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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: January 2013

85th Academy Awards Nominations Announcement

I thought it was going to be 2012.

Remember all that Oscar hype Dark Knight Rises got back in July? Of course that was before it was actually released. If any DC fans were still holding out hopes, Spider-Man sweetheart Gwen Stacy (AKA Emma Stone) and toddler supervillain Stewie Griffin (AKA Seth MacFarlane) dashed them when they announced the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ official nomination list this month. I like to think Marvel fans are a little more reality-based, though I’m sure a few were holding out hopes for Joss Whedon’s The Avengers too.

Dark Knight RisesThe AvengersAmazing Spider-Man

Add The Amazing Spider-Man, and three of the top grossing films of 2012 were dressed in spandex. Together they cashed in more than the GDP of Jamaica or Iceland. And yet both the Oscars and the Golden Globes snub them? Co-hosts Amy Poehler and Tina Fey didn’t even make JOKES about this year’s superhero movies. (Daredevil, AKA Ben Affleck, wins best director, and he can’t even see?!)

Ben Affleck as Matt MurdockBen Affleck as Daredevil

Isn’t it time for some kind of Golden Superhero Oscar Globe Ceremony Banquet Thing? Why doesn’t anyone have a category for Best Superhero Film?

Well, because that would be silly. Not to mention demeaning and/or redundant. Did Heath Ledger win Best Supporting Actor in a Superhero Film in 2009?

Best Supporting Actor 2009 Award

And just look at last year’s winner. The would-be Best Superhero Film of 2011 also won Best Picture of the Year.

ThorCaptain AmericaGreen Lantern

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No, I don’t mean Thor or Captain America. Certainly not Green Lantern or Green Hornet. X-Men: First Class was fun but certainly no Oscar contender, and while Australia’s Griff the Invisible deserved lots and lots more attention, Best Picture would be a stretch.

I’m talking about The Russian Affair.

The Russian Affair

The 1927 classic? Never heard of it?

That’s because it’s the opening sequence of 2011’s The Artist, winner of the Least Watched Best Picture of All Time. I’d not even heard of it until after last year’s Awards ceremony, and it still took me months to rent.

Which was stupid of me. Because not only is The Artist a brilliant film, it’s also the perfect history lesson for a superhero movie buff.

The Artist

You probably think of the superhero as a relatively recent invader of the silver screen. The folks over at BoxOfficeMojo.com consider the 1978 Superman the Krypton-like explosion that spawned the genre.

Not so.

Captain American turned to celluloid back in 1944, Batman in 1943, Captain Marvel 1941.

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But, you might argue, those were just serials. Dinky 10-minute installments that aired each week before the main attraction. Like, say, the 1937 The Shadow Strikes, one of the first superhero films of the sound era.

But not the Silent Age.

Unlike all those other upstart film genres, superheroes hit the big screen back when movies were still movies, not talkies. The Russian Affair (as well as glimpses of its equally pretend sequel, The German Affair) features its pretend star George Valentin in tuxedo, top hat, and domino mask—the quintessential costume of the pre-comicbook proto-superhero, the gentleman thief.

Lone Wolf, Gray Seal, Scarlet Pimpernel, they’re all Batman predecessors, all but forgotten. Except for one. Zorro. Which The Artist inserts into the Valentin’s filmography too, replacing the real life film star Douglas Fairbanks. Director Michel Hazanavicius even reshot the best action sequence, dressing The Artist’s Jean Dujardin in Fairbanks’ Zorro costume. When Fairbanks first pulled on that mask, the avenging bandit was an obscure hero from a pulp magazine serial. A year later, Zorro is an international icon. The Mark of Zorro didn’t win Best Picture in 1920 only because the Academy Awards wouldn’t start for another decade.

Zorro

But Fairbanks wasn’t the first masked movie star. He and his alter ego Dujardin/Valentin were just catching the wave started in 1916, the first year of the movie superhero.

Like 2012, 1916 saw three rounds of masked do-gooders. In The Iron Claw, Creighton Hale played a mild-mannered assistant by day, the mysterious Laughing Mask by night. By the end he’s wooed his boss’s daughter and thwarted the nefarious Iron Claw.

Laughingmask

Francis Ford joined Hale as the similarly clad Sphinx in The Purple Mask, only this time the masked hero has a masked anti-heroine to woo too, Grace Cunard’s lady thief Queen of the Apaches, arguably the first superheroine in celluloid. She leaves her purple mask as a calling card.

The Purple Mask

But Best Superhero Film of 1916 goes to Louis Feuillade’ classic Judex. The 1930’s Shadow would borrow his cloak and slouch hat, but the master-of-disguise Judex sought revenge against a corrupt banker, while falling in love with and so of course protecting his daughter from villains. I like to show my class the original unmasking scene, Yvette Andréyor creeping into the hero’s bedroom (think Batcave) and discovering his make-up kit. (Nowhere nearly as dramatic as the big Phantom of the Opera scene, but this was shot a decade earlier.)

Judez

So when Hazanavicius is ready to shoot a sequel, The Artist II: The First Affair, he’ll have plenty more material to plunder.

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That’s what the folks at MuggleNet want to know. They were looking for a guest speaker to discuss “the comic book superhero qualities of Harry Potter’s adventures” during a podcast interview. My dean, Suzanne Keen, MuggleNet Academia’s first guest, recommended me. How could I resist?

So is Harry a superhero?

The popular answer is a no.

When a student wrote to Yahoo! Answers asking if he could dress as Harry Potter for Superhero Day, the top ranked responder said, nope, Harry’s no superhero (but go as him anyway). 79% of poll participants at a CAWS (Create a Wrestler Superstar) online discussion board agreed. Same opinion at Wiki.Answers.

It’s true, Mr. Potter has no mask and cape, but I have to go against conventional wisdom and answer: Pretty much.

To explain why, let’s break the question into pieces. Definitions of a superhero vary, but here are some basic qualities.

Does he have superpowers?

Well, for starters the kid can fly, teleport, turn invisible, and talk to animals. That puts him right up there with Superman, Night Crawler, Invisible Woman, and Aquaman.

But the issue seems to be whether this makes him special. The yahoo at Yahoo! thinks “the defining characteristic of a superhero is that they use a unique, super-human ability that nobody else possesses.” Wiki.Answers got stuck on the same sticking point, declaring Harry just “a wizard like many others.”

It’s a reasonable objection. Especially when you look at early Golden Age comics. Men in unitards tended to stand alone back then, each in his own universe, with little or no crossover. Even the Justice Society of America started as a reprint omnibus, with characters sharing a cover but not adventures. The idea of a community of superpowered heroes in a single universe didn’t really launch till the early 60’s. Stan Lee even included footnotes, so every episode in every title was part of a continuous web.

Which mean the “unique” criterion is wrong. Lots of superheroes overlap powers. Look at the Captain Marvel family, or everyone who’s ever been named Flash (Daniel Radcliffe said he’d like to add his name to the list). I count about a half dozen guys who can stretch their limbs into knots. Green Lantern belongs to a literal army of identically-clad Green Lanterns. Ultimately the Harry Potter wizarding world is a lot like the superhero world, a community of the superpowered.

And if you really want to push the “unique” angle, Harry’s that too. The sole wizard fated to defeat the greatest villain in history.

Okay, but does he have a dual identity?

Oddly, I’m going to have to go with yes.

He doesn’t have an alias or codename (unless you count “The Boy Who Lived”), or a colorful costume under his robes, but there is plenty of duality. Rowling’s just transferred it from her hero to the world at large. Instead of mild-mannered Clark Kent, we have the mild-mannered muggle world, our world. Which, unknown to us and all the other Lois Lanes, overflows with magic.

Book One strips off Harry’s Clark-like glasses so he can see he is a member of a secret superpowered community. Jump inside a phone booth and suddenly you’re in the Ministry of Magic.  Instead of wearing colored tights under his street clothes, he wears his muggle street clothes under his Hogwarts robes. Rowling’s just flipped the trope.

She’s also overturned a common fantasy convention. Most speculative worlds exist somewhere or somewhen else. Rowling conjures the superhero’s secret identity trick to bring sorcery into the here and now. Usually it’s one or the other. Middle-earth, for example, is here but not now. Narnia is now but not here. Le Guin’s Earthsea is neither here nor now. Harry is both.

He’s also King Arthur and Merlin in one. The boy born for greatness must discover his real self. (The BBC’s Merlin had great fun with the secret identity trope too.)

So what’s next? Super orphan?

Harry’s parents, like Bruce Wayne’s, were brutally murdered. Superman lost his parents plus his entire home world. Ditto for Harry. Except that his Krypton was only hiding until his twelfth birthday. In the meantime, Harry was raised by apes. I mean muggles. (Jesus, the secret superpowered son of God, was raised by Jews, but that’s probably a different discussion.)

How about a superhero symbol? Does Harry have a bat or spider or capital “S”?

Yep. Look at his forehead. Captain Marvel sports the same icon. A thunderbolt. And like every good superhero, the icon codes his identity. Captain Marvel shouts “Sha-zam!” (the name of his sponsoring wizard) and down comes a lightning zap to transform him. The same way baby Harry was transformed into a horcrux by Voldemort’s magic blast.

Though I’d say Rowling is more in sympathy with Silver Age comics. A hero’s power is also a curse. Billy Baston’s thunderbolt is a free ticket to superpowered fun and games. Harry’s is a death sentence.

And if you’re going to say a superhero’s emblem has to be worn on his chest, wrong again. The 1930s Phantom sported his iconic skull on his belt buckle. Before that, Johnston McCulley (you know him from Zorro) preferred hoods with his hero’s symbol sewn into the forehead. In fact, guess the name of the proto-superhero he wrote right after Zorro.  The Thunderbolt.

Next up: Is Harry a vigilante?

I know, not the first thing that pops to mind when you think “superhero.” But most of them are. Even a government-employed super-soldier like Captain America has to go AWOL on occasion to demonstrate this his superheroic soul is not for sale.  Plus governments, all those Commissioner Gordons of the world, are innately incompetent. How long did it take it the Minster of Magic to even acknowledge that Voldemort was back? Meanwhile, the Order of the Phoenix was already in full vigilante mode. To protect the law we must break the law. By the last book, Harry switches to Zorro mode. The government isn’t merely incompetent, it’s corrupt. Voldemort is running everything.

Which brings us to arch nemesis.

Yes, Harry has one, but the superhero parallels run deeper. The ur-supervillain of the Golden Age of Comics, the uber-thug who turned comic books into a massive mass market money maker through the 40’s, was Adolf Hitler. AKA, Tom Riddle.

Rowling did more than scribble a new Lex Luthor or Doc Ock. Lord Voldemort’s DNA was cloned from the ultimate villainy of the 20th century. Eugenics. He’s not just a ruthlessly authoritarian dictator.  He Who Cannot Be Named believes in genetically pure bloodlines. The Slytherin agenda is the wizarding equivalent of Aryan supremacy. Muggles are inferior. Wizards who mingle with them muddy the gene pool. Voldemort is Hitler on magical steroids.

And only Harry can stop him. It’s the ultimate battle of good vs. evil. The battle comic book superheroes started in 1938 with Action Comics No. 1. Back when the U.S. was watching fascism sweep across Europe, afraid that democracy could be facing its end.

I could add a bit about Hermione being a mutant (superpowered offspring of normal parents), but I think I’ve made my superhero point.

And now I’d like to apologize to my daughter.

I ran all of this past her after picking her up from high school track practice today. She read all of the Harry Potter books a dozen of times each, literally. And that was after her mom and I and spent years reading them aloud to her and her brother. It’s how they became literate.

After a brief objection or two, she agreed with my superhero thesis. “I never thought of it like that,” she said.

I laughed. “No reason why you would.”

“That’s true,” she said. “But, you know, it depresses me when you say stuff like this.”

“That Voldemort is Hilter?”

“All of it. You’re destroying my childhood.” She was laughing, sort of. “Stop destroying my childhood!”

I’ll tell her to avoid the podcast.

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Les Miserables Classics Illustrated

Guest Blogger, Christopher Todd Matthews

Just days after the mega-musical’s release, Slate’s David Haglund asked readers to ponder this mystery:  “Why [do] Tween Boys Love Les Miz.”  Haglund then tried to blow our minds with his answer:  Jean Valjean is a superhero.

One can indeed read Valjean as a superhero, and it’s fun to find the pattern:  as Haglund and others note, Valjean saves lives, he has a secret identity and a nemesis who wants to uncover it, and the novel describes him as having the strength of “four men.”  Chris Gavaler tells me Valjean fits the model of other early superhero prototypes, such as the Count of Monte Cristo and the Scarlet Pimpernel (each of whom shares key elements with Valjean, such as an experience with unjust imprisonment and a backdrop of Gallic revolution).  And many critics have noted both the musical’s and the original novel’s sometimes overbearing Christian imagery, so perhaps Valjean is simply Victor Hugo’s echo of what one might call the original superhero, righteous amid injustice:  Jesus.

What fun.  And I mean it.  But there’s a silent premise to all this that, to my mind, tells us something rather more complicated and troubling, about sexual identity and gender expression and their relation to superhero motifs.  And that’s because Haglund’s headline comes with an implied tone of mystification—Why in the world would boys like Les Miz?—which deploys a whole series of old-fashioned assumptions about what boys are and what boys like.  My god, boys like musicals?!

The implication, of course, is that there’s something weird about boys liking musicals.  My guess is I don’t need to pause here to give you a chance to figure out what that “weirdness” is:  a boy liking musicals has meant something rather specific in our cultural consciousness for the last several decades.  From one point of view it has, as a kind of cruel shorthand, signaled deviance and perversion, but from another it has more positively meant that a boy is embracing alternative forms of boyness.  The figure of the musical-loving boy or man, in other words, has long functioned as both an element of gay male identity and as a handy stereotype for mocking “effeminate” men, gay or not.

At the very least, such loving has indicated the willingness of the occasional boy to play along the margins of conventional gendering.  I was such a boy, not necessarily gay, though for a while my parents certainly wondered, and I adored Les Mis when I saw it on stage at the tender age of fourteen.  To this day I’m terribly low on football-related and power-tool-based conversation topics, much preferring to discuss my favorite Gene Kelley films.

So in part Haglund’s article reminds me how the narratives and iconography of superheroes can be used to normalize boys and gender identity.  Horrified that your son likes a musical?  It’s OK:  it’s probably just a superhero story with songs—and liking superheroes is so natural and normal for a boy.  (Go into any store that sells children’s anything and you’ll see the artifacts of such musty old gender dichotomies:  Hulk lunchboxes over here, Barbie lunchboxes over there; Spiderman underwear to the left, pretty-princess underwear to the right.)  These days superheroes stand for boyness—and boyness means the opposite of girlness, means physical vitality and heroism and violence, means a tidy trajectory toward an uncomplicatedly masculine and heterosexual adult identity.

So liking a musical’s a problem, what with all that prancing and hand-holding, but some good old heroic violence, a few damsels in distress, a dash of vaguely fascistic adoration of musculature and extra-judicial power, and voila, problem solved!  It’s really just a superhero movie, about strong boys saving weak girls in a landscape of deep and abiding violence!  Phew!

Now, if only there were some sort of dashing, lithe song-and-dance man who could wrap this whole thing up, bringing Gene Kelley and superheroes and Jean Valjean all together in a neat package.  Oh wait, there is:  Hugh Jackman.  Those are two words that could also be used to answer the question “Why do tween boys like this musical?”  He’s hot.  And sure he was also Wolverine—violence and superheroes and heterosexuality and all that—but, you know, Wolverine was hot too.

wolverine_valjean

Which brings me to my final point:  despite our culture’s easy equation of superheroes with conventional boyness, and despite my own earlier dismissal of the normalizing strategies of superhero narratives and merchandise, superhero stories have historically included plenty of room for gay themes and queer readings.  There are the secret identities, the split between the generic upstanding public man and the secret, daring hyper-flâneur he becomes at night.  There are the homosocial intimacies, most famously in Batman and Robin’s domestic partnership.  There is The X-Men’s theme of countercultural struggle.  Chris Gavaler points out that the prototypical and maybe semi-Valjeanean Scarlet Pimpernel himself has effete characteristics—dressing like a Dandy and being named after a flower, for instance—that might put him in a lineage of modern gayness.  And of course there are all those beefy men in tights, so closely matching certain genres of gay male erotica.

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So the fact that Wolverine now sings in a grand costume drama only puts a slightly more legibly queer spin on a set of implications already there, even if invisible to your average mainstream audience.

Perhaps what I most want here is not only to free kids of such assumptions about the nature of gender but also to restore these trickier meanings to superhero stories.  There’s something about the superhero template that gives kids on the margins of normal (perhaps especially boys) a place to go, a way of thinking about who they are, of engaging with emotional intensity, of imagining a dramatic and legitimate role for themselves in a world that sees them as hopelessly weird or nerdy or awkward or effeminate.  I want the mainstream to give superheroes back—to stop using them to patrol and correct the boundaries of boyhood (and girlhood, for that matter).

After all, when I adored Les Mis, I adored Moon Knight and Spider-Man and a bunch of other comics just as much, and there seemed no contradiction in that.  Superheroes were not the guise of normalcy I wore over the shameful secret of loving a musical:  they were yet another way of getting around the pressures to be normal.

[Christopher Todd Matthews is a writer who lives in Ann Arbor.]

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“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun,” says NRA vice-president Wayne LaPierre, “is a good guy with a gun.”

That’s the logic that armed the Golden Age of superheroes. Not just the absolutist good vs. evil, but the gun part too. Back in the 30s and 40s holsters were as common to superhero costumes as masks and capes. The Shadow, The Phantom, Captain America, even the original Batman gunned down his share of bad guys.

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But LaPierre was born in 1948, so he would have been an early Silver Age reader. With the exception of World War II throwback Nick Fury and space soldier Captain Marvel, all those Golden Age holsters had been erased.

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And of course Nick is also a government employee. The kind the NRA would station in every school as part of their National Model School Shield Program (no relation to Nick’s S.H.I.E.L.D.).

But since the pair of officers patrolling Columbine weren’t enough to prevent that travesty, the program wouldn’t rely just on well-holstered cops. The NRA’s Shield wants “armed volunteers.”

That’s an interesting new concept. I serve on my local PTA board (yes, I take the minutes), and although faculty surveys are pleading for parent volunteers, legally they can’t even serve as study hall monitors. And that’s before we strap on holsters.

But “armed volunteers” isn’t new in comic books. It’s another name for superheroes. The list is long: The Punisher, Judge Dredd, The Comedian, Deathlok, Hitman, Cable, Bishop, Big Daddy, Hit Girl, Wild Dog, The Vigilante. They tend toward the dark side of the superhero continuum, but even mainstream nice guys like Cyclops and Green Lantern have sported firearms. (For a fuller list check out Superhero Packing Heat.)

Since the cost of expanding police patrols to every school in the country would be astronomical (not to mention a debt-buckling, state rights-trampling expansion of Big Government), the Shield Program would need their armed volunteers to go unpaid. Another superheroic quality. Good guys motivated by selfless altruism to protect their communities.

What George Zimmerman was doing when he shot Trayvon Martin in Florida earlier this year. Insurance underwriter by day, by night Zimmerman was a self-proclaimed neighborhood watchman, an armed volunteer patrolling the mean streets of his gated community.

The judge called him “mild,” a “run of the mill” Clark Kent kind of guy, an upstanding student earning a degree in Criminal Justice with dreams of becoming a judge himself. So even if the NRA establishes a rigorous screening process, the School Shield Program will be staffed by many more armed Zimmermen.  And fast. LaPierre wants his Shield up and fully running before students return to their classrooms after winter break.

That’s this week.

When the Avengers found themselves understaffed in the 70s, they advertised openings in their volunteer ranks. That’s how the newly-blue Beast joined up. When the Defenders put out a TV ad a few years later, they were inundated with superhero recruits, more than tripling their numbers. Which the Shield Program will need to do too, since police currently patrol a third of public schools. According to International Association of Chiefs of Police estimates, we’d need about 100,000 new school guards.

So if you are a selflessly motivated good guy and know how to shoot a gun, here’s your chance to answer a superheroic call to duty.

That’s how it works in comic books. What better test study do you need?

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[A version of this post originally appeared as an editorial in the Sunday, January 6th edition of The Roanoke Times, minus all the cool pictures though.]

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