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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Len Wein

Golem-film

I’ve been assembling an ur-team of Avengers for my book On the Origin of Superheroes, and my first-ever superhero award goes to the Golem. He’s super-strong, impervious to pain, and, when made from clay, can even shapeshift a bit. On the downside, he’s dumb in both senses and so requires close supervision. Sorcerers and programmers beware.

“There is nothing more uncanny than something that is almost human,” says Margaret Atwood. “All our stories about robotics are stories like that. It’s what we have always worried about. It’s the sorcerer’s apprentice story: He learns how to do the charm; he doesn’t know how to turn it off. It’s the Golem story: You make the Golem, you activate it, it’s supposed to do your work for you, and then it runs amok.”

Atwood’s Oryx and Crake trilogy features a genetically engineered species of designer humans, but they’re too mellow to cause the survivors of her apocalypse much trouble. When it comes to magic brooms and water buckets running amok, I picture Mickey Mouse, but Goethe published his poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” while Napoleon was still waging France’s Revolutionary Wars.

Apparently Goethe cribbed the tale from Lucian’s Philopseudes, c. 150 CE, though the word “golem” is even older. It means “shapeless mass” in Hebrew, which is the description of Ben Grimm that Stan Lee typed up for Jack Kirby in 1960: “He’s sort of shapeless—he’s become a THING.” Kirby drew a giant bumpy rock monster that turned orange at the printer’s. I don’t know if either had the Golem in mind, but Fantastic Four writer Karl Kesel did when he decided forty years later that Ben’s full name was Benjamin Jacob Grimm.

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Benjamin grew up going to synagogue as a kid and could still recite Torah passages from memory, so he probably knows that “golem” first appears in Psalms 139:16 (“my substance, yet being unperfect”) when David praises God for creating him. The Talmud (c. 200 CE) uses the term to describe Adam’s creation too: “In the first hour, his dust was gathered; in the second, it was kneaded into a shapeless mass.” But jump forward another couple hundred years, and a passage mentions the first living golem: “Rabbah created a man, and sent him to Rabbi Zera. Rabbi Zera spoke to him, but received no answer. Thereupon he said unto him: ‘Thou art a creature of the magicians. Return to thy dust.’”

Apparently they weren’t all that hard to manufacture. All Pygmalion had to do was pray to Venus to bring his ivory statue Galatea to life. Daedalus soldered his golem Talos from bronze. If you’re up on your Kabbalistic techniques, Sefer Yetzirah (The Book of Formation) gives a how-to, but Aryeh Kaplan warns apprentices not to attempt it alone. Virgin dirt is also key. Marvel was still printing on pulp paper in 1974, which is why their Strange Tales Golem only ran three issues. Writer Len Wein gave the legend his best superheroic spin:

“In centuries agon, they had called him a myth, a creature formed of stone and clay and the blood of a people’s oppression—a moving monolith who rose before the yoke of  tyranny—shattered it in his monumental fists—then vanished into the sands of time—there to be almost forgotten—until today! Now once more he rises—summoned from his eons-long sleep to protect those he loves.”

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Marvel tries not to take sides in the Palestine-Israeli conflict, declaring it

“a war of territory, of ideologies—fought with great fervor but with little gain—fought with loaned weaponry wielded by men—men charged with love of country and the courage of their convictions, but men nonetheless—aye, as in all wars before this, fought by men—imperfect, all-too-human men.”

But those the Golem loves are the family of Jewish archeologists who dig him up, while General Omar leads an army of marauding rapists who pillage the archeological camp and machinegun the grandfather. Uncle Abraham’s dying tear reanimates the creature. “Eyes of a camel!” shouts one of the keffiyeh-wearing soldiers. “The statue—it lives!”

Michael Chabon’s golem surfaces for far less dramatic adventures. His amazing Kavalier and Clay find its coffin filled

“to a depth of about seven inches, with a fine powder, pigeon-gray and opalescent, that Joe recognized at once from boyhood excursions as the silty bed of the Moldau . . . . The speculations of those who feared that the Golem, removed from the shores of the river that mothered it, might degrade had been proved correct.”

My wife and I sat along the banks of the Moldau (AKA Vltava) sipping Budvar in a Prague café in 1996. The ground was too paved to be termed virginal, but the city has a legion of statues and tourist shop figurines already prepped for animation. Prague is to Golem as Metropolis is to Superman. The tales proliferated there like magic brooms in the 1800s. One named Josef protected Jews from a supervillainous Emperor with the additional superpower of invisibility—so basically half of the Fantastic Four. Benjamin Kuras, author of As Golems Go, explains why Golem still adventures in the Czech Republic:

“After living through the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Nazism and decades of communism, the Czechs are drawn to a character with supernatural powers that will help liberate them from oppression.”

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The Golem is also the original “robot,” a Czech word for “laborer” or “slave.” Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. (AKA “Rossum’s Universal Robots”) unleashed them on the world, resulting in the extinction of the human race in 1920. Despite the nuts-and-bolts contraptions in promo shots, Čapek’s robots are the flesh-and-blood variety, more like clones or Philip Dick’s sheep-dreaming replicants. Carl Burgos had the same idea when he drew the Human Torch for Marvel Comics No. 1 in 1939. The flames were one of those unintended “run amok” side effects, but rather than burning Brooklyn to the ground, the almost human Torch gets his superpower under control (bringing our Fantastic Four tally to 75%) and vows to help humanity even though humanity tried to seal him in a steel and concrete cage.

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The Human Torch fizzled in the forties and wandered out to the desert to die—the same fate Wein copied for his Golem. The evil robot Ultron rebuilt the Torch’s burnt-out corpse in 1968, and he was reborn as my favorite childhood superhero, the Vision. But then the original Torch erupted from a secret grave in the 80s, so the Vision was never really the Torch but a copy soldered from spare parts. Only, no wait, that’s not it either, because next it turns out the Vision and the Torch are in fact the same synthoid split in two when a time-traveling supervillain manipulated the timeline. Except then the Vision half was ripped apart by She-Hulk, and his identity may or may not inhabit the sentient armor of the time-traveler’s teen-age self, while his soul returned in a team of Dead Avengers before Tony Stark reassembled his body. And don’t even get me started whether that body is the kind with buzzing wires and clanking pistons or the kind with synthetic organs that gurgle and fart.

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Human animation is simpler. My wife returned from Prague pregnant with our daughter. King David praises God for “cover[ing] me in my mother’s womb,” but we followed a very different nuts and bolts process. Though nothing like the Thing, my daughter has been running amok for eighteen years now. She looks a lot more like the clay statue Hippolyte sculpted and, with the help of her gods William Marston and Harry G. Peter, brought to life in 1941—making Wonder Woman the original comic book Golem. Sadly, she’s not available for my team of First Avengers.

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“What if an American comic book company were to ring me up (not that it was going to happen) and they offered me my first U.S. assignment, only it was the most obscure, uninteresting character I could imagine? So let’s, out of the blue, pick the most obscure American comics character I could think of and just see if I could reinterpret him and make him interesting.”

That’s Alan Moore describing himself, just before an American comic book company really did ring him up. It was DC editor Len Wein offering him a shot at Swamp Thing.

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Weirdly, the “most obscure American comics character” Moore had practiced on was The Heap—the 1940s character Wein had knocked-off to create Swamp Thing in 1971.

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The character type was oddly popular in the early 70s. Roy Thomas had been a Heap fan as a kid, and so when he got a staff writer job at Marvel, he created the Heap-like Glob for The Incredible Hulk #121 in 1969.

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A year and a half later, Skywald comics resurrected the original Heap.

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Thomas had told his pal, former Marvel employer and Skywald co-founder Sol Brodsky, it was a good band wagon to jump on since Marvel had its own Heap knock-off, Man-Thing. Stan Lee dreamt up that name, but apparently the Glob was all the regurgitated Heap Thomas could swallow, so he handed the assignment to scripter Gerry Conway. Gray Morrow’s drawings even include a visual homage to the Heap’s vine-like nose in Savage Tales #1 (May 1971).

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Thomas tossed the next Man-Thing assignment to Len Wein and Neal Adams who worked up a second episode, but Marvel cancelled Savage Tales after the first issue. Wein also freelanced at DC where he created Swamp Thing with artist Bernie Wrightson for House of Secrets #92 (June–July 1971). It took another year, but the Wein-Adams Man-Thing eventually surfaced in Astonishing Tales #12 (June 1972), just a few months before Wein and Wrightson updated their House of Secrets Swamp Thing for DC’s Swamp Thing #1 (October–November 1972).

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That’s a murky swamp of overlapping characters and creators to sift through. Worse, Wein and Conway were sharing an apartment at the time, and yet Wein swore Swamp Thing had nothing to do with Man-Thing—even though Man-Thing’s premiere is dated a month before Swamp Thing’s.

Thomas’s timetable doesn’t add up either: Skywald’s Heap premiered in Psycho #2 March 1971, three months before Man-Thing in Savage Tales #1. Add in the unknowable differences in production time, and the quagmire keeps deepening.

Neither Marvel nor DC tried to sue the other for copyright infringement, since both their characters were infringing on the Heap that Harry Stein and Mort Leav created for Hillman Periodicals’ Air Fighters Comics #3 in 1942. But Stein and Leav don’t get original credit either, since the Heap looks a lot like Theodore Sturgeon’s short story “It,” published two years earlier in Street and Smith’s Unknown.

Wein says he conceived Swamp Thing in December 1970, but

“Why I decided to make the protagonist some sort of swamp monster . . . I can no longer recall. . . . Coincidentally, Joe [Orlando, then-editor of THE HOUSE OF MYSTERY and THE HOUSE OF SECRETS] had been thinking of doing a story along the lines of Theodore Sturgeon’s classic fantasy tale ‘It’ . . . a story I had actually never read.”

And the swamp goes full circle when Roy Thomas scripted Marvel’s “It” adaptation for Supernatural Thrillers #1 (December 1972).

Sturgeon was invited to the 1975 San Diego Comic Convention so Ray Bradbury could hand him a Golden Ink Pot award. “I learned,” wrote Sturgeon, “for the very first time that my story ‘It’ is seminal; that it is the great granddaddy of The Swamp Thing, The Hulk, The Man Thing, and I don’t know how many celebrated graphics.”

The comic book swamp, however, was already draining, since Man-Thing was cancelled in 1975, and Swamp Thing the year after. It’s hard to explain the initial rise, though it probably has something to do with the 1971 change in the Comics Code:

“Vampires, ghouls and werewolves shall be permitted to be used when handled in the classic tradition such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and other high calibre literary works written by Edgar Allen Poe, Saki, Conan Doyle and other respected authors whose works are read in schools around the world.”

The Heap, after all, is a reanimated corpse. Though the cause of that reanimation is as murky as Swamp Thing’s creative origins. Is “the unearthly transformation” because World War I German pilot Baron Emmelmann’s “will to live” is such a “powerful force” that it merges his body with the slime and vegetation of the Polish swamp where his plane crashed, causing him to rise two decades later as “a fantastic heap that is neither man nor animal”? If so, why does the Heap “die” two issues later, only to be reanimated by a nefarious zoologist’s “serum”? And what does that mysterious serum have to do with “Ceres, Goddess of Soil,” who in 1947 is retconned (by an uncredited writer) into the origin, raising the dead pilot as an agent of peace in defiance of the god Ares?

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Alan Moore did an even deeper retcon to Swamp Thing. Instead of a man transformed into a plant, the 1984 Swamp Thing is a plant transformed into a man.

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The 2005 Man-Thing movie (it apparently was intended to be theatrical release before demoted to the Syfy channel) goes for supernatural agency, though the Lee-Thomas-Conway-Morrow original was pure scifi: the inventor of a super-soldier serum injects himself and crashes his car into a swamp to keep the serum from the bad guys. The “formula”—updating Captain America’s premise for the Vietnam-era—is apparently napalm-based (a newspaper headline reads “NAPALM BOMB” as the inventor laments: “It’s bad enough the chemical will be used for more killing”), and so Man-Thing’s touch burns. Or it did until the second episode, when Wein decided it only burns those who feel fear because . . . that’s how napalm works? Steve Gerber ran with that non-scifi premise, mixing more supernatural agency into his revised swamp, which, it turns out, is really a doorway to multiple dimensions.

Although Man-Thing hasn’t been lying completely dormant for the last few decades, I’d say he’s still a descent contender for the current “most obscure, uninteresting comic book character” category. Or at least a mindless, shuffling heap of muck that reflexively burns people who are afraid isn’t a superhero high on Marvel Entertainment’s film and TV project list. Like Thomas for the Heap though, I have a squishy spot in my heart for him. So let me take on Alan Moore’s thought experiment, and see if I can “reinterpret him and make him interesting.” Or maybe the problem is Man-Thing is already too interesting? So my assignment is to cover his range of weirdness while sticking to a single, scifi-only premise.

I’m placing my swamp near New Orleans and staffing it with weapon designers. Instead of napalm and super-soldiers, it’s a burning black plasma that swirls and geysers when in contact with a remote control beacon, incinerating everything else it touches. But to be practical in the field, you’d need a live soldier to operate it. So the new design is a hazmat body suit with direct neural interface. The head gear includes two large red “eyes” and tubes down the nose and sides. Things are going great until the suit-tester starts getting nervous. As his vitals rise, the plasma hits new levels of heat and mobility. It starts burning through the suit, and before they can shut it down, it incinerates him, leaving only a blackened skeleton and gas mask. But since the plasma is encoded with the last neural input, it’s now moving on its own, splashing and lurching around the complex with its puppet of a charred corpse. When it breaks outside, it vanishes into the swamp, where the plasma merges with the muck and bonds around the skeleton. What emerges isn’t sentient. It’s not even alive. It just roams randomly or sits dormant until its eyes glow red with internal heat when it senses human fear—which it then extinguishes with its burning touch.

The original Conway script includes a scantily-clad female spy who betrays the inventor and then later gets her face burnt off by Man-Thing—so let’s please avoid that double dose of misogyny. Maybe the inventor is the woman this time, and the guy testing the suit is the spy who’s seduced her to steal the tech. His vitals spike because she’s about to find him out—so it’s not just fear but his guilt too. To his own surprise, he really does love her, and it’s only his bursting into flame that prevents the discovery of his betrayal, giving his transformation a redemptive edge. Turning into a monster stops him from being a monster. And I’m betting at the end she’s the only one who can face him without fear, an act of forgiveness that also allows the plasma to finally shut down and Man-Thing to collapse into a puddle of mud and bones.

Okay, so maybe not the light PG-13 tone of the current Marvel movie universe, but what do you expect from a mindless, fear-burning swamp beast? I suggest Marvel use the character for a multi-episode subplot during season three of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, not unlike how they used Deathlok (another early 70s super-soldier monstrosity) in season one.

Now let’s see if anyone rings me up.

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(Meanwhile, instead of sitting by his own phone, Swamp Thing is headed to Reykjavik, Iceland, for the International Popular Culture Association Conference at the end of July. Nathaniel Goldberg, a colleague from the Washington and Lee University Philosophy department, and I are presenting our paper, “Donald Davidson and the Mind of Swamp Thing.”)

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