I used to be a lone voice in the pop culture wilderness crying that Frankenstein should be refitted with a cape, tights, and an “F” on his chest. More oddly, I think the wardrobe change would fit equally to the doctor, Victor Frankenstein, as his creation, the Frankenstein monster. But I’m no longer so lonely in my wailings. Opening November 25, Victor Frankenstein makes the case for me.
Personally, I would have called the prequel Igor—since that’s its hook. Former Harry Potter super-wizard Daniel Radcliffe plays the mad scientist’s hunchback lab assistant. You may or may not agree that Harry is himself a superhero (muggle by day, transformed by accident, etc.), but James McAvoy is a no-brainer: the titular Doctor shares bodies with the X-Men’s super-brained Professor Xavier. The young version. McAvoy retains his pre-Patrick Stewart scalp.
Attached to those superhero creds, director Paul McGuigan makes his leap to the big screen in a single bound from the BBC’s Sherlock. For his new dynamic duo, Igor plays Dr. Watson to Victor’s Holmes. Plus actress Jessica Brown Findlay had the power of mind-control on the British superhero show Misfits. If that’s not already a complete body of superhero parts, screenwriter Max Landis cut his teeth on 2012’s Chronicle and the 2011 comic short The Death and Return of Superman.
But how are Superman and (either) Frankenstein related?
Well, the creature did play a gig as a Marvel superhero in the 70s. He teamed-up with Spider-Man, Iron Man and She-Hulk—though the supervillain Kang the Conqueror used him as a mind-controlled minion too (perhaps both McAvoy and Findlay could help him with that?). But Frankenstein and Superman were stitched together before comics even existed. In the 1919 film serial The Master Mystery, Harry Houdini battles Q the Automaton, a robot described as a “Frankenstein” that “possesses a human brain which has been transplanted into it and made to guide it” as a “conscienceless inhuman superman.”
That man of steel wasn’t the Man of Steel, but a pop cultural version of Nietzsche’s ubermensch. The German philosopher prophesied in 1883 that a breed of superhumans would evolve and take the world away from Homo sapiens. Mary Shelley was decades ahead of him. The author of Frankenstein wrote in 1818 that “a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth, who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror.” That’s why Victor refuses to make a mate for his monster and why his monster declares himself his and humanity’s “arch-enemy.”
It’s the original Professor X vs. Magneto match-up. Or Superman vs. Lex Luthor, since Victor is also the original mad scientist, a character type so pervasive in comics it’s hard to keep track of them all. Like Victor, they’re usually a good guy who accidentally creates a monster—though, unlike Victor, the monster tends to be themselves.
The Dr. Jekyll/Frankenstein merger culminated with Reed Richards when he transformed himself and his pals into the Fantastic Four. The Thing was so popular, Marvel created the Hulk next—fulfilling the Shelley/Nietzsche prophesy of an expanding race of monstrous supermen. When Bruce Banner turned into the Hulk for the first, artist Jack Kirby drew a Boris Karloff knock-off with a flat head and grey skin (Marvel flipped to a green complexion the next issue because the ink looked better).
Karloff’s stitched corpse was never part of Shelley’s plan though. Her Victor doesn’t even know how to reanimate flesh: “I might in process of time (although I now found it impossible) renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.” His creature wasn’t human-sized either: “As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved . . . to make the being of a gigantic stature, that is to say, about eight feet in height.”
Early stage productions even draped him in a Greek toga—the first of a new god-like species. His “limbs were in proportion” (a big turn-on for early nineteenth-century readers) and the doctor “had selected his features as beautiful.” Sure, his skin was transparent yellow and his face a fit of twitching muscles, and next he’s serial murdering his creator’s loved ones—but, hey, when has a mad scientist’s scheme ever worked out exactly as planned?
Look at the twitching pile of recent superhero movies that include some nut job trying to take over the planet with a new species of devilishly superior uber-monsters:
- Ian McKellen’s Magneto planned his mutant conquest, complaining that “nature is too slow” in the firstX-Men.
- Michael Fassbender’s Magneto was still complaining in X-Men: First Class, but under the tutelage of Kevin Bacon: “We are the future of the human race. You and me, son. This world could be ours.”
- A month later in the first Captain American film, Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull gave Cap the same lesson: “You pretend to be a simple soldier, but in reality you are just afraid to admit that we have left humanity behind. Unlike you, I embrace it proudly. You could have the power of the gods!”
- Weaving’s Agent Smith had already explained to The Matrix fans: “As soon as we started thinking for you, it really became our civilization. Which is of course what this is all about. Evolution. . . . The future is our world.”
- Iron Man 3’s supergenius Aldrich Killian wanted to turn himself and his minions into the “new iteration of human evolution.”
- Just like Dr. Connors, aka the Lizard, planned to “enhance humanity on an evolutionary scale” and “create a world without weakness.” “This is no longer about curing ills,” he said in The Amazing Spider-Man. “This is about finding perfection.” Unfortunately, “Human beings are weak, pathetic, feeble-minded creatures. Why be human at all when we can be so much more? Faster, stronger, smarter!”
- And Dane DeHaan, reading from Max Landis’ Chronicle script, declared himself an “apex predator,” ready to wipe out humankind as Victor Frankenstein had feared his creature’s super-race would.
So who will save us from all these Frankenstein Supermen? Other Frankenstein Superman of course. Captain America, Spider-Man, Iron Man, even the X-Men’s radiation-saturated DNA, they all started as lab experiments. That’s the core of the Marvel superhero formula. Stitch a monster into tights and watch him save us from monsters just like him.
There’s a reason we confuse Victor and his creature. Superheroes are both kinds of Frankensteins.
James Bond might not be a superhero, but he does dedicate his life to battling bad guys. Plus he has a codename: 007. Yeah, that means he’s just one guy in a league of 00s, so nothing unique—same as any Green Lantern in the intergalactic Green Lantern Corps. Maybe Earth-based agencies are different, but then that would strike Black Widow from the superhero census list too. Also, like Natasha, James has no superpowers, at least not compared to Thor or Superman. He’d make a pretty good match for Batman though. He even sports his own utility belt’s worth of Q-engineered supergadgets.
Mr. Bond also wields Dr. Who’s shapeshifting powers. I watched his edited-for-TV Sean Connery incarnation from my parents’ couch as a kid, and his Roger Moore from theater seats as an adolescent. I even witnessed his awkward Timothy Dalton stage while I was finishing college and his franchise was waiting for Pierce Brosnan to come-of-age too. But I have to admit Daniel Craig is the David Tennant of the Bond universe. I’m looking forward to seeing his current Spectre adventure.
The character struggled after losing his mission-defining Evil Empire, but Skyfall’s Judi Dench gave him back his raison d’être:
“I’m frightened because our enemies are no longer known to us. They do not exist on a map. They’re not nations. They’re individuals. Look around you. Who do you fear? Do you see a face, a uniform, a flag? No. Our world is not more transparent now. It’s all opaque. It’s in the shadows. That’s where we must do battle.”
Batman is all about shadows too, turning the darkness of his parents’ murders against the shady elements of murky Gotham. But, unlike a trigger-happy 00 agent, Batman would never kill anyone on purpose, right?
Well, actually the unlicensed Dark Knight racked up a Bond-level body count during his first year in Detective Comics. Not only did a holster hang from his utility belt back then, the batplane included a mounted machinegun: “Much as I hate to take human life, I’m afraid this time it’s necessary!”
DC editors reined in his homicidal writing staff after Batman #1, but even the comparatively wholesome Superman had a killing streak then. In June 1939, same month Batman was kicking jewel thieves off skyscrapers, Superman was dropping a mobster to an identical death. Granted, it wasn’t Superman’s fault he lost his super grip: “If he hadn’t tried to stab me, he’d be alive now.—But the fate received was exactly what he deserved!” Though what did Superman think was going to happen when he destroyed the Ultra-Humanite’s propeller mid-flight? The supervillain somehow escaped the crash, but no thanks to the death-indifferent Man of Steel.
Comic books usually protect their heroes from having to kill directly. In that same Action Comics, a rotating blade shatters against Superman’s impervious skull and slices up a nearby thug. Or in another early Batman adventure, a “foreign agent” is accidentally impaled on his own sword, and Batman self-righteously declares: “It is better that he should die! He might have sent thousands of others to their death on a battlefield if his plans had been successful!”
If this makes your feel morally queasy, listen to Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko on superhero morality: superheroes are “moral avengers” who must kill criminals in order to show “a clear understanding of right and wrong,” even if that means violating the “pervading legal moral” code.
Mr. Ditko currently resides in the crazy-old-man dimension of the comics multiverse, because his Ann Rand philosophy isn’t a page in today’s superhero bible. Batman’s and Superman’s most recent film incarnations take little license with the Sixth Commandment. In fact, the plot of Christopher Nolan’s 2008 The Dark Knight pivots on Christian Bale’s Batman struggling not to kill the Joker—even though killing him is necessary to protect others and exactly “what he deserves.” And remember the fan outrage when Henry Cavill’s Superman snapped General Zod’s neck in Man of Steel? It was that or let the General’s laser vision slice up a family of cowering Metropolitans, but Superman’s super-wholesomeness got sliced up too.
Both Zod and Joker are weirdly suicidal supervillains, goading their arch-enemies into committing murder. But then that’s the point. Superheroes are supposed to oppose killing out of principle. So where’s that leave Mr. Bond?
We could say his license strikes the “super” from his heroness, maybe even replacing it with an “anti.” His comic book counterpart might be the Ditko-esque Punisher, a sometime supervillain depending on who’s penning the story. But in James’ defense, killing isn’t the core of his mission. It’s just the most efficient means for getting important jobs down. He’s paid to be indifferent to death.
And that’s the problem. I remember Roger Moore’s 007 dangling a “foreign agent” by his tie from the edge of a building. The thug had been gunning at him seconds earlier, so the scene meets the “what he deserved” test. But was it necessary? Couldn’t he have holstered his license and knocked the guy out instead of dropping him to his death? Sure, the guy was a cog in the Cold War wheel trying to squash Democracy, but did Roger Moore have to grin? Did the movie have to play the scene for laughs, toying with the villain’s tie as he quivered for life?
I don’t blame his character though. James Bond was designed to be a cold-blooded Cold Warrior. You could argue the hero type was a product of its times—and so a bad fit with ours. Connery, Moore, Dalton, they all performed indifference so their 60s, 70s and 80s audiences could forget about the nuclear arsenal aimed at their hometown theaters. Take Bond out of that context and he just seems callous. The same way the original Superman and Batman made more moral sense as their readers teetered on the brink of a Nazi-driven World War.
The current Daniel Craig incarnation fixes that. He still shows his killer license when needed, but he’s not indifferent about it. He understands what it means to take a life. Like the 2013 Superman, he only snaps a villainous neck when it means saving innocent ones. He takes no pleasure in it. If anything, that hint of inner turmoil makes him almost superheroic. He does the dirty work so no one else has to. He’s not a 00 by self-righteous nature, but by self-sacrificing choice.
At first glance, the answer seems pretty obvious: No way! I mean, where’s the mask? What’s her codename? And what about superpowers—strength? flight? speed? The girl can’t even talk to fish. But first glances can be deceiving. Take a sec to adjust your X-Ray Goggles, and you might be surprised what’s under Ms. Everdeen’s seemingly non-superheroic skin.
Let’s start with those superpowers. You don’t need Hulk-like strength or Flash-like speed to join a superhero union. Of course Katniss actress Jennifer Lawrence knows all about mutant shapeshifting from playing Mystique in soon-to-be three X-Men films. In fact, it was 2011’s X-Men: First Class that flung Lawrence’s career into full flight, setting up her even greater success the following year in the first Hunger Games. But even though Lawrence is Katniss, Katniss isn’t Lawrence. Her character has to earn her own super skill set.
Which she does. As a top-notch archer, Katniss would fit into both DC’s and Marvel’s universes. Green Arrow debuted in More Fun Comics back in 1941, and actor Stephen Amell has been having even more fun playing him on the CW series Arrow since 2012. The character started off as a modern-day Robin Hood knock-off, complete with a feather in his goofy tricorne cap—so if nothing else, Katniss wins on fashion points. I say she has the Avengers’ Hawkeye beat too. Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, they’ve all had their own franchises. Marvel has been mumbling about Scarlett Johansson staring in a Black Widow movie since 2010, but Hawkeye? Not even actor Jeremy Renner holds out much hope for that starring role. Meanwhile, Katniss hits her fourth bullseye with Mockingjay Part 2.
Okay, but Hawkeye and Green Arrow, like all self-respecting superheroes, wear nifty costumes. And so does Katniss. Tons of them—literally tons if you count that flaming chariot. Hell, she even has her own costume designers. Superman needed Ma Kent to sew his outfit, and the Fantastic Four were hanging out in mufti till Invisible Girl discovers her unexplained fashion powers in issue #3. At least it makes sense that Peter Parker would develop needle-and-thread skills from that radioactive spider bite, but where are all the other superheroes buying their superthreads? Only millionaires can afford a private butler named Alfred to maintain their wardrobes. So thank you Hunger Games for an unexpected nod toward reality.
But the key to a superhero’s costume is the symbol plastered on the chest—a spider, the number “4,” the letter “S,” whatever is literally closest to your superhero heart. For Katniss, that’s her mockingjay pin. It’s her personal symbol, and soon the symbol of the whole rebellion. The bird is also a super-bird, a genetically engineered hybrid that has an almost mystical meaning to those who respect its human-like singing. Like Bruce Wayne’s bat, the mockingjay represents Katniss’s mission, the next checkmark on her superhero trait list.
The two oldest comic book superheroes, Superman and Batman, spelled out two very different but complementary ways of defining a superhero’s reason-to-be: the Man of Steel dedicates himself to serving as a “champion of the oppressed,” while the Dark Knight vows to “war on criminals.” One is about victims, the other villains. Katniss covers both. She champions the oppressed citizens of District 12 while bringing her war to the Capitol. And if you think superheroes can fight their own governments, that tradition is even older than comics. Look at Zorro and Robin Hood. Or the Scarlet Pimpernel’s battles with the France’s Revolutionary government. Even Superman and Batman aren’t shy about roughing up a few wrong-headed cops or army battalions when the greater good is at stake.
Which gets us to motivation. What’s at stake for Katniss? Well, she’s been wronged, and she’s going to fight those wrongs until she’s fixed them. That’s the oldest superhero motivation of them all. Batman best embodies it—he crushes criminals because criminals killed his parents—but Alexander Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo started exacting his personal revenge on wrong-doers in 1844. Plenty of 1930s pulp heroes started adventuring after the death of a loved one too, including one of the very first superheroines, the Domino Lady: corrupt politicians in league with a KKK splinter group murder her dad, and next she’s pulling on a domino mask and, well, a dress and high heels. Again, Katniss wins on fashion sense. But she also wins additional points for giving the you-killed-my-beloved-family-member trope a much needed revamp. In the Batman formula, Katniss’ sister Primrose would have died in the Games—but Katniss begins her superheroic career not as a too-little too-late reaction to that wrong but instead by preventing it. Imagine if little Bruce Wayne had stopped that mugger in Crime Alley by volunteering for his Batman mission before his parents could be killed. On my scorecard, that makes Katniss better than Batman.
This is all looking pretty good for Super-Katniss, but she is missing some key superhero traits. First off, no secret identity. Of course Hawkeye and Black Widow don’t have ones either. And neither do any of the Fantastic Four. They do all have those fancy codenames though, something else Katniss is missing. But without a secret identity to hide, why does a superhero need a codename? Sure, Hawkeye and Black Widow are S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, but Nick Fury is just Nick Fury. Thor used to be mild-mannered Donald Blake, but Marvel Studios jettisoned his alter ego, so now Thor is just Thor.
So you could argue that codenames and secret identities are no longer a necessary part of the superhero formula. In which case, Katniss is in. But there’s another side to Thor that Katniss lacks. In fact, two sides. He’s a god who trades in Asgard to hang with us humans. If Odin decided to war on Earth, I have no doubt which side his son would fight for. Masks and codenames are important because they embody a superhero’s two-sidedness. You take your superpower-bestowing origin point—Asgard, Krypton, cosmic ray-infested outer space—and use it in service of your human half. Super-heroes are always straddling that perilous hyphen, keeping their two sides in balance. But Katniss is just Katniss.
Though, to be fair, she does have some duality. She performs her Hunger Game persona in front actual cameras, while keeping her true self hidden. You could even say she uses her Capital persona to battle the Capital on behalf of District 12—the same way Batman takes the darkness of Crime Alley and directs it against the cowardly criminals of Gotham. But is that enough to earn Katniss a final make-or-break checkmark on the Superhero Census Bureau Questionnaire?
I’m going to leave that one for you to decide.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 opens November 20.
Some of my favorite comics growing up were the oddball superhero pairings Marvel would throw together: Spider-Man and Scarlet Witch, Thing and Black Widow, Thing and, well, Thing (that was an odd issue). So I’m delighted that the marvels of the publishing universe have thrown together my two most anticipated new books with the same fall 2015 release: Lesley Wheeler’s Radioland (Barrow Street Press) and my own On the Origin of Superheroes (University of Iowa Press).
Obviously I’m anticipating my own book. Publishing means organizing readings, reviews, interviews, and every other kind of publicity. But it’s the poetry collection Radioland that I’ve actually looked forward to, that I can now sit back with a pre-release copy in my lap and sincerely admire. I already read it in multiple manuscript print-outs, but there’s nothing quite like the authoritative aura of a glossy-covered book fresh from its publisher’s packaging envelope. I’ve read all of Wheeler’s previous books (her scholarly Voicing American Poetry and The Poetics of Enclosure, and her collections Heathen, Heterotopia, and The Receptions and Other Tales), but Radioland is my current favorite. And not just because I teared up when I opened to the surprise dedication:
for Chris Gavaler
and other good fathers
I should acknowledge that I’m Wheeler’s spouse. We’re professors in the same English department too, so our professional identities team up constantly. But you never know which student or non-departmental colleague is going to give a startled blink at the discovery of our two-in-one domestic life. Aside from our three-sentence wedding invitation, we’ve officially collaborated on only one scholarly article (about poet Marianne Moore) and two children (a first-year in college and a first-year in high school). But our co-editing is invaluable.
After dutifully reading my weekly superhero blog, Wheeler saw me through the surprisingly complex process of rewriting and reorganizing the pre-1938 material into a cohesive manuscript. When an Iowa acquisition editor read the blog and contacted me to ask if I wanted to convert it into a book, I said yes. Obviously. But it was Wheeler who suffered the first drafts of each reconceived chapter, helping me rethink, rework and eventually refine. As I explain in the penultimate paragraph:
Lesley Wheeler has no superhero scholarship I can cite either, but she’s seen me through each step of creation, critiquing everything from the first harebrained draft of that KKK essay to the thorniest midtransformations of this manuscript.
I dedicated my first romantic suspense novel to her (Pretend I’m Not Here is even set in the Virgin Islands where we honeymooned). But On the Origin of Superheroes is dedicated to John Gavaler, my father. He read comics as a kid in the 40s, fueling my comic book reading in the 70s. John is also one of the “other good fathers” of Lesley’s book dedication, a category that, when you read the collection you’ll see, doesn’t include her own. He’s more like the supervillain Nightmare haunting her sleep—no matter how many times she vanquishes him in real life. But her poetic superpowers more than make up for his failings when Radioland single-handedly realigns the universe into a better shape. “Gods and fathers,” her final poem concludes, “rarely signal / but rock vibrates /sympathetically. What else / could it say? Echo / a kind of love . . .”
Wheeler and I also appear together in last year’s superhero poetry collection Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comic Books, but our most superheroic successes are our kids. Oddly, that includes standing on the crumbling planet of their childhood and watching them blast away in private rockets. Madeleine is now adventuring in the distant solar system of Connecticut, and Cameron, while still homebound, is tearing Hulk-like through his adolescent wardrobe, poised to make the same single-bound leap into adulthood.
Meanwhile, we have our books. Not as brilliant and hilarious as flesh-and-blood children, but they are easier to read and to hand to a friend. If you’d like to meet them, they’re available for pre-order at Amazon and elsewhere. And, if you’re in Lexington, VA on November 4th, stop by the Bookery. We’ll be there, 5:00-7:00 pm, pens in hand.
I grew up thinking of DC and Marvel as rival teams in a vast, superpowered Olympics. Who’s stronger, Superman or Thor? Who’s faster, Quicksilver or Flash? Every spin of the comics rack was a new exhibition in their never-ending face-off.
That’s why new Supergirl show is such a game-changer. Sure, the character has been around since 1949 (though that “Supergirl” was Queen Lucy from the Latin American kingdom of Borgonia, not Kara Zor-El, Superman’s cousin). Melissa Benoist’s Supergirl looks perfectly fun too. I’m even happy to see CBS back in the superheroine business. They rescued Wonder Woman from cancellation in 1976, before introducing the first live-action incarnations of the very male Marvel pantheon: Spider-Man, Captain America, Doctor Strange, Daredevil, and, one of the most successful superhero shows ever, The Incredible Hulk. We’ll see if Supergirl survives five seasons too.
But aside from its team-switching network, it’s the show’s timeslot that throws the biggest red flag on the DC-Marvel playing field. Mondays at 8:00? That’s when the pre-Batman series Gotham airs. I would shout FOUL! But can you foul your own teammate? Supergirl and Batman, they’re both DC regulars. So it must be an off-sides penalty? One of them should be lining up Tuesdays at 9:00 to go head-to-head with Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., right?
Actually, no. Supergirl is CBS, Gotham is Fox. Neither networks cares about comic book rivalries. Their playing field is primetime. The CW airs a pair of Justice League characters too, Flash and Arrow, plus soon Atom, Hawkgirl and a few other second-stringers in their third DC-licensed show, Legends of Tomorrow. If CBS preferred any of those time slots, they’d land Supergirl there instead. Worse, Warner Brothers has a Flash film scheduled for a 2018 release—but it will be staring Ezra Miller, not CW actor Grant Gustin. If Green Arrow makes into 2019’s Justice League Part Two, Stephen Amell can expect to be benched too.
These aren’t just facelifts. The TV and film versions of DC superheroes are different people living in different worlds. Christopher Nolan had barely completed his Batman trilogy in 2012 when Warner Brothers started their Ben Affleck reboot. Supergirl earned her pilot because of her cousin’s box office success in 2013’s Man of Steel. But that’s not the same Superman. Look at Jimmy Olsen. The difference is literally black and white. He’s played by Mehcad Brooks on TV, and Rebecca Buller in the film (okay, they changed the female Jimmy to Lana Lang, but still).
Compare that no-rules rulebook to Marvel’s team-player strategy. In addition to the Avengers, the Marvel Cinematic Universe includes five solo franchises (Ant-Man, Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk), four Netflix shows (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, Luke Cage), and two ABC shows (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter). And they’re all jigsaws pieces in a single, unified puzzle.
When the Netflix Matt Murdock talks about uptown superheroes, he doesn’t just mean Thor, Iron Man and Captain America; he means the Chris Hemsworth, Robert Downey Jr., and Chris Evans incarnations of Thor, Iron Man and Captain America. Peggy Carter began in the first Captain American film in 2011, before spun-off in her own TV show last year, and she appeared in the first scene of this summer’s Ant-Man, and she’ll appear again for her own funeral in Captain America 3 next spring.
Imagine the galaxy-sized migraines involved in keeping all those planets spinning in the same solar system. No wonder DC and Warner Brothers happily hand-over creative control for each of their independent universes. When asked about Supergirl, Nina Tassler, President of CBS Entertainment, said “we’ve been given license and latitude to make some changes.” In other words, forget continuity, our Supergirl flies solo. That might sound less impressive—hell, it is less impressive—but orbiting inside the Marvel Cinematic Universe carries its own penalties.
Witness director Edgar Wright. The hilariously idiosyncratic British film-maker approached Marvel about Ant-Man back in 2004. The then-fledgling studio was delighted. But when production finally rolled around a decade later, the Marvel blockbuster mill wasn’t so keen on Wright’s personal take on a potential franchise. Avengers director Joss Whedon adored the script, but Marvel scrapped it, handed the rewrite pen to Paul Rudd, and subbed out Wright for the lesser known but far more malleable Peyton Reed. Granted, Reed’s miniature battle scene shot on a Thomas the Tank Engine train track was genius, but the rest of the film was by-the-Marvel-numbers.
There’s at least one potential reason for that all-controlling gravity. At the center of the Marvel Cinematic Universe spins a supermassive black hole named Disney. It also owns ABC, home of Carter and S.H.I.E.L.D. It was also the TV home for Superman in the 50s, Batman in the 60s, and—for a season at least—Wonder Woman in the 70s. But the Mickey Mouse subsidiary isn’t interested in promoting Warner Brothers property anymore.
The megalomaniacal one-puzzle policy has even taken root in Marvel Entertainment’s root company, Marvel Comics. Its continuity used to include thousands of free-wheeling universes. On Earth-1610, Spider-Man is black and Hispanic; on Earth-2149, superheroes are zombies; on Earth-8311, Peter Parker is a pig named Peter Porker. There was even an Earth-616, where we all read Marvel Comics, and Earth-199999, home of the Evans, Downey Jr., and Hemsworth Avengers, who apparently are completely unaware that Marvel Studios is watching and recording them.
That all changed last summer. With its mini-series Secret Wars, Marvel Comics destroyed its fifty-year-old universe, and rebooted its most beloved characters into a single, one-size-fits-all reality (All-New All-Different Marvel!), in which its writers and artists must toil in perfect, lock-step synchronization.
Meanwhile, DC is following Supergirl in the opposite direction. After their own recent, reality-transforming maxi-series Convergence, every character, storyline, and alternate world that’s ever appeared in any DC comic book is officially back on the playing field. Apparently the writers were envious of their TV and screenplay counterparts and wanted the same unfettered free-for-all. And now they got it.
So when you tune in to Supergirl Monday nights, enjoy the metaphysical implications of your viewing choice. That’s a whole new world blinking on your screen.
Here’s the debate question we should ask Clinton, Trump, Sanders, and the herd of Republicans running for President:
“What art would you hang in the Oval Office?”
It sounds frivolous, but the answers reveal a lot about our last two presidents.
When George W. Bush moved from the Texas governor’s office to the Oval Office in 2001, he brought his favorite painting, a 28 x 40 oil by Westerns illustrator W.H.D. Koerner which appeared on the back of his campaign biography, A Charge to Keep. The title is from a hymn, and a friend gave him the painting because it illustrated a 1918 short story of the same name. Bush believed the figure in the painting, a cowboy charging up a hill on horseback, was a 19th century Methodist evangelist spreading his faith across the West.
“He’s a determined horseman,” the President told visitors, “a very difficult trail. And you know at least two people are following him, and maybe a thousand.”
“Bush’s personal identification with the painting,” writes David Gergen, “reveals a good deal about his sense of himself . . . . a brave, daring leader riding fearlessly into the unknown, striking out against unseen enemies, pulling his team behind him, seeking, in the words of Wesley’s hymn, ‘to do my Master’s will.’”
Although the painting did appear beside Ben Ames Williams’ “A Charge to Keep” in Country Gentleman Magazine, Koerner painted it three years earlier for The Saturday Evening Post to illustrate a story by William J. Neidig called “The Slipper Tongue.”
The horseman is a horse-thief fleeing a lynch mob.
But whatever its title, the work has become the best known of Koerner’s over 800 commissioned paintings and drawings, including “Hugo Hercules,” the original comic strip superhero.
Koerner immigrated from Germany at the age of three, and seventeen years later got a job as a staff artist for the Chicago Tribune for $5 a day. His duties included producing a Sunday strip for the Comics Supplement. He came up with an urban cowboy with super-strength. If that’s not enough to call him a superhero, Hugo calls himself “the boy wonder” while aiding a series of Chicago damsels-in-mild-distress.
He has his own catch phrase too, “Just as easy,” tossed off whenever he performs some inhuman feat, like ice skating with a boat on his shoulders or flinging a defensive line of football players across a goal post. Sometimes he adds, “I could do this forever,” as if Koerner has hasn’t drawn him in a sufficiently effortless pose. Clark Kent wouldn’t declare, “This is a job for . . . Superman!”for almost four decades, but Hugo knows when “It’s up to me!”
Oval Office visitors commented how Koerner’s Methodist horse-thief looked a bit like George W., but Hugo was the one with the cowboy hat—offset by a sports jacket, stripped pants and bowtie. The hat vacillated between white and black though, and Hugo vacillated too. Overall he was a force for good, but his altruism was random and occasionally the good he did was correcting the harm he’d done—like when he missed a football and accidentally punted a house across a field. But at least he lugged it back, right? And so what if he uses his strength to collect the bowling competition prize money after destroying a wall and passing trolley in the process? After catching a falling safe from crushing an old man as his daughter helplessly watched, he asks: “Am I glad I did it? Wid de doll’s arms around me neck and de old gent coffing a three spot? Am I glad?”
Note that folksy way of talking too. No wonder George W. liked Koerner. And if Hugo can be a bit destructive—did he really have to rip up a porch to carry it umbrella-like over a woman worried about the rain?—he helps far more than he harms, like when he catches that family jumping from a burning house, or when he carries a fire engine to another would-be disaster. He stops that runaway horse before it crashes its owner’s carriage, but more often he only saves damsels from mild inconvenience, halting trolleys and cable cars that refuse to stop, or lifting an elephant standing on a handkerchief. And how did the striking cab-driver’s union feel when carried that woman and her pile of crates? Dragging a derailed train twenty miles is nice, but is lifting a young Romeo and his car to his Juliet’s balcony for a parting kiss really the best use of one’s superpowers? As far as actual menaces, hugo does wrestle a bear into submission—though he was only saving himself. Same with those three muggers who corner him at gunpoint. They look ready to abandon the criminal life after he points a canon in their faces.
Would their bullets have bounced off him? Could he have leapt tall buildings if they’d tried to escape? No idea. We’ll never know how Hugo might have matured into his yet-to-be-named genre. The strip only ran from September 1902 to January before Koerner abandoned it for better work. Soon he was studying with famed illustrator Howard Pyle, creator of the 1883 classic The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, as well as varied adventures of Arthurian knights, noble pirates, and a modern Aladdin. It was a thorough education in proto-superheroes, but Koerner’s interests turned west when The Saturday Evening Post commissioned his first two frontier scenes instead. He never returned. When he died at the age of 58, he was one of the best known artists of the Old West. That was 1938, the year Action Comics No. 1 rode onto newsstands.
When the Bushes returned to Texas, they took their so-called “A Charge to Keep” with them. The Obamas, fresh from Koerner’s hometown of Chicago, replaced his galloping horse-thief with a more traditional Saturday Evening Post illustration, Norman Rockwell’s “Working on the Statue of Liberty.” At 24 x14, it’s less than half the size of Koerner’s work. It depicts four tiny workmen scaling the torch to clean its amber glass. It’s slow, dangerous work—something Hugo Hercules could have finished in three panels.
The Obama Oval Office, however, is not cowboy-free. Frederic Remington’s sculpture “The Bronco Buster” still sits on its side table, and the President not only kept but expanded his predecessor’s spy programs, herding up emails across the frontier of the World Wide Web. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel found out the NSA was following their Master’s will and bugging her phone, her government threatened the diplomatic equivalent of a lynch mob–counterespionage. “They’re like cowboys,” explained a party member, “who only understand the language of the Wild West.”
What language will our next President understand?
I’ve been assembling an ur-team of Avengers for my book On the Origin of Superheroes, and my first-ever superhero award goes to the Golem. He’s super-strong, impervious to pain, and, when made from clay, can even shapeshift a bit. On the downside, he’s dumb in both senses and so requires close supervision. Sorcerers and programmers beware.
“There is nothing more uncanny than something that is almost human,” says Margaret Atwood. “All our stories about robotics are stories like that. It’s what we have always worried about. It’s the sorcerer’s apprentice story: He learns how to do the charm; he doesn’t know how to turn it off. It’s the Golem story: You make the Golem, you activate it, it’s supposed to do your work for you, and then it runs amok.”
Atwood’s Oryx and Crake trilogy features a genetically engineered species of designer humans, but they’re too mellow to cause the survivors of her apocalypse much trouble. When it comes to magic brooms and water buckets running amok, I picture Mickey Mouse, but Goethe published his poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” while Napoleon was still waging France’s Revolutionary Wars.
Apparently Goethe cribbed the tale from Lucian’s Philopseudes, c. 150 CE, though the word “golem” is even older. It means “shapeless mass” in Hebrew, which is the description of Ben Grimm that Stan Lee typed up for Jack Kirby in 1960: “He’s sort of shapeless—he’s become a THING.” Kirby drew a giant bumpy rock monster that turned orange at the printer’s. I don’t know if either had the Golem in mind, but Fantastic Four writer Karl Kesel did when he decided forty years later that Ben’s full name was Benjamin Jacob Grimm.
Benjamin grew up going to synagogue as a kid and could still recite Torah passages from memory, so he probably knows that “golem” first appears in Psalms 139:16 (“my substance, yet being unperfect”) when David praises God for creating him. The Talmud (c. 200 CE) uses the term to describe Adam’s creation too: “In the first hour, his dust was gathered; in the second, it was kneaded into a shapeless mass.” But jump forward another couple hundred years, and a passage mentions the first living golem: “Rabbah created a man, and sent him to Rabbi Zera. Rabbi Zera spoke to him, but received no answer. Thereupon he said unto him: ‘Thou art a creature of the magicians. Return to thy dust.’”
Apparently they weren’t all that hard to manufacture. All Pygmalion had to do was pray to Venus to bring his ivory statue Galatea to life. Daedalus soldered his golem Talos from bronze. If you’re up on your Kabbalistic techniques, Sefer Yetzirah (The Book of Formation) gives a how-to, but Aryeh Kaplan warns apprentices not to attempt it alone. Virgin dirt is also key. Marvel was still printing on pulp paper in 1974, which is why their Strange Tales Golem only ran three issues. Writer Len Wein gave the legend his best superheroic spin:
“In centuries agon, they had called him a myth, a creature formed of stone and clay and the blood of a people’s oppression—a moving monolith who rose before the yoke of tyranny—shattered it in his monumental fists—then vanished into the sands of time—there to be almost forgotten—until today! Now once more he rises—summoned from his eons-long sleep to protect those he loves.”
Marvel tries not to take sides in the Palestine-Israeli conflict, declaring it
“a war of territory, of ideologies—fought with great fervor but with little gain—fought with loaned weaponry wielded by men—men charged with love of country and the courage of their convictions, but men nonetheless—aye, as in all wars before this, fought by men—imperfect, all-too-human men.”
But those the Golem loves are the family of Jewish archeologists who dig him up, while General Omar leads an army of marauding rapists who pillage the archeological camp and machinegun the grandfather. Uncle Abraham’s dying tear reanimates the creature. “Eyes of a camel!” shouts one of the keffiyeh-wearing soldiers. “The statue—it lives!”
Michael Chabon’s golem surfaces for far less dramatic adventures. His amazing Kavalier and Clay find its coffin filled
“to a depth of about seven inches, with a fine powder, pigeon-gray and opalescent, that Joe recognized at once from boyhood excursions as the silty bed of the Moldau . . . . The speculations of those who feared that the Golem, removed from the shores of the river that mothered it, might degrade had been proved correct.”
My wife and I sat along the banks of the Moldau (AKA Vltava) sipping Budvar in a Prague café in 1996. The ground was too paved to be termed virginal, but the city has a legion of statues and tourist shop figurines already prepped for animation. Prague is to Golem as Metropolis is to Superman. The tales proliferated there like magic brooms in the 1800s. One named Josef protected Jews from a supervillainous Emperor with the additional superpower of invisibility—so basically half of the Fantastic Four. Benjamin Kuras, author of As Golems Go, explains why Golem still adventures in the Czech Republic:
“After living through the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Nazism and decades of communism, the Czechs are drawn to a character with supernatural powers that will help liberate them from oppression.”
The Golem is also the original “robot,” a Czech word for “laborer” or “slave.” Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. (AKA “Rossum’s Universal Robots”) unleashed them on the world, resulting in the extinction of the human race in 1920. Despite the nuts-and-bolts contraptions in promo shots, Čapek’s robots are the flesh-and-blood variety, more like clones or Philip Dick’s sheep-dreaming replicants. Carl Burgos had the same idea when he drew the Human Torch for Marvel Comics No. 1 in 1939. The flames were one of those unintended “run amok” side effects, but rather than burning Brooklyn to the ground, the almost human Torch gets his superpower under control (bringing our Fantastic Four tally to 75%) and vows to help humanity even though humanity tried to seal him in a steel and concrete cage.
The Human Torch fizzled in the forties and wandered out to the desert to die—the same fate Wein copied for his Golem. The evil robot Ultron rebuilt the Torch’s burnt-out corpse in 1968, and he was reborn as my favorite childhood superhero, the Vision. But then the original Torch erupted from a secret grave in the 80s, so the Vision was never really the Torch but a copy soldered from spare parts. Only, no wait, that’s not it either, because next it turns out the Vision and the Torch are in fact the same synthoid split in two when a time-traveling supervillain manipulated the timeline. Except then the Vision half was ripped apart by She-Hulk, and his identity may or may not inhabit the sentient armor of the time-traveler’s teen-age self, while his soul returned in a team of Dead Avengers before Tony Stark reassembled his body. And don’t even get me started whether that body is the kind with buzzing wires and clanking pistons or the kind with synthetic organs that gurgle and fart.
Human animation is simpler. My wife returned from Prague pregnant with our daughter. King David praises God for “cover[ing] me in my mother’s womb,” but we followed a very different nuts and bolts process. Though nothing like the Thing, my daughter has been running amok for eighteen years now. She looks a lot more like the clay statue Hippolyte sculpted and, with the help of her gods William Marston and Harry G. Peter, brought to life in 1941—making Wonder Woman the original comic book Golem. Sadly, she’s not available for my team of First Avengers.