In an October 31 post below regarding the first season of The Adventures of Superman, I repeated the oft-mentioned observation that superhero stories are very much of a type with ancient tales of heroes and demigods. In fact, the ancient heroes and gods turn up in modern tales with some frequency, such as Ares in Wonder Woman and most of the important characters in Percy Jackson & the Olympians.
That observation prompted a revisit to the multi-volume The Golden Bough by James George Frazer. Originally published 1890, it remains the single most important work on the origins and evolution of mythology, not just in the West but around the world. That assessment is likely to annoy a modern anthropologist, most of whom make a point of dismissing Frazer as unscientific. Yet, though his sources are literary rather than archeological and his analyses necessarily speculative, he more often than not is convincing on the fundamental points. This is why he was such an outsized influence on foremost members of the literary and intellectual scene of the late 19th and early 20th century, including Robert Graves (whose The White Goddess is another essential tome on mythology), W.B. Yeats, Aleister Crowley, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Campbell, T.S. Eliot, Carl Jung, and many others. He still appeals today. Camille Paglia commented that even though he might have been superseded on details, he “will remain inspirational for enterprising students seeking escape from today's sterile academic climate.”
Frazer is definitely worth a visit on his own merits. His discussions of fertility cults, resurrection myths, scapegoating, sacrifices, and more are endlessly fascinating. (Single volume abridgements of The Golden Bough are available, but if you have the time tackle the full set.) However, revisiting his work proved a misstep with regard to considering modern superheroes, who belong to a later stage of mythology. They are adventurers in the mold of Theseus, Hercules, Perseus, and Bellerophon. Frazer doesn’t ignore these completely, but the older and deeper entities such as Isis and Osiris interested him more. While I don’t regret the diversion into Frazer, more recent books on the modern superheroes themselves were, perhaps unsurprisingly, more directly useful. There is a plethora of such books from which to choose, but I went with The Avengers and Philosophy, which contains contributions from 18 philosophers, and The Psychology of Superheroes with contributions by a couple dozen psychologists. Are these authors overthinking the subject? Well, yes and no. There really are ethical questions raised in the context of comic book superhero tales, and the characters work only to the extent they reflect something about the human condition. It’s important to note that both books rely primarily on comic books as sources, not movies. The storylines there differ from the screen versions substantially. Nonetheless essential character traits are usually unchanged by the transition to screen.
Mark White, who edited the collection of essays that make up The Avengers and Philosophy gets us started by contrasting the ethical systems of Captain America (a deontologist), Iron Man (utilitarian), and Thor (virtue ethicist). The classic example to contrast the first two is the trolley car conundrum. A runaway trolley with 5 people aboard is headed for a certain lethal crash; you can prevent it by throwing a switch that diverts it onto a track where one person is standing and will definitely be killed. Do you throw the switch? A deontologist says no; it is never right to choose to kill an innocent person and that is that. A utilitarian says one death is better than 5; throw the switch. This is why Iron Man and Captain America were on opposite sides of the Civil War. Iron Man (Tony Stark) says look at the outcome, which will be better if we cooperate with the Registration Act. Captain America says forget the outcome: the Registration Act is wrong. Thor has another approach altogether. He strives to be a virtuous person: loyal, honest, brave, true, honorable and supportive of comrades even if that comrade is Loki. He doesn’t much interest himself in other ethical minutia – and that is the potential problem. One can have all those virtuous traits in a bad cause.
Other authors in the collection discuss responsibility for unintended consequences, ask if might is right, ask when ends justify means in war, and ponder the possibility of redemption. Several superheroes (e.g. Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch) had stints as villains, after all, while others (notably Black Widow) are ambiguous. Forgiveness is not much in fashion in the 21st century, but in the comics, at least, it’s discussed. There is even a discussion of the nature of reality with regard to She-Hulk who is aware she is a character in a comic book. There also are discussions of love, which in the real modern world all too often resembles something out of a comic book. You’ll never look at the Avengers quite the same way again after this book, and that is all to the good.
The Psychology of Superheroes poses questions (and offers tentative answers) that are much more personal. For example, Robin S. Rosenberg, who edited the collection, asks in her essay, “So how different would Superman be if he had grown up in a different part of the country?” Suppose Clark had grown up in Brooklyn with unsupportive parents? What of Clark is nature and what is nurture? Robert Biswas-Diener in his essay discusses Peter Parker. Yes, we all know the guilt trip over his uncle’s death that led to his crime-fighting, but is that the reason he continues? Biswas-Diener thinks not. After all, he has done more than his share taking down supervillains, but he doesn’t retire. Biswas-Diener thinks he simply enjoys the opportunity to use “the full range of his strengths.” Other authors discuss such various topics as the effects of prejudice (Magneto), the deliberate simplification of one’s public persona to reassure others (Superman), and the employment of the dark side of one’s character (Batman) to positive ends. Chuck Tate suggests, “Maybe this apparent contradiction explains why Superman and Batman can’t get along. Superman knows that the Batman is closer in motivations and behavior to the villains.” There is much more on the expression and suppression of aggression and anger, on psychopathy, on the psychology of readers of superhero comics, and on the inmates of Arkham Asylum.
The reader can’t go wrong with either book. For those who feel a twinge of guilt at “wasting” time on superficial superhero comics and movies, the books offer a way to turn them into meaningful entertainment. By sharing our insights from them with those in our company who just seek pure escapism, we thereby can be supervillains. That prospect has an allure, which is something upon which Dr. Rosenberg might have an opinion.
Suzi Quatro – Official Suburban Superman