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“Comico, Ergo Sum”

Nathaniel Goldberg & Chris Gavaler say philosophers should read Descartoons.

What if an evil genius is tricking you into believing that the word around you is real when it really isn’t? What if on an alternate Earth everything is identical but for one almost undetectable detail? What if trying to travel to the past transported you to a different universe instead? What if a mad scientist has removed your brain and is keeping it alive in a vat of nutrients? What if lightning struck a dead tree in a swamp and transformed it into the Swampman?

Any of these fantastical plots could be the premise of a superhero comic. Indeed, Stan Lee sometimes gave writers at Marvel Comics no more to work with – just a note on a piece of paper or a plot point mentioned on the way to his desk. Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko would work out the details. Except none of those scenarios comes from comics: they’re all thought experiments written by highly regarded philosophers: René Descartes, Hilary Putnam, David Lewis, Hilary Putnam (again), and Donald Davidson respectively.

Fantastical concepts are a staple of philosophy. The philosopher Peg Tittle includes 126 in her 2005 book, What If… Collected Thought Experiments in Philosophy. Philosophers could fill volumes more: David Chalmers writes about zombies; Laurence BonJour about clairvoyants; Frank Jackson about a scientifically all-knowing woman who’s never seen color. The list of ‘What Ifs?’ seems endless. What if your body slowly transformed into rock, but no one around you noticed? What if a god were stripped of his memories and forced to live as a crippled human? What if a time traveler returned to his childhood and told his past self about the future? What if you could save the world, but had to sacrifice millions of people first? What if you and all the universe were just the thoughts of a small child?

Except these scenarios don’t come from academic philosophy. They’re all from superhero comics: The Fantastic Four, The Mighty Thor, The Defenders, Watchmen, and Heroes Reborn: The Return. But they’re no more fantastical than the scenarios philosophers have been dreaming up for decades and centuries.

Arguably many superhero comics resemble philosophical thought experiments. The writers of Marvel and DC and others can be understood as philosophers, and their comics as works of philosophy. Conversely, many of philosophy’s experiments could be adapted into a superhero comic.

So what gives? Why the similarity between philosophy and comics? And why should philosophers read comics?

Philosophers commonly conceive of fantasy situations which nevertheless reveal lessons for us. Those conceived-of situations are thought experiments – the ‘What Ifs’. Yet professional philosophers aren’t always the best at creating thought experiments. Plato wrote semi-fictionalized dialogues, but most philosophers, before and since, write essays, treatises, or technical books, and even Plato’s dialogues are often short on narrative detail. As the philosopher Ross P. Cameron says, “a typical fiction tends to be much longer than your typical [philosophical] thought experiment, and hence can present you with a more detailed scenario” (Midwest Studies in Philosophy 39, 2015). Philosophers Johan de Smedt and Helen de Cruz argue that although both typical philosophical thought experiments and fiction rely on similar cognitive mechanisms, fiction generally “allows for a richer exploration of philosophical positions than is possible through ordinary philosophical thought experiments” (Ibid) – not only because it’s more developed, but also because readers of fiction are emotionally immersed in a way that readers of philosophy usually aren’t (as cognitive research confirms), so readers take the scenarios more seriously.

So professional philosophers can recognize the worth of various kinds of fiction; some even specifically contrast typical philosophical thought experiments with the longer scenarios in traditional science fiction and fantasy novels. The point, however, applies even better to comics. While traditional novels employ words to express ideas, comics employ both words and images, so reading a comic operates on an additional cognitive level. It can therefore be both more immersive and more challenging. Smedt and Cruz say: “Regardless of whether they are outlandish or realistic, philosophical thought experiments lack features that speculative fiction typically has, including vivid, seemingly irrelevant details that help to transport the reader and encourage low-level, concrete thinking.” If non-graphic speculative fiction does this, then superhero comics do so even more. This is why philosophers would be wise to read comics: rather than merely tracking lifeless principles or desiccated descriptions, comics can get us to experience flesh and blood characters interacting in landscapes, cityscapes, spacescapes, and beyond. Instead of abstractly considering conceptions of justice, DC has us pit Superman against Batman. While academic philosophers speak obliquely about metaphysical and moral ‘Twin Earths’, DC fills in the details of worlds like Bizarro World and Earths 1, 2, and 3. Rather than simply comparing and contrasting metaphysical views of time, Marvel vividly illustrates the adventures of Dr Doom in his time machine.

Like the characters that they often feature, comics are powerful – culturally. That’s partly because they’re culturally pervasive. DC and Marvel have together published over 30,000 different issues in the last eight decades, some selling millions of copies. Recently the market has shrunk, so hits of the last decade reach only a quarter million; but superhero comics continue to exercise their power through TV and Hollywood franchises. The Avengers movies are four of the top ten highest grossing movies in history. Superhero comics aren’t just financially powerful, however: they’re also philosophically powerful, because they’re so immersive. When we’re caught up in their stories, we’re caught up with their ideas — and those ideas stay with us in ways that only narratives can. Philosophy-trained comics scholar James McLaughlin argues that: “When other planets are explored, or when the hero travels back or forward in time, or when worlds upon worlds are invented, there is metaphysics and epistemology and logic. Comics can’t help but be philosophical” (International Journal of Comic Art 11, 2009). So, with apologies to René Descartes, it’s not just that ‘I think, therefore I am’: I read comics, therefore I am, too.

© Nathaniel Goldberg and Chris Gavaler 2020

Nathaniel Goldberg is a Professor of Philosophy, and Chris Gavaler is Associate Professor of English, at W&L University, Lexington, Virginia. They are the authors of Superhero Thought Experiments: Comic Book Philosophy (University of Iowa Press, 2019).

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