Skip to content

The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Sandra Chevrier 01

What if an evil genius is tricking you into believing that the world around you is real when it really isn’t?

What if on an alternate Earth everything is identical but for one almost undetectable detail?

What if trying to travel to the past transported you to a different universe instead?

What if a mad scientist removed your brain and is keeping it alive in a vat of nutrients?

What if lightning struck a dead tree in a swamp and transformed it into The Swampman?

Any of these fantastical plots could be the premise of a superhero comic book. Stan Lee sometimes gave artists at Marvel little more to work with—just a note on a piece of paper or a plot point mentioned on the way to his desk. Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko would work out the details.

Except none of those scenarios comes from comics. They’re all thought experiments written by highly regarded philosophers: René Descartes (1641), Hilary Putnam (1973), David Lewis (1976), Hilary Putnam (1981), and Donald Davidson (1986), respectively. Like comics, fantastical tales are a staple of philosophy. Philosopher Peg Tittle includes 126 in her 2005 What If … Collected Thought Experiments in Philosophy. But superhero comics were well ahead of her. Marvel published its first What If? in 1977, and DC published a range of “Imaginary Tales” in the 1950s and included two “Just Suppose” tales in one of its first 1936 titles.

Philosophers could fill volumes too. David Chalmers writes about zombies, Laurence BonJour about clairvoyants, and Frank Jackson about a scientifically all-knowing woman who’s never seen color. The list of “What If?”s seems endless:

What if your body slowly transformed into rock, but no one around you noticed?

What if a god were stripped of his memories and forced to live as a crippled human?

What if a time traveler returned to his childhood and told his past self about the future?

What if you could save the world but had to sacrifice millions of people first?

What if you and all the universe were just the thoughts of a small child?

Except those scenarios don’t come from academic philosophy. They’re all from superhero comics: The Fantastic Four (1961), The Mighty Thor (1968), The Defenders (1975), Watchmen (1987), and Heroes Reborn: The Return (1997). And they are no more fantastical than scenarios philosophers have been dreaming up for centuries. Not just What If and “Imaginary Tales,” but arguably all superhero comics contain thought experiments. While philosophy’s most amazing thought experiments could be adapted into a limited series of illustrated superhero comics titled Thought Experiments, the reverse is true too. Writers and artists of Marvel and DC can be understood as philosophers and their comics as works of philosophy.

And what if they actually are read that way?

That’s the fantastical “what if” premise of What If? Philosophical Thought Experiments of Superhero Comics, a manuscript I’m co-authoring with my W&L colleague Nathaniel Goldberg. I’m happy to report that a university press has given us a green light, and so Nathaniel and I are spending part of our summer revising for an August deadline. You’re currently reading a condensed draft of the introduction.

Each chapter presents puzzles, or philosophical thought experiments, derived from superhero comics. We then select tools from philosophers—Kant’s Categorical Imperative, Descartes’ evil genius, Dennett’s intentional stance, and others—to help solve that puzzle by helping to understand the thought experiments themselves. Our goal isn’t necessarily to explain philosophy. It’s to use superhero comics to illustrate philosophical thought experiments, and then in turn to use philosophy to explain superhero comics. So unless you’re already well-versed in philosophy, you’ll learn about philosophy too.

Philosophers who identify as analytic—which the majority of English-speaking philosophers do—spend a great deal of time analyzing concepts and defining terms. Though literary critics’ attempts at analysis and definition tend to be limited to literary concerns—including in recent years comics—that’s where philosophy and literary criticism happily collide. For the authors of this book, the collision took place in front of Washington and Lee University’s English department photocopier. Nathaniel Goldberg had descended from the philosophy floor because their machine was on the fritz. Chris Gavaler, himself in the English department, was doing some copying of his own. Nathaniel struck up a conversation about Chris’s superhero blog. Superheroes are not the most typical focus for literary criticism, but Nathaniel assured Chris that philosophers wrote about weird things too. In fact, Nathaniel was an expert on Donald Davidson’s The Swampman, a thought experiment Chris noticed resembled Alan Moore’s own Swamp Thing. A conference paper in Iceland soon followed and now this book. In the process, Nathaniel learned MLA citation norms and Chris learned what is now one of his favorite phrases, “necessary and sufficient,” as in “What are the necessary and sufficient conditions of being a comic?”

Chris answers this question in his recent essay “Refining the Comics Form” where he defines a comic as

a static, spatial field with recurrent elements perceived as conceptually discrete images in juxtaposition with other conceptually discrete images, in which the images are pictorial, abstract, typographic, and/or linguistic, but not linguistic and typographic only.

If you prefer a shorter answer, we recommend Scott McCloud’s pioneering 1993 definition: “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” And if you prefer a really short answer, Will Eisner gets it done in two words: “sequential art.” Many comics scholars, including Chris and several philosophers, take issue with McCloud and Eisner for a range of reasons: what about one-panel “comics” like The Far Side and The Family Circle? What about the moving images juxtaposed in film and TV? What about physical panels displayed on a gallery wall? What about juxtaposed images in mediums that pre-date the 20th-century and so the term “comics”? While these questions are good ones, they and others like them are not the focus of this book. This volume includes “Superhero Comics” in its subtitle, and the superhero genre squats near the center of the definitional zone. Our reading list includes only multi-paneled works printed on paper, bound in units of typically twenty-two pages, and published after 1937.

“Superhero,” as naming both a genre and a character type, also presents a range of definitions, which variously include and exclude marginal cases such as Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Nick Fury of Avengers fame. Chris takes a different, “no-common-denominator approach” in On the Origin of Superheroes, arguing instead that the category “superhero” has no single necessary or sufficient condition but only a list of potential ones, with different characters demonstrating different combinations with potentially no overlap (3). Twentieth-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein might argue that examples of different superheroes share a “family resemblance.” Just as there many be no single necessary or sufficient physical condition of all members of a family, individual members do share some with at least some others, and through a series of overlaps the family can be picked out as a whole. No matter, since instead of exploring border cases to further test and refine definitions, we again stake our analysis at the genre’s and medium’s centers.

Defining “philosophy” presents challenges too. But enough philosophers think that some sort of analyzing concepts and defining words is what philosophy amounts to that we accept that as our working definition. That helps explain why philosophers often trade in conceptual or definitional work. One common philosophical tool is to try to conceive of or define situations that are not real but that instead reveal lessons for us. In a word, philosophers “experiment” in thoughts, rather than, as scientists do, in labs. These conceived or defined situations are thought experiments, the “What if?”s mentioned above.

Generally, thought experiments involve conceiving of or defining a situation where a few key details are changed from how they ordinarily are to test particular philosophical views. What if an evil genius did trick you into believing that the world around you were real when it really wasn’t? Does imaging that reveal anything interesting about the nature of knowledge? What if your body were slowly transformed into rock and no one around you noticed? Does imagining this reveal anything interesting about the nature of personal identity?

As we know from above, the first thought experiment is from an academic philosopher. The second is from a comic book writer. Each could be developed by either sort of person. Plato wrote semi-fictionalized dialogues, which encouraged readers to imagine themselves in particular situations. Most academic philosophers, before and since, write essays, treatises, or technical books—which are arguably less engaging than Plato’s work. While typical thought experiments, unlike Plato’s, are not presented in fiction, they can be. As philosopher Ross P. Cameron explains, “a typical fiction tends to be much longer than your typical thought experiment and hence can present you with a more detailed scenario” (31). Philosophers Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa and Benjamin Jarvis even call philosophical thought experiments “mini-fictions” as opposed to the standard-sized ones. Likewise, philosophers Johan de Smedt and Helen de Cruz argue that, though both typical philosophical thought experiments and fiction rely on similar cognitive mechanisms, fiction “allows for a richer exploration of philosophical positions than is possible through ordinary philosophical thought experiments” (59). The exploration is richer not only because it’s more developed but also because, as cognitive research shows, readers of fiction are immersed in a way that readers of philosophy usually aren’t. Smedt and Cruz continue: “Regardless of whether they are outlandish or realistic, philosophical thought experiments lack features that speculative fiction typically has, including vivid, seemingly irrelevant details that help to transport the reader and encourage low-level, concrete thinking” (64). Readers take the scenarios more seriously.

These scholars contrast typical philosophical thought experiments with the longer scenarios in traditional science fiction and fantasy novels, but their points may apply even better to comics. Novels employ words to express ideas, while comics employ both words and images, and so reading a comic operates on an additional cognitive level. It can therefore be both more immersive and more challenging due to its multi-media form.

Of course, neither science fiction and fantasy novels, nor superhero comics, treat their scenarios explicitly as thought experiments. They don’t usually examine the assumptions involved and don’t draw broader lessons from them. And they certainly don’t consider whether the experiments were done under the appropriate conditions, say, by changing only a few features here and leaving the rest as is. There are no appropriate conditions, other than those that make their stories enjoyable. Superhero comics in particular aim first and foremost to entertain. Actual analysis is done better by academic philosophy, just as we’d expect.

Combining superhero comics and philosophy could be a powerful way to explore thought experiments because it merges the strengths of each.

Sandra Chevrier 05

[The paintings at the top and bottom of this post are by SANDRA CHEVRIER, and they’re currently at the top of my “What if we can use for the cover of What If?” list.]


%d bloggers like this: