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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Carlisle Indian School


I’m looking at DC’s newest character, Equinox, a teen superheroine based on Cree activist Shannen Koostachin. She’s a member of Jeff Lemire and Mike McKone’s Justice League United. Like Marvel’s Alpha Flight, the team is Canadian, so the character continues the U.S. publishing tendency to place Native America outside of U.S. borders. But I see some promise here: Equinox is from an actual tribe, her costume isn’t red, her features aren’t cartoonishly “Indian,” and she’s not showing any thigh or cleavage. That helps offset the “her power stems from the Earth” cliché, and I actually like the idea of a character who will have different abilities as the seasons change–never heard that one before.

But will she be better than Wyatt Wingfoot? He was born in Fantastic Four No. 50, cover-date May 1966 , on newsstands a month before my June-issued birth certificate. Wyatt’s dad is “Big Will Wingfoot – the greatest Olympic decathlon star this country ever had!”Here on Earth-1218, that’s James “Big Jim” Thorpe, gold medalist for the 1912 Olympic pentathlon and decathlon. Stan Lee even gave his name to the college coach trying to draft Wyatt: “I’m sorry! I’m not interested in athletics, Coach Thorpe!”


Jack Kirby penciled the issue, but I prefer Sante Fe painter Ben Wright’s Thorpe rendering. I picked “Jim Thorpe in His Carlisle Indian School Football Uniform” for the cover of my novel School for Tricksters. Wright’s website says he “draws from Native American ceremony, symbolism, and tradition” and identifies him as “part Cherokee,” rarely promising signs. But I like the painting because the old-timey helmet sets the period, plus his slightly stylized Thorpe looks really cool. The big “C” on his chest could be a superhero’s. Carlisle Man!

kate buford thorpe bioschool for ticksters cover

Biographer Kate Buford later told me Wright got it wrong. The cover of her Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe features the original photo with an inside caption: “Jim Thorpe with the Canton Bulldogs, c. 1920, Canton, Ohio.” So the “C” is for Canton, a team Thorpe played for after his career peaked. Ben painted over the facts—the way lesser-known inker Joe Sinnott thickened Kirby’s lines for FF 50.

School for Tricksters is a historical novel, so I paint over a shelf of facts too. My daughter’s 11th grade history teacher capped a recent Carlisle Indian School lesson with “Oh, I’m sure those kids must have wanted to be there,” so my daughter grabbed a row of books from my office to write a rebuttal for her research paper. I recommended Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance: The Glorious Imposter. I used to exchange emails with the author, Donald Smith, up in Alberta. Thorpe is the School’s most famed student, but I prefer the adventures of Chief Buffalo Child, AKA Sylvester Long. He’s the real Carlisle Man.

sylvester long lance bio

The School railroaded children from their western reservations to the middle of Pennsylvania to be transformed into working class mainstream Americans. According to Long’s autobiography, he was born a full-blood Blackfoot in a great plains teepee, and so an ideal student for the program. Except that his birth certificate says Winston-Salem, NC, and both his parents were ex-slaves. Which still makes him the ideal Carlisle student, since Carlisle was all about painting over facts. The real-life dual-identity Long graduated to Hollywood, where he played another version of himself–until the movie exposure lead to his unmasking and suicide.

Sylvester, a mild-mannered library janitor, longed to be exceptional—a supeheroic dream for a mixed blood Clark Kent in the Jim Crow South. But did he just doodle over his real self or did he become his disguise? When Dean Cain proposed to Teri Hatcher on the season two finale of Louis & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, the network shot three answers: “Yes,” “No,” and “Who’s asking, Clark Kent . . .  or Superman?” They were trying to prevent the “real” answer from leaking before the show aired. Smith documents at least a dozen Lois Lanes in Long’s adventures, but no marriage proposals.  His identity wasn’t stable enough to settle down.

I ask my students the same question when analyzing superhero texts: what is the character’s core identity? I suggest four options: A) the superhuman, B) the human, C) neither, or D) both. For decades, Superman’s answer was “A.”Clark Kent is just the pair of fake glasses he wears around humans (David Carradine gives this a great monologue in Tarantino’s Kill Bill). But that flips to “B” after the 80s reboot. Clark lived a perfectly normal childhood until his superpowered puberty made him hide behind a cape and tights.

Sometimes students go with “C,” arguing that both Clark and Superman are public faces worn by an inner Kal-El. It’s a common idea outside of comics, that we all have a secret private self who transforms according to context: home, work, frat party. It fits the standard master-of-disguise trope too. Long could have wandered downtown any of his free Saturdays and leafed through a copy of Nick Carter Detective Weekly at a Carlisle newsstand in 1912. The old banner illustration is a row of heads, “Nick Carter In Various Disguises,” with the largest and literally central self right there in the middle.

But “D” is the most daring choice. What if the center doesn’t hold and we’re all just a series of shifting performances? Zorro admits as much when he unmasks himself as the languid Don Diego. The costume wasn’t just a disguise; it made his whole body come alive—something Bruce Banner and the Hulk understand too. Are any of us really the same person when we’re angry? And is the goal to find a “golden mean” as Don Diego promises his fiancé? Like Teri Hatcher, Lolita is no polygamist. And yet who is the Scarlet Pimpernel’s wife married to? If Sir Percy is just a foppish disguise, why does he keep laughing that inane laugh even after he unmasks?

All that is too complicated an answer for early 20th century America. When they unmasked Sylvester they only saw a dual-identity fake. Except then why did a private detective have to write over the facts, claiming he fingered rouge and hair-straightening gel from the corpse? Long’s alma mater championed the dual-identity model too, doctoring “before” and “after” photos of graduating students. Sometimes you have to white-out a shirt collar to keep the world savage/civilized.

Big Jim’s white/not-white wife was a Carlisle student too. She and Jim lost their first child, James Junior, their only son. Kate Buford and I give dueling banjo readings ending with the death scene, proof that narrativized facts and fact-based fiction can get along just fine. Kate and I live in the same town too, and our books came out just weeks apart—coincidences even most comic book readers wouldn’t believe. Stan Lee invented the Keewazi Indian reservation for the Wingfoots and dropped Wyatt into the Human Torch’s college dorm. Johnny looks up at his hulk of a roommate: “Say, whatever they feed you at home, I’d like it on my diet!”

Wyatt is still wandering the borders of the Marvel multiverse. I think he’s tangled with the Kree a few times too–an alien race Lee and Kirby created a year after Wyatt and who have only a phonetic resemblance to Equinox’s tribe. Equinox’s alter ego, Shannen Koostachin, was only fifteen when she died in 2010, but Canada’s House of Commons unanimously celebrated her superheroic achievements:

“In her short life, Shannen Koostachin became the voice of a forgotten generation of first nations children. Shannen had never seen a real school, but her fight for equal rights for children in Attawapiskat First Nation launched the largest youth-driven child rights movement in Canadian history, and that fight has gone all the way to the United Nations.”

And now she’s made it to Justice League United.


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While I was promoting my second novel, School for Tricksters, asked me what books made me a reader for life:

This is embarrassingly unliterary, but comic books started me reading.  I remember my first: The Defenders #15. The cover is the desktop background on my laptop.  This was around 1972, when my parents were involved in the civil rights movement. I was too busy studying superheroes to take much notice.  Until someone sprayed “Niger Lovers” (yes, they misspelled it) on the side of our house.  My parents were suing our Pittsburgh suburb to desegregate their police force, which also explains why our phone was tapped.

I was seven and more concerned with the Defenders’ battle against Magneto and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.  I was living on a planet of pulp paper, neatly sorted into stacks in my bedroom closet: Uncanny X-Men, Amazing Spider-Man, Incredible Hulk. I have a box of tattered survivors in my attic, and have tried to woo my ten-year-old with them, but he prefers real novels (Percy Jackson, Eragon, Artemis Fowl).

My Defenders #15 vanished, so I recently bought a reprint collection the size of a New York telephone book. It’s in black and white, but I still recognize the stories, even exact panels: the way Magneto sits plotting over an ancient book of magical science. After thwarting the Brotherhood, the Defenders went on to battle the Sons of the Serpent, a supervillain group I only now see is based on the Ku Klux Klan. Their evil plan: start a race war and force all non-Aryans out of America. I wasn’t living on as different a planet as I thought.  Hawkeye, the Defenders’ newest member, is a millionaire playboy by day, and he soon discovers that his African American assistant has been secretly financing the Sons of the Serpent with his fortunes. Why? Because it’s good business. This isn’t another planet. This is America, only more so. America dreaming about itself.

I grudgingly grew out of comics by the end of elementary school, and went on to devour Heinlein in middle school, Vonnegut in high school, and finally the novels that most inspired my writing: Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior.  It was Morrison’s Playing in the Dark that opened my eyes widest, showed me that all writers are writing about race. It’s just a question of whether they know it or not.  I read it the year it came out, 1992, the year I started writing my first novel.

Or that’s the literary way of telling the story. My new novel in stories, School for Tricksters, may owe as much to Marvel Comics. It’s about an evil government plot to destroy non-Aryan culture.  It’s about heroes with secret identities: a young white woman and a young black man passing as Indians in a school designed to turn Indians into Whites. Everyone there learns to wear a mask. Including myself: I am a white man writing as a black man and a white woman about Native America. Unlike The Defenders, the novel recreates real people for its characters. Its world is painstakingly researched history, but the true tale is as amazing, incredible, and uncanny as any of Clark Kent’s or Peter Parker’s. It’s America, only more so.

I’ve tried to go back to comic books—those shelves of graphic novels in every major book store. Like real dreams, their absurdities are embarrassing, sometimes revealing, but most often banal.  I teach a college seminar on superheroes, and my research unearths an occasional gem like “Wyatt Wingfoot,” a Fantastic Four character based on Jim Thorpe, a central character in School for Tricksters.  Wyatt and I were both born in1966, just a month apart. More often my discoveries are uglier: the roots of the superhero in 1930’s fascism, 1920’s vigilantism, 1910’s eugenics. America dreaming in nightmares. That’s not the history Marvel Comics taught me. But then my American history texts didn’t teach me about the Carlisle Indian School either.  It’s our job to go deeper, to read under the surface of things.  Comic books are as good a start as any.

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