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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: October 2014

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I started reading comics as a kid at a particularly satanic moment. Not only had vampires and werewolves crashed through the gatekeeping Comic Code, but the literal Son of Satan demanded his own title in 1973. My favorite supernatural superhero though was the demonic motorcyclist Ghost Rider. Marvel writer Gary Friedrich said the flaming skull idea was his. In fact, Friedrich said the whole character was and sued a few weeks after Columbia released their first Ghost Rider movie (it barely broke even, so I’m still confused how Nicholas Cage managed a sequel). In the comic, Friedrich wrote about the Evel Knievel-inspired Johnny Blaze signing away rights to his soul to save his adoptive father from cancer. A U.S. District Judge wrote in her court opinion that Friedrich had signed his rights away to Marvel.

It’s a diabolically common comic book plot, dating back to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster signing DC-owner Harry Donnenfeld’s standard contract and handing their mobster boss Superman for $130. But that wasn’t the first superhero deal with the devil.

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When Mephistopheles offered to be Faust’s “servant,” the wizened scholar wisely asked “how must I thy services repay?” demanding “the condition plainly be exprest!” In exchange for his soul (“under-signest merely with a drop of blood”), Faust wanted superhuman knowledge. He’d exhausted all human study—philosophy, medicine, jurisprudence, theology—but was “no nearer to the infinite.” Goethe introduces him alone in his study, moments before conjuring his first spirit:

Therefore myself to magic I give,
In hope, through spirit-voice and might,
Secrets now veiled to bring to light,
That I no more, with aching brow,
Need speak of what I nothing know;
That I the force may recognise
That binds creation’s inmost energies;
Her vital powers, her embryo seeds survey,
And fling the trade in empty words away.

Goethe published the first half of his dramatic poem Faust in 1808, based on the German alchemist Johann Georg Faust who supposedly died in a laboratory explosion when the devil came to collect him personally (the German Church had said the two were in league). An anonymous historian included their actual contract, complete with its legalistic “whereas” and “whereof” jargon, in the first 1587 compilation of the legend. Christopher Marlowe introduced the doctor to English audiences two decades later, but I prefer Goethe’s version. His Faust is the first superman. One of the spirits he conjures asks: “What vexes you, oh Ubermensch!”

Friedrich Nietzsche famously adopted the term, but only after reading Lord Byron’s dramatic poem Manfred while still in school. Young Friedrich called Byron’s Faustian knock-off an “Ubermensch who commands the spirits” and felt “profoundly related to this work,” preferring it over Goethe’s. Byron first heard Faust the summer the Shelleys visited his Geneva manor. Mary Shelley began Frankenstein that same visit, and her mad scientist, like Byron’s mad magician, inherited Faust’s “ardent mind,/ Which unrestrain’d still presses on for ever.” All three o’erleapt the human sphere to know what “Doth for the Deity alone subsist!”

I teach playwriting, so if either poet showed up in class, we’d have to have a very long discussion about the word “dramatic.” Though equally unstageable, Manfred is Faust minus Mephistopheles, a subtraction that probably won over the impressionable Nietzsche. Manfred doesn’t barter his soul to anyone but his diabolical self. His powers were “purchased by no compact” but “by superior science,” “strength of mind,” and a whole lotta “daring.” He accepts his approaching death, but defies “The Power which summons me,” refusing “to render up my soul to” the demonic spirit he orders “Back to thy hell! Thou hast no power upon me.”

Thou didst not tempt me, and thou couldst not tempt me;
I have not been thy dupe, nor am thy prey—
But was my own destroyer, and will be
My own hereafter

The abbot at Manfred’s side urges him to pray for salvation, but Manfred will have none of that either, content to “die as I have lived—alone.” His soul takes its earthless flight, whither the abbot dreads to think. He means Hell, which is where Marlowe sent his Faust in the last act of his tragedy, dragged down like Don Giovanni by the Commandatore’s statue. But the first part of Goethe’s trajedie ends with the repentant Faust’s arrival in Heaven—another reason for Nietzsche to prefer Byron’s ubermensch.

After Manfred, Byron started composing his satiric epic Don Juan, leaping from a damned alchemist named John to a damned womanizer named John. George Bernard Shaw landed in Byron’s footsteps when he modernized Don Juan as an aristocratic eugenicist in his 1903 play Man and Superman—the first time Nietzsche’s “ubermensch” is translated “superman.” Shaw’s John, however, never signs his soul away, just his life when in his last act he submits to marriage—an institution he’d opposed as an obstacle to breeding supermen. He wants to populate the planet with a race of goodlooking philosopher-athletes.

Goethe’s Faust could have demanded invulnerability and super-strength, but his superpowers seem more noble:

The scope of all my powers henceforth be this,
To bare my breast to every pang,—to know
In my heart’s core all human weal and woe,
To grasp in thought the lofty and the deep,
Men’s various fortunes on my breast to heap,
And thus to theirs dilate my individual mind,
And share at length with them the shipwreck of mankind.

Compare that to one of the more recent soul-selling superheroes, Todd McFarlane’s Spawn. When the former CIA assassin died, he made a deal with a demon to see his wife again—and next thing he’s sporting a necroplasmic body with superhuman strength and infinite regenerative powers. He battles angels, demons, and a range of human thugs—but not publishers. McFarlane was one of a group of artists who rebelled against Marvel’s “work for hire” requirement that employees give up all ownership rights—a policy they reversed when they formed Image Comics in 1992. Spawn was one of the company’s first titles.

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I applaud their business practices, but when I picked up Spawn No. 8 from a magazine shelf in my local bookstore, I was horrified. It seemed my favorite writer, Alan Moore, had sold not his soul but his signature intelligence when penning the script. But I’m still glad it sold well, and even spawned a movie that grossed more than Ghost Rider. Meanwhile, Siegel, Shuster, and their heirs have spent decades battling the Mephistophelean DC. Their lawsuits kept the Hollywood Superman in Development Hell for a few years—a 2008 judge almost stripped DC of the copyright—but Warner Bros’ lawyer minions always win in appeals. Marlowe sent his Faust shrieking into Hell, but maybe someday the spirits of the U.S. court system will answer his final prayer:

Let Faustus live in hell a thousand years,

A hundred thousand, and at last be sav’d!

i have had enough

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I visited Bath, England during spring break of my senior year in college. That was over a quarter century ago, so my memories are “historical” rather than “contemporary.” They may even shade into “speculative” since memory warps with each recollection, transforming real locations into alternate realities. I’ll be able to gauge the extent of my idiosyncratic warping when I return to Bath next June. I’m teaching a creative writing class for Advanced Studies in England, a study abroad program for U.S. college students.

My course is “Writing Bath: Historical, Contemporary, Speculative Fiction,” but I considered calling it “Right Here, Only More So.” There’s a Laurie Anderson song (also from a quarter century ago) that opens with the line: “Paradise is exactly like where you are right now . . . only much, much better.” And there’s an even older truism about science fiction: “The future is now, only more so.” That’s a particularly good definition of speculative fiction, and combined with Anderson’s spin on place, it sums up my approach to fiction writing.

I open my introductory course (the one I teach in Virginia, not England) with an observation exercise: list sensory details. Since we’re sitting in a classroom, the results usually include the ticking of a clock, the scent of chalk, the glow of fluorescent bulbs, the press of a chair back against your spine. If you dig a little deeper, those details get much, much better: the conch-shell murmur of AC vents, the convergence of shadows as a pen tip touches paper, the pendulum sway of an earring.

Any location can yield unlimited details. And though a classroom in rural Virginia is as good a place as any to dig down, imagine if the classroom is in Bath, England. Those are Roman ruins under the sensory top soil. So after exploring the contemporary, I’ll send my students off in time machines to land anywhere they like in the two thousand years of Bath history. And when they get back, we’ll spin the controls in the opposite direction and speculate about the city’s diverging futures.

Although historical fiction and science fiction seem like opposites—one’s in the past, the other the future—they’re both not in the present, and so, unlike contemporary fiction that borrows from immediate reality, they are alternate worlds that have to be imaginatively constructed. Contemporary fiction is an imaginatively constructed alternate world too, but you get to cheat a bit because readers will do more of the setting work by filling in familiar details themselves. But the past and future require more authorial effort.

The past of historical fiction isn’t the past. It’s an invented past. What are Roman sandals made of? How do they lace up? Where do they chafe? I have no idea. But my students will also take a course called The Romans in Britain, and combine that with contemporary interpolation (ie, it hurts to walk on a blister), and suddenly first-century Bath will be within strolling distance. The Triumph of Georgian Bath will give them enough architectural know-how to conjure other moments of history into equally concrete existence.

Speculative fiction at first seems comparatively boundless. History books are filled with verifiable events, while the future is unwritten. But the future is made of the same stuff as any historical story: the present, only more so. What does a hovercraft sound like when it’s landing? I have no idea. But I can pluck details from my world—the whir of my half-clogged lawn mower—because the mundane really is much much better for building something non-existent. And if you do your building in Bath, England, your range of the mundanely contemporary is also sunk deep in the paradoxically here-but-not-here historical. Three worlds, one place.

I get no points for creativity though. Michael Cunningham approached New York the same way for his 2005 novel Specimen Days.

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The first section explores the gothic past of the Industrial Revolution, culminating in the Triangle Waist Factory fire of 1911. The second is a contemporary police procedural plotted around a suicide bomber in the wake of 9/11. And the final part leaps into New York’s distant future of androids and lizard-like aliens. Deepening the interconnections of the three-in-one setting, manifestations of the same three characters appear in each version of New York, weaving a larger plot through the whole of the novel.

You can try this yourself at home. Any home. Everyplace in the world contains a world of plots just under its surface, and its pasts and futures are disguises for its own Right Now. Cunningham could have written Specimen Days in my hometown of Lexington, Va. But I’m glad he didn’t. I’m also glad my class and I will be digging into Bath, England for our inspiration. I hope to find a ghost of my twenty-year-old self wandering the Roman ruins.

And if you’re attending Washington and Lee, or one of the ASE’s other affiliate or participating colleges, you might consider meeting the ghosts of Bath past, present, and future with us. More on that here.

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I read the first issue of Watchmen while it was still on comic shop shelves back in 1986. Though “read” is the wrong word. A total of three words appear on pages five, six, seven, and eight. No captions. No thought bubbles. No dialogue. Just Rorschach mumbling “Hunh,” “Ehh,” and, my favorite, “Hurm” to himself as he investigates a crime scene. The action is cerebral. No heroes and villains exchanging punches and power blasts. Rorschach notices that the murder victim’s closet is oddly shallow, and then bends a coat hanger to measure it against the depth of the adjacent wall. A further search reveals a secret button, and then a hidden compartment, complete with (SPOILER ALERT!) the Comedian’s superhero costume.

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That’s just nine panels of Gibbons and Moore’s unnarrated 31-panel sequence. I’d never “read” anything like it. Not that Moore had anything against the English language. Look at the pages right before and after the silent sequence. 198 and 199 words each. When chatting, the Watchmen are as wordy as Spider-Man in his 1962 debut. Open Amazing Fantasy #15 and the first two pages clock in at 196 and 234 words each.

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Not many letters shook loose in the leap from Silver to Bronze Age. Take a couple of pages from my personal ur-comic, The Defenders #15 of 1974, and you get 232 and 169. When Omega the Unknown debuted two years later, wordage had shrunk only a little, with pages of 156 and (I hope you realize how annoying it is to count these) 177.

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But now fly back to the Golden Age. Scan Action Comics #1, and the 1938 Superman only muscles out 94 and 95 words. The mean skyrockets if you average in Jerry Siegel’s two-page prose story in the back Superman #1, but DC was only placating a post office regulation for periodical mailing rates requiring magazines to include a minimum of two pages of prose. Marvel included a similar-looking experiment in 1975, dropping single pages of prose into Defenders episodes (the improbably advanced vocabulary included “vacuous,” “belie,” and “veritable.”) My nine-year-old eyes barely skimmed them.

Despite varying word counts, the maximum for a dialogue-heavy panel remains about the same through the decades. Clark and his Daily Star boss cram in 30 words. Same number as the more talkative Omega panels. Peter Parker’s would-be manager leans over him with a 38-word speech bubble.  And the cops investigating the Comedian’s death spit out some 35 words per panel too. Apparently Denny O’Neil and/or Mort Weisinger spelled it out: a six-panel page should have no more 35 words per panel, which means 210 words total.

So dialogue is the comic book’s universal constant. Moore didn’t mess with that. When talking, his characters sound like everybody else. The difference is when they shut up. Before the mid-eighties, comic books were written in an omniscient third person voice. Those pages of prose in 1975 weren’t a freakish contradiction. They were the culmination of the industry’s style, the medium’s secret default setting. The background hum of talk. The author just couldn’t keep his mouth closed. It was as if he didn’t trust all those vacuous little pictures not to belie his veritable story.

“It takes a very sophisticated writer of long experience and dedication,” Will Eisner explains, “to accept the total castration of his words, as, for example, a series of exquisitely written balloons that are discarded in favor of an equally exquisite pantomime.”

There was a lot of castration anxiety from early comic book writers. Jerry Siegel’s Superman captions read like instructions to artist Joe Shuster: “With a sharp snap the blade breaks upon Superman’s tough skin!” Bill Finger’s Batman captions distrust Bob Kane’s pen even more: “The ‘Bat-Man’ lashes out with a terrific right . . . He grabs his second adversary in a deadly headlock . . . and with a might heave . . . sends the burly criminal flying through space.”

Two decades later and Spider-Man was just as redundant: “Wrapped in his own thoughts, Peter doesn’t hear the auto which narrowly misses him, until the last instant! And then, unnoticed by the riders, he unthinkingly leaps to safety—but what a leap it is!” Steve Ditko and Stan Lee tell the core of the origin—the radioactive spider bite—in three panels, speechless but for Peter’s “Ow!” But those three captions cram in 112 words.

Lee understood the complexity of visual story-telling. (The original Amazing Fantasy art boards include his margin note: “Steve—make this a closed sedan. No arms showing. Don’t imply wreckless driving—S.”) But comic book convention mandated narration, regardless of redundancy. Even when working without a script, Ditko covered his pages in empty captions and talk bubbles for Lee to fill in later. In Amazing Spider-Man #1, Spider-Man webs a rocket capsule as it flies past the plane he’s balancing on. The panels are visually self-explanatory, but words were still required. Instead of narrated captions, it’s Spider-Man pointlessly announcing “I hit it!” and “Mustn’t let go!” and “I reached it! But now . . .”

Alan Moore trusted pictures. When captions appear in Watchmen, they contain character speech, usually juxtaposed from a previous panel. When characters stop talking, the frame is silent. Nobody is chattering in a box overhead. The murder victim in the first issue isn’t the Comedian. It’s the narrator.

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Unlike most deaths in comic books, this one was permanent. When Jonathan Lethem and Karl Rusnak created a new Omega the Unknown in 2008, they opened with two pages of wordless panels. Although Rusnak says Steve Gerber, the original writer, “raised the since out-of-favor device of caption narration to an art form,” Lethem still “wasn’t interested in captioning—in fact I wanted to mostly work without it.”

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That goes for most creators today. Look at Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman. Look at Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley’s Ultimate Spider-Man. Look at Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s The Walking Dead.  It’s not just the word counts that changed. Words count differently.

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I don’t know if Victor Hugo was gay. But I do know he wrote some of his most influential work from exile—including political pamphlets, three books of poetry, and Les Misérables, a historical novel about the French Revolution that he “meant for everyone.” Hugo describes it like a superhero answering a cry for aid: “Wherever men go in ignorance or despair, wherever women sell themselves for bread, wherever children lack a book to learn from or a warm hearth, Les Miserables knocks at the door and says: ‘open up, I am here for you.’”

I did not see Les Mis, either on stage or on screen, but my kids went with their Nana after my wife and I escaped for our own outing: fancy dinner (turns out steak tartare is a raw hamburger), romantic movie (Jennifer Lawrence is a shape-shifting genius even when not playing a blue-skinned mutant), and historic B&B (former haunt of musical legend Oscar Hammerstein). We had a better time than the kids. My son was not wooed by Hugh “Wolverine” Jackman, and my daughter would not list on-set singing among his superpowers.

But the X-Men casting choice did spotlight some secrets in the musical’s origin story. Both literary blogger Chrisbookarama and Slate culture editor David Haglund declared Jean Valjean a “superhero.” They note his dual identity (alias “Monsieur Madeleine”), his superpowers (the strength of “four men”), and his arch nemesis, Inspector Javert (inspired by real-life detective Eugène François Vidocq). There’s even an unmasking scene:

“One morning M. Madeleine was passing through an unpaved alley” where an “old man named Father Fauchelevent had just fallen beneath his cart.” A jack-screw would arrive in fifteen minutes, but “his ribs would be broken in five.” Madeleine sees “there is still room enough under the cart to allow a man to crawl beneath it and raise it with his back,” and he offers five, ten, then “twenty louis” to anyone willing to try. Javert, “staring fixedly at M. Madeleine,” declares: “I have never known but one man capable of doing what you ask.” Although Valjean is breaking the law by disguising his past as a convict, he “fell on his knees, and before the crowd had even had time to utter a cry, he was underneath the vehicle.” Even the old man, “one of the few enemies” Valjean has made as Madeleine and then only from jealousy, is begging him to give up, when “Suddenly the enormous mass was seen to quiver, the cart rose slowly, the wheels half emerged from the ruts,” and “Old Fauchelevent was saved.”

“Just like a superhero,” writes Haglund, “outed by the noble use of his super strength.”

My daughter assured me the film framed it as a burst of Hulk-like adrenaline, but Victor Hugo was going for much more. Although Valjean emerges in torn clothes and “dripping with perspiration,” he “bore upon his countenance an indescribable expression of happy and celestial suffering” as the old man calls him “the good God.”

It’s the self-sacrificing yet self-ennobling choice saviors make every day. Even Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ wants to hide in a mild-mannered lifestyle, before fully accepting the job of super-savior. Ditto for Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker and Michael Chiklis’s Ben Grimm. A hundred years earlier, O. Henry’s safe-popping Jimmy Valentine outs his Valjean past by saving a child from suffocating in the town bank vault. Philip Wylie’s superhuman Hugo Danner longs for the quiet life too, but fate slams another would-be victim into another character-revealing bank vault.

And there’s always a Javert standing right there trying to glimpse your secret self. Jimmy has detective Price on his trail (though in a typical O. Henry twist, he lets his Valjean go). That pesky tabloid reporter followed Bill Bixby for five seasons, always ready to snap a picture when Lou Ferrigno burst out during the emergency-of-the-week. Like Les Mis director Tom Hooper, the CBS team decided their Incredible Hulk was just a burst of green adrenaline, the kind that allows Clark Kents to shoulder cars off endangered loved ones. That’s the phenomenon Bixby’s Banner is researching before his laboratory mishap, his atonement for failing to save his wife when fate dropped Fauchelevent’s oxcart on her.

But Haglund’s comment unmasks another kind of outing. When my former department colleague and next door neighbor Chris Matthews read that Slate article “Why Tween Boys Love Les Miz,” he emailed me about Hagland’s “silent premise,” the implication “that there’s something weird about boys liking musicals.” And we know what alter ego lurks under that tale-tell proclivity. “The figure of the musical-loving boy or man,” says Chris, “has long functioned as both an element of gay male identity and as a handy stereotype for mocking ‘effeminate’ men, gay or not.”

I noticed plenty of family photos decorating the Hammerstein B&B, evidence that Rodgers was his partner in the strictly professional sense. But it did occur to me to check. GLBTQ, the online encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender & queer culture, lists Hammerstein as “apparently quite straight,” but the site still can’t explain “the attachment many gay men have to the musical theater or the fact that in the popular imagination a passion for showtunes is practically a marker for homosexuality.”

Les Misérables premiered in 1980, twenty years after Hammerstein’s death, ninety-five after Victor Hugo’s. I was fourteen, Chris’s age when he saw it on stage. Haglund was nine his first time, so his pubescent body wasn’t bursting through his sweaty clothes just yet. Maybe that’s why he remains a tone-deaf Javert when it comes to identity-shifting. He sounds relieved that a superheroic explanation for Miz-loving boys hit him while watching Jackman belting it out. Why Do Tween Boys Love Superheroes? Because they’re not “weird.” He thinks his men-in-tights insight is “more particular” to boys, even though both sexes get equally erotic eyefuls of Jackman’s shirtless flexing. Sorry, David, but as my former neighbor points out: Hugh is hot.

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Chris, by the way, is not gay. At least not in the I-like-to-have-sex-with-other-men sense. Like my and Hammmerstein’s homes, his is decorated with family photos. He claims to be “terribly low on football-related and power-tool-based conversation,” but wow can he unman me on a racquetball court—an advantage none of my Hulk-like adrenaline can match. Chris also grew up in the apparently quite straight world of comic books. While his tween-self was singing along to the Les Mis soundtrack, he was flipping pages of Spider-Man and Moon Knight. “Superheroes were not the guise of normalcy I wore over the shameful secret of loving a musical,” he says, “they were yet another way of getting around the pressures to be normal.”

Saturday October 11 is National Coming Out Day. It’s not a Revolution. It’s just a celebration of the superheroic who continue to overthrow the pressures of the so-called normal. I wish them all a safe return from their personal exiles.

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