Interview with Travis Smith Author of Superhero Ethics- Part II

SuperHero ethics image

 

 

Interview with Travis Smith,
Author of Superhero Ethics

 

About the Author:

Travis Smith is the author of Superhero Ethics (Templeton Press). He is an associate professor at Concordia University where he teaches political philosophy. He remembers seeing Superman: The Movie with his dad on the big screen at the age of five. He has been collecting comic books since he bought a copy ofUncanny X-Men #207 in 1986 with his allowance from the racks at Stan’s Variety. For over thirty years, Travis has made a weekly stop at his local comic shop on the day new comics are released to pick up the books on his pull list–from Comic Connection in Hamilton, Ontario, while he attended McMaster University, to the Million Year Picnic in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as he earned his doctorate at Harvard University, to Major Comics in Montreal, Quebec, the city where he now teaches Hobbes, Tocqueville, Plato and Aristotle by day, and fights crime by night.

For more information, please visit www.templetonpress.org/books/superhero- ethics

 

 

 

Batman image

 

 

 

What is the overall theme of the book?

It’s ostensibly about superheroes but it’s really about us, in our early twenty-first century moment—the challenges of living in our world today; wondering what kind of people we should aspire to be; and what it means to be responsible, for ourselves and to others.

 

Describe your process of breaking down each character’s moral code of ethics.

I gathered information about each character’s origin, powers, relationships, major stories, successes and failures—rewatching many movies and shows, reading and rereading comic books. Then I tried to discern what was at their core. What kinds of people do they resemble if you don’t take the fanciful elements too literally? What part of the human condition—which temperaments and tendencies, which dilemmas, dreams, and dangers—do they represent? Then I had to pair each one up with another character I saw as essentially speaking to a similar part of the human condition, but in a distinctive enough way so as to avoid overlap and repetition.

 

 

 

Choosing Between Right or Wrong

 

 

What is the significance of hero’s vigilante justice?

Superhero stories reflect our society’s uneasy relationship with violence. We abhor it yet remain fascinated by it. These stories give that impulse a vicarious outlet. But your question reminds me of when I told my wife that I was watching the Rocky movies with our young son and she said, with faux outrage, “you’re watching movies about fighting with him?” I protested, “the fighting is a metaphor!” With a wink, she replied, “a metaphor for what? For fighting?!?” My approach in Superhero Ethics downplays the vigilantism and the violence, fully aware of how ironic it is to use characters best known for participating in violent spectacles as models for more civilized behavior. But I’m also a fan of professional wrestling, and in that genre of simulated combat, each bout should, as they say, “tell a story.”

 

 

Vigilante on the white background, red illustration

 

 

In every chapter I get an impression there’s an inherent need of saving or altering the human condition. Explain.

Superheroes definitely speak to our hopes and fears regarding technological science. Most of my work as a professor of political theory focuses on early modern thought. In a way, you might say that the great early modern philosophers, such as Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes, were trying to be superheroes. They were trying to find ways to abolish suffering—or else make the promise of its abolition seem believable. They took the Biblical idea of saving the world and made it a project for human beings to pursue—with or without God’s help. What’s more comical than that? So, I’m not surprised that the models of heroism found in the modern medium of comic books are representatives of that endeavor.

 

 

“Suffering is one of life’s great teachers.” – Bryant H. McGill

 

 

 

What role does heroism play in our society?

I wouldn’t want to downplay the heroism of the bravest among us. In fact, I think our society tends to pooh-pooh heroics, as if only jerks and dolts try to be heroes and their spiritedness only puts the rest of us in danger. (Thomas Hobbes deserves a lot of credit for instilling this attitude in us.) But for the purposes of this book, I’m more interested in asking whether superheroes model behaviors that we non-heroic types can and should labor to exhibit in our own lives, for our individual and collective well-being.

 

 

 

Hero Concept Pinned Cards and Rust

 

 

 

What do you think of the contrast between Daredevil and the Punisher?

You’re right. That warrants a chapter-length treatment, doesn’t it?

 

Do you have more books planned about Superhero ethics? (Please, don’t make me beg.)

If I could write any book on philosophy and popular culture that I wanted to next, it would be about women’s professional wrestling. I think that’s the most exciting and inspiring thing out there today in sports and entertainment.

 

 

 

 

Kapow image

 

 

 

Your book touches on a very fundamental and  complicated subject. What is justice? What is the right way to live? Who or what determines what is right or wrong? Where does our sense of ethics come from and why do we seek to emulate it in fictional characters? This book was epic and I loved every bit of it! Definitely would be interested if you wrote more. Perhaps the role of villains? Hint, hint.

 

I can imagine a volume on super-villains. Nobody wants global governance more than they do! And as they say, compelling villains believe they’re the real heroes. I have been thinking a lot lately, for instance, about what the character of Killmonger from Black Panther is intended to communicate about the nature of injustice. Anyway, thank you to The Writing Train for the opportunity to discuss my book. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

 

 

 

Superhero dude with S image

 

 

Thanks Travis!

 

 

SuperHero ethics image

 

 

Whether in comic books or on movie screens, superhero stories are where many people first encounter questions about how they should conduct their lives.

Although these outlandish figures—in their capes, masks, and tights, with their unbelievable origins and preternatural powers—are often dismissed as juvenile amusements, they really are profound metaphors for different approaches to shaping one’s character and facing the challenges of life.

But, given the choice, which superhero should we follow today? Who is most worthy of our admiration? Whose goals are most noble? Whose ethics should we strive to emulate?

To decide, Travis Smith takes ten top superheroes and pits them one against another, chapter by chapter. The hero who better exemplifies how we ought to live advances to the final round. By the end of the book, a single superhero emerges victorious and is crowned most exemplary for our times.

How, then, shall we live?

 

    • How can we overcome our beastly nature and preserve our humanity? (The Hulk vs. Wolverine)

 

    • How far can we rely on our willpower and imagination to improve the human condition? (Iron Man vs. Green Lantern)

 

    • What limits must we observe when protecting our neighborhood from crime and corruption? (Batman vs. Spider-Man)

 

    • Will the pursuit of an active life or a contemplative life bring us true fulfillment? (Captain America vs. Mr. Fantastic)

 

    • Should we put our faith in proven tradition or in modern progress to achieve a harmonious society? (Thor vs. Superman)

 

Using superheroes to bring into focus these timeless themes of the human condition, Smith takes us on an adventure as fantastic as any you’ll find on a splash page or the silver screen—an intellectual adventure filled with surprising insights, unexpected twists and turns, and a daring climax you’ll be thinking about long after it’s over.

 

Amazon | Goodreads | Templeton Press

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Interview with Travis Smith Author of Superhero Ethics- Part I

SuperHero ethics image

 

 

Interview with Travis Smith,
Author of Superhero Ethics

 

About the Author:

Travis Smith is the author of Superhero Ethics (Templeton Press). He is an associate professor at Concordia University where he teaches political philosophy. He remembers seeing Superman: The Movie with his dad on the big screen at the age of five. He has been collecting comic books since he bought a copy ofUncanny X-Men #207 in 1986 with his allowance from the racks at Stan’s Variety. For over thirty years, Travis has made a weekly stop at his local comic shop on the day new comics are released to pick up the books on his pull list–from Comic Connection in Hamilton, Ontario, while he attended McMaster University, to the Million Year Picnic in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as he earned his doctorate at Harvard University, to Major Comics in Montreal, Quebec, the city where he now teaches Hobbes, Tocqueville, Plato and Aristotle by day, and fights crime by night.

For more information, please visit www.templetonpress.org/books/superhero- ethics

 

 

Superhero

 

 

How would you define the notion of a “Super” hero as opposed to
other heroes in literature?

