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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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My son texts me: “In dungeons and dragons I created hawk-eye, Hulk and Thor”

This is a major breakthrough, even better than downloading superhero mods into Minecraft because it requires his own creative mixing. His uber-Aryan is a human paladin with a demigod destiny and an epic-tier artifact hammer. For the Hulk, you start with a human warden and multi-class him to get a monk’s unarmed strike while wearing bloodweave armor. Mix enchanted arrows and a throwing shield with bow-mastery and brawler talent, and Hawkeye and Captain America are ready to go too. I think he chiseled Iron Man from living metal.

It’s my favorite thing about superhero teams, how gods and aliens and androids can join forces, all their discordant realities merged in the ultimate melting pot of action-packed fantasy. Tolkien didn’t invent the genre, but he assembled one of the first super-teams. He would take it further with Lord of the Rings, but his first team of adventurers mixed dwarves with a hobbit and a human wizard. It was 1937. The Hobbit made a case for diversity in a time of Aryan purity.

Hitler had barred Jews from the German Olympic team the summer before. The “part-Jewish” fencer Helene Mayer was Berlin’s token exception, and she medaled, along with nine other Jewish athletes from other nations. The biggest winner was Jesse Owens with four golds, including a world record set with his relay teammates. Hitler left the stadium rather than shake a non-Aryan hand. In Berlin Owens stayed in all-whites hotel, but back home, he had to use a freight elevator to attend his own banquet. FDR, afraid of losing the Southern vote, snubbed him too.

Hitler wanted to cleanse Germany of ethnic diversity, believing it would return the splendor of ancient Greece and Rome. But go further back, and evolutionary geneticist Mark Thomas calls ancient Europe a “Lord of the Rings-type world,” with multiple human races co-existing for dozens of millennia. In addition to Early Modern Humans (including the hominids formerly known as Cro-Magnon), you got your standard Neanderthals, plus their recently discovered neighbors, the Denisovans. Instead of segregating themselves on separate continents, the three hung out together in Spanish and Siberian caves.

“It is possible,” writes Carl Zimmer for the New York Times, “that there are many extinct human populations that scientists have yet to discover.”

Old school theories didn’t like the idea of Homo sapiens coming in flirting range with other groups after marching out of Africa, but analysis of a Neanderthal toe bone proves the ancient races didn’t keep to their prudish selves. If you have type 2 diabetes, you probably have a branch of Neanderthal relatives on your 50,000-year-old family tree.  The gene is biggest in the Americas, so the colony of Virginia was way too late when they passed the hemisphere’s first anti-miscegenation law in 1691. Since early humans didn’t discover Neanderthal love until after they’d exited Africa, Virginia’s slave population was the genetically purest on the continent. Even Englishman Ozzy Osbourne flunked the one-drop rule. He had his DNA sequenced in hopes of finding a “plausible medical reason why I should still be alive” given “the swimming pool or booze” and drugs he’d guzzled. The answer wasn’t racial hygiene.

Denisovans are crashing family reunions too. Europeans carry some Denisovan blood, but the biggest pockets are in Australia and New Guinea, with Brazil and China claiming some of the best Neanderthal-Denisovan mix. Denisovans also share about 8% of their genome with some million-year-old species, so that’s more bad news for Racial Purity Clubs worldwide. We are all, says computational biologist Rasmus Nielsen, “connected to other species.”

Robert E. Howard agrees. The father of sword and sorcery renamed ancient Eurasia “Hyboria” and populated it with a mixed-race of arctic warriors descended from the lost continent of Thuria.  The survivors of Atlantis devolved into ape-men, and the former Lemurians came westward, “overthrowing the pre-humans of the south.” This is about 20,000 years ago, after Neanderthals and Denisovans had given way to Homo sapiens. Howard published his first Conan the Cimmerian story in 1932. Conan’s people would evolve into Celts by 9500 BC and Conan into Arnold Schwarzenegger by 1982.“The origins of the other races of the modern world,” Howard writes, “may be similarly traced. In almost every case, older far than they realize, their history stretches back into the mists of the forgotten Hyborian Age…”

Howard committed suicide in June 1936, three weeks before Jesse Owens took his first Olympic gold. That left the Weird Tales realm of sword and sorcery undefended when Tolkien invaded the following year. Like any conqueror, he renamed everything, so Hyboria became Middle-earth. Both ages took place in Earth’s lost history, though Tolkien admits “it would be difficult to fit the lands and events (or ‘cultures’) into such evidence as we possess, archaeological or geological, concerning the nearer or remoter part of what is now called Europe.”

