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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Joe Shuster

(Tyler Wenger, another vet from my spring term Superheroes course, reveals Superman’s biblical roots.)


One may find it hard to look at the red underwear-clad Man of Steel as anything more than a super-powered illustration on the pages of Action Comics and the light of the big screen. However, when ignoring the tights and cape and analyzing Siegel and Shuster’s character closely, Superman can be seen as more than Jerry Siegel’s brainchild, but as the savior of the imagination of this young Jewish writer. Superman, or Clark Kent, first appeared in Action Comics No. 1 in June of 1938 right before World War II began in 1939, a time in which Jewish people needed a savior more than ever. In Superman Chronicles, vol. 1, a compilation of the earliest appearances of the Man of Steel, Siegel and Shuster introduce Superman, a modern messiah. Though the caped crusader’s stories are extremely dramatized and embellished when compared to his robed counterpart, the parallels of defending the oppressed, possessing unequalled power, and ultimately ushering in peace remain strong.  Yet Siegel’s messiah surpasses his notion of the biblical messiah, Jesus Christ, through Superman’s conquering and avenging salvation of men. While both characters fulfill the messianic prophecies, Superman embodies the man of action that the oppressed Jews await. Here we see the pen of Joe Shuster and the mind of Jerry Siegel produce a fictional messiah comparable to Jesus of Nazareth in mission and grander than His spiritual salvation through physical action.

Jesus Christ and Superman both play the role of messiah, or leader and savior of a group of oppressed people. While salvation through Jesus is spiritual and salvation through Superman is physical, the mission of saving the oppressed remains constant. One of many messianic prophesies in The Holy Bible claims that the Jewish people “will cry to the Lord because of oppressors, and He will send them a Savior and a Champion, and He will deliver them” (New American Standard Bible, Isa. 19.20). Christians believe that this “champion” of the oppressed Jews came in the form of Jesus to deliver men from sin and to pave the way to heaven in His blood. In Action Comics No.1 when Clark Kent first dons his red and blue, Siegel introduces him as: “Superman! Champion of the oppressed. The physical marvel who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need!” (Siegel 4). Superman, like the prophesied messiah, is described as champion of the oppressed, but the deliverance he brings remains entirely physical and does not go beyond earthly oppression. In one of Superman’s earlier cases, he frees miners from the tyranny of a sadistic boss after which the newly enlightened boss, Blakely, asserts, “You can announce that henceforth my mine will be the safest in the country, and my workers the best treated…” to which Kent replies, “Congratulations on your new policy. May it be a permanent one! (If it isn’t, you can expect another visit from Superman!)” (Siegel 44). Superman caused Blakely to consider the abusive and dangerous conditions that he puts his workers through day in and day out, ultimately delivering them from their oppression. The Holy Bible proclaims: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him” (English Standard Version, Acts 10.38). Though biblical Jesus did free the oppressed from the grasp of the devil and sin, the Jewish belief is that this deliverance is meant more tangibly in freedom from their worldly oppression, which Christ did not bring in their eyes. Though deliverances by Superman such as the salvation of Blakely’s mine workers in Action Comics No. 3 meet the Jewish stipulation obliging physical salvation, Christians believe that their spiritual deliverance is more than enough to call Him the champion of the oppressed. Whether physically super or spiritually godly, both men succeed in fulfilling this prophecy in their own way.

Though not quite as defining as the act of salvation, one of the most universal, unquestioned aspects of a messiah figure is the possession of unrivaled power and dominion. Powerful is an understatement when talking about “Superman, a man possessing the strength of a dozen Samsons!” (Siegel 84). He is a warrior and a powerful leader, capable of overthrowing corrupt rulers and strong-arming the evil. To the defenseless Jewish people in Europe, and even to these Jewish artists in the United States, these qualities made Superman the perfect messiah. Therefore, it is no coincidence that Siegel references Sampson’s strength, represented biblically when “a young lion came toward him roaring. Then the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him, and although he had nothing in his hand, he tore the lion in pieces as one tears a young goat” (Judg. 14.5-6). Having already granted enormous physical power upon one of His servants, the Jewish people expected God to send a messiah with even greater physical power to lead them in battle against their oppressors. Again, Jesus’s power comes in a less tangible medium than His bulletproof analog. Superman, however, was granted this physical prowess by his Jewish “fathers,” continuing to directly allude to the story of Samson when “with incredibly agile movement, he twists aside, seizes Leo by the scruff of his neck… ‘Wanna play, huh?’… And carries the ferocious carnivore back to its cage as though it were a harmless kitten!” (Siegel 95). Instead of physical power to fight a lion, the gospel characterizes Jesus with the power and strength of character of God. He is called “Immanuel (which means, God with us)” (Matt. 1.23). As God on earth, Jesus is given “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28.18). The bible seems to define power as spiritual authority rather than the physical strength of Superman Chronicles. Given that Jesus did not decide to use His authority to physically free the Jewish people from their Roman oppressors, instead choosing to defend men in spiritual warfare, it is not hard to see why some Jewish people of the time and in biblical times would prefer the tangible power shown by Superman. These passages do not only allude to Superman’s association with Old Testament prophecies, but they suggest that Siegel and Shuster considered these prophecies and stories during Superman’s conception, consciously creating a messiah figure.

Finally, the biblical Jesus and comic book Superman differ greatest in the nature of the peace reached through their actions. While both saviors usher in peace, the dichotomy of the spiritual repercussions of Jesus’s actions and the physical actions of Superman continues to appear. The Old Testament verse promises that the messiah “shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples…nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isa 2.4). In biblical times, people believed that this promised peace between the Romans and the Jews, among other nations, and this would give them their salvation and deliverance. Though Superman uses a vast amount of violence, he is constantly fighting for peace. In one of the Man of Steel’s most broad—and possibly his most destructive—rescues, he attempts to save the slums when he discovers that “‘the government rebuilds destroyed areas with modern cheap-rental apartments, eh?’ Building after building crashes before his attack! ‘Then here’s a job for it! – When I finish, this town will be rid of its filthy, crime-festering slums!” (Siegel 109). This passage acts as the perfect image of the messiah figure riding into battle to create peace among his people through completely active, violent, and destructive means. While Superman, or rather his writer Jerry Siegel, seems to prefer this method of justice, comic book readers can discover examples of peace through diplomacy. In Action Comics No. 2, he even settles a war between nations by bringing the opposing war-lords together and explaining: “‘Gentlemen, it’s obvious you’ve been fighting only to promote the sale of munitions! – Why not shake hands and make up?’ And so, due to the conciliatory efforts of Superman, the war is halted” (Siegel 30). Shuster draws Superman as a logical, supportive mentor, helping men to choose peace themselves rather than forcing it upon them. In the same way Jesus, King of the Jews, sought to bring His people to spiritual and eternal peace through His defeat of death in the form of resurrection. He points back to the prophecy in Isaiah by reassuring His disciples that “I [Jesus] have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16.33). This promise does not assure that God’s people will live life on Earth in utter peace and harmony, at least by the society’s definition, but rather looks to the peace granted by admission to the eternal paradise of heaven. However, Jesus does additionally promise peace on Earth in the form of the Holy Spirit, referred to the Spirit directly as “Peace” in reciting: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give you” (John 14.27). Though this peace is more physical than that spoken of in the passage above, it remains a spiritual peace in that it perpetuates as an inner peace despite the trials and tribulations of life. The peace brought by Superman does not deal with the spiritual or how people deal with situations, but focuses entirely on eliminating as many tribulations as possible; therefore, Superman’s goal of peace is yet to be realized. Regardless of the completion of his goal, the physical and spiritual missions perpetuated by Superman and God-as-man yield sufficient peace to bestow both heroes with the title of a messianic peace-bringer.

While Siegel found inspiration for the last son of Krypton in the only begotten Son of God, the two differ in one very distinct way: Jesus is the spiritual savior of eternal life while Superman is the physical savior of life on earth. In their defense of the weak, their strength in battle, and their strides towards peace, it is fitting to call Superman the Messiah of the twentieth century, at least in the fictional comic book world. With Nazi Germany attempting to enslave and oppress the Jewish people, the physical salvation of Superman would understandably sound more appealing to some than a spiritual salvation, just as it may have to the Jews of biblical times under the heel of the Roman empire. Just as the Christian messiah reshaped the religion of those Jews who accepted His teachings, “Superman is destined to reshape the destiny of a world!” (Siegel 16)… at least in the comic books and in the minds of his avid readers.


Works Cited

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010. Print.

Holy Bible: Updated New American Standard Bible. Anaheim, CA: Foundation Publications, 2007. Print.

Siegel, Jerry and Joe Shuster. Superman Chronicles. V1. New York, NY: DC, 2006, Print.


(Tyler Wenger is an upcoming sophomore at Washington and Lee University from Franklin, TN. He is a pre-med student planning on majoring in Neuroscience and he has been both a Christian and a die-hard Superman fan for his entire life.)

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Of all the images to feature in this month’s review of Brad Ricca’s Super Boys, The New York Times went with one of “the kinky illustrations Shuster was reduced to doing for sleazy magazines in the mid-1950s,” specifically one that, according to editor Peter Keepnews, “looks for all the world like Lois Lane preparing to whip a trussed-up Superman.”

Craig Yoe had the same idea, choosing an even more overt image for the cover of Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-Creator Joe Shuster: Lois in high heels and underwear not preparing but full-on whipping a chained and bare-chested Clark. The Man of Steel shattered identical chains on Action Comics every month, but this Shuster illustration is working toward a very different climax.

Yoe’s title is a bit of a dodge though, and Keepnews’ “kinky” is no better. Yoe reproduces Shuster’s 1954 illustrations for Nights of Horror, a typo-strewn black and white cranked out of Shuster’s neighbor’s basement, but unlike almost anything else related to superheroes, this is not “Fetish Art.” Zorro dressing up in a mask and cape to keep his sword erect? That’s a fetish. Hooded men assaulting bound and weeping women? Frederic Wertham termed it “pornographic horror literature.” I call it rape and torture.

Nights of Horror

Craig Yoe is less coy between the covers: “These BDSM (bondage-discipline dominance-submission sadism-masochism) tales were an equal opportunity employer. Women were tied up, whipped, and spanked, but could eagerly be the tie-ers, whippers, and spankers, too.”

Well, not exactly “equal.”

Of Shuster’s 108 illustrations, I count seventy-one that depict women dominated by men. The reverse occurs nine times.  Add another nine scenes of women dominating women for a grand total of eighty female victims. Shuster draws only one incident of a man dominating another man (with a woman as the primary focus, so the men are not—gasp!— a homoerotic pairing) for a total of ten victimized men. Check my math, but an eighth is a lot less than “equal.”

Most common torture device: a whip. Eighteen of the twenty-two appearances are used against women. Other devices used to torture women (in alphabetical order): air hose, alligator pit, ball and chain, cactus, chains, corset, electric wire, fingernails, gun, hairbrush, hot poker, hypodermic needle, iron maiden, knife, paddle, paddle machine, spiked bed, spiked gloves, switch, and water hose. Additional techniques to dominate women: champagne, hypnotism, marijuana, opium, and polygamy.

Deborah Friedell, in her New Yorker review of Ricca’s Superboys, gives Nights of Horror one sentence, while implying the opposite power dynamic: “Shuster supported himself by illustrating pornography for a series of adult comic books: the naked women brandishing the whips are Lois Lane, the bound men at their feet are are Superman or Jimmy Olsen.”A largely true but wholly misleading statement. For the record, men are whipped, spanked, paddled, clubbed, and one anticipates the removal of a toe. Three more display submission by kissing a woman’s shoe, kneeling with a tiny chain attached to his ear, and (my favorite) serving a woman breakfast in bed.

The nudity is almost exclusively female. Only four illustrations feature fully clothed women. Another ten reveal partially exposed underwear, usually from a forcibly raised dress hem. Some seventy-one (by far the standard) are women in nearly identical see-through bras, panties and those mid-thigh pantyhose and garter belt contraptions I’ve never really understood. The remaining twenty-three or so feature full or partial nudity, which usually means exposed breasts, but occasionally buttocks, and very rarely a vaguely drawn crotch. So vague, in fact, as to seem sexless. (Women were not, to the best of my very limited knowledge, shaving their pudenda in the mid-50s).

The one image of full male nudity is also oddly sexless—or at least gravity-defying. The more disturbing anatomical features are the women’s freakishly tiny hands and feet. And their high-heels which appear to be permanent growths of their otherwise naked bodies.

Stan Lee (he wrote Yoe’s introduction) looks at these pictures and sees a “disillusioned and desperate” Joe Shuster “forced to accept commissions to draw what amounted to S&M erotic horror books.” Although the unemployed Shuster was financially desperate in 1954, his arrangement with Nights of Horror was sounder than his one with DC Comics.

He was paid $100 for each of Nights of Horrors issue, for a total of $1800. Less than twenty years earlier, his bosses at DC had written him a check for $130, which he split with his partner Jerry Siegel. That was in exchange for the permanent, multi-million dollar rights to Superman. Shuster drew an average of six illustrations for each Nights of Horror. That’s a page rate of just over $16. He and Siegel were splitting $10 a page back in 1938. DC grudgingly raised it $15 when the Action Comics spin-off Superman sold 900,000 copies the following year. Nights of Horror boasted a print run of only 1,000, including the 2,650 backlog confiscated in a book store police raid.

By any accounting system, Nights of Horror was a far more financially ethical employer than DC.

As far as disillusionment?

Shuster’s Nights of Horror illustrations are not hack work. He’d didn’t doodle a half-dozen half-hearted sketches in exchange for that week’s grocery money. Despite his failing eyesight (what finally pushed him out of comic books in the late 40s), these pages have been pored over. The detail is at times lovingly and so disturbingly precise—reminiscent of Robert Crumb’s own obsessively rendered female figures of the following decades. The best here easily exceeds the rawer material he rushed off for Action Comics. Joe was getting more out of Nights of Horror than a paycheck.

I don’t know the nuances of Shuster’s sexual life, but I will guess that it was primarily a solitary activity. Yoe documents his preference for tall women (he was short), and his brief marriage to a former Vegas showgirl in 1975 (they look the same height in their wedding photo). Superman provided his best pick-up lines. According to biographer Gerard Jones (I haven’t read Ricca yet), he would hang out at soda fountains and hand girls (the tall ones presumably) sketches of his Man of Steel before asking them out. At least one fifteen-year-old said yes. Shuster was 25 at the time.

He was forty in 1954, and working alone. His studio of assistants dispersed after he and Siegel lost their lawsuit against DC in 1948. Nights of Horror was some of the only art he’d sold since Superman. Although not paneled like a comic book, the illustrations are often sequential and depict narrative movement. (Thank you, Mr. Yoe, for not including the original texts.) Two sequences conclude with heroic rescues of female victims by Superman-like saviors. A sadistic film producer collapses from a detective’s bullet, and a bearded cult leader succumbs to a punch on the jaw. Only one woman defends herself. She rushes at her captor with a knife and seems to have the upper hand—briefly. She’s bound as he whips her on the next page.

I’m going out on a limb here and guessing that Shuster did not collaborate with a model for these illustrations. The stock repetition of body type and undergarments suggests an internal, idealized projection, one with rounder hips and thighs than any of today’s anorexic supermodels. But even when a live human being posed in front of his canvas, Shuster always saw what he wanted to see. A teenaged Jolan Kovacs answered his 1935 ad for a model in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He wanted to practice his Lois Lane sketches before retooling Superman for a new round of newspaper syndication submissions. Kovacs couldn’t fill out her sister’s baggy swimsuit, but Shuster’s sketches do not share the shortcoming. The picture of Scarlet Pimpernel actress Merle Oberon in his head was bigger than the breathing woman before his eyes.

That didn’t stop him from asking Kovacs out on a date. Nothing much came of it then or ten years later when he asked her to the National Cartoonists Society’s costume ball. She wanted to come as Lois Lane, but Shuster and Siegel were in the process of losing their lawsuit. But Joanne (she changed her name for her modeling career) and Jerry (he attended the ball too) were very happy to see each other again. A few months later they were married. It was a City Hall event, so Shuster didn’t have to stand up and mumble through a best man’s toast. Six years after the ceremony, Joe and his Superman partner were done with each other, and Joe was drawing S&M for his neighbor’s underground porn pulps.

I can identify only six of the 108 illustrations that depict scenes of consensual sex. (Call me Puritanical, but I am eliminating the refer-smoking Jimmy Olsen in the early stages of pot-fostered date rape.) Of the six, two are heterosexual, and four lesbian. There are twice as many lesbian images of women dominating other women, but even in those the content is less violent than elsewhere. Nights of Horror lesbians tend to spank with hairbrushes and bare hands rather than whips or switches.

The lesbian imagery is, of course, for male consumption. Which apparently eliminates the need for other reader-titillating taboos. Twice the girl-on-girl action is interrupted by a man bursting through the girls’ closed door—the thinly disguised desire of the perceived reader.

Even when the male presence isn’t literalized, Nights of Horror foregrounds its voyeurism. Only one page in the collection depicts a lone figure, and she’s not preening just for her mirror.  Other pages are more overt: an eye in a peep-hole, a man leering through a window, a grinning boy at the corner of the frame watching a spanking. That’s us.

Shuster draws himself too. A painter stands before his canvas, brush in hand, staring at his model (practically the only woman not in heels). The sketch on the canvas is nearly identical to the actual model. They are made of the same black-on-white pen strokes. Yoe includes a caption:

“At last he had her posed to his satisfaction.”

Joe Shuster

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On the radio.

That’s the short answer.

Before DC handed over its biggest commodity to the Mutual Broadcasting System, press agent Duke Ducovny teamed-up with pulp writer Bob Maxwell to give the Man of Steel a radio make-over. Their revisions included a Krypton located on the other side of our sun and a full-grown Kryptonian stepping out of his rocket ship. They also dreamed up “Up, Up and Away!” and the swooshing audio effect that accompanied it. Technically, he was only leaping “into the air an eighth of a mile at a single bound,” but when MBS writer George Ludlam took over the scripts, he kept the “It’s a bird! It’s a plane!” shtick.  Listeners weren’t picturing a glorified high jumper. The Superman in their radio cabinets was flying.

But the comic book Superman remained comparatively earthbound. Though you can see why Ducovny and Maxwell made the imaginative leap. After his one-page origin, Joe Shuster’s first Action Comics panel shows his hero sailing over houses, with Jerry Siegel’s ambiguous caption: “A tireless figure races thru the night.”

The guy certainly looks like he’s flying. A few issues later, when he “launches himself out and down” from a skyscraper to save a suicidal jumper, Superman grabs him inches above the sidewalk. Which is to say, the creators had no problem breaking other laws of physics.

Yet they kept their hero stubbornly gravity-minded while the MBS incarnation was headed up, up and away. Six months after the radio debut, Siegel and Shuster’s Superman still “plummets earthward like a leaden weight.” But they didn’t ignore the airwaves entirely. “Seizing the sides of his cape, Superman navigates it like a sail so that he swoops out of sight in a giant curve before onlookers can quite understand what is happening!”

So why not just give in and let the guy fly?

Here’s the long answer.

Superman started flying out of Siegel and Shuster’s hands the moment they made him.

The two twenty-three-year-olds signed over all rights before the first 12-page feature hit newsstands. Has any company ever made a bigger return on a $130 investment? DC Comics, part of its boss’ mob-connected shell game of publishing companies in 1937, earned $2.6 million in 1941. Even the physical check they wrote Siegel and Shuster surged more than a tenfold in value when it was auctioned for $160,000 earlier this year.

So what did Superman’s creators get?

Their page rate leapt from $10 to $15. When DC signed Superman for a newspaper deal, the pair got a 50% royalty cut.  But the 1940 radio show? The 1941 cartoon? The 1942 novel? The 1944 Superboy comic? The 1948 film serial? The decade of toys and kid clothes? And after they sued and lost in 1948, DC cut them off completely.

Superman was literally a corporation. Superman, Inc. DC hired their press agent to steer their Man of Money. Which is why Ducovny hired Maxwell, not Siegel, to write the first radio adaptation. Superman’s creators lost more than royalties. Creative control vanished as soon as DC figured out Superman was driving Action Comics sales.

And Siegel saw it all coming. AC #6, a phony manager hires a fake Superman and starts signing merchandise deals for breakfast cereals, cars, and gas stations. “I have a contract from him giving me sole commercial rights to his name!” This is the same month Siegel’s bosses nixed his idea for a new title about Superman’s boyhood. They’d wait till he was drafted and forget to pay him for it.

In 1940, Siegel tried to shake up his storylines by allowing Clark to reveal his secret identity to Lois. His bosses nixed that too. The next month, Clark parrots his creators’ marching orders: “With Lois more friendly, I’m tempted to forget my identity as Superman—but of course I must go on as I have!”

Next thing Perry White and Jimmy Olen—characters from the radio show—are showing up in Action Comics too. And it’s another MBS scripter, George Lowther, penning the novel DC contracted with Random House. Siegel didn’t get a credit, let alone a royalty check. When he shipped out in 1943, other writers took control of his comic books too.

Joe Shuster, half blind with a degenerative eye disease, had been employing a studio of co-artists for years. Soon they were jumping ship and taking their paychecks directly from DC. That 1940 issue with Superman using his cape like a sail? It was one of the last that looks like Shuster drew it himself. He and Jerry lost their uberoffspring faster than a speeding bullet.

Of course they didn’t want him to fly.

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The most annoying panel in comic book history: young Bruce Wayne lifting a massive dumbbell with one arm. The caption tells us he “trains his body to physical perfection until he is able to perform amazing athletic feats.” It’s literally the centerpiece of Batman’s 1939 origin page. Fifteen years of effort reduced to a 2 by 3 inch box.

Other superhero origins are instantaneous: a spider bite, a lightning bolt, a planet exploding. Bob Kane’s stands out because of its compression. A long and painstaking process turned into a snapshot. It’s what superhero readers want. Instant transformation.  One-panel puberty. Just say the magic word.

My ten-year-old started jogging with me last fall. I made him a deal: run a mile and get unbound video time for the rest of the day. He’s a voracious reader and sporadic athlete, but lately his Wii alter egos could do anything but get him off the couch.

Day one he went a winded half lap, an eighth of a mile, before resting. Week two he was doing two sets of double laps. Week three we timed his first nine-minute mile. Now he’s talking about racing 5Ks in the not-so-distant spring.

My own exercise routine used to include push-ups. It took me five months to climb from three sets of thirty to three sets of fifty. This is not impressive. It’s an illustration of how mind-numbingly dull Batman’s origin story really is.

Superman co-creator Joe Shuster knew it. While his partner Jerry Siegel was handing him descriptions of their hero’s athletic powers, the twenty-year-old Joe was hefting real dumbbells. He was a bodybuilder, dedicating hours to gymnasium solitude. Jerry tried it too.  Briefly. It’s more fun imagining physical perfection than slogging toward it.

Jerry’s Clark Kent didn’t work at all: “As the lad grew older, he learned to his delight that he could hurdle skyscrapers, leap an eighth of a mile, raise tremendous weights, run faster than a streamline train.”

Shuster idolized real strong men, Benarr MacFadden, his loinclothed protégé Charles Atlas.  Both built business empires on the promise of instantaneous transformation. I remember the Atlas ads from the comics I read as a ten-year-old. A bully kicks sand in little Joe’s face, and Joe returns a panel later to exact revenge. It’s the Batman origin, only more so. The panel of transformation is split by the diagonal caption: “LATER.” In the second, lower half, Joe is preening at his mirror: “Boy! It didn’t take long. What a build.”

Manhood in minutes. That’s the heart of superhero origins. If it requires hard work, it doesn’t work.

Look at the obese and superhero-obsessed narrator of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He goes 270 pages without committing to his own exercise routine. But then a “couple of months” later he’s lost twenty pounds. It took one sentence. Four pages and Oscar’s “fatguy coat” is gone forever. We didn’t even see him sweat.

In fact, when we do see him sweating (the novel is filled with Oscar’s abortive attempts at exercise), the transformation fails. There’s a reason “his number one hero” is “Shazam.”

Oscar earned Diaz a Pulitzer in 2008. An instantaneous transformation that only took fifteen years. If you don’t count all the writing he did before starting his MFA in 1993.

I won’t theorize about Diaz’s motives, but Oscar’s are clear. He wants the girl. And after his magic transformation, his mutant heart gets her. Briefly. Charles Atlas promises the weaklings in his ads the girl too. It costs “Only 15 Minutes a Day!” If you count the time biking to the track, my son spends thirty. He just turned eleven. He doesn’t care about the girl yet. He still closes his eyes when characters on TV kiss. He comes home sweaty and proud to relax with a Wii remote in his fist.

One of Siegel and Shuster’s filler panels in Action Comics #6 offers “Acquiring Super-Strength” advice tailored to 1938 readers content to sit on a couch all day:

“Clench your fists as tightly as possible, exerting every ounce of energy! While in this tense state, sharply jerk them in various directions! This will eventually impart to you a crushing hand-grip!”


It’s been over seventy years. How’s that coming along?

[Addendum: Cameron hit a 7:40 mile in March.]

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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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“The trend in uniform design is more toward making costumes for superheroes than uniforms for athletes.”

That’s ESPN reporter Paul Lukas. He’s also the editor of A website devoted not to sport teams but their uniforms. Lukas is not a fan of U of Maryland’s new string of high fashion helmets and jerseys. Under Armour (they’re designing all of Maryland’s varsity uniforms) is championing the new menswear trend of garishly bright colors.

But it’s not new for comic books. Joe Shuster’s Superman made the first superheroic fashion statement seventy years ago. And comic book heroes are still working the runways.

George Perez and Jesus Merino just retailored the Man of Steel’s skintight threads with a Kryptonian armor design (the red briefs have, mysteriously, vanished). And Sara Pichelli stitched a sassy new suit for Ultimate Spider-Man (the black and red is almost as bold as the brown skin underneath it).

In Hollywood, superhero costume design is its own industry. Look at just this year’s super fashion:

Designer Anna B. Sheppard trashed the spandex and went with a looser fitting cut for Captain America. The leather straps and metal buckles say “1940’s.”

Alexandra Byrne was thinking “ancient modernism” for Thor. The biggest challenge was the cape, which had to merge “completely believable” with the “sublimely magical.”

Ngila Dickson abandoned real-world fabrics. The Green Lantern costume is entirely motion-captured computer graphics.

David E. Kelley recently shot a Wonder Woman pilot for NBC, but his Amazon’s costume make-over didn’t make it into the fall line-up. Despite all the film fashion fun, the only superhero costumes on TV are on ESPN. Primetime heroes won’t touch them.

Syfy’s Alphas launched last summer. The team of superpowered government agents fight evil mutants in their street clothes. There’s not as much as a logo on their lapels.

Across the Atlantic, the BBC’s Misfits sport matching orange jumpsuits, but only because the characters are juvenile offenders clocking community service hours.

NBC’s Heroes solidified the trend in 2006, but it was the CW’s 2001 Superboy adaptation, Smallville, that first scissorsed the costume off a superhero.

The 1993 Lois and Clark, the 1988 Superboy, and the 1990 The Flash series all still featured their hero’s iconic wardrobes. Which was part of the problem.

“The appearance of realism in a super-hero costume,” explains Michael Chabon, “made from real materials is generally recognized to be difficult to pull off.” In fact, he goes on, it’s “hopeless” because the true superhero costume exists only on paper.

This is most obviously and hilariously true in the earliest attempts to move superheroes from comic books to screen. If you don’t admire Anna B. Sheppard’s Captain America, take a look at the 1944 film serial.

Adam West’s Batman could get away with leotarded camp in the 60’s. William Katt’s Greatest American Hero still could fifteen years later. The goofiness of their costumes was part of the appeal. But Tim Burton raised the bar with Batman in 1989. Low-budget leotards no longer cut it. Michael Keaton in Bob Ringwood’s award-winning batsuit changed the playing field. The 2000 X-Men said it outright: leather is better.

At least on the big screen. Responding to the same challenge, TV designers opted for a simpler solution. If it’s hopeless, why try?

Stan Lee never liked costumes anyway. “I always felt if I had a superpower,” Lee says in Confessions of a Superhero, “there’s no way I would wear a costume. I’m a show-off; I’d want everybody to [know]–I wouldn’t wear a mask, conceal my identity. And I wouldn’t want to look like some idiot in a costume.”

When he and Jack Kirby posed their first superhero team on the cover of a Marvel comic book in 1961, the Fantastic Four were no more fashion forward than the Alphas. The Thing made his debut in a men’s clothing store (“I’m sorry, mister, I just don’t have anything big enough for a man your size!”). It’s not till issue three that Invisible Girl reveals her secret superpower:

“Susan! You designed a costume for yourself!”

“And for you, too! It’s time we all had some colorful costumes!”

But now the anti-fashion fashion is filtering back into comic books. When Grant Morrison and Rags Morales revamped Action Comics, they made the most radical costume choice imaginable: Superman in work boots, blue jeans, and a t-shirt. There’s still an ‘S’ on his chest and a cape on his back, but the iconic unitard of the original comic book superhero is gone.

These surface changes are more than just surface changes. In comic books, costume is character. A change in tights is a change in meaning. The spandex look has marked superheroes as exotic outsiders since the 30’s. They fight for humanity, but their second skins separate them. They remain alien and so alienated.

Or they did. When TV’s Alphas or Misfits or Heroes perform extraordinary abilities in ordinary clothes, they are also performing their humanity. They are just people. People with really freaky skill sets, but at their core (which is a product of their surface) they are human. While their big screen brothers want to remain larger than life, the 21st century TV superhero is dressed for small-scale integration. We all pull our pants on one leg at a time.

So if you’re a costume connoisseur, stick with college football.

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