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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: December 2014

H.G. Wells was not a science fiction writer. Neither was Philip Nolan when he created Buck Rogers. But Flash Gordon—a Buck Rogers knock-off that appeared five years later—is science fiction. Aldous Huxley is harder to call. Brave New World appeared in 1932, three years after magazine editor Hugo Gernback invented the term, but it wasn’t in standard use yet. Others would have happily retained the older moniker “scientific romance.” Gernback preferred “scientifiction.”

Literary genres seem so monolithic—walk into a book store or skim a college course list—we forget they were ever contested. In 2009, Writer’s Chronicle blogger Emily Cross spotted a new genre, “a mix of literary and SF” that includes novels hard to label “fantasy/ science fiction/literary because they are both but neither.” Like 1920s scifi, it goes by more than one label, but the top two, “Slipstream” and “New Wave Fabulism,” are essentially “one and the same.” If the emergent genre follows the path of its predecessors, one of the terms will gain general acceptance and retroactively claim writers who never heard of it while writing its representative works, and the other term will go the dodo way of “scientifiction.” The change, however, involves more than naming rights. Rather than witnessing the birth of a new genre, or the reshuffling of works previously claimed by older genres into a hybrid category, we have a tectonic event affecting the wider literary landscape.

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In Fall of 2002, Conjunctions editor Bradford Morrow handed over an issue of his “otherwise honorable literary journal” to the “conspicuously popular horror author” Peter Straub to guest-edit a volume of “innovative cross-genre science fiction, fantasy, and horror.” Six months later, McSweeney’s editor Dave Eggers handed his equally honorable journal to Michael Chabon for essentially the same project. Writers Kelly Link, Neil Gaiman, and Karen Joy Fowler appear in both volumes. Straub and Morrow subtitled theirs The New Wave Fabulists. Chabon and Eggers went for the retro-pulp Thrilling Tales. Neither name has stuck, but the shared project has. Two more anthologies appeared in 2006. Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan’s Paraspheres: Extending Beyond the Spheres of Literary and Genre Fiction includes the additional subtitle Fabulist and New Wave Fabulist Stories—as well as Bradford Morrow in the table of contents and Peter Straub and Kelly Link in backcover blurbs. James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel’s Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology includes stories from Michael Chabon, Kelly Link, and Karen Joy Fowler, plus Jonathan Lethem who, along with Kessel, is an alum of Straub’s Conjunctions.

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So while the four sets of contributor pages are at times identical, the labels barely overlap. Chabon’s buzzwords are “entertainment” and “borderlands,” but he otherwise avoids naming his pulp reclamation project. When Eggers handed over a second, horror-heavy issue, they titled it McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories. Morrison and Keegan coined “paraspheres” because their selections “seem to extend ‘beyond the spheres’ of either literary or genre fiction.” But they also acknowledge Morrow and Straub’s term—while differentiating “New Wave” from earlier “Fabulists.” Phantom Drift, a recent entry in the literary marketplace, whittled the Conjunctions term down in their subtitle, A Journal of New Fabulism. Slipstream also has its own journal and history dating to the 1980s when the term was coined by science fiction author Bruce Sterling. Add the competing terms transrealism, new weird, speculative, interstitial, and literature of the fantastic, and suddenly Gernback’s “scientifiction” doesn’t sound so peculiar.


Rudy Rucker, another Paraspheres contributor, coined “Transrealism” in 1983 to describe works that treat “immediate perceptions in a fantastic way,” using “tools of fantasy and SF . . . to thicken and intensify realistic fiction” and so create “truly artistic SF.” Bruce Sterling’s 1989 “Slipstream” is more slippery to define, at times encompassing anything postmodern or, more vaguely, “anything that makes you feel very strange.” At other moments slipstream seems simply to denote “non-realistic literary fiction” or literary fiction with “fantastic elements.” David Memmott, currently the managing editor of Phantom Drift, started Ice River Magazine in 1987 “to explore, for lack of a better description, a literature of the fantastic . . . . literature of intersections” that included “Literary science fiction.” Phantom Drift is now “resisting the temptation to ‘tell’ the creative community what we mean by ‘new fabulism’ or a ‘literature of the fantastic’ by instead ‘showing’ you.” Chabon also resists, preferring to allude to the growing number of authors “in the borderlands among regions on the map of fiction.” Morrow adopts the same metaphor: “For two decades, a small group of innovative writers rooted in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror have been simultaneously exploring and erasing the boundaries of those genres by creating fiction of remarkable depth and power.”


