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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: January 2012

I read Max Barry’s Machine Man on my flight home from California. I read it without a pencil in my hand. I’m an English professor, so that’s harder than it sounds. The pencil, according to some definitions, also makes me a cyborg.

Comic book artist Geoff Johns offers a better example: “If we have a cellphone and we’re texting on it, we are a cyborg — that’s what a cyborg is, using technology as an extension of ourselves.” Johns is drawing the character Cyborg into the recently rebooted DC universe, making the part-human part-machine superhero a founding member of the Justice League.

I don’t own a cellphone — I know, it defies the imagination — but I would be legally blind without my contact lenses. And in a great amount of pain without the metal capping my childhood cavities. The three earrings sticking out of my head I could survive without, but I wouldn’t be happy about it.

I was born the same year as the Doctor Who Cybermen, the first cyborgs to invade pop culture. I was also there when American TV found the technology to rebuild Colonel Steve Austin for the now shockingly low sticker price of $6M. Actually, my bedtime was 8:30 in 1974, so I was only allowed to watch the first half of each episode.

Marvel Comics’ first cyborg, Deathlok, booted up the same year. I bought the original Astonishing Tales issue from a rotating display rack in my 7-Eleven. I was in high school before DC cranked out their Cyborg, the least original superhero name since Superman. Robocop was way catchier, and the last of the cybernetic goody guys off the assembly line.

Apparently there’s something sinister about human-machine hybrids. Think of James Earl Jones breathing life into Darth Vader’s asthmatic voice box, or Arnold Schwarzenegger thumping around as a homicidal android disguised in a layer of artificially grown flesh. By the time I graduated college, Doctor Who’s Cybermen had upgraded themselves into Star Trek’s “resistance is futile” Borg.

DC revising their timeline to include Cyborg in the “original” Justice League — I wasn’t alive when the team formed in 1960 — is a welcome if obvious act of affirmative action, apparently necessary because the black Green Lantern got the boot. Cyborg was also the first African American cyborg. It’s a good metaphor, one that Dwayne McDuffie soldered to his retooled and newly black Deathlok for the 90’s reboot.

The Cybermen and the zombie-shuffling Borg are multiculturalism’s secret nightmare. The ultimate melting pot where even the pot gets melted in. A cyborg — an abbreviation of “cybernetic organism” — is all about mechanical miscegenation. It’s no coincidence that the term emerged during the Civil Rights Movement.

Isaac Asimov wrote about cyborgs for the first time in 1967. He imagined a future where robots and humans are indistinguishable. After replacing a human patient’s heart with a mechanical one, the surgeon (we don’t know he’s a robot till the end) wishes humans and robots would stop mixing. Asimov titled his short story “The Segregationist.”

The first time I saw Deathlok, I thought the human half of his head sported a tightly trimmed afro. The remains of my childhood comic book collection are piled into an ancient liquor store box in my attic. My favorite cyborg did not survive. So I can’t fact check my memory that his wife is black. They had a son too. This is back when the President of the United States thought abortion should be illegal except for cases of rape, incest, and interracial pregnancies. Barry Obama had just entered his teens.

It’s also not a coincidence that cyborgs entered the collective consciousness during the Vietnam War. Prosthetics technology always spikes with an increase of maimed soldiers. Technically there’s no difference between a cyborg and a prosthetics wearer. It’s an aesthetic divide. Cyborgs are sexy. Prosthetics are pathetic.

Max Barry illustrates the difference in Machine Man. After his narrator loses a leg in a work accident, he’s a victim, on object of pity. The best prosthetic available only heightens his social and self estrangement. But when he intentionally removes another limb so that he can sit comfortably in a matching pair of robot legs engineered to outperform their human equivalents, he’s an instant celebrity.

Cyborg stories always begin with mutilations. The first, Edgar Allan Poe’s 1839 “The Man That Was Used Up,” is a supposedly comic tale of a Brigadier-General who returned limbless and featureless from his battles against the western “Bugaboo” tribe. I prefer Frank L. Baum’s twelfth Oz novel, The Tin Woodman of Oz, published near the close of World War I. In addition to the better known Tin Man, a Tin Soldier joins the cast. Both lost their human parts one enchanted axe or sword blow at a time, and employed the same tinsmith for replacements.

