Menu Close

Review of The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger: The 4,000 Year History of the Superhero

By Jacquelin Elliott

Nevins, Jess. The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger: The 4,000 Year History of the Superhero. Praeger, 2017.

A sprawling and truly ambitious project, Jess Nevins’ The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger details the history of protosuperheroes, those thousands of characters in literature that contain elements of the superhero, but were born long before The Last Son of Krypton in 1938. Written as an answer to the lack of work on the history of pre-Golden Age superheroics, The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger traces the diachronic histories of two types of protosuperheroes: the costumed avenger, “who wears a recognizable and consistent costume while fighting crime or evil” (13), and the Übermensch, “who has abilities that are impossible in our world” (13). Author Jess Nevins, who, to his credit, freely admits his outsider status as a non-comics scholar as he works his way through 4,000 years of literature, crime, and urban legend, makes it his mission to trace the history of the protosuperhero and those characters’ effects on the modern superhero.

Nevins makes it clear from the onset that his book is not to be taken as a semiological analysis of the superhero nor, per Peter Coogan, “an examination of the superhero genre as a genre” (xv). Indeed, Nevins frequently and explicitly positions his book counter to Peter Coogan’s Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre with its matter-of-fact, “is/is not” definitions of what makes a superhero, with Nevins arguing that “a basic working definition of the superhero does not, in fact, exist, and for a very simple reason: any definition of the superhero, no matter how intelligently and cleverly phrased, inevitably excludes superheroes who already exist, and thereby proves itself to be useless” (2). Nevins argues that such binary “is/is not” definitions are not useful– “not useful aesthetically, not useful critically, and not useful on the most basic level of accuracy” (6) – and instead advocates to “consider superheroes on a continuum and to apply fuzzy logic to the matter” (6) and identify the “individual elements that make up the continuum of superheroes”: “the more of these elements a character has, the more of a superhero she is (and the reverse is true as well), but there is no ideal, Platonic form of the superhero to be reached – there is no “pure” superhero to whom all others are compared” (7).

While Nevins borrows “fuzzy logic” from mathematics and philosophy, he accedes that more qualifying is needed in the definition of the superhero, lest the category become too fuzzy and emptied of meaning. For these purposes, he looks to Czech theologian Rüdiger Bartelmus’ concept of heroenkonzept – “the combination of motifs such as the divine paternity and superhuman capabilities of a hero” (7) – and outlines the most important elements in the construction of the modern superhero (7-9):

  • Unusual origin story
  • Superpower
  • Extraordinary skills and abilities
  • Extraordinary technology
  • Distinctive weapon
  • Distinctive appearance
  • Code name
  • Dual identity
  • Heroic mission (which must be “selfless”)
  • Extraordinary opponents
  • Lives in a world in which there is law enforcement and government
  • Operates in a world in which crime/oppression/evil is clear cut and obvious
  • Operates in a world in which law enforcement/the government is not capable of controlling or defeating crime/oppression/evil
  • Operates under the assumption that law enforcement/the government is capable of holding and confining a criminal once they are apprehended
  • Operates under the assumption that vigilantism is welcome or at least tolerated by general society as well as law enforcement and the government
  • Is finite and can be killed (otherwise the figure is not a superhero, but a “superbeing”)
  • Does not kill

This list, while, Nevins admits, not exhaustive, is a solid starting place to begin building a spectral definition of the superhero, as “no superhero has none of these elements [and] no superhero has all of them” (9).

Many, if not all, of these elements could be, of course, applied to characters outside the superhero genre, but that is precisely Nevins’ point as he builds his vast history of proto-superheroes who come from every age and genre. Knowing that such a declaration will “undoubtedly [raise] the hackles of some of [his] scholarly readers,” Nevins firmly argues that “superheroes cannot be described as generically distinct from characters of other genres, on the grounds that too many examples of superheroes to name appear in other cultural genres” (10). It is an assertion that The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger hinges upon and Nevins pulls no punches in dispelling the case for strict formalism:

The argument that literary genres have hard, discernible, defensible borders seems to me to be an insupportable one. It’s a holdover from Renaissance literary theory, which posited that genres were fixed and essential and separate literary forms, a theory that the Romantics only partially rejected. Worse, this notion of genres as having firm borders leads to unfortunate ideas of generic purity and essence and limitations (11).

While Nevins acknowledges that the insistence on establishing superhero stories as a separate and distinct literary genre sprang from a desire to legitimize the genre and make it “academically acceptable to study” (11), he takes to task comics scholars (Coogan again) who eagerly defend genre boundaries by disallowing superheroic characters from bearing the designation “superhero.” Such an act, Nevins rightly notes, can often lead to some critical difficulties, such as the elimination of cross-genre heroes like cowboy-superheroes Ghost Rider and Golden Arrow, martial arts superheroes such as Shang-Chi The Master of Kung Fu, and horror superheroes like Swamp Thing, Spectre, John Constantine, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer (whose canonical heroics began taking place solely in comic form in 2007, a year after Coogan’s Superhero was published). Rather than a strictly delineated genre, Nevins encourages his readers to look upon the superhero genre as a “voracious thief of a genre that takes from other genres to expand and glorify itself” (12), a genre as much a patchwork quilt as the English language itself, a genre that “becomes a mosaic rather than a solid […] becomes a genre that is vast and contains multitudes” (12). The problem here, of course, is that many readers, both academic and non-academic, already do recognize comics as such a voracious thief and do not treat comics, even superhero comics, as a firm genre, but as a multivalent form. One of the pitfalls that Nevins’ book stumbles into is treating such formalist, “is/is not” definitions as representative of the whole of comics scholarship and failing to acknowledge arguments within the field that make a case for comics as a form, not a genre (and there are plenty of them).

That said, Nevins begins piecing together his mosaic in Chapter Two: “From 2100 BCE to 1500 CE,” beginning in Mesopotamia with the epic of Gilgamesh and ending with the adventures of Robin Hood. This chapter puts forth one of Nevins’ most novel arguments – that it is not, in fact, glory-hungry Gilgamesh who might be called the world’s first protosuperhero, but Gilgamesh’s companion Enkidu. It is in this chapter that Nevins’ rejection of “is/is not” definitions becomes troubled, as Nevins spends more time in this chapter (and in others) discussing who does not qualify as a protosuperhero than who does. It becomes clear that Nevins’ spectrum of superheroes with its list of elements making up a hero’s heroenkonzept is, in fact, weighted, and that while superheroes need only possess some of the elements, Nevins deems one element – the heroic, selfless mission – the most important of all, a minimum requirement, and enough to disqualify a character from protosuperhero status should he or she not possess it. Figures that are rejected as protosuperheroes, then, even if they might be called influential, include Gilgamesh, the whole of the Greek pantheon, Alexander the Great, Aeneas, Beowulf, Hector and many others, while figures who earn the designation include Samson, Enkidu, King Arthur and his Knights, and Robin Hood. Readers may find Chapter Two vexing, as keeping track of Nevins’ definition for what constitutes a “selfless” mission can sometimes prove difficult (The Song of Roland’s Roland’s mission in the name of his Christian faith is deemed selfless, while Aeneas’ mission for his family and country is not) and there are some notable absences in the chapter that bear addressing. While Nevins discusses Samson, the figures of Moses and Jesus Christ (both obviously influential on several Golden Age heroes) are missing from Nevins’ history. Their inclusion, even if only so Nevins could argue by what criteria he does not see them as fitting into the mold of the protosuperhero, would help strengthen Chapter Two, which Nevins intended as a “corrective” to what he calls the “simple, unthinking acceptance” of the connection between superheroes and the mythical/literary heroes of antiquity (15). As it stands, their omission seems glaring and cannot be chalked up to simply an avoidance of a Judeo-Christian-centric history, as Nevins presumes the story of Samson “will be familiar to most readers” (21) and acknowledges that his 4,000 history does not include the heroes of East Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, or the First Nations.

Chapter Three features far fewer notable omissions, as Nevins offers a comprehensive history of the protosuperhero between the years 1500 and 1832 when the Metropolitan Police Service formalized police work in London. In this chapter, Nevins addresses the rise of the sorcerer hero, the masked highwayman/vigilante, and, most interestingly, the Gothic Hero-Villain and mad scientist of early 19th century Gothic fiction. Chapter Four, “Victorian Costumed Avengers,” picks up Nevins’ history with the birth of crime fiction, discussing the history of the costumed avenger in the 19th century from urban legends (Spring Heeled Jack) to cowboy vigilantes to detective dime novels (the Nick Carter stories). Meanwhile, Chapter Five, “Victorian Supermen,” traces the parallel history of the Übermensch in the 19th century, weaving a fascinating history of the association of super powers with the Gothic Hero-Villain and noting that it would not be until the 1880s that writers would begin to write characters with superhuman abilities who were anything more than monsters, villains, and sorcerers. In the meantime, the superpowered beings of the Victorian era (werewolves, vampires, golems, androids, mesmerists, and doppelgangers) would be “permanent outsiders” (123) for whom integration into society, Nevins notes, was impossible, thus making them automatic enemies of the Victorian status quo.

Chapter Six moves readers into the 20th century and into the “explosion of Costumed Avengers into popular fiction from 1900 to 1938” (xvi). The influence of The Scarlet Pimpernel and pulp novels are discussed at length, as is the legacy of the Ku Klux Klan in a provocative and necessary turn. Chapter Seven, again, traces a parallel history of this period, focusing on the supermen of the age and discussing “posthuman bodybuilders,” science fiction, and the “Physical Culture” movement. Chapter Eight, “Comics’ Early Years,” discusses the Golden Age of comics and begins Nevins’ lengthy history of the modern comic, which will continue into Chapter Eight, “Ages Upon Ages,” which details the history of the Golden Age (1935 – 1949), the Atomic Age (1949 – 1956), The Silver Age (1956 – 1970), The Bronze Age (1970 – 1985), “The Modern Age” (1985 – 2001), and “The Metamodern Age” (2001 – 2015). While meticulously and even-handedly detailed with equal attention paid to Marvel, DC, and smaller publishing houses, Chapters Seven and Eight may be overly familiar ground for comics scholars and fans and, thus, not as illuminating as previous chapters. Some of Nevins’ choices here may, however, puzzle comics-savvy readers, such as the lack of differentiation/mention of The Copper Age or the claim that superhero comics “never went through a postmodernist period” (271) – two omissions that seem to come hand and hand.

Chapter Ten, “Television and Film,” is admittedly a sorely needed breath of fresh air, detailing the history of representations of the Superhero in television, animation, and film from the 1940s up until 2016. Making it clear that modern superhero comics have been transmedial from their onset, Nevins details the waxing and waning relationship between comics publishers and film, television, and merchandising throughout the ages. While there are a couple notable absences in this chapters’ history, particularly in the section on the 1990s and early 2000s (Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Smallville are both missing) this chapter is, in this reviewer’s estimation at least, heartily welcome and includes works rarely cited in lists of superhero media, such as Underdog (1964 – 1973), The Powerpuff Girls (1998 – 2005), and Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005 – 2008).

The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger closes with a pessimistic reflection on the current state of superhero comics (Nevins notes, that by a 15-year-per-age schema, we should now be in a new Age of comics), bemoaning the souring Marvel Cinematic Universe, continued existence of sexual harassment and artist exploitation in the industry, dwindling sales, and the ever-constant “stunt stories” that DC and Marvel seem to be addicted to as of late. However, Nevins notes that there is comfort to be found in the increasing diversity of both superheroes and the artists that create them, and in the immutable fact that genres, like everything else, evolve with “those who complain about that evolution inevitably […] looking like dinosaurs balefully eyeing those scampering young mammals and muttering about the good old days” (287). It is a frank and refreshing conclusion for a frequently frank and refreshing book.

In his introduction, Nevins begs pardon for his lack of “insider status” and for not having the “involvement with large portions of [his] subject here that the academics [he cites] do”:

The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger is nonetheless the product of a lot of thought on my part, in some case going back decades and of many years of research. I trust you’ll find the arguments I make worth reading despite my arriviste status, and the evidence I assemble persuasive (xiii).

Arriviste status or no, the thought and years of research Nevins put into The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger definitely shows with the amount of ground it covers impressively sprawling and comprehensive. As to Nevins’ arguments and evidence, that must be left to the individual reader as there is enough here to indeed undoubtedly raise the hackles of some comics scholars. For example, Nevins’ diachronic trajectory of history is sometimes too linear, dismissing the influence of heroes like Beowulf or Sun Wukong because their respective stories were not introduced to Western audiences until long after their initial writing (but certainly introduced with more than enough time for them to be influence on 20th century conceptions of the hero).

Nevins remarks at the book’s onset that “those looking for analysis of themes and meaning will need to look elsewhere” (xv) and, indeed, critical readers may grow frustrated with this lack of analysis and wish for Nevins to draw more explicit parallels between the iconography and themes he addresses and the modern superhero, as he sometimes leaves it to the reader to connect the dots. Further, Nevins’ period of study is so broad that it can feel, at times, too overwhelming for a single book and, accordingly, readers may find themselves wishing Nevins would dwell on certain texts and heroes longer instead of moving on quickly to the next. Lastly, some scholarly readers of The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger may also find themselves frustrated by the lack of attention paid to comics as a distinct visual form and the work it does/can do that the pulp novels, Penny Dreadfuls, and mythic epics that Nevins discusses do not/cannot do. That said, the 4,000-year-old mosaic that Nevins builds of protosuperheroes is, again, impressively vast, meticulously researched, and indeed contains multitudes, and so is very much worthy of serious examination for anyone interested in the history of comics and genre fiction – or, for that matter, literary history full stop.

Related Articles