A common truism about superheroes holds that we are looking at gods in spandex. Captain America and Superman, so this argument goes, are like myths insofar as they act as shorthand for cultural values. The PBS documentary Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle features a particularly comforting version of this thinking, reminding us that superheroes are always an ‘innocent mythology’ that ‘uplift[s] us’ and shows ‘us how to be better versions of ourselves’”(cited in Gavaler, 11).
It sounds awfully nice. But one need only think of the influence that Nietzsche’s übermensch simultaneously exerted on Action Comics#1 and Nazi Germany to see the problems that such an uncritical reading of the genre poses. The modern superhero narrative is, in fact, so resonant precisely because it’s really a patchwork of other enduring narratives, some admirable and others deeply flawed.
This is the call to arms (or to tights, as the case may be) of Chris Gavaler’s On the Origin of Superheroes. For Gavaler, an English professor at Washington & Lee, the task of decoding superheroes is less about arriving at some definitive conclusion than laying bare their contradictory elements. In exploring these pathways, Gavaler offers a diverse array of influences and trajectories.
From a historical standpoint, Gavaler tends to locate the actual “origins” of superheroes in the late 18th century and traces these strands into the early 20th century. While the book gives no direct rationale for this timeline, it generally tends to suggest that superheroes are a reflection of the diverse strands of secularized thinking and political movements that sprung from the Enlightenment. Among the book’s chapters are discussions that place superheroes in the context of a wide array of developments of this period: the French and American revolutions, Manifest Destiny, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and even Jane Austen’s marriage plots. This way of situating the timeline turns out to be satisfying, as it avoids the fallacy of implying that superheroes are somehow a universal fixture of all cultures and time periods.
Among the most compelling and most troubling of Gavaler’s suggestions is the idea that superheroes satisfy a secret craving for authoritarianism in liberal democratic society. He notes that democratic revolutions tend to serve up a “steady diet of so-called Great Men” who save the common folk from the disorder and ideological fissures involved in actual rule by the people. Oliver Cromwell, George Washington, and Hawthorne’s fictional “Gray Champion” are all charismatic figures who impose a unilaterally defined version of justice and then occupy the cult of personality left in the absence of a king (73).
Batman and Superman share this distinction. They fight authoritarian tyrants but do it in a way that itself seems strikingly authoritarian. As Galaver puts it, Western culture secretly craves the drama of the tyrant and the super villain because it creates the occasion for a “black-and-white world sliced cleanly into righteous good and tyrannical evil… the complex shadings flattened into superheroic poses” (59). At its worst, this sort of moral certitude in the name of democracy can resemble the KKK with their costumes and vigilante justice. Indeed, for superhero fans, one of the more chilling passages in the book should come in the clear line that Gavaler is able to draw between costumed heroes and Thomas Dixon’s white supremacist novels, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.
The chapter linking superheroes to Darwin’s theory of evolution is another highlight. From this perspective, superheroes might be seen as modern iterations of Victorian works such as Shelley’s Frankenstein and Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, which find sublime terror in the realization that human nature might be changeable. This evolutionary proto-superhero then contains both the supermen of the future (a term Bernard Shaw used before Nietzsche) and earlier, primal versions of humanity. In this way, Gavaler formulates a way of thinking about superheroes that can account for Superman as “man of tomorrow” as the swath of heroes who gain power by returning to the beast within like Wolverine, Spiderman, or, well, Beast.
Gavaler’s idiosyncratic writing style is likely to be the most divisive element of On the Origin of Superheroes. He’s a fiction writer by trade and this is clear from the very first pages. He frequently takes digressions into autobiography, relating stories about himself as a teenager obsessed with superhero comics. Other times, the reader must stay with him through long chains of free association. One minute Gavaler will wax philosophical on his love for pulp fiction and The Mask of Zorro; the next, these reflections take him to Wordsworth or Plato. At its worst, the writing can feel aimless and self-indulgent. At its best, it’s what I would imagine it’s like to sit in one of Gavaler’s classes on superheroes: open-ended conversations that wander into some very surprising corners.
But this meandering schema seems to be partly by design. Throughout the book, Gavaler seems less preoccupied with offering a definitive narrative about the origins of superheroes than providing a starting point for further arguments. Ultimately, this what makes On the Origins of Superheroes rewarding. It models an approach to the problem rather than a definitive answer. “Superhero research isn’t like the Chunnel connecting England and France,” Gavaler tells us. Instead “there are a thousand ways to access Magneto’s cavern, some more idiosyncratic than others” (269).
But for all this talk of diversity, On the Origins of Superheroes feels woefully lacking in discussions of the role of women and people of color within the superhero fantasy. As the popularity of Coates’ Black Panther and Wilson’s Ms. Marvel show, the fantasy of possessing superpowers stretches across all different types of identities. One wonders how this might fit into Gavaler’s sprawling approach.