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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.

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The end of the world is a comfort. Things have finally and definitively fallen apart, no more struggle, and, most importantly, all the Big Questions are answered. In literary terms, an apocalypse is mystery novel. The word means “uncovering” or “unveiling,” the exegesis Sherlock Holmes performs at the close of every story. Religions promise big reveals in the afterlife, delivered on a first come first served basis, but an end-of-the-world apocalypse provides closure to all readers at once.

Sometimes the answers suck. The Walking Dead apocalypse reveals that God is dead, life is brutal, and death a mockery and negation of all human values. But that’s still an Answer. Mystery solved. Horror usually tips the opposite scale: the universe overflows with supernatural import. Sure, most of the supernatural forces want to flay and eat you, but even when they succeed, the stench of blood and brimstone is still comforting. You finally know what’s what—whether Buffy or the Winchester brothers swoop in at the last-minute or not.

But the biggest horror is an apocalypse that doesn’t reveal anything. That anti-Rapture, the ten-episode adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers, has been airing on HBO this summer. Although I’ve met Tom Perrotta (nice guy, drove him back to his hotel after his reading at UVA a few years ago), I have the blissful ignorance of having not read the novel. So I don’t know how season one will end, and based on ratings, season two is anything but a certainty.

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That’s appropriate for a show about radical uncertainty. Left Behind, the book series Perrotta is at least partially lampooning, delivers the ur-apocalypse of Revelations, complete with an all-mysteries-solved Antichrist at the center of its plot. The Perrotta Apocalypse is way scarier. When 2% of the planet’s population pop out of existence, the leftover 98% are left without any answers. Dr. Who, in the form of Christopher Eccleston’s American-accented clergyman, says it wasn’t God. A three-year congressional report might as well be blank.

That abyss-deep level of not-knowing is too much for some people. Liv Tyler and Any Brenneman join a nihilistic cult of mute chain smokers hell-bent on proving life is worthless. Their evangelical pamphlets are literally blank. They are the show’s zombie horde: they stare at you blankly from the sidewalk outside your living room windows; they buy your church and paint its windows white; they stage protests at commemorations for your vanished loved ones; they break into your home and steal your family photos from their pictures frames.

At least zombies are accidental. Reanimated flesh-eating corpses are random byproducts of a random universe. Perrotta’s zombies choose meaninglessness, abandoning their families and severing all emotional ties and then terrorizing others into adopting their philosophy—while inwardly struggling to maintain it themselves. People secure in their nihilism wouldn’t bother to terrorize or recruit converts or take vows of silence—behaviors as inherently meaningless as all other behaviors.

But the cult is a fundamentalist church. Most non-apocalyptic atheists don’t congregate in the name of non-God. They have better, more meaningful things to do. But being leftover raises the stakes. When the bank forecloses on Eccleston’s church, he gambles the existence of God at a roulette table. But do three double-or-nothing wins equal divine intervention? Are those pigeons gray-feathered messengers of the Supernatural—or are they just brainless birds? Are the voices in the ex-sheriff’s head evidence of his schizophrenia—or did they send a very corporeal, tobacco-chewing hunter to help his son shoot packs of wild dogs? These and many other burning questions will not be answered next week, or any other week.

Perrotta’s teenagers at least know how to channel their universe’s amoral indifference into an app (in addition to “kiss” and “hug,” a game of spin-the-cellphone includes “punch” and “fuck”). They know the baby Jesus in the town’s Christmas display is just a mass consumer object–yet one so haunted with a residue of meaning that burning it isn’t as easy as stealing it. In this world of heightened uncertainty, even the disappearance of a bagel into the bowels of an industrial toaster is enough to trigger existential crisis.

Although this agnostic apocalypse is Rapture-inspired, it reminds me more of Kurt Vonnegut’s brand of godless humanism. Vonnegut’s end-of-the-world revelations challenge basic assumptions of reality: water only freezes when cold, time moves in one direction, gravity is a constant, humans have free will. After a “timequake” causes years of predetermined repetition, humans find themselves suddenly at the metaphorical wheel again and are so unprepared they literally drive into each other. The Leftovers opens with a similar car wreck, a driverless car careening through a not-just-existential crossroads.

Vonnegut founds his own religions too. The Book of Bokonon announces that its teachings are lies, although useful ones, godly untruths that impose order on an unloving universe. Perrotta’s Guilty Remnant can’t cope with such abandonment and so their lies impose an uglier order. Their leader writes on her tablet: “There is no family.” It’s as true/false as any other religious claim. The “Lonesome No More” government in Vonnegut’s Slapstick randomly assigns the population middle names, providing everyone with an extensive family of siblings and cousins to care for them. It’s nonsense, but it also works. There might not be any Supernatural order to your life, but that doesn’t mean you have to act like a soulless zombie.

If that orderless order sounds too frightening for you, wait till October. The powers-that-be are giving the Left Behind franchise a second chance. Nicholas Cage will be our pilot through the end-of-days reboot.

I’d rather take my uncertain chances with The Leftovers.

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The world’s first comic book, Lascaux, was published in France 17,000 years ago. It was a single edition, printed on limestone, and arranged in a pair of strips over 128-feet long. The title refers to the medium (“lascaux” is French for “limestone”), but it is also the genre (cave drawings) as well as the specific work of art. Similarly, “pulp fiction” refers to magazines printed on paper made from wood pulp but later came to mean the tales themselves, eventually inspiring Quentin Tarantino to adopt the term as the title of his 1994 film Pulp Fiction.

Most reviewers refer to the Lascaux creators as “Cro-Magnons,” a generic designation which in this case might literally be true. The bones of the first so-called Cro-Magnons were found in a hole (“creux” in French) on property owned by a farmer named Magnon in a nearby town. Cro-Magnons are people of Magnon’s hole. More specifically, the creators of Lascaux were a loose collective of artists of the Neolithic Publishing Period who signed their work with a symbol resembling the head of a four-pronged pitchfork. This signature has been compared to a graffiti tag, but since it also appears in other caves of the region it probably denotes a clan or congregation and is mostly likely a corporate logo, similar to the globe Atlas Comics used before becoming Marvel in the 1960s. It may also be an umbrella logo like the circled “DC” icon that linked National Allied Publications with its affiliate branches All-American Comics and Detective Comics in the 1940s.

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Since Lascaux was published before France passed its first law protecting authors’ rights in 1793, the artists’ heirs retain no proprietary rights. A court challenge could argue that the 1940 discovery of the cave signifies a new “first” publication, but since copyrights lapse into public domain after seventy years, the point is moot. Four Pronged Publishing went out of business millennia ago and so collects no royalties on the postcards, t-shirts, refrigerator magnets, and other gift shop memorabilia appropriating Lascaux artwork.

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Legal issues aside, the work has influenced comic books for centuries. Reviewers often liken it to Michelangelo’s most acclaimed graphic novel, the Sistine Chapel. The comparison is apt, as the Lascaux artists also painted religious imagery on the ceilings of a temple while lying on their backs suspended by wooden platforms. The scope is also similar, with the largest bull drawing spanning seventeen feet. Michelangelo, however, worked in distinct panels, while Lascaux includes no formal frames or gutter, prefiguring Will Eisner’s use of open page space. The absence of captions and word balloons also influenced later works by Jim Steranko and Alan Moore.

Walt Disney borrowed animation techniques from Four Prongs too. Many of the horses and bulls in the Lascaux are drawn at angled perspectives with the closest front leg straight and the second front leg bent and slightly detached from the body to suggest motion. A single animal may be drawn multiple times in an overlapping row, with head or back end incomplete, to evoke forward progression—a technique copied by numerous artists suggesting the movements of speedsters Flash and Quicksilver. When viewed with Four Prongs candle technology (a hollowed rock filled with reindeer fat and a juniper wick), the moving animals flicker like nickelodeon images.

The artists also innovated crushed minerals for their palette, even for black, avoiding the charcoals favored by their contemporaries. Curators comment on the flawlessness of the artists as revealed by the lack of a single false or erased line in all Lascaux. This impression, however, may be due to the now invisible lines produced by one or more “pencilers” that later “inkers” effectively obscured as they finalized the pages. Credit is also due to the nuanced style of the colorists, whose muted amber bulls influenced Lynn Varley’s award-winning work in The Dark Knight Returns.

Sadly, after its republication in 1940, Lascaux was no longer preserved in its clay-sealed micro-climate—the geological equivalent of an acid-free mylar bag—and so it has been significantly downgraded from its former near-mint condition. As a result, reprints are flooding the market. Lascaux II—a painstakingly reproduced concrete tunnel located near the original—opened in 1983, Lascaux III is currently on tour, and Lascaux IV is in production.

While Lascaux has thrilled equine and bovine enthusiasts for thousands of years, casual readers should be prepared for a narrative told without human main characters. The comic book’s single human figure is located on the cave’s most inaccessible panel and, where many of the bulls and horses possess a slight and mildly Cubist quality of abstraction, the lone man is essentially a stick-figure with what may be a bird’s head and is most definitely a penis. This may in fact be the falcon-headed Horus or the ibis-headed Thoth, both of whom sojourned in Gaul before settling in the Nile valley. Fans of their adventures will also enjoy the comic books of ancient Egypt.

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Friedrich Nietzsche’s alter ego, Zarathustra, answers: “A laughing-stock, a thing of shame.”

Chernin Entertainment and 20th Century Fox answer: “About $170 million.” That’s the budget for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, almost double the price tag of its predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which grossed $176M in 2011.

Or I should say its most immediate predecessor. The original Planet of the Apes was released in 1968 (with a quaint budget under $6M and gross of $26M). It was based on Pierre Boulle’s 1963 French novel La Planète des singes, but that’s not where the evolutionary ladder begins either.

