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Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes Paperback – November 1, 2007

3.8 out of 5 stars 29 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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"You think superheroes are something new? Wait'll you read the exciting spin that Knowles and Linsner put on them!"

Book Description
From occult underground to superhero!

Was Superman's arch nemesis Lex Luthor based on Aleister Crowley? Can Captain Marvel be linked to the Sun gods on antiquity? In Our Gods Wear Spandex, Christopher Knowles answers these questions and brings to light many other intriguing links between superheroes and the enchanted world of estoerica. Occult students and comic-book fans alike will discover countless fascinating connections, from little known facts such as that DC Comics editor Julius Schwartz started his career as H.P. Lovecraft's agent, to the tantalizingly extensive influence of Madame Blavatsky's Theosophy on the birth of comics, to the mystic roots of Superman. The book also traces the rise of the comic superheroes and how they relate to several cultural trends in the late 19th century, specifically the occult explosion in Western Europe and America. Knowles reveals the four basic superhero archetypes--the Messiah, the Golem, the Amazon, and the Brotherhood--and shows how the occult Bohemian underground of the early 20th century provided the inspiration for the modern comic book hero.

With the popularity of occult comics writers like Invisibles creator Grant Morrison and V for Vendetta creator Alan Moore, the vast ComiCon audience is poised for someone to seriously introduce them to the esoteric mysteries. Chris Knowles is doing just that in this epic book. Chapters include: Ancient of Days, Ascended Masters, God and Gangsters, Mad Scientists and Modern Sorcerers, and many more. From the ghettos of Prague to the halls of Valhalla to the Fortress of Solitude and the aisles of BEA and ComiCon, this is the first book to show the inextricable link between superheroes and the enchanted world of esoterica.

* Chris Knowles is associate editor and columnist for the five-time Eisner Award-winning Comic Book Artist magazine, as well as a pop culture writer for UK magazine Classic Rock.

* Knowles worked with Robert Smigel on The X Presidents graphic novel, based on the popular Saturday Night Live cartoon, and has created designs and artwork for many of the world's top superheroes and fantasy characters.

* Features the art of Joe Linsner, creator of the legendary Dawn series, and more recently a collaborator with comics maestro Stan Lee.

An Exclusive Preface to Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes by Christopher Knowles

Following the example of Joseph Campbell, some academics have claimed that our society has no room for myth, no room for legends, and certainly no room for gods. But look around; modern Western culture is not lacking in mythology, it's actually swimming in it. Everywhere you look there are comic books, cartoons, video games, novels and movies recycling ancient mythological themes, as well as incorporating ideas and imagery from paganism, the occult, Gnosticism and the ancient Mysteries. And ironically, it was with the Star Wars films, created by Campbell's patron George Lucas, that this whole modern mythological explosion began.

Many younger people don't realize how much Star Wars changed the landscape of pop culture. Prior to Star Wars, science fiction and fantasy were pretty much box office poison. It didn’t help that most sci-fi films on the early-to -mid 70's were dystopian sermons such as Westworld, Silent Running, Soylent Green and Logan's Run. In fact, Lucas had to fight tooth and nail just to get financing for his sci-fi epic.

Besides raking in billions of dollars, Star Wars single-handedly injected mythology back into the mainstream. And to do so, George Lucas hijacked a whole buffet of riffs straight from the comic books. Despite this success, it would take some time for Hollywood to consolidate the formula for broad-spectrum branding and marketing that Lucas had pioneered. But not coincidentally, one of the most successful initial attempts was the first Superman film. Ultimately, it would be the first Batman film in 1989 that truly perfected the idea of the big-budget movie franchise. Hot on its heels, the comic book property Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would launch a film and toy franchise that would rake in billions and codify this formula.

Today, these franchises not only produce massive revenues at the box office, they also sell lunch boxes, breakfast cereals, action figures, party favors, and yes, even comic books. And aside from franchises like Harry Potter (which bears a very strong resemblance to the earlier Books of Magic comic series), and the Pirates of the Caribbean and James Bond series (both of which draw heavily upon the feel and rhythm of comic books), it's the comic book properties like Spider-Man and The X-Men that make the rest of Hollywood weep with numismatic envy. But these films would never do so if the themes they put forward did not strike a powerful chord in the collective unconscious.

The chord these characters strike is something very deep and profound in the human psyche. It's the need to be protected, the need to have wrongs righted, and injustices avenged. It's one of the basic human impulses that gave rise to mythology in the first place. But there is also a vicarious impulse there, to be something more than human, something better. Sometimes this impulse can go horribly awry and give rise to racism, genocide and totalitarianism. It can create the yearning for a strongman dictator, a big brother to protect us against inflated, often illusory threats. In contrast, the writers and artists who have created our most compelling modern mythologies have, consciously or not, by-passed the authoritarian strictures of religious and political mythology entirely and tapped into another current...

Throughout history there has been a parallel spiritual tradition, a counter-culture to the official cults of the state. In the pre-Christian west, there was a wide-ranging class of initiatic sects known today as the "Mystery" religions. These cults offered a personal revelation to their followers, something taken for granted by many modern believers, but deeply radical in those days. These cults often attracted the best and the brightest of their time, and from these cults some of the greatest scientific and cultural thought would emerge. Yet they were often the breeding ground for sedition and revolution, and so were often subject to bloody repression by the political elites. The Mystery tradition was strongest in Egypt, and the many of the finest thinkers of the Hellenistic world (like Plato and Pythagoras, to name two) would travel there to initiated in the ancient pyramids and tombs.

The ecstatic cults of Egyptian gods like Osiris and Horus would mutate into the Greco-Roman Dionysian and Mithraic mysteries, respectively, but the "Great Mother" goddess Isis would rise to great prominence in Roman times with her identity intact. Yet, all of this would be swept away with the rise of totalitarian Christian theocracy in the Fourth Century. The magnificent schools and libraries of the ancient world would be unceremoniously destroyed, as would many of the great ancient teachers. Hypatia, the last of the great Platonic scholars, would be tortured to death in a Christian church by a fanatical mob of monks in the Fifth Century. The result of this suppression was the poverty, violence, ignorance and disease of the Dark Ages. Unsurprisingly then, followers of the ancient Mysteries went underground. But the ancient teachings would reemerge in the Renaissance, and would soonafter give rise to powerful secret societies like Rosicrucians and the Freemasons.

A new flowering of the ancient Mysteries would come with the convulsions of the 19th Century, where millions of people were uprooted from the agrarian environment their families had known for ages and crowded into filthy, chaotic cities to work the "infernal machines" of the Industrial Revolution. This revolution created a social crisis of a scope unseen since the fall of Rome. At the same time, Charles Darwin's theories on the origin of species pulled the rug of cosmological certainty out from under the feet of the educated classes. Mankind didn't seem so special after all, and what's more, seemed destined to be replaced by smoke-spewing machines. It was in this environment that a group of eccentric thinkers turned once again to those dusty old books for an answer.

My book, Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes tells you exactly how the pipe dreams of Victorian mystics would eventually mutate and filter down in to the lowly comic book and then come to dominate the box office charts. It tells you exactly who helped bring the ancient gods back to life and dressed them to the nines in the latest synthetic fabrics. It tells you exactly why the idea of the superhero has become so compelling to the mainstream yet again. And it tells you exactly what brave new future superheroes may be unwittingly pointing to for the human race...
©2007 Christopher Knowles


I didn't realize just how much of an effect my pretending to be Doctor Strange when I was six (with, yes, cape, fake mustache and talcum-powered hair) really had on me as an adult until I read Christopher Knowles' Our Gods Wear Spandex, the definitive history of the comics and mysticism crossover. Finally something new for both comics and occult readers alike. --Richard Metzger, author of Disinformation: The Interviews and Book of Lies: The Disinformation Guide to Magick & the Occult

Knowles brings fresh insights to the enduring appeal and mysterious power of superheros. --Gerard Jones, author of Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book

You think superheros are something new? Wait'll you read the exciting spin that Knowles and Lisner put on them! --Stan Lee, co-creator of Spiderman, The Fantastic Four, The X-Men, The Hulk, Thor, and many other comic book heroes

Anyone who wants to investigate the archetypal and esoteric roots of comics-the secret history-could hardly do better than to read this encyclopedic and up-to-the-minute study. --Greg Garrett, Prof. of English, Baylor University, and author of Holy Superheroes! and The Gospel According to Hollywood

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Weiser Books; First Edition, 1st Printing edition (November 1, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1578634067
  • ISBN-13: 978-1578634064
  • Product Dimensions: 7.1 x 0.6 x 8.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #382,967 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
I wanted to like this book. Unfortunately, it reads like it was excerpted from Wikipedia articles, and I never felt the author had any real expertise or serious knowledge of the subject. The work is superficial at best, and in some cases wrong-headed. (For example, he lists Batman as being a Golem archetype. I have no idea where he's getting that crazed idea, even after reading it. The Thing, the Hulk maybe, but BATMAN?? No.) The brief section on female superheroes focuses a great deal on two things: 1) Marston (who created Wonder Woman) was into bondage and a polygamist, and 2) girls don't really read comics. Even though he quotes from The Great Women Superheroes (Trina Robbins - a must-read), I'm not sure HE read it with any real comprehension.

