Excerpt from The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger

coverI’ve got a book coming out at the end of the month: The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger: The 4000-Year History of the Superhero. You can get glimpses of it through Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature, but I felt that I should make a sample of it available through my blog. So here’s an excerpt of Costumed Avenger: two sections, about two formidable women:

Long Meg of Westminster

“Long Meg of Westminster” may never have existed. The stories of her being from Lancashire, working in a tavern, and serving in the army of Henry VIII in the 1540s have no evidentiary basis, and Long Meg would certainly not be the first folk hero to have sprung purely from the people’s imagination. But regardless of whether there was a flesh-and-blood woman who went by the name “Long Meg,” the English of the sixteenth and seventh centuries believed in her reality, and made her into a folk heroine, in popular ballads, fiction, drama and poetry.

In 1582 a pamphlet of her life was published. In 1590 a ballad about her, now lost, was licensed, and that same year appeared the anonymously-written The Life of Long Meg of Westminster; no copies of the 1590 edition of The Life of Long Meg survive, but a 1620 biography by that title is extant and is likely the same text. In The Life of Long Meg the Amazonian protagonist, beginning as a sixteen-year-old, uses her size and strength and fighting skills to fight corruption and wickedness and–yes, crime–on behalf of the poor and oppressed, rescuing penniless maidens from a usurious carrier, rescuing a poor debtor from a bailiff, casting down an arrogant nobleman in a fistfight, and–most importantly for our purposes–saving some Lancashire girls from robbery at the hands of two men. She beats the men into submission and makes them vow to never hurt woman, nor poor man, nor children, nor rob packmen nor carriers or distressed persons. One exception she grants: rich farmers and country chuffs, who she directs the robber to focus their energies on. “Clearly, Meg is not only a figure of heroism but of righteousness triumphant.”82 Meg goes on to fight the French on the battlefield, marries, saves a young man from a cruel miller’s anger, and, as an older woman, robs a crooked friar while disguised as a man.

Later writers cast her in less complimentary terms, although Thomas Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the West: Or, a Girl Worth Gold (1631) has its cross-dressing, piratical heroine hold up Long Meg as an example to be striven for, but the favorable legend of Long Meg persisted well into the nineteenth century, with The Life of Long Meg being reprinted in 1805 and 1880. Her relevance to this history is as a proto-superheroine, with her more-than-normal strength, codename, costume (her male’s attire), and her selfless activities, and if she lacks the specifically urban orientation of Moll Cutpurse, Long Meg nonetheless stands as the first modern proto-superheroine, the first inhabitant of the readers’ and listeners’ contemporary world. Long Meg isn’t a knight or Amazon from centuries ago; she is a product of the modern world, and provided her readers and listeners with the idea that fighting evil and crime could take place in the modern world. Too, unlike the many cross-dressing warrior women of popular ballads of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century,83 Long Meg is primarily an independent crime-fighter rather than a soldier or sailor, with a heroic mission all her own. Her adoption by writers as an abuser of abusive and boastful, arrogant men, and her use as a role model for other fictional women warriors, obscured this side of her.

Moll Cutpurse

Mary Frith (circa 1584-1659) was a remarkable woman. That so much of her life is obscured by stories about her (many circulating during her lifetime) and by later interpretations of her life, does not detract from how unusual she was. Purse-snatcher at sixteen, second-story woman at twenty-five, cross-dresser and “roaring girl” (the female version of the “roaring boy,” who was known for public drinking, fighting, and petty crimes), part of London’s female transvestite movement of the early seventeenth century, celebrity at twenty-six, public figure for the rest of her life, licensed fence and familiar of the members of the underworld, inmate at the infamous Bethlehem Hospital for the insane—just the facts of her life make up a colorful litany of adventure. And that’s not even taking into account the fictionalized versions of her life, beginning with T. Middleton and T. Dekker’s play The Roaring Girle; or, Moll Cut-Purse (1611) and continuing up through the present, as each new generation of readers and scholars rediscover Frith’s life and reinterpret and recast her for their own purposes.84

What is more relevant to this work is not the reality of Frith’s life and career as a member of the demi-monde, but her fictional self, the mythic “Moll Cutpurse.” The Roaring Girle presents Frith—known to all the world as Moll Cutpurse—as a habitué of the underworld but not a member of it, and (more importantly) one who protects—violently, if need be—the honest and innocent from the tricks of the criminals. She dresses in men’s clothes, carries a man’s weapons, and smokes tobacco. The Roaring Girle was quite popular in its day, and the legend of Moll Cutpurse was added to in the anonymously-written The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith, Commonly Called Mal Cutpurse (1662), which turned her into “a royalist cross-dressing Robin-hooder who eventually seeks redemption,”85 a “popular outcast defending the poor and oppressed against rapacious lawyers.”86 This character, the Moll Cutpurse whose crimes are on behalf of a greater good, would become propagated further in Alexander Smith’s History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (1719), overshadowing for good the real Mary Frith’s exploits and permanently solidifying the concept of Moll Cutpurse, Robin Hood-ing highwaywoman, a concept and character which lasted throughout the century.

Moll Cutpurse is of course a proto-superhero. She has the requisite fighting skills of every hero, a codename, and a dual identity (one she reluctantly accepts), but more importantly has the heroic, selfless mission and a costume (her male clothing). Moreover, she is important in the history of the proto-superheroes because she marks the beginning of the transition of the proto-superhero from a hero of every environment to a specifically urban hero. Moll Cutpurse, like her real-life source Mary Frith, is a creature of the urban environment; though later authors like Smith would show her equally active in the countryside, Cutpurse is primarily known as an urban woman, active in the greatest city (by far) of the country and the largest city in Europe of the time. If the legend of Robin Hood popularized the concept of the costumed vigilante, Moll Cutpurse took the legend and brought it to the modern city, the location for the great majority of modern superheroes.

82. Patricia Gartenberg, “An Elizabethan Wonder Woman: The Life and Fortunes of Long Meg of Westminster,” The Journal of Popular Culture 17 no. 3 (1983), 51.

83. Simon Shepherd makes the point that “we have met before the woman who tames a braggart male’s sexual aspirations by physical punishment. We have met before the sudden, theatrical, release of long female hair. These are the archetypal attributes of the warrior woman.” Simon Shepherd, Amazons and Warrior Women: Varieties of Feminism in Seventeenth-Century Drama (New York: St. Martin’s, 1981), 70. As Shepherd goes on to explain, the story of Long Meg predated Spenser’s Faerie Queene by eight years and may–only “may”–have been influenced by Italian epics; rather, Long Meg is part of the English tradition of fictional warrior women and real women posing as warriors in warriors’ garb, the foremost example of which was Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Tilbury in August 1588 to encourage the English troops to resist the Spanish Armada. During the visit, Elizabeth was dressed as an Amazon queen, complete with truncheon, gauntlet, and gorget. Shepherd, Amazons and Warrior Women: Varieties of Feminism in Seventeenth-Century Drama, 22. Shepherd emphasizes Long Meg’s experience in the campaign against the French, and casts her experience fighting crime and evil as “a form of lower-class resistance against the dominant order of society.” Shepherd, Amazons and Warrior Women: Varieties of Feminism in Seventeenth-Century Drama, 73. This aspect does not in any way preclude Long Meg being a proto-superhero.

Dianne Dugaw’s Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 1650-1850 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) is revelatory with regards to the sheer number of cross-dressing women warriors who appeared in the ballads of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century. Women dressed as men and going to war were popular subjects for the British of those centuries–for the Americans less so, but to a still significant degree–and what Dugaw calls the “Female Warrior” was a recognizable character type (even a cliche) in British and American popular culture during those centuries. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that superheroines appeared not long after superheroes–women warriors in costumes were a part of the zeitgeist. But, as mentioned, the cross-dressing women warriors of the popular ballads were soldiers and sailors rather than crime-fighters, and lacked the heroic mission that is necessary for proto-superheroes and proto-superheroines.

84.  Some modern novelists, like Ellen Galford, in Moll Cutpurse, Her True History: A Novel (Ithaca, NY: Firebrand, 1985), claim Frith as a lesbian—an assertion that can’t be proven or disproven, given the ambiguity around Frith’s sexual life, and a statement that, like a lot of other critical claims, says more about the author and the tenor of the times than it does about the subject addressed. A more considered judgment is made by Terry Castle, in The Literature of Lesbianism: “of Frith’s amorous inclinations we know nothing, though her masculine tastes and apparent antipathy to marriage suggest a possibly unorthodox sexual makeup.” Terry Castle, The Literature of Lesbianism (New York: Columbia UP, 2003), 155.

85. Bryan Reynolds and Janna Segal, “The Reckoning of Moll Cutpurse: A Transversal Enterprise.” In Rogues and Early Modern English Culture, edited by Craig Dionne and Steve Mentz (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 2004), 77.

86. Gustav Ungerer, “Mary Frith, Alias Moll Cutpurse, In Life and Literature,” Shakespeare Studies 28 (2000), 46.

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An interview with Lev Gleason

From the African-American newspaper The People’s Voice (August 5, 1944). Gleason is best known for his comic books during the Golden Age; his most notable character was Jack Binder’s Daredevil. But as this interview shows there was substantially more to Gleason than just superheroes.

An Interview with Lev Gleason

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Free to a good home: one idea, never used.

As a writer I’m naturally selfish with my story ideas. Don’t like sharing them until I’ve written them up fully, whether as a short fiction or as a novel. But sometimes I have ideas for stories and books that I know I’ll never make use of, because I lack the time and resources to write them (a history of organized crime in Kansas City) or because I’m not suited to write them. Like the following.

So John Walton’s The Legendary Detective, a pretty good history of private detectives (the real thing, not the fictional ones), has a long section on women as private detectives, and then a shorter one (though even more intriguing) on African-American private detectives. And in the middle of that section he casually drops this bombshell:

gilmorebadgeQ. J. Gilmore combined his National Negro Detective Agency with his day job as traveling secretary of the Negro National League’s Kansas City Monarchs baseball team (where Jackie Robinson would later start his professional career). His agency superintendent badge survives at Ben Harroll’s P.I. Museum in San Diego, California.

Unfortunately, Walton’s is the only print source I’ve been able to find that mentions Gilmore’s private detective agency. I’ve found no newspaper articles or (more crucially) newspaper advertisements for the National Negro Detective Agency. If not for the badge, there’d be no evidence for the Agency’s existence whatsoever. But the badge exists, and so we have to take it as a given that the Agency did as well.

gilmore2According to Leslie A. Heaphy’s The Negro Leagues, 1869-1960 Gilmore also ran his own undertaking and funeral business and was a member of the Elks. A little more digging turns up the photo to the right, which is of Gilmore’s business in “early Denver.” Gilmore was born in 1881, so his time in Denver (which ended in 1918, see below) would have stretched through his twenties and most of his thirties–plenty of time for him to have established his own undertaking and funeral business. In 1918 he left Denver for Kansas City.

A brief search on Google brings up some promising hits:

gilmoreQuincy J. Gilmore [second from the left–Jess] was Traveling Secretary for the famous Kansas City Monarchs baseball club. The years 1920 thru 1942 were a remarkable time for the Negro National League and Mr. Gilmore. The 1st Negro Leagues World Series was won by the Kansas City Monarchs in the year of 1924.

For a much fuller treatment of the life and times of Quincy J. Gilmore you can use Google to find the article (7th link) under Grassroots Editor, A Journal For Newspeople/International Society Of Weekly Newspaper Editors, Written By Jason Berger. This article mentions the only known book to discuss in detail the story of Quincy J. Gilmore who arrived in Kansas City, MO in 1918 and is believed to have died there either in 1946 or 1948. The book is called The Kansas City Monarchs: Champions of Black Baseball (1985) By Janet Bruce.

The Grassroots Editor article is here–it’s too long to reprint in its entirety, but it’s well worth reading. The highlights:

  • Gilmore was a “press agent” for the Monarchs and was known as “a publicity and promotional wizard.”
  • Bruce’s book, The Kansas City Monarchs, has a lot of material, based on interviews with his wife and friends, on Gilmore’s careeer in baseball and what he did for the Monarchs.
  • “in 1918 he arrived from Denver to revive the Elks Lodge dormant since 1910,” and succeeding in doing so within a year’s time.
  • Gilmore was very involved, from the beginning, with the National Negro League, seeing it as the best path toward African-American equality with whites in baseball and the general advancement of African-Americans as a whole.
  • No less than Buck O’Neil spoke highly of Gilmore–he was beloved of the players.
  • He died in either 1946 or 1948, his last venture being the creation of a farm club league in Texas.
  • “Gilmore had good reasons to avoid personal publicity. He owned a funeral parlor and co-owned a billiards parlor with Monarchs’ manager and star pitcher Bullet Joe Rogan. Both sites could have been used (and probably were) for the other meanings of the word “front,” namely gambling (the numbers racket) and liquor (Kansas City was far from being a dry town during prohibition).”

So, to sum up: Gilmore was heavily involved with the Monarchs, the Elks, the Negro Leagues, possibly/probably with Kansas City’s flourishing underword in the 1920s; ran a funeral parlor and billiards parlor; and happened to run his own private detective agency by night.

Someone needs to use this guy in a t.v. show or novel or comic book series or something.


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New books by me!

homefront-horrorsThis is a collection of horror short stories published in Great Britain, Ireland, and Canada during World War One. There are some classics in the collection, but also some stories that people won’t be so familiar with, but should be.

  • Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wings of Horus”
  • M.P. Shiel’s “The Place of Pain”
  • W.W. Jacob’s “The Three Sisters”
  • M.R James’ “An Episode of Cathedral History”
  • E. Nesbit’s “The Pavilion”
  • Barry Pain’s “Not on the Passenger List”
  • Phyllis Bottome’s “The Liqueur Glass”
  • May Sinclair’s “The Pin-Prick”
  • Lord Dunsany’s “Thirteen at Table”
  • Thomas Burke’s “The Bird”
  • Max Beerbohm’s “Enoch Soames”
  • Hugh Clifford’s “The Ghoul”
  • J.D. Beresford’s “Powers of the Air”
  • Stacy Aumonier’s “Old Fags”
  • Ethel Coburn Mayne’s “The Separate Room”
  • Clemence Dane’s “The King Waits”

You can buy it here.

stagecoach-maryYou know about Mary Fields, I assume? I’ve written a collection of weird western short stories about her. “Weird westerns” are those westerns which verge into the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and especially horror. My take on this is a set of eight stories starring Fields set on the Montana frontier in the mid/late 1890s, involving ghosts and the like. They’re pulp-influenced, but with a modern sensibility, if that makes any sense.

  • “The Hitchhiker”
  • Omahksoyisksiksina
  • “Stagecoach Mary Outwits the Devil”
  • “The Madness that Overtook Cascade”
  • “The Phantom Airship of ’98”
  • “Cool Hand Liú”
  • “The Blizzard”
  • “Stagecoach Mary’s Last Ride-Out”

You can buy a print version of it here or an e-book version of it here.

prester-johnThis next one is a historical fantasy. Back matter text:

“In the year 1200 everything was going wrong, all at once, around the world. Once-mighty empires were on the verge of ruin, crops were failing, previously-legendary monsters were suddenly commonplace. In the West, some of the mighty remembered the letter they had received, thirty-five years ago, from “Prester John,” a mighty emperor in the far East. In the letter Prester John had claimed to rule 72 kingdoms, many magical, and have over a million men under arms. Naturally, those in the West believed that Prester John could aid them and stave off the dark forces threatening them. Even the Muslims of Sultan Al Adil I in Damascus came to believe that Prester John could be the source of salvation for the Faithful. So the Sultan called a great conclave, inviting the great empires of the West to send representatives, all with the purpose of choosing envoys to go to Prester John. Those representatives came, but so did many other men and women, from empires in the East, in Africa, and in the Americas, men and women drawn to Damascus by their gods’ messages or by dreams or omens. The conclave, when it finally came, had men and women and others from all the major powers of the Earth, and all agreed that an embassy to Prester John would be the best way to bring help to the beleaguered kingdoms of the world. But no one, not even the wisest of the attendees, could have anticipated what happened next, nor the many obstacles and unpleasant surprises which lay in wait from the on the road to Prester John.”

You can buy it in print here or an e-book version of it here.

datongThis one is alternate history steampunk espionage. Back matter text:

“It’s 1914, in the China of another Earth. On this Earth, the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 was the Boxer War, and ended with a complete defeat of the Chinese and the occupation of China by the Eight Nation Alliance. On this Earth, steam-powered dirigibles prowl the skies, and steam-powered mechas are a part of every advanced nation’s army. On this Earth, in its Shanghai, the head British spy is Anthony Hall, an aging widower. Assisted by his local aide-de-camp, Li, Hall runs the British spies of the middle of China, carrying out schemes against the Russians and the Japanese, the two main enemies of the United Kingdom. Hall’s best friend is Evelyn Featherstone, a half-Chinese freelance spy. Their lives irrevocably change when one of Hall’s best agents is murdered, sending Hall on a long chase to discover the murderer, and when Featherstone is blackmails a business executive into betraying a secret. This brings Featherstone to the attention of the Japanese government, which hires her to carry out a very special job. Hall and Featherstone find their professional lives intersecting and their professional goals clashing, and against the backdrop of impending war they must find a way to survive what the Fates throw at them while also preserving their friendship.”

You can buy it in print here or as an e-book here.


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My next major book.


Coming out next Feb. 28, from Praeger.

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So I’m starting a newsletter.

Will be weekly, and devoted to sharing the awesomeness I find while doing research. You can subscribe here.

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For the curious…

my review of Chris Gavaler’s On the Origin of Superheroes is now up at the Los Angeles Review of Books web site.

“SUPERHEROES, as characters and as a genre, are frustrating to study. Once any sort of critical apparatus is applied to the “superhero,” this figure becomes extremely difficult to define. Does he or she have to have superpowers? Batman doesn’t. Does he or she have to wear a costume? Several don’t. Does he or she have to have a selfless mission? Not all do. Do they have to appear in superhero comics? Again, one can find exceptions. In the face of this difficulty, superhero scholars have devoted entire books to attempting to define this aggravatingly fuzzy and nebulous character type.”

More here.

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That Most Depraved of Cities

(an essay/story I couldn’t sell, so I’m putting it here)

That Most Decadent of Cities
by Jess Nevins
after Javier Marias

Metropolises, those colossal beasts of urban agglomeration, can be defined, delineated–differentiated–in many ways. The character traits of cities, for example, are often different, though all cities share certain traits in common, such as depravity and decadence. One might quibble at separating those two terms, for surely they seem to carry much the same meaning, so that distancing the two is a distinction without a difference. But for me the distinction is a necessary and even vital one, which has to do with the innate character of a city, which, far more than a city’s outward appearance or its citizens’ cultures, brands you as a visitor, scars you, permanently changes you after you have been cast out.

Depraved cities tend to be insecure, child-like in their evils, and talkative, so talkative, facile and tiring, impatient locales eager to show off and in a hurry to enthrall. If the visitor is not careful, the city will whisk you away, rush you through the bazaars where all is for sale and the bordellos in which no girl or boy is too young, hurry you on a tour of the fighting pits or a hasty visit to the den of a wonder worker or sorcerer. The depraved city will not allow the tourist to dawdle, to saunter, to act the flaneur. The city will do whatever it takes to make the visitor’s behavior conform to the city’s own. Even at the expense of loutishness or bullying actions, the city will seize the lapels and robes of outsiders who walk down its streets and drag them, will they or no, past its smiling facade and into its disreputable depths. The city will try to draw you in, beguile you, overwhelm you, make you their own. Depraved cities, and I am thinking of Isfahan, Herat, Samarkand, are altered by the very existence of tourists on their streets–not because these cities depend on them, for dependence would rob the cities of their independence, their lack of servility, their chest-thumping–but because the cities cannot bear to leave the tourists alone and unchanged. Perhaps the depraved metropolises are addicted to the rush of bringing about the moral downfall of its visitors, or perhaps there is a competition between the cities to see who can corrupt as many outsiders as possible. There is an odd fascism to these cities–they cannot tolerate difference, a cool reaction to the fervid evil of the cities, a flaneur’s passing-by, or anything less than a soul-felt agreement. These cities are all different, yet boringly all the same in their depravity, demanding all from their tourists but while demanding they are also giving their all. These cities demand obsession from outsiders, yet the cities are the ones obsessed.

Durrës, on the other hand, is the most decadent city I know, even more so than Istanbul or Cairo, much less what is left of Rome and London. The decadent city shares with its depraved brothers and sisters a firm belief in its own singularity, whether because of some unique feature the city boasts or because this belief is simply a prerequisite for decadence. But decadent cities could not be more different from their depraved counterparts. Decadence does not require a loud mouth to broadcast its distinctiveness. And then of course the decadent cities are the lazier of the twain. They hoard secrets where the depraved flaunt theirs; they act in an almost hesitant way when it comes to showing the visitor their nodes of degeneration; they avoid those who would define them, rather than seeking them out. The decadent cities yearn for a good word from a tourist, but yearn still more for jealousy. They want to convince the outsider that the cities have hidden and vasty depths, to appear fractal in their complexity, all the while aware that there will always be tourists who wish to plumb those depths and map the folds of complexity. And unlike depraved cities, the decadent cities allow the visitor their fidelity to their real homes. Decadent cities know that tourists ultimately have split allegiances; decadent cities are content to exist as they are, knowing that their show of decadence will eventually lure the tourist in and yield not just compliments but a final and heartfelt surrender.

What makes Durrës more decadent than its relatives is that–and this amazes the experienced traveler–it makes no effort–none whatsoever–to pay attention to its visitors, or to bother to try to draw them through the city gates. Samarkand, even in its current downward spiral, puts on a painted smile for its visitors, conscious that those visitors might wish to stray off the ko’cha cherkovlar and let themselves be entranced by the manticores for sale in the Hidden Market, or seduced by the comely witches of Sand Square. Istanbul, boastful, even conceited, nonetheless is haunted by insecurity–“how could the Arbereshe of Durrës best the Navy of the Faithful, again and again? How could the Beneficent, the Almighty, the Granter of Security allow this to happen, time after time?”–and doomed by its conservatism and the resistance its inhabitants have to changing anything old or accepting anything new. Cairo is what one imagines, when one imagines Cairo; it attracts by living down to the stereotypes and prejudices one has of it. Venice matches Istanbul in its loathing of change, but goes beyond it by looking adoringly at itself as if in a mirror, as if to gaze upon Venice was all that there was to do in the world. But Durrës seems somehow to be ignorant of what attracts visitors to it, or perhaps is much better at pretending to be ignorant of its graces than the others–and that is what, in my view, makes it the most decadent of cities. This pretense of innocence, this coquetry, is as the over-experienced, over-rouged fourteen year old courtesan, both innocent and louche, where the other cities are the over-conscious and over-anxious thirty year old streetwalkers.

This is why Durrës can seem pallid to outsiders, who mistake its affected ignorance of its own decadence for the actual absence of same. But I, I have always experienced the city as moderate, somehow restrained, rather than colorless. Conceited perhaps, but in a reasonable, approachable way, with a degeneracy that exists yet does not call attention to itself, or possibly a degeneracy which is in some way reluctant, so that a visitor’s enthusiasm for, say, the boy whores who parade in front of the Arnavutluk brings about an almost embarrassed smile, as if one has received a compliment which must be endured rather than graciously accepted. Or perhaps Durrës’ reluctance is sham, after all, like its coquetry, like the faux-magics peddled to newcomers and ignorant visitors. (The real thing exists much deeper into the city than tourists usually dare to venture, in suburbs like Shtëpi Publike, where everything is for sale, from Ottoman slave-mages to Swedish mercenaries, and emphatically including the body- and soul-devouring spells which the wonder-workers of Durrës specialize in and are known for). Durrës is interested in devotion, like any other city–even Stockholm, that cleanest and most upright of cities, wants its children to look at it with awe. But Durrës wants both citizens and visitors to feel devoted to its degenerate quarters and degenerate characters much more than it wants the simple allegiance that the Swedes feel for their capital, and Durrës is willing to despoil its own young to guarantee that kind of devotion. What is more degenerate than someone willing to debauch his own children? Who could be more degenerate than someone who takes pride in the depths to which he has fallen?

If this was an acquaintance I was speaking of, he would seem ordinary in his degradation; she would even seem to be proud. And yet Durrës is neither ordinary in its degradation nor ultimately proud of itself. Durrës is no lazy aristocrat lolling on his couch idly gazing at a succubus conjured up for his carnal delights. Durrës is too committed to its degeneracy, too disciplined in the constancy and application of its debauchery. Durrës, as I said, is no lazy aristocrat; Durrës is the alchemist in his laboratory, purposeful, patiently, even zealously at work. Durrës is the only city on the Silk Road (of those I have visited) that seems to observe its traditions, its days of sacrifices, its orgy rituals, and its rites of intoxication with the seriousness of a scientist. On Saint Ansgar’s Day, the Arbereshe proceed from the Cathedral of Saint Aleksandr to the Shtëpi Publike and the brothels of the Bërryl without delay. On the evening of Saint Veronica’s Day, the Arbereshe ritually consume the goat’s head stew which grants visions as it induces lethargy. The Arbereshe do this not out of habit but as a celebration of tradition and the past, both privately and publicly, whether or not they are seen to be doing such, and never with smiling contempt for what their ancestors began, never as a reflex, and never as a self-conscious re-enactment and aping of the past, which seems to be the case in every other city which continues practicing the observances of its ancestors.

It’s this private aspect of the celebrations which speaks the loudest of Durrës’ reticence. Take the shops of Durrës, one of the subtler yardsticks of any city’s character and preoccupations. In my own city of Skopje, we have every city’s banks and government buildings situated cheek by jowl with the filthiest of taverns and the most diseased of whorehouses–restaurants alternating with slave auction houses, cafes next to purveyors of drugs, food carts competing for street space with streetwalkers. We are, in other words, depraved in a vulgar and unimaginative way. In Durrës, by contrast, the groupings are more subtle. Brothels and whorehouses in their own discrete suburbs, the university and library and the Tower of Dust next to the Cathedral, ruins confined to certain boroughs. Bookstores along the Rrugë e Keqardhje, peddling their tomes bound in questionable skins. Gun shops in Arapaj, theaters in Rrashbull. The tiny pastry shops are everywhere, of course, as are the general stores known as zahires, which in Skopje are called, far more anachronistically and poetically (for we Makedonski fancy ourselves poets, every one of us), zalihi na hrani. This grouping, and the subtlety of the businesses’ advertising of their presences, and the general reserve of the suburbs, bespeaks Durrës’ approach to business and consumption, as something to be done with privacy and when possible in seclusion. Pastries are taken home rather than eaten in the street; so too with the foods purchased in the zahires. Every restaurant–even taverns–has booths rather than group tables in the middle of open rooms. Slave auctions are held to an audience of masked men. Even the whores are veiled. The Arbereshe enthusiasm for collecting is, like every other aspect of their lives, singular. Durrës is the great marketplace of the world, the final stop on the Silk Road. All is for sale, and many are the stores catering to collectors. Collectors are everywhere in the city. Even the city’s librarian, an otherwise parched and repressed man, a librarian among librarians, indulges, in his obsession with accumulating all the lost works of Sappho, the “Tenth Muse.” But what is more singular than collecting? Every person’s collection is different from their neighbors’. Durrës is a city in which the behaviors of ethnic groups can be generalized: the Tosks, blond, tall, and fair, are the more reserved and Catholic, while the Gegs, shorter and swarthier, are more outgoing and Muslim, traits which are more fully displayed in the villages outside of the city. But the Tosks and Gegs of Durrës are collectors, just as the many immigrants of the city are, and indulge themselves in pursuits of individual passions. Such pursuits can become competitive, even cutthroat–and I mean that last quite literally, the assassins of Durrës are as professional as the whores, and as given to earning their money. But those pursuits are personal and secret in Durrës, and all know that the accumulating of a collection gives pleasure in ways that it is difficult to articulate. This is one of the reasons why the Arbereshe are not boastful: because describing an individual acquisition, or even one’s process of acquisition, makes it easier for others to imitate the action.

This is why the Arbereshe are like their city. Neither city nor citizens compare themselves to their neighbors, or even worry about what they might do. The Arbereshe, Durrës, each pursues its own passions, whether collecting or the indulgence in degenerate pursuits. It is this attitude which makes the city seem to ignore its neighbors, to portray itself to outsiders in a wan way, as if Durrës believed that interest in tourists and their home cities and countries would lead to being victimized–as if the act of seeing automatically led to the act of being seen.

The boroughs of Durrës are all quite different, but they all share this disinterest, to accompany their degeneracy. The villas on the Mali I Durrësit and in the Shkallnur–Bërryl and the rrethi I ri–Vrinas and its ghettos–even Rinia, along the city’s outward wall, miles from Cathedral at the city’s center–despite Durrës’ size, one never forgets that the city is a port, constantly visited by outsiders, even those from as far away as Kuala Lumpur and Guangzhou. The initial impression of the visitor is that Durrës has every kind of person from every one of the lands that survived the Flux, and that they are all on the streets, watching, individuals flowing into crowds which threaten to become mobs. But this impression soon gives way to the realization that even the largest mob is turned inward, like the city, ignoring its individual members’ personalities and desires and agency. What at first seemed to be a cornucopia of depravity soon becomes a vision of bloodless decay, which in turn conceals the true degeneracy of the city. Always and everywhere there is the same feeling that I experience walking up the Rrugë Malore, the road to the heights of the Mali I Durrësit: a cramped and winding road, more suited to the tiny, irregular neighborhoods of Istanbul than to Durrës, with its wider and more regularly planned broadways. Walking up the Rrugë Malore one can see increasing amounts of Durrës, see the expanses of shops, open marketplaces, the constant stream of tourists and immigrants, but the shops advertise only a little, the marketplaces are full of masked and cloaked men, the immigrants seem to have somewhere private to go. That’s how it is in Durrës: the true sources of degeneracy are veiled, like the women. For all the height of the peak of the Mali I Durrësit, one sees very little that is true and unconcealed, and what one glimpses–the tiny figures of the boy whores in front of the Arnavutluk, the colored lights flashing through the windows of the sorcerers’ towers–only teases the mind with the knowledge that the true degeneracy will always remain hidden from you, in much the same way that the bits of vinegared peppers which street vendors give away as samples tingle the tongue with the promise of a dish one cannot afford to buy.

But the private degeneracy of Durrës goes far beyond the windowless shops which advertise neither their wares nor their existence. Durrës is, simply, degenerate by nature, in its blackened heart and its effete emotions, and like most of us prefers to keep its true nature to itself. This is why it seems so inhospitable, so unfriendly to tourists and visitors wanting to spend money and of themselves. Even for those, like myself, who rented apartments or mansions and lingered in the city for years, Durrës appears wary, secretive–coded. This goes beyond the houses, which like those of Istanbul are built windowless, facing toward inner courtyards, although the houses certainly help foster an air of indecipherability. It goes beyond the typical Arbereshe’s unwillingness to open their homes to strangers, to share a meal or show off their collection. It shows, but does not originate, in the private way that Durrës celebrates its naval victories over the Ottomans, where even the military parades seem to be personal affairs, not open to strangers.

No, the private degeneracy of Durrës comes from its inward gaze, forever spurring itself to deeper deeds of wickedness committed first in the depths of its mind before being brought to light by actual practice. The city looks at itself and only itself, refusing to acknowledge (much less learn from) its visitors. Every business has, it seems, its private room, open only to employees, in which gags, whips, chains, and restraints are common, and the stains on the floor and walls are blood and worse than blood. The smallest zahire has a private stock which reveals its owners’ willingness to sell anything; even the meat of talking beasts, like the giant rats which famously inhabit the sewers of Durrës, can be purchased. The public slave auctions have their secret counterparts, where stock of any race and nation, any age and gender, any color and shape, can be purchased. (Who among us has not wanted a comely Tosk handmaiden to share our bed, or an Ottoman slave-mage to do our forbidden bidding?) But each shop strives to be different in its degeneracy, superior in its own way and the best way to achieve this is to ignore what its neighbors are doing. Every citizen of Durrës protects their home with a jealous fervor; every large building has guards to keep away those with no business entering; every neighborhood has its walls, real or magical, and watchers on those walls. The citizens of Durrës try to avoid mixing with those outside their circles, or even meeting them. I read once, in a Venetian gazetteer, a description of the streets of Durrës that stated that for every one person on the street there are three behind closed doors and shuttered windows practicing the devil’s arts–that the acts of degeneracy (which the writer, being a Venetian and therefore an unwelcome outsider, could only imagine) committed in private would stagger even the Doge himself, but that the Arbereshe of Durrës would never tolerate their specific acts or even their collections becoming known, which is why the Arbereshe seem so unfriendly. Even those of us who have spent years in Durrës are forced to hazard guesses at the rituals and sacrifices, the orgies and murders, the spells and drunken sprees, because guesses are all that we are capable of. Ignorant of Durrës’ true nature we were when we first entered the city, and ignorant of the profundity of its degeneracy we remain.

For the visitor, Durrës, especially at night, seems like a darkened reverse of Harun al-Rashid’s Baghdad. Those in the street do not bother passers-by with stories of the fantastic or perverse; shops do not hang torches or lanterns above their doors to advertise their wares; the houses are not open to strangers; the exotic beasts for sale, the talking rats or women with the heads of cats or men with the bodies of scorpions, are purchased in darkened cellars far below street level. What the unlit streets and cloaked and masked inhabitants emphasize is the darkness in which the visitor stands and the black void of his or her knowledge of Durrës. The subtly-lettered and illustrated posters which adorn so many walls are written for those who already know their messages; they tell the visitor that Durrës is degenerate, but that the degeneracy is hidden from view.

Perhaps this is the greatest degeneracy of all: to debauch oneself, in private, by onesself or in the company of a trusted few, while all others are tantalized and subtly degraded by the awareness that such degeneracy is taking place.

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All that is gold does not glitter–but these fries sure do!

One aspect of literary history which is I think underappreciated by both fans and critics is the degree of influence which the fast food industry had on J.R.R. Tolkien. (Big man for fast food, was Tolkien. Many’s the time his students saw him tucking a half-consumed Wimpy burger into his robes to snack on during his lectures).









Back in 1948 a pair of Irish restauranteurs, Dick and Mac McDonald, opened a streamlined version of their carhop drive-in, the McDonald Brothers Burger Bar Drive-In. The brothers had discovered that most of their sales were of hamburgers and decided to do away with most other items on their menu. And, influenced by Henry Ford’s assembly line processes, the brothers stressed efficiency in food preparation, delivery, and architectural layout. This new restaurant was an enormous financial success, but for various reasons the brothers were not successful in selling franchises, and by 1953 only 21 franchises had been sold, and only 10 of those became operating units.

Enter the Dark Lord, Ray Kroc.


At this time Kroc was selling Multimixer milkshake makers to various fast food franchises, but he saw the potential of the brothers’ operation and signed an agreement with them to sell the brothers’ franchises nationwide. (Rather than get into the lexigraphic Cannae that is “how do you spell the possessive of McDonald’s?” I’m just going to refer to the franchise as “M.”). At this time, selling a franchise merely meant ceding territory to a local owner in exchange for a large up-front fee. But Kroc wanted more control than that. He insisted on total control, selling individual store franchises rather than territorial franchises (thus controlling the number of stores one licensee could have) but also requiring licensee conformity to operating standards, equipment, menus, recipes, prices, trademarks, and architectural designs. Kroc hired the sinister Harry Sonneborn and with him designed the McDonald’s Franchise Realty Corporation, which would purchase land for individual M. franchises and then rent the land to the licensee, which allowed M. to make money from rental agreements and to evict licensees if they violated the franchise agreement.

Kroc began selling franchises, and after a series of disagreements with the McDonald brothers bought them out. The corporate culture of M. changed, from the brothers’ insistence on efficiency to Kroc’s…well, as usual, Patrick O’Brian’s Stephen Maturin put it best, although he was describing Jack Aubrey’s mother-in-law: “a deeply stupid, griping, illiberal, avid, tenacious, pinchfist lickpenny.” (Among other charming habits, Kroc would spring surprise inspections on M. franchises, and if there was, for example, ketchup or mustard spilled on a counter, Kroc would insist on the ketchup or mustard being scooped back into a container for re-use). Kroc also targeted suburban America, a change from previous fast food restaurants’ inner-city-oriented business plans. By 1963 Kroc was selling a million burgers a day.

I needn’t tell you about M.’s history with anti-union activities, environmental destruction, lobbying the government against increasing minimum wages and worker benefits, denying health benefits to workers, laying waste to the environment, undue influence on potato farmers, contributing to the Boss Hogging of the American citizen, and general McDonaldization of the world, do I? I don’t need to tell you what it means when a major corporation chooses a clown to be its spokesman, do I?

The natural objection is that the evils I blame M. for actually come from the fast food industry itself. But to a large degree M. is the fast food industry. It remains the leader in sales among fast food restaurants by an enormous amount, and has been for years. Its sales are increasing at a greater rate than its competitors. Of course, M. doesn’t really have to worry about competitors. Of the top ten fast food franchises in terms of sales, M. is #1–and its sales are more than the sales of #2 through #5 combined.

Why? Partly because Dark Lord Kroc’s current state is likely something like this:






or even this.

But more than that, it’s because too many of those who should M.’s competitors are fatally, even spiritually, compromised. It can’t be the food–have you actually tasted a M. Extruded Food Product recently? Even a White Castle Slider is preferable. (I do not say that lightly). No, it can’t be the food. The answer must lie somewhere else.

Burger King is #2 on the fast food franchise sales list. One would think it was M.’s greatest threat. Certainly the number of Burger King commercials would seem to imply so. And yet in 2006 M.’s sales were almost four times those of Burger King. Why? Partly as karmic punishment for the way that Burger King bullied poor Wimpy and destroyed a good solid British company. But, really, Burger King never had a chance against M. Burger King began as the “Insta-Burger King,” back in 1953, founded by Keith Cramer. Cramer got the idea for Insta-Burger King by visiting M.; later, he bought the very first milkshake maker for the new fast food franchise from…wait for it…Ray Kroc himself, in what can only be described as a gift of a poisoned chalice. Likewise, Jack-in-the-Box (#5 on the sales list), begun in 1950 in San Diego, got its first milkshake makers from Multimixer, Kroc’s company.

Taco Bell (#3 on the sales list) began in San Bernardino, California, home to the first M. Taco Bell’s founder, Glen Bell, was inspired by M. to open his own chain.

Wendy’s is #4 on the sales list, and is the only franchise whose sales are significantly increasing (over 33% from 2000-2006). Wendy’s is actually one of the two most dangerous franchises to M. See, back in 1952 Harland Sanders (an honorary “Kentucky Colonel”) founded Kentucky Fried Chicken (#8 on the sales list) without any inspiration from M. or links to Ray Kroc. (Which, naturally, is a threat to M. KFC is independent of M., and we all know how evil empires feel about independent rivals, don’t we?) Sanders had to sell KFC in 1964, but soon afterwards helped his protegé, Dave Thomas, establish his own chain, Wendy’s. Now, there was some unpleasantness between Sanders and KFC later in Sanders’ life, and Thomas was always very loyal to Sanders, but both KFC and Wendy’s have, surely, put aside whatever rivalry and hurt feelings they have in their war with M. After all, there is a lineage there.












dave thomas


Why are these two a threat to M.? Because fast food is now a global business, not just one limited to American borders. M. is certainly working on the global level; the largest M. in the world is in Tiananmen Square (on the corner where that nameless hero stopped the tank in 1989), and the second largest is near Red Square in Moscow (which, like M.’s presence in Tiananmen Square, is a symbolic statement so obvious as to not need limning or explication). The truth is that, like the major tobacco players, M. gets the majority of its income from foreign (that is, non-American) sources: 34.6% from Europe, 34% from the United States, 6.5% from Latin America, and 13.8% from “Asia/Pacific, the Middle East & Africa.” (6.6% comes from “other regions”). M. needs the global customer more than it needs the American customer.

Wendy’s owns Tim Horton’s, which does twice as much business in Canada as M. And KFC…well, it was the first fast food chain in Japan, is the most-recognized foreign brand in China, and now has more restaurants outside the U.S. KFC and Wendy’s are far behind M. in sales, but on the international stage both are a legitimate threat to M., especially in China, where KFC has an unofficial corporate policy of opening a KFC franchise within 500 yards of every new M. franchise.

As mentioned, Jack-in-the-Box is #5 on the sales list. The franchises after that, KFC excepted, are non-starters in the eyes of M., minor entities like Chick-Fil-A, Hardee’s, Sonic, and Long John Silver, which cumulatively sell less than a quarter of M.’s annual business. And yet, even among the second and third tier of fast food franchises, the taint of Dark Lord Kroc can be found. Carl’s Jr., founded by Carl Karcher in 1956 after a visit to the M.’s mothership in San Bernardino. Dairy Queen, which resolved its financing and corporate structure problems in 1948 by forming the Dairy Queen National Trade Association; an attendee at the first meeting of the association? Ray Kroc, who was selling his Multimixers to numerous Dairy Queen franchises. Hardee’s, who began by modeling not only its serving processes but the very architecture of its buildings on M.’s. And White Castle, whose recipes are based duplicating the taste of the wastewater that builds up in the dumpsters behind M.

As you can see, the claw marks of Dark Lord Kroc are everywhere across the industry. So what’s the link to Tolkien?

Where do you think Tolkien got the idea of Sauron offering the cursed rings to men and dwarfs? Kroc selling milkshake makers to his tools rivals, and allowing him to visit M. locations to derive inspiration for their own efforts.

Take a look at the Eye of Sauron, which, if you remember, was “rimmed with fire, but was itself glazed, yellow as a cat’s, watchful and intent, and the black slit of its pupil opened on a pit, a window into nothing.”

eye of sauron






Take a look at the clown.

ronald mcdonald

Rimmed with fire, glazed, black slits, a window into nothing…remind you of anything?

What are the Golden Arches except Twin Towers? The Lavic Lake volcanic field, including Pisgah Crater, is only 50-odd miles from San Bernardino, and what are those but the obvious inspiration for the landscape of Mordor?

Put another way, have you considered what happens when you take the Golden Arches and bring their ends together? You get this:







(Nice fries, though. Tasty)

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Comic book data, pt. 3

Continuing my trawl of Golden Age comic book data, here’s a breakdown of the strips in comic books by genre:

strips 1939-1942


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