Skip to content

The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: October 2012

What we fear demonstrates a lot about ourselves. Literally. The word “monster” comes from “monstrum,” an omen, and “monēre,” to warn. The same roots as “demonstrate.” Monsters literally demonstrate. We invent them to show what we are. Or, more exactly, what we fear we are. And zombies and werewolves speak the same root fear.

They are both soulless monsters.

Neither is very talkative. Neither a zombie nor a werewolf is going to discuss the reasons behind its hunger as it tears into you. Strip away our human surface, literally rip off the skin, and what’s underneath? Blood and meat and bone. And what’s underneath that? Nothing. There’s our biggest nightmare, the ur-fear, the thing that goes bump in the abyss. That when we die, we’ll be nothing but our corpses. And, just as monstrous, that while we’re still alive, we are nothing but animals. We are afraid we are bodies. We are afraid that we are our bodies and only our bodies.

Ever been to an open casket funeral? I was around twelve when I went to my first, my grandmother’s. There she was, painted and drained and stitched to look exactly like she might yawn and blink and sit up any second. It’s no coincidence that the first zombie, the first gray-faced ghoul in Night of the Living Dead, appears in a cemetery. Not a gothic, middle-of-a-moonlit-night graveyard. Just an average, grade A, visit-the-dead-relatives, broad daylight cemetery. Nothing scary about it. Except the horror of the burial custom itself. Which is only our attempt to paint over the deeper horror, the absurdity that one moment a body can be a breathing living loved one, and the next, nothing. A corpse. Not the person at all. Except that it’s exactly the same body. What twelve-year-old can ever make sense of that?

So George Romero, in his sloppy B-movie genius, invented the modern zombie. A corpse that dares to move, to parody life, while eradicating the fact of the human being who once lived there. Those aren’t your lost loved ones. They’re just their bodies. It’s a fact so horrific we’d rather their soulless cadavers tried to devour us. Because then we can smash in their skulls with baseball bats. Destroy what most upsets us. No more mortician tricks. Show us what a body looks like when it rots.

A werewolf wants to eat you too. It can’t help it. It’s all id. All body. The blood is pumping, but not because something divine is animating it. Predators eat prey. There’s nothing moral or immoral about an animal acting on its inevitable instincts. But human beings need to believe they’re above the rest of the animal kingdom. In evolutionary terms, we’re a subset of apes, a rung or two up the ladder from gorillas. We share 90% of our DNA with dogs. What if that’s all we are? What if deep inside, under all the social trappings, under all the intellect and philosophizing, we are the product of the same blood cravings as any other predator? And, God forbid, what if that’s fun?

For me, the most haunting moment from Night of the Living Dead is the newly animated child zombie cornering her mother in the basement. Surely, there should be a flicker of recognition? A distant echo of love? The tiniest fragment of human connection left between them? Nope. The little girl guts mom. Or the little girl’s body does. The innocent she was before she died, there’s nothing left of her.

Same scene plays out in werewolf tales. I read it mostly recently in Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf.  The newly transformed werehusband tracks his wife to their bedroom. This isn’t some random victim. This is the woman he loves, the human being he cherishes above all others, above himself, his one reason for living. Surely, the remains of his humanity, that shadow of a soul still somewhere inside him won’t let him kill her, right? You’ll have to read Duncan to get the gory details, but let’s just say, the animal wins.

The only thing scarier than being hunted is being the hunter. We are afraid that all we are, dead or alive, is bodily hunger. It’s only our souls, that intangible shred of wished-for divinity, that keeps us human. Without it, we are monstrous. Without love, we are irredeemable. Zombies and werewolves are just ourselves reflected in the black of the abyss.

On the radio.

That’s the short answer.

Before DC handed over its biggest commodity to the Mutual Broadcasting System, press agent Duke Ducovny teamed-up with pulp writer Bob Maxwell to give the Man of Steel a radio make-over. Their revisions included a Krypton located on the other side of our sun and a full-grown Kryptonian stepping out of his rocket ship. They also dreamed up “Up, Up and Away!” and the swooshing audio effect that accompanied it. Technically, he was only leaping “into the air an eighth of a mile at a single bound,” but when MBS writer George Ludlam took over the scripts, he kept the “It’s a bird! It’s a plane!” shtick.  Listeners weren’t picturing a glorified high jumper. The Superman in their radio cabinets was flying.

