Batgirl and the Legacy of The Killing Joke

Welcome friends, I know it’s been a while, but I’m back to discuss Batman: The Killing Joke. You know, the “seminal” Batman story in which

SPOILERS

The Joker paralyzes Barbara Gordon by shooting her, and then takes pictures of her naked, brutalized body to taunt her dad, Commissioner James Gordon, whom The Joker was also torturing. The Joker did this to prove that all it takes is “One Bad Day” to drive an average citizen insane. Yep, that’s right, the Batgirl character was fridged just to further her father’s storyline and make a villain “more complex.”

To give things their proper context, you should understand the environment in which the initial book came to be. We’re talking post-Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Post-Alan Moore’s Watchmen. This is the start of the “comics have to be grim, gritty, and violent as hell” era, in which seemingly every character had some time as an angry, be-pouched anti-hero. It was a dark time (pun fully intended). Seeing The Joker commit graphic and gratuitous acts of violence gave fans a nerd boner like you wouldn’t believe.

To hear Alan Moore tell it, the story was never intended to be in continuity, but when DC execs and creators saw how popular it was becoming, the decision was made to bring it into the main continuity, thereby leaving Barbara without functional legs. Barbara was initially kinda left in limbo, but that didn’t last long, because, lets be real, what’s not to like about Barbara Gordon?! She’s got an amazing intellect, an eidetic memory, leadership skills, and stealth…so much more than just functioning legs. About a year later, writer John Ostrander and DC editor Kim Yale took some of the already existing characteristics of Batgirl and emphasized them to reintroduce her as Oracle, tech goddess of the DCU, for whom there were no computers she couldn’t crack, no information out of her reach.

badass oracle

Now let me be clear, the character of Oracle lead to some amazing stories. Her skills and talents earned her a place alongside the rest of the Justice League. Her role as the brains and driving force behind Birds of Prey was perfect. She defended herself on the regular, physically or otherwise, and became an empowering character for both women and/or fans with their own physical impairments.

That being said, her character was still grounded in trauma. Brutal trauma at that. While the original graphic novel was focused on the shooting and torture (horrific enough already), retellings and adaptations into other media pushed the story further and further, the most egregious example being the latest Batman video game, Arkham Knight. A very similar shooting occurs, after which you’re subjected to 30 seconds of Barbara crying and suffering, before seemingly committing suicide and being once again fridged for most of the game.

This whole concept of assaulting, maiming, or killing female characters as a device to move a male character’s story along, or to show just how brutal a villain can be, is such a tired trope and cliche. Portraying women as props is harmful to women; really to society as a whole, and we should expect better from the media we consume. There are myriad ways to show how evil The Joker is without resorting to (implied) sexual assault. His brain and charm are what make The Joker The Joker. (Well, that, and being certifiably insane.)He charmed a psychiatrist into giving up her job and life to become his sidekick/love interest. He’s conned countless people into being his underlings. He’s pushed Batman to the edge just because he could. He’s good at getting inside people’s heads.

Anyway, back to my main point here, Babs was able to overcome her injury and find her place in the DCU pantheon. Life was good. Jump ahead to 2011 and New 52, DC’s line wide reboot of continuity. It was decided that, rather than being permanently paralyzed, she’d now have recovered/rebuilt herself after 3 years, and would be able to walk.

When I first heard that Oracle would essentially be retconned away, I had some definite mixed feelings. Here DC was getting rid of a paraplegic character, one of very few to begin with, and as I said above, some stunning Oracle stories, but I still gave it a chance. I mean, they brought back Gail Simone to write it, and she wrote the literal BOOK(s) on Barbara Gordon. I’ll admit to being excited about seeing her back as Batgirl. While there have been others take up that Mantle, I will always have a soft spot for Babs in the role (due in no small part to my absolute love of the 1966 live action show).

Sadly, Barbara continued to be haunted by the events of The Killing Joke. She would flashback to different parts of the attack, and given the seeming push in other media to imply that sexual assault was part of the Joker’s misdeeds, the flashbacks took on a skeevieness that lingered, as well as stirring up some anger at seeing such a multidimensional character being solely defined by abuse and assault. As the issues of the comic went on, it became less of a factor, but with DC adapting/releasing the story in every medium possible, The Killing Joke was never far from fans’ minds.

New Batgirl

Courtesy of Brenden Fletcher, Cameron Stewart, and Babs Tarr, Barbara received another slight reboot/reset in October 2014, to much critical success. Babs was back in college, and a bit more on her own than in the past. She had roommates, and was dependent on thrift stores for her various costume pieces. The costume in particular has resonated with artists, fans, and cosplayers, even causing Dr. Marten boots to completely sell out of Batgirl’s now signature bright yellow boots. The book just felt more “fun” than before, and did its best to connect with fans in the same way Marvel’s Squirrel Girl, Captain Marvel, and Ms. Marvel titles had.

All of that brings us to now and Batgirl #49. It’s revealed in this issue that antagonist The Fugue implanted memories in Barbara’s mind. We’re also shown a panel clearly showing the events of The Killing Joke as part of these fake memories. Considering the stance DC has taken about TKJ in the past this was both huge and unexpected. I know the creative team really pushed for this retcon, and I for one am ECSTATIC that it was allowed. Doing this means Batgirl isn’t solely defined by thinly veiled sexual assault now, which is a hell of a thing. We can only hope this remains the case post DC’s recently announced Rebirth event, which appears to be yet another reboot.

