Thackeray Meets Dark Matter:
The Making of a TV Super-Hero
Emily Anne Foster and Jordan Valdes
Imagine this: a bus collides with Dark Matter. This is fiction, of course—a superhero TV show, to be exact. Dark Matter, in this particular, televised universe, catalyses the transformation of ordinary people into those with an extraordinary power or skill. A bus collides with Dark Matter, and from that bus emerges… a character out of a Victorian novel.
William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair begins with the departure of the popular Miss Amelia Sedley from her boarding school. Amid the teary sniffles, wails, and “hysterical YOOPS” (yes, that is Thackeray verbatim) of her classmates, Amelia at first entirely eclipses her traveling companion, Rebecca Sharp, “a young lady of whom nobody took any notice.” Rebecca, often called Becky, slips quietly into Thackeray’s narrative from the background of this first scene. Amongst the agitated bustle of Amelia’s leave-taking, Becky is an afterthought: “Nobody cried for leaving HER.”
Our protagonist, however, is Becky, not Amelia. Orphaned upon the death of her father, she is sent away to Miss Pinkerton’s Academy, where she becomes more teacher than student, working gratis as a French instructor. Becky’s friendship with the widely admired Amelia is a stroke of luck— one of many encounters Becky will have with the fickle Muse of Fortune. By befriending Amelia, Becky encounters a higher circle of society than would otherwise be accessible to a young, destitute, orphaned woman. But Becky is also visited by exceedingly bad luck at other junctures. A string of near-misses—transformative opportunities that slip through her grasp—define other episodes of her life, from late girlhood to middle age.
Vanity Fair began serial publication in 1847.170 years later, in 2017, the aforementioned superhero TV show The Flash (aired on the CW) introduced a character named Rebecca Sharpe. “Or, as she prefers,” the season’s villain jibes, “the plebeian sobriquet, Becky.” Thackeray’s Becky Sharp is “small and slight in person; pale, sandy-haired, and with eyes habitually cast down.” So, too, is Becky Sharpe in The Flash: she’s played by Sugar Lyn Beard—“Sugar Lyn” accurately connoting Ms. Beard’s diminutive size and syrupy voice. Like Thackeray’s original, The Flash’s Becky is a petite, “sandy-haired” blonde, whose eyes are “habitually cast down.”
We first meet The Flash’s Becky in a coffee shop, where she is anxiously hectoring the barista to ensure that he hasn’t put milk in her coffee, because she is “severely lactose intolerant, like…”. Becky completes this thought wordlessly with the hapless, pained expression of the habitually unlucky. The villain resumes his voice-over: “Subject was born in Sarasota, Florida, the first indignity in a life full of unfortunate circumstances.” Needless to say, there is indeed milk in her coffee. But Becky’s luck may be changing.
The Flash’s Becky next ends up on that bus—the one that collides with a cluster of Dark Matter. When the Dark Matter hits Becky, her hitherto bad luck is reversed. This episode of The Flash introducing Becky Sharpe is titled “Luck be a Lady.”
When we next see her, Becky enters a bank. As she bypasses a security guard, he chokes on his drink, knocking into the ladder supporting a handyman who is working on a security camera. The handyman grabs the camera for support and swings it around, leaving Becky consistently in its blind spot as she glides past. Behind the counter, a computer erupts in sparks, distracting one bank employee, while the other rushes out from behind her teller’s station, speaking anxiously into her cell phone: “Please, don’t touch the oven, Mom.” Within this maelstrom of lucky happenstance—lucky, that is, for our Ms. Sharpe—Becky strides unnoticed into the back of the bank.
As Becky exits the bank lugging bags full of cash, The Flash’s eponymous superhero is on her trail. The Flash can do precisely what his name implies: he can run very, very fast. “She’s getting away in a Prius,” his team tells him. “Last time I checked, the Flash is faster than a Prius,” he quips. But in a moment of unlikely physical comedy evoking Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, a huge drum of marbles overturns. The Flash, in hot pursuit of Becky, trips over the marbles at super speed. Lucky Becky escapes.
Thackeray’s Becky Sharp has her own tumultuous relationship with luck. But rather than passively await a chance encounter with, say, Dark Matter, the Victorian Becky actively courts the only luck readily available to moneyless 19th century women, a marriage proposal from a wealthy bachelor. Vanity Fair’s Becky also tests her luck in gambling parlors, prefiguring by 30 years another pretty, blond, Victorian anti-heroine with a penchant for the roulette table, Gwendolen Harleth of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda.
As Thackeray’s Becky leaves school with the wealthy Amelia Sedley, her luck seems to be on the rise. Becky is to stay over with the Sedleys before traveling on, and she plans to capitalize on her visit. With Becky’s subtle encouragement, Amelia’s brother Joseph decides to propose, thus rescuing her from the tedious and tenuous future as a governess that otherwise awaits her. Alas, Joseph Sedley, more portly than courtly, gets drunk the night before Becky must leave to commence her governessing duties. In his intoxicated haze, Joseph neglects to implement his plan. Embarrassed and hungover, Joseph can’t even drag himself out of bed the next morning to see Becky off. Joseph thus misses his chance to propose, and Becky misses her chance to marry up.
Although such lost opportunities recur for Becky throughout Vanity Fair, she seems ever on the brink of securing her wealthily-ever-after. As she begins her governessing duties, Becky charms every male in the household. Although the patriarch of that household, Sir Pitt Crawley, is markedly fascinated by Becky’s allure, he is (sadly) already married. When his wife dies, Sir Crawley asks Becky to marry him. But Becky has already, in secret, married a different Crawley: the family’s youngest son, Rawdon. Although Rawdon expects an inheritance from his aunt, said aunt disinherits her nephew as soon as she learns that he has wed the destitute Becky. Thus Becky has, unluckily, sacrificed a future as a rich peeress, Lady Crawley, for a future that leaves her once again with no reliable source of income.
Becky Sharp(e) was borrowed from Thackeray—and imported into the superhero and comic book realm—even before she resurfaced in 2017 in televised form in The Flash. This character’s graphic-literary introduction was in the January 1987 issue of DC Comics’ “Infinity, Inc.” comic book series, in which she goes both by her ordinary name, Becky Sharpe, and by her superhero (or supervillain?) name, Hazard. In both this comic book and the TV show The Flash, Hazard’s superpower is her capacity to summon bona fortuna: she can manipulate probability, turning whatever happens to her into instances of good luck. But there’s a catch: Hazard’s good luck inversely burdens anyone in her vicinity with bad luck.
That Becky Sharp’s name, and some of her background and attributes—physical and psychological—have been lifted from Thackeray’s novel and overlaid onto superhero comic books and TV shows is in many respects unsurprising. Many superhero comics and movies seek a dialogue with canonical novels or plays. At the end of Season 3 of Supergirl, the villains are a trio of witches straight out of Macbeth, and the show’s hurlyburly, concluding episode is entitled “Battles Lost and Won.”
But Thackeray’s Becky Sharp is no supergirl. Becky’s estimable powers—not least of which are her seductiveness and ruthless force of will—fall within normal human limits. The paranormal lies beyond her grasp, however formidable. Indeed, that might describe her agon: Becky’s struggle is with her very ordinariness. As correlatives for their super-powered pop heroes, TV and comic book creators presumably could have found more conspicuously “super” heroes than Becky Sharp among the classical gods and goddesses, or among the witches, giants, and fairy godmothers of folk culture, or even among the more supernaturally “othered” characters in 19th century British literature, such as Dracula, Frankenstein’s creature, or Dorian Gray.
But the connections between Thackeray’s Becky Sharp and her 20th and 21st century pop progeny seem oddly fraught—something more than just a Victorian Easter Egg some superhero comic book artist slipped slily into their narrative. What draws the creators of today’s pop superheroes to the 19th century’s all too human Miss Sharp?
