Book Review: Mutants & Mystics

Mutants & Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormalby Jeffrey J. KripalUniversity of Chicago Press, 2012One only has to read that Jeffrey Kripal is the J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Philosophy and Religious Thought and Chair of Religious Studies at Rice University to know that he must be fairly adept at generating twaddle, but even a loin-girded reader will be bowled over by the sheer amount of twaddle on display in Kripal's new book Mutants & Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal. Kripal intends the book to be a discussion of the many intersections between the world of the paranormal ('remote-viewing,' alien abduction, precognition, and the like) and the world of four-color superhero comics and their various themes (super-powered aliens, mutants, etc.). Several comic book creators over the last century - including towering figures like Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith - have held fervent beliefs in the paranormal, and Kripal energetically tells their stories. Even readers well-versed in comic book history will find some thought-provoking connections and suggestions in these pages (thick, high-quality pages - the University of Chicago Press spared no expense in the crafting of this book).Unfortunately, readers will also find twaddle, great heaping piles of it. Some of this is perhaps unavoidable when dealing with such loopy subject matter, but Kripal certainly contributes his fair share. He pays lip service to the subjectivity of personal mystical experience, but he's clearly spent too much time among the convinced - again and again in his book, he slips from observing what his subjects believe to believing it all himself. This is certainly his right, but it destroys his credibility with the non-loopy segment of his audience, the people who don't believe in real-life superpowers, or real-life mystical experiences, or real-life alien abductions. He starts off his book with worshipful gushings about Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, two of the biggest fruit-loops in the comics world, and he just keeps going from there. We don't learn that self-professed psychic Joseph McMoneagle believed he had the mystic ability of 'remote viewing' (i.e. 'seeing' things far removed from his physical location) - we're told that he has that ability, even though neither he nor anybody else has ever demonstrated it under anything resembling controlled circumstances. Kripal can only do so much with pro forma attempts at professional distancing:

 As a civilian with no military or scientific background, I cannot make any claims about the details of the remote-viewing narrative, much less the fundamental principles of quantum physics. So I won't.

But of course he already has: the most fundamental 'claim' someone can make about 'the remote-viewing narrative' is that it happens at all, and Kripal has no trouble making that claim. Likewise the segment of his book on science fiction writer Whitley Strieber, who for decades has claimed he was abducted by aliens, probed and violated, and then released with enough material for six bestsellers. Strieber's claims have obvious resonances for Kripal's subject, but who can pay any attention to that when Kripal is actually telling us that aliens really did swoop down and abduct some random human:

Then, on December 26, 1985, the author's world turned upside down. On that night, he experienced a dramatic abduction by a group of transphysical beings in upstate New York in his own forest cabin-home.

A small consolation would be available if the non-hallucinatory reader could turn from these sections to some good analysis of superhero comics, but such a reader would reckon without what we'll christen Kripal's Law: if an academic begins his book on superhero comics by telling the reader what a life-long fan of the genre he is, the book will be full of preposterous mistakes about that same genre. As one would expect, Kripal's Law applies abundantly to Kripal: Mutants & Mystics has a wince-worthy mistake on virtually every page.These range from offhand statements that are wrong ("Wolverine spent some time in Japan as a boy" and so on) to offhand claims that are wrong (at one point Kripal tells us that the 'wraparound' eyes of Spider-Man's costume are the second most-recognizable superhero icon, only beat out by Superman's 'S' shield - apparently forgetting a certain bat-symbol that, recent studies have shown, babies recognize while still in utero) to more elaborate discussions that are also wrong, as when Kripal describes the debt subsequent writers owe to Charles Fort, who coined the word "teleport":

That word he coined, "teleport," would have a long history in later science fiction. Any story that now employs it - from the "beam me up" of Star Trek, through the teleporting X-Men character of Nightcrawler, to the 2008 movie Jumper - is indebted to Charles Fort, whether he's acknowledged or not. Indeed, Jumper is based on a serialized 1950s sci-fi novel called The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester, which features a power called "Jaunting."

The movie Jumper was of course based on the Steven Gould novel Jumper, not on The Stars My Destination. Readers barking their shins on errors of this frequency and magnitude will be sorely tempted to hurl this book at the nearest basset hound.Frustration here is well-merited, mainly because it feels inevitable. Condescension is so fundamentally woven into any 'professional' evaluation of superhero comics that fans of those comics become almost inured to the blunders that only condescension can produce. Books like Mutants & Mystics are inherently insulting, because their premise belies their provenance: comics might be the alleged subject, but c'mon, comics themselves are just too trivial, too insubstantial, to merit careful or consistent study - instead, comics must be subjected to their own alien abduction, ham-handedly probed and studied by aliens with ulterior motives.Comic book readers hoping for some serious discussion of their genre will need to look elsewhere for it. Or better yet, they could re-read "The Dark Phoenix Saga" - Marvel's giving it a nifty new reprint.