Skip to content

The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Peter Coogan

Superheroes Decoded

The History Channel is airing a two-part documentary Superheroes Decoded next Sunday and Monday, April 30 and May 1, at 9:00. It’s the first superhero documentary I know of since PBS produced Superhero: A Never-Ending Battle in 2013, which was basically a two-hour advertisement for the DC and Marvel film franchises. I apologized after showing it to my class and then listed the errors and misleading statements. I’m hopeful the History Channel has done significantly better.

According to their press release, superheroes “embody America’s deepest fears and greatest aspirations.” I agree—though in On the Origin of Superheroes I use slightly different adjectives: “our most nightmarish fears, our most utopian aspirations.” I have no idea what I said while on camera. Though the “interviews with dozens of experts” include me, who knows what if anything wound up in the final edit.

I started pretty low on the list, way way under George R. R. Martin—though his interview immediately preceded mine. He must have strolled past the open green room door while the make-up artist was brushing my eyelids.  She also trimmed my eyebrows, which I admit have gotten surprisingly unruly in recent years. Worse, a cyst had spontaneously blossomed on my neck a couple of days before. They assured me it wasn’t visible on camera, which I seriously doubt. It felt like it was about to start talking and contradicting me—like the evil boil in How To Get Ahead in Advertising. Another reason to tune in next Sunday.

The documentary company flew me in from Virginia and put me up overnight in Manhattan. The film set was the fifth floor of a dilapidated warehouse in Brooklyn—the kind of location where thugs tie up their kidnap victims before someone in a cape swings through one of those open windows. I suspect it will make a great backdrop. Unfortunately, the ceiling was open to the sky in places and that corner of Brooklyn is apparently under a JFK flight path. We had to stop every time the sound tech picked up too much background noise on his headphones. The rumbling elevator didn’t help either.

I spent about two hours in the interview chair, with not quite a dozen people attending literally to my every move. The make-up artist swooped in every time my forehead glistened under the spotlights. The sound tech kept reaching into my shirt to adjust the remote mic or the cord snaking down to the antennae unit clipped to my belt.  A larger mic on the end of a hand-held rod bobbed above my head. They used two cameras too. Another crew member paced back and forth, sliding one along a two-yard track. The other was stationary, and, to help interviewees speak directly into it while having a conversation with the director, they mirror-projected his face onto a see-through screen in front of the lens while he sat on a stool behind and to the side. Only then it looked like he had two faces—the second in his right armpit—so they jerry-rigged a curtain too.

The director said afterwards that I give good soundbites—though I knew they would have sounded moronically brief in any other interview situation. His voice won’t be in the film, which meant every time he asked me a question I had to include it in my answer. “How do superheroes compare to gods in ancient mythology?” “Superheroes are very different from the gods of ancient mythology.” By the end of the second hour, I was parroting gibberish. I assume they didn’t make an outtake reel, but if they did, my scholarly career could be in jeopardy.

He also complimented my lack of ums, but then said that didn’t matter since the two cameras allow them to edit them seamlessly out anyway. I’d paced for a half hour before hand, muttering calm, sensible sentences for the few questions I was expecting. I memorized what I could memorize and then just practiced speaking slowly and clearly and confidently and succinctly—and so like someone almost nothing like me. I’ll find out Sunday if it worked.

A good friend and fellow scholar interviewed right before George R. R. Martin, so we grabbed lunch before my interview. I was especially happy to see her since I’d recommended her to the documentary company when they’d asked about other “experts” to interview (and to be accurate, Carolyn’s Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation is the high mark in superhero gender analysis). Another good friend and fellow scholar, Pete Coogan, had done the same for me. I recognized the other experts on the interview list too, so another reason to have high hopes.

I apparently don’t wear make-up often enough, because my eyelid was infected the next morning. So I flew home with not one but two disturbingly visible growths. My other souvenirs were better: print-outs of the fan letters Martin wrote to Marvel Comics in the 60s and read on camera for the documentary. They were his first publications. I would excerpt a bit here, but I have no idea where I put them. June was a long long time ago.

Superheroes Decoded was originally slated for last November or December, and the two parts described to me were different from the two parts currently advertised, so I assume, to no surprise, all kinds of interesting things happened post-production. Maybe that includes a few, non-humiliating seconds of me.

 

Image result for r. r. martin

Tags: , , , , ,

Things about your writing you never want to hear:

“It’s just disturbing.”

“No, no, this can’t be.”

“That’s a little terrifying to me.”

And my all-time least favorite:

“How are people not going to hunt him down and harass him when this book comes out?”

The book is On the Origin of Superheroes, due out next fall from the University of Iowa Press. You can probably guess it’s about the pre-history of the superhero genre, or, as the subtitle says: From the Big Bang to Action Comics No. 1.  So that’s literally everything up until Superman, including—and this is the disturbingly no no hunt-me-down terrifying part—the Ku Klux Klan.

klan poster

But first a major thanks to Major Spoilers. The comic book podcast recently interviewed superhero scholar Dr. Peter Coogan, and the conversation centered on my article “The Ku Klux Klan and the Birth of the Superhero.” It was published in England’s Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics in 2013, and its argument is part of the book: superheroes are descended from the KKK. Actually superheroes are descended from all kinds of things, and the Klan is just one of them, an idea Major Spoilers still found “hard to swallow.”

So did Peter Coogan when he first reviewed the essay, but he came around quickly, recommending that JGNC publish it: “This is one of those articles that once you’ve read it, it seems impossible to unthink it. I’m going to incorporate this idea into my teaching and my own work.  I can’t believe I didn’t see this connection.”

Pete (we’ve since become friends) also warned me by email about his Major Spoilers conversation before it aired: “I wanted to give you a heads up because the hosts had a reaction that some of my students had, which is to feel uncomfortable about Superman having any genealogical relationship to the Klan. People just don’t like that idea.”

No, they really don’t. And I don’t either. The first time I introduced the notion in class, my students and I searched for every possible way to define superheroes in a way that excluded vigilantism. It’s hard to do. Secret identities, codenames, costumes, chest emblems, the KKK has them all. Pete tried too, arguing that superheroes only “supplement the police” and so “support legitimate authority” by “turning criminals over” after stopping them with “minimal level of violence necessary.”

And that does describe plenty of superheroes and proto-superheroes. The 70s Avengers even became a department of the U.S. government, each employee earning a tax-financed salary of $1,000 a day.  As far as violence, the Lone Ranger’s creators Fran Striker and George W. Trendle were one of the first to lay down the law for their radio writers: “When he has to use guns, The Lone Ranger never shoots to kill, but rather only to disarm his opponent as painlessly as possible.”

But there’s a lot of violent gray zone. Martin Parker’s 1656 “Robbin Hood” didn’t kill, but he did merrily separate clergymen from their money and their testicles:

No monkes nor fryers he would let goe,

Without paying their fees;

If they thought much to be usd so,

Their stones he made them leese.

Worse, Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko considers superheroes “moral avengers” who must kill criminals in order to champion “a clear understanding of right and wrong,” even if that means violating the “pervading legal moral” code. Pete would place Ditko’s homicidal Mr. A with the 70s Punisher, who, like lots of pulp heroes of the 30s, constitutes his own one-man legal system, marshal-judge-executioner.

The problem is that ill-defined term “vigilante.” Instead of a toggle switch—either you’re a lawful hero or you’re a lawless villain—I see a spectrum. Spider-Man, like most superheroes, swings somewhere in-between, chasing crooks while cops chase him. But whether gunning down the bad guys or leaving them wrapped with a bow in front of police headquarters, superheroes are independent operators. Which means when they disagree with the law and the government, they make their own judgments. Even star-spangled super soldier Captain America turned noble criminal rather than obey a law that violated his own sense of morality. And while Iron Man backed the Superhuman Registration Act, it wasn’t from blind allegiance to his government. He backed it because he personally thought it was right.

The KKK were the product of a very different Civil War, but their fictional characters in Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansmen and D. W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation play by the same rules. Pete read aloud their mission statement on Major Spoilers:

“To protect the weak, the innocent, and the defenseless from indignities, wrongs and outrages of the lawless, the violent, and the brutal; to relieve the injured and the oppressed: to succour the suffering and unfortunate . . . “

Sounds like any superhero, doesn’t it? Until you get to the last phrase:

“and especially the widows and the orphans of Confederate Soldiers.”

“Hey,” said the hosts, “he tricked us!”

They eventually concluded that the difference between a hero and a villain is a matter of perspective, because probably even Lex Luthor thinks he’s helping the world. Pete also swooped to the rescue with Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and a superhero’s “ontological vocation of humanization.” In other words, a superhero has a deep calling to become more fully human and to help others to do the same.  Clearly the KKK’s attacks and lynchings fail that criterion.

Pete’s point sounds exactly right, and the hosts “sighed a little bit of relief,” but for me this is where the Klan parallel is most disturbing. Even though Major Spoilers acknowledged that I am “not advocating for the Klan” and that I am “not saying superheroes are racist and fascistic,” Dixon and Griffith didn’t consider the KKK racist and fascistic either. Unlike Lex Luthor, who knowingly turns others into his tools and so is not helping them become more fully human, the Klan did not consider African Americans to be human. From Dixon and Griffith’s grotesque perspective, ex-slaves were subhuman obstacles preventing white Southerners from actualizing themselves. So in the most perverse reading of Freire possible, the KKK fixed the problem.  In their minds and in the minds of their fans, they were superheroes.

Which is to say, yeah, please don’t hunt me down and harass me when the book comes out.

Gavaler_Cvr

 

Tags: , , , ,

Guest writer, Naphtali Rivkin:

Zorro_(novel)_cover brief-wondrous-life-of-oscar-wao-by-junot-diaz

Junot Diaz, in The Brief and Wondrous life of Oscar Wao, and Isabella Allende, in her rendition of Zorro, both interweave a bildungsroman with questions of ethnic identity.  Both novelists seem to indicate that coming to terms with one’s ethnic identity, however complicated, is a necessary part of growing up.  The novelists’ claims seem to hold water even beyond the realm of literature, where real studies of “young adolescents of color” and children of immigrants in Spain have demonstrated that developing a sense of ethnicity is vital to healthy human growth, especially to children living in a culture where their ethnicity is not the normative ethnicity.  But while both novelists claim coming-of-age and ethnic identity is inextricably connected, they might disagree with each other about the best method for coming to terms with complicated ethnic identities.  Diaz’s Oscar Wao transcends his internal and external ethnic conflicts by actively embracing his ethnicity, while Allende’s titular Zorro escapes his identity conflicts altogether by crafting a non-ethnic masked persona.  Diego grows up to become Zorro the Superhero, whose origin story serves to rid him of his humanity and ethnicities, while Oscar evolves into the far more complex, relatable, and admirable super hero, whose brief and wondrous life transforms him into an adult.

Allende and Diaz both seem to reflect scientific realities of ethnicity’s role in a young man’s coming-of-age through their psychologically real narratives.  In so doing, they both would agree that, in their bildungsroman novels, “ethnicity is…a factor in identity formation, which it is not in the (older) European bildungsroman” (Iversen 197).  James Hardin, in his compendium Reflection and Action, attempts to define the 17th century German term bildungsroman, but it seems the only consensus his contributors come to is that “Bildung [in its oldest, original connotation] is a verbal noun meaning ‘formation,’ transferring the formation of external features to the features of the personality as a whole” (Hardin xi).  By defining a bildungsroman as a coming-of-age story where a character is formed through the influence of his surroundings, it can be said that the current scientific studies about ethnicity and identity formation resonate with a 300-year-old literary genre in the works of Allende and Diaz.

Studies have shown that ethnicity matters, particularly to children who grow up in a society where their ethnicity is not the normative one.  Diaz’s Oscar struggles to understand the hyper-masculine expectations associated with his Dominican heritage in the context of his upbringing as an overweight New Jersey “nerd.”  Diego, the boy who becomes Allende’s Zorro, faces the perhaps more complicated task of reconciling his mixed Native-American and Spanish colonial birth while studying in traditional Spain under the occupation of Napoleonic France and traveling with gypsies and creole pirates.  Diego and Oscar’s struggles with ethnic identity reflect the psychologically real process that boys in alien societies must confront in order to come of age.

In her study on “Teaching Young Adolescents of Color,” Geneva Gay defines what we mean by ethnic identity in the context of coming of age.  It is

the dimension of a person’s social identity and self-concept that derives from knowledge, values, attitudes, the sense of belonging, and the emotional significance associated with membership in a particular ethnic group. Whether and how it is achieved affect many other dimensions of students’ personal, social, and academic attitudes and behaviors. A clarified ethnic identity is central to the psycho-social well-being and educational success of youth of color (Gay 151)

Diaz’s Oscar Wao, a “youth of color” growing up outside of his element, struggles to find that sense of belonging with his ethnic group that Gay claims is vital to psycho-social well-being.  While it is sadly routine for people of one race to treat the other poorly, it is downright tragic when Oscar must convince even his own people that “I am Dominican, I am” (Diaz 180).  Oscar struggles with depression to the point of attempting suicide largely because he feels like he does not share the knowledge, values, or attitudes of either his own ethnicity of the normative white ethnicity in New Jersey. Dominicans question Oscar’s virility and ethnicity simultaneously because Oscar does not seem to know how to get women to sleep with him, seems to value fantasy and the pursuit of writing more than a Dominican “should,” and speaks with a literary vocabulary, reflecting an attitude that the Dominicans around him find wholly contrived and off-putting.  Growing up in an alien society of New Jersey, where White is the normative ethnicity, Oscar cannot even rely on the comfort of his own ethnic family (or literal family) to shepherd him through his coming-of-age.

