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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Frederick Van Rensselaer Dey

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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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“Who’s your favorite mutant, professor?”

If you’re going to teach a college course on superheroes, it’s a question you should be ready to answer. I wasn’t. My first thought was Lady Gaga. Artpop wasn’t out yet, so I must have been thinking about the human-motorbike cyborg of Born This Way. But instead I rattled off something about Magneto (his rare, bookworm incarnation adorns this blog). Now I’ve got a better answer. My favorite mutant was the first of them all:

The Night Wind.

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Never heard of him? You’re in good company. He stopped adventuring in 1919, three years before his out-of-work creator shot himself. He premiered forty years before Stan Lee first and most famously attached the biological term (already an evolutionary staple of post-Hiroshima scifi) to the world of superheroes.

In fact, “mutant” is so Marvel, I’m hesitant to use it outside their multiverse. I remember the narrative nausea my adolescent self felt when DC buckled under the popularity of X-Men and shoehorned their first “mutant” into Teen Titans. It was 1984, and Ex-Marvel writer-editor Marv Wolfman must have forgotten he’d switched employers (again). It didn’t help that the character was a joke, a mute mutant (is that a pun?). I had to google his name (Jericho) and his powers (mind control?), but remembered his dorky blonde curls all too well.

Not that Stan Lee’s first use of the term was impressive either. Two years cranking out his silver age pantheon (Fantastic Four, Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, Iron Man, Dr. Strange), he hit his limit for origin stories. So the 1963 X-Men, “The Strangest Super-heroes of All!,” were all Born That Way like Lady Gaga.

As Professor Xavier professed in the first issue: “You, Miss Grey, like the other four students at this most exclusive school, are a MUTANT! You possess an EXTRA power . . . one which ordinary humans do NOT! That is why I call my students . . . X-MEN, for EX-tra power!”(Lee had one more origin story in him: Daredevil was hit by a radioactive truck the following year. Which pretty much proves the point about creative exhaustion.)

Alias “The Night Wind” crawled out of the primordial pulp goo of The Cavalier magazine way back in 1913, six months after Tarzan of the Apes set the new standard for superhuman adventuring. Like Superman, Bing Harvard, A.K.A. the Night Wind, had no problem tying “bow-knots in crowbars.” But instead of crashlanding from Krypton to be reared by mid-western farmers, or shipwrecked from aristocratic England to be reared by anthropoid apes, Bing was a foundling reared by an American banker.

He also possess “a wonderful, God-given strength,” which was his “birthright,” what “his unknown father and mother had bestowed upon him as an inheritance.”

Peter Coogan terms him an “anomaly.” That’s a pretty good synonym for “mutant,” but the superhero scholar is talking genre tropes, few of which the character fits. I photocopied an excerpt for my class, and someone said it read like a supervillain origin story. Hard-working orphan framed for embezzlement turns his powers against the powers that be.

It’s true, Bing breaks the wrists of any cop who tries to arrest him, but after he clears his name (with the help of a lady cop who later marries him), he settles happily into law-abiding domesticity. The truly anomalous gene in the series is the never-solved mystery introduced in its opening chapters:

Who are Bing’s parents?

Jericho, it turns out, is the son of the villainous Deathstroke, his powers the product of biological experimentation done on his father. All those Marvel mutants can be traced back to Celestial tampering in the gene pool millions of years ago. But Bing? Frederick Van Rensselaer Dey (writing as his alter ego Varick Vanardy) didn’t care. Dey had cranked out Nick Carter dime novels for decades, but the Night Wind peters at four. The fact is frustrating, but even if I could sit down with Frederick over coffee in Dr. Doom’s time-travel machine, I’m not sure I would steer him any differently.

Bing’s real superheroism is only visible when you step out of the time machine and wander the nineteen-teens awhile. As a historical researcher, my first mistake is always the same. I assume past cultures are just like us, only in funny clothes. But immerse yourself in the period (I recommend the New York Times online database) and you realize you’re looking at a planet more alien than Krypton.

I always give my Superhero students a crash course in eugenics, a term, for those who’ve ever heard it, they associate with Nazi Germany not homegrown America. Where did the idea of killing the genetically unfit come from? Forget Auschwitz. The American Breeders Association of Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island recommended installing a gas chamber in every town in America.

This was 1911. Two years before the Night Wind started snapping police wrists. The Breeders’ other recommendations (immigration restrictions, racial segregation, interracial marriage ban, sterilization) became law as Dey was writing. Back then everyone simply knew the human race would devolve if Aryan supremacy wasn’t maintained. That was just common sense. That was the alien air everyone was breathing.

So if you were a recent immigrant, if your parents weren’t Anglo-Saxon, if you weren’t from good reliable Protestant stock, you were probably unfit. Genetic traits in those days included just about anything: poverty, promiscuity, feeblemindedness, criminality. Your parentage defined you. The cop who frames Bing says it all:

“Who are you, anyhow, I’d like to know? It ain’t nothin’ out uh the way that you should be a thief. I guess you inherited it all right. It’s more’n likely that his dad is doin’ time right now, in one uh the prisons, an’ his mother, too, maybe. It’s the way uh that sort. He don’t know who his antecedents was.”

Who was Bing? Who were his parents? Dey didn’t care. His hero was just born that way. And Dey blesses him for it. Literally. He declares his powers “God-given.” They’re not the result of eugenics movement’s so-called scientific breeding. He’s an accident, a genetic anomaly. He’s homo superior. Not the well-born superman eugenicists were obsessed with, but an up-from-the-muck mutant, defying the prejudices all of America was inhaling.

Dey was singing “Born This Way” a hundred years before Lady Gaga:

“I’m on the right track baby,
I was born to be brave.”

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