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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.


I’m looking at DC’s newest character, Equinox, a teen superheroine based on Cree activist Shannen Koostachin. She’s a member of Jeff Lemire and Mike McKone’s Justice League United. Like Marvel’s Alpha Flight, the team is Canadian, so the character continues the U.S. publishing tendency to place Native America outside of U.S. borders. But I see some promise here: Equinox is from an actual tribe, her costume isn’t red, her features aren’t cartoonishly “Indian,” and she’s not showing any thigh or cleavage. That helps offset the “her power stems from the Earth” cliché, and I actually like the idea of a character who will have different abilities as the seasons change–never heard that one before.

But will she be better than Wyatt Wingfoot? He was born in Fantastic Four No. 50, cover-date May 1966 , on newsstands a month before my June-issued birth certificate. Wyatt’s dad is “Big Will Wingfoot – the greatest Olympic decathlon star this country ever had!”Here on Earth-1218, that’s James “Big Jim” Thorpe, gold medalist for the 1912 Olympic pentathlon and decathlon. Stan Lee even gave his name to the college coach trying to draft Wyatt: “I’m sorry! I’m not interested in athletics, Coach Thorpe!”


Jack Kirby penciled the issue, but I prefer Sante Fe painter Ben Wright’s Thorpe rendering. I picked “Jim Thorpe in His Carlisle Indian School Football Uniform” for the cover of my novel School for Tricksters. Wright’s website says he “draws from Native American ceremony, symbolism, and tradition” and identifies him as “part Cherokee,” rarely promising signs. But I like the painting because the old-timey helmet sets the period, plus his slightly stylized Thorpe looks really cool. The big “C” on his chest could be a superhero’s. Carlisle Man!

kate buford thorpe bioschool for ticksters cover

Biographer Kate Buford later told me Wright got it wrong. The cover of her Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe features the original photo with an inside caption: “Jim Thorpe with the Canton Bulldogs, c. 1920, Canton, Ohio.” So the “C” is for Canton, a team Thorpe played for after his career peaked. Ben painted over the facts—the way lesser-known inker Joe Sinnott thickened Kirby’s lines for FF 50.

School for Tricksters is a historical novel, so I paint over a shelf of facts too. My daughter’s 11th grade history teacher capped a recent Carlisle Indian School lesson with “Oh, I’m sure those kids must have wanted to be there,” so my daughter grabbed a row of books from my office to write a rebuttal for her research paper. I recommended Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance: The Glorious Imposter. I used to exchange emails with the author, Donald Smith, up in Alberta. Thorpe is the School’s most famed student, but I prefer the adventures of Chief Buffalo Child, AKA Sylvester Long. He’s the real Carlisle Man.

sylvester long lance bio

The School railroaded children from their western reservations to the middle of Pennsylvania to be transformed into working class mainstream Americans. According to Long’s autobiography, he was born a full-blood Blackfoot in a great plains teepee, and so an ideal student for the program. Except that his birth certificate says Winston-Salem, NC, and both his parents were ex-slaves. Which still makes him the ideal Carlisle student, since Carlisle was all about painting over facts. The real-life dual-identity Long graduated to Hollywood, where he played another version of himself–until the movie exposure lead to his unmasking and suicide.

Sylvester, a mild-mannered library janitor, longed to be exceptional—a supeheroic dream for a mixed blood Clark Kent in the Jim Crow South. But did he just doodle over his real self or did he become his disguise? When Dean Cain proposed to Teri Hatcher on the season two finale of Louis & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, the network shot three answers: “Yes,” “No,” and “Who’s asking, Clark Kent . . .  or Superman?” They were trying to prevent the “real” answer from leaking before the show aired. Smith documents at least a dozen Lois Lanes in Long’s adventures, but no marriage proposals.  His identity wasn’t stable enough to settle down.

I ask my students the same question when analyzing superhero texts: what is the character’s core identity? I suggest four options: A) the superhuman, B) the human, C) neither, or D) both. For decades, Superman’s answer was “A.”Clark Kent is just the pair of fake glasses he wears around humans (David Carradine gives this a great monologue in Tarantino’s Kill Bill). But that flips to “B” after the 80s reboot. Clark lived a perfectly normal childhood until his superpowered puberty made him hide behind a cape and tights.

Sometimes students go with “C,” arguing that both Clark and Superman are public faces worn by an inner Kal-El. It’s a common idea outside of comics, that we all have a secret private self who transforms according to context: home, work, frat party. It fits the standard master-of-disguise trope too. Long could have wandered downtown any of his free Saturdays and leafed through a copy of Nick Carter Detective Weekly at a Carlisle newsstand in 1912. The old banner illustration is a row of heads, “Nick Carter In Various Disguises,” with the largest and literally central self right there in the middle.

But “D” is the most daring choice. What if the center doesn’t hold and we’re all just a series of shifting performances? Zorro admits as much when he unmasks himself as the languid Don Diego. The costume wasn’t just a disguise; it made his whole body come alive—something Bruce Banner and the Hulk understand too. Are any of us really the same person when we’re angry? And is the goal to find a “golden mean” as Don Diego promises his fiancé? Like Teri Hatcher, Lolita is no polygamist. And yet who is the Scarlet Pimpernel’s wife married to? If Sir Percy is just a foppish disguise, why does he keep laughing that inane laugh even after he unmasks?

