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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: April 2015

scully

 It’s hard to believe, but The X-Files is returning to Fox. The six-episode mini-series starts shooting this summer. And Twin Peaks, another dead show about paranormal investigators, is being reincarnated by Showtime.

twin peaks

Why are occult detectives back in fashion? I think Scully’s M.D. makes her more qualified than either Agent Mulder or Agent Cooper, and also more of a target. Remember the episode when she gets abducted by aliens? The scene was shot in Vancouver, but they pretended it was Afton, Virginia—which does not have a funicular. I know because I used to drive over the Blue Ridge Mountains to the University of Virginia’s Creative Writing Department three days a week, unaware that the university also housed its own X-Files, the Division of Perceptual Studies.

DoPS founder, Dr. Ian P. Stevenson, died a few months after I finished my degree. Given his research area, I feel I should place an asterisk next to “died,” but his colleagues have yet to report evidence of his afterlife activities. Dr. Stevenson had been a full-time paranormal researcher since 1968 when philanthropist Chester Carlson, inventor of the Xerox machine, willed UVa’s medical school a grant for paranormal studies. So, yes, the world’s only university-based researcher of reincarnation was funded by photocopiers.

If a medical school seems on odd place to find a psychical investigator, you should know that Scully and Stevenson come from a long tradition of occult detectives with MDs. World-renown surgeon Stephen Strange abandoned his scalpels for astral projection in 1963, two years after Dr. Droom entered “that dark and mystical world which lies beyond the known and the unknown!” Dr. Stevenson visited India in 1961 too, to document his first of almost 3,000 cases of past-life memories. Stevenson was still finishing high school when Superman co-creators Siegel and Shuster dreamed up the first comic book occult physician, aptly named Dr. Occult. But Algernon Blackwood’s 1908 Dr. Silence is the first general practitioner to accept the superhero job title “psychic doctor.”

john-silence-poster

If a medical degree doesn’t sound sufficiently superheroic, then you need to see Hugh Jackman in Van Helsing–or wait for the Tom Cruise reincarnation, if it ever escapes from development hell. All these Hippocratic Oath-swearing healthcare professionals also reveal the superhero genre’s most important superpower. Sure, X-ray vision would be handy when diagnosing, and what doctor couldn’t use telekinesis in the O.R.? But despite all those fist-thrown Ka-Pows! and bone-bashing kicks, the number one superhero trait is kindness.

When told he won’t be paid to treat the dying Llama, Droom answers: “I can’t refuse to treat a sick man! If I must, I’ll treat him for nothing!”And so he’s rewarded because: “Only a charitable, self-sacrificing human would have done so!” Dr. Silence also takes “no fees, being at heart a genuine philanthropist.” His wealthy friends are “puzzled” that he “should devote his time” not just to doctoring but “chiefly doctoring folk who could not pay.” He poses the “native nobility of a soul whose first desire was to help those who could not help themselves.”

This Hippocratic philanthropy extends to monsters too. Dr. Van Helsing can “pity” and “weep” for vampires during his “butchery” of their bodies, imagining Dracula’s “joy” when “his better part may have spiritual immortality.” When Dr. Silence faces an Egyptian fire spirit wrongly “torn from its ancient resting-place” and brought to England where it exacts revenge, he feels more for the mummy than its wealthy looters. He later worries about the well-being of a werewolf, a condition he terms an “infirmity,” rare but also “often very sad.” He has no enemies, only patients. Though the ghost of a witch is beyond his help, he transmutes the “evil forces” she left behind “by raising them into higher channels.” He doesn’t destroy evil—he cures it.

Unlike the vampire-hunting Drs. Van Helsing and Hesselius, Silence has actual superpowers, making him the first superman to leap beyond the comparatively mundane realm of superhuman strength. He would be an ideal subject for Dr. Stevenson’s studies in extrasensory perception. Not only does he posses the “power almost to see in the dark,” “that special sensibility that is said to develop in the blind—the sense of obstacles,” but “his psychic apparatus never failed in letting him know the proximity of an incarnate or discarnate being.” His Watson-like narrator also wonders if he has “some secret telepathic method by which he knew my circumstances and gauged the degree of my need,” a power that also “saw into the future.”

