On the Origin of Superheroes: Gods, superheroes, and super-men through history

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsOn the Origin of Superheroes by Chris GavalerOn the Origin of Superheroes: From the Big Bang to Action Comics No. 1. by Chris Gavaler

When most people discuss the origin of the superhero, they typically start with Action Comics 1 and the introduction of Superman. Some might go back a few years to characters like Doc Savage, quickly naming a few pulp heroes along with Doc, but then they too dive almost immediately into that same issue with Superman lifting the car. Where most people begin, however, is where Chris Gaveler ends in his in-depth look at the long road that led to Action Comics 1 and the universe it spawned. And a long road it is indeed in Gaveler’s telling, even if it doesn’t quite start at the Big Bang as the subtitle to On the Origin of Superheroes hints. Gavaler’s definition of superhero is sometimes a bit broad and all-encompassing for me, and at times he generalizes past my own comfort point, but this is an informative and wide-ranging look at the fertile ground from which the concept of a superhero sprouted, ranging across centuries and genres. My guess is that most readers will see lots of new names and characters and find some superhero lineage they hadn’t considered, even if they end up not wholly agreeing with the connecting lines Gaveler draws.

He begins with asking the basic question: just who/what is a superhero, running through various ways that question has been answered in the past. Tracing the actual usage of the specific word itself, “superhero,” he moves farther back in time from those aforementioned pulp heroes to Nietzsche. Dropping the term and going by “type” he continues back to mid-nineteenth century penny dreadfuls, the American West, then back to the American and French Revolutions, Guy Fawkes and Cromwell and Napoleon, to Faust and Frankenstein and back-back-back to Genesis and Hercules and Gilgamesh. So no, not quite to the Big Bang, but from his beginning point in the Lascaux caves and then to mythologies both Eastern and Western, we’re a long ways away from the Big Blue Boy Scout’s debut.

Gaveral, tells us, though, that he isn’t happy with “ancients cavorting with my hard-earned spandex-wearers,” making a distinction between gods and superheroes:

Superheroes aren’t just gods drawn down to human form. Superheroes raise humans up to the miraculous. A magic word a blast of radiation … and some earthly nobody is transcending earthly limitations. That’s way more heroic than some all-powerful being dropping down to slum with his mud-born worshippers … superheroes bridge the divine-mundane chasm with their own both/neither category as mortal deities. By combining heaven and earth, they create a third sphere that flips the hierarchy … they prefer their “mensch” over their “uber”. They are humans who become gods but then choose to be human.

This chapter discussion spins into a look at a range of character and works and philosophies, from the Bible to Milton’s Paradise Lost to Robert Sullivan and Chris Slane’s Maui: Legends of the Outcast to Batman and George Bush and Glenn Greenwald to Jesus, Adam Warlock, and Thomas Jefferson, to just name a few. This wildly discursive approach, which continues throughout the book has its plusses and minuses.

On the one hand, it’s a stimulating task to follow all these connections amongst what on the surface seem wholly or partially disparate topics as Gaveral weaves together artistic, sociological, and cultural elements. To admittedly varied success depending on one’s point of view, but I found that even when he made a leap that seemed too far or too soft for me (I wrote “seems a stretch” more than once in the margins, as for instance when in a later chapter he references Hester Prynne), he always had me thinking. Sometimes about the arrival of what would become a character trait in superheroes, sometimes about what would become a superhero trope, such as the secret identity or its subset, the “unmasking,” a trope he connects with Jean Valjean’s moment of revealing himself in order to save a man pinned by a wagon. I don’t need to always agree with an author, but I do need to feel like I’m being made to think when I’m reading non-fiction.

The downsides to the jumping around style in On the Origin of Superheroes is that the shifts aren’t always fluid, the jumping can at times seem a bit frenetic, the connections are sometimes more on a surface level than a substantive one as he has a bit of linguistic fun that distracts more than it informs, and on a few very rare occasions, the linkages seemed to trivialize topics a bit. One example is in an extended thread on eugenics (an appropriate topic for any work considering supermen), when he tells us that the Virginia legislature is only now considering paying reparations to forced sterilization victims of its “Death Eater history … imagine living your muggle life under the reign of Voldemort.” Now, I don’t for a moment think the author hasn’t earned his linkage between eugenics programs, Hitler, and superheroes, but such a direct conflation seems an unfortunate choice to me when discussing real-life tragedies, even if his point, which he makes clearly, is that supervillains don’t exist solely, or even mostly, in comic books.

Not everything is as well-earned as that eugenics link, though most is. And the constant zig-zag was at times less effective than it could have, while the attempts at cuteness more often were a distraction than an enhancement. But Gaveral writes with a sense of knowledge and authority, and usually as well with a sense of clarity and ease marred only occasionally by some clumsy constructions. And if you find some of his his mid-chronology connections a bit tenuous or overstated, as he moves nearer and nearer to that defining moment of Action Comics, his linkages become more and more concrete, especially as he examines the pulp era that came just before (I especially liked his segments on female pulp heroes). But those earlier sections, even the ones where I thought he was stretching things a bit, are in their own way more a provocation in terms of thinking, as they are less familiar, less concrete, and so force the reader to broaden their own viewpoint, even if they might eventually circle back to it (or not, as was sometimes the case; he certainly won me over more than once to his perspective).

On the Origin of Superheroes is one of the more original examinations of the genre I’ve come across and is worth reading for that alone, though certainly the substance of the text also makes it work recommending. As an added bonus, the book comes with an excellent bibliography for those looking to delve even deeper into the topic. An excellent resource and a provocative and stimulating read.

November 1, 2015. Most readers think that superheroes began with Superman’s appearance in Action Comics No. 1, but that Kryptonian rocket didn’t just drop out of the sky. By the time Superman’s creators were born, the superhero’s most defining elements—secret identities, aliases, disguises, signature symbols, traumatic origin stories, extraordinary powers, self-sacrificing altruism—were already well-rehearsed standards. Superheroes have a sprawling, action-packed history that predates the Man of Steel by decades and even centuries. On the Origin of Superheroes is a quirky, personal tour of the mythology, literature, philosophy, history, and grand swirl of ideas that have permeated western culture in the centuries leading up to the first appearance of superheroes (as we know them today) in 1938. From the creation of the universe, through mythological heroes and gods, to folklore, ancient philosophy, revolutionary manifestos, discarded scientific theories, and gothic monsters, the sweep and scale of the superhero’s origin story is truly epic. We will travel from Jane Austen’s Bath to Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars to Owen Wister’s Wyoming, with some surprising stops along the way. We’ll meet mad scientists, Napoleonic dictators, costumed murderers, diabolical madmen, blackmailers, pirates, Wild West outlaws, eugenicists, the KKK, Victorian do-gooders, detectives, aliens, vampires, and pulp vigilantes (to name just a few). Chris Gavaler is your tour guide through this fascinating, sometimes dark, often funny, but always surprising prehistory of the most popular figure in pop culture today. In a way, superheroes have always been with us: they are a fossil record of our greatest aspirations and our worst fears and failings.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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One comment

  1. So…Joseph Campbell for the superhero set? :) Seems like an interesting and informative read!

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