This book, Our Gods Wear Spandex by Christopher Knowles, has been on my wishlist for some time. This past Christmas, I unwrapped it. Over the next month (I'm not a slow reader, just busy!), I read it, and enjoyed it.
The premise is that in ancient times, people created gods, not just to explain their world, but to help them feel safer, taken care of, protected. Now, in our modern day, "gods" have fallen out of fashion, and superheroes, of various types, have replaced them for the purpose of psychological/emotional protection of the masses. Truly, an interesting assertion.
Overall, I very much enjoyed reading the text, particularly the histories of the Comics industry/culture and the analysis of a varied array of major and minor heroes and their particular backgrounds/origins. I learned of some heroes that I'd never heard of, despite being major players in their time, and heroes that were forerunners and inspirations for modern-day big-hitters. I also relished the comparisons between individual modern superheroes and particular ancient gods. The artwork, by Joseph Michael Linsner, was absolutely riotous. Wolverine roasting marshmallows on his claws over a campfire comes to mind (Knowles 156).
There were some areas, however, that I felt the book failed in my expectations. The greatest of these was its thin disguise as propaganda for the occult. I certainly don't mind discussing the occult, and I expected to read about ancient religions in comparison to modern fantasies. That, after all, was part of the premise of the book. However, it was not long into the book before ancient gods were only referenced in relation to the occult, and every assertion the book made was from the occult, as opposed to just ancient gods, or even of basic psychology of humanity. Chapters 6, 7, and 8, in fact are titled Secret Sects, The Victorian Occult Explosion, and Occult Superstars. These talk none about superheroes, or ancient gods, but merely the societies and individuals that were big in the occult over periods of recent history. In comparison, chapter 4 handles the deities of Sumer, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Hebrews, and Vikings all in those few pages.
I also felt that many of the connections the book tried to make between ancient gods and super heroes were stretched, and in some cases, almost manufactured. Take as example, in chapter 4, on page 28:
Many Theologians [he never names any of them] have pointed out the essentially solar nature of heroes like Elijah and Samson, both of whom are thought to derive from stories of Hercules. Like Hercules, Samson (whose name means "of the sun") was betrayed by a woman. Hercules cerated the two pillars named for him by smashing through a mountain that sealed the Mediterranean at Gibraltar. Samson destroyed the Temple of Dragon by knocking down two pillars. Like Hercules, Elijah wore animal skins. Hercules was often identified with the sun, and Elijah ascended to heaven in a flaming chariot identical to that of Helios, god of the sun.
First of all, he confuses this paragraph by trying to compare multiple heroes at the same time (nevermind that all of these are classical myth/theology, not modern superheroes). He argues that Samson and Elijah are both taken from Hercules. Samson, because his name means "of the sun" and supposedly Hercules is often associated to the sun (Did I miss that lesson in Bible school?). Also, one created two pillars, the other knocked two down. And they were both betrayed by a woman. Well, frankly, get in line, guys. The list of men who have been betrayed by women is a LONG one. As for Hercules being in some way related to the sun, a Google search brings up several hits, most of which mention Apollo or Helios when talking about the sun. The only one I could find that talked about Hercules and the sun was also piled with random "connections' between Hercules, Atlantis, the 9-11 terrorists and the number 11. The Hercules=Samson connection seems pretty weak to me.
As for Elijah, guess they shopped at the same tailor, probably the one frequented by the likes of Daniel Boone, Tarzan, and most primitive cultures past and present. The passage seems to connect him more to Helios, through their dual flaming chariots, than Hercules, fitting since it is supposed to be about how these were "sun gods" anyway. This is just an example of some of the very stretched connections the book tries to make to prove its point of... well, I guess of occultism in comic books, as that seems to be more the focus of the text.
The book also tried to classify heroes of being of a certain type, born from ancient mythos. This was not only expected but essential. However, in some cases, I was left thinking I had skipped an entire section, for the classifications didn't make any sense. Take, for instance, the classification of golem. Wikipedia defines golem like most other sources: "In Jewish folklore, a golem is an animated anthropomorphic being, created entirely from inanimate matter." Thus, I can easily see classifying Ironman as golem, possibly even a hero like The Thing. However, Knowles declares that "the archetypal golem character [is] Batman..." Batman, created entirely from inanimate matter? He spends most of the chapter talking about Batman, but never explains this seemingly nonsensical classification. He ends the chapter with short mentions for the Thing and Hulk, even Robocop is certainly arguable as a golem. However, according to Knowles, Daredevil and Punisher are also golems, again, with no explanation as to why he believes so. Last mentioned in the chapter, Wolverine's adamantium skeleton could be up for discussion of a golem status, the precedent set by the cyborg status of Robocop or the robotic suit of Ironman, but Knowles doesn't discuss this at all, instead contenting himself with offering a short bio on Marvel's wonderboy.
As I closed the covers, I felt a little cheated, having expected a thought-provoking treatise on human race psychology and an exploration of superheroes as modern deities, and instead getting a weakly supported and loosely connected advertisement for undying, secret occultism. I don't buy most of the arguments that comics are occultic. I certainly don't deny that magic, legends, and ancient religions have influenced our superhero culture (Have you noticed that Thor has his own title?). I did, however, very much enjoy the superhero history, both of the genre and industry, as well as the fictions behind them. I also welcomed that few fruits hidden in the pages that actually argue the rise of superheroes to protect our culture's collective id.