What follows is a written up version of a paper I presented at the 2011 British Sociological Asscoiation Annual Conference and in a longer form as a departmental presentation earlier that year. It gives an overview of some of the main concepts I’m working with in my thesis. Its tempting to work it up fully into a journal paper but, you know, information wants to be free. So borrow and steal from this if you feel the need. But it would be good if you cite this blog.
Its pretty long, so a printable version is available to read or download here that also includes the illustrations used in the presentation:
Hope you find it interesting and I look forward to hearing any thoughts and ideas.
Producing and Consuming the Posthuman Body in Superhero Narratives
My thesis, “Human, Subhuman, Superhuman: The Production and Consumption of the Posthuman Body in Superhero Comic Books”, takes as its starting point two main questions. Firstly, how has the posthuman body been represented in comic book superhero narratives? And secondly, how do readers of these texts make sense of these images and the question of human technological enhancement? Naturally there is much that needs unpacking here before these questions can be properly addressed. The question of readership needs to be addressed in more detail than is allowable here and forms the subject of a paper which will be appear at a later date (entitled “Fans and Fiction Networks: A Rhizomatic Approach To Superhero Comics and Their Readers”). This paper focuses solely on the first question; on the production rather than consumption of posthuman bodies.
The paper begins by defining what is meant by ‘posthumanism’ (at least in the context of my thesis), outlining how the concept of the posthuman can be found in three discursive realms, these being popular or speculative techno-scientific writing; critical or philosophical discourse; and science fiction. For ease of thought I describe each of these discourses as describing the Transhuman, the Posthuman and the Superhuman respectively. The paper then goes on to argue that superhero comics (understood roughly, though not unambiguously, as a subset of the science fiction superhuman) can be read as a ‘posthuman body genre’, which is to say that the transformation of the superhero from man to superman is always marked by morphological change. Superpowers are written upon, and performed through, the body. Having posited this view the paper then describes how the seventy plus year development of the comic book superhuman takes place alongside the development of Transhuman and Posthuman thought.
The bulk of the paper journeys from the Golden Age of comics in the 1940s and the ascendancy of what I dub, not without irony, the Perfect Body, through to the Silver Age and the rise of superhuman body type dubbed the Cosmic Body. Through the seventies, eighties and nineties, the paper argues further, the superhuman body became increasingly breakable but also, paradoxically, increasingly ‘hard’. Since the millennium however contemporary superhero narratives have shifted their focus onto the Military-Industrial Body. The paper concludes by warning against the essentialising of these categorical distinctions, noting that they are simply a map and not the territory itself, before briefly touching upon how we readers might feel about such a reading. It closes by arguing for the value of understanding superhero comics as posthuman body genre, and how they can serve as a critical resource for thinking of issues surrounding posthumanity, issues that are increasingly a question of material practices as much as abstract theorizing.
2. What is Posthumanism? Or, The Posthuman Always Rings Thrice
It would be misleading to suggest that posthumanism is a neatly bounded category. Indeed, as Miah has noted, “…the history of posthumanism has no obvious beginning, middle or end point in philosophical though” (2007:95). Roden (2009), for instance, sees two distinct posthumanisms that he terms the ‘speculative’ and the ‘critical’. Simon (2003), too, formulates a typology that includes both ‘popular’ and ‘critical’ posthumanism. Moreover, there is a third realm where the figure of the posthuman may be found; that of science fiction. It is useful to consider these discursive realms separately, although, as will be seen, the boundaries separating one from the other are somewhat fuzzy. Indeed, if it were desirable to make any claims for what exactly posthumanism ‘is’ or ‘does’ then it would almost certainly hinge upon just such as blurring of categorical boundaries, whether between the natural and the artificial, the human and the machinic, fact and fiction or social theory and superhero comics.
In my thesis I have described popular or speculative posthumanism under the umbrella term Transhumanism. This is not an unproblematic distinction and the origins of the Transhumanist movement proper are outlined below, but for our purposes here Transhumanism includes all those writings that seek to advance and popularize what are sometimes called ‘converging technologies’. These include such developments as nanotechnology (self-replicating, molecule sized robots), biotechnology, Information technology and cognitive science (sometimes known as the NBIC suite) (Roden, 2009), and GRAIN (genetic manipulation, robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology). The promised/threatened effect of these technologies converging is the creation of, “…posthumans whose capacities so radically exceed those of present-day humans as to be no longer unambiguously human” (Wilson and Haslam, 2009: 249). Moreover, “…such technologies may also lead to the creation of new living organisms, machines with human or superhuman intelligence, and humans with machine parts [cyborgs] and genetically enhanced bodies:” (ibid). A survey the corpus of works that could be said to constitute Transhumanism gives a strong idea of the movement’s goals and ambitions.
An overview of the titles of the many transhumant texts that have proliferated over the last forty years is enough to give a flavor of this loose movements goals and ambitions. Such a list might begin, for example, with Robert Ettinger’s The Prospect of Immortality (1962) and Man into Superman (1972). The eighties saw works such as Drexler’s Engines of Creation (1986), which popularized the idea of nanotechnology, and roboticist Hans Moravec’s Mind Children (1989), with its vision of uploading human consciousness into machines. These were swiftly followed by F.M. Esfandiary’s (later F.M. 2030) Are You Transhuman? (1989); Kurtzweill’s The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999) and The Singularity is Near (2005); Metaman and Redesigning Humans (Stock, 1993; 2002). Meanwhile, the documentaries TechnoCalyps (2006) and Building Gods (?), both focus on the various emerging technologies that Transhumanism has coalesced around and feature illuminating (or potentially terrifying) interviews with scientists working in these fields. In short, whatever the specific technological focus of the text (often wide-ranging anyway), Transhumanist writings suggest that humanity is best seen as a ‘work in progress’ (Roden, 2009: no pagination).
The World Transhumanist Association (WTA) was founded by Nick Bostrom and David Pearce in 1998. They define Transhumanism as:
(1) The intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate ageing and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical and physiological capacities.
(2) The study of the ramifications, promises, and potential dangers of technologies that will enable us to overcome fundamental human limitations, and the related study of the ethical matters involved in developing and using such technologies
Bostrom is quite explicit in positioning Transhumanism within an enlightenment tradition of rational humanist thought. Never the less, several commentators (e.g. (Zimmerman, 2009; Graham, 2002) have argued that Transhumanist writings betray an ‘irrational’ or even mystical streak) and that Transhumanism is, “…ultimately a theological, or Gnostic narrative” (Westwood, 2006:5). This point is addressed briefly in this paper’s section on the Cosmic Body and in more detail in my paper The Silver Age Superhero as Psychedelic Shaman. For now it is simply worth noting that many scholars (e.g. Wilson and Haslam) have called attention to what they see as a lack of rigor in Transhumanism’s speculative/popular discourse of posthumanity.
