Supervillains and Philosophy by Ben Dyer, ed.

“There are both heroes of evil and heroes of good.”

– Francois de La Rochefoucauld

When Leonard Cohen sang “everybody knows the good guys lost”, he didn’t sound too upset. It’s a mysterious, koan-like statement whose proof seems to reside in a following line: “that’s how it goes”.

Taking a nerdy step away from the world of the beautifully weary, romantic debaucher and into one filled with comic books and philosophic tomes, editor Ben Dyer seems to echo Cohen’s koan when he kicks off this anthology by announcing that “the supervillains have won”: “Tragically, there is very little contrast left between the moral cynicism of modern narratives and the sympathetic lens through which we encounter the modern supervillain,” Dyer writes in his introduction entitled, “The Devils Get Their Due”. (An aside: if there are any plans for an audiobook, Cohen should lead the nominations.)

Supervillains and Philosophy aims to “analyze the monologues and the madness,” Dyer continues. It will “consider the supervillain’s life, his or her relation to morality and society, and the intellectual boundaries and puzzles that keep us interested” in them. Described in his biography as being in the process of completing his Ph.D. in philosophy, Dyer edited the anthology of 19 essays, which include contributions from celebrated comic book creators Dennis O’Neil and John Ostrander, as well as philosophy professors, lecturers and other academics.

There are an extremely wide variety of topics and styles on display in this collection, so much so that the breadth of it all risks being too wide, and lacking a central thesis or flow of some kind to hold it all together. To combat this, he has grouped the essays into five “phases” (and although the reason for that particular term isn’t clear, it’s still weird in a way that seems to suit the topic):

  1. So You Want to Be a Supervillain…
  2. The Nature of Evil
  3. Taking Over the World
  4. Beyond Good and Evil?
  5. Fiendish Puzzles

“Is a little tyranny justified in the pursuit of a good cause?” Dyer writes. “If someone finally became all-powerful, is there anything they couldn’t do? Can someone truly desire evil? Why the heck are good henchmen so hard to find?” All these questions and more promise to be answered, or at least explored, in the essays that follow. The first four pieces, which comprise the first “phase”, give a good indication of the variety of themes and styles to be found throughout.

It starts with Dyer’s own contribution in Wanted (the comic that was turned into a hit movie for Angelina Jolie), titled “The Wandering Unwanted,” which compares elements of the comic with Plato’s story of the cave, and Hannah Arendt’s essay on the “Banality of Evil”. Then Ron Novey examines the role of the “henchman” by looking at Aristotlean concepts of friendship and Hobbes’ “state of nature”“, and manages to work in references to Cicero, Shakespeare, Plato, Machiavelli, and even W.C. Fields, all in the relatively short space of ten pages.

Galen Foresman follows with “Making the A-List”, which takes the form of a five-step “cheater’s guide” (part of “our patented Villainy Self-Improvement Classes”), promising to transform thugs from lowly henchmen into supervillains. Central to the process is figuring out what it means to be the “best supervillain,” or more accurately, “is there a best of the worst?” And finally, Kirby Arinder and Joseph Milton examine the concept of “mad science” in an essay that purports to be a found manuscript. The process of researching and writing it sent the authors around the bend: “Arinder’s sanity has failed altogether, and Milton is nowhere to be found,” says the editor’s note that prefaces the essay.

Although Supervillains stands on its own as a solid anthology, it’s also a companion book to 2005’s Superheroes and Philosophy. Both are published by Open Court, and are part of its prolific series on Popular Culture and Philosophy. Aiming to “present essays by academic philosophers exploring the meanings, concepts, and puzzles within television shows, movies, music and other icons of popular culture”, the series started in 2000 (with Seinfeld and Philosophy).

It has seen an impressive increase in the number of books over recent years, with as many as nine volumes published in a year (that was 2006, while 2008 saw seven volumes, for example, and 2009 had eight). Superheroes was the the 13th volume, while Supervillains is the 42nd(!).

