Skip to content

The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: eugenics

Image result

I was invited back to MuggleNet Academia to talk about eugenics and the world of Harry Potter. Given our country’s current Trump-fueled anti-immigrant hysteria, it is sadly much more than a history lesson:

“Ezra Miller, the actor who plays Credence Barebones in Fantastic Beasts, and David Yates have both said in interviews that Rowling’s New Salem Philanthropic Society is largely an allegorical depiction of the Progressive Era eugenics movement in the United States. This chapter of American history — how social engineering know-betters on the political left and right campaigned successfully for sterilization and extermination laws to rid the American gene pool of ‘moron women, sexual deviants, and racial inferiors’ in 31 states — has largely been scrubbed from the history textbooks. It’s more than a little embarrassing for us to learn, after all, that Adolf Hitler modeled his Final Solution, the Holocaust of European Jewry, on tracts, scientific publications, and laws written by Americans with the sponsorship of the Rockefeller Foundation (among others). Not only can it happen here, it started here.

“To discuss American eugenics and how Rowling chooses to give that history lesson as an embedded story within her screenplay, not to mention how some of her historical connections are bizarre and off-base, Keith Hawk and I asked Washington & Lee professor Christopher Gavaler to join us on MuggleNet Academia. Gavaler is the author of On the Origin of Superheroes which largely turns on the subject of eugenics as it was told in the Superman/Ubermensch dramas of the late 19th and early 20th Century UK and US and then in the first superhero comic books. He explained to us how Rowling’s Hogwarts Saga’s Pureblood/Mudblood purity theme is straight up anti-eugenics story-telling — and that in Fantastic Beasts she is picking up where she left off.

“Another mind-blowing conversation on MuggleNet Academia! Here is a link to Professor Gavaler’s article ‘The Well Born’ Superhero’ that we discuss on the show. Enjoy that challenging read before or after you listen to our conversation — and please share your thoughts about the podcast in the comments boxes below!”

The hour-long interview is here (though you might want to skip over the first ten minutes).

Tags: , , , ,

tarzan sunday comic strip

My father’s parents never learned much English. Their newspaper included only one comic strip, Tarzan, translated into Slovak. Mutineers didn’t maroon them on the jungle shores of rural Pennsylvania, but like Tarzan’s parents, they settled in a strange land oceans from their ancestral homeland. Tarzan swung into newspapers on January 7, 1929, same day as Buck Rogers, and so another Minute Zero in superhero history. The strip expanded to a Sunday full-page in 1931, the year my father was born. Jerry Siegel was soon parodying it in his school newspaper with “Goober the Mighty,” the oldest and least promising of Superman’s siblings.

My grandparents were still new to the U.S. when All-Story Magazine published Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes in 1912. It was an instant, imitation-spawning hit. Charles Stilson’s 1915 Polaris of the Snows swapped Africa and apes for Antarctica and polar bears, but it’s the same formula (especially since there are no polar bears in Antarctica and no “anthropoid apes” anywhere). Stilson wrote two more Polaris novels (and his own ending to Tarzan of the Apes since Burroughs’ marriage plot cliff-hanger annoyed him so much), but as the King of the Jungle expanded his reign to stage and film and radio, imitators stopped disguising their loin-clothed knock-offs: Bomba the Jungle Boy (1926), Morgo the Mighty (1930), Jan of the Jungle (1931), Bantan (1936), Ka-Zar (1936), Ki-Gor (1939).

polaris of the snows

Of course Tarzan was a knock-off too. He’s a lost worlder, the genre H. Rider Haggard kicked off in 1885 with King Solomon’s Mines and into which Doc Savage and Superman boldly followed. Burroughs also swapped out Rudyard Kipling’s India and wolves; his jungle isn’t that different from Mowgli’s. W. H. Hudson preferred Venezuela for his 1904 jungle girl Rimi in Green Mansions. DC adopted Rimi decades later, when the softcore jungles were already well-endowed with leopard-furred felines. Eisner and Iger’s Sheena beat Superman to comic books by a year, with literally dozens swinging behind her. Stan Lee tried Lorna the Jungle Queen in the 50s and in the 70s Shanna the She-Devil. She later married Ka-Zar, Marvel publisher Martin Goodman’s first pulp jungle man who re-premiered in Marvel Comics No. 1 beside Namor and the Human Torch. Stan Lee transplanted him to Polaris’ Antarctic lost world, swapping out ancient Romans for ancient dinosaurs.

ka-zar and x-men

My father and his friends debated who would win in a fight: Tarzan or Buck? Tarzan or the Phantom? Tarzan or Batman? If you don’t think a loin cloth counts as a superhero costume, remember the original Jungle King is also secretly the English aristocrat Lord Greystoke. If that’s not enough of an alter ego, reread chapter 27, “The Height of Civilization,” in which the former savage transforms into Monsieur Tarzan, a French-speaking socialite who on a gentleman wager can strip off his tux, wander naked into the wilds, and return two pages later with a lion across his shoulders.

Burroughs calls him a literal “superman,” the first time the eugenic term immigrated into pulps, evidence of its own genre expansion. Corn flake tycoon John Kellog founded the Race Betterment Foundation in 1906, and Indiana, with a boost from future president Woodrow Wislon, passed the nation’s first sterilization law a year later. In 1911, the American Breeder’s Association added immigration restrictions, racial segregation, anti-interracial marriage laws, and gas chamber “euthanasia” in the fight to stop unfit breeding, while the First International Eugenics Congress met at the University of London the following year to discuss the same agenda.

Burroughs did not attend, but he was a fan. One biographer describes him as “obsessed with his own genealogy” and “extremely proud of his nearly pure Anglo-Saxon lineage,” believing in the “extermination of all ‘moral imbeciles’ and their relatives.” The October issue of All-Story hit stands a few weeks after the Eugenics Congress convened. I doubt Winston Churchill ever touched an American pulp mag, but he and his fellow attendees agreed with Burroughs’ bewildering ideas about genetics. I always photocopy chapter 20, “Heredity,” for my class. Despite being reared by apes, the young Lord Greystoke knows how to bow in a courtly manner, “the hall-mark of his aristocratic birth, the natural outcropping of many generations of fine breeding, an hereditary instinct of graciousness which a lifetime of uncouth and savage training and environment could not eradicate.”

DNA wouldn’t be discovered for decades, so Eugenicists thought they could weed out everything from crime to promiscuity by stopping unfit parents from giving birth to unfit babies. One of those babies was my dad. His honky parents hailed from the degenerate regions of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, what anti-immigration advocates called “beaten men from beaten races; representing the worst failures in the struggle for existence,” men with “none of the inherited instincts and tendencies which made it comparatively easy to deal with the immigration of the olden time.” That’s why Congress capped the immigration quota for Eastern Europeans at 2% of their 1890 U.S. population.  But my grandparents had already weaseled in.

Adolf Hitler was a private in the Austrian-Hungarian Army at the same time and in the same city as my grandfather, but rather than accept a second conscription, Stefan Gavaler bound over the Tatra Mountains to land in Carrolltown, PA. He died in the kind of mining accident Superman tries to prevent in Action Comics No. 3 (“Months ago, we know mine is unsafe—but when we tell boss’s foremen they say, ‘No like job, Stanislaw? Quit!’”). One of Stefan’s sons went on to marry the daughter of a corporate vice-president of good German stock and produce just the sort of Aryan-diluting mongrel Burroughs most feared: me.

Tarzan, however, marries well. After learning he’s not a half-ape but an undissipated carrier of high English blood, he forgoes both his kingdoms to pursue the eugenically fit daughter of an American professor to the woods of Wisconsin.  It takes a second book for Jane to marry him, and a third to produce a son. Burroughs wrote a sequel almost every year until 1939. Tarzan (the name means “white skin” in anthropoid ape language) could wrestle a gorilla into submission, but Adolf Hitler was too much for him. After Nazi Germany, Eugenics retreated into a lost world in the cultural jungle. Burroughs only published one more Tarzan novel before his death in 1950.

I think Disney was the first to send Tarzan to Czechoslovakia. A Slovak-dubbed version of the song “Son of Man” is on youtube. I can’t understand a word of it, but I’m happy it exists.


Tags: , , , , , ,

Man of Steel

There have always been two flavors of superhero: Marvel and DC. When my dad was reading comics in the 40s, Marvel (AKA Timely) threw anti-heroes into DC’s original, and so much blander. good guy mix. When I was reading comics in the 70s, Marvel put out the sophisticated stuff, DC the embarrassingly childish. My twelve-year-old son reads the occasional comic now but mostly takes his superheroes in movie form like everyone else in the 21st century. But Marvel and DC are still the reigning flavors. Only these days Marvel Entertainment tends toward the comically playful, Warner Brothers the pretentiously somber.

Look at Iron Man 3, an incoherent but highly entertaining comedy. The slapstick moment in The Avengers when the Hulk punches Thor after teaming up to fight alien invaders made me snort so loudly I embarrassed my teenaged daughter. Dark Knight Rises on the other hand, not so much with the uncontrollable laughter. Ditto for Man of Steel. Is that a bad thing? Well, it means my wife writhed in her seat for 143 minutes, tweeting updates of her torture. My son at least enjoyed the fight scenes.

I’m not a big Zack Snyder. 300 enraged me, Watchmen bored me. But Man of Steel I can mostly live with. Except for the shot after shot after World Trade Center-inspired shot of collapsing New York. When the hell did the 9/11 get downgraded to CGI fodder?

But aside for the drone Superman downs in the epilogue because the government keeps trying to invade his privacy, Snyder isn’t interested in the War on Terror. He, like so many recent superhero writers, is stuck in World War II. General Zod is this month’s Hitler reboot. If a field of human skulls is too subtle a Holocaust allusion, Superman spells it out: “You’re talking about genocide.”

There’s been some internet kvetching about the damage the movie does to old Superman mythology. Ignoring a few four-winged dragons, I disagree. For all his pretentious somberness, Zack Snyder gets Jerry Siegel. Superman was born to battle eugenics, and eugenics is what Man of Steel is most about.

Snyder’s Krypton isn’t a luckless ice planet dying of old age. It is the pinnacle of selective breeding, a planet whose inhabitants have taken the reins of evolution and engineered themselves into a race of violently amoral ubermensch. They breed scientifically, culling only the so-called best from a gene pool Registry. As one of Zod’s sidekicks quips: “Evolution always wins.”

Siegel said as much in Superman #1: “Superman came to Earth from the planet Krypton whose inhabitants had evolved, after billions of years, to physical perfection!” In Superman’s newspaper comic strip premiere, Krypton is “a distant planet so far advanced in evolution that it bears a civilization of supermen—beings which represent the human race at its ultimate peak of perfect development!” How can aliens represent the human race? Easy. They’re not aliens. The original Krypton was Earth:

“In his laboratory, the last man on Earth worked furiously. He had only a few moments left.

“Giant cataclysms were shaking the dying planet, destroying mankind. It was in its last days, dying . . .

“The last man placed his infant babe within a small time-machine he had completed, launching it as—

“—the laboratory walls caved-in upon him.

“The time-vehicle flashed back thru the centuries, alighting in the primitive year, 1935 A.D.”

That’s the script Siegel mailed Buck Rogers artist Russell Keaton in the summer of 1934. After drawing a few test scripts, Keaton turned him down, and Siegel crawled back to his high school pal Joe Shuster.

But his Superman wasn’t from a galaxy far far away. He was barely even scifi. After the German invasion of Poland and France, William Marston wrote that Siegel “believed that the real superman of the future would be someone with vast power who would use his invincible strength to right human wrongs.” That phrase, “the real superman of the future,” is literal. The Superman was the stated goal of eugenics.

Krypton’s Registry, the Codex of the genetically fit that General Zod wants so desperately, that’s literal too. American tycoon John Harvey Kellog (yes, you’ve eaten his cornflakes) and his Race Betterment Foundation started it back in 1915. Long Island’s Eugenics Registry Office opened in 1910, advocating the prevention of unfit breeding through immigration restrictions, racial segregation, anti-interracial marriage laws, sterilization, and “euthanasia.” The committee recommended every American smallville have its own gas chamber.

By the time Siegel was writing, Germany had adopted that American model and was expanding it into Auschwitz. That’s the Krypton Siegel was fighting against. His Superman was literally the Nazi Superman, plucked from the eugenic future and redirected to fight the superpowers who evolved him.

So I get why Snyder’s take is light with the laugh track. But didn’t we already win World War II? I wouldn’t mind a history lesson–in fact, yes, let’s please correct all the U.S. History textbooks that have conveniently written out the U.S.’s leadership in the eugenics movement.Eugenics was still taught in high school biology classes even while we were at war with the movement’s ultimate champions. A Superman fan in the late 30s and early 40s would have gotten Siegel’s allegories. But of the millions who saw Man of Steel opening weekend, how many registered anything but a Dark Knight-esque scifi romp? We should understand General Zod as more than just some alien supervillain. He’s us. He’s America’s darkest potential. I’m not sure even Snyder knows that.

I don’t necessarily object to Hollywood using the Holocaust and 9/11 to rake in profits. But I do expect something in the trade. Maybe some sly introspection? A little under-the-current thought-provocation on the socio-political issue of the film-makers’ choice? Instead, we get more destruction, a Superman who indifferently pulverizes his own Smallville and Metropolis during his ubermensch slugfests. Are we really not supposed to think about the collateral body count in the convenience stores and skyscrapers? There are a lot of reasons not to laugh during this movie.

I was being partisan as kid when I duped myself into thinking Marvel was so much more sophisticated than childish DC. Maybe I’m still duping myself. Marvel Entertainment has no trouble cranking out its own brand of pretension. But superheroes remain a goofy genre, endlessly championing CGI fight spectacles over story and character.There’s a rather low, Hollywood-imposed limit to what such a movie can do. Zack Snyder’s somber palette and frowning ubermensch (did I mention the Christ motif?) aren’t pushing any of those boundaries. Neither are the members of the cheerier, Joss Whedon team. But when I go to my smallville theater to watch some guy in a cape, I prefer to come out giggling.

superman laughing

Tags: , , , , , ,


“I always knew Salazar Slytherin was a twisted old loony,” says Ron Weasley, “but I never knew he started all this pure-blood stuff. I wouldn’t be in his house if you paid me.”

And yet the House of Slytherin has no shortage of new applicants. It’s a Who’s Who of Recent Movie Supervillains, including Magneto, Sebastian Shaw, the Lizard, and the Red Skull. Oh, and Lord Whatshisface minus Ralph Fiennes’ nose. Also, if you don’t mind a little song and dance with your supervillainy, the Broadway Green Goblin. My family only just caught up on the fall season of Syfy’s Alphas, so now I can add Stanton Parish to the list too. He has the best advertising slogan of the batch:

“Better people, Better world.”


The semi-immortal Parish has been honing his PR skills since the Civil War, so he may have cribbed the phrase from Kentucky eugenicists in the 1930s:

“Fewer Babies, Better Babies.”

That was back when contraception was about preventing the unfit from breeding. Or as Margaret Sanger phrased it on a 1921 cover of Birth Control Review: “To Create a race of thoroughbreds.”

The American branch of Slytherin House, AKA the Eugenics Society of the United States, was sponsoring national “Fitter Family” contests, with winning families receiving medals inscribed with the slogan: “Yea, I have a goodly heritage.”

The pamphlet writers over at the Carnegie Institute Department of Genetics were lesser word wizards, but no less dedicated to the cause: “Eugenics Seeks to Improve the Natural, Physical, Mental, and Temperamental Qualities of the Human Family.”

Other eugenic poster writers focused on the flipside: “Some people are born to be a burden on the rest.” Ads for The Black Stork, a 1917 documentary about a pediatrician who allowed unfit babies to die, cut to the chase: “Kill Defectives, Save the Nation.”

The 1921 Second International Eugenics Conference gave it a scientific-sounding spin: “Eugenics is the self-direction of human evolution.” That means fixing the gene pool through compulsory sterilization, immigration boycotts, anti-miscegenation laws, and what was once euphemistically termed euthanasia,  AKA Auschwitz.

By losing World War 2, the Nazis largely (though not completely) killed the eugenics movement. All that “pure-blood stuff” would be forever associated with the uber-Aryan Adolf Hitler, AKA Salazar Slytherin.

So why is popular entertainment still waging the war? Lord Voldermort is just the tip of the white hooded iceberg.


Ian McKellen’s Magneto complained that “nature is too slow,” back in the 2000 X-Men.


Michael Fassbender’s Magneto was still complaining in the 2011 X-Men: First Class, but under the tutelage of Kevin Bacon: “We are the future of the human race. You and me, son. This world could be ours.”


A month later, Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull was giving Captain America the same lesson: “You pretend to be a simple soldier, but in reality you are just afraid to admit that we have left humanity behind. Unlike you, I embrace it proudly. You could have the power of the gods!”


Last summer, Harry Potter alum Rhys Ifans, AKA the Dr. Curt Connors, AKA the Lizard, wanted to “enhance humanity on an evolutionary scale” and “create a world without weakness.” “This is no longer about curing ills,” he assured Peter Parker. “This is about finding perfection.” Unfortunately, “Human beings are weak, pathetic, feeble minded creatures. Why be human at all when we can be so much more? Faster, stronger, smarter!”

Green Goblin on Broadway

Another Spider-Man supervillain sings the same song every night, plus weekend matinees. According to Bono’s Green Goblin, “The crossroads of the world just need a little tweak from a freak.”He studies “enhanced genetics” and “super-human kinetics” to create “new men,” a “new species.” The military only wants a “new breed of Marines,” but the Goblin’s “designer genes” lead him into a much bolder “do it yourself world” in which human beings are the new “masters of creation,” claiming “powers once reserved for the ancient gods.”

This is the song of the Superman. Nietzsche wrote it back in 1883.


“Lo, I teach you the Superman!” shouts Nietzsche’s PR man, Zarathustra. “Ye have made your way from the worm to man, and much within you is still worm. . . .Man is something that is to be surpassed. . . . What is the ape to man? A laughing-stock, a thing of shame. And just the same shall man be to the Superman . . . .”

The Superman was Nietzsche’s answer to the death of God. Who needs Him? We can evolve ourselves. You could argue Nietzsche was writing philosophical allegory, not Aryan supremacy. But once George Bernard Shaw (any relation to Sebastian?) translated “ubermensch” into “superman,” the House of Slytherin was up and singing:

For each of the four founders had
A house in which they might

Take only those they wanted, so,
For instance, Slytherin
Took only pure-blood wizards
Of great cunning just like him.

 Said Slytherin, “We’ll teach just those
Whose ancestry’s purest.”


 Maybe Rowling, like recent screenwriters for the X-Men, Captain America, and Spider-Man, just borrowed eugenics as a boiler plate bad guy. There’s no twisted old loony bigger than Adolf.

Adolf Hitler Saluting, 1934

But then why did it take till January of this year for my state to introduce the Justice for Victims of Sterilization Act? Virginia was once the cutting edge of eugenics. The future chancellor of Germany admired our 1924 Racial Integrity Act while dictating Mein Kampf in his prison cell. He used its DNA for the Nazi’s own Law for the Prevention of Hereditary Diseased Offspring.

Hitler removed himself from the gene pool in 1945, but Virginia eugenicists kept sterilizing the unfit till 1979. Governor Warner apologized over a decade ago, but only now is the legislature even considering paying for its Death Eater history. The bill limits claims to $50,000 per victim, with an estimated grand total of $76M.

If that sounds like a lot, then imagine living your muggle life under the reign of Voldemort.

Yes, Virginia, there are supervillains. And they don’t come from kids’ books.

Now pass the damn bill.


[Addendum: Add Iron Man 3 to the list.  There’s another evil super-genius, Aldrich Killian, turning himself and his minions into the “new iteration of human evolution.”]

Tags: , , , , , , , ,


That’s what the folks at MuggleNet want to know. They were looking for a guest speaker to discuss “the comic book superhero qualities of Harry Potter’s adventures” during a podcast interview. My dean, Suzanne Keen, MuggleNet Academia’s first guest, recommended me. How could I resist?

So is Harry a superhero?

The popular answer is a no.

When a student wrote to Yahoo! Answers asking if he could dress as Harry Potter for Superhero Day, the top ranked responder said, nope, Harry’s no superhero (but go as him anyway). 79% of poll participants at a CAWS (Create a Wrestler Superstar) online discussion board agreed. Same opinion at Wiki.Answers.

It’s true, Mr. Potter has no mask and cape, but I have to go against conventional wisdom and answer: Pretty much.

To explain why, let’s break the question into pieces. Definitions of a superhero vary, but here are some basic qualities.

Does he have superpowers?

Well, for starters the kid can fly, teleport, turn invisible, and talk to animals. That puts him right up there with Superman, Night Crawler, Invisible Woman, and Aquaman.

But the issue seems to be whether this makes him special. The yahoo at Yahoo! thinks “the defining characteristic of a superhero is that they use a unique, super-human ability that nobody else possesses.” Wiki.Answers got stuck on the same sticking point, declaring Harry just “a wizard like many others.”

It’s a reasonable objection. Especially when you look at early Golden Age comics. Men in unitards tended to stand alone back then, each in his own universe, with little or no crossover. Even the Justice Society of America started as a reprint omnibus, with characters sharing a cover but not adventures. The idea of a community of superpowered heroes in a single universe didn’t really launch till the early 60’s. Stan Lee even included footnotes, so every episode in every title was part of a continuous web.

Which mean the “unique” criterion is wrong. Lots of superheroes overlap powers. Look at the Captain Marvel family, or everyone who’s ever been named Flash (Daniel Radcliffe said he’d like to add his name to the list). I count about a half dozen guys who can stretch their limbs into knots. Green Lantern belongs to a literal army of identically-clad Green Lanterns. Ultimately the Harry Potter wizarding world is a lot like the superhero world, a community of the superpowered.

And if you really want to push the “unique” angle, Harry’s that too. The sole wizard fated to defeat the greatest villain in history.

Okay, but does he have a dual identity?

Oddly, I’m going to have to go with yes.

He doesn’t have an alias or codename (unless you count “The Boy Who Lived”), or a colorful costume under his robes, but there is plenty of duality. Rowling’s just transferred it from her hero to the world at large. Instead of mild-mannered Clark Kent, we have the mild-mannered muggle world, our world. Which, unknown to us and all the other Lois Lanes, overflows with magic.

Book One strips off Harry’s Clark-like glasses so he can see he is a member of a secret superpowered community. Jump inside a phone booth and suddenly you’re in the Ministry of Magic.  Instead of wearing colored tights under his street clothes, he wears his muggle street clothes under his Hogwarts robes. Rowling’s just flipped the trope.

She’s also overturned a common fantasy convention. Most speculative worlds exist somewhere or somewhen else. Rowling conjures the superhero’s secret identity trick to bring sorcery into the here and now. Usually it’s one or the other. Middle-earth, for example, is here but not now. Narnia is now but not here. Le Guin’s Earthsea is neither here nor now. Harry is both.

He’s also King Arthur and Merlin in one. The boy born for greatness must discover his real self. (The BBC’s Merlin had great fun with the secret identity trope too.)

So what’s next? Super orphan?

Harry’s parents, like Bruce Wayne’s, were brutally murdered. Superman lost his parents plus his entire home world. Ditto for Harry. Except that his Krypton was only hiding until his twelfth birthday. In the meantime, Harry was raised by apes. I mean muggles. (Jesus, the secret superpowered son of God, was raised by Jews, but that’s probably a different discussion.)

How about a superhero symbol? Does Harry have a bat or spider or capital “S”?

Yep. Look at his forehead. Captain Marvel sports the same icon. A thunderbolt. And like every good superhero, the icon codes his identity. Captain Marvel shouts “Sha-zam!” (the name of his sponsoring wizard) and down comes a lightning zap to transform him. The same way baby Harry was transformed into a horcrux by Voldemort’s magic blast.

Though I’d say Rowling is more in sympathy with Silver Age comics. A hero’s power is also a curse. Billy Baston’s thunderbolt is a free ticket to superpowered fun and games. Harry’s is a death sentence.

And if you’re going to say a superhero’s emblem has to be worn on his chest, wrong again. The 1930s Phantom sported his iconic skull on his belt buckle. Before that, Johnston McCulley (you know him from Zorro) preferred hoods with his hero’s symbol sewn into the forehead. In fact, guess the name of the proto-superhero he wrote right after Zorro.  The Thunderbolt.

Next up: Is Harry a vigilante?

I know, not the first thing that pops to mind when you think “superhero.” But most of them are. Even a government-employed super-soldier like Captain America has to go AWOL on occasion to demonstrate this his superheroic soul is not for sale.  Plus governments, all those Commissioner Gordons of the world, are innately incompetent. How long did it take it the Minster of Magic to even acknowledge that Voldemort was back? Meanwhile, the Order of the Phoenix was already in full vigilante mode. To protect the law we must break the law. By the last book, Harry switches to Zorro mode. The government isn’t merely incompetent, it’s corrupt. Voldemort is running everything.

Which brings us to arch nemesis.

Yes, Harry has one, but the superhero parallels run deeper. The ur-supervillain of the Golden Age of Comics, the uber-thug who turned comic books into a massive mass market money maker through the 40’s, was Adolf Hitler. AKA, Tom Riddle.

Rowling did more than scribble a new Lex Luthor or Doc Ock. Lord Voldemort’s DNA was cloned from the ultimate villainy of the 20th century. Eugenics. He’s not just a ruthlessly authoritarian dictator.  He Who Cannot Be Named believes in genetically pure bloodlines. The Slytherin agenda is the wizarding equivalent of Aryan supremacy. Muggles are inferior. Wizards who mingle with them muddy the gene pool. Voldemort is Hitler on magical steroids.

And only Harry can stop him. It’s the ultimate battle of good vs. evil. The battle comic book superheroes started in 1938 with Action Comics No. 1. Back when the U.S. was watching fascism sweep across Europe, afraid that democracy could be facing its end.

I could add a bit about Hermione being a mutant (superpowered offspring of normal parents), but I think I’ve made my superhero point.

And now I’d like to apologize to my daughter.

I ran all of this past her after picking her up from high school track practice today. She read all of the Harry Potter books a dozen of times each, literally. And that was after her mom and I and spent years reading them aloud to her and her brother. It’s how they became literate.

After a brief objection or two, she agreed with my superhero thesis. “I never thought of it like that,” she said.

I laughed. “No reason why you would.”

“That’s true,” she said. “But, you know, it depresses me when you say stuff like this.”

“That Voldemort is Hilter?”

“All of it. You’re destroying my childhood.” She was laughing, sort of. “Stop destroying my childhood!”

I’ll tell her to avoid the podcast.


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Rumor has it there’s a new Zorro film in development. Not another Banderas and Zeta-Jones sequel, but something based on Isabel Allende’s recent rewrite of the legend.

Though “rewrite” might not be the right word. Allende claims she gave no thought to her character’s previous incarnations and invented at will. And yet her final product, an extended coming-of-age secret origin tale, painstakingly adheres not only to the original 1919 Johnston McCulley novel but a multitude of its short story, film and TV adaptations and sequels.

This is a good thing. It stages a literary treasure hunt for fans-in-the-know (which, okay, I guess that includes me), while giving new readers an unfettered romp through a world of pirates, Gypsies, secret societies, and the Spanish Inquisition.

So on one hand, we have a respectful prequel, not a reboot at all. Ms. Allende just fills in the blanks. And I don’t mean the sex scenes. Her narrator (also conveniently named Isabel) offers a quick striptease and moonlit tussle with Light-in-the-Night, but otherwise reports that “spicy pages” and “carnal love” are aspects “of Zorro’s legend that he has not authorized me to divulge.” This despite an allusion to numerous women with otherwise “virtuous reputations” inviting “him to climb their balcony at questionable hours of the night.”

So, no, this is not a bodice ripper. And neither is McCulley’s novel. All that virile red blood he keeps thumping through his hero’s body finds action in his rapier not his, well, rapier. Though his story maintains a barely masked panic about masculinity and the horror of effeminate men.

McCulley is equally obsessed with blue blood. The Mark of Zorro (renamed after the Douglas Fairbanks film) is an entertainingly incompetent argument for the supremacy of European bloodlines. It was written from the bowels of the eugenics movement, an all but forgotten (AKA suppressed) era of American culture.

It was once common knowledge, from Presidents to pulp writers, that “well born” blood had to be protected from mixing with the unfit. The future of civilization was at stake. The unfit included Indians (those victims of oppression Zorro both protects and paradoxically reviles), Asians, Blacks, Eastern Europeans, Jews, the poor, the promiscuous, criminals, invalids, and the feeble-minded.

The list is actually quite longer, but you get the idea. In the first quarter of the 20th century, even social manners were an inheritable trait, and Zorro and his aristocratic pals held a monopoly.

Allende will have none of this. Her Zorro, while an apparent clone of his McCulley parent, reverses his core DNA. Rather than protecting his fellow aristocrats (particularly the family of the senorita he seeks to procreate with), Allende’s Zorro recognizes the fundamental injustice of the class system and vows to right it.

Or at least he starts to. He’s no Robin Hood, but he’s also no pure blood prince. Allende thoroughly mixes his blood, turning the “mestizo” stigma into the source of his superpowers. The novel is a sequence of romping, episodic adventures, each tossing a new trinket into the melting pot of his character. A Gypsy sword, a pirate’s wardrobe, a Jewish fencing mentor, a cross-dressing Indian mother, they all coalesce in the aggressively anti-eugenics swashbuckling amalgam of a 21st century Zorro.

I’d love to see Allende’s novel adapted into a TV series. But I’ll settle for a film. Or possibly two, since both Sony and Fox are working on reboots. The Fox version, Zorro Reborn, would be set in a post-apocalyptic future, some sort of Zorro on The Road. Which, okay, I guess that’s one direction to go. And not even the strangest. I also hear there’s a musical hoofing its way toward Broadway.

One way or another, McCulley’s descendants will continue to spread his bloodline.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

The box of 70’s comics in my attic includes a mangled copy of DC and Marvel’s first publishing team-up, Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man.  The battle should have lasted one panel. Little Peter Parker might have held his own against the less godlike 1938 Superman, but the 70’s Man of Tomorrow could have squashed Spider-Man like, well, a spider. The fight ends in a draw, but only because Superman pulls his one punch. His fist never makes contact, but the shockwave sends Spider-Man sailing across town.

Julie Taymor suffered the same fate earlier this year.

It requires a lot of ubermensch hubris to transform a comic book into a musical, and Bono, who co-wrote the lyrics for Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, and ex-director Julie Taymor, who co-wrote the book, share it. I noted last week the eugenic shadow Nietzsche casts over the songbook. Patrick Page’s Green Goblin is a 21st century Frankenstein breeding supermen into evolutionary supremacy. Bono never puts the phrase “God is dead” to melody, but it’s been the favorite refrain of supervillains for a hundred years.

In 1911, an American eugenics organization issued their first “Preliminary Report” for improving the human race. They recommended the prevention of “unfit breeding” through immigration restrictions, racial segregation, anti-interracial marriage laws, sterilization, and “euthanasia.”They envisioned a gas chamber in every Smallville, an idea Hitler liked so much he improved on it.

If God is dead, then the Green Goblins of the world are free to take control. Nietzsche thought that would be a good thing, a race of supermen rising to replace obsolete, god-hobbled humanity. Fortunately, Bono and Taymor swing to our rock ‘n roll rescue. Their Spider-Man is no superman. Instead of assuming the throne God left empty, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark restores the old world order.

Real old. The Broadway Spider-Man is an offspring, not of homo superior, but Greek mythology. This Peter Parker sings about Icarus and gives class presentations on the spider goddess Arachne. It wasn’t a random universe that transformed Peter into a web-slinging mutant. It was a divine plan. In the final song, Arachne, “the queen of dreams banished to a shadow prison,” reveals to him that she has been watching and waiting all along. “The fates have delivered you,” she intones. “The gift you’ve been given binds you to me.”

God isn’t dead. She was just sleeping.

Of course when Bono ended their Broadway team-up and punched the amazing Taymor across town, most of Arachne went with her (one reviewer estimates that actress T. V. Carpio’s role was snipped by more than half). Bono and the Edge composed a new song for their Nietzscheian Goblin to fill the god-shaped gap in the show’s running time, but Spider-Man still triumphs and the eugenic future is thwarted once more. Instead of striving for ubermensch excellence, the producers settled for everyman mediocrity.

Alex Pappademas in The New York Times Magazine recently bemoaned the sorry state of the mass market superhero, wishing the genre would be handed over to auteurs, to directors with bold artistic visions. That didn’t go so well for Ang Lee and the Hulk. Tim Burton invented the modern superhero film, but Warner Brothers still punched him across town after one idiosyncratic sequel. Bryan Singer managed to crash the Superman franchise in a single bound. And apparently none of Taymor’s preview audiences could comprehend her superhuman vision either.

The common man doesn’t want the superman. They want Spider-Man.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

My daughter’s Latin teacher told me this joke over a pitcher of beer:

While an angel is giving a tour of heaven, a new arrival sees someone in a leather jacket and shades slouching in a corner and acting cool.

“Oh my God,” he asks, “is that Bono?”

“No,” says the angel, “that’s God. He just THINKS he’s Bono.”

Everybody at the table cracked up. Bono is bigger than God. Even God thinks so. It’s a good joke, even without the beer. But I swear I’d heard it before. Was it Lennon who said the Beatles were bigger than Jesus? Or was that the other Lenin? The one who called religion an opium for the masses?  (Or was that Groucho Marx?) Either way, Nietzsche made the joke first. Except his punchline isn’t half as good. “God is dead” never gets a laugh.

The comic book Superman was Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s adolescent response to Hitler, but his namesake, “the Superman,” was Frederic Nietzsche’s adolescent response to Darwin. Nietzsche, slouching in a corner of the 19th century with his shades on, saw that the world no longer needed supernatural forces to make sense of itself. And if God’s dead, it’s up to humankind to replace Him. Darwin’s cousin, Sir Francis Galton made the same leap. The year Nietzsche introduced his ubermensch, Galton coined the term “eugenics,” the pseudo science of human-controlled evolution. They both envisioned the rise of the planet of the supermen.

And, apparently, so does Bono.

I finally gave in and downloaded the U2 soundtrack to Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark to listen to on my daily jogs. A lot of rock ballads belted out in well-enunciated Broadway style, no surprises there. Patrick Page’s Green Goblin thankfully muscles in around the halfway mark, usually leading an ensemble of toe-tapping supervillainy. Nietzsche and Galton sing harmony.

It turns out the Goblin’s “life’s work” is “enhanced genetics” and “super-human kinetics” directed toward the creation of “new men,” a “new species.” The military wants a “new breed of Marines” (same as Captain America’s old handlers), but the Goblin’s “designer genes” lead him into a much bolder “do it yourself world” in which human beings become the “masters of creation,” claiming “powers once reserved for the ancient gods.”

Man wants to evolve himself into God.It’s as if U2 were adapting Also sprach Zarathustra for the stage.

As the fates would have it, another Green Goblin (James Franco played him in the first, soon-to-be-extinct Spider-Man films) assumes the same Frankenstein role in The Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It’s the lure of the superman (this time in the form of super-intelligence) that puts his research on the fast track and results in (spoiler alert!) the creation of a new species and the extinction of humankind. What Nietzsche and Galton were singing about over a century ago.  Except without the cool CGI.

Neither of them read Frankenstein very closely. The first superman was bred in Mary Shelley’s writing laboratory, looking not like a stitched-up corpse but a towering Greek god (the original illustrations depicted him in tunic and sandals). Unlike James Franco, Shelly’s mad scientist realizes his mistake in time and prevents his creation from breeding, because “a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth, who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror.” Nietzsche and Galton and the Nazi eugenicists who followed them made that terror their goal.

Reviews of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark do not prophesy the rise of a new breed of musical anytime soon.  And while “Rise Above” makes a nice superstar spectacle on American Idol, a superhero is still an odd creature to put to song. But then most musicals are. Shelley’s novel was so big, the Victorians made a musical out of it too. An act of hubris even Bono wouldn’t attempt.

(Next Monday: Spider-Man vs. the Superman, Round 2)

Tags: , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: