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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: November 2015

Superheroes didn’t begin in June 1938 with Action Comics #1.  They didn’t begin with Superman’s crime-busting predecessors of the 1930s pulps either.  Superheroes have a sprawling, action-packed history that predates the Man of Tomorrow by decades.

A century before Krypton exploded, the Grey Champion was confronting redcoats in the streets of colonial New England, while the monstrous Jibbenainosay scourged the Kentucky frontier.  Spring-Heeled Jack was leaping English stagecoaches in single bounds as Dr. Hesselius administered to the victims of vampire attacks. Add to this Victorian League of Justice the super-detective Nick Carter, a man with the strength of three, surpassed only by Tarzan’s jungle-perfected physique and the Night Wind’s preternatural speed and crowbar-knotting muscles.  While the Scarlet Pimpernel was assuming his thousand disguises, the reformed Grey Seal and Jimmy Valentine were turning their criminal prowess to good as modern Robin Hoods.

By 1914—the year Superman’s creators were born—the superhero’s most defining characteristics were already long-rehearsed standards.  Secret identities, costumes, iconic symbols, origin stories, superpowers, these are all the domain of the first superheroes. Some of these very earliest incarnations are startling full-blown, some reveal fragmentary foreshadowing, but all are essential to understanding the century-long evolution of the formula that did not begin with but culminated in Superman.

I cover this terrain in On the Origin of Superheroes, but readers should explore it for themselves. So here’s a tentative Table of Contents for “Supermen Before Superman, Vol. 1, (1816-1916)” a would-be collection of the original 19th and early 20th century essentials:

 

1. Manfred, Lord Byron 1816

Though the poetry-spouting “Magian” isn’t the first sorcerer of adventure lore, he is the first to embody the moral complexity of the post-Napoleonic anti-ish hero type (and, yes, he has sex with his sister).

 

2. “The Gray Champion,” Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1835

An old, craggy-looking guy, but a great rabble-rouser. His superpower is inspiration! (Also, his literary sister, Hester Prynne, is the first character to sport an identity-defining letter on her chest.)

 

3. Sheppard Lee, Robert Montgomery Bird, 1836

The guy’s soul can change bodies. Just give him a non-moldy corpse and he’s good to go.

 

4. Nick of the Woods, Chapters III and IV, Robert M. Bird, 1837

A homicidal schizophrenic hell-bent on murdering Indians in the spirit of Manifest Destiny. He’s Batman in buckskins.

 

5. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Edgar Allan Poe, 1841

The proto-Sherlock and so the original super-detective.

 

6. The Count of Monte Cristo (excerpt), Alexandre Dumas and Auguste Maquet, 1844

 A wrong-avenging master-of-disguise passing along the racial divide, what’s not to cheer?

 

7. Les Miserables (excerpt), Victor Hugo, 1862

The guy can pick-up a horse-cart single-handedly. I think it was radiation from the social Gamma bomb of the French Revolution.

 

8. Green Tea, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, 1872

The original occult detective, with a lethal dose of Orientalism.

 

9. “How Robin Hood Came to Be an Outlaw,” from The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, Howard Pyle, 1883

Yep, Robin Hood. The original noble outlaw.

 

10 .Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche, 1883

Nothing superheroic about the ubermensch, but he is the genre’s namesake.

 

11. Spring-Heeled Jack, the Terror of London, Alfred S. Burrage, 1885

The first Bat-Man, plus the guy has a magic boot and dresses like Mephistopheles.

 

12. Nick Carter, Detective: The Solution of a Remarkable Case, Frederic van Rennselaer Dey, 1891

Some Captain American level super-strength here, but mostly bare-knuckled detection. No sitting around solving crimes from your French hotel room.

 

13. “The Ides of March,” E. W. Hornung, 1891

The original Sherlock-flouting gentleman thief, whose spawned a legion of do-gooding imitators.

 

14. “A Retrieved Reformation,” O. Henry, 1903

More of a supervillain again, but check-out the tropes: alias, dual identity, self-sacrifice, signature skill.

 

15. “The Hunt for the Animal,” “The Fiery Cross,” from The Clansman, Thomas Dixon, 1904

Okay, this one I deeply apologize for, but (as I’ve discussed plenty elsewhere), he defines the genre.

 

16. Man and Superman, George Barnard Shaw, 1904

Again, can’t ignore the translated source of the genre namesake.

 

17. “Paris: September, 1792,” chapter from The Scarlet Pimpernel, Emmuska Orczy, 1905

Just another cross-dressing socialite secretly using his wealth for aristocratic good.

 

18. “The Nemesis of Fire,” Algernon Blackwood, from John Silence, Physician Extraordinary, 1908

The first occult detective with occult powers–even if he is more sympathetic to werewolves and Egyptian fire demons than the moronic Brits they haunt.

 

19. Under the Moons of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1912

Find yourself on a mysterious alien planet that gives you super-strength, sound familiar?

 

20. “The Height of Civilization,” chapter from Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1912

First pulp hero actually called a “superman.”

 

21. “A Midnight Incident,” “The Frame-up,” “A Law Unto Himself,” chapters from Alias the Night Wind, Frederic van Rennselaer Dey, 1913

The first mutant, a cross between Quicksilver and the crowbar-bender of your choice.

 

24. “The Gray Seal,” Frank L. Packard, 1914

His fingertips seem to have mutant sensitivity, but mostly he’s another urban Robin Hood.

 

25. Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1915

Paradise Island minus Wonder Woman (and the yellow wallpaper).

 

26. Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh, Russell Thorndike, 1915

A vicar by day, Scarecrow-costumed avenger by night, plus there’s that whole pirate backstory and prequels.

 

27. The Iron Claw, Arthur Stringer, 1916

The movie is lost, but the Laughing Mask still debuted in newspaper at the time, doing his mild-mannered routine with his boss and fiance while secretly fighting criminals at night.

 

Okay, so maybe that’s more one volume’s worth of texts, but this is still in the dream-book stage, and with the magic of  unpaperbound e-books, why not?

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I used to be a lone voice in the pop culture wilderness crying that Frankenstein should be refitted with a cape, tights, and an “F” on his chest. More oddly, I think the wardrobe change would fit equally to the doctor, Victor Frankenstein, as his creation, the Frankenstein monster. But I’m no longer so lonely in my wailings. Opening November 25, Victor Frankenstein makes the case for me.

Personally, I would have called the prequel Igor—since that’s its hook. Former Harry Potter super-wizard Daniel Radcliffe plays the mad scientist’s hunchback lab assistant. You may or may not agree that Harry is himself a superhero (muggle by day, transformed by accident, etc.), but James McAvoy is a no-brainer: the titular Doctor shares bodies with the X-Men’s super-brained Professor Xavier. The young version. McAvoy retains his pre-Patrick Stewart scalp.

Attached to those superhero creds, director Paul McGuigan makes his leap to the big screen in a single bound from the BBC’s Sherlock. For his new dynamic duo, Igor plays Dr. Watson to Victor’s Holmes. Plus actress Jessica Brown Findlay had the power of mind-control on the British superhero show Misfits. If that’s not already a complete body of superhero parts, screenwriter Max Landis cut his teeth on 2012’s Chronicle and the 2011 comic short The Death and Return of Superman.

But how are Superman and (either) Frankenstein related?

Well, the creature did play a gig as a Marvel superhero in the 70s. He teamed-up with Spider-Man, Iron Man and She-Hulk—though the supervillain Kang the Conqueror used him as a mind-controlled minion too (perhaps both McAvoy and Findlay could help him with that?). But Frankenstein and Superman were stitched together before comics even existed. In the 1919 film serial The Master Mystery, Harry Houdini battles Q the Automaton, a robot described as a  “Frankenstein” that “possesses a human brain which has been transplanted into it and made to guide it” as a “conscienceless inhuman superman.”

That man of steel wasn’t the Man of Steel, but a pop cultural version of Nietzsche’s ubermensch.  The German philosopher prophesied in 1883 that a breed of superhumans would evolve and take the world away from Homo sapiens. Mary Shelley was decades ahead of him. The author of Frankenstein wrote in 1818 that “a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth, who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror.” That’s why Victor refuses to make a mate for his monster and why his monster declares himself his and humanity’s “arch-enemy.”

It’s the original Professor X vs. Magneto match-up. Or Superman vs. Lex Luthor, since Victor is also the original mad scientist, a character type so pervasive in comics it’s hard to keep track of them all. Like Victor, they’re usually a good guy who accidentally creates a monster—though, unlike Victor, the monster tends to be themselves.

The Dr. Jekyll/Frankenstein merger culminated with Reed Richards when he transformed himself and his pals into the Fantastic Four. The Thing was so popular, Marvel created the Hulk next—fulfilling the Shelley/Nietzsche prophesy of an expanding race of monstrous supermen. When Bruce Banner turned into the Hulk for the first, artist Jack Kirby drew a Boris Karloff knock-off with a flat head and grey skin (Marvel flipped to a green complexion the next issue because the ink looked better).

