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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: February 2013

Panel 1: The White House at night. A sickle moon overhead.

Panel 2: The President slouches at his desk, uncapped pen in hand. OBAMA: “I will sign it now, while America sleeps!”

Panel 3: Close-up of document on desk: “Bill to Destroy America by Letting Gay People Get Married.” OBAMA: MWAHAHAHA!”

Panel 4: Caption: “Meanwhile in the Pressroom.” Press Secretary at podium: “And of course blah blah blah the President respects blah blah blah sacredness of blah blah blah”

Panel 5: “Clark Kent turns suddenly, his super-hearing catching the President’s evil cackle.”

Panel 6: CLARK, yanking off glasses: “This is a job for . . .

Panel 7: “Superman!” Superman smashes through the wall of the Oval Office, grabbing the pen just before the bill is signed into law!

Panel 8: OBAMA, cowering on the floor: “Thwarted again!”

Panel 9: SUPERMAN, with American flag in background: “Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy!! I will act to destroy that government and bring it down, so it can be replaced with a government that will respect and support marriage, and help me raise my children in a society where they will expect to marry in their turn!”

Or something like that. The last bit are Card’s actual words, since deleted (thanks to Noah Berlatsky and Atlantic.com for keeping them on the web). I added the exclamation points myself.

I had to break the news to my family on the way to a restaurant. “You remember Ender’s Game?” I asked. “And Ender’s Shadow?” My wife had read the first aloud to them years ago; I’d read the second. Of course they remembered.

“Well,” I said and explained about DC readers protesting Orson Scott Card writing a Superman story because Orson Scott Card is a raging homophobe. Gay readers have known this for years, but it was news to me when I’d read about it that afternoon. It was news to my family now, but no one seemed particularly shocked, just sad. At fifteen, my daughter has grown increasingly resigned to chunks of her childhood eroding into the abyss of depressing adulthood. All those hours spent with the talented Mr. Card now retroactively icky.

Superman and Ender's Game

I’m not saying Ender’s Game is suddenly less worthy a read. But it is a little like finishing Ender’s Shadow and my son saying how it kinda ruined the first book. Not only was Ender not as smart as he’d seemed, but he was sort of an idiot for not seeing that his little friend was really the one making things work out so well.

And now it turns out Card is an idiot too. It would be easy to say it’s his religion’s fault, sort of like when Cat Stevens didn’t condemn Iran’s death sentence on Salman Rushdie. But a close colleague in my English department is Mormon, and he voted for Obama and supports our fellow gay colleagues too. So Orson Scott Card owns his own homophobia.

Superman, on the other hand, has been supporting gay rights since the 80s. DC wouldn’t let writer-artist John Byrne actually print the word “lesbian” (Superman only got as far as the first letter before interrupted by some less culturally touchy threat), but Clark was fully behind Captain Maggie Sawyer of the Metropolis Special Crimes Unit. And now the rest of the multiverse has finally caught up. Superman has been called the ultimate Boy Scout for decades, and now even the Boy Scouts are abandoning their gay ban.

So should fans ban DC when Orson Scott Card takes over the unitard?

To be honest, I find it a little hard to hate the guy. I picture him as a gray-skinned brontosaurus—not one of  those warm-blooded, hollow-boned sauropods with whip-action tails, but the kind I grew up with, back when they were just obese lizards hanging out in swamps because they couldn’t support their own weight.

I also seriously doubt his script is going to look like anything like my parody above. But is that the point? Even if Card keeps his homophobia in his swamp, does the guy and his DC employers deserve our allowance money? Obviously not. But formal bans still make me squeamish. The so-called Moral Majority used them all the time.

But if it’s any consolation, Card’s DC gig has outed his Jurassic mindset to a much larger audience. Now even straight dads like me and my (what at the moment appear to be) straight kids know the sad truth too. We’d been rooting for Hollywood to adapt Ender’s Game for years and now . . . not so much.

Also, if you like historical parallels, the original Superman was anti-marriage anyway. And I don’t mean gay marriage. I mean all marriage. George Bernard Shaw popularized his translation of the term “ubermensch” in his 1903 play Man and Superman. It’s about a modern Don Juan who wants to overthrow England’s marriage laws because they slow down the process of breeding a race of superhumans.

It’s not your standard supervillain scheme, but I’m sure Card would be horrified. And since Shaw’s evil plot would have to overthrow England’s new same-sex marriage now too, gay advocates and Card may actually have a storyline they can team-up for.

When my kids are grown up, I hope they respect and support marriage too, and when my grandkids, gay or straight, marry in their turn, I trust all the Orson Scott Cards of the multiverse will be long extinct.

Illustration by The Daily Beast

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Eisenhower and Kennedy

Eisenhower warned about the War Machine. He called it the military industrial complex, and three days before handing the Oval Office to Kennedy, he said we must guard against its acquisition of unwarranted influence and the disastrous rise of its misplaced power.

Stan Lee wasn’t listening.

Or if he was, he took it as a challenge.

“I gave myself a dare,” says Lee. “The readers, the young readers, if there was one thing they hated, it was war, it was the military. . .  So I got a hero who represented that to the hundredth degree. He was a weapons manufacturer, he was providing weapons for the Army . . .  I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like, none of our readers would like, and shove him down their throats . . .”

Thanks, Stan.

Tales_of_Suspense_39

Marvel later retooled Iron Man into a literal War Machine with James Rhodes, a high tech soldier taking orders in the military’s chain of command, something Tony Stark weapons manufacturer steered clear of.

War Machine

But Tony wasn’t the first Iron Man.

Neither was the 1939 Bozo the Iron Man. George Brenner built him for Quality Comics. Originally a mad scientist’s robot minion, he was dubbed “Bozo” by Hugh Hazzard, the playboy detective who ended his crime spree and reprogrammed him into a sidekick. DC pulled his plug in 1956 when they bought Quality.

Bozo the Iron Man

Stan Lee pulled the name off the scrap heap and handed it to Marvel second-string artist Don Heck in 1962. Bozo was big enough for Hugh to crawl inside, but Heck drew a modern-day knight in a suit of electromagnetic armor. Like the Tin Man of Oz, he also has heart problems. Remove the chest plate, and Tony’s stops. Heck liked to draw the playboy industrialist sitting around hotel rooms, plugged into wall jacks as he unglamorously recharged.

He eventually upgraded to an implant, which makes him a cyborg too. Like the Automaton.  The first movie cyborg, from Harry Houdini’s 1920 silent serial The Master Mystery. A mad scientist removes his brain and wires it into a robot. It was supposed to be a scary, Frankenstein-like monster, but based on the photo stills, the costume designer could have worked for Sesame Street.

The Automaton

Also, the cyborg thing is a hoax. The Automaton is just a clunky metal suit, same as Heck’s, before Steve Ditko refurbished it.

If the 1920s seem like a long leap to find the original Iron Man, then charge your rocket boots. Next stop is the 1590s.

Edmund SpenserFaerie Queene

The first Man of Iron was soldered by Edmund Spenser in his epic poem The Faerie Queene:

“His name was Talus, made of yron mould,
Immoueable, resistlesse, without end.”

If you’re rusty on Renaissance English, that’s “iron mold,” “immovable,” and “resistless,” all War Machine synonyms.  Talus’ other superpowers include speed (“him pursew’d so light, / As that it seem’d aboue the ground he went”), invulnerability (though a bad guy “streight at him with all his force did go,” Talus was “mou’d no more therewith, then when a rocke / Is lightly stricken with some stones throw”), and strength (“But to him leaping, lent him such a knocke, / That on the ground he layd him like a senseless blocke”). And that’s just from his first adventure.

Like Bozo, this yron man is also a sidekick. The executive half of Spencer’s dynamic duo is Artegall, the Knight of Justice. Talus originally worked for his mentor guru Astraea, “to execute her stedfast doome,” before she “willed him with Artegall to wend, / And doe what euer thing he did intend.” She also gives Artgall a nifty sword “Tempered with Adamant,” same as Wolverine’s claws. Together “They two enough t’encounter an whole Regiment.”

But Art prefers words over swords. He’s a diplomat at heart. He throws a Solomon-like puzzle at a serial killer squire to expose his guilt, and talks a tyrannical Gyant into recognizing the flawed logic in its false hero rhetoric. Of course all this word-mincing is made possible by his trusty page who carries “an yron flale,” the proverbial big stick for Art’s foreign policy.

It’s the dogged Talus who has to hunt down and retrieve the rogue squire (“Him in his iron paw he seized had”), and then “forced him” to obey Art’s punishment: to wear the murdered Lady’s head around his neck like an albatross.

Thanks, Talus. Good boy.

Pages of Justice are also handy for castle storming (“at the length he has yrent the door”), mob dispersal (“hid themselves in holes and bushes from his view”), and executions (“And down the rock him throwing, in the sea he drouned”). He has no qualms dispatching women either (“Over the Castle wall adowne her cast, / And there her drowned in the durty mud”). In fact, he has no qualms of any kind. It doesn’t matter if his target offers prayers, cash or sex, “he was nothing mou’d, nor tempted” and “Withouten pitty of her goodly hew.”

Basically the guy is a drone.

Dec. 17 airpower summary: Reapers touch enemy forces

Like our Commander-in-Chief, Artegall just has to give the lethal nod. Talus, “swift as swallow” and “strong as Lyon,” is well-suited to Obama’s “light footprint” military strategy. “At the end of the day,” writers David E. Sanger in The New York Times, “Mr. Obama’s favorite way to use force is quickly, secretly and briefly.” The yron drone is his perfect war machine:

“And lastly all that Castle quite he raced,
Euen from the sole of his foundation,
And all the hewen stones thereof defaced,
That there mote be no hope of reparation,
Nor memory thereof to any nation.”

But drones are under fire themselves. In the Showtime series Homeland, they convert a loyal U.S. marine into a Muslim suicide bomber when collateral damage includes 72 children.

Brody_holding_Isa

Since “for no pitty would he change the course,” a drone like Talus has a tendency of “burning all to ashes,” and so can, according to Ben Emmerson, cause “disproportionate civilian casualties.” Last month, the special investigator for the United Nations Human Rights Council started looking at “drone strikes and other forms of remotely targeted killing” to determine “whether there is a plausible allegation of unlawful killing.”

This could be bad news for Obama, Artegall, Hugh Hazzard, Tony Stark and any other Knights of Justice using heartless Bozos to do their dirty work.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Avengers aren’t wild about Iron Man either. General McChrystal says drones are “hated on a visceral level” and create a “perception of American arrogance.” New Secretary of State John Kerry wants to make sure “American foreign policy is not defined by drones and deployments alone.” Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wants a court to oversee targeted killings. Commentator David Brooks, even while lauding Obama’s not so “perfectly clean hands” as a Machiavellian necessity, wants the same. I’m not sure how John O. Brennan, our new CIA director and the man who’s been holding Talus’ leash for the last four years, feels, but protesters shouting at his confirmation hearing were very clear:

“Drones Fly Children Die.”

Feinstein puts the annual number of accidental drone deaths in “single digits.” The war machines have been at it since 2004, so you can do the math. The Council on Foreign Relations counts over 400 total strikes, with a death toll over 3,000, most of them Al Qaeda.

Ed Craun, a colleague in the W&L English department, tells me Talus represents the Law of Retaliation, lex Talonis, the biblical eye-for-an-eye. The merciless shove-it-down-their-throats mentality you would except from a military industrial complex. So Artegall spends Book 5 learning to temper that unwarranted influence. By the end, Artegall still employs his Iron Man for military operations (Ed likens one adventure to a search-and-destroy mission in the caves of Afghanistan), but when the War Machine wants to attack an insolent hag, Artegall reins him in:

“But Talus hearing her so lewdly raile,
And speake so ill of him, that well deserued,
Would her haue chastiz’d with his yron flaile,
If her Sir Artegall had not preserued,
And him forbidden, who his heast obserued.”

Artegall knows when to listen to General Eisenhower.

Does the U.S?

Rise of the Drones by Lev Grossman

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the_amazing_spider_man_2012-wide

I’m teaching my Playwriting course this semester, and the first scene I showed my class was from The Amazing Spider-Man. My colleagues could use this as evidence of an obsession gone too far, but hear me out. It’s the Peter-asks-Gwen-on-a-date bit, and it says everything a playwright needs to know about external and internal conflict.

The scene started back in 1965, when Stan Lee and Steve Ditko introduced Gwen Stacy in Amazing Spider-Man #31. The two don’t actually go out on their first study date for another thirteen issues, so we’re going to look at the shorter version.

I’ll wait while you cue your DVD players to minute 36.

Ready?

stone and garfield

First time I watched this was in our local theater with my teenage daughter, and I don’t know which of us was giggling louder. I know James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves got credit for the screenplay, and I’m sure Marc Webb’s direction was perfectly impeccable, but I can’t help thinking Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone improvised most of that stammering, self-effacing, toe-curling flirtation.

The question is how.

And to answer that, I need to switch to Playwriting lecture mode.

The odd thing is the lack of overt dramatic conflict. Character A (Peter) has a goal (ask out Gwen). But for there to be conflict, there has to be an obstacle, otherwise the scene would last two lines:

PETER: Want to go out on a date?

GWEN: Yes.

Usually Character B (GWEN) would provide the obstacle (no, you freak, I don’t want to go out with you!), producing plenty of external conflict. If you like formulas, it looks like this:

Character A (goal) + Character B (obstacle) = dramatic conflict (character v. character)

In the comic book, Gwen plays Character A and has to chase the distracted Peter for a few issues before he even notices her. But Andrew Garfield’s Peter is all eyes for her. And Emma Stone makes it equally clear that Gwen wants to got out too.

So what the hell is driving the scene?

An easy trick is to throw in some convenient external nonsense. As in Amazing Spider-Man #44 when Mary Jane Watson suddenly struts into the diner and pulls Peter away. Or Webb could have sent the Lizard smashing through the wall of lockers just before Gwen can finish saying yes. That would be fun for the folks down in the CGI lab, but for the writing staff it spells B-O-R-I-N-G.

No, this scene has a much smarter engine: internal conflict. Peter WANTS to ask out Gwen, BUT he’s too damn bashful. Again, if you’re an algebra person, here’s the math:

Character A (goal) + Character A (obstacle) = internal conflict (self v. self)

But that’s only half the equation. You still have to factor in Character B. And, by my count, you only have seven options:

1. Character B is absent. Peter is rehearsing his lines before the big approach. It’s cute, but dramatically a stall. We need Gwen.

2. Character B is neutral. Peter’s stammering is so intense, Gwen literally has no idea what the he’s trying to ask her. Again, potentially cute, but it gets you maybe thirty seconds of dramatic action before the gimmick wears off. Quit stalling.

3. Insert a circumstantially opposing goal/obstacle. Is Gwen on her way to the Girls Room? Maybe the door to her classroom is closing and she can’t afford another tardy? You just bought yourself a few more seconds, but we’re still waiting for the real thing.

4. Character B opposes Character A’s goal. Now that’s what you call dramatic action. And, oddly, that’s NOT what Gwen is up to here. If she were, the scene would be two lines again:

PETER: Hi, Gwen, I was wondering if, you know, maybe, you might, maybe want to—

GWEN: No.

5. Next option: Character B opposes Character A’s goal, BUT with her own internal conflict (partial obstacle). In other words, Gwen doesn’t want to go out, but she also doesn’t want to hurt Peter’s feelings either, so she can’t say no directly. All sorts of dramatic possibilities there, but that’s still not the scene we’re looking at.

6. Gwen actually shares Peter’s goal. She WANTS him to ask her out. (Back in 1966, she did the asking herself, but apparently times have a-changed for the worse.) That describes Gwen’s goal, but if that’s all that’s going on, you’d have yet another two-liner:

PETER: Hi, Gwen, I was wondering if, you know, maybe, you might, maybe want to—

GWEN: Okay.

Which, actually, she does say, but the scene keeps going, and instead of the tension dissolving, it actually spikes. How??

7. So  what we have here is a real rarity. The last arrow in the love scene quiver. Character B shares Character A’s goal, but she has her own internal conflict preventing her from fully helping him/them achieve his/their goal. In other words, Gwen is just as bashful as Peter.

So the complete lack of external conflict is dramatically balanced by a double dose of internal conflict. They have the same goal (each other) and the same obstacles (themselves).

And that’s what we Playwriting professors call pretty freaking adorable.

Happy Valentine’s Day, people.

andrew-garfield-peter-parker-emma-stone-gwen-stacy-amazing-spider-man6

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Merlin-finale

“Why does everything end?!” my daughter wails as the final credits roll down our TV screen. She’s fifteen, so wailing is a daily event in our house. Great, heartfelt howls. “The show wasn’t good, but I loved the characters. And now they’re gone!”

When the BBC’s Merlin premiered in 2008, she was ten and our son seven. That’s not an easy age and gender gap to bridge for family TV time, but we’ve done our best. I don’t think we ever really recovered from the end of Buffy and then Angel back in 2004, but Merlin came pretty close. Sword play and sorcery for him, cute guys and pretty gowns for her, plenty of bromance slapstick for us all.

The only problem is those stingy Brits. Only 13 episodes per season. That beats the typical BBC season of six, or worse, in the case of Sherlock, three, but our family TV appetite can be voracious. Once during a desperate Merlin hiatus, I downloaded the first episode of the Starz series Camelot, the one with Joseph Fiennes as Merlin. There’s a reason it didn’t make it past its first season.

Also, a more responsible parent would have previewed more thoroughly.

Camelot

My son still ducks his head when characters kiss, so he really didn’t appreciate the nudity. And simulated fornication is still, thankfully, well outside my daughter’s taste range too.

She adores Merlin’s Arthur for his cheek bones, Merlin for his giant, translucent ears.

Merlin and Arthur

Which is to say the show was great for its innocent goofiness. BBC aired the final episode in December, but on our side of the pond, Syfy is only half way through the season. It’s a fun one. Here are some of the high points:

The costume designers discover Guinevere has breasts. Every episode is an adventure in cleavage. The writers, on the other hand, had absolutely no idea to do with actress Angel Coulby once they trussed up her marriage plot and parked her on the throne at the end of season four.

The writers did, however, put some worthwhile effort into Mordred, who, in classic soap opera magic, enters season five as twenty-four-year-old Alexander Vlahos, having last exited in season two as twelve-year-old Asa Butterfield. (Even with the three-year summer time lapse, you need an alchemist to make the numbers work.) But the rest of the season is dedicated to his current character arc, one played out with surprising, multi-episode skill.

Asa Butterfield MordredAlexander Vlahos Mordred

I had hoped for more bromance development though. My wife and I didn’t have kids to blame when we watched another supremely goofy show, Lois and Clark, back in the 90s. I know Merlin is closer to the Smallville template, but Arthur is essentially Lois. A dumb blonde who never figures out that bumbling Merlin is a superman in disguise.

Except that Terry Hatcher Lois did figure it out, hint by hint, until she finally yanked Clark’s glasses off herself. A few glimmers of repressed suspicion would have been nice for Arthur, though I will say (after shouting, “HERE BE SPOILERS!”), the final episode does get it right.

The writers knew to dispose of the big battle quickly and devote the final hour to our two boys. They even unmask Merlin early, so the plot is rightfully on Arthur’s progression of emotions: denial, anger, hurt, acceptance, gratitude, love.

I also give huge points to the ending implications of Queen Gwen alone on her throne. With Arthur gone, we are to understand that all the glory of Camelot comes to fruition under the rule of a working class black woman.

Now that’s what I call a revised national epic. For the American equivalent, imagine finding out Sally Hemings wrote the Declaration of Independence.

Queen Gwen

Merge Merlin and Arthur and you also get a pretty standard superhero formula. In wanders a wizard and next thing some little nobody squire is savior of the realm. The same way Shazam turns Billy Batson into a Marvel. Or Dumbledore unveils Harry Potter’s secret past and prophecy. John the Baptist performed a similar favor for a lowly carpenter, but let’s stick with comic book gods. Donald Blake was the son of Odin before he slapped that walking stick against a boulder. Stan Lee says “fate” made a radioactive spider chomp its teeth of destiny into Peter Parker. Julie Taymor says it was the Greek goddess Arachne, who in the Broadways version was watching and waiting all along. “The fates have delivered you,” she croons. “The gift you’ve been given binds you to me.”

But Merlin is more than a behind-the-scenes mentor. The fact-challenged historian Geoffrey of Monmouth sewed him together from several stray wizards wandering the early Arthurian highlands. Geoffrey christened him Merlinus because he thought his original Welsh name sounded too much like the Latin root for “shit.”He doesn’t wander into comic books till 1936, two years ahead of Superman. His descendant at Quality Comics, Merlin the Magician, had an annoying habit of talking backwards when casting spells: “RALOP RAEB, ESAHC YAWA EHT SIZAN!” Actor Colin Morgan had to paste on a white beard every few episodes, but otherwise the BBC version is way cuter.

Our whole living room was shocked at the sight of Arthur’s funeral boat floating out to sea, but the real howls of protest didn’t start till the ending shot of the now ancient Merlin in modern day Wales hoofing along a highway.

“So he’s all alone? All his friends are dead? I would hate to be immortal!”

My daughter’s incredulity morphed into existential dread by bedtime. Knowing my agnosticism, she asked me accusingly, “Do you think when I die I’ll just be dirt?”

I talked her down with some quantum mechanics dithering (“If our experience of time isn’t accurate…”), followed by a nihilistic counter punch (“The only meaning in this world is loving and being loved…”). But I think we both knew she wasn’t really mourning her death just yet. She was mourning her goofy innocence.

No more Merlin.

It’s an inevitability we all have to learn. One TV show at a time.

Arthur's death

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