Superheroes featured a similar roster of academics and comic book fans, along with industry professionals that included Jeph Loeb, Dennis O’Neil (again), Craig Rousseau and Mark Waid. In an impressively long sentence, the introduction to Superheroes makes the case for studying comics for their underlying philosophies:

The best superhero comics, in addition to being tremendously entertaining, introduce and treat in vivid ways some of the most interesting and important questions facing all human beings–questions regarding ethics, personal and social responsibility, justice, crime and punishment, the mind and human emotions, personal identity, the soul, the notion of destiny, the meaning of our lives, how we think about science and nature, the role of faith in the rough and tumble of this world, the importance of friendship, what love really means, the nature of family, the classic virtures like courage, and many other important issues.

The great comic book critic Douglas Wolk states it a little more succinctly in his book, Reading Comics:

Superhero comics are, by their nature, larger than life, and what’s useful and interesting about their chartacters is that they provide bold metaphors for discussing ideas or rectifying abstractions into narrative fiction. They’re the closest thing that exists right now to the “novel of ideas.”

Both explanations veer close to pretentious territory, but the books back up their authors’ assertions well. Of course, for the best (and most succinct) explanation on any topic, who better to ask than the icon, Stan Lee? “The most important characters in any superhero series are, and always have been, the supervillains!” he writes in his forward to The Supervillain Book. But why are supervillains so beloved? In The Power of Comics, Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith posit the notion that “superheroes are largely conservative figures, usually content with the status quo.”

“They typically do not seek to redistribute wealth, change sitting governments, or otherwise alter the existing social order,” they continue. “Supervillains, on the other hand, are out to change the world… Supervillains are active; superheroes are reactive.” This is an aspect that Dyer seems to agree with, writing in his introduction to Supervillains and Philosophy, “the cri de coeur of the comics literati is that our superheroes have feet of clay.”

A recent issue of Philosophy Now featured an interview with famed comic book writer, editor and analyzer Danny Fingeroth, who also seemed to argue that supervillains are forces for change, while heroes often fight against it:

Given the comic book emphasis upon authentic selves created through choices made in crusading activities, one might suppose that the resulting ethos is anarchical. Yet, with many others, Fingeroth sees the superhero as reactive and conservative rather than proactive and revolutionary. It is the villains who have schemes to change things.

Plus, they’re bad. Super-bad. In the introduction to their eye-popping, encyclopedic and definitive guide to comic book nogookniks, The Supervillain Book, editors Gina Misiroglu and Michael Eury ponder that aspect of the attraction held by supervillains:

The bigger-than-ordinary life antagonist is just plain interesting and fun. The fall from grace is a devastating tumble, the need for revenge eternal and recognizably human. Supervillains pique our interest in the yin-yang relationship of good and evil… In short, a supervillain is our worst nightmare — a really bad actor lacking any social inhibitions and armed with very powerful bad stuff.

One of the philosophical questions this raises is how the supervillains view themselves. To that end, “Phase Two” of Supervillains and Philosophy tackles the issue of “The Nature of Evil”.

In his essay, Jared Poon captures one of the key issues: “Does a supervillain see himself as a supervillain? Does he see his own actions as evil?” Poon argues that for the most part, they don’t, and that “the monster never sees a monster in the mirror.”

In the third “Phase” of the book, on the theme of “Taking Over the World,” John Ostrander writes an engrossing fictional dialogue that purports to be the transcription of an in-house government interview regarding the Suicide Squad. The fascinating conversation covers the ethical, moral, legal and other philosophical implications of using jailed supervillains as government agents for missions they probably won’t survive.

In one ever-relevent exchange, the interviewer asks, “Should the Squad be engaging in paramilitary activities on foreign soil at all? If the acts themselves are illegal and immoral, are you no better than those you attack?” It reads as if it could be the script to an interesting (if talky) comic book, which probably isn’t surprising, considering that Ostrander is a celebrated comic book writer (including defining runs on Suicide Squad).

Overall, at around 200 pages, Supervillains is a little volume that connects readers to a large amount of hefty topics and references. However, the essays avoid pretentiousness and intellectual heaviness through humour, brevity and unusual, occasionally flippant approaches. For example, how can a book with such an odd index (of all things) be anything but irresistible? Here’s a sample:

Red Skull, 61-62, 64, 66, 70

Red Son (comic title), 61

reflective equilibrium, 26

relativism, 77

Repairman, The, 8

Republic, 5

The goofiness brings to mind the wise words of another iconic supervillain, Dark Helmet from Spaceballs, who said, “Now you see, Lone Starr, that evil will always triumph, because good is dumb.”

RATING 7 / 10