Karloff’s stitched corpse was never part of Shelley’s plan though. Her Victor doesn’t even know how to reanimate flesh: “I might in process of time (although I now found it impossible) renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.” His creature wasn’t human-sized either: “As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved . . . to make the being of a gigantic stature, that is to say, about eight feet in height.”

Early stage productions even draped him in a Greek toga—the first of a new god-like species. His “limbs were in proportion” (a big turn-on for early nineteenth-century readers) and the doctor “had selected his features as beautiful.” Sure, his skin was transparent yellow and his face a fit of twitching muscles, and next he’s serial murdering his creator’s loved ones—but, hey, when has a mad scientist’s scheme ever worked out exactly as planned?

Look at the twitching pile of recent superhero movies that include some nut job trying to take over the planet with a new species of devilishly superior uber-monsters:

  • Ian McKellen’s Magneto planned his mutant conquest, complaining that “nature is too slow” in the firstX-Men.
  • Michael Fassbender’s Magneto was still complaining in X-Men: First Class, but under the tutelage of Kevin Bacon: “We are the future of the human race. You and me, son. This world could be ours.”
  • A month later in the first Captain American film, Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull gave Cap the same lesson: “You pretend to be a simple soldier, but in reality you are just afraid to admit that we have left humanity behind. Unlike you, I embrace it proudly. You could have the power of the gods!”
  • Weaving’s Agent Smith had already explained to The Matrix fans: “As soon as we started thinking for you, it really became our civilization. Which is of course what this is all about. Evolution. . . . The future is our world.”
  • Iron Man 3’s supergenius Aldrich Killian wanted to turn himself and his minions into the “new iteration of human evolution.”
  • Just like Dr. Connors, aka the Lizard, planned to “enhance humanity on an evolutionary scale” and “create a world without weakness.” “This is no longer about curing ills,” he said in The Amazing Spider-Man. “This is about finding perfection.” Unfortunately, “Human beings are weak, pathetic, feeble-minded creatures. Why be human at all when we can be so much more? Faster, stronger, smarter!”
  • And Dane DeHaan, reading from Max Landis’ Chronicle script, declared himself an “apex predator,” ready to wipe out humankind as Victor Frankenstein had feared his creature’s super-race would.

So who will save us from all these Frankenstein Supermen? Other Frankenstein Superman of course. Captain America, Spider-Man, Iron Man, even the X-Men’s radiation-saturated DNA, they all started as lab experiments. That’s the core of the Marvel superhero formula. Stitch a monster into tights and watch him save us from monsters just like him.

There’s a reason we confuse Victor and his creature. Superheroes are both kinds of Frankensteins.

 

 

James Bond might not be a superhero, but he does dedicate his life to battling bad guys. Plus he has a codename: 007. Yeah, that means he’s just one guy in a league of 00s, so nothing unique—same as any Green Lantern in the intergalactic Green Lantern Corps. Maybe Earth-based agencies are different, but then that would strike Black Widow from the superhero census list too. Also, like Natasha, James has no superpowers, at least not compared to Thor or Superman. He’d make a pretty good match for Batman though. He even sports his own utility belt’s worth of Q-engineered supergadgets.

Mr. Bond also wields Dr. Who’s shapeshifting powers. I watched his edited-for-TV Sean Connery incarnation from my parents’ couch as a kid, and his Roger Moore from theater seats as an adolescent. I even witnessed his awkward Timothy Dalton stage while I was finishing college and his franchise was waiting for Pierce Brosnan to come-of-age too. But I have to admit Daniel Craig is the David Tennant of the Bond universe. I’m looking forward to seeing his current Spectre adventure.

The character struggled after losing his mission-defining Evil Empire, but Skyfall’s Judi Dench gave him back his raison d’être:

“I’m frightened because our enemies are no longer known to us. They do not exist on a map. They’re not nations. They’re individuals. Look around you. Who do you fear? Do you see a face, a uniform, a flag? No. Our world is not more transparent now. It’s all opaque. It’s in the shadows. That’s where we must do battle.”

Batman is all about shadows too, turning the darkness of his parents’ murders against the shady elements of murky Gotham. But, unlike a trigger-happy 00 agent, Batman would never kill anyone on purpose, right?

Well, actually the unlicensed Dark Knight racked up a Bond-level body count during his first year in Detective Comics. Not only did a holster hang from his utility belt back then, the batplane included a mounted machinegun: “Much as I hate to take human life, I’m afraid this time it’s necessary!”

DC editors reined in his homicidal writing staff after Batman #1, but even the comparatively wholesome Superman had a killing streak then. In June 1939, same month Batman was kicking jewel thieves off skyscrapers, Superman was dropping a mobster to an identical death. Granted, it wasn’t Superman’s fault he lost his super grip: “If he hadn’t tried to stab me, he’d be alive now.—But the fate received was exactly what he deserved!” Though what did Superman think was going to happen when he destroyed the Ultra-Humanite’s propeller mid-flight? The supervillain somehow escaped the crash, but no thanks to the death-indifferent Man of Steel.

Comic books usually protect their heroes from having to kill directly. In that same Action Comics, a rotating blade shatters against Superman’s impervious skull and slices up a nearby thug.  Or in another early Batman adventure, a “foreign agent” is accidentally impaled on his own sword, and Batman self-righteously declares: “It is better that he should die! He might have sent thousands of others to their death on a battlefield if his plans had been successful!”

If this makes your feel morally queasy, listen to Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko on superhero morality: superheroes are “moral avengers” who must kill criminals in order to show “a clear understanding of right and wrong,” even if that means violating the “pervading legal moral” code.

Mr. Ditko currently resides in the crazy-old-man dimension of the comics multiverse, because his Ann Rand philosophy isn’t a page in today’s superhero bible. Batman’s and Superman’s most recent film incarnations take little license with the Sixth Commandment. In fact, the plot of Christopher Nolan’s 2008 The Dark Knight pivots on Christian Bale’s Batman struggling not to kill the Joker—even though killing him is necessary to protect others and exactly “what he deserves.” And remember the fan outrage when Henry Cavill’s Superman snapped General Zod’s neck in Man of Steel? It was that or let the General’s laser vision slice up a family of cowering Metropolitans, but Superman’s super-wholesomeness got sliced up too.

Both Zod and Joker are weirdly suicidal supervillains, goading their arch-enemies into committing murder. But then that’s the point. Superheroes are supposed to oppose killing out of principle. So where’s that leave Mr. Bond?

We could say his license strikes the “super” from his heroness, maybe even replacing it with an “anti.” His comic book counterpart might be the Ditko-esque Punisher, a sometime supervillain depending on who’s penning the story. But in James’ defense, killing isn’t the core of his mission. It’s just the most efficient means for getting important jobs down. He’s paid to be indifferent to death.

And that’s the problem. I remember Roger Moore’s 007 dangling a “foreign agent” by his tie from the edge of a building. The thug had been gunning at him seconds earlier, so the scene meets the “what he deserved” test. But was it necessary? Couldn’t he have holstered his license and knocked the guy out instead of dropping him to his death? Sure, the guy was a cog in the Cold War wheel trying to squash Democracy, but did Roger Moore have to grin? Did the movie have to play the scene for laughs, toying with the villain’s tie as he quivered for life?

I don’t blame his character though. James Bond was designed to be a cold-blooded Cold Warrior. You could argue the hero type was a product of its times—and so a bad fit with ours. Connery, Moore, Dalton, they all performed indifference so their 60s, 70s and 80s audiences could forget about the nuclear arsenal aimed at their hometown theaters. Take Bond out of that context and he just seems callous. The same way the original Superman and Batman made more moral sense as their readers teetered on the brink of a Nazi-driven World War.

The current Daniel Craig incarnation fixes that. He still shows his killer license when needed, but he’s not indifferent about it. He understands what it means to take a life. Like the 2013 Superman, he only snaps a villainous neck when it means saving innocent ones. He takes no pleasure in it. If anything, that hint of inner turmoil makes him almost superheroic. He does the dirty work so no one else has to. He’s not a 00 by self-righteous nature, but by self-sacrificing choice.

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At first glance, the answer seems pretty obvious: No way! I mean, where’s the mask? What’s her codename? And what about superpowers—strength? flight? speed? The girl can’t even talk to fish. But first glances can be deceiving. Take a sec to adjust your X-Ray Goggles, and you might be surprised what’s under Ms. Everdeen’s seemingly non-superheroic skin.

Let’s start with those superpowers. You don’t need Hulk-like strength or Flash-like speed to join a superhero union. Of course Katniss actress Jennifer Lawrence knows all about mutant shapeshifting from playing Mystique in soon-to-be three X-Men films. In fact, it was 2011’s X-Men: First Class that flung Lawrence’s career into full flight, setting up her even greater success the following year in the first Hunger Games. But even though Lawrence is Katniss, Katniss isn’t Lawrence. Her character has to earn her own super skill set.

Which she does. As a top-notch archer, Katniss would fit into both DC’s and Marvel’s universes.  Green Arrow debuted in More Fun Comics back in 1941, and actor Stephen Amell has been having even more fun playing him on the CW series Arrow since 2012. The character started off as a modern-day Robin Hood knock-off, complete with a feather in his goofy tricorne cap—so if nothing else, Katniss wins on fashion points. I say she has the Avengers’ Hawkeye beat too. Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, they’ve all had their own franchises. Marvel has been mumbling about Scarlett Johansson staring in a Black Widow movie since 2010, but Hawkeye? Not even actor Jeremy Renner holds out much hope for that starring role. Meanwhile, Katniss hits her fourth bullseye with Mockingjay Part 2.

Okay, but Hawkeye and Green Arrow, like all self-respecting superheroes, wear nifty costumes. And so does Katniss. Tons of them—literally tons if you count that flaming chariot. Hell, she even has her own costume designers. Superman needed Ma Kent to sew his outfit, and the Fantastic Four were hanging out in mufti till Invisible Girl discovers her unexplained fashion powers in issue #3. At least it makes sense that Peter Parker would develop needle-and-thread skills from that radioactive spider bite, but where are all the other superheroes buying their superthreads? Only millionaires can afford a private butler named Alfred to maintain their wardrobes. So thank you Hunger Games for an unexpected nod toward reality.

But the key to a superhero’s costume is the symbol plastered on the chest—a spider, the number “4,” the letter “S,” whatever is literally closest to your superhero heart. For Katniss, that’s her mockingjay pin. It’s her personal symbol, and soon the symbol of the whole rebellion. The bird is also a super-bird, a genetically engineered hybrid that has an almost mystical meaning to those who respect its human-like singing. Like Bruce Wayne’s bat, the mockingjay represents Katniss’s mission, the next checkmark on her superhero trait list.

The two oldest comic book superheroes, Superman and Batman, spelled out two very different but complementary ways of defining a superhero’s reason-to-be: the Man of Steel dedicates himself to serving as a “champion of the oppressed,” while the Dark Knight vows to “war on criminals.” One is about victims, the other villains. Katniss covers both. She champions the oppressed citizens of District 12 while bringing her war to the Capitol. And if you think superheroes can fight their own governments, that tradition is even older than comics. Look at Zorro and Robin Hood. Or the Scarlet Pimpernel’s battles with the France’s Revolutionary government. Even Superman and Batman aren’t shy about roughing up a few wrong-headed cops or army battalions when the greater good is at stake.

Which gets us to motivation. What’s at stake for Katniss? Well, she’s been wronged, and she’s going to fight those wrongs until she’s fixed them. That’s the oldest superhero motivation of them all. Batman best embodies it—he crushes criminals because criminals killed his parents—but Alexander Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo started exacting his personal revenge on wrong-doers in 1844. Plenty of 1930s pulp heroes started adventuring after the death of a loved one too, including one of the very first superheroines, the Domino Lady: corrupt politicians in league with a KKK splinter group murder her dad, and next she’s pulling on a domino mask and, well, a dress and high heels.  Again, Katniss wins on fashion sense. But she also wins additional points for giving the you-killed-my-beloved-family-member trope a much needed revamp. In the Batman formula, Katniss’ sister Primrose would have died in the Games—but Katniss begins her superheroic career not as a too-little too-late reaction to that wrong but instead by preventing it. Imagine if little Bruce Wayne had stopped that mugger in Crime Alley by volunteering for his Batman mission before his parents could be killed. On my scorecard, that makes Katniss better than Batman.

This is all looking pretty good for Super-Katniss, but she is missing some key superhero traits. First off, no secret identity. Of course Hawkeye and Black Widow don’t have ones either. And neither do any of the Fantastic Four. They do all have those fancy codenames though, something else Katniss is missing. But without a secret identity to hide, why does a superhero need a codename? Sure, Hawkeye and Black Widow are S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, but Nick Fury is just Nick Fury. Thor used to be mild-mannered Donald Blake, but Marvel Studios jettisoned his alter ego, so now Thor is just Thor.

So you could argue that codenames and secret identities are no longer a necessary part of the superhero formula. In which case, Katniss is in. But there’s another side to Thor that Katniss lacks. In fact, two sides. He’s a god who trades in Asgard to hang with us humans. If Odin decided to war on Earth, I have no doubt which side his son would fight for. Masks and codenames are important because they embody a superhero’s two-sidedness. You take your superpower-bestowing origin point—Asgard, Krypton, cosmic ray-infested outer space—and use it in service of your human half. Super-heroes are always straddling that perilous hyphen, keeping their two sides in balance. But Katniss is just Katniss.

Though, to be fair, she does have some duality. She performs her Hunger Game persona in front actual cameras, while keeping her true self hidden. You could even say she uses her Capital persona to battle the Capital on behalf of District 12—the same way Batman takes the darkness of Crime Alley and directs it against the cowardly criminals of Gotham. But is that enough to earn Katniss a final make-or-break checkmark on the Superhero Census Bureau Questionnaire?

I’m going to leave that one for you to decide.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 opens November 20.

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Some of my favorite comics growing up were the oddball superhero pairings Marvel would throw together: Spider-Man and Scarlet Witch, Thing and Black Widow, Thing and, well, Thing (that was an odd issue). So I’m delighted that the marvels of the publishing universe have thrown together my two most anticipated new books with the same fall 2015 release: Lesley Wheeler’s Radioland (Barrow Street Press) and my own On the Origin of Superheroes (University of Iowa Press).

 Gavaler_Cvr

Obviously I’m anticipating my own book. Publishing means organizing readings, reviews, interviews, and every other kind of publicity. But it’s the poetry collection Radioland that I’ve actually looked forward to, that I can now sit back with a pre-release copy in my lap and sincerely admire. I already read it in multiple manuscript print-outs, but there’s nothing quite like the authoritative aura of a glossy-covered book fresh from its publisher’s packaging envelope. I’ve read all of Wheeler’s previous books (her scholarly Voicing American Poetry and The Poetics of Enclosure, and her collections Heathen, Heterotopia, and The Receptions and Other Tales), but Radioland is my current favorite. And not just because I teared up when I opened to the surprise dedication:

for Chris Gavaler

and other good fathers

I should acknowledge that I’m Wheeler’s spouse. We’re professors in the same English department too, so our professional identities team up constantly. But you never know which student or non-departmental colleague is going to give a startled blink at the discovery of our two-in-one domestic life.  Aside from our three-sentence wedding invitation, we’ve officially collaborated on only one scholarly article (about poet Marianne Moore) and two children (a first-year in college and a first-year in high school). But our co-editing is invaluable.

After dutifully reading my weekly superhero blog, Wheeler saw me through the surprisingly complex process of rewriting and reorganizing the pre-1938 material into a cohesive manuscript. When an Iowa acquisition editor read the blog and contacted me to ask if I wanted to convert it into a book, I said yes. Obviously. But it was Wheeler who suffered the first drafts of each reconceived chapter, helping me rethink, rework and eventually refine. As I explain in the penultimate paragraph:

Lesley Wheeler has no superhero scholarship I can cite either, but she’s seen me through each step of creation, critiquing everything from the first harebrained draft of that KKK essay to the thorniest midtransformations of this manuscript.

I dedicated my first romantic suspense novel to her (Pretend I’m Not Here is even set in the Virgin Islands where we honeymooned). But On the Origin of Superheroes is dedicated to John Gavaler, my father. He read comics as a kid in the 40s, fueling my comic book reading in the 70s. John is also one of the “other good fathers” of Lesley’s book dedication, a category that, when you read the collection you’ll see, doesn’t include her own. He’s more like the supervillain Nightmare haunting her sleep—no matter how many times she vanquishes him in real life. But her poetic superpowers more than make up for his failings when Radioland single-handedly realigns the universe into a better shape. “Gods and fathers,” her final poem concludes, “rarely signal / but rock vibrates /sympathetically. What else / could it say? Echo / a kind of love . . .”

Wheeler and I also appear together in last year’s superhero poetry collection Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comic Books, but our most superheroic successes are our kids. Oddly, that includes standing on the crumbling planet of their childhood and watching them blast away in private rockets. Madeleine is now adventuring in the distant solar system of Connecticut, and Cameron, while still homebound, is tearing Hulk-like through his adolescent wardrobe, poised to make the same single-bound leap into adulthood.

Meanwhile, we have our books. Not as brilliant and hilarious as flesh-and-blood children, but they are easier to read and to hand to a friend. If you’d like to meet them, they’re available for pre-order at Amazon and elsewhere. And, if you’re in Lexington, VA on November 4th, stop by the Bookery. We’ll be there, 5:00-7:00 pm, pens in hand.

 

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