All that is too complicated an answer for early 20th century America. When they unmasked Sylvester they only saw a dual-identity fake. Except then why did a private detective have to write over the facts, claiming he fingered rouge and hair-straightening gel from the corpse? Long’s alma mater championed the dual-identity model too, doctoring “before” and “after” photos of graduating students. Sometimes you have to white-out a shirt collar to keep the world savage/civilized.

Big Jim’s white/not-white wife was a Carlisle student too. She and Jim lost their first child, James Junior, their only son. Kate Buford and I give dueling banjo readings ending with the death scene, proof that narrativized facts and fact-based fiction can get along just fine. Kate and I live in the same town too, and our books came out just weeks apart—coincidences even most comic book readers wouldn’t believe. Stan Lee invented the Keewazi Indian reservation for the Wingfoots and dropped Wyatt into the Human Torch’s college dorm. Johnny looks up at his hulk of a roommate: “Say, whatever they feed you at home, I’d like it on my diet!”

Wyatt is still wandering the borders of the Marvel multiverse. I think he’s tangled with the Kree a few times too–an alien race Lee and Kirby created a year after Wyatt and who have only a phonetic resemblance to Equinox’s tribe. Equinox’s alter ego, Shannen Koostachin, was only fifteen when she died in 2010, but Canada’s House of Commons unanimously celebrated her superheroic achievements:

“In her short life, Shannen Koostachin became the voice of a forgotten generation of first nations children. Shannen had never seen a real school, but her fight for equal rights for children in Attawapiskat First Nation launched the largest youth-driven child rights movement in Canadian history, and that fight has gone all the way to the United Nations.”

And now she’s made it to Justice League United.


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Hollywood used to keep its political allegories in the subtext, especially when it comes to fanboy franchises with scifi premises and blockbuster budgets. It’s a smart policy. A little political subtext gives a mass consumer product a twist of relevancy while maintaining plausible deniability should some rightwing commentator accuse Hollywood of promoting a liberal agenda. Fanbases can be even touchier, preferring their escapism untainted by cultural context.

I’m not sure how anyone who saw John Carter of Mars (and I know that’s a small subgroup) could not acknowledge its all-but-overt parallels to the war in Afghanistan and global climate change—and yet when I mentioned these at a fan site, I was accused of imposing a political agenda on an innocent Disney movie. Iron Man 3 fans couldn’t pretend that a soldier dressed in a metallic flag didn’t bear at least some relation to the U.S. military—but that didn’t require every viewer to see Tony Stark blowing up his armada of remote control suits as a condemnation of U.S. drones policy. Ditto for Star Trek Into Darkness. Not only do you have nefarious drones run by a secret and unregulated government agency, but a rogue Starfleet ship named Vengeance reenacts 9/11 in a CGI orgy of collapsing skyscrapers.

That’s what used to pass as subtle in Hollywood. But now Captain America: The Winter Soldier pulls off the allegorical kid gloves. As Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune points out, the movie “bemoans America’s bloodthirsty, weapons-mad impulses” and, according to the Washington Post’s Zade Rosenthal, it taps “into anxieties having to do not only with post-9/11 arguments about security and freedom, but also Obama-era drone strikes and Snowden-era privacy.” Both reviewers are right, but since they each afford only a sentence to those political messages, a reader might think we’re wading into the gray zone of interpretation. We’re not.

The latest Marvel Entertainment installment is about the head of a massive government agency struggling to the do the right thing for his country. His name is Nick Fury, and the fact that Samuel Jackson and Barack Obama are both black is the film’s only coincidence. Robert Redford plays the Bush-era neocon on Nick’s rightwing shoulder while on his idealistic left Captain America still believes in American values like freedom and honesty and not shooting people because surveillance software predicts they’ll commit a crime.

The plot mechanics pivot on three mega-drones and their promise of Absolute Security. They lurk in a shady labyrinth beneath an innocuous government office building, and when they come alive all of America will finally be safe. At least that’s what Fury-Obama wants to believe. But Redford was beamed in from a Cold War espionage film to provide an internal Evil Empire. It’s not just that the NSA-SHIELD has been infiltrated; the organization was corrupted from its founding. That’s what President Eisenhower warned back in 1960.  He called it the Industrial Military Complex. Marvel calls it HYDRA. When those three mega-drones go online, they’re going to combine into a Death Star that only the rebel alliance of Captain America and his kick-ass sidekicks can stop.

It’s a familiar formula. Peter Weller played Redford’s role in Star Trek Into Darkness, and both platoons of secret thug agents wear black and neglect to shave. Instead of a villainously superpowered Benedict Cumberbatch we get a villainously superpowered Sebastian Stan, both of whom emerge from cryogenic suspension. Which is not to say directors Anthony and Joe Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely lack all subtlety. I quite like how the nefarious HYDRA hangers rise from beneath a cement pool that echoes the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool that Captain America sprints around in the opening shot. And the film’s use of the Smithsonian Museum should win Best Exposition Gimmick of the year. Costumer designer Judianna Makovsky scores points too. When the Captain finds cause to go rebel, he morphs into a white t-shirted, motorcycling James Dean, and when Nick sees the error of his ways, he trades in the leather of his Matrix wardrobe for a hoodie and shades.

That’s how Hollywood would like Obama to dress now too. Like his alter ego, the President needs to recognize that all his well-intentioned spying and droning violate the freedoms he’s trying to safeguard. That’s the film’s overwhelming message. And the fact that it’s being shouted by a massive, profit-hungry corporation says even more. Marvel Entertainment doesn’t represent the liberal left or the libertarian right. They shoot straight down the middle at the bottom line.

I doubt Obama will follow in Samuel Jackson’s footsteps and gut the NSA, but the film’s overt political commentary is drawing votes at the box office, earning over $10M its opening night. Marvel is literally banking on the new anti-surveillance alliance of liberals, conservatives and independents. It’s almost enough to make me long for those innocent days of apolitical, escapist entertainment.

obama and c a shield


Who created the Joker?

Standard answers boil down to some combination of Bob Kane and his assistants, writer Bill Finger and artist Jerry Robinson. According to Kane though, Robinson “had absolutely nothing to do with it” because Robinson’s contribution—the Joker playing card used in Batman No. 1—was added after Kane and Finger already thought up the character. Robinson, however, claimed “the concept was mine,” including both the playing card and the “outline of the persona and what should happen in the first story.”

They were both wrong.

The Joker was Finger’s idea, and I know because he stole it.

Kane and Robinson agree that Finger handed Kane a photograph of Conrad Veidt from the 1928 film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs which Kane used to draw the Joker. A clown-faced ad for a Coney Island attraction has gotten some credit too. But Finger’s kept his primary source hidden.

The Joker’s first appearance begins with a death threat: “Tonight at precisely twelve o’clock midnight I will kill Henry Claridge…”

Henry Claridge, frantic with fear, calls the police.

CLARIDGE: “You’ve got to protect me!”

POLICE CHIEF: “Don’t worry, Mr. Claridge.”

Time drags on—seconds minutes then the fatal hour twelve o’clock.

CLARIDGE: “I’m still alive! I’m not dead! I’m safe! I’m SAAAAGH! Aaghh!”

The Joker has fulfilled his threat. Claridge is dead!! Slowly the facial muscles pull the  dead man’s mouth into a repellent ghastly grin. The sign of death from the Joker!

CHIEF: “It’s—it’s horrible!”

OFFICER: “Grotesque! The Joker brings death to his victims with a smile!”

The Joker repeats the pattern a page later: “At ten o’clock that fiend will kill Jay Wilde!”

The toll of time—the fatal hour!


WILDE: “Ten! It’s going to happen now! The clock is ticking my life away!”

A strangled scream—death!

JOKER: “Are you so happy that you smile for joy, eh? I’m glad I have brought you so much cheer!”

My son was ten the first time he flipped through my Batman Chronicles reprint, half the age of students in my superhero class who looked equally disturbed. It struck a nerve in 1940 too. Kane’s DC editors rescued the Joker from death to keep a recurring character—one who would become the most famous supervillain in comic books.

But he wasn’t new to pulp fiction. His first joke was published a quarter century earlier:

Cocantin had just noticed that Favraux held in his hands a yellow envelope similar to the one that contained Judex’s earlier message.

The banker unsealed it. Scanning every word, he read it aloud:

If before the stroke of ten tonight, you don’t relinquish half of your ill-gotten fortune to the Public Assistance, it will be too late. You will be punished mercilessly.”

And it was signed: JUDEX!

“The joke continues,” emphasized Cocantin with a humorous smile.

“It has lasted for too long,” scolded the banker while raising his eyebrows.

“Don’t be upset, Monsieur Favraux,” implored Cocantin. “. . . .This sinister joke will soon collapse due to my efforts. . . . I reassure you, Monsieur. I will look after you!”

. . . The monumental clock on one of the room’s panels displayed two minutes before ten o’clock. . . . Instinctively, his eyes sought the clock. The hands had almost reached the time foretold by Judex. . . .  Fear shook his mortal frame. . . .

The clock struck ten o’clock. Favraux’s face contracted in a hideous convulsion. . . . As a frightful moan escaped his throat, he collapsed. He had been struck down!

Judex had kept his word!

In the commotion, guests ran to Favraux’s side. . . . The facial features of the gilded banker were frozen in a grotesque grimace of superhuman fright.

Swap a few names–”the Joker” and “Judex,”“Favraux” and “Claridge” or “Wilde,” “Cocantin” and the Police Chief—and the scene is the same as the ones in Batman No. 1. Except it was written in 1916 when Bill Finger was only two years old. It’s by Arthur Bernéde from his novelization of director Louis Feuillade’s film serial Judex. The French magazine Le Petit Parisien published installments with the theatrical release of each weekly chapter.

