Superheroes and Philosophy
(originally published in Avenue magazine, September 2005)
By Chad Gooden
What makes Superman the man he is? What is it besides the super human strength? What motivates him to fly around the world saving busloads of children, stopping natural disasters, and rescuing the family pet? What about the other heroes we’ve read about growing up; what makes them tick? What are their core beliefs and what drives them to their behavior?
Two local writers asked these questions and have written a book on the subject. Tom and Matt Morris are co-editors of Superheroes and Philosophy. Tom Morris is a former Notre Dame Philosophy professor with several best-selling books on the subject. Matt Morris is a filmmaker and comics aficionado.
“About two years ago, Matt told me that he thought a book should be done on the philosophical ideas in all the best superhero stories,” Tom says. Matt convinced Tom these stories are full of imaginative treatments of some of the biggest ideas and questions that we ever think about – power and responsibility, the individual and society, destiny and freedom, the nature of good and evil, and the list goes on.
Tom had not read comics in many years, not since his teens. But Matt had kept up with comic books, and once Tom looked into it again, with Matt’s guidance, he was amazed at how much depth there is behind the stories.
“The genre has really grown up since it’s beginnings in the 1930’s,” Matt says. “Many people don’t realize that comics are much more sophisticated than they used to be. Just as movies have developed since their first inception, so have comic books.”
It would seem a philosophy book based on comics is a tough sell to any publishing company, but Tom found otherwise.
“We pitched the idea to a famous old philosophy publisher who was already doing a series of books on popular culture and philosophy, with volumes already out on Seinfeld, The Simpsons, and other pop culture giants,” Tom says.
The publisher was convinced right away that they would have a hit on their hands. And Tom and Matt received a green light quickly.
The nature of the assignment is akin getting paid to play baseball. Who would not kill to read comics in the name of research? This looked to be a fun project.
“Being a philosopher itself is already a pretty amazing job. I can sit around staring into space and tell people I’m working. But, I have to admit that the comics took it to another level.” Tom says.
When sitting around reading a comic book Matt found other benefits to read comic books and watch movies as a part of research for a book.
“I also got an academic credit in an independent study I created for writing my essay, so that was an added bonus as well,” Matt says. “It really shows that academic discourse doesn’t have to be boring.”
It took more than a year to line up an all star-crew they wanted to write chapters for the book. They located professors from a wide variety of institutions, including Oxford, Yale, and M.I.T. They also preferred that the first book in the series include people actually writing the subjects they were discussing. They grabbed the top Superman writer, the top Batman writer, an editor-in-chief of a comic book company and one of the best known commentators on comics. This took a long time, but well worth it.
“Some of the top comic guys are almost as hard to get on the phone, or contact by email, as name actors,” Tom says, “or at least mid-level rock stars.”
Fortunately, Matt knew some of the right people and even had been in touch with Mark Waid (comic writer) for years. “Years ago, Matt wanted to become a comic artist. He started contacting people in the industry and asking questions. Mark was one of the writers Matt first contacted years ago, and he sent me comic book scripts so I could see how they are formatted. Also, one of the head editors at DC Comics liked the idea of the book and helped the Morris’ network with people in the business. The reaction from these people on the book was “Finally! Somebody is taking comics seriously!”
Although some of the industry people were a bit unsure about philosophizing on paper without drawings and action. The guys did make sure that the philosophers involved really knew about the superheroes and that the superhero writers knew enough about philosophy for it to all work well together.
But which section of the book was the most eye-opening on the motivation of a hero?
“Mark Waid made me think a lot. His opening chapter on Superman’s motivations actually led me to rewrite part of one of my essays in the book,” Tom says. “It was great to learn something very interesting from other contributors. Actually, I learned from everybody.”
Matt agreed with Tom’s choice of Waid’s chapter, “Waid’s analysis of Superman was really well thought out. We’ve gotten lots of feedback from that article, specifically because of how it puts Superman’s actions in a new light.”
Recently Tom and Matt went to the San Diego Comic Convention. They attended last year with a crowd of nearly 80,000 fans and returned this summer to an even larger audience. There was a panel discussion for the book on Saturday, the biggest day of the convention, in which a room full of people was ready to talk about deeper meanings behind the superhero stories.
The panel consisted of Tom, Matt, Chris Ryall (editor-in-chief of IDW), Scott Tipton, and Christopher Robichaud (M.I.T.). Mark Waid stepped in as a surprise guest for the last hour, thus energizing the room further.
“It was great having Mark Waid around. The guy knows pretty much all there is about any superhero, so to have him be involved and enthusiastic about the project is a great honor,” Matt says. “He was more willing to spend time on the panel and sign some books afterwards. Aside from being a great writer he’s a hell of a nice guy.”
They were told by people it was the best panel they had ever been to at a Comicon. They also saw some of the industry contributors, like Chris Ryall and Jeph Loeb. Everyone was very pleased with the book and excited about spreading the word.
When asked if they could force one non-fan to read one book in the hopes of converting them Tom gave several suggestions.
“There are some fantastic books out there that are considered the ideal introductions to many of the iconic superheroes. Writer Frank Miller has written two of the best origin stories out there, Batman: Year One and Daredevil: The Man Without Fear. I’d also go with Marvels as a good introduction to all of the Marvel Comics heroes. Superman for All Seasons is a wonderfully told Superman story, and as a matter of fact, I’d read any book written by Jeph Loeb and penciled by Tim Sale. They always do a great job of capturing the essence of a character in an interesting story and with some of the best art out there.”
Matt considered the same question, “The first book I’d push on a current non-fan is Superheroes and Philosophy, of course! In a recent Amazon customer review, a guy in New Zealand wrote that he’s never been a comic book fan but he loves our book. Go figure why he even decided to read our book, but that’s great. I’d recommend Marvels by Kurt Busiek, or Superman for All Seasons by Jeph Loeb, or Superman: Birthright by Mark Waid. It’s hard not to be inspired by the right comic book where art and ideas come together perfectly.”
Tom and Matt have been involved in a few book signings recently and may do one more at Fanboy Comics this summer. Then they plan to take some time off before rebooting the marketing of the book in the fall, once people are back in school. There is a chance they could do some campus events.