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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: April 2014

I was quizzing a friend of mine at a recent dinner party about her living in England as a kid. Ellen and her older brother attended Bishop Kirk Middle School in Oxford, where she had Philip Pullman for a homeroom teacher. He also gave her private guitar lessons while not busy teaching English and Maths (the course is inexplicably plural in England). This was the late 70s, a couple of decades before His Dark Materials made Pullman an internationally celebrated fantasy author. School plays were still his main creative outlet. He wrote one a year and staged it in the lunchroom with a curtain draped in front of the counter. Mrs. Dixon, the music teacher, composed the songs and thumped them out on piano.

Ellen remembers virtually nothing else about the 1978 Spring-Heeled Jack, just that her brother played a sea captain and got to kiss the prettiest girl in school (who became a supermodel and married Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran). Pullman later adapted the play into a children’s book—which I’m holding in my hands right now. It’s part comic book, which is appropriate, since Spring-Heeled Jack is also England’s first superhero. “In Victorian times,” writes Pullman, “before Superman and Batman had been heard of, there was another hero who used to go around rescuing people and catching criminals.”

pulllman cover

Pullman’s illustrator, David Mostyn, draws Spring-Heeled in a cape and top hat—which is disappointing if you’ve seen any of the Victorian illustrations. I don’t know how Pullman dressed his middle school actor (“the costuming was all very much pulled-together,” Ellen says), but Alfred Burrage’s 1886 penny dreadful describes “the tight‑fitting garb of the theatrical Mephistopheles” which “covered him from his neck to his feet” and “made him look like a huge bat, with a body of brilliant scarlet.” This “most hideous and frightful appearance” also included a “black domino” mask, claws “of some metallic substance” (adamantium perhaps?), a “small black cap” with a “bright crimson feather” (though he sometimes substituted a “large helmet” or “the head of an animal, constructed out of paper and paste”),  a “high‑heeled, pointed shoe” and “something like a cow’s hoof, in imitation, no doubt, of the cloven hoof’ of Satan” (“It was generally supposed that the ‘springing’ mechanism was contained in that hoof”), and a “capacious cloak,” the flaps of which distended in flight “until they resembled a pair of wings.”

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When Burrage rebooted in 1904, he added a batcave and then stole an escaped-fugitive-framed-for-treason revenge plot from The Count of Monte Cristo. Burrage wasn’t Jack’s first chronicler though. An anonymous serial sprung up in 1867, with a title lifted from John Thomas Haines’ 1840 play, Spring-Heeled Jack, The Terror of London. If that subtitle doesn’t sound very superheroic, it’s not. The play was inspired by the possibly hysterical reports of a real-life assailant who terrorized the suburbs of London in 1838.  According to The Times, a “young man in a large cloak” tore at one victim’s “neck and arms with his claws” and “vomited forth a quantity of  blue and white flames from his mouth.” Police suspected a carpenter too drunk to recall anything of the night, but spreading rumors named the devil and/or Henry de la Poer Beresford, the Marquis of Waterford. The mayor of London received an anonymous letter accusing an individual from “the higher ranks of life” of accepting a wager to garb himself “in three disguises—a ghost, a bear and a devil” and accost and so deprive “ladies of their senses.”

Springheel_Jack newspaper

True or not, the tally of senseless ladies soon climbed to thirty with the Morning Post reporting how  “females” were “afraid to move a yard from their dwellings.” If Jack was the devil, then Old Nick must have just flapped in from the Kentucky frontier where he was routinely sighted as the animal-headed, demon-avenger Jibbenainosay in Robert Birds’ 1837 Nick of the Woods. The devilish Marquis was never arrested, but two of his imitators were. Spring-Heeled Jack, however, had already bound into legend. The name—originally just a reference to the culprit’s elusiveness—reverse engineered itself the superpowered ability to leap over coaches and houses by supernatural and/or mechanical means. “Spring-Heeled Jack” also became a standard term for unsolved assaults and ghostly sightings, culminating with that 1888 Whitechappel serial killer dubbed “Jack the Ripper.”

I’d say Spring-Heel traffics a lot with the Faust legend too. Mephistopheles migrated from German to England in 1592 via Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. The alchemist wagers his soul to employ the devil as his personal servant. The Marquis’ wager does Faust one better—he becomes the devil himself. Burrage trades in the Marquis for a dashing young baronet, further ennobling the nobleman in the process, but the plot is the same. An aristocrat transforms himself into a man-bat  to play “the part of the Good Samaritan,” a Victorian Batman protecting distressed damsels from burglars, rapists, and swindling relatives cheating them of their inheritances.

Mephisto (the truncation popular with Marvel) continues to terrorize the multiverse. He started tempting the Silver Surfer back in 1968, before contracting the Ghost Rider for his soul, duping the Scarlet Witch and Vision out of parenthood, and, in a recently flamboyant retcon, swapping Spider-Man his aunt’s life for his marriage. Mephisto also may or may not be responsible for the damnation-threatening hate mail Phillip Pullman received after his last identity-splitting novel, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. “The letter writers essentially say that I am a wicked man, who deserves to be punished in hell,” said Pullman. “Luckily it’s not in their power to do anything like sending me there.”

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If Pullman did sell his soul for literary success, it was in the 1980s when sales for his children’s novels allowed him to quit his day job at Bishop Kirk Middle School. Ellen remembers the first, Count Karlstein, as another of her teacher’s beloved school plays: “Those plays were just so fun, so fantastic—he really was the best teacher. A born storyteller.” Spring-Heeled Jack ends with a mad dash to a disembarking ship where the tale’s Middle School-aged children are reunited with their father, and then the “strange, devilish figure” vanishes without a parting word.

“I wonder,” says Rose, “what Spring-Heeled Jack will do tomorrow night?”

phillip pullman

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Fishermen for the Good News Messiah Monthly Board Meeting, Passover, Year of Adam 4037

Attending: Andrew, Bartholomew, James, Jesus “the Anointed,” John, Judas, Luke, Mark, Mary Magdalene, Matthew, Peter “the Rock,” Philip, Simon, Thomas

Secretary/Recorder: Mary Magdalene

The Meeting was called to order by Vice-President Peter at sunset.

Corrections to last month’s Minutes: In the Signs Report, the secretary recorded that “Jesus healed all who had various diseases.” Thomas requested that “all” be replaced with “some.” Mark suggested “many.” The Board agreed on “many,” and the Minutes were approved.

Announcements:

The potluck at Lazarus’ house is postponed again due to illness.

The Secretary agreed to “man” the Board’s publicity/sign-up table in the marketplace for the duration of the Feast of the Unleavened Bread.

John presented the PR/Communications Report:

Fall-out from the temple incident continues to undermine the Board’s “Our Messiah is Better than those Other Messiahs” Campaign. Some of those polled referred to Jesus as an “ignorant peasant” and a “lunatic,” but they may have had him confused with “Jesus, son of Ananias.” The good news is that John the Baptist’s endorsement before dropping out of the race has moved some of his base in our direction (minus, of course, the “his head will grow back” extremists).

Peter made the following Motion: Merchants who sell animals at the temple for sacrifices will not be termed “thieves” by any Board member, including the Messiah; the overturning of merchants’s tables is henceforth strictly forbidden. The Motion was seconded by Simon. The Motion passed 12-0. Jesus abstained. The secretary is a non-voting member.

Luke presented the Resurrections Report:

The Neopythagorean Party’s new teacher-sage Apollonius of Tyana raised a bride from the dead last week. The event received better media coverage than both our Lazarus and daughter of Jairus resurrections combined. This is due in part because the bride came from a consular family, and the venue was Rome. Also the girl died just as she was getting married and was resurrected from her bier with a crowd present. Although relocating is not a serious option at this time, the Board discussed ways to capitalize on existing publicity opportunities.

Peter made the following Motion: The Messiah will perform all future resurrections outdoors and not in private chambers, and afterwards he will not tell the parents of resurrected individuals: “No one should know this.” Also, referring to the dead person as merely “sleeping” is discouraged. The Motion was seconded by Matthew. Motion passed 12-0. Jesus abstained. The secretary is a non-voting member.

Judas presented the Finance Report:

After mentioning again how a previous expenditure by a non-voting Board member on a jar of pure nard ointment for the Messiah significantly reduced cash flow, the Treasurer announced that just this morning he received a new donation of thirty silver pieces. Although the donor prefers to remain anonymous, there was conjecture that the money may be connected in some way to the Pharisees. Peter considered this an excellent in-road for mainstreaming the Campaign.

Jesus presented the Hospitality Report:

In contrast to the fasting habits of John the Baptist’s disciples and the Pharisees, Jesus explained that we do not fast because “the groom is still present.” Noting that recent polls had ranked John the Baptist as “demented” and Jesus as a “glutton and a drunk,” Peter suggested that the Messiah consider a middle road approach.

Jesus made the following Motion: Bread is his body, wine is his blood, and Board members should eat and drink in his memory after he is gone. The Motion was not seconded.

The Board next discussed which of its Members is greatest. No consensus was reached.

The Treasurer left the meeting to pay the host for the meal and accommodations.

Old Business:

Peter requested that the Messiah once again clarify his use of the term “Son of Adam.” Did it mean an insignificant creature, a human being next to God in the order of creation, or an apocalyptic figure bringing the end of history? Also discussed were the Messiah’s use of the terms “Son of Man,” “Son of David,” and “Son of God,” and how they further complicate the Board’s message. No consensus was reached. Peter agreed to chair a sub-committee to discuss the matter further and present a recommendation to the full Board.

The Messiah said he needed to go to the Mount of Olives and pray.

New Business:

Peter placed the question of whether the kingdom of God is “present or future” on next month’s agenda.

The Treasure returned with an angry mob and kissed the Messiah on the cheek.

The Vice-President adjourned the meeting.

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Equinox

I’m looking at DC’s newest character, Equinox, a teen superheroine based on Cree activist Shannen Koostachin. She’s a member of Jeff Lemire and Mike McKone’s Justice League United. Like Marvel’s Alpha Flight, the team is Canadian, so the character continues the U.S. publishing tendency to place Native America outside of U.S. borders. But I see some promise here: Equinox is from an actual tribe, her costume isn’t red, her features aren’t cartoonishly “Indian,” and she’s not showing any thigh or cleavage. That helps offset the “her power stems from the Earth” cliché, and I actually like the idea of a character who will have different abilities as the seasons change–never heard that one before.

But will she be better than Wyatt Wingfoot? He was born in Fantastic Four No. 50, cover-date May 1966 , on newsstands a month before my June-issued birth certificate. Wyatt’s dad is “Big Will Wingfoot – the greatest Olympic decathlon star this country ever had!”Here on Earth-1218, that’s James “Big Jim” Thorpe, gold medalist for the 1912 Olympic pentathlon and decathlon. Stan Lee even gave his name to the college coach trying to draft Wyatt: “I’m sorry! I’m not interested in athletics, Coach Thorpe!”

FF51_WyattWingfoot

Jack Kirby penciled the issue, but I prefer Sante Fe painter Ben Wright’s Thorpe rendering. I picked “Jim Thorpe in His Carlisle Indian School Football Uniform” for the cover of my novel School for Tricksters. Wright’s website says he “draws from Native American ceremony, symbolism, and tradition” and identifies him as “part Cherokee,” rarely promising signs. But I like the painting because the old-timey helmet sets the period, plus his slightly stylized Thorpe looks really cool. The big “C” on his chest could be a superhero’s. Carlisle Man!

kate buford thorpe bioschool for ticksters cover

Biographer Kate Buford later told me Wright got it wrong. The cover of her Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe features the original photo with an inside caption: “Jim Thorpe with the Canton Bulldogs, c. 1920, Canton, Ohio.” So the “C” is for Canton, a team Thorpe played for after his career peaked. Ben painted over the facts—the way lesser-known inker Joe Sinnott thickened Kirby’s lines for FF 50.

School for Tricksters is a historical novel, so I paint over a shelf of facts too. My daughter’s 11th grade history teacher capped a recent Carlisle Indian School lesson with “Oh, I’m sure those kids must have wanted to be there,” so my daughter grabbed a row of books from my office to write a rebuttal for her research paper. I recommended Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance: The Glorious Imposter. I used to exchange emails with the author, Donald Smith, up in Alberta. Thorpe is the School’s most famed student, but I prefer the adventures of Chief Buffalo Child, AKA Sylvester Long. He’s the real Carlisle Man.

sylvester long lance bio

The School railroaded children from their western reservations to the middle of Pennsylvania to be transformed into working class mainstream Americans. According to Long’s autobiography, he was born a full-blood Blackfoot in a great plains teepee, and so an ideal student for the program. Except that his birth certificate says Winston-Salem, NC, and both his parents were ex-slaves. Which still makes him the ideal Carlisle student, since Carlisle was all about painting over facts. The real-life dual-identity Long graduated to Hollywood, where he played another version of himself–until the movie exposure lead to his unmasking and suicide.

Sylvester, a mild-mannered library janitor, longed to be exceptional—a supeheroic dream for a mixed blood Clark Kent in the Jim Crow South. But did he just doodle over his real self or did he become his disguise? When Dean Cain proposed to Teri Hatcher on the season two finale of Louis & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, the network shot three answers: “Yes,” “No,” and “Who’s asking, Clark Kent . . .  or Superman?” They were trying to prevent the “real” answer from leaking before the show aired. Smith documents at least a dozen Lois Lanes in Long’s adventures, but no marriage proposals.  His identity wasn’t stable enough to settle down.

I ask my students the same question when analyzing superhero texts: what is the character’s core identity? I suggest four options: A) the superhuman, B) the human, C) neither, or D) both. For decades, Superman’s answer was “A.”Clark Kent is just the pair of fake glasses he wears around humans (David Carradine gives this a great monologue in Tarantino’s Kill Bill). But that flips to “B” after the 80s reboot. Clark lived a perfectly normal childhood until his superpowered puberty made him hide behind a cape and tights.

Sometimes students go with “C,” arguing that both Clark and Superman are public faces worn by an inner Kal-El. It’s a common idea outside of comics, that we all have a secret private self who transforms according to context: home, work, frat party. It fits the standard master-of-disguise trope too. Long could have wandered downtown any of his free Saturdays and leafed through a copy of Nick Carter Detective Weekly at a Carlisle newsstand in 1912. The old banner illustration is a row of heads, “Nick Carter In Various Disguises,” with the largest and literally central self right there in the middle.

But “D” is the most daring choice. What if the center doesn’t hold and we’re all just a series of shifting performances? Zorro admits as much when he unmasks himself as the languid Don Diego. The costume wasn’t just a disguise; it made his whole body come alive—something Bruce Banner and the Hulk understand too. Are any of us really the same person when we’re angry? And is the goal to find a “golden mean” as Don Diego promises his fiancé? Like Teri Hatcher, Lolita is no polygamist. And yet who is the Scarlet Pimpernel’s wife married to? If Sir Percy is just a foppish disguise, why does he keep laughing that inane laugh even after he unmasks?

All that is too complicated an answer for early 20th century America. When they unmasked Sylvester they only saw a dual-identity fake. Except then why did a private detective have to write over the facts, claiming he fingered rouge and hair-straightening gel from the corpse? Long’s alma mater championed the dual-identity model too, doctoring “before” and “after” photos of graduating students. Sometimes you have to white-out a shirt collar to keep the world savage/civilized.

Big Jim’s white/not-white wife was a Carlisle student too. She and Jim lost their first child, James Junior, their only son. Kate Buford and I give dueling banjo readings ending with the death scene, proof that narrativized facts and fact-based fiction can get along just fine. Kate and I live in the same town too, and our books came out just weeks apart—coincidences even most comic book readers wouldn’t believe. Stan Lee invented the Keewazi Indian reservation for the Wingfoots and dropped Wyatt into the Human Torch’s college dorm. Johnny looks up at his hulk of a roommate: “Say, whatever they feed you at home, I’d like it on my diet!”

Wyatt is still wandering the borders of the Marvel multiverse. I think he’s tangled with the Kree a few times too–an alien race Lee and Kirby created a year after Wyatt and who have only a phonetic resemblance to Equinox’s tribe. Equinox’s alter ego, Shannen Koostachin, was only fifteen when she died in 2010, but Canada’s House of Commons unanimously celebrated her superheroic achievements:

“In her short life, Shannen Koostachin became the voice of a forgotten generation of first nations children. Shannen had never seen a real school, but her fight for equal rights for children in Attawapiskat First Nation launched the largest youth-driven child rights movement in Canadian history, and that fight has gone all the way to the United Nations.”

And now she’s made it to Justice League United.

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Hollywood used to keep its political allegories in the subtext, especially when it comes to fanboy franchises with scifi premises and blockbuster budgets. It’s a smart policy. A little political subtext gives a mass consumer product a twist of relevancy while maintaining plausible deniability should some rightwing commentator accuse Hollywood of promoting a liberal agenda. Fanbases can be even touchier, preferring their escapism untainted by cultural context.

I’m not sure how anyone who saw John Carter of Mars (and I know that’s a small subgroup) could not acknowledge its all-but-overt parallels to the war in Afghanistan and global climate change—and yet when I mentioned these at a fan site, I was accused of imposing a political agenda on an innocent Disney movie. Iron Man 3 fans couldn’t pretend that a soldier dressed in a metallic flag didn’t bear at least some relation to the U.S. military—but that didn’t require every viewer to see Tony Stark blowing up his armada of remote control suits as a condemnation of U.S. drones policy. Ditto for Star Trek Into Darkness. Not only do you have nefarious drones run by a secret and unregulated government agency, but a rogue Starfleet ship named Vengeance reenacts 9/11 in a CGI orgy of collapsing skyscrapers.

That’s what used to pass as subtle in Hollywood. But now Captain America: The Winter Soldier pulls off the allegorical kid gloves. As Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune points out, the movie “bemoans America’s bloodthirsty, weapons-mad impulses” and, according to the Washington Post’s Zade Rosenthal, it taps “into anxieties having to do not only with post-9/11 arguments about security and freedom, but also Obama-era drone strikes and Snowden-era privacy.” Both reviewers are right, but since they each afford only a sentence to those political messages, a reader might think we’re wading into the gray zone of interpretation. We’re not.

The latest Marvel Entertainment installment is about the head of a massive government agency struggling to the do the right thing for his country. His name is Nick Fury, and the fact that Samuel Jackson and Barack Obama are both black is the film’s only coincidence. Robert Redford plays the Bush-era neocon on Nick’s rightwing shoulder while on his idealistic left Captain America still believes in American values like freedom and honesty and not shooting people because surveillance software predicts they’ll commit a crime.

The plot mechanics pivot on three mega-drones and their promise of Absolute Security. They lurk in a shady labyrinth beneath an innocuous government office building, and when they come alive all of America will finally be safe. At least that’s what Fury-Obama wants to believe. But Redford was beamed in from a Cold War espionage film to provide an internal Evil Empire. It’s not just that the NSA-SHIELD has been infiltrated; the organization was corrupted from its founding. That’s what President Eisenhower warned back in 1960.  He called it the Industrial Military Complex. Marvel calls it HYDRA. When those three mega-drones go online, they’re going to combine into a Death Star that only the rebel alliance of Captain America and his kick-ass sidekicks can stop.

It’s a familiar formula. Peter Weller played Redford’s role in Star Trek Into Darkness, and both platoons of secret thug agents wear black and neglect to shave. Instead of a villainously superpowered Benedict Cumberbatch we get a villainously superpowered Sebastian Stan, both of whom emerge from cryogenic suspension. Which is not to say directors Anthony and Joe Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely lack all subtlety. I quite like how the nefarious HYDRA hangers rise from beneath a cement pool that echoes the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool that Captain America sprints around in the opening shot. And the film’s use of the Smithsonian Museum should win Best Exposition Gimmick of the year. Costumer designer Judianna Makovsky scores points too. When the Captain finds cause to go rebel, he morphs into a white t-shirted, motorcycling James Dean, and when Nick sees the error of his ways, he trades in the leather of his Matrix wardrobe for a hoodie and shades.

That’s how Hollywood would like Obama to dress now too. Like his alter ego, the President needs to recognize that all his well-intentioned spying and droning violate the freedoms he’s trying to safeguard. That’s the film’s overwhelming message. And the fact that it’s being shouted by a massive, profit-hungry corporation says even more. Marvel Entertainment doesn’t represent the liberal left or the libertarian right. They shoot straight down the middle at the bottom line.

I doubt Obama will follow in Samuel Jackson’s footsteps and gut the NSA, but the film’s overt political commentary is drawing votes at the box office, earning over $10M its opening night. Marvel is literally banking on the new anti-surveillance alliance of liberals, conservatives and independents. It’s almost enough to make me long for those innocent days of apolitical, escapist entertainment.

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