And look, I’m the first to admit an outright hatred of TKJ. Legit. HATRED. If not for the story itself, which even Moore himself has admitted is weak, than for the diehard comics readers who hold it up as a shining example of what comics can and should be. This is the story that lead to my hatred of The Joker as a character, because SO. MANY. WRITERS. just riff on this version of him, or at least use it as the starting point for their “edgy” version of the Joker. It’s why we ended up with the New 52 Joker cutting off, then later stapling back on, his FACE. Shock value is used to cover a lack of imagination or originality.

Add to that fanbros who try and emulate The Joker. You need look no further than the not insignificant number of people who cosplay as The Joker and then use that as an excuse to be horrible human beings, in the name of nihilism, or whatever the latest excuse is that makes them feel cool and edgy. Maybe, you can understand my exasperation with the character a bit more. Comics are so much more than EVIL BAD GUY commits DESPICABLE ACT against HERO and or HERO’S LOVED ONES. There are so many more interesting ways to show how evil a character is without resorting to fridging or sexual assault just for the sake of moving the plot along. It’s lazy writing, and we shouldn’t be rewarding that.

Now that I’ve rambled a bit, I’ll leave you with this: I may have problems with DC and how certain characters are treated, coughManofSteelcoughBatmanvSupermancough but they occasionally get things right. The Killing Joke was never intended to be canon, and they’ve finally taken a step toward fixing their previous mistake. 

Depression is a Motherfucker

As many of you know (since I’ve chosen to share about this in the past), I deal with some moderate to severe depression, to the point of being on meds and seeing a therapist weekly. I’d like to say I’m only suicidal at the worst of times, but unfortunately it’s not singular thoughts or moments, so much as it feels like I have a chatty passenger on a road trip; only instead of normal conversation, it’s a voice telling me to end myself in whatever way seems most convenient at the time. Kinda constantly. 

Thanks to drugs and therapy, I’m able to ignore or at least tune out that voice most of the time, but sometimes a perfect storm type of situation happens and the voice goes from a dull whisper to an overwhelming roar that I can’t. shut. off. This past weekend was one of those times. 

Saturday and Sunday were tough, but manageable. I chalked it up to just being extra tired from getting back to a day job schedule; and tried to distract myself as best as I could. Monday, though, I started to realize I couldn’t handle this occurrence in my own. The whole day at work was me trying to get things done and failing miserably, all the while that fucking passenger telling me to just shut my computer and take a dive out the window I sit near at work. For better or worse, the only thing stopping me was the thought that, “Hey, I’m only 4 stories up, which isn’t high enough to really finish the job.” Morbid I know, but at least it stopped me from giving in. 

When I finally gave up on the day and headed out for the day, the voice decided to switch things up and taunt me to steer the car into oncoming traffic. Again, the only thought I could counter with was, “It’s rush hour, so I’m not really going fast enough to do more than hurt myself.” By the time I got to my therapist, I was a blubbering mess, and she listened wide-eyed and concerned as I relayed the events of the last few days. 

Thankfully, she didn’t immediately send me to inpatient (which stresses me out even more, seeing that I’m a Type I Diabetic, and most nurses work off an antiquated idea of diabetes management ,not knowing what to do with an insulin pump) and instead put me on a few days of my wife keeping a close eye on me at home instead. 

I’m through the worst of it now, and starting to feel like I can handle the outside world without just shutting down. I wish I could say the chatty passenger was gone, but really it’s just back to a whisper in the back of my head, rather than an overwhelming force. We’re gonna tweak some meds, keep a closer eye on things for the next few weeks, and hope that I stay on the upswing. 

I don’t really have a happy ending for you; I’m mostly writing about this publicly because it’s something that’s not discussed enough in general. Everyone knows someone who deals with a form of mental illness, but there’s such a social stigma associated with it that people keep their struggles in the dark. In the spirit of “we’re all in this together”, I choose to be open about my struggles with mental illness to combat those negative associations in some small way.

If you’re feeling suicidal, or dealing with mental illness at all, get help. Talk to a friend or family member about what’s going on. If you’re not comfortable with that, call any one of the numbers listed here. However you do it, whatever way you’re most comfortable, get help. Things may seem hopeless now, but they won’t be that way at forever.

We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Civil War Coverage To Bring You…LEGO BATMAN ’66!

LEGO Batman 66 box

Sooooooooooo, I need to take a quick moment away from Civil War coverage, to tell you all about this announcement from LEGO yesterday. Three words: LEGO. BATMAN. ’66! After teasing us with a few levels in Lego Batman 3, LEGO and DC have figured out the requisite contracts and have set a release date sometime March 2016.

LEGO Batman 66 - errything

At first I thought this would be a few different sets, but as you can see in the images above, it’s going to be one absolutely MASSIVE set, letting you build Wayne Manor, including the red Batphone and Shakespeare bust, the Batpoles, key parts of the Batcave like the nuclear pile and various and sundry computers, the Batmobile, the Batcopter, even the Batcycle! And if that’s not enough for you, it will come with minifigures of Bruce and Dick (both in and out of costume), Alfred (yep, the butler gets his own figure!), the Penguin, Catwoman, The Riddler, and, of course, Cesar Romero mustache-accurate Joker. Phew. that’s a lot of things to list.

Batman and Robin

The only thing that they’ve missed including for the dedicated Batfan is an Aunt Harriet minifig. I don’t know if there was a likeness rights issue, or maybe they didn’t think anyone would care. Regardless, it by no means invalidates the awesomeness of this set. Now, given everything included in this set, I’m sure you’re dreading the price question as much as I was, so, brace yourself….Ok. You ready? Are you sure? Alright then, here goes; this is going to set you back $269. You read that right, 2 6 9. No decimal points.

Start saving now, March’ll be here before you know it.

Some additional pictures for ya

LEGO Batman 66 - cave closeup LEGO Batman 66 - Batpoles LEGO Batman 66 - alfred

The Road to Civil War 02 – The Amazing Spider-Man 530

Important Note #1: Before I do anything else, I want to point out a slight change to the reading order for this project. When I started this project, I was using the “date released” order that’s in the Marvel Unlimited iPad app. Recently, however, I discovered that Marvel.com has a suggested read order that flows a bit better. I’ll be using that from here on out. To make things easier, I’m going to go back and and number the posts to reflect this. That’ll leave us a small gap temporarily, but it’ll make sense soon.

Important Note #2: (In case you missed it elsewhere, I’m running a GoFundMe campaign to read and review every issue of Marvel Comic’s Civil War crossover event prior to Captain America 3: Civil War hitting theaters the beginning of May. If you like what you read here and want more, or just feel bad I have to read this much JMS and/or Mark Millar, throw me a few bucks, will ya?)

Cover to The Amazing Spider-Man 530Alright, now that the housekeeping is out of the way, on to The Amazing Spider-Man 530, picking up the morning after the end of 529. Peter and Tony are hopping onto Tony’s private jet (naturally) to attend the first, closed hearing about the Superhuman Registration Act (SRA). We also get yet another promo for Brian Michael Bendis’ New Avengers: Illuminati special, which I’ll be getting to in a few posts. I can’t really fault Marvel for throwing in references to it, as they position the Illuminati as this heretofore unknown cabal of geniuses that will have a lasting effect on the Marvel universe (616, of course, but *spoilers* most of the multiverse as well).

Tony lets Peter know he’s just completed a new version of the Iron Spider costume (you know, the one created less than 24 hours comics time ago). Once the duo is aboard the plane, we learn more about the SRA, including that numerous lawmakers are tacking unrelated items onto the bill (Democracy, everyone!). The most heinous idea here is that the US government promises it can keep the proposed database safe from hackers/supervillains, cause, you know, there’s never been a leak of confidential information before or anything…

It's totally, TOTALLY safe
It’s totally, TOTALLY safe

As Tony and Peter get to their hotel, we discover that even Marvel’s editors can’t agree on the correct course of action. From there, we get our introduction to Iron-Spider 2.0, including now being made of, and i quote, “…Liquid metal nano-fiber that can more or less disappear when not needed” (SCIENCE!). It also has camouflage capabilities now, including stealing Nightcrawler’s ability to blend in with shadows, and the most obvious new addition, 3 “waldoes”; basically, smaller Doc Ock arms.

Only Wolverine gets the "T"
Only Wolverine gets the “T”

Now that the setup is out of the way, we get to the meat of this issue. Tony Stark appears before a rather contentious and combative closed Senate hearing to give his opinion on the SRA. The most interesting thing to note in this issue (and using Marvel’s suggested reading order) is that right now, Tony seems on the fence about the SRA, going so far as to argue against it in Senate chambers. He expresses the opinion that, regardless of the damage caused by costumed heroes in the course of doing their job, they’ve also saved the US at least 47 times, which is worth far more than any damage done in the pursuit of justice.

Peter tries to help Tony out, but due to inexperience in this type of situation, just puts his foot in his mouth and actually makes the Senate’s case stronger. At the end of the day, no matter how much Tony seems to disagree with the Senate’s position, he makes it clear he ultimately serves the US and it’s leadership, and nothing will change that; thus begins his descent into the super-patriot that triggers a Civil War.

FIRE

We end this issue with another display or the Iron-Spider suit’s capabilities, instigated this time by The Titanium Man’s assassination attempt on Tony Stark. Matters are complicated when the Army shows up and opens fire on both villain AND hero. It seems the Senate’s hatred of superhumans has spread quickly.

I gotta hand it to JMS; this issue, I was engaged the whole time. It filled in some bits I had either forgotten or never read before, and painted Tony in a more sympathetic (for now) role than I remembered previously. Some of that can be chalked up to the new and improved reading order I discovered, but not all of it. Tony genuinely seems conflicted after these 2 issues of TASM. Well, at least more conflicted than I remember, and more privately conflicted than we’ll ever see once the full event starts. We also get some more solid Peter Parker action, trying his best but still putting his foot in his mouth.

And that’s another review on the books (Though, by the refactored numbering, this is only the second, so that’ll seem weird later). I’m hoping now that i’m over the latest betrayal of my fleshy meatsack (or as you regular hoo-mans might refer to it, being sick), I can get back to daily posting, and get caught up as well. Thanks for sticking around!

The Road to Civil War 04: Fantastic Four 536

(In case you missed it elsewhere, I’m running a GoFundMe campaign to read and review ever issue of Marvel Comic’s Civil War crossover event prior to Captain America 3: Civil War hitting theaters the beginning of May. If you like what you read here and want more, or just feel bad I have to read this much JMS and/or Mark Millar, throw me a few bucks, will ya?)

Cover of Fantastic Four 536
Cover of Fantastic Four 536

Ahhhh J. Michael Straczynski, my old nemesis, we meet again. There was a time in Marvel Comics’ history that involved him writing everything Mark Millar wasn’t, apparently. Both of these guys will feature heavily in the coming months. Anyway, welcome back to day 2 on The Road to Civil War. Our next stop on the The Road to Civil War is Fantastic Four 536. This cover does it’s job, because I was sucked in as soon as I saw a certain someone’s Doomy metal hand gripping Thor’s hammer. (Remember, this is long before **spoilers** Thor’s arm got torn off and he started rockin’ a metal appendage of his own.)

We start out following what could only be Thor’s aforementioned hammer, flying through space and setting off radar alarms across the country. After blowing off a plane the hammer cuts through, we see it’s explosive landing, and then, **Timey Wimey**, we’re six months in the future (present?) at the Baxter Building. In case you don’t remember, that’s home base for the first family of Marvel Comics, the Fantastic Four.

Reed, obviously just getting back from some clandestine mission, tries to ignore Sue’s inquiries about what happened, but, as you can see in the featured image for this post, Sue is having none of that. Resigned to being sandwichless (for now), Reed spills the details of the meeting he just had with the rest of The Illuminati. There’s a whole issue devoted to them coming up soon, so I won’t go into detail, so for now, I’ll just say the membership comprises Namor, Tony Stark, Black Bolt, The Black Panther, Stephen Strange, and the curiously absent Charles Xavier. Basically, representatives of the major forces and/or players in the Marvel universe.

Illuminati Roll Call

Tying in directly with the final panel from The Amazing Spider-Man 529, Tony Stark/Iron Man presents his comrades with advance notice of The Superhuman Registration act(s), which is what this whole event is about. The Marvel Universe is chock full of costumed peeps running around, answerable to no one, and the American government has decided they’re not gonna have that any more. They demand all superheroes register with the government, using their real, unmasked identities, and become officially sanctioned agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Tony, thinking he has this on lock, declares The Illuminati should come out in favor of this bill, going so far as asking all of them to voluntarily unmask now, ahead of the bill. This further confirms the weird turn Tony takes throughout Civil War, wherein he becomes a pawn of the government to the detriment of basically everyone and everything around him. We don’t really see the full response to Tony’s play, because cross-promotion is magic, but Reed does let slip that, “…There was some disagreement.” (bolding not mine, but in the comic. for once.)

Now, onto the meat of this issue, the FF coming to the rescue of a military base out in Oklahoma somewhere that’s being overrun by Doombots. Pretty quickly though, we discover the onrush of Doombots were a feint to take attention away from Doctor Doom’s real target, and just then a missile comes screaming into frame and destroys every bit of the base, except the central sphere of invisble-ness that Sue was able to throw up quickly.

Reed laments that nothing is salvageable, but the real Doctor Doom comes confidently striding in shedding some new light on the situation for Reed. Doom is always extra smug and egotastical around Reed, and today is no exception. He is convinced that whatever the base was protecting is all he needs to rule the world.

Doom's Ego

It’s here we discover Doom’s true target, Thor’s hammer, which is still in one piece without a single scratch after the missile’s explosion. (C’mon, Marvel, you can’t tease Doom grabbing the hammer on the cover and then not deliver in the issue; that’s just false advertising) 

I hate to kinda repeat myself this early in the game, but much like yesterday, I enjoyed the non-Civil War parts of this book. Sure, the dialogue between The Thing and The Human Torch seems a little off and forced, but I’ve sat through far worse in service of sticking with some characters I truly love.

While I joke above about cross promotion , I can’t really fault Marvel for giving us a taste of The Illuminati here before asking us to pay for the full experience. This is right around the decision to retcon some key moments of Marvel history stretching back to the 70’s as being caused, or sometimes fixed, by this secret cabal of Marvel’s movers and shakers. Including them in an event of this magnitude makes perfect sense as a move to strengthen their reputation.

Coming up tomorrow? More JMS on The Road to Civil War, heading back to Amazing Spider-Man. Thankfully by Friday, we’ll get to the New Avengers: Illuminati special that released around this time, before starting in on Civil War proper on Saturday.

The Road to Civil War 01: The Amazing Spider-Man 529

(In case you missed it elsewhere, I’m running a GoFundMe campaign to read and review ever issue of Marvel Comic’s Civil War crossover event prior to Captain America 3: Civil War hitting Theaters the beginning of May. This is the first of many reviews to come.)

So, here we are. I’ve committed to reading and reviewing every issue of Civil War over the coming months. Before we get to Civil War proper, we have to travel The Road To Civil War, and boy, the Comics Gods can be fickle and unkind.

I had sorta blanked out the fact that J. Michael Straczynski was the guy guiding Spider-Man through most of the 2000’s, and then BAM, I open up the first comic on my list, The Amazing Spider-Man 529, and JMS hits me in the face like a brick.

**Pours the first of many Dark and Stormys**

Iron Spidey REPRESENT
Iron Spidey REPRESENT

As you may recall, Civil War coincided with the Iron Spider years, and this issue is where it all begins. JMS goes hard, starting with an, “Oh, that scamp Tony Stark” joke that just hasn’t aged well AT ALL (translation: It’s hella skeevy to even joke with your buddies wife that there’s a camera in the bedroom, Tony. YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS!). After that awfulness, we move to Tony putting the finishing touches on a new suit for Spider-Man. In a rather familiar Red and Gold color scheme, naturally.

The rest of the issue is mostly Spidey taking the suit out for a test-drive, with plenty of justification for all the fancy gizmos and doodads Stark threw into this new suit, including: glide capabilities, thermal imaging, police band radio, and even being bulletproof. I had honestly forgotten that JMS was decent back in those days, and really enjoyed this bit of the comic. His Peter Parker is on point, humor-wise, and once you get past the sequence being an obvious commercial for Spidey 2.0, it’s a solid piece of comic-ry. (Comicness? Comicsosity? I dunno, you know what i mean.)

The fix is in
The Spidey-sense is (almost) never wrong.

Post test-drive, things get dicey. After Tony’s taking Peter and Mary Jane in, protecting them, then giving Peter this snazzy new suit, Peter’s spider-sense has gotta be tingling, and rightfully so. As soon as Peter pushes the issue and asks Tony, “Why?”, we see that Tony has an ulterior motive. He butters Peter up with talk of them both being the same type of person, and how he considers Peter and MJ family and all that, before asking Peter to swear a “blood oath” to him (no really, look at the panel below), the details of which have to be kept from everyone. Thanks to Tony’s heavy manipulation, Peter immediately accepts. Then this bombshell of a last panel is dropped, and the boys are off to Washington. dun dun DUUUUNNNNNNNNN

Nothing ominous about a blood oath, nothing at all.
Nothing ominous about a blood oath, nothing at all.

Tony has always been the (sorta) lovable, womanizing asshole living off dad’s money who just so happens to be one of the smartest guys ever, but he’s next-level manipulative here. Peter Parker is the smart but awkward guy who tries really hard and has lost all the father figures in his life. Tony works that angle to perfection; ensuring that if Peter responds with anything other than, “Yes!”, he can play the “disappointed Dad card” to secure Peter’s loyalty. This really just scratches the surface of how awful Tony will get as this series goes on.

That about does it for today. Next up, The Road to Civil War continues with Fantastic Four 536 written by……Straczynski again? Welp, liver, this is what we’ve been training for. See you back here tomorrow.

Who the Fuck is Chris Novus?

Greetings and salutations, internets. Chris Novus here. Now, I’m sure you’re all wondering who the fuck that is, and what happened to grumpyhawk, and I’m here to explain just that. To do so, we need to go back almost 8 years. I was working my first digital marketing job, and having recently joined Twitter, would occasionally vent (shocking, I know) about work stuff. While never using any identifying information or anything like that, you could put the pieces together if you were paying attention.

That was all well and good, till I learned through the grapevine that corporate was monitoring all online activity for all employees. Being sufficiently panicked. I deleted my twitter, and started a brand new one, not associated with anything “me” related. I kept trying different names, only to discover they were already taken. After a bit, I finally settled on grumpyhawk, in part because, especially at that time, I was surly and grumpy most of the time. On top of that, I had recently taken the plunge on the whole mohawk thing, so it seemed a perfect fit.

This was right around when, at least in the circles I kept, twitter started blowing up, and we started using it for day job things too. New marketing info, blog posts, etc… I left the increasingly awful first job to come to Austin and work with some friends, who had already started calling me grumpyhawk at the office or when we were just hanging out (Hi, Nate! Hi, Timothy!).

When I decided to sort of make the break between “day job me” and “nerd/tech/futurist me”, sticking with grumpyhawk made a ton of sense. In a big way, it became a character I could inhabit and use as a sort of armor. I started going exclusively by grumpyhawk for anything that wasn’t day job related; in fact, there are people who were part of Your Nerd Is Showing Media who only know me as grumpyhawk, that’s how committed I was to the thing.

It turns out, though, that words are important. Like, yes, words are important, right? We all know this! But, when referring to yourself, and what you make your “personal brand” is important. I’ve been at the point for the last year or so where I’ve been claiming bad, excessive things on “grumpyhawk” “Oh, it’s ok, “Chris” isn’t ranty and angry and grumpy all the time, that’s “grumpyhawk”. Problem is, lines blur, and while I was using it as an out, I was also starting to live into that more and more. Plus, if I’m being perfectly honest, having to explain the name every fucking time I met someone is getting tiring.

Now don’t get me wrong, I know me, I’m never gonna be sunshine and unicorns all the time. It’s just not gonna happen, but, as everything else in my life is in flux right now (Closing down YNIS, changing jobs, refocusing more on my futurist/transhumanist tendencies), it feels like the time to have a bit of a fresh start. A new beginning. (Maybe.)

(Thanks to the 3 of you who read this far; hi mom) All of that to say I’ve chosen a new name for myself. From here on out, you can call me Chris Novus. It’s still not my drivers license name, but it has meaning to me, and it reflects the direction I want to take my life in. After all, Novus is Latin for new, and what’s newer and more focused on where we’re headed than the futurist and transhumanist communities.

If you’re already following me on Twitter, congrats! Thanks to them thinking about things like this, I can change my username there, and it automatically updates, so you’re still following me. I’m going to TRY changing my name on Facebook, but, you know how they are, and if I get popped, I may have to lay low for a bit and try again later. Everywhere else has made the name change pretty easily, so, just look for Chris Novus on whichever service you want to find me on. Chance is I’m there. Thanks for reading, now lets go build and/or steal the future we wanna see!

The Life and Times of Our Fluffy Friend – RIP Flip Flop

Our first year of marriage was a bit…different than most. Instead of the typical learning how to live with another person and small arguments about toothpaste tubes and how to put up a new roll of toilet paper (over. the answer is always over), we had to deal with my having life changing back surgery 3 months into the marriage.

Andrea went through it all like a champ; she always has. As someone with multiple chronic health issues, It’s one of the many things I love about her. Rather than letting me just wallow in my pain and suffering, she helped me get through the healing process, taking care of me along the way and kicking my ass when I needed it.

Fast forward a few months, and we’re closing in on Valentine’s Day. I’m feeling better, but nowhere near great yet, and have stored up my energy to go with my lovely wife and a friend of ours to the mall. For weeks I’d been trying to figure out the perfect gift, not only because it was our first married Valentine’s Day, but also because I wanted to do something amazing for Andrea because she’d been so incredible.

The whole time we were walking around, I kept running through my options, and kept coming back to the thought that we both grew up with pets (Andrea, at various time, having dogs, goats, and rabbits, among others), and wanted an animal of our own.
That’s when it hit me (likely in at least small part thanks to some kick ass pain meds). A pet is the gift that keeps on giving right? We should TOTALLY get a rabbit.

I mentioned this to Andrea, and her face lit up in that beautiful way that is does, and an hour or so later, we were headed home with a little bunny pal of our own. (Before anyone yells at me, I know now that mall pet shops are far from ideal, and we probably should’ve gotten him from somewhere else, but as you’ll recall, KICK. ASS. PAIN. DRUGS. and the fact that we barely got out of the house at the time because of me.)

young flip-flop
He would eventually grow into this head
From the very beginning, even when we were deciding on which one to take home with us, Flip-Flop stood out as happy but stubborn. Even our trip home with this little bunny head poking out the top of the cardboard box he was in every few seconds is seared in my brain, in part because ADORABLE, RIGHT? and because we didn’t want him to hop out of the box and hurt himself.

aka, the bunny tornado
aka, the bunny tornado
Those early years with him were especially…, let’s just say challenging (but ultimately a blast). He was a little daredevil, and there were many times we’d be chilling in the living room and see a flying ball of fur come careening into the room. Or even have to rescue him from precarious situations (like the time he got to to the top of a pile of boxes close to the ceiling, and then couldn’t get down).

Welp, I guess I live here now
Welp, I guess I live here now
We also learned what foods we could, and could not, eat around him. I was unable to eat an apple in peace for those first few years, as even the scent of one being cut up meant you had a determined little bunny dude trying everything he could to get to a slice of apple before it made it to your mouth. Really, fruit of any kind would send him into a frenzy that made me glad rabbits are vegan.

When he was younger, he actually wasn’t much of a snuggler; he barely like being picked up. We both think it was just an excess of energy, as he would occasionally burst into laps around our coffee table, just because. Again, ALL OF THE ADORABLE.

under the desk, at andrea's feet. his home away from home
under the desk, at andrea’s feet. his home away from home
Lest you think this is all about me, he was great for Andrea too. They shared many a long night in our office, her at the computer, him at her feet. When she was getting ready in the mornings, he was her constant companion, an onlooker as she got dressed, put makeup, did her hair, and whatever else. As much as I loved having him up on the bed, she did as well, and from time to time he would just sneak up on the bed, and stretch out contentedly between the two of us, awaiting all the scratches and snuggles he knew he’d get from us both.

this is what happens when you have the smell of orange in your beard
this is what happens when you have the smell of orange in your beard
As he got older though, he started chilling out a bit, and letting us pick him up and hold him. (ok, he still freaked out about picking him up, but once he was in my arms he’d calm down) Thanks to my back still being in rough shape, I still spend a fair amount of time laying down in bed, but I started to have company. I’d be laying there reading or watching something, and seemingly out of thin air poof a bunny would land on my chest. I’m sure at least part of it was he knew I’d break down and give him a treat or two, but I also think he genuinely enjoyed hanging out.

even he was super chill sometimes...sometimes
he was even super chill sometimes…sometimes
While being cute, this started to serve another purpose too. I’ve been pretty open about my mental health issues and the sort of break down I had a few years ago, and I discovered that “bunny time” could be pretty therapeutic. I could be in the middle of a serious depressive episode, but no matter how bad it was, that giant hop appearing bunny would make me chuckle or smile. I got to where I looked forward to a few minutes with him each night, rubbing his jaw just like he liked it or “hypnotizing” him by petting the middle of his head. It gave me something to do that was outside myself, and I always felt a little better after we hung out.

A few months back, we woke up to him being way unsteady on his feet and super lethargic, i.e. not himself at all. We both freaked out, because he was almost 9, and bunnies just don’t live forever (yet). Turns out, because he was an old man, he developed some arthritis, and once we started give him some medication for that, he was back to normal. phew Bullet dodged, we nursed him back to normal and life resumed.

When Andrea woke up this morning, she knew something wasn’t right. Normally we feed him first thing (have I mentioned he likes to eat?), because if you don’t, he runs little circles around your feet until the food dish is filled. This morning, however, he had zero interest in eating. Like, turned his face away from the bowl and everything. I woke up a bit later, and Andrea shared her concern. We picked him up, which went easier than normal (uh-oh), and I hung out with him on the bed for a bit.

We got even more worried when he refused a treat too. He normally goes batshit crazy for the things, but even when I held it right next to his mouth, he just kinda sat there. Still, we had been through something like this before, and figured he just needed some help from the vet and he’d be fine. After getting an exam, the vet said his belly felt a bit off and they needed to run some tests. Still thinking he’d be alright, we left him there and ran to lunch.

When we got back to the vet’s office, the nurse said we needed to “talk” about the results of these tests. I still tried to think happy thoughts, but Andrea had an inkling that something was wrong. The doc came in a few minutes later and confirmed our worst fears. Sometime in the early morning, a small rupture had formed in his stomach, causing the contents of his stomach to leak into the rest of him. We sat there choking back tears as she explained that most owners don’t even catch when something like this happens, and rarely, if ever, do bunnies come back from an injury this severe.

