November 24, 2014 ARRRGH!
How is it I can look at the poster for the recent Somali pirate film Fishing Without Nets and register “Jolly Roger,” even though the two crossed guns look almost nothing like a pirate flag?
Superhero emblems are the same, altering every line and curve of their evolving designs, while somehow remaining recognizably the same:
I remember how confused I was the first time I saw the crew of Captain Blood hoist their flag and it wasn’t the standard skull-and-crossbones but instead a jawless skull and two crossed but living arms with a sword in each fist. Sure, it’s close, but imagine if Joe Shuster did Superman’s “S” in calligraphy. Or Batman swapped his chest emblem for a diagram of an actual bat.
I was probably seven at the time and so didn’t know the Captain was Errol Flynn in his breakout role. I didn’t know the 1935 film was a remake of the 1924 Captain Blood. Fans grumbled about Andrew Garfield replacing Tobey Maguire’s too-recent Spider-Man, or Sony rebooting Fantastic Four after a mere decade. But that’s been standard Hollywood practice since the teens. When Flynn traded in his pirate hat for Robin Hood tights, they were still warm from Douglass Fairbanks who’d torn them off Robert Grazer who’d yanked them from Percy Stow.
Hollywood is a roving pirate ship. They plundered Captain Blood from Rafael Sabatini’s 1922 novel. A decade had passed and swashbucklers were back with the box office booty Treasure Island shoveled in. They dug Blood up for name recognition—always safer to parrot than invent. Russell Thorndike jumped aboard too. He conscripted his own 1915 Scarecrow (vicar by day, masked smuggler by night) and sent him sailing into his piratical backstory. Doctor Syn on the High Seas floated five more book sequels, plus a 1937 film and a Disney mini-series I somehow never saw.
I also haven’t seen Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips yet, but the inspired-by-real-events tale of low sea piracy adds to my bewilderment at the genre. I blinked in disbelief as my family and I rolled through Disney World’s Pirates of the Caribbean, where jolly animatronic pirates endlessly chase buxom animatronic women in acts of slapstick rape. If we can romanticize 17th century pirates into heroic outlaws, will 23rd century Hollywood will do the same for terrorists?
Any yet that Jolly Roger—probably a corruption of the French “joli rouge,” a warning that your attackers will kill you whether surrender or not—is a symbol of fun. I used to wave it as I sat in the stands of Three Rivers Stadium cheering the Pittsburgh Pirates.
It doesn’t help that the KKK’s Black Legion added skulls and bones to their robes as they terrorized the port of Detroit in the mid-30s.
They wanted to be superheroes, same as any vigilante. Herman Landon’s 1921 gentleman thief dubbed himself the Benevolent Picaroon (that’s Spanish for pirate), and Charles W. Tyler’s Blue Jean Billy Race launched her modern pirate career in 1918, both harbored in Street and Smith’s Detective Story Magazine. Even Batman demanded a turn on the high seas. Chuck Dixon and Enrique Alcatena rebooted him as Captain Leatherwing in a 1994 Elseworlds. The pairing seems playfully discordant, but Wayne and Blood were already the same character type. Ask them to fill out the following questionnaire:
1. Do you have a penis?
2. Is it white?
3. Are you highly respected?
4. Ever been horribly wronged?
5. What’s your catchy alias?
6. How comfortable are you working outside the law?
7. Got a nifty disguise?
8. What’s your signature emblem?
9. Can you supervise one or more loyal sidekicks?
10. Are you really all about the greater good?
11. Do you love thwarting that pesky government official always bugging you?
12. Are you into girls?
If that list isn’t familiar, it should be. It’s the original superhero formula:
A (1) white (2) man of (3) high status is (4) wronged and so assumes an (5) alias as a (6) noble criminal with a (7) disguise and (8) emblem, and, with one or more (9) assistants, fights for the (10) greater good while thwarting a (11) law enforcement antagonist and courting a (12) female love interest.
Batman answers yes to all twelve plot points—if you count Commissioner Gordon, who Bruce was clearly hoodwinking in his first episode. Bruce’s forgotten fiancé, Julie, vanished along with writer Gardner Fox, but she was there in 1939 too. The rest is easy: Mr. Wayne is very wealthy and very white, was terribly wronged with the murder of his parents, goes vigilant in a bat-emblazoned leotard, while dodging police bullets and warring on criminals. Oh, and he picks up an underage sidekick and overage butler too.
Batman didn’t invent the formula. He plundered it from an ocean of predecessors. Lots of rich, pissed-off white guys like to play dress-up, while stomping on bad guys, flicking off the government, and man-handling the ladies. Look at Captain Blood. That’s just the name a noble physician assumes after he’s unjustly convicted of treason and sold into slavery. He has a crew of not-quite-as-noble escaped convicts for assistants as he flaps his Jolly Roger like a cape. That naval commander in Jamaica is always hounding him, but the commander’s daughter is smitten anyway. And of course when the citizens of Port Royal are left undefended, it’s Blood who rushes to their rescue.
Blood and Batman served aboard the 1930s Mystery Men, an overflowing ship of masked do-gooders captained by the Shadow with his pirate flag of a laugh, the original MWAHAHAHA. The 20s roared with a dozen more, all high scorers on the 12-point pirate scale. The 1914 Gray Seal is only missing Bruce’s murdered parents. The equally motiveless Zorro scores another eleven. Go back another decade and the Scarlet Pimpernel is righting the wrongs of the French Revolution, while Spring-Heeled Jack carves his “S” on his enemies’ foreheads. Personally, I prefer signature letters on the hero’s unitard.
There’s just one ingredient missing: Superpowers. Bruce is very down-to-earth in the godlike company of Superman. Blood and his shipmates are all flesh-and-blood too. But Superman is just an extension of question nine. He absorbs his assistants, giving himself the strength of countless men. A superhero a one-man man-o-war. The Hulk’s high status comes in the form of Dr. Banner’s intelligence, but otherwise he’s a formula white guy wronged by a gamma bomb and the Cold War that detonated it. With the help of his teen confidante, Rick Jones, he eludes the U.S. military while dating the General’s daughter and committing violent acts of do-goodery. If he had an “H”-emblazon cape, he’d score a twelve.
Spider-Man wronged himself but loses a point for unrespectable nerdiness. Convert status to mutant giftedness, and you have an armada of X-Men. Even the convention-sinking Alan Moore is onboard with his wonder woman Promethea. Sure, her assistants are dead versions of herself, and her pesky law enforcement officer is Christianity, but she’s an eleven, which goes to twelve if you count her male incarnation.
Captain Blood’s formula flag is still sailing.