Feuillade’s previous serial had brought the villain Fantomas to screen, but the title character of Judex—often cited as an influence on the cloaked and slouch-hatted Shadow who in turn influenced Batman—is the hero, a “judge” taking revenge on a corrupt banker (who, we later learn, isn’t really dead). When Finger supplied his boss with the Veidt photo, he was filling in details for “the joker” of Bernéde’s text.

It’s possible Robinson drew his playing card independently—stranger coincidences happen. It’s a greater leap to think Robinson handed it to Finger first, triggering Finger’s memory of the “joke” in Judex. Either way, Bernéde’s contribution outweighs all others. Kane even drew him with Judex’s hat and white face of the 1916 magazine illustration.


I have no idea if Bill Finger ever saw Judex, but according to Robinson he was a voracious reader “who spent lots of time doing research.” Robinson also called him his “cultural mentor,” describing him as “extremely well read” and a “student of pulps and radio drama” as well as “Dumas and Shakespeare.”

Bernéde and Feuillade, avid researchers themselves, read Alexander Dumas too. Judex’s destruction of Favraux’s ill-gotten fortune as well as imprisoning him until he acknowledges his wrong-doing—that’s the  Cliff Notes version of The Count of Monte Cristo, the fate suffered by one of the three men who falsely imprisoned Dantès before he assumed the guise of the vengeance-seeking Count.

But neither Dumas nor Feuillade originated Bernéde’s joker scene. The silent picture includes little of the banker and the detective’s dialogue (neither of the “joke” references) and when Favraux collapses on screen, Feuillade supplies no close-up.  The “grotesque grimace” exists only in Bernéde’s novelization, the version of Judex Finger could have easily accessed.

Bernéde figures in Batman’s origin too. When Kane needed an explanation for his hero’s “lone battle against the evil forces of society,” Bill Finger retconned a pair of murdered parents and a vow of vengeance. “I swear by the spirits of my parents,” cries the kneeling Bruce Wayne, “to avenge their death by spending my life warring on criminals.” The young Judex kneels before his own father’s body, as his surviving mother demands the same vow: “your father was murdered by a crook named Favraux. Swear before him that you will avenge his death . . . .”

This isn’t the first time Finger borrowed heavily from another writer. Will Murray details Finger’s use of Theodore Tinsley’s 1936 Shadow novella, Partners of Peril, for Bat-man’s first adventure in Detective Comics No. 27. “Finger did not simply draw inspiration from this thunderous tale,” writes Murray, “he adapted it outright! It’s the same story . . . . Only the character names have been changed.”

The Joker’s real name is Arthur Bernéde.

Arthur Bernéde

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First time I lost a tooth, I ran to the top of the steps and yelled, “My tooth came out!” I couldn’t see my mother in our laundry room, but she performed a reasonably convincing shout of excitement, ending with: “Looks like someone’s getting a visit from the tooth fairy tonight!”

My five-year-old body went rigid. Blood drained from my face. Tooth fairy? Who the hell was the tooth fairy?

I must have a gothic disposition, because I assumed this creature would be coming for the rest of my still-attached teeth. One of Poe’s narrators does that, plucks out his beloved’s beautiful incisors and bicuspids with a pair of pliers. But Germany’s E. T. A. Hoffman is the better source for inverted fairies. A student in my English Capstone assigned the 1816 “Der Sandmann” to our class earlier this semester. Hoffman takes the harmless Sandman, bringer of sleep to dozy children, and twists him into “a wicked man” who “throws handfuls of sand into their eyes, so that they jump out of their heads all bloody; and he puts them into a bag and takes them to the half-moon as food for his little ones.”


That’s the guy Metallica is singing about. Although the Hans Anderson version isn’t all goodnight kisses either. Ole-Luk-Oie, the Dream-God, may be very “fond of children,” but if you’ve been naughty, he holds a black umbrella over you all night so come morning you’ve dreamt nothing at all. His sibling is named Ole-Luk-Oie too, except “he never visits anyone but once, and when he does come, he takes him away on his horse, and tells him stories as they ride along. He knows only two. One of these is so wonderfully beautiful, that no one in the world can imagine anything like it; but the other is just as ugly and frightful, so that it would be impossible to describe it.” The other Sandman isn’t a Dream-God. He’s Death.

I prefer Hoffman’s eye-plucking fairy. He reveals “the path of the wonderful and adventurous” as the child-narrator tries to unmask him. That’s right, “the terrible Sand-man” is a dual-identity supervillain. The kid recognizes his father’s business partner, a literally Satanic lawyer who practices alchemy by night. If the Faust allusions aren’t clear, then note his “sepulchral voice” and the laboratory explosion that kills the hapless dad. Hoffman even quotes Goethe after strumming the Übermensch theme song: “Father treated him as if he were a being from a higher race.”

Enter Golden Age comic writer Gardner Fox. He must have spent a lot of time under Ole-Luk-Oie’s other umbrella, the one with the pictures twirling on the inside. He dreamt up the Flash, Hawkman, Dr. Fate and the Justice Society of America. Bill Finger usually gets credit as Batman’s original writer, but Fox wrote six of the first eight episodes, each almost twice as long as Finger’s introductory 6-pagers. Instead of apprehending jewel thieves and serial killers, Fox’s phantasmagoric Dark Knight faces down a werewolf-vampire and some guy who steals faces and puts them on talking flowers.

Sandman golden age

When Finger returned Batman to the grit of crime alley in 1940, Fox dreamt up the Sandman, your standard fedora-wearing Mystery Man, except in a World War I gas mask. He stole his knock-out pellets from Batman’s utility belt (a Fox invention), though they’d already been field-tested by Johnston McCulley’s Bat and WXYZ’s Green Hornet. When Jack Kirby and Joe Simon got tired of spinning Timely’s umbrella of characters, they traded in the Sandman’s business suit for a red and yellow leotard and a sidekick named Sandy. They kept the color scheme when they revised him again in 1974, this time as the Sandman of Hans Anderson lore, a protector of children’s dreams. That’s the dopey series Neil Gaiman reawakened in 1988.


I was too busy mourning the collapse of Alan Moore’s short-lived Mad Love company to take adequate notice at the time. Gaiman stripped off the leotard, but I still considered his white-skinned Morpheus just another superhero reboot. I thought the future of comics was Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz’s Big Numbers and Dave McKean’s Cages. I was wrong. McKean’s publisher Tundra died almost as fast as Mad Love. I’m sure he made better money painting Sandman covers anyway.

Sandman is easily the best-selling and best-regarded comic of the 90s. When I attended a comics forum last month, it was the only work to receive its own three-scholar panel. Unfortunately the forum was in Michigan after a bout of “snow thunder” had reduced the state to a lake of frozen slush, and none of the three panelists showed up. Maybe the empty podium was their way of evoking a night spent under the Sandman’s black umbrella.

I prefer Gaiman’s non-graphic novels anyway. Stardust was one of the last books I read aloud to my kids, my wife regularly teaches American Gods, and Coraline once shattered an MFA-induced writing block of mine, not just its twirling dreamscape, but the deceptively Stein-esque simplicity of its sentences. This also lead to a parenting low point when my wife and I refused to leave a matinee of the film adaptation even though our son was trying to claw over the back of his seat to escape. And yet the emotional scars did not prevent him from later writing a book report on Neverwhere. He likes Good Omens too.

Like Hans Anderson, DC spun-off the Sandman’s sibling Death, but when Gaiman killed Sandman, his contract stipulated that it would stay dead. Because, as Ole-Luk-Oie warns his listeners, “You may have too much of a good thing.” I was paying enough attention to buy that 75th and final issue, a riff on Shakespeare’s Tempest. It turns out the bard is a bit of a Faust himself. The talentless hack accepts a contract as the Sandman’s front man, inundating the world with dream stuff for centuries to come. “There is nobody in the world,” wrote Hans, “who knows so many stories as Ole-Luk-Oie, or who can relate them so nicely.”


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Jerry Siegel stole Superman’s 1938 tagline “champion of the oppressed” from Douglas Fairbanks. The silent film star’s 1920 The Mark of Zorro opens with the intertitle: “Oppression—by its very nature—creates the power that crushes it. A champion arises—a champion of the oppressed—whether it be a Cromwell or someone unrecorded, he will be there. He is born.”


You can quibble with the superheroic logic (is oppression always self-defeating?), but the word that made me pause (literally, I thumbed PAUSE on my remote) is “Cromwell.” As in Oliver Cromwell, the man who chopped off King Charles’ head in 1649 to become Lord Protector of England until his own, kidney-related death a decade later (after which Charles’ restored son dug up his body and chopped off his head too). All perfectly interesting, but what, you may ask, does that have to do with Zorro?

Johnston McCulley doesn’t mention Cromwell in The Curse of Capistrano, the All-Story pulp serial Fairbanks adapted. Some American Fairbanks trace their name back to the Puritan Fayerbankes, proud followers of Cromwell since the 1630s, so maybe Douglas was just carrying on family tradition. Except The Mark of Zorro isn’t the first Cromwell mention in superhero lore.

George Bernard Shaw lauds him in “The Revolutionist’s Handbook,” an appendix to his 1903 Man and Superman, the play that first gave us the English ubermensch. Shaw (or his alter ego John Tanner, the Handbook’s fictional author) declares Cromwell “one of those chance attempts at the Superman which occur from time to time in spite of the interference of Man’s blundering institutions.” A devout eugenicist, Shaw/Tanner longed for a nation of supermen, “an England in which every man is a Cromwell.”

By the time Siegel was copying Fairbanks’ intertitles in the 30s, “Cromwell” and “Superman” were synonyms. Biographer John Buchan (better known for his Hitchcock adapted Thirty-Nine Steps) called him “the one Superman in England who ruled and reigned without a crown.” P. W. Wilson extended the comparison to modern times, ranking England’s Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin “among the supermen,” and likening his overseeing of Edward VIII’s abdication to Cromwell’s regicide.

Alan Moore

Alan Moore extends the superhero connection even further. In a 2007 interview, Moore (like Shaw’s John Tanner) identifies himself as an anarchist (“the only political standpoint that I could possibly adhere to would be an anarchist one”) and so longs for a society with “no leaders” (he’s literally anti “archons”). He traces his inspiration to 17th England when underground religious movements were espousing the heretical view that all men could be priests, “a nation of saints.” And, Moore explains, “it was during the 17th century that, partly fueled by similar ideas, Oliver Cromwell rose up and commenced the British civil war, which eventually led to the beheading of Charles I.”

Guy Fawkes (inspiration for Moore’s V for Vendetta) had tried to kill Charles’ father, King James, a half century earlier, but Guy was no Oliver. Moore revels in the thought of headless monarchs, but Buchan celebrates the executioner, “an iron man of action” with “no parallel in history.” Cromwell ignored his own council of commanders during the civil war and, after making England a republic, he ignored Parliament too. “It was too risky to trust the people,” writes Buchan, “he must trust himself.”

That’s the ubermensch Shaw adores. Not a champion of the oppressed, but a champion of the self. And it’s a quality still central to every superhero, all those iron men of action who trust only themselves, ignoring and sometimes defying law enforcement to maintain their own sense order.  Zorro opposed the colonial regime of a corrupt California governor. Cromwell fought for religious freedom against a tyrant who persecuted anyone who did not conform to the Church of England.

But what happens after oppression is crushed? Fairbanks’ Zorro retires into happy matrimony. McCulley rebooted his Zorro for more oppression-opposing adventures—inspired by Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel, an iron man of action dedicated to rescuing noble necks from the kind of execution blade Cromwell wielded. Once enthroned, the Lord Protector imposed his own, literally Puritanical order on England. He closed taverns, chopped down maypoles, outlawed make-up, fined profanity, and, as a real life Burgermeister Meisterburger, cancelled Christmas.

When Alan Brennert wrote his 1991 graphic novel, Batman: Holy Terror, he kept Cromwell on the throne another decade, creating an alternate universe in which the U.S. is an English commonwealth run by a corrupt theocracy. It seems Supermen in charge are not such a good thing for the common man. Look at Garth Ennis’ The Boys (2006), or Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come (1996), or Mark Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme (1986), or, best yet, Alan Moore’s Marvelman (AKA, Miracleman, but let’s not go into that right now). I bought No. 16 from my college comic shop in 1989, a year after I graduated college. It’s the last issue before Neil Gaiman took over and I stopped reading the series. Gaiman is great, but the story was over. Marvelman has rid the world of nuclear warheads, money, global warming, crime, childbirth pain, and, in some cases, death. He’s not king of the world. He’s its totalitarian god.


Marvel Comics is re-releasing and completing the series in 2014, and, what the hell, I’ll probably pick up where I left off. But my worship of Moore is long over. I considered him the reigning writer of the multiverse for decades, but his rule grew increasingly idiosyncratic and, less forgivable, dull. His last Miracleman, “Olympus,” is a tour of the distopic future. From Hell offers similar tours, literally horse-drawn, which, while aggressively non-dramatic in structure, basically work. But my heart sunk when the third volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman devolved into a balloon ride over yet more of Moore’s meticulously researched esotoria. Yes, the dream-like Blazing World is ripe with 3-D nudity, but this is no way to conclude a plot. When Promethea, my favorite of all Moore creations, plunged down the same rabbit hole, I couldn’t make myself keep reading. Moore was running his own imprint at this point, America’s Best Comics, with no Parliament or War Council left to ignore, and no corrupt tyrant to oppose.

Heroes need oppression. Even Fairbanks’ son, Douglas Jr., knew that. After his father’s death, he wrote, produced, and starred in The Exile, a 1947 swashbuckler about Charles II, the son of the king Cromwell beheaded. He hides out on a Holland farm and falls in love with a flower monger while battling Cromwell’s assassins before Parliament calls him back to his throne. It’s a happy ending made happier by the fact that Fairbanks didn’t follow it with a sequel. After Charles started waging wars and suspending their laws, Parliament regretted their invitation.

Every Cromwell—by his very nature—creates the Cromwell that crushes him.


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That’s what Alan Moore told a recent interviewer. “I don’t think the superhero stands for anything good,” he said. “They were originally in the hands of writers who would actively expand the imagination of their nine-to-13-year-old audience.” But since all they do nowadays is entertain 30-60-year-old “emotionally subnormal” men, Moore considers superheroes “abominations” and their continuing dominance “culturally catastrophic.”

This from a self-professed anarchist who considers the shooting of government leaders a “lovely thought.” Little wonder his first superhero was a terrorist.


Moore and artist David Lloyd started V for Vendetta in 1981 for England’s since defunct Warrior magazine. I started reading it when the series moved to DC in 1988. I was 22, Moore’s age when he first conceived a story about “a freakish terrorist” who “waged war upon a Totalitarian State.” But it was Lloyd who transformed Moore’s freak into “a resurrected Guy Fawkes, complete with one of those paper mâché masks in a cape and conical hat.”

Their plan was to create “something uniquely British,” and, sure enough, the Fawkes reference meant absolutely nothing to this Pittsburgh-born college senior. When I’d read The Handmaid’s Tale the year before, I though Margaret Atwood was forecasting an original future: “when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress . . . The entire government, gone like that.” But Fawkes beat her by almost four centuries.


I didn’t read up on the Gunpowder Plot till I was a student teacher prepping Macbeth for a class of tenth graders. Shakespeare staged his tragedy of a regicidal anti-hero after Catholic terrorists tried to blow-up King James during the 1605 opening of Parliament. They’d rented a storage space under the House of Lords and crammed in three dozen barrels of gunpowder. Fawkes was arrested before he could light the fuse, tortured into betraying his dozen co-conspirators, tried, hanged, and his body displayed in pieces as a warning to sympathizers. He was still in prison when London lit bonfires in celebration of the King’s survival, and Parliament later declared the anniversary an official holiday, complete with fireworks and newspaper-stuffed “guys” set ablaze.

But hatred is a funny thing. Somewhere along the line the point of all those celebrations got hazy. Guy Fawkes Night lost its official standing in the 19th century—around when penny dreadful writers were converting England’s most abominable traitor into a romantic hero, a conspiracy Lloyd happily joined. “We shouldn’t burn the chap every Nov. 5,” he told Moore, “but celebrate his attempt to blow up Parliament!”

I want to say the American equivalent would be championing John Wilkes Booth or Lee Harvey Oswald, but Fawkes’ rehabilitation might be possible only because his assassinations failed. Benedict Arnold could be closer—except no one remembers what treason he was planning (and if even you do, surrendering West Point to the British just doesn’t have the same audacious charm).

So Lloyd wanted to “give Guy Fawkes the image he’s deserved”—but I’m not sure Moore was fully committed to the plot. Despite his anarchist rhetoric, he doesn’t “believe that a violent revolution is ever going to work,” and he doesn’t hide his freakish terrorist’s violence under POW! and BAM! bubbles either. It was Lloyd who banned the sound effects (along with thought balloons—probably the most important moment in Moore’s development as a writer), but Moore’s dialogue complicates the violence Lloyd renders otherwise bloodless:

“I’ve seen worse, Dominic, physically speaking. Like I say, it’s the mental side that bothers me . . . his attitude to killing. Think about it. He killed them ruthlessly, efficiently, and with a minimum of fuss. Whatever their faults, those were two human beings . . . and he slaughtered them like cattle!”

The terrorist also enters quoting Macbeth, the monstrous anti-hero Shakespeare’s audiences (including King James for whom it was commissioned) would have linked to Fawkes. Moore’s Chapter One title, “The Villain,” is a bit of a clue too. V goes on to murder and maim his way through some thirty more chapters, but the part that troubled me most at the time was the psychological torture he inflicts on Evey. Yes, he rescues the damsel from a back alley rape in standard Batman fashion, but then he dupes her into believing she’s been imprisoned by the fascist government, shaves her head, starves and waterboards her, all in the name of . . . what exactly? By the end Evey is a good little Robin, taking on her mentor’s mission, but there’s more than a whiff of Stockholm syndrome between the panels.

“The central question is,” Moore says, “is this guy right? Or is he mad? I didn’t want to tell people what to think, I just wanted to tell people to think and consider some of these admittedly extreme little elements.”

Which, by the way, is a pretty good example of using a superhero to actively expand an audience’s imagination.

Britain Anonymous Protest

Meanwhile, Guy Fawkes keeps adventuring. The “hacktivist” network Anonymous adopted Lloyd’s Fawkes mask for their 2008 Scientology protest—which they then carried over to Occupy Wall Street and, most recently, a worldwide Million Mask March held on Guy Fawkes Day to protest government austerity programs. The group’s anti-corporate message, however, gets a bit hazy once you know Time Warner owns the copyright on the mask (via DC I assume) which are manufactured in South American sweatshops and earn the company a killing on Amazon.

Something to think about, Moore might say.

guy fawkes masks in sweatshop

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A sure sign you’re running for President: firing your racist sidekick.

Last summer Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, by “mutual decision,” accepted the resignation of his aide Jack Hunter, AKA the Southern Avenger. Rand is having trouble climbing out of his father’s Libertarian shadow along with all those shadowy white supremacists the Libertarian brand attracts, so Hunter’s views on Southern succession, the Lincoln assassination, and whether “a non-white majority America would simply cease to be America” were declared a “distraction.”

Hunter also retired the Southern Avenger (he reportedly adopted his radio shock jock persona during a conversation with a bottle of Jim Bean), but not before co-writing Paul’s The Tea Party Goes to Washington. Hunter did not co-write the sequel, Government Bullies, which was an even bigger “distraction” because the Senator plagiarized it instead. That would get him expelled from my college, but the White House has different standards.

I teach at Washington & Lee University, in a smallville known as a War-Between-the-States tourist Mecca, so I’m familiar with all brands of Southern Avengers. The remains of not one but two Confederate generals rest within a half-mile stroll of my front door. Confederate flags are common—though, unlike Mr. Hunter, most folks don’t sport them on superhero-style masks. Even Captain Confederacy (a creation of comic book writer and former Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Will Shetterly) retired his mask when his series moved to Marvel’s Epic back in 1991. The comic was set in an alternate universe in which the Confederacy won the Civil War (apparently the same universe Newt Gingrich visited for his 2005 Gettysburg novel). After Shetterly retired his first Captain, he has a black woman take over the identity, draping Old Dixie across her breasts.


If that sounds implausible, then you didn’t attend my town’s council meeting in which Southern Avengers protested the banning of Confederate flags from city flagpoles. I can’t criticize since I used to wear the same image across the back of concert t-shirts, believing it represented nothing more than a subgenre of rock. I was sixteen and still preferred Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Gimme Back My Bullets over R.E.M.’s Fables of the Reconstruction.

Civil War reenactors, another common spectacle in Lexington, VA, attended the council meeting too.  W&L borders the Virginia Military Institute where I watched a legion of gray-clad and hoop-skirted extras cheer a regal Stonewall Jackson while shooting a scene for the 2003 Gods and Generals. W&L declined the film company’s request to shoot on our campus. For Somersby, crews shoveled the historic downtown streets with dirt and angled the Exxon station out of shots. I’ll watch Jodie Foster in anything, but I like Somersby for its time period. Reconstruction is way more interesting than the Civil War.

Marvel movie guru Joss Whedon agrees. He started writing his TV series Firefly after reading Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. Whedon also took an undergraduate class from Richard Slotkin, author of Gunfighter Nation, a seminal study in American frontier mythology. Whedon sets his distopic future six years after a Civil War with a dispossessed Confederate soldier (he sings “We shall rise again” in the premiere) for a space captain. “Mal’s politics,” says Whedon, “are very reactionary and ‘Big government is bad’ and ‘Don’t interfere with my life,’” attitudes Senator Rand and his former sidekick sing about too. But unlike the Tea Party, Whedon sees both sides: “sometimes he’s wrong—because sometimes the Alliance is America, this beautiful shining light of democracy. But sometimes the Alliance is America in Vietnam: we have a lot of petty politics, we are way out of our league and we have no right to control these people. And yet! Sometimes the Alliance is America in Nazi Germany. And Mal can’t see that, because he was a Vietnamese.”


Actually Mal is the very Caucasian Nathan Fillion, but his second in command, like the second Captain Confederacy and at least one of the flag-wearing protesters at the Lexington council meeting, is an African American woman (AKA, Gina Torres). Whedon’s Confederacy never had slavery. Which is why his take on the Reconstruction is both watchable and a complete cop-out. In some ways, I prefer Edgar Rice Burroughs’ dispossessed Confederate soldier, John Carter. He heads West to dig gold and fight Injuns but ends up on Mars instead—where, surprise surprise, he gains superpowers and champions a ruined race of aristocrats against four-armed apes and green heathens. The Princess of Mars gave me allegorical whiplash, but at least Burroughs’ politics aren’t hard to decode. The South is dead, long live the South.

John Carter and Mal Reynolds are both Reconstruction-fueled space cowboys, which makes them descendants of the real life Southern avenger Jesse James. During the war, James fought as a Missouri bushwhacker against local Union militias.  After Richmond fell and General Lee surrendered, the pardoned general-in-chief served as president of my university. Jesse James kept fighting. He saw his campaign of train and bank robberies as resistance to Republican-lead Reconstruction. After his murder in 1882, dime novelist converted him into a gunslinging Robin Hood. Like the more recent Southern Avenger, James was also a political columnist. Jack Hunter wrote for the Charleston City Paper, where his articles remain online because his editor refused his request to remove them. James wrote his diatribes for the Kansas City Times, where the owner was a fellow vet working to restore ousted successionists to office.

Jesse James dime novel

Missouri elected Democrat Senator Francis Cockrell in 1875, who went on to serve five terms before retiring. To the best of my knowledge, Jesse James was never his aide nor helped him plagiarise any books, but the senator was evidence that the Radical Republicans (their term) had lost control of Reconstruction. The era formerly ended in 1877 when President Hayes withdrew the last federal troops. Their departure also marks the end of the South’s most famous team of masked avengers, the Ku Klux Klan. They’d started as a social club of Confederate vets in Pulaski, Tennessee, but grew into paramilitary groups that openly murdered opponents and police.

Like the X-Men, the Klan also wore identical costumes while lead by a man codenamed “Cyclops.” The X-Men attract an impressive range of southern mutants, including Rogue, Gambit, Cannonball and the Blob. Technically DC’s Swamp Thing is a Southerner too, since he crawled out of a Louisiana swamp, but he and his superhero kin are no Southern Avengers. Superman first battled the Klan on the radio 1946, and he’s been followed by the Defenders, Black Panther, Batman, and both the Justice League and the Justice Society.

Hell, even the Southern Avenger hates racists now. Hunter blames all those old slurs of his on that pesky mask: “Whenever I put on that wrestling mask, I took on a persona that was intentionally outrageous and provocative. I said many terrible things. I disavow them.” The unmasked Hunter now criticizes fellow Republicans who dismiss “the idea that racism is actually a problem. I used not to see it. For that, I am very sorry.”

That’s more of an apology than the Confederacy ever offered its African American population. I wouldn’t call it superheroic, but if the Southern Avenger can transform himself, maybe there’s hope for the rest of our disunited States too.


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