I could have planned this better. I should have started this review on Wednesday to do it in three parts. But since Ancient Aliens tonight plans an episode on “Aliens and Superheroes,” I will take advantage of what author Christopher Loring Knowles, following Jung, refers to as “meaningful coincidence” (synchronicity) to finish my review of Our Gods Wear Spandex today, despite the length of the resulting review.
This chapter is a very brief, very superficial overview of what Knowles describes as the nineteenth century, but which includes material ranging from Napoleonic Egyptomania to the renewed Egyptomania of the 1920s. He lists, in opinionated form, very brief highlights of imperialism, Egyptology, radical politics, and the rise of spiritualism. Then the chapter ends.
This chapter provides a brief overview of nineteenth century occult organizations and secret societies. The chapter could use some editing since Knowles states that it is about the rise of nineteenth century societies, but then devotes half its space to the Rosicrucians and the Freemasons, both of which predated the Victorians by quite some time. In discussing Freemasonry, Knowles says that “many” believe the organization is Templar in origin, and he devote half his discussion of the Masons to a potted history of the Templars. He concludes the chapter by asserting that Christian Science, Mormonism, and Transcendentalism all had “important links” to Freemasonry, and through it to Egyptian mystery religions. In the case of the Transcendentalists, the connection to Masonry is that Emerson gave a lecture at a Masonic Temple. His sources are again Graham Hancock and Robert Bavual, and also Michael Howard’s The Occult Conspiracy (1989), a fringe conspiracy book.
This chapter aims to cover the “Victorian occult explosion,” which he takes to begin with Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871), a claim that notably fails to understand either Victorian fantastic literature (growing out of the eighteenth century Gothic, itself steeped in the occult) and Victorian occult interests, developing out of spiritualism decades before Bulwer-Lytton. Knowles oddly refers to the novel as Vril, a title it attained only later, and it is evident that he has chosen to read the book as a monument of science fiction largely because first the Theosophists and then esoteric Nazism seized upon the mystical substance of vril from the novel, not due to its inherent popularity beyond occult believers. (Bovril, for example, takes its name from the novel.)
Without stating a source or evidence, Knowles asserts that The Coming Race changed science fiction and led directly to the X-Men as the first example of a novel about a “super-race.” He writes that “it is difficult to overstate Bulwer's influence on his time. Using the conceit of science fiction, he pioneered the concept of a super-race whose powers far exceed those of ordinary men.”
Bulwer’s book may have been the most popular, but there was an entire genre of earlier stories of fantastic and powerful races that lived underground or on remote islands, many derived from the nonfiction claims of John Cleves Symmes, Jr. and Jeremiah N. Reynolds on the civilizations within the hollow earth. So prevalent were these claims in the first half of the 1800s that Pres. John Quincy Adams signaled his support for an American expedition into the hollow earth before Andrew Jackson quashed the idea. The great lover Casanova wrote a five-volume novel about a fabulous underground race, while the pseudonymous Capt. Adam Seaborn’s 1820 novel Symzonia in which the hollow earth houses a utopian high-tech society. In short, Bulwer-Lytton was neither first nor unique. His book is remembered only because of Helena Blavatsky’s use of it, which is of course the lens through which Knowles views the era.
Knowles takes the fictional Vril Society as fact based on a naïve reading of Morning of the Magicians, as summarized by later writers.
He next gives a potted history of Theosophy, in which he describes Helena Blavatsky in glowing terms as “one of the first to bring Eastern mysticism to the West.” This neglects all the work of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century Orientalists, not to mention the Eastern synthesis of Schopenhauer. In the first half of the nineteenth century, there was a widespread belief that the East—particularly Hinduism—preserved the oldest traces of the pure Aryan religion, and therefore many in the era studied Eastern ideas. Blavatsky was a late entry, a gross popularizer of what academia had already processed and (largely) discarded.
Knowles describes Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled as her magnum opus, though that title more properly belongs to the longer and more intellectually sustained Secret Doctrine. I’m not sure he knows what magnum opus means.
Knowles correctly understands the influence of Theosophy on popular culture, as well as Blavatsky’s indiscriminate use of fictional and nonfiction sources (she claimed science fiction writers were receiving channeled messages from beyond), but here the weakness of Knowles’s slipshod methodology is evident. He wants us to accept the idea that Secret Doctrine creates a precedent for “super-powered beings” in the form of the Ascended Masters, but he offers nothing to support this. What makes them super-powered? How are they similar to superheroes? He does not engage with the primary sources except once—all of his claims come from biographies of Blavatsky except for a single paraphrase of Blavatsky’s claims about Bulwer, which I suspect he actually got from a citation in one of the biographies. He doesn’t provide any examples or evidence from Blavatsky’s own work, nor does he address the darker side of Theosophy, including the racism encoded in its root races.
The chapter concludes with a few paragraphs about the Golden Dawn that offer no information beyond a membership roster of fantasy writers.
If this chapter was meant as an argument, it failed to make one.
At this point, my interest in the book has waned. There isn’t much by way of argument. In this chapter, Knowles provides potted sketches of Nietzsche, Aleister Crowley, Harry Houdini, and Edgar Cayce (!), and claims them all as precursors to the superheroes. No argument is made, least of all for why these men are connected to superheroes, and instead Knowles devotes space to speculating on the connection between Egyptologists Mark Lehner and Zahi Hawass and Edgar Cayce, suggesting a hidden occult agenda.
With this chapter we enter a new section of the book, devoted to pulp fiction—arguably a more important source for comics. He starts with Victorian pop culture and falsely claims that Spring-Heeled Jack was “the first detective character with a secret identity,” created in 1867. All of that is wrong; he was a folklore being, considered a monster, and had been appearing in person since 1837 and in literature (as a terror) since 1840. Following this, Knowles acknowledges but does not analyze “down market literature,” Poe, Doyle, Verne (whose science fiction he implies was derived from secret Freemason knowledge), Wells, and Stoker. He has no system to his choices, and he leaves out such essential figures for understanding the rise of the pulps as H. Rider Haggard, whose Allan Quartermain is arguably the template for much pulp adventure fiction.
Knowles attributes the rise of the pulps to Prohibition, claiming that they gave voice to “forbidden expression.” But this applies at best to a very narrow group of pulp magazines—not to the broader category, whose bestselling titles were Westerns, romances, and (of all things) railroad stories. Knowles myopically sees only adventure, detective, and shudder pulps as the hallmarks of the publishing category. He name checks Doc Savage and the Shadow among other pulp figures, and notes their direct inspiration on comic book figures, but attempts to limit their influence by claiming these figures as “dangerous” rather than wholesome, not fit to be “new gods.” He then gives an overview of science fiction and horror pulps, name checking Buck Rogers and H. P. Lovecraft, but making no argument about them other than to claim the government tried to destroy the pulps, pushing readers to comics.
In this chapter, Knowles profiles pulp authors and claims that they contributed to the future of comics by combining heroism with “ancient mysteries,” again failing to note H. Rider Haggard’s long shadow in this specific (and highly myopic) view of pulp adventure. He admits to being baffled as to why the Chinese were often cast as villains (the Yellow Peril escapes him) as he profiles Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sax Rohmer, H. P. Lovecraft, and a few others. For his profile of Lovecraft, he relies on Kenneth Grant—the “magick” practitioner—to argue Lovecraft had extensive connections to the occult, and fringe writer Tracy Twyman to argue he was really writing about the Nephilim. His discussion of various authors focuses on their involvement in various occult groups, but he offers no examples of connections from primary sources, nor does he make an argument about the purpose (or lack thereof) of using occult themes.
Now we move into a new section, devoted to superheroes. He outlines the history of comics, but dismisses the Phantom as superhero antecedent (“essentially a circus-costumed version of Tarzan”).
This chapter posits that superheroes are savior figures and asserts that they are new forms of the “old gods” of mythology. However, since previous chapters failed to establish a direct continuity of paganism from Egypt to the pulps, it’s hard to agree with his conclusion that superheroes weren’t merely inspired by mythological heroes but are an occult manifestation of deity from the pre-Christian unconscious. He lists several comic magician-heroes and compares them to medieval magician figures like Merlin, as though their creators weren’t drawing on such imagery in making their wizards.
This chapter looks at figures like Captain Marvel and Superman as Jewish Messiah figures. He correctly notes the use of mythological allusions (particularly those inspired by Theosophy or The Golden Bough) in many superhero comics, but he also occasionally overreaches, especially in implying, without evidence, that such characters as Hawk-Man were not modeled on ancient myths for entertainment purposes but somehow were designed to embody these myths as part of a hidden occult revival. Knowles never explicitly says but seems to want us to believe that an ineffable zeitgeist based on occult influences dictates which heroes become popular based on how they embody ancient gods.
This chapter briefly reviews the Silver Age but barely makes an argument except for the commonplace observation, presented as revelation, that the heroes of the time reflected cultural fascination with Big Science and the military-industrial complex. Much of the material is drawn directly from Comic Book Nation (2001) by Bradford W. Wright, a much better book, which I have read and actually have on my bookshelf next to me as I write this.
I’ll be damned if I follow this chapter. Knowles discusses the golem, the monstrous mud creature of Jewish folklore (though he wrongly claims the creature was first described in 1847 instead of in the Talmud), and tells us that Batman is a golem because he, too, is a protective avenger fueled by rage. He then drops the claim and talks about the psychedelic Bat-adventures of the 1950s and ties it to the 1960s goofiest fantasy sitcoms like I Dream of Jeanie. “During the Sixties, monsters and myths resurfaced as a part of the popular mind, and an unprecedented Dionysian explosion capped off the decade.” He neglects the role of “Monster Culture”—the revival of Universal Horror—in those years, arguably a bigger influence on pop culture than Batman’s encounter with Bat Ape. So broad is Knowles’s view of the golem that he can lump in the Hulk and Daredevil alongside Dirty Harry. It would take a full article just to deconstruct this chapter, but since Knowles engages neither in close textual criticism nor in historical investigation into the influences and origins of any of these characters, his claim is simply an assertion, provided without support.
This chapter likens female superheroes to the Greek mythic Amazons and warrior goddesses like Athena. Wonder Woman is explicitly modeled on such myths, so this is not a revelation. The chapter lists female heroines’ greatest hits, but makes no broader argument.
In this chapter Knowles suggests that teams of superheroes like the Justice League reflect “the Brotherhood archetype” rather than a marketing gimmick. He does not defend this assertion, taking it as a given that we believe that archetypes spontaneously influence human history. He merely lists various superhero groups and their history.
Knowles makes the interesting observation that mad scientist figures are substitutes for wizards in earlier myths, and he suggests that Lex Luthor was modeled on Alesiter Crowley. But he can’t help but overreach: He claims that a checkerboard floor on the cover of Superman #74 represents a Masonic Lodge (?!) and that Lex Luthor’s ray gun on that cover is a secret phallus to represent Crowley’s bisexuality.
Your enjoyment of this chapter’s potted biographies of comics creators depends on how much you agree with its thesis:
Given the magical history of superheroes and comic books, it's no accident that some of the most influential comics creators have had a strong interest in mythology and the occult. In fact, there is a definite evolution at work in the process by which the comics incorporated the occult. It starts with a naïve fascination (Jerry Siegel), gives way to intentional mythologizing (Jack Kirby), develops into a systematic understanding (Alan Moore), and finally evolves into a new kind of religion best exemplified by Alex Ross.
After profiling many comics creators, Knowles concludes that Ross’s Kingdom Come series is the most important for understanding the transformation of superheroes into almost literal gods. It is unclear, though, that he is differentiating between their function within comics and how fans (or the general public) treat them outside of the stories. Here is the key sentence: “If Ross did not set out intentionally to reintroduce the ancient gods and goddesses to a modern audience, then we must seriously contemplate whether some other supernatural force was working through him to do so.”
One could (as I have in the past) equally argue that horror monsters like vampires have taken on the qualities of pagan deities and, within modern horror stories (and especially their Gothic romance cousins), function akin to pagan gods. This would seem to undermine the unique qualities Knowles wishes to ascribe to superheroes and instead imply that old stories, plots, and characters are continuously recycled. I guess it’s possible to suggest that pagan gods are plotting their resurrection “not in the spaces we know, but between them,” but Knowles wants to see a secret stream of paganism that operates independently of individuals, a sort of living Akashic Record in what he calls our “collective consciousness.” We really need much more evidence to even begin to entertain this.
This chapter meditates on why comics are popular and says nothing original; in fact, it may even make the reader a little less informed by taking Alan Moore literally in asserting that “The gods of magic in the ancient cultures … are also the gods of writing.” Knowles want us to read this as an invocation of the power of magic and divinity, while Moore meant it as a paean to the power of storytelling.
The conclusion makes many observations and assertions that require evidence to support, evidence the preceding chapters failed to provide. He claims that the decline of religion sent audiences to comics and to Star Wars for “salvation” from modern problems—apparently missing the religious revival of evangelicalism. He asserts that comics’ superpowers, as depicted in movies, will make the young demand superpowers of their own in a technologically-derived “totally new human reality.” Thus, he says, Kingdom Come provides a moral compass to follow in navigating “transhumanism.” He hopes technology will let us understand occult science better, and thus to see new relevance in ancient myths.
Overall, the book was superficial, poorly-researched, and overly broad in its claims. Knowles asserted many things, supported almost none of them, and talked around his actual theme, one that was heavily implied but unstated: that there is some supernatural force that continuously resurrects pagan pantheons and acts through artists. You’ll recognize the claim, of course. It comes directly from Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine:
Our best modern novelists, who are neither Theosophists nor Spiritualists, begin to have, nevertheless, very psychological and suggestively Occult dreams […] [T]he clever novelist seems to repeat the history of all the now degraded and down-fallen races of humanity.
Our Gods Wear Spandex failed to prove its case because it didn’t really have one. There were many ways to approach such a topic. The most obvious would be to chronicle the use of mythological themes in comics with a deep reading and analysis of primary source texts, to interview surviving artists about their influences, and to compare superhero uses of these tropes to the appearance of myth in other genres (horror and sci-fi come to mind). Knowles’s approach was a non-approach, a series of disconnected chapters that vaguely talked around some broader themes, drawn largely from secondary sources, and without any attempt at methodology. Past and present are mixed together as though stories never developed but simply emerged fully formed from some Jungian repository of archetypes. It was, in short, a mess.
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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