Grab a cup of coffee or a cool drink. Sit down for a great interview with author of Superhero Ethics, Dr. Travis Smith.
Can you give us a brief introduction (perhaps beyond your bio-something we don't know) and a little background of yourself?
I was a math/science kid growing up. I went to college to study chemical engineering originally. After working in environmental consulting for about twelve months, at what I imagined might be the most suitable job for me as an engineer, I gradually came to the realization that it really wasn’t for me. So, I transferred into the lucrative field of political philosophy.
Before I made that switch, though, I had been self-educating in the humanities. When you demonstrate an aptitude for math and science, the system seizes on that brute fact and does everything it can to cultivate those talents. Our society’s morals and economy alike value those skills so much. But something inside me told me that I was missing out on something essential, something I needed to investigate more—on my own if I had to, although a couple of high school teachers encouraged me (thanks, Ms. Forbes and Mr. McKinnell!)—if I were to better appreciate the human condition and live a fuller life. So, I would read a chapter of the Iliad in calculus class after I finished solving my differential equations for the day. I would eventually dig into German philosophy and Russian literature and learn a bit of Latin, too. I really think that the educational system does a disservice to students, and indirectly to society as a whole, when it neglects the humanities—meaning the classics—especially among students whose passions and strengths lie outside the liberal arts.
Wow. That is great! Your teachers sound like fantastic and inspirational people. Such profound things to make an impact on a high school student and so telling of what we should all aspire to. What were some painstaking moments during the evolution of writing Superhero Ethics?
The rewriting! It took me several rounds of rewriting to get the manuscript for Superhero Ethics into publishable shape—mainly because my professional training was in academic writing for a scholarly audience. Learning to write for a more general readership was a process.
Interesting. I never thought of that process. I think you have a nice blend. I can see the academia in the pages, but it also has flare to grab anyone's attention. Did you fall into any writing traps when writing Superhero Ethics?
I can tell you what my main challenges were. As I mentioned above, I had to write for a general audience, not for university faculty and graduate students. And yet, I also wanted to avoid writing in an informal style. Finding the mean between the way I would speak among scholars at an academic conference and the way I would talk over pints at the pub—that was tricky. Finding a way to communicate to readers who are learned in philosophical traditions without depending on quotations and citations from philosophical texts, while also communicating with people who don’t read philosophy either for fun or for pay—that was a challenge, too. Finding a way to communicate with hardcore comic book fans who have read as many superhero stories as I have without being pedantic, while also communicating to people who have never read comic books and may be only casually familiar with some of the summertime blockbusters—that took some figuring out as well. It was important to me not to get lost in the weeds or engage in too much inside baseball.
How do you feel when you finalized the last word? Energized or exhausted or something else?
Anxious. Several people proofread the manuscript before Superhero Ethics went to the printers. Still, I imagined some imperfections would sneak their way in. Luckily, part of the book is an argument against perfectionist tendencies. I will gladly award No-Prizes to people who discover mistakes in the text and then find ways to explain them away.
When you dove into comics when you were in your childhood, what is/are your favorite(s)? Most valuable whether memorable or monetary?
I remember devouring the Claremont/Byrne issues of Uncanny X-Men at my cousin’s house during one visit. (This book is all your fault, Brent!) A friend in elementary school let me borrow his copies of Power Pack. I grabbed new issues of Power Man & Iron Fist from spinner racks and hunted for back issues of the Walt Simonson run on Thor. In the post-Crisis DC Universe, I loved Suicide Squad and Justice League most—especially Green Lantern Guy Gardner.
I have always collected comic books for recreational purposes, not as an investment. So, I don’t have many “monetary memories” (except for the time I found a first appearance of Guy Gardner at a comic convention for 75 cents, back when cons were held in dimly-lit smoky basements). As a fan, though, I treasure the letter that Mike Grell sent me to answer questions I had about Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters in 1987. Just as dear are letters that James Kochalka wrote to my son, who, at the age of five or six, had submitted Johnny Boo fan art to him. (To your readers with young children, I cannot recommend the Johnny Boo series of books strongly enough.) Ryan North—who writes The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, my favorite series from Marvel in recent years—recently retweeted an article I published about superheroes on Entrepreneur.com. That was a big geek-out moment for me.
Very cool! Those are very special moments and memories. What kind of research did you do for this book? I can tell some from the book, but was interested in methods and time frame as well.
I watched and rewatched a lot of superhero movies. I read and reread a lot of comic books. I found articles like “The 100 Superman stories you must read!” online and then tracked down key issues. Also, to make old ideas and arguments seem relevant and familiar to my students, I make a lot of pop culture references during my lectures. I gathered those together and expanded on them, drawing on modern and ancient sources alike. Then I had to find something thematic in each character to base my analyses on. It all took longer than expected.
I cannot imagine the brain work involved with all that. Reading the book, I was fascinated with the analytical components. What was purposely left out or edited out of the book?
My editors reined in the nerdy side of my sense of humor. We didn’t want the book to sound like an episode of The Big Bang Theory. We also cut out references to recent events from the daily news cycle, aware that they would date the book quickly.
Ok. That "nerdy side of my sense of humor" made me laugh out loud. I can relate. The edits on the daily news cycle is an interesting take on it and I agree, it could date it but what was included was timeless comparisons to societal issues. Reading it today, it mimics today. Reading it tomorrow could very well be relate-able even though you don't mention particular events or trends. Was it always these particular 10 superheroes?
My original proposal included dozens of characters worth considering. But a decision was made to focus on characters familiar to the general public rather than obscure characters that only comic book readers know and love. This meant that I did not write a book about my personal favorites. I had to pair characters up, too, pitting them in battles in which each hero was distinctive while each pair shared a commonality. Regrettably, some important characters who warranted greater consideration weren’t given the extensive critical assessment they deserve.
There are places in Superhero Ethics where I suggest that characters who are not allotted feature spots might actually be more praiseworthy than those who are. One friend read the book and remarked, “So, you’re really saying that the Invisible Woman is the best superhero?” Maybe. I mean, in telling the story of the Ring of Gyges, Plato suggests that invisibility represents the ability to do whatever you want, however wrong, and always get away with it. To have someone defined by the power to commit the worst injustices, and yet she only uses that power for good—wow, right? Plus, in the Biblical tradition, invisibility is associated with the mysteriousness, immensity, and ubiquity of divine power. It’s no wonder that Francis Bacon placed so much emphasis on gaining knowledge regarding the invisible winds, and therefore power over them. Come to think of it, weather control is a popular infatuation among supervillains, too.
That is insightful. I never thought of invisibility like that, but what a great comparison. What phrase of the book are you most proud of? Chapter?
Phrase? “Global governance is for supervillains.”
Chapter? I think my examination of Tony Stark hits the mark. Think about how the most troubling scene in Avengers: Infinity War is when Spider-Man “dies.” To me it wasn’t disturbing just because it was heartbreaking to see young Peter Parker fret about his own undeserved demise. It was disturbing because he was practically praying to Tony Stark—the embodiment of the technological mindset and technological might in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—to save him. Peter Parker should not be praying to Tony Stark.
I happen to like your favorite phrase and it echoes problems today. I think that part of your book showed the breakdown in a super power in that their spirit can be crushed to a point of weakness just as if they were ordinarily human. Just my take, anyway. What do you want your readers to gain or take away from reading Superhero Ethics?
Philosophy is not only for snooty elitists. And pop culture shouldn’t be sneered at by those who think they’re too sophisticated for it. In order to make his arguments about the best life and the just society, Plato himself had no compunction about looking at the stories that Homer and the other poets told about heroes and villains. If you enjoy popular culture today and would like to think about it in a more philosophical way, then Superhero Ethics is the sort of book that can help get you started. If you are the kind of person who wonders, “what kind of role models should we give our children?” or “what kind of person should I try to imitate?”—and you’re curious about what responses can be found in popular culture today—then Superhero Ethics offers some suggestions and admonitions.
I like that takeaway. Did you get hijacked by certain characters where you wanted to go further into their complexities but kept it to a certain depth?
I had to hold back on Green Lantern. Until I became partial to Ms. Marvel (now Captain Marvel, coming to movie theaters in 2019) around fifteen years ago, the Green Lantern corner of the DC Universe was my favorite thing in all of comics.
The Green Lantern. It isn't easy being green. Well, that's what Kermit said anyway. I read a lot of the green lantern in the 70s version I never would have guessed that, but now I will have to watch and read differently to grasp that. What chapter did you put your most effort into and why?
My polished draft of chapter four on Captain America and Mister Fantastic was almost twice as long as what was published. We had to pare it back.
Oh geez. Now we are all going to be curious about what we missed. What is next?
I am presently preparing notes for a bonus chapter on Wonder Woman and Black Panther.
Interesting mix. Anything you would like to add you feel is important that I did not ask.
Modern society is designed to reduce our need for heroes and suppress the impulse toward heroism. “Don’t try be a hero” is generally regarded as good advice for everyone to follow nowadays. But the appeal of superhero movies is evidence that we cannot shake our admiration for the heroic. Modern society tells us to focus on our material interests and busy ourselves with satisfying our appetites, but we cannot help being moved by considerations of the noble and the honorable. Superhero Ethics is in part a reflection on tensions like these within our society.
I appreciate this opportunity to talk behind-the-scenes about Superhero Ethics. Thank you, Momma Fargo. I’m glad you enjoyed the book.
Thank you, Dr. Smith! I enjoyed this insight and getting to know more of the backstory!
You can grab your copy of Superhero Ethics on Amazon! You won't want to miss it!
About the Author:
Travis Smith is the author of Superhero Ethics (Templeton Press). He received his PhD from Harvard University and is associate professor of political science at Concordia University. He has been collecting comic books since he bought Uncanny X-Men #207 with his allowance in 1986. His writing has appeared in the Weekly Standard and Convivium Magazine. For more information, please visit https://www.templetonpress.org/books/superhero-ethics