Much Transhumanist thought can be characterized as a continuation of Enlightenment ideals of evolutionary progress and efficiency. What is more, such writing also displays a tendency, inherited from Humanism’s Cartesian legacy, to favour the mind over the body. This tendency is most clearly expressed in the Transhumanist dream of ‘uploading’ the human mind into cyberspace. By contrast, the theoretical position that this thesis designates as Posthumanism manifests as an interrogation, or outright denial of, Humanism. Pepperell has argued that posthumanism signals, “…the end of…that long-held belief in the infallibility of human power and the arrogant belief in our superiority and uniqueness” (Pepperell, 1995:171). To clarify the difference then: whereas Transhumanism is situated within an Enlightenment view of self-improvement and progress, leading ultimately to the superior being of the Posthuman, for critical posthumanists the Posthuman expresses, “….post-modern incredulity to Enlightenment narratives of emancipation and material progress” (Roden, 2009:1). Both exhibit a concern with techno-science and the human body, but work from very different epistemological and ontological assumptions.
Without creating a crude binary where ‘structuralism’ is to Transhumanism as post-structuralism is to Posthumanism, it is never the less important to emphasise, as Badmington (2003) does, the influence of post-structuralism on the posthumanist project. Roden also highlights, “…the profound philosophical debt critical posthumanism owes to post-war French deconstruction and anti-humanism” (2010:4). Before proceeding it is worth clarifying what is meant by this. Badmington concisely defines humanism as:
A discourse which claims that the figure of ‘Man’…naturally stands at the centre of things; is entirely distinct from animals, machines, and other nonhuman entities; is absolutely known and knowable to ‘himself’; is the origin of meaning and history; and shares with all other human beings a universal essence. Its absolutist assumptions, moreover, mean that anthropocentric discourse relies upon a set of binary oppositions, such as human/inhuman, self/other, natural/cultural, inside/outside, subject/object, us/them, here/there, active/passive and wild/tame
The Enlightenment project, in figuring the human subject as a rational, autonomous figure possessed of a unique ‘essence’ was aided by the discoveries ofDarwinin positing an evolutionary vision of constant progress and improvement for individuals and society as whole (Bostrom, 2005; Westwood, 2006). By contrast deconstruction and post-structuralism challenged humanist narratives of progressive self-understanding and mastery (Roden, 2010:4)
Critical posthumanism, then, owes a philosophical debt to a school of ‘anti-Humanism’ perhaps best exemplified by Foucault (above), who famously asserted, in an echo of Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God, that, “Man is only a recent invention, and one perhaps nearing its end”. For Foucault, Humanism was, “…everything in Western civilisation that restricts the desire for power” (Foucault, 1977, cited in Newman, 2002:228). So much so that he suggested that, “…maybe the target nowadays is not to discover who we are, but to refuse who we are” (ibid). Foucault’s project then, has been said to have been the creation of, “…New conceptual spaces in which the individual can explore new subjectivities and not be limited by essence…rather than achieving a stable identity that will become colonized by power” (ibid: 232). The publication of Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto in 1985 represented a move in this direction.
Like the anti-humanists, cyborg theory offered a new ontology that resisted, “…any description of the human subject as a self-present source of meaning or self-authenticating source of value” (Roden, 2010:4). Haraway’s cyborg theory insisted upon, “…the inextricable weave of the organic, technical, textual, mythic, economic, and political threads that make up the flesh of the world” in a way that emphasised and celebrated, “…particular sorts of breached boundaries that confuse a specific historical people’s stories about what counts as distinct categories crucial to that culture’s natural-technical evolutionary narratives” (Haraway, 1995: xii –xvi). Braidotti has pointed out how Haraway’s cyborg (a ‘new conceptual space’) follows from Foucault’s work on the, “…construction and manipulation of docile, knowable bodies” (Braidotti, 1994:207) by modernist discourses, but where, “… Foucault’s analysis rests on an early twentieth century view of the production system, Haraway inscribes her analysis…into an up-to-date analysis of the post-industrial system of production” (ibid: 208). Critical Posthumanism might then be said to begin when anti-humanist thought and post-structuralism met with modern techno-science.
Like Haraway, much critical posthumanism concerns itself with questions of corporeality and identity, and is often informed by feminist theory. In several cases critical posthumanism is engaged with Transhumanist texts. Hayles, for instance, the privileging the mind over the body, or the message over the medium, in much Transhumanist work recreates the same Cartesian mind/body opposition that characterized, it is argued, the very enlightenment project, and liberal humanist subject, that poststructuralist critical theorists attempt to dismantle. By contrast Hayles imagines, “…a version of the Posthuman that embraces the possibilities of information technologies without being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality” (1999:5).
Badmington has noted that, “…the debate about the end of humanism…was not the exclusive property of critical theory” (2000:8). Indeed, just as visions of posthumanity had emerged in the techno-scientific discourse of Transhumanism and the critical-philosophical discourse of Posthumanism, the history of science-fiction displays a similar concern with the question of what it means to be human, and what comes after the human. Indeed, for Badmington, it is not just an engagement with modern techno-science that distinguishes posthumanism from anti-humanism; posthumanism, Badmington suggests, also marks the meeting point of high theory and mass culture. Badmington cites Haraway’s cyborg theory and the work of Baudrillard as just two examples of where, “…the boundaries between theory and fiction has been breached beyond repair” (ibid), giving birth to a new genre of what Badmington terms ‘fictive theory’. Similarly, science-fiction becomes considered less an entertainment genre and more as what Cscisery-Ronay (1991) calls “a mode of awareness” (cited in Carstens, 2009:13). That is, a form of cognition that incorporates scientific speculation, cultural theory, philosophy and unfettered imagination. Transhumanists, critical Posthumanists and producers of science-fiction can all be seen as attempting to create new conceptual spaces and metaphors adequate to our current technologised and information-rich society.
In what follows, this paper will go on to discuss the emergence of one particular type of science fiction Superhuman, the comic book superhero. Before this it is worth emphasis briefly that the categories that have here been termed Transhumanism, Posthumanism and Superhumanism are not distinctly bounded. The posthuman is best thought of as a rhizomatic rather than a tree-like structure. Again, this is an idea dealt with in more detail in the paper, “Fans and Fiction Networks: A Rhizomatic Approach to Superhero Comics and Their Readers”. For now it is only necessary, if brutally reductive, to note that there is not ‘true’ posthumanism; that each of the types identified is contingent and to some extent arbitrary. Once again, the map is not the territory.
3. Superhero Comics as Fictive Theory
Nowhere is the posthuman (and indeed the ethical dilemmas that come with it) better represented than in the superhero comic book. So central is the notion to superhero comics that fictional universes in which they exist have specific terms to designate them as such; DC Comics calls them ‘metahumans’, Marvel Comics use the more general ‘superhuman’ while the now defunct Wildstorm Universe settled on the designation, ‘posthuman’. Moreover, representations of the body are an essential component of superhero narratives. In Bukatman’s words, “…superhero comics present body narratives” (1994: 94). The wide variety of powers and abilities that form the fictional posthuman spectrum, and their origins in science, technology, magic and mutation mean that while, “…Superheroes were probably the last thing Haraway had on her mind while composing her manifesto…their polymorphous perversity and androgynous bodies are well suited to her utopian ideals”(Taylor, 2007: 358). For writers such as Bukatman (2003) and Thurtle and Mitchell (2007) the spectacle of the superhero body is a means by which “the fear of instability induced by urban modernity” can be converted, “…into the thrill of topsy-turveydom” (Bukatman, 2003:3). This is perhaps why the superhero makes his first appearance in the modern, industrial age: “only the Man of Steel has the constitution, organs and abilities equal to the rigors of the Machine Age” (Bukatman, 1994: 99). The superhero body emerges from the Modernist project and the (post) industrial age. Hence, DC’s Justice League counts among its members not only the Man of Steel, but also Plastic Man. Superhero bodies are the results of industrial accidents, medical intervention, military super-soldier programmes, and the techno-scientific machinations of corrupt corporations. Such is the emphasis on the effects of contemporary society on the physical form that it can be suggested that the superhero narrative is, along with horror, a form of what the film theorist Linda Ruth Williams (1991) dubs, ‘body genres’.
In superhero comics transformation is always corporeal; power is always written on the body. These transformations can take many forms, not always inherently positive. Characters such as Marvel’s The Thing and The Hulk (see illustration above) offer a vision of posthuman bodies that are monstrous or grotesque. Power as a curse as much as a blessing. Having existed for over seventy years the universes of Marvel and DC Comics have become home to a wide variety of posthuman body types. The ‘freakish’ bodies on the mutant X-men brush soldiers with the artificial bodies of the android Vision or the ‘abject’ bodies of Deathlok (a corpse re-animated by cyborgian implants).
Identifying superhero narratives as ‘body genre’ (and more particularly, a posthuman body genre) opens a way for reading superhero comics as cultural history; fictions that serve as reflections of and a working through of the social-technological forces and changes that contributed to their production. Put simply, it is possible to compare and contrast representations of the posthuman in comic books of today and the comic books of the thirties to discover how the contemporary concerns of each helped to shape their origins and constitutions. This paper will go on to focus on three posthuman body types, each of which is more in evidence at specific historical junctures than others, beginning the ‘Perfect Body’.
3.1 The Golden Age of Superheroes: Perfect Bodies
What is known by fans and scholars as the Golden Age of Comics dates from approximately 1938 to the late 1950s. 1938 marks the debut of Superman in Action Comics issue one but in order to understand the emergence of the comic book superhuman some context is necessary. The comic book superhuman was in fact preceded by what Coogan (2006) usefully describes as the Antediluvian Age. At the end of the eighteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth century the posthuman was already manifesting itself in several seemingly disparate realms. In the fantastic fiction H. G. Wells for instance, which presented invisible men, human-animal hybrids and highly evolved (and de-evolved) relatives of humankind from the far future. The early science fiction author Edward Bulwer Lytton’s 1871 novel The Coming Race presented another vision of advanced humanity. Lytton’s work would go on to influence the fin de siècle interest in occultism (Knowles, 2007), particularly H. P. Blavatsky, founder of Theosophy, whose mystical writings are rife with highly evolved ‘ascended masters’ and whose occult theories emphasise a kind of evolutionary mysticism. Indeed, Badminton cites Blavatsky writing of the ‘post-human’ as early as 1888 (Badmington, 2004:133).
Nor was the idea of the posthuman confined to fantasy fiction and occult circles. For Bostrom (2005), as was noted above, Transhumanism is merely an extension of an ideological/philosophical position that has existed for centuries and he makes reference to such early works as L’Homme Machine (1750), Bertrand Russell’s Icarus and the Future of Science (1924) and the biologist Julian Huxley’s’ Religion without Revelation (1927) (which introduced the phrase ‘Transhuman”) among others as paving the way for consideration of how humanity might be improved though technology.
Perhaps the most obvious philosophical antecedent is Nietzsche’s idea of the Ubermensch or ‘Overman’ (often mistranslated as Superman, as in George Bernard Shaw’s 1903 play Man and Superman). As will be seen Nietzsche’s Ubermensch has more in common with Posthumanism than Transhumanism. Indeed, a debate is currently taking place in the Journal of Evolution and Technology, a peer-reviewed e-journal formerly known as the Journal of Transhumanism. The debate centers on a piece by Sorgner (2009) written in response to Bostrom (2005). In that piece, Bostrom dismisses Nietzsche as a formative influence on Transhumanism, writing that:
Despite some surface-level similarities with the Nietzschean vision, Transhumanism-with its Enlightenment roots, its emphasis on individual liberties, and its humanistic concern for the welfare of all humans (and other sentient beings)-probably has as much or more in common with Nietszche’s contemporary the English liberal thinker and utilitarian John Stuart Mill.
(Bostrom, 2005: 4-5)
For Bostrom then, “Transhumanism has roots in rational humanism” (ibid: 3). Indeed, Graham (2002:66) has noted that Transhumanism, seen through a Nietzschean lens, appears, “…fatally flawed by its inability to shed the vestiges of a Comptean ‘religion of humanity’”. Max More (2010), founder of the now defunct Extropian movement, takes a more measured stance, suggesting that, while there are indeed parallels between Nietzsche’s thought and some Transhumanist ideas, “the latter are inspired very selectively” by the former. It remains the case however, as Coogan (2006) has pointed out, that a popularized version of Nietzsche’s concept was evidenced in many of the pulp heroes that preceded the comic book superhero, as in the inherent aristocratic nobility of Tarzan (1914), or the mental and physical superiority of The Shadow or Doc Savage (1933).
Superman, the original superhero, of course takes his name from this popular mistranslation, which, as shown above was already in popular use. It is curious that the Superman arrived at the same time as Hitler’s shadow version of the same in his vision of a ‘master race’. Here, too, the presence of Nietzsche can be felt. Deleuze distinguished between ‘legitimate misunderstandings’ and ‘illegitimate misunderstanding of Nietzsche. The former encourage ““schizophrenic laughter or revolutionary joy” capable of bringing about a “transmutation” of thinking” (cited in Perry, 1993:184). The National Socialists represent the latter. So strong is this connection that. “…many German philosophers continue to see Nietzsche as a type of proto-fascist” (Sorgner, 2010). In actuality, the philosopher’s work was not universally embraced by the Third Reich. Sorgner also points several key ways in which Hitler and Nietzsche differed:
Hitler was interested in Germany dominating the world, while Nietzsche was in favour of a unified Europe, second, Hitler was interested in military power, while Nietzsche was interested in intellectual power and the capacity to interpret the world and create works of art; third, Hitler was an anti-Semite, while Nietzsche was an anti-anti-Semite (ibid:15)
Moreover, it would not be right to say that the thinking that led to Hitler’s Final Solution was an entirely freak occurrence. Stone shows that while many popularisers of Nietzsche’s work in Edwardian Britain emphasized the ethical imperatives of the Superman others, “…gradually came to place more and more emphasis on breeding and race” (Stone, 2002:16). The comic book industry was a predominantly Jewish industry in its early days and many of the Golden Age superheroes were drafted into the war effort. The debut of CaptainAmericaeven featured him socking Hitler in the jaw a full year beforeAmericahad even entered the war. The Third Reich repaid the favour by dismissing Superman as Jewish propaganda.
It is ironic then that so many commentators have viewed superhero comics as essentially ‘fascist wish fulfillment’ (Beaty, 2004:4). George Orwell dismissed superhero comics as ‘bully worship’ (Jones, 2004). While anti-comics campaigner Fredric Werthem wondered and worried about how, “Nietzsche entered the nursery” (making assumptions about both Nietzsche’s philosophy and comics readership). For Kahan and Stewart, “…the very idea of the superhero presupposes racial purity and ethnic inequality” (2006:7), while Art Spiegelman, whose graphic novel Maus was the first to win the Pulitzer prize for literature and which relates and allegorical biography of his parent’s experience in Auschwitz, has argued that the work of Jack Kirby, co-creator of Captain America, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, and arguably the single most influential artists in the history of superhero comics, is fundamentally fascistic in its, “….celebration of the physicality of the human body at the expense of the intellect” (in Knowles, 2007:192). The illustrations below, in which a page of Kirby’s art is juxtaposed with two stills from Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Olympia (1938) do little to dissuade one from Spiegelman’s position.
While not necessarily fascistic in nature, it is none the less difficult to extract the superhero or at least the Golden Age superhero from the contemporaneous popularity of the ‘eugenicist concept of the New Man’-“the harbinger of Future Western industrial society”- which was common during the time of their inception. Not for nothing, “…did the new superheroes Superman, wonder Woman, The Flash, Sandman, and Batman all visit the [1939 World of Tomorrow]fair within the fictional spaces of the New York World’s Fairs Comics of 1939-1940, but a ‘live’ superman also made public appearances as part of 1940s Superman Day” (Ndalianis, 2009:7). A corollary of sorts to the eugenics movement (discussed in more detail below) was the physical culture movement, which manifested in ‘fittest family contests’ and coalesced around Physical Culture Magazine, a frequent publisher of articles on the need for eugenic reform (Hack, 2009: 82). Superman artist and co-creator Joe Simon was a frequent contributor to the magazine. Interestingly, in the cover below, the question “do you want more will power” cannot help but evoke echoes of Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’. It is also worth noting that the publication in the middle, “Superman” is in fact British, and predates the comic book Superman by at least a year, evidencing both the Western reach of the physical culture movement and the superman concept.
It was also the magazine in which Charles Atlas first became known. As Landon puts it, “…Charles Atlas’s famous figure has become entwined with the cultural memory and experience of reading comics in general” (2008:1). Landon cites a former vice president of advertising for DC comics who reasons that the reason Charles Atlas’s ads became so entwined with the experience of reading comics generally is because, “…whereas readers of magazines tend to skim the article, the comic book reader pays close attention to everything, including the ads” (Cited in ibid:4). The similarities between the origin of CaptainAmerica-the transformation of skinny Steve Rogers into the ‘perfect’ specimen of CaptainAmericaand the Charles Atlas ads are telling. As seen in the two illustrations below, not only is the fantasy of transformation the same, but the panel lay out of the Atlas ad is almost a reversed version of the panel layout from CaptainAmerica.
Moreover, early Superman comics often included exercises encouraging readers to ‘acquire super-strength’ as in the illustration below.
The rise of eugenics in the West (and even the East??) perhaps demonstrates that the interest in physical culture was not entirely benign. By 1912 eight American states had passed sterilization laws, going up to 30 states by 1914 (Whittington and Walsh, 2002:706). Weising reminds us that in these early decades, “…liberal and left-leaning political parties also argued from a eugenic point-of-view, not only political parties leaning to the right” (Weising, 2008:16). In fact, eugenics was incorporated into what was seen as a utopian vision (ibid). Eugenics is clearly related to the realm of ‘bio-politics’, whether in the form of ‘regulating bodies’ of the production of ‘productive’ and ‘disciplined’ bodies (Goto, 2004:5). As Shilling elaborates,
The body has traditionally been an object of concern for national governments at times of economic and military crises, and at times of rapid social change. For example, fears were expressed in theUnited StatesandBritainduring the nineteenth century about overindulgence and fatness among the rich, and malnutrition among the poor. Both these issues were related to concerns about racial degeneration and the degenerating stock of society (Shilling, 1993: 29-30).
Perhaps even more so than Nietzsche, “…the Darwinian theory of evolution was the prerequisite for the eugenic movement” (Weising, 2008:16). By the beginning of the twentieth century, watered down notions of evolutionary ideas were being expressed in pessimistic terms in theories of social decline and degeneration (Stone, 2002). Eugenics was, “…the quasi-scientific application of Darwinism to the conscious breeding of stronger, smarter and more ethical human beings” (Hack, 2009 79). Theories of eugenics could generally be categorised in two ways. Positive eugenics involved encouraging the ‘best’ and fittest’ to breed with one another, thus producing strong offspring. Negative eugenics was the forced sterilisation of the ‘unfit’.
In short, eugenics, it could be argued, marked the first clear example of what can happen when attempts are made by the state to utilise science and technology to aid evolution and improve humanity. Superhero comics often evince the same concerns with evolution as the eugenicists and Nietzsche in their different ways. Science-fiction generally, as Kirby (2007) has argued, is haunted by the specter of eugenics and the implications of evolutionary theory, appearing as either the themes of ‘flawed humanity’ or ‘evolutionary potential’. The same themes appear, perhaps even more frequently, in superhero comics. In CaptainAmerica’s origin story, the skinny Steve Rogers is labelled ‘unfit’ for service in the army. It is only the application of science, in the form of the ‘super-soldier serum’ that unlocks his potential, and makes him, at least in the stories of the Golden Age, the perfect tool of the state.
Following the Second World War and the recognition that the ideology of eugenics, “…reached monstrous capacity [under the Nazis]…where the practice shifted from sterilization to genocide” (Whittington-Walsh, 2002: 706), eugenic fell out of fashion. Intriguingly, so too did the superhero, as if the very notion of the superhuman had become suspect. While mainstays such as Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman limped on superhero comics were superseded by funny animals, crime, horror, and war and romance comics. It would not be until the 1960s that the comic book superhuman would return as a more troubled, complex figure
5. The Silver Age of Superheroes: Cosmic Bodies
The section that follows is somewhat shorter than the preceding piece. This is because the topic of the Silver Age Cosmic Body will be dealt with in more detail in the paper “The Silver Age Superhero as Psychedelic Shaman”. It will suffice for now to touch only briefly on some main points. As with the emergence of the Golden Age superhuman some context is necessary. If the Perfect Bodies of the Golden Age heroes embodied a cultural interest in eugenics and physical fitness in service to the prevailing culture, the Silver Age superhero, after re-emerging in the late fifties and finding full flower as the sixties progressed, became a countercultural icon. Many writers have highlighted how the Silver Age of Comics coincided, and chimed with, the birth and concerns of the 1960s counterculture (Wright, 2003; Davis, 1998). Steven’s (1998) history of LSD in America, meanwhile, notes how the psychedelic movement embraced the comic book visions of posthumanity, suggesting that for the ‘baby-boomers’, “…encoded within these lurid pamphlets was another version of the evolution myth that saw mankind transforming itself upward” (1998:78). Unlike the clearly patriotic heroes of the forties, the superheroes of the 1960s, especially Marvel superheroes, became the stuff of countercultural fantasy. What distinguished the Marvel creations of writer and editor Stan Lee and co-creators Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko was characterisation. While DC’s superheroes remained to some extent stuck in the Golden Age and more clearly noble and unquestioningly heroic, Marvel characters like Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk and the X-Men were flawed human characters, prone to neurosis, insecurity and bickering. Their powers were a curse and a burden as much as a gift.
Marvel’s flawed human characters became popular on American college campuses and Stan lee began to get invited to speak on the modern mythology of superheroes. In 1965, a poll taken by Esquire magazine, “…revealed that student radials ranked Spider-man and the Hulk alongside the likes of Bob Dylan and Che Guevara as their revolutionary icons” (Wright, 2008:223). This cultural influence worked both ways; in the artistic spirit of the times Marvel briefly published comics with the legend “Marvel Pop Art productions” on the cover in deference to Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, both of whom had appropriated comic book iconography in their work (Superman and images from Jack Kirby respectively-see images below). Incidentally, Ro (2005) and Wright (2008) both highlight Stan lee’s encounters with the European directors Fredrico Fellini (8 1/2) and Alan Resnais (Last year at Marienbad), two of the premier directors of the European art cinema of the time, whose work would in turn influence the counter-cultural turn of the ‘New Hollywood’ of the 1970s. It hardly seems coincidental that in Easy Rider (1968), the film that galvanised this cinematic movement, Peter Fonda’s character is named CaptainAmerica.
Importantly, the concerns of the emerging counterculture went beyond the simply aesthetic and political to embrace new forms of spirituality. Pilfering from the popularising of Eastern spiritualities, science fiction paperbacks and the Western esoteric teachings of Madame Blavatsky, G I Gurdjieff and Alisteir Crowley, the youth counterculture stitched together a kind of bricolage vision of posthumanity. In contrast to the Perfect Body of the golden age, this version of the human to come rested on an evolutionary mutation of consciousness-and a realignment of humanity’s relationship with the universe. This vision was compounded and perhaps facilitated by the countercultures adoption of psychedelic drugs, which had re-emerged as a source of intellectual and psychiatric interest in the forties and fifties. These developments were accompanied by the adoption of terms from science-fiction to articulate the emergence of this new youth consciousness. In 1967 the San Francisco Chronicle published its ‘manifesto for mutants’ for example. Unsurprisingly, superheroes provided another source of metaphor and inspiration. This textual poaching of superheroes went beyond the merely political or aesthetic concerns of the sixties movement however, manifesting strongly in its psychedelic wing as well. When Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters toured America offering cups of LSD spiked Kool-Aid punch they often incorporated superheroes into their posters (as seen below) with Thor and Kesey’s childhood favourite Captain Marvel.
The key Marvel creators of the time, alongside writer Stan Lee, were artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Ditko’s Dr. Strange (below) held great appeal for users of psychedelics in the 1960s. As master of the mystic arts Strange entered immaterial, non-Euclidean realms by projecting his astral form (see illustration below) while his meditating body lay prone in his Greenwich Village apartment (or Sanctum Sanctorum). In October of 1965 the rock bandJeffersonairplane and others put on an evening of music entitled “A Tribute to Dr Strange”. Jack Kirby meanwhile took the evolutionary concerns of the ‘perfect body’ and put them in a cosmological context. Kirby’s Silver Age comics introduced a cosmic scope to their narratives that implied unimaginable vistas of evolutionary development that made humans seem a transient and insignificant stage by comparison. Kirby’s work developed a kind of evolutionary mysticism and excelled at imagery that blurred the line between science and magic in a way that is fundamental to understanding the Cosmic Body. While Kirby and Ditko were apparently working on instinct in their psychedelic imagining, by the late sixties and early seventies a new breed of writers at Marvel comics, young enough to be influenced by both Kirby and Ditko and the counterculture. For example, under writer-artist Jim Starlin’s guidance Captain Marvel even underwent a quasi-shamanic death-rebirth experience, developing ‘cosmic consciousnesses in the process (see illustration below). Starlin, who wrote and illustrated these stories, presents them in a way that chimes with descriptions of the psychedelic experience, and has been relatively open about his own use of such substances.
6.2 Silver Age Superheroes and the emergence of Transhumanism
Several scholars have linked the superhero narrative with the emergence of a ‘human potential movement’ which became popular in the 1960s. In places such as the Esalen Institute, the philosophy of the cosmic posthuman was put into practice, and combinations of psychotherapy, meditation, drugs, yoga and suchlike were used with the intention of unlocking latent abilities. In his weighty tome the Future of the Body: explorations into the Further Evolution of Human Nature, Esalen co-founder Michael Murphy examines over 3,000 ancient and modern sources from medical sciences, anthropology, comparative religious studies, sports and more for evidence of ‘metanormal’ human functioning. By seeking to identify those activities and practices that give rise to these capacities, Murphy aims to assemble a coherent methodology of transformative practice. Such groups practice what Kripal describes as an, “… evolutionary mysticism that argues, in effect, that it is biological evolution that drives these mutations” (Kripal, 2006:150). In other words, that becoming-cosmic remains a material transformation to be brought about by embodied practices. The transcendental and the sacred are manifested by, and exist as potential within, the material and profane. Murphy has also cited Superman and other science-fictional texts as expressing, “…intimations of capacities that are available to us” (Murphy, 1992:213). Possamai (2006) goes further, arguing that superhero comics created an imaginary doxa-a mental space in which the development of latent abilities, of becoming a ‘super-self’, could be popularised.
Like the human potential movement, Transhumanism is also the offspring of the sixties counterculture. And despite the claims by many of its proponents to be a rationalist philosophy, many commentators argue that Transhumanism’s vision of the human body as ultimately limited or sometimes even unnecessary, mark it out as “…ultimately a theological, or Gnostic narrative” (Westwood, 2006:5). As with the superhero comic then, Transhumanism, in some forms, presents a world in which science and magic are conflated. And in fact the forward march of science and technology has facilitated the spread of numerous hybrid spiritual or religious movements variously dubbed techno-paganism or cyber-shamanism.
Unsurprisingly this trend was already apparent in the psychedelic philosophers of the 60s and 70s. In the avant-garde, psychedelic inflected psychologies of Timothy Leary (1987), Robert Anton Wilson (1997) or John C Lilley (1967), the brain is re-imagined as a bio-computer and psychedelic drugs as software for altered functioning. Drugs, as well as magic rituals and spiritual disciplines such as yoga, become technologies, and the human bodies these technologies impact upon become, in effect, posthuman. Because of this it is possible, as Hess does, to reconfigure shamans as ‘low-tech cyborgs’ (Hess, 1995) or technicians of the sacred. Again, as with the cosmic posthuman of the comic book world, magic becomes science, and science magic.
6.3 The Silver Age Superhero and the Emergence of Critical Posthumanism
If the examples above fit into Transhumanism, what relationship does the cosmic body have with critical posthumanism? The thinkers that emerged fromFrance’s counterculture, sometimes called the ‘class of 1968’ (Rivkin and Ryan, 1998), do in fact share some interesting commonalities this particular posthuman vision. Indeed, Valentine muses that, “…while neither can be considered occult, Derrida’s critique of meaning and Foucault’s exploration of forbidden states share much with the irrationalism and ‘giving way to strange forces’ that characterized sixties occultism” (Lachman, 2001:395). It is interesting in this regard to also consider Foucault’s words to Deleuze on the subject of psychedelic drugs. Boothroyd relates how Foucault
Suggestively invoked [the psychedelic experience] as a model for representing, and as a potential means of upsetting, the machinery and conventions of Reason, the prevalence of which, says Foucault, maintains thought in a state of ‘catatonic rigidity’…both LSD and Delueze’s work… [Could be seen as ways] to disrupt this ‘catatonic rigidity’ of thought by virtue of the ‘difference’ they both give rise to (Boothroyd, 2007: 158-159)
Deleuze and Guattari even adopt the figure of the shaman and the boundary dissolutions typical of psychedelics as ways in which what they call a ‘higher disorder’ of nature can be recognised in which the humanist distinction between nature and culture can be perceived as redundant (Carstens, 2009). This is also the distinction that Haraway proposes to overcome through the figure of the cyborg and can perhaps be described as constituting a form of ‘posthuman consciousnesses, a mode of cognition beyond that of the supposedly rational, autonomous, thinking of the humanist subject.
7. A Visit through the Dark Age
Into the seventies superhero comics turned their attention to more serious social issues. Spider-man featured a controversial story in which his friend took a drug overdose. Meanwhile, in the DC Universe, Green arrow and Green Lantern dealt with slum landlords, pollution and the discovery that Green Arrow’s sidekick was a heroin addict (see below left). Similarly the early appearances of anti-heroes like The Punisher and Wolverine were signs of a more violent and morally ambiguous future for the superhero comic book. Perhaps the real sign of things to come however was the death of Spider-mans girlfriend Gwen Stacey (below right), in which his attempt to save her results in her neck breaking. As will be seen this event prefigured a time when superhuman bodies were to become all too breakable.
In the 1980s stories such as Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, were successful collected as graphic novels and sold in bookshops, introduced ‘mature’ themes and levels of violence and psychological realism that appeared revolutionary to the non-comic book reading mainstream that embraced these new ‘grown up’ comics.
Seeking to emulate the supposed maturity and psychological realism of Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, or come to terms with Harold Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” (Klock, 2002), most superhero comics succeeded in merely increasing the level of violence on display. Klock writes… “the superhero market was flooded with poorly written, violent anti-heroes…[such as] Cable, Wolverine, venom, the Punisher, Ghost Rider, Spawn”(2002:80) and so on. Coogan describes this as the breakdown of the “mission convention” (2006:225), established in the Golden and Silver Ages as the…”idea that a superhero selflessly serves those who need him, even those who break the social contract” (ibid: 227). A credo which Spider-Man summed up as, “… With great power comes great responsibility”. This vision of the posthuman crystallised into something akin to what Susan Jeffords calls ‘hard bodies’.
In her analysis of 1980s action cinema, Jeffords argues for a correspondence between Reagan era political discourse and popular culture narratives. The presentation of indestructible, muscled, white male bodies like those of the Terminator’s Arnold Schwarzenegger or Rambo’s Sylvester Stallone, “…provided a narrative structure and a visual pleasure through which consumers actively responded to and constructed U.S. Popular culture” (Jeffords, 1994:12). The assumptions about audiences that this sort of argument relies upon should be borne in mind, but it is difficult to deny the prevalence of such images in Dark Age comic books. Moreover, they appear to be a result of both editorial mandate and reader response. The immensely popular Rob Liefield stands out for many commentators as the archetypal example of the nineties style. Liefield is also the creator of Cable, introduced in the X-men spin-off New Mutants as a cyborg mercenary, Cable quickly became one of the most popular of the new breed of violent anti-hero (see illustration below).
It is difficult to argue that the Dark Age’s hard-bodied cyborg anti-heroes had any affinities with Haraway’s vision of the cyborg. Heggs, for example, suggests that in comic books, “…the cyborg and the superhero resist the consequences of boundary transgression, and that the political affinities, so often desired of cyborgs, are open to naturalization, for example, around the thematic of masculinity” (1999:185). Masters (2010) suggests that, in fact, “…the cyborg is fundamentally a masculinist project in that it represents a masculine desire to overcome death by making obsolete a body that must die”, and that furthermore, “…there is little transgressive potential to be found in the figure of the cyborg as it leaves intact and further embeds gender as a regime of power” (2010:8-9). Moreover, superhero bodies could now be broken. Within months of each other in 1992 and 1993 the two oldest and most well-known superheroes in the world, Batman and Superman, were crippled and killed respectively (see below).
This being superhero comics both events turned out to be temporary but clearly these bodies were of a different, more vulnerable constitution than the Perfect or Cosmic Bodies. Against the masculine hard bodies of the new anti-heroes, the non-killing, non-weaponised bodies of the older breed of superhero were therefore vulnerable. Never the less the comics of the Dark Age contained the seeds of a critique that would find its fullest expression in contemporary comic books. Arguably, the posthuman body type most in evidence since the turn of the twenty-first century has been what I call the Military-Industrial Body.
8. The Contemporary Comic Book: Military-Industrial Bodies
The Dark Age of superhero comics was followed, inevitably, by a Renaissance Age (at least according to the typology of Coogan, 2006). After the deconstruction of the superhero in Dark Knight and Watchmen, and the resulting generic formulism that followed, many creators wanted to return the superhero to its Silver Age status. Strangely, in order to do this they would have to utilise the same weapons that had been used to deconstruct them in the first place. Thus, what had existed at a thematic level-interrogating the ‘meaning’ of the superhero- instead began to manifest at a narrative level as storyline that concerned themselves with the regulation and legal status of the posthuman body. Following Moore’s landmark work comics such as Kingdom Come, The Authority, and crossover events such as DC’s Infinite Crisis and Marvel’s Civil War all asked in one way or another, “who watches the watchmen”? There is not the space to deal with all these issues in this paper so it will instead focus on a related development, namely, the increased focus on what has been called the ‘military-industrial complex’. If the Hard Bodies of the Dark Age appeared to embrace Transhuman visions of human enhancement at the expense of critical Posthumanism-if they apparently naturalized the cyborg around a masculine thematic- contemporary comic books, it can be argued, engage with questions of bio-power, individual identity, capital and techno-science in a way that critical Posthumanism would recognize.
In 1992 (the height of the Dark Age) Marvel put out a series of titles set in the Marvel Universe of 2099. New versions of popular characters such as Spider-man (seen above), X-men and the Fantastic Four existed within a futuristic dystopia in which corporations wielded more power than nation states and run both schools and law enforcement agencies. Several of the stories in the 2099 universe revolved around the attempt by corporations such as Alchemax to create super-powered beings (dubbed ‘corporate raiders’ in Spider-Man 2099). The 2099 cross-over event The Fall of the Hammer rested on a plot by the corporations to technologically recreate the Norse pantheon, along with a new Thor, to divert attention away from the anti-corporate superheroes.
Then in 2000 Marvel launched a new imprint known as the Ultimate Marvel Universe, beginning with Ultimate Spider-Man (also above) and Ultimate X-men. The impetus behind the creation of the Ultimate Marvel Universe was to provide a jumping on point for new readers by re-imagining their iconic heroes in a more contemporary setting and starting from fresh without the baggage of continuity that weighed down the main Marvel Universe. In the Ultimate Universe character’s origins are updated to include contemporary scientific advances. For example, rather than the bite of a radioactive spider, Peter Parker is bitten by a genetically engineered one. What is more interesting though is how much the contemporary setting of the Ultimate Universe relies on the tropes of the dystopian future imagined in the 2099 titles. The present world, it seems, is already one in which a corrupt military-industrial complex runs amok in the pursuit of creating superhuman weaponry. Another series, Ultimate Origins, reveals that the mutant gene is not, as in the mainstream Marvel Universe, a natural evolutionary development but the byproduct of the military-industrial complex’s obsessive search for military might in that world. The posthuman bodies of the Ultimate Marvel Universe are nexus points where techno-science, capitalism and the state converge; bodies created both by accident and design.
This trend has been growing for some time however. The Roxxon Corporation, for example, debuted in Captain America #180 (Dec 1974) and remains a recurring ‘villain’ in the Marvel Universe, seemingly possessed of an endless supply of corrupt CEOs and its own vast security force employed to protect its typically suspect research and development programs into creating superhumans. Roxxon, an energy company for the most part, was also frequently at odds with Project Pegasus, which was engaged in the creation of alternative energy sources. This notion of the corporation as villain reached its logical conclusion in the form of Hexus-The Living Corporation. Introduced in Marvel Boy (Morrison and Jones) this abstract villain represents the first instance of the corporation itself as posthuman. Essentially a sentient idea, Hexus spreads rapidly across the Earth, branding the entire planet with its logo. Hexus is only defeated when Marvel Boy copies its trade secrets, recruitment strategies, secret soda recipes, and the like and passes them on to its competitors. Unable to defeat Hexus physically Marvel Boy must instead fight business with business. The archetypal corporate villain though would have to be Superman’s arch-nemesis Lex Luthor. In the comics of the Golden and Silver Ages Lex Luthor was presented as a typical mad-scientist. Following DC’s reboot of its universe in 1985 Lex Luthor was reintroduced as a corrupt millionaire industrialist. By the 2000s Luthor had consolidated his power base to the extent that he was elected president of theUnited States. The questionable relationship between the state and corporate power could hardly be more explicit.
Of course, there is a long tradition of superheroes who are themselves capitalists. Unlike Luthor however, characters such as Batman and Iron Man, or rather, their billionaire alter egos Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark use their financial and industrial resources for heroic ends. Never the less, big business in superhero comics is generally treated with suspicion. Iron Man and Batman do battle in the boardroom as often as they do the streets of Gotham and New York. The 2000s have witnessed an increase presence for the corporate posthuman. In Milligan and Allred’s X-Statix the pseudonymous team are celebrities rather than superheroes whose missions are carefully chosen by their manager for optimum public relations impact. The mutants of X-Statix are more concerned with their brand than altruism. Meanwhile, Joe Casey’s run on WildCats investigated the notion of the posthuman-run corporation, centering on their attempts to make the world a better place through utilising the fantastic technologies that comic book superheroes have access to. The vision of the corporation as superhero, or force for good in the world, presented in Wildcats has been picked up again in Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated. After Bruce Wayne has publicly outed himself as the man who funds Batman’s activities (though not admitting to being Batman himself) he sets about spreading the Batman brand across the globe, franchising out the title to a series of international superheroes.
8.1 The Contemporary Comic Book: Transhumanism as lifestyle choice
As a correlative to the depiction of the corporate superhuman and the superhuman as commodity/brand/celebrity are those stories in which superpowers are a lifestyle choice or consumer good. In DC’s 52 LexCorp begins the ‘Everyman Project’, a gene therapy treatment that can grant superhuman powers to anyone tested and found compatible. Being a Lexcorp project the price is higher than most customers expected (see illustration below)
Social theorists such as Giddens (1991) argue that the dissolution of tradition in late or high modernity has been accompanied by ‘ontological insecurity’ and a reflexive concern with identity and the body. Secure and stable self-identity no longer derives automatically from one’s position in the social structure, and in its place we are seeing attempts to ground identity in the body, as individuals are left alone to establish and maintain values with which to live and make sense of their daily lives. In late modernity, “…we have become responsible for the design of our bodies” (Giddens, 1991:102). Shilling also argues that in the absence of traditional markers of identity such as class ‘body projects’ are attempts to construct and maintain a coherent and viable sense of self-identity through attention to the body, particularly the body’s surface (Featherstone, 1991).
Transhumanism, as a philosophy, seeks to take such body projects to a new level. But Transhumanism’s Utopian dreaming of personal freedom and belief in self-improvement are rooted, as Sobchack has noted, “…in privilege and the status quo: male privilege, white privilege, economic privilege, educational privilege, first world privilege” (1994:25). As a recent European Parliament report on converging technologies describes it, the emergence of Transhumanism as a political-philosophical movement, “…has its roots in Californian libertarianism…faith in small entrepreneurs, technology and the minimum of government intervention are its characteristics” (2006: 3.1). In short, “…its dreams are grounded in the freedom to buy and-especially-the freedom to sell” (Sobchack, 1994:25). It is necessary then to address questions of power and social divisions if such technologies are not to rapidly exacerbate already existing social divides, such as the creation of technologically enhanced ‘upper class’ and a ‘merely human’ lower class.
8.2 The Contemporary Comic Book: Super-soldiers and the Future of War
While some comic books address the ‘industrial’ side of the military-industrial coin there are many more instances which address the military side. As was stated above, contemporary superhero comics present instances of the military-industrial body because those two worlds are entwined. In Marvel’s Ultimate Universe several of the corporate villains are in competition for lucrative military contracts. Thus the question of the nation’s defence is used to bolster the economic system. Unlike in the Golden Age of comics, however, when the notion of the patriotic supersoldier was presented as unproblematic, contemporary attempts to create supersoldiers are usually presented as ethically dubious at best. The popular X-Man Wolverine, to take a high-profile example, has a long and convoluted origin story in which he is exploited b a military super-soldier project that takes advantage of his healing abilities to graft the metal Adamantium onto his skeleton before wiping his memories of his past life. In the origin story of the Hulk, where scientist Bruce Banner falls victim to his own gamma bomb, Capitanio sees, “…an indictment of the cooperation of the scientific community with the military” (2010:258). Meanwhile, the original Golden Age superhero CaptainAmericahas, since re-emerging from suspended animation in the Silver Age, been unable to return to the simplistic morality of the Golden Age. Later stories instead choose to suggest that the seeds of fascism lie dormant within all moral crusaders, and a depiction of government agencies, sometimes even presidents, who lack the necessary ethical framework, particularly to be in charge of supersoldiers.
It is important to remember that the notion of the super-soldier is not restricted to the world of comic books. Nor, in typical posthuman fashion, are the lines separating the two easily distinguished. In 2002, for example, a proposal submitted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to the U.S. Army was awarded $50 million to create the MIT Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN) (Milburn, 2005). While the proposal outlined a variety of currently feasible and speculative military applications of nanotech, its cover image, featuring a futuristic soldier in mechanical armor, presented, in visual shorthand, the scientific possibilities outlined in more technical detail within the proposal. The image was later removed from ISN websites when two comic book creators alleged that it was simply a reworked version of the cover image of their Radix issue one. The creators felt that MIT had taken the futuristic supersoldier from its comic book origins in order to secure military funding: “they’re selling this as science fact while we’re trying to sell it as science fiction” (quoted in ibid: 78). The image of the superheroic supersoldier serves to create a gap between text and image, between a written account of science yet-to-occur and the image of what a futuristic soldier might look like. What happens within this gap is the laborious business of the science itself. (ibid). The science-fictional status of nanotechnology and militaristic visions of the supersoldier have come to, “…rely on cultural familiarity with comic book myths…to suggest that nanotechnology, in replicating or materializing these myths at the site of the soldier’s body, can create “real” superheroes” (ibid:85).
Moreover, if Transhumanism can be critiqued for its lack of engagement with social issues and libertarian outlook it does at least possess a utopian element. By contrast after conducting a bibliometric survey of a number of terms related to Transhumanism in military and government publications, however, Evans simply concludes that, “…transhumanism, as a philosophy, does not yet impact military science in any significant way…though the idea of transhumanism itself has yet to take hold on those working in military strategy, military science, and policy making, the technological foundations of transhumanism are already affecting the literature” (2006: 164). In superhero comics at least, as this section has tried to show, the military mindset and posthuman bodies are a problematic and often dangerous combination because the military lacks the moral code that restrains superheroes in their use of power. It is impossible to say what the net effect of the military-industrial interest in Transhumanist technologies will be, but it is heartening to know then that at least one nanoscientist has advocated a nanotech-ethics based on spider-man’s dictum, “with great power comes great responsibility”(Milburn, 2005:88). Whether other researchers and policy makers will absorb the same moral lessons (if indeed they should at all) remains, as yet, purely speculative.
9. So now then…
This paper has outlined how posthumanism can be understood as a form of fictive theory comprised of three overlapping discursive realms-popular/speculative Transhumanism, critical/philosophical Posthumansim and science-fiction/comic book Superhumanism. It went on to suggest that in viewing superhero comics as a posthuman body genre we can trace the figure of the posthuman as it evolved in the pages of comic books in a manner that provides a footing for a wider cultural history of posthumanism. Thus, in considering the Perfect Body of the Golden Age superhero it was necessary to understand the vision of posthumanism implicit in the discourse of physical fitness and eugenics of the time, as well as its philosophical form in a popularized (even bowdlerised) version of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. The Cosmic Body of the Silver Age superhero was understood as related to the psychedelic vision of the posthuman found in the philosophy of the counterculture and how this in turn shared affinities with the emerging school of anti-humanism of the time exemplified by philosophers such as Foucault and Deleuze, themselves influenced by a very different understanding of Nietzsche. After a brief journey through the Dark Age of comics, in which posthuman bodies were simultaneously hardened and broken in a manner that seemed wholly at odds with Haraway’s vision of the cyborg as emancipatory figure, the paper moved on to the Modern or Renaissance Age. The emphasis on the Military-Industrial posthuman body in contemporary comics suggests that while there are clear and obvious Transhumanist themes in superhero comics they can also, despite the evidence of the Dark Age, engage with the same questions of identity and corporeality and their relation to the state and techno-science that are addressed by critical posthumanism.
There are more questions to be asked. The second strand of this thesis deals with comic book readers. What sense do they make, if at all, of these posthuman visions? Do they think superhero comics provide a useful tool for considering these issues? Would they themselves welcome human enhancements? And to what extent are their views on these issues informed by superhero comics? Furthermore, there are fascinating depictions of posthuman bodies in superhero comics (Artificial Bodies; Grotesque Bodies; Abject Bodies) that have been left unaddressed by this paper but that would require a similarly wide-ranging cultural historic approach to properly understand their historical development and the underground root systems that connect them to other literary, philosophical and techno-scientific realms.
More pressingly, interrogating the posthuman body is not simply a matter of abstract concern. In terms of techno-science the first steps on the road to a posthuman future have already been taken. As Hughes points out
The political terrain of the twenty-first century will add a new dimension-biopolitics. At one end of the biopolitical spectrum are the bioLuddites, defending humanity from enhancement technologies, and at the other end the transhumanists, advocating for our right to become more than human (2004:55)
Elsewhere, Wolfe goes so far as to claim that there is, “…no project more overdue than the articulation of a post-humanist theoretical framework for a politics and ethics not grounded in the Enlightenment ideal of ‘Man’” (cited in Badmington, 2001: 5). Superhero comic books invite us to ask questions of the relationship between military, state and corporate power and the production of posthuman bodies. Indeed, the real question they invite becomes an ontological one. Instead of asking “what are we?” humanity is faced with a new, altogether more awe-full question, “what is it that we want to become”?
As Uncle Ben said, “With great power comes great responsibility”.
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