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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

I presented in the TEDx Rutgers conference last Saturday. The talks were prerecorded and the Q&As live. Below is the draft of my talk — which, I discovered the first time I recorded it, is way over the 16-minute limit. I hope to have a link to the actual talk soon.

America loves to put heroes on pedestals. And sometimes those pedestals get knocked down. During this Black Lives Matter moment of U.S. history, we’ve seen many former heroes reevaluated and their statues removed. A statue of Stonewall Jackson stood two miles from my house in Lexington, Virginia. It was removed in December, a little over a century after it was erected.

I’m going to look at different kind of hero, one of our country’s most beloved hero types, the superhero, and when I’m done, you will have to decide for yourself whether the superhero stays on its pedestal or if it comes down too.

But let me say: I’m not an evil man who hates superheroes and wants to ruin your childhood.  I’m also not a rabid liberal professor knocking over statues because that’s what we do. I grew up on superheroes. I had a learning disability and read almost nothing but Marvel comics for years: Spiderman, Avengers, X-Men.

I still have boxes of comics in my attic, and I tried to get my son to read every one of them. My daughter fell for Superman and Batman and used to have tea parties with the action figures she asked Santa for Christmas. Superheroes were my children’s childhood. I passed that love onto them.

When I started teaching college, a group of honors students were looking for a professor to teach a seminar on superheroes. My wife—she was my department chair at the time—pointed them my way. I said yes. Obviously. What could be more fun than designing a class on superheroes?

I started researching the history of the character type, filling in missing gaps, learning the cultural contexts, the politics of the periods. This led to articles, which led to books. I’m working on my fifth right now. I am a superhero scholar and a comics theorist. My kids think that’s hilarious—but in a good way.

Not everyone does. When Stan Lee died a couple years ago, Bill Maher mocked people like me. He said:

“twenty years or so ago, something happened – adults … pretended comic books were actually sophisticated literature. And … some dumb people got to be professors by writing [about them]”

And worse, Maher added:

“I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to suggest that Donald Trump could only get elected in a country that thinks comic books are important.”

I disagree. But not for the reasons Maher might think. Donald Trump got elected because we don’t think comic books are important. Macho men in tights are very very silly-looking, but they provide a window into our history that reveals who we once were as a nation and what we must do now to become a better one.

So. Let’s look at the pedestal we put superheroes on. The hero type peaked during World War II, when the U.S. was its most politically unified. The superhero embodied the fight for democracy against fascism. Captain America’s and Wonder Woman’s costume are literally the American flag. And those ideals continued into the Cold War, and beyond it, keeping superheroes linked to our greatest national values. They are our champions of good.

And that, oddly, is the problem. Because what “we” as a nation consider “good” changes, and superheroes have changed with it.

Superman premieres in comics in 1938, but the history doesn’t start there. Go back a decade and you have The Shadow on the radio. Go back another decade and you have Zorro in silent movies. Two more decades and the Scarlet Pimpernel is a hit play and best-selling novel. Those names have faded, but if you think of research as archeology, they’re just under the top layer.

It’s the next layer that disturbed me.

A standard superhero has a costume, with a mask, gloves, a cape, and an identifying emblem on the chest.  That’s Batman. Lose the cape, and it’s Spider-Man and Captain America and Green Lantern and Black Panther and on and on.

Now look at the Ku Klux Klan.

There’s the costume, usually with a cape and chest emblem, and always a mask to hide a secret identity. That’s so they can conduct their self-defined heroic mission, working outside the law

because they believe law enforcement is either corrupt or inadequate. That’s vigilantism.

That’s what superheroes romanticize.

When I saw the connections, my first reaction was excitement, like “Holy shit! Nobody knows this!” And then came, “Holy shit, this is awful. I just ruined my childhood.” Unless it was just a coincidence. Giraffes and sauropods both have long necks. Triceratops and rhinos both have horns. But there’s no direct connection. Rhinos and giraffes didn’t evolve from dinosaurs.

Superheroes didn’t evolve from the KKK.

Unless they did.

I teach at Washington and Lee University—which is at this moment deciding whether to remove Confederate General Robert E. Lee from its name. I live an hour from Charlottesville, where neo-Nazis waved Confederate flags to protest the removal of a Lee statue. Drive another hour and you’re in Richmond, former capital of the Confederacy, where statues have been removed one after the other all year.

The majority were erected during the Klan’s most popular period. That wasn’t after the Civil War. The Klan disbanded when Union troops withdrew from the South. The KKK reformed in 1915, around when that Jackson statue near my house was erected.

The Civil War had been over for half a century.  So why a new interest in the KKK?

Because the film The Birth of a Nation was premiering. It was an adaption of the pseudo-historical novel The Clansman, It describes how the heroic KKK formed to save the South from the despotic Republican party and the oppression of Negro rule. It is a vile novel. It was also a best-seller, not just in the south but nationally. The film was even bigger.  Its racist retelling of American history was not a fringe viewpoint. It was standard belief. After its screening in the White House, Woodrow Wilson said: “My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

They arrived at theaters dressed in Klan robes. They were what we now call cosplayers. The same month the same cosplayers met on top the Stone Mountain Confederate monument outside Atlanta, lit a cross on fire, and declared the KKK reformed.

Five years later their membership reached 5 million, including 300 delegates at the Democratic convention. More than 50,000 marched in DC the following summer. The Klan was praised in newspaper op-eds and Sunday sermons as a force for good, especially for combatting criminal immigrants.  

This is the political context of the 1920 film The Mark of Zorro. It’s one of the most successful films of the silent era. Like a Klansman, Zorro wears a mask and a cape, has an identifying symbol—his signature Z—and he keeps his real identify a secret, pretending to be a Clark Kent coward when not in costume, then dressing up to bring criminals to justice as a vigilante.

You can’t call that coincidence. Brontosaurus and rhinos, triceratops and giraffes are separated by millions of years. The Klan and Zorro reached the heights of their popularity at the same moment. That’s pop culture reflecting current events.

And Zorro was surrounded by dozens of other masked dual-identity vigilante heroes. They filled the weekly pulp magazines, comic books’ precursors, published by the same presses, including the later renamed DC and Marvel. When Bill Finger invented Batman, he based him on the pulp magazine hero The Bat by Johnston McCulley, the same pulp author who created Zorro.

Bruce Wayne has his moment of inspiration when a bat happens to fly in front of him and he decides to dress up like a giant bat to terrorize superstitious criminals, that origin scene follows the same progression as Birth of a Nation. The future creator of the Klan sits contemplating what to do, when a white child puts on a white sheet and frightens a group of Black children. The next shot the hero appears in full Klan custom—same as Bruce in his Batman costume.

And it’s not just Batman. He’s just one of hundreds of superheroes that appear in early comic books. And the Klan wasn’t a lone aberration either. They didn’t cause the problem. They reflected a national attitude. Look at Superman again. His name encodes the larger cultural history that prompted the Klan to reform.

When I started researching for that honors seminar, I typed his name into a New York Times search engine with a date range ending the month he premiered. I expected zero hits. I got 2,158. I was confused. Then I realized the play Man and Superman premiered in 1903. “Superman” was the playwright’s translation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s term “ubermensch.” Problem solved.

Except. Why are so many of the articles from the teens and twenties and thirties? And why were they not all in the theater section? In Arts & Entertainment. A ballet dancer is called a “Superman of the toe,” a singer has the “lungs of a superman.” In Sports. Boxer Jack Dempsey is called a superman. Bath Ruth is a “baseball superman.” In book reviews. Biographers called Napoleon, Genghis Khan, Cromwell, and Ben Franklin superman. In current events. Living politicians Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Benito Mussolini, they were all supermen.

None of those refer to the play or to Nietzsche’s ubermensch. They refer to eugenics.

It means “well born.” Sir Francis Galton coined ‘eugenics’ in the 1880s. It’s how he explained so many members of the same families going to Oxford and Cambridge. They must be genetically superior. That included himself and his cousin Charles Darwin.

Darwin had published On the Origin of Species two decades earlier. It didn’t introduce the concept of evolution so much as codify it, turning a once fringe idea into a scientific paradigm.

Humans did not evolve into the planet’s dominant species because God had willed it. It happened through a random process of natural selection. Which meant it could unhappen. Humans could be usurped by some other species or humans could devolve and descend back down the evolutionary ladder. God didn’t care.

That terrified Galton. It terrified the Victorians. Eugenics was their savior. Identify the most fit, intermarry them, and breed a superior race of superhumans. What was called the Superman.

This was science. Look at the Science section of the New York Times:

  • 1924:   The New Superman in the Making
  • 1928:   Superman Can Be Developed
  • 1929:   Science Pictures a Superman of Tomorrow
  • 1934:   ‘Superman’ Evolved by Drugs is Predicted
  • 1935:   Key to Super-race Found in Nutrition

The comic book Superman was Earth’s future too.  In Jerry Seigel’s original script, Krypton wasn’t an alien planet. It was Earth. Superman travel here by a time machine. Superman was literally the superman that science was predicting. And science was white supremacist then, because America was white supremacist. 

The main association “eugenics” today is Nazi Germany. Hitler took the idea of breeding fit, and expanded it to the prevention of the so-called unfit. He started with forced sterilizations in the early 30s and expanded to mass exterminations by the early 40s. That’s how America likes to tell the story. Except it wasn’t Hitler’s idea. It was ours.

The idea of the gas chamber came from Long Island. In 1912 an American eugenics think tank published a guide for “the Best Practical Means for Cutting Off the Defective [gene pool] in the Human Population.” Their recommendations called for immigration restrictions, racial segregation, anti-interracial marriage laws, sterilization, and “euthanasia,” specifically through gas chambers. Unlike Germany, American eugenicists wanted every town in the U.S. to have its own gas chamber for euthanizing their locally unfit. 

They targeted such defective heredity traits as feeblemindedness, promiscuity, criminality, epilepsy, blindness, deafness, insanity, and poverty. And all of these traits were associated with non-anglo-saxons. Eugenics wasn’t fringe science, and it wasn’t fringe politics. It was mainstream belief.

The I.Q. test was created to identify and segregate defectives.

Planned Parenthood was created to prevent unfit breeding through birth control. Indiana passed the first sterilization law, and thirty states followed. The Supreme Court declared: “It is better for all the world, if . . . society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”

When President Coolidge signed a bill blocking immigration, he explained: “America must be kept American. Biological laws show…that Nordics deteriorate when mixed with other races.”

When Hitler wrote Mein Kampf in 1925, he applauded the U.S., urging Germany had to catch up with our advances in Eugenics. Teddy Roosevelt praised the best-seller The Passing of the Great Race by Madison Grant. It called for the sterilization of “worthless race types.” When Hitler read the translation, he said: “This book is my Bible.”

This is the cultural and political context that produced the superhero. There is no Superman without eugenics. There is no Batman without the KKK. And none of the hundreds and eventually thousands of other superhero characters could have followed them. It makes sense that the superhero has a disturbing history because America has a disturbing history. And loving superheroes, like loving America, requires facing up to that past.

Now to be clear, the creators of Superman weren’t white supremacists. They were Jewish. The early comic book industry was predominantly Jewish, and their superhero stories were overtly anti-fascist. But they were adapting a character type that was already popular. And white supremacy is in the DNA of that character. That is a historical fact that we can repress but we cannot erase. And if we can’t face it, then we remain trapped in it.

Remember what Bill Maher said? “Trump could only get elected in a country that thinks comic books are important.” He’s wrong. Donald Trump could only have gotten elected in a country that thinks it is unimportant to examine its pedestals, including comic books. Like most Confederate statues, superheroes were constructed during an explicitly racist moment. Can they now transcend that moment? Maybe. But only if we acknowledge instead of suppress their history.

This isn’t just archeology. The past isn’t buried underground. Superheroes are thriving right now on film and TV and laptop screens.

Some of them are Muslim and lesbian and Black and other traits that eugenicists wanted to weed out. But they are still romanticized vigilantes wearing costume only one evolutionary step removed from the Klan. If we allow ourselves to keep suppressing that genetic fact, then the superhero can never evolve past it.

And maybe that’s okay? The superhero is just one very silly-looking fragment of American culture. What’s wrong with preserving a childhood fantasy? Why not indulge in a heroic image of goodness and purity? Who’s it hurting?

I think all of us. I think it trains us to keep deifying past heroes by intentionally ignoring their most disturbing flaws. But if we can face up to something as unimportant as comic books, then maybe we have a chance as a nation of facing the much deeper and much more destructive legacies of our profoundly racist past.

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