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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Arthur Conan Doyle

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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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My sister and I spent every weekend of 1975 at my mother’s one-bedroom apartment, with afternoons at the zoo, swimming pool, or matinee of that week’s PG, Escape to Witch Mountain, Funny Lady, The Return of the Pink Panther. Money—I realized later—was tight. My mother skipped lunches to balance the once-a-weekday dinner out with us too. Her father had been a Westinghouse vice president, so even after his death her family could afford to stay in their large house on a treed cul-de-sac. But instead of collecting alimony after divorcing my father, my mother started a research career as an entry level lab tech feeding rats on weekends—always our Sunday morning adventure.

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I’ve not seen The Return of the Pink Panther since, but the scenes are still vivid—that black-suited burglar creeping past museum security to pinch the precious diamond from its alarm-triggering pedestal. The Panther was the diamond, not the thief, which confused me. It should have been The Return of the Phantom. Though technically the Phantom didn’t return either. That was his wife, Lady Claudine, in the bodysuit, goading her husband, Sir Charles, out of a posh but boring retirement.

A life of luxury is a dangerous thing. Victorians feared it would destroy Mankind, starting at the top of the ladder with the Aryan aristocracy. “The white races of Europe,” warned E. Ray Lankester in his Degeneration: A Chapter of Darwinism, “are subject to the general laws of evolution, and are as likely to degenerate” and become “intellectual barnacles.” In fact, any “set of conditions occurring to an animal which render its food and safety very easily attained seem to lead as a rule to Degeneration.” Lancaster likens the process to how “an active healthy man sometimes degenerates when he becomes suddenly possessed of a fortune.” The problem is the “habit of parasitism” wealth produces: “Let the parasitic life once be secured, and away go legs, jaws, and eyes; the active highly-gifted crab, insect, or annelid may become a mere sac, absorbing nourishment and laying eggs.”

Half of the rats we fed Sunday mornings were getting heavy doses of grain alcohol in their feeding tubes. They’d just doze in the backs of their cages, quietly twitching with DTs. A philanthropic billionaire in Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1891 The Doings of Raffles Haw gets similar research results when he tries to help the world by sharing too much of his fortune. A vicar observes how an “ambitious, pushing, self-reliant” young artist, whose first words if you met him “were usually some reference to his plans, or the progress he was making in his latest picture,” now “does nothing. I know for a fact that it is two months since he put brush to canvas.” By the final chapter, Raffles Haw recognizes the error of his ways, writing in his suicide note: “alas! the only effect of my attempts has been to turn workers into idlers, contented men into greedy parasites, and, worst of all, true, pure women into deceivers and hypocrites. . . .  The schemes of my life have all turned to nothing.”

So what is a well-born to do? E. W. Hornung offered a very different remedy. He strips his cricket-playing protagonist of his riches, all that easily attained food and safety, and evolves him into a gentleman thief who has to risk imprisonment to maintain his lifestyle. “Why settle down to some humdrum uncongenial billet,” asks A. J. Raffles, “when excitement, romance, danger and a decent living were all going begging together?” Sure, a life of burglary is immoral, but wouldn’t the aristocracy rather be robbed by a Keats-quoting “Amateur Cracksman” than a professional ruffian from the lower classes?

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It’s a pleasantly perverse solution, one Hornung crafted in defiance of his brother-in-law, Sir Arthur. The author of Sherlock Holmes had yet to be knighted when Hornung published his first Raffles tale in 1898, but the gentleman thief turns Doyle’s knightly detective on his head. Hornung steals not only the name Raffles from Doyle’s billionaire but the character of Watson too. After Raffles rescues another destitute socialite from suicide, the narrator sidekick rises to their new life: “The truth is that I was entering into our nefarious undertaking with an involuntary zeal of which I was myself quite unconscious at the time. The romance and the peril of the whole proceeding held me spellbound and entranced.”

The Raffles mutation proved advantageous in the literary market place too—though always with a strain of Robin Hood do-goodery. Soon gentlemen thieves were relieving their boredom across magazine racks and bookshelves: R. Austin Freeman and Dr. John Jones Pitcairn’s Romney Pringle (1902), O. Henry’s Jimmy Valentine (1902), Arnold Bennett’s Cecil Thorold (1904), Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin (1905). Orczy’s altruistic Scarlet Pimpernel steals fellow aristocrats instead of diamonds, but his League of sidekicks are just more thrill-seekers: “for this is the finest sport I have yet encountered.—Hair-breadth escapes, the devil’s own risks!—Tally ho!—and away we go!”

