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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Thor

I’m teaching my Superheroes seminar again this Spring term at Washington & Lee University, and Marvel very kindly scheduled The Avengers to fit on the syllabus. So my students and I abandoned our classroom and strolled downtown to our smallville theater. Here’s their analytical verdict.

Ryan Scott: “Though The Avengers features many of today’s biggest film stars and relies upon state-of-the-art special effects, in many ways the film harkens back to the earliest superhero comics, especially in the level of violence carried out by the heroes.  Just as the original Superman of Siegel and Shuster flings his enemies into the sunset, so do the Avengers rack up an impressive body count in the film’s climatic battle.  And just as Bob Kane’s Batman packs a pistol in his first few appearances, so do Captain America, Black Widow, and Nick Fury spend much of the film shooting their enemies.”

Lauren Woodie: “One of the main themes that I have observed in my reading of superhero comics is the superhero’s ability to act above the law. Superman constantly takes the law into his own hands and will sometimes even fight against the police. This theme is highlighted in “The Avengers” mainly by the fact that the Avengers operate under the control of an organization called Shield, which seems to transcend all governments much like the superheroes it encompasses.”

Mihai Cirstea: “To viewers like myself, who are not avid followers of the superhero genre, The Avengers was successfully appealing because of its constant humor that lightens up the heavier comic book influences. The scene that I found particularly amusing was when the Hulk smashes Loki back and forth against the floor like a rag doll. Stark’s humor, of course, also adds levity to the movie with his constant sarcasm. These moments of humor reminded me of the Superman comics, in which Siegel often offset the heavy plot with a snarky quip from his hero.”

Marie Spear: “To my surprise, I found that I had to stop myself from reading into all the different tropes and traits we have looked at class while watching The Avengers so that I could focus on the fun happening onscreen. I like how the director was able to bring in heavy undertones like god vs. science, such as with Thor, or the struggle of dual identities, and still have the movie be a ton of fun. My only criticism is that it is a little too long.”

Anna DiBenedetto: “Whedon’s The Avengers takes a comical stance on the powerful and almighty superhero triumph.  After the Hulk and Thor have a battle against one another on the starship, in a later scene, after they have both teamed up to defeat the flying, bad fish, they are standing over the dead corpse.  Then after a moment of silence, the Hulk punches out his left hand and sends Thor flying away.”

Paul Nguyen:  “The foremost appeal was the action and hilarity, but besides that, there was an intriguing use of superheroes of many types. None fell into the shadow of another. Captain America’s patriotism was well emphasized as well as his physical prowess. Thor’s god-like presence was well felt, but his obvious superiority to the others did not overshadow the overall awesomeness of the Avengers. Iron Man’s wittiness came through well. Hulk’s violent hilarity was strong, especially in his thrashing of Loki. It was about the superheroes as a whole rather than a single superior superhero.”

Anna Dorsett: “The Avengers, while thoroughly entertaining, does not skim over the darker portions of a superhero’s struggle. Dr. Banner, for example, overcomes his inner struggle and finds balance with his human self and super human self with the acceptance and support of the Avengers- he, as a human, found a positive purpose for his destructive power, which he formerly despised. Each character has incredible power, but also a weakness within- some form of humanity that works against them to give the storyline more drama and make the character more relatable. It’s a great thing to watch.”

Nick Lehotsky: “The Avengers proves entertaining, reflecting the reversed tropes seen in superheroes like Hancock. The indifferent, often aggressive attitude society maintains towards these “freaks” because of their massive property damage and pseudo-celebrity attitudes [I’m looking at you, Tony Stark] still resonates with audiences. It is as if we are continually perplexed by the superhero’s interactions with our society, and the hope that they shall always continue saving humanity. The Avengers is just what it is promised to be-a witty, action packed, Marvel stamped [via Disney] money making monster. I just hope the sequel provides more character depth.”

Adele Irwin: “I found the relationship between Tony Stark and Bruce Banner to be the most intriguing. Each as individuals are likable characters with level headedness, senses of humor, and scientific intellect. Their friendship within the Avengers is appealing because they bond before the entire group comes together. Rarely have alliances between Superheroes been seen up to this point in our reading, making the collaboration between these two characters within the Avengers group entertaining and original to me, taking the superhero trope of selflessness to an entire new level.”

Shannon Nollet: “The Avengers, unlike some of the earlier superhero stories, gives a female a strong role. Not only is the Black Widow human, but she is able to fight the aliens just as well, if not better, than her male companions. No longer are the women simply the damsel in distress or doting love-interest. In Whedon’s The Avengers, women fully take part in the action.”

Chris Levy: “Each character has a well-defined fatal flaw, and these flaws almost lead to the failure of their mission. Tony Stark has major humility issues, threatening his ability to work with the others. Captain America’s long slumber has caused him to be somewhat outdated. Thor is not mortal, and thus does not truly understand human behavior. As the Hulk, Dr. Banner’s flaw is obvious, while the Black Widow struggles to put her dark past behind her. These characters are superhuman, yet still struggle with flaws like every other human.”

Zabriawn Smith: “My favorite character and message was Captain America. The time capsule jokes by Tony Stark were hilarious, but when it came time to battle it the old stars and stripes that led the way. I enjoyed the theme of returning to roots to move forward. He had a lot more edge than he did in the comics; seeing Captain America allow one of his teammates push his buttons was startling and eye-opening.”

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“The trend in uniform design is more toward making costumes for superheroes than uniforms for athletes.”

That’s ESPN reporter Paul Lukas. He’s also the editor of Uni-Watch.com. A website devoted not to sport teams but their uniforms. Lukas is not a fan of U of Maryland’s new string of high fashion helmets and jerseys. Under Armour (they’re designing all of Maryland’s varsity uniforms) is championing the new menswear trend of garishly bright colors.

But it’s not new for comic books. Joe Shuster’s Superman made the first superheroic fashion statement seventy years ago. And comic book heroes are still working the runways.

George Perez and Jesus Merino just retailored the Man of Steel’s skintight threads with a Kryptonian armor design (the red briefs have, mysteriously, vanished). And Sara Pichelli stitched a sassy new suit for Ultimate Spider-Man (the black and red is almost as bold as the brown skin underneath it).

In Hollywood, superhero costume design is its own industry. Look at just this year’s super fashion:

Designer Anna B. Sheppard trashed the spandex and went with a looser fitting cut for Captain America. The leather straps and metal buckles say “1940’s.”

Alexandra Byrne was thinking “ancient modernism” for Thor. The biggest challenge was the cape, which had to merge “completely believable” with the “sublimely magical.”

Ngila Dickson abandoned real-world fabrics. The Green Lantern costume is entirely motion-captured computer graphics.

David E. Kelley recently shot a Wonder Woman pilot for NBC, but his Amazon’s costume make-over didn’t make it into the fall line-up. Despite all the film fashion fun, the only superhero costumes on TV are on ESPN. Primetime heroes won’t touch them.

Syfy’s Alphas launched last summer. The team of superpowered government agents fight evil mutants in their street clothes. There’s not as much as a logo on their lapels.

Across the Atlantic, the BBC’s Misfits sport matching orange jumpsuits, but only because the characters are juvenile offenders clocking community service hours.

NBC’s Heroes solidified the trend in 2006, but it was the CW’s 2001 Superboy adaptation, Smallville, that first scissorsed the costume off a superhero.

The 1993 Lois and Clark, the 1988 Superboy, and the 1990 The Flash series all still featured their hero’s iconic wardrobes. Which was part of the problem.

“The appearance of realism in a super-hero costume,” explains Michael Chabon, “made from real materials is generally recognized to be difficult to pull off.” In fact, he goes on, it’s “hopeless” because the true superhero costume exists only on paper.

This is most obviously and hilariously true in the earliest attempts to move superheroes from comic books to screen. If you don’t admire Anna B. Sheppard’s Captain America, take a look at the 1944 film serial.

Adam West’s Batman could get away with leotarded camp in the 60’s. William Katt’s Greatest American Hero still could fifteen years later. The goofiness of their costumes was part of the appeal. But Tim Burton raised the bar with Batman in 1989. Low-budget leotards no longer cut it. Michael Keaton in Bob Ringwood’s award-winning batsuit changed the playing field. The 2000 X-Men said it outright: leather is better.

At least on the big screen. Responding to the same challenge, TV designers opted for a simpler solution. If it’s hopeless, why try?

Stan Lee never liked costumes anyway. “I always felt if I had a superpower,” Lee says in Confessions of a Superhero, “there’s no way I would wear a costume. I’m a show-off; I’d want everybody to [know]–I wouldn’t wear a mask, conceal my identity. And I wouldn’t want to look like some idiot in a costume.”

