Posted: Thursday, March 11, 2021 - 11:39
A 1983 ad for the unveiling of "The Hero of the Century."

In 1981, producers and executives arranged for Romero to meet the Pittsburgh-born Editor in Chief of Marvel Comics Jim Shooter. The two of them came up with an idea for a superhero movie, which they developed together until 1985. It would change titles several times over the years, with iterations including Mongrel: The Legend of Copperhead and Copperhead Conquers the Warhawks – the latter being Romero’s original title, too corny for Shooter’s tastes. The first version in the archive reads “LAUREL/MARVEL MOVIE Expanded Outline” on the cover, without a title, dated 12/9/1982 and credited to both Romero and Shooter. That first outline predates the copywrite date for the first Day of the Dead screenplay (December 28, 1982) by less than three weeks, indicating that they were being developed and written simultaneously. Romero and Shooter would work on the project for years, writing several drafts of the screenplay. Ads were taken out in Variety announcing the film as introducing the "hero of the century," but the funds for what would have been a high budget, fx-heavy action film never materialized. 

It’s science fiction, one of several sci fi projects that Romero worked on in the early 1980s, set “less than a lifetime into the future,” after the US-Soviet conflict leads to nuclear attacks on both sides. The result is not apocalyptic, but the conflict never ends, extending into an endless series of battles that always threaten to tip over into nuclear Armageddon. The scene setting is remarkably reminiscent of the early drafts of Day:

Around the world, the governments of allies and satellites of the superpowers, and those of many unaligned states as well, have collapsed. Much of the world is in chaos. Many countries have shattered into city-states, and regional governments. The superpowers struggle to maintain order within and fight on. The most dangerous enemies to the superpowers are the rebels and anarchists within their own borders who undermine the national will and ability to continue the conflict.

The action begins with an attack on a small group of rebels perpetrated by the government (though dressed as anarchists), apparently killing several, including Miwa York. Driven by grief, her husband volunteers for an experimental new procedure that turns him into a powerful cyborg – referred to in some drafts as a “mongrel,” a mix of human and machine. The various drafts refer to him as “Copperhead,” in a way that does not clarify whether this is a nickname or a code name or both. The language in the various drafts slangily refers to him interchangeably as “Copperhead” and “York,” but also “the Iron Man,” “the Iron Sheriff,” “the Copper Man,” and other terms referencing his machinery. The tone is often casually jokey in these early drafts, none of which are formatted like screenplays, and there will be wordplay referring to “the copper-Copper” and directly addressing the reader as “folks.”

York/Copperhead’s powers are, per the initial outline, “impressive stuff”: “He’s armored. He has super-strength, enough to lift a Lincoln Continental or punch through a brick wall. He has a built in phaser-like ray gun (he can holster it, but it’s attached to him by wires). He’s got enhanced senses, built in radar, and his on-board computer helps him analyze data, plan strategy, etc. He can win 50 chess games at once without looking, etc.” He is named the “sheriff” of Philadelphia, where his job is to patrol and protect the streets from criminals, but also, and most pressingly, from the “anarchist” rebels he is told have killed his wife.

The story is one of York’s growing disillusion at both sides, even as his sympathies lie primarily with the rebels. He discovers that he is not fully in control of his own body, that the government can take over to enforce violence against criminals, even if the crimes “are petty… the desperate acts of a suppressed people…Les Miserables stuff.” And his actions are constantly being monitored. York begins to resist the government agenda when he is forced to “vaporize” a bread thief who is identified as being somehow affiliated with the rebels.

However, the outline also spells out an explicit danger and cruelty to the rebel group. This is, at least in part, due to Shooter’s influence, but that influence seems to have resonated with Romero and impacted his other writing projects at that time - including the first version of Day of the Dead. The rebels are frequently described as “terrorists” and their leader likened to a “super-villain.” Some of their acts of resistance are “unconscienable [sic]… real ‘bad’ stuff with a high cost in property and lives…”

The outline’s conclusion comes when York kills the leaders of both the government and the rebels, assuming the leadership for himself. He recognizes that the government leader (known at this stage as “Leader”) is correct when he says that there needs to be a strong hand to prevent annihilation in the global war that has been raging for decades, but that seeming affirmation of military fascism is undercut by the final lines, describing York and his new love, Rada, who has been fighting alongside him:

It ends with York and Rada alone. York, burdened by the awesome responsibility. Can he take it? Will he be better – or will he be another Leader? Rada, too, wonders. She loves him but…

Romero and Shooter were clearly thinking through not just the overthrow of an oppressive government but a suspicion of anyone who would assume power, a favorite theme of both writers. They'd continue developing that theme further in subsequent drafts, making York's final decision to take power increasingly sinister with each revision.

There have been whispers that Marvel's next cinematic step will come in an adaptation of Shooter's Secret Wars miniseries, which Shooter began writing alongside his work on Copperhead. There are a number of thematic similarities between the two of them, and a very similar ending, in which a cyborg (Dr. Doom!) with seemingly noble goals takes power for himself. 

 

-Adam Charles Hart

King and Romero

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This is a website promoting and discussing materials in the Horror Studies Collection of the University of Pittsburgh Library Systems, including the George A. Romero Archival Collection, the Daniel Kraus papers, and the John A. Russo collection. You will also find information here on events, initiatives, and collaboration from Pitt Libraries that are relevant to horror studies. When sharing or discussing any of the information posted here, please credit the University of Pittsburgh Library Systems. Unless otherwise noted, all posts on this site are created by Visiting Researcher Adam Charles Hart or Horror Studies Collection Coordinator Ben Rubin.

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