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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Here’s my favorite worst review:

“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.”

That’s blogger Justine Hickey panning my first book, On the Origin of Superheroes, back in 2015. Though I was delighted to be clumped with the likes of Zinn and Loewen, I thought my focus on the KKK was a bit brief. If you really want “extraordinarily tedious,” you need to look at my new book Superhero Comics out last month from Bloomsbury. Rather a than the few “glancing, pandering passages,” the Klan gets a full, roughly 10,000-word chapter. An earlier version was published by the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics in 2013. The editors at Routledge liked it enough to include it as the opening chapter of the 2015 collection Superheroes and Identities. The editors at Literary Hub liked the new version enough to feature an excerpt last Friday:

How the KKK Shaped Modern Comic Book Superheroes:

Masked Men Who Take the Law into their own Hands

Bloomsbury also contacted me last week to say that a Turkish publisher wants to publish a translation. The opening round of reviews on Net Gallery and Amazon have all been 4 and 5 stars too. The harshest reviewer called Superhero Comics “very academic,” though another said it was “accessible for any reader.” Blogger Bill Capossere said it “aims for the sweet spot between the academic and the lay reader” and so “is a thoughtful, well researched academic work that is highly accessible.” As far as my KKK obsession, Capossere writes:

“While most people may be familiar with the controversy over the superhero as vigilante, Chapter Three went down (for me, at least) an unexpected path, with a long, detailed exploration of the superhero story’s connection to the Ku Klux Klan. At first blush this may seem a stretch (and admittedly, at times, perhaps at second blush as well), but Gavaler makes a thoughtful, supported case for it… when Gavaler stretches (I think) a point, instead of “Oh, c’mon,” I find myself backtracking, rereading some of what led to the point, and thinking more critically of my own stance, even if I eventually stick with my original view. In other words, Superhero Comics doesn’t simply inform but makes one think, even about topics one is generally familiar with. Which is why it’s highly recommended, as was his first book, On the Origin of Superheroes, and why I’ll be picking up his next book on comics as well.”

When the Klan showed up at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August, Superhero Comics was already heading to the printer. I wasn’t expecting my analysis of early 20th century white supremacy to be timely. Here’s a quick history lesson:

The statue of Robert E. Lee, the literal focal point of the rally, was commissioned in 1917, during the rise of the second KKK and the white supremacist movement of eugenics across the U.S. Although the Klan is most often recalled as a terrorist organization limited to the South during the Reconstruction period, it was reformed nationally in 1915 after the widely acclaimed blockbuster film The Birth of a Nation adapted the 1905 novel The Clansman, a melodramatic best-seller that portrayed the KKK as the righteous and heroic protectors of the South from the villainy of “Negro Rule.” This was a standard interpretation of history during the first decades of the 20th century. Staunton-born President Woodrow Wilson was one of the majority of Americans who agreed. After a special screening of The Birth of a Nation in the White House, Wilson commented: “it is all so terribly true.”

When the Lee statue was finally erected in 1924, the KKK controlled a majority of delegates in the Democratic National Convention. The Convention was held in New York city that year, and after the party defeated a platform resolution that would have condemned Klan violence, thousands of KKK members, including Convention delegates, held a celebratory rally in New Jersey. The following year, 30,000 Klan members marched in full regalia in Washington DC. National membership was estimated well over three million.

The popularity of the Klan reflected the wider white nationalism of eugenics, which in the pre-DNA science of genetics argued for the hereditary superiority of northern Europeans. Following the advice of the Carnegie Institute, the Rockefeller Foundation, and other eugenics advocates, federal and state governments attempted to protect white bloodlines through immigration restrictions, racial segregation, anti-interracial marriage laws, and forced sterilization. Madison Grant’s white supremacist treatise The Passing of the Great Race became a national best-seller in 1916, calling for the sterilization of “worthless race types.” President Theodore Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler both praised the book. Hitler also said Germany needed to model itself on the U.S., especially California and Virginia, the leading states in the eugenics movement.

I told my Superheroes class that on the first day of this semester because it’s the cultural and political context that led to costumed superheroes in comics. That’s not a condemnation of superheroes or of America. It’s just a historical fact, one we need to keep in focus in today’s cultural and political context too. Not all of America’s worst moments are in its past.

Superhero Comics Bloomsbury

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