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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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Death is a hard box to climb out of. But that’s how Harry Houdini made his living. The escape artist has been dead eighty-nine years, and he’s still scraping at the lid.

His latest trick is The Grim Game, a 1919 silent film serial thought lost for decades. Turner Movie Classics is resurrecting it for a second world premier during the TMC Classic Film Festival the weekend of March 28. It includes the near death of Houdini’s double, Robert E. Kennedy, who dangled from a rope as two stunt planes accidentally collided before gliding to crash-landings. When Houdini later described the film shoot, he substituted himself for Kennedy. He’d been performing that sort of body switch his whole career.

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Houdini’s first trick was called Metamorphosis, and he started performing it in 1893. I saw a version of it on my sister’s high school stage when I was fourteen. A magician is hand-cuffed, tied into a sack, and padlocked into a crate. An assistant stands on the crate, lifts a sheet above her head, and when she drops it on the count of three, the magician is standing in her place. When he unlocks the crate, there she is, sack-tied and hand-cuffed. When Harry Houdini performed it with his wife in Dusseldorf in 1900, a reporter explained how it’s done:

“In dematerialization, or the phenomenon of self-dissolving, the force of attraction and cohesion between molecules is overcome. As has been proven through innumerable examples, every body can in this way be brought in an aetheric condition and therefore, with the help of an astral stream, be transported from one place to another with incredible speed. In the same instant the power used for dematerialization is retrieved; the aetheric pressure again shows the molecules, which again take on their original local and former shape.”

Although he started his career as a medium, the only superpower Houdini ever claimed was “photographic eyes,” and that only worked for memorizing locks. He did train himself to breathe so “quietly” he could last an hour and half in a soldered coffin. Other skills involved inserting and removing objects from his throat and anus. Mostly though he understood pain.

Germany called him uncanny, a Napoleon, a limitations-defying Faust. Russians debated whether his supernatural powers were evil. Spiritualists in the U.S. and U.K. applauded his act, “one of nature’s profoundest miracles,” lamenting that audiences mistook it for just “a very clever trick.” Drama queen Sarah Bernhardt asked him to grow back her severed leg. “She honestly thought I was superhuman,” Houdini told reporters.

He also told reporters that “it is only right that what brain and gifts I have should benefit humanity in some other way than merely entertaining people.” Jerry Siegel was two at the time, but Clark Kent would similarly decide “he must turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind.”

Houdini played a superhero of sorts in his film serial The Master Mystery, shot the year before The Grim Game. A mild-mannered lab tech is secretly Department of Justice agent Quentin Locke. He battles Q the Automaton, a metal “Frankenstein” that “possesses a human brain which has been transplanted into it and made to guide it” as a “conscienceless inhuman superman.” Actually, Q turns out to be a metal suit slightly clunkier than Iron Man’s original, and Houdini squanders his screen time writhing out of ropes and whatnot.

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He also battled a band of Bedouins serving a “hellish ghoul-spirit of the elder Nile sorcery.” H.P. Lovecraft ghost-wrote the purportedly autobiographical sketch, but only after telling his Weird Tales editor that Houdini was a “bimbo” and a “boob.” (A friend of mine, poet-turned-horror-writer Scott Nicolay, mailed me a copy of “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” padlocked in a canvas bag that I still can’t get open.) Houdini’s other ghosts penned him a detective thriller, The Zanetti Mystery, the sleuthing spirit Daniel Stashower has been keeping alive in a series of Houdini novels, even pairing him with Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Ectoplasmic Man.

Sherlock does not believe Houdini could walk through brick walls “by reducing his entire body to ectoplasm . . . the stuff of spirit emanations.” But Sherlock’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, did. “My dear chap,” he asked Houdini, “why go around the world seeking a demonstration of the occult when you are giving one all the time? My reason tells me that you have this wonderful power, for there is no alternative.” After his son’s death and his wife’s convenient discovery of medium skills, the evangelical Doyle toured the globe giving lectures for the Spiritualist cause. He and Houdini were both psychical investigators and so instant frenemies, each casting the other as his Moriarty. Like Professor X and Magneto, Doyle tried to persuade Houdini to use his powers for good: “Such a gift is not given to one in a hundred million, that he should amuse the multitude or amass a fortune.”

Houdini listened. He dedicated his brain and gifts to fighting Doyle’s ghoul-spirit religion. He kept X-Files full of criminal mediums and employed a band of undercover operatives, his “own secret service department,” to infiltrate congregations across the U.S. He proved himself a master-of-disguise, donning wigs and beards and plaster noses to sneak into séances and expose fakes swindling the bereaved. Like Batman, the memory of his mother drove him, that and the certainty that if the dead could communicate to the living, surely she would have reached her doting son in at least one of his endless attempts.  Houdini’s wife took up a similar cause after his death.

When I saw Metamorphosis performed, the magician invited an audience member onto stage to inspect the crate and cuffs. A seventeen-year-old Walter Gibson had that privilege in 1915. He became one of Houdini’s ghost-writers succeeded him as president of the Society of American Magicians. He waited four years before publishing Houdini’s Escapes and Magic. CBS’s Detective Story Hour premiered in 1930 too. The radio show featured an omniscient narrator with a demonic laugh and knowledge of the hearts of men. When listeners couldn’t find the character on newsstands, the publishers phoned Gibson, and he wrote the premiere novella for The Shadow Magazine, the first of 282 he would pen.

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In The Ghost Makers, the Shadow battles phony spiritualists, but when CBS hired Orson Welles to star in a 1937 radio reboot, Gibson dumped the band of operatives and sent his master-of-disguise “to India, to Egypt, to China . . . to learn the old mysteries that modern science has not yet rediscovered, the natural magic . . .”

My sister was on stage during the whole performance. She was one of those dancing distractions Houdini used too. The cuffs were fake, the sack opened at the bottom, and the crate lid pivoted on a hidden hinge. But everything else was real.

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Last week I suggested that a TV show about time travel didn’t have to be completely stupid. This week I want to show that it might also be entertaining. Here’s a script treatment for a pilot to such a would-be non-completely-stupid yet-potentially-entertaining series. Interested TV producers should mail stacks of 1960s-era $100 bills to my home address.

 

“Remote Control”

Zoom slowly out from historical footage of President Kennedy’s May 25, 1961 Address to Congress: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space.”

2015:

Remy is the granddaughter of two scientists who worked for NASA in the early years of the space race. Both died before she was born, so she is surprised to receive a visit from Connor, a lawyer executing her grandmother’s secret will. To receive the money left to her, Remy has to fulfill one obligation: exhume her grandmother’s coffin and store it in her house for one year.

1961:

Lora, Remy’s grandmother, is leading a small group of politicians and military officers into an airport hanger, promising them that what they are about to see will change everything.

In a second location, scientists lean over a control board in hectic preparation. They include Art, the handsome if good-humoredly arrogant team leader, and Tom, a comparative wall-flower. (Either could be Remy’s future grandfather.)

Lora throws open the door to the hangar to reveal: an anti-climatically empty hanger. Or almost empty. She directs the men to a line of folding chairs situated in front of small crate, drops her purse, and picks up a phone hanging from a pillar: “We’re ready.”

Art is on the other end, and the control room bursts into activity.

In the hangar, all eyes are on the crate. The moment intensifies until . . . the crate is still just sitting there. The observers are getting impatient. Lora snaps at Art.

Tom just solved the problem–they’re connected.

Lora looks at the crate: still nothing. She’s about to speak when she hears a crash through the phone and then jerks around as the crate crashes open a second later. A very non-anthropomorphic robot breaks out: it rolls on multiple wheels, extends an array of praying mantis-like arms, and swivels a camera eye at the startled observers.

The control panel’s central video screen shows the observers as the scientists control the robot’s movements. Tom mumbles something about theatrics: there won’t be any crates to smash on the moon. Art agrees, but politicians like a good show; that’s why he put Lora on the main stage.

Lora introduces LURC-er 1, a remote controlled robot designed for lunar exploration. The president has promised the world America will be on the moon by the end of the decade—which is impossible. How do you build a life-sustaining environment strong enough to withstand outer space and then make it lightweight enough to be rocketed out of the Earth’s gravity while still carrying enough food, water, and oxygen to keep even one human being alive? This will not happen in our lifetime’s or even our grandchildren’s lifetimes. But rocketing a robot to the moon is comparatively simple. LURC-er 1 rolls forward.

2015:

Remy and Connor watch as the coffin is dug up. When they open it, both are relieved to find not a desiccated corpse but a male mannequin dressed in a 60s-era business suit.

It and the coffin are trucked to Remy’s house and left in her empty garage.  Connor says he will have to check in occasionally to confirm that the coffin remains in the house. The terms of the will are vague on this point, and he’s hinting that he might like to stop by more often than legally required. There’s some definite mutual attraction here.

1961:

Lora bounds into the control with the news: the observers were impressed, and project funding is guaranteed. Applause and celebration—including a lingering hug from Art. Tom looks away: “We still haven’t figured out the time delay.” This draws Lora’s attention away from Art. She could have sworn she heard the crate shattering through the control room speakers before it shattered in the hangar—but of course that’s impossible, and she laughs it off. Tom looks shocked. He mumbles something and starts poking at the controls. Art ignores him and draws Lora to an adjourning room where once alone they kiss.

2015:

Remy is woken by a faint noise downstairs. She finds her phone, preps it to dial 911, and arranges her keys in her other fist so they protrude as weapons. She turns on lights as she investigates the house, but finds nothing. Before giving up and going back upstairs, she checks the door to the garage: it’s unlocked. She opens it and hits the light but nothing has changed; the coffin is still sitting in the middle of the empty garage. She almost leaves but then walks to the coffin. She opens the lid: the mannequin is gone.

1961:

At night, Art is walking Lora to her car where they say goodnight with another kiss. Once inside she realizes she doesn’t have her keys—which are in her purse.

Lora enters the hangar where she left her purse earlier. She finds it and then hears a noise from one of the darkened areas. She notices that the folding chairs and broken crate haven’t moved—but the robot is gone. She explores and soon comes face to camera-eye with LURCer 1. It reaches a claw slowly toward her. She wants to smile, but can’t: “Art? Is that you?” The robot shakes its camera head “No.”

2015:

Connor wakes up to his phone ringing. It’s Remy explaining that the mannequin is gone and accusing him of playing some kind of game with her. Connor swears he knows nothing.

Remy hangs up angry. She is standing in her kitchen now when she hears something loud from upstairs. She dials 911 and reports an intruder in her house. She grabs her keys again and shouts warning that the police are coming as she walks upstairs. She sees a figure in a darkened corner. She throws on a light ready to punch, but it’s just the lifeless mannequin posed in a standing position. She approaches it cautiously. It remains frozen. She leans closer until her face is inches from it. A tense pause. Nothing happens.

1961:

The next morning, Lora, Tom and Art are back to work in the control room. Lora asks who was operating with LURCer last night, but they both deny it, and the panel recorded no activity. Tom is smiling though. He sits at the controls, saying he thinks he’s figured out the time delay. He activates LURCer and the screen shows the folding chairs and broken crate in the hangar. Why is it so dark? And where is everyone? Art is on the phone to the crew stationed in the hangar.

In the hangar, the crew is positioning the dormant LURCer; the crate and chairs are gone.

Art thinks Tom must have rolled the robot into the wrong area of the hangar somehow, but exploring reveals nothing. Lora’s face changes as she recognizes what is happening. She tells Tom to turn around—to turn LURCer around. When he does, Lora is looking back at them through the video screen. Are they watching a tape? The panel registers a live feed. Lora leans closer to the panel and speaks in sync with her lips moving silently on the screen: “Art? Is that you?” Tom looks at her, then operates LURCer: her image moves left and right as he shakes the camera “No.”

2015:

A police officer has finished taking Remy’s statement as two others report that the house and grounds are clear. Connor arrives, upset and apologizing. He explains that he is only following directives sent to him by an anonymous client. The police offer to remove the mannequin, but discover it’s surprisingly heavy. It topples rigidly onto its back on the upstairs landing. Remy tells them to leave it, and the officer assures her they will be patrolling all night and to call for any reason. Remy throws Connor out too, but first he gives her an envelope: the first payment, pre-sealed by the employer. She rips it open and stacks of $100 bills spill out. Remy watches at the window as Connor and the last police car pull away. She’s holding the bills and notices that they look unused but the design is wrong; they’re from the 1960s. A hand grabs her arm. She spins as a speaker behind the mannequin’s motionless lips says, “Remy, it’s me.”

1961:

Lora, Tom and Art are alone in the hangar with LURCer. Art has sent everyone else home. He checks that the door is locked, before Tom explains. The “delay” was due to the system he invented to synchronize signals between the control room and LURCer.  It was just supposed to solve a technical issue, but the adjustment he made this morning proves that the signals traveled back and forth from a point in the past. He just invented time travel.

Although Tom has overthrown all of physics, Art points out that the technology has no practical application. They built LURCer two months ago, and so that’s as far back as they can send signals.  Lora disagrees. Can’t the signals move forward in time? Isn’t that how she heard the crate break? The signals were traveling one second into the future. Why not send them further? How far is the range? It would only be possible if LURCer is maintained in the future too, either by their future selves or someone else. They leave the hangar, ready to find out.

2015:

Remy backs away from the mannequin. “What’s wrong?” it asks. She tells it take off its mask so she can see his face. “You know this isn’t a mask.” Remy flees as it moves toward her and then suddenly stops. “Oh,” it says and turns and vanishes into the kitchen. Remy waits, bewildered, then tentatively follows. She turns the corner to see it studying her wall calendar. It reads the date aloud and then looks at her. It says the date again. She nods. She flinches as it moves toward her again, but then it walks past her and heads upstairs. She follows it to her study where it is writing on a piece of paper at her desk. It seals the sheet into an envelope and hands it to her. “Hide this in one of your books.” It points at the wall of bookcases and then starts downstairs again. “What is it?”“The password. Have you called Connor yet?” “Password to what?” “I’m going back to the coffin now.” Remy leans over the banister as it descends. “Why do you want me to call Connor?” It pauses at the bottom. “And, Remy, remember.” It looks expressionlessly up at her. “Don’t trust me.” It vanishes around the corner.

1961:

Lora, Art and Tom sit at the control panel. They have no way to calibrate time distance, so Tom takes a guess—somewhere between a few seconds and a few millennia. To their shock, the signal is received. They’re connected. But the screen is black. Stranger, the new input doesn’t match their equipment—way more data than they can process. And the motor controls aren’t right either. They can’t get the wheels to engage properly. What has happened to LURCer?

2015:

Connor pulls up in front of Remy’s house and runs up the steps. She is waiting at the door: “Who are you working for?” He swears he doesn’t know and explains how his client handled everything through the mail. He never met or even spoke to anyone. Remy eventually accepts he’s telling the truth and starts to shut the door—when Connor asks if anything else happened. Did the intruder come back? Remy doesn’t answer, but clearly it has. He asks to come out, to stay somewhere else tonight, at a hotel—but then Remy opens the door and invites him. “You need to see this.”

1961:

They give up trying to work the motor controls. Did someone redesign LURCer? If so, at least the data they’re receiving will provide schematics for them to match the upgrade. The screen suddenly brightens as a lid lifts. Two faces look down at the camera. It’s Remy and Tom. “Who the hell are they?”

2015:

Remy and Tom hear noises as they approach the garage. As they enter, the coffin is jerking spastically, then stops. It jerks once more, then stops again.  After a nervous moment, they open the lid and look down at the mannequin’s face.

1961:

Remy and Connor vanish as the screen goes dead. The signal has cut off.

In the hanger, LURCer comes alive and starts rolling outside.

They try reconnecting, but it’s as if the future LURCer is gone, or is being blocked, like a busy signal.

LURCer enters their building.

They continue trying controls and debating what just happened—when LURCer bursts into the control room. They step back. Who’s controlling it? It rolls toward them. Then stops. One of its arms extends to the floor and begins to scratch. Lora approaches—Art tries to hold her back—but she shrugs him off and kneels to study the scratches. They’re Morse code. “H-E-L-P.” One of the other arms has begun scratching and Tom reads it: “M-E.” Art reads the third arm: “K-I-L-L.” And Lora moves to read the fourth: “P-O-T-U-S.” What is Potus? Lora looks into the robot’s camera. “You want us to help you kill the President of the United States?” All the arms begin scratching again. They each read a letter: “Y” “E” “S.” They stand back as the arms keep scratching and scratching the same word over and over: YES YES YES YES YES

End on a slow zoom into historical footage of Kennedy’s Address to Congress: “Now it is time to take longer strides—time for a great new American enterprise—time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.”

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Dear Syfy Channel,

As much as I’m enjoying your new 12 Monkeys series, it’s also really annoying. This is not entirely your fault. Time travel is typically a mess in films and TV shows. Why, for instance, does Cole’s time travel chair lean him backwards like an astronaut, and yet when he appears and disappears in the past, he’s in a standing position? And why does he not return to the same moment in time that he left? I realize the answer is story convenience—sometimes it’s fun to have things happen while he’s “gone”—but couldn’t the doctor spout some techno-babble explaining how the machine somehow locks the two time periods in sync? Otherwise the past is less a “when” and more like a “where,” a place that exists simultaneously with “now” and so moves forward at a parallel rate.

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Cole’s mission is also a variation on Back to the Future and so suffers from a range of Michael-J.-Fox-fading-from-the-family-photo problems. For instance, when he loops back to a moment he’s already visited and alters it so this time his past self is accidentally shot in the arm, why does he experience the injury simultaneously with his past self? And why does the injury then turn into a sutured scar? At what point in time was the wound bandaged? Is the current Cole now a different Cole, the Cole who was injured in the past, and so then was the previous not-shot-in-the-arm Cole erased? If so, the new Cole wouldn’t even know something had been altered, because in fact “his” timeline hasn’t been altered, and so he would remember and have anticipated being shot—in which case, wouldn’t he take some precaution “now” to avoid it happening “again.” His whole mission is about altering past events, so there are no cosmic taboos like the kind the writers of Doctor Who keep having to invent, those inexplicably “fixed” points in time that make the plot work at the expense of everything else.

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I realize this sort of internal consistency is not the top priority when writing action-oriented entertainment. The top priority for writers of action-oriented entertainment is to be entertaining. There is no correlation between a well-tempered time machine and high ratings. Though I would not be surprised if TV and film producers imagine the correlation is inverse, that the more time writers spend tinkering with the nuts and bolts of their nerdy plot devices, the less entertaining the show will be.  And to a certain degree this is true, since sinking all of your effort into any one story element at the expense of the billion other story elements needed to make a story good is a great way to make a story very bad. Though at the other end of the spectrum, a story that ignores too many of those reality-securing nuts and bolts is going to score pretty high on viewers’ This-Is-Stupid meter. So most time-travel tales bounce around the middle, cutting corners while keeping the majority of their viewers’ frontal lobes intact.

But how about a time-travel story that’s both entertaining and makes sense? I realize “makes sense” is an oxymoron when talking about the impossible, but all I’m asking for is the appearance of plausibility. If that sounds like a pointless constraint on the creative process, remember that writers thrive on constraints—or as Robert Frost put it: “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” 12 Monkeys could use a few nets.

So here’s one example of an entertainingly plausible time machine. Begin by taking the traveler out of time travel. Start simpler. Think of it first as a “time phone.” Your machine sends and receives signals from the future. This is where a TV producer hangs up, because a show about people talking on phones sounds really boring, but the constraints create new possibilities. What if the future end of the phone is a robot? And if this end of the phone isn’t a phone but a Wii, then instead of a cartoon in a 2-D landscape, your avatar is a remote control android physically interacting with people in the future.

That nuts-and-bolt net also manufactures some potential plot tensions. Since anyone can throw on video goggles and Wii gloves, anyone can “travel” in time—but to the folks in the other time destination, “anyone” always looks exactly the same. You can never know for sure who is remote controlling the android—the good guys or the bad guys. This is great news for Orphan Black actress Tatiana Maslany since who else could play so many parts within a part? But if Maslany is busy, I nominate Enver Gjokaj based on his brilliant stint on the not-so-brilliant Dollhouse (he’s pretty good on Agent Carter too.)

Meanwhile, the folks working the Wii, they first have to build the android before they can dial the future with the blind hope that they (or future generations depending on how far into the future you’re dialing) will have maintained it. Since the Wii controls can exist in the future too, future people can also dial backwards in time, beginning at the moment the android is first switched on. So while the inventors are visiting the unknown future, the unknown future is visiting them.

If that doesn’t give a team of writers material for a season or two, you can always throw in an apocalypse—a worldwide plague, a rise of the machines and/or apes, a dysfunctional family in need of an emotional reboot. Maybe Michael J. Fox can use Matrix technology to active an Arnold robot and prevent his parents from being zombified before he’s born so he can overthrow the Morlocks after he grows up to be Bruce Willis?

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

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Is Marvel Entertainment evil?

I compiled commentary from twelve experts, and the results are not good for superhero fans.

“I’m not going to head off and do a Marvel film,” director Peter Jackson said on the eve of his Hobbit 3 release. “I don’t really like the Hollywood blockbuster bandwagon that exists right now. The industry and the advent of all the technology, has kind of lost its way. It’s become very franchise driven and superhero driven.”

Since Jackson’s Lord of the Rings marked that technology advent, and since Jackson made all six of the Tolkien franchise films, that leaves superheroes as his only objection. He doesn’t like them. Or at least he doesn’t like Marvel—which, despite Warner Bros’ best efforts, is the same thing.

Even Marvel’s own Iron Man Robert Downey, Jr. is sees the rust: “Honestly, the whole thing is just showing the beginning signs of fraying around the edges. It’s a little bit old. Last summer there were five or seven different ones out.”

Actually, there were only four superhero movies last summer, and though Marvel Entertainment produced only two (Captain America, Guardians of the Galaxy), the Marvel logo appeared at the start of the last X-Men and Spider-Man installments too. But you can’t blame Downey’s miscount. New York Times film critic A. O. Scott expressed a similar opinion after seeing Downey in The Avengers two year earlier: “the genre, though it is still in a period of commercial ascendancy, has also entered a phase of imaginative decadence.”

Alan Moore’s review was even more apocalyptic: “I think it’s a rather alarming sign if we’ve got audiences of adults going to see the Avengers movie and delighting in concepts and characters meant to entertain the 12-year-old boys of the 1950s.” Even The Avengers own director Joss Whedon acknowledges that audiences are tired of at least some aspects of the formula: “People have made it very clear that they are fed up with movies where entire cities are destroyed, and then we celebrate.”

And yet when a director attempts to shake-up the formula, Marvel fires them. Marvel’s Ant-Man went into production only because of Edgar Wright’s involvement, but when Marvel wasn’t happy with his last script, they rewrote it without his input, followed by a joint announcement that Wright was leaving “due to differences in their visions of the film.” Wright joined axed Marvel directors Kenneth Branaugh, Joe Johnston, and Patty Jenkins (as well as axed actors Edward Norton and Terrance Howard), all victims of similar differences in vision.

Is this the same risk-taking Marvel that hired Ang Lee to make his idiosyncratic Hulk? Is this the same Marvel that hired drug-addict Robert Downey, Jr. after Downey couldn’t stay clean long enough to complete a season of Alley McBeal? Is this the same Marvel that hired the iconoclastic Joss Whedon after his Buffy empire expired, his Firefly franchise flopped, and his Wonder Woman script never even made it into Development Hell?

Actually, it’s not.

Kim Masters and Borys Kit of The Hollywood Reporter explain:  “Marvel and Wright were different entities when they began their relationship. Marvel was an upstart, independent and feisty as it began building the Marvel Studios brand.”

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The Marvel I grew up reading, Marvel Comics Group, hasn’t been around since 1986, when its parent company, Marvel Entertainment Group, was sold to New World Entertainment. Technically, Marvel Comics (AKA Atlas Comics, AKA Timely Comics) ceased to exist in 1968 when owner Martin Goodman sold his company to Perfect Film and Chemical Corporation. The corporate juggling is hard to follow, but that next Marvel was sold to MacAndrews Group in 1989, and then, as part of a bankruptcy deal, to Toy Biz in 1997, where it became Marvel Enterprises, before changing its name to Marvel Entertainment in 2005 when it created Marvel Studios, before sold to Disney in 2009.

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The real question is: at what point did Hydra infiltrate it?

I would like to report that the nefarious forces of evil have seized only Marvel’s movie-making branches, leaving its financially infinitesimal world of comic books to wallow in benign neglect. But that’s not the case.

Marvel comics writer Chris Claremont, renown for his 16-year run on The Uncanny X-Men, is currently hampered in his Nightcrawler scripting because he and everyone else writing X-Men titles are forbidden to create new characters.  “Well,” he asked, “who owns them?” Fox does. Which means any new character Claremont creates becomes the film property of a Marvel Entertainment rival. “There will be no X-Men merchandising for the foreseeable future because, why promote Fox material?”

That’s also why Marvel cancelled The Fantastic Four. Those film rights are owned by Fox too, with a reboot out next August. Why should the parent company allow one of its micro-branches to promote another studio’s movie? Well, for one, The Fantastic Four was the title that launched the Marvel superhero pantheon and its subsequent comics empire in 1961.  Surely even a profits-blinded mega-corporation can recognize the historical significance?

Like I said: Hydra.

This is what drove former Marvel creator Paul Jenkins to the independent Boom! Studios: “It bugs me that the creators were a primary focus when the mainstream publishers needed them, and now that the corporations are driving the boat, creative decisions are being made once again by shareholders.” Former Marvel editor-in-chief Roy Thomas agrees: “There is a sense of loss because the tail is now wagging the dog.”

Compare that to Fantagraphics editor Garry Groth: “I think it’s a publisher’s obligation to take risks; I could probably publish safe, respectable ‘literary’ comics or solid, ‘good,’ uncontroversial comics for the rest of my life. I think it’s important, personally and professionally, to occasionally get outside your comfort zone.”

Marvel Entertainment is all about comfort zones. Even for its actors. “It’s all set up now so that you’re weirdly kind of safe,” says former Batman star Michael Keaton. “Once you get in those suits, they really know what to do with you. It was hard then; it ain’t that hard now.” New York Times’ Alex Pappademas is “old enough to remember when Warner Brothers entrusted the 1989 Batman and its sequel to Tim Burton, and how bizarre that decision seemed at the time, and how Burton ended up making one deeply and fascinatingly Tim Burton-ish movie that happened to be about Batman (played by the equally unlikely Michael Keaton, still the only screen Bruce Wayne who seemed like a guy with a dark secret).”

That’s the same Michael Keaton that just rode Birdman to the Oscars. How soon till Marvel’s Agents of H.Y.D.R.A. overwhelm that corner of Hollywood?

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As Jack Black sang at the Oscars ceremony: “Opening with lots of zeroes, all we get are superheroes: Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, Jediman, Sequelman, Prequelman – formulaic scripts!”

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Action Comics No. 1 was the Big Bang of the Golden Age of Comics, the start point for superhero history. Unless you count the actual Big Bang, which was about fourteen billion years earlier. Or, if you favor a different species of evidence, more like six thousand. Genesis 1:2 opens with a black hole: “the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep,” followed by God’s “Let there be light,” the Biblical Big Bang.

Milton doesn’t give an exact date in Paradise Lost, but he says God created Earth just after booting Satan out of heaven:

There is a place
(If ancient and prophetic fame in Heav’n
Err not) another World, the happy seat
Of some new Race call’d Man, about this time
To be created like to us, though less
In power and excellence, but favour’d more
Of him who rules above;

That’s Beelzebub, one of Satan’s lieutenants, talking. He thinks attacking Earth is a better military strategy that storming Heaven. When Satan flaps across the void to check out God’s latest creation, Milton likens it to the wonder of looking upon “some renown’d Metropolis / With glistering Spires and Pinnacles adorn’d.”

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Paradise Lost is basically a superhero comic book, with long slug fests between Lucifer’s League of Fallen Angels and Archangel Michael’s Mighty Avengers. My father remembers hearing the tale from the nuns in his school. He emailed me about that recently:

“Have you ever commented in your writings on what I consider the archetypal superhero plot, one that has its origin in the Bible?  I’m referring to the story of archangel Michael being called on to save heaven from being taken over by Lucifer by having a violent confrontation with Lucifer and vanquishing him. This story is so embedded in the western religious psyche that to this day Catholics still pray to St. Michael to ‘defend us in battle’ with Lucifer.”

It’s not the sort of question you might expect from a retired research chemist, but my father only entered the field because he had his brother’s textbooks after his brother became a priest instead. My father’s colleagues were all theoretical physicists, but he preferred working alone in his lab. He said his job was playing Twenty Questions with God. Every day he had time for one: Does it have something to do with . . .

“The reason I think the Michael/Lucifer story is of critical importance is that it injected into the human psyche the concept of the need of an ubermensch (not a collective effort) to defeat evil and save the people. Ever since people are continually looking for such a person, most of the time to their eventual detriment when they believe they have found one. I believe this powerful subconscious longing in the western world for a superhero to save us from evil originated from the Michael/Lucifer story.”

“That’s pretty good, Dad. I hadn’t thought of Michael as the original superhero. I may have to flagrantly steal your insight.”

“I would be delighted if you chose to. An interesting part of the Michael/Lucifer myth is that it is not spelled out in any detail in the Bible. There is only a brief snippet about Michael slaying dragons in Revelation and that’s it – nothing about a great battle between Michael and Lucifer. In the long version, as I learned from the nuns, Lucifer is portrayed as the greatest and most brilliant of the angels. In his great pride, he decides to challenge God as the ruler of heaven. So God dispatches Michael to battle Lucifer, which he does, defeats him and sends him down to the lower regions. (Why an all-powerful God didn’t take on the job himself was never explained.)  This long version came down through the centuries strictly through oral tradition. The fact that it has been retold countless times for probably over two thousand years demonstrates, I believe, its powerful grip on the human imagination.”

When I looked up Revelations 12, I couldn’t help imagining how Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko would illustrate the passages. The New Testament author even divides his script into panels. You just need some caption boxes:

[7] And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, [8] And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. [9] And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.

I’d assign Rev. 20 to Neal Adams or Bill Sienkiewicz:

[1] And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. [2] And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years, [3] And cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season.

Daniel 12:1 makes Michael sounds like a superhero too: “At that time, Michael, the great heavenly prince, the grand defender and guardian of your people, will arise.” Thewarriorprince.us, a website devoted to him, says his “prime duty is to guard and defend the people of God collectively, and those who invoke him individually, from Satan and his demons, as well as their wiles and attacks.” And, according to Milton, those chains he uses on Satan are adamantine, basically Wolverine’s claws. No wonder God made him team leader:

Go Michael of Celestial Armies Prince,
And thou in Military prowess next
Gabriel, lead forth to Battel these my Sons
Invincible, lead forth my armed Saints
By Thousands and by Millions rang’d for fight;
Equal in number to that Godless crew
Rebellious, them with Fire and hostile Arms
Fearless assault, and to the brow of Heav’n
Pursuing drive them out from God and bliss,
Into thir place of punishment, the Gulf
Of Tartarus, which ready opens wide
His fiery Chaos to receave thir fall.

michael v lucifer

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There I’ve named it. Centuries from now, fans and scholars will look back at this past decade as the birth of Popularism, the movement that stamped the coffin lid on postmodernism.

I attended the Modern Language Association conference in January, and according to the “What’s On” section of The Vancouver Sun I read over my first breakfast, the city was more “erudite” than usual that weekend. Imagine 8,000 English professors converging on one city block. And yet this year’s star speaker was Sara Paretsky, “best-selling mystery writer” of the “revolutionary novels” featuring detective V. I. Warshawski. I’d spied some of her paperbacks in airport bookstores on my trip over. That’s not evidence of an academic bastion. That’s collapsed rubble.

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My complimentary Sun also included an article on the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra; “the old days of new music” were “a tough slog for general audiences” but now “are over.” Instead, Jocelyn Morlock, VSO’s composer in residence, is emphasizing “pure fun” and “party atmosphere.” “To a large extent,” she explains, “new music has become more attractive to audiences because the attitude of composers themselves have changed. Composers want to connect with their audiences rather than baffling or alienating them.”

Compare that to composer John Harbison’s 1960s studies with Milton Babbitt, who New York Times Magazine editor Charles McGrath dubbed “the reigning prince of atonality.” Harbison’s “reluctance to abandon melody,” McGrath wrote in 1999, “made him an outcast. He still remembers a moment when one of his grad-school classmates turned to him and said, ‘You’re really just a tune man, aren’t you?’’” The tune man went on to win a MacArthur “genius” award, while being labelled a New Romantic, a term he hated: ‘I think ‘Romantic’ is just a cover for whether or not people like something.’”

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Harbison also likened operas to literature: “there’s the literary novel and the novel that’s sold in airports. Opera is in the same place where the literary novel is.” A decade and a half later, the literary novel is nowhere near opera. It’s hanging out with those airport paperbacks now. The infectious beat of genre fiction has gone highbrow. Since winning a 1999 Pulitzer for a novel about comic books, Michael Chabon has been rehabilitating the words “entertainment” and “pleasure” as the not-so-erudite goals of literature.

In the art world, the equivalent to a catchy melody is representational painting, something Mt. San Jacinto College professor John Seed would like to see more of. In a 2013 Huffington Post blog, Seed listed 40 representational painters (culled from 135) who he’d like to see in the Museum of Contemporary Art. “Like other leading American and European contemporary museums and galleries,” writes Seed, “MOCA has narrowly defined contemporary to mean works that have their roots in Duchamp, Warhol and postmodern theory.” Instead, Seed wants the museum to “woo back the respect of its public” by acknowledging that “Postmodernism officially expired.”

Triumph-of-Romance_home2 Bo Bartlett

That death means all airport reading can discard the “Romantic” covers. Even academic scholarship wants public respect now. The NEH announced in December a new agency-wide initiative, The Common Good: The Humanities in the Public Square, emphasizing that “the humanities belong to all the people of the United States.” Their new “Public Scholar” grant wants scholarly books “accessible to general readers” and “conceived and written to reach a broad readership.” University presses, the reigning princes of academic atonality, are joining the common people too. Last year, an acquisition editor at the University of Iowa Press contacted me to ask if I would be interested in adapting my pop culture blog into a “crossover” book designed for a general interest audience, what the press predicts will play “an important role in the future of university publishing.” As a result, On the Origin of Superheroes: from the Big Bang to Action Comics No. 1 will be out in fall 2015.

Over fifty books in comics studies were published last year—including from Oxford and Cambridge—but I’m the only person on my campus who fields the question: “Oh, are you the comic book guy?” Unlike Harbison’s graduate-school snobs though, my colleagues ask it with a pleased grin, followed by an admission of a similarly lowbrow interest of their own. As a result, I keep stumbling into interdisciplinary projects. Cognitive psychologist Dan Johnson and I have begun a second round of studies exploring the so-called division between “literary” and “popular” fiction.”Atin Basu, a professor of economics next door at the Virginia Military Institute, and I are applying game theory to zombie movies. Nathaniel Goldberg, a Washington and Lee colleague in Philosophy, and I are thinking about Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and philosopher Donald Davidson’s Swampman. Our Art department’s Leigh Ann Beavers is teaming up with me to design a new spring course on making comics—though we may go with the more erudite title Graphic Narratives. None of these projects may be “revolutionary,” but they are “pure fun.”

A major in my English department is writing her senior thesis on Fifty Shades of Grey. And why not? It’s a cultural object worth analysis. This invasion of the popular into the serious worries some folks though. Last year, Adam Brooke Davis warned in the Chronicle of Higher Education about “the overwhelming weight of pop culture,” after discovering that his advanced creative writing students were more likely to have read The Hunger Games than short stories by Annie Proulx or Ha Jin. That was a surprise? It’s that the definition of “popular”? I’m not a particular fan of Suzanne Collins or E. L. James or Sara Paretsky, but I don’t object to their book sales. It’s just something else to study.

By mid-century I predict the aesthetic pendulum will start slicing back in the opposite direction. Until then, I’m enjoying the party.

ArtSpaceTokyo-Watarium-3

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“They had dug coal together as young men and then lost touch over the years. Now it looked like they’d be meeting again, this time as lawman and felon, Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder.”

That’s the first paragraph of Elmore Leonard’s “Fire in the Hole” and the premise of FX’s Justified, which has entered its sixth and final season. The New York Times calls the show a “crime drama,” but the cowboy hat on Timothy Olyphant’s head says Western to me—that and the fact the actor had recently finished playing sheriff on HBO’s Deadwood when he took up the role.

Olyphant’s U.S. Marshall is named Raylan, but he borrows his DNA from another Leonard short story, “How Carlos Webster Changed His Name to Carl and Became a Famous Oklahoma Lawman.” Michael Chabon included it in the Thrilling Tales issue of McSweeney’s he edited in 2003, infusing a much needed dose of pulp into the quite realms of literary fiction. I assigned Leonard’s and a half dozen other Thrilling Tales to my advanced creative writing class this semester. The Justified writing team must have a copy too.  Olyphant voiced Carl’s dialogue on the pilot: “I want to be clear about this so you understand. If I pull my weapon I’ll shoot to kill. In other words, the only time Carl Webster draws his gun it’s to shoot somebody dead.”

Which Rayland Givens does too.  Many many times in the past five years. It’s his character’s most charming superpower, that good-natured indifference to moral quandaries. Raylan never hesitates before shooting and he never second guesses himself afterwards. The cocky smile never changes either. As Marshall Webster’s father says: “My Lord, but this boy has a hard bark on him.”

That’s standard gunslinger M.O., a cold-blooded willingness to step over the line and do whatever needs doing to keep the good folks of his community safe and sound. Or, as Richard Slotkin in Gunfighter Nation says of frontiersmen:

“Through this transgression of the borders, through combat with the dark elements on the other side, the heroes reveal the meaning of the frontier line (that is, the distinctions of value it symbolizes) even as they break it down. In the process they evoke the elements in themselves (or in their society) that correspond to the ‘dark’; and by destroying the dark elements and colonizing the border, they purge darkness from themselves and the world.”

So Raylan’s job is darkness-purger for the crime-swamped frontier of modern Kentucky. And he was doing a pretty good job in season one, and even better season two (one of my all-time favorite 14-episode arcs of any TV show). But then things started to shift. Not his smile, not his pistol grip, those are unflinching as ever—which, oddly, creates a kind of change in his character: the inability to change.

When E. M. Forster read Moby Dick, he saw “a battle against evil conducted too long or in the wrong way.” Captain Ahab—a once-valiant knight sailing in the service of good—devolves into the evil he thought he was fighting. That’s Raylan’s problem too. A hero can only spend so long in that darkness before he sinks in too far. Instead of purging the darkness, Raylan is wallowing in it.

His first two season, he at least theoretically was trying to complete his Ahab mission and retire into domestic bliss of marriage and fatherhood. But then he watched his true love stroll off camera while he battled the next round of Kentucky gangsters. He picked up some more girlfriends, but his unflappable indifference applied to them too. After three more seasons of random acts of love and violence, Raylan’s emotional range never inched off the glib meter. Instead of a man with a well-armored moral center, all that manly bark looks like a facade papered over an abyss.

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Boyd Crowder, however, has aged much better.  Sure, actor Walton Goggins’ receding hairline is undermining the character’s crazy hair look, but otherwise Boyd is as paradoxically loveable as ever. I would call him an anti-hero, but he’s more a heroic villain, a guy of deep but unpredictable passions in struggle with his inner darkness. Unlike Raylan, he doesn’t know himself, and so each season has been a chaotic and inevitably corpse-ridden quest for self-discovery.

Frank Miller, the villain that provides Marshall Webster his origin story and plot closure, is as two-dimensional as his Batman-writing namesake (comics artist Howard Chaykin, even more coincidentally, illustrates the tale). The Boyd Crowder of “Fire in the Hole” is just an oddball Nazi thug there to give his Marshall Givens a character-revealing moral dilemma: can you put down a man you once dug coal beside? The answer is, of course, yes, and so the story has its ending. Justified, however, has been stringing out that last paragraph for five years, only now in the final season promising to complete the stand-off.

Both characters are caricatures of American masculinity, sharing the absurd ur-trait of psychopathic violence, but they spin that violence in opposite directions. Boyd’s search for meaning is almost proof enough that such meaning is possible. A universe of destructive hope pumps just under his skin. Raylan is nihilism personified. Peel back the bark, and the black hole of his heart would suck the world dry.

These aren’t the characters Elmore Leonard created. I’m not sure the writers of Justified created them either. This is just what happens when you drop short story characters into an open-ended serial form, extending their timelines far beyond the closure points they were designed to inhabit. As Forster says of Ahab, they get “warped by constant pursuit.”

 Walton Goggins and Timothy Olyphant in Justified

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