Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Supergods and 7 Laws: A couple of reviews

I recently read both Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human by Grant Morrison and The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes: Harnessing Our Power to Change the World by Deepak Chopra. That's probably a HUGE surprise to everyone who knows me and my interests. Both books covered the same general topics: The concept of the superhero as an image/icon/idea to aspire to (that's a huge simplification). What follows is not meant so much as a review of either of these, but very quick reactions to them.

Morrison makes the point that we are all becoming superheroes and illustrates this through a combination of analysis of the symbol of the superhero through specific comic books and characters, as well as through a sometimes off-topic personal autobiography of his life in comics. I've talked to some people at the store and seen some critiques online that the autobio parts are where he lost people. I found his whole approach interesting. I liked that he made the topic personal and viewed it through the lens of his own experience. I think this was necessary for the point he was making. He claims the title of “Magician” for himself and I think he very definitely views his life as the life of a superhero, at least given the definition of it he proposes. This approach is self-reflective and creates a recursive interplay of the more esoteric ideas he presents with real life experience and examples. A lot of his experiences, specifically his abduction/awakening, can be hard to swallow as “factual” but I accept that he believes it as his truth. Whatever the “truth” of this event it led him on a journey of self-discovery that has been transformational in his personal life. I know a lot of people just can't get past the mystical nature of what he is saying, but if you can't believe it “really happened” then approach it as a metaphor and move on.

Personally, I like his approach a lot (more than most of his actual comics these days). He reflects a lot of the ideas and attitudes I have about comics and superheroes role in pop culture. I won't bore you all with the number of times I was reading this book and thought to myself, “Hey! That's exactly how I covered this topic in my class!” This belief was reinforced last week when I had lunch with one of my students and she said pretty much the same thing, unsolicited by me.

Chopra's book was less impressive to me. The primary reason for this is that Chopra is very obviously an outsider to comics culture, and as such his manuscript is riddled with factual errors. I'm boggled that an editor, or his son Gotham, who is a comics fan and has worked in the industry, didn't correct these before the book went to press. His knowledge of esoteric thought and spiritual matters is great, and I applaud anyone who attempts to present work that makes us all take stock of our way of living in the world and presenting a metaphor for personal growth. I consider myself a prime example of someone who learned a lot of his basic morals and sense of right and wrong from the superheroes I grew up with. But his errors in comic book specifics undermine the perception of validity of the rest of the book. It really wouldn't have taken much to ascertain that Wolverine does not physically transform into into anything like he claims (“...to a range of superheroes like the Incredible Hulk and Wolverine, hereoes who physically transform themselves are plentiful and perennial”), or that Storm from the X-Men doesn't physically become an actual storm (“... or the character Storm transforming into a lightning storm.”).

The other problem I see is Chopra's undifferentiated, generic use of the word Superhero. He uses it all-inclusively. “Superheroes do” this. “Superheroes are” that. It's as if he believes that each and every superhero embodies all of the seven laws of spirituality. This is not only untrue but serves to limit the concept of the superhero and ignores the vast differences in characterization that has taken place over the years. If at any point he had stated that he was using the term as an all-encompassing archetype (and I would have the same problems with that in terms of limitation), or using it the same way a lot of texts refer to Buddha-nature, as an ideal to aspire to, I don't think I would be bothered. I didn't see that distinction in the text and as a result his statements came across as ill-informed, and more importantly, in a way that demeaned (or at least didn't acknowledge) the complexity of comics and the superhero.

Chopra's book is still worth reading for the underlying spiritual ideas if you haven't been exposed to them, but the specifics about comics are very light, and off-putting to those of us who know this stuff better than he does. Morrison's book is the opposite in many ways. His approach is based on an in-depth knowledge of the history and symbolism of comics, but due to his personal spin much of it is so idiosyncratic and specific that his point in the broader sense can get lost.

I love the fact that both of these books are available. It's symbolic of the increased interest in comics as well as the broader base of knowledge and academia being applied to them. Hopefully this is the beginning of a trend.

Separate links for books and Kindle editions.


  1. I agree about Supergods. I'm still listening to the audiobook version and I'm enjoying the autobio aspect of the book more than anything else.

  2. Disappointing that Chopra would put out a book to just pull more income without thorough investigation of subject matter... Either that or this is one of those, "My word, you mean Deepak Chopra is motivated by making money as quickly as possible too?!" moments and I'm just more than a lil' naive. :) Excellent reviews, Wayne!