Skip to content

The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Marv Wolfman

seibles2

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”

blade

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.

blade-wallpaper-desktop-vampire-killer-wesley-snipes

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.

poetry_seibles_fastanimal

Tags: , , , , , ,

We do seek out new Avengers!

As a kid reading comics, I loved when superhero teams scrambled their rosters. For The Avengers No. 137, “We Do Seek Out New Avengers!,” Vision and the Scarlet Witch left on their honeymoon, Yellowjacket and Wasp rejoined, and Moondragon replaced the recently deceased Swordsman, leaving Hawkeye’s spot (he went off in a time machine to find the Black Knight) to be filled via an open call at Shea Stadium, where only the Beast showed up. Sounds easy, but when the Defenders televised a similar recruiting call three years later, the team was inundated with 23 would-be members, from canonical crushers Captain Marvel and Iron Man (cover appearance only) to inspired backpagers White Tiger and Prowler.

The Defenders No. 62 cover features team leader Nighthawk holding his apparently throbbing head and roaring at the impressionistically pint-sized heroes buzzing around him. Which is how I feel as I juggle the roster for a would-be course on the recent American novel. Even my open call “I Do Seek Out American Novelists!” attracts trouble, since that Canadian crusher Margaret Atwood showed up in the Shea Stadium of my brain (so does that mean I have to add “North” to the course title?). I already sent her Nobel-winning countrywoman Alice Munro home on a technicality (“Novel” not simply “Fiction”), which still leaves over twenty superpowered authors buzzing across my cover.

300px-Defenders_Vol_1_62

Writer Steve Englehart and editor Marv Wolfman weighed a dozen factors when revising the Avengers in 1975. It must be hard tossing out fan favorites like Wanda and Vision, but see how they replaced them with another married couple? And notice how they improved gender distribution by swapping in Moondragon?  (Though, okay, the female count plummeted back to one when Wasp gets hospitalized in her return issue). Of course you still want some of the old standards, Thor and Iron Man, while leaving room for an unexpected choice like the newly blue-furred Beast. And what happens when you put all these costumes in the same room? How do they get along?

Syllabus-assembling makes the same demands: are these powerful books, a balanced range, what story do they tell when they stand shoulder-to-shoulder? By balanced, I mean are half by women? Are half not by white authors? It’s not political correctness but good storytelling. If a course representing the last sixty or so years of the American novel consists mostly of Caucasian men, the story is: white guys write the best stuff. That’s a stupid story, so I know four of my roughly eight slots are going to be filled by women, and four by non-WASPs. Though that doesn’t reduce the swarm of authors in Shea Stadium much.

The Englehart-Wolfman Avengers range from the team’s oldest character (Henry Pym was buzzing around in 1962) to the two-year-old Moondragon (plucked from the 1973 pages of Daredevil). When I taught a 21st century American lit course, I had about the same age range and so felt free to juggle the reading order by convenience and whim. But a span of sixtysome years requires a more disciplined time machine. Start in the 50s and bound forward decade by decade. That draws attention to gaps though, so suddenly distribution matters too. That’s one of many good reasons that Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony made my first cut, as a rep of my underpopulated 70s favorites (I prefer that decade’s short stories).  It also means my overpopulated 80s is a problem, so DeLillo’s White Noise could be in trouble.

And what about genre types? In addition to two insect-sized humans, the 1975 Avengers include a mutant, an alien-trained telepath, a cyborg, and a god. So I should probably hit the key literary schools too. Pynchon is an easy pick for Metafiction, though Nabokov’s Pale Fire is even more fun. New Journalism’s “nonfiction novel” list is harder to prune: Capote, Mailer, Thompson, Didion, and of course my college’s beloved alum Wolfe. But if experimental memoirs are fair game, then I want Kingston’s Woman Warrior on my team (okay, maybe I do like the 70s). So maybe it’s better to swat away all things nonfiction?

I called my 21st century fiction course Thrilling Tales and focused on the pleasant collision of traditional literary novels with the formerly lowbrow genres of scifi, fantasy and mystery. I could make the second half of the 20th century an Old Testament to that thesis. Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is an alternate future, and Morrison’s Beloved a ghost story. Chabon won his Pulitzer for transforming superheroes into literary subject matter, and what’s The Crying of Lot 49 but a riff on thriller conventions? Egan’s genre-splicing A Visit from the Goon Squad could cap it all, and, for a truly blue-furred freak, I could shoehorn in Watchmen (I know, Alan Moore is British, but his and Dave Gibbons’s collaboration was very American, which, by the way, made Time’s ALL-TIME 100 Novels, thank you, Lev Grossman).

If you want to push the genre angle even further, swap out Flannery O’Connor for Patricia Highsmith. Or revise the subtitle to “Since World War 2” and open with Wright’s Native Son. Trade Pale Fire for Lolita and suddenly the course opens with a legion of supervillains: Bigger Thomas, Mr. Ripley, Humbert Humbert. Maybe I need to read Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho next? Baker’s The Fermata is a bound too far, though White Noise and its “Hitler Studies” is back in the running. I was thinking about Jones’ The Known World, but I just finished Whitehead’s Zone One, and all those zombies pair so well with the horrors of Beloved and the shadowy PTSD of Ceremony. Maybe the name of this course is American Monsters?

I was nine when I started reading The Avengers. My students are about nineteen, but they have something in common with my former Bronze Age self. Englehart and Wolfman mixed and matched their roster, knowing theirs was just the latest incarnation of a team other writers would continue to juggle for decades. But No. 137 was the first Avengers comic I ever saw. This wasn’t one version of an evolving team. This was THE Avengers. And for the students on my would-be class roster, this is the only American Novel Since 1950 course they will ever take.

And at the moment it looks something like this:

1955       Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley

1966       Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

1977       Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony

1985       Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

1987       Toni Morrison, Beloved

1986       Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons, Watchmen

1999       Michael Chabon, The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

2010       Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad

2011       Colson Whitehead, Zone One

Avengers 137

Tags: , , , , ,

“Who’s your favorite mutant, professor?”

If you’re going to teach a college course on superheroes, it’s a question you should be ready to answer. I wasn’t. My first thought was Lady Gaga. Artpop wasn’t out yet, so I must have been thinking about the human-motorbike cyborg of Born This Way. But instead I rattled off something about Magneto (his rare, bookworm incarnation adorns this blog). Now I’ve got a better answer. My favorite mutant was the first of them all:

The Night Wind.

3273

Never heard of him? You’re in good company. He stopped adventuring in 1919, three years before his out-of-work creator shot himself. He premiered forty years before Stan Lee first and most famously attached the biological term (already an evolutionary staple of post-Hiroshima scifi) to the world of superheroes.

In fact, “mutant” is so Marvel, I’m hesitant to use it outside their multiverse. I remember the narrative nausea my adolescent self felt when DC buckled under the popularity of X-Men and shoehorned their first “mutant” into Teen Titans. It was 1984, and Ex-Marvel writer-editor Marv Wolfman must have forgotten he’d switched employers (again). It didn’t help that the character was a joke, a mute mutant (is that a pun?). I had to google his name (Jericho) and his powers (mind control?), but remembered his dorky blonde curls all too well.

Not that Stan Lee’s first use of the term was impressive either. Two years cranking out his silver age pantheon (Fantastic Four, Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, Iron Man, Dr. Strange), he hit his limit for origin stories. So the 1963 X-Men, “The Strangest Super-heroes of All!,” were all Born That Way like Lady Gaga.

As Professor Xavier professed in the first issue: “You, Miss Grey, like the other four students at this most exclusive school, are a MUTANT! You possess an EXTRA power . . . one which ordinary humans do NOT! That is why I call my students . . . X-MEN, for EX-tra power!”(Lee had one more origin story in him: Daredevil was hit by a radioactive truck the following year. Which pretty much proves the point about creative exhaustion.)

Alias “The Night Wind” crawled out of the primordial pulp goo of The Cavalier magazine way back in 1913, six months after Tarzan of the Apes set the new standard for superhuman adventuring. Like Superman, Bing Harvard, A.K.A. the Night Wind, had no problem tying “bow-knots in crowbars.” But instead of crashlanding from Krypton to be reared by mid-western farmers, or shipwrecked from aristocratic England to be reared by anthropoid apes, Bing was a foundling reared by an American banker.

He also possess “a wonderful, God-given strength,” which was his “birthright,” what “his unknown father and mother had bestowed upon him as an inheritance.”

Peter Coogan terms him an “anomaly.” That’s a pretty good synonym for “mutant,” but the superhero scholar is talking genre tropes, few of which the character fits. I photocopied an excerpt for my class, and someone said it read like a supervillain origin story. Hard-working orphan framed for embezzlement turns his powers against the powers that be.

It’s true, Bing breaks the wrists of any cop who tries to arrest him, but after he clears his name (with the help of a lady cop who later marries him), he settles happily into law-abiding domesticity. The truly anomalous gene in the series is the never-solved mystery introduced in its opening chapters:

Who are Bing’s parents?

Jericho, it turns out, is the son of the villainous Deathstroke, his powers the product of biological experimentation done on his father. All those Marvel mutants can be traced back to Celestial tampering in the gene pool millions of years ago. But Bing? Frederick Van Rensselaer Dey (writing as his alter ego Varick Vanardy) didn’t care. Dey had cranked out Nick Carter dime novels for decades, but the Night Wind peters at four. The fact is frustrating, but even if I could sit down with Frederick over coffee in Dr. Doom’s time-travel machine, I’m not sure I would steer him any differently.

Bing’s real superheroism is only visible when you step out of the time machine and wander the nineteen-teens awhile. As a historical researcher, my first mistake is always the same. I assume past cultures are just like us, only in funny clothes. But immerse yourself in the period (I recommend the New York Times online database) and you realize you’re looking at a planet more alien than Krypton.

I always give my Superhero students a crash course in eugenics, a term, for those who’ve ever heard it, they associate with Nazi Germany not homegrown America. Where did the idea of killing the genetically unfit come from? Forget Auschwitz. The American Breeders Association of Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island recommended installing a gas chamber in every town in America.

This was 1911. Two years before the Night Wind started snapping police wrists. The Breeders’ other recommendations (immigration restrictions, racial segregation, interracial marriage ban, sterilization) became law as Dey was writing. Back then everyone simply knew the human race would devolve if Aryan supremacy wasn’t maintained. That was just common sense. That was the alien air everyone was breathing.

So if you were a recent immigrant, if your parents weren’t Anglo-Saxon, if you weren’t from good reliable Protestant stock, you were probably unfit. Genetic traits in those days included just about anything: poverty, promiscuity, feeblemindedness, criminality. Your parentage defined you. The cop who frames Bing says it all:

“Who are you, anyhow, I’d like to know? It ain’t nothin’ out uh the way that you should be a thief. I guess you inherited it all right. It’s more’n likely that his dad is doin’ time right now, in one uh the prisons, an’ his mother, too, maybe. It’s the way uh that sort. He don’t know who his antecedents was.”

Who was Bing? Who were his parents? Dey didn’t care. His hero was just born that way. And Dey blesses him for it. Literally. He declares his powers “God-given.” They’re not the result of eugenics movement’s so-called scientific breeding. He’s an accident, a genetic anomaly. He’s homo superior. Not the well-born superman eugenicists were obsessed with, but an up-from-the-muck mutant, defying the prejudices all of America was inhaling.

Dey was singing “Born This Way” a hundred years before Lady Gaga:

“I’m on the right track baby,
I was born to be brave.”

gaga_297311k

Tags: , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: