I visited Bath, England during spring break of my senior year in college. That was over a quarter century ago, so my memories are “historical” rather than “contemporary.” They may even shade into “speculative” since memory warps with each recollection, transforming real locations into alternate realities. I’ll be able to gauge the extent of my idiosyncratic warping when I return to Bath next June. I’m teaching a creative writing class for Advanced Studies in England, a study abroad program for U.S. college students.
My course is “Writing Bath: Historical, Contemporary, Speculative Fiction,” but I considered calling it “Right Here, Only More So.” There’s a Laurie Anderson song (also from a quarter century ago) that opens with the line: “Paradise is exactly like where you are right now . . . only much, much better.” And there’s an even older truism about science fiction: “The future is now, only more so.” That’s a particularly good definition of speculative fiction, and combined with Anderson’s spin on place, it sums up my approach to fiction writing.
I open my introductory course (the one I teach in Virginia, not England) with an observation exercise: list sensory details. Since we’re sitting in a classroom, the results usually include the ticking of a clock, the scent of chalk, the glow of fluorescent bulbs, the press of a chair back against your spine. If you dig a little deeper, those details get much, much better: the conch-shell murmur of AC vents, the convergence of shadows as a pen tip touches paper, the pendulum sway of an earring.
Any location can yield unlimited details. And though a classroom in rural Virginia is as good a place as any to dig down, imagine if the classroom is in Bath, England. Those are Roman ruins under the sensory top soil. So after exploring the contemporary, I’ll send my students off in time machines to land anywhere they like in the two thousand years of Bath history. And when they get back, we’ll spin the controls in the opposite direction and speculate about the city’s diverging futures.
Although historical fiction and science fiction seem like opposites—one’s in the past, the other the future—they’re both not in the present, and so, unlike contemporary fiction that borrows from immediate reality, they are alternate worlds that have to be imaginatively constructed. Contemporary fiction is an imaginatively constructed alternate world too, but you get to cheat a bit because readers will do more of the setting work by filling in familiar details themselves. But the past and future require more authorial effort.
The past of historical fiction isn’t the past. It’s an invented past. What are Roman sandals made of? How do they lace up? Where do they chafe? I have no idea. But my students will also take a course called The Romans in Britain, and combine that with contemporary interpolation (ie, it hurts to walk on a blister), and suddenly first-century Bath will be within strolling distance. The Triumph of Georgian Bath will give them enough architectural know-how to conjure other moments of history into equally concrete existence.
Speculative fiction at first seems comparatively boundless. History books are filled with verifiable events, while the future is unwritten. But the future is made of the same stuff as any historical story: the present, only more so. What does a hovercraft sound like when it’s landing? I have no idea. But I can pluck details from my world—the whir of my half-clogged lawn mower—because the mundane really is much much better for building something non-existent. And if you do your building in Bath, England, your range of the mundanely contemporary is also sunk deep in the paradoxically here-but-not-here historical. Three worlds, one place.
I get no points for creativity though. Michael Cunningham approached New York the same way for his 2005 novel Specimen Days.
The first section explores the gothic past of the Industrial Revolution, culminating in the Triangle Waist Factory fire of 1911. The second is a contemporary police procedural plotted around a suicide bomber in the wake of 9/11. And the final part leaps into New York’s distant future of androids and lizard-like aliens. Deepening the interconnections of the three-in-one setting, manifestations of the same three characters appear in each version of New York, weaving a larger plot through the whole of the novel.
You can try this yourself at home. Any home. Everyplace in the world contains a world of plots just under its surface, and its pasts and futures are disguises for its own Right Now. Cunningham could have written Specimen Days in my hometown of Lexington, Va. But I’m glad he didn’t. I’m also glad my class and I will be digging into Bath, England for our inspiration. I hope to find a ghost of my twenty-year-old self wandering the Roman ruins.
And if you’re attending Washington and Lee, or one of the ASE’s other affiliate or participating colleges, you might consider meeting the ghosts of Bath past, present, and future with us. More on that here.
I read the first issue of Watchmen while it was still on comic shop shelves back in 1986. Though “read” is the wrong word. A total of three words appear on pages five, six, seven, and eight. No captions. No thought bubbles. No dialogue. Just Rorschach mumbling “Hunh,” “Ehh,” and, my favorite, “Hurm” to himself as he investigates a crime scene. The action is cerebral. No heroes and villains exchanging punches and power blasts. Rorschach notices that the murder victim’s closet is oddly shallow, and then bends a coat hanger to measure it against the depth of the adjacent wall. A further search reveals a secret button, and then a hidden compartment, complete with (SPOILER ALERT!) the Comedian’s superhero costume.
That’s just nine panels of Gibbons and Moore’s unnarrated 31-panel sequence. I’d never “read” anything like it. Not that Moore had anything against the English language. Look at the pages right before and after the silent sequence. 198 and 199 words each. When chatting, the Watchmen are as wordy as Spider-Man in his 1962 debut. Open Amazing Fantasy #15 and the first two pages clock in at 196 and 234 words each.
Not many letters shook loose in the leap from Silver to Bronze Age. Take a couple of pages from my personal ur-comic, The Defenders #15 of 1974, and you get 232 and 169. When Omega the Unknown debuted two years later, wordage had shrunk only a little, with pages of 156 and (I hope you realize how annoying it is to count these) 177.
But now fly back to the Golden Age. Scan Action Comics #1, and the 1938 Superman only muscles out 94 and 95 words. The mean skyrockets if you average in Jerry Siegel’s two-page prose story in the back Superman #1, but DC was only placating a post office regulation for periodical mailing rates requiring magazines to include a minimum of two pages of prose. Marvel included a similar-looking experiment in 1975, dropping single pages of prose into Defenders episodes (the improbably advanced vocabulary included “vacuous,” “belie,” and “veritable.”) My nine-year-old eyes barely skimmed them.
Despite varying word counts, the maximum for a dialogue-heavy panel remains about the same through the decades. Clark and his Daily Star boss cram in 30 words. Same number as the more talkative Omega panels. Peter Parker’s would-be manager leans over him with a 38-word speech bubble. And the cops investigating the Comedian’s death spit out some 35 words per panel too. Apparently Denny O’Neil and/or Mort Weisinger spelled it out: a six-panel page should have no more 35 words per panel, which means 210 words total.
So dialogue is the comic book’s universal constant. Moore didn’t mess with that. When talking, his characters sound like everybody else. The difference is when they shut up. Before the mid-eighties, comic books were written in an omniscient third person voice. Those pages of prose in 1975 weren’t a freakish contradiction. They were the culmination of the industry’s style, the medium’s secret default setting. The background hum of talk. The author just couldn’t keep his mouth closed. It was as if he didn’t trust all those vacuous little pictures not to belie his veritable story.
“It takes a very sophisticated writer of long experience and dedication,” Will Eisner explains, “to accept the total castration of his words, as, for example, a series of exquisitely written balloons that are discarded in favor of an equally exquisite pantomime.”
There was a lot of castration anxiety from early comic book writers. Jerry Siegel’s Superman captions read like instructions to artist Joe Shuster: “With a sharp snap the blade breaks upon Superman’s tough skin!” Bill Finger’s Batman captions distrust Bob Kane’s pen even more: “The ‘Bat-Man’ lashes out with a terrific right . . . He grabs his second adversary in a deadly headlock . . . and with a might heave . . . sends the burly criminal flying through space.”
Two decades later and Spider-Man was just as redundant: “Wrapped in his own thoughts, Peter doesn’t hear the auto which narrowly misses him, until the last instant! And then, unnoticed by the riders, he unthinkingly leaps to safety—but what a leap it is!” Steve Ditko and Stan Lee tell the core of the origin—the radioactive spider bite—in three panels, speechless but for Peter’s “Ow!” But those three captions cram in 112 words.
Lee understood the complexity of visual story-telling. (The original Amazing Fantasy art boards include his margin note: “Steve—make this a closed sedan. No arms showing. Don’t imply wreckless driving—S.”) But comic book convention mandated narration, regardless of redundancy. Even when working without a script, Ditko covered his pages in empty captions and talk bubbles for Lee to fill in later. In Amazing Spider-Man #1, Spider-Man webs a rocket capsule as it flies past the plane he’s balancing on. The panels are visually self-explanatory, but words were still required. Instead of narrated captions, it’s Spider-Man pointlessly announcing “I hit it!” and “Mustn’t let go!” and “I reached it! But now . . .”
Alan Moore trusted pictures. When captions appear in Watchmen, they contain character speech, usually juxtaposed from a previous panel. When characters stop talking, the frame is silent. Nobody is chattering in a box overhead. The murder victim in the first issue isn’t the Comedian. It’s the narrator.
