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Review of Do the Gods Wear Capes?: Spirituality, Fantasy, and Superheroes.

By Greg Steirer
Saunders, Ben. Do the Gods Wear Capes?: Spirituality, Fantasy, and Superheroes. London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011. Print.

Over approximately the last decade, the rapid growth of comics scholarship in the academy has given rise to comics studies as a discrete discipline, marked by its own professional forums, research journals, and conferences. While scholars disagree on the level of traditional disciplinarity the field has currently achieved, most would agree that the production of comics research has been affected—in ways most other humanistic disciplines have not—by its lack of a stable institutional locus within academia.[1] Comics scholarship, for this reason, can sometimes prove exceptionally difficult to place. Requiring the use of both academic and amateur or fan-based research while also dependent for method and purpose upon research problems or paradigms belonging to other scholarly disciplines, comics scholarship is often forced to try to be many things simultaneously to many different audiences. Though this constraint can sometimes result in groundbreaking scholarship, it can also result in scholarship that is excessively sui generis and thus removed from pre-existing or developing conversations within the field.

The latest book in Continuum International Publishing Group's New Directions in Religion and Literature series, Ben Saunders' Do the Gods Wear Capes?: Spirituality, Fantasy, and Superheroes, demonstrates both the benefits and the drawbacks of such disciplinary heterogeneity. Equal parts literary scholarship, spiritual scholarship, popular psychology, and humanistic essay, Saunders' book sets out to offer a detailed account of what he calls "the nondenominational spirituality of the superhero fantasy" through careful, text-based analyses of four major, mainstream comic book superheroes (142). Drawing upon an unusual mix of continental philosophy, religious ethics, and popular self-help writing, Saunders argues, in language that seems more geared toward a general than an academic audience, that superheroes can help us to understand both the contradictions that have shaped modernity and—more importantly—the moral strivings that define what it means to be human. Or as Saunders himself describes the book's purpose at the close of the Introduction: "[B]ecause this book is about superheroes, it cannot help but also be about spirituality—and consequently it is also about love. Finally, it is about how all three can kick your butt harder than any religion you have ever heard of" (19).

Because of the book's multiple disciplinary sources and aims, how successful a reader will find it depends in large part on the expectations he or she brings to Saunders' text. General readers or comic book fans looking for a thoughtful and eloquent analysis of mainstream superhero texts will find much to like here; academic readers looking for a more detailed engagement with the field of comics studies, on the other hand, will likely find this book a frustrating, although analytically rich and thought-provoking, read. As for religious studies scholars, the spiritual interrogations Saunders offers are so minimal and so removed from current conversations in religious studies scholarship (even the kind advocated by series editor Mark Knight and Emma Mason) that it is hard to imagine such scholars recognizing this work as part of their field (Knight and Mason, Series Editors' Preface, ix).

Content-wise, each of the four independent essays that make up the book examines a key issue or moment in the history of an individual superhero. The first and briefest of the chapters, titled "Superman: Truth, Justice, and All That Stuff," reads Superman as "a sustained pop-cultural effort to comprehend the nature of virtue" (18). Light on analysis, the chapter provides a well-synthesized but cursory and overly familiar account of how Superman's ethical character has changed over time in response to both changing social values and industrial and regulatory contexts. The other three chapters offer longer and more analytical studies, each following a similar structure, in which close readings of individual texts (usually comics and film) are followed by a theoretical section linking them to the philosophical work of a specific "spiritual" thinker or group. Chapter Two pairs a study of William Marston's psychological writing and work as author of Wonder Woman with the writings of Sarah Coakley, a contemporary feminist theologian. Chapter Three brings together Soren Kierkegaard's religious/ethical philosophy with a careful reading of Gwen Stacey's death and its textual afterlives in Spider-Man stories. Chapter Four, the longest of the book, couples an analysis of Iron Man stories, read through the dual lenses of what Saunders calls "techno-faith" and "techno-skepticism," with an examination of the spiritual "philosophy" of Alcoholics Anonymous (106).

For the most part, this two-part comic/philosophy structure will probably strike most readers (both academic and popular) as either unnecessary or artificial and distracting. The two approaches remain bifurcated throughout, often confined to their own separate sections (sometimes distinguished by number headings) and giving rise to disappointingly little theoretical "carry-over" between the two. In the case of the section on Sarah Coakley, which consists of three pages occurring near the end of a thirty-five page chapter, the philosophy section even appears tacked-on: an unnecessary addendum to an argument that had already been successfully made without it. This flaw, however, is a minor one and, I suspect, only noticeable anyway because Saunders' readings of the comics are already by themselves so rich and suggestive. Still, one wonders what else Saunders' keen analytic eye might have discovered had he not been so preoccupied (perhaps due to the specifics of the book contract?) with framing his work in terms of spiritual philosophy.

Such philosophy aside, Saunders' chapters on Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, and Iron Man are clever, original, and exemplary readings of key figures in the superhero comic genre. Indeed, they offer some of the most perceptive work on superhero comics to have been done this century, and are worth reading by anyone currently working on the superhero genre. Because Saunders avoids one-sided ideological readings, instead drawing out from the texts moments of hermeneutic instability that bespeak broader cultural and historical contradictions, his readings are difficult to summarize but extremely valuable for their ability to complicate rather than simplify what have been too often treated as straight-forward, simplistic texts. His method, too, is unusually various, dictated by the different places specific inquiries lead and, in his ability to adapt it to regularly changing contexts, demonstrative of an impressive methodological acumen. At a time of increasing scholarly disagreement over the best methods for the academic study of comics, Saunders demonstrates how an adaptive, problem-driven approach to method can result in subtle, complex analyses that are yet readable (thanks to their lack of specialized language) by scholars of all disciplines as well as popular audiences. A professor of English at the University of Oregon, Saunders relies primarily upon the method of close reading used by literary scholars; but he regularly supplements such readings with auteur theory, production history, historical contextualization, biography, and the analysis of para-texts such as published interviews and letter pages. Though there is little formalist analysis in Do The Gods Wear Capes? (a lack Saunders apologizes for in the book's Appendix), its absence will strike many readers (especially general audience readers who have struggled with formalist works such as Thierry Groensteen's The System of Comics) as particularly refreshing; in any case, it is hard to see how Saunders' analyses would have been improved through its incorporation (150).

Given the skill with which Saunders researches and writes about the superheroes he's selected, it will be especially disappointing to most comics scholars how the book's heterogeneous origins and aims have resulted in a work that demonstrates little to no investment in comics studies as a shared disciplinary project. Like much comics scholarship (as has been demonstrated recently by Philip Troutman), Saunders' book remains frustratingly disconnected from the work of other comics scholars. Few references to other scholars' works appear in the book, references to recent works on spirituality and comics are confined to a single footnote, and no evidence of any larger scholarly conversations or interventions in the discipline is provided by the chapters (154). Because of this, the chapters—impressive as the analyses they offer are—function more as meditative essays or historical accounts than they do actual arguments. Most indicative of this problem, however, is the Introduction, which often substitutes exclamatory rhetoric for argumentative proof or straight expression of the work's scholarly stakes. After explaining that his book will examine what comics can teach us about ethics, for example, Saunders offers the following justification for why such an approach is preferable to the study of ethics itself:

After all, are Kant's obsessive ruminations on the categorical imperative really less insane than the idea of a man from another planet with godlike powers who always does the right thing? Is his suggestion that we should consider what would happen if our actions became universal laws of nature really that different from imagining what it would be like to have such godlike powers? And if not, is reading Kant's philosophy really any more likely to inspire moral action than simply asking the question, 'What would Superman do?' (6)

Though perhaps designed with non-academic readers in mind, such rhetorical moves are by far the weakest part of Saunders' book. Not only do they sell the complexity of his actual analyses short, they are potentially offensive to academic readers who may take seriously the subject matters (such as Kant's ethical philosophy) that are reduced by these moves to clichés or employed for specious analogies.

Ultimately, however, most readers will find themselves willing to overlook such faults. Although not contributing to or intervening in the shared disciplinary project of comics studies as much as it could or probably should have, Saunders' Do The Gods Wear Capes? offers much that scholars of superhero comics will yet find valuable. His thoughtful readings of Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, and Iron Man help illuminate the humanist dimensions of these characters' histories and, thanks in part to Saunders' adaptive approach to method, offer a potential new direction for superhero comics scholarship.

Notes

[1]For recent discussion on comics studies as a discipline, see Troutman, "The Discourse of Comics Scholarship"; Gabillet, Of Comics and Men, 306-307; and Lent, "The Winding Pot-Holed Road of Comic Art Scholarship."

Works Cited

Gabilliet, Jean-Paul. Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books. Trans. Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2010. Print.

Knight, Mark and Emma Mason. Series Editors' Preface. Do the Gods Wear Capes? By Ben Saunders. London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011. ix. Print.

Lent, John A. "The Winding, Pot-holed Road of Comic Art Scholarship." Studies in Comics 1.1 (2010):7-33. Print.

Saunders, Ben. Do the Gods Wear Capes?: Spirituality, Fantasy, and Superheroes. London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011. Print.

Troutman, Phillip. "The Discourse of Comics Scholarship: A Rhetorical Analysis of Research Article Introductions." International Journal of Comic Art 12.2/3 (2010): 432-44. Print.

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