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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Washington and Lee University

Some of my favorite comics growing up were the oddball superhero pairings Marvel would throw together: Spider-Man and Scarlet Witch, Thing and Black Widow, Thing and, well, Thing (that was an odd issue). So I’m delighted that the marvels of the publishing universe have thrown together my two most anticipated new books with the same fall 2015 release: Lesley Wheeler’s Radioland (Barrow Street Press) and my own On the Origin of Superheroes (University of Iowa Press).

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Obviously I’m anticipating my own book. Publishing means organizing readings, reviews, interviews, and every other kind of publicity. But it’s the poetry collection Radioland that I’ve actually looked forward to, that I can now sit back with a pre-release copy in my lap and sincerely admire. I already read it in multiple manuscript print-outs, but there’s nothing quite like the authoritative aura of a glossy-covered book fresh from its publisher’s packaging envelope. I’ve read all of Wheeler’s previous books (her scholarly Voicing American Poetry and The Poetics of Enclosure, and her collections Heathen, Heterotopia, and The Receptions and Other Tales), but Radioland is my current favorite. And not just because I teared up when I opened to the surprise dedication:

for Chris Gavaler

and other good fathers

I should acknowledge that I’m Wheeler’s spouse. We’re professors in the same English department too, so our professional identities team up constantly. But you never know which student or non-departmental colleague is going to give a startled blink at the discovery of our two-in-one domestic life.  Aside from our three-sentence wedding invitation, we’ve officially collaborated on only one scholarly article (about poet Marianne Moore) and two children (a first-year in college and a first-year in high school). But our co-editing is invaluable.

After dutifully reading my weekly superhero blog, Wheeler saw me through the surprisingly complex process of rewriting and reorganizing the pre-1938 material into a cohesive manuscript. When an Iowa acquisition editor read the blog and contacted me to ask if I wanted to convert it into a book, I said yes. Obviously. But it was Wheeler who suffered the first drafts of each reconceived chapter, helping me rethink, rework and eventually refine. As I explain in the penultimate paragraph:

Lesley Wheeler has no superhero scholarship I can cite either, but she’s seen me through each step of creation, critiquing everything from the first harebrained draft of that KKK essay to the thorniest midtransformations of this manuscript.

I dedicated my first romantic suspense novel to her (Pretend I’m Not Here is even set in the Virgin Islands where we honeymooned). But On the Origin of Superheroes is dedicated to John Gavaler, my father. He read comics as a kid in the 40s, fueling my comic book reading in the 70s. John is also one of the “other good fathers” of Lesley’s book dedication, a category that, when you read the collection you’ll see, doesn’t include her own. He’s more like the supervillain Nightmare haunting her sleep—no matter how many times she vanquishes him in real life. But her poetic superpowers more than make up for his failings when Radioland single-handedly realigns the universe into a better shape. “Gods and fathers,” her final poem concludes, “rarely signal / but rock vibrates /sympathetically. What else / could it say? Echo / a kind of love . . .”

Wheeler and I also appear together in last year’s superhero poetry collection Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comic Books, but our most superheroic successes are our kids. Oddly, that includes standing on the crumbling planet of their childhood and watching them blast away in private rockets. Madeleine is now adventuring in the distant solar system of Connecticut, and Cameron, while still homebound, is tearing Hulk-like through his adolescent wardrobe, poised to make the same single-bound leap into adulthood.

Meanwhile, we have our books. Not as brilliant and hilarious as flesh-and-blood children, but they are easier to read and to hand to a friend. If you’d like to meet them, they’re available for pre-order at Amazon and elsewhere. And, if you’re in Lexington, VA on November 4th, stop by the Bookery. We’ll be there, 5:00-7:00 pm, pens in hand.

 

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What do you want to be when you group up? My daughter, like lots of teens, has been fielding that question since she was two. She’s looking at colleges now, so the question has morphed into “What do you want to major in?” But she told me that her answer, her secret answer, the heart of hearts answer she’ll never write on any application form, hasn’t changed since she wore big girl pull-ups:

“Batman.”

That’s still the first word that pops into her head. “Astronaut” is the second. But Batman is better. “He doesn’t have X-ray vision or any other crazy powers,” she says, “but he still spends his life and money helping people.” Also the Batmobile is really cool. And his ears. My daughter has always thought the bat ears on his hood were cute. She used to chew on them. The dolls in our attic have her teeth marks.

