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From the Big Bang to Action Comics No. 1

by Chris Gavaler

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2015
ISBN: 978-1-60938-381-7
Publisher: Univ. of Iowa

An unconventional analysis of the cultural phenomenon of superheroes that goes far beyond comic books.

The cultural saturation of superheroes may have reached its zenith. Each year, Hollywood continues to release more big-budget superhero movies from the Marvel universe and beyond, earning billions of dollars. However, as Gavaler (English/Washington and Lee Univ.; School for Tricksters, 2011, etc.) points out in his attempt to trace the cult of superhero archetypes through history, the obsession with superheroes is hardly new. The common tropes of the superhero, including “secret identities, aliases, disguises, signature symbols, traumatic origins, extraordinary powers, [and] self-sacrificing altruism,” were already accepted standards of heroic literature and mythology long before Superman first appeared in Action Comics in 1938. In his analysis, Gavaler hunts down examples to show how the concept of the superhero has been a mainstay of Western culture for centuries, citing the comparison of the superhero to a god figure, the superhero as revolutionary, and the influence of evolution on superhero identity. It’s an ambitious project, but the author’s vague thesis and exceptionally broad definition of “superhero” make nearly all of his supporting examples valid despite how irrelevant—e.g. Jean Valjean of Les Miserables. By Gavaler’s standards, superheroes are easily mistaken for the protagonist or hero (of the nonsuper variety) of a narrative. Moreover, the author divides his narrative by selective subject matter that is not cohesive to a single argument, often leaving readers puzzled. More problematic still is Gavaler’s tenuous string of examples—on multiple occasions, the author prefaces a statement with, “I don’t know if…”—which creates a rambling and discontinuous quality to his writing, further exacerbated by insertions of personal stories from reading comics as a boy and teaching them as a professor.

Despite occasional insight, a lack of continuity makes the book, despite the author’s reverence and enthusiasm, a missed opportunity.