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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: September 2013

joss-whedon-sp

Dear Joss,

Hey, I’m a big fan, seen all your stuff, love it all (except maybe season one of Dollhouse, though the unaired pilot was brilliant). So I’m embarrassed to confess I only streamed Cabin in the Woods on Amazon recently, and I have to say, yes, totally brilliant too. So much so I was thinking, since you’re Mr. Marvel now, why not a mash-up? I know, you’re way way too busy with Avengers 2 and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D to draft another script. So I’ve gone ahead and done it for you.

Open with a shot of a corporate building and pan down to an entrance sign, “Zarathustra Technologies,” with a yellow school bus parked in front. A guide leads a high school group through the complex as a nerdy kid peels away to investigate a temptingly open lab door: “Arachnid Gene Modification.” As he studies the array of weird, glowing spiders, one descends on a thread and bites him. He slaps it, but too late, he’s already pale and sweaty. Spider arms rip through his sides as he transforms into an enormous, harry spider. It stands there a moment, screeching in confusion, before rows of hidden machine guns pivot from the walls and blast it into twitching pulp.

Cut to Control Room monitor of same image. Three TECHS frown down at the mess as they argue: “Told you the DNA sequencing was off,” “You always say the DNA sequencing is off,” “So next time maybe listen,” etc.

Roll credits as we travel down the row of screens, each monitoring a different room in the complex with a different nerd suffering a different transformative accident: a shelf of chemicals tipping over, a slippery walkway above a vat of toxic waste, a massive machine whirring out of control, a metal door sealing shut beside a countdown clock, etc. The TECHS press buttons, sip coffee, and record data from the staged mayhem, while continuing to banter.

“Okay,” one asks, “who we got next?”

A new bus pulls up and exiting jocks and cheerleader types jostle aside the newest NERD. One of the techs is reading his file in a voice over, revealing their improbable depth of knowledge and so long-term monitoring and manipulation. He’s not a great candidate though, just barely made the cut, but what the hell. He enters the building last.

A female tour GUIDE in Clark Kentish glasses (she’s cute but bumbling) is describing an antique gamma cannon, now a harmless lobby display. Only wait, why did that light start glowing when she bumped against that button? It charges up as she strolls unknowingly in front of the massive barrel. The NERD, the only one aware of the impending disaster, shoves through the jocks and cheerleaders to push the GUIDE to safety as he’s soaked in a roar of distorted green light.

He stands there, shocked, but when nothing else happens, the crowd of teens cracks up. The TECHS, however, applaud (“Nobody ever saves the girl anymore!”) before readouts indicate no change in NERD’s gamma levels. Damn it! They must have fired a dud. GUIDE thanks him as she climbs to her feet and adjusts her glasses. They shake hands in an awkward moment of mutual romantic dizziness—interrupted by one of the TECHS talking through the bluetooth in her ear to keep the tour moving before they get bottlenecked.

The Arachnid room is ready for a reboot. GUIDE fumbles through her lines, distracted when she sees NERD lured by the open door. She’s torn between protecting him and doing her job. “Don’t!” she calls. “Don’t, um, stay behind too long. We’re stopping in the cafeteria next.” Jocks and cheerleaders cheer as the tour moves on and NERD enters the lab.

This time we see the TECHS orchestrating everything and the difficulty of lowering a spider on a puppet string. They miss twice before the spider grabs his arm. They applaud when he slaps it away, then freeze, waiting for the reaction. Except nothing happens. Readout scans show zero change. He must have slapped it away before it bit him. Man, this kid is lucky! When NERD catches up to the tour, GUIDE squeaks with surprise and pleasure, nearly hugging him then awkwardly stopping herself.

Meanwhile, someone very important in a black suit arrives in the Control Room. The TECHS snap to and give a progress report on the Zarathustra Project, which we glean is a secret, internationally funded R&D program designed to produce a Homo Superior, a literal Superman.  BLACKSUIT is highly agitated at the lack of progress, watching as the TECHS narrate two, simultaneous events on the monitors.

A nerd is lead into the basement where a walkway “breaks” by remote control, dropping him into toxic sludge. Another nerd is lured into a lab where a shelving unit tips onto him as he stands on an exposed wire. The BLACKSUIT is thrilled, until TECHS report that the kid is dead. “Dead? What happened?” “We dropped a shelf of chemicals on him.” “While electrocuting him.” “It tends to kill people.” “98%.” “You have survivors then?” “Well, ‘survivor’ is a strong word.” “And not so much with the present tense really.” Discussion escalates until a TECH notices the other kid climbing out of the sludge—which, hey this looks promising. His vitals are stable, and, wow, the toxins are bonding to his cells. The kid slumps onto the walkway as his arm turns into a new swamp-like substance. The TECHS are cheering! Except, uh oh, the readouts. His arm is dripping away. They watch as he melts into a brackish puddle.

BLACKSUIT is hysterical with disappointment. TECHS try to calm him down, explaining this is how it works everyday here. “But today,” BLACKSUIT blurts, “is not every day! Today is surprise inspection day!” This hardly seems like news to the TECHS, since BLACKSUIT is there already. “No,” he continues, “not me. The Watcher is coming down.” This cracks up the TECHS. “The Watcher? Coming down from, what, his Fortress of Solitude on the moon? He’s going to visit us puny humans?” Actually. Yes. BLACKSUIT received a moon transmission this morning. TECHS are stunned. “The Watcher hasn’t come down to earth in decades, not since , since—” “1938. When we agreed to begin the Zarathustra Project or face his wrath. And today he wants results.” All look at the monitors. They’re blank except for GUIDE and her one remaining tour group.

GUIDE is explaining something, when she steps away to respond to her bluetooth. “The Venom Room? That’s crazy—we haven’t even finished preliminary—” She flinches from the shout in her ear, then tells the group they’ll need to take a little unscheduled break, please make your way back down to the cafeteria again. Everybody but NERD, who she leads down a restricted corridor. He looks nervous, especially when they end up alone in a dim lab—is she making a pass at him? She pockets her glasses and walks toward him sexily, but then stumbles on something. She puts the glasses back on, but tries to keep up the sexy thing—while behind his back a strange oily substance crawls from a centrifuge the TECHS have just switched off and unlocked. GUIDE continues to distract NERD as she watches it over his shoulder. Her lips approach his as the black goo nears his back.

But as it is about to engulf him, she can’t do it, and shoves him to safety. The substance strikes her hand, congealing around it. TECHS are cursing, “What the hell is she doing?” But then NERD dives full force at the black goo, until it releases her hand and swirls around him instead, coating him and slithering into his mouth and nostrils. BLACKSUIT nods. “Wow. She’s good. We could use her in ops.” “Nah,” says a TECH, “total klutz.” NERD is now lost in a black blob as TECHS study readouts. The symbiont is acclimating to the host. GUIDE stares, horrified at what she has done. Excitement builds in the Control Room—until the black goo pours from his body, inert. GUIDE rushes to his side, but can’t embrace him because he’s vomiting out the black remains. TECHS argue about what went wrong (“Told you it wasn’t stable!” “You always say it isn’t stable!”), until BLACKSUIT cuts them off. It doesn’t matter. He’s just received official word on his cell: The Watcher is on his way.

NERD and GUIDE have found a table in the cafeteria. He’s picking off the last of the black goop as she sits down with a tray, nearly dropping everything. She laughs. “I don’t know what it is about you, but I swear II go weak in the knees when I’m near you.”

Romantic interlude continues while behind them a new high school group arrives in the lobby. Another guide runs through the gamma cannon routine, only this time no one notices the warning light, so she just stands there waiting to be rescued. TECHS wait too, someone’s finger on the fire button. The guide gives up and moves on as a couple of goof-offs play with the cannon. When one sticks his face into the barrel, TECHS fire it. He staggers back as the group laughs. They stop laughing when his skin turns green and his muscles rip through his clothes.  He’s turning into an incredible . . . BOOM! He explodes across the lobby.

More cursing in the Control Room. “Well, at least we know the cannon is working.” A TECH blinks, realizing something: “But that means—” She’s cut off by shouts that the Watcher is in radar range, he’s descending!

Outside a spaceship drops through the clouds to hover above the Zarathustra building.

GUIDE and NERD are talking at their table when she looks up, alarmed.

The ceiling of the Control Room peels back in the glow of a tractor beam as the WATCHER levitates through the opening. He’s pretty much Marlon Brando in his white Jor-El costume from the 1978 Superman.

GUIDE jumps up from the cafeteria table, leaving NERD as she shouts: “Sorry, gotta go!”

The WATCHER addresses the Control Room in pompous, alien-Brando speak. He is done waiting. The time for Earth to produce a specimen worthy of propagation is upon them. Report your results! TECHS and BLACKSUIT whisper-argue among themselves, until BLACKSUIT steps forward. “Although we have made tremendous progress, I am afraid that we have not yet achieved—”

WATCHER cuts him off. He’s not talking to the humans. He’s talking to the figure stepping into the Control Room behind them. It’s GUIDE. There’s no longer any klutziness to her. She discards her glasses and emits a cocoon of light. When the light recedes, she’s a Superwoman, complete with regal red cape. She reports: “Father, the humans have failed to evolve. I regret to report that I have encountered no genetically adequate mates on this planet.” WATCHER: “Then they have given us no choice.”

WATCHER looks up, and his ship begins to emit a column of light that penetrates the building. BLACKSUIT rushes forward, begging for more time, pleading to spare humanity—they can still produce a Superman! WATCHER smiles. He agrees. The cosmic rays bombarding the building will do exactly that. Sure enough, BLACKSUIT and TECHS are transforming: one’s skin begins to blister; another’s bones bend under his weight; a third shimmers in an invisible force field; the fourth grows orange and craggy. The transformations continue until a TECH self-immolates in a ball of flame; another oozes across the floor in an elastic puddle; the third claws at her face, unable to breathe through the invisible field; and BLACKSUIT expands into a giant orange rock.

BLACKSUIT’s body grows so big it crashes through the floor, smashing down level by level until landing on a cafeteria table as NERD jumps out of the way. WATCHER floats down afterwards, not bothering to pause over the transformations taking place. Each floor has its own flavor: X-men mutations, 50s scifi monsters, horror classics, etc. GUIDE follows him, but she looks upset at all the suffering.

When they arrive at the bottom, NERD is staring up at them, confused and horrified but not . . . transforming. WATCHER cocks his head. He asks his daughter why this one is immune to the rays, but she can only grin with relief that NERD is okay. Red rays shoots from the WATCHER’s eyes, allowing us to see NERD’s internal organs, his skeleton, even close-ups of his DNA. WATCHER raises a hand and the ship rays stop. The writhing bodies on each floor relax and begin to return to their human states. WATCHER is smiling now too. He has found a worthy mate for his daughter. The NERD is a spontaneous mutation, a being higher on the evolution scale than the mere humans that produced him.

NERD is trying to take this all in—the cute GUIDE is really a Superwoman from another planet whose father wants them to have babies together—when WATCHER gives the planetary extermination order.

Wait, what?

GUIDE explains: “Your planet has produced its superman, you. The rest are superfluous.”

“But you can’t!” NERD grabs her arm, and her knees go weak. Literally. She can’t stand. She’s collapsing. WATCHER looks alarmed for the first time. The NERD’s mutation doesn’t just make him immune; he’s kryptonite to them. And so he must be destroyed!

GUIDE shouts no! as her father turns his eye rays into lasers, blasting through tables and rubble as NERD leaps out of the way. Eventually NERD is downed and cornered and WATCHER steps up for the kill. GUIDE tries to stop him, but she’s too weak. He squints and his laser beams strike NERD in the chest. Nothing happens. He’s impervious to this too. WATCHER blinks, intensifying the rays, as NERD stands and walks toward him through the beams. They grapple, excess laser radiation flashing, until NERD grabs WATCHER’s head and forces him to shoot his eye rays straight up through the openings in the floors, straight up to the ship, which explodes. WATCHER collapses.

NERD pulls GUIDE out of the rubble, but can she really be redeemed after okaying the extermination of the human race? Maybe he finds her dying, her body no longer super after being exposed to him, and they kiss during her final breath. WATCHER should stagger to his feet behind them, bloodied and clearly no longer so super either, and just as he’s about to crack NERD’s head open with a piece of debris, BLACKSUIT clobbers him. Remember BLACKSUIT was the big orange rock that fell through the floors, and so he’s normal again, though almost naked in rags.

Should GUIDE and NERD have a happy ending? That’s your call. Seriously. Call me. I can dash out the rest of the dialogue and have this ready for production by, when are you free, 2019? You think J. J. Abrams is too busy to direct? We should talk about that too. I’m sitting by my phone right now.

Sincerely,

Chris

The Avengers (2012) Director Joss Whedon on set

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McFarlane's Angela

“We just happen to show a little more skin when we get to the ladies,” says Image Comics artist Todd McFarlane, explaining that the portrayal of women as sex objects in comics is a natural byproduct of the genre’s generally exaggerated style. “As much as we stereotype the women, we also do it with the guys. They are all beautiful. So we actually stereotype both sexes.”

McFarlane was trying to plug the PBS documentary Superheroes: The Never Ending Battle (it starts October 8), but his comments, and those of Kick-Ass writer Mark Millar trivializing rape (“I don’t really think it matters. It’s the same as, like, a decapitation. It’s just a horrible act to show that somebody’s a bad guy”), pissed off plenty of fans. Garth Ennis combines the two approaches—rape and lady skin—in The Boys when his Superman stand-in Homelander compels newcomer Starlight to give him and his teammates blowjobs before taking a Sharpie to her costume and drawing in navel-deep cleavage: “New costume concept for you. They want something a bit more photogenic.”

McFarlane co-founded Image in the 90s, The Boys premiered in 2006, Kick-Ass in 2008, so that might be the problem. These Cro-Magnons are behind the times. Todd thinks he’s just obeying the testosterone-driven norms that give him no choice but to draw scantily clad, super-breasted, Barbie-legged uber-women. But if that’s true, why is the comic book population of anatomically impossible porn gals in decline?

A friend of mine, Carolyn Cocca, spent her summer staring at T&A. She studied 14,599 comic book panels, adding a checkmark to her tallies only if a particular tit or ass cheek “was just about to fall out.” She didn’t count mere cleavage or skintight curves unless they included a panel-dominating breast “larger than a woman’s head.” The results? “Female characters,” she reports, “were portrayed in more panels and less likely to be objectified in the early 2010s than they were in the mid-2000s or mid-1990s in the same titles.” Carolyn is also chair of Politics, Economics & Law at SUNY’s Old Westbury College, so her expertise in quantitative analysis is larger than Todd, Mark, and Garth’s breast-sized heads combined.

Professor Cocca’s not alone in critiquing the absurd poses male artist inflict on their female subjects. The internet is busting out with parodies of McFarland inhabitants:

Alexander Salazar asks what if male superheroes were drawn like female superheroes with some very bare-chested and shorts-bulging results.

Kelly Turnbull refashions the entire Justice League in Wonder Woman style.

Steve Niles has similar fun with the Avengers.

Multiple artists take aim at Hawkeye.

Michael Lee Lunsford dares the impossible by drawing superheroines fully clothed.

John Raptor’s “reality”-based superheroine includes “practical underwear” and “legs like tree trunks.”

Ami Angelwings’s Escher Girls documents a disturbing range of anatomical impossibilities.

The list goes on, and for good reason. Though Carolyn’s sample shows a decrease in objectification, practically all of the comics she looked at show at least some. “Had I counted each depiction of cleavage or of extraordinary shapeliness in spandex or of focus on clothed curves,” she explains, “this number would have been almost exactly the same as the number of panels depicting women.”

If you’re wondering how things got so far out of proportion, you need to travel back to the Dark Age of the late 80s. This was a primitive time, when the dictates of the Comics Code still ruled the multiverse. As far as “Costume,” it decreed “Females shall be drawn realistically without undue emphasis on any physical quality.” That’s what the Comics Authority had been saying since 1954, only with the phrase “undue emphasis on” swapping out “exaggeration of” in 1971. It wasn’t much of a reboot, which might explain why the 1989 revision stripped off so much more. Under the new heading “ATTIRE AND SEXUALITY,” the update declared: “Costumes in a comic book will be considered to be acceptable if they fall within the scope of contemporary styles and fashions.”

Doesn’t sound very revolutionary till you see Wonder Woman in a 1994 thong. In his defense, artist Mike Deodato Jr. said he preferred drawing monsters.

WW thong

The superheroine bikini cut deepened again in the 2000s as the Code teetered toward collapse. Marvel dropped it in 2001. Image never had it. Either way, we’re looking at plenty of T&A for Carolyn’s tally sheets during the two decade range. Arguably, this was the multiverse before the cleavage-confining Code trussed up the free market. Breast abounded in the early 50s, enough to alarm the U.S. Senate into holding hearings and the industry to impose self-censorship.

But lest you think this is a plug for big government regulation, the current superheroine fashion trend suggests the post-Code market could be growing out of its prurient adolescence all on its own. The new changes aren’t being imposed from above but grown from below. Welcome to 21st century grassroots feminism.

Though there’s still reason to show a little skin. “Reality”-based runner Camille Herron was the first female finisher in an Oklahoma marathon last year—a feat all the more impressive since she was wearing a full-body Spider-Man suit at the time. She also beat the previous Guinness Book record holder for a women’s marathon run in a superhero costume by twenty minutes. Imagine how fast she’d be in shorts.

Camille Herron

My daughter’s running role model, 23-year-old Alexi Pappas, wins races in a Spider-Man singlet. And yet she, like any professional female runner, just happens to wear the equivalent of a bikini bottom below it.

Alexi Pappas in Spider-Man singlet

Why? I have no idea. But I don’t see male runners at my daughter’s meets in anything as revealing. You can call them all beautiful, but the female-half of her high school track team races in skintight short shorts. They’re apparently regulation-sized and yet also a violation of the school’s dress code—which means her half of the team can’t practice in the uniforms they compete in.

I bought her a Flash t-shirt for her sixteenth birthday, “fitted” because she stopped wearing baggy tops in middle school. Except now wishes she hadn’t given them all to Goodwill. Forget fashion, she says, they’re perfect for running.

running girl

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 Mystique statue

They don’t make superhero figures like they used to. I’m looking at Marvel’s latest Mystique statuette. Only a mutant could maintain proportions so inhuman. The shapeshifting supervillain has taken the form of a softporn supermodel, Marvel’s answer to DC’s so-called “Bombshell” series. Artist Ant Lucia says he took his inspiration from vintage pin-up illustrations. That explains why Batgirl’s breasts bulge from her barely trussed batbra. Supergirl isn’t bashful about her gravity-defying miniskirt either.

Batgirl bombshell statueSupergirl statue

These are definitely not the action figures of my youth. I stopped playing with those in 6th grade, when they became a major social liability. One of my much more popular classmates stared at me with pity when I mentioned reading a comic book. I imagined his expression if I’d admitted that superhero dolls were posed on my bedroom bookshelves at that very moment. We were supposed to be talking about girls.

If I’ve done the math right, this is 1978. I’m twelve. On the cusp of puberty. Mego, which literally owned the superhero doll market through the 1970s, was struggling after blowing its chance to produce the Star Wars line. The company would be bankrupt by 1983, my senior year of high school. But in 1978, I was still a Mego boy.

Mego action figures

I apparently liked the color green: Hulk, Green Goblin, Lizard, Green Arrow. The orange-skinned Thing was in the mix too, but not much in the way of human flesh tones. DC Bombshells stand eleven inches high, so they would have dwarfed my little eight-inchers. My guys had interchangeable heads too. The bodies were identical. A single elastic band held limbs inside shoulder and hip joints. If a leg or arm broke off, the others did too. If the chest cracked, the elastic imploded the limbs into a center knot impossible for my preadolescent fingers to pry apart.

I liked their clothes the most. Cloth unitards with metal snaps up the back and removable plastic boots. I would undress them and recombine to invent new characters. Green Arrow in silver chainmail was “Invincible,” a sword-wielding superhero from some vaguely Medieval dimension. I didn’t play with girl clothes though. My doll collection included no female anatomy. Mego offered very few women, only Invisible Girl from the Marvel line-up (I considered myself too mature for DC). The males were sexless anyway. Not so much as a bulge or butt crack marring their identical plastic pelvises.

I also had to stop drawing superheroes, another former favorite childhood pastime. My understanding of anatomy had been questionable at best. My heroes (I only drew originals) defied da Vinci’s eight head height ratio. My imitation of Marvel footwear resulted in bulbous ankles and ballet-pointed toes. The pose was always the same: forward-facing, full-body portrait. Costumes changed but not my bodies.

My classmates preferred drawing female anatomy in the back of the science room. They argued vagina positioning, whether forward- or downward-facing. I did not offer an opinion. Someone performed shocked disgust when I was forced to admit to having never fondled a girl. My heroes had made only one investigative sortie into my older sister’s box of abandoned Barbies. They were nipple-less and closed-groined, and at just under a foot, too tall for my eight-inchers. The plastic bodies were ungiving anyway, and my interest only mild.

My daughter’s abandoned Spider-Man brags over a dozen points of articulation, including fingers, toes and torso. Like my Mego gang, her Barbie Batgirl has real clothes, but the others wear their costumes like skin. Her Mystique was naked but for her genitalia-disguising plastic fur, but there was no disguising those generous hips. She told me years later how much the doll disturbed her. Both her collection and the remains of mine migrated into a plastic bin that lived in my son’s closet for a few years and now in our attic. He hasn’t opened it in years. He’s in seventh grade now and would rather play Wii or read a book, a real book, not a comic book.

Little Billy Baston was eleven when he gained the powers of Shazam and turned into Captain Marvel. Mego made that doll too, but I didn’t care about DC characters. You couldn’t just say a magic word and be grown-up. It was a process, a series of choices and mishaps. The Thing got stuck with a new body, but he wasn’t happy about it. The Hulk didn’t ask to change either. The Lizard just wanted a new arm. Change happens whether you like it or not.

When my dad saw me boxing up my superheroes, he asked me why I’d suddenly declared myself too old for dolls. He’d seen me playing with them just a week before. When I told him, he nodded glumly. He looked disappointed, not in me but in the world.

I liked flying them around my bedroom, crashing them across the landscape of my bedspread. They were hard to pose, but if you were careful, if you balanced them just right, they could stand at the edge of a table or a corner of a bookshelf. Just stand there. Frozen. That tiny elastic cord pulling inside their chest. Always on the verge of imploding.

Hulk action figure

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Mad electro woman

“I know a woman whose internal electrical field escapes autonomously. Her basal low level charge kills small batteries: watches, pagers. Her moderate level charge creates worse havoc, even the death of computers. She has high charge levels, as well. The electrical system of at least two cars have not survived the rare but severe escapes of her internal charge.”

The above woman is my mother, writing about herself in third person. I found several print-outs of the passage while emptying filing cabinets in her condo this summer. She moved into assisted living after being diagnosed with moderate Alzheimer’s last spring. The paper was dated over a decade ago. It continues:

“Not too long ago she learned about her grant submitted to NIH (National Institutes of Health) to fund her Health Disparities research. Despite an excellent 172 priority score, the interim Director of the Institute had skipped over her grant and funded others with less meritorious scores. An appeal process is not part of the NIH Policies & Procedures.

“Hours later, the microwave fan came on autonomously. As she watched the power lights on her laptop, they cycled between battery and house power. The big computer turned itself off autonomously as she learned later. They had both been mortally damaged.

“She sat quietly in the light of candles she had made, as far as possible from electricity-powered items. Feeling drained, she went to bed.”

I had read this before and had heard my mother describe such electrical incidents multiple times. It would be familiar even if she hadn’t. It’s a standard comic book trope. When Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created the supervillain Electro for Amazing Spider-Man #9 (1964), they sent Max Dillon, an electric company lineman, up a utility pole to be struck by lightning while holding two lives wires. This transforms him into a human capacitor.

Spider-Man 9

My mother’s explanation is more vague and so perhaps more plausible. “If you have ever lived with a cat,” she writes, “then you know that sometimes something fires off its plum-pit sized brain, and it suddenly becomes manic, running crazily throughout the home, yowling.  Cats have been used in neurological research (unharmed) as their brain’s electrical wiring is remarkably similar to that of humans. Our brains operate autonomously to maintain the functions of our organ systems, breathing for example. As the human brain does so, electrical impulses skip along and bridge synaptic nerves via neuro-electrical transport systems not yet totally well-understood. Drugs have been developed from research in cats (and from other types of research) that modulate either uptake or release of neuro-transmitters, and thus are used to treat clinical depression and anxiety.”

Under “aspects of this woman which may or may not be relevant,” my mother includes: “deep, encompassing dyslexia; decades of treated clinical depression; creativity characterizes both her medical research and artistic pursuits; in an emergency, she is calm, focused, and solution-focused without conscious thinking.”

In other words, my mom thinks she’s a mutant. She was born with a dyslexia/creativity-related electrical capacity that was tapped and/or augmented by anti-depressant medication, resulting in uncontrolled and unpredictable short-circuiting discharges. I’m tempted to call her Electra Woman, from the 1976 Krofft Supershow, one of the few Saturday morning programs I didn’t watch as a kid (perhaps because it ran opposite The Shazam! / Isis Hour). But Electra Woman didn’t have superpowers; she just operated a multi-functional ElectraCom, just the sort of gadget my mother would have fried.

Electra Woman

“Last night on the way home from work,” she writes, “the car dome light stayed on all the way. I called my beloved engineer—not home. So I tried a new technique. Brute force with my shoe—on the handle which controls all car interior lights—worked quite well.

“There is an unrelenting curiosity about when the next electron-associated event will occur. There is no doubt that such will be the case.

“The only question is when.”

Although I’m skeptical of my mother’s mutant abilities, I did discover a final piece of evidence in her condo. The professional-grade shredder she had bought to destroy her decade-old and so now obsolete NIH research was dead. Her filing cabinets included reams and reams of health surveys, all of which had to be shredded to preserve the privacy of the responders. I drove to Staples to buy a new one.

“At this time I am working on too many innovative manuscripts. There is a skim of anger coating me because I am unable to clone myself. I grow concerned that if I were to concentratedly focus my electrons on an appropriate target—such as the car of a particular individual who could find me a way to funding for someone to help me with all these manuscripts (i.e. type in WORD which has never cooperated with me, or got to the library to find and copy the references I need, etc.) I think I could destroy all things electrical in his car. I wonder if I will be able to contain myself.”   

Electra Woman had Dyna Girl for a helper. My mother has me. I took over her bank accounts, found her an assisted living facility, put her condo up for sale, haggled with a buyer. I’m a great sidekick. I used to work in her lab summer between semesters, spinning blood samples in her centrifuges, logging data in her computers. There was never an accident, no power-bestowing explosion, nothing transformative. If I inherited any of her mutant genes, they are irredeemably dormant. My laptop works fine.

Warner Brothers shot a new Electra Woman pilot back in 2001, about when my mother lost her grant renewal and so her career as a medical researcher. It featured the washed-up superheroine drinking and smoking alone in her cluttered trailer–until a new Dyna Girl rescues her from her depression. The series wasn’t picked up, but I watched the unaired pilot on YouTube after a night of shredding. My mother told me the next day:

“It feels like a part of me has been ripped out.”

She is now contained in an assisted living studio, where med techs sort and deliver her antidepressants and other pills every morning and evening. In the comic book version, a final fit of rage would uncap her well of superpowers, and she would rampage through the building and out into the streets to savage the city, until subdued by some friendly neighborhood do-gooder.

Instead she’s sitting in her one-room apartment with her cat, reading and smoking as the magic of her neurotransmitters continues to peter out.

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Bill Seinkeiwicz, Captain Ahab

Imagine if George W. Bush had been forced to stay in office till he had personally gunned down Osama Bin Laden. Or if Obama can’t leave till he bags his own arch-nemesis, Edward Snowden. What would that sort of megalomaniacal mission do to a guy?

It turns him into Batman.

“The spiritual theme of Batman,” writes E. M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel, “is a battle against evil conducted too long or in the wrong way. Criminals are evil, and Batman is warped by constant pursuit until the knight-errantry turns into revenge.”

Okay, I’m lying. Forster wrote that about Meville’s Moby Dick. But swapping Batman for Captain Ahab (or Bin Laden for that big fat whale) shows how bizarrely time works in comic books. Or doesn’t work. Superhero time is both frozen and endlessly moving.

Batman’s parents were gunned down “some fifteen years ago.” That origin fact was first printed in 1939, so that meant 1924. Today it means 1998. Because Batman’s parents were always gunned down some fifteen years ago. That point in time is constantly shifting. Unlike U.S. Presidents (who, according to medical researcher Michael Roizen, age twice as fast while in office), Batman can’t age.

If his “war on criminals” were roped to real time, his character would become as monstrous as Melville’s obsessed whale-hunter. Batman is already carrying an unhealthy dose of the Captain in his utility belt, but without a time frame defining just how warped his mission might be, he skirts to just this side of self-annihilating megalomania. (Plus, according to E. Paul Zehr, he would only last three years—less than a Presidential term, but the same as an NFL running back. The human body can only take so much punishment.)

Superman lives in the same continuous present. In his 1962 essay “The Myth of Superman,” semiotician Umberto Eco analyzes that “temporal paradox.” (I’m not lying this time; Eco really does analyze a comic book.) Superman is mythic in the timeless, archetypal sense, while also adventuring in our “everyday world of time,” and so the “very structure of time falls apart.”

That requires some fancy story-telling. Eco particularly admires how DC created a dream-like climate in which the reader “loses the notion of temporal progression.” We keep looping back into Superman’s personal timeline to hear previously untold tales. When Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel was hired back to DC in 1969, his first assignment was a six-page script explaining how Clark Kent got hired at The Daily Planet. Siegel covered that in two panels back in 1938. The newspaper had been called The Daily Star then. No one minds the change, or even notices. It’s just part of the continuous dream.

At Timely (Marvel’s old name), superheroes refused to loop backwards. When the Human Torch reignited in 1954, it was 1954 for him too. He’d fought Nazis in the forties, and now he was fighting Commies in the fifties. We even got an explanation for his period of absence (he went supernova in the desert), and an explanation for his return (hydrogen bomb testing reawakened him). Timely time always marched forward.

Over at DC, superheroes only battled pretend villains, ones that bore little or no relationship to current events. Pick up an issue of Action Comics during World War II, and except for a patriotic cover endorsing government bonds, you wouldn’t have known there was a war on. Ditto for the Cold War. The Man of Steel never faced the Iron Curtain. It would have pinned him to real time.

Superheroes would have continued happily to inhabit their private, timeless planet, until Stan Lee came along and screwed things up. Like their Commie-bashing forebears, Marvel’s Silver Age heroes were cold warriors. They were literally timely. Rather than avoiding chronological progression, Stan Lee highlighted it. His captions even recapped past issues to nudge forgetful readers. No more continuous dream. Naptime is over.

And that created new problems. If tethered to our world, superhero time eventually falls out of sync. Batman’s “some fifteen years ago” is very different from the Fantastic Four’s origin-producing rocket launch. Parents can get gunned down in any decade. The Waynes weren’t scrambling to beat the Commies. The Space Race isn’t a mobile pocket in time. That’s 1961. That will always be 1961.

That’s also one of many many reasons why the 2005 Fantastic Four film didn’t work—and why I’m less than hopeful about the reboot now in production. No Space Race, no reason for Reed Richards’ botched radiation shields. The guy’s supposed to be a genius, but his girlfriend is shouting: “We’ve got to take that chance, unless we want the Commies to beat us to it! I – I never thought that you would be a coward!” The historical context is everything.

DC held out as long as they could. But by 1968 they ended their isolationist policy and introduced Red Star, their first Soviet superhero. California Governor Ronald Reagan made his first comic book appearance the same year. (Marvel wouldn’t notice him till he made it to the White House.) Because of Timely, superheroes had to stop reliving the same Daily Planet headlines. The planet was revolving daily whether they liked it or not.

I was on the other side of the planet, in Australia, when I read the Herald Sun headline: “Osama bin Laden is dead, US President Barack Obama confirms.” That was May 2011, so the U.S. government’s knight-errantry lasted just under a decade. The photo showed flag-waving college students cheering outside the White House lawn. Some of them would have been reading comic books when the World Trade Center came down. Bin Laden was their Hitler, their Lex Luthor, the monster breathing under their bed every night.

Imagine if we hadn’t caught him. Imagine America if that decade had drifted on some fifteen years. Or if September 11, 2001 weren’t a fixed point, but a whale-sized weight dragged forward by every new, time-warped President. Imagine a battle against evil conducted too long or in the wrong way. What happens to a country under a never-ending Patriot Act? To a government locked in a constant pursuit of surveillance? The national psyche can only take so much punishment.

A word of comic book advice to President Obama regarding whistle-blower Edward Snowden:

Time to move on.

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