DISCUSSED: Alfred Hitchcock, Republican California Governors Who Become United States Presidents, Marvel and DC, The First Law of Lethem, Sunnydale, George Eliot, Ang Lee’s Hulk, Magical Rings, Krylon paint, The 907 Crew, John Donne, Superman

Even before a young Dylan Ebdus, the protagonist of Jonathan Lethem’s astonishing sixth novel The Fortress of Solitude, begins Public School 38 in Brooklyn in the fall of 1970, he receives an informal radical homeschooling from his hippie mother, an early primer of “information he couldn’t yet use: Nixon was a criminal, the Dodgers moved to California, Chinese food gives you a headache, Muhammad Ali resisted the war and went to jail, Hitchcock’s British films were better than his American ones, circumcision was unnecessary but women preferred it.” Rachel Ebdus’s lessons in cool are less judgments than statements of fact: Nixon did turn out to be a criminal, the Dodgers had left Brooklyn for Los Angeles (never mind her misguided views on Hitch). So when late in the novel Rachel’s grown son, moonlighting as a superhero named Aeroman, is compared by a newspaper reporter who follows his vigilante adventures to Batman, Dylan understandably bristles as if in memory of one of his mother’s maxims: “Batman’s DC, and I like Marvel. DC sucks.”

Indeed, Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Shazam: DC characters were squares, a lineup of do-gooders, hall monitors, and class presidents awarded advantages of power they hardly needed. In the fatuous Saturday morning cartoon Superfriends they all lived happily together inside the Hall of Justice, a big concrete tent tolerant enough to include even the Wonder Twins and their milquetoast monkey.

Meanwhile, Marvel characters—Spider-Man, Phoenix, Hulk, Silver Surfer, The Thing—were as angsty as any suburban Manchester queer in a Morrissey song. Alliances formed but remained tenuous, like the stitching on their costumes always coming apart after a battle. Indeed, in one popular book, Marvel Team-Up, a pair of unrelated characters—typically Spider-Man and someone else from the Marvel universe—joined forces for a cause that lasted just a single issue. Suspended each month in this contingency, combative personalities could come together to bicker—Didi and Gogo for a day—only to disband on the last page as if they’d never met, like legendary jazz musicians contracted to different labels who record one surreptitious session together under secret identities.

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Benjamin Strong lives in Brooklyn and works as a baker in a Manhattan restaurant. He is currently not writing a novel tentatively entitled Paper People.

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