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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Fantastic Four

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Google “jennifer egan” and seconds later the term “metafiction” will attach itself leech-like to the side of her postmodern head.

I know this because members of my university have made the possibly foolhardy decision to ask me to give a talk on the Pulitzer winning author for our 2013 Tom Wolfe Weekend Seminar. (This blog, of all things, attracted their attention.) I’m to place A Visit from the Goon Squad into “the context of contemporary American culture” with “a discussion of Egan’s special skills as a writer,” keeping in mind she will be “sitting right there in front of you.”

I regularly tell my first year comp students that even if we could materialize authors in our classroom (usually during a discussion of Henry James’ mind-blowingly ambiguous The Turn of the Screw), their opinions would be completely irrelevant. Readers and only readers determine the meaning of a text. Except of course in this case. Because that will be the actual Jennifer Egan. In the front row. Listening. To me. Blathering. About her book.

Jennifer Egan

Poetic comeuppance aside, the author’s physical presence will be especially apt for a discussion of Goon Squad. Chapter one opens: “It began the usual way . . .” and before you’ve waded in a dozen pages you’re knee deep in self-referential story-telling, overt comments about symbols and plot arcs and collaborative writing. Ms. Egan is pulling off her metaphorical mask and yelling: Look at me!

So now, after stretching to pluck David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction from my office book shelf, let me flip to Chapter 46: “Metafiction is fiction about fiction: novel and stories that call attention to their fictional status and their own compositional procedures.”

Apart from a requisite nod to the 18th century’s Tristram Shandy, Lodge spends most of his time chatting with John Barth and Kurt Vonnegut. William Gass coined the term in 1970, after Barth demonstrated the style in his 1968 novel Lost in the Funhouse. Slaughterhouse Five was published a year later. Add Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and a couple of short stories by Robert Cover, and there’s your course syllabus for “Goon Squad: Founding Fathers of American Metafiction.”

Except, wait, here’s that inevitable moment, my weekly plot twist, where I veer to where I must always veer:

Superheroes!

No, no, no, NO. American metafiction did NOT begin in the late 60s. It was not a highbrow literary phenomenon. It was the lowest of the lowbrows, the pulpiest of the pulps, that ultimate literary stepchild, the comic book.

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby beat Pynchon by a half-decade. In Fantastic Four #2, on newsstands in 1961, Reed Richards convinces an alien race not to invade Earth by showing them drawing of monsters. “Those are some of Earth’s most powerful warriors!” he tells them, while thinking, “I pray he doesn’t suspect that they’re actually clipped from ‘Strange Tales’ and ‘Journey into Mystery!’” Two other Marvel titles sharing newsstand space with Fantastic Four.

Two issues later, the Human Torch chances onto a stash of old comics. “Say! Look at this old, beat-up comic mag! It’s from the 1940’s!!” It features the Golden Age Namor on the cover. “The Sub-Mariner! . . . He used to be the world’s most unusual character!” And guess who shows up two panels later?

In issue five, Johnny’s reading habits have expanded. Reed asks, “What are you reading, Johnny?”It’s The Incredible Hulk #1, out the same month. “A great new comic mag, Reed. Say! You know something—! I’ll be doggoned if this monster doesn’t remind me of The Thing!” Because he’s supposed to. Marvel created Hulk because of the Thing’s popularity.

The cover of FF #9 asks: “What happens to comic magazine heroes when they can’t pay their bills and have no place to turn?” But #10 is even bolder: “In this epic issue surprise follows surprise as you actually meet Lee and Kirby in the story!!” The authors stare up at the action from the front row.

Stan: “How’s this for a twist, Jack? We’ve got Doctor Doom as one of the Fantastic Four!!”

Jack:  “And Mister Fantastic himself is the villain!! Our fans oughtta flip over this yarn!!”

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As promised, Dr. Doom uses the Marvel duo to lure Reed into a trap.

Johnny: “Phone call for you, Reed! It’s Lee and Kirby! They’d like you to go to their studio to work out a plot with ‘em!”

Reed: “Strange…we just finished discussing a new plot yesterday!”

Thing: “Tell ‘em if they don’t stop makin’ me even uglier than I am, I’m liable to go up there and wrap this two-ton weight around their skinny necks!”

Issue 11 goes further still. The team has to stand in line to get a copy of their own comic book, and then they go home to answer fan letters, shattering the last remains of the fourth wall. Mr. Lumpkin, their mailman, laments in the final panel: “Blankety blank fans and comic magazine heroes, and letters to the editor pages! Ohhh my achin’ back!”

Stan Lee

The trend dies a quiet death in the next issue when the Hulk shows up with no mention of that comic mag John had been reading. Marvel traded in metafiction for multi-title continuity. That brings us into 1962, still eight years before Barth coins the term.

Of course metafiction is probably as old as fiction, older if you include other genres, metatheater, etc. The term was intended as a highbrow literary category, even though some of its most immediate influences were from pop culture, including such humble creatures as comic books. But Stan Lee is no source point either. His FF tomfoolery was influenced from 1950s Mad magazine. Plus the whole Silver Age can be read as a metafictional response to the Golden Age (Barry Allen, the new Flash, kicks off the Silver Age by reading an original Flash comic). And the Golden Age is filled with its own examples too. A group of characters go on strike in Captain Marvel Adventures, and there’s a Superman episode in which Clark takes Lois to a movie that starts with a Superman cartoon (so he has to prevent her from seeing the scene where Clark in the cartoon turns into Superman). Even Bob Kane’s early Batman episodes have their meta moments, so it’s present from the beginning of the medium.

And does all of this put Jennifer Egan into “the context of contemporary American culture”?

Um, no, not really.

So you’ll forgive me if I sign off now and finish reading Goon Squad.

‘Nuff said.

Jack Kirby

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POP QUIZ: What do zombies and superheroes have in common?

A. Zack Snyder

B. Shaun of the Dead

C. Marvel Zombies

D. Mutating radiation

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If you said A, then you must be pretty excited about the new Superman movie Man of Steel coming out next June. You must also know that director Zack Snyder shot the 2004 remake Dawn of the Dead. I’ve not seen it, but I still lose sleep over his disappointing Watchmen adaptation, so it’s probably just as well. (Don’t even get me started on 300.)

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If you said B, then you’re even more excited about director Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man movie (sadly not slated till November 2015). Since you loved his zombie parody, Shaun of the Dead, you can’t wait to see what he does with the superhero genre. Also, you’re probably aware that Wright’s go-to actor Simon Pegg is the model for Wee Hughie in Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s anti-superhero diatribe The Boys. (Don’t get me started on that either.)

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C is a no brainer, so to speak. ‘Nuff said.

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But my favorite answer is D. With great radiation comes great mutation. That’s the Cold War talking. And both Stan Lee and George Romero were listening. They took their sorry little genres, bombarded them with radiation, and watched them mutate into things far far better.

“Lee and Kirby,” a New York Times reviewer recently wrote, “pulled off the comics equivalent of the literary shift from Victorian melodrama to Chekhovian realism.” If that sounds a bit overblown, Romero’s earned similar hyperboles. “Night of the Living Dead,” wrote one commentator, “is to modern horror what Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is to the modern theatre.”

So how’d they do it?

The Fantastic Four were on their way to Mars when Stan clobbered them with radiation back in 1961. The result? “You’ve turned into monsters!!” shouts Johnny as he bursts into flames, “It’s those rays! Those terrible cosmic rays!”

Romero’s zombies (he called them “ghouls”) hail from outer space too. As survivors battle the living dead, experts debate on the radio: “the space vehicle which orbited Venus and then was purposely destroyed by NASA, when scientists discovered it was carrying a mysterious, high-level radiation . . . is enough to cause these mutations?”

In other words, superheroes are from Mars, zombies are from Venus.

But the radiation is the same. And though in one case it bestows freakish superpowers and the other it animates flesh-devouring corpses, the revolutionary mutation for both the superhero and horror genres was the same:

With great radiation comes great in-fighting.

As Lee explained in a 1968 interview:  “I think we were the first outfit to break the cliché of all the superheroes being goody-goody and friendly with each other. We had our Fantastic Four argue amongst themselves. They didn’t always get along well.”

Romero’s radiation has the same effect on his cast. The 1968 Night of the Living Dead isn’t the first horror film with characters not playing goody-goody with each other, but no film had pushed it quite so horrifically far. Almost every scene features at least one pair of survivors battling not the dead but each other. And it ends with its hero shot in the head by a passing police patrol.

Which brings up another similarity. A high dose of radiation requires a main character to be named Ben. I’m not sure if the Thing’s orange skin classifies him as a racial minority, but Romero’s Ben was also African American. Or at least actor Duane Jones was. The Ben of the original script didn’t mutate skin colors until the casting call.

Actress Judith O’Dea’s Barbra also bears on unfortunate resemblance to Sue Storm. Both heroines spend their plots as incompetently distressed damsels getting chased, captured, and, in the case of Barbra, eaten. When Romero revised the role for the 1990 remake, he mutated Barbra into a fatigue-wearing Ms. Rambo.  John Byrne did Sue a similar favor in his 80s run of Fantastic Four, rechristening her Invisible Woman and remaking her into the team’s mightiest member.

Sue deserves a comic of her own. Which is also the title of the University of Florida’s Graduate Comics Organization’s 10th annual conference last weekend, “A Comic of Her Own.” My thanks for inviting me there to talk about some zombies and superheroes. It turns out Cold War radiation is still inflecting Tony Kirkman’s The Walking Dead. Despite the long way Sue and Barbra have come, the 1950s throwback Lori reboots it all.

But more on that later.

A Comic of Her Own, UF conference program cover

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Dr. Doom’s time machine premiered in Fantastic Four #5 back in 1961. Doom flings the FF “centuries into the past” to retrieve Merlin’s gems from Blackbeard’s treasure chest. His evil plan was “mastery of all the world.” The same as any politician. The plan didn’t work (will Dr. Doom never learn?), but, more importantly, it turns out the FF didn’t really return to the age of pirates. Doom’s machine doesn’t travel to other time periods. It creates them. Parallel worlds pop into existence whenever a traveler from our timeline invades the past.

A time traveler like, say, a Republican Presidential candidate.

Rick Santorum describes state education in America as “anachronistic.” Which is funny coming from a guy beaming in his campaign from the 1950’s. He wants to return to a simpler time when wives stayed at home and homosexuals stayed in the closet. Though for his education agenda that means the 1850’s. He wants to live in pre-industrial America, when there was no government oversight or funding and children learned at home or in “little neighborhood schools.”

I’m picturing the one Laura Ingalls attended in Little House on the Prairie. That 1970’s show was based on novels written in the 1930’s about a childhood set in the 1870’s. It premiered in 1974, same as Happy Days, another hit show about another golden age. Change time machine channels and you’re in Santorum’s magical 1950’s again.

But Happy Days wasn’t about the 1950’s any more than Little House was about the 1870’s. Ingalls’ novels sold because her Depression era readers needed an escape. They wanted to live in a time before the problems of their modern world existed. It’s the same today. In their heart of hearts, Republicans are wannabe time travelers. They want to return to the way things were.

Unfortunately, the GOP plan for world mastery relies on a time machine that, like Dr. Doom’s, doesn’t work. You can set the dials for whichever golden age is highest on your nostalgia meter, but you will never get there. Instead, like Dr. Doom, you’ll just create a parallel universe. An imaginary world where everything once was wonderful.

For George W. Bush, that was the 1920’s. And not just because of all the sex and drugs. The top tax rate for the wealthiest Americans was only 24%. The Bush tax cuts were modeled on the Revenue Acts of 1921, 1925 and 1926. Income inequality hit its highmark in 1929—just before the bubble burst and the planet plunged into Depression.

But that’s the magic of the Dr. Doom time machine. You don’t actually go anywhere. You selectively beam in what you idealize about some past moment and then pretend the rest of history won’t repeat itself.

Mitt Romney and today’s Republican establishment have their Doom dials set to 1913. When federal income taxes were first enacted, the top rate was only 7%. Romney had to pay a whopping 14% on the twenty million he made last year, but with him in the White House, the GOP should be able to half that in no time.

While Republicans scour parallel timelines for lower taxes, their Doom Machines are calibrated for a range of golden ages. Newt Gingrich best articulates their cold war nostalgia. Republicans miss Communism. So now they’re busy dressing up the Muslim world in Moscow’s retired gear. Gingrich claims the U.S. is “about where we were in 1946” against the Soviet Union. Those are big boots for Iran to fill, but Gingrich still warns of “another Holocaust” and loves the apocalyptic phrase “if we do survive.” The cold war wasn’t fun but it was fulfilling. Who doesn’t miss the clarity of Ronald Reagan’s evil empire? Things are so much simpler when there’s a supervillain to rally against. As Senator Lindsey Graham recently observed: “Iran has done more to bring us together than anything in the world.”

Santorum figured that out too. Instead of post-war 1946, he set his dial to pre-war 1940’s. Forget Communism. He’s aiming for the greatest supervillain of them all, Adolf Hitler. Iran may look silly in Soviet footwear, but that’s nothing compared to President Obama with the dictator mustache Santorum’s doodled under his nose. He says the President is like “that guy over in Europe” and Americans are sitting on the sidelines like they did while Britain was being “bombed and leveled.” It’s quite a leap, even for Dr. Doom, and Santorum knows it. He lamented how it will be “harder for this generation to figure it out” because there’s “no cataclysmic event.” He’s thinking 1942. His time machine is searching for Pearl Harbor.

It’s no coincidence that the golden age that Conservatives most love is also the golden age of comic books. World War II created the modern superhero. Men dressed in primary colors battling forces of undeniable evil. For once the world could simply be black and white, good and bad, right and wrong. For one moment in American history there were no gray areas. The cold war and Marvel’s guilt-burdened mutants were half-measure imitations. The 40’s Superman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, they were the cartoon embodiment of a unified nation acting with moral clarity.

It never happened before and it’s not happened since. But the GOP’s political machine remains marooned in that magical moment. It’s the gem they want to pull from Bluebeards’ chest. Never mind that all time travel schemes are doomed. Happy Days and Little House on the Prairie made for great escapist TV in the 70’s, but have you tried to sit through a rerun lately? They’re unwatchable. Have you ever read a 1940 comic book? My eleven-year-old thinks the golden age Superman is a jerk.

Times change. Barack isn’t Adolf. Muslims aren’t Commies. Also, state-funded education isn’t anachronistic, gay people aren’t sinners, and massive income inequality isn’t safe. Instead of trying to relive its selective past, our country could learn from it instead. Step one means shelving the time machine. Even Dr. Doom figured out it didn’t work.

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“The trend in uniform design is more toward making costumes for superheroes than uniforms for athletes.”

That’s ESPN reporter Paul Lukas. He’s also the editor of Uni-Watch.com. A website devoted not to sport teams but their uniforms. Lukas is not a fan of U of Maryland’s new string of high fashion helmets and jerseys. Under Armour (they’re designing all of Maryland’s varsity uniforms) is championing the new menswear trend of garishly bright colors.

But it’s not new for comic books. Joe Shuster’s Superman made the first superheroic fashion statement seventy years ago. And comic book heroes are still working the runways.

George Perez and Jesus Merino just retailored the Man of Steel’s skintight threads with a Kryptonian armor design (the red briefs have, mysteriously, vanished). And Sara Pichelli stitched a sassy new suit for Ultimate Spider-Man (the black and red is almost as bold as the brown skin underneath it).

In Hollywood, superhero costume design is its own industry. Look at just this year’s super fashion:

Designer Anna B. Sheppard trashed the spandex and went with a looser fitting cut for Captain America. The leather straps and metal buckles say “1940’s.”

Alexandra Byrne was thinking “ancient modernism” for Thor. The biggest challenge was the cape, which had to merge “completely believable” with the “sublimely magical.”

Ngila Dickson abandoned real-world fabrics. The Green Lantern costume is entirely motion-captured computer graphics.

David E. Kelley recently shot a Wonder Woman pilot for NBC, but his Amazon’s costume make-over didn’t make it into the fall line-up. Despite all the film fashion fun, the only superhero costumes on TV are on ESPN. Primetime heroes won’t touch them.

Syfy’s Alphas launched last summer. The team of superpowered government agents fight evil mutants in their street clothes. There’s not as much as a logo on their lapels.

Across the Atlantic, the BBC’s Misfits sport matching orange jumpsuits, but only because the characters are juvenile offenders clocking community service hours.

NBC’s Heroes solidified the trend in 2006, but it was the CW’s 2001 Superboy adaptation, Smallville, that first scissorsed the costume off a superhero.

The 1993 Lois and Clark, the 1988 Superboy, and the 1990 The Flash series all still featured their hero’s iconic wardrobes. Which was part of the problem.

“The appearance of realism in a super-hero costume,” explains Michael Chabon, “made from real materials is generally recognized to be difficult to pull off.” In fact, he goes on, it’s “hopeless” because the true superhero costume exists only on paper.

This is most obviously and hilariously true in the earliest attempts to move superheroes from comic books to screen. If you don’t admire Anna B. Sheppard’s Captain America, take a look at the 1944 film serial.

Adam West’s Batman could get away with leotarded camp in the 60’s. William Katt’s Greatest American Hero still could fifteen years later. The goofiness of their costumes was part of the appeal. But Tim Burton raised the bar with Batman in 1989. Low-budget leotards no longer cut it. Michael Keaton in Bob Ringwood’s award-winning batsuit changed the playing field. The 2000 X-Men said it outright: leather is better.

At least on the big screen. Responding to the same challenge, TV designers opted for a simpler solution. If it’s hopeless, why try?

Stan Lee never liked costumes anyway. “I always felt if I had a superpower,” Lee says in Confessions of a Superhero, “there’s no way I would wear a costume. I’m a show-off; I’d want everybody to [know]–I wouldn’t wear a mask, conceal my identity. And I wouldn’t want to look like some idiot in a costume.”

When he and Jack Kirby posed their first superhero team on the cover of a Marvel comic book in 1961, the Fantastic Four were no more fashion forward than the Alphas. The Thing made his debut in a men’s clothing store (“I’m sorry, mister, I just don’t have anything big enough for a man your size!”). It’s not till issue three that Invisible Girl reveals her secret superpower:

“Susan! You designed a costume for yourself!”

“And for you, too! It’s time we all had some colorful costumes!”

But now the anti-fashion fashion is filtering back into comic books. When Grant Morrison and Rags Morales revamped Action Comics, they made the most radical costume choice imaginable: Superman in work boots, blue jeans, and a t-shirt. There’s still an ‘S’ on his chest and a cape on his back, but the iconic unitard of the original comic book superhero is gone.

These surface changes are more than just surface changes. In comic books, costume is character. A change in tights is a change in meaning. The spandex look has marked superheroes as exotic outsiders since the 30’s. They fight for humanity, but their second skins separate them. They remain alien and so alienated.

Or they did. When TV’s Alphas or Misfits or Heroes perform extraordinary abilities in ordinary clothes, they are also performing their humanity. They are just people. People with really freaky skill sets, but at their core (which is a product of their surface) they are human. While their big screen brothers want to remain larger than life, the 21st century TV superhero is dressed for small-scale integration. We all pull our pants on one leg at a time.

So if you’re a costume connoisseur, stick with college football.

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