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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Marvel

My son is obsessed with Marvel Heroscape. He ordered it himself with grandparent Christmas money. I’ve never seen him choose to play a board game rather than a video game before. And though I’m thrilled that his eyes are peeled away from his laptop, Nintendo, and Wii screens, it means I’m playing a lot of Heroscape too.

My university is also gearing up for its Mock Con right now. Every four years Washington & Lee simulates a Presidential Convention for the party currently out of the White House. Four years ago they predicted Hilary Clinton would edge out Barack Obama for the Democrat nomination. So did I.  But that’s only their second error since 1948. No one’s got a better record. And, hey, hypothetical match-ups aren’t easy.

Look at Heroscape. Their Marvel Mock Con requires a close analysis of a complex set of specialized abilities and frustratingly random dice rolls.

For the most part they get it right. The Abomination begins with a slight advantage over the Hulk, but once wounded, Hulk’s rage attack is unbeatable. Spider-Man and Venom, though bragging different attack and defensive Spider Sense levels, come down to a coin toss. Iron Man and Dr. Doom at first appear equally matched, but when my son and I faced them off, Iron Man’s double attacks bettered Doom’s higher single attack three times in a row.

The only upset was Captain America.

Though his physical abilities are capped more-or-less within human range, the guy’s unbeatable at close combat. That means face-to-face, like, say, on stage at a debate. With his shield deflection, he can actually get an opponent to kill himself. Sort of like Rick Perry’s campaign-ending “oops” moment during the Republican debates. Cap is also a brilliant Tactician with long coattails, aiding all adjacent candidates with extra die roll on attacks and defenses.

The best way to kill him is long range attack, AKA political ads. Red Skull also poses a problem. Sure, the super-Nazi is weak on defense (a measly three dice), but he’s also a Master Manipulator. He can control Cap’s mind once each round, making the emblem of Democracy do his evil bidding. (Which might also explain why President Obama has duplicated the Bush foreign policy since he took office.)

In the Marvel universe, Captain American led an underground resistance against the Superhero Registration Act (AKA the Patriot Act). But rather than see his country torn in half by partisan combat, Cap was ready to surrender to his adversaries. Unfortunately, a sniper (another form of long range attack) assassinated him first. A scenario I imagine has crossed the mind of the first African American President of the United States more than once.

Perhaps the cross-over series DC Versus Marvel Comics is the better political allegory. Cameron got that for Christmas too. The two parties evenly divided the first six battles, leaving the last tie-breaking five to fan votes. Marvel got more, but rather than allow one side to win, the two worlds merged into the Amalgam Universe. Here opponents were recreated as combinations of themselves. Batman and Wolverine became Dark Claw. Superman and Captain American merged into Super Soldier.

Which offers another explanation for the Obama Presidency: To defeat Bush, Obama had to absorb half of him.

Romney is a different kind of mash-up. He’s not the moderate center of two extremes. It’s as if the original Romney—the one who championed gay rights, abortion rights, socialized health care—was abducted and replaced by the Romney of some mirror universe. Newt Gingrich time-traveled from the 1990’s in attempt to defeat him, but to no avail. Now nothing stands in the way of Dark Romney’s plot to conquer the Republican party one Mock Convention at a time.

I predict Washington & Lee University will succumb to his Master Manipulation this Friday.

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A “super hero” is a “superhero” is a “super-hero.” It’s a trademarked term. Marvel and DC have owned it jointly since 1979. They argued that consumers associate the word with their products, and so any other company marketing a character as a superhero would be exploiting them.

That may have been true in 1979. Charlton Comics (they dropped out of the superhero comic book market in the late 70’s) called their superpowered do-gooders “Action Heroes.” It seems considerably less true after the emergence of other major comic book publishers, such as Dark Horse in 1986 and Image in 1992. Only in a legalistic sense are Hellboy, Spawn, and Michael Chabon’s The Escapist (Dark Horse published the comic book version) not superheroes.

My professional expertise is in literary analysis not law, but I do not expect Chevron and Gulf would have much luck barring other oil companies from using “gas station” on the grounds that Chevron and Gulf were the first to open ones. The term is used too generically now. Of course Marvel and DC can’t control generic use of “superhero” either. Other companies can call their characters “superheroes” within a text, just not in a title or an advertisement.

So someone tell me: Is Nostalgia Ventures following or breaking trademark law with the phrase “THE FIRST SUPERHERO” on the cover of their Doc Savage reprints? (This sounds like a job for those guys over at the “Law and the Multiverse” blog.)

Some dictionaries trace “superhero” to the early 60’s, fueling Marvel and DC’s claim since their Silver Age characters reinvented the genre then. But the word goes back much further. Popular wisdom has it originating shortly after 1938: since Superman established the hero type, imitations were dubbed “superheroes.” It’s a reasonable claim. Except that Joe Shuster used the term himself while sketching early drafts, describing Superman as “THE GREATEST SUPER-HERO OF ALL TIME!” years before he saw publication.

Pulp publishers Street and Smith advertised Doc Savage as a “SUPERMAN!” but in house they were referring to the Shadow and other mystery men as “superheroes” as early as 1932. Future DC publisher Harry Donnefeld launched Super-Detective magazine in 1934, but the prefix had been popular for at least a decade. Bruce Graeme opens his 1925 novel Blackshirt with a complaint: “A super-criminal—bah! It is all tommy-rot, this ‘super’ business.

The first published use of “super-hero” appears in Alan Bott’s 1917 Airman Outings. It was a complaint then too. Bott was objecting that members of Parliament were exaggerating the powers of British fighter pilots by calling them “the super-heroes of the war.”

The prefix had been circulating in variations on “ubermensch” for over a decade. Nietzsche made the word famous (or infamous), but he borrowed “ubermenschen” from Goethe’s Faust. The first English translator of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra named his ubermensch “beyond-man.” The second went with “superman.” But he was only following George Barnard Shaw. His play Man and Superman introduced the word to English in 1903. And “super-heroes” soon followed.

So conventional wisdom is right. If you subtract 35 years and forget that it’s a different superman (Shaw had Don Juan in mind). By the time Jerry Siegel attached it to his hero, the word was everywhere. Type it into The New York Times archives, and you’ll find hundreds of listings.

Superman appeared most regularly on sports pages. While Jack Dempsy insisted that “It will take a superman to beat” boxer Tom Heeney, football stars Red Grange and Frank Johavac were both declared “Superman.” Babe Ruth was a “Baseball Superman,” as was Giants pitcher Red Ruffing, and golfer Cecil Leitch was a “superwoman of the links.”

Other Supermen leapt from the arts pages: dancer Michel Fokine was a “Superman of the toe,” actor Robert Loraine a “Superman of the Stage,” Stravinsky a “Superman of Jazz,” Schoenberg another musical “Superman,” and singer Enrico Caruso had the “lungs . . . of a superman.”

According to book reviews, any person worthy of a biography was by definition a superman: Napoleon, Charles II, Garibaldi, Genghis Khan, Cromwell. Ben Franklin was honored as a “Super-man” on his 217th birthday. Among living politicians, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Mussolini were all repeatedly called or compared to supermen.

By 1938 the word was generic for any kind of excellence. Jerry Siegel wasn’t even the first author to apply it to a pulp hero. The honor goes to Edgar Rice Burrough, whose Tarzan is called a “superman” in his 1912 debut.

Using the word for a name today would be the modern equivalent of calling a character “Genius” or “Epitome.”

Or, better still, “Superhero.”

I doubt Marvel and DC’s lawyers mentioned any of this when presenting their trademark case. “Superhero” is the definition of a generic term. Their companies briefly capitalized on it, but they did not coin it, and its exclusive association with their products was temporary. It wasn’t the case for the thirty years before Action Comics #1, and it hasn’t been the case for the last thirty years either.

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Madeleine assured us that the boy in question was not going to the movies “with” her. He was merely attending the same showing, sitting in the same row, in the seat next to hers, after meeting her and a friend in the park outside the theater beforehand.  The word “date” was not used.

They were planning on Transformers 3, but the film broke, so they bought their separate tickets to Captain America instead.  We had seen it as a family the night before. Madeleine joined us out of boredom, risking the humiliation of being seen at a movie with her parents and little brother. She braced at the sight of an acquaintance in the line behind us.

I wasn’t expecting much either. The Golden Age Captain America was the ultimate nice guy, a squeaky clean do-gooder devoid of psychological depth. He started life as a knock-off of the first but now forgotten flag-costumed superhero, The Shield (Jack Kirby redrew Cap’s shield as a circle to deflect a lawsuit), and existed for one reason: To fight Nazis.  And sell comic books. His title was a top grosser during World War II, but even before Hiroshima the market was turning against patriotic violence. Captain America Comics converted to Captain America Weird Tales in 1949 and then was cancelled.

Marvel resurrected him in the sixties, but the universe had changed while he was away. Superheroes weren’t fighting a world war; they were preventing it. The Axis was gone. Heroes were throwing as many punches at each other. Captain America had to grow up too. After Watergate, he traded in his flag suit. He didn’t fight Iraqis after 9/11; he fought the Patriot Act. Comic books aren’t printed in primary colors anymore. They’re darker, grainier, a palette of gradations.

Captain America: The First Avenger returns its two-dimensional nice guy to his old haunts and somehow transforms him into a sweet and fun hero. But like anything nostalgic, the film also reinvents the past, sanitizes it. This Cap doesn’t fight Nazis. The villain’s minions are faceless, and their weapons evaporate bodies in a bloodless flicker of CGI. Even when standard issue rifles are fired, their victims crumple as politely as stage actors. Still better, the U.S. Army has been retroactively desegregated, and a woman can rise to a position of power and respect. Also there’s no sex. The closest you get is Cap’s love interest fluttering her confused fingers in front of his naked chest when he emerges from his transformation chamber.

My daughter had a similar reaction to the middle school boys she hadn’t seen for six months. Our family was in New Zealand during the crucial transformation scene. They’re taller, broader, deeper voiced. The boy who stepped into Captain America’s chamber looked just as gawky. Puberty is a clumsy superpower, a brief and bewildering universe poised between the sanitized past and a weird tales future.

Cap and his love interest never quite come together. They plan a night out, but he spends seventy years in a block of ice instead. When he wakes to another transformed world, he laments to Samuel Jackson: “I had a date.” I was braced for a nursing home reunion, but the credits rolled instead. The particular boy who did not not go on a date with my daughter has liked her for months, possibly years.  I don’t know how it ends, but it’s a sweet story. I recommend seeing it twice.

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