Superheroes have been in our language for years. Nearly every American, somewhere along the line, has been exposed to superheroes or comic books either directly or peripherally. In the least, we all certainly could name one superhero. This, however, has remained a part of common knowledge, not to be taken too seriously and certainly not to be taken too far. That is until very recently.
Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, they all frequently feature comics or graphic novels for review or discussion. The film and television industry makes millions on adaptations of comics. The large chain bookstores have shelves dedicated to graphic novels and manga. University presses actively seek manuscripts studying comic books as an art. The past twenty years have seen a slow rise in the attention given to comics on both the popular and academic fronts. “Why is this?” you may ask. Can we begin to look at comics seriously because of the monetary potential they possess? Or is the medium, heralded as the 9th art, finally reached a level of complexity and maturity that it warrants serious discussion? The latter can’t fully be the case because studies frequently focus on the very beginnings of comics, both historically and artistically, and produce many new and valid points on the importance of comic books. I believe, while the above suggestions do play a role in the snail-paced rise of comics in the mainstream media, the real answer lies in the initiation that all new media must pass through. For instance, if we examine the history of cinema from the days of nickelodeons to the multiplexes and art houses, a clear parallel can be seen. The struggle from lowbrow pastime to serious artistic endeavor took decades to reach. Other art forms like photography, printmaking, and graphic design have moved from scientific or commercial endeavors to fine art over time as well. Could it be as simple as comics have paid their dues and now it’s their time to enjoy the spotlight? Perhaps, if it weren’t for one small issue: Comics are still synonymous with the activities of childhood inAmerica. In many other countries this is not the case. In Japan you can find businessmen reading manga in the subways, in Belgium, France, and many other Western European countries comics are a legitimate adult pastime activity. Just as the French film magazine Cahiers du cinema committed itself to the serious study of film, we as Americans must do the same. And I believe we are moving in that direction, we just have a ways to go.
Media theorist Marshall McLuhan spent a lot of time examining various media (even comics get some attention) and one of his most important claims is, “The medium is the message.” More expressively, he says, “The medium is the message because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.” My intent to investigate how other media handles comics is, in a sense, a meta-study because it is an examination of how a particular medium presents comics, another medium itself, and gives it context and validity in its translation to the masses. And while, indeed, the medium is the message there is also a textual message contained within, because the content is also a message. Ultimately, I find it important to study why and how other media examine and present comics.
SUPERHEROES AND PHILOSOPHY: TRUTH, JUSTICE, AND THE SOCRATIC WAY
Edited by Tom Morris and Matt Morris
Nonfiction (Open Court, $17.95)
My topic is a discussion and review of the newly published book Superheroes and Philosophy: Truth, Justice, and the Socratic Way, edited by Tom Morris and Matt Morris, and published by Open Court. The book is one in a series of examinations of popular culture and philosophy, finding itself in the company of such topics as Seinfeld and Philosophy, The Simpsons and Philosophy, The Matrix, Baseball, Woody Allen, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Hip Hop and others. Whereas some academic texts that study comics and philosophy often seem impenetrable, Superheroes and Philosophy is wholly accessible and even an enlightening experience. Not to go too far with that notion here, it’s sure to come up down the road, but the academic text is infamous for scaring off those that would benefit most from the experience – people outside academia and the comic subculture. If we are to educate the masses about comics and ensure their perpetuation, we need studies that keep this goal in mind. Superheroes and Philosophy combines two experiences — one usually relegated to the classroom, behind ivied walls and tweed jackets, and the other among long-boxes and current issue racks, creating an experience that is enlightening and even uplifting.
In Superheroes and Philosophy, all the powerhouses are present: The Justice League of America, The X-Men, Spiderman, Daredevil, The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Locke, Pascal, Nietzsche, Kant, Kierkegaard, Russell. Yes, they do seem like an intimidating crowd, but in the hands of the authors of the nineteen essays contained in this book, the outcome is an educational and enjoyable experience.
Editors Tom and Matt Morris, in their introduction, write, “Superheroes have become a part of our cultural language.” This sentence does more than make a statement about how superheroes have been imbedded in our culture. It sets up how the text is going to approach the topic on its cover. It is through common language and experience and it is essential to why Superheroes and Philosophy is successful in communicating to those outside the inner-circle of comics and philosophy.
Superheroes and Philosophy is a departure from the traditional academic or university press text in many ways. The most striking difference is its inclusion of comic book writers. Part one of the book, titled “The Image of the Superhero” contains essays written by Mark Waid, Jeph Loeb, and Dennis O’Neil. They are included, along with Aeon J. Skoble’s essay titled Superhero Revisionism in Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns (which invariably, in some form, always finds its way in a general study of comic books and graphic novels), in part one of the book, titled “The Image of the Superhero”. It is not by accident that these three particular writers find themselves in a philosophical analysis of superheroes. Each is known for his understanding and knowledge of the history of comics as well as a consistent effort to make comics intellectually and socially significant cultural artifacts. The three essays provide the groundwork for the rest of the book by establishing the need and necessity of superheroes.
Part two is titled “The Existential World of the Superhero” and leads with God, the Devil, and Matt Murdock, an essay by Tom Morris that explores “the double power principle”. As Morris demonstrates, this principal is applicable to all of humanity and proves to be the dividing factor for those endowed with super abilities because it dictates that “typically, the more power something has for good, the more it correspondingly has for ill”. Morris uses Daredevil as the test subject for this theory, but more importantly, this sample represents the larger battle that superheroes choose to fight. It is what separates the superhero from the supervillain and it is what leads us to value superheroes for the path that they have chosen to follow. For is this not the struggle we have, and the path we desire – that of good?
Superheroes and Philosophy is peppered with ideas that extend beyond the superhero and are directly applicable to our own lives. This is what makes it fun to read. I felt that I not only came away with a larger understanding about superheroes and philosophy, but I also developed a deeper understanding of who I am and desire to be. Take for instance this statement from James B. Smith’s essay, Barbara Gordon and Moral Perfectionism, “The categories of philosophical viewpoints such as moral perfectionism can help us to read superhero comics, and the stories in these comics, viewed through such a lens, can then help us to calibrate the progress of our own lives, as we seek to discover, and create, our own best selves.” Moral perfectionism is just one philosophical category tackled in the text. The last two parts, “Superheroes and Moral Duty” and “Identity and Superhero Metaphysics”, wrestle with topics like the struggle for good, aesthetics, understanding, ethics, utilitarianism, naturalism, theology, identity, and so on. As you can see from this hefty list, the authors do not pull any punches in their philosophical studies; but their tender approach to such difficult topics is what makes the subject digestible.
As I touched upon earlier, ultimately, Superheroes and Philosophy can be applied to the lives of all those that read it. As I made my way through, it became increasingly clear that I could substitute “superheroes” for “humanity” and “Spider-Man” for “Robert Emmons”. (Alas, a life long dream of mine accomplished!) Sometimes this work is done for us.
The book ends with these sentences, written by Tom Morris, “Who we are is always a matter of how we act. And what we become is the result of the activities we engage in day to day. The great philosopher Aristotle knew it, and so have many other insightful thinkers through the centuries, like Blaise Pascal, and William James (1842-1910). If we could keep this truth in mind throughout all our endeavors, we would be able to exercise a good deal more care in what we become.”
For those looking for an entry into studying comics, Superheroes and Philosophy is a serious, readable, and fun text all in one. The latter is often omitted from the “serious” academic study, but this book proves that doesn’t have to be the case. I don’t mean to suggest that a hermeneutical analysis of Milton’s Paradise Lost should contain puns and giggles, but I do believe that when a reader effectively connects to material, it is because, in some way, the author has made the material enjoyable. That is what the editor’s have done here. From the introduction’s title, “Men in Bright Tights and Wild Fights, Often Great Heights, and Of Course, Some Amazing Women, Too!” to the authors’ biographies, “Jeff Brenzel, from a tower high atop the Ivy League of America, forays forth to fan the flames of fanatical devotion among the awesome alumni of ancient Yale University”… “Richard Hanley wanted desperately to grow up to be Magnus, Robot Fighter”, and all contained within, the contributors understand the material and figured out the best way to deliver the message.