pain which its imagery causes many of the students.

Clearly, the purpose of the artist was not to endorse, in any way, shape or form, the KKK: quite the reverse. Birth Of A Nation it most definitely ain’t. Benton’s intent was obviously to create a denunciation of their bigotry, racism and violence and to express solidarity with their victims. However, its impact – almost 85 years later, in the here and now of 2017 – is quite different. What it depicts, to the contemporary eye, is black people as essentially helpless: at the mercy of white people. Vicious nasty white people who bully, oppress and sometimes quasi-legally murder them or kind benign white people who protect, defend and care for them … either way, black people are here shown as objects, not subjects: denied agency, or any power over their own destiny. They are indeed mere victims, to be struggled over by competing groups of whites, rather than active fighters in their own struggle. Not protagonists in their own story, but supporting players in somebody else’s.

I must say that I can see the students’ point: considering what happened to many members of both sides of my family during World War II, I wouldn’t have wanted to attend daily classes in a lecture hall displaying a mural depicting a Nazi death camp, even if it also showed heroic Allied troops liberating it and rescuing the surviving inmates. I can also understand the arguments in favour of Benton’s work, and its importance as social and cultural history. It’s a shame that the work in question is a mural – by definition bonded to its surroundings – and not a painting on canvas which could simply be taken down and re-hung in a museum as an object of study.

Frinstance, I remember, decades ago, hearing the late great Steve Marriott, during his Humble Pie years, squalling from the stage, ‘I may be white but my soul is black!’ At the time, his intent, clearly understood by his listeners, was to express his admiration for, and identification with, African-American music and culture. Its impact now, were any modern performer to be sufficiently injudicious to deliver the same line, would seem an at best naively pretentious and at worst actively offensive manifestation of cultural appropriation.

Vita brevis and ars thorny and complicated. We can only work within the culture we’ve got, whilst always attempting to nudge and steer it into a direction more positive than its worst aspects might imply and hoping that the impact of what we create will never contradict or negate the intent with which we created it.

Maybe we’re back to Hippocrates and his best-known catch-phrase: ‘First … do no harm.’

Garden Rescue: secret vice or comfort food for the soul?

Sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun …

Confession time: I have a Secret Vice.

To be more accurate (and more truthful), I have several, but today let’s concentrate on just one: I am helplessly addicted to a TV show called Garden Rescue.

Yes yes yes, I can hear you saying, ‘Gardening, Charles? You? Really?’

It all started because my Best Beloved is a very keen gardener indeed, and an elaborate plan is currently being concocted for a radical transformation of the Lower Forty, scheduled to take place next spring, assuming that the entire planet has not by then been (a) reduced to a smoking ruin by nuclear war or (b) under thirty feet of polluted water following an ecological catastrophe of some sort.

Now: my attitude to gardens and gardening is not that dissimilar to many peeps’ attitude to music. In other words: they enjoy it, they have preferences and they’re not averse to watching the odd concert or documentary on the subject. They do not, though, wish to learn an instrument, perform, compose or even familiarise themselves with the leading independent labels from the LA R&B scene of the 1950s or the personnel of mid-level 1970s UK punk bands.

Me: filling (and occasionally utilising) watering-cans is as far as I go in terms of hands-on involvement, but I’m an appreciative audience. Heh-heh, I just like to watch, heh-heh … and luxuriate in the results. This is obviously an inheritance from my late sainted father who — much to the combined amusement and annoyance of my late sainted mother, herself a fanatical gardener — was unable to recognise and name any flower which wasn’t a rose.

The Beeb’s flagship garden show is, of course, the venerable Gardeners’ World. It’s pleasant and soothing and shows lots of pretty stuff, but after a while a certain same-oldiness sets in, with genial old Monty Don endlessly pottering around his huge fuck-off garden trailed by a couple of amiable dogs and periodically cueing film inserts in which his satellite presenters visit other people in their huge fuck-off gardens before assigning his viewers their ‘jobs for the weekend’.

Garden Rescue is, however, loads more fun, tweezing its elderly predecessor’s format with licks nicked from game-shows and reality TV. Here’s how it works: first viewers compete to get their gardens done over, providing the budget for the materials involved while the show kicks in the layout and landscaping labour. Then two designers compete in their turn to get their design chosen by the lucky punters, with the loser working on the winner’s design.

One design faction is The Rich Brothers, a brace of laid-back hipsters who’ve won a whole herd of gold medals at the Chelsea Flower Show. Dapper Dude Harry and Hairy Hippie David (it should be the other way round, of course, but the Great And Powerful Gods Of Alliteration are rarely as cooperative as one would wish) go up against and then collaborate with the veteran TV fave Charlie Dimmock: a game old bird, broad of shoulder and grin with a flowing Robert Plant mane, decades of variegated horticultural experience and a far less conventional mindset than you might expect. And she does a MEAN water-feature. Broadly speaking, she’s the traditionalist and the Riches are the modernists. In fact, you could get a fairly lethal drinking game going during most shows by taking a glug every time one Rich or other uses the words ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary.’

So the three of them rock up to the site, inspect the premises, interrogate the clients and then go home to switch into Design Mode. Los Bros Rich fire up their Mac and Ms Dimmock puts on her specs and breaks out out her water-colour paintbox. Then they head back and pitch. Clients make choice, and then the landscapers — a bunch of hairy-arsed blokes including a geezer who looks like Billy Gibbons on steroid — go in and do the heavy lifting, digging, dredging undsoweiter before the Big Three arrive to lead the assembled company through the arty creative process. For some reason, the show is somewhat reticent about exactly how much time elapses between the trio’s first consultation and the final grand unveiling of the completed masterpiece to the astounded and delighted clients. Without a count-off (Deh Won!), we have no way of knowing whether it’s the team’s collective expertise or simply sympathetic editing which ensures that we never see anything going hideously wrong. Like one Rich Sibling attempting to decapitate the other with a chainsaw or the householders screaming, ‘WTF have you done? It’s horrible!’

Mind you, in an attempt to whip up spurious drama, the opening titles suggest that there might be conflict — Dimmock vs Riches or Rich vs Rich — but in practice that hardly ever happens: despite all Teh Bantz, it’s good humour and mutual respect almost all the way.

Without wishing to compromise my legendarily steadfast opposition to gender stereotyping in any form whatsoever, it should be noted that the Riches’ style is very ‘masculine’ — they loves them some straight lines and sharp angles — whereas Ms D’s layouts tend towards curvey and comfy and enfolding … almost maternal, in fact.

So why does it work? At a point in our planetary history where a foetid tide of horror threatens to engulf us all — for the lucky ones it laps around our feet; for the less fortunate it’s at nostril height — Garden Rescue represents an oasis of optimism wherein happy enthusiastic peeps who know what they’re doing and enjoy doing it can make a real difference, even if all they’re doing is transforming a wasteland rubbish tip or a blank featureless lawn into a delightful and diverting refuge.

Which is possibly what is meant by what our French neighbours would call cultiver notre jardin and our US cousins characterise as ‘moving to Montana’ (to raise me up a crop of dennil floss – thank you, Uncle Frank). Not an admission of defeat or a wholesale retreat from the Big Bad World’s nasty bits, but the creation of somewhere nice to hang out to regenerate a little before returning to the fray.

And finally: very good, Ms Parker. Now use the word ‘horticulture’ in another sentence.

Phun Phact: autocorrect seems to have a tireless need to transform ‘Dimmock’ into ‘Gimmick.’ I shudder to speculate as to why.