This book explores the concept of sovereignty through an analysis of superhero comics. Sovereignty is traditionally understood to be the legitimate monopoly on the use of force in a given territory. It is therefore a complex mix of authority, strength, law and violence, which are all used to a secure a physical and existential identity for a defined community. Another defining trait of the sovereign is the capacity to suspend the law and declare a state of emergency. Given that superheroes are themselves composites of authority, law and violence, while also being exceptional figures operating in a seemingly extra-legal space, they are perfect for working through the problems associated with the concept of sovereignty. However, rather than use superhero comics to simply illustrate the problems associated with sovereignty, the book argues that superhero comics—using a range of stories and characters from the Marvel and DC universes—explicitly engage with the themes in a critically reflexive and politically progressive way undermining the charge that they are simply conservative defenders of the status quo or dumb vigilantes. The book also argues that at the heart of superhero universes is a fundamental intuition about the contradictory nature of sovereignty, that it is at once both absolutely powerful and absolutely nihilating. The book claims that this intuition should inform our theories of what sovereignty means.
The introduction offers a brief definition of a superhero using the work of Peter Coogan, and the founding definition of sovereignty in Western political philosophy as outlined by Jean Bodin. It shows that the theory of sovereignty is based on issues of legitimacy, authority, power, law, violence, and states of emergency and that as such superhero comics are ideal for analysing the concept. It argues that superhero comics can offer critical and progressive meditations on the problem of sovereignty—as can be seen in Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come—while also presenting important considerations regarding the fundamental contradiction of absolute power that lies at its heart.
Contrary to the usual connection of Superman to Nietzsche’s Übermensch, this chapter offers a reading of Superman in relation to Plato’s conception of the Good. The connection is made via Superman’s association with the sun, which Plato describes as the ‘child of goodness’. This is done with a view to addressing the first problem in the theory of sovereignty, namely the legitimacy that seems to appear, as Schmitt argued, out of ‘nothingness’. Sovereign legitimacy has traditionally been attributed to the divine and hence miraculous, a source that persists even in the immanence of democratic rule. In this chapter I link this transcendent moment to Plato’s analysis of the Good to show who Superman is a character that always pushes us towards something better, and in this he is an avatar of social change and an alternative future.
This chapter continues the examination of sovereign legitimacy by looking at the figure of Captain America. Rather than Superman directing us towards the future, this chapter argues that Captain America directs us to beginnings. Primarily to the founding of the American Constitution. I argue that Captain America’s transcendence directs us to the promise enshrined in that constitution to preserve what Hannah Arendt calls a ‘space of appearance’ in which the freedom of initiating speech and action can be sustained. This space is irreducible to any government or social institution, which explains why Captain America is constantly at odds with the government he is supposed to represent. The chapter also addresses the nature of his patriotism and the supposed friends of America that he is regularly called on to defeat.
This chapter explores the central claim regarding the sovereign’s monopoly on violence. This monopoly is supposed to produce peace and hence sovereignty is understood to be pacific and yet the sovereign retains an intimate proximity to violence throughout a time of peace, most notable in the capacity to pronounce a death sentence on a criminal. The chapter explores the connection through the work of Robert Cover, Giorgio Agamben and Jacques Derrida, and is primarily focussed on the character of Batman. It examines the law’s violence as well as the proximity of the sovereign to the beast in order to destabilise the division between these supposedly antithetical principles.
This chapter analyses another very important couplet in the theory of sovereignty, namely the distinction that is drawn between the friend and the enemy. Although Schmitt argued this was necessary in a concrete situation, Derrida has argued that it is precisely concrete situations that begin to blur the clarity of the division. The chapter deconstructs the division using Derrida’s concepts of the pharmakon and autoimmunity, the condition where the bodies defences turn against it, while showing how superhero comics themselves regularly problematize any clear distinction. Although they are said to be stories based on good guys versus bad guys, the near unlimited power of the good guys is regularly shown to be as much of a danger as the villainy of the bad guys.
This chapter continues to interrogate a problem emerging out of the previous two chapters on law and violence, and the friend and enemy distinction, namely the capacity the sovereign has to suspend the law and declare a state of emergency when faced with an internal or external threat. Superheroes live in a permanent state of emergency so they are especially good for analysing this topic. It importantly addresses the extra-legal aspect of superhero activities to show why they are not vigilantes. Related to this is the creation of what Agamben has called ‘bare life’, the point when legal protections are lifted and people can be exposed to the full force of sovereign violence. This is explored in relation to the long story in Marvel that led to Norman Osborne heading the Avengers, and stories about Captain America, Hulk and Wolverine that exemplify the sovereign ban.
Another important aspect of sovereignty is the symbolic authority it represents. Here, the sovereign not only creates an identity for a people living within a territory, it also determines kinship structures and ways of being with each other. Ordinarily in relation to this topic the sovereign is likened to the despot, which is ancient Greek was the word used for the head of the house. The sovereign also represents a patriarchal order in which women are exchanged in the ritual of marriage and heterosexuality is the norm. Although superhero comics are rightly criticised for the sexism and the reproduction of patriarchal stereotypes this chapter argues that beneath the conservative surface superhero comics offer quite radical representations of kinship. This is explored by arguing that superheroes are totemic and that they represent all manner of what Donna Haraway calls ‘perverse couplings’. The chapter considers Wonder Woman, Scarlet Witch and The Vision, Swamp Thing and Abby.
This chapter returns to the problem with which chapter 1 opened namely the nothingness that accompanies the sovereign’s authority. While Schmitt tried to fill this nothingness up with divine beneficence, this chapter maintains the nothingness as a limitless void and considers how sovereignty projects this void outwards, constructing it as an all-consuming threat that the sovereign must test itself against. Using the work of Georges Bataille and Francois Flahault the chapter shows how superhero comics address the dangers of such apocalyptic projections. Looking for an alternative angle on this nothingness that accompanies the sovereign the chapter then turns to the work of Heidegger to think sovereignty in terms of the never ending historical struggle to make sense of the world. This culminates in the argument posited by Cornelius Castoriadis that at the root of our world-building is our sovereign imagination creating worlds from nothing. These issues are discussed via Watchmen and Promethea amongst others.
The postscript briefly reviews the argument so far, plotting the rise of the absolutely powerful sovereign and its ultimate collapse into the abyss that accompanies it, but which it constantly disavows. It returns to the issues of the imagination and story-telling briefly referring to a Grant Morrison story from Final Crisis in which the Overmonitor protects the pristine and blank Overvoid only to find it is already stained with the stories of the DC multiverse. The postscript reflects on the feedback loop between stories and reality to ask creators to continue on the path of diverse story-telling in order to create a more diverse world sensitive to issues of ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.