The main thesis of this book will be of interest to both philosophers and comic book fans, as strange as it may sound at first. In an unusual effort, thought experiments done by philosophers (ancient and recent), and the stories behind many superhero comics are evaluated, and their many similarities revealed. As both groups play through certain “what if?” scenarios, experiments and settings in their own way; one based on realistic setting and experience, the other one on unlimited possibilities and the superpowers of their respective superheroes, argue the two authors.

The philosopher may ask what happened if one little condition in our way of thinking would be altered to discover the pros and cons in a new and strange situation for man. Authors Gavaler (associate professor of English) and Goldberg (professor of philosophy) argue that the comic book artist draws exactly that, by providing a person/entity/superhero who has some new abilities that will be useful while dealing with unknown situations such as a struggle with extraterrestrial villains, or stop natural disasters and fight crime in the streets.

Generally, the idea to put both philosophers and comic book superheros (and their spiritual fathers, of course) into the same league of thinkers is rather good, even though one tends to give the academic philosophers more credibility as his experiments consider much greater alterations and their ideas would extend the comic book pages.
Nevertheless, both move in “other” versions of reality; one just mentally, the other one literally within the frames and panels of the comic book.
As the authors propose, combining “… superhero comics and philosophy could be a powerful way to explore thought experiments because it merges the strengths of each.” Besides, currently philosophic disciplines seem to open up and show interest in popular culture, while at the same time huge nonacademic audiences participate in philosophical magazines, radio shows and online columns.

But then, the comic book (and the superhero movie based on it) is much closer to fiction, due to the detail of the story and the many observations that may lack a philosophical discourse. (Although Plato already used fictional and semi-fictional dialogue to present thought experiments to his audiences/readers; that feature made both the dilemma more realistic and connected it to everyday problems and ordinary people).

And thanks to huge extended universes with different realities, versions of the present and the past and even various versions of Earth, certain representations of (sometimes one and the same) superheroes will decide to do either a good deed or a rather bad one. Always depending on his/her variation or incarnation of “reality,” which, by the way, is quite a complicated philosophical problem. These thoughts for centuries have fueled Gothic tales, fantasy fiction as well as a huge number of science fiction stories.

Following numerous ideas of that nature, “… philosophy’s most amazing thought experiments could be adapted into a limited series of illustrated superhero comics entitled Thought Experiments. But the reverse is true too. We could adapt themes from superhero comics into a philosophy book entitled Superhero Thought Experiments. Because writers and artists of Marvel and DC can be read as philosophers and works as comic book philosophy, we could subtitle the philosophy book Comic Book Philosophy. That’s of course what we did.”

Of course, comics want to entertain and philosophy (most argue) wants to find answers and explain that things are what we think they are. “Superhero comics therefore express philosophy powerfully in some ways but not as carefully in others.”

The title is organized into eight chapters and altogether ten larger texts, where in parts 1 and 2 “Metaphysics” and “Morality,” certain superhero stories are examined in detail, e.g. person x wants to find a solution for problem y. So for example, what distinctive ethical codes are there for superheroes, would they maintain these morals as they evolve and turn into different people and at times develop new characteristics? (Some we would call good, others bad). Would they finally become worse than their super enemies, if they put lives at risk, even for a greater good, risk the lives of millions of people to save billions of others and so forth. (As this actually happens rather often in the comic book).

And in that manner, the possible workings of an evil genius who could trick the superhero (or mankind altogether) into believing all kinds of things, even that everything he experiences is real, while the victim actually is in a state of shock, dream or unconsciousness (as already suggested by philosopher Descartes in 1641).
These questions, actually classic philosophical problems, and usually the specialty of generations of philosophers who relate to older generations of philosophers, are addressed quite directly and straightforward by superheroes. The authors want to “… show you how to know your way around the philosophical nature of superhero comics – not in an unreflective, centripetal way, but in a reflective one.”

Part three then takes on somewhat different topics, such as the meaning of time, particularly in the Marvel uninverse/multiverse, where several stories are being revised, depending on who tells them or who has control over “referential retcons” or “reboots.” Not to forget the many ways and speeds at which time passes in the universes.

Finally, the names of superheros are at the center of analysis, as are several comic book swamp creatures (more than 50 over the decades), who have to stand the test if their way of thinking is anywhere near human introspection and hence close to philosophical experiments. The swamp creatures in this chapter deserve special attention, as it is based on a thought experiment by popular philosopher Donald Davidson from the 1980s – and since 1940 they have been subject of at first horror stories and then of comic book fame. In this case, however, the comic book concept seems much more elaborate and complete. (Even though this configuration applies only rarely).

Blending these two ways of imagination when it comes to thought experiments, the study demonstrates that “… philosophers, especially the analytic ones dominating the English-speaking academic world, analyze the concepts and define terms. They often introduce thought experiments with these ends in mind. When it comes to describing those experiments, though, superhero comics have the upper hand. … While academic philosophers speak obliquely about Moral Twin Earth, comics fill in the details of worlds like Bizarro’s and Earths-1, -2 and -3.”

The authors conclude that superhero comics are powerful in a financial and popcultural way. Moreover, they “are philosophically powerful too. … When we’re caught up in their stories, we’re caught up with their ideas – and these ideas stay with us in ways that only narratives can.”
It is worth mentioning that numerous comic book characters and superheroes from many comic book ages and various publishers are cited almost continuously, as are philosophers from different periods. Many of their assumptions, deeds and powers are examined, in one way or another, so reading this title will not be easy at times; unless one is familiar with at least the most famous philosophers and the most prominent superheros in all their major incarnations. After the reader has coped with all that, he/she will probably understand the suggested “seven philosophical and superhero comic book lessons” the authors reveal at the end of the book.

Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2020

Chris Gavaler and Nathaniel Goldberg. Superhero Thought Experiments: Comic Book Philosophy. University of Iowa Press, 2019, 224 p.