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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Jerry Siegel

Michael Chabon is a nice guy. I made sure I knew how to pronounce his name (“Cha” as in Shea Stadium, “bon” as in Jovi) before having dinner with him. And about ten other faculty members and university students before his lecture across campus. He sat opposite me, as a way of avoiding the more central seat he probably should have taken. He’s a little shy, but less soft-spoken behind a podium.

I asked him about his script for Spider-Man 2 (in my defense, McSweeney’s had recently posted it), but he said, and then repeated twice, that his only interest in screenwriting was the family health benefits he received through the writer’s guild.

I didn’t ask him about his article, “Secret Skin: An Essay in Unitard Theory,” a handout I photocopy for students in my Superheroes course. I was, thankfully, not yet drafting my secret history of the genre, so his smile did not tighten the way my wife’s used to before she imposed a five-minute limit on any conversational gambit involving muscle-stretched spandex.

Michael will forgive me if I sometimes imagine I’m still in conversation with him. He tells me in the New Yorker: “There were costumed crime-fighters before Superman (the Phantom, Zorro), but only as there were pop quartets before the Beatles. Superman invented and exhausted his genre in a single bound.”

It’s a pithy summary of conventional wisdom, one I took on faith when I sketched my first timeline. Aside from the Shadow and a few other pulp heroes of the 30’s, there’s just Zorro a decade earlier, and the Scarlet Pimpernel a decade and half before that.

I wasn’t expecting an answer (from anyone, let alone my imaginary Michael) when I asked about the gaps. I assumed I’d never heard of any roaring twenties superheroes because the roaring twenties were roaring through other genres. Same for the fifteen years between Baroness Orczy’s flowery Pimpernel and Johnston McCulley’s Z-slashing imitation.

Actually, Michael, the first three decades of the century were awash with masked and superpowered do-gooders. My latest rough count: forty. The number doubles with the horde of “mystery men” who crawl from under The Shadow’s cloak plus the Pimpernel’s garden of predecessors, some known, others lost in the mulch of crumbled penny-dreadfuls.

Eighty. About the number who attended Chabon’s lecture. Not a stadium crowd, but the Beatles couldn’t have filled Shea when they started either. Jerry Siegel and Jim Shuster may be comic book’s Lennon and McCartney, but their Superman was Elvis. He rose so high in his genre because his genre was already there to applaud him.

That’s the story I’m writing. Not a tight little screenplay, but a sprawling mini-series with a dozen subplots and a cast of hundreds. If there’s a superhero writer’s guild, I want the family health benefits too.

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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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When we streamed X-Men: First Class in our living room the other night, we roped our fourteen-year-old daughter into watching too. My wife promised cute guys. So it’s not surprising that Madeleine noticed first:

“Wait, are they gay?”

She meant Magneto and Professor X and, wow, was she right.

In retrospect, their first meeting (a passionate underwater hug) should have been a clue. I didn’t see it till the shot of Chuck and Eric nuzzled shoulder to shoulder in the strip joint bed. Madeleine got it when they were gazing at each other across a chessboard with the, um, Empire State Building in the background. Apparently Wolverine smelled it too. When the two ubermutants saddle up to him in a bar, he spells it out: “Go fuck yourself.”

Oh, I think they are.

Even without the gay rights subtext (when Charles accidentally outs Hank McCoy, the mutant tells his C.I.A. employer: “You didn’t ask, so I didn’t tell”), the air was already thick with bromance.

Before the release, actor James McAvoy (Charles) promised a “kind of love story, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which, really, was a love story between two men.” The difference is that Redford (or was Newman “Butch”?) got a sappy love montage riding a bicycle with his very heterosexual love interest. 1969 was not a year to come out of the Brokeback closet.

Charles and Erik pay some minimal attention to women (Charles has a couple of lazy pick-up lines, and Erik solidifies Mystique’s allegiance with an off-camera consummation), but their real passion is for each other. Erik cradling the crippled Charles in his arms says it all. “I want you by my side.”

Once they break up, both instantly sublimate into new and wholly heterosexual channels. Charles and his C.I.A. contact were Platonic before he pecks her on the lips and strips her memory (the ultimate rufie?). Erik is more blatant when he springs the comically underdressed Emma Frost from a C.I.A. holding tank.

“Where’s your telepath friend?” she asks.

“Gone. Left a bit of a gap in my life if I’m to be honest. I was rather hoping you would fill it.”

The last actor to play Magneto would have gone further. For his third and last X-Men movie, Ian McKellen wanted the camera to discover him and Patrick Stewart (a sexier, albeit balder Charles than McAvoy’s) in the throes of a sex scene. Bryan Singer might have gone along with it (both he and McKellen are gay), which could also explain why Fox handed control of X-Men: The Last Stand to a different director.

But Charles and Erik are not the first superpowered frenemies with benefits. It was the subtext of the arch rival since its comic book conception.

Superman faced down his first supervillain, the Ultra-Humanite, back in 1939. Like Professor X, Ultra is a bald, wheelchair-bound super-genius. Creator Jerry Siegel retconned him into the first dozen Action Comics as the secret mastermind behind all those garden variety crimes Superman so effortlessly ended. The Man of Steel needed an opponent on his own playing field.

As McAvoy says about Magneto and Professor X: “This is the first time in their lives they’ve met someone who is an equal of sorts, someone who understands them and can connect and push them too.”

Batman creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger exploited the same, not-so-subtle sexual subtext with Catwoman.  Simply “The Cat” in her first 1940 appearance, she attempts to seduce Batman after he captures her: “Why don’t you come in as a partner with me! You and I TOGETHER!” (Robin is conveniently looking away during the embrace.)

Though tempted, Batman refuses. But he also lets his favorite feline escape. “Lovely girl! What eyes! Maybe I’ll bump into her again sometime.” (We can discuss Robin’s jealous reaction elsewhere.)

Siegel understood the subtext too. Perhaps too well. Like the Scarlet Pimpernel’s wife Marguerite, Lois Lane is the one antagonist always on the verge of discovering Superman’s secret. But Superman had an even bigger breasted threat.

After Ultra’s first four appearances (and second apparent death) the original comic book nemesis returned.  As a woman. Superman recognizes his arch rival in the “blazing eyes” of screen star Delores Winters.

“You thought you had killed me in our last encounter, didn’t you? But look—as you can see, I’m very much alive!”

And very much female in that tight, red, spaghetti-strap dress Joe Shuster sketches for her/him. How is such a villainous transformation possible!

“My assistants, finding my body, revived me . . .  and following my instructions, they kidnapped Dolores Winters yesterday and placed my mighty brain in her young vital body!”

From all the bodies on the planet, Ultra chooses to become a famously gorgeous film actress. That’s not a metaphor. The guy is transsexual.

Superman continues to call the post-operative Ultra/Delores “he,” but even when Shuster draws Delores’ body in trousers, she’s still all woman. In Ultra’s next (and last adventure), the villain(ess) even uses his feminine wiles to seduce an atomic scientist (“The fool!”).

The gender bender proved too much for Siegel and/or his DC editors. Veiled homosexuality is one thing. An explicitly transgendered supervillain is another. The solution? A not-yet-bald Lex Luthor replaces Ultra in the next episode.

And so the bromance continues . . .

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Jonathan and Martha Kent are dead. Superman writers Grant Morrison and George Pérez killed Clark Kent’s adoptive parents for the latest history-altering DC reboot. Fortunately, Mr. and Mrs. Kent (unlike Spider-Man’s immortal Aunt May) are no newcomers to the afterlife.

Before the first DC reboot in 1986, the Kents were strictly flashback characters for Superboy stories. Before writer-artist John Byrne resurrected them, the elderly couple had always passed quietly away before Clark assumed the adult role of Superman.

In fact, they dropped dead specifically to spur their orphaned son to greatness:

“The passing away of his foster-parents greatly grieved Clark Kent. But it strengthened a determination that had been growing in his mind. Clark decided he must turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind. And so was created — Superman!”

My parents achieved a similar goal through less melodramatic means:  they sent me to college (the alien planet my daughter will launch toward in four years).

For Batman, Bob Kane replaced the Kents’ flower-strewn gravesite with murdered-before-his-eyes corpses, but the narrative logic is the same. Apparently dead parents are very motivating. Plus it’s hard to be a hero when Dad’s king of the castle and Mom’s still packing your lunches.

It’s a crusty old plot (for starters check out Doc Savage, Tarzan, and Spring-Heeled Jack). So belated kudos to Byrne for breaking it. Even if it did mean the Kents’ Metropolis visits got a bit too regular.

The doting Eddie Jones and K. Callan embodied them in the mid-nineties Lois & Clark: the New Adventures of Superman, and when Annette O’Toole and John Schneider assumed their Smallville roles in 2000, they couldn’t even bother being “elderly” anymore.

Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are up next (Superman: Man of Steel began shooting in August). I’m rooting for director Zack Snyder to team-up with Pérez Morrison and knock them off early. Or at least (please) Costner.

Glenn Ford dutifully died of a heart attack out in his field of dreams back in the 1978 Superman. Scriptwriter and Godfather author Mario Puzo gave Mr. Kent an offer he couldn’t refuse, but not Phyllis Thaxter. She lived on to be reincarnated by Eva Marie Saint in the 2006 Superman Returns. The original widowed Mrs. Kent awards go to Frances Morris in the 1950’s Adventures of Superman TV and Virginia Carroll in the 1948 Superman film serial that launched the TV show.

Perhaps there’s a case to be made for the necessity of only killing father figures (consider Spider-Man again and his Uncle Ben), but during Superman’s first decade neither of the Kents was a target of narrative manslaughter. In fact, neither of them particularly existed.

When Superman first appeared on TV in the early 40’s as a Max and Dave Fleischer cartoon, the Kryptonian had never been adopted by any Smallville couple. He grew up in an orphanage after being plucked from his rocket ship by an unnamed motorist.

The Fleischers weren’t the first to cut that particular narrative corner. When Superman had premiered on the radio a year earlier, he stepped full-grown from his capsule, no Kents in sight then either.

Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel didn’t pen Superman’s radio and cartoon incarnations, but he was no fan of Clark’s foster parents himself. When he and Joe Shuster flew their Man of Steel to daily newspaper syndication in 1939, they replaced them with that same orphan asylum and passing motorist.

The Kents didn’t exist for the first year of Action Comics either. They were shoe-horned in for Superman No. 1, a reprint of previous adventures with a few pages of new, editor-mandated material. The first comic book reboot. Clark’s institutionalized childhood was swapped for “the love and guidance of his kindly foster-parents.” The passing motorist was now named Mr. Kent who, after dumping that alien baby at the orphanage, returns with his wife to reclaim him (“We couldn’t get that sweet child of our mind”).

The Kents were never Siegel’s idea anyway. When Joe Shuster flung the rejected first draft of Superman into the fire, Siegel begged Buck Rogers artist Russell Keaton to replace his partner. Keaton also replaced Siegel’s scripts. There are no Kents in his 1934 summary. They debuted in Keaton’s unpublished sample strips, a fleshed-out version of the adoption story Siegel recycled and condensed for Superman No. 1.

Jerry Siegel’s own origin story is closer to Bruce Wayne’s. His father died in an armed robbery in 1932. Jerry was 18. Was it less painful to pretend that his father had never existed? I’m 45. I don’t want to imagine the stories I’ll tell myself after my parents’ deaths.

Siegel continued to live with his widowed mother to became the permanent baby of the family, trapped at home under her protective wing while he watched his siblings fly off. He dreamed up Superman a year later. Would he have preferred the accelerated adulthood of orphanage life over such loving guidance? Probably not. But Superman was a daydream. An escape. A superhero doesn’t like anybody telling him what to do.

Probably George Pérez and Grant Morrison don’t either, but they’re working under the firm and loving guidance of their editors. DC, like Siegel, wants to snip the apron strings early and send their Superman flying solo.

So rest in peace Jonathan and Martha. See you at the next rewrite.

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