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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Stan Lee

“Who’s your favorite mutant, professor?”

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

The Night Wind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who are Bing’s parents?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is the War on Terror over yet? It was written to be a mini-seriesAfter the 2003 fall of Baghdad, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld outlined plans for an immediate invasion of Syria. Lebanon, Somalia, and Sudan were up afterwards, with Iran crowning the Bush Administration’s “seven countries in five years” plot.

It was a naive story, one modeled on World War II and the swift collapse of the Axis. A decade later, the American public can’t even stomach Syrian air strikes let alone a ground invasion. We would all like the War on Terror to be over, but it’s evolved instead. Now we’re stuck with a less combative but never-ending Cold War on Terror.

That could prove a problem for superheroes. Costumed crusaders make lousy diplomats. Captain America would just infiltrate those Syrian chemical depots. The Human Torch would take out Iran’s nuclear plants with a few fire balls. The Sub-Mariner wouldn’t negotiate with Russia; he’d fly in and grab Snowden by the throat.

It will take a few Hollywood mega-flops before superheroes change their big screen tactics, but I predict that change is coming too. Just look at the last time America’s legion of leotards faced a cooling of national attitudes.

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1954 should have been a good year for superheroes. Sure, the plummet in post-war sales wiped most superpowers off newsstands, but the Man of Steel had made the leap to TV. The first two seasons of Adventures of Superman were looking like a hit for ABC. No wonder Atlas (formerly Timely, soon Marvel) Comics decided to revive their golden age sellers. Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Captain America cranked out a million copies a month during the war, with Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch right behind. Now the three were fronting their own magazines again. The Torch even returned atomic-powered, a happy side effect of the nuclear testing that awakened him from his desert grave. 

Over at DC, superheroes hid on the home front during World War II. Except for a smiling, patriotic splash page selling bonds, you wouldn’t have known there was a war on. That’s part of why DC’s trinity—Superman, Batman, Wonder Wonder—were the only supers to survive the post-war plummet. They stayed out of Cold War politics too. The Man of Steel never came near the Iron Curtain. Instead of bashing Commies, Adventures of Superman softened Superman’s crooks into cartoonish comedy. DC stapled “the American way” to the old “truth and justice” credo, and that’s as far as the Red Scare crept into Superman’s true blue tights.

But at Atlas, superheroes remained bound to America’s real-world supervillains. So with Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito vanquished to the Phantom Zone, they used the Cold War substitute. Sure, Joseph Stalin was dead, but Soviet sickles and hammers still replaced swastikas on Sub-Mariner’s first cover. Captain America stands with his shield raised in a self-congratulatory cheer below his new 1954 tag phrase “Commie Smasher!”

It made sense. Joseph McCarthy’s communist-vilifying absolutism was a good fit for unexaminedly violent supermen populating a patriotically distorted fantasy world of pure good and evil. The timing was right too. McCarthy’s popularity popped in 1950 with his never-substantiated charge that the State Department was infested with Communists. When Washington Post cartoonist Herbert Block coined the pejorative term “McCarthyism,” the Senator embraced it. His 1952 McCarthyism: The Fight For America even linked Communism to Hitler.

Atlas wasn’t the only comic book company backing McCarthy. Prize Comics hired Simon and Kirby to revive their brand of patriotic violence with another star-chested super soldier. Simon had titled his original Captain America sketch “Super American,” but he and Kirby went with Fighting American for their Cold War redo. Doing Captain America’s resurrection one better, Fighting American was literally a corpse, a dead World War II hero and right-wing TV commentator reanimated and inhabited by his puny kid brother. And that’s the best definition of “MyCarthyism” you’ll even find. 

So why didn’t any of these superpowered pinko-pounders last even a year? Captain America and the Human Torch went down in flames after just three issues. Sub-Mariner dribbled out ten. Stan Lee blamed the flop on the “stridently conservative scripting,” the same script McCarthy was working from. As a Senate chairman, he accused the U.S. Army of harboring masked Commies, and so the Army-McCarthy hearings kicked off in April 1954. On newsstands the same month, the first cover of Fighting American boasted: “Where there’s Danger! Mystery! Adventure! We find The NEW CHAMP OF SPLIT-SECOND ACTION!”  The hearings ended in June, the cover date of the last issue of Human Torch. The last Captain America was removed from newsstands the following month. Which means Atlas made its cancellation decisions during the hearings. Commie-bashing superheroes fell with their Commie-bating role model.

Instead of cancelling, Kirby and Simon went a different but equally anti-McCarthy direction. June-July is the last non-satirical issue of Fighting American. Prize introduced a redesigned logo for August-September, and the new cover includes two clownish communist villains and the ironic warning: “Don’t laugh—they’re not funny—POISON IVAN and HOTSKY TROTSKI.”

Fighting American cover

Jingoistic superheroism was literally a joke. The Senate condemned McCarthy in December, while Fighting American joked his way into Spring. Simon and Kirby had an eighth issue ready, but Prize never printed it.  When McCarthy died in 1957, he stayed dead too. Captain America rose a decade later, but he was a changed man. Marvel even declared that 1954 guy an impostor. Stan Lee said he wanted to express his own “ambivalent feelings” through the new Captain and “show that nothing is really all black and white.” Or white and Red.

If history repeats itself, superheroes will be a joke again soon. But first our contemporary McCarthies and their “stridently conservative scripting” would have to flop. The GOP’s polls plummeted after the shutdown, but Senator Cruz and his Tea Party cohorts look fine in their gerrymandered districts. According to his filibuster transcript, Cruz even believes he’s a member of the Rebel Alliance fighting the Evil Empire in Star Wars. It’s not a comic book, but the two-dimensional thinking is the same. The Tea Party is happy as long as they have that pinko Obama to bash in the name of the American way.

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Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

1. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a homicidal monster who deserves the death penalty for the Boston Marathon bombing. (True/False)

2. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a sweet-natured adolescent who fell victim to the corrupting influence of his terrorist older brother. (True/False)

If you circle “True” for either one and “False” for the other, then you are probably living a happy life in a world free of ambiguity and cognitive dissonance.  A comic book world. Superheroes and supervillains slice the universe into unambiguous halves, absolute good and absolute evil. No overlap, no gradations, no headache-inducing Venn diagrams, just the world reduced to black and white.

It’s also the world Tsarnaev lives in. “The U.S. Government is killing our innocent civilians,” he said before his arrest. “I can’t stand to see such evil go unpunished.” Tsarnaev was arraigned in Boston last Thursday, and though Massachusetts hasn’t executed anyone since the Golden Age of comics, Attorney General Eric Holder may still try for the death penalty. It’s what all supervillains deserve.

Except are comics really that simple?

“It all started long ago!!” shouts Moleman in Fantastic Four #1, “Because the people of the surface world mocked me!”

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That’s the improbably sympathetic motivation of Marvel Comics’ first supervillain. Stan Lee’s caption labels him an “evil antagonist,” but by the end of the issue, Reed scoops him up the way I used to grab my tantrumming son when he was a toddler. Reed even lets the little guy escape, reasoning that “It’s better that way! There was no place for him in our world . . . perhaps he’ll find peace down there . . . I hope so!”

Issue two and Reed is letting more supervillains go free. It turns out those nasty shapeshifting aliens just want to live a “contented” and “peaceful existence”: “We hate being Skrulls! We’d rather be anything else!” So he tells them to turn into cows and hypnotizes them to forget their race’s earth-conquering ambitions. Problem empathetically solved.

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But is this how comic books are supposed to work? Aren’t supervillains the cultural standard for one-dimensional evil? Of course this is only 1961; the Silver Age had barely launched. Maybe Lee and Kirby were just warming up. FF issues 4 and 5 we get the real villains. The return of the Gold Age Sub-Mariner and the birth of that ultimate arch-nemesis Dr. Doom!

Except, wait, Sub-Mariner is a poor amnesiac stranded in a Bowery flophouse until the Human Torch dunks him in the harbor. Then he swims back to Atlantis to find “It’s all destroyed! That glow in the water—it’s radioactivity!!The humans did it, unthinkably, with their accursed atomic tests!” His vow to destroy the human race is revenge for the loss of “My family—my friends! My undersea kingdom!” It doesn’t make him a nice guy, but evil? (Would the last survivor of Krypton have responded differently if Earth had A-bombed his home?)

Even Dr. Doom isn’t innately bad, just “badly disfigured.” He was once a “brilliant science student” before his “forbidden experiments” literally exploded in his face. Lee introduces him as an “evil genius,” but later reveals that those tragic experiments were an attempt to contact his beloved mother in the nether world. Next thing he’s a persecuted gypsy seeking revenge on the baron who killed his father. When What If tackled him in 1980, the writers averted that disfiguring accident all together and, what do you know, Doom becomes a superhero.

Before Stan Lee inherited the world of costumed do-gooders from his Golden Age forebears, supervillains were villainous, pure and simple. Luthor wanted to conquer the world for the same unexamined reasons that Superman wanted to protect it: Plot requirements. Forget psychological motivation. It was World War II. Readers needed good guys who were all good, and those good guys needed bad guys who were all bad. But 1961 was a different world. As much as America hated Commies, they were no replacement for purebred Nazis. Comics were ready to reflect the cultural shift.

Lee did not invent the figure of the sympathetic villain. Look at Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein creature or Milton’s Satan. Or, for more immediate influences, Tolkien’s Gollum and Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley, both published in 1955, a year before Silver Age superheroes started their return to newsstands. When Moleman swallowed his first atomic plant, Alfred Hitchcock was already famous for replacing the dog-kicking moustache-twirler of early motion pictures with his own brand of monster, “an ordinary human being with failings.” Moleman is only a few months and a few ticks past Norman Bates’ mother-loving Psycho. A decade later the motif had grown so culturally rampant that when The Who’s Pete Townsend was writing his second (and, alas, never finished) rock opera, he composed the quintessential sympathetic bad guy theme song, “Behind Blue Eyes.”

But Stan Lee did more than ride the zeitgeist. His villains changed only because his heroes changed too. He kept the two yoked, with the universal constants of good and evil flowing up and down their moral seesaw. The victimized Moleman is possible because the Thing is such a jerk. Every time Ben badmouths Johnny or throws a punch at Reed, one cosmic unit of sympathy rolls to the villains’ half of the universe.

Only comic books maintain that equilibrium. Ms. Highsmith’s diabolically talented Mr. Ripley is a lone (and lonely) figure; because his murders are investigated by irrelevant lawmen who soak up little narrative attention, our horror and admiration pivots only on Ripley. Even when sympathetic villains are coupled with worthwhile protagonists, our emotions operate separate pulleys. We can, for instance, feel pity for Gollum (the poor guy started out as the hobbit-like Smeagol before the Ring deformed him) without Frodo losing any of his own hobbity (if rather homoerotic) goodness.

King Kong, HAL, Tony Soprano, they all have their fuzzy side, but none demand a corresponding give-and-grab from an orc-mannered protagonist. Comic books are different. Once Stan Lee recalibrated the universe from its Golden Age settings, other writers obeyed his narrative logic as if obeying laws of physics: When superheroes are assholes, supervillains have to be the nice guys.

Look at Dr. Impossible in Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible. His quest for world domination is just his way to make superhero bullies respect him. Especially that obnoxious jock CoreFire, the biggest jerk in his middle school of a multiverse.  Joss Whedon’s Captain Hammer is worse. Dr. Horrible of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is a tender-hearted sweetheart. Sure, he wants to rule the world, but, unlike Hammer, he would never steal another guy’s gal and fake his way into her bed.

Alan Moore revolutionized comics in the 80s by pushing Lee’s laws of conservation to their ultimate end. The homicidal Rorschach skids so far down the moral seesaw, there’s nowhere for his nemesis Moloch to go but into retirement. He’s just some old guy (albeit pointy-eared) terrified of superheroes jumping out of his refrigerator. Rorschach’s own teammate gives Moloch cancer and then a bullet in the brain. Moloch is purely sympathetic. Why? Because the villainy of those Watchmen tips the scales over. There’s no room for supervillains in Moore’s lopsided universe. The so-called heroes hog all the traits, both good and bad.

When Bob Kane and his writing team dealt out the Joker in 1940, he was an unabashed lunatic. His nominal motive was theft, but he took way more demonic glee in his murders. Why? No reason. Not till Alan Moore gave one in his 1988 The Killing Joke. Turns out the Joker was a sweet young newlywed before grabbed by some thugs and set up as their red-hooded fall guy. Next thing Batman’s knocking him into a vat of chemicals, and what crawls out is now tragic by contrast. Moore’s supervillain rewrite was only possible after Frank Miller’s 1986 Dark Knight Returns. Miller emphasized the Dark over the Knight, catapulting Batman into the old Joker’s half of their ying-yang universe.

By the time Mark Waid and Alex Ross put out Kingdome Come in 1996, there was no longer any difference between the new generation of supervillains and superheroes. Right now I’m reading Gladstone’s School for World Conquerors. The students are all “adorable” middle school Molemen in the making. I bought it for my son because his favorite novels are about misunderstood supervillains or misunderstood sons of misunderstood supervillains. Catherine Jinks’ Evil Genius, Eoin Colfer‘s Artemis Fowl series. More evidence of seismic flattening.

Gladstone creators Mark Andrew Smith and Armand Villavert uphold Lee’s principles of cosmic proportion too. Good and evil have completely leveled out. Superheroes and supervillains are pals, staging fake battles in order to prevent a “return to the draconian days of old.” One retired villain does volunteer garden work at the school: “It’s relaxing and peaceful for me.” The same quiet fate Reed gave those shapeshifting cows from outer space.

Or, as one Skrull declares in the final frame: “Mooo!!”

If I could, I’d transform and hypnotize Dzhokhar Tsarnaev too. Yes, he’s a terrorist monster (3 dead, 260 wounded). And, yes, he’s also a nineteen-year-old scholarship student who people considered “a sweet guy” with a “heart of gold,” “a lovely, lovely kid,” “so grateful to be here in school and to be accepted, ” “a model of good sportsmanship,” “never in trouble,” “not the kind of guy who would hurt anyone,” someone who “believed in people,” “one of ‘us.’”

His twenty-six-year-old and conveniently dead brother, Tamerlan, is uglier, a competitive boxer arrested for assaulting his girlfriend. His YouTube account includes a playlist of terrorism videos. He bragged, “I don’t have a single American friend, I don’t understand them.”

We don’t understand you either, Tamerlan. Which is the heart of our mutual problem.  It’s easy to call you a monster and go back to our unexamined lives. Who doesn’t want to live in an old school comic book? They call it the Golden Age for a reason.

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Google “jennifer egan” and seconds later the term “metafiction” will attach itself leech-like to the side of her postmodern head.

I know this because members of my university have made the possibly foolhardy decision to ask me to give a talk on the Pulitzer winning author for our 2013 Tom Wolfe Weekend Seminar. (This blog, of all things, attracted their attention.) I’m to place A Visit from the Goon Squad into “the context of contemporary American culture” with “a discussion of Egan’s special skills as a writer,” keeping in mind she will be “sitting right there in front of you.”

I regularly tell my first year comp students that even if we could materialize authors in our classroom (usually during a discussion of Henry James’ mind-blowingly ambiguous The Turn of the Screw), their opinions would be completely irrelevant. Readers and only readers determine the meaning of a text. Except of course in this case. Because that will be the actual Jennifer Egan. In the front row. Listening. To me. Blathering. About her book.

Jennifer Egan

Poetic comeuppance aside, the author’s physical presence will be especially apt for a discussion of Goon Squad. Chapter one opens: “It began the usual way . . .” and before you’ve waded in a dozen pages you’re knee deep in self-referential story-telling, overt comments about symbols and plot arcs and collaborative writing. Ms. Egan is pulling off her metaphorical mask and yelling: Look at me!

So now, after stretching to pluck David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction from my office book shelf, let me flip to Chapter 46: “Metafiction is fiction about fiction: novel and stories that call attention to their fictional status and their own compositional procedures.”

Apart from a requisite nod to the 18th century’s Tristram Shandy, Lodge spends most of his time chatting with John Barth and Kurt Vonnegut. William Gass coined the term in 1970, after Barth demonstrated the style in his 1968 novel Lost in the Funhouse. Slaughterhouse Five was published a year later. Add Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and a couple of short stories by Robert Cover, and there’s your course syllabus for “Goon Squad: Founding Fathers of American Metafiction.”

Except, wait, here’s that inevitable moment, my weekly plot twist, where I veer to where I must always veer:

Superheroes!

No, no, no, NO. American metafiction did NOT begin in the late 60s. It was not a highbrow literary phenomenon. It was the lowest of the lowbrows, the pulpiest of the pulps, that ultimate literary stepchild, the comic book.

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby beat Pynchon by a half-decade. In Fantastic Four #2, on newsstands in 1961, Reed Richards convinces an alien race not to invade Earth by showing them drawing of monsters. “Those are some of Earth’s most powerful warriors!” he tells them, while thinking, “I pray he doesn’t suspect that they’re actually clipped from ‘Strange Tales’ and ‘Journey into Mystery!’” Two other Marvel titles sharing newsstand space with Fantastic Four.

Two issues later, the Human Torch chances onto a stash of old comics. “Say! Look at this old, beat-up comic mag! It’s from the 1940’s!!” It features the Golden Age Namor on the cover. “The Sub-Mariner! . . . He used to be the world’s most unusual character!” And guess who shows up two panels later?

In issue five, Johnny’s reading habits have expanded. Reed asks, “What are you reading, Johnny?”It’s The Incredible Hulk #1, out the same month. “A great new comic mag, Reed. Say! You know something—! I’ll be doggoned if this monster doesn’t remind me of The Thing!” Because he’s supposed to. Marvel created Hulk because of the Thing’s popularity.

The cover of FF #9 asks: “What happens to comic magazine heroes when they can’t pay their bills and have no place to turn?” But #10 is even bolder: “In this epic issue surprise follows surprise as you actually meet Lee and Kirby in the story!!” The authors stare up at the action from the front row.

Stan: “How’s this for a twist, Jack? We’ve got Doctor Doom as one of the Fantastic Four!!”

Jack:  “And Mister Fantastic himself is the villain!! Our fans oughtta flip over this yarn!!”

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As promised, Dr. Doom uses the Marvel duo to lure Reed into a trap.

Johnny: “Phone call for you, Reed! It’s Lee and Kirby! They’d like you to go to their studio to work out a plot with ‘em!”

Reed: “Strange…we just finished discussing a new plot yesterday!”

Thing: “Tell ‘em if they don’t stop makin’ me even uglier than I am, I’m liable to go up there and wrap this two-ton weight around their skinny necks!”

Issue 11 goes further still. The team has to stand in line to get a copy of their own comic book, and then they go home to answer fan letters, shattering the last remains of the fourth wall. Mr. Lumpkin, their mailman, laments in the final panel: “Blankety blank fans and comic magazine heroes, and letters to the editor pages! Ohhh my achin’ back!”

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The trend dies a quiet death in the next issue when the Hulk shows up with no mention of that comic mag John had been reading. Marvel traded in metafiction for multi-title continuity. That brings us into 1962, still eight years before Barth coins the term.

Of course metafiction is probably as old as fiction, older if you include other genres, metatheater, etc. The term was intended as a highbrow literary category, even though some of its most immediate influences were from pop culture, including such humble creatures as comic books. But Stan Lee is no source point either. His FF tomfoolery was influenced from 1950s Mad magazine. Plus the whole Silver Age can be read as a metafictional response to the Golden Age (Barry Allen, the new Flash, kicks off the Silver Age by reading an original Flash comic). And the Golden Age is filled with its own examples too. A group of characters go on strike in Captain Marvel Adventures, and there’s a Superman episode in which Clark takes Lois to a movie that starts with a Superman cartoon (so he has to prevent her from seeing the scene where Clark in the cartoon turns into Superman). Even Bob Kane’s early Batman episodes have their meta moments, so it’s present from the beginning of the medium.

And does all of this put Jennifer Egan into “the context of contemporary American culture”?

Um, no, not really.

So you’ll forgive me if I sign off now and finish reading Goon Squad.

‘Nuff said.

Jack Kirby

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POP QUIZ: What do zombies and superheroes have in common?

A. Zack Snyder

B. Shaun of the Dead

C. Marvel Zombies

D. Mutating radiation

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If you said A, then you must be pretty excited about the new Superman movie Man of Steel coming out next June. You must also know that director Zack Snyder shot the 2004 remake Dawn of the Dead. I’ve not seen it, but I still lose sleep over his disappointing Watchmen adaptation, so it’s probably just as well. (Don’t even get me started on 300.)

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If you said B, then you’re even more excited about director Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man movie (sadly not slated till November 2015). Since you loved his zombie parody, Shaun of the Dead, you can’t wait to see what he does with the superhero genre. Also, you’re probably aware that Wright’s go-to actor Simon Pegg is the model for Wee Hughie in Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s anti-superhero diatribe The Boys. (Don’t get me started on that either.)

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C is a no brainer, so to speak. ‘Nuff said.

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But my favorite answer is D. With great radiation comes great mutation. That’s the Cold War talking. And both Stan Lee and George Romero were listening. They took their sorry little genres, bombarded them with radiation, and watched them mutate into things far far better.

“Lee and Kirby,” a New York Times reviewer recently wrote, “pulled off the comics equivalent of the literary shift from Victorian melodrama to Chekhovian realism.” If that sounds a bit overblown, Romero’s earned similar hyperboles. “Night of the Living Dead,” wrote one commentator, “is to modern horror what Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is to the modern theatre.”

So how’d they do it?

The Fantastic Four were on their way to Mars when Stan clobbered them with radiation back in 1961. The result? “You’ve turned into monsters!!” shouts Johnny as he bursts into flames, “It’s those rays! Those terrible cosmic rays!”

Romero’s zombies (he called them “ghouls”) hail from outer space too. As survivors battle the living dead, experts debate on the radio: “the space vehicle which orbited Venus and then was purposely destroyed by NASA, when scientists discovered it was carrying a mysterious, high-level radiation . . . is enough to cause these mutations?”

In other words, superheroes are from Mars, zombies are from Venus.

But the radiation is the same. And though in one case it bestows freakish superpowers and the other it animates flesh-devouring corpses, the revolutionary mutation for both the superhero and horror genres was the same:

With great radiation comes great in-fighting.

As Lee explained in a 1968 interview:  “I think we were the first outfit to break the cliché of all the superheroes being goody-goody and friendly with each other. We had our Fantastic Four argue amongst themselves. They didn’t always get along well.”

Romero’s radiation has the same effect on his cast. The 1968 Night of the Living Dead isn’t the first horror film with characters not playing goody-goody with each other, but no film had pushed it quite so horrifically far. Almost every scene features at least one pair of survivors battling not the dead but each other. And it ends with its hero shot in the head by a passing police patrol.

Which brings up another similarity. A high dose of radiation requires a main character to be named Ben. I’m not sure if the Thing’s orange skin classifies him as a racial minority, but Romero’s Ben was also African American. Or at least actor Duane Jones was. The Ben of the original script didn’t mutate skin colors until the casting call.

Actress Judith O’Dea’s Barbra also bears on unfortunate resemblance to Sue Storm. Both heroines spend their plots as incompetently distressed damsels getting chased, captured, and, in the case of Barbra, eaten. When Romero revised the role for the 1990 remake, he mutated Barbra into a fatigue-wearing Ms. Rambo.  John Byrne did Sue a similar favor in his 80s run of Fantastic Four, rechristening her Invisible Woman and remaking her into the team’s mightiest member.

Sue deserves a comic of her own. Which is also the title of the University of Florida’s Graduate Comics Organization’s 10th annual conference last weekend, “A Comic of Her Own.” My thanks for inviting me there to talk about some zombies and superheroes. It turns out Cold War radiation is still inflecting Tony Kirkman’s The Walking Dead. Despite the long way Sue and Barbra have come, the 1950s throwback Lori reboots it all.

But more on that later.

A Comic of Her Own, UF conference program cover

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I fully acknowledge that The Avengers might suck. Anyone who’s seen Joss Whedon’s two half-seasons of Dollhouse understands that. (Though if you also saw the original pilot, which Fox never aired, you also understand how a network can thwart even the best of visions.)

I’m pretty sure when Alex Pappademas wrote last year in The New York Times Magazine that the superhero industry should be handed over to film auteurs, he didn’t have Joss Whedon in mind. Unless Pappadmas had also watched seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, four seasons of the network-jumping spin-off Angel, and, my favorite, the brilliant half-season of Firefly followed by its equally brilliant if franchise-ending feature film, Serenity. (Again, I hold Fox responsible for grounding Whedon’s original Firefly pilot, not aired until after the show was cancelled.)

I’ve never read Whedon’s Wonder Woman screenplay (as far as I know, no one’s ever leaked it to the internet), but when both he and the project got the axe, I figured my favorite TV writer-director was down for the count. When I heard Marvel was handing him The Avengers, I cringe-laughed. As Whedon put it, his and Silver Pictures’ Wonder Woman visions were “non-sympatico.” That literally goes double for Fox. So it was simply a question of how long he would last before Marvel pulled his plug.

Of course I braced the same way when Marvel cast my favorite actor, rehab-rebounder Robert Downey, Jr., in Iron Man. The guy had compelled me to watch an entire season of Ally BcBeal, only to have him flame-out before the finale. This was also before the Sherlock Holmes franchise reboot, so people forget just how toxic Downey was even five years ago. Marvel actually made him AUDITION for the part.

So Whedon isn’t the first Fox discard Marvel has gambled on. Certainly Kenneth Branagh looked like the safer and more eye-catching choice for last year’s Thor. Sadly, it seems the Shakespearean auteur did most of his directing from the bed in his trailer. The best thing about Thor is the review it trigged from A. O. Scott. The poor guy was thrown into existential crisis by the film’s intentional mediocrity.

Which is also the likeliest outcome for The Avengers. Corporations are not auteurs. Either they broke Whedon, or Whedon broke them. Or, the least likely outcome, the two found a way to combine vision and finance to craft something that’s both intelligent and money-making. (Hey, I can dream.)

But even if The Avengers does suck, I’m still giving Marvel Entertainment some credit. Film series number in the hundreds, if not thousands, and spin-offs, while rarer, are nothing new. But no company’s produced an interlaced web of parallel films before. The Avengers is both the first in a series (The Avengers 2 is already slated for a 2014 release) and the sequel to not one but four simultaneous franchises: Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and Hulk.

You can even count Hulk twice if you include the Ang Lee film, which nobody is. (And allow me a moment now to lament the firing of Edward Norton as Bruce Banner. I’m not sure if Whedon or Marvel is primarily responsible, but Norton is another of my favorite actors. Though largely because his kid sister was a student at my university. Ed even took her as his date to the Oscars. How cool a brother is that! Plus he only plays Jekyll/Hyde parts—Fight Club, Primal Fear, The Incredible Hulk. As far as I’m concerned Norton should star in ALL superhero movies.)

Anyway, the interconnections between the six Marvel titles is what made the original Avengers so much fun in comic book form. Stan Lee, unlike his competitors at DC, wasn’t interested in stand-alone heroes adventuring each in their private universe. The original 1940 Justice Society of America wasn’t a team, it was a marketing gimmick for a reprint omnibus of each character’s individual episodes. Things had changed by the time DC rebooted them as the Justice League in 1960, but it’s Marvel that invented “continuity.” Stan Lee actually included footnotes in his panels. Readers were reminded not only of previous events within a series but events from ongoing parallel titles, complete with issue numbers. The result was an interlocking web and the sense of an entire world in constant, interactive motion.

Pretty much what Marvel is doing now on screen.

One last side note: The Avengers is not the first Avenger film. That credit goes to Zorro. His team of masked caballeros dubbed themselves the Avengers in Johnston McCulley’s 1919 novel. When Douglass Fairbanks stared in The Mark of Zorro the following year, he made what is arguably the most influential superhero film in history. Without Zorro’s Avengers, I doubt Marvel’s would have ever been written.

That’s a high bar for The Avengers to match, but I’m looking forward to the attempt. I hear it opens next Friday.

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Panel one:

“For the splash page I’m seeing ‘Singulas’ launching himself from the craggy edge of his mentor’s mountain cave for the first time. Bird’s eye view, fists high, cape aflutter, and the bone-thin ‘Onlyone’ seated below, lotus-style, age-beaten face angled to watch his newborn pupil ascending. His mouth should be an ambiguous half-grin. That’s important later. Leave me a wide caption box to recap the origin. I’ll do all the words later.”

That’s the first paragraph of my short story “Script Outline, ‘The One and Only!’ Draft 1.” It appears in the new issue of The Pinch literary magazine. I just  tore my complimentary author’s copy from its mailing envelope. (Something that, even after some thirty-odd short stories, still thrills.)

My superhero, Singulas, is invented, but my (unstated) narrator is Stan Lee just before Marvel hits it big in the early sixties. “The One and Only!” is his first superhero plot, one he’s describing to a freelance artist. I think it’s probably also a lesson in how not to write a comic book script.

Will Eisner in Comics and Sequential Art assures his students that there’s “no absolute ratio of words-to-pictures” in comic book writing, but his example scripts average 40 words of visual description per panel. My panel above is 75. The whole story runs about 4,500 words. I don’t think many of Stan Lee’s “scripts” filled more than a cocktail napkin.

Which was the point.

While DC editor Mort Weisinger was pounding his scripters with endless rewrites, Stan would dash off a verbal thumbnail for Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko to beat into shape. AKA, the Marvel Method. The laissez-faire approach had obvious benefits for an overworked editor.  It might also help explain that office closet of unused and unusable story boards Lee hid from his boss in the late 1950’s. (When Goodman found them, he fired everyone but Lee, until the inventory was used up.)

The Lee of my story has more in common with Alan Moore. Surely the most verbose scripter in comic book history. The guy would mail poor Dave Gibbons reams of paper. Watchmen even includes Moore’s self-parody, a faux bio of a fictitious writer famed for “harassing the artist with impossibly detailed panel descriptions.” Moore can fill a single-spaced page for a one panel. More than ten times the Eisner ratio. Gibbons’ Watching the Watchmen includes only a glimpse of the original transcripts, but it’s enough to see the enormity of the artistic task. Gibbons had to code sentences with colored highlighters just to organize all the instructions.

Back in the sixties, Kirby and Ditko were handing their pages to Lee with the captions and talk bubbles empty. Which, paradoxically, is one of the reason why Marvel’s Silver Age comics are wordier than today’s image-centered graphic novels. The artists were careful to leave their boss plenty of room for his witty (though ad-hoc) dialogue.

But Moore’s Watchmen scripts were also personal letters to Gibbons. There are asides and exclamations wonderfully outside the conventions of any formal script outline. And that’s what attracted me to experiment with the form as a short story. The “One and Only!” is a personal letter, not only from editor to artist, but between ex-lovers. Lee and my fictitious freelancer are collaborators both on and between the sheets.

The story is also my first toe-wetting dip into the material I’m now expanding in my novel-in-process. (Working title? “The Patron Saint of Superheroes.”) I’m not handing the pages (136 so far) to any stressed-out artists with color-coded highlighters. Though sometimes it would be nice to scribble a few words on a napkin and watch them come back as full blown storyboards. Lee was no fool. But neither is Moore. I recommend aiming somewhere between.

(For anyone in Memphis on Saturday November 5th, I’ll be reading from “The One and Only!” at The Pinch launch party. Festivities start at 7:00 at Splash Creative, Inc., 2574 Sam Cooper Blvd @ Bingham St.)

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