Skip to content

The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Scarlet Pimpernel

I was maybe ten when someone threw a burning cross in a front yard down the street from our house. I didn’t know the family who lived there, just the fact that they were black. My dad doubted it was the Klan, just some local Neanderthals. Maybe the same ones who egged our house and wrote “Niger Lovers” on our garage years before. (Presumably real Klan members would spell the racial slur correctly).

I was too busy reading Marvel Comics to think much more about it, but I mention the event as a kind of apology for one of the more unpleasant discoveries I’ve made while following the superhero back to its origins.

When searching for superhero ground zero, many scholars point to Baroness Orczy’s 1905 Scarlet Pimpernel largely because of Johnston McCulley’s imitative Zorro in 1919, which in turn influenced the 1939 Batman (Bill Finger included stills from the Douglass Fairbanks film when he handed his scripts to Bob Kane to draw).

pimpernelzorrobatman

But the Scarlet Pimpernel lacks one of the superhero’s most defining characteristics. He has no costume, no repeating physical representation. He is only a name and a series of ordinary disguises. (He’s also remarkably non-violent, preferring to deter an enemy with a snuff box of pepper than a blow to the jaw.)

Another historical novel published in 1905 offers a more convincing (though disturbing) predecessor to the modern superhero. Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman is a fancifully offensive portrayal of the KKK as a heroic band of Southern patriots battling the corruption of Northern tyranny. They are also the first 20th century dual identity costumed heroes in American literature.

frontispiecetitle page

Like superheroes, Dixon’s clansmen keep their alter egos a secret and hide their costumes with them (“easily folded within a blanket and kept under the saddle in a crowd without discovery”). They change “in the woods,” the nineteenth-century equivalent of Clark Kent’s phone booth (“It required less than two minutes to remove the saddles, place the disguises, and remount”). Their powers, while a product of their numbers and organization, border on the supernatural (their “ghostlike shadowy columns” rode “through the ten townships of the country and successfully disarmed every negro before day without the loss of a life”).

Dixon’s novel was so popular it became the source material for D. W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation, which in turn proved so successful, it inspired the Klan to reform across the U.S. (Their defining emblem, the burning cross, was invented by Dixon. The Reconstruction-era Klan never used it.)

birth nationcross

The new KKK numbered in the millions and was praised as a much needed crime-fitting force that succeeded were traditional law enforcement failed. Historian Richard K. Tucker sums it up well:

“Mainline Protestant ministers often praised the Klan from their pulpits. Reformers welcomed it to vice-ridden communities to ‘clean up’ things. Prohibitionists and the Anti-Saloon League supported it as a force against the Demon Rum. Most of all, millions saw it as a protection against the Pope of Rome, who, they believed, was threatening to ‘take over America.'”

Vice-ridden communities, plots against America, only one thing can save us–any of this sound familiar?

There is an upside though. By the early 30s, the Klan were losing public approval. Though masked heroes sold millions of pulp magazines during the Depression, real life vigilantes were prosecuted as criminals. As a result, Superman began his career as a paradoxical vigilante-fighting vigilante, breaking up a lynch mob in the opening pages of Superman No. 1 in 1939

superman lynch

Superman and the legion of imitations who followed him take some of their most defining characteristics from the Klan (costumes, masked identities, codenames, emblems), while reversing the Klan’s political aims. As a result the superhero is a contradiction. A violent, anti-democratic vigilante fighting for law and order.

Dixon’s literary vision lived on in two incarnations from my childhood. Those Neanderthals roaming the suburbs of Pittsburgh in the early 70s. And the comic books I read then and am only now beginning fully to understand.

[If you’re interested in a fuller treatment of this argument, see “The Ku Klux Klan and the birth of the Superhero” in Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics. The article goes online for subscribers this week and will be available in print later this year.]

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Michael Chabon is a nice guy. I made sure I knew how to pronounce his name (“Cha” as in Shea Stadium, “bon” as in Jovi) before having dinner with him. And about ten other faculty members and university students before his lecture across campus. He sat opposite me, as a way of avoiding the more central seat he probably should have taken. He’s a little shy, but less soft-spoken behind a podium.

I asked him about his script for Spider-Man 2 (in my defense, McSweeney’s had recently posted it), but he said, and then repeated twice, that his only interest in screenwriting was the family health benefits he received through the writer’s guild.

I didn’t ask him about his article, “Secret Skin: An Essay in Unitard Theory,” a handout I photocopy for students in my Superheroes course. I was, thankfully, not yet drafting my secret history of the genre, so his smile did not tighten the way my wife’s used to before she imposed a five-minute limit on any conversational gambit involving muscle-stretched spandex.

Michael will forgive me if I sometimes imagine I’m still in conversation with him. He tells me in the New Yorker: “There were costumed crime-fighters before Superman (the Phantom, Zorro), but only as there were pop quartets before the Beatles. Superman invented and exhausted his genre in a single bound.”

It’s a pithy summary of conventional wisdom, one I took on faith when I sketched my first timeline. Aside from the Shadow and a few other pulp heroes of the 30’s, there’s just Zorro a decade earlier, and the Scarlet Pimpernel a decade and half before that.

I wasn’t expecting an answer (from anyone, let alone my imaginary Michael) when I asked about the gaps. I assumed I’d never heard of any roaring twenties superheroes because the roaring twenties were roaring through other genres. Same for the fifteen years between Baroness Orczy’s flowery Pimpernel and Johnston McCulley’s Z-slashing imitation.

Actually, Michael, the first three decades of the century were awash with masked and superpowered do-gooders. My latest rough count: forty. The number doubles with the horde of “mystery men” who crawl from under The Shadow’s cloak plus the Pimpernel’s garden of predecessors, some known, others lost in the mulch of crumbled penny-dreadfuls.

Eighty. About the number who attended Chabon’s lecture. Not a stadium crowd, but the Beatles couldn’t have filled Shea when they started either. Jerry Siegel and Jim Shuster may be comic book’s Lennon and McCartney, but their Superman was Elvis. He rose so high in his genre because his genre was already there to applaud him.

That’s the story I’m writing. Not a tight little screenplay, but a sprawling mini-series with a dozen subplots and a cast of hundreds. If there’s a superhero writer’s guild, I want the family health benefits too.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: