Review: Do the Gods Wear Capes?

Ben Saunders, Do the Gods Wear Capes?: Spirituality, Fantasy, and Superheroes (New York: Continuum, 2011). 178 pages.

Only half-jokingly I occasionally recommend to my students that they follow the Law of Diminished Expectations: if you go through life with your expectations low enough you’ll never be disappointed, and you’ll frequently find yourself pleasantly surprised. I cannot recall the last time that I was as pleasantly surprised as I have been reading Ben Saunders’ Do the Gods Wear Capes?: Spirituality, Fantasy, and Superheroes. When I discovered that he was examining superhero comic books from a theological perspective, I was anticipating reading a great deal of allegorical, Superman-as-Jesus type material. There is nothing of the kind here.

Saunders is talking about theology, philosophy, American culture, literary theory, gender roles. And comic books. He writes, “superhero comics are especially, generically, suited to the task of engaging, expressing, and addressing urgent ethical and existential questions” (15). And he is right. I have been convinced.

For a variety of reasons, to be sure, words like philosophy and theology tend to put people on their guard. Ninety-nine percent of folks are going to respond negatively to the invitation, “I’m having a party at my place where we’ll be discussing the competing theodicies of Western and Eastern philosophical systems.” While comic books might tend to make most people roll their eyes, they do not put people on the defensive; they are perceived to be (and frequently are) a harmless, amusing form of lowbrow entertainment. Saunders contends, however, that comic books create a space uniquely suited to the types of thought experiments that otherwise only take place in the classroom or in professional writing. He describes his goal for the book this way:

“My purpose is not simply to render these intellectual concepts more accessible by applying them to a well–known figure of pop culture, a project that by itself runs the risk of patronizing popular art and popular audiences. I also hope to show that the comics themselves constitute a sophisticated approach to some profound problems of human agency in the face of suffering…. [Comic books] can in turn illuminate some key aspects of psychoanalytic and existential philosophy.” (73–74)

The introductory chapter highlights the primary focus of the book, which is love: “because this book is about superheroes, it cannot help but also be about spirituality—and consequently it is also about love” (15). The body of the work is divided into the following four sections.

Chapter 1 – Superman: Truth, Justice, and All That Stuff

Superman has the moral reputation of a Norman-Rockwell-era Boy Scout. He offers an opportunity “to depict what philosophers since Plato have called the good” (17–18).  The challenge for writers, though, has been to try to determine exactly what it is that the American people mean by “good” from the 1930s through the first decade of the twenty-first century. The history of this character “illustrates a simple but powerful idea that has rendered problematic every attempt to found a universalist ethics or transcendentalist theory of justice, from Plato to Kant to Rawls: good and evil are not absolutes, but change according to time, place, and culture” (30).

Chapter 2 – Wonder Woman: Bondage and Liberation

Saunders spends quite a bit of time discussing Wonder Woman’s creator, William Marston, since his personal and professional interests shaped her character. Marston had a degree in law as well as a Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard. In the medium of comic books, however, this well-educated man saw an opportunity “to promulgate his own theories about gender, sexuality, and personality types” (45).

Marston believed that the world would be a better place if men learned to be content in more submissive roles, like those that women were forced to occupy in the early twentieth century and before. Wonder Woman can be the ideal feminist role model: “Wonder Woman is a fantasy figure who asserts, against the entire masculinist symbolic order, that it is possible to be both beautiful and strong, to be nurturing and independent, to be emotional and intelligent, to be assertive and kind….she espouses spiritual values but eschews fanaticism, dogma, and intolerance” (70).

Chapter Three – Spider-Man: Heroic Failure and Spiritual Triumph

Next to that of Superman, Spider-Man’s origin story is among the most well-known. Peter Parker provides an opportunity to explore “several familiar themes of Judeo-Christian theology, including the temptation of pride, the indelible and yet transformative experience of personal guilt, and the traumatic nature of revelation” (73). Peter Parker struggles with his gifts as well as with his failures. Along with him, we consider what it is that God expects of us in regard to the gifts and abilities that we have been given.

Chapter Four – Iron Man: Techno-Faith

Tony Stark/Iron Man explores questions of  “‘techno-faith’—that is, a fundamental belief in the power of the human will to transform the world to reflect human desires, through the agency of technology” which is particularly evident “in the contemporary discourse of posthumanism” (106). Saunders contrasts “the medieval system of faith in ‘Providence’ to the rationalistic logic of ‘progress,’” which was prominent during the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and has been dominant ever since (114).

Please be aware that my summaries here do not begin to do justice to the depth of Saunders’ own work. His reading and analysis of William Marston’s professional writings in psychology—and the subsequent light they shed on Wonder Woman—are unprecedented; and he then goes on to bring in feminist theologians such as Rosemary Radford Reuther, Daphne Hampson, and Sarah Coakley. Although this is only one example, it is indicative of the quality of work found throughout the entire book.

By examining superhero comic books, Saunders puts Western culture on Freud’s couch. He ponders and elucidates the types of questions that members of Western society have been asking for the last eighty years. Whether residents of this continent or that one, Baby Boomers or Millennials, male or female, we all struggle with the same existential frustration: “I have simply tried to approach superhero comics as fantastic, speculative, and distinctly modern expressions of a perhaps perennial human wish: the wish that things were otherwise” (3).

DJ Dycus is chair of the English and Humanities department at Point University in West Point, Georgia, where he teaches freshman composition, literature and humanities courses. His main academic research has been on graphic novels and comics—the intersection between graphic and verbal forms of communication—specifically Chris Ware’s work Jimmy Corrigan.

_____________

Image credit: Amazon.co.uk

Please follow and like us:

7 Comments

  • James McCullough says:

    I enjoyed and appreciated DJ Dycus’ review of this book. I am a relative neophyte to the world of comics and graphic novels, but I do look forward to using them in worldview, aesthetics, and ethics courses once I get back to teaching (meaning, when I hopefully get a job!).

    I wanted to add to what seems to be Saunders’ fine exposition of the theological and philosophical themes in comics from a Christian perspective Simcha Weinstein’s well writtened and argued book, “Up, Up and Oy Vey: How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero” (Leviathan Press, 2006). His exposition of the Jewish influence behind so many of the superheroes and their storylines (good vs evil, hidden identities, traumatic vocations, and just think about Superman’s real name!) is remarkable. I suspect that together these two volumes would provide complimentry and mututally illuminating accounts of the phenomenon of the comic book superhero.

    • DJ Dycus says:

      James,

      Thank you for bringing up that additional resource. I’ve come across Weinstein’s work in my own reading and research, but haven’t gotten around to reading it myself.

  • Scott McDonald (st Andrews PhD Student, 'Theology of Superheroes') says:

    DJ Djycus – a quick question – does the author restrict his findings to the four characters specifically, or does he deal with the idea of a superhero tradition per se? Most other works in the area have a tendency to become so absorbed in one character after another that there is no sense of continuous narrative…or to prove for one and thus prove for all. (I’m working my way towards shoring that the tradition as a whole has sublimated Christian values and ideas, specifically messianic ones – a thoguht that is often simply thrown at superman with no real depth or academic rigour (clearly not the case here))

    Great review though. I will have to pick this up ASAP!

    • DJ Dycus says:

      Hi Scott.

      I’m not sure that Saunders does exactly what you’re looking for. His goal in this work is to address a specific theme rather than to present the entirety of the superhero genre over the last 70+ years. However, he does present an argument (and a convincing one at that) for the value of studying “the superhero tradition” as a means of following cultural discourse on philosophical and theological topics, so he does write on larger issues as well. Although he is focused on these four specific figures, I believe that Saunders maintains a pretty good balance between “this character” and the genre as a whole.

      In terms of “continuous narrative,” each chapter effectively supports the book’s overall focus on the nature of spirituality and love.

      Best of luck with your work! There continue to be more and more resources available in this field, so you should be pretty well set.

  • Mark Meynell says:

    thanks or this – sounds fascinating. will definitely have to get hold of it sometime…
    you might be interested in this little programme a couple of friends and I put together:

  • Leticia Cortina Aracil says:

    This is very interesting!

    There has been a lot going on in the world of the superheroes lately. To be truth, I find all this “super-hero fashion” to be very significant. After all we live in an age in which morals are a main social topic at the same time that Good and Truth are given up or denied… And movies more than anything are collaborating to a huge actualization of the different problematics that are worked through the plot of the comics.

    It is even more interesting that the intellectual world is reacting to this super-hero fashion! There are lots of works and reflections on it. Not long ago I read an article that studied the correlation of the personality of the different superheroes and their religion. Last Christmas I found, by chance, an exposition of the book mentioned above by James McCullough in a cultural center of my city. A remarkable philosophical magazine in my country included a few months ago an analysis of the heroic possibilities of the diametrical opposites that Superman and Batman represent… And these are just a few examples.

    I mentioned this phenomenom already in and article I published in 2008 on the concept of hero (it is here, http://www.revistatenea.es/RevistaAtenea/REVISTA/PDF/Hemeroteca/DocumentoHtcaRev_132.pdf , but is only in Spanish). My background hypothesis there was that this interesting fashion is a symptom of the contemporary thirst of being able to act morally in a significant way, to be able to do something that makes a difference about being good or bad and drags the world along. The notion of “evil” has deepened significantly after the Great Wars and that calls for a greater depth for the notion of “hero”. And this is and aspect that is often neglected by humanists being it -as it is often defined in the manuals- a non-obligatory level of goodness.

    I find this reading very interesting for my investigation in this field. Thank you very much for your review!

  • DJ Dycus says:

    Hi Leticia.

    Thanks so much for sharing. Your works sounds interesting. It IS intriguing that people continue to be drawn to exceptional models of goodness when, as you say, culture has largely abandoned the idea of a spiritual source of good and evil.

    I said this above in the review already, but Saunders really does a good job of analyzing, assessing, and critiquing our cultural dialogue on philosophical matters. Superheroes reveal our cultural unconscious in surprising ways. While we might seem to eschew Christianity on the one hand, on the other we still long for the values and stability that it provides. C.S. Lewis used the German term Sehnsucht to describe this sense of yearning for more than we are able to find in the here-and-now. The superhero genre provides a place for us to express and explore those desires.

    Best wishes with your work!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

HTML tags are not allowed.

1,463,337 Spambots Blocked by Simple Comments