Book: Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret history of Comic Book Heroes
Author: Christopher Knowles
Illustrator: Joseph Michael Linsner
I had high expectations for this book. It was an item on my Christmas list, as a matter of fact. I figured that it could possibly be the perfect holiday gift book for me – engaging, fun, easy to read in fits and starts, and a good conversation starter while I’m browsing my book by the tree. My fiancée was kind enough to give it to me, and I began to read it on December 26th. (He also gave me Rattles, the glow-in-the-dark skull shaped shaker. Say hello to the folks, Rattles!) I assure you, Rattles says "hi!"
You may have noticed that I began reading this book over a month ago. That’s because reading it almost destroyed me. It was something quite like hitting myself over the head again and again with a miniature bust of some obscure DC hero no one has ever heard of. The book ate my soul. This is the third time I’ve tried to force myself to sit down and write this review. I hope the third time is a charm, because I really want to go set fire to this book in the courtyard once I’m done.
It began innocently enough. First, with a brief introduction that explains to us why the author just had to write this book. This was quickly followed by what was, sadly, the most enjoyable part of the book: an engaging history of the comic book industry, with a focus on the horrible state that the industry was in during the 1990s (a.k.a. “The Chromatic Age”). I hung out/pseudo-worked at a Comic Book shop in the early 90’s, which has long since gone out of business (I salute you, Dr. Comics!), so I found the history and the unflinching description of just how bad comics were at that time entertaining.
The reader is soon presented with one of Mr. Knowles’s basic premises: that when the general culture is anxiety-ridden and scared, comics become a brisk business. I can buy that – escapism is always on the menu when a culture is stressed. He continues to tell us that as society pendulums from a shades-of-gray-appreciating level of comfort to a black-and-white-desiring discomfort, the appreciation of superheroes wanes and waxes accordingly.
Mr. Knowles has a very broad definition of a superhero, which changes according to his whim. It’s interesting to see that he never fully defines this term, lumping characters like Rambo (who certainly did not stem from the comic book industry) in with the rest of the lycra-wearing crowd.
The book goes on to explain that in the current climate, fans demand a certain “reverence” from comic book creators, pointing out that the previously popular genre of parodies are no longer accepted as easily. He goes so far as to compare CosPlayers at Dragon*con to “ancient pagans dressing as objects of their worship.” That’s a kind of facile comparison that’s easy to make…and that cries out for something to back it up. Sadly, we don’t receive that something. But what we do receive is the first herald of a sad trend in this book. I’ll let the text speak for itself. Mr. Knowles states that Dragon*con has “…become notorious for the throngs of beautiful women who swarm there to show off their painstakingly constructed costumes, as well as their Pilates-sculpted figures.” At first glance, it seems like a fair-enough statement – everyone I know that’s been to Dragon*con comes back with stories of scantily clad women in elaborate consumes. I just question the “Pilates-sculpted” description. Why do I question it? Read on, dear reader, read on.
I’m supposed to be writing these reviews to comment on books which contain shoddy scholarship or downright craziness in regards to the Occult or Paranormal, right? Well, for a moment, Constance Parker is taking a holiday. In her place, meet Constance Wollstonecraft, feminist at large. And let me write it plainly for all to see: this book both implicitly and explicitly denigrates women. Repeatedly. Often enough to make a woman with a fairly relaxed view of feminism’s blood boil.
We start with the above quote, with the implications that all women (or at least all women that go to Dragon*con) tone their muscles with Pilates (no offense to those of you who do, by the way.) What follows, sprinkled throughout the book are other misogynistic and male-centric depictions of females. Madame Blavatsky is described as “stout and homely” while none of the other male characters are subjected to a beauty review. The “Occult Superstars” section of the book is devoid of females. Where are the Fox Sisters, Dione Fortune, Madame Blavatsky? (Blavatsky and Fortune are mentioned in other sections, however their omission here is vexing.) No females are mentioned in the Literary Luminaries section. Where’s Mary Shelley?
Finally, in the Bram Stoker section of the Literary Luminaries chapter, we hear mention of Anne Rice. However, while male authors are “inspired” by other male authors, who leave a “legacy” to the writers that come after them, we learn that mean old Anne Rice has “hijacked [Bram Stoker’s] theme.” Males get to influence and be influenced; females apparently “hijack” ideas.
Next is the issue of Margaret Brundage. I’ll admit – I had never heard of her until reading this book. Let’s compare how Mr. Knowles describes her to how she’s described in another source. Knowles mentions her while discussing the cover art of Weird Tales magazine. He tells us that “Weird Tales became notorious for its sexy and surreal cover paintings, particularly those of Chicago housewife Margaret Brundage.” This is how Wikipedia describes good old Margaret: “an American illustrator and painter who is remembered chiefly for having illustrated the pulp magazine Weird Tales.” Later on, Wikipedia mentions that she was the chief cover artist for Weird Tales and continued to work as an artist until her death. That’s some housewife!
Mr. Knowles lumps all female comic book heroes into one chapter, titled “The Amazons.” Apparently, that is the only archetype he can fit females into as far as comics are concerned. Wonder Women is discussed in some detail, with an explanation about how she was primarily a bondage fantasy. He then sweeps fourteen other female characters into a section cunningly titled “And Others Like Her” and proceeds to dismiss them in five short paragraphs. Electra gets her own section, but only so that he can state that her ruthless and aggressive tendencies make her “devoid of a recognizable feminine personality.” He goes so far as to indicate that he is a transgendered character, due to her strength and aggression.
Finally, we come to the issue of the illustrations that adorn the book. The cover art is a parody of the last supper, with one hugely-bosomed female character playing the part of Mary Magdalene. She is the only character without long sleeves on the cover. Out of around 25 illustrations, there are two pictures of female heroes, one of which is a female hero “tied” to a chair and looking distressed. The other illustration is of a trans-gendered Elektra. The other females appearing in illustrations are
• A flapper being saved by a gun-toting detective
• A vampire woman leaping out to attack a male hero.
And, my two personal favorites:
• A space bimbo in a metal bikini staring in startled admiration at a space man’s sword
• A fantasy bimbo in a leather bikini staring in startled admiration at Robert E Howard’s axe.
These pictures say it better than I ever could.
Okay, now I can shove Constance Wollstonecraft into a box in order to talk about how this book measures up when it comes to its Occult content. The sad fact is that it doesn’t. Not a bit. Mr. Knowles has a habit of obtaining his information about the Occult via conspiracy books. He frequently uses the word “Occultic” as if it was a real word. Despite his thesis that most superheros are vestiges of pre-Christian religions that have been promoted by secret societies that comics creators are either members of or knowledgeable about, he rarely draws a clear line between a pre-Christian religion and a specific superhero. What we are left with is a scattered collection of information that never quite hangs together. Our Gods is arbitrary, loosely woven, and will be frustrating to read for anyone who knows anything about the history of the Occult.
My advice? Don’t read past page 7. Actually, don’t even bother with the first seven pages – I am sure there are better histories of the comics industry out there. In fact, I just found this on Amazon.com:
So, in regards to this subject, hope springs eternal. Excelsior!