Monday, August 21, 2017

The eclipse of 2017

Photo from National Geographic.

So we had an eclipse today.

Did you hear about it? More likely, did you see it?

I did. Or as much as one could around here anyway. In the Chicago area we only had about 80% darkness. A thick covering of rain-rich clouds added to the effect but obscured much of the eclipse itself. Didn't bother me as I didn't expect much from the whole affair. No glasses for me and I certainly didn't poke holes in any cereal boxes. If anything, I anticipated a sky that would amount to little more than a cloudy day. That's why I was so shocked when I stepped outside.

It was eerie. None of the natural light seemed...right. I noticed a drop in temperature from an hour earlier and a spike in humidity. As I walked through a parking lot, I looked over at someone else. He looked up at the sky and then glanced about our surroundings. He caught me looking. We both smirked and exchanged expressions seeming to convey, "weird, right?" There was a haze in the air, completing the almost paranormal sense of displacement, of shifting into a parallel world that looks like ours but isn't quite.

Shadows formed in strange ways on the ground. These shadows are a source of speculation in astronomy. It's thought by many that these shadows are due to turbulence in the atmosphere. Another school of thought says that they may be formed by sound. "Infrasound" to be exact. That's sound at a frequency too low for human ears to hear. Remember I said it felt cooler? From BBC: "This rapid cooling of the air sets up a difference in pressure. The potential energy associated with this pressure difference then escapes as high-intensity infrasound."

That's one notion, anyway. As I got in my car, passed by other vehicles with their headlights on and driving in what amounted to twilight conditions, it was easy for me to see how this phenomena has been associated with the occult since time immemorial. If someone didn't know what was going on, they might be forgiven for heading to the nearest church, dropping to their knees, and asking for absolution for all the petty crimes and misdemeanors of life before the end finally arrives. I halfway feared we'd be hearing by now about some cult somewhere whose members chose to commit mass suicide via cyanide-laced pudding during this astronomical event. I told this to someone and they said we should try to find them and stop them before it's too late. She joked that we should call shoe stores and check their stock. "Black Nikes. You got 'em? What, you sold out? When? Where?" That is of course a Heaven's Gate joke.

Flat Earthers are having quite a time of it. They appear honestly befuddled by the powerful yet well-understood astronomical occurrence we call an eclipse. My personal choice for the most disturbing quote from that article? "I really, really don't know what the moon is."


Looking back on the positive side, this was a welcome respite. The eclipse led the news headlines all morning, radio stations served up themed songs for an eclipse soundtrack, and someone shipped Bonnie Tyler out on a cruise ship to the point of totality where she could belt out her hit in the middle of the Atlantic. The Adler Planetarium was packed. Kids were outside learning about astronomy and I saw neighbors interacting with each other who seldom wave hello on any other day. For once, nobody was focused on politics or any of the other awful things in the world. It was something really positive and if you want to see what I mean, look no further than Chicago's very own Tommy Skilling. 

I hope we don't have to wait for the 2024 eclipse to feel that way again.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Dogmen of Michigan

Pic from a Google image search. If it's yours and you want it removed, let me know.

Chad, a friend and former colleague of mine, has now moved into cryptid central.

The faculty of my former college have been scattered to the four winds for reasons you know by now. Chad was fortunate enough to land a professor's position at a college in Michigan. Exciting news and a relief for his family for sure...until he learned his new home was right smackdab in the middle of the Dogman's lair. He jokingly referred to it on Facebook and I commented that I had indeed heard of the alleged creature.

Of course I have. The Weird is kinda my thing. And I've been tempted to research Dogmen for a while now, mostly due to their purported appearance.

Why? Because the most efficient way I have to describe these supposed creatures is "a werewolf." Witnesses report a hairy, bipedal creature as high as seven feet tall with the head of a canine but the torso of a human. Their legs are even said to be bent in the manner of a dog's hind legs.  A Dogman is also said to utter a terrifying, inhuman howl. The following size comparison chart comes from the North American Dogman Project:

In Michigan, stories of Dogmen are said to go back to the time of the Odawa tribes, the narratives later propagated among lumberjacks and farmers. Dogmen really didn't seem to enter the public consciousness of Michigan until a man named Steve Cook came along.

Cook was a radio DJ at WTCM in Traverse City. He recorded a song called "The Legend of the Dogman."


"I made it up completely from my own imagination as an April Fools' prank for the radio and stumbled my way to a legend that goes back all the way to Native American times." he said.

Nonetheless, he received hundreds of reports from people once the song aired, all claiming to have seen Dogmen. It is important to note that Cook is "tremendously skeptical" about the nature of these reports. 

Dogmen are not confined to Michigan but rather appear to roam the whole of the Upper Midwest. In fact I first learned of the creatures via what came to be known as the "Beast of Bray Road." Bray Road is a rural road near Elkhorn, Wisconsin, just over the Illinois border. In the late 1980s/early 1990s, the area became host to numerous Dogman sightings. Local newspaper reporter Linda Godfrey was assigned to investigate. While initially skeptical, Godfrey became a convert and eventually wrote a book about the sightings, The Beast of Bray Road. I really must read it one day.

If you're looking for a central depository of sightings, look no further than

From that site:

"Have you seen a creature that looked like a Werewolf? If you have, you’re not crazy and you’re not alone. What you saw wasn’t a Werewolf. It’s what’s called a “Dogman.”  More people than you’ll ever know have had Dogman encounters. Unfortunately, most of them don’t know who they can talk to about their encounters. That’s where I come in. My name is Vic Cundiff and I help Dogman eyewitnesses deal with the trauma of their Dogman encounters. If you’re a Dogman eyewitness, you now have someone you can turn to for help. Me!"

Good to know he's out there for us. You got that link bookmarked, Chad? Good.

Are there really Dogmen? Is there a species of humanoid, bipedal canines hidden and lurking in arboreal and paludal regions the Great Lakes? Offhand, I'd have to say I doubt it. There would have to be substantial physical evidence for me to begin to accept such a notion. Then again, I have not studiously read each of the witness accounts.

In a way, I don't want to. While I'm not prepared to become a flag-carrying cryptid believer, I also don't want to know that they're not real. You see, this kid grew up loving monster movies and stories. Werewolves were among my most favorite variety of monsters. The idea that there could a species of werewolf-like creatures out there somewhere in the wooded confines of my geographical backyard, inner ten year-old is agog. 

I think that may be the key to much of this. We are all writers. In one way or another we are constantly composing and constantly telling stories to one another. After all, what is a job interview but a moment where you must tell stories? Trust me, I'm acutely aware of this by now. The notion of the werewolf itself arises in part from our need to tell stories. I don't immediately doubt that Native Americans of the region told Dogmen tales as it would seem natural.

Also, humans are animals. Another colleague of mine wrote a book about how we are biologically "born expecting the Pleistocene," or an epoch far less civilized than what we currently have. Are Dogmen and werewolf stories just compositions expressing our "wild side"? I think that may be. I also think, as is also echoed on Skeptoid, there are deep connections between the accounts and the standard narratives of urban legends. See at that link the report of a young couple that went "parking" at Bray Road. At any rate, Dogmen could be a big potted stew of all of the above. It might also be that the Dogmen are beings somewhere on John Keel's "superspectrum," passing between our dimension and others.

Me? I'm going to just play pretend that there are werewolves on the prowl. Might not be good for livestock keepers, chihuahua owners, and my friend Chad, but as I said, this once-young monster/sci-fi kid chooses to revel in the idea. 

Seriously Chad, best of luck to you and your wife. I wish the best to both of you in your new home. Keep your eyes open around town for something that looks like this: 

(An alleged security camera still posted at North American Dogman Project.)

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Summer is a time for reading.

Or at least that's as tradition holds. I used to read voraciously, a book tucked somewhere on my personage at all times. Then a disaster came along and pretty much destroyed my concentration for the longest while. Still, I eventually reverted to one of my sanctuaries for troubled times: the library. As I perused the shelves, I came upon a most engaging series of books.

The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is series where contemporary writers mash-up literature's greatest detective with/against other literary and historical figures of the 19th Century, such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Jack the Ripper. I have been, and probably always will be, a fan of narrative mash-ups. As a kid I delighted whenever I'd see King Kong vs Godzilla listed in the TV Guide (I'm aware just how much that single sentence dates me.) As a teen geekboy, I was overjoyed when I learned that Dark Horse Comics was writing a series of Aliens vs Predator comics, a concept that seemed so explosively exciting yet obvious all at the same time. Ditto for DC's Batman vs Dracula. My very first foray into writing as a young lad was a mash-up. I had Sherlock Holmes (no kidding) meet Captain Nemo. Naturally, I was drawn in to the FAOSH concept. In fact, I couldn't make up my mind as to which titles to read first.

Before we go on any further, a word about my particular tastes regarding the Holmes mythos. I'm something of a purist. The Robert Downey Jr movies are fun and Benedict Cumberbatch is great in everything he does, but my Holmes will always be Basil Rathbone and my Watson will always be Nigel Bruce. I believe that those actors and their corresponding films were the closest in keeping with the spirit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original literature. That means they aren't slam-bang action yarns and they're not especially brooding. I also believe that the source books are also somewhat unique in that they break a few rules of what is considered to be "good" writing. In the whole of the Holmes collection, there might be two pages worth of character development. Nevertheless, the stories work. The reader is drawn into the story, cares about the characters, and more than anything else, wants to see just how Holmes deduces the solution to the mystery at hand. It works. My point being, all of these literary sensibilities are in my mind when evaluating a new entry to the mythos.

Loren D. Estleman gets it. He is the writer of Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula, the first title of the FAOSH series that I selected (how could I not?) I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. I might not have heard of Estleman before taking this book from the shelf, but he is an award winning mystery author. Indeed, the mythos of both Holmes and Dracula were in capable hands the whole the time.

Remember when I said my seven year-old self wrote (or tried to, anyway) a mash-up of Sherlock Holmes and Captain Nemo? Well, I distinctly remember taking "voice" into consideration. When I wrote dialogue, I asked "did it sound like Holmes?" I was writing my thoughts to come out of his mouth, but it needed to sound like he was saying them. I would later do the same with action figures of various characters, making certain that their rhetorical choices were in keeping with their personalities. I was engaging in composition theory and didn't even know it.

Safe to say, Estleman captured the voice of not only the characters, but also the style and presentation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself. Same goes for the Dracula characters, although I would argue that's a somewhat easier task as they are a bit less distinctive, save for the Count himself of course.

The story begins more or less where the English portion of Bram Stoker's Dracula picks up. A schooner called the Demeter sails into a harbor with not a single man on for the corpse of the captain, lashed to the wheel and drained of blood. Sherlock Holmes sets off to solve the riddle of this mystery ship and that inevitably brings him to meet the characters of Dracula. Yes, we get to see Holmes interact with Van Helsing, even if briefly. It's amusing to find that the two don't especially get along that well. Of course we also see Holmes go one-on-one with the lord of vampires.

While it's solid, fun read for the most part, it does tend to drag at the end. The author has a protracted chase sequence that is ostensibly meant to be thrilling, but I found it to have the opposite effect. Instead of biting my nails, I kept grumbling "get on with it, man." On the plus side, remember what I said about character development? Well, Estleman has a marvelous moment where Dracula confronts Watson, asking why he would sacrifice so much for Holmes. "Sherlock Holmes is my friend," Watson replies plainly...and Dracula is absolutely flummoxed. Love it,

I also checked out the War of the Worlds installment of the series, written by Manly Wade Wellman and his son, Wade Wellman.

I had read a bit of Manly Wade Wellman's "weird tales" in college, thanks to my theater director. While I didn't have strong recollections of the prose style one way or another, I was interested enough to see how he would mash up Conan Doyle with the H.G. Wells story that I likewise love. The writers do this in part via another Conan Doyle character, Professor Challenger from The Lost World and a few other books I admittedly have not read. Anyway, Challenger joins Holmes and Watson as Martian cylinders fall on England and eventually London is in flames.

While this was entertaining to read, the writing lacked description and there were missed opportunities for turns of phrase. It also didn't seem quite Holmes enough. I don't mean that the authors didn't capture the voice. They were at least as good as Estleman in that regard. No, this just didn't quite seem to fit the Sherlock Holmes milieu once you get past the first quarter of the book.  What I really liked was a series of chapters that could only have been executed with the written word and not with cinema.

Holmes comes into the possession of a crystal egg. He and Professor Challenger examine it and find that they can see a whole other landscape through the crystal. For pages the two go on evaluating what it could or couldn't be and eventually deduce that they must be looking at the planet Mars. I was engrossed as I read of how they eventually came to the conclusion, even though the very title of the book was something of a natural spoiler. That's good writing.

One other handy feature of this series is that each book comes with preview pages of another installment in the series. I managed to read part of one before my copy was due back at the library. It was for The Ectoplasmic Man. This one features Holmes meeting the real-life escape artist, Harry Houdini. Houdini has been framed and sent to prison for espionage. Holmes vows to clear him and go after blackmailers bent on menacing the Prince of Wales.

TL;DR It's on the whole a fun, if modestly written, series for anyone who loves Sherlock Holmes. Next time, more weirdness.

Take care everyone.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Mothman in Chicago

Source of image:

This is a momentous blog post!

I have co-blogged with others before, but never with my own brother.
That's right. Two! Two Nichols men. All for the price of one.

Michael entered the blogosphere back in May with Forest Dweller Thoughts. There he examines the many spiritual and cultural facets of the human experience, mostly through an academic lens. In this, the first of what I hope will be a series of posts co-blogged with him, we consider a most serious matter.


I've blogged before about how my interest in the paranormal started at quite a young age. It all started for me with books on UFOs and cryptids from the children's section of the library. Invariably, Michael would read the books I brought home and vice versa, thus cementing our own shared interests in the subjects. We read plenty of accounts of creatures, weirdness, and things that go bump in the night that subsequently kept us up at night, fearing those said same bumps. One of those narratives invovled an unknown creature called "Mothman." It immediately captured our imaginations.

In 1966 in the West Virginia dorp of Point Pleasant, a blizzard of bizarre occurrences took place. There were UFO sightings, eerie synchronicities, psychic phenomena, and encounters with strange entities. One of these entities was called "Mothman."

On November 15th, 1966, two teenage couples were driving at night by what was then known as "the TNT area" outside of Point Pleasant. The region earned this name due to the presence of an old World War II munitions plant and dump. On that lonely road, the couples claimed (and still claim to this day) that they saw a black, humanoid creature with wings and eyes that glowed red when hit with the beams of their car's headlights. It swooped down and followed their car, giving them all quite a fright. They reported the incident to police and the story made its way into the press. The media dubbed the creature "Mothman" partly due to the purported shape of the wings and because Batman starring Adam West was a big hit on TV at the time.

Sightings of Mothman continued in tandem with all of the other paranormal activity already mentioned. This attracted the attention of writer and researcher, John Keel. He spent a fair amount of time in Point Pleasant, talking to witnesses and doing investigations. The product of this research was his landmark book, The Mothman Prophecies. Both Michael and I first encountered this text in...of all places...our high school library I recommend this book for a number of reasons. If you have interest in the paranormal, Keel's theories are challenging and worthy of deep consideration (the idea of the "superspectrum" is one I've steadily grown to see as a fitting explanation for instances of the truly bizarre.) If you are not, then the book is entertaining in and of itself as Keel is a sharp writer. The man lived the paranormal and his portrayal of the entity Indrid Cold will stay with you.

So why are Michael and I writing about Mothman now?

For one, a somewhat bizarre synchronicity not unlike the kind described in The Mothman Prophecies. happened with us. I contacted Michael to see if he would be interested in a co-blogged Mothman post. When I asked, he replied that he just happened to have been re-reading The Mothman Prophecies. Coincidence? Synchronicity? Paranormal weirdness? I'll let you decide.

Why did I ask him about Mothman? Well, turns out Mothman has been sighted where I live: the greater Chicago area.

Since April, there have been 21 sightings of the creature...or something similar to it...all across the region. It's been seen near the Adler Planetarium, the Willis Tower (Sears Tower, for you out of towners), and in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood. It's also been sighted in the outlying Chicagoland area, such as Hegewisch Park. The witnesses have described it as an enormous bat or owl, alternatively as a man in a suit the name would imply...a cross between a moth and a man. What seems to be a consistent feature are the glowing red eyes that seem to "look right through you" as described by one Chicago woman who claimed to encounter the being while walking her dog in the park. This all seems to parallel what was seen in Point Pleasant.

"People say it moves its head and its legs. It acts like it's living. If it was a suit it would need some kind of jet pack. It's got some propulsion to it. It flaps its wings and accelerates," said paranormal researcher, Len Strickler to the Chicago Tribune.

Here is a map of the most recent sightings via the site, The Mothman Wikia:

These sightings might not bode well for Chicago.

You see, Mothman's appearance is said to be a harbinger of disaster. In the case of Point Pleasant, it was the December 1967 collapse of the Silver Springs Bridge. Keel describes this bridge's collapse into the Ohio River and the ensuing deaths of 35 people in macabre detail (wrapped Christmas presents floating in the water.) Sightings of a Mothman-like creature are rumored to have occurred in Chernobyl in the days leading up to the nuclear disaster. There are even those who claimed to have seen Mothman flitting between the towers of the World Trade Center on the night before 9/11. What does this mean for Chicago?

Well let's see. Highest tax rate in the nation, highest murder rate in the nation, godawful traffic, an impending economic collapse, people moving out of Illinois in droves....I'd say Mothman might be a little too late.

So what is Mothman? Keel suspected it is a "superspectrum" being that shares the Earth with us. Others believe it to be interdimensional or extraterrestrial in nature. Joe Nickell offers a bit more down-to-earth explanation: maybe the reason a few witnesses think it looked like an owl is because it actually was an owl. Mothman may even speak to the deeper spiritual nature of humanity as reflected in myths such as the Garuda. For an in-depth exploration of that subject, please head over to Michael's blog right now.

In the meantime, this will all certainly be on my mind. I walk my dogs. Sometimes at night. Often in a park.

I'll keep you updated.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Beneath Rudloe Manor

Image from Google. If you're the owner and want it removed, let me know.

It happened again.

Giorgio Tsoukalos and The History Channel have given me pause to think. It's happened before, but it remains a rare occurrence.

Ancient Aliens featured a location in Britain called Rudloe Manor. I was immediately captivated.

First of all, just look at the place (pictured above). It's a perfect combination of haunted house and an Anglophile's delight. It even somewhat reminds of the Captain America story, "Midnight in Greymoor Castle." Secondly, it occupies a place in World War II history, one of my favorite eras to study (I've mentioned before how I also love stories set during that time.) And of course, given that it was on AA and got a visit from Giorgio, there is a UFO connection. Let's start with history.

Rudloe Manor is, ostensibly, a typical British country manor located in Wiltshire. It sits atop caverns and tunnels created by quarrying stone to build the nearby town of Bath (which I'm hoping my former students recognize the mention of from Canterbury Tales.) Those subterranean chambers were a boon to the British in 1940.

The Battle of Britain began that year. The start and end dates of that campaign are somewhat nebulous and contentious among historians. At the earliest, it began in May and at the latest wound down in August, 1941, although engagements continued off and on until the end of hostilities in 1945. It was a battle fought almost entirely in the air. Having dominated the majority of Europe, the Germans turned towards one of the continent's last remaining powers: Britain. Through incessant air raids, the Germans sought to drastically cut British forces down and threaten the nation's autarky, forcing the UK into a non-aggression truce. A more optimistic scenario involved the utter elimination of the Royal Air Force (RAF), paving the way for Operation Sea Lion, an amphibious invasion of Britain. If you're a WWII buff, type that military operation into the Google machine and see all of the intriguing "what if" scenarios.

Because it never came to pass. The RAF inflicted massive losses on the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) and the Germans eventually turned their sights elsewhere (Soviet Union. Big mistake. But I digress...) During the fighting, Rudloe Manor became headquarters for Operations of No. 10 Group RAF. This was a communication nerve center that coordinated air defense of Plymouth and several ports and naval dockyards in the southwest of England. Much of this communications and intelligence operation could be housed in the rock-hewn caverns and tunnels, far beneath the ground and safe from enemy bombs. Ancient Aliens said that aircraft were built and stored in the underground facilities, but I've not yet seen documentation to support that. What was there was one of those classic World War II rooms with the giant map table and people with sticks pushing unit counters around like its a big game of Risk. Observe:

After the war, much of the facility was turned back over for civilian use...except for Rudloe Manor. It remained as a military installation. The RAF Provost and Security Service was established nearby, as was a space communications center in connection to the Skynet (yes, its real name) satellite. What got the place on AA was that British officials undertook UFO investigations from the Rudloe facility. Details have emerged that show Churchill and British defense officials took UFOs quite seriously starting in the 1950s. Famed UFO investigator, Nick Pope got his start investigating UFO claims for Ministry of Defense. Pope has stated that many UK UFO files from the dawn of the modern UFO era have been destroyed. Ancient Aliens intimated that those files still exist beneath Rudloe Manor...though no evidence is offered to support that claim. The show also teased that there may be more than just files underground.

On January 23, 1974, residents of villages in the Berwyn Mountains (BERWYN? for all you Svengoolie fans) of Wales claimed to have experienced an earth-shaking explosion and a burning light on a hillside. Military units were soon on the scene, but later dispersed. The official explanation is one of earthquake and meteor strike at the same time. At least a few Ufologists, not to mention witnesses of event, believe that the incident was in fact a UFO crash and a recovered craft was taken to storage beneath Rudloe Manor.

It's easy to see how the old English manor earned the name, "Britain's Area 51."

What isn't easy to see is the evidence for the claim of recovered spacecraft. The AA episode doesn't go into it. Instead they break for commercial and then retread the story of Rendelsham Forest which they've hashed and rehashed so many times. I'm getting the impression that these shows are getting more and more padding with each episode. I would rather have seen them flesh out their claims, particularly that Rudloe Manor is a center not only for UFO investigations but study and monitoring of all kinds of paranormal activity, such as ley lines and portals. I can't decide if it sounds more like Torchwood or one of Christopher Helton's role play game scenarios.

So what of Rudloe Manor itself? Is there anything alien lurking in its cavernous underside?

I'm going to say probably not. I'd still love to visit it, though. Why? You mean besides my being an incurable Anglophile? Well, I go back to my original point. Look at it. It naturally draws an air of mystery up around itself like fog from a moor. Not only that, but it is rich in historical significance not simply for Britain but perhaps for the entire world.

Whatever sits beneath it...or doesn' just an added bonus.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, July 21, 2017

I'm tired of saving the world

They fight crime.

If someone asked seven year-old me what a superhero does, that probably would have been my answer. Superhero movies of today would say otherwise.

Case in point: Wonder Woman. While a strong film in its own right, it eventually falls into a trap of redundancy shared by many of its contemporaries.

"If the heroes don't succeed, the whole world is doomed."

Suits in marketing are partly to blame here. "It's got to be big. BIG! The film must be a BIGLY splodey extravaganza of CGI tidal waves incessantly washing over the audience in IMAX 3D. We must get on this! No time for lunch! We'll snack al desko!"

Like a descent into addiction, eventually the fate of the world is not nearly intense enough. It's the whole galaxy at stake. Then the universe. And if the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War follows the comics, all of existence and the very nature of reality will be at stake.

The concepts of "existence" and "reality" are difficult enough for philosophers to tackle. Can the average audience members really get their heads around "all reality"? I'll admit that I'm not sure I can. Regardless, that's where this constant one-upmanship of raised stakes has us.  Fundamentally, this is a problem of writing. Before exploring this issue, I would first like to examine the nature of the source literature and how that might hold a few answers as to how we got here.

Literary critic Northrop Frye would likely call these stories "romances." This does not mean deep kisses of unbridled passion and love triangles...although there is often some of that. Romantic stories include the tales of King Arthur and Camelot as written by Thomas Malory, Marie de France, and so many others. They are stories of colorful, larger than life heroes who move from one epic adventure to the next. Our contemporary superheroes are drawn from the well of these kinds of myths. That "larger than life" aspect is fertile ground for hyperbolic, "world-ending" stakes.

Yet comic books have their own composition theory. I witnessed this in a workshop at a Comic-Con decades past. A creator from one of the Big Two publishers of comics walked aspiring writers and artists through a little exercise where the participants broke down how they would open an issue of their own comic book. Most of the responses were something along the lines of "I start off with a full page, then go to a splash page, and then another splash page..." The creator responded, "Great, but you've left yourself with nowhere to go. You're not building toward anything."

It's the same conundrum with the writing of these films. If the fate of the world or the universe or realty itself is always at stake, then where else is there to go? There can be no more escalation. How long can a writer sustain such a fever pitch? Instead of nail-biting tension, the stories eventually just get trite, boring, and tedious. It's hard to care about saving the world if everybody is doing it. What was once sublime becomes tedious.

What's more, the writer paints the story into a corner. It is highly improbable that the heroes are going to fail to save the world/galaxy/universe. I'll admit it might be an interesting postmodern experiment to watch them fail and then see the apocalyptic aftermath. The truth is though, audiences would likely find such Bergman-esque risks wholly dissatisfying and that's bad news for the suits in marketing. After all, who will buy the merch tie-ins for a disliked film? In fairness, such an ending also doesn't fit what we humans have come to expect in a romantic story. So it's a given that the boys and girls in tights are going to come out on top. Where's the threat, then? Do we not, in time, just become numb to it?

I'm not saying "doomsday approaching" stories are bad in and of themselves. Crisis on Infinite Earths and the Kree-Skrull War (start here if you want slog through my deconstructive critique of that epic) are examples of great comics carrying this theme. I'm also not saying that the movies should be dull or the threats disproportionate. Take the Avengers for example. The cast includes characters such as Thor, the Hulk, and Iron Man. They are incredibly powerful and the antagonists should at least be able to menace them. The Avengers should not be fighting someone who could easily be beat up by Cage and Iron First. Dr. Strange is also quite powerful and should not be able to dispatch his villain by merely muttering a spell. Such would make for boring reading or moviegoing experiences.

There are ways, however, to raise the stakes without dangling the whole world over a pile of lit kindling. A threat to a single person or group of people can carry just as much investment from an audience as a doomsday scenario. One of the most often cited Spider-Man stories has him struggling his way through a death trap. If he fails to get out in time, he will be unable to get medicine to Aunt May and she will die. No, the world won't end. But the most important person in Peter's world will end and that is an apocalypse all its own.

As I mentally sift through the superhero films, we see kernels of such wonderfully personal themes. In the original Captain America, Steve (still in wimpy form) is the only member of his unit to dive on a grenade while all the "tough guys" run. In the first X-Men (2000), Mystique gets Senator Kelly in a headlock (of sorts) and growls, "People like you are the reason I was scared to go to school." Each of these is an amazing moment. I believe superhero films would do well to have more of these moments than "the world's going to end" CGI bonanzas. Additionally, there are so many other types of threats the heroes could face.

Off the top of my head, there's also the theme of "I just want to go home." Yes, it's been on  my mind quite a bit. Homer covers it in The Odyssey and Melville has it in greater and lesser shades in Moby Dick. If you want a genre example, I'll waste no time pointing to the greatest entry in the Star Trek film franchise, The Wrath of Khan. Captain Kirk just wants to get his "boatload of children" home, but there's wickedly intelligent madman in his way. Will they escape? Yes, but only after great sacrifice. Along similar lines, even a Nietzschean "will to power" struggle of "I need to get through this" can be infinitely more compelling that the now standard, "suit up because we have to save the world" trope.

I can only hope that the writers and other creative engines behind the juggernaut of comic book-based films will eventually change trajectory. If not, boredom and redundancy are excellent pins to burst what already looks like an inflating bubble. I implore you, Hollywood. There are other directions to take the stories.

After all, whatever happened to just fighting crime?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets