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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Enlisted by a team of honor students for a seminar on superheroes, a mild-mannered professor discovers his inner obsession. Assuming the powers of a novelist, teacher, playwright, and scholar, Professor Chris Gavaler embarks on a mission to unlock the secrets of the multiverse.

How is it I can look at the poster for the recent Somali pirate film Fishing Without Nets and register “Jolly Roger,” even though the two crossed guns look almost nothing like a pirate flag?

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Superhero emblems are the same, altering every line and curve of their evolving designs, while somehow remaining recognizably the same:

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I remember how confused I was the first time I saw the crew of Captain Blood hoist their flag and it wasn’t the standard skull-and-crossbones but instead a jawless skull and two crossed but living arms with a sword in each fist. Sure, it’s close, but imagine if Joe Shuster did Superman’s “S” in calligraphy. Or Batman swapped his chest emblem for a diagram of an actual bat.

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I was probably seven at the time and so didn’t know the Captain was Errol Flynn in his breakout role. I didn’t know the 1935 film was a remake of the 1924 Captain Blood. Fans grumbled about Andrew Garfield replacing Tobey Maguire’s too-recent Spider-Man, or Sony rebooting Fantastic Four after a mere decade. But that’s been standard Hollywood practice since the teens. When Flynn traded in his pirate hat for Robin Hood tights, they were still warm from Douglass Fairbanks who’d torn them off Robert Grazer who’d yanked them from Percy Stow.

Hollywood is a roving pirate ship. They plundered Captain Blood from Rafael Sabatini’s 1922 novel. A decade had passed and swashbucklers were back with the box office booty Treasure Island shoveled in. They dug Blood up for name recognition—always safer to parrot than invent. Russell Thorndike jumped aboard too. He conscripted his own 1915 Scarecrow (vicar by day, masked smuggler by night) and sent him sailing into his piratical backstory. Doctor Syn on the High Seas floated five more book sequels, plus a 1937 film and a Disney mini-series I somehow never saw.

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I also haven’t seen Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips yet, but the inspired-by-real-events tale of low sea piracy adds to my bewilderment at the genre. I blinked in disbelief as my family and I rolled through Disney World’s Pirates of the Caribbean, where jolly animatronic pirates endlessly chase buxom animatronic women in acts of slapstick rape. If we can romanticize 17th century pirates into heroic outlaws, will 23rd century Hollywood will do the same for terrorists?

Any yet that Jolly Roger—probably a corruption of the French “joli rouge,” a warning that your attackers will kill you whether surrender or not—is a symbol of fun. I used to wave it as I sat in the stands of Three Rivers Stadium cheering the Pittsburgh Pirates.

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It doesn’t help that the KKK’s Black Legion added skulls and bones to their robes as they terrorized the port of Detroit in the mid-30s.

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They wanted to be superheroes, same as any vigilante. Herman Landon’s 1921 gentleman thief dubbed himself the Benevolent Picaroon (that’s Spanish for pirate), and Charles W. Tyler’s Blue Jean Billy Race launched her modern pirate career in 1918, both harbored in Street and Smith’s Detective Story Magazine. Even Batman demanded a turn on the high seas. Chuck Dixon and Enrique Alcatena rebooted him as Captain Leatherwing in a 1994 Elseworlds. The pairing seems playfully discordant, but Wayne and Blood were already the same character type. Ask them to fill out the following questionnaire:

1. Do you have a penis?

2. Is it white?

3. Are you highly respected?

4. Ever been horribly wronged?

5. What’s your catchy alias?

6. How comfortable are you working outside the law?

7. Got a nifty disguise?

8. What’s your signature emblem?

9. Can you supervise one or more loyal sidekicks?

10. Are you really all about the greater good?

11. Do you love thwarting that pesky government official always bugging you?

12. Are you into girls?

If that list isn’t familiar, it should be. It’s the original superhero formula:

A (1) white (2) man of (3) high status is (4) wronged and so assumes an (5) alias as a (6) noble criminal with a (7) disguise and (8) emblem, and, with one or more (9) assistants, fights for the (10) greater good while thwarting a (11) law enforcement antagonist and courting a (12) female love interest.

Batman answers yes to all twelve plot points—if you count Commissioner Gordon, who Bruce was clearly hoodwinking in his first episode. Bruce’s forgotten fiancé, Julie, vanished along with writer Gardner Fox, but she was there in 1939 too. The rest is easy: Mr. Wayne is very wealthy and very white, was terribly wronged with the murder of his parents, goes vigilant in a bat-emblazoned leotard, while dodging police bullets and warring on criminals. Oh, and he picks up an underage sidekick and overage butler too.

Batman didn’t invent the formula. He plundered it from an ocean of predecessors. Lots of rich, pissed-off white guys like to play dress-up, while stomping on bad guys, flicking off the government, and man-handling the ladies. Look at Captain Blood. That’s just the name a noble physician assumes after he’s unjustly convicted of treason and sold into slavery. He has a crew of not-quite-as-noble escaped convicts for assistants as he flaps his Jolly Roger like a cape. That naval commander in Jamaica is always hounding him, but the commander’s daughter is smitten anyway. And of course when the citizens of Port Royal are left undefended, it’s Blood who rushes to their rescue.

