Monday, August 15, 2011

Year of the Superhero - Our Gods Wear Spandex

I'm not just reading superhero fiction and watching superhero movies this year. Admittedly, that's the bulk of my research*, but when I come across a non-fiction work that interests me, I'll pick it up. Case in point: Our Gods Wear Spandex by Christopher Knowles.

Knowles' thesis is that superheroes are now what gods were then. They're fantastically powerful, they save us in times of peril**, and they are "worshipped" by their fans. He gives a lot of information about comic book history and the parallels and influences withs gods, mysticism, and the occult that crop up within it. I buy the thesis, because yeah, I see the parallels, and I think I've run into this idea before. I don't always buy that the support evidence supports the thesis, though, and there were some moments where my Inner Feminist™and Slightly Outer Fangirl™ went rawr. So I'm kind of conflicted about whether I liked the book or not.

The book starts with chronologies of super-beings and evolved humans, detectives, and religious and occult groups (Masons, Rosicrucians, spiritualists, etc.), all of which served as prototypes in some way or other for important comic book tropes. We wouldn't have had Batman without Sherlock Holmes, and wouldn't have had the Asian Guru of All Power and Wisdom™without the Victorian New Agers. There's also biographies of important Victorians and Edwardians involved in the occult (Aleister Crowley, Harry Houdini, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) with relevant links to comics. 

Then Knowles starts charting the history of the pulps and then comic books, pointing to the first characters who could be called 'super' and noting the prototypes for later, actual superheroes. He mentions the strange and surreal plots, mystic elements, actual appearances by gods, and more that I've already sadly forgotten, and does a pretty good job of tying it back into the chronologies I just mentioned. The rest of the book is basically Knowles leading us from the Golden Age through to 2007, when the book was published, with discussions of landmark works and creators. He mentions occult and religious influences whenever applicable: Horus links to the Falcon, Superman gets his power from the sun like Ra, Wonder Woman is an Amazon, and Batman, Wolverine, and Hellboy conform to what Knowles calls the Golem Archetype. 

Unfortunately, there are problems with the text. Most importantly from a scholarly standpoint, Knowles seems to be trying too hard to prove his thesis. A lot of the links with the occult he lists are credible and work in his favour, but others seem to be pushing the connection with the occult a little far. Knowles mentions creators with interests in myths and magic and says that they deliberately put occult themes in their work, whereas I'm more willing to believe that those themes slipped in subliminally or in a kind of "oh crap, how do we explain this?" manner. (I don't deny there was an influence, though.) And he also says things like "Superhero Name was also the nickname of So-And-So Unrelated Creator", which I see as trivia and coincidence and not supporting anything. A lot of Knowles' arguments are based on his own research and opinions, by the way. He rarely quotes another scholarly source and I don't think he ever provides counter-arguments.

The next problem I have is with the book's reading of female heroes. Knowles took a moment in the history of occultism chapter to talk about initiation rituals involving bondage. When he gets to the chapter on female superheroes, he makes a point of mentioning their revealing outfits and how erotic it is to see them get tied up all the time, and links this back to those bondage rituals. Can't a girl get tied up without connotations? I've seen readings of Wonder Woman that have her as a feminist icon until the 60s and 70s tamed her. Knowles has the opposite reading, that she wasn't a proper female role model until she left her powers and lived as a human. The same kind of reading is placed on other female heroes, notably Elektra, who he tears apart for being masculine, dominant, and assertive. Oh, and of course there are a couple mentions that most comics fans are male, with the implication that the female fans don't really count because they're an extreme minority. Feminist SMASH!

Last problem: The Slightly Outer Fangirl™. She was happy to see Knowles say things like, "fans identify with Spider-Man because he's like them—scrawny, nerdy, socially awkward, and dealing with bullies all the time"***, largely because that's why she identifies with Spider-Man. She was slightly unhappy that he seems to think that socially awkward is the only way for a comics fan to be. And then (for a relative meaning of then, because I think this happened first) he says that cosplayers are acting out of the same impulse as Ancient Greeks**** when they dressed up as gods, i.e. that cosplayers are worshipping the characters they dress as; and that cosplay comes from comics fandom. One, I think "honouring" or "sharing love" are better verbs than "worshipping". Two, I always thought cosplay started in, or at least became a Thing in, Japan because of manga—which do count comic books, in a way, but Knowles never mentions them. Three, cosplay's evolved way past superhero costumes, and I'm pretty sure it had done so long before 2007. Do we then say that people who dress as Link, the Doctor, Susan Sto-Helit, or Severus Snape worship those characters? I suspect Knowles would say, "But they're superheroes, see, look look, totally counts!"

The fact that Knowles stretches credibility with a few of his occult link-ins stretches the credibility of all the links for me. If he can't be bothered to try to appear unbiased and/or scholarly about his thesis, then I'm inclined to see that as him pushing an opinion rather than presenting an argument. And if he's going to impose his (older) (male) viewpoint on comics and fandom, I'm going to question his opinions, being, as I am, younger and female. 

All that aside, the bulk of Our Gods Wear Spandex is interesting and informative, and can be read as an overview or a launching point for further research. (It's not exhaustive and not meant to be.) Knowles has a number of intriguing ideas and makes a number of connections that I hadn't thought of. I see the history of comics more clearly now, will be reading them with a more informed eye, and don't regret reading the book. At the same time, though, I am approaching the information Knowles lays out with a skeptical eye because a scholar to my standards he is not. I advise anyone picking this book up to do the same.

* I love that I get to call it that.
** Superheroes get more popular during times of national crisis like war.
*** I paraphrase. The book is no longer on me.
**** I think it was the Greeks?

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