In this week’s lecture and seminar, we had Prof. Chris Gavaler from Washington and Lee University to talk about the origins of superheroes. Previously we have read two chapters of his book On the Origin of Superheroes: from the Big Bang to Action Comics No. 1 which talk about the evolution and eugenics implications of the birth of superheroes. Then in his evening lecture, Prof. Gavaler introduced this object by tracing back to the origins of the word “superhero,” the origins of the concept of the superhero, and the political and cultural implications of superhero.
In our previous lecture series, we had guests talking about the origins of the universe, Big Bang theory. A particularly interesting point Prof. Gavaler made in our discussion today was the connection between the superhero and the Big Bang. The Big Bang theory provides a cosmological model that the universe evolved from the expansion of a singularity. Prof. Gavaler stated that the superhero universe shared the same trait that the creation of the first superhero could be considered as a singularity and that gradually more and more forms of superhero appeared to construct a parallel world. However, the superhero universe is different from the Big Bang because the first ever superhero also evolved from many predecessors that embedded with different cultural and eugenic expectations. Therefore, the superheroes were originated from various cultural influences and then expand to create its own culture. We often say today’s present is tomorrow’s history. This saying can be applied to humans as well. Everyone is a unique combination of the matters, which means that we can all be the crossing point of ourselves. Traditional superhero texts and comics tried to distinguish between gods and superheroes. That being said, we may not be able to alter the universal world top down, but we can always change the surrounding environment starting from the birth of ourselves.
By the end of the lecture, a student brought up a topic that I have long been curious about, the gender implications of superheroes. It seems to me that all examples Prof. Gavaler used in his lecture were male superheroes and that the female superheroes didn’t exist until very recent years. Prof. Gavaler connected this phenomenon with the Great Human Theory in the 19th century. Contemporary scholars believed that history could be explained mainly by the great men who used their charisma, intelligence, wisdom, and political skill powerfully to achieve a decisive historical impact. This masculinity bias agrees with the social and cultural expectations on gender at that time such as men were made to be strong and women were made to be weak, or men were made to be rational while women were made to be emotional. I also think the eugenics theory played a role in placing males over females as superheroes. As Prof. Gavaler stated, the ambiguity of gender still existed in current day’s superheroes: while the writers intended to create a healthy and robust figure of the female hero, they still couldn’t abort the typical feminine body traits. Therefore, it is very interesting to think about what the actual implications of female superheroes are and how can the gender issue be addressed more appropriately in the superhero universe.