October 31, 2016 Halloween Homage: Poe, the Grandfather of Superheroes
I taught a Satanist once. Nice kid, polite, well-spoken, adept with a monochromatic wardrobe. I was a new hire in a Virginia high school, so as far as I knew the whole building was slithering with demon-worshipping students and staff, but this kid (I’ve honestly forgotten his name) was the only one displaying The Satanic Bible on his desk. The weird thing was another kid (forgot his name too) sitting two seats down. The Bible on that desk was of the non-Satanic variety. Born Agains were common as Confederate flags (a group met every morning by the faculty parking lot to pray and smoke cigarettes), but this polite, well-spoken, fashion-neutral young man was joining the priesthood after graduation.
I figured God had been reading too many X-Men comics and wanted to see what a real-life Professor X vs. Magneto face-off looked like. He got His chance the morning of the first Poe assignment. I forget which title I’d typed on my English Honors syllabus, which body had been walled into which plot device, but discussion didn’t get far. The Satanist raised his hand first:
“This story portrays a man working to fulfill his highest human potential.”
The room was silent. The room was usually silent—it was first period—but normally all eyes didn’t swerve to stare at our future priest quite so intensely. He blinked, not certain he’d heard correctly, probably a mirror of my face. His arch-nemesis was ready to elucidate his opinion, but then God chickened out, booming His voice over the P.A. speaker. Actually it was the secretary’s voice, calling the Satanist down to the principal’s office. I literally never saw him again.
The priest went on to earn an A, and to write an end-of-year card thanking me, his agnostic teacher, for making room for Jesus Christ in his classroom (presumably because I’d allowed and even encouraged him to write all of his analytical essays on religious topics: Jesus and Hester, Jesus and Gatsby, Jesus and Lenny, etc.). I don’t think he believed me when I told him Poe was a Christian. I doubt the Satanist could have gotten his head around the yin and yang of that either. Poe, father of both detective fiction and science fiction, was a pro at combining opposing forces.
Scifi and detection may not patrol polar ends of the literary axis, but their rosters, unlike the X-Men’s and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants’, don’t overlap. Detectives deal in crime, which means urban, which means right now. Expect grit in your blood puddles. Scifi is fantasy, is speculative, is otherworldly. Anything but the here and now. The tech is early Victorian, so you need a balloon to visit that city of telepaths on the moon. But Poe’s proto-Sherlock Dupin rarely leaves his Paris apartment, content to solve murders by combing clues from columns in The Daily Planet or its Parisian equivalents.
Of course the term “detective fiction” wasn’t coined till decades after Poe’s death, “science fiction” almost a century later, but like any good retcon, the memory of their non-existence has been lobotomized from the multiverse. Poe was a mostly monogamous author, so the mother of both his children was the Gothic. Scifi and DF, however, are promiscuous little brats, and so the family tree gets knotty before it sprouts capes and spandex. But let it be known: Poe is also the grandfather of the superhero.
If all genres are combinations of pre-existing elements, the superhero hails from an orgy. Scifi and DF hosted it at their private mad-house, Maison de Sante (later renamed Arkham Asylum). Guests arrived masked and scribbled “William Wilson” on their nametags. Except Hop-frog, a homicidal dwarf who burnt the building down, though not before the next generation of freaks was already gestating. There’s a reason Batman premiered in Detective Comics. Superheroes are fantastical detectives. They and/or their unearthly powers travel from far far away to fight crime in your urban backyard.
In addition to ballooning and ratiocinating, Poe’s superpowers included laying bricks, talking to mummies, pulling teeth, shadowing strangers, hunting pirate gold, blurting confessions, and hypnotizing corpses. He even pulled on a masque or two, but most of his guilt-hobbled monsters apprehend themselves. Dupin deduces a rare exception: the mother and daughter stuffed up a chimney in the Rue Morgue are the victims of (SPOILER ALERT!) an escaped orangutan. The revelation is as disappointing as it sounds, so you might want to skip ahead four and half decades; Arthur Conan Doyle’s knock-off detective is more beloved for a reason. Space tourism also spiked after Poe’s telescope hoax opened the first lunar Welcome Center. He even staffed it with actual batmen (“Vespertilio-homo”). Which is to say neither of his boys, Scifi or DF, were the sharpest quills in the proto-crayon box. They were just the first.
Poe never tried to browbeat them into the same story though, so no superpowered detectives for another century. No ultimate battles between Good and Evil either. God knows what Guidance was thinking when they scheduled a Satanist and an aspiring priest in my same English section. It was probably dumb luck, or the fated pull of opposites. I’m no Poe, but they might have made a dynamic duo with me as their mentoring mid-point. If only Hallmark made Lucifer-themed thank you cards.