That’s what Alan Moore told a recent interviewer. “I don’t think the superhero stands for anything good,” he said. “They were originally in the hands of writers who would actively expand the imagination of their nine-to-13-year-old audience.” But since all they do nowadays is entertain 30-60-year-old “emotionally subnormal” men, Moore considers superheroes “abominations” and their continuing dominance “culturally catastrophic.”
This from a self-professed anarchist who considers the shooting of government leaders a “lovely thought.” Little wonder his first superhero was a terrorist.
Moore and artist David Lloyd started V for Vendetta in 1981 for England’s since defunct Warrior magazine. I started reading it when the series moved to DC in 1988. I was 22, Moore’s age when he first conceived a story about “a freakish terrorist” who “waged war upon a Totalitarian State.” But it was Lloyd who transformed Moore’s freak into “a resurrected Guy Fawkes, complete with one of those paper mâché masks in a cape and conical hat.”
Their plan was to create “something uniquely British,” and, sure enough, the Fawkes reference meant absolutely nothing to this Pittsburgh-born college senior. When I’d read The Handmaid’s Tale the year before, I though Margaret Atwood was forecasting an original future: “when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress . . . The entire government, gone like that.” But Fawkes beat her by almost four centuries.
I didn’t read up on the Gunpowder Plot till I was a student teacher prepping Macbeth for a class of tenth graders. Shakespeare staged his tragedy of a regicidal anti-hero after Catholic terrorists tried to blow-up King James during the 1605 opening of Parliament. They’d rented a storage space under the House of Lords and crammed in three dozen barrels of gunpowder. Fawkes was arrested before he could light the fuse, tortured into betraying his dozen co-conspirators, tried, hanged, and his body displayed in pieces as a warning to sympathizers. He was still in prison when London lit bonfires in celebration of the King’s survival, and Parliament later declared the anniversary an official holiday, complete with fireworks and newspaper-stuffed “guys” set ablaze.
But hatred is a funny thing. Somewhere along the line the point of all those celebrations got hazy. Guy Fawkes Night lost its official standing in the 19th century—around when penny dreadful writers were converting England’s most abominable traitor into a romantic hero, a conspiracy Lloyd happily joined. “We shouldn’t burn the chap every Nov. 5,” he told Moore, “but celebrate his attempt to blow up Parliament!”
I want to say the American equivalent would be championing John Wilkes Booth or Lee Harvey Oswald, but Fawkes’ rehabilitation might be possible only because his assassinations failed. Benedict Arnold could be closer—except no one remembers what treason he was planning (and if even you do, surrendering West Point to the British just doesn’t have the same audacious charm).
So Lloyd wanted to “give Guy Fawkes the image he’s deserved”—but I’m not sure Moore was fully committed to the plot. Despite his anarchist rhetoric, he doesn’t “believe that a violent revolution is ever going to work,” and he doesn’t hide his freakish terrorist’s violence under POW! and BAM! bubbles either. It was Lloyd who banned the sound effects (along with thought balloons—probably the most important moment in Moore’s development as a writer), but Moore’s dialogue complicates the violence Lloyd renders otherwise bloodless:
“I’ve seen worse, Dominic, physically speaking. Like I say, it’s the mental side that bothers me . . . his attitude to killing. Think about it. He killed them ruthlessly, efficiently, and with a minimum of fuss. Whatever their faults, those were two human beings . . . and he slaughtered them like cattle!”
The terrorist also enters quoting Macbeth, the monstrous anti-hero Shakespeare’s audiences (including King James for whom it was commissioned) would have linked to Fawkes. Moore’s Chapter One title, “The Villain,” is a bit of a clue too. V goes on to murder and maim his way through some thirty more chapters, but the part that troubled me most at the time was the psychological torture he inflicts on Evey. Yes, he rescues the damsel from a back alley rape in standard Batman fashion, but then he dupes her into believing she’s been imprisoned by the fascist government, shaves her head, starves and waterboards her, all in the name of . . . what exactly? By the end Evey is a good little Robin, taking on her mentor’s mission, but there’s more than a whiff of Stockholm syndrome between the panels.
“The central question is,” Moore says, “is this guy right? Or is he mad? I didn’t want to tell people what to think, I just wanted to tell people to think and consider some of these admittedly extreme little elements.”
Which, by the way, is a pretty good example of using a superhero to actively expand an audience’s imagination.
Meanwhile, Guy Fawkes keeps adventuring. The “hacktivist” network Anonymous adopted Lloyd’s Fawkes mask for their 2008 Scientology protest—which they then carried over to Occupy Wall Street and, most recently, a worldwide Million Mask March held on Guy Fawkes Day to protest government austerity programs. The group’s anti-corporate message, however, gets a bit hazy once you know Time Warner owns the copyright on the mask (via DC I assume) which are manufactured in South American sweatshops and earn the company a killing on Amazon.
Something to think about, Moore might say.
A sure sign you’re running for President: firing your racist sidekick.
Last summer Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, by “mutual decision,” accepted the resignation of his aide Jack Hunter, AKA the Southern Avenger. Rand is having trouble climbing out of his father’s Libertarian shadow along with all those shadowy white supremacists the Libertarian brand attracts, so Hunter’s views on Southern succession, the Lincoln assassination, and whether “a non-white majority America would simply cease to be America” were declared a “distraction.”
Hunter also retired the Southern Avenger (he reportedly adopted his radio shock jock persona during a conversation with a bottle of Jim Bean), but not before co-writing Paul’s The Tea Party Goes to Washington. Hunter did not co-write the sequel, Government Bullies, which was an even bigger “distraction” because the Senator plagiarized it instead. That would get him expelled from my college, but the White House has different standards.
I teach at Washington & Lee University, in a smallville known as a War-Between-the-States tourist Mecca, so I’m familiar with all brands of Southern Avengers. The remains of not one but two Confederate generals rest within a half-mile stroll of my front door. Confederate flags are common—though, unlike Mr. Hunter, most folks don’t sport them on superhero-style masks. Even Captain Confederacy (a creation of comic book writer and former Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Will Shetterly) retired his mask when his series moved to Marvel’s Epic back in 1991. The comic was set in an alternate universe in which the Confederacy won the Civil War (apparently the same universe Newt Gingrich visited for his 2005 Gettysburg novel). After Shetterly retired his first Captain, he has a black woman take over the identity, draping Old Dixie across her breasts.
If that sounds implausible, then you didn’t attend my town’s council meeting in which Southern Avengers protested the banning of Confederate flags from city flagpoles. I can’t criticize since I used to wear the same image across the back of concert t-shirts, believing it represented nothing more than a subgenre of rock. I was sixteen and still preferred Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Gimme Back My Bullets over R.E.M.’s Fables of the Reconstruction.
Civil War reenactors, another common spectacle in Lexington, VA, attended the council meeting too. W&L borders the Virginia Military Institute where I watched a legion of gray-clad and hoop-skirted extras cheer a regal Stonewall Jackson while shooting a scene for the 2003 Gods and Generals. W&L declined the film company’s request to shoot on our campus. For Somersby, crews shoveled the historic downtown streets with dirt and angled the Exxon station out of shots. I’ll watch Jodie Foster in anything, but I like Somersby for its time period. Reconstruction is way more interesting than the Civil War.
Marvel movie guru Joss Whedon agrees. He started writing his TV series Firefly after reading Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. Whedon also took an undergraduate class from Richard Slotkin, author of Gunfighter Nation, a seminal study in American frontier mythology. Whedon sets his distopic future six years after a Civil War with a dispossessed Confederate soldier (he sings “We shall rise again” in the premiere) for a space captain. “Mal’s politics,” says Whedon, “are very reactionary and ‘Big government is bad’ and ‘Don’t interfere with my life,’” attitudes Senator Rand and his former sidekick sing about too. But unlike the Tea Party, Whedon sees both sides: “sometimes he’s wrong—because sometimes the Alliance is America, this beautiful shining light of democracy. But sometimes the Alliance is America in Vietnam: we have a lot of petty politics, we are way out of our league and we have no right to control these people. And yet! Sometimes the Alliance is America in Nazi Germany. And Mal can’t see that, because he was a Vietnamese.”
Actually Mal is the very Caucasian Nathan Fillion, but his second in command, like the second Captain Confederacy and at least one of the flag-wearing protesters at the Lexington council meeting, is an African American woman (AKA, Gina Torres). Whedon’s Confederacy never had slavery. Which is why his take on the Reconstruction is both watchable and a complete cop-out. In some ways, I prefer Edgar Rice Burroughs’ dispossessed Confederate soldier, John Carter. He heads West to dig gold and fight Injuns but ends up on Mars instead—where, surprise surprise, he gains superpowers and champions a ruined race of aristocrats against four-armed apes and green heathens. The Princess of Mars gave me allegorical whiplash, but at least Burroughs’ politics aren’t hard to decode. The South is dead, long live the South.
John Carter and Mal Reynolds are both Reconstruction-fueled space cowboys, which makes them descendants of the real life Southern avenger Jesse James. During the war, James fought as a Missouri bushwhacker against local Union militias. After Richmond fell and General Lee surrendered, the pardoned general-in-chief served as president of my university. Jesse James kept fighting. He saw his campaign of train and bank robberies as resistance to Republican-lead Reconstruction. After his murder in 1882, dime novelist converted him into a gunslinging Robin Hood. Like the more recent Southern Avenger, James was also a political columnist. Jack Hunter wrote for the Charleston City Paper, where his articles remain online because his editor refused his request to remove them. James wrote his diatribes for the Kansas City Times, where the owner was a fellow vet working to restore ousted successionists to office.
Missouri elected Democrat Senator Francis Cockrell in 1875, who went on to serve five terms before retiring. To the best of my knowledge, Jesse James was never his aide nor helped him plagiarise any books, but the senator was evidence that the Radical Republicans (their term) had lost control of Reconstruction. The era formerly ended in 1877 when President Hayes withdrew the last federal troops. Their departure also marks the end of the South’s most famous team of masked avengers, the Ku Klux Klan. They’d started as a social club of Confederate vets in Pulaski, Tennessee, but grew into paramilitary groups that openly murdered opponents and police.
