The Big Idea: Jess Nevins

One day author Jess Nevins decided to see how far back the origin story of “superheroes” went — it wasn’t Batman or Superman, folks — and the answer to the question (or the answer he arrived at) was both further back in time and more complicated than he could have ever expected. The result: His new book, The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger. And also: This Big Idea piece.


The Big Idea behind The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger was my attempt to answer a long-running question in the comic book community: where did superheroes come from? In my Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana I had said that the superhero arose not out of twentieth century cultural movements and dynamics and cultural trends, but out of nineteenth century movements, dynamics, and trends. (Sorry, partisans of Johnston McCulley and Baroness Orczy, but it’s true: Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel were inheritors of a tradition, not inventors of one).

But when I was observing the latest in attempts to answer this question and was shaking my head (more in sorrow than anger) at the answer given, it occurred to me that perhaps my answer wasn’t that much better, and that I hadn’t give the question its due. Did the superhero come from the nineteenth century? That’s how I’d written it, back in 2004–but was there more to it than that? Did the superhero’s roots lie deeper still, and farther back than Victoria’s reign?

It’s rare that one gets or takes the opportunity to correct Internet Misinformationtm in print, and I intended to treat the question seriously in a reasonably-sized monograph, but as I soon discovered, the question of the superhero’s origins isn’t easily answered to anyone’s satisfaction. First I had to define what I meant by a superhero, something that proved to be surprisingly tricky. (For every definition of what a superhero is, there are exceptions to it. Every definition. Yes, even yours). After a lot of thought I came up with a better way of approaching the matter of definitions, but simply writing out that new method took up most of chapter one. (And I hadn’t even gotten started on the history of superheroes yet!)

The big problem, I quickly discovered, is that there’s no real starting point for something like this. After I’d run back through the pre-Superman superheroes of twentieth century popular culture, and back through the superheroes of nineteenth century popular culture, I discovered that the eighteenth century had its share of proto-superheroes, those extraordinary characters who have most if not all of the elements of the superhero but which appeared before Superman’s debut. And these eighteenth century proto-superheroes were influenced by characters from the seventeenth century, who in turn were derived from the heroes of the sixteenth and fifteenth centuries.

And then I reached Robin Hood, a significant proto-superhero, who is the most famous of the noble outlaws of the Middle Ages–not the only one, merely the best-known. And beyond the noble outlaws are the knights of King Arthur, and beyond them are El Cid and the heroes of medieval epics and ballads, and then Roland and Beowulf and the Alexander of the Alexander Romance

…and so on and so forth, always working backwards, always tracing influences, until I reached the first major work of literature in human history, The Epic of Gilgamesh. (By now I’d abandoned all idea of my “History of the Superhero” being either reasonably-sized or a monograph). Gilgamesh as the first superhero? Okay, cool, that would make a good beginning for what I now knew would be a sizable book.

Except–and here was the part that complicated the writing of the book–I had to take a good look at Gilgamesh, the way I did at all the proto-superheroes, and I concluded that he made a great epic hero but not a particularly good superhero. Briefly: he lacks what we would think of today as a heroic, selfless motivation. Gilgamesh is a great epic hero, but not a great person–not “heroic” as we’d now think of it. Gilgamesh’s sidekick and B.F.F. Enkidu, on the other hand, has the selfless motivation as well as the other elements of the superhero.

So Enkidu it was, to begin with, and after him the major heroes of literature and popular culture. But research on a subject like this is exponential and fractal; there’s always more of it to do, more items of interest or awesomeness to discover, more connections to make, more inferences to draw. So I found out about the latrones, the heroic outlaws of ancient Rome (and the forefathers of Robin Hood). And about Nectanebo II, last pharaoh of Egypt’s Thirtieth Dynasty and the ancestor of every heroic sorcerer in comics. And about the delightful Mary Frith, grandmother of Batman and every other urban vigilante. And about medieval proto-superheroines of color; if Enkidu was the first POC superhero, the “lady knights” of the middle ages were the first POC superheroines. And about Talus, the first heroic android (and from the sixteenth century, to boot!).

And so on. It all turned out to be more fascinating and complex than I’d ever anticipated. Superheroes didn’t evolve linearly; they are a river with many tributaries, whose source lies four thousand years ago but whose individual elements are disparate and widely scattered in time and place. That’s what I hope readers take away from The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger (I mean, besides the fact that Mary Frith was freaking cool): that the superhero is neither American nor twentieth century–nor white or male, for that matter–but belongs to everyone, and has deep, deep roots in human culture.


The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

16 Comments on “The Big Idea: Jess Nevins”

  1. Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1820) is 99% a comic book with a comic book superhero. The missing 1% is the lack of pictures. I read it rather late in my reading career, and as a result, when I got around to it, I kept thinking was plagiarizing Batman, the X-Men, and so on. I strongly recommend reading it without reading any plot summaries or the like. In fact, I’m refraining from listing the standard superhero tropes found in Ivanhoe, since some of them are spoilers.

  2. I was all for this, and then I saw the price tag. I know that some books cost a lot more to produce, but almost $60 for a Kindle book just is beyond my price range.

  3. Costumed Avengers are not the result of evolution, they were put here by intelligent cosplay design.

  4. This sounds fascinating. I find history far more engrossing than fiction (as well as occasionally being stranger than fiction), and this book sounds right up my alley.

    Off to add it to my reservation list at the library….

  5. I had an opportunity to read the book in manuscript, and I have to say that Jess knows intimately fictional characters that you’ve never heard of, from every corner of the globe, and writes about them in ways that make you go “I want to read that now…” as well as making connections and discerning recurring themes and motifs that bring superheroes into literary history and context. An amazing read.

  6. Mad Mal Frith. Oh yes. Michael Scott Rohan has a habit of picking up historical figures for sone of his stories and I really liked his take on her. More a sort of demi-goddess by that point.

  7. schnauzerfan:
    Yup. TOC, ten chapters, epilogue, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. This is clearly intended as a significant scholarly work, not just personal fluffy observations on pop culture. I’ll have to see if I can trick my university library into getting it.

  8. >> Does it have a table of contents, index, etc.?>>

    The version I read had a ToC, extensive footnotes, bibliography and such. No index at that point, but it would have been too soon to create one. I would assume it will have a detailed index.

  9. If he had to do weeks or months or years of research to discover Gilgamesh, he wasn’t educated or well read when he started. The first thought that crossed my mind when I saw the subject matter was the Gilgamesh epic, which included Enkidu, followed by Homer’s story of Odysseus, which seems more to this point than the story of the war with Troy.

    Didn’t Phillip Jose Farmer use those characters in some of his work? The Riverworld Epic? So you don’t have to learn to read Sumerian cuneiform texts to know about Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Just be well read.

  10. Jess: “Gilgamesh is a great epic hero, but not a great person–not “heroic” as we’d now think of it. Gilgamesh’s sidekick and B.F.F. Enkidu, on the other hand, has the selfless motivation as well as the other elements of the superhero.”

    Uh, what? Superheroes operate in a world where an individual operating unilaterally, above the law, sometimes with absolute power, often times driven by some personal vendetta, get to resort to violence of their choice, but never steps too far over the line to turn off the members of the audience. That doesn’t make them a “great person”. Nor are they “selfless”. They are self-indulgent exercises in power, shaped and groomed and presented to the audience to be as guilt-free as possible.

    A hero is defined as someone who makes a personal sacrifice or a personal contribution to the world. Superhero stories these days are mostly packaged as guilt-free voyeristic violence-porn, populated by characters who have moral compasses that spin faster than Jack Sparrow’s magical macguffin.

    Which is fine. I indulge now and then in watching Tony Stark be a jerk, then save the world by blowing up nameless, faceless, inhuman, pure evil, aliens. But that doesn’t make him “selfless” or a “great person”. It makes him a good looking version of Ron Jeremy.

    The superheroes of today are little different than the stories told of ancient greek and roman gods. Exercises in power who were all too human, given to succumb to jealousy, lust, rage, and then strike their evil enemies down with a bolt of lightning, gift wrapped to make them more easy to enjoy.

  11. Cool topic. Just read the Wikipedia article on Mary Frith. WHY HAS NO ONE MADE A MOVIE OF HER LIFE? I mean really, here’s the highlight reel:

    -Jumped ship to avoid going to New England
    -Trans-everything, complete with sham marriage to the son of a playwright
    -“somewhat obscene” lute playing, lots of cussing
    -pimping, to both genders, and for all the right reasons
    -robbed and shot a general, then paid a bribe to escape prison

    And Hollywood thinks we need another Spiderman movie? Come on.

  12. JR in WV:

    I think the difference here isn’t “What’s the earliest superheroic character?” in which case it’s easy to jump straight to some of the oldest stories and see what came first. I haven’t read this book, but the interpretation I get from this Big Idea piece is that what he did was much more meticulous. He started with our obvious ideas of superheroes and (since no fictional story really comes out of nowhere) looked for the specific literary influences of them and their superheroic-ness. Then he traced the literary influences of them, and then them, and so on and so on.

    As an analogy, it’s one thing to discover the earliest living organism. It’s quite another to trace how that changed and evolved into what’s around now. This work looks like it does the later rather than the former. Picking up when themes like “urban vigilante” first emerged and how they grew through time sounds really fascinating.

    So I doubt the author had never heard of Gilgamesh and Enkidu (or Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, sorry, couldn’t help it). But it could take that long to follow the threads to see how they specifically link up throughout the history of fiction to lead to someone like Superman.

  13. Hero litmus test:

    (1) A hero demonstrates courage: i.e. a hero does something despite their fear of that thing. A fireman charges into a burning building knowing that it could kill him through no fault of his own. Heroes are not fear-LESS, they feel fear but use courage to act in spite of their fear.

    The vast majority of superheros are completely invulnerable: Superman, Wolverine, Deadpool, the Hulk. The biggest fear that humans face, the fear of their own death, is removed. Most superheroes are presented as having no fear whatsoever about their personal safety, because they are either completely invulnerable, or because their writers confuse courage with fearlessness. The closest any of these superheroes come to having a personal fear is the Hulk is terrified of what he might do to innocent people as the Hulk, to the point that it sometimes affects his behavior. Sometimes he succumbs to his fear and avoids a fight, at least for a while.

    Batman is mortal, so would be facing possible death everytime he goes out. But he too never exhibits any of the signs of personal fear. He holds the fear he experienced as a little boy watching his parents murdered. But as an adult, he is defined as angry and without fear. Despite being in constant danger, in constant combat situations, he never exhibits the one characteristic trait that many humans in those situations suffer: PTSD. He never jumps with fear at the sound of something resembling a gunshot. In movies, he is generally portayed as completely devoid of many basic emotions, and the only one he shows is anger. And Batman does once in a while get killed in a comic book, but he is always resurrected, rendering the fear death moot.

    One modern superhero who actually demonstrates courage would be IronMan. He is mortal. And he suffers the effects of constantly risking his own life. In IronMan 3 (the one with the Mandarin), Tony is sometimes rendered immobile by ptsd. Generally, his fear doesn’t stop him when people are in trouble, but it does cause him to make bad decisions, such as building Ultron.

    (2) a hero demonstrates selflessness. i.e. heroes put the needs of others in front of their own. With mortals, that often translates into risking your live to save other peoples’ lives. Again, a fireman is a good example, risking their life to save people in a burning building. By rendering most Superheroes immortal or invulnerable, the biggest risk associated with selflessness is removed.

    The next level of selflessness would be doing something to help others, that takes away from you living your life. Doctors Without Borders has people giving their time, putting their life on hold, going to places with horrible living conditions to help people in need. Small towns often have volunteer fire departments filled with people who have full time jobs and donate their time on the side.

    But in the Superhero genre, this is also removed. For most of the big superheroes, they are presented as not having or wanting their own life outside of beign a superhero. Superman being the extreme case. He’s an alien. He doesn’t fit in with humans. He doesn’t have a 9-5 job that puts food on the table. His job as a reporter is simply his undercover approach to superhero investigative snooping. He could live in Fortress Solitude and be on call 24/7 because there is nothing pulling him away from doing what he does. The closest we get to seeing a personal drive for Superman that would pull him away from being a superhero is Superman Returns, where Superman leaves earth for 5 years to check out Krypton. But that happens essentially off-screen so that while Lois Lane is mad at Superman for leaving, the audience doesn’t experience the same absence of Superman and so doesn’t hold a grudge against him for it. Superman doesn’t have to put food on the table because he doesn’t appear to need to eat.

    Batman and Ironman are infinitely wealthy. So, personal needs never pull them from their superhero duties. Their dealings with their companies are sometimes plot points for stories, but they never have to choose between fighting crime and putting food on the table. Its more a matter of the board is trying to kick them out of the company or something, not “I need to get this report done, or I lose my job and my income and might go homeless.”

    One has to move from through the superhero lineup until they get down to the local-to-new-york hero, Spiderman before we find a superhero who has to constantly juggle personal needs with fighting crime.

    In the “Age of Ultron” movie, we find out that Hawkeye has a wife and kids and a small farm out in the middle of nowhere. But his wife is supportive of his avenging, and doesn’t put any pressure on him to spend more time with her or the kids, and apparently, his pay from the Avengers is enough of a full time income that he doesn’t have to worry about a “normal” job to put food on the table or keep a roof over his head.

    In short, the idea that today’s heros are archtypes of courage and selflessness seems mostly unfounded.

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