On The Origin Of Superheroes by Chris Gavaler (book review)

July 13, 2017 | By | Reply More

Chris Gavaler says in his introduction to his book, ‘On The Origin Of Superheroes’, that the term ‘superman’ started long before 1938 and the Man Of Steel. I agree with him that it can be difficult to where do you define what a superman actually is or when it started being defined as such in reality and fiction. Does it mean a person with extraordinary powers or someone deemed making an extraordinary effort and he cites press examples where it’s applied to American sportsmen but it goes back a couple centuries at the least.

Oddly, when you would expect Gavaler to pick examples and go into depth, each chapter becomes like a state of consciousness as he picks out old legends and stories and intersperses them with the modern comicbook super-hero and then adds to the confusion by including films, not necessarily of the super-hero kind. It isn’t that difficult to spot the connection between the ancient mythologies and religions where Man was in awe of such gods to the fixation children have with super-heroes, many of whom have kept to adulthood. Like any good conjuring trick, knowing that the tales were created by normal people with a gift for storytelling doesn’t spoil the enjoyment. It’s like the belief in a god or deities of your choice, many people need to believe that there is something or someone higher looking down and might be protecting us. It incites our desire for flights of fancy to tell of their exploits even if only to explain various weather effects.

The only problem is that you can’t use this book as a standard reference book for information and it does leave some holes that Gavaler, especially as he is a comicbook fan, should either have known or can explain. Things like Peter Parker’s 13 years at high school doesn’t mean the length of time we have compared to his are the same. If anything, comicbook time is one year to about 4 or 5 years of our own. Benjamin Grimm’s middle initial ‘J’ being revealed as Jacob has nothing to do with being the Jewish golem but more a tribute to Jacob Kurtzberg aka Jack Kirby.

It’s rather odd that in Gavaler’s summing up of Native American super-beings thinking he has them all that he neglects the Proudstar brothers (although, granted, John aka Thunderbird didn’t last long compared to his brother James, aka Warpath) or Dani Moonstar from the The New Mutants. He’ll probably forget Alpha Flight’s Shaman because Michael Twoyoungmen and his daughter, Elizabeth aka Talisman, as they are Canadian although his team is mentioned. Y’see this is the problem when any author gives details, there are always people like me who will query are you giving a sampling or have you missed any out. It’s not as though the list of Native American super-heroes is particularly long.

Let’s not keep going on about omissions. The piece on super-hero morality will make you think. Gavaler raises an interesting question as to why should people do good deeds like beating up and capturing super-villains than look after their self-interest. Although he misses out on what motivated Matt Murdock to suit up as Daredevil as a means to pursue his father’s killer, wearing a costume does make you more of a symbol than a regular vigilante. I think to some extent he misses something about his own culture. Being British and as an outside observer, the American culture is brought up to be self-centred, that is to help themselves before others. It’s not a model that will fit everyone over the pond so please treat that as a generalisation. We do have a lot of selfish people in the UK, too, but our mindset is mostly geared to be helpful. In times of stress, some individuals will look to do something useful for the community. If you’ve got super-powers or the finance to fulfil such a role, some are inevitably going to feel motivated to do something in that direction. Others will just be super-villains. The fact that the early Superman and Batman killed the foes they fought is really more about the early writers finding their way with such characters and didn’t really see them as role models. Morality kicked in and made the super-heroes more benevolent instead. You don’t have much choice if kids read and want to emulate them.

For us Brits, you’ll love his confusion over what taking a ‘jimmy’ is. It means taking a pee not a penis so even his book references are wrong. For the record, it’s British cockney slang for doing a jimmy riddle aka piddle.

Saying that there aren’t successful super-hero marriages is clearly wrong. I did ponder on the absence of Spidey and Mary-Jane but Gavaler covers that further into the piece. However, the ones he does miss includes at DC Comics: the Elongated Man, Ralph and his wife, Sue Dibney; Green Arrow and Black Canary; the Atom, Ray and Jean Palmer; the Hawks, Carter and Shiera Hall and where do I start with the Legion Of Super-Heroes? Over at Marvel: Reed and Sue Richards of the Fantastic Four; Hawkeye and Mockingbird; Hank and Janet Pym; Vision and Scarlet Witch; Black Bolt and Medusa; and even Bruce Banner tied the knot with Betty Ross. All of these are off the top of my head. Granted there have been some fatalities over the decades but these are well-known. It’s hardly like celibacy is an option in the super-hero community even in the pre-Superman period. If anything, it adds to the problem of being a married super-hero and being out all hours.

If anything, I wish Gavaler had stuck to looking at the pre-Superman era because there really is a lot of information about fictional characters who would surely have been dubbed with being super-characters before the title became a fixture in modern times. By mixing it with the modern material, a lot of the time he ends up missing things that he should know and he’s teaching a course on the subject. If you’re in the geek mode of life, you’ll probably end up reading this book to test your own knowledge than his which is a shame because this book had a lot of potential.

GF Willmetts

July 2017

(pub: University Of Iowa Press. 295 page indexed enlarged paperback. Price: £18.95 (UK), $18.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-60938-381-7)

check out websites: www.uiowapress.org and www.eurospanbookstore.com

Category: Books, Superheroes

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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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