Rise ends with mad scientist James Franco’s creation, a genetically altered super-ape, escaping to the wilds of the Redwood forest to father his own race. That’s how Victor Frankenstein’s creature wanted to end his origin story too. Either way, the creature is humanity’s first “arch-enemy,” the term he uses when Victor refuses to manufacture him a mate. The no-longer-mad doctor fears “a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth, who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror.”

Mary Shelley’s evolved imagination was pure fantasy in 1817, but Darwin made the terror real for Victorians. H. G. Wells named humanity’s predator the “Coming Beast,” describing “some now humble creature” that “Nature is, in unsuspected obscurity, equipping . . . with wider possibilities of appetite, endurance, or destruction, to rise in the fullness of time and sweep homo away.”

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That fullness of time arrives regularly in Hollywood. If not apes, then zombies, aliens or androids are always propagating and making humanity’s condition precarious and terror filled. Some sane scientists take that last threat, the robopocalypse, seriously.

Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk worries about the evolutionary threat of artificial intelligence: “we risk yielding control over the planet to intelligences that are simply indifferent to us . . . just ask gorillas how it feels to compete for resources with the most intelligent species—the reason they are going extinct is not (on the whole) because humans are actively hostile towards them, but because we control the environment in ways that are detrimental to their continuing survival.”

That’s also the plot of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The super-virus that decimated the human population between films is one of those unintended consequences popular in mad scientist plots. Mira Sorvino accidentally breeds an army of six-foot cockroaches after ending a cockroach-spread epidemic in Mimic. Emma Thompson cures cancer in I Am Legend, and next thing vampires rule Manhattan. James Franco’s genetic tampering would have turned everyone into super-geniuses. Or at least everyone who could afford his corporation’s new designer drug. If they’d had a chance to market it, the sequel would have been called Rise of the Planet of the Ubermensch.

“And just the same shall man be to the Superman,” continues Zarathustra, “a laughing-stock, a thing of shame.” No new breed ever cares about its predecessor. And yet Superman and his species of superheroes were born to battle such Coming Beasts. The Fantastic Four kept a subterranean world of monsters from rising up in their first issue. Atlanteans would have swept humanity away if the Human Torch hadn’t doused Namor’s Golden Age attacks. Blade is still staunching the destructive appetites of our vampire competitors. Every comic book is a survival of the fittest, ending with a superman at the top of the food chain.

But screenwriters Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver include no super-saviors in Dawn. The hero type is usually a literal or metaphorical cross-breed who absorbs the threat of the racial other and reverses it to save humanity. Thus cyborg Arnold Schwarzenegger thwarts Skynet, and the Man of Steel thwarts General Zod’s Kryptonian invasion. Dawn would need an ape-man like Tarzan, but instead it’s the super-ape Caesar who was raised by humans and saves his people from us.

Which is a pretty compelling reversal of the formula. The supervillain is Koba, an ape so scared (literally and metaphorically) by humans that his hatred turns him into one. By the end, Caesar says he’s no longer an ape. He’s been completely absorbed by human hatred.

But there’s one flaw in the film’s evolutionary theory. It could have been titled Dawn of the Planet of the Patriarchy. I understand that actual ape culture is male-dominated, but these are scifi apes. They can talk and drive tanks. Surely there’s room for females somewhere in the hierarchy. The lone female ape character, Caesar’s jewelry-wearing wife, lies around giving birth and needing antibiotics. But would every female uber-ape accept the role of stay-at-home mom while the males go off to war?

The human cast is worse. The lone female Home sapiens character spends the movie saying things like, “I should come along in case someone gets hurt and needs a nurse!” She also prepares and serves food for her male campers. I was a part-time stay-at-home dad for years and still do a share of cooking and Band-Aid applying for my campers. But if faced with an ape-ocalypse, my wife and I would divvy up the guns too.

No intelligent species can ignore the skill sets of half its population. Not if the species wants to survive. And the humans in Dawn won’t. If you missed the first movie, there was a brief mention of a space mission to Mars. Those astronauts are scheduled to return (minus Charlton Heston) in July 2016, and I think we all know what Darwin is plotting for them.

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The list of superhero movies made since the 1978 Superman continues to grow exponentially, but I try to give a quick visual nod to each while lecturing in my Superhero course. After class a student told me I made the same remark three times:

“I never saw this, but I hear it’s terrible.”

There’s nothing so pleasantly humbling as a student spotting my professorial shortcomings. I make no apology for not seeing EVERY superhero film in existence, but the three I dismissed—Supergirl (1984), Cat Woman (2004), and Elektra (2005)—all feature female protagonists. In fact, my student noted, they are the ONLY superhero films to feature female protagonists on my list. I could blame Hollywood (is it really that hard to make a Wonder Woman movie?), but as a belated apology, let me offer a corrective instead.

I have seen and thoroughly recommend cinemas’ first catwoman. Not Halle Berry or Michelle Pfeiffer—not even Lee Meriweather from the 1966 Batman spoof. The original bodysuited catburglar padded across screens a century ago. Silent age actress Musidora played the anti-heroine Irma Vep in Louis Feuillade’s seven-hour serial Les Vampires back in 1915.

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Vep (her name’s an anagram) is not a vampire of the blood-sucking variety but the leading member of a crime syndicate terrorizing Paris. Technically Philipe Guérande, the “star reporter” investigating the Vampires, is the serial’s hero, but after debuting in the third episode, Vep dominates. She’s the Vampires’ second in command, out living each of the four Grand Vampires she works beside. They all have their nefarious skill sets—disguise, poisons, paralysis glove, hypnotic eyes, even a retractable cannon fired from an apartment window—but none are as memorable as Musidora in a black bodysuit. She has a bit of the shapeshifting Mystique in her too, since she assumes the identities of her aristocratic victims so seamlessly. She and her Vampires also push the limits of early twentieth century technology, recording a millionaire’s voice on a wax cylinder and playing it over a telephone to authenticate a forged check.

But they’re not thrill-seeking pranksters. Episode one opens with the report of a police inspector’s decapitated body found in a swamp. Thirty minutes later, Philipe is opening a box with the missing head. Vep and her crew later dispatch a businessman with a hair pin through the back of his skull then shuck his body from a moving train. They murder a ballerina because she’s rumored to be Philipe’s fiancé.  They also have a knack for lassoing nooses around people’s necks and yanking them from balconies.

But the image that most haunts me is the ball thrown by a baron for his niece—really the Grand Vampire and Vep in disguise. The Parisian aristocracy gathers for the baron’s midnight “surprise” to find the windows boarded and toxic gas flooding through the vents. Feuillade’s camera is more stationary than many silent film directors’, but he’s a master of deep focus, staging a cascade of background and foreground action within a continuous frame. The gowned and tuxedoed guest flail and wilt across furniture and floors in a tableau of slaughter—followed by the silhouetted Vampires entering through a pair of backlit doors in the distant wall to plunder their jewels. When the police tear the planks from the windows the next morning, the guests miraculously revive (contradicting the verb “asphyxiate” in the translated intertitles).

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Despite the mayhem, Feuillade seems to be rooting for Vep. When Philipe and his comic sidekick capture Vep, she looks like a classic damsel-in-distress.  If you watched episode nine out of sequence, you would mistake her for the heroine, valiantly struggling against her kidnappers. In fact, Vep, more than all the plundered jewels and bank accounts, is the serial’s prize. The first and second Grand Vampires battle against the rival criminal Moreno not just for control of Paris but of Vep. Moreno falls for her, hypnotizes her into loving him, and next she’s gunning down her former boss. When the captured Moreno is executed between episodes (I suspect the actor was called away on war duty), the next Grand Vampire, Venomous, proposes.

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Philipe’s wedding (Feulliade, apparently filming on the fly, introduces his fiancé with equal haste) occurs between episodes, but the final, “The Terrible Wedding,” features the Vampires in rambunctious celebration (I rewound the bodysuited dance duet to watch twice). Again, if watched out of sequence, the gangs looks like a fun-loving pack of pals—until Philipe and the police break in and gun them down. Some scramble for the balcony, but Philipe has sawed the floor so they plunge to the cement below where they writhe and die. It’s a surprisingly brutal ending. Only Vep escapes, sneaking to the basement where the heroes’ captured brides are imprisoned. But Philipe has already lowered a gun to them, and his wife shoots Vep dead just before the heroes enter, embracing their wives before Vep’s corpse. The End.

Feulliade may have been shooting for gritty realism (Paris had recently suffered the reign of the very real Bonnot Gang), but the accumulative effect is surrealism. He also established a host of action tropes still being duplicated— a chase atop a moving train, a hero yelling “Follow that cab!” as he leaps into a backseat, a bad guy swallowing a hidden cyanide capsule, and (since the capsule only induced a temporary comma) a prison break.

Feulliade had ventured into crime serials with Fantomos the year before, but Les Vampires inspired him further, shooting with the same cast for Judex and The New Mission of Judex. The effect is further dizzying, since it’s Musidora, not the titular hero, in the opening scene. Despite the name change, Vep is back, plotting more impersonations and seducing Santanas, the second Grand Vampire—only now he’s some evil banker. Philipe’s been demoted to the hero’s extraneous brother, but his comic sidekick is front and center as a bumbling detective, the proto-Clouseau. It’s like watching the latest Joss Whedon production, waiting to see witch Buffy or Firefly or Dollhouse actor is going to appear next.

Despite hiring a playwright to give Judex relative continuity, Feulliade repeats a few of his Vampire tricks—like throwing a sack over a good guy’s head so when he switches bodies and escapes the bad guys murder one of their own. Sadly when Musidora’s body washes ashore in the final episode, Feulliade doesn’t reprise her for the sequel—so maybe it’s just as well all the prints are lost. The closest we have to a Les Vampires remake is fellow French director Olivier Assayas’ 1996 Irma Vep—a meta-film about the making of a remake (which I also recommend). So pay attention Hollywood. Cinema’s original supervillainess is waiting for her reboot.

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“Both the Joker and Hannibal Lecter were much more fascinating than the good guys,” says Talking Heads singer David Byrne. “Everybody sort of roots for the bad guys in movies.” Byrne was explaining why he wrote “Psycho Killer,” the opening song from their Jonathan Demme concert movie, Stop Making Sense. Demme also filmed The Silence of the Lambs, but that’s almost two decades after Byrne wrote his song, so the origin story doesn’t make much sense either.

Byrne is also a fan of Dadaism and adapted a Hugo Ball poem for the Talking Heads. “I Zimbra” is a string of nonsense syllables, reflecting Ball’s Dada Manifesto: “to dispense with conventional language” and “get rid of everything that smacks of journalism, worms, everything nice and right, blinkered, moralistic, europeanised, enervated.” Similar new wave beats were sweeping through Paris in the early teens where Ball’s avant-garde cousins were rooting for France’s pulp fiction psycho killer, Fantômas.

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I’m no expert in French surrealism, but I’ve stood mesmerized in front of more than one Magritte painting. He, like Jean Cocteau and Guillaume Apollinaire and André Breton, were mesmerized by the figure of a “masked man in impeccable evening clothes, dagger in hand, looming over Paris like a somber Gulliver.” That’s John Ashbery’s description of the iconic cover art for Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain’s 1911 Fantômas, the first in a series of 38 novels featuring the empereur du crime.

The bigger mystery is how a Pulitzer-winning poet came to write the introduction to a reissued translation. Maybe it’s because Ashbery is, according to Ashbery, “sometimes considered a harebrained, homegrown surrealist whose poetry defies even the rules and logic of surrealism,” a description that could also suit Souvestre (a failed aristocrat-lawyer turned automotive journalist) and Allain (Souvestre’s secretary, ghostwriter, and later husband to Souvestre’s flu-widowed wife). Ashbery calls them both “hacks,” their prose “hackneyed,” and their narratives “crude.” Yet Ashbery’s harebrained forefathers declared Fantômas “extraordinary,” its lyricism “magnificent,” and the serial a “modern Aeneid.”

Apollinaire did throw in a “lamely written,” so the surrealists’ praise isn’t entirely surreal, but it doesn’t begin to explain the character’s Gulliver-sized impact on French culture. Ashbery adds to the mystery by listing Fantômas’s many and superior ancestors, including Manfred and Les Miserables. He also mentions the popularity of Nick Carter in France at the time, but he misses how much Souvestre and Allain pilfered from the American pulp. The authors allude to “Cartouche and Vidocq and Rocambole,” but their psycho killer’s most immediate predecessor is Nick Carter’s arch-nemesis, Dr. Quartz.

Carter’s “hack,” Frederic Van Rensselaer Day, introduced the psychopathic genius twenty years earlier. Quartz “wished to defy the police; to defy mankind, because he believed himself to be so much smarter than all other men combined.” He is Nietzsche’s superman, indifferent to “rightdoing and wrongdoing, as we define the two terms” and to “anything human, animal, moral, legal, save only his own inclination.” If you like the scene in Silence of the Lambs where Dr. Lecter displays his gutted guard like an abstract art installation, you’ll just love “Dr. Quartz II, at Bay” when the doctor embalms a railroad car of victims and arranges them like waxworks playing a game of cars.  Or if you like Alan Moore’ Killing Joke when the Joker rigs a funhouse ride to project photos of Commissioner Gordon’s raped and crippled daughter, wait till you see how Fantômas can pose a corpse at the reins of a runaway coach or inside a clock bell so blood rains down with the clanging of the hour.

It would be easy to call them all “evil.” It’s the term we like to use for Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden. But the word is meaningless. It pretends to define what it merely describes. The real horror, the thing that should keep you awake at night, is the absolute absence of evil in the motives of those who commit it. Adolf and Osama were trying to make the world a better place. They thought they were the good guys. David Byrne finds the Joker and Hannibal Lechter fascinating because they’re make-believe. They don’t make sense because they can’t. There’s no root cause to their actions. There’s no mystery to solve, just endless installments.

Nick Carter, le roi des détectives arrived in Paris cinemas in 1908 to rain down multiple sequels and knock-offs, including Louis Feuillade’s Fantômas film adaptation. So Feuillade’s equally acclaimed follow-ups, Les Vampires and Judex, are knock-offs of a knock-off, with scripts improvised around the same actors, costumes, plots, and character types. Souvestre and Allain hand-cranked their prose just as sloppily. Though they exist solely in “conventional language,” their novels may somehow still answer Bell’s directive to “get rid of all the filth that clings to this accursed language . . . the word outside your domain, your stuffiness, this laughable impotence, your stupendous smugness, outside all the parrotry of your self-evident limitedness.” Replace “Dada” with “Fantômas” and Bell’s Manifesto reads:

“How does one achieve eternal bliss? By saying Fantômas. How does one become famous? By saying Fantômas. With a noble gesture and delicate propriety. Till one goes crazy. Till one loses consciousness. How can one get rid of everything that smacks of journalism, worms, everything nice and right, blinkered, moralistic, europeanised, enervated? By saying Fantômas. Fantômas is the world soul, Fantômas is the pawnshop. Fantômas is the world’s best lily-milk soap. Fantômas Johann Fuchsgang Goethe. Fantômas Stendhal. Fantômas Dalai Lama, Buddha, Bible, and Nietzsche. Fantômas m’Fantômas.”

Ultimately Ashbery declares Fantômas a Cubist charade (Picasso and Gris were fans too), and yet one whose “popularity cut across social and cultural strata.” Like a dagger’s blade, you could say. The best monsters are never slain, never contained, but are always plotting new and paradoxically comforting horrors between episodes. A story’s meaning only emerges when it’s over, and so Fantômas was meaningless to the generation who embraced him. He made everything stop making sense.

Ball calls for new words, for an invented language of nonsense—which is what I hear when David Byrne sings his chorus:  “Psycho killer, kiss kiss say.” I obviously don’t know French. But no one, not even the French, knows Fantômas.

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My favorite sandwich as a teenager was named after an Alexander Dumas hero. I still order it at the Greek diner down the street, preferably with curly fries. You take your basic grilled ham and cheese, throw in a couple turkey slices, dunk it in egg batter, and fry, and be sure to have some jam sauce for dipping.

Restaurant reviewer Thadius Van Landingham declares it “a sandwich engulfed in controversy” and “clouded origins.” Some say it’s just a disguised croque monsieur (literally “Mr. Crunch”) served in Paris cafes since 1910. Faux New Orleans restaurants in Disneyland have featured it since 1966 (the year I was born), but the recipe had been wandering American cookbooks since the 30s—though under different aliases. San Francisco and San Diego both claim the monte cristo unmasked in their restaurants first, but L.A. offers a more likely origin story, either at the Brown Derby or Gordon’s, since both catered to the Hollywood crowd. The Son of Monte Cristo, sequel to The Count of Monte Cristo, premiered in 1940, and the rechristened Mr. Crunch debuted on the Gordon’s menu in 1941—I’m guessing as an advertising gimmick.

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The monte cristo does not appear in Alexander Dumas’ Great Dictionary of Cuisine, his posthumous masterwork. “Novelist or cook,” wrote an early admirer, “Dumas is a master, and the two vocations appear to go hand in hand, or, rather, to be joined in one.” His bacon roties (“toasties”) may be a relative of the monte cristo (“Dice a pound of bacon and a slice of ham. Dry out and drain. Mix with parsley, scallions, 4 egg yolks, coarse pepper. Spread on slices of bread. fry.”), but a distant one.

Cookbooks annoy me because there’s usually only one author on the cover, while the work must require whole kitchen staffs of ghostwriters—plus all the uncredited friends and relatives and untold predecessors who knowingly or unknowingly contribute the first drafts of recipes. But Dumas’ culinary dictionary may be the only of his 200-300 books he wrote himself. Even his most famous novels were collaborations. A kitchen of hired assistants cooked up plots and pages for him to spice up and finalize to his tastes. Superman co-creator Joe Shuster employed a studio of artists to similar effect. Auguste Maquet, Dumas’ most prominent sous-chef de aventure, worked for him through the 1840s, unofficially co-authoring both The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. Bob Kane claimed similarly sole authorship of Batman because writer Bill Finger received his paychecks from him not DC. Maquet sued, but the French courts preferred Dumas’s lone wolf tale. Finger (a prolific plagiarist himself) stayed in the kitchen. Neither Dumas nor Kane served up anything of much flavor without their collaborators.

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But The Count of Monte Cristo continues to be served across genres. If Maquet was the plotter, then he mixed both the first convicted-of-a-crime-he-didn’t-commit and revenge-is-best-served-cold recipes. They’re massive chapters in any contemporary dictionnaire de aventure, spanning in comics from Batman to V for Vendetta to Oldboy manga. The framed fugitive Edmond Dantès is also literature’s first secret identity hero and chameleon-like master-of-disguise.  Like “Alexander Dumas” on the cover, the Count is only the first ingredient in a tossed salad of Dantès’ aliases, ranging from priest to bank clerk to Sinbad the Sailor. Also, like a comic book, the novel wasn’t a novel—it was a serial, published in eighteen monthly installments beginning in 1844. It was already an international hit when the Count jumped the channel into English two years later.

