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Super-Heroes and Philosophy

Posted: Saturday, June 25, 2005
By: Ray Tate



Editors: Tom and Matt Morris
ISBN #: 0-8126-9573-9
Publisher: Open Court

When Tom and Matt Morris sent me Super-Heroes and Philosophy I expected a sort of breezy run through of various super-heroes and their philosophies--crime bad; justice good. In other words, Batman's philosophy is vengeance. Superman's philosophy is "truth, justice and the American Way." Wonder Woman's philosophy is feminism. Etcetera, Etcetera, Etcetera. I didn't expect what I came to admire very quickly in Super-Heroes and Philosophy: actual meaty philosophical discussions based on honest to goodness thinkers like Emmanuel Kant and Plato. Although I do not agree with all that is said in the book about the super-heroes, I never failed to find interest, and in philosophy disagreement is the foundation to dialogue.

The book is organized into four parts. Part one entitled Image of the Superhero scratches the surface. Part two Existential World of the Superhero explores the more insubstantial concepts of super-heroics such as morality, religion and perfectionism. Part three Super-Heroes and Moral Duty focuses specifically on why superheroes if they are ethical, law abiding and indeed moral. Part four Identity and Superhero Metaphysics tackles some really intriguing issues: the foundations of what makes us ourselves and in linking to that, the concept of continuity. A subject near and dear to my heart.

The organization exhibits an evolution of discussion, and the fluidness of the writers never bores the readers--always a danger in any philosophy books. While classical philosophers are employed to categorize super-heroic aspects, never does the book become weighed down by the discussion. Instead, it makes the reader think and even if disagree stop a moment to re-examine his or her own ideas. This is the central idea behind philosophy. To regard, to discard, to accept and respect.

The book kicks off with three well-known comic book writers floundering. Mark Waid mainly promotes his reinterpretation of Superman in Birthright. If he's as much of an expert on Superman as stated, then why not really delve into the roots of Superman? What did Siegel and Schuster intend? Well, at a guess, they intended Superman to be a hero of the oppressed. That's why in early adventures he's beating an abuser of women and throwing the cars of slumlords into various bays. Superman was meant to be something we could not be--a defender against bullies. What did Elliot S. Maggin intend? Now his Superman is a much more imaginative and different animal. As is Byrne's and Morrison's.

Next, Jeff Loeb talks about Superman: Man for All Seasons while co-editor Tom Morris ties it all into philosophy. Both of these chapters on Superman are pretty much what I expected from the book. The wunderkinds espousing on their own work with a few philosopher name-checks and paper thin insight.

Things get worse when Denny O'Neil acts as an apologist for Batman being turned into a loathsome psychotic. Oh, he changes the Batman name, but you can't fool me. Yes, Mr. O'Neil, "Still Sucks," I say. I never felt that this argument of the reader changing and maturing held any water, and I still don't. It always seemed that the comic book companies were simply expressing disdain for the people who loyally kept them in business. Suddenly those people are the ones, who are wrong, and the idiots who have Batman mind-wiped by his friends and colleagues in the JLA are groundbreaking writers who have the brilliance of a thousand suns.

Mr. O'Neil adds to the argument by introducing the yo-yo factor. How some folk leave the world of comic books and come back when nostalgia kicks in. The fact is, Mr. O'Neill, I didn't leave Batman comic books voluntarily until they replaced Batman with another and inferior character named Azbat. To voluntarily drop my comic books especially now that the direct market was firmly established would have been as a kid unthinkable. As an adult, I realized I was being bamboozled. I foolishly returned when the true Batman seemed to return, and for a few moments--a blip on the comic RADAR screen--Batman was fine to read again, but then "No Man's Land" came; one of the stupidest things ever to happen in the Batman titles. Things just kept getting worse after that. When Devin Grayson wrote about Batman buying "a gun just to see what it felt like" I left and for the most part stayed out. Because of the ham-fisted hacks in the Batman Offices, Batman has changed. I haven't changed.

The book really becomes meaningful in part one, chapter four when Aeon J. Skoble offers some truly insightful commentary on The Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns. He even seems to comprehend the latter as not as nearly as dark as misinterpreters make the book out to be. He points out the multidimensional character of Frank Miller's Batman and how Miller examined larger issues such as vigilantes and how society works. He does not emphasize the darkness; he examines the whole project. His delving into Watchmen--which I haven't read in a long, long time made me realize that Identity Crisis is doubly lack-witted since it's partially a poor Watchmen knockoff.

In the opening chapter in part two, Tom Morris returns for a deep spelunking into the soul of Matt Murdock and how religion plays a part in various runs of Daredevil. I always did see a religious element in Frank Miller's latter series, but Morris has a better grasp of religion than I ever had, and he shows how you can be detached from the subject of religion while applying the concept to a work such as Daredevil.

This chapter naturally dovetails into The Power and the Glory by Charles Taliaferro and Craig Lindahl-Urben. This chapter examines Stan Lee/Jack Kirby godlike beings that pop up in Fantastic Four. Their determination of Galactus' morality and whether or not he can or cannot be judged by his actions makes for riveting non-fiction readings. Their bringing into the argument for contrast Doctor Doom's pivotal theft of the Silver Surfer's Power Cosmic and for enhanced understanding of morality the more recent Byrne Fantastic Four issue in which Reed Richards saves Galactus' life exhibit more than a mere gleaning knowledge of comic books and philosophy.

Rebecca Housel in terms of philosophy trumps the previous chapters by juxtaposing the names X-Men and Kohlberg. In this chapter, Housel very smoothly merges movie X-Men with comic book X-Men to examine the differences between Xavier's mutants and Magneto's mutants. It's not as simple as saying one is evil and the other is good. Housel breaks down each mutant to their psychological components and then shows the flaws in both heroes and villains and that how they deal with the flaws in themselves determines their actions.

The most infuriating chapter in the book belongs to James B. South who writes about "Barbara Gordon and Moral Perfectionism." The chapter makes me grind my teeth. Now, it's not South's fault. I have for the most part avoided unnecessary persona of Oracle. When she was brought into continuity proper, I had good reason to believe she wouldn't stay crippled for long. A person who has been shot through the spine and confined to a wheelchair in a shared universe where men and women routinely break the bonds of gravity is not disabled. She has been crippled, and Batman--the bastard--just fosters her confinement for his own gain. Now, my hatred of this chapter is not because of South. His insights into the character of Oracle are astute. Though I wish somebody had given him access to reprints of pre-Crisis Batgirl adventures to see who was lost. I just wish I never read this chapter. I avoided Batgirl Year One because I knew it would irritate. South in his detailing of those events in the book vexed me even more than I thought they would. The very idea of changing Batgirl's original motive--namely instinctively saving Bruce Wayne's life and using her guile to track down the Killer Moth--into something self-serving disgusts me on a fundamental level. Sorry, Mr. South. My venom isn't directed toward you, but DC's defunct brain trust. "Still, sucks."

Much better is Matt Morris' defiance of DC convention. Batman does too have friends, and through the prism of Aristotle Morris identifies his very best friend who is not whom you think. This chapter doubly interested me since a very good pre-Crisis Batman writer made a convincing counterpoint to suggest that Batman's friend doesn't like him at all.

Chris Ryall and Scott Tipton combine forces to explain the Fantastic Four's cohesion. I never really knew or looked deep into my navel to discover why of all the Marvel team characters I like the FF more than say the X-Men or even the Avengers. Now, though I know, and for somebody as pragmatic as I am, it's nice to have a rationale. Thanks for that.

Michael Tau contributes an interesting chapter entitled "Comic Book Wisdom." This goes exactly where you suspect it may, but Tau surprises with some very interesting ideas based on philosophy natch' about where wisdom stands today in the comic book world. I respectfully disagree strongly about his opinions about hack extraordinaire Geoff Johns, but I appreciate his application of Boethius--a name I vaguely remember from college philosophy courses--to the stories. He also does not confine his discourse to one super-hero. He examines a good sampling before turning to the obvious representative of wisdom.

If you didn't know what kind of book was Super-Heroes and Philosophy encountering the philosophical example Ring of Gyges in Jeff Brenzel's discussion of super-hero morality should clue you in to the kind of meaty exercise that you will be reading. Now, this is not to alarm those who are unfamiliar with philosophy. Almost all the authors give a crash course within a paragraph or two.

Of course C. Stephen Evans tops Mr. Brenzel by invoking Kierkegaard in regarding Spider-Man and the X-Men. Though he focuses his arguments on the movies of those characters. Through his subject he brings the idea of morality back to love and family.

Christopher Robichaud brings up some interesting arguments in "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility." He does not confine them to Spider-Man but spreads them to many super-heroes. His treatise is on obligation and whether or not super-heroes are obligated to be truthful and lawful. I found his arguments extremely interesting because transposing the heroes to the real world would seem to automatically make them vigilantes. Not necessarily.

C. Stephen Laymon extends the question of super-heroes by asking whether or not they have to be that way. Indeed, why not squander or abuse that power? He conjectures five reasons based upon numerous philosophers' tenets, and then gives a fascinating exploration of all five.

Felix Tallon--a super-villain name if ever I heard one--and Jerry Walls offer a study of religious parallels to be found in Kingdom Come. At this point, I should point out that I am an agnostic, and the extent of my faith stretches to maybe something caused the Big Bang. My pragmatic nature may be biasing my opinion that Tallon and Walls present a flawed argument. I don't and never have actually seen Christian theology as particularly moral. The kind of bearded beatnik styled Jesus Christ who preaches of love, peace and understanding isn't really in The Bible. If you read the text he's more like a powerful prince who demands fealty, and in turn he will grant you his graces--Mary Magdeline excepted. He's more like the Roman God Apollo whom Kirk and company met on some god-forsaken (pun intended) planet. In any case, the idea that Kingdom Come is a religious parable is shot down by the presence of Wonder Woman--representing the gods of Greece--doing good as their champion as well as Batman--an atheist if ever there was one--also joining the battle to turn the tide of what appears to be destiny--a war between super-people who do not give a damn about the innocents being "diced in the process" to quote the Doctor. There is metaphor in Kingdom Come but I tend to agree with Elliot S. Maggin. "Kingdom Come. They will be done...." It would seem to me that the waves of super-people represent the "cleansing flood" of the Old Testament, but our team represents those who would face nature (god) and turn the tide for the sake of humanity. The Spectre being Jim Corrigan would have doubts about the intent of his creator--the Old Testament God. So, he interferes by bringing Norman McKay into the fray. Ah, well, I could be wrong. I really just liked the artwork and the super-hero action anyhow.

In the final chapters, Kevin Kinghorn questions whether or not the Hulk and Bruce Banner are the same person. This question has actually been explored in comic books, and Kinghorn does not dismiss these previous arguments. He instead takes them into account and offers new insight on his own that does not retread old material or even old fannish arguments.

Richard Hanley--author of The Metaphysics of Star Trek--talks of time travel and parallel universes--my two favorite subgenres of science fiction--in the Crisis of Infinite Earths. He does well until he tries to determine whether or not the parallel universe counterparts of heroes are the same. Too often he considers the physical rather than ironically the ephemeral. The Superman of Earth One and Earth Two may have the same genetic composition; though I doubt this supposition, but they were different people. The Superman of Earth Two experienced society in a different time frame as the Superman of Earth One, and Earth Two aegis' world history took off in different directions to expose the heroes to different contingencies. Also the Huntress of Earth Two is genetically and psychologically different than the inferior copy on post-Crisis Earth.

In the final chapter, Tom Morris brings it all home and attacks the intricacies of the secret identity and why super-heroes adopted costumed forms and wear masks. Again, it's not as simple as protecting one's loved ones from harm; though this Morris admits is a big part of the rationale, but there are other less obvious reasons that he gives, and that perhaps sums up Super-Heroes and Philosophy it's a book that's less obvious than you think and well worth the time.



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