After Christopher Loring Knowles published his claims about the secret stratum of occult knowledge he believes H. P. Lovecraft possesses, Knowles accused me (or as he calls me, “Jason ‘It’s All About Me! Me!’ Colavito”) of failing to address his assertions on the evidence. Therefore, I thought it might be an interesting exercise to take a look at Knowles’s most famous work, Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes (Weiser Books, 2007). The subject of the volume is the influence of ancient mythology and Victorian occultism on comic book characters, and it covers many of the same streams of popular culture that I discussed in my earlier book, The Cult of Alien Gods (2005).
In that book, I received a great deal of criticism for what critics considered an unsupportable assertion that Western civilization had entered a phase of irrationalism and decline, which I attributed to the work of historian Jacques Barzun. In 2005, this claim seemed at odds with the triumphant nationalism of the United States (“We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”). Although contemporary readers no longer make that same criticism—circumstances having undermined triumphalism—I learned from the criticism, and pulled back on sweeping generalizations in later books.
I mention this because Knowles’s book contains many sweeping generalizations, often about the way 9/11 demanded a return of pagan gods, that lack support, but these aren’t just used to frame his discussion. They seem to permeate the volume right down to the sentence level. This starts in the very first sentence of the preface: “One of the great American innovations of the twentieth century—besides comic books and superheroes—is the sanctity of childhood.” The Victorians, with their cult of childhood innocence, would obviously disagree on this point.
Knowles, now 48 (judging by dates given in the text), then discusses his own “awful” 1970s childhood of sickness, trauma, and heavy doses of religion, along with the omnipresent comic books, from which he claims to have learned morality at the age of five. He cites Jack Kirby as an essential figure for introducing “occult” influences into comics, and we then move into the book proper.
The following are my thoughts as I read each chapter.
Knowles’s signature style is an unedited clash of words that seem to say something but then break down upon analysis. In describing mid-2000s TV shows that featured superhuman powers, like NBC’s Heroes, he calls them “major cult hits,” which is oxymoronic. The superhero business, he says, is “in many ways bigger than ever”—but either it is or it is not. He chooses not to cite sources for his assertions in most places—and his assertions are strikingly broad. In the opening paragraphs, for example, he asserts that Batman’s popularity between 1989 and 1992 was due to the crack epidemic, that superheroes’ popularity was at a “low ebb” during Bill Clinton’s presidency, and that September 11, 2001 revitalized said heroes. Some of these claims may be true, but he asks us to accept them without any indication that he plans to explain how he measures superhero popularity. Is that among kids or adults? In terms of comic sales, comic readership, or adaptations in other media?
The rest of the chapter discusses the economics of comics in the 1990s, which has very little to do with the putative subject of the book. The industry’s self-induced financial woes are not a proxy for overall superhero popularity, particularly since he then lists several blockbuster titles from the era, which contradict his claim that readers were uninterested during those years. The lack of any references or footnotes in this chapter makes this much worse. He claims, for example, that 1997’s Batman & Robin film nearly caused the collapse of the Warner Bros. studio. This seems completely false. The film took in more than $238 million worldwide on a budget of $140 million. Warner canceled the planed sequel based on underperformance, but the studio—then, as now, part of the Time Warner empire—was never in danger from the results of just one film.
The first chapter made little sense and did not establish a purpose for the book, but the second chapter seems to correct this by having almost no relationship to what preceded it. This chapter details the plot of the 1996 Kingdom Come series and abstracts from it the lesson that superheroes are substitute deities. This strikes me as the completely wrong way to introduce the subject—one might think that discussing Superman’s Christ-like qualities or the fact that Wonder Woman is a heroine born of Greek mythology might have made more logical sense as a starting point, particularly for readers, like me, who have only cursory knowledge of comics culture and very little memory of 1990s titles.
Knowles, though, wants to work backward, tracing Kingdom Come to Frank Miller’s stylistic innovations in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986), which is, he says, why 1990s comics “appealed to inner-city youths, many black and Hispanic, who were living through similar mayhem in their own neighborhoods.” These would be the same years when superheroes were also at their “lowest ebb,” if we take Knowles’s earlier chapters at their word—unless you follow Knowles’s logic to its conclusion and argue that fluctuations in comic sales from one year to the next are representative of instantaneous changes in culture. He claims that 1980s cities were uniquely miserable and therefore demanded the appearance of gods to help set them right. How the cities of the 1980s were significantly worse than those of the economically blighted 1970s (“Ford to City: Drop Dead”), or during the riots of the late 1960s, Knowles does not say. Instead, we are left to substitute his personal experiences and feelings for facts.
He next suggests that the 2002 Spider-Man movie was a reaction to 9/11, even though the film was shot in the spring of 2001, and trailers for the film had to be modified to remove the World Trade Center after the attacks. “As we watch Spider-Man triumph over the forces of chaos and evil, in some sense the psychic damage done on that day is repaired.” This may have been the audience’s reaction—it is given only as his opinion—but it is coincidental. It wasn’t planned. He is right, however, that later superhero movies like Batman Begins reflected post-9/11 anxieties. However, this was hardly unique to superheroes. Action movies were even more explicitly tied to the War on Terror.
He then lists many such films and now describes NBC’s Heroes as a “smash hit series.” It was a “cult hit” earlier in the book.
I am frankly baffled by the organization of this book. It is not telling a chronological story, nor has it established its premises. As we enter the third chapter, nothing has actually been said about superheroes as gods except in the most metaphorical of ways. The third chapter putatively deals with comic book culture and its influence, but here again the subject seems divorced from the supposed topic of the book. There are yet more issues with consistency. The 1990s were the “low ebb” for superheroes, yet here he traces “the era of the modern superhero film” to 1989’s Batman, pausing only to decry Joel Shumacher’s Batman & Robin on a direct path to Batman Begins (2005). No love for my personal favorite, Batman: The Animated Series? Or even the other superhero cartoons of the era? Not even Danger Mouse? TV did some good superhero work in the 1990s.
Finally, as the chapter closes, we get the book’s mission statement, one that claims that comic book superheroes are an outgrowth of paganism:
When you go back and look at these heroes in their original incarnations, you can't help but be struck by how blatant their symbolism is and how strongly they reflect the belief systems of the pagan age. What even fewer people realize is that this didn't occur by chance, but came directly out of the spiritual and mystical secret societies and cults of the late 19th century—groups like the Theosophists, the Rosicrucians, and the Golden Dawn. These groups turned their backs on the state cult of Christianity and reached back in time to the elemental deities of the ancient traditions.
State cult? Reached back? Elemental? Knowles does not distinguish between genuine pagan survivals and neo-pagan beliefs re-created from literary sources. What does he mean by “elemental”? Does he mean it literally—nature gods—or figuratively—primal?
He then cites Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval as proof that the Statue of Liberty is “really” the goddess Isis, reserving for this honor the book’s first footnote. This claim is entirely false, since according to the sculptor Liberty Enlightening the World was modeled on the Roman goddess of liberty, Libertas, to which he added the solar crown to represent the world, one ray for each continent. Yes, it looks like we’re in for some “interesting” material to come if Graham Hancock is an alleged authority on secret symbolism. Good thing this was written before America Unearthed.
With chapter 4 we change topic yet again and now go back to the beginning of history for a tour of Knowles’s version of pre-Christian pagan religions. It does not start out well, since the first “authority” he cites is “linguist Zecharia Sitchin,” though he does not come out and endorse the ancient astronaut theory as he complains that the Sumerian gods were all too human. Yes, pause to note how contrary to fact that is. Then he moves on to Egyptian religion, which he sees as the foundation for later myth cycles.
He identifies the Egyptian gods as the Netjer and claims that “some” believe the word “nature” comes from their title since they control nature. “Nature” comes from natus, “to be born,” from a Proto-Indo-European root, according to most linguists. Knowles seems to have derived his claim from Normandi Ellis’s Dreams of Isis: A Woman’s Spiritual Sojourn (1995) or one of the books that copied from it, such as Nicki Scully’s Alchemical Healing (2003) or Scully’s and Linda Star Wolf’s Shamanic Mysteries of Egypt (2007). He does not cite sources.
He also derives the word “horizon” from “Horus-zone,” even though the word originates in the Old French orizonte, tracing back ultimately to the Greek word horos, or boundary. Horus is a Hellenization of hrw, the word for falcon. That said, the “horus-zone” version has been bouncing around since at least the 1950s.
Although modern scholars trace the word “hero” to the Proto-Indo-European word for protector, reconstructed as *ser, Knowles say “some” derive it from Horus (Heru). David Icke picked up the claim this year, but according to Knowles’s own blog, the “some” who made the claim are in fact Knowles himself. He provides no source in book or blog, though I imagine he must have picked it up somewhere.
I find it hilarious that he cites William Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) to describe what scholars “now” think about Egyptian religion! He also claims, following fringe views, that the ancients used the pyramids to initiate one another into mystery cults.
Next he tackles Greece and Rome, arguably more important for understanding Western views of pagan mythology. He falsely claims that Helios was the Greek name for Apollo. It is not. Apollo keeps his name in both tongues and Helios (Latin: Sol) was a different god altogether, though one often conflated with Apollo in Hellenistic times. He then discusses Greco-Roman heroes like Odysseus, Achilles, and Jason. “To the Greeks, these heroes were essentially demigods.” Well, some were: Perseus and Heracles had Zeus for a father, but Jason and Odysseus were human. In fact, the existence of the heroes undermines the book’s title, for the semi-divine (literally or figuratively) Greek heroes are a closer template than the gods for superheroes. The gods rarely did very much on earth (Apollo killing Python is an exception), but the heroes engaged in the types of adventure later used as the template for comic book fare.
Knowles believes that Greco-Roman myths were allegories and parables pointing toward the meaning of life, and he then asserts that the gods of old were “too fanciful” to be believed in, so the ancients turned to the more austere monotheism of Christianity. He claims that the Jews contributed moralism to heroic adventures, and he asserts that “Many theologians have pointed out the essentially solar nature of heroes like Elijah and Samson, both of whom are thought to derive from stories of Hercules.” This claim dates back to the nineteenth century and was refuted by the 1960s. I wrote about that a while back. He then cites Theosophist Alice Bailey to suggest that the life of Jesus is an astrological allegory derived from Babylonian astrology.
He briefly outlines Norse mythology for obvious reasons: Marvel Comics made great use of it.
The chapter stops there, and when the next one begins, we’ve moved forward eighteen century after Jesus, so I think I’ll leave this review here for the time being. So far, though, the book seems to be a grab-bag of loosely related ideas drawn from fringe literature and liberally slathered with a thick layer of adjectives indicating the author’s personal views, unleavened with the kind of deep research and careful primary source evidence needed to make his assertions convincing to those who don’t share his worldview.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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