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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Batman

monomyth

When Hollywood executive Christopher Vogler summarized Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces as a guide for screenwriters in 1985, he called it “one of the most influential books of the 20th century,” noting that “The myth can be used to tell the simplest comic book story or the most sophisticated drama.” Campbell’s book introduced his concept of the monomyth, an 18-step narrative formula he applied across societies and time periods world-wide. His examples include Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Indian, Norse, and Inuit sources. Campbell did not, however, relate his analysis to the hero type most popular while he was developing his formula in the 40s: the American comic book superhero.

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Campbell published his study shortly after DC terminated Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, ending their ten-year contract on Action Comics. Superman, meanwhile, had expanded to newspapers, radio, film, and TV, producing a legion of similarly superhuman imitations. While Campbell’s approach to comparative mythology is flawed by inattention to differences between disparate tales and cultures, it shares its mid-century, American context with the superhero genre and so suggests one culturally-specific explanation for the character type’s popularity. What appealed to Campbell appealed to other 20th century U.S. readers too.

Campbell summarized his monomyth’s essential elements:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”Image result for campbell hero with a thousand faces

The description encapsulates superhero origin stories. Will Eisner condensed the same elements into the first panel of Wonder Comics #1 (May 1939), when a blond-haired American vacationing in Asia receives supernatural powers from a turbaned Tibetan:

“So, Fred Carson, wear this ring as a symbol of the Herculean powers with which you are endowed—as long as you wear it, you will be the strongest human on Earth—you will be impervious—and now in the name of humanity and justice, go forth into the world!”

Wonderman premiered the same month as Action Comics #12 and Detective Comics #27, which introduced Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s “Bat-Man.” Both characters were the first direct imitations of Siegel and Shuster’s industry-transforming Superman. While Superman was influenced by decades of pulp, film, and penny dreadful predecessors, the medium-specific tradition of the comic book superhero begins in 1939 with the expansion of a single character into a repeated character type.

Like Wonderman’s, Batman’s origin story, retroactively inserted six months later in Detective Comics #33, is a monomyth variant—though a darker one. Bruce and his parents are “walking home from a movie” when they encounter the dark forces of the criminal underworld. After the “terror and shock” of the murders, a “curious and strange scene takes place,” in which Bruce vows to his parents’ spirits to avenge their deaths and so becomes “a creature of the night” himself. Finger places the formative event in an inexact past, “some twelve years ago,” suggesting the ahistoricity of many myths and folktales, while also grounding the ongoing consequences in a contemporary moment. The formula suggests comparative religion scholar Mircea Eliade’s analysis of a past mythic time and the ability of followers to return to it through ritual imitation. Superheroes pass between Campbell’s “two worlds, the divine and the human” regularly.

The relation of an origin to contemporary adventures is also central to the monomyth as embodied by superheroes. While Krypton is the original comic book region of supernatural wonder, giving Superman the power to bestow boons on humanity, Clark Kent is the ongoing embodiment of the world of the common day. Structurally the Krypton past is only preamble, establishing one of the most significant elements of Campbell’s heroic journey: personal transformation.

Myths and folktales are complete stories that end in closure, but superhero comics are typically episodic and endlessly incomplete. The monomyth as applied to comics form then is not limited to a character’s origin nor necessarily expandable to an accumulative series. The superhero monomyth is a single adventure—and, in fact, each and every adventure. The early twelve-page Action Comics episodes begin with Clark, who abandons his common day persona to encounter some fabulous force which he decisively defeats, before returning to live among humans as Clark again, his boon-bestowing powers at the ready.

If Campbell is correct, and the appeal of the myths he studied is grounded in the cyclic pattern of common heroes transforming through a descent into the fantastical, superhero comics enacted that script monthly. Every time Bill Parker and C.C. Beck’s little Billy Baston accepts a call to action and shouts “Shazam!” he receives the aid of his wizard mentor and crosses a supernatural threshold, causing Billy to vanishes and be reborn as Captain Marvel. Campbell writes:

“The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown and would appear to have died. … This popular motif gives emphasis to the lesson that the passage of the threshold is a form of self-annihilation … instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes inward, to be born again.”

After the trials of physical combat end in victory, Captain Marvel returns to the mundane world by transforming back into Billy Baston. Campbell describes the act as a trial itself:

“The first problem of the returning hero is to accept as real, after an experience of the soul-satisfying vision of fulfillment, the passing joys and sorrows, banalities and noisy obscenities of life. Why re-enter such a world? Why attempt to make plausible, or even interesting, to men and women consumed with passion, the experience of transcendental bliss? As dreams that were momentous by night may seem simply silly in the light of day, so the poet and the prophet can discover themselves playing the idiot before a jury of sober eyes.”

Siegel and Shuster solved Campbell’s dilemma by presenting Clark Kent as the hero’s banal disguise, allowing him to play an idiot to Lois Lane and the mundane temptations she represents. As Jules Feiffer concludes, Clark “is Superman’s opinion of the rest of us, a pointed caricature of what we … were really like.” Superman’s adoption of the caricature also reflects Campbell’s final monomythic stages, allowing him to remain in the never-ending moment by mastering both of his worlds:

“Freedom to pass back and forth across the world division, from the perspective of the apparitions of time to that of the causal deep and back—not contaminating the principles of the one with those of the other, yet permitting the mind to know the one by virtue of the other—is the talent of the master.”

Viewed within the monomythic scope of each episode, the Clark of the opening scene is fundamentally different from the Clark of the ending scene. If a reader had never heard of Superman, she would see a human transform into super-being and then relinquish that soul-satisfying fulfilment in order to appear human again. Other superheroes enact the same cyclic transformations every time they don a costume. Though Campbell’s monomyth can be applied only tentatively to the diverse array of world mythologies, it may find its most defining embodiment in the comics produced at its same cultural moment.

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sugar_skull_hamlet_lineart_by_freakdearts-d5hyfl6The_Punisher

“There’s only one Hamlet (and most children don’t read it), whereas comic books come by the millions.”

That’s what Frederic Wertham told readers of National Parent-Teacher in 1949, his second of three reasons why comics are bad for kids. Six years later in Seduction of the Innocent, he quoted a publisher using the same Shakespeare play as an excuse for comic-book content:

“Sure there is violence in comics. It’s all over English literature, too. Look at Hamlet.”

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Wertham roundly mocked the comment, but the publisher had a point, and not just about violence. Lone heir of an aristocratic family avenges his murdered father in a society ruled by corruption. Sound familiar? Hamlet is the boiler plate for Batman and other vengeance-motivated vigilantes across the multiverse.

So while it’s true most children don’t read Hamlet, Hamlet knock-offs come by the millions. But if you don’t think Batman is a Tragedy, take another look inside Shakespeare.

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Bruce Wayne, haunted by the unjust death of his parents, dedicates himself to a noble war on criminals. Does that make Bruce a tragic hero? Depends on your definition. Hamlet is a tragic hero in the sense that he is the hero of a tragedy. Macbeth is also the hero of a self-titled tragedy, but the two characters are polar opposites. Macbeth overthrows the peaceful order of Scotland by murdering the king and stealing the throne. In Hamlet, that’s Claudius, the guy who murdered Hamlet’s dad and set his ghost wandering the ramparts. It takes the not-of-woman-born Macduff to defeat the usurper Macbeth and restore order. In Denmark, that’s Hamlet’s vigilante mission.

The ur-Tragedy Oedipus Rex combines the roles of Macbeth and Hamlet into one character. Oedipus is the supervillain who killed his own father, stole his father’s wife and throne, and sunk the city of Thebes into supernatural plague. But he’s also the hero who solves the mystery and restores order by punishing the criminal—which means gouging his own eyes out. If you define “tragic hero” as that sort of a self-punishing criminal, neither Hamlet nor Macbeth make the list.

But Hamlet, like Batman, is an avenger. He didn’t make Denmark rotten. That was Claudius, and if Claudius self-punished like Oedipus, Claudius would be a tragic hero too. But Claudius is just a garden-variety villain, and so Denmark needs a hero to set things right. Enter Hamlet. He’s “tragic” only in the sense that he dies, and since he dies after completing his heroic mission, he dies triumphant. But unlike the deaths of Claudius, Oedipus, and Macbeth, his death isn’t necessary to restore order. It’s just an epilogue.

Unlike tragic heroes who start out unjust and so corrupt their kingdoms before eventually punishing themselves, an avenger is aligned with justice from the start. Hamlet is “tragic” only because he ends in what Northrop Frye calls social isolation. The most extreme version is death—six feet under is pretty isolated—but social isolation comes in a range, and avengers embody it all. John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett in The Myth of the American Superhero identify the standard type: “lonely, selfless, sexless beings” each of whom “never practices citizenship.”

Your traditional gunfighter doesn’t settle down after restoring order. He moves on. Which implies the role of avenger is socially subversive in itself. Because the avenger is a response to injustice, the avenger reflects and embodies that injustice. Once the criminal is punished and justice restored, the avenger also has to conform to tragedy’s ABA structure. His own pre-hero state has to be restored too.  It’s a mini-version of society’s former golden age, an age free of crime and so also free of crime-fighters. A full restoration of justice ends the role of the justice-seeking avenger, and so the avenger has to vanish with the villain.

To end in social integration instead, an avenger has to give up the avenger role. That means hanging up the costume and getting married—how early proto-superheroes Zorro, the Gray Seal, and Spring-Heeled Jack all ended their crime-fighting adventures. Serial heroes like Batman remain avengers by prolonging the B phase of the tragedy plot structure, that quixotic war on criminals that by definition can never end. If Bruce just needed to hunt down his parents’ killer, he could have retired a long time ago and married Julie. Remember Julie? Probably not. She was Bruce’s original fiancé, but, like Ophelia, Julie called it quits long before the end of the action.

Other avengers at least pretend to be on a simultaneous quest for personal restoration. Superheroes often figure their fantastical abilities as blessings for society, but curses to themselves, and so their ongoing serials project a desire to give up their powers and live a normal life. Alan Moore mocked this idea when he took over Swamp Thing, callingthe premise of a monster trying to regain his humanity” flawed because

“if that were to happen, the series is over. The dimmest reader realizes that isn’t going to happen, meaning the character is going to spend the remainder of the series on the run, moping about what was not happening. So Swamp Thing ends like Hamlet or just a Silver Surfer covered in snot.”

Hamlet, grandfather of monstrously moping superheroes, is a prototype of the isolated avenger whose identity is too defined by the avenging mission to give it up. Once he has completed the mission assigned to him by his father’s ghost and restored justice to Denmark by punishing his mother and usurper uncle, Hamlet’s death eliminates the last traces of Claudius’s corruption.

Hamlet could instead “regain his humanity” and reenter society by marrying, but Ophelia dies  because her boyfriend can’t stop being a hero—the same way Spider-Man would never willingly cure himself of his power-bestowing mutation. Marrying Ophelia before completing his mission would turn Hamlet into a failed hero or, worse, a villain, just another guy willing to be a citizen of a corrupt town. Like Batman, Hamlet can’t settle down till he’s scraped the rot out of Denmark. Lamont Cranston tells his fiancé the same thing: he can’t marry until he has completed his avenger mission as The Shadow, making Margo Lane an Ophelia who avoids death by accepting endless delay through a serial form’s never-ending B structure.

Which is a long way of saying: No, Frederic, there’s more than one Hamlet, and millions of fans do read them.

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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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The summer superhero blockbuster season is well underway: Avengers 2 landed in May, Ant-Man follows now in July, and Fantastic Four hits in August. That’s only half of 2014’s six films, but 2016 will make up the difference with a record eight. There was a time when I thought the superhero film genre had an artistic future. But after Heath Ledger’s Oscar for playing the Joker, Warner Bros. and Marvel has dedicated themselves to reproducing largely the same formula-driven commercial product.

So to analyze the nature of Hollywood superheroes, I’m calling in two experts from opposite ends of the literary spectrum: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, one of the most acclaimed novelists of Russian literature, and Black Snyder, a third-rate screenwriter that Sylvester Stallone once likened to a flatworm.

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I read Crime and Punishment in A.P. English as a high school senior—and I even finished it (a dubious honor my adolescent self did not award Moby Dick). I started The Brothers Karamavoz in college while working graveyard shifts as a warehouse security guard, but after totaling my Toyota on a sleepy drive home, I quit both.

Snyder started his career writing episodes for the Disney Channel’s Kids Incorporated before going on to pen Blank Check and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, a comedy Roger Ebert called “moronic beyond comprehension” and which its star, Sylvester Stallone, declared “one of the worst films in the entire solar system,” insisting “a flatworm could write a better script.” And yet when a good friend of mine—a former script reader for a California production company—wanted to collaborate on a screenplay, he handed me Snyder’s Save the Cat!

The how-to screenwriting guide explains why the Sandra Bullock comedy vehicle Miss Congeniality is a better movie than Memento. It comes down to formula: Miss Congeniality hits all 15 beats on The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, while Christopher Nolan’s directorial debut “is just a gimmick that cannot be applied to any other movie.” If Snyder were a poetry professor, he would lecture about the superiority of sonnets to free verse, while defining the greatest works of literature by the uniformity of their iambic beats.

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Rodion Raskolnikov, Dostoyevsky’s pawnbroker-murdering philosophy student, would classify Snyder as “ordinary.” Raskolnikov explains: “men are in general divided by a law of nature into two categories, inferior (ordinary), that is, so to say, material that serves only to reproduce its kind, and men who have the gift or the talent to utter a new word. . . . The first category, generally speaking, are men conservative in temperament and law-abiding; they live under control and love to be controlled. To my thinking it is their duty to be controlled, because that’s their vocation, and there is nothing humiliating in it for them.”

In other words, Hollywood spec writers play by the rules. And Snyder understands those rules well. He divides the universe into ten idiosyncratic genres. His “Dude with a Problem,” for example, includes Die Hard and Schindler’s List, while “Superhero” goes beyond Batman Begins to claim Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind—and probably anything else starring Russell Crowe. Snyder’s ur-Superhero is Gulliver surrounded by Lilliputians: “a Superhero tale asks us to lend human qualities, and our sympathy, to a super being, and identity with what it must be like to have to deal with the likes of us little people.” So Batman, Frankenstein, and Dracula are all Superheroes “challenged by the mediocre world around them,” because it’s really “the tiny minds that surround the hero that are the real problem.”

Raskolnikov would agree. His second category, “extraordinary” men, “all transgress the law,” because “making a new law, they transgressed the ancient one, handed down from their ancestors and held sacred by the people.” So “all great men or even men a little out of the common, that is to say capable of giving some new word, must from their very nature be criminals—more or less, of course. Otherwise it’s hard for them to get out of the common rut; and to remain in the common rut is what they can’t submit to, from their very nature again, and to my mind they ought not, indeed, to submit to it.” The rut-dwelling Lilliputians, meanwhile, will try to “punish them or hang them (more or less), and in doing so fulfill quite justly their conservative vocation.”

Snyder fulfills his Lilliputian vocation for Christopher Nolan when he shouts “screw Memento!” and dismisses all the “hulabaloo” because of its low box office revenue. That was in 2005, the year Batman Begins premiered, and three years before Heath Ledger won Best Supporting Actor for The Dark Knight. Raskolnikov warns that “the same masses set these criminals on a pedestal in the next generation and worship them,” and sure enough, Synder lauds Nolan’s caped crusader for following “the beats down to the minute.”

Or does that means Nolan is a Superhero who overcame his Gulliverness by conforming to the Lilliputian Beat Sheet? Either way, he, like Bruce Wayne “is admirable because he eschews his personal comfort in the effort to give back to the community.” That, says Snyder, solves the problem of “how to have sympathy for the likes of millionaire Bruce Wayne or genius Russell Crowe.” They save the cat.

And Raskolnikov agrees again. His “extraordinary man” has “an inner right to decide in his own conscience to overstep” if overstepping “is essential for the practical fulfillment of his idea,” and idea which might be “of benefit to the whole of humanity.” That’s how he rationalizes killing and robbing that nasty old pawnbroker. He argues (faux hypothetically) to a cop: “Kill her, take her money and with the help of it devote oneself to the service of humanity and the good of all. What do you think, would not one tiny crime be wiped out by thousands of good deeds?”

It doesn’t matter how the cop answers, because a real Gulliver wouldn’t have asked a Lilliputian for his opinion. That’s Raskolnikov’s downfall. He’s reading from the wrong page in Save the Cat! He wants to be a Superhero (“An extraordinary person finds himself in an ordinary world”), but he’s really just a Dude with a Problem (“An ordinary guy finds himself in extraordinary circumstances”). Worse, his circumstances are self-inflicted. He fell for Snyder’s Superhero formula because it “gives flight to our greatest fantasies about our potential.”

Raskolnikov fails to be “a man of the future,” but Nietzsche (who ranked reading Dostoyevksky “among the most beautiful strokes of fortune in my life”) took that “extraordinary” character type and renamed him the ubermensch. After Jerry Siegel adopted it, DC completed the circle by calling Superman “The Man of Tomorrow.”

But Dostoyevsky is no origin point. After explaining his theories, even Raskolnikov admits: “there is nothing particularly new in all that. The same thing has been printed and read a thousand times before.”Or as one of Snyder’s studio execs told him: “Give me the same thing . . . only different!”

That, sadly, is the state of the Hollywood superhero.

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How is it I can look at the poster for the recent Somali pirate film Fishing Without Nets and register “Jolly Roger,” even though the two crossed guns look almost nothing like a pirate flag?

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Superhero emblems are the same, altering every line and curve of their evolving designs, while somehow remaining recognizably the same:

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I remember how confused I was the first time I saw the crew of Captain Blood hoist their flag and it wasn’t the standard skull-and-crossbones but instead a jawless skull and two crossed but living arms with a sword in each fist. Sure, it’s close, but imagine if Joe Shuster did Superman’s “S” in calligraphy. Or Batman swapped his chest emblem for a diagram of an actual bat.

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I was probably seven at the time and so didn’t know the Captain was Errol Flynn in his breakout role. I didn’t know the 1935 film was a remake of the 1924 Captain Blood. Fans grumbled about Andrew Garfield replacing Tobey Maguire’s too-recent Spider-Man, or Sony rebooting Fantastic Four after a mere decade. But that’s been standard Hollywood practice since the teens. When Flynn traded in his pirate hat for Robin Hood tights, they were still warm from Douglass Fairbanks who’d torn them off Robert Grazer who’d yanked them from Percy Stow.

Hollywood is a roving pirate ship. They plundered Captain Blood from Rafael Sabatini’s 1922 novel. A decade had passed and swashbucklers were back with the box office booty Treasure Island shoveled in. They dug Blood up for name recognition—always safer to parrot than invent. Russell Thorndike jumped aboard too. He conscripted his own 1915 Scarecrow (vicar by day, masked smuggler by night) and sent him sailing into his piratical backstory. Doctor Syn on the High Seas floated five more book sequels, plus a 1937 film and a Disney mini-series I somehow never saw.

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I also haven’t seen Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips yet, but the inspired-by-real-events tale of low sea piracy adds to my bewilderment at the genre. I blinked in disbelief as my family and I rolled through Disney World’s Pirates of the Caribbean, where jolly animatronic pirates endlessly chase buxom animatronic women in acts of slapstick rape. If we can romanticize 17th century pirates into heroic outlaws, will 23rd century Hollywood will do the same for terrorists?

Any yet that Jolly Roger—probably a corruption of the French “joli rouge,” a warning that your attackers will kill you whether surrender or not—is a symbol of fun. I used to wave it as I sat in the stands of Three Rivers Stadium cheering the Pittsburgh Pirates.

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It doesn’t help that the KKK’s Black Legion added skulls and bones to their robes as they terrorized the port of Detroit in the mid-30s.

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They wanted to be superheroes, same as any vigilante. Herman Landon’s 1921 gentleman thief dubbed himself the Benevolent Picaroon (that’s Spanish for pirate), and Charles W. Tyler’s Blue Jean Billy Race launched her modern pirate career in 1918, both harbored in Street and Smith’s Detective Story Magazine. Even Batman demanded a turn on the high seas. Chuck Dixon and Enrique Alcatena rebooted him as Captain Leatherwing in a 1994 Elseworlds. The pairing seems playfully discordant, but Wayne and Blood were already the same character type. Ask them to fill out the following questionnaire:

1. Do you have a penis?

2. Is it white?

3. Are you highly respected?

4. Ever been horribly wronged?

5. What’s your catchy alias?

6. How comfortable are you working outside the law?

7. Got a nifty disguise?

8. What’s your signature emblem?

9. Can you supervise one or more loyal sidekicks?

10. Are you really all about the greater good?

11. Do you love thwarting that pesky government official always bugging you?

12. Are you into girls?

If that list isn’t familiar, it should be. It’s the original superhero formula:

A (1) white (2) man of (3) high status is (4) wronged and so assumes an (5) alias as a (6) noble criminal with a (7) disguise and (8) emblem, and, with one or more (9) assistants, fights for the (10) greater good while thwarting a (11) law enforcement antagonist and courting a (12) female love interest.

Batman answers yes to all twelve plot points—if you count Commissioner Gordon, who Bruce was clearly hoodwinking in his first episode. Bruce’s forgotten fiancé, Julie, vanished along with writer Gardner Fox, but she was there in 1939 too. The rest is easy: Mr. Wayne is very wealthy and very white, was terribly wronged with the murder of his parents, goes vigilant in a bat-emblazoned leotard, while dodging police bullets and warring on criminals. Oh, and he picks up an underage sidekick and overage butler too.

Batman didn’t invent the formula. He plundered it from an ocean of predecessors. Lots of rich, pissed-off white guys like to play dress-up, while stomping on bad guys, flicking off the government, and man-handling the ladies. Look at Captain Blood. That’s just the name a noble physician assumes after he’s unjustly convicted of treason and sold into slavery. He has a crew of not-quite-as-noble escaped convicts for assistants as he flaps his Jolly Roger like a cape. That naval commander in Jamaica is always hounding him, but the commander’s daughter is smitten anyway. And of course when the citizens of Port Royal are left undefended, it’s Blood who rushes to their rescue.

Blood and Batman served aboard the 1930s Mystery Men, an overflowing ship of masked do-gooders   captained by the Shadow with his pirate flag of a laugh, the original MWAHAHAHA. The 20s roared with a dozen more, all high scorers on the 12-point pirate scale. The 1914 Gray Seal is only missing Bruce’s murdered parents. The equally motiveless Zorro scores another eleven. Go back another decade and the Scarlet Pimpernel is righting the wrongs of the French Revolution, while Spring-Heeled Jack carves his “S” on his enemies’ foreheads. Personally, I prefer signature letters on the hero’s unitard.

There’s just one ingredient missing:  Superpowers. Bruce is very down-to-earth in the godlike company of Superman. Blood and his shipmates are all flesh-and-blood too. But Superman is just an extension of question nine. He absorbs his assistants, giving himself the strength of countless men. A superhero a one-man man-o-war. The Hulk’s high status comes in the form of Dr. Banner’s intelligence, but otherwise he’s a formula white guy wronged by a gamma bomb and the Cold War that detonated it. With the help of his teen confidante, Rick Jones, he eludes the U.S. military while dating the General’s daughter and committing violent acts of do-goodery. If he had an “H”-emblazon cape, he’d score a twelve.

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 Spider-Man wronged himself but loses a point for unrespectable nerdiness. Convert status to mutant giftedness, and you have an armada of X-Men. Even the convention-sinking Alan Moore is onboard with his wonder woman Promethea. Sure, her assistants are dead versions of herself, and her pesky law enforcement officer is Christianity, but she’s an eleven, which goes to twelve if you count her male incarnation.

Captain Blood’s formula flag is still sailing.

 captain leatherwing batman

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french batman

France has its own Batman. He’s named Nightrunner, and he’s been patrolling the streets of Paris since 2011 when DC introduced him as part of Bruce Wayne’s Batman Incorporated team. I walked some of those streets in June, but I didn’t see any caped crusaders, just used book vendors lining the Seine. A few of them sold BDs (bande dessinee, “drawn bands”), mostly late 70s and early 80s stuff,  stray Teen Titans and X-Men between stacks of Tintin and Asterix.

The Bronze Age Batman belonged to the French publisher Sagedition. I found him in the Angouleme research library while tracing the influence of U.S. superheroes on their French counterparts. The cover title story, “Le Mannequin,” doesn’t match the cover image,”Le Secret du Sphinx” (I’ll let you translate both of those yourself) because the issue collects five Batman adventures in what was not yet popularly called a graphic novel format.

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Note “LE JUSTICIER” printed along the left margin; it roughly translates, “THE ADMINISTRATOR OF JUSTICE” (a mystery we’ll return to soon). Otherwise the cover is Detective Comics No. 508, minus artist Jim Aparo’s growling dog in the foreground (deleted, presumably, by the French censorship board):

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The Sagedition version is cover-dated December 1982. I cross-referenced the content as Detective Comics Nos. 506-510, the last episode from January 1982, so roughly a one-year turnaround time. Unlike the original American publications, the translated reprints include no advertising, not even on the back cover; the inside front and back covers are blank, with an added table of contents and very brief publishing information on the final page.

Sagedition also printed only half of the pages in color. Turn a page and you’re looking at a black-and-white, two-page spread; turn again and it’s a color spread. This presumably saved printing costs, though I found the alternating color system dates back to the tabloid-sized newspaper BDs of the 40s. Sagedition applied it inconsistently. A 1985 Batman “collection un max” alternates its first 98 pages, before switching entirely to color for the last, re-paginated 45 pages (which also include an incongruous Golden Age Dr. Fate/”Dr. Destin” adventure). A 1986 Batman and Superman omnibus prints all 96 pages in black and white and in a smaller format:

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Smaller, black-and-white pages may also reflect Sagedition’s shrinking business. The company vanished in 1987.

France has no Silver Age Batman. The BD censorship board (the Commission for the Oversight and Control of Publications for Children and Adolescents) established by the Law of July 1949 effectively halted the importing of most American comics. But just prior to the law’s passage, French readers had two Golden Age versions of Batman. Beginning from its first September 19, 1946 issue, the weekly 8-page tabloid Tarzan included “La Chauve-Souris” (the surprisingly multi-syllabic French way of saying “A Bat”):

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And beginning with its first May 21, 1947 issue, L’Astucieux ran “les ailes rouges” (“the red wings”) on two of its eight pages, including an interior page in black-and-white which continued to the color back page:

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Despite the title change and the red cape and cowl, Batman is still called “Batman” in the translated dialogue.

Both Batmen vanish in 1948 as criticism of American comics and their influence on France’s BDs was building toward the censorship law. U.S. comics publishers faced similar criticism at home but created the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers to stave off legislation. The ACMP’s 1948 code went unenforced until 1954 when it was revised and adopted by the new Comics Code Authority in the U.S. industry’s second maneuver to avoid government regulation. The British Parliament passed its own comic book censorship law in 1955.

In all three cases, the call for censorship was a post-war cause. Batman appeared only once in France during World War II. Germany invaded in May 1940 and by August divided the country into an occupied northern region and the so-called “free zone” of Vichy France.  The weekly Les Gandes Aventures premiered the following month. Beginning in the tabloid’s second issue, “Le Justicier” ran through October and November in eight weekly pages, divided into two, four-part stories. The first is an uncredited adaptation of Detective Comics No. 30 (August 1939), Batman’s fourth episode, written by Gardner Fox and drawn by Bob Kane with Sheldon Moldoff co-inking.

Les Grandes Aventures, No. 2:

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Les Grandes Aventures, No. 3:

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Les Grandes Aventures, No. 4:

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Les Grandes Aventures, No. 5:

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Unlike Batman’s post-war appearances, Les Grandes Aventures does not reproduce the original artwork, but redraws it panel by panel. To accommodate the differences in formats, the French version regulates panel sizes while usually widening Kane’s taller originals:

original DC art by bob kane cropped

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In order to conclude the adventure at the bottom of the fourth page, two new panels were added, including one of the worst drawn images in the sequence:

angouleme day 2, comics research 101 (2)

It’s difficult to judge what impact the Les Grandes Aventures Batman had on later French incarnations. His rouge costume is not quite the same as L’Astucieux’s Red Wings, though the inclusion of “Le Justicier” in the Sagedition reprints could be an allusion to Batman’s first appearance. But the term could also be generic, an equivalent of “vigilante.”

The Gardner Fox script features a thug named “Mikhail,”  who, though identified as a “Cossack” (so Russian or Ukrainian), wears a fez and hoop earrings. He replaces Dr. Death’s previous thug, “Jabah,” a “great Indian,” who Kane dressed in a turban. Both Jabah and Mikhail wear cummerbunds, green leggings, and purple capes–a result of the printer’s limited color choices and Kane’s limited lexicon for his Exotic East. Batman kills them both.

Fox doesn’t mention Jabah’s and Mikhail’s religious affiliations, but the fez suggests Muslim. It brings us back round to Bilal Asselah, AKA Nightrunner, AKA the Batman of France in the international Batman Incorporated. Creator David Hine explains his choice: “The urban unrest and problems of the ethnic minorities under Sarkozy’s government dominate the news from France and it became inevitable that the hero should come from a French Algerian background.”

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Some conservative bloggers weren’t happy with a Sunni Muslim Batman. Warner Todd Huston accused DC of “PC indoctrination,” complaining that “Batman couldn’t find any actual Frenchman to be the ‘French saviour.'” “How about that,” writes Avi Green. “Bruce Wayne goes to France where he hires not a genuine French boy or girl with a real sense of justice, but rather, an ‘oppressed’ minority.”

