Book Review: On the Origin of Superheroes by Chris Gaveler

originThis is a fascinating chronicle of the history of the superhero. I had no idea that by the time Superman came around, “superhero” had been in the vernacular for decades.

I mean, if you think that superheroes started in the 1930s and 40s with Superman and Batman, you’re a little bit off. Almost 20,000 years off. Since people have been communicating and telling stories, there have been superheroes. Chris Gavaler walks us through the last several millennia, discussing who these superheroes are, where they come from, why they’re here, and how they’ve evolved.

But this book had a different structure than I imagined. I thought it would be merely a history of fictional characters that fit the superhero mold of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But it’s much more than that. It also places these heroes within the context of their environment and history and discusses the social issues that they encounter, fought against, or were oppressed by. It places these “super”heroes and “super”villains within their political and social context.

I guess it makes sense if you think about it, but there’s a surprising amount of theology in this book.

And superheroes are so political! So many seem to have been created in the cause of revolution. What is a superman? Are they fascist in adherence to carrying out a code that other people, or the government don’t agree with? We realize that there’s always been a gray area our (super) heroes operate in. Subverting authority and revolution always have two sides. Each are equally supported and vilified. Which is right?

Gavaler also teaches us that sometimes we need to fabricate our villains that produce the superheroes. The Native American were a people that we oppressed, but we hid that fact by building up American superheroes and making the indigenous peoples supervillains.  He then compares that frontier to the digital one on the Internet. Though he doesn’t spend enough time contrasting them, I don’t think. But while he doesn’t contrast the heroes and villains of the western frontier against he those of the digital as well as I’d like, he doesn’t pull many punches in, discussing the poor use of the Native American in pop culture – both in comics and movies.

Also fascinating are the roots of superheroes you see in gothic monsters. Batman anyone? This is even where Morpheus got his start; though as a Der Sandmann, a 17th century fairy that kidnapped sleeping children as food for his  own children.

He also discusses evolution, and what our future holds. Should we be afraid of an advanced race? Of robots that we’ve created? And it’s not all wild speculation. Will these future beings be “our descendants or our conquerors?” Included in this chapter is the obligatory discussion of duality. But under the umbrella of evolution it takes a different tone that I haven’t read about before. And eugenics! I had no idea that at the turn of the century (around 1900) there were organizations established to prevent “improper” breeding! That’s scary stuff.

Yes, Virginia, there are supervillains, and they didn’t come from comic books.

Plus he pulls in tons of references from pop culture for each of these. For example, for eugenics, it’s not just turn-of-the-century pulp fiction, but comic books, comic book movies, Harry Potter, Orphan Black.

And the next to last chapter – all about love, sex, and superheroes – covers a number of topics. The draw of the secret identity, the hypermasculinity of the superhero, and the pornographic history of both DC and Marvel comics. I didn’t know both publishing companies were borne out of soft-porn sleaze magazines. And it’s obvious that some comics can claim the ancestral roots of these stories.

And the last chapter addresses how the superhero is Other, yet is also always Us. That’s the power of the superhero. They are definitely (and obviously) super, where we are not; yet are eternally are definitely relatable to us in some way.

What especially interests me is the violence. That seems to me the most disturbing thread running through all our heroes – the absolute need to solve everything through violence. Or even, the requirement to solve these things through violence because it’s the only way. Several years ago, after watching the hopelessness in the film Sin City, I wrestled with this very thing. Primarily because this is my favorite genre – what do these stories then teach? And what does it say about me? I actually stopped watching superhero stuff for a while. Because this theme is even in the most childish of cartoons. I’m trying to remember how I reconciled it. I must have, though, since I’m still reading them.

Not sure how to recommend this. I loved it. But then this fits perfectly within my interests – superheroes and comics. If you like them, I think you’ll find this extremely interesting. But even if you don’t, there’s enough history, theology, and politics in this book that I would think it has a high range of appeal. Also, it’s well-written and accessible, which isn’t always true of scholarly non-fiction. So I guess I’d recommend it to anyone interested in superheroes, or anyone just interested in history, theology, or other branches superheroes cross.

Thanks to NetGalley and University of Iowa Press for a copy in return for an honest review.

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