Me Am Your Smallest Fan
On the Origin of Superheroes
By Chris Gavaler
University of Iowa Press, 2015
Painter Jacques-Louis David finished “The Emperor Napoleon in his Study at the Tuileries” in 1812, and it shows the ruler wearing an expression that could be smugness or mental repose. Nearly two hundred years later, some cropping and digital manipulating of the portrait delivers “Napoleon Batman,” the cover to Chris Gavaler’s On the Origin of Superheroes: From the Big Bang to Action Comics No. 1. The Emperor’s vague expression remains, but the pointy-eared cowl creates more to unpack.
Gavaler, an assistant professor of English at Virginia’s Washington and Lee University, aims to explore the tendency, throughout recorded history, for certain people to flout the law and live separately from the masses. Many of Gavaler’s super individuals are fictional and genuinely heroic—from the Bible’s Archangel Michael to The Scarlet Letter‘s Hester Prynne. Others—like Napoleon, would-be Parliament bomber Guy Fawkes, and members of the Ku Klux Klan—lived, but you won’t find any righteousness in their causes.
In his introduction, Gavaler promises a time-hopping exploration of the superhero, with visits to the Cro-Magnon cave paintings in Lascaux, the revolutionary eras of Oliver Cromwell and George Washington, the American Western frontier, the eugenics movement of the early 20th century (which searched for humanity’s ultimate specimen), and on into the pulp trenches of the 1930s that birthed the genre’s most iconic character: Superman. Gavaler likens Superman’s relationship to all the heroes who followed as the elegant, inexorable passage of sand through the neck of an hourglass:
After him, the hourglass widens into a spacious ball of imitation and evolution. Every speck of superhero sand after 1938 dribbled into existence through the opening of Action Comics No. 1. The top half, all that wide-open sand crowding down to spill through that one tiny opening, that’s prehistory, the superheroes who were superheroes before superheroes were a thing. The dozens and dozens of stories that developed all the tropes and cliches that tumbled together to form Superman, the generic superhero that exponentially popularized the genre.
Gavaler’s knowledge of folklore, literature, pulp characters, and cinema is formidable. He pulls readers through spandex-free novels like Baroness Emma Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905), explaining how the protagonist’s various disguises prefigured the superhero’s obsession with alter egos. Then there’s Britain’s Victorian myth of Spring-Heeled Jack, a trickster with a devilish visage who assaulted citizens by night. Gavaler covers so much cultural ground, however, that his search for proto-superheroes becomes an amorphous tour of the fantastic; his hunts for super-heroic DNA carry us into Owen Wister’s novel The Virginian (1902), Stoker’s Dracula (1897), Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and even Austen’s unfinished Sanditon (1817). It’s hard to believe that any kind of definition of “superhero” could emerge from such a wide-ranging comb of the written word, but Gavaler’s first chapter does a offer a polished attempt that most comic readers—fans of Thor excepted—can agree with:
Superheroes aren’t just gods drawn down to human form. Superheroes raise humans up to the miraculous. A magic word, a blast of radiation, even a bullet through a loved one, 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 worshipers. Gods may look or act human, but 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’re fundamentally divided, but they prefer their “mensch” over their “über.” They are humans who become gods but then choose to be human.
Having grown up during the mid-1970s (known as the Silver Age, which gave way to the Bronze Age in 1973, when Spider-Man failed to catch his falling girlfriend, Gwen Stacy), Gavaler loves superheroes. He makes fabulous references to Alan Moore’s 1986 opus Watchmen—probably the greatest superhero story ever—and notes lesser-known pivotal works, like painter Alex Ross and writer Mark Waid’s 1996 Kingdom Come, in which an aging Superman must abandon retirement because the world has been overrun by reckless, unethical meta-humans. But Gavaler says early on that he hates superheroes, too. Further, “If you’re a fan of unexamined American exceptionalism and hyper-masculinity, this could be a bumpy ride… The genre, like any genre, boils our world down into something digestible. Good guys fighting bad guys is simple and so often comforting. It’s both wonderfully and horribly childish.”
Again, this passage is from the introduction. It’s also an early red flag that should warn dedicated comic fans that Gavaler’s book doesn’t actually support his warm connection to superheroes. He might like studying superheroes—but not in too much detail. He chases his sharp hourglass analogy with the assertion that “by the time we get to Action Comics, the superhero story is basically over. The comic book incarnations are epilogues, fossilized echoes.”
What is a longtime comic book reader supposed to make of this? By Gavaler’s sloppy wording, the primitive Superman of 1940, who occasionally tossed criminals to their deaths, is the definitive version of the character—and the Superman of 2001, who tried removing Lex Luthor as President of the United States through Clark Kent’s journalistic efforts, rather than force, is somehow a dull rehash.
On the Origin of Superheroes began as a series of essays tracing the idea of the character type through history and culture. This becomes clearer as one notices that Gavaler’s segments don’t talk to each other smoothly (despite being edited into chapters of a book). He blows his horn several times about superheroes being simple vehicles for black and white morality. While discussing the Bible, he says, “American comic books, like the Psalms of any nation, keep things simple. Who doesn’t want to live in a world of pure Good and Evil…” That undoubtedly describes many comics, including probably everything DC published during the 1950s. But Gavaler insists on speaking professorially on the subject, using epic generalizations that will make any dedicated comic fan’s eye twitch.
American comics and superheroes have not been simple for a long time. Stan Lee’s creations at Marvel never have been. Scores of examples of moral complexity spring to mind, but I’ll stick with Gavaler’s own interest in All Star Batman and Robin (2005), written by Frank Miller and drawn by Jim Lee. Early in the series, after Dick Grayson’s circus performer parents have been killed, Batman absconds with the boy, hoping to put his energy and acrobatic talent to use as a sidekick. When they get to the Batcave, the vigilante tells Dick to catch rats if he wants to eat. Gavaler compares this to the tough-love parenting techniques described in fundamentalist pastor Michael Pearl’s book To Train Up a Child (1994). Since the manual’s publication, literal interpretation of its methods has led to the deaths of three home-schooled children.
Not only does Gavaler trivialize these deaths by using them to make a point about Batman—he does so poorly. Miller’s versions of the character are sophisticated and often groundbreaking, like Batman: Year One (1987), which set a new high bar for gritty realism in comics, and The Dark Knight Returns (1986), which stretched superheroes in the opposite direction, maximizing Batman’s garish trope of being a lunatic who’s off the leash yet driven by endless heart. In All Star Batman and Robin, the hero speaks like Clint Eastwood to sound tough (“I’m the goddam Batman”), and Dick sees right through it. Readers should see right through it, and in the end be rewarded when the Caped Crusader breaks down and questions bringing a child into his war against crime.
Throughout the book, Gavaler continues to goose his thesis with ridiculous statements that scream to be refuted, including: “Superheroes have to be executioners,” and “superheroes love oppression.” These accusations might apply briefly to the genre in the 1930s, while it found its footing. I also used to pull on our cat’s tail when I was three (but I don’t hate animals today). Gavaler’s commitment to the professorial tone likely comes from the fact that he’s been teaching a seminar on superheroes since 2009. In this context, the blanket statements are almost forgivable if uttered within the strides of a lecture. Yet as someone who reads at least one comic book a day, they rankle me. They make me wonder if upon meeting Superman, would Gavaler use the backward-speech of the hero’s confused clone, Bizarro, and say: “Me am your smallest fan!”
Another sign of the madness in Gavaler’s method is that he drags America’s worst moments into the discussion. Like historians James Loewen (Lies My Teacher Told Me, 1995) and Howard Zinn (A People’s History of the United States, 1995), he really wants his undergrads to go home for Thanksgiving and tell their parents that this country is just one big Indian Burial Ground. His obsession with the Ku Klux Klan is extraordinarily tedious, in glancing, pandering passages such as, “the original team, like the X-Men, wore identical costumes and were led by a man who called himself ‘Cyclops.’ They’re all libertarian rebels exercising their rugged individualism outside federal law.” The Ku Klux Klan were racist murderers, not rugged individualists.
By Odin’s Beard, this book does get worse. Gavaler later uses his knack for barraging readers with historical name-drops and cultural flash-points to grease this sentence into wretched existence: “Batman is the KKK in a cooler costume.” As the author tries, via moral relativism, to draw a line between an actual terrorist organization and a fictional vigilante, you can hear his thesis SNAP like Gwen Stacy’s neck.
Gavaler saves his most stupefying commentary, however, for Big Blue himself. That’s right Superman readers, prepare to have your spit-curls straightened by some sophomoric philosophizing, as the author quotes the scholar Ben Saunders, who lauds
Superman as a “moral agent who acts always out of his commitment to ‘the good’”—a good that is “loosely defined,” “constantly shifting,” and yet somehow “absolute.” I agree that sounds like a good thing, evidence of the character’s “moral beauty,” but in practical terms, it means superheroes enact the morality of the moment, championing cultural prejudices as absolute truths. So to that degree the comic book Superman is indistinguishable from the Nazi superman. Both are agents of “the good.”
How can a fictional hero—whom generations of people across the world have agreed is a hero by enjoying his adventures or wearing his insignia—be indistinguishable from the most evil humans to ever live? Like a politician polling neck-and-neck with his rival, Gavaler resorts to slander in the second half of his book, desperate to cram superheroes into increasingly rickety boxes. But in equating Superman with the Nazi ideal—and by extension, America with the Nazis—he’s surely lost most fans of clear writing, never mind capes and masks. Because the line “American comic books, like the Psalms of any nation, keep things simple” is so hauntingly wrong, Gavaler unintentionally argues not for superhero simplicity, but complexity.
More annoying is that comic book writers themselves already love the idea of a Napoleonic Superhero Complex, and use it in countless stories. Gavaler makes no mention of controversial writer Mark Millar’s The Ultimates (2002), which recast Avengers like Captain America, Giant Man, and the Hulk as tabloid-ready divas who battle each other before the villains even arrive. The villains who do arrive are super-powered stand-ins for Al-Qaeda, and after artist Bryan Hitch’s umpteenth jingoistic rendering (at one point, blood-smeared Captain America screams, “You think this letter on my head stands for France?”), you realize that The Ultimates captures the Bush Era to a fault. It’s a nasty, hi-resolution close-up of a nation drunk on its exceptionalism, in which “hero” Hank Pym pummels his wife Jan before sending his ants to finish the job. Another scene shows a child cheering Iron Man, only to have a U.S. soldier casually knock the boy on his ass once Stark has flown off. If Gavaler had spent more time reading superheroes rather than shellacking them with arch-liberal profundity, analysis of The Ultimates might have illuminated his book.
Still, On the Origin of Superheroes has piqued my interest in The Scarlet Pimpernel and pulp creations like Doc Savage. I love that Gavaler moves the conversation about superheroes off the juvenile comment pages of comic book websites, and toward mature critique. What I hate is his sensationalist conceit that the genre’s baggage is somehow more relevant to enjoying superheroes than the work of thousands of passionate writers and artists. At the end of Gavaler’s final paragraph concerning Action Comics No. 1 he says, “And now you’re ready to read it.”
I disagree. Action Comics No. 1 was written for children, and anyone who can read is ready to pick it up this very moment. Everything creators Siegel and Shuster wanted us to know about them and their character is in the comic. If criticism need occur, it should be after the work has been experienced on its own terms, not before. “Me am your smallest fan,” indeed.
Justin Hickey is a freelance writer, and editor here at Open Letters Monthly.