I consider Bilal reasonable reparation for Dr. Death’s henchmen, as well as a nod toward the actual Algerians who did fight as French saviours during the German occupation. They administrated better justice than the first French Batman, a pirated, second-rate feature from a publisher working under Nazi rule.

I’m glad Paris has a new Le Justicier.

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paul-revere52719

Paul Revere died in 1818 and was reborn in 1861. His resurrection gave him the strength of three men and the power of bilocation: He was both in the church tower swinging a lantern and on his horse across the river receiving the message. Fellow riders, William Dawes and Samuel Prescott, stumbled and vanished into the white space between the stanzas of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride,” the poem that created the larger-than-life American hero. When the actual, human-sized Revere died, his obit writer didn’t even mention that not-yet-legendary midnight ride.

Paul Revere is one of several super-Americans Tarek Mehanna, a Pittsburgh-born pharmacist convicted of supporting Al Qaeda in 2012, named as his role models. Batman was at the top of the list. “When I was six,” Mehanna told his sentencing judge, “I began putting together a massive collection of comic books. Batman implanted a concept in my mind, introduced me to a paradigm as to how the world is set up: that there are oppressors, there are the oppressed, and there are those who step up to defend the oppressed.”

Tarek Mehanna court drawing

After Batman, school field trips and high school history classes showed him “just how real that paradigm is in the world.” He admired the oppression-fighting Paul Revere, Tom Paine, Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, John Brown, Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. “Everything a man is exposed to in his environment becomes an ingredient that shapes his outlook,” Mehanna explained. “So, in more ways than one, it’s because of America that I am who I am.”

Judge O’Toole sentenced him to seventeen years. Glenn Greenwald calls that “one of the most egregious violations of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech,” one that history will condemn along with “the architects of the policies he felt compelled to battle.” It could be a while before history makes its ruling, so meanwhile O’Toole’s stands—a panel of judges rejected an appeal last month.

Like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Tarek Mehanna is a writer. He supported Al Qaeda by pen rather than sword. Longfellow was the first American to translate Dante’s Divine Comedy into English. Mehanna translated “39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad” and posted it online from his bedroom in his parents’ suburban Boston home. That sounds considerably less poetic than a midnight gallop, but like his hero, Mehanna is a messenger.

“I mentioned Paul Revere,” said Mehanna,  “when he went on his midnight ride, it was for the purpose of warning the people that the British were marching to Lexington to arrest Sam Adams and John Hancock, then on to Concord to confiscate the weapons stored there by the Minutemen. By the time they got to Concord, they found the Minutemen waiting for them, weapons in hand. They fired at the British, fought them, and beat them. From that battle came the American Revolution. There’s an Arabic word to describe what those Minutemen did that day. That word is: JIHAD, and this is what my trial was about.”

That’s not a definition most Americans know. The FBI, however, defines “Terrorism” as “acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law” and that are intended to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population” and/or “influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.” There’s a Spanish word to describe that:

Zorro.

Johnson McCulley’s grasp of colonial history is even looser than Longfellow’s, but the pulp novelist knew what Americans loved: Champions of the Oppressed. Zorro waged his one-man war on the corrupt regime of Spanish California. His activities included whipping judges, disfiguring soldiers, and killing at least one military officer in open combat—all with the aim of coercing a tyrannous governor into reversing his abusive policies. Batman co-creator Bill Finger was six when The Mark of Zorro hit theaters in 1920. Finger included stills of the masked and swashbuckling Douglass Fairbanks in the scripts he handed Bob Kane to draw.

When Mehanna was collecting Batman comics in 1989, Michael Keaton was playing the caped crusader in theaters, but the paradigm was the same. “Muslims should defend their lands from foreign invaders – Soviets, Americans, or Martians,” Mehanna told Judge O’Toole. “This is not terrorism, and it’s not extremism. It’s what the arrows on that seal above your head represent: defense of the homeland.”

Whether you think Mehanna was unfairly convicted or not (my jury is still deliberating), he is a devout follower of American Superheroism. He, like many of his fellows Americans, likes things simple. He sees the world through a six-year-old’s eyes: the good guys and the bad guys they battle. That’s a black and white universe, with all the poetically inconvenient nuances dropped into the stanza breaks and panel gutters. Longfellow sacrificed Dawes and Prescott to preserve the simplicity of his heroic vision. Madeline Albright, argues Mehanna, sacrificed “over half a million children” who died due to “American-led sanctions that prevented food, medicine, and medical equipment from entering Iraq.”

The figures are contestable, but the Department of Defense considers “incidental injury” to non-military targets lawful “so long as it is not excessive in light of the overall military advantage.” So a Stanford Law School study, for example, estimates that drone attacks in Pakistan have killed up to 881 civilians, including 176 children. Such “collateral damage” differs from terrorism because the deaths, although premeditated, were not the overt goal—a distinction irrelevant to the victims.

Longfellow would leave the body count out of any poetic rendering of the War on Terrorism. We prefer our Paul Reveres heroically purified. Eugene Debs, another of Mehannna’s role models, was six when “Paul Revere’s Ride” was first published in Atlantic Monthly. Debs grew up to be a champion of oppressed laborers and was sentenced to ten years in prison under the Espionage Act of 1917 for speaking against U.S. involvement in the first World War. President Harding commuted the sentence after the war ended. Perhaps some future, post-War on Terror President will do the same for Mehanna, but I doubt it. America loves its Batman paradigm too much. It would take another Revolution to overthrow it.

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[A version of this piece first appeared in the Roanoke Times on November 30, 2013.]

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The-Great-Gatsby

Jimmie Gatz, AKA Jay Gatsby, debuted in dual-identity crime fiction long before the prototypal Bruce Wayne slipped on his Bat tights.  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby rolled off the press in 1925, Detective Comics No. 27 in 1939. When Bob Kane and his writers (probably Bill Finger, possibly Gardner Fox) tacked on an origin story six issues later, they set the alleyway murder of Bruce’s parents “Some fifteen years ago.” I’m not suggesting Gatz (it’s slang for “gun”) was that homicidal thug (one of Mr. Wolfshiem’s other associates would be a better guess), but the Gatsby and Wayne funerals would have been simultaneous. Which might explain why nobody attended Gatsby’s. Though I suppose friends of the extravagantly respected Waynes would have snubbed a West Egger regardless. Thomas and Martha Wayne were tight with the Buchanan crowd.

“Jay Gatsby” is a disguise, one as elaborate as the mild-mannered reporter a certain Kryptonian invented for himself. Jimmie Gatz was born on the alien planet of smallville Minnesota. To the snobbish Nick Carraway, he might as well have crawled out of New York’s lower East Side or the swamps of Louisiana. He is a rough-neck trying to pass as an Oxford man. And, unlike Bruce and Kal-El, he’s not one of the good guys.

Jay is a party-crasher to a long tradition of gentleman thieves popular in the first decades of the century. For an origin point, see E. W. Hornung’s 1898 “A. J. Raffles,” a man of seeming wealth and leisure who secretly burgles his fellow aristocrats. Hornung was a brother-in-law of Arthur Conan Doyle, and his character is an inverted Sherlock Holmes. By 1925, the character type’s anti-heroism had mutated to Robin Hood do-goodery, the mission Kane and Finger burgled for Batman. Graham Montague Jeffries published Blackshirt the same year, another tale of a thieving yet well-intentioned well-born—this time inspired by Mussolini’s Fascists. Hitler published Mein Kampf in 1925 too, a treatise Tom Buchanan and many of his fellow East Eggers sent up the best seller list.

As far as supervillainous schemes go, the Gatz Plan for World Domination is small-fry, mostly bootlegging and stock scamming. Unless you count his secret identity itself. “Jay Gatsby” is an agent of social chaos greater than Christopher Nolan’s Joker. To Tom Buchanan, the mere existence of the new money millionaire signifies the collapse of Aryan Civilization. Soon blacks and whites will be marrying. He’s the bridge beyond which anything can happen.

But what ultimately wins Nick over to Gatsby’s belated side is his other Plan for World Domination, the wooing of Daisy Buchanan. In addition to re-inventing himself, Jay invents a time-machine more complex than Dr. Doom’s or Kang the Conqueror’s. He wants to reboot the world and repair the moment he lost Daisy. And like any Quixotic supervillain, he can’t see the futility of his own plan. Of course he’s going to fail. That’s the point.

I miss teaching The Great Gatsby. Before I re-invented myself as a college professor, Fitzgerald was a perennial high point on my high school syllabus—same as most high school syllabi. I don’t need a time machine to visualize the filmstrips from the 1974 adaptation I had to watch when I was sixteen. It’s a god awful film, the surprisingly incompetent script penned by Francis Ford Coppola. So imagine my delight when I heard Baz Luhrmann was taking a fresh shot. His Romeo and Juliet was a delightfully frenetic mess, Moulin Rouge yet more so, and so who better to capture the excesses of the decadent 20s?

True to form, Baz delivers a circus wagon of a movie. I was planning to enjoy it, but despite the incongruous hip-hop beats, it was almost as yawningly dull as last time Gatsby the Great popped into our timeline. I admit much of the problem is me. I know the book embarrassingly well, and the Luhrmann script, like the Coppola script, is a collage of favorite lines. I know, you’d think that would be a good thing—Fitzgerald’s own words!—but it means neither doggishly devoted screenplay ever commits to its own storytelling.

Worse, Luhrmann loves voiceovers. Which isn’t necessarily an absolute evil in screenwriting. But instead of visual juxtapositions or contradictions, we get lazy repetitions. Tobey Maguire narrates what we’re already seeing. He tells us that his neighbor is standing on the dock reaching for the green light. And, yep, sure enough, there’s Leonardo DiCaprio doing exactly that. It’s the definition of excess, but not the fun kind (like replacing Klipspringer’s baby grand with a church-sized organ—why not!). Early comics suffered similar redundancy. Look at the Bill Finger panel declaring Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics 27: “As the two men leer over their conquest, they do not notice a third menacing figure behind them… It is the ‘BAT-MAN!’” And, yep, that’s exactly what Bob Kane drew in the panel under it. Comics outgrew the flaw decades ago, making poor Tobey all the more annoying now.

But maybe Baz is fulfilling a larger theme here. Gatsby has to fail. It’s what makes him Great. Ultimately, he and Bruce aren’t very different. Yes, Batman directs his megalomania for good—but just barely. His never-ending war on criminals is about vengeance and self-punishment. He’s ceaselessly borne back into his parents’ alleyway, endlessly replaying a botched past he will never get right. Gatsby’s jilting at the hands of the Daisy is no different. It’s a fate he’ll never escape either.

“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”

I can’t wait till the next time Hollywood reboots him.

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I was maybe ten when someone threw a burning cross in a front yard down the street from our house. I didn’t know the family who lived there, just the fact that they were black. My dad doubted it was the Klan, just some local Neanderthals. Maybe the same ones who egged our house and wrote “Niger Lovers” on our garage years before. (Presumably real Klan members would spell the racial slur correctly).

I was too busy reading Marvel Comics to think much more about it, but I mention the event as a kind of apology for one of the more unpleasant discoveries I’ve made while following the superhero back to its origins.

When searching for superhero ground zero, many scholars point to Baroness Orczy’s 1905 Scarlet Pimpernel largely because of Johnston McCulley’s imitative Zorro in 1919, which in turn influenced the 1939 Batman (Bill Finger included stills from the Douglass Fairbanks film when he handed his scripts to Bob Kane to draw).

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But the Scarlet Pimpernel lacks one of the superhero’s most defining characteristics. He has no costume, no repeating physical representation. He is only a name and a series of ordinary disguises. (He’s also remarkably non-violent, preferring to deter an enemy with a snuff box of pepper than a blow to the jaw.)

Another historical novel published in 1905 offers a more convincing (though disturbing) predecessor to the modern superhero. Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman is a fancifully offensive portrayal of the KKK as a heroic band of Southern patriots battling the corruption of Northern tyranny. They are also the first 20th century dual identity costumed heroes in American literature.

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Like superheroes, Dixon’s clansmen keep their alter egos a secret and hide their costumes with them (“easily folded within a blanket and kept under the saddle in a crowd without discovery”). They change “in the woods,” the nineteenth-century equivalent of Clark Kent’s phone booth (“It required less than two minutes to remove the saddles, place the disguises, and remount”). Their powers, while a product of their numbers and organization, border on the supernatural (their “ghostlike shadowy columns” rode “through the ten townships of the country and successfully disarmed every negro before day without the loss of a life”).

Dixon’s novel was so popular it became the source material for D. W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation, which in turn proved so successful, it inspired the Klan to reform across the U.S. (Their defining emblem, the burning cross, was invented by Dixon. The Reconstruction-era Klan never used it.)

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The new KKK numbered in the millions and was praised as a much needed crime-fitting force that succeeded were traditional law enforcement failed. Historian Richard K. Tucker sums it up well:

“Mainline Protestant ministers often praised the Klan from their pulpits. Reformers welcomed it to vice-ridden communities to ‘clean up’ things. Prohibitionists and the Anti-Saloon League supported it as a force against the Demon Rum. Most of all, millions saw it as a protection against the Pope of Rome, who, they believed, was threatening to ‘take over America.'”

Vice-ridden communities, plots against America, only one thing can save us–any of this sound familiar?

There is an upside though. By the early 30s, the Klan were losing public approval. Though masked heroes sold millions of pulp magazines during the Depression, real life vigilantes were prosecuted as criminals. As a result, Superman began his career as a paradoxical vigilante-fighting vigilante, breaking up a lynch mob in the opening pages of Superman No. 1 in 1939

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Superman and the legion of imitations who followed him take some of their most defining characteristics from the Klan (costumes, masked identities, codenames, emblems), while reversing the Klan’s political aims. As a result the superhero is a contradiction. A violent, anti-democratic vigilante fighting for law and order.

Dixon’s literary vision lived on in two incarnations from my childhood. Those Neanderthals roaming the suburbs of Pittsburgh in the early 70s. And the comic books I read then and am only now beginning fully to understand.

[If you’re interested in a fuller treatment of this argument, see “The Ku Klux Klan and the birth of the Superhero” in Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics. The article goes online for subscribers this week and will be available in print later this year.]

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The most annoying panel in comic book history: young Bruce Wayne lifting a massive dumbbell with one arm. The caption tells us he “trains his body to physical perfection until he is able to perform amazing athletic feats.” It’s literally the centerpiece of Batman’s 1939 origin page. Fifteen years of effort reduced to a 2 by 3 inch box.

Other superhero origins are instantaneous: a spider bite, a lightning bolt, a planet exploding. Bob Kane’s stands out because of its compression. A long and painstaking process turned into a snapshot. It’s what superhero readers want. Instant transformation.  One-panel puberty. Just say the magic word.

My ten-year-old started jogging with me last fall. I made him a deal: run a mile and get unbound video time for the rest of the day. He’s a voracious reader and sporadic athlete, but lately his Wii alter egos could do anything but get him off the couch.

Day one he went a winded half lap, an eighth of a mile, before resting. Week two he was doing two sets of double laps. Week three we timed his first nine-minute mile. Now he’s talking about racing 5Ks in the not-so-distant spring.

My own exercise routine used to include push-ups. It took me five months to climb from three sets of thirty to three sets of fifty. This is not impressive. It’s an illustration of how mind-numbingly dull Batman’s origin story really is.

Superman co-creator Joe Shuster knew it. While his partner Jerry Siegel was handing him descriptions of their hero’s athletic powers, the twenty-year-old Joe was hefting real dumbbells. He was a bodybuilder, dedicating hours to gymnasium solitude. Jerry tried it too.  Briefly. It’s more fun imagining physical perfection than slogging toward it.

Jerry’s Clark Kent didn’t work at all: “As the lad grew older, he learned to his delight that he could hurdle skyscrapers, leap an eighth of a mile, raise tremendous weights, run faster than a streamline train.”

Shuster idolized real strong men, Benarr MacFadden, his loinclothed protégé Charles Atlas.  Both built business empires on the promise of instantaneous transformation. I remember the Atlas ads from the comics I read as a ten-year-old. A bully kicks sand in little Joe’s face, and Joe returns a panel later to exact revenge. It’s the Batman origin, only more so. The panel of transformation is split by the diagonal caption: “LATER.” In the second, lower half, Joe is preening at his mirror: “Boy! It didn’t take long. What a build.”

Manhood in minutes. That’s the heart of superhero origins. If it requires hard work, it doesn’t work.

Look at the obese and superhero-obsessed narrator of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He goes 270 pages without committing to his own exercise routine. But then a “couple of months” later he’s lost twenty pounds. It took one sentence. Four pages and Oscar’s “fatguy coat” is gone forever. We didn’t even see him sweat.

In fact, when we do see him sweating (the novel is filled with Oscar’s abortive attempts at exercise), the transformation fails. There’s a reason “his number one hero” is “Shazam.”

Oscar earned Diaz a Pulitzer in 2008. An instantaneous transformation that only took fifteen years. If you don’t count all the writing he did before starting his MFA in 1993.

I won’t theorize about Diaz’s motives, but Oscar’s are clear. He wants the girl. And after his magic transformation, his mutant heart gets her. Briefly. Charles Atlas promises the weaklings in his ads the girl too. It costs “Only 15 Minutes a Day!” If you count the time biking to the track, my son spends thirty. He just turned eleven. He doesn’t care about the girl yet. He still closes his eyes when characters on TV kiss. He comes home sweaty and proud to relax with a Wii remote in his fist.

One of Siegel and Shuster’s filler panels in Action Comics #6 offers “Acquiring Super-Strength” advice tailored to 1938 readers content to sit on a couch all day:

“Clench your fists as tightly as possible, exerting every ounce of energy! While in this tense state, sharply jerk them in various directions! This will eventually impart to you a crushing hand-grip!”

Eventually.

It’s been over seventy years. How’s that coming along?

[Addendum: Cameron hit a 7:40 mile in March.]

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