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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Beware questions that begin: “Don’t take this the wrong way but.”

Which is how a friend recently asked me: “Why superheroes?”It’s a reasonable question. When my wife and another good friend spurred me to start a blog, I’m pretty sure neither had this one in mind.

In my defense, superhero scholarship is a pretty cool corner of academia to set up camp. And I’m not alone in the opinion. Elizabeth Bowie and Deborah Hallock, Life and Feature co-editors of the LBJ/LASA Liberator, were  recently writing about the cultural and historical importance of superheroes and comic books. They contacted me, and our interview below may answer my friends’ question too.

What got you interested in the field?

A few years back some students from my college’s honors program were searching campus for someone willing to create a course about superheroes. My wife was chair of the English department at the time, and she gave them directions to my office. It sounded fun, so I said yes.  I knew I’d have to do some research, but was expecting the pool to be fairly shallow. I was wrong.  The more I looked, the more I discovered, the more I realized superheroes were an evolving character type that revealed a wide range of information about the larger culture. I now see them as a primary lens for understanding the social and political shifts of the twentieth century.

Why do you think superheroes are experiencing a surge in popularity right now? What do you think that says about America?

Marvel Entertainment figured out how to capitalize on its film investments. It’s largely a corporation-fed and corporation-maintained phenomenon. Our entertainment industry banks on familiarity. But there’s also an argument to be made that superheroes embody our post-9/11 zeitgeist. The character type first surged in comic books because of fascism. Without Adolf Hitler, Superman would never have made it to the cover of Action Comics in 1938. Comic books in the 21st century have largely vanished as a mass market product, but superheroes are now primarily a big budget film genre. Did that leap and surge happen in part because of Bin Laden? I think he helped.

How do you think America’s ideals are reflected in superhero culture?

Traditionally superheroes reduce complex issues to simple, child-like dimensions. The good guys are all good, and the bad guys are all bad. That’s a highly distorted but deeply reassuring way to look at the world. And the solution is always the same: righteous violence. America loves righteous violence. We also prefer our heroes to stand apart from our government, as a kind of incorruptible moral force that polices everything. Which means we embrace the myth of the benevolent vigilante, and superheroes are the ultimate example.

How do you think certain issues (such as social issues or even foreign policy) show themselves in the plot arcs and reactions of the characters?

The traditional superhero is all-powerful and all-good, which is the way the U.S. likes to perceive itself in the international arena. Other nations are the needy citizens of Gotham. In foreign policy, we want and expect the rest of the world to follow our lead. The superhero may be the greatest embodiment of American exceptionalism. When the Cold War ebbed, the role of the U.S. shifted and superhero mythology began to explore a lot of grey area in what had been a previously black and white universe. But World War II and Cold War nostalgia continue to haunt the genre. America loves supervillains. They help us define ourselves.

Are comic companies using this to reflect their personal ideals or those of ‘the general public’?

Corporations aren’t people, so they don’t have personal ideals. Their board members and managers may have individual ideals, but they have only one shared goal: to make money for the shareholders. That means crafting a product they believe will appeal to the largest number of people. Those products that do sell influence the next wave of products, and soon the public becomes conditioned too, so the marketplace both responds to and shapes consumer desire. Although products end up propagating certain social and political values, it’s not propaganda in the traditional sense because those values are a byproduct not a goal. Manufacturers just want your money. Capitalism is amoral, not immoral. If a product embodying an entirely different set of values sold better, they’d switch to it. As result, we tend to get what we want. Or, more accurately, what corporations think we want.

How have superheroes and comics remained culturally and historically relevant? Why were they important in the past?

They were important in the late 30s and 40s because they answered the national anxiety that democracy could collapse under the tide of fascism. Those superheroes paradoxically defended democracy by anti-democratic means. They were fascist-fighting fascists. As soon as the real fascists began to lose the war, superheroes started to fade. They boomed again in the early 60s, but not simply as cold warriors employing the same totalitarian ethic. The Marvel pantheon captured a different kind of fear, not of the Soviet Union but of war itself, of nuclear Armageddon. Superheroes mutated into radioactive monsters who, despite their own personal damage, fight to preserve society.

How do you think comics have changed with more recent interpretations?

When the Cold War ended, superheroes lost their traditional meaning. No Evil Empire, no nuclear doomsday either. Suddenly they, as the lone superpower, were the threat. Comics in the 80s and 90s and into the 21st century explore plots where the traditional goody good guys, unintentionally or intentionally, are the problem. It’s become one of the genre’s most central themes, though it has yet to make it to the big screen.

How do you think superheroes affect youth in their ideals and goals for the future? Why are they important to children?

Children don’t read comic books anymore. And Hollywood only makes superhero movies because of the previous successes and familiarity of ready-made characters. The WW2 superhero boom, while child-driven, was also fueled by adult readers, many of them soldiers. The nation was a child woken from a nightmare needing to be comforted in the most simple and efficient terms. Contemporary superheroes are aggressively marketed to children—or rather, to their parents who have built-in nostalgia for the characters. But despite all that, some children develop their own interests, so the genre must speak to something deeper. My own daughter fell in love with Superman and Batman—two characters I had no interest in as a kid or as a parent—without my help. She saw an image of Superman, and her curiosity spiked and never dropped. I think it’s the costumes. There’s nothing else quite so gloriously absurd.

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