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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: The Count of Monte Cristo

count of monte cristo comic

My favorite sandwich as a teenager was named after an Alexander Dumas hero. I still order it at the Greek diner down the street, preferably with curly fries. You take your basic grilled ham and cheese, throw in a couple turkey slices, dunk it in egg batter, and fry, and be sure to have some jam sauce for dipping.

Restaurant reviewer Thadius Van Landingham declares it “a sandwich engulfed in controversy” and “clouded origins.” Some say it’s just a disguised croque monsieur (literally “Mr. Crunch”) served in Paris cafes since 1910. Faux New Orleans restaurants in Disneyland have featured it since 1966 (the year I was born), but the recipe had been wandering American cookbooks since the 30s—though under different aliases. San Francisco and San Diego both claim the monte cristo unmasked in their restaurants first, but L.A. offers a more likely origin story, either at the Brown Derby or Gordon’s, since both catered to the Hollywood crowd. The Son of Monte Cristo, sequel to The Count of Monte Cristo, premiered in 1940, and the rechristened Mr. Crunch debuted on the Gordon’s menu in 1941—I’m guessing as an advertising gimmick.

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The monte cristo does not appear in Alexander Dumas’ Great Dictionary of Cuisine, his posthumous masterwork. “Novelist or cook,” wrote an early admirer, “Dumas is a master, and the two vocations appear to go hand in hand, or, rather, to be joined in one.” His bacon roties (“toasties”) may be a relative of the monte cristo (“Dice a pound of bacon and a slice of ham. Dry out and drain. Mix with parsley, scallions, 4 egg yolks, coarse pepper. Spread on slices of bread. fry.”), but a distant one.

Cookbooks annoy me because there’s usually only one author on the cover, while the work must require whole kitchen staffs of ghostwriters—plus all the uncredited friends and relatives and untold predecessors who knowingly or unknowingly contribute the first drafts of recipes. But Dumas’ culinary dictionary may be the only of his 200-300 books he wrote himself. Even his most famous novels were collaborations. A kitchen of hired assistants cooked up plots and pages for him to spice up and finalize to his tastes. Superman co-creator Joe Shuster employed a studio of artists to similar effect. Auguste Maquet, Dumas’ most prominent sous-chef de aventure, worked for him through the 1840s, unofficially co-authoring both The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. Bob Kane claimed similarly sole authorship of Batman because writer Bill Finger received his paychecks from him not DC. Maquet sued, but the French courts preferred Dumas’s lone wolf tale. Finger (a prolific plagiarist himself) stayed in the kitchen. Neither Dumas nor Kane served up anything of much flavor without their collaborators.

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But The Count of Monte Cristo continues to be served across genres. If Maquet was the plotter, then he mixed both the first convicted-of-a-crime-he-didn’t-commit and revenge-is-best-served-cold recipes. They’re massive chapters in any contemporary dictionnaire de aventure, spanning in comics from Batman to V for Vendetta to Oldboy manga. The framed fugitive Edmond Dantès is also literature’s first secret identity hero and chameleon-like master-of-disguise.  Like “Alexander Dumas” on the cover, the Count is only the first ingredient in a tossed salad of Dantès’ aliases, ranging from priest to bank clerk to Sinbad the Sailor. Also, like a comic book, the novel wasn’t a novel—it was a serial, published in eighteen monthly installments beginning in 1844. It was already an international hit when the Count jumped the channel into English two years later.

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Dumas was a bit of mixed salad himself. His father was Haitian. In the U.S., even abolitionists had trouble believing such a “mulatto” could produce Literature, thinking Frederick Douglass’ editors ghosted his 1845 Narrative of the Life. The last U.S. Presidential election had turned on Polk’s determination to annex Texas as a slave state. France vacillated on slavery, abolishing it for the first time in 1794 (“all men, irrespective of colour, living in the colonies are French citizens and will enjoy all the rights provided by the Constitution”—essentially the opposite of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision), and again while The Count of Monte Cristo was sailing to American book stores—where it would sellout despite its clouded origins.

I imagine it was Dumas, not Maquet, who decided the Count would marry Haydée, the Turkish princess he bought from a slave trader. Louis Hayward, star of The Son of Monte Cristo, doesn’t look particularly mixed, but that’s a U.S. film (and, according to the synopsis, he’s not actually their son anyway). I dipped into some French comics in preparation for my visit and was pleasantly startled by some racial differences. Tarou, Robert Dansler’s 1949 Tarzan knock-off, is, unlike Burrough’s eugenically thoroughbred aristocrat Lord Greystoke, half African, and better still, Mozam is an “African Jungle Lord” drawn non-racistly African (though I fear “mozam” may literally be “nonsense”).

