Category: November 21 (page 2 of 3)


The origin of superheroes is a fascinating story. One must begin with the idea of the superhero, and what exactly defines a superhero. As a social phenomenon, it has become a ubiquitous idea, and an example of the brilliance of American comic makers. It is interesting to consider where superheroes come from, and how they have evolved into their current form, as the stars of comics as well as movies and the role models for young children around the world. Their influence has become far reaching over the years. Heroes have always been a part of literature, since the earliest epic poems from Greek and Roman history. However, the transition from normal heroes into superheroes is a bit more nuanced. Though many people would point to powers that are inhuman as being the defining factor of a superhero, there are much older heroes who display these characteristics. Achilles, though he had his weakness, was invincible in all other areas of his body, a characteristic which makes him obviously inhuman. This becomes a very gray area, as it is impossible to define the boundary between having superhuman capabilities, and being a superhero. Would the treatment of the river Styx on Achilles, or the shoes of Icarus make them superheroes? Both are still mortal, but they also seem to have superhuman capabilities. Is the edge of the gray area defined as mortality, or is it more grounded in morality? As I have found with many of these lectures, I leave with more questions than when I arrive. Having known very little about the origin of anything from the universe to Italian Poetry or Novel Writing, I am repeatedly exposed to a new corner of the world which I know little to nothing about. In the brief time, it is impossible to learn the origins of anything to a satisfactory level. However, opening up these corners of the world, and shedding a bit of light on them makes me more curious, and I find myself wondering about the finer points of origins often. Can we prove an origin, or separate it from an evolution? If we can prove that it happened, but we can’t prove how or why, then is this finding really significant? Does investigating this idea bring us more answers or will it lead to more questions, as the brief lecture on it has for me? How is is possible to define the first novel except by the definition used at the time when it was written? It was fascinating to learn so much about both a topic that I was previously very uninformed about. Modern superheroes are in fact morally grounded. This makes them great role models for young children, as it teaches the lesson that those with great power also have responsibility to use their power morally. The powers of a superhero can be used only for good. In this way they differ from Greek heroes, who consistently showed gaps in morality. Even the immortal gods in Greek myths had flaws.


The Villainy of Superheroes

Professor Gavaler made a number of interesting–to say the least–points in his discussion of the societal impacts of super-heroic imagery. Particularly interesting is how he mentioned that societies all over the world, perhaps as a result of evolutionary psychology that’s been ingrained in humanity since before the invention of the wheel, have a common tendency to develop tropes of “saving graces.” To put it simply, I took away from Prof. Gavaler’s lecture that the development of super-heroism in literature is a byproduct of humanity’s need to absolve itself of responsibility for the rectification of our systemic problems.


Let me explain, because I just made a big logical leap that probably isn’t justified given the context I provided.


In the lecture, it was noted that Wonder Woman arrived in our society (or at least in  William Moulton Marston’s fictional rendition of our society) to bring peace to America at the behest of a C.I.A. officer.* She was supposed to fight Nazis and conquer crime in wartime and postwar America. Superman, similarly, came to Earth from Krypton to bring Earth back from the brink of sociopolitical collapse. Batman, too, avenges the death of his parents by enforcing justice and security in the city of Gotham.


The common thread with these superheroes is that they’re, well, superheroes. Shocking, I know. But the interesting thing about this shared super-heroic identity is that they exist basically in vacuums. The police never helped Batman. Though she was brought to America by the C.I.A., I don’t recall hearing about Wonder Woman’s enduring and effective multilateral partnerships with the United States’ government. Not to mention that Superman exists only to rectify the errors of the human systems, not necessarily to work alongside them.  What this essentially means is that we, as a society, have created (I know that “created” is a tricky word to use with groups of people, but the fact of the matter is that we wouldn’t have any superheroes had society not created a market demand for such literature) an “easy out.”  A form of absolution, if you will, that is a product of the same line of thinking that brought us things such as omnipotent Gods, spirits, and even determinism. That was a takeaway (or at least one of my takeaways) from the lecture.

I know that I’ve been sounding a lot like a summarizer and less like an essayist thus far. But I draw a very important distinction between my train of thought and that of Professor Gavaler. He didn’t really make any outright moral judgements about this facet of human psychology. I do. I think that superheroes are dangerous (not just because they sometimes are Pyrrhic victors in that they occasionally destroy cities in trying to oust its evildoers) because they promote and instill in the minds of young children that there is someone or something out there that can fix our problems. Nobody else has to. Nazis invading? Call Wonderwoman. A horrible crime spree ravaging your city? Not to worry, Batman will fix it. There is a lot of great literature on this topic–Suzanne Kappeler is a feminist philosopher and author who advocates against thinking (even fictionally) that superheroes will save us–and I’m inclined to defend it. I don’t like superheroes because they inherently promote thinking that it’s okay to sit back and let someone else fix your problems. That’s a bad ideology to give to young kids.





*That’s all based on my limited knowledge of superheroes. I never read comic books growing up and I’ve never seen a superhero movie, so please excuse my vapid understanding of the plot lines.

The Human in Superhuman

Haley Andonian

“On the Origin of Superheoes”

Lecturer: Chris Gavaler

November 27, 2017


In his book On the Origin of Superheroes: From the Big Bang to Action Comics, Chris Gavaler discusses the little recognized or little known true origin of superheroes that, contrary to popular belief, started way before Superman’s appearance.  Gavaler argues that the characteristics of superheroes, unusual powers, hidden identities, special disguises, were common and creating a standard superhero long before Superman was born.

In his chapter titled “Evolution”, Chris Gavaler quotes a man named Richard Reynolds on the superhero qualities of Dr. Jekyll/ Mr. Hyde. Gavaler quotes Reynolds stating that “a superhero’s split identity makes him ‘both the exotic and the agent of order which brings the exotic to book’” (Gavaler, 137).  After reading this quote, I stopped for a while to think about what Reynolds is saying and found his point very interesting.  The reason we as humans have so much fascination for superheroes, Reynolds is suggesting, is because they are exotic but also familiar.  We can see ourselves in them by relating to their human-like qualities, their seemingly ordinary lifestyle, their ordinary appearance, their language, their day jobs, etc.  However, they also contain a hidden side that is fantastical, magical, extraordinary, and something most humans can relate to desiring at some point, such as intense strength, super speed, or the ability to fly.

Thus, as I interpret Reynolds’s quote, we as humans are so fascinated and so like superhero stories because we can relate to the superhero and imagining ourselves as them feasible or desirable.  Superheroes often are cut from the same cloth as an ordinary human, or at least it appears so.  Their daily lives and appearance are so similar to ours that we can relate to them and are intrigued by their stories.  In other words, we relate and express interest in superhero stories because of the shared sense of origins.

Further, just as humans are interested in the stories of super humans since they share a sense or mutual origin or humanity, so are cultural, religious, national subgroups interested in the stories, lives and wellbeing of others within their own subgroups.  We as humans better identify with those we share an origin or history with.  A Catholic individual can likely identify more with another Catholic than an individual of a different religion, just as a human can identify more with a human-like superhero than with a completely alien mythical creature.

Overall, we can relate better to those who share a part of our identity.  In the same way, we show more interest in those who we can see a part of ourselves in.  Just as humans can relate to superheroes that are both exotic and similar, subgroups within mankind help people locate themselves, interact, and form close bonds with those of their own subgroups, and at the same time people learn from the seemingly exotic characteristics of those same people.  Everyone is different in one way or another, and while or similarities bring us closer together, our difference help us learn and grow.


Superheroes and Gender

Chris Gavaler, a professor from Washington and Lee, teaches an entire course about superheroes. Professor Gavaler did a wonderful job explaining how the original superman came to be from important (if not terrifying) current events, but my interest was really piqued when after the afternoon lecture he answered a question about comics and gender. I decided to do a little digging of my own to find out more information about the origins of female superheroes. Continue reading

The Point of Popularity

This past week, Chris Gavaler came to speak with us about the origins of superheroes. While we spoke at great length, both during and after class, my response to his ideas on transgression and the literary tradition of eugenics in Superheros will be intertwined with my final essay. As for this post, I want to address his idea of a ‘point of popularity’ in relation to my ongoing development of the tree of origins.


If you have read any of my previous posts (you most likely haven’t), you may notice my fascination with the organization of origins. Specifically, I believe that each origin is a node on a hierarchical tree of all origins. The parent origin is unknown to us, but we can see how the origin of American short fiction traces to the origin of fiction writing which traces back to the written tradition of literature etc. etc. Gavaler mentioned something new to this theory: perception of origins construed by popularity. His theory is that we, as consumers and the uninformed, see Superman as his own entity. In reality, the origins of Superman is actually the summations of previous fictional characters, eugenics, and American diction circa 1938. We, as the uninformed consumer, do not notice the cultural influence, and instead focus on the cultural significance — we forget everything that led to this point.


I argue that this bottleneck of sorts fits into my hierarchical model quite well, and that we have a rather limited view of the tree of origins. For example, we are so struck by the invention of computers that we fail to recognize its predecessor: Alan Turing’s Bombe machine. Of course, with the creation of ‘The Imitation Game’ we ALL know that story. But what about the distant predecessor of computers? We often forget the importance of Ada Lovelace and diagram for the computation of Bernoulli numbers. Lovelace is credited by some to be the original ‘computer programmer’, but her work is often — dare I say, rightfully — overlooked, because… well… computers! That is to say, we — and I repeat –, as the uninformed consumer, are only aware of an impactful origin as long as it’s popular. When the next great thing rolls around, we are quick to move on. Granted, we all see the name Nintendo and think of the N64; but can we name all the summands that led to the creation of the SNES… probably not.


Of course this has a great impact on the public perception of the term ‘original’. In previous posts, I have noted that the ‘original’ is actually only the first origin — the thing which has been around since the beginning. Yet, if we lose sight of the influential factors of an origin, as Gavaler argued, we understand that lone origin to be the original. Take a moment to look at a term in pop culture: ‘OG’ or ‘original gangster’. Often times, OG refers to Tupac and Notorious B.I.G., but that’s because society has largely moved past Lucky Luciano and Bugs Moran.


If you’re looking for a grand conclusion, which I’m sure you are, take away this: nothing (except one thing) is the true original. Everything we interact with every second of every day, is a summation of predecessors and past influencers. Everything (except one thing) is an iteration.

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