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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: October 2011

The Amazing Spider-Man isn’t due in theaters till July 2012, but Columbia Pictures has already announced May 2014 for the release of its sequel. I’m sure screenwriter James Vanderbilt has hashed through several drafts already, which is a shame since the best Spider-Man 2 screenplay was finished almost a decade ago.

It’s also the only superhero script penned by a Pulitzer Prize winner. After The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay gave comic books their first radioactive bite of literary legitimacy, Columbia Pictures hired author Michael Chabon to write the sequel to their 2002 Spider-Man. Compare Chabon’s script to the filmed version and you’ll understand why he sticks to novels.

He is only one of four writers on the final credits. He shares “story” with two others, but “screenplay” goes to Alvin Sargent. (Perhaps Columbia mistook Sargent’s 1972 adaption The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds for The Incredible Hulk.)

I’m not saying Chabon’s Spider-Man 2 would have won more awards (the Sam Raimi film took the 2004 Oscar for Best Visual Effects), but it did deserve a fuller screening. Columbia rehired Sargent not Chabon for Amazing Spider-Man, so they could still bring in Chabon to take the new sequel “story” and craft an even better “screenplay” than his last.

Admittedly, Chabon doesn’t care much about supervillians. His death of Doctor Octopus reads like an afterthought. Like Cavalier and Clay, it’s the love triangle that gives his story its mutant bite.

Here are my favorite (albeit sentimental) bits (pay attention, Mr. Vanderbilt):

Peter lied to Mary Jane when he told her he didn’t love her. He thought he had to; she and Peter’s best friend James Franco (this is before Mr. Franco ripped off his hand in 127 Hours and caused the end of the human race in Rise of the Planet of the Apes) were already engaged.

It’s also before Doc Ock rips off the Spider-Man mask, and Mary Jane (“with dawning shock and horror”) yelps “Peter!” A few pages later and the two are face to face, the unmasked Peter with several tons of collapsing building on his back and Mary Jane and her broken leg pinned under him. (I didn’t say Chabon was subtle.)

Peter says, “Hi.”

What does Mary Jane say?

“Hi.”

(Improbably, this is one of the few times Sargent retains Chabon’s dialogue.)

Chabon counts down the inches, five, four, three, less than one, until their faces are close enough for a kiss. Only now, his mask gone, the weight of his responsibilities about to crush them both, can Peter admit his love.

It’s also apparently what Mary Jane needed to get her leg free. In the next scene she’s happily bandaged in her apartment with Peter for a bedside nurse.

Narrative law requires that once unmasked a hero and his love interest must immediately have sex and/or get married. Chabon suggests both. But first his Peter has to try the classic superhero excuse for non-commitment:

“I do love you. I have loved you all my life, Mary Jane Watson. I just can’t have you, that’s all. The danger, the uncertainty. The hatred. I can’t ask that of you. . . . ”

Chabon’s Mary Jane is too smart:

“You were given a gift, Peter. I want to share that gift with you. And I want you to share it with me. You don’t have to do it alone. . . . What, you think police officers don’t get to be in love? Firefighters don’t get to be married? That’s crazy.”

“Wait, did you say married?”

“I already know your damn secret identity!”

And there it is, Superhero Intimacy 101. Take off your mask, wear your heart on your spandex sleeve.

Peter carries Mary Jane up the side of her apartment building (I skipped the bit where she jumps out the window to make him save her) and back in through her window.

She asks, “Does this mean I get to see the Spider Cave?”

Peter says no, there is no Spider Cave, but their off screen voices vanishing into the dark of her bedroom suggest otherwise. She’s about to see all of Peter’s secret Spider bits, not just the ones Mr. Sargent liked.

All Chabon needs is “The Amazing” in his title, and director Marc Webb should be ready to start shooting.

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“I am one of those odd, perhaps unfortunate men who derive an extreme erotic pleasure from the mere thought of a beautiful girl, chained or bound, or masked, or wearing extreme high-heels or high-laced boots . . . Your tales of Wonder Woman have fascinated me on account of this queer ‘twist’ in my psychological make-up. . . . if you have experienced the same sensation as I have from actually applying such [implements of confinement] to a beautiful girl, you’ll understand exactly what I mean.”

This is one of Wonder Woman’s first fan letters. It was written by an American infantryman in September 1943, ten months after Wonder Woman premiered. But DC insisted there was nothing erotic about their Amazon. Company policy forbade it:

“The use of chains, whips, or other such devices is forbidden. Anything having a sexual or sadistic implication is forbidden. The kidnaping of women is discouraged, and must never have any sexual implication.”

William Marston, Wonder Woman’s creator, never got the memo.

The Harvard-trained psychologist, like his overseas fan, was a bondage enthusiast. In fact, the doctor believed sexual bondage could save the world. And he invented Wonder Woman to prove it.

“Without a sound foundation in ‘sex love,’” Marston wrote in 1939, “no human being of either sex can possibly submit to any social control and like it.”

Sexual submission was his answer to war and crime: “erotic love is the emotional source of that all-important social trait, willing submission to other people, to their needs, their opinions, their manner of living and submission also to the leaders who govern the social group.”

For Marston, there’s only one difference between a criminal and a good citizen: “the lawbreaker is a social rebel who cannot enjoy the experience of yielding his own will to someone else’s, while the law-abiding citizen is a socially minded individual who enjoys submitting to others on a majority of occasions.”

People obey laws because it feels good. Really good.  Criminals just need some “emotional re-education.”

After developing and publishing his psychological theories in the 20’s and 30’s, Marston decided it was time to apply his sound foundation in sex love to the children’s market. He had already publicly praised Superman, so he approached DC with his idea for “Suprema, the Wonder Woman.” His editors trimmed her name but not her message.

When Wonder Woman defeats a group of invaders from Saturn, she takes them to “Transformation Island” where they must wear “Venus girdles.”

“What does the beautiful gold girdle do to a prisoner?”

“It is magic metal from Venus—it removes all desire to do evil and compels complete authority to loving obedience.”

When the not-yet-reformed Saturn women break out, many of the other prisoners refuse to join them, even after removing their bonds:

“Without the girdle I feel dominant—invincible! But I don’t feel cruel and wicked as I used to—the Amazons transformed me! I love Wonder Woman and Queen Hippolyte—I can’t bear to have them hurt—I must save them!”

But the fan with the “queer twist” wasn’t the only reader who missed the moral. Where Marston saw loving submission, others, including members of DC’s own editorial advisory board, saw sado-masochistic torture. Marston was told to cut the chains.

But he refused to submit. Not only were “harmless erotic fantasies . . . good for people,” his were “the one truly great contribution of [his] Wonder Woman strip to moral education of the young. The only hope for peace is to teach people who are full of pep and unbound force to enjoy being bound—enjoy submission to kind authority.”

Fellow psychologist Frederic Wertham missed the message too. He considered Wonder Woman “one of the most harmful” crime comics and the character “a horror type. She is physically very powerful, tortures men, has her own female following, is the cruel, ‘phallic’ woman. While she is a frightening figure for boys, she is an undesirable ideal for girls, being the exact opposite of what girls are supposed to want to be.”

Marston’s sales figures told him another story. He believed the young male readers of Wonder Woman were shouting: “We love a girl who is stronger than men, who uses her strength to help others and who allures us with the love appeal of a true woman!”

I don’t need to imagine Marston’s bedroom practices. Though he encouraged wives to become “love leaders,” his own home operated on a different principle:

Polygamy.

After marrying a fellow psychologist and law student, Elizabeth Holloway, Marston began an affair with his research assistant, Olive Byrne. Holloway did not object. Byrne moved in with them, and Marston fathered four children, two with each mother. Byrne took the role of stay-at-home mom, while Hollway became the family bread-winner. Marston landed a job at Family Circle magazine, but I doubt his employers were aware of the geometry of their psychologist’s own family.

I also doubt their household was a paradise, but it was an island of social rebels hidden far beyond laws of convention. It was Holloway who told Marston that his comic book character needed to be a woman. She was a bit of an Amazon herself, living 99 years and, more wondrously, supporting all four children and Byrne after Marston’s death in 1947.

The tale of Venus girdles and Transformation Island was one of Marston’s last, published a year after his death. As the first widely popular comic book superheroine, Wonder Woman defined the character type. Soon the Phantom Lady and other scantily costumed heroines were getting themselves tied up too.

Despite Marston’s edifying intentions, the erotic effect of his creation never progressed much past the “queer twist” stage. An internet search today shows how little has changed since 1943. Marston’s infantryman would have a wide range of softporn superheroine sites to peruse. Some find a disturbing thrill in seeing their wonder women defeated:

“What is it about superheroines that is so fascinating? For one they are sexy and we guess it’s the skin-tight costume, leotard, tights, mask, cape and the fact that the ladies are seemingly invincible. Since they are ‘super’ they should easily dispose of any villains. So, the fascinating part comes about when the tables turn and one sees these women get challenged physically and mentally and placed in perilous erotic situations.”

There’s a word for “perilous erotic situations.” Rape.

That’s been the not-particularly-veiled subtext of the superheroine since the Domino Lady started flirting with perilous erotic situations in the 30’s. Whatever Marston’s stated intentions, most of Wonder Woman’s bondage escapades are at the hands of her male adversaries. That’s not loving submission.

I don’t know if he was lying to his editors or himself, but you don’t need a magic lasso to get the truth out of his scripts. Marston ties up his heroine far more often than she ties up anyone else.

And she has remained tied down by her origins for decades. When Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz planned a reinterpretation of the Amazon in the eighties, their working title was Wonder Woman: Bondage. Sienkiewicz’ test sketches removed any ambiguity from Marston’s subtext. No more Venus girdles. This was S&M.

Which is why I’m relieved to see that Brian Azzaarello’s newly rebooted Wonder Woman does not submit to her history. Although this Amazon is still battling villainy in a strapless bathing suit, Cliff Chiang’s art, while visually explosive, avoids erotics. Compare her to Guillem March’s oversexed Catwoman, and the new Wonder Woman is downright wholesome. (If you don’t object to a dismembered centaur or two.)

Best of all, she’s not the kind of beautiful girl who’s going to let either a well-meaning psychologist or a twisted G.I. tie her up.

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Panel one:

“For the splash page I’m seeing ‘Singulas’ launching himself from the craggy edge of his mentor’s mountain cave for the first time. Bird’s eye view, fists high, cape aflutter, and the bone-thin ‘Onlyone’ seated below, lotus-style, age-beaten face angled to watch his newborn pupil ascending. His mouth should be an ambiguous half-grin. That’s important later. Leave me a wide caption box to recap the origin. I’ll do all the words later.”

That’s the first paragraph of my short story “Script Outline, ‘The One and Only!’ Draft 1.” It appears in the new issue of The Pinch literary magazine. I just  tore my complimentary author’s copy from its mailing envelope. (Something that, even after some thirty-odd short stories, still thrills.)

My superhero, Singulas, is invented, but my (unstated) narrator is Stan Lee just before Marvel hits it big in the early sixties. “The One and Only!” is his first superhero plot, one he’s describing to a freelance artist. I think it’s probably also a lesson in how not to write a comic book script.

Will Eisner in Comics and Sequential Art assures his students that there’s “no absolute ratio of words-to-pictures” in comic book writing, but his example scripts average 40 words of visual description per panel. My panel above is 75. The whole story runs about 4,500 words. I don’t think many of Stan Lee’s “scripts” filled more than a cocktail napkin.

Which was the point.

While DC editor Mort Weisinger was pounding his scripters with endless rewrites, Stan would dash off a verbal thumbnail for Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko to beat into shape. AKA, the Marvel Method. The laissez-faire approach had obvious benefits for an overworked editor.  It might also help explain that office closet of unused and unusable story boards Lee hid from his boss in the late 1950’s. (When Goodman found them, he fired everyone but Lee, until the inventory was used up.)

The Lee of my story has more in common with Alan Moore. Surely the most verbose scripter in comic book history. The guy would mail poor Dave Gibbons reams of paper. Watchmen even includes Moore’s self-parody, a faux bio of a fictitious writer famed for “harassing the artist with impossibly detailed panel descriptions.” Moore can fill a single-spaced page for a one panel. More than ten times the Eisner ratio. Gibbons’ Watching the Watchmen includes only a glimpse of the original transcripts, but it’s enough to see the enormity of the artistic task. Gibbons had to code sentences with colored highlighters just to organize all the instructions.

Back in the sixties, Kirby and Ditko were handing their pages to Lee with the captions and talk bubbles empty. Which, paradoxically, is one of the reason why Marvel’s Silver Age comics are wordier than today’s image-centered graphic novels. The artists were careful to leave their boss plenty of room for his witty (though ad-hoc) dialogue.

But Moore’s Watchmen scripts were also personal letters to Gibbons. There are asides and exclamations wonderfully outside the conventions of any formal script outline. And that’s what attracted me to experiment with the form as a short story. The “One and Only!” is a personal letter, not only from editor to artist, but between ex-lovers. Lee and my fictitious freelancer are collaborators both on and between the sheets.

The story is also my first toe-wetting dip into the material I’m now expanding in my novel-in-process. (Working title? “The Patron Saint of Superheroes.”) I’m not handing the pages (136 so far) to any stressed-out artists with color-coded highlighters. Though sometimes it would be nice to scribble a few words on a napkin and watch them come back as full blown storyboards. Lee was no fool. But neither is Moore. I recommend aiming somewhere between.

(For anyone in Memphis on Saturday November 5th, I’ll be reading from “The One and Only!” at The Pinch launch party. Festivities start at 7:00 at Splash Creative, Inc., 2574 Sam Cooper Blvd @ Bingham St.)

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The first time I taught my honors seminar “Superheroes,” I scribbled character elements on the board as students called them out:

“Intelligent.”

“Superpowers.”

“Orphans.”

“Brave.”

No one shouted, “Assholes.”

But they are now.

Comicbook.com’s Scott Johnson isn’t the only reader to call Grant Morrison’s new Action Comics Superman a “cynical, arrogant jerk.” Johnson concedes that “this might be the real personality that would develop if an all-powerful alien being found himself stranded on earth. Those with great power, more often than not let it go to their heads.”

But Morrison isn’t the first writer to portray a superheaded hero. It’s been the trend for years if not decades.

We have yet to see what director Joss Whedon has in store for The Avengers, but Captain Hammer, his first take on a superhero, was a superasshole. Nathan Fillion hammed it up as the cheesy embodiment of superpowered privilege in Whedon’s 2008 musical Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. The guy dupes a social advocate into sleeping with him (“This is so nice / Just might sleep with the same girl twice”) by faking that he cares about the homeless (“I’m poverty’s new sheriff / And I’m bashing in the slums / A hero doesn’t care / If you’re a bunch of scary alcoholic bums”).

Look at Jonathan Lethem’s Omega The Unknown and his superhero is no better. In addition to womanizing, the millionaire Mink bribes politicians, stages photo-ops, and stars in his own Hollywood Squares TV show. Other characters call him “greedy and boastful,” a “jerk,” a “pig,” and (my favorite) “the worst person I have ever been seated behind in a movie theater.”

Hammer and the Mink are right up there with CoreFire, Austin Grossman Superman knock-off in his 2007 novel Soon I Will be Invincible.  CoreFire has a “smug air of invincibility” and seems to fly “purely out of a sense of entitlement.” His own teammate calls him a “jerk” and a “fucking racist.”

President Obama would never call someone a fucking anything (though, wow, do I wish he would), but he doesn’t like arrogant superheroes either. While on the campaign trail in 2008, he told Entertainment Weekly: “The guys who have too many powers—like Superman—that always made me think they weren’t really earning their superhero status. It’s a little too easy.”

Garth Ennis, on the other hand, would call anyone a fucking anything. His superhero-bashing Butcher in The Boys sums up what he hates most about them: “That arrogance. That fuckin’ DISDAIN they have for us, where our lives mean nothin’ more than a rat’s.” And if that’s not clear enough for you, Ennis has Homelander (another Superman stand-in) and his teammates require their virginal recruit to give them blowjobs before she can join.

Starlight: “I mean this is completely disgusting! It’s a betrayal of everything you stand for! You’re the Earth’s most mighty! You bring justice to all, you avenge the innocent!”

Homelander: “Yes, and we’d like to get our dicks sucked.”

Peter Berg’s 2008 Hancock started out almost as bad. Berg described the original 1996 script as “a scathing character study of this suicidal alcoholic superhero.” To keep a PG-13 rating, the revised “comedy” still had to trim back a statutory rape and a scene of Will Smith drinking with a 12-year-old minor (flying while under the influence stayed).

Hancock, Mink, Hammer, CoreFire, Homelander. That’s a lot of asshole. But they’re just the most recent examples.

Look at Rick Veitch’s Brat Pack.

Look at Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come.

Look (inevitably) at Alan Moore’s Watchmen.

Superhero-as-asshole is the shared premise of some of the very best comic book writing of the last quarter century.

But you can go back further. The 1960’s Silver Age happened because Stan Lee was the first writer willing to make a hero ugly. In Fantastic Four #1, the Thing calls frightened onlookers “Lily-livered cowards!” and picks a fight with Mr. Fantastic: “I’m going to paste you right in that smug face of yours!”

Spider-Man started out worse. After letting a thief run past him, he tells a cop: “Sorry, pal! That’s your job! I just look out for number one—that means—ME!”

The Hulk, Doctor Strange, Iron Man, Thor, they were all jerks.

But it’s not just the Silver Age. Comic books began with the biggest asshole of all, Jerry Siegel’s Superman.

Look at Action Comics #12. The guy busts into a radio station and shoves an announcer in the face: “Beat it! And tell that control engineer that if he shuts me off the air, I’ll make a bee-line for his gizzard!” He then announces his “war on reckless drivers” and, while dodging police bullets, demolishes a car pound (the owners are traffic violators), a used car lot (the cars are old and unsafe), and a manufacturing plant (the owner uses cheap materials). He even kidnaps the mayor and frightens him into obeying his orders.

This isn’t Robin Hood do-goodery on behalf of the common man. The guy is a superpowered egomaniac. It’s the trait DC covered up, made Siegel turn his Asshole of Steel into a well-mannered law-abider. But the arrogance has always been there, just under the leotard.

Good for Grant Morrison for giving us a peek again.

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“The trend in uniform design is more toward making costumes for superheroes than uniforms for athletes.”

That’s ESPN reporter Paul Lukas. He’s also the editor of Uni-Watch.com. A website devoted not to sport teams but their uniforms. Lukas is not a fan of U of Maryland’s new string of high fashion helmets and jerseys. Under Armour (they’re designing all of Maryland’s varsity uniforms) is championing the new menswear trend of garishly bright colors.

But it’s not new for comic books. Joe Shuster’s Superman made the first superheroic fashion statement seventy years ago. And comic book heroes are still working the runways.

George Perez and Jesus Merino just retailored the Man of Steel’s skintight threads with a Kryptonian armor design (the red briefs have, mysteriously, vanished). And Sara Pichelli stitched a sassy new suit for Ultimate Spider-Man (the black and red is almost as bold as the brown skin underneath it).

In Hollywood, superhero costume design is its own industry. Look at just this year’s super fashion:

Designer Anna B. Sheppard trashed the spandex and went with a looser fitting cut for Captain America. The leather straps and metal buckles say “1940’s.”

Alexandra Byrne was thinking “ancient modernism” for Thor. The biggest challenge was the cape, which had to merge “completely believable” with the “sublimely magical.”

Ngila Dickson abandoned real-world fabrics. The Green Lantern costume is entirely motion-captured computer graphics.

David E. Kelley recently shot a Wonder Woman pilot for NBC, but his Amazon’s costume make-over didn’t make it into the fall line-up. Despite all the film fashion fun, the only superhero costumes on TV are on ESPN. Primetime heroes won’t touch them.

Syfy’s Alphas launched last summer. The team of superpowered government agents fight evil mutants in their street clothes. There’s not as much as a logo on their lapels.

Across the Atlantic, the BBC’s Misfits sport matching orange jumpsuits, but only because the characters are juvenile offenders clocking community service hours.

NBC’s Heroes solidified the trend in 2006, but it was the CW’s 2001 Superboy adaptation, Smallville, that first scissorsed the costume off a superhero.

The 1993 Lois and Clark, the 1988 Superboy, and the 1990 The Flash series all still featured their hero’s iconic wardrobes. Which was part of the problem.

“The appearance of realism in a super-hero costume,” explains Michael Chabon, “made from real materials is generally recognized to be difficult to pull off.” In fact, he goes on, it’s “hopeless” because the true superhero costume exists only on paper.

This is most obviously and hilariously true in the earliest attempts to move superheroes from comic books to screen. If you don’t admire Anna B. Sheppard’s Captain America, take a look at the 1944 film serial.

Adam West’s Batman could get away with leotarded camp in the 60’s. William Katt’s Greatest American Hero still could fifteen years later. The goofiness of their costumes was part of the appeal. But Tim Burton raised the bar with Batman in 1989. Low-budget leotards no longer cut it. Michael Keaton in Bob Ringwood’s award-winning batsuit changed the playing field. The 2000 X-Men said it outright: leather is better.

At least on the big screen. Responding to the same challenge, TV designers opted for a simpler solution. If it’s hopeless, why try?

Stan Lee never liked costumes anyway. “I always felt if I had a superpower,” Lee says in Confessions of a Superhero, “there’s no way I would wear a costume. I’m a show-off; I’d want everybody to [know]–I wouldn’t wear a mask, conceal my identity. And I wouldn’t want to look like some idiot in a costume.”

When he and Jack Kirby posed their first superhero team on the cover of a Marvel comic book in 1961, the Fantastic Four were no more fashion forward than the Alphas. The Thing made his debut in a men’s clothing store (“I’m sorry, mister, I just don’t have anything big enough for a man your size!”). It’s not till issue three that Invisible Girl reveals her secret superpower:

“Susan! You designed a costume for yourself!”

“And for you, too! It’s time we all had some colorful costumes!”

But now the anti-fashion fashion is filtering back into comic books. When Grant Morrison and Rags Morales revamped Action Comics, they made the most radical costume choice imaginable: Superman in work boots, blue jeans, and a t-shirt. There’s still an ‘S’ on his chest and a cape on his back, but the iconic unitard of the original comic book superhero is gone.

These surface changes are more than just surface changes. In comic books, costume is character. A change in tights is a change in meaning. The spandex look has marked superheroes as exotic outsiders since the 30’s. They fight for humanity, but their second skins separate them. They remain alien and so alienated.

Or they did. When TV’s Alphas or Misfits or Heroes perform extraordinary abilities in ordinary clothes, they are also performing their humanity. They are just people. People with really freaky skill sets, but at their core (which is a product of their surface) they are human. While their big screen brothers want to remain larger than life, the 21st century TV superhero is dressed for small-scale integration. We all pull our pants on one leg at a time.

So if you’re a costume connoisseur, stick with college football.

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