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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Enlisted by a team of honor students for a seminar on superheroes, a mild-mannered professor discovers his inner obsession. Assuming the powers of a novelist, teacher, playwright, and scholar, Professor Chris Gavaler embarks on a mission to unlock the secrets of the multiverse.

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My 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.

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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.

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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.

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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 . . .

Crisis on Infinite Earths Poster

(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?

BOB: What?

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?

BOB: Flying.

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.

CLIFFORD:  Superman?

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?

CLIFFORD:  Yeah.

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?

BOB:  Gone.

ART: Batman’s daughter?

BOB: Gone.

CLIFFORD: What are you guys talking about?

ART: Supergirl?

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.

CLIFFORD: Planets?

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.

(Awkward pause)

Well. I don’t want to hold you gentleman up. You’re doing a wonderful job.

(He exists.)

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.

CLIFFORD: What?

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.

BOB: Exactly.

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.

CLIFFORD: Evolution?

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.

(No response)

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?

ART: Miracles.

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.

BOB: 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?

ART: Sure.

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?

ART: God.

BOB: Oh, please. Was it pulling a plow in the Garden of—

CLIFFORD: So where’d the egg from?

BOB: From the proto-Brontosaurus.

CLIFFORD: What’s—

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.

BOB: So?

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.

PRIEST: Oh.

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?

ART: Limbo.

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?

BOB: Yeah.

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 . . .

ART: Sacrilegious?

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.)

 

Celebrating 24 years of new plays.

 

 

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french batman

France has its own Batman. He’s named Nightrunner, and he’s been patrolling the streets of Paris since 2011 when DC introduced him as part of Bruce Wayne’s Batman Incorporated team. I walked some of those streets in June, but I didn’t see any caped crusaders, just used book vendors lining the Seine. A few of them sold BDs (bande dessinee, “drawn bands”), mostly late 70s and early 80s stuff,  stray Teen Titans and X-Men between stacks of Tintin and Asterix.

The Bronze Age Batman belonged to the French publisher Sagedition. I found him in the Angouleme research library while tracing the influence of U.S. superheroes on their French counterparts. The cover title story, “Le Mannequin,” doesn’t match the cover image,”Le Secret du Sphinx” (I’ll let you translate both of those yourself) because the issue collects five Batman adventures in what was not yet popularly called a graphic novel format.

angouleme day 2, comics research 003

Note “LE JUSTICIER” printed along the left margin; it roughly translates, “THE ADMINISTRATOR OF JUSTICE” (a mystery we’ll return to soon). Otherwise the cover is Detective Comics No. 508, minus artist Jim Aparo’s growling dog in the foreground (deleted, presumably, by the French censorship board):

300px-Detective_Comics_508

The Sagedition version is cover-dated December 1982. I cross-referenced the content as Detective Comics Nos. 506-510, the last episode from January 1982, so roughly a one-year turnaround time. Unlike the original American publications, the translated reprints include no advertising, not even on the back cover; the inside front and back covers are blank, with an added table of contents and very brief publishing information on the final page.

Sagedition also printed only half of the pages in color. Turn a page and you’re looking at a black-and-white, two-page spread; turn again and it’s a color spread. This presumably saved printing costs, though I found the alternating color system dates back to the tabloid-sized newspaper BDs of the 40s. Sagedition applied it inconsistently. A 1985 Batman “collection un max” alternates its first 98 pages, before switching entirely to color for the last, re-paginated 45 pages (which also include an incongruous Golden Age Dr. Fate/”Dr. Destin” adventure). A 1986 Batman and Superman omnibus prints all 96 pages in black and white and in a smaller format:

angouleme day 2, comics research 007

Smaller, black-and-white pages may also reflect Sagedition’s shrinking business. The company vanished in 1987.

France has no Silver Age Batman. The BD censorship board (the Commission for the Oversight and Control of Publications for Children and Adolescents) established by the Law of July 1949 effectively halted the importing of most American comics. But just prior to the law’s passage, French readers had two Golden Age versions of Batman. Beginning from its first September 19, 1946 issue, the weekly 8-page tabloid Tarzan included “La Chauve-Souris” (the surprisingly multi-syllabic French way of saying “A Bat”):

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And beginning with its first May 21, 1947 issue, L’Astucieux ran “les ailes rouges” (“the red wings”) on two of its eight pages, including an interior page in black-and-white which continued to the color back page:

angouleme day 2, comics research 138

Despite the title change and the red cape and cowl, Batman is still called “Batman” in the translated dialogue.

Both Batmen vanish in 1948 as criticism of American comics and their influence on France’s BDs was building toward the censorship law. U.S. comics publishers faced similar criticism at home but created the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers to stave off legislation. The ACMP’s 1948 code went unenforced until 1954 when it was revised and adopted by the new Comics Code Authority in the U.S. industry’s second maneuver to avoid government regulation. The British Parliament passed its own comic book censorship law in 1955.

In all three cases, the call for censorship was a post-war cause. Batman appeared only once in France during World War II. Germany invaded in May 1940 and by August divided the country into an occupied northern region and the so-called “free zone” of Vichy France.  The weekly Les Gandes Aventures premiered the following month. Beginning in the tabloid’s second issue, “Le Justicier” ran through October and November in eight weekly pages, divided into two, four-part stories. The first is an uncredited adaptation of Detective Comics No. 30 (August 1939), Batman’s fourth episode, written by Gardner Fox and drawn by Bob Kane with Sheldon Moldoff co-inking.

Les Grandes Aventures, No. 2:

angouleme day 2, comics research 100

Les Grandes Aventures, No. 3:

angouleme day 2, comics research 102

Les Grandes Aventures, No. 4:

angouleme day 2, comics research 101

Les Grandes Aventures, No. 5:

angouleme day 2, comics research 103

Unlike Batman’s post-war appearances, Les Grandes Aventures does not reproduce the original artwork, but redraws it panel by panel. To accommodate the differences in formats, the French version regulates panel sizes while usually widening Kane’s taller originals:

original DC art by bob kane cropped

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In order to conclude the adventure at the bottom of the fourth page, two new panels were added, including one of the worst drawn images in the sequence:

angouleme day 2, comics research 101 (2)

It’s difficult to judge what impact the Les Grandes Aventures Batman had on later French incarnations. His rouge costume is not quite the same as L’Astucieux’s Red Wings, though the inclusion of “Le Justicier” in the Sagedition reprints could be an allusion to Batman’s first appearance. But the term could also be generic, an equivalent of “vigilante.”

The Gardner Fox script features a thug named “Mikhail,”  who, though identified as a “Cossack” (so Russian or Ukrainian), wears a fez and hoop earrings. He replaces Dr. Death’s previous thug, “Jabah,” a “great Indian,” who Kane dressed in a turban. Both Jabah and Mikhail wear cummerbunds, green leggings, and purple capes–a result of the printer’s limited color choices and Kane’s limited lexicon for his Exotic East. Batman kills them both.

Fox doesn’t mention Jabah’s and Mikhail’s religious affiliations, but the fez suggests Muslim. It brings us back round to Bilal Asselah, AKA Nightrunner, AKA the Batman of France in the international Batman Incorporated. Creator David Hine explains his choice: “The urban unrest and problems of the ethnic minorities under Sarkozy’s government dominate the news from France and it became inevitable that the hero should come from a French Algerian background.”

1708155-praying_with_his_mother

Some conservative bloggers weren’t happy with a Sunni Muslim Batman. Warner Todd Huston accused DC of “PC indoctrination,” complaining that “Batman couldn’t find any actual Frenchman to be the ‘French saviour.'” “How about that,” writes Avi Green. “Bruce Wayne goes to France where he hires not a genuine French boy or girl with a real sense of justice, but rather, an ‘oppressed’ minority.”

I consider Bilal reasonable reparation for Dr. Death’s henchmen, as well as a nod toward the actual Algerians who did fight as French saviours during the German occupation. They administrated better justice than the first French Batman, a pirated, second-rate feature from a publisher working under Nazi rule.

I’m glad Paris has a new Le Justicier.

nightrunner2-640x480

 

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more angouleme 084

I met fellow superhero scholar Alex Buchet for the first time in Paris during a World Cup game televised in an Irish pub before my wife’s poetry reading in the building’s medieval cellar. After bemoaning the sorry state of Hollywood superheroes, Alex and I agreed we should collaborate on a project. I was headed to Angouleme, France’s center for comic book research, where I would be delicately flipping sixty-five-year-old newspaper sheets printed with the still-bold colors of one of France’s first superheroes, Atomas.

Mon Journal (“My Journal”) ran its first weekly issue on August 8, 1946. It’s front and back cover adventure strips were in color, with four of the six, inner pages in black and white, a standard format among French, newspaper-style, comic strip periodicals of the time. Beginning with No. 21 on January 23, 1947, reprints of  the American “Captain Marvel Junior” appeared on the cover. Mon Journal also translated an American magician strip, retitled “Ibis L’invincible,” for one of its two interior color pages. “Captain Marvel Junior” continued on the cover until December 18, 1947, after which the series moved to its own inside, black and white page.

No. 68 also announced a forthcoming feature: “Soon Atomas the Master of the Atom.”

more angouleme 078

No. 70 featured Atomas in its revised header and “Charlie Chan” as its new front feature:

more angouleme 080

“Atomas” replaced “Hopalong Cassidy” on the back cover. Each full-page episode included the credits: “par Pellos ed R. Charroux,” but the strip’s origins are more complex. According to coolfrenchcomics.com, writer Robert Charroux created the character for artist Auguste Liquois, who was drawing a similar superhero space opera “Salvator” for the weekly Tarzan periodical in 1947:

salvtator

Liquois drew Charroux’s first “Atomas” page:

atomasliq2

The page may have appeared in Mon Journal No. 69, but the issue is missing from the Angouleme collection. If so, it would have appeared in one of the four black and white, interior pages.  When Pellos (AKA Rene Pellarin) took over the strip, he used the same opening script for Mon Journal No. 70:

Atomas, Mon Journal 70

The two versions highlight a range of differences in artistic approach, including Pellos’ asymmetrical panel layout and Liquois’ comparatively realistic figural style. I prefer Pellos, though his Atomas may also owe a debt to Bill Everett’s scantily-dressed and A-chested Amazing-Man:

amazing_man_comics_may_41_C

Centaur Publications ran Amazing-Man from September 1939 to February 1942, five years before Pellos started illustrating Chirroux’s script. The series had also appeared in France, though Amazing-Man was renamed “Surhomme” or Superman:

amazing-man-i

The Pellos version of Atomas continued until Mon Journal No. 85. The Angouleme collection does not include No. 86 (or any subsequent issues), but according to coolfrenchcomics.com, the final issue was drawn by an uncredited artist who produced it in the style of Pellos, “d’apres Pellos.” Mon Journal then replaced the series with “Zorro.”

I was studying “Atomas” to test the claim that the violence of American superhero comics influenced their French counterparts. In short, Atomas is less violent than his immediate Mon Journal predecessor, Captain Marvel Junior. Though he often wrestles and flips his opponents, Atomas throws only one punch in his sixteen pages:

more angouleme 093

That maniacal smile is a bit troubling though, and unlike Captain Marvel Junior and the majority of American superheroes of the late 40s, Atomas uses deadly force, which Pellos depicts overtly:

more angouleme 099

Pellos adds a category of representation I’d overlooked in my initial lexicon of violence, merging an impact burst with a panel frame:

more angouleme 106

Chirroux also scripts a surprising range of wide-scale death, from the tidal wave destruction of the moon crashing into the ocean to a heavily populated city exploding, images uncommon in American comics. Pellos’ exploding city holds even greater meaning less than three years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Atomas, Mon Journal 80 city explodes

In contrast, when Wayne Boring depicted the destruction of a Kryptonian city in 1944, he included no figures in the foreground, reducing the human impact of the violence. France’s comics tabloid L’Astucieux reprinted Wayne’s art in May 1947, less than a year before “Atomas” premiered:

wayne boring krypton city explodes

The post-war context highlights one other significant difference between Pellos and Liquois. I’ll let Jean-Pierre Mercier, conseiller scientifique at Angouleme’s le Musée de la Bande Dessinée (comic book museum), explain:

“Why was [Liquois] so abruptly discharged? Maybe because publishers had discovered that, during WWII, he published in Le Téméraire, a collaborationist, anti-English, anti-Russia, anti-American and  very anti-Semitic weekly magazine for kids. Even worse, Liquois published a very harsh story on the French Resistance in a satirical magazine named “Le Mérinos”, and it caused him a lot of trouble after the war. This is precisely what happened to him at “Vaillant”. He got fired right after the publishers discovered the Merinos story. Is it possible that he got the same reaction at Mon Journal (Mme Ratier, the woman publisher of Mon Journal was part of the Resistance during the war). And Liquois’ name disappears in Vaillant summaries in 1947… We know Mon Journal stopped because the publishing company had money problems, and that’s the main reason why they merged the two titles in only one, and therefore had to stop several series on a very short period of time, including Atomas.”

There is currently little or no scholarship in “Atomas” because the series has never been collected or translated. Until right now. Alex’s English version follows.

[Note from Alex Buchet: All comments in italics below are from me. Click on images to enlarge them.]

Mon Journal No. 70, episode 1:

Atomas, Mon Journal 70

Panel 1

Caption:

The year 1999: Professor Sinclair, father of Bella, has invented an electro-magnet able to attract the stars. Dr Borg, his associate, is ready to betray him.

Sinclair: Our electronic telescope is perfected.

Bella:      Father, you’re the world’s greatest magician!

Borg:      What a prodigious vision of Saturn!

 

Panel 2

Borg:       Enough playacting! Hands up! I’m the one who’ll exploit the mineral wealth of the moon! I shall be the master of    the world! Chang!… Put the cuffs on him!

Sinclair:   We are betrayed, Bella!

 

Panel 3

Caption:

Bella Sinclair is shut up in an isolation cage.

 

Borg:       We’ll need the Professor. Keep an eye on him!

Chang:    OK chief! Nucleopolis has just sent a message! Our men are masters of the American fortress!

 

Panel 4

Chang:    The teams are hard at work! Everything’ll go right!

Borg:        And now, to work, Chang! The cosmic electro-magnet will attract the Moon. It’ll splash down in the Pacific Ocean!

 

Panel 5 (insert)

Caption:

The Moon heads for the Earth in a horrific magnetic storm

 

Panel 6

Ship:         S.O.S We are in hazard!

 

Panel 7

Loudspeaker: The State Police communicates: The population is ordered to observe the utmost calm. Our scientists…

 

Panel 8 (insert)

Astronomer: Hello! The Mont Ventoux Observatory here. The moon is hurtling towards the Earth at a speed of 100 000 kilometers per hour!

 

Panel 9:

Atomas:        It’s time for me to intervene!

Caption:

On the 25th floor of the Opera Building, someone is watching the sky! Atomas…

[This seems to bring on the crazy like Fletcher Hanks. Note that the background seems to be American -- since Jules Verne, America was always the home of futurism for the French. PS Opera Building is in Enclish in the final caption.That said, Mont Ventoux is a real French observatory.]

Mon Journal No. 71, episode 2:

Atomas, Mon Journal 71

Panel 1

Caption :

Installed at the cosmic machine, Borg seems master of the situation.

Borg: The Star Building has just collapsed! Too bad! The end justifies the means!

 

Panel 2

Caption:

Thanks to his magnetic detector, Atomas manages to get right to  Profeeor Sinclair’s laboratory

Atomas: It’s here!

 

Panel 3

Caption:

Hanging from an antenna, the atomic hero advances through empty space

Atomas: I’ve been spotted!

Borg:      Curses! It’s Atomas!

 

Panel 4

Borg:     Hello Nucleapolis! Continue  the experiment with the fortress’s electro-magnet…I’m going to blow up Sinclair’s laboratory!

 

Panel 5

Caption:

From a terrace at the African base, the mutineers gaze on a grand spectacle

Mutineer:       When the Moon lands in the ocean, I believe it’ll make waves!

Accomplice:We’re prepared for the tidal wave…

 

Panel 6

Mutineer:   To your posts!

Mutineer 2: Dan!..Kid!…Battle stations, all. Things are going wrong in the city! Borg’s transferring controls to us!

 

Panel 7

Caption:

Borg, who’s just caused a short-circuit in the uranium piles, beats a hasty retreat.

Borg:            Load the Professor into the autogiro, he’ll be our hostage. His daughter will blow up with the laboratory!

 

Panel 8

Caption:

Surrounded by radioactive effluvia, Atomas tries to avert the disaster.

Atomas:  It’s no use, the disintegration is starting!

 

Panel 9

Bella: Help! Help! Atomas!

 [The name Atomas is certainly a riff on the far more famous Fantomas.” –as” isn’t a normal French suffix; but “as” translates as ace, both the card and in the sense of a supremely competent person. So we’re reading about Atom Ace, name inspired by Phantom Ace!]

Mon Journal No. 72, episode 3:

Atomas, Mon Journal 72

Panel 1

Caption :

With a blow from his shoulder, Atomas has broken through the isolation cage

Atomas:     Quick! Everything’s going to blow up!

 

Panel 2

Caption:

To more speedily avoid danger, the two young people dive into the park’s basin

 

Panel 3

Bella:        Ah! My God!

Atomas:     Saved!

 

Panel 4

Bella:         They took my father to Nucleapolis, in East Africa. This ‘Supersonic Meteor’ will

do for us. Let’s board, you can fill me in!

 

Panel 5

Caption:

In the Pacific Ocean, the Moon suddenly splashes down, crushing the capes and islands, throwing terrestrial geography into chaos…grinding…drowning…destroying…

 

Panel 6

Caption:

The sea overwhelms the African jungle, and the panic-stricken animals flee

 

Panel 7

Bella:        Splash down, it’s here!

Atomas:    The land’s a huge swamp. Too bad, I’ll risk it!

Caption:

After a record-breaking trip, Atomas and Bella are flying over Tanganyika

 

Panel 8

Bella:        Let’s try to reach the atomic fortress!

Atomas:    Careful! The ocean’s overflowing the continent..let’s not get swept away!

Caption:

The vehicle is stuck in the mud, but the passengers are uninjured

 

Panel 9

Atomas:     Bella!

Bella:         I’m keeping afloat!

Caption:

In the furious waves, the young people swim amidst the half-sunken trees…

 [The insanity just keeps ramping up! Note the mention of Tanganyika, which in 1947 was still a colony and hadn’t yet merged with Zanzibar to form the new state of Tanzania.]

Mon Journal No. 73, episode 4:

Atomas, Mon Journal 73

Panel 1

Caption :

Atomas and Bella find footing in a swamp.

Bella:         We’re saved for the moment!

Atomas:      The jungle animals aren’t any better off than we!

 

Panel 2

Bella:         I’m afraid! The swamp is infested with reptiles! And those panthers in the trees!

Atomas:     Fear nothing, we’re getting to solid ground!

 

Panel 3

Caption:

In a lagoon of clear water

Atomas:    This mud sticks like putty!

Bella:        We’re alittle cleaner, but my clothes are in rags!

 

Panel 4

Caption:

On an islet spared by the tidal wave all the animals in creation seem to have rendez-voused…

Atomas:     All these animals seem paralyzed by fear …forward to Nucleapolis!

Bella:         Don’t stray away from me!

 

Panel 5

Bella:         What a nightmare!

 

Panel 6

Caption:

In Nucleapolis Borg directs operations

Borg:         From the underground base, 30 Flying Wings will take off for the Moon to set up hangars. Transport the cosmic magnets, too. It’s from there that we shall govern Earth

 

Panel 7

Borg:       Dan, watch over the work. I’m going in the vanguard.

Dan:         Everything will be set up by tomorrow!

Caption:

In a gigantic glider, the machine for attracting the stars is hauled aboard.

 

Panel 8

Borg:       And now, it’s between you and me, Atomas!

Caption:

Borg dons stratospheric armor

 

Panel 9

Atomas:   Nothing doing, the climb is impossible!

Bella:       Nothing is impossible for Atomas!

Caption:

After a hard trek, Atomas and Bella arrive before the ramparts of the fortress

[Pity, Bella reverts from a capable and brave adventurer to the standard whiny, shrinking female – one who typically complains about her wardrobe and showers the man with adoring flattery.] 

Mon Journal No. 74, episode 5:

Atomas, Mon Journal 74

Panel 1

Caption :

On the Moon an army of jet-propelled armored men set up pre-fabricated hangars

Foreman: Assemble the segments carefully! Mind the welds!

 

Panel 2

Dan:        Here are your installations assembled in record time!

Borg:       Oof! This armor’s become intolerable! Here we can breathe!

 

Panel 3

Caption:

At the bottom of the Pacific, Borg’s laborers exploit the uranium at a depth of 2000 meters

 

Panel 4

Near Nucleapolis, by an ocean once more tranquil, Atomas and Bella are intrigued as they watch bizarre goings-on

Bella:        It looks like a convoy of prisoners. There are women among them!

Atomas:    They’re going to enter the fortress. I have an idea!

 

Panel 5

Caption:

To one side, a guard was watching the disembarkation1

 

Panel 6

Caption:

In Nucleapolis, strange doctors prepare their equipment

Doc 1:     Terrific, this new invention of Borg’s. We needed manpower!

Doc 2:      Yes! We take a man and make him a robot!

 

Panel 7

Atomas:    Shh! We’re in!

Caption:

Disguised in the clothes of his victim, Atomas leads Bella and a group of prisoners into the fortress.

 

Panel 8

Doc 1:     Voltage 10…Cut!

Doc 2:      Zero current!

Caption:

Borg’s acolytes have finished a first experiment

 

Panel 9

Doc 1:       That’s fine! Detach them! Prepare a second shift!

Caption:

Emptied of their intelligence, the prisoners are now docile, reactionless robots.

[I like how Borg whines about how stuffy his suit is. You don’t hear Iron Man complain, do you? Meanwhile, Bella is treated like an idiot who has to be shushed in the enemy’s presence, as though she’d start blurting out her hero’s secret plans at any moment.]

Mon Journal No. 75, episode 6:

Atomas, Mon Journal 75

Panel 1

Caption :

Before Atomas, men and women pass by, walking in an automatic way…

Atomas:   How bizarre…they look like sleepwalkers.

Guard:      Group 3, come in!

 

Panel 2

Caption:

Guard 1:   Hop to it, come on!

Guard 2:    And you too!

 

Panel 3

Caption:

After getting rid of his disguise, Atomas decides to enter the laboratory

Atomas:     I’ve got to watch these fellows, Bella might need me!

 

Panel 4

Caption:

In the laboratory, the prisoners will be forced to undergo the horrible electric treatment

Doc:          They’re really calm, Captain!

Captain:     We drugged them on board before disembarking!

 

Panel 5

Doc 1:      Tighten the electrodes!

Doc 2:       This one’s not going along easily!

Caption:

On an insulated platform, a horrified Bella undergoes the preparation

 

Panel 6

Caption:

Despite her desperate resistance, Bella is at the mercy of the scientists in Borg’s pay.

Doc:         Everything’s ready. Can I lower the bell-jars?

Bella:        What are you going to do, you wretch?

 

Panel 7

Atomas:    In a minute it’ll be too late. What to do?

Caption:

Behind a glass wall, Atomas follows the horrible preparations.

 

Panel 8

Bella:        Ah! Ah! Oh!

Doc:          Let’s start out slowly…voltage 250!

 

Panel 9

Bella: Atomas! Atomas!

Caption: Through the gass bell-jar, the deformed face of Bella seems drawn from a nightmare.

[ I agree with that last caption. A pretty powerful image!]

Mon Journal No. 76, episode 7:

Atomas, Mon Journal 76

Panel 1

Caption: 

With a prodigious effort, Atomas tears a heavy dynamo from its base and hurls it against the wall of glass that separates him from the laboratory!

Panel 2

Bella:    Quick! Quick!

Doc:      Atomas!

 

Panel 3

Caption:

The atomic hero with his steely grip breaks the electrodes binding Bella

Doc 1:     He’s going to electrify himself!

Doc 2:      Overpower him!

 

Panel 4

Caption:

Then with no care for the formidable current he grasps with full handfuls the high-voltage cables

 

Panel 5

Caption:

Lethal discharges force the accomplices of Borg to beat a retreat

Atomas:    Your turn, now!

Doc:           It’s the Devil!

 

Panel 6

Atomas:      Are you hurt, Bella?

Bella:          No, you got here in time…but we must free these unfortunates too!

 

Panel 7

Freed captive: Let’s take advantage of this quiet moment to leave this Hell!

Atomas:           No! I’m with you, we’ll fight together!

 

Panel 8

Henchman:      Nucleapolis here…Atomas is in the fortress…Come quickly, he’s making the garrison rise up against us!

Caption:

In the radio room,  Borg’s agents communicate with him.

 

Panel 9

Borg:            Atomas! Him again! All right, I accept the brawl!

Caption:

Borg, in the lunar stratospheric station, has received the message.

[Seem to be some swipes from Burne Hogarth’s Tarzan here. Actually, I’ll bet the major influences on Pellos’ style are the American strips Flash Gordon—“Guy L’Eclair” in French—and Brick Bradford – “Luc Bradefer”.]

Mon Journal No. 77, episode 8:

Atomas, Mon Journal 77

Panel 1

Caption: 

Atomas harangues the prisoners he has just freed.

Atomas:       Borg tried to enslave you. All of you join me and we’ll be masters of the fortress!

Bella:           Most of them don’t understand you but I’m sure they’ll obey your orders!

Ex-captive:  Alert! The enemy’s attacking!

 

Panel 2

Atomas:       Let them approach, I’ll be their host! Take cover behind the insulators!

 

Panel 3

Caption:

Manning a cosmic ray machine, Atomas bombards the assaillants with terrible discharges!

Atomas:        They’ll get the idea real soon!

 

Panel 4

Ex-captive:    Victory! They’re fleeing!

Atomas:         Come on…come on, Bella!

Bella:            Think of my father, he must be freed!

 

Panel 5

Caption:

Down a vast spiral staircase, Atomas and Bella descend towards the underground parts of the fortress.

Bella:         He’s sure to be imprisoned in the below-ground levels!

Atomas:     Let’s go down, we’ll find out!

 

Panel 6

Caption:

In one passage, iridescent bubbles float like balloons

Atomas:      Don’t go near them! It’s certainly a trap!

Bella:          I wonder what that could be?

 

Panel 7

Bella:         The poor man!

Atomas:      It’s a satanic invention of Borg’s. The displacement is considerable!

 

Panel 8

Atomas:     I’m going to rid the area of these explosive bubbles! Get down flat!

 

Panel 9

Bella:        Father! Father! They’re dragging him into the water!

Atomas:     I’m going to his rescue!

Caption:

The underground passage ends in an immense cavern in the middle of which is a lagoon

[Whew, say what you like about old-timey adventure comics – boy, did they ever have pace! By the way, please don’t assume the creaky English shows incompetence on my part; I’m trying to replicate the weirdness of the original French. I mean, “The displacement is considerable”?]

Mon Journal No. 78, episode 9:

Atomas, Mon Journal 78

Panel 1

Caption:

Bravely, Atomas dives from the top of the cliff at Professor Sinclair’s kidnappers.

Bella:       Father! Atomas! 

 

Panel 2

Bella:       One minute…two minutes…Atomas isn’t coming up!

 

Panel 3

Caption:

Twenty meters underwater, Atomas wages a Dantesque battle against Borg’s divers.

 

Panel 4

Borg:       Let them keep him away for a few more seconds and I’ll be safe in the submarine!

 

Panel 5

Caption:

In the shelter of the submersible, Borg laughs with sneering satisfaction.

Borg:       Too late, fellow, you haven’t won the game yet!

 

Panel 6

Caption:

Behind Atomas a diver, survivor of the battle looms up with a heavy iron bar in his hands.

 

Panel 7

Caption:

Though wounded, the atomic hero still has the strength to cast down his adversary with his Herculean arms…

Diver:          Rrra!

 

Panel 8

Caption:

…then, out of breath, he rises towards fresh air.

 

Panel 9

Bella:        Atomas?… Are you hurt?…I thought you’d never come back!

Atomas:     Your father is alive…but I’m at the end of my strength!

Mon Journal No. 79, episode 10:

Atomas, Mon Journal 79

Panel 1

Caption: 

Moments after the dramatic dive

Atomas:      It’s nothing, Borg will pay for it a hundredfold!

Bella:          Let’s go back to the terraces. Our men are mounting guard at the strategic points!

 

Panel 2

Atomas:    The Professor is still a prisoner but Nucleapolis is in our hands. Nothing is lost!

Bella:        Listen…there’s fighting up there!

 

Panel 3

Caption:

Assailed by stratospheric-armored men the garrison fights on the ramparts with the weapons taken from the enemy.

Atomas:       Hold on, I’m coming!

Ex-captive:  Atomas! Here’s Atomas! Courage!

 

Panel 4

Caption:

In one group of adversaries Atomas fights like a lion.

 

Panel 5

Ex-captive:   Look! The young girl! They’re dragging her away!

Atomas:         Bella!

 

Panel 6

Atomas:        Too bad…I’ll risk it! We’ll see!

 

Panel 7

Caption:

Atomas dives into the void. A hundred feet lower: the sea…and Bella’s kidnapper.

 

Panel 8

Caption:

Seized in mid-air, the armored man feels a terrible vise crush his carapace of rubber

Atomas:       Prepare for a head-first dive, Bella!

Bella:           I’ll do what I can!

Bad guy:      Ahrr!

  

Panel 9

 Caption:

The young girl’s kidnapper, his limbs broken, tumbles through the void. Atomas and Bella try to restore their balance…to arrow into the water>

Atomas:       What a dive!

[Artist Pellos’s skill at depicting human bodies in action probably is largely due to his main career—as a sports cartoonist for many decades.]

 Mon Journal No. 80, episode 11:

Atomas, Mon Journal 80

Panel 1

Ex-captive:      Everything’s fine! They’re coming up!

Ex-captive 2:   What a dive!

 

Panel 2

Caption:

A few moments later…

Atomas:           And now, keep your eyes peeled! Borg doesn’t think he’s beaten!

 

Panel 3

Caption:

On the Moon, Borg has had a colossal city built.

Insert panel:

Borg:          We still have the electro-magnets, that’s the main thing! From here, we’ll govern the Earth!

 

Panel 4

Borg:           First, a reign of terror! Men will die…the survivors will obey!

Dan:           These atomic bombshells will sort things out!

 

Panel 5

Caption:

In the capitals of Europe, the fearful crowds await their last moment.

Runner:       We’ll all die!

Runner 2:     To the shelters! To the shelters!

 

Panel 6

Borg:            This is Selenos World Radio! The Master of the World declares his sovereignty over all nations!

Techie:          Master, the broadcast is scrambled…this is coming from Nucleapolis!

 

Panel 7

Caption:

At the citadel…

Soldier:          Borg’s message was inaudible…it’s our turn to take action!

Atomas:          I’m expecting reinforcements from the United Nations!

 

Panel 8

Caption:   

In the operating rooms, specialists have Borg’s victims recover their intelligence.

Doctor:           O.K.! The experiment’s a success!

 

Panel 9

Caption:

Meanwhile, from all points of the globe, aerial squadrons are converging on Nucleapolis.

Mon Journal No. 81, episode 12:

Atomas, Mon Journal 81

Panel 1

Atomas:      Destination: Selenos! Altitude: 800 kilometers1

Bella:          I’m going with you! I want to deliver my father!

 

Panel 2

Caption:

A few hours later, coming under terrible fire, the planes burst into flame. The rocket carrying Atomas and Bella is hit.

 

Panel 3

Caption:

The two youths clad in their jet-powered suits set foot un a sinister valley on the Moon’s surface.

Atomas:          Follow me, we must get to Selenos!

 

Panel 4

Caption:

Atomas and Bella behold the giant city under its Plexiglas dome.

Atomas:        Borg’s capital!

Bella:            How can we get into a glass fortress?

 

Panel 5

Caption:

Yet Atomas has managed to enter the place through an airlock.

Atomas:         Here we are, anyway!

Bella:             I’m not unhappy at getting out of this suit!

 

Panel 6

Atomas:        Borg’s done it up right. You’d think we were in the tropics!

Bella:             And now, let’s try our luck!

 

Panel 7

Atomas:       What the devil of a machine is being built?

Bella:            Father told me one day: Borg has found the mortal fluid. Would that be it?

 

Panel 8

Bella:            See, the rings come from this crater.

Atomas:         What sinister work has the bandit undertaken? All is not lost!

 

Panel 9

Atomas:         Elevators! They’ve got to lead somewhere!

Bella:              Let’s go…nobody’s paying attention to us!

Caption:

Next issue: The Mortal Fluid

[I love how they set up, in panel 4, how challenging and dangerous it’ll be to enter the citadel – and then, in panel 5, ehh friggit, they just stroll in. Note that Bella joins Borg in complaining about the suit. They really should get an ergonomist to check it out.]

Mon Journal No. 82, episode 13:

Atomas, Mon Journal 82

Panel 1

Caption :

For an hour, the elevator in which Atomas and Bella are descends into the depths of the ocean

Atomas:       Here’s the sea-bottom!

Bella:           What a monstrous factory!

 

Panel 2

Caption:  At 9000 meters beneath the Pacific, in a submerged diving-bell, Borg’s workers extract uranium or. The vein is incredibly rich.

 

Panel 3

Caption:

Far above, at some dozens of meters above sea-level, in a robot factory.

Dan:         All he lacks is the power of speech!

Borg:        Perfect, this is the humanity I intend for the Earth!

.

Panel 4

Borg:        Activate production…our invasion plan has advanced!

Dan:         Professor Sinclair refuses to help us!

 

Panel 5

Caption:

In the prison-laboratory of Bella’s father.

Borg:          Your stubbornness will cost you dearly, Professor! Give me the secret of talking robots…or else…

Sinclair:      It’s no use insisting, Borg, you’re a scoundrel!

 

Panel 6

Caption:

Meanwhile, at different points of the globe, lethal fluidic rings fall.

Runner:       It’s the price of progress!

Runner 2:    It’s extermination!

 

Panel 7

Caption:

In the factory at the bottom of the sea, Atomas and Bella follow a path.

Atomas:       That robot’s transporting uranium!

 

Panel 8

Caption:

Giant locks supply energy to the factory.

Bella:            They’re tapping considerable forces!

Atomas:         Yes, I understand, it’s from there that the fluidic energy flows out!

 

Panel 9

Caption:

In the infernal lair

Atomas:         Bella! We have to blow up this installation!

[Yet again, our heroes merely stroll into this top-security setup, taking in the sights like a tourist couple… Note the splendidly phlegmatic attitude of the chap in panel 6. “It’s the price of progress!” Shrugging through the apocalypse…typically French.]

Mon Journal No. 83, episode 14:

Atomas, Mon Journal 83

Panel 1

Caption:

Atomas and Bella have climbed up to the command valve.

Atomas:      One more bit of effort and we’re there!

Bella:          What a climb!

 

Panel 2

Atomas:   Careful! I’m shutting off the escape valve!

Bella:        Oh my God!

 

Panel 3

Caption:

The mortal fluid, turned back from the gigantic tube, flows into the factory.

Burning guy: Ahh!

 

Panel 4

Caption:

Atomas and Bella have managed to reach a mechanical ramp that links to the upper factory.

Atomas:     We’re getting near the sea surface!

Bella:          This is the last level!

 

Panel 5

Caption:

They arrive at that factory where they find a mysterious retreat.

Bella:         I’m sure that my father is imprisoned here!

Atomas:     Impossible to get any closer. The robots are mounting guard and the building is flush against the sea!

 

Panel 6

Caption:

Borg is told of the catastrophe striking the factory on the sea bottom.

Video guy:   The machines are unusable…the robots too. As for most of the men…

Borg:             Curses! All this is signed Atomas!

 

Panel 7

Caption:

An army of robots sets out in search of the hero Atomas.