Unlike most deaths in comic books, this one was permanent. When Jonathan Lethem and Karl Rusnak created a new Omega the Unknown in 2008, they opened with two pages of wordless panels. Although Rusnak says Steve Gerber, the original writer, “raised the since out-of-favor device of caption narration to an art form,” Lethem still “wasn’t interested in captioning—in fact I wanted to mostly work without it.”
That goes for most creators today. Look at Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman. Look at Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley’s Ultimate Spider-Man. Look at Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s The Walking Dead. It’s not just the word counts that changed. Words count differently.
I don’t know if Victor Hugo was gay. But I do know he wrote some of his most influential work from exile—including political pamphlets, three books of poetry, and Les Misérables, a historical novel about the French Revolution that he “meant for everyone.” Hugo describes it like a superhero answering a cry for aid: “Wherever men go in ignorance or despair, wherever women sell themselves for bread, wherever children lack a book to learn from or a warm hearth, Les Miserables knocks at the door and says: ‘open up, I am here for you.’”
I did not see Les Mis, either on stage or on screen, but my kids went with their Nana after my wife and I escaped for our own outing: fancy dinner (turns out steak tartare is a raw hamburger), romantic movie (Jennifer Lawrence is a shape-shifting genius even when not playing a blue-skinned mutant), and historic B&B (former haunt of musical legend Oscar Hammerstein). We had a better time than the kids. My son was not wooed by Hugh “Wolverine” Jackman, and my daughter would not list on-set singing among his superpowers.
But the X-Men casting choice did spotlight some secrets in the musical’s origin story. Both literary blogger Chrisbookarama and Slate culture editor David Haglund declared Jean Valjean a “superhero.” They note his dual identity (alias “Monsieur Madeleine”), his superpowers (the strength of “four men”), and his arch nemesis, Inspector Javert (inspired by real-life detective Eugène François Vidocq). There’s even an unmasking scene:
“One morning M. Madeleine was passing through an unpaved alley” where an “old man named Father Fauchelevent had just fallen beneath his cart.” A jack-screw would arrive in fifteen minutes, but “his ribs would be broken in five.” Madeleine sees “there is still room enough under the cart to allow a man to crawl beneath it and raise it with his back,” and he offers five, ten, then “twenty louis” to anyone willing to try. Javert, “staring fixedly at M. Madeleine,” declares: “I have never known but one man capable of doing what you ask.” Although Valjean is breaking the law by disguising his past as a convict, he “fell on his knees, and before the crowd had even had time to utter a cry, he was underneath the vehicle.” Even the old man, “one of the few enemies” Valjean has made as Madeleine and then only from jealousy, is begging him to give up, when “Suddenly the enormous mass was seen to quiver, the cart rose slowly, the wheels half emerged from the ruts,” and “Old Fauchelevent was saved.”
“Just like a superhero,” writes Haglund, “outed by the noble use of his super strength.”
My daughter assured me the film framed it as a burst of Hulk-like adrenaline, but Victor Hugo was going for much more. Although Valjean emerges in torn clothes and “dripping with perspiration,” he “bore upon his countenance an indescribable expression of happy and celestial suffering” as the old man calls him “the good God.”
It’s the self-sacrificing yet self-ennobling choice saviors make every day. Even Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ wants to hide in a mild-mannered lifestyle, before fully accepting the job of super-savior. Ditto for Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker and Michael Chiklis’s Ben Grimm. A hundred years earlier, O. Henry’s safe-popping Jimmy Valentine outs his Valjean past by saving a child from suffocating in the town bank vault. Philip Wylie’s superhuman Hugo Danner longs for the quiet life too, but fate slams another would-be victim into another character-revealing bank vault.
And there’s always a Javert standing right there trying to glimpse your secret self. Jimmy has detective Price on his trail (though in a typical O. Henry twist, he lets his Valjean go). That pesky tabloid reporter followed Bill Bixby for five seasons, always ready to snap a picture when Lou Ferrigno burst out during the emergency-of-the-week. Like Les Mis director Tom Hooper, the CBS team decided their Incredible Hulk was just a burst of green adrenaline, the kind that allows Clark Kents to shoulder cars off endangered loved ones. That’s the phenomenon Bixby’s Banner is researching before his laboratory mishap, his atonement for failing to save his wife when fate dropped Fauchelevent’s oxcart on her.
But Haglund’s comment unmasks another kind of outing. When my former department colleague and next door neighbor Chris Matthews read that Slate article “Why Tween Boys Love Les Miz,” he emailed me about Hagland’s “silent premise,” the implication “that there’s something weird about boys liking musicals.” And we know what alter ego lurks under that tale-tell proclivity. “The figure of the musical-loving boy or man,” says Chris, “has long functioned as both an element of gay male identity and as a handy stereotype for mocking ‘effeminate’ men, gay or not.”
I noticed plenty of family photos decorating the Hammerstein B&B, evidence that Rodgers was his partner in the strictly professional sense. But it did occur to me to check. GLBTQ, the online encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender & queer culture, lists Hammerstein as “apparently quite straight,” but the site still can’t explain “the attachment many gay men have to the musical theater or the fact that in the popular imagination a passion for showtunes is practically a marker for homosexuality.”
Les Misérables premiered in 1980, twenty years after Hammerstein’s death, ninety-five after Victor Hugo’s. I was fourteen, Chris’s age when he saw it on stage. Haglund was nine his first time, so his pubescent body wasn’t bursting through his sweaty clothes just yet. Maybe that’s why he remains a tone-deaf Javert when it comes to identity-shifting. He sounds relieved that a superheroic explanation for Miz-loving boys hit him while watching Jackman belting it out. Why Do Tween Boys Love Superheroes? Because they’re not “weird.” He thinks his men-in-tights insight is “more particular” to boys, even though both sexes get equally erotic eyefuls of Jackman’s shirtless flexing. Sorry, David, but as my former neighbor points out: Hugh is hot.
Chris, by the way, is not gay. At least not in the I-like-to-have-sex-with-other-men sense. Like my and Hammmerstein’s homes, his is decorated with family photos. He claims to be “terribly low on football-related and power-tool-based conversation,” but wow can he unman me on a racquetball court—an advantage none of my Hulk-like adrenaline can match. Chris also grew up in the apparently quite straight world of comic books. While his tween-self was singing along to the Les Mis soundtrack, he was flipping pages of Spider-Man and Moon Knight. “Superheroes were not the guise of normalcy I wore over the shameful secret of loving a musical,” he says, “they were yet another way of getting around the pressures to be normal.”
Saturday October 11 is National Coming Out Day. It’s not a Revolution. It’s just a celebration of the superheroic who continue to overthrow the pressures of the so-called normal. I wish them all a safe return from their personal exiles.
Remember when the end of summer meant the end of superheroes? If you could get past August you were free of the masked and superpowered until spring. Six months. That’s the minimum period of regenerative hibernation required before the next explosive, power-punching, evil-thwarting onslaught of hyperbolic do-goodery. This past year Captain America: The Winter Soldier opened in April,
followed by Amazing Spider-Man 2 in May,
before X-Men: Days of Future Past spilled into June.
July offered only the semi-superheroic duo Lucy and Hercules, but August made up with Guardians of the Galaxy.
I admit to seeing all but one of them, but something changed for me this year. Maybe it was the death of Gwen Stacy. It felt like Hollywood’s way of punishing an uppity girlfriend. How dare Gwen figure out how to defeat Electro when Peter couldn’t—and imagine if he had actually followed her to England. Superhero as trailng spouse? Obviously the woman had to die. The seventh installment of the X-Men franchise restored me a bit, with its mildly complex characters making occasionally unexpected choices. Sure, the cast members from the original 2000 film are looking a bit gnarled these days, but we can’t all have anti-aging mutant powers. And, hey, who didn’t have an absolute ball at Guardians? Funniest superhero movie yet. A week later I could barely recall a scene, but that’s normal. It was August. My superhero processing systems were cycling down already. Time to tuck the capes and cowls away for a well-deserved cryogenic nap.
Except, wait, why do I still hear the thumping of a bombastic soundtrack? Superheroes aren’t hibernating this year. They just shrunk down a bit. September has already brought the TV premiere of Gotham
and season two of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
October promises Flash
and season three of Arrow.
Add Constantine, Agent Carter, Supergirl, Teen Titans, and the four Marvel shows in production at Netflix, and the power nap is over. We’ve seen plenty of superheroes on primetime before—Batman, Wonder Woman, Hulk, and Greatest American Hero all boasted multi-year runs in the 70s and 80s—but never so many simultaneously. I can’t resist them any more than I resisted their summer siblings, but I do worry how long the onslaught is going to last.
I requested a show like Gotham two years ago. The Fox production isn’t exactly what I described, but I won’t quibble. And I named every supervillain-in-his-youth cameo for my son and wife as we watched. Though was it really necessary to film the Wayne murder scene yet again? Imagine arriving at the crime scene with Gordon and glimpsing little Bruce for the first time. Cut three minutes from the script and that opening could have been dynamic just through a POV change. Instead we get a repeat, something closer to Nolan’s Batman Begins than Burton’s Batman. The WB has managed to throw in some bare-chested goofiness into Green Arrow’s character, but DC is keeping its dark and dire palette for the bigger network.
S.H.I.E.L.D. had a firmer grip. Last year’s series premiere was flawed but hopeful—and then the follow-up episodes were some of the worst TV I’ve ever sat through. I don’t know how they made it to mid-season, but I’m glad they did, because the final season arc was one of the best long-term plotting coups a series ever pulled off. This year opened at a sprint, with the expanded cast and juggled originals introduced with gloriously little exposition—a huge trick given the upheavals in status quo the last Captain America film forced on the show. Though my favorite moment was a narrative sleight-of-hand employed for the new characterization of an old but radically altered returning character—one of those look back and reevaluate a half-dozen scenes when you realize brain-damaged Fitz is only hallucinating Simmons. Oh, and bad Ward grew a beard and lives in the basement now—just like the dragon in the first season of the BBC’s Smallville-inspired Merlin.
So, yes, I guess I can’t complain about the superhero’s autumnal shift to the small screen. I’m their audience. But what happens next spring? Will we have recovered enough for The Avengers 2: Age of Ulton in May? Or Ant-Man in July? Or Fantastic Four in August? Or the following year when have to go see X-Men Origins: Deadpool and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America 3 and X-Men: Apocalypse and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 and Doctor Strange and Shazam! and Sinister Six? All that after having just watched Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Iron Fist combine forces on Netflix’s The Defenders? Plus the other seven planned superhero shows airing fall and winter?
It’s not quite genre domination–there are still more cops and doctors and lawyers on TV than I can list–but have two publishing companies ever generated so many simultaneous franchises? Marvel and DC are spreading their genes faster than the zombie plague. The superhero apocalypse is here. Will we survive it?
March 1939 was a good month for Superman. Less than a year after his debut, Action Comics No. 11 was flying off newsstands, his daily comic strip was starting its third month of syndication, and Superman No. 1, his first solo comic book, was in production.
March is also the year the Man of Steel landed in Europe. Clark’s French pronunciation wasn’t very good though, so the Belgian weekly periodical Spirou must have thought he said his name was “Marc.” Spirou had already introduced Dick Tracy to their readers, and on March 2, they added Superman’s daily newspaper strips in batches of six under the side banner “Marc Hercule Moderne”:
Their translators also switched Kent to Costa, Lois to Jenny, and the Daily Star to the Evening News. The comic book center in Angouleme has this 3-strip installment from the January 2, 1941 issue:
Spirou stopped running the feature later that year. The cancellation isn’t surprising, considering Germany invaded Belgium in May 1940. The occupation ended in 1945, the year Superman returned to Spirou. Belgium deported him again in 1947, due, I presume, to anti-American censorship sweeping French-language comics in the late 40s.
But back in March 1939, France was happy to stamp Superman’s passport. Five days after Marc the Modern Hercules landed in Belgium, those same daily strips premiered in the French weekly tabloid Aventures:
That editor misheard his name too:
Spirou sometimes called him the Man of Steel (L’homme d’acier) or the Superman, within panels, but Aventures was owned by an anti-fascist Italian who had fled Mussolini’s dictatorship; he wasn’t about to print a name associated with Nietzsche’s ubermensch. Plus he thought the exotic-sounding “Yordi” better suited a guy from another planet.
Aventures didn’t like Superman’s American newspaper strip’s layout either. Joe Shuster was drawing four, doggedly square panels a day:
Aventures preferred five. So, back in the Angouleme stacks, you can see the No. 30 issue from July 25, 1939 collects six of the dailies published in the U.S. from May and June, but with the panels rearranged and shrunk to accommodate a five-panel width:
The layout team kept it up. No. 51, from Dec 19, 1939, rearranges six dailies from November and December:
According to at least one account they removed the “S” on Yordi’s chest too, though another source states otherwise. My own eyeball analysis is inconclusive. I’m not sure if I’m looking at a lightly erased chest emblem, or just time-faded newspaper ink:
Either way, Yordi’s fans found better things to worry about when the series halted after the German invasion.
The occupation didn’t end the Man of Steel’s residency in France though. Starting on October 27, 1940, the fifth issue of Les Grandes Aventures introduced “L’Homme d’Acier” on their color back page:
Les Grandes Aventures was also running a doctored version of Batman, “Le Justicier,” loosely redrawn from Bob Kane’s Detective Comics art, but their Man of Steel is something different. The art and stories aren’t Shuster and Siegel’s:
Based on my mastery of Google Translate and my daughter’s high school French III, that opening panel reads something like:
“A very ancient legend tells us that once there was an extraordinary man gifted with superhuman strength, and that this man must reappear in hundreds and hundreds of centuries and become the defender of the weak, the administrator of justice . . . and here it is: The man reappears in a large city of Europe in the year 2000. He is called the Man of Steel.”
Although he is invulnerable to fire (“au feu”) and begins his career by catching his Lois Lane (“the girl that is named Marise”) after villains toss her from a skyscraper window, this Homme de Acier sports a red tie and green vest, a far cry from the cape and leotard of his American brother.
Things get even stranger over at Hurrah! in 1941. The Blue Beetle was appearing as the red-costumed “Le Fantome d’Acier” (The Phantom of Steel):
The Beetle’s altered look and name was due in part to the popularity of Lee Falk’s Phantom strip. The French periodical Robinson had probably swapped the purple costume for a red one because the ink was cheaper:
But back at Hurrah!, “Le Fantome d’Acier” transforms into “L’Homme d’Acier” on November 5, 1941 (No. 311):
The Beetle-derived costume is the same at first, but then L’Homme d’Acier starts sporting the cape and briefs of the actual Man of Steel, minus his “S” emblem:
Things are stranger still at Editions Mondailes with the arrival of “Francois L’Imbattable” (the Unbeatable):
This Francois episode is redrawn from three of Superman’s May 1940 daily strips, but with each panel reversed:
Superman, or “Surhomme,” also appeared in the doctored form of Bill Everett’s Amazing-Man.
France doesn’t receive a completely unaltered Superman until well after the war, when the new tabloid L’Astucieux begins reprinting Wayne Boring’s Sunday newspaper pages from November 1944:
L’Astucieux launched itself and baby Superman from Krypton with an introductory four-page issue numbered “00” on May 14, 1947. Angouleme’s copy is badly faded:
No. 1 is eight pages and in slightly better shape:
No. 1 also includes Batman (renamed red wings, “les ailes rouges), but that’s another story. This “Crafty” (how Google translates “austuciex”) Superman, like his twin “Marc” who was running simultaneously in Spirou again, didn’t last long in the post-war wave of comic book censorship.
When the Man of Steel returned in the 70s, he was published by Sagedition, formerly known as Sage, the publisher of the long defunct Aventures. This time they didn’t change his name to Yordi. The Angouleme collection includes one of Superman’s final, 1986 adventures, published months before Sagedition went under:
But don’t worry, Francophiles. France is still receiving heavy doses of L’homme d’acier. Only no one bothers to translate his name into French anymore:
My wife has been trying to get our daughter to read Jane Austen since our daughter started middle school. She’s now a senior, and when faced with a summer reading list for A.P. English, she picked Pride and Prejudice because her teacher said he didn’t like it. She can be perverse that way, but her impish impulse backfired because then she couldn’t stop reading the entire six-novel Austen oeuvre (plus the incomplete Sanditon even though she can’t bear not knowing how a romance plot ends.)
I theoretically read Emma in college, and I have an increasingly thin memory of Northanger Abby from grad school, but my wife gasped—Yes! Gasped, I say!—when I admitted at our dinner table that I had in fact never read Pride and Prejudice. The characters in Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club give the same reaction when the lone male in the club makes the same admission.
I’m teaching Fowler’s novel this semester as part of my New North American Fiction course, AKA “Thrilling Tales.,” so I’m braced for more gasps.
I stole the subtitle from the issue of McSweeney’s that Michael Chabon edited back in 2003. His pulp-reclamation project includes a range of highbrow authors writing in lowbrow genres: horror, scifi, mystery, but not—I only recently noted—romance. Same is true of the issue of Conjunctions Peter Straub guest-edited a few months earlier. So the proud gatekeepers of 21st century literature were allowing in zombie ghosts and steampunk Martians, but no tales with “Reader, I married him” closure.
I theorized the prejudice was against formula: any narrative with a predetermined ending is by definition formulaic, and so not literary. And though I think that’s largely true, the prejudice runs deeper.
My daughter told me I had to read Pride and Prejudice to avoid humiliation in my own classroom. My students will have read it, she said, and since Fowler’s novel references it so deeply, and since it’s considered the best of Austen’s novels, and one of the best novels of English literature, I agreed I had no choice. This implies I was resistant. I wasn’t. Fowler’s novel is brilliant (easily the most engaging metafiction I’ve ever read), and I had every intention of enjoying Austen too.
And yet why did I hesitate? And why hadn’t I included a work of romance in my Thrilling Tales syllabus the first time I taught the course? I’d covered so many other genre bases—time travel, superheroes, genetic engineering, vampires. It turns out the diagnosis isn’t all that complicated.
When I had a doctor’s appointment over the summer, I took the library copy of Pride and Prejudice that my daughter had read. The nurse (female) said, “Oh, what a good book.” The doctor (male) said, “Oh god, that thing.” He’d read it in his A.P. English class back in high school. I don’t know when the nurse read it, but I assume it was for pleasure. Non-literary female pleasure, the kind even the omnivorous Chabon and Straub couldn’t get their lowbrow brains around. 1930s space aliens is one thing, but Harlequin Romances? Please.
But what genre doesn’t suffer from bad examples? I’ve read some cringingly embarrassing sonnets, but they don’t reveal anything about the merits of 14-line rhyme structures. The best Shakespearean sonnet doesn’t reveal anything innately excellent about the form either. It’s just a form.
Few authors are regarded as their genre’s best practitioners. Even fewer are regarded as inventors of their genres. Ursula Le Guin (for example) falls into the first category, but not the second. Jerry Siegel, the co-creator of Superman, falls into the second category, but not the first. If you consider a Shakespearean sonnet its own genre, then Shakespeare falls into both. So does Jane Austen.
I’m looking forward to discussing The Jane Austen Book Club with my class soon, but first a superheroic revelation of my own: Without Pride and Prejudice, my favorite 1930s space alien, Superman, would not exist. Jane Austen is Jerry Siegel’s secret collaborator, and without her, the comic book genre that followed Action Comics No. 1 wouldn’t exist either.
To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever drawn an Austen-Superman connection. But the line of influence is direct. It’s called The Scarlet Pimpernel. The novel was published by Baroness Orczy in 1904 and is one of the most influential texts for early superheroes. Its title character is often cited as the first dual-identity hero and the inspiration for Zorro and dozens of other pulp do-gooders culminating in Batman and Superman. Siegel was a Pimpernel fan and reviewed one of Orczy’s sequels in his high school newspaper. Take away Orczy’s mild-mannered Sir Percy and the mild-mannered Clark Kent vanishes too.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is also a romance, one that formulaically matches Pride and Prejudice. It’s told from the perspective of its female protagonist, Marguerite, who, like Austen’s Elizabeth, is blind to the true character of the novel’s hero. Elizabeth thinks Mr. Darcy is an arrogant jerk. Marguerite thinks Sir Percy is a cowardly fool. Or they do for the first halves of their novels, because after a pivotal middle scene (Mr. Darcy proposes, Marguerite confesses), the second halves are spent revealing Darcy’s and Percy’s secret heroism. Austen uses the word “disguise,” Orczy prefers “mask,” but both metaphors must be removed.
That also requires some suffering, since Elizabeth and Marguerite must recognize their mistakes in order to be united with their heroes. Austen says “humbled.” Orczy says, “the elegant and fashionable [Marguerite], who had dazzled London society with her beauty, her wit and her extravagances, presented a very pathetic picture of tired-out, suffering womanhood.” Unmasked hero and humbled heroine may now live happily everafter.
Jerry Siegel adopted the Austen-Orczy formula too. As long as Lois Lane can’t see through Clark’s disguise, she can’t be united with her Superman. But Austen mostly and Orczy entirely limit their perspectives to their heroines’ points of view. Siegel sticks with his hero. When Joe Shuster draws Clark changing into Superman, readers witness the unmasking, but Lois doesn’t. She’s stuck in the first half of Elizabeth’s and Marguerite’s plotline. Austen’s and Orczy’s readers learn with their heroines, but Superman readers can already see Lois’ mistake. Shuster even draws Clark laughing behind her back. She is “humbled,” but she can’t learn from it and so can’t be united with her would-be lover. The romance plot is frozen.
Siegel did try to reach the second half of Pride and Prejudice though—perhaps as a result of having reached marital closure himself. In 1940, two years into writing Superman, and two months into his own marriage, he submitted a script in which Superman unmasks to Lois.
LOIS: “Why didn’t you ever tell me who you really are?”
SUPERMAN: “Because if people were to learn my true identity, it would hamper me in my mission to save humanity.”
LOIS: “Your attitude of cowardliness as Clark Kent—it was just a screen to keep the world from learning who you really are! But there’s one thing I must know: was your—er—affection for me, in your role as Clark Kent, also a pretense?”
SUPERMAN: “THAT was the genuine article, Lois!”
The revelation completes the Austen formula. When Darcy tells Elizabeth, “You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you I was properly humbled,” the two can unite because now they are on the same plane. Superman comes to his “momentous decision” after Siegel introduces the superpower-stripping “K-Metal from Krypton,” the only substance that can humble the Man of Steel.
But the story was rejected. An editor wrote in the margin: “It is not a good idea to let others in on the secret.” It would have run in Action Comics No. 20. Instead, Clark reveals himself to Lois in No. 662, fifty years later. They married in 1996, the year Jerry Siegel died.
I’m pleased to report that my one-act play “Crisis on Infinite Earths” premieres at the Pittsburgh New Works Festival this month. If you can’t make it to Pittsburgh but are curious what superheroes, saints, planets, and dinosaurs have in common, here’s the script . . .
(A church. The Virgin Mary stands on a pedestal surrounded by scaffolding and pulleys—or perhaps simply a rope across a flyrail. Three workmen enter, rolling a crate on a cart. ART is over fifty; BOB is in his thirties; CLIFFORD early twenties. During the scene, they will replace Mary with a statue from the crate. They begin by sliding the crate off the cart. The lack of conversation soon grates on Clifford.)
CLIFFORD: If you could have any superpower what would it be?
CLIFFORD: If you could have any superpower, you know, like heat vision or seeing the future, that kinda thing.
BOB: I don’t know.
CLIFFORD: I’d get super-speed. Like the Flash. He moved at the speed of light. Imagine that. Finish this job in a half second.
BOB: Then what, sleep all day?
CLIFFORD: Yeah. But at light speed.
BOB: You’d be better off mind-reading or seeing the future or something.
ART: I’d want immortality.
CLIFFORD: That’s not a superpower.
BOB: Sure it is.
CLIFFORD: I mean like a superhero superpower. Only gods live forever. That doesn’t count.
BOB: What about Thor? He’s an Avenger.
CLIFFORD: So what would you pick?
CLIFFORD: Everybody says flying. It’s so obvious. Pick something else.
BOB: I’d be Superman. Best overall package. Flight, strength, invulnerability. X-ray vision.
CLIFFORD: But say you can only have one power, pick one.
BOB: I did.
CLIFFORD: Other than flying.
ART: Superman couldn’t fly.
ART: He couldn’t fly.
CLIFFORD: Big guy in blue tights, cape, “S” on his chest?
ART: Not originally.
CLIFFORD: You ever see the first issue? He’s sailing right over a building.
ART: He was jumping over it.
CLIFFORD: You’re telling me Superman couldn’t fly, he just . . . hopped?
ART: Tall buildings in a single bound.
CLIFFORD: That’s just an illustration of his strength, of his leg muscles. He could jump over a building, he’s that strong.
ART: The original Superman did not fly. He jumped.
BOB: You mean like the Hulk?
CLIFFORD: There, good example. The Hulk’s a jumper. You can tell by his posture. Bulky, no flight lines, no cape. Superman wouldn’t have a cape if he didn’t fly.
BOB: Batman doesn’t fly.
CLIFFORD: That’s different.
ART: I’m just saying after the first few issues they changed his powers. Okay? Now let’s get this lady on her feet.
(They begin to raise the new statue, but Art stops.)
Carefully. This isn’t just some hunk of rock. This is St. Philomena. My grandparents used to pray in front of this statue. This whole church was named after her. Show some respect.
(They raise the statue to a standing position and then step back to catch their breath, before starting to attach ropes to the other statue.)
CLIFFORD: Okay. So when Superman first gets to Earth, he can’t fly yet, he has to learn, he’s a toddler, that makes sense.
BOB: Superman didn’t get his powers till he hit puberty.
CLIFFORD: You agree with him? He couldn’t fly?
BOB: He couldn’t do anything. He was normal until high school.
CLIFFORD: No way. I had a box of my dad’s old Superboy comics. Superboy was a little kid and he had the suit and the cape, all the powers, everything.
BOB: And a flying dog named Krypto?
BOB: They got rid of him.
CLIFFORD: They got rid of Krypto?
BOB: They got rid of Superboy.
CLIFFORD: Who did?
BOB: I don’t know. Darwin. The new writers. They rewrote everything. Krypto got cut, Bizarro World—
CLIFFORD: So all those old comics, they’re saying they never happened?
ART: No, they just moved them to Earth 2.
CLIFFORD: Earth what?
ART: When superheroes got big in the 60’s again, they invented Earth 2 and put all the old stories over there.
CLIFFORD: They changed the past?
ART: They had to. Superman and Batman and all of them should have looked like me, old guys with gray hair and beer guts, but they didn’t. They looked more like you two. So they decided all the 30’s stuff happened on Earth 2.
BOB: Actually, they got rid of that, too.
ART: Earth 2?
BOB: All the alternate worlds. It was too confusing for new readers.
ART: What about the earth where all the superheroes are bad guys?
ART: Batman’s daughter?
CLIFFORD: What are you guys talking about?
BOB: There’s a new one now, only she was never from Krypton anymore.
CLIFFORD: How can they get rid of a whole planet?
ART: Krypton exploded.
CLIFFORD: I mean Earth 2.
BOB: That’s nothing. You know they got rid of Pluto?
ART: Why would the writers get rid of Pluto?
BOB: Not in the comic book, the real one.
CLIFFORD: Pluto? The planet Pluto? Who got rid of the planet Pluto?
BOB: I don’t know. Astronomers.
CLIFFORD: What, did they blow it up?
BOB: They excommunicated it. It’s just a chunk of rock now.
CLIFFORD: That’s like saying the sun’s not the sun anymore.
BOB: Pluto’s nowhere near that old. They only discovered it in the 30s. Same as Superman.
(Looking at St. Philomena)
I bet this thing is older than that.
ART: The whole church is. 1860s. My grandparents were married right over there.
BOB: I thought it was built in the 1960s.
ART: You’re thinking when they changed the name. When I was baptized here, it was St. Philomena’s.
BOB: Why did they have to change—
CLIFFORD: But Pluto was there. It was always there. Not knowing about it doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.
BOB: It didn’t exist to us. The same thing, isn’t it?
ART: I thought some committee or something put Pluto back.
BOB: Sort of, they turned it into a “dwarf” planet, not an official one.
CLIFFORD: So it’s back? Pluto is a planet again?
BOB: Yeah, but then they had to make some other ones too.
CLIFFORD: Some other what? Planets?
BOB: Like fifty of them, could be thousands though.
BOB: “Dwarf” planets. They had to. They meet the requirements. It’s empirical now.
ART: You just mean asteroids? Out past Pluto.
BOB: The biggest is between Mars and Jupiter.
CLIFFORD: They put a new planet between––
BOB: It’s not new. They’ve known about if for like two hundred years.
ART: But it was never a planet before.
BOB: It was, for a half century almost, almost as long as Pluto, before the Victorians got rid of it.
CLIFFORD: Planets are permanent. They’re absolutes. You can’t change absolutes.
BOB: Absolutes change constantly.
CLIFFORD: Name one.
BOB: The sun used to revolve around the Earth.
ART: That’s true. The church said so.
CLIFFORD: That’s different.
ART: It used to be flat.
CLIFFORD: Those weren’t changes, they were mistakes. Before they invented science.
BOB: Einstein said the speed of light was a constant. They changed that.
CLIFFORD: They changed their minds.
ART: The same thing they did to the saints. That’s how Philomena got downgraded to the basement. This church wouldn’t be called Mary of the Assumption right if the Vatican hadn’t changed its mind.
CLIFFORD: What did they do to the saints?
BOB: And the dinosaurs. Remember Brontosaurus? Big green guy, used to sit around in swamps because he wasn’t strong enough to lift its own body? Now they got them marching in herds with hollow bird-bones and whip-action tails.
CLIFFORD: What did they do to the saints?
ART: They got rid of them.
BOB: You know T. Rex looks like a giant chicken now?
CLIFFORD: Who did?
ART: I don’t know. The Jesuits.
BOB: He’s a girl, too. T. Rex is a girl.
CLIFFORD: The Jesuits got rid of the saints?
BOB: And a scavenger, completely harmless.
CLIFFORD: All of them?
ART: Like fifty. They have a special committee do it.
BOB: Those big jaws, they’re only for ripping up dead stuff it finds lying around now.
CLIFFORD: How many are left?
ART: Thousands still. They just thinned the herd.
CLIFFORD: Does the pope know?
ART: Some of the saints were only legends. Like Philomena here. My parents said this was her spot till the old pastor had her taken down. He said some nun dreamt up the whole story after bones were found in a mismatched grave. Philomena never existed. Lots of the old saints didn’t.
CLIFFORD: You mean like Santa Claus—St. Nick.
ART: I mean like St. Christopher.
BOB: Or Brontosaurus.
CLIFFORD: I have a St. Christopher’s medal.
BOB: Brontosaurus never existed. Someone put the wrong skull on a sauropod skeleton and made up the name.
CLIFFORD: My aunts gave it to me. They used to pray to him. I used to pray to him.
BOB: Hey, you know they found the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs?
CLIFFORD: Does that mean none of my prayers counted? Are the cuts retroactive?
BOB: Started the ice age.
ART: They changed it before you were born.
CLIFFORD: Oh my God.
BOB: It’s in Mexico.
CLIFFORD: I was praying to a canceled saint.
ART: My parents still pray to Philomena. The church only took her off the official calendar.
CLIFFORD: What’s the point of praying to someone who doesn’t exist?
ART: St. Christopher never existed now, after the church rewrote the history, but people still like the story of him carrying baby Jesus across a river on his shoulders. It’s a good story.
CLIFFORD: But it’s not true?
ART: It’s a metaphor.
CLIFFORD: I was praying to a metaphor?
BOB: That’s nothing. The Victorians thought T. Rex was a giant bullfrog. Imagine growing up reading about hopping dinosaurs. Pterodactyls used to have snake necks. Iguanodon was a giant iguana—with its thumb claw on the end of its nose. No wonder they died out.
ART: The iguanodons?
BOB: The Victorians.
ART: The Victorians didn’t die out, they. . .
BOB: Evolved into birds?
ART: Evolved into us.
BOB: Same difference. They’re gone. It’s survival of the fittest. Victorians, Brontosaurus, Pluto, Saint Christopher, Superboy—Darwin got them. Darwin dropped an asteroid on the whole lot.
ART: You can’t say something that never existed died out.
CLIFFORD: Dinosaurs existed.
ART: Superheroes didn’t. And you’re not talking about changes in the past. You’re talking about changes made in history, changes in the history of history.
BOB: Ideas evolve. The good ones, the best stories, they keep reproducing themselves. Like now there’s a new Superboy.
CLIFFORD: You said they canceled him.
BOB: It’s not really Superboy. He’s a younger clone of Superman they made when he died.
CLIFFORD: How can they say Superboy died if he never existed now?
BOB: Not Superboy, Superman.
CLIFFORD: Superman died?
ART: That’s ridiculous. He was invulnerable.
BOB: Not to Kryptonite. Even the old Superman would have died of that.
CLIFFORD: Superman died?
BOB: That stuff’s real too, Kryptonite. It’s on the Periodic Table.
ART: One of those new elements they discovered? They named it from the comic book?
BOB: An old one. The Victorians found it.
ART: How could—
CLIFFORD: Don’t you mean the actor who played him died? The one who shot himself?
BOB: He didn’t shoot himself, he fell off a horse, and no, I don’t mean him, I mean Superman, the Earth 1 Superman.
ART: That supposed to be us, right?
BOB: Only it’s just called “Earth” now. The old Superman, the Earth 2 Superman, they erased his whole universe and sent him into limbo after all the other alternate Earths collapsed into Earth 1.
CLIFFORD: So now there’s no Superman anymore, just some clone running around?
BOB: No, they brought Superman back. He had different powers for awhile. And a ponytail.
ART: You mean they rewrote history again, wrote out his death?
BOB: The computers in the Fortress of Solitude had a seance or something.
ART: They resurrected him? Superman was dead and they brought him back to life? It was a miracle?
(Conversation halts when as young priest enters.)
PRIEST: Well. How are things coming along here?
ART: Good morning, Father.
(Bob and Clifford greet him shyly and wordlessly.)
PRIEST: Hello, gentleman. I see Philomena’s happy to be out and about. No more limbo for this little girl. You can’t keep a good saint down, can you?
ART: No, Father.
PRIEST: I wouldn’t mind seeing all the rest of that statuary back up here where it belongs. No reason Mary has to have all the best pedestals, right? I was thinking we would move her outside, into the garden maybe. Or switch her with one of the front statues. If that’s not too much to ask. Lord knows there wouldn’t be a church without men like you to do the heavy lifting.
Well. I don’t want to hold you gentleman up. You’re doing a wonderful job.
CLIFFORD: God. That guy can’t be much older than me. Can you imagine taking communion from him? Or confession.
BOB: I can’t imagine taking them from anyone.
CLIFFORD: You’re not . . .
BOB: Not since, I don’t know, high school I guess. Used to get the body of God stuck to the roof of my mouth every Sunday.
CLIFFORD: What happened in high school?
BOB: I don’t know. Puberty. I evolved. My superpowers came in.
CLIFFORD: You started flying?
BOB: I started thinking. It stopped making sense, Purgatory, immaculate conception, transubstantiation.
CLIFFORD: But you still believe in . . .
BOB: It was so much easier when I was little and I could just believe whatever my parents believed. Hell, I was an altar boy.
CLIFFORD: Hey, me too. I got to ring that little bell during service. I thought it was to keep people from falling asleep. I even thought about being a priest. My parents wanted me to, but my pastor didn’t think it was such a great idea. I wasn’t, you know. Called.
ART: (Stopping work with sudden annoyance) It’s not fair.
ART: Earth 2. It’s not fair. It was just “Earth” in the 30s, right?
BOB: Yeah. They couldn’t know the 60s writers were going to reinvent everything.
ART: But it’s wrong. Naming the second Earth “one” and the first Earth “two” when the old Earth was where all the original superheroes came from. It should have been “Old Earth” and “New Earth.”
CLIFFORD: Oh, right. Like the Bible.
ART: Well, not . . .
CLIFFORD: Old Testament, New Testament.
ART: That’s not what—
CLIFFORD: Because that would make sense. Jesus was Jewish, and he was rewriting the Old Testament. He was upgrading it.
ART: It’s not like that at all. The Old Testament is still there. It’s the foundation. They built on top of it. The Torah. They just changed the name is all. And moved some of the sections around, most I think, and, what was it? They cut—
BOB: Superman was Jewish.
CLIFFORD: No way!
ART: He was created by two Jewish guys, but that’s not the same as—
BOB: His Krypton name is Kal-El. “El.” That’s Hebrew for “God.”
ART: They made that up. The original Super—
CLIFFORD: What’s “Kal”?
BOB: Short for Karl, German root for “man.”
ART: “Godman”? You’re saying Superman is a “Godman,” like, like…
CLIFFORD: Yeah! Like Jesus. I get it. He’s an alien. He comes from the heavens and is raised by humans. Oh my God. It’s the same as Tarzan. Or Harry Potter. Jesus Christ was raised by muggles.
BOB: I was actually thinking about the other godmen around then.
ART: Around when? Jesus?
BOB: It was a crowded gene pool. Mithras, Osiris, Dionysus, Zoraster . . .
CLIFFORD: These are superheroes?
BOB: . . . Adonis, Attis . . .
ART: Adonis? Are you kidding?
BOB: . . . Horus, Aion—did I say Osiris?
ART: Those are just old gods, demigods, like Thor.
BOB: Right, Thor, he was a son of God, too.
(He points at the Mary statue)
Most of them are born from virgins, in mangers, under holy stars. They perform miracles, heal the sick, turn water into wine, raise the dead. Some lead twelve disciples around until they get arrested and executed on trees. Then they come back to life and save humanity.
CLIFFORD: Which “Earth” is this?
ART: Those are knock-off myths. They were written after Jesus.
BOB: The church admitted they came first. They said the devil planted the stories into older religions so people would be confused when the real Son of God showed up. They even put church holidays on top of the originals. Like Mithras. He was born December 25th.
CLIFFORD: Mithras—didn’t he fight Godzilla?
BOB: There were even three shepherds there. And Easter. March 25th, that’s the resurrection of Attis.
ART: Where the hell are getting this stuff?
BOB: It’s all over the place. Google “ancient godmen” and you’ll—
ART: Oh. The Internet. Right. I get it.
BOB: And books. It’s in lots of books. Same place you get any religion. Same as the Bible.
ART: The Bible is not “a book.”
BOB: That’s all the word means. “Books.” Look it up. The church picked its favorite stories and put them in one volume. Like Reader’s Digest. They could have done it with Mithras or Attis or any of—
ART: You’re really saying Jesus came after this stuff? That’s insane. Jesus—
CLIFFORD: I get it! He was an adaptation, a mutant. Darwin weeded out all the other godguys and put Jesus in charge of the herd. It’s natural selection.
ART: It’s got nothing to do with selection. Those other gods are characters in stories. They’re make believe. Jesus has a real history. The Gospels are eyewitness accounts.
BOB: Nobody wrote a gospel till the 70s. Jesus died in the 30s. And the church cut most of them anyway—like a hundred and twenty gospels they threw out. Some of them had little Jesus killing playmates during temper tantrums and raising his pets from the dead.
CLIFFORD: Wow. Like a toddler Superboy.
ART: No, not like Superboy. It’s nothing like Superboy. Superboy is made-up. He never existed even before he never existed.
CLIFFORD: So Jesus was a little bad ass, huh?
BOB: That’s nothing compared to some of the other gospels.
CLIFFORD: Like what?
BOB: He had sex with Lazarus.
CLIFFORD: No way! Jesus was gay?
ART: Jesus was not gay.
BOB: He was bi.
ART: Jesus was not bi.
BOB: Batman was bi.
CLIFFORD: Batman was bi?
ART: Batman was not bi!
BOB: That’s why they had to break him and Robin up. A millionaire “bachelor” living alone with his young “ward.” Do the math.
CLIFFORD: (After a silent pause as he “does the math”) Oh my God! They were gay.
ART: It was the 50s. It was another era. Those people were paranoid about everything.
CLIFFORD: So Lazarus, did he become Gay Jesus’ sidekick?
BOB: Probably not. They think that gospel might be fake.
ART: Of course it’s fake. The church only kept the real ones. Those other Gospels aren’t Gospels, they’re just stories. That’s why they got rid of them.
CLIFFORD: So it is natural selection. The true stuff won out.
BOB: It’s got nothing to do with “truth.” The gospels in the bible are just the ones that fit the church’s needs at the time.
CLIFFORD: Right. They were the best adapted for survival.
ART: The only need they fit was history.
BOB: Which was up for grabs. Every sect had its own history about Jesus.
CLIFFORD: So God weeded through all the different Jesuses till he got the best one. The other Jesuses, the “dwarf” Jesuses, they died out.
BOB: They didn’t—
CLIFFORD: God decides everything, right? So he must have selected the Gospels he liked or they wouldn’t have made it into the Bible.
BOB: God didn’t—
CLIFFORD: It’s like finding a bunch of bones. God’s showing us the right way to put the pieces together, which don’t belong. It’s like evolution. He’s guiding us.
BOB: God doesn’t guide evolution. That’s the whole point. It just happens. If God is controlling it, then it’s not natural selection. It’s supernatural selection.
ART: How do you know God isn’t controlling it? He invented it.
ART: Life. Scientists have no idea how it began. There’s nothing that comes close to explaining it. And since God knows the future, He knew what was going to happen. He knew everything that was going to evolve and when. How’s that different from controlling it?
BOB: Because you don’t have to believe in God to make sense of nature. It works without him.
ART: That’s not the same as saying that there is no God.
BOB: I didn’t say there wasn’t a God.
CLIFFORD: You said there wasn’t a Superboy.
BOB: I said they wrote Superboy out of Superman. It was a stupid story, so they killed it.
ART: The same way they wrote God out of nature? What’s so stupid about God?
BOB: I didn’t say God was stupid! I said he doesn’t guide anything. Do you think he woke up this morning and decided Philomena was coming out of the basement today?
ART: In a way, sure. He may not be micro-managing everything, but progress isn’t accidental. Things happen for a––
BOB: We’re not answering a call from God. The only call I got this morning was from you. You want me in a church moving statues? Fine. You want me pouring cement? Fine. Just don’t tell me this chunk of rock is different from any other. God didn’t make it. God doesn’t care about it. Shatter the thing into a million pieces, and it won’t make any difference to Him.
ART: I don’t know what planet you live on, but this is Earth. God made it and everything on it. Including this church. I’ve been a member of this congregation since I was born, and I’ll be a member after I die. When you and all your stupid ideas are extinct, this “chunk of rock” will still be standing.
(They work in tense silence for a long while. The tension gets to CLIFFORD who stands between the other two, directing his comments to their backs.)
CLIFFORD: So I’m rethinking the whole super-speed thing. Maybe I should go for super-strength? Or invulnerability. What do you think?
(He waits but gets no response.)
Isn’t Krypton a kind of ice planet, like in an ice age? Like Pluto. You’d have to be invulnerable to live there.
They ought to make up some new powers, don’t you think? Stop recycling all the old ones. New superheroes too. Like they do with the saints. They make new ones all the time. Aren’t they making the pope’s one now?
BOB: A saint? He’s not even dead yet.
CLIFFORD: Not the new pope, the old pope. The dead pope. The new pope, the Earth 1 pope, he’s making the Earth 2 pope a saint.
ART: You don’t just make somebody a saint. It’s not like writing a comic book. A committee has to weigh evidence. It takes years.
BOB: Evidence of what?
CLIFFORD: What do they have to do, like fly and walk through walls and stuff?
ART: They cure people.
BOB: So the pope has to come back to life and heal lepers?
ART: People pray to him and he answers them.
CLIFFORD: So one answered prayer and he’s in? He’s a saint.
ART: Two. So it’s empirical.
ART: Yes. Empirical. That’s how they sainted Mother Drexel back in 2000.
CLIFFORD: What did she do?
ART: Cured a deaf baby. Doctors couldn’t explain it, but the parents said they had prayed to Drexel.
BOB: How did they know to pray to her if she wasn’t a saint yet?
ART: They saw her special on PBS.
CLIFFORD: Now there’s a superpower. No wonder Saint Nick died out.
ART: Saint Nicholas didn’t die out.
CLIFFORD: Santa Claus?
ART: He’s still a saint. Biggest in the Russian Orthodox Church.
CLIFFORD: Fat guy, raised by elves. Lives on the North Pole. He’s still a saint?
ART: Not that part of the story.
BOB: Superman lives on the North Pole.
CLIFFORD: So what’s out, flying reindeer, the toy shop, what?
BOB: In the Fortress of Solitude. They’re neighbors.
ART: The original Saint Nicholas lived, I don’t know, in Roman times. He was rich and gave it all away. They say he threw a bag of gold through a poor father’s window each time the guy was about to sell one of his daughters into prostitution, so he wouldn’t have to.
CLIFFORD: That got him sainted? No stockings, no deaf babies, no Burgermeister Meisterburger? Why don’t we put him up there? With a sack of toys and a chimney.
ART: He didn’t go down chimneys.
CLIFFORD: So what miracles could he do?
ART: They don’t apply that standard to the old saints.
BOB: You said a committee weeded them out.
ART: Any saint that wasn’t actually a person, a historical person, not a legend.
CLIFFORD: But the real ones don’t have to have miracle powers?
ART: Some do. Saint Olaf, his body kept coming out of its grave, and a spring started running from the spot—no, it was blood maybe. He converted a lot of people, too. They can’t verify them though.
CLIFFORD: The conversions.
ART: The miracles. His conversions he did on a chopping block. Believe in God or your head came off.
BOB: They let him stay a saint?
ART: They had to. He was real.
CLIFFORD: What kind of standard is that?
ART: You can’t revoke sainthood. It’s permanent, like, like circumcision.
CLIFFORD: You said they tossed out fifty.
ART: It used to be by popularity; all the early martyrs got in that way. Stories would go around, getting bigger and crazier, and most of them started from something, a real person, but the ones that weren’t they get rid of.
CLIFFORD: But you can still pray to them?
CLIFFORD: So they’re “dwarf” saints.
BOB: Where do they live? Pluto?
ART: They don’t live anywhere. They’re not—
CLIFFORD: What if they change their minds again? What if someone digs up a bunch of St. Christopher bones?
ART: Then I guess they’d have to reinstate him.
BOB: Where’s he go in the mean time? Earth 2?
CLIFFORD: This is so unfair. I bet St. Christopher answers way more prayers than Drexel.
BOB: He just goes by “Christopher” now.
CLIFFORD: Look at the odds. People have been praying to him for centuries. He’s probably racked up a dozen deaf babies.
ART: Those are coincidences. Or the Holy Spirit acting through—
CLIFFORD: He got me through eleventh grade science—the unit test on animal classification.
BOB: What about Philomena?
CLIFFORD: (To himself on his fingers) Plants, lichens, invertebrates, vertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals.
ART: She has lots of miracles. Cancer and heart disease and a bunch of stuff. Plus back in the second century, she chose torture and death over marriage to the Roman Emperor.
CLIFFORD: Wow. I still remember that.
(A beat, then he crosses himself)
BOB: She didn’t exist.
ART: I mean—that’s the story they tell about her. Officially she’s not real, but she’s still popular. There are all kinds of shrines and foundations, websites. There’s a revival.
BOB: That’s why they want her up here again?
CLIFFORD: Like an endangered species act?
ART: It’s the new pastor’s idea.
CLIFFORD: Wait. That young guy? He’s the pastor? I thought he was like, a sidekick or something.
BOB: Are they going to rename the church again too?
ART: They shouldn’t have changed it to begin with. It upset a lot of good people. My grandmother, my dad says she cried for months.
CLIFFORD: They should name it St. Drexel. She’s got miracles and she was real. She’s a super-saint.
BOB: Drexel. As in the millionaire Drexels? From Philadelphia? No wonder they sainted her.
ART: She didn’t have millions. She was a nun. She gave it to charity.
BOB: All of it?
ART: They have to take a vow of poverty.
CLIFFORD: I thought it was celibacy.
BOB: She was a millionaire, and she gave it all up to be a nun? That is a miracle.
CLIFFORD: It’s like discovering a new species. The Supersaintasarous.
BOB: You hear they dug up a new plant-eating Velociraptor in Utah?
CLIFFORD: What about John Paul 1? Are they sainting him?
BOB: It has feathers.
ART: No, but John 23 probably. Some people are still sore about Vatican II though.
BOB: Everything has to have feathers now.
CLIFFORD: What about Vatican I?
ART: That was in the 60s, the 1860s, when the pope became infallible.
BOB: It’s not technically a Velociraptor though.
CLIFFORD: Infallibility! That’s the superpower I want.
BOB: It’s a missing link between carnivores and herbivores.
ART: And you don’t think God had anything to do with that? These animals just rose up by themselves. What are the odds?
BOB: Pretty good considering plants started growing around the same time.
ART: And that’s just a coincidence? Plant eaters just happen to show up when the plants do.
BOB: You really have no idea what natural selection is, do you?
ART: I know enough to recognize the hand of God when it’s pointing me in the face.
CLIFFORD: Hey, which came first, the Brontosaurus or the egg?
BOB: It wasn’t a—
ART: The Brontosaur.
BOB: The egg.
CLIFFORD: Then where did the Brontosaurus come from?
BOB: Oh, please. Was it pulling a plow in the Garden of—
CLIFFORD: So where’d the egg from?
BOB: From the proto-Brontosaurus.
BOB: The animal one step behind on the evolutionary ladder. Brontosaurus was its mutation.
ART: There, see? A ladder. You can’t build a ladder one rung at a time. It has to touch the top before you can step on it. It’s predetermined.
BOB: It’s a figure of speech.
CLIFFORD: A metaphor.
ART: It’s God.
BOB: Okay, so say it’s a ladder. What’s next? What’s the next mutation God has planned?
ART: You think I have the power to read God’s mind?
BOB: You think he cooked up the omnivorous ex-Velociraptor right after sprouting new plant life in Utah. So look around. What’s on the agenda? Bigger stomachs? A third eye? Disposable thumbs?
CLIFFORD: But no superpowers, right?
ART: Smaller brains. Weed out the people wasting everybody’s time thinking up stupid stuff.
CLIFFORD: It would be such an obligation. I’d want something that only affects myself.
BOB: If God didn’t want me thinking, why’d he make me like this? Maybe I’m the next rung.
CLIFFORD: Like celibacy.
ART: Or you’ll die out. Not all mutations are good ones. Most of them are useless freaks.
CLIFFORD: Yeah, they’re like curses. That was the whole point of Spiderman. He’s this sad sack loser. A radioactive spider bites him, and when he tries to cash in on his mutant powers, he lets some random bad guy go, and next thing the guy murders his uncle. What are the odds?
(Bob is about to speak but Clifford cuts him off.)
Or Bruce Banner. He saves some stupid kid from getting hit with gamma radiation, and so he has to spend the rest of his life turning into the Hulk—a big toddler-brained Frankenstein. What kind of deal is that? Even Superman must get fed up with it. When does he get a night off? His super-hearing’s always picking up someone screaming for help. No wonder he moved to the North Pole.
ART: So what powers do you want?
CLIFFORD: I don’t. It would be way too much responsibility. You’d have to give up everything.
BOB: It’s not the priesthood. Superheroes can—
CLIFFORD: You’d have no life. Even if you just wanted to fly, that would mean getting people off burning rooftops al the time, swooping in where the rescue ladders can’t reach. Forget privacy. You’d have to move somewhere crowded to maximize your rescuing potential. Vacations, evenings off, naps—how can you sleep if it means somebody dies? You’d be a savior 24/7.
ART: You’d be a god.
CLIFFORD: I couldn’t handle it. I just want to stay normal.
(Clifford resumes working. Bob and Art, uncomfortable to be sitting without him, join in.)
ART: Well you’re too late anyway. God already gave you superpowers. We’re the same as Drexel.
CLIFFORD: We cure deaf babies?
ART: We got money.
CLIFFORD: That’s a superpower?
ART: It’s all Batman had.
CLIFFORD: I’m not a millionaire.
ART: Neither was Drexel after she gave it away. Same for Saint Nicholas. Lots of the saints weren’t rich, but they gave what they had. How much do you give away?
CLIFFORD: To the church?
ART: To anything.
CLIFFORD: I don’t know. I’m saving for college. But I give, sometimes.
ART: How much do you spend on yourself, after the necessities, the minimum you need for survival?
CLIFFORD: I have no idea.
ART: You got a computer? How many sets of clothes? Air conditioning? How much does your car cost?
CLIFFORD: A drive a twenty-year-old Saturn, okay? It’s a piece of crap. I blew fifty bucks on a tire last week—money I don’t have.
ART: Fifty bucks. That would have saved a kid’s life. Food for a month. You could save tons of people.
CLIFFORD: I can’t fly around the world handing out cash. I can barely pay my rent.
ART: Every time you spend money on yourself you’re not spending it on somebody starving to death, or freezing, or whatever. You have powers. You’re just not saving people with them.
BOB: I don’t see you tossing bags of money through windows.
ART: Didn’t say I was. I got a mortgage, two kids in college. Family comes first.
BOB: You think Jesus cares more about your family than other people’s?
ART: You don’t even believe in Him.
BOB: I’m talking about you. Do you think your family is more important than other people?
ART: Than strangers? I can’t care about people I don’t know.
BOB: Why not?
ART: Because I don’t know them.
BOB: But you think Jesus cares about them.
ART: Jesus is God. I’m just human.
BOB: So it’s the species. We’re hard-wired not to care.
ART: It’s got nothing to do with caring. It’s the way we’re made.
BOB: So God gave us brains that can’t care about strangers? What kind of adaptation is that?
ART: It’s normal. God doesn’t expect us to—
BOB: A tsunami wipes out a million people? A million people, that’s what, three hundred times more than on 9/11? Am I three hundred times more upset? I can send money, I donate, but I don’t feel anything personal. I don’t break down like I did when my dog died. A dog. I give more money to the SPCA than I give to UNICEF. Tell me we’re not the most evil species that ever evolved. You think God planned us? He should drop another meteor. We’re just animals. We’re animals with the ability to recognize that we’re animals. That’s our superpower—
ART: Whoa! Carful with her!
(Bob grabbed the rope and they have no choice but to join him. In a moment, they have the Philomena up and step back winded.)
CLIFFORD: Drexel wasn’t an animal.
BOB: Drexel’s a saint. A super-saint. We’re a lesser species.
ART: Okay. We’re “dwarf” Drexels then, or, no, we’re proto-Drexels, one step behind on the evolutionary ladder. She’s our mutation.
ART: So we helped make her. We’re part of the process. God’s process. Drexel couldn’t have gotten up there without us.
(Bob and Clifford look up again, as though seeing the statue for the first time. The priest enters, sees them, then the statue.)
PRIEST: Oh my. I had no idea. You did that so quickly. I didn’t think . . .
(Looking at the Mary on the ground, and then up at Philomena.)
I’m so sorry. I don’t know how . . . I just got a letter from the bishop. Today. This morning. Just now. I assumed—we all just assumed . . . The bishop it turns out, he doesn’t agree with, I mean, he’s not in agreement. About the statue. Philomena.
(Finally spitting it out)
The statue has to be taken down. We’re not allowed to display it in the church.
(Looking at them fully)
I’m so sorry.
ART: (After an awkward pause) Should we put the Virgin back up?
PRIEST: No. Ah, not yet. Let’s wait and see, okay? There might be another statue downstairs we can use in this spot. With the bishop’s permission. He’s very old, I’m afraid. He doesn’t like new pastors coming in and turning everything upside down. I hope you understand.
(The men smile and nod.)
ART: So take them both downstairs.
PRIEST: Yes. Please. For now. We’ll be able to tell you soon what’s going to go up there. I’m sure we will.
CLIFFORD: St. Christopher maybe?
PRIEST: I’m sorry?
CLIFFORD: Maybe you have some St. Christophers down there in the basement?
PRIEST: Maybe. Probably. There are so many down there. Why? Do you like him?
CLIFFORD: (Thinking a moment) Not really.
ART: We’ll get right on it, Father.
PRIEST: Well. Thank you. Thank you again.
(He exits. The men are silent, looking back and forth between the two statues and the job ahead of them now. They begin.)
CLIFFORD: You got to feel bad for her. Imagine going from sainthood back to basement limbo. It would piss me off.
ART: They closed that.
CLIFFORD: The basement?
BOB: It was real?
ART: All the Old Testament patriarchs lived there. Solomon, David, Moses. And all the unbaptized babies. It was too confusing for new converts, so they moved them all up to Heaven.
BOB: I thought they were all in Hades?
ART: Hades doesn’t exist.
CLIFFORD: They got rid of—
ART: You’re thinking Pluto, god of the underworld. The real one is called Hell.
BOB: Whatever. I thought unbaptized people went there.
ART: Limbo’s a subsection of Hell—but a nice one, no torture and stuff.
CLIFFORD: Why not get rid of Hell?
ART: There’s been talk.
(The Mary statue is in position to be lowered into the crate.)
Nice and easy and now. She’s having a hell of a day too.
BOB: You know they had the original Superman come back and try to restore Earth 2?
ART: The 1930s one?
CLIFFORD: Wouldn’t that mean wiping out Earth 1? Our Earth?
BOB: I guess so.
CLIFFORD: Destroy the whole world?
CLIFFORD: So they made him the bad guy? Superman’s the bad guy?
ART: Can you blame him? Who wouldn’t want their old world back?
CLIFFORD: But it’s Superman. That’s so . . .
BOB: That’s what the popes did to the old godmen, when Rome went Christian, they made all the old saviors demons. Literally sent them to Hell. One day you’re on top of the world, next they’re pulling down your statues. Imagine what that felt like.
ART: He didn’t feel anything. He never existed.
CLIFFORD: But his followers did. Think of them.
BOB: The Romans burnt every book that wasn’t part of the new history. They martyred anyone who couldn’t adapt.
ART: (Mostly to himself) I’d feel worse for Superman.
BOB: (Also to himself) It was like a meteor hit.
ART: First his whole race is wiped out on Krypton.
BOB: Instant Dark Ages.
ART: And then he loses his Earth.
BOB: Pushed civilization back a dozen rungs.
ART: He’s not even the last of his kind anymore.
BOB: Like an ice age.
ART: He’s not anything. He never existed, and he knows it.
BOB: Just bones to sort out.
ART: Can’t get more extinct than that.
BOB: Nothing’s immortal forever.
(Bob and Art fall into silence while Clifford continues to look back and forth at them. They begin to exit while rolling the cart out.)
CLIFFORD: So can he still fly?
(Lights fade. END.)