Most readers think that superheroes began with Superman’s appearance in Action Comics No. 1, but that Kryptonian rocket didn’t just drop out of the sky. By the time Superman’s creators were born, the superhero’s most defining elements—secret identities, aliases, disguises, signature symbols, traumatic origin stories, extraordinary powers, self-sacrificing altruism—were already well-rehearsed standards. Superheroes have a sprawling, action-packed history that predates the Man of Steel by decades and even centuries. On the Origin of Superheroes is a quirky, personal tour of the mythology, literature, philosophy, history, and grand swirl of ideas that have permeated western culture in the centuries leading up to the first appearance of superheroes (as we know them today) in 1938.
From the creation of the universe, through mythological heroes and gods, to folklore, ancient philosophy, revolutionary manifestos, discarded scientific theories, and gothic monsters, the sweep and scale of the superhero’s origin story is truly epic. We will travel from Jane Austen’s Bath to Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars to Owen Wister’s Wyoming, with some surprising stops along the way. We’ll meet mad scientists, Napoleonic dictators, costumed murderers, diabolical madmen, blackmailers, pirates, Wild West outlaws, eugenicists, the KKK, Victorian do-gooders, detectives, aliens, vampires, and pulp vigilantes (to name just a few). Chris Gavaler is your tour guide through this fascinating, sometimes dark, often funny, but always surprising prehistory of the most popular figure in pop culture today. In a way, superheroes have always been with us: they are a fossil record of our greatest aspirations and our worst fears and failings.
“I’ve been reading superhero comics my whole life and this book made me realize I’d never known what they were. This is the book that reveals Superman’s strange cultural DNA and the dark prehistory that shadows Action Comics No. 1.” —Austin Grossman, author, Soon I Will Be Invincible
“Superheroes are everywhere now, but Gavaler shows that that’s nothing new. From Zeus to Zorro, he looks at why we love the superhero, and why maybe sometimes we shouldn’t. Eclectic, entertaining, and surprisingly personal, On the Origin of Superheroes will grant new super-knowledge to scholars, fans, and casual readers alike.”—Noah Berlatsky, author, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941–1948
“Chris Gavaler has permanently changed the way I think about the emergence of the superhero and bridges the frontier that divides proto-superheroes from superheroes. He innovatively traces the prehistory of the superhero, demonstrating that the superhero’s roots are planted in the soil of myth and legend and watered by the philosophy of the übermensch with eugenics as fertilizer. The surprising connections that emerge throughout kept me constantly wondering what was going to come next and made the book feel like a detective story.”—Peter Coogan, author, Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre
“Throughout the book, Gavaler seems less preoccupied with offering a definitive narrative about the origins of superheroes than providing a starting point for further arguments. Ultimately, this what makes On the Origins of Superheroes rewarding. It models an approach to the problem rather than a definitive answer. “Superhero research isn’t like the Chunnel connecting England and France,” Gavaler tells us. Instead “there are a thousand ways to access Magneto’s cavern, some more idiosyncratic than others” (269).”—PopMatters