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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.

France’s Cité Internationale de la Bande Dessinée et de l’Image isn’t literally a city, but it’s getting there. It started as a single building, named after the French comic book artist Moebius:

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Le vaisseau moebius currently houses (in addition to a cinema and cafe) a public library devoted entirely to BDs (AKA comics):

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It also used to hold the research librarie (distinct from the above bibliothéque) and the Musée de la Bande Dessinée, but those moved across the Charente river. Just take the footbridge:

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And you’re there:

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You’ll pass a former paper mill renovated into the Musée de Papier, a tribute to Angouleme’s past as a paper manufacturing hub. Some of that paper is preserved in the librarie’s comic book collection. The BD Musée was a cognac warehouse in its former life, not that you would guess from its interior:

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A tourist website likens it to the set of 2001: A Space Oddysey, presumably the spacecraft headed to Jupiter–though that was built on a rotating ferris wheel. The allusion still works though, because the film’s soundtrack features Richard Strauss’ Thus spake Zarathustra, a symphonic adaptation of the book that gave us the Superman.

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One of the displays includes a facsimile of Action Comics No. 1, but the curators begin the history of “drawn strips” a century earlier, with a Swiss work I’d never heard of, Rodolphe Töpffer’s 1837  Histoire de M. Vieux Bois:

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Photography isn’t allowed, but because I had scheduled a research consultation, they made a kind exception. They didn’t charge me the museum entry fee either. There’s a massive BD book store too, but I spent most of my time in a back room:

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My French is shockingly non-existent, and the documentaliste I emailed with relied on Google Translate, and yet there was the stack of rare collection boxes waiting for me when I arrived. The conseiller scientifique (a job title I choose to translate as “Science Officer” to continue the scifi theme) was overwhelmingly helpful too, fielding my minutia-minded questions both before and after my visit.

I’d read that France’s BD-censoring law had passed in 1949 in part because of the violence of American superhero comics.  The censors wanted to end the damaging influence. American superhero comics were indeed violent, but I wanted to test the claim by looking at some of their French counterparts, most specifically Pierre Mouchot’s Fantax, a Batman-like adventurer stationed in New York. “It is no exaggeration,” I’d read on CoolFrenchComics.com, “to say that Fantax was single-handedly responsible for the adoption of the Law of July 1949 which thereafter heavily censored adventure comics.”

I untied the strings of the first rare collections box to find a stack of original Fantax magazines:

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My favorite cover features the hero smoking a cigarette:

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As far as American superhero influences, it seemed Chott had based his Fantax costume on Bernard Baily’s Hourman, swapping yellow for red:

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The inside pages were colorless, but alternated between black and blue ink, a format I’d never seen before:

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I came prepared to count panels and incidents of violence on objective scales. I’d worked up a lexicon of graphic representations based mainly on Bob Kane’s Batman: sound effects (including letter size, thickness, and exclamation points), gun clouds, bullet whiz lines, motion lines, impact lines, impact bursts (attached, detached and background), stars (implying internal state of near unconsciousness), foregrounded panel breaks, encapsulated vs. implied gutter violence, content angle and distance, violent movement through representational objects (dropped gun, falling hat), physical contact (punch, kick, grab, throw, pierce, shoot), aftermath imagery (corpse, unconscious body, wounds).

With the exception of panel breaks, Chott (that’s how Pierre Mouchot signs his pen name) uses them all. Each issue includes ten pages (plus the partially used back cover) with an average of ten panels each. I’m still in the process of tallying and averaging the number of panels with violent content, but at first glance I wasn’t seeing much outside the Kane’s Batman range.

Chott does substitute an occasional blood splatter for an impact burst:

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And, more artfully, some of his panels offer a rare, first-person POV:

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But it looked like Fantax, though lethally violent, was operating at the upper end of American superhero norms.

Until I looked at the cover of No. 6:

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And this beheading in No. 8:

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And I realized the French superhero had stepped beyond the influence of his American inspirations.

Fantax No. 8 was published in January 1947, while in the U.S. the notoriously violent EC was still publishing Pictures Stories from the Bible. EC owner Bill Gaines would later face a panel of offended senators while defending the artwork of Johnny Craig on a 1954 cover of Crime SuspenStories:

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SENATOR KEFAUVER: Here is your May 22 issue. This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman’s head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?

GAINES: Yes, sir; I do, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.

Gaines’ description of “bad taste” describes the Fantax beheading panel, published as the American superhero market was in collapse and the American horror market had barely launched with the first comic book horror title, Spooks Comics No. 1 (undated, c. 1946).

It’s no surprise Chott cancelled Fantax before France’s censorship law took effect. But the perception that the magazine mirrored American superheroes is wrong. Many of the hero’s adventures are set in New York, but they are a funhouse reflection of the U.S. as gleaned through U.S. comics. Chott is drawing a comic book version of a comic book.

His New York is a Comic Book City.

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Angouleme’s Les Murs Peints is the only comic book with literal gutters and panels four stories high. My guidebook adds “Circuit des” and translates it “Graffiti Walk,” but “Murs Peints” means “Painted Walls.” CitéCréation commissioned some of France’s most popular bande dessinée (comic book) artists to design them. It’s a fitting choice for the city that’s home to the Cité Internationale de la Bande Dessinee et de l’Image. The web address abbreviates that to citebd, or, literally, Comic Book City. I spent a couple of days at their research library and museum, so the murs were mostly an afterhours perk. My guidebook thinks there are twenty, but then I saw another dozen online and so kept looking. The tourist bureau has a map, but the city is a medieval maze. Unofficial strolls also produce a range of unofficial additions.

Some of the murals are so large they are hard to miss:

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Some you can walk past without noticing:

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Some images are literally hidden:

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Often you just need to look up:

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They started painting them in 1998, the most recent in 2006:

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One of my favorites includes its own shadow on the opposite building:

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And the rest of the wall is even better:

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If you like sequence in your sequential art, this is for you:

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While most are cartoons, a few play photorealistic tricks on the eye:

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Many are within the ramparts bordering the old city, but some (unofficial ones) are on the outer walls themselves:

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One is in the center square of the old city:

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More are down narrow side streets:

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My walks included actual graffiti:

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And sometimes just graffiti tags:

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And even the utility and mail boxes joined in:

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I didn’t spot this one and the utility box facing it until driving out of the city:

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I searched for but somehow did not find the tallest mural:

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For others I didn’t photograph myself, visit Angouleme’s site.

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After calling Scarlett Johansson “the smartest, toughest female action star,” film reviewer Justin Craig declared: “it’s time ScarJo gets her very own Marvel franchise.” But when asked if a Black Widow film is in the works, Johansson had to fumble her way through a politic non-answer: “You know, I think it’s something that, um, again I think Marvel is is certainly, um, listening, and if, you know, working with them for several years now, you kind of see how, ah, they respond to the audience, um, demand I think for something like that.”

Marvel president Kevin Feige says it’s “possible,” but makes no promises. Meanwhile, Johansson is creating her own superwoman franchise. She literalizes her Black Widow codename by playing an actual man-eating spider in Under The Skin, and her voiceover computer operating system Samantha in Her is way way beyond anything Tony Stark could build.

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But I had my highest hopes on Luc Besson’s Lucy.

If there’s a director geared for writing and shooting a superheroine movie, it’s Besson. His 1990 Le Femme Nakita spawned an immediate Hollywood remake (though there really is no reason to see Bridget Fonda in Point of No Return) and later a Canadian-made TV series (thank you, USA Network, for keeping the French name). The Fifth Element was a bit of a mess, but an entertaining one, especially the fact that the “supreme being” is supermodel Milla Jovovich cloned from a severed hand to protect Earth from a giant black cloud of evil space death. I think magic space stones were involved too—the same plot Marvel seems to be headed toward now. And let’s not forget The Professional, Besson’s hyper-violent pedophiliac action-thriller co-starring twelve-year-old Natalie Portman (no wonder she fell for Chris Hemsworth when he and his hammer dropped out the sky in 2011).

I’m not really sure what Besson has been doing since the 90s, but it did not further hone his film-making skills. Lucy is not a good movie. But it is a superheroine movie. Lucy, like so many of her comic book counterparts, is the next leap in human evolution, one accidentally triggered by a ruthless drug cartel that continues to supply the script with shootouts and car chases. Lucy has Professor X’s mind-reading and telekinetic skills, invulnerability to pain, a cybernetic ability to interface with machines and airwaves, and the power to change her hairdo at will.  Johansson doesn’t wear an “L” on her chest (the t-shirt is cut too low), but her name does meet Peter Coogan’s requirement of “a superhero identity embodied in a codename” since Lucy, as we’re told very early, is the name of the first human being (who also makes two pleasantly bizarre cameos).

Morgan Freeman, reprising his science-guy helper role from the Batman trilogy, delivers some painfully scripted superpowers-science in the form of a literal lecture, complete with Powerpoint bullets and audience Q&A. Besson intercuts these with Johansson’s literal bullets and scantily costumed T&A. The film begins in Taiwan and ends in Paris, with occasional French and Korean subtitles. It would be significantly improved if the subtitles were deleted and the English dialogue dubbed in Latin or Old Norse or any other language the majority of viewers won’t understand. Because then we could enjoy the sequence of spectacle, which is Besson’s well-disguised strength.

Freeman’s faux-science distracts from the fun by pretending that the film suffers from internal logic. It doesn’t. Although the plot ostensibly follows Lucy’s brain growth, intercutting incremental percentiles from 10% to the climatic 100%, her actual superpowered behavior is random. When a kick to the stomach bursts the bag of drug-mule super-serum in her intestines, Besson flings Johansson around his rotating prison set till she’s writhing on the ceiling. This doesn’t really make sense—is she flying?—but it looks cool. The CGI team tries to disintegrate her during her flight to Paris, which looks cool too, but what exactly does that have to do with Freeman’s immortality soundclip? Once recovered, Lucy can dispose of a dozen armed cops with a flick of her hand—although for some reason those pesky martial arts gangsters require time-consuming one-by-one levitation. Also why, as she’s teetering on omnipotence, is Paris traffic quite so challenging? Oh, and why do her very first acts of drug-induced super-intelligence include hand-to-hand combat and two-gun marksmanship? Are those skills about brain capacity?

I prefer Johansson’s performance before her robotic transformation. Imagine the Black Widow quivering in fear and vomiting on herself at the sight of blood. Johansson fans could argue that Lucy should only be analyzed in relation to Her, since Lucy builds a supercomputer and downloads herself in her final moment of corporeal existence, ending the film with a text to her cop boyfriend: “I AM EVERYWHERE.”

But I’m gong to reroute us to 1933 instead.

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If you don’t think Lucy counts as a superhero movie, read Jerry Siegel’s short story “The Reign of the Superman.” Before teaming up with Joe Shuster to create their comic book Superman, Siegel wrote a tale about a ruthless scientist who uses a starving vagrant as his lab rat. Lucy is a privileged college student, but she’s equally clueless when abducted and implanted with a mysterious super-drug.  Siegel’s is derived from an asteroid, but its effects are similar. Soon his anti-hero is reading-minds and projecting his thoughts across the universe too.

Unfortunately such unlimited power transforms him into a hate-mongering monster bent on world domination. Lucy’s transformation leaves her morally challenged too. She murders a hospital patient to make room for herself on a surgical bed with the excuse that the guy wouldn’t have lived anyway. When her cop sidekick comments on the tourists barely scrambling out of the way of her car and the string of exploding wrecks she’s leaving in her wake, Lucy says something about the illusion of death, which apparently gives her a license to kill and collaterally damage.

But, like Siegel’s second and far more famous Superman, Lucy finds a way to hold on to her humanity. When her hunky sidekick complains he’s no help to her, she kisses him. She needs him because he’s a “reminder,” she says. One of the students in my Superhero course made exactly that argument about Lois Lane.

So while Lucy is not the leap forward in superheroine evolution I’d hoped for,  perhaps Johansson, like Siegel in “The Reign of the Superman,” is running some experimental test work before delivering a full dose of her superwoman prowess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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275px-Lesvampires

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

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

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

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

Musidora

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

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

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

les-vampires-sleeping-bodies

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

vep and moreno

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

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

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

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

Irmavep

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