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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: March 2013

slytherin

“I always knew Salazar Slytherin was a twisted old loony,” says Ron Weasley, “but I never knew he started all this pure-blood stuff. I wouldn’t be in his house if you paid me.”

And yet the House of Slytherin has no shortage of new applicants. It’s a Who’s Who of Recent Movie Supervillains, including Magneto, Sebastian Shaw, the Lizard, and the Red Skull. Oh, and Lord Whatshisface minus Ralph Fiennes’ nose. Also, if you don’t mind a little song and dance with your supervillainy, the Broadway Green Goblin. My family only just caught up on the fall season of Syfy’s Alphas, so now I can add Stanton Parish to the list too. He has the best advertising slogan of the batch:

“Better people, Better world.”

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The semi-immortal Parish has been honing his PR skills since the Civil War, so he may have cribbed the phrase from Kentucky eugenicists in the 1930s:

“Fewer Babies, Better Babies.”

That was back when contraception was about preventing the unfit from breeding. Or as Margaret Sanger phrased it on a 1921 cover of Birth Control Review: “To Create a race of thoroughbreds.”

The American branch of Slytherin House, AKA the Eugenics Society of the United States, was sponsoring national “Fitter Family” contests, with winning families receiving medals inscribed with the slogan: “Yea, I have a goodly heritage.”

The pamphlet writers over at the Carnegie Institute Department of Genetics were lesser word wizards, but no less dedicated to the cause: “Eugenics Seeks to Improve the Natural, Physical, Mental, and Temperamental Qualities of the Human Family.”

Other eugenic poster writers focused on the flipside: “Some people are born to be a burden on the rest.” Ads for The Black Stork, a 1917 documentary about a pediatrician who allowed unfit babies to die, cut to the chase: “Kill Defectives, Save the Nation.”

The 1921 Second International Eugenics Conference gave it a scientific-sounding spin: “Eugenics is the self-direction of human evolution.” That means fixing the gene pool through compulsory sterilization, immigration boycotts, anti-miscegenation laws, and what was once euphemistically termed euthanasia,  AKA Auschwitz.

By losing World War 2, the Nazis largely (though not completely) killed the eugenics movement. All that “pure-blood stuff” would be forever associated with the uber-Aryan Adolf Hitler, AKA Salazar Slytherin.

So why is popular entertainment still waging the war? Lord Voldermort is just the tip of the white hooded iceberg.

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Ian McKellen’s Magneto complained that “nature is too slow,” back in the 2000 X-Men.

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Michael Fassbender’s Magneto was still complaining in the 2011 X-Men: First Class, but under the tutelage of Kevin Bacon: “We are the future of the human race. You and me, son. This world could be ours.”

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A month later, Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull was giving Captain America the same lesson: “You pretend to be a simple soldier, but in reality you are just afraid to admit that we have left humanity behind. Unlike you, I embrace it proudly. You could have the power of the gods!”

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Last summer, Harry Potter alum Rhys Ifans, AKA the Dr. Curt Connors, AKA the Lizard, wanted to “enhance humanity on an evolutionary scale” and “create a world without weakness.” “This is no longer about curing ills,” he assured Peter Parker. “This is about finding perfection.” Unfortunately, “Human beings are weak, pathetic, feeble minded creatures. Why be human at all when we can be so much more? Faster, stronger, smarter!”

Green Goblin on Broadway

Another Spider-Man supervillain sings the same song every night, plus weekend matinees. According to Bono’s Green Goblin, “The crossroads of the world just need a little tweak from a freak.”He studies “enhanced genetics” and “super-human kinetics” to create “new men,” a “new species.” The military only wants a “new breed of Marines,” but the Goblin’s “designer genes” lead him into a much bolder “do it yourself world” in which human beings are the new “masters of creation,” claiming “powers once reserved for the ancient gods.”

This is the song of the Superman. Nietzsche wrote it back in 1883.

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“Lo, I teach you the Superman!” shouts Nietzsche’s PR man, Zarathustra. “Ye have made your way from the worm to man, and much within you is still worm. . . .Man is something that is to be surpassed. . . . What is the ape to man? A laughing-stock, a thing of shame. And just the same shall man be to the Superman . . . .”

The Superman was Nietzsche’s answer to the death of God. Who needs Him? We can evolve ourselves. You could argue Nietzsche was writing philosophical allegory, not Aryan supremacy. But once George Bernard Shaw (any relation to Sebastian?) translated “ubermensch” into “superman,” the House of Slytherin was up and singing:

For each of the four founders had
A house in which they might

Take only those they wanted, so,
For instance, Slytherin
Took only pure-blood wizards
Of great cunning just like him.

 Said Slytherin, “We’ll teach just those
Whose ancestry’s purest.”

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 Maybe Rowling, like recent screenwriters for the X-Men, Captain America, and Spider-Man, just borrowed eugenics as a boiler plate bad guy. There’s no twisted old loony bigger than Adolf.

Adolf Hitler Saluting, 1934

But then why did it take till January of this year for my state to introduce the Justice for Victims of Sterilization Act? Virginia was once the cutting edge of eugenics. The future chancellor of Germany admired our 1924 Racial Integrity Act while dictating Mein Kampf in his prison cell. He used its DNA for the Nazi’s own Law for the Prevention of Hereditary Diseased Offspring.

Hitler removed himself from the gene pool in 1945, but Virginia eugenicists kept sterilizing the unfit till 1979. Governor Warner apologized over a decade ago, but only now is the legislature even considering paying for its Death Eater history. The bill limits claims to $50,000 per victim, with an estimated grand total of $76M.

If that sounds like a lot, then imagine living your muggle life under the reign of Voldemort.

Yes, Virginia, there are supervillains. And they don’t come from kids’ books.

Now pass the damn bill.

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[Addendum: Add Iron Man 3 to the list.  There’s another evil super-genius, Aldrich Killian, turning himself and his minions into the “new iteration of human evolution.”]

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POP QUIZ: What do zombies and superheroes have in common?

A. Zack Snyder

B. Shaun of the Dead

C. Marvel Zombies

D. Mutating radiation

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If you said A, then you must be pretty excited about the new Superman movie Man of Steel coming out next June. You must also know that director Zack Snyder shot the 2004 remake Dawn of the Dead. I’ve not seen it, but I still lose sleep over his disappointing Watchmen adaptation, so it’s probably just as well. (Don’t even get me started on 300.)

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If you said B, then you’re even more excited about director Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man movie (sadly not slated till November 2015). Since you loved his zombie parody, Shaun of the Dead, you can’t wait to see what he does with the superhero genre. Also, you’re probably aware that Wright’s go-to actor Simon Pegg is the model for Wee Hughie in Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s anti-superhero diatribe The Boys. (Don’t get me started on that either.)

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C is a no brainer, so to speak. ‘Nuff said.

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But my favorite answer is D. With great radiation comes great mutation. That’s the Cold War talking. And both Stan Lee and George Romero were listening. They took their sorry little genres, bombarded them with radiation, and watched them mutate into things far far better.

“Lee and Kirby,” a New York Times reviewer recently wrote, “pulled off the comics equivalent of the literary shift from Victorian melodrama to Chekhovian realism.” If that sounds a bit overblown, Romero’s earned similar hyperboles. “Night of the Living Dead,” wrote one commentator, “is to modern horror what Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is to the modern theatre.”

So how’d they do it?

The Fantastic Four were on their way to Mars when Stan clobbered them with radiation back in 1961. The result? “You’ve turned into monsters!!” shouts Johnny as he bursts into flames, “It’s those rays! Those terrible cosmic rays!”

Romero’s zombies (he called them “ghouls”) hail from outer space too. As survivors battle the living dead, experts debate on the radio: “the space vehicle which orbited Venus and then was purposely destroyed by NASA, when scientists discovered it was carrying a mysterious, high-level radiation . . . is enough to cause these mutations?”

In other words, superheroes are from Mars, zombies are from Venus.

But the radiation is the same. And though in one case it bestows freakish superpowers and the other it animates flesh-devouring corpses, the revolutionary mutation for both the superhero and horror genres was the same:

With great radiation comes great in-fighting.

As Lee explained in a 1968 interview:  “I think we were the first outfit to break the cliché of all the superheroes being goody-goody and friendly with each other. We had our Fantastic Four argue amongst themselves. They didn’t always get along well.”

Romero’s radiation has the same effect on his cast. The 1968 Night of the Living Dead isn’t the first horror film with characters not playing goody-goody with each other, but no film had pushed it quite so horrifically far. Almost every scene features at least one pair of survivors battling not the dead but each other. And it ends with its hero shot in the head by a passing police patrol.

Which brings up another similarity. A high dose of radiation requires a main character to be named Ben. I’m not sure if the Thing’s orange skin classifies him as a racial minority, but Romero’s Ben was also African American. Or at least actor Duane Jones was. The Ben of the original script didn’t mutate skin colors until the casting call.

Actress Judith O’Dea’s Barbra also bears on unfortunate resemblance to Sue Storm. Both heroines spend their plots as incompetently distressed damsels getting chased, captured, and, in the case of Barbra, eaten. When Romero revised the role for the 1990 remake, he mutated Barbra into a fatigue-wearing Ms. Rambo.  John Byrne did Sue a similar favor in his 80s run of Fantastic Four, rechristening her Invisible Woman and remaking her into the team’s mightiest member.

Sue deserves a comic of her own. Which is also the title of the University of Florida’s Graduate Comics Organization’s 10th annual conference last weekend, “A Comic of Her Own.” My thanks for inviting me there to talk about some zombies and superheroes. It turns out Cold War radiation is still inflecting Tony Kirkman’s The Walking Dead. Despite the long way Sue and Barbra have come, the 1950s throwback Lori reboots it all.

But more on that later.

A Comic of Her Own, UF conference program cover

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Black Bolt self-restraint

How long can you go without talking?

It doesn’t sound like much of a superpower, but Black Bolt holds the record in comic books. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created him back in 1965 (Fantastic Four #45), and aside from a few mountain-splitting whispers, the guy has barely parted his lips since.

For Supreme Court Justices, the verbal self-restraint prize goes to Clearance Thomas.

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“One of the abiding mysteries at the Supreme Court,” writes Adam Liptak for The New York Times, “is why Justice Clarence Thomas has failed to say a word in almost seven years of arguments.” Theories include self-consciousness (Thomas was teased about his Georgia accent growing up), intimidation (he didn’t speak in his Yale law school classes either), and courtesy (to his fellow Justices whose noise level he likens to Family Feud).

Black Bolt is less of a mystery. My wife gave me Men and Cartoons for Christmas, so I’ll invite Jonathan Lethem to the lectern:

“Black Bolt wasn’t a villain or a hero. Black Bolt was part of an outcast band of mutant characters known as the Inhumans, the noblest among them. He was their leader, but he never spoke. His only demonstrated power was flight, but the whole point of Black Bolt was the power he restrained himself from using: speech. The sound of his voice was cataclysmic, an unusual weapon, like an atomic bomb. If Black Bolt ever uttered a syllable the world would crack in two.”

Black Bolt

Black Bolt grew up in a sound-proof chamber, not rural Georgia, but he is also a member of the Illuminati, the closest thing in the Marvel universe to the Supreme Court. Thomas shares his bench with eight Justices; Black Bolt only five (Reed Richards, Dr. Strange, Professor X, Tony Stark, and Namor), but both supergroups are the endpoint of an ultimate check-and-balance system. And they always get the last word.

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Black Bolt even passes judgment on U.S. legislation. He rejected the Superhuman Registration Act (AKA the Patriot Act) in 2006 (also the year Thomas last spoke in court) and refused to get involved in the ensuing “Civil War,” monitoring it from afar instead. As Lethem explains, “Black Bolt was leader in absentia much of the time—he had a tendency to exile himself from the scene, to wander distant mountain tops contemplating . . . What? His curse? The things he would say if he could safely speak?”

Aside from a few whispered remarks audible only to Breyer and Scalia seated beside him, Thomas has gone seven years without a single word. Until this winter. During a discussion of the qualifications of a Harvard-trained defense attorney, the Black Bolt of the Supreme Court leaned forward and said into his microphone:

“Well — he did not — .”

The earth did not split in two.

But opinion did. Some witnesses say he was making a joke, a reference to whether a degree from Harvard could be considered proof of incompetence. Or was he referring to his own alma mater, Yale? Either way, court transcripts indicate laughter followed. Seven years of silence and then a one-liner. But if it was just a joke, why did the lawyer at the lectern try to refute his point? Whatever that point may have been? And since the broader issue was the minimum qualifications for a death penalty defense lawyer, who exactly was laughing?

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When Black Bolt breaks his vow of silence, the results are usually much louder. Remember when he used his voice to free the Inhuman’s city of Attilan from the Negative Zone? Or stunned Spider-Man’s alien Venom costume after it merged with Thor, allowing Black Cat to kill it in revenge for Peter Parker’s death? (Though, okay, that’s from What If?, so technically it never happened.)

We never know exactly what Black Bolt says in his super-speeches. Maybe he just likes to crack jokes. If so, no microphone can record them. But the last time Thomas deployed his nation-splitting voice, every network in the country televised it.

Thomas confirmation

Remember how he pronounced the L-bomb, declaring his 1991 confirmation hearing a “high-tech lynching,” and categorically denied Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment? Remember the joke he cracked to her about the pubic hair on his Coke can? Now THAT was funny.

Of course the Senate confirmed him, so technically that didn’t happen either.

So let’s hear it for judicious self-restraint.Like Black Bolt, the Justice understands his own destructive vocal power and so has learned to hold his super-tongue. If he stays on schedule, we won’t hear another joke till 2020.

‘Nuff said.

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My father recently mailed me a birthday card with a photograph of me dressed in a felt tunic, black tights, billowy white shirt, and a feathered cap. I was Robin Hood. My high school Drama Club was touring local elementary schools. The skit our teacher handed us was too short, so I selflessly penned a second act in which Robin overthrows his oppressors only to devolve into an agent of complacent corruption himself, forcing the formerly villainous Sheriff of Sherwood into a romantic new life of noble vigilantism. 

The biggest challenge was finding new rhymes for “Hey nonny nonny.”

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I don’t know who wrote the skit, but that author and I are names at the bottom of a very long list. Robin Hood, founding father of noble outlaws across the multiverse, has no secret origin. He doesn’t even have a Year One. William Langland knew some “rymes of Robyn hood” when he wrote Piers Plowman in the late 1300s, but no one can hum those originals now. The original Boy Wonder enters The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood as “a youth of eighteen, stout of sinew and bold of heart.”

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Howard Pyle’s 1883 readers didn’t need any born-that-way mutations or radioactive arrows to explain the kid’s archery skill or endless law-eluding superpowers. No murdered parents, no exploding planet, just a tussle with the some unsavory knights and his life of vigilante justice is up, up and away.

Robin Hood, if he existed, was born in the 1100s or thereabouts. Scholarly guesswork includes 1110, 1160, and 1210. Personally, I’d go with 1171. No later than September, though possibly as early as December 1170.  If you really want to be dramatic, then December 29th.  And not for the Christmas themed, Robin-is-our-savior angle.

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The 29th is the day a lynching posse of four vigilante knights strolled into Canterbury Cathedral and murdered Archbishop Thomas Becket at the altar. Or at least there’s an altar now to memorialize the spot. I found T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral criminally dull when I read it as an undergraduate—except when the knights step through the fourth wall and give a literally prosaic defense of their actions. A make-believe vigilante like Robin Hood would never have done anything so dastardly. Plus the outlaws were serving their King, so not really the break-the-law-to-serve-the-law shtick either.

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Becket was sainted as a martyr afterwards. Richard Burton played him in the film version, winner of the 1964 Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Peter O’Toole was Henry II. They start out a dynamic duo, the carefree King deflowering local daughters of the peasantry with his trusty man servant as look out. The grinning girl in the window assures us it was just a wholesome romp.

Things don’t go awry till Henry makes Thomas Archbishop. He’s hoping to get those pesky clergy under control, no idea Thomas is going to take all that religious nonsense seriously. Like when a priest rapes a nobleman’s little girl. Becket is supposed to hand the pedophile over, not shield him under church law. And he’s certainly not supposed to excommunicate the father when another lynching posse exacts vigilante justice on the priest.

The screenwriters cut some corners, but that’s the gist. The historical Becket wouldn’t turn clergymen over to law enforcement. Priests accused of rape are handled in-house. Since Becket is the noble hero of the tale, the film swerves past the crime scene as speedily as possible. Eliot doesn’t even mention it. But church officials protecting pedophile priests are common headlines these days:

Cardinal’s Aide Is Found Guilty in Abuse Case” (New York Times, June 22, 2012)

US Bishop Convicted of Covering up Clerical Sex Abuse Pressured to Resign”(The Guardian, 8 September 2012)

Another Catholic Sex Abuse Cover-up” (Salon.com, Jan 22, 2013)

Priests face court over child sexual abuse” (ABC New, Jan. 29, 2013)

Last summer, Kansas City’s Robert Finn became the first bishop convicted in American courts of failing to report an abuse. He got two years probation, but kept his job.  Philadelphia’s William J. Lynn is the first senior U.S. official of the Roman Catholic Church convicted of covering up sexual abuses by priests under his supervision. He’ll serve three to six years in prison. L.A.’s Archbishop Roger M. Mahony and his adviser Monsignor Thomas J. Curry have admitted to conspiring to “shield abusers from police,” with a flood of incriminating church memos revealing dozens of previously secret cases. Curry resigned and Mahony, already retired, was banned from public ceremonial duties. In January, Australian courts charged a retired priest, Lewis Dominic Fenton, for concealing two alleged offences committed against a nine-year-old. He faces his jury on March 13.

The sons of Becket are global.

Though two years probation, 6-7 years jail time, permanently banned from presiding over confirmations, this is hardly the stuff of martyrdom.  If this were a comic book, Finn, Lynn, Mahony, Curry, and Fenton would be expecting a visit from some not-so-merry Sherwood Forest men. T.S. Eliot can write their monologues.

But instead of more vigilante justice, I endorse a literary reparation. On behalf of the victims that these later day Beckets further abused, I hereby bestow Robin Hood an origin story:

His mother is that nobleman’s young daughter, and his father is the priest who raped her. She dies in childbirth. He dies at the hands of avenging murderers after Bishop Becket shields him from government prosecution. Raised by his excommunicated grandfather, that stout and bold eighteen-year-old was orphaned by the failures of both Church and State. Of course he was destined to become the most famed and noble outlaw in proto-superhero history.

It’s not a happy story, but origins rarely are.

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