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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: May 2014

(Tyler Wenger, another vet from my spring term Superheroes course, reveals Superman’s biblical roots.)


One may find it hard to look at the red underwear-clad Man of Steel as anything more than a super-powered illustration on the pages of Action Comics and the light of the big screen. However, when ignoring the tights and cape and analyzing Siegel and Shuster’s character closely, Superman can be seen as more than Jerry Siegel’s brainchild, but as the savior of the imagination of this young Jewish writer. Superman, or Clark Kent, first appeared in Action Comics No. 1 in June of 1938 right before World War II began in 1939, a time in which Jewish people needed a savior more than ever. In Superman Chronicles, vol. 1, a compilation of the earliest appearances of the Man of Steel, Siegel and Shuster introduce Superman, a modern messiah. Though the caped crusader’s stories are extremely dramatized and embellished when compared to his robed counterpart, the parallels of defending the oppressed, possessing unequalled power, and ultimately ushering in peace remain strong.  Yet Siegel’s messiah surpasses his notion of the biblical messiah, Jesus Christ, through Superman’s conquering and avenging salvation of men. While both characters fulfill the messianic prophecies, Superman embodies the man of action that the oppressed Jews await. Here we see the pen of Joe Shuster and the mind of Jerry Siegel produce a fictional messiah comparable to Jesus of Nazareth in mission and grander than His spiritual salvation through physical action.

Jesus Christ and Superman both play the role of messiah, or leader and savior of a group of oppressed people. While salvation through Jesus is spiritual and salvation through Superman is physical, the mission of saving the oppressed remains constant. One of many messianic prophesies in The Holy Bible claims that the Jewish people “will cry to the Lord because of oppressors, and He will send them a Savior and a Champion, and He will deliver them” (New American Standard Bible, Isa. 19.20). Christians believe that this “champion” of the oppressed Jews came in the form of Jesus to deliver men from sin and to pave the way to heaven in His blood. In Action Comics No.1 when Clark Kent first dons his red and blue, Siegel introduces him as: “Superman! Champion of the oppressed. The physical marvel who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need!” (Siegel 4). Superman, like the prophesied messiah, is described as champion of the oppressed, but the deliverance he brings remains entirely physical and does not go beyond earthly oppression. In one of Superman’s earlier cases, he frees miners from the tyranny of a sadistic boss after which the newly enlightened boss, Blakely, asserts, “You can announce that henceforth my mine will be the safest in the country, and my workers the best treated…” to which Kent replies, “Congratulations on your new policy. May it be a permanent one! (If it isn’t, you can expect another visit from Superman!)” (Siegel 44). Superman caused Blakely to consider the abusive and dangerous conditions that he puts his workers through day in and day out, ultimately delivering them from their oppression. The Holy Bible proclaims: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him” (English Standard Version, Acts 10.38). Though biblical Jesus did free the oppressed from the grasp of the devil and sin, the Jewish belief is that this deliverance is meant more tangibly in freedom from their worldly oppression, which Christ did not bring in their eyes. Though deliverances by Superman such as the salvation of Blakely’s mine workers in Action Comics No. 3 meet the Jewish stipulation obliging physical salvation, Christians believe that their spiritual deliverance is more than enough to call Him the champion of the oppressed. Whether physically super or spiritually godly, both men succeed in fulfilling this prophecy in their own way.

Though not quite as defining as the act of salvation, one of the most universal, unquestioned aspects of a messiah figure is the possession of unrivaled power and dominion. Powerful is an understatement when talking about “Superman, a man possessing the strength of a dozen Samsons!” (Siegel 84). He is a warrior and a powerful leader, capable of overthrowing corrupt rulers and strong-arming the evil. To the defenseless Jewish people in Europe, and even to these Jewish artists in the United States, these qualities made Superman the perfect messiah. Therefore, it is no coincidence that Siegel references Sampson’s strength, represented biblically when “a young lion came toward him roaring. Then the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him, and although he had nothing in his hand, he tore the lion in pieces as one tears a young goat” (Judg. 14.5-6). Having already granted enormous physical power upon one of His servants, the Jewish people expected God to send a messiah with even greater physical power to lead them in battle against their oppressors. Again, Jesus’s power comes in a less tangible medium than His bulletproof analog. Superman, however, was granted this physical prowess by his Jewish “fathers,” continuing to directly allude to the story of Samson when “with incredibly agile movement, he twists aside, seizes Leo by the scruff of his neck… ‘Wanna play, huh?’… And carries the ferocious carnivore back to its cage as though it were a harmless kitten!” (Siegel 95). Instead of physical power to fight a lion, the gospel characterizes Jesus with the power and strength of character of God. He is called “Immanuel (which means, God with us)” (Matt. 1.23). As God on earth, Jesus is given “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28.18). The bible seems to define power as spiritual authority rather than the physical strength of Superman Chronicles. Given that Jesus did not decide to use His authority to physically free the Jewish people from their Roman oppressors, instead choosing to defend men in spiritual warfare, it is not hard to see why some Jewish people of the time and in biblical times would prefer the tangible power shown by Superman. These passages do not only allude to Superman’s association with Old Testament prophecies, but they suggest that Siegel and Shuster considered these prophecies and stories during Superman’s conception, consciously creating a messiah figure.

Finally, the biblical Jesus and comic book Superman differ greatest in the nature of the peace reached through their actions. While both saviors usher in peace, the dichotomy of the spiritual repercussions of Jesus’s actions and the physical actions of Superman continues to appear. The Old Testament verse promises that the messiah “shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples…nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isa 2.4). In biblical times, people believed that this promised peace between the Romans and the Jews, among other nations, and this would give them their salvation and deliverance. Though Superman uses a vast amount of violence, he is constantly fighting for peace. In one of the Man of Steel’s most broad—and possibly his most destructive—rescues, he attempts to save the slums when he discovers that “‘the government rebuilds destroyed areas with modern cheap-rental apartments, eh?’ Building after building crashes before his attack! ‘Then here’s a job for it! – When I finish, this town will be rid of its filthy, crime-festering slums!” (Siegel 109). This passage acts as the perfect image of the messiah figure riding into battle to create peace among his people through completely active, violent, and destructive means. While Superman, or rather his writer Jerry Siegel, seems to prefer this method of justice, comic book readers can discover examples of peace through diplomacy. In Action Comics No. 2, he even settles a war between nations by bringing the opposing war-lords together and explaining: “‘Gentlemen, it’s obvious you’ve been fighting only to promote the sale of munitions! – Why not shake hands and make up?’ And so, due to the conciliatory efforts of Superman, the war is halted” (Siegel 30). Shuster draws Superman as a logical, supportive mentor, helping men to choose peace themselves rather than forcing it upon them. In the same way Jesus, King of the Jews, sought to bring His people to spiritual and eternal peace through His defeat of death in the form of resurrection. He points back to the prophecy in Isaiah by reassuring His disciples that “I [Jesus] have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16.33). This promise does not assure that God’s people will live life on Earth in utter peace and harmony, at least by the society’s definition, but rather looks to the peace granted by admission to the eternal paradise of heaven. However, Jesus does additionally promise peace on Earth in the form of the Holy Spirit, referred to the Spirit directly as “Peace” in reciting: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give you” (John 14.27). Though this peace is more physical than that spoken of in the passage above, it remains a spiritual peace in that it perpetuates as an inner peace despite the trials and tribulations of life. The peace brought by Superman does not deal with the spiritual or how people deal with situations, but focuses entirely on eliminating as many tribulations as possible; therefore, Superman’s goal of peace is yet to be realized. Regardless of the completion of his goal, the physical and spiritual missions perpetuated by Superman and God-as-man yield sufficient peace to bestow both heroes with the title of a messianic peace-bringer.

While Siegel found inspiration for the last son of Krypton in the only begotten Son of God, the two differ in one very distinct way: Jesus is the spiritual savior of eternal life while Superman is the physical savior of life on earth. In their defense of the weak, their strength in battle, and their strides towards peace, it is fitting to call Superman the Messiah of the twentieth century, at least in the fictional comic book world. With Nazi Germany attempting to enslave and oppress the Jewish people, the physical salvation of Superman would understandably sound more appealing to some than a spiritual salvation, just as it may have to the Jews of biblical times under the heel of the Roman empire. Just as the Christian messiah reshaped the religion of those Jews who accepted His teachings, “Superman is destined to reshape the destiny of a world!” (Siegel 16)… at least in the comic books and in the minds of his avid readers.


Works Cited

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010. Print.

Holy Bible: Updated New American Standard Bible. Anaheim, CA: Foundation Publications, 2007. Print.

Siegel, Jerry and Joe Shuster. Superman Chronicles. V1. New York, NY: DC, 2006, Print.


(Tyler Wenger is an upcoming sophomore at Washington and Lee University from Franklin, TN. He is a pre-med student planning on majoring in Neuroscience and he has been both a Christian and a die-hard Superman fan for his entire life.)

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(I just finished teaching my spring term course Superheroes and am happily surrendering my weekly post to some of my former students. Today’s guest blogger is Joy Putney.)


The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, published in 1900, has captivated American culture and spawned numerous book, film, and stage adaptations which play with the original narrative. The novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire was brought to the stage and became one of the most famous musicals of all time. Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz by Steven Schwartz premiered on Broadway in 2003, and a national tour directed by Joe Mantello recently visited Altria Theater in Richmond, VA for performances in April and May of 2014. This twist on the traditional Ozian tale presents the Wicked Witch of the West as the hero, using her powers to fight an oppressive regime. Her narrative mimics many plot elements in Gladiator, a novel by Philip Wylie; Superman Chronicles, a comicbook collection by Jerry Siegel; and Zorro, a film directed by Fred Niblo. All three of these draw from the superhero genre, borrowing a set of standard tropes identified by Blythe and Sweet in “Superhero: The Six Step Progression,” Coogan in Superhero: The Secret Origins of a Genre, and Reynolds in Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology. Wicked warps The Wonderful Wizard of Oz into a superhero story. Elphaba’s powers, origins, dual identities, mission, and outsider status all mark her as a bona fide superhero, in the same hallowed ranks as Superman and Zorro.

Blythe and Sweet, Coogan, and Reynolds all agree that “a superhero by definition has super powers” (Blythe and Sweet). Elphaba meets this essential requirement, possessing powers on par with Hugo Danner, Superman, and Zorro. She is born with the ability to read the Grimmerie, “The Ancient Book of Thamaturgy and Enchantments” with ease, while her sorcery tutor, Madame Morrible, required “years of constant study” to “read a spell or two” (Schwartz 1.13). Elphaba gives herself the power of flight with a “levitation spell” on a broom shortly after she obtains the book (Schwartz 1.14). Even without the Grimmerie, Elphaba is a powerful sorceress, capable of telekinesis and mind control; Morrible recognizes Elphaba’s unusual powers: “Many years I’ve waited for a gift like yours to appear” (Wicked,Schwartz 1.2). Blythe and Sweet also stipulate that a superhero’s powers must be “limited” to allow a “possibility for conflict” (Blythe and Sweet). Hugo Danner, a superhuman, may have “inklings of invulnerability,” but can be killed “by the largest shells” (Wylie 20, 77). Superman has nearly identical powers to Hugo, but can be disabled by an electric shock and “can’t survive fire” (Siegel 192). Zorro is a master swordsman and clever freedom fighter, but he is mortal and can be killed like any normal man (Niblo). Elphaba discovers her limitations too, finding that her “spells are irreversible,” making her unable to reverse her spell that painfully implanted wings in Chistery’s shoulders (Schwartz 1.13). When she first discovers her powers, she claims she is “unlimited,” but later, she revises her tune, saying: “Just look at me—I’m limited” (Schwartz 1.2, 2.8). Like other superheroes, Elphaba has limited powers that elevate her above the common man.

Elphaba’s origins—her acquisition of powers and her upbringing—draw heavily from standard plot elements present in Gladiator, Superman Chronicles, and Zorro. Elphaba’s father gives her mother a “drink of green elixir” before their sexual encounter. Neither of her parents shares her unusual pigment or her powers, so the beverage is the implied source of her abilities (Schwartz 1.1). In a virtually identical scene, Hugo obtains his powers from a serum of “alkaline radicals” injected into his mother after his father, Abednego, drugs her with “opiate” in “a bottle of blackberry cordial” (Wylie 3, 9). Reynolds discusses upbringing in his definition, stating that the hero “often reaches maturity without having a relationship with his parents” (16). Elphaba’s father is the Wizard of Oz, but her mother is married to the Governor of Munchkinland (Schwartz 2.14, 1.2). Because of this, Elphaba never knows her true father, and is raised by her stepfather. Superman is also brought up by foster parents, since his biological parents die on “the doomed planet” of Krypton (Siegel 195). His foster parents die before he takes on his superheroic cause, leaving him without parents when he reaches adulthood (Siegel 196). Elphaba’s mother dies giving birth to her younger sister, Nessarose, and she has no relationship with her stepfather, who blames her for her mother’s death, openly despises her, and only sent her to school to look after her sister: “Elphaba, take care of your sister. And try not to talk so much” (Schwartz 1.7,2). Similarly, Zorro’s father ridicules his apparently weak, idiotic son, unaware that Diego Vega is Zorro (Niblo). Hugo is a “foreign person” to his father, and they never become friends; even trying “to open a conversation” with his father is a hopeless cause (Wylie 20, 121).  All three characters deal with an absent father figure. The way Elphaba obtains her powers and her lack of good parenting show similarities to other superhero narratives, demonstrating that her origins fall within the well-established tropes of the genre.

All three definitions agree that a superhero must have a dual identity, an “everyday persona” coupled with a “superpowered self” (Blythe and Sweet). Reynolds states that the “extraordinary nature of the hero will be contrasted with the mundane nature of the alter ego” (16). Elphaba assumes the identity of the Wicked Witch of the West, much like Diego Vega becomes Zorro and Clark Kent becomes Superman. Coogan claims that a superhero identity “comprises the codename and the costume,” with the codename representing the hero’s “inner character” and the costume being an “iconic representation” of that inner character (32, 33). As an example, Coogan argues that Superman’s codename identifies him as “a super man who represents the best humanity can hope to achieve” and his costume emblazons the first letter of his codename on his chest (33). Elphaba adopts a superhero identity described by Madame Morrible: “Her green skin is but an outward manifestorium of her twisted nature! This distortion! This repulsion! This Wicked Witch!” (Schwartz 1.14). Elphaba’s codename fits her, because her primary power is sorcery, and “she is evil” in the eyes of the people of Oz (Schwartz 1.14). The language Morrible uses in reference to Elphaba’s “unnaturally green” skin is almost identical to Coogan’s description of the superhero costume: her skin represents the power and supposed evil inside her (Schwartz 1.1). She loses her glasses when she becomes the Wicked Witch, much like Clark Kent puts them away when he dons his Superman attire (Schwartz, Siegel). However, unlike Superman and Zorro, Elphaba does not switch back and forth between her identities. She permanently transforms into her superhero identity at the end of the first act, saying: “Something has changed within me” (Schwartz 1.14). Elphaba has the superhero’s dual identities, and her codename and costume match Coogan’s idea that they are outward manifestations of inward character.

Elphaba transforms into the Wicked Witch to accomplish a superheroic mission identical in principle to those of Superman and Zorro. Coogan argues that “the superhero’s mission is prosocial and selfless” (31). Hugo Danner’s mission is not prosocial and selfless, and Coogan notes he “gains personally from his powers,” but Elphaba, Superman, and Zorro all fit Coogan’s idea of the hero working for society’s benefit (31). Elphaba recognizes that “something bad is happening to the animals” as they are being stripped of their rights to speak (Schwartz 1.4). Though she is not an animal, she pursues justice for them when she meets the Wizard. She opens her case to the Wizard by saying, “We’re not just here for ourselves,” showing her altruistic motivations (Schwartz 1.13). She adopts her identity to fight the Wizard, who enforces the “reporting of subversive Animal activity,” once she realizes he will not defend them and that she must (Schwartz 1.14). Most of her heroic actions occur off stage, but in a conversation with Elphaba, Nessarose reports: “You [Elphaba] fly around Oz, trying to rescue animals you’ve never even met” (Schwartz 2.2). She performs superheroic deeds on stage as well. She uses a spell to give crippled Nessarose the ability to walk, she saves Boq from death by turning him into a tin man, and frees flying monkeys held captive by the Wizard (Schwartz 2.2,3). Elphaba could fit the description pinned to both Zorro and Superman–a “champion of the oppressed” (Niblo, Siegel 196). Zorro states that he fights for “justice for all,” and says, “to rid our country of a menace is a noble deed”, clearly identifying his driving motivations (Niblo). Similarly, Superman uses his powers in a “one-man battle against evil and injustice” (Siegel 84). Elphaba’s mission is exactly the same, fighting the injustice in Oz, serving as a champion of the oppressed animals.

The superhero’s mission makes them an outsider, viewed as evil by the general populace because “the superhero transgresses man’s petty laws” (Blythe and Sweet). Reynolds states that “the hero is marked out from society” (16). They often fight the establishment, because “the hero’s devotion to justice overrides even his devotion to the law” (Reynolds 16). Superman is called “the devil himself,” Zorro is called a “graveyard ghost,” and Elphaba is called “the wickedest witch there ever was” and “the enemy of all of us here in Oz” (Siegel 11, Niblo, Schwartz 1.1). Superman works above the law. His most drastic vigilante action involves reducing a ghetto to “desolate shambles” so that its reconstruction will guarantee “splendid housing conditions” (Siegel 110). From then on, police seek to “apprehend Superman” (Siegel 110). Zorro fights the government which is oppressing the poor, and a contingent of governor’s troops set out to capture him (Niblo). Elphaba first attempts to work within the law, appealing to the Wizard on behalf of the animals (Schwartz 1.13). When the Wizard refuses to comply, she says, “I’m through with playing by the rules of someone else’s game,” and becomes the Wicked Witch, a vigilante fighting for the animals and defying the Wizard, the ruling authority in Oz (Schwartz 1.14). She is outcast because society views her deeds as an evil: “Wickedness must be punished. Kill the witch!” (Schwartz 2.7). Elphaba’s defiance of law and order makes her an outsider who is hunted and viewed as wicked, much like Superman and Zorro.

Elphaba’s superpowers, origins, dual identities, altruistic mission, and outsider status all fit the well-established tropes of the superhero genre. Though the musical is not advertised as a superhero story, it contains all the necessary ingredients for one. Elphaba meets the superhero definitions of Blythe and Sweet, Reynold, and Coogan. She also draws story elements from Gladiator, Superman, and Zorro. Elphaba’s mission ends when she sees Glinda the Good send the Wizard away; with Glinda’s rule, the animals will no longer be oppressed. Her mission accomplished, Elphaba leaves Oz with her love Fiyero, akin to Zorro’s retirement and marriage to Lolita once he causes the governor to abdicate (Schwartz 2.9, Niblo). While the musical ends with Elphaba and Fiyero walking off into the night, it is not entirely implausible to imagine her coming to Earth and teaming up with this world’s mightiest heroes. The Wicked Witch of the West could be the next member of the Avengers or the Justice League; with all her similarities to those supermen, she would fit right in.


Works Cited

Blythe, Hal, and Charlie Sweet. “Superhero: The Six Step Progression.” The Hero In Transition. Bowling Green: Popular, 1983. Print.

Coogan, Peter. Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre. Austin: MonkeyBrain Books, 2006. Print.

Reynolds, Richard. Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology. Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi, 1992. Print.

Schwartz, Steven. Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz. 2003. Web. <;.

Siegel, Jerry and Joe Shuster. Superman Chronicles. V1. New York: DC, 2006, Print.

The Mark of Zorro. Fred Niblo. United Artists, 1920. Film.

Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz. By Stephen Schwartz.  Dir. Joe Mantello. Altria Theater, Richmond. 2 May 2014. Performance.

Wylie, Philip. Gladiator. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1930. Print.


(Joy Putney is an engineering and biology major at Washington and Lee University. When she’s not doing mad science, she loves writing fantasy novels, playing the oboe, and fighting crime.​)

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tarzan sunday comic strip

My father’s parents never learned much English. Their newspaper included only one comic strip, Tarzan, translated into Slovak. Mutineers didn’t maroon them on the jungle shores of rural Pennsylvania, but like Tarzan’s parents, they settled in a strange land oceans from their ancestral homeland. Tarzan swung into newspapers on January 7, 1929, same day as Buck Rogers, and so another Minute Zero in superhero history. The strip expanded to a Sunday full-page in 1931, the year my father was born. Jerry Siegel was soon parodying it in his school newspaper with “Goober the Mighty,” the oldest and least promising of Superman’s siblings.

My grandparents were still new to the U.S. when All-Story Magazine published Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes in 1912. It was an instant, imitation-spawning hit. Charles Stilson’s 1915 Polaris of the Snows swapped Africa and apes for Antarctica and polar bears, but it’s the same formula (especially since there are no polar bears in Antarctica and no “anthropoid apes” anywhere). Stilson wrote two more Polaris novels (and his own ending to Tarzan of the Apes since Burroughs’ marriage plot cliff-hanger annoyed him so much), but as the King of the Jungle expanded his reign to stage and film and radio, imitators stopped disguising their loin-clothed knock-offs: Bomba the Jungle Boy (1926), Morgo the Mighty (1930), Jan of the Jungle (1931), Bantan (1936), Ka-Zar (1936), Ki-Gor (1939).

polaris of the snows

Of course Tarzan was a knock-off too. He’s a lost worlder, the genre H. Rider Haggard kicked off in 1885 with King Solomon’s Mines and into which Doc Savage and Superman boldly followed. Burroughs also swapped out Rudyard Kipling’s India and wolves; his jungle isn’t that different from Mowgli’s. W. H. Hudson preferred Venezuela for his 1904 jungle girl Rimi in Green Mansions. DC adopted Rimi decades later, when the softcore jungles were already well-endowed with leopard-furred felines. Eisner and Iger’s Sheena beat Superman to comic books by a year, with literally dozens swinging behind her. Stan Lee tried Lorna the Jungle Queen in the 50s and in the 70s Shanna the She-Devil. She later married Ka-Zar, Marvel publisher Martin Goodman’s first pulp jungle man who re-premiered in Marvel Comics No. 1 beside Namor and the Human Torch. Stan Lee transplanted him to Polaris’ Antarctic lost world, swapping out ancient Romans for ancient dinosaurs.

ka-zar and x-men

My father and his friends debated who would win in a fight: Tarzan or Buck? Tarzan or the Phantom? Tarzan or Batman? If you don’t think a loin cloth counts as a superhero costume, remember the original Jungle King is also secretly the English aristocrat Lord Greystoke. If that’s not enough of an alter ego, reread chapter 27, “The Height of Civilization,” in which the former savage transforms into Monsieur Tarzan, a French-speaking socialite who on a gentleman wager can strip off his tux, wander naked into the wilds, and return two pages later with a lion across his shoulders.

Burroughs calls him a literal “superman,” the first time the eugenic term immigrated into pulps, evidence of its own genre expansion. Corn flake tycoon John Kellog founded the Race Betterment Foundation in 1906, and Indiana, with a boost from future president Woodrow Wislon, passed the nation’s first sterilization law a year later. In 1911, the American Breeder’s Association added immigration restrictions, racial segregation, anti-interracial marriage laws, and gas chamber “euthanasia” in the fight to stop unfit breeding, while the First International Eugenics Congress met at the University of London the following year to discuss the same agenda.

Burroughs did not attend, but he was a fan. One biographer describes him as “obsessed with his own genealogy” and “extremely proud of his nearly pure Anglo-Saxon lineage,” believing in the “extermination of all ‘moral imbeciles’ and their relatives.” The October issue of All-Story hit stands a few weeks after the Eugenics Congress convened. I doubt Winston Churchill ever touched an American pulp mag, but he and his fellow attendees agreed with Burroughs’ bewildering ideas about genetics. I always photocopy chapter 20, “Heredity,” for my class. Despite being reared by apes, the young Lord Greystoke knows how to bow in a courtly manner, “the hall-mark of his aristocratic birth, the natural outcropping of many generations of fine breeding, an hereditary instinct of graciousness which a lifetime of uncouth and savage training and environment could not eradicate.”

DNA wouldn’t be discovered for decades, so Eugenicists thought they could weed out everything from crime to promiscuity by stopping unfit parents from giving birth to unfit babies. One of those babies was my dad. His honky parents hailed from the degenerate regions of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, what anti-immigration advocates called “beaten men from beaten races; representing the worst failures in the struggle for existence,” men with “none of the inherited instincts and tendencies which made it comparatively easy to deal with the immigration of the olden time.” That’s why Congress capped the immigration quota for Eastern Europeans at 2% of their 1890 U.S. population.  But my grandparents had already weaseled in.

Adolf Hitler was a private in the Austrian-Hungarian Army at the same time and in the same city as my grandfather, but rather than accept a second conscription, Stefan Gavaler bound over the Tatra Mountains to land in Carrolltown, PA. He died in the kind of mining accident Superman tries to prevent in Action Comics No. 3 (“Months ago, we know mine is unsafe—but when we tell boss’s foremen they say, ‘No like job, Stanislaw? Quit!’”). One of Stefan’s sons went on to marry the daughter of a corporate vice-president of good German stock and produce just the sort of Aryan-diluting mongrel Burroughs most feared: me.

Tarzan, however, marries well. After learning he’s not a half-ape but an undissipated carrier of high English blood, he forgoes both his kingdoms to pursue the eugenically fit daughter of an American professor to the woods of Wisconsin.  It takes a second book for Jane to marry him, and a third to produce a son. Burroughs wrote a sequel almost every year until 1939. Tarzan (the name means “white skin” in anthropoid ape language) could wrestle a gorilla into submission, but Adolf Hitler was too much for him. After Nazi Germany, Eugenics retreated into a lost world in the cultural jungle. Burroughs only published one more Tarzan novel before his death in 1950.

I think Disney was the first to send Tarzan to Czechoslovakia. A Slovak-dubbed version of the song “Son of Man” is on youtube. I can’t understand a word of it, but I’m happy it exists.


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If nothing else, at least the Captain America sequel solidified the call for a Black Widow movie. According to Justin Craig at Fox News, Scarlett Johansson “is quickly becoming the smartest, toughest female action star. . . . Forget Captain America 3 or The Avengers 2, it’s time ScarJo gets her very own Marvel franchise.” Slate’s Dana Stevens even thinks Johansson’s “dryly funny Natasha at times comes perilously close to being … a well-developed female character?” That’s high praise in a genre bereft of leading women.

gal gadot ww

Why are Batman and Superman onto their third film incarnations, while Wonder Wonder still wallows in 70s TV? Presumably Warner Brothers’ hiring of actress Gal Gadot for the Man of Steel sequel will change that, but the company is making no promises for a stand-alone venture. When asked about her own movie prospects, Johansson had to writhe her way around Marvel’s non-commitment: “Sure, we talk about it all the time. You know, I think it’s something that, um, again I think Marvel is is certainly, um, listening, and if, you know, working with them for several years now, you kind of see how, ah, they respond to the audience, um, demand I think for something like that.”


You’d think Marvel and Warner never heard of Jennifer Lawrence or the profits Lionsgate is earning from Hunger Games. Not that Lawrence is the leader of a new trend. Her cartoon counterparts changed gender barriers a decade ago.

I’m looking at a 2007 study by Kaysee Baker and Arthur Raney, “Equally Super?: Gender-Role Stereotyping of Superheroes in Children’s Animated Programs.” Even though they’d read one 2004 study that found “no significant differences in aggression between male and female characters,” they still predicted that “Male and female character will be portrayed in significantly different and gender-role stereotypical ways.”

They were wrong. Yes, men outnumbered women almost two-to-one, but those men were no longer portrayed as more intelligent, brave, dominant, technical, or task-oriented. And those women were no longer portrayed as more dependent, jealous, romantic, affectionate, sensitive, domestic, damsel-prone, follower-minded, or likely to cry. And both groups “were portrayed as virtually equal in terms of physical aggression.”


If you don’t remember what cartoon superheroes were romping around TV in 2007, I do. My son and daughter had recently grown out of Teen Titans and Justice League, but Cartoon Network was keeping both teams alive in reruns. So, yes, I remember Hawkgirl clubbing the shit out Martian spacecraft with that mace of her, and Raven could have dropped the Titan Tower on Robin’s head any time she liked.

“One way to interpret theses findings,” write Baker and Raney, “would be to proclaim that female superheroes are finally breaking down the gender-based stereotypes that have permeated children’s cartoons for decades.” Instead, the authors spin their findings in the opposite direction: “Adding the masculine trait of aggression to a character who is already portrayed as having traditional feminine traits such as being beautiful, emotional, slim, and attractive, while also losing other more prominent feminine stereotypes (i.e., domesticity, passivity), might suggest that to be heroic, one has to be more masculine, regardless of gender.”

Although the authors use the term “masculine” (meaning socially determined) rather than “male” (biologically), I still sense a hint of essentialist nostalgia for those good ole days when men were men and women were, you know, not men. Because if aggression is now gender-neutral, how can being aggressive also be “more masculine”?

However Baker and Raney interpret their data, news of their findings hasn’t revolutionized the culture. There’s a hell of lot more than a hint of essentialist nostalgia in the comments section for a Walking Dead review at the m0vie blog. When Darren Mooney criticized Tony Kirkman for presenting old school gender attitudes as “unquestioned near-universal truth,” a reader responded: “Seems fairly natural that the group would default to the standard lineup, where men protect the women. In case you haven’t noticed, men are far more aggressive and stronger by nature.”

Don’t tell Gal Gadot. Sure, she looks like a skinny little thing, but after winning Miss Israel in 2004 the next Wonder Woman served two years in the Israel Defense Forces. Israel is one of the few countries that requires military service for both genders—and since a 2000 amendment to the law, that’s meant women having an equal right “to serve in any role in the IDF,” including in combat. The new gender norm has made it across the West Bank border too. The Presidential Guards, the most elite Palestinian military force, currently includes 22 female commandos-in-training. They even look like superheroines since their combat fatigues come with headscarves.

The toy industry is catching on too. The New York Times reported in March: “Toy makers have begun marketing a more aggressive line of playthings and weaponry for girls–inspired by a succession of female warrior heroes like Katniss, the Black Widow of The Avengers, Merida of Brave and now Tris of the book and new movie Divergent–even as the industry clings to every shade of pink.” Actually, the Nerf Rebelle Heartbreaker Exclusive Golden Edge Bow looks purple to me, but it still gets child psychologist Sharon Lamb’s approval: “I don’t see this as making girls more aggressive, but instead as letting girls know that their aggressive impulses are acceptable and they should be able to play them out.”

Meanwhile DC and Marvel, those vanguards of radical feminism, continue to dither over the box office viability of any superhero movie starring a woman. Because, you know, women are, uh, not naturally, um, like that.






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Once again Hollywood has kindly released a superhero movie during my spring term Superheroes course at Washington & Lee University. So my students abandoned our classroom and strolled downtown to our smallville big screen. Here’s their (SPOILER ALERT!) verdict.

Tyler Wenger: “The Amazing Spider-Man 2 found the perfect balance between comedy and tragedy. What Parker lacks in raw power, compared to his villains, he makes up for in his wit. Andrew Garfield portrays this comical side of the Web-head perfectly, a drastic change from the original Toby McGuire trilogy (sorry, old sport). He uses his comedy as a weapon—taunting Electro by calling him “sparky” and brazenly provoking the Rhino, causing both to attack rashly—and as a shield, protecting him and allowing him to bounce back from his many losses.”

Ali Towne: “The Amazing Spiderman 2, although in most ways a classic example of the superhero archetype, does break away from superhero norms. In one of its greatest divergences, Gwen Stacy, the love interest, is killed during a battle with the super villain Electro; Spiderman is not capable of saving her. This is entirely different from the normal superhero trope in which the superhero saves the “damsel in distress”.  By breaking this norm, the writers gave both Spiderman and Gwen a sense of fallibility, mortality and, therefore, humanity that is often lacking in many superhero narratives.”

Joy Putney: “The Amazing Spider-Man 2 shows that heroes and villains are two sides of the same coin, and that their differing motivations determine whether they use their powers for good or evil. Electro wanted to be noticed, and he felt the only way he could achieve that was to remove Spider-Man from the spotlight. Harry Osborn wanted a cure for his disease, and when Spider-Man would not give it, he tried to destroy Spider-Man too. Both villains were driven by selfish desires. Only Spider-Man was selfless; that made him a hero.”​

John Carrick: “The Amazing Spiderman 2 was an exciting film that had plenty of action packed scenes and just the right amount of added romance between Gwen and Peter.  I enjoyed how the plot allowed Gwen to actually help Peter in his role as Spiderman.  She was able to help him figure out that magnetizing his web shooters would allow them to hold a charge.  She also helps save him from Electro and helps Peter figure out that they must kill Electro by overloading his charge capacity.  Although, at the end of the movie, I was very disappointed that they actually let Gwen die.”

Sam Bramlett:  “The Amazing Spiderman 2 is an interesting film in that it follows many traditional superhero tropes to the letter yet twisting the outcomes of these tropes to create greater emotional impact. For example, both main villains (Green Goblin and Electro) are classic examples of friend turned enemy, the Green Goblin being an old schoolmate of Peter Parker and Electro at one point being virtually obsessed with Spiderman. Another example, it is clear that while Gwen Stacy helps Spiderman save the day, she is indeed a damsel in distress. However, the movie has greater emotional impact due to her failed rescue. Allowing them to set up the next few movies with a new motive and plenty of new villains to choose from.”

Chase Weber: “What makes Spider-Man so endearing to many fans is his humanity. The audience members can relate to the triumphs and failures of Spider-Man. This is plainly evident in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Spider-Man does not always win. As seen in the film, Spider-Man failed to save his love, Gwen Stacy, who Spider-man promises to her Dad he would protect. Spider-Man must deal with this guilt the rest of his life. This is much more relatable to real life. With audience members more devoted to Spider-Man, this makes his victories all the more satisfying. “

Flora Yu: “The role of women portrayed in the film interests me. Through his relationship with Gwen Stacy, Peter Parker learns that there are things one must abandon to persist in another; also, life is so fragile that sometimes even super power fails to it from mortality. Devastated by Gwen’s death, Peter eventually finds motivation for his next debut from two female characters—Aunt May and Gwen—both very important to him. He realizes he must bury grievous memories at the bottom of his heart and retrieve his other side—the side of hope and Spiderman.”

Faith Clary: “It’s interesting to me how death is such an integral part of who Peter is as a person. Death is present in all stages of his development – childhood with his parents, teenage years with his uncle, and now adulthood with his girlfriend and, metaphorically-speaking, his childhood friend. With Spider-Man’s disappearance from the city in the aftermath of Gwen’s death, this movie drives home even more than its predecessor that a superhero’s life isn’t just about soaring around skyscrapers and posing for the paper. When you put on that mask, it’s not just yourself who gets thrown into the fray.”

George Nurisso:  “After Uncle Ben’s death, Peter Parker’s realization that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ has been his motivating force. In addition to battling super-villains, Peter has inspired others with his bravery and kindness.  When Spider-Man rescued a kid named Jorge from some bullies and gave him some encouragement, he changed the boy’s life.  Jorge later became brave enough to stand down the ultimate bully, the Rhino. After Gwen Stacy’s death, Peter Parker learned that being a hero isn’t easy, but in the end the world is a better place because of it.” ​

Sara King: “What seemed distinct about this Spiderman movie compared to all the other superheroes we have read so far is the fact that Peter Parker’s secret identity is known by more than one person, thus causing him many problems.  His girlfriend, Gwen, is ultimately killed because she knows and his arch nemesis, Harry Osborne or the Green Goblin, takes advantage of the fact.  Is it possibly a problem that Peter Parker identifies more with his non-super identity than his super-identity, causing the movie to take a more eugenic turn?”

Chris Myers: “Although “Electrode” undergoes a startlingly abrupt transition from Spider-man fanatic to his worst enemy, I thoroughly enjoyed the development of Electrode’s powers. Traveling as a current and departing from his human form, manipulating metal with magnetic forces, and shooting currents of electricity make sense for an electrical super-villain, although his ability to create dubstep music does not. His motivation to stay within the confines of New York made sense (defeating Spider-man), and by the end of the movie, he seemed to have realized the extent of his powers.​”

Abdur Khan: “Electro’s motives for becoming a supervillain match perfectly with the usual tropes involved in villainous origins. Max Dillon is a shy, miserable man who’s constantly pushed around, and once he’s given the means to assert himself, he does so in a powerful and violent way. His motivation comes from his need to be recognized, to no longer be “invisible”, as one Oscorp employee calls him. His anger when Spiderman doesn’t remember him or when Times Square erases his face is arguably ridiculous, but in his mind he is completely justified.”

Joe Reilly: “After experiencing The Amazing Spiderman 2, my heart ached for the tragic injustice towards the villains. Where most movies can only sustain a single antagonist to challenge the hero, the indecisive Spiderman swings from one foe to another beating each antagonist before they have time to know what hit them. Forced to fight tooth and nail with one another for screen time, the injuries towards the rogues’ gallery lengthen with poorly contrived motives and cliché origins. Spiderman faces an obsessive and accident prone Electro, a Green Goblin whose butchered comic origins as Norman Osborn are scratched and dropped for no reason into the lap of his spoiled brat son, and added to the confusion a random guy in a ludicrous rhino suit who arrives far too late toobare any actually meaning or impact on the plot. With flimsy origins, repeated defeats to Spiderman, and pitted against one another, the only true victims I felt in the latest Spiderman movie were the villains.” 

Mina Shnoudah: “The movie tells the story of Spider-Man’s parents, the origin of the Green Goblin, Electro, and Rhino. The common superhero tropes such as dead parents, revenge, damsel in distress, and friend turned enemy were ever-present throughout the film. Harry is the friend turned enemy by his psychological obsession to not turn out like the monster his father is. Furthermore, the parallels between Peter and Harry in their origin stories are another common superhero trope: they are both motivated to avenge the deaths of their loved ones.”​

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