Comics : Spider-Man and Philosophy: The Web of Inquiry

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This review was first published on: Dec 2012.

Background...

You might think that Spider-Man is pretty special, getting a book on philosophy written about him. However, before you get too excited, you should understand that at the time of publishing, the "Blackwell Philosophy/Pop Culture Series" includes 30 different titles, including "South Park and Philosophy", "Metallica and Philosophy", "Lost and Philosophy", and even "Twilight and Philosophy".

So, yeah, maybe Spidey isn't quite so special after all.

Anyhow, the idea behind these books is to have "real Philosophers" write essays about Philosophical topics, inspired by or integrated with Pop Culture (Spider-Man in this case).

Why? Well, to sell books I guess. As a side-effect, there may also be some cross-pollination between the two domains. Well, perhaps some one-way cross-pollination. I'm not expecting that this book will motivate too many philosophy students to start collecting Spider-Man. There's a slightly higher chance that a few Spidey fans might be inspired to read a little more about philosophy. Perhaps.

Oh, yeah. There may be some enlightenment produced as well.

In Detail...

Spider-Man and Philosophy: The Web of Inquiry
May 2012 : SM Title
Find ISBN 9780470575604
Summary: Blackwell Philosophy/Pop Culture Series
Publisher:  John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Editor In Chief:  William Irwin
Editor:  Jonathan J. Sanford
Writer:  Adam Barkman, Andrew Terjesen, Charles Taliaferro, Christopher Robichaud, Daniel P. Malloy, Jason Southworth, J. Keeping, John Timm, Jonathan J. Sanford, Mark D. White, Mark K. Spencer, Meghan P. Godwin, Neil Mussett, Philip Tallon, Ron Novy, Taneli Kukkonen, Tony Spanakos, Tricia Little
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Review

This book took me quite some time to read. Despite being generally written in a chatty and informal style, I found many of the essays quite challenging to read. Not because they were particularly complex - in fact quite the opposite. No, I found many of them to be superficial and annoyingly shambolic, which made them turgid and unrewarding. But we'll get to that.

The essays are arranged into groups. While I could easily be distracted into analysing each in great detail, I'll attempt to restrain myself for the sake of brevity, and my own sanity.

Part One: The Spectacular Life of Spider-Man?

  • Does Peter Parker have a Good Life? by Neil Mussett: This essay uses Spider-Man as a case study to examine the idea of what it means to have a "good life". What should make us happy? What should be our goals in life? Mussett examines Peter's existence according to the ides of such varied philosophers of Paul Kurtz, Ayn Rand, Epictetus, Vikto Franki, and Thomas Aquinas.

Mussett provides interesting snippets from each, and does a good job of tempting the reader to follow-up with further reading. This is a good essay to open the book, and my only objection is his claim that Peter fails to meet one of Kurtz's criteria which is to "enjoy the multiplicities of sexuality". Seriously? Despite being a supposed "geek", Peter has always had a steady stream of stunning girlfriends. He has enjoyed sexual relationships with many of them. He was married to a super-model for 20 years, and even invented a new sexual position known as the "Venus Butterfly". So Neil gets great marks for philosophy, but drops a few points regarding Spider-Man credibility.

  • What Price Atonement? (Peter Parker and the Infinite Debt) by Taneli Kukkonen discusses the nature of moral debt, with specific discussion of Peter's debt to Uncle Ben (which can perhaps never be repaid). He examines the balance of personal happiness to the demands of justice, and touches on the nature of mutual debt in the form of shared love.

This is another strong essay which nicely bridges the gap between Spider-Man and interesting moral issues. It spreads itself rather thinly, covering ideas from Hegel, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Aristotle, Kierkegaard, and more - but the result is interesting and well annotated.

  • My Name is Peter Parker (Unmasking the Right and the Good) by Mark D. White builds upon the excellent "Civil War" Marvel Event (specifically Peter's decision to reveal his secret identity) to introduce the ideas of deontology (the philosophy that says you must do what is "right" regardless of consequences), against the idea of consequentialism (the idea that you should do what is "best" by considering primarily the potential consequences of your actions).

This makes good use of Marvel/Spider-Man storylines to propound some solid philosophical concepts. Again it is will researched, and it covers good ground. That makes an impressive three out of three for this opening chapter.

Part Two: Responsibility-Man

  • With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility (Spider-Man, Christian Ethics, and the Problem of Evil) by Adam Barkman. This essay argues that Peter Parker is a mainstream Christian, and that the Spider-Man ethos is a story of Christian values.

You what...? What the heck...?

Up until this point, everything was going well. Spider-Man was being used as a light-hearted entry point to gently touch on some serious concepts. Everybody was having fun, and learning a little something in the process. Then all of a sudden, Adam Barkman starts telling us that Spider-Man is doing God's work, and follows it up by postulating that natural disasters and human diseases are caused by invisible fallen Angels who have turned away from the world as God intended.

Honestly, I just about threw the book away at this point. Yeah, I'm sure there's a place for those who would discuss how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, and questions such as "If God is omnipotent, then does he have the power to change his own nature". But Barkman makes no effort to apply any philosophical inquiry to the questions of Christian Ethics. Instead, he seems intent only on claiming Spider-Man as a Christian icon, before launching himself into an unfounded series of irrelevant speculations based on the supposedly inarguable assumption of God's perfect love for mankind.

This essay single-handedly ruins any claim to academic seriousness that this book might have otherwise made. Allowing it to be included was an unforgivable lapse of editorial judgement.

With difficulty, I suppressed my annoyance and managed to carry on. Unfortunately, the compilers clearly started running out of good material at this point, and the philosophy per page ratio takes a serious dive.

  • Does Great Power Bring Great Responsibility? (Spider-Man and the Good Samaritan) by J. Keeping. This essay argues the question of what responsibilities any of us owe society. What (if any) is our moral obligation to help our fellow man? How does that balance against personal risk to ourselves? How is that obligation affected by our relative power and resources?

This is an fascinating question which ties into my personal interest in anthropology. In "The Selfish Gene", Dawkins discusses the various strategies of co-operation vs. selfishness, and how evolution seeks to find a (locally) optimal balance. Unfortunately, Keeping limits himself to a purely "Moral" analysis, asking what is "right". He talks about what we "Should" do, without ever asking "Why" we "Should". There are some fascinating reasons why an individual might want to put themselves at personal risk for a family member, fellow tribesman, or even complete stranger. But that discussion is entirely bypassed, and hence the essay lacks any real footing for its arguments.

  • With Great Power Comes Great Culpability (How Blameworthy Is Spider-Man for Uncle Ben's Death) by Philip Tallon. This chapter re-visits the question raised in the earlier "What Price Atonement?" However, it approaches the issue from a different angle, and raises some interesting practical questions. For example, if somebody drives drunk and kills a child, why do we judge them much more harshly than a drunk driver who is lucky enough to get home without incident? Both have committed the same evil activity - the only difference is in the random consequences.

This essay tackles some interesting issues - the moral relevance of luck, and the difference between guilt and regret. Once again, Spider-Man is the springboard, but philosophy is allowed to step into the limelight and form the basis of the discussion.

Part Three: The Spider and the Self

  • Why is My Spider-Sense Tingling? by Andrew Terjesen. In this segment, Terjesen attempts to analyse Peter's "Spider-Sense", with a view to explaining how it might work. Unfortunately, no philosophy can be squeezed out of this question. While it might form a potentially interesting post on a fan site or Spidey bulletin board, the sad truth is that Peter's Spider-Sense is purely a handy plot device, which has no consistent, demonstrable basis in reality. This essay flounders quickly, and is really nothing but filler.
  • Red or Black (Perception, Identity, and Self) by Meaghan P. Godwin. Godwin uses this essay to examine the philosophical question of "The Self", driven by an analysis of the different between Black-Suit (Evil) and Red/Blue-Suit (Good) Spider-Man from the Spider-Man 3 (2007) Movie.

Unfortunately, despite referencing many scenes from the film and throwing around the names of several well-known philosophers, I really can't see that Ms. Goodwin manages to actually construct any particular argument, or generate any enlightenment. A number of concepts are touched upon, but each is abandoned before any insight is produced. It's a nice try, but the murky debate left me with nothing of real substance to take away.

  • With Great Power (Heroism, Villainy, and Bodily Transformation) by Mark K. Spencer. This essay starts by attempting to suggest that our bodily form has a significant influence on who we are. Then part-way through, it undermines its own argument by describing how Peter and Norman Osborn both receive physical transformations which both enhance but do not essentially alter their underlying natures.

Having failed to produce any real enlightenment, Spencer "pivots" in the last couple of pages to try and make an entirely different argument about Peter's love for Mary Jane. This is no more successful than his previous efforts, and the entire essay falls apart having achieved basically nothing.

Part Four: Arachnids "R" Us: Technology and the Human, All Too Human

  • Transhumanism (Or, Is It Right to Make a Spider-Man?) by Ron Novy opens this overly wordy chapter of the book. But fear not, Novy soon has us back on track with a fascinating discussion of the moral implications of human enhancement, trans-humanism, and the future of mankind. It's an excellent segment which outlines the two sides of the argument - for and against human enhancement. This is a subject which should have ready appeal for super-hero comic-book fans, and (assuming the reader hasn't already given up before they got to this point), this essay provides a great introduction to a relevant modern topic which merits further study.
  • Maximum Clonage (What the Clone Saga Can Teach Us about Human Cloning) by Jason Southworth and John Timm takes as its subject another aspect of the "Technology vs. Humanity" debate. Some fascinating questions about the nature of "the soul" could be raised by the consideration of cloning, molecular replication, and computerised mapping/duplication of the human brain.

Unfortunately, this essay manages to avoid tackling any of those issues. Instead it churlishly points out that state of the art cloning techniques would not allow for the creation of Ben Reilly, as today's clones take too long to grow to adulthood, and memories cannot currently be replicated. Yes, that's all true. But by limiting themselves to current-day practical matters, the writers manage to entirely avoid delving into any philosophical topics.

What's more, Jason and John also destroy all of their Spider-Fan credibility by referring to Kaine as "Kane" throughout the piece — a mistake with is repeated elsewhere in this collection. I also spotted Osborn consistently spelt as "Osborne" in one essay, though I forget which.

  • Justice Versus Romantic Love (Can Spider-Man Champion Justice and Be with Mary Jane at the Same Time?) by Charles Taliaferro and Tricia Little spends 11 pages coming up with the simple answer "Maybe if he tries really hard and is lucky, but it's really trick to balance everything." Like its predecessor, this section is heavy on pragmatic examples, and light to the point of embarrassment on philosophic concepts.
  • Love, Friendship, and being Spider-Man by Tony Spanakos uses examples from various Spider-Man sources to illustrate the different types of "love" and "friendship" that philosophers have proposed. Strangely, the primary source that Spanakos selects is the out-of-continuity Mary Jane series.

This is a most peculiar choice of source material, as it bears little resemblance to the popularly recognised Spider-Man mythos. And while this essay does present some solid philosophical context, it's actually the Spider-Man side of things which is the problem here. The contrived scenarios from that series which provide the practical examples in the piece really do not enhance the clarity, comprehension or readability. Like many of the discussions in this book. this segment is not improved by Spider-Man's presence.

  • Spidey's Tangled Web of Obligations (Fighting Friends and Dependants Gone Bad) by Christopher Robichaud asks that age-old philosophical question, "If I become a Super-Hero, is it morally acceptable to lie to my Aunt?" It then follows up with another classic... "If my best friend becomes a psychotic Super-Villain, what is my ethical position vis-a-vis punching him in the face?"

These are indeed moral quandaries of the most profound nature, but yet again, this essay gets bogged down in Spider-Man details. These kinds of ethical questions are not simplified by pulling Spider-Man into the debate. Peter Parker's involvement provides more complexity than clarity.

Part Six: The Amazing Speaking Spider: Jokes, Stories, and the Choices We Make

  • The Quipslinger (The Morality of Spider-Man's Jokes) by Daniel P. Malloy attempts to analyse the nature of Spider-Man's jokes. He fails.

E.B. White once said "Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it." I don't entirely agree. Personally I am quite interested in the nature of humour. The problem is that most of the time, Spider-Man's comments aren't particularly funny.

  • The Sound and the Fury Behind "One More Day" by Mark D. White examines the editorial decision that lay behind the One More Day storyline, and the associated fan backlash. He accurately makes out the rather obvious point that Peter's decision was quite out of character and unconvincing. This is a discussion which would make an appropriate rave for our website, but there's no philosophy involved.
  • Spider-Man and the Importance of Getting Your Story Straight by editor Jonathan J. Sanford is really rather ironic. The title implores us to "get our story straight", while the article itself manages to ramble on about... well, I have no idea. This concluding essay skitters from topic to topic, illuminating none of them, and leaving no concepts to linger in our mind. It's a fizzer of a finish.

In General...

Attempting to use Spider-Man's back-history to underlie any philosophical argument is fraught with danger. Spidey has appeared in thousands of comics and novels, half a dozen movies, and a good few hundred TV episodes. For any point you're looking to illustrate, you'll find plenty of examples, but quite a few counter-examples too.

Plus, there's one big question to be asked of this entire series. "Is Spider-Man + Philosophy more potent than Philosophy alone?" I'm reminded of a quote from "King of the Hill" on the subject of Christian Music.

HANK: Can’t you see you’re not making Christianity better, you’re just making rock n’ roll worse.

I think you can see where I'm going with that.

Overall Rating...

There are 17 separate essays in this book. Half a dozen of them are quite good, ten of them are just filler, and one of them is utterly, utterly terrible.

There are nearly 30 issues in this Philosophy/Pop Culture series, and it is becoming pretty clear that these books are getting churned out with more regard to page count than to quality. That makes me mad. Philosophy doesn't get the respect that it deserves in modern society, and a series like this is a wonderful opportunity to teach the love of wisdom to those who might otherwise live without it.

Unfortunately, this book squanders much of that opportunity. Two Webs.