Borg:             Chang! Lead them! Dead or alive, bring me Atomas!

 

Panel 8

Caption:

Meanwhile, Atomas and Bella, clad in light diving suits, explore the outer ramparts of the submarine city.

 

 Panel 9

Bella:            There…there…my father!

Atomas:         Professor!

[So evil henchman Chang returns in panel 7, and in the worst tradition of  yellow peril racism is colored in a spectacular lemon hue. Apart from this dubious instance, however, I salute this strip for consistently excellent coloring, vibrant and expressive. Some color effects are so delicately done, like the iridescence on the bubble bombs in chapter 8, that I suspect artist Pellos is responsible.]

Mon Journal No. 84, episode 15:

Atomas, Mon Journal 84

Panel 1

Caption:

The professor communicates with Atomas.

Sign:            Enter through the immersion column

 

Panel 2

Atomas:        It must be this!

Bella:            Yes, this lever controls the trapdoor!

 

Panel 3

Caption:

With a torrent of water, Atomas and Bella are thrust into the prison.

Atomas:        Are you injured?

Bella:           No!

 

Panel 4

Professor:     My dear child!

Bella:             Father!

 

Panel 5

Atomas:        When the pressures have equalized we’ll leave via the immersion column!

Professor:      I’ve prepared this plan, take it! Borg must, at no price, ever possess it!

 

Panel 6

Caption:

But Borg, on a telescopic screen, follows these goings-on.

Borg:             They’re with the professor. Close the exit trapdoor. I’m sending a Goliath Robot against Atomas!

Flunkie:        O.K.!

 

Panel 7

Flunkie:        It’s supercharged!

Flunkie’s pal:If Atomas messes with it he’ll be crushed like a fly!

 

Panel 8

Caption:

Heavy, colossal, terrible, the Goliath Robot goes to face its enemy.

 

Panel 9

Caption:

In the prison

Professor:      The water’s no longer entering and the door’s opened!

Bella:             All is lost!

Atomas:          I feel there’s going to be a brawl!

Mon Journal No. 85, episode 16:

Atomas, Mon Journal 85

Panel 1

Caption:

Atomas, at the threshold of the laboratory’s door, sees the steel monster.

Atomas:        This time, Borg’s tipped the scales of luck!

Bella:            What a horrible monster!

 

Panel 2

Caption:

The atomic hero steps forth and the robot lowers its fearsome fist. Atomas, muscles clenched, is ready to strike back.

 

Panel 3

Caption:

The battle is on. But the metal giant remains insensible to the formidable blows rained on it.

Atomas:           Hhahn!

 

Panel 4

Caption:

Atomas has just thrown a heavy metal part  against the robot that teeters, unbalanced…

 

Panel 5

Caption:

The monster has fallen. But its immense arm was able to grab Bella who was in its reach.

Bella:                Atomas!

 

Panel 6

Caption:

Borg, leaning toward his periscopic screen, commands the robot via shortwave.

Borg:              Such a lovely girl! It’d be a shame to damage her. She’ll make a magnificent hostage!

 

Panel 7

Caption:

Meanwhile Atomas, his strength grown tenfold by anger, breaks the steel fingers imprisoning Bella, and the injured robot bellows terrifyingly…

Robot:            RUUGGH!

 

Panel 8

Caption:

Bella is free, but it’s Atomas’ turn to be caught in the steel vise of the infernal machine that has managed to get up.

Bella: Hold on one more minute!

 

Panel 9

Caption:

Bella, armed with a steel rod, beats relentlessly on the robot’s radar.

 

And so unfortunately the story ends, although it’s refreshing to see Bella stop screaming and start kicking robot ass! If my comments often were sarcastic, please don’t think my attitude towards this strip was one of indulgence in camp. With all its zaniness, ‘’Atomas” is a crackerjack thriller with the pace of a jet plane, a delight for every boy and girl, every week…while it lasted.

Hats off to artist Pellos! His work here has nothing to envy that of his 1947 fellow superhero artists across the Atlantic. Pellos had a remarkable career (from 1916 to 1981) and found success in genres ranging from sports cartooning to humor strips to science fiction – his 1938 strip Futuropolis is deemed the first French s.f. comic. Bravo, Monsieur Pellos!

 –Alex Buchet

 

(And as a special bonus, here’s the worst selfie ever taken on my wife’s cellphone:

chrisandalex

[That's Chris on the left and me on the right -- Alex]

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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:

adventure_comics_48_001

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

last fantax issue

last fantax issue late page

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:

angouleme day 2, comics research 087

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:

angouleme day 2, comics research 093

And this beheading in No. 8:

angouleme day 2, comics research 117

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:

Crime-SuspenStories

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.

angouleme day 2, comics research 086

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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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angouleme mural.

Some images are literally hidden:

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001 002

Often you just need to look up:

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003 004

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

001

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:

Angouleme day 1 056Angouleme day 1 055

And sometimes just graffiti tags:

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Angouleme day 1 078Angouleme day 1 075

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:

Carnac 002 Carnac 001

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

murs 1

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

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Scarlett-Johansson-Pregnant-What-does-this-mean-for-The-Avenger

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.

under her skin postertumblr_mzdlx5rgOb1qz9z8jo1_1280

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.

1933 reign of the superman

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.

lucy poster

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