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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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I had considered Senator Cruz my least-likely-to-vote-for Presidential candidate ever, until Donald Trump robbed him of the title. Worse, I recently learned from his New York Times Magazine interview that the Tea Party favorite and I share at least one interest/obsession: superheroes. Not only did the former “unpopular nerd” describe himself as “a Spider-Man guy,” but he named his company Cruz Enterprises after Iron Man’s Stark Enterprises—a quirkiness that hovers in the sweet spot between adorable and psychotic.

Cruz might be horrified to learn that his arch-nemesis Barack Obama (Cruz likened him to Darth Vader in one of his filibustering rants) is a Spider-Man guy too. When Entertainment Weekly asked the then Presidential candidate to name his favorite superhero in 2008, the Illinois Senator chose both Spider-Man and Batman.  Why? Because, Obama said, “they have some inner turmoil. They get knocked around a little bit.”

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President Obama has spent his two terms getting knocked around by Republican-controlled congresses, but, like his comic book role models, he’s won many a battle “against insurmountable odds.” That’s how John McCain described Batman, the superhero the former Republican candidate championed when asked the same question.

The standard answer is Superman. When Darren Garnick and his nine-year-old son, Ari, asked the 2012 Republican primary candidates, “If you could be any superhero in the world, who would you be and why?” Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and Herman Cain all went with the Man of Steel (check-out the six-minute documentary Republicans in Tights for the delightful details). Rick Santorum shook things up with Mr. Incredible, the super-dad from The Incredibles (which, unlike Mr. Santorum, is finally getting a sequel). Only Ron Paul, the only candidate older than comic books, snubbed the nine-year-old interviewer.

McCain was born in 1936, same year as Detective Comics, but most candidates (including Hillary Clinton, who has yet to be asked her superheroic preference) were born in the Golden Age of the 40s.  Obama was the lone wolf, born in 1961, the year the Fantastic Four launched themselves to the moon and Marvel Comics into pop supremacy. But now Ted Cruz has him beat. Not that his birth year, 1970, is an auspicious one for superheroes. The comic book industry was in decline, and Vietnam-influenced antiheroes were flooding the market along with a new breed of horror titles.

Cruz’s birth also marks the first year without Star Trek. A fact that doesn’t stop him from preferring Captain Kirk over The Next Generation’s Captain Picard. Why? Because, he told The New York Times, Kirk is “working class,” and Picard an “aristocrat.” That actually makes Cruz a fan of President Obama’s superhero team. Obama’s other reason for endorsing the “Spider Man/Batman model” (his term) was his dislike for Superman’s lazy privilege: “The guys who have too many powers — like Superman — that always made me think they weren’t really earning their superhero status. It’s a little too easy.”

It also turns out that Obama wouldn’t vote for either Kirk or Picard. He’s a Spock guy. When he met Leonard Nimoy during a 2007 campaign event, he greeted him with the Vulcan salute. When the actor died earlier this year, the President eulogized him:

“Long before being nerdy was cool, there was Leonard Nimoy. Leonard was a lifelong lover of the arts and humanities, a supporter of the sciences, generous with his talent and his time. And of course, Leonard was Spock. Cool, logical, big-eared and level-headed, the center of Star Trek’s optimistic, inclusive vision of humanity’s future.

“I loved Spock.”

Cruz isn’t quite so generous about the arts and humanities, but he does like NASA. When he became chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science, Space, and Competitiveness, he announced his desire to expand the U.S. space program—even though he had to laud Democratic President Kennedy in the process. Ensign Chekhov, however, will not be invited aboard the new Enterprise. According to Cruz, NASA’s partnership with the former Evil Empire, Russia, on the International Space Station could “stunt our capacity to reach new heights and share innovations with free people everywhere.”

That’s not as bold as Newt Gingrich’s pandering promise to place astronauts on Mars by 2020 (he was speaking to laid-off NASA employees at the time), but it’s still unclear how the budget-slashing Cruz would finance his space exploration. Perhaps a joint public-private venture with Stark Enterprises? Or is this a job for Superman? Or super-businessman Lex Luthor? Even most comic book readers forget that Lex won the 2000 Presidential race (a fact since rebooted out of existence several times by DC Comics).

A Cruz-Trump White House isn’t more far-fetched, right?

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So here’s my favorite gay superhero sex scene:

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

I know, pretty tame stuff, definitely not a passage from Unmasked: Erotic Tales of Gay Superheroes. It’s from Perry Moore’s 2007 Hero, and look how it echoes Zorro from one of the first superhero novels ever written:

“He grasped one of her hands, and before she guessed his intention, had bent forward, raised the bottom of his mask, and pressed his lips to its pink, moist palm.”

Johnston McCulley tells us Zorro is motivated by government persecution of monks and natives, but he and his alter ego Don Diego spends more effort seducing his future wife. Moore’s hero masturbates to online porn of wide-nippled Uberman (the one page I mumbled over when reading aloud to my kids), but he doesn’t find real intimacy until he and the better half of his dynamic duo have shared secret identities. The novel’s most touching scene takes place not in bed but during a picnic lunch in a public park, with both heroes fully clothed but unmasked. Zorro, however, likes to keep his mask on:

“The moment I donned cloak and mask . . . My body straightened, new blood seemed to course through my veins, my voice grew strong and firm, fire came to me! And the moment I removed cloak and mask I was the languid Don Diego again.”

That’s my favorite passage from all of superhero literature. It’s also one of the most thinly veiled descriptions of a penis I’ve ever read. For McCulley’s Zorro, a mask is a fetish. It literally makes him hard. Without it, he’s limp. It has a similar effect on women. Senorita Lolita is bored by the unmanly Don Diego, but she is titillated by his masked outlaw:

“And suddenly she was awakened by a touch on her arm, and sat up quickly, and then would have screamed except that a hand was crushed against her lips to prevent her. Before her stood a man whose body was enveloped in a long cloak, and whose face was covered with a black mask so that she could see nothing of his features except his glittering eyes.”

This is the erotic subtext to a surprising range of superhero tales. The hero dons his manly disguise not fight crime and uphold justice, but to woo the girl.

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Before McCulley published The Curse of Capistrano in 1919 (it was renamed The Mark of Zorro after the Douglass Fairbanks film adaptation the following year), Zorro’s predecessors (Spring-Heeled Jack, Scarlet Pimpernel, Gray Seal) established unmasking as the ultimate act of intimacy between a superhero and his love interest. Though those earlier writers wedded the mask and the marriage bed, McCulley takes the striptease to new extremes. Zorro “tore off his mask” only after he gets Lolita to reveal “her true heart” and agree to “have offspring.” Don Diego’s seduction is complete. Although Lolita “would rather have you Senor Zorro than the old Don Diego,” she now loves “both of them.” Don Diego can retire both his mask and his “languid ways.” People “will say marriage made a man of me!”

This all sounds quaintly old-fashioned, but the same plot turns today’s superheroes. Alan Moore (no relation to Perry) makes Don Diego’s languid impotence explicit in Watchmen. Daniel Dreiberg can’t keep himself strong and hard (“Oh Laurie, I’m so sorry, it isn’t you, it’s just . . .”) until he’s dressed as Nite Owl (“Did the costumes make it good?”).

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Or take a more recent look at the 2010 film Kick-Ass. (Forgive me, Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr., but I’ve not read your 2008 comic book yet.) Dave, the mild-mannered hero, can’t get the girl.  Why? Because she thinks he’s gay. Fairbanks played the effeminate Don Diego to similar effect. Katie, however, thinks this new superhero Kick-Ass is pretty damn sexy. Where does Dave reveal himself to her? Her bedroom. What happens afterwards? The obvious. In fact, now Katie can’t keep her hands off Dave, and next they’re fornicating in back alleys too.

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McCulley might have blushed at the R-rated sequence, but his Lolita had similar adventures in mind for her boy wonder. Like Don Diego, Dave and Dan are nothing without their masks. That’s why I prefer Moore’s hero, a gay man who never hides in his closet. Dark Hero’s alter ego is no languid Clark Kent either. By making the hero and his love interest gay, Moore unmasks the homophobic subtext and sets the superhero genre straight.

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“What if an American comic book company were to ring me up (not that it was going to happen) and they offered me my first U.S. assignment, only it was the most obscure, uninteresting character I could imagine? So let’s, out of the blue, pick the most obscure American comics character I could think of and just see if I could reinterpret him and make him interesting.”

That’s Alan Moore describing himself, just before an American comic book company really did ring him up. It was DC editor Len Wein offering him a shot at Swamp Thing.

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Weirdly, the “most obscure American comics character” Moore had practiced on was The Heap—the 1940s character Wein had knocked-off to create Swamp Thing in 1971.

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The character type was oddly popular in the early 70s. Roy Thomas had been a Heap fan as a kid, and so when he got a staff writer job at Marvel, he created the Heap-like Glob for The Incredible Hulk #121 in 1969.

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A year and a half later, Skywald comics resurrected the original Heap.

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Thomas had told his pal, former Marvel employer and Skywald co-founder Sol Brodsky, it was a good band wagon to jump on since Marvel had its own Heap knock-off, Man-Thing. Stan Lee dreamt up that name, but apparently the Glob was all the regurgitated Heap Thomas could swallow, so he handed the assignment to scripter Gerry Conway. Gray Morrow’s drawings even include a visual homage to the Heap’s vine-like nose in Savage Tales #1 (May 1971).

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Thomas tossed the next Man-Thing assignment to Len Wein and Neal Adams who worked up a second episode, but Marvel cancelled Savage Tales after the first issue. Wein also freelanced at DC where he created Swamp Thing with artist Bernie Wrightson for House of Secrets #92 (June–July 1971). It took another year, but the Wein-Adams Man-Thing eventually surfaced in Astonishing Tales #12 (June 1972), just a few months before Wein and Wrightson updated their House of Secrets Swamp Thing for DC’s Swamp Thing #1 (October–November 1972).

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That’s a murky swamp of overlapping characters and creators to sift through. Worse, Wein and Conway were sharing an apartment at the time, and yet Wein swore Swamp Thing had nothing to do with Man-Thing—even though Man-Thing’s premiere is dated a month before Swamp Thing’s.

Thomas’s timetable doesn’t add up either: Skywald’s Heap premiered in Psycho #2 March 1971, three months before Man-Thing in Savage Tales #1. Add in the unknowable differences in production time, and the quagmire keeps deepening.

Neither Marvel nor DC tried to sue the other for copyright infringement, since both their characters were infringing on the Heap that Harry Stein and Mort Leav created for Hillman Periodicals’ Air Fighters Comics #3 in 1942. But Stein and Leav don’t get original credit either, since the Heap looks a lot like Theodore Sturgeon’s short story “It,” published two years earlier in Street and Smith’s Unknown.

Wein says he conceived Swamp Thing in December 1970, but

“Why I decided to make the protagonist some sort of swamp monster . . . I can no longer recall. . . . Coincidentally, Joe [Orlando, then-editor of THE HOUSE OF MYSTERY and THE HOUSE OF SECRETS] had been thinking of doing a story along the lines of Theodore Sturgeon’s classic fantasy tale ‘It’ . . . a story I had actually never read.”

And the swamp goes full circle when Roy Thomas scripted Marvel’s “It” adaptation for Supernatural Thrillers #1 (December 1972).

Sturgeon was invited to the 1975 San Diego Comic Convention so Ray Bradbury could hand him a Golden Ink Pot award. “I learned,” wrote Sturgeon, “for the very first time that my story ‘It’ is seminal; that it is the great granddaddy of The Swamp Thing, The Hulk, The Man Thing, and I don’t know how many celebrated graphics.”

The comic book swamp, however, was already draining, since Man-Thing was cancelled in 1975, and Swamp Thing the year after. It’s hard to explain the initial rise, though it probably has something to do with the 1971 change in the Comics Code:

“Vampires, ghouls and werewolves shall be permitted to be used when handled in the classic tradition such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and other high calibre literary works written by Edgar Allen Poe, Saki, Conan Doyle and other respected authors whose works are read in schools around the world.”

The Heap, after all, is a reanimated corpse. Though the cause of that reanimation is as murky as Swamp Thing’s creative origins. Is “the unearthly transformation” because World War I German pilot Baron Emmelmann’s “will to live” is such a “powerful force” that it merges his body with the slime and vegetation of the Polish swamp where his plane crashed, causing him to rise two decades later as “a fantastic heap that is neither man nor animal”? If so, why does the Heap “die” two issues later, only to be reanimated by a nefarious zoologist’s “serum”? And what does that mysterious serum have to do with “Ceres, Goddess of Soil,” who in 1947 is retconned (by an uncredited writer) into the origin, raising the dead pilot as an agent of peace in defiance of the god Ares?

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Alan Moore did an even deeper retcon to Swamp Thing. Instead of a man transformed into a plant, the 1984 Swamp Thing is a plant transformed into a man.

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The 2005 Man-Thing movie (it apparently was intended to be theatrical release before demoted to the Syfy channel) goes for supernatural agency, though the Lee-Thomas-Conway-Morrow original was pure scifi: the inventor of a super-soldier serum injects himself and crashes his car into a swamp to keep the serum from the bad guys. The “formula”—updating Captain America’s premise for the Vietnam-era—is apparently napalm-based (a newspaper headline reads “NAPALM BOMB” as the inventor laments: “It’s bad enough the chemical will be used for more killing”), and so Man-Thing’s touch burns. Or it did until the second episode, when Wein decided it only burns those who feel fear because . . . that’s how napalm works? Steve Gerber ran with that non-scifi premise, mixing more supernatural agency into his revised swamp, which, it turns out, is really a doorway to multiple dimensions.

Although Man-Thing hasn’t been lying completely dormant for the last few decades, I’d say he’s still a descent contender for the current “most obscure, uninteresting comic book character” category. Or at least a mindless, shuffling heap of muck that reflexively burns people who are afraid isn’t a superhero high on Marvel Entertainment’s film and TV project list. Like Thomas for the Heap though, I have a squishy spot in my heart for him. So let me take on Alan Moore’s thought experiment, and see if I can “reinterpret him and make him interesting.” Or maybe the problem is Man-Thing is already too interesting? So my assignment is to cover his range of weirdness while sticking to a single, scifi-only premise.

I’m placing my swamp near New Orleans and staffing it with weapon designers. Instead of napalm and super-soldiers, it’s a burning black plasma that swirls and geysers when in contact with a remote control beacon, incinerating everything else it touches. But to be practical in the field, you’d need a live soldier to operate it. So the new design is a hazmat body suit with direct neural interface. The head gear includes two large red “eyes” and tubes down the nose and sides. Things are going great until the suit-tester starts getting nervous. As his vitals rise, the plasma hits new levels of heat and mobility. It starts burning through the suit, and before they can shut it down, it incinerates him, leaving only a blackened skeleton and gas mask. But since the plasma is encoded with the last neural input, it’s now moving on its own, splashing and lurching around the complex with its puppet of a charred corpse. When it breaks outside, it vanishes into the swamp, where the plasma merges with the muck and bonds around the skeleton. What emerges isn’t sentient. It’s not even alive. It just roams randomly or sits dormant until its eyes glow red with internal heat when it senses human fear—which it then extinguishes with its burning touch.

The original Conway script includes a scantily-clad female spy who betrays the inventor and then later gets her face burnt off by Man-Thing—so let’s please avoid that double dose of misogyny. Maybe the inventor is the woman this time, and the guy testing the suit is the spy who’s seduced her to steal the tech. His vitals spike because she’s about to find him out—so it’s not just fear but his guilt too. To his own surprise, he really does love her, and it’s only his bursting into flame that prevents the discovery of his betrayal, giving his transformation a redemptive edge. Turning into a monster stops him from being a monster. And I’m betting at the end she’s the only one who can face him without fear, an act of forgiveness that also allows the plasma to finally shut down and Man-Thing to collapse into a puddle of mud and bones.

Okay, so maybe not the light PG-13 tone of the current Marvel movie universe, but what do you expect from a mindless, fear-burning swamp beast? I suggest Marvel use the character for a multi-episode subplot during season three of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, not unlike how they used Deathlok (another early 70s super-soldier monstrosity) in season one.

Now let’s see if anyone rings me up.

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(Meanwhile, instead of sitting by his own phone, Swamp Thing is headed to Reykjavik, Iceland, for the International Popular Culture Association Conference at the end of July. Nathaniel Goldberg, a colleague from the Washington and Lee University Philosophy department, and I are presenting our paper, “Donald Davidson and the Mind of Swamp Thing.”)

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The summer superhero blockbuster season is well underway: Avengers 2 landed in May, Ant-Man follows now in July, and Fantastic Four hits in August. That’s only half of 2014’s six films, but 2016 will make up the difference with a record eight. There was a time when I thought the superhero film genre had an artistic future. But after Heath Ledger’s Oscar for playing the Joker, Warner Bros. and Marvel has dedicated themselves to reproducing largely the same formula-driven commercial product.

So to analyze the nature of Hollywood superheroes, I’m calling in two experts from opposite ends of the literary spectrum: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, one of the most acclaimed novelists of Russian literature, and Black Snyder, a third-rate screenwriter that Sylvester Stallone once likened to a flatworm.

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I read Crime and Punishment in A.P. English as a high school senior—and I even finished it (a dubious honor my adolescent self did not award Moby Dick). I started The Brothers Karamavoz in college while working graveyard shifts as a warehouse security guard, but after totaling my Toyota on a sleepy drive home, I quit both.

Snyder started his career writing episodes for the Disney Channel’s Kids Incorporated before going on to pen Blank Check and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, a comedy Roger Ebert called “moronic beyond comprehension” and which its star, Sylvester Stallone, declared “one of the worst films in the entire solar system,” insisting “a flatworm could write a better script.” And yet when a good friend of mine—a former script reader for a California production company—wanted to collaborate on a screenplay, he handed me Snyder’s Save the Cat!

The how-to screenwriting guide explains why the Sandra Bullock comedy vehicle Miss Congeniality is a better movie than Memento. It comes down to formula: Miss Congeniality hits all 15 beats on The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, while Christopher Nolan’s directorial debut “is just a gimmick that cannot be applied to any other movie.” If Snyder were a poetry professor, he would lecture about the superiority of sonnets to free verse, while defining the greatest works of literature by the uniformity of their iambic beats.

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Rodion Raskolnikov, Dostoyevsky’s pawnbroker-murdering philosophy student, would classify Snyder as “ordinary.” Raskolnikov explains: “men are in general divided by a law of nature into two categories, inferior (ordinary), that is, so to say, material that serves only to reproduce its kind, and men who have the gift or the talent to utter a new word. . . . The first category, generally speaking, are men conservative in temperament and law-abiding; they live under control and love to be controlled. To my thinking it is their duty to be controlled, because that’s their vocation, and there is nothing humiliating in it for them.”

In other words, Hollywood spec writers play by the rules. And Snyder understands those rules well. He divides the universe into ten idiosyncratic genres. His “Dude with a Problem,” for example, includes Die Hard and Schindler’s List, while “Superhero” goes beyond Batman Begins to claim Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind—and probably anything else starring Russell Crowe. Snyder’s ur-Superhero is Gulliver surrounded by Lilliputians: “a Superhero tale asks us to lend human qualities, and our sympathy, to a super being, and identity with what it must be like to have to deal with the likes of us little people.” So Batman, Frankenstein, and Dracula are all Superheroes “challenged by the mediocre world around them,” because it’s really “the tiny minds that surround the hero that are the real problem.”

Raskolnikov would agree. His second category, “extraordinary” men, “all transgress the law,” because “making a new law, they transgressed the ancient one, handed down from their ancestors and held sacred by the people.” So “all great men or even men a little out of the common, that is to say capable of giving some new word, must from their very nature be criminals—more or less, of course. Otherwise it’s hard for them to get out of the common rut; and to remain in the common rut is what they can’t submit to, from their very nature again, and to my mind they ought not, indeed, to submit to it.” The rut-dwelling Lilliputians, meanwhile, will try to “punish them or hang them (more or less), and in doing so fulfill quite justly their conservative vocation.”

Snyder fulfills his Lilliputian vocation for Christopher Nolan when he shouts “screw Memento!” and dismisses all the “hulabaloo” because of its low box office revenue. That was in 2005, the year Batman Begins premiered, and three years before Heath Ledger won Best Supporting Actor for The Dark Knight. Raskolnikov warns that “the same masses set these criminals on a pedestal in the next generation and worship them,” and sure enough, Synder lauds Nolan’s caped crusader for following “the beats down to the minute.”

Or does that means Nolan is a Superhero who overcame his Gulliverness by conforming to the Lilliputian Beat Sheet? Either way, he, like Bruce Wayne “is admirable because he eschews his personal comfort in the effort to give back to the community.” That, says Snyder, solves the problem of “how to have sympathy for the likes of millionaire Bruce Wayne or genius Russell Crowe.” They save the cat.

And Raskolnikov agrees again. His “extraordinary man” has “an inner right to decide in his own conscience to overstep” if overstepping “is essential for the practical fulfillment of his idea,” and idea which might be “of benefit to the whole of humanity.” That’s how he rationalizes killing and robbing that nasty old pawnbroker. He argues (faux hypothetically) to a cop: “Kill her, take her money and with the help of it devote oneself to the service of humanity and the good of all. What do you think, would not one tiny crime be wiped out by thousands of good deeds?”

It doesn’t matter how the cop answers, because a real Gulliver wouldn’t have asked a Lilliputian for his opinion. That’s Raskolnikov’s downfall. He’s reading from the wrong page in Save the Cat! He wants to be a Superhero (“An extraordinary person finds himself in an ordinary world”), but he’s really just a Dude with a Problem (“An ordinary guy finds himself in extraordinary circumstances”). Worse, his circumstances are self-inflicted. He fell for Snyder’s Superhero formula because it “gives flight to our greatest fantasies about our potential.”

Raskolnikov fails to be “a man of the future,” but Nietzsche (who ranked reading Dostoyevksky “among the most beautiful strokes of fortune in my life”) took that “extraordinary” character type and renamed him the ubermensch. After Jerry Siegel adopted it, DC completed the circle by calling Superman “The Man of Tomorrow.”

But Dostoyevsky is no origin point. After explaining his theories, even Raskolnikov admits: “there is nothing particularly new in all that. The same thing has been printed and read a thousand times before.”Or as one of Snyder’s studio execs told him: “Give me the same thing . . . only different!”

That, sadly, is the state of the Hollywood superhero.

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H. G. Wells lived in Essex, not Bath, but he did visit here in 1920 while having an affair with feminist icon and fellow eugenicist Margaret Sanger. Both thought birth control would save the world from the breeding of the economically unfit. They also liked the view of the river outside my flat:

“Our visitors began to realize that Bath could be very beautiful.”

Bath is one of Wells’ Secret Places of the Heart, the fictionalized autobiography he published in 1922. He’d been famous since his 90s hits, The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, and The War of the Worlds, which is at least partly why Sanger agreed to meet him while she was visiting England.

I didn’t meet Wells until 1973 when Marvel published its own War of the Worlds. Set after a second Martian invasion and conquest of earth, its hero Killraven (improbably co-penciled by Neal Adams and Howard Chaykin) sports over-the-knee boots, bare thighs and a navel-plunging neckline.

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I showed the cover to my son, who blinked and then mumbled, “Do they give some reason for dressing him like that?”

Which is the question that needs to be asked of thigh-booted superheroines too. X-Men artist David Cockrum was soon sketching Killraven’s boots onto Storm and Phoenix. Valkyrie and the Scarlet Witch got the fashion upgrade too. And starting this summer, Wonder Woman’s new costume includes thigh boots too.

Back in the 70s, Omega the Unknown continued the trend among Marvel males, but the All-Time Best Man in Thigh Boots Award goes to Sean Connery in his gloriously obscure 1974 scifi film Zardoz, in which the post-007 he-man plays a eugenic superman designed to exterminate and/or save Mankind from feminist costume designers from Mars.

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Though the look may have originated with Dumas’ ever-so-manly Three Musketeers, thigh boots have spent more time strolling the women’s side of the fashion aisle—usually under red lights, as indelibly displayed by Julia Roberts’ 1990 Pretty Woman.

The same was true in 1890, when the thigh boot was first making its way up the legs of London prostitutes. H. G. Wells visited his first at the tender age of 22, when his “secret shame at my own virginity became insupportable.” He termed the woman “unimaginative,” so she probably wasn’t up on the newest in fetish footwear.

The experience, Wells reports in his surprisingly sexual memoir, only “deepened my wary apprehension that round about the hidden garden of desire was a jungle of very squalid and stupid lairs.” Which might explain his Martians. Although they “wore no clothes,” they’re nothing like the genetically engineered super-seductive Sirens Killraven faces in the final panel of Amazing Advenures No. 18. H.G.’s Martians “were absolutely without sex, and therefore without any of the tumultuous emotions that arise from that difference among men.”

His Martians bud from their parents like fresh-water polyps. And yet they probably “descended from beings not unlike ourselves.”Imagine the human race devolving into a single sex. Writers for Syfy’s Warehouse 13 (my wife and I watched a season or two with our then pre-adolescent son) cast actress Jaime Murray as a thoroughly female H. G. Wells, a gender-bending experiment that thus far has not plunged our world into asexuality.

Helena (“Herbeta” must have sounded too lame) almost got her own spin-off series, but Stephen Spielberg has shown no interesting in sequeling his 2005 War of the Worlds remake. Some scenes were shot just outside my town. Tom Cruise even stopped by our ice cream shop and left a personal check in the change jar for a needy local. Tom is 5’7”, the cut-off height for extras advertised in our weekly paper and one of many reasons I did not apply.

Wells couldn’t have applied either. The average Victorian male towered under 5’6”, though Wells was short even in that stunted context. He’s also been called tubby and squeaky, and yet he was a male siren to the string of mistresses he wooed after shedding his virginal shame. He titled one of his autobiographies H. G. Wells in Love, which remained unpublishable until well after his conquests’ deaths. He must have had a thing for feminist icons, because Rebecca West makes the list of not-so-secret lovers too. One of my sister’s coffee mugs quotes her: “I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.”Actually, the mug makers deleted the last three words, even though they do reflect Wells’ continuing interests. He was still visiting the jungle lairs of American call girls at the tender age of 74.

I don’t really want to know how “imaginative” they were, but Killraven grew more so after artist P. Craig Russell inherited the series. He kept the thigh boots, but slipped on a pair of trousers and an asymmetrical battleblouse. The style was chaos to my eight-year-old eyes, but looking back now I see why Russell has been likened to art nouveau, the fashion rage when H. G. Wells first serialized War of the Worlds in 1897. Superheroes were supposed to throw hard-edged punches, but Russell’s lines are soft, his vision literally flowery. Killraven’s battle with the butterfly-woman may not reach Maxfield Parrish heights, but even as a kid I sensed something perplexingly androgynous in those curves.

Wells’ sexless Martians avoid such tumult. They’re just brains with tentacles—though, like Bram Stoker’s Dracula published the same year, they have a lust for human blood. Russell serves them infants on platters, and Killraven was bred to feed their appetite for gladiator sport. Scenes from Dracula have been anthologized in Victorian erotica collections, but Tom Cruise’s bouts with the Martian blood-suckers included no sex scenes. It’s just as well costume designer Joanna Johnston didn’t lace him into thigh boots.

But Tom did accidentally gender flip himself when Angelina Jolie took his role in the 2010 spy thriller Salt. Jodi Foster only reads for male parts, which, sadly, is how she ended up in Elysium. Sigourney Weaver turned Alien into a four-film franchise the same way. And even Sean Connery has to admit Judi Dench is the best M in Bond history.

Strong Female Characters have been taking the initiative for a while now. A 2007 study in Mass Communication & Society investigated “whether or not animated superheroes were portrayed in gender-role stereotypical ways.” To the researcher’s surprise, they found “that females are being presented as more masculine” by adding “the masculine trait of aggression to a character who is already portrayed as having traditional feminine traits such as being beautiful, emotional, slim, and attractive” while deleting “domesticity” and “passivity.”

Although the authors acknowledge their findings could suggest “female superheroes are finally breaking down the gender-based stereotypes,” they’re also why the Hawkeye Initiative wants to “fix every Strong Female Character pose in superhero comics” by replacing “the character with Hawkeye doing the same thing.”

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It’s a great project, but even the best of the parodies can’t touch  the accidental parody of the original thigh-booted Killraven.

The long-running trend to hyper-sexualize superheroine bodies is a reaction to female characters taking on that so-called masculine trait of aggression. Comics creators are afraid we’re devolving into unisexed Martians. Like Wells, they are big believers in “that difference.” Since domesticity is extinct, artists like Todd McFarlane counter-balance female aggression by inflating female sexuality. They’ve bred superheroines into battle-prostitutes.

I think humans have more in common with Martians than we care to think, but I’m glad no fashion aliens are trying to fit me into thigh boots just yet. Killraven started wearing his in the no-longer-distant year of 2017.  That’s a future I hope humankind avoids. But it beats Wells’ alternative:

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I’m shocked to report that spending July 4th in Bath will mean no Fourth of July fireworks. For some reason England doesn’t celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. So this year I’ll have to settle for American superhero psychoanalysis instead:

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The Declaration of Independence is, according to Noam Chomsky, the first American superhero text. A student asked the world-renowned linguist and political commentator about the hordes of zombies invading TVs and theaters, and he explained that in American pop lit, we’re always “about to face destruction from some terrible, awesome enemy, and at the last moment we’re saved by a superhero.”

John Lawrence and Robert Jewett call it The Myth of the American Superhero: “Spiderman and Superman contend against criminals and spies just as the Lone Ranger puts down threats by greedy frontier gangs. Thus paradise is depicted as repeatedly under siege, its citizens pressed down by alien forces too powerful for democratic institutions to quell.”

“So you go back to the early years,” Chomsky explains, “the terrible enemy was the Indians,” those flesh-devouring monsters Thomas Jefferson called “the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

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That includes those folks who mercilessly rescued the first boatload of pilgrims from starvation. Also please ignore the fact that Jefferson’s fellow founders signed a treaty with a horde that would have made the Delaware tribe the fourteenth state of the new Union. Like the vast majority of U.S. treaties, things didn’t work out as stated.

“It turns out,” says Noam, “this enemy, this horrible enemy that’s going to destroy us, is someone we’re oppressing.” He explains the reversal as “a recognition — at some level of the psyche — that if you’ve got your boot on somebody’s neck, there’s something wrong, and that the people you’re oppressing may rise up and defend themselves, and then you’re in trouble.”

So Jefferson put the focus on the supervillainous King George instead:  “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.” The list of offenses includes plundering, ravaging, and completing “the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.”And for a final outrage, George also “excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers,” those aforementioned, George-like savages.

Since its founding document, America has defined itself as a champion of the oppressed—even when it’s been busy oppressing the oppressed. I grew up in Pittsburgh, home of the first recorded act of germ warfare. When two chiefs visited Fort Pitt in 1763 to offer its besieged inhabitants safe retreat from Indian territory, the British commander declined but presented them with a gift of smallpox-infected blankets, hoping they would “have the desired effect.” Next Rev. John “Fighting Parson” Elder was rousing hordes of merciless vigilantes to ride to the rescue and attack Indians living among settlers. “These poor defenseless creatures,” wrote Ben Franklin, “were immediately fired upon, stabbed, and hatcheted to Death!” When the Pennsylvania governor posted rewards, no one turned in the murderers because, Rev. Elder explained, “the men in private life are virtuous and respectable; not cruel, but mild and merciful.”

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America is schizophrenic. We were founded on alter egos. And yet Francis Parkman, while chronicling Pontiac’s so-called Conspiracy, declares the Indian to be full of “contradiction”:  “A wild love of liberty, an utter intolerance of control, lie at the basis of his character, and fire his whole existence. Yet, in spite of this haughty independence, he is a devout hero-worshipper; and high achievement in war or policy touches a chord to which his nature never fails to respond. He looks up with admiring reverence to the sages and heroes of his tribe.”

That same liberty-loving hero-worship infuses the schizophrenic character of our American supermen and their readers. Of course we adore alter egos. Robert Bird’s proto-Batman, Nick of the Woods, isn’t the only frontiersman suffering from multiple personalities: the Quaker-by-day doesn’t seem to know he’s also an Indian-killing demon-by-night. I prefer Doc Savage and the contorted narrative tricks his writer Lester Dent has to play to avoid the obvious. The character is named after a real-life Colonel Savage, “a hero of the Spanish-American War,” in which the U.S. seized Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines from Spain. In his 1932 debut, Doc Savage travels through Central America to find “the Valley of the Vanished” where no “outside races have intermarried” with “the high class of Mayan” believed extinct since Spanish colonization. Though a Mayan princess, apparently attracted by Savage’s racially ambiguous bronze skin, would love to intermarry, he returns to New York only with a gift of gold from “the treasure trove of ancient Maya” to finance his do-gooding missions.

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It’s a peculiarly American take on colonization, where the colonized are not only willingly plundered but must remain hidden in a static preserve unrelated to any of those actual Indians openly impoverished within the borders of the contemporary U.S.  John Carlos Rowe calls it our “contradictory self-conceptions”: “Americans’ interpretations of themselves as people are shaped by a powerful imperial desire and a profound anti-colonial temper.”

That duality also accounts for America’s “paranoid streak.” “The United States is an unusually frightened country,” says Chomsky. “And in such circumstances, people concoct either for escape or maybe out of relief, fears that terrible things happen.”  Chomsky’s list of later zombified fears include revolting slaves and “Hispanic narco-traffickers.” If his classroom Skype interview hadn’t lurched to the next question, I think he would have added the hordes of Muslims currently clawing at the gate of America wilderness fort.

Osama bin Laden’s “Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places” bears an uncomfortable resemblance to “The Declaration of Independence.” Bin Laden wrote two fatwas before 9/11, both roughly the length of our founding text. He lists “crimes and sins committed by the Americans,” calling them “facts that are known to everyone.” Jefferson lets his “Facts be submitted to a candid world,” detailing England’s “abuses and usurpations.” Like King George’s “establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States,” America is “plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors.” Both declare the “duty” and “honor” of the oppressed to fight for “justice,” evoking Allah and “Nature’s God” in support:

“Our Lord, rescue us . . . and raise for us from thee one who will help!”

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“Superman’s powers weren’t unique,” writes Deborah Friedell, “but his schlumpy double identity was,” because “it is the ordinary person, Clark Kent, who is the disguise.”

The assertion is indirectly Brad Ricca’s, whose biography Superboys Friedell was reviewing, but either way, I have to raise my hand from over here in Bath, England where I’m teaching this month, and say, well, actually, no. Jerry Siegel can only claim uniqueness points if you ignore a range of earlier, disguise-reversing characters, including Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel–whose 1934 film incarnation Siegel would have watched before his coincidental stroke of Superman inspiration later the same year.

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I’m guessing, however, Jerry didn’t read much by Bath’s most beloved literary daughter, Jane Austen. Which is a shame because she penned the first Clark Kent all the way back in 1817. Austen was more or less on her deathbed at the time, which might explain why she was writing about invalids at a beach resort, and, more sadly, why she never finished.

“Jane Austen left few hints about the direction Sanditon would have taken had her health allowed its completion,” writes Austen expert Mary Jane Curry. “Perhaps future study will suggest why, if Austen family lore is true, Jane Austen called it ‘The Brothers.’” Laurel Ann Nattress thinks the middle of the titular brothers, the very good-looking and lively countenanced Sydney, was “possibly to emerge as the hero.” Maria Grazia agrees (“The male hero seems to be in Jane’s intentions, Sidney Parker”), scolding Juliette Shapiro for her treatment of the character and the subsequent romance (“Rather improbable”) in a completion of Austen’s novel.

Shapiro’s is only one of over a half dozen attempts (including a webseries set in California) to pick up where Austen’s dying hand dropped off. Perhaps so many of them fail because they champion the wrong Mr. Parker. My bets are on Sydney’s kid brother, the mild-mannered Arthur.

He, like his delicately hypochondriac older sisters, has come to Sanditon to convalesce. Charlotte, Austen’s final protagonist, “had considerable curiosity to see Mr. Arthur Parker; and having fancied him a very puny, delicate-looking young man, materially the smallest of a not very robust family, was astonished to find him quite as tall as his brother and a great deal stouter, broad made and lusty, and with no other look of an invalid than a sodden complexion.” That’s a casting call for Christopher Reeve.

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Arthur only receives one scene (more than his feckless brother), but it has all the hallmarks of a Kryptonian slumming as a cowardly weakling. His first line is an apology for hogging the seat by the fire. “We should not have had one at home,” said he, “but the sea air is always damp. I am not afraid of anything so much as damp.” Charlotte is fortunate never to know whether air is damp or dry, as it has always some property that is wholesome and invigorating.

“I like the air too, as well as anybody can,” replies Arthur. “I am very fond of standing at an open window when there is no wind. But, unluckily, a damp air does not like me. It gives me the rheumatism.” He is also, he confesses, “very nervous,” an obscure 19th century condition sadly extinct by the time Siegel was writing, or surely Clark would have suffered it too. “To say the truth, nerves are the worst part of my complaints in my opinion.”

Charlotte recommends exercise. “Oh, I am very fond of exercise myself,” he replies, “and I mean to walk a great deal while I am here, if the weather is temperate. I shall be out every morning before breakfast and take several turns upon the Terrace, and you will often see me at Trafalgar House.” But does Arthur really call a walk to Trafalgar House much exercise? “Not as to mere distance, but the hill is so steep! Walking up that hill, in the middle of the day, would throw me into such a perspiration! You would see me all in a bath by the time I got there! I am very subject to perspiration, and there cannot be a surer sign of nervousness.”

Adding to sweat and humidity, Arthur reveals his most feared form of liquid kryptonite. “What!” said he. “Do you venture upon two dishes of strong green tea in one evening? What nerves you must have! Now, if I were to swallow only one such dish, what do you think its effect would be upon me?” Keep him awake perhaps all night? “Oh, if that were all!” he exclaims. “No. It acts on me like poison and would entirely take away the use of my right side before I had swallowed it five minutes. It sounds almost incredible, but it has happened to me so often that I cannot doubt it. The use of my right side is entirely taken away for several hours!”

Is Arthur duping Charlotte the way Clark dupes Lois? Hard to say. It is clear, however, that the man is masking deeper appetites. Although he pretends, “A large dish of rather weak cocoa every evening agrees with me better than anything,” Charlotte observes the drink “came forth in a very fine, dark-coloured stream,” prompting his sisters’ outrage. “Arthur’s somewhat conscious reply of ‘Tis rather stronger than it should be tonight,’ convinced her that Arthur was by no means so fond of being starved as they could desire or as he felt proper himself.” Arthur has a similar weakness for liberally buttered toast, “seizing an odd moment for adding a great dab just before it went into his mouth.” Wine also does him surprising good. “The more wine I drink—in moderation—the better I am.”

Charlotte, demonstrating the sleuthing skills of a top notch girl reporter, notes “Mr. Arthur Parker’s enjoyments in invalidism,” suspecting “him of adopting that line of life principally for the indulgence of an indolent temper, and to be determined on having no disorders but such as called for warm rooms and good nourishment.” Laurel Ann Nattress (did I mention she has a blog on Austen?) thinks the twenty-year-old has been “cosseted” (presumably by his doting sisters) “into believing himself to be of delicate health.”

That’s the interpretation Bryan Singer adopted for his 2006 Superman Returns. The Man of Steel’s bastard son, the five-year-old Jason, appears to be an asthmatic runt—until he throws a piano at the thug menacing his mother, Lois. Was little Jason just jerking everyone around? Hard to say. But his old man certainly was. The best scene from Quentin Tarantino Kill Bill is David Carradine’s superhero monologue:

“When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. What Kent wears – the glasses, the business suit – that’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak… he’s unsure of himself… he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.”

Austen is critiquing us too, our laziness and self-serving foibles, but being also a devoted lover of the marriage plot, would she have left poor Arthur to stew in his rather weak brew of humanity? I’m not suggesting the young man was hiding a capital “S” under his shirt, but Austen seems to have hidden something under there. Lois eventually pulled the glasses off Clark. I suspect Charlotte would have done the same with her tall, broad, and lusty invalid.

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