After the Pimpernel, flowery aliases followed gentlemen thieves up the ladder too: Louis Joseph Vance’s Lone Wolf (1914), Frank L. Packard’s Gray Seal (1914), Roderic Graeme’s Blackshirt (1925), Leslie Charteris’ Saint (1928). Masks and signature emblems evolved into the formula too, beginning with the Gray Seal’s adhesive trademark found on the safes he cracks to the “P” blazoned glove Lady Claudine left on that museum pedestal. George E. Brenner preferred a literal calling card with his hero’s catch phrase: “The Clock Struck.”

The 1937 Clock beat Superman to comic books by a year, but it took Bob Kane and Bill Finger to raise a parasitic well-born into full superhero status. The “young socialite” Bruce Wayne signs his notes with a bat stamp, while affecting Lankester’s habit of parasitism: “Well, Commissioner, anything happening these days?” That’s Batman’s first 1939 panel. The avenge-the-dead-parents motive was an afterthought spliced in months later. The original Bruce was just bored.

Doyle’s Raffles faces the same problem. As a billionaire, “perhaps the only one in the world,” he feels a great responsibility: “I have not been singled out to wield this immense power simply in order that I might lead a happy life.” That was 1891, so the world population of altruistic billionaires has risen since. Bill Gates is worth about $78 billion, and, like Raffles Haw, he wants to give lots of it away. “My full-time work will be the foundation for the rest of my life,” he said last year. If that doesn’t keep him happily busy, Lady Melinda may have to slip into that Phantom outfit again.

David Niven played the Phantom in the original 1963 The Pink Panther—sort of a comic sequel to his 1939 Raffles. For his 2009 remake, Steve Martin swapped the Phantom for the Tornado, another female thief, the first played by Grace Cunard in the 1914 My Lady Raffles. My mother, the daughter of a corporate VP, did not become an aristocratic burglar. She had the push, ambition and self-reliance to evolve her rat-feeding job into a Ph.D. and more epidemiological publications than I can count.

But when she lost her last multi-million dollar research grant, her life devolved into early Alzheimer’s. She’s now living in an assisted living facility near my sister, where food and safety needs are easily attained. She says she’s gotten quite good at bingo, a game of chance not unlike a raffle or the stock market. Her retirement portfolio is making a killing right now. I visit on weekends, usually once a month.  I can’t remember the last time we saw a movie together, but I may suggest a matinee on my next visit. Everyone needs an afternoon adventure.

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Benedict Cumberbatch can’t throw a punch. At least not when he’s playing Sherlock Holmes. Khan in Star Trek into Darkness throws plenty of punches, but he’s a eugenically bred superman. Dr. Watson reports in A Study in Scarlet, Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel, that the “excessively lean” detective is “an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman,” but we have to take his word on it.

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I wouldn’t know what a “singlestick” is if not for Jonny Lee Miller’s portrayal of Holmes in the aggressively updated CBS series Elementary.  A singlestick, it turns out, is a stick you smack your opponent on the top of the head with. That’s what the BBC wanted to do to CBS when they heard the Americanized Holmes was premiering in 2012, because CBS had been in talks about producing a version of the BBC’s already aggressively updated Sherlock. But then the BBC would have to accept a head smack from Warner Bros. since Sherlock premiered a year after the 2009 Sherlock Holmes hit theaters.

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Sherlock is the bastard brainchild of two Dr. Who writers; Elementary midwife Robert Doherty cut his teeth on Star Trek: Voyager; and the Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes started life as a comic book that producer Lionel Wigman penned instead of the usual spec script. When director Guy Ritchie got his hands on it, he was thinking Batman Begins. The Marvel formula was succeeding at box offices by then too, so Holmes’ superpowered intellect would have to be “as much of a curse as it was a blessing.”

A young Holmes should have nixed the forty-something Mr. Downey, but who can say no to Iron Man? Especially when Ritchie planned to restore all of Doyle’s “intense action sequences” other adaptations left out. You know, like when Holmes sneaks aboard the bad guys’ boat in “The Solution of a Remarkable Case”:

“With a lightning‑like movement he seized the hand which held the knife. Then, exerting all of his great strength, he bent the captain’s wrist quickly backward. There was a snap like the breaking of a pipe‑stem, and a yell of pain from the captain. Nick’s left arm shot out and his fist landed with terrific force squarely on the fellow’s nose.”

Oh no, wait. That’s not Sherlock. That’s Nick Carter. I’ve been getting them confused lately, and I’m not the only one. Carter premiered as a 13-episode serial in New York Weekly in 1886, the year before A Study in Scarlet premiered in England’s Beeton’s Christmas Annual. Carter was created by John R. Coryell and Ormond G. Smith, but Street & Smith (future publisher of the Shadow and Doc Savage) hired Frederick Van Rensselaer Dey to write over a thousand anonymous dime novels between 1891 and 1915 when Nick Carter Weekly changed to Detective Story Magazine.

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Doyle wrote a mere four novels and 56 short stories, with the rare “action sequence” lasting about a sentence: “He flew at me with a knife, and I had to grasp him twice, and got a cut over the knuckles, before I had the upper hand of him.”New York Times film reviewer A. O. Scott labels Holmes a “proto-superhero,” one who’s “never been much for physical violence,” crediting the Downey incarnation for the innovation of making the detective “a brawling, head-butting, fist-in-the-gut, knee-in-the-groin action hero” (what one commenter called “The precise opposite of Sherlock Holmes”). The film opens with Downey in a bare-knuckled boxing match, displaying the skills Doyle only hints at. Apparently Holmes once went three rounds with a prize-fighter who tells him, “Ah, you’re one that has wasted your gifts, you have! You might have aimed high, if you had joined the fancy.”

Nick Carter, on the other hand, has the fancy: “He bounded forward and seized in an iron grasp the man whom he had just struck. Then, raising him from the floor as though he were a babe, the detective hurled him bodily, straight at the now advancing men.” Yes, in addition to all of Holmes’ sleuthing powers, Carter has superhuman strength. And a bit of a temper—the secret ingredient American producers feel is missing from all those stodgy British incarnations.

Jonny Lee Miller’s Holmes doesn’t hurl men like babes, but he has broken a finger or two sucker punching serial killers. The leap over the Atlantic has made the Elementary detective’s passions more violent than his London predecessors. He also has a tendency to wander onto screen shirtless, displaying tattoos and a well-curated physique. His drug problems seems to be a carry-over from his Trainspotting days, which means the English accent is as authentic as Cumberbatch’s. In fact, Miller and his BBC counterpart co-starred in a London production of Frankenstein in 2011. You’ll never guess who played the doctor and who the monster. Literally, you’ll never guess—because Miller and Cumberbatch swapped parts nightly. Mr. Downey was busy completing the sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, and so was not available for matinees.

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Plans for a Sherlock Holmes 3 have been in talks too, but Downey was busy with Avengers, Iron Man 3 and now Avengers 2. Why settle for a proto-superhero when you can play a real one? At least the long-delayed season 3 of Sherlock finally arrived. It was perfectly fun watching a barefoot and CGI-shrunken Martin Freeman chat with Cumberbatch’s growly dragon in Hobbit 2, but nothing beats the Holmes-Watson bromance—a delight the otherwise delightful Jude Law and Lucy Liu can’t quite deliver with their Frankenstein partners. Sherlock is also the last show my family still watches as a family, so I don’t mind the BBC cauterizing the Nick Carterization of the character.

Of course Nick has evolved since the 19th century too: a 30s pulp run, a 40s radio show, a 60s book series. I have the anonymously written Nick Carter: The Redolmo Affair on my shelf. It’s a musty James Bond knock-off I found in a vacation house and kept in exchange for whatever I was reading at the time. I can’t bring myself to flip more than a few pages:  “I streamrollered my shoulder into his gut and sent us both crashing to the deck. I got my hands on his throat and started squeezing. His fist was smashing down on my head, hammering into my skull.”

In Nick’s defense, Doyle considered Sherlock Holmes schlock too. He hurled him over a cliff so he could stop writing his character—but the detective keeps bouncing back. Elementary is certain to be renewed for a third season, and the Sherlock season 3 finale is a cliffhanger with the next two seasons already plotted. The biggest mystery is how they’ll keep Cumberbatch out of a boxing ring.

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