Monthly Archives: October 2013
A few nights after the Sandy Hook shooting, a father heard a strange noise coming from his son’s bedroom. The little boy—he’d seen his teacher and classmates gunned down days before—was pounding on his floor. “I know where the bad guy is,” he said. “I’m beating him up.”
It sounds like a superhero origin story. When Bob Kane drew Batman’s, he posed little Bruce in his bedroom too. “I swear by the spirits of my parents,” said the little boy, “to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals.”
The father of the Sandy Hook survivor said his son was pointing at the floor because the bad guy was in Hell, the same place Bruce’s prayer of vengeance was headed. The child (his name is all over the net, but I’d rather not use it) wants to be a detective when he grows up. He wants to save other children. Meanwhile he’s wearing his old Batman costume to bed.
“People don’t hurt Batman,” his father explained. It’s his way to feel “in control.”
Other shooting survivors take similar comfort in superheroes. An Aurora comics shop owner commissioned a drawing of Green Lantern protecting their local Cineplex 16 to help a twelve-year-old survivor after the shooting there. Three women left the Dark Knight Rises premiere alive because their dates died shielding them from bullets. “He always wanted to be a superhero,” said a family member of one of the victims, “he wanted to save someone or do something greater.” One was an honors student “who loved superheroes” and “wrote exceptionally about” Batman and “themes of good versus evil” in his English class.
Unfortunately, the shooter was a fan too. Police found a Batman poster hanging in his home and learned that he’d dyed his hair to look like the Joker. Jeff Kass, author of Columbine: A True Crime Story, theorized the killer “saw himself as some sort of a twisted superhero avenging perceived wrongs.” Hours after the shooting, Kass guessed the suspect “was trying to extract some sort of revenge. Possibly angry at some perceived wrong. This would be similar to the Columbine shooters, and similar to other shootings in the South and West of the United States where people feel compelled to take the law into their own hands.”
I won’t pretend to know the Sandy Hook shooter’s motives, but police suspected he was influenced by a Norwegian, anti-Muslim terrorist who killed 77 people in 2011. That gunman considered himself a kind of superhero too, the self-declared “commander” of his own, one-man “Knights Templar” acting out of “goodness, not evil.” The American Conservative likened him to a “movie supervillain” played by “an unfunny Garrison Keillor.” He titled his manifesto 2083, the year his speculative history of the future ends. The Sandy Hook shooter preferred video games. He may have just wanted to hit a higher death count.
It’s easy to see these killers as supervillains, a kind of Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. It’s even comforting in a way. Wearing a Batman costume, drawing Green Lantern above a mass murder site, calling a person who died protecting someone else a “superhero,” even writing English essays about good and evil, they’re all ways to feel “in control.”
The world is unsafe, but we feel safer when can see events in terms of familiar formulas. And right now, superhero stories are a cultural favorite. Perhaps because they are so violent. I’m not going to suggest that mass murder is the result of the mass marketing of costumed vigilantes. The relationship between culture and behavior is way beyond my abilities of analysis. But I think we can agree that the relationship is both circular and vicious.
A little boy witnesses murders and devotes his adult life to vengeance. Why is that formula comforting? Isn’t it a deepening of the tragedy?
In The Myth of the American Superhero, John Sheldon Lawrence and Robert Jewett read the Unabomber and the Oklahoma bomber as homegrown terrorists twisting the American monomyth of redemptive violence to anti-government ends. McVeigh and Kaczinski believed they were acting out of “goodness, not evil.” And they thought violence was the best way of achieving it. It’s part of the American way. The country was born in revolution. Its borders grew through a century of expansionist wars. It remained unified only through civil war. And its second century was shaped by a sequence of foreign wars. Our national heroes, caped and otherwise, champion all that violence.
Is a non-violent superhero even possible? Bruce Willis never throws a punch in M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable. The Scarlet Pimpernel dispatches his arch-nemesis with a snuff box of pepper. But Willis’s enemy is a serial killer, and though Willis quietly strangles him, there’s the promise of more to come. And while the Pimpernel’s enemy is likely to face the guillotine for his failure, the guillotine itself motivates the Pimpernel’s on-going mission. The violence has to continue. It’s part of the formula.
But does it have to be?
A colleague in my English department, Leah Green, spent her summer in a Buddhist monastery in France. She recently pulled me into her office to tell me about a comic book she saw there, The Secret of the 5 Powers. She didn’t bring back a copy (backpacking Buddhists travel very light), but she emailed me the link:
“3 Superheroes of Peace and nonviolence use their powers to change the course of world history.” The members of these non-avenging Avengers include: “Alfred Hassler, an American anti-war superhero, Vietnamese peace activist Sister Chan Khong and Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh.” Instead of supervillains, they fight violence itself and its “seemingly unstoppable escalation.” The creators hope the comic will “challenge the traditional notion of ‘the hero’ and what constitutes heroic action.” They even hope to redefine the “traditional dramatic structure” of superhero comics, showing “there is no good or bad, no white or black. There is only compassion and suffering.”
According to a related documentary, not only is Martin Luther King, Jr. a “Superhero,” but he was transformed into one by a comic book: “In 1958, Alfred Hassler had an idea to work with Martin Luther King, Jr. to produce a comic book – a comic book to be distributed in the South to young and old, African Americans and white Americans, to tell the story of the struggle for civil rights in Montgomery.”
Of course the one-off Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story wasn’t the first comic book about a non-violent hero. DC introduced “Johnny Everyman” into World’s Finest Comics near the end of World War II. The non-costumed Everyman travels the world teaching racial and ethnic tolerance while “devoted to further understanding between peoples.”
Unfortunately you’ve probably never heard of Johnny Everyman. He vanished from the pages of World’s Finest in less than three years. You probably haven’t heard of Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story or The Secret of the 5 Powers either. Comics about peaceful superheroes aren’t exactly popular. The genre demands violence. It demands righteous punishment. The superhero formula, the very idea of good versus evil, maintains the problem it pretends to fix. It may be comforting to imagine that for every Joker there’s a counter-balancing Batman, but the reverse would be true too. For every Batman there’s a Joker. The equation maintains unlimited violence. The sense of control is an illusion.
Meanwhile, when my daughter returned to her high school this fall, the lobby included security doors. They’re a new state requirement, a direct fall-out of Sandy Hook. Hanging up pictures of superheroes would be less effective at keeping out gunmen, but probably not by much. The NRA would arm all the teachers, but, as my daughter’s principal told our PTA, “the top focus for security remains administration visibility and relationships.” That’s a boring premise for a comic book, but it might literally save my daughter’s life.
Let’s hear it for menstrual blood.
Radioactive spiders, super-soldier serums, shouts of “Shazam!”, they’re all second best attempts to transform puberty into the fantastical. But puberty already is fantastical. Blood spilling from your genitalia? No warning, no spider-senses tingling, just a biological transformation as instantaneous as a gamma bomb.
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby hinted at it first, when a teenage Jean Grey’s taxi pulled in front of the Xavier School for Gifted Youngster back in 1963. Later writers replaced Miss Grey’s mutant menstruation with a telekinesis-spilling car accident when she was ten (an increasingly common age for menarche, though the average is still twelve). When a teenage Rogue arrives at the School in 2000, the grown-up Dr. Grey tries to spell it out for her: “These mutations manifest at puberty and are often triggered by periods of heightened emotional stress.”
Yep, you heard right: “triggered by periods.” Even X-Men director Bryan Singer buries the horror of menstruation in the middle of the sentence. That’s why we need Stephen King. It takes a horror writer to spill the blood.
Like Jean Grey, Carrie White is a telekinetic mutant who discovers her powers at puberty. But King doesn’t beat around the proverbial bush. He puts us in the girls locker room when Carrie menstruates for the first time and bullies pelt her with tampons. “The period,” explained King in an interview, “would release the right hormones and she would rain down destruction on them.”
King’s Ewen High School in Chamberlain, Maine is far far away from Professor X’s “exclusive private school in New York’s Westchester country.” Stan and Jack’s mostly male, mostly pre-pubescent readers weren’t ready for a Jean Gray tampon scene. In 1974, when Carrie was first published, The X-Men were in reprints.
I doubt King was aware that his main character was a knock-off of Marvel’s second Silver Age superheroine. He was just trying to prove to himself that he wasn’t “scared of women” (someone had accused him of writing only about “macho things”). He typed the menstruation scene and then tossed it in his wastebasket. “I hated it,” he said. It took his wife to fish out those first three pages and bully him into writing a couple hundred more. Next thing Sissy Spacek is getting herself nominated for Best Actress.
The Brian De Palma film was still in production when Chris Claremont relaunched the X-Men in 1975. When Carrie White leapt from paper to screen the following year, Jean Grey was transforming from Marvel Girl to Phoenix. Kirby penned Jean cowering on the cover of X-Men No. 1. Lee admitted that he sometimes forgot what her powers were (he misidentifies telekinesis as “teleportation” in that first issue). But Dave Cockrum’s Phoenix explodes across X-Men No. 101, and soon Claremont makes her the most powerful mutant on earth, dwarfing even Professor X.
By 1980, Dark Phoenix is swallowing stars like air. Which says a lot about the circularity of cultural influence. It only took four years for the inspiration for Carrie to become Carrie. King’s mutant murders everyone at her prom and razes most of her hometown. Jean Grey takes out the population of an entire planet, but the result is the same: both pregnancy-ready women have to die.
Carries bleeds out from a mother-inflicted knife wound, while Jean superheroically commits suicide. Carrie’s hyper-religious mother stabs her because Mrs. White considers her own daughter an abomination against God. Which is true of Miss Grey too. Mutants are the engine turning Darwin’s God-usurping evolution. Mutations that increase the likelihood of reproduction are Naturally Selected. You might think telekinesis would be pretty damn adaptive, but it’s top two female specimens died before they reproduced. Otherwise menarche would be accompanied by more than just internal explosions.
Of course Jean and Carrie don’t stay dead for long. I’ve lost track of the number of times Jean has returned and/or been cloned. Stephen King never wrote a sequel, but his first-born mutant was resurrected for a film sequel, a stage musical, and a made-for-TV remake designed to launch a series. All were flops. So you have to admire Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce for wading anew into all that pig and menstrual blood. She’s not scared of women either.
Carrie wasn’t her first choice for next project (the producer came to her), but when Peirce reread the novel, she realized: “Oh, these are all my issues: I deal with misfits, with what power does to people, with humiliation and anger and violence. Carrie has gone through life getting beaten up by everyone. She’s got no safe place. And then she finds telekinesis — her talent, her skill — and it becomes her refuge. And I thought, Wow, this is an opportunity to make a superhero-origin story. With her period comes the power. With adolescence comes sexuality, and with sexuality comes power.”
In other words, the best thing about Peirce’s Carrie are the vaginas. Not that we ever see one. She opens with Carrie’s home birth (the amniotic-soaked Bible on the stairs is a nice touch), but Julianne Moore’s dress hem hides everything else. I ducked my head behind the surgical screen during my wife’s c-section, but I can report that the table rocked with the doctor’s sawing and the floor required a mop afterwards. But horror movie horror is about controlling horror (usually by exaggeration) and so paradoxically lessening its effect. Peirce at least knows where the horror crawls out from.
Soon Kick-Ass actress Chloë Grace Moretz’s vagina threatens an appearance during the shower scene (with a brilliant nod to Hitchcock), and the first objects she moves with her mind are all those tampons. Then the whole movie is drenched in half-births. Carrie’s water breaks when she explodes a drinking cooler in the office of a principal scared to say the word “period.” When Carrie’s mother locks her in a womb of a closet, Carrie cracks a slit down the length of the door; an hour later Mom is midwifing herself through the bloody opening. Carrie cracks a larger slit under the car of the bully who turned her into Red Phoenix. The girl dies half-born, her crowning face caught in the vagina dentata of the bloody windshield. Carrie, like her sister Jean, finally ends her own life–though the crack in the tombstone keeps at least the vagina motif alive.
Ultimately, the new Carrie doesn’t add much to either De Palma’s or King’s, both of which at least spoke to their times (read Gloria Steinem’s Ms. essay “If Men Could Menstruate” if you’re in doubt). But the real horrors remain too much in the visual subtext (and that includes the Columbine shootings). Why not employ all the powers of CGI to show infant Carrie struggling out of the birth canal? Why not show the harrowing, bathroom stall moment when Carrie inserts her first tampon?
Metaphors are nice and all, but Carrie remains too marooned in the 70s. Or maybe our culture hasn’t really grown in those forty years. We’re still the same horrified middle schoolers cringing through Sex Ed class. We’re still scared of women.
14/10/13 The Western Voyages of Sinbad (Or, How I Knew I Was Going to Teach College English When I Grew Up)
I turned seven the summer of 1973. Sinbad, the sea-faring adventurer from One Thousand and One Nights, turned 1,207—or at least Huran al-Rashid, the 8th century caliph who would have reigned during his voyages, did. Sinbad’s a lot older if you think he’s just a Persian reboot of Odysseus, which I don’t. It’s not clear how he anchored in Arabian Nights, since Scheherazade almost certainly didn’t spin any tales about him. Ditto for Aladdin and his lamp. But the first 1880s translations (same decade that gave the Victorians Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Jekyll, and the Ubermensch) happily include both heroes. The 1940 Green Lantern was originally named Alan Ladd (get it?), but Sinbad didn’t make it to the realm of superhero comics till Marvel adapted his low budget Hollywood adventure, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.
My aunts took me. Which probably means I was marooned in their tiny Pennsylvania smallville while my parents were off on their own voyages. I recently streamed the film online, surprised as always by my unfaithful memory. Did I really not notice the Stonehenge replica at the center of the lost island of Lemuria? Or that the King Kong-derivative “natives” were green? Sinbad also barters himself a love interest, AKA sex slave (a disturbing staple of mid-70s fantasy and scifi films—the elite apartments in Soylent Green came with human “furniture” the same year, as did the elite houses in Rollerball two years later). Our virtuous captain, of course, doesn’t exercise any of his property rights, and there’s even a marriage proposal before the credits.
Hindsight also provides certain pleasures—like watching a bunch of pasty white guys evoke Allah every third sentence. Or realizing that Doctor Who is playing the evil sorcerer (the BBC was so impressed with Tom Baker’s performance, he replaced the retiring Jon Pertwee the following year). That evil sorcerer, by the way, is oddly sympathetic, the way Baker writhes and ages a decade or two every time he employs his apparently hard-earned magic—like animating the figurehead on Sinbad’s own ship to battle him. How cool is that! His little flying homunculi were niftier in memory though—as I suppose is true of all Ray Harryhausen stop motion animation.
The best is when Baker animates the six-armed Kali statue in the natives’ temple (though why exactly are faux Africans worshipping the Hindu goddess of Time, and, oh yeah, why are they green?). I should also mentions there’s a rather rudimentary plot device of finding a missing puzzle piece that will, I forget exactly, unlock the Fountain of Something Or Other. So Sinbad and Baker are racing each other in an overarching A Plot, which is subdivided into episodic B Plots, such as battling evil cyclopean centaurs and sailing around foggy soundstages.
It’s at this point that I turn to my nearest aunt and whisper: “The puzzle piece is inside the statue.”
She probably thought I was nuts (like that time I reflected a flashlight beam onto her bedroom ceiling while making what I imagined were UFO noises), until Kali tumbles and, yep, there’s the golden puzzle piece shining in the rubble.
She was pretty impressed, as was I, still am, though I can’t say I was much of a boy Sherlock. Things I wasn’t noticing at the time include Watergate, the civil rights movement, and my parents’ impending divorce.
I’d shrug it off as a lucky guess. Except it’s the same plot maneuver I encounter several hundred times a semester. How often does an episodic B Plot shatter against an overarching A Plot? More specifically, how often does a storyline sail out of a sub-adventure to continue its main voyage? My first year comp students navigate this map three or four, sometimes five and six times every essay they draft. A body paragraph is just an adventurous subpoint in an overarching thesis. Before exiting to the next island of green natives, shatter Kali to show why you dragged us there in the first place (ie, repeat a central element of the thesis in the last sentence). When you finally row ashore your concluding paragraph, assemble the golden key pieces and unlock the Fountain of the Passing Grade.
I realize that’s a particularly Western way of writing an argument. Chinese essays, for example, might reflect different norms, so called “high context” ones, where inference and implicitness are an adventurer’s main magic tricks. That means a thesis isn’t necessarily stated or the map to get there isn’t drawn linearly. If Sinbad submitted such a tale in my WRIT 100, I’d have to send him back to Lemuria for revising. But if he’d grown up in my subdivision of Pennsylvania, he’d already know how the puzzle pieces work.
By what age do kids absorb such cultural nonsense as plot formula and argument structure?
I’m guessing seven.
I was hardly reading but I was already a little stop-motion homunculus. I’m not suggesting Tom Baker was employing me for nefarious ends. I’m just saying cultural magic seeps in deeper and faster than we might think. And some unstated sub-claims might sneak in with it. Like, oh I don’t know, women are furniture, and beware swarthy men (Baker wore make-up). Which is also why it’s sometimes worthwhile to analyze crap like comic books and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.
Sinbad, by the way, made at least one more sojourn into the Marvel multiverse. He teamed up with the Fantastic Four for Chris Claremont’s astonishingly ill-timed Fantastic Fourth Voyage of Sinbad in 2001, on newsstands when the World Trade Center tumbled and shattered. Since then I haven’t noticed many cultural representations of good-looking white guys giving thanks to Allah.
For me, the Tea Party is right up there with the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. So I certainly don’t mind watching their superpowers wane as they impotently wage war through shutdowns and debt defaults in their never-ending battle against their arch-nemesis, Obamacare.
But I do feel a personal connection to the Tea Party now. Or at least to one member of their roster. I recently reconnected with an old high school friend via (what else?) Facebook. Our cyber reunion wasn’t entirely Friendly. In the decades since we’d crammed Pre-Calc in his suburban basement, John has converted to an aggressively libertarian brand of fundamentalist Christianity (or, as he prefers to term it, “Christianity”). His profile picture is Obama photoshopped as Stalin. I accused him of melodrama, but he remains appallingly literal in his belief that the President’s re-election constituted a Socialist coup and collapse of the American experiment. Our email exchanges have since petered. But I will honor John and his right wing cohorts with an unlikely declaration:
The first American superhero was a Tea Party superhero.
“Oh! Lord of Hosts,” cried a voice among the crowd, “provide a Champion for thy people!”
That’s Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1835. Thy people are his pre-Revolutionary New England ancestors under the tyrannical yoke of King James and his New World minions (AKA the Governor of colonial Massachusetts and his nefarious redcoat guard). In answer to the cry of oppression, Nathaniel conjures the Gray Champion!
“Suddenly, there was seen the figure of an ancient man, who seemed to have emerged from among the people, and was walking by himself along the centre of the street, to confront the armed band. He wore the old Puritan dress, a dark cloak and a steeple-crowned hat, in the fashion of at least fifty years before, with a heavy sword upon his thigh, but a staff in his hand, to assist the tremulous gait of age.”
I know, a shaky old guy, not very superheroic, but hang on. He has superpowers: “while they marvelled at the venerable grandeur of his aspect, the old man had faded from their eyes, melting slowly into the hues of twilight, till, where he stood, there was an empty space.”
Yep. He can apparate. Hawthorne gives us an origin story and mission statement too. “Whence did he come? What is his purpose? Who can this old man be?” whispered the wondering crowd. Glad you asked: “That stately form, combining the leader and the saint, so gray, so dimly seen, in such an ancient garb, could only belong to some old champion of the righteous cause, whom the oppressor’s drum had summoned from his grave.”
That’s right. He’s supernatural too. And while immortality is a nice trick, his real powers are rabble-rousing and monarch-busting: “ his voice stirred their souls,” and before “another sunset, the Governor, and all that rode so proudly with him, were prisoners, and long ere it was known that James had abdicated . . .”
The tale ends as any good comic book should, with the promise of further adventures: “whenever the descendants of the Puritans are to show the spirit of their sires, the old man appears again. . . . His hour is one of darkness, and adversity, and peril. But should domestic tyranny oppress us, or the invader’s step pollute our soil, still may the Gray Champion come . . .”
That’s good news for John and any like-minded Tea Partiers. Hawthorne places his supernatural do-gooder at their namesake event, the dumping of 342 chests of East India tea into Boston harbor. The old guy makes rounds at the battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill too.
I doubt John has read “The Gray Champion,” though I’m fairly sure The Scarlet Letter was on our high school English syllabus. I won’t declare Hester the first superheroine, but she is the first character in fiction to sport a letter on her chest, beating Joe Shuster’s Superman by nearly nine decades. The “A” starts as punishment, but Hester embroiders her own meanings into the symbol, and eventually the town rechristens her “Able” and “Angel” in appreciation of her selfless if not quite superheroic service.
The Gray Champ has her beat though. Midwife to the poor is noble and all, but the Tea Party would rouse our whole land from its sluggish despondency. According to my high school Friend, the harsh and unprincipled administration of Obama lacks scarcely a single characteristic of tyranny, violating the rights of private citizens, taking away our liberties, and endangering our religion. These, apparently, are evil times. Hawthorne agrees:
“‘Satan will strike his master-stroke presently,’ cried some, bemoaning the deformity of any government that does not grow out of the nature of things and the character of the people. On one side the religious multitude, with their sad visages and dark attire, and on the other, the group of despotic rulers. Pray and expect patiently what the Lord will do in this matter!”
A literal Godsend, the returning Gray Champion would probably forgo street protests and broadcast his message nationally. Though he might have trouble claiming a share of camera time. Would even Fox News have room for a bearded Puritan between the soul-stirring voices of Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and Karl Rove?
He might launch his own website instead, but my friend John already shares regular posts from Political Outcast, Vision To America, and Conservative Byte. The last includes a photoshopped Emperor Obama in a crown and kingly regalia. A commenter adds: “’Dictator’ Obama has infiltrated the entire system of government with radical muslims, gays and completely ignorant self serving idiots pushing their own agendas.”
In fact, who needs the Gray Champion in the age of Facebook? The reason we have the second amendment, shouts John on his homepage, is TO DEFEND OURSELVES AGAINST OPPRESORS LIKE OBAMA. “Government of the people is GONE. People will only be ignored so long, then they will act. God help us all.”
Meanwhile, the venerable stranger, staff in hand, drew near the advancing soldiers, and as the roll of their drum came full upon his ear, the old man raised himself to a loftier mien, while the decrepitude of age seemed to fall from his shoulders, leaving him in gray, but unbroken dignity. Thus the aged form advanced on one side, and the whole parade of soldiers and magistrates on the other, till, when scarcely twenty yards remained between, the old man grasped his staff by the middle, and held it before him like a leader’s truncheon.
“Stand!” cried he.
The eye, the face, and attitude of command; the solemn, yet warlike peal of that voice, fit either to rule a host in the battle-field or be raised to God in prayer, were irresistible. At the old man’s word and outstretched arm, the roll of the drum was hushed at once, and the advancing line stood still.
At least that’s what happens in a black and white world of pure good vs. evil. Our world, however, is considerably Grayer.
Unless you’re a member of the Tea Party.