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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: August 2012

WMRA Virginia Insight:

The psychologist who created Wonder Woman in order to control men. KKK legends as precursor to comic book heroes. Super heroes’ debt to cowboys.

Just some of what researcher of super heroes CHRIS GAVALER had to tell us. You can hear it all right here:

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WVTF on Spider-Man’s 50th Anniversary:

For five decades, superhero fans have followed the amazing adventures of a character who almost never was.

Tab O’Neal talks with Washington & Lee professor Chris Gavaler about the story of a fictional young man with a purpose.

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Is it bad etiquette to blog about your wife? If so, I’m requesting an exception. Lesley Wheeler just published the sort of book I most love, and I’m here to blab about it. The Receptionist and Other Tales is exactly the kind of boundary-bashing, genre-twirling, high-lowbrow mash-up that could save the antiseptically quiet world of literature from lapsing into a boredom-induced coma.

I teach a contemporary novel course titled “Thrilling Tales,” so I always have an eye out for literary writers willing to plunge head first into the deep end of the genre pool and splash around with zombies and superheroes and dark lords. And Lesley is swimming laps with them all.

I’ll get back to the main tale in a sec, but the “Other Tales” half of the title includes a sonnet that debates the relative durability of Captain America’s shield against Thor’s hammer, Hulk’s fist, and the Human Torch’s nova heat. Worshippers of the Weird should not miss the H. P. Lovecraft tribute (the speaker may or may not be devoured by an all-girl boarding school of fox-obsessed teens). My favorite is the T. S. Eliot parody that recasts “The Waste Land” as a George Romero zombie flick. (It’s also set during a Thanksgiving dinner, so the living dead are the least of the horrors.)

And that’s just the dessert tray. The main course is an even wilder array of literary risk-taking. The Receptionist is a fantasy tale inspired by Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland (required reading for even the most casual D&D tourist), which Lesley warps into a hybrid plot about evil deans and inner Yoda voices calling her heroine to action. It opens with the speaker reading bedtime books to her children—something Lesley and I spent a decade doing with our kids. All those alternate worlds—Oz, Narnia, Hogwarts—get ingrained in the brain, and soon the real world warps too. Even the mundane machinations of college politics can morph into fantastical proportions.

I should clarify: this isn’t autobiography. My wife isn’t an English department receptionist (though she was a chair while drafting), and the college faculty she creates aren’t the people we pass daily on our way in and out of class. The nefarious dean isn’t our dean either. The antagonist of The Receptionist is dashingly handsome and a sexual predator—descriptions I would not apply to our college administrator. That said, I do wonder if my wife has woven some real magic into her tale. The Receptionist ends with (SPOILER ALERT!) the vanquishing of the evil one. Is it mere coincidence that our real-world dean suffered a similar fate after The Receptionist was accepted for publication?

I don’t know what spells her terza rima encodes—only that the improbable complexities of the stanzas create a kind of aesthetic undertow that pulls you backwards as the storyline flings you forward. The effect is dizzying. Like existing in two dimensions simultaneously: a rompingly accessible plot somehow contained in an enchantingly intricate rhyme scheme. It shouldn’t be possible. Lesley’s speaker experiences the same world-split, the ordinary and the fantastic in constant collision, each transformed by the other, always both, always neither. It’s a one-of-a-kind hybrid form. It’s werewolf poetry. It’s cyborg literature. It’s damn fun reading.

I should also say that The Receptionist is published by Aqueduct, a press dedicated entirely to feminist scifi, which, be honest, I bet you didn’t know there was such a thing.  And did I mention it’s blurbed by Ursula K. Le Guin? Something that impressed both our kids, since Earthsea was another of their bedtime universes. (British readers will be equally impressed by Gwyneth Jones’ back cover rave.) My only complaint? Lesley’s author pic isn’t on the back.

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Sure, Andrew Garfield is adorable, and Tobey Maguire is an equally top-notch actor, but my favorite Spider-Man is still good ole Tom Cruise. Who can forget him back in 1988, fresh off the heels of Top Gun, swinging into his first pair of spandex for Hollywood’s original Spider-man adaptation? And what a supporting cast! Stan Lee as J. Jonah Jameson, Bob Hoskins as Doctor Octopus, and, wow, Lauren Bacall—what an improbably hot Aunt May!

No? Don’t remember that?

Okay, how about the 1996 Spider-Man by uberdirector James Cameron? Sure, Leonardo DiCaprio played a surprisingly potty-mouthed Peter Parker (“I’ll kill you!  Motherfucker!”), but it was really Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Doc Ock driving ticket sales. Though my favorite Spider-Man villain will always be John Malkovich as the Vulture in Spider-Man 4 (2009). Followed by Dylan Baker’s Lizard in Spider-Man 5 (2011), a part made all the more poignant after seeing Doctor Connors developed as such a sympathetic supporting character in the previous films.

This of course all happened on Earth 2. Here on Earth Prime (or Earth-0000, as Marvel aficionados term it), Rhys Ifans (remember him as the nutty roommate in Notting Hill?) is the only Lizard around. Also, the pre-Scientologized Tom Cruise parachuted straight from Top Gun to Cocktail as a superpowered mutant bartender. And poor Mr. Cameron had to set aside his Spider-Man dreams to settle for the all-time biggest Hollywood money-maker, The Titanic (would you believe Avatar is number two?).

It’s not fair, but Earth 2 has a far richer Spider-Man filmography. Though at least we dodged that B-movie Roger Corman embarrassment from 1985, worse than Mr. Corman’s unreleasable Fantastic Four a decade later. Even in alternative universes, the guy should stick with low budget Poe adaptations. Also, the unfortunate 1977 TV show The Amazing Spider-Man was a hit for the Earth 2 CBS, where it ran for seven seasons, two longer than The Incredible Hulk. Our planet’s far wiser CBS never got behind the series, airing only a total of 13, sporadic episodes, before yanking the plug in 1979. The show still has a major cult following on Earth 2, but it’s not even available on DVD here.

Right now on Earth 2, Tobey Maguire is suiting up yet again for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 6, to be released in July 2013. That’s a whole year ahead of Earth-0000’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2. That sequel is already in Earth 2 theaters, and it’s not bad at all. The big reveals are that (SPOILER ALERT!) Peter’s father is 1) alive, 2) evil, and 3) the secret leader of Oscorp, AKA Mr. Osborne. They ripped the ending right out of Empire Strikes Back: “Luke, I’m your father!” (In both cases, Uncle Ben dies.)

Even better, not only is Earth 2’s Julie Taymor still the director of Broadway’s Spider-Man: Turn on the Dark, but she’s adapting the musical into a film too. Glee’s Kevin McHale will play Peter Parker, and American Idol’s season six winner, Jordin Sparks, is the new Mary Jane.

My only complaint about the Earth 2 Spider-Man is he wasn’t drawn by Steve Ditko. Back in that alternate 1962, Stan Lee worked with veteran artist Jack Kirby. Their Peter Parker finds a magic ring inside a spider web, and instead of web-shooters, he totes a web gun. He’s still a teenager though, and he still learns his with-great-responsibility lesson the hard way.

When I was reading comics back in the late 70s, Peter was getting cloned by the Jackal (a supervillain not even Earth 2 has filmed yet). So I have a pretty good theory where all these unsung spider-men are escaping from. I haven’t officially counted, but since it’s Spider-Man’s 50th anniversary this month, fifty is a pretty good estimate. Marvel celebrated with Amazing Spider-Man #692. The original teen superhero got his first ever teen sidekick:

Web-boy! No, wait. Spider Junior! That’s not it. Arackid?

Actually, his name is Alpha, and on Earth 2 he already has his own spin-off comic book, TV show, and film franchise. The bad news? Tom Cruise plays Spider-Man in all of them.

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