Saturday, December 3, 2011

Book Review: Do The Gods Wear Capes? by Ben Saunders

"This phenomenal development of a national comics addiction puzzles professional educators and leaves the literary critics gasping. Comics scorn finesse, thereby incurring the wrath of linguistic adepts. They defy the limits of accepted fact and convention, thus amortizing to apoplexy the ossified arteries of routine thought. But by these very tokens the picture-story fantasy cuts loose the hampering debris of art and artifice and touches the tender spots of universal human desires and aspirations, hidden customarily beneath long accumulated protective coverings of indirection or disguise. Comics speak, without qualm or sophistication, to the innermost ears of the wishful self." --William Moulton Marston, creator of Wonder Woman, circa 1940s, quoted in Ben Saunder's Do The Gods Wear Capes?.

I know, two book reviews in a 24 hour period. It's been a long day. Hopefully, this one will be a little abridged.

About a year ago now, I was pressing a friend for his opinion on a trio of superhero comics we'd both read. He was somewhat reluctant to voice said opinion, but under further pressure, he finally blurted out that he hated them. Not only did they raise his ire, but they reminded him of everything that he was sick of about the genre: overblown, oversimplistic morality, downright misogynist portrayals of women, and a celebration of violence and carnage. I was, as you might imagine, somewhat surprised. The worst part was that I could tell this wasn't a conclusion he'd come to casually. He was a bigger comic fan than I was (if you can imagine such a thing), and he wouldn't willingly dismiss any part of its history, capes or no capes, unless he felt he had very little choice. And the hell of it was, I couldn't really marshal an argument in favor of the current crop of spandex-sporters. A lot of the time they ARE depicting the adventures of misogynistic, hyperviolent hypocrites. And the hell of it was, I'd probably keep on reading them anyway.

Saunders' book, Do The Gods Wear Capes?: Spirituality, Fantasy, and Superheroes, isn't exactly the answer I was looking for, though that's mostly because of its era of focus--it's stretching the whole of superhero comics history, from pre-WWII onwards, but there's not much about the current era; the closest it gets is some Warren Ellis-penned stuff in the early 2000s. Each chapter looks at a different comic book superhero and the seminal work on him or her to argue for the philosophical representations each one conveys. Chapter 1, for example, is on Superman. Supremely powered, Superman's story isn't about power, but about pursuing moral goodness. The catch is, this goodness is constantly being reinterpreted--Siegel and Shuster saw him as a rebel figure, best typified in an early issue where he tears up a car manufacturer's factory for producing unsafe vehicles, then kidnaps the mayor to get him to promise stricter guidelines. Later, he becomes a bastion of public order, and later still, something more ambiguous. Spiritually, Saunders connects him to the difficulty of pursuing goodness, as its definition proves elusive.

But it's chapter two where things really get interesting. Saunders here looks at the inception of Wonder Woman, by psychiatrist turned comic book writer William Moulton Marston. Marston's predilection for bondage scenes is well-known, but what's less known is that this bondage was based on a very complex system of beliefs. Marston thought that, using some questionable biological arguments, that women were naturally dominant, and men submissive, and that much of the evils of world persisted because both sexes had forgotten the pleasure of being in bondage. As Marston put it, "The only hope for peace is to teach people who are full of pep and unbound force to enjoy being bound." It's a very weird idea, but a pretty interesting one--especially when juxtaposed with Bernard Wolfe's Limbo. Limbo, as I'm sure you'll all remember from the book review I never wrote, had the premise that in the future, men disavowed themselves from aggression by voluntarily removing their limbs. The endeavor failed because they were just as aggressive as ever--they replaced the limbs with constructed limbs that they built in competition, trading a nuclear arms race for a literal arms race (and with Wolfe, the pun is always intended). At the same time, their sexuality all but vanished--the world was fun of women desperate for male attention and men who ignored them. Perhaps Marston's bondage is a way of channeling that aggression into pleasure?
Saunders' own contribution of the argument is that the value Marston favors--submission--is an original Christian value, but one that's fallen out of favor. He suggests that Wonder Woman, as a character, presents a utopian model combining submission to a higher power with the ecstasy of the flesh, seeing that combining sex and spirituality has been a problem at least since the Songs of Solomon.

Chapter 3 is Spider-Man, and in this figure, Saunders sees a merger of Freudian trauma theory--Spider-Man's constant return to the death of his uncle and Gwen Stacey--to the existential philosophy of Kierkegaard. Specifically, Kierkegaard argues that we pass from a state of no moral order, to some system of moral order, to a realization of that no moral order is capable of encompassing all experience, and that rationality is always limited. Those three stages are represented in Spider-Man by his original moral-free acceptance of his powers, his "great power comes great responsibility" shift with the death of Uncle Ben, and the unpreventable death of his girlfriend, Gwen Stacey. (There's also a brief section on Gwen's role, as the innocent woman sacrificed so Peter can reach this enlightenment.) One wonders, given this analysis, what Saunders makes of Peter's recent deal with Satan to his aunt's life, at the cost of his memory of his marriage. Yeah, that happened. Comics!

The final chapter is on Iron Man. Here, Saunders argues that Tony Stark's reliance on technology is similar to his reliance on alcohol, that in both cases, it's about control, and it's through the lenses of alcoholism that the series portrays the follies of overreliance on technology. Saunders weaves this interpretation with a discussion of the posthuman, represented by Stark's merging of man and machine. The spiritual issue touched on here is one of acceptance of the limitations of the individual, as in the form of the AA program. A coda follows, in which Saunders cautions against comic book studies creating a divide between super hero comics and the more auteur-based indie books. Preach it, sir.

Saunders' interest here is not in showing how these superheroes function as springboards for philosophical discussions, but to argue that these philosophical issues have always been built into these characters to begin with. Thus, the value of superhero comics aren't escapism or wish fulfillment, but the way they address, intrinsically, the same values and questions that have driven philosophy for centuries. And while Saunders does get a little preachy at times, for the most part, he does exactly that. It's probably a testament to his writing that I was left wondering what could be done with other superhero characters. If Gwen was a sacrifice, then what do we make of Jean Grey, a woman who died not just once but twice, the second time explicitly so her husband could progress as a person? Batman is notoriously missing in Saunders' analysis, save for a reference that his morality is not so much complex as contradictory, but surely there's something to be made out of a man who dedicated his life to vengeance and wound up with a family? And then there's the Fantastic Four. If Tony Stark represents faith in technology, then Reed Richards is the poster boy for rationalism and modern science. And Ben Grimm is essentially the archetype of "bad things happening to good people." Ah, the endless possibilities. Comics!

Later Days.

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