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Dumas was a bit of mixed salad himself. His father was Haitian. In the U.S., even abolitionists had trouble believing such a “mulatto” could produce Literature, thinking Frederick Douglass’ editors ghosted his 1845 Narrative of the Life. The last U.S. Presidential election had turned on Polk’s determination to annex Texas as a slave state. France vacillated on slavery, abolishing it for the first time in 1794 (“all men, irrespective of colour, living in the colonies are French citizens and will enjoy all the rights provided by the Constitution”—essentially the opposite of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision), and again while The Count of Monte Cristo was sailing to American book stores—where it would sellout despite its clouded origins.

I imagine it was Dumas, not Maquet, who decided the Count would marry Haydée, the Turkish princess he bought from a slave trader. Louis Hayward, star of The Son of Monte Cristo, doesn’t look particularly mixed, but that’s a U.S. film (and, according to the synopsis, he’s not actually their son anyway). I dipped into some French comics in preparation for my visit and was pleasantly startled by some racial differences. Tarou, Robert Dansler’s 1949 Tarzan knock-off, is, unlike Burrough’s eugenically thoroughbred aristocrat Lord Greystoke, half African, and better still, Mozam is an “African Jungle Lord” drawn non-racistly African (though I fear “mozam” may literally be “nonsense”).

The Count, who’s taken for French, Arab, Roman and Greek, claims no nation and no race. “I am,” he declares, “a cosmopolite.” His shapeshifting ability to “adopt all customs, speak all languages” is a product of his mixed nature, elevating him to the superhuman level of angels, those “invisible beings” whom God sometimes allows “to assume a material form.” The only significant obstacle to his goals is his mortality, “for all the rest I have reduced to mathematical terms. What men call the chances of fate—namely, ruin, change, circumstances—I have fully anticipated, and if any of these should overtake me, yet it will not overwhelm me. Unless I die, I shall always be what I am.”

The monte cristo, declares Van Landingham, “is a jumble of contradictions,” both sweet and savory, a sugary breakfast yet a meaty lunch. It’s a fitting tribute to the contradictory Mr. Dumas and his hero. So far I have seen no monte cristos on French menus, but Mr. Crunch is common. However, I see now that it is his wife, croque Madame, that includes an egg and so is the direct parent of the American superhero sandwich. 

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Carl kruger “I, Carl Kruger, will be dictator of the world!” bellows Bob Kane’s stumpy Napoleon knock-off in Detective Comics No. 33. It’s 1939, so the name and the zeppelins flew in from Nazi Germany, but Carl says he wants to be “Another Napoleon,” France’s most loved/hated ubermensch.

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George Bernard Shaw ranked Napoleon up there with Cromwell and Julius Caesar, “one of those chance attempts at the Superman which occur from time to time in spite of the interference of Man’s blundering institutions.” Nietzsche’s grandmother liked the little guy too (she and little Friedrich lived near some historic battles sites in Saxony). Grown-up Nietzsche listed him among “the worthiest of individuals,” “the more profound and comprehensive men” of the century. “I am apart from all the world,” Bonaparte declared, “and accept conditions from nobody.” When Mrs. Bonaparte accused him of adultery, the emperor bellowed: “I have the right to answer all accusations against me with an eternal ‘That’s me!’”—a line I suspect a true ubermensch would have known not to try.

Since Napoleon’s 1821 autopsy, his adulterous penis has been apart from the rest of his body. A recent researcher said it looks like “a little baby’s finger.”Nietzsche never discusses Napoleon’s penis size, just his dickish will-to-power. He had the manly “instincts of a warrior,” which Nietzsche credits “for the fact that in Europe the man has again become master over the businessman and the philistine.”He liked his supermanly ego too. After an early military victory in Italy, Napoleon “realized that I was a superior being and conceived the ambition of performing great things which hitherto had filled my thoughts only as a fantastic dream.”

Carl’s fantastic dream involves a dirigible of doom, only a slight variation on Napoleon’s supervillainous vision. Except Nietzsche and Shaw saw Napoleon as an evolutionary step forward, a superheroic step up from the villainy of the masses. Baroness Orczy agrees. She calls the French Revolution a “surging, seething, murmuring crowd of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem naught but savage creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and of hate.” Only a superheroic Napoleon could restore order to such egalitarian chaos.

Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel answers the same call, plucking his aristocratic cousins from the guillotine-mouthed mob. Orczy’s family lost its fortunes when Hungarian peasants stormed their estate, so the exiled baroness had a reason to craft a Napoleonic hero—a man with “superhuman effort” and “superhuman cunning” and “almost superhuman strength of will.” Jerry Siegel transformed the foppish half of Sir Percy into Clark Kent, but Superman stole from him too: “the man’s muscles seemed made of steel, and his energy was almost supernatural.”

Orczy published The Scarlet Pimpernel in 1904, but Sir Percy wasn’t the first Napoleon-inspired superhero pulled into the gravity of post-revolutionary France. Orczy opens her novel in 1792, two years after the storming of the Bastille. Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo opens in 1810, during Napoleon’s decade reign, when the author was eight-years-old. Dumas’ father had been a friend and general to Napoleon (campaigning with him in Italy while the future emperor suffered his superior being epiphany), and the two were so close that General Dumas was welcome in his emperor’s boudoir while his emperor was naked in bed with Josephine.

The friendship didn’t last though, and Dumas’s father lingered unransomed as an Italian prisoner-of-war. When a friend burst into Dumas’s boudoir with an idea for a play about Napoleon, Dumas refused: “The injuries Bonaparte had inflicted on my family made me inclined to be unjust toward Napoleon.” Then the friend, a proud Bonapartist, and his friend’s lover, one of Napoleon’s former mistresses and current star actress who enjoyed entertaining guests topless, locked Dumas in her apartment until he completed the 24-scene Napoleon.

Edmond Dantès, Dumas’s self-declared Count, owes his creation to Napoleon too—and not just because Dumas had traveled around the Island of Monte Cristo with Napoleon’s nephew. The Count looks down at humanity, that “race of crocodiles,” from Napoleon’s superhuman height. According to Shaw, Napoleon regarded “mankind as a troublesome pack of hounds only worth keeping for the sport of hunting with them.” A character also likens Monte Cristo to Byron’s Manfred—another proto-ubermensch, born the year after the deposed Napoleon began his finale exile—“who, disinherited of their patrimony, have achieved one by the force of their adventurous genius, which has placed them above the laws of society.”

Dantès is falsely accused of treason, the crime Alfred Burrage reuses for The Spring-Heeled Jack Library series, published in 1904 but set in 1804, the year Napoleon claimed the throne. Of course Dantès is accused of betraying Napoleon, and the English lieutenant Bertram Wraydon of aiding him. Thus the dashing but disinherited young heir turns to a life of superheroic vengeance, complete with a proto-Batman alter ego, costume, secret sanctum, and a superpowered jumping range of thirty feet. Russell Thorndyke sets Dr. Syn: A Smuggler Tale of Romney Marsh sometime before the 1805 naval battle of Trafalgar, while “coast watchmen swept the broad bend of the Channel for the French men-o’-war.” Syn is a mild-mannered vicar and ex-pirate who leads a semi-altruistic smuggling gang and town protectors as the masked Scarecrow. The alias is designed to inspire fear in his foes, “as the name of Napoleon was changed to Boney for the frightening of children by tyrannical nurses in England, so the title of the Scarecrow bore the like qualities on Romney Marsh, for it meant that the power of the smugglers was behind it, and would be used to force obedience to the Scarecrow’s behests.”

Even Isabel Allende can’t resist the Napoleonic allure. The majority of her Zorro prequel is set in Spain between 1810-15 as the nation, fearing “Napoleon will convert Spain into a satellite of France,” overthrew Napoleon’s brother Joseph who Napoleon had plopped on the throne after invading the peninsula. The young Zorro-to-be gains his superheroic education—including swordplay and the art of playing the effeminate fop—as the new democracy “approved a liberal constitution based on the principles of the French Revolution.”

Those principles were in turn based on the American Revolution, which the French monarchy had backed and in the process bankrupted itself, plunging France into financial ruin and then revolutionary headhunting. It’s a paradoxical foundation for democracy, but then our view of those founding principles weren’t always so egalitarian. The narrator of Owen Wister’s The Virginian—riding across bookstore shelves as the Scarlet Pimpernel first pranced across stage—explains:

“It was through the Declaration of Independence that we Americans acknowledged the ETERNAL INEQUALITY of man. For by it we abolished a cut-and-dried aristocracy. We had seen little men artificially held up in high places, and great men artificially held down in low places, and our own justice-loving hearts abhorred this violence to human nature. Therefore, we decreed that every man should thenceforth have equal liberty to find his own level. By this very decree we acknowledged and gave freedom to true aristocracy, saying, ‘Let the best man win, whoever he is.’ Let the best man win! That is America’s word. That is true democracy. And true democracy and true aristocracy are one and the same thing.”

And the best men, it turns out, are true aristocrats like Bruce Wayne, while little men like Napoleon-wannabe Carl Kruger end up in plane wreckage by the final panels of Detective Comics No. 33. Even Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov—a man who “wanted to become a Napoleon” and murders to prove he’s of a class of “superior” persons to “whom the law does not apply”—repents for “following his example.” It turns out that even in Czar-ruled Russia, a “sickly, stupid, ill-natured” pawnbroker is more than a “louse” or “black-beetle.” Unless you’re Napoleon. He and the above-the-law supermen he inspired are both products of democracy and its worst enemies.

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