Several graduate and undergraduate programs in comic book studies have popped up since she stopped hosting tea parties with action figures, but to the best of my knowledge, no school offers a major in Batman. Not even mine. We live a five-minute stroll from campus, so my daughter would rather blast off to an alien planet than stay in our Virginia smallville for college. Her brother is still in middle school, and still peruses the occasional comic book from my childhood trove. He’s gnawed on his fair share of attic superheroes, but I suspect he’ll be feeling the warmth of alien suns soon too.

Which means neither will get to take my Superheroes course. I’m teaching it for the fifth time this spring. It spawned back in 2008 when a group of honor students were scouring campus for a professor willing to design and teach a seminar on superheroes. They’d suffered a few rounds of blank stares and grinning rejections when they wandered into my wife’s office. She was chairing our English department at the time, and you’ll never guess whose office she sent them to next. I said yes. Of course I said yes. I’d always enjoyed comics as a kid and then with our own kids. Now I’d just augment that with a bit of research.

My wife doesn’t regret her choice, but neither of us predicted the black hole-sized obsession the topic would open in me. Conference panels, print symposiums, international journals, radio interviews, cybercasts, newspaper op-eds, lit mags, one-act festivals, my appetite for cape-and-mask forums keeps expanding. When my wife and another good friend spurred me to start a blog, neither had superheroes in mind then either. I could blame those meddling honors students, but that first class of sidekicks flew off to solo adventures years ago. I’m the one who keeps offering revised versions of the course every year while posting blog links on campus notices once a week.

The first day of ENG 255 usually begins with some polite but bemused variation on “Why superheroes, Professor?” Colleagues ask me the same, only with the preface “Don’t take this the wrong way but.” The short answer is easy. Superheroes, like most of our pop culture productions, reflect who we are. And since superheroes have been flying for decades, they document our evolution too. On the surface of their unitards, they’re just pleasantly absurd wish-fulfillments. But our nation’s history of obsessions broils just under those tights: sexuality, violence, prejudice, politics, our most nightmarish fears, our most utopian aspirations, it’s all swirling in there. But you have to get up close. You have to be willing to wrestle a bit. I think we should pull on Superman’s cape. I think we all need to sink our teeth into Batman’s head.

Spring registration at Washington & Lee University starts soon. I have yet to work visiting superhero poet Tim Seibles into the schedule yet, but for interested students and the occasional scholar who’s asked me for a copy, here’s the syllabus-in-progress:

ENGL 255: Superheroes

The course will explore the early development of the superhero character and narrative form, focusing on pulp literature texts published before the first appearance of Superman in 1938. The cultural context, including Nietzsche’s Ubermensch philosophy and the eugenics movement, will also be central. The second half of the course will be devoted to the evolution of the superhero in fiction, comic books, and film, from 1938 to the present. Students will read, analyze, and interpret literary and cultural texts to produce their own analytical and creative works.

Texts:

The Scarlet Pimpernel, Baroness Orczy

The Adventures of Jimmie Dale, Frank L. Packard

Gladiator, Philip Wylie

Superman Chronicles, Vol. 1, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster

Batman Chronicles, Vol. 1, Bob Kane, Bill Finger

Wonder Woman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told

Marvel Firsts: 1960s

Soon I Will Be Invincible, Austin Grossman

Missing You, Metropolis, Garry Jackson

Additional texts: 

Spring-Heeled Jack, Anonymous

(excerpt from) Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Frederick Nietzsche

“The Revolutionist’s Handbook,” George Barnard Shaw

(excerpt from) Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs

(excerpt from) A Civic Biology Presented in Problems, George Hunter

“The Reign of the Superman,” Jerry Siegel

(excerpt from) The Clansman, Thomas Dixon, Jr.

“A Retrieved Reformation,” O. Henry

(excerpt from) The Curse of Capistrano, Johnston McCulley

“The Girl from Mars,” Jack Williamson and Miles J. Breuer

(excerpt from) Alias the Night Wind,

“Don’t Laugh at the Comics” (1940), William Moulton Marston

“The Sad Case of the Funnies” (1941), James Frank Vlamos

“Why 100,000 Americans Read Comics” (1943), William Moulton Marston

(excerpt from) Love and Death: A Study in Censorship (1949), Gershon Legman

Comics Code Authority Guidelines

“Secret Skin: An essay in unitard theory” (2008), Michael Chabon

VQR Spring 2008 Superhero Stories

Films:

The Mark of Zorro (1920)

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

The Gladiator (1938)

Look, Up in the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman (2006)

Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked (2003)

Unbreakable (2000)

Hancock (2008)

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (2008)

Radio:

The Shadow, The Blue Beetle

Writing Assignments:

1. Two 4-page analytical essays examining assigned texts on topics of your design.

2.  A 6-page essay combining creative and analytical writing. You will invent superheroes and discuss the characters’ relationships to the history of the genre, responding to specific literary and cultural elements of the evolving formula.

Week One

Mon                

*early afternoon film: Look, Up in the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman (2006)

Tues     Superman Chronicles; “Don’t Laugh at the Comics”

Wed    eugenics chronology; Nietzsche Zarathustra (excerpt); Shaw Handbook (excerpt); Tarzan (excerpt); Civic Biology (excerpt); “The Reign of the Superman”; Nazi response to Superman; selected historical newspaper article

Thurs   Spring-Heeled Jack; The Scarlet Pimpernel (chapters 1-14);

Fri        Scarlet Pimpernel (complete); The Clansman (excerpt);

*early afternoon essay conferences

Week Two

Mon     rough draft of 4-page essay due

Radio serial: The Shadow

* optional paper conferences after class

Tues   Jimmie Dale (Chapters 1, 2, ?, 11, and one additional story); “A Retrieved Reformation”;

“Murder by Proxy”

* early afternoon film: The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

Wed    final draft of essay due; The Curse of Capistrano (excerpt)

Early morning film: The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Thurs   Gladiator (Chapters 1-11); “The Girl from Mars”     

Fri        Gladiator (complete); Alias the Night Wind (excerpt)

* early afternoon film: The Gladiator (1938)

Week Three

Mon     Batman; “The Sad Case of the Funnies” (1941); “The Shadowy Origins of Batman”

Radio serial: Blue Beetle

Tues     rough draft of 4-page essay due

*early afternoon film: Hancock (2008); begin superhero project               

Wed    NO CLASS; individual essay conferences

Thurs   final draft of essay due; “Secret Skin”

            morning film: Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked (2003)

Fri        Wonder Woman; “Why 100,000 Americans Read Comics” (1943)

Week Four

Mon     Marvel Firsts (selections); Comics Code; preliminary draft of superhero

*early afternoon film: Unbreakable (2000)

Tues     Soon I Will Be Invincible (Part One, to p. 153) [BEGIN CLASS AT 9:00]**

*7:00 Austin Grossman reading, Northen Auditorium

Wed    Soon I Will Be Invincible (complete)

Austin Grossman class visit

presentations of superheroes

*early afternoon conferences

Thurs   VQR Spring 2008 Superhero Stories

presentations of superheroes

Fri        Missing You, Metropolis

presentations of superheroes

* Superhero poster exhibition at the library during the Spring Term Festival from 12-3

Sat       Final draft of project due 12:00 at my office

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Is it bad etiquette to blog about your wife? If so, I’m requesting an exception. Lesley Wheeler just published the sort of book I most love, and I’m here to blab about it. The Receptionist and Other Tales is exactly the kind of boundary-bashing, genre-twirling, high-lowbrow mash-up that could save the antiseptically quiet world of literature from lapsing into a boredom-induced coma.

I teach a contemporary novel course titled “Thrilling Tales,” so I always have an eye out for literary writers willing to plunge head first into the deep end of the genre pool and splash around with zombies and superheroes and dark lords. And Lesley is swimming laps with them all.

I’ll get back to the main tale in a sec, but the “Other Tales” half of the title includes a sonnet that debates the relative durability of Captain America’s shield against Thor’s hammer, Hulk’s fist, and the Human Torch’s nova heat. Worshippers of the Weird should not miss the H. P. Lovecraft tribute (the speaker may or may not be devoured by an all-girl boarding school of fox-obsessed teens). My favorite is the T. S. Eliot parody that recasts “The Waste Land” as a George Romero zombie flick. (It’s also set during a Thanksgiving dinner, so the living dead are the least of the horrors.)

And that’s just the dessert tray. The main course is an even wilder array of literary risk-taking. The Receptionist is a fantasy tale inspired by Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland (required reading for even the most casual D&D tourist), which Lesley warps into a hybrid plot about evil deans and inner Yoda voices calling her heroine to action. It opens with the speaker reading bedtime books to her children—something Lesley and I spent a decade doing with our kids. All those alternate worlds—Oz, Narnia, Hogwarts—get ingrained in the brain, and soon the real world warps too. Even the mundane machinations of college politics can morph into fantastical proportions.

I should clarify: this isn’t autobiography. My wife isn’t an English department receptionist (though she was a chair while drafting), and the college faculty she creates aren’t the people we pass daily on our way in and out of class. The nefarious dean isn’t our dean either. The antagonist of The Receptionist is dashingly handsome and a sexual predator—descriptions I would not apply to our college administrator. That said, I do wonder if my wife has woven some real magic into her tale. The Receptionist ends with (SPOILER ALERT!) the vanquishing of the evil one. Is it mere coincidence that our real-world dean suffered a similar fate after The Receptionist was accepted for publication?

I don’t know what spells her terza rima encodes—only that the improbable complexities of the stanzas create a kind of aesthetic undertow that pulls you backwards as the storyline flings you forward. The effect is dizzying. Like existing in two dimensions simultaneously: a rompingly accessible plot somehow contained in an enchantingly intricate rhyme scheme. It shouldn’t be possible. Lesley’s speaker experiences the same world-split, the ordinary and the fantastic in constant collision, each transformed by the other, always both, always neither. It’s a one-of-a-kind hybrid form. It’s werewolf poetry. It’s cyborg literature. It’s damn fun reading.

I should also say that The Receptionist is published by Aqueduct, a press dedicated entirely to feminist scifi, which, be honest, I bet you didn’t know there was such a thing.  And did I mention it’s blurbed by Ursula K. Le Guin? Something that impressed both our kids, since Earthsea was another of their bedtime universes. (British readers will be equally impressed by Gwyneth Jones’ back cover rave.) My only complaint? Lesley’s author pic isn’t on the back.

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My son is obsessed with Marvel Heroscape. He ordered it himself with grandparent Christmas money. I’ve never seen him choose to play a board game rather than a video game before. And though I’m thrilled that his eyes are peeled away from his laptop, Nintendo, and Wii screens, it means I’m playing a lot of Heroscape too.

My university is also gearing up for its Mock Con right now. Every four years Washington & Lee simulates a Presidential Convention for the party currently out of the White House. Four years ago they predicted Hilary Clinton would edge out Barack Obama for the Democrat nomination. So did I.  But that’s only their second error since 1948. No one’s got a better record. And, hey, hypothetical match-ups aren’t easy.

Look at Heroscape. Their Marvel Mock Con requires a close analysis of a complex set of specialized abilities and frustratingly random dice rolls.

For the most part they get it right. The Abomination begins with a slight advantage over the Hulk, but once wounded, Hulk’s rage attack is unbeatable. Spider-Man and Venom, though bragging different attack and defensive Spider Sense levels, come down to a coin toss. Iron Man and Dr. Doom at first appear equally matched, but when my son and I faced them off, Iron Man’s double attacks bettered Doom’s higher single attack three times in a row.

The only upset was Captain America.

Though his physical abilities are capped more-or-less within human range, the guy’s unbeatable at close combat. That means face-to-face, like, say, on stage at a debate. With his shield deflection, he can actually get an opponent to kill himself. Sort of like Rick Perry’s campaign-ending “oops” moment during the Republican debates. Cap is also a brilliant Tactician with long coattails, aiding all adjacent candidates with extra die roll on attacks and defenses.

The best way to kill him is long range attack, AKA political ads. Red Skull also poses a problem. Sure, the super-Nazi is weak on defense (a measly three dice), but he’s also a Master Manipulator. He can control Cap’s mind once each round, making the emblem of Democracy do his evil bidding. (Which might also explain why President Obama has duplicated the Bush foreign policy since he took office.)

In the Marvel universe, Captain American led an underground resistance against the Superhero Registration Act (AKA the Patriot Act). But rather than see his country torn in half by partisan combat, Cap was ready to surrender to his adversaries. Unfortunately, a sniper (another form of long range attack) assassinated him first. A scenario I imagine has crossed the mind of the first African American President of the United States more than once.

Perhaps the cross-over series DC Versus Marvel Comics is the better political allegory. Cameron got that for Christmas too. The two parties evenly divided the first six battles, leaving the last tie-breaking five to fan votes. Marvel got more, but rather than allow one side to win, the two worlds merged into the Amalgam Universe. Here opponents were recreated as combinations of themselves. Batman and Wolverine became Dark Claw. Superman and Captain American merged into Super Soldier.

Which offers another explanation for the Obama Presidency: To defeat Bush, Obama had to absorb half of him.

Romney is a different kind of mash-up. He’s not the moderate center of two extremes. It’s as if the original Romney—the one who championed gay rights, abortion rights, socialized health care—was abducted and replaced by the Romney of some mirror universe. Newt Gingrich time-traveled from the 1990’s in attempt to defeat him, but to no avail. Now nothing stands in the way of Dark Romney’s plot to conquer the Republican party one Mock Convention at a time.

I predict Washington & Lee University will succumb to his Master Manipulation this Friday.

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