By JIM SABATASO | WRITER
[A version of this story appeared in the May 14, 2014, edition of the Rutland Reader]
Rutland, Vermont! — A sleepy town with a proud history. Once home to the trains of industry and deep quarries of fortune, it’s hills and valleys are still a paradise for adventure seekers and lovers of nature. But don’t let this bucolic burg fool you, true believers! In Rutland, mysteries abound. It’s truly a tale to astonish.
While Rutland’s actual history makes for an interesting read, the city’s fictional past is almost as storied as that of Gotham and Metropolis. The birthplace of heroes and villains alike, Rutland has, over the years, played host to time-traveling airplanes, sinister shapeshifters, interdimensional portals, gods, demons, celebrities, and enough superheroes to fill the Baxter Building.
What follows is an inventory of Rutland’s many appearances in the worlds of comics, television, and film.
The origin of Rutland’s representation in comic books begins with one person: Tom Fagan. A Rutland Herald reporter and avid comic book fan, Fagan and the city’s annual Halloween Parade served as the MacGuffin for dozens of adventures in both Marvel and DC comics, including a famous, unauthorized inter-company crossover.
As the parade’s popularity grew under Fagan’s creative direction during the 1960s, his comic book creator friends became regular attendees, even dressing up as their favorite characters. After the parade, revelers would celebrate into the night at a local mansion where Fagan threw his famous Halloween parties.
This real-world connection spilled over into Marvel’s fictional universe in Avengers #83 (1970). In the issue, titled “Come On In, …The Revolution’s Fine!” (by Roy Thomas, John Buscema, and Tom Palmer), Fagan invites Earth’s Mightiest Heroes to Rutland as the parade’s guests of honor.
But the festivities are disrupted, as they will be, when the Masters of Evil hijack Fagan’s float, which, apparently, was the key to some ill-defined bid for world domination (it’s comic books; just go with it.) The Avengers prevail, and from then on Rutland became part of comic book lore.
A year later, Batman and Robin show up at the parade in Batman #237 (by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams) in pursuit of a fugitive Nazi. The story culminates with a brawl at Fagan’s costume party, where the Caped Crusader emerges victorious.
While both companies list Rutland in their respective online databases, Marvel has always had a bit more fun with incorporating the city into its universe. According to the listing, the area is a source of mystical power and draw for supernatural beings.
Case in point, Rutland is the birthplace of Master Pandemonium, a Marvel villain and Englehart creation with supernatural powers, who was a major antagonist in West Coast Avengers in the 1980s.
One hotspot in particular is Bald Mountain. In 1972’s Marvel Feature #2 (by Roy Thomas, Ross Andru, and Sal Buscema), Dr. Strange and his fellow Defenders Hulk and Namor the Sub-Mariner battle the evil Dormammu and his cult of worshippers on Halloween night.
Then, in 1973, legendary Avengers scribe Steve Englehart, along with Len Wein and Gerry Conway, made comic book history by setting the first-ever Marvel/DC crossover in Rutland. For comic books fans, this was huge. The first official crossover would not occur until 1976’s Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man.
The story, which takes place across three titles, features the creators and Fagan getting caught in the middle of a series of amazing events while visiting Rutland on Halloween. The three books ostensibly tell standalone stories (to avoid any legal issues), but also work together to span two distinct comic book universes as members of the Avengers and Justice League battle a panoply of villains, including Juggernaut, Felix Faust, Absorbing Man, and Loki.
Naturally, the day is saved, but Rutland would continue to be the setting of many more adventures in subsequent Marvel and DC titles.
Clearly, the creators had fun inserting themselves and Fagan in the stories. It was a nod to a friendship, which transcended companies.
“It didn’t matter to us that one was at DC and two were at Marvel,” Englehart told Comics Alliance in a 2010 interview. “I think it was us being creative, thinking what would be really cool to do and the spark of all that was the Rutland parade, which was really cool and it deserved something cool.”
Creators writing themselves into the story is nothing new. Comics have always had a tendency to be metatextual. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby did it all the time, making cameos in early issues of Fantastic Four, Daredevil and Spider-Man. Lee still does it, showing up in every single Marvel film to date.
Outside mainstream Marvel/DC continuity, Rutland is also the birthplace of the GI Joe Snow Job, who has been featured in the comic, TV, and action figure universes. An arctic trooper and Olympic biathlete, Snow Job is a skilled marksman, skier and, allegedly, something of a con man, giving his codename a double meaning likely overlooked by disappointed eight year olds who wanted Storm Shadow, but got the guy with skis.
If you’ve ever seen Rutland on the big screen, you’re likely watching a David Giancola production. The local filmmaker and owner of Edgewood Studios has shot a number of films in the city, with many actually being set in the city. It’s a thrill familiar to any Rutlander who’s been channel surfing late at night and caught a glimpse of a tidal wave rushing down Merchants Row or a shootout in the Howe Center.
The best known of these films is Time Chasers (1994), about an inventor who uses a time-traveling airplane to save the future from an evil corporation. The film had the dubious honor of being featured on the cult TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1997.
The series, in which a man and two puppets watch movies while adding their own humorous but often withering commentary, requires thick skin for those involved in the film under review. But Giancola took it in stride, even hosting a screening party for the episode.
“It gave it a whole new life and cult status that endures to this day,” he says. Plus, the licensing fees helped him cover production costs, which was a definite bonus.
Time Chasers, which was Giancola’s first feature — he started production of it when he was 19 — has remained one of his most popular films. People have made trips to visit locations from the film. Edgewood Studios even sells the vintage Castleton State College shirt actor Matthew Bruch wears for much of the film on its website.
Despite the MST3K lampooning, Time Chasers is a solid film. It received 3.5-stars (out of five) in the Video Movie Guide. According to MST3K Wiki, that makes it one of the highest-rated films the show has ever screened. Indeed, the film earned Giancola and company a Gold Award at the Houston International Film Festival in 1994, and was selected for a screening at that year’s AFI Fest in Los Angeles.
Never seen it? The full MST3K episode is available on YouTube.
Over the years, Giancola’s films have brought a number of actors to Rutland. His 2000 film The Newcomers stars Kate Bosworth, Paul Dano, and — in a curious Rutland comic book connection — Chris Evans well before he picked up Captain America’s shield.
In 2001, Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) got his first lead role in Giancola’s Lightning: Fire from the Sky. And here’s another bit of comic book synchronicity: Eisenberg is slated to be Lex Luthor in next year’s Batman vs. Superman film.
When asked why Rutland is the backdrop for some man of his films — “at least a dozen” by his count — Giancola cites production costs. “We couldn’t afford to change it,” he says, explaining that changing the lettering on a firetruck or all the license plates was too expensive. Setting the films in Rutland just made sense.
And he’s not done. In the coming year, Giancola has two films slated for production, one of which he reveals will be set in Rutland.
Outside the Giancola-verse, Rutland made a brief cameo in the Farrelly Brothers’ comedy Me, Myself & Irene (2000). During a scene in which the authorities are searching for Jim Carrey’s character, a copy of the Rutland Herald is held up to the camera. It’s one of those blink and you miss it moments, but it still counts.
As seen on TV
As any fan of The West Wing knows, Rutland gets a mention by none other than President Josiah Bartlet in season three of the famous NBC series. Bartlet references a speech delivered by George Perkins Marsh “to rouse the agricultural community of Rutland, Vermont.”
Marsh was born in Woodstock, VT. He was a diplomat and philologist, and — in a bit of Vermont trivia that should surprise no one — is thought to be America’s first environmentalist. His writings, which discussed deforestation and desertification, would become the foundation on which the ecology and sustainability movements would be built.
And Bartlet is telling the truth. Marsh really did address the Agricultural Society of Rutland County on Sept. 30, 1847. Read the speech for yourself here.
A decidedly more sinister visitor passed through in a 2011 episode of the Fox sci-fi series Fringe, when a murderous shapeshifter makes a pitstop in Rutland with a kidnapped scientist. Most of the action takes place at the sleepy Newhart gas station (easter egg!) on the outskirts of town, where the shapeshifter dispatches with a nosy state trooper before heading out of town.
This inventory is by no means definitive. In the literary world, for example, H.P Lovecraft makes mention of Rutland in Whisper in the Darkness. And author Mary McGarry Morris — a Rutland native — has set several books in a fictional version of Rutland’s past.
There’s most certainly more. But why? What makes this small, blue-collar Vermont city such a compelling subject? Perhaps Marvel was right; maybe something supernatural is at work here.