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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: The Shadow

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Superheroes just want to settle down and get married.

Or at least they used to. Spring-Heeled Jack, Night Wind, Gray Seal, Zorro, Blackshirt, most of the pre-Depression pulp crowd eventually hung up their masks and retired into the domestic oblivion of happily everafter.

Or tried to. Until their readers and publishers and writers demanded sequels. But once you’ve closed the marriage plot, it’s hard to pry it back open. Fortunately the early pulp writers invented a utility belt’s worth of solutions, all still in use:

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1) Poker Night.

Yes, darling, we’re married now, but I still have my manly pastimes.

Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel kept it up for decades. Ditto for Graham Montague Jeffries’ Blackshirt. Just one problem though. No more titillating romantic subplot. The hero is domesticated, all that manly excess bunched neatly into his briefs. For Frederic van Rensselaer Dey’s Night Wind, that meant promising his new bride to stop breaking the arms of police officers who foolishly got in his way. By the second sequel, the speedster superman was barely using any of his mutant powers, and his series quietly petered away.

Domestication has proved equally disastrous for modern heroes. The mid-90’s Lois & Clark: the New Adventures of Superman enjoyed stellar ratings, right up to the wedding episode, after which viewership nosedived and the show was cancelled. Marriage is kryptonite. Even Orczy and Jeffries had to switch to other family members (sons and ancestors) to keep their plots going.

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2) Dial M.

Wife holding you down? No problem. Just kill her.

Thanks so much, Louis Joseph Vance, for introducing this heartless trope in the first of your seven Lone Wolf sequels.  Though his 1914 gentleman thief had happily settled down with the law enforcement agent who lovingly reformed him, Vance dispatches her between books, mentioning her death in passing chapter one dialogue. When Hollywood adapted Robert Ludlum’s first Bourne Identity sequel, they made sure we got to witness the girlfriend’s death (Ludlum, in chivalrous contrast, only sent her off to stay with relatives.)

It’s a grim choice, but one that acknowledges narrative logic. For the superhero to marry, he usually unmasks and retires, and so ending the retirement also ends the marriage. Happily everafter is also a hard place to scrape up plot conflict. In 1973, when Marvel could no longer write around Spider-Man’s eight years of romantic contentment, they shoved his girlfriend off a bridge. Gwen Stacy (and the Silver Age of comics) died with a SNAP! of her too happy neck. Gwen’s 2014 death had a similar effect on the Spider-Man film franchise.

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3) Groundhog Day.

Marriage? What marriage?

Johnston McCulley is responsible for the first superhero reboot. When Douglass Fairbanks donned Zorro’s mask and turned an obscure vigilante hero into an international icon, McCulley simply ignored the ending of his own novel  when he wrote his first sequel. Zorro did not unmask, he did not retire, and he certainly didn’t run off and get married.

This solution remains annoyingly common. After two decades of marital bliss between Peter Parker and Mary Jane, Marvel signed a deal with the devil (Mephisto in the comic) and rebooted an unmarried Spider-Man in 2008. Like Zorro, Peter had also unmasked publicly, an event erased from the minds of all onlookers (but not, alas, all readers). Lois and Clark, who were married (like their short-lived TV counterparts) in 1996, suffered the same fate when DC rebooted their entire, romantically-challenged universe in 2011. In fact, the very idea of the reboot came from the editorial staff’s frustration with the Lane-Kent status quo and how its innate dullness prevented them from cooking up a new Superman love triangle.

However you handle it, marriage is hell on a writer. But the last solution is my favorite:

4) Perpetual Foreplay.

Frank Packard ended his first Gray Seal book with an implied bang. His proto-Batman waltzes off-stage with his superheroine girlfriend, unmasked nuptials to follow. But when bad guys and good sales returned the hero to active duty in 1919, the door to their bedroom bliss slammed shut. Since the Gray Seal’s do-gooding adventures were motivated not by revenge or altruism but superheroic lust for his bride-to-be, Packard needed to stretch out their romance plot. His four sequels offer increasingly frustrating reasons for why the lovers must remain divided.

Awkward as it sounds, Packard’s approach became the strategy of choice among 1930s pulp writers facing the titillating prospect of unlimited sequels.

Starting in 1933, The Spider magazine published a novella every month for a decade. Wealthy socialite Richard Wentworth fights crime as a costumed vigilante while also courting (and putting off) fiancé Nita Van Sloan. Norvell Page (writing under the house name Grant Stockbridge) tells us Wentworth must “sacrifice his hopes of personal happiness” because “the Spider could never marry,” could never “take on the responsibilities of wife and children” while continuing his crime-fighting mission.” Fortunately, Nita, like the Gray Seal’s would-be wife, is endlessly patient.

When William Gibson and Edward Hale Bierstadt adapted Gibson’s The Shadow for radio, they decided the lonely-hearted hero could use a fiancé too. The 1937 premier introduces Lamont Cranston and Margo Lane sipping coffee in his private library, as she begs him to end his career as the Shadow. He’d promised her as much five years ago when their courtship began, but Lamont, like Richard, feels “there is still so much to do” before he can settle down and unmask. “No, Margo,” he explains, “no one must know, no one but you.” And Margo, the ever dutiful (though ever jilted) help-mate, agrees.

But these women aren’t dupes either. They keep their own keys to the batcave. Nita is the Spider’s “best alley in the battle against crime,” “the one woman in the world who knew his secrets.” And Lamont calls the good accomplished by the Shadow “our activities.” Without Margo’s leg work, half of Gibson’s radio plots would stall.

But what other shared “activities” are these couple up to?

Page seems straight-forward enough: “Greatly they loved.” Nita and Richard (would you believe she calls him “Dick”?) share “pleasurable moments together,” though of course “all too brief.” How pleasurable? Page never penned a sex scene, but it’s clear Nina has access to Richard’s bedroom when she leaves him notes while he’s sleeping off a night of adventuring. As far as the Shadow, Alan Moore says it best in Watchmen: “I’d never been entirely sure what Lamont Cranston was up to with Margo Lane, but I’d bet it wasn’t near as innocent and wholesome as Clark Kent’s relationship with her namesake Lois.”

Since unmasking is the climax of the superhero romance plot, these lovers know each other in every sense. The marriage plots never technically closes, but pulp readers knew what was happening between the covers.

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Death is a hard box to climb out of. But that’s how Harry Houdini made his living. The escape artist has been dead eighty-nine years, and he’s still scraping at the lid.

His latest trick is The Grim Game, a 1919 silent film serial thought lost for decades. Turner Movie Classics is resurrecting it for a second world premier during the TMC Classic Film Festival the weekend of March 28. It includes the near death of Houdini’s double, Robert E. Kennedy, who dangled from a rope as two stunt planes accidentally collided before gliding to crash-landings. When Houdini later described the film shoot, he substituted himself for Kennedy. He’d been performing that sort of body switch his whole career.

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Houdini’s first trick was called Metamorphosis, and he started performing it in 1893. I saw a version of it on my sister’s high school stage when I was fourteen. A magician is hand-cuffed, tied into a sack, and padlocked into a crate. An assistant stands on the crate, lifts a sheet above her head, and when she drops it on the count of three, the magician is standing in her place. When he unlocks the crate, there she is, sack-tied and hand-cuffed. When Harry Houdini performed it with his wife in Dusseldorf in 1900, a reporter explained how it’s done:

“In dematerialization, or the phenomenon of self-dissolving, the force of attraction and cohesion between molecules is overcome. As has been proven through innumerable examples, every body can in this way be brought in an aetheric condition and therefore, with the help of an astral stream, be transported from one place to another with incredible speed. In the same instant the power used for dematerialization is retrieved; the aetheric pressure again shows the molecules, which again take on their original local and former shape.”

Although he started his career as a medium, the only superpower Houdini ever claimed was “photographic eyes,” and that only worked for memorizing locks. He did train himself to breathe so “quietly” he could last an hour and half in a soldered coffin. Other skills involved inserting and removing objects from his throat and anus. Mostly though he understood pain.

Germany called him uncanny, a Napoleon, a limitations-defying Faust. Russians debated whether his supernatural powers were evil. Spiritualists in the U.S. and U.K. applauded his act, “one of nature’s profoundest miracles,” lamenting that audiences mistook it for just “a very clever trick.” Drama queen Sarah Bernhardt asked him to grow back her severed leg. “She honestly thought I was superhuman,” Houdini told reporters.

He also told reporters that “it is only right that what brain and gifts I have should benefit humanity in some other way than merely entertaining people.” Jerry Siegel was two at the time, but Clark Kent would similarly decide “he must turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind.”

Houdini played a superhero of sorts in his film serial The Master Mystery, shot the year before The Grim Game. A mild-mannered lab tech is secretly Department of Justice agent Quentin Locke. He battles Q the Automaton, a metal “Frankenstein” that “possesses a human brain which has been transplanted into it and made to guide it” as a “conscienceless inhuman superman.” Actually, Q turns out to be a metal suit slightly clunkier than Iron Man’s original, and Houdini squanders his screen time writhing out of ropes and whatnot.

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He also battled a band of Bedouins serving a “hellish ghoul-spirit of the elder Nile sorcery.” H.P. Lovecraft ghost-wrote the purportedly autobiographical sketch, but only after telling his Weird Tales editor that Houdini was a “bimbo” and a “boob.” (A friend of mine, poet-turned-horror-writer Scott Nicolay, mailed me a copy of “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” padlocked in a canvas bag that I still can’t get open.) Houdini’s other ghosts penned him a detective thriller, The Zanetti Mystery, the sleuthing spirit Daniel Stashower has been keeping alive in a series of Houdini novels, even pairing him with Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Ectoplasmic Man.

Sherlock does not believe Houdini could walk through brick walls “by reducing his entire body to ectoplasm . . . the stuff of spirit emanations.” But Sherlock’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, did. “My dear chap,” he asked Houdini, “why go around the world seeking a demonstration of the occult when you are giving one all the time? My reason tells me that you have this wonderful power, for there is no alternative.” After his son’s death and his wife’s convenient discovery of medium skills, the evangelical Doyle toured the globe giving lectures for the Spiritualist cause. He and Houdini were both psychical investigators and so instant frenemies, each casting the other as his Moriarty. Like Professor X and Magneto, Doyle tried to persuade Houdini to use his powers for good: “Such a gift is not given to one in a hundred million, that he should amuse the multitude or amass a fortune.”

Houdini listened. He dedicated his brain and gifts to fighting Doyle’s ghoul-spirit religion. He kept X-Files full of criminal mediums and employed a band of undercover operatives, his “own secret service department,” to infiltrate congregations across the U.S. He proved himself a master-of-disguise, donning wigs and beards and plaster noses to sneak into séances and expose fakes swindling the bereaved. Like Batman, the memory of his mother drove him, that and the certainty that if the dead could communicate to the living, surely she would have reached her doting son in at least one of his endless attempts.  Houdini’s wife took up a similar cause after his death.

When I saw Metamorphosis performed, the magician invited an audience member onto stage to inspect the crate and cuffs. A seventeen-year-old Walter Gibson had that privilege in 1915. He became one of Houdini’s ghost-writers succeeded him as president of the Society of American Magicians. He waited four years before publishing Houdini’s Escapes and Magic. CBS’s Detective Story Hour premiered in 1930 too. The radio show featured an omniscient narrator with a demonic laugh and knowledge of the hearts of men. When listeners couldn’t find the character on newsstands, the publishers phoned Gibson, and he wrote the premiere novella for The Shadow Magazine, the first of 282 he would pen.

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In The Ghost Makers, the Shadow battles phony spiritualists, but when CBS hired Orson Welles to star in a 1937 radio reboot, Gibson dumped the band of operatives and sent his master-of-disguise “to India, to Egypt, to China . . . to learn the old mysteries that modern science has not yet rediscovered, the natural magic . . .”

My sister was on stage during the whole performance. She was one of those dancing distractions Houdini used too. The cuffs were fake, the sack opened at the bottom, and the crate lid pivoted on a hidden hinge. But everything else was real.

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The short answer: Sort of.

Bob Kane never drew the dynamic duo in an intentionally compromising position, but were the two having sex in the gutters between the panels?

Can’t say. That’s the point of the comic book gutter. It requires the reader to fill in the narrative gap. If you read sex in that space, then sex it is. Frederic Wertham certainly did, and lots of it.

In his 1954  Seduction of the Innocent, Wertham famously explains: “Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and of the psychopathology of sex can fail to realize a subtle atmosphere of homoerotism which pervades the adventures of the mature ‘Batman’  and his young friend ‘Robin.’ . . . They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler, Alfred. Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown. . . . It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together. Sometimes they are shown on a couch, Bruce reclining and Dick sitting next to him, jacket off, collar open, and his hand on his friend’s arm. . . . [Robin] often stands with his legs spread, the genital region discreetly evident.”

Wertham is great fun to lampoon, but the question remains: What about Batman and Robin encourages someone, anyone, to read in sex?

The long answer:

Batman was a throwback to the mystery men of the 1930’s pulps. Bill Finger plagiarized the first “Bat-man” episode from a monthly Shadow novella published three years earlier. Though mystery men like the Shadow and the Spider never settled down and married, they did have partners, fiancées who knew exactly what was under their heroes’ costumes.

Alan Moore (through the fictional autobiography of a retired superhero in Watchmen) identifies “the repressed sex-urge” of the pulps (“I’d never been entirely sure what Lamont Cranston was up to with Margo Lane . . . .”), sensing that these heroes and their fiancées were not entirely “innocent and wholesome.” Writers like Walter Gibson and Norvell Page couldn’t depict sex, but they sure knew how to imply it.

For Batman’s fifth episode, Gardner Fox inserted a pulp-standard fiancée, Julie Madison, a character even Batman forgets after Robin debuts a few issues later. Comic book superheroes had a new breed of helpmate to share their secrets. Fiancées were out, and sidekicks were in. In addition to knowing all the ins and outs of Bruce’s Batcave, the Boy Wonder fulfills the same plot roles. “Like the girls in other stories,” observes Wertham, “Robin is sometimes held captive by the villains,” something Julie never got to do after her first appearance.

The narrative gaps in the Shadow’s and the Spider’s stories lured many readers’ minds to the gutter, a ploy to titillate without stepping into censorable sexuality. I doubt Bob Kane and his DC cohorts intended the same, but when they plumbed old stories for new material, they brought the pulps’ sexual baggage with it. As a result, Batman and Robin’s sexuality is hilariously ambiguous, but with no way to prove or disprove Wertham’s or anyone else’s claims.

The short answer: Batman and Robin are as gay as you want them to be.

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