In his 2010 book Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred, Rice University professor of religious studies Jeffrey J. Kripal criticized his fellow scholars for their failure to take claims of the paranormal as seriously as the supernatural beliefs of mainstream religious devotees. In one of his wittier observations, Kripal noted that one reason to investigate belief in the paranormal is that such ideas permeate popular culture, including our “science fiction, superhero comic books, fantasy, and especially film,” meaning that even “if elite intellectuals … don’t buy this stuff, almost everyone else does, literally.”
Kripal also promised that this would be the topic of his next book: Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal (2011, University of Chicago Press). Though not nearly as controversial as Authors of the Impossible, it only seemed appropriate that I also take a look at Mutants and Mystics on the occasion of its tenth anniversary.
The first thing one notices about Mutants and Mystics is that it’s beautifully designed. Coming in at 370 pages, its striking cover recalls the cosmic artwork of legendary comic artist Jack Kirby, whose work is prominently featured within. The interior features numerous splashes of color with the font alternating between black, blue, and red, as well as 59-full color images, most of which are reproductions of classic comic book covers and pages. As far as academic publications go, Mutants and Mystics is on par with Loxton and Prothero’s Abominable Science (2013) and Scribner’s Merpeople (2020) in terms of simply being a gorgeous looking book.
But you know what they say about judging a book by its cover.
In my retrospective on Authors of the Impossible, I concluded that Kripal had a strong argument – that scholars should be willing to examine paranormal beliefs – marred by an insistence on approaching the topic from a metaphysical perspective. As a companion piece, Mutants and Mystics demonstrates just how deeply flawed such a methodological approach is, resulting in a book filled with erroneous claims, spurious suppositions, and wild extrapolations.
In the introduction – called “Origins” – Kripal states that he wants to use Mutants and Mystics to “explore … some of the mythical themes and paranormal currents of American popular culture,” ideas which have their origin in “the history of the religious imagination, but have now taken on new scientific or parascientific forms.” Kripal also says that he doesn’t want to merely examine “how superhero comics draw deeply on ancient myths and modern occultism in order to reshape them for the contemporary world,” but rather to “take this project two steps further by showing how these modern mythologies can be fruitfully read as cultural transformations of real-life paranormal experiences.”
To illustrate what exactly he means by this, Kripal relates a story told to him by veteran comic book writer Douglas Moench, creator of the occult superhero Moon Knight. In the late 1970s, Moench was at home writing a scene for an upcoming Planet of the Apes comic, in which a human woman was being held at gunpoint by a gorilla. After finishing the scene, Moench heard his wife cry for help and rushed to find her held at gunpoint by a burglar. To Kripal, this coincidence suggests that by writing the scene, Moench had unintentionally conjured it into existence, thus becoming the author of his own reality.
Kripal’s fascination with cases like Moench’s, or those that he perceives as similar, make up half of Mutants and Mystics’ contents, beginning with Chapter 5, which profiles Otto Binder. Co-creator of DC’s Supergirl and writer of Captain Marvel in the 1940s, Binder started off as a skeptic writing science fiction about UFOs, and eventually became a believer and advocate of the Ancient Astronauts hypothesis. Not surprisingly, Philip K. Dick – who also came to believe his own fiction was infecting his objective reality – is the subject of Chapter 6, while Chapter 7 looks at horror author-turned ufologist Whitley Strieber, whose 1987 “non-fiction” bestseller Communion: A True Story purports to be based on his own encounters with non-human entities (he never calls them aliens).
The four chapters which occupy the front half of Mutants and Mystics are less focused and harder to make sense of. Chapter 1 deals with Hollow Earth theories, the possibly nonexistent secret society of Rosicrucians, and the rise of Theosophy. Fans will likely notice that many of the concepts discussed by Kripal in this chapter regularly show up in comics, but Kripal does nothing to make such connections explicit for non-comics readers, besides pointing out that in their first appearance, the Fantastic Four fought a monster that crawled out from inside the earth.
Chapters 2 and 3 mostly look at the Ancient Astronaut hypothesis as a recurring theme in comics, especially as seen in the work of Jack Kirby. Kirby characters like the superhero Thor, the supervillain Galactus, Marvel’s The Eternals, and DC’s New Gods are all indebted to the idea of god-like extraterrestrials visiting Earth. Like Binder, Kirby also seems to have bought into the idea of Ancient Astronauts as a reality. But rather than focusing on this, Kripal abruptly shifts gears midway through Chapter 3 to talk about paranormal author John Keel, with his only justification being, “I suspect that Jack Kirby was reading John Keel,” a supposition for which no evidence is ever offered.
Kripal offers an even more groundless set of suppositions when he erroneously claims in Chapter 2 that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster based Superman on a prior character of theirs named Doctor Occult, thus also making Superman an occult superhero, as evident by the fact that he comes from the planet “Krypton” which, like the word occult, means “hidden.” This of course flies in the face of all accepted history of Superman, whose development actually predates that of Doctor Occult, who simply appeared in print first.
Chapter 4 is similarly disjointed, beginning and ending with a discussion of Marvel’s X-Men and the important role that psychic powers play in that series. Most of the chapter, though, is devoted to retelling the supposedly real-life stories of psychic soldiers and spies, as chronicled by such dubious characters as Hal Puthoff, Albert Stubblebine, and John B. Alexander. Kripal acknowledges the unreliability of these narrators and the impossibilities of their stories, but nevertheless seems to want to have things both ways by suggesting that on some subjective level, their experiences may be genuine.
I feel the need to reiterate that I agree with Kripal’s core thesis that scholars need to take paranormal beliefs seriously, while also being frustrated with Kripal’s approach to the topic via an embracing of the very metaphysics he is supposedly seeking to study. Such an approach is simply solipsistic, and accomplishes nothing but adding further misinformation to an already confusing subject. Those interested in exploring the intersection between the paranormal and popular-culture would do best to stay very far away from Mutants and Mystics, and instead consider Andrew May’s Pseudoscience and Science Fiction or Jason Colavito’s The Cult of Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture.
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