Travis Smith on Canadian comic books, philosophy, and his book “Superhero Ethics”

"...As a political philosophy professor, I am always looking for ways to make old ideas and arguments seem relevant and familiar..."

Travis Smith earned his doctorate at Harvard University is now an Associate Professor of Political Science at Concordia University. As a lifelong fan of comic books and superheroes, and possessing a desire to make political philosophy more relevant to his students, Smith has written Superhero Ethics – which uses popular superheroes to explore ethics and philosophy. (For some reason, he is also adamant in his claims that he is in no way associated with Montreal’s vigilante, Joie de Vivre.) Wanting to learn more about his background and this manuscript, I was able to interview Dr. Smith for ScifiPulse.

To learn more about Smith and Superhero Ethics, visit his faculty page and check out the book on Amazon.

Nicholas Yanes: You were a fan of comic books since you were a kid. Why do you think you were so interested in these stories and characters?

Travis Smith: Challenge of the Super Friends aired when I was five years old and I was hooked. “Banded together from remote galaxies!” The whole premise of the Justice League of America versus the Legion of Doom ignited my imagination. I didn’t really read comics until I was a preteen. By that point it was less the powers that the characters possessed than their personalities that fascinated me. I felt like Rogue and Rachel Summers in Uncanny X-Men spoke to me. I loved the interplay between all the different ringbearers in The Green Lantern Corps, and between all the different baddies in Suicide Squad. The sibling rivalries in Power Pack were a guilty pleasure, too. Walt Simonson’s run on Thor brought the Norse pantheon to life.


Yanes: You are based in Montreal as a professor at Concordia University. Sadly, I’ve only just learned about Captain Canuck and Northguard. Are there any major comic book properties in Canada you think more Americans should know about?

Smith: I’ve never been one to love Canadian things just because they’re Canadian. Alpha Flight #12 was a memorable issue for me as a kid, though. The big two companies have seen the wisdom of adding some fascinating new Canadian characters to their catalogues of heroes, like Equinox in Justice League United and Snowguard in Champions, so that’s great to see.

Of course, Canadians do like to brag about the successes of other Canadians. I’m a fan of Ryan North (Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is my favorite Marvel title) and Ed Brisson (who liked a photo of my son dressed as Iron Fist for Halloween in 2017). Being based in Montreal I’ve been lucky to have comics signed by artists including Dale Eaglesham, Yanick Paquette, and Andy Belanger.

I am impressed by the independent comics creators I see on the convention circuit. The amount of effort and dedication people invest in themselves, doing what they love, honing their craft, sharing their efforts, even without extraordinary monetary reward, is inspiring.

Yanes: On this note, what do you think is the state of comics studies in Canada? Do you feel the field is growing as it is in the U.S.?

Smith: I had the great fortune of presenting portions of Superhero Ethics as works in progress for four years running at the annual meeting of the Canadian Society for the Study of Comics, where it has been held coinciding with the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. Formed in 2010, the CSSC is thriving. It will be joining the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences so as to participate in its annual Congress of academic associations starting in 2019—a major step forward in its growing recognition as a scholarly field. I love how interdisciplinary comics studies is, and how eclectic it can be. In May of this year, it was a privilege to be placed on a panel with J. Andrew Deman (University of Waterloo) and Anna F. Peppard (York University). I hope to present a paper at the 2019 CSSC conference that touches on issues in disabilities studies.

Yanes: You recently published Superhero Ethics. What was the inspiration for creating this manuscript?

Smith: As a political philosophy professor, I am always looking for ways to make old ideas and arguments seem relevant and familiar. To do so, I tend to use a lot of pop culture references in the classroom. Because of the popularity of superhero films since 2000, these characters and their stories are now more well-known than they ever were while I was growing up—when being discovered as a comic book reader risked turning you into even more of a social outcast among your peers than you may have already been. Superhero Ethics gave me a chance to make those kinds of connections in an extended fashion for a broader audience.

It all started out, however, with the intention to write just one short essay on Spider-Man for his 50th anniversary, back in 2012. Afterward, I planned to get back to writing on the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, and the like. But that one piece grew bigger and led to opportunities that eventually resulted in the publication of this book.

Yanes: Superhero Ethics mainly focuses on ten superheroes: Hulk, Wolverine, Green Lantern, Iron Man, Batman, Spider-Man, Captain America, Mister Fantastic, Thor, and Superman. Given that there are multiple versions of each of the characters due to adaptations into other media, how did you determine which version of the character you would examine?

Smith: That was hard. I decided to make the case that if we can recognize different versions of a certain character from across different eras or different media, or from across the multiverse, as versions of the same character, then there must be some common core that makes them recognizable in that way. The arguments in Superhero Ethics focus on identifying the ethical core of each character. When you encounter an alternate universe counterpart that’s off somehow, you can usually pinpoint how they diverge from that ethical core, and that’s what makes them interesting as a variation. When fans agree that some story “betrays” a character, it’s because it diverges from that core in some way that’s recognizably wrong. So, I felt like I could amalgamate different versions of these characters so long as I was being true to their core in each case—while explicitly observing when some variation on them didn’t do so.

Yanes: While crafting this book, were there any insights you developed that took you by surprise?

Smith: For sure. A lot of things are darker than they seem. Have you ever noticed, for example, how disturbing the origin of Kid Flash is, as presented in Flash #110? In grad school, I almost quit reading comics, but Alias by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos dragged me back in. I read the premise of that book as: “The stories you’ve read so far are the official versions made palatable for public consumption. If you want to know what really happens in the Marvel Universe…” From this perspective, even Watchmen should be read retrospectively more as exposing what had always been present but kept hidden from plain view. So, with that sort of thought in mind, I reread comics, rewatched movies, and tried asking myself what they weren’t telling us or showing us.

Yanes: You started working on this book well before Black Panther became a box office success. What was your immediate reaction to how ethics were examined in Black Panther?

Smith: I’m actually in the process of writing a “bonus chapter” on Black Panther and Wonder Woman. I’ll be focusing on the question of how the films deal with the question of privilege—how powerful its effects on character are, and how deleterious it can be on those who lack it, and how all of that is depicted in those films. As with everything to do with issues of privilege, the answer starts with recognizing that it’s problematic. The character of Black Panther is portrayed in the film as a model of good leadership, someone who seeks good counsel and encourages innovation among those under him. But the readiness of so many Wakandans to blindly follow Killmonger’s nigh on genocidal orders is certainly concerning.

Yanes: Which aspects of ethics and superheroes would you like to see further explored by other scholars?

Smith: One big question is: How much importance should be put on issues of identity politics, when it comes to asking whether a character is admirable and worthy of praise or emulation. Do issues of identity limit whether anyone can or should admire or emulate any character? Personally, I tend to agree with a position I remember Kelly Sue DeConnick advancing: The goal isn’t just to present female characters that young girls can look up to as role models; the goal is to present female characters that young boys can feel proud looking up to, too.

Yanes: When people finish reading Superhero Ethics, what do you hope that they take away from it?

Smith: One, we can treat popular culture seriously as a lens to examine ourselves and our society critically. Two, philosophy is something we can all attempt and enjoy; it isn’t just for ivory tower eggheads. Three, we can learn to disagree with each other thoughtfully and with civility, even about things we care about a lot.

Yanes: Finally, what other projects are you working on that people can look forward to?

Smith: I am preparing and have already prepared a variety of supplemental writings that go alongside Superhero Ethics, a couple of which I have mentioned above. Plus, I am planning to write more on Thomas Hobbes again—including a piece on his conception of the imagination, which my reflections on comic books have led me to read differently than before.

Thank you for the opportunity to discuss Superhero Ethics on SciFiPulse!

Again, you can learn more about Smith and Superhero Ethics by visiting his faculty page and checking out the book on Amazon.

And remember to follow me on twitter @NicholasYanes, and to follow Scifipulse on twitter @SciFiPulse and on facebook.

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