The Count, who’s taken for French, Arab, Roman and Greek, claims no nation and no race. “I am,” he declares, “a cosmopolite.” His shapeshifting ability to “adopt all customs, speak all languages” is a product of his mixed nature, elevating him to the superhuman level of angels, those “invisible beings” whom God sometimes allows “to assume a material form.” The only significant obstacle to his goals is his mortality, “for all the rest I have reduced to mathematical terms. What men call the chances of fate—namely, ruin, change, circumstances—I have fully anticipated, and if any of these should overtake me, yet it will not overwhelm me. Unless I die, I shall always be what I am.”

The monte cristo, declares Van Landingham, “is a jumble of contradictions,” both sweet and savory, a sugary breakfast yet a meaty lunch. It’s a fitting tribute to the contradictory Mr. Dumas and his hero. So far I have seen no monte cristos on French menus, but Mr. Crunch is common. However, I see now that it is his wife, croque Madame, that includes an egg and so is the direct parent of the American superhero sandwich. 

monte cristo sandwich

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Carl kruger “I, Carl Kruger, will be dictator of the world!” bellows Bob Kane’s stumpy Napoleon knock-off in Detective Comics No. 33. It’s 1939, so the name and the zeppelins flew in from Nazi Germany, but Carl says he wants to be “Another Napoleon,” France’s most loved/hated ubermensch.

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George Bernard Shaw ranked Napoleon up there with Cromwell and Julius Caesar, “one of those chance attempts at the Superman which occur from time to time in spite of the interference of Man’s blundering institutions.” Nietzsche’s grandmother liked the little guy too (she and little Friedrich lived near some historic battles sites in Saxony). Grown-up Nietzsche listed him among “the worthiest of individuals,” “the more profound and comprehensive men” of the century. “I am apart from all the world,” Bonaparte declared, “and accept conditions from nobody.” When Mrs. Bonaparte accused him of adultery, the emperor bellowed: “I have the right to answer all accusations against me with an eternal ‘That’s me!’”—a line I suspect a true ubermensch would have known not to try.

Since Napoleon’s 1821 autopsy, his adulterous penis has been apart from the rest of his body. A recent researcher said it looks like “a little baby’s finger.”Nietzsche never discusses Napoleon’s penis size, just his dickish will-to-power. He had the manly “instincts of a warrior,” which Nietzsche credits “for the fact that in Europe the man has again become master over the businessman and the philistine.”He liked his supermanly ego too. After an early military victory in Italy, Napoleon “realized that I was a superior being and conceived the ambition of performing great things which hitherto had filled my thoughts only as a fantastic dream.”

Carl’s fantastic dream involves a dirigible of doom, only a slight variation on Napoleon’s supervillainous vision. Except Nietzsche and Shaw saw Napoleon as an evolutionary step forward, a superheroic step up from the villainy of the masses. Baroness Orczy agrees. She calls the French Revolution a “surging, seething, murmuring crowd of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem naught but savage creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and of hate.” Only a superheroic Napoleon could restore order to such egalitarian chaos.

Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel answers the same call, plucking his aristocratic cousins from the guillotine-mouthed mob. Orczy’s family lost its fortunes when Hungarian peasants stormed their estate, so the exiled baroness had a reason to craft a Napoleonic hero—a man with “superhuman effort” and “superhuman cunning” and “almost superhuman strength of will.” Jerry Siegel transformed the foppish half of Sir Percy into Clark Kent, but Superman stole from him too: “the man’s muscles seemed made of steel, and his energy was almost supernatural.”

Orczy published The Scarlet Pimpernel in 1904, but Sir Percy wasn’t the first Napoleon-inspired superhero pulled into the gravity of post-revolutionary France. Orczy opens her novel in 1792, two years after the storming of the Bastille. Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo opens in 1810, during Napoleon’s decade reign, when the author was eight-years-old. Dumas’ father had been a friend and general to Napoleon (campaigning with him in Italy while the future emperor suffered his superior being epiphany), and the two were so close that General Dumas was welcome in his emperor’s boudoir while his emperor was naked in bed with Josephine.

The friendship didn’t last though, and Dumas’s father lingered unransomed as an Italian prisoner-of-war. When a friend burst into Dumas’s boudoir with an idea for a play about Napoleon, Dumas refused: “The injuries Bonaparte had inflicted on my family made me inclined to be unjust toward Napoleon.” Then the friend, a proud Bonapartist, and his friend’s lover, one of Napoleon’s former mistresses and current star actress who enjoyed entertaining guests topless, locked Dumas in her apartment until he completed the 24-scene Napoleon.

Edmond Dantès, Dumas’s self-declared Count, owes his creation to Napoleon too—and not just because Dumas had traveled around the Island of Monte Cristo with Napoleon’s nephew. The Count looks down at humanity, that “race of crocodiles,” from Napoleon’s superhuman height. According to Shaw, Napoleon regarded “mankind as a troublesome pack of hounds only worth keeping for the sport of hunting with them.” A character also likens Monte Cristo to Byron’s Manfred—another proto-ubermensch, born the year after the deposed Napoleon began his finale exile—“who, disinherited of their patrimony, have achieved one by the force of their adventurous genius, which has placed them above the laws of society.”

Dantès is falsely accused of treason, the crime Alfred Burrage reuses for The Spring-Heeled Jack Library series, published in 1904 but set in 1804, the year Napoleon claimed the throne. Of course Dantès is accused of betraying Napoleon, and the English lieutenant Bertram Wraydon of aiding him. Thus the dashing but disinherited young heir turns to a life of superheroic vengeance, complete with a proto-Batman alter ego, costume, secret sanctum, and a superpowered jumping range of thirty feet. Russell Thorndyke sets Dr. Syn: A Smuggler Tale of Romney Marsh sometime before the 1805 naval battle of Trafalgar, while “coast watchmen swept the broad bend of the Channel for the French men-o’-war.” Syn is a mild-mannered vicar and ex-pirate who leads a semi-altruistic smuggling gang and town protectors as the masked Scarecrow. The alias is designed to inspire fear in his foes, “as the name of Napoleon was changed to Boney for the frightening of children by tyrannical nurses in England, so the title of the Scarecrow bore the like qualities on Romney Marsh, for it meant that the power of the smugglers was behind it, and would be used to force obedience to the Scarecrow’s behests.”

Even Isabel Allende can’t resist the Napoleonic allure. The majority of her Zorro prequel is set in Spain between 1810-15 as the nation, fearing “Napoleon will convert Spain into a satellite of France,” overthrew Napoleon’s brother Joseph who Napoleon had plopped on the throne after invading the peninsula. The young Zorro-to-be gains his superheroic education—including swordplay and the art of playing the effeminate fop—as the new democracy “approved a liberal constitution based on the principles of the French Revolution.”

Those principles were in turn based on the American Revolution, which the French monarchy had backed and in the process bankrupted itself, plunging France into financial ruin and then revolutionary headhunting. It’s a paradoxical foundation for democracy, but then our view of those founding principles weren’t always so egalitarian. The narrator of Owen Wister’s The Virginian—riding across bookstore shelves as the Scarlet Pimpernel first pranced across stage—explains:

“It was through the Declaration of Independence that we Americans acknowledged the ETERNAL INEQUALITY of man. For by it we abolished a cut-and-dried aristocracy. We had seen little men artificially held up in high places, and great men artificially held down in low places, and our own justice-loving hearts abhorred this violence to human nature. Therefore, we decreed that every man should thenceforth have equal liberty to find his own level. By this very decree we acknowledged and gave freedom to true aristocracy, saying, ‘Let the best man win, whoever he is.’ Let the best man win! That is America’s word. That is true democracy. And true democracy and true aristocracy are one and the same thing.”

And the best men, it turns out, are true aristocrats like Bruce Wayne, while little men like Napoleon-wannabe Carl Kruger end up in plane wreckage by the final panels of Detective Comics No. 33. Even Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov—a man who “wanted to become a Napoleon” and murders to prove he’s of a class of “superior” persons to “whom the law does not apply”—repents for “following his example.” It turns out that even in Czar-ruled Russia, a “sickly, stupid, ill-natured” pawnbroker is more than a “louse” or “black-beetle.” Unless you’re Napoleon. He and the above-the-law supermen he inspired are both products of democracy and its worst enemies.

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