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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Lesley Wheeler

Some of my favorite comics growing up were the oddball superhero pairings Marvel would throw together: Spider-Man and Scarlet Witch, Thing and Black Widow, Thing and, well, Thing (that was an odd issue). So I’m delighted that the marvels of the publishing universe have thrown together my two most anticipated new books with the same fall 2015 release: Lesley Wheeler’s Radioland (Barrow Street Press) and my own On the Origin of Superheroes (University of Iowa Press).

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Obviously I’m anticipating my own book. Publishing means organizing readings, reviews, interviews, and every other kind of publicity. But it’s the poetry collection Radioland that I’ve actually looked forward to, that I can now sit back with a pre-release copy in my lap and sincerely admire. I already read it in multiple manuscript print-outs, but there’s nothing quite like the authoritative aura of a glossy-covered book fresh from its publisher’s packaging envelope. I’ve read all of Wheeler’s previous books (her scholarly Voicing American Poetry and The Poetics of Enclosure, and her collections Heathen, Heterotopia, and The Receptions and Other Tales), but Radioland is my current favorite. And not just because I teared up when I opened to the surprise dedication:

for Chris Gavaler

and other good fathers

I should acknowledge that I’m Wheeler’s spouse. We’re professors in the same English department too, so our professional identities team up constantly. But you never know which student or non-departmental colleague is going to give a startled blink at the discovery of our two-in-one domestic life.  Aside from our three-sentence wedding invitation, we’ve officially collaborated on only one scholarly article (about poet Marianne Moore) and two children (a first-year in college and a first-year in high school). But our co-editing is invaluable.

After dutifully reading my weekly superhero blog, Wheeler saw me through the surprisingly complex process of rewriting and reorganizing the pre-1938 material into a cohesive manuscript. When an Iowa acquisition editor read the blog and contacted me to ask if I wanted to convert it into a book, I said yes. Obviously. But it was Wheeler who suffered the first drafts of each reconceived chapter, helping me rethink, rework and eventually refine. As I explain in the penultimate paragraph:

Lesley Wheeler has no superhero scholarship I can cite either, but she’s seen me through each step of creation, critiquing everything from the first harebrained draft of that KKK essay to the thorniest midtransformations of this manuscript.

I dedicated my first romantic suspense novel to her (Pretend I’m Not Here is even set in the Virgin Islands where we honeymooned). But On the Origin of Superheroes is dedicated to John Gavaler, my father. He read comics as a kid in the 40s, fueling my comic book reading in the 70s. John is also one of the “other good fathers” of Lesley’s book dedication, a category that, when you read the collection you’ll see, doesn’t include her own. He’s more like the supervillain Nightmare haunting her sleep—no matter how many times she vanquishes him in real life. But her poetic superpowers more than make up for his failings when Radioland single-handedly realigns the universe into a better shape. “Gods and fathers,” her final poem concludes, “rarely signal / but rock vibrates /sympathetically. What else / could it say? Echo / a kind of love . . .”

Wheeler and I also appear together in last year’s superhero poetry collection Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comic Books, but our most superheroic successes are our kids. Oddly, that includes standing on the crumbling planet of their childhood and watching them blast away in private rockets. Madeleine is now adventuring in the distant solar system of Connecticut, and Cameron, while still homebound, is tearing Hulk-like through his adolescent wardrobe, poised to make the same single-bound leap into adulthood.

Meanwhile, we have our books. Not as brilliant and hilarious as flesh-and-blood children, but they are easier to read and to hand to a friend. If you’d like to meet them, they’re available for pre-order at Amazon and elsewhere. And, if you’re in Lexington, VA on November 4th, stop by the Bookery. We’ll be there, 5:00-7:00 pm, pens in hand.

 

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No More Zombies

Zombies stumble into my class all the time. They tend to be friendly but a little lost, uncertain whether they belong in a fiction workshop. They stare blankly when I explain that the course is focused on “literary” fiction, a species of writing they’ve heard of but only sporadically consumed.

It’s not an easy term to digest. Adam Brooke Davis, in his recent essay “No More Zombies!,” divides “the playfulness that is above seriousness from the drivel that is below it” by banning all “alt-worlding” from his advanced writing workshop and requiring his students to write about “real environments with real people, facing [real] problems.” So “literary” is narrative realism, and everything else is genre (sci-fi, fantasy, horror). Those are pretty much the definitions the publishing industry has been using for decades.

It sounds good, but when I open up a collection of O. Henry Prize-winning stories I find a range of alternate worlds. They involve androids, a village on the back of a whale, and a giant square from space that slowly crushes a town. If I reach to my next shelf, I can pull down a dozen top-tier literary journals that include equally nonrealistic stories, all quite serious and drivel-free. The range of narrative realism in the same issues is serious and drivel-free too. A story’s setting, real or speculative, predicts nothing.

Yet Davis bemoans the influence of pop culture, believing that all the alt-worlds infecting film, TV, and popular literature have mutated his students into lazy zombies instead of disciplined writers. If so, it’s got nothing to do with “alt-worlding”—all fiction writing is alt-worlding. There is no such thing as a work of fiction that takes place in the real world. Stories exist solely in words. That’s an unbelievably obvious fact, but even creative-writing professors can lose track of the implications.

A work of narrative realism is no closer to being “real” than a story about vampires, superheroes, or anthropomorphic chipmunks. By “real,” we usually mean “familiar,” sometimes lazily so. If a first sentence describes a pickup truck grinding over gravel, rather than a hovercraft quivering above landing lights, we perceive the story as existing “here” and “now,” not in some other place and time. The implied world is a ready-made. Instantly recognizable environments, Davis implies, force students to focus on more important story elements.

Sometimes that’s true. But if handed a choice, I will sooner read a student draft that takes place on a distant planet in a far-flung future than a story set in a campus dorm last weekend. Neither setting is intrinsically better, but even the most experienced writer needs some psychic (and so probably physical and temporal) distance to transform real experience into “realistic” literature. When a genre draft is bad, however, it’s probably because the writer has been consumed by the formula. That’s an easier problem to fix.

When I tell students they can write anything as long as it’s “literary,“ I define the term as “character-driven.” Nonliterary fiction, I explain, is plot-driven and includes any story in which characters act according to the needs of the plot rather than from an artfully crafted illusion of psychologically complex motivation. Plot is still important—without it, the best you can hope for is a beautifully chiseled character study that lacks any page-turning momentum. But, I ask, is the plot serving the characters, or are the characters serving the plot?

It’s not a perfect (or particularly original) definition, but it gets the job done. When I faced down my first zombie in a workshop, I didn’t flinch. I also didn’t chuckle and dismiss the story as a warm-up. I critiqued it the same way I would critique a piece of narrative realism. And, when the student turned in a revision, the story had transformed into realism. The zombies didn’t vanish, but the characters’ genre-determined behaviors did. Alternate worlds aren’t the only stories choked with clichés, but they do have more overtly defined sets of formula expectations. And that makes them easy to gut. Just ask one question: Is the world serving the characters, or are the characters serving the world?

Davis’s zombie ban sparked some outrage from fellow writing professors, but I agree with Lesley Wheeler, who wrote in her literary blog that Davis, despite the weaknesses of his argument, “seems like a dedicated teacher who wants to do the best he can by his creative-writing students.”

I’ll go a step further. Not only do Davis and I have the same good intentions, he and I want to help our students produce exactly the same kind of story. Davis confuses it with “real environments,” but that’s a surface element. He wants depth. He wants psychological realism. It doesn’t matter if the characters are androids, elves, or mere “humans”—as long they behave humanly. Does the zombie stumble through its life in all the messy and horrific ways readers recognize from their own lives? If so, the character is “real,” whether zombified or not.

“Literary” stories require readers to infer complex inner lives for artificially real characters. I won’t deny the pleasures of formula and its plot-beholden characters, but they’re nothing compared to the joys of eating an imaginary brain. Open a skull and explore all the flavors. I demand all my students to be zombies.

zombie writing

[A version of this article originally appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education.]

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Is it bad etiquette to blog about your wife? If so, I’m requesting an exception. Lesley Wheeler just published the sort of book I most love, and I’m here to blab about it. The Receptionist and Other Tales is exactly the kind of boundary-bashing, genre-twirling, high-lowbrow mash-up that could save the antiseptically quiet world of literature from lapsing into a boredom-induced coma.

I teach a contemporary novel course titled “Thrilling Tales,” so I always have an eye out for literary writers willing to plunge head first into the deep end of the genre pool and splash around with zombies and superheroes and dark lords. And Lesley is swimming laps with them all.

I’ll get back to the main tale in a sec, but the “Other Tales” half of the title includes a sonnet that debates the relative durability of Captain America’s shield against Thor’s hammer, Hulk’s fist, and the Human Torch’s nova heat. Worshippers of the Weird should not miss the H. P. Lovecraft tribute (the speaker may or may not be devoured by an all-girl boarding school of fox-obsessed teens). My favorite is the T. S. Eliot parody that recasts “The Waste Land” as a George Romero zombie flick. (It’s also set during a Thanksgiving dinner, so the living dead are the least of the horrors.)

And that’s just the dessert tray. The main course is an even wilder array of literary risk-taking. The Receptionist is a fantasy tale inspired by Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland (required reading for even the most casual D&D tourist), which Lesley warps into a hybrid plot about evil deans and inner Yoda voices calling her heroine to action. It opens with the speaker reading bedtime books to her children—something Lesley and I spent a decade doing with our kids. All those alternate worlds—Oz, Narnia, Hogwarts—get ingrained in the brain, and soon the real world warps too. Even the mundane machinations of college politics can morph into fantastical proportions.

I should clarify: this isn’t autobiography. My wife isn’t an English department receptionist (though she was a chair while drafting), and the college faculty she creates aren’t the people we pass daily on our way in and out of class. The nefarious dean isn’t our dean either. The antagonist of The Receptionist is dashingly handsome and a sexual predator—descriptions I would not apply to our college administrator. That said, I do wonder if my wife has woven some real magic into her tale. The Receptionist ends with (SPOILER ALERT!) the vanquishing of the evil one. Is it mere coincidence that our real-world dean suffered a similar fate after The Receptionist was accepted for publication?

I don’t know what spells her terza rima encodes—only that the improbable complexities of the stanzas create a kind of aesthetic undertow that pulls you backwards as the storyline flings you forward. The effect is dizzying. Like existing in two dimensions simultaneously: a rompingly accessible plot somehow contained in an enchantingly intricate rhyme scheme. It shouldn’t be possible. Lesley’s speaker experiences the same world-split, the ordinary and the fantastic in constant collision, each transformed by the other, always both, always neither. It’s a one-of-a-kind hybrid form. It’s werewolf poetry. It’s cyborg literature. It’s damn fun reading.

I should also say that The Receptionist is published by Aqueduct, a press dedicated entirely to feminist scifi, which, be honest, I bet you didn’t know there was such a thing.  And did I mention it’s blurbed by Ursula K. Le Guin? Something that impressed both our kids, since Earthsea was another of their bedtime universes. (British readers will be equally impressed by Gwyneth Jones’ back cover rave.) My only complaint? Lesley’s author pic isn’t on the back.

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Of all the methods of transformation employed by alter egos—spin in a circle, rip your clothes off in a phone booth, dial H.E.R.O. —my all time favorite belongs to Alan Moore. In order to transform into the fantasy warrior Promethea, college geek Sophie Bangs has to . . .

Write a poem.

Sound easy? In the first issue, a shadow demon is battering at her collapsing door as she scribbles in a notebook. Rhyme, meter, stanza breaks—Sophie’s got to do it all:

I am Promethea and take my name
From he bound to a rock and plagued by birds.
In me burns his Celestial stolen flame.
I am the words made flesh, the flesh made words.

Six more stanzas of that, quatrains, ABAB rhyme scheme, even a loose iambic pentameter. All Billy Batson has to do is yelp, “Shazam!” Promethea wields a glowing caduceus, the double snake wand of Hermes that shoots celestial flame.When Sophie changes back to her old self, she’s gripping her pen and notebook again.  I think she got the better deal.

Still, I’m not seeing Alan Moore on any Contemporary Poetry syllabi. Fortunately there’s a legion of poets with mightier pens.

David Orr, for instance. His “The Chameleon” recently appeared in The New Yorker. Jeannine Hall Gailey’s “Wonder Woman Dreams of the Amazon” is another must-have on any superhero poetry syllabus. So is Lesley Wheeler’s “Earth-Two Sonnet” (and not just because I’m married to the poet). And Gary Jackson’s “Home from Work, I Face My Newborn Mutant Son” just ka-powwed me while I was reading his poetry collection Missing You, Metropolis.

The list goes on. You would need a Contemporary Superhero Poetry course to work through it all. Or at least a Superhero Poetry Anthology to gather it. I suggested the possibility to Lesley, a sort of “Wonder Twins Power Activate!” scheme, since it would unite our two areas of expertise. We both have other shadow demons in need of vanquishing first, but it could happen.

To prove it’s worthwhile, I emailed Graywolf Press for permission to post Gary Jackson’s poem here. And Lesley (she’s across the room chopping onions) just gave me the thumbs-up on hers too (provided I include this link to unsplendid where it was first published). Sophie Bangs doesn’t exist, so I’m hoping she doesn’t mind my including the rest of her poem too.

Be careful when reading these aloud. They could induce unintended transformations.

Gary Jackson
“Home from Work, I Face My Newborn Mutant Son”

I hold my six-pound baby boy
in my hands, pink as sand.
His skin is glass.

This is not a metaphor.
My wife did not hemorrhage alone
on our wood floor for metaphor.

Even now, he squirms—his small cries
are like the whine of well-worn brakes.
He cuts into my palms and slides

in the creased blood. I see
his tiny organs getting used to their work,
while my wife—bled out—grows cold.

What paper-bag test can this boy pass?
His skin reflects the white of my eyes.
And I know he cannot last.

For a moment, before I drop him,
I wonder how he’d make it?
Even if his skin does harden—

to crystal, to diamond—it won’t be
enough, and I could not bear the sight
of him hanging like an ornament,

a glass boy from a tree, or find him
cracked open, splintered in the  street.
As he shatters on the floor,

everything from his heart to lungs
freezes like the hands
of a wristwatch at ground zero.

*

Lesley Wheeler
“Earth-Two Sonnet”

A caped figure slips through an empty building, inked figment on the brink
of the place where General Lee, tired of fighting, swore to serve as president.
Books wait breathless in their boxes; renovation’s imminent.
The blackboards ache like thunderclouds. Power trying to break.

At dinner, it’s all doppelgangers and secret identities. Captain America’s shield is the Marvel standard for durability,
he explains as our son lists mythic forces that might shatter its
flawlessness. Nova Heat from the Human Torch; Hulk’s avocado fist.
Their mirror-faces glow. Maybe Thor’s hammer, they agree.

May that hammer slam
this Earth-One heroine. Let her drop the shield, ride the bolt to a parallel dimension and learn
to be ordinary. Let the afternoon level its cosmic rays at my back, burn
the scar-shadow-stain of the last few years onto the linoleum,

sketching a record of the armor I recycle, the tights I now peel free.
Allowed to wrinkle; skip a meeting of the League; be indiscreet. Her perfection only a legend now. A vibranium chip of history.

*

Sophie Banks
“I am Promethea”

I am Promethea and take my name
From he bound to a rock and plagued by birds.
In me burns his Celestial stolen flame.
I am the words made flesh, the flesh made words.

I am Promethea, my father dead,
Martyred, his bones daubed red with Heresy
By those who would turn Gold back into Lead
And sour a world by their sour Alchemy.

I am Promethea, God-adapted ne,
Reared in their immaterial hills and vales.
My tale is in the world of substance spun,
Yet is my substance in the world of tales.

I am Promethea, the child who stands
Between fixed earth and insubstantial air,
A thought who yet treads matter’s rain-swept strands,
And mortals are the sandals that I wear.

I am Promethea. From Mind’s pure light
I stoop into Earth’s gloom. From Fable’s day
Descending into Fact’s cold weighty night,
From lyric atmospheres to mammal clay.

I am Promethea, the rumored one,
The Mythic bought Reason strains to bend
I am that voice left, once the book is done . . .
I am the dream that waking does not end.

I am Promethea, Art’s fiercest spark
I am all inspiration, all desire,
Imagination’s blaze in mankind’s dark.
I am Promethea. I bring you fire!

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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.

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