Lesser Evils: Supervillain Presidencies as Rated in Units of Trump

Cons: repeated flip-flops with regard to exterminating the human race, mixed record as leader of the mutant nation Genosha, hangs out with a weird little Toad-man
Pros: First Jewish president, might be the only force capable of fixing America’s gun problem, dashing purple cape
Rating: 0.5 Trumps. Magneto has exhibited a murderous streak at times, but he’s also demonstrated a willingness to work across the aisle and cooperate with the X-men to take down greater threats such as the mutant pharaoh Apocalypse and Ted Cruz.
The Penguin
Cons: Extensive ties to organized crime and Tim Burton, raw fish breath is off-putting to other heads of state,
Pros: Executive experience in his role as mayor of Gotham, accomplished negotiator, classy dresser
Rating: 0.4 Trumps. As a craven one-percenter with an unhealthy fixation on his weird hands, The Penguin shares many of Trump’s insecurities. On the other hand, he’s much more likely to take aggressive action against climate change in order to preserve his supply of exotic birds.
Cons: Rocky relations with Dimension X, aggressively interventionist approach to interdimensional relations, running mate is some kind of obese mute robot in a speedo
Pros: genius-level intellect, hypnosis powers could benefit international diplomacy, owns a badass technodrome
Rating: 0.7 Trumps. A Krang presidency would arguably be pretty good for America, but disastrous for the cosmos. As an evil brain in a robot body, Krang outpowers Trump in both intellect and physical prowess. He’s likely to transform the country into an interdimensional super power, but there’s going to be at least a couple alien genocides in the process.
Cons: Venom addiction can lead to erratic behavior, gives undue access to lobbyists from the League of Shadows, tiny American flag pins cannot penetrate his rippling pectorals
Pros: classic Jesuit education, rags-to-riches background, capable of out-wrestling Vladimir Putin
Rating: 0.15 Trumps. As a drug-addicted authoritarian with a propensity for violence, Bane falls well within the political norm. As president he’d be one of the great showmen of American history, and while breaking the backs of one’s political rivals makes for a bad democracy, it makes for great television.
The Red Skull:
Cons: Sworn enemy of America, Literal Nazi, lipless visage makes his ‘b’s sound weird, alt-right followers responsible for some truly disgusting red Pepes
Pros: Uh… Nah.
Rating: 1.25 Trumps. While the Red Skull has demonstrated greater restraint with Weapons of Mass Destruction than Trump is likely to, he was also the direct protege of Adolf Hitler. This is the kind of guy who lives in a place called The Skull House.
Image Attributions:
Art from Uncanny X-Men Vol 4 #5, Greg Land, Jay Leisten, Nolan Woodard
Art from the Batman: The Killing Joke Deluxe Edition, by Brian Bolland
Screenshot Teenage Mutant Turts (1987 Series)
Art from Batman #497 by Jim Aparo
Art from Uncanny Avengers #1 by John Cassaday

Stranger Things and MK Ultra: Digesting an American Atrocity

America, like most nations, is built from conspiracy and atrocity. Our history, like more histories, attempts to fit these bloody materials into a shape that makes them coherent, even necessary. Of all the known chapters of American history, the Cold War is one of the most surreal. From exploding cigars to cats with radio-skulls, CIA documents from this era read like cartoon fever dreams. Project MK Ultra, one of the most infamous dips into the surreal from this era, has recently found a new audience in the form of Netflix’s hit series Stranger Things. By pushing these events into the realm of the fantastic, Stranger Things allows us to better digest them, dissolving historical shame with nostalgia.
The MK Ultra project is an essential component of paranormal activity within the Stranger Things universe. For those unfamiliar, MK Ultra was a government investigation into mind control using sensory deprivation and surreptitious doses of LSD. Many test subjects had limited or outright fabricated knowledge of what was happening and why. It has been alleged that at least one man involved with the project was later assassinated to keep its secrets. Though the project itself is mentioned only briefly, its DNA is evident across the activities of the series’ central conspiracy. Dr. Brenner’s lab is more than willing to mistreat its subjects and to assassinate anyone who gets too close.
Stranger Things also mediates huge portions of its story through the characters’ and audience’s fantasies. The topography of the kids’ world is written in cultural references to D&D, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, and that world is depicted to the audience through allusions to the works of artists like The Clash and Stevens King and Spielberg. The Upside Down itself seems to be a dark mirror of our world, with many of the same pieces shaded by unearthly falling ash and eternal darkness. We access it through the deepest parts of our minds, and sometimes something terrible can break through to wreck us.
Armored in layers of nostalgia, the Stranger Things kids are the perfect foils to the shady conspiracy of The Upside Down. In their conflict we see the struggle between two different views of our history. On the one hand we have the threatening atrocities of our pasts, pointedly represented by government agents and disappearing friends. On the other hand we have our own idealized childhoods, rich with levels of adventure, camaraderie and competence rarely exhibited by actual children. These are the latch-key kids Baby Boomers dream of having been, up against nakedly evil, basically faceless enemies.
Anyone paying attention to the populist rhetoric of the American right should recognize some of these themes. The Duffer brothers beautifully illustrate the tension between the narrative that the American government is innately evil and the narrative that America was once great. I doubt anyone involved in the production of Stranger Things is a Trump supporter, but the show does play with one string on the right wing’s Fascist banjo. When Trump’s most immediate prototype, Sarah Palin, refers to “real America,” many in her audience likely picture a place similar to Hawkins, Indiana. To whatever extent they think of America’s historical atrocities, they either simplify them to justify the resulting status quo, or castigate them as unAmerican intrusions into a patriotic ideal.
Ultimately, Stranger Things’ depiction of the past mythologizes it. Wicked and maddening events, like MKUltra, are sublimated into science fiction, blending seamlessly with the paranormal elements invented by the creators. Regular citizens are depicted as plucky heroes in natural opposition to the corrupting influence of the outside. Crucially, the audience is allowed to imagine itself as innocent, and to quarantine any disruption of that innocence within the fantastical realm of The Upside Down.
Now, it would be silly to allege that the Duffer Brothers are intentionally trying to obfuscate the reality of the MK Ultra project. Their own claim, that they wanted to root their fantasy in something plausible to give it weight, rings true. But narrative, and fantasy in particular, performs many functions in our minds and one of those functions is to ease anxiety and structure a world of conflicting inputs. This gives us clarity and comfort at the expense of smoothing over some of reality’s rough edges. It’s perfectly natural that this narrative catharsis would mirror the rhetorical catharsis offered by the right wing. In both situations the audience has a need to see itself as pure and good while dwelling in the shadow of history.
We must transform our past into narrative in order to contain it in our minds. This is a dangerous opportunity; writing history requires  us to rewrite the past, just as accessing a memory corrupts it. In this transformation, we can pretend our childhood friend groups were more capable, more charming, more loyal than they actually were. We can tell ourselves that we listened to all the coolest music right as it was coming out. We can rewrite our histories until we emerge as their heroes, and reclassify as fantasy those atrocities that we cannot accept.

Review: The Filing Cabinet of Doom, by Madeleine Swann

You could design an hors d’oeuvre for each story in Madeleine Swann’s The Filing Cabinet of Doom, and most of them would involve sweet pickles. Like hors d’oeuvres, the entries in this anthology leave you with a burst of flavor and feeling, free of filler or distraction. They’re short enough to binge in one or two sittings, and mysterious enough to justify a re-read. You can turn each one over carefully in your mind, or gobble down the lot of them for a rush of sheer novelty. Swann achieves this by glossing over the unnecessary details that can bog down speculative fiction- the whats, hows and whens- to leap right into the struggles her characters are living.

There’s a light satirical element to most of the anthology, gentle enough to avoid being didactic but too familiar to ignore. Swann doesn’t editorialize. She finds the fault-lines in daily life- shitty boyfriends, jobs that consume your life, the inexplicable urge to be destroyed- and then lets these struggles speak for themselves. She doesn’t seem to diagnose the world’s ills so much as present the symptoms in their full complexity and mystery.

Swann’s characters are frequently inhuman but never dehumanized. In just a few short pages she makes it feel entirely natural that a Frankenstein’d mermaid would subject herself to experimental surgeries to be with her boyfriend. One barely pauses to wonder why anyone would want to fuck the douchebag Marzipan King, because he’s familiar the moment you see him. Her depiction of the grotesque is enchanting rather than lurid. Her monsters are beautiful the way a gas slick is beautiful: distantly entropic but alive with color. At the same time a healthy sense of the mundane grounds most of the stories, moments both cozy and embarrassingly familiar bringing the monstrosity closer to home.

At times her aesthetic reads as if Lewis Carrol had grown up reading EC Comics and Sylvia Plath. Swann’s stories are painted with equal parts dissolving bodies, fairy tale whimsy and Hammer-style monstrosities. With some creators (like, say, American McGee or Tim ‘some of my favorite movies are Black’ Burton) this kind of mash-up can quickly turn into self-conscious gothic diarrhea. Swann comes by it more honestly. In The Filing Cabinet of Doom, the subversive and the sweet feel less as if they’ve been crudely laced together, and more as if they’ve sprung naturally from a mutual source.

You can pick up a Kindle copy of The Filing Cabinet of Doom for one measly dollar on Amazon.

If You Give Moloch Your Baby

If you give Moloch your baby, he’s going to ask for a snake’s egg.
When you give him the egg, he’ll probably ask you for a straw. His fire-and-glass fingers will prick a hole in the leather shell, suck out the eggwhite, and blow your first born’s soul back in.
When he’s finished, he’ll ask you for a napkin.
Then he’ll want to look in a mirror to make sure he doesn’t have an ectoplasmic mustache. He will. He’ll make you look over his shoulder, into his terrible mustache, where the dregs of the babesoul are crusting.
When he looks in the mirror, he might notice his horns need sharpening.You’ll bow your head and distend your jaws so that his black iron barbs may scrape your teeth.
As his horns are sharpened your teeth are sharpened too, into needle-point fangs, black with iron shavings. He’ll need a fine, smooth skin to make you a fine, long coat. You’ll give him yours. He’ll start stitching. He might get carried away and stitch you a fine leather ensemble. He may even end up minting bright gold cufflinks from your fillings!
When he’s done, he’ll probably want to beat the drum of the conqueror. You’ll have to build it carefully from batwings, brass and bone. He’ll scratch its membrane, releasing its harpy shriek and summoning a chitin spire from the babesoul egg. He’ll probably ask you to read him a story. So you’ll tell him first your fondest dreams, then your secrets, then your nightmares. He’ll ask you to do the voices.
When you try to do the voices your lipless mouth will rasp and choke. He’ll want to build you a conch-shell crown, to amplify your squeaks. He’ll ask for broken geodes and molluscs. He’ll bolt it directly to your head. When your crown is finished, he’ll want you to sign your name with his clammy ink-drenched tongue. Then he’ll want to hang your picture on his tower. Which means you’ll need an army. Your followers will come, and they will know your name, and they will pray to you King Moloch, Wise Moloch, Endless Moloch. There will be no-one behind you, but his voice will curl in your ear.
Basking in the tower’s shade will remind you of what you’ve given up. So you’ll call forth a peasant- a family man, loyal to the dirt, but hungry as you were hungry.
And chances are when you ask for him, he’s going to bring his baby.

Year of the Cretin

The Apocalypse has sublimated. It’s always happening somewhere. Tel Megiddo is a crest of the wave that is Everything. Each city is a series of dead moments piling up, soft polyps crawling over aeons of coral. The dead city Tel Megiddo will rise again, and fall again, and we will all fall after.
Suicide’s terror doesn’t live in the bullet. It’s not confined to razor lines or concrete rushing to meet you. It’s open the way that light is open, flickering past the shadows. Neither pill nor noose nor needle kills people; all people who live are killers.
Small sucking babes kill their mothers, devouring their cells by the thousands. The dandelion is a lion’s tooth, apomictic granules colonizing where they land. The sun never sets on the Taraxacum’s empire, making us piss our beds in the night. Even the worms, divisible, negotiable, deplete the reserves of the dead.
Tiny hands branch into tiny fingers. Hairs erect when danger nears. The whole body is an unspooled thread winding nervous, fractal, and frayed.  Those fingers can push a big red button. Those fingers can go in your ears. Those fingers hear your heart from a distance, and grow to hate the thumping sound.
Words have their roots deep inside our heads, where sometimes the hairs grow in. We were always ready for a bad hairdo to sway us. We’ve hungered for gold to spin. Towers trump our sense of scale and seize our mammal-hearts. Fingers clench and point and tick, counting seconds with our hands. This Apocalypse has lurked inside us, since chains were linked and atoms split.
The end is always nigh. It has nowhere else to go.

Check Out These Russian Homunculi Videos

Has anyone else seen any of these homunculus videos coming out of Russia over the past few months? They seem to have started with a Youtuber by the name of Korney, but at least a handful of replications, parodies and homages have popped up from other Russian Youtubers. I’m starting to grow a little obsessed.
There’s 8 installments of Korney’s ‘experiments’ up now. They’re shot in the style of how-to guides, complete with dry exposition about the writings of Paracleseus. They start with a faceless man injecting semen into an egg, and the story seems to be building from there.
For my money, I reckon Korney’s gearing us up for a good ol’ Frankenstein plot arc with his weird little homunculus buddies. There’s some rich thematic ground for a series of viral videos explaining how to create your own monster that will inevitably escape your control… but I don’t want to project too much, while Korney’s still putting his story together.
Check the first installment out here.
Warning: Some of the homunculus knock-offs feature prematurely hatched chicken eggs, and it’s pretty gross if you’re not into seeing living creatures die horribly. FYI.