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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Junot Diaz

Guest writer, Naphtali Rivkin:

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Junot Diaz, in The Brief and Wondrous life of Oscar Wao, and Isabella Allende, in her rendition of Zorro, both interweave a bildungsroman with questions of ethnic identity.  Both novelists seem to indicate that coming to terms with one’s ethnic identity, however complicated, is a necessary part of growing up.  The novelists’ claims seem to hold water even beyond the realm of literature, where real studies of “young adolescents of color” and children of immigrants in Spain have demonstrated that developing a sense of ethnicity is vital to healthy human growth, especially to children living in a culture where their ethnicity is not the normative ethnicity.  But while both novelists claim coming-of-age and ethnic identity is inextricably connected, they might disagree with each other about the best method for coming to terms with complicated ethnic identities.  Diaz’s Oscar Wao transcends his internal and external ethnic conflicts by actively embracing his ethnicity, while Allende’s titular Zorro escapes his identity conflicts altogether by crafting a non-ethnic masked persona.  Diego grows up to become Zorro the Superhero, whose origin story serves to rid him of his humanity and ethnicities, while Oscar evolves into the far more complex, relatable, and admirable super hero, whose brief and wondrous life transforms him into an adult.

Allende and Diaz both seem to reflect scientific realities of ethnicity’s role in a young man’s coming-of-age through their psychologically real narratives.  In so doing, they both would agree that, in their bildungsroman novels, “ethnicity is…a factor in identity formation, which it is not in the (older) European bildungsroman” (Iversen 197).  James Hardin, in his compendium Reflection and Action, attempts to define the 17th century German term bildungsroman, but it seems the only consensus his contributors come to is that “Bildung [in its oldest, original connotation] is a verbal noun meaning ‘formation,’ transferring the formation of external features to the features of the personality as a whole” (Hardin xi).  By defining a bildungsroman as a coming-of-age story where a character is formed through the influence of his surroundings, it can be said that the current scientific studies about ethnicity and identity formation resonate with a 300-year-old literary genre in the works of Allende and Diaz.

Studies have shown that ethnicity matters, particularly to children who grow up in a society where their ethnicity is not the normative one.  Diaz’s Oscar struggles to understand the hyper-masculine expectations associated with his Dominican heritage in the context of his upbringing as an overweight New Jersey “nerd.”  Diego, the boy who becomes Allende’s Zorro, faces the perhaps more complicated task of reconciling his mixed Native-American and Spanish colonial birth while studying in traditional Spain under the occupation of Napoleonic France and traveling with gypsies and creole pirates.  Diego and Oscar’s struggles with ethnic identity reflect the psychologically real process that boys in alien societies must confront in order to come of age.

In her study on “Teaching Young Adolescents of Color,” Geneva Gay defines what we mean by ethnic identity in the context of coming of age.  It is

the dimension of a person’s social identity and self-concept that derives from knowledge, values, attitudes, the sense of belonging, and the emotional significance associated with membership in a particular ethnic group. Whether and how it is achieved affect many other dimensions of students’ personal, social, and academic attitudes and behaviors. A clarified ethnic identity is central to the psycho-social well-being and educational success of youth of color (Gay 151)

Diaz’s Oscar Wao, a “youth of color” growing up outside of his element, struggles to find that sense of belonging with his ethnic group that Gay claims is vital to psycho-social well-being.  While it is sadly routine for people of one race to treat the other poorly, it is downright tragic when Oscar must convince even his own people that “I am Dominican, I am” (Diaz 180).  Oscar struggles with depression to the point of attempting suicide largely because he feels like he does not share the knowledge, values, or attitudes of either his own ethnicity of the normative white ethnicity in New Jersey. Dominicans question Oscar’s virility and ethnicity simultaneously because Oscar does not seem to know how to get women to sleep with him, seems to value fantasy and the pursuit of writing more than a Dominican “should,” and speaks with a literary vocabulary, reflecting an attitude that the Dominicans around him find wholly contrived and off-putting.  Growing up in an alien society of New Jersey, where White is the normative ethnicity, Oscar cannot even rely on the comfort of his own ethnic family (or literal family) to shepherd him through his coming-of-age.

Allende’s Diego similarly faces complex ethnic boundaries to his coming-of-age, but his ethnic issues differ from Oscar’s.  Diego can soundly rely on the support of an almost unrealistic variety of ethnic representatives.  His Native-American heritage grants him powerful tools, friends, and pseudo-mystical powers; his colonial Californian father gives him money and a proud lineage; his Spanish hosts educate him; their French conquerors incite his indignity; the gypsies shelter and develop his physical prowess, while the creole pirates sharpen Diego’s indispensible savvy and worldliness.  Diego, unlike Oscar, is spoiled for choice in the ethnicity department, which begs the question, who is Diego?

Diego’s case reflects the current, real problem of immigrants “coming of age in Spain,” which The British Journal of Sociology attempts to address.

On its part, self-esteem has been consistently associated with positive academic outcomes and is influenced, in turn, by the quality of relations with parents and by past experiences of acceptance or rejection in the host society.  Our analysis reveals an initially anomalous result: the majority of children of immigrants in Spain neither identify with the country nor intend to live there as adults. (From Article chapter “Conclusion”)

It seems that since Diego checks all of the journal’s boxes for a positive self-perception considering his legendary “good luck” and a knack for fitting in wherever he goes, it’s no wonder Diego does not ultimately associate with any particular country or ethnicity in the same way that the successful children of Spanish immigrants do not identify with the country where they came-of-age.

But while both stories include elements typical of a bildungsroman, I think that the end result of Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao fits the bildungsroman mold better than Allende’s Zorro.  In fact, while both Diaz’s and Allende’s novels can be read as a coming-of-age story guided by the scientific realities of ethnicity in identity formation, Allende’s novel can be read as a superhero origin story, which differs from a bildungsroman in its end result.  A superhero origin story, according to Peter Coogan, creates a superhero, who is something other-than-human, and therefore, by definition, without ethnicity.

Diego, in Allende’s novel, may have many ethnicities, but with each of those ethnicities come special powers or privileges that transform Diego into Zorro, who is a superhero.  Zorro meets Coogan’s three criteria for superhero status: namely, a mission, powers, and identity (Coogan 39).  Zorro’s “pro-social mission” is “to seek justice, nourish the hungry, clothe the naked, protect widows and orphans, give shelter to the stranger, and never spill innocent blood” (Allende 154).  Just in case the reader may begin to consider Oscar as a superhero as well, I will point out here that Oscar’s mission, in contrast, is, at worst, to get laid, and at best, to find love.  Zorro also meets Coogan’s “powers” criterion for superheroes.  He’s an unmatched fencer, intelligent, lucky, possesses unique tools like his grandmother’s sleep potion; he can pick locks, jump like an acrobat and can see very well.  Even if we left aside his potentially magical link to Bernardo and the Fox (since Oscar too has supernatural experiences with a small mammal), Zorro has abilities which make others perceive him as superhuman, like when the pirates aboard his ship took him for a ghost or when Moncada’s men thought Zorro was in two places at once.

Finally, and most importantly, Zorro meets Coogan’s criterion for a superhero identity.  By becoming a symbol through his costume and iconic “Z” sign, Zorro transcends human characteristics and therefore escapes the human need for an ethnic identity.  The ultimate proof to this is that literally anyone who puts on Zorro’s costume can be Zorro, regardless of his or her ethnic identity— a small Spanish girl, an adult Native-American man, or Diego.  Conversely, there is no way to become Oscar without going through Oscar’s unique combination of ethnic self-identification and coming-of-age.

By growing up into the superhero Zorro, Diego sheds his ethnic identities whenever he is in Zorro costume.

Diego realized that, without planning it, he was playing the part of two different persons, determined by the circumstances and the clothing he was wearing…He supposed that his true character lay somewhere in between, but he didn’t know who he was: neither of the two nor the sum of both…He would assume that he was two persons and turn that to his advantage (Allende 232)

By definition, the bildungsroman cannot end in a conflict of identities.  It implies the forming of a holistic person, who “comes to a better understanding of self” (Hardin xiii) as a result of his coming-of-age.  Instead of understanding himself better through confronting his multiple ethnic allegiances, Diego finds comfort (indeed, he finds charisma, confidence, and virility) in donning the mask of Zorro and escaping the question of ethnicity altogether.

Though Diego’s coming-of-age reflects the psychologically real process of wrestling with ethnicity, the result of his coming-of-age is not typical of a bildungsroman but is instead typical of a superhero origin story.  Conversely, Oscar’s story can and should be read as a prototypical bildungsroman with an ending that would satisfy the genre’s criteria.

Oscar’s formation (bildung) as an adult mirrors his pursuit of the Dominican ethnic identity that his family lost generations ago.  Abelard, Oscar’s grandfather, began his break with Dominican ethnicity when he realized his daughters might fall victim to Trujillo’s rape.  Instead of taking action—sending his daughters to Cuba, for instance—he hesitated indefinitely; “instead of making his move, Abelard fretted and temporized and despaired” (Diaz 231).  Dominicans, as Diaz would have his readers understand them, are decisive and aggressive, almost to a fault.  Take Lola, for instance, who runs away to Wildwood on the whim that she simply cannot stay in her mother’s house any longer.  Abelard, in contrast to Lola and Diaz’s typical Dominicans, cannot even die decisively; while all the other people in his life die quick deaths, Abelard is cursed by his indecision to meekly shuffle through prison—purgatory—half-lobotomized, in his pajamas, ad infinitum.

Perhaps Oscar is Abelard’s second chance—his spiritual reincarnation—as the next male Dominican born to Abelard’s family.  As a member of the Dominican ethnic family, Oscar is expected to sleep with any woman he wants, like Yunior, without compunction or effort.  This described Dominican promiscuity is the manifestation of a Dominican’s ability to take action.  “Did you fuck her?” asks Lola.  “I do not move so precipitously,” sighs Oscar, who still carries his grandfather Abelard’s indecisive genes.  Oscar tries, periodically, to take his life into his own hands, like when he agrees to go running with Yunior.  But it seems Diaz shows the readers this episode just to highlight how much of Oscar’s bad shape (mentally and physically) is his own doing.  “He quit,” Diaz unequivocally tells the readers through Yunior, the narrator.  “I will run again no more, he [Oscar] intoned from under his pillow” (Diaz 178), showing and telling Yunior that he prefers inaction to action, literally and metaphorically.

When it comes to love and sex, Oscar is similarly indecisive.  When Oscar falls in love with Ybon in the Dominican Republic (on a trip he took because he had nothing else to do during the summer), he finds himself pathologically incapable of acting.  “Did they the ever fuck? Of course not…He watched her for the signs…that would tell him she loved him” (Diaz 290) instead of confessing his love himself.  He does not kiss her for the first time; she kisses him in her Pathfinder.  And when Ybon’s kiss gets Oscar beat up by her jealous boyfriend, Oscar “thought about escaping, thought about jumping, out of the car and running down the street…but he couldn’t do it” (Diaz 297).  It is fitting, then, that Oscar gets beaten to near-death like his predecessor Abelard—cursed by his indecision to live in pain.

By going back to the Dominican Republic at great peril to himself specifically to confess his love to Ybon, Oscar comes of age through the fulfillment of his ethnic identity.  It is important to note, however, that love and sex is simply the context in which Oscar finds his identity.  Objectively, perhaps the fact that Oscar somehow accedes to his ethnic misogynistic expectations is not all good.  But love and sex are simply the tools of the Dominican ethnicity, and Oscar uses them to come into himself.  It is vital, for Diaz, that Oscar grow up, and grow up Dominican—and being Dominican means taking action, for better or worse.  Oscar ultimately does take action, for worse. He actively loves Ybon at pain of death.  Most importantly, though, he finds that Dominican compulsion with his last breath.  “Fire, he blurted out, unable to help himself” (Diaz 322); the old Oscar would not have been able to pull his own trigger for love.  He finally does what Abelard couldn’t do—acted, even if it kills him.

Oscar’s bildungsroman teaches us that you don’t get to just excuse yourself from your history, ethnicity, and human experience.  Growing up and becoming an adult in real life means coping with all the ethnic baggage you were given; only superheroes like Zorro can don a mask and escape.   Zorro, as a superhero, escapes all ethnic considerations and qualifications, but in so doing, he gives up his uniqueness as a human being, becoming a symbol instead that can belong to anyone.  As a human, you have to deal with both the good and the bad of your ethnicity in order to develop a unique identity.  Perhaps the greatest super hero is not the guy who leaves earth in a single bound, but the braver person who accepts who he is, where he’s from, and does something about it.

(Naphtali Rivkin is a senior English and Russian Area Studies double major at Washington and Lee University. He recently published a piece called “Why Everything you need to know about politics you can learn from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar” in the the Ukrainian Philosophical Foundation’s journal, Future Human Image. Currently, he is writing an English honors thesis on early 20th century Socialist American writers. He wrote “ADULTMAN: An Origin Story” in Professor Gavaler’s course 21st Century North American Fiction.)

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At 91, Ray Bradbury was five years older than my father-in-law, who died five days earlier. In a stroke of creepy prescience, this month’s “Science Fiction Issue” of The New Yorker includes a personal essay, which will now be the last piece Bradbury published during  his lifetime. It’s short, but I skimmed only the first half while flipping through the mail on my kitchen counter, surprised the author was still alive and writing. It’s called “Take Me Home,” and the editors included an illustration of a red flaming skull, a choice they are probably regretting. I got as far as Bradbury’s 8-year-old self shouting the title at the tiny red speck of Mars from his grandparents’ front lawn.

That would have been 1928, just months before the name “science fiction” was coined. English professors and New York Times book reviewers prefer to call it “speculative fiction” now, and though Bradbury labeled most of his work “fantasy,” the genre and our larger culture would be worlds emptier without him. Like most of us, I can track my life in relation to Bradbury’s alternate realities.

Fahrenheit 451, the only one of his 11 novels he was willing to term science fiction, was adapted for film in 1966, the year I was born. NBC turned The Martian Chronicles into a miniseries in 1980, the year I started high school. I hear Bradbury wasn’t much of a fan, but I enjoyed it enough to find a copy of the 1953 novel in my school library. Although I had a shelf of Heinlein in my bedroom, and my adolescent psyche was poised for a Vonnegut conversion, I flipped a few pages but didn’t carry Chronicles to the circulation desk.

I still remember the line that turned me off. After a description of  the first men to colonize Mars, those brave and lonely frontiersmen, a single sentence floated between paragraphs: “Everyone knew who the first women would be.” It took my 14-year-old, proto-feminist brain a moment to click. Oh. He means prostitutes. I wasn’t offended, just disinterested, vaguely aware that I was listening to the vaguely embarrassing chatter of a displaced time traveler. I closed the book and slid it back onto its shelf.

Bradbury adapted Something Wicked This Way Comes for the screen himself. I saw it in 1983, before starting my senior year of high school. I understand the Jason Robards character now, an aging father who almost but not quite sells his soul for a few more years with his still school-aged son. I can still see the demonic Mr. Dark ripping pages from a magical library book, each shimmering with a lost chance. My son is careening toward 12—I try to play a couple of games of chess with him every day, jog a mile together, chat about whatever he’s willing to chat with me about. My daughter turned 15 this year, a little more than year older than the children in the novel. She spends her time with her friends.

I used to read to them over the breakfast table. The computer-generated yet parent-chomping lions of “The Veldt” sent them both into wide-eyed horror. But Bradbury’s most poignant story is “All Summer in a Day.” I’ve never taught it, but Junot Diaz—he’s in The New Yorker ’s science fiction issue too—alludes to it in The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a novel on my syllabus last winter: “Sucks a lot to be left out of adolescence, sort of like getting locked in the closet on Venus when the sun appears for the first time in a 100 years.”

Bradbury worms into my own allusions too. The day he died, I was working on a scene in my current novel-in-progress. I needed a quick description of a tattooed nude, and my brain churned up The Illustrated Man, another book from my bedroom shelf. A bedroom boxed up decades ago. When did I become the displaced time traveler?

It doesn’t matter if he’s dead or not. Bradbury is permanently with us. “Take Me Home,” it turns out, isn’t about Mars—it’s about his dead grandfather. “Even at that age,” writes Bradbury, “I was beginning to perceive the endings of things.” He remembers how they lit a paper balloon together and watched it float away in flames before slowly vanishing, leaving Bradbury’s boyish self in silent tears, ready to dream its return all night. I wished the same dreams upon my children after their grandfather’s funeral.

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Dear Disney,

Yes, I know you said you wanted to gross $700 million before you’d agree to either of the two sequels Andrew Stanton had planned for John Carter. And I know you’re still miffed about everyone making fun of you when the opening weekend flopped. But who was laughing when foreign sales pushed it over the $250 million budget in its fourth week? Yeah, I know, there’s still the $100 million in advertising. But those oversea millions are still flowing, and add in the DVD sales lined up for June, and we all know the red planet will soon be in the black.

Sure, the $350 million profit you were dreaming of back in February would have been nice, but you’re probably just happy to have dodged that “biggest flop in movie history” bullet. Congratulations. Now all you want to do is pack up those noisy Tharks and Calots and put John Carter behind you.

But is that how you capitalize on an investment?

I’m sorry Mr. Stanton convinced you that Carter was just like Tarzan, a beloved Burroughs classic with a massive fanbase begging to be exploited. Which explains why your marketing plan went so wrong.  You should have been recruiting, not supplying Superbowl ammo for an army that didn’t exist yet. There was only one species of John Carter fan: readers. There had never been a movie, a TV show, a cartoon, a 40’s film serial, nothing.  When I asked my 14-year-old daughter about the character, she said “Who?”

You now know that you should have been building infrastructure.  Why, for instance, was the new edition of A Princess of Mars (with that eye-catching intro by Junot Diaz, the second Pulitzer winning novelist attached to the project) released AFTER the film? You should have pushed that through the presses as soon as you green lighted the movie. Ditto on a new comic book adaptation (from a market-dominating publisher like Marvel, not the very respectable but very tiny Dynamite or Dark Horse who both have miniscule Mars niches). Or what about an animated TV series on Cartoon Network? Or a series of animated films the way DC keeps its roster of superheroes alive and literally kicking while hatching long-term blockbusters?

Some of these you could still do. But you’re thinking, What the hell for? John Carter isn’t about time travel. The marketing window is long closed.

And that would be your next big mistake.

Yes, you blew the lead-up to the movie. But the window on the character is still wide open. John Carter is a long-term commodity that you control. You didn’t just squander $100 million in marketing. You invested $350 million in a franchise, and the movie itself, not those wasted ads, supplies the missing infrastructure.  Have you been by Facebook lately? In addition to those loyal novel readers, John Carter has a fierce film cult begging for a sequel. These people will devour anything you toss at them.

No, I’m not suggesting you give them and Stanton another $250 million. In fact, I’d go in the opposite direction. Think B movie budget. Remember the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies from the 30’s? MGM made those for one reason and one reason only.

They had the footage.

Trader Horn was the first big budget Hollywood film shot on location. The production was a disaster. They came back from Africa with scene after scene of inaudible dialogue, a star infected with malaria, and the suitcases of crew members devoured by crocodiles and trampled by rhinos. They also had miles of jungle footage, way more than could ever go into a  single movie. Trader Horn came and went, but to capitalize on all that location shooting they’d already paid for, MGM rolled out Tarzan the Ape Man the following year. It was a cheap hit that spawned five low-budget sequels.

MGM could have walked away from their original investment. They could have put the Trader Horn fiasco behind them and never gone near Africa again. But that would have made bad business sense.  Disney is in the same position with Mars. You already have the location footage—those hard drives brimming with otherwise unusable CGI that could fuel a decade of Martian adventures.  You already paid for it. It’s just sitting there.

Just keep your human cast in pre-fab Helium and those Tharks in some distant subplot, and your sequel is already half made. And, yes, you’re probably still kicking yourself for letting Stanton move forward without a big name star. But now that plays to your advantage. Kitsch and Collins are cheap. All your costs are capped.

So let’s add this up. A loyal and expanding fanbase at home, a voracious market abroad, a modest new production budget, and a marketing infrastructure you’ve already paid for.

Suddenly those dreamed-of profits are in reach of all four of your little green arms.

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I’m lucky I’m not teaching my “Thrilling Tales” course in Tuscon, Arizona this semester. Three of my eight authors made the school board’s new banned books list.

Sherman Alexie scored twice with two short story collections. I’m guessing no Tuscon administrators read his time-travel novel Flight. Its teen hero guns down a bank lobby of strangers before getting inexplicably yanked into a first-hand tour of violence across United States history. Alexie argues that violence is “perpetuated on both sides of any conflict, and whichever side you’re on, the violence goes on and on and on, both sides committing incredible acts of pain and suffering.”

Sounds pretty edifying to me, but then Tuscon isn’t worried about Alexie’s message. They banned him for being Indian.

Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz was born in the Dominican Republic, but Tuscon banned him too. Not The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which I’m teaching later this semester, but his first short story collection, Drown. So apparently the children of Tuscon need to be protected not just from books where “race, ethnicity and oppression are central themes” but short stories in particular.

At least Isabel Allende’s Zorro is a bonafide novel, though I doubt any board members made it through all 400 pages. They just needed to skim her bio in the back, the part about her being born in Peru and growing up in Chile. Never mind that Zorro is a flagrantly pro-Democracy melting pot tale. Allende’s hero is part Indian, part blueblood Spanish, with a Jewish fencing mentor, and Gypsies and Caribbean pirates to fill in the gaps. The novel shouts: MULTICULTURALISM IS GOOD!

So either Tuscon is deaf, or that’s exactly the sort of pernicious liberal talk they need to yank from their children’s hands (by some accounts, the books were literally yanked from students in their classrooms.) So it’s not just ethnic studies that’s getting the sword edge. Alexie, Diaz, and Allende are joined by such race-obsessed monomaniacs as Henry David Thoreau and William Shakespeare.

Tucson is selling their book ban as a curriculum change designed to avoid “biased, political and emotionally charged” teaching. That means anything Mexican-American. Except students. The district is overwhelmingly Mexican-American, but presumably Mexican-American children will not be barred from attending school. Provided they don’t arrive emotionally charged.

Students can, however, sue. Two have joined eleven of their teachers in federal court to challenge the state law that prompted the book ban. The new law outlaws courses organized around ethnic themes or that promote “resentment toward a race or class of people.”  That means resentment against white people. Which wipes out not only most American literature but most American history too.

The original Zorro rode to fight oppression in colonial Mexico (which, by the way, included Arizona). He’s riding again today, the national teach-in for spreading word of the Tuscon book ban. Zorro’s original band of followers dubbed themselves “the Avengers.” And it was ultimately the Avengers who ended state corruption in their fictionalized New Spain.

So here’s your own superhero moment, caballerros.

Hop on your electronic horse and share the outrage.

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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!”

Eventually.

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

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

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Classes start today.

I don’t teach my Superheroes seminar again till spring, but winter is just as good. My New North American Fiction is subtitled Thrilling Tales after the issue of McSweeney’s that Michael Chabon edited back in 2002.

Chabon’s editorial premise was simple: a lot of great fiction falls under the lowbrow category “genre.” That includes science fiction, horror, mystery, what folks called “pulp fiction” back in the thirties. “Pulp” because of the grade of paper the magazines were printed on, the cheapest possible, made from wood pulp.

I admit some of those stories were no better than their medium. A writer could hack out a 40,000 word novella in less than two weeks. Formula was everything. Thus “formula writing,” anything following the conventions of a genre, was no longer considered “literary.”

But no formula automatically produces bad writing. No formula automatically produces good writing either. Knowing a poem is a sonnet tells you it’s fourteen lines and (probably) rhymed. It tells you nothing about its quality. Believe me, there are a lot of horrific sonnets out there.

So why not literary pulp?

I’d say Kurt Vonnegut launched it with science fiction back in the fifties. Samuel R. Delany and Ursula K. Le Guin weren’t far behind him, casting their own literary spells on the realm of swords and sorcery. Margaret Atwood rewrote the future of speculative history with The Handmaid’s Tale. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, one of if not the most esteemed novel of the twentieth century, is about a haunted house.

But the pulp chips didn’t really start flying till Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay grabbed the Pulitzer in 2000. In the decade that followed, I count at least two dozen literary works firmly planted in genre soil originally deforested by pulp fiction nearly a century ago. All by authors of high literary pruning. In addition to the perennial Atwood and Chabon, add Philip Roth, Michael Cunningham, Isabel Allende, Sherman Alexie, Jane Smiley, Jonathan Lethem, Tom De Haven, Cormac McCarthy, Kazuo Ishiguro, David Mitchell, Kevin Brockmeier, and Caryl Churchill.

Last year alone, we had Colson Whitehead writing about zombies, Glen Duncan about werewolves,Tom Perrotta about the end of the world,  and Stephen King (would you believe he’s “literary” now?) earning a place on the New York Times’ ten best books of 2011 with a time-travel tale.

My biggest challenge for Thrilling Tales is not overcrowding the syllabus. I pared it down to nine:


McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales
, Ed. Michael Chabon
Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood
Zorro, Isabel Allende
The Final Solution, Michael Chabon
Flight, Sherman Alexie
Fledgling, Octavia Butler
The Road, Cormac McCarthy
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
Soon I Will Be Invincible, Austin Grossman

I’ll let you know what my students think.

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