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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Todd McFarlane

GHR-01s

I started reading comics as a kid at a particularly satanic moment. Not only had vampires and werewolves crashed through the gatekeeping Comic Code, but the literal Son of Satan demanded his own title in 1973. My favorite supernatural superhero though was the demonic motorcyclist Ghost Rider. Marvel writer Gary Friedrich said the flaming skull idea was his. In fact, Friedrich said the whole character was and sued a few weeks after Columbia released their first Ghost Rider movie (it barely broke even, so I’m still confused how Nicholas Cage managed a sequel). In the comic, Friedrich wrote about the Evel Knievel-inspired Johnny Blaze signing away rights to his soul to save his adoptive father from cancer. A U.S. District Judge wrote in her court opinion that Friedrich had signed his rights away to Marvel.

It’s a diabolically common comic book plot, dating back to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster signing DC-owner Harry Donnenfeld’s standard contract and handing their mobster boss Superman for $130. But that wasn’t the first superhero deal with the devil.

faust and devil

When Mephistopheles offered to be Faust’s “servant,” the wizened scholar wisely asked “how must I thy services repay?” demanding “the condition plainly be exprest!” In exchange for his soul (“under-signest merely with a drop of blood”), Faust wanted superhuman knowledge. He’d exhausted all human study—philosophy, medicine, jurisprudence, theology—but was “no nearer to the infinite.” Goethe introduces him alone in his study, moments before conjuring his first spirit:

Therefore myself to magic I give,
In hope, through spirit-voice and might,
Secrets now veiled to bring to light,
That I no more, with aching brow,
Need speak of what I nothing know;
That I the force may recognise
That binds creation’s inmost energies;
Her vital powers, her embryo seeds survey,
And fling the trade in empty words away.

Goethe published the first half of his dramatic poem Faust in 1808, based on the German alchemist Johann Georg Faust who supposedly died in a laboratory explosion when the devil came to collect him personally (the German Church had said the two were in league). An anonymous historian included their actual contract, complete with its legalistic “whereas” and “whereof” jargon, in the first 1587 compilation of the legend. Christopher Marlowe introduced the doctor to English audiences two decades later, but I prefer Goethe’s version. His Faust is the first superman. One of the spirits he conjures asks: “What vexes you, oh Ubermensch!”

Friedrich Nietzsche famously adopted the term, but only after reading Lord Byron’s dramatic poem Manfred while still in school. Young Friedrich called Byron’s Faustian knock-off an “Ubermensch who commands the spirits” and felt “profoundly related to this work,” preferring it over Goethe’s. Byron first heard Faust the summer the Shelleys visited his Geneva manor. Mary Shelley began Frankenstein that same visit, and her mad scientist, like Byron’s mad magician, inherited Faust’s “ardent mind,/ Which unrestrain’d still presses on for ever.” All three o’erleapt the human sphere to know what “Doth for the Deity alone subsist!”

I teach playwriting, so if either poet showed up in class, we’d have to have a very long discussion about the word “dramatic.” Though equally unstageable, Manfred is Faust minus Mephistopheles, a subtraction that probably won over the impressionable Nietzsche. Manfred doesn’t barter his soul to anyone but his diabolical self. His powers were “purchased by no compact” but “by superior science,” “strength of mind,” and a whole lotta “daring.” He accepts his approaching death, but defies “The Power which summons me,” refusing “to render up my soul to” the demonic spirit he orders “Back to thy hell! Thou hast no power upon me.”

Thou didst not tempt me, and thou couldst not tempt me;
I have not been thy dupe, nor am thy prey—
But was my own destroyer, and will be
My own hereafter

The abbot at Manfred’s side urges him to pray for salvation, but Manfred will have none of that either, content to “die as I have lived—alone.” His soul takes its earthless flight, whither the abbot dreads to think. He means Hell, which is where Marlowe sent his Faust in the last act of his tragedy, dragged down like Don Giovanni by the Commandatore’s statue. But the first part of Goethe’s trajedie ends with the repentant Faust’s arrival in Heaven—another reason for Nietzsche to prefer Byron’s ubermensch.

After Manfred, Byron started composing his satiric epic Don Juan, leaping from a damned alchemist named John to a damned womanizer named John. George Bernard Shaw landed in Byron’s footsteps when he modernized Don Juan as an aristocratic eugenicist in his 1903 play Man and Superman—the first time Nietzsche’s “ubermensch” is translated “superman.” Shaw’s John, however, never signs his soul away, just his life when in his last act he submits to marriage—an institution he’d opposed as an obstacle to breeding supermen. He wants to populate the planet with a race of goodlooking philosopher-athletes.

Goethe’s Faust could have demanded invulnerability and super-strength, but his superpowers seem more noble:

The scope of all my powers henceforth be this,
To bare my breast to every pang,—to know
In my heart’s core all human weal and woe,
To grasp in thought the lofty and the deep,
Men’s various fortunes on my breast to heap,
And thus to theirs dilate my individual mind,
And share at length with them the shipwreck of mankind.

Compare that to one of the more recent soul-selling superheroes, Todd McFarlane’s Spawn. When the former CIA assassin died, he made a deal with a demon to see his wife again—and next thing he’s sporting a necroplasmic body with superhuman strength and infinite regenerative powers. He battles angels, demons, and a range of human thugs—but not publishers. McFarlane was one of a group of artists who rebelled against Marvel’s “work for hire” requirement that employees give up all ownership rights—a policy they reversed when they formed Image Comics in 1992. Spawn was one of the company’s first titles.

spawn 8

I applaud their business practices, but when I picked up Spawn No. 8 from a magazine shelf in my local bookstore, I was horrified. It seemed my favorite writer, Alan Moore, had sold not his soul but his signature intelligence when penning the script. But I’m still glad it sold well, and even spawned a movie that grossed more than Ghost Rider. Meanwhile, Siegel, Shuster, and their heirs have spent decades battling the Mephistophelean DC. Their lawsuits kept the Hollywood Superman in Development Hell for a few years—a 2008 judge almost stripped DC of the copyright—but Warner Bros’ lawyer minions always win in appeals. Marlowe sent his Faust shrieking into Hell, but maybe someday the spirits of the U.S. court system will answer his final prayer:

Let Faustus live in hell a thousand years,

A hundred thousand, and at last be sav’d!

i have had enough

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McFarlane's Angela

“We just happen to show a little more skin when we get to the ladies,” says Image Comics artist Todd McFarlane, explaining that the portrayal of women as sex objects in comics is a natural byproduct of the genre’s generally exaggerated style. “As much as we stereotype the women, we also do it with the guys. They are all beautiful. So we actually stereotype both sexes.”

McFarlane was trying to plug the PBS documentary Superheroes: The Never Ending Battle (it starts October 8), but his comments, and those of Kick-Ass writer Mark Millar trivializing rape (“I don’t really think it matters. It’s the same as, like, a decapitation. It’s just a horrible act to show that somebody’s a bad guy”), pissed off plenty of fans. Garth Ennis combines the two approaches—rape and lady skin—in The Boys when his Superman stand-in Homelander compels newcomer Starlight to give him and his teammates blowjobs before taking a Sharpie to her costume and drawing in navel-deep cleavage: “New costume concept for you. They want something a bit more photogenic.”

McFarlane co-founded Image in the 90s, The Boys premiered in 2006, Kick-Ass in 2008, so that might be the problem. These Cro-Magnons are behind the times. Todd thinks he’s just obeying the testosterone-driven norms that give him no choice but to draw scantily clad, super-breasted, Barbie-legged uber-women. But if that’s true, why is the comic book population of anatomically impossible porn gals in decline?

A friend of mine, Carolyn Cocca, spent her summer staring at T&A. She studied 14,599 comic book panels, adding a checkmark to her tallies only if a particular tit or ass cheek “was just about to fall out.” She didn’t count mere cleavage or skintight curves unless they included a panel-dominating breast “larger than a woman’s head.” The results? “Female characters,” she reports, “were portrayed in more panels and less likely to be objectified in the early 2010s than they were in the mid-2000s or mid-1990s in the same titles.” Carolyn is also chair of Politics, Economics & Law at SUNY’s Old Westbury College, so her expertise in quantitative analysis is larger than Todd, Mark, and Garth’s breast-sized heads combined.

Professor Cocca’s not alone in critiquing the absurd poses male artist inflict on their female subjects. The internet is busting out with parodies of McFarland inhabitants:

Alexander Salazar asks what if male superheroes were drawn like female superheroes with some very bare-chested and shorts-bulging results.

Kelly Turnbull refashions the entire Justice League in Wonder Woman style.

Steve Niles has similar fun with the Avengers.

Multiple artists take aim at Hawkeye.

Michael Lee Lunsford dares the impossible by drawing superheroines fully clothed.

John Raptor’s “reality”-based superheroine includes “practical underwear” and “legs like tree trunks.”

Ami Angelwings’s Escher Girls documents a disturbing range of anatomical impossibilities.

The list goes on, and for good reason. Though Carolyn’s sample shows a decrease in objectification, practically all of the comics she looked at show at least some. “Had I counted each depiction of cleavage or of extraordinary shapeliness in spandex or of focus on clothed curves,” she explains, “this number would have been almost exactly the same as the number of panels depicting women.”

If you’re wondering how things got so far out of proportion, you need to travel back to the Dark Age of the late 80s. This was a primitive time, when the dictates of the Comics Code still ruled the multiverse. As far as “Costume,” it decreed “Females shall be drawn realistically without undue emphasis on any physical quality.” That’s what the Comics Authority had been saying since 1954, only with the phrase “undue emphasis on” swapping out “exaggeration of” in 1971. It wasn’t much of a reboot, which might explain why the 1989 revision stripped off so much more. Under the new heading “ATTIRE AND SEXUALITY,” the update declared: “Costumes in a comic book will be considered to be acceptable if they fall within the scope of contemporary styles and fashions.”

Doesn’t sound very revolutionary till you see Wonder Woman in a 1994 thong. In his defense, artist Mike Deodato Jr. said he preferred drawing monsters.

WW thong

The superheroine bikini cut deepened again in the 2000s as the Code teetered toward collapse. Marvel dropped it in 2001. Image never had it. Either way, we’re looking at plenty of T&A for Carolyn’s tally sheets during the two decade range. Arguably, this was the multiverse before the cleavage-confining Code trussed up the free market. Breast abounded in the early 50s, enough to alarm the U.S. Senate into holding hearings and the industry to impose self-censorship.

But lest you think this is a plug for big government regulation, the current superheroine fashion trend suggests the post-Code market could be growing out of its prurient adolescence all on its own. The new changes aren’t being imposed from above but grown from below. Welcome to 21st century grassroots feminism.

Though there’s still reason to show a little skin. “Reality”-based runner Camille Herron was the first female finisher in an Oklahoma marathon last year—a feat all the more impressive since she was wearing a full-body Spider-Man suit at the time. She also beat the previous Guinness Book record holder for a women’s marathon run in a superhero costume by twenty minutes. Imagine how fast she’d be in shorts.

Camille Herron

My daughter’s running role model, 23-year-old Alexi Pappas, wins races in a Spider-Man singlet. And yet she, like any professional female runner, just happens to wear the equivalent of a bikini bottom below it.

Alexi Pappas in Spider-Man singlet

Why? I have no idea. But I don’t see male runners at my daughter’s meets in anything as revealing. You can call them all beautiful, but the female-half of her high school track team races in skintight short shorts. They’re apparently regulation-sized and yet also a violation of the school’s dress code—which means her half of the team can’t practice in the uniforms they compete in.

I bought her a Flash t-shirt for her sixteenth birthday, “fitted” because she stopped wearing baggy tops in middle school. Except now wishes she hadn’t given them all to Goodwill. Forget fashion, she says, they’re perfect for running.

running girl

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