Tolkien’s reign ended with his death in 1973, and the realm was again defenseless during the Dungeons & Dragons invasion of 1974. I dabbled in a game or two with college roommates in the early 80s and now order second-hand copies of user guides and monster manuals for my son who organizes weekend adventures with fellow middle schoolers. I even found him a 2000 Marvel mini-series called Avataarz, featuring D&D versions of Captain America, the Hulk, Hawkeye and other sundry Avengers. He was disappointed it didn’t include their character sheets, but he’s good at building his own. Fantasy is in his blood.

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He and my wife and I watched The Hobbit parts 1 and 2 together and have been waiting for the last installment. We skipped the Conan the Barbarian reboot, as did most of the world’s Cimmerian-descended population, but rumor has it Arnold will be returning to Hyboria soon. His last super-team included Grace Jones and Wilt Chamberlain, but I’m sure Hollywood can assemble an even more discordant melting pot of a cast. That’s what the genre is all about.

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I don’t know his name, just his origin. He starts out as a standard lab-coated scientist, arms stretched into a pair of wall-mounted containment gloves as he peers through an observation window at a glowing meteorite in his rubbery fingers. The protective wall is thick, which is why he survives the explosion. When he wakes in a hospital bed, he’s blind and armless. He’ll later grow phantom limbs—literally, their outlines are hazy with the meteorite’s mysterious energy—plus multi-dimensional vision, but first he has to face the horror of his ruined body.

The images look like comic book panels, drawn in Marvel house style c. 1980, but they exist only in my head. I’m remembering one of my adolescent daydreams. I never named my would-be superhero, so I’m retroactively dubbing him: Post-Traumatic Growth Man.

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Jim Rendon introduced me to the term. Psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun coined it in 1995, and Rendon wrote about it in his New York Times Magazine “Post-Traumatic Stress’s Surprisingly Positive Flip Side.” Rendon is expanding the article into a book for Simon and Schuster now, and he emailed my university address looking for a professor willing to talk superheroes. He said he was hoping to learn more from me, but he’d already done his homework:

“It is the archetypal story of the hero who is forged through adversity by completing a life-threatening quest, suffering the loss of loved ones, surviving the destruction of home. Through survival of trauma, the hero becomes a great and selfless leader. And in popular culture narratives, nearly every comic book hero suffers some loss that spurs him or her to greatness–Batman, Spiderman, Superman, etc.”

I suggested he read Austin Grossman’s 2007 superhero novel Soon I Will Be Invincible. Grossman told an interviewer that trauma is “the motivating, defining attribute of the superhero. I guess it’s kind of the hopeful element of superhero comics; the idea of the trauma that shapes you is not just pain; it’s also the thing that makes you special . . . .” Video game designer Jane McGonigal explored that same “hopeful element” when creating “SuperBetter” in which her superheroic avatar “Jane the Concussion Slayer” helped her overcome a real-life injury. But, Rendon asked me, where did this defining superhero attribute come from?

Well, Nietzsche, the man who gave us the ubermensch, said it first: “what does not kill me makes me stronger.” Jerry Siegel borrowed more than just the name. Look at Superman No. 1 and there’s Clark staring at a pair of gravestones: “The passing away of his foster-parents greatly grieved Clark Kent. But it strengthened a determination that had been growing in his mind.” Bruce Wayne’s superheroic response to his parents’ murders is even more overt: “And I swear by the spirits of my parents to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals.”

But both origins were add-ons. Batman patrolled Detective Comics for six issues before an editor demanded Bob Kane provide an explanation. Superman No. 1 was a reprint of Action Comics adventures with an expanded origin that retconned Clark’s foster parents. In the first one-page origin, a passing motorist drops the alien baby at an orphanage. All those traumatically dead parents were afterthoughts.

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Before the late 30s, superheroes didn’t know much about Post-Traumatic Growth. Doc Savage, the Shadow, Zorro, the Gray Seal, the Scarlet Pimpernel, all their do-goodery was equal parts altruism and thrill-seeking. Trauma didn’t fully hit the pulps till 1939, when the Black Bat got a face full of acid, and the Avenger’s family perished in a plane crash. Batman and Superman lost their ad hoc parents the same year, and soon almost every Golden Age hero—Green Arrow, the Flash, Plastic Man—had to have his own special tale of superhuman recovery.

