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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: November 2013

Prime Mover vs. Grandmaster

David Levy won the Scottish Chess Championship in 1968 and then wagered the world no computer could beat him. “The idea of an electronic world champion,” he boasted, “belongs only in the pages of a science fiction book.”

The machines rallied against him, but Chaos, Ribbit, MacHack, even the Soviets’ reigning computer champ, Kaissa, were no match for a human mind. When Levy defeated Northwestern University’s Chess 4.7 (he’d beat 4.5 the year before), he declared: “my opponent in this match was very, very much stronger than I had thought possible when I started the bet. Now nothing would surprise me (very much).”

Levy upped the bet with a $1,000, Omni Magazine threw in another $4,000 , and Deep Thought scooped it up in 1989.  When Garry Kasparov faced the upgrade Deep Blue, Levy predicted the grandmaster would sweep the match 6-0. “I’m positive,” said Levy, “I’d stake my life on it.”

Kasparov won 4-2, then lost the rematch to the first electronic world champion. Kasparov likened the computer’s countermoves to the hand of God: “I met something that I couldn’t explain. People turn to religion to explain things like that.” In Terminator mythology, this is how the world ends. Boot up the chess-playing Turk and a few inevitable moves later Skynet is nuking the planet.

But back in 1968, chess was still just a game. Dr. Doom responded to Levy’s challenge with Prime Mover, a program that used agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as pawns. When Doom moved onto other nefarious activities, the bored Prime Mover rocketed out of Doom’s Latverian castle to seek players in outer space. Grandmaster, a God-like “galactic gambling addict,” responded for a three-game match in Giant-Size Defenders No. 3 (which I plucked off of a rotating, 7-Eleven comic stand when I was nine).

“Data-analysis-indicates-you-will-be-defeated,” boasts the machine.

“Your analysis is in error then, my worthy opponent,” Grandmaster retorts.

“Negative. I-am-the-Prime-Mover. Error-is-impossible. All-probability-permutations-E/M/G-Earth-Mastery-Game-cross-checked. In-each-you-lose.”

That’s right, the two villains are playing for—what else?—world domination. Prime Mover promised each of his alien chessmen a “governorship of some sector of the earth,” while Grandmaster wants a “permanent stable of gladiators” selectively bred from Earth’s superpowered heroes.

The crew of the starship Enterprise faced a similar fate against some other galactic gambling addicts in 1968 too. The Gamesters of Triskelion were just glowing colored brains on tiny pedestals, but they couldn’t resist Kirk’s winner-take-all wager. Combatants fought with Vulcan lirpas, but all those three-dimensional chess games Kirk played against Spock must have helped too. Gene Roddenberry wrote his writing staff a 1968 memo demanding even more chess: “Let’s also get back to more of the colorful aspects of our Vulcan. For example — the continuing joke of his chess games with Kirk in which Spock invariably loses because of Kirk’s humanly illogical moves. Spock guesses correctly what Kirk should do but Kirk invariably makes a ‘wrong’ move which defeats Spock.”

Kirk vs. Spock chess

Roddenberry’s game analysis reveals two things: 1) the creator of Star Trek didn’t play much chess, and 2) emotionless logic scares people. Every third episode, Kirk destroys a planet-enslaving supercomputer, usually by revealing its illogic and so causing it to self-destruct. Prime Mover fares no better when the Grandmaster’s Defenders win 2 of their 3 matches.

“This-cannot-be. You-cheated-you-cheated-you-cheated-you-SQUORK-”

Prime Mover knocks over the chessboard, final evidence of humanly illogical emotion conquering even a machine “programmed never lo lose.”

Cybermen vs. Dr. Who chess

According to Dr. Who lore, Time Lords invented chess, but when the Doctor plays a game against the upgraded Cybermen, emotion is his weakness too. Will he save his companions (those nefarious robots have linked their lives to each playing piece) or obey the dictates of inhuman logic and sacrifice individual lives to win the larger game? Spock always sides with logic and loses, but Neil Gaiman (he wrote the episode “Nightmare in Silver”) knows more about chess than Roddenberry did. The sentimental Doctor has only one choice.

He cheats.

But Ron Weasley doesn’t have that option in the first Harry Potter novel. He, Hermione, and Harry take the places of “a knight, a bishop, and a castle” in order to cross a life-sized chessboard. When a piece is lost, its opponent “smashed him to the floor and dragged him off the board, where he lay quite still, facedown” (which is slightly better than being smashed to pebbles in the film version). Eventually Ron relies on his inner Spock-like inhumanness to win: “it’s the only way . . . I’ve got to be taken.”

“NO!” Harry and Hermione shouted.

“That’s chess!” snapped Ron. “You’ve got to make some sacrifices!”

Harry vs. Ron chess

It’s a hard lesson to learn. My son is upstairs right now scribbling inside the booklet of chess puzzles his tutor assigned him. Most require some sort of counter-intuitive sacrifice, a large piece in exchange for not a piece of greater or even equal value but a game-winning position. Chess legend Paul Morphy designed one of the most famous puzzles when he was ten. Cameron wears it on a t-shirt. If you let go of your emotional attachment to your rook, your piddly little pawn will step up and win the game.

Cameron asked for lessons after winning his fifth K-8 chess tournament. His first teacher was a young guy and former national scholastic champ who focused on openings. His current is white-bearded and (Cameron noted) prefers endgames. When my wife dropped Cameron off for his first lesson, she wasn’t sure she should leave her son in such an eccentrically unkempt house, down such an isolated, wooded side road, with a stranger whose social awkwardness could be inching toward serial killer.

But he and Cam hit it off fine. Chess was their bridge, the social glue. Cam’s sax teacher recommended the guy—which also explained the otherwise creepily long fingernails. He plays classical guitar. Add mathematics and hieroglyphics to his areas of expertise, and you’ve got a contender for world champ of reclusive super-geniuses.

Did Roddenberry fear all those world-dominating supercomputers for the same reasons? When he rebooted Star Trek for Next Generation, he replaced his Vulcan with an android. Geniuses are “evil” because all that computer-like intellect must require some counter-intuitive sacrifice, a pummeling of their wrong-headed but human-hearted errors. Terminator premiered during the mid-80s techno craze, when even the eminently analog Neil Young and Jethro Tull sacrificed their signature sounds for the robotic lure of drum machines and vocoders. It was like Skynet had already won.

Cameron’s chess coach wants him to think like a machine too. He should process chess patterns like his mother’s face, he says. You don’t consciously analyze features until deducing an overall identity. Looking and recognizing are simultaneous.  The simile (Mom = checkmate) may sound a bit Vulcan, but the idea is true of any learned skills. Reading these word patterns requires no conscious effort either.

But I’m terrible at chess patterns. Chess Titans, the program that came with the laptop I’m typing on, tells me I’ve won only 32% of the Level 5 games I’ve played against it. My stats halved to 15% and then 8% when I ventured higher. Apparently Kasparov and his cronies have developed “anti-computer” tactics to deal with Prime Movers, but my human illogic loses again and again. Perhaps a purely logical creature would click down to Level 4 and reap a 64% success rate. But my dogged humanity keeps me plugging away.

Humans are gluttons for punishment. We can’t help it. We’re addicts for hard-won lessons. Meanwhile, one Ron Weasley on mechanical horseback can still pummel me to pebbles. Cameron can too. But not consistently. Our current human grandmasters are holding their Skynet offspring at a draw too. The highly human Magnus Carlson (he’s twenty-two and models shirtless in fashion magazines) won the World Championship last week. His “unpredictable style of play,” one ad brags, “embodies the spirit of unconventional thinking.” And that’s all it takes to save humanity.

Magnus shirtless

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I don’t like demigods cavorting with superheroes.

Yes, Chris Hemsworth plays a hunky Thor, and Hercules had a perfectly respectable stint as an Avenger in the 60s. I didn’t even object when he went on to anchor the now forgotten Bronze Age team The Champions. But the argument that superheroes are just the latest issue of ancient mythology doesn’t do it for me.

Not that it’s a bad argument. Etymologically, “superhero” comes from Shaw’s “superman” which comes from Nietzsche’s “ubermensch” which comes from Goethe’s “unbermenschen” which is translated “superhuman” or “demigod” (though only in a mathematical sense can “greater-than-human” mean “less-then-god”). Semantics aside, comic book mythology, despite all those earthbound gods, is a lot more than antiquity in spandex.

Age of Bronze cover

Which is one in a long list of reasons to admire Eric Shanower’s The Age of Bronze.  The meticulously researched, multi-book interpretation of the Trojan War is a trove of source materials, from archaeological to Shakespearean, all compiled, sifted, rewoven and painstakingly etched into a literal epic of graphic storytelling. But from the dozens and dozens of Trojan tales, Shanower omits only one detail.

The gods.

“No supernatural intervention,” he told an auditorium of Washington and Lee college students last spring. (My Superhero class attended, but would you believe it was our Classics department that invited a comic book artist to campus?) When one of my fellow professors asked why “suppressing the supernatural” was the impetus behind the project, Shanower said he wanted to “bring the story down to human level.” He was tired of blaming the gods for bad behavior.

For Cassandra’s “origin story” that means replacing Apollo (the source of both her prophetic visions and her inability to convince anyone they’re true) with a priestly pedophile. The curse “no one will believe you” takes on a horribly human meaning.

Shanower’s take on Herakles (yes, same guy as Hercules) is far less disturbing. While the mass of Age of Bronze is rendered in near photo-realism (down to the rounded crenellations in Troy’s walls and the embroidered hems of King Priam’s robes), Shanower reduces that most famous demigod to a “cartoony buffoon.” He’s basically Popeye’s nemesis Bluto. The visual effect, explained Shanower, suggests that the king’s memory (Priam is retelling a story from his childhood) is unreliably exaggerated, the lines literally warped.

Which is another reason to dispense with the demigods. Comic books’ childhood was spent in superhero tights, the medium and the character type coming-of-age hand-in-glove. If you want to create a literary work of artistic force and erudition (and, wow, does that describe Age of Bronze), it helps to give the kid stuff the boot.

Not that Shanower has anything against superheroes. He admitted at dinner (Classics let me tag along) that he was a big X-Men fan as a kid, was there for the Claremont-Byrne Dark Phoenix Saga, a Greek Tragedy if there ever was one, and arguably the highpoint of Marvel’s Bronze Age.

But how can you draw a naturalistic Herakles without also drawing a line pointing back to Jack Kirby’s 1965 Hercules? Any comic book demigod, even in an authoritative rendering of the Trojan War, might as well have “Sha-zam!”or “It’s clobberin’ time!” penned in his talk bubble.

Maui Legends of the Outcast

Look at Robert Sullivan and Chris Slane’s graphic novel Maui: Legends of the Outcast. It was published in 1996, two years before Image Comics started Age of Bronze, but it originates at least a thousand years earlier—about the time the first Maori landed in Aotearoa, AKA New Zealand. They carried tales of Maui, one of the most ubiquitous heroes of Polynesian mythology, with them. Sullivan visited my Superheroes class last year (a side trip between my wife’s poetry course and his evening reading) and said he didn’t intend any superhero allusions when adapting the Maui legends—and yet my students were ready to list them.

They’d identified “outcast” as a superhero trait on the first day of class, and there it is on the cover. An origin story follows, with the hero suffering a character-defining wrong that both motivates him and imbues him with special abilities. After Maui’s mother tosses him stillborn into the ocean, a prayer to the gods transforms him: “Revive the child. Let destiny take him to great deeds. Grant him unnatural powers.” Those includes shapeshifting. Soon Maui is fluttering around as a bird, or buzzing in people’s ears, or flapping his fins. He even appears in a half-human state once, his body covered in green scales. He gets a costume too, a special battle suit able to withstand the fire of the sun. There’s no cape or symbol on the chest, but Slane colors his eyes blue and red—an iconic image that separates him from his fellow Maori. He’s also as egotistical as Tony Stark, but all his adventures benefit his people, securing them food, fire, and land.

I’m not  trying to draft Maui for the Justice League (though, actually, yeah, that’d be pretty cool), but like it or not, when you draw a superhuman inside a comic book panel, it’s going to flip the switch marked “superhero” in your reader’s brain. I think Shanower recognized that. He spent his early, 80s career inking Silver Age legend Curt Swan’s Superman. When John Byrne took over the character, Swan’s drawings looked about as sophisticated as Popeye. Sullivan looks back at his Maui with some embarrassment too. He wishes he’d made the goddess of death (she chews up Maui in her rocky vagina) less monstrous and a little more, well, human.

Gods just aren’t that interesting. Even Hercules knew that. He made his dad send him to earth even though it meant turning mortal. That’s The Mighty Hercules version, a second-rate cartoon in production as Marvel started casting The Mighty Thor down to earthly newsstands in the early 60s. Even the crown princes of Olympus and Asgard would rather hang with us humans. My favorite demigod, that mightily dorky Hercules, died the year I was born. Those were reruns I was watching Sunday mornings before church on Pittsburgh’s old UHF channel 53. Like Priam’s memory, mine is a bit staticy, but I think Zeus molds Hercules’ godly powers into a magic ring to slip on while battling injustice and whatnot. Odin pulls the same trick with a walking stick. I understand the impulse. It’s hard watching your kids grow up and leave their childhood myths behind.

The Mighty Hercules

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Thor 2

According to the new Thor movie, every few millennia the universes line up for an anything-goes cosmic cross-over called the Convergence. Inhabitants of unrelated realms get sucked through portals and tossed together to defy the laws of physics. It happened for the first time in 2012. They called it The Avengers.  Superheroes from all the Marvelverses were plucked from their disparate origin worlds to converge in a single, box office-defying blockbuster.

Physicists predict the next Convergence will occur in 2015—not once, but twice! Not only will The Avengers 2 draw the sequel-spinning franchises of Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America together again, but Warner Brothers’ Batman vs. Superman have Gotham and Metropolis on a collision course—with Paradise Island and Starling City and other DC planets to be swept into the same Justice League gravity pit.

But which Convergence will come to define all of superhero reality?

In Thor: the Dark World, an evil dark elf wants to use the Convergence to remake reality in his own dark image. He’s played by former Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston, but his real name is Christopher Nolan. The Dark Knight trilogy and the gray tones it casts over Man of Steel now define the DC brand. It’s a humorless void happier with the droning rumble of Christian Bale’s Bat-rasp than the giggles of a live audience.

Christopher Nolan

The Dark Knight Elf wants to crush the world into a Black Hole. But Thor, with his lightning bolts and deadpan timing, is all about levity. He’s super-hunk Chris (not Christopher) Hemsworth in the credits, but his real name is Joss Whedon. The Asgardian—like his buddies Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, and even the ever earnest Steve Rodgers—is a Comedian. He throws that mighty hammer at all kinds of monstrous bad-asses, but he it’s our funny bone he keeps hitting. I didn’t see Joshing Joss’ name in the credits, but I hear Mr. Whedon was responsible for major rewrites and reshoots—all part of his uber-duties as the overseeing Odin of the Marvelverses. He’s Captain Convergence, and he wants the world to end in a laugh not a rasp.

Joss Whedon

Of course the Whedonverse isn’t a flawless reality. There’s a moment in Thor 2 when a funeral barge sails over an Asgardian waterfall and hangs there a moment before dropping—a little like Wile E. Coyote after sprinting past the edge of a canyon. It would be pointless to criticize a Road Runner cartoon for its failure to follow basic laws of physics. And the same is true of Thor: the Dark World and the laws of plotting. The word “convenient” comes to mind, as does “inexplicable” and “far-fetched.” Director Alan Taylor is hoping we’ll be too busy enjoying ourselves to ask annoying questions like “How is it that a random convergence portal just happened to drop Thor’s girlfriend of all people into the exact spot where the Dark Elf’s reality-destroying superweapon has been hidden for millennia?” Comic worlds tend to cut corners. Do we really need to hear a ponderous explanation? Nolanland has plenty of those, and its’ still pockmarked with its own plot portals.

The Whedonverse—despite Whedon having literally majored in Women’s Studies—also can’t find much for Natalie Portman to do but look lovelorn and occasionally panic-stricken. This might be the result of the gender-challenged fabric of superhero reality, since DC can’t even turn a Wonder Woman screenplay penned by Joss Whedon into an actual movie. Apparently Hollywood executives think fanboys won’t buy tickets to see scantily-clad women in fight scenes. And yet the shirtless beefcake shot (Hemsworth provides a couple screamers) has become a staple of the genre (the clothing-challenged Stephen Amell flexes weekly on the CW’s Arrow).

This may or may not be why my wife surprised us both by saying she wanted to see the new Thor movie. I was so underwhelmed by the first that I was going to pass, but I’m glad she suggested it. I like dumb fun. I also like smart fun, but that combination has yet to Converge on a superhero universe. I’m hoping it won’t take a millennia.

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Is the War on Terror over yet? It was written to be a mini-seriesAfter the 2003 fall of Baghdad, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld outlined plans for an immediate invasion of Syria. Lebanon, Somalia, and Sudan were up afterwards, with Iran crowning the Bush Administration’s “seven countries in five years” plot.

It was a naive story, one modeled on World War II and the swift collapse of the Axis. A decade later, the American public can’t even stomach Syrian air strikes let alone a ground invasion. We would all like the War on Terror to be over, but it’s evolved instead. Now we’re stuck with a less combative but never-ending Cold War on Terror.

That could prove a problem for superheroes. Costumed crusaders make lousy diplomats. Captain America would just infiltrate those Syrian chemical depots. The Human Torch would take out Iran’s nuclear plants with a few fire balls. The Sub-Mariner wouldn’t negotiate with Russia; he’d fly in and grab Snowden by the throat.

It will take a few Hollywood mega-flops before superheroes change their big screen tactics, but I predict that change is coming too. Just look at the last time America’s legion of leotards faced a cooling of national attitudes.

Captain America 1954

1954 should have been a good year for superheroes. Sure, the plummet in post-war sales wiped most superpowers off newsstands, but the Man of Steel had made the leap to TV. The first two seasons of Adventures of Superman were looking like a hit for ABC. No wonder Atlas (formerly Timely, soon Marvel) Comics decided to revive their golden age sellers. Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Captain America cranked out a million copies a month during the war, with Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch right behind. Now the three were fronting their own magazines again. The Torch even returned atomic-powered, a happy side effect of the nuclear testing that awakened him from his desert grave. 

Over at DC, superheroes hid on the home front during World War II. Except for a smiling, patriotic splash page selling bonds, you wouldn’t have known there was a war on. That’s part of why DC’s trinity—Superman, Batman, Wonder Wonder—were the only supers to survive the post-war plummet. They stayed out of Cold War politics too. The Man of Steel never came near the Iron Curtain. Instead of bashing Commies, Adventures of Superman softened Superman’s crooks into cartoonish comedy. DC stapled “the American way” to the old “truth and justice” credo, and that’s as far as the Red Scare crept into Superman’s true blue tights.

But at Atlas, superheroes remained bound to America’s real-world supervillains. So with Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito vanquished to the Phantom Zone, they used the Cold War substitute. Sure, Joseph Stalin was dead, but Soviet sickles and hammers still replaced swastikas on Sub-Mariner’s first cover. Captain America stands with his shield raised in a self-congratulatory cheer below his new 1954 tag phrase “Commie Smasher!”

It made sense. Joseph McCarthy’s communist-vilifying absolutism was a good fit for unexaminedly violent supermen populating a patriotically distorted fantasy world of pure good and evil. The timing was right too. McCarthy’s popularity popped in 1950 with his never-substantiated charge that the State Department was infested with Communists. When Washington Post cartoonist Herbert Block coined the pejorative term “McCarthyism,” the Senator embraced it. His 1952 McCarthyism: The Fight For America even linked Communism to Hitler.

Atlas wasn’t the only comic book company backing McCarthy. Prize Comics hired Simon and Kirby to revive their brand of patriotic violence with another star-chested super soldier. Simon had titled his original Captain America sketch “Super American,” but he and Kirby went with Fighting American for their Cold War redo. Doing Captain America’s resurrection one better, Fighting American was literally a corpse, a dead World War II hero and right-wing TV commentator reanimated and inhabited by his puny kid brother. And that’s the best definition of “MyCarthyism” you’ll even find. 

So why didn’t any of these superpowered pinko-pounders last even a year? Captain America and the Human Torch went down in flames after just three issues. Sub-Mariner dribbled out ten. Stan Lee blamed the flop on the “stridently conservative scripting,” the same script McCarthy was working from. As a Senate chairman, he accused the U.S. Army of harboring masked Commies, and so the Army-McCarthy hearings kicked off in April 1954. On newsstands the same month, the first cover of Fighting American boasted: “Where there’s Danger! Mystery! Adventure! We find The NEW CHAMP OF SPLIT-SECOND ACTION!”  The hearings ended in June, the cover date of the last issue of Human Torch. The last Captain America was removed from newsstands the following month. Which means Atlas made its cancellation decisions during the hearings. Commie-bashing superheroes fell with their Commie-bating role model.

Instead of cancelling, Kirby and Simon went a different but equally anti-McCarthy direction. June-July is the last non-satirical issue of Fighting American. Prize introduced a redesigned logo for August-September, and the new cover includes two clownish communist villains and the ironic warning: “Don’t laugh—they’re not funny—POISON IVAN and HOTSKY TROTSKI.”

Fighting American cover

Jingoistic superheroism was literally a joke. The Senate condemned McCarthy in December, while Fighting American joked his way into Spring. Simon and Kirby had an eighth issue ready, but Prize never printed it.  When McCarthy died in 1957, he stayed dead too. Captain America rose a decade later, but he was a changed man. Marvel even declared that 1954 guy an impostor. Stan Lee said he wanted to express his own “ambivalent feelings” through the new Captain and “show that nothing is really all black and white.” Or white and Red.

If history repeats itself, superheroes will be a joke again soon. But first our contemporary McCarthies and their “stridently conservative scripting” would have to flop. The GOP’s polls plummeted after the shutdown, but Senator Cruz and his Tea Party cohorts look fine in their gerrymandered districts. According to his filibuster transcript, Cruz even believes he’s a member of the Rebel Alliance fighting the Evil Empire in Star Wars. It’s not a comic book, but the two-dimensional thinking is the same. The Tea Party is happy as long as they have that pinko Obama to bash in the name of the American way.


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