1) Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you get into writing?
I got into writing about superheroes and philosophy after reading an article by Adam Barkman published in Comment magazine. I could give that a try, I thought. Why not? Barkman looked at superheroes from a “mythological” point of view; I would prefer to look at them from a somewhat more human perspective. When I discovered an article by Jonathan V. Last in The Weekly Standard that I disagreed with I took it as an opportunity to respond. Last argued for the timeliness of the Christopher Nolan trilogy of Batman films; I argued that Spider-Man was a better hero for our times, in commemoration of what was then the fiftieth anniversary of Spider-Man’s first appearance. Little did I know that this one article would lead to an entire book on the subject.
2) What inspired you to write your book?
University professors are asked to find ways to engage in the public dissemination of knowledge. Most of our research is written for an academic audience. How does someone like myself take what I study and teach in the history of political philosophy and make it relevant for a wider audience? Well, if Plato can discuss the popular heroes of his time, whose adventures are depicted in the epic poems of Homer, then why can’t I look into superheroes, whose stories have become popularized lately in so many feature films? I look at them to find out what they might teach us about ourselves and our ideals—who we imagine ourselves to be at our best, or who we would become if only we could be better than we are?
3) What theme or message do you hope readers will take away from your book?
I’d point to the value of thinking critically about the things we happen to enjoy, and the possibility of thinking critically about ourselves in the process. This is something we can do even with respect to our amusements—the music we like, the TV shows we binge on, the athletes we admire, the vloggers we subscribe to. Focusing on questions of ethics when doing so leads us to wonder: How does thinking about the character of this or that person, whether real or fictional, help me to better understand the worldview and motivations of people similar to them—whether that’s someone I’ve encountered in my private life, or public figures like politicians, leading professionals, or outspoken celebrities? What answers to life’s problems do they represent, and should we heed them? What does whether I like or dislike some particular person or character tell me about myself?
4) What drew you into this particular genre?
In the classroom, I draw on a lot of examples from popular culture in order to make old ideas and arguments seem relevant and familiar to my students. With respect to superhero stories in particular, I’ve read plenty of comic books over the years and re-watched the movies based on them more than enough. I put that hobby to use in Superhero Ethics.
5) If you could sit down with any character in your book, what would you ask them and why?
I would like to know why Tony Stark doesn’t share his most advanced technologies with everyone—whether they want him to or not. Why not save people from ever needing saving again through upgrades and alterations to the human condition? Not that I would want him to—but I don’t really understand why he doesn’t. That said, I’d be concerned that by pushing him on it I might inadvertently convince him to give it a try, or else stop playing the hero entirely. Either way, better to keep my mouth shut, really. The most interesting line of dialogue to me in Avengers: Infinity War occurs when Thanos tells Iron Man, “You are not the only one cursed with knowledge.” In Superhero Ethics I argue that Tony Stark willfully refrains from drawing the furthermost consequences of his views regarding human nature and our place in the cosmos—including, ultimately, that he himself is insignificant. He struggles with a nagging suspicion that his pride—which is substantial—is vanity, and all of his efforts and sacrifices are offered in vain.
I’d also like to hear Wolverine explain his fascination with Japan. I think it’s because culturally, feudal Japan is practically the exact opposite of present-day Canada. We can be glad that imperial Japan at its worst was ended non-fictionally and still romanticize traditional Japanese society in fiction as representing honor-based society at its best. Still, I’d like to hear Logan’s perspective on it over a few bottles of beer, hoping he’ll call me “bub” at least once—and that I’ll be able to sneak out the back door of the dive bar before the inevitable brawl gets underway.
6) What social media site has been the most helpful in developing your readership?
Personally, I avoid using social media. I worry that it’s an engine of incivility.
7) What advice would you give to aspiring or just starting authors out there?
Read. A lot. Read a lot of good books. Even books you imagine you’ll dislike by authors you expect to disagree with. For starters, read about Achilles sulking in his tent in the Iliad if you haven’t already. Also, learn to take criticism well, and be your own harshest critic. Reread everything you write, out loud, and ask yourself if it actually says what you want it to say in the best possible way. Always be revising but recognize that your words will never be perfect. Nothing that you decide today is good enough for now will seem good enough later in retrospect—and that’s okay.
8) What does the future hold in store for you? Any new books/projects on the horizon?
Some people have asked me whether I’ll write about Superheroine Ethics next. Or perhaps Supervillain Ethics. What about something fandom-adjacent, like Pro Wrestling Ethics? Within this genre, I haven’t decided yet. As a professor of political theory, I intend to publish more on the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, including pieces informed by my analyses of superhero stories, on subjects such as bravery, magic, and the imagination. I’m convinced that Thomas Hobbes himself thinks he’s like a superhero or something.
Who was your favorite superhero growing up?
On Saturday morning cartoons, I liked Green Lantern best, mainly because of Sinestro. As a teen, I connected most with Rogue. For over a dozen years now though, Ms./Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers) has been my favorite. I await her feature film debut in 2019 with great anticipation.
Do you prefer Marvel or DC? Or do you find them to be on equal footing overall?
When I wrote Superhero Ethics, I didn’t just focus on my favorite characters. I wanted the book to be accessible to casual fans and a general readership. I didn’t want it to be accessible only to those of us who have read a hundred thousand comic books. My book might give the impression that I prefer Marvel, but my analyses weren’t decided by my subjective preferences. I tried to give more generous readings to characters who interest me less and be tougher on characters I like most. Speaking personally, I am a fan of both universe’s characters. I started reading comic books as a pre-teen at the time of Crisis on Infinite Earths, and DC successfully persuaded me to disregard the pre-Crisis multiverse as no longer relevant and too confusing and supposedly unsophisticated. As I have gotten older, however, I have discovered how fantastic Silver Age Superman, Flash, Legion, and Earth-Two stories are. I have also enjoyed exploring DC’s western and war genre comics, too, such as Jonah Hex and Haunted Tank.
Which non-Marvel or -DC hero do you think would fit into the ethical discussion of superheroes?
Sailor Moon and The Tick were favorites of mine when I was young. Captain Planet probably deserves some critical analysis, too, but I don’t think I could sit through enough episodes to assess the character fully.
If you were to create your own hero based on the ethical discussions raised in your book, what would that hero’s name be, what powers would they have (if any), and what villain/threat would they face to mirror the challenges of our world?
I already have a hero in my wife. [Awwww!] Putting up with me and my hobbies has got to be challenge enough. And who knows what kind of villainy I’d be up to if she wasn’t always asking me, “What are you doing?!?” I try to keep in mind how Aristotle would have told Ajax to listen to Tecmessa.
Thank you, Anthony, for the opportunity to discuss Superhero Ethics with you. I’m glad that you enjoyed the book!