One of Becky’s attractions for superhero TV and comic book auteurs may simply be her evocative name and vexatious personality. In an August 21, 2018, Telegraph commentary, Lucy Worsley merges the two: “Becky Sharp. The clue’s in the name. A byword for a manipulative, conniving piece of work.” Worsley may be onto something. That Becky is “sharp” accurately connotes not only that she is clever and manipulative, but also that she is piercing, edgy, cutting, dangerous. Her given name, Rebecca, is full of soft vowel sounds and curving letters: the “ecc” that centers “Rebecca” begs to be penned in looping, flowery cursive. In contrast, her preferred “Becky” is sharp—not only in its brevity vis-à-vis “Rebecca,” but also in the sharp, jutting lines and angles of the k and the y.
A different source of Becky Sharp’s appeal to today’s TV and comic book writers may be her 21st century modernity. Her Regency gowns notwithstanding, Becky’s story seems to readily translate for (say) millennials without conspicuous anachronism. The 2018 release of a new adaptation of Vanity Fair (Britain’s ITV) unleashed a flood of British popular commentary, much of which observed that Thackeray’s protagonist is a thoroughly modern Becky: more 21st century fox than 19th century Angel in the House. The Financial Times commented on the 21st century appeal of Becky’s “underdog” status as a woman “defying convention.” One commentary in the Telegraph envisions Becky as “the original Instagram star.” Another Telegraph piece characterizes “Becky’s selfishness” as “a bold, feminist act.”
Nineteenth-century Becky Sharp’s ruthless efforts to manipulate the patriarchy’s rules in her favor might certainly be read as proto-feminist. The scandal that many Victorians discerned in Vanity Fair is simply that Becky is a woman who refuses to apologize for her social and economic ambitions, a refusal that may better fit our modern interpretation of a woman on the rise. Given that many superhero TV shows and comics are still emerging from a historical practice of marketing gender stereotypes, perhaps drawing inspiration for superwomen from a proto-feminist like Becky Sharp is currently the right move—an incremental step forward for an evolving genre. More categorical claims (such as those in the Telegraph) analogizing Thackeray’s Becky Sharp to a feminist hero, however, seem overstated.
If Thackeray’s Becky were indeed to time-travel into the 21st century, one might envision her—and any claims about her feminist heroism—differently than do the writers of The Flash or the Infinity, Inc. comic book series. In her 21st century incarnation, Becky Sharp might be imagined as a woman predestined for the corner office: a Fortune 500 CEO whose cleverness, inexhaustibility, ambition, and instinct for the bottom line—combined with her conveniently heedless disregard of collateral consequences—equip her perfectly to outperform her male competition on metrics such as price per share and CEO compensation. On those metrics—the only ones that seem to matter for 21st century CEOs—CEO Becky’s superiority over her male colleagues would provide further proof (if such be needed) that a woman can defeat a man in entrepreneurial games played outside the home. Thus imagined, 21st century CEO Becky Sharp could be spun as a superwoman of sorts, simply because she leveraged and maximized her human, not-so-super, traits and competencies.
But are such victories against male opponents in competitive, high stakes, public competition an adequate litmus test for feminist heroism? Surely CEO Becky—still Thackeray’s Becky albeit in modern clothing—would regard her dominating executive performance as her own self-aggrandizing triumph; either that, or Lady Luck was with her. CEO Becky would not view her personal success as a victory for feminism—or for any “ism” other than Beckyism. Preoccupied with personal wealth acquisition, CEO Becky would be unlikely, for example, to lead a 21st century feminist charge for broad based paycheck fairness. And although our conjured CEO Becky must have broken a glass ceiling or two on her way up the corporate ladder, precisely how profound is the broader impact—beyond the 1%—of what might be termed boardroom feminism? A woman poised to implement Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to “lean in” around the conference table has already secured her seat at that table; a woman intent on breaking the glass ceiling is already within striking distance of that ceiling. What of those who face greater obstacles with fewer resources at their disposal—those who are staving off downward mobility rather than jostling for a prime position on the “up” escalator? In short, what of those whose origins and resources are as ordinary as those of Thackeray’s “original” Becky Sharp?