U.S. Army recruits wouldn’t ship out for three years, but war was raging in Europe, and the comics are a surprisingly perceptive flip side to front page headlines. There are also some PTG tales earlier in the decade (the Domino Lady’s dad was murdered by gangsters), so Rendon wondered aloud on the phone whether the trope might be a national recovery tale: the U.S. rising heroically from its Depression. I like both those readings, but I don’t think superheroes really start growing, post-traumatically or otherwise, till the 60s. Stan Lee knew how to make a hero suffer.

Most unitard-wearers slap a defining symbol on their chest, a bit of iconic lip service to that supposedly life-transforming trauma, but Jack Kirby didn’t even draw a costume for the Thing. His body is his on-going disaster, one that extends well beyond the frames of this origin story. Peter Parker, like most Marvelites, should have died of radiation poisoning, but it’s the mental anguish of allowing his uncle to be murdered that spurs him to atonement. The crippled Donald Blake is just wobbling through his life until he finds a cane that transforms him into a god of thunder. After Tony Stark trips a jungle booby-trap (“Impossible to operate! Cannot live longer than a week!), he manufactures “a mighty electronic body, to keep [his] heart beating after the shrapnel reaches it!” For Doctor Strange’s fourth issue, Lee and Steve Ditko retconned a career-ending car accident that turned the wealthy neurosurgeon into a penniless vagabond—and then the Sorcerer Supreme.

By 1964, Lee had exhausted his creative reserves, introducing his last but most post-traumatic superhero. After saving a blind man in a crosswalk, young Matt Murdock lies in a hospital bed, his head heavily bandaged after being struck by a radioactive cylinder that fell from the speeding truck.

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NURSE: “Your son is a very brave lad, Mr. Murdock! You must try to be as equally brave in the days ahead!

DAD: “If . . . if only it had happened to ME instead of him!”

MATT: “Don’t, Dad! It could be worse! Even if I DO lose my sight . . . at least I’m ALIVE!”

That surprisingly positive attitude pays off two panels later. “I don’t get it!” says the now super-athletic Matt. “I seem able to do everything lots betters than before . . . even without my sight!” Throw in “razor sharp” senses and “built-in radar” and Daredevil is the PTG poster boy—but only because he remains blind. He’s why Grossman sees “the larger theme of superhero life as trauma and recovery from trauma; the way superpowers arise in trauma to the body that one never quite gets over. The trauma impresses itself onto the body but also leads to a hyperfunctioning of the body.”

That larger theme impressed itself on me too. My nameless but mutilated scientist and his eventually phantom-limbed persona were the unexamined DNA of Bronze Age comics. I absorbed the trope like radiation, and it filtered back out through my adolescent daydreams. And now Jim Rendon is studying it under his journalistic microscope. His book, Upside: Transforming Trauma into Growth, is due out in 2015–just in time for Daredevil’s premiere on Netflix. I’m looking forward to both.

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It took almost a half century, but Fox and Warner Bros. finally put aside their film rivalry to co-release Batman: The Complete Television Series last month. It makes me want to drag my parents back together and sit them down on my living room couch to watch.

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I had no idea why they were laughing the first time we watched the show together. It seemed like a pretty serious situation to me: Batman facing down that dastardly cowboy villain “Shame.” They were sitting with me on the couch in the den, enjoying the apparently hilarious subtleties of Adam West’s superheroic performance. If I can trust the episode guide I skimmed online, this is February 1968. Which puts me a little under the age of two. So maybe we were watching a rerun?

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Whatever my extremely prepubescent age, I’m sure I had zero idea what Eartha Kit was doing in that slinky Catwoman costume. Nowadays I squirm just hearing the late Ms. Kit’s “Santa Baby” rasping from my favorite Christmas mix. I assume Julie Newmar’s Catwoman was equally incomprehensible. No smoldering voice, but the same cartoon-tight faux leather.

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I don’t know when a kid’s sexuality kicks in (“When did you first suspect your might be straight?”), but I must have had a thing for good girls early on. Because Batgirl I noticed. Yvonne Craig in costume still produces an impressive Google search.

