"And so a legend is born, and a new name is added to the roster of those who make the world of fantasy the most exciting realm of all!"-- Stan Lee, AMAZING FANTASY #15.
A suggestive analogy is to be seen in the case of the grayling moth, which prefers darker mates to those actually offered by its present species. For if human art can offer to a moth the supernormal sign stimulus to which it responds more eagerly than to the normal offerings of life, it can surely supply supernormal stimuli, also to the IRMs [Innate Releasing Mechanisms] of man and not only spontaneously, in dream and nightmare, but even more brilliantly in the contrived folktales, fairy tales, mythological landscapes, over- and underworlds, temples and cathedrals, pagodas and gardens, dragons, angels, gods, and guardians of popular and religious art. It is true, of course, that the culturally developed formulations of these wonders have required in many cases centuries, even milleniums, to complete. But it is true also . . . that there is a kind of support for the reception of such images in the deja vu of the partially self-shaped and self-shaping mind. In other words, whereas in the animal world the "isomorphs," or inherited stereotypes of the central nervous structure, which for the most part match the natural environment, may occasionally contain possibilities of response unmatched by nature, the world of man, which is now largely the product of our own artifice, represents to a considerable extent, at least an opposite order of dynamics; namely, those of a living nervous structure and controlled response systems fashioning its habitat, and not vice versa; but fashioning it not always consciously, by any means; indeed, for the most part, or at least for a considerable part, fashioning it impetuously, out of its own self-produced images of rage and fear.-- Joseph Campbell, PRIMITIVE MYTHOLOGY, p. 75.
Stan Lee's conclusion to the first Spider-Man tale was plainly intended not as philosophical statement, but as hyperbole designed to convince readers of the hero's significance within "the world of fantasy."
But, even though it is hyperbole, one may examine it to see what philosophical import it has, quite apart from the author's intentions.
When I as a teenaged comics-fan read Lee's hyperbole, I was gratified to see him validate fantasy as a "world" in its own right; a bit of self-referential analysis on Lee's part, the sort of thing rarely found in other comics-writers of the time. During that period both adults and peers tended to denigrate anything fantastic as juvenile escapism, irrespective of the medium, though of course comics were the most despised of the escapist works because they were supposedly the crudest, the least thoughtful.
All that said, it's easy to poke holes in Lee's claim. By what criterion could one say that "the world of fantasy" was "the most exciting realm of all," and who are the other contenders in the Mister Excitingness Paegant? "The world of reality" would seem to be the only logical competitor to "the world of fantasy," and if in 1963 one were going by popular acclaim, "Reality" certainly attracted the lion's share of the consumers and far greater accolades from the critical establishment.
Further, even in this new century, wherein the cultural paradigm now validates fantasy to an extent no one could have imagined in 1963, it's still questionable as to which of the contestants is more popular. In this essay I wrote:
Some readers preferred only realistic wonders, as [Joseph] Conrad apparently did, some readers bowed down exclusively at the fane of [J.R.R.] Tolkien, and some learned to appreciate both intersubjective wonders.Joseph Campbell's theory of "supernormal sign stimuli" offers a heuristic tool for understanding the separate-but-equal appeals of "fantasy" and "reality" (or as I usually call them with regard to literary works, "the metaphenomenal" and "the isophenomenal.") Though Campbell only mentions "popular art" fleetingly at the end of the second sentence in the passage quoted above, he implies that popular art could invoke the emotional effect of the "supernormal stimulus" as easily as did religious art. He would embrace that position in spades once Campbell came to be seen as A Significant Influence on STAR WARS, which film not coincidentally caused much of the paradigm shift toward fantasy noted above.
"The world of reality," then, would line up with the animal responses that are designed to "match the natural environment," while "the world of fantasy" parallels those responses that are "unmatched by nature." This in turn suggests a further parallel with Kant's concepts of reproductive and productive imagination, though I'll pursue that on its own terms in a forthcoming essay.
In addition, though Campbell's list of supernormal stimuli may seem somewhat of a catch-all, the chaos can be brought to a greater semblance of order by seeing it through the lens of Aldous Huxley's distinctions between "horizontal transcendence" and "vertical transcendence," explicated here.
Huxley characterizes those who experience "horizontal transcendence" as people who "identify themselves with some cause wider than their own immediate interests, but not degradingly lower and, if higher, higher only within the range of current social values." This suggests a concern with one's "natural environment," and thus with the common perception of the "world of reality."
Interestingly, while I observed in the earlier essay that Huxley listed very few examples of his "upward transcendence"-- which is merely one end of the total spectrum of vertical transcendence-- Campbell takes the opposite tack. Almost everything in his list of supernormal stimuli suggests "upward transcendence"-- temples and cathedrals, angels and gods, and even (depending on one's cultural background, perhaps) dragons. The only mentions of signs that might connote negative, "downward transcendence" are one reference to "nightmares," one reference to "underworlds" (in the sense of the worlds of the dead), and one reference to "rage and fear."
Nevertheless, it would seem that as a concept Huxley's "vertical transcendence" is oriented upon both the heavenly and the hellish, particularly because Huxely suggests that the latter can sometimes be the portal to reach the former. As both strategies of transcendence are so linked, they clearly echo the same dynamic as Campbell's supernormal sign stimuli, for all that the two men had very different orientations in other respects.
In the era sometimes called the Silver Age, which happened to be the time of my own youth, one often had to justify a liking for fantasy. Now, there is no real cultural need to do so: enough people openly like it-- even in comic book form-- that justifications are rarely seen. Nevertheless, if one had to justify fantasy in terms of being in some sense "useful," I would do so by linking it to the human need to exceed nature, to make its own cultural "habitat," which is too often seen as human beings simply responding to nature.
As counter-intuitive as it may seem-- especially to those of an atheistic persuasion-- for human beings the only way to truly create their reality is (to reinterpret the famous saying of Virgil) is to first "move" both heaven and hell.