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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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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