The geographic metaphors, however, suggest more than individual authors or communities sneaking between marked territories and establishing new colonies. The landscape itself has changed. Look at the non-borderland territory of contemporary fantasy. When Kevin Brockmeier guest-edited the 2010 Best American Fantasy, he and series editor Matthew Cheney subtitled their anthology Real Unreal. After describing the parallel traditions of “realistic fiction” and “the otherworldly,” Brockmeier asserts that “the branches of the ordinary and extraordinary are so tightly interwoven that it is nearly impossible to tell them apart.” He intends his selection as a gathering of “such grafted trees,” fantasy that takes elements from “the best realistic fiction.” This is the same literary project pursued by the emergent genre anthologies—except here it is held securely within the genre-protecting borders of Best American Fantasy. Brockmeier’s list of “ten favorite fantasy stories of all time” includes one by Theodora Goss, a Feeling Very Strange author, and the ubiquitous Kellly Link’s “Catskin,” one of Chabon’s Thrilling Tales. For his 2010 contents, Brockmeier also selected Feeling Very Strange contributor Benjamin Rosenbaum and editor John Kessel. The terrain is the same.


Fantasy, however, has been situated outside of traditional literary fiction, and so upheavals in its landscape do not necessarily reflect changes at literature’s center. Unless they do. When Brockmeier’s own story “The Ceiling” won the 2002 O. Henry Award, juror Joyce Carol Oates wrote: “It’s rare that a tale of dark fantasy makes its way into a mainstream publication, and still more rare to discover such a tale in the distinguished O. Henry Awards anthology where, through the decades, that category of prose fiction we call ‘realism’ has always predominated.” Oates admires how Brockmeier “conjoins the parable and the realistic story, the horrific with the domestic”—a variation on why Brockmeier admires his 2010 selections, and why all of the other editors admire theirs.

Oates, although a long-term borderland resident of horror, has a reputation firmly planted in literary fiction. Stephen King, however, does not—or at least did not when he won an O. Henry in 1996 and served as a juror in 1999. Chabon’s inclusion of King in Thrilling Tales wasn’t a breakthrough moment but the continuation of an arc. While Brockmeier included him in the 2010 Best American Fantasy, King’s “literary” standing expanded further with his novel 11/22/63, which earned a position on the New York Times best books of 2011. This is not evidence of an emergent genre. King is still writing horror—or, if you prefer, speculative fiction—but the landscape underneath him has shifted.

Similarly, Brockmeier drew almost half of his twenty 2010 fantasy stories from literary journals as honorable as Conjunctions and McSweeney’s: Tin House, New England Review, One Story, Oxford American, Kenyon Review, Pindeldyboz, and American Short Fiction. Dave Eggers published Brockmeier’s “The Ceiling” in McSweeney’s, but he, unlike his co-juror Oates, chose a traditionally realistic story for his 2002 O. Henry selection, as did the third juror, Colson Whitehead, who went on to publish Zone One, a literary zombie novel, in 2011—an unimaginable act a decade ago. When Brockmeier graduated to juror for the 2006 O. Henrys, he went with a work of realistic fiction, not Stephanie Reents’ story about a woman with a removable head, which series editor Laura Furman described in language that echoes the Slipstream and Paraspheres anthologies published the same year: it “is heartachingly familiar, but it feels like new literary territory.”

But is it new? As I glance through my shelf at a few O. Henry and Best American Short Stories anthologies of the last decade, I find works about an android, a village on the back of a giant whale, and an eleven-fingered pianist. If these fantastical stories appear firmly in the literary mainstream—what slipstream, etc. define themselves against—then we’re not talking about an emergent genre. We have a change at the core of contemporary literature.

The center does not hold. Or rather, literature now maintains multiple epicenters. If the metaphor is territories, then today’s authors have more than just passports; they have dual citizenships. Take my short story “Is” as an example. It first appeared in New England Review in 2008, then Brockmeier’s Best American Fantasy in 2010, and its sequel, “Isn’t,” appeared in Phantom Drift in 2012. Together “Is” and “Isn’t” are and are not “literary fiction,” “fantasy,” and whatever term you prefer to call the not-so-new genre-linking genre of Linkism. (Kelly Link, by the way, identifies herself as a science fiction writer.)

