Before Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, there was… who? That is exactly what Chris Gavaler tries to answer in his book On the Origin of Superheroes. Gavalar works his way from the Big Bang to Action Comics No. 1 and explores the history of the superhero with a passionate intelligence and a touch of geekdom.
The idea of superheros, or Übermensch as Nietzsche refers to them, has a long and storied history. Gavaler traces the earliest recordings of a superhuman to cave drawings in Lascaux. Human obsession with superheroic figures stretches from Gilgamesh to Jesus to Barack Obama. Galavar argues that “superheroes, like most any pop culture production, reflect a lot about us.” Superheroes are a culmination of the best of us and don’t have a shred of the worst of us. And they care about humanity and want to save us from outside evil. What’s not to love?
Gavaler’s structural choices are On the Origin of Superheroes’ greatest strength. He literally begins with the Big Bang and moves forward, hitting the most important points in history that depict and define superheroes. The way the book’s structure parallels the history of the universe really solidifies the idea that superheroes are deeply ingrained in human history. Gavaler also takes this time to hit on points in history where a folk hero, like Paul Revere, appears. Gavaler uses these folk heroes to explain what a superhero is and isn’t. Defining and redefining the idea of the superhero is Gavaler’s constant aim, and he does it intelligently.
Another strong aspect of the book is Gavaler’s voice. He’s always quick to bring in an anecdote or throw in a bit of trivia to break up the scholarly material (though, I admit, it doesn’t read like scholarly material). Gavaler makes his enthusiasm for his subject material evident by peppering these tiny digressions throughout the book. There’s one digression in particular where he contemplates what the Justice League would be like if the god Maui were to be a part of the team. These digressions often make me smile without breaking my immersion of the text.
As Gavaler makes his way through the history of the superhero, he follows one major digression: what role superheroes play in everyday society. He explores this topic by examining the influence of superheroes on terrorists and the role of the anti-hero in acting out our darkest desires. By exploring these kinds of philosophical questions, Gavaler brings another dynamic to the text that increases its re-readability. Were this just a history lesson, I don’t feel like I would ever pick this book back up again. However, since my personal views on philosophy are always evolving, it’s good to know there’s a text that I can continually revisit throughout my life where its meaning will evolve as I do.
However, Gavaler’s diversions were also On the Origin of Superheroes’ biggest failing. While I have no problem with his personal anecdotes and musings, I do have a problem with situations where the text strays from the topic at hand. Gavaler has a tendency to also talk about the history of comics rather than keeping his focus on superheroes. He does this when talking about the cave drawings in Lascaux. Gavaler admits that the superhero image is a small part of this enormous drawing. (Seriously, it’s huge. Like, it spans multiple caves). Gavaler only admits to this tiny caveat (about the superhero drawing )after spending a few paragraphs drawing comparisons between the structure of the cave drawings to the structure of comic books. While this information was interesting, I’m reading this for the heroes, dammit! These digressions read as unimportant additional information that take away from the focus of his thesis.
On the Origin of Superheroes is an infectiously fun read for a scholarly book, though I do feel it could benefit from a touch of editing. Gavaler’s enthusiasm for superheroes will make even the most uncool non-comics reader become interested in the subject matter. There’s a definite need in the human psyche that superheros fill, which is why they will be an everlasting figure in our art. I recommend this title for fans of scholarly writing about pop culture as well as the average superhero fan.
Four out of five crones
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Publication Date: November 1, 2015
Retail Price: $18.00