When he and Jack Kirby posed their first superhero team on the cover of a Marvel comic book in 1961, the Fantastic Four were no more fashion forward than the Alphas. The Thing made his debut in a men’s clothing store (“I’m sorry, mister, I just don’t have anything big enough for a man your size!”). It’s not till issue three that Invisible Girl reveals her secret superpower:

“Susan! You designed a costume for yourself!”

“And for you, too! It’s time we all had some colorful costumes!”

But now the anti-fashion fashion is filtering back into comic books. When Grant Morrison and Rags Morales revamped Action Comics, they made the most radical costume choice imaginable: Superman in work boots, blue jeans, and a t-shirt. There’s still an ‘S’ on his chest and a cape on his back, but the iconic unitard of the original comic book superhero is gone.

These surface changes are more than just surface changes. In comic books, costume is character. A change in tights is a change in meaning. The spandex look has marked superheroes as exotic outsiders since the 30’s. They fight for humanity, but their second skins separate them. They remain alien and so alienated.

Or they did. When TV’s Alphas or Misfits or Heroes perform extraordinary abilities in ordinary clothes, they are also performing their humanity. They are just people. People with really freaky skill sets, but at their core (which is a product of their surface) they are human. While their big screen brothers want to remain larger than life, the 21st century TV superhero is dressed for small-scale integration. We all pull our pants on one leg at a time.

So if you’re a costume connoisseur, stick with college football.

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Cameron asks: “Dad, do you think Thor could beat Odin?”

This is after one of our daily games of chess. I used to beat him effortlessly, replaying the same basic game I stole from my father when I was his age. Then Cameron came home from chess club one afternoon and checkmated me in four moves.

“No,” I say. “Absolutely not. Fathers,” I explain, “are always always more powerful than sons. Odin was so strong he could strip Thor of his powers and cast him down to earth as a mere mortal.”

“That was just in the movie,” Cameron says, “not real mythology.” Then he cites the Greeks, how Zeus defeated Chronos, how Chronos defeated his father before that. My son has not, thankfully, read Oedipus Rex yet.

I prefer comic books. Thor misbehaves and his dad grounds him, strips his memory, makes him think he’s a human being, even gives him a gimpy leg. Or that’s how Stan Lee and Jack Kirby let their story evolve. Originally the human self was the real self, just some guy who happens upon a magic cane that changes into Thor’s hammer.

It’s a fun idea for a superhero, one of the few in the Lee-Kirby-Ditko pantheon that doesn’t involve some kind of mutating radiation.

But Lee wasn’t struck by a God-sent bolt of originality when he dreamed it up. He stole the idea from Pierce Rice and Wright Lincoln.  Their 1940 “Thor, God of Thunder” wears a cape and carries a hammer that boomerangs back to him when he throws it. He looks down at Earth and declares: “I will invest an ordinary mortal with my great power.”

Stan Lee stole most of his superpowers from his elders.

Imitating DC’s Silver Age reboots of Flash and Green Lantern, Lee kept the original Human Torch’s name and powers while penning him a new identity and origin. As far as the rest of the Fantastic Four:

Mr. Fantastic was a standard (Jack Cole’s Plastic Man, Klaus Nordling’s Thin Man, plus John Broome and Carmine Infantino’s Elongated Man created the year before).

Invisibility was the ur-power of Golden Age superheroines (Russell Stamm’s Scarlet O’Neil,Will Eisner and Jerry Iger’s Phantom Lady).

The Thing, like the instant knock-off Hulk, was a Godzilla-era Frankenstein of the kind populating monster movies and comics throughout the fifties.

The rest of Lee’s Asgard was no more original:

Spider-Man lifted his name from Norvell Page’s pulp hero The Spider, and Daredevil from Jack Binder’s Daredevil. Lee didn’t have to leave the Marvel archives to find George Kapitan and Harry Sahle’s Black Widow. The first comic book Iron Man was Quality Comics’s Bozo the Iron Man. Cyclops’s eye ray and visor belong to Jack Cole’s Comet. There was even a 1941 Black Panther. (The X-Men may bear an uncanny resemblance to DC’s Doom Patrol, but that’s a different kind of theft.)

Most of these characters are comic book footnotes, evidence of how thoroughly Lee and his Silver Age offspring defeated their Golden Age parents.

When Stanley Lieber (he didn’t legally change his name till the seventies) started at Martin Goodman’s pulp publishing company, he was barely out of high school. His cousin, Mrs. Goodman, got him the job. Jack Kirby was art director at the time. Little Stanley filled Mr. Kirby’s and the other artists’ inkwells, fetched their lunches, proofed their pages, even erased their stray pencil marks.

When Kirby and his crew jumped ship to DC for better pay, Goodman made his lone employee, his wife’s baby cousin, interim editor. Lee was eighteen. Rice and Lincoln’s Thor debuted the same year.

When Kirby left DC in the fifties, Lee was still behind the editor’s desk, but with “in-chief” instead of “interim” in his title. Lee rehired Kirby not as art director (Lee held that title too) but for freelance work at Goodman’s lousy page rate.

Kirby was only five years older, but he still thought of the former office assistant as a kid. When recalling the near collapse of Goodman’s company in 1957, Kirby described Lee as barely out of adolescence (he was 35). Kirby cast himself in the father role, comforting his weeping kid-boss with promises that he would take care of everything (Lee remembered it a little differently).

Either way, when Goodman ordered Lee to write an imitation of DC’s new Justice League of America, Kirby was there to draw it. Together the two created the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Iron Man, Black Panther, and the X-Men. They even resurrected Golden Agers Captain America, Sub-Mariner, and the original Human Torch.

They also pioneered the famed Marvel Method. Instead of writing panel-by-panel scripts, Lee simply described an often vague story idea and Kirby would return with fully drawn pages, the word balloons empty for Lee (or another employee) to add wise-cracking dialogue. Kirby’s pen soon defined the Marvel look, with new artists required to imitate the house style.

The Method broke down by the late sixties, with both Kirby and Steve Ditko, Lee’s other key collaborator, fleeing Marvel. Martin Goodman followed them. Lee’s boss sold his family business to a corporation in 1968, but stayed on as publisher until 1972 when Lee replaced him. Goodman started another comic company, introducing its own superpowered pantheon, but they couldn’t hold their own against Marvel in the marketplace.

Little Stanley vanquished his Uncle Martin.

Cameron and I saw Thor on a father-son outing in a mall in downtown Melbourne last April. Kenneth Branagh and his writers overthrew Lee and Kirby’s secret identity plot. This Thor plops to earth like a steroid-pumped asteroid, his memories intact. I was more impressed with the mall—a massive super-structure with a domed glass roof built over a historic factory tower. The new owners didn’t destroy the old building, they preserved, while changing everything about it.

What Branagh did to Lee and Kirby. What Lee and Kirby did to Norse mythology.

Kirby died in 1994, the year Marvel’s top artists rebelled and formed their own company, sending Marvel into bankruptcy. Marvel Entertainment has since been purchased by Disney for $4 billion and its pantheon transformed into a string of Hollywood blockbusters.

Now Kirby’s children are suing for shared copyright on the Lee-Kirby creations.Marvel says Kirby was an independent operator employed on a “work for hire” basis and so exempt from creative credit.

Lee always described him as an equal partner, but in his 2010 deposition, he toed the Marvel corporate line. The art director that the teen Stanley used to fetch lunch for in 1940 was just one of Lee’s hired pens taking the equivalent of artistic dictation in the 1960’s.

Another father vanquished.

That’s how comic book mythology is written. Retroactively. The past can always be changed. When Kirby handed Lee his finished art pages, Lee started filling in Thor’s dialogue balloons with “thee” and “thy.” Pretty soon one of them noticed their main character wasn’t just some guy with Thor’s powers. He was Thor. So they followed their own lead and explained away his secret identity as a spell Odin had cast on him. He’d been Thor in disguise from the beginning; they just hadn’t known it yet.

Cameron liked the movie. It had funny bits and some good battle scenes. I liked the ending, how the repentant son apologizes to his dad for being such a jerk. But the most complex character is Loki. Everyone thinks he’s Odin’s bastard son, but he was secretly adopted from the frost giants. Either way, it’s hard on the poor kid. He kills his biological father just to prove his worth.

If you’re planning to rent the DVD, I’d be quick. The story could be overwritten by the next generation of writers at any moment. It wasn’t memorable enough for Cameron to watch a second time. He’d rather play chess.

My game’s improved, so we’re pretty even again.  For now.

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