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I sat through an entire episode of That Girl waiting for Marlo Thomas to open that secret compartment in her apartment wall and motorcycle out of the alley with her cape fluttering (I swore my mother had said the show was Bat Girl). But when Ms. Craig appeared on Star Trek as a green-skinned seductress who lap dances for Spock and lures Kirk onto a dimly lit bed, nothing in me recognized her. Apparently my pre-pre-adolescent id didn’t go for scantily clad She-Hulk types.

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“Spidey,” PBS’ mute Spider-Man mutation, premiered on The Electric Company when I was seven. I was too busy blinking at my first full TV crush to take notice of him. I’m relieved to report no nostalgic reactions to The Electric Company cast portraits I just scrolled through. I can’t even figure out which actress arrested my attention. Rita Moreno is my best guess. According to her online bio though, she would have been around forty at the time. I’m even more surprised looking back at the shows advertising slogan:

“We’re going to turn you on!”

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This may also be the year I started first grade, the year of my first crush on a non-TV entity. Her name was Marisa Moesta. Not quite as snappy as Lois Lane, but I understood the allure of comic book alliteration from an early age. I can’t picture Ms. Moesta, just the pink poodle key ring she gave me after I’d given her my own trinket of affection—what I can’t remember. But I carried her poodle in my utility belt for years. Though not, thankfully, to the Batcave of my current home.

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Wonder Woman premiered next, with Lynda Carter “In your satin tights / Fighting for your rights.” I had less interest in her underoos than my own. Ditto for Isis. Even I knew they’d only made her up to give the Shazam! Hour‘s Captain Marvel a girlfriend.

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My wife remembers Electra Woman and Dyna Girl, a female spin on the old Batman and Robin gag. I must have been too lazy to stand up and channel surf. Which is just as well since Dyna looks like she might have been my type. Those brunette ponytails. Electra’s Farah Fawcett curls still horrify.

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I’m sure I was continuing to miss subtleties, but my parents weren’t beside me on the couch anymore. When I set my smiley face alarm for cartoons one Saturday morning (Batman and Robin had recently guest starred on Scooby-Do), my mother was sleeping on the fold-out mattress in the den. I don’t know when they told my sister and me they were divorcing, but it was on that couch, the TV off for a change.

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When Batgirl and Robin showed up on a 30-second public-service announcement, it was some other guy in the Batman costume. Adam West was gone, desperate to escape his Caped Crusader’s shadow, a mission he would never complete. If Batman hadn’t been cancelled back in 1968, ABC would have broken up the Dynamic Duo anyway. Robin was to be replaced by Yvonne Craig’s more popular Batgirl. But bad ratings killed them all.

Congress had passed the Federal Equal Pay Act a decade earlier, but employers were still ignoring it. I don’t know if that included the University of Pittsburgh. After moving out, my mother got a job as an assistant in one of their research labs. My sister and I helped her feed rats on weekends. It couldn’t have been much above minimum wage. I doubt Batman: The Complete Television Series includes the PSA, but I remember every second:

Batman and Robin are tied to a warehouse pillar.

NARRATOR: A ticking bomb means trouble for Batman and Robin.

Batgirl swings through a window.

ROBIN: Holy breaking and entering, it’s Batgirl!

BATMAN: Quick, Batgirl, untie us before it’s too late.

BATGIRL: It’s already too late. I’ve worked for you for a long time, and I’m paid less than Robin.

Robin sneers.

BATGIRL: Same job, same employer means same pay for men and women.

BATMAN: No time for jokes, Batgirl.

BATGIRL: It’s no joke. It’s the Federal Equal Pay law.

ROBIN: Holy act of Congress!

Batgirl moves the minute hand forward on the ticking bomb.

BATGIRL (voice over): If you’re not getting equal pay, then contact the Wage and Hour Division, U.S. Department of Labor.

At least Yvonne Craig and Robin actor Burt Ward were paid the same for the commercial: $0. The PSA started airing in 1973, when Craig was thirty-six. My mother was thirty-four. Craig’s final appearance as Batgirl also marked the end of her acting career. When she couldn’t get parts, she moved on to producing and then real estate.

Lynda Carter held on to her magic lasso for four seasons, but it didn’t matter. The joke was over. The Incredible Hulk was the new, angsty breed of superhero. No camp, no gratuitous display of women in swimsuits and bodystockings, just the brooding Bill Bixby wandering away alone once a week. By the time The Greatest American Hero premiered, I’d already turned off the TV.

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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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262

“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.

jane

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.

Taylor_Swift_-_1989

 

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