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[Edit @ 23/02/11 I was very sad to learn this morning of the death of Dwayne McDuffie. An immensely creative and inspirational figure within both the comic and general entertainment industries, his prolific output contained positive messages for his audience that eschewed cynicism. Often noted for his critical assessments of the comic industry in particular, as mentioned below, made for very entertaining and inspirational writing. I never had the opportunity to meet McDuffie at any conventions, but saw him frequently online, trading stories with fans on message boards and dispensing his insights on the importance of good storytelling. He will be much missed. My sincere condolences to both his family and loved ones.]

Milestone was a semi-independent comic book company back in the 90’s that offered a more interesting spin on superheroes than most. Its characters were drawn from a broader racial mix than offered by books from the mainstream comic companies. DC Comics helped publish the books, produced by African American writers and talent. The company has since been merged with the DC comic book line, which I feel is unfortunate, as Milestone had a distinctive voice all of its own. Most of the stories are set in a city called Dakota, rife with crime and corruption. Hardware was the first book to be published by the line, written by co-founder Dwayne McDuffie.

The book opens with young Curtis Metcalf relating a story from his childhood. He once owned a parakeet that would often escape its cage and then slam itself into a closed window. It could never understand that it was trapped by a bigger, invisible cage of glass. Then McDuffie brings us to the present day. Metcalf has become a techno-savvy superhero named Hardware, who fights not for any single ideal of justice, but revenge. He feels compelled to avenge himself on the man who trapped him in a glass cage all of his own. That man is his employer, mentor and surrogate father – Edwin Alva.

Metcalf’s technological genius earned Alva’s millions in patents and yet when he asked for a bigger role in the corporation he was told in no uncertain terms what his status really was:

“You are not respected, Curtis, you are merely useful. This was an interesting experience, Curtis. Rather like having one’s dog suddenly announce that he’s displeased with his living arrangements. You may go now.”

Alva is involved in multiple criminal conspiracies, laundering drug money and bribing law enforcement. As Hardware, Curtis has been targeting his illegal operations, eliminating any opposition he encounters.

Utterly consumed by his mission, Hardware begins to lose touch with his humanity, becoming as cold and calculating as the high-powered weaponry he uses. McDuffie introduces love interest Barraki who is very unimpressed with his campaign of terror against Alva. Her role in the book is to challenge the tendency of modern comics to indulge its audience’s vicarious enjoyment of violence.

“Let me see if I got this right…You built a secret underground lab and outfitted yourself for a high-tech war […] You’ve destroyed millions of dollars in property [..] You’ve killed people. Ended their lives without any visible remorse […] And you did all this because your boss wouldn’t give you a raise?”

It’s a great moment, one of many strewn throughout the issues collected in this volume that illustrates the critical sensibility of McDuffie’s writing. Issue eight focuses on a nightmarish vision where Hardware’s is interrogated by a doppelganger of himself that echoes Barraki’s critique. He is confronted by the phantoms of the men he has killed; witnesses his own development as a child (all the while wearing a cute toddler version of his armour); attends a lecture by Barraki on his resemblance to the mythical trope of the Trickster figure; and is interviewed by ‘Opra’ on his lovelife, a sequence which features my favourite quote in the book –

“Well, that just about does it for today. Be with us next time for a special show, live from the Houston Astrodome, where our audience will be made up entirely of white people who think that Curt has a chip on his shoulder.”

I laughed out loud after reading that. There is a fantastic metatextual undercurrent to the book. After all, the very first issue is titled ‘Angry Black Man’. In one issue McDuffie introduces a bloodthirsty vigilante named Death Wish. However, while his origin does involve rape and murder, McDuffie has Death Wish eschew the ‘Rape as Backstory’ trope by having him himself be a victim of an assault. His subsequent psychotic behaviour is therefore defined as a traumatic reaction and not the typical ‘vigilante empowerment’, so prevalent in the 90s.

Denys Cowan’s art works well with the material, although there are regrettable flashes of Rob Liefeld’s popular, at the time, style of oversized muscles and scratched lines over faces. Still the overall impression left by this collection is of a new, hungry series eager to make an impression. I am desperate to track down later issues.

DC Comics please reprint Hardware and/or put him front and centre in your books! An excellent collection for a very innovative superhero character.

We were gabbing about Oprah’s abundant advice on how to improve our health, relationships, homes, finances, spiritual lives, fashion sense, and the list goes on and on. Winfrey inspires masses of women all over the world. And yet, it dawned on me, for every Oprah fan I’ve come in contact with, there has also been someone who can’t hide her vitriol about the media sensation. I wondered why.

So Oprah made a very exciting announcement on her show last week. To commemorate the last season of her talk show/infotainment hour, the most powerful woman on American daytime television is bringing her audience to Australia, courtesy of Qantas Airlines and Tourism Australia. Then John Travolta popped out of a plane.

And yes, they’re going to rename the Sydney Opera House the Oprah House.

So I felt it was timely to read Robyn Okrant’s book Living Oprah. From January 1 2008 this performance artist/yoga instructor/self-confessed Oprah addict wrote a blog dedicated to following every piece of advice released by every facet of the Queen of Television’s media empire. From her television chatshow, to O magazine and her online website, author Okrant would dedicate herself to ‘living her best life’, as per Oprah’s instruction. Novels bearing the Oprah book club seal of approval would be read, the medical advice of special guest Dr Oz would be followed and the various exotic dishes that met with approval would be dined upon.

To be honest, reading a book a day seems a lot less daunting now.

Okrant takes us through her experiences living under Oprah’s instructions on a month by month basis. Each chapter ends with itemised breakdown of the costs incurred and time spent on each activity. Also the growing popularity of Okrant’s Living Oprah blog transforms the author into a media personality of her own right, although on a much smaller scale. One of the admirable aspects of her endeavour is her refusal to accept endorsements, despite the financial costs of abiding by the rules of her challenge. Every time a book title is announced on Oprah’s book club amazon’s electronic shelves are emptied.

This leads to an interesting question. Should one person wield so much influence over such a large number of people? I remember Oprah’s syndicated show back in the 80’s when it was indistinguishable from the many other talkshows on the airwaves – Phil Donohue, Arsenio Hall, Regis and Kathie Lee. Oprah is now the face of an incredible media empire. She is courted by corporate, charities, celebrities and national tourist boards. Okrant begins to feel concerned when her guru announces her support for Barack Obama as presidential nominee as a ‘private citizen’. Had the chosen candidate been anyone else on the ticket, would she have been willing to throw her vote away for the sake of her project?

I believe the first time I encountered the word ‘Oprahism’, was in William Gibson’s Idoru. The book is set in a near-future era, where AIDS has been cured due to a mass media ‘saint’ and various new cults have sprung up to challenge traditional religions, including the worship of Oprah Winfrey herself. It was an amusing conceit, but perhaps we are starring at the disturbing reality right now.

Okrant’s book posits how is it possible to abide by any of the lifestyle philosophies, or commercial endorsements, when many are contradictory. A programme promoting detox diets may well be followed by an episode featuring a delicious desert. For want of a better word, Oprahism appears to represent a confusing mixture of cosy Objectivism, a Luddite resentment of modern technology, rampant consumerism and body fetishism. Okrant suggests that Oprah’s influence is so pervasive her audience swallows all of this whole, without any real critical assessment.

Of course Okrant’s own role in this is questionable. How sincere is this project? Is it performance art keyed to trending topics? For one she promotes that execrable book The Secret (which has also received Oprah’s thumbs up) – I don’t object to positive thinking so much, as the poisonous notion of ‘negative attraction’. Also during the period of writing ‘geek chic’, was quite popular. So Okrant quotes “With great power comes great responsibility”, attributing it to Uncle Ben from the movie Spider-man, 2002. I told you I was a geek.” Quoting from the movie does not make you a geek – it makes you an audience member!

While this is a interesting project, I couldn’t help but suspect a degree of parasitism.

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