These powers don’t come from enchanted artifacts or mutating radiation.  His magic isn’t magic. It’s an extension of his “humanity,” his “spiritual sympathy.” He can “absorb evil radiations into himself and change them magically into his own good purposes” because he’s just an incredibly nice guy. He’s not just sensitive, he’s “ultra-sensitive.” “Thought-reading” just requires paying attention to and caring deeply about other people. And since “suffering always owns my sympathy,” of course he’s going to dedicate his life to helping them.

Dr. Stevenson kept a list of the books he read that numbered over 3,535. I’m sure it includes some of the same “Yoga books” Dr. Silence admires, the ones arguing “the necessity of man loving his neighbors as himself” because, says Silence, “men are doubtless not separate at all.” Stevenson achieved that  interconnected state of “perfect serenity” though the “mystical experience” of LSD, but whatever its source, he and Silence had the same goal, the same desire for “peace and quietness.”

Usually that means putting the past and present back into balance. “Ancient pasts” and “ancient instincts” have a way of rising in Blackwood tales. Stevenson traveled the world to study the same phenomena, writing a 2,268-page monograph on past-life memories, including 200 “in which highly unusual birthmarks or birth defects of the child corresponded with marks, usually fatal wounds, on the previous person.”

Silence’s filing cabinet is considerably smaller. He vanished in 1917, after Blackwood published his sixth and final case study. Given that John Silence, Physician Extraordinary was a breakout best-seller that let the author quit his day job, it’s weird the doctor never came back. Maybe Silence has just been waiting for his favorite shows to return to TV in time for the 100th anniversary of his last publication?

Or maybe he was abducted? Those X-Files aliens returned Gillian Anderson after her maternity leave and Buddhist wedding. Blackwood and Chester Carlson were students of Buddhism too and firm believers in reincarnation. I’m more of a Dr. Scully myself. Though I try to be sympathetically open-minded.

Which is why my ancient instincts are hopeful that the reincarnated X-Files and Twin Peaks could be worth watching. Maybe Drs. Stevenson and Silence are directing from beyond the grave.

stevensonbook

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katy

Katy Simpson Smith, author of The Story of Land and Sea, visited Washington and Lee University this semester, and, while not busy giving the Phi Beta Kappa convocation address, she dropped by my creative writing class to read from her novel and answer a few questions. The conversation was so good, I wanted to continue it by email. Since my course is focused on fiction that merges literary and genre fiction, I suggested we start there.

KATY: My knowledge of literary genre fiction is pretty limited, but I’ll add whatever I can to the mix.

CHRIS: Actually, I think you’re writing your own brand of it, so you know tons. If we define the mode as writing formerly lowbrow pulp genres in a literary style, would it be fair to call The Story of Sea and Land a literary pirate novel?

KATY: I guess I’d have to read some full-on pirate novels to know how and if I’m subverting the genre! I think what I like about writing a character with such a Romantic background is that it builds expectations for the reader which are inevitably undermined. Everyone — from pirate to slave — encounters the same basic range of emotions, and it’s the intense and nuanced investigation of these emotions that I believe turns something “literary.” So there’s very little swashbuckling and there are no parrots, but there is parenthood and grieving. Perhaps I’m most interested in the ordinariness inherent in seemingly extraordinary circumstances.

CHRIS: That’s a pretty good definition of “literary.” I throw the phrase “psychological realism” around my class, and I think we’re talking about the same thing. Undermining expectations describes literary genre fiction well too. But that suggests an implicit risk in the mode. Do you find readers like having their Romantic expectations undermined with nuanced ordinariness?

