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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: David Haglund

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I don’t know if Victor Hugo was gay. But I do know he wrote some of his most influential work from exile—including political pamphlets, three books of poetry, and Les Misérables, a historical novel about the French Revolution that he “meant for everyone.” Hugo describes it like a superhero answering a cry for aid: “Wherever men go in ignorance or despair, wherever women sell themselves for bread, wherever children lack a book to learn from or a warm hearth, Les Miserables knocks at the door and says: ‘open up, I am here for you.’”

I did not see Les Mis, either on stage or on screen, but my kids went with their Nana after my wife and I escaped for our own outing: fancy dinner (turns out steak tartare is a raw hamburger), romantic movie (Jennifer Lawrence is a shape-shifting genius even when not playing a blue-skinned mutant), and historic B&B (former haunt of musical legend Oscar Hammerstein). We had a better time than the kids. My son was not wooed by Hugh “Wolverine” Jackman, and my daughter would not list on-set singing among his superpowers.

But the X-Men casting choice did spotlight some secrets in the musical’s origin story. Both literary blogger Chrisbookarama and Slate culture editor David Haglund declared Jean Valjean a “superhero.” They note his dual identity (alias “Monsieur Madeleine”), his superpowers (the strength of “four men”), and his arch nemesis, Inspector Javert (inspired by real-life detective Eugène François Vidocq). There’s even an unmasking scene:

“One morning M. Madeleine was passing through an unpaved alley” where an “old man named Father Fauchelevent had just fallen beneath his cart.” A jack-screw would arrive in fifteen minutes, but “his ribs would be broken in five.” Madeleine sees “there is still room enough under the cart to allow a man to crawl beneath it and raise it with his back,” and he offers five, ten, then “twenty louis” to anyone willing to try. Javert, “staring fixedly at M. Madeleine,” declares: “I have never known but one man capable of doing what you ask.” Although Valjean is breaking the law by disguising his past as a convict, he “fell on his knees, and before the crowd had even had time to utter a cry, he was underneath the vehicle.” Even the old man, “one of the few enemies” Valjean has made as Madeleine and then only from jealousy, is begging him to give up, when “Suddenly the enormous mass was seen to quiver, the cart rose slowly, the wheels half emerged from the ruts,” and “Old Fauchelevent was saved.”

“Just like a superhero,” writes Haglund, “outed by the noble use of his super strength.”

My daughter assured me the film framed it as a burst of Hulk-like adrenaline, but Victor Hugo was going for much more. Although Valjean emerges in torn clothes and “dripping with perspiration,” he “bore upon his countenance an indescribable expression of happy and celestial suffering” as the old man calls him “the good God.”

It’s the self-sacrificing yet self-ennobling choice saviors make every day. Even Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ wants to hide in a mild-mannered lifestyle, before fully accepting the job of super-savior. Ditto for Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker and Michael Chiklis’s Ben Grimm. A hundred years earlier, O. Henry’s safe-popping Jimmy Valentine outs his Valjean past by saving a child from suffocating in the town bank vault. Philip Wylie’s superhuman Hugo Danner longs for the quiet life too, but fate slams another would-be victim into another character-revealing bank vault.

And there’s always a Javert standing right there trying to glimpse your secret self. Jimmy has detective Price on his trail (though in a typical O. Henry twist, he lets his Valjean go). That pesky tabloid reporter followed Bill Bixby for five seasons, always ready to snap a picture when Lou Ferrigno burst out during the emergency-of-the-week. Like Les Mis director Tom Hooper, the CBS team decided their Incredible Hulk was just a burst of green adrenaline, the kind that allows Clark Kents to shoulder cars off endangered loved ones. That’s the phenomenon Bixby’s Banner is researching before his laboratory mishap, his atonement for failing to save his wife when fate dropped Fauchelevent’s oxcart on her.

But Haglund’s comment unmasks another kind of outing. When my former department colleague and next door neighbor Chris Matthews read that Slate article “Why Tween Boys Love Les Miz,” he emailed me about Hagland’s “silent premise,” the implication “that there’s something weird about boys liking musicals.” And we know what alter ego lurks under that tale-tell proclivity. “The figure of the musical-loving boy or man,” says Chris, “has long functioned as both an element of gay male identity and as a handy stereotype for mocking ‘effeminate’ men, gay or not.”

I noticed plenty of family photos decorating the Hammerstein B&B, evidence that Rodgers was his partner in the strictly professional sense. But it did occur to me to check. GLBTQ, the online encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender & queer culture, lists Hammerstein as “apparently quite straight,” but the site still can’t explain “the attachment many gay men have to the musical theater or the fact that in the popular imagination a passion for showtunes is practically a marker for homosexuality.”

Les Misérables premiered in 1980, twenty years after Hammerstein’s death, ninety-five after Victor Hugo’s. I was fourteen, Chris’s age when he saw it on stage. Haglund was nine his first time, so his pubescent body wasn’t bursting through his sweaty clothes just yet. Maybe that’s why he remains a tone-deaf Javert when it comes to identity-shifting. He sounds relieved that a superheroic explanation for Miz-loving boys hit him while watching Jackman belting it out. Why Do Tween Boys Love Superheroes? Because they’re not “weird.” He thinks his men-in-tights insight is “more particular” to boys, even though both sexes get equally erotic eyefuls of Jackman’s shirtless flexing. Sorry, David, but as my former neighbor points out: Hugh is hot.

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Chris, by the way, is not gay. At least not in the I-like-to-have-sex-with-other-men sense. Like my and Hammmerstein’s homes, his is decorated with family photos. He claims to be “terribly low on football-related and power-tool-based conversation,” but wow can he unman me on a racquetball court—an advantage none of my Hulk-like adrenaline can match. Chris also grew up in the apparently quite straight world of comic books. While his tween-self was singing along to the Les Mis soundtrack, he was flipping pages of Spider-Man and Moon Knight. “Superheroes were not the guise of normalcy I wore over the shameful secret of loving a musical,” he says, “they were yet another way of getting around the pressures to be normal.”

Saturday October 11 is National Coming Out Day. It’s not a Revolution. It’s just a celebration of the superheroic who continue to overthrow the pressures of the so-called normal. I wish them all a safe return from their personal exiles.

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Les Miserables Classics Illustrated

Guest Blogger, Christopher Todd Matthews

Just days after the mega-musical’s release, Slate’s David Haglund asked readers to ponder this mystery:  “Why [do] Tween Boys Love Les Miz.”  Haglund then tried to blow our minds with his answer:  Jean Valjean is a superhero.

One can indeed read Valjean as a superhero, and it’s fun to find the pattern:  as Haglund and others note, Valjean saves lives, he has a secret identity and a nemesis who wants to uncover it, and the novel describes him as having the strength of “four men.”  Chris Gavaler tells me Valjean fits the model of other early superhero prototypes, such as the Count of Monte Cristo and the Scarlet Pimpernel (each of whom shares key elements with Valjean, such as an experience with unjust imprisonment and a backdrop of Gallic revolution).  And many critics have noted both the musical’s and the original novel’s sometimes overbearing Christian imagery, so perhaps Valjean is simply Victor Hugo’s echo of what one might call the original superhero, righteous amid injustice:  Jesus.

What fun.  And I mean it.  But there’s a silent premise to all this that, to my mind, tells us something rather more complicated and troubling, about sexual identity and gender expression and their relation to superhero motifs.  And that’s because Haglund’s headline comes with an implied tone of mystification—Why in the world would boys like Les Miz?—which deploys a whole series of old-fashioned assumptions about what boys are and what boys like.  My god, boys like musicals?!

The implication, of course, is that there’s something weird about boys liking musicals.  My guess is I don’t need to pause here to give you a chance to figure out what that “weirdness” is:  a boy liking musicals has meant something rather specific in our cultural consciousness for the last several decades.  From one point of view it has, as a kind of cruel shorthand, signaled deviance and perversion, but from another it has more positively meant that a boy is embracing alternative forms of boyness.  The figure of the musical-loving boy or man, in other words, has long functioned as both an element of gay male identity and as a handy stereotype for mocking “effeminate” men, gay or not.

At the very least, such loving has indicated the willingness of the occasional boy to play along the margins of conventional gendering.  I was such a boy, not necessarily gay, though for a while my parents certainly wondered, and I adored Les Mis when I saw it on stage at the tender age of fourteen.  To this day I’m terribly low on football-related and power-tool-based conversation topics, much preferring to discuss my favorite Gene Kelley films.

So in part Haglund’s article reminds me how the narratives and iconography of superheroes can be used to normalize boys and gender identity.  Horrified that your son likes a musical?  It’s OK:  it’s probably just a superhero story with songs—and liking superheroes is so natural and normal for a boy.  (Go into any store that sells children’s anything and you’ll see the artifacts of such musty old gender dichotomies:  Hulk lunchboxes over here, Barbie lunchboxes over there; Spiderman underwear to the left, pretty-princess underwear to the right.)  These days superheroes stand for boyness—and boyness means the opposite of girlness, means physical vitality and heroism and violence, means a tidy trajectory toward an uncomplicatedly masculine and heterosexual adult identity.

So liking a musical’s a problem, what with all that prancing and hand-holding, but some good old heroic violence, a few damsels in distress, a dash of vaguely fascistic adoration of musculature and extra-judicial power, and voila, problem solved!  It’s really just a superhero movie, about strong boys saving weak girls in a landscape of deep and abiding violence!  Phew!

Now, if only there were some sort of dashing, lithe song-and-dance man who could wrap this whole thing up, bringing Gene Kelley and superheroes and Jean Valjean all together in a neat package.  Oh wait, there is:  Hugh Jackman.  Those are two words that could also be used to answer the question “Why do tween boys like this musical?”  He’s hot.  And sure he was also Wolverine—violence and superheroes and heterosexuality and all that—but, you know, Wolverine was hot too.

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Which brings me to my final point:  despite our culture’s easy equation of superheroes with conventional boyness, and despite my own earlier dismissal of the normalizing strategies of superhero narratives and merchandise, superhero stories have historically included plenty of room for gay themes and queer readings.  There are the secret identities, the split between the generic upstanding public man and the secret, daring hyper-flâneur he becomes at night.  There are the homosocial intimacies, most famously in Batman and Robin’s domestic partnership.  There is The X-Men’s theme of countercultural struggle.  Chris Gavaler points out that the prototypical and maybe semi-Valjeanean Scarlet Pimpernel himself has effete characteristics—dressing like a Dandy and being named after a flower, for instance—that might put him in a lineage of modern gayness.  And of course there are all those beefy men in tights, so closely matching certain genres of gay male erotica.

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So the fact that Wolverine now sings in a grand costume drama only puts a slightly more legibly queer spin on a set of implications already there, even if invisible to your average mainstream audience.

Perhaps what I most want here is not only to free kids of such assumptions about the nature of gender but also to restore these trickier meanings to superhero stories.  There’s something about the superhero template that gives kids on the margins of normal (perhaps especially boys) a place to go, a way of thinking about who they are, of engaging with emotional intensity, of imagining a dramatic and legitimate role for themselves in a world that sees them as hopelessly weird or nerdy or awkward or effeminate.  I want the mainstream to give superheroes back—to stop using them to patrol and correct the boundaries of boyhood (and girlhood, for that matter).

After all, when I adored Les Mis, I adored Moon Knight and Spider-Man and a bunch of other comics just as much, and there seemed no contradiction in that.  Superheroes were not the guise of normalcy I wore over the shameful secret of loving a musical:  they were yet another way of getting around the pressures to be normal.

[Christopher Todd Matthews is a writer who lives in Ann Arbor.]

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