Alumni Profiles

Deep Thoughts on Superheroes

Photo of Chris Gavaler

In superhero comics, two good guys often meet serendipitously, as Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent did while taking the same sea cruise in 1952’s Superman #76. So it was for Chris Gavaler and Nathaniel Goldberg.

In 2015, Gavaler RC’88, GSE’92, an assistant professor of English literature at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, met Goldberg, an associate professor of philosophy there, in the English department’s copy room after the copier in the philosophy department had broken down. Gavaler had a campuswide reputation as the guy with a comics blog, and Goldberg, who recognized Gavaler’s name, ventured that philosophers were also concerned with “really weird things.”

The two talked about instances where philosophy and comic books have intersected and eventually collaborated to write Superhero Thought Experiments (The University of Iowa Press, 2019), which presents a series of “what if” questions inspired by the plots of superhero comics. For instance, what if a time traveler returned to his childhood days and told his past self about the future? What if you could save the world but had to sacrifice millions of people first?

The book delves into an array of philosophical concepts, including morality, belief, and the nature of time and reality, as represented by a host of comic book superheroes, from Batman to Dr. Doom.

Superman, for instance, is an ethical consequentialist. Like the 19th-century philosopher John Stuart Mill, he believes the right thing to do is to help and benefit humanity; in that sense, both Mill and Superman are future-focused. Batman, on the other hand, is past-focused, determined to be true to the oath he took, after witnessing his parents’ murder, “to spend the rest of my life warring on all criminals.” That makes him an ethical deontologist—a person who believes that the morality of an action is determined by a set of rules defining right and wrong, not by its consequences—like 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant.

Gavaler’s interest in superheroes began in childhood, when a minor learning disability made reading regular books something of a challenge and comics posed an entertaining alternative. “My disability was a problem in early elementary school,” Gavaler explains, “after which I apparently learned to compensate pretty well.” His interest in comics, however, waxed and waned over the years, until 2008, when a group of students at Washington and Lee asked him if he’d be interested in teaching an honors seminar on superheroes. “Well,” he told them, “I’ve not in any way studied comics, but sure, that sounds like fun.”

To prepare for the seminar, he began what he thought would be “just some quick research to fill in the gap,” he says. That initial research turned into multiple scholarly articles and five books—not to mention a popular blog, which he premiered in 2011—about comics. The blog, The Patron Saint of Superheroes, “is first and foremost for fun—mine and, hopefully, readers’,” he says. He’ll occasionally test-run scholarly ideas there, experiment with visual art, or, he adds, “detail my failed attempts to have a reasonable conversation with an unreasonable alumnus who thinks comics shouldn’t be taught in college.”

His books have tended to have a more serious focus. For instance, Superhero Comics (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017) covers all of his historical research, including the fact—which he calls “disturbing as hell”—that the first comic book superheroes were a direct outgrowth of eugenics, the early 20th-century movement rooted in the idea that we could—and should—breed a race of supermen.

Over the years, Gavaler says, superheroes became somewhat less super and slightly more complicated, exhibiting a fair amount of moral ambiguity.

If he has a favorite comic book character, it’s probably Marvel Comics’ Magneto, a villain who’s also something of a hero. Magneto, Gavaler explains, is “the hero of a minority group”—mutants—“that is trying to overthrow an oppressive majority”—humans—“but does so in terrible ways” (attacking New York City, for instance). As the character developed over time, he was revealed to be a Jewish Holocaust survivor—a fact that renders his motivations even more morally ambiguous.

In fact, Gavaler says, during World War II, “villains were unequivocally evil, without the slightest hint of gray. You introduce a character like Magneto, and suddenly everything’s gray.” And it’s that gray, of course, that makes the field a whole lot more interesting to study.

Although Superhero Thought Experiments was written essentially for a lay audience, Gavaler and Goldberg have written a second book, due out next year, specifically for philosophers. Until then, Gavaler hopes that readers will see Superhero Thought Experiments “as an invitation to look at how pop cultural products can be studied philosophically.” He hopes they will discover that superhero comics “present some weirdly complex philosophical puzzles that extend far deeper than their seemingly superficial stories—it’s thought experiments all the way down.”