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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: November 2011

A “super hero” is a “superhero” is a “super-hero.” It’s a trademarked term. Marvel and DC have owned it jointly since 1979. They argued that consumers associate the word with their products, and so any other company marketing a character as a superhero would be exploiting them.

That may have been true in 1979. Charlton Comics (they dropped out of the superhero comic book market in the late 70’s) called their superpowered do-gooders “Action Heroes.” It seems considerably less true after the emergence of other major comic book publishers, such as Dark Horse in 1986 and Image in 1992. Only in a legalistic sense are Hellboy, Spawn, and Michael Chabon’s The Escapist (Dark Horse published the comic book version) not superheroes.

My professional expertise is in literary analysis not law, but I do not expect Chevron and Gulf would have much luck barring other oil companies from using “gas station” on the grounds that Chevron and Gulf were the first to open ones. The term is used too generically now. Of course Marvel and DC can’t control generic use of “superhero” either. Other companies can call their characters “superheroes” within a text, just not in a title or an advertisement.

So someone tell me: Is Nostalgia Ventures following or breaking trademark law with the phrase “THE FIRST SUPERHERO” on the cover of their Doc Savage reprints? (This sounds like a job for those guys over at the “Law and the Multiverse” blog.)

Some dictionaries trace “superhero” to the early 60’s, fueling Marvel and DC’s claim since their Silver Age characters reinvented the genre then. But the word goes back much further. Popular wisdom has it originating shortly after 1938: since Superman established the hero type, imitations were dubbed “superheroes.” It’s a reasonable claim. Except that Joe Shuster used the term himself while sketching early drafts, describing Superman as “THE GREATEST SUPER-HERO OF ALL TIME!” years before he saw publication.

Pulp publishers Street and Smith advertised Doc Savage as a “SUPERMAN!” but in house they were referring to the Shadow and other mystery men as “superheroes” as early as 1932. Future DC publisher Harry Donnefeld launched Super-Detective magazine in 1934, but the prefix had been popular for at least a decade. Bruce Graeme opens his 1925 novel Blackshirt with a complaint: “A super-criminal—bah! It is all tommy-rot, this ‘super’ business.

The first published use of “super-hero” appears in Alan Bott’s 1917 Airman Outings. It was a complaint then too. Bott was objecting that members of Parliament were exaggerating the powers of British fighter pilots by calling them “the super-heroes of the war.”

The prefix had been circulating in variations on “ubermensch” for over a decade. Nietzsche made the word famous (or infamous), but he borrowed “ubermenschen” from Goethe’s Faust. The first English translator of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra named his ubermensch “beyond-man.” The second went with “superman.” But he was only following George Barnard Shaw. His play Man and Superman introduced the word to English in 1903. And “super-heroes” soon followed.

So conventional wisdom is right. If you subtract 35 years and forget that it’s a different superman (Shaw had Don Juan in mind). By the time Jerry Siegel attached it to his hero, the word was everywhere. Type it into The New York Times archives, and you’ll find hundreds of listings.

Superman appeared most regularly on sports pages. While Jack Dempsy insisted that “It will take a superman to beat” boxer Tom Heeney, football stars Red Grange and Frank Johavac were both declared “Superman.” Babe Ruth was a “Baseball Superman,” as was Giants pitcher Red Ruffing, and golfer Cecil Leitch was a “superwoman of the links.”

Other Supermen leapt from the arts pages: dancer Michel Fokine was a “Superman of the toe,” actor Robert Loraine a “Superman of the Stage,” Stravinsky a “Superman of Jazz,” Schoenberg another musical “Superman,” and singer Enrico Caruso had the “lungs . . . of a superman.”

According to book reviews, any person worthy of a biography was by definition a superman: Napoleon, Charles II, Garibaldi, Genghis Khan, Cromwell. Ben Franklin was honored as a “Super-man” on his 217th birthday. Among living politicians, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Mussolini were all repeatedly called or compared to supermen.

By 1938 the word was generic for any kind of excellence. Jerry Siegel wasn’t even the first author to apply it to a pulp hero. The honor goes to Edgar Rice Burrough, whose Tarzan is called a “superman” in his 1912 debut.

Using the word for a name today would be the modern equivalent of calling a character “Genius” or “Epitome.”

Or, better still, “Superhero.”

I doubt Marvel and DC’s lawyers mentioned any of this when presenting their trademark case. “Superhero” is the definition of a generic term. Their companies briefly capitalized on it, but they did not coin it, and its exclusive association with their products was temporary. It wasn’t the case for the thirty years before Action Comics #1, and it hasn’t been the case for the last thirty years either.

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Michael Chabon is a nice guy. I made sure I knew how to pronounce his name (“Cha” as in Shea Stadium, “bon” as in Jovi) before having dinner with him. And about ten other faculty members and university students before his lecture across campus. He sat opposite me, as a way of avoiding the more central seat he probably should have taken. He’s a little shy, but less soft-spoken behind a podium.

I asked him about his script for Spider-Man 2 (in my defense, McSweeney’s had recently posted it), but he said, and then repeated twice, that his only interest in screenwriting was the family health benefits he received through the writer’s guild.

I didn’t ask him about his article, “Secret Skin: An Essay in Unitard Theory,” a handout I photocopy for students in my Superheroes course. I was, thankfully, not yet drafting my secret history of the genre, so his smile did not tighten the way my wife’s used to before she imposed a five-minute limit on any conversational gambit involving muscle-stretched spandex.

Michael will forgive me if I sometimes imagine I’m still in conversation with him. He tells me in the New Yorker: “There were costumed crime-fighters before Superman (the Phantom, Zorro), but only as there were pop quartets before the Beatles. Superman invented and exhausted his genre in a single bound.”

It’s a pithy summary of conventional wisdom, one I took on faith when I sketched my first timeline. Aside from the Shadow and a few other pulp heroes of the 30’s, there’s just Zorro a decade earlier, and the Scarlet Pimpernel a decade and half before that.

I wasn’t expecting an answer (from anyone, let alone my imaginary Michael) when I asked about the gaps. I assumed I’d never heard of any roaring twenties superheroes because the roaring twenties were roaring through other genres. Same for the fifteen years between Baroness Orczy’s flowery Pimpernel and Johnston McCulley’s Z-slashing imitation.

Actually, Michael, the first three decades of the century were awash with masked and superpowered do-gooders. My latest rough count: forty. The number doubles with the horde of “mystery men” who crawl from under The Shadow’s cloak plus the Pimpernel’s garden of predecessors, some known, others lost in the mulch of crumbled penny-dreadfuls.

Eighty. About the number who attended Chabon’s lecture. Not a stadium crowd, but the Beatles couldn’t have filled Shea when they started either. Jerry Siegel and Jim Shuster may be comic book’s Lennon and McCartney, but their Superman was Elvis. He rose so high in his genre because his genre was already there to applaud him.

That’s the story I’m writing. Not a tight little screenplay, but a sprawling mini-series with a dozen subplots and a cast of hundreds. If there’s a superhero writer’s guild, I want the family health benefits too.

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How any Hollywood exec fantasized that last summer’s Green Lantern could have spawned a Harry Potter-replacing franchise remains an unfathomable mystery. Three exposition-bloated minutes in and my ten-year-old son mumbled: “This isn’t very good.”

But the writers (seven names in the credits, never a good sign) got one thing right. When Lantern drops onto his love interest’s balcony (how many times has Superman pulled that maneuver with Lois?), she sees through his silly little disguise in seconds. And when he finally gets his kiss at the end, she first asks:

“Hal, can you take off the mask?”

If I were going to write a Superhero Guide to Love and Sex, that would be the first entry. Rule #1: Expose yourself. A superhero’s most intimate act is unmasking.

The advice originates from the roots of the genre (Spring-Heeled Jack, Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro). It branches during the 1930’s into monkishly celibate heroes (Doc Savage, Superman) and earthier heroes with indulging fiancés (the Shadow, the Spider). And it’s still the core of 21st century superhero romances.

When DC turned their death of superman comic book arc into the PG-13 cartoon Superman: Doomsday in 2007, Anne Heche voiced Lois Lane’s annoyance with Superman for keeping their (surprisingly sexual) relationship a secret. Not only does he limit their trysts to the Fortress of Solitude (the ultimate bachelor pad), but he’s not confirmed his secret identity to her either. This Lois (for once) can see through Clark’s glasses, so she’s not miffed because he’s keeping her in the dark. She’s hurt that her lover isn’t committed to their relationship enough to show his real self. (That, by the way, is what you call a metaphor.) It only takes a scrape with the afterlife for the Man of Steel to come around. In the last scene, the post-coital Lois looks up from Superman’s bedsheets to see Clark putting on his glasses. Intimacy at last.

Staying in 2007, Austin Grossman’s novel Soon I Will Be Invincible plays by the same romance rules. The love-struck cyborg Fatale longs for her teammate Blackwolf:

“Our lips touch, and for a second it’s everything I thought it would be. The metal in my jaw is awkward but somehow exciting, and he kisses back. I pull him down to me, get his weight against me. I’d forgotten what it was like to want something this much. He reaches up under my shirt, and the feeling is so good it makes me want to cry. Nobody but a surgeon has touched me there for a really, really long time.

“Then I make a mistake. I reach for the mask, and he catches my arm, ready to break it. His jaw sets, and I’m dealing with Blackwolf again.”

For a superhero, unmasking is more intimate than sex.

It’s another team member who eventually lands Blackwolf. The two “are making out in the rain like high school kids,” and “Blackwolf’s mask came off, showing the shock of white hair he usually keeps hidden.” Even Fatale admits “it’s just about the most romantic thing I’ve ever seen.”

The mask means the same to gay superheroes. The hero of Perry Moore’s Hero (2007 was a banner year for superhero sex) masturbates to online porn of wide-nippled Uberman (the one page I mumbled over when reading aloud to my kids). But he doesn’t find real intimacy until he and the better half of his dynamic duo have shared identities. The novel’s most touching (and gently erotic) scene takes place not in bed but during a picnic lunch in a public park:

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

For a superhero, a happy ending means getting your mask off.

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A) Earth

B) Mars

C) a planet opposite Earth on the other side of the sun.

(Sorry, “Krypton” is not an option.)

If you went with “B” (a good multiple choice technique since test-makers have an unconscious tendency to “hide” correct answers), you apparently have read Jack Williamson’s 1929 short story “The Girl from Mars.” Superman creator Jerry Siegel read it in high school. The “Lost Planet” of Mars, like Krypton, explodes, but not before its scientists save their race by launching unborn offspring to Earth. Siegel must have skipped over the bit about fertilization and gestation, but one of the adopted Martians “was brought up by a farmer,” providing a seed for Superman’s origin.

If you went with “C,” you’re a radio fan. When Allen Ducovny and Robert Joffe Maxwell adapted the star of Action Comics for a radio serial in 1940, they located Superman’s home planet in our own solar system, but hid it from Earth’s view. Siegel jettisoned artificial insemination, but the radio team tossed out childhood too. Their Superman steps out of his rocket fully grown.

If you went with “A,” you’re with me. After Joe Shuster burnt the first draft of Superman, Siegel approached comic strip artist Russell Keaton to illustrate a rewrite. The script resembles what would become Action Comics #1, only instead of Krypton exploding, Earth “was in its last days, dying” as “the last man placed his infant babe within a small time-machine” and launched it to “the primitive year, 1935, A.D.” The child’s “physical structure was millions of years advanced.” The Man of Tomorrow was literally the man of tomorrow.

He was also literally “superman,” Nietzsche’s vision of mankind’s evolutionary future. What Nazi Germany was marching toward. Siegel co-opted eugenics, the product of an explicitly pro-Aryan, anti-Semitic pseudo-science nurtured in the U.S. and championed in Germany, and turned it against itself. After Keaton drew sample strips, Clark becomes the adoptive son of Sam and Molly Kent who realize they have a “duty to train him . . . so that he will use his super strength to help those in need of assistance.”

The genetic child of the German future would be nurtured by the loving parents of the American present.

Take that, Ubermensch.

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