Blood and Batman served aboard the 1930s Mystery Men, an overflowing ship of masked do-gooders   captained by the Shadow with his pirate flag of a laugh, the original MWAHAHAHA. The 20s roared with a dozen more, all high scorers on the 12-point pirate scale. The 1914 Gray Seal is only missing Bruce’s murdered parents. The equally motiveless Zorro scores another eleven. Go back another decade and the Scarlet Pimpernel is righting the wrongs of the French Revolution, while Spring-Heeled Jack carves his “S” on his enemies’ foreheads. Personally, I prefer signature letters on the hero’s unitard.

There’s just one ingredient missing:  Superpowers. Bruce is very down-to-earth in the godlike company of Superman. Blood and his shipmates are all flesh-and-blood too. But Superman is just an extension of question nine. He absorbs his assistants, giving himself the strength of countless men. A superhero a one-man man-o-war. The Hulk’s high status comes in the form of Dr. Banner’s intelligence, but otherwise he’s a formula white guy wronged by a gamma bomb and the Cold War that detonated it. With the help of his teen confidante, Rick Jones, he eludes the U.S. military while dating the General’s daughter and committing violent acts of do-goodery. If he had an “H”-emblazon cape, he’d score a twelve.

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 Spider-Man wronged himself but loses a point for unrespectable nerdiness. Convert status to mutant giftedness, and you have an armada of X-Men. Even the convention-sinking Alan Moore is onboard with his wonder woman Promethea. Sure, her assistants are dead versions of herself, and her pesky law enforcement officer is Christianity, but she’s an eleven, which goes to twelve if you count her male incarnation.

Captain Blood’s formula flag is still sailing.

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So John Simms is now Michelle Gomez. Presumably Time Lords have always had the regenerative ability to change sex, but it took a half century of Doctor Who adventures before anyone dared to notice. The villain’s new body also gives the former Master the ability to stick her tongue into Peter Capaldi’s mouth. The Guardian’s Mathilda Gregory wasn’t shocked: “Discovering the Master had kissed the Doctor and called him her boyfriend didn’t seem odd, because there has always been sexual tension between the two, but seeing Missy being able to express it made it clear how heteronormative TV can be.” Matt Hill at ScienceFiction.com was more irked: “If this is the way the Master felt like treating the Doctor, why is it the only time we see a kiss [is] when the two participants for all intents and purposes fit a heterosexual norm?”

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I agree, but I’m intrigued by a larger pattern of villainy. Why do evil homicidal men keep turning into evil homicidal women?

I’ve been catching up on old episodes of Syfy’s Haven with my wife and son, and 2012’s season three features a serial killer dubbed the Bolt Gun Killer (a possible homage to and/or knock-off of the cattle gun-wielding Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men). He not only murders women, but he slices off his favorite parts to stitch into a new body. The Killer is clearly male—the blurry surveillance image proved it even before detective Tommy Bowen is unmasked—but that Frankenstein body he’s making isn’t his bride. It’s himself. Like Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, he’s sewing a new skin so he can become a woman. Except the Haven writers (I seriously doubt Stephen King had any influence on this plot arc) gender flip the gender flip by revealing that the skinwalking killer was originally a woman who now slides in and out of birthday suits, male or female, while busy assembling one that looks like her old self.

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She wants to impress her returning husband (he spent a few decades in a magic barn and/or alternate dimension), and her plan more-or-less works. But no one comments about the Bolt Gun Killer’s gender and sexuality ambiguity. When “she” slips on a man is “she” still a woman? Or is she a man with a female gender identity? Since the Killer’s spousal devotion is constant, does that mean she changes sexual preference when she changes genitalia? In the Troubled universe of Haven, are gay men and straight women the same under the skin?

Chris Carter belly-flopped into similarly murky waters in the 2008 The X-Files: I Want to Believe. A pair of gay villains, Janke and Franz, abduct women to extract and sell their organs on the black market. Except sometimes Franz needs a whole body for himself—everything but the head (which Janke buries in a field for the FBI to find with the help of a psychic pedophile priest who molested Janke and Franz as altar boys). Franz’s first and presumably male body may be in that ditch too, though it’s unclear how long his team of assistants has been removing his head and reattaching it to new bodies. Women’s bodies. Are women just easier for Janke to abduct? Or does Franz have a female gender identity? And if so, how does Janke, a gay man, feel about his husband’s new vagina? In the outed truth of Carter’s Catholic universe, are gay men just straight women attached to male heads?

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Again, Carter and his co-writer, like the Haven writers, don’t comment on the implications—they don’t even seem aware that their fantastical sex change operations sew up anything but plot holes. There are other examples—the female H. G. Wells from another Syfy show, Warehouse 13; Tim Curry’s Dr. Frank N. Furter, that “sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania” landing on Earth via The Rocky Horror Picture Show—but I prefer the original transsexual supervillain/ess because s/he is also the original comic book supervillain.

When Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Ultra-Humanite debuted in Action Comics No. 13, he was a bald guy in a lab coat and wheelchair. All those seemingly unrelated adventures during Superman’s first year—a crooked football coach, a war-profiteering munitions manufacturer, a circus-foreclosing loan shark—were all part of the retconned Ultra’s improbable plot for world domination. Superman thwarts him four more times in 1939, ending with the villain’s explosive death in No. 19. He’d mysteriously vanished from plane wreckage in No. 13, but this time Shuster draws the corpse. “Dead!” declares Superman.

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Action Comics No. 20 introduces Dolores Winters, a Hollywood actress who lavishes Clark with thanks then cold shoulders him the next day. “It doesn’t make sense!” he exclaims. “Females are a puzzle—movies queens in particular!” After the “vixen” kidnaps a yacht of millionaires and threatens to murder them, Shuster draws the first wordless panel in Superman history.

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“Those evil blazing eyes,” declares Superman, “there’s only one person on this earth who could possess them . . .! ULTRA!”

The “person” confirms: “My assistants, finding my body, revived me via adrenalin. However, it was clear that my recovery could be only temporary. And so, following my instructions, they kidnapped Dolores Winters yesterday and placed my mighty brain in her young vital body!”

Although Shuster draws that young vital body with his standard vixen proportions, Superman can’t drop the male pronouns. “He must have as many lives as a cat!” he says after Ultra’s inevitable escape, wondering “will he continue his evil career?” But when Ultra returns in the next issue, the captioned narration accepts her sex change, mentioning “her last encounter” and “her hideaway.” Even Superman adjusts, calling her a “madwoman.”

Ultra expressed no sexual desires before his operation—so 1939 readers, like 2014 Doctor Who viewers, would have assumed he was straight. But given all the young vital bodies available for transplantation, why did he instruct his minions to stick his brain inside a gorgeous woman’s skull? Next thing he’s using his new pussy (a cat trapped in a fence) to seduce a male scientist—but that’s just to get the scientist’s atomic-disintegrator, right?

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Ultra pulls on a pair of pants before leaping into a giant vagina–I mean, volcano–at the end of No. 21, but the next issue begins the two-parter that introduces Lex Luthor to the Superman universe. Ultra never returns. “It all seems to be a terrible nightmare!” declares the pussy-freeing scientist. Superman doesn’t want to talk about it: “Well, leave it go at that.”

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I’m thinking Siegel’s cisgendered editors wanted to leave it go too and told him to flip villains. 1939 wasn’t ready for transsexuality. 2014 may be past it.

Ultra, Franz, and the Bolt Gun Killer have one thing in common: a brain. The rest of their body parts are detachable, but their skull-housed sexualities and gender identities seem constant. Franz is a straight male brain. Bolt Gun and Ultra are straight female brains. None of them actually change. The Master is different. I’m not sure exactly what happens inside a Time Lord’s cranium during regeneration, but the brain–the physical organ–must transform with the rest of the body. Only the mind remains. Which means a Time Lord’s identity transcends anatomy: the Master is neither female nor male, neither gay nor straight. Time Lords have no baseline sex or sexuality. The Doctor Who thought experiment posits a universe in which cisgendered-heteronormality isn’t even a possibility.

The Master is also the first sex-changing villain whose sex change isn’t a manifestation of his villainy. Franz, Ultra, and Bolt Gun are variations on Buffalo Bill–a character so two-dimensionally vile, audiences root for Hannibal Lecter instead. Bill is subhuman, and his homicidal attempts to become a woman are his only defining feature. Except possibly his thigh-tucked penis:

buffalo bill

The Mistress stands apart from Bill, Franz, Ultra and Bolt because she didn’t abduct and murder actress Michelle Gomez to get her body. Missy is still a homicidal psychopath, but her sex change isn’t monstrous. The character may be evil, but not the transsexual transformation. That’s a first in pop culture supervillainy.

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“Best band you never heard of.” That’s the assignment Noah Berlatsky gave his pop culture writers at Hooded Utilitarian recently. I responded with best country you never heard of instead.

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If you ever played a game of Risk, then you know why you can’t find New Zealand on a map. I would have placed it in Indonesia—before my wife won a Fulbright and our family lived in the capital Wellington for five months. Friends and colleagues kept thinking we were going to Australia. One of our college administrators actually wrote “Australia” in her letters. It was as if were traveling to Counter Earth—that near duplicate planet High Evolutionary invented and set in orbit on the other side of the sun. Superman’s radio writers placed Krypton there too. New Zealand occupies the same position relative to the globe and the American imagination. We don’t really know it’s out there.

When we settled into the Wellington suburbs in January 2011, one of my first stops was the Karori public library to get books for the kids and CDs for me. I took a daily, forty-minute jog through the hills of the historic cemetery, listening to whatever new disc I’d downloaded to my iShuffle that week.

karori cemetery

It’s an island nation and so home to some evolutionary oddballs: flightless kiwi birds and giant weta insects. Its music scene grows mutations too. “Flight of the Conchords” had already flapped stateside, but I discovered Fat Freddy’s Drop before flying over too: techno, blues, reggae, jazz, rock—they give new and glorious meaning to the term “fusion.” I’d of course heard of Split Enz and Crowded House too, and Neil Finn maintains a deservedly god-like presence. “Weather with You” is simply the best pop song ever—though I didn’t realize that till I heard it covered by the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra.

An early 80s compilation album nearly destroyed my mind with a roster of never-heard-by-me New Wave hits that were not imitations of the bands I grew up with but Counter Earth variants orbiting parallel to them. But it was the recent releases section of the library shelves that most wooed me. Every week I’d select one track from the CD I’d been spinning during jogs and family meals. When we left in May, I had a playlist of my idiosyncratic exploration of kiwi musicology.

The first track is the national rugby team performing a Maori war chant, and the last is another traditional Maori song spilled into electronica. The Naked and Famous followed us home. I didn’t hear Kimbra and Lorde while jogging, but they roosted in U.S. airwaves since our return too. All of these artists deserve the same exposure. Some even got me enjoying reggae, a peculiarly ubiquitous style for a nation floating in a different ocean than Jamaica. Folk and blues and pop and jazz and progressive rock washed up on my New Zealand beaches too. Only 4 ½ million people populate the country, but it’s a planet of music.

Here’s your introductory playlist. I recommend jogging up and down grave-scattered hills while listening.

      1. All Blacks, “Ka Mate Haka” (2007)

 

      1. The Naked and Famous, “Young Blood” (2010)

 

      1. Sallmonella Dub, “Dancehall Girl” (2004)

 

      1. Brooke Fraser, “Something in the Water” (2010)

 

      1. Phil Judd, “Hanging By A Thread” (2008)

sample here

 

      1. The Woolshed Sessions, “Dead Happy” (2008)

 

      1. Gin Wigmore, “Hey Ho” (2009)

 

      1. The Checks, “What You Heard” (2007)

 

      1. The Phoenix Foundation, “Buffalo” (2010)

 

      1. Goldenhorse, “American Wife” (2004)

sample here

 

      1. Hollie Smith, “Let Me Go” (2010)

 

      1. Don McGlashen, “Not Ready” (2008)

sample here.

 

      1. Tahuna Breaks, “Casually Acquainted” (2007)

sample here

 

      1. The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra, “Weather With You” (2007)

 

      1. Little Bushman, “Nature of Man” (2007)

 

      1. Norman Meehan & Bill Manhire, “The Oreti River” (2010)

sample here

      1. James Duncan, “My New Flumes” (2009)

 

      1. Hinemoa Baker, “Talk You Up” (2004)

sample here

      1. The Close Readers, “Lake Alice” (2011)

 

      1. WAI, “Tirama” (2010)

sample here

 

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“If you chase two rabbits,” Taylor Swift told USAToday, “at some point you end up losing both.”

By rabbits she means commercial markets, and for her maximizing revenues requires an allegiance to the larger bunny, pop, as her jilted country fans hop away. “I needed to pick a lane,” Swift said, criticizing her 2012 album, Red, because it featured “mandolin on one track, then a dubstep bass drop on the next song. You’re kind of thinking are these really on the same album?” So her new album, 1989, chases pop fans straight down the “80s synth-pop” lane. This, according to one of her collaborators, is evidence of Swift “relentlessly pushing herself to be unafraid of taking chances.”

Now I’m not seriously criticizing USAToday for its lack of cutting-edge journalism. The Taylor Swift article is an advertisement, and the soundbites are her corporate interests talking. Mixing mandolin and dubstep was taking a chance, the dubstep half of the album yielded Swift’s first No. 1 single, and so now she is “unafraid” to solidify that pop base. Even the year 1989 signals risk aversion. By the late the 80s, the pleasant chaos of the New Wave upheaval had been absorbed into predictable pop formulas. Devo and the Talking Heads had devolved into the Bangles and Tear for Fears.

Swift’s one-rabbit approach also runs counter to some of the best mandolin-dubstep fiction of the 80s. Margaret Atwood, then an acclaimed novelist of the purely narrative realism mode, published her first speculative novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, in 1985. Toni Morrison won the 1988 Pulitzer for chasing those same two rabbits, speculative and realism, with Beloved, a literary horror novel. And Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen put comic books on the literary map for the first time in the 80s too. Superheroes, ghosts, dystopic futures–you’re kind of thinking are these really in the same genre?

Jon Caramanica in his New York Times rave of Swift’s new album provides one of the best working definitions of genre I’ve seen in a while: “It’s a box, and a porous one, but a box all the same.” Caramanica also calls 21st century pop “overtly hybrid” and country a “hospitable host body,” one that the body-snatching alien Swift has sucked dry and discarded. That’s a lot of genre metaphors to juggle at once, so I’m going to stick with cars and rodents for now. Despite Swift’s relentless push down the pop lane, the 21st century literary highway has seen some major additions to the two-rabbit playlist. My course, 21st Century North American Fiction (I know, not as catchy as any of Swift’s titles) features a list of authors straddling “literary” (meaning “artful,” not “set in the real world”) and “genre” (any of those formerly lowbrow pulp categories of scifi, fantasy, horror, mystery, romance, etc.).

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At first it sounds like a marketing wet dream: combine two genres and double your audience. You like zombies? You like literary fiction? We’ll you’re going to love Colson Whitehead’s literary zombie novel, Zone One! Although the novel did spend two weeks in The New York Times‘ top twenty best sellers list, it did not receives the accolades of many of his earlier novels. Instead of bringing two diverse readerships into harmony, a two-rabbit novel appeals mainly to that sliver-thin, Venn diagram cross-section of readers willing to straddle both categories. Instead of expanding your audience, the mandolin-dubstep approach can limit it.

