Project Zarathusa, Kwasu David Tembo, University of Edinburgh

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 A CRITICAL RE-EVALUATION OF THE CONCEPT OF THE COMIC BOOK SUPERBEING THROUGH THE SELECTIVE APPLICATION OF THEORETICAL AND PHILOSOPHICAL IDEAS – SUPERMAN & AND POWER

The phrase “Project Zarathustra” is taken from what I consider to be one of the greatest superhero comics ever written: Miracleman. In it, esteemed comics writers Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman explore a panoply of themes, issues, and debates that surround the concept of the comic book super-being, including the issue of  power which is a pre-eminent focal point of my research. What makes Miracleman particularly special is the fact that Moore and Gaiman take perhaps one of the longest withstanding questions concerning comic book super-beings to its radical conclusion: “what would happen if a figure like Superman were real?”


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For my thesis, this question was a germane place to begin. That said, for me “Project Zarathustra” really began in the 3rd year of my undergraduate career, when I was studying English Literature at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. During a ‘special topic’ course on Shakespeare – instructed by Dr. Richard Van Oort – we were given an option to conduct an oral presentation instead of submitting a paper. I chose to do an oral presentation because just a week previous to the due date of the assignment, I had read Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta and I thought to perform a comparative analysis between the characters V and Richard III. The presentation was a relative triumph though I cannot recall the grade I received, if indeed grades are the measure of success; yet it did bring with it an epiphany which led to my current academic pursuit: I recognised that Comics Studies was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It came as a surprise, as pleasant as finding twenty pounds in your inside jacket pocket or Indiana Jones re-runs airing on a saturnine Monday afternoon. I had not thought to combine my two most robust passions outside of music: philosophy and comics. It now seems so obvious, so natural, and, crucially, so important to me. And this, for whatever it is worth or will be, is what “Project Zarathustra” is to me.

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“Project Zarathustra” is a thesis operating under the aegis of Comics Studies. As such, it is a project about comic books generally and, more pointedly, the concept of the super-being (here used to refer to super-powered creatures that inhabit and co-habit superhero narratives). My thesis re-evaluates the ‘super-being’ paradigm through the selective application of various philosophical and theoretical ideas and approaches to the concept of power.

Secondly, this project seeks to deconstruct the concept of the comic book super-being using Superman as a case study.  My choice of Superman is in part anecdotal. When asking comic book aficionados the oft-repeated question, “who do you prefer, Batman or Superman or who is your favourite DC comics character or superhero comics character in general?”,  Batman is the typical response; Batman who is typically regarded with a mixture of mild fear, excitement, and stylistic appreciation in these exchanges, proves the victor. He is oftentimes valued as complex, vulnerable, an exemplar of the capacity and aptitude of the human will and so on.  Pursuing the matter further, I would or will ask “Why?”. Again, the answer is almost always the same: “Because Superman is boring” or “Superman is lame” or “Superman is too perfect” or “Superman is too simple, he has no dynamism” or “there is nothing interesting about Superman” and so on. This disturbs me to this day. Not necessarily because I feel a sense of indignation as most so-called ‘geeks’ feel when a beloved intellectual property is under attack, the slaughter of a sacred cow, if you like. I believe what is truly disturbing about the answers I have received to this deceptively simple question is the baseless negativity and reductivist attitude levelled against the progenitor of a genre and a metaphysically complex character in its own right. Reductivist, in the sense that Superman is not seen as a representation of any aesthetic, socio-historical, or philosophical complexity, or nuance. Negatively, in the sense that the words and phrases “unrelatable”, “boring”, or “overly-good” are mainstays in the minds of many people creating a de facto pejorative association towards the character in question. Despite Batman’s appeal, when I asked myself the same question, I found that the combination of Superman’s “extraterrestriality” and  power  alone were compelling grounds for an investigation into what the concept of the comic book super-being tells about our understanding of, desire for, and fear of power.

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The manner of my approach is tripartite and, as such, develops its ideas using three main categories as its basic structure: aesthetics, history, and philosophy. Within each chapter of the thesis, the analysis and commentary focuses, onthese three areas of thought, in varying proportions depending on the subject of each chapter.  I have chosen the aforementioned method for this project as a means to produce as comprehensive and holistic range of analysis as is possible within the stipulated limits. Indeed, I acknowledge the fact that an exercise of this nature is not completely unprecedented. That said however, I believe it is necessary  to perform a close re-examination of the aesthetic, socio-historical, and philosophical assumptions, traditions, and opinions of comic book super-beings using Superman as a case study. This is because with the preponderance of superhero related material being consumed in contemporary mass media, I feel that it is important to examine how this content has developed diachronically. Analysis of this nature will reveal how basic ideas of what a comic book superbeing is or can be have developed and changed, as well as what assumptions, tropes, and standards have remained with a character like Superman, who has seen uninterrupted publication since 1938 and, most importantly, how this effects or informs our interpretation of the character itself. Furthermore, re-evaluating the concept of the comic book superbeing is also a preventative measure in that, re-examining, questioning, problematizing (in some ways, radically so) the content of the concept of the comic book superbeing prevents the concept from ossifying into an over-simplified trope within a genre of literature. That said, however the ultimate goal of this project is to contribute toward, even if only as a possible starting point, the development of a dialectic wherein insights into the philosophical resonances between power and the concept of the comic book superbeing may be elucidated further.

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Though this project seeks to develop its reading of Superman using various philosophical and theoretical ideas from a range of authors and thinkers, it is particularly indebted to the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche is important to this project because I believe that Nietzsche’s philosophical ideas will allow me to examine the concept of the comic book superbeing holistically. This is because a vast portion or portions of Nietzsche’s body of work address or at least touch on the three areas – aesthetics, socio-historical considerations, and philosophy – that form the core of this project and are in this way ideal and helpful with regard to the nature and structure.

Nieztsche’s ideas and meditations regarding the Dionysian/Apollonian dialectic, the nature of power, the Will, concepts such as the slave revolt, good/bad morality, god/bad consciousness, beyond good and evil, and lastly, the Übermensch form the philosophical foundation for my discussion of Superman. The ideas expounded in Nietzsche’s corpus offer interesting and fresh ways of reading the progression and evolution of Superman and the concept of the comic book superbeing, elucidating both why and how the concept changed.  The commentary of authors, such as Grant Morrison, Umberto Eco, and Larry Tye, Jeoph Leob, Mark Waid, Charles Taliaferro & Graig Lindahl-Urban,  Tom Morris, C. Steven Evans, Felix Tallon & Jerry Walls, C. Stephen Layman, and Peter Coogan will also be used to identify and comment upon various aspects of the relationship between the concept of the comic book superbeing and power. When discussing this project, however formally or informally, one quote always comes to mind which I would like to use to conclude this cursory overview:

“…right from the beginning. And that’s where we’re going. Right back to the beginning. Not the Bang, not the Word… You still don’t get it. It’s not about right. Not about wrong…It’s about power”

(Whedon, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, season 7, episode 1 “Lessons”).

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ABOUT
Kwasu David Tembo is a second year PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh’s Language, Literatures, and Cultures department. The working title of his doctoral thesis is Project Zarathustra which is concerned with the dissemination of the DC Comics character Superman through the selective application of philosophical ideas and theories. His research interests include – but are not limited to – comics studies, literary theory and criticism, philosophy (particularly the so-called “prophets of extremity” – Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, and Derrida). Kwasu’s extracurricular interests include producing experimental electronic music (with/through Ableton Live), fencing (épée), writing (poetry,short stories, comics), chess and dancing.