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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Frankenstein

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I arrived last weekend in Bath, England, where I am teaching “Writing Bath: Historical, Contemporary, Speculative Fiction,” a creative writing course focused on the multi-genre possibilities of place. Thank you, Advanced Studies in England, for flying me over and lodging me in a 19th century house two blocks from the wonderfully creepy Bath Abbey (the stone angels scaling its sides belong in a Doctor Who episode).

Bath’s most beloved author is Jane Austen, but Mary Shelley ought to be a strong second. She finished Frankenstein while lodging across the courtyard from that same Abbey. Austen’s house is a few blocks north, but she moved out well before the scandal-laden Shelleys moved in. Yet there’s no Mary Shelley tour, no building plaque–only in part because the building is gone, absorbed into the expanding Pump Room of the Roman Baths. The ASE director seemed a little chagrined, but added, “It’s not really a Frankenstein town though is it?”

My class is tracing both Jane’s and Mary’s literal and literary footsteps. The oddball pairing is especially fun for a superhero buff, since the superhero is its own sutured corpse of a genre. Austen was sketching a version of hypochondriac Clark Kent (more on that next week) while Shelley was penning literature’s first monstrous ubermensch. It would take later writers to weld the opposing impulses, love and horror, into a single cape-flapping creature, but Bath provided the embryonic fluid.

As any self-respecting goth can tell you, the nineteen-year-old Miss Godwin (she and the still inconveniently married Percy Shelley had been an item for a couple of years already) stayed the summer of 1816 at Lord Byron’s Swiss lair. This was The Summer That Never Was, the summer England and New England weathered historic snow and a veil of sulfuric fog from Mount Tombora in Indonesia the year before. In Switzerland, they were telling ghost stories, among other activities.

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John Polidori, Byron’s much maligned traveling companion/physician, was the first of the class to publish his ghostly tale. He also gets credit for the first dual identity supervillain, the Byron-inspired aristocrat-vampire, Lord Ruthven. Vampyre: A Tale was a hit in English bookstores, and not just because everyone thought Byron wrote it. Byron, having suffered a bout of creative impotence that summer, put out Manfred instead. His Faustian super-wizard is neither exotically foreign nor ancient, so a prototype for later Doctors Fate and Strange—only with an autobiographical hankering for his sister, the reason Byron fled to the Alps in the first place. Both Tchaikovsky and Schumann wrote music for the three act poem, as did schoolboy Friedrich Nietzsche, who called the renegade sorcerer übermenschlich (supermanlike).

I don’t know if Nietzsche read Frankenstein too, but he should have, since Mary Shelley is first novelist to depict a race of eugenically superior supermen he calls for in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.  The name of her Faustian mad scientist usually conjuror images a flat-headed Boris Karloff with those c. 1931 electric bolts bulging from his neck. Movie buffs might tack on a corpse-sutured Christopher Lee or, more regrettably, Robert De Niro, but the Shelley original sports no stitches or jigsawed body parts. The guy is a god. Early stage productions draped him in Greek togas, his dark locks aswirl. Sure, his skin is transparent yellow and his face is a fit of twitching muscles, but his “limbs were in proportion” (a big turn-on for early 19th century readers) and the doctor “had selected his features as beautiful.”

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Shelley doesn’t call him a superman because the word wasn’t in circulation yet. Nietzsche borrowed “unbermenschen” from Goethe, who’d coined it for the mad alchemist hero of his own verse play Faust a few years earlier. English translators went with “superhuman” or “demigod,” until George Bernard Shaw gave us the name destined for a cape and tights—though he had Faust’s alter ego, Don Juan, in mind.

After returning to England, Percy’s destitute wife Harriet found herself conveniently drowned in London’s Hyde Park, allowing her adulterous husband to marry his teen mistress around the time he impregnated her again. (Presumably the six-month-old William was present for but not an active participant in the Swiss storytelling adventure.) Jane Austen started work on her last novel the same winter, before stopping in March due to an illness that confined her to bed the following month. Mrs. Shelley finished gestating her first novel in May. Austen died in July at the age of forty-one. Clara Shelley was born in September, six months before Frankenstein was delivered to bookstores. It was a hit, and not just because everyone thought Percy wrote it.

Percy, like Byron, didn’t conceive much during the Summer That Wasn’t. His “Ozymandias” (yes, an Alan Moore influence) appeared between Clara and Frankenstein, but he eventually one-ups Byron with his four act poem Prometheus Unbound. I’m waiting to see what my students will add to that speculative canon. Mary began her novel in June too, not quite two hundred years ago, but close enough. 

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Benedict Cumberbatch can’t throw a punch. At least not when he’s playing Sherlock Holmes. Khan in Star Trek into Darkness throws plenty of punches, but he’s a eugenically bred superman. Dr. Watson reports in A Study in Scarlet, Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel, that the “excessively lean” detective is “an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman,” but we have to take his word on it.

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I wouldn’t know what a “singlestick” is if not for Jonny Lee Miller’s portrayal of Holmes in the aggressively updated CBS series Elementary.  A singlestick, it turns out, is a stick you smack your opponent on the top of the head with. That’s what the BBC wanted to do to CBS when they heard the Americanized Holmes was premiering in 2012, because CBS had been in talks about producing a version of the BBC’s already aggressively updated Sherlock. But then the BBC would have to accept a head smack from Warner Bros. since Sherlock premiered a year after the 2009 Sherlock Holmes hit theaters.

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Sherlock is the bastard brainchild of two Dr. Who writers; Elementary midwife Robert Doherty cut his teeth on Star Trek: Voyager; and the Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes started life as a comic book that producer Lionel Wigman penned instead of the usual spec script. When director Guy Ritchie got his hands on it, he was thinking Batman Begins. The Marvel formula was succeeding at box offices by then too, so Holmes’ superpowered intellect would have to be “as much of a curse as it was a blessing.”

A young Holmes should have nixed the forty-something Mr. Downey, but who can say no to Iron Man? Especially when Ritchie planned to restore all of Doyle’s “intense action sequences” other adaptations left out. You know, like when Holmes sneaks aboard the bad guys’ boat in “The Solution of a Remarkable Case”:

“With a lightning‑like movement he seized the hand which held the knife. Then, exerting all of his great strength, he bent the captain’s wrist quickly backward. There was a snap like the breaking of a pipe‑stem, and a yell of pain from the captain. Nick’s left arm shot out and his fist landed with terrific force squarely on the fellow’s nose.”

Oh no, wait. That’s not Sherlock. That’s Nick Carter. I’ve been getting them confused lately, and I’m not the only one. Carter premiered as a 13-episode serial in New York Weekly in 1886, the year before A Study in Scarlet premiered in England’s Beeton’s Christmas Annual. Carter was created by John R. Coryell and Ormond G. Smith, but Street & Smith (future publisher of the Shadow and Doc Savage) hired Frederick Van Rensselaer Dey to write over a thousand anonymous dime novels between 1891 and 1915 when Nick Carter Weekly changed to Detective Story Magazine.

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Doyle wrote a mere four novels and 56 short stories, with the rare “action sequence” lasting about a sentence: “He flew at me with a knife, and I had to grasp him twice, and got a cut over the knuckles, before I had the upper hand of him.”New York Times film reviewer A. O. Scott labels Holmes a “proto-superhero,” one who’s “never been much for physical violence,” crediting the Downey incarnation for the innovation of making the detective “a brawling, head-butting, fist-in-the-gut, knee-in-the-groin action hero” (what one commenter called “The precise opposite of Sherlock Holmes”). The film opens with Downey in a bare-knuckled boxing match, displaying the skills Doyle only hints at. Apparently Holmes once went three rounds with a prize-fighter who tells him, “Ah, you’re one that has wasted your gifts, you have! You might have aimed high, if you had joined the fancy.”

Nick Carter, on the other hand, has the fancy: “He bounded forward and seized in an iron grasp the man whom he had just struck. Then, raising him from the floor as though he were a babe, the detective hurled him bodily, straight at the now advancing men.” Yes, in addition to all of Holmes’ sleuthing powers, Carter has superhuman strength. And a bit of a temper—the secret ingredient American producers feel is missing from all those stodgy British incarnations.

Jonny Lee Miller’s Holmes doesn’t hurl men like babes, but he has broken a finger or two sucker punching serial killers. The leap over the Atlantic has made the Elementary detective’s passions more violent than his London predecessors. He also has a tendency to wander onto screen shirtless, displaying tattoos and a well-curated physique. His drug problems seems to be a carry-over from his Trainspotting days, which means the English accent is as authentic as Cumberbatch’s. In fact, Miller and his BBC counterpart co-starred in a London production of Frankenstein in 2011. You’ll never guess who played the doctor and who the monster. Literally, you’ll never guess—because Miller and Cumberbatch swapped parts nightly. Mr. Downey was busy completing the sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, and so was not available for matinees.

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Plans for a Sherlock Holmes 3 have been in talks too, but Downey was busy with Avengers, Iron Man 3 and now Avengers 2. Why settle for a proto-superhero when you can play a real one? At least the long-delayed season 3 of Sherlock finally arrived. It was perfectly fun watching a barefoot and CGI-shrunken Martin Freeman chat with Cumberbatch’s growly dragon in Hobbit 2, but nothing beats the Holmes-Watson bromance—a delight the otherwise delightful Jude Law and Lucy Liu can’t quite deliver with their Frankenstein partners. Sherlock is also the last show my family still watches as a family, so I don’t mind the BBC cauterizing the Nick Carterization of the character.

Of course Nick has evolved since the 19th century too: a 30s pulp run, a 40s radio show, a 60s book series. I have the anonymously written Nick Carter: The Redolmo Affair on my shelf. It’s a musty James Bond knock-off I found in a vacation house and kept in exchange for whatever I was reading at the time. I can’t bring myself to flip more than a few pages:  “I streamrollered my shoulder into his gut and sent us both crashing to the deck. I got my hands on his throat and started squeezing. His fist was smashing down on my head, hammering into my skull.”

In Nick’s defense, Doyle considered Sherlock Holmes schlock too. He hurled him over a cliff so he could stop writing his character—but the detective keeps bouncing back. Elementary is certain to be renewed for a third season, and the Sherlock season 3 finale is a cliffhanger with the next two seasons already plotted. The biggest mystery is how they’ll keep Cumberbatch out of a boxing ring.

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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)

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