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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: February 2015

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Action Comics No. 1 was the Big Bang of the Golden Age of Comics, the start point for superhero history. Unless you count the actual Big Bang, which was about fourteen billion years earlier. Or, if you favor a different species of evidence, more like six thousand. Genesis 1:2 opens with a black hole: “the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep,” followed by God’s “Let there be light,” the Biblical Big Bang.

Milton doesn’t give an exact date in Paradise Lost, but he says God created Earth just after booting Satan out of heaven:

There is a place
(If ancient and prophetic fame in Heav’n
Err not) another World, the happy seat
Of some new Race call’d Man, about this time
To be created like to us, though less
In power and excellence, but favour’d more
Of him who rules above;

That’s Beelzebub, one of Satan’s lieutenants, talking. He thinks attacking Earth is a better military strategy that storming Heaven. When Satan flaps across the void to check out God’s latest creation, Milton likens it to the wonder of looking upon “some renown’d Metropolis / With glistering Spires and Pinnacles adorn’d.”

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Paradise Lost is basically a superhero comic book, with long slug fests between Lucifer’s League of Fallen Angels and Archangel Michael’s Mighty Avengers. My father remembers hearing the tale from the nuns in his school. He emailed me about that recently:

“Have you ever commented in your writings on what I consider the archetypal superhero plot, one that has its origin in the Bible?  I’m referring to the story of archangel Michael being called on to save heaven from being taken over by Lucifer by having a violent confrontation with Lucifer and vanquishing him. This story is so embedded in the western religious psyche that to this day Catholics still pray to St. Michael to ‘defend us in battle’ with Lucifer.”

It’s not the sort of question you might expect from a retired research chemist, but my father only entered the field because he had his brother’s textbooks after his brother became a priest instead. My father’s colleagues were all theoretical physicists, but he preferred working alone in his lab. He said his job was playing Twenty Questions with God. Every day he had time for one: Does it have something to do with . . .

“The reason I think the Michael/Lucifer story is of critical importance is that it injected into the human psyche the concept of the need of an ubermensch (not a collective effort) to defeat evil and save the people. Ever since people are continually looking for such a person, most of the time to their eventual detriment when they believe they have found one. I believe this powerful subconscious longing in the western world for a superhero to save us from evil originated from the Michael/Lucifer story.”

“That’s pretty good, Dad. I hadn’t thought of Michael as the original superhero. I may have to flagrantly steal your insight.”

“I would be delighted if you chose to. An interesting part of the Michael/Lucifer myth is that it is not spelled out in any detail in the Bible. There is only a brief snippet about Michael slaying dragons in Revelation and that’s it – nothing about a great battle between Michael and Lucifer. In the long version, as I learned from the nuns, Lucifer is portrayed as the greatest and most brilliant of the angels. In his great pride, he decides to challenge God as the ruler of heaven. So God dispatches Michael to battle Lucifer, which he does, defeats him and sends him down to the lower regions. (Why an all-powerful God didn’t take on the job himself was never explained.)  This long version came down through the centuries strictly through oral tradition. The fact that it has been retold countless times for probably over two thousand years demonstrates, I believe, its powerful grip on the human imagination.”

When I looked up Revelations 12, I couldn’t help imagining how Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko would illustrate the passages. The New Testament author even divides his script into panels. You just need some caption boxes:

[7] And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, [8] And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. [9] And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.

I’d assign Rev. 20 to Neal Adams or Bill Sienkiewicz:

[1] And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. [2] And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years, [3] And cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season.

Daniel 12:1 makes Michael sounds like a superhero too: “At that time, Michael, the great heavenly prince, the grand defender and guardian of your people, will arise.” Thewarriorprince.us, a website devoted to him, says his “prime duty is to guard and defend the people of God collectively, and those who invoke him individually, from Satan and his demons, as well as their wiles and attacks.” And, according to Milton, those chains he uses on Satan are adamantine, basically Wolverine’s claws. No wonder God made him team leader:

Go Michael of Celestial Armies Prince,
And thou in Military prowess next
Gabriel, lead forth to Battel these my Sons
Invincible, lead forth my armed Saints
By Thousands and by Millions rang’d for fight;
Equal in number to that Godless crew
Rebellious, them with Fire and hostile Arms
Fearless assault, and to the brow of Heav’n
Pursuing drive them out from God and bliss,
Into thir place of punishment, the Gulf
Of Tartarus, which ready opens wide
His fiery Chaos to receave thir fall.

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There I’ve named it. Centuries from now, fans and scholars will look back at this past decade as the birth of Popularism, the movement that stamped the coffin lid on postmodernism.

I attended the Modern Language Association conference in January, and according to the “What’s On” section of The Vancouver Sun I read over my first breakfast, the city was more “erudite” than usual that weekend. Imagine 8,000 English professors converging on one city block. And yet this year’s star speaker was Sara Paretsky, “best-selling mystery writer” of the “revolutionary novels” featuring detective V. I. Warshawski. I’d spied some of her paperbacks in airport bookstores on my trip over. That’s not evidence of an academic bastion. That’s collapsed rubble.

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My complimentary Sun also included an article on the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra; “the old days of new music” were “a tough slog for general audiences” but now “are over.” Instead, Jocelyn Morlock, VSO’s composer in residence, is emphasizing “pure fun” and “party atmosphere.” “To a large extent,” she explains, “new music has become more attractive to audiences because the attitude of composers themselves have changed. Composers want to connect with their audiences rather than baffling or alienating them.”

Compare that to composer John Harbison’s 1960s studies with Milton Babbitt, who New York Times Magazine editor Charles McGrath dubbed “the reigning prince of atonality.” Harbison’s “reluctance to abandon melody,” McGrath wrote in 1999, “made him an outcast. He still remembers a moment when one of his grad-school classmates turned to him and said, ‘You’re really just a tune man, aren’t you?’’” The tune man went on to win a MacArthur “genius” award, while being labelled a New Romantic, a term he hated: ‘I think ‘Romantic’ is just a cover for whether or not people like something.’”

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Harbison also likened operas to literature: “there’s the literary novel and the novel that’s sold in airports. Opera is in the same place where the literary novel is.” A decade and a half later, the literary novel is nowhere near opera. It’s hanging out with those airport paperbacks now. The infectious beat of genre fiction has gone highbrow. Since winning a 1999 Pulitzer for a novel about comic books, Michael Chabon has been rehabilitating the words “entertainment” and “pleasure” as the not-so-erudite goals of literature.

In the art world, the equivalent to a catchy melody is representational painting, something Mt. San Jacinto College professor John Seed would like to see more of. In a 2013 Huffington Post blog, Seed listed 40 representational painters (culled from 135) who he’d like to see in the Museum of Contemporary Art. “Like other leading American and European contemporary museums and galleries,” writes Seed, “MOCA has narrowly defined contemporary to mean works that have their roots in Duchamp, Warhol and postmodern theory.” Instead, Seed wants the museum to “woo back the respect of its public” by acknowledging that “Postmodernism officially expired.”

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That death means all airport reading can discard the “Romantic” covers. Even academic scholarship wants public respect now. The NEH announced in December a new agency-wide initiative, The Common Good: The Humanities in the Public Square, emphasizing that “the humanities belong to all the people of the United States.” Their new “Public Scholar” grant wants scholarly books “accessible to general readers” and “conceived and written to reach a broad readership.” University presses, the reigning princes of academic atonality, are joining the common people too. Last year, an acquisition editor at the University of Iowa Press contacted me to ask if I would be interested in adapting my pop culture blog into a “crossover” book designed for a general interest audience, what the press predicts will play “an important role in the future of university publishing.” As a result, On the Origin of Superheroes: from the Big Bang to Action Comics No. 1 will be out in fall 2015.

