There was once a time when Robert Sawyer could merely be considered Canada’s leading science fiction author, but those days are long past. Now, with a Hugo, Nebula and John W. Campbell award under his belt, among other awards and a host of best-selling novels, one of which was adapted into an acclaimed TV series, FlashForward, it’s safe to say he’s one of the world’s leading science fiction authors. In addition to FlashForward, his other novels include End of an Era, Frameshift, Factoring Humanity, Calculating God, the Hominids Trilogy, and the WWW trilogy. His most recent novel is Triggers and his next novel, Red Planet Blues, hits the shelves March 26. Continue reading “Interview: Author Robert J. Sawyer.”
Question 1. You are a very busy writer and able to produce what to me seems like a massive amount of material in a short period of time. What is your secret?
I love to write. I also write by dictating into a recorder, rather than sitting trapped in a chair with my fingers on the keyboard, so I also enjoy hiking and writing at the same time. But the main thing is that I have so many stories in my head, interesting characters and scenes, and I have to write so quickly in order to make room for all the new ideas that keep coming.
Question 2. My favorite book of yours which you wrote with Doug Beason is “Ill Wind”. I have long regarded it as one of my personal favorite tales of apocalypse. I know the book was written years ago but what are your thoughts on the book?
In ILL WIND, a gigantic oil spill is cleaned up by an experimental bacteria…which mutates and then begins dissolving all petroleum products; as a result, a lot of modern civilization falls apart. It’s an apocalypse story unlike the usual plague or nuclear war scenario (or zombie apocalypse!) when we wrote it, the science was cutting edge; both Doug Beason and I were heavily involved in the research, with the assistance of many experts in their own fields. It was very popular and has been in print for 16 years or so. I love the epic fall of civilization, and also the hopeful ingenuity we used to rebuild civilization.
Question 3. You have worked on many of the Star Wars books what are your thoughts on the purchase of Star Wars by Disney?
I think it seems a natural fit, and there has been close relationship with Disney and Lucasfilm for a long time (I love the Star Tours ride and Indiana Jones ride)—but note that Disney didn’t just buy Star Wars, but all of Lucasfilm, including other characters such as Indiana Jones, and the THX sound systems, Industrial Light and Magic, and everything else. It will have impact throughout the entertainment industry.
Question 4. Dune. To be honest I have not read any of the books in the Dune series not written by Frank Herbert. Can you sell the newer books to me? I have been looking for a science fiction series to read why would I choose Dune?
DUNE is the greatest SF novel ever written, in my opinion, and Frank Herbert created more than 15,000 years of history…In his own novels, he also left out huge chunks of the story. Brian Herbert and I are telling some of those stories, from the centuries-long epic war against the thinking machines and the foundations of the Dune universe (The Butlerian Jihad trilogy), or the prequels to Dune, the love story of Duke Leto and Lady Jessica, their initial battles with the Baron Harkonnen, and a lot of Imperial politics (the House Atreides, House Harkonnen, House Corrino trilogy); either of those would be the best place to start. (Or just reread DUNE—you can’t go wrong with that, either.)
Question 5. We always ask a political question here at the Freehold. One of the reason we do that is to gauge just what people in speculative fiction are thinking about society. So what are your political beliefs and is there anything you want to get across to our readers who are mostly libertarianish?
I used to love sitting around having political discussions, exchanging ideas. I am an independent, generally socially liberal but more conservative financially. I believe in science not dogma. I believe in personal responsibility. I despise hypocrisy. Unfortunately, political discussion has become pure poison—I watch the vitriol and ranting on Facebook, the vicious attacks (not discussions and an exchange of ideas, but marching-moron attacks without any interest in the opposing point of view). So, I close the door and keep my politics to myself.
Thank you for the Interview and I look forward to looking into one of your Dune novels.
There are numerous film review sites on the Internet specializing in science fiction and fantasy cinema, but few are as ambitious or as comprehensive as that of Dave Sindelar. For more than a decade now, he has been watching one movie a day in the science fiction, horror or fantasy genre, accumulating more than four thousand reviews in the process, from the very first years of the cinema (date of release of the oldest film: 1895) to the early 1980s, from all around the world. The sheer breadth of films covered and the comprehensiveness in the coverage of the full range of fantastic cinema make his site, Fantastic Films Musings and Ramblings, a must for any film buff or science fiction fan. Dave kindly agreed to answer a few questions about his project for The Freehold.
1. Thanks for granting us this interview Dave! You explain to us how this project got started on the Musings and Ramblings website but explain to us a little about your own interest in film and how it led to the Movie of the Day project.
Two things led to my interest in film – monsters and lists. As a kid, I was always fascinated by monsters and I loved looking at pictures of them. This is what led me to start watching my local creature feature (called CREATURE FEATURE) which had the advantage of airing late enough of Saturday nights that no one else wanted the TV at those times. I’d have to say that as a kid, the only movies that really caught my attention were monster movies and comedies.
Yet, as I grew, my tastes started to widen somewhat. Here’s where my fascination of lists came into play. I loved books that consisted of long lists of movies, and ended up amassing several of them as I grew. One of my favorite things to do was make sub-lists of those lists, and try to see the movies; I remember attempts at trying to see all of the four-star movies in the Maltin guide, as well as to watch every movie in Danny Peary’s GUIDE FOR THE FILM FANATIC. As might be expected, these early attempts eventually ran out of steam.
It was twelve years ago that I began toying with the idea of the project in question. The big factor that had come into play was the Internet. Up to that time, there were big limitations as to undertaking the project, as I had a much more limited income and was at the mercy of what they were willing to show on TV or stock at my local video store. It was only after spending some time on the internet that it occurred to me that a whole new world had opened up, and that a project of this magnitude didn’t seem quite as impossible.
Still, this project might have fallen through if it hadn’t been for one other thing; about five months into it, I began posting my Movie of the Day listings on the board at Sinister Cinema. All of the sudden, it was no longer a private project, but a public one, and it was my awareness of that difference that made me commit to it on a level that I hadn’t done previously.
2. When you began the Movie of the Day project, DVD was in the process of overtaking VHS as the main means of watching movies at home, and there has since been another major revolution in the rise of streaming movies on the Internet. Tell us some more about how these have affected your project.
The impact of DVD over VHS was pretty important in a couple of major points. The first is storage. When I began the project, I already had a massive VHS collection, partially from purchase and partially from having recorded movies off of TV. Trying to maintain and update this collection was proving to be more and more difficult, mainly because of the bulk and the difficulty of storage. With DVD, I was able to reduce the bulk of the collection tremendously.
Another impact of DVD was the rise of bulk purchasing. Just for example, I have quite a few DVD megapacks from Mill Creek. These sets contain 50 movies that can fit in a space just a little bit larger than a single VHS cassette, and cost low enough that you’re only paying about fifty cents a movie. Since my project involves trying to watch as much as possible from certain genres, they prove a quick way to amass a good collection with minimum outlay and fitting into a smaller area.
The rise of streaming video is just beginning to make a real impact on the project; I can watch movies for a fraction of the price without concerns of personal storage at all. I still haven’t fully incorporated streaming into my project, but I’m very sure that as my project moves forward into the future, I’m going to end up watching more and more movies this way than any other. I also think it’s making a greater volume of movies available to the average viewer, and this makes it more likely that I’ll be able to find some otherwise inaccessible films.
3. How do you approach each movie as you review them, and what is your writing process like?
First of all, I called the site “Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings” for a reason; though much of what I write could be classified as reviews, I don’t see them being tied exclusively to that approach. If I see my write-ups as serving a purpose, it is as a snapshot of the viewing experience I had, and as opportunities to bounce my wit (such as it is) off of that experience.
What I basically try to do is give a certain minimum of information about the movie, and I try to give only the bare bones of a plot description. I don’t know about anyone else, but when I’m reading a write-up of a movie, the plot description is the part I’m most likely to skip. If I haven’t seen the movie, I don’t want to know. And if I have, I don’t need to know.
Then I do quick scan of my mind to see what feelings I have about the viewing, and I try to encapsulate that, with certain thoughts as to the reasons I feel the way I do (which, to be fair, may not be the fault of the movie itself). I don’t back away from the quirks of the experience; sometimes my reaction has a lot to do with factors that wouldn’t come into play if I watched it another time, and I’d rather acknowledge those factors if I can.
I try to be compact. Since I’m not keen on writing a novella about every movie I see (I don’t have the time or the inclination), I try to get to the heart of the matter quickly. If the movie is bad and I’m feeling playful, I may resort to one of my “ten thoughts on…” write-ups. If I feel like probing deeper, I will; for example, my viewing of THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT inspired a fairly lengthy (for me) analysis of the movie; it’s what the movie left me feeling I wanted to do.
One point I always try to cover is what it’s genre qualifications are. Sometimes, it’s obvious, and in that case, I may skip it. If not, I try to cover it, if for no other reason than to find out why someone classified it as genre, and as an exploration of just which elements play into genre classification.
Of course, some movies don’t inspire me much at all in the writing department, for some reason. This is especially true if I’m watching a two or three-minute silent short with no real story. So I trot off what I can and move on to the next one.
4. You regularly update your Movies of the Day on the Classic Horror Film Board and one of the highlights of that page is your Essentials List of recommended movies. How does your list differ from other similar “must-see” lists and what do you think it provides for the curious viewer?
As far as the Essentials list goes, it was an attempt to emulate what Danny Peary was doing in “Guide for the Film Fanatic”. That guide never pretended to list the best movies ever made; it was more interested in providing a wide of some of the most interesting movies ever made, and some bad movies are more interesting than some good ones. I wanted to give a strong sampling of the best, but I also wanted to represent sub-genres that are often neglected (like the Italian Sword and Sandal movies), highlight some bad films that make for interesting viewing, provide examples of the work of some of the famously bad directors (how can you really comment on the work of Jerry Warren or Larry Buchanan if you haven’t seen any of them?), add some movies that are historically significant, have strong cult followings, or are personal favorites that I feel are unjustly obscure.
I wanted to feel that if someone watched all of the movies on the list, they’d emerge with a solid grounding in the fairly wide world of fantastic cinema. There are movies on the list I don’t like (and some I loathe), but none I think make for worthless viewing experiences. It all depends on how you approach them. At the very least, I hope the list isn’t boring.