Before assigning Zone One to my students, I tried to get my book club to read it, but one of our group’s economics professors (we have two) despised it. In addition to his expertise in business, Professor MacDermott is a zombie aficionado (which has also resulted in our forming a Zombie Club splinter group). I asked him to write up his critique of Whitehead for my class:

“While it may have some literary merits, I don’t read zombie books for literary anything. Contrary to just about everyone’s opinion, the book did not strike me as terribly well written (unless well written = slog). I saw one review that said the “language zings and soars.” Criminy – that’s heavy handed. Perhaps I am a bit of a grunt when it comes to ‘good writing’ but I didn’t see it. The biggest knock against it in my mind is that very little happens and what does happen is all over the place. Most of the zombie / dystopian books I have read (and that is a shamefully large number) are stuffed with action … probably too much. This one had very little. . . .  So, I guess in the end my recommendation would be to not read this book because while some may find the writing compelling, there is not much of a story (yeah … blah blah blah social commentary … blah blah blah). I took a look at the reviews in Amazon and found I agreed with several of the 1-star reviews (those written by the troglodytes).”

In the end, he likened it to handing The Iliad to someone because they said they liked war books. “That,” he said, “is what it is like to hand Zone One to a zombie-phile.”

So much for droves of zombie fans flocking to Whitehead. And many literary readers are equally repulsed. Shenandoah recently published a Noir issue, opening the door to a blog discussion of the relative merits of genre and literary fiction and their hybrid love children. Editor R. T. Smith drew a line in the literary sand:

“Hard-boiled, thriller, mystery, crime – following the spoor of these labels will draw an investigator into the territory where I think noir simmers. It’s a somewhat different direction from super powers, paranormal events, zombies, weredogs, closet monsters, witches, alien storm troopers, time travelers. These are terms more likely to lead away from my noir zone, where characters who metamorphose don’t grow fangs, fly away, deflect bullets or sport tails with stingers. The gumshoe’s revolver may somehow fire eight rounds without being re-loaded, but it doesn’t spew bats or emulsify anyone. Neither physics nor metaphysics are problematized, though the emphasis may be on aesthetics and ethics. It’s an old personal preference – naturalism over supernaturalism, physics and metaphysics over hocus-pocus and the “black box” – a question of conventions and confidence.”

Poet and historical-mystery author Sarah Kennedy articulated the anti-zombie stance too:

“For me, the problem with a great deal of literature about monsters and other non-human characters is that they become formulaic or silly in their attempts to prove that they’re doing something “serious” when in fact they’re just retailing the old conventions. Zombies are horrible looking and they eat human flesh. Even if a writer gives a zombie a science-fiction virus or (ick) a heart of gold, the character is still going to have all the signs of the formula: scary, grisly-looking, flesh-eating. It’s probably going to walk a bit oddly (what with those bits and pieces falling off). It’s going to be hard ever to convince me to take that seriously.”

And this includes Whitehead’s cross-bred literary zombies: “I have tried Zone One but frankly found it both pretentious and tedious and couldn’t finish. There is no story there, at least not one that engaged me.”

Kennedy’s and MacDermott’s definitions of “story” may be opposites, but neither was satisfied by Whitehead’s mandolin and/or dubstep skills. Trying to satisfy both can mean satisfying neither. And it’s not just literary zombies getting run down by one-lane readers.

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My class is also studying Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club, a literary novel that rode the “chicklit” wave up the best-seller charts in 2004. Fowler, like Caraminca’s Swift, is a brain-sucking genre alien, leaping from her home planet Metafiction to the host bodies of narrative realism, science fiction, mystery, and, most recently, the hybrid my-sister-is-a-chimpanzee pop market. Despite Fowler’s winning the 2014 PEN/Faulkner (an award controversially denied Morrison’s Beloved), The Jane Austen Book Club still carries a non-literary taint. My department’s Austen expert hasn’t read it and looked at me suspiciously when I suggested she might. Another colleague, Professor Pickett, observed one of my classes for my tenure review and wrote in her evaluation afterwards:

“I had specifically asked Chris if I could observe a class devoted to this particular novel, both because I had started reading it myself over the summer and also because (as a result) I was curious about how he would handle the challenge of teaching a book I would unthinkingly have assigned to my own idiosyncratic genre of “airport bookstore” novel–one “light” enough to read in a distracting environment but “respectable” enough not to be embarrassed if caught reading–basically trade paperbacks for the 30-something female.”

Even my students are wary of the novel. One, Libby Hayhurst, wrote in a homework response:

“this is by far the most entertaining book we’ve read, which makes me instantly mistrustful. While literary fiction can entertain, this is surely not its point. I have found myself reading this book only enjoying the plot and the characters, and without the desire to even take a stab at the deeper meaning . . . I am not sure the Jane Austen Book Club falls under ‘literary fiction’ (although I AM hesitating, but is this just because I’m reading it in an English course?).”

This despite Michael Chabon opening the course with his appeal:

“Entertainment has a bad name. People learn to mistrust it and even revile it. . . . Yet entertainment—as I define it, pleasure and all—remains the only sure means we have of bridging, or at least of feeling as if we have bridged, the gulf of consciousness that separates each of from everybody else. The best response to those who would cheapen and exploit it is not to disparage or repudiate but to reclaim entertainment as a job fit for artists and for audiences, a two-way exchange of attention, experience, and the universal hunger for connection.”

