Skip to content

The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: June 2013


Of all the images to feature in this month’s review of Brad Ricca’s Super Boys, The New York Times went with one of “the kinky illustrations Shuster was reduced to doing for sleazy magazines in the mid-1950s,” specifically one that, according to editor Peter Keepnews, “looks for all the world like Lois Lane preparing to whip a trussed-up Superman.”

Craig Yoe had the same idea, choosing an even more overt image for the cover of Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-Creator Joe Shuster: Lois in high heels and underwear not preparing but full-on whipping a chained and bare-chested Clark. The Man of Steel shattered identical chains on Action Comics every month, but this Shuster illustration is working toward a very different climax.

Yoe’s title is a bit of a dodge though, and Keepnews’ “kinky” is no better. Yoe reproduces Shuster’s 1954 illustrations for Nights of Horror, a typo-strewn black and white cranked out of Shuster’s neighbor’s basement, but unlike almost anything else related to superheroes, this is not “Fetish Art.” Zorro dressing up in a mask and cape to keep his sword erect? That’s a fetish. Hooded men assaulting bound and weeping women? Frederic Wertham termed it “pornographic horror literature.” I call it rape and torture.

Nights of Horror

Craig Yoe is less coy between the covers: “These BDSM (bondage-discipline dominance-submission sadism-masochism) tales were an equal opportunity employer. Women were tied up, whipped, and spanked, but could eagerly be the tie-ers, whippers, and spankers, too.”

Well, not exactly “equal.”

Of Shuster’s 108 illustrations, I count seventy-one that depict women dominated by men. The reverse occurs nine times.  Add another nine scenes of women dominating women for a grand total of eighty female victims. Shuster draws only one incident of a man dominating another man (with a woman as the primary focus, so the men are not—gasp!— a homoerotic pairing) for a total of ten victimized men. Check my math, but an eighth is a lot less than “equal.”

Most common torture device: a whip. Eighteen of the twenty-two appearances are used against women. Other devices used to torture women (in alphabetical order): air hose, alligator pit, ball and chain, cactus, chains, corset, electric wire, fingernails, gun, hairbrush, hot poker, hypodermic needle, iron maiden, knife, paddle, paddle machine, spiked bed, spiked gloves, switch, and water hose. Additional techniques to dominate women: champagne, hypnotism, marijuana, opium, and polygamy.

Deborah Friedell, in her New Yorker review of Ricca’s Superboys, gives Nights of Horror one sentence, while implying the opposite power dynamic: “Shuster supported himself by illustrating pornography for a series of adult comic books: the naked women brandishing the whips are Lois Lane, the bound men at their feet are are Superman or Jimmy Olsen.”A largely true but wholly misleading statement. For the record, men are whipped, spanked, paddled, clubbed, and one anticipates the removal of a toe. Three more display submission by kissing a woman’s shoe, kneeling with a tiny chain attached to his ear, and (my favorite) serving a woman breakfast in bed.

The nudity is almost exclusively female. Only four illustrations feature fully clothed women. Another ten reveal partially exposed underwear, usually from a forcibly raised dress hem. Some seventy-one (by far the standard) are women in nearly identical see-through bras, panties and those mid-thigh pantyhose and garter belt contraptions I’ve never really understood. The remaining twenty-three or so feature full or partial nudity, which usually means exposed breasts, but occasionally buttocks, and very rarely a vaguely drawn crotch. So vague, in fact, as to seem sexless. (Women were not, to the best of my very limited knowledge, shaving their pudenda in the mid-50s).

The one image of full male nudity is also oddly sexless—or at least gravity-defying. The more disturbing anatomical features are the women’s freakishly tiny hands and feet. And their high-heels which appear to be permanent growths of their otherwise naked bodies.

Stan Lee (he wrote Yoe’s introduction) looks at these pictures and sees a “disillusioned and desperate” Joe Shuster “forced to accept commissions to draw what amounted to S&M erotic horror books.” Although the unemployed Shuster was financially desperate in 1954, his arrangement with Nights of Horror was sounder than his one with DC Comics.

He was paid $100 for each of Nights of Horrors issue, for a total of $1800. Less than twenty years earlier, his bosses at DC had written him a check for $130, which he split with his partner Jerry Siegel. That was in exchange for the permanent, multi-million dollar rights to Superman. Shuster drew an average of six illustrations for each Nights of Horror. That’s a page rate of just over $16. He and Siegel were splitting $10 a page back in 1938. DC grudgingly raised it $15 when the Action Comics spin-off Superman sold 900,000 copies the following year. Nights of Horror boasted a print run of only 1,000, including the 2,650 backlog confiscated in a book store police raid.

By any accounting system, Nights of Horror was a far more financially ethical employer than DC.

As far as disillusionment?

Shuster’s Nights of Horror illustrations are not hack work. He’d didn’t doodle a half-dozen half-hearted sketches in exchange for that week’s grocery money. Despite his failing eyesight (what finally pushed him out of comic books in the late 40s), these pages have been pored over. The detail is at times lovingly and so disturbingly precise—reminiscent of Robert Crumb’s own obsessively rendered female figures of the following decades. The best here easily exceeds the rawer material he rushed off for Action Comics. Joe was getting more out of Nights of Horror than a paycheck.

I don’t know the nuances of Shuster’s sexual life, but I will guess that it was primarily a solitary activity. Yoe documents his preference for tall women (he was short), and his brief marriage to a former Vegas showgirl in 1975 (they look the same height in their wedding photo). Superman provided his best pick-up lines. According to biographer Gerard Jones (I haven’t read Ricca yet), he would hang out at soda fountains and hand girls (the tall ones presumably) sketches of his Man of Steel before asking them out. At least one fifteen-year-old said yes. Shuster was 25 at the time.

He was forty in 1954, and working alone. His studio of assistants dispersed after he and Siegel lost their lawsuit against DC in 1948. Nights of Horror was some of the only art he’d sold since Superman. Although not paneled like a comic book, the illustrations are often sequential and depict narrative movement. (Thank you, Mr. Yoe, for not including the original texts.) Two sequences conclude with heroic rescues of female victims by Superman-like saviors. A sadistic film producer collapses from a detective’s bullet, and a bearded cult leader succumbs to a punch on the jaw. Only one woman defends herself. She rushes at her captor with a knife and seems to have the upper hand—briefly. She’s bound as he whips her on the next page.

I’m going out on a limb here and guessing that Shuster did not collaborate with a model for these illustrations. The stock repetition of body type and undergarments suggests an internal, idealized projection, one with rounder hips and thighs than any of today’s anorexic supermodels. But even when a live human being posed in front of his canvas, Shuster always saw what he wanted to see. A teenaged Jolan Kovacs answered his 1935 ad for a model in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He wanted to practice his Lois Lane sketches before retooling Superman for a new round of newspaper syndication submissions. Kovacs couldn’t fill out her sister’s baggy swimsuit, but Shuster’s sketches do not share the shortcoming. The picture of Scarlet Pimpernel actress Merle Oberon in his head was bigger than the breathing woman before his eyes.

That didn’t stop him from asking Kovacs out on a date. Nothing much came of it then or ten years later when he asked her to the National Cartoonists Society’s costume ball. She wanted to come as Lois Lane, but Shuster and Siegel were in the process of losing their lawsuit. But Joanne (she changed her name for her modeling career) and Jerry (he attended the ball too) were very happy to see each other again. A few months later they were married. It was a City Hall event, so Shuster didn’t have to stand up and mumble through a best man’s toast. Six years after the ceremony, Joe and his Superman partner were done with each other, and Joe was drawing S&M for his neighbor’s underground porn pulps.

I can identify only six of the 108 illustrations that depict scenes of consensual sex. (Call me Puritanical, but I am eliminating the refer-smoking Jimmy Olsen in the early stages of pot-fostered date rape.) Of the six, two are heterosexual, and four lesbian. There are twice as many lesbian images of women dominating other women, but even in those the content is less violent than elsewhere. Nights of Horror lesbians tend to spank with hairbrushes and bare hands rather than whips or switches.

The lesbian imagery is, of course, for male consumption. Which apparently eliminates the need for other reader-titillating taboos. Twice the girl-on-girl action is interrupted by a man bursting through the girls’ closed door—the thinly disguised desire of the perceived reader.

Even when the male presence isn’t literalized, Nights of Horror foregrounds its voyeurism. Only one page in the collection depicts a lone figure, and she’s not preening just for her mirror.  Other pages are more overt: an eye in a peep-hole, a man leering through a window, a grinning boy at the corner of the frame watching a spanking. That’s us.

Shuster draws himself too. A painter stands before his canvas, brush in hand, staring at his model (practically the only woman not in heels). The sketch on the canvas is nearly identical to the actual model. They are made of the same black-on-white pen strokes. Yoe includes a caption:

“At last he had her posed to his satisfaction.”

Joe Shuster

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Man of Steel

There have always been two flavors of superhero: Marvel and DC. When my dad was reading comics in the 40s, Marvel (AKA Timely) threw anti-heroes into DC’s original, and so much blander. good guy mix. When I was reading comics in the 70s, Marvel put out the sophisticated stuff, DC the embarrassingly childish. My twelve-year-old son reads the occasional comic now but mostly takes his superheroes in movie form like everyone else in the 21st century. But Marvel and DC are still the reigning flavors. Only these days Marvel Entertainment tends toward the comically playful, Warner Brothers the pretentiously somber.

Look at Iron Man 3, an incoherent but highly entertaining comedy. The slapstick moment in The Avengers when the Hulk punches Thor after teaming up to fight alien invaders made me snort so loudly I embarrassed my teenaged daughter. Dark Knight Rises on the other hand, not so much with the uncontrollable laughter. Ditto for Man of Steel. Is that a bad thing? Well, it means my wife writhed in her seat for 143 minutes, tweeting updates of her torture. My son at least enjoyed the fight scenes.

I’m not a big Zack Snyder. 300 enraged me, Watchmen bored me. But Man of Steel I can mostly live with. Except for the shot after shot after World Trade Center-inspired shot of collapsing New York. When the hell did the 9/11 get downgraded to CGI fodder?

But aside for the drone Superman downs in the epilogue because the government keeps trying to invade his privacy, Snyder isn’t interested in the War on Terror. He, like so many recent superhero writers, is stuck in World War II. General Zod is this month’s Hitler reboot. If a field of human skulls is too subtle a Holocaust allusion, Superman spells it out: “You’re talking about genocide.”

There’s been some internet kvetching about the damage the movie does to old Superman mythology. Ignoring a few four-winged dragons, I disagree. For all his pretentious somberness, Zack Snyder gets Jerry Siegel. Superman was born to battle eugenics, and eugenics is what Man of Steel is most about.

Snyder’s Krypton isn’t a luckless ice planet dying of old age. It is the pinnacle of selective breeding, a planet whose inhabitants have taken the reins of evolution and engineered themselves into a race of violently amoral ubermensch. They breed scientifically, culling only the so-called best from a gene pool Registry. As one of Zod’s sidekicks quips: “Evolution always wins.”

Siegel said as much in Superman #1: “Superman came to Earth from the planet Krypton whose inhabitants had evolved, after billions of years, to physical perfection!” In Superman’s newspaper comic strip premiere, Krypton is “a distant planet so far advanced in evolution that it bears a civilization of supermen—beings which represent the human race at its ultimate peak of perfect development!” How can aliens represent the human race? Easy. They’re not aliens. The original Krypton was Earth:

“In his laboratory, the last man on Earth worked furiously. He had only a few moments left.

“Giant cataclysms were shaking the dying planet, destroying mankind. It was in its last days, dying . . .

“The last man placed his infant babe within a small time-machine he had completed, launching it as—

“—the laboratory walls caved-in upon him.

“The time-vehicle flashed back thru the centuries, alighting in the primitive year, 1935 A.D.”

That’s the script Siegel mailed Buck Rogers artist Russell Keaton in the summer of 1934. After drawing a few test scripts, Keaton turned him down, and Siegel crawled back to his high school pal Joe Shuster.

But his Superman wasn’t from a galaxy far far away. He was barely even scifi. After the German invasion of Poland and France, William Marston wrote that Siegel “believed that the real superman of the future would be someone with vast power who would use his invincible strength to right human wrongs.” That phrase, “the real superman of the future,” is literal. The Superman was the stated goal of eugenics.

Krypton’s Registry, the Codex of the genetically fit that General Zod wants so desperately, that’s literal too. American tycoon John Harvey Kellog (yes, you’ve eaten his cornflakes) and his Race Betterment Foundation started it back in 1915. Long Island’s Eugenics Registry Office opened in 1910, advocating the prevention of unfit breeding through immigration restrictions, racial segregation, anti-interracial marriage laws, sterilization, and “euthanasia.” The committee recommended every American smallville have its own gas chamber.

By the time Siegel was writing, Germany had adopted that American model and was expanding it into Auschwitz. That’s the Krypton Siegel was fighting against. His Superman was literally the Nazi Superman, plucked from the eugenic future and redirected to fight the superpowers who evolved him.

So I get why Snyder’s take is light with the laugh track. But didn’t we already win World War II? I wouldn’t mind a history lesson–in fact, yes, let’s please correct all the U.S. History textbooks that have conveniently written out the U.S.’s leadership in the eugenics movement.Eugenics was still taught in high school biology classes even while we were at war with the movement’s ultimate champions. A Superman fan in the late 30s and early 40s would have gotten Siegel’s allegories. But of the millions who saw Man of Steel opening weekend, how many registered anything but a Dark Knight-esque scifi romp? We should understand General Zod as more than just some alien supervillain. He’s us. He’s America’s darkest potential. I’m not sure even Snyder knows that.

I don’t necessarily object to Hollywood using the Holocaust and 9/11 to rake in profits. But I do expect something in the trade. Maybe some sly introspection? A little under-the-current thought-provocation on the socio-political issue of the film-makers’ choice? Instead, we get more destruction, a Superman who indifferently pulverizes his own Smallville and Metropolis during his ubermensch slugfests. Are we really not supposed to think about the collateral body count in the convenience stores and skyscrapers? There are a lot of reasons not to laugh during this movie.

I was being partisan as kid when I duped myself into thinking Marvel was so much more sophisticated than childish DC. Maybe I’m still duping myself. Marvel Entertainment has no trouble cranking out its own brand of pretension. But superheroes remain a goofy genre, endlessly championing CGI fight spectacles over story and character.There’s a rather low, Hollywood-imposed limit to what such a movie can do. Zack Snyder’s somber palette and frowning ubermensch (did I mention the Christ motif?) aren’t pushing any of those boundaries. Neither are the members of the cheerier, Joss Whedon team. But when I go to my smallville theater to watch some guy in a cape, I prefer to come out giggling.

superman laughing

Tags: , , , , , ,

The word “superman” premiered in a play about a modern Don Juan. So it’s fitting that most Superman songs are love songs. Despite all of its anti-marriage ubermensch rhetoric (marriage is an obstacle to ideal breeding blah blah blah), George Bernard Shaw’s 1904 Man and Superman ends when the girl lassos her Clark in the final act. Since then, lovedumb Supermen have been crooning through the decades.

Here are their high notes:



5. The Kinks, “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman”

The Kinks with a disco beat? It was 1979 and so not entirely their fault. I didn’t hear the song till their live album a year later. The year the Kinks were ret-conned into Rock continuity. That’s right, the Kinks did not exist before 1980.  Van Halen’s “You Really Got Me” wasn’t a cover until it appeared on One for the Road, an album of rock classics retroactively inserted into the AOR timeline. First time I heard “Lola” from a radio speaker, a stadium of fans were la-la-la-ing the chorus. I felt like the lone survivor from some parallel universe. I’d been listening to Pittsburgh’s WDVD for a couple of years, memorizing playlists, band line-ups, discographies. Reallocating the area of my brain previously devoted to superhero teams and baseball rosters. The Kinks? Never heard of them. But suddenly there they are strumming between the Who and the Rolling Stones since the 60s. I pretended like nothing was wrong. The Kinks? Sure, yeah, love ‘em. That’s Adolescent Survival 101. Next thing my first-ever girlfriend and I are cheering them in the Civic Arena, and wearing our matching concert T-shirts on our anniversary every month after clueless month. If everyone jumps off a cliff, of course you jump off too. Doesn’t matter if you can fly or not.

“Hey girl we’ve got to get out of this place

There’s got to be something better than this

I need you, but I hate to see you this way

If I were superman then we’d fly away”



4.  R.E.M., “Superman”

I had way too many Black Sabbath albums to get my head around R.E.M in high school, but college was another planet. The year I first kissed Lesley Wheeler. We met in a student center utility closet moonlighting as our literary magazine office space. She liked R.E.M. and so soon I did too.  Apparently this “Superman” was a cover of an obscure 1969 single from some band named the Clique. Another ret-con, but nobody was pretending otherwise this time. Despite all the Superman hubris, it’s an underdog’s song. Mike Mills, the bassist, sings lead. Michael Stipe is slouching by a back-up microphone, a cup of coffee in his hand, tambourine in the other. Lesley was dating someone else, but we kissed once, during a party in her honors dorm, and then she flew away for a semester abroad. R.E.M. wouldn’t have their breakthrough till the following year, when it wasn’t just our college DJs twirling “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” The whole multiverse was about to explode. I might not have had her grades, her scholarship, none of the spark bursting through her poems. But I knew to fly after her. I knew what was happening.

“You don’t really love that guy you make it with now do you?

I know you don’t love that guy ’cause I can see right through you.

If you go a million miles away I’ll track you down girl.

Trust me when I say I know the pathway to your heart.”


Jimmy Olsen's Blues

3. Spin Doctors, “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues”

Our kitchen calendar said 1991, but it sounds like the 70s rebooted, Steve Miller Band, Aerosmith, even a little Lynyrd Skynyrd, all of it seamlessly synched together by the dance beat thumpings of a double bass drum kit. An analog amalgam at the dawn of the digital sample. When Lesley and I moved in together that year, the hardest part was merging our record collections, deciding whose redundant copy of which David Bowie was less scratched, less nostalgically vital. I’d thought CDs were a passing phase, like 8-tracks, but was now giving in to fate. A rotating CD rack perched on a speaker the size of an end table. Pocketful of Kryptonite sold 5 million, its four singles muscling through the airwaves. We hummed them in the car, in the kitchen, in the backs of our heads as we drifted asleep. We found a caterer, a baker, a quaint historical house to rent for an August afternoon. It rained in the morning, pushed the heat back all day, then poured again that night as we drove back to our apartment with the wedding loot. The Spin Doctors’ second album flopped.  Doesn’t matter. After the readings and the vows, I slotted Kryptonite into the reception CD player with some other new releases and hit “random.”

“Lois Lane please put me in your plan

Yeah, Lois Lane you don’t need no Super Man

Come on downtown and stay with me tonight

I got a pocket full of kryptonite”


Lazlo Bane

2. Lazlo Bane, “I’m no superman”

Actor Zach Braff discovered the song, an obscure indie tune that premiered in a 14-second snippet over the opening credits of Scrubs before it made it to the band’s second album. Lazlo Bane (I’d thought it was a person) originally said no to the TV deal. Didn’t want to sell out.  But somebody must have talked some sense into them. Three weeks after 9/11, a sitcom’s exactly what the country needed. Lesley and I had just moved into the house we live in now. American flags flapped up and down the block. Our son was one, our daughter four. We had to explain to them that terrorists were not going to blow up skyscrapers in Lexington, VA. We didn’t have any. We’d moved to Smallville, after rocketing away from the New Jersey Metropolis where we’d fallen for each other. We hunkered through Afghanistan, Iraq, prayed Obama could save us all. NBC dropped Scrubs in 2009, but ABC rebooted it for a ninth and final season. They shuffled the cast and hired WAZ (I’d thought he was a band) to rerecord the theme. It didn’t matter. We’d stopped watching years before.

“You’ve crossed the finish line

Won the race but lost your mind

Was it worth it after all

I need you here with me

Cause love is all we need

Just take a hold of the hand that breaks the fall”


Sufjan Stevens, “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts”

1. Sufjan Stevens, “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts”

I thought Sufjan was Cat Stevens recording as his Muslim alter ego (which is Yusuf Islam). I was never hip, but now I’m old too. My son is twelve, my daughter sixteen. She sits across the dinner table, describing mutant subgenres I never dreamed of. I had to borrow the album from my metrosexual neighbor. It was already old, part of Stevens’ abandoned project to record fifty albums about fifty states. Apparently, Smallville is in Illinois. A legal dispute delayed the 2005 release. They had to put a sticker over Superman on the cover art. It came out in vinyl first—technology made cool by extinction. Our 80s vinyl lines the back shelf of our closet. We play them during dinner sometimes, the needle crackling like a victrola through speakers the size of furniture. The Illinois CD has no sticker, just a blank space, the past waiting to be rebooted again. Clark Kent used to be a joke, a Kryptonian’s caricature of humanity. They reversed that in the 80s, made the boy grunt his way through adolescence like the rest of us. I don’t know what the story is now.

“Only a real man can be a lover

If he had hands to lend us all over

We celebrate our sense of each other

We have a lot to give one another”


6. BONUS TRACK: “You’re a Superman!”

I don’t know the singer’s name, just that she’s a redhead in a green dress. The nightclub doesn’t have a name either, but Lois Lane is there, ready to scoop Clark on an exclusive interview with Superman. Clark thinks it’s their first date. “Tonight I’m going to introduce a song that is sure to be a hit,” the singer announces. “Swing it, boys!” Action Comics No. 6, cover date November 1938. The Andrew Sisters had a hit that year. So did Ella Fitzgerald. It’s her voice I hear over Joe Shuster’s drawings. It’s no ballad. Just look at the angle of the trombone silhouetted in the background. Jerry Siegel is writing the love song no one ever sung to him. Girls found him creepy in high school. But now with Superman going into newspaper syndication, the girl next door—literally, her name is Bella, and she lives across the street from the Siegels—suddenly she’s not out of his bold, new reach. They’ll be married in a year, divorced a decade after that. It’s the only perfect Superman song, unblemished by its soundless performance. “Clark glances sideways at Lois. Enthralled by the magic of the song, her eyes have a distant, charmed look . . .”

“You’re a Superman!

You can make my heart leap,

Ten thousand feet!

“You’re a Superman!

But I’m the one girl who kin,

Get under your skin!

“When you crush me in your arms, I must reveal

I’m only flesh and blood and not resisteless steel!

“You’re a Superman!

Your ardour’s stronger than,

A human man’s!

“You’re a Superman!

And when you spring to me,

I am in ecstasy!

“Some day you’re gonna leap,

To the altar at my feet . . .

Then the whole world will know,

‘Cause I’ll tell all I know,

That I want ‘em to know,

That you’re My Superman!”

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Iron Patriot from IM3

The culminating twist of Iron Man 3, declared Anthony Lane in The New Yorker, “signals both the making of Iron Man 3 and, with any luck, the possible unmaking of the genre.” It was an early review, so Lane had to be coy about specifics, but a few weeks and a few hundred million box office dollars later, we can take the spoiler gloves off and just say it:

“This war is not a means to any end but rather is the end in itself. Not only is it the end itself, but it is also its own fuel: it is precisely this endless war – justified in the name of stopping the threat of terrorism – that is the single greatest cause of that threat.”

Oh, wait, sorry, that’s not Iron Man 3. That’s Glenn Greenwald on Assistant Defense Secretary Michael Sheehan’s testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the twelve-year-old foreign policy franchise formerly known as the War on Terror has another two decades of sequels left in it.

What I meant to write is completely different. That Iron Man 3’s supervillianous corporate  technology genius invented his own Osama Bin Laden to mask his R&D and drive up government demand for his ever-expanding arsenal of military products, locking American and the rest of the planet in a self-perpetuating cycle of unwinnable war. But that’s just a movie. The kind that now pretty much defines the Hollywood blockbuster. Director Shane Black even goes the extra metafictional mile and includes the villain’s blue screen movie studio, the same corporate tech keeping Tony and his pals alive.

Iron Man and War Machine without the CGI

“From here on,” writes Lane, “the dumb-ass grandeur around which superheroic plots revolve can no longer be taken on trust.” Greenwald thinks the same about Obama. The war on terror, like the Hollywood superhero, will never end on its own because so many “factions reap a bonanza of benefits from its continuation.” Black lifts the edge of the curtain, but that glimpse will hardly unmake or even marginally slow the onslaught of forthcoming productions. Captain America 2 is shooting in D.C. as I type. That’s D.C., our nation’s capital, and so not technically a Warner Bros or Marvel Entertainment branch office.

The modern superhero movie first took flight in 1978 with Superman: The Movie (the subtitle says it all), with the total number of productions tipping just over forty in 2001. How many since 9/11?  Fifty. In less than half as many years. So, no, 9/11 is not the box office superhero’s origin story. It’s merely the transformative accident that doubled his powers. Like the Golden Age’s Blue Beetle. When his comic book incarnation debuted in pre-war 1939, the Beetle was just another mystery man in a domino mask and fedora. Listen to his first radio broadcast a worn-torn year later and the guy’s ingesting the power-inducing 2-X formula from his pharmacist mentor.

Novelist Austin Grossman recently told my Superheroes class that when he started writing his supervillain-narrated Soon I Will Be Invincible in 2001, he had to ask himself, “Am I just writing about a terrorist?” Austin’s brother, The Magicians author Lev Grossman, penned his own superheroic response, “Pitching 9/11.” The short story is a sequence of failed pitches for adapting 9/11 to screen. Here’s my favorite:

“Lonely, misunderstood Dominican elevator repairman (John Leguizamo?) finds himself trapped by fire after the second plane hits. In agony from the heat and smoke, near death from asphyxiation he jumps from the 83rd Floor. Instead of falling he hover in midair, then rockets upward. The trauma of the attack, and of his impending certain death, has awakened latent superpowers he never knew he had. A handful of others have undergone similar transformations—they hover in a cluster over the collapsing buildings, like so many swimmer treading water. As the roof sinks away below them into nothingness, they choose colorful pseudonyms and soar away together in formation to take vengeance on evil everywhere.”

Lev’s other pitches include scifi thriller, Discovery Channel documentary, and a filmed performance piece, but superheroes are the ready-made absurdity 9/11 was meant for. Diverting the path of an airliner? That’s a job for Superman. The pre-emptive prequel would star Batman. According to The 9/11 Commission Report, President Clinton was so annoyed with the lack of options for taking out Bin Laden he said to one his generals: ‘You know, it would scare the shit out of al-Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp.’”

Substitute “ninjas” with the superhero team of your choice and you’ve got your very own dumb-ass grandeur plot.  But according to Blake Snyder (a friend leant me a copy of his Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need), the Superhero genre isn’t just about “guys in capes and tights.” It’s what happens when an extraordinary person is stuck in an ordinary world. In addition to Bruce Wayne and the X-Men, Russell Crow’s Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind are his go-to examples of misunderstood Gullivers shackled by Lilluputians.

I’m more than a little skeptical about Snyder (he argues Miss Congeniality is a better film than Memento), but he has a point. Especially when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. Superheroes soared after 9/11 because Hollywood cast America as the planet’s mightiest super being and the rest of the word population as those moron Lilluputians willfully misunderstanding him. Weren’t they listening when Bush Sr. explained New World Order?

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. was the lone superpower, to be loved and respected by a planet of grateful mortals. When some of those ingrates go and topple the Fortress of Solitude, what choice does America have but to declare a War on Lilluputianism? “It is hard to resist the conclusion that this war,” laments Greenwald, “has no purpose other than its own eternal perpetuation.”

But then in his own superheroic plot twist, Obama, days after his Assistant Defense Secretary was arguing for an unlimited renewal of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, declared: “This war, like all wars, must end.” The Associated Press boiled the President’s 7,000- word speech down to a sentence: “Barack Obama has all but declared an end to the global war on terror.”

Congress is balking of course. And so is our Democracy’s fourth branch of government, Hollywood. While Obama declares war on perpetual war, Marvel has two superhero franchises in post-production (Wolverine, Thor), three filming for 2014 release dates (Captain America, Spider-Man, X-Men), and another four announced for 2015 (Guardians of the Galaxy, Fantastic Four, Avengers, Ant-Man). Throw in the S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show that premieres next fall, and the superhero war isn’t dialing back—it’s surging.

But all those capes and tights flying across our screen have been an inverse shadow of real troops on the ground. So what happens when we finally leave Afghanistan? What happens if the drone war on al Qaeda really does die down? I’m no pre-cog, but the pop culture tea leaves are telling me 2015 will be the last big year for dumb-ass superhero grandeur. Though I wouldn’t underestimate Hollywood’s shapeshifting powers either. Both Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness were already in theaters, literally blowing up their representations of the U.S. drone armada, when Obama dropped his own policy bomb of a speech.

Box office superheroes will endure. Just scaled back to their pre-9/11 levels, where they belong.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: