Thursday, November 16, 2017

Meat Cute: Capitalist Predators and Zombie Lovers

(Note: I wrote this essay draft on the first two seasons of iZombie for a particular project, from which I ended up parting ways. C'est la vie. I planned to polish it up and fix some things, but since it's now an orphan essay with nowhere to go, I'm just putting it here as a bonus!)

            In the 21st century, the zombie has become a flexible metaphor for the angst and anxieties of contemporary culture, and as such, is no longer relegated to the image of a rotting, shambling corpse. Although those are still plentiful in popular culture -- from the works of George Romero to successful television series like The Walking Dead -- the genre has expanded to include depictions of zombies who retain degrees of intellect, human emotion, and their individual personalities.
            iZombie, which premiered in 2015, features a functioning zombie protagonist and narrator with the unabashedly symbolic name Liv Moore. The first season’s narrative arc explores her attempts to make sense of her existential place in the world after a traumatic transformation, and the role that love and sex are going to play in her future. As she attempts to live her life, despite being effectively dead and psychically influenced by the personalities of the brains she eats, Liv is continually caught between smaller-scale and larger-scale forces, representing destructive tendencies within contemporary capitalist society, which are spreading the zombie virus.
            A doctor, happily engaged to social worker Major Lilywhite, Liv was invited by a co-worker to a boat party where she was attacked by a zombie. She becomes effectively dead, with no life signs, and she needs to eat human brains to retain her human characteristics. She has become emotionally numb, so much that her family and friends believe she’s become a depressed sufferer of PTSD.
            Some of the changes are more obviously dramatic. Her skin and hair turn white, which changes her style from professional, and relatively conventional, to overtly counter-cultural. She goes to work in the morgue as a medical examiner, for access to fresh brains, thus abandoning the promising medical career she had worked tirelessly to attain.
            Most drastically, she feels forced to end her engagement to the dream man she still loves. The break-up occurred off-stage, before the first episode, but its influence continues to be felt throughout the entirety of the series. The relationship remains central to the storylines, and to Liv, even as she and Major get involved with other people. As these romantic subplots play out, they continually dovetail with a critique of toxic capitalism’s economic pressures and marketing manipulations, allowing it to explore the ways that these can affect and even destroy intimate relationships.
            iZombie’s narrative personifies the normally impersonal forces of capitalism, and the attendant manipulation of human lives that goes along with it. Two distinct styles of business are represented, with Liv and the people she loves caught up in the problems they create. On one side is Max Rager, a giant, literally soulless corporate conglomerate, which continued to aggressively market the energy drink that helped cause the zombie outbreak. On the other side is Blaine, a small-scale entrepreneur, whose brain delivery business operates out of a trendy Seattle charcuterie, with the whimsical name “Meat Cute.”
            On the surface, this name is just a “cute” pun, establishing Blaine’s credentials as a hipster entrepreneur. A year before iZombie’s debut, the comedy show Portlandia established the trend by airing a skit about a company that creates pun names for businesses; the reaction “I can see my eyes rolling in the back of my head” is considered a success. While iZombie is set in Seattle, not Portland, they are both sites of Pacific Northwest alternative music and art, sharing some cultural DNA. But the name is also reminiscent of the conventions of romantic comedy, especially the one of unlikely circumstances bringing lovers together. The two sides of the pun reflect the intersection of toxic, even lethal capitalism with the idea of love and romance.
            A contemporary definition of “meet cute” on the TV Tropes website calls it “a way to quickly introduce two characters and set up their burgeoning relationship. A meet-cute is almost always rife with awkwardness, embarrassment, and sometimes outright hostility … this meeting can happen by way of any of an innumerable array of circumstances, so long as there's something cutesy about it.”
            While Liv’s most important romance was established before the start of the series, her first new romance as a zombie starts out in a way that fits the “meet cute” description. When she questions Lowell, a suspect in a murder case, he is obviously flirtatious with her, even in the interrogation room. Later, Lowell reveals that he is also a zombie, and since he shares her condition, love and sex are real options for her again. Even when they seem promising, however, all of Liv’s romantic possibilities, especially her on-and-off relationship with Major, are continually disrupted by Blaine’s and Max Rager’s operations. Eventually, the influence of these predatory capitalists will be seen to affect the relationships of the supporting characters as well, whether they’re aware of it or not.
            The “Meat Cute” operation is continually described in terms of everyday capitalism. His employees, paid in brains, make deliveries to the rich clients that Blaine has turned into zombies, and they describe his literal creation of a market as an “awesome business model.” When they try to poach his customers, he kills them, saying “most small businesses fail.”
            Blaine, the small-scale entrepreneur, was in life a low-level drug dealer. As a zombie, he has taken advantage of his condition to exploit the wealthy for his own personal gain, regardless of the social consequences. He purposely spreads the zombie virus, selling brains in a home delivery service at an exorbitant price. His wealthy victims are willing to pay, since they need the brains to stay more or less human, and stop them from their turning into truly mindless zombies. The spread of the virus obviously presents a danger to civilization and all human life. It also increases the human misery of individuals: both the homeless teenagers his organization kills for their brains, and the new zombies who are trying to hold on to the semblances of normal life.
            His street-level capitalism remains dangerous to society, and lethal to individuals within it. It also will have the most direct personal impact on the lives of Liv and her loved ones. The Max Rager corporation, however, has a wider scope, which will continue to trickle down and affect them. They covered up violent episodes, including multiple murders, that were linked to the beverage. In addition to their role in the original zombie outbreak, and the cover-up that helped it spread, and continued to promote and sell Max Rager in the interest of profits. Even when they learn that their product literally turns people into zombies, they refuse to abandon this revenue stream. They do work to minimize the effects, but the research continues, in the short term, to create new zombies.
            In the episode “Mr. Berserk,” the audience learns that Max Rager has hit men on their regular payroll, and a similar corporate fixer appears at an unrelated law firm in “Love & Basketball.” While this is an exaggeration of cut-throat corporate culture, the idea of a company going to great ends to protect its profits, and not caring who gets hurt along the way, is certainly not unprecedented. The zombie metaphor just peels away some layers of bureaucracy and obfuscation.
            The Max Rager corporation represents those larger forces: impersonal, omnipresent, with power almost unfathomable by the individuals who are, mostly unknowingly, influenced by it. While it begins as a traditional faceless corporate monolith, near the end of season one, its CEO, Vaughn Du Clark, is introduced, and becomes an important character. He represents the company’s collective identity, and its corporate strategies are intertwined with his ego. He is the one who tells Liv that the documented incidents of violence in Max Rager users are “statistically insignificant,” the real-life language of capitalism’s collateral damage, and blithely sends her off with the ironic company slogan “live to the Max!”
            The company’s basic actions could be the same without Du Clark’s presence, but his symbolic representation reminds us that the company’s collective identity is made up of human beings. It also, for the purposes of drama, is potentially more narratively satisfying to focus on a human nemesis.
            Once Vaughn becomes a more prominent character, he and Blaine operate as mirror images, showing two options for success in a toxic capitalist culture with no concern for anything beyond their own gain. They privilege profit before all other concerns, and lack any concern for the human cost of doing business. Even their names link them, when we learn that Blaine’s most common alias was “Blaine DeBeers,” which echoes the name “Vaughn Du Clark.” “DeBeers,” of course, hints at the wealthy and powerful De Beers diamond mining company. In Blaine’s case, this is a nickname that came from supplying “de beers” to high school customers, but the link further connects him to the sinister side of capitalism, since De Beers has been declared by some to be “the most unethical corporation in the world” (quoted by the Better Diamond Initiative).
            As the protagonist, Liv unwittingly finds herself in between these different, but equally dangerous, capitalist concerns, and her life is intimately affected by their activities. Once she becomes a zombie, her romantic options continually intersect with the economic realities they represent. The recurring presence of Blaine and Vaughn as concrete characters magnifies their importance, as the choices they make to further their business interests continue to box in the personal life choices of Liv and her loved ones. For the most part, they lack real malevolence towards her, but her life is collateral damage in their pursuits of material gain.
            Significantly, the show’s two main capitalist entities are jointly responsible for Liv’s condition. The initial zombie outbreak was caused by chemical elements: the Max Rager energy drink, mixed with the fictional drug utopium, which Blaine, still a human drug dealer, was selling at a Max Rager-sponsored boat party. If they had not been in the same place at the same time, both for the purpose of making profits, the zombies might never have been created. While there are obviously larger repercussions to the presence of the undead, in terms of the more intimate narrative, Liv’s chance exposure to Blaine’s and Max Rager’s activities changes every aspect of her life.
            When the zombie threat settles down somewhat in season two, the undead population largely settles into a relatively stable, equilibrium. This possibly temporary stability provides a reassuring resumption of normalcy. Nonetheless, it is enmeshed in a system that requires someone in Blaine’s position to maintain it, and the potential cost to society is so high that the system is increasingly unlikely to be disrupted or reformed. The longer this status quo continues, the greater the chances of an eventual large-scale zombie outbreak, which would threaten the long-term stability of the wider world.
            These are not new problems. In 1893, Tolstoy wrote how those in “profitable” positions are “convinced that the existing order is immutable, because – the chief consideration – it is to their advantage” (230). Because of this, they convince themselves, and even the people they exploit, that “such acts are necessary for the maintenance of the existing order; the maintenance of the existing order is necessary for the welfare of the country and of humanity; for the possibility of social existence and human progress” (228).
            In contemporary America, the situation is much the same. In his 2012 book Predator Nation, scholar Charles H. Ferguson looks at the causes of the financial crises of the 2000s, placing blame on government collusion with nakedly selfish corporate interests. Of this situation, he says “even many wealthy people and some major industries are disturbed, and even directly harmed,” but they “dare not resist, or find it not in their interest to do so.” Because of the complex web of influence, “the rational decision is to adjust, rather than try to reform the system” (309).
            Writer Geoff Mulgan details the related economic crisis that took place on the international level, saying that “the fear of meltdown, fear that the very lifeblood of advanced economies would freeze, justified actions that in normal times would be scarcely contemplated” (24). In his analysis, he argues that recognition of predation in business practices “remains largely absent from the everyday account of market economics, and the assumption that the greatest possible freedom serves markets best” (66). Given the existing systems, “there can be no precise definition of what counts as exploitation and what is merely the protection of self-interest” (67). This complication leads the predatory nature of much business activity to go unnoticed.
            Once the situation is set in motion, and Max Rager and Blaine have established “market forces,” they remain in positions of power not only by their own efforts, from the corporation’s deep resources or Blaine’s monopoly, or even the addictive nature of their products. It’s also because of the potential for disruption and chaos that could be unleashed if their businesses collapse. Like a collapsing bank or housing market, if they go down, a lot of innocent people will get caught up in it.
            While Ferguson wrote a whole book exposing, in detail, the practices of major corporations that led to financial and personal disaster for millions of Americans, Mulgan stresses that the Max Ragers of the world are not the only culpable parties. The Blaines are also apt to act in predatory ways: “at least some of the spirit of entrepreneurship is predator-like, even if it creates genuine value for others” (Mulgan 67).
            In popular culture, there are many evil corporations, but the sinister side of gentrification, with quaint shops moving into older neighborhoods, is rarely depicted in film and television. A small-scale entrepreneur willing to kill to succeed in the current economy is also an unusual villain. By presenting these situations, iZombie has a surprisingly realistic take on contemporary capitalism, in which both the global corporation and the neighborhood store are complicit. They are unknowing partners, each contributing to a devastating problem, with no intention of doing anything about it except make more professional profit. Of course, murder and zombification are more dramatic consequences than, for example, industrial pollution or economic exploitation, but people suffer and sometimes die from the more mundane examples just the same.
            In the book Downsize This!, cultural critic Michael Moore describes the “lesson in capitalism” that he gets “every time I fly on a plane.” Some businessman will explain to him that “there’s no such thing as ‘enough’!” profit. It is a business’ “duty” to maximize their profits, regardless of the consequences to human beings and their communities. “This is not an issue of morality. It is purely a matter of economics. A company must be able to do whatever it takes to make a profit,” he summarizes. To which Moore responds, “if profit is supreme, why doesn’t a company like General Motors sell crack?” (283) In the world of iZombie, he would be equating Max Rager with General Motors and instead of crack, it would be the drug utopium.
            The introduction of the season two villain, literally named Mr. Boss, symbolically connects the threads of capitalist critique. The head of the drug ring Blaine worked for before he became a zombie, he is almost as powerful locally as Vaughn Du Clark. Under the façade of a respectable small businessman, he is in charge of the drug ring Blaine used to work for, and as an accountant, he strongly represents the financial underpinnings of organized crime.
            Drug dealing is already a dark mirror of mainstream capitalism. By connecting Blaine’s zombie-centric business with the drug trade, iZombie provides a “realistic” depiction of the same forces at work. He and Mr. Boss played parts in an economy of misery that spread demand for a product at the expense of greater social problems and individual suffering. The business of utopium dealing operates on the same ruthless principles that Max Rager does. So do Blaine’s later businesses; as smaller operation, they’re “leaner,” better able to adjust quickly to circumstances, but morally on the same ground.
            With the arrival of the zombie virus, the stakes are no longer just economic success, and the power that money can buy. Visceral matters of life or death are more openly on display, and Blaine’s brain-providing start-up functions more openly as a reflection of the larger system’s sins.
            Once the rules of the game of capitalism are set, no one is innocent. Just as in Tolstoy’s time, the fear of social and/or economic disruption makes everyone in the system complicit in it, even those who disapprove of it. By using zombism as its central metaphor, iZombie continually makes this point. The dangers that can be expected from change have to be weighed against the dangers inherent in maintaining a status quo.
            Liv and her ally Ravi know the truth about zombies, but the possible repercussions of exposing them are so great that they become complicit in keeping it hidden. That will mean lying to their friends and colleagues, leaving other people vulnerable to a real threat that they’re completely unaware of, and, eventually, to some extent shielding a criminal from the law.
            In the episode “Fifty Shades of Grey Matter,” Liv finds out that her best friend has slept with a temporarily cured Blaine. When she lays out all the reasons why he’s a murderer and all-around villain, it draws attention to the fact the fact that he is still walking around free, able to commit these crimes with impunity. As he’s quick to point out, he’s “the only one who knows where the zombies are,” and because of that, he stands between Liv and the zombie apocalypse. If he dies, all his hungry customers will feed indiscriminately, and probably create more zombies. Because the repercussions are so serious, she’s forced into the position of helping to cover up the horrific crimes of someone she hates. Similarly, the danger of releasing a hungry zombie into a prison population is faced directly in two separate episodes, forcing the heroes to protect the villains in the name of social stability.
            These situations reflect underlying realities of the system, dramatically enhanced by the possibility of a life-ending zombie apocalypse. The seeds of that potential disaster can be traced back to the ruthless decisions that iZombie’s capitalist entities made to justify themselves, ruining lives in the process, before the zombie virus existed.
            Similarly, Liv was already part of the system before she became a zombie herself. Eventually, she begins to realize that she was in fact a slave to certain conventions of contemporary capitalist society even before she became a zombie. She spent her human life culturally brainwashed to put achievement and career aspirations ahead of her relationships and emotional needs. A Type A personality, she was competitively driven for success and motivated by achievement: good grades, external rewards, and a single-minded focus on preparation for her medical career. As such, she was abstracted from the simple pleasures of life which she would now give anything for, like the ability to enjoy a normal meal, or sleep with her boyfriend.
            In the episode “Brother, Can You Spare a Brain?” Liv is affected by the memories of an artist who freely indulged his passionate nature, and explicitly realizes that she took her relationship with Major for granted, neglecting him to focus on her studies and her career. “There were so many nights I could have been with Major that I stayed home studying. Days I could have spent sucking the marrow out of life I spent building a resume for a life I'd never have. There were parts of me that were dead even before I became a zombie.”
            Similarly, reflecting on his previous existence as a drug dealer, in the episode “Max Rager,” Blaine will echo Liv’s sentiments from the first season: “Before I became a zombie, I was wasting my life.” She was a career-driven young doctor, and he was involved in an illegal economy, but with hindsight, they share a feeling that their lives had lacked meaning.
            The state of being alive is frequently used as a metaphor: people are “alive” when they feel things and live fully; they are “dead inside” when their emotions are blunted, or they have sunk into routine. Within the fictional world of iZombie, there is a literal contrast, on the narrative level, between the “alive” and the “undead,” but both states of being operate as symbolic representations of that metaphorical “aliveness” or “deadness.” Having lost her literal life, Liv can see the value of metaphorically “living” in a way she couldn’t when grades and other outward markers of success were so important to her.
            Before these moments of enlightenment, however, Liv suffers through an existential crisis, saying in the “Pilot” episode, “I have no idea who I am anymore … what purpose I serve.” Her identity is wrapped up in having a “purpose,” which she used to have in the days when she was driven to achieve goals.
            Also in the pilot, when Liv shows up to volunteer at an event, her mother asks “Where should I put you?” Because her mother is asking the question, this suggests the extent to which this social conditioning was part of her upbringing. Not only is her mother one of the people who are most troubled by the changes in her appearance and lifestyle, telling her “you’re throwing your life away,” but she expresses a need to know where to “put” her daughter: what slot she belongs in.
            Throughout the first season, Liv’s focus is on managing the effects of the disruptive change of zombism on all the most personal aspects of her life: her relationships with her family, her best friend, and especially the man she loves, in addition to her own self-identity as an achiever. She needs to redefine and regain a sense of normalcy in her new circumstances, since the standards by which she judged herself are no longer relevant. At the same time, her family and friends, especially her mother, continue to judge her by those standards, which would be considered “normal” ones in mainstream, capitalist America.
            Symbolically, the zombie outbreak can stand in for any of the ills of contemporary life and society, where people live their ordinary lives, ignoring all the trouble out of sight in the world behind them. Someone like Liv was doing fine within the system, even excelling, until some of the background chaos personally affects her, and even more, as time goes on, when the chaos begins to threaten her loved ones.
            Again tying back into the show’s dominant themes, all of Liv’s love interests are, or become, enmeshed with either Blaine’s or Vaughn’s businesses. In each case, it’s because of his occupation, which seems more than a little coincidental. With Major, it’s through the homeless shelter where he works; with Lowell, it’s via his contract with Max Rager; with Drake, in the second season, it’s because he’s an undercover police officer. The course of doing their jobs, even following vocations of art and service to others, leads them fairly directly into involvement with economic predators who are also literal ones.
            In a pivotal episode, “The Exterminator,” Liv heartbreakingly discovers that Major has a new girlfriend, and one of Blaine’s victims is from the homeless shelter where Major works. The chain of events that turned her into a zombie also caused her to push away the man she still loves and wants to marry, at a great emotional cost. It was all done to protect him from the potential infection that she now represents, regardless of her feelings for him and the heartbreak she feels in letting him go. Almost simultaneously with her facing this particular pain, his own career as a social worker is beginning to expose him to the same danger she sacrificed to shield him from. His sense of vocation, based on the desire to help others, will increasingly entangle his life with Blaine’s murderous “start-up,” and, eventually, Max Rager.
            Just as the ripple effect from Blaine’s and Max Rager’s profit-making activities began to affect and complicate Liv’s life long before she was ever aware of them, the same holds true for many of the show’s characters. This is particularly true for her mother and brother. While Major, and Liv’s best friend, are slowly drawn into knowledge of the situation, Liv’s family remain in the dark about the zombie outbreak. This is true even after her brother Evan is nearly killed in an explosion at Meat Cute, collateral damage in an attempted cover-up. After that, Liv’s inability to donate blood, due to her zombie condition, alienates them in a way that is not healed by the end of the second season.
            While the problems of Liv and her loved ones remain iZombie’s focus, anyone in the show can become a victim of capitalist predation. A wealthy man who thinks he’s gotten away with murder, thanks to the efforts of his company to free him, is shot down as a loose end in the next, reminding us that no one in the system is safe (“Max Wager”). The wealthy and powerful count on their crimes being covered up, but the same system that protects them can turn against them just as easily, if it’s in the interests of the system, or someone wealthier and more powerful.
            Similarly, only the wealthiest of Seattle’s zombies, the “1%,” can afford Blaine’s brain service, which them at his mercy. Some lower-income zombies are more or less his slaves, working for the brains they can’t live without, because once they are infected, it takes a lot of money to not turn into a monster. Season 2 elaborates on the fact that even the privileged are in danger within the system. Major is blackmailed by Vaughn into hunting zombies who, in a parody of Big Data, have been tracked by their purchases of spray tans, hair dyes, and the hot sauces that are known to make brains more palatable.
            Throughout the season, the majority of these victims are living quiet lives, simply trying to maintain their normal lives. At the same time, someone is dying to save their lives, and they are not innocent just because someone else is doing the killing for them. As such, they represent the ordinary Americans, who may not be personally complicit in any wrongdoing, and may be completely decent people, but are dependent on a corrupt system. They are not really to blame; they didn’t ask to be zombies. In fact, many of them were purposely turned so Blaine could financially exploit them. Once that happened, they became enmeshed.
            This subplot further builds on the larger themes. Since only wealthy people end up on the list, the zombies who disappear are all wealthy, so when Major kidnaps the zombies on the list, he spray-paints anti-capitalism slogans at the scenes, like “Corporate Pig! Suffer for your sins! We all die poor” (“Physician, Heal They Selfie”). He means these to provide a red herring motive for the crimes, to throw the authorities off. His previous job as a social worker, though, found him risking his life for disenfranchised youth of color, while the larger legal system was largely unconcerned. Even his more recent Facebook posts, seen by Liv in the “Hurt Stalker” episode, discuss the problems of capitalist society: “Oh, you like Major’s post about the state cutting funding for homeless shelters.” There may be a grain of truth in his cover, that does express what he truly believes in.
            At the same time, the disappearance of these wealthy citizens draws a lot more attention from law enforcement than the disappearances of the homeless teenagers did in Season 1, which plays into a recurring theme of economic disparity in criminal justice. For example, when a robbery at a convenience store gets a lot of attention from the police and the media, Liv points out that similar crimes happen all the time, but people only care about a “fancy” store in an upscale neighborhood (“Even Cowgirls Get the Black and Blues”).
            Zombie media has dealt with the negative aspects of capitalism before. As Lorna Piatti-Farnell says, “The politics of consumer capitalism seem to aptly mesh with undead folklore” (99). The theme particularly goes back to the 1960s, when “evocative links between consumer capitalism and the ‘zombification’ of everyday modern life are clearly made in George A. Romero’s ‘Dead’ series” (105). Most obviously in Dawn of the Dead, with its central location in a shopping mall, Romero’s work “allows the zombie to act as a contemporary critique of consumer capitalism” (ibid).
            As described by scholar Kyle William Bishop, Dawn of the Dead symbolically shows “how everyone is potentially already a kind of zombie in real life, mindless drones infected with irresponsible capitalistic desires” (Bishop 10). “The metaphor …is about economic instability and unchecked consumerism” (Bishop 10), and adds that the film Resident Evil “does offer an indictment against corporate greed,” but this is only mentioned in passing (Bishop 12).
            Max Rager certainly has some things in common with Resident Evil’s sinister Umbrella Corporation, which the online Resident Evil Wiki describes as “a giant conglomerate which operated ruthlessly as a major international player in a number of markets … the company also had a more benevolent public face for the ignorant masses, producing cosmetics, consumer products and foods.” Like Max Rager, Umbrella was responsible for creating a lethal zombie outbreak, and resorts to murder to cover it up, but the films’ heightened horror-thriller storylines play out very differently than those on iZombie.
            While there are many evil businesses in genre films and television, iZombie’s prolonged exploration of the ways their actions affect ordinary people is unprecedented. In most cases, the protagonist gets into a conflict with an evil company or businessman in one of two ways, both of them due to the protagonist’s actions. On a show like Arrow or Daredevil, the main character has taken on a crusade against evildoing, which causes him to go after corrupt business entities. On a show like Angel, the hero’s crusade against evil doing attracts the attention of a sinister business entity, which sees him as a threat or an obstacle to its interest, which they then try to remove.
            In the case of iZombie, Liv was just a random person whose life was changed as collateral damage of corporate interests. Her later, more personal interactions with Blaine, Max Rager, and eventually Vaughn happen because of her work with the police. That, in turn, only came about because she was turned into a zombie, and needed a source of brains. Otherwise, she would almost certainly have been a medical doctor, married to Major and living an oblivious life, rather than a crusader trying to bring Blaine and Max Rager to justice. It’s not that she wouldn’t care, but because, like the vast part of the population, she wouldn’t know.
            The Weyland Yutani Corporation’s effect on Ripley’s life in the Alien series is one of few real parallels. Alien director Ridley Scott has been described as using sinister corporations in his science fiction films to “critique contemporary capitalism” and “delineate the place of corporations and corporate leaders in industrial society” (Decker 76). Most the discussion, however, is related to issues of class and gender, rather than any of the ways iZombie plays out its extended critique of contemporary capitalism, which seems unique in a genre entertainment.
            Until all its episodes have been filmed and aired, it is impossible to say what iZombie’s ultimate message on it dominant theme of capitalist predation will be. The second season ends by extending the zombie threat, again in a way that is related to modern economic realities. From Blaine’s street-corner business, to the global reach of the Max Rager corporation, Liv is now facing the full force of a privatized military, under zombie control. At the same time, she and Major are both zombies, opening up the possibility of a fuller reconciliation, and the hope that love can survive the cruel consequences of capitalist America, with or without zombies.

Works Cited
 “Another diamond scandal rocks De Beers.” Better Diamond Initiative, 8 June 2015,
Bishop, Kyle W. How Zombies Conquered Popular Culture: The Multifarious Walking Dead in the 21st Century.  McFarland, 2015.
Decker, Mark T. Industrial Society and the Science Fiction Blockbuster: Social Critique in Films of Lucas, Scott and Cameron. McFarland, 2016..
Ferguson, Charles H. Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America. Crown Business, 2012.
“Late in Life Drug Use.” Portlandia: Season Four, written by, directed by, Broadway Video Enterprises, 2014.
“Meet Cute.” TV Tropes, 25 Nov. 2016,
Moore, Michael. Downsize This! Crown Publishers, 1996. Print.
Mulgan, Geoff. The Locust and the Bee: Predators and Creators in Capitalism’s Future. Princeton University Press, 2013.
Piatti-Farnell, Lorna. “Monsters of Capitalism: Vampires, Zombies, and Consumerism.” P. 99-109). Economics of the Undead: Zombies, Vampires, and the Dismal Science, edited by Glen Whitman and James Dow. Rowman & Littlefield, 2014. Print.
Ruggiero, Diane and Rob Thomas, creators. iZombie. Warner Bros. Television, 2015.
Tolstory, Leo. The Kingdom of God is Within You. Barnes and Noble, 2005.
“Umbrella.” Resident Evil Wiki,

Friday, September 15, 2017

Post NecronomiCon post

I gave away all my business cards at NecronomiCon Providence in August, and realized I'd probably better update the blog in case anyone actually looked me up. Like everyone else, I've been busy with things within and without, but here's a few highlights.

I kicked off the Armitage Symposium at NecronomiCon Providence, presenting the first paper in the first session ("Shocking Revelations: Diverse Approaches to Lovecraft," chaired by: Nathanial Wallace) on the first day, with my essay “Red Hand, Red Hook: Machen, Lovecraft, and the Urban Uncanny.” I was tweaking for the time limit almost until the time, and academia makes me very nervous, but it went well, and people came up to me all weekend wanting to talk about Arthur Machen. Someone also told me, "Much has been said about Lovecraft's racism, but this was the most nuanced approach I've ever heard." Awww. When the time comes, I plan to submit the paper to the "Proceedings" of the Symposium, although it might involve heavy and stressful editing, but we'll cross that bridge etc.

I was also on two panels. First: "Nameless Cults: Robert E. Howard: The Gent from Bear Creek is more popular than ever before! Come and hear some of the foremost experts in Howard scholarship talk about his life and career. Panelists: Scott Connors, Karen Kahoutek, Rick Lai, Jonas Prida, Jeff Shanks (Moderator)." And second: "Arthur Machen: Between Myth and Modernity: Machen was one of the first writers to blend the weirdness of European myth and folklore with the burgeoning modern world and its new concerns. Our panelists will discuss Machen’s life and work and try to come to terms with how the seemingly exclusive influences on his work came together to create something truly remarkable, new, and deeply influential. Panelists: Michael Cisco, Jack Haringa (Moderator), Karen Kohoutek, Donald Sidney-Fryer."

Available for pre-order, it's Giant Creatures in Our World: Essays on Kaiju and American Popular Culture. Coming out from McFarland Press, with a projected date of November 1, 2017, this includes my essay on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 versions of the Gamera films.

And I'll have updates soon about some poetry appearing in Moveable Type's 2017 issue.

More important than all that, it was great hanging out with my cronies from the Robert E. Howard Foundation/Skelos Press, along with other new people I got to meet. While I was traveling, I also got a brief visit with the esteemed Memsaab of Memsaab Story, during which some wine was imbibed, and we watched this movie. Wow.

With any luck I'll be back soon with some book reviews and Halloween viewing. After all, it can't be all horn-tootin' all the time!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Never Been Normal

“I never really fit in anywhere ... My faith's in people, I guess. Individuals. And I'm happy to say that, for the most part, they haven't let me down.” – Steve Rogers in Captain America: Civil War
I’ve never been normal. Because of that, it’s always been obvious that people aren’t like me. I don’t expect them to be. I don’t want them to be. Even if I did, the truth is that they’re different, from me, and from each other. Since this is always true, it’s baffling that so many people are so bothered that other people are different from them.

But they are. Most people are socialized to fit into a group, and when someone is different from the group, it can upset the sense of order and rightness, their idea of how things are. It makes a lot of people really uncomfortable. Some of them refuse to believe that people different from them really exist. Or they put people who are different from them into a different class of humanity. Discomfort can shade into hate and fear.

The fragility of this sense of order never stops amazing me. Once, two co-workers at a temp job were talking about their curtains, and asked me what kind of curtains I had in my apartment. When I said I didn’t have any, one of them devolved into a sputtering rage. She was furious that I didn’t have curtains, and didn’t seem to want any, as if this was somehow a personal insult to her, and to everything good in the universe.

The truth is: people are different. They have different races, ages, religions. Their personalities and temperaments and interests vary wildly, they’re shaped by unique life experiences. In all kinds of ways, large and small, they are not like us. That’s something we have to accept. We have to get over the idea that the world should mirror us, in whatever way we happen to be focusing on at the moment (same race, same religion, same clothes, same view of human sexuality). Not “have to” because so-called social justice warriors will punish the politically incorrect for a wrong belief, but because if the human race is going to survive in the long run, then it needs to stop tearing itself apart, self-destructing over irrational instincts.

Unless we want to go back to living in isolated medieval villages, without travel, or access to the Internet, TV, movies, radio, newspapers and magazines and books, we will encounter the fact that people are different from us. Even if we could isolate ourselves, we can’t go back in time and make our ancestors deal more fairly with the indigenous population, prevent the importation of African slaves, or change two centuries of past choices about immigration. People who are obviously different are already here, and they are American citizens.

Even if every person with, say, a different racial background moved to a colony on the moon, where they wouldn’t have to deal with racism, then you’d be left with other people who are different in other ways. Some of them will have different forms of sexuality and gender expression. If you separated them out, to another moon colony, then you’d have people who believe in a vast array of different religions. And so on. I spent my formative years in a homogenous community, so I know: you could end up with two blond Lutheran Norwegians with literally everything in common, demographically, and they could be so different that they hate and fear each other.

None of us get to live in a world that’s just a giant mirror, reflecting ourselves back at us. And why would we want to? If it’s important that other people are like YOU, then that means it’s important for you to be like THEM. If your self-worth is tied up in a random factor you share with others, to the point that it’s threatened by the presence of anyone without that factor, then it’s obvious that you don’t see your own value, your own individuality. And that’s a tragedy.

You are a real person. You have intrinsic value as a human being. The color of your skin, the language you speak, the social class you were born into, are all things that will shape your experiences, and are a part of who you are. But that isn’t YOU. All your value isn’t based on a single factor that you have in common with millions of other people. That may give you a temporary sense of belonging, but what you’re gaining will never be worth what you’ve lost. 

Saturday, January 7, 2017

How to Do Unto Others

"Do unto others as you would have other do unto you" is the cornerstone of the Christian faith, and variations are found all over the world, from different time periods and belief systems. No one has to believe in any specific religion to realize the value of this idea as a model for how people treat one another, but, since we live in a country where the majority of people profess to be Christians, it certainly behooves Christians to take this seriously. These are the words of their God, in a book many of them believe to be inerrant and to be followed literally: "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 7:12).

Disclaimer: Nothing I'm about to say is meant to shame anybody or make anybody feel bad. The whole point of the Golden Rule, as it's known, is that its message is in conflict with what our instinct tells us. As human beings, we are driven to survive, to care about ourselves, our families, and the communities with which we have things in common, and to put those things first. When our self-interests clash, the Golden Rule is a way to separate ourselves from our understandable selfishness, see the bigger picture, and find a more cooperative way. We all need help with this. I certainly do!

While I've historically preferred not to talk about this stuff, because it makes me feel smug and self-righteous, I think I need to get over that and start sharing my helpful hints.

First off, practicing the Golden Rule isn't going to be easy or comfortable at first, but it's not supposed to be. Secondly, in using the Golden Rule, we can never invoke anything like Majority Rule, because that's completely irrelevant. Doing unto others has nothing to do with the numbers involved, and when it's a majority (of anything) vs. a minority (of anything), that's a time it's especially important to keep in mind. And third, some situations do involve more imaginative re-framing of situations, but a lot of them are surprisingly simple, easily resolving themselves. So here goes.

Early in my life, I realized that by practicing simple logical switches, I was able to see  when the Golden Rule is in play, and take a point of view accordingly. Any time an issue, an opinion, or a strong emotional reaction involves any kind of group identity (which can be anything: men as a group, women as a group, race, religion, nationality, sexual preference, sci-fi nerds, folk music fans), it's time to bring in the Golden Rule flip. I take out the identifier for the group in question and replace it with something different. If the key part of the equation is something I personally relate to, I replace that with something I don't. If the key part is something I don't personally relate to, I replace it with something I do. The object is to take a summarizing statement and replace the "other" with a "me," or the "me" with an "other."

Let's start with a super-easy example. Should gay couples be allowed to get married? You can make all the arguments in the world you want, but when you look at it through the Golden Rule, all it takes is a flip: should straight couples be allowed to get married? Well, most people immediately think "yes" to the second. So it's yes to the first! And we're done.You may not like the answer, but it's what doing unto others as we would have others do unto us tells us.

Something else that's topical and controversial: Should Muslims be banned as a group from entering the country, because some of them commit crimes? When a question like this arises, I run it through the Golden Rule flip. I'm not a Muslim; I was raised a Christian and am in a predominantly Christian environment, so I just replace one word. Should Christians be banned as a group from entering the country, because some of them commit crimes? That sounds really different, doesn't it? In this case, Muslims are the others we need to do unto as we would have done unto us, as Christians. If we don't want Christians treated that way, we can't treat Muslims that way. Easy-peasy.

You may have noticed that this also exposes when people are not objectively looking at rights (like "freedom of religion" in general), but are actually expecting special treatment, for a certain group. It's equally a tool to "check your privilege," as they say. These are lucky side effects, and doing those things (looking more objectively at rights for different kinds of people) all tie back to the source, of doing unto others.

I also assume that some people are fuming about my wildly liberal examples, but I'm not doing these flips because I'm a liberal. It's the other way around. I became a liberal largely because I started flipping things this way. Once you start looking through the lens of the Golden Rule, it's a lot easier to see when you're in the wrong, when you really are expecting special treatment over other people, and when you are bigoted in some way toward different groups. That experience may suck, especially in the beginning, but don't blame me, blame Jesus.