Like the X-Men, the Klan also wore identical costumes while lead by a man codenamed “Cyclops.” The X-Men attract an impressive range of southern mutants, including Rogue, Gambit, Cannonball and the Blob. Technically DC’s Swamp Thing is a Southerner too, since he crawled out of a Louisiana swamp, but he and his superhero kin are no Southern Avengers. Superman first battled the Klan on the radio 1946, and he’s been followed by the Defenders, Black Panther, Batman, and both the Justice League and the Justice Society.
Hell, even the Southern Avenger hates racists now. Hunter blames all those old slurs of his on that pesky mask: “Whenever I put on that wrestling mask, I took on a persona that was intentionally outrageous and provocative. I said many terrible things. I disavow them.” The unmasked Hunter now criticizes fellow Republicans who dismiss “the idea that racism is actually a problem. I used not to see it. For that, I am very sorry.”
That’s more of an apology than the Confederacy ever offered its African American population. I wouldn’t call it superheroic, but if the Southern Avenger can transform himself, maybe there’s hope for the rest of our disunited States too.
Emily Bazelon likes superheroes. Her New York Times Magazine article “The Online Avengers” chronicles the adventures of Anonymous hackers who use their powers to combat cyber-bullying. Bazelon says Anons tend to think in “polarized terms,” viewing their cases as “parables with an innocent victim, evil perpetrators and ineffectual (or corrupt) law enforcement,” all staples of the superhero genre. But Bazelon enjoys some of those polarized terms too, describing how her aliased Avengers “team up” or “join forces” to expose “wrongdoers.” She draw one activist in origin story rhetoric: “He vowed that day he would do something about Rehtaeh Parsons’s death.”In Bazelon’s defense, the rhetorical infection seems to originate with the Anons she interviews. “We wanted to strike fear into their hearts,” declares one Batman wannabe. They even wear Guy Fawkes masks from Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta.
But it’s the wrong metaphor. These aren’t caped crusaders patrolling the mean streets of Gotham. The streets are Facebook and Tumblr. The superpowers are laptop-based. Many of the crimes—posting a video on YouTube or a message on Twitter—take place in the no man’s land of the world wide web. The bad guys can live anywhere on earth, but they elude justice by exploiting a virtual frontier.
What we have here is a Western.
Owen Wister largely invented the genre when he published The Virginian in 1902. His bad guys disappear into the mountain sanctuaries of Wyoming: “He that took another man’s possessions, or he that took another man’s life, could always run here if the law or popular justice were too hot at his heels. Steep ranges and forests walled him in from the world on all four sides, almost without a break; and every entrance lay through intricate solitudes.”
When journalist Amanda Hess dialed 911 after receiving death and rape threats via Twitter, the Palm Spring cop who arrived at her door dismissed them because the “guy could be sitting in a basement in Nebraska for all we know.” The bad guy was safe in the intricate solitudes of his IP address. Hess documents her experience, and dozens like it, in her recent Pacific Standard essay “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet.” When Caroline Criado-Perez received similar threats after petitioning the British government to include women on its currency, she retweeted them until the international attention forced police to respond. They said it was Twitter’s problem. Twitter said threatened users should contact local authorities.
Wister’s Wyoming faces the same failure of law enforcement. Because “the law has been letting our cattle-thieves go,” a former judge declares: “We are in a very bad way, and we are trying to make that way a little better until civilization can reach us. At present we lie beyond its pale. The courts . . . into whose hands we have put the law, are not dealing the law. They are withered hands, or rather they are imitation hands made for show, with no life in them, no grip. They cannot hold a cattle-thief.”
But Bazelon’s Avengers are skilled at tracking cattle-thieves’ user IDs through walled websites and forests of social media. When four teens in Texas tweeted gang rape threats at a twelve-year-old in New Zealand, the team of Anons unmasked their Twitter handles and forwarded evidence to the boys’ highs school administrators. The Virginian’s punches are “sledge-hammer blows of justice.”OpAntiBully settles for screenshots.
When Rehtaeh Parsons’s mother received evidence of her daughter’s rape, she turned it over to OpJustice4Rehtaeh, an Anonymous group she originally distrusted as nameless vigilantes. But, she told Bazelon, “if pressure from this group is what it takes, let them do what they do.”
Wister’s judge reasons similarly: “And so when your ordinary citizen sees this, and sees that he has placed justice in a dead hand, he must take justice back into his own hands where it was once at the beginning of all things. Call this primitive, if you will. But so far from being a DEFIANCE of the law, it is an ASSERTION of it—the fundamental assertion of self governing men, upon whom our whole social fabric is based.”
Local authorities tend to disagree. When badgered into reopening a rape case by OpMaryville and Justice4Daisy, the sheriff of Maryville, Missouri complained: “They all need to get jobs and quit living with their parents.” Parsons’s alleged rapists—or at least the two who posted the YouTube video of the crime—are now facing child pornography charges, though a police spokesman warned that OpJustice4Rehtaeh could come under investigation too.
Meanwhile, Cattle-thieves have their own advocates. Hess reports that the Electronic Frontier Foundation—a free speech and privacy rights group—lobbied against the Violence Against Women Act because an amendment updating phone harassment to include any electronic communication. When Hess started receiving threatening voicemails on her own cell phone and police still refused to make a report, she took the law out of their withered hands. She tracked the guy’s IP address, filed a civil protection order, hired a private investigator to serve court papers, and got a judge to approve a restraining order that included everything from Twitter to hot air balloon messaging.
Which is to say Hess is no vigilante.
When the Virginian catches horse-thieves, he lynches them. That means Wister and his judge have to spend a lot of their frontier rhetoric differentiating this private but supposedly law-and-orderly form of capital punishment from the “semi-barbarous” lynching and burning of “Southern negroes in public.” Apparently the swift hanging of “our criminals” puts no “hideous disgrace upon the United State.”The judge doesn’t quibble over the definition of a “criminal” though, since the term denotes someone who has been legally tried and convicted, a luxury Wister’s frontiersmen forgo.
The Virginian ends his adventures when his once-skeptical love interest accepts his system of retribution and marries him. By the end of Bazelon’s article, her lead Avenger has lost his girlfriend of nine years—she complained he never turned off his laptop at night. Hess mentions a boyfriend but would rather write about the “Frontier of Female Sexuality” and “the gun-toting, boob-grabbing douchebags who are subsidizing your online porn habit.” She’d also like to see internet harassment prosecuted as a Civil Rights issue, a wonderfully civilized aspiration far beyond the pale of the current U.S. legal system.
In the meantime we’re left with faceless superhero wannabes trying to make our virtual frontier better until civilization can reach us.
As a kid reading comics, I loved when superhero teams scrambled their rosters. For The Avengers No. 137, “We Do Seek Out New Avengers!,” Vision and the Scarlet Witch left on their honeymoon, Yellowjacket and Wasp rejoined, and Moondragon replaced the recently deceased Swordsman, leaving Hawkeye’s spot (he went off in a time machine to find the Black Knight) to be filled via an open call at Shea Stadium, where only the Beast showed up. Sounds easy, but when the Defenders televised a similar recruiting call three years later, the team was inundated with 23 would-be members, from canonical crushers Captain Marvel and Iron Man (cover appearance only) to inspired backpagers White Tiger and Prowler.
The Defenders No. 62 cover features team leader Nighthawk holding his apparently throbbing head and roaring at the impressionistically pint-sized heroes buzzing around him. Which is how I feel as I juggle the roster for a would-be course on the recent American novel. Even my open call “I Do Seek Out American Novelists!” attracts trouble, since that Canadian crusher Margaret Atwood showed up in the Shea Stadium of my brain (so does that mean I have to add “North” to the course title?). I already sent her Nobel-winning countrywoman Alice Munro home on a technicality (“Novel” not simply “Fiction”), which still leaves over twenty superpowered authors buzzing across my cover.
Writer Steve Englehart and editor Marv Wolfman weighed a dozen factors when revising the Avengers in 1975. It must be hard tossing out fan favorites like Wanda and Vision, but see how they replaced them with another married couple? And notice how they improved gender distribution by swapping in Moondragon? (Though, okay, the female count plummeted back to one when Wasp gets hospitalized in her return issue). Of course you still want some of the old standards, Thor and Iron Man, while leaving room for an unexpected choice like the newly blue-furred Beast. And what happens when you put all these costumes in the same room? How do they get along?
Syllabus-assembling makes the same demands: are these powerful books, a balanced range, what story do they tell when they stand shoulder-to-shoulder? By balanced, I mean are half by women? Are half not by white authors? It’s not political correctness but good storytelling. If a course representing the last sixty or so years of the American novel consists mostly of Caucasian men, the story is: white guys write the best stuff. That’s a stupid story, so I know four of my roughly eight slots are going to be filled by women, and four by non-WASPs. Though that doesn’t reduce the swarm of authors in Shea Stadium much.
The Englehart-Wolfman Avengers range from the team’s oldest character (Henry Pym was buzzing around in 1962) to the two-year-old Moondragon (plucked from the 1973 pages of Daredevil). When I taught a 21st century American lit course, I had about the same age range and so felt free to juggle the reading order by convenience and whim. But a span of sixtysome years requires a more disciplined time machine. Start in the 50s and bound forward decade by decade. That draws attention to gaps though, so suddenly distribution matters too. That’s one of many good reasons that Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony made my first cut, as a rep of my underpopulated 70s favorites (I prefer that decade’s short stories). It also means my overpopulated 80s is a problem, so DeLillo’s White Noise could be in trouble.
And what about genre types? In addition to two insect-sized humans, the 1975 Avengers include a mutant, an alien-trained telepath, a cyborg, and a god. So I should probably hit the key literary schools too. Pynchon is an easy pick for Metafiction, though Nabokov’s Pale Fire is even more fun. New Journalism’s “nonfiction novel” list is harder to prune: Capote, Mailer, Thompson, Didion, and of course my college’s beloved alum Wolfe. But if experimental memoirs are fair game, then I want Kingston’s Woman Warrior on my team (okay, maybe I do like the 70s). So maybe it’s better to swat away all things nonfiction?
I called my 21st century fiction course Thrilling Tales and focused on the pleasant collision of traditional literary novels with the formerly lowbrow genres of scifi, fantasy and mystery. I could make the second half of the 20th century an Old Testament to that thesis. Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is an alternate future, and Morrison’s Beloved a ghost story. Chabon won his Pulitzer for transforming superheroes into literary subject matter, and what’s The Crying of Lot 49 but a riff on thriller conventions? Egan’s genre-splicing A Visit from the Goon Squad could cap it all, and, for a truly blue-furred freak, I could shoehorn in Watchmen (I know, Alan Moore is British, but his and Dave Gibbons’s collaboration was very American, which, by the way, made Time’s ALL-TIME 100 Novels, thank you, Lev Grossman).
If you want to push the genre angle even further, swap out Flannery O’Connor for Patricia Highsmith. Or revise the subtitle to “Since World War 2” and open with Wright’s Native Son. Trade Pale Fire for Lolita and suddenly the course opens with a legion of supervillains: Bigger Thomas, Mr. Ripley, Humbert Humbert. Maybe I need to read Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho next? Baker’s The Fermata is a bound too far, though White Noise and its “Hitler Studies” is back in the running. I was thinking about Jones’ The Known World, but I just finished Whitehead’s Zone One, and all those zombies pair so well with the horrors of Beloved and the shadowy PTSD of Ceremony. Maybe the name of this course is American Monsters?
I was nine when I started reading The Avengers. My students are about nineteen, but they have something in common with my former Bronze Age self. Englehart and Wolfman mixed and matched their roster, knowing theirs was just the latest incarnation of a team other writers would continue to juggle for decades. But No. 137 was the first Avengers comic I ever saw. This wasn’t one version of an evolving team. This was THE Avengers. And for the students on my would-be class roster, this is the only American Novel Since 1950 course they will ever take.
And at the moment it looks something like this:
1955 Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley
1966 Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49
1977 Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony
1985 Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
1987 Toni Morrison, Beloved
1986 Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons, Watchmen
1999 Michael Chabon, The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
2010 Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad
2011 Colson Whitehead, Zone One
Is anyone else tired of superhero movies?
According New York Times reviewer A. O. Scott, superheroes peaked with The Dark Knight in 2008. Since then, “the genre, though it is still in a period of commercial ascendancy, has also entered a phase of imaginative decadence.” Scott said that back in 2012, before the release of Amazing Spider-Man, Iron Man 3, The Wolverine, Man of Steel, Kick-Ass 2, Dark Knight Rises, and Thor: The Dark World —much less the still future releases of X-Men: Days of Future Past, Amazing Spider-Man 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Fantastic Four, and Batman vs. Superman.
Which is to say, he’s got a real point. All those masks and capes and inevitable act three slugfests—could we maybe call a moratorium while the screenwriters guild brainstorms new action tropes? I’m probably too optimistic that Edgar Wright’s 2015 Ant-Man will provide a much needed counterpunch to all the BAM! and POW!—the same way his 2004 Shaun of the Dead enlivened the weary corpse of the zombie movie (another genre still in decadent ascendance).
But instead of looking forward, maybe we should be looking backwards. If, like me, you crave a beer chaser for all those syrupy shots of Hollywood superheroism, tell your online bartender to stream some mid-twentieth century French avant-garde instead.
Georges Franju’s 1963 Judex has to be the least superheroic superhero movie ever made. Well into its third act, the title character (think Batman with a hat instead of pointy ears) bursts through a window to assail his enemies—only to allow one to step around him, pluck a conveniently placed brick from the floor, and sock him unconscious from behind. It’s not even a fight sequence. Everyone but the brick basher moves in a languid shuffle. The scene is one of many reasons critics label the film “dream-like,” “surreal,”“anti-logical,” “drowsy”—terms opposed to the adrenaline-thumping norms of the genre.
The original 1916 Judex, a silent serial by fellow French director Louis Feuillade, largely invented movie superheroes. The black cloaked “Judge” swears to avenge his dead father, leading to dozens of similarly cloaked avengers swooping in and out of the 20s and 30s. Judex had barely exited American theaters before film star Douglass Fairbanks was skimming issues of All-Story for his own pulp hero to adapt. A year later, the Judex-inspired Zorro was an international icon.
But Georges Franju was no Judex fan. He preferred Feuillade’s Fantomas, one of the most influential serials in screen and pulp history, and the reason Feuillade dreamed up his crime-fighter in the first place. Fantomas was a supervillain, as was Irma Vep in Feuillade’s equally popular Les Vampires, and French critics had grown weary of glorified crime. Fifty years later, Franju was still glorifying it, making one of France’s first horror films, Eyes Without a Face.
Feuillade’s grandson, Jacques Champreux, was a Franju fan—though he really should have checked the director’s other references before asking him to shoot a remake of the superhero ur-film. When the French government commissioned a documentary celebrating industrial modernization, Franju had focused on the filth spewing from French factories. When the slow-to-learn government commissioned a tribute to their War Museum, Franju used it as an opportunity to denounce militarism. Little wonder his Judex is a testament against the glorification of superheroism.
But Champreux bares some of the unintended credit too. Franju admitted to not having “the story writing gift,” but few of Feuillade’s gifts passed to Champreux either. Much of the remake’s surrealism is a result of inexplicable scripting. Champreux and fellow adapter Francis Lacassin boiled down the original five-hour serial to under a hundred minutes. While the streamlining is initially effective (opening with the corrupt banker reading Judex’s threatening letter is great), it soon creates much of that surreal illogic critics so praise:
Why is the detective so incompetent? (Because this is his first job after inheriting the detective agency.)
Why is the banker suddenly in love with his granddaughter’s governess? (Feuillade’s opening scene establishes her plot to seduce him and steal his money.)
Why set up the daughter’s engagement if her fiancé exits after one scene? (Because he originally returned as a villain in league with the governess.)
How does the detective’s never-before-mentioned girlfriend happen to find him just as she’s needed to aid Judex? (Feuillade introduced her well before, and the two were already walking together when Judex allows himself to be captured.)
How is Judex able to pose as the banker’s most trusted employee? (He took a job as a bank clerk years earlier and worked his way into the top position.)
Why is Judex even doing any of this? (His father committed suicide after the banker destroyed the family fortune and his mother made him vow to avenge his death.)
Some of Franju’s most pleasantly peculiar moments— the travelling circus that wanders past the bad guys’ hideout, the dog that appears from nowhere and sets his paw protectively on the fallen damsel’s body—are orphans from Feuillade’s plundered subplots. The remake is a highlight reel. Though, to be fair, not all of the surrealism is the result of the glitchy script.
By moving Judex’s death threat to midnight and shooting the engagement banquet as a masked ball, Franju offers the best Poe adaptation I’ve ever seen—even if all the bird costumes make it more of a Masque of the Avian Flu. And the Franju’s one fight scene isn’t derived from Feuillade at all. Originally the detective’s girlfriend attempts to save the governess who drowns while trying to escape, but Franju costumes the two women in opposite, if equally skintight attire—a proto-Catwoman vs. a white leotarded acrobat—before sending them to the roof to leg wrestle.
Instead of washing ashore in the epilogue, the governess falls to her death in a bed of flowers. Meanwhile, what’s Judex up to? Not only is the nominal hero not present for the vanquishing of the villainess, but by the end of the film he’s devolved into Douglass Fairbanks’ Don Diego, Zorro’s mild-mannered alter ego. While Franju was imitating the style of early cinema (yes, his version opens with a classic iris-out, a fun gimmick even though Feuillade avoided it in his own Judex), he also grafted Fairbanks’ goofy handkerchief magic into Judex’s less-than-superheroic repertoire. The tricks were cute in The Mark of Zorro, but once again inexplicable in the contemporary context.
And I mean that as praise. A Judex redux is exactly what the genre needs right now. I would love to watch Emma Stone toss the Lizard from a skyscraper while Spider-Man practices his web sculpting—or Natalie Portman shove a Dark Elf through a magic portal while Thor perfects a hammer juggling trick. Superhero films feature plenty of glitchy illogic, but it’s time for drowsy surrealism too. Why hasn’t Marvel or DC handed any directing reins to David Lynch yet? Or David Cronenberg? Terry Gilliam dodged The Watchmen back in the late 80s—but surely his version would have been more memorable than Zack Snyder’s. Isn’t there someone out there who can prove A. O. Scott wrong?
Benedict Cumberbatch can’t throw a punch. At least not when he’s playing Sherlock Holmes. Khan in Star Trek into Darkness throws plenty of punches, but he’s a eugenically bred superman. Dr. Watson reports in A Study in Scarlet, Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel, that the “excessively lean” detective is “an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman,” but we have to take his word on it.
I wouldn’t know what a “singlestick” is if not for Jonny Lee Miller’s portrayal of Holmes in the aggressively updated CBS series Elementary. A singlestick, it turns out, is a stick you smack your opponent on the top of the head with. That’s what the BBC wanted to do to CBS when they heard the Americanized Holmes was premiering in 2012, because CBS had been in talks about producing a version of the BBC’s already aggressively updated Sherlock. But then the BBC would have to accept a head smack from Warner Bros. since Sherlock premiered a year after the 2009 Sherlock Holmes hit theaters.
Sherlock is the bastard brainchild of two Dr. Who writers; Elementary midwife Robert Doherty cut his teeth on Star Trek: Voyager; and the Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes started life as a comic book that producer Lionel Wigman penned instead of the usual spec script. When director Guy Ritchie got his hands on it, he was thinking Batman Begins. The Marvel formula was succeeding at box offices by then too, so Holmes’ superpowered intellect would have to be “as much of a curse as it was a blessing.”
A young Holmes should have nixed the forty-something Mr. Downey, but who can say no to Iron Man? Especially when Ritchie planned to restore all of Doyle’s “intense action sequences” other adaptations left out. You know, like when Holmes sneaks aboard the bad guys’ boat in “The Solution of a Remarkable Case”:
“With a lightning‑like movement he seized the hand which held the knife. Then, exerting all of his great strength, he bent the captain’s wrist quickly backward. There was a snap like the breaking of a pipe‑stem, and a yell of pain from the captain. Nick’s left arm shot out and his fist landed with terrific force squarely on the fellow’s nose.”
Oh no, wait. That’s not Sherlock. That’s Nick Carter. I’ve been getting them confused lately, and I’m not the only one. Carter premiered as a 13-episode serial in New York Weekly in 1886, the year before A Study in Scarlet premiered in England’s Beeton’s Christmas Annual. Carter was created by John R. Coryell and Ormond G. Smith, but Street & Smith (future publisher of the Shadow and Doc Savage) hired Frederick Van Rensselaer Dey to write over a thousand anonymous dime novels between 1891 and 1915 when Nick Carter Weekly changed to Detective Story Magazine.
Doyle wrote a mere four novels and 56 short stories, with the rare “action sequence” lasting about a sentence: “He flew at me with a knife, and I had to grasp him twice, and got a cut over the knuckles, before I had the upper hand of him.”New York Times film reviewer A. O. Scott labels Holmes a “proto-superhero,” one who’s “never been much for physical violence,” crediting the Downey incarnation for the innovation of making the detective “a brawling, head-butting, fist-in-the-gut, knee-in-the-groin action hero” (what one commenter called “The precise opposite of Sherlock Holmes”). The film opens with Downey in a bare-knuckled boxing match, displaying the skills Doyle only hints at. Apparently Holmes once went three rounds with a prize-fighter who tells him, “Ah, you’re one that has wasted your gifts, you have! You might have aimed high, if you had joined the fancy.”
Nick Carter, on the other hand, has the fancy: “He bounded forward and seized in an iron grasp the man whom he had just struck. Then, raising him from the floor as though he were a babe, the detective hurled him bodily, straight at the now advancing men.” Yes, in addition to all of Holmes’ sleuthing powers, Carter has superhuman strength. And a bit of a temper—the secret ingredient American producers feel is missing from all those stodgy British incarnations.
Jonny Lee Miller’s Holmes doesn’t hurl men like babes, but he has broken a finger or two sucker punching serial killers. The leap over the Atlantic has made the Elementary detective’s passions more violent than his London predecessors. He also has a tendency to wander onto screen shirtless, displaying tattoos and a well-curated physique. His drug problems seems to be a carry-over from his Trainspotting days, which means the English accent is as authentic as Cumberbatch’s. In fact, Miller and his BBC counterpart co-starred in a London production of Frankenstein in 2011. You’ll never guess who played the doctor and who the monster. Literally, you’ll never guess—because Miller and Cumberbatch swapped parts nightly. Mr. Downey was busy completing the sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, and so was not available for matinees.
Plans for a Sherlock Holmes 3 have been in talks too, but Downey was busy with Avengers, Iron Man 3 and now Avengers 2. Why settle for a proto-superhero when you can play a real one? At least the long-delayed season 3 of Sherlock finally arrived. It was perfectly fun watching a barefoot and CGI-shrunken Martin Freeman chat with Cumberbatch’s growly dragon in Hobbit 2, but nothing beats the Holmes-Watson bromance—a delight the otherwise delightful Jude Law and Lucy Liu can’t quite deliver with their Frankenstein partners. Sherlock is also the last show my family still watches as a family, so I don’t mind the BBC cauterizing the Nick Carterization of the character.
Of course Nick has evolved since the 19th century too: a 30s pulp run, a 40s radio show, a 60s book series. I have the anonymously written Nick Carter: The Redolmo Affair on my shelf. It’s a musty James Bond knock-off I found in a vacation house and kept in exchange for whatever I was reading at the time. I can’t bring myself to flip more than a few pages: “I streamrollered my shoulder into his gut and sent us both crashing to the deck. I got my hands on his throat and started squeezing. His fist was smashing down on my head, hammering into my skull.”
In Nick’s defense, Doyle considered Sherlock Holmes schlock too. He hurled him over a cliff so he could stop writing his character—but the detective keeps bouncing back. Elementary is certain to be renewed for a third season, and the Sherlock season 3 finale is a cliffhanger with the next two seasons already plotted. The biggest mystery is how they’ll keep Cumberbatch out of a boxing ring.
Zarathustra came down from the mountain in 1883. He’s Nietzsche’s reboot of the ancient Iranian prophet Zoroaster—which means the first Superman came down from a mountain in Asia. It’s been a popular continent for superheroes since. When DC rival Fox Publishing needed a Superman knock-off, artist Will Eisener sent Wonderman to Tibet where a turbanded Tibetan was handing out magic rings.
Wonderman couldn’t survive the kryptonite of DC’s court injunction, so for Wonder Comics No. 2 Eisner swapped the colored tights and briefs for a tuxedo and amulet-crested turban. Yarko the Great was one of a dozen superhero magicians to materialize in comic books over the next three years. Nine of them shopped at the same turban store—though Zanzibar the Magician got confused and grabbed a Turkish fez instead. Three of them imported Asian servants too.
The tights-and-brief crowd rallied and sent a half dozen new supermen East, three specifically to Tibet, with Egypt as a solid runner-up. My favorite, Bill Everett’s Amazing Man, is almost as naked as his earlier Speedo-sporting Sub-Mariner, but Amazing Man has the power of the Tibetan Council of Seven on his side. He could also turn into “green mist,” which must have annoyed the hell out of the Green Lama. Jack Cole threw in a Fu-Manchu supervillain too: the Claw attacks America from “Tibet, land of strange religions and mysterious customs.”
When Stan Lee’s boss gave him the same assignment (do what DC is doing), he bee-lined back to Tibet for his and Jack Kirby’s first (and mostly forgotten) attempt at a superhero, the 1961 Doctor Droom. Kirby even gives the formerly Caucasian physician slanted eyes and a Fu Manchu moustache as his lama explains: “I have transformed you! I have given you an appearance suitable to your new role!”
Droom flopped, so Kirby sketched an iron mask and Lee dropped the “r” and, voila!, the supervillainous Doctor Doom was born. The following year Doom was “prowling the wastelands of Tibet, still seeking forbidden secrets of black magic and sorcery!”Another year and Doctor Strange returns from Tibet as “Master of Black Magic!” Strange also picked up Wong, one of those handy manservants Tibetans hand out with their superpowers. The third Doctor emptied Lee’s Tibetan well, but Roy Thomas and Gil Kane’s Iron Fist kept Orientalism thriving at Marvel into the 70s.
Over at Charlton Comics, Peter Morisi’s Thunderbolt returned from his Tibetan adventures with the standard superhero package. Since Alan Moore’s Watchmen were borrowed from Charlton characters, twenty years later his Ozymandias not only “traveled on, through China and Tibet, gathering martial wisdom” but was “transformed” by “a ball of hashish I was given in Tibet” and next things he’s “Adopting Ramses the Second’s Greek name.” Even the 21st century Batman, as retooled in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, hops over to the Himalayas to learn his chops from yet another monkish mentor. And you’ll never guess where director Josh Trank sends his teen superhuman for the closing shot of the 2012 Chronicle.
The 1930s mystery men loved the Orient too. Before Walter Gibson’s Shadow emigrated from pulp pages to radio waves, he first “went to India, to Egypt, to China . . . to learn the old mysteries that modern science has not yet rediscovered, the natural magic.” When Harry Earnshaw and Raymond Morgan conjured Chandu the Magician for film serials, they sent their secret agent to India to study from another batch of compliant yogis. And not only did Lee Falk’s comic strip do-gooder Mandrake the Magician pick up his powers in Tibet, his Phantom found his dual identity in the India knock-off nation of “Bengalla” (which magically wanders to Africa in later stories).
Before Doctors Strange, Doom and Droom (not a practice included in Obamacare) earned their degrees in Tibet, Doctors Silence, Van Helsing and Hesselius interned their first. You can add Siegel and Shuster’s pre-Superman vampire-hunting Doctor Occult to the list of eligible providers too. Like those turban-obsessed magicians, these world-touring physicians are armed with Oriental knowhow. Algernon Blackwood’s Silence was a 1908 mummy-battling best-seller, cribbed from Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula. Stoker’s Van Helsing is an expert on “Eastern Europe” and labels his vampire nemesis “a man-eater, as they of India call the tiger who has once tasted blood of the human.” Joseph Sheridan LeFanu’s 1872 Dr. Hesselius hunts vamps too, but his first patient is an English reverend driven to suicide by visions of “a small black monkey” caused by his addiction to the “poison” green tea imported from China, ever the land of strange religions and mysterious customs.
Since none of the doctors bother to mention their mentors, the ur-guru award goes to Rudyard Kipling’s 1901 Kim. While no superhero, Kim is the prototypical colonial adventurer, and Kipling supplies him with his very own “guru from Tibet,” one who conveniently needs an English boy (for some reason Asian kids won’t do) to achieve his life-long spiritual quest. Kim in turn treats the guru “precisely as he would have investigated a new building or a strange festival in Lahore city. The lama was his trove, and he purposed to take possession.” Which soon became official policy for all aspiring superheroes trawling the Orient for superpowers. Kim and his guru even prefigure Batman and Robin—only reversed, since Asian mentors are just like underage sidekicks.
Despite Kim’s Superman-like influence on the genre, even Kipling has his predecessors. The first superhero to pinch his powers from an obliging Oriental is Spring-Heeled Jack. The masked Victorian used to leap through a dozen plays, penny dreadfuls, and dime novels. I like the Alfred Coates 1886 version. Jack’s dad reaps his fortunes in colonial India, and Jack returns to England with the workings of a “magical boot” that “savoured strongly of sorcery.” Jack “had for a tutor an old Moonshee, who had formerly been connected with a troop of conjurers—and you must have heard how clever the Indian conjurers are. . . Well, this Moonshee taught me the mechanism of a boot which . . . enabled him to spring fifteen or twenty feet in the air.” That old Moonshee (Jack must mean “munshi,” an Urdu word for writer that the Brits decided meant all clerks) is the first incarnation of Wonderman’s turbaned Tibetan.
The endlessly exotic Orient, the planet-spanning ring of Britain’s 19th century frontier. A superhero is the ultimate colonialist, seizing his fortunes in faraway lands and shipping them home to maintain his nation’s status quo, its global supremacy. It used to be the British Empire, then the American, but superheroes are always the imperial guard.
While Eisner’s imaginary Tibetan was handing out magical treasure in 1938, real Tibetans were arguing national autonomy with China and rights of succession with warring regents. Unlike Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, the actual Zoroaster did not declare, “God is dead.”He was all about exercising free will in the service of divine order and so becoming one with the Creator. I’ve not read any of his surviving texts, and I seriously doubt Nietzsche did either. I’ve also never set foot in Asia—though I did gaze at it from a cruise ship docked in Istanbul once, and that’s a lot closer than most comic book readers ever get.