But the comic book Superman remained comparatively earthbound. Though you can see why Ducovny and Maxwell made the imaginative leap. After his one-page origin, Joe Shuster’s first Action Comics panel shows his hero sailing over houses, with Jerry Siegel’s ambiguous caption: “A tireless figure races thru the night.”

The guy certainly looks like he’s flying. A few issues later, when he “launches himself out and down” from a skyscraper to save a suicidal jumper, Superman grabs him inches above the sidewalk. Which is to say, the creators had no problem breaking other laws of physics.

Yet they kept their hero stubbornly gravity-minded while the MBS incarnation was headed up, up and away. Six months after the radio debut, Siegel and Shuster’s Superman still “plummets earthward like a leaden weight.” But they didn’t ignore the airwaves entirely. “Seizing the sides of his cape, Superman navigates it like a sail so that he swoops out of sight in a giant curve before onlookers can quite understand what is happening!”

So why not just give in and let the guy fly?

Here’s the long answer.

Superman started flying out of Siegel and Shuster’s hands the moment they made him.

The two twenty-three-year-olds signed over all rights before the first 12-page feature hit newsstands. Has any company ever made a bigger return on a $130 investment? DC Comics, part of its boss’ mob-connected shell game of publishing companies in 1937, earned $2.6 million in 1941. Even the physical check they wrote Siegel and Shuster surged more than a tenfold in value when it was auctioned for $160,000 earlier this year.

So what did Superman’s creators get?

Their page rate leapt from $10 to $15. When DC signed Superman for a newspaper deal, the pair got a 50% royalty cut.  But the 1940 radio show? The 1941 cartoon? The 1942 novel? The 1944 Superboy comic? The 1948 film serial? The decade of toys and kid clothes? And after they sued and lost in 1948, DC cut them off completely.

Superman was literally a corporation. Superman, Inc. DC hired their press agent to steer their Man of Money. Which is why Ducovny hired Maxwell, not Siegel, to write the first radio adaptation. Superman’s creators lost more than royalties. Creative control vanished as soon as DC figured out Superman was driving Action Comics sales.

And Siegel saw it all coming. AC #6, a phony manager hires a fake Superman and starts signing merchandise deals for breakfast cereals, cars, and gas stations. “I have a contract from him giving me sole commercial rights to his name!” This is the same month Siegel’s bosses nixed his idea for a new title about Superman’s boyhood. They’d wait till he was drafted and forget to pay him for it.

In 1940, Siegel tried to shake up his storylines by allowing Clark to reveal his secret identity to Lois. His bosses nixed that too. The next month, Clark parrots his creators’ marching orders: “With Lois more friendly, I’m tempted to forget my identity as Superman—but of course I must go on as I have!”

Next thing Perry White and Jimmy Olen—characters from the radio show—are showing up in Action Comics too. And it’s another MBS scripter, George Lowther, penning the novel DC contracted with Random House. Siegel didn’t get a credit, let alone a royalty check. When he shipped out in 1943, other writers took control of his comic books too.

Joe Shuster, half blind with a degenerative eye disease, had been employing a studio of co-artists for years. Soon they were jumping ship and taking their paychecks directly from DC. That 1940 issue with Superman using his cape like a sail? It was one of the last that looks like Shuster drew it himself. He and Jerry lost their uberoffspring faster than a speeding bullet.

Of course they didn’t want him to fly.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Picture American culture as an enormous sleeping brain. Movies, TV shows, comic books, those are the dreams and nightmares playing in its 24/7 unconscious. Like any sleeper, it wants to stay asleep. Which means inventing stories when outside noises—slamming doors, gunfire, the Rape of Nanking—try to disturb it.

When it feels threatened, the stories the great sleeping brain of America likes to tell itself often star a gun-toting cowboy or a caped crusader. Powerful heroes who use their powers to protect a vulnerable nation. I’ve been reading Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation lately, and I’m noticing how the paths of these two breeds of very American heroes weave in and out of our country’s 20th century anxieties.

When a fascist war loomed in Europe, comic books dreamed up Superman. The ultimate fascist-fighter, the Man of Tomorrow was a bit of a fascist himself, discarding due process for a vigilante’s dictatorial self-assurance. Hollywood responded with its own vigilante. The gunfighter, marooned in B movies during the Depression, leapt to feature films the same year Germany invaded Poland. America snoozed more soundly to the sound of superheroes Ka-Powing Nazis across newsstands and the thunder of cavalry hooves riding to matinee rescues.

The gunslingers usually hung out on America’s mythical frontier, that quasi-historical realm writers reinvented as soon as historians noticed the real thing had vanished. That may be why the cowboy had to bow out as soon as the U.S. started slinging real bullets. After Pearl Harbor, the gunfighter and the costumed crime-fighter parted ways. Hollywood’s western frontier gave way to frontline combat movies. But Superman and his superpowered platoon had always been about the here and now. Switching to active duty was easy.

Which might be why switching back was so hard. When the Axis started to fall, so did their overly authoritarian comic book kin. What had once calmed America’s slumber now disturbed it. Once a fascist always a fascist. Superheroes had to go. But not to worry, those sidelined cowboys were ready to tag back in. After Hiroshima, the frontier was once again the perfect escape destination. Just as the Golden Age of Comic Books petered, the Golden Age of the Western took off.

Superheroes tried to battle back in the 50s, but their Commie smashing violence was too direct, too like waking life to lull America’s dozing brain back to sleep. But that changed in the 60s. When Cold War fears turned MAD, the superhero returned. Mutually Assured Destruction was scarier than any enemy. War itself was now the monster, and Silver Age comics offered up a radioactive heap of ambivalent hero-monsters to reflect the mutating times. The Thing, the Hulk, Marvel’s entire radioactive pantheon literally embodies the national fear of nuclear fallout.

Superhero and cowboy battled side by side through the Vietnam War.  But after the My Lai massacre, old school American heroism collapsed. When that war ended, so did the western and its 25 year Hollywood reign. Superheroes survived, but they were changed. Further mutated. Comic books grew darker in the 70s. The Age was no longer Silver but Bronze.

I would have expected the cowboy to have battled back—maybe with the end of the Cold War when the whole comic book industry was in freefall—but that dream is apparently over. Marvel nearly ended in the early 90s too, their fate nearly tied to the vanquished Soviet Union, but they and their superheroes struggled through.

Now the superhero is more a figure of corporate enterprise than cultural soothing. America did not dream in comic book colors when the twin towers fell. Cowboys were not called back from their increasingly sidelined frontier to corral Afghanistan and Iraq.

We are currently living in the Golden Age of the Hollywood Superhero, though I’m not certain what that dream says about us. Like everyone else around me, I’m trapped inside America’s sleeping brain too. I can’t hear our national fears—of economic decline? of international irrelevance?—under the roar of all the flapping capes.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

England’s Literary Review awards a Bad Sex in fiction prize every year. They list “redundancy” as the cardinal sin (an odd criterion since sex tends to include a great deal of repetition), but I think it’s simile and metaphor that most offend the judges: “like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her” (Rowan Somerville 2010); “he starts to steer her enjoyment like a ship towards its home port, to the deepest anchorage, right to the core of her pleasure” (Amos Oz 2009).

Being British, the magazine does not award a Great Sex prize.

In the multimedia genre of the superhero (or at least the superpowered), both the all time best and worst awards would probably go to Nicholson Baker for his 1994 novel The Fermata. (Baker’s protagonist abuses his ability to freeze time by molesting women for 300 pages).

But I’m voting for a different double winner.

For me, Watchmen takes both categories.

Zack Snyder’s 2009 adaptation includes one of the least erotic sex scenes ever filmed. Technically it’s Malin Akerman and Patrick Wilson pretending to fornicate in the Nite Owl hovercraft. But there are no people in a Snyder movie, only balletic cyborgs. Snyder’s camera reduces the human body to mere digital effect. It’s why his violence is so grotesquely idealized. The technique kills his erotics too, dehumanizes one of the most absurdly human acts. (Jeff Buckley crooning “Hallelujah” in the background doesn’t help either.)

Not that you could call the 1986 comic book erotic either. Dave Gibbons’ pen is postage-stamp precise but nowhere near expressionistic enough to evoke bodily pleasure.

A better partner for Alan Moore’s sexual creativity is, happily, his own wife, graphic artist Melinda Gebbie. Their Lost Girls is a pleasantly pornographic tour of Victorian literature, featuring “mature” renderings of the child heroines of Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and The Wizard of Oz (three books I will never never never read to my children again).

