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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Howard Pyle

Here’s the debate question we should ask Clinton, Trump, Sanders, and the herd of Republicans running for President:

“What art would you hang in the Oval Office?”

It sounds frivolous, but the answers reveal a lot about our last two presidents.

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When George W. Bush moved from the Texas governor’s office to the Oval Office in 2001, he brought his favorite painting, a 28 x 40 oil by Westerns illustrator W.H.D. Koerner which appeared on the back of his campaign biography, A Charge to Keep. The title is from a hymn, and a friend gave him the painting because it illustrated a 1918 short story of the same name. Bush believed the figure in the painting, a cowboy charging up a hill on horseback, was a 19th century Methodist evangelist spreading his faith across the West.

“He’s a determined horseman,” the President told visitors, “a very difficult trail. And you know at least two people are following him, and maybe a thousand.”

“Bush’s personal identification with the painting,” writes David Gergen, “reveals a good deal about his sense of himself . . . . a brave, daring leader riding fearlessly into the unknown, striking out against unseen enemies, pulling his team behind him, seeking, in the words of Wesley’s hymn, ‘to do my Master’s will.’”

Although the painting did appear beside Ben Ames Williams’ “A Charge to Keep” in Country Gentleman Magazine, Koerner painted it three years earlier for The Saturday Evening Post to illustrate a story by William J. Neidig called “The Slipper Tongue.”

The horseman is a horse-thief fleeing a lynch mob.

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But whatever its title, the work has become the best known of Koerner’s over 800 commissioned paintings and drawings, including “Hugo Hercules,” the original comic strip superhero.

Koerner immigrated from Germany at the age of three, and seventeen years later got a job as a staff artist for the Chicago Tribune for $5 a day. His duties included producing a Sunday strip for the Comics Supplement. He came up with an urban cowboy with super-strength. If that’s not enough to call him a superhero, Hugo calls himself “the boy wonder” while aiding a series of Chicago damsels-in-mild-distress.

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He has his own catch phrase too, “Just as easy,” tossed off whenever he performs some inhuman feat, like ice skating with a boat on his shoulders or flinging a defensive line of football players across a goal post. Sometimes he adds, “I could do this forever,” as if Koerner has hasn’t drawn him in a sufficiently effortless pose. Clark Kent wouldn’t declare, “This is a job for  . . . Superman!”for almost four decades, but Hugo knows when “It’s up to me!”

Oval Office visitors commented how Koerner’s Methodist horse-thief looked a bit like George W., but Hugo was the one with the cowboy hat—offset by a sports jacket, stripped pants and bowtie. The hat vacillated between white and black though, and Hugo vacillated too. Overall he was a force for good, but his altruism was random and occasionally the good he did was correcting the harm he’d done—like when he missed a football and accidentally punted a house across a field. But at least he lugged it back, right? And so what if he uses his strength to collect the bowling competition prize money after destroying a wall and passing trolley in the process? After catching a falling safe from crushing an old man as his daughter helplessly watched, he asks: “Am I glad I did it? Wid de doll’s arms around me neck and de old gent coffing a three spot? Am I glad?”

Note that folksy way of talking too. No wonder George W. liked Koerner. And if Hugo can be a bit destructive—did he really have to rip up a porch to carry it umbrella-like over a woman worried about the rain?—he helps far more than he harms, like when he catches that family jumping from a burning house, or when he carries a fire engine to another would-be disaster. He stops that runaway horse before it crashes its owner’s carriage, but more often he only saves damsels from mild inconvenience, halting trolleys and cable cars that refuse to stop, or lifting an elephant standing on a handkerchief. And how did the striking cab-driver’s union feel when carried that woman and her pile of crates? Dragging a derailed train twenty miles is nice, but is lifting a young Romeo and his car to his Juliet’s balcony for a parting kiss really the best use of one’s superpowers? As far as actual menaces, hugo does wrestle a bear into submission—though he was only saving himself. Same with those three muggers who corner him at gunpoint. They look ready to abandon the criminal life after he points a canon in their faces.

Would their bullets have bounced off him? Could he have leapt tall buildings if they’d tried to escape? No idea. We’ll never know how Hugo might have matured into his yet-to-be-named genre. The strip only ran from September 1902 to January before Koerner abandoned it for better work. Soon he was studying with famed illustrator Howard Pyle, creator of the 1883 classic The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, as well as varied adventures of Arthurian knights, noble pirates, and a modern Aladdin. It was a thorough education in proto-superheroes, but Koerner’s interests turned west when The Saturday Evening Post commissioned his first two frontier scenes instead. He never returned. When he died at the age of 58, he was one of the best known artists of the Old West. That was 1938, the year Action Comics No. 1 rode onto newsstands.

When the Bushes returned to Texas, they took their so-called “A Charge to Keep” with them. The Obamas, fresh from Koerner’s hometown of Chicago, replaced his galloping horse-thief with a more traditional Saturday Evening Post illustration, Norman Rockwell’s “Working on the Statue of Liberty.” At 24 x14, it’s less than half the size of Koerner’s work. It depicts four tiny workmen scaling the torch to clean its amber glass. It’s slow, dangerous work—something Hugo Hercules could have finished in three panels.

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The Obama Oval Office, however, is not cowboy-free. Frederic Remington’s sculpture “The Bronco Buster” still sits on its side table, and the President not only kept but expanded his predecessor’s spy programs, herding up emails across the frontier of the World Wide Web. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel found out the NSA was following their Master’s will and bugging her phone, her government threatened the diplomatic equivalent of a lynch mob–counterespionage. “They’re like cowboys,” explained a party member, “who only understand the language of the Wild West.”

What language will our next President understand?

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My father recently mailed me a birthday card with a photograph of me dressed in a felt tunic, black tights, billowy white shirt, and a feathered cap. I was Robin Hood. My high school Drama Club was touring local elementary schools. The skit our teacher handed us was too short, so I selflessly penned a second act in which Robin overthrows his oppressors only to devolve into an agent of complacent corruption himself, forcing the formerly villainous Sheriff of Sherwood into a romantic new life of noble vigilantism. 

The biggest challenge was finding new rhymes for “Hey nonny nonny.”

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I don’t know who wrote the skit, but that author and I are names at the bottom of a very long list. Robin Hood, founding father of noble outlaws across the multiverse, has no secret origin. He doesn’t even have a Year One. William Langland knew some “rymes of Robyn hood” when he wrote Piers Plowman in the late 1300s, but no one can hum those originals now. The original Boy Wonder enters The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood as “a youth of eighteen, stout of sinew and bold of heart.”

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Howard Pyle’s 1883 readers didn’t need any born-that-way mutations or radioactive arrows to explain the kid’s archery skill or endless law-eluding superpowers. No murdered parents, no exploding planet, just a tussle with the some unsavory knights and his life of vigilante justice is up, up and away.

Robin Hood, if he existed, was born in the 1100s or thereabouts. Scholarly guesswork includes 1110, 1160, and 1210. Personally, I’d go with 1171. No later than September, though possibly as early as December 1170.  If you really want to be dramatic, then December 29th.  And not for the Christmas themed, Robin-is-our-savior angle.

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The 29th is the day a lynching posse of four vigilante knights strolled into Canterbury Cathedral and murdered Archbishop Thomas Becket at the altar. Or at least there’s an altar now to memorialize the spot. I found T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral criminally dull when I read it as an undergraduate—except when the knights step through the fourth wall and give a literally prosaic defense of their actions. A make-believe vigilante like Robin Hood would never have done anything so dastardly. Plus the outlaws were serving their King, so not really the break-the-law-to-serve-the-law shtick either.

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Becket was sainted as a martyr afterwards. Richard Burton played him in the film version, winner of the 1964 Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Peter O’Toole was Henry II. They start out a dynamic duo, the carefree King deflowering local daughters of the peasantry with his trusty man servant as look out. The grinning girl in the window assures us it was just a wholesome romp.

Things don’t go awry till Henry makes Thomas Archbishop. He’s hoping to get those pesky clergy under control, no idea Thomas is going to take all that religious nonsense seriously. Like when a priest rapes a nobleman’s little girl. Becket is supposed to hand the pedophile over, not shield him under church law. And he’s certainly not supposed to excommunicate the father when another lynching posse exacts vigilante justice on the priest.

The screenwriters cut some corners, but that’s the gist. The historical Becket wouldn’t turn clergymen over to law enforcement. Priests accused of rape are handled in-house. Since Becket is the noble hero of the tale, the film swerves past the crime scene as speedily as possible. Eliot doesn’t even mention it. But church officials protecting pedophile priests are common headlines these days:

Cardinal’s Aide Is Found Guilty in Abuse Case” (New York Times, June 22, 2012)

US Bishop Convicted of Covering up Clerical Sex Abuse Pressured to Resign”(The Guardian, 8 September 2012)

Another Catholic Sex Abuse Cover-up” (Salon.com, Jan 22, 2013)

Priests face court over child sexual abuse” (ABC New, Jan. 29, 2013)

Last summer, Kansas City’s Robert Finn became the first bishop convicted in American courts of failing to report an abuse. He got two years probation, but kept his job.  Philadelphia’s William J. Lynn is the first senior U.S. official of the Roman Catholic Church convicted of covering up sexual abuses by priests under his supervision. He’ll serve three to six years in prison. L.A.’s Archbishop Roger M. Mahony and his adviser Monsignor Thomas J. Curry have admitted to conspiring to “shield abusers from police,” with a flood of incriminating church memos revealing dozens of previously secret cases. Curry resigned and Mahony, already retired, was banned from public ceremonial duties. In January, Australian courts charged a retired priest, Lewis Dominic Fenton, for concealing two alleged offences committed against a nine-year-old. He faces his jury on March 13.

The sons of Becket are global.

Though two years probation, 6-7 years jail time, permanently banned from presiding over confirmations, this is hardly the stuff of martyrdom.  If this were a comic book, Finn, Lynn, Mahony, Curry, and Fenton would be expecting a visit from some not-so-merry Sherwood Forest men. T.S. Eliot can write their monologues.

But instead of more vigilante justice, I endorse a literary reparation. On behalf of the victims that these later day Beckets further abused, I hereby bestow Robin Hood an origin story:

His mother is that nobleman’s young daughter, and his father is the priest who raped her. She dies in childbirth. He dies at the hands of avenging murderers after Bishop Becket shields him from government prosecution. Raised by his excommunicated grandfather, that stout and bold eighteen-year-old was orphaned by the failures of both Church and State. Of course he was destined to become the most famed and noble outlaw in proto-superhero history.

It’s not a happy story, but origins rarely are.

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