MuggleNet Academia: Harry Potter as Comic Book Super Hero!

Washington and Lee University Associate Professor Christopher Gavaler is a novelist, short story writer and playwright by day in addition to his work in the classroom, but in his other worldly secret identity as ‘The Patron Saint of Super Heroes‘ he champions the serious reading of that lowest of genre writing, the super hero comic book.

Actually, he does that in the classroom, too, believe it or not, but I think you get my point.

Prof Gavaler joined me. Corentin Faniel of St. Andrews, and MuggleNet’s Keith Hawk to discuss his insights about the Hogwarts Saga when read as a comic book super hero piece, Read his blog post on the subject first and then listen in to a rollicking discussion of everything from Harry’s super powers and secret identity to what The Harry Potter Alliance and the Ku Klux Klan have in common (a lot more than you’d think, I’m guessing!). Voldemort and the greatest of all Super Villians? Oh, yeah. And Northrup Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism as well.

It was a real pleasure talking with Prof Gavaler about what makes stories work and how the power of Harry Potter and the best in comic book fiction relate to one another.


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  1. Louise Freeman says

    Ooooh! I can’t wait for this one. I was a huge comic book fan back in my grad school/postdoc days, though don’t follow most of the ones I used to. My one attempt at semi-professional fiction writing was about a super-hero team. Maybe John should read it sometime and see if I accidentally inserted any literary alchemy or ring structure in it.

  2. Another great podcast, as always! A lot of the conversation reminded me of things I’ve heard about Campbell’s hero journey. Is there anything apart from the secret identity/special name, costume, and symbol, that makes a hero like Luke Skywalker into a hero like Batman? Or, like Gavaler suggested, is it all merely context?

    Related question: Are superheroes required to be superheroes and perform their feats in our (muggle) world? Most of the superheroes I can think of fight mostly on Earth, or at least, to protect Earth.

  3. Miles365, I’d say Luke has the vigilante thing going too (as do all the rebels), plus definite superpowers, but I don’t think he, unlike Harry, ultimately falls into the superhero category. His father, however, is a definite supervillain in the reversed superhero sense. Superpowered orphan who takes a new name, Dark Vader, that disguises his old identity, Anakin Skywalker. He’s even masked and caped. No symbol, though his costume itself is symbolic of his horrific injury/transformation which is the core of his origin story.

    As far as Earth-based superhero adventuring, that does seem to be the standard. Though there are some almost-superhero exceptions like John Carter and Flash Gordon. And I can imagine the formula being applied to other settings. Some other early characters, Zorro, Scarlet Pimpernel and Buck Rodgers, are Earth-based but removed to different time periods. WW2 comic book superheroes, however, were designed to be in the here and now to fight fascism.

  4. Louise M. Freeman says

    I listened to the podcast yesterday and really enjoyed it. I thnk Dr. Galaver made his points quite well. I, too, was a superhero geek at one point in my life though, interestingly comics were never my favorites… on the rare occasion when I could find novelizations of Batman/Superman (I was basically a DC purist) stories I tended to far prefer them.

    Interestingly, I always was more attracted to the kid sidekicks than the heroes themselves. My all-time favorite series was the Wolfman-Perez Teen Titans of the 80’s… once the kids ditched the grown-ups and teamed up for themselves.

    Harry is in a way a twist on the theme because he becomes the superhero at a young age… the age most of the traditional superheros are still training as sidekicks. And, while his “skin protection” conferred by his mother’s love is one “super-power”… her actually has two more that come not from that love but from Voldemort himself. The accidental horcrux that Voldy put in Harry’s scar gave him both the power to read the Dark Lord’s mind and made it impossible for Voldy to kill him, even when he was out of his mother’s protection, a la his wand’s autonomous gold sparks that were shot during the flight from Privet Drive. Another common theme is the superhero accidentally creating his worst enemy (Batman creating the Joker by dunking him in acid); here we have the supervillain creating the hero that will ultimately defeat him.

    The end result is that, once Voldy is dead, Harry’s special powers are gone, as is his secret identity as the Durslesy’s disturbed nephew. I would argue that he was a superhero, but got to retire at age 17 (and was no doubt quite glad to do so!) Yes, he became an Auror, and was presumably a very good one, but by then he had no special advantage over the others (other than perhaps a better-than-average invisibility cloak) and was probably no more spectacular than Moody in his prime, or Kingsley Shacklebolt. Thus, while most comic-book heroes fight a “never-ending battle against evil,” Harry effectively won his.

  5. Louise, thank you so much for the additional superhero analysis! I quite agree about Harry’s additional powers, and his age does put him right in line with the TeenTitans, DC’s response to Marvel’s X-Men (itself a school like Hogwarts), and a continuation of the teen superhero line that Lee started with Spider-Man and the Human Torch.

    But I’m most impressed about your point that Harry effectively retires from superheroing. That’s actually the biggest difference, and one that’s a product of formal structure and publishing context. Rowling plotted a series with a set ending. Harry is not a serial character like traditional comic book characters who are perpetually trapped in the middle of their character arcs because their publishers want to continue selling new issues indefinitely. I’m sure Scholastic would love to have a Harry Potter Book 8, 9, 10, etc, and certainly the market would devour them, but Rowling had a different vision.

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