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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: DC

Panel 1: The White House at night. A sickle moon overhead.

Panel 2: The President slouches at his desk, uncapped pen in hand. OBAMA: “I will sign it now, while America sleeps!”

Panel 3: Close-up of document on desk: “Bill to Destroy America by Letting Gay People Get Married.” OBAMA: MWAHAHAHA!”

Panel 4: Caption: “Meanwhile in the Pressroom.” Press Secretary at podium: “And of course blah blah blah the President respects blah blah blah sacredness of blah blah blah”

Panel 5: “Clark Kent turns suddenly, his super-hearing catching the President’s evil cackle.”

Panel 6: CLARK, yanking off glasses: “This is a job for . . .

Panel 7: “Superman!” Superman smashes through the wall of the Oval Office, grabbing the pen just before the bill is signed into law!

Panel 8: OBAMA, cowering on the floor: “Thwarted again!”

Panel 9: SUPERMAN, with American flag in background: “Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy!! I will act to destroy that government and bring it down, so it can be replaced with a government that will respect and support marriage, and help me raise my children in a society where they will expect to marry in their turn!”

Or something like that. The last bit are Card’s actual words, since deleted (thanks to Noah Berlatsky and Atlantic.com for keeping them on the web). I added the exclamation points myself.

I had to break the news to my family on the way to a restaurant. “You remember Ender’s Game?” I asked. “And Ender’s Shadow?” My wife had read the first aloud to them years ago; I’d read the second. Of course they remembered.

“Well,” I said and explained about DC readers protesting Orson Scott Card writing a Superman story because Orson Scott Card is a raging homophobe. Gay readers have known this for years, but it was news to me when I’d read about it that afternoon. It was news to my family now, but no one seemed particularly shocked, just sad. At fifteen, my daughter has grown increasingly resigned to chunks of her childhood eroding into the abyss of depressing adulthood. All those hours spent with the talented Mr. Card now retroactively icky.

Superman and Ender's Game

I’m not saying Ender’s Game is suddenly less worthy a read. But it is a little like finishing Ender’s Shadow and my son saying how it kinda ruined the first book. Not only was Ender not as smart as he’d seemed, but he was sort of an idiot for not seeing that his little friend was really the one making things work out so well.

And now it turns out Card is an idiot too. It would be easy to say it’s his religion’s fault, sort of like when Cat Stevens didn’t condemn Iran’s death sentence on Salman Rushdie. But a close colleague in my English department is Mormon, and he voted for Obama and supports our fellow gay colleagues too. So Orson Scott Card owns his own homophobia.

Superman, on the other hand, has been supporting gay rights since the 80s. DC wouldn’t let writer-artist John Byrne actually print the word “lesbian” (Superman only got as far as the first letter before interrupted by some less culturally touchy threat), but Clark was fully behind Captain Maggie Sawyer of the Metropolis Special Crimes Unit. And now the rest of the multiverse has finally caught up. Superman has been called the ultimate Boy Scout for decades, and now even the Boy Scouts are abandoning their gay ban.

So should fans ban DC when Orson Scott Card takes over the unitard?

To be honest, I find it a little hard to hate the guy. I picture him as a gray-skinned brontosaurus—not one of  those warm-blooded, hollow-boned sauropods with whip-action tails, but the kind I grew up with, back when they were just obese lizards hanging out in swamps because they couldn’t support their own weight.

I also seriously doubt his script is going to look like anything like my parody above. But is that the point? Even if Card keeps his homophobia in his swamp, does the guy and his DC employers deserve our allowance money? Obviously not. But formal bans still make me squeamish. The so-called Moral Majority used them all the time.

But if it’s any consolation, Card’s DC gig has outed his Jurassic mindset to a much larger audience. Now even straight dads like me and my (what at the moment appear to be) straight kids know the sad truth too. We’d been rooting for Hollywood to adapt Ender’s Game for years and now . . . not so much.

Also, if you like historical parallels, the original Superman was anti-marriage anyway. And I don’t mean gay marriage. I mean all marriage. George Bernard Shaw popularized his translation of the term “ubermensch” in his 1903 play Man and Superman. It’s about a modern Don Juan who wants to overthrow England’s marriage laws because they slow down the process of breeding a race of superhumans.

It’s not your standard supervillain scheme, but I’m sure Card would be horrified. And since Shaw’s evil plot would have to overthrow England’s new same-sex marriage now too, gay advocates and Card may actually have a storyline they can team-up for.

When my kids are grown up, I hope they respect and support marriage too, and when my grandkids, gay or straight, marry in their turn, I trust all the Orson Scott Cards of the multiverse will be long extinct.

Illustration by The Daily Beast

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A “super hero” is a “superhero” is a “super-hero.” It’s a trademarked term. Marvel and DC have owned it jointly since 1979. They argued that consumers associate the word with their products, and so any other company marketing a character as a superhero would be exploiting them.

That may have been true in 1979. Charlton Comics (they dropped out of the superhero comic book market in the late 70’s) called their superpowered do-gooders “Action Heroes.” It seems considerably less true after the emergence of other major comic book publishers, such as Dark Horse in 1986 and Image in 1992. Only in a legalistic sense are Hellboy, Spawn, and Michael Chabon’s The Escapist (Dark Horse published the comic book version) not superheroes.

My professional expertise is in literary analysis not law, but I do not expect Chevron and Gulf would have much luck barring other oil companies from using “gas station” on the grounds that Chevron and Gulf were the first to open ones. The term is used too generically now. Of course Marvel and DC can’t control generic use of “superhero” either. Other companies can call their characters “superheroes” within a text, just not in a title or an advertisement.

So someone tell me: Is Nostalgia Ventures following or breaking trademark law with the phrase “THE FIRST SUPERHERO” on the cover of their Doc Savage reprints? (This sounds like a job for those guys over at the “Law and the Multiverse” blog.)

Some dictionaries trace “superhero” to the early 60’s, fueling Marvel and DC’s claim since their Silver Age characters reinvented the genre then. But the word goes back much further. Popular wisdom has it originating shortly after 1938: since Superman established the hero type, imitations were dubbed “superheroes.” It’s a reasonable claim. Except that Joe Shuster used the term himself while sketching early drafts, describing Superman as “THE GREATEST SUPER-HERO OF ALL TIME!” years before he saw publication.

Pulp publishers Street and Smith advertised Doc Savage as a “SUPERMAN!” but in house they were referring to the Shadow and other mystery men as “superheroes” as early as 1932. Future DC publisher Harry Donnefeld launched Super-Detective magazine in 1934, but the prefix had been popular for at least a decade. Bruce Graeme opens his 1925 novel Blackshirt with a complaint: “A super-criminal—bah! It is all tommy-rot, this ‘super’ business.

The first published use of “super-hero” appears in Alan Bott’s 1917 Airman Outings. It was a complaint then too. Bott was objecting that members of Parliament were exaggerating the powers of British fighter pilots by calling them “the super-heroes of the war.”

The prefix had been circulating in variations on “ubermensch” for over a decade. Nietzsche made the word famous (or infamous), but he borrowed “ubermenschen” from Goethe’s Faust. The first English translator of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra named his ubermensch “beyond-man.” The second went with “superman.” But he was only following George Barnard Shaw. His play Man and Superman introduced the word to English in 1903. And “super-heroes” soon followed.

So conventional wisdom is right. If you subtract 35 years and forget that it’s a different superman (Shaw had Don Juan in mind). By the time Jerry Siegel attached it to his hero, the word was everywhere. Type it into The New York Times archives, and you’ll find hundreds of listings.

Superman appeared most regularly on sports pages. While Jack Dempsy insisted that “It will take a superman to beat” boxer Tom Heeney, football stars Red Grange and Frank Johavac were both declared “Superman.” Babe Ruth was a “Baseball Superman,” as was Giants pitcher Red Ruffing, and golfer Cecil Leitch was a “superwoman of the links.”

Other Supermen leapt from the arts pages: dancer Michel Fokine was a “Superman of the toe,” actor Robert Loraine a “Superman of the Stage,” Stravinsky a “Superman of Jazz,” Schoenberg another musical “Superman,” and singer Enrico Caruso had the “lungs . . . of a superman.”

According to book reviews, any person worthy of a biography was by definition a superman: Napoleon, Charles II, Garibaldi, Genghis Khan, Cromwell. Ben Franklin was honored as a “Super-man” on his 217th birthday. Among living politicians, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Mussolini were all repeatedly called or compared to supermen.

By 1938 the word was generic for any kind of excellence. Jerry Siegel wasn’t even the first author to apply it to a pulp hero. The honor goes to Edgar Rice Burrough, whose Tarzan is called a “superman” in his 1912 debut.

Using the word for a name today would be the modern equivalent of calling a character “Genius” or “Epitome.”

Or, better still, “Superhero.”

I doubt Marvel and DC’s lawyers mentioned any of this when presenting their trademark case. “Superhero” is the definition of a generic term. Their companies briefly capitalized on it, but they did not coin it, and its exclusive association with their products was temporary. It wasn’t the case for the thirty years before Action Comics #1, and it hasn’t been the case for the last thirty years either.

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