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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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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.”

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“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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“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.

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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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Lily James, the latest actress to embody Cinderella, declared the character “almost a superhero.” NPR’s Linda Holmes reversed the comparison: “Is Captain America a Cinderella story?” Holmes likened Cinderella’s pumpkin coach to the Batmobile, concluding that if the core of Cinderella is “just a rescue of a deserving underdog from an ordinary life and delivery to an extraordinary one,” then most superheroes belong in the combat equivalent of glass slippers.

It’s a fair point, but I think Holmes misses Cinderella’s most memorable qualities. Literally the most memorable, the ones researchers have proven are most memorable in psychological studies. Turning mice into coachmen and rags into ballgowns–apparently that’s the kind of magic are brains are wired for.

To explain why, we need to visit Cinderella’s home planet:

“I was sent as a diplomat to the planet Ralyks. Because the decision was very sudden and I didn’t have a lot of time to research Ralyks, I decided to take a visit to Ralyks’ equivalent of the Smithsonian — a large network of museums and zoos intended to provide a representative sampling of all of the different kinds of things of this world.”

That, believe it or not, is the first paragraph of a psychological experiment testing what kinds of ideas are easiest to remember and so retell. The researchers, Justin Barrett and Melanie Nyhof, sent 54 ambassadors to Ralyks in 2001. They all returned safely, but not their recall of the Ralyks Smithsonian.

The ambassadors (all college students ages 16 to 25, which, in my opinion, is recklessly young for intergalactic diplomacy) tended to forget the ordinary exhibits. Like the “being that is easy to see under normal lighting conditions” or the being that “consumes and metabolizes caloric materials to sustain itself.” They did better with the bizarre or unusual, like the being that “just does things randomly” or the one that “could make out the letters on a page in a book if it is as much as 50 feet away, provided the line of sight is not obstructed.”

But they were best with beings that possessed a feature that violated some intuitive assumption but still satisfied the majority of other expectations. Barrett and Nyof call these expectation-bending beings “minimally counterintuitive.”

I call them superheroes.

“I came to an exhibit about a being that is able to pass through solid objects.” So that would be either Vision from the Avengers or Shadowcat from the X-Men, right?

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And, speaking of mutants, here’s the Blob and/or the Juggernaut: “To the south of this room was one containing a being about the size of a young human that is impossible to move by any means.”

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And don’t forget Wolverine’s healing powers: “The second room illustrated a being that will never die of natural causes and cannot be killed. No matter what physical damage is inflicted it will survive and repair itself.”

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Probably not everyone will remember Multiple Man: “The next room I came to featured a being that can be completely in more than one place at a time. All of it can be in two or all four different corners of the room at the same time.

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Multiple Man premiered in Fantastic Four, same as the Watcher: “a being that can remember an unlimited number of events or pieces of information. For example, it could tell you in precise detail, everything it had witnessed in the past…”

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And let’s not leave out the mightiest mutant of them all, Professor X: “a being that can pay attention to any number of things all at the same time. For example, if ten people or ten billion people were talking to it at the same time, it would be able to keep track of what all of them were saying.” (Okay, the Professor might need the assistance of his mind-expanding computer Cerebro, but close enough.)

Professor X with cerebro

Lest you think Melanie and Justin only read Marvel as kids, they included certain Kryptonian superpowers too: “a being that can see or hear things no matter where they are. For example, it could make out the letters on a page in a book hundreds of miles away and the line of sight is completely obstructed.”

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So all of Ralyks’ counterintuitive specimens would be at home in a comic book. I could argue that the supervillain the Collector secretly originates from the planet Ralyks, but let’s take this in a slightly different direction.

I hunted down Barrett and Nyhof’s study (“Spreading Non-natural Concepts: The Role of Intuitive Conceptual Structures in Memory and Transmission of Cultural Materials”) from a reference in Alex Mesoudi’s Cultural Evolution. (Ever play a game of scavenger hunt where each found item is a clue to find the next? Academics call that “research.”) Mesoudi wants to know how and why some ideas get passed on and others die out. Why, for instance, Cinderella remains so popular, while the vast majority of Grimm’s fairy tales have been utterly forgotten.

Barrett and Nyhof think we’re biased for the minimally counterintuitive. Basically we’re Goldilocks. Too much (“a jealous Frisbee,” suggests Mesoudi, “that turns into a caterpillar every other Thursday”) and our brains get burnt with ungraspable weirdness. Too little and our lukewarm neurons die of boredom. We, like Goldilocks, prefer Baby Bear’s “cognitive optimum,” that just-right balance between “satisfying ontologically driven intuitive expectations” (Mama Bear) and “violating enough of them to become salient” (Papa Bear).

Mesoudi looks at culture in Darwinistic terms, which makes those Ralyks specimens well-adapted mutants. They’re the fittest. They’re built to survive. Five of the six most frequently remembered specimens were counterintuitive. Common ideas died out fastest, and the “merely bizarre” had a tendency to mutate into the counterintuitive, thus increasing their survival rates too.

This, according to Barrett and Nyhof, could help explain not only Cinderella’s godmother, but religion too: “it is these counterintuitive properties that make religious concepts salient. Increased salience, in turn, enhances the likelihood that the concept will be remembered and passed on.” They cite examples from “religious systems and folk tales from around the world,” including stories about “people with superhuman powers.”

But when Barrett and Nygof invented their Ralyks Smithsonian to measure concept recall, they didn’t seem to know they were reproducing superhero character types (AKA “people with superhuman powers”). Which makes Barrett and Nyhof unknowing participants in a larger cultural evolution study. Their invented specimens are either examples of parallel evolution (meaning they dreamt up Superman’s X-ray vision and super-vision independently of his culturally pervasive character), or, more likely, Barrett and Nyhof absorbed their superpowers through cultural exposure and reproduced them unconsciously.

Either way, superheroes are especially fit cultural survivors. The character type may be a mostly 20th century American mutation, but one that satisfies something much deeper in the human psyche. The call of the weird-but-not-too weird. Superheroes occupy that sweet spot. Its part of their definition. According to scholars Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet, an effective superhero must have superpowers, but those “powers are limited” and the character “human,” balancing the counterintuitive with the ordinary. Even the alter egos tends to be “an adult, white male who holds a white-collar job,” which to a white male white-collar reader is as ordinary as you get.

Maybe their Smithsonian didn’t include any category-bending specimens because the students placed them all into the pre-existing category of “superhero.” In which case, Melanie and Justin might want to schedule a return trip soon. I’ve never visited myself, but from the diplomatic dispatches it sounds like a planet well worth visiting:

“I left the building and went to my new office to ponder all of the things that can be found on Ralyks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

automaton from master mystery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Remote Control”

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

2015:

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

1961:

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

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

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

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

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

Tom just solved the problem–they’re connected.

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

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

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

2015:

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

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

1961:

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

2015:

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

1961:

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

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

2015:

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

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

1961:

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

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

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

2015:

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

1961:

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

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

2015:

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

1961:

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

2015:

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

1961:

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

2015:

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

1961:

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

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

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

LURCer enters their building.

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

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

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12 monkeys 2

Dear Syfy Channel,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

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marvel logos

Is Marvel Entertainment evil?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actually, it’s not.

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

marvel logo 80s

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

marvel studios

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

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

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

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

Like I said: Hydra.

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

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

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

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

birdman

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

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