Ironically, inventors of today’s pop superheroes may have embraced and modernized Thackeray’s Becky Sharp in part because of her very ordinariness. A clue hidden in plain sight is Thackeray’s title for his most famous novel—a title that includes a seldom cited sub-title: Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero. Thackeray’s sub-title is his pledge of allegiance to a realist aesthetic that departs from Romanticist heroics: his allegiance to the aesthetic of a novel without a hero.
To be or not to be a hero is a question posed repeatedly in today’s pop superhero fiction. Pop superhero creators seem obsessed with the photo-negative landscape about which they purport not to be writing: the ordinary, the normal, the regular, the non-heroic. In DC Comics’ Batman #37, Clark Kent/Superman and Lois Lane and Bruce Wayne/Batman and Selina Kyle/Catwoman go out on an adorably ordinary double-date—to a county fair, no less—where they ride the Ferris Wheel, eat corn dogs, and unburden themselves of their mutual misgivings about life in the super-fast lane. It turns out that Superman and Batman and Catwoman face existential quandaries about their chosen professions just like the rest of us. Similarly, in Supergirl (CWTV), the titular protagonist struggles with and against her prefixorial “super.” She considers returning to normal life when she gets a chance to go “home” to Argo City, a fragment of Krypton that survived the planet’s destruction. In so doing, Supergirl would relinquish the powers she draws from Earth’s yellow sun, and return to being ordinary.
Other pop superheroes exhibit similar nostalgias for normalcy. After he marries, The Flash’s protagonist, Barry Allen, forgoes using his super-speed for a time. Allen’s supernatural, otherworldly speed is superseded by his “ordinary” love for his wife. In Season 4 of Arrow, Oliver Queen likewise takes a sabbatical from hero-ing to focus on his love interest, Felicity Smoak. And in The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne, after saving Gotham City one last time, passes the mantle of Batman along to John Blake, thus presumably liberating Mr. Wayne to pursue an ordinary life with an ordinary wife—the leonine beauty Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman. Alas, Cupid’s arrow is not within Batman’s armamentarium: Selina, in DC Comics’ Batman #50, cattily leaves a disconsolate Bruce Wayne waiting at the altar. Falling in love, the ultimate human vulnerability, is what Heath Ledger’s Joker mocks in his most famous line: “Why so serious?”
What ails our superheroes? Why all these mid-life super-crises? And why give your powers away or (Prospero aside) foreswear to use them? One explanation for our superheroes’ sincere interest in early retirement is, perhaps, captured within the moral dilemma of The Flash’s Becky, whose every gain—courtesy of Dark Matter—is built upon the losses of others. The Flash’s creators may therein have deftly planted a parable for our time: you don’t need fairy tale magic or Dark Matter to conjure a world where transactions seem increasingly to be zero-sum—where the very rich get richer still and winners take all. Is that perhaps what has so disillusioned even our superheroes? They signed up to combat, say, the occasional invasion of evil nemeses from outer space—not to police, 24/7, humans of ordinary powers who cannot structure a society that delivers the fairness and equal opportunity to which those humans repeatedly give lip service. Do our superheroes wish they lived in a world where resort to their superpowers is not necessary to “enforce” rudimentary notions of fairness? Not big talkers, our superheroes don’t precisely say.
But, as suggested above, the broader answer textually—in rare scenes wherein our superheroes wax philosophical about their roads not taken—is that these über-protagonists are nostalgic for a kind of lost Eden of normalcy and ordinariness. One might wonder, however, why becoming “ordinary” would thereby guarantee an erstwhile superhero a “normal” life. Many perfectly ordinary folk—those of us not blessed with super-speed or strength—are likewise denied the joys and prerogatives of “normalcy.” Normalcy is a generation-based illusion: housewives of the 1950s, once “normal,” turn into the horrific when we look back in works like The Stepford Wives. To give in to the idea of normalcy is to resist change: if we take everything happening around us at face value—low minimum wage, overuse of plastic—then we never question our own habits as a society.
And yet, the quest for normalcy is frequently the flip side of a frantic flight from otherness.
Whatever else our pop superheroes may represent, they are also “freaks”—freaks of nature or of science or of magic. Their superhumanity bestows not only special powers but also an inescapable, alienating otherness. Thus virtually every 20th and 21st century superhero lives a double-life: a superhero life and an (apparently) normal life. This duplexity addresses not only these heroes’ need for concealment from their evil nemeses, but also their longing for a respite from their alienating otherness. But such doubleness carries its own curse, as our heroes repeatedly find themselves torn between their superheroism and their ordinariness. Vanity Fair seems to pose broadly similar questions about modes of duality within the genre of the novel. Are all protagonists heroes? Can a piece of fiction—whether a 19th century novel or a 21st century TV show—function effectively without some sort of “hero”?
Becky Sharp is Thackeray’s protagonist. But she’s nobody’s hero. DC Comics’ Becky, aka Hazard, on the other hand, is by no means the protagonist of The Flash—or of any of the other superhero fiction in which she appears. And Hazard’s narrative line in The Flash transfigures her into a character who is neither protagonist nor villain nor hero. Rather, Hazard is someone whose ordinary human contradictions problematize her super-potency: a candidate, perhaps, for best supporting anti-hero. Although depicted at first with monochromatic negativity, Hazard is initially unaware of the dangers—the “hazards”—she poses to others when she invokes her power of luck. In a timely reminder (noted above) that unilateral assertions of power have unintended consequences, Hazard ultimately both recognizes and regrets that her invocations of good luck for herself have foisted bad luck upon those around her.
Close personal attachment to Thackeray’s Becky is likewise a portent of misfortune for those thus attached. But unlike her 21st century superhero progeny, Thackeray’s anti-heroine appears to be without regret toward those whom she damages collaterally. Becky fiercely flirts with Amelia’s soldier husband, Captain George Osbourne—monopolizing him on the night before he marches into battle at Waterloo. In the battle, George is killed, leaving Amelia and her son destitute. Becky’s own husband, Rawdon, disinherited specifically because of his marriage to Becky and trying to make a living on a pestilential colonial island, dies there of yellow fever. At the end of Vanity Fair, Joseph Sedley lands once again within Becky’s crosshairs and dies soon thereafter—but only after leaving Becky half of everything in his will. “Luck be a Lady” indeed.
In The Flash, Becky/Hazard is cast into prison with the others who have collided with Dark Matter and then used their newfound powers for nefarious ends. (Spoilers ahead.) After pulling off a prison break, these super-powered villains join forces to track down and kill the Flash. At first Hazard stands with her “own kind”—her fellow Dark Matter-empowered villains. Yet still “some good” she means “to do despite of [her] own nature.” Unlike Lear’s Edmund, The Flash’s Hazard actually succeeds in doing “some good”: she protects the Flash by leaping between him and his rapidly converging enemies. The Flash is saved. Hazard is killed. Her action, however, restores (for the moment) the super-heroic trinity of “truth, justice, and the American way”—a throwback version of “the American way” that is more diverse, equitable, and ethical than, say, MAGA. Thackeray’s Becky Sharp is no hero: Thackeray so stipulates in his sub-title. Neither is Becky/Hazard—but she’s no villain, either.
Even when judged as anti-heroines rather than as outright villains, CWTV’s Becky Sharpe and Infinity, Inc. comics’ Becky/Hazard are profoundly flawed characters. Both make mistakes. Each affiliates herself with the forces of villainy. But when offered the opportunity, Becky Sharpe and Becky/Hazard choose to save lives rather than destroy them. Whether Thackeray’s Becky Sharp would ever save someone else’s life—rather than, say, impatiently awaiting their quietus in expectancy of a large inheritance—is a different question.