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

Tag Archives: The Scarlet Pimpernel

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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.

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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.

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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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Last summer while I was visiting my parents in Pittsburgh, Christopher Nolan was shooting Dark Knight Rises at Heinz Field. I could have huddled in the stands with a few thousand other unpaid extras, watching the Steelers dress up as their alter egos, the Gotham Rogues. It’s a winter scene, so the crowd had to pretend to shiver as they sat in parkas in 90 degree heat all afternoon. But no one complained. They were grateful just to be part of the show.

And that pretty much sums up the Dark Knight trilogy.

Erinn Hutkin from Chicago’s Suburban Life phoned me last week to ask why Batman is so popular, why this movie was so highly anticipated. I’ll tell you what I told her.

Batman is the kind of make believe we love to mistake for reality. Usually superheroes give us exactly the opposite: blatantly larger-than-life abstraction. Men who fly. Men with impossible bodies. Men made of pixels limited only by the imagination of their computer animators. The biggest difference between the Superman cartoons of the 1940s and the barrage of superhero films of the last decade is technological. Hollywood has gotten more skilled at portraying the absurd.

Batman is different. Even “Bat-Man,” Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s 1939 original, stood apart from the other leotards. No alien rocket, no magic ring, no transformative laboratory catastrophe. He’s just a vigilante in a freaky suit.

There were plenty of non-superpowered crime-fighters before him—the Shadow and his gangs of 1930s mystery men—but Batman was the lone comic book hold-out. Even his origin story was a throwback. When Superman decides to champion the oppressed, there’s no motive. He could as easily rule the planet. The core of the superhero formula (regular Joe gets powers, dedicates himself to justice) is psychological nonsense.  Stan Lee fixed that in the 60s, but Finger and Kane found it first. Like so many of those other mystery men, Batman is all motive: BLAM! BLAM! in a back alley. His war on criminals isn’t ad hoc mission. It’s revenge. No magic bat swoops down and bites him on the neck. He transforms himself.

Christopher Nolan and his script brother, Jonathan, capitalize on that. Their Batman is made of flesh and crunching bone. He inhabits a world that looks a hell of a lot like ours. Tim Burton’s Gotham was phantasmagoric. His second movie was literally an amusement park. Nolan’s second Batman opened on street level Chicago. Joel Schumacher’s villains were cackling cartoons in campy costumes. Nolan’s are grotesquely broken human beings, not a superpower in sight. In fact, the most incongruous thing in Dark Knight Rises is the batsuit. It barely belongs.

But this doesn’t make Nolan’s vision any less artificial. Where Burton cast Mr. Mom, Nolan went for the naked guy with a chainsaw in American Psycho. Both choices are wonderfully silly. But we’ve been trained to experience Nolan’s mass consumer product as “gritty realism.”

Which is why it’s so hard to divorce Dark Knight Rises from its very real world context. This Batman wears his political colors on his bruised and bloodied knuckles. He doesn’t just war on crime. He wars on terror. The Nolans upgraded Heath Ledger’s psychologically devastating Joker to stadium-bombing terrorism and revolutionary anarchy. Joker wanted Batman’s soul. Bane wants America’s.

Despite the Obama campaign likening the villain Bane to the villainous Bain Capital, and Rush Limbaugh accusing liberal Hollywood of brainwashing voters against the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney isn’t the allegorized bad guy of the film. If anything, he’s the hero. Romney grew up in the same neighborhood as Bruce Wayne. The 99%, on the other hand, are played by Ann Hathaway. “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne,” says the world’s sexiest Robin Hood. “You and your friends better batten down the hatches. Because when it hits you’re all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”

Bruce is a 1%-er devoted to championing the status quo. He’s a vigilante because that’s what the job requires. Government brutality is unethical and, worse, ineffective. Nolan makes that clear from the opening scene. A CIA agent interrogates prisoners at gunpoint, ready to toss their corpses from a plane. Any sympathy—he’s only trying to protect us from Terrorism—tumbles through the open door too. America can’t employ violence without corrupting itself and fueling its enemies. We need a proxy. We need a guy in a freaky suit.

Or a three piece suit. In which both Christian Bale and Mitt Romney look significantly better. And expectations couldn’t be higher for either millionaire. Have the words “Oscar buzz” and “superhero” ever travelled in the same sentence before? Batman Begins grossed about $200 million, while The Dark Knight topped $500. Sequels aren’t supposed to do that. Neither are Presidential runs. Romney’s 2008 campaign was a flop, but the sequel raised over $100 million last month alone.

But Dark Knight success was largely due to the late Mr. Ledger, a performance gapingly absent from Rises. Instead we get Hathaway slinking next to Berry, Pfeiffer, and Kitt on the Catwalk of fame. Nolan fans might remember Tom Hardy from Inception (though probably not from that other franchise closer Star Trek 10, in which he plays Captain Picard’s younger yet equally bald clone). Bane is another bald villain, but this time Hardy has to roar his lines through a high-tech Hannibal Lechter mask. It’s a little better than Darth Vader, but Hardy’s eyes are only so emotive.

Still, the spectacle almost works. If Bane’s British accent is a bit muffled, well, so is his character. Does he want to Occupy Wall Street or behead it? The villain is a brawny reboot of the first 20th century supervillain, the guillotine-crazed Citizen Chauvelin of Baroness Orczy’s 1905 superhero ur-text, The Scarlet Pimpernel.  That author, unlike Nolan, was a deposed aristocrat, so I get why she pits her hero against French revolutionaries—those  “savage creatures,” as she terms them. But Batman belongs to the same ruling class elite as the Pimpernel. And Gotham’s proletariat is still “animated by vile passions, and by the lust of vengeance, and of hate.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Nolan literalizes the underclass by moving them to the sewers, but it’s those regular Joes working the cement trucks you really have to watch out for. They’re the devoted pawns of Bane’s socialist rhetoric, unaware that their leader is using them as political theater. The revolution is being televised to the humbled Bruce’s prison pit, which, although located somewhere in dusty Asia, is as accessible as the suburbs of Gotham.  Will Bruce regain his spirit and climb out in time to disarm the nuclear bomb?!

The retraining sequence and rematch bear an unfortunate resemblance to Rocky III, which pitted its symbol of American exceptionalism against the Evil Empire. America has since moved from cold war to class war. If Bane is a political parody, he’s Evil Obama. Dark Knight Rises is a right wing morality tale aimed at the 99%. Protest financial greed and look what happens!

But even though Warner Bros. has a lot to gain from the Romney’s promised 10% corporate tax cuts, they’re hedging their bets. Dark Knight Rises gives us a split ticket, Batman-Catwoman, a superheroic feat unthinkable but in the reality-warping universe of “gritty realism.” The now penniless Scarlet Pimpernel lends Robin Hood the keys to the batcycle and together they defeat Citizen Bane before retiring anonymously to the middle class.

I predict Dark Knight Rises will retire into its own anonymity long before the Oscar race. If it has any impact on White House politics, it will be as yet another horror story in the gun lobby saga. No superheroes swung to the rescue of the twelve theater goers murdered in Colorado opening night. That’s a real world tragedy far far beyond the reach of even the grittiest realism.

Instead of social revolution, the rest of us get what we always get, a Hollywood-financed extravaganza, right down to the grassroots. My son came home from summer camp every day last week spattered in black paint and Gorilla Glue. They were building a cardboard batcycle to be parked in front of our smallville theater opening night. It rained all weekend, so we never got to see it. My son didn’t complain though. He and all the other Batman campers were just grateful to be there.

Let them eat popcorn.

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Well, he’d like to be. Mr. Incredible was Santorum’s surprisingly witty answer when asked by nine-year-old Ari Garnick what superhero he most liked. (As previously discussed, the rest of the Republican field went with the yawningly obvious Superman. Republicans in Tights.)

Mr. Incredible is the dad from Pixar’s 2004 The Incredibles. It’s creator, Brad Bird, worked with a budget of $92 million and grossed over $631 million worldwide. Mr. Santorum’s 2011 fundraising budget was under $2.2 million. Until he swept Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri, then he pulled in as much in two days.

But Santorum wasn’t talking cashflow with Ari. He was talking family values: “I would have to go with the guy who played in The Incredibles, because he was a good dad, cared about his family, and cared about his community and tried to do what the right thing was.”

Unfortunately, the Incredibles aren’t the kind of family Mr. Santorum would ever value.

The Incredibles hid their true selves under the name Parr (get it?) because their community hated them for being “super.” Their country even passed legislation to prevent them from living in the open. Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl didn’t choose to have superpowers. Like Lady Gaga, they were born that way. And so were their three kids. Which means a life of pretending to be “normal.”

This is the America Santorum would create for gay people. He declared that homosexuality is the same as bigamy, incest and adultery. The legislation he has in mind is the Marriage Protection Amendment to prevent same-sex marriages anywhere in the country. He would even turn the military clock back to the days before Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell.

So what kind of families does Santorum value?

Well, he says old style “shotgun marriages” weren’t all that bad. And with abstinence-only sex education high on his agenda, you can count on a lot more of them. Fortunately, he’s making sure there are plenty of shotguns cocked and ready. He voted against trigger locks and background checks, and he doesn’t think anyone should ever sue a gun manufacturer. His abstinence plan is double barreled too, because he thinks it will stop poverty (although a higher minimum wage apparently won’t). Stricter divorce laws are in, and mandatory inoculations for children are out, as is public education and state mandated insurance (because then forced sterilization would be okay). English would be the “official” language, and, oh yeah, the division between church and state, that’s out too. Santorum’s American will be a Christian nation the same way Iran is a Muslim one.

So if you’re gay, non-English speaking, not a Christian, be prepared to live like the Parrs. Because under Santorum’s family values agenda, your family is all you’re going to have.

But that actually worked out pretty well for the Parrs. When Mr. Incredible got himself captured by the supervillain Syndrome (currently played by Mitt Romney), his wife snapped on her elastic tights and flew to his rescue. This despite Santorum’s insistence that women not perform combat duties because male soldiers will be distracted with rescuing the damsels-in-arms. (He must have been buying popcorn during Elastigirl’s scenes.)

Santorum also thinks women should stay at home, though he doesn’t seem to mind when Mrs. Santorum moonlights on his behalf. A devoted wife’s domestic chores include writing her husband’s book without receiving credit. Karen Santorum’s name doesn’t appear on the cover of It Takes a Family or in the list of names acknowledged for helping, but Rick recently explained that Karen wrote the section attacking “radical feminists.” When a passage was quoted to him, he said he’d never heard it before. So not only did he not write his own book, he didn’t bother reading it either. (And that might be the only thing he and I have in common.)

The book Santorum should read is Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel–and not because the hero sounds so gay (he’s the only superhero named after a flower). The Pimpernel is the savior of the aristocracy. When the working class rebels, he swoops in and rescues the idle rich. That’s the world Santorum thinks he’s living in under Obama’s liberal mob:  “When you marginalize faith in America, when you remove the pillar of God-given rights, then what’s left is the French Revolution. What’s left in France became the guillotine.” Santorum is even championing the division between the wealthy and the poor: “There is income inequality in America. There always has been and, hopefully, and I do say that, there always will be.” Since he also wants to dismantle the national education system that aids underprivileged children, more income inequality is a political promise he intends to keep.

So, let those home-schooled pregnant teen welfare mothers stay at home and eat cake from an English language cookbook and feed it to their closeted gay husbands after they all get home from church. (Which, sadly, maybe does sum up America.)

Since his three-state sweep, Mr. I-Want-To-Be-Incredible lost in Maine (another non-binding “beauty pageant”), but he tripled Gingrich’s numbers. Next week, it’s Arizona, Michigan and Washington. Then Super ten-state Tuesday a week after that. Despite his moment in the superhero spotlight, I’m praying Santorum, like The Incredibles, won’t have a sequel.

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