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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: July 2014

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The end of the world is a comfort. Things have finally and definitively fallen apart, no more struggle, and, most importantly, all the Big Questions are answered. In literary terms, an apocalypse is mystery novel. The word means “uncovering” or “unveiling,” the exegesis Sherlock Holmes performs at the close of every story. Religions promise big reveals in the afterlife, delivered on a first come first served basis, but an end-of-the-world apocalypse provides closure to all readers at once.

Sometimes the answers suck. The Walking Dead apocalypse reveals that God is dead, life is brutal, and death a mockery and negation of all human values. But that’s still an Answer. Mystery solved. Horror usually tips the opposite scale: the universe overflows with supernatural import. Sure, most of the supernatural forces want to flay and eat you, but even when they succeed, the stench of blood and brimstone is still comforting. You finally know what’s what—whether Buffy or the Winchester brothers swoop in at the last-minute or not.

But the biggest horror is an apocalypse that doesn’t reveal anything. That anti-Rapture, the ten-episode adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers, has been airing on HBO this summer. Although I’ve met Tom Perrotta (nice guy, drove him back to his hotel after his reading at UVA a few years ago), I have the blissful ignorance of having not read the novel. So I don’t know how season one will end, and based on ratings, season two is anything but a certainty.

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That’s appropriate for a show about radical uncertainty. Left Behind, the book series Perrotta is at least partially lampooning, delivers the ur-apocalypse of Revelations, complete with an all-mysteries-solved Antichrist at the center of its plot. The Perrotta Apocalypse is way scarier. When 2% of the planet’s population pop out of existence, the leftover 98% are left without any answers. Dr. Who, in the form of Christopher Eccleston’s American-accented clergyman, says it wasn’t God. A three-year congressional report might as well be blank.

That abyss-deep level of not-knowing is too much for some people. Liv Tyler and Any Brenneman join a nihilistic cult of mute chain smokers hell-bent on proving life is worthless. Their evangelical pamphlets are literally blank. They are the show’s zombie horde: they stare at you blankly from the sidewalk outside your living room windows; they buy your church and paint its windows white; they stage protests at commemorations for your vanished loved ones; they break into your home and steal your family photos from their pictures frames.

At least zombies are accidental. Reanimated flesh-eating corpses are random byproducts of a random universe. Perrotta’s zombies choose meaninglessness, abandoning their families and severing all emotional ties and then terrorizing others into adopting their philosophy—while inwardly struggling to maintain it themselves. People secure in their nihilism wouldn’t bother to terrorize or recruit converts or take vows of silence—behaviors as inherently meaningless as all other behaviors.

But the cult is a fundamentalist church. Most non-apocalyptic atheists don’t congregate in the name of non-God. They have better, more meaningful things to do. But being leftover raises the stakes. When the bank forecloses on Eccleston’s church, he gambles the existence of God at a roulette table. But do three double-or-nothing wins equal divine intervention? Are those pigeons gray-feathered messengers of the Supernatural—or are they just brainless birds? Are the voices in the ex-sheriff’s head evidence of his schizophrenia—or did they send a very corporeal, tobacco-chewing hunter to help his son shoot packs of wild dogs? These and many other burning questions will not be answered next week, or any other week.

Perrotta’s teenagers at least know how to channel their universe’s amoral indifference into an app (in addition to “kiss” and “hug,” a game of spin-the-cellphone includes “punch” and “fuck”). They know the baby Jesus in the town’s Christmas display is just a mass consumer object–yet one so haunted with a residue of meaning that burning it isn’t as easy as stealing it. In this world of heightened uncertainty, even the disappearance of a bagel into the bowels of an industrial toaster is enough to trigger existential crisis.

Although this agnostic apocalypse is Rapture-inspired, it reminds me more of Kurt Vonnegut’s brand of godless humanism. Vonnegut’s end-of-the-world revelations challenge basic assumptions of reality: water only freezes when cold, time moves in one direction, gravity is a constant, humans have free will. After a “timequake” causes years of predetermined repetition, humans find themselves suddenly at the metaphorical wheel again and are so unprepared they literally drive into each other. The Leftovers opens with a similar car wreck, a driverless car careening through a not-just-existential crossroads.

Vonnegut founds his own religions too. The Book of Bokonon announces that its teachings are lies, although useful ones, godly untruths that impose order on an unloving universe. Perrotta’s Guilty Remnant can’t cope with such abandonment and so their lies impose an uglier order. Their leader writes on her tablet: “There is no family.” It’s as true/false as any other religious claim. The “Lonesome No More” government in Vonnegut’s Slapstick randomly assigns the population middle names, providing everyone with an extensive family of siblings and cousins to care for them. It’s nonsense, but it also works. There might not be any Supernatural order to your life, but that doesn’t mean you have to act like a soulless zombie.

If that orderless order sounds too frightening for you, wait till October. The powers-that-be are giving the Left Behind franchise a second chance. Nicholas Cage will be our pilot through the end-of-days reboot.

I’d rather take my uncertain chances with The Leftovers.

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The world’s first comic book, Lascaux, was published in France 17,000 years ago. It was a single edition, printed on limestone, and arranged in a pair of strips over 128-feet long. The title refers to the medium (“lascaux” is French for “limestone”), but it is also the genre (cave drawings) as well as the specific work of art. Similarly, “pulp fiction” refers to magazines printed on paper made from wood pulp but later came to mean the tales themselves, eventually inspiring Quentin Tarantino to adopt the term as the title of his 1994 film Pulp Fiction.

Most reviewers refer to the Lascaux creators as “Cro-Magnons,” a generic designation which in this case might literally be true. The bones of the first so-called Cro-Magnons were found in a hole (“creux” in French) on property owned by a farmer named Magnon in a nearby town. Cro-Magnons are people of Magnon’s hole. More specifically, the creators of Lascaux were a loose collective of artists of the Neolithic Publishing Period who signed their work with a symbol resembling the head of a four-pronged pitchfork. This signature has been compared to a graffiti tag, but since it also appears in other caves of the region it probably denotes a clan or congregation and is mostly likely a corporate logo, similar to the globe Atlas Comics used before becoming Marvel in the 1960s. It may also be an umbrella logo like the circled “DC” icon that linked National Allied Publications with its affiliate branches All-American Comics and Detective Comics in the 1940s.

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Since Lascaux was published before France passed its first law protecting authors’ rights in 1793, the artists’ heirs retain no proprietary rights. A court challenge could argue that the 1940 discovery of the cave signifies a new “first” publication, but since copyrights lapse into public domain after seventy years, the point is moot. Four Pronged Publishing went out of business millennia ago and so collects no royalties on the postcards, t-shirts, refrigerator magnets, and other gift shop memorabilia appropriating Lascaux artwork.

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Legal issues aside, the work has influenced comic books for centuries. Reviewers often liken it to Michelangelo’s most acclaimed graphic novel, the Sistine Chapel. The comparison is apt, as the Lascaux artists also painted religious imagery on the ceilings of a temple while lying on their backs suspended by wooden platforms. The scope is also similar, with the largest bull drawing spanning seventeen feet. Michelangelo, however, worked in distinct panels, while Lascaux includes no formal frames or gutter, prefiguring Will Eisner’s use of open page space. The absence of captions and word balloons also influenced later works by Jim Steranko and Alan Moore.

Walt Disney borrowed animation techniques from Four Prongs too. Many of the horses and bulls in the Lascaux are drawn at angled perspectives with the closest front leg straight and the second front leg bent and slightly detached from the body to suggest motion. A single animal may be drawn multiple times in an overlapping row, with head or back end incomplete, to evoke forward progression—a technique copied by numerous artists suggesting the movements of speedsters Flash and Quicksilver. When viewed with Four Prongs candle technology (a hollowed rock filled with reindeer fat and a juniper wick), the moving animals flicker like nickelodeon images.

The artists also innovated crushed minerals for their palette, even for black, avoiding the charcoals favored by their contemporaries. Curators comment on the flawlessness of the artists as revealed by the lack of a single false or erased line in all Lascaux. This impression, however, may be due to the now invisible lines produced by one or more “pencilers” that later “inkers” effectively obscured as they finalized the pages. Credit is also due to the nuanced style of the colorists, whose muted amber bulls influenced Lynn Varley’s award-winning work in The Dark Knight Returns.

Sadly, after its republication in 1940, Lascaux was no longer preserved in its clay-sealed micro-climate—the geological equivalent of an acid-free mylar bag—and so it has been significantly downgraded from its former near-mint condition. As a result, reprints are flooding the market. Lascaux II—a painstakingly reproduced concrete tunnel located near the original—opened in 1983, Lascaux III is currently on tour, and Lascaux IV is in production.

While Lascaux has thrilled equine and bovine enthusiasts for thousands of years, casual readers should be prepared for a narrative told without human main characters. The comic book’s single human figure is located on the cave’s most inaccessible panel and, where many of the bulls and horses possess a slight and mildly Cubist quality of abstraction, the lone man is essentially a stick-figure with what may be a bird’s head and is most definitely a penis. This may in fact be the falcon-headed Horus or the ibis-headed Thoth, both of whom sojourned in Gaul before settling in the Nile valley. Fans of their adventures will also enjoy the comic books of ancient Egypt.

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Friedrich Nietzsche’s alter ego, Zarathustra, answers: “A laughing-stock, a thing of shame.”

Chernin Entertainment and 20th Century Fox answer: “About $170 million.” That’s the budget for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, almost double the price tag of its predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which grossed $176M in 2011.

Or I should say its most immediate predecessor. The original Planet of the Apes was released in 1968 (with a quaint budget under $6M and gross of $26M). It was based on Pierre Boulle’s 1963 French novel La Planète des singes, but that’s not where the evolutionary ladder begins either.

Rise ends with mad scientist James Franco’s creation, a genetically altered super-ape, escaping to the wilds of the Redwood forest to father his own race. That’s how Victor Frankenstein’s creature wanted to end his origin story too. Either way, the creature is humanity’s first “arch-enemy,” the term he uses when Victor refuses to manufacture him a mate. The no-longer-mad doctor fears “a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth, who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror.”

Mary Shelley’s evolved imagination was pure fantasy in 1817, but Darwin made the terror real for Victorians. H. G. Wells named humanity’s predator the “Coming Beast,” describing “some now humble creature” that “Nature is, in unsuspected obscurity, equipping . . . with wider possibilities of appetite, endurance, or destruction, to rise in the fullness of time and sweep homo away.”

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That fullness of time arrives regularly in Hollywood. If not apes, then zombies, aliens or androids are always propagating and making humanity’s condition precarious and terror filled. Some sane scientists take that last threat, the robopocalypse, seriously.

Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk worries about the evolutionary threat of artificial intelligence: “we risk yielding control over the planet to intelligences that are simply indifferent to us . . . just ask gorillas how it feels to compete for resources with the most intelligent species—the reason they are going extinct is not (on the whole) because humans are actively hostile towards them, but because we control the environment in ways that are detrimental to their continuing survival.”

That’s also the plot of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The super-virus that decimated the human population between films is one of those unintended consequences popular in mad scientist plots. Mira Sorvino accidentally breeds an army of six-foot cockroaches after ending a cockroach-spread epidemic in Mimic. Emma Thompson cures cancer in I Am Legend, and next thing vampires rule Manhattan. James Franco’s genetic tampering would have turned everyone into super-geniuses. Or at least everyone who could afford his corporation’s new designer drug. If they’d had a chance to market it, the sequel would have been called Rise of the Planet of the Ubermensch.

“And just the same shall man be to the Superman,” continues Zarathustra, “a laughing-stock, a thing of shame.” No new breed ever cares about its predecessor. And yet Superman and his species of superheroes were born to battle such Coming Beasts. The Fantastic Four kept a subterranean world of monsters from rising up in their first issue. Atlanteans would have swept humanity away if the Human Torch hadn’t doused Namor’s Golden Age attacks. Blade is still staunching the destructive appetites of our vampire competitors. Every comic book is a survival of the fittest, ending with a superman at the top of the food chain.

But screenwriters Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver include no super-saviors in Dawn. The hero type is usually a literal or metaphorical cross-breed who absorbs the threat of the racial other and reverses it to save humanity. Thus cyborg Arnold Schwarzenegger thwarts Skynet, and the Man of Steel thwarts General Zod’s Kryptonian invasion. Dawn would need an ape-man like Tarzan, but instead it’s the super-ape Caesar who was raised by humans and saves his people from us.

Which is a pretty compelling reversal of the formula. The supervillain is Koba, an ape so scared (literally and metaphorically) by humans that his hatred turns him into one. By the end, Caesar says he’s no longer an ape. He’s been completely absorbed by human hatred.

But there’s one flaw in the film’s evolutionary theory. It could have been titled Dawn of the Planet of the Patriarchy. I understand that actual ape culture is male-dominated, but these are scifi apes. They can talk and drive tanks. Surely there’s room for females somewhere in the hierarchy. The lone female ape character, Caesar’s jewelry-wearing wife, lies around giving birth and needing antibiotics. But would every female uber-ape accept the role of stay-at-home mom while the males go off to war?

The human cast is worse. The lone female Home sapiens character spends the movie saying things like, “I should come along in case someone gets hurt and needs a nurse!” She also prepares and serves food for her male campers. I was a part-time stay-at-home dad for years and still do a share of cooking and Band-Aid applying for my campers. But if faced with an ape-ocalypse, my wife and I would divvy up the guns too.

No intelligent species can ignore the skill sets of half its population. Not if the species wants to survive. And the humans in Dawn won’t. If you missed the first movie, there was a brief mention of a space mission to Mars. Those astronauts are scheduled to return (minus Charlton Heston) in July 2016, and I think we all know what Darwin is plotting for them.

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The list of superhero movies made since the 1978 Superman continues to grow exponentially, but I try to give a quick visual nod to each while lecturing in my Superhero course. After class a student told me I made the same remark three times:

“I never saw this, but I hear it’s terrible.”

There’s nothing so pleasantly humbling as a student spotting my professorial shortcomings. I make no apology for not seeing EVERY superhero film in existence, but the three I dismissed—Supergirl (1984), Cat Woman (2004), and Elektra (2005)—all feature female protagonists. In fact, my student noted, they are the ONLY superhero films to feature female protagonists on my list. I could blame Hollywood (is it really that hard to make a Wonder Woman movie?), but as a belated apology, let me offer a corrective instead.

I have seen and thoroughly recommend cinemas’ first catwoman. Not Halle Berry or Michelle Pfeiffer—not even Lee Meriweather from the 1966 Batman spoof. The original bodysuited catburglar padded across screens a century ago. Silent age actress Musidora played the anti-heroine Irma Vep in Louis Feuillade’s seven-hour serial Les Vampires back in 1915.

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Vep (her name’s an anagram) is not a vampire of the blood-sucking variety but the leading member of a crime syndicate terrorizing Paris. Technically Philipe Guérande, the “star reporter” investigating the Vampires, is the serial’s hero, but after debuting in the third episode, Vep dominates. She’s the Vampires’ second in command, out living each of the four Grand Vampires she works beside. They all have their nefarious skill sets—disguise, poisons, paralysis glove, hypnotic eyes, even a retractable cannon fired from an apartment window—but none are as memorable as Musidora in a black bodysuit. She has a bit of the shapeshifting Mystique in her too, since she assumes the identities of her aristocratic victims so seamlessly. She and her Vampires also push the limits of early twentieth century technology, recording a millionaire’s voice on a wax cylinder and playing it over a telephone to authenticate a forged check.

But they’re not thrill-seeking pranksters. Episode one opens with the report of a police inspector’s decapitated body found in a swamp. Thirty minutes later, Philipe is opening a box with the missing head. Vep and her crew later dispatch a businessman with a hair pin through the back of his skull then shuck his body from a moving train. They murder a ballerina because she’s rumored to be Philipe’s fiancé.  They also have a knack for lassoing nooses around people’s necks and yanking them from balconies.

But the image that most haunts me is the ball thrown by a baron for his niece—really the Grand Vampire and Vep in disguise. The Parisian aristocracy gathers for the baron’s midnight “surprise” to find the windows boarded and toxic gas flooding through the vents. Feuillade’s camera is more stationary than many silent film directors’, but he’s a master of deep focus, staging a cascade of background and foreground action within a continuous frame. The gowned and tuxedoed guest flail and wilt across furniture and floors in a tableau of slaughter—followed by the silhouetted Vampires entering through a pair of backlit doors in the distant wall to plunder their jewels. When the police tear the planks from the windows the next morning, the guests miraculously revive (contradicting the verb “asphyxiate” in the translated intertitles).

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Despite the mayhem, Feuillade seems to be rooting for Vep. When Philipe and his comic sidekick capture Vep, she looks like a classic damsel-in-distress.  If you watched episode nine out of sequence, you would mistake her for the heroine, valiantly struggling against her kidnappers. In fact, Vep, more than all the plundered jewels and bank accounts, is the serial’s prize. The first and second Grand Vampires battle against the rival criminal Moreno not just for control of Paris but of Vep. Moreno falls for her, hypnotizes her into loving him, and next she’s gunning down her former boss. When the captured Moreno is executed between episodes (I suspect the actor was called away on war duty), the next Grand Vampire, Venomous, proposes.

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Philipe’s wedding (Feulliade, apparently filming on the fly, introduces his fiancé with equal haste) occurs between episodes, but the final, “The Terrible Wedding,” features the Vampires in rambunctious celebration (I rewound the bodysuited dance duet to watch twice). Again, if watched out of sequence, the gangs looks like a fun-loving pack of pals—until Philipe and the police break in and gun them down. Some scramble for the balcony, but Philipe has sawed the floor so they plunge to the cement below where they writhe and die. It’s a surprisingly brutal ending. Only Vep escapes, sneaking to the basement where the heroes’ captured brides are imprisoned. But Philipe has already lowered a gun to them, and his wife shoots Vep dead just before the heroes enter, embracing their wives before Vep’s corpse. The End.

Feulliade may have been shooting for gritty realism (Paris had recently suffered the reign of the very real Bonnot Gang), but the accumulative effect is surrealism. He also established a host of action tropes still being duplicated— a chase atop a moving train, a hero yelling “Follow that cab!” as he leaps into a backseat, a bad guy swallowing a hidden cyanide capsule, and (since the capsule only induced a temporary comma) a prison break.

Feulliade had ventured into crime serials with Fantomos the year before, but Les Vampires inspired him further, shooting with the same cast for Judex and The New Mission of Judex. The effect is further dizzying, since it’s Musidora, not the titular hero, in the opening scene. Despite the name change, Vep is back, plotting more impersonations and seducing Santanas, the second Grand Vampire—only now he’s some evil banker. Philipe’s been demoted to the hero’s extraneous brother, but his comic sidekick is front and center as a bumbling detective, the proto-Clouseau. It’s like watching the latest Joss Whedon production, waiting to see witch Buffy or Firefly or Dollhouse actor is going to appear next.

Despite hiring a playwright to give Judex relative continuity, Feulliade repeats a few of his Vampire tricks—like throwing a sack over a good guy’s head so when he switches bodies and escapes the bad guys murder one of their own. Sadly when Musidora’s body washes ashore in the final episode, Feulliade doesn’t reprise her for the sequel—so maybe it’s just as well all the prints are lost. The closest we have to a Les Vampires remake is fellow French director Olivier Assayas’ 1996 Irma Vep—a meta-film about the making of a remake (which I also recommend). So pay attention Hollywood. Cinema’s original supervillainess is waiting for her reboot.

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