For decades, superhero comics were viewed as disposable fiction- escapist stories for adolescent boys.  However, despite the initial dismissive attitude, both superheroes and comics have endured.  Far from being disposable, superheroes and the comics that spawned them have become indomitable.  They now reign over the global box office and are making inroads into domestic TV. 

Marco Arnaudo, a professor at Indiana University, examines why superheroes have proven to be so enduring, exciting and inspiring in his new book The Myth of the Superhero by Johns Hopkins Press.  At first glance, Arnaudo seems like an odd individual to be writing a book about superheroes.  He’s Italian, not American, and he teaches Italian language and literature, not pop culture or communication.  Yet Arnaudo proves to be an apt teacher, offering an outsider’s perspective on a quintessentially American phenomenon.

First off, I appreciate that Arnaudo decided to tackle the heart and soul of superheroes: the 70+ years of continuity of DC and Marvel Comics.  Arnaudo notes that the huge canvas of continuity can be overwhelming and suggests that’s why so many scholars choose to focus on self-contained stories like Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen and Maus.  However, Arnaudo argues that such selectivity leads many scholars to incorrect conclusions.  Dark Knight Rises and Watchmen are exceptional superhero comics but they are also, in many ways, exceptions to superhero comics.  They’re missing many of the features of normal superhero comics- the contributions of multiple authors over many years, the interconnectedness of multiple titles, and so on.  Therefore, theories about superhero comics that are primarily based on Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns are bound to be incomplete.

Arnaudo argues that vast continuity is not only a feature of superhero comics; it’s actually an asset.  Arnaudo notes that it is literally impossible for anyone to have read every comic (though we know our beloved Captain Comics has come as close as anyone).  Yet, far from being a problem, Arnaudo argues that the massive tapestry of comics allows every reader to experience the story in their own personal way.   A person who reads Morbius the Living Vampire will have an experience of comics that incorporates more horror elements, while someone who reads Silver Surfer will experience comics with a more science fiction slant.  In other words, everyone has their own personal version of the Marvel Universe based on what they’ve read.  Arnaudo even acknowledges that the personal experience is further refined by what the reader acknowledges as the true continuity.  Since there are so many versions of Superman’s origins- parents die when he’s a teenager, parents survive until he’s an adult, etc.- the reader chooses which one to accept as real.  Amazingly, Arnaudo argues for the very concept of “personal continuity” that we’ve often discussed on this very website.

I think that Arnaudo makes a strong theoretical case for why it’s worth examining comics in continuity rather than in isolation.  But, more than that, I appreciated reading a scholarly examination of so many stories that I’ve enjoyed over the years- from Chris Claremont’s introduction of the All-New X-Men to Greg Rucka’s run on Wonder Woman.  Arnaudo is so up-to-date with comics that he even cites example from Spider-Man’s Brand New Day and Brian Michael Bendis’ Mighty Avengers. 

Arnaudo examines superheroes from three main angles: myth & religion, ethics & society, and epic & neobaroque.  The third section is the strongest.  Arnaudo isn’t the first to see a connection between superhero comics and ancient epics.  He draws upon the work of Joseph Campbell and others to demonstrate the superheroes are the modern heirs of Gilgamesh and Odysseus.   He also draws upon his own background in Italian literature to show how superheroes are connected to the epic adventures of neo-baroque literature like Giambattista Marino’s Adonis and Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote (the second story is Spanish, I know).  I felt like Arnaudo missed a third obvious connection by not discussing in detail the connections between superhero teams and earlier heroic societies like the Knights of the Round Table or the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest.  

The second section was the most surprising and I mean that in a good way.  Arnaudo argues that superheroes are not, in fact, escapist adventures for young boys.  Or at least if they are, they are also stories that give moral shape to their readership.  Arnaudo cites the superhero code against killing.  He notes that the hero must always protect life, whether that life belongs to a hostage, a bystander, or even the villain.   Arnaudo is aware that the code is occasionally broken- as in Captain America’s Secret Empire story or Wonder Woman’s execution of Max Lord- yet he notes that the breaking of the code is in effect a way of reinforcing it.  The heroes who break the code face significant repercussions for doing so.  Captain America voluntarily gives up his heroic identity while Wonder Woman is shunned by her fellow heroes and temporarily excluded from the Justice League.  Arnaudo even sees the fan outrage about those stories as part of the fabric of the ethics of comics.  It is a uniquely interactive medium, after all, with fans writing to their favorite comics and authors often responding directly to their comments. 

However, the bigger surprise came when Arnaudo defended comics for the illusion of change.  Superheroes are often accused of being defenders of the status quo (I even contemplated writing a column of my own along those lines).  They’re even accused of being fascist, especially by European critics.  Yet Arnaudo argues that the illusion of change is necessary for the preservation of realism.  Superhero comics take place in the real world- especially at Marvel where the heroes walk the streets of New York City.  If heroes were allowed to significantly alter the world- whether by introducing widespread teleportation technology or by overthrowing a communist regime- then their world would no longer resemble ours.  They would stop being superhero comics and become instead alternate history- an equally legitimate but different genre. 

The first section was perhaps the weakest.  Once again, Arnaudo isn’t the first to recognize the connections between superhero comics and religion.  Superheroes clearly draw from Jewish and Christian sources, whether that’s in The Thing’s resemblance to a Golem in in Superman’s frequent allusions to Christ.  However, Arnaudo spent a lot of his energy trying to tie superheroes to the shamanistic tradition.  It’s true that several authors have made those connections, from Denny O’Neil’s graphic novel Batman: Shaman to J. Michael Straczynski’s introduction of Ezekiel during his run on Amazing Spider-Man.  Yet those connections are either minor or widely rejected by fandom.  The shamanistic connection, while not invented by Arnaudo, certainly doesn’t deserve the prominent place he gives it. 

Despite a few qualms here or there, I definitely enjoyed Arnaudo’s examination of superheroes.  It’s nice to see the superhero treated with both approval and gravitas.  Arnaudo applauds the optimistic nature of superheroes and credits them as modern myths.  Not too bad for guys and gals that run around in capes and tights.  

 

 

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Good read, Chris. Thank for bringing this book to our attention, sounds fascinating.

Thanks, Travis.  It was a fascinating read.  I sailed through in a single weekend. 

Travis Herrick (Modular Mod) said:

Good read, Chris. Thank for bringing this book to our attention, sounds fascinating.

Excellent piece, Chris - thank you for drawing this book to my attention.

 

To expand upon your point regarding Watchmen and the advisability of theorising about superhero comics on that basis, this is unwise as Watchmen is a superhero comic about superhero comics, or meta-superhero-comic, therefore is doing in the first place what one is attempting.

 

I would raise a minor quibble. When you mention Joseph Conrad, I am fairly sure you mean Joseph Campbell.

You're right.  Good catch.  I edited the article to fix it. 

I would raise a minor quibble. When you mention Joseph Conrad, I am fairly sure you mean Joseph Campbell.

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