Monday, 25 July 2016

Gothic Agents of Chaos Villainy in Comic Book Movies and Liberal Vigilantes

The Gothic and pop culture have found a fruitful common ground in television series, graphic novels and movies. Moving away from the traditional mode of the novel, material that has Gothic elements has found its way into most aspects of our everyday life, revealing pervasive elements of otherwise ordinary items and icons of everyday life and culture. Graphic novels and their respective film adaptations have entered the public sphere for good in the 21st century; they are not anymore the byproducts of underground fandoms, nor the mediocre commercially successful projects from maverick studios. The two blockbusters that came out this year, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (from DC Comics and Warner Bros) and Captain America: Civil War were met with phenomenal commercial success, despite the negative critics regarding the first one. I will mainly concerned with the comic book villains in these two movies and how they create, or even follow a Gothic tradition of descent into darkness, violence, despair and self-destructiveness.

What made the movies stand out for the following analysis was not only the incredible team up of popular comic book characters (even if the case of the DC hit this team up had never occurred before in a live action film); it is the villains that moved the interest of the viewers from heroes, be those (white and dark) knights, (neo)liberal icons and white-red-and-blue strapped boy scouts to tortured souls, “abominations” and megalomaniac deluded scientists-geniuses.

In Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (from here on BvS) as well as in Captain America: Civil War (from here on Civil War) the premise from the very beginning of the film is bringing the heroes face to face with the consequences of their actions, as presented in previous movies installments. Helmut Zemo, the main adversary in Civil War, whose family was all tragically killed when their town was destroyed in a previous installment of the Marvel cinematic franchise (Avengers- Age of Ulron), has no supernatural powers, nor is he a career-criminal mastermind. Much like a hero from Poe’s tales, he is driven over the edge by despair over a personal tragedy. He loses his family and sets out to destroy the “heroes” responsible facilitating the postmodern reality around him so as for the public to see them as he does: menaces that need to be put under control or be jailed and killed.

Zemo, in a noticeably BARON looking room
... it's funny, trust me.  

Zemo’s paranoia follows a Gothic tradition that sees the protagonist to use extreme means of persuasion and torture, change multiple identities, and constantly mislead those hunting him down to his own ends. In the age of surveillance, the Internet, social media, and fluid identities Zemo does not hesitate to use all means necessary to mislead the public and ultimately reveal the worst selves of whomever the world considers role models. He will present himself as the “Other” that is always someone else: a psychiatrist, a brainwashed assassin, a delivery boy: whatever is necessary to confuse and create chaos. He hunts down a manuscript that will allow him to control super-soldiers, but as the viewers will realize, this is only a pretense that is also not part of his identity. The stereotypical use of all comic book clichés here are used to deceit the protagonists as well, as there is no overarching plan, only the basic human desire for vengeance. A vengeance that is self-destructive, one that once completed leads Zemo to attempt suicide (and fail due to another superhero).

The prevalent Civil War theme is whether or not those with powers should be controlled by governments and laws, namely international ones, is also at stake at BvS. The movie has become all too uncannily familiar, as the Capitol is bombed by a seemingly lone wolf terrorist, a person that lost his legs and his family after a fight that levelled half a city between Superman and General Zod. In this film the criminal mastermind is the heir to a multimillion corporation, a friendly face similar to what we see today as millennial CEOs and owners of successful startup companies. He is all out for power, and as we see in the course of the film, he organizes with clinical precision a mass murder in Africa, a bombing in Washington DC, a clash between Batman and Superman, and finally the birth of an abomination, very similar to Frankenstein’s creature. Lex Luthor is a child that was abused by his father, is generally (and up to the very end of the movie) considered a model citizen, has a love-hate relationship with certain parties in the US government and cannot fathom that he can be possibly outsmarted.

If the first films of the new millennium were mostly concentrated on origins and the so called “good guys”, or as Luthor calls them “the capes”, then BvS shifts the focus to the people themselves. The opening scene features not Batman, but Bruce Wayne at the epicenter of destruction, one of mythical proportions and uncanny, in that the creatures from above that cause all that look like humans, but their actions portray them as otherwise. The Batman, a vigilante that moves into the shadows, one that even the people he rescues are terrified of, is not the most frightening icon of the film. The hauntological concerns of postmodernism prevail and we see humans that are not only afraid of what lies beyond, but also what the next day will bring. The two movies operate in parallel universes with all too many similarities to ours, and it would be safe to say that out post-9/11 world is pretty similar to theirs as well. Even if in BvS no one mentions New York, even if in Civil War their New York has buildings such as the Avenger’s tower that is all too futuristic for our reality, it is clear to the viewers that the same tensions from our world apply in the cinematic universes as well.

At the center of the concerns over the limits of technology and the duality of human nature lies Doomsday. He is a combination of Alien technology and human blood (Lex Luthor’s) and it is a creature that is born with the sole purpose of killing Superman. From its very birth it’s called an abomination; both the AI and Luthor himself name it like that, and it is indicative of the morally dubious process that is followed that even by alien standards it is illegal and contrary to any kind of customary tradition. Luthor desecrates a corpse, uses his own blood, and through what may look like a dark magic ritual, only in this case technology becomes the “othered” force majeure, Doomsday is born. He is by all means and purposes the Gothic image of capitalism. A monstrous creature that keeps getting stronger if someone attacks it, seems indestructible even by the most extreme weapons mankind possesses (nuclear weapons), it is born in the middle of an battlefield, on the ruins of skyscrapers, and not even the guy that represents “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” cannot defeat it without sacrificing himself. Doomsday, in name, nature, appearance, and actions is everything the 21st century citizen should be afraid of. It is no accident that this gothic monster, this abomination, kills the symbol of hope in the film, Superman. Doomsday is not Frankenstein’s creature. He is not abandoned by his creator, he was not a person that his creator was too afraid to cultivate and claim responsibility for; he was exactly what Lex Luthor wanted him to be, a tool for destruction and murder. His existence was not robbed of meaning; the only purpose it had was mayhem, a nemesis for all who thought that their way of life was back to “normal.”

Lex Luthor, as played by Jesse Eisenberg
At the end of both movies, the viewer naturally is promised of more sequels and more team-ups. But what is left for us to wonder is what lies ahead for the villains that we saw. On the one hand, Zemo is incarcerated and there is a cosmic threat looming over our beloved Avengers, that of Thanos. However, the tensions and the secrets of the grounded Marvel superheroes tell a story quite Gothic, the return of repressed secrets and desires, and characters that are not the role models have learned to admire them as. On the other hand, in the DC Comics blockbuster Lex Luthor from his jail warns of a bell that has been rung and “cannot be unrung.”The Lovecraftian promise is not only foreshadowing a great cosmic threat, but also shows how the Gothic ultimately functions as a language that makes turns popular culture icons to problematic and troubled characters; heroes and villains alike that act in quite unpredicted and unprecedented patterns, bound to face the consequences of their actions as the latter gradually become their own nemesis.

Generously written for us by Michail-Chrysovalantis Markodimitrakis:

I am a PhD student at the American Culture Studies Department at Bowling Green State University. I hold a BA in English Language and Literature from Aristotle University and an MA in English with a specialization in Literary and Textual Studies from BGSU. My research interests include but are not limited to the Gothic, postmodernism, graphic novels, science fiction, steampunk, propaganda in popular culture, and the Absurd in literature.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Summer of 1816: Creativity and Turmoil, event Review

Summer of 1816: Creativity and Turmoil
24-27 June, University of Sheffield

The University of Sheffield recently hosted an international conference to commemorate the bicentenary of the infamous summer of 1816, where a small circle of radical intellectuals (Mary Godwin, P.B. Shelley, Lord Byron, his no.1 fangirl Claire Claremont and John Polidori) came together at the Villa Diodati to exchange ghost stories on a dark and stormy night. We all know the stories: nightmares, orgies, Shelley flying from the room in a fit of panic after hallucinating about nipples with eyes. Of course, we don’t know if any or all of them are true, but it’s certainly fun to speculate. And speculate we did (with rigorous research to back us up, of course).

Organised by the dream team that is Angela Wright and Madeleine Callaghan, ‘Summer of 1816: Creativity and Turmoil’ attracted a plethora of papers on all aspects of 1816, not just the feats of the Diodati party. Although it was an aptly Shelley and Byron-centric event, I managed to slip under the radar with my paper on John Keats and our own Adam James Smith presented on James Montgomery. In addition, there were several papers on Jane Austen; so all in all, there was a diverse mix of topics to appeal to Romanticists, Gothicists and eighteenth/nineteenth century specialists alike. 

