Ultimate Evil: Cultural Sociology and the Birth of the Supervillain

By guest contributor Albert Hawks, Jr.

In June 1938, editor Jack Leibowitz found himself in a time crunch. Needing to get something to the presses, Leibowitz approved a recent submission for a one-off round of prints. The next morning, Action Comics #1 appeared on newsstands. On the cover, a strongman in bright blue circus tights and a red cape was holding a green car above his head while people ran in fear. Other than the dynamic title “ACTION COMICS”, there was no text explaining the scene. In an amusing combination of hubris and prophecy, the last panel of Action Comics #1 proclaimed: “And so begins the startling adventures of the most sensational strip character of all time!” Superman was born.


Comics are potentially incomparable resources given the cultural turn in the social sciences (a shift in the humanities and social sciences in the late 20th century toward a more robust study of culture and meaning and away from positivism). The sheer volume of narrative—somewhere in the realm of 10,000 sequential Harry Potter books– and social saturation—approximately 91-95% of people between the ages of six and eleven in 1944 read comics regularly according to a 1944 psychological study—remain singular today (Lawrence 2002, Parsons 1991).

Cultural sociology has shown us that “myth and narrative are elemental meaning-making structures that form the bases of social life” (Woodward, 671). In a lecture on Giacometti’s Standing Woman, Jeffrey Alexander pushes forward a way of seeing iconic experiences as central, salient components of social life. He argues:

 Iconographic experience explains how we feel part of our social and physical surroundings, how we experience the reality of the ties that bind us to people we know and people we don’t know, and how we develop a sense of place, gender, sexuality, class, nationality, our vocation, indeed our very selves (Alexander, 2008, 7).

He further suggests these experiences informally establish social values (Alexander, 2008, 9). Relevant to our purposes, Alexander stresses Danto’s work on “disgusting” and “offensive” as aesthetic categories (Danto, 2003) and Simmel’s argument that “our sensations are tied to differences” with higher and lower values (Simmel, 1968).

This suggests that theoretically the comic book is a window into pre-existing, powerful, and often layered morals and values held by the American people that also in turn helped build cultural moral codes (Brod, 2012; Parsons, 1991).

The comic book superhero, as invented and defined by the appearance of Superman, is a highly culturally contextualized medium that expresses particular subgroups’ anxieties, hopes, and values and their relationship to broader American society.

But this isn’t a history of comics, accidental publications, or even the most famous hero of all time. As Ursula LeGuin says, “to light a candle is to cast a shadow.” It was likely inevitable that the superhero—brightest of all the lights—would necessarily cast a very long shadow. Who after all could pose a challenge to Superman? Or what could occupy the world’s greatest detective? The world needed supervillains. The emergence of the supervillain offers a unique slice of moral history and a potentially powerful way to investigate the implicit cultural codes that shape society.

I want to briefly trace the appearance of recurring villains in comic books and note what their characteristics suggest about latent concepts of evil in society at the time. Given our limited space, I’m here only considering the earliest runs of the two most iconic heroes in comics: Superman (Action Comics #1-36) and Batman (Detective Comics #27-; Batman #1-4).

Ultra First AppearanceInitially, Superman’s enemies were almost exclusively one-off problems tied to socioeconomic situations. It wasn’t until June 1939 that readers met the first recurring comic book villain: the Ultrahumanite. Pursuing a lead on some run-of-the-mill racketeers, Superman comes across a bald man in a wheel chair: “The fiery eyes of the paralyzed cripple burn with terrible hatred and sinister intelligence.” His “crippled” status is mentioned regularly. The new villain wastes no time explaining that he is “the head of a vast ring of evil enterprises—men like Reynolds are but my henchmen” (Reynolds is a criminal racketeer introduced earlier in the issue), immediately signaling something new in comics. The man then formally introduces himself, not bothering with subtlety.

I am known as the ‘Ultra-humanite’. Why? Because a scientific experiment resulted in my possessing the most agile and learned brain on earth! Unfortunately for mankind, I prefer to use this great intellect for crime. My goal? Domination of the world!!

In issue 20, Superman discovers that, somehow, Ultra has become a woman. He explains to the Man of Steel: “Following my instructions, they kidnapped Dolores Winters yesterday and placed my mighty brain in her young vital body!” (Action Comics 20).

ultra dolores winters

Superman found his first recurring foil in unfettered intellect divorced from physicality. It’s hard not to wonder if this reflected a general distrust of the ever-increasing destructive power of science as World War II dawned. It’s also fascinating to note how consistently the physical status of the Ultrahumanite is emphasized, suggesting a deep social desire for physical strength, confidence, and respect.

After Ultra’s death, our hero would not be without a domineering, brilliant opponent for long. Action Comics 23 saw the advent of Lex Luthor. First appearing as an “incredibly ugly vision” of a floating face and lights, Luthor’s identity unfolds as a mystery. Superman pursues a variety of avenues, finding only a plot to draw countries into war and thugs unwilling to talk for fear of death. Lois actually encounters Luthor first, describing him as a “horrible creature”. When Luthor does introduce himself, it nearly induces déjà vu: “Just an ordinary man—but with the brain of a super-genius! With scientific miracles at my fingertips, I’m preparing to make myself supreme master of th’ world!”

dr deathThe Batman develops his first supervillain at nearly the same time as Superman. In July 1939, one month after the Ultrahumanite appeared, readers are introduced to Dr. Death. Dr. Death first appears in a lavish study speaking with a Cossack servant (subtly implying Dr. Death is anti-democratic) about the threat Batman poses to their operations. Death is much like what we would now consider a cliché of a villain—he wears a suit, has a curled mustache and goatee, a monocle, and smokes a long cigarette while he plots. His goal: “To extract my tribute from the wealthy of the world. They will either pay tribute to me or die.” Much like Superman’s villains, he uses science—chemical weapons in particular—to advance these sinister goals. In their second encounter, Batman prevails and Dr. Death appears to burn to death. Of course, in comics the dead rarely stay that way; Dr. Death reappears the very next issue, his face horribly scarred.

hugostrangeThe next regularly recurring villain to confront Batman appears in February 1940. Batman himself introduces the character to the reader: “Professor Hugo Strange. The most dangerous man in the world! Scientist, philosopher, and a criminal genius… little is known of him, yet this man is undoubtedly the greatest organizer of crime in the world.” Elsewhere, Strange is described as having a “brilliant but distorted brain” and a “malignant smile”. While he naturally is eventually captured, Strange becomes one of Batman’s most enduring antagonists.

The very next month, in Batman #1, another iconic villain appears: none other than the Joker himself.

Once again a master criminal stalks the city streets—a criminal weaving a web of death about him… leaving stricken victims behind wearing a ghastly clown’s grin. The sign of death from the Joker!

Also utilizing chemicals for his plots, the Joker is portrayed as a brilliant, conniving plotter who leads the police and Batman on a wild hunt. Unique to the Joker among the villains discussed is his characterization as a “crazed killer” with no aims of world power. The Joker wants money and murder. He’s simply insane.


Some striking commonalities appear across our two early heroes’ comics. First, physical “flaws” are a critical feature. These deformities are regularly referenced, whether disability, scarring, or just a ghastly smile. Second, virtually all of these villains are genius-level intellects who use science to pursue selfish goals. And finally, among the villains, superpowers are at best a secondary feature, suggesting a close tie between physical health, desirability, and moral superiority. Danto’s aesthetic categories of “disgusting” and “offensive” certainly ring true here.

This is remarkably revealing and likely connected to deep cultural moral codes of the era. If Superman represents the “ideal type,” supervillains such as the Ultrahumanite, Lex Luthor, and the Joker are necessary and equally important iconic representations of those deep cultural moral codes. Such a brief overview cannot definitively draw out the moral world as revealed through comics and confirmed in history. Rather, my aims have been more modest: (1) to trace the history of the birth of the supervillain, (2) to draw a connective line between the strong cultural program, materiality, and comic books, and (3) to suggest the utility of comics for understanding the deep moral codes that shape a society. Cultural sociology allows us to see comics in a new light: as an iconic representation of culture that both reveals preexisting moral codes and in turn contributes to the ongoing development of said moral codes that impact social life. Social perspectives on evil are an actively negotiated social construct and comics represent a hyper-stylized, exceedingly influential, and unfortunately neglected force in this negotiation.

Albert Hawks, Jr. is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where he is a fellow with the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies. He holds an M.Div. and S.T.M. from Yale University. His research concerns comparative Islamic social movements in Southeast and East Asia in countries where Islam is a minority religion, as well as in the American civil sphere.

Socialism and Power: Axel Honneth in Paris

by guest contributor Jacob Hamburger

When asked about his political orientation, for many years Axel Honneth would reply almost automatically, “I think I’m a socialist.” Yet as he recounted recently at Columbia University’s global center in Paris, each time he gave this answer, the less he knew precisely what he was saying. This dissatisfaction with his own political identification was part of what motivated his newest book The Idea of Socialism (Die Idee des Sozialismus) which appears in French later this year. As Honneth also explained, the book also furnishes a response to the widespread belief in recent decades that socialism is dead. Though Margaret Thatcher had already captured this belief in the 1980s with her remark that “there is no alternative,” the fall of the Soviet Union has made it more and more tempting to give up on socialism over the last two decades. Though he could not be sure precisely what socialism stood for, Honneth knew that this was a hasty pronouncement. His book therefore attempts to look within the tradition of socialist thought in order to sort the living from the dead, to find something in this tradition that we can take seriously as a political goal in 2017.


Axel Honneth

Honneth’s answer is to separate the “normative idea” of socialism from its outmoded theoretical framework. The original founders of socialism—from Owen, Fourier, and other utopian thinkers of the 1820s and ‘30s, up to Karl Marx—believed that capitalism prevented the realization of the French Revolution’s ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Capitalism’s understanding of liberty proved overly individualistic and antagonistic, establishing a personal sphere in which others are barred from intervening. The normative thread that Honneth sees running through all of great socialist thought is the idea of a “social freedom” accomplished through cooperation rather than competition. Social freedom is based on an idea of mutual recognition (the subject of much of Honneth’s work), in which one person’s freedom depends on that of the other. As a result, social freedom would allow the ideals of equality and fraternity to fully flourish. Since capitalism has imposed its idea of freedom through the institutions of the economy, socialists have sought to reshape the economy in order to make social freedom a reality.

Though social freedom is an old idea, forged in the aftermath of the French Revolution, it is no less applicable today as a normative concept than it was two hundred years ago. As Honneth sees it, however, socialism’s greatest weakness is an outdated understanding of social relations. He identifies three main flaws with this nineteenth-century theoretical outlook: economism, the belief that the economy is the sphere that determines a society’s basic character; “ouvrierism,” the fixation on the industrial working class as the agent of social change; and determinism, the assumption that history follows general law-like tendencies. Economism, ouvrierism, and determinism have not only blinded socialist thinkers to new possibilities in a changing social world, but also led them to dismiss the value of political liberties and erect a cult of the proletariat and the planned economy. While there may have been good reasons to hold these beliefs in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, Honneth urges scrapping socialism’s theoretical framework in favor of a more sociologically nuanced view of the modern world, along with a Deweyan “experimentalist” approach to social change.


Polity (2016)

This critique of the left’s insufficient understanding of the social is a thread that stretches throughout Honneth’s philosophical career. In the doctoral dissertation that became his landmark 1985 work Kritik der Macht, he was inspired by the new approaches of Jürgen Habermas and Michel Foucault to account for this dimension of human reality that he believed had been lost on, for example, the founders of the Frankfurt School. Their accounts of “communicative rationality” and “micropower,” respectively, provided a more convincing philosophical account of the sphere of social conflict and cooperation than Honneth found in the Marxist tradition.

