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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Monthly Archives: September 2011

When we streamed X-Men: First Class in our living room the other night, we roped our fourteen-year-old daughter into watching too. My wife promised cute guys. So it’s not surprising that Madeleine noticed first:

“Wait, are they gay?”

She meant Magneto and Professor X and, wow, was she right.

In retrospect, their first meeting (a passionate underwater hug) should have been a clue. I didn’t see it till the shot of Chuck and Eric nuzzled shoulder to shoulder in the strip joint bed. Madeleine got it when they were gazing at each other across a chessboard with the, um, Empire State Building in the background. Apparently Wolverine smelled it too. When the two ubermutants saddle up to him in a bar, he spells it out: “Go fuck yourself.”

Oh, I think they are.

Even without the gay rights subtext (when Charles accidentally outs Hank McCoy, the mutant tells his C.I.A. employer: “You didn’t ask, so I didn’t tell”), the air was already thick with bromance.

Before the release, actor James McAvoy (Charles) promised a “kind of love story, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which, really, was a love story between two men.” The difference is that Redford (or was Newman “Butch”?) got a sappy love montage riding a bicycle with his very heterosexual love interest. 1969 was not a year to come out of the Brokeback closet.

Charles and Erik pay some minimal attention to women (Charles has a couple of lazy pick-up lines, and Erik solidifies Mystique’s allegiance with an off-camera consummation), but their real passion is for each other. Erik cradling the crippled Charles in his arms says it all. “I want you by my side.”

Once they break up, both instantly sublimate into new and wholly heterosexual channels. Charles and his C.I.A. contact were Platonic before he pecks her on the lips and strips her memory (the ultimate rufie?). Erik is more blatant when he springs the comically underdressed Emma Frost from a C.I.A. holding tank.

“Where’s your telepath friend?” she asks.

“Gone. Left a bit of a gap in my life if I’m to be honest. I was rather hoping you would fill it.”

The last actor to play Magneto would have gone further. For his third and last X-Men movie, Ian McKellen wanted the camera to discover him and Patrick Stewart (a sexier, albeit balder Charles than McAvoy’s) in the throes of a sex scene. Bryan Singer might have gone along with it (both he and McKellen are gay), which could also explain why Fox handed control of X-Men: The Last Stand to a different director.

But Charles and Erik are not the first superpowered frenemies with benefits. It was the subtext of the arch rival since its comic book conception.

Superman faced down his first supervillain, the Ultra-Humanite, back in 1939. Like Professor X, Ultra is a bald, wheelchair-bound super-genius. Creator Jerry Siegel retconned him into the first dozen Action Comics as the secret mastermind behind all those garden variety crimes Superman so effortlessly ended. The Man of Steel needed an opponent on his own playing field.

As McAvoy says about Magneto and Professor X: “This is the first time in their lives they’ve met someone who is an equal of sorts, someone who understands them and can connect and push them too.”

Batman creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger exploited the same, not-so-subtle sexual subtext with Catwoman.  Simply “The Cat” in her first 1940 appearance, she attempts to seduce Batman after he captures her: “Why don’t you come in as a partner with me! You and I TOGETHER!” (Robin is conveniently looking away during the embrace.)

Though tempted, Batman refuses. But he also lets his favorite feline escape. “Lovely girl! What eyes! Maybe I’ll bump into her again sometime.” (We can discuss Robin’s jealous reaction elsewhere.)

Siegel understood the subtext too. Perhaps too well. Like the Scarlet Pimpernel’s wife Marguerite, Lois Lane is the one antagonist always on the verge of discovering Superman’s secret. But Superman had an even bigger breasted threat.

After Ultra’s first four appearances (and second apparent death) the original comic book nemesis returned.  As a woman. Superman recognizes his arch rival in the “blazing eyes” of screen star Delores Winters.

“You thought you had killed me in our last encounter, didn’t you? But look—as you can see, I’m very much alive!”

And very much female in that tight, red, spaghetti-strap dress Joe Shuster sketches for her/him. How is such a villainous transformation possible!

“My assistants, finding my body, revived me . . .  and following my instructions, they kidnapped Dolores Winters yesterday and placed my mighty brain in her young vital body!”

From all the bodies on the planet, Ultra chooses to become a famously gorgeous film actress. That’s not a metaphor. The guy is transsexual.

Superman continues to call the post-operative Ultra/Delores “he,” but even when Shuster draws Delores’ body in trousers, she’s still all woman. In Ultra’s next (and last adventure), the villain(ess) even uses his feminine wiles to seduce an atomic scientist (“The fool!”).

The gender bender proved too much for Siegel and/or his DC editors. Veiled homosexuality is one thing. An explicitly transgendered supervillain is another. The solution? A not-yet-bald Lex Luthor replaces Ultra in the next episode.

And so the bromance continues . . .

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Cameron asks: “Dad, do you think Thor could beat Odin?”

This is after one of our daily games of chess. I used to beat him effortlessly, replaying the same basic game I stole from my father when I was his age. Then Cameron came home from chess club one afternoon and checkmated me in four moves.

“No,” I say. “Absolutely not. Fathers,” I explain, “are always always more powerful than sons. Odin was so strong he could strip Thor of his powers and cast him down to earth as a mere mortal.”

“That was just in the movie,” Cameron says, “not real mythology.” Then he cites the Greeks, how Zeus defeated Chronos, how Chronos defeated his father before that. My son has not, thankfully, read Oedipus Rex yet.

I prefer comic books. Thor misbehaves and his dad grounds him, strips his memory, makes him think he’s a human being, even gives him a gimpy leg. Or that’s how Stan Lee and Jack Kirby let their story evolve. Originally the human self was the real self, just some guy who happens upon a magic cane that changes into Thor’s hammer.

It’s a fun idea for a superhero, one of the few in the Lee-Kirby-Ditko pantheon that doesn’t involve some kind of mutating radiation.

But Lee wasn’t struck by a God-sent bolt of originality when he dreamed it up. He stole the idea from Pierce Rice and Wright Lincoln.  Their 1940 “Thor, God of Thunder” wears a cape and carries a hammer that boomerangs back to him when he throws it. He looks down at Earth and declares: “I will invest an ordinary mortal with my great power.”

Stan Lee stole most of his superpowers from his elders.

Imitating DC’s Silver Age reboots of Flash and Green Lantern, Lee kept the original Human Torch’s name and powers while penning him a new identity and origin. As far as the rest of the Fantastic Four:

Mr. Fantastic was a standard (Jack Cole’s Plastic Man, Klaus Nordling’s Thin Man, plus John Broome and Carmine Infantino’s Elongated Man created the year before).

Invisibility was the ur-power of Golden Age superheroines (Russell Stamm’s Scarlet O’Neil,Will Eisner and Jerry Iger’s Phantom Lady).

The Thing, like the instant knock-off Hulk, was a Godzilla-era Frankenstein of the kind populating monster movies and comics throughout the fifties.

The rest of Lee’s Asgard was no more original:

Spider-Man lifted his name from Norvell Page’s pulp hero The Spider, and Daredevil from Jack Binder’s Daredevil. Lee didn’t have to leave the Marvel archives to find George Kapitan and Harry Sahle’s Black Widow. The first comic book Iron Man was Quality Comics’s Bozo the Iron Man. Cyclops’s eye ray and visor belong to Jack Cole’s Comet. There was even a 1941 Black Panther. (The X-Men may bear an uncanny resemblance to DC’s Doom Patrol, but that’s a different kind of theft.)

Most of these characters are comic book footnotes, evidence of how thoroughly Lee and his Silver Age offspring defeated their Golden Age parents.

When Stanley Lieber (he didn’t legally change his name till the seventies) started at Martin Goodman’s pulp publishing company, he was barely out of high school. His cousin, Mrs. Goodman, got him the job. Jack Kirby was art director at the time. Little Stanley filled Mr. Kirby’s and the other artists’ inkwells, fetched their lunches, proofed their pages, even erased their stray pencil marks.

When Kirby and his crew jumped ship to DC for better pay, Goodman made his lone employee, his wife’s baby cousin, interim editor. Lee was eighteen. Rice and Lincoln’s Thor debuted the same year.

When Kirby left DC in the fifties, Lee was still behind the editor’s desk, but with “in-chief” instead of “interim” in his title. Lee rehired Kirby not as art director (Lee held that title too) but for freelance work at Goodman’s lousy page rate.

Kirby was only five years older, but he still thought of the former office assistant as a kid. When recalling the near collapse of Goodman’s company in 1957, Kirby described Lee as barely out of adolescence (he was 35). Kirby cast himself in the father role, comforting his weeping kid-boss with promises that he would take care of everything (Lee remembered it a little differently).

Either way, when Goodman ordered Lee to write an imitation of DC’s new Justice League of America, Kirby was there to draw it. Together the two created the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Iron Man, Black Panther, and the X-Men. They even resurrected Golden Agers Captain America, Sub-Mariner, and the original Human Torch.

They also pioneered the famed Marvel Method. Instead of writing panel-by-panel scripts, Lee simply described an often vague story idea and Kirby would return with fully drawn pages, the word balloons empty for Lee (or another employee) to add wise-cracking dialogue. Kirby’s pen soon defined the Marvel look, with new artists required to imitate the house style.

The Method broke down by the late sixties, with both Kirby and Steve Ditko, Lee’s other key collaborator, fleeing Marvel. Martin Goodman followed them. Lee’s boss sold his family business to a corporation in 1968, but stayed on as publisher until 1972 when Lee replaced him. Goodman started another comic company, introducing its own superpowered pantheon, but they couldn’t hold their own against Marvel in the marketplace.

Little Stanley vanquished his Uncle Martin.

Cameron and I saw Thor on a father-son outing in a mall in downtown Melbourne last April. Kenneth Branagh and his writers overthrew Lee and Kirby’s secret identity plot. This Thor plops to earth like a steroid-pumped asteroid, his memories intact. I was more impressed with the mall—a massive super-structure with a domed glass roof built over a historic factory tower. The new owners didn’t destroy the old building, they preserved, while changing everything about it.

What Branagh did to Lee and Kirby. What Lee and Kirby did to Norse mythology.

Kirby died in 1994, the year Marvel’s top artists rebelled and formed their own company, sending Marvel into bankruptcy. Marvel Entertainment has since been purchased by Disney for $4 billion and its pantheon transformed into a string of Hollywood blockbusters.

Now Kirby’s children are suing for shared copyright on the Lee-Kirby creations.Marvel says Kirby was an independent operator employed on a “work for hire” basis and so exempt from creative credit.

Lee always described him as an equal partner, but in his 2010 deposition, he toed the Marvel corporate line. The art director that the teen Stanley used to fetch lunch for in 1940 was just one of Lee’s hired pens taking the equivalent of artistic dictation in the 1960’s.

Another father vanquished.

That’s how comic book mythology is written. Retroactively. The past can always be changed. When Kirby handed Lee his finished art pages, Lee started filling in Thor’s dialogue balloons with “thee” and “thy.” Pretty soon one of them noticed their main character wasn’t just some guy with Thor’s powers. He was Thor. So they followed their own lead and explained away his secret identity as a spell Odin had cast on him. He’d been Thor in disguise from the beginning; they just hadn’t known it yet.

Cameron liked the movie. It had funny bits and some good battle scenes. I liked the ending, how the repentant son apologizes to his dad for being such a jerk. But the most complex character is Loki. Everyone thinks he’s Odin’s bastard son, but he was secretly adopted from the frost giants. Either way, it’s hard on the poor kid. He kills his biological father just to prove his worth.

If you’re planning to rent the DVD, I’d be quick. The story could be overwritten by the next generation of writers at any moment. It wasn’t memorable enough for Cameron to watch a second time. He’d rather play chess.

My game’s improved, so we’re pretty even again.  For now.

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Jonathan and Martha Kent are dead. Superman writers Grant Morrison and George Pérez killed Clark Kent’s adoptive parents for the latest history-altering DC reboot. Fortunately, Mr. and Mrs. Kent (unlike Spider-Man’s immortal Aunt May) are no newcomers to the afterlife.

Before the first DC reboot in 1986, the Kents were strictly flashback characters for Superboy stories. Before writer-artist John Byrne resurrected them, the elderly couple had always passed quietly away before Clark assumed the adult role of Superman.

In fact, they dropped dead specifically to spur their orphaned son to greatness:

“The passing away of his foster-parents greatly grieved Clark Kent. But it strengthened a determination that had been growing in his mind. Clark decided he must turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind. And so was created — Superman!”

My parents achieved a similar goal through less melodramatic means:  they sent me to college (the alien planet my daughter will launch toward in four years).

For Batman, Bob Kane replaced the Kents’ flower-strewn gravesite with murdered-before-his-eyes corpses, but the narrative logic is the same. Apparently dead parents are very motivating. Plus it’s hard to be a hero when Dad’s king of the castle and Mom’s still packing your lunches.

It’s a crusty old plot (for starters check out Doc Savage, Tarzan, and Spring-Heeled Jack). So belated kudos to Byrne for breaking it. Even if it did mean the Kents’ Metropolis visits got a bit too regular.

The doting Eddie Jones and K. Callan embodied them in the mid-nineties Lois & Clark: the New Adventures of Superman, and when Annette O’Toole and John Schneider assumed their Smallville roles in 2000, they couldn’t even bother being “elderly” anymore.

Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are up next (Superman: Man of Steel began shooting in August). I’m rooting for director Zack Snyder to team-up with Pérez Morrison and knock them off early. Or at least (please) Costner.

Glenn Ford dutifully died of a heart attack out in his field of dreams back in the 1978 Superman. Scriptwriter and Godfather author Mario Puzo gave Mr. Kent an offer he couldn’t refuse, but not Phyllis Thaxter. She lived on to be reincarnated by Eva Marie Saint in the 2006 Superman Returns. The original widowed Mrs. Kent awards go to Frances Morris in the 1950’s Adventures of Superman TV and Virginia Carroll in the 1948 Superman film serial that launched the TV show.

Perhaps there’s a case to be made for the necessity of only killing father figures (consider Spider-Man again and his Uncle Ben), but during Superman’s first decade neither of the Kents was a target of narrative manslaughter. In fact, neither of them particularly existed.

When Superman first appeared on TV in the early 40’s as a Max and Dave Fleischer cartoon, the Kryptonian had never been adopted by any Smallville couple. He grew up in an orphanage after being plucked from his rocket ship by an unnamed motorist.

The Fleischers weren’t the first to cut that particular narrative corner. When Superman had premiered on the radio a year earlier, he stepped full-grown from his capsule, no Kents in sight then either.

Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel didn’t pen Superman’s radio and cartoon incarnations, but he was no fan of Clark’s foster parents himself. When he and Joe Shuster flew their Man of Steel to daily newspaper syndication in 1939, they replaced them with that same orphan asylum and passing motorist.

The Kents didn’t exist for the first year of Action Comics either. They were shoe-horned in for Superman No. 1, a reprint of previous adventures with a few pages of new, editor-mandated material. The first comic book reboot. Clark’s institutionalized childhood was swapped for “the love and guidance of his kindly foster-parents.” The passing motorist was now named Mr. Kent who, after dumping that alien baby at the orphanage, returns with his wife to reclaim him (“We couldn’t get that sweet child of our mind”).

The Kents were never Siegel’s idea anyway. When Joe Shuster flung the rejected first draft of Superman into the fire, Siegel begged Buck Rogers artist Russell Keaton to replace his partner. Keaton also replaced Siegel’s scripts. There are no Kents in his 1934 summary. They debuted in Keaton’s unpublished sample strips, a fleshed-out version of the adoption story Siegel recycled and condensed for Superman No. 1.

Jerry Siegel’s own origin story is closer to Bruce Wayne’s. His father died in an armed robbery in 1932. Jerry was 18. Was it less painful to pretend that his father had never existed? I’m 45. I don’t want to imagine the stories I’ll tell myself after my parents’ deaths.

Siegel continued to live with his widowed mother to became the permanent baby of the family, trapped at home under her protective wing while he watched his siblings fly off. He dreamed up Superman a year later. Would he have preferred the accelerated adulthood of orphanage life over such loving guidance? Probably not. But Superman was a daydream. An escape. A superhero doesn’t like anybody telling him what to do.

Probably George Pérez and Grant Morrison don’t either, but they’re working under the firm and loving guidance of their editors. DC, like Siegel, wants to snip the apron strings early and send their Superman flying solo.

So rest in peace Jonathan and Martha. See you at the next rewrite.

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Dear Joel and Ethan,

I realize Christopher Nolan is still shooting The Dark Knight Rises, but the New York Times reports that Warner Brothers is already “contemplating a new Batman series.” Given how quickly Marvel Entertainment is rebooting the Spider-Man franchise (Tobey who?), you should submit your project proposal ASAP.  Even worse, Alex Pappademas in The New York Times Magazine put out an open call to all auteurs to please swoop down and rescue the superhero movie from the claws of Hollywood mediocrity. Woody Allen and Spike Lee are thumb-wrestling for Green Arrows‘s quiver as I type, so unless you want to get stuck with Aquaman, you better get moving.

First off, a low-brow pulp genre like the superhero is a perfect fit for your breed of violent high-brow tragic-comedies. And, frankly, you’ve played your hand as far as westerns and crime noir go. Time for a lateral leap.  You could go with other 1930’s vigilante heroes (The Spider’s body count puts Dexter and the Punisher to shame), but nothing seethes nihilistic despair like the Dark Knight’s never ending war on criminals. You could ask Javier Bardem to play Two-Face, but I hear his thumb never recovered from all that coin flipping he did in No Country for Old Men.

If you’re rushed for time, submit the True Grit screenplay. But don’t forget to change all the “Rooster Cogburn” dialogue headers to “Alfred,” and “Mattie” to “Bruce.” And, what the hell, all the “LaBoef” to “Commissioner Gordon.”  Don’t touch the synopsis though. Father pointlessly gunned down by two-bit criminal, child seeks revenge. (Mattie’s mother never appears, so as far as plot structure, she’s as dead as Bruce’s.) You’re going to need some scenes of Alfred (remember this is a period piece, so he’s a World War I vet) training little Bruce, slicing all that baby fat off his upper-crust body. But like Mattie, his motivation is internal. Alfred is just a means.

Don’t change the climax either. Mattie guns down her father’s killer and back she flies into an abyss-deep cave to be devoured by snakes. Only, you know, bats. It’s the batcave. Alfred can try to save him, can rush him to a hospital, Saint Somethingorother, but it’s too late for a redeeming act of love. His soul has fled. The epilogue is perfect, too. A couple of disappointing minutes with the one-armed spinster Mattie turned herself into. Like Bruce, the child did not survive her vengeance. Bruce’s bat costume is way cooler, but it’s the same act of self-mutilation.

Feel free to contact me if you need any further help. And should Scorsese or Coppola (Sofia or Francis) beat you to the punch, let’s talk Daredevil. That 2003 Ben Affleck travesty is begging for a reboot.



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