On the Friday, our keynote speakers (Michael O’Neill, Jane Stabler and Jerrold Hogle) lead a series of masterclasses on the Diodati circle for postgraduates and early career researchers. Highlights include having a go at deciphering Byron’s pesky punctuation in his manuscripts, re-examining the Gothic-Romantic relationship and discussing the Scope-Davies notebook.

The conference began in full swing the following day and we (Sheffield Gothic) tried our best to live tweet across the parallel panels, fuelled by excellent cake courtesy of our conference caterers. Saturday concluded with Michael O’Neill’s plenary lecture that examined the ways in which Byron and the Shelleys influenced each other in 1816-17. Afterwards, delegates headed over to 99 Mary Street for conference dinner and drinks. This was followed by another full day of papers on Sunday, rounded off with Jane Stabler’s poignant plenary lecture on Mary Shelley’s transcriptions of Byron’s poems. After Stabler’s keynote, the winners of the ‘Creativity and Turmoil’ ghost story competition were announced. Delegates were then given some free time to explore the city before the final day of the conference.

After the last panel on Monday morning, Jerrold Hogle delivered his closing plenary lecture on the ‘Gothic Image’ as manifested in the ‘hideous progenies’ produced from the Diodati gathering in 1816. Jerrold’s lecture crystallised a recurring theme of this conference: the fraught yet undeniably interwoven relationship between Gothic and Romantic literature, which the Diodati party were instrumental in shaping.

Finally the remaining delegates set out on a conference excursion to Castleton to see the ancient ‘Devil’s Arse’ Peak Cavern that Byron had ventured into during his youth. The tour guide pointed out Byron’s graffiti inside the cave, though some of us doubted its authenticity. Delegates had the opportunity to glimpse the Peak District countryside and take in the sights before heading back into Sheffield for the end of the conference.

The overall atmosphere of ‘Summer of 1816’ e was one of excitement and encouragement. The high calibre of papers provoked stimulating discussions and it was a fantastic opportunity for global scholars to come together and share their enthusiasm for the extraordinary Gothic encounter of 1816. It was great to see so many familiar faces from Radcliffe 250 and I think we can all agree that, in light of recent political turmoil, this conference could not have happened at a better time. 

Carly Stevenson is a perpetually caffeinated PhD student in the School of English at Sheffield, researching Gothic Keats.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Steven Guscott: 'In an ideal world it shouldn't matter, but we don't live in an ideal world'

Steven Guscott, author of The Diary of V. Frankenstein, draws from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to create an alternate history novel, with equality at its core.
Interview date: 26th May 2016, 11am.
Conducted by Daniel Southward via Skype.

It's a somewhat quiet day in Sheffield's Jessop West building as I sit down to interview Steven Guscott, author of The Diary of V Frankenstein. On screen, and over Skype, Steven appears, slightly pixelated at first, but still with a large smile and a cheery hello. As when I first met him, he is cheerful and eager to talk about his latest novel, a copy of which sits open on the desk next to me with a note from the author: 'Nature loves diversity- so should we. S'

Gender equality, as the note you've written on the inside cover alludes to, is a central issue within The Diary of V. Frankenstein, and one which serves as a major antagonistic force in the narrative. How do you feel you've addressed this and what made you decide to tackle this particular issue?
With story writing I tend to start with the theme. That's how most of my stories come about - via a concept or a theme and, with this one, it kind of evolved naturally. It was a case of having the basic concept first, that I wanted to do an alternate version of the Frankenstein story and deal with the offspring side of things. If the female creature was completed, and if she and the creature had children, what would be a possible reality of what could happen. To explore this in the best possible way, I originally decided that these offspring had to be female too, so that they could have children, and there's some disturbing issues related to that which are touched on in the story.

So, the next generation would be female, and I wanted to explore what would happen if they witnessed the treatment of women at that period in time- where you had significant gender inequality (I mean, there still is today, but during that time period it was more pronounced). How would an adult creation react to this and see this, see what was happening, and with their hyperbolised strength and potential to dominate, if they chose to, how they would react. That's how the equality theme evolved.

I found this came across particularly well with the continued generations of creatures in the text, an idea that Frankenstein himself actually cut shorts in the original text when he destroys the female companion to his creature, in a dramatic turn around.
Yes, Frankenstein does ask himself what would happen if another generation was created, whether they would become, as he fears, a plague on humanity- would they even destroy humanity? That is why he stopped, but what if the creature, at that point, had managed to convince him not to think this way, if the time lines were cut apart here. I always thought it would be fascinating to explore what if this had happened.

The Diary of V Frankenstein  launched at
Re-Imagining the Gothic 2016

You mentioned at your talk for Re-Imagining the Gothic 2016 that there is a gender swapped version of the this text, could you go into a bit of detail here about that? What prompted you to do this and what impact do you think that it has on the narrative?
I thought it would be a fun and interesting experience. Originally it hadn't occurred to me or my publisher to do this, until I got to the editing stage, where I found myself thinking - and here I put my hands up and admit it - that some of my female characters weren't as strong as they should have been. I was focusing on having Vincent go through his process of learning about equality and how inequality affects women, but I had, unintentionally, not put as much of the female perspective in. Which became obvious to me and lead me to have a long discussion with my editor and publisher, arguing that I wanted to focus on the female characters a bit more and bring the equality points from that point of view forward,

In this discussion, I half-jokingly proposed making two versions, with flipped genders and they agreed to it. The next two days were spent going through the whole document and it was fun to do! Because it does change things, even if it shouldn't; in an equal society we shouldn't read narratives differently just because of socio-cultural norms that are actually just wrong. And it was good to go through the story again and fall in love with it from a female perspective. It was good to see my own personal learning and growth, and one I hope that the readers experience too. Also, we are used to being presented with generic male characters as standard and, as a man, it's just what I'm used to. And, again, it was nice to subvert this, to have two parts to tick both boxes. Yes, in an ideal world, it shouldn't matter, but we don't live in an ideal world. So it's nice, to offer a choice of protagonist gender, and I feel it adds to the theme of the novel.

It actually makes it quite an interesting experience to read, with the knowledge of a gender swapped alternate text raising questions as it goes on. I read the Victor, rather than Victoria, text and there's an interesting sequence where the creature Matriarch discovers a new ability to re-animate corpses and it made me think about, in the other text, the implications of having a Patriarch creature raising up a meat-shield of female corpses. It's interesting how swapping the genders can create such a powerful, and thematically significant, image.
Yes, it wasn't without issues though. In the Victor version, with the mother-child relations I had to change a few things. With this becoming a father-child relationship, I did have to change the plot a little bit (to account for biology), but it's mostly inconsequential little things. These concepts that only women can be nurturers and only men can be providers are just ridiculous. A man can care for a child just as a well and, vice versa, a woman can provide.

Do you think that the narrative would change if some, or all, of the characters were gender-neutral?
I think it's another possible route for the text to take, one which I could have taken, though I feel that I've done what I wanted to with this text. But I'd be fascinated to see someone else do this.

It's interesting that Vincent sees Victor's mistakes as rectified, and actually allows several of the next generation of creatures to continue living. Yet, Victor himself was only going to be satisfied with the total destruction of the race, going so far as to shoot one of the fetuses in the womb, in an attempt to sabotage the future of the race. What made you want to create this very distinct generational gap?
I didn't consider this too much when writing, though I did want there to be a difference. Looking back, it reflects my own ideas of how previous generations have been discriminatory. And what I wanted to show was 'unity through diversity', with John, Mary and Anne all helping Vincent to learn. So, for me, there had to be this change. Victor was very singular, internal, very 'me, me, me' in his narrative, whereas if you share your emotions and pain with other humans, these beings that unite us -  if we have people around us, then we avoid the problems that loneliness and a lack of diversity in culture creates.

Vincent seems a fairly stable narrator throughout the story and I was wondering if at any point in the process you considered toying with unreliable narration, or pushing any potential bias to the fore?
One of the main problems of the diary is, obviously, how to account for bias; how much of the Victor entries are just the author trying to shape our reading? I never considered, say, having John later giving a 'real' version of events, I didn't want to pull away from the story I wanted to tell, so it was easier and better to keep Vincent honest, and almost a gentleman- but still naive and ignorant. To have him learning and growing with Mary's help.

Mary is named, I assume, as a homage to Shelley?
That's right, it's a homage to the original text, there's a lot of homages throughout.

How involved were you with the original text?
Very. I dipped in and out of the text a lot to try and establish a correct timeline- while it is an alternate reality, which gives you a lot of creative license, I wanted all the events before the split to be kept as close to the text as possible because I love Frankenstein's story. So I made sure I re-read the text many times, and I definitely had to have a copy of the text to hand to check things as I wrote. There are a few discrepancies placed in the text on purpose, where I made a conscious decision to alter things to fit this specific alternate timeline.

Are there any specific passages that you draw inspiration from?
Not really- just the whole book. Like I said, I love the Frankenstein story, Robert Walton's narrative at the start, all the messages and ambiguity there- because you are sometimes in favour of and sometimes against the creature. I drew more from the overall themes, I feel, than any specific section.

The Walton fanclub grows ever larger!
Come join, we're Waltonnes of fun!

Are there any other novels that you draw/drew inspiration from?
This is the question where anyone who knows me will be going 'Don't do it Steve, Don't do it!' Because I have an obsession with Frank Herbert's Dune. That is the one book that I will preach about for days, how awesome, how amazing that series is. There's just so much stuff in it - again, so many themes, so many concepts, so many great characters. There's love stories, there's complex ideas and it helps fill my head with these concepts which I can turn, when I write, into my own interpretations. Original work, yes, but which relates to common themes. Dune will always have an influence on what I write, whether I want it to or not. There are other great texts, like the Iliad, the Odyssey, really epic texts. I find I sometimes draw from Hamlet, too, again without necessarily realising.

Any book recommendations for us?
Dune! What I actually want to do here is speak about some other indie authors, being one myself. I know some fantastic independent authors who write really really good stories. In particular, I want to talk about In Search of Gods and Heroes, by Sammy H.K. Smith. It's a fantastic, paranormal fantasy story which very much deals with Greek-style gods, imperfect deities with their own agendas. There's an interesting war between the 'good' gods and 'bad' bods, with the main character and all of humanity caught in the middle and it's a fascinating story, one with multiple layers. I definitely recommend her writing which is, to me, on another level.

Thanks for that Steven, and thanks for joining us for this. Before we leave though, I just want to ask- Any chance of seeing Dracula pop up in the next novel?
I hadn't thought about that, but now that the question has been asked, it has to happen. It has to. There will eventually be a sequel to The Diary of V. Frankenstein, there's still things I want to explore, and so perhaps Dracula or other Gothic characters making a cameo might be a possibility for the future.

Again, our thanks go to Steven Guscott for both this interview and presenting at this year's Re-Imagining the Gothic conference. The Diary of V Frankenstein is available, along with Steven's previous book Prophecy, from amazon.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

A Covent Garden Gilflurt's Guide to... Grave Robbing?

George IV
Portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence

Whilst researching my book, Life in the Georgian Court, I spent a lot of time in the rather wild company of George IV, aka the Prince Regent or, earlier still, the Prince of Wales.

In this midst of the usual parties, heartbreak and largesse, the court of the rip-roaring regent took a pause for a rather Gothic turn of events in 1813. Combining shady doctors, opened tombs and severed heads, it was not George’s finest hour, but it is one that perfectly captures his rather un-kingly behaviour at times.

As his accounts and the surviving buildings he commissioned attest, George was intent on leaving a legacy that could not be ignored. It was because of this that construction work was ongoing in St George’s Chapel at Windsor in 1813, where he had commissioned a brand new burial vault. Whilst working on this project the tombs of Henry VIII, Charles I and Jane Seymour were mistakenly uncovered. Upon hearing of this, the regent was beside himself with fascination and summoned Sir Henry Halford to the scene.

The discovery of Charles I’s tomb was a major find, as it was the first time this long-discussed resting place had been uncovered. Accounts written at the time of his burial had suggested that Charles was interred beside Henry VIII but this was an opportunity to prove it once and for all. Mindful of the historic significance of the site, George asked Halford to examine the remains. As Halford recalls, the prince’s presence would ensure “the most respectful care and attention to the remains of the dead during the enquiry”. [1]

It didn’t, of course.

When the coffin was opened, the prince and Halford were shocked to find that Charles had not fared too badly at all over the years. Though his nose, one eye and one ear were missing and his skin had become discoloured, the king certainly “bore a strong resemblance to the coins, the busts, and especially to the pictures of King Charles I by Vandyke”.[2]

King Charles I
after original by van Dyke

If this was not evidence enough of the identity of the corpse, the fact that his head was severed in a way that perfectly matched accounts of Charles’s execution surely provided the final corroborating factor.

There, in the presence of the Prince Regent, it was agreed that this was indeed the corpse of the executed King Charles I. 

Halford kept some of the remains for his collection of curiosities, including a damaged vertebrae that showed the mark of the axe that had killed the king. After dinner parties, he would produce the bone and hand it around for the amusement of his guests, recounting the tale of the Windsor vault.

Sir Henry Halford, 1st Bt, by Sir William Beechey
Winner of the Come Dine With Me coveted 'Most
Morbid Guest Entertainment' Award.

The kingly bits and bobs remained in Halford’s family until Queen Victoria’s reign and, as has been reported on innumerable occasions, she was not amused. Upon learning of the fate of the vertebrae, the queen requested that it be returned to the royal household. This was swiftly done and Charles was reunited with his stolen remains in 1888, the late king resting in peace once again.


[1] Halford, Sir Henry (1813). An Account of What Appeared on Opening the Coffin of King Charles the First. London: Nichols, Son and Bentley, p.7.

[2] Ibid., p.7.


Baker, Kenneth. George IV: A Life in Caricature. London: Thames & Hudson, 2005.

Black, Jeremy. The Hanoverians: The History of a Dynasty. London: Hambledon and London, 2007.

David, Saul. Prince of Pleasure. New York: Grove Press, 2000.

Halford, Sir Henry. An Account of What Appeared on Opening the Coffin of King Charles the First. London: Nichols, Son and Bentley, 1813.

Hetherington Fitzgerald, Percy. The Life of George the Fourth. London: Tinsley Brothers, 1881.

Huish, Robert. Memoirs of George the Fourth: Vol I. London: Thomas Kelly, 1830.

Lloyd, Hannibal Evans. George IV: Memoirs of His Life and Reign, Interspersed with Numerous Personal Anecdotes. London: Treuttel and Würtz, 1830.

Smith, EA. George IV. Bury St Edmunds: St Edmundsbury Press, 1999.

Catherine’s book, Life in the Georgian Court, is available now from Amazon UKAmazon USBook Depository and all good bookshops!

About Life in the Georgian Court

As the glittering Hanoverian court gives birth to the British Georgian era, a golden age of royalty dawns in Europe. Houses rise and fall, births, marriages and scandals change the course of history and in France, Revolution stalks the land.

Peep behind the shutters of the opulent court of the doomed Bourbons, the absolutist powerhouse of Romanov Russia and the epoch-defining family whose kings gave their name to the era, the House of Hanover.

Behind the pomp and ceremony were men and women born into worlds of immense privilege, yet beneath the powdered wigs and robes of state were real people living lives of romance, tragedy, intrigue and eccentricity. Take a journey into the private lives of very public figures and learn of arranged marriages that turned to love or hate and scandals that rocked polite society.

Here the former wife of a king spends three decades in lonely captivity, Prinny makes scandalous eyes at the toast of the London stage and Marie Antoinette begins her last, terrible journey through Paris as her son sits alone in a forgotten prison cell.

Life in the Georgian Court is a privileged peek into the glamorous, tragic and iconic courts of the Georgian world, where even a king could take nothing for granted.

About the Author

Catherine Curzon is a royal historian and blogs on all matters 18th century at A Covent Garden Gilflurt's Guide to Life.  Her work has featured by publications including BBC History Extra, All About History, History of Royals, Explore History and Jane Austen’s Regency World. She has also provided additional material for the sell-out theatrical show, An Evening with Jane Austen, will she will introduce at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, in September (tickets are available here). Catherine holds a Master’s degree in Film and when not dodging the furies of the guillotine, she lives in Yorkshire atop a ludicrously steep hill.