5. Out of all the movies you’ve seen, what have been the most pleasant surprises and alternately, what have been the most crushing disappointments?
Pleasant surprises abound. Anytime I encounter a movie that I’ve not heard anything about and discover that it’s excellent goes on this list. Before I saw them, I knew nothing about AN INSPECTOR CALLS, THE QUEEN OF SPADES (1948) or THE ROCKING HORSE WINNER, just to name three that pop into mind immediately.
As for crushing disappointments, these are more difficult. My most memorable crushing disappointments occurred before the project started; for example, ARNOLD was one of those movies I’d been excited about, since it sounded like something I’d love, but I was extremely disappointed on my first viewing of it.
However, some movies did indeed disappoint me. I was hoping I would like ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW more than I did. I was expecting a lot more from THE WORLD, THE FLESH AND THE DEVIL. SILENT RUNNING was one I harbored some hope for and was fairly appalled at the final result.
Yet, I do think I can point to one disappointment that sticks in my mind strongly, even though it was a movie I was already familiar with. When I viewed the 1956 INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (a movie that I do recognize as one of the classics of the genre), I sadly realized that the movie no longer held any appeal for me. Sitting through it proved a chore, and I’ve come to realize that the movie simply doesn’t resonate with me anymore. This was perhaps the saddest revelation I’ve encountered on the whole project.
6. Finally, although you’ve reviewed over four thousand movies in more than twelve years time, there’s still several classics or historically important films you have yet to watch for your project. Which ones are you most looking forward to finally catching?
I think I can say that I’ve covered almost all of the really important genre films up to the early seventies at this point, Probably the earliest significant film that I haven’t covered so far would be THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, and I know there are several others from the seventies (CARRIE, to pick one off of the top of my head) that I have yet to deal with. Of course, many of these I’ve already seen; I just haven’t done so for this project, so I already know in advance what I’m dealing with. If you’d asked me that question a year ago, I would have probably opted for DAWN OF THE DEAD as the one I was most curious about seeing, but that finally popped up last year. From the seventies, I’m probably most curious about PHANTASM at this point; it sounds intriguingly weird and rather original.
From the eighties, I’m probably most looking forward to checking out THE EVIL DEAD and RE-ANIMATOR, both of which I’ve heard quite a lot about. On another level, the movie I’m most looking forward to reviewing is FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND, which I’ve seen several times but haven’t covered yet. I can practically guarantee I’m going to have at least ten thoughts about that one. [Addendum: The Evil Dead and Frankenstein Island have both since been reviewed]
Thanks again Dave! Be sure to check out the Musings and Ramblings website, and if you’re ever in Omaha, be sure to check the schedule at the Brigit Saint Brigit Theatre; Dave may very well be performing in their next play!
With today’s review of Destination Moon, we begin a three-part look at three of the most important science fiction movies of the 1950s, films that have had an immense impact on genre cinema since their release, and are also united by their conservative political leanings, either explicitly stated or in the form of subtextual undercurrents. And just to make it clear, the approach I take to film criticism is one of strict formalism; in other words, I do not care a wit as to what the politics expressed in a film are, or the politics of the artists involved are, as long as the final product is good. Unfortunately, such an approach is not shared by many left-leaning critics who feel it is their imperative to knock a film either down a peg or several notches for not adhering to their progressive ideology, or reflecting attitudes of the day that seem regrettable in hindsight, while in turn ridiculously overpraising any movie that does conform to leftist bromides. These reviews are an attempt to redress that imbalance, and provide intellectual criticism of fantastic cinema that is politically provocative while avoiding demagoguery. Continue reading “The Jeffersonian Rocketship: Heinlein’s American Ethos in Destination Moon”
Peter Pan is the boy who never grows up but what does a boy with eternal youth and absolute freedom really want? Is it perhaps a Mother to love him? Does he confuse motherly love with sexual fulfillment? There is very little fertile ground left in the study of J.M. Barre’s classic novel of childhood and I doubt I will stumble over any great secret hidden in the text, however I would like to revisit the ideas of motherhood and sexuality in the story. I think much can be revealed when we delve into Peter’s fascination with both those subjects as well as J.M. Barrie’s childhood and his dysfunctional relationship with his own mother.
Lois Rauch Gibson in her article “Beyond the Aprons: Archetypes, Stereotypes, and Alternative Portrayals of Mother in Children’s Literature.” looks into the idea that mother’s are not always who they appear to be in children’s literature. She focuses on the mother figures found in Mary Poppins, Alice in Wonderland, and most notably Peter and Wendy. Gibson states that,”books are also an important way for a culture to transmit its varied social values to its children” (Gibson 177). This simple statement would seem to be the very foundation of children’s literature. Gibson goes on to discuss the importance of children’s literature in forming a child’s view point about their peers, parents, and people in all walks of life. The female role model or mother figure is especially prevalent in children’s literature and her presence need not just be that of the traditional mother. Gibson uses Jungian ideas of archetype to deconstruct the mother figure and show how we can get “beyond the apron” as she put it in her title and look at the varied mother figures that populate and inform children in this type of literature. The mother is a complex archetype and while a Jungian idea could suffice in examining her, the competing ideas of Freud can help us understand Peter Pan as well. This is especially important in looking at Barrie’s work because of his seemingly incestuous fixation with his own mother.
J.M Barrie had an unusual relationship with his own mother in which he attempted to fill the void in her life left behind by his older brother when he died. Going to the extremes of wearing his brothers clothing and pretending to be his brother in an attempt to cheer his mother up. Barrie in Peter and Wendy is not shy in suggesting that Wendy is the mother figure and we might speculate that Peter is Barrie’s dead brother who can never grow up. Can we link Barrie and by extension Peter Pan into the Freudian idea of a Oedipal relationship with the mother figure of Wendy?
Peter Pan on learning that Wendy knows all the stories that her mother tells becomes excited. He has listened to these stories at the window and wants more. Wendy offering to tell him about mothers is in a way a seduction, an offering to tempt the boy into bringing her to Neverland. Barrie says it himself ,“There can be no denying it was she who first tempted him.” (Barrie 30). Wendy has the knowledge of a Mother and this is something Peter is desperate to have. Wendy is excited to go and have adventures and see exciting sights but is somewhat reluctant. Peter in turn entices her further with the promise of seeing mermaids and flying, but what really gets her attention is being the mother to the lost boys. Wendy is just as excited to play house and act as mother to the children of Neverland as she is to see a mermaid and Peter uses this to convince her to come with him. This attitude towards motherhood is somewhat foreign to the modern mind. Wendy is excited by the prospect of tucking children in at night and of darning their clothing but if we look at it from the perspective of the time Peter was offering her the adult world. He was elevating her from child to woman. Treating her as a grown up with all the authority that went with that. Barrie did not see his mother as a put upon house wife, and in these passages seeing Wendy’s excitement he elevates motherhood to a staggering height even greater than flying.
Gibson suggests that Wendy, her daughter, and daughter’s daughter become Persephone to Peter’s Hades. The mother who returns each spring to the underground house in a mirror image of the original myth. This “Reversal of the myth” (Gibson 179) says much for the emphasis Barrie places on the mother figure. She is not returning to hell to hearken in the winter she is returning to paradise to bring forth the spring. Gibson further suggests that Wendy and her progeny are stand ins for the rites of Spring in which the maiden becomes the mother. Wendy is the mother but never the wife and this is the cause of distress in the Peter and Wendy household. Peter allows them to play act the roles of father and mother. He can never be the actual Father but he expects her to be the mother. Gibson states that Peter can never be a sexual creature that he is the perpetual child. I disagree with Gibson in this respect. I believe that Peter not only has sexual desires, he has surrounded himself with those desires. His world is full of sexually desirable females. Wendy, Tinkerbell, the mermaids, and Tiger Lily all try to seduce or entice him throughout the story. He only lacks the adult understanding of sex to consummate his feelings. The real strife between Peter and Wendy is sexual in nature. It is not that Peter can not be the father figure it is that Peter lacks the ability to complete the sexual act itself. He never grows up and Wendy grows away from him. He offered her motherhood but she can only realize that gift without Peter. Peter’s immortality has rendered him impotent but far from lacking desire.
While Wendy is the Madonna and love interest Tinkerbell takes the role of sexual predator. As Peter Pan put it “She is quite a common fairy” (29). To the late Victorian reader this would have been the same as saying she was akin to a prostitute. Tinkerbell makes her claim to Peter clear. She is sexually attracted to Peter but again there is a problem. Here Barrie puts up another roadblock to sexual completion beyond Peter’s youth. Tinkerbell’s size certainly separates the two from ever being sexually complete. These impediments to sexuality occur with every female character that Peter meets even though he is surrounded by women some who wish to be his sexual partner.
Peter is a sexual being and has desires. These desires are just beyond his reach. He can never be a sexual being because of his eternal childhood but even in that state he can and does have needs and constantly interacts with those who could fulfill them if only he allowed himself to move from boy to man.
Gibson, Lois Rauch. “Beyond the Aprons: Archetypes, Stereotypes, and Alternative Portrayals of Mother in Children’s Literature.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 13.4 (Winter 1988): 177-181. Rpt. in Children’s Literature Review. Ed. Scot Peacock and Allison Marion. Vol. 93. Detroit: Gale, 2004. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Sep. 2011.
Barrie, J.M. Peter Pan. Penguin Classics, 2004. Print.
Further reading suggestion
Shipley, Heather E. “Fairies, Mermaids, Mother, and Princesses: Sexual Difference and Gender Roles in Peter Pan” Studies in Gender and Sexuality Vol. 13 Iss.2, 2012. Print.
Masks and costumes have been a part of human culture since man first began making art. We disguised ourselves as animals with the belief that sympathetic magic would endow us with the physical and mental aspects of these creatures.
I have long been fascinated by werewolf mythology and the origins of the man/wolf hybrid. A major aspect of the werewolf myth is the belief a man could take on the animal form by wearing it’s skin. I believe that our modern conception of the comic book superhero derives directly from man’s early attempts to harness these natural forces through the donning of masks and costumes.
I want to start this series of articles by looking at the beginnings of our modern fascination with costumed superbeings then branch out in later articles to discuss the broader implications of masked heroes throughout history. We begin this journey in 19th century London. A mecca for Gothic horror writers and the birth place of modern popular culture.
The Real Life League of Extraordinary Gentleman
1837 sees the first appearance of Spring-heeled Jack. If the above picture of Jack looks familiar you are not mistaken. Spring-heeled Jack could easily be mistaken for Batman. The descriptions of Jack parallel Batman in more ways than one. From scaling buildings, to jumping from rooftop to rooftop, Jack was even said to wear a skin tight oilskin suit with a winglike cape, and had metal razors on the end of his fingers. Mike Dash in his article “To Victorian Bugaboo From Suburban Ghost” states that Jane Alsop who spoke to Jack describes him as, “hideously ugly; its eyes blazed red as the coals of hell and its pinched, tight features were topped by a peculiar sort of helmet; the body, meanwhile, was encased in a tightly-fitting, shining suit, and a strange object, resembling a lamp, was strapped to the chest. ” (Dash)
Beyond some superficial similarity of Jack to Batman (ignoring the lamp on his chest) officials at the time believed Jack to be a gentleman of means who was engaged in a series of nightly pranks. Of course as the legend of Spring-heeled Jack grew so did his array of super powers. From breathing fire, to being able to fly, and shoot beams out of his eyes (that sounds familiar) Jack’s powers grew as his legend did. Jack was never seen to stop crime and often caused mischief but the idea that a costumed person with super abilities (springs in his heels) certainly did not go unnoticed by fiction writers. Jack was soon the subject of many penny dreadfuls and his legend moved from the streets of London to the pages of popular fiction.
Jack was not the only costumed character running around Victorian London. At the same time that Spring-heeled Jack was terrorizing London another lesser known figure was also on the prowl. Called the “Rossian Bear” and sometimes mistaken for Jack, the bear roamed London in a Bear skin suit frightening those who saw him. He was considered either the same person as Jack or another one of a gang of well off gentlemen who were playing an elaborate game of dress-up on the streets of London at night.
There was also Queen Victoria’s own stalker “The Boy Jones”. Boy Jones was not quite as successful at concealing his identity as the other masked men, but he achieved fame for being able to enter Buckingham Palace repeatedly. “Time after time, he sneaked into Buckingham Palace to spy on her, sit on the throne, and rummage in her private apartments…the Boy Jones had been discovered lurking underneath a sofa in the room next to the one where she (Victoria) slept.” (Bondeson). Jones had an uncanny ability to use disguise, guile, and his physical prowess to enter one of the most guarded buildings in the British Isles not once but three times often hiding for days before being discovered. Like the others Jones was built up in the press and it was suggested he had some sort of supernatural abilities which allowed him to enter the palace unseen. He was caught and eventually exiled to Australia, but only after another adventure where he was kidnapped by the British Government and forced into service with the navy.
These masked “supermen” in Victoria’s London were more often than not merely criminals and pranksters but they are just the tip of the iceberg when it came to masked and costumed characters that paraded through the 19th century. In the second part of this article we will examine the many masked men of the American frontier and how that nation owes it’s very existence to a group of masked vigilantes.
Dash, Mike. “To Victorian Bugaboo From Suburban Ghost” mikedash.com, n.d. Web. 10 Jan. 2013.
Bondeson, Jan. “Queen Victoria’s Stalker: The remarkable story of the ‘Boy Jones'” Fortean Times, July,2011. Web. 10 Jan. 2013.
Carl Jung defines the archetype as “forms or images of the collective nature which occur practically all over the Earth as constituents of myth and at the same time as autochthonous, individual products of unconscious origin,” (Jung 88). In other words, Jung is saying these mythological constructs reference structures within our psyche and we can evaluate these constructs against a normal and dynamic psyche, so we might see the correlation between the structures of subjectivity and objectivity. This collective is a social conscious we all share through collective unconscious. This means our personal experiences are categorized through the shared experience of our species’ biology. As humans we have a need for stories and this need predates or written history when our ancestors sat around the camp fire and told tales that not only entertained, but also instructed in the ways of the particular culture. Since these structures in our psyche are shared it allows the listener to participate in the society be it Cro-Magnon, ancient Greek, or modern American. Because we have evolved a need for heroic stories in prehistory, we now have the heroic archetype passed to us through the collective unconscious.
So now we must return to Campbell’s question as it relates to the superhero archetype. If we examine the superhero genre as a whole, we find that universally the hero/superhero is allowing himself/herself to be subjugated to a higher moral calling. In the article “The Definition of the Superhero” by Peter Coogan, he cites the court case that National Publication brought against Fox Publications in 1940 where Judge Learned Hand defined the superhero as
(a) heroic character with a selfless, pro-social mission; with superpowers — extraordinary abilities, advanced technology, or highly developed physical, mental, or mysterious skills; who has a superhero I dandy embodied by a codename and the iconic costume, which typically express his biography, character, powers, or origin(transformation from ordinary person to superhero): and who is generically distinct, i. e. can be distinguished from characters of related genres (fantasy, science fiction, detective, etc.) by a preponderance of generic conventions. Often superheroes have dual identities, the ordinary one of which is usually a closely guarded secret.
(Coogan, The Definition of the Superhero 77)
This effectively defines the superhero archetype in a cultural context where the superhero is subjugated due to their responsibility to use their extraordinary abilities for the betterment of mankind. Anybody who has seen the first Spiderman movie directed by Sam Raimi will recognize the creed that Uncle Ben Parker gave to young Peter Parker. Uncle Ben said, “with great power comes great responsibility.” This defines the superhero archetype as the individual who is willing to use their gifts not in a selfish way but as a person who recognizes they are to affect change in the world and be an inspiration to those without power. This is Superman’s primary strength as an icon and why he has remained relevant as an icon and an archetypal superhero for almost 70 years.
Before we can address the superhero genre in any proper fashion, we need to examine some of the old myths and legends that fed into creating the modern superhero. The first hero from antiquity we must consider is Gilgamesh. The epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest written stories on Earth where it is preserved between 2750 and 2500 BCE in cuneiform on 12 Clay tablets and tells the adventures of the King of Uruk. The first tablet introduces Gilgamesh, who is two thirds god and one third mortal. The citizens of his city petitioned the gods for help because Gilgamesh oppresses them, especially the young women. Because Gilgamesh is King of Uruk he believes it is his right to be the first with a bride on her wedding night and deflowers them with a particular glee that is reminiscent of a super-villain. The gods hear the pleas and create an opponent for Gilgamesh called Enkidu. Enkidu is a wild man and meant to distract Gilgamesh from his overly passionate pleasures with all the young women of Uruk. However, Gilgamesh does not directly engage Enkidu but sends a skilled temple seductress to help subdue him. Once Enkidu is subdued by the harlot and civilized, he learns of Gilgamesh’s improprieties with his subjects and goes to Uruk to change Gilgamesh’s mind.
Once he reaches Uruk, Enkidu blocks Gilgamesh’s entry into a bridal bedchamber. This enrages Gilgamesh. He is king and is denied nothing in his kingdom, especially the “lord’s right” of the first night with a new bride. The fight that ensues is truly epic and ends with Gilgamesh being barely able to subdue Enkidu. This fight made them friends and allows Enkidu to influence Gilgamesh against his lordly right to a new bride on her wedding night.
From a certain perspective we might say that this tells us a great deal about the ancient Samarian culture. First of all in Samarian culture, the King has the right to do what he wishes whenever he wants. It also tells us that while they are a warrior culture that places a premium on strength and courage; they also prize cunning and intelligence. We see when Gilgamesh did not directly engage Enkidu but uses his wits to devise a plan to bring the wild man under control. Gilgamesh is a Babylonian archetype, a God-King, the epitome of manliness in Samarian culture. While we have no real icon of what Gilgamesh may have looked like we can say that Samarian culture had a sort of “hero cult.” Gilgamesh’s hero cult was the hero cult of a living breathing king who gathered a whole city around him as worshipers.
The next group of mythic cycles that exerts a great deal of influence over modern comic book superheroes derive from the ancient Greeks. In ancient Greece we have many heroes who, because of their exploits and the writings of Homer, have been able to survive until modern times. Perhaps one of the most important of these heroes is Achilles. Achilles fought for the Greeks during the siege of Troy and is, perhaps, their most celebrated hero from that time. Achilles was the son of Peleus, the King of Pithia and a sea nymph named Thetis, who because of a prophecy attempted to make Achilles invulnerable by dipping him in the River Styx which left his heel unprotected. This small weakness led to his death by a poison arrow during the final day of the Trojan War. What is important to note about Achilles is that he shares many characteristics with the comic book superhero. He is invulnerable like Superman and like all good comic book superheroes he has a weakness that can be exploited against him, although in the Achilles case, it turned out to be his death.
Another Greek hero that served as an inspiration for comic book superheroes is Heracles. It is appropriate to use the Greek spelling here because we will be discussing the Greek hero born in Alcaeus and not the Romanized hero spelled Hercules. Heracles is the son of Zeus and is hated by his stepmother Hera because he reminded her of her husband’s, Zeus, infidelity. Once again, we have a character from antiquity who shares a great deal with modern superheroes. Heracles has a level of invulnerability because has divine parentage and a magical lion skin, extraordinary strength, and endurance above the levels of any mortal man. He also has one of the most important defining characteristics of any comic book superhero: he has an arch-nemesis that will go to any length to destroy him. Hera’s first attempt to destroy started Heracles when he was only eight months old, Hera sent two snakes into his cradle to kill him. Even at this time Heracles possessed great strength and overcame the serpents, saving not only himself but also his brother Iphicles. This antagonistic relationship would last Heracles’ entire life and lead to many epic adventures, the most famous of which are the twelve labors that made Heracles the most famous Greek hero from antiquity.
The Twelve Labors of Heracles were a penance given to Heracles by the Oracle at Delphi after he killed his family in a fit of insanity given to him by Hera. The Oracle told to him to serve King Euystheus for twelve years. In each of the labors Heracles is asked by King Euystheus, Hera’s representative, to kill or subdue and animal or retrieve a plant. The sites selected by King Euystheus were either a stronghold to Hera or the entrance to the Greek Underworld. All of these labors were designed in mind to kill Heracles or so hard, they could never be accomplished. In one of these labors Heracles is accompanied by, what we call in the superhero genre, a “sidekick,” his nephew, Iolaus, helped him kill the Hydra. This caused King Euystheus to not count not only this labor but the Augean Stables as well because he received payment for the work. To reach the required twelve labors King Euystheus required Heracles to retrieve the Golden Apples of Hesperides and capture Cerberus, the three headed hound guarding the gates of the Underworld. While these labors where designed to destroy Heracles, they only cemented his place in the Greek pantheon of heroes and made him the archetype for the superhero genre.
Lastly, the Greek hero whose life is the subject of a whole epic poem by Homer was Odysseus. While Odysseus showed strength beyond that of a mortal man by being the only one strong enough to string his bow, he was better known for his wit and cunning. It was Odysseus who designed the plan to break the stalemate with the Trojans by creating what came to be known as the Trojan Horse. This ingenuity and cunning are reflected in modern comic book superheroes like Batman, who uses his wits to survive against super-villains who have him outclassed physically. These three heroes are part of the development of the Homeric hero cult that Whitley discussed in his article. While these three epic heroes helped develop the hero cult, it is the hero cult that helped develop them as icons. As a result, they became ubiquitous, appearing in architecture, pottery, and even weapons and armor.
Roman mythology is based around a founding hero myth in The Aeneid and perhaps is the ultimate expression of the Greek hero cult. Rome took from heroic Greek legends and meshed them with local legends. This allowed them to create a continuity that went back to ancient Greek civilization. This continuity extends back through myth and legend to Aeneas, a Trojan prince was able to escape the sack of Troy. Just as many Greek heroes, Aeneas is the son of a mortal Prince Anchises and the goddess Aphrodite. This carries on a tradition started with the Greeks that their heroes must have some sort of divine parent or ancestor in their background. Aeneas is one of the few Trojans who did not get killed or enslaved at the end of the Trojan War and was commanded by the gods to gather the survivors together and find their way to the Italian Peninsula were they would be the founders of Rome.
Once Aeneas and the survivors arrive in Italy, they were greeted by King Latinus, who gives his previously betrothed daughter to Aeneas as a wife. This angers Lavinia’s former fiancé, Turnus, and he gathers an army to get revenge for the slight against his honor. Aeneas wins the war but Lavinia’s father, Latinus, is killed. To commemorate the victory and to honor his wife, Aeneas founds the city of Lavinium. Later when Aeneas dies his mother, Aphrodite, asks her father, Jupiter, to make her son the immortal. Jupiter grants this boon raising the Roman founder to the level of a god. Aeneas is a Roman archetype in that he overcame great odds and through strife and chaos was able to bring order to the world around him.
While Samarian, Greek, and Roman mythology supplies a wealth of archetypes on which to base comic book superheroes, it is perhaps Christian mythology that has the most profound effect on the genre. This effect has its origins in the Old Testament heroes such as Noah, Sampson, and Moses all the way through the New Testament accounts of Jesus. As Joseph Campbell states, “Jesus, for example, can be regarded as a man who by the dent of austerities and meditation attained wisdom; or on the other hand, one may believe that a God descended and took upon himself the impact of the human career. (Campbell 275) Through Jesus, God’s wisdom is imparted to Western Civilization by means of the Golden Rule which states, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and is reinforced by Jesus in his parable of the “Good Samaritan.” In this parable Jesus tell the story of a Jew who is beaten and robbed while traveling. He is happened upon by first a Jewish priest and later another Jew, both of whom ignore him. It is only when a Samaritan, an enemy of the Jews, finds the beaten man, does the man get help.
The widely accepted interpretation of this story holds that we should help others because we hope that they would help us in times of need. Jesus’ story is one of the central themes of the superhero and a hard lesson learned by Spiderman shortly after he gained his powers. Nowhere and comic books is this parable more evident than in the Spiderman origin story. In the beginning, Peter Parker used his newly gained powers for personal gain. Because he was so selfishly focused on getting money to impress girls, he ignored the plea from a police officer to stop a fleeing robber. There is robber went on to murder his Uncle Ben. From that point Peter Parker swore to use his powers to help society. Perhaps if Peter Parker had followed “The Golden Rule” he would still have his Uncle Ben. When Peter Parker ignored this creed passed down to us through Christian teachings, he ignored a mandate developed in a Christian society.
These mandates and archetypes were integrated into western society throughout the Middle Ages in a profound way and were reinforced when the Church created the cathedral as a means for communal participation in the Christian virtues and archetypes. If we extend this back through the civilizations before the rise of Christianity we might equate this with a type of “hero cult” where Jesus and the saints are held up for worship. To help this worship the Church used art to tell the stories. This art took the form of murals and stained-glass depicting various scenes from the Bible and various biblical figures. This iconographic imagery instilled in the viewer a sense of wonder and awe that allowed them to participate in the worship practice and carry it out into the community where the Church’s moral agents were able to act upon the population and spread Christianity.
The spreading of the Christian virtues gave the hero a moral base from which to operate. This is shown in the Christianization of old pagan stories such as Beowulf where Beowulf attributes his strength due to his closeness to God. Not only did Jesus’ teachings influence old stories’ but they also influenced the creation of new stories such as the Arthurian cycle of stories that use Christian morality to impose order into the lives warriors. The knightly virtues such as “valor, justice, modesty, loyalty to superiors, courtesy to equals, compassion to weakness, and devotedness to the Church” (Bulfinch 349) are virtues that appear in one form or another and the modern superhero archetype.
To Be Continued in Part 3 True Believers.
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There are so many distinct levels in The Waste Land that this short essay will not even begin to touch the surface of the work. The Waste Land goes beyond simple poetry and reaches into story telling in a way that is both poetic, prose, and song all at once and with many voices telling many stories that coalesce into one single overarching narrative. The Waste Land tells the story of a world that has lost it’s innocence and spirituality. Moving from prophetic warnings of utter desolation, to a world of barbarism and war. The spirits of dead warriors return to the desolate destroyed city of London seeking to speak to the living. It is a poem of the loss of spiritual and physical reality. It can also be seen as one of the finest examples of post-apocalyptic literature.
To understand Eliot’s work in terms of speculative fiction we must look at his influences as a poet. In many ways Eliot builds on the legacy of Mathew Arnold. Arnold’s poetry is considered in some corners the first of the modern poets. His work delved into classical Greek and Roman ideas putting them into a Victorian and early modern. His work combined these classic elements with more fantastical ad dark elements creating such works as The Forsaken Mermaid and Dover Beach. Dover Beach with its dark prophetic themes and apocalyptic nature could almost be a prequel to Eliot’s later work. The poem’s theme even inspired Ray Bradbury and appears in his novel Fahrenheit 451.
Arnold, who died in the same year Eliot was born, is seen generally as one of the progenitors of Eliot, but Eliot adamantly disagreed, “[W]hile Mr. Eliot assumes the same general position as Arnold in criticism; he will own no connection with him.” (Loring 479). Eliot admitted no connection between their work but he stated that he understood “deeply” what Arnold was saying as a poet. Arnold stressed in his poetry that man should look inward for meaning between nature and spirituality. His work is introspective and contemplative. Arnold considered himself the concluding poet of his own age the last of the romantics. Eliot seems to have picked up the torch where Arnold dropped it, building on Arnold’s dark romanticism and creating a modernist approach from it. Eliot’s approach was to seek out the introspective nature of man and draw it out. For example we can look at the second section of “The Waste Land”. Here Eliot seems to be trying to draw out that inner contemplative world into the open. “What are you thinking of? What Thinking? What?” (Di Yanni 458). This drawing out of the inner world is especially evident in the section of the poem which describes the prophetic tarot reading. Eliot exposes the innermost self to the world transcending the romantic poetry of Arnold and the Victorian period. He creates a new canvas for poetry and uses that to explore a dark future.
Another author and thinker upon whom Eliot drew inspiration is Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead was particularly important when looking at ideas of metaphysical and physical balance in Eliot’s poem. Where Matthew Arnold was introspective and contemplating of self in his poetry, Whiteheads work concentrated on the conflict between the physical world and on the spiritual world. Whitehead was a philosopher rather than a poet, a contemporary of Eliot. His work was highly influential in Eliot’s day and may have helped solidify the spiritual and scientific aspects of Eliot’s work. Whitehead also pioneered a philosophy that postulated the world must give up science and embrace spirituality. Whitehead stated that we must find, “an end of the dominance of scientism and materialistic naturalism, and the beginning of the re-construction of a livable and believable world out of the fragments” (Waggoneer 101). This was also the theme that Eliot was attempting to explore in The Waste Land. Mankind had embraced physics and science and with that emphasis on the material world he has lost his soul. These same themes can be found throughout modern post-apocalyptic literature. David Brin for instance expresses almost the exact same sentiment at the beginning of The PostMan.
The Waste Land is a multi-layered narrative that defies easy classification. Is it a poem about a spiritual wasting away of the human spirit, or is it about the wasting away of our physical existence, or could it be both at once? I believe that it is both and neither. I think it defies those simple classifications and is a creature all on its own. It transcends the inner contemplative work of Arnold and embraces the ideas of the new modern “god” and new metaphysical reality envisioned by Whitehead. Here is a poem that is truly modern in scope and essence. The Waste Land exposes the duality of modern man set adrift in a world beset by the physical on one side and seeking meaning in the metaphysical on another. In embracing this duality Eliot uses it to speculate on the fate of man. He asks the question have we lost our souls while embracing science and materialism? Questions like these are at the very heart of speculative fiction. Eliot gives mankind a choice, he must find a balance between the spiritual and the scientific or forever be lost in the apocalyptic wasteland.
DiYanni, Robert. Modern American Poets: Their Voices and Visions. New York: McGraw Hill, 1994. Print.
Hyatt Howe Waggoner. T. S. Eliot and the Hollow Men American Literature , Vol. 15, No. 2 (May, 1943), pp. 101-126. JSTOR. Web.
M. L. S. Loring. T.S. Eliot on Mathew Arnold, The Sewanee Review Vol. 43, No. 4 , pp. 479-488. December 3, 2012. JSTOR. Web.