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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Jonathan Lethem


When Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay won the Pulitzer in 2000, it bestowed upon the lowly figure of the comic book superhero the superpower of literary legitimacy. Jonathan Lethem’s 2003 The Fortress of Solitude made the mutation permanent. So kudos to the highbrow dynamic duo for teleporting long-underwear characters over to the land of the intellectually bookish. But the transformation was as much a curse as a blessing. The superheroes Escapist and Aeroman say a lot more about death than rebirth.

Asked what inspired his novel, Chabon answered:

“I started writing this book because of a box of comic books that I had been carrying around with me for fifteen years. It was the sole remnant of my once-vast childhood collection. For fifteen years I just lugged it around my life, never opening it. It was all taped up and I left it that way. Then one day, not long after I finished Wonder Boys, I came upon it during a move, and slit open all the layers of packing tape and dust. The smell that emerged was rich and evocative of the vanished world of my four-color childhood imaginings. And I thought, there’s a book in this box somewhere.”

Chabon published Wonder Boys in 1995 and Kavalier and Clay in 2000, so he was drafting during one of the darkest moments of comics history. The superhero was bankrupt. Marvel filed for Chapter 11 protection in 1996, and though it battled its way out the following year, the surviving market was a shred of its pulp glory.

I have my own move-weary box of a whittled-down comics collection in my attic. I was born in 1966, Lethem in 1964, Chabon in 1963, so our four-color childhoods are a Bronze Age overlay. The seventies may lack the primordial Ka-Pow! of the forties or sixties, but it was a damn good if idiosyncratic decade for superheroes. Too bad Chabon isn’t interested in it.

The Escapist

Kavalier and Clay is instead a tale of the Golden Age superhero, and so an inevitable tragedy. The Escapist begins as “an escape artist in a costume,” freeing people from oppression by the light of his Golden Key. But in the end, he can’t even free himself, much less his creators.

“’Today,’ Anapol said, ‘I killed the Escapist.’”

Anapol isn’t a time-traveling supervillain from a parallel dimension. He’s a publisher. And he’s done trading punches with super-publisher DC and its legion of lawyer-minions in a never-ending battle of copyright infringement. The guy’s just not worth the financial effort anymore.

“Superheroes,” says Anapol, “are dead, boys.”

It’s the mid-50s, and, Chabon informs us, the “age of the superhero had long passed . . . all had fallen under the whirling thresher blades of changing tastes,” with DC’s lone survivors “forced to suffer the indignity of seeing their wartime sales cut in half or more.” But even dead, the Escapist, having “long slipped into cultural inconsequence,” would “always be there” for his creators as a “taunting” reminder of “the wealth and unimaginable contentment” they never reaped.

Meanwhile, the novel’s lone, fantastical entity, the Golem of Prague, meets a similar end. An enormous box filled seven inches deep with silt from the Moldau River arrives by mail: “The speculations of those who feared that the Golem, removed from shores of the river that mothered it, might degrade had been proved correct.” A coffin of dirt. That’s all that’s left after Chabon’s done firing his literary cosmic rays at the Golden Age of comics.


Lethem’s superheroes fair no better. His “flying man” (no caps, poor guy doesn’t even earn a superhero name) first appears in 1973, as the Silver Age is plummeting into the Bronze. “He looked like a bum,” with a bedsheet cape  stained yellow with pee, “needing a drink more than anything.” He can’t even land right (“Fucked up my motherfucking leg”) let alone stay airborne. Next thing he’s “curled in a ball” in front of a liquor store, “baked in vomit and urine and sweet” in a “mummified pose.”

So ends the Silver Age. But once hospitalized, “no-longer-flying man” becomes “a symbol of possible atonement” when he passes on his magic ring (it’s a Green Lantern riff) to Lethem’s stand-in, the adolescent Dylan, who rechristens himself Aeroman. Sounds better, but the key word is “possible,” because Dylan wastes the rest of the novel failing to launch. He slowly realizes he’s “no superhero at all” but a “coward” with “an irrelevant secret power,” and when his best friend, Mingus, uses the ring, Aeroman is still only a “would-be hero,” screwing up a police sting while getting himself arrested. Dylan’s costume (or “homo suit”) is soon “lost or destroyed,” and Dylan and Mingus’ shared identity (“world’s most pathetic superhero”) is now a symbol of their dissolving friendship.

The ring is last seen on a coke-smeared mirror, before vanishing into Dylan’s post-college apartment.  When next worn, instead of flight (“that part of it was dead”), it gives Dylan invisibility. But he proves as incompetent as ever, termed a “warped vigilante” when his next outing ends in accidental death (“I only wanted to help”). Aeroman was birthed from adolescent “desolation,” and Dylan finally flings the “curse once and for all into the brush at the side of the highway.” It makes a final appearance on the finger of Dylan’s childhood enemy after he’s leaped to his death—a presumed suicide.

Entrance into the League of Literary Superheroes comes with a stiff price. These are great novels, but rather than reanimating superheroes, Chabon and Lethem incinerate them. And is it coincidence that the character type entered highbrow circles only after comic books—the pulpiest of the pulps—had died? Comic shops in the U.S. peak at 12,000 in the early 90s. When Chabon finished Kavalier and Clay, only 3,000 remained. And they no longer welcomed kids. When Lethem finished Fortress, the average reader was 25, up from 12 when he, Chabon, and I were amassing our childhood collections.

We’re not the only ones.

Second Box of Comics

Komiksová burza, Brno

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I know, you never heard of either. But this dynamic duo reveals more about the politics of superheroes than do the contents of most comic shops. Jonathan Lethem’s short story “Super Goat Man” appeared in The New Yorker in April 2004, and Deborah Eisenberg (also a New Yorker fav) published “Twilight of the Superheroes” that fall.

Why were literary Avengers assembling in 2004? I’ll get back to that.  First a recap:

I was born in 1966, Lethem a little earlier, his narrator Everett a little before that—not the start of the Silver Age, but the start of its relevancy. Everett’s birth also parallels the escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Like me, Super Goat Man and his narrator became professors in “the harmless pantheon of academia.” Everett ends his tale on the job market. If I’m doing the math right, that’s 1993, same year my wife landed her current academic position. Everett is postdocing at Rutgers, where my wife and I met as undergrads. We married in 1993, same as Everett and his wife, a fellow medievalist.

Similarities end there, since, to the best of my knowledge, neither my wife nor I ever had sex with Super Goat Man.

Lethem offers no explanation for Super Goat Man’s fantastical leap (“fall from grace,” Everett calls it) from comic book pages to real world Brooklyn where Everett first indifferently meets him. He was “at best a minor star” in a small publisher’s five-issue run that Everett finds “embarrassing.” In the flesh he’s just a guy in a sleeveless undershirt who happened to have “two little fleshy horns on his forehead.” When he says, “I lost my job” for “being too outspoken about the war,” he means his superhero job, not his alter ego’s college position, which he quit after Kennedy was shot. How that relates to his “ludicrous and boring” adventures rescuing cats and old ladies in comics, Lethem doesn’t explain.

Everett and the other kids prefer “superheroes in two dimensions,” but their dads are entranced because Super Goat Man “represented some lost possibility in their own lives.” That possibility is never realized though. When next seen, Super Goat Man is goaded by college students to display his superpowers, but when he’s unable to catch a falling drunk with his prehensile toes, the kid ends up paralyzed.

“Had the hero,” asks Everett, “failed the crisis? Caused it, by innate provocation? Or was the bogus crisis unworthy, and the outcome its own reward? Who’d shamed whom?”

As a drawing Super Goat Man was “amateurish, cut-rate, antiquated,” but in his final appearance, he’s worse, “reduced to a kind of honorary position” as “a campus mascot.” He’s “quite infirm” due to his “accelerated aging process,” a result of the “sacrifice he’d made, enunciating his political views so long ago.” He has literally “shrunk,” not “five feet tall” now, and sometimes drops “to all fours” and shakes himself “like a wet dog,” unaware of his “sacrificed dignity.” He declares in his “sepulchral” voice: “All this controversy . . . not worth it,” meaning “his lost career.” But Everett’s “loathing” is directed at his own father’s “susceptibility to the notion of a hero.”

If all that doesn’t sound very superheroic, wait till you meet Deborah Eisenberg’s Passivityman.

I took a couple of MFA classes from Eisenberg just as her collection Twilight of the Superheroes was published in 2006. Because the title track had been rejected by The New Yorker and its ilk, Eisenberg’s boyfriend (that’s her term) Wallace Shaun created Final Edition, a literary one-off, to spotlight the short story rather than release it to shallower literary waters (where I do most of my own submission fishing).

Eisenberg’s superhero is the creation of Nathaniel, a twentysomething slacker facing his and his friends’ imminent expulsion from their ritzy, Manhattan sublet. When Nathaniel started Passivityman in junior high, he battled Captain Corporation in “a comic strip that ran in free papers all over parts of the Mid-west, a comic strip that was doted on by whole dozens . . . of stoned undergrads.” Nowadays, Nathaniel’s friends uncomfortably notice, the hero has become “intellectually passive,” even “passive-aggressive,” more like “his morally neutral, transgendering twin, Ambiguityperson.” Passivityman, like Nathaniel and his dispersing friends, is “losing his superpowers.”

Though the team’s “holding pattern” may have something to do with “the eternal, poignant weariness of youth,” the more immediate problem is 9/11. They were all out there on the terrace when the towers came down. Nathaniel keeps “waiting for that shattering day to unhappen, so that the real—the intended—future, the one that had been implied by the past, could unfold.” Meanwhile, his superhero’s rallying cry, “No way,” morphs into “Whatever,” until Nathaniel has “all but stopped trying to work on Passsivityman.”

When I interviewed Eisenberg for an article in U.Va’s alumni magazine, she credited Wallace (she actually calls him “Wall” and carries a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine trading card of him as the Grand Nagus of the Ferengi Alliance) with starting her writing career. He was also “incensed when the three highest-profile magazines rejected” her “Twilight of the Superheroes.” And thus was born Final Edition, a political magazine by writers “who seriously believe that part of our national problem is that the people who run the country have a crude and minimal imaginative life.”

In addition to Eisenberg’s short story,  Shaun included Jonathan Schell’s essay “Invitation to a Degraded World.” Since 9/11, it seemed to Schell, “history was being authored by a third-rate writer rather than a master, or was being compelled, even as it visited increasing suffering on real people, to follow the plot of a bad comic book,” in part because of the tone-setting “appearance of Osama bin Laden, a mass murderer who came across at the same time as a comic-book, caricature villain.” Sadly, Bush accepted “Bin Laden’s invitation to enter into the world of an apocalyptic comic book,” dividing “every person and government on earth into two camps — the good, the lovers of freedom, who are ‘with us,’ and the ‘evil-doers’ who hate the good ones for their very goodness,” while turning “himself into a sort of real life action figure . . . on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln to declare success in the Iraq.” As a result, not only was “the quality of political discussion and decision-making” damaged but “the dignity of the real.”

And that gets us back to Super Goat Man. Everett knows two-dimensional heroes belong in a two-dimensional world. Lethem’s cut-rate hero enters our world via the fantastical conduit of 9/11 and its on-going sequel, The War of Terror, and as a result both he and America deteriorate. Superheroes follow a formula of goofy but absolute good vs. reassuringly simple evil. They can’t cope with the complexities of politics—either in protest of the Vietnam War or the implementation of counter-terrorism. Superheroes and the real world shame each other.

Passivityman can’t cope either. He needed the two-dimensional “curtain” that divided him from “the dark world that lay right behind it, of populations ruthlessly exploited, inflamed with hatred, and tired of waiting for change to happen by.” The curtain had been “painted with the map of the earth, its oceans and contents, with [his] delightful city.” And the 9/11 planes tore through it.

The opposite of a superhero isn’t a supervillain. When exposed to three-dimensional reality, superheroes transform into their true opposites: irredeemable failures.

The drift toward comic book simplicity continued after 2004–until the reality-leaping election of Donald Trump flattened the political landscape in a single bound. Now the failings of George Bush seem nostalgically complex. Trump drew himself as a two-dimensional fantasy for white male Republicans longing for an old-school hero. That’s why Everett’s “loathing” for Super Goat Man is really about his father’s “susceptibility to the notion of a hero” and the damage it does to “the dignity of the real.” A majority of Americans would like that “shattering day to unhappen,” but unlike Nathaniel, they haven’t morphed into Passivityman. They aren’t sitting around, waiting for “the real—the intended—future, the one that had been implied by the past” to return. They’re tearing open the curtain themselves.


Twilight of the Superheores cover by Hendrik Dorgathen

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Black Bolt self-restraint

How long can you go without talking?

It doesn’t sound like much of a superpower, but Black Bolt holds the record in comic books. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created him back in 1965 (Fantastic Four #45), and aside from a few mountain-splitting whispers, the guy has barely parted his lips since.

For Supreme Court Justices, the verbal self-restraint prize goes to Clearance Thomas.


“One of the abiding mysteries at the Supreme Court,” writes Adam Liptak for The New York Times, “is why Justice Clarence Thomas has failed to say a word in almost seven years of arguments.” Theories include self-consciousness (Thomas was teased about his Georgia accent growing up), intimidation (he didn’t speak in his Yale law school classes either), and courtesy (to his fellow Justices whose noise level he likens to Family Feud).

Black Bolt is less of a mystery. My wife gave me Men and Cartoons for Christmas, so I’ll invite Jonathan Lethem to the lectern:

“Black Bolt wasn’t a villain or a hero. Black Bolt was part of an outcast band of mutant characters known as the Inhumans, the noblest among them. He was their leader, but he never spoke. His only demonstrated power was flight, but the whole point of Black Bolt was the power he restrained himself from using: speech. The sound of his voice was cataclysmic, an unusual weapon, like an atomic bomb. If Black Bolt ever uttered a syllable the world would crack in two.”

Black Bolt

Black Bolt grew up in a sound-proof chamber, not rural Georgia, but he is also a member of the Illuminati, the closest thing in the Marvel universe to the Supreme Court. Thomas shares his bench with eight Justices; Black Bolt only five (Reed Richards, Dr. Strange, Professor X, Tony Stark, and Namor), but both supergroups are the endpoint of an ultimate check-and-balance system. And they always get the last word.


Black Bolt even passes judgment on U.S. legislation. He rejected the Superhuman Registration Act (AKA the Patriot Act) in 2006 (also the year Thomas last spoke in court) and refused to get involved in the ensuing “Civil War,” monitoring it from afar instead. As Lethem explains, “Black Bolt was leader in absentia much of the time—he had a tendency to exile himself from the scene, to wander distant mountain tops contemplating . . . What? His curse? The things he would say if he could safely speak?”

Aside from a few whispered remarks audible only to Breyer and Scalia seated beside him, Thomas has gone seven years without a single word. Until this winter. During a discussion of the qualifications of a Harvard-trained defense attorney, the Black Bolt of the Supreme Court leaned forward and said into his microphone:

“Well — he did not — .”

The earth did not split in two.

But opinion did. Some witnesses say he was making a joke, a reference to whether a degree from Harvard could be considered proof of incompetence. Or was he referring to his own alma mater, Yale? Either way, court transcripts indicate laughter followed. Seven years of silence and then a one-liner. But if it was just a joke, why did the lawyer at the lectern try to refute his point? Whatever that point may have been? And since the broader issue was the minimum qualifications for a death penalty defense lawyer, who exactly was laughing?


When Black Bolt breaks his vow of silence, the results are usually much louder. Remember when he used his voice to free the Inhuman’s city of Attilan from the Negative Zone? Or stunned Spider-Man’s alien Venom costume after it merged with Thor, allowing Black Cat to kill it in revenge for Peter Parker’s death? (Though, okay, that’s from What If?, so technically it never happened.)

We never know exactly what Black Bolt says in his super-speeches. Maybe he just likes to crack jokes. If so, no microphone can record them. But the last time Thomas deployed his nation-splitting voice, every network in the country televised it.

Thomas confirmation

Remember how he pronounced the L-bomb, declaring his 1991 confirmation hearing a “high-tech lynching,” and categorically denied Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment? Remember the joke he cracked to her about the pubic hair on his Coke can? Now THAT was funny.

Of course the Senate confirmed him, so technically that didn’t happen either.

So let’s hear it for judicious self-restraint.Like Black Bolt, the Justice understands his own destructive vocal power and so has learned to hold his super-tongue. If he stays on schedule, we won’t hear another joke till 2020.

‘Nuff said.


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