On the 21st of November, Chris Gavaler graced us with his presence to discuss with us the origins of superheroes. In class we spoke extensively on the idea that eugenics were heavily intertwined with the creation of superheroes. Together with my classmate, Walker, we spoke after class for a great deal of time on the idea of transgression, transcendence, and transhumanism. For our discussion in the afternoon class, we read two chapters of ‘Origins of Superheroes’, Gavaler’s book, which dealt heavily with the connection between eugenics and superheroes.
Gavaler mentions in our afternoon seminar that superheroes, unlike gods, are not wrathful powers which can behave irrationally. He explains that superheroes take on the role of vigilantes above the law and religion but bound by the code of ethics defined by their encapsulating society. Superheroes are upholders of the status quo, defenders against the foreign, the best of us: unspoiled by impurity and totally dedicated to the preservation of our people. If that sounds slightly third-reich-y, you’d be right. The interplay between eugenics and superheroes is undeniable according to Gavaler.
Essentially, the modern superhero is enabled and permitted to do the things he (Yes, he. According to physical and eugenic ideals, he generally ends up being a man) does because he is strong, handsome, white and protecting his society from foreign invasion or threat. The law does not apply if you’re strong, good looking, white and in the process of saving us all, even if you’re destroying a number of things in the process.
Gavaler also mentions that all superheroes which we see today stem from the same origin, a metaphorical superhero big bang. Unlike the big-bang, however, the material which would eventually compose the modern superhero identity was very much present before this explosion. Ideals of physical traits, moral codes, and responsibilities all helped spur the eventual creation of a proto-superhero, from which many spin-offs could be made. The superhero identity acts as a widely replicable template, with cut-paste-features that can adapt to any culture or plot line.
Unfortunately, this template is often to the detriment of superheroes which attempt to take on a more progressive role. With the advent of Wonder Woman, an opportunity to widely promote imagery of strong & capable women was unfortunately coopted by the template beneath her. Her story, which existed to fill a socially necessary role as a strong female leader, was unfortunately undermined by the standards which govern superhero stories. Her physical appearance propagates a physical ideal for the feminine form. Her means of force are largely based on the notion that women should not fight: primarily uses a shield and bracelets to deflect attack, employs a lasso which compels people to tell the truth (pretty darn cool, but unfortunately still subject to senseless ideals).
When we discuss superheroes, we focus on the ideas of transgression and transcendence of the human form (physically, morally, legally). However, the identities of the superheroes we define, no matter their progressiveness, still fall short of transgressing our own fetishized ideals. Once we define characters which transgress these ideals, we will have put the super back in superhero.