Tearfully, we agreed with the vet’s assessment that there was nothing more that could be done, and he would need to be euthanized. It’s here I want to give a shout out to White Rock Veterinary Clinic in Pflugerville. They were incredibly sensitive to the situation, and let us spend some time with our tough little guy before prepping him for the procedure. Even after they did their thing, we were allowed some final moments with him in each of our arms before starting the injections. Once he was on the table, we were right there next to him, and with the doctor talking so soothingly and calmingly to him, she started.

There were some complications (nothing painful to him), but ultimately, we were there and petting him through most his initial sedation and as his breathing slowed. Though short-lived, the pain he was in from his stomach was finally over, and we said goodbye.

No matter how much you try to prepare for something like this, you really can’t. Even though it was the right call, and he’s out of pain, it feels like a piece of me got torn out, and I know Andrea feels the same way. This is the way of the human/pet relationship though. You go into it knowing that you will outlive this other living being that brightens your day. All you can do is cherish the time you have together and hope (know?) that they loved you as much as you loved them.

Goodbye fluffy friend, you will be forever missed.

Shout out to all the friends who have taken care of him over the years and were a part of giving him the best little life a bunny could have.

water tongue
The rare photo of the bunny tongue

carrots are tasty
<munch, munch, munch, munch>

bunny nap
No doubt he’s bounding through endless fields of cilantro. and carrots. and celery. and lettuce. AND ALL THE VEGGIES.

[UPDATED] What the “Startups of Silicon Valley” Game Gets Wrong

UPDATE: after some more thought, and some rad editing and insight from my workwife Jetta, I’ve expanded and updated the piece. 

A photo posted by Chelsea Rustrum (@chelzcers) on

If ever you’re unsure of how startup founders feel about their employees, look no further than this version of Settlers of Catan Reid Hoffman (founder of LinkedIn) commissioned this year, called The Startups of Silicon Valley. Hoffman has previously sung the praises of Catan as being popular with the “technorati” because it “closely approximates entrepreneurial strategy.” It should be noted that many of those words, whether strung together or examined individually, are just buzzwords, used to invoke the appearance of intelligence and superiority. It could be that the aspect of Catan Hoffman embodies most is his ability to speak a completely foreign language while living among the rest of us.

This leads us to further problem with StartUp Culture. If you’re not working 24/7, you’re dead and might as well give up. It’s a weird twisted headspace founders and indoctrinated into that’s designed to squeeze profit or gain out of every bit of your life. You’re not just playing a game, you’re learning skills to crush your competition. You’re not just watching TV, you’re analyzing the plot to see if you can learn something to give you an edge with an investor tomorrow. Meditation? It’s not an exercise to help you cope with stress, or gain a moment’s peace. It’s a tool you can use to make yourself even more productive, and clear headed so you can get back to writing code for another 8 hours. Enjoyment for enjoyment’s sake is verboten, and with sites like ThinkGeek, an entire cottage industry exists to sell productivity back to the workforce. Capitalism everyone!

While creating a special version of a game for your friends in and of itself isn’t really a big deal, it’s the changes made for this FounderBros™ edition that are liable to make one’s head explode with rage. To be fair, some of the changes make sense, such as updating robbers to disrupters, or havingproducts instead of settlements. Both of these updates take a big step away from the romanticized colonialism that is Catan’s stock-in-trade, and allow the game to be played without the nostalgia for conquering the untamed frontier.

Then there’s including customers as a commodity. Nothing makes your users feel warm and fuzzy like being the stand-in for brick. BRICK. I guess from most founder’s perspective, this is exactly what users are. The most important metric isn’t if users are loyal or if they’re actually using your product in a meaningful way, it all comes to ACQUIRE ALL THE USERS. In that kind of environment, where exponential growth is not only expected but required, why concern yourself with anything more than that user number going up and to the right.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the wheat commodity becomes talent. Not employees. Not people. Talent. There’s a shitty bit of linguistic gymnastics there, abstracting the folks who pour their blood, sweat, and tears into your company into talent. Looking at your employees this way discounts individual contributions and leads to “sanding off rough edges” (translation: getting rid of anyone who has skills that can’t be quantified). It seems to stand in stark contrast to the public facing appearance Silicon Valley likes to put forth, that of a haven for creative people and those who don’t fit in normal corporate culture, but in reality it’s the same old-same old with a fresh coat of paint.

PEOPLE. ARE. NOT. COMMODITIES.

This line of thought, that people as just one more resource to be exploited, is essentially the same mindset that leads to atrocities like human trafficking. “That’s not a human being I just sold, it’s a product to be sold to the highest bidder.” To a lesser extent, it’s what drives the culture of unpaid interns that companies now have. Far from being just a learning experience, many internships are designed to exploit the student (who may not know any better) and get thousands and thousands of dollars worth of free labor out of them. This attitude isn’t just limited to tech/corporate culture either. Thousands of migrant workers are made to work in deplorable conditions, held captive in remote, hard to reach locations, with only the company store to provide for them, abused, all in an effort to provide for themselves and their families. Sure, every year or so we read about the government stepping in and slapping fines on a company here or there, but it’s not as though anything really changes. Whether you’re talking interns, migrant labor, or even human trafficking, it all comes down to those in power having a sense of entitlement to the labor of others; that talent is a naturally-occurring commodity that just replenishes on its own and needs to be harvested lest it, gasp, go to waste without profit.

Sadly, this sort of attitude seems to be quite common in the startup world. Not a week goes by that I don’t hear some story about a founder who drives his people insanely hard. Statements like “I know what I want and will not settle for anything less” and “My way or the highway” are common in tech startups, as though every founder is a high-ranking mage who’s uncovered the secret to existence and in turn become the arbiter of success. Every startup assumes it’s an island, and unconnected to the industry around it, which gives it the incentive to boot people at will. In reality, though, much like Catan, it is part of a larger continent of economics, and the entitlement of one enables the entitlement and violence of all.

If, as a founder, you see your employees as talent, it lets you keep emotion out of things, and reduces human beings into one more lever you can push/pull to inflate your bottom line. Revenue dipping? Time to divest some of your talent. Things not moving fast enough? Force the talent to spend 80+ hours chained to their desk, labor laws/common decency be damned. If you think things this never happens, read some of the many horror storiesfrom game developers and startups in general regardingcrunch time“.

Along with several scandals relating to start culture excess, the tone-deafness of The Startups of Silicon Valley should cast serious doubt on startup culture’s claims of being a benevolent societal force; working for the good of humanity, or least making your life a bit easier. The root of the culture they’re creating and perpetuating is no different that the what’s been in place for hundreds of years: Exploit those who work for you as long as you can for as much profit as you can, their welfare be damned.

I get it: sometimes jobs require extra hours, that’s to be expected. There needs to be a distinction, though, between “this task requires extra labor” and “this culture/society requires this labor for which you will not be adequately appreciated for, lest you rock the boat of this perfect brand new society”. The people doing those jobs are still human being, and pushing folks to their physical and mental breaking points just can’t be part of business as usual or your success plan. It just can’t. If we, as a culture, are going to break away from this dark path we’re headed down, we have to start taking a stand and stop letting these modern day feudal emperors treat us like so much wheat.

Fuck You, Pain

I’ve decided to bring over some of my older posts from both my old site and the YNIS site. This is one of those.

So, those of you that follow me here or on Twitter know I’ve been going through some stuff. Short version: I’ve dealt with some significant back pain for the last 8 years. I had surgery to remove part of a bulging disc in 2006, and the pain got better. Not gone, but better. I still had days that were rough, but was functional again.

Fast forward to fall 2010. The pain started getting pretty bad again. It got to the point that I basically lived on an air mattress in our tiny apartment’s living room. After working with a pain management specialist and trying just about everything, it was determined that I needed another surgery, a fusion at L4-L5.

The recovery from that surgery was particularly rough, but I survived and the pain got better for a time. Still not 100% gone, but completely tolerable. I figured this was about as good as things would get. Sadly, it didn’t stay that way.

Starting in July 2012, the pain came back with a fucking vengeance. It hurt to walk, stand, sit, lay down, you name it. The surgeon ran a bunch of tests, only to decide he didn’t see anything wrong, and that I should take it easy and hope things got better. They didn’t.

Since then, I’ve been fighting severe pain off and on. I would have a few good days, or even a week, but invariably, the pain returned. Pain medication became an almost daily part of my life. I started having to use a cane just to get around, even for short trips. I did my best to bite the bullet and still go do things despite the pain, but most of the time I’d have to bail early.

I was able to make it to SXSWi this past March, thanks to shear determination and copious amounts of pain medication. I basically tried to take the free cars or shuttles around as much as possible, and stay in the same general area for a while each time. Anyway, post south-by, the pain just wouldn’t go away. I remember mrs. hawk and I took a trip to see some family, but I ended up spending the majority of that trip in the hotel room. If I did go do anything, I’d have to cut it short to go lay down in the car.

For the first time in all my battles with pain, I started feeling suicidal. The pain was just too much, and I couldn’t handle it anymore. I remember laying on the hotel bed in agony, and starting to look around the room to find something to end the pain with. I didn’t actually go through with anything, but it was a thought that wouldn’t go away.

I talked to mrs. hawk, my therapist, and a couple of close friends, since that felt like something I shouldn’t keep to myself. Everyone was concerned and super supportive, which helped. Unfortunately, neither the thoughts or pain would go away.

It got to the point that I remember one day the pain was particularly bad, I was standing in the work kitchen holding the one kitchen knife we have, contemplating the most effective ways to use it to end things. I ran my thumb over the blade, only to discover it wasn’t sharp enough to do anything. At that point, I put the blade down and went back to my desk and just kinda broke down. I didn’t tell anyone about that incident until a few days later, as I felt ashamed I had gotten to that point.

After discussing it with my therapist and wife, I decided I needed more help staying safe, and agreed to go inpatient at a metal hospital. As terrifying a prospect as that seemed, I knew it was the right decision.

The time at the hospital was weird, but very helpful. For the first time in years, I didn’t have any personal electronics with me. No phone, no computer, no kindle, no iPad, no anything. I felt disconnected to the outside world which, in a way, was a good thing. The doctors there worked with me on medication and coping strategies, and I left a week or so later.

While the pain got a bit better for a few days there, it’s all come crashing back down on me. Most days, it’s a struggle just to force myself to go to work and sit upright for 8 hours. By the end of the day, I’m just a ball of pain. Some days, like today, the pain is almost unbearable from the time I wake up through the rest of the day. Lemme tell you, nothing quite so distracting as pain on a 7-8 out 10 scale.

I’m not really sure why I’m sharing all this, other than to just let folks know where I’m at and why I may seem more on edge some days, or seem fragile and whiny. I do my best to push through and deal with things on my own, but sometimes that’s just too hard, and it bleeds over into the rest of my life.

If anyone reading this is going through the same type of thing, just know, you’re not alone. By no means am I saying the pain is over, or the suicidal thoughts are gone, but I can say I’m fighting both of those as best I can, and I hope you can do the same.