Skip to content

The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Michael Chabon

LethemChabon

When Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay won the Pulitzer in 2000, it bestowed upon the lowly figure of the comic book superhero the superpower of literary legitimacy. Jonathan Lethem’s 2003 The Fortress of Solitude made the mutation permanent. So kudos to the highbrow dynamic duo for teleporting long-underwear characters over to the land of the intellectually bookish. But the transformation was as much a curse as a blessing. The superheroes Escapist and Aeroman say a lot more about death than rebirth.

Asked what inspired his novel, Chabon answered:

“I started writing this book because of a box of comic books that I had been carrying around with me for fifteen years. It was the sole remnant of my once-vast childhood collection. For fifteen years I just lugged it around my life, never opening it. It was all taped up and I left it that way. Then one day, not long after I finished Wonder Boys, I came upon it during a move, and slit open all the layers of packing tape and dust. The smell that emerged was rich and evocative of the vanished world of my four-color childhood imaginings. And I thought, there’s a book in this box somewhere.”

Chabon published Wonder Boys in 1995 and Kavalier and Clay in 2000, so he was drafting during one of the darkest moments of comics history. The superhero was bankrupt. Marvel filed for Chapter 11 protection in 1996, and though it battled its way out the following year, the surviving market was a shred of its pulp glory.

I have my own move-weary box of a whittled-down comics collection in my attic. I was born in 1966, Lethem in 1964, Chabon in 1963, so our four-color childhoods are a Bronze Age overlay. The seventies may lack the primordial Ka-Pow! of the forties or sixties, but it was a damn good if idiosyncratic decade for superheroes. Too bad Chabon isn’t interested in it.

The Escapist

Kavalier and Clay is instead a tale of the Golden Age superhero, and so an inevitable tragedy. The Escapist begins as “an escape artist in a costume,” freeing people from oppression by the light of his Golden Key. But in the end, he can’t even free himself, much less his creators.

“’Today,’ Anapol said, ‘I killed the Escapist.’”

Anapol isn’t a time-traveling supervillain from a parallel dimension. He’s a publisher. And he’s done trading punches with super-publisher DC and its legion of lawyer-minions in a never-ending battle of copyright infringement. The guy’s just not worth the financial effort anymore.

“Superheroes,” says Anapol, “are dead, boys.”

It’s the mid-50s, and, Chabon informs us, the “age of the superhero had long passed . . . all had fallen under the whirling thresher blades of changing tastes,” with DC’s lone survivors “forced to suffer the indignity of seeing their wartime sales cut in half or more.” But even dead, the Escapist, having “long slipped into cultural inconsequence,” would “always be there” for his creators as a “taunting” reminder of “the wealth and unimaginable contentment” they never reaped.

Meanwhile, the novel’s lone, fantastical entity, the Golem of Prague, meets a similar end. An enormous box filled seven inches deep with silt from the Moldau River arrives by mail: “The speculations of those who feared that the Golem, removed from shores of the river that mothered it, might degrade had been proved correct.” A coffin of dirt. That’s all that’s left after Chabon’s done firing his literary cosmic rays at the Golden Age of comics.

lethem_jonathan-20050407.2

Lethem’s superheroes fair no better. His “flying man” (no caps, poor guy doesn’t even earn a superhero name) first appears in 1973, as the Silver Age is plummeting into the Bronze. “He looked like a bum,” with a bedsheet cape  stained yellow with pee, “needing a drink more than anything.” He can’t even land right (“Fucked up my motherfucking leg”) let alone stay airborne. Next thing he’s “curled in a ball” in front of a liquor store, “baked in vomit and urine and sweet” in a “mummified pose.”

So ends the Silver Age. But once hospitalized, “no-longer-flying man” becomes “a symbol of possible atonement” when he passes on his magic ring (it’s a Green Lantern riff) to Lethem’s stand-in, the adolescent Dylan, who rechristens himself Aeroman. Sounds better, but the key word is “possible,” because Dylan wastes the rest of the novel failing to launch. He slowly realizes he’s “no superhero at all” but a “coward” with “an irrelevant secret power,” and when his best friend, Mingus, uses the ring, Aeroman is still only a “would-be hero,” screwing up a police sting while getting himself arrested. Dylan’s costume (or “homo suit”) is soon “lost or destroyed,” and Dylan and Mingus’ shared identity (“world’s most pathetic superhero”) is now a symbol of their dissolving friendship.

The ring is last seen on a coke-smeared mirror, before vanishing into Dylan’s post-college apartment.  When next worn, instead of flight (“that part of it was dead”), it gives Dylan invisibility. But he proves as incompetent as ever, termed a “warped vigilante” when his next outing ends in accidental death (“I only wanted to help”). Aeroman was birthed from adolescent “desolation,” and Dylan finally flings the “curse once and for all into the brush at the side of the highway.” It makes a final appearance on the finger of Dylan’s childhood enemy after he’s leaped to his death—a presumed suicide.

Entrance into the League of Literary Superheroes comes with a stiff price. These are great novels, but rather than reanimating superheroes, Chabon and Lethem incinerate them. And is it coincidence that the character type entered highbrow circles only after comic books—the pulpiest of the pulps—had died? Comic shops in the U.S. peak at 12,000 in the early 90s. When Chabon finished Kavalier and Clay, only 3,000 remained. And they no longer welcomed kids. When Lethem finished Fortress, the average reader was 25, up from 12 when he, Chabon, and I were amassing our childhood collections.

We’re not the only ones.

Second Box of Comics

Komiksová burza, Brno

Related image

Image result for box of old comics

Image result for box of old comics

Advertisements

Tags: , , ,

android waitress

I grew up in a universe in which electrons were like planets orbiting double nuclei “suns” in tiny solar systems. It was a metaphor, a useful one at the time. Then new data required a figurative upheaval. Now the electrons of my children’s universe mingle in clouds. Electrons always have—chemistry teachers of my youth just didn’t know better. Any change in metaphor is also a change in reality. That’s why the in-between state, when the old system is collapsing but no new figurative principle has risen to organize the chaos, is so scary. Metaphors are how we think.

During the second half of the 20th century, the literary universe was a simple binary: good/bad, highbrow/lowbrow, serious/escapist, literature/pulp. Like Bohr’s atomic solar system, that model has lost its descriptive accuracy. We’ve hit a critical mass of literary data that don’t fit the old dichotomies. Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon, and Jonathan Lethem are among the most obvious paradigm disruptors, but the list of literary/genre writers keeps expanding. A New Yorker editor, Joshua Rothman, recently added Emily St. John Mandel to the list: Her postapocalyptic novel Station Eleven is a National Book Award finalist—further evidence, Rothman writes, of the “genre apocalypse.”

Rothman resurrects Northrop Frye to fill the vacuum left by the collapsing genre system, but the Frye model’s four-part structure (novel, romance, anatomy, confession) is more likely to spread chaos (“novel” is a kind of novel?). Another suggestion comes from a holdout of the 20th-century model: The critic Arthur Krystal believes an indisputable boundary separates “guilty pleasures” from serious writing. Perhaps more disorienting, Chabon would strip bookstores of all signage and shelve all fiction together. Ursula Le Guin, probably the most celebrated speculative-fiction author alive, agrees: “Literature is the extant body of written art. All novels belong to it.”

I applaud the egalitarian spirit, but the Chabon-Le Guin nonmodel, while accurate, offers no conceptual comforts. The Bohr model survived even after physicists knew it was wrong because it was so eloquent. Even this former high-school-chemistry student could steer his B-average brain through it. A vast expanse of free-floating books is unnavigable. A good metaphor needs gravity.

To explain the lowly lowbrow world of comic books, Peter Coogan, a director of the Institute for Comics Studies, spins superheroes around a “genre sun”—the closer a text orbits the sun, the more rigid the text’s generic conventions. It’s a good metaphor, which is why most models use some version of it, including all those old binaries: The further a text travels from the bad-lowbrow-genre-escapist sun, the more good-highbrow-literary-serious it is. But because metaphors control how we think, solar models are preventing us from understanding changes in our literary/genre universe. It looks like an apocalypse only because we don’t know how to measure it yet.

Chabon is often credited for starting the genre debate with “Thrilling Tales,” the first genre-themed issue of McSweeney’s, published in 2003—though the Peter Straub-edited “New Wave Fabulists” issue of Conjunctions beat it to press by months, and surely Francis Ford Coppola deserves credit for rebooting the classic pulp magazine All-Story in 1997. Coppola has since published luminaries like Rushdie and Murakami, even if, according to the old model, those literary gas giants should exude far too much gravitas to be attracted to a lowly pulp star. And what becomes of second-class planets when their own creators declare them subliterary? According to S.S. Van Dine’s 1928 writing rules, detective fiction shouldn’t include any “long descriptive passages” or “literary dallying with side-issues,” not even “subtly worked-out character analyses.” For Krystal, if a “bad” novel becomes “good,” it exits its neighborhood and ascends into Literature. The Krystal universe of fiction resolves around the collapsed sun of a black genre hole, and his literary event horizon separates which novels are sucked in and which escape into the expansive beauty of literary fiction.

Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians, calls that argument “bollocks, of the most bollocky kind.”

“As soon as a novel becomes moving or important or great,” he retorted in Time, “critics try to surgically extract it from its genre, lest our carefully constructed hierarchies collapse in the presence of such a taxonomical anomaly.” The problem is nomenclature. Grossman defines genre by tropes: A story about a detective is a detective story­—it may or may not also be a formulaic detective story. Krystal defines genre exclusively by formula. Substitute out the ambiguous term, and his logic is self-evident: When a formula novel ceases to be primarily about its formula it is no longer a formula novel. Well, duh.

Grossman’s trope approach makes more sense, but Krystal is nostalgic for more than generic categorization. The old dichotomy was seductive because it was (as Grossman points out) hierarchical, performing the double organizing duty of describing and evaluating. By opposing “literary” to “genre” and then conflating “literary” with “quality,” Krystal is forced to make some ineloquent claims: “All the Pretty Horses is no more a western than 1984 is science fiction.” While technically true (Cormac McCarthy’s and Orwell’s novels are genre to the same degree), such assertions are forgivable as long as they are exceptions. But when those free-floating planets represent the expanding norm (in what possible sense are Atwood’s, McCarthy’s, and Colson Whitehead’s most recent novels not apocalyptic?), Krystal’s model collapses.

At least the good/bad dichotomy has collapsed. It never made categorical sense, since a “bad good book”—a poorly written work of literary fiction—had no category. Literary fiction is another problematic term. It traditionally denotes narrative realism, fiction that appears to take place here on Earth, but it’s also been used as shorthand for works of artistic worth. With the second half of the definition provisionally struck, we’re left with realism. Its solar center is mimesis, the mirror that works of literature are held against to test their ability to reflect our world. Northrop Frye declared mimesis one of the two defining poles of literature, though he had trouble naming its opposite. Frye located romance—a category that includes romance as well as all other popular genres (and so another conceptual strike against the Frye model)—in the idealized world, so Harlequin romances are part fantasy too (real guys just aren’t that gorgeous and wonderful).

But any overt authorial agenda can rile mimesis fans. Agni editor Sven Birkerts panned Margaret Atwood’s first MaddAddam novel because “its characters all lack the chromosome that confers deeper human credibility,” and so, he concluded of the larger premise-driven genre, “science fiction will never be Literature with a capital ‘L.’” Atwood was writing in a subliterary mode because she had an overt social and political intention. So her greatest literary sins, for Birkerts, aren’t her genetically engineered humans, but her Godlike and so nonmimetic use of them.

Others have tried to balance the seesaw with poetic style or formula or sincerity, suggesting that literature is a wheel of spectra with mimesis at its revolving center. In the old model, mimesis was also the definition of “literary quality”: The closer a work of fiction orbited its mimetic sun, the brighter and better it was. Like the Bohr model, that’s comprehensively simple, and so little wonder Krystal is still grasping it: Literature is the lone throbbing speck of Universal Goodness surrounded by an abyss of quality-sucking black genre space. Remove “quality” from the equation and posit a spectrum of mimetic to nonmimetic categorizations bearing no innate relationship to artistic worth, and the system still collapses.

Quality could rest in that fuzzy middle zone, a literary sweet spot combining the event horizons of two stars: mimesis and genre. That middle way is tempting—and perhaps even accurate when studying “21st Century North American Literary Genre Fiction,” the clumsily titled course I taught last semester. I am requiring my current advanced fiction workshop students to write in that two-star mode, applying psychological realism to a genre of their choice. But it’s a lie. If quality is mobile, and it is, then no position on the spectrum—any spectrum—is inherently “good.”

Perhaps novels, like the electrons of my youth, orbit double-star nuclei, zigzagging around convention neutrons and invention protons in states of qualitative flux. It’s not just the text—it’s the reader. That’s a central paradox of physics too. “We are faced with a new kind of difficulty,” wrote Albert Einstein. “We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do.” Light, depending on how you measure it, is made either of particles or of waves—and so somehow is both. That seemingly impossible wave-particle duality applies to all quantic elements, including works of fiction.

The cognitive psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, in their 2013 study, “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,”dragged the genre debate onto the pages of Science. Literary fiction, they reason, makes readers infer the thoughts and feelings of characters with complex inner lives. Psychologists call that Theory of Mind. I call it psychological realism, another form of mimesis. The researchers place popular fiction at the other, nonmimetic pole, because popular fiction, they argue, is populated by simple and predictable characters, and so reading about them doesn’t involve “ToM.”

Kidd and Castano are recycling Krystal’s “genre” definition, only using “popular” for “formulaic.” Their results support their hypothesis—volunteers who read literary fiction scored better on ToM tests afterward—because their literary reading included “Corrie,” a recent O. Henry Prize-winning story by Alice Munro, and the genre reading included Robert Heinlein’s “Space Jockey,” a detailed speculation on the nuts and bolts of space travel populated by appallingly two-dimensional characters. The science is as circular as Krystal’s: Stories that don’t use readers’ ToM skills don’t improve readers’ ToM skills.

If psychological realism is taxonomically useful for defining “literary” (and I believe it is), then here’s a better question: What results would a ToM-focused genre story yield? My colleague in Washington and Lee University’s psychology department, Dan Johnson, and I are exploring that right now. For a pilot study, we created two versions of the same ToM-focused scene. One takes place in a diner, the other on a spaceship. Aside from word substitutions (“door” and “airlock,” “waitress” and “android”), it’s the same story, the same inference-rich exploration of characters’ inner experiences. When asked how much effort was needed to understand the characters, the readers of the narrative-realist scene reported expending 45 percent more effort than the sci-fi readers. The narrative realists also scored 22 percent higher on a comprehension quiz. When asked to rate the scene’s quality on a five-point scale, the diner landed 45 percent higher than the spaceship. The inclusion of sci-fi tropes flipped a switch in our readers’ heads, reducing the amount of effort they exerted and so also their understanding and appreciation. Genre made them stupid. “Literariness” is at least partially a product of a reader’s expectations, whether you lean in or kick back. Fiction, like light, can be two things at once.

This wave-particle model may or may not emerge as the organizing metaphor of contemporary literature, but follow-up experiments are under way. We will survive the genre apocalypse. In fact, I predict we’ll find ourselves still orbiting the mimetic sun of psychological realism. The good/bad, literary/genre binary has collapsed, but the center still holds.

[This article originally appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education in January 2015.]

Tags: , , , , , , ,

After reading that MFA students writing fantasy and science fiction still feel ostracized in their graduate programs, Stuart Jaffe declared in a blog headline last year: “Thought We’d Escaped the Genre Ghetto.” I agree with the sentiment (and also teach an undergraduate creative writing class that includes fantasy and SF), but the metaphor troubles me.

When I see the word “ghetto,” I picture the 1978 NBC mini-series Holocaust. I haven’t watched it since I was twelve, but I remember the Warsaw Ghetto sets, that neighborhood of some 400,000 Jews rounded-up and walled-in by Nazi Germany. I don’t know if Auschwitz technically counts as a ghetto, but that’s where most of the population ends up.

warsaw ghetto

Not all ghettos are quite so dire. Manhattan’s Lower East Side or Chicago’s South Side are racially and economically segregated, but there are no ten-foot, barb-wire walls circling them. Still, “ghetto” is an odd term to apply to fiction writers. I don’t know when the trend started, but Thomas Pynchon, a front-runner in literary genre fiction, hinted at but didn’t quite commit to the term in his 1984 New York Times essay, “Is It O.K. To Be A Luddite?” 19th-century Gothic fiction, Pynchon lamented, “was judged not Serious enough and confined to its own part of town,” adding that the Gothic “is not the only neighborhood in the great City of Literature” to “get redlined under the label ‘escapist fare.'” Other hoods on Pynchon’s City map included Western, mystery, romance, and science fiction.

“Le Guin Blasts the ‘Genre’ Ghetto,” reported The Oregonian when fantasy and SF author Ursula Le Guin opened Portland’s Arts & Lectures series in 2000, focusing on the exclusion of genre writers by critics and academics: “She is not happy that the publishing world, centered in New York, often regards Western writers as only of regional interest. And she is especially unhappy that science fiction, fantasy, mystery and every other type of fiction except realistic literary fiction are consigned to ‘genre’ status.”

The journals Conjunctions and McSweeney’s challenged that literary districting in 2002 and 2003 when each devoted a genre-crossing issue to guest editors Peter Straub and Michael Chabon. Gary K. Wolfe, in his essay “Malebolge, Or the Ordinance of Genre” included in Conjunctions 39, repeated Pynchon’s and Le Guin’s complaint that “these fields had become ‘ghettoized,’ isolated from the literary mainstream,” noting that “Genre writers still complain of the ‘ghetto’ in which they see themselves forced to toil.” James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, editors of the 2006 Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology continued the metaphor: “Nobody calls mainstream writers ‘mainstream’ except for those of us in the ghetto of the fantastic.”  Chabon longed to see all fiction shelved together: “For even the finest writer of horror or sf or detective fiction, the bookstore, to paraphrase the LA funk band War, is a ghetto.”

I’m not nearly as cool as Michael Chabon, so I had to google the lyrics to “The World is a Ghetto”:

Walkin’ down the street, smoggy-eyed

Looking at the sky, starry-eyed

Searchin’ for the place, weary-eyed

Crying in the night, teary-eyed

Don’t you know that it’s true

That for me and for you

The world is a ghetto

Wonder when I’ll find paradise

Somewhere there’s a home sweet and nice

Wonder if I’ll find happiness

Never give it up now I guess

Don’t you know that it’s true

That for me and for you

The world is a ghetto

War_The_World_Is_a_Ghetto

That’s from 1972—though even I know the band’s later hits “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” and the ubiquitous “Low Rider.” War was a genre-crosser too, drawing from the neighborhoods of funk, R&B, rock, reggae, Latin, jazz, and reggae with a line-up of musicians hailing from a range of more literal hoods.

None of the band members, however, were from 17th-century Italy—where the word “ghetto” was born. It may be a reference to a foundry near Venice’s first Jewish ghetto, though “borghetto” (small borough) seems more likely to me. By the turn of the 20th century, the term could be applied to any minority population crowded into an urban quarter.  By the turn of the 21st century, it could mean any subgroup of authors crowded onto a bookstore shelf.

Mary Elizabeth Williams’s “In and Out of the Genre Ghetto,” a review of seven lesbian novelists, addresses the benefits and dangers of categorization:

“The term “lesbian literature” is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it flags a genre, enabling a sometimes maddeningly invisible segment of the population to exchange stories about its own community – and when it seems that half the paperbacks in the world have Fabio on their covers, that can be a good thing. On the other hand, the phrase smacks of ghettoization, implying: “subculture!” “alternative!” “fringe!” and, worst of fail, “amateur!” You don’t read a book merely for a glimpse of satisfying self-recognition. Good writing speaks to something in everyone.”

Williams criticizes those authors of lesbian literature who “fail to communicate with the outside world and universalize their message.” The phrase “outside world” further echoes World War II (“The Nazis closed off the Warsaw Ghetto from the outside world in 1940”), but “universal” may be the bigger problem. I find it often on the backs of books written by African Americans. According to review blurbs excerpted for the paperback edition of James McBride’s The Color of Water, the memoir “resonates with universal themes of family, faith, and forgiveness.” In fact, it “goes beyond race” and even “transcends race and touches the spirit”—as apparently does Danzy Senna’s novel Caucasia, which “transcends race even while examining it.”“Everyone will be enriched by reading” Gregory Howard Williams’s Life on the Color Line because it gives “readers a greater understanding of humankind.”

I assume these promises of colorblind spirit and race-transcending universality are targeted at white readers, reassuring them it’s okay to read outside their neighborhoods, that they haven’t wandered into a bad part of town. After being inspected and approved by customs and Homeland Security officers, these book are safe for consumption in any zip code—even gated suburban communities. If the book is universal then it isn’t about a minority group, it’s about everyone, and so it’s about white people.  It’s escaped the ghetto completely.

21-century genre writers have the same ambition. Lydia Millet of the Los Angeles Times recently praised Jeff Vandermeer “who after numerous works of genre fiction has suddenly transcended the genre with a compelling, elegant and existential story of far broader appeal.” But Andi Schechter wrote in the 2004 Library Journal essay “Out of the Genre Ghetto”: “Mystery’s adherents have always believed [mysteries novels] to be true novels in every sense of the word and bristle at the snobbery in the expression ‘transcends the genre.’ Still, the literary elite has long condemned crime fiction to obscurity in the genre ghetto.” The Magicians author Lev Grossman, writing for Time in 2012, bristles most loudly: “to say such books ‘transcend’ the genres they’re in is bollocks, of the most bollocky kind.”

Sometimes it’s the desire not to “transcend” that readers value. Gwendolyn Osborne in “The Legacy of Ghetto Pulp Fiction” documents the appeal of 1970s crime writers Donald Goines and Robert Beck —they’re “ghetto” in both senses—to middle class teens. By likening genres to “slums,” Chabon turns all mainstream readers into slumming tourists.

But even Chabon has trouble escaping the mixed metaphors of ghettoization. In “Ghetto Fabulist,” Financial Times reviewer Daniel Swift faults Chabon’s 2007 The Yiddish Policeman’s Union for not leaving its fantasy neighborhood. The hard-boiled detective novel is set in an alternate history in which the state of Israel is replaced by Sitka, a temporary Jewish ghetto in a district of Alaska, and so a world, writes Swift, that “can never be our world.  Sitka can only ever be a fantasy place, a Narnia, which means also that [the novel’s hero] can never participate in the distinctive tragedy that marks” the heroes of Chabon’s works of narrative realism.

The New York Post oddly accused the novelist of anti-Semitism, though in a lecture I attended at Washington and Lee University in 2008, Chabon linked his exploration of genre fiction with his Jewish identity. Perhaps it’s that dual transcendence that appealed to The Nation’s William Deresiewicz: “The book is so good not despite taking place in an imaginary world but because of it.” So like Senna, McBride, and Williams, Chabon enriches mainstream readers by exploring life on the genre line.

Unpacking the ghetto metaphor also releases the whiff of miscegenation behind the rhetoric. In his review for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Cliff Froehlich calls Chabon’s novel “a beautiful marriage of high and low: a novel with a literary mind and a populist heart.” Substitute “high” with “WASP” and “low” with the ethnicity of your choice, and you’ll see why maybe ghetto isn’t such a great term to describe books.

The New Yorker‘s Joshua Rothman recently coined the term “genrefication” to describe the migration of “important novels” into genre. He’s punning on “gentrification,” which typically involves rich white people displacing poor black people. Erica Jong would like female residents to expand beyond their old neighborhood, but in order to enrich the rest of the city and without losing their identity. In her 2007 Publishers Weekly essay, “Ghetto (Not) Fabulous,” she laments “the chicklit ghetto” and longs “to see the talented new breed of American women writers . . . protest their ghettoization” and “celebrate our femaleness rather than fear it.” Such a celebration would not mean an escape from a gender ghetto to the universality of male readership but a remapping of the entire city.

I’m all for it. No more ghettos. This town needs a new metaphor.

131106223253-krakow-city-of-literature-3-story-top

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Does pop culture actively steer or passively reflect social attitudes?

The short answer: Yes.

For the longer answer, look at the evolution of gay subject matter in comic books and the industry’s shapeshifting attempts at self-regulation.

Comic book publishers started censoring themselves as soon as their medium took flight. DC was the first. Though publisher Harry Donenfeld entered the children’s market via Depression-era pornography, he dropped his “girlie” magazines in 1939 after Superman and Batman started making him a real fortune. DC also steered their writers away from lethal violence. (The body count in early Detective Comics and even Action Comics was disturbingly high.) Bob Kane wasn’t allowed to draw a holster on Batman’s hip anymore, but no one objected to Bruce Wayne sharing a bed with his ward Robin. It was a father-son relationship. (Right?)

After World War II, when Horror, Crime, and Romance were muscling out all those ostensibly straight yet celibate superheroes, the industry formed the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers. Their ur-Code of 1948 doesn’t mention the word “gay.” The term was still evolving its way up the lexicon ladder. But the ACMP (the model for the later and universally adopted Comics Code of the mid-50’s) didn’t use “homosexual,” “pervert,” “pedophilic inversion,” or any other antiquated equivalent. They just wanted “Sexy, wanton comics,” whatever their orientation, off the shelves.

The U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency didn’t fret openly about gays either. “Homosexual” appears only once in the 1954 hearings transcripts (the publication “Homosexual Life” is listed as an example of “everything of the worst type” that’s been mailed to “youngsters at preparatory schools”). Star witness Frederic Wertham had his homoerotic Batman and Robin analysis ready for testimony, but the Subcommittee was more concerned with the “murder, mayhem, robbery, rape, cannibalism, carnage, necrophilia, sex, sadism, masochism, and virtually every other form of crime, degeneracy, bestiality, and horror” that comic books promoted.

Yes, generic “sex” made the list, but the senators meant the Phantom Lady variety, those buxom heroines getting themselves tied-up every month (the covers made great blow-ups for the courthouse walls). The absence was an artistically inconvenient fact for Michael Chabon when he fictionalized the hearings in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. So he fudged it. His gay protagonist, a comic book writer and editor, is accused by New Jersey’s Senator Hendrickson of disseminating his own “psychological proclivities.” Though almost certainly homophobic, the real-life Hendrickson and the rest of the Subcommittee never voiced that particular prejudice. There was no need. No one in the comic book industry (including Batman and Robin creator Bob Kane) wanted to portray gay characters.

In Chabon’s rendering, Kane could see that Chabon’s protagonist Sammy Clay “seemed a little bit—you know . . .” And the rest of the funny-book crowd agrees: “He’s got that thing with the sidekick. . . . He takes over a character, first thing he does . . . he gives the guy a little pal. . . . The Lone Wolf and Cubby. Christ, he even gave a sidekick to the Lone Wolf!”

But if anyone had a sidekick proclivity, it was Kane. Scripter Bill Finger just asked him for a Watson, someone for Batman “to talk to,” not cuddle with. It was Kane who pioneered the little pal approach. He’d already invented Tinymite for the anthropomorphic Peter Pup. Robin was the natural next step. One instantly copied across the industry: Captain American and Bucky, Aquaman and Aqualad, Human Torch and Toro, Green Arrow and Speedy. It’s a long list, all justified by, uh—you know . . . readership identification.

By the time the Subcommittee was meeting, only bare-legged Robin remained on newsstands. The Comics Magazine Association of America (an Earth 2 version of the ACMP) formed two months later. It was the industry’s effort to stave off legislation. It worked. The CMAA created the Comics Code Authority which began issuing a literal Seal of approval on all publications. Technically comic books could be sold without it, if you could find a distributor willing to touch them.

The Authority also adopted and expanded their predecessor’s 1948 Code. Homophobia was official. “Marriage and Sex” subsection specified that “sexual abnormalities are unacceptable” and “Sex perversion or any inference to same is strictly forbidden.” As far as the “treatment of love-romance stories,” they must “emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage.” Which is to say, Chabon got it right after all.

So what was the rest of the world up to while the Code was fumigating the Batcave? Homosexual Life was inching into daylight. The same year, 1954, the first gay motorcycle club formed in Los Angeles, while in England the Wolfendon Commission began the process of decriminalizing homosexuality. Five years after their landmark report, Illinois became the first American state to strike sodomy from its own books. Another seven years and the Stonewall riots turned gay rights into a national movement.

The Comics Code Authority, however, wasn’t budging. Despite a 1971 update, “sexual abnormalities” were as “unacceptable” as ever, and “the protection of the children and family life” paramount. Yet the American Psychiatric Association was striking homosexuality from its mental disorder list, and Harvey Milk was campaigning for office in California. This was during the so-called Bronze Age of comics I grew up in. If any members of the Avengers, Defenders, X-Men or Champions (anyone remember the Champions?) had a secret sidekick proclivity, it went way way over my pre-adolescent head. As far as overt portrayals of gay superheroes: Not one. (Robin had already been sent off to college.)

When John Byrne wanted to include a gay superhero in his 1983 Alpha Flight, Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter said no. I doubt anyone had ever asked before. But it was the eighties now. Things were changing. Wisconsin became the first state to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in 1982, and 600,000 protesters marched in Washington (the other “DC”) in 1987 for gay rights.

Two years later, the Code made its first major evolutionary leap. It’s new “Characterizations” subsection required creators to “show sensitivity to national, ethnic, religious, sexual, political and socioeconomic orientations.” Yes, “sexual” made the list. The gay-bashing Moral Majority disbanded the same year. Given the rise of religious conservatism under Ronald Reagan, its founder Jerry Falwell had reason to declare that the organization’s goals had been achieved. But the gay rights movement was even stronger. According to the new and improved Code, “Heroes should be role models and should reflect the prevailing social attitudes.” Those attitudes were increasingly non-homophobic.

But comics weren’t flinging the closet door wide either. DC’s 1989 The Legion of Super-Heroes relaunch included an implied lesbian romance, but DC had no interest in confirming it. Targeting “Mature Readers” outside the comic book mainstream (and so the Authority’s reach), Rick Veitch’s 1990 Brat Pack spoofed the Wertham-oriented superhero with the overtly gay and grotesquely pedophilic Midnight Mink (“Everyone knows I came out years ago!”) and his “bum-boy” Chippy. This was not what you could call an enlightened depiction of “Homosexual Life,” only a superhero creator skewering his genre and relishing the limitlessness of publishing outside the Code. But the unspoken taboos of the 1954 Subcommittee could now be shouted.

In 1992, Marvel and the Authority (both under new leadership) allowed the gay-coded North Star finally to roar out of the closet (he literally roars: “I am gay!”). Meanwhile back at The Legion, writers were depicting a gender-bending romance between Element Lad and his girlfriend who, it turns out, is actually a man taking a gender-altering drug. The newly sensitive Element Lad didn’t mind when s/he confessed. DC offered their first gay kiss the following year, albeit in a title from their “Mature Readers” imprint Vertigo. Meanwhile back in the real world, Commander-in-Chief Bill Clinton was kissing goodbye decades of anti-gay military policy and signing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” into law.

Vertigo, like Marvel’s Epic, operated outside of the Comics Code, an option that existed since the Code’s voluntary inception but was never profitable before the 80’s. DC waited until after the Supreme Court struck down Colorado’s anti-gay legislation, before its less “Mature” Code-protected readers saw their first mainstream gay kiss between Starman and his boyfriend. Vermont had already recognized gay unions when the first two male Marvel characters smooched. The normally Code-sanctified X-Force dropped the Seal for that issue (though apparently for different reasons). Its cover includes a “Mature Content” warning, a further sign of the Authority’s waning authority.

Marvel originally introduced their cowboy hero Rawhide Kid back in 1955, a prototype for the newly institutionalized, Code-era comic book character. When they revamped him in 2003, his cover included a parent advisory, and the bareback-riding hero was now flamboyantly gay. He beat Brokeback Mountain out of the closet by two years. Rawhide Kid appeared from MAX, Marvel’s “adults only” imprint launched in 2001.

Marvel abandoned the Code for all their titles the following year. Their new tiered rating system resembled the movie industry’s: “All Ages”; “Parental Supervision Recommended” for twelve- to fourteen-year olds; “PSR+” for the fifteen to seventeen range; and “Parental Advisory – Explicit Content” for the eighteen and over crowd. With comic books stationed in specialty shops instead of 7-Elevens, advertisers no longer cared whether the Seal appeared on a cover or not. When two male members of Young Avengers started dating in 2005, it was under a PSR advisory. Homosexuality was now safe for tweens.

DC, the first comic book company to impose its own regulatory guidelines back in 1940, didn’t drop out of the CMAA until 2011. It was part of their universe-wide reboot in which all 52 of their titles began again at No. 1. The Seal does not appear on a single issue. With so many states see-sawing on gay rights, there was some anxiety that the relaunch would straighten the reigning gay superhero couple, Apollo and Midnighter, but that dynamic duo remains as smitten as ever. Batwoman stayed out of the Batcave too. The character (or her name at least) was introduced in 1956 to counter those horrible rumors about Batman’s sidekick proclivities, retired in the 60’s (along with Bat-Mite and Bat-Hound), erased from DC history in the 80’s, and finally recreated in 2006 as a red-lipped lesbian. And while Robin’s still not talking about his old Batcave adventures, DC’s latest gay character is another Teen Titan, one who comes from a Mexican smallville where, get this, everyone accepts him.

Do all of these changes only reflect social trends or are superheroes actually fighting the good fight and bending the old norms? I suspect it’s a little of both. Corporations like Marvel and DC are nowhere near the front line of any culture war, but when cultural tides start to shift, making a profit means anticipating the market. As a result, gay superheroes are now permanently entrenched in the multiverse mainstream.

It only took fifty years. A few more and I predict we’ll have our first gay comic book marriage. The only question is which states will it be legal in.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

John Carter is already headed to my area’s second-run theater. Wall Street estimates Disney is going to lose $165 million. After dragging my eleven-year-old to a matinee, I can now report that Mars isn’t as bad as its buzz. Earth, however, has some serious problems.

John Carter is about a reluctant warrior who gets roped into other people’s wars. First this army officer tries to bully him into fighting Apaches, but Carter refuses, saying he didn’t start it. So he ends up having to finish a 1,000 year-old war on Mars instead. But the real enemies are these godlike beings who pull the strings from the shadows and feed off the destruction. The environment of every planet they visits ends up dying while its inhabitants are busy battling each other. How’s Carter supposed to win that fight?

I’ve read some rotten reviews, and though I agree the director should probably stick with animated fish, the real problem with the movie isn’t the movie. Mars is as good an afternoon escape destination as any. The trouble is leaving it.

Ask Barack Obama.

Lynn Collins, who plays the princess, said she cried the first time she read the script. Why? Because she “felt its parallel to Earth was so poignant.” If President Obama stumbles into a second-run theater, he’s going to be sobbing buckets.

Little wonder movie audiences haven’t flocked to John Carter. They know the plot too well. They’ve watched the Obama administration running it for the past three years. That bullying army officer trying to make Carter fight a war he didn’t start? That’s George W. Bush. And I don’t mean the mission to Mars he started talking up in 2004 (Obama has almost gotten on board with that). I mean the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and how he left both conflicts catastrophically unfinished. Like the reluctant Carter, Obama didn’t have a choice.

Disney spent $250 million on their project and had hoped to gross $700 million. That may sound like a lot, but it’s all in a day’s work. Literally. The U.S. spends about $300 million in Iraq and Afghanistan daily. Disney’s dreamed-off profit wouldn’t finance our military project through Wednesday. That catastrophic loss Disney is facing? We lose almost that much every day by lunch.

Like Carter, Obama just wants to get home. But that requires fighting. In 2006, when even Bush realized that Donald Rumsfeld was a liability, he replaced him with Robert Gates. When Obama announced that Gates was staying, I thought that was just for show, a gesture of bipartisanship Obama wanted to bring to the capital. It’s six years later and Gates is still Secretary of Defense. Bush was hoping for a manned mission to Mars by 2010. Gingrich wants a moon colony by 2020. We’ll be lucky if we’re not still trapped in the gravity of Afghanistan.

Carter has an easier job.  Unifying Mars is nothing compared to unifying Washington.  It only takes him an hour or so to win over those strange, desert-dwelling Tharks (in part by showing that deep down inside their green skin, it’s family they care most about). But a decade into a real war and the U.S. is no closer to understanding what’s under Afghani skins. (On Mars, the burning of a book doesn’t cause greater upheaval than the murder of a child.)

Reviewers disliked John Carter because its plot was too complicated. Instead of vilifying one of the warring tribes (Sunnis, Shiites, etc.) , the film personifies war itself. You could argue those war-profiting god-aliens are Wall Street, but I think the writers (Michael Chabon? Really?) were going for something even more abstract. While the Martians have been battling for centuries, their planet is all but dead. And where were the aliens headed next? Earth. That’s right. Global warming. While we waste trillions (latest estimate: $3.7) on alien-orchestrated conflicts, our planet rots out from under us.

It’s an inconvenient plot to get your head around. Conservatives are generally better at writing villains than liberals are. Probably John Carter would have sold more tickets if it had a simpler us vs. them story to sell.  Obama would probably have a higher approval rating too. Voters, like theater audiences, like things simple.

In the end, Carter saves the day. The war is over. Mission accomplished. He even wins over the Martian people and gets their princess to marry him (Lynn Collins, by the way, looks nothing like Afghanistan’s President Karzai). It’s bittersweet though, because once he’s happy, those nasty uber-aliens fling him back home. The same thing they did to Bush in 2008. Like Carter, Bush now spends his time in his basement study—he dubbed it “Mission Control 2”—plotting trips to Mars.

Obama’s future is less clear. We know John Carter won’t get a sequel. Obama’s box office numbers don’t come in till November.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Superman wasn’t the first alien to gain superpowers by hopping planets. That honor goes to John Carter, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pre-Tarzan pulp star. He premiered in All-Story magazine a hundred years ago last month. This Friday Carter takes his first superpowered leap to the big screen.

In 1939, Jerry Siegel offered a “Scientific Explanation for Superman’s Amazing Strength”: “The smaller size of our planet, with its slighter gravity pull, assists Superman’s tremendous muscles in the performance of miraculous feats of strength!”

But Burroughs beat him by more than a quarter century. John Carter’s powers are a product of “the lesser gravitation and lower air pressure on Mars.” A “very earthly and at the same time superhuman leap” carries Carter “fully thirty feet into the air” and lands him “a hundred feet” away.

Before 1912, the 20th century had never seen a hero fling himself through the air before. And since John Carter is beating Man of Steel to theaters by more than a year, he bounds over Superman in the 21st century too.

Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon (who’s always had a thing for Martian scifi) co-wrote the screenplay. It’s his first film credit since 2004’s Spider-Man 2, the former high mark for superhero excellence (pre-The Dark Knight, of course). Readers of Thrilling Tales (the retro-pulp issue of McSweeney’s that Chabon edited back in 2003) know the first chapter of his sadly unfilmed screenplay “The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance.” Chabon told me he has no intentions of completing the novelization, so his John Carter revisions are the closest we’re going to get.

Given that Burroughs’ first Carter novel, A Princess of Mars, is one of the most hilariously racist novels I’ve ever read, I trust Chabon had his delete key in full working order before opening director Andrew Stanton’s script.

Carter, a former Confederate Captain, is a “southern gentleman of the highest type.” In fact, “slaves fairly worshipped the ground he trod.” Once he makes the magical leap to Mars (or “Barsoom,” the quasi-oriental-sounding name Burroughs gives the planet), he wars with a race of four-armed savages, each a “huge and terrific incarnation of hate, of vengeance and of death.” If the connection to the so-called savages of the western plains is too subtle, then please note that Captain Carter was battling a band of Apaches seconds before his apparent, planet-flinging death.

Barsoom also hosts a race of four-armed white gorillas, a funhouse reflection of those trod-worshipping slaves freed after the Captain’s Confederacy lost its War Between the States. There’s even a human-looking race of a once great but now tragically fallen civilization. Burroughs doesn’t describe any antebellum mansions in the ruins, but a 1912 reader would have recognized the vanquished South in Barsoom’s dusty riverbeds.

Carter, a well-bred Virginian, arrives ready to rule. Those ferocious-looking Martians are “infinitely less agile and less powerful, in proportion to their weight, than an Earth man.” Carter doubts “were one of them suddenly to be transported to Earth he could lift his own weight from the ground.” Mars, with its impossibly arrested climate and cultures, are his to conquer. John Carter is the ultimate colonizer. Mars was literally made for him.

I don’t know what the screenplay looked like before Chabon started his repairs, but Stanton is already planning two sequels. Burroughs wrote ten, but Disney wants to rake in $700 million first. That’s less than Spider-Man 2, but still a high bar for even an interplanetary superman to clear.

Will Disney’s John Carter also clear the racial politics of the Burroughs novel?

Well, let’s see. Martian women wear “flowing Middle Eastern garb,” and their cities are modeled on the ancient ruins of Petra in modern Jordan. Chabon likens those four-armed Tharks to 19th century “Afghani tribesmen,” and Stanton gave them the lean look of “desert-dwelling people,” specifically “the Masai warriors and the Aborigines.” Plus, for musical icing, that’s Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” playing over the trailer.

So what do India, Afghanistan, Jordan, Kenya, and Australia have in common? They were all British colonies. Disney’s Mars is the ultimate melting pot of non-Western “others.” Which is the scifi way of saying: “They all look the same to me.”

[Addendum: Lynn Collins, who plays the titular Princess, self-identifies as “Irish and Cherokee Indian.” She also cried the first time she read the script. Why? Because she “felt its parallel to Earth was so poignant.”]

Stanton and Chabon let Carter remain a Civil War vet, but the wars that will inevitably haunt their film are Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the trailer, if Carter does not defeat his enemy on Mars, that enemy will attack Earth next. It’s a one-sentence summary of George W. Bush’s foreign policy. The war on Mars sounds a lot like the War on Terrorism.

In a creepy way, that’s appropriate. Burroughs’ character was a hit in part because Carter reflected U.S. foreign policy of 1912. England was done with imperialism, and America was its heir. Our internal frontier was closed. The government fought its last battle with Native tribes in 1898 and seized the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam the same year. To expand our naval capabilities, we instigated the 1903 secession of Panama from Columbia and the construction of the Panama Canal. When Burroughs’ Martian canals were premiering in All-Story, our own canal was just two years from completion. America was the newest global power. And John Carter was our very own superman.

A hundred years later and he still is. It’s not just the Martian weather that never changes. For good and bad, superheroes remain America’s favorite way of mythologizing itself.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Classes start today.

I don’t teach my Superheroes seminar again till spring, but winter is just as good. My New North American Fiction is subtitled Thrilling Tales after the issue of McSweeney’s that Michael Chabon edited back in 2002.

Chabon’s editorial premise was simple: a lot of great fiction falls under the lowbrow category “genre.” That includes science fiction, horror, mystery, what folks called “pulp fiction” back in the thirties. “Pulp” because of the grade of paper the magazines were printed on, the cheapest possible, made from wood pulp.

I admit some of those stories were no better than their medium. A writer could hack out a 40,000 word novella in less than two weeks. Formula was everything. Thus “formula writing,” anything following the conventions of a genre, was no longer considered “literary.”

But no formula automatically produces bad writing. No formula automatically produces good writing either. Knowing a poem is a sonnet tells you it’s fourteen lines and (probably) rhymed. It tells you nothing about its quality. Believe me, there are a lot of horrific sonnets out there.

So why not literary pulp?

I’d say Kurt Vonnegut launched it with science fiction back in the fifties. Samuel R. Delany and Ursula K. Le Guin weren’t far behind him, casting their own literary spells on the realm of swords and sorcery. Margaret Atwood rewrote the future of speculative history with The Handmaid’s Tale. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, one of if not the most esteemed novel of the twentieth century, is about a haunted house.

But the pulp chips didn’t really start flying till Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay grabbed the Pulitzer in 2000. In the decade that followed, I count at least two dozen literary works firmly planted in genre soil originally deforested by pulp fiction nearly a century ago. All by authors of high literary pruning. In addition to the perennial Atwood and Chabon, add Philip Roth, Michael Cunningham, Isabel Allende, Sherman Alexie, Jane Smiley, Jonathan Lethem, Tom De Haven, Cormac McCarthy, Kazuo Ishiguro, David Mitchell, Kevin Brockmeier, and Caryl Churchill.

Last year alone, we had Colson Whitehead writing about zombies, Glen Duncan about werewolves,Tom Perrotta about the end of the world,  and Stephen King (would you believe he’s “literary” now?) earning a place on the New York Times’ ten best books of 2011 with a time-travel tale.

My biggest challenge for Thrilling Tales is not overcrowding the syllabus. I pared it down to nine:


McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales
, Ed. Michael Chabon
Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood
Zorro, Isabel Allende
The Final Solution, Michael Chabon
Flight, Sherman Alexie
Fledgling, Octavia Butler
The Road, Cormac McCarthy
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
Soon I Will Be Invincible, Austin Grossman

I’ll let you know what my students think.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: