An edited version of this review appeared in issue 9.3 of ImageTexT: read it here
To what extent can our favourite comic book superheroes be viewed as sovereigns in their own realms? And how does the role of superhero complicate or otherwise critically interrogate traditional notions of sovereignty? These are the key questions Neal Curtis considers in his book Sovereignty and Superheroes, which analyses representations of a variety of superheroes from the Marvel and DC universes alongside philosophical conceptions of the sovereign from Plato, Hobbes, Derrida, and beyond. In approaching these questions through a distinctly philosophical lens, Curtis expands our understanding of the comic book superhero, and its function in both shaping and critiquing wider social and political networks.
The primary impulse of Curtis’ book is to challenge the idea of comic book superheroes as either conservative supporters of the status quo or lawless vigilantes, and instead to reach a more rounded understanding of superheroes by reading them as ‘meditations on the problematic concept of sovereignty’ (1). This approach to the superhero genre proves to be enlightening on a number of levels. Curtis explores topics from state-sanctioned violence and emergency powers, to issues of kinship and community, which often branch out into discussions of wider sociohistorical and psychological import. The use of sovereignty as a vehicle for these wider discussions is, on the whole, successful and persuasive. The relative absence of historically grounded, as opposed to purely philosophical assessments of sovereign power, is however an omission I would have liked to have seen addressed, and I will return to this criticism after a brief exploration of the individual chapters.
Sovereignty and Superheroes begins in Chapter One, ‘Legitimacy and the Good’, by considering Superman as a ‘Platonic form of the superhero’ (15) who achieves sovereign legitimacy through his connection to the transcendent concept of ‘the Good.’ As Plato equates the Form of Good with the properties of the sun, so Curtis identifies the sun as the tether linking Superman to the idea of the Good. It is the sun that fuels Superman’s superhuman abilities, and the sun which offers, symbolically, a halo-like corona to the character whenever his legitimacy requires reaffirming. To challenge the conservatism often associated with Superman, Curtis equates the Good, not with an absolute, fixed ideal, but with the notion of social change: ‘the collective aspiration to transcend the given—to challenge, question, and transform it—in order to make a better but always fallible world’ (28). This conception of the Good as a mutable subject frees Superman from the bounds of conservative readings, allying his characterisation to the much more fluid ideal of liberation, rather than to any state power or law. What is ‘Good’ in the Superman universe, is this perpetual striving for social betterment, which Superman himself symbolises, and through which he gains sovereign legitimacy.
In Chapter Two, ‘Defending Freedom,’ Curtis moves to an examination of Captain America. Often viewed as a symbol of U.S. nationalism, Curtis emphasises Captain America’s commitment to ideals which at times diverge from the reality of U.S governmental action. According to Curtis, Captain America does not defend any and all permutations of U.S governance, but the foundational values of democracy as laid out in the Constitution (52). Again, this line of argument moves the superhero away from a purely conservative reading. Curtis explores Captain America’s sovereignty through the concept of freedom as it is understood by Hannah Arendt: as a joint enterprise. For Arendt, action isn’t possible in isolation (Arendt, 188), but instead belongs to a wider network of relationships. Captain America embodies this idea, Curtis argues, through his relation to various iterations of a collective in the form of The Avengers, through his wider awareness of pluralities, and through his overarching commitment to joint enterprise, as evidenced in his speech and actions. While sovereignty itself seems, at first glance, to be individualistic, it is in fact rooted in societal needs and expectations. The idea of commitment to joint enterprise as a source of sovereign legitimacy, which Curtis advances in this chapter is therefore not entirely paradoxical, though it does I think merit more of a discussion than was offered.
In Chapter Three, ‘Law and Violence,’ Curtis interrogates the Batman comics as sites of the permeable division between justice and violence; the sovereign and the beast. The ability of the sovereign to protect the people is one of the markers of sovereign power. This protection takes the form of law-making, and also, of law enforcement. It is this undercurrent of violence to sovereign power that Curtis, following Hobbes (Leviathan) and Derrida (The Beast and the Sovereign), aligns with ‘the beast’. Curtis draws out Batman’s close association with the dangerous underside of this double nature to explore the fine line between legitimate violence and criminal violence, which is contained within sovereign power. In discussing this this aspect of sovereignty, Curtis is able to complicate the accusations of vigilantism often levelled at the character of Batman: even in acting outside the law, he acts within the construct of sovereign power.
Recognising this darker element to the superhero-sovereign anatomy, Sovereignty and Superheroes moves on in Chapter Four, ‘Friend and Enemy’, to interrogate the unstable borders between hero and villain. Curtis discusses Derrida’s concepts of ‘‘autoimmunity’, where a body’s own defence mechanism becomes the threat’, and ‘the ‘pharmakon’, where something is both poison and cure’ (82), in relation to the hero/villain dynamics of individual characters such as Batman and Doctor Doom, whose histories and characteristics, Curtis argues, destabilise any clear divide between concepts such as good and evil. He also analyses the shifting alliances within the Avengers universe to interrogate the boundaries between friend and enemy beyond the hero/villain divide. Curtis’ application of Derrida to these relationships serves to illuminate both the co-dependency of “good” and “evil” within superhero comics, and also the transiency of these distinctions, as evidenced through various opportunistic alliances. These discussions also serve to underpin the fragility of the barrier between superhero-sovereign and dictatorial tyrant.
Chapter Five, ‘Emergency and Bare Life,’ considers the idea that comic book worlds exist in a perpetual state of emergency. States of emergency allow for the suspension of normal laws and modes of behaviour, introducing a zone of ‘extra-legal legality’ where additional uses of force and the curtailment of individual rights become permissible. This chapter is centred on the distinction between law (nomos) and the figure with the ability to suspend the law, the sovereign (anomie), as delineated by Giorgio Agamben. In the course of examining these exceptional powers, and states of emergency more generally, Curtis directs his discussion towards responses to the U.S. ‘war on terror’ within the comics industry. Through a close reading of two stories in the DCU, ‘The OMAC Project’ and ‘The Battle for Blüdhaven,’ he is able to demonstrate the value of comics as politically engaged arenas of debate and critique, while exemplifying the close connection between superhero comics and exceptional political and legal environments. His analyses also draw out interesting questions about who qualifies for protection, and who is excluded and forced into the position of ‘lesser being’ (119) under the auspices of these exceptional powers.
This question of who qualifies for protection is picked up in the penultimate chapter, ‘Symbolic Authority and Kinship’. Again offering a challenge to the charge of conservatism, this chapter attempts to demonstrate the ways in which kinship within superhero comics is not entirely grounded within a patriarchal, heteronormative symbolic authority. Through excellent readings of matriarchy and sisterhood in Wonder Woman, and superheroes’ relationship with non-human worlds in titles such as Swamp Thing, Curtis demonstrates not just the existence of alternative forms of kinship in superhero comics, but also argues that the inherent multiplicity within individual superhero-sovereigns necessarily invites more diverse formations of kinship:
The sovereign already contains the ferocity of a beast, the divinity of a god, the social armature of institutions, laws and techniques, while also being personified in a particular monarch. Therefore, to start to speak of a sovereign identity that goes beyond a named collection of humans is […] not so radical (139).
In other words, the figure of the sovereign has the potential to encourage diverse formations of societal and interpersonal relationships within the superhero genre, which may have traditionally been lacking. This chapter also touches on the issue of sexism in the comics industry, which is both relevant to the focus of the argument, and a timely reminder of how far things have come, and how far they still have to go.
The final chapter, ‘Sovereignty at the Limit’, considers ‘the spectre that haunts sovereignty,’ namely, nothingness and the threat of chaos (153). Built into the fabric of the superhero-sovereign, and alluded to in the preceding chapters on law and violence and the friend/enemy dynamic, is ‘this idea that what is sovereign – the most powerful and the most high – is at the same time nothing’ (154). Curtis relates this nothingness to a lack of relation between the superhero and other entities (as the highest and most powerful, the superhero has no equal), to the potentially destructive powers of the superhero, and to the process of world-building as a fragile imaginative pursuit. The idea of worlds as groundless interpretations, which when confronted by other interpretations, falter, is an interesting concept in relation to the limits of sovereign power, and one I would have liked to see discussed more, particularly in relation to the dynamics of crossover comics, and interactions between parallel realms.
In terms of a more overarching criticism, there is, I think, room for a more nuanced and sustained engagement with historically grounded ideas of sovereignty. A simple contrast between monarchic and democratic sovereignty which Curtis describes at the outset (4), sets the tone for much of the book’s attitude towards historic sovereignty. It fails to take into account the inherently dualistic conception of monarchic sovereignty prevalent in Europe since at least the Middle Ages, which balanced precariously between the notion of the divine right of kings, and the idea of the monarch as a servant of the people (Harris, 12). Monarchic sovereignty hasn’t been a truly absolutist entity for much of Western history, but this is something that the book’s focus on the exceptionalism of superhero sovereignty, fails to recognise. As a consequence of this relative paucity of historical grounding (as opposed to purely philosophical ideas), there are instances where Curtis’ argument omits potentially useful historical parallels.
As a particular example, there is some solid discussion of the dual identity of the traditional superhero, but where discussion does occur, it is contained within the discourse of comics. This concept could have been usefully related to the duality that has historically been perceived at the heart of the monarch’s person: the monarch’s body has necessarily been viewed as a double body, which ‘involves not only the transitory element that is born and dies, but another that remains unchanged by time and is maintained as the physical yet intangible support of the kingdom’ (Foucault, 28). This double nature bears clear relation to the phenomenon of the secret identity/costumed superhero dynamic so central to the genre, and could have been discussed profitably in that context. In the event, however, this particular line of argument did not materialise.
Similarly, the discussion of law and violence in Chapter Three would benefit from a more sustained engagement with historical notions of sovereign power. As Michel Foucault describes, ‘in punishment, there must always be a portion that belongs to the prince’ (Foucault, 48). Historically, crime has been viewed not just as an injury to the social fabric, but as an affront to the very person of the monarch as a physical embodiment of their kingdom. Corporal punishment, therefore, was ‘a ceremonial by which a momentarily injured sovereignty is reconstituted’ (Foucault, 48). Curtis, however, discusses the uneasy relationship between law and violence as an ‘intimate relationship […] that marks sovereign power but which it continually seeks to disavow’ (79). This conclusion runs contrary to the element of spectacle so important to historic manifestations of sovereignty, a contrast that would surely serve to greater illuminate the modern sovereignty of Curtis’ superhero-sovereigns.
The strengths of this book lie in Curtis’ perceptive readings of well-chosen examples from the comics literature, and the depth of engagement with relevant political and philosophical material. This material is consistently well-handled, and the discussion surrounding Derrida’s notions of the pharmakon and autoimmunity in relation to superhero-sovereignty (Chapter Four) is particularly astute. Some of the most interesting portions of Sovereignty and Superheroes however, are those that engage with real-world issues such as sexism (Chapter Six) and the war on terror (Chapter Five), and show the relevance of the superhero genre to contemporary political and societal issues. These ideas can be expanded upon in future studies, which can more explicitly focus on the ways in which sovereignty interacts with things like world politics, feminism, race, and other-than-human world (both alien and natural), within the superhero genre.
Overall, Sovereignty and Superheroes offers a convincing framework for reassessing traditional notions of the comic superhero, and, moving forward, it opens the door to understanding more complex, diverse superheroes and their worlds. In resurrecting the concept of sovereignty, Curtis has also resurrected the comic book superhero as a vital, complex figure, with the potential to be a forward-looking engine for change.
Arendt, Hannah (1958) The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Curtis, Neal (2016) Sovereignty and Superheroes, Manchester: Manchester University Press
Foucault, Michel (1991) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, England: Penguin
Harris, Tim (2014) Rebellion: Britain’s First Stuart Kings, Oxford: Oxford University Press