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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Lord Byron


I started reading comics as a kid at a particularly satanic moment. Not only had vampires and werewolves crashed through the gatekeeping Comic Code, but the literal Son of Satan demanded his own title in 1973. My favorite supernatural superhero though was the demonic motorcyclist Ghost Rider. Marvel writer Gary Friedrich said the flaming skull idea was his. In fact, Friedrich said the whole character was and sued a few weeks after Columbia released their first Ghost Rider movie (it barely broke even, so I’m still confused how Nicholas Cage managed a sequel). In the comic, Friedrich wrote about the Evel Knievel-inspired Johnny Blaze signing away rights to his soul to save his adoptive father from cancer. A U.S. District Judge wrote in her court opinion that Friedrich had signed his rights away to Marvel.

It’s a diabolically common comic book plot, dating back to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster signing DC-owner Harry Donnenfeld’s standard contract and handing their mobster boss Superman for $130. But that wasn’t the first superhero deal with the devil.

faust and devil

When Mephistopheles offered to be Faust’s “servant,” the wizened scholar wisely asked “how must I thy services repay?” demanding “the condition plainly be exprest!” In exchange for his soul (“under-signest merely with a drop of blood”), Faust wanted superhuman knowledge. He’d exhausted all human study—philosophy, medicine, jurisprudence, theology—but was “no nearer to the infinite.” Goethe introduces him alone in his study, moments before conjuring his first spirit:

Therefore myself to magic I give,
In hope, through spirit-voice and might,
Secrets now veiled to bring to light,
That I no more, with aching brow,
Need speak of what I nothing know;
That I the force may recognise
That binds creation’s inmost energies;
Her vital powers, her embryo seeds survey,
And fling the trade in empty words away.

Goethe published the first half of his dramatic poem Faust in 1808, based on the German alchemist Johann Georg Faust who supposedly died in a laboratory explosion when the devil came to collect him personally (the German Church had said the two were in league). An anonymous historian included their actual contract, complete with its legalistic “whereas” and “whereof” jargon, in the first 1587 compilation of the legend. Christopher Marlowe introduced the doctor to English audiences two decades later, but I prefer Goethe’s version. His Faust is the first superman. One of the spirits he conjures asks: “What vexes you, oh Ubermensch!”

Friedrich Nietzsche famously adopted the term, but only after reading Lord Byron’s dramatic poem Manfred while still in school. Young Friedrich called Byron’s Faustian knock-off an “Ubermensch who commands the spirits” and felt “profoundly related to this work,” preferring it over Goethe’s. Byron first heard Faust the summer the Shelleys visited his Geneva manor. Mary Shelley began Frankenstein that same visit, and her mad scientist, like Byron’s mad magician, inherited Faust’s “ardent mind,/ Which unrestrain’d still presses on for ever.” All three o’erleapt the human sphere to know what “Doth for the Deity alone subsist!”

I teach playwriting, so if either poet showed up in class, we’d have to have a very long discussion about the word “dramatic.” Though equally unstageable, Manfred is Faust minus Mephistopheles, a subtraction that probably won over the impressionable Nietzsche. Manfred doesn’t barter his soul to anyone but his diabolical self. His powers were “purchased by no compact” but “by superior science,” “strength of mind,” and a whole lotta “daring.” He accepts his approaching death, but defies “The Power which summons me,” refusing “to render up my soul to” the demonic spirit he orders “Back to thy hell! Thou hast no power upon me.”

Thou didst not tempt me, and thou couldst not tempt me;
I have not been thy dupe, nor am thy prey—
But was my own destroyer, and will be
My own hereafter

The abbot at Manfred’s side urges him to pray for salvation, but Manfred will have none of that either, content to “die as I have lived—alone.” His soul takes its earthless flight, whither the abbot dreads to think. He means Hell, which is where Marlowe sent his Faust in the last act of his tragedy, dragged down like Don Giovanni by the Commandatore’s statue. But the first part of Goethe’s trajedie ends with the repentant Faust’s arrival in Heaven—another reason for Nietzsche to prefer Byron’s ubermensch.

After Manfred, Byron started composing his satiric epic Don Juan, leaping from a damned alchemist named John to a damned womanizer named John. George Bernard Shaw landed in Byron’s footsteps when he modernized Don Juan as an aristocratic eugenicist in his 1903 play Man and Superman—the first time Nietzsche’s “ubermensch” is translated “superman.” Shaw’s John, however, never signs his soul away, just his life when in his last act he submits to marriage—an institution he’d opposed as an obstacle to breeding supermen. He wants to populate the planet with a race of goodlooking philosopher-athletes.

Goethe’s Faust could have demanded invulnerability and super-strength, but his superpowers seem more noble:

The scope of all my powers henceforth be this,
To bare my breast to every pang,—to know
In my heart’s core all human weal and woe,
To grasp in thought the lofty and the deep,
Men’s various fortunes on my breast to heap,
And thus to theirs dilate my individual mind,
And share at length with them the shipwreck of mankind.

Compare that to one of the more recent soul-selling superheroes, Todd McFarlane’s Spawn. When the former CIA assassin died, he made a deal with a demon to see his wife again—and next thing he’s sporting a necroplasmic body with superhuman strength and infinite regenerative powers. He battles angels, demons, and a range of human thugs—but not publishers. McFarlane was one of a group of artists who rebelled against Marvel’s “work for hire” requirement that employees give up all ownership rights—a policy they reversed when they formed Image Comics in 1992. Spawn was one of the company’s first titles.

spawn 8

I applaud their business practices, but when I picked up Spawn No. 8 from a magazine shelf in my local bookstore, I was horrified. It seemed my favorite writer, Alan Moore, had sold not his soul but his signature intelligence when penning the script. But I’m still glad it sold well, and even spawned a movie that grossed more than Ghost Rider. Meanwhile, Siegel, Shuster, and their heirs have spent decades battling the Mephistophelean DC. Their lawsuits kept the Hollywood Superman in Development Hell for a few years—a 2008 judge almost stripped DC of the copyright—but Warner Bros’ lawyer minions always win in appeals. Marlowe sent his Faust shrieking into Hell, but maybe someday the spirits of the U.S. court system will answer his final prayer:

Let Faustus live in hell a thousand years,

A hundred thousand, and at last be sav’d!

i have had enough

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I’m pretty sure I saw the first Twilight movie. Though I might have it confused with a really good parody my daughter showed me on Youtube (Edward was Santa Claus). I started reading the novel too, in an attempt to understand what was enthralling my then tween daughter. I set her copy down just before the baseball scene. That was maybe four years ago.

So I am no expert on things Twilight. And yet I feel I have inhaled more than my fair share of Edward Cullen from our cultural ecosystem. If I recall correctly, Ms. Meyer paints him in superhero shades, a cursed but noble superhuman who uses his powers for good. It was, for example, very noble of him not to kill and eat Bella when she smelled so delicious in science class. That’s some serious restraint for a soulless monster who literally lives to devour women.

But he’s not the first. Edward might not literally have a soul, but his soulful self-restraint recalls a colony of similarly abstinent vampire hunks. The BBC’s Being Human featured three seasons of the AA-esque Mitchell struggling to stay on the blood-sucking wagon, followed by season four’s equally valiant and tortured Hal. Before Joss Whedon turned his attention to men in leotards, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator sired not one but two vampires-with-a-soul, the angsty Angel and the bad boy Spike.

But Buffy owes both those lovers and most of her name to Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan, who introduced Blade the Vampire-Hunter to readers of Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula back in 1973. Though soulless as any other blood-sucker, Blade kept his vampire virginity and so earns the all-time abstinence award.

But he’s still not the first vampire trying to be good. That goes to Barnabas Collins of the 1966-71 soap opera Dark Shadows. Introduced as a temporary side character, the lovelorn Barnabas saved the show from cancellation and was soon taking a serum to restore his humanity. (Something Johnny Depp finished for him earlier this year.)

With a few very notable exceptions (Le Fanu’s 1872 “Carmilla,” Catharine Deneuve in The Hunger), vampires are men. Octavia Butler’s Shori from her novel Fledgling is a personal favorite, the proverbial rule-proving exception. “Most vampires,” Butler told an interviewer, “I have discovered are men for some reason. I guess it’s because Dracula; people are kind of feeding off that.”

Feeding indeed.

When I taught Fledgling in my contemporary novel class (Thrilling Tales), I asked my students to describe a typical vampire.

“A guy who hides in the shadows and jumps out and bites women.”

And what would you have if you took out the fangs?

After a moment of awkward mumbling, an intrepid senior spelled it out: “A rapist.”

The first was Lord Byron. Or “Lord Ruthven,” as Byron’s personal physician, John William Polidori, thinly disguised him in his 1819 short story “The Vampyre” (begun by Bryon during the ghost story gathering that also spawned Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein). Polidori plucked the vampire from eastern European folklore and recast him as a seductive aristocrat feeding on high society women. In other words, Lord Byron. “The Vampyre” sparked the first vampire craze (imagine Edward Cullen singing in two simultaneous opera adaptations) and the enduring undead genre.

Byron, of course, did not have fangs. Just a penis. Which remains the not particularly veiled subtext of most vampire plots. Stoker’s Dracula is about a foreigner buying the house next door and penetrating the neighborhood’s daughters and fiancés. It’s also about property. Women, like other Victorian real estate, do nothing but lie very still while men make their transactions.

Which, oddly, is why I think the genre has endured. The figure of the seducer opens one of culture’s favorite taboos: women’s pleasure. We’re less terrified of the topic than the Victorians, but not as much as you’d like to think. A lunch table of high school girls knows that sex drive is supposed to be a boy thing.

Which is why vampires are so useful. If you’re being seduced by superhuman means, how can you be expected to defend yourself? Your failure to resist your sexy attacker isn’t your fault. All you can do is lie back and remain innocent.

And if it feels good? Well, that’s not anybody’s fault either.

And, since you’re enthralled and all, who can object if some of that vampire urgency seeps into your own blood?

Which brings us back to Edward and his neutered cousins. Remember how startled he and Bella were the first time they kissed? How she was the one overcome with passion? It’s as if the laws of thermodynamics apply to arousal. Bella’s longing is possible to the degree that Edward suppresses his. If you tame the rapist, you claim his libido for yourself.

My tween daughter started reading the Twilight series because her older friends were, girls she literally looked up to, young women now in their second years of college. My daughter now admits that she liked boys in elementary and middle school, but that she didn’t have the slightest idea how to talk to one, only stare creepily from across a science classroom. That’s where Twilight came in. And Vampire Academy, and House of Night, and the other books I kept buying her for birthdays and Christmases.

Edward and his clan have something to teach boys too. Culturally, we tell young men they’re supposed to have voracious appetites. That they’re supposed to value sex over the body they happen to be having it with. That a penis really isn’t all that different from a set of fangs.

Edward and Angel and Mitch and Barnabas and Hal and Blade and Spike, they’re a reminder that being male isn’t permission to think like a rapist. Grow a soul, boys. Join the human race. Joss Whedon (did I mention he majored in Women’s Studies?) played out this plot best, evolving Spike from literal rapist to president of the tortured soul club over the course of seven seasons. But he never dumped the leather jacket. Even reformed bad boys are allowed to keep a little of their signature badness.

I’m not necessarily endorsing vampire sex. But it has its uses, a kind of safe sex practice zone of the pubescent imagination. My daughter has since outgrown vampires, even regards her former Twilight obsession with a sophomore’s embarrassment.  Which I suppose should alarm me more. What does it mean when you’re done with metaphorical sex?

She saw the first half of Breaking Dawn last year with her boyfriend, who apparently has a blood phobia and had to leave for a light-headed stroll in the theater lobby.

That’s the kind of vampire a father has to like.

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