While the varied Linkists can’t always agree on what they are and aren’t, they do agree on what “literary fiction” is and isn’t. Keegan identifies the primary meaning among U.S. academic institutions as fiction that has “lasting meaning and value,” but within the publishing industry, literary fiction denotes “narrative realism,” as opposed to any other genre with its equally and inevitably artificial conventions. The conflated term limits quality to realism. Chabon reduces the problem to one word: “serious.” Literary fiction is, everything else isn’t.

Or, I should say, wasn’t. The monolithic realism that spurred all of this border crossing and boundary shifting is gone. Once four 21st century Pulitzer winners—Michael Chabon, Michael Cunningham, Cormac McCarthy, and Junot Diaz—have written about alternate timelines, androids, post-apocalyptic futures, and magic mongooses, traditional realism can no longer be claimed as a prerequisite of contemporary literary fiction. Add, in no particular order, Philip Roth, Sherman Alexie, Isabel Allende, Jane Smiley, Tom De Haven, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jennifer Egan, David Mitchell, Don DeLillo, Lev Grossman, Austin Grossman, Lev Grossman, George Saunders, Glen Duncan, Tom Perrotta, and Caryl Churchill to the already long list of fabulous slipstreamers, and we’re no longer describing authors migrating between genres. The genres themselves have been leveled.

Soon they may never have been there at all. Just as H. G. Wells became the retroactive father of science fiction, 20th century authors previously ensconced in narrative realism will emerge as fantastical realist godparents. Reread Joyce Carol Oates’ widely anthologized “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” or John Cheever’s equally canonical “The Swimmer.” Or better, come up with an argument for why one of the most highly regarded novels of the 20th century, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, is not first and foremost a horror story.

When I teach the contemporary novel at Washington and Lee University, I subtitle my course “Thrilling Tales.” The challenge is limiting the syllabus. Chabon’s anthology title—a fanciful act of literary transgression a decade ago—now describes a wide swath of “serious” mainstream fiction. Chabon’s dream of literary eclecticism has come true. Werewolves, time-travelers, clones, superheroes—nothing is out of bounds.

Or almost nothing. Despite the leveled landscape, one gulf still divides “literary” and “non-literary”: formula. This is not a hold-over prejudice from old school literary fiction. The bias was articulated early and often by the genre-splicing outsiders. After declaring that “straight realism is all burnt out,” Rucker demands that a “Transrealist artist cannot predict the finished form of his or her work. The Transrealist novel grows organically.” While defining slipstream, Sterling bemoans the state of category SF for its “belittlement of individual creativity, and the triumph of anonymous product.” He could be describing the vast majority of novels mass produced in the heyday of the pulp magazine industry. Despite his revisionist nostalgia, even Chabon acknowledges the “formulaic nature of genre fiction,” shifting the blame toward publishers and book-sellers. It was their marketing practices and formula-driven products that originally prompted a generation of writers and editors to construct “literary fiction” as a boundary against them.

But formula is not innate to any genre. Octavia E. Butler identified herself as a science fiction writer—not speculative fiction or anything else—until her death in 2007, because SF “was so wide open, it gave me the chance to comment on every aspect of humanity. People tend to think of science fiction as, oh, Star Wars or Star Trek, and the truth is there are no closed doors, and there are no required formulas. You can go anywhere with it.”

In short, the new literary landscape allows anything but a convention-determined plot outcome. Although romance was a major pulp category in the first half of the century, Chabon did not include any representatives in his Thrilling Tales. Despite its use of realistic surface details, romance is definitively formulaic. The reader begins with the guarantee of two lovers united. Throw in as many obstacles as you like, but the conclusion is set. Mystery and detective fiction offer a similar problem. Poe’s writing dictum still holds: begin with the end and work backwards. This might explain why only Chabon champions the mystery subgenre. He’s written two detective novels (Chabon maintains citizenships in an enviable range of territories), but the other anthologists mostly limit themselves to science fiction, horror and fantasy—anything that bends the conventions of realism. Detective fiction, like romance, behaves like realistic fiction. Only its deep structure—the requisite agreement between writer and reader that the detective will solve the mystery—separates it from narrative realism. Superheroes—once the greatest amalgam all things non-literary—were embraced as “serious” literature only after their old plot requirements collapsed.  Alan Moore’s Watchmen upended the 1954 Comics Code dictum that “In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.” Flying men in tights are easier for literary fiction to swallow than a formula-mandated ending.

It sounds easy. Just yank out the plot rug and let the genre pieces—aliens, elves, gangsters, it makes no difference—rattle into new configurations. Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days, however, shows how tricky old school genre plotting can be. The middle section of Cunningham’s 2005 novel is written in the style of a police thriller, which requires certain characters to be at certain places at certain times. In order to chance into the terrorist suspect, for instance, Cunningham’s cop has to have a coincidental reason to return to her apartment where he’s secretly waiting. Narrative realism requires the reason to appear organic, but Cunningham, like most narrative realists, doesn’t have much practice with plot-defined storytelling. When his cop mouths an authorial excuse for her detour home, Cunningham’s strings show. Frankly, it’s a little embarrassing—which is why “literary fiction” shunned pulp genres for so long and so successfully.

But the fact that Specimen Days even exists—with its gothic tropes in part one and its aliens and androids in part three—is evidence alone that something very strange happened in the first decade of the new century. Cunningham is not a Transrealist, Magic Realist, Slipstreamer, Paraspherist, or New or Old Wave Fabulist. He’s a mainstream literary fiction writer.

Welcome to 21st Century Literature.


[This essay originally appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle.]

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The Girl from Mars (1929)

I know exactly where my daughter came from. I was cowering, forehead to my wife’s temple, as a doctor lifted Madeleine’s blood- and vernix-dappled body above the surgical drape. I did not peek over while they were sawing a half-foot wound into my wife’s abdomen. I remember the table shaking. I remember the bloody tread marks on the floor afterwards.

These are the kind of details science fiction authors Jack Williamson and Miles J. Breuer avoid. Their literary daughter, Pandorina, emerges from of a metal cylinder. Her adoptive father pulls it from a meteorite’s bloodless crater, not a c-section incision.

“A Girl from Mars” was published in 1929. It was literally the first science fiction story. Pulp publisher Hugo Gernsback, having lost Amazing Stories, launched a new magazine, Science Fiction, with “A Girl from Mars” as its premiere story. It sounds like an obvious name for a magazine, but before Gernsback coined it, the genre was called scientifiction. A term deserving its timely death.

Science Fiction’s readers included high schooler Jerry Siegel, the future co-creator of Superman. A few years later and his own alien child of a destroyed civilization would crash-land on earth to be reared by human foster parents. Miles J. Breuer, a practicing physician when not penning pulp tales, would have been less queasy than his younger writing partner about pregnancy. Though not, apparently, childbirth. Pandorina is a test tube baby, conceived in and hatched from an incubator. Breuer can use the words “ovum,” “sperm,” and “fertilize,” but not “uterus,” “cervix” or “vulva.” Siegel, even less comfortable with the birds and the bees, delivers his sanitized Baby Clark swaddled in a cockpit.


Both birth stories omit female anatomy. Women’s bodies are either missing or sexless. Pandorina is found by a recently widowed husband, Clark by an elderly couple, the wife long past child-bearing years. Instead of vaginas, we get funnel-shaped craters. Instead of intercourse, it’s rocket ships and glass globes shot from interplanetary guns.


But Williamson and Breuer’s narrator seems to love his adopted daughter well enough, rearing her beside his own son. He admires her “rare elflike beauty,” her “soft, red bronze” hair, and her “astonishing aptitude,” all “her inheritance from a higher civilization.” Like Clark, Pandorina passes from infancy to adulthood in less than a page. When I blink at Madeleine—she was just accepted early decision to Wesleyan University this month—I see the same blur of time. Next thing Pandorina’s in love with her adoptive brother, Fred, and glowing in the dark when “excited.” My wife and I haven’t been allowed to check on Madeleine after bed for years and years now, but I suspect she emits a similar “luminosity” behind her closed door.

Perhaps all fathers eventually experience their daughters as alien. After deleting all female genitalia from Pandorina’s birth, Williamson and Breuer’s literary offspring has the audacity to grow her own. My father-tuned ears can hear the unspoken panic stirring under their narrator’s scientifictionally calm prose. Who is this adult woman making herself breakfast in my kitchen before driving herself to school? Where in the universe did she come from?

I’d like to think I’m handling my paternal alienation better than Pandorina’s dad. He sees her entire generation as monsters. Martian men start showing up on the front porch, demanding to wed his virgin daughter. They crash-landed too, one in a farmer’s field in the smallville of Folsom, NJ. The father is horrified as they battle over their would-be bride.

Better they all die, even his own boy Fred, than allow Pandorina to unveil herself on her wedding night. He lures her and the other Martians onto a heavy artillery range where they bloodlessly vanish in the smoke and dirt of an exploding shell. A death as sanitized as their births. I don’t know if Siegel was as terrified by women’s bodies. He avoids opening Pandorina’s box with a sex change operation. Krypton only ejaculates a lone male.

My daughter’s Martians suitors have all been nice boys so far. I try not to embarrass her too much when one steps in from the porch, but it’s hard. Madeleine has ordered us to be “calm” and “not weird,” but my wife and I still gawk. We mumble awkward jokes. Befuddled strangers watching a new civilization take root.

In nine months she flies off to colonize her own planet. God, I’ll miss her.

Mad electro woman

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My son texts me: “In dungeons and dragons I created hawk-eye, Hulk and Thor”

This is a major breakthrough, even better than downloading superhero mods into Minecraft because it requires his own creative mixing. His uber-Aryan is a human paladin with a demigod destiny and an epic-tier artifact hammer. For the Hulk, you start with a human warden and multi-class him to get a monk’s unarmed strike while wearing bloodweave armor. Mix enchanted arrows and a throwing shield with bow-mastery and brawler talent, and Hawkeye and Captain America are ready to go too. I think he chiseled Iron Man from living metal.

It’s my favorite thing about superhero teams, how gods and aliens and androids can join forces, all their discordant realities merged in the ultimate melting pot of action-packed fantasy. Tolkien didn’t invent the genre, but he assembled one of the first super-teams. He would take it further with Lord of the Rings, but his first team of adventurers mixed dwarves with a hobbit and a human wizard. It was 1937. The Hobbit made a case for diversity in a time of Aryan purity.

Hitler had barred Jews from the German Olympic team the summer before. The “part-Jewish” fencer Helene Mayer was Berlin’s token exception, and she medaled, along with nine other Jewish athletes from other nations. The biggest winner was Jesse Owens with four golds, including a world record set with his relay teammates. Hitler left the stadium rather than shake a non-Aryan hand. In Berlin Owens stayed in all-whites hotel, but back home, he had to use a freight elevator to attend his own banquet. FDR, afraid of losing the Southern vote, snubbed him too.

Hitler wanted to cleanse Germany of ethnic diversity, believing it would return the splendor of ancient Greece and Rome. But go further back, and evolutionary geneticist Mark Thomas calls ancient Europe a “Lord of the Rings-type world,” with multiple human races co-existing for dozens of millennia. In addition to Early Modern Humans (including the hominids formerly known as Cro-Magnon), you got your standard Neanderthals, plus their recently discovered neighbors, the Denisovans. Instead of segregating themselves on separate continents, the three hung out together in Spanish and Siberian caves.

“It is possible,” writes Carl Zimmer for the New York Times, “that there are many extinct human populations that scientists have yet to discover.”

Old school theories didn’t like the idea of Homo sapiens coming in flirting range with other groups after marching out of Africa, but analysis of a Neanderthal toe bone proves the ancient races didn’t keep to their prudish selves. If you have type 2 diabetes, you probably have a branch of Neanderthal relatives on your 50,000-year-old family tree.  The gene is biggest in the Americas, so the colony of Virginia was way too late when they passed the hemisphere’s first anti-miscegenation law in 1691. Since early humans didn’t discover Neanderthal love until after they’d exited Africa, Virginia’s slave population was the genetically purest on the continent. Even Englishman Ozzy Osbourne flunked the one-drop rule. He had his DNA sequenced in hopes of finding a “plausible medical reason why I should still be alive” given “the swimming pool or booze” and drugs he’d guzzled. The answer wasn’t racial hygiene.

Denisovans are crashing family reunions too. Europeans carry some Denisovan blood, but the biggest pockets are in Australia and New Guinea, with Brazil and China claiming some of the best Neanderthal-Denisovan mix. Denisovans also share about 8% of their genome with some million-year-old species, so that’s more bad news for Racial Purity Clubs worldwide. We are all, says computational biologist Rasmus Nielsen, “connected to other species.”

Robert E. Howard agrees. The father of sword and sorcery renamed ancient Eurasia “Hyboria” and populated it with a mixed-race of arctic warriors descended from the lost continent of Thuria.  The survivors of Atlantis devolved into ape-men, and the former Lemurians came westward, “overthrowing the pre-humans of the south.” This is about 20,000 years ago, after Neanderthals and Denisovans had given way to Homo sapiens. Howard published his first Conan the Cimmerian story in 1932. Conan’s people would evolve into Celts by 9500 BC and Conan into Arnold Schwarzenegger by 1982.“The origins of the other races of the modern world,” Howard writes, “may be similarly traced. In almost every case, older far than they realize, their history stretches back into the mists of the forgotten Hyborian Age…”

Howard committed suicide in June 1936, three weeks before Jesse Owens took his first Olympic gold. That left the Weird Tales realm of sword and sorcery undefended when Tolkien invaded the following year. Like any conqueror, he renamed everything, so Hyboria became Middle-earth. Both ages took place in Earth’s lost history, though Tolkien admits “it would be difficult to fit the lands and events (or ‘cultures’) into such evidence as we possess, archaeological or geological, concerning the nearer or remoter part of what is now called Europe.”

Tolkien’s reign ended with his death in 1973, and the realm was again defenseless during the Dungeons & Dragons invasion of 1974. I dabbled in a game or two with college roommates in the early 80s and now order second-hand copies of user guides and monster manuals for my son who organizes weekend adventures with fellow middle schoolers. I even found him a 2000 Marvel mini-series called Avataarz, featuring D&D versions of Captain America, the Hulk, Hawkeye and other sundry Avengers. He was disappointed it didn’t include their character sheets, but he’s good at building his own. Fantasy is in his blood.


He and my wife and I watched The Hobbit parts 1 and 2 together and have been waiting for the last installment. We skipped the Conan the Barbarian reboot, as did most of the world’s Cimmerian-descended population, but rumor has it Arnold will be returning to Hyboria soon. His last super-team included Grace Jones and Wilt Chamberlain, but I’m sure Hollywood can assemble an even more discordant melting pot of a cast. That’s what the genre is all about.

conan the barbarian

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I don’t know his name, just his origin. He starts out as a standard lab-coated scientist, arms stretched into a pair of wall-mounted containment gloves as he peers through an observation window at a glowing meteorite in his rubbery fingers. The protective wall is thick, which is why he survives the explosion. When he wakes in a hospital bed, he’s blind and armless. He’ll later grow phantom limbs—literally, their outlines are hazy with the meteorite’s mysterious energy—plus multi-dimensional vision, but first he has to face the horror of his ruined body.

The images look like comic book panels, drawn in Marvel house style c. 1980, but they exist only in my head. I’m remembering one of my adolescent daydreams. I never named my would-be superhero, so I’m retroactively dubbing him: Post-Traumatic Growth Man.


Jim Rendon introduced me to the term. Psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun coined it in 1995, and Rendon wrote about it in his New York Times Magazine “Post-Traumatic Stress’s Surprisingly Positive Flip Side.” Rendon is expanding the article into a book for Simon and Schuster now, and he emailed my university address looking for a professor willing to talk superheroes. He said he was hoping to learn more from me, but he’d already done his homework:

“It is the archetypal story of the hero who is forged through adversity by completing a life-threatening quest, suffering the loss of loved ones, surviving the destruction of home. Through survival of trauma, the hero becomes a great and selfless leader. And in popular culture narratives, nearly every comic book hero suffers some loss that spurs him or her to greatness–Batman, Spiderman, Superman, etc.”

I suggested he read Austin Grossman’s 2007 superhero novel Soon I Will Be Invincible. Grossman told an interviewer that trauma is “the motivating, defining attribute of the superhero. I guess it’s kind of the hopeful element of superhero comics; the idea of the trauma that shapes you is not just pain; it’s also the thing that makes you special . . . .” Video game designer Jane McGonigal explored that same “hopeful element” when creating “SuperBetter” in which her superheroic avatar “Jane the Concussion Slayer” helped her overcome a real-life injury. But, Rendon asked me, where did this defining superhero attribute come from?

Well, Nietzsche, the man who gave us the ubermensch, said it first: “what does not kill me makes me stronger.” Jerry Siegel borrowed more than just the name. Look at Superman No. 1 and there’s Clark staring at a pair of gravestones: “The passing away of his foster-parents greatly grieved Clark Kent. But it strengthened a determination that had been growing in his mind.” Bruce Wayne’s superheroic response to his parents’ murders is even more overt: “And I swear by the spirits of my parents to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals.”

But both origins were add-ons. Batman patrolled Detective Comics for six issues before an editor demanded Bob Kane provide an explanation. Superman No. 1 was a reprint of Action Comics adventures with an expanded origin that retconned Clark’s foster parents. In the first one-page origin, a passing motorist drops the alien baby at an orphanage. All those traumatically dead parents were afterthoughts.

Clark's foster-parents

Before the late 30s, superheroes didn’t know much about Post-Traumatic Growth. Doc Savage, the Shadow, Zorro, the Gray Seal, the Scarlet Pimpernel, all their do-goodery was equal parts altruism and thrill-seeking. Trauma didn’t fully hit the pulps till 1939, when the Black Bat got a face full of acid, and the Avenger’s family perished in a plane crash. Batman and Superman lost their ad hoc parents the same year, and soon almost every Golden Age hero—Green Arrow, the Flash, Plastic Man—had to have his own special tale of superhuman recovery.

U.S. Army recruits wouldn’t ship out for three years, but war was raging in Europe, and the comics are a surprisingly perceptive flip side to front page headlines. There are also some PTG tales earlier in the decade (the Domino Lady’s dad was murdered by gangsters), so Rendon wondered aloud on the phone whether the trope might be a national recovery tale: the U.S. rising heroically from its Depression. I like both those readings, but I don’t think superheroes really start growing, post-traumatically or otherwise, till the 60s. Stan Lee knew how to make a hero suffer.

Most unitard-wearers slap a defining symbol on their chest, a bit of iconic lip service to that supposedly life-transforming trauma, but Jack Kirby didn’t even draw a costume for the Thing. His body is his on-going disaster, one that extends well beyond the frames of this origin story. Peter Parker, like most Marvelites, should have died of radiation poisoning, but it’s the mental anguish of allowing his uncle to be murdered that spurs him to atonement. The crippled Donald Blake is just wobbling through his life until he finds a cane that transforms him into a god of thunder. After Tony Stark trips a jungle booby-trap (“Impossible to operate! Cannot live longer than a week!), he manufactures “a mighty electronic body, to keep [his] heart beating after the shrapnel reaches it!” For Doctor Strange’s fourth issue, Lee and Steve Ditko retconned a career-ending car accident that turned the wealthy neurosurgeon into a penniless vagabond—and then the Sorcerer Supreme.

By 1964, Lee had exhausted his creative reserves, introducing his last but most post-traumatic superhero. After saving a blind man in a crosswalk, young Matt Murdock lies in a hospital bed, his head heavily bandaged after being struck by a radioactive cylinder that fell from the speeding truck.

Daredevil origin story

NURSE: “Your son is a very brave lad, Mr. Murdock! You must try to be as equally brave in the days ahead!

DAD: “If . . . if only it had happened to ME instead of him!”

MATT: “Don’t, Dad! It could be worse! Even if I DO lose my sight . . . at least I’m ALIVE!”

That surprisingly positive attitude pays off two panels later. “I don’t get it!” says the now super-athletic Matt. “I seem able to do everything lots betters than before . . . even without my sight!” Throw in “razor sharp” senses and “built-in radar” and Daredevil is the PTG poster boy—but only because he remains blind. He’s why Grossman sees “the larger theme of superhero life as trauma and recovery from trauma; the way superpowers arise in trauma to the body that one never quite gets over. The trauma impresses itself onto the body but also leads to a hyperfunctioning of the body.”

That larger theme impressed itself on me too. My nameless but mutilated scientist and his eventually phantom-limbed persona were the unexamined DNA of Bronze Age comics. I absorbed the trope like radiation, and it filtered back out through my adolescent daydreams. And now Jim Rendon is studying it under his journalistic microscope. His book, Upside: Transforming Trauma into Growth, is due out in 2015–just in time for Daredevil’s premiere on Netflix. I’m looking forward to both.


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It took almost a half century, but Fox and Warner Bros. finally put aside their film rivalry to co-release Batman: The Complete Television Series last month. It makes me want to drag my parents back together and sit them down on my living room couch to watch.


I had no idea why they were laughing the first time we watched the show together. It seemed like a pretty serious situation to me: Batman facing down that dastardly cowboy villain “Shame.” They were sitting with me on the couch in the den, enjoying the apparently hilarious subtleties of Adam West’s superheroic performance. If I can trust the episode guide I skimmed online, this is February 1968. Which puts me a little under the age of two. So maybe we were watching a rerun?


Whatever my extremely prepubescent age, I’m sure I had zero idea what Eartha Kit was doing in that slinky Catwoman costume. Nowadays I squirm just hearing the late Ms. Kit’s “Santa Baby” rasping from my favorite Christmas mix. I assume Julie Newmar’s Catwoman was equally incomprehensible. No smoldering voice, but the same cartoon-tight faux leather.

catwoman newmar

I don’t know when a kid’s sexuality kicks in (“When did you first suspect your might be straight?”), but I must have had a thing for good girls early on. Because Batgirl I noticed. Yvonne Craig in costume still produces an impressive Google search.


I sat through an entire episode of That Girl waiting for Marlo Thomas to open that secret compartment in her apartment wall and motorcycle out of the alley with her cape fluttering (I swore my mother had said the show was Bat Girl). But when Ms. Craig appeared on Star Trek as a green-skinned seductress who lap dances for Spock and lures Kirk onto a dimly lit bed, nothing in me recognized her. Apparently my pre-pre-adolescent id didn’t go for scantily clad She-Hulk types.


“Spidey,” PBS’ mute Spider-Man mutation, premiered on The Electric Company when I was seven. I was too busy blinking at my first full TV crush to take notice of him. I’m relieved to report no nostalgic reactions to The Electric Company cast portraits I just scrolled through. I can’t even figure out which actress arrested my attention. Rita Moreno is my best guess. According to her online bio though, she would have been around forty at the time. I’m even more surprised looking back at the shows advertising slogan:

“We’re going to turn you on!”

electric co

This may also be the year I started first grade, the year of my first crush on a non-TV entity. Her name was Marisa Moesta. Not quite as snappy as Lois Lane, but I understood the allure of comic book alliteration from an early age. I can’t picture Ms. Moesta, just the pink poodle key ring she gave me after I’d given her my own trinket of affection—what I can’t remember. But I carried her poodle in my utility belt for years. Though not, thankfully, to the Batcave of my current home.


Wonder Woman premiered next, with Lynda Carter “In your satin tights / Fighting for your rights.” I had less interest in her underoos than my own. Ditto for Isis. Even I knew they’d only made her up to give the Shazam! Hour‘s Captain Marvel a girlfriend.


My wife remembers Electra Woman and Dyna Girl, a female spin on the old Batman and Robin gag. I must have been too lazy to stand up and channel surf. Which is just as well since Dyna looks like she might have been my type. Those brunette ponytails. Electra’s Farah Fawcett curls still horrify.


I’m sure I was continuing to miss subtleties, but my parents weren’t beside me on the couch anymore. When I set my smiley face alarm for cartoons one Saturday morning (Batman and Robin had recently guest starred on Scooby-Do), my mother was sleeping on the fold-out mattress in the den. I don’t know when they told my sister and me they were divorcing, but it was on that couch, the TV off for a change.


When Batgirl and Robin showed up on a 30-second public-service announcement, it was some other guy in the Batman costume. Adam West was gone, desperate to escape his Caped Crusader’s shadow, a mission he would never complete. If Batman hadn’t been cancelled back in 1968, ABC would have broken up the Dynamic Duo anyway. Robin was to be replaced by Yvonne Craig’s more popular Batgirl. But bad ratings killed them all.

Congress had passed the Federal Equal Pay Act a decade earlier, but employers were still ignoring it. I don’t know if that included the University of Pittsburgh. After moving out, my mother got a job as an assistant in one of their research labs. My sister and I helped her feed rats on weekends. It couldn’t have been much above minimum wage. I doubt Batman: The Complete Television Series includes the PSA, but I remember every second:

Batman and Robin are tied to a warehouse pillar.

NARRATOR: A ticking bomb means trouble for Batman and Robin.

Batgirl swings through a window.

ROBIN: Holy breaking and entering, it’s Batgirl!

BATMAN: Quick, Batgirl, untie us before it’s too late.

BATGIRL: It’s already too late. I’ve worked for you for a long time, and I’m paid less than Robin.

Robin sneers.

BATGIRL: Same job, same employer means same pay for men and women.

BATMAN: No time for jokes, Batgirl.

BATGIRL: It’s no joke. It’s the Federal Equal Pay law.

ROBIN: Holy act of Congress!

Batgirl moves the minute hand forward on the ticking bomb.

BATGIRL (voice over): If you’re not getting equal pay, then contact the Wage and Hour Division, U.S. Department of Labor.

At least Yvonne Craig and Robin actor Burt Ward were paid the same for the commercial: $0. The PSA started airing in 1973, when Craig was thirty-six. My mother was thirty-four. Craig’s final appearance as Batgirl also marked the end of her acting career. When she couldn’t get parts, she moved on to producing and then real estate.

Lynda Carter held on to her magic lasso for four seasons, but it didn’t matter. The joke was over. The Incredible Hulk was the new, angsty breed of superhero. No camp, no gratuitous display of women in swimsuits and bodystockings, just the brooding Bill Bixby wandering away alone once a week. By the time The Greatest American Hero premiered, I’d already turned off the TV.


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