I use the term superhero conventionally as pertaining to the kinds of costumed characters labeled that way in the DC and Marvel universes and in similar stories. Most of them have superpowers, but not all of them. I don’t think they’re inherently more super than other fictional heroes lacking those costumes and powers. In fact, for the purposes of Superhero Ethics, I downplay the “super” part of superhero—and even the “hero” part, too, to a fair degree. I look for ways these characters’ personalities, abilities, and activities can be read metaphorically so as to resemble the lives of ordinary human beings and the challenges we face. Maybe counterintuitively, I think that their being fantastical makes it easier to apply them analogously to our experiences and situations. It is often hard and sometimes objectionable to compare our own problems with the real-world difficulties confronted by other actual people—or even characters featured in more realistic fiction.

 

 

 

Superman logo image

 

 

What is it in our nature that draws us to superheroes?

In democratic society, we emphasize equality—the ways we’re equal to each other, and the ways we say we should be. But we also want to be happier than we are, better than we are. We look for or create models of excellence that are worthy of admiration and emulation. We do so on our own terms, of course. We like superheroes who make sacrifices on behalf of anyone and try to save everyone. We like it when we can imagine that any of us are potentially like any of them. Superheroes also remind us of the importance of courage in overcoming hardships and pain. I think courage tends to be neglected in the way we’re raised today, since we’re so concerned with minimizing suffering and making everything safe. So, superheroes speak to some parts of the human condition that are neglected or suppressed in our public ethos but ineradicably part of us, and therefore of perennial relevance to ethics.

 

 

Iron man toy image

 

 

Do you have a personal favorite?

Captain Marvel—the Carol Danvers version of Captain Marvel, originally known as Ms. Marvel—is my favorite superhero. She’s not featured in the book because I decided to focus on popular, well-known characters who have been featured prominently in recent films. But she is the first female character to star in a solo self-titled movie set within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to be released in early 2019, and I’m excited about that.

 

 

“I think that we all do heroic things, but hero is not a noun, it’s a verb.” – Robert Downey Jr.

 

 

Describe the hardest chapter to write and why it was so difficult.

My chapter on Captain America and Mister Fantastic was the hardest to write because I use them to contrast the two models of the best life for human beings according to the classical tradition: the active life and the contemplative life. And I’m aware of how distant my own life is to any model of either ideal. I try to approach those characters in good part by asking: In which ways does modern society hamper or compromise any attempt to realize these conceptions of the best life—even among those individuals who come closest to approximating them?

 

 

 

Captain america toy image

 

 

 

Name some characters that didn’t make the cut for this book.

There are so many! Because I made the decision to focus on characters well-known presently to the general public, I didn’t write a book about my favorite characters. That would include not only Captain Marvel but Booster Gold, the new Ms. Marvel, Squirrel Girl, and Power Girl. I didn’t include the very popular Deadpool or Harley Quinn because they mock the very idea that superheroes should be good role models. I also wanted the characters I chose to be distinctive with respect to the ethical concerns they represent.

So, Black Widow wasn’t examined on account of embodying the maxim “don’t be what they made you,” which makes her too similar to the better-known Wolverine. Black Panther’s feature film came out only as I was submitting my final manuscript, so he wasn’t treated at length—although in the book I hint that he represents a happier version of the active life than Captain America does. I most regret leaving out Wonder Woman, but I mention that she is more divine than Superman, and I argue that Superman is already too divine for us.

The only character good enough to contrast with Wonder Woman is Silver Surfer and most of us are glad to have forgotten the movie that featured him. Personally, I prefer Supergirl to Superman—she represents the challenge of living up to an impossible standard already set by someone else to whom you’re inextricably tied. That’s a situation a lot of us are familiar with. But I decided not to use characters whose origins are directly dependent on another character’s story. I think if I were writing the book just five years from now there would be so many more popular, well-known characters to choose from.

A mere ten years ago, Iron Man was a relatively obscure character. Most moviegoers hardly knew anything about Tony Stark until Robert Downey, Jr. made him so endearing. Doesn’t that seem crazy now?

 

Funny portrait of a superhero

Thanks Travis! Stay tuned for part two of the interview…

 

 

SuperHero ethics image

 

 

Whether in comic books or on movie screens, superhero stories are where many people first encounter questions about how they should conduct their lives.

Although these outlandish figures—in their capes, masks, and tights, with their unbelievable origins and preternatural powers—are often dismissed as juvenile amusements, they really are profound metaphors for different approaches to shaping one’s character and facing the challenges of life.

But, given the choice, which superhero should we follow today? Who is most worthy of our admiration? Whose goals are most noble? Whose ethics should we strive to emulate?

To decide, Travis Smith takes ten top superheroes and pits them one against another, chapter by chapter. The hero who better exemplifies how we ought to live advances to the final round. By the end of the book, a single superhero emerges victorious and is crowned most exemplary for our times.

How, then, shall we live?

    • How can we overcome our beastly nature and preserve our humanity? (The Hulk vs. Wolverine)
    • How far can we rely on our willpower and imagination to improve the human condition? (Iron Man vs. Green Lantern)
    • What limits must we observe when protecting our neighborhood from crime and corruption? (Batman vs. Spider-Man)
    • Will the pursuit of an active life or a contemplative life bring us true fulfillment? (Captain America vs. Mr. Fantastic)
    • Should we put our faith in proven tradition or in modern progress to achieve a harmonious society? (Thor vs. Superman)

Using superheroes to bring into focus these timeless themes of the human condition, Smith takes us on an adventure as fantastic as any you’ll find on a splash page or the silver screen—an intellectual adventure filled with surprising insights, unexpected twists and turns, and a daring climax you’ll be thinking about long after it’s over.

 

 

Amazon | Goodreads | Templeton Press

 

 

Book Review: Superhero Ethics by Travis Smith

SuperHero ethics image

 

 

 

Whether in comic books or on movie screens, superhero stories are where many people first encounter questions about how they should conduct their lives.

Although these outlandish figures—in their capes, masks, and tights, with their unbelievable origins and preternatural powers—are often dismissed as juvenile amusements, they really are profound metaphors for different approaches to shaping one’s character and facing the challenges of life.

But, given the choice, which superhero should we follow today? Who is most worthy of our admiration? Whose goals are most noble? Whose ethics should we strive to emulate?

To decide, Travis Smith takes ten top superheroes and pits them one against another, chapter by chapter. The hero who better exemplifies how we ought to live advances to the final round. By the end of the book, a single superhero emerges victorious and is crowned most exemplary for our times.
How, then, shall we live?

  • How can we overcome our beastly nature and preserve our humanity? (The Hulk vs. Wolverine)
  • How far can we rely on our willpower and imagination to improve the human condition? (Iron Man vs. Green Lantern)
  • What limits must we observe when protecting our neighborhood from crime and corruption? (Batman vs. Spider-Man)
  • Will the pursuit of an active life or a contemplative life bring us true fulfillment? (Captain America vs. Mr. Fantastic)
  • Should we put our faith in proven tradition or in modern progress to achieve a harmonious society? (Thor vs. Superman)

Using superheroes to bring into focus these timeless themes of the human condition, Smith takes us on an adventure as fantastic as any you’ll find on a splash page or the silver screen—an intellectual adventure filled with surprising insights, unexpected twists and turns, and a daring climax you’ll be thinking about long after it’s over.

 

Amazon | Goodreads

 

 

Book Review - 3d rendered metallic typeset

 

 

 

This book was exquisitely delicious in every sense of the word. If I could, I’d rate it with 10 stars from start to finish. Impeccable in presentation, brilliant in theme, and praiseworthy in effect. Ten comic book heros, ten ways to save the world, and which one do we need most now? Author Travis Smith analyzes each superhero pitting them metaphorically against one another; extricating their relevant significance to the human condition, society, politics and virtues to emulate. I’d try to say more, but they’d fail to describe the magnificence of this book. Get yourself a copy!

 

 

 

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Travis Smith received his PhD from Harvard University and is associate professor of political science at Concordia University. He has been collecting comic books since he bought Uncanny X-Men #207 with his allowance in 1986. His writing has appeared in the Weekly Standard and Convivium Magazine.