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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.

Tag Archives: Austin Grossman

I don’t know his name, just his origin. He starts out as a standard lab-coated scientist, arms stretched into a pair of wall-mounted containment gloves as he peers through an observation window at a glowing meteorite in his rubbery fingers. The protective wall is thick, which is why he survives the explosion. When he wakes in a hospital bed, he’s blind and armless. He’ll later grow phantom limbs—literally, their outlines are hazy with the meteorite’s mysterious energy—plus multi-dimensional vision, but first he has to face the horror of his ruined body.

The images look like comic book panels, drawn in Marvel house style c. 1980, but they exist only in my head. I’m remembering one of my adolescent daydreams. I never named my would-be superhero, so I’m retroactively dubbing him: Post-Traumatic Growth Man.

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Jim Rendon introduced me to the term. Psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun coined it in 1995, and Rendon wrote about it in his New York Times Magazine “Post-Traumatic Stress’s Surprisingly Positive Flip Side.” Rendon is expanding the article into a book for Simon and Schuster now, and he emailed my university address looking for a professor willing to talk superheroes. He said he was hoping to learn more from me, but he’d already done his homework:

“It is the archetypal story of the hero who is forged through adversity by completing a life-threatening quest, suffering the loss of loved ones, surviving the destruction of home. Through survival of trauma, the hero becomes a great and selfless leader. And in popular culture narratives, nearly every comic book hero suffers some loss that spurs him or her to greatness–Batman, Spiderman, Superman, etc.”

I suggested he read Austin Grossman’s 2007 superhero novel Soon I Will Be Invincible. Grossman told an interviewer that trauma is “the motivating, defining attribute of the superhero. I guess it’s kind of the hopeful element of superhero comics; the idea of the trauma that shapes you is not just pain; it’s also the thing that makes you special . . . .” Video game designer Jane McGonigal explored that same “hopeful element” when creating “SuperBetter” in which her superheroic avatar “Jane the Concussion Slayer” helped her overcome a real-life injury. But, Rendon asked me, where did this defining superhero attribute come from?

Well, Nietzsche, the man who gave us the ubermensch, said it first: “what does not kill me makes me stronger.” Jerry Siegel borrowed more than just the name. Look at Superman No. 1 and there’s Clark staring at a pair of gravestones: “The passing away of his foster-parents greatly grieved Clark Kent. But it strengthened a determination that had been growing in his mind.” Bruce Wayne’s superheroic response to his parents’ murders is even more overt: “And I swear by the spirits of my parents to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals.”

But both origins were add-ons. Batman patrolled Detective Comics for six issues before an editor demanded Bob Kane provide an explanation. Superman No. 1 was a reprint of Action Comics adventures with an expanded origin that retconned Clark’s foster parents. In the first one-page origin, a passing motorist drops the alien baby at an orphanage. All those traumatically dead parents were afterthoughts.

Clark's foster-parents

Before the late 30s, superheroes didn’t know much about Post-Traumatic Growth. Doc Savage, the Shadow, Zorro, the Gray Seal, the Scarlet Pimpernel, all their do-goodery was equal parts altruism and thrill-seeking. Trauma didn’t fully hit the pulps till 1939, when the Black Bat got a face full of acid, and the Avenger’s family perished in a plane crash. Batman and Superman lost their ad hoc parents the same year, and soon almost every Golden Age hero—Green Arrow, the Flash, Plastic Man—had to have his own special tale of superhuman recovery.

U.S. Army recruits wouldn’t ship out for three years, but war was raging in Europe, and the comics are a surprisingly perceptive flip side to front page headlines. There are also some PTG tales earlier in the decade (the Domino Lady’s dad was murdered by gangsters), so Rendon wondered aloud on the phone whether the trope might be a national recovery tale: the U.S. rising heroically from its Depression. I like both those readings, but I don’t think superheroes really start growing, post-traumatically or otherwise, till the 60s. Stan Lee knew how to make a hero suffer.

Most unitard-wearers slap a defining symbol on their chest, a bit of iconic lip service to that supposedly life-transforming trauma, but Jack Kirby didn’t even draw a costume for the Thing. His body is his on-going disaster, one that extends well beyond the frames of this origin story. Peter Parker, like most Marvelites, should have died of radiation poisoning, but it’s the mental anguish of allowing his uncle to be murdered that spurs him to atonement. The crippled Donald Blake is just wobbling through his life until he finds a cane that transforms him into a god of thunder. After Tony Stark trips a jungle booby-trap (“Impossible to operate! Cannot live longer than a week!), he manufactures “a mighty electronic body, to keep [his] heart beating after the shrapnel reaches it!” For Doctor Strange’s fourth issue, Lee and Steve Ditko retconned a career-ending car accident that turned the wealthy neurosurgeon into a penniless vagabond—and then the Sorcerer Supreme.

By 1964, Lee had exhausted his creative reserves, introducing his last but most post-traumatic superhero. After saving a blind man in a crosswalk, young Matt Murdock lies in a hospital bed, his head heavily bandaged after being struck by a radioactive cylinder that fell from the speeding truck.

Daredevil origin story

NURSE: “Your son is a very brave lad, Mr. Murdock! You must try to be as equally brave in the days ahead!

DAD: “If . . . if only it had happened to ME instead of him!”

MATT: “Don’t, Dad! It could be worse! Even if I DO lose my sight . . . at least I’m ALIVE!”

That surprisingly positive attitude pays off two panels later. “I don’t get it!” says the now super-athletic Matt. “I seem able to do everything lots betters than before . . . even without my sight!” Throw in “razor sharp” senses and “built-in radar” and Daredevil is the PTG poster boy—but only because he remains blind. He’s why Grossman sees “the larger theme of superhero life as trauma and recovery from trauma; the way superpowers arise in trauma to the body that one never quite gets over. The trauma impresses itself onto the body but also leads to a hyperfunctioning of the body.”

That larger theme impressed itself on me too. My nameless but mutilated scientist and his eventually phantom-limbed persona were the unexamined DNA of Bronze Age comics. I absorbed the trope like radiation, and it filtered back out through my adolescent daydreams. And now Jim Rendon is studying it under his journalistic microscope. His book, Upside: Transforming Trauma into Growth, is due out in 2015–just in time for Daredevil’s premiere on Netflix. I’m looking forward to both.

daredevil-and-the-rest-of-the-defenders-are-coming-to-netflix

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Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

1. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a homicidal monster who deserves the death penalty for the Boston Marathon bombing. (True/False)

2. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a sweet-natured adolescent who fell victim to the corrupting influence of his terrorist older brother. (True/False)

If you circle “True” for either one and “False” for the other, then you are probably living a happy life in a world free of ambiguity and cognitive dissonance.  A comic book world. Superheroes and supervillains slice the universe into unambiguous halves, absolute good and absolute evil. No overlap, no gradations, no headache-inducing Venn diagrams, just the world reduced to black and white.

It’s also the world Tsarnaev lives in. “The U.S. Government is killing our innocent civilians,” he said before his arrest. “I can’t stand to see such evil go unpunished.” Tsarnaev was arraigned in Boston last Thursday, and though Massachusetts hasn’t executed anyone since the Golden Age of comics, Attorney General Eric Holder may still try for the death penalty. It’s what all supervillains deserve.

Except are comics really that simple?

“It all started long ago!!” shouts Moleman in Fantastic Four #1, “Because the people of the surface world mocked me!”

moleman

That’s the improbably sympathetic motivation of Marvel Comics’ first supervillain. Stan Lee’s caption labels him an “evil antagonist,” but by the end of the issue, Reed scoops him up the way I used to grab my tantrumming son when he was a toddler. Reed even lets the little guy escape, reasoning that “It’s better that way! There was no place for him in our world . . . perhaps he’ll find peace down there . . . I hope so!”

Issue two and Reed is letting more supervillains go free. It turns out those nasty shapeshifting aliens just want to live a “contented” and “peaceful existence”: “We hate being Skrulls! We’d rather be anything else!” So he tells them to turn into cows and hypnotizes them to forget their race’s earth-conquering ambitions. Problem empathetically solved.

cow image

But is this how comic books are supposed to work? Aren’t supervillains the cultural standard for one-dimensional evil? Of course this is only 1961; the Silver Age had barely launched. Maybe Lee and Kirby were just warming up. FF issues 4 and 5 we get the real villains. The return of the Gold Age Sub-Mariner and the birth of that ultimate arch-nemesis Dr. Doom!

Except, wait, Sub-Mariner is a poor amnesiac stranded in a Bowery flophouse until the Human Torch dunks him in the harbor. Then he swims back to Atlantis to find “It’s all destroyed! That glow in the water—it’s radioactivity!!The humans did it, unthinkably, with their accursed atomic tests!” His vow to destroy the human race is revenge for the loss of “My family—my friends! My undersea kingdom!” It doesn’t make him a nice guy, but evil? (Would the last survivor of Krypton have responded differently if Earth had A-bombed his home?)

Even Dr. Doom isn’t innately bad, just “badly disfigured.” He was once a “brilliant science student” before his “forbidden experiments” literally exploded in his face. Lee introduces him as an “evil genius,” but later reveals that those tragic experiments were an attempt to contact his beloved mother in the nether world. Next thing he’s a persecuted gypsy seeking revenge on the baron who killed his father. When What If tackled him in 1980, the writers averted that disfiguring accident all together and, what do you know, Doom becomes a superhero.

Before Stan Lee inherited the world of costumed do-gooders from his Golden Age forebears, supervillains were villainous, pure and simple. Luthor wanted to conquer the world for the same unexamined reasons that Superman wanted to protect it: Plot requirements. Forget psychological motivation. It was World War II. Readers needed good guys who were all good, and those good guys needed bad guys who were all bad. But 1961 was a different world. As much as America hated Commies, they were no replacement for purebred Nazis. Comics were ready to reflect the cultural shift.

Lee did not invent the figure of the sympathetic villain. Look at Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein creature or Milton’s Satan. Or, for more immediate influences, Tolkien’s Gollum and Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley, both published in 1955, a year before Silver Age superheroes started their return to newsstands. When Moleman swallowed his first atomic plant, Alfred Hitchcock was already famous for replacing the dog-kicking moustache-twirler of early motion pictures with his own brand of monster, “an ordinary human being with failings.” Moleman is only a few months and a few ticks past Norman Bates’ mother-loving Psycho. A decade later the motif had grown so culturally rampant that when The Who’s Pete Townsend was writing his second (and, alas, never finished) rock opera, he composed the quintessential sympathetic bad guy theme song, “Behind Blue Eyes.”

But Stan Lee did more than ride the zeitgeist. His villains changed only because his heroes changed too. He kept the two yoked, with the universal constants of good and evil flowing up and down their moral seesaw. The victimized Moleman is possible because the Thing is such a jerk. Every time Ben badmouths Johnny or throws a punch at Reed, one cosmic unit of sympathy rolls to the villains’ half of the universe.

Only comic books maintain that equilibrium. Ms. Highsmith’s diabolically talented Mr. Ripley is a lone (and lonely) figure; because his murders are investigated by irrelevant lawmen who soak up little narrative attention, our horror and admiration pivots only on Ripley. Even when sympathetic villains are coupled with worthwhile protagonists, our emotions operate separate pulleys. We can, for instance, feel pity for Gollum (the poor guy started out as the hobbit-like Smeagol before the Ring deformed him) without Frodo losing any of his own hobbity (if rather homoerotic) goodness.

King Kong, HAL, Tony Soprano, they all have their fuzzy side, but none demand a corresponding give-and-grab from an orc-mannered protagonist. Comic books are different. Once Stan Lee recalibrated the universe from its Golden Age settings, other writers obeyed his narrative logic as if obeying laws of physics: When superheroes are assholes, supervillains have to be the nice guys.

Look at Dr. Impossible in Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible. His quest for world domination is just his way to make superhero bullies respect him. Especially that obnoxious jock CoreFire, the biggest jerk in his middle school of a multiverse.  Joss Whedon’s Captain Hammer is worse. Dr. Horrible of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is a tender-hearted sweetheart. Sure, he wants to rule the world, but, unlike Hammer, he would never steal another guy’s gal and fake his way into her bed.

Alan Moore revolutionized comics in the 80s by pushing Lee’s laws of conservation to their ultimate end. The homicidal Rorschach skids so far down the moral seesaw, there’s nowhere for his nemesis Moloch to go but into retirement. He’s just some old guy (albeit pointy-eared) terrified of superheroes jumping out of his refrigerator. Rorschach’s own teammate gives Moloch cancer and then a bullet in the brain. Moloch is purely sympathetic. Why? Because the villainy of those Watchmen tips the scales over. There’s no room for supervillains in Moore’s lopsided universe. The so-called heroes hog all the traits, both good and bad.

When Bob Kane and his writing team dealt out the Joker in 1940, he was an unabashed lunatic. His nominal motive was theft, but he took way more demonic glee in his murders. Why? No reason. Not till Alan Moore gave one in his 1988 The Killing Joke. Turns out the Joker was a sweet young newlywed before grabbed by some thugs and set up as their red-hooded fall guy. Next thing Batman’s knocking him into a vat of chemicals, and what crawls out is now tragic by contrast. Moore’s supervillain rewrite was only possible after Frank Miller’s 1986 Dark Knight Returns. Miller emphasized the Dark over the Knight, catapulting Batman into the old Joker’s half of their ying-yang universe.

By the time Mark Waid and Alex Ross put out Kingdome Come in 1996, there was no longer any difference between the new generation of supervillains and superheroes. Right now I’m reading Gladstone’s School for World Conquerors. The students are all “adorable” middle school Molemen in the making. I bought it for my son because his favorite novels are about misunderstood supervillains or misunderstood sons of misunderstood supervillains. Catherine Jinks’ Evil Genius, Eoin Colfer‘s Artemis Fowl series. More evidence of seismic flattening.

Gladstone creators Mark Andrew Smith and Armand Villavert uphold Lee’s principles of cosmic proportion too. Good and evil have completely leveled out. Superheroes and supervillains are pals, staging fake battles in order to prevent a “return to the draconian days of old.” One retired villain does volunteer garden work at the school: “It’s relaxing and peaceful for me.” The same quiet fate Reed gave those shapeshifting cows from outer space.

Or, as one Skrull declares in the final frame: “Mooo!!”

If I could, I’d transform and hypnotize Dzhokhar Tsarnaev too. Yes, he’s a terrorist monster (3 dead, 260 wounded). And, yes, he’s also a nineteen-year-old scholarship student who people considered “a sweet guy” with a “heart of gold,” “a lovely, lovely kid,” “so grateful to be here in school and to be accepted, ” “a model of good sportsmanship,” “never in trouble,” “not the kind of guy who would hurt anyone,” someone who “believed in people,” “one of ‘us.’”

His twenty-six-year-old and conveniently dead brother, Tamerlan, is uglier, a competitive boxer arrested for assaulting his girlfriend. His YouTube account includes a playlist of terrorism videos. He bragged, “I don’t have a single American friend, I don’t understand them.”

We don’t understand you either, Tamerlan. Which is the heart of our mutual problem.  It’s easy to call you a monster and go back to our unexamined lives. Who doesn’t want to live in an old school comic book? They call it the Golden Age for a reason.

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Iron Patriot from IM3

The culminating twist of Iron Man 3, declared Anthony Lane in The New Yorker, “signals both the making of Iron Man 3 and, with any luck, the possible unmaking of the genre.” It was an early review, so Lane had to be coy about specifics, but a few weeks and a few hundred million box office dollars later, we can take the spoiler gloves off and just say it:

“This war is not a means to any end but rather is the end in itself. Not only is it the end itself, but it is also its own fuel: it is precisely this endless war – justified in the name of stopping the threat of terrorism – that is the single greatest cause of that threat.”

Oh, wait, sorry, that’s not Iron Man 3. That’s Glenn Greenwald on Assistant Defense Secretary Michael Sheehan’s testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the twelve-year-old foreign policy franchise formerly known as the War on Terror has another two decades of sequels left in it.

What I meant to write is completely different. That Iron Man 3’s supervillianous corporate  technology genius invented his own Osama Bin Laden to mask his R&D and drive up government demand for his ever-expanding arsenal of military products, locking American and the rest of the planet in a self-perpetuating cycle of unwinnable war. But that’s just a movie. The kind that now pretty much defines the Hollywood blockbuster. Director Shane Black even goes the extra metafictional mile and includes the villain’s blue screen movie studio, the same corporate tech keeping Tony and his pals alive.

Iron Man and War Machine without the CGI

“From here on,” writes Lane, “the dumb-ass grandeur around which superheroic plots revolve can no longer be taken on trust.” Greenwald thinks the same about Obama. The war on terror, like the Hollywood superhero, will never end on its own because so many “factions reap a bonanza of benefits from its continuation.” Black lifts the edge of the curtain, but that glimpse will hardly unmake or even marginally slow the onslaught of forthcoming productions. Captain America 2 is shooting in D.C. as I type. That’s D.C., our nation’s capital, and so not technically a Warner Bros or Marvel Entertainment branch office.

The modern superhero movie first took flight in 1978 with Superman: The Movie (the subtitle says it all), with the total number of productions tipping just over forty in 2001. How many since 9/11?  Fifty. In less than half as many years. So, no, 9/11 is not the box office superhero’s origin story. It’s merely the transformative accident that doubled his powers. Like the Golden Age’s Blue Beetle. When his comic book incarnation debuted in pre-war 1939, the Beetle was just another mystery man in a domino mask and fedora. Listen to his first radio broadcast a worn-torn year later and the guy’s ingesting the power-inducing 2-X formula from his pharmacist mentor.

Novelist Austin Grossman recently told my Superheroes class that when he started writing his supervillain-narrated Soon I Will Be Invincible in 2001, he had to ask himself, “Am I just writing about a terrorist?” Austin’s brother, The Magicians author Lev Grossman, penned his own superheroic response, “Pitching 9/11.” The short story is a sequence of failed pitches for adapting 9/11 to screen. Here’s my favorite:

“Lonely, misunderstood Dominican elevator repairman (John Leguizamo?) finds himself trapped by fire after the second plane hits. In agony from the heat and smoke, near death from asphyxiation he jumps from the 83rd Floor. Instead of falling he hover in midair, then rockets upward. The trauma of the attack, and of his impending certain death, has awakened latent superpowers he never knew he had. A handful of others have undergone similar transformations—they hover in a cluster over the collapsing buildings, like so many swimmer treading water. As the roof sinks away below them into nothingness, they choose colorful pseudonyms and soar away together in formation to take vengeance on evil everywhere.”

Lev’s other pitches include scifi thriller, Discovery Channel documentary, and a filmed performance piece, but superheroes are the ready-made absurdity 9/11 was meant for. Diverting the path of an airliner? That’s a job for Superman. The pre-emptive prequel would star Batman. According to The 9/11 Commission Report, President Clinton was so annoyed with the lack of options for taking out Bin Laden he said to one his generals: ‘You know, it would scare the shit out of al-Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp.’”

Substitute “ninjas” with the superhero team of your choice and you’ve got your very own dumb-ass grandeur plot.  But according to Blake Snyder (a friend leant me a copy of his Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need), the Superhero genre isn’t just about “guys in capes and tights.” It’s what happens when an extraordinary person is stuck in an ordinary world. In addition to Bruce Wayne and the X-Men, Russell Crow’s Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind are his go-to examples of misunderstood Gullivers shackled by Lilluputians.

I’m more than a little skeptical about Snyder (he argues Miss Congeniality is a better film than Memento), but he has a point. Especially when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. Superheroes soared after 9/11 because Hollywood cast America as the planet’s mightiest super being and the rest of the word population as those moron Lilluputians willfully misunderstanding him. Weren’t they listening when Bush Sr. explained New World Order?

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. was the lone superpower, to be loved and respected by a planet of grateful mortals. When some of those ingrates go and topple the Fortress of Solitude, what choice does America have but to declare a War on Lilluputianism? “It is hard to resist the conclusion that this war,” laments Greenwald, “has no purpose other than its own eternal perpetuation.”

But then in his own superheroic plot twist, Obama, days after his Assistant Defense Secretary was arguing for an unlimited renewal of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, declared: “This war, like all wars, must end.” The Associated Press boiled the President’s 7,000- word speech down to a sentence: “Barack Obama has all but declared an end to the global war on terror.”

Congress is balking of course. And so is our Democracy’s fourth branch of government, Hollywood. While Obama declares war on perpetual war, Marvel has two superhero franchises in post-production (Wolverine, Thor), three filming for 2014 release dates (Captain America, Spider-Man, X-Men), and another four announced for 2015 (Guardians of the Galaxy, Fantastic Four, Avengers, Ant-Man). Throw in the S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show that premieres next fall, and the superhero war isn’t dialing back—it’s surging.

But all those capes and tights flying across our screen have been an inverse shadow of real troops on the ground. So what happens when we finally leave Afghanistan? What happens if the drone war on al Qaeda really does die down? I’m no pre-cog, but the pop culture tea leaves are telling me 2015 will be the last big year for dumb-ass superhero grandeur. Though I wouldn’t underestimate Hollywood’s shapeshifting powers either. Both Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness were already in theaters, literally blowing up their representations of the U.S. drone armada, when Obama dropped his own policy bomb of a speech.

Box office superheroes will endure. Just scaled back to their pre-9/11 levels, where they belong.

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About five years ago, a group of honors students were trolling campus for a professor willing to create and teach a course on superheroes. They found me. The syllabus I submitted to C&D for approval included a predictable roster of comic books, interspersed with a few influential pulp novels and even a smattering of Nietzsche and Shaw. But then a friend handed me a novel I’d never heard of, a then recent hardback about an evil genius and the team of superheroes he fights. Standard comic book fodder, but the blurbs on the back assured me this was a literary novel.

And I thought: Really?

SIWBI cover

This is of course well before my superhero obsession had achieved its current proportions, but I had serious doubts. Sure, in rare cases, a comic book, say Alan Moore’s The Watchmen, could scale the pop culture ladder to achieve recognition as a work of serious literature. But this Austin Grossman guy, he was going the other direction. Soon I Will Be Invincible was a novel descending into comic book clichés. Yes, Michael Chabon had won the Pulitzer for The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but that wasn’t a novel about superheroes—that was a novel about superhero creators. Totally different.

And then I started reading. I didn’t make it through the first chapter before going online and ordering my own copy so I wouldn’t mark up my friend’s with underlines and scribbles. Always a sure sign I’m in love. This evil genius, Dr. Impossible, he was hilariously witty and improbably poignant. Where Alan Moore applies psychological realism to darken comic book stereotypes, Grossman achieved a realism that didn’t destroy the beloved formulas. His supervillain still MWAHAHA-ed, doomed to lose every plan for world domination, but under that absurd surface was a frighteningly familiar human being. Where Moore devastates superheroes, Grossman heightens the character types by constructing vast inner psychologies.

So I revised my syllabus and made those honors students read it. And then I made my book club read it. And then, since my kids weren’t reading entirely on their own yet, I read it to them. (My son’s twelve now, and when he heard Austin Grossman was coming to my campus, he found my scribbled-up copy and read it to himself again.) My daughter had already read most of Harry Potter on her own a few times, but she liked the ritual of a parent droning from a book over the breakfast table and after dinner on a couch. Soon I Will Be Invincible may be the last novel I read to them both. When I tried to start another, she very politely asked: “Dad, can we do something not about superheroes?”

But she loved Grossman too. How could the children of two professors not fall in love with a geeky genius in an endless battle against the stuck-up superhero bullies who persecuted him in middle school? But it was Grossman’s second narrator, an amnesic cyborg, who bulled me over. Despite (or perhaps because of) her fantastical absurdities—she shoots rubber bullets and a grappling hook from her forearms—her character took on emotional resonances I didn’t notice at first, meanings smuggled in under all the fun.

So when I got to the paragraph where she mourns the loss of her old self, the kid she can’t even remember ever being, I couldn’t read it. Literally. I choked up. Repeatedly. My kids thought I was having some kind of seizure. I was looking at my almost-pubescent daughter, a girl who had maybe ten minutes left in her childhood, and suddenly the metaphor of an amnesic cyborg was the most profound truth I’d ever read. Or not read. I eventually had to give up and hand the book to her to read aloud to her brother.

And now Austin Grossman has a new novel. How will I cope?

Grossman_You

He’s again returned to my childhood, not to comic books this time, but video games. I can recall reading a green computer screen over a high school friend’s shoulder as he typed responses to text-only prompts. The game Zork began with the words: “You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.”

That nameless main character, “You,” is also the title of Grossman’s new novel. Instead of plumbing the secret depths of superheroes, YOU offers a subterranean view of the computer gaming industry, a multiverse Grossman knows particularly well. He started writing games twenty years ago—because what else would you do with a B.A. from Harvard?—stopping to study Victorian literature at Berkley before launching his literary career while still continuing to expand his work in video.

My family has more Austin Grossman on our shelves than I had realized. He co-wrote Epic Mickey, a game I’ve watched my son slash through with our Wii remote. His credits are long, and even a non-gamer like me recognizes titles like Tomb Raider and Jurassic Park. Though I admit when I saw the headline “Dishonored Writer’s New Novel Shows a Video Game Generation Being Born,” I thought Grossman must have done something really, you know, dishonorable. (Dishonored actually won a range of awards last year and is considered the best action-adventure of 2012. )

I predict equally honorable accolades for YOU. The novel just launched, and Washington and Lee University will be hosting a reading on May 14th. Should you happen to be in attendance and feel a sudden, inexplicable wave of déjà vu, it might because Austin’s identical twin, Lev, stood on the same stage last fall to read from his own upcoming novel, a sequel to The Magician King. There’s clearly an annoying surplus of talent in the Grossman gene pool.

In my family, all the computer DNA went to my two brothers, stepbrothers, so no nature-nurture mystery there. Grossman’s characters enrolled in their high school’s first offering of computer math. So did I—before fleeing the next day. My brothers basically taught the class. I’d still rather watch Space Invaders over someone’s shoulder than play it myself. So all the more amazing to me that Grossman can render the spectacle of 80s and 90s games so thrillingly. Graphically you might just be a plus sign battling hordes of ampersands in a forest of Vs, but his prose imbues your plight with improbable depth, both three-dimensional and psychological.

My brothers went on to careers as programmers, and one is, in fact, a game designer in a universe that bears an uncanny resemblance to YOU. But saying the novel is about video games is like saying The Old Man and the Sea is about fishing. It tells you a great deal and nothing at all.

I will say that YOU is a fantastic novel, but not fantastical. Sure, the game’s archetypal adventurers chat with the narrator on a regular basis, but you can write those off as dreams and daydreams. And, yes, that ur-bug infecting the game code has an almost supernatural vibe, but Grossman never quite exits realism. Or rather, fantasy and reality become flip sides of a single coin. While Invincible explores the disturbing borders where real and unreal meet (the seams in cyborg skin graphs, for example), YOU overlaps the two worlds–literally, the game maps are overlays of Central Park, Disneyland, Scotland.

Ultimately, the difference between here and there, you and your role-playing self, tumble into a shared real/unreal universe, the coin Grossman keeps spinning for almost four hundred dizzying pages. When I set the book down, I had to recalibrate my senses, shake-off the metafictional jet-lag, before handing YOU to my son. He’s a video game junky. He’d dive through the screen of his laptop if he could. I’m glad he can’t, but Grossman provides the next best thrill.

Austin Grossman author photo

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I read Max Barry’s Machine Man on my flight home from California. I read it without a pencil in my hand. I’m an English professor, so that’s harder than it sounds. The pencil, according to some definitions, also makes me a cyborg.

Comic book artist Geoff Johns offers a better example: “If we have a cellphone and we’re texting on it, we are a cyborg — that’s what a cyborg is, using technology as an extension of ourselves.” Johns is drawing the character Cyborg into the recently rebooted DC universe, making the part-human part-machine superhero a founding member of the Justice League.

I don’t own a cellphone — I know, it defies the imagination — but I would be legally blind without my contact lenses. And in a great amount of pain without the metal capping my childhood cavities. The three earrings sticking out of my head I could survive without, but I wouldn’t be happy about it.

I was born the same year as the Doctor Who Cybermen, the first cyborgs to invade pop culture. I was also there when American TV found the technology to rebuild Colonel Steve Austin for the now shockingly low sticker price of $6M. Actually, my bedtime was 8:30 in 1974, so I was only allowed to watch the first half of each episode.

Marvel Comics’ first cyborg, Deathlok, booted up the same year. I bought the original Astonishing Tales issue from a rotating display rack in my 7-Eleven. I was in high school before DC cranked out their Cyborg, the least original superhero name since Superman. Robocop was way catchier, and the last of the cybernetic goody guys off the assembly line.

Apparently there’s something sinister about human-machine hybrids. Think of James Earl Jones breathing life into Darth Vader’s asthmatic voice box, or Arnold Schwarzenegger thumping around as a homicidal android disguised in a layer of artificially grown flesh. By the time I graduated college, Doctor Who’s Cybermen had upgraded themselves into Star Trek’s “resistance is futile” Borg.

DC revising their timeline to include Cyborg in the “original” Justice League — I wasn’t alive when the team formed in 1960 — is a welcome if obvious act of affirmative action, apparently necessary because the black Green Lantern got the boot. Cyborg was also the first African American cyborg. It’s a good metaphor, one that Dwayne McDuffie soldered to his retooled and newly black Deathlok for the 90’s reboot.

The Cybermen and the zombie-shuffling Borg are multiculturalism’s secret nightmare. The ultimate melting pot where even the pot gets melted in. A cyborg — an abbreviation of “cybernetic organism” — is all about mechanical miscegenation. It’s no coincidence that the term emerged during the Civil Rights Movement.

Isaac Asimov wrote about cyborgs for the first time in 1967. He imagined a future where robots and humans are indistinguishable. After replacing a human patient’s heart with a mechanical one, the surgeon (we don’t know he’s a robot till the end) wishes humans and robots would stop mixing. Asimov titled his short story “The Segregationist.”

The first time I saw Deathlok, I thought the human half of his head sported a tightly trimmed afro. The remains of my childhood comic book collection are piled into an ancient liquor store box in my attic. My favorite cyborg did not survive. So I can’t fact check my memory that his wife is black. They had a son too. This is back when the President of the United States thought abortion should be illegal except for cases of rape, incest, and interracial pregnancies. Barry Obama had just entered his teens.

It’s also not a coincidence that cyborgs entered the collective consciousness during the Vietnam War. Prosthetics technology always spikes with an increase of maimed soldiers. Technically there’s no difference between a cyborg and a prosthetics wearer. It’s an aesthetic divide. Cyborgs are sexy. Prosthetics are pathetic.

Max Barry illustrates the difference in Machine Man. After his narrator loses a leg in a work accident, he’s a victim, on object of pity. The best prosthetic available only heightens his social and self estrangement. But when he intentionally removes another limb so that he can sit comfortably in a matching pair of robot legs engineered to outperform their human equivalents, he’s an instant celebrity.

Cyborg stories always begin with mutilations. The first, Edgar Allan Poe’s 1839 “The Man That Was Used Up,” is a supposedly comic tale of a Brigadier-General who returned limbless and featureless from his battles against the western “Bugaboo” tribe. I prefer Frank L. Baum’s twelfth Oz novel, The Tin Woodman of Oz, published near the close of World War I. In addition to the better known Tin Man, a Tin Soldier joins the cast. Both lost their human parts one enchanted axe or sword blow at a time, and employed the same tinsmith for replacements.

Actual maimed veterans of U.S. wars have to settle for Purple Hearts.

Even Tony Stark, wounded during a cold war excursion in communist Asia, gets to be Iron Man. Sure, removing the chest plate would mean instant death, but at least he can fly and shoot lasers from his palms. It’s the standard cyborg formula. Disabilities romanticized into cartoon super-abilities.

Austin Grossman, author of one of my all time favorite novels, Soon I Will Be Invincible, applies the formula to superheroes. His cyborg narrator woke up on an operating table after most of her memory and body were lost under the wheels of a runaway truck. Superheroing is the only job she can find, a desperate attempt to give her mangled life meaning. Her teammates aren’t so different.

Grossman explores “how violently altered the normal body is for a superhero” and “the larger theme of superhero life as trauma and recovery from trauma.” He explained to Girls Read Comics: “It seems like the trauma element gets glossed over a little bit in superhero comics; it gets glossed over even though it’s the motivating, defining attribute of the superhero. I guess it’s kind of the hopeful element of superhero comics; the idea of the trauma that shapes you is not just pain; it’s also the thing that makes you special.”

South African athlete Oscar Pistorius is a real-life example. The New York Times Magazine says Pistorius is nicknamed “Blade Runner” because of his J-shaped prosthetic legs, but it’s a more obvious allusion to the Philip K. Dick film adaptation and its nearly human robots. By some  calculations, Pistorius’ “posthuman” legs outdistance their meat-and-bone equivalents by twelve seconds per Olympic lap. But according to at least one biomechatronics expert, what makes Pistorius a “mutant” and “freak” is his innate athletic prowess and drive. The fact that he was born without enough calf bones and so had his legs cut off below the knees as an infant is beside the point.

But Pistorius and his superhero counterparts are the exceptions. Cyborgs are usually tragedies or horror tales. The first screen cyborg, the Automaton of Harry Houdini’s 1920 serial The Master Mystery, is a Frankenstein monster, a mad scientist who cut out his own brain and placed it inside a robot body. Never mind that the robot looks like a Sesame Street character. Audiences knew to be horrified.

DC’s Cyborg didn’t chose to become half-machine. He woke up on an operating table saved from death but lost to his former life. Leave it to comic books to turn that into a good thing. Now he even gets to be a founding member of the Justice League, right up there with Superman, Wonder Woman, and that guy who talks to fish.

That’s way better than Max Berry’s narrator. He ends up a little gray box with USB ports instead of limbs. I’m trying to get one of my colleagues to teach Machine Man in his first year writing course. I read it in paperback, which technically makes me a cyborg, if a laughably outdated one. I’m sure it’s available in Kindle and Nook editions, probably iPhone too. Whatever that is.

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Classes start today.

I don’t teach my Superheroes seminar again till spring, but winter is just as good. My New North American Fiction is subtitled Thrilling Tales after the issue of McSweeney’s that Michael Chabon edited back in 2002.

Chabon’s editorial premise was simple: a lot of great fiction falls under the lowbrow category “genre.” That includes science fiction, horror, mystery, what folks called “pulp fiction” back in the thirties. “Pulp” because of the grade of paper the magazines were printed on, the cheapest possible, made from wood pulp.

I admit some of those stories were no better than their medium. A writer could hack out a 40,000 word novella in less than two weeks. Formula was everything. Thus “formula writing,” anything following the conventions of a genre, was no longer considered “literary.”

But no formula automatically produces bad writing. No formula automatically produces good writing either. Knowing a poem is a sonnet tells you it’s fourteen lines and (probably) rhymed. It tells you nothing about its quality. Believe me, there are a lot of horrific sonnets out there.

So why not literary pulp?

I’d say Kurt Vonnegut launched it with science fiction back in the fifties. Samuel R. Delany and Ursula K. Le Guin weren’t far behind him, casting their own literary spells on the realm of swords and sorcery. Margaret Atwood rewrote the future of speculative history with The Handmaid’s Tale. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, one of if not the most esteemed novel of the twentieth century, is about a haunted house.

But the pulp chips didn’t really start flying till Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay grabbed the Pulitzer in 2000. In the decade that followed, I count at least two dozen literary works firmly planted in genre soil originally deforested by pulp fiction nearly a century ago. All by authors of high literary pruning. In addition to the perennial Atwood and Chabon, add Philip Roth, Michael Cunningham, Isabel Allende, Sherman Alexie, Jane Smiley, Jonathan Lethem, Tom De Haven, Cormac McCarthy, Kazuo Ishiguro, David Mitchell, Kevin Brockmeier, and Caryl Churchill.

Last year alone, we had Colson Whitehead writing about zombies, Glen Duncan about werewolves,Tom Perrotta about the end of the world,  and Stephen King (would you believe he’s “literary” now?) earning a place on the New York Times’ ten best books of 2011 with a time-travel tale.

My biggest challenge for Thrilling Tales is not overcrowding the syllabus. I pared it down to nine:


McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales
, Ed. Michael Chabon
Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood
Zorro, Isabel Allende
The Final Solution, Michael Chabon
Flight, Sherman Alexie
Fledgling, Octavia Butler
The Road, Cormac McCarthy
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
Soon I Will Be Invincible, Austin Grossman

I’ll let you know what my students think.

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How any Hollywood exec fantasized that last summer’s Green Lantern could have spawned a Harry Potter-replacing franchise remains an unfathomable mystery. Three exposition-bloated minutes in and my ten-year-old son mumbled: “This isn’t very good.”

But the writers (seven names in the credits, never a good sign) got one thing right. When Lantern drops onto his love interest’s balcony (how many times has Superman pulled that maneuver with Lois?), she sees through his silly little disguise in seconds. And when he finally gets his kiss at the end, she first asks:

“Hal, can you take off the mask?”

If I were going to write a Superhero Guide to Love and Sex, that would be the first entry. Rule #1: Expose yourself. A superhero’s most intimate act is unmasking.

The advice originates from the roots of the genre (Spring-Heeled Jack, Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro). It branches during the 1930’s into monkishly celibate heroes (Doc Savage, Superman) and earthier heroes with indulging fiancés (the Shadow, the Spider). And it’s still the core of 21st century superhero romances.

When DC turned their death of superman comic book arc into the PG-13 cartoon Superman: Doomsday in 2007, Anne Heche voiced Lois Lane’s annoyance with Superman for keeping their (surprisingly sexual) relationship a secret. Not only does he limit their trysts to the Fortress of Solitude (the ultimate bachelor pad), but he’s not confirmed his secret identity to her either. This Lois (for once) can see through Clark’s glasses, so she’s not miffed because he’s keeping her in the dark. She’s hurt that her lover isn’t committed to their relationship enough to show his real self. (That, by the way, is what you call a metaphor.) It only takes a scrape with the afterlife for the Man of Steel to come around. In the last scene, the post-coital Lois looks up from Superman’s bedsheets to see Clark putting on his glasses. Intimacy at last.

Staying in 2007, Austin Grossman’s novel Soon I Will Be Invincible plays by the same romance rules. The love-struck cyborg Fatale longs for her teammate Blackwolf:

“Our lips touch, and for a second it’s everything I thought it would be. The metal in my jaw is awkward but somehow exciting, and he kisses back. I pull him down to me, get his weight against me. I’d forgotten what it was like to want something this much. He reaches up under my shirt, and the feeling is so good it makes me want to cry. Nobody but a surgeon has touched me there for a really, really long time.

“Then I make a mistake. I reach for the mask, and he catches my arm, ready to break it. His jaw sets, and I’m dealing with Blackwolf again.”

For a superhero, unmasking is more intimate than sex.

It’s another team member who eventually lands Blackwolf. The two “are making out in the rain like high school kids,” and “Blackwolf’s mask came off, showing the shock of white hair he usually keeps hidden.” Even Fatale admits “it’s just about the most romantic thing I’ve ever seen.”

The mask means the same to gay superheroes. The hero of Perry Moore’s Hero (2007 was a banner year for superhero sex) masturbates to online porn of wide-nippled Uberman (the one page I mumbled over when reading aloud to my kids). But he doesn’t find real intimacy until he and the better half of his dynamic duo have shared identities. The novel’s most touching (and gently erotic) scene takes place not in bed but during a picnic lunch in a public park:

“I . . . placed my hands on his face. . . With one palm over his forehead and the other palm over his nose and mouth, I looked into those deep, dark pupils and saw the way he used to look at me when he was Dark Hero, when I didn’t know. Goran took my hand off his mouth and held it. He raised it to his mouth, placed his warm lips in the middle of my palm and kissed it. . . . I reached my arms around Goran, pulled him in, and our lips met.”

For a superhero, a happy ending means getting your mask off.

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