Sunday, July 10, 2016

Historian Humor

I found this bouncing around Facebook. Having spent the past two-and-a-half years writing a book on social history in the "Jacksonian Era" (or "Market Revolution Era," depending on your orientation), I found it pretty funny.

Q: How many historians does it take to change a light bulb?

A: There is a great deal of debate on this issue. Up until the mid-20th century, the accepted answer was ‘one: and this Whiggish narrative underpinned a number of works that celebrated electrification and the march of progress in light-bulb changing. Beginning in the 1960s, however, social historians increasingly rejected the ‘Great Man’ school and produced revisionist narratives that stressed the contributions of research assistants and custodial staff. This new consensus was challenged, in turn, by women’s historians, who criticized the social interpretation for marginalizing women, and who argued that light bulbs are actually changed by department secretaries. Since the 1980s, however, postmodernist scholars have deconstructed what they characterize as a repressive hegemonic discourse of light-bulb changing, with its implicit binary opposition between ‘light’ and ‘darkness,’ and its phallogocentric privileging of the bulb over the socket, which they see as colonialist, sexist, and racist. Finally, a new generation of neo-conservative historians have concluded that the light never needed changing in the first place, and have praised political leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher for bringing back the old bulb. Clearly, much additional research remains to be done.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Happy Fathers' Day

My son is coming to spend the night, talking about taking me to a movie and dinner tomorrow. I’m guessing his girlfriend reminded him that it was Fathers’ Day, because it’s not the kind of thing he remembers on his own. Which is fine. I usually forgot to do anything for my own dad on Fathers’ Day unless my mom or my girlfriend reminded me. Half the time I forgot my parents’ birthdays when I was younger. For that matter, they forgot mine a couple of times. We’ve never been much for dates.
       When my dad was old, though, and I was middle aged, I remembered his birthday and Fathers’ Day every year. It wasn’t just that I’d grown more responsible or learned how to use a calendar, it was also that I knew the years I had with him were getting scarce. When he turned eighty I wrote him a long letter thanking him for being my father. It was an emotional time. His wife, my mother, was dying of cancer. A vast depression was closing in on him, and he was showing the first signs of dementia. I wanted to say everything I had thought about but never said while he could still hear it.
       He didn’t say much about the letter. That had always been his way: the more he felt, the less he said. For a while he said nothing at all about it, but finally he said one thing: “I’m glad you feel I was a good father to you. I never knew how to be a father. I didn’t have one, you know.” It was the first time I’d ever heard him speak of the early loss of his own father as anything other than a piece of biographical information, the first time I’d heard him acknowledge it as a loss. And although I’d often thought how his dad’s death must have shaped him, I’d never thought to apply it to his own role as my father. When my brother was born, he’d had to make it up as he went along, go with his gut, think about what he wished he’d had and try to be that himself. By the time I came along he’d had some practice, but I was such a different kid from my brother that a lot of it he had to make up all over again.
       Early in my life I thought he was a great father, and then there came some years when I thought more about how he’d fallen short than how he’d succeeded, and then I started to accept that he’d done okay after all. But it wasn’t until then that I realized what a miracle he’d pulled off. He’d had no father after the age of two—just a loveless, mentally unstable mother—and yet he had somehow shown up for me, year after year, challenge after challenge, with a steadiness I could count on and a love I never doubted.
       A few months ago I found myself at dinner with my son, one of the few times in the last couple of years it’s been just the two of us sitting across a table talking, with neither my significant other nor his in attendance, and I talked to him about some things I felt I’d gotten wrong as his father. He thanked me for it. Some of what I’d apologized for were things that had actually bothered him, and he appreciated the acknowledgement. Others were things he’d completely forgotten about or never even noticed. Over all, though, he said, he thought I’d done a really good job as a father. He said it simply and matter-of-factly. Nothing effusive. And it was neither my birthday nor Fathers’ Day. I could tell he was leveling with me.
       I was luckier than my own dad. I’ve had to make up a lot as I went along too. Sometimes I think it was only through a miracle that I got anything right. But I had a father to show me how to be one. I wish my dad had had the same, for his sake. But I’m awestruck and grateful at what he did without that.
       All right. My kid just walked in. Time to show up for him while he shows up for me. And in doing that, I can show up for my own dad too.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Memorial Day

In 1941, Ruth Atwood, a 16 year old in Rawlins, Wyoming, fell in love with a boy named Bobby Benson. The next year, he joined the Navy and was sent to the South Pacific. On board the USS Astoria, he made friends with a young Marine named Russell Jones. The Astoria went down in the Battle of Savo that August. Russell Jones survived. Bobby Benson didn’t.
       A few months later, Ruth Atwood went to stay with Bobby’s parents in Los Angeles, where they’d moved after their son had enlisted. Russell Jones, then stationed in San Diego, drove up to visit them and offer his condolences. He met Ruth there. They were drawn together by a shared grief, but as they spent time together other emotions grew.
       They were married in 1944. Thirteen years later, they wanted to name their second child after the young man whose death had brought them together. The family was already full of Bobbys and Bobs and Roberts, so they decided to give their new baby Bobbys middle name.
       I’m thinking today about Petty Officer Robert Gerard Benson, who died for his country and made my life possible.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

RIP Darwyn Cooke

One of the nicest moments of my post-comics years came when Darwyn Cooke hollered my name and chased me down at a Toronto convention to let me know that Martian Manhunter: American Secrets, a mini-series I’d done with Eduardo Barreto and Brian Augustyn, had been one of his inspirations in creating his splendid DC: The New Frontier. It was my only direct contact with Darwyn, but it meant a lot to me.
       He was a brilliant cartoonist, a fine writer, and a good guy. He’ll be missed.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Say Hey

This afternoon I was building some Ikea furniture in my living room and heard the sound of a marching band coming from outside. Not something one normally hears in this part (or any part) of San Francisco. My wife realized it was probably coming from AT&T Park, Giants' stadium, which we live near.
       We went and stood on the balcony, and out of the percussive marching band racket we heard the horn section starting on the Birthday Song. Then a huge chorus of voices rose, muddy at first but then clearly resolving into Happy birthday, dear Willie.
       Willie Mays had turned 85.
       I wanted to put my hand over my heart or something. It was a great moment in a great town.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Mort Weisinger

Mort Weisinger would have been 101 years old today. Even in his day, the comic books he edited were idiosyncratic, weirdly personal, always unlike anything anyone else was doing. Now, nearly fifty years after his editing days ended, theyre like relics of a lost medium. Emotional and gimmicky, richly developed and overstuffed with details but stubbornly childlike, frequently bizarre but always true to themselves, they were variations on the superheroic theme like nobody elses. And theyre still among my favorite pop-culture artifacts of all. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Road testing the new book

Now that I've turned in a complete draft of my book to my publisher, I thought I’d run an excerpt of it to see how it strikes peopleand how it strikes me when I look at it knowing that other people are seeing it too. The working title is Nation of Faith & Flesh: The Moral War That Shaped America, its nonfiction, it's coming from FSG in a year or so, and I’m still fine tuning the voice.

Chapter One
The Miserable Toys of Despotism

It may not have been the first battle fought over a Frenchwoman’s thighs, nor was it likely to be the last. But it was the first to launch a newspaper.
    She had been brought across the sea to dance the ballet at the grand new theater on the Bowery Road. The most cultured of New Yorkers had been anticipating her coming for weeks—Mayor Hone had been urging the city’s social leaders to turn out for her debut almost as though it were a civic duty. At last, in early February, the newspapers had been able to make the announcement: “Madame Francisque Hutin, of the Opera House, Paris, has arrived.”
    No one in the city had actually heard of Francisque Hutin, not even those who followed events in Paris, but everyone had heard of this latest French vogue, this new school of dance in which ethereal maidens leapt and spun to sentimental music, swept their liquid arms and floated on their toes. Fashionable Parisians could not get enough of it; after decades of revolution, war, and depression, it was a celebration of color, sentiment, gossamer delicacy, sweet harmony, illusive innocence, and sex. Their counterparts in Gotham, in those dark early weeks of 1827, were eager to make it their own—although in their minds it stood for something quite different.
    The house was crowded for a Wednesday night. Philip Hone, erstwhile mayor of the city, alertly poised and irreproachably dressed, surveyed the house from his private box and felt gratified to see all the neighboring boxes in the upper tier overflowing with the wealthy and cultured. But the boxes of the lower tier were full too, with the respectable husbands and wives of the middle class, and so were the cheaper seats in the pit, packed with young clerks and craftsmen. So, for that matter, were the cheapest seats of all, in the third tier above the boxes, where even laborers, black people, and unaccompanied women (along with those less respectable men who went looking for unaccompanied women) had come to see Madame Hutin dance.

    Of course, she would not appear early in the evening. First there had to pass the usual parade of musical acts, farcical sketches, and abbreviated plays that struggled to hold the attentions of a motley city crowd. But at long last, after a chopped-up version of Much Ado about Nothing, the orchestra sent up a sentimental folk melody to fill the vast space of the theater, and onto the stage bounded Francisque Hutin.
    Her dance was called “The Coquettish Shepherdess,” and after a coquettish bat of her eyelashes she bounded again with an athleticism astonishing for a female dancer. Then she hurled herself into a muscular pirouette. As she spun, her light skirt rose. And rose. And rose.
    No worldly member of the audience could have been surprised by the light gown she wore that bared her arms and lifted with her movements to grant a flash of stockinged leg. French dancers had been stirring minor scandals for thirty years with their filmy Grecian gowns, and popular actresses liked to play young Shakespearean males and Greek gods precisely so that they could wear breeches that displayed their calves. But few if any of them were prepared for what had lately become acceptable on the Parisian stage. Before seven thousand widening American eyes, Francisque Hutin kept spinning as centrifugal force, like the hand of an invisible lecher, revealed her calves, her knees, the fullness of her thighs, and, at least for an instant, even more.
    The audience did not remain in spellbound silence for long. A great chorus of male cheers swelled up from the pit. Claps and foot stamps met them from above. And in the middle, in the lower row of boxes, respectable middle-class wives rose indignantly from their seats and, proud and legless in the vast satin cones of their gowns, swept toward the lobby like bellflowers on a stream.
    One area of the house, however, was not so quick to announce its verdict: the upper boxes that held the people who shaped opinions and started vogues, the people whose opinion mattered most to Philip Hone. He knew art and valued civilization, and he understood what this performance meant to his city, how the whirling thighs of Madame Hutin embodied everything he yearned for New York to be.

      Hone’s newly completed tenure as mayor had lasted just a year, but it had been a monumental year. New York was rising on a flood tide. Not of water—although water was the source of it—but of money and humanity. The city had already been growing rapidly for two generations, faster than any other big city in the young republic, muscling ahead of Boston and Philadelphia as a center of commerce, finance, and industry. Then, in the fall of 1825, only fourteen months before, Governor Clinton had officially opened the Great Western Canal, that highway of water slashing nearly four hundred miles through stone and forest from distant Lake Erie to the Hudson River, ferrying the whole, incalculable wealth of the vast American interior past the docks at the tip of Manhattan. In its first year of operation, the canal had been even more profitable than its backers had predicted, nearly paying back its titanic cost. Now the winter had shut it down, but everyone knew that in a month or two, when the ice began to break, the surge of barges and wealth would be greater than any city had ever dreamed of.
  Already the city was outgrowing itself. There had been fewer than a hundred thousand people there ten years before, but at least seventy thousand more had crowded in since. How many more would come now? Every day they poured in by ship and ferry, from every state in the Union and half the nations of Europe, fighting for a piece of New York’s new wealth. The rasping and pounding of construction had become the music of the city, and this new theater was at the center of it. Laborers and immigrants crowded into the tenant houses that proliferated across the boggy neighborhood that stretched out behind the theater’s back, while another immigrant, a friend of Hone’s named John Jacob Astor, was rapidly transforming a respectable fortune into a colossal one by turning the farmland to the north into new neighborhoods.
  Right where Philip Hone sat, where theater patrons now packed themselves into boxes and rows, another sort of crowd had gathered just a few years before—crowds of great, stinking, pissing, moaning brutes, unwittingly brought together to die. This had been the slaughterhouse district until a group of wealthy landowners, Astors among them, had determined to plow it under with the city’s most elegant new neighborhood. The Bowery Road, so recently churned muddy by cattle drives from the pastures of Manhattan, now rolled like an imperial boulevard into the north and the future, to half-built neighborhoods where wandering lanes were giving way to a scientific grid of streets with numbers instead of names.
To anchor that boulevard’s southern end, where Chatham Street curved into it from the old city, the Astors and their allies had decided to build the New York Theatre. They had planned its opening for October, 1826—almost exactly a year after Governor Clinton had officially opened the Canal—as a monument to wealth and modernity. One thing alone made it a bright, hissing testimony to a new age: it was the first American theater built for gas lighting, that invisible power just then beginning to transform the urban night. But it was also the biggest theater in the New World, seating thirty-five hundred people within the body of a Greek temple, a white-pillared assertion of the power of reason and republicanism, with “scenery and machinery equal to anything in London.” It would present, they had promised, only the finest performances. It would never, unlike the other new theaters popping up, pander to baser tastes.

     Mayor Hone had delivered an address upon the laying of its cornerstone. “No act of my public life,” he remembered, “lost me so many friends.” A growing body of influential citizens had been stirred to do battle against the city’s rising tide of vice and crime (especially those Presbyterian merchants who’d been pouring in from New England), and most had come to view theaters as nearly as pernicious as taverns and brothels—as much for the crowds they attracted as for what happened on stage. For the mayor, however, the theater was worth the political risk. 
  Hone was a cosmopolite, one who had made his fortune auctioning European goods, one who followed the artistic fashions of Paris and London, a dashing master of taste and ton who knew paintings and music and threw scintillating dinner parties. He had grown weary of Europeans mocking the United States as a land of farmers and religious cranks, and just as weary of Americans mocking New Yorkers for caring about nothing but money, food, and amusements. An annoying woman named Anne Royall had recently published a book of “sketches” of life in the various regions of the young United States (one of those books that no one would admit to owning but that everyone could complain about in great detail), in which she’d asserted that Boston was “unmistakably a century ahead of New York in intellectual refinement.” Hone wanted his city to use its wealth to make itself the glittering cultural jewel of the new world. 
  There was something, however, even more important than appearances. In culture, Hone knew that he moved at the vanguard of his times, but he knew just as well that in politics he was a vestige of lost era—the era when only men of property were allowed to vote. He had come of age in a city still dominated by the old, landed families that had run it since the days of the Dutch, those intermarried clans of Beekmans and Stuyvesants and Livingstons. When the merchant princes (among whom Hone liked to count himself) had risen to rival them, they had swiftly united their interests with the old gentry through bonds of marriage and real estate. But over just the past few years, bending before the democratic winds that swept the country, the legislature in Albany had been gradually expanding suffrage until soon nearly every white male would have the vote; and now a brushfire of angry egalitarianism was sweeping from the West with the inexorable Andrew Jackson. Hone himself had been installed as mayor only because an ugly feud had briefly split the corrupt and cupiditous democrats who were clearly taking control of the city. 
  He worried about the costs of sudden democracy. He had seen the growing restiveness of laboring men: the recent march of a thousand men along the docks in support of a stevedors’ strike, but also the vandalism of Mr. Stuyvesant’s garden, the riot that had erupted when the city had tried to round up the herds of pigs that ran free in the streets, the ugly demonstration of partisan anger in front of his own mansion on New Year’s night. He knew that if his class of people were to do anything to steer the city away from mob rule, they would have to do it not through their diminishing political power but through whatever cultural power they could wield. They would have to bring civility to the masses, educate and uplift them from mobhood to citizenship. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Superman, Philip Wylie, and Young Writers' Dreams

I was recently asked by Dover Books to write the foreword to their reissue of Gladiator by Philip Wylie, a book Ive long had an interest in as both a historian of comics and a general commentator on American culture and history. I find Wylie complicated and interesting to think about, and it was a fun piece to write. 

Of all the artistic legacies a person might earn, I think the most bittersweet is to be remembered only for having inspired someone else to do something better known. I imagine Cimabue would have been thrilled to know that art historians would still be talking about him seven centuries after his death, until he realized that they weren’t talking about him as the great painter of his age but only as the guy who may (or may not) have taught Giotto to paint. Would Max Linder, who committed suicide when he thought his movie career was washed up, have been pleased to know that his work would still be shown in occasional film festivals nearly a century later—if he’d had to listen to himself always described as the sadly forgotten comedian who inspired Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd? It’s a legacy that means future generations will still come back in time to look at your work, but they’ll never really see it for what you meant it to be. They’ll always see it through the eyes of some third party—very likely someone you resent for outshining you.
    Philip Wylie, in his prime years, would probably never have imagined that he’d be a candidate for such a fate, let alone that he’d be the man mainly responsible for creating it. From the mid-1930s through most of the 1950s, he had a remarkable run as a writer: bestselling books of social commentary, literary novels of decent reputation, science fiction thrillers that got turned into movies, and a constant presence in the Saturday Evening Post and other major magazines. By 1963, however, when he agreed to be interviewed by the science-fiction historian Sam Moskowitz, the world’s attention was already clearly leaving him behind; which may be why he felt moved to complain so bitterly about how the creators of the comic strip Superman had stolen their idea from one of his early novels. He lived only another eight years, but by the time of his death, his own literary reputation was rapidly evaporating as Gladiator’s fame was rising among pop-culture historians in search of the hidden origins of the superhero.

    So it is that of all his forty or so published books, the only one in print is the one in your hand—not one of his bestselling, not one of his more highly regarded, not one of his personal favorites, but the one that was read by a teenager in Cleveland named Jerry Siegel, who borrowed some of its ideas to create a comic strip that Wylie considered a load of garbage.
    Siegel (and his artistic collaborator Joe Shuster) drew on far more than Wylie’s novel for the idea of Superman: the Doc Savage pulp magazines, a raft of other science fiction and fantasy stories, Douglas Fairbanks movies, Popeye, lots of things. But none of them have held the “missing link” glamor for comics historians that this odd little novel holds. A body of legends has grown up around the relationship between Gladiator and Superman, some spurious and some outright false (and some, to my enduring embarrassment, passed on in my own book, Men of Tomorrow). The truth is that Jerry Siegel never reviewed, or even mentioned, Gladiator in the fanzine he published in high school. If Wylie threatened to sue for plagiarism or Siegel signed affidavits claiming he’d never read the book, there is no record.

    What we do know for sure is that Siegel, in his unpublished autobiography, wrote that he “read and enjoyed Philip Wylie’s book Gladiator” and that, along with a great many other pop-culture items, “it influenced me, too.” (Courtesy of Thomas Andrae, author of Creators of the Superheroes.) We also know that there are many details shared by Gladiator and the first several months of Superman stories that are awfully hard to dismiss as coincidence. Most specifically, we know that the physical attributes of Wylie’s Hugo Danner—what we would now call his “superpowers”—were a unique combination at the time, and they were precisely, no more and no less, the same as those of the first incarnation of Superman.
    What Wylie did, essentially, was establish the “superhero” as we know it—or at least the superhero’s physical nature. He posited a rogue scientific experiment that gives a man unasked-for physical superiority: great muscular strength, the ability to leap vast distances and heights, tremendous running speed, and skin so tough that nothing less than an artillery shell could pierce it. Popular fiction was full of strongmen, and science fiction featured a few interplanetary characters who could jump high because of gravitational differences. But combining power with speed, creating a hero who could both lift and outrun a locomotive, was something new. We don’t usually see those two as going together (weight lifting isn’t in the decathlon), and the combination created a new template for across-the-board superhumanity. The addition of invulnerable skin cranked the idea up another notch. Hugo Danner was (to quote Will Murray’s excellent Gladiator of Iron, Man of Steel), “A quantum leap forward in the concept of the preternaturally-powerful protagonist.”
    Jerry Siegel gave Superman’s powers an extraterrestrial rather than chemical origin, but the powers themselves were the same as Danner’s; it would be a few years yet before Superman could fly instead of leap, longer still before he picked up x-ray vision, super-hearing, and the rest of it. Siegel also followed Wylie’s lead in suggesting that a man of such abilities could never fit in with normal humanity, that the rest of us could only make him an object of fear or curiosity, that many of us would try to find some way to exploit him for profit. But what Siegel chose to do with that realization was drastically different from what Wylie had done—and there opens the greatest difference between the characters, one that says a great deal about Philip Wylie and why his literary fate has been to play a supporting role in someone else’s origin story.
    He was born in Massachusetts in 1902, the eldest son of Edmund Melville Wylie, a Presbyterian minister of some renown. His relationship with his father was apparently difficult from early on, and he grew up defining himself in opposition to a certain kind of moral and conventional authority; he usually portrayed his father as intelligent but rigid, overly attached to his own righteousness, trapped in his own doctrine and ultimately hypocritical. Whatever mediating influence his mother might have brought ended with her death when Philip was five. His father remarried, but he didn’t get along with his stepmother.
    By his early teens, Philip was already striking dramatic postures of resistance to the worldview his elders were attempting to inculcate in him. “One evening during a thunder storm,” remembered his sister Verona Wylie Slater, Philip “was inspired to make an unholy experiment. He stood on a sloping rock, which jutted out into the lake near our summer home. Holding his face upward, he defied the Almighty to strike him with a bolt of lightning. The skies opened with a terrifying flash, but the bolt flew across the dark waters a mile away. We felt relieved, foolish, and very insignificant.” Wylie reconstructs that scene at a crucial moment in Gladiator, but in such a way that one is left suspecting that he felt less relieved than disappointed at being passed over by the divine wrath.
    Philip attended Princeton University, but in his third year he dropped out because of a conflict with a teacher. For a while he knocked around as a sailor, not the first bright young man who disliked authority to take up that job. Then he tried working in advertising and publishing, including some time on the editorial staff of the young New Yorker magazine, but it never took very long for him either to get fired or resign in frustration. So he staked his future on writing novels.
    The literary culture of the early 1920s provided a great deal of reinforcement for a young man with a desire to stand on metaphorical rocks during intellectual lightning storms. Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street was the book of the age. F. Scott Fitzgerald (whose shadow stretched over Princeton when Wylie was there) was being called a voice of the modern generation. D. H. Lawrence and James Branch Cabell were fighting battles with the censors (mainly New England Protestants greatly reminiscent of the Reverend Wylie), cheered on by H. L. Mencken. A young writer was expected to unmask society’s hypocrisy, destroy sentimentality with brutal honesty, fling himself against convention with a “romantic egoism.” He should advocate hard science and reject religion, immerse himself in Freud and know Nietzsche. And he should suffer. He should, as Wylie said of his protagonist in an introduction to one edition of Gladiator, “share the isolation of geniuses and with them…learn the inflexibility of man's slow evolution.”
    Gladiator was Wylie’s first novel, written in 1926, when he was twenty-four years old. He submitted it to Alfred A. Knopf, H. L. Mencken’s publisher and a champion of challenging new fiction, who was taken with its author enough to buy it—but also leery enough to lay it on the shelf for a while and ask Wylie to write a more conventional novel to introduce himself to the world first. Ultimately, Gladiator would not be published until 1930, after Wylie had produced two novels based more or less on his own life, Heavy Laden and Babes and Sucklings, and in a rewritten form.

     I haven’t been able to discover anything about the original manuscript or how different it may have been from what saw print, but given Wylie’s complaint that Knopf pushed him to rewrite it “against my will and judgment,” I’m inclined to think that he did his best to preserve his original intent. Or let me put it this way: I find Gladiator much easier to appreciate if I read it as the creative eruption of an unpublished twenty-four year seized by a big idea than as the third novel of a twenty-eight year old who should have learned something from working with Alfred Knopf. Its charm is in its newness, its quality of discovery, and its painful, sometimes confusing collision of two very common but very different sorts of young male fantasy: breathtaking feats on the battlefield, the gridiron, and the public arena of crime and justice on the one hand; literary and intellectual acclaim on the other.
    In his childhood, Wylie was a great reader of H. G. Welles and other authors of those fantastical stories that would later be classified as “science fiction.” He came up with the idea for Hugo Danner (by his own report) while lamenting the inferiority of the human body to machines. He began speculating on what a man might do with a superhuman body, and if he’d been at a different point either in his own development of that of American fiction, he might have found his way to a fun adventure story, maybe something like one of Welles’s lighter novels, with a touch of social speculation or satire. By the time he reached his thirties, Wylie would demonstrate a comfort with that sort of storytelling, which contributed to his successful career. At twenty-four, however, pumping himself up for the solitary quest of the novelist, the temptation to climb onto that rock in the thunderstorm was just too great. Some years before his fellow Princeton alum, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy,” Wylie concluded that a man like Hugo Danner “would be foredoomed to vulgar fame or to a life of fruitless destruction.” And he spent a book proving it.
    Jerry Siegel, born twelve years after Wylie, coming of age after American culture had mostly dismissed its Twenties as an embarrassing youth, comfortable with himself as a lover of pulp science fiction and Hollywood movies, had no interest in writing a tragedy. When he saw that his superman would never be able to function as a normal human being, he also saw the obvious solution: Clark Kent. His hopelessly isolated hero would put on a pair of glasses and wink his way through the great in-joke of pretending to be one of us. Siegel also understood that what most readers would want of such an outlandish hero was an equally outlandish message: that our great problems were simple enough to be solved by a man who could lift a car over his head. For the young Philip Wylie, such a compromise with “the cynical piddling of modern society,” by either the protagonist or the author, would have been the height of the very hypocrisy that he had committed himself to fighting.
    In the early 1930s, frustrated by his experiences with Knopf and serious fiction, Wylie turned his energies to making a living off what he called “a bumper crop of crap.” Two of the books from that period would provide still more inspiration to the spinners of fantastical adventures: The Savage Gentleman from 1932 clearly inspired the Doc Savage pulps, which in turn worked some influence on Superman and other comic-book heroes, while When Worlds Collide, cowritten with Edwin Balmer the following year, probably inspired Flash Gordon and perhaps also Superman’s interplanetary origin story.  Over the next several years, an entire industry of comic books, comic strips, movie serials, and licensed merchandise grew up around superheroes. Most of those were spun straight out of Superman and probably owed nothing directly to Wylie (although with some of them, like Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Captain America, a man transformed by an experimental serum into a very Danneresque super soldier, one has to wonder), but they all rested, to some degree, on the foundation of Gladiator.
    By that time, however, Wylie himself had moved on. He tackled serious fiction again in Finnley Wren, then donned his own heroic garb in an assault on American sentimentality and mediocrity via his 1942 collection of essays called Generation of Vipers. For some years, he was a prominent presence in book stores and magazines, almost a household name. Then he faded, while Superman and his brethren only grew more numerous, more famous, more artistically complex, and more central to our popular culture. 

     I’m glad we have this opportunity to look back at his contribution to the superheroes—but I also suspect Wylie would appreciate it if we could leave that behind for a moment and read this first novel of his for what it was before Jerry Siegel discovered it: the self-conscious but heartfelt roar of a young man of wild ideas and wilder ambition, climbing onto a rock in the lightning storm of the first decade of the modern world.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Happy New Year

I was blessed with a great 2015. I was able to write the bulk of Nation of Faith and Flesh, (enough that Ill surely meet my January 15 deadline for this draft). Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson and I made big progress on developing our upcoming collaboration, Lost Hero, so we should be able to move forward full speed early next year. Will Jacobs and I completed and saw published My Pal Splendid Man, a humor book wed begun to write as a labor of love many, many years ago. I was asked to write introductions to rereleases of a couple of things that matter to me, the animated Watership Down and Philip Wylies novel Gladiator. And my wife and I sold our house after twenty-four years, setting ourselves free to enter a leaner, lighter way of living that suits us well in this (mostly) post-parenting era of life.
       Some of these things were already on the schedule before 2014 ended, some were surprises. One, the selling of the house, didn't even seem to be a possibility when this year started, but its turned out so well that I want to pretend I planned it all along. This past year has been good for reminding me to trust luck and providence, and to take all my own plans with a grain of salt. I entered 2015 with a fair amount of trepidation, but Im looking forward to seeing whatever 2016 brings. I hope its good to us all.
       Happy new year!