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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Kkk

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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Days after the election, President-elect Trump told 60 Minutes that he was “surprised to hear” his supporters were using racial slurs and threatening African Americans, Latinos, and gays. Last week the FBI documented a 6% increase in hate crimes, especially against Muslims. Last month NYC Police Commissioner James O’Neill reported that hate crimes are “up 31% from last year. We had at this time last year 250; this year we have 328. Specifically against the Muslim population in New York City, we went up from 12 to 25. And anti-Semitic is up, too, by 9% from 102 to 111.” When asked why, he said he had “no scientific evidence,” but “you’ve been paying attention to what’s been going on in the country over the last year or so and the rhetoric has increased, and I think that might have something to do with it.”

Ya think?

I live in Lexington, Virginia, and KKK fliers appeared on our front yard the month that Donald Trump accepted the Republican nomination for President. The Confederate flag, which appeared at rallies during Trump’s campaign, is back in view across the country. High school students in Silverton, Oregon displayed it at a Trump rally on Election Day, telling Hispanic classmates: “Pack your bags; you’re leaving tomorrow.” The two students were suspended, which isn’t an option for other post-election Trump supporters waving it in Durango, Colorado, Traverse City, MichiganSt. Petersburg, FloridaHampton, Virginia, and Fort Worth, Texas.

Trump’s chief White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon is the former head of Breitbart News, which said the Confederacy was “a patriotic and idealistic cause,” and that its flag “proclaims a glorious heritage.” This was posted after the Charleston, South Carolina church shooting, in which white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine people. White supremacists have been rallying around the Confederate flag for over a 150 years, but even Trump supported removing it from South Carolina’s statehouse last year: “I think they should put it in the museum, let it go, respect whatever it is that you have to respect, because it was a point in time, and put it in a museum.” I’m not clear what there is to “respect,” but the “point in time” is called the Civil War. If you read the declarations of secession, the South began it for one reason and only one reason.

But instead of a history lesson, I’ve asked Two-Face to give us his opinion about the flag.  This is the fifth and for-now-final installment of Two-Face’s political cartoons. Because this shit just ain’t funny.

Mr. Two-Face:





Thanks, Mr. Two-Face. Your scarred half sure knows how to keep things simple.

Oh, and here’s a postcard-sized version to mail to friends and family members currently residing in the racist past:


And if you’re a Southerner in need of a symbol of your pride, Unscarred George invites you to display this flag instead:


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Things about your writing you never want to hear:

“It’s just disturbing.”

“No, no, this can’t be.”

“That’s a little terrifying to me.”

And my all-time least favorite:

“How are people not going to hunt him down and harass him when this book comes out?”

The book is On the Origin of Superheroes, due out next fall from the University of Iowa Press. You can probably guess it’s about the pre-history of the superhero genre, or, as the subtitle says: From the Big Bang to Action Comics No. 1.  So that’s literally everything up until Superman, including—and this is the disturbingly no no hunt-me-down terrifying part—the Ku Klux Klan.

klan poster

But first a major thanks to Major Spoilers. The comic book podcast recently interviewed superhero scholar Dr. Peter Coogan, and the conversation centered on my article “The Ku Klux Klan and the Birth of the Superhero.” It was published in England’s Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics in 2013, and its argument is part of the book: superheroes are descended from the KKK. Actually superheroes are descended from all kinds of things, and the Klan is just one of them, an idea Major Spoilers still found “hard to swallow.”

So did Peter Coogan when he first reviewed the essay, but he came around quickly, recommending that JGNC publish it: “This is one of those articles that once you’ve read it, it seems impossible to unthink it. I’m going to incorporate this idea into my teaching and my own work.  I can’t believe I didn’t see this connection.”

Pete (we’ve since become friends) also warned me by email about his Major Spoilers conversation before it aired: “I wanted to give you a heads up because the hosts had a reaction that some of my students had, which is to feel uncomfortable about Superman having any genealogical relationship to the Klan. People just don’t like that idea.”

No, they really don’t. And I don’t either. The first time I introduced the notion in class, my students and I searched for every possible way to define superheroes in a way that excluded vigilantism. It’s hard to do. Secret identities, codenames, costumes, chest emblems, the KKK has them all. Pete tried too, arguing that superheroes only “supplement the police” and so “support legitimate authority” by “turning criminals over” after stopping them with “minimal level of violence necessary.”

And that does describe plenty of superheroes and proto-superheroes. The 70s Avengers even became a department of the U.S. government, each employee earning a tax-financed salary of $1,000 a day.  As far as violence, the Lone Ranger’s creators Fran Striker and George W. Trendle were one of the first to lay down the law for their radio writers: “When he has to use guns, The Lone Ranger never shoots to kill, but rather only to disarm his opponent as painlessly as possible.”

But there’s a lot of violent gray zone. Martin Parker’s 1656 “Robbin Hood” didn’t kill, but he did merrily separate clergymen from their money and their testicles:

No monkes nor fryers he would let goe,

Without paying their fees;

If they thought much to be usd so,

Their stones he made them leese.

Worse, Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko considers superheroes “moral avengers” who must kill criminals in order to champion “a clear understanding of right and wrong,” even if that means violating the “pervading legal moral” code. Pete would place Ditko’s homicidal Mr. A with the 70s Punisher, who, like lots of pulp heroes of the 30s, constitutes his own one-man legal system, marshal-judge-executioner.

The problem is that ill-defined term “vigilante.” Instead of a toggle switch—either you’re a lawful hero or you’re a lawless villain—I see a spectrum. Spider-Man, like most superheroes, swings somewhere in-between, chasing crooks while cops chase him. But whether gunning down the bad guys or leaving them wrapped with a bow in front of police headquarters, superheroes are independent operators. Which means when they disagree with the law and the government, they make their own judgments. Even star-spangled super soldier Captain America turned noble criminal rather than obey a law that violated his own sense of morality. And while Iron Man backed the Superhuman Registration Act, it wasn’t from blind allegiance to his government. He backed it because he personally thought it was right.

The KKK were the product of a very different Civil War, but their fictional characters in Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansmen and D. W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation play by the same rules. Pete read aloud their mission statement on Major Spoilers:

“To protect the weak, the innocent, and the defenseless from indignities, wrongs and outrages of the lawless, the violent, and the brutal; to relieve the injured and the oppressed: to succour the suffering and unfortunate . . . “

Sounds like any superhero, doesn’t it? Until you get to the last phrase:

“and especially the widows and the orphans of Confederate Soldiers.”

“Hey,” said the hosts, “he tricked us!”

They eventually concluded that the difference between a hero and a villain is a matter of perspective, because probably even Lex Luthor thinks he’s helping the world. Pete also swooped to the rescue with Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and a superhero’s “ontological vocation of humanization.” In other words, a superhero has a deep calling to become more fully human and to help others to do the same.  Clearly the KKK’s attacks and lynchings fail that criterion.

Pete’s point sounds exactly right, and the hosts “sighed a little bit of relief,” but for me this is where the Klan parallel is most disturbing. Even though Major Spoilers acknowledged that I am “not advocating for the Klan” and that I am “not saying superheroes are racist and fascistic,” Dixon and Griffith didn’t consider the KKK racist and fascistic either. Unlike Lex Luthor, who knowingly turns others into his tools and so is not helping them become more fully human, the Klan did not consider African Americans to be human. From Dixon and Griffith’s grotesque perspective, ex-slaves were subhuman obstacles preventing white Southerners from actualizing themselves. So in the most perverse reading of Freire possible, the KKK fixed the problem.  In their minds and in the minds of their fans, they were superheroes.

Which is to say, yeah, please don’t hunt me down and harass me when the book comes out.



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