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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: June 2012

When I read that both President Obama and Mitt Romney are Star Trek fans, I pictured that episode where the aliens are half white and half black. Their bodies are literally divided down the middle. Except—and here’s the subtle civil rights allegory—the planet actually has two races: half of the population is black on the left side and white on right, while the other is white on the left and black on the right. Instant hatred! The episode ends with the two surviving aliens jogging in place with images of their burning planet superimposed behind them. Kirk mutters something profound, and then off zooms the Enterprise to its next FX-challenged adventure.

Although New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich didn’t pursue the Star Trek connection further, his description of both Romney and Obama as “shy” and “analytical introverts” does fit the Trekkie stereotype. I’m left wondering which series the President and the Republican nominee liked most.

Leaving Voyager and Enterprise to the Ross Perots and Ralph Naders of the Federation, I see a major political divide between Next Generation and the original. Maybe it was the result of changing Cold War politics (late-sixties MADness vs. the collapse of the Evil Empire), but creator Gene Roddenberry traveled light-years between his shows.

The Prime Directive (Thou Shalt Not Interfere) was originally a devil’s advocate position voiced by the devil-eared Spock whose inhumanness rendered him a cultural relativist incapable of passing judgment. Kirk, on the other hand, shot from the moral hip. Week after week, the captain of the space cowboys employed a kind of frontier vigilantism that, while technically violating Federation policy, put each episode’s hapless species on the right track.

Alien civilizations had a way of sacrificing noble individualism to evil collectivism, usually dedicated to a false god or a planet-dominating supercomputer or a planet-dominating supercomputer disguised as a false god. It could even be the result of good intentions gone very very bad, like those people who tried to make war more peaceful by firing pretend bombs at each other and then peacefully reporting to crematoriums when they were told they had “died.” Whatever the problem though, Kirk fixed it.

In the age of Glasnost, however, Roddenberry recast his Enterprise with a crew of Spock-minded relativists. Suddenly the Prime Directive really was Primary. Remember that planet where the inhabitants had to “retire” at sixty? That meant reporting to a crematorium so their children didn’t have to pay elder care bills. Barbaric, right? Kirk would have had that planet fixed in under 50 minutes. But Jean-Luc’s Enterprise sails off in the last shot, having supported the sixty-year-old alien guest star’s decision to accept his people’s custom.

Week after week, the Next Generation crew embraced the views of aliens. Remember when Riker dressed up in skimpy shorts as was the custom for males on the planet of the Amazons? When an Admiral’s son is raised by enemy savages, Picard disobeys orders and lets the boy stay with the adoptive father, siding with Nurture over John Wayne Nature. Even individuality-crushing technology was user friendly now, with a Pinocchio android and a Reading Rainbow cyborg. When Kirk encountered an android endowed with its creator’s consciousness, he set his phaser to kill. But TNG helped Data’s human mom live a happy and fulfilling retirement in her new android body.

So which of Gene Roddenberry’s universes do Romney and Obama endorse?

As far as I know, not even the Republican Party is considering replacing Social Security with retirement-age euthanasia, though it would certainly rein in health care costs (obviously the policy would not include 1%-ers who would instead opt to retire as immortal androids). Since Obama assumed charge of the military’s terrorist Kill List, I’m guessing he’s not about to start dropping pretend bombs on Afghanistan and wait for the Taliban to peacefully incinerate themselves. Both Republicans and Democrats vacillate on Middle East Prime Directive policy according to who happens to be sitting in the captain’s chair on the Oval Office bridge, but Republicans seem more prone to view Islam through supercomputer-posing-as-false-god glasses. They are also a party of Kirks when it comes to not embracing alien customs, whether Spanish-speaking or gay-marrying.

Bottom line though, both Obama and Romney prefer TNG‘s seven-season longevity, basically two terms in office. The original series barely survived three years, before achieving its godlike status in reruns (also a likely fate for the first African American President of the United States).

At least both candidates draw the line at campaigning in Amazon-tailored short shorts. We really don’t need to confirm which of their legs are all white and which are all black. But for a joint political ad, I suggest the two of them jogging in place with images of the U.S. economy burning in the background. At the very end, the electorate can zoom off to another galaxy in search of a less bold political environment.

One where Gene Roddenberry’s contradictory scifi vision doesn’t look like weak-minded flip-flopping, but a sincere desire and willingness to test new and old ideas, to look for compromise in an endlessly evolving universe.

Unfortunately, today’s voters would only want to know whether he’s blue on the right side and red on the left side, or red on the right side and blue on the left side. Instant hatred! Too bad we don’t have Captain Kirk to beam down and fix our divided-down-the-middle nation.

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At 91, Ray Bradbury was five years older than my father-in-law, who died five days earlier. In a stroke of creepy prescience, this month’s “Science Fiction Issue” of The New Yorker includes a personal essay, which will now be the last piece Bradbury published during  his lifetime. It’s short, but I skimmed only the first half while flipping through the mail on my kitchen counter, surprised the author was still alive and writing. It’s called “Take Me Home,” and the editors included an illustration of a red flaming skull, a choice they are probably regretting. I got as far as Bradbury’s 8-year-old self shouting the title at the tiny red speck of Mars from his grandparents’ front lawn.

That would have been 1928, just months before the name “science fiction” was coined. English professors and New York Times book reviewers prefer to call it “speculative fiction” now, and though Bradbury labeled most of his work “fantasy,” the genre and our larger culture would be worlds emptier without him. Like most of us, I can track my life in relation to Bradbury’s alternate realities.

Fahrenheit 451, the only one of his 11 novels he was willing to term science fiction, was adapted for film in 1966, the year I was born. NBC turned The Martian Chronicles into a miniseries in 1980, the year I started high school. I hear Bradbury wasn’t much of a fan, but I enjoyed it enough to find a copy of the 1953 novel in my school library. Although I had a shelf of Heinlein in my bedroom, and my adolescent psyche was poised for a Vonnegut conversion, I flipped a few pages but didn’t carry Chronicles to the circulation desk.

I still remember the line that turned me off. After a description of  the first men to colonize Mars, those brave and lonely frontiersmen, a single sentence floated between paragraphs: “Everyone knew who the first women would be.” It took my 14-year-old, proto-feminist brain a moment to click. Oh. He means prostitutes. I wasn’t offended, just disinterested, vaguely aware that I was listening to the vaguely embarrassing chatter of a displaced time traveler. I closed the book and slid it back onto its shelf.

Bradbury adapted Something Wicked This Way Comes for the screen himself. I saw it in 1983, before starting my senior year of high school. I understand the Jason Robards character now, an aging father who almost but not quite sells his soul for a few more years with his still school-aged son. I can still see the demonic Mr. Dark ripping pages from a magical library book, each shimmering with a lost chance. My son is careening toward 12—I try to play a couple of games of chess with him every day, jog a mile together, chat about whatever he’s willing to chat with me about. My daughter turned 15 this year, a little more than year older than the children in the novel. She spends her time with her friends.

I used to read to them over the breakfast table. The computer-generated yet parent-chomping lions of “The Veldt” sent them both into wide-eyed horror. But Bradbury’s most poignant story is “All Summer in a Day.” I’ve never taught it, but Junot Diaz—he’s in The New Yorker ’s science fiction issue too—alludes to it in The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a novel on my syllabus last winter: “Sucks a lot to be left out of adolescence, sort of like getting locked in the closet on Venus when the sun appears for the first time in a 100 years.”

Bradbury worms into my own allusions too. The day he died, I was working on a scene in my current novel-in-progress. I needed a quick description of a tattooed nude, and my brain churned up The Illustrated Man, another book from my bedroom shelf. A bedroom boxed up decades ago. When did I become the displaced time traveler?

It doesn’t matter if he’s dead or not. Bradbury is permanently with us. “Take Me Home,” it turns out, isn’t about Mars—it’s about his dead grandfather. “Even at that age,” writes Bradbury, “I was beginning to perceive the endings of things.” He remembers how they lit a paper balloon together and watched it float away in flames before slowly vanishing, leaving Bradbury’s boyish self in silent tears, ready to dream its return all night. I wished the same dreams upon my children after their grandfather’s funeral.

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Before DC revealed which of their mainstream heroes they were outing, I guessed Green Arrow. So I was half right. Probably I was thinking of the Green Parrot, the bar not a superhero. I don’t know if the Green Hornet is gay too, but he had his own suspiciously cute sidekick long before Batman met Robin.

So when Green Lantern flew out of the closet last week, I didn’t burst into song about DC’s bravery and boldness, but I was happy enough. Founding member of the Justice League. Not one of the big three, but right up there with Flash and that guy who talks to fish. With a good writer, he could be the Kurt Hummel of the superhero ensemble cast.

Except DC had already rebooted Green Lantern and the rest of the Justice League last year. And that Green Lantern remains as clumsily heterosexual as he was in his recent Hollywood flop. All of the hype was about the other Green Lantern. You know. The one who lives on Earth 2?

I teach a course on superheroes, which is pretty much what you need to understand the ever evolving DC multiverse. So let me make it simple: Earth 2 ain’t us.

Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne are names almost as iconic as their alter egos. But only comic book readers know the world of difference between a Hal Jordan and an Alan Scott. Hal suddenly unmasking his inner homosexual to his tolerant teammates? That would be news. But Alan? Yes, he was the original 1940 Green Lantern. But he was never a member of the Justice League, and he hasn’t starred in his own comic book in over six decades. Unless you’re visualizing a clashing red and green uniform with a high-collard cape, he’s not the Green Lantern. When DC first rebooted their universe in the late 1950’s, Lantern got the full makeover: costume, origin, secret identity. The retired Alan Scott didn’t belong to a Corps of interplanetary policemen. He was an Aladdin’s lamp knock-off. His lantern was magic.

And I have absolutely nothing against him. But a gay Green Lantern on Earth 2 is not earth-shattering. It’s just earth-2-shattering. As one reader commented at comicbookmovie.com: “So what if he’s gay? This is Earth-2 and this is not the same Alan Scott from the golden age, this is an alternate version of the character like the gay Colossus in Ultimate Marvel.”

That’s right. Gay superheroes aren’t just secondary characters like, say, Oscar Martinez on The Office. Their entire universe is secondary.

And yet the conservative activist group One Million Moms (they don’t think much of Ellen DeGeneres either) is orchestrating an email campaign “to change and cancel all plans of homosexual superhero characters immediately.” Alan Caruba calls the new old Lantern “a form of gay indoctrination for a new, younger generation.”

If only. It’s neither a step forward for gay rights or a step backwards. Writer James Robinson suggested converting the Earth 2 Lantern only because the reboot erased the character’s gay son. So the cosmic quotient of gay superheroes remains the same: pretty damn small.

Meanwhile, anything goes on an Earth 2. Remember those sibling mutants Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver? They’re the reigning incest couple on Ultimate Marvel. But don’t worry, they’re still their former and perfectly wholesome selves back here on Normal Earth. Just like Heterosexual Hal.

What DC really deserves credit for already happened. And it happened without the headlines and conservative backlash.

While last year’s gay reboot news swirled around the lesbian Batwoman, the real change was for Apollo and Midnighter, comic book’s leading gay superhero couple.  Like the gay Green Lantern, they lived in a different universe. In fact, DC had them quarantined in their own imprint, WildStorm, a previously independent publisher DC bought up in the late 90’s. Readers feared the reboot would wipe out not just the heroes’ marriage but their sexualities. But not only do the two remain gay, they and their secondary dimension were welcomed into DC’s mainstream continuity.

Apollo and Midnighter now hang out with former Justice Leaguer Martian Manhunter. Who, incidentally, is green. But for once the straight guy is the secondary choir member. It’s Apollo and Midnighter belting out the lead duet.

[A special thanks to AfterElton.com, where a version of this post originally ran.]

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I’m Professor X, only with more hair and worse teeth. My mind control powers are less impressive, but I did just spend last month brainwashing my Spring Term class in the subtleties of superhero science. The Gavaler School for Gifted Youngsters is housed in Payne Hall at Washington & Lee University. To graduate, my twelve evil geniuses were required to breed their own mutations in the Petri dish of superhero conventions.

“Disrupt the tropes!” I bellowed from my levitating wheelchair. “Disrupt the tropes!!!”

Their frothy creations unmask a few facts about superheroes, themselves, and our college.

Professor G’s New Mutants include:

Seven superheroes and five superheroines. The class itself was an even split, but three of the women and one of the men quietly gender-jumped. The slight disproportion does not reflect my testosterone-heavy syllabus, with only one female author (Baroness Orczy) and only Wonder Woman in the otherwise all-boy club (Frank L. Packard’s Tocsin, arguably the first superheroine, is a brief exception, and Moore’s Silk Spectres are at least female, though not exactly heroic advances in gender typing).

Washington & Lee, since its co-ed reboot in 1985, maintains roughly the same gender ratio as my class, but the faculty is closer to my syllabus, about 2-to-1. Which still beats both the Justice League (see Wonder Woman above) and, worse, The Avengers’  6-to-1 casting rate (what happened to the Wasp? Scarlet Witch? Mockingbird? Tigra? Moondragon? She-Hulk? Hell, what about Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer?).

Of my students’ twelve characters, none self-identified by race. Guessing from appearance (my students created posters), two were African American. That’s roughly 17%, and it beats our university’s diversity stats, which list about 85% of the student body and 90% of the faculty as White, Non-Hispanic. I have numbers for African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans, but since my students’ characters didn’t fill out census forms, we’re left with the skin tones and limited facial features available at Hero Machine 2.5 (3.0, they tell me, is crazily more advanced, at least for identity-obscuring costumes).

My syllabus included only two authors of color (both of whom were poets, an even rarer presence in superhero demographics). The Avengers score lower (if you don’t count Nick Fury as a team member, then the only non-Caucasian skin is green). At least when the Justice League rebooted last year, they retconned a black cyborg (named Cyborg, which at least is better than Black Cyborg) onto the roster. W&L is trying its best too. CollegeProwler.com reports our school “just isn’t too diverse, but it is working on it. The $100 million Johnson Scholarship has allowed students of many different backgrounds to attend, and everyone at the University seems to be embracing it.”

I have no idea which if any of my students are Johnson scholars, but some of their characters could qualify for financial support. There’s a homeless anarchist (secretly the creator of all life on Earth), a poverty-vowing monk (though he should probably leave his years as a drug kingpin off the application), and a slum-raised orphan (he would have had some serious money if a different drug kingpin hadn’t murdered his soda pop tycoon parents). If the eugenically bred right-wing millionaire mercenary donates another $100 million, W&L could pull the next roster of need-blind heroes past the $56,400 attendance costs. Meanwhile, the other 2/3rds of the team appear solidly middle class.

There are no boxes for sexual orientation on the superhero application form, but since “love interest” was one of the most analyzed tropes in class, most of the characters had their sexualities on full display. Of the twelve, only one was openly gay. Even though that’s below 10%, it’s still a promising sign for W&L. It’s now possible to be an out student here, and a friend over in Counseling Services says the gay support group gets happily raucous. When a student in my wife’s poetry class workshopped a poem about his boyfriend, he was more worried about meter than outing himself. Excelsior!

Age wise, the characters cluster close to their creators. We have only one parent on the team, a stay-at-home mother of two, and one child, an unrelated ten-year-old, plus two high schoolers (though one time travels, so technically he’s over a hundred). It may be a reflection of the current economic environment, but there’s only one hero holding down a regular day job. He’s a cop. I’m not counting the government assassin because her only paycheck is the government not murdering her brother.

Government, especially law enforcement, tends to take a pretty bad rap in superhero stories, but for this crowd, superhero vigilantism is worse. (This may have something to do with my presenting the 1914 KKK as a model for the formula.) A total of five of these characters use deadly force while heroing, often as an outgrowth of their own self-defined, Nietzschean morality. (There was a vandal in the group too, but he seemed to grow out it.) But three of these homicidal whack jobs pay the ultimate price and die themselves. On the other end of the spectrum, two characters are proud law-abiders, working with the police and community to fix long-term problems instead of pulverizing the bad guy of the moment. One’s even a vegan.

There was only one case of bullying in the origin tales. It was nerd-on-nerd violence, and given the near lethal doses of comic book geekness I was exhaling into the classroom, I’m thankful it wasn’t worse. In the end, all my evil geniuses graduated from the Hall of Payne.

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