By Peter Han
Darowski, Joseph J., Ed. The Ages of the Avengers: Essays on the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in Changing Times. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2014.
Comic books, especially those of the superhero genre, are now culturally relevant enough to draw the interest of the mainstream (non-nerd) public. They supply considerable content for a host of wildly popular series of philosophical essays ambitiously written for both academic and general readers. These “pop culture and philosophy” franchises abound, to which McFarland & Company has contributed several volumes, all edited by Mr. Darowski: The Ages of Superman: Essays on the Man of Steel in Changing Times; The Ages of the X-Men: Essays on the Children of the Atom in Changing Times; The Ages of Wonder Woman: Essays on the Amazon Princess in Changing Times. If these collections of essays were necessary, The Ages of the Avengers was perhaps even more so, as the Avengers are the prime franchise in the Marvel universe. That this volume’s existence was inevitable does not, unfortunately, ensure its quality. After all, that which is necessary is not necessarily that which is good.
Darowski intends this collection of essays to “explore the ways in which the comic book series has remained relevant while publishing stories across five decades” (2). Judging from the titles of his other collections for the same publisher, this is a cookie-cutter objective across various superhero comics franchises. Cultural relevance is important, but not in itself: items of cultural significance must be relevant to someone. “This narrative elasticity has allowed the title to remain relevant to readers even as the societal backdrop against which it is produced has changed dramatically” (2). We are given no indication that these “readers” are a loyal group (has readership risen and dipped over the years?; and if so, which years?) or even who they are (demographics of Avengers readers over the years). “Readers” is the aggregate of individual readers, a dynamic group of interested parties who slip in and out of interest. Although comic books are artistic products, they are products nonetheless. More likely than not, the primary reason for many of the thematic and tonal changes in the Avengers narrative was “relevance” in the crudest sense: volumes sold. It would have been helpful for the intended aim of this series to analyze readership numbers “across five decades.” Stan Lee and most of his roster of talent lived and worked in New York, and their typically liberal values were written into their work. Some times, they were probably too progressive for many readers; at other times, for certain readers, the Avengers narrative was too conservative. Did Marvel’s Avengers challenge, and in turn influence, the moral and political values of its readership? Or were the writers cautiously reactionary, remaining culturally relevant a half-step behind the pulse of the nation?
The failure to pursue these questions leaves the reader to presume Darowski and the volume’s authors are content to prove the cultural relevance of the Avengers as mirrors of the concerns and sentiments of the nation across the decades. (Again, we can only assume the Avengers readership reflects the values of the public at large.) But half a century is a considerable amount of time, during which the United States went through the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, sexual liberation, women’s rights, neoliberalism, and globalization. And in arguing for the relevance of the Avengers throughout, The Ages of the Avengers reads more like a survey of a turbulent period in America’s history than an analytical assessment of a comic book series. The range of topics covered is simply too broad for a book of this length: the Cuban missile crisis; the Vietnam War; the Cold War; the Death of God movement; Weberian rationalization; Reaganism; the geopolitics of (post-Cold War) superpowerism; race relations; social media; freakology; 9-11; dystopia. It is an odd collection of essays, as some topics are examined in multiple essays while most are given short shrift. Yet, measured by the series’ modest objective, this volume is a success, as each of the fifteen essays displays the cultural relevance of the Avengers. And by this, we mean a minimal standard of relevance: the Avengers’ reflexive relation to the political and moral issues of the day, spanning roughly five decades.
All of the essays meet this minimal requirement, but a few stand out, for good and bad reasons. Let us start with the bad. Dyfrig Jones’s “Islamic Invaders: Secret Invasion and the Post-9/11 World of Marvel” interprets the Secret Invasion event, an Avengers mini-series. Jones’s argument is a stretch: the Skrulls, an aggressive alien race of shape-shifters that invades Earth, represent Islamic fundamentalism.
Where Marvel Comics has sought to criticize Christian Fundamentalism in the past, it has done so using recognizably American figures … Secret Invasion is distinct in that it seeks to place a similar discussion within the context of an inter-species war. What we witness is not a fight between two factions within the same religion or culture, but rather the invasion of the (American) Earth by religious fundamentalists that belong to a different civilization. (172)
Jones’s essay is problematic on three points: (1) the presumed equivalence of Islamic fundamentalist terrorists and the Skrulls is debatable; (2) humans (earthlings) are to be read as (American) Christians; (3) Marvel is wrong in betraying its consistently liberal values during this event. Jones’ division between humanity and the Other is too facile and convenient: humans are all American and Christian, while Skrulls are apparently all Muslim-ish (close enough!) and terrorists. I would venture to guess that many readers of this event simply viewed the Skrulls as evil aliens; some progressive readers may have even refrained from viewing the Skrulls as evil (they are simply pursuing their self-interest). Secret Invasion was published from June 2008 to January 2009. Granted, the mostly American reading audience was deeply affected, psychologically and politically, by 9-11. But it is a stretch to claim Marvel used the Skrulls as an allegory of Islamic fundamentalism, cynically capitalizing on the public’s pervasive fear. More problematic, however, is the author’s implication that criticism of Christian fundamentalism is acceptable while that of Islamic fundamentalism is unacceptable. If the only reason for this position is that the former is an immanent critique while the latter is off-base, it would be consistent with our culture’s de facto relativism: a culture is equipped to critique itself, but no culture is capable of assessing another. In other words, an American Christian fundamentalist critique of Islamic fundamentalism is epistemologically impossible. Interestingly, the author does not group the two fundamentalisms—Christian and Islamic; American and Skrull—together. Would that not make more sense than to group Americans, Christians, Christian fundamentalists, and all humans together, against the monolith of Islamic fundamentalists, all Muslims, and all Skrulls? (In the story, not all Skrulls endorse the invasion.) Rather, the author advances a political point by way of a forced reading of the text. Jones reveals his personal politics when he chastises Marvel for abandoning its traditional “center-left” values in favor of Secret Invasion&rquo;s post-9/11 politics of fear (167, 169). Jones apparently has no problem with Marvel’s usual liberal values. But perhaps comic book publishers have no moral obligation to champion certain values, or any values at that.
The best essay in this collection is Giacomo Matteo Miniussi’s “The Korvac Saga: Exiles from Reason and Fragments of a Contemporary Mythology” (translated by Laurie Schwartz). It is a meditation on the nature and ethics of superheroism from the dawn of Cold War geopolitics to the age of globalization. Korvac is a godlike cosmic power embodied in human agency who gives up his life for the universe. The Avengers, too, have a god in Thor. At the end of the tale, even Thor is humbled by Korvac. Brilliantly, Miniussi argues that it is not Korvac’s supreme power but his compassionate humanity that shames Thor and the Avengers. More accurately, we should say Korvac’s inhuman compassion. After all, humans have the audacity to give to compassion and decency the name “humanity,” when, in fact, I believe it is the lack of these qualities in our interactions with one another that characterizes our history of suffering. In my assessment, the Korvac tale is noteworthy because it challenges the Avengers, and their fans, to examine their individual and collective reasons for being.
What is suggested here is a purpose for the struggle that goes beyond the level of political-social status … but aims at a superior level, at a betterment of the conditions of life for every single individual which this society—of technology and of consumeris—has perverted into injustice and chaos. (59)
Gone forever are the political Manichaeism and moral simplicity of the Silver Age. The Avengers narrative reflects this national period of introspection, as superheroes are increasingly presented as deeply flawed beings. Even Earth’s mightiest team of superheroes is revealed to be the instrument of another geopolitical interest.
This is the critique, but also the political message that Korvac brings to mankind. Here, he takes a stand against his adversaries, the Avengers, who, as the defenders and perpetrators of not just one bourgeois status quo, but also of an oppressive and class-structured society, “slew first the dream, then … the hope.” (61-62)
Dreams are replaceable but without hope there are no dreams. The Avengers are the best of us, representing and defending our cherished values. But what happens when they are on the wrong side of the good? In the end, the Avengers are powerless against a cosmic threat, but Korvac saves the universe by dying of his own accord. The Avengers are to learn from this lesson, putting aside their partial interests for cosmopolitan duty. It is a clear call for a universal ethical outlook, one that is fitting for our time.
Despite its unambitious purpose, but due to the strength of a few exceptional essays, The Ages of the Avengers is a modest contribution to the growing list of books written by academics intended for a certain segment of the general public: thoughtful consumers of pop culture who want to intellectually legitimize their geeky passions. In all honesty, these series are written by one group of nerds (scholars who may or may not actually like comics) for another group of nerds (comic book readers who may or may not like scholarship). Sometimes, it is an awkward scheme, as I am afraid is the case here. I doubt this book appeals to the typical consumer of American superhero comic books. I imagine that if the average Avengers reader made it through these essays, she might think some people are trying too hard. In this case, the editor and authors of The Ages of the Avengers present interesting arguments for a non-existent problem. There is no reason, as far as this writer is concerned, to make a case for the cultural relevance of arguably the most popular franchise of the most popular comic book publisher. The enduring popularity of the Avengers title proves its relevance. As for why it remains relevant, there is not much value, for scholars and fans alike, to run out fifteen essays to point out the obvious fact that a successful pop culture item is relevant because it somehow relates to the issues of the day. This is a shame since a few of the essays could make considerable contributions to comics scholarship if published in a more serious and focused volume. If only the bar were set a bit higher for this volume and The Ages of series as a whole.