Okay, so this is a comic book blog and you're wondering what all this philosophy talk has to do with comics. I'm glad you asked! In almost every way, the supermen presented in glorious four color and newsprint are exemplars of Nietzsche’s philosophy in pop culture. Let’s look at a few examples of how they’re the best examples and then I’ll share with you the two I consider to be the BEST of the BEST examples.
1. Rise above the Herd and live glorious lives…
Imagine if every single day you saved somebody’s life. Or went to a distant planet. Or fought monsters. Or romanced princesses of lost continents. Or traveled through time. Or met beings of godlike power. Or if you WERE a being of godlike power. If any one of these things was true, let alone all of them, what would you have in common with your family or co-workers? Absolutely nothing, your concerns would have risen as far above the Herd as the average person’s thoughts are above the animals. This is how most superheroes live. To paraphrase a comic writer the Cap'n and I enjoy, comic book universes are a day-glo funhouse where the world is threatened every ten minutes and godlike beings clash in the skies like fireworks. Does this describe your life in the cubicle?
2. …That ultimately end in Tragedy.
Nearly every super hero is in the midst of a mission that cannot be successful. Superman actually describes his daily activities as the Never Ending Battle. Wonder Woman seeks to bring Peace to Man’s World by fighting for it. Spider-Man and Batman will never be able to save their lost loved ones no matter how many people they protect each night. Each catastrophe is averted, but a few more lives are lost, a bit more property is destroyed, a few more comrades fall. And when they wake up the next morning, they’ll be ready to do it all over again. THAT’S tragic optimism.
3. Become the next step in human evolution.
The absolute best example of this is the X-Men. Although they technically go against Nietzsche’s concept that the next leap in human evolution will not be merely biological, there is another aspect to the X-Men that is VERY Nietzschean. They were born a step above, but the Herd looks down on them. The Herd KNOWS that it is inferior, and it fears the X-Men because of this. Despite the hatred and fear, the X-Men strive for acceptance and co-existence which will never be given to them. They know it’s a hopeless goal, but they strive for it anyway because the alternative is stagnation. All of that on top of the “typical” activities of visiting distance worlds, traveling through time and doing combat with beings of godlike power!
4. There is no religion in super hero comics.
Oh sure, there are a few exceptions, but for the most part, nobody in super hero comics belongs to any organized religion. The closest you get are the characters that actually interact with those beings that are considered gods. However, in true Nietzsche fashion, the heroes are arrayed against the gods as often as they are the agents of the gods. In a world devoid of religion, a standard for ethics and morality can only come from within. Superman does what’s right because it’s what’s right (Sound too simple? I challenge you to find a better explanation of Superman’s motivation). Spider-Man does what’s right because of a lesson he learned in tragic circumstances from his Uncle Ben. Batman ignores the law in order to serve Justice. If you are living the life of the ubermensch, then mere morality cannot hold you accountable.
Unfortunately, this is also where the parallels fall apart a little. Nietzsche would be horrified how often the ubermensch of comics are tending the needs of the Herd and protecting the status quo. Is Superman really maximizing his potential for the betterment of everyone if he’s not using his powers to END crime (or war, hunger, poverty, pollution, ethnic cleansing, etc), not just fight it? Are the X-Men working in the best interests of both humanity and mutants if they aren’t using their powers to take over the world and institute a government of mutants that ENFORCES peaceful coexistence with humanity? Batman operates outside the law, but refuses to kill even the most deranged dangers to the lives he holds dear. Is he REALLY serving the public good by not ending the Joker’s rampages once and for all? According to Nietzsche, the superhero may actually be a bigger failure than the Herd. In every way they live the Dionysian lifestyle, but they can’t quite let go of their last vestige of mere humanity.
As the audience for this blog is more in tune with comics, I hope that I've given you some aspects to think about that haven't occured to you before. These concepts can certainly go deeper. Take the examples I used of how the superheroes still conform to traditional morality. There’s a fertile ground for discussion there. How many times has Superman flown into a country like
When the high schoolers and I started kicking these questions around, they inevitably landed on “Who is the best example of the Nietzschean ubermensch in comics?” Up until I sat down to write this post, I believed that Batman exemplified Nietzsche’s ideal. After all, here is a man who had everything important in his life taken away from him while he was too young to do anything about it. He did not fall into the quiet misery to which so many of the Herd would have succumbed. He took his sadness, his drive, his ambition and his existing advantages and forged a new destiny for himself through sheer force of Will. When the Herd’s laws were shown to be a hindrance, Batman ignored them in the interest of his self imposed definition of Justice. In the face of a hopeless war, he fights on night after night, losing a little bit more of what ties him to humanity with each sunrise. He trains lieutenants despite a loner nature because he knows the work must go on when he inevitably succumbs and his mind or body fails him. Batman has so separated himself from humanity that he barely bothers to maintain the so-called secret identity. Bruce Wayne is merely another tool he uses in service of higher ideals. Batman has had very few love interests, even fewer friends and has even managed to alienate Nightwing, the original Robin, a man he raised, because of devotion to his ideals. Batman even holds himself aloof from the other ubermensch, believing himself to be superior to them because he does what they do without the benefit of special powers even as he’s separated from the Herd by the fact that he can keep up with the other super heroes. All these things are true, but I kept coming back to the major failing of all the super heroes from Nietzsche’s standpoint. Batman has morals and CARES for the Herd instead of disdaining them.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is a fundamental flaw. Batman couldn’t be the truest ubermensch. Then it hit me like a gamma bomb in the desert. Batman isn’t the ubermensch, but the Hulk IS.
The Incredible Hulk is a superman that is set in stark contrast to the Herd mentality of Bruce Banner. It was Banner’s scientific genius that created the gamma bomb that would give birth to the Hulk. It was Banner’s own force of will that allowed him to survive the gamma bomb by becoming (a key Dionysian concept) the Hulk. Since that moment, though, Banner has hated and feared the superior being he created. And he has, in true Herd fashion, tried to destroy it at every turn.
The Hulk is raw power and passion in a rampaging form. In true Dionysian fashion, he knows nothing but his own desires from moment to moment. He has literally frozen time for himself through sheer force of Will. Nothing can stop him because of the strength of his Will. After all, the madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets. The Hulk knows no morality beyond his own needs; whether Hulk wants "his Betty," or the world to “leave Hulk alone,” or the sheer joy he takes in wanton destruction, he makes his desire into reality. He is the next step in human evolution and hates the man he once was even more than Banner hates the Hulk. The Incredible Hulk exemplifies Nietzsche’s overman.
That about sums up my thoughts on Nietzsche and how he relates to comics. The only thing you guys got that the kids didn’t was my musing on the Hulk, and I intend to add that the next time I'm invited to help teach the class. I’m pretty sure that this entire line of discussion would absolutely appall Nietzsche. If anybody knows where he’s buried, let’s go get him. With a couple magnets at either end, I bet I’ve got him spinning fast enough to light the eastern seaboard!