Skip to content

The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Johnston McCulley

So here’s my favorite gay superhero sex scene:

“I . . . placed my hands on his face. . . With one palm over his forehead and the other palm over his nose and mouth, I looked into those deep, dark pupils and saw the way he used to look at me when he was Dark Hero, when I didn’t know. Goran took my hand off his mouth and held it. He raised it to his mouth, placed his warm lips in the middle of my palm and kissed it. . . . I reached my arms around Goran, pulled him in, and our lips met.”

I know, pretty tame stuff, definitely not a passage from Unmasked: Erotic Tales of Gay Superheroes. It’s from Perry Moore’s 2007 Hero, and look how it echoes Zorro from one of the first superhero novels ever written:

“He grasped one of her hands, and before she guessed his intention, had bent forward, raised the bottom of his mask, and pressed his lips to its pink, moist palm.”

Johnston McCulley tells us Zorro is motivated by government persecution of monks and natives, but he and his alter ego Don Diego spends more effort seducing his future wife. Moore’s hero masturbates to online porn of wide-nippled Uberman (the one page I mumbled over when reading aloud to my kids), but he doesn’t find real intimacy until he and the better half of his dynamic duo have shared secret identities. The novel’s most touching scene takes place not in bed but during a picnic lunch in a public park, with both heroes fully clothed but unmasked. Zorro, however, likes to keep his mask on:

“The moment I donned cloak and mask . . . My body straightened, new blood seemed to course through my veins, my voice grew strong and firm, fire came to me! And the moment I removed cloak and mask I was the languid Don Diego again.”

That’s my favorite passage from all of superhero literature. It’s also one of the most thinly veiled descriptions of a penis I’ve ever read. For McCulley’s Zorro, a mask is a fetish. It literally makes him hard. Without it, he’s limp. It has a similar effect on women. Senorita Lolita is bored by the unmanly Don Diego, but she is titillated by his masked outlaw:

“And suddenly she was awakened by a touch on her arm, and sat up quickly, and then would have screamed except that a hand was crushed against her lips to prevent her. Before her stood a man whose body was enveloped in a long cloak, and whose face was covered with a black mask so that she could see nothing of his features except his glittering eyes.”

This is the erotic subtext to a surprising range of superhero tales. The hero dons his manly disguise not fight crime and uphold justice, but to woo the girl.

zorro 1919 all-story cover

Before McCulley published The Curse of Capistrano in 1919 (it was renamed The Mark of Zorro after the Douglass Fairbanks film adaptation the following year), Zorro’s predecessors (Spring-Heeled Jack, Scarlet Pimpernel, Gray Seal) established unmasking as the ultimate act of intimacy between a superhero and his love interest. Though those earlier writers wedded the mask and the marriage bed, McCulley takes the striptease to new extremes. Zorro “tore off his mask” only after he gets Lolita to reveal “her true heart” and agree to “have offspring.” Don Diego’s seduction is complete. Although Lolita “would rather have you Senor Zorro than the old Don Diego,” she now loves “both of them.” Don Diego can retire both his mask and his “languid ways.” People “will say marriage made a man of me!”

This all sounds quaintly old-fashioned, but the same plot turns today’s superheroes. Alan Moore (no relation to Perry) makes Don Diego’s languid impotence explicit in Watchmen. Daniel Dreiberg can’t keep himself strong and hard (“Oh Laurie, I’m so sorry, it isn’t you, it’s just . . .”) until he’s dressed as Nite Owl (“Did the costumes make it good?”).

nite owl sex scene

Or take a more recent look at the 2010 film Kick-Ass. (Forgive me, Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr., but I’ve not read your 2008 comic book yet.) Dave, the mild-mannered hero, can’t get the girl.  Why? Because she thinks he’s gay. Fairbanks played the effeminate Don Diego to similar effect. Katie, however, thinks this new superhero Kick-Ass is pretty damn sexy. Where does Dave reveal himself to her? Her bedroom. What happens afterwards? The obvious. In fact, now Katie can’t keep her hands off Dave, and next they’re fornicating in back alleys too.

kick-ass-katie_n_dave

McCulley might have blushed at the R-rated sequence, but his Lolita had similar adventures in mind for her boy wonder. Like Don Diego, Dave and Dan are nothing without their masks. That’s why I prefer Moore’s hero, a gay man who never hides in his closet. Dark Hero’s alter ego is no languid Clark Kent either. By making the hero and his love interest gay, Moore unmasks the homophobic subtext and sets the superhero genre straight.

Tags: , , , , , ,

death of parents 2

A little boy witnesses the murder of his parents and swears vengeance. It’s right up there with radioactive spiders and Krypton exploding. But Detective Comics ran six adventures before Bob Kane bothered to sketch in his hero’s background.

Legend has it that Kane was planning “Bird-Man” before his scripter Bill Finger steered him toward “Bat-Man.” After plagiarizing a Shadow novella for the first adventure, Finger (or possibly second string writer Gardner Fox) plagiarized an even more obscure pulp for the origin story. The 1934 “The Bat” is credited to C. K. M. Scanlon, a likely pseudonym for superhero trail-blazer Johnston McCulley (you know him for Zorro).

the bat

You also know how The Bat chose a crime-fighting identity:

“He would not be able to appear in public unless he was carefully and cleverly disguised. . . . he must become a figure of sinister import . . .  A strange Nemesis that would eventually become a legendary terror to all of crimedon. . .  In the shadows above his head came a slithering, flapping sort of sound. As the creature hovered above the lamp for an instant it cast a huge shadow upon the cabin wall.  ‘That’s it!’ exclaimed Clade aloud. ‘I’ll call myself ‘The Bat.’

Five years later, Bruce Wayne also sits alone contemplating his own disguise:

“Criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot. So my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible . . . .”

Like McCulley’s Clade, Bruce’s needs are answered by a seemingly chance appearance, “As if in answer a huge bat flies in the open window!” Which provides Bruce his needed inspiration: “A bat! That’s it! It’s an omen. I shall become a BAT!” He stands in full costume in the concluding frame: “And thus is born the weird figure of the dark . . . this avenger of evil, ‘The Batman.’”

batman origin

Comic book expert Will Murray was the first to identify Batman’s debt to The Bat, but the story goes deeper. Kane and McCulley were both influenced by an even older source. D. W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation (a disturbing combination of landmark film innovation and unbridled racism) contains the first origin story for a masked hero’s costume.

After seeing his homeland under “Negro rule,” future Klan leader Ben Cameron sits alone “In agony of soul over the degradation and ruin of his people.” A group of children appear as if in answer. Two white children place a white sheet over their heads, and the black children are terrified by the ghostly sight. “The inspiration.” Cameron stands, now ready to act. “The result. The Ku Klux Klan . . . .” In the next frame sit three mounted Clansmen in full costume.

inspiration

The sequence prefigures not only Batman’s three-panel origin structure—hero alone, chance inspiration, first image of costumed persona—but also the “superstitious” rationalization for the disguise.

Promotional posters for the film also featured a Klansmen on horseback, his cape fluttering and his Klan emblem centered on his chest. After Action Comics No. 1, these would become standard motifs of the superhero costume. It seems unlikely that Joe Shuster, a young Jewish artist from Cleveland, knowingly copied his Superman from anti-Semitic vigilantes, but Birth of a Nation and the Klan of the 20’s and 30’s had blurred into popular culture by the time he took up his pens.

birth nation

Bill Finger’s plagiaristic impulses, however, are better documented. Finger was only a year old when Birth of a Nation premiered in theaters, but a sound version was re-released in 1930, giving him and the rest of the Batman creative team opportunity to view it first hand. McCulley was already 32 in 1915. He would not have needed to view the film a second time to be influenced by the origin sequence. Most likely McCulley borrowed from Griffith, and Finger borrowed from McCulley.

But however you draw the lines of influence, the KKK still haunts one of comic book’s most cherished superheroes.

[If you’re interested in a fuller treatment of this argument, see “The Ku Klux Klan and the birth of the Superhero” in Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics.]

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Rumor has it there’s a new Zorro film in development. Not another Banderas and Zeta-Jones sequel, but something based on Isabel Allende’s recent rewrite of the legend.

Though “rewrite” might not be the right word. Allende claims she gave no thought to her character’s previous incarnations and invented at will. And yet her final product, an extended coming-of-age secret origin tale, painstakingly adheres not only to the original 1919 Johnston McCulley novel but a multitude of its short story, film and TV adaptations and sequels.

This is a good thing. It stages a literary treasure hunt for fans-in-the-know (which, okay, I guess that includes me), while giving new readers an unfettered romp through a world of pirates, Gypsies, secret societies, and the Spanish Inquisition.

So on one hand, we have a respectful prequel, not a reboot at all. Ms. Allende just fills in the blanks. And I don’t mean the sex scenes. Her narrator (also conveniently named Isabel) offers a quick striptease and moonlit tussle with Light-in-the-Night, but otherwise reports that “spicy pages” and “carnal love” are aspects “of Zorro’s legend that he has not authorized me to divulge.” This despite an allusion to numerous women with otherwise “virtuous reputations” inviting “him to climb their balcony at questionable hours of the night.”

So, no, this is not a bodice ripper. And neither is McCulley’s novel. All that virile red blood he keeps thumping through his hero’s body finds action in his rapier not his, well, rapier. Though his story maintains a barely masked panic about masculinity and the horror of effeminate men.

McCulley is equally obsessed with blue blood. The Mark of Zorro (renamed after the Douglas Fairbanks film) is an entertainingly incompetent argument for the supremacy of European bloodlines. It was written from the bowels of the eugenics movement, an all but forgotten (AKA suppressed) era of American culture.

It was once common knowledge, from Presidents to pulp writers, that “well born” blood had to be protected from mixing with the unfit. The future of civilization was at stake. The unfit included Indians (those victims of oppression Zorro both protects and paradoxically reviles), Asians, Blacks, Eastern Europeans, Jews, the poor, the promiscuous, criminals, invalids, and the feeble-minded.

The list is actually quite longer, but you get the idea. In the first quarter of the 20th century, even social manners were an inheritable trait, and Zorro and his aristocratic pals held a monopoly.

Allende will have none of this. Her Zorro, while an apparent clone of his McCulley parent, reverses his core DNA. Rather than protecting his fellow aristocrats (particularly the family of the senorita he seeks to procreate with), Allende’s Zorro recognizes the fundamental injustice of the class system and vows to right it.

Or at least he starts to. He’s no Robin Hood, but he’s also no pure blood prince. Allende thoroughly mixes his blood, turning the “mestizo” stigma into the source of his superpowers. The novel is a sequence of romping, episodic adventures, each tossing a new trinket into the melting pot of his character. A Gypsy sword, a pirate’s wardrobe, a Jewish fencing mentor, a cross-dressing Indian mother, they all coalesce in the aggressively anti-eugenics swashbuckling amalgam of a 21st century Zorro.

I’d love to see Allende’s novel adapted into a TV series. But I’ll settle for a film. Or possibly two, since both Sony and Fox are working on reboots. The Fox version, Zorro Reborn, would be set in a post-apocalyptic future, some sort of Zorro on The Road. Which, okay, I guess that’s one direction to go. And not even the strangest. I also hear there’s a musical hoofing its way toward Broadway.

One way or another, McCulley’s descendants will continue to spread his bloodline.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Last year I gave my wife The Walking Dead Vols. 1-3 for Christmas. She loved it. She had a few other items under the tree too, but The Walking Dead was the only one she went on to teach in her freshman composition course.

My wife loves zombies. Actually, she loves almost anything involving the end of the world as we know it. Survivor tales. I’ve never seen her so happy as when she was filling water containers to store in our basement crawl space in the months leading up to Y2K.

But there’s something particular about zombies that enthralls her. Not any horror plot. Not vampires and werewolves. Certainly not slashers. Just animated, brain-devouring corpses. 28 Days Later is one of her all time favorite films (I know, not technically zombies, but Lesley’s not a purist). We saw it on romantic a date out, left the kids with my parents. When The Walking Dead showed up on last year’s fall TV listings, she was thrilled. We’ve watched every blood-splattering, heart-wrenching episode.

According to her and her first year composition students, the comic book is far more socially conservative. When the world as we know it collapses, somehow family and its traditional 1950’s-era gender roles are all that endure. She shows a season one clip of the female cast cleaning clothes by the lake, how the screenwriters turn it into critique.

This year I got my wife a rapier.

I’ve had a copy of Isabel Allende’s Zorro lying around the house for months, in preparation for teaching it in my Thrilling Tales course next semester. This inspired Lesley to grab the books-on-CD version from the library when she drove up to New Jersey to give a poetry reading. She returned with a surprisingly energetic Spanish accent. The world was suddenly punctuated with exclamation points!

Johnston McCulley’s original 1919 Zorro novel is a hilariously straight-faced argument for the supremacy of European bloodlines and male virility. Allende’s is an equally fun read, but one that is both anti-colonial and rompingly feminist.

My wife was also awarded an endowed chair by our university this year. Dr. Lesley Wheeler is the new Henry S. Fox Professor of English. Zorro, by the way, means fox in Spanish. That’s why she asked for the rapier. It wasn’t easy to wrap. My Christmas high point was watching her face as she opened it, and then her jumping up on the sofa to swish it around. (Runner-up: my son opening the DC Versus Marvel Comics graphic novel and exclaiming, “I really need this! Now I’ll finally know who wins these battles.”) I’m confident Lesley and her Zorro blade will defeat all the legions of undead.

I think I gave her that Jane Austen spoof Pride and Prejudice and Zombies two Christmases ago. She liked it as much as the original. My favorite of her own poems is about a zombie Thanksgiving modeled on T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. This year I’m commissioning a Zorro vs. Zombies epic poem from her. We’re even flying to California, Zorro’s motherland, for a heart-splattering post-Christmas romp with her in-laws.

Sadly, the rapier will never make it through security.

Tags: , , , , , ,

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.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: