The Columns

W&L Professor Chris Gavaler Publishes “On the Origin of Superheroes”

— by on December 7th, 2015

Chris Gavaler, assistant professor of English at Washington and Lee University, has published “On the Origin of Superheroes: From the Big Bang to Action Comics No. 1” (University of Iowa Press).

“It’s a big subject, and I cast the net wide,” said Gavaler, who has taught a course at W&L on superheroes since 2009. “It began when a group of students asked for a seminar on superheroes. I grew up reading comic books and had remained connected to the subject through my daughter’s interest, so I said I would. I thought it would be a fairly straightforward class to put together, but nothing could be further from the truth.”

Over the next few years, Gavaler kept tweaking the course, as well as writing a blog (The Patron Saint of Superheroes), which formed the basis for his book. “On the Origin” traces the emergence of superheroes and explores their connections to mythological heroes and gods, folklore, ancient philosophy, revolutionary manifestos, discarded scientific theories and gothic monsters.

As he notes in the book’s introduction, “Superheroes, like most any pop culture production, reflect a lot about us. And since superheroes have been flying for decades, they document our evolution too. On the surface of their unitards, they’re just pleasantly absurd wish-fulfillments. But our nation’s history of obsessions flexes just under those tights: sexuality, violence, prejudice, politics, our most nightmarish fears, our most utopian aspirations, it’s all churning in there.”

Comic book superheroes emerged in 1938 through Superman. “One of the first questions I asked myself when I started my research was what led to the creation of this particular superhero? I assumed that the answer would be pretty clear-cut, but as I started looking for references, I realized that was nonsense. Precursors to Superman — the Scarlet Pimpernel, the Phantom, the Victorian League of Justice and Zorro — have superhero traits, but Superman is a new kind of do-gooder who materializes in a new medium, the comic book. He’s a combination of science fiction, detective fiction, penny dreadfuls and comic strips. And if you look at him from a historical perspective, he’s a reflection of what was happening in the world at that time. Comic book writers were responding to imperialism, eugenics, KKK vigilantism, the relationship of law and government—all grim stuff, but all of those elements shaped the superhero type.”

As a prehistory of Superman and the Golden Age of Comics, the book’s chapters are organized around themes, beginning with the origins of the universe and traveling forward in time. Gavaler covers Jane Austen’s Bath, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars and Owen Wister’s Wyoming and contemplates mad scientists, Napoleonic dictators, costumed murderers, diabolical madmen, blackmailers, pirates, Wild West outlaws, eugenicists, Victorian do-gooders, detectives, aliens, vampires and pulp vigilantes.

“A huge number of people are interested in superheroes,” said Gavaler. “I’ve written a number of scholarly articles on the subject, but I wanted this book to be a fun, accessible read. Academic books are not meant to entertain; I wanted my book to invite readers into a hugely fascinating area.”

Gavaler’s essays on superheroes have appeared in “The Journal of American Culture,” “PS: Political Science & Politics,” “ImageTexT,” “Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics” and “HoodedUtilitarian.com.” He is the author of the novel-in-stories “School for Tricksters” and the romantic suspense novel “Pretend I’m Not Here.” Earlier this year, he won the 2015 Donna Award (his fifth) for Best Playwright from The Pittsburgh New Works Festival for his play “Empty Plots.”

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