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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Jonathan Schell


Super Goat Man BY EMILY FLAKE

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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Tim Seibles cuts straight to the heart. When I met him at his hotel to walk him over to my wife’s poetry class, conversation leapt from “nice weather” to “parents with Alzheimer’s” in a single bound. He was giving a reading that night and—because his most recent book, Fast Animal, includes five poems about Blade the Vampire-Hunter—visiting my Superheroes class the next morning.

Seibles was in high school when Marvel launched the character in 1973. He’s not the first black superhero—Black Panther debuted in Fantastic Four in 1966 , the Falcon in Captain America in 1969, and Luke Cage in his own title in 1972—but he beat Brother Voodoo to newsstands by two months. The comic book market was slumping, so Marvel was desperately mixing its superhero formula with blaxploitation and horror. Shaft hit theaters in 1971, Super Fly and Blacula in 1972. Hammer Films had been pounding out low budget Dracula and Frankenstein flicks for over a decade, but the Comics Code prohibited “walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism” until 1971, provided the horror was “handled in the classic tradition such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and other high caliber literary works.”

Marvel pounced with Werewolf by Night, Tomb of Dracula, The Monster of Frankenstein, and a half dozen other horror-tinged titles. He sounds like a pseudonym, but flesh-and-blood writer Marv Wolfman moved to Marvel at the same moment, and soon he and artist Gene Colan were adding a black “vampire killer” to their Dracula cast.  I’ll let Seibles introduce him:

Years ago, a pregnant woman was bitten by a vampire and turned. Her son was born with the thirst but, being half-human, he could walk in sunlight unharmed. Though vampires quietly dominate the world, he fights them—in part to prove his allegiance to humanity, in part to avenge his long isolation, being neither human, nor vampire. Because of his deadly expertise and weapon of choice, they call him: BLADE, THE DAYWALKER”

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It’s hard not to read the character as a racial metaphor. Barack Obama turned thirteen when the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade that year, and though President Nixon made no public comment, White House tapes reveal his opposition to abortion, except when “necessary,” as “when you have a black and a white. Or a rape.” I read all vampires as rapists, so it follows the horror of our cultural logic that the first black half-vampire would have to take a vow of blood celibacy. Note all those unconscious blonde women draped in Dracula’s arms too. Blade’s skin makes explicit more than one coded fear.

Seibles told my class that he saw the character as an “emblem of alienation,” a metaphor for what it feels like to be black in the U.S., to feel “both American and not.” The night before they heard him read his poem “Allison Wolff,” set in 1972 when “Race was the elephant / sitting on everybody.” Seibles was born in 1955, the year Emmett Till was lynched, and that horror haunts the teenaged Tim the first time he kisses a white girl.

Fast Animal includes a high school photo of Seibles, “circa 1971,” long before he met Blade. The half-vampire lurked around Marvel’s black and white magazines for a few years, vanished for a decade or so, then reawakened in the 90s.  I showed my class the 1998 film, which opens with Blade’s vampire-assaulted mother bleeding out on a delivery room table. David S. Goyer penned the screenplay, which also explains Goyer’s rise to dominance in the DC film universe since both his Batman Begins and Man of Steel screenplays open with the bloody deaths of their heroes’ mothers. Seibles said the two sequels weren’t as good, and both the Spike TV and anime series were news to him.

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Apparently Wesley Snipes has spent the last three years in prison for tax evasion. He last played Blade in 2004, about when Seibles started using the character in his poetry. Seibles said it was George Bush who turned him, that feeling of “a deep trouble taking over the country,” or, as his Blade explains: “it’s almost like I can’t / wake up, like I’m living // in a movie, a kind of dream: / action-packed thriller.”

Political essayist Jonathan Schell drew the same conclusion in 2004. Since 9/11 and the War on Terror, it seemed to Schell “history was being authored by a third-rate writer” compelled “to follow the plot of a bad comic book,” with the President turning “himself into a sort of real life action figure.”

The vampires in Fast Animal do have a Wolfowitz-neocon vibe: “the ones / who look in the mirror / and find nothing // but innocence   though they stand / in blood up to their knees.” But Seibles-Blade addresses a much larger audience, everyone watching “the war on TV” while not wanting “to see / what’s // really happening,” all of us living “in / the blood,” fighting for “The right to live / without memory,” to ignore “So many / centuries, so much / death.” Slavery, Seibles reminded my class, is a kind of vampirism too, one of many ways America has exploited the world. Of course Blade longs for “this country / before it was bitten,” even as he mourns: “I don’t know how // to save anybody from this.”

Seibles called Blade his “mask,” a perfect term for my Superheroes class. He used Blade to channel his rage, he said, likening the character’s name to a pencil: “Some days // I think, with the singing / of my blade, I can fix / everything.” That’s a poet’s superpower, to reveal through language, since “evil thrives best in the dark.” He even gave us his mission statement: to fight “inattentive dumbassery.”

Seibles also has a pair of poems in the new anthology Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comic Books (where my wife, Lesley Wheeler, and I do too). Swapping his vampire superhero mask for Natasha and Boris of the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, Seibles playfully critiques American capitalism, a theme one of my students asked him to expand on. Another asked how, if our leaders are as stupid as Seibles suggests, were they smart enough to come to power? But my favorite question came at the end of class: What would Blade do if there weren’t any more vampires to fight?

Superhero missions, like Batman’s quixotic “war on criminals,” guarantee never-ending battles. You never run out of bad guys. You never get to walk away. But instead of talking vampires, Seibles talked about his father. The idea of sitting in a room of white people and discussing race, his father couldn’t imagine such a thing. His father can’t believe there are white people who aren’t racists. Sure, at an intellectual level, of course he can, but the idea is meaningless at any emotional level.

I’m guess his father was born somewhere around 1930—a moment my class understands well in terms of American eugenics. We read excerpts of a standard high school biology textbook that explained the hierarchy of white supremacy and advocated the extermination of unfit gene pools. That’s not something you walk away from. That’s not a world that ever runs out of bad guys. Seibles described Blade’s life as a psychological and spiritual war—one his parents’ generation can never stop fighting.

The only hope, he said, is for Blade’s children.

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