The history hiding behind the capes: an interview with Chris Gavaler

Chris Gavaler's 'On the Origin of Superheroes'
Chris Gavaler’s ‘On the Origin of Superheroes’
Chris Gavaler takes issue with novelist Michael Chabon’s origin story for superheroes.

Writing in The New Yorker, Chabon, author of the comics-driven, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, maintained: “There were costumed crime-fighters before Superman … but only as there were pop quartets before the Beatles. Superman invented and exhausted his genre in a single bound.”

Gavaler, an assistant professor of English at Washington and Lee University, knows debunking that myth is a job for … well, for a scholar. In On the Origin of Superheroes: From the Big Bang to Action Comics No. 1, Gavaler digs deep to unearth the true ancestors of the tights-clad adventurers we know and love today.

The book, published by University of Iowa Press, suggests that our superpowered do-gooders have darker origins than we might imagine.

Gavaler intends the book for a general audience, and takes an approach that might remind readers of a favorite college professor — the kind who can wander so far afield that you might lose the thread of the overall argument, but who still manages to be both entertaining and fascinating. He answered questions via email about the book and the comics creators he admires.

Little Village: In the book, you describe your own origin story as a comics reader and then a comics scholar, but tell me a bit more about how you decided to write a book about the origins of superheroes.

For publishing professors, it’s a Cinderella story. My editor at Iowa came across my superhero blog (via an article I wrote about why it’s okay and even good to allow creative writing students to write stories about zombies and their lowbrow friends) and emailed to ask if I’d be interested in expanding it into a book.

Even though it was my secret ambition, the conversion process was massive. In the blog I wander in all kinds of pop culture directions with no map of any kind, but I wanted the book to be both chronological and thematic — while maintaining the same level of haphazard fun. I also write plenty of academic scholarship on superheroes, and there my writing voice is dry dry dry. It’s about audience, and I wanted my book audience to be anyone with an interest in superheroes.

Even the most devoted comics reader might be given pause by the origins you uncover, with racism and eugenics and other unsavory sources abounding. Can a contemporary reader of superhero comics enjoy them with a clear conscience?

That’s actually one of my main goals: helping superhero fans like me find a way to enjoy comics with a clear conscience. The history is at times horrific. That’s simply a fact. We can’t change history. But we do decide how we respond to history. We can ignore and repress it and so then perpetuate those unsavory elements carried inside the superhero character type. In which case, we turn ugly origins into a permanent problem.

Or we unpack it all and spread it out on the table and deal with it. That’s what I try to do. Eugenics, the KKK, those are uncomfortable topics — which is why we have to talk about them. Otherwise we shove them back into the examined tropes of the genre, the equivalent of the subconscious, where they continue to fester and haunt superhero stories. But once acknowledged, the genre can grow past its history.

What discovery or idea surprised you the most as you did your research? Was there a moment when the argument you were developing took a sharp turn into unexpected territory?

The KKK was the lynchpin. That’s when my research really took off. Once I saw how much that horrific organization influenced superhero comics, I realized the range of historical and cultural research waiting in front of me. I also kept coming across surprising finds — like the secret origin of both the Joker and Batman in French silent films. And, even more weirdly, what Oliver Cromwell has to do with Zorro. I felt like an archeologist the whole time, chipping free ancient pottery fragments and gluing them back together in my lab.

What comics do you read these days? Are there creators you particularly admire? Is there anyone you think is doing (or has done) a good job subverting the superhero genre in positive ways?

I’ve been an Alan Moore fan for decades, but his recent work has been less interesting to me. Some of the best “good subverting” is happening in literary fiction. Austen Grossman’s novel Soon I Will be Invincible is a must-read for any superhero fan. Ditto for Jonathan Lethem’s short story “Super Goat Man.” Superhero comics keep rebooting themselves, always trying to get back to ground zero, which is both good and bad. I’ve enjoyed the Marvel movies, but they’re more focused on mass entertainment than subverting anything in a thoughtful way. There are exceptions (the Ant-Man miniature battle scene was brilliant!), but those are, well, exceptions.

Will you continue to write about comics, and if so, what’s the next area of interest for you?

I’ve teamed-up with a professor in Philosophy and we are cranking out a series of essays on superhero comics. I’m also working with an artist on what we are tentatively calling a comic book. She’s a painter with no interest in comics per se. Which is perfect. We get to approach the whole medium and storytelling style with a new eye. And I’m also putting the finishing touches on a novel called The Patron Saint of Superheroes, about the grandson of a dying comics artist who tries to collect her lost work while also embodying all its contradictions. It seems superheroes aren’t leaving my life anytime soon.

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