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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: December 2011

Last year I gave my wife The Walking Dead Vols. 1-3 for Christmas. She loved it. She had a few other items under the tree too, but The Walking Dead was the only one she went on to teach in her freshman composition course.

My wife loves zombies. Actually, she loves almost anything involving the end of the world as we know it. Survivor tales. I’ve never seen her so happy as when she was filling water containers to store in our basement crawl space in the months leading up to Y2K.

But there’s something particular about zombies that enthralls her. Not any horror plot. Not vampires and werewolves. Certainly not slashers. Just animated, brain-devouring corpses. 28 Days Later is one of her all time favorite films (I know, not technically zombies, but Lesley’s not a purist). We saw it on romantic a date out, left the kids with my parents. When The Walking Dead showed up on last year’s fall TV listings, she was thrilled. We’ve watched every blood-splattering, heart-wrenching episode.

According to her and her first year composition students, the comic book is far more socially conservative. When the world as we know it collapses, somehow family and its traditional 1950’s-era gender roles are all that endure. She shows a season one clip of the female cast cleaning clothes by the lake, how the screenwriters turn it into critique.

This year I got my wife a rapier.

I’ve had a copy of Isabel Allende’s Zorro lying around the house for months, in preparation for teaching it in my Thrilling Tales course next semester. This inspired Lesley to grab the books-on-CD version from the library when she drove up to New Jersey to give a poetry reading. She returned with a surprisingly energetic Spanish accent. The world was suddenly punctuated with exclamation points!

Johnston McCulley’s original 1919 Zorro novel is a hilariously straight-faced argument for the supremacy of European bloodlines and male virility. Allende’s is an equally fun read, but one that is both anti-colonial and rompingly feminist.

My wife was also awarded an endowed chair by our university this year. Dr. Lesley Wheeler is the new Henry S. Fox Professor of English. Zorro, by the way, means fox in Spanish. That’s why she asked for the rapier. It wasn’t easy to wrap. My Christmas high point was watching her face as she opened it, and then her jumping up on the sofa to swish it around. (Runner-up: my son opening the DC Versus Marvel Comics graphic novel and exclaiming, “I really need this! Now I’ll finally know who wins these battles.”) I’m confident Lesley and her Zorro blade will defeat all the legions of undead.

I think I gave her that Jane Austen spoof Pride and Prejudice and Zombies two Christmases ago. She liked it as much as the original. My favorite of her own poems is about a zombie Thanksgiving modeled on T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. This year I’m commissioning a Zorro vs. Zombies epic poem from her. We’re even flying to California, Zorro’s motherland, for a heart-splattering post-Christmas romp with her in-laws.

Sadly, the rapier will never make it through security.

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I once dressed as a Playboy bunny for Halloween. I was a scrawny high schooler and, needless to say, did not fulfill the expectations of the costume. Buxom bosom, willowy waist, curving hips. Most superheroines fit the shape. It’s literally inhuman. When director Tim Burton zippered Michelle Pfeiffer into her Catwoman bodysuit for Batman Returns, they could only shoot a few seconds at a time before she passed out.

So I’m sending Ms. Pfeifer home (and Ms. Berry and Ms. Hathaway) and zippering in a different kind of body.

Superhero history—that body of art and literature that defines the genre—is also shaped like an hourglass. The thin middle space where the glass almost touches, that’s 1938. That’s Superman. After him, the glass widens into a spacious ball of imitation and evolution; every speck of superhero sand after 1938 slipped into existence though the opening of Action Comics #1.

The top half, all that wide open sand crowding down to spill through that one tiny hole, that’s superhero proto-history. The dozens and dozens of stories that developed all the tropes and clichés that later tumbled together into Superman.

The first superheroine to shimmy through that hour glass opening into a Golden Age costume was not (as is often assumed) Wonder Woman. The amazon in the star-spangled mini-skirt was preceded by another comic book amazon. Wilson Locke’s Amazona the Mighty Woman beat her by a year and a half, with at least seven superheroines between them: Russell Stamm’s Invisible Scarlet O’Neil, George Kapitan and Harry Sahle’s Black Widow, June Tarpé Mills’s Miss Fury, Al Gabrielle’s Black Cat, and three Will Eisner creations, Lady Luck, Flame Girl and Phantom Lady. And Amazona had at least two comic book predecessors of her own, Barclay Flagg’s Fantomah and Richard E. Hughes and George Mandel’s Woman in Red.

The pre-Superman runway is just as crowded.

Will Eisner and Jerry Iger’s Sheena, Queen of the Jungle premiered in 1937, as did Watt Dell Lovett’s “The Astounding Adventures of Olga Messmer, the Girl with the X-Ray Eyes,” five months after Detective Comics #1 and less than a year before Action Comics #1. Olga, who like Superman also has superhuman strength and alien heritage, is the first superhuman heroine in comic strip form. She appeared in Spicy Mystery Stories, one of several softcore pulps by DC Comics publisher Harry Donenfeld.

I prefer The Domino Lady. Lars Anderson introduced the lady Robin Hood to Saucy Romantic Adventures in 1936. When not foiling lascivious blackmailers, she’s luxuriating in bed sheets and bathtubs. Like Olga, she would blush at today’s PG-13’s.

Also like Olga, Jack Williamson and Miles J. Breuer’s 1929 The Girl from Mars is a Superman precursor (before their planet’s destruction, Martian scientists shoot offspring to Earth), but the first superpowered female character goes to Ella Scrymour’s Sheila Crerar, Psychic Investigator, published three months before American women received the right to vote.

The teens witnessed three earlier lady thief heroines. Both Charles W. Tyler’s Blue Jean Billy Race and Edgar Wallace’s Four Square Jane avenge family wrongs, while actress Grace Cunard portrayed “The Queen of the Apaches” in the silent film serial The Purple Mask. They’re all variations on Frank L. Packard’s Gray Seal, a pulp series which also introduced the very first superheroine. The Tocsin, an almost supernaturally omniscient mastermind and mistress-of-disguise, sends her gentleman thief on his Robin Hood missions.

If Packard imagined his heroine in a flesh-baring unitard, he never committed the image to words. Which explains why I haven’t dressed as her for Halloween.

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My son asks variations on this question every week. Who would win, Thing or Hulk? Superman or Thor? Eragon or Aragorn? I used to debate the same basic question with my friends growing up, and so did my dad when he was my son’s age (Tarzan or Buck Rodgers?).

But no one in my family has ever pitted Captain America against Archie before.

And how do I explain to them that Archie actually beat the star-spangled patriot? In fact, he clobbered every superhero he faced.

Just to clarify: Archie Andrews is the red-haired, girl-crazy teen of Archie Comics. He has no superpowers, weaponry, battle training, or strategic knowhow. Aside from a few scrapes with his sports and dating rival Reggie, he is untested in arm-to-arm combat.

Captain America is a super-soldier. He can bench press 1,200 pounds and run a mile in 72 seconds. He also has a super-cool shield he stole from MLJ’s original star-spangled superhero, The Shield.

Actually, Cap had to give that back. It’s the triangular, Crusader-style one he’s holding on the cover of Captain America Comics #1 as he socks Hitler on the jaw. Look at the cover of Pep Comics #1 published over a year earlier and you’ll see where Jack Kirby copied it. Only Irv Novick’s shield is part of his character’s costume. A shoulders-to-crotch breast plate. He’s literally The Shield.

When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, MLJ responded first. Harry Shorten’s first Shield story landed with a January cover date — the equivalent of super-speed in publication time.

The Shield was a trend-setter. The following month, the Eagle debuted in Science Comics #1 and Bill Parker and C.C. Beck’s Spy Smasher in Whiz Comics #2. Of the roughly 200 superhero titles indexed by Mike Benton in Superhero Comics of the Golden Age, about half were introduced in 1940 and 1941. Sales climbed as Nazi tanks rode into Paris and the German Luftwaffe blitzed London. By the time Germany was laying siege to Moscow in late 1941, nineteen more American flag-clad superheroes had invaded newsstands.

Archie was introduced in 1941 too, nine months after Captain America, Timely’s biggest war-time hit. Archie was a back page filler in the lesser-selling Pep Comics. He’s not even mentioned on his debut cover. It’s just The Shield with his superhero buddies preventing a giant, spiked Axis boot from smashing the globe. Archie only wants to impress Betty, the girl next door. The Shield hogged all the covers.

Greg Sadowski, editor of Supermen! The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941, says superheroes became “pretty boring” after 1941: “They spent the war years fighting the Axis powers, then after the war they fell out of fashion.”

That’s conventional wisdom, but that superheroic drop began long before the war ended. Superheroes started losing as soon as the Allies started winning.

By the end of 1942, the Axis were in trouble. Japan had been critically defeated at Midway and Guadalcanal, and German forces were stalled at Stalingrad and in full retreat in Africa. 1942 is also the first year that discontinued superhero titles were not offset by new titles. Where 1941 saw a net gain of thirty-six, 1942 suffered a net loss of six.

The Allies were so optimistic that in January 1943, Churchill and Roosevelt met to plan the invasion of Italy. Rather than spurring superhero sales, the optimism spelled more trouble. For the February 1943 Pep Comics cover, Bob Montana’s Archie Andrews sits atop the shoulders of The Shield and The Hangman for his first cover appearance. Like Churchill and Roosevelt, the pair of superheroes is presenting readers with a promise of a carefree future, embodied by a girl-obsessed teenage jokester who bears no relationship to war.

For the next year and a half, as the planned invasion of Italy became reality and the Axis ceded more and more territory, Archie and The Shield vied for cover space. Archie permanently replaced The Shield, formerly MLJ’s most popular character, during the 1944 liberation of Paris.

Readers were exhausted with patriotic violence. They wanted to watch Betty and Veronica fighting over Archie, not the Allies and Germans fighting over France. No superhero would appear on the cover of Pep Comics again. Teen Romance was the new newsstand victor.

By 1945 Archie had become so popular, MLJ changed their company name to Archie Comics and dropped all their superhero characters. Captain America Comics had bragged nearly a million copy print run during the war, but Timely killed the title in 1950 due to unrequited sales. Romance titles, a minor comic book sub-genre a few years earlier, now wooed 20% of the market.

The 1954 Archie v. Captain America rematch was the superhero’s definitive kiss goodbye. Captain America only threw three issues before knocked out of circulation again. Archie and all his high-selling spin-off titles didn’t break a sweat.

Love beat War to a pulp.

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“They consist of sleazy stories, drawings and ‘art study’ photographs of undressed females.”

That’s how Time described Harry Donenfeld’s line of “girlie” pulp magazines back in 1933. Just four years before he released Detective Comics No. 1. Donenfeld was a dual-identity publisher. Children’s market by day, softporn by night. This is the publishing world that produced the first comic book superhero.

Donenfield launched his first magazine in 1929. Juicy Tales, retitled Joy Stories, was standard Depression-era softporn. PG-13 by contemporary standards, but titillating enough to keep Donenfeld in easy revenue. Three years later, he was buying out competitors and adding Pep, Spicy Stories, and La Paree to his harem. He favored Spicy and spent the next few years expanding it into its own line: Spicy Mysteries Stories, Spicy-Adventures Stories, Spicy Detective Stories, and Spicy Western Stories.

In addition to ‘art studies’ and (in the case of Margaret Sanger’s Birth Control Review) illegally transported condoms, Donenfeld’s magazines included multi-page comic strips of scantily clad heroines. Adolphe Barreaux’s “Sally the Sleuth” and Max Plaisted’s jungle adventurer “Diana Daw” premiered in 1934, the year future DC partner Maxwell Gaines released Famous Funnies, the first book of comic strip reprints in what would soon define the standard comic book format.

The third Spicy strip, Watt Dell Lovett’s “The Astounding Adventures of Olga Messmer, the Girl with the X-Ray Eyes,” debuted in 1937, just five months after Detective Comics and less than a year before Action Comics. Olga, who like Superman also sports superhuman strength, is the first superhuman heroine in comic strip form. She also had a tendency to shred her clothes like the Incredible Hulk.

Were Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster fans of Olga? Hard to know, but one of Donenfeld’s editors recalled a meeting with the two young men from Cleveland and their attempt to pitch him Superman as a softporn strip. Donenfeld’s Super-Detective (not all of his pulps were porn) would have been a better home for the future Man of Steel, but the boys probably had Spicy Detective in mind. (Olga already had Spicy Mystery for herself.)

The editor said no. So it would be another twenty years before Joe, partly blind and fully broke, would debut in porn through a publisher below even Donenfeld’s standards (the 1954 Nights of Horror was typeset on a basement typewriter). Back in the mid-thirties Donenfeld was busy bankrupting his business partner and buying out Detective Comics, Inc. for himself. Comic books, like pulp porn, were just another way to steal a quick buck.

Donenfeld didn’t hire Siegel and Shuster. They’d already worked their way onto the DC bankroll with one- and two-page strips of a non-Spicy variety. When Action Comics launched Superman, Donenfeld’s pulp fiefdom transformed into a multimedia empire. Suddenly a children’s market titan, Donenfeld dumped his softporns to protect DC’s wholesome image. But it was only a sleight-of-hand. The discontinued Spicy line reappeared with Donenfeld’s wife as one of the newly independent company’s co-owners.

Not long before Donenfeld left publishing in the early 60s, one of his companies started distributing another promising magazine. Playboy. Its artists included Golden Age comic book legend Jack Cole, best remembered for creating the thankfully non-pornographic Plastic Man.

Around the same time, Donenfeld also started distributing a much less promosing comic book line that would become DC’s biggest rival. Marvel Comics. A company boasting an equally pornographic history. Publisher Martin Goodman began more tamely than his future competitor, releasing his first magazine, Western Supernovel Magazine, back in 1933 when Donenfeld was expanding Spicy. Goodman made up the distance in the 50’s with his own line of men’s adventure magazines that evolved into porn by the 60’s and 70’s. One included the comic strip “The Adventures of Pussycat,” a spoof more lascivious than “Sally the Sleuth.” Stan Lee, among other members of the Marvel bullpen, contributed.

A quarter century later and the father of the Silver Age had a disturbing amount of Pussycat still in his aging veins. Lee reinvented the sometimes topless secret agent as Stripperella for Spike TV in 2003.

Did the pornographic underbelly of the comic book industry seep into its tales of unitarded superheroes? Maybe. Some of today’s comics would make Donenfeld blush. They haven’t been targeted at children for decades.

Wonder Woman creator, William Moulton Marston, was a polygamous bondage-enthusiast, and more than one Phantom Lady of the 50’s exploited that Amazonian allure. But if the superheroes of my 70’s childhood were broadcasting sexual messages from their gutters, they stirred not a drop of my pre-pubescent blood.

I remember a teen neighbor flipping pages of a magazine in his driveway (Was it Playboy? Was it Goodman’s Stag?). I thought it was a comic book. I probably asked, and got a laugh. Yeah, this is what Spider-Man looks like without his costume. He pointed at another photograph. This one is Daredevil. And see her? That’s the Incredible Hulk.

The Hulk tipped me off. Bruce Banner doesn’t have a costume, he changes bodies, so that model couldn’t be him. I probably wasn’t as young as it sounds. Despite my years of superhero literacy, I was a newcomer to the genre of the undressed female. I preferred comic books. I didn’t know their publishers and creators had other professional pursuits. I didn’t need to know. Sometimes I kinda wish I still didn’t.

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