Chris Gavaler is an assistant professor at Washington & Lee University. He's a fiction writer, playwright, pop culture blogger, and comic book scholar. He holds an MFA from the University of Virginia.
This fall, we discussed his most recent book Superhero Comics (Bloomsbury, 2017).
What inspired you to write Superhero Comics?
A group of honors students at my university asked me to teach a course on superheroes. I had grown up on comics and thought it would be fun to explore, not realizing the topic would become the core of my academic career. Building from that first course, Superhero Comics is the culmination of almost a decade of research.
Why did you think this book was important to write?
The superhero character type is a time capsule, amassing cultural data about the US as it passes through each decade of our history. On its surface, it’s just a goofy children’s genre, but underneath is a trove of invaluable information. Many pop culture artifacts can be explored in the same way, but I find superheroes to be the largest and richest archeological dig.
Also, the U.S. sometimes suffers from cultural amnesia, setting aside unpleasant facts about its history. The superhero literally embodies many of those facts, preserving them as it continues forward in the twenty-first century. Understanding the superhero is understanding America.
What was the biggest revelation you had during the research and writing in terms of the "cultural amnesia" you mention?
I noticed a surface resemblance between superheroes and the KKK: both wear identity-disguising costumes, both have symbols on their chests, both are vigilantes believing they are fighting for justice. That last one is disturbing because the KKK is so reviled today, but in the 1920s it was vastly popular and seen as a force for good. That’s when I realized these weren’t just coincidental resemblances. The popularity of the 1920s KKK led directly to the popularity of the 1930s superheroes. That’s an unpleasant fact, but one worth studying, not repressing.
What was the most exciting moment for you in terms of the concept of research as an "archeological dig"?
Several chapters are adapted from essays that I published previously — on colonialism, eugenics, vigilantism, fascism — but I’m most excited by the new material I wrote just for the book: how the cold war fear of mutually assured destruction transformed the two-dimensional superhero into complexly conflicted literary characters; how the genre began overtly racist, sexist, and homophobic, but incrementally transformed over the course of decades to champion the opposite values. I believe my chapter on the history of African American superheroes and creators is the most exhaustive available anywhere.
There’s also a chapter just on visual analysis, how to look at comics as art and not just as illustrated narratives. I may have gotten a little carried away analyzing Elektra: Assassin, but when Marvel gave me permission to reproduce the entire first issue, I couldn’t resist going deep.
This section also dovetails with the chapter on gender, revealing not only how superhero artists exaggerate the female form, but what deeper values those choices indirectly portray.
Tell us your thoughts on superheroes in the context of mythology.
This is a pet peeve of mine: the unexamined assumption that superheroes are a modern update of ancient mythology. I interrogate Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, revealing how that formula and the superhero formula developed at the same cultural moment, but that doesn’t mean superheroes bear a meaningful relationship to any ancient characters.
Comics authors pilfered freely, adapting old content to their new formula. So Thor is not Thor. But I do explore cognitive psychology to reveal that the superhero character type does appeal to some universal — meaning pan-cultural hard-wiring of the brain — principles, namely "minimal counter intuitivity." The character type also draws from a two-century old romanticization of "strong man" philosophy, in which audiences cheer a figure of benign authoritarianism. But that’s not Thor either.
How does imperialism factor into these superhero stories?
The character type began to coalesce during England’s colonial period then jumped the Atlantic to the US as England withdrew and the US expanded its own imperial reach. The superhero takes the figure of the racial "other," a core of colonial rhetoric, and adapts it into a powerful alter ego who is controlled by a dominant identity representing the colonizing power’s interests. So the character is always split into a dichotomy that favors the status quo. That division begins in the nineteenth century and continues into the twenty-first even though the influencing context is now completely lost.
Tell us more about the connection between superheroes, hybridity, and eugenics.
So superheroes begin as colonial hybrids, half-imperial and half-other. Anxiety over the other evolved as those imperial frontiers brought new populations to the metropoles of England and the US. Soon the Victorians were afraid that their dominant ethnic group could lose power, either by genetically merging with "lesser" groups or by de-evolving internally.
Superman — both the eventual comic book character and the projected future race of eugenic breeding — assuaged those fears. Superheroes not only turn the threatening other into a servant of the ruling class, they also transform lazy, parasitic aristocrats into benevolent adventurers preventing their own de-evolution. It’s no surface detail coincidence that Bruce Wayne is a millionaire playboy. That was the whole point. Aristocrats needed to appear worthy of their station.
What's the most important thing you hope your readers will take from the book?
Of course, a book on superheroes is timely given the popularity of superhero films of the last decade, but the importance goes much deeper. Peel back that garish leotard, and a rich and sometimes disturbing universe of cultural complexities exists just under the surface.
Leslie Kreiner Wilson, Editor
Back to Top