Over fifty books in comics studies were published last year—including from Oxford and Cambridge—but I’m the only person on my campus who fields the question: “Oh, are you the comic book guy?” Unlike Harbison’s graduate-school snobs though, my colleagues ask it with a pleased grin, followed by an admission of a similarly lowbrow interest of their own. As a result, I keep stumbling into interdisciplinary projects. Cognitive psychologist Dan Johnson and I have begun a second round of studies exploring the so-called division between “literary” and “popular” fiction.”Atin Basu, a professor of economics next door at the Virginia Military Institute, and I are applying game theory to zombie movies. Nathaniel Goldberg, a Washington and Lee colleague in Philosophy, and I are thinking about Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and philosopher Donald Davidson’s Swampman. Our Art department’s Leigh Ann Beavers is teaming up with me to design a new spring course on making comics—though we may go with the more erudite title Graphic Narratives. None of these projects may be “revolutionary,” but they are “pure fun.”

A major in my English department is writing her senior thesis on Fifty Shades of Grey. And why not? It’s a cultural object worth analysis. This invasion of the popular into the serious worries some folks though. Last year, Adam Brooke Davis warned in the Chronicle of Higher Education about “the overwhelming weight of pop culture,” after discovering that his advanced creative writing students were more likely to have read The Hunger Games than short stories by Annie Proulx or Ha Jin. That was a surprise? It’s that the definition of “popular”? I’m not a particular fan of Suzanne Collins or E. L. James or Sara Paretsky, but I don’t object to their book sales. It’s just something else to study.

By mid-century I predict the aesthetic pendulum will start slicing back in the opposite direction. Until then, I’m enjoying the party.

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“They had dug coal together as young men and then lost touch over the years. Now it looked like they’d be meeting again, this time as lawman and felon, Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder.”

That’s the first paragraph of Elmore Leonard’s “Fire in the Hole” and the premise of FX’s Justified, which has entered its sixth and final season. The New York Times calls the show a “crime drama,” but the cowboy hat on Timothy Olyphant’s head says Western to me—that and the fact the actor had recently finished playing sheriff on HBO’s Deadwood when he took up the role.

Olyphant’s U.S. Marshall is named Raylan, but he borrows his DNA from another Leonard short story, “How Carlos Webster Changed His Name to Carl and Became a Famous Oklahoma Lawman.” Michael Chabon included it in the Thrilling Tales issue of McSweeney’s he edited in 2003, infusing a much needed dose of pulp into the quite realms of literary fiction. I assigned Leonard’s and a half dozen other Thrilling Tales to my advanced creative writing class this semester. The Justified writing team must have a copy too.  Olyphant voiced Carl’s dialogue on the pilot: “I want to be clear about this so you understand. If I pull my weapon I’ll shoot to kill. In other words, the only time Carl Webster draws his gun it’s to shoot somebody dead.”

Which Rayland Givens does too.  Many many times in the past five years. It’s his character’s most charming superpower, that good-natured indifference to moral quandaries. Raylan never hesitates before shooting and he never second guesses himself afterwards. The cocky smile never changes either. As Marshall Webster’s father says: “My Lord, but this boy has a hard bark on him.”

That’s standard gunslinger M.O., a cold-blooded willingness to step over the line and do whatever needs doing to keep the good folks of his community safe and sound. Or, as Richard Slotkin in Gunfighter Nation says of frontiersmen:

“Through this transgression of the borders, through combat with the dark elements on the other side, the heroes reveal the meaning of the frontier line (that is, the distinctions of value it symbolizes) even as they break it down. In the process they evoke the elements in themselves (or in their society) that correspond to the ‘dark’; and by destroying the dark elements and colonizing the border, they purge darkness from themselves and the world.”

So Raylan’s job is darkness-purger for the crime-swamped frontier of modern Kentucky. And he was doing a pretty good job in season one, and even better season two (one of my all-time favorite 14-episode arcs of any TV show). But then things started to shift. Not his smile, not his pistol grip, those are unflinching as ever—which, oddly, creates a kind of change in his character: the inability to change.

When E. M. Forster read Moby Dick, he saw “a battle against evil conducted too long or in the wrong way.” Captain Ahab—a once-valiant knight sailing in the service of good—devolves into the evil he thought he was fighting. That’s Raylan’s problem too. A hero can only spend so long in that darkness before he sinks in too far. Instead of purging the darkness, Raylan is wallowing in it.

His first two season, he at least theoretically was trying to complete his Ahab mission and retire into domestic bliss of marriage and fatherhood. But then he watched his true love stroll off camera while he battled the next round of Kentucky gangsters. He picked up some more girlfriends, but his unflappable indifference applied to them too. After three more seasons of random acts of love and violence, Raylan’s emotional range never inched off the glib meter. Instead of a man with a well-armored moral center, all that manly bark looks like a facade papered over an abyss.

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Boyd Crowder, however, has aged much better.  Sure, actor Walton Goggins’ receding hairline is undermining the character’s crazy hair look, but otherwise Boyd is as paradoxically loveable as ever. I would call him an anti-hero, but he’s more a heroic villain, a guy of deep but unpredictable passions in struggle with his inner darkness. Unlike Raylan, he doesn’t know himself, and so each season has been a chaotic and inevitably corpse-ridden quest for self-discovery.

Frank Miller, the villain that provides Marshall Webster his origin story and plot closure, is as two-dimensional as his Batman-writing namesake (comics artist Howard Chaykin, even more coincidentally, illustrates the tale). The Boyd Crowder of “Fire in the Hole” is just an oddball Nazi thug there to give his Marshall Givens a character-revealing moral dilemma: can you put down a man you once dug coal beside? The answer is, of course, yes, and so the story has its ending. Justified, however, has been stringing out that last paragraph for five years, only now in the final season promising to complete the stand-off.

Both characters are caricatures of American masculinity, sharing the absurd ur-trait of psychopathic violence, but they spin that violence in opposite directions. Boyd’s search for meaning is almost proof enough that such meaning is possible. A universe of destructive hope pumps just under his skin. Raylan is nihilism personified. Peel back the bark, and the black hole of his heart would suck the world dry.

These aren’t the characters Elmore Leonard created. I’m not sure the writers of Justified created them either. This is just what happens when you drop short story characters into an open-ended serial form, extending their timelines far beyond the closure points they were designed to inhabit. As Forster says of Ahab, they get “warped by constant pursuit.”

 Walton Goggins and Timothy Olyphant in Justified

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ouija board

I bought the Ouija board from the toy store in our local mall, and my wife set it up in our dining room. She was teaching James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover, a postmodern epic composed from séance transcripts, and she wanted to give spirit communication a whirl. We rested our fingertips on the plastic planchette. Merrill and his lover used an upside-down teacup and could barely scribble each letter of dictation before it skidded to the next. Our planchette dribbled a few centimeters southwest. The yellow legal pad lay blank under my wife’s uncapped pen.

I could blame the board—a fault in the ectoplasmic wiring—but when she tried the experiment with her poetry students, a half dozen ghosts elbowed onto their seminar table. So I’m officially adding “talks to the dead” to my list of failed superpowers.

A real medium wouldn’t touch a planchette anyway. Their hands would be tied behind their backs as proof of their superpowers. And forget teacups. “A great physical medium,” writes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in The History of Spiritualism, “can produce the Direct Voice apart from his own vocal organs, telekenesis, or movement of objects at a distance, raps, or percussions of ectoplasm, levitations, apports, or the bringing of objects from a distance, materializations, either of faces, limbs, or of complete figures, trance talkings and writings, writings within closed slates, and luminous phenomena, which take many forms.”

A list worthy of Professor X, and Doyle, creator of super-rationalist Sherlock Holmes, witnessed them all. His second-hand accounts are even more uncanny. Psychic researchers theorized that Eusapia Palladino grew a third “ectoplasmic limb” in the dark of her séance room. “Now, strange as it may appear,” explains Doyle, “this is just the conclusion to which abundant evidence points.” D. D. Home he dubs a “wonder-man,” but Elizabeth Hope, AKA “Madame d’Esperance,” is my favorite of his super-psychics. Observers documented her powers of Partial Dematerialization, which may lack the BAMF! of Total Teleportation, but she could also materialize the spirit entities of an infant and a full-bodied “feminine form” named Y-Ay-Ali who held hands with séance participants: “I could have thought I held the hand of a permanent embodied lady, so perfectly natural, yet so exquisitely beautiful and pure.” Y-Ay-Ali then “gradually dematerialized by melting away from the feet upwards, until the head only appeared above the floor, and then this grew less and less until a white spot only remained, which, continuing for a moment or two, disappeared.”

Some cite 18th century mystic vegetarian Emanuel Swedenborg as the father of Spiritualism (he trance-traveled to Heaven and Hell and all of the planets of the solar system and several beyond), but like most historians Doyle looks a hundred years later. In 1848, twelve- and fifteen-year-old Kate and Margaret Fox opened the door to the beyond in Hydesville, NY. They grew up in the western New York region that millennialists, Mormons, and sundry utopians “burnt over” during the Second Great Awakening. The Fox sisters were late-comers to the anti-rationalist revival, equivalent of Silver or even Bronze Age superheroines, but they created their own genre as the first séance mediums when the devil came knocking on their bedroom floor. They later confessed that “Mr. Splitfoot” was an apple tied to the end of a string, but by then they were both alcoholic celebrities in an international movement that had spawned as many imitators as Action Comics No. 1.

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Believers like Doyle claimed such confessions were forced and therefore false. Doyle also believed in fairies, famously falling for another pair of children’s selfies posed with book illustration cut-outs. The Partially Dematerializing Ms. Hope was exposed too—“literally,” as debunker M. Lamar Keen puts it—when a séance sitter grabbed at some ectoplasm and instead caught the medium in “total dishabille.” Except for the occasional TV psychic or afterlife memoir, the flimsy world of Spiritualism has been stripped naked for decades. I doubt A. S. Byatt is a current convert, but her historical novella The Conjugial Angel pairs a warm-hearted fake with a dead-to-life spirit-seer. That’s the faker/fakir dichotomy that’s haunted the genre since its debut.

I used to teach Byatt in my first-year composition seminar “I See Dead People,” but my students usually prefer Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. His father, Henry Sr., was a Swedenborgian theologian and his brother William a psychic researcher. I’ve never tried to materialize the masculine form or Henry Jr. to ask what he did or did not believe, but his governess-narrator is my favorite study in Total Ambiguity. Is she a righteous medium battling demonic ghosts for the souls of her innocent wards? Or is she a victim of those not-so-innocents who, like fairy-fakers and foxy Foxes, are too damn good at playing grown-up. Or is the woman just batshit crazy? Her imagination seems overcooked on fairy tales romances and Biblical struggles of good and evil—comic books basically—but however you diagnose her, the governess (James never unmasks her name) casts herself as a superheroine blessed/cursed with superhuman abilities.

James Merrill never confessed the nature of his ghost-chats either. Could teacup transcripts really produce a 560-page poem? Were he and his lover knowingly collaborating? Did the spirit of a first-century Jew named Ephraim abandon their hand-drawn Ouija board to enter his lover’s body for a séance threesome in bed?

I haven’t been entirely forthright either. I used my non-séance in a short story once, and now I can’t distinguish my memories from my cut-out inventions. I can, however, report as a verifiable fact that the Ouija board is currently sitting atop a bookcase in Payne Hall. My wife refuses to keep it in our house. Her superpowers must be sibling-triggered, because a bout of planchette-skidding in her sister’s dining room ended in a telekinetically slammed door and a flock of cousins screaming up the stairs. I was in the guest room reading. But, like Doyle, I believe every word.

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[And now for something completely different: the London School of Economics and Political Science’s Centre for the Study of Human Rights is focusing on comics this week. I recommend taking a look.]

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