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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Jack Williamson

The Girl from Mars (1929)

I know exactly where my daughter came from. I was cowering, forehead to my wife’s temple, as a doctor lifted Madeleine’s blood- and vernix-dappled body above the surgical drape. I did not peek over while they were sawing a half-foot wound into my wife’s abdomen. I remember the table shaking. I remember the bloody tread marks on the floor afterwards.

These are the kind of details science fiction authors Jack Williamson and Miles J. Breuer avoid. Their literary daughter, Pandorina, emerges from of a metal cylinder. Her adoptive father pulls it from a meteorite’s bloodless crater, not a c-section incision.

“A Girl from Mars” was published in 1929. It was literally the first science fiction story. Pulp publisher Hugo Gernsback, having lost Amazing Stories, launched a new magazine, Science Fiction, with “A Girl from Mars” as its premiere story. It sounds like an obvious name for a magazine, but before Gernsback coined it, the genre was called scientifiction. A term deserving its timely death.

Science Fiction’s readers included high schooler Jerry Siegel, the future co-creator of Superman. A few years later and his own alien child of a destroyed civilization would crash-land on earth to be reared by human foster parents. Miles J. Breuer, a practicing physician when not penning pulp tales, would have been less queasy than his younger writing partner about pregnancy. Though not, apparently, childbirth. Pandorina is a test tube baby, conceived in and hatched from an incubator. Breuer can use the words “ovum,” “sperm,” and “fertilize,” but not “uterus,” “cervix” or “vulva.” Siegel, even less comfortable with the birds and the bees, delivers his sanitized Baby Clark swaddled in a cockpit.

 

Both birth stories omit female anatomy. Women’s bodies are either missing or sexless. Pandorina is found by a recently widowed husband, Clark by an elderly couple, the wife long past child-bearing years. Instead of vaginas, we get funnel-shaped craters. Instead of intercourse, it’s rocket ships and glass globes shot from interplanetary guns.

 

But Williamson and Breuer’s narrator seems to love his adopted daughter well enough, rearing her beside his own son. He admires her “rare elflike beauty,” her “soft, red bronze” hair, and her “astonishing aptitude,” all “her inheritance from a higher civilization.” Like Clark, Pandorina passes from infancy to adulthood in less than a page. When I blink at Madeleine—she was just accepted early decision to Wesleyan University this month—I see the same blur of time. Next thing Pandorina’s in love with her adoptive brother, Fred, and glowing in the dark when “excited.” My wife and I haven’t been allowed to check on Madeleine after bed for years and years now, but I suspect she emits a similar “luminosity” behind her closed door.

Perhaps all fathers eventually experience their daughters as alien. After deleting all female genitalia from Pandorina’s birth, Williamson and Breuer’s literary offspring has the audacity to grow her own. My father-tuned ears can hear the unspoken panic stirring under their narrator’s scientifictionally calm prose. Who is this adult woman making herself breakfast in my kitchen before driving herself to school? Where in the universe did she come from?

I’d like to think I’m handling my paternal alienation better than Pandorina’s dad. He sees her entire generation as monsters. Martian men start showing up on the front porch, demanding to wed his virgin daughter. They crash-landed too, one in a farmer’s field in the smallville of Folsom, NJ. The father is horrified as they battle over their would-be bride.

Better they all die, even his own boy Fred, than allow Pandorina to unveil herself on her wedding night. He lures her and the other Martians onto a heavy artillery range where they bloodlessly vanish in the smoke and dirt of an exploding shell. A death as sanitized as their births. I don’t know if Siegel was as terrified by women’s bodies. He avoids opening Pandorina’s box with a sex change operation. Krypton only ejaculates a lone male.

My daughter’s Martians suitors have all been nice boys so far. I try not to embarrass her too much when one steps in from the porch, but it’s hard. Madeleine has ordered us to be “calm” and “not weird,” but my wife and I still gawk. We mumble awkward jokes. Befuddled strangers watching a new civilization take root.

In nine months she flies off to colonize her own planet. God, I’ll miss her.

Mad electro woman

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A) Earth

B) Mars

C) a planet opposite Earth on the other side of the sun.

(Sorry, “Krypton” is not an option.)

If you went with “B” (a good multiple choice technique since test-makers have an unconscious tendency to “hide” correct answers), you apparently have read Jack Williamson’s 1929 short story “The Girl from Mars.” Superman creator Jerry Siegel read it in high school. The “Lost Planet” of Mars, like Krypton, explodes, but not before its scientists save their race by launching unborn offspring to Earth. Siegel must have skipped over the bit about fertilization and gestation, but one of the adopted Martians “was brought up by a farmer,” providing a seed for Superman’s origin.

If you went with “C,” you’re a radio fan. When Allen Ducovny and Robert Joffe Maxwell adapted the star of Action Comics for a radio serial in 1940, they located Superman’s home planet in our own solar system, but hid it from Earth’s view. Siegel jettisoned artificial insemination, but the radio team tossed out childhood too. Their Superman steps out of his rocket fully grown.

If you went with “A,” you’re with me. After Joe Shuster burnt the first draft of Superman, Siegel approached comic strip artist Russell Keaton to illustrate a rewrite. The script resembles what would become Action Comics #1, only instead of Krypton exploding, Earth “was in its last days, dying” as “the last man placed his infant babe within a small time-machine” and launched it to “the primitive year, 1935, A.D.” The child’s “physical structure was millions of years advanced.” The Man of Tomorrow was literally the man of tomorrow.

He was also literally “superman,” Nietzsche’s vision of mankind’s evolutionary future. What Nazi Germany was marching toward. Siegel co-opted eugenics, the product of an explicitly pro-Aryan, anti-Semitic pseudo-science nurtured in the U.S. and championed in Germany, and turned it against itself. After Keaton drew sample strips, Clark becomes the adoptive son of Sam and Molly Kent who realize they have a “duty to train him . . . so that he will use his super strength to help those in need of assistance.”

The genetic child of the German future would be nurtured by the loving parents of the American present.

Take that, Ubermensch.

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