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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.

Things about your writing you never want to hear:

“It’s just disturbing.”

“No, no, this can’t be.”

“That’s a little terrifying to me.”

And my all-time least favorite:

“How are people not going to hunt him down and harass him when this book comes out?”

The book is On the Origin of Superheroes, due out next fall from the University of Iowa Press. You can probably guess it’s about the pre-history of the superhero genre, or, as the subtitle says: From the Big Bang to Action Comics No. 1.  So that’s literally everything up until Superman, including—and this is the disturbingly no no hunt-me-down terrifying part—the Ku Klux Klan.

klan poster

But first a major thanks to Major Spoilers. The comic book podcast recently interviewed superhero scholar Dr. Peter Coogan, and the conversation centered on my article “The Ku Klux Klan and the Birth of the Superhero.” It was published in England’s Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics in 2013, and its argument is part of the book: superheroes are descended from the KKK. Actually superheroes are descended from all kinds of things, and the Klan is just one of them, an idea Major Spoilers still found “hard to swallow.”

So did Peter Coogan when he first reviewed the essay, but he came around quickly, recommending that JGNC publish it: “This is one of those articles that once you’ve read it, it seems impossible to unthink it. I’m going to incorporate this idea into my teaching and my own work.  I can’t believe I didn’t see this connection.”

Pete (we’ve since become friends) also warned me by email about his Major Spoilers conversation before it aired: “I wanted to give you a heads up because the hosts had a reaction that some of my students had, which is to feel uncomfortable about Superman having any genealogical relationship to the Klan. People just don’t like that idea.”

No, they really don’t. And I don’t either. The first time I introduced the notion in class, my students and I searched for every possible way to define superheroes in a way that excluded vigilantism. It’s hard to do. Secret identities, codenames, costumes, chest emblems, the KKK has them all. Pete tried too, arguing that superheroes only “supplement the police” and so “support legitimate authority” by “turning criminals over” after stopping them with “minimal level of violence necessary.”

And that does describe plenty of superheroes and proto-superheroes. The 70s Avengers even became a department of the U.S. government, each employee earning a tax-financed salary of $1,000 a day.  As far as violence, the Lone Ranger’s creators Fran Striker and George W. Trendle were one of the first to lay down the law for their radio writers: “When he has to use guns, The Lone Ranger never shoots to kill, but rather only to disarm his opponent as painlessly as possible.”

But there’s a lot of violent gray zone. Martin Parker’s 1656 “Robbin Hood” didn’t kill, but he did merrily separate clergymen from their money and their testicles:

No monkes nor fryers he would let goe,

Without paying their fees;

If they thought much to be usd so,

Their stones he made them leese.

Worse, Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko considers superheroes “moral avengers” who must kill criminals in order to champion “a clear understanding of right and wrong,” even if that means violating the “pervading legal moral” code. Pete would place Ditko’s homicidal Mr. A with the 70s Punisher, who, like lots of pulp heroes of the 30s, constitutes his own one-man legal system, marshal-judge-executioner.

The problem is that ill-defined term “vigilante.” Instead of a toggle switch—either you’re a lawful hero or you’re a lawless villain—I see a spectrum. Spider-Man, like most superheroes, swings somewhere in-between, chasing crooks while cops chase him. But whether gunning down the bad guys or leaving them wrapped with a bow in front of police headquarters, superheroes are independent operators. Which means when they disagree with the law and the government, they make their own judgments. Even star-spangled super soldier Captain America turned noble criminal rather than obey a law that violated his own sense of morality. And while Iron Man backed the Superhuman Registration Act, it wasn’t from blind allegiance to his government. He backed it because he personally thought it was right.

The KKK were the product of a very different Civil War, but their fictional characters in Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansmen and D. W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation play by the same rules. Pete read aloud their mission statement on Major Spoilers:

“To protect the weak, the innocent, and the defenseless from indignities, wrongs and outrages of the lawless, the violent, and the brutal; to relieve the injured and the oppressed: to succour the suffering and unfortunate . . . “

Sounds like any superhero, doesn’t it? Until you get to the last phrase:

“and especially the widows and the orphans of Confederate Soldiers.”

“Hey,” said the hosts, “he tricked us!”

They eventually concluded that the difference between a hero and a villain is a matter of perspective, because probably even Lex Luthor thinks he’s helping the world. Pete also swooped to the rescue with Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and a superhero’s “ontological vocation of humanization.” In other words, a superhero has a deep calling to become more fully human and to help others to do the same.  Clearly the KKK’s attacks and lynchings fail that criterion.

Pete’s point sounds exactly right, and the hosts “sighed a little bit of relief,” but for me this is where the Klan parallel is most disturbing. Even though Major Spoilers acknowledged that I am “not advocating for the Klan” and that I am “not saying superheroes are racist and fascistic,” Dixon and Griffith didn’t consider the KKK racist and fascistic either. Unlike Lex Luthor, who knowingly turns others into his tools and so is not helping them become more fully human, the Klan did not consider African Americans to be human. From Dixon and Griffith’s grotesque perspective, ex-slaves were subhuman obstacles preventing white Southerners from actualizing themselves. So in the most perverse reading of Freire possible, the KKK fixed the problem.  In their minds and in the minds of their fans, they were superheroes.

Which is to say, yeah, please don’t hunt me down and harass me when the book comes out.

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Guest writer, Brittany Lloyd

scott nicolay story collection coverZorro_(novel)_cover

In their works, Ana Kai Tangata and Zorro, Scott Nicolay and Isabel Allende use subterranean features, specifically caves, as a mirror to their male character’s relationship with females. Although Nicolay and Allende have vastly different writing styles and storylines, their main characters are strikingly similar in one major aspect: All of the men in Nicolay and Allende’s works have flawed relationships with females. However, despite external similarities, Nicolay and Allende portray their male characters in different lights. For Nicolay, the relationships his male characters form with women are unacceptable. These relationships isolate the men enough to leave them vulnerable to the “weird.” On the other hand, Allende rewards and romanticizes her male character’s interactions with the feminine. Paralleling caves with the female body in Nicolay and Allende’s stories allows the reader further insight into gender relations in the universe of Ana Kai Tangata and Zorro. In Allende’s universe, the caves are sacred, a place where Diego seeks solace. However, they also clearly belong to Diego and his group of followers. Conversely, the caves in Nicolay’s works are grotesque in nature and clearly the realm of powerful, albeit terrifying, female characters. Ultimately, how Nicolay and Allende write about caves depicts the morally accepted roles of masculine characters within their created universes.

To begin this discussion of cave symbolism in Nicolay and Allende’s works, it is necessary to explore the concept of ecofeminism. As one scholar defines it, “Ecofeminism argues that there are important connections between the domination and oppression of women and domination and exploitation of nature by masculinist methods and attitudes” (Kaur). Ecofeminism has gained credence and popularity in the last few years, as it seeks to understand not only the relationship between the female body and the earth, but also how this relationship either empowers or disempowers women. In literary works, especially, Nature is often linked to the feminine form, while Reason/Logic are linked to the masculine (Gaard 118). Indeed, the figure of the Great Mother Earth is one of the most famous Jungian archetype, standing directly opposite to Logical Man. This dichotomous relationship between Nature and Logic mirrors the binaristic mode so common in patriarchal cultures. It assumes the mind is inherently separate from the body, thus creating a centralized “One” and an ostracized “Other.” The field of ecofeminism connects the “othered” Nature with the “othered” female and attempts to reconcile their place on the outside. Furthermore, ecofeminism is “committed to exposing the ways in which certain groups maintain their superior status through the subordination and domination of women” (Mallory 177). In other words, the ways in which men interact with the Earth are not only symbolically, but also literally, mirrors of how they are expected to treat women within their culture.

In the case of Ana Kai Tangata and Zorro, the most representative natural feature of the female body is the cave. Although extensive analysis has not been conducted on cave symbolism in literature, there is a long anthropological and oral history linking caves to the womb. As Doris Heyden writes in her commentary on cave symbolism, “In all cultures and in almost all epochs the cave has been the symbol of creation, the place of emergence of celestial bodies, of ethnic groups and individuals. It is the great womb of earth and sky, a symbol of life” (Heyden). Furthermore, caves share many of the same physical attributes as the womb: Dark, wet, round, hidden within, etc. They also act as literal entrances and exits from the earth, suggesting both the reception of the penis during sex as well as the expulsion of the child during birth. In analyzing the male characters in Nicolay and Allende’s books through an ecofeminist lens, it is important to realize the potent symbolic and literal relations between the caves and the female body.

Before delving into literary analysis of Ana Kai Tangata and Zorro, one must clarify the types of relationships Nicolay and Allende’s male characters have with females. Allende writes about her main character, “Thanks to his natural charm – which is more than a little – and his awesome good luck, he has been loved by dozens of women, usually without inviting it” (168). However, while Diego de la Vega participates in various sexual escapades, he never develops an emotional attachment to these women. The only exception would be Amalia, the gypsy woman, who acts as both a Mother figure as well as a sexual partner to Diego. However, Allende reminds her reader that Diego’s “emotions were compartmentalized, parallel lines that never crossed” (168). In other words, love and lust never overlap in Diego’s world. While he cares for Amalia as a mother figure, he does not love her in a romantic way, therefore making sex with her possible. Indeed, as Isabel reveals at the end of the novel, “I realized in time that our hero is capable of loving only women who do not love him back” (390). For Diego, the elevated concept of love exists separate from and above the physical female body. The romance he creates in his head is entirely separate from the female’s physical form, allowing him to objectify women while still maintaining the aura of a romantic gentleman.

On the other hand, Nicolay’s characters are not romanticized in any way. In “Phragmites,” Austin Becenti continuously recalls his relationship with Sam, stating, “He more likely would’ve laughed had he foreseen how far south this relationship would go and how fast it would go there” (Nicolay 122). Their rocky relationship haunts him throughout the entirety of the text, culminating in the revelation that Austin is actually Sam’s half-brother. Although Austin’s story is less sexual than many of the others in Ana Kai Tangata, his failed relationship with Sam is still a prevalent trope throughout “Phragmites.” In “Tuckahoe,” Donny Cantu is a much more sexualized character, though he also has a significant association with Alyssa Campion. Their relationship is highly sexualized, as witnessed by their first “date,” in which “Donny looked her up and down without apology now, tits and hips and smooth creamy skin. Hair short and shiny and black as a crow’s back” (288). Their sexual chemistry extends further when Donny recalls, “She’d gotten her rocks off a bunch of times but Donny just couldn’t come … still had all his cookies as Martina used to say although when she said it she said it for herself – and to critique his performance” (292). Not only does this statement suggest the sexual nature of his relationship with Alyssa, it also suggests the existence of past sexual lovers. Presumably, he did not share a sturdy relationship with these other women either. Unlike in Allende’s works, these troubled relationships between Austin and Donny and their female counterparts are representative of their failed masculinity.

Perhaps one of the most important means of discussing masculine power in Ana Kai Tangata and Zorro is the way in which the male characters inhabit the female space of the cave. In “Phragmites,” Dennison pushes his cousin into the cave. Thus, Austin enters the inner space of the cave against his will. Afterwards, he lies incapacitated on the floor of the cave, broken and battered. Nicolay describes the scene aptly, writing:

He couldn’t tell for how long, knew only that he came to aware all at once of a gap and of his battle for breath. A weight compressed his chest and what little wisps of air he could manage rasped in his throat. He tried to scream as panic swept him but squeezed out only a whispered croak (162).

From the time he enters the cave until the moment of his untimely death, Austin is a prisoner of the cave. Even in the face of his own death, he is helpless, unable to escape the advance of the Spider Woman. In this way, the cave strips Austin of his masculine power, both physically and mentally. Not only is his body destroyed – “His torso though was become an arena of blunt agony and his right leg had caught beneath itself and bent with a crack … He was fucked up enough already. He could tell that much” – but he is also left mentally devastated. After his fall into the cave, Austin denies the hopelessness of his situation for quite some time. He continues to go through the steps leading to his rescue in his head, including, “Dennison calling for help, walking back down the mountain if he had to. A chopper. Airlift. ER.Surgery … Whatever it took. Put him back together again” (162). Despite the fact his cousin knowingly and willingly destroyed their only means of transport back down the mountain, in addition to purposely pushing him into the cave, Austin believes he will escape with his life. He only understands the true nature of his situation when he hears Sam’s cell phone ringing somewhere inside the cave. At this point, “A depthless sob racked his torso and he gasped in anguish and agony … He began to cry for real then” (166-167). Although he appeared to have been holding it together prior to this realization, Austin loses control of his mental facilities entirely when he is confronted by the dead body of his ex-lover. Ultimately, both Austin’s physical and mental capacities are broken down, leaving him in the control of the cave. Thus, the cave actively works towards destroying the masculine entity in its physical and mental form.

Similarly to Austin, Donny in “Tuckahoe” enters the cave unwillingly. In this story, Nicolay makes a very blatant comparison between the cave and the vagina, stating, “Donny leveled the 9 at the tall man’s chest just as the ground split beneath his feet and sucked him in quick and smooth as Alyssa’s snatch had swallowed his cock the night before” (Nicolay 327). Before being swallowed by the earth, Donny attempts to confront Storch with his gun, not realizing until too late “bullets won’t do much good on them” (335). Taking the gun as a phallic symbol, Donny’s masculinity fails him at the moment he most needs it. He also goes through a similar process of denial as Austin, thinking through in his head an escape plan:

Donny calculated how he could clear a path with just two rounds left, make his route out, how to get to a main road and a radio. Most of all a radio or a phone. Maybe that neighbor with the chainsaw if he was still around. Then backup. Lots of backup. National fucking Guard backup (327).

Despite his best efforts, however, Donny falls victim to the cave. During his time there, “He hung in the open, no wall behind him, wrists wrapped in some thick cords, ankles also bound” (Nicolay 329). The scratches on his back, given to him by Alyssa during their sexual tryst, appear to be supporting him, or at least keeping him alive. Like Austin, the cave drains Donny of both his physical and mental prowess, though the process takes somewhat longer for Donny. And, while Donny does endure a great deal of physical torment, the focus on his loss of mental abilities is more pronounced than in “Phragmites” After some time hanging in the cave, Donny realizes “what thoughts he managed were muzzy and no longer his own … He drifted in a daze now, no division between waking and dream, nightmare long since his life as much as his dreams” (330). Indeed, even after his physical death, Donny’s mental anguish remains present. At the end of the story he watches a very pregnant Alyssa pick up his own brain. In this scene, Nicolay simultaneously reinforces a resemblance between Alyssa and the womb-like cave and also suggests the control they both have over Donny’s body and brain.

In contrast to the male characters in Nicolay’s work, Allende’s main character moves through the caves much more freely. Diego/Zorro enters/exits the caves whenever he pleases. Indeed, sometimes, such as in the case of the tunnels at the old prison, they seem to appear to him like magic. However, the most telling sign of Diego’s power over the caves occurs shortly after his grandmother introduces him and Bernardo to the sacred caves around their house. Here, “Diego, who was slimmer and more agile, crawled inside and discovered a tunnel that quickly opened up enough for him to stand. The boys returned with candles and picks and shovels, and in the following weeks worked at widening the passageway” (38). Not only does Diego use the caves at his whim, he also takes the liberty of physically altering them when it suits his needs. Allende’s character’s “remodeling” of the cave could be quite harmful to the natural balance of the underground world. Even if the widening did not harm the cave itself, the fact that Diego exerts power over the caves in both a physical and mental way is in stark contrast to Austin in “Phragmites” and Donny in “Tuckahoe.” Additionally, Diego houses all of his Zorro possessions, including his mask and whip, inside the caves. After Zorro’s heist at the prison, he also finds in the cave “a wineskin, bread, cheese, and honey to help him recover from his recent bad treatment,” courtesy of Bernardo (375). Here, the caves literally nurture Diego and provide him with a safe space to store his costume and other Zorro possessions. These tokens are closely tied with Diego’s manhood, suggesting his masculine presence in the caves at all times. Thus, he constantly inhabits, in an active manner, the most intimate part of the female body. In doing so, he also shows subconscious control over the women in his life.

Another key factor in analyzing these characters’ relationships with females is through the feminine characters that inhabit the caves alongside the male main characters. In the example of “Phragmites,” one of the most significant feminine characters is Na’ashjeii Asdzaa. The Spider Woman, who eventually kills Austin at the end of the story, maintains a great deal of agency over the caves. Before Dennison and Austin reach the cave, Dennison stresses, “You understand? It’s her cave” (139). Earlier in the story, he also explains “her home was a scary place and the Twins had to think hard about going down there. So scary it was the great moment of decision on their journey. Bones all over. Stink of death” (138-139). In that same story, the Spider Woman gives the Twins eagle feathers, one of the most powerful and sacred symbols in Navajo tradition. Indeed, she helps the two boys who journey to her cave, suggesting she is not an inherently evil force. However, as Austin sees her, the Spider Woman is presented as “the dreadful immensity emerging from the shadowed depths … filling the passage with its bulk” (167). Due to Austin’s terrified description of the Spider Woman, it can be assumed she did not help Austin at the end of the story. Rather, the Spider Woman is almost goddess-like in her ability to both reward and punish men depending on their moral character.

Indeed, in both “Phragmites” and “Tuckahoe,” major female characters appear to be otherworldly or superior to humans. In Tuckahoe, the most omnipresent female figure is Mother Storch, who is mentioned several times throughout the story before the reader is finally introduced to her in a physical form. The way Donny treats Mother Storch at first is careful, as evidenced when he “entered the chamber with slow and deliberate steps and advanced until his light at last began to shine on the base of the immensity direct in his path” (Nicolay 338). The bulk blocks Donny’s path to the exit, literally taking up an entire room within the underground tunnel system. Donny notes, “It was not as high as the haystack from before but reached all the way to the low vaulted roof where it extended out in one vast and slowly pulsing mass” (339).  Not long after Donny’s initial encounter with the mass, he finally realizes its true identity: the old Mother Storch, or Mother Leed as she prefers to be called. The monster/ fertility goddess speaks directly to Donny in this story, stating, “You men are great deceivers you are. You only want to push us full of babes and make us do the work. But you always hurt, hurt, hurt” (Nicolay 341). In this passage, Mother Storch addresses the issue of male dominance directly. At the same time, she acts as a powerful female figure, cutting Donny off from the outside world and eventually aiding in his death.

For Allende, the main female character involved with the caves is Isabel. Unlike many of the other females in both Ana Kai Tangata and even Zorro, Isabel is a strictly nonsexual character. Although Allende reveals she has been sexually active by the end of the novel, throughout the majority of the text Isabel is described as someone no man would desire in a sexual context. Indeed, only one man in the entire story calls her beautiful, and that man ends up marrying her older sister. One of the reasons Isabel is desexualized is because of her “masculine” nature. Isabel is described as a very masculine female, especially after their pilgrimage to escape from Barcelona. Alledende writes:

Isabel, strong and slender, was the one who suffered least from the journey. Her features sharpened, and she acquired a long, sure stride that made her appear boyish. She had never been happier; she was born for freedom. ‘Curses! Why wasn’t I born a man?’ (Allende 257).

Furthermore, when Isabel is within the caves, she is actually portrayed as a male. Originally, Diego believes Bernardo, his milk brother, is the only other Zorro. However, after he escapes from Moncada with the help of Zorro and returns to the caves, he realizes Isabel is also Zorro. Although Diego is grateful for Isabel’s assistance, he originally suggests she cannot be Zorro, because she is a female. Although he changes his mind, it is important to note Isabel is not a feminine Zorro. Instead, she is a biological female donning the costume of the very masculine Zorro. Allende introduces Isabel as Zorro by writing, “There he stood, flesh and blood, lighted by several dozen wax candles and two torches, proud, elegant, unmistakable (383). Thus, Isabel should not be read as a strong, independent woman, but rather a woman who is forced to become a male in mind and form in order to enter into the sacred context of the caves. In this way, despite the presence of a female character, the caves are still entirely under the control of the masculine.

The relationship between the female body and the earth is a long-standing literary tradition, dating back to the Greeks in written history, and well before their time in oral cultures around the world. However, as Donald McAndrew points out, “this romantic and ideal view of nature – ‘Mother Earth,’ ‘Mother Gaia,’ the pure, all giving woman – in much of contemporary ecological theory and comes to the conclusion that behind this romantic posture is a nastier side that desires control and power” (McAndrew 376). Thus, writing about the earth in a romantic manner, as Allende demonstrates in Zorro, may initially appear to be flattering to the female form. However, underlying the outwardly praise runs a deep-seated current of male dominance. In writing about the Earth as only a gentle, nurturing figure, Allende creates a very one-sided feminine world. Furthermore, in her portrayal of Diego as both a womanizer and a romantic, she empowers the concept of masculine domination over the feminine. On the other hand, Nicolay presents his readers with a much more three-dimensional portrait of the feminine earth. The caves in “Phragmites” and “Tuckahoe” empower the feminine through the destruction of the male main characters. By reading Nicolay and Allende’s texts through the lens of ecofeminism, the differences in treatment of the male characters by these two authors become clear. While Nicolay punishes and alienates his male characters for their misogyny, Allende creates a world in which misogynist tendencies are either ignored or blatantly rewarded. Thus, the relationships these men have the earth, specifically caves, illustrates the balance (or imbalance) of masculine and feminine power within the world of Ana Kai Tangata and Zorro.

Works Cited

Allende, Isabel, and Margaret Sayers. Peden. Zorro: A Novel. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. Print.

Gaard, Greta. “Toward a Queer Ecofeminism.” Hypatia 12.1 (1997): 114-37. Web.

Heyden, Doris. “Caves.” Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. Vol. 3. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 1468-1473. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 12 Dec. 2014.

Kaur, Gurreet. “An Exegesis of Postcolonial Ecofeminism in Contemporary Literature.” GSTF Journal of Law and Social Sciences (JLSS) 2.1 (2012): 188-95. ProQuest. Web.

Mallory, Chaone. “Locating Ecofeminism in Encounters with Food and Place.” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 26.1 (2013): 171-89. Web.

McAndrew, Donald A. “Ecofeminism and the Teaching of Literacy.” National Council of Teachers of English 47.3 (1996): 367-82. JSTOR. Web.

Nicolay, Scott. Ana Kai Tangata: Tales of the Outer the Other the Damned and the Doomed. Nampa, ID: Fedogan & Bremer, 2014. Print.

Caves (2)

(Brittany Lloyd is a senior English and Anthropology Major at Washington and Lee University. Her interests include Native American literature, 21st century American literature, Queer Theory, Postcolonial Theory and Ecofeminism. She will be graduating in May of 2015 and hopefully interning in publishing before applying for Ph.D Programs in English. She wrote “’As if the earth under our feet were an excrement of some sky:;” An Ecofeminist Reading of Cave Symbolism in Scott Nicolay’s Ana Kai Tangata and Isabel Allende’s Zorro” in Professor Gavaler’s course 21st Century North American Fiction.)

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skye in himalayas

“Now take that frequency and see if you can amplify it,” Jiaying says.

Skye wants to obey her new mentor but is frightened of her own powers. “The last time I did something like this a lot of people got hurt.”

“You can’t hurt the mountain. And you’re not going to hurt me. Don’t be afraid.”

Skye braces herself, turns toward the snow-banked mountain range, and raises her hand in standard superhero style. Soon an orchestra of emotion-signifying strings rises from the soundtrack, and then a CGI avalanche tumbles scenically down the mountain side.

Skye gives a shocked smile. “I moved a mountain.”

“Remember that feeling. It’s not something to be afraid of.”

This is episode 2.17 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which aired April 14, eleven days before the Nepal earthquake. In Marvel Comics, Skye goes by the codename “Quake.” In the TV show, she’s just acquired her superpowers and has been whisked away to a secret mountain sanctuary to be trained by its semi-immortal leader. Jiaying never names the Himalayas, but that’s the main location of the Inhumans’ secret city in the comics, and in the show Skye was found as an infant in China. During the same episode, she discovers that Jiaying is her mother—played by Dichen Lachman, an actress of German, Australian, and Tibetan background. Lachman was born in Kathmandu, miles from the earthquake’ epicenter, which triggered an avalanche on Mount Everest, killing 19 people. The total death toll is over 7,000.

The coincidences are hard to comprehend. My wife and I watch S.H.I.E.L.D. with our son, and I remember her protesting from the other end of the couch that Skye’s avalanche could have hurt plenty of people. We’re usually a day or two behind streaming episodes, so this was still at least a week before the actual earthquake. We teach at Washington & Lee University, where a spring term roster of students was flying to Nepal for an interdisciplinary Economics and Religion course. I bumped into a wife of one of the professors in Kroger, and she said news of the quake broke just hours before their flight was to take off. She had been going too.

That’s as close as I get to the disaster.

This time last year, I was teaching my “Superheroes” course, and gave a guest lecture on colonialism and Orientalism in the superhero genre for Professor Melissa Kerin’s “Imaging Tibet” course. I showed image after racist image of European Americans visiting the magical realm, acquiring superhuman powers, and then returning home to battle evil. Batman Begins opens with Bruce Wayne scaling a Himalayan mountain side to arrive at Nanda Parbat, home of the League of Assassins, where Bruce would train with the semi-immortal Ra’s al Ghul to become Batman.

It wasn’t airing yet, but the current season of the Arrow TV show is centered around Nanda Parbat too. The TV Ra’s is played by a former Australian rugby player, and the equally European-looking actress playing his daughter speaks with what I think is supposed to be a British accent. Only the Ninja-like underlings look Asian. Nanda Parbat is a variation on Nanga Parbat, the western-most mountain of the Himalayas in Pakistan.

My wife, son and I sat on the same couch, watching Oliver Queen (“Green Arrow” in DC Comics) agree to become Ra’s al Ghul’s heir in exchange for Ra’s saving Oliver’s mortally wounded sister by dunking her in his magic fountain of semi-immortality.

Arrow thea in healing water

The ceremony involves a virginal white dress and antiquated pulley system of wood and rope. After vanishing under the bubbles, she catapults twelve feet through the air to land in cat-like on the fountain ledge.

“Tibet is one wacky place,” I said, and my wife laughed.

That’s episode 3.20, which aired on Wednesday April 22nd, three days before the Saturday earthquake.  In the week after, Oliver would be brainwashed into a heartless mass-murderer plotting the destruction of his own city, and Skye would use her newly controllable powers to rescue a fellow Inhuman and a cyborg S.H.E.I.L.D. agent from Hydra’s Antarctic prison laboratory.

On April 29, NPR reported on the flood of people trying to leave Kathmandu, and The Guardian described the rise of tensions over the slow pace of aid.  The same day actor Ryan Phillippe told Howard Stern that he had an upcoming meeting with Marvel, hinting that he may be cast as Iron Fist in the new Netflix superhero show about another European American traveling to the Himalayas and gaining superpowers.

Acotilletta2--Iron_Fist_modern_green

The collective origin point for all the superhero exoticism is Shangri-La, the magical Himalayan city of the 1937 film and 1933 novel Lost Horizon. It features a semi-immortal High Lama who recruits a European American to be his heir and rule the secret mountain paradise.

lost horizon

Edward Said asks: “How does Orientalism transmit or reproduce itself from one epoch to another?”I answered last year in a PS: Political Science & Politics essay: “In the case of superheroes, it is through the unexamined repetition of fossilized conventions that encode the colonialist attitudes that helped to create the original character type and continue to define it in relation to imperial practices.” I continued the thought in the book manuscript of On the Origin of Superheroes I sent to my press for copyediting last month: “The 1930s is an Orientalist pit superheroes may never climb out of.”

My claims are already outdated. These TV shows aren’t just continuing superhero Orientalism—they’re digging the pit deeper. And they’ve been digging it while actual Nepalese rescue workers have been digging earthquake victims from actual pits.

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scully

 It’s hard to believe, but The X-Files is returning to Fox. The six-episode mini-series starts shooting this summer. And Twin Peaks, another dead show about paranormal investigators, is being reincarnated by Showtime.

twin peaks

Why are occult detectives back in fashion? I think Scully’s M.D. makes her more qualified than either Agent Mulder or Agent Cooper, and also more of a target. Remember the episode when she gets abducted by aliens? The scene was shot in Vancouver, but they pretended it was Afton, Virginia—which does not have a funicular. I know because I used to drive over the Blue Ridge Mountains to the University of Virginia’s Creative Writing Department three days a week, unaware that the university also housed its own X-Files, the Division of Perceptual Studies.

DoPS founder, Dr. Ian P. Stevenson, died a few months after I finished my degree. Given his research area, I feel I should place an asterisk next to “died,” but his colleagues have yet to report evidence of his afterlife activities. Dr. Stevenson had been a full-time paranormal researcher since 1968 when philanthropist Chester Carlson, inventor of the Xerox machine, willed UVa’s medical school a grant for paranormal studies. So, yes, the world’s only university-based researcher of reincarnation was funded by photocopiers.

If a medical school seems on odd place to find a psychical investigator, you should know that Scully and Stevenson come from a long tradition of occult detectives with MDs. World-renown surgeon Stephen Strange abandoned his scalpels for astral projection in 1963, two years after Dr. Droom entered “that dark and mystical world which lies beyond the known and the unknown!” Dr. Stevenson visited India in 1961 too, to document his first of almost 3,000 cases of past-life memories. Stevenson was still finishing high school when Superman co-creators Siegel and Shuster dreamed up the first comic book occult physician, aptly named Dr. Occult. But Algernon Blackwood’s 1908 Dr. Silence is the first general practitioner to accept the superhero job title “psychic doctor.”

john-silence-poster

If a medical degree doesn’t sound sufficiently superheroic, then you need to see Hugh Jackman in Van Helsing–or wait for the Tom Cruise reincarnation, if it ever escapes from development hell. All these Hippocratic Oath-swearing healthcare professionals also reveal the superhero genre’s most important superpower. Sure, X-ray vision would be handy when diagnosing, and what doctor couldn’t use telekinesis in the O.R.? But despite all those fist-thrown Ka-Pows! and bone-bashing kicks, the number one superhero trait is kindness.

When told he won’t be paid to treat the dying Llama, Droom answers: “I can’t refuse to treat a sick man! If I must, I’ll treat him for nothing!”And so he’s rewarded because: “Only a charitable, self-sacrificing human would have done so!” Dr. Silence also takes “no fees, being at heart a genuine philanthropist.” His wealthy friends are “puzzled” that he “should devote his time” not just to doctoring but “chiefly doctoring folk who could not pay.” He poses the “native nobility of a soul whose first desire was to help those who could not help themselves.”

This Hippocratic philanthropy extends to monsters too. Dr. Van Helsing can “pity” and “weep” for vampires during his “butchery” of their bodies, imagining Dracula’s “joy” when “his better part may have spiritual immortality.” When Dr. Silence faces an Egyptian fire spirit wrongly “torn from its ancient resting-place” and brought to England where it exacts revenge, he feels more for the mummy than its wealthy looters. He later worries about the well-being of a werewolf, a condition he terms an “infirmity,” rare but also “often very sad.” He has no enemies, only patients. Though the ghost of a witch is beyond his help, he transmutes the “evil forces” she left behind “by raising them into higher channels.” He doesn’t destroy evil—he cures it.

Unlike the vampire-hunting Drs. Van Helsing and Hesselius, Silence has actual superpowers, making him the first superman to leap beyond the comparatively mundane realm of superhuman strength. He would be an ideal subject for Dr. Stevenson’s studies in extrasensory perception. Not only does he posses the “power almost to see in the dark,” “that special sensibility that is said to develop in the blind—the sense of obstacles,” but “his psychic apparatus never failed in letting him know the proximity of an incarnate or discarnate being.” His Watson-like narrator also wonders if he has “some secret telepathic method by which he knew my circumstances and gauged the degree of my need,” a power that also “saw into the future.”

These powers don’t come from enchanted artifacts or mutating radiation.  His magic isn’t magic. It’s an extension of his “humanity,” his “spiritual sympathy.” He can “absorb evil radiations into himself and change them magically into his own good purposes” because he’s just an incredibly nice guy. He’s not just sensitive, he’s “ultra-sensitive.” “Thought-reading” just requires paying attention to and caring deeply about other people. And since “suffering always owns my sympathy,” of course he’s going to dedicate his life to helping them.

Dr. Stevenson kept a list of the books he read that numbered over 3,535. I’m sure it includes some of the same “Yoga books” Dr. Silence admires, the ones arguing “the necessity of man loving his neighbors as himself” because, says Silence, “men are doubtless not separate at all.” Stevenson achieved that  interconnected state of “perfect serenity” though the “mystical experience” of LSD, but whatever its source, he and Silence had the same goal, the same desire for “peace and quietness.”

Usually that means putting the past and present back into balance. “Ancient pasts” and “ancient instincts” have a way of rising in Blackwood tales. Stevenson traveled the world to study the same phenomena, writing a 2,268-page monograph on past-life memories, including 200 “in which highly unusual birthmarks or birth defects of the child corresponded with marks, usually fatal wounds, on the previous person.”

Silence’s filing cabinet is considerably smaller. He vanished in 1917, after Blackwood published his sixth and final case study. Given that John Silence, Physician Extraordinary was a breakout best-seller that let the author quit his day job, it’s weird the doctor never came back. Maybe Silence has just been waiting for his favorite shows to return to TV in time for the 100th anniversary of his last publication?

Or maybe he was abducted? Those X-Files aliens returned Gillian Anderson after her maternity leave and Buddhist wedding. Blackwood and Chester Carlson were students of Buddhism too and firm believers in reincarnation. I’m more of a Dr. Scully myself. Though I try to be sympathetically open-minded.

Which is why my ancient instincts are hopeful that the reincarnated X-Files and Twin Peaks could be worth watching. Maybe Drs. Stevenson and Silence are directing from beyond the grave.

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katy

Katy Simpson Smith, author of The Story of Land and Sea, visited Washington and Lee University this semester, and, while not busy giving the Phi Beta Kappa convocation address, she dropped by my creative writing class to read from her novel and answer a few questions. The conversation was so good, I wanted to continue it by email. Since my course is focused on fiction that merges literary and genre fiction, I suggested we start there.

KATY: My knowledge of literary genre fiction is pretty limited, but I’ll add whatever I can to the mix.

CHRIS: Actually, I think you’re writing your own brand of it, so you know tons. If we define the mode as writing formerly lowbrow pulp genres in a literary style, would it be fair to call The Story of Sea and Land a literary pirate novel?

KATY: I guess I’d have to read some full-on pirate novels to know how and if I’m subverting the genre! I think what I like about writing a character with such a Romantic background is that it builds expectations for the reader which are inevitably undermined. Everyone — from pirate to slave — encounters the same basic range of emotions, and it’s the intense and nuanced investigation of these emotions that I believe turns something “literary.” So there’s very little swashbuckling and there are no parrots, but there is parenthood and grieving. Perhaps I’m most interested in the ordinariness inherent in seemingly extraordinary circumstances.

CHRIS: That’s a pretty good definition of “literary.” I throw the phrase “psychological realism” around my class, and I think we’re talking about the same thing. Undermining expectations describes literary genre fiction well too. But that suggests an implicit risk in the mode. Do you find readers like having their Romantic expectations undermined with nuanced ordinariness?

KATY: Ah, well if we bring readers into it! My experience suggests that many do not, in fact, enjoy the undermining. But I think this also comes down to how a book is marketed. Those that might fall into literary-genre and are also successful (I don’t know, Lonesome Dove, Cormac McCarthy — all I can think of are westerns at the moment) are books that were quickly claimed by the critics and stamped as “great,” pinned with Pulitzers, so that readers knew that something above-and-beyond was going on when they opened the pages. I’ve certainly had readers who wanted my pirate and his lady to have their happy ending, and to be morally clear heroes, and when the book takes a different turn, I’m afraid some of them threw it out the window. The failing, of course, is probably mine. If I’d written Lonesome Dove, I could’ve swayed even the most Romantic reader. But in the end, you can’t write a book for readers, because none are alike. You just write the book that you believe in. (And thoughts about what category it fits into never arise until someone asks you!)

CHRIS: Well, your first novel is getting some serious stamps of approval, no Pulitzers yet, but, as NPR put it, you’re “a writer to watch.”And it’s interesting McCarthy popped to mind. When you described your next manuscript to me, I thought of Blood Meridian, a highly historical novel about the Galton gang of the 1840s. Your gang roams the 1780s, right? Bandits and pirates—are you always drawn to subjects who, at least in their “full-on” forms, are so much about traditional masculinity and violence?

KATY: I think the pull of violence comes from a Southern upbringing, where you can’t avoid being steeped in a very dark history (a history that also leaves violence on the surface of the present, oil spill-style). So I’ll always be fascinated by people pushed to their outer edge; we all have a limited range of responses, and though violence is usually the last tool we’d reach for, it’s still lying there in the toolbox, waiting. As for issues of masculinity, I have always been drawn to them, perhaps because I’ve seen men having an easier time of it in the self-theorizing department after the waves of brilliant scholarship on women and feminism. (I made a documentary in college about young men in the context of popular media, so I suppose it’s a long-abiding interest.) On the one hand, I don’t want to let men off the hook, but I’ll also admit that part of me is afraid to write a book populated only by women, given how little they seem to be valued–still–which is frankly appalling. I’ve been struggling recently with this deficiency of mine, worried that I’m giving in or selling out, but after my reading at W&L, at which I read a section told mostly from a man’s point of view and explained that this was a book mostly about men, a gentleman came up to me afterward and said, “I don’t usually read women’s fiction, but I’ll give this a chance.” That’s the world we’re writing in.

CHRIS: Women’s fiction! There’s a genre I wouldn’t have placed you in. I published a romantic suspense paperback once, and my editor kept my author pic off the back so potential readers would mistake my first name for an abbreviated “Christine,” which they did. It’s so odd that the gender of the author should seem to determine anything about a book. You could also theoretically label your novel “war fiction,” since the Revolutionary War is so key. And there you keep subverting expectation, holding us at the edge of battle instead of plunging in. I almost want to read this sentence as a metafictional aside: “It is hard for a colonel to keep his men camped out in a field at the far edge of a siege.” Do you think you avoid the entertainment of swashbuckling violence in order to get at that other kind of no-thrills oil spill violence of slavery?

KATY: I think you’re exactly right about my intentions (which only manifest themselves after the actual book is done and I can step back and say, “Oh, that’s what I was up to!” So maybe intentions is a generous term). But yes, the ultimate violence is never what takes place on a battlefield, the blood and the wounds, the bullets and the bayonets; it’s what is done to a person while they’re still living, in the context of an ordinary life. And the freedom that soldiers were fighting for in the Revolutionary War (or in any war since) pales in comparison to the freedoms they ignored. Slavery was a complicated web of evils that an entire segment of society came to see as normal, even morally justified. But I can think of few greater violences than asking a woman to choose between her children, as the character Moll is forced to do. I think a focus on the merely sensational allows the reader to distance herself from the fictional world, and I don’t want to give my readers that comfort.

CHRIS: You just encapsulated the standard critique of genre fiction: that it’s escapism, comfort food, easy fixes. And that’s one of the core expectations you undermine by casting a pirate as a grieving father. Since you just finished your second novel, can you step back and say “Oh!” about it too? Is it coated in the same Southern oil spill? Are your bandits camped at the far edge of sensational violence too?

KATY: I’m still too close to the second novel to have that perspective on it; I think readers help teach us the many things our books might be about (whether we agree or not). These bandits, whom I’m very fond of, get up to a few more hijinks than my pirate did, and there are a handful of out-and-out murders, but the story is mostly about their ordinary lives, the facets of their desires that make them (hopefully) sympathetic rather than villainous. I’m always looking to go deeper than protagonist vs. antagonist, because none of us are wholly good or evil either. I like to think that the job of writing is about building bridges over all the gaps in the world, whether that’s in time or in temperament.

CHRIS: Apparently I’ve been quoting you to my creative writing classes for years, pushing writers to find that nuanced gray area between black and white. When should we expect your sympathetic bandits to hit bookstores?

KATY: The new novel, Free Men, should hit stores around February 2016. My bandits will be eager for folks to hear their tales of woe!

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dominolady

Even for softporn it’s pretty tame stuff:

“A nightgown of sheerest, green silk was but scant concealment for her gorgeous figure. A chastely-rounded body and a slender waist served to accentuate the seductive softness of her hips and sloping contours of her slim thighs, while skin like the bloom on a peach glowed rosily in the reflected sunlight.”

Or better still:

“With a feeling of naughtiness, she slipped into a pair of black-lace panties. Then, sheerest hose for her shapely legs, black velvet slippers for the dainty feet.”

It’s 1936, and we’re flipping through the pulp-grade pages of Saucy Romantic Adventures. Our heroine, a lady thief and proto-Batman, is Ellen Patrick, AKA The Domino Lady. She’s going to punish those crooked politicians who murdered her father. Which apparently will require a great deal of bathing and napping and dressing and undressing, but no descriptions of genitalia, primary or secondary. The closest we get to a sex scene is:

“An hour later, Ellen left Raythorne’s cabin.”

Five stories appear in Saucy, and a sixth in the still milder Mystery Adventure Magazine. It’s a short run, even by pulp standards, all credited to Lars Anderson, an untraceable pseudonym. Ron Wilber resurrected the scantily-clad avenger for Eros Comix in the mid-90s, and Moonstone Books published a collection of new short stories and a comic book by Nancy Holder and Steve Bryant. Silver Age icon Jim Steranko also illustrated a collection of the original stories, plus a seventh of his own, “Aroused, the Domino Lady.” Jim is a saucier than Lars:

“Only the tops of Ellen’s thighs were covered by the kimono. When she spun and kicked it was shockingly apparent that she wore no underwear and that her flesh was the color of pale alabaster in the secret slopes and valleys above her tanned legs.”

steronko domino lady

“Domino,” by the way, is a description of Ellen’s mask (the style sported by Robin and the Lone Ranger) not “dominatrix,” the S&M term appropriated from Latin in the sixties. Ellen is no dominator. She’s more likely to get herself into a compromising corner. Though, despite all that sloping and peach-blooming sensuality, she doesn’t end up getting much.

The Domino Lady is one of the very few Depression-era superheroines, debuting the same year as the Phantom, Ka-Zar, and the Green Hornet. Though not as virginal as Doc Savage and Clark Kent, she has less in common with 1930s Mystery Men who share their batcaves with “fiancés” or 1940s comic book superheroes with their ambiguous “wards.”

Ellen is a loner. She likes foreplay, but always escapes before the climax. Where most of her male predecessors settled into their marriage plots, the Domino Lady rejects such happiness: “the amorous little adventuress had denied the love she craved with all her heart. To her affection and marriage were things to avoid, shun.” Like Batman, Ellen’s Daddy-avenging mission is all that gets her off.

It also helps not to have a recurring love interest. No Lois Lane is trying to peek under her mask and/or kimono every month. And no Margo Lane is cooking her breakfast. Ellen may spend an hour in Mr. Raythorne’s cabin, but she climbs into bed alone at the end of her adventures. Raythone is just a one-story fling, ignorant of her secret identity. A month later the Domino Lady is saving another equally eligible bachelor from certain death, relieved afterwards when the so-called detective remains clueless. “Ellen Patrick laughed throatily as she went to his open arms.” Only the reader is in on the joke. No one else ever sees her naked.

Her thrills, like the reader’s, are vicarious. She specializes in stealing “compromising letters” from blackmailers, the plot engine of half her tales. The “indiscrete” content is never spoken, just Ellen’s promise: “that precious husband of yours will never find out.” She likes secrets. She never reveals her own and she never reveals any of the friends’ she saves. It makes her an accessory after the fact, each adventure a retroactive ménage a trios.

Plus there’s the thrill of the adventure itself. In fact, forget Daddy. What really gets Ellen going is the danger, the threat of being caught and unmasked: “Her heart was thumping with the acceleration of the chase, the knowledge that here was new, exciting adventure in the making! It was her life, her greatest thrill of living!”

If unmasking is the deepest intimacy, a forced unmasking is rape. Anderson has Ellen flirt with that fantasized danger every issue. Her adversaries arouse her. One blackmailer “was the type who could stir her soul to the depths and arouse the latent passions of her affectionate nature.” When cornered for the first time in her career, her mask about to be torn away, “Ellen was thrilling as she had never thrilled before.” And if that orgasm metaphor is too subtle for you: “Something totally primitive had awakened in her innermost being, she thrilled to the core!”

But these are fantasies under Ellen’s control. Anderson’s action sequences always turn on the Domino Lady’s ability to remain “cool as a cucumber,” “cool as winter breeze.” Unlike Zorro’s self-arousing costume, the Domino Lady protects Ellen from herself: “hot blood in her veins turned to a gelid stream of ice as Ellen stared through the mask.”

Her other lovers are her biggest threat, men who could make her surrender herself, give in to the affection she’s “starved” for. Ellen may love a “gaze penetrating to the very center of her being,” but it’s her own “hungry longings” she battles.  The men are interchangeable, not the “compelling desire” she holds out against. Winning for the Domino Lady means no happy endings.

The fifth story concludes both her vengeance plot and her run in Saucy. Those dastardly politicians are brought to ruin for murdering her father. But a month later, Anderson reboots in Mystery Adventure, and those vague and omnipresent villains are still at large. A superhero’s mission is never ending. Even a softporn superheroine never climaxes.

Good girls don’t unmask. It’s a bizarrely sexualized celibacy plot. In the end Ellen climbs into bed alone again, still anticipating the romance she defers, still only “vaguely cognizant of the emptiness of her lonely existence.” She’s still Daddy’s girl after all.

DLHC

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harley quinn cover

“The comics industry,” according to Vulture.com’s Abraham Riesman, “is in the midst of a golden age for admirable female role models,” declaring the monthly best-seller Harley Quinn “the superhero world’s most successful woman.” I don’t care to dispute either claim, but I will say this isn’t the first such golden age. The “morally questionable” Ms. Quinn descends from a line of female sidekicks turned leading ladies.

Crowbar Nancy lived on an affluent cul-de-sac in Pittsburgh in the late 1940s. She’s not a comic book character. She got her nickname for bludgeoning my mother in the head. They were both ten, or there about, and it wasn’t really a crowbar. The wrought-iron post she yanked from her front fence must have been loose already. My mother had no idea why Nancy hit her with it. They lived katty-corner, though they weren’t friends. Nancy didn’t get along with kids in the neighborhood—a result of being adopted, my mother theorized. The violent streak didn’t help either.

After the crowbar incident (and almost certainly a behind-the-scenes parental negotiation), my mother was invited over to share Nancy’s most cherished possessions. Her comic book collection. Instead of roller skating and hopscotching up and down the block with other kids, Nancy preferred the company of four-color pulp paper. Comics meant nothing to my mother, but she accepted the invitation (or her mother accepted it for her) and across the street she went.

Nancy displayed her trove on her porch for the private viewing. If she was anything like my ten-year-old self, she arranged them in a double row of tight stacks, organized in an idiosyncratic ebb and flow of titles and genres. My mother was born in 1939, same as Batman, so this is probably 1949. DC had long imposed editorial restraint on Bob Kane and his crew, so Nancy’s propensity for clubbing fellow children had nothing to do with the body count of the caped crusader’s earliest adventures.

It wasn’t till 1954 that Frederick Wertham linked the Brooklyn Thrill Killers—four teens who murdered vagrants in Brooklyn parks—with comic books. The gang leader ordered his whip and costume (he dressed as a vampire while flogging women) from ads in Uncanny Tales and Journey into Mystery, titles that Atlas Comics (formerly Timely, soon to be Marvel) debuted in 1952—in imitation of an already deep market trend.

Superman was popular with the Brooklyn gang too, but the Man of Steel was one of the very few cape-wearers still flying. No Timely heroes saved those Brooklyn victims because none existed. Over thirty superhero titles vanished between 1944 and 1945, another twenty-three in 1946, and twenty-nine between 1947 and 1949—including former newsstand champs Flash Comics, The Green Lantern, The Human Torch, and Sub-Mariner.  Sales for Captain Marvel Adventures, top superhero comic during the war, were down by half. Nancy could have spent her most recent dimes on the final issues of Marvel Mystery Comics and Captain America Comics—before both converted to horror the year she took a crack at my mother’s skull.

But let’s give Nancy the benefit of the doubt and assume her collection did not include the very earliest horror titles (Spook Comics 1946, Eerie 1947, Adventures of the Unknown 1948) either. It was another new trend my mother would have noticed as she reluctantly perused the porch gallery:

Girls.

Romance, a new category for comics, was already claiming a fifth of the market. When William Woolfork’s inherited Superman from the recently fired Jerry Siegel (he and Joe Shuster lost their lawsuit against DC for rights to the character when their ten-year contract expired the year before), his scripts refocused the former world-saver around love plots. If my mother leafed through Nancy’s Superman #58 (May-June 1949), she would have skimmed the episode “Lois Lane Loves Clark Kent!” where a psychiatrist tells Lois she must transfer her “love for Superman to a normal man!” Or Superboy #5 (November-December 1949), the adolescent Kryptonian falls for his first girl in “Superboy Meets Supergirl,” the first of many Supergirls to follow.

Though only eight new superhero comics debuted between 1947 and 49, five of them sported high heels. Superheroines were on the rise: Black Canary, Namora, Lady Luck, Venus, Phantom Lady, Miss America, Moon Girl. The Blonde Phantom towers over Captain America, Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch on the cover of the new 1948 All-Winner Comics. If there was a doubt about the veiled sexuality between male superheroes and their bare-legged protégés, Timely incinerated it when they fired their top two boy wonders and replaced them with women. Bucky got the boot first, when Golden Girl took over as Captain America’s sidekick in 1947. She even boasted those adorable little wings on her mask, same as Cap’s. The Human Torch’s personal secretary, Sun Girl, replaced little Toro the following year. The Blonde Phantom’s alter ego played personal secretary to her boss crush too, a private investigator who only had eyes for her when—the irony!—she was masked. Or maybe it was the tight, red dress. The leg slit and cleavage were as effective as a blow to the head.

AllWinners1-1948 Sun_Girl_no.1_-_August_1948

black canary MissAmericaComics_n1_1944capt-america68-goldengirl_1268710394 venus1384-1662-1482-1-phantom-lady lady luck Namora_Vol_1_1 moon girl

None of this made much impression on my mother. She was the female sixth-grader the romance market coveted, but when she stepped off Nancy’s porch and into puberty, she left those brief, wondrous superheroines behind. Namora’s three issue run didn’t make it into 1949, Blonde Phantom Comics switched titles in May, and Golden Girl exited in October. EC’s single issue Moon Girl and the Prince became Moon Girl Fights Crime!, which became A Moon, a Girl…Romance, which became Weird Fantasy, a hint of the horrors to come.

My mother remembers none of this now. She’s living out her twilight days in an assisted-living community where she smokes cigarettes on porch rockers. I visit for monthly episodes of shopping and restaurant adventures. She has a Ph.D. in epidemiology and a CV as thick as a comic book, but that golden age is over too.

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