The connection to the mystic/religious is spare. He spends so much time discussing Madame Blavatsky and Aleister Crowley (and others) as well as various secret societies like the OTO, but never draws strong relationships from those mystic orders to the majority of the heroes he mentions. Superman is a Messiah figure. Hawkman comes from Egyptian mythology. But these assertions are not explored, examples are not given. I've had more in-depth conversations about these same characters in message boards.

Save your money and strike up a conversation with the folks at your local comic book shop.
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Format: Paperback
This is a great little book, which certainly puts the history of superheroics into a really new light and intellectual genealogy.

It was at its best when investigating the paradigms of mythological heroes, their influence on the pulps, and the influence of pulp material on golden age comics. There is a definite (and often demonstrable) influence at work here.

The book is far less convincing in substantiating some of the claims of a more direct influence of the occult milieu on early comics. One supposition is that Aleister Crowley was the model for Superman's enemy Lex Luthor. This is possible, but the evidence marshalled by Knowles to prove this is circumstancial and slight.

The other major claim, that Batman was 'linked to the Kabbalah' is product merely of Knowles' own definition of Batman as a 'Golem' style hero: no direct evidence from the comics or from Bob Kane's biography are cited in order to substantiate this claim. The 'link' is therefore a fabrication.

Concerning the earier sections of the book, which read breezily and very well, the research could have been substantially better. Some of the sources emplyed by Knowles to discuss the Golden Dawn, Rosicrucians, etc are rather dubious (Howard's 'The Occult Conspiracy' for example). This leads to some errors: for example Knowles states that both Bram Stoker and Sax Romer were members of the Golden Dawn, which is simply not true. He was here following a fabrication that first appeared in the 1960s (in Pauwels and Bergiers' 'The Morning of the Magicians')and has been repeated uncritically ever since.

Also, for readers who are not experienced comic fans (such as myself, a more helpful bibliography could have been included. It is all very well to know that Dr.
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As a long time student and lover of both comics and the mystic arts, I was happy to see a treatment of both topics together. I don't wanna sound like a know-it-all, but unfortunately, I mostly did know all this stuff already. To be fair, I did learn a couple of things; I didn't know that he term "horizon" is derived from the idea of "zones of Horus", the Egyptian sky god (um, assuming that's actually accurate). (Note: I've since checked my American Heritage dictionary and it doesn't say anything about Horus in tracing the origin of the word.)
But for the most part, the book is just a bunch of disconnected facts with their own sub-headings. It's like, "here's a brief description of key mythological characters", and I'm thinking, "Yeah, that's right..." and then, "Here's some brief descriptions of key comic characters and comics creators", and again, I'm thinking, "Okay, right...." and then it's, "Here's a quick review of some of the biggest, most well known ideas on the arcane, and brief reviews of the biggest, most well known figures in the history of magic" and once again, I'm thinking, "Uh-huh, yeah, right -- and??!"
But that's about it. The author traces some themes but the problem for me with all this is that he mostly never really ties it all together. He's essentially correct, as far as he goes, it's just that he doesn't go far enough (at least not for me). The vast majority of treatments are superficial, which would have been okay IF he had gone on to weave it all together, to theorize, to create, to give us something new! But no. Mostly it's just a light going-over of facts which anyone well versed in these subjects is likely to know already.
Despite this, I still give the book three stars ("good") and endorse it.
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An interesting yet somewhat uneven examination of the evolution and transformation of mythic heroes from ancient cultures to the present, with a focus on how the hero archetype has been interpreted and depicted in popular culture and media.

The thesis that comic book heroes are in many cases reinterpretations of archetypal heroes and superbeings is a natural one. This is examined through mythical and mystical themes explored in late 1800/early 1900 spiritual and occult societies, as well as in popular fantasy literature and the pulp magazines of early 20th century, which then led into the advent of the comic book heroes in the 1930's and 1940's.

The accompanying artwork by Joseph Michael Linser, although certainly super-heroic in style, was in some cases a bit twisted and kinky, which did not always mesh well with the content.

Knowles provides a wide-ranging and high-level romp through the heroic memes that have woven their way through our heroic story-tellings. I would have enjoyed a more in-depth examination of these themes, which Knowles excels at in his online output on his various blogs.
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