“There is no problem that can’t be solved” – The road to SECRET WARS begins here

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“Everything dies.”

It’s a mantra that’s popped up for the last two years, spoken by Reed Richards to the Illuminati in Jonathan Hickman’s “New Avengers.” The slow dissolution of multiverse has been the impetus for widespread destruction and the desperation that seems to be the crux of the ongoing “Time Runs Out” storyline which seems to form the basis for this summer’s “Secret Wars” event. Marvel has been pushing Secret Wars as the event where everything changes for months now, first with an impressive array of alternate universe one-pagers and with a barrage of information on creator and editor’s social media pages.

Executive Editor Tom Brevoort has said the genesis for Secret Wars is in Hickman’s much vaunted Fantastic Four run and within the series’ large scale cosmic focus lies a series of hidden clues and hints about the direction of the Marvel Universe and the seeds of this summer’s upcoming event.

With that in mInd, it’s time to go back where it all started with a look back at Hickman’s run on Fantastic Four, what it has set up, the occasional hints in SHIELD and Secret Warriors, his Avengers and New Avengers run, the beginnings of creation in Infinity and how everything could lead to Battleworld. In this installment, it’s time to take a look at Hickman’s first major Marvel work, the “Fantastic Four: Dark Reign” miniseries.

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Let’s go back to the end of 2008. In the wake of Brian Michael Bendis’ less than stellar Secret Invasion, the seemingly reformed Norman Osborne had won the respect of New York and the president by fending off the invasion of the Skrull Queen and been crowned head of S.H.I.E.L.D. Unable to resist the man he has always been, Osborne assembles The Cabal, a group of villains who will aid him in controlling national policy. While he attempts to keep his new peacekeeping agency, H.A.M.M.E.R., on the straight and narrow, Osborne secretly harbors a hit-list of heroes he wants dead and buried and with the backing of the world, he’s ready to do it.

Osborne’s motivations and actions will change throughout Dark Reign and will eventually bring him to disaster in Siege but for now, he’s unbeatable. In the beginning of Fantastic Four: Dark Reign, he’s moving on the Baxter Building, ready to preemptively take Reed Richards out of the picture. Unfortunately, Reed has already started on a path of self-obsession and discovery which will change the Marvel Universe and define his character moving forward. And it all starts with the Bridge.

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The Bridge, like the Flash’s Cosmic Treadmill before it, becomes the defining artifact of Reed Richards as Hickman’s run carries on but for now, it’s almost solely a plot device. It’s worth noting that Reed’s newest invention is little more than a manifestation of his own guilt at this point. After tampering with the world for so long, Reed wants to know if the machinations of the Illuminati, their meddling with the Beyonder and the group’s dealings with the Skrulls which lead to Secret Invasion could have been prevented and if so, were they handled differently on another Earth.

Hickman’s focus in this five-issue miniseries is somewhat split. He’s writing Valeria and Franklin as something of comic relief characters. While the First Family is away, the siblings dress up and goof off, initially oblivious to the arrival of H.A.M.M.E.R. before stepping up later. In the series B-Plot, Sue, Ben and Johnny hop through alternate realities and pick up members of the family from across dimensions as they’re dragged along by The Bridge. It’s all fun and funnier than it has any right to be.

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The real meat of Dark Reign: Fantastic Four, and really the only characterization important going forward is Reed’s actions. Becoming more and more exasperated as he sees the commonalities across dimensions, Reed becomes obsessed with his own place in the dimensional order. Across the surveyed realities, he sees that he alone is the common denominator when searching for peace and he’s ready to discover how and why. By series end, when Osborne has been sent packing after taking a bullet from a trigger happy Franklin, Reed refuses to break down The Bridge and rebuilds it in a secret room of his lab. It’s a defining moment moving forward and certainly one open for debate. How much does Sue know about Reed’s obsession with what he has been across dimensions and what he can do? Reed’s narcissism and focus on himself is a recurring trope in the series and one that will appear time and time again, particularly in the form of those soon to be revealed glowing figures just on the other side of the screen.

Next Up: Who exactly are those people appearing in the Bridge? What do they want and what are they doing? It’s time to jump into Fantastic Four #570.

“To the fall of empires and the illusion of republic” – Hickman’s East of West is a brutal, relevant peak at a fractured America

03-27-2013-072657PM-2Early Saturday morning, I hauled myself out of bed, tossed back a handful of generic aspirin and drove myself to a story. A group of motorcyclists were going to the biggest man-made cross in Illinois to have their bikes blessed before the summer riding season. I was shooting photos, one of the parts of my job I like the best, and it’s the sort of opportunity most smalltime reporters love; a potent image juxtaposing the the holy and the unholy, rebellion and contemplation.

I live in what most Illinois and American citizens would call the middle of shit nowhere. In all honesty, it’s God’s country, one of the most conservative areas of one of the most liberal states in the country, a place where every once in a while, you’ll see a license plate damning abortion, a place where coworkers readily and happily blame women as willing victims of sexual and domestic abuse, a city where I once received gruesome hate mail for supporting the state’s marriage equality bill.

eastofwest2-726x248We’re a nation constantly divided by extremes. Even in areas which seem unanimous in their voice, there’s often dissension. Jonathan Hickman is tapping into that dissension in his second Image series, the apocalyptic western “East of West.” With only one issue under Hickman and former “FF” super-star Nick Dragotta’s belt, the team has already crafted a compelling tale of vengeance, cultural hate and ideologies that never die.

Hickman’s clearly playing a long, dangerous game in his first issue. After an introduction that wisely leaves its faith in the reader, we’re brought into Death’s inner circle. A hardened, bitter badass that’s two parts Jonah Hex and one part pure unadulterated rage, Death’s one of the most compelling parts of a book that begs to be deciphered. His quest, which seems to be half vengeance and half Arthurian quest for the Grail, is intriguing and pairing it against the other three Horsemen of the Apocalypse’s brutal, childish rebirth is bizarre and awesome.

East-of-West-Three-HorsemenWhile Hickman’s holding readers at arm’s length and trusting them to hold on for the ride, the art is compelling, welcoming and fascinating. Dragotta’s apocalyptic imagery as well as his attention to detail in the Civil War flashbacks is impressive and recalls Jerome Opeña’s down and dirty looks at flawed men and women but he admirably gives the child Horsemen an appropriate and unnerving youth that drives home the horror of the things they say and do.

In a book that features such iconic images as three children slaughtering a wounded man and Death kneecapping and murdering the president, the most striking visual is Hickman’s map of the new America, one fractured into seven nations, each bordering up on each other and given passive aggressive, grandstanding names, each with a name trying to declare themselves the real America. It’s a fractured nation, one with a never ending Cold Civil War and one that recalls our own country at it’s pessimistic, deadlocked worst.

“I should be ashamed. But I’m not.” – Matt Fraction’s Fantastic Four #4 gives a stand-alone unexpected weight

ffMatt Fraction is trying something devilishly clever in his Marvel works by writing nothing but loosely serialized mainstream comics. It’s a bold departure from the rest of the publisher’s line and even from Jonathan Hickman’s run on the title. By writing stand alone issues, he’s intelligently given his characters time to shine in a variety of situations while letting the stresses of each issue weigh on the characters.

Fantastic Four has benefitted from this writing style as much as the also excellent Hawkeye but the First Family also has the problem of starting with a premise. From the first issue, Fraction set up Reed’s need to find a cure for his cellular degeneration as well as Franklin’s dreams of a bleak future in space. It’s obviously a long game but one that constantly needs acknowledged.

Fantastic-Four-3Fraction may have made a small misstep in the third issue. When the family makes contact with a living planet, it’s clear Fraction and Mark Bagley were trying to set up a Dr. Who style sci-fi romp with a pure pulp heart but the characterization took a back seat. It’s clear Fraction is trying to highlight Ben’s struggle to fit in as he’s pushed out of his element but it just didn’t mesh together very well. It’s hard to tell if Fraction was setting up the pieces or if he had learned his lesson but the series’ fourth issue pulls it all together in a big way.

Reed and Sue are put in sharp focus here as the family stumbles onto an uncharted planet which worships the Fantastic Four after discovering cave paintings of the team thousands of years ago. It’s a neat premise and it pairs well with Reed’s flashbacks to the early days of his relationship with Sue.

fanfou10Bagley is one of the reason this issue in particular shines. His style has always recalled John Romita Sr. and shows off the facial work that made Ultimate Spider-Man stand out on shelves for years. He’s great with people and his aliens are consistently depicted and well designed. His strength really shines in those pivotal flashbacks though. He brings a certain sense of soft, sunny  nostalgia to Reed’s memories of his wife and it makes the sequence shine.

Of course, that’s all leading to the gut punch. Reed has to rewrite history to remind himself of what’s important in his life. Sue’s written for the first time in the series as a woman who sees and knows much more than she lets on. The future foretold in Fraction’s also excellent FF #3 is coming soon and Reed’s breaking down as the future rushes up to greet him and the family continues to splinter. This is one of Marvel’s best characters written excellently and forced into the only situation he can’t think himself out of. Frankly, there’s no better place for Reed to be.

“But I’ve had an amazing idea”: A Marvel NOW roundup

2598079-all_new_xmen_01_and_02_cover__by_martegracia_d5cwuqbI think this blog has made it abundantly clear that I’m not a big Marvel guy. This is the 99th post on here and not once have I written about modern Marvel, unless it was in reference to DC. That’s not because I’ve never read Marvel. My very first comic was an issue of the Fantastic Four where a pyrokinetic Nazi was gunning for the Baxter Building. Rick Remender’s Uncanny X-Force has been one of my favorite titles of the last 5 years. Chris Claremont’s ’70s X-Men work is the definitive book of that decade. Frank Miller became the writer he would be while redefining Daredevil. I respect Marvel but I haven’t really gotten into the House of Ideas until recently. Jason Aaron’s Wolverine and the X-Men can be thanked mostly for that but a sense of journalistic responsibility, curiosity and lots of disposable income that would normally be spent on women has led me to jump into the relaunch. So, is it worth it? Is Marvel NOW a triumphant new shot in the arm or a wet fart on the bed spread? Let’s look at the first crop of new releases and see. [Note: I didn’t pick up Thor: God of Thunder. I don’t care about Thor and you can’t make me.]

Uncanny Avengers

UncannyAvengers_2_VariantManaraPICOnI don’t care about the Avengers. At all. It’s sort of the same problem I have with the Justice League. It’s a bunch of super-tough guys punching other super tough guys. Plus, I’ve always been an X-Men guy. Luckily, Uncanny Avengers has Remender at the helm and tons of mutants running around to make me care. The first issue was the very opening of Marvel NOW and although it served partially as a thesis statement for the series, it was weak and little more than a typical first issue. Lots of individual characters team up, inevitably waiting for the whole group to team up. A leader is chosen who doesn’t know if he’s capable of running the team. The enemy rises.

Luckily, the second issue, released this week, is Remender in prime form. His Red Skull is terrifying and capable, now using all the power of the deceased Charles Xavier’s brain. Rogue is a bad ass, breaking out of captivity in a brutal fight sequence. Remender has always known how to show his characters at their most violent and capable but he succeeds most when showing the icons his team could be. In issue two, Havok saves a man from Avalanche’s attacks, who suddenly finds himself overcome with the capacity for heroism in the world. It’s a moment showing the potential the mutant race can still have in the face of the new AvX racist resurgence. It’s a beautiful moment, one that legitimately gave me chills. Uncanny proved itself as the flagship title and it’s one to watch, although it may be a little tricky for readers who didn’t devour this summer’s Avengers vs. X-Men.

Rating: Buy it.

A+X

No, I couldn't find any images from A+X. Take this from a not terrible issue of AvX.

No, I couldn’t find any images from A+X. Take this from a not terrible issue of AvX.

There are inevitably those books that piggyback off major event comics. Shit, I feel like I read about 300 issues of Final Crisis, despite it being a 12 issue series. A+X is that book. Each issue has a pair of stories, written and pencilled by different people. It’s a fine idea but not one that can ever be worth $4.99 an issue.

The first issue proved that definitively, with a goofy Cable and Captain America team-up and a thoroughly inessential Hulk and Wolverine brawl. It was pointless and far too short, especially for the price tag. I picked up #2 solely for Chris Bachalo’s pencils on a Rogue/Black Widow team-up and it’s well worth the asking fee if you adore his work. The second story is a snippy, thoroughly fun conversation between Kitty Pryde and Tony Stark where Kitty continues to deal with the Brood infestation that had her out of commission back in Wolverine and the X-Men #5-7. It’s good, clean, episodic fun.

Rating: Decide whether or not it’s worth picking up for the characters, artists or writers. There’s no reason to grab every issue.

All New X-Men

anxm2Brian Michael Bendis has somehow gotten himself onto the X gig after his well received Avengers run and I couldn’t be less excited.  Bendis is a writer that feels a lot like DC’s Geoff Johns but with even less concern for fans, continuity or the characters. He’s claimed All New X-Men will be the defining X-Men book of the relaunch and if the first two issues of the series say anything, it’s that Bendis couldn’t be more wrong.

The time travel storyline has gotten a lot of media attention and it’s a neat idea, particularly for fans who think Cyclops has gotten a little too violent and combative since Schism. That being said, it doesn’t really add anything to any of these characters. No one seems to act that shocked at what’s going on and nothing has happened to justify making this any more than an obligation buy when it inevitably ties into February’s Uncanny X-Men.

Rating: Decide how big of an X-fan you are before plopping down your $3.99.

Deadpool

DEADPOOL-1-BACHALO-VAR-NOW-1I was pretty excited to see Brian Posehn writing the Merc with a Mouth and the first issue may not be the strongest start but it’s probably worth sticking with. Deadpool’s been conscripted by S.H.I.E.L.D. to kill the zombified presidents resurrected by a sorcerer. It’s a premise with the great potential to be a lot of goofy fun.

The writing’s solid although it may take a little too long to bring Wade onto panel. Posehn’s writing really punny, with lots of “New Deal” and wheelchair jokes as Deadpool fights zombie FDR but it’s very cheeky and I’d rather have this any day over Cable & Deadpool.

Rating: Give it a try.

Iron Man

comic_iron_man_marvel_now_concept_artHere’s the stinker. Kieron Gillen’s Iron Man is a mess and worse, it’s a mess you’ve read before. Building off of Warren Ellis’ exceptional Extremis arc, Tony’s fighting weapons developers who are using the exceptionally dangerous bio-mechanical tech. The art is exceptionally poor, with Tony inexplicably looking Asian and scenes in the suit looking less like a drawing than poorly done cut and paste jobs from the movies.

There’s a very interesting subtext to the entire work, with Tony having to deal with the roll he played in creating the Phoenix 5 back in AvX and the place of faith in a world where he used to solely believe in science. It’s too bad Gillen doesn’t do a thing to advance the idea.

Rating: Stay the hell away.

Indestructible Hulk

indestructiblehulk1_splashpageThe Hulk was the go to hero coming out of this summer’s “Avengers” film and it was for good reason. Whedon managed to balance the dichotomy of Bruce Banner’s intelligence with the Hulk’s savagery. Mark Waid plays the same game but does it even smarter here. The stars of the book are Banner and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s head, Maria Hill, as Banner tries to find a little redemption for his actions. A scene in a diner where Hill watches the clock and panics at every moderate stressor is telling and drives the tension, while establishing both party’s feelings. She sees Banner as a time bomb that could go off at any time and Banner’s canny enough to notice. In one of the most telling lines of the issue, Banner says “Don’t think of the Hulk as a bomb. Think of him as a cannon.”

Banner’s willing to sell himself to S.H.I.E.L.D. to prove himself. He’s angry, spiteful of the attention Reed Richards and Tony Stark receive for their genius works and he wants in on it too. He’ll give himself to the feds for their resources and labs on the condition that they drop the Hulk in locations where things need smashing. It’s all waiting for that countdown until Banner goes Green and the book reflects that that nail-bitingly tense pace. The whole thing takes place in about 20 minutes and the clock is a constant, ticking away until the next  moment Banner explodes. Hopefully, we’ll be there when it does.

Rating: For the love of god, buy this book.

X-Men Legacy

50252b2fbacd9X-Men Legacy used to be the most exclusive of X-titles. Filled with characters who normally didn’t get a lot of panel time and led by Rogue, Gambit and Magneto, it was a fun book. In a weird bit of rebranding, the new Legacy focuses on Legion, the son of Charles Xavier who’s been gone from comics for quite some time. He’s an Omega level mutant and a schizophrenic, with hundreds of potential powers all fighting for control in his mind.

It’s a trippy book and with two issues already on stands, it’s one that’s sure to get stranger. Legion deals with threats imagined, perceived and all in his head and Si Spurrier and Tan Eng Huat make that dichotomy just as hard to understand for Legion as it is for us. It’s a canny bit of creation and a fun one to lose yourself in, even if there doesn’t seem to be much of a plot or goal for David Haller to work for.

Rating: It’s a good, totally inessential time.

Captain America

CaptainAmerica_1_PICONHey, it’s more Remender! And it’s pretty good! Remender’s delving into why Rogers keeps taking up the shield and taking down threats. It’s a neat set-up with Remender showing Cap’s early life, with an abusive father and a mother who keeps getting back up.

The issue tries to set “getting back up” as a tone but it never really manages it. Cap ends up getting thrown into an alternate dimension with a cloned kid Arnim Zola wants. It loses it’s way when it gets to the plot but an initial set piece where Cap fights a group of hippy bio terrorists is electric, kinetic, Kirby-esque fun.

Rating: It’s just ok, but I’m sticking around.

Fantastic Four

FANTASTIC_FOUR_1_BAGSVARIANT_Edit_3The First Family has lost some of it’s teeth in recent years. Reed’s become less of an insular genius and become a caring and respectful father. Johnny Storm has become woefully less obnoxious. Marvel seems to want to wipe away Sue’s perceived or actualized infidelities. The Fantastic Four has instead become a true, caring family and it’s certainly interesting in a different way. There are absolutes here. Love, compassion, respect, doing what’s best; these are the things that define Reed’s family now.

Except he’s still lying. After an injury reveals he may be dying, Reed gathers the family together for a multi-dimensional trip. Claiming it to be educational, Reed’s desperate to stay alive and hopefully prevent his family from succumbing to the same subatomic degeneration he is.

Fraction brings a lot of Silver Age wonder to the first issue, with HERBIE, Mom-Bots, fighting dinosaurs and space restaurants orbiting over warring aliens. It all has a pleasant charm and these are characters you desperately want to hang out with.

Rating: As friendly for new readers as it is for long time Baxter Building tenants. Check it out.

FF

FF_1_Preview001f-730x365So here’s the different take on the First Family. As Reed and company head off into hyperspace, recruitments are needed to hold down the fort while they’re gone. The set up is neat but the execution is a little weak. Readers are guided through the FF kids talking about what the foundation means to them, while each member of the Fantastic Four picks their replacement. All of those replacements speak to something essential about them in a small way. Reed picks Scott Lang, the second Ant Man, hoping to get him out of the depression he’s been in since Dr. Doom killed his daughter during The Children’s Crusade. Lang is clearly going to become the focus of the series and writer Matt Fraction has said Lang hopes to hunt down the man who murdered his daughter.

Sue also gets a great moment as she ponders her marital woes with Medusa. Both have found their lives changed by relationships and it’s clear they have problems with the way those relationships have defined their existence. It’s a neat moment, filled with unspoken truths. Johnny similarly has a great moment with his girlfriend, Darla Deering, as he asks her to take his place.

There’s a real Wolverine and the X-Men vibe to this book that’ll keep me interested for a few issues and the simple, cartoony pencilling really makes the book pop. It’s not a perfect start but it’s worth waiting to see what will develop.

Rating: You’re not missing much if you leave this one on the shelf but if you’re picking up Fantastic Four, you might as well give this one a look.

I have mixed feelings about you, dad!: 35 fathers to think twice about celebrating

I get sick of seeing the lists that come out every year about “great TV” dads or “WORST TV DADS” (the capital letters say that this is both funny and original). I’m a man who likes moral ambiguity, who enjoys the fact that no one lives in absolutes. I also abhor really dull lists. Hopefully, this isn’t one of them.

1. John Marston – “Red Dead Redemption”

Rockstar finally created their best game and one of the best games of this console generation with Red Dead Redemption and wrote their most well developed character with father, rancher and bounty hunter John Marston. The former outlaw turned government blackmailed killer is a complex man looking for redemption but the amount of blood on his hands is ultimately what damns him to his fate. John’s not a good man, just one trying to do his best.

