Monthly Archives: December 2013
Paul Revere died in 1818 and was reborn in 1861. His resurrection gave him the strength of three men and the power of bilocation: He was both in the church tower swinging a lantern and on his horse across the river receiving the message. Fellow riders, William Dawes and Samuel Prescott, stumbled and vanished into the white space between the stanzas of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride,” the poem that created the larger-than-life American hero. When the actual, human-sized Revere died, his obit writer didn’t even mention that not-yet-legendary midnight ride.
Paul Revere is one of several super-Americans Tarek Mehanna, a Pittsburgh-born pharmacist convicted of supporting Al Qaeda in 2012, named as his role models. Batman was at the top of the list. “When I was six,” Mehanna told his sentencing judge, “I began putting together a massive collection of comic books. Batman implanted a concept in my mind, introduced me to a paradigm as to how the world is set up: that there are oppressors, there are the oppressed, and there are those who step up to defend the oppressed.”
After Batman, school field trips and high school history classes showed him “just how real that paradigm is in the world.” He admired the oppression-fighting Paul Revere, Tom Paine, Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, John Brown, Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. “Everything a man is exposed to in his environment becomes an ingredient that shapes his outlook,” Mehanna explained. “So, in more ways than one, it’s because of America that I am who I am.”
Judge O’Toole sentenced him to seventeen years. Glenn Greenwald calls that “one of the most egregious violations of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech,” one that history will condemn along with “the architects of the policies he felt compelled to battle.” It could be a while before history makes its ruling, so meanwhile O’Toole’s stands—a panel of judges rejected an appeal last month.
Like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Tarek Mehanna is a writer. He supported Al Qaeda by pen rather than sword. Longfellow was the first American to translate Dante’s Divine Comedy into English. Mehanna translated “39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad” and posted it online from his bedroom in his parents’ suburban Boston home. That sounds considerably less poetic than a midnight gallop, but like his hero, Mehanna is a messenger.
“I mentioned Paul Revere,” said Mehanna, “when he went on his midnight ride, it was for the purpose of warning the people that the British were marching to Lexington to arrest Sam Adams and John Hancock, then on to Concord to confiscate the weapons stored there by the Minutemen. By the time they got to Concord, they found the Minutemen waiting for them, weapons in hand. They fired at the British, fought them, and beat them. From that battle came the American Revolution. There’s an Arabic word to describe what those Minutemen did that day. That word is: JIHAD, and this is what my trial was about.”
That’s not a definition most Americans know. The FBI, however, defines “Terrorism” as “acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law” and that are intended to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population” and/or “influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.” There’s a Spanish word to describe that:
Johnson McCulley’s grasp of colonial history is even looser than Longfellow’s, but the pulp novelist knew what Americans loved: Champions of the Oppressed. Zorro waged his one-man war on the corrupt regime of Spanish California. His activities included whipping judges, disfiguring soldiers, and killing at least one military officer in open combat—all with the aim of coercing a tyrannous governor into reversing his abusive policies. Batman co-creator Bill Finger was six when The Mark of Zorro hit theaters in 1920. Finger included stills of the masked and swashbuckling Douglass Fairbanks in the scripts he handed Bob Kane to draw.
When Mehanna was collecting Batman comics in 1989, Michael Keaton was playing the caped crusader in theaters, but the paradigm was the same. “Muslims should defend their lands from foreign invaders – Soviets, Americans, or Martians,” Mehanna told Judge O’Toole. “This is not terrorism, and it’s not extremism. It’s what the arrows on that seal above your head represent: defense of the homeland.”
Whether you think Mehanna was unfairly convicted or not (my jury is still deliberating), he is a devout follower of American Superheroism. He, like many of his fellows Americans, likes things simple. He sees the world through a six-year-old’s eyes: the good guys and the bad guys they battle. That’s a black and white universe, with all the poetically inconvenient nuances dropped into the stanza breaks and panel gutters. Longfellow sacrificed Dawes and Prescott to preserve the simplicity of his heroic vision. Madeline Albright, argues Mehanna, sacrificed “over half a million children” who died due to “American-led sanctions that prevented food, medicine, and medical equipment from entering Iraq.”
The figures are contestable, but the Department of Defense considers “incidental injury” to non-military targets lawful “so long as it is not excessive in light of the overall military advantage.” So a Stanford Law School study, for example, estimates that drone attacks in Pakistan have killed up to 881 civilians, including 176 children. Such “collateral damage” differs from terrorism because the deaths, although premeditated, were not the overt goal—a distinction irrelevant to the victims.
Longfellow would leave the body count out of any poetic rendering of the War on Terrorism. We prefer our Paul Reveres heroically purified. Eugene Debs, another of Mehannna’s role models, was six when “Paul Revere’s Ride” was first published in Atlantic Monthly. Debs grew up to be a champion of oppressed laborers and was sentenced to ten years in prison under the Espionage Act of 1917 for speaking against U.S. involvement in the first World War. President Harding commuted the sentence after the war ended. Perhaps some future, post-War on Terror President will do the same for Mehanna, but I doubt it. America loves its Batman paradigm too much. It would take another Revolution to overthrow it.
[A version of this piece first appeared in the Roanoke Times on November 30, 2013.]
Who was the historical Jesus? Recent studies have razored the verifiable facts down to a skeleton so thin I made the mistake of suggesting at a dinner party that there’s not enough evidence to assume a real Jesus ever existed. Isn’t it just a question of faith?
This did not make me popular with the religion professor across the table. She cited the usual witnesses, Josephus, Tactus, Pliny, all nice guys but a bit flimsy on cross-examination. It’s tricky when you see just how many Christs (it’s not a name but a title, “the messiah”) were wandering Roman-occupied Israel during the first century. Add the even longer tradition of pagan godmen born of virgins who die for us and are reborn, and Jesus may be the most rebooted superhero in history.
But if Jesus wasn’t the first self-sacrificing demigod to save the world, he’s by far the most influential. It doesn’t take a biblical scholar to recognize other family resemblances: a Jew found by Egyptians, a Kryptonian by humans; a human reared by apes, fairies, or elves, a wizard by muggles, a king by backwater nobles, the son of God by Jews. The boy is always fated to grow up extraordinary: prophet, Man of Steel, jungle lord, Santa Claus, Voldemort-slayer, King of England, God. Movie directors also love to shoot their spandex godmen in crucifix-evoking poses, Superman especially (Smallville, Superman Returns, Man of Steel), and a Last Temptation motif runs through the screen genre too (Superman II, Spider-Man 2, The Fantastic Four, The Dark Knight Rises, The Wolverine).
There’s enough written on the historical Jesus to crash a Kindle, but the New and Improved Testament of Superman would be simpler. Did a historical Clark Kent ever walk the Earth? Interpretations fall into three camps:
1) Literalists accept the claims of the canonical Media as absolute: Clark was an extraterrestrial with supernatural powers dedicated to humankind.
2) Historicists analyze both canonical and non-canonical Media in search of the so-called authentic Clark, a human being of purely naturalistic ability around whom followers later developed legendary tales.
3) Mythicists reject that any Clark, human or extraterrestrial, existed, arguing that early Superman worship was actually an adaptation of pre-existing practices common to the era.
Literalism dominates popular culture. A 2012 Rasmussen poll found that 86% of Americans believe Clark Kent walked among us, and 77% believe he was resurrected after his battle with Doomsday. While vaguely aware of the academic controversies surrounding the historical Clark, the average comic book reader would never question Superman’s extraterrestrial origins and powers. Literalists prefer the traditional assumption that Superman Media were created through infallible inspiration and that dissecting long-cherished productions is an offense to followers. But no belief system, no matter how deeply ingrained in a cultural psyche, is exempt from intellectual examination. Believers should be willing to combine the faith of their convictions with the rigor of impartial analysis.
Looking first at canonical Media, both Historicists and Mythicists make much of the fact that Superman Adventures contain a lot of internal contradictions. Was, for instance, the infant Clark ever placed in an orphanage? The Adventures According to Max show that he was, but Adventures According to George include no orphanage and depict only the Kent foster parents finding and raising the Superman child. Max never even mentions the Kents. Some Literalists explain the inconsistency by citing Jerome & Joe, arguably the oldest of the Media, when the Kents deliver the foundling to an orphanage and then return to adopt him. Reliance on Jerome & Joe, however, points out other contradictions. Superman’s adoptive mother—Martha in the other Media and in most Literalist ceremonies—is Mary here.
The Media is also inconsistent regarding superpowers. Although tradition maintains that Superman always had the ability to fly, Jerome & Joe list no such power, and Clark’s propensity to “hurdle skyscrapers” and “leap an eighth of a mile”—from the earliest version of the Superman creed still repeated by followers today—implies the opposite. The creed itself has undergone multiple changes, and even DC Entertainment, that bastion of superhero fundamentalism, acknowledges that the addition of “and the American way” to Superman’s pledge to fight for “truth and justice” is an interpolation into George, as demonstrated by the phrase’s absence in the otherwise identical Max edition (Max is assumed to be older because later media tend to expand rather than condense earlier sources).
A study of non-canonical Media, or Apocrypha, raises further issues. While The Lost Episodes of Psuedomax can be dismissed, more has been made of the largely forgotten Adventures According to Christopher. The assertion that George and Christopher are the same creator (based mostly on the misreading of “Reeve[s]” as a surname rather than a title) is rejected by most scholars, but the video still challenges many elements of the tradition. Literalists cite it as an independent source supporting the general narrative of the canonical Adventures, but the Christopher depiction of Krypton varies radically with George and lends support to the growing consensus that all accounts of Superman’s planet of origin are conjectural.
Despite annual re-enactments of the baby Superman’s escape from doomed Krypton in his father’s rocket and the tearful farewell of his self-sacrificing biological parents, there’s little support for the tale’s authenticity. Only George in the Superman Media dramatizes it. Jerome & Joe and Max mention only the fact of the planet’s destruction and the arrival of the rocket on earth. Not only may Superman’s biological parents be inventions, but even the name of the planet is suspect (Krypton, or “Crypt-on,” translates “on or from the unknown”).
The most famous Apocrypha are the much maligned Infancy Adventures. These psuedographics, many attributed to the heretical Super Friends cult, feature a pre-adolescent Clark, or “Superboy,” engaging in acts clearly derivative of the canonical Adventures. Literalist tradition maintains that Clark Kent’s powers manifested with puberty. The Infancy Apocrypha pose no direct threat to Literalism, or even Historicism, but Mythicists use the tales to highlight temporal gaps in the biography. Neither Literalists nor Historicists can say much about Clark until the age of thirty when he dons his ceremonial costume and his followers dub him Superman (a title, Literalist point out, Clark never claimed for himself). It’s hardly surprising no records remain of Clark before the age twelve, but the dearth of information after the initial development of his powers and before his dedication to humankind is odd. It doesn’t, however, lead to the Mythicist conclusion that no historical Clark ever existed.
Mythicists also point to elements in the Superman Media that pre-date the composition of the earliest Adventures and so, they argue, disprove a historical basis for Clark Kent. They trace the name “Superman” to an obscure, German prophet and say the Clark/Superman duality is prefigured by the cult of The Scarlet Pimpernel. Mythicists also spend a great deal of time analyzing pre-Superman superhero prototypes in attempt to show that all portrayals of battles between good and evil must be fictional. Many Mythicists view the Superman Media as allegories showing how to realize you “inner Superman” by destroying your “home planet”(the lowly physical world ) and dedicating yourself to “truth and liberty.” Krytonite represents material distractions that prevent initiates from maintaining their spiritual powers.
Although the Mythicist approach is easy to lampoon, a purely Literalist approach is equally problematic. Historicists may unjustifiably dismiss the extraterrestrial nature of Clark Kent, but their scholarship can peel away inauthentic elements from the historical Adventures to reveal the true Superman. Followers owe it to the memory of Clark Kent to bring Superman worship into the 21st century. How can we dismiss other religion’s superstitious beliefs—with their magic cosmic rays and radioactive spiders bites—without fully examining our own?
In 2006, four-year-old Sean Paddock suffocated in a blanket his mother tied too tightly to stop him from getting out of bed. She’s now serving a life sentence for felony child abuse and first-degree murder. She was a follower of Michael Pearl’s parenting manual To Train Up a Child, which warns never to put a child “down and then allow him to get up…. To get up is to be on the firing line and get switched back down.”
In 2010, seven-year-old Lydia Schatz died after being beaten with a plumbing tube. Her father is serving a minimum of 22 years for second degree murder and torture, her mother 13 for voluntary manslaughter and unlawful corporal punishment. They were following Michael Pearl’s advice: “a plumber’s supply line is a good spanking tool. You can get it at Wal-Mart or any hardware store. Ask for a plastic, ¼ inch, supply line. They come in different lengths and several colors; so you can have a designer rod to your own taste.”
In 2011, 13-year-old Hana Grace-Rose Williams died of malnutrition and hypothermia in her backyard. Her father received 28 years in prison, her mother 37. What do you call these people? Michael Pearl, a fundamentalist pastor and founder of the non-profit organization No Greater Joy, says they are good, Christian parents. “Prove that you are bigger, tougher,” teaches Pearl. “Defeat him totally.”
Frank Miller calls these people “Batman.”
Miller and artist Jim Lee stirred up DC in 2005 with their All Star Batman and Robin and its portrayal of a Pearl-style Bruce Wayne abusing his own adopted child. According to a Sheriff’s report, the Williams deprived their adoptive daughter “of food for days at a time and had made her sleep in a cold barn.” Batman keeps Robin in an empty cave and tells him to catch rats if he’s hungry. If he cries, he gets slapped. When Alfred interferes by supplying the twelve-year-old with a blanket and an order of fast food, Batman threatens his butler physically.
Pearl would approve. “It has come to my attention,” writes the evangelist, “that a vocal few are decrying our sensible application of the Biblical rod in training up our children. I laugh at my caustic critics, for our properly spanked and trained children grow to maturity in great peace and love.”And sure enough, Batman’s tough love program quickly transforms Dick Grayson from a whimpering orphan to a power-punching Batman Jr.
Miller is an evangelist too. His God is the Manichean kind of absolute good vs. evil, the one little Bruce Wayne prayed to when he swore “by the spirits of my dead parents to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals.” Miller expanded that dark vision to new depths in the early 90’s with Sin City—while Pearl was self-publishing his parenting manual. The D.A. who prosecuted the Shatz case called To Train Up A Child “truly an evil book.”
In 2009, while the Schatzes were still beating their children with plastic tubing, Pearl was applying his comic book vision of good and evil to an actual comic book titled Good and Evil. He advertises his Bible adaptation as “The Ultimate Superhero Graphic Novel!” and explains that he didn’t want “typical religious art” but “the traditional comic look that is so familiar all over the world.” It’s drawn by Danny Bulanadi, a former Marvel and DC artist whose 1979 Man-Thing is in my attic box of childhood comics. His 80s and 90s credits include Conan, Captain America, Blue Beetle, Hulk, Indiana Jones, Fantastic Four, and The Micronauts. After becoming a born again Christian, Bulanadi, according to the introduction, “was not comfortable with the work he was doing and so quit.” I’m not sure what exactly he was uncomfortable with, since Good and Evil encapsulates the same comic book values as most other superhero stories.
Pearl says it’s “impossible to cover the entire Bible,” so he selects “just that Old Testament background that is pertinent”—which apparently means adding a few supervillain scenes. “The Bible,” according to Pearl, “tells us God created numerous kinds of angelic beings to offer praise around his throne, but one called Lucifer led a third of them in rebellion.” Tales of rebellious angels don’t appear till the Book of Isaiah, yet Pearl needs us to know about them on page one. “But,” he adds, “this is not their story.”
Except it kinda is. We haven’t gotten through the first week of creation before Bulanadi’s sketching evil eyes peering from the blackness of his panels. “On the sixth day,” Pearl declares, “with the evil ones watching, God formed a new creature from the dust of the ground.” They’re there again a page later as God is forming Eve: “Satan, the Evil One, watched.” Two more panels and Bulanadi is drawing a bipedal lizard monster that would look at home in Tales to Astonish: “Satan hated God and wanted to destroy what God was doing, but he needed a way to communicate with Eve, so he entered the body of a beautiful creature and spoke through its mouth.” Pearl and Bulanadi disagree about the adjective “beautiful,” but, more importantly, Pearl disagrees with God. According to Genesis 3:1, “the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made”—Lucifer isn’t a “beast of the field,” and there’s nothing in the Bible suggesting he “entered” it. But Pearl loves to play up God’s arch-nemesis. “Here is promise of a future battle,” he tells us, as Bulanadi’s lizard monster morphs into a snake. Pearl, like most comic book writers, just wants more fight scenes.
If you’re looking for a faithful adaptation, I suggest Robert Crumb’s The Book of Genesis Illustrated. If you’re also familiar with Crumb’s Bible of Filth (it includes the outrageously incestuous “A Family that LAYS Together STAYS Together”), you’ll assume he’s out to lampoon Christianity again. The prominent cover warning, “Adult Supervision Recommended for Minors,” doesn’t help. But you’d be wrong. Crumb’s drawings are respectful. Yes, he, unlike Bulanadi, forgoes conveniently angled vegetation, so there are plenty of full-frontals of Adam and Eve in the Garden, but no sex, just a little cuddling, all of it in God’s benevolent presence.
God’s long beard and robe are a cliché, but they bring out the odd thing about Bulanadi’s God. He’s invisible. The tails of his squiggly talk bubbles point at nothing. When he “formed a new creature from the dust of the ground,” Bulanadi draws the dust forming itself. When “God breathed his own life into the body of clay,” Bulanadi’s glowing cyclone of holy oxygen swirls from off-panel. But Crumb places God front and center, getting his hands dirty and embracing Adam as he exhales into his nostrils.
Crumb also includes all of God’s words. “Every other comic book version of the Bible I’ve seen,” he writes, “contains passages of completely made-up narratives and dialogue, in an attempt to streamline and ‘modernize’ the old scriptures, and still, these various comic book Bibles all claim to adhere to the belief that the Bible is ‘the Word of God,” or “Inspired by God,” whereas I, ironically, do NOT….” Sure enough, go to the No Great Joy website and you’ll learn that “the sixty-six books of the King James Version, nothing added or deleted, constitute the whole of Scripture ‘given by inspiration of God’ to English speaking people.” Crumb uses the King James too, but unlike Pearl, he includes “every word of the original text.”
Pearl’s selectiveness privileges some ideas over others. His Genesis keeps repeating “obey” and “rebellion,” the same words he emphasizes to such destructive ends in To Train Up A Child. His comic book God demands absolute obedience, and so the obedient Pearl demands absolute obedience from children. Part of a child’s training, explains Pearl, “is to come submissively. However, if you are just beginning to institute training on an already rebellious child . . . then use whatever force is necessary to bring him to bay.” And this is justified because Adam’s “willful and direct disobedience to God resulted in legal estrangement from God and precipitated the curse of death on Adam and all his descendants.”
But don’t worry—a diet of beatings and cave vermin can fix that. Alfred may disagree, refusing to be Batman’s “slave,” but Robin gets with the righteous program. When you live in a comic book world of Good and Evil, choices are easy. Robin’s adoptive father, like Pearl, is a divinely pledged instrument of absolutism. And, hey, who doesn’t want to be Batman?
I’m tired of reading excuses from Warner Bros. and DC about how hard it is to adapt Wonder Woman to screen. Now that Gal Gadot has been cast to play the character in the 2015 Batman vs. Superman movie, surely her own feature is in the works? It’s not a hard movie to make. Here’s how you do it.
The first obstacle is generic. Most superhero movies are two stories: the origin and a monster-of-the-week. The hero completes his identity arc with the arrival of a new menace in act two, and so defeating the menace in act three completes that act two plot while ignoring act one. What, for example, does a lizard-man menacing New York have to do with a radioactive spider bite? Batman Begins solves the problem by linking the defeat of the act three menace to the act one origin: Liam Neeson trains and then battles Christian Bale.
This challenge is bigger for Wonder Woman because the origin and the menace are already linked. Nazi Germany is her reason to be, but punching out Adolf in his act three bunker is a lousy ending. Her American flag of a costume deepens the World War II link, making an origin update clumsy. And yet you need her in our current time period by the end of the film or no Justice League tie-in. Captain America presented the same problem, so Marvel threw in a suspended animation twist in the framing scenes. They also replaced Adolf with the Red Skull and inserted him into the origin story as a fellow super soldier, solving the monster-of-the-week problem too.
Wonder Woman needs to land in the 21st century as well, but better to make that leap a plot point rather than an epilogue. That means the origin-triggering menace needs to time travel too. That would be hard except that Wonder Woman’s Amazonian home provides the ready-made solution. Paradise Island is hidden in the Bermuda Triangle, a location legendary for such unexplained phenomenon as disappearances and time anomalies.
I recommend a plane carrying a German A-bomb.
Begin with Wonder Woman’s future love interest, Captain Steve Trevor, stowed inside one of two Nazi bombers on their way to incinerate New York. Steve overpowers the crew, seizes control of the plane, and exchanges fire with the other bomber, sending both tailspinning into the mysterious storm clouds of the Bermuda Triangle. When he comes to, he’s on Paradise Island—where he spends the rest of act one until he and Wonder Woman fly off in her magic plane (it starts out a chariot and winged horses before taking the form of the downed bomber). Meanwhile, modern day scuba divers discover the remains of the second bomber and the still functional A-bomb inside. As a result, when Wonder Woman and Steve emerge from the protective clouds surrounding Paradise Island, they’re not in 1944 anymore. The Triangle (or possibly unseen Hera?) has flung them forward in time to continue Steve’s mission—because the terrorists of your choice (I’m picturing an American-grown Aryan militia) now has its hands on that A-bomb.
But back to the problematic Wonder Woman costume. Why exactly is an Amazonian princess of Greek antiquity dolled up in the American flag? That’s easy. Back in scene one, after a pan of the menacing A-bomb inside the first plane, a German soldier pauses to look down at something he’s stepped on: an American girlie magazine open to a centerfold. As he picks it up and rotates the page, Trevor clocks him over the head from behind, step one in his seizing the plane. It’s a quick gag that will appear to stand-alone—until the Amazonian Queen produces the magazine after agreeing to aid him. They have studied it in order to tailor an outfit that will allow Wonder Woman to blend. In she steps wearing the pin-up girl’s bustier, micro-skirt, and stiletto boots—only in the colors of the flag Steve said represented his cherished homeland. (His subsequent protests go unheeded.)
I’m skipping over much of the fun of act one (Steve among those wacky Amazons), as well as act two (Wonder Woman and Steve among those wacky 21st century Americans), to focus on a bigger problem. Wonder Woman is aloof and off-putting. No other superhero is quite so alien. Not only is she an immortal demigoddess princess, but her mother sculpted her out of magic clay. Even Superman, an actual alien, is a homegrown farm boy at heart. Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker, Tony Stark, they all have flavors of relatable humanness. Thor is the closest equivalent, but he’s male. A majority of the superhero ticket-buying demographic already think women are alien. Wonder Woman is alien squared.
So embrace that weirdness. Make it her character arc. She starts out a bit like Data on Stark Trek—powerful, brilliant, yet oddly clueless too. She’d never seen a man before, and now that she has, she’s not particularly impressed. But she’s curious and comically off-putting in her attempts to interact—all obstacles to overcome in the inevitable marriage plot of act two. Once thrown into the mutually alien territory of 21st century America, she and Steve only have each other. By the time they’ve thwarted the A-bombing Aryans in act three, they’ll have earned their falling action kiss, possibly more.
The story is her growing humanity. Maybe some of that aloofness was an act. She’s seen men before. And her mother didn’t really mold her from magic clay—her mother escaped pregnant from the war lord who enslaved her. As far as that island of theirs, it’s not Paradise. It’s just the one rock on the planet where no woman has ever been raped. Of course she was aloof. And that makes her closure of her own marriage plot all the more pleasurable.
The magic lasso has potential too. If Wonder Woman ties Steve up to test the truth of his plea for aid in act one, reverse the situation in act three (a trick James Cameron pulled in both True Lies and The Abyss). But please no bondage references. She strings the lasso around herself to prove a point, to answer a question Steve would never have asked on his own. (Does she love him? She says no. But, he wonders afterwards, does the lasso even work on her?)
There’s tons more, but those are the basics. Plus one warning: Do NOT begin with a voiced-over montage of Amazonian history. It’s boring and distracts from the real story. Anything important we have to pick up with Steve on the island.
Diane Nelson, president of DC Comics, said back in July that Wonder Woman “has been, since I started, one of the top three priorities for DC and for Warner Bros. We are still trying right now, but she’s tricky.” Greg Silverman, Warner Bros.’ president of creative development and worldwide production, was even more vague in October, boldly declaring that “We have been doing a lot of thinking for years” and “everything that has been speculated are things that we’ve thought about.”
With Gadot officially cast, let’s hope they can move past all the tricky speculations and make an actual movie now.
“Who’s your favorite mutant, professor?”
If you’re going to teach a college course on superheroes, it’s a question you should be ready to answer. I wasn’t. My first thought was Lady Gaga. Artpop wasn’t out yet, so I must have been thinking about the human-motorbike cyborg of Born This Way. But instead I rattled off something about Magneto (his rare, bookworm incarnation adorns this blog). Now I’ve got a better answer. My favorite mutant was the first of them all:
The Night Wind.
Never heard of him? You’re in good company. He stopped adventuring in 1919, three years before his out-of-work creator shot himself. He premiered forty years before Stan Lee first and most famously attached the biological term (already an evolutionary staple of post-Hiroshima scifi) to the world of superheroes.
In fact, “mutant” is so Marvel, I’m hesitant to use it outside their multiverse. I remember the narrative nausea my adolescent self felt when DC buckled under the popularity of X-Men and shoehorned their first “mutant” into Teen Titans. It was 1984, and Ex-Marvel writer-editor Marv Wolfman must have forgotten he’d switched employers (again). It didn’t help that the character was a joke, a mute mutant (is that a pun?). I had to google his name (Jericho) and his powers (mind control?), but remembered his dorky blonde curls all too well.
Not that Stan Lee’s first use of the term was impressive either. Two years cranking out his silver age pantheon (Fantastic Four, Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, Iron Man, Dr. Strange), he hit his limit for origin stories. So the 1963 X-Men, “The Strangest Super-heroes of All!,” were all Born That Way like Lady Gaga.
As Professor Xavier professed in the first issue: “You, Miss Grey, like the other four students at this most exclusive school, are a MUTANT! You possess an EXTRA power . . . one which ordinary humans do NOT! That is why I call my students . . . X-MEN, for EX-tra power!”(Lee had one more origin story in him: Daredevil was hit by a radioactive truck the following year. Which pretty much proves the point about creative exhaustion.)
Alias “The Night Wind” crawled out of the primordial pulp goo of The Cavalier magazine way back in 1913, six months after Tarzan of the Apes set the new standard for superhuman adventuring. Like Superman, Bing Harvard, A.K.A. the Night Wind, had no problem tying “bow-knots in crowbars.” But instead of crashlanding from Krypton to be reared by mid-western farmers, or shipwrecked from aristocratic England to be reared by anthropoid apes, Bing was a foundling reared by an American banker.
He also possess “a wonderful, God-given strength,” which was his “birthright,” what “his unknown father and mother had bestowed upon him as an inheritance.”
Peter Coogan terms him an “anomaly.” That’s a pretty good synonym for “mutant,” but the superhero scholar is talking genre tropes, few of which the character fits. I photocopied an excerpt for my class, and someone said it read like a supervillain origin story. Hard-working orphan framed for embezzlement turns his powers against the powers that be.
It’s true, Bing breaks the wrists of any cop who tries to arrest him, but after he clears his name (with the help of a lady cop who later marries him), he settles happily into law-abiding domesticity. The truly anomalous gene in the series is the never-solved mystery introduced in its opening chapters:
Who are Bing’s parents?
Jericho, it turns out, is the son of the villainous Deathstroke, his powers the product of biological experimentation done on his father. All those Marvel mutants can be traced back to Celestial tampering in the gene pool millions of years ago. But Bing? Frederick Van Rensselaer Dey (writing as his alter ego Varick Vanardy) didn’t care. Dey had cranked out Nick Carter dime novels for decades, but the Night Wind peters at four. The fact is frustrating, but even if I could sit down with Frederick over coffee in Dr. Doom’s time-travel machine, I’m not sure I would steer him any differently.
Bing’s real superheroism is only visible when you step out of the time machine and wander the nineteen-teens awhile. As a historical researcher, my first mistake is always the same. I assume past cultures are just like us, only in funny clothes. But immerse yourself in the period (I recommend the New York Times online database) and you realize you’re looking at a planet more alien than Krypton.
I always give my Superhero students a crash course in eugenics, a term, for those who’ve ever heard it, they associate with Nazi Germany not homegrown America. Where did the idea of killing the genetically unfit come from? Forget Auschwitz. The American Breeders Association of Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island recommended installing a gas chamber in every town in America.
This was 1911. Two years before the Night Wind started snapping police wrists. The Breeders’ other recommendations (immigration restrictions, racial segregation, interracial marriage ban, sterilization) became law as Dey was writing. Back then everyone simply knew the human race would devolve if Aryan supremacy wasn’t maintained. That was just common sense. That was the alien air everyone was breathing.
So if you were a recent immigrant, if your parents weren’t Anglo-Saxon, if you weren’t from good reliable Protestant stock, you were probably unfit. Genetic traits in those days included just about anything: poverty, promiscuity, feeblemindedness, criminality. Your parentage defined you. The cop who frames Bing says it all:
“Who are you, anyhow, I’d like to know? It ain’t nothin’ out uh the way that you should be a thief. I guess you inherited it all right. It’s more’n likely that his dad is doin’ time right now, in one uh the prisons, an’ his mother, too, maybe. It’s the way uh that sort. He don’t know who his antecedents was.”
Who was Bing? Who were his parents? Dey didn’t care. His hero was just born that way. And Dey blesses him for it. Literally. He declares his powers “God-given.” They’re not the result of eugenics movement’s so-called scientific breeding. He’s an accident, a genetic anomaly. He’s homo superior. Not the well-born superman eugenicists were obsessed with, but an up-from-the-muck mutant, defying the prejudices all of America was inhaling.
Dey was singing “Born This Way” a hundred years before Lady Gaga:
“I’m on the right track baby,
I was born to be brave.”