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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: June 2014

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“Both the Joker and Hannibal Lecter were much more fascinating than the good guys,” says Talking Heads singer David Byrne. “Everybody sort of roots for the bad guys in movies.” Byrne was explaining why he wrote “Psycho Killer,” the opening song from their Jonathan Demme concert movie, Stop Making Sense. Demme also filmed The Silence of the Lambs, but that’s almost two decades after Byrne wrote his song, so the origin story doesn’t make much sense either.

Byrne is also a fan of Dadaism and adapted a Hugo Ball poem for the Talking Heads. “I Zimbra” is a string of nonsense syllables, reflecting Ball’s Dada Manifesto: “to dispense with conventional language” and “get rid of everything that smacks of journalism, worms, everything nice and right, blinkered, moralistic, europeanised, enervated.” Similar new wave beats were sweeping through Paris in the early teens where Ball’s avant-garde cousins were rooting for France’s pulp fiction psycho killer, Fantômas.

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I’m no expert in French surrealism, but I’ve stood mesmerized in front of more than one Magritte painting. He, like Jean Cocteau and Guillaume Apollinaire and André Breton, were mesmerized by the figure of a “masked man in impeccable evening clothes, dagger in hand, looming over Paris like a somber Gulliver.” That’s John Ashbery’s description of the iconic cover art for Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain’s 1911 Fantômas, the first in a series of 38 novels featuring the empereur du crime.

The bigger mystery is how a Pulitzer-winning poet came to write the introduction to a reissued translation. Maybe it’s because Ashbery is, according to Ashbery, “sometimes considered a harebrained, homegrown surrealist whose poetry defies even the rules and logic of surrealism,” a description that could also suit Souvestre (a failed aristocrat-lawyer turned automotive journalist) and Allain (Souvestre’s secretary, ghostwriter, and later husband to Souvestre’s flu-widowed wife). Ashbery calls them both “hacks,” their prose “hackneyed,” and their narratives “crude.” Yet Ashbery’s harebrained forefathers declared Fantômas “extraordinary,” its lyricism “magnificent,” and the serial a “modern Aeneid.”

Apollinaire did throw in a “lamely written,” so the surrealists’ praise isn’t entirely surreal, but it doesn’t begin to explain the character’s Gulliver-sized impact on French culture. Ashbery adds to the mystery by listing Fantômas’s many and superior ancestors, including Manfred and Les Miserables. He also mentions the popularity of Nick Carter in France at the time, but he misses how much Souvestre and Allain pilfered from the American pulp. The authors allude to “Cartouche and Vidocq and Rocambole,” but their psycho killer’s most immediate predecessor is Nick Carter’s arch-nemesis, Dr. Quartz.

Carter’s “hack,” Frederic Van Rensselaer Day, introduced the psychopathic genius twenty years earlier. Quartz “wished to defy the police; to defy mankind, because he believed himself to be so much smarter than all other men combined.” He is Nietzsche’s superman, indifferent to “rightdoing and wrongdoing, as we define the two terms” and to “anything human, animal, moral, legal, save only his own inclination.” If you like the scene in Silence of the Lambs where Dr. Lecter displays his gutted guard like an abstract art installation, you’ll just love “Dr. Quartz II, at Bay” when the doctor embalms a railroad car of victims and arranges them like waxworks playing a game of cars.  Or if you like Alan Moore’ Killing Joke when the Joker rigs a funhouse ride to project photos of Commissioner Gordon’s raped and crippled daughter, wait till you see how Fantômas can pose a corpse at the reins of a runaway coach or inside a clock bell so blood rains down with the clanging of the hour.

It would be easy to call them all “evil.” It’s the term we like to use for Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden. But the word is meaningless. It pretends to define what it merely describes. The real horror, the thing that should keep you awake at night, is the absolute absence of evil in the motives of those who commit it. Adolf and Osama were trying to make the world a better place. They thought they were the good guys. David Byrne finds the Joker and Hannibal Lechter fascinating because they’re make-believe. They don’t make sense because they can’t. There’s no root cause to their actions. There’s no mystery to solve, just endless installments.

Nick Carter, le roi des détectives arrived in Paris cinemas in 1908 to rain down multiple sequels and knock-offs, including Louis Feuillade’s Fantômas film adaptation. So Feuillade’s equally acclaimed follow-ups, Les Vampires and Judex, are knock-offs of a knock-off, with scripts improvised around the same actors, costumes, plots, and character types. Souvestre and Allain hand-cranked their prose just as sloppily. Though they exist solely in “conventional language,” their novels may somehow still answer Bell’s directive to “get rid of all the filth that clings to this accursed language . . . the word outside your domain, your stuffiness, this laughable impotence, your stupendous smugness, outside all the parrotry of your self-evident limitedness.” Replace “Dada” with “Fantômas” and Bell’s Manifesto reads:

“How does one achieve eternal bliss? By saying Fantômas. How does one become famous? By saying Fantômas. With a noble gesture and delicate propriety. Till one goes crazy. Till one loses consciousness. How can one get rid of everything that smacks of journalism, worms, everything nice and right, blinkered, moralistic, europeanised, enervated? By saying Fantômas. Fantômas is the world soul, Fantômas is the pawnshop. Fantômas is the world’s best lily-milk soap. Fantômas Johann Fuchsgang Goethe. Fantômas Stendhal. Fantômas Dalai Lama, Buddha, Bible, and Nietzsche. Fantômas m’Fantômas.”

Ultimately Ashbery declares Fantômas a Cubist charade (Picasso and Gris were fans too), and yet one whose “popularity cut across social and cultural strata.” Like a dagger’s blade, you could say. The best monsters are never slain, never contained, but are always plotting new and paradoxically comforting horrors between episodes. A story’s meaning only emerges when it’s over, and so Fantômas was meaningless to the generation who embraced him. He made everything stop making sense.

Ball calls for new words, for an invented language of nonsense—which is what I hear when David Byrne sings his chorus:  “Psycho killer, kiss kiss say.” I obviously don’t know French. But no one, not even the French, knows Fantômas.

talking heads psycho killer

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count of monte cristo comic

My favorite sandwich as a teenager was named after an Alexander Dumas hero. I still order it at the Greek diner down the street, preferably with curly fries. You take your basic grilled ham and cheese, throw in a couple turkey slices, dunk it in egg batter, and fry, and be sure to have some jam sauce for dipping.

Restaurant reviewer Thadius Van Landingham declares it “a sandwich engulfed in controversy” and “clouded origins.” Some say it’s just a disguised croque monsieur (literally “Mr. Crunch”) served in Paris cafes since 1910. Faux New Orleans restaurants in Disneyland have featured it since 1966 (the year I was born), but the recipe had been wandering American cookbooks since the 30s—though under different aliases. San Francisco and San Diego both claim the monte cristo unmasked in their restaurants first, but L.A. offers a more likely origin story, either at the Brown Derby or Gordon’s, since both catered to the Hollywood crowd. The Son of Monte Cristo, sequel to The Count of Monte Cristo, premiered in 1940, and the rechristened Mr. Crunch debuted on the Gordon’s menu in 1941—I’m guessing as an advertising gimmick.

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The monte cristo does not appear in Alexander Dumas’ Great Dictionary of Cuisine, his posthumous masterwork. “Novelist or cook,” wrote an early admirer, “Dumas is a master, and the two vocations appear to go hand in hand, or, rather, to be joined in one.” His bacon roties (“toasties”) may be a relative of the monte cristo (“Dice a pound of bacon and a slice of ham. Dry out and drain. Mix with parsley, scallions, 4 egg yolks, coarse pepper. Spread on slices of bread. fry.”), but a distant one.

Cookbooks annoy me because there’s usually only one author on the cover, while the work must require whole kitchen staffs of ghostwriters—plus all the uncredited friends and relatives and untold predecessors who knowingly or unknowingly contribute the first drafts of recipes. But Dumas’ culinary dictionary may be the only of his 200-300 books he wrote himself. Even his most famous novels were collaborations. A kitchen of hired assistants cooked up plots and pages for him to spice up and finalize to his tastes. Superman co-creator Joe Shuster employed a studio of artists to similar effect. Auguste Maquet, Dumas’ most prominent sous-chef de aventure, worked for him through the 1840s, unofficially co-authoring both The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. Bob Kane claimed similarly sole authorship of Batman because writer Bill Finger received his paychecks from him not DC. Maquet sued, but the French courts preferred Dumas’s lone wolf tale. Finger (a prolific plagiarist himself) stayed in the kitchen. Neither Dumas nor Kane served up anything of much flavor without their collaborators.