A young scholar in 1970s Berlin, as Honneth recounted in another recent talk in Paris on the occasion of the first French translation of Kritik der Macht, he still found that the left was stuck between two unattractive theories of power. The first was that of Theodor Adorno, who saw power as something so totalizing and fearsome that no resistance could hope to stand against it; the other was captured by Foucault, for whom power and resistance were equally intertwined in every aspect of social life, no matter how minute. Despite his admiration for both thinkers, it was clear to Honneth that neither’s approach corresponded to the complexity of social reality. At the same time as he began to absorb the insights of empirical sociology, he was also drawn to return to Hegel and the notion that each society in history has its own guiding spirit. Honneth’s take on this historical relativism was the opposite of that of some followers of Foucault. He saw the way that concrete societies initiate individuals into their ways of life not as a form of domination, but rather as a positive affirmation, and following Habermas, he insisted on the indispensability of normative discourse.

Any socialism arising out of this philosophical perspective—with its deep empirical and normative streaks and its refusal of dualistic categories—invites the label of “reformism.” For some on the far left, Honneth’s program may not look like socialism at all (as he tells it, his critics have long branded him the Eduard Bernstein of the Frankfurt School). The alternative between reform and revolution is another dichotomy that Honneth rejects as a vestige of socialism’s outdated past. Analytically speaking, he is right to do so. But as with all of the conceptual errors Honneth skillfully dismisses, one indeed begins to wonder to what extent socialism can rid itself of the categories that have historically defined it, no matter how erroneous these have often been.

The current troubles of the French Parti socialiste are a case in point. The party has moved away from an outmoded fixation on the working class and a planned economy, perhaps necessary moves, only to find that it has lost its base of committed socialist voters. Perhaps the greatest weakness of Honneth’s attempt to revitalize socialism is that, precisely as a result of its open-mindedness and conceptual soundness, it risks cutting itself off from actually existing traditions of socialist thought. Honneth might do well to begrudgingly accept to fit his socialism into the “reformist” heritage.

The French sociologist Bruno Karsenti responded to Honneth’s presentation with the following question: do we need socialism in order to combat the neoliberalism and neo-nationalism of today’s politics, or is it rather an obstacle towards fighting these trends? Honneth’s answer was characteristically clearheaded, pointing out the ways in which neoliberal globalization and anti-global nationalism have worked together. As the market has expanded across the globe, those who suffer from the new economic order have transferred their frustrations onto liberal cosmopolitanism, which is a political and moral ideal rather than economic. Honneth sees potential for socialism, rightly understood, to cut between these two tendencies. Freed of its economism, it can address material inequality while both taking seriously the cultural specificity of each community, and articulating the various responsibilities between peoples. Specifically, he calls for a “European socialism,” and hopes one day to see various forms of “Asian” or “African” socialism emerge. Honneth presents an attractive balance between socialism as a universal idea of justice—à la John Rawls—and an understanding of how freedom emerges from cooperation within a concrete society. Hearing his presentation of its prospects for the future, a thoughtful person open to the nuances and complexity of society is tempted to say with Honneth, “I think I’m a socialist.” On reflection, however, Honneth’s attempt to justify socialism’s living reality may have only made more apparent the uncertainty built into this thought. His is a philosopher’s socialism, which will live on at the very least in the project of self-critique.

Jacob Hamburger is a graduate student in political philosophy and intellectual history at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. He has written on the history of neoconservative thought in the United States, and is currently writing a masters thesis on the idea of the “end of ideology.” He is an editor of the Journal of Politics, Religion, and Ideology, and his writing and translations have appeared in publications such as the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Tocqueville Review, and Charlie Hebdo.