KATY: Ah, well if we bring readers into it! My experience suggests that many do not, in fact, enjoy the undermining. But I think this also comes down to how a book is marketed. Those that might fall into literary-genre and are also successful (I don’t know, Lonesome Dove, Cormac McCarthy — all I can think of are westerns at the moment) are books that were quickly claimed by the critics and stamped as “great,” pinned with Pulitzers, so that readers knew that something above-and-beyond was going on when they opened the pages. I’ve certainly had readers who wanted my pirate and his lady to have their happy ending, and to be morally clear heroes, and when the book takes a different turn, I’m afraid some of them threw it out the window. The failing, of course, is probably mine. If I’d written Lonesome Dove, I could’ve swayed even the most Romantic reader. But in the end, you can’t write a book for readers, because none are alike. You just write the book that you believe in. (And thoughts about what category it fits into never arise until someone asks you!)

CHRIS: Well, your first novel is getting some serious stamps of approval, no Pulitzers yet, but, as NPR put it, you’re “a writer to watch.”And it’s interesting McCarthy popped to mind. When you described your next manuscript to me, I thought of Blood Meridian, a highly historical novel about the Galton gang of the 1840s. Your gang roams the 1780s, right? Bandits and pirates—are you always drawn to subjects who, at least in their “full-on” forms, are so much about traditional masculinity and violence?

KATY: I think the pull of violence comes from a Southern upbringing, where you can’t avoid being steeped in a very dark history (a history that also leaves violence on the surface of the present, oil spill-style). So I’ll always be fascinated by people pushed to their outer edge; we all have a limited range of responses, and though violence is usually the last tool we’d reach for, it’s still lying there in the toolbox, waiting. As for issues of masculinity, I have always been drawn to them, perhaps because I’ve seen men having an easier time of it in the self-theorizing department after the waves of brilliant scholarship on women and feminism. (I made a documentary in college about young men in the context of popular media, so I suppose it’s a long-abiding interest.) On the one hand, I don’t want to let men off the hook, but I’ll also admit that part of me is afraid to write a book populated only by women, given how little they seem to be valued–still–which is frankly appalling. I’ve been struggling recently with this deficiency of mine, worried that I’m giving in or selling out, but after my reading at W&L, at which I read a section told mostly from a man’s point of view and explained that this was a book mostly about men, a gentleman came up to me afterward and said, “I don’t usually read women’s fiction, but I’ll give this a chance.” That’s the world we’re writing in.

CHRIS: Women’s fiction! There’s a genre I wouldn’t have placed you in. I published a romantic suspense paperback once, and my editor kept my author pic off the back so potential readers would mistake my first name for an abbreviated “Christine,” which they did. It’s so odd that the gender of the author should seem to determine anything about a book. You could also theoretically label your novel “war fiction,” since the Revolutionary War is so key. And there you keep subverting expectation, holding us at the edge of battle instead of plunging in. I almost want to read this sentence as a metafictional aside: “It is hard for a colonel to keep his men camped out in a field at the far edge of a siege.” Do you think you avoid the entertainment of swashbuckling violence in order to get at that other kind of no-thrills oil spill violence of slavery?

KATY: I think you’re exactly right about my intentions (which only manifest themselves after the actual book is done and I can step back and say, “Oh, that’s what I was up to!” So maybe intentions is a generous term). But yes, the ultimate violence is never what takes place on a battlefield, the blood and the wounds, the bullets and the bayonets; it’s what is done to a person while they’re still living, in the context of an ordinary life. And the freedom that soldiers were fighting for in the Revolutionary War (or in any war since) pales in comparison to the freedoms they ignored. Slavery was a complicated web of evils that an entire segment of society came to see as normal, even morally justified. But I can think of few greater violences than asking a woman to choose between her children, as the character Moll is forced to do. I think a focus on the merely sensational allows the reader to distance herself from the fictional world, and I don’t want to give my readers that comfort.

CHRIS: You just encapsulated the standard critique of genre fiction: that it’s escapism, comfort food, easy fixes. And that’s one of the core expectations you undermine by casting a pirate as a grieving father. Since you just finished your second novel, can you step back and say “Oh!” about it too? Is it coated in the same Southern oil spill? Are your bandits camped at the far edge of sensational violence too?

KATY: I’m still too close to the second novel to have that perspective on it; I think readers help teach us the many things our books might be about (whether we agree or not). These bandits, whom I’m very fond of, get up to a few more hijinks than my pirate did, and there are a handful of out-and-out murders, but the story is mostly about their ordinary lives, the facets of their desires that make them (hopefully) sympathetic rather than villainous. I’m always looking to go deeper than protagonist vs. antagonist, because none of us are wholly good or evil either. I like to think that the job of writing is about building bridges over all the gaps in the world, whether that’s in time or in temperament.

CHRIS: Apparently I’ve been quoting you to my creative writing classes for years, pushing writers to find that nuanced gray area between black and white. When should we expect your sympathetic bandits to hit bookstores?

KATY: The new novel, Free Men, should hit stores around February 2016. My bandits will be eager for folks to hear their tales of woe!

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dominolady

Even for softporn it’s pretty tame stuff:

“A nightgown of sheerest, green silk was but scant concealment for her gorgeous figure. A chastely-rounded body and a slender waist served to accentuate the seductive softness of her hips and sloping contours of her slim thighs, while skin like the bloom on a peach glowed rosily in the reflected sunlight.”

Or better still:

“With a feeling of naughtiness, she slipped into a pair of black-lace panties. Then, sheerest hose for her shapely legs, black velvet slippers for the dainty feet.”

It’s 1936, and we’re flipping through the pulp-grade pages of Saucy Romantic Adventures. Our heroine, a lady thief and proto-Batman, is Ellen Patrick, AKA The Domino Lady. She’s going to punish those crooked politicians who murdered her father. Which apparently will require a great deal of bathing and napping and dressing and undressing, but no descriptions of genitalia, primary or secondary. The closest we get to a sex scene is:

“An hour later, Ellen left Raythorne’s cabin.”

Five stories appear in Saucy, and a sixth in the still milder Mystery Adventure Magazine. It’s a short run, even by pulp standards, all credited to Lars Anderson, an untraceable pseudonym. Ron Wilber resurrected the scantily-clad avenger for Eros Comix in the mid-90s, and Moonstone Books published a collection of new short stories and a comic book by Nancy Holder and Steve Bryant. Silver Age icon Jim Steranko also illustrated a collection of the original stories, plus a seventh of his own, “Aroused, the Domino Lady.” Jim is a saucier than Lars:

“Only the tops of Ellen’s thighs were covered by the kimono. When she spun and kicked it was shockingly apparent that she wore no underwear and that her flesh was the color of pale alabaster in the secret slopes and valleys above her tanned legs.”

steronko domino lady

“Domino,” by the way, is a description of Ellen’s mask (the style sported by Robin and the Lone Ranger) not “dominatrix,” the S&M term appropriated from Latin in the sixties. Ellen is no dominator. She’s more likely to get herself into a compromising corner. Though, despite all that sloping and peach-blooming sensuality, she doesn’t end up getting much.

The Domino Lady is one of the very few Depression-era superheroines, debuting the same year as the Phantom, Ka-Zar, and the Green Hornet. Though not as virginal as Doc Savage and Clark Kent, she has less in common with 1930s Mystery Men who share their batcaves with “fiancés” or 1940s comic book superheroes with their ambiguous “wards.”

Ellen is a loner. She likes foreplay, but always escapes before the climax. Where most of her male predecessors settled into their marriage plots, the Domino Lady rejects such happiness: “the amorous little adventuress had denied the love she craved with all her heart. To her affection and marriage were things to avoid, shun.” Like Batman, Ellen’s Daddy-avenging mission is all that gets her off.

It also helps not to have a recurring love interest. No Lois Lane is trying to peek under her mask and/or kimono every month. And no Margo Lane is cooking her breakfast. Ellen may spend an hour in Mr. Raythorne’s cabin, but she climbs into bed alone at the end of her adventures. Raythone is just a one-story fling, ignorant of her secret identity. A month later the Domino Lady is saving another equally eligible bachelor from certain death, relieved afterwards when the so-called detective remains clueless. “Ellen Patrick laughed throatily as she went to his open arms.” Only the reader is in on the joke. No one else ever sees her naked.

Her thrills, like the reader’s, are vicarious. She specializes in stealing “compromising letters” from blackmailers, the plot engine of half her tales. The “indiscrete” content is never spoken, just Ellen’s promise: “that precious husband of yours will never find out.” She likes secrets. She never reveals her own and she never reveals any of the friends’ she saves. It makes her an accessory after the fact, each adventure a retroactive ménage a trios.

Plus there’s the thrill of the adventure itself. In fact, forget Daddy. What really gets Ellen going is the danger, the threat of being caught and unmasked: “Her heart was thumping with the acceleration of the chase, the knowledge that here was new, exciting adventure in the making! It was her life, her greatest thrill of living!”

If unmasking is the deepest intimacy, a forced unmasking is rape. Anderson has Ellen flirt with that fantasized danger every issue. Her adversaries arouse her. One blackmailer “was the type who could stir her soul to the depths and arouse the latent passions of her affectionate nature.” When cornered for the first time in her career, her mask about to be torn away, “Ellen was thrilling as she had never thrilled before.” And if that orgasm metaphor is too subtle for you: “Something totally primitive had awakened in her innermost being, she thrilled to the core!”

But these are fantasies under Ellen’s control. Anderson’s action sequences always turn on the Domino Lady’s ability to remain “cool as a cucumber,” “cool as winter breeze.” Unlike Zorro’s self-arousing costume, the Domino Lady protects Ellen from herself: “hot blood in her veins turned to a gelid stream of ice as Ellen stared through the mask.”

Her other lovers are her biggest threat, men who could make her surrender herself, give in to the affection she’s “starved” for. Ellen may love a “gaze penetrating to the very center of her being,” but it’s her own “hungry longings” she battles.  The men are interchangeable, not the “compelling desire” she holds out against. Winning for the Domino Lady means no happy endings.

The fifth story concludes both her vengeance plot and her run in Saucy. Those dastardly politicians are brought to ruin for murdering her father. But a month later, Anderson reboots in Mystery Adventure, and those vague and omnipresent villains are still at large. A superhero’s mission is never ending. Even a softporn superheroine never climaxes.

Good girls don’t unmask. It’s a bizarrely sexualized celibacy plot. In the end Ellen climbs into bed alone again, still anticipating the romance she defers, still only “vaguely cognizant of the emptiness of her lonely existence.” She’s still Daddy’s girl after all.

DLHC

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harley quinn cover

“The comics industry,” according to Vulture.com’s Abraham Riesman, “is in the midst of a golden age for admirable female role models,” declaring the monthly best-seller Harley Quinn “the superhero world’s most successful woman.” I don’t care to dispute either claim, but I will say this isn’t the first such golden age. The “morally questionable” Ms. Quinn descends from a line of female sidekicks turned leading ladies.

Crowbar Nancy lived on an affluent cul-de-sac in Pittsburgh in the late 1940s. She’s not a comic book character. She got her nickname for bludgeoning my mother in the head. They were both ten, or there about, and it wasn’t really a crowbar. The wrought-iron post she yanked from her front fence must have been loose already. My mother had no idea why Nancy hit her with it. They lived katty-corner, though they weren’t friends. Nancy didn’t get along with kids in the neighborhood—a result of being adopted, my mother theorized. The violent streak didn’t help either.

After the crowbar incident (and almost certainly a behind-the-scenes parental negotiation), my mother was invited over to share Nancy’s most cherished possessions. Her comic book collection. Instead of roller skating and hopscotching up and down the block with other kids, Nancy preferred the company of four-color pulp paper. Comics meant nothing to my mother, but she accepted the invitation (or her mother accepted it for her) and across the street she went.

Nancy displayed her trove on her porch for the private viewing. If she was anything like my ten-year-old self, she arranged them in a double row of tight stacks, organized in an idiosyncratic ebb and flow of titles and genres. My mother was born in 1939, same as Batman, so this is probably 1949. DC had long imposed editorial restraint on Bob Kane and his crew, so Nancy’s propensity for clubbing fellow children had nothing to do with the body count of the caped crusader’s earliest adventures.

It wasn’t till 1954 that Frederick Wertham linked the Brooklyn Thrill Killers—four teens who murdered vagrants in Brooklyn parks—with comic books. The gang leader ordered his whip and costume (he dressed as a vampire while flogging women) from ads in Uncanny Tales and Journey into Mystery, titles that Atlas Comics (formerly Timely, soon to be Marvel) debuted in 1952—in imitation of an already deep market trend.

Superman was popular with the Brooklyn gang too, but the Man of Steel was one of the very few cape-wearers still flying. No Timely heroes saved those Brooklyn victims because none existed. Over thirty superhero titles vanished between 1944 and 1945, another twenty-three in 1946, and twenty-nine between 1947 and 1949—including former newsstand champs Flash Comics, The Green Lantern, The Human Torch, and Sub-Mariner.  Sales for Captain Marvel Adventures, top superhero comic during the war, were down by half. Nancy could have spent her most recent dimes on the final issues of Marvel Mystery Comics and Captain America Comics—before both converted to horror the year she took a crack at my mother’s skull.

But let’s give Nancy the benefit of the doubt and assume her collection did not include the very earliest horror titles (Spook Comics 1946, Eerie 1947, Adventures of the Unknown 1948) either. It was another new trend my mother would have noticed as she reluctantly perused the porch gallery:

Girls.

Romance, a new category for comics, was already claiming a fifth of the market. When William Woolfork’s inherited Superman from the recently fired Jerry Siegel (he and Joe Shuster lost their lawsuit against DC for rights to the character when their ten-year contract expired the year before), his scripts refocused the former world-saver around love plots. If my mother leafed through Nancy’s Superman #58 (May-June 1949), she would have skimmed the episode “Lois Lane Loves Clark Kent!” where a psychiatrist tells Lois she must transfer her “love for Superman to a normal man!” Or Superboy #5 (November-December 1949), the adolescent Kryptonian falls for his first girl in “Superboy Meets Supergirl,” the first of many Supergirls to follow.

Though only eight new superhero comics debuted between 1947 and 49, five of them sported high heels. Superheroines were on the rise: Black Canary, Namora, Lady Luck, Venus, Phantom Lady, Miss America, Moon Girl. The Blonde Phantom towers over Captain America, Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch on the cover of the new 1948 All-Winner Comics. If there was a doubt about the veiled sexuality between male superheroes and their bare-legged protégés, Timely incinerated it when they fired their top two boy wonders and replaced them with women. Bucky got the boot first, when Golden Girl took over as Captain America’s sidekick in 1947. She even boasted those adorable little wings on her mask, same as Cap’s. The Human Torch’s personal secretary, Sun Girl, replaced little Toro the following year. The Blonde Phantom’s alter ego played personal secretary to her boss crush too, a private investigator who only had eyes for her when—the irony!—she was masked. Or maybe it was the tight, red dress. The leg slit and cleavage were as effective as a blow to the head.

AllWinners1-1948 Sun_Girl_no.1_-_August_1948

black canary MissAmericaComics_n1_1944capt-america68-goldengirl_1268710394 venus1384-1662-1482-1-phantom-lady lady luck Namora_Vol_1_1 moon girl

None of this made much impression on my mother. She was the female sixth-grader the romance market coveted, but when she stepped off Nancy’s porch and into puberty, she left those brief, wondrous superheroines behind. Namora’s three issue run didn’t make it into 1949, Blonde Phantom Comics switched titles in May, and Golden Girl exited in October. EC’s single issue Moon Girl and the Prince became Moon Girl Fights Crime!, which became A Moon, a Girl…Romance, which became Weird Fantasy, a hint of the horrors to come.

My mother remembers none of this now. She’s living out her twilight days in an assisted-living community where she smokes cigarettes on porch rockers. I visit for monthly episodes of shopping and restaurant adventures. She has a Ph.D. in epidemiology and a CV as thick as a comic book, but that golden age is over too.

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