But we’re talking superheroes.

Watchmen #3: Laurie Jupiter, AKA Silk Specter, in a ménage à trios with her blue-skinned husband, Dr. Manhattan. Two of him. (Another of his bodies is busy in the lab). This is the opposite of a turn-on, proof that her lover has lost all understanding of her (“I don’t know what stimulates you anymore”) if not the human condition in general.

The woman needs a man, not a superman. Pudgy everyguy Dan Dreiberg is a better match, but nuclear Armageddon dread has left him feeling impotent in both the metaphorical and literal sense. While their former teammate Ozymandias performs superhuman acrobatics on TV, Dan can’t even maintain an erection while on Laurie.

Fortunately, the solution hangs downstairs in his batcave of a basement. Dan is a new man when in costume. Gibbons draws Laurie naked but for her Silk Specter heels, but Nite Owl is cloaked when his hovercraft ejaculates fire (literally).

Moore tore the page from Johnston McCulley’s Zorro: “I donned cloak and mask . . . My body straightened, new blood seemed to course through my veins . . . fire came to me!”  During a post-coital smoke, the reignited Nite Owl declares: “I feel so confident it’s like I’m on fire.”

Ultimately though, a costume is more than a fetish. It’s not something just to be seductively peeled away but a barrier to be overcome. Real intimacy requires nakedness.

The next time Laurie reaches for Dan’s Nite Owl goggles, she whispers: “Here, take these off. I want to see you.” When Dr. Manhattan discovers the pair dozing and naked, he looks happy for them. Even if human sexuality is far beneath his God-like comprehension, he can still smile benevolently down at us.

Sex is silly and messy and anything but superhuman. Somehow Zack digitized Alan’s entire book without figuring that out.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

“Thinkers who entertain the possibility that there are lots of universes,” explains science writer Jim Holt, “use the term ‘multiverse’ (or sometimes ‘megaverse’) for the entire ensemble of them.” Holt writes for The New Yorker and is the author of the new book Why Does the World Exist?, so by “thinkers” he means physicists, mathematicians, and philosophers.

He does NOT mean comic book writers.

Though he should.

The multiverse was invented by physicist Hugh Everett in 1957. He called it MWI, or the “many-worlds interpretation” of quantum physics. Because things get weird and literally unmeasurable at the sub-atomic level, the multiverse offers a way of explaining paradoxes like Erwin Schrödinger’s 1935 thought experiment in which a cat can somehow be both dead and alive.

Everett made that impossibility possible by splitting the cat into two universes.

But, unknown to both Everett and Holt, DC editor Julie (stands for Julius) Schwartz had produced the same model a year earlier. Only instead of a cat, he used a superhero. DC’s Showcase #4, cover dated October 1956, introduced the Flash, the Big Bang event of the Silver Age of Comics.

The Golden Age Flash had dropped out of circulation in 1949, and though this new Flash resembled him (same name, same symbol, same superpowers) he was not the same character (different costume, different secret identity, different origin). Schwartz followed up with a new Green Lantern in 1959, and split the old Justice Society into the new Justice League in 1960 as well.

1960 is also the year Andy Nimmo, a vice chair of the British Interplanetary Society, first used “multiverse” to describe Everett’s clunkier-sounding many-worlds theory. (American philosopher William James actually coined “multiverse” in the 1890s, but that multiverse is a very different animal.)

So how could there be two Flashes? Or two Green Lanterns? Or two anything?

Easy. The new characters lived on Earth-1, and the 1940’s characters on Earth-2.

Schwartz even provided empirical evidence for his theory in 1961, when the Earth-1 Flash vibrated his way into the Earth-2 Flash’s universe. It turned out that events on Earth-2 had entered Earth-1 through the dreams of Golden Age comic book creators. (Which weirdly matches Holt’s description that “quantum field forbids these parallel worlds from interacting in any but the ghostliest of ways.”)

Schwartz’ research was duplicated by physicist Richard Feynman who used it to win the 1965 Nobel Peace Prize. Feynman, like Schwartz, argued for the existence of not just multiple worlds but multiple histories. Apparently, new universes pop into existence at every fork in time. When, for instance, Schrödinger’s cat both did and did not die. Or when the Flash  did and did not vibrate into a neighboring dimension.

Feynman used the less catchy phrases “path integral formulation” and “sum over histories,” but DC didn’t adopt the actual word “multiverse” until 1976. Writers desperately needed a term for Holt’s “ensemble” of universes they’d spent the last two decades spinning into existence.

Earth-3 (where everything is an evil mirror of Earth-1) bubbled up in 1964, as did Earth-32 (indistinguishable except for Green Lantern’s girlfriend agreeing to marry him). The next year a supervillain created Earth A (stands for “Alternate”) in order to eliminate the Justice League. In 1966, after buying Quality Comics, DC decided that subset of superheroes’ Golden Age adventures took place on Earth-X, where World Ware II still rages on. They gave Captain Marvel his own universe too. Starting in 1973, he and all of the 1940’s Fawcett Comics characters (DC loved buying up competitors) lived on Earth-S (stands for “Shazam”). Since they couldn’t buy Marvel, DC had to create Crossover Earth for team-ups with those characters (Superman and Spider-Man were the first in 1976), and they even designated an Earth for us (Earth Prime).

The list is longer (Charlton Comics ended up on Earth-4, the New Gods on 14), and that’s not counting all the “Imaginary Stories” that took place in universes left unlabeled because they never came into contact with Earth-1 characters. So, for instance, on Earth-Whatever Clark and Lois marry and raise superbabies. And on Earth-Whatchamcallit the infant Superman is adopted by the Waynes, and Clark and Kent grow up as brothers.

Basically any “what if” can spawn a parallel world. A theory Marvel literalized with What If? in 1977. The first issue (my eleven-year-old self bought it from one of those rotating 7-Eleven racks) asked: “What If Spider-Man Had Joined the Fantastic Four?”

Instead of killing cats, the omniscient Watcher used a hit-and-run example to illustrate how a single event leads to multiple realities. The accident bystander a) does nothing and the victim is killed, b) pushes the victim to safety but is struck himself, or c) gets both himself and the victim to safety.

Or D. All three. Which is also what Feynman said happens. (Apparently, our reality is the average of all the events.)

But the What Ifs and the Imaginary Tales are not the same. In fact, they reveal how deep the DC/Marvel divide runs. Marvel’s multiverse looks like a quantum theory multiverse, while DC’s fits the inflationary model because Earth-S and Earth-4 and Earth-X were not created at points of divergence. Those worlds were just floating out there all along. Which, oddly, is the more impressive theory because it has actual data to back it up. I’ll let Jim Holt explain: “measurements of the cosmic background radiation—the echo left over from the Big Bang—indicate that the space we live in is infinite, and that matter is spread randomly throughout it. Therefore, all possible arrangements of matter must exist out there somewhere—including exact and inexact replicas of our own world and the beings in it.”

A variation on the inflationary theory goes even further and posits isolated pocket universes, each born from its own Big Bang. Eventually each universe (ours included) will collapse in its own Big Crunch. Or, possibly, a Big Bounce, causing a new universe to be born its place.

At least that’s the theory. Except in comic books where it’s a verifiable fact. It happened to DC back in 1985. The 12-issue series Crisis on Infinite Earths ended with all the surviving worlds of the DC multiverse imploding and reforming as “New Earth.” Only this time there were no additional pocket universes connected to it.

No more multiverse.

Sure, DC couldn’t resists a few Imaginary Tales (newly termed “Elseworlds”), but superheroes from Earth-1—or I guess it would just be “Earth”?— never (okay, almost never) interacted with their counterparts from parallel Earths. Which is why DC cleaned out their multiverse in the first place. All those JLA and JSA team-ups were getting tedious.

DC prefers the term “reboot” over “Big Bounce,” which is fair since physicists didn’t start using the second till 1987. DC has hit the refresh button a few of times since, most impressively last year when they restarted all of their magazines at #1. So now there are two Action Comics #1. One published in 1938, and one published in 2011. Physicists have yet to coin a term for the phenomenon. Perhaps the many-markets interpretation of quantum publishing?

But don’t worry, multiverse fans, guess what bubbled back into existence last May.


Or, rather, a newly rebounced Earth-2 in an infinite range of Earth-2 variations. All of which DC will eventually publish. Though not necessarily here on Earth Prime.

And you thought physics was confusing.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: