If the Superhero’s Mythic Journey has a formulaic archetypal plot and structure, then the culturetype variations of particular iterations are often telling markers for specific cultural conflicts, struggles, and crisis of an era. When superhero comics strive for cultural relevance, it can tell stories about timely events yet also risk seeming ‘dated‘ to future generations. One such snapshot is 1970′s GREEN LANTERN / GREEN ARROW from the Vietnam-era, a bold and widely-acclaimed run that we’ll be considering for week two. As we continue to survey approaches to understanding Superhero Mythology, we will also be contemplating the narrative reasoning at work within these mythic epics.
“Every lover of myth is in a sense the lover of wisdom.” ~Aristotle
One might fairly wonder if superheroes are indeed mythology or not, and there is plenty of room to debate the relative merits of categorization. For now, it may be enough to engage a useful understanding of mythology put forth by William Doty:
The very definition of myth is problematic today; here narrow, partial, “monomythic” definitions are rejected in favor of a complex, inclusive one, the seventeen items of which are then discussed. A mythological corpus consists of a network of myths, which are culturally-important imaginal stories conveying, by means of metaphor and symbol, graphic imagery, and emotional conviction and participation, the primal, foundational accounts of the real, experienced world, and humankind’s roles and relative statuses within it. Mythologies may convey the political and moral values of a culture, and provide systems of interpreting individual experience within a universal perspective, which may include the intervention of suprahuman entities, as well as aspects of the natural and cultural orders. Myths may be enacted or reflected in rituals, ceremonies, and dramas, or provide materials for secondary elaborations. Only a polyphasic definition will provide appreciation of their manifold roles within a society. [Mythography, 2000]
Simply put, mythology performs a plethora of rhetorical and socio-cultural functions besides ‘mere’ entertainment. On the one hand we can examine some (mono)mythic archetype for patterns of structural consistencies and recurring themes or formula across cultures or over time, as Joseph Campbell does in The Hero With A Thousand Faces: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” This separation/ initiation/ return formula, Campbell argues following Jung, is a nigh-universal pattern for myth. On the other hand, we might attend to the telling variations of a tale to examine the distinct fantasy culturetype that conveys new meanings or values for some specific people, time, place, and context. This tension between formulaic convention and innovation (and the conservative versus progressive rhetorical functions of mythic fantasy) is nowhere more clearly illustrated than in the superhero’s origin story.
The Batman is a particularly fascinating example of just how much narrative flexibility a mythic corpus can exhibit. In fact, it’s almost impossible to even speak of THE Bat-Man when there have been so many BatmanS over time, and I’m not just talking about the movies. In the early days, Batman carried a gun and had little problem dealing death to evil-doers but it wasn’t long before he traded his gat for a sidekick and acted more like a benevolent scout-leader than a grim avenger. BATMAN: YEAR ONE is Frank Miller‘s turn at RetroActive Continuity or “RetCon“, a re-telling of the characters origins, motivation, and methods. Here are some discussion questions on B:Y1 that we’ll explore together in class as we delve into the MYTHIC RHETORICAL PERSPECTIVE of Rushing & Frentz. A central issue that will emerge: What tensions result from the superhero’s status as a “commodified myth,” and what important cultural beliefs and American values are on display within these tutelary archetypes?
Offered at the University of North Texas by the Dept. of Communication Studies, this course explores comic superheroes as culture, commodity, and unique allegorical expression of America’s identity and cultural values.
Sound deep? You bet, but it’ll also be a heckuva lot of fun. Superfriends welcome!
The course reading packet will be available at CopyPro (on the corner of Frye and Hickory) on Friday afternoon, and you can grab course comics at MoreFun Comics & Games on the Denton Square, but meanwhile, here are more SuperReadings!
Does America worship superheroes?
Campbell, “A Rhetorical Perspective“
Brummett, “Rhetorical Methods in Critical Studies”
Comic of the Week: “RetCon” and BATMAN: YEAR ONE!
The MYTHIC RHETORIC OF SUPERHEROES course (Comm 4849 Special Topics in Rhetoric, TuTh 9:30-10:50a) is coming back to UNT this fall! Tell your friends and register soon, seats go fast! And a very special shout-out to class superscholar April Murphy for her impressive ComicCon 2011 presentation on Wonder Womyn & BatGrrrls!! Kudos also to Norma Jones own superheroes video featured at NCA Currents!
So what’s melting the internet this week? No doubt it is news that the death of Peter Parker in Marvel’s Ultimate (alternate timeline) universe will herald the introduction of a new Spider-Man… Miles Morales, a half-African American and half-Hispanic teenager. Needless to say, the “controversy” swings from wondering if this new ‘ethnic‘ Spidey is a “cop-out” or is instead symptomatic of a gay Liberal agenda (read about the freak-outs by a few of the usual suspects like Glenn Beck and Stephen Colbert). The “Big Two” DC and Marvel certainly take a lot of heat for their spotty track-record with diversity, