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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Superman


When Hollywood executive Christopher Vogler summarized Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces as a guide for screenwriters in 1985, he called it “one of the most influential books of the 20th century,” noting that “The myth can be used to tell the simplest comic book story or the most sophisticated drama.” Campbell’s book introduced his concept of the monomyth, an 18-step narrative formula he applied across societies and time periods world-wide. His examples include Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Indian, Norse, and Inuit sources. Campbell did not, however, relate his analysis to the hero type most popular while he was developing his formula in the 40s: the American comic book superhero.

Image result for campbell hero with a thousand faces

Campbell published his study shortly after DC terminated Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, ending their ten-year contract on Action Comics. Superman, meanwhile, had expanded to newspapers, radio, film, and TV, producing a legion of similarly superhuman imitations. While Campbell’s approach to comparative mythology is flawed by inattention to differences between disparate tales and cultures, it shares its mid-century, American context with the superhero genre and so suggests one culturally-specific explanation for the character type’s popularity. What appealed to Campbell appealed to other 20th century U.S. readers too.

Campbell summarized his monomyth’s essential elements:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”Image result for campbell hero with a thousand faces

The description encapsulates superhero origin stories. Will Eisner condensed the same elements into the first panel of Wonder Comics #1 (May 1939), when a blond-haired American vacationing in Asia receives supernatural powers from a turbaned Tibetan:

“So, Fred Carson, wear this ring as a symbol of the Herculean powers with which you are endowed—as long as you wear it, you will be the strongest human on Earth—you will be impervious—and now in the name of humanity and justice, go forth into the world!”

Wonderman premiered the same month as Action Comics #12 and Detective Comics #27, which introduced Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s “Bat-Man.” Both characters were the first direct imitations of Siegel and Shuster’s industry-transforming Superman. While Superman was influenced by decades of pulp, film, and penny dreadful predecessors, the medium-specific tradition of the comic book superhero begins in 1939 with the expansion of a single character into a repeated character type.

Like Wonderman’s, Batman’s origin story, retroactively inserted six months later in Detective Comics #33, is a monomyth variant—though a darker one. Bruce and his parents are “walking home from a movie” when they encounter the dark forces of the criminal underworld. After the “terror and shock” of the murders, a “curious and strange scene takes place,” in which Bruce vows to his parents’ spirits to avenge their deaths and so becomes “a creature of the night” himself. Finger places the formative event in an inexact past, “some twelve years ago,” suggesting the ahistoricity of many myths and folktales, while also grounding the ongoing consequences in a contemporary moment. The formula suggests comparative religion scholar Mircea Eliade’s analysis of a past mythic time and the ability of followers to return to it through ritual imitation. Superheroes pass between Campbell’s “two worlds, the divine and the human” regularly.

The relation of an origin to contemporary adventures is also central to the monomyth as embodied by superheroes. While Krypton is the original comic book region of supernatural wonder, giving Superman the power to bestow boons on humanity, Clark Kent is the ongoing embodiment of the world of the common day. Structurally the Krypton past is only preamble, establishing one of the most significant elements of Campbell’s heroic journey: personal transformation.

Myths and folktales are complete stories that end in closure, but superhero comics are typically episodic and endlessly incomplete. The monomyth as applied to comics form then is not limited to a character’s origin nor necessarily expandable to an accumulative series. The superhero monomyth is a single adventure—and, in fact, each and every adventure. The early twelve-page Action Comics episodes begin with Clark, who abandons his common day persona to encounter some fabulous force which he decisively defeats, before returning to live among humans as Clark again, his boon-bestowing powers at the ready.

If Campbell is correct, and the appeal of the myths he studied is grounded in the cyclic pattern of common heroes transforming through a descent into the fantastical, superhero comics enacted that script monthly. Every time Bill Parker and C.C. Beck’s little Billy Baston accepts a call to action and shouts “Shazam!” he receives the aid of his wizard mentor and crosses a supernatural threshold, causing Billy to vanishes and be reborn as Captain Marvel. Campbell writes:

“The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown and would appear to have died. … This popular motif gives emphasis to the lesson that the passage of the threshold is a form of self-annihilation … instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes inward, to be born again.”

After the trials of physical combat end in victory, Captain Marvel returns to the mundane world by transforming back into Billy Baston. Campbell describes the act as a trial itself:

“The first problem of the returning hero is to accept as real, after an experience of the soul-satisfying vision of fulfillment, the passing joys and sorrows, banalities and noisy obscenities of life. Why re-enter such a world? Why attempt to make plausible, or even interesting, to men and women consumed with passion, the experience of transcendental bliss? As dreams that were momentous by night may seem simply silly in the light of day, so the poet and the prophet can discover themselves playing the idiot before a jury of sober eyes.”

Siegel and Shuster solved Campbell’s dilemma by presenting Clark Kent as the hero’s banal disguise, allowing him to play an idiot to Lois Lane and the mundane temptations she represents. As Jules Feiffer concludes, Clark “is Superman’s opinion of the rest of us, a pointed caricature of what we … were really like.” Superman’s adoption of the caricature also reflects Campbell’s final monomythic stages, allowing him to remain in the never-ending moment by mastering both of his worlds:

“Freedom to pass back and forth across the world division, from the perspective of the apparitions of time to that of the causal deep and back—not contaminating the principles of the one with those of the other, yet permitting the mind to know the one by virtue of the other—is the talent of the master.”

Viewed within the monomythic scope of each episode, the Clark of the opening scene is fundamentally different from the Clark of the ending scene. If a reader had never heard of Superman, she would see a human transform into super-being and then relinquish that soul-satisfying fulfilment in order to appear human again. Other superheroes enact the same cyclic transformations every time they don a costume. Though Campbell’s monomyth can be applied only tentatively to the diverse array of world mythologies, it may find its most defining embodiment in the comics produced at its same cultural moment.


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James Bond might not be a superhero, but he does dedicate his life to battling bad guys. Plus he has a codename: 007. Yeah, that means he’s just one guy in a league of 00s, so nothing unique—same as any Green Lantern in the intergalactic Green Lantern Corps. Maybe Earth-based agencies are different, but then that would strike Black Widow from the superhero census list too. Also, like Natasha, James has no superpowers, at least not compared to Thor or Superman. He’d make a pretty good match for Batman though. He even sports his own utility belt’s worth of Q-engineered supergadgets.

Mr. Bond also wields Dr. Who’s shapeshifting powers. I watched his edited-for-TV Sean Connery incarnation from my parents’ couch as a kid, and his Roger Moore from theater seats as an adolescent. I even witnessed his awkward Timothy Dalton stage while I was finishing college and his franchise was waiting for Pierce Brosnan to come-of-age too. But I have to admit Daniel Craig is the David Tennant of the Bond universe. I’m looking forward to seeing his current Spectre adventure.

The character struggled after losing his mission-defining Evil Empire, but Skyfall’s Judi Dench gave him back his raison d’être:

“I’m frightened because our enemies are no longer known to us. They do not exist on a map. They’re not nations. They’re individuals. Look around you. Who do you fear? Do you see a face, a uniform, a flag? No. Our world is not more transparent now. It’s all opaque. It’s in the shadows. That’s where we must do battle.”

Batman is all about shadows too, turning the darkness of his parents’ murders against the shady elements of murky Gotham. But, unlike a trigger-happy 00 agent, Batman would never kill anyone on purpose, right?

Well, actually the unlicensed Dark Knight racked up a Bond-level body count during his first year in Detective Comics. Not only did a holster hang from his utility belt back then, the batplane included a mounted machinegun: “Much as I hate to take human life, I’m afraid this time it’s necessary!”

DC editors reined in his homicidal writing staff after Batman #1, but even the comparatively wholesome Superman had a killing streak then. In June 1939, same month Batman was kicking jewel thieves off skyscrapers, Superman was dropping a mobster to an identical death. Granted, it wasn’t Superman’s fault he lost his super grip: “If he hadn’t tried to stab me, he’d be alive now.—But the fate received was exactly what he deserved!” Though what did Superman think was going to happen when he destroyed the Ultra-Humanite’s propeller mid-flight? The supervillain somehow escaped the crash, but no thanks to the death-indifferent Man of Steel.

Comic books usually protect their heroes from having to kill directly. In that same Action Comics, a rotating blade shatters against Superman’s impervious skull and slices up a nearby thug.  Or in another early Batman adventure, a “foreign agent” is accidentally impaled on his own sword, and Batman self-righteously declares: “It is better that he should die! He might have sent thousands of others to their death on a battlefield if his plans had been successful!”

If this makes your feel morally queasy, listen to Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko on superhero morality: superheroes are “moral avengers” who must kill criminals in order to show “a clear understanding of right and wrong,” even if that means violating the “pervading legal moral” code.

Mr. Ditko currently resides in the crazy-old-man dimension of the comics multiverse, because his Ann Rand philosophy isn’t a page in today’s superhero bible. Batman’s and Superman’s most recent film incarnations take little license with the Sixth Commandment. In fact, the plot of Christopher Nolan’s 2008 The Dark Knight pivots on Christian Bale’s Batman struggling not to kill the Joker—even though killing him is necessary to protect others and exactly “what he deserves.” And remember the fan outrage when Henry Cavill’s Superman snapped General Zod’s neck in Man of Steel? It was that or let the General’s laser vision slice up a family of cowering Metropolitans, but Superman’s super-wholesomeness got sliced up too.

Both Zod and Joker are weirdly suicidal supervillains, goading their arch-enemies into committing murder. But then that’s the point. Superheroes are supposed to oppose killing out of principle. So where’s that leave Mr. Bond?

We could say his license strikes the “super” from his heroness, maybe even replacing it with an “anti.” His comic book counterpart might be the Ditko-esque Punisher, a sometime supervillain depending on who’s penning the story. But in James’ defense, killing isn’t the core of his mission. It’s just the most efficient means for getting important jobs down. He’s paid to be indifferent to death.

And that’s the problem. I remember Roger Moore’s 007 dangling a “foreign agent” by his tie from the edge of a building. The thug had been gunning at him seconds earlier, so the scene meets the “what he deserved” test. But was it necessary? Couldn’t he have holstered his license and knocked the guy out instead of dropping him to his death? Sure, the guy was a cog in the Cold War wheel trying to squash Democracy, but did Roger Moore have to grin? Did the movie have to play the scene for laughs, toying with the villain’s tie as he quivered for life?

I don’t blame his character though. James Bond was designed to be a cold-blooded Cold Warrior. You could argue the hero type was a product of its times—and so a bad fit with ours. Connery, Moore, Dalton, they all performed indifference so their 60s, 70s and 80s audiences could forget about the nuclear arsenal aimed at their hometown theaters. Take Bond out of that context and he just seems callous. The same way the original Superman and Batman made more moral sense as their readers teetered on the brink of a Nazi-driven World War.

The current Daniel Craig incarnation fixes that. He still shows his killer license when needed, but he’s not indifferent about it. He understands what it means to take a life. Like the 2013 Superman, he only snaps a villainous neck when it means saving innocent ones. He takes no pleasure in it. If anything, that hint of inner turmoil makes him almost superheroic. He does the dirty work so no one else has to. He’s not a 00 by self-righteous nature, but by self-sacrificing choice.

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My wife has been trying to get our daughter to read Jane Austen since our daughter started middle school. She’s now a senior, and when faced with a summer reading list for A.P. English, she picked Pride and Prejudice because her teacher said he didn’t like it. She can be perverse that way, but her impish impulse backfired because then she couldn’t stop reading the entire six-novel Austen oeuvre (plus the incomplete Sanditon even though she can’t bear not knowing how a romance plot ends.)

I theoretically read Emma in college, and I have an increasingly thin memory of Northanger Abby from grad school, but my wife gasped—Yes! Gasped, I say!—when I admitted at our dinner table that I had in fact never read Pride and Prejudice. The characters in Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club give the same reaction when the lone male in the club makes the same admission.

fowler jane austen book club cover

I’m teaching Fowler’s novel this semester as part of my New North American Fiction course, AKA “Thrilling Tales.,” so I’m braced for more gasps.

I stole the subtitle from the issue of McSweeney’s that Michael Chabon edited back in 2003. His pulp-reclamation project includes a range of highbrow authors writing in lowbrow genres: horror, scifi, mystery, but not—I only recently noted—romance. Same is true of the issue of Conjunctions Peter Straub guest-edited a few months earlier. So the proud gatekeepers of 21st century literature were allowing in zombie ghosts and steampunk Martians, but no tales with “Reader, I married him” closure.

I theorized the prejudice was against formula: any narrative with a predetermined ending is by definition formulaic, and so not literary. And though I think that’s largely true, the prejudice runs deeper.

My daughter told me I had to read Pride and Prejudice to avoid humiliation in my own classroom. My students will have read it, she said, and since Fowler’s novel references it so deeply, and since it’s considered the best of Austen’s novels, and one of the best novels of English literature, I agreed I had no choice. This implies I was resistant. I wasn’t. Fowler’s novel is brilliant (easily the most engaging metafiction I’ve ever read), and I had every intention of enjoying Austen too.

And yet why did I hesitate? And why hadn’t I included a work of romance in my Thrilling Tales syllabus the first time I taught the course? I’d covered so many other genre bases—time travel, superheroes, genetic engineering, vampires. It turns out the diagnosis isn’t all that complicated.

When I had a doctor’s appointment over the summer, I took the library copy of Pride and Prejudice that my daughter had read. The nurse (female) said, “Oh, what a good book.” The doctor (male) said, “Oh god, that thing.” He’d read it in his A.P. English class back in high school. I don’t know when the nurse read it, but I assume it was for pleasure. Non-literary female pleasure, the kind even the omnivorous Chabon and Straub couldn’t get their lowbrow brains around. 1930s space aliens is one thing, but Harlequin Romances? Please.

But what genre doesn’t suffer from bad examples? I’ve read some cringingly embarrassing sonnets, but they don’t reveal anything about the merits of 14-line rhyme structures. The best Shakespearean sonnet doesn’t reveal anything innately excellent about the form either. It’s just a form.

Few authors are regarded as their genre’s best practitioners. Even fewer are regarded as inventors of their genres. Ursula Le Guin (for example) falls into the first category, but not the second. Jerry Siegel, the co-creator of Superman, falls into the second category, but not the first. If you consider a Shakespearean sonnet its own genre, then Shakespeare falls into both. So does Jane Austen.

I’m looking forward to discussing The Jane Austen Book Club with my class soon, but first a superheroic revelation of my own: Without Pride and Prejudice, my favorite 1930s space alien, Superman, would not exist. Jane Austen is Jerry Siegel’s secret collaborator, and without her, the comic book genre that followed Action Comics No. 1 wouldn’t exist either.

To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever drawn an Austen-Superman connection. But the line of influence is direct. It’s called The Scarlet Pimpernel. The novel was published by Baroness Orczy in 1904 and is one of the most influential texts for early superheroes. Its title character is often cited as the first dual-identity hero and the inspiration for Zorro and dozens of other pulp do-gooders culminating in Batman and Superman. Siegel was a Pimpernel fan and reviewed one of Orczy’s sequels in his high school newspaper. Take away Orczy’s mild-mannered Sir Percy and the mild-mannered Clark Kent vanishes too.

scarlet pimpernel cover

The Scarlet Pimpernel is also a romance, one that formulaically matches Pride and Prejudice. It’s told from the perspective of its female protagonist, Marguerite, who, like Austen’s Elizabeth, is blind to the true character of the novel’s hero. Elizabeth thinks Mr. Darcy is an arrogant jerk. Marguerite thinks Sir Percy is a cowardly fool. Or they do for the first halves of their novels, because after a pivotal middle scene (Mr. Darcy proposes, Marguerite confesses), the second halves are spent revealing Darcy’s and Percy’s secret heroism. Austen uses the word “disguise,” Orczy prefers “mask,” but both metaphors must be removed.

That also requires some suffering, since Elizabeth and Marguerite must recognize their mistakes in order to be united with their heroes. Austen says “humbled.” Orczy says, “the elegant and fashionable [Marguerite], who had dazzled London society with her beauty, her wit and her extravagances, presented a very pathetic picture of tired-out, suffering womanhood.” Unmasked hero and humbled heroine may now live happily everafter.

Jerry Siegel adopted the Austen-Orczy formula too. As long as Lois Lane can’t see through Clark’s disguise, she can’t be united with her Superman. But Austen mostly and Orczy entirely limit their perspectives to their heroines’ points of view. Siegel sticks with his hero. When Joe Shuster draws Clark changing into Superman, readers witness the unmasking, but Lois doesn’t. She’s stuck in the first half of Elizabeth’s and Marguerite’s plotline. Austen’s and Orczy’s readers learn with their heroines, but Superman readers can already see Lois’ mistake. Shuster even draws Clark laughing behind her back. She is “humbled,” but she can’t learn from it and so can’t be united with her would-be lover. The romance plot is frozen.

Siegel did try to reach the second half of Pride and Prejudice though—perhaps as a result of having reached marital closure himself. In 1940, two years into writing Superman, and two months into his own marriage, he submitted a script in which Superman unmasks to Lois.

LOIS:  “Why didn’t you ever tell me who you really are?”

SUPERMAN: “Because if people were to learn my true identity, it would hamper me in my mission to save humanity.”

LOIS: “Your attitude of cowardliness as Clark Kent—it was just a screen to keep the world from learning who you really are! But there’s one thing I must know: was your—er—affection for me, in your role as Clark Kent, also a pretense?”

SUPERMAN: “THAT was the genuine article, Lois!”

The revelation completes the Austen formula. When Darcy tells Elizabeth, “You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you I was properly humbled,” the two can unite because now they are on the same plane. Superman comes to his “momentous decision” after Siegel introduces the superpower-stripping “K-Metal from Krypton,” the only substance that can humble the Man of Steel.

But the story was rejected. An editor wrote in the margin: “It is not a good idea to let others in on the secret.” It would have run in Action Comics No. 20. Instead, Clark reveals himself to Lois in No. 662, fifty years later. They married in 1996, the year Jerry Siegel died.



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I’m pleased to report that my one-act play “Crisis on Infinite Earths” premieres at the Pittsburgh New Works Festival this month. If you can’t make it to Pittsburgh but are curious what superheroes, saints, planets, and dinosaurs have in common, here’s the script . . .

Crisis on Infinite Earths Poster

(A church. The Virgin Mary stands on a pedestal surrounded by scaffolding and pulleys—or perhaps simply a rope across a flyrail. Three workmen enter, rolling a crate on a cart. ART is over fifty; BOB is in his thirties; CLIFFORD early twenties. During the scene, they will replace Mary with a statue from the crate. They begin by sliding the crate off the cart. The lack of conversation soon grates on Clifford.)

CLIFFORD: If you could have any superpower what would it be?

BOB: What?

CLIFFORD: If you could have any superpower, you know, like heat vision or seeing the future, that kinda thing.

BOB: I don’t know.

CLIFFORD: I’d get super-speed. Like the Flash. He moved at the speed of light. Imagine that. Finish this job in a half second.

BOB:  Then what, sleep all day?

CLIFFORD: Yeah. But at light speed.

BOB: You’d be better off mind-reading or seeing the future or something.

ART: I’d want immortality.

CLIFFORD: That’s not a superpower.

BOB: Sure it is.

CLIFFORD: I mean like a superhero superpower. Only gods live forever. That doesn’t count.

BOB: What about Thor? He’s an Avenger.

CLIFFORD: So what would you pick?

BOB: Flying.

CLIFFORD: Everybody says flying. It’s so obvious. Pick something else.

BOB: I’d be Superman. Best overall package. Flight, strength, invulnerability. X-ray vision.

CLIFFORD: But say you can only have one power, pick one.

BOB: I did.

CLIFFORD: Other than flying.

ART:  Superman couldn’t fly.

CLIFFORD:  Superman?

ART: He couldn’t fly.

CLIFFORD: Big guy in blue tights, cape, “S” on his chest?

ART:  Not originally.

CLIFFORD: You ever see the first issue? He’s sailing right over a building.

ART:  He was jumping over it.

CLIFFORD: You’re telling me Superman couldn’t fly, he just . . . hopped?

ART:  Tall buildings in a single bound.

CLIFFORD:  That’s just an illustration of his strength, of his leg muscles. He could jump over a building, he’s that strong.

ART:  The original Superman did not fly. He jumped.

BOB:  You mean like the Hulk?

CLIFFORD:  There, good example. The Hulk’s a jumper. You can tell by his posture. Bulky, no flight lines, no cape. Superman wouldn’t have a cape if he didn’t fly.

BOB:  Batman doesn’t fly.

CLIFFORD:  That’s different.

ART: I’m just saying after the first few issues they changed his powers. Okay? Now let’s get this lady on her feet.

(They begin to raise the new statue, but Art stops.)

Carefully. This isn’t just some hunk of rock. This is St. Philomena. My grandparents used to pray in front of this statue. This whole church was named after her. Show some respect.

(They raise the statue to a standing position and then step back to catch their breath, before starting to attach ropes to the other statue.)

CLIFFORD:  Okay. So when Superman first gets to Earth, he can’t fly yet, he has to learn, he’s a toddler, that makes sense.

BOB:  Superman didn’t get his powers till he hit puberty.

CLIFFORD:  You agree with him? He couldn’t fly?

BOB:  He couldn’t do anything. He was normal until high school.

CLIFFORD:  No way. I had a box of my dad’s old Superboy comics. Superboy was a little kid and he had the suit and the cape, all the powers, everything.

BOB:  And a flying dog named Krypto?


BOB: They got rid of him.

CLIFFORD:  They got rid of Krypto?

BOB: They got rid of Superboy.

CLIFFORD:  Who did?

BOB: I don’t know. Darwin. The new writers. They rewrote everything. Krypto got cut, Bizarro World—

CLIFFORD:  So all those old comics, they’re saying they never happened?

ART:  No, they just moved them to Earth 2.

CLIFFORD:  Earth what?

ART:  When superheroes got big in the 60’s again, they invented Earth 2 and put all the old stories over there.

CLIFFORD: They changed the past?

ART: They had to. Superman and Batman and all of them should have looked like me, old guys with gray hair and beer guts, but they didn’t. They looked more like you two. So they decided all the 30’s stuff happened on Earth 2.

BOB: Actually, they got rid of that, too.

ART:  Earth 2?

BOB:  All the alternate worlds. It was too confusing for new readers.

ART:  What about the earth where all the superheroes are bad guys?

BOB:  Gone.

ART: Batman’s daughter?

BOB: Gone.

CLIFFORD: What are you guys talking about?

ART: Supergirl?

BOB: There’s a new one now, only she was never from Krypton anymore.

CLIFFORD:  How can they get rid of a whole planet?

ART: Krypton exploded.

CLIFFORD: I mean Earth 2.

BOB: That’s nothing. You know they got rid of Pluto?

ART: Why would the writers get rid of Pluto?

BOB: Not in the comic book, the real one.

CLIFFORD: Pluto? The planet Pluto? Who got rid of the planet Pluto?

BOB: I don’t know. Astronomers.

CLIFFORD:  What, did they blow it up?

BOB: They excommunicated it. It’s just a chunk of rock now.

CLIFFORD: That’s like saying the sun’s not the sun anymore.

BOB: Pluto’s nowhere near that old. They only discovered it in the 30s. Same as Superman.

(Looking at St. Philomena)

I bet this thing is older than that.

ART: The whole church is. 1860s. My grandparents were married right over there.

BOB: I thought it was built in the 1960s.

ART: You’re thinking when they changed the name. When I was baptized here, it was St. Philomena’s.

BOB: Why did they have to change—

CLIFFORD: But Pluto was there. It was always there. Not knowing about it doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.

BOB: It didn’t exist to us. The same thing, isn’t it?

ART: I thought some committee or something put Pluto back.

BOB: Sort of, they turned it into a “dwarf” planet, not an official one.

CLIFFORD: So it’s back? Pluto is a planet again?

BOB: Yeah, but then they had to make some other ones too.

CLIFFORD: Some other what? Planets?

BOB: Like fifty of them, could be thousands though.

CLIFFORD: Planets?

BOB: “Dwarf” planets. They had to. They meet the requirements. It’s empirical now.

ART: You just mean asteroids? Out past Pluto.

BOB: The biggest is between Mars and Jupiter.

CLIFFORD: They put a new planet between––

BOB: It’s not new. They’ve known about if for like two hundred years.

ART: But it was never a planet before.

BOB: It was, for a half century almost, almost as long as Pluto, before the Victorians got rid of it.

CLIFFORD: Planets are permanent. They’re absolutes. You can’t change absolutes.

BOB: Absolutes change constantly.

CLIFFORD: Name one.

BOB: The sun used to revolve around the Earth.

ART: That’s true. The church said so.

CLIFFORD: That’s different.

ART: It used to be flat.

CLIFFORD: Those weren’t changes, they were mistakes. Before they invented science.

BOB: Einstein said the speed of light was a constant. They changed that.

CLIFFORD: They changed their minds.

ART: The same thing they did to the saints. That’s how Philomena got downgraded to the basement. This church wouldn’t be called Mary of the Assumption right if the Vatican hadn’t changed its mind.

CLIFFORD: What did they do to the saints?

BOB: And the dinosaurs. Remember Brontosaurus? Big green guy, used to sit around in swamps because he wasn’t strong enough to lift its own body? Now they got them marching in herds with hollow bird-bones and whip-action tails.

CLIFFORD: What did they do to the saints?

ART: They got rid of them.

BOB: You know T. Rex looks like a giant chicken now?

CLIFFORD: Who did?

ART: I don’t know. The Jesuits.

BOB: He’s a girl, too. T. Rex is a girl.

CLIFFORD: The Jesuits got rid of the saints?

BOB: And a scavenger, completely harmless.

CLIFFORD: All of them?

ART: Like fifty. They have a special committee do it.

BOB: Those big jaws, they’re only for ripping up dead stuff it finds lying around now.

CLIFFORD: How many are left?

ART: Thousands still. They just thinned the herd.

CLIFFORD: Does the pope know?

ART: Some of the saints were only legends. Like Philomena here. My parents said this was her spot till the old pastor had her taken down. He said some nun dreamt up the whole story after bones were found in a mismatched grave. Philomena never existed. Lots of the old saints didn’t.

CLIFFORD: You mean like Santa Claus—St. Nick.

ART: I mean like St. Christopher.

BOB: Or Brontosaurus.

CLIFFORD: I have a St. Christopher’s medal.

BOB: Brontosaurus never existed. Someone put the wrong skull on a sauropod skeleton and made up the name.

CLIFFORD: My aunts gave it to me. They used to pray to him. I used to pray to him.

BOB: Hey, you know they found the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs?

CLIFFORD: Does that mean none of my prayers counted? Are the cuts retroactive?

BOB: Started the ice age.

ART: They changed it before you were born.

CLIFFORD: Oh my God.

BOB: It’s in Mexico.

CLIFFORD: I was praying to a canceled saint.

ART: My parents still pray to Philomena. The church only took her off the official calendar.

CLIFFORD: What’s the point of praying to someone who doesn’t exist?

ART: St. Christopher never existed now, after the church rewrote the history, but people still like the story of him carrying baby Jesus across a river on his shoulders. It’s a good story.

CLIFFORD: But it’s not true?

ART: It’s a metaphor.

CLIFFORD: I was praying to a metaphor?

BOB: That’s nothing. The Victorians thought T. Rex was a giant bullfrog. Imagine growing up reading about hopping dinosaurs. Pterodactyls used to have snake necks. Iguanodon was a giant iguana—with its thumb claw on the end of its nose. No wonder they died out.

ART: The iguanodons?

BOB: The Victorians.

ART: The Victorians didn’t die out, they. . .

BOB: Evolved into birds?

ART: Evolved into us.

BOB: Same difference. They’re gone. It’s survival of the fittest. Victorians, Brontosaurus, Pluto, Saint Christopher, Superboy—Darwin got them. Darwin dropped an asteroid on the whole lot.

ART: You can’t say something that never existed died out.

CLIFFORD: Dinosaurs existed.

ART: Superheroes didn’t. And you’re not talking about changes in the past. You’re talking about changes made in history, changes in the history of history.

BOB: Ideas evolve. The good ones, the best stories, they keep reproducing themselves. Like now there’s a new Superboy.

CLIFFORD: You said they canceled him.

BOB: It’s not really Superboy. He’s a younger clone of Superman they made when he died.

CLIFFORD: How can they say Superboy died if he never existed now?

BOB: Not Superboy, Superman.

CLIFFORD: Superman died?

ART: That’s ridiculous. He was invulnerable.

BOB: Not to Kryptonite. Even the old Superman would have died of that.

CLIFFORD: Superman died?

BOB: That stuff’s real too, Kryptonite. It’s on the Periodic Table.

ART: One of those new elements they discovered? They named it from the comic book?

BOB: An old one. The Victorians found it.

ART: How could—

CLIFFORD: Don’t you mean the actor who played him died? The one who shot himself?

BOB: He didn’t shoot himself, he fell off a horse, and no, I don’t mean him, I mean Superman, the Earth 1 Superman.

ART: That supposed to be us, right?

BOB: Only it’s just called “Earth” now. The old Superman, the Earth 2 Superman, they erased his whole universe and sent him into limbo after all the other alternate Earths collapsed into Earth 1.

CLIFFORD: So now there’s no Superman anymore, just some clone running around?

BOB: No, they brought Superman back. He had different powers for awhile. And a ponytail.

ART: You mean they rewrote history again, wrote out his death?

BOB: The computers in the Fortress of Solitude had a seance or something.

ART: They resurrected him? Superman was dead and they brought him back to life? It was a miracle?

(Conversation halts when as young priest enters.)

PRIEST: Well. How are things coming along here?

ART: Good morning, Father.

(Bob and Clifford greet him shyly and wordlessly.)

PRIEST: Hello, gentleman. I see Philomena’s happy to be out and about. No more limbo for this little girl. You can’t keep a good saint down, can you?

ART: No, Father.

PRIEST: I wouldn’t mind seeing all the rest of that statuary back up here where it belongs. No reason Mary has to have all the best pedestals, right? I was thinking we would move her outside, into the garden maybe. Or switch her with one of the front statues. If that’s not too much to ask. Lord knows there wouldn’t be a church without men like you to do the heavy lifting.

(Awkward pause)

Well. I don’t want to hold you gentleman up. You’re doing a wonderful job.

(He exists.)

CLIFFORD: God. That guy can’t be much older than me. Can you imagine taking communion from him? Or confession.

BOB: I can’t imagine taking them from anyone.

CLIFFORD: You’re not . . .

BOB: Not since, I don’t know, high school I guess. Used to get the body of God stuck to the roof of my mouth every Sunday.

CLIFFORD: What happened in high school?

BOB: I don’t know. Puberty. I evolved. My superpowers came in.

CLIFFORD: You started flying?

BOB: I started thinking. It stopped making sense, Purgatory, immaculate conception, transubstantiation.

CLIFFORD: But you still believe in . . .

BOB: It was so much easier when I was little and I could just believe whatever my parents believed. Hell, I was an altar boy.

CLIFFORD: Hey, me too. I got to ring that little bell during service. I thought it was to keep people from falling asleep. I even thought about being a priest. My parents wanted me to, but my pastor didn’t think it was such a great idea. I wasn’t, you know. Called.

ART: (Stopping work with sudden annoyance) It’s not fair.


ART: Earth 2. It’s not fair. It was just “Earth” in the 30s, right?

BOB: Yeah. They couldn’t know the 60s writers were going to reinvent everything.

ART: But it’s wrong. Naming the second Earth “one” and the first Earth “two” when the old Earth was where all the original superheroes came from. It should have been “Old Earth” and “New Earth.”

CLIFFORD: Oh, right. Like the Bible.

ART: Well, not . . .

CLIFFORD: Old Testament, New Testament.

ART: That’s not what—

CLIFFORD: Because that would make sense. Jesus was Jewish, and he was rewriting the Old Testament. He was upgrading it.

ART: It’s not like that at all. The Old Testament is still there. It’s the foundation. They built on top of it. The Torah. They just changed the name is all. And moved some of the sections around, most I think, and, what was it? They cut—

BOB: Superman was Jewish.


ART: He was created by two Jewish guys, but that’s not the same as—

BOB: His Krypton name is Kal-El. “El.” That’s Hebrew for “God.”

ART: They made that up. The original Super—

CLIFFORD: What’s “Kal”?

BOB: Short for Karl, German root for “man.”

ART: “Godman”? You’re saying Superman is a “Godman,” like, like…

CLIFFORD: Yeah! Like Jesus. I get it. He’s an alien. He comes from the heavens and is raised by humans. Oh my God. It’s the same as Tarzan. Or Harry Potter. Jesus Christ was raised by muggles.

BOB: I was actually thinking about the other godmen around then.

ART: Around when? Jesus?

BOB: It was a crowded gene pool. Mithras, Osiris, Dionysus, Zoraster . . .

CLIFFORD: These are superheroes?

BOB: . . . Adonis, Attis . . .

ART: Adonis? Are you kidding?

BOB: . . . Horus, Aion—did I say Osiris?

ART: Those are just old gods, demigods, like Thor.

BOB: Right, Thor, he was a son of God, too.

(He points at the Mary statue)

Most of them are born from virgins, in mangers, under holy stars. They perform miracles, heal the sick, turn water into wine, raise the dead. Some lead twelve disciples around until they get arrested and executed on trees. Then they come back to life and save humanity.

CLIFFORD: Which “Earth” is this?

ART: Those are knock-off myths. They were written after Jesus.

BOB:  The church admitted they came first. They said the devil planted the stories into older religions so people would be confused when the real Son of God showed up. They even put church holidays on top of the originals. Like Mithras. He was born December 25th.

CLIFFORD: Mithras—didn’t he fight Godzilla?

BOB: There were even three shepherds there. And Easter. March 25th, that’s the resurrection of Attis.

ART: Where the hell are getting this stuff?

BOB: It’s all over the place. Google “ancient godmen” and you’ll—

ART: Oh. The Internet. Right. I get it.

BOB: And books. It’s in lots of books. Same place you get any religion. Same as the Bible.

ART: The Bible is not “a book.”

BOB: That’s all the word means. “Books.” Look it up. The church picked its favorite stories and put them in one volume. Like Reader’s Digest. They could have done it with Mithras or Attis or any of—

ART: You’re really saying Jesus came after this stuff? That’s insane. Jesus—

CLIFFORD: I get it! He was an adaptation, a mutant. Darwin weeded out all the other godguys and put Jesus in charge of the herd. It’s natural selection.

ART: It’s got nothing to do with selection. Those other gods are characters in stories. They’re make believe. Jesus has a real history. The Gospels are eyewitness accounts.

BOB: Nobody wrote a gospel till the 70s. Jesus died in the 30s. And the church cut most of them anyway—like a hundred and twenty gospels they threw out. Some of them had little Jesus killing playmates during temper tantrums and raising his pets from the dead.

CLIFFORD: Wow. Like a toddler Superboy.

BOB: Exactly.

ART: No, not like Superboy. It’s nothing like Superboy. Superboy is made-up. He never existed even before he never existed.

CLIFFORD: So Jesus was a little bad ass, huh?

BOB: That’s nothing compared to some of the other gospels.

CLIFFORD: Like what?

BOB: He had sex with Lazarus.

CLIFFORD: No way! Jesus was gay?

ART: Jesus was not gay.

BOB: He was bi.

ART: Jesus was not bi.

BOB: Batman was bi.

CLIFFORD: Batman was bi?

ART: Batman was not bi!

BOB: That’s why they had to break him and Robin up. A millionaire “bachelor” living alone with his young “ward.” Do the math.

CLIFFORD: (After a silent pause as he “does the math”) Oh my God! They were gay.

ART: It was the 50s. It was another era. Those people were paranoid about everything.

CLIFFORD: So Lazarus, did he become Gay Jesus’ sidekick?

BOB: Probably not. They think that gospel might be fake.

ART: Of course it’s fake. The church only kept the real ones. Those other Gospels aren’t Gospels, they’re just stories. That’s why they got rid of them.

CLIFFORD: So it is natural selection. The true stuff won out.

BOB: It’s got nothing to do with “truth.” The gospels in the bible are just the ones that fit the church’s needs at the time.

CLIFFORD: Right. They were the best adapted for survival.

ART: The only need they fit was history.

BOB: Which was up for grabs. Every sect had its own history about Jesus.

CLIFFORD: So God weeded through all the different Jesuses till he got the best one. The other Jesuses, the “dwarf” Jesuses, they died out.

BOB: They didn’t—

CLIFFORD: God decides everything, right? So he must have selected the Gospels he liked or they wouldn’t have made it into the Bible.

BOB: God didn’t—

CLIFFORD: It’s like finding a bunch of bones. God’s showing us the right way to put the pieces together, which don’t belong. It’s like evolution. He’s guiding us.

BOB: God doesn’t guide evolution. That’s the whole point. It just happens. If God is controlling it, then it’s not natural selection. It’s supernatural selection.

ART: How do you know God isn’t controlling it? He invented it.

CLIFFORD: Evolution?

ART: Life. Scientists have no idea how it began. There’s nothing that comes close to explaining it. And since God knows the future, He knew what was going to happen. He knew everything that was going to evolve and when. How’s that different from controlling it?

BOB: Because you don’t have to believe in God to make sense of nature. It works without him.

ART: That’s not the same as saying that there is no God.

BOB: I didn’t say there wasn’t a God.

CLIFFORD: You said there wasn’t a Superboy.

BOB: I said they wrote Superboy out of Superman. It was a stupid story, so they killed it.

ART: The same way they wrote God out of nature? What’s so stupid about God?

BOB: I didn’t say God was stupid! I said he doesn’t guide anything. Do you think he woke up this morning and decided Philomena was coming out of the basement today?

ART: In a way, sure. He may not be micro-managing everything, but progress isn’t accidental. Things happen for a––

BOB: We’re not answering a call from God. The only call I got this morning was from you. You want me in a church moving statues? Fine. You want me pouring cement? Fine. Just don’t tell me this chunk of rock is different from any other. God didn’t make it. God doesn’t care about it. Shatter the thing into a million pieces, and it won’t make any difference to Him.

ART: I don’t know what planet you live on, but this is Earth. God made it and everything on it. Including this church. I’ve been a member of this congregation since I was born, and I’ll be a member after I die. When you and all your stupid ideas are extinct, this “chunk of rock” will still be standing.

(They work in tense silence for a long while. The tension gets to CLIFFORD who stands between the other two, directing his comments to their backs.)

CLIFFORD: So I’m rethinking the whole super-speed thing. Maybe I should go for super-strength? Or invulnerability. What do you think?

(He waits but gets no response.)

Isn’t Krypton a kind of ice planet, like in an ice age? Like Pluto. You’d have to be invulnerable to live there.

(No response)

They ought to make up some new powers, don’t you think? Stop recycling all the old ones. New superheroes too. Like they do with the saints. They make new ones all the time. Aren’t they making the pope’s one now?

BOB: A saint? He’s not even dead yet.

CLIFFORD: Not the new pope, the old pope. The dead pope. The new pope, the Earth 1 pope, he’s making the Earth 2 pope a saint.

ART: You don’t just make somebody a saint. It’s not like writing a comic book. A committee has to weigh evidence. It takes years.

BOB: Evidence of what?

ART: Miracles.

CLIFFORD: What do they have to do, like fly and walk through walls and stuff?

ART: They cure people.

BOB: So the pope has to come back to life and heal lepers?

ART: People pray to him and he answers them.

CLIFFORD: So one answered prayer and he’s in? He’s a saint.

ART: Two. So it’s empirical.

BOB: Empirical?

ART: Yes. Empirical. That’s how they sainted Mother Drexel back in 2000.

CLIFFORD: What did she do?

ART: Cured a deaf baby. Doctors couldn’t explain it, but the parents said they had prayed to Drexel.

BOB: How did they know to pray to her if she wasn’t a saint yet?

ART: They saw her special on PBS.

CLIFFORD: Now there’s a superpower. No wonder Saint Nick died out.

ART: Saint Nicholas didn’t die out.

CLIFFORD: Santa Claus?

ART: He’s still a saint. Biggest in the Russian Orthodox Church.

CLIFFORD: Fat guy, raised by elves. Lives on the North Pole. He’s still a saint?

ART: Not that part of the story.

BOB: Superman lives on the North Pole.

CLIFFORD: So what’s out, flying reindeer, the toy shop, what?

BOB: In the Fortress of Solitude. They’re neighbors.

ART: The original Saint Nicholas lived, I don’t know, in Roman times. He was rich and gave it all away. They say he threw a bag of gold through a poor father’s window each time the guy was about to sell one of his daughters into prostitution, so he wouldn’t have to.

CLIFFORD: That got him sainted? No stockings, no deaf babies, no Burgermeister Meisterburger? Why don’t we put him up there? With a sack of toys and a chimney.

ART: He didn’t go down chimneys.

CLIFFORD: So what miracles could he do?

ART: They don’t apply that standard to the old saints.

BOB: You said a committee weeded them out.

ART: Any saint that wasn’t actually a person, a historical person, not a legend.

CLIFFORD: But the real ones don’t have to have miracle powers?

ART: Some do. Saint Olaf, his body kept coming out of its grave, and a spring started running from the spot—no, it was blood maybe. He converted a lot of people, too. They can’t verify them though.

CLIFFORD: The conversions.

ART: The miracles. His conversions he did on a chopping block. Believe in God or your head came off.

BOB: They let him stay a saint?

ART: They had to. He was real.

CLIFFORD: What kind of standard is that?

ART: You can’t revoke sainthood. It’s permanent, like, like circumcision.

CLIFFORD: You said they tossed out fifty.

ART: It used to be by popularity; all the early martyrs got in that way. Stories would go around, getting bigger and crazier, and most of them started from something, a real person, but the ones that weren’t they get rid of.

CLIFFORD: But you can still pray to them?

ART: Sure.

CLIFFORD: So they’re “dwarf” saints.

BOB: Where do they live? Pluto?

ART: They don’t live anywhere. They’re not—

CLIFFORD: What if they change their minds again? What if someone digs up a bunch of St. Christopher bones?

ART: Then I guess they’d have to reinstate him.

BOB: Where’s he go in the mean time? Earth 2?

CLIFFORD: This is so unfair. I bet St. Christopher answers way more prayers than Drexel.

BOB: He just goes by “Christopher” now.

CLIFFORD: Look at the odds. People have been praying to him for centuries. He’s probably racked up a dozen deaf babies.

ART: Those are coincidences. Or the Holy Spirit acting through—

CLIFFORD: He got me through eleventh grade science—the unit test on animal classification.

BOB: What about Philomena?

CLIFFORD: (To himself on his fingers) Plants, lichens, invertebrates, vertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals.

ART: She has lots of miracles. Cancer and heart disease and a bunch of stuff. Plus back in the second century, she chose torture and death over marriage to the Roman Emperor.

CLIFFORD: Wow. I still remember that.

(A beat, then he crosses himself)

BOB: She didn’t exist.

ART: I mean—that’s the story they tell about her. Officially she’s not real, but she’s still popular. There are all kinds of shrines and foundations, websites. There’s a revival.

BOB: That’s why they want her up here again?

CLIFFORD: Like an endangered species act?

ART: It’s the new pastor’s idea.

CLIFFORD: Wait. That young guy? He’s the pastor? I thought he was like, a sidekick or something.

BOB: Are they going to rename the church again too?

ART: They shouldn’t have changed it to begin with. It upset a lot of good people. My grandmother, my dad says she cried for months.

CLIFFORD: They should name it St. Drexel. She’s got miracles and she was real. She’s a super-saint.

BOB: Drexel. As in the millionaire Drexels? From Philadelphia? No wonder they sainted her.

ART: She didn’t have millions. She was a nun. She gave it to charity.

BOB: All of it?

ART: They have to take a vow of poverty.

CLIFFORD: I thought it was celibacy.

BOB: She was a millionaire, and she gave it all up to be a nun? That is a miracle.

CLIFFORD: It’s like discovering a new species. The Supersaintasarous.

BOB: You hear they dug up a new plant-eating Velociraptor in Utah?

CLIFFORD:  What about John Paul 1? Are they sainting him?

BOB: It has feathers.

ART: No, but John 23 probably. Some people are still sore about Vatican II though.

BOB: Everything has to have feathers now.

CLIFFORD: What about Vatican I?

ART: That was in the 60s, the 1860s, when the pope became infallible.

BOB: It’s not technically a Velociraptor though.

CLIFFORD: Infallibility! That’s the superpower I want.

BOB: It’s a missing link between carnivores and herbivores.

ART: And you don’t think God had anything to do with that? These animals just rose up by themselves. What are the odds?

BOB: Pretty good considering plants started growing around the same time.

ART: And that’s just a coincidence? Plant eaters just happen to show up when the plants do.

BOB: You really have no idea what natural selection is, do you?

ART: I know enough to recognize the hand of God when it’s pointing me in the face.

CLIFFORD: Hey, which came first, the Brontosaurus or the egg?

BOB: It wasn’t a—

ART: The Brontosaur.

BOB: The egg.

CLIFFORD: Then where did the Brontosaurus come from?

ART: God.

BOB: Oh, please. Was it pulling a plow in the Garden of—

CLIFFORD: So where’d the egg from?

BOB: From the proto-Brontosaurus.


BOB: The animal one step behind on the evolutionary ladder. Brontosaurus was its mutation.

ART: There, see? A ladder. You can’t build a ladder one rung at a time. It has to touch the top before you can step on it. It’s predetermined.

BOB: It’s a figure of speech.

CLIFFORD: A metaphor.

ART: It’s God.

BOB: Okay, so say it’s a ladder. What’s next? What’s the next mutation God has planned?

ART: You think I have the power to read God’s mind?

BOB: You think he cooked up the omnivorous ex-Velociraptor right after sprouting new plant life in Utah. So look around. What’s on the agenda? Bigger stomachs? A third eye? Disposable thumbs?

CLIFFORD: But no superpowers, right?

ART: Smaller brains. Weed out the people wasting everybody’s time thinking up stupid stuff.

CLIFFORD: It would be such an obligation. I’d want something that only affects myself.

BOB: If God didn’t want me thinking, why’d he make me like this? Maybe I’m the next rung.

CLIFFORD: Like celibacy.

ART: Or you’ll die out. Not all mutations are good ones. Most of them are useless freaks.

CLIFFORD: Yeah, they’re like curses. That was the whole point of Spiderman. He’s this sad sack loser. A radioactive spider bites him, and when he tries to cash in on his mutant powers, he lets some random bad guy go, and next thing the guy murders his uncle. What are the odds?

(Bob is about to speak but Clifford cuts him off.)

Or Bruce Banner. He saves some stupid kid from getting hit with gamma radiation, and so he has to spend the rest of his life turning into the Hulk—a big toddler-brained Frankenstein. What kind of deal is that? Even Superman must get fed up with it. When does he get a night off? His super-hearing’s always picking up someone screaming for help. No wonder he moved to the North Pole.

ART: So what powers do you want?

CLIFFORD: I don’t. It would be way too much responsibility. You’d have to give up everything.

BOB: It’s not the priesthood. Superheroes can—

CLIFFORD: You’d have no life. Even if you just wanted to fly, that would mean getting people off burning rooftops al the time, swooping in where the rescue ladders can’t reach. Forget privacy. You’d have to move somewhere crowded to maximize your rescuing potential. Vacations, evenings off, naps—how can you sleep if it means somebody dies? You’d be a savior 24/7.

ART: You’d be a god.

CLIFFORD: I couldn’t handle it. I just want to stay normal.

(Clifford resumes working. Bob and Art, uncomfortable to be sitting without him, join in.)

ART: Well you’re too late anyway. God already gave you superpowers. We’re the same as Drexel.

CLIFFORD: We cure deaf babies?

ART: We got money.

CLIFFORD: That’s a superpower?

ART: It’s all Batman had.

CLIFFORD: I’m not a millionaire.

ART: Neither was Drexel after she gave it away. Same for Saint Nicholas. Lots of the saints weren’t rich, but they gave what they had. How much do you give away?

CLIFFORD: To the church?

ART: To anything.

CLIFFORD: I don’t know. I’m saving for college. But I give, sometimes.

ART: How much do you spend on yourself, after the necessities, the minimum you need for survival?

CLIFFORD: I have no idea.

ART: You got a computer? How many sets of clothes? Air conditioning? How much does your car cost?

CLIFFORD: A drive a twenty-year-old Saturn, okay? It’s a piece of crap. I blew fifty bucks on a tire last week—money I don’t have.

ART: Fifty bucks. That would have saved a kid’s life. Food for a month. You could save tons of people.

CLIFFORD: I can’t fly around the world handing out cash. I can barely pay my rent.

ART: Every time you spend money on yourself you’re not spending it on somebody starving to death, or freezing, or whatever. You have powers. You’re just not saving people with them.

BOB: I don’t see you tossing bags of money through windows.

ART: Didn’t say I was. I got a mortgage, two kids in college. Family comes first.

BOB: You think Jesus cares more about your family than other people’s?

ART: You don’t even believe in Him.

BOB: I’m talking about you. Do you think your family is more important than other people?

ART: Than strangers? I can’t care about people I don’t know.

BOB: Why not?

ART: Because I don’t know them.

BOB: But you think Jesus cares about them.

ART: Jesus is God. I’m just human.

BOB: So it’s the species. We’re hard-wired not to care.

ART: It’s got nothing to do with caring. It’s the way we’re made.

BOB: So God gave us brains that can’t care about strangers? What kind of adaptation is that?

ART: It’s normal. God doesn’t expect us to—

BOB: A tsunami wipes out a million people? A million people, that’s what, three hundred times more than on 9/11? Am I three hundred times more upset? I can send money, I donate, but I don’t feel anything personal. I don’t break down like I did when my dog died. A dog. I give more money to the SPCA than I give to UNICEF. Tell me we’re not the most evil species that ever evolved. You think God planned us? He should drop another meteor. We’re just animals. We’re animals with the ability to recognize that we’re animals. That’s our superpower—

ART:  Whoa! Carful with her!

(Bob grabbed the rope and they have no choice but to join him. In a moment, they have the Philomena up and step back winded.)

CLIFFORD: Drexel wasn’t an animal.

BOB: Drexel’s a saint. A super-saint. We’re a lesser species.

ART: Okay. We’re “dwarf” Drexels then, or, no, we’re proto-Drexels, one step behind on the evolutionary ladder. She’s our mutation.

BOB: So?

ART: So we helped make her. We’re part of the process. God’s process. Drexel couldn’t have gotten up there without us.

(Bob and Clifford look up again, as though seeing the statue for the first time. The priest enters, sees them, then the statue.)

PRIEST: Oh my. I had no idea. You did that so quickly. I didn’t think . . .

(Looking at the Mary on the ground, and then up at Philomena.)

I’m so sorry. I don’t know how . . . I just got a letter from the bishop. Today. This morning. Just now. I assumed—we all just assumed . . . The bishop it turns out, he doesn’t agree with, I mean, he’s not in agreement. About the statue. Philomena.

(Finally spitting it out)

The statue has to be taken down. We’re not allowed to display it in the church.

(Looking at them fully)

I’m so sorry.

ART: (After an awkward pause) Should we put the Virgin back up?

PRIEST: No. Ah, not yet. Let’s wait and see, okay? There might be another statue downstairs we can use in this spot. With the bishop’s permission. He’s very old, I’m afraid. He doesn’t like new pastors coming in and turning everything upside down. I hope you understand.

(The men smile and nod.)

ART: So take them both downstairs.

PRIEST: Yes. Please. For now. We’ll be able to tell you soon what’s going to go up there. I’m sure we will.

CLIFFORD: St. Christopher maybe?

PRIEST: I’m sorry?

CLIFFORD: Maybe you have some St. Christophers down there in the basement?

PRIEST: Maybe. Probably. There are so many down there. Why? Do you like him?

CLIFFORD: (Thinking a moment) Not really.


ART: We’ll get right on it, Father.

PRIEST: Well. Thank you. Thank you again.

(He exits. The men are silent, looking back and forth between the two statues and the job ahead of them now. They begin.)

CLIFFORD: You got to feel bad for her. Imagine going from sainthood back to basement limbo. It would piss me off.

ART: They closed that.

CLIFFORD: The basement?

ART: Limbo.

BOB: It was real?

ART: All the Old Testament patriarchs lived there. Solomon, David, Moses. And all the unbaptized babies. It was too confusing for new converts, so they moved them all up to Heaven.

BOB: I thought they were all in Hades?

ART: Hades doesn’t exist.

CLIFFORD: They got rid of—

ART: You’re thinking Pluto, god of the underworld. The real one is called Hell.

BOB: Whatever. I thought unbaptized people went there.

ART: Limbo’s a subsection of Hell—but a nice one, no torture and stuff.

CLIFFORD: Why not get rid of Hell?

ART: There’s been talk.

(The Mary statue is in position to be lowered into the crate.)

Nice and easy and now. She’s having a hell of a day too.

BOB: You know they had the original Superman come back and try to restore Earth 2?

ART: The 1930s one?

CLIFFORD: Wouldn’t that mean wiping out Earth 1? Our Earth?

BOB: I guess so.

CLIFFORD: Destroy the whole world?

BOB: Yeah.

CLIFFORD: So they made him the bad guy? Superman’s the bad guy?

ART: Can you blame him? Who wouldn’t want their old world back?

CLIFFORD: But it’s Superman. That’s so . . .

ART: Sacrilegious?

BOB: That’s what the popes did to the old godmen, when Rome went Christian, they made all the old saviors demons. Literally sent them to Hell. One day you’re on top of the world, next they’re pulling down your statues. Imagine what that felt like.

ART: He didn’t feel anything. He never existed.

CLIFFORD: But his followers did. Think of them.

BOB: The Romans burnt every book that wasn’t part of the new history. They martyred anyone who couldn’t adapt.

ART: (Mostly to himself) I’d feel worse for Superman.

BOB: (Also to himself) It was like a meteor hit.

ART: First his whole race is wiped out on Krypton.

BOB: Instant Dark Ages.

ART: And then he loses his Earth.

BOB: Pushed civilization back a dozen rungs.

ART: He’s not even the last of his kind anymore.

BOB: Like an ice age.

ART: He’s not anything. He never existed, and he knows it.

BOB: Just bones to sort out.

ART: Can’t get more extinct than that.

BOB: Nothing’s immortal forever.

(Bob and Art fall into silence while Clifford continues to look back and forth at them. They begin to exit while rolling the cart out.)

CLIFFORD: So can he still fly?

(Lights fade. END.)


Celebrating 24 years of new plays.



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(Tyler Wenger, another vet from my spring term Superheroes course, reveals Superman’s biblical roots.)


One may find it hard to look at the red underwear-clad Man of Steel as anything more than a super-powered illustration on the pages of Action Comics and the light of the big screen. However, when ignoring the tights and cape and analyzing Siegel and Shuster’s character closely, Superman can be seen as more than Jerry Siegel’s brainchild, but as the savior of the imagination of this young Jewish writer. Superman, or Clark Kent, first appeared in Action Comics No. 1 in June of 1938 right before World War II began in 1939, a time in which Jewish people needed a savior more than ever. In Superman Chronicles, vol. 1, a compilation of the earliest appearances of the Man of Steel, Siegel and Shuster introduce Superman, a modern messiah. Though the caped crusader’s stories are extremely dramatized and embellished when compared to his robed counterpart, the parallels of defending the oppressed, possessing unequalled power, and ultimately ushering in peace remain strong.  Yet Siegel’s messiah surpasses his notion of the biblical messiah, Jesus Christ, through Superman’s conquering and avenging salvation of men. While both characters fulfill the messianic prophecies, Superman embodies the man of action that the oppressed Jews await. Here we see the pen of Joe Shuster and the mind of Jerry Siegel produce a fictional messiah comparable to Jesus of Nazareth in mission and grander than His spiritual salvation through physical action.

Jesus Christ and Superman both play the role of messiah, or leader and savior of a group of oppressed people. While salvation through Jesus is spiritual and salvation through Superman is physical, the mission of saving the oppressed remains constant. One of many messianic prophesies in The Holy Bible claims that the Jewish people “will cry to the Lord because of oppressors, and He will send them a Savior and a Champion, and He will deliver them” (New American Standard Bible, Isa. 19.20). Christians believe that this “champion” of the oppressed Jews came in the form of Jesus to deliver men from sin and to pave the way to heaven in His blood. In Action Comics No.1 when Clark Kent first dons his red and blue, Siegel introduces him as: “Superman! Champion of the oppressed. The physical marvel who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need!” (Siegel 4). Superman, like the prophesied messiah, is described as champion of the oppressed, but the deliverance he brings remains entirely physical and does not go beyond earthly oppression. In one of Superman’s earlier cases, he frees miners from the tyranny of a sadistic boss after which the newly enlightened boss, Blakely, asserts, “You can announce that henceforth my mine will be the safest in the country, and my workers the best treated…” to which Kent replies, “Congratulations on your new policy. May it be a permanent one! (If it isn’t, you can expect another visit from Superman!)” (Siegel 44). Superman caused Blakely to consider the abusive and dangerous conditions that he puts his workers through day in and day out, ultimately delivering them from their oppression. The Holy Bible proclaims: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him” (English Standard Version, Acts 10.38). Though biblical Jesus did free the oppressed from the grasp of the devil and sin, the Jewish belief is that this deliverance is meant more tangibly in freedom from their worldly oppression, which Christ did not bring in their eyes. Though deliverances by Superman such as the salvation of Blakely’s mine workers in Action Comics No. 3 meet the Jewish stipulation obliging physical salvation, Christians believe that their spiritual deliverance is more than enough to call Him the champion of the oppressed. Whether physically super or spiritually godly, both men succeed in fulfilling this prophecy in their own way.

Though not quite as defining as the act of salvation, one of the most universal, unquestioned aspects of a messiah figure is the possession of unrivaled power and dominion. Powerful is an understatement when talking about “Superman, a man possessing the strength of a dozen Samsons!” (Siegel 84). He is a warrior and a powerful leader, capable of overthrowing corrupt rulers and strong-arming the evil. To the defenseless Jewish people in Europe, and even to these Jewish artists in the United States, these qualities made Superman the perfect messiah. Therefore, it is no coincidence that Siegel references Sampson’s strength, represented biblically when “a young lion came toward him roaring. Then the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him, and although he had nothing in his hand, he tore the lion in pieces as one tears a young goat” (Judg. 14.5-6). Having already granted enormous physical power upon one of His servants, the Jewish people expected God to send a messiah with even greater physical power to lead them in battle against their oppressors. Again, Jesus’s power comes in a less tangible medium than His bulletproof analog. Superman, however, was granted this physical prowess by his Jewish “fathers,” continuing to directly allude to the story of Samson when “with incredibly agile movement, he twists aside, seizes Leo by the scruff of his neck… ‘Wanna play, huh?’… And carries the ferocious carnivore back to its cage as though it were a harmless kitten!” (Siegel 95). Instead of physical power to fight a lion, the gospel characterizes Jesus with the power and strength of character of God. He is called “Immanuel (which means, God with us)” (Matt. 1.23). As God on earth, Jesus is given “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28.18). The bible seems to define power as spiritual authority rather than the physical strength of Superman Chronicles. Given that Jesus did not decide to use His authority to physically free the Jewish people from their Roman oppressors, instead choosing to defend men in spiritual warfare, it is not hard to see why some Jewish people of the time and in biblical times would prefer the tangible power shown by Superman. These passages do not only allude to Superman’s association with Old Testament prophecies, but they suggest that Siegel and Shuster considered these prophecies and stories during Superman’s conception, consciously creating a messiah figure.

Finally, the biblical Jesus and comic book Superman differ greatest in the nature of the peace reached through their actions. While both saviors usher in peace, the dichotomy of the spiritual repercussions of Jesus’s actions and the physical actions of Superman continues to appear. The Old Testament verse promises that the messiah “shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples…nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isa 2.4). In biblical times, people believed that this promised peace between the Romans and the Jews, among other nations, and this would give them their salvation and deliverance. Though Superman uses a vast amount of violence, he is constantly fighting for peace. In one of the Man of Steel’s most broad—and possibly his most destructive—rescues, he attempts to save the slums when he discovers that “‘the government rebuilds destroyed areas with modern cheap-rental apartments, eh?’ Building after building crashes before his attack! ‘Then here’s a job for it! – When I finish, this town will be rid of its filthy, crime-festering slums!” (Siegel 109). This passage acts as the perfect image of the messiah figure riding into battle to create peace among his people through completely active, violent, and destructive means. While Superman, or rather his writer Jerry Siegel, seems to prefer this method of justice, comic book readers can discover examples of peace through diplomacy. In Action Comics No. 2, he even settles a war between nations by bringing the opposing war-lords together and explaining: “‘Gentlemen, it’s obvious you’ve been fighting only to promote the sale of munitions! – Why not shake hands and make up?’ And so, due to the conciliatory efforts of Superman, the war is halted” (Siegel 30). Shuster draws Superman as a logical, supportive mentor, helping men to choose peace themselves rather than forcing it upon them. In the same way Jesus, King of the Jews, sought to bring His people to spiritual and eternal peace through His defeat of death in the form of resurrection. He points back to the prophecy in Isaiah by reassuring His disciples that “I [Jesus] have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16.33). This promise does not assure that God’s people will live life on Earth in utter peace and harmony, at least by the society’s definition, but rather looks to the peace granted by admission to the eternal paradise of heaven. However, Jesus does additionally promise peace on Earth in the form of the Holy Spirit, referred to the Spirit directly as “Peace” in reciting: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give you” (John 14.27). Though this peace is more physical than that spoken of in the passage above, it remains a spiritual peace in that it perpetuates as an inner peace despite the trials and tribulations of life. The peace brought by Superman does not deal with the spiritual or how people deal with situations, but focuses entirely on eliminating as many tribulations as possible; therefore, Superman’s goal of peace is yet to be realized. Regardless of the completion of his goal, the physical and spiritual missions perpetuated by Superman and God-as-man yield sufficient peace to bestow both heroes with the title of a messianic peace-bringer.

While Siegel found inspiration for the last son of Krypton in the only begotten Son of God, the two differ in one very distinct way: Jesus is the spiritual savior of eternal life while Superman is the physical savior of life on earth. In their defense of the weak, their strength in battle, and their strides towards peace, it is fitting to call Superman the Messiah of the twentieth century, at least in the fictional comic book world. With Nazi Germany attempting to enslave and oppress the Jewish people, the physical salvation of Superman would understandably sound more appealing to some than a spiritual salvation, just as it may have to the Jews of biblical times under the heel of the Roman empire. Just as the Christian messiah reshaped the religion of those Jews who accepted His teachings, “Superman is destined to reshape the destiny of a world!” (Siegel 16)… at least in the comic books and in the minds of his avid readers.


Works Cited

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010. Print.

Holy Bible: Updated New American Standard Bible. Anaheim, CA: Foundation Publications, 2007. Print.

Siegel, Jerry and Joe Shuster. Superman Chronicles. V1. New York, NY: DC, 2006, Print.


(Tyler Wenger is an upcoming sophomore at Washington and Lee University from Franklin, TN. He is a pre-med student planning on majoring in Neuroscience and he has been both a Christian and a die-hard Superman fan for his entire life.)

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tarzan sunday comic strip

My father’s parents never learned much English. Their newspaper included only one comic strip, Tarzan, translated into Slovak. Mutineers didn’t maroon them on the jungle shores of rural Pennsylvania, but like Tarzan’s parents, they settled in a strange land oceans from their ancestral homeland. Tarzan swung into newspapers on January 7, 1929, same day as Buck Rogers, and so another Minute Zero in superhero history. The strip expanded to a Sunday full-page in 1931, the year my father was born. Jerry Siegel was soon parodying it in his school newspaper with “Goober the Mighty,” the oldest and least promising of Superman’s siblings.

My grandparents were still new to the U.S. when All-Story Magazine published Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes in 1912. It was an instant, imitation-spawning hit. Charles Stilson’s 1915 Polaris of the Snows swapped Africa and apes for Antarctica and polar bears, but it’s the same formula (especially since there are no polar bears in Antarctica and no “anthropoid apes” anywhere). Stilson wrote two more Polaris novels (and his own ending to Tarzan of the Apes since Burroughs’ marriage plot cliff-hanger annoyed him so much), but as the King of the Jungle expanded his reign to stage and film and radio, imitators stopped disguising their loin-clothed knock-offs: Bomba the Jungle Boy (1926), Morgo the Mighty (1930), Jan of the Jungle (1931), Bantan (1936), Ka-Zar (1936), Ki-Gor (1939).

polaris of the snows

Of course Tarzan was a knock-off too. He’s a lost worlder, the genre H. Rider Haggard kicked off in 1885 with King Solomon’s Mines and into which Doc Savage and Superman boldly followed. Burroughs also swapped out Rudyard Kipling’s India and wolves; his jungle isn’t that different from Mowgli’s. W. H. Hudson preferred Venezuela for his 1904 jungle girl Rimi in Green Mansions. DC adopted Rimi decades later, when the softcore jungles were already well-endowed with leopard-furred felines. Eisner and Iger’s Sheena beat Superman to comic books by a year, with literally dozens swinging behind her. Stan Lee tried Lorna the Jungle Queen in the 50s and in the 70s Shanna the She-Devil. She later married Ka-Zar, Marvel publisher Martin Goodman’s first pulp jungle man who re-premiered in Marvel Comics No. 1 beside Namor and the Human Torch. Stan Lee transplanted him to Polaris’ Antarctic lost world, swapping out ancient Romans for ancient dinosaurs.

ka-zar and x-men

My father and his friends debated who would win in a fight: Tarzan or Buck? Tarzan or the Phantom? Tarzan or Batman? If you don’t think a loin cloth counts as a superhero costume, remember the original Jungle King is also secretly the English aristocrat Lord Greystoke. If that’s not enough of an alter ego, reread chapter 27, “The Height of Civilization,” in which the former savage transforms into Monsieur Tarzan, a French-speaking socialite who on a gentleman wager can strip off his tux, wander naked into the wilds, and return two pages later with a lion across his shoulders.

Burroughs calls him a literal “superman,” the first time the eugenic term immigrated into pulps, evidence of its own genre expansion. Corn flake tycoon John Kellog founded the Race Betterment Foundation in 1906, and Indiana, with a boost from future president Woodrow Wislon, passed the nation’s first sterilization law a year later. In 1911, the American Breeder’s Association added immigration restrictions, racial segregation, anti-interracial marriage laws, and gas chamber “euthanasia” in the fight to stop unfit breeding, while the First International Eugenics Congress met at the University of London the following year to discuss the same agenda.

Burroughs did not attend, but he was a fan. One biographer describes him as “obsessed with his own genealogy” and “extremely proud of his nearly pure Anglo-Saxon lineage,” believing in the “extermination of all ‘moral imbeciles’ and their relatives.” The October issue of All-Story hit stands a few weeks after the Eugenics Congress convened. I doubt Winston Churchill ever touched an American pulp mag, but he and his fellow attendees agreed with Burroughs’ bewildering ideas about genetics. I always photocopy chapter 20, “Heredity,” for my class. Despite being reared by apes, the young Lord Greystoke knows how to bow in a courtly manner, “the hall-mark of his aristocratic birth, the natural outcropping of many generations of fine breeding, an hereditary instinct of graciousness which a lifetime of uncouth and savage training and environment could not eradicate.”

DNA wouldn’t be discovered for decades, so Eugenicists thought they could weed out everything from crime to promiscuity by stopping unfit parents from giving birth to unfit babies. One of those babies was my dad. His honky parents hailed from the degenerate regions of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, what anti-immigration advocates called “beaten men from beaten races; representing the worst failures in the struggle for existence,” men with “none of the inherited instincts and tendencies which made it comparatively easy to deal with the immigration of the olden time.” That’s why Congress capped the immigration quota for Eastern Europeans at 2% of their 1890 U.S. population.  But my grandparents had already weaseled in.

Adolf Hitler was a private in the Austrian-Hungarian Army at the same time and in the same city as my grandfather, but rather than accept a second conscription, Stefan Gavaler bound over the Tatra Mountains to land in Carrolltown, PA. He died in the kind of mining accident Superman tries to prevent in Action Comics No. 3 (“Months ago, we know mine is unsafe—but when we tell boss’s foremen they say, ‘No like job, Stanislaw? Quit!’”). One of Stefan’s sons went on to marry the daughter of a corporate vice-president of good German stock and produce just the sort of Aryan-diluting mongrel Burroughs most feared: me.

Tarzan, however, marries well. After learning he’s not a half-ape but an undissipated carrier of high English blood, he forgoes both his kingdoms to pursue the eugenically fit daughter of an American professor to the woods of Wisconsin.  It takes a second book for Jane to marry him, and a third to produce a son. Burroughs wrote a sequel almost every year until 1939. Tarzan (the name means “white skin” in anthropoid ape language) could wrestle a gorilla into submission, but Adolf Hitler was too much for him. After Nazi Germany, Eugenics retreated into a lost world in the cultural jungle. Burroughs only published one more Tarzan novel before his death in 1950.

I think Disney was the first to send Tarzan to Czechoslovakia. A Slovak-dubbed version of the song “Son of Man” is on youtube. I can’t understand a word of it, but I’m happy it exists.


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Jerry Siegel stole Superman’s 1938 tagline “champion of the oppressed” from Douglas Fairbanks. The silent film star’s 1920 The Mark of Zorro opens with the intertitle: “Oppression—by its very nature—creates the power that crushes it. A champion arises—a champion of the oppressed—whether it be a Cromwell or someone unrecorded, he will be there. He is born.”


You can quibble with the superheroic logic (is oppression always self-defeating?), but the word that made me pause (literally, I thumbed PAUSE on my remote) is “Cromwell.” As in Oliver Cromwell, the man who chopped off King Charles’ head in 1649 to become Lord Protector of England until his own, kidney-related death a decade later (after which Charles’ restored son dug up his body and chopped off his head too). All perfectly interesting, but what, you may ask, does that have to do with Zorro?

Johnston McCulley doesn’t mention Cromwell in The Curse of Capistrano, the All-Story pulp serial Fairbanks adapted. Some American Fairbanks trace their name back to the Puritan Fayerbankes, proud followers of Cromwell since the 1630s, so maybe Douglas was just carrying on family tradition. Except The Mark of Zorro isn’t the first Cromwell mention in superhero lore.

George Bernard Shaw lauds him in “The Revolutionist’s Handbook,” an appendix to his 1903 Man and Superman, the play that first gave us the English ubermensch. Shaw (or his alter ego John Tanner, the Handbook’s fictional author) declares Cromwell “one of those chance attempts at the Superman which occur from time to time in spite of the interference of Man’s blundering institutions.” A devout eugenicist, Shaw/Tanner longed for a nation of supermen, “an England in which every man is a Cromwell.”

By the time Siegel was copying Fairbanks’ intertitles in the 30s, “Cromwell” and “Superman” were synonyms. Biographer John Buchan (better known for his Hitchcock adapted Thirty-Nine Steps) called him “the one Superman in England who ruled and reigned without a crown.” P. W. Wilson extended the comparison to modern times, ranking England’s Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin “among the supermen,” and likening his overseeing of Edward VIII’s abdication to Cromwell’s regicide.

Alan Moore

Alan Moore extends the superhero connection even further. In a 2007 interview, Moore (like Shaw’s John Tanner) identifies himself as an anarchist (“the only political standpoint that I could possibly adhere to would be an anarchist one”) and so longs for a society with “no leaders” (he’s literally anti “archons”). He traces his inspiration to 17th England when underground religious movements were espousing the heretical view that all men could be priests, “a nation of saints.” And, Moore explains, “it was during the 17th century that, partly fueled by similar ideas, Oliver Cromwell rose up and commenced the British civil war, which eventually led to the beheading of Charles I.”

Guy Fawkes (inspiration for Moore’s V for Vendetta) had tried to kill Charles’ father, King James, a half century earlier, but Guy was no Oliver. Moore revels in the thought of headless monarchs, but Buchan celebrates the executioner, “an iron man of action” with “no parallel in history.” Cromwell ignored his own council of commanders during the civil war and, after making England a republic, he ignored Parliament too. “It was too risky to trust the people,” writes Buchan, “he must trust himself.”

That’s the ubermensch Shaw adores. Not a champion of the oppressed, but a champion of the self. And it’s a quality still central to every superhero, all those iron men of action who trust only themselves, ignoring and sometimes defying law enforcement to maintain their own sense order.  Zorro opposed the colonial regime of a corrupt California governor. Cromwell fought for religious freedom against a tyrant who persecuted anyone who did not conform to the Church of England.

But what happens after oppression is crushed? Fairbanks’ Zorro retires into happy matrimony. McCulley rebooted his Zorro for more oppression-opposing adventures—inspired by Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel, an iron man of action dedicated to rescuing noble necks from the kind of execution blade Cromwell wielded. Once enthroned, the Lord Protector imposed his own, literally Puritanical order on England. He closed taverns, chopped down maypoles, outlawed make-up, fined profanity, and, as a real life Burgermeister Meisterburger, cancelled Christmas.

When Alan Brennert wrote his 1991 graphic novel, Batman: Holy Terror, he kept Cromwell on the throne another decade, creating an alternate universe in which the U.S. is an English commonwealth run by a corrupt theocracy. It seems Supermen in charge are not such a good thing for the common man. Look at Garth Ennis’ The Boys (2006), or Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come (1996), or Mark Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme (1986), or, best yet, Alan Moore’s Marvelman (AKA, Miracleman, but let’s not go into that right now). I bought No. 16 from my college comic shop in 1989, a year after I graduated college. It’s the last issue before Neil Gaiman took over and I stopped reading the series. Gaiman is great, but the story was over. Marvelman has rid the world of nuclear warheads, money, global warming, crime, childbirth pain, and, in some cases, death. He’s not king of the world. He’s its totalitarian god.


Marvel Comics is re-releasing and completing the series in 2014, and, what the hell, I’ll probably pick up where I left off. But my worship of Moore is long over. I considered him the reigning writer of the multiverse for decades, but his rule grew increasingly idiosyncratic and, less forgivable, dull. His last Miracleman, “Olympus,” is a tour of the distopic future. From Hell offers similar tours, literally horse-drawn, which, while aggressively non-dramatic in structure, basically work. But my heart sunk when the third volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman devolved into a balloon ride over yet more of Moore’s meticulously researched esotoria. Yes, the dream-like Blazing World is ripe with 3-D nudity, but this is no way to conclude a plot. When Promethea, my favorite of all Moore creations, plunged down the same rabbit hole, I couldn’t make myself keep reading. Moore was running his own imprint at this point, America’s Best Comics, with no Parliament or War Council left to ignore, and no corrupt tyrant to oppose.

Heroes need oppression. Even Fairbanks’ son, Douglas Jr., knew that. After his father’s death, he wrote, produced, and starred in The Exile, a 1947 swashbuckler about Charles II, the son of the king Cromwell beheaded. He hides out on a Holland farm and falls in love with a flower monger while battling Cromwell’s assassins before Parliament calls him back to his throne. It’s a happy ending made happier by the fact that Fairbanks didn’t follow it with a sequel. After Charles started waging wars and suspending their laws, Parliament regretted their invitation.

Every Cromwell—by his very nature—creates the Cromwell that crushes him.


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So my wife and I are streaming Skyfall—which, to our mutual surprise, was her idea not mine–and M is explaining to her jury of clueless politicos why they shouldn’t gut her antiquated, Cold War, killer spy agency. Why, in other words, does the 21st century still needs good ole 007? I’m no Judi Dench (or Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, or John Logan, the screenwriters), but the argument goes something like this:

Shadows are bad.

Shadows are everywhere.

Only a man of the shadows can fight the shadows.

So this is a job for Bond, James Bond.

And I thought: Haven’t I heard this before? Not in defense of the CIA—which, British accented or not, that’s all 007 is. No, it’s an older argument, older than the Cold War. This is gunslinger logic.

Let me call Westerns scholar Richard Slotkin to the microphone. He knows a few things about shadows too:

“Through this transgression of the borders, through combat with the dark elements on the other side, the heroes reveal the meaning of the frontier line (that is, the distinctions of value it symbolizes) even as they break it down. In the process they evoke the elements in themselves (or in their society) that correspond to the ‘dark’; and by destroying the dark elements and colonizing the border, they purge darkness from themselves and the world.”

Yep. James is a cowboy. He packs a Walther PPK instead of a revolver, and rides a Bentley, not a stallion, but even in Daniel Craig’s metrosexually tight suit and tie, he’s the same as any badass sheriff policing his corner of oblivion.

The weird thing though—London’s not exactly a frontier burgh. In terms of imperial domains, it’s the flat dab middle. Not Dodge, but the Metropole. What Superman fans call Metropolis.

So what’s all this shadowy borderland talk? How can James, or any contemporary urban hero, draw superpowers from a mythically wild West?

I recently stumbled onto an answer in Peter Turchin’s Historical Dynamics. (Which I checked out of my library after tracking down a citation in Alex Mesoudi’s Cultural Evolution, the tome one of the economists in my book club has us reading. I wanted Colson Whitehead’s literary zombie novel but got vetoed. Maybe next month.)  Turchin is an historian and ecologist, which doesn’t really explain all of his mathematical formulas and wave charts, but I think I pretty much follow the gist of his “Metaethnic Frontier Theory.”

My ridiculously simplistic version: empires need frontiers. It’s where group solidarity comes from. Why, as Turchin shows, do empires consistently rise from frontier regions, and very rarely from non-frontiers? Because Metropolis is a den of in-fighting, a spreadsheet of special interest groups vying for attention. Border towns don’t have such luxury. They’ve got all those swarthy aliens swarming right outside their fort gates. The shadows keep everyone in line.

“Internally divisive issues,” explains Turchin, “will eventually destroy the asabiya”—that’s academic speak for ‘collective action’—“of the large group, unless it is ‘disciplined’ by an external threat.”

Thus Ms. Dench’s shadows-are-everywhere speech. If you want your group to stay a group, you have to scare them. That’s easy when they’re camped at the edge of the abyss, but for these big city types, you got to drag the shadows right up to their condo doorsteps.

That’s how you keep an agency funded or, for Hollywood, your franchise breathing.  007 is an obsolete Cold Warrior, but product name recognition trumps the collapse of Soviet communism. Superman shouldn’t have made it past Dresden, let alone Hiroshima. He sold comics because he embodied the collectivism of a nation scared shitless by the Axis threat. Like any gunslinger or shadow-fighting shadow man, his powers are alien, a product of a scifi frontier. Remove the threat and he’s just some guy in tights and a cape.

When Ian Fleming published his first Bond novel in 1953, comic book superheroes were all but extinct. When Sean Connery debuted in the first Bond film in 1962, superheroes were back and atomic-powered. Although gunslingers seem extinct at the moment, shadow Men of Steel are still flying, and homicide-licensed agents keep sipping their dark martinis.

I would never accuse the U.S. entertainment industry of anything but dividend-driven capitalism, but they’re still producing a form of red, white and blue propaganda. They want our money, and the best way to get it is to keep reinventing not our heroes but the threats that keep our heroes kicking. Hollywood’s main products are bite-sized shadows imported from our psychological borderlands. Our heroes have to scare us before they can soothe us.

But there’s a another byproduct too. Turchin’s group cohesion. Stream Skyfall or skim this month’s Action Comics, and you’re going to feel just a tiny bit more, well, American. Empires collapse when their centers splinter. That’s bad for business. In a nation of special interests, buying movie tickets is one of our few collective actions. For good and bad, James and Clark keep the metrosexual masses not just entertained but disciplined.

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Of all the images to feature in this month’s review of Brad Ricca’s Super Boys, The New York Times went with one of “the kinky illustrations Shuster was reduced to doing for sleazy magazines in the mid-1950s,” specifically one that, according to editor Peter Keepnews, “looks for all the world like Lois Lane preparing to whip a trussed-up Superman.”

Craig Yoe had the same idea, choosing an even more overt image for the cover of Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-Creator Joe Shuster: Lois in high heels and underwear not preparing but full-on whipping a chained and bare-chested Clark. The Man of Steel shattered identical chains on Action Comics every month, but this Shuster illustration is working toward a very different climax.

Yoe’s title is a bit of a dodge though, and Keepnews’ “kinky” is no better. Yoe reproduces Shuster’s 1954 illustrations for Nights of Horror, a typo-strewn black and white cranked out of Shuster’s neighbor’s basement, but unlike almost anything else related to superheroes, this is not “Fetish Art.” Zorro dressing up in a mask and cape to keep his sword erect? That’s a fetish. Hooded men assaulting bound and weeping women? Frederic Wertham termed it “pornographic horror literature.” I call it rape and torture.

Nights of Horror

Craig Yoe is less coy between the covers: “These BDSM (bondage-discipline dominance-submission sadism-masochism) tales were an equal opportunity employer. Women were tied up, whipped, and spanked, but could eagerly be the tie-ers, whippers, and spankers, too.”

Well, not exactly “equal.”

Of Shuster’s 108 illustrations, I count seventy-one that depict women dominated by men. The reverse occurs nine times.  Add another nine scenes of women dominating women for a grand total of eighty female victims. Shuster draws only one incident of a man dominating another man (with a woman as the primary focus, so the men are not—gasp!— a homoerotic pairing) for a total of ten victimized men. Check my math, but an eighth is a lot less than “equal.”

Most common torture device: a whip. Eighteen of the twenty-two appearances are used against women. Other devices used to torture women (in alphabetical order): air hose, alligator pit, ball and chain, cactus, chains, corset, electric wire, fingernails, gun, hairbrush, hot poker, hypodermic needle, iron maiden, knife, paddle, paddle machine, spiked bed, spiked gloves, switch, and water hose. Additional techniques to dominate women: champagne, hypnotism, marijuana, opium, and polygamy.

Deborah Friedell, in her New Yorker review of Ricca’s Superboys, gives Nights of Horror one sentence, while implying the opposite power dynamic: “Shuster supported himself by illustrating pornography for a series of adult comic books: the naked women brandishing the whips are Lois Lane, the bound men at their feet are are Superman or Jimmy Olsen.”A largely true but wholly misleading statement. For the record, men are whipped, spanked, paddled, clubbed, and one anticipates the removal of a toe. Three more display submission by kissing a woman’s shoe, kneeling with a tiny chain attached to his ear, and (my favorite) serving a woman breakfast in bed.

The nudity is almost exclusively female. Only four illustrations feature fully clothed women. Another ten reveal partially exposed underwear, usually from a forcibly raised dress hem. Some seventy-one (by far the standard) are women in nearly identical see-through bras, panties and those mid-thigh pantyhose and garter belt contraptions I’ve never really understood. The remaining twenty-three or so feature full or partial nudity, which usually means exposed breasts, but occasionally buttocks, and very rarely a vaguely drawn crotch. So vague, in fact, as to seem sexless. (Women were not, to the best of my very limited knowledge, shaving their pudenda in the mid-50s).

The one image of full male nudity is also oddly sexless—or at least gravity-defying. The more disturbing anatomical features are the women’s freakishly tiny hands and feet. And their high-heels which appear to be permanent growths of their otherwise naked bodies.

Stan Lee (he wrote Yoe’s introduction) looks at these pictures and sees a “disillusioned and desperate” Joe Shuster “forced to accept commissions to draw what amounted to S&M erotic horror books.” Although the unemployed Shuster was financially desperate in 1954, his arrangement with Nights of Horror was sounder than his one with DC Comics.

He was paid $100 for each of Nights of Horrors issue, for a total of $1800. Less than twenty years earlier, his bosses at DC had written him a check for $130, which he split with his partner Jerry Siegel. That was in exchange for the permanent, multi-million dollar rights to Superman. Shuster drew an average of six illustrations for each Nights of Horror. That’s a page rate of just over $16. He and Siegel were splitting $10 a page back in 1938. DC grudgingly raised it $15 when the Action Comics spin-off Superman sold 900,000 copies the following year. Nights of Horror boasted a print run of only 1,000, including the 2,650 backlog confiscated in a book store police raid.

By any accounting system, Nights of Horror was a far more financially ethical employer than DC.

As far as disillusionment?

Shuster’s Nights of Horror illustrations are not hack work. He’d didn’t doodle a half-dozen half-hearted sketches in exchange for that week’s grocery money. Despite his failing eyesight (what finally pushed him out of comic books in the late 40s), these pages have been pored over. The detail is at times lovingly and so disturbingly precise—reminiscent of Robert Crumb’s own obsessively rendered female figures of the following decades. The best here easily exceeds the rawer material he rushed off for Action Comics. Joe was getting more out of Nights of Horror than a paycheck.

I don’t know the nuances of Shuster’s sexual life, but I will guess that it was primarily a solitary activity. Yoe documents his preference for tall women (he was short), and his brief marriage to a former Vegas showgirl in 1975 (they look the same height in their wedding photo). Superman provided his best pick-up lines. According to biographer Gerard Jones (I haven’t read Ricca yet), he would hang out at soda fountains and hand girls (the tall ones presumably) sketches of his Man of Steel before asking them out. At least one fifteen-year-old said yes. Shuster was 25 at the time.

He was forty in 1954, and working alone. His studio of assistants dispersed after he and Siegel lost their lawsuit against DC in 1948. Nights of Horror was some of the only art he’d sold since Superman. Although not paneled like a comic book, the illustrations are often sequential and depict narrative movement. (Thank you, Mr. Yoe, for not including the original texts.) Two sequences conclude with heroic rescues of female victims by Superman-like saviors. A sadistic film producer collapses from a detective’s bullet, and a bearded cult leader succumbs to a punch on the jaw. Only one woman defends herself. She rushes at her captor with a knife and seems to have the upper hand—briefly. She’s bound as he whips her on the next page.

I’m going out on a limb here and guessing that Shuster did not collaborate with a model for these illustrations. The stock repetition of body type and undergarments suggests an internal, idealized projection, one with rounder hips and thighs than any of today’s anorexic supermodels. But even when a live human being posed in front of his canvas, Shuster always saw what he wanted to see. A teenaged Jolan Kovacs answered his 1935 ad for a model in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He wanted to practice his Lois Lane sketches before retooling Superman for a new round of newspaper syndication submissions. Kovacs couldn’t fill out her sister’s baggy swimsuit, but Shuster’s sketches do not share the shortcoming. The picture of Scarlet Pimpernel actress Merle Oberon in his head was bigger than the breathing woman before his eyes.

That didn’t stop him from asking Kovacs out on a date. Nothing much came of it then or ten years later when he asked her to the National Cartoonists Society’s costume ball. She wanted to come as Lois Lane, but Shuster and Siegel were in the process of losing their lawsuit. But Joanne (she changed her name for her modeling career) and Jerry (he attended the ball too) were very happy to see each other again. A few months later they were married. It was a City Hall event, so Shuster didn’t have to stand up and mumble through a best man’s toast. Six years after the ceremony, Joe and his Superman partner were done with each other, and Joe was drawing S&M for his neighbor’s underground porn pulps.

I can identify only six of the 108 illustrations that depict scenes of consensual sex. (Call me Puritanical, but I am eliminating the refer-smoking Jimmy Olsen in the early stages of pot-fostered date rape.) Of the six, two are heterosexual, and four lesbian. There are twice as many lesbian images of women dominating other women, but even in those the content is less violent than elsewhere. Nights of Horror lesbians tend to spank with hairbrushes and bare hands rather than whips or switches.

The lesbian imagery is, of course, for male consumption. Which apparently eliminates the need for other reader-titillating taboos. Twice the girl-on-girl action is interrupted by a man bursting through the girls’ closed door—the thinly disguised desire of the perceived reader.

Even when the male presence isn’t literalized, Nights of Horror foregrounds its voyeurism. Only one page in the collection depicts a lone figure, and she’s not preening just for her mirror.  Other pages are more overt: an eye in a peep-hole, a man leering through a window, a grinning boy at the corner of the frame watching a spanking. That’s us.

Shuster draws himself too. A painter stands before his canvas, brush in hand, staring at his model (practically the only woman not in heels). The sketch on the canvas is nearly identical to the actual model. They are made of the same black-on-white pen strokes. Yoe includes a caption:

“At last he had her posed to his satisfaction.”

Joe Shuster

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The word “superman” premiered in a play about a modern Don Juan. So it’s fitting that most Superman songs are love songs. Despite all of its anti-marriage ubermensch rhetoric (marriage is an obstacle to ideal breeding blah blah blah), George Bernard Shaw’s 1904 Man and Superman ends when the girl lassos her Clark in the final act. Since then, lovedumb Supermen have been crooning through the decades.

Here are their high notes:



5. The Kinks, “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman”

The Kinks with a disco beat? It was 1979 and so not entirely their fault. I didn’t hear the song till their live album a year later. The year the Kinks were ret-conned into Rock continuity. That’s right, the Kinks did not exist before 1980.  Van Halen’s “You Really Got Me” wasn’t a cover until it appeared on One for the Road, an album of rock classics retroactively inserted into the AOR timeline. First time I heard “Lola” from a radio speaker, a stadium of fans were la-la-la-ing the chorus. I felt like the lone survivor from some parallel universe. I’d been listening to Pittsburgh’s WDVD for a couple of years, memorizing playlists, band line-ups, discographies. Reallocating the area of my brain previously devoted to superhero teams and baseball rosters. The Kinks? Never heard of them. But suddenly there they are strumming between the Who and the Rolling Stones since the 60s. I pretended like nothing was wrong. The Kinks? Sure, yeah, love ‘em. That’s Adolescent Survival 101. Next thing my first-ever girlfriend and I are cheering them in the Civic Arena, and wearing our matching concert T-shirts on our anniversary every month after clueless month. If everyone jumps off a cliff, of course you jump off too. Doesn’t matter if you can fly or not.

“Hey girl we’ve got to get out of this place

There’s got to be something better than this

I need you, but I hate to see you this way

If I were superman then we’d fly away”



4.  R.E.M., “Superman”

I had way too many Black Sabbath albums to get my head around R.E.M in high school, but college was another planet. The year I first kissed Lesley Wheeler. We met in a student center utility closet moonlighting as our literary magazine office space. She liked R.E.M. and so soon I did too.  Apparently this “Superman” was a cover of an obscure 1969 single from some band named the Clique. Another ret-con, but nobody was pretending otherwise this time. Despite all the Superman hubris, it’s an underdog’s song. Mike Mills, the bassist, sings lead. Michael Stipe is slouching by a back-up microphone, a cup of coffee in his hand, tambourine in the other. Lesley was dating someone else, but we kissed once, during a party in her honors dorm, and then she flew away for a semester abroad. R.E.M. wouldn’t have their breakthrough till the following year, when it wasn’t just our college DJs twirling “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” The whole multiverse was about to explode. I might not have had her grades, her scholarship, none of the spark bursting through her poems. But I knew to fly after her. I knew what was happening.

“You don’t really love that guy you make it with now do you?

I know you don’t love that guy ’cause I can see right through you.

If you go a million miles away I’ll track you down girl.

Trust me when I say I know the pathway to your heart.”


Jimmy Olsen's Blues

3. Spin Doctors, “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues”

Our kitchen calendar said 1991, but it sounds like the 70s rebooted, Steve Miller Band, Aerosmith, even a little Lynyrd Skynyrd, all of it seamlessly synched together by the dance beat thumpings of a double bass drum kit. An analog amalgam at the dawn of the digital sample. When Lesley and I moved in together that year, the hardest part was merging our record collections, deciding whose redundant copy of which David Bowie was less scratched, less nostalgically vital. I’d thought CDs were a passing phase, like 8-tracks, but was now giving in to fate. A rotating CD rack perched on a speaker the size of an end table. Pocketful of Kryptonite sold 5 million, its four singles muscling through the airwaves. We hummed them in the car, in the kitchen, in the backs of our heads as we drifted asleep. We found a caterer, a baker, a quaint historical house to rent for an August afternoon. It rained in the morning, pushed the heat back all day, then poured again that night as we drove back to our apartment with the wedding loot. The Spin Doctors’ second album flopped.  Doesn’t matter. After the readings and the vows, I slotted Kryptonite into the reception CD player with some other new releases and hit “random.”

“Lois Lane please put me in your plan

Yeah, Lois Lane you don’t need no Super Man

Come on downtown and stay with me tonight

I got a pocket full of kryptonite”


Lazlo Bane

2. Lazlo Bane, “I’m no superman”

Actor Zach Braff discovered the song, an obscure indie tune that premiered in a 14-second snippet over the opening credits of Scrubs before it made it to the band’s second album. Lazlo Bane (I’d thought it was a person) originally said no to the TV deal. Didn’t want to sell out.  But somebody must have talked some sense into them. Three weeks after 9/11, a sitcom’s exactly what the country needed. Lesley and I had just moved into the house we live in now. American flags flapped up and down the block. Our son was one, our daughter four. We had to explain to them that terrorists were not going to blow up skyscrapers in Lexington, VA. We didn’t have any. We’d moved to Smallville, after rocketing away from the New Jersey Metropolis where we’d fallen for each other. We hunkered through Afghanistan, Iraq, prayed Obama could save us all. NBC dropped Scrubs in 2009, but ABC rebooted it for a ninth and final season. They shuffled the cast and hired WAZ (I’d thought he was a band) to rerecord the theme. It didn’t matter. We’d stopped watching years before.

“You’ve crossed the finish line

Won the race but lost your mind

Was it worth it after all

I need you here with me

Cause love is all we need

Just take a hold of the hand that breaks the fall”


Sufjan Stevens, “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts”

1. Sufjan Stevens, “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts”

I thought Sufjan was Cat Stevens recording as his Muslim alter ego (which is Yusuf Islam). I was never hip, but now I’m old too. My son is twelve, my daughter sixteen. She sits across the dinner table, describing mutant subgenres I never dreamed of. I had to borrow the album from my metrosexual neighbor. It was already old, part of Stevens’ abandoned project to record fifty albums about fifty states. Apparently, Smallville is in Illinois. A legal dispute delayed the 2005 release. They had to put a sticker over Superman on the cover art. It came out in vinyl first—technology made cool by extinction. Our 80s vinyl lines the back shelf of our closet. We play them during dinner sometimes, the needle crackling like a victrola through speakers the size of furniture. The Illinois CD has no sticker, just a blank space, the past waiting to be rebooted again. Clark Kent used to be a joke, a Kryptonian’s caricature of humanity. They reversed that in the 80s, made the boy grunt his way through adolescence like the rest of us. I don’t know what the story is now.

“Only a real man can be a lover

If he had hands to lend us all over

We celebrate our sense of each other

We have a lot to give one another”


6. BONUS TRACK: “You’re a Superman!”

I don’t know the singer’s name, just that she’s a redhead in a green dress. The nightclub doesn’t have a name either, but Lois Lane is there, ready to scoop Clark on an exclusive interview with Superman. Clark thinks it’s their first date. “Tonight I’m going to introduce a song that is sure to be a hit,” the singer announces. “Swing it, boys!” Action Comics No. 6, cover date November 1938. The Andrew Sisters had a hit that year. So did Ella Fitzgerald. It’s her voice I hear over Joe Shuster’s drawings. It’s no ballad. Just look at the angle of the trombone silhouetted in the background. Jerry Siegel is writing the love song no one ever sung to him. Girls found him creepy in high school. But now with Superman going into newspaper syndication, the girl next door—literally, her name is Bella, and she lives across the street from the Siegels—suddenly she’s not out of his bold, new reach. They’ll be married in a year, divorced a decade after that. It’s the only perfect Superman song, unblemished by its soundless performance. “Clark glances sideways at Lois. Enthralled by the magic of the song, her eyes have a distant, charmed look . . .”

“You’re a Superman!

You can make my heart leap,

Ten thousand feet!

“You’re a Superman!

But I’m the one girl who kin,

Get under your skin!

“When you crush me in your arms, I must reveal

I’m only flesh and blood and not resisteless steel!

“You’re a Superman!

Your ardour’s stronger than,

A human man’s!

“You’re a Superman!

And when you spring to me,

I am in ecstasy!

“Some day you’re gonna leap,

To the altar at my feet . . .

Then the whole world will know,

‘Cause I’ll tell all I know,

That I want ‘em to know,

That you’re My Superman!”

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