2. Walter White – “Breaking Bad”

The great debate that will rage years after Breaking Bad goes off the air will be what Walt’s motive was by the time the show entered its third and fourth season. Was Walt motivated by continually protecting his family and providing for his daughter or was his moral corruption all in the name of giving himself even more control and power in a life where he once thought he had none?

3. Wayne Malloy – “The Riches”

Eddie Izzard’s fast talking, sarcastic ass kicker was the driving force of the somewhat hit-and-miss FX comedy-drama “The Riches” and his motivation to have his own life constantly puts his own goals before the best of his family. He steals, fights, lies and gambles, solely to escape the fate he thinks has been decreed for him yet the feelings he has for his children and wife are the only bit of earnestness and truth he ever shows.

4. Reed Richards – Fantastic Four and FF

Reed and Sue Richards may be some of the most respected scientists and heroes of the Marvel Universe but great parents they are not. Whether its accidentally letting a witch babysit their Omega-level son, abandoning Franklin to deal with Norman Osbourne and Venom during Dark Reign or just sort of letting The Thing deal with their kid rather than parent him, Reed Richards might be a great scientist but he may be the epitome of the absentee parent.

5. Admiral James T. Kirk – “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”

Speaking of absentee fathers, Kirk isn’t exactly the worst. It appears that he didn’t exactly know about his son but in the race to hold onto genesis and fight off his archenemy, Kirk finds out that he still has value both as a man, a soldier, a friend and a father.

6. Captain Walker – The Who’s “Tommy”

The father of the album’s eponymous messianic figure, the Captain returns home only to murder his wife’s lover and cause his son’s deafness, dumbness and blindness. Making matters worse, he leaves his son to be bullied by his cousin and molested by his uncle. The captain disappears from the record after “Tommy, Can You Hear Me” so the best we can really say about him is that he’s not quite as awful as Uncle Ernie.

7-12. The dads of the Pride – Runaways

Whether they’re homicidal mob bosses, turn of the century time travelers turned gang leaders, alien traitors, black magicians, child abusing inventors or telepathic mind-meddling mutants, the fathers of the children who would become the Runaways were willing to kill billions in order to save their children. The twist that concludes Brian Vaughn’s first run of Runaways finally gives the Pride the characterization that deeply enriches the characters and makes the villains just as sympathetic as their heroic children.

13. The protagonist – Cursive’s “The Ugly Organ”

Admittedly, the way that Cursive presents the protagonist from their landmark album “The Ugly Organ” marks him as a man who is a victim of the infidelities and minor tragedies that people inflict on him. That being said, there’s a sense of self pity, a sense that he knows that somewhere in the past, he knows he may be serving pittance for his crimes. On “Sierra,” he faces the life that another man has in his place, taking care of a daughter that doesn’t even know who her father is. Things might be looking up by the end, where he does step away from the edge rather than end it all.

14. Darth Vader – Star Wars

He’s a dark lord of the Sith who has tried off and on to kill or corrupt his son and ignore his daughter. He does have his moment of redemption a second too late to save his own life and succumbs to his injuries in his sons arms but ultimately, he’s another absentee dad who killed probably a few too many younglings.

15. Cancer Man – “The X-Files”

Let’s run down some of Cancer Man’s crimes real quick: killing JFK, killing MLK, fixing the NBA finals, ordering the kill on the first EBE the world comes in contact with, ordering the hit on Mulder’s father, ordering the hit on X, ordering the hit on Deep Throat, using the alien rebels to kill off the rest of the Syndicate,  attempting to kill both of his sons on multiple occasions, attempting to kill Krycek on about 45 different occasions, blackmailing Scully, blackmailing Skinner, controlling AD Kersh, surrendering the planet to the Aliens and writing really bad novels. That being said, he thinks he’s helping to save the human race, helps save Scully’s life and gives the best speech about boxes of chocolates ever. Cancer Man is an appallingly bad father but as a man, he’s wonderfully focused on the greater good and he’s so broken and personally ruined that its hard not to sympathize with him.

16-35. Every Disney Father

Everyone of these guys are near incompetent single fathers who are alternatively unable to control their children or offer them any usable advice. Its not so much that they’re irresponsible, its just that they’re barely functional as people, much less ones who should be raising others, yet they’re heaped with praise and unearned affection by their children.