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But The Count of Monte Cristo continues to be served across genres. If Maquet was the plotter, then he mixed both the first convicted-of-a-crime-he-didn’t-commit and revenge-is-best-served-cold recipes. They’re massive chapters in any contemporary dictionnaire de aventure, spanning in comics from Batman to V for Vendetta to Oldboy manga. The framed fugitive Edmond Dantès is also literature’s first secret identity hero and chameleon-like master-of-disguise.  Like “Alexander Dumas” on the cover, the Count is only the first ingredient in a tossed salad of Dantès’ aliases, ranging from priest to bank clerk to Sinbad the Sailor. Also, like a comic book, the novel wasn’t a novel—it was a serial, published in eighteen monthly installments beginning in 1844. It was already an international hit when the Count jumped the channel into English two years later.

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Dumas was a bit of mixed salad himself. His father was Haitian. In the U.S., even abolitionists had trouble believing such a “mulatto” could produce Literature, thinking Frederick Douglass’ editors ghosted his 1845 Narrative of the Life. The last U.S. Presidential election had turned on Polk’s determination to annex Texas as a slave state. France vacillated on slavery, abolishing it for the first time in 1794 (“all men, irrespective of colour, living in the colonies are French citizens and will enjoy all the rights provided by the Constitution”—essentially the opposite of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision), and again while The Count of Monte Cristo was sailing to American book stores—where it would sellout despite its clouded origins.

I imagine it was Dumas, not Maquet, who decided the Count would marry Haydée, the Turkish princess he bought from a slave trader. Louis Hayward, star of The Son of Monte Cristo, doesn’t look particularly mixed, but that’s a U.S. film (and, according to the synopsis, he’s not actually their son anyway). I dipped into some French comics in preparation for my visit and was pleasantly startled by some racial differences. Tarou, Robert Dansler’s 1949 Tarzan knock-off, is, unlike Burrough’s eugenically thoroughbred aristocrat Lord Greystoke, half African, and better still, Mozam is an “African Jungle Lord” drawn non-racistly African (though I fear “mozam” may literally be “nonsense”).

The Count, who’s taken for French, Arab, Roman and Greek, claims no nation and no race. “I am,” he declares, “a cosmopolite.” His shapeshifting ability to “adopt all customs, speak all languages” is a product of his mixed nature, elevating him to the superhuman level of angels, those “invisible beings” whom God sometimes allows “to assume a material form.” The only significant obstacle to his goals is his mortality, “for all the rest I have reduced to mathematical terms. What men call the chances of fate—namely, ruin, change, circumstances—I have fully anticipated, and if any of these should overtake me, yet it will not overwhelm me. Unless I die, I shall always be what I am.”

The monte cristo, declares Van Landingham, “is a jumble of contradictions,” both sweet and savory, a sugary breakfast yet a meaty lunch. It’s a fitting tribute to the contradictory Mr. Dumas and his hero. So far I have seen no monte cristos on French menus, but Mr. Crunch is common. However, I see now that it is his wife, croque Madame, that includes an egg and so is the direct parent of the American superhero sandwich. 

monte cristo sandwich

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Carl kruger “I, Carl Kruger, will be dictator of the world!” bellows Bob Kane’s stumpy Napoleon knock-off in Detective Comics No. 33. It’s 1939, so the name and the zeppelins flew in from Nazi Germany, but Carl says he wants to be “Another Napoleon,” France’s most loved/hated ubermensch.

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George Bernard Shaw ranked Napoleon up there with Cromwell and Julius Caesar, “one of those chance attempts at the Superman which occur from time to time in spite of the interference of Man’s blundering institutions.” Nietzsche’s grandmother liked the little guy too (she and little Friedrich lived near some historic battles sites in Saxony). Grown-up Nietzsche listed him among “the worthiest of individuals,” “the more profound and comprehensive men” of the century. “I am apart from all the world,” Bonaparte declared, “and accept conditions from nobody.” When Mrs. Bonaparte accused him of adultery, the emperor bellowed: “I have the right to answer all accusations against me with an eternal ‘That’s me!’”—a line I suspect a true ubermensch would have known not to try.

Since Napoleon’s 1821 autopsy, his adulterous penis has been apart from the rest of his body. A recent researcher said it looks like “a little baby’s finger.”Nietzsche never discusses Napoleon’s penis size, just his dickish will-to-power. He had the manly “instincts of a warrior,” which Nietzsche credits “for the fact that in Europe the man has again become master over the businessman and the philistine.”He liked his supermanly ego too. After an early military victory in Italy, Napoleon “realized that I was a superior being and conceived the ambition of performing great things which hitherto had filled my thoughts only as a fantastic dream.”

Carl’s fantastic dream involves a dirigible of doom, only a slight variation on Napoleon’s supervillainous vision. Except Nietzsche and Shaw saw Napoleon as an evolutionary step forward, a superheroic step up from the villainy of the masses. Baroness Orczy agrees. She calls the French Revolution a “surging, seething, murmuring crowd of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem naught but savage creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and of hate.” Only a superheroic Napoleon could restore order to such egalitarian chaos.

Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel answers the same call, plucking his aristocratic cousins from the guillotine-mouthed mob. Orczy’s family lost its fortunes when Hungarian peasants stormed their estate, so the exiled baroness had a reason to craft a Napoleonic hero—a man with “superhuman effort” and “superhuman cunning” and “almost superhuman strength of will.” Jerry Siegel transformed the foppish half of Sir Percy into Clark Kent, but Superman stole from him too: “the man’s muscles seemed made of steel, and his energy was almost supernatural.”

Orczy published The Scarlet Pimpernel in 1904, but Sir Percy wasn’t the first Napoleon-inspired superhero pulled into the gravity of post-revolutionary France. Orczy opens her novel in 1792, two years after the storming of the Bastille. Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo opens in 1810, during Napoleon’s decade reign, when the author was eight-years-old. Dumas’ father had been a friend and general to Napoleon (campaigning with him in Italy while the future emperor suffered his superior being epiphany), and the two were so close that General Dumas was welcome in his emperor’s boudoir while his emperor was naked in bed with Josephine.

The friendship didn’t last though, and Dumas’s father lingered unransomed as an Italian prisoner-of-war. When a friend burst into Dumas’s boudoir with an idea for a play about Napoleon, Dumas refused: “The injuries Bonaparte had inflicted on my family made me inclined to be unjust toward Napoleon.” Then the friend, a proud Bonapartist, and his friend’s lover, one of Napoleon’s former mistresses and current star actress who enjoyed entertaining guests topless, locked Dumas in her apartment until he completed the 24-scene Napoleon.

Edmond Dantès, Dumas’s self-declared Count, owes his creation to Napoleon too—and not just because Dumas had traveled around the Island of Monte Cristo with Napoleon’s nephew. The Count looks down at humanity, that “race of crocodiles,” from Napoleon’s superhuman height. According to Shaw, Napoleon regarded “mankind as a troublesome pack of hounds only worth keeping for the sport of hunting with them.” A character also likens Monte Cristo to Byron’s Manfred—another proto-ubermensch, born the year after the deposed Napoleon began his finale exile—“who, disinherited of their patrimony, have achieved one by the force of their adventurous genius, which has placed them above the laws of society.”

Dantès is falsely accused of treason, the crime Alfred Burrage reuses for The Spring-Heeled Jack Library series, published in 1904 but set in 1804, the year Napoleon claimed the throne. Of course Dantès is accused of betraying Napoleon, and the English lieutenant Bertram Wraydon of aiding him. Thus the dashing but disinherited young heir turns to a life of superheroic vengeance, complete with a proto-Batman alter ego, costume, secret sanctum, and a superpowered jumping range of thirty feet. Russell Thorndyke sets Dr. Syn: A Smuggler Tale of Romney Marsh sometime before the 1805 naval battle of Trafalgar, while “coast watchmen swept the broad bend of the Channel for the French men-o’-war.” Syn is a mild-mannered vicar and ex-pirate who leads a semi-altruistic smuggling gang and town protectors as the masked Scarecrow. The alias is designed to inspire fear in his foes, “as the name of Napoleon was changed to Boney for the frightening of children by tyrannical nurses in England, so the title of the Scarecrow bore the like qualities on Romney Marsh, for it meant that the power of the smugglers was behind it, and would be used to force obedience to the Scarecrow’s behests.”

Even Isabel Allende can’t resist the Napoleonic allure. The majority of her Zorro prequel is set in Spain between 1810-15 as the nation, fearing “Napoleon will convert Spain into a satellite of France,” overthrew Napoleon’s brother Joseph who Napoleon had plopped on the throne after invading the peninsula. The young Zorro-to-be gains his superheroic education—including swordplay and the art of playing the effeminate fop—as the new democracy “approved a liberal constitution based on the principles of the French Revolution.”

Those principles were in turn based on the American Revolution, which the French monarchy had backed and in the process bankrupted itself, plunging France into financial ruin and then revolutionary headhunting. It’s a paradoxical foundation for democracy, but then our view of those founding principles weren’t always so egalitarian. The narrator of Owen Wister’s The Virginian—riding across bookstore shelves as the Scarlet Pimpernel first pranced across stage—explains:

“It was through the Declaration of Independence that we Americans acknowledged the ETERNAL INEQUALITY of man. For by it we abolished a cut-and-dried aristocracy. We had seen little men artificially held up in high places, and great men artificially held down in low places, and our own justice-loving hearts abhorred this violence to human nature. Therefore, we decreed that every man should thenceforth have equal liberty to find his own level. By this very decree we acknowledged and gave freedom to true aristocracy, saying, ‘Let the best man win, whoever he is.’ Let the best man win! That is America’s word. That is true democracy. And true democracy and true aristocracy are one and the same thing.”

And the best men, it turns out, are true aristocrats like Bruce Wayne, while little men like Napoleon-wannabe Carl Kruger end up in plane wreckage by the final panels of Detective Comics No. 33. Even Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov—a man who “wanted to become a Napoleon” and murders to prove he’s of a class of “superior” persons to “whom the law does not apply”—repents for “following his example.” It turns out that even in Czar-ruled Russia, a “sickly, stupid, ill-natured” pawnbroker is more than a “louse” or “black-beetle.” Unless you’re Napoleon. He and the above-the-law supermen he inspired are both products of democracy and its worst enemies.

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jake and anne rush

There is no Super PAC called “Cosplayers for Congress.” But there should be because there’s a candidate in need of their endorsement.

Jake Rush would like to unseat first-termer Ted Yoho in the Republican primary for Florida’s 3rd Congressional District. His law-and-order creds include: Sheriff’s Deputy, Stand Your Ground defense lawyer, and card-carrying NRA member. He was selected for the West Point Military Academy and SWAT training, but turned both down for the laudably conservative desires to stay near family (the University of Florida is just twenty minutes down the road) and to save tax payer money (SWAT gear is expensive!). He’s also a skilled knife-thrower.

I spent a couple of days in Gainesville last year because the University of Florida is home to one of the largest Comics Studies programs in the country. I gave a conference paper on The Fantastic Four and The Walking Dead. To the best of my knowledge, Rush was not in attendance. He graduated with his Classics major over a decade ago, well before UF or most any college considered comic books a subject worthy of study.

And yet Jake Rush and the UF Department and English must have been drinking from the same superhero-tainted water supply. One of Rush’s recent press releases includes a photograph of himself dressed as the Flash (get it?) and his wife Anne as the Phoenix, a DC-Marvel split ticket unusual in this age of political partisanship.

“There is nothing wrong with being a gamer,” says Rush, while also admitting that it is “kinda nerdy.” He even manages to give cosplay a law enforcement spin: “when applying for undercover work, these hobbies were considered an advantage.” Because what sheriff doesn’t want a deputy with experience dressing up as George Washington, MacBeth, and Jesus?

Rush’s opponents are more interested in the characters not listed on his resume. They include Chazz Darling, Staas van der Winst, and Archbishop Kettering—all vampiric variants in the cosplay sub-universe Mind’s Eye Society. Rush served as a staff member for his Gainesville chapter, which involves wearing a lot of black leather and creepy contact lenses. “I’ve been blessed with a vivid imagination,” he explains, and “raised with a deep appreciation for theatre, costumes and art.” A reporter at the SaintPetersBlog prefers to call it a “bizarre double life,” “one that would rival Jekyll and Hyde.”

Rush-and-his-LARP

Alyssa Rosenberg at the Washington Post defends Rush, arguing that his blood-sucking, cocaine-snorting cosplay is “deliberately transgressive,” and so of course a reserve deputy “would gravitate towards the very things he finds off-limits in his professional capacity.” Some of those off-limit behaviors include Chazz Darling’s rape threats: “I wanted to stick my dick in your mouth to shut you up . . . you’re going to end up naked and sore, tied to the floor of a van marked ‘Free Candy.’” Unless fellow cosplayer Lee Snyder is telling the truth and those messages were posted by a different “Chazz Darling” on his and Rush’s shared account. Either way, the cosplay universe is more complex than a mere Jekyll/Hyde duality.

I prefer Jake’s father Robert Rush’s defense. “Jeez,” he said to a Business Insider reporter, “I guess you might want to put down too that we used to have just great big Halloween parties every year.”

Robert Rush is a law partner and sometime theater producer. I was startled to read in his son’s list of theater creds that he backed the Off-Broadway production of Elvis People by Doug Grissom, a theater professor at the University of Virginia. I wouldn’t be teaching Playwriting now if I hadn’t taken Doug’s Playwriting class while finishing my M.F.A. eight years ago. I asked Doug about Jake.

“WOW!” he emailed back. “Yes, I know his father pretty well – he was the driving force behind producing Elvis People at Mill Mountain as well as New York. Elvis People was his one and only theatrical venture, although now he’s running a kind of ‘CSI’ camp for forensic investigators, which is kind of like a mystery weekend and training course.  His main job is being a defense lawyer, and he’s incredibly successful – and rich. I had no idea his son was a right-wing Republican, though – his father Robert usually defends the underclass, he’s radically opposed to things like the death penalty, and frequently is a critic and antagonist of local police agencies. An interesting family, indeed!”

I saw Elvis People during its 2006 premiere in Roanoke, VA. It’s a play about “fan obsession,” and its vignettes include an Elvis impersonator, one of the earliest cosplayers from before the term existed. My favorite scene is between a boyfriend and girlfriend fighting over a button ripped from Presley’s shirt. The two are partners and rivals in desire, both wanting not simply to be with their idol but to be him too. I don’t know if Jake and Anne ever dressed as Elvis, but his press release includes a photo of them at opening night. I prefer the couple in their matching red and gold costumes last Halloween.

I wish I could say I’d endorse the guy, but anyone who attacks his opponent for voting “to fund Obamacare” doesn’t make my superhero list. And the Rand Paul-backed Yoho is the Tea Party guy who called the Affordable Heathcare Act’s tanning booth tax “racist against white people.” So the August 26th Republican primary looks like a lost cause. Now only if Democrats Aquasia Johnson McDowell or Marihelen Wheeler would pose as their favorite superhero and/or demon, Cosplayers for Congress would have a candidate worth supporting.

elvis people

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seibles2

Tim Seibles cuts straight to the heart. When I met him at his hotel to walk him over to my wife’s poetry class, conversation leapt from “nice weather” to “parents with Alzheimer’s” in a single bound. He was giving a reading that night and—because his most recent book, Fast Animal, includes five poems about Blade the Vampire-Hunter—visiting my Superheroes class the next morning.

Seibles was in high school when Marvel launched the character in 1973. He’s not the first black superhero—Black Panther debuted in Fantastic Four in 1966 , the Falcon in Captain America in 1969, and Luke Cage in his own title in 1972—but he beat Brother Voodoo to newsstands by two months. The comic book market was slumping, so Marvel was desperately mixing its superhero formula with blaxploitation and horror. Shaft hit theaters in 1971, Super Fly and Blacula in 1972. Hammer Films had been pounding out low budget Dracula and Frankenstein flicks for over a decade, but the Comics Code prohibited “walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism” until 1971, provided the horror was “handled in the classic tradition such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and other high caliber literary works.”

Marvel pounced with Werewolf by Night, Tomb of Dracula, The Monster of Frankenstein, and a half dozen other horror-tinged titles. He sounds like a pseudonym, but flesh-and-blood writer Marv Wolfman moved to Marvel at the same moment, and soon he and artist Gene Colan were adding a black “vampire killer” to their Dracula cast.  I’ll let Seibles introduce him:

Years ago, a pregnant woman was bitten by a vampire and turned. Her son was born with the thirst but, being half-human, he could walk in sunlight unharmed. Though vampires quietly dominate the world, he fights them—in part to prove his allegiance to humanity, in part to avenge his long isolation, being neither human, nor vampire. Because of his deadly expertise and weapon of choice, they call him: BLADE, THE DAYWALKER”

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It’s hard not to read the character as a racial metaphor. Barack Obama turned thirteen when the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade that year, and though President Nixon made no public comment, White House tapes reveal his opposition to abortion, except when “necessary,” as “when you have a black and a white. Or a rape.” I read all vampires as rapists, so it follows the horror of our cultural logic that the first black half-vampire would have to take a vow of blood celibacy. Note all those unconscious blonde women draped in Dracula’s arms too. Blade’s skin makes explicit more than one coded fear.

Seibles told my class that he saw the character as an “emblem of alienation,” a metaphor for what it feels like to be black in the U.S., to feel “both American and not.” The night before they heard him read his poem “Allison Wolff,” set in 1972 when “Race was the elephant / sitting on everybody.” Seibles was born in 1955, the year Emmett Till was lynched, and that horror haunts the teenaged Tim the first time he kisses a white girl.

Fast Animal includes a high school photo of Seibles, “circa 1971,” long before he met Blade. The half-vampire lurked around Marvel’s black and white magazines for a few years, vanished for a decade or so, then reawakened in the 90s.  I showed my class the 1998 film, which opens with Blade’s vampire-assaulted mother bleeding out on a delivery room table. David S. Goyer penned the screenplay, which also explains Goyer’s rise to dominance in the DC film universe since both his Batman Begins and Man of Steel screenplays open with the bloody deaths of their heroes’ mothers. Seibles said the two sequels weren’t as good, and both the Spike TV and anime series were news to him.

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Apparently Wesley Snipes has spent the last three years in prison for tax evasion. He last played Blade in 2004, about when Seibles started using the character in his poetry. Seibles said it was George Bush who turned him, that feeling of “a deep trouble taking over the country,” or, as his Blade explains: “it’s almost like I can’t / wake up, like I’m living // in a movie, a kind of dream: / action-packed thriller.”

Political essayist Jonathan Schell drew the same conclusion in 2004. Since 9/11 and the War on Terror, it seemed to Schell “history was being authored by a third-rate writer” compelled “to follow the plot of a bad comic book,” with the President turning “himself into a sort of real life action figure.”

The vampires in Fast Animal do have a Wolfowitz-neocon vibe: “the ones / who look in the mirror / and find nothing // but innocence   though they stand / in blood up to their knees.” But Seibles-Blade addresses a much larger audience, everyone watching “the war on TV” while not wanting “to see / what’s // really happening,” all of us living “in / the blood,” fighting for “The right to live / without memory,” to ignore “So many / centuries, so much / death.” Slavery, Seibles reminded my class, is a kind of vampirism too, one of many ways America has exploited the world. Of course Blade longs for “this country / before it was bitten,” even as he mourns: “I don’t know how // to save anybody from this.”

Seibles called Blade his “mask,” a perfect term for my Superheroes class. He used Blade to channel his rage, he said, likening the character’s name to a pencil: “Some days // I think, with the singing / of my blade, I can fix / everything.” That’s a poet’s superpower, to reveal through language, since “evil thrives best in the dark.” He even gave us his mission statement: to fight “inattentive dumbassery.”

Seibles also has a pair of poems in the new anthology Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comic Books (where my wife, Lesley Wheeler, and I do too). Swapping his vampire superhero mask for Natasha and Boris of the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, Seibles playfully critiques American capitalism, a theme one of my students asked him to expand on. Another asked how, if our leaders are as stupid as Seibles suggests, were they smart enough to come to power? But my favorite question came at the end of class: What would Blade do if there weren’t any more vampires to fight?

Superhero missions, like Batman’s quixotic “war on criminals,” guarantee never-ending battles. You never run out of bad guys. You never get to walk away. But instead of talking vampires, Seibles talked about his father. The idea of sitting in a room of white people and discussing race, his father couldn’t imagine such a thing. His father can’t believe there are white people who aren’t racists. Sure, at an intellectual level, of course he can, but the idea is meaningless at any emotional level.

I’m guess his father was born somewhere around 1930—a moment my class understands well in terms of American eugenics. We read excerpts of a standard high school biology textbook that explained the hierarchy of white supremacy and advocated the extermination of unfit gene pools. That’s not something you walk away from. That’s not a world that ever runs out of bad guys. Seibles described Blade’s life as a psychological and spiritual war—one his parents’ generation can never stop fighting.

The only hope, he said, is for Blade’s children.

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