Allende’s Diego similarly faces complex ethnic boundaries to his coming-of-age, but his ethnic issues differ from Oscar’s.  Diego can soundly rely on the support of an almost unrealistic variety of ethnic representatives.  His Native-American heritage grants him powerful tools, friends, and pseudo-mystical powers; his colonial Californian father gives him money and a proud lineage; his Spanish hosts educate him; their French conquerors incite his indignity; the gypsies shelter and develop his physical prowess, while the creole pirates sharpen Diego’s indispensible savvy and worldliness.  Diego, unlike Oscar, is spoiled for choice in the ethnicity department, which begs the question, who is Diego?

Diego’s case reflects the current, real problem of immigrants “coming of age in Spain,” which The British Journal of Sociology attempts to address.

On its part, self-esteem has been consistently associated with positive academic outcomes and is influenced, in turn, by the quality of relations with parents and by past experiences of acceptance or rejection in the host society.  Our analysis reveals an initially anomalous result: the majority of children of immigrants in Spain neither identify with the country nor intend to live there as adults. (From Article chapter “Conclusion”)

It seems that since Diego checks all of the journal’s boxes for a positive self-perception considering his legendary “good luck” and a knack for fitting in wherever he goes, it’s no wonder Diego does not ultimately associate with any particular country or ethnicity in the same way that the successful children of Spanish immigrants do not identify with the country where they came-of-age.

But while both stories include elements typical of a bildungsroman, I think that the end result of Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao fits the bildungsroman mold better than Allende’s Zorro.  In fact, while both Diaz’s and Allende’s novels can be read as a coming-of-age story guided by the scientific realities of ethnicity in identity formation, Allende’s novel can be read as a superhero origin story, which differs from a bildungsroman in its end result.  A superhero origin story, according to Peter Coogan, creates a superhero, who is something other-than-human, and therefore, by definition, without ethnicity.

Diego, in Allende’s novel, may have many ethnicities, but with each of those ethnicities come special powers or privileges that transform Diego into Zorro, who is a superhero.  Zorro meets Coogan’s three criteria for superhero status: namely, a mission, powers, and identity (Coogan 39).  Zorro’s “pro-social mission” is “to seek justice, nourish the hungry, clothe the naked, protect widows and orphans, give shelter to the stranger, and never spill innocent blood” (Allende 154).  Just in case the reader may begin to consider Oscar as a superhero as well, I will point out here that Oscar’s mission, in contrast, is, at worst, to get laid, and at best, to find love.  Zorro also meets Coogan’s “powers” criterion for superheroes.  He’s an unmatched fencer, intelligent, lucky, possesses unique tools like his grandmother’s sleep potion; he can pick locks, jump like an acrobat and can see very well.  Even if we left aside his potentially magical link to Bernardo and the Fox (since Oscar too has supernatural experiences with a small mammal), Zorro has abilities which make others perceive him as superhuman, like when the pirates aboard his ship took him for a ghost or when Moncada’s men thought Zorro was in two places at once.

Finally, and most importantly, Zorro meets Coogan’s criterion for a superhero identity.  By becoming a symbol through his costume and iconic “Z” sign, Zorro transcends human characteristics and therefore escapes the human need for an ethnic identity.  The ultimate proof to this is that literally anyone who puts on Zorro’s costume can be Zorro, regardless of his or her ethnic identity— a small Spanish girl, an adult Native-American man, or Diego.  Conversely, there is no way to become Oscar without going through Oscar’s unique combination of ethnic self-identification and coming-of-age.

By growing up into the superhero Zorro, Diego sheds his ethnic identities whenever he is in Zorro costume.

Diego realized that, without planning it, he was playing the part of two different persons, determined by the circumstances and the clothing he was wearing…He supposed that his true character lay somewhere in between, but he didn’t know who he was: neither of the two nor the sum of both…He would assume that he was two persons and turn that to his advantage (Allende 232)

By definition, the bildungsroman cannot end in a conflict of identities.  It implies the forming of a holistic person, who “comes to a better understanding of self” (Hardin xiii) as a result of his coming-of-age.  Instead of understanding himself better through confronting his multiple ethnic allegiances, Diego finds comfort (indeed, he finds charisma, confidence, and virility) in donning the mask of Zorro and escaping the question of ethnicity altogether.

Though Diego’s coming-of-age reflects the psychologically real process of wrestling with ethnicity, the result of his coming-of-age is not typical of a bildungsroman but is instead typical of a superhero origin story.  Conversely, Oscar’s story can and should be read as a prototypical bildungsroman with an ending that would satisfy the genre’s criteria.

Oscar’s formation (bildung) as an adult mirrors his pursuit of the Dominican ethnic identity that his family lost generations ago.  Abelard, Oscar’s grandfather, began his break with Dominican ethnicity when he realized his daughters might fall victim to Trujillo’s rape.  Instead of taking action—sending his daughters to Cuba, for instance—he hesitated indefinitely; “instead of making his move, Abelard fretted and temporized and despaired” (Diaz 231).  Dominicans, as Diaz would have his readers understand them, are decisive and aggressive, almost to a fault.  Take Lola, for instance, who runs away to Wildwood on the whim that she simply cannot stay in her mother’s house any longer.  Abelard, in contrast to Lola and Diaz’s typical Dominicans, cannot even die decisively; while all the other people in his life die quick deaths, Abelard is cursed by his indecision to meekly shuffle through prison—purgatory—half-lobotomized, in his pajamas, ad infinitum.

Perhaps Oscar is Abelard’s second chance—his spiritual reincarnation—as the next male Dominican born to Abelard’s family.  As a member of the Dominican ethnic family, Oscar is expected to sleep with any woman he wants, like Yunior, without compunction or effort.  This described Dominican promiscuity is the manifestation of a Dominican’s ability to take action.  “Did you fuck her?” asks Lola.  “I do not move so precipitously,” sighs Oscar, who still carries his grandfather Abelard’s indecisive genes.  Oscar tries, periodically, to take his life into his own hands, like when he agrees to go running with Yunior.  But it seems Diaz shows the readers this episode just to highlight how much of Oscar’s bad shape (mentally and physically) is his own doing.  “He quit,” Diaz unequivocally tells the readers through Yunior, the narrator.  “I will run again no more, he [Oscar] intoned from under his pillow” (Diaz 178), showing and telling Yunior that he prefers inaction to action, literally and metaphorically.

When it comes to love and sex, Oscar is similarly indecisive.  When Oscar falls in love with Ybon in the Dominican Republic (on a trip he took because he had nothing else to do during the summer), he finds himself pathologically incapable of acting.  “Did they the ever fuck? Of course not…He watched her for the signs…that would tell him she loved him” (Diaz 290) instead of confessing his love himself.  He does not kiss her for the first time; she kisses him in her Pathfinder.  And when Ybon’s kiss gets Oscar beat up by her jealous boyfriend, Oscar “thought about escaping, thought about jumping, out of the car and running down the street…but he couldn’t do it” (Diaz 297).  It is fitting, then, that Oscar gets beaten to near-death like his predecessor Abelard—cursed by his indecision to live in pain.

By going back to the Dominican Republic at great peril to himself specifically to confess his love to Ybon, Oscar comes of age through the fulfillment of his ethnic identity.  It is important to note, however, that love and sex is simply the context in which Oscar finds his identity.  Objectively, perhaps the fact that Oscar somehow accedes to his ethnic misogynistic expectations is not all good.  But love and sex are simply the tools of the Dominican ethnicity, and Oscar uses them to come into himself.  It is vital, for Diaz, that Oscar grow up, and grow up Dominican—and being Dominican means taking action, for better or worse.  Oscar ultimately does take action, for worse. He actively loves Ybon at pain of death.  Most importantly, though, he finds that Dominican compulsion with his last breath.  “Fire, he blurted out, unable to help himself” (Diaz 322); the old Oscar would not have been able to pull his own trigger for love.  He finally does what Abelard couldn’t do—acted, even if it kills him.

Oscar’s bildungsroman teaches us that you don’t get to just excuse yourself from your history, ethnicity, and human experience.  Growing up and becoming an adult in real life means coping with all the ethnic baggage you were given; only superheroes like Zorro can don a mask and escape.   Zorro, as a superhero, escapes all ethnic considerations and qualifications, but in so doing, he gives up his uniqueness as a human being, becoming a symbol instead that can belong to anyone.  As a human, you have to deal with both the good and the bad of your ethnicity in order to develop a unique identity.  Perhaps the greatest super hero is not the guy who leaves earth in a single bound, but the braver person who accepts who he is, where he’s from, and does something about it.

(Naphtali Rivkin is a senior English and Russian Area Studies double major at Washington and Lee University. He recently published a piece called “Why Everything you need to know about politics you can learn from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar” in the the Ukrainian Philosophical Foundation’s journal, Future Human Image. Currently, he is writing an English honors thesis on early 20th century Socialist American writers. He wrote “ADULTMAN: An Origin Story” in Professor Gavaler’s course 21st Century North American Fiction.)

Tags: , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: