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The Myth of the American Superhero
POD; Published: 6/27/2002
ISBN: 978-0-8028-2573-5
Price: $ 37.50
436 Pages
Trim Size, in inches: 6.14 x 9.21
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From the Superman of comic books to Hollywood's big-screen action stars, Americans have long enjoyed a love affair with the "superhero." In this engaging volume John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett explore the historical and spiritual roots of the superhero myth and its deleterious effect on America's democratic vision.

Arguing that the superhero is the antidemocratic counterpart of the classical "monomyth" described by Joseph Campbell, the authors show that the American version of the monomyth derives from tales of redemption. In settings where institutions and elected leaders always fail, the American monomyth offers heroes who combine elements of the selfless servant with the lone, zealous crusader who destroys evil. Taking the law into their own hands, these unelected figures assume total power to rid the community of its enemies, thus comprising a distinctively American form of pop fascism.

Drawing widely from books, films, TV programs, video games, and places of superhero worship on the World Wide Web, the authors trace the development of the American superhero during the twentieth century and expose the mythic patterns behind the most successful elements of pop culture. Lawrence and Jewett challenge readers to reconsider the relationship of this myth to traditional religious and social values, and they show how, ultimately, these antidemocratic narratives gain the spiritual loyalties of their audiences, in the process inviting them to join in crusades against evil.

Finally, the authors pose this provocative question: Can we take a holiday from democracy in our lives of fantasy and entertainment while preserving our commitment to democratic institutions and ways of life?
American Culture Association, John Cawelti Book Award (2003)
Mythopoeic Society, Mythopoeic Scholarship Award for Myth and Fantasy Studies (2004)
William G. Doty
— author of Mythography: The Study of Myths and Rituals
"A major interpretive resource for several disciplines, including American studies, religious studies, literature, popular culture, and film studies, The Myth of the American Superhero covers an astonishing array of expressions of the heroic in American culture. I have used the authors' approach to popular mythology for many years and appreciate this rich, up-to-date (right up to the terrorist events of September 11, 2001, and the films The Matrix and Fight Club) work. Monomythic expressions now include highly violent video games and worldwide terrorism. John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett provide a framework for critiquing a wide range of movies and literature, including the Disneyfication of the nation and the lethal patriotism of Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski. The dangers of fascist elements in Star Wars are confronted as well as the dangerous apocalypticism of the Left Behind books and films. Ultimately, the authors are sincerely worried about the shape of Western democracy as it is threatened by cheap resolutions of complex political and theological issues. This book will be a major component in my honors course on the heroic model in life, literature, and film. As a tool for understanding the dangers of the traditional hero model, The Myth of the American Superhero has no competition. It is the sort of book that educates one for a lifetime."
Jutta Weldes
"The Myth of the American Superhero is a very timely and provocative analysis of what John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett call the 'American monomyth.' In this myth an Edenic community is threatened by implacable evil from outside. Mundane democratic institutions, impotent or corrupt, can't cope. With a convulsion of redemptive vigilante violence, the selfless, singleminded, sexually repressed, and misogynistic superhero restores the community to its pristine state and fades into obscurity. The authors trace this generic story (and its variants) through many guises: it appears, among others, in Buffalo Bill's traveling Wild West show, in The Virginian and The Lone Ranger, in a wide range of twentiethcentury films from John Wayne through Rambo, in disaster movies and in The Matrix, in the television phenomenon Star Trek, in the wonderful world of Disney, in video games, and in 'credotainment.' In this scathing critique the authors demonstrate the relentless reproduction of a fundamentally antidemocratic and viciously misogynistic myth that, with fascist rigor, extols the purifying powers of extralegal violence. Lawrence and Jewett trace the frightening imitative Werther effect' of this myth of vigilante redemption in the antisocial violence unleashed by Bernard Goetz, the Unabomber, and Timothy McVeigh, among others. The power of this myth to radically undermine the prized American institution of democracy is ably illustrated in their retelling of the Ramboesque antics of Oliver North and of even more appalling North's striking popularity. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, and the unilateral extralegal violence promised by the Bush administration to destroy evil on a worldwide scale, exposing and challenging this American monomyth is of the utmost importance. Lawrence and Jewett's fascinating and accessible volume does just that."