Friday, June 19, 2015

The Negative Dialectics of the Comic Book Superhero Genre

The negative dialectic of the comic book superhero genre has spiraled in a retrograde motion through a succession of historical stages from the idyllic hopes of high modernism (c.~1920-1945), through the tragic self-alienation of late modernism (c.~1945-1968), to the cynical despair of post-modernism (c.~1968-1989), in which both the promise and peril of modernity was radicalized and dissolved. It began in the Golden Age by representing the opposition between extrinsically super-empowered heroes and the dis-empowering crises of economic depression and world wars; then the tragic Silver Age self-reflection of heroes upon their ineluctably transformed alienation from Being; and finally the serial reproduction of self-alienated Being on a long-suffering road that culminated in the Bronze age apocalypse, death of heroes, and dissolution of the comic book genre.

The superheroes of the Golden Age of comic books (c.~1938-1953) were first imagined to universally overpower the dis-empowering effects of criminality and corruption resulting from the Great Depression; then to particularly assume the visage of the criminal to combat criminality; and finally, from within a polity purified of crime, to extend this universal overpowering to oppose and subsume every alternate regime during the Second World War. Having saved America from gangsters, crooks, and monopolists, comic book superheroes were sent to save the world from fascists and communists. Where the heroes of the Golden Age of comics, like Captain America, were still essentially human like us but with far greater powers, the heroes of the Silver Age, from the Fantastic Four to the X-Men, were transformed by a myriad of cosmic, scientific, and evolutionary accidents into something essentially inhuman. The irreparable alienation of humanity from its essential ground was thus tragically mirrored in the inner self-alienation of the heroes, who ceaselessly strive, without any possibility of success, to reconcile themselves to the world, and justify the world to itself. The outward violence between heroes and villains is then reflected inwards to a richer psychological conflict. This tragedy turned first to irony and finally to cynicism in the Bronze Age of comic books, as anti-heroic heroes became heroic anti-heroes, and all distinction between heroes and villains was gradually forgotten. The fixed opposition of self-alienated superhumans and unjustified humanity is thereafter serially repeated until the thematic opposition of heroes and villains becomes no more than a negative opposition of opposites that reflects the ontological nihilism of post-modernism.

Superman (1938) is the first comic book superhero and the purest expression of their limitless power to exceed all natural limits. As an immigrant, first from a dying world, and then from rural Smallville, he arrives in the city of Metropolis where he forges a native identity while fighting to emancipate humanity from the tyranny of dictators and the greed of monopolists. Yet as the last son of Krypton, he is also the prodigal child who, once exiled from a lost civilization, now promises to lead our people to a higher humanity. His power originates from beyond our world, yet is exercised within and for the world. His only vulnerability, Kryptonite, is an immanent token of his contradictory alien and native identity. (Pevey 2007) With no earthly limits, he flies, with the ballistic force of technology and the locomotive strength of industry, to overpower every agent of national dis-empowerment. Yet this purpose of over-empowering dis-empowered is frustrated by his own limitless power as he becomes, in the minds of those he saves, the newly resented source of their own relative dis-empowerment: for by overpowering all agents of national dis-empowerment, the greatest superhero unwittingly establishes himself as supreme source of all power, and even as the ruling symbol of our collective dis-empowerment.

Batman (1939) is an urban aristocrat who revolts against this relative dis-empowerment by reflecting the positive symbolism of universal overpowering into a negative symbol to combat criminal violence with the faceless fear of imminent retribution. He is a princely heir of Gotham who, after the violent death of his parents, becomes its dark knight on a crusade to conquer crime and restore justice to the city. With their great fortune the Wayne family was powerless before the brutality of crime, but by inverting the symbol of outward overpowering, Batman strikes terror into the heart of crime as a black and terrible creature of the night. He personifies the negative retribution of universal law that instantly accompanies every criminal transgression. (Hegel PR §101) But by seeking personal revenge for his parents' murder he makes himself no less of a criminal. As a vigilante beyond the control of the law, he is the most criminal of all criminals, but as an incontestable source of retributive justice he is the sovereign lord of both crime and law – the true prince of Gotham. Yet since his criminal vigilantism cannot restore justice without annulling itself, Batman sires a succession of sidekicks, such as Robin and Batgirl, to multiply replicate his caped crusade until it is universally repeated by innumerable costumed heroes in every conceivable city.

Captain America (1941) is the individual national personification of this universal proliferation of superheroes, in whom is realized the potential heroism of every American soldier. From a feeble everyman without strength but a will to fight, he is technologically empowered by the Supersoldier Serum to serve as America's supreme weapon of world war. The Captain's singular purpose is to secure Allied victory and American hegemony over every opposing regime. His round shield symbolizes the infinitely accelerating production of armaments that are spun against all adversaries but bound to return to their source; and his wings of victory symbolize the destined extension of American political-economic principles around the globe. By the conclusion of the War, Superman's outward overpowering of political and economic dis-empowerment that Batman reflected into a serially replicated crusade to combat crime, is universally externalized from the plurality of all cities in one nation to the plurality of all nations in one global United Nations that is the cosmopolis of American peace. America's triumph in the World Wars is represented, for fantastic aesthetic reflection, as the complete justification of the American political economy. Material production had appeared to doom the nation but now art has appeared to save it. Since, however, a character created for America at war can find no home in America at peace; Captain America was frozen in dramatic stasis, to await the profounder dramatic crises of a more conflicted age.

After the order of the world had been justified by the conclusion of the Second World War and the global replication of American political economy, the comic book superhero genre lost its defining purpose. The concerns of heroes were no longer circumscribed to opponents within the city or between nations. A new aesthetic justification was instead required that could represent prosperity for ordinary families rather than merely powers for extraordinary heroes. The post-war realignment of capitalist production, the new medium of television, and censorship by the Comics Code Authority altogether contributed to the near total abolition of the comic book superhero genre. From 1946 to 1953 almost all superhero titles were canceled. And as the consciousness of the nation turned from foreign to domestic affairs, comic books were increasingly re-marketed to focus upon local stories of romances, horrors, and westerns. Yet this self-satisfied pretense of unilateral contentedness was shattered by the Cold War nuclear arms race and the 1957 launch of the Russian space-satellite Sputnik: as the atomic bomb threatened human survival from a power within the microscopic potential of atoms, the space-race summoned imaginations to the macrocosmic mystery of infinite worlds.

The Silver Age of Comics (c.~1956-1970) began when the Flash (1956) and the Green Lantern (1959) were re-created, after the cancellation of their Golden Age predecessors, as naturalized personifications of the infinitely accelerating and re-imagining future potential of American Technontology: the fastest man alive could out-pace and the emerald crusader over-will all opponents as surely as America could exceed all rivals in its race from the Earth to the Moon. Where Golden Age superheroes were accidentally empowered by birth and circumstance to outwardly oppose all agents of national dis-empowerment, Silver Age superheroes were essentially transformed into living personifications of essentially inhuman cosmic, scientific, and evolutionary powers. The alienation of humanity by Technontology was thus reflected inward so that the outer conflict of heroes with villains became a pale reflection of their inner spiritual turmoil. This inwardization of self-alienation was, first, particularized within a conflicted family traveling from Earth to the stars; then, individuated in the lonely agony of a conscience burdened by infinite freedom and universal guilt; and, finally, universalized in the monstrous multiplication of random mutation and redemptive suffering. At the height of tragic agony, the heroes of the Silver Age variously personified and infinitely reproduced the guilty grandeur of Doctor Faustus' pact with Mephistolean Technontology, as each struggles to justify, not merely the world to itself, but themselves to the world.

The Fantastic Four (1961) particularize the infinite acceleration of Technontology within the conflicted relations of a family of superheroes. In a journey to the farthest expanses of space, this American family is collectively transformed by the hidden potential of cosmic radiation to become chimerical personifications of a medley of elemental forces. Their publicly celebrated mutations reflect the imminent futurity of American science and industry that is threatened by nuclear annihilation even as it is at the cusp of space-age exploration. Their accelerating conflicts disintegrate all social bonds as each is transmogrified, like the Thing, into lonely and atomic individuals. The Hulk (1962) further realizes this accelerating transmogrification of an individual as the purest expression of the anarchic rage of innate human nature opposed to the acquired technological artifice. Iron Man (1963) is, alternatively, the heroic representative of the military-industrial complex who technologically re-constructs this external opposition to augment while empowering his innate human potential with an inexhaustible arsenal of ballistic munitions. Spiderman (1962) internally reunites this fixed opposition in the creative daring of a young scientist who, after having been mutated by the bite of a radioactive spider, matures in both blame and praise to assume an ever greater weight of civic responsibility.

In the finest moment of the Silver Age, Galactus (1966) the devourer of worlds appeared above the city of New York as the space-faring personification of amoral Technontology intent on annihilating the Earth through its own infinite negativity. In a faint echo of the tragic heroism of John Milton's Satan, the Silver Surfer (1968) chose to rebel with no hope of success against this Gnostic deification of Technontology. The annihilation of the Earth was, however, only thwarted when the Fantastic Four threatened to universally annihilate all worlds by the absolute negation of the Infinite Nullifier. The Silver Surfer emerged from this battle, between moral positivity and absolute negativity, aesthetically transformed into the most sublime hero of space-faring humanity: he possesses the infinite freedom of an unclouded moral conscience, but remains burdened by the universal guilt of destroying innumerable worlds. The mad titan Thanos (1973) nearly realized this absolute negation by destroying half the universe with the full power of all cosmic entities that he had collected into the Infinity Gauntlet. Yet when it was stolen by the schizophrenic messiah of Counter-Earth, Adam Warlock (1967), its absolute power was re-individuated in a 'god-man' in whom human nature was aesthetically transformed to reunite cosmic divinity in terrestrial humanity.

The X-Men (1963) are the orphaned children of this individuation of absolute negativity, and their ceaseless struggle to reconcile themselves to the world is the purest expression of the task of Liberalism to progressively include all excluded classes. Their failure is its failure and the most tragic note of the comic book superhero genre. Where previous heroes had acquired transformative mutations by chance, in the X-Men the alienation of Technontology is further radicalized in the innate possession of superpowers, and universalized in the random emergence of mutations amongst all humanity. The blessing of super-empowerment became a curse when the presence of innate superpowers in some humans triggered a global conflict with the rest for the evolutionary destiny of mankind: non-mutants outwardly reproduced the predatory violence of technology in robotic Sentinels (1965) to enslave all mutants; while Magneto (1963) inwardly channeled his own self-alienated mutation to turn the whole mechanical panoply of Techontology against its artificers for the mastery of mutants. Charles Xavier founded the School for Gifted Youngsters, along with the X-Men as its secret paramilitary arm, to work for the gradual reconciliation and progressive integration of mutants with non-mutants. Yet as the opposition continues between outwardly and inwardly self-alienated Technontology, the struggle of the X-Men to unite self-opposed humanity becomes an infinite cycle that is continually closed in its self-delimited finitude, until the futility of never-realized justice is recognized as its own injustice.

Recognition of the futility of progressively reconciling these inward and outward consequences of self-alienated humanity through heroic action brought the Silver Age of comic book superheroes to a slow but silent end. It had promised to aesthetically justify the social anxieties of post-war America by particularizing the alienating effects of Technontology: first in the outward social conflicts of the Fantastic Four; and then in the inward psychological conflicts of the Hulk, Iron Man, and Spiderman. This conflict was elevated by the Silver Surfer to the height of cosmic tragedy in his hopeless revolt of free moral conscience against slavery to Technontology. The Fantastic Four only thwarted the annihilation of the Earth by threatening to annihilate the entire universe with the supreme token of technological nihilism: the Infinite Nullifier. Its potential for absolute negation forthwith exploded the dramatic setting of the Earth and reconstituted its expanded horizons in the boundless space-waves. There its absolute negativity remained a permanent psychological possibility for the Silver Surfer, only to be cosmologically realized by Thanos, and anthropologically individualized in Adam Warlock. This absolute negativity was finally universalized by the random selection of mutants in the X-Men to all self-alienated humanity. The late-modern acceleration of material production and aesthetic judgment only further alienated and opposed humanity to itself in an infinite cycle of opposites that could never become anything more than the opposition of opposites; the negative relations between negative contraries; and the absolute negativity that annihilates all positive content.

The Bronze Age (c.~1970-1992) began and ended with the death of its heroes: it killed the eldest daughter of progressive Liberalism at its start and the first son of American overpowering at its end. Where the Golden Age had established, as its purpose, the endless overpowering of dis-empowerment that was accomplished and annulled at the triumphal conclusion of the Second World War, the Silver Age exhausted this promise in an infinite cycle of opposites that only incrementally, but never completely, reconciled self-alienated humanity during the Vietnam War. After this infinite negativity had exhausted the modern promise of overpowering dis-empowerment by reconciling humanity to itself, Bronze Age comic books drew fresh inspiration from a post-modern re-reading of the essential form of the genre, which intentionally suspended and subverted its many thematic oppositions of heroes, villains, and superpowers. Yet so long as the self-alienated condition of modern life remained serially unreconciled, such deliberate deconstruction could only bring to explicit self-reflection the infinite negativity that threatened to dissolve the comic book genre in its own inner nothingness: first in the schizophrenic apocalypse of its spatio-temporal coherence; then in the inversion of anti-heroic heroes into heroic anti-heroes; and finally in the death, resurrection, and living unlife of the genre after the death of all superheroes had cut out its overpowering heart.  

The prodigal daughter of Xavier's Dream achieved the furthest realization of her self-alienated mutation during the Phoenix Saga (1976), and the furthest polarity of her resulting schizophrenia during the Dark Phoenix Saga (1977). After exposure to a solar flare had inflamed Jean Grey’s mutation to transform her into a cosmic entity of pure thought and passion, her psychic barriers collapsed as she became schizophrenically divided into opposed positive and negative aspects: the Phoenix Force was the positive realization of the absolute negativity of self-alienated humanity that had been individualized in Jean Grey's schizophrenic mind. Since its cycle of opposites remained unjustified even in her innocent individuality, the court of the cosmos demanded a token justice by her death. After her loss had deprived the X-Men of their ideal unity, their mutations multiplied throughout space and time as Wolverine (1974), the prime representative of their inter-nationality, extended his adamantium claws to tear through space; and Cable (1986), the prime representative of their inter-generationality, blasted his rifle to travel through time. The self-alienated infinite negativity of their mutations was thereafter externalized from the subjective mind of one woman to dissolve the objective space-time multiverse of all comic book superheroes; in the infinitesimally small Techno-Organic virus that annuls the self-alienation of all mutants; and in the evolutionary trajectory set by Apocalypse (1986) to annul the self-opposition of all mankind.


The apocalypse of the comic book multiverse occurred during the Crisis of Infinite Earths (1985). To annul the incoherent cacophony of competing narratives, the opposition of Monitor and Anti-Monitor was universalized to annihilate the Flash along with the infinitely accelerating potential of the Silver Age. This all-annihilating novum that erupted from within the dialectical engine of modernity compelled the Watchmen (1986) to reflect anew upon the essential themes of the comic book superhero genre. Recognizing that their high hopes had been spent upon a living travesty, the Owl asked: "What's happened to America? What's happened to the American dream?”; to which the Comedian answered: “It came true. You're lookin' at it!" Superheroes had been created to justify the nation, yet to overpower the technological peril of nuclear-annihilation, they were compelled to subvert their own presumptive justifications. After their crime-fighting heroics had precipitated the apocalypse, Dr. Manhattan murdered Rorschach's being-towards-truth to preserve the noble lie of truth-in-untruth that might save the nation from itself. Yet once every true justification had been dissolved in untruth, their supra-political power remained nakedly unjustified, so that the world wondered “who watches the watchman?” Then there remained no authentic interpretation but to cynically re-read the comic book superhero genre as conceited in its presumptions and deluded in its purpose. The abolition of all ideals precipitated a moral transformation of heroes and villains, in which anti-heroic heroes, such as Daredevil (1979), were transvaluated into heroic antiheroes, such as Electra (1981), and every moral difference between heroes and villains lost the anchor of its meaning. Fleeing from and towards this whirling unmeaning of all ideals, the Punisher (1974) emerged as no less a criminal vigilante, but no more a source of retributive justice, in hot pursuit of vengeance without even the semblance of justice in his mirror.

After the annihilation of all meaning, the only compelling story that remained to be told was that of the mortal struggle for the life of the comic book superhero genre itself. In The Dark Knight Returns (1986) the genre opposed within itself the positive and negative archetypes of the Golden Age, as an elderly Batman emerged from retirement to bring violent retribution against Superman for dis-empowering the nation by over-empowering its heroes. Once deprived of their defining purpose, comic book superheroes became hollow symbols whose aesthetic merit might only be symbolically re-remembered through their deaths. The Death of Superman (1992) by the eponymous cipher of the comic book apocalypse, Doomsday, unchained the comic book multiverse from its highest ideal by killing the positive archetype of all-overpowering so that the “mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives.” (Nietzsche, GS §125) After his death, all other superheroes could be retired: Batman was broken by Bane in Knightfall (1993); and the Green Lantern was driven by grief-stricken madness in Emerald Knights (1994) to destroy the very source of his own overpowering. Each returns to live again yet without their former purpose. Each instead persists in the objectified unlife of a mechanically reproduced symbolic commodity whose function is, no longer the justification of the political-economy, but only the profit of the publisher. This exhaustion of inner justification, through their serial deaths and resurrections, is represented in Spawn (1992), who is empowered after his own death to live, not for justice, but only for his own satanic living unlife.

The explosive negativity that erupted from within the negative dialectical engine of the deconstruction, dissolution, and death of the comic book genre initially propelled the comic book superhero industry to the apex of booming success, but, after the exposure of its inner nothingness, burst the bubble of market speculation and brought the genre to the brink of ruin. The Golden Age had overpowered all dis-empowering criminality to justify the American political economy at the conclusion of the Second World War, but the infinite cycling opposition of the Silver Age had only further universalized the inner self-alienation of Technontology. Its infinite negativity was then positively individualized and multiplied throughout space and time until it had annihilated all fixed oppositions. After the apocalypse of the comic book multiverse, new authors critically reflected upon the exhaustion of its essential themes, until the oppositions of heroes and villains lost all meaning. Once deprived of their meaning, the worth of comic book superheroes could only be positively reaffirmed by their deaths. Yet even after their posthumous resurrections, superheroes were retrospectively divested of their deathless self-overcoming. No longer were they the immortal demigods of secular imagination who promised to justify the nation and the modern world. Their deaths had forever compromised this Faustian ideal of infinite overpowering that resists instrumental commodification.

The final subsumption of comic book publishers within the commodity markets has further instrumentalized its aesthetic dialectic for the extrinsic purposes of material production and market profits. Where Golden and Silver Age comic books had been indirectly sold through newsstands, Bronze Age comic books began (c.~1972) to be increasingly sold directly to independent comic book specialty stores. The enormous profits made possible through the direct market distribution of comic books allowed Marvel Comics to emerge as the best-selling (c.~1973) and first publicly traded (1991) comic book publisher. But as new investors demanded immediate returns on their investments, publishers demanded that writers and artists compromise their creative principles for quick-selling marketing ploys, such as the Death of Superman. Many talented artists revolted against such practices to establish independent creator-owned publishers, such as Image Comics. The proliferation of independent publishers and characters further fueled the speculator frenzy. The representation of characters and stories in new media formats artificially prolonged their circulation on the market even as it disintegrated their inner coherence in the stories. Once comic book superheroes had been deprived of meaning, the inner nothingness of the genre cascaded from the aesthetic sphere of storytelling to the material sphere of commodity production to precipitate an unprecedented economic crash of the comic book market (c.~1993-1997) that drove nearly two-thirds of all retail stores out of business, and even compelled Marvel Comics to declare bankruptcy. The comic book superhero genre, which had originated as an aesthetic justification for the crises of material production, finally became the site of its own self-inflicted crisis of material production without even the power to justify itself.