Book Review: Our Gods Wear Spandex

Our Gods Wear SpandexI’d been anticipating Christopher Knowles’ book Our Gods Wear Spandex for months, ever since it was first solicited in Previews. As the publisher’s description put it, the book would “trace the rise of the comic superheroes and how they relate to several cultural trends in the late 19th century, specifically the occult explosion in Western Europe and America.” Certainly the religious iconography of superheroes would be an interesting topic for a book, but Knowles’ book is largely just one long monotonous, idiosyncratic list of 19th and 20th century occultists interspered without a coherent thesis or idea in sight.

One could overlook the factual errors (no, Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” was not an ode to the Marvel character as Knowles claims). One could even overlook Knowles’ odd interpretation of comics history — Knowles take on the persecution of William Gaines and EC comics, for example, is extraordinarily disingenous. But the real problem running throughout the book is that Knowles appears to be a true believer when it comes to all things occult.

For example, consider this hilarious gem from Knowles describing early Sumerian texts,

Other Sumerian texts and tablets detail the exploits of a pantheon of suspiciously human-acting gods. These are told in such detail that some observers, like linguist Zechariah Sitchin, claim they are not myths at all, but garbled accounts of a race of extraterrestrials that colonized the Earth and created humanity as its slave race.

I paid $19.95 for this sort of nonsense? Sitchin isn’t a linguist, he’s a fracking quack along the lines of Immanuel Velikovsky and Eric von Daniken (the Skeptic’s Dictionary entry on Sitchin pretty much covers his particular brand of idiocy).

Stretching things like that is bad enough, but in some cases Knowles simply misinforms to the reader. Take, for example, his entry on Edgar Cayce whom, among other things, was convinced that the Egyptian pyramids were built by the Atlantean civilization and that an Atlantean Hall of Records is located underneath the Great Sphinx. Both claims are sheer nonsense, but Knowles works in a subtle distortion to make it appear more convincing,

The ARE [Cayce’s Association for Research and Enlightenment] is more than a playground for spiritual tourists, however. Two of the world’s two most important and influential Egyptologists, American Mark Lehner and Egyptian Antiquities Minister Zahi Hawass, are closely associated with it. Given the eccentric views Cayce held on Ancient Egypt, these associations seem curious until seen in the context of all the esoteric intrigue that, even today, centers in and around Egypt.

The only thing curious here is Knowles’ disinformation. Lehner freely admits that he was originally attracted to Egyptology by an infatuation with Cayce’s claims in the early 1970s. But Lehner’s reputation as a top notch Egyptologist came precisely because he quickly abandoned his Cayce-influenced views when it was clear they were unsupportable by the actual facts. As Lehner told Nova,

And it’s no secret that when I went [to Egypt as a student in 1973] I myself was imbued with the ideas of lost civilizations and inspired by a man named Edgar Cayce. So I was in fact, myself, looking for the lost civilization and something called the Hall of Records.

Or at least those ideas were on my mind. To make a long story short, those ideas didn’t stand up against bedrock reality. And so then I was still fascinated by these pyramids and the Sphinx. Then I asked the question, well, what is the real story? What is the story that the site itself has to tell. And so that’s what sustained me and kept me out there in a kind of exploratory mode.

Whether Knowles is disingenous or just credulous, it doesn’t speak well for his research abilities. The rest of Knowles’ book is about as accurate and about as interesting. It reads like some fanboy with a credulous interest in mysticism let loose to tie in comic books — however tangentially — with predictable results.

Someday, someone may just write an interesting look at comic books and religion. Our Gods Wear Spandex, however, is not it.

Marvel & DC’s Super Powered Trademark

In the latest issue of Reason (not online yet, unfortunately), Matt Welch has an article about his early, misplaced optimism of the role that blogs and amateur journalism would have. If anything, I was even more optimistic than Welch. Take a tool like Google where it is almost trivially easy to track down and fact check any bit of trivia along with blogs and open source CMS systems that reduced the cost of publishing to the entire world to next to nothing, and the result should have been a journalistic renaissance.

Apparently not. The reality is that if a given claim fits a person’s preconceived notion of the world, then most people will not factcheck it. So if you survey a random sample of blogs, I suspect you would find far more misinformation therein than in any comparable sample of traditional media (which is definitely not a compliment to traditional media).

A good example of this involves a series of inaccurates posts on the extremely popular techno-culture weblog Boing! Boing!. A contributor to news aggregation site Digg.Com submitted a link to a Boing! Boing! article about Marvel’s trademark of the word “super hero.”

Another contributor to the Digg site responded that a) Boing! Boing! looked like NASCAR (I counted no less than 20 ads on the front page) and b) that the information on Boing! Boing! was factually incorrect.

The response from other Digg.Com contributors was to mod such comments down with responses largely being variations of, “How could you mod down a Boing! Boing! article?”

But if you look at Boing! Boing!’s post on the trademark issue, it leaves out an important detail,

Marvel Comics: stealing our language

Marvel Comics is continuing in its bid to steal the word “super-hero” from the public domain and put it in a lock-box to which it will control the key. Marvel and DC comics jointly filed a trademark on the word “super-hero.” They use this mark to legally harass indie comic companies that make competing comic books.

First, the trademark at question is for “super hero” and “super heroes.” A number of sites have falsely concluded from Boing! Boing!’s ambiguous post that Marvel and DC have just recently applied for a third trademark for “super-hero” and “super-heroes.” The hyphenated version is so similar to the non-hyphenated mark, that it is almost certainly already covered by the claimed trademark (in the same way that Marvel doesn’t have to trademark “Spider-Mann” to prevent another comic book company from publishing that title about a web slinging wall crawler).

Second, Marvel and DC don’t just claim such a trademark. Trademarks for “super hero” and “super heroes” costumes and toys was granted 40 years ago, and DC and Marvel were jointly granted the trademark for “super hero” and “super heroes” for comic book publishing purposes in the early 1980s. Both trademarks and their history can be freely examined on the USPTO web site.

A little fact checking, please.

Now on the bigger issue, Boing! Boing! is absolutely correct — it is absurd that Marvel and DC were allowed to register such a common term as their trademark. They have used their trademark to enjoin a number of publications that wanted to use “Super Heroes” in the title of the publication, typically leading companies to come up with new titles. For example, if I wanted to create a parody book, “The Secret History of Super Heroes”, Marvel and DC could force me to change the title.

This is ripe for a legal challenge on the grounds that super hero was already sufficiently diluted as a generic term when Marvel and DC registered it and that they’ve done nothing to establish “super hero” as referring exclusively to Marvel or DC properties. Certainly they don’t incorporate it in their logos or any of their publications on a consistent basis.