Personally I don’t find Taylor Swift entertaining, but I am entertained by plenty of popular and non-popular music. I don’t have a problem with Swift, just her claim to chance-taking and her repudiation of albums that appeal to more than one kind of rodent. Mandolin-strumming and dubstep-dancing rabbits are more than roadkill on opposing lanes of entertainment traffic. I hope 1989 isn’t our only future.

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I started reading comics as a kid at a particularly satanic moment. Not only had vampires and werewolves crashed through the gatekeeping Comic Code, but the literal Son of Satan demanded his own title in 1973. My favorite supernatural superhero though was the demonic motorcyclist Ghost Rider. Marvel writer Gary Friedrich said the flaming skull idea was his. In fact, Friedrich said the whole character was and sued a few weeks after Columbia released their first Ghost Rider movie (it barely broke even, so I’m still confused how Nicholas Cage managed a sequel). In the comic, Friedrich wrote about the Evel Knievel-inspired Johnny Blaze signing away rights to his soul to save his adoptive father from cancer. A U.S. District Judge wrote in her court opinion that Friedrich had signed his rights away to Marvel.

It’s a diabolically common comic book plot, dating back to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster signing DC-owner Harry Donnenfeld’s standard contract and handing their mobster boss Superman for $130. But that wasn’t the first superhero deal with the devil.

faust and devil

When Mephistopheles offered to be Faust’s “servant,” the wizened scholar wisely asked “how must I thy services repay?” demanding “the condition plainly be exprest!” In exchange for his soul (“under-signest merely with a drop of blood”), Faust wanted superhuman knowledge. He’d exhausted all human study—philosophy, medicine, jurisprudence, theology—but was “no nearer to the infinite.” Goethe introduces him alone in his study, moments before conjuring his first spirit:

Therefore myself to magic I give,
In hope, through spirit-voice and might,
Secrets now veiled to bring to light,
That I no more, with aching brow,
Need speak of what I nothing know;
That I the force may recognise
That binds creation’s inmost energies;
Her vital powers, her embryo seeds survey,
And fling the trade in empty words away.

Goethe published the first half of his dramatic poem Faust in 1808, based on the German alchemist Johann Georg Faust who supposedly died in a laboratory explosion when the devil came to collect him personally (the German Church had said the two were in league). An anonymous historian included their actual contract, complete with its legalistic “whereas” and “whereof” jargon, in the first 1587 compilation of the legend. Christopher Marlowe introduced the doctor to English audiences two decades later, but I prefer Goethe’s version. His Faust is the first superman. One of the spirits he conjures asks: “What vexes you, oh Ubermensch!”

Friedrich Nietzsche famously adopted the term, but only after reading Lord Byron’s dramatic poem Manfred while still in school. Young Friedrich called Byron’s Faustian knock-off an “Ubermensch who commands the spirits” and felt “profoundly related to this work,” preferring it over Goethe’s. Byron first heard Faust the summer the Shelleys visited his Geneva manor. Mary Shelley began Frankenstein that same visit, and her mad scientist, like Byron’s mad magician, inherited Faust’s “ardent mind,/ Which unrestrain’d still presses on for ever.” All three o’erleapt the human sphere to know what “Doth for the Deity alone subsist!”

I teach playwriting, so if either poet showed up in class, we’d have to have a very long discussion about the word “dramatic.” Though equally unstageable, Manfred is Faust minus Mephistopheles, a subtraction that probably won over the impressionable Nietzsche. Manfred doesn’t barter his soul to anyone but his diabolical self. His powers were “purchased by no compact” but “by superior science,” “strength of mind,” and a whole lotta “daring.” He accepts his approaching death, but defies “The Power which summons me,” refusing “to render up my soul to” the demonic spirit he orders “Back to thy hell! Thou hast no power upon me.”

Thou didst not tempt me, and thou couldst not tempt me;
I have not been thy dupe, nor am thy prey—
But was my own destroyer, and will be
My own hereafter

The abbot at Manfred’s side urges him to pray for salvation, but Manfred will have none of that either, content to “die as I have lived—alone.” His soul takes its earthless flight, whither the abbot dreads to think. He means Hell, which is where Marlowe sent his Faust in the last act of his tragedy, dragged down like Don Giovanni by the Commandatore’s statue. But the first part of Goethe’s trajedie ends with the repentant Faust’s arrival in Heaven—another reason for Nietzsche to prefer Byron’s ubermensch.

After Manfred, Byron started composing his satiric epic Don Juan, leaping from a damned alchemist named John to a damned womanizer named John. George Bernard Shaw landed in Byron’s footsteps when he modernized Don Juan as an aristocratic eugenicist in his 1903 play Man and Superman—the first time Nietzsche’s “ubermensch” is translated “superman.” Shaw’s John, however, never signs his soul away, just his life when in his last act he submits to marriage—an institution he’d opposed as an obstacle to breeding supermen. He wants to populate the planet with a race of goodlooking philosopher-athletes.

Goethe’s Faust could have demanded invulnerability and super-strength, but his superpowers seem more noble:

The scope of all my powers henceforth be this,
To bare my breast to every pang,—to know
In my heart’s core all human weal and woe,
To grasp in thought the lofty and the deep,
Men’s various fortunes on my breast to heap,
And thus to theirs dilate my individual mind,
And share at length with them the shipwreck of mankind.

Compare that to one of the more recent soul-selling superheroes, Todd McFarlane’s Spawn. When the former CIA assassin died, he made a deal with a demon to see his wife again—and next thing he’s sporting a necroplasmic body with superhuman strength and infinite regenerative powers. He battles angels, demons, and a range of human thugs—but not publishers. McFarlane was one of a group of artists who rebelled against Marvel’s “work for hire” requirement that employees give up all ownership rights—a policy they reversed when they formed Image Comics in 1992. Spawn was one of the company’s first titles.

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I applaud their business practices, but when I picked up Spawn No. 8 from a magazine shelf in my local bookstore, I was horrified. It seemed my favorite writer, Alan Moore, had sold not his soul but his signature intelligence when penning the script. But I’m still glad it sold well, and even spawned a movie that grossed more than Ghost Rider. Meanwhile, Siegel, Shuster, and their heirs have spent decades battling the Mephistophelean DC. Their lawsuits kept the Hollywood Superman in Development Hell for a few years—a 2008 judge almost stripped DC of the copyright—but Warner Bros’ lawyer minions always win in appeals. Marlowe sent his Faust shrieking into Hell, but maybe someday the spirits of the U.S. court system will answer his final prayer:

Let Faustus live in hell a thousand years,

A hundred thousand, and at last be sav’d!

i have had enough

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the-circus-bath-england-mal-bray

I visited Bath, England during spring break of my senior year in college. That was over a quarter century ago, so my memories are “historical” rather than “contemporary.” They may even shade into “speculative” since memory warps with each recollection, transforming real locations into alternate realities. I’ll be able to gauge the extent of my idiosyncratic warping when I return to Bath next June. I’m teaching a creative writing class for Advanced Studies in England, a study abroad program for U.S. college students.

My course is “Writing Bath: Historical, Contemporary, Speculative Fiction,” but I considered calling it “Right Here, Only More So.” There’s a Laurie Anderson song (also from a quarter century ago) that opens with the line: “Paradise is exactly like where you are right now . . . only much, much better.” And there’s an even older truism about science fiction: “The future is now, only more so.” That’s a particularly good definition of speculative fiction, and combined with Anderson’s spin on place, it sums up my approach to fiction writing.

I open my introductory course (the one I teach in Virginia, not England) with an observation exercise: list sensory details. Since we’re sitting in a classroom, the results usually include the ticking of a clock, the scent of chalk, the glow of fluorescent bulbs, the press of a chair back against your spine. If you dig a little deeper, those details get much, much better: the conch-shell murmur of AC vents, the convergence of shadows as a pen tip touches paper, the pendulum sway of an earring.

Any location can yield unlimited details. And though a classroom in rural Virginia is as good a place as any to dig down, imagine if the classroom is in Bath, England. Those are Roman ruins under the sensory top soil. So after exploring the contemporary, I’ll send my students off in time machines to land anywhere they like in the two thousand years of Bath history. And when they get back, we’ll spin the controls in the opposite direction and speculate about the city’s diverging futures.

Although historical fiction and science fiction seem like opposites—one’s in the past, the other the future—they’re both not in the present, and so, unlike contemporary fiction that borrows from immediate reality, they are alternate worlds that have to be imaginatively constructed. Contemporary fiction is an imaginatively constructed alternate world too, but you get to cheat a bit because readers will do more of the setting work by filling in familiar details themselves. But the past and future require more authorial effort.

The past of historical fiction isn’t the past. It’s an invented past. What are Roman sandals made of? How do they lace up? Where do they chafe? I have no idea. But my students will also take a course called The Romans in Britain, and combine that with contemporary interpolation (ie, it hurts to walk on a blister), and suddenly first-century Bath will be within strolling distance. The Triumph of Georgian Bath will give them enough architectural know-how to conjure other moments of history into equally concrete existence.

Speculative fiction at first seems comparatively boundless. History books are filled with verifiable events, while the future is unwritten. But the future is made of the same stuff as any historical story: the present, only more so. What does a hovercraft sound like when it’s landing? I have no idea. But I can pluck details from my world—the whir of my half-clogged lawn mower—because the mundane really is much much better for building something non-existent. And if you do your building in Bath, England, your range of the mundanely contemporary is also sunk deep in the paradoxically here-but-not-here historical. Three worlds, one place.

I get no points for creativity though. Michael Cunningham approached New York the same way for his 2005 novel Specimen Days.

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The first section explores the gothic past of the Industrial Revolution, culminating in the Triangle Waist Factory fire of 1911. The second is a contemporary police procedural plotted around a suicide bomber in the wake of 9/11. And the final part leaps into New York’s distant future of androids and lizard-like aliens. Deepening the interconnections of the three-in-one setting, manifestations of the same three characters appear in each version of New York, weaving a larger plot through the whole of the novel.

You can try this yourself at home. Any home. Everyplace in the world contains a world of plots just under its surface, and its pasts and futures are disguises for its own Right Now. Cunningham could have written Specimen Days in my hometown of Lexington, Va. But I’m glad he didn’t. I’m also glad my class and I will be digging into Bath, England for our inspiration. I hope to find a ghost of my twenty-year-old self wandering the Roman ruins.

And if you’re attending Washington and Lee, or one of the ASE’s other affiliate or participating colleges, you might consider meeting the ghosts of Bath past, present, and future with us. More on that here.

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watchmen cover

I read the first issue of Watchmen while it was still on comic shop shelves back in 1986. Though “read” is the wrong word. A total of three words appear on pages five, six, seven, and eight. No captions. No thought bubbles. No dialogue. Just Rorschach mumbling “Hunh,” “Ehh,” and, my favorite, “Hurm” to himself as he investigates a crime scene. The action is cerebral. No heroes and villains exchanging punches and power blasts. Rorschach notices that the murder victim’s closet is oddly shallow, and then bends a coat hanger to measure it against the depth of the adjacent wall. A further search reveals a secret button, and then a hidden compartment, complete with (SPOILER ALERT!) the Comedian’s superhero costume.

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That’s just nine panels of Gibbons and Moore’s unnarrated 31-panel sequence. I’d never “read” anything like it. Not that Moore had anything against the English language. Look at the pages right before and after the silent sequence. 198 and 199 words each. When chatting, the Watchmen are as wordy as Spider-Man in his 1962 debut. Open Amazing Fantasy #15 and the first two pages clock in at 196 and 234 words each.

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Not many letters shook loose in the leap from Silver to Bronze Age. Take a couple of pages from my personal ur-comic, The Defenders #15 of 1974, and you get 232 and 169. When Omega the Unknown debuted two years later, wordage had shrunk only a little, with pages of 156 and (I hope you realize how annoying it is to count these) 177.

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But now fly back to the Golden Age. Scan Action Comics #1, and the 1938 Superman only muscles out 94 and 95 words. The mean skyrockets if you average in Jerry Siegel’s two-page prose story in the back Superman #1, but DC was only placating a post office regulation for periodical mailing rates requiring magazines to include a minimum of two pages of prose. Marvel included a similar-looking experiment in 1975, dropping single pages of prose into Defenders episodes (the improbably advanced vocabulary included “vacuous,” “belie,” and “veritable.”) My nine-year-old eyes barely skimmed them.

Despite varying word counts, the maximum for a dialogue-heavy panel remains about the same through the decades. Clark and his Daily Star boss cram in 30 words. Same number as the more talkative Omega panels. Peter Parker’s would-be manager leans over him with a 38-word speech bubble.  And the cops investigating the Comedian’s death spit out some 35 words per panel too. Apparently Denny O’Neil and/or Mort Weisinger spelled it out: a six-panel page should have no more 35 words per panel, which means 210 words total.

So dialogue is the comic book’s universal constant. Moore didn’t mess with that. When talking, his characters sound like everybody else. The difference is when they shut up. Before the mid-eighties, comic books were written in an omniscient third person voice. Those pages of prose in 1975 weren’t a freakish contradiction. They were the culmination of the industry’s style, the medium’s secret default setting. The background hum of talk. The author just couldn’t keep his mouth closed. It was as if he didn’t trust all those vacuous little pictures not to belie his veritable story.

“It takes a very sophisticated writer of long experience and dedication,” Will Eisner explains, “to accept the total castration of his words, as, for example, a series of exquisitely written balloons that are discarded in favor of an equally exquisite pantomime.”

There was a lot of castration anxiety from early comic book writers. Jerry Siegel’s Superman captions read like instructions to artist Joe Shuster: “With a sharp snap the blade breaks upon Superman’s tough skin!” Bill Finger’s Batman captions distrust Bob Kane’s pen even more: “The ‘Bat-Man’ lashes out with a terrific right . . . He grabs his second adversary in a deadly headlock . . . and with a might heave . . . sends the burly criminal flying through space.”

Two decades later and Spider-Man was just as redundant: “Wrapped in his own thoughts, Peter doesn’t hear the auto which narrowly misses him, until the last instant! And then, unnoticed by the riders, he unthinkingly leaps to safety—but what a leap it is!” Steve Ditko and Stan Lee tell the core of the origin—the radioactive spider bite—in three panels, speechless but for Peter’s “Ow!” But those three captions cram in 112 words.

Lee understood the complexity of visual story-telling. (The original Amazing Fantasy art boards include his margin note: “Steve—make this a closed sedan. No arms showing. Don’t imply wreckless driving—S.”) But comic book convention mandated narration, regardless of redundancy. Even when working without a script, Ditko covered his pages in empty captions and talk bubbles for Lee to fill in later. In Amazing Spider-Man #1, Spider-Man webs a rocket capsule as it flies past the plane he’s balancing on. The panels are visually self-explanatory, but words were still required. Instead of narrated captions, it’s Spider-Man pointlessly announcing “I hit it!” and “Mustn’t let go!” and “I reached it! But now . . .”

Alan Moore trusted pictures. When captions appear in Watchmen, they contain character speech, usually juxtaposed from a previous panel. When characters stop talking, the frame is silent. Nobody is chattering in a box overhead. The murder victim in the first issue isn’t the Comedian. It’s the narrator.

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Unlike most deaths in comic books, this one was permanent. When Jonathan Lethem and Karl Rusnak created a new Omega the Unknown in 2008, they opened with two pages of wordless panels. Although Rusnak says Steve Gerber, the original writer, “raised the since out-of-favor device of caption narration to an art form,” Lethem still “wasn’t interested in captioning—in fact I wanted to mostly work without it.”

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That goes for most creators today. Look at Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman. Look at Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley’s Ultimate Spider-Man. Look at Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s The Walking Dead.  It’s not just the word counts that changed. Words count differently.

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