Actual maimed veterans of U.S. wars have to settle for Purple Hearts.

Even Tony Stark, wounded during a cold war excursion in communist Asia, gets to be Iron Man. Sure, removing the chest plate would mean instant death, but at least he can fly and shoot lasers from his palms. It’s the standard cyborg formula. Disabilities romanticized into cartoon super-abilities.

Austin Grossman, author of one of my all time favorite novels, Soon I Will Be Invincible, applies the formula to superheroes. His cyborg narrator woke up on an operating table after most of her memory and body were lost under the wheels of a runaway truck. Superheroing is the only job she can find, a desperate attempt to give her mangled life meaning. Her teammates aren’t so different.

Grossman explores “how violently altered the normal body is for a superhero” and “the larger theme of superhero life as trauma and recovery from trauma.” He explained to Girls Read Comics: “It seems like the trauma element gets glossed over a little bit in superhero comics; it gets glossed over even though it’s the motivating, defining attribute of the superhero. I guess it’s kind of the hopeful element of superhero comics; the idea of the trauma that shapes you is not just pain; it’s also the thing that makes you special.”

South African athlete Oscar Pistorius is a real-life example. The New York Times Magazine says Pistorius is nicknamed “Blade Runner” because of his J-shaped prosthetic legs, but it’s a more obvious allusion to the Philip K. Dick film adaptation and its nearly human robots. By some  calculations, Pistorius’ “posthuman” legs outdistance their meat-and-bone equivalents by twelve seconds per Olympic lap. But according to at least one biomechatronics expert, what makes Pistorius a “mutant” and “freak” is his innate athletic prowess and drive. The fact that he was born without enough calf bones and so had his legs cut off below the knees as an infant is beside the point.

But Pistorius and his superhero counterparts are the exceptions. Cyborgs are usually tragedies or horror tales. The first screen cyborg, the Automaton of Harry Houdini’s 1920 serial The Master Mystery, is a Frankenstein monster, a mad scientist who cut out his own brain and placed it inside a robot body. Never mind that the robot looks like a Sesame Street character. Audiences knew to be horrified.

DC’s Cyborg didn’t chose to become half-machine. He woke up on an operating table saved from death but lost to his former life. Leave it to comic books to turn that into a good thing. Now he even gets to be a founding member of the Justice League, right up there with Superman, Wonder Woman, and that guy who talks to fish.

That’s way better than Max Berry’s narrator. He ends up a little gray box with USB ports instead of limbs. I’m trying to get one of my colleagues to teach Machine Man in his first year writing course. I read it in paperback, which technically makes me a cyborg, if a laughably outdated one. I’m sure it’s available in Kindle and Nook editions, probably iPhone too. Whatever that is.

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The most annoying panel in comic book history: young Bruce Wayne lifting a massive dumbbell with one arm. The caption tells us he “trains his body to physical perfection until he is able to perform amazing athletic feats.” It’s literally the centerpiece of Batman’s 1939 origin page. Fifteen years of effort reduced to a 2 by 3 inch box.

Other superhero origins are instantaneous: a spider bite, a lightning bolt, a planet exploding. Bob Kane’s stands out because of its compression. A long and painstaking process turned into a snapshot. It’s what superhero readers want. Instant transformation.  One-panel puberty. Just say the magic word.

My ten-year-old started jogging with me last fall. I made him a deal: run a mile and get unbound video time for the rest of the day. He’s a voracious reader and sporadic athlete, but lately his Wii alter egos could do anything but get him off the couch.

Day one he went a winded half lap, an eighth of a mile, before resting. Week two he was doing two sets of double laps. Week three we timed his first nine-minute mile. Now he’s talking about racing 5Ks in the not-so-distant spring.

My own exercise routine used to include push-ups. It took me five months to climb from three sets of thirty to three sets of fifty. This is not impressive. It’s an illustration of how mind-numbingly dull Batman’s origin story really is.

Superman co-creator Joe Shuster knew it. While his partner Jerry Siegel was handing him descriptions of their hero’s athletic powers, the twenty-year-old Joe was hefting real dumbbells. He was a bodybuilder, dedicating hours to gymnasium solitude. Jerry tried it too.  Briefly. It’s more fun imagining physical perfection than slogging toward it.

Jerry’s Clark Kent didn’t work at all: “As the lad grew older, he learned to his delight that he could hurdle skyscrapers, leap an eighth of a mile, raise tremendous weights, run faster than a streamline train.”

Shuster idolized real strong men, Benarr MacFadden, his loinclothed protégé Charles Atlas.  Both built business empires on the promise of instantaneous transformation. I remember the Atlas ads from the comics I read as a ten-year-old. A bully kicks sand in little Joe’s face, and Joe returns a panel later to exact revenge. It’s the Batman origin, only more so. The panel of transformation is split by the diagonal caption: “LATER.” In the second, lower half, Joe is preening at his mirror: “Boy! It didn’t take long. What a build.”

Manhood in minutes. That’s the heart of superhero origins. If it requires hard work, it doesn’t work.

Look at the obese and superhero-obsessed narrator of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He goes 270 pages without committing to his own exercise routine. But then a “couple of months” later he’s lost twenty pounds. It took one sentence. Four pages and Oscar’s “fatguy coat” is gone forever. We didn’t even see him sweat.

In fact, when we do see him sweating (the novel is filled with Oscar’s abortive attempts at exercise), the transformation fails. There’s a reason “his number one hero” is “Shazam.”

Oscar earned Diaz a Pulitzer in 2008. An instantaneous transformation that only took fifteen years. If you don’t count all the writing he did before starting his MFA in 1993.

I won’t theorize about Diaz’s motives, but Oscar’s are clear. He wants the girl. And after his magic transformation, his mutant heart gets her. Briefly. Charles Atlas promises the weaklings in his ads the girl too. It costs “Only 15 Minutes a Day!” If you count the time biking to the track, my son spends thirty. He just turned eleven. He doesn’t care about the girl yet. He still closes his eyes when characters on TV kiss. He comes home sweaty and proud to relax with a Wii remote in his fist.

One of Siegel and Shuster’s filler panels in Action Comics #6 offers “Acquiring Super-Strength” advice tailored to 1938 readers content to sit on a couch all day:

“Clench your fists as tightly as possible, exerting every ounce of energy! While in this tense state, sharply jerk them in various directions! This will eventually impart to you a crushing hand-grip!”

Eventually.

It’s been over seventy years. How’s that coming along?

[Addendum: Cameron hit a 7:40 mile in March.]

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Rumor has it there’s a new Zorro film in development. Not another Banderas and Zeta-Jones sequel, but something based on Isabel Allende’s recent rewrite of the legend.

Though “rewrite” might not be the right word. Allende claims she gave no thought to her character’s previous incarnations and invented at will. And yet her final product, an extended coming-of-age secret origin tale, painstakingly adheres not only to the original 1919 Johnston McCulley novel but a multitude of its short story, film and TV adaptations and sequels.

This is a good thing. It stages a literary treasure hunt for fans-in-the-know (which, okay, I guess that includes me), while giving new readers an unfettered romp through a world of pirates, Gypsies, secret societies, and the Spanish Inquisition.

So on one hand, we have a respectful prequel, not a reboot at all. Ms. Allende just fills in the blanks. And I don’t mean the sex scenes. Her narrator (also conveniently named Isabel) offers a quick striptease and moonlit tussle with Light-in-the-Night, but otherwise reports that “spicy pages” and “carnal love” are aspects “of Zorro’s legend that he has not authorized me to divulge.” This despite an allusion to numerous women with otherwise “virtuous reputations” inviting “him to climb their balcony at questionable hours of the night.”

So, no, this is not a bodice ripper. And neither is McCulley’s novel. All that virile red blood he keeps thumping through his hero’s body finds action in his rapier not his, well, rapier. Though his story maintains a barely masked panic about masculinity and the horror of effeminate men.

McCulley is equally obsessed with blue blood. The Mark of Zorro (renamed after the Douglas Fairbanks film) is an entertainingly incompetent argument for the supremacy of European bloodlines. It was written from the bowels of the eugenics movement, an all but forgotten (AKA suppressed) era of American culture.

It was once common knowledge, from Presidents to pulp writers, that “well born” blood had to be protected from mixing with the unfit. The future of civilization was at stake. The unfit included Indians (those victims of oppression Zorro both protects and paradoxically reviles), Asians, Blacks, Eastern Europeans, Jews, the poor, the promiscuous, criminals, invalids, and the feeble-minded.

The list is actually quite longer, but you get the idea. In the first quarter of the 20th century, even social manners were an inheritable trait, and Zorro and his aristocratic pals held a monopoly.

Allende will have none of this. Her Zorro, while an apparent clone of his McCulley parent, reverses his core DNA. Rather than protecting his fellow aristocrats (particularly the family of the senorita he seeks to procreate with), Allende’s Zorro recognizes the fundamental injustice of the class system and vows to right it.

Or at least he starts to. He’s no Robin Hood, but he’s also no pure blood prince. Allende thoroughly mixes his blood, turning the “mestizo” stigma into the source of his superpowers. The novel is a sequence of romping, episodic adventures, each tossing a new trinket into the melting pot of his character. A Gypsy sword, a pirate’s wardrobe, a Jewish fencing mentor, a cross-dressing Indian mother, they all coalesce in the aggressively anti-eugenics swashbuckling amalgam of a 21st century Zorro.

I’d love to see Allende’s novel adapted into a TV series. But I’ll settle for a film. Or possibly two, since both Sony and Fox are working on reboots. The Fox version, Zorro Reborn, would be set in a post-apocalyptic future, some sort of Zorro on The Road. Which, okay, I guess that’s one direction to go. And not even the strangest. I also hear there’s a musical hoofing its way toward Broadway.

One way or another, McCulley’s descendants will continue to spread his bloodline.

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Classes start today.

I don’t teach my Superheroes seminar again till spring, but winter is just as good. My New North American Fiction is subtitled Thrilling Tales after the issue of McSweeney’s that Michael Chabon edited back in 2002.

Chabon’s editorial premise was simple: a lot of great fiction falls under the lowbrow category “genre.” That includes science fiction, horror, mystery, what folks called “pulp fiction” back in the thirties. “Pulp” because of the grade of paper the magazines were printed on, the cheapest possible, made from wood pulp.

I admit some of those stories were no better than their medium. A writer could hack out a 40,000 word novella in less than two weeks. Formula was everything. Thus “formula writing,” anything following the conventions of a genre, was no longer considered “literary.”

But no formula automatically produces bad writing. No formula automatically produces good writing either. Knowing a poem is a sonnet tells you it’s fourteen lines and (probably) rhymed. It tells you nothing about its quality. Believe me, there are a lot of horrific sonnets out there.

So why not literary pulp?

I’d say Kurt Vonnegut launched it with science fiction back in the fifties. Samuel R. Delany and Ursula K. Le Guin weren’t far behind him, casting their own literary spells on the realm of swords and sorcery. Margaret Atwood rewrote the future of speculative history with The Handmaid’s Tale. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, one of if not the most esteemed novel of the twentieth century, is about a haunted house.

But the pulp chips didn’t really start flying till Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay grabbed the Pulitzer in 2000. In the decade that followed, I count at least two dozen literary works firmly planted in genre soil originally deforested by pulp fiction nearly a century ago. All by authors of high literary pruning. In addition to the perennial Atwood and Chabon, add Philip Roth, Michael Cunningham, Isabel Allende, Sherman Alexie, Jane Smiley, Jonathan Lethem, Tom De Haven, Cormac McCarthy, Kazuo Ishiguro, David Mitchell, Kevin Brockmeier, and Caryl Churchill.

Last year alone, we had Colson Whitehead writing about zombies, Glen Duncan about werewolves,Tom Perrotta about the end of the world,  and Stephen King (would you believe he’s “literary” now?) earning a place on the New York Times’ ten best books of 2011 with a time-travel tale.

My biggest challenge for Thrilling Tales is not overcrowding the syllabus. I pared it down to nine:


McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales
, Ed. Michael Chabon
Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood
Zorro, Isabel Allende
The Final Solution, Michael Chabon
Flight, Sherman Alexie
Fledgling, Octavia Butler
The Road, Cormac McCarthy
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
Soon I Will Be Invincible, Austin Grossman

I’ll let you know what my students think.

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Newt Gingrich wants to be Superman.

In fact, most of the Republican Presidential contenders want to be Superman. Mitt Romney. Rick Perry. Even Herman Cain. To his credit, Rick Santorum only wants to be Superman knock-off Mr. Incredible. But since Santorum’s national polls have never left the single digits, kryptonite is the least of his worries.

Darren Garnick and his nine-year-old son, Ari, recently asked each Republican: “If you could be any superhero in the world, who would you be and why?” (If you haven’t seen the six-minute documentary, you should:Republicans in Tights.)

The question mostly reveals the politician’s age. Santorum was born in 1958, but Gingrich, Cain, Romney, and Perry are all late Superhero Golden Agers, born between 1943 and 1950. They admitted to “showing their age,” naming the first (and possibly only) superhero they remembered growing up. Ron Paul, the one candidate to snub the nine-year-old interviewer, was born in 1935, and so also the one candidate to predate the birth of the comic book.

When Obama was asked a similar question (by Entertainment Weekly, not Ari) back on the 2008 campaign trail, he named Batman and Spider-Man because “they have some inner turmoil. They get knocked around a little bit.” That’s Silver Age talk. Barack was born in 1961, the year the Fantastic Four launched themselves to the moon and Marvel Comics into pop culture. His opponent John McCain said Batman too, but because he pursues justice “against insurmountable odds,” a good ole Golden Age rationale. McCain was born in 1936, the same year as Detective Comics.

Gingrich is the oldest of the Superman pack, born as the Allies began to retake Europe from the Nazis. I’ll admit the idea of a Gingrich White House frightens me more than a Romney White House (The New York Times Magazine recently dubbed Mitt “All-Business Man, the world’s most boring superhero”). A Gingrich White House would be more like Lex Luthor winning the Presidency back in 2000. An event eliminated in the recent DC universe reboot.

I’m sure Newt would like to reboot a few facts in his timeline too. Like that affair he was having while his first wife was dying of cancer. Or that other affair he was having while trying to impeach Bill Clinton for hiding his own extramarital activities. If the guy’s going to wear a letter on his chest, it’s Hester Prynne’s, not Superman’s.

But Professor Gingrich doesn’t need a comic book to rewrite history for him. Superman spun the earth backwards on its axis to reset time. Newt does it with a pen. He’s published two alternate universe novels. One reboots the Civil War so the South wins at Gettysburg (thanks, we needed that). The second prevents the U.S. from entering World War II so that Germany can conquer Russia and face the U.S. in a new cold war.

And where would Newt be without a cold war? If elected, he plans a return to a comic book universe of pure good vs. evil. Instead of battling the nefarious Soviet Union, he’s casting the entire Muslim world as his new arch nemesis. Even Israel endorses a two-state peace with Palestine. Not Newt. On Earth Gingrich, Palestinians are a fictional people, no more deserving of self-determination than molemen, doombots or any other subset of evil minions.

President Obama’s other reason for endorsing the “Spider Man/Batman model” (his term) was his dislike for Superman’s lazy privilege: “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.”

Isn’t that what Occupy Wall Street’s been shouting all year?

Leave it to the Republican field to emulate the ultimate 1%, Superman, the superhero of all superheroes. George Bernard Shaw (the guy who coined “superman” from Neitzsche’s “ubermensch”) prophesied that “the real Superman will snap his superfingers at all Man’s present trumpery ideals of right, duty, honor, justice, religion, even decency, and accept moral obligations beyond present human endurance.”

In other words, Superman’s sense of right and wrong will have nothing to do with what the rest of us think. Superman is only worried about his fellow Supermen.

Sounds like the Republican party to me.

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