Unitards and underdogs 

In the fabric-covered pews of Ketchum's Church of the Big Wood, perfectly coiffed silver-haired ladies tap shoulders to ask about kids and holiday plans. Comfortably decorated with Christmas lights and wreaths, the church seems a strikingly odd venue choice for a reading by the young Jewish author Michael Chabon—a man who garnered his literary celebrity with novels about comic books and bisexuality.

The Sun Valley Center for the Arts, in conjunction with its newest exhibit titled "Superheroes and Secret Identities," brought Chabon out from his home in Berkeley, Calif., to read his recent New Yorker article, "Secret Skin: An Essay in Unitard Theory." Chabon wrote his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, as a 25-year-old graduate student, but it was his third novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, that won him the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2001.

Kavalier and Clay follows the lives of two Jewish boys in the late 1930s, Czech illustrator and escape-artist-in-training Joe Kavalier and Brooklyn writer Sam Clay, as they develop a wildly successful comic. At a time when the country was dragging itself out of a depression and facing formidable fascist foes, comic book superheroes provided underdogs and outsiders with a way to manifest their heroic desires and transform themselves from inept to omnipotent.

An avid comic book dork, Chabon has returned to this topic of superheroes as a manifestation of the human need for escape throughout his career. Chabon's essay, "Secret Skin," takes a look at the superhero's costume and what that billowing cape and inimitable stretch of seamless fabric say about our need for complete transformation. Unfortunately, as Chabon explains, most attempts to re-create or humanize super-attire (i.e. comic book conventions) are met with disastrous results.

"Even the most splendid of these getups is at best a disappointment," says Chabon in "Secret Skin." "Every seam, every cobweb strand of duct-tape gum, every laddered fish-net stocking or visible ridge of underpants elastic—every stray mark, pulled thread, speck of dust—acts to spoil what is instantly revealed to have been, all along, an illusion."

A superhero's costume is not only an attempt at aerodynamic pragmatism, it's a mask that allows the true self to be revealed in a non-threatening sphere. Every Spiderman has a Peter Parker lurking beneath his muscle-rippled polyester—a bespectacled outcast who hides his true nature from the outside world.

"We say 'secret identity,' and adopt a series of cloaking strategies to preserve it, but what we are actually trying to conceal is a narrative: not who we are but the story of how we got that way—and, by implication, of all that we lacked, and all that we were not, before the spider bit us. Yet our costume conceals nothing, reveals everything: It is our secret skin, exposed and exposing us for all the world to see."

The second essay Chabon read from, "A Woman of Valor," originally published in Allure in 2004, examines early superheroines from a feminist's perspective. Though he acknowledges that Wonder Woman is the most widely known female superhero, he says he always preferred Big Barda for her Mega-Rod wielding, butt-kicking strength and lack of submissiveness—qualities, Chabon explains, not found in many other superheroines at the time.

"They had all the measly powers that '50s and '60s male chauvinism could contrive to bestow on a superwoman. One of these ladies could, for example, make herself very, very small. Another, whenever she chose, could render herself invisible."

When Chabon finished his reading, he took questions from the charmed and comic book-adoring audience. One woman, after digesting the reading, asked what power Chabon would bestow on a female superhero if given the chance. He thought a moment, then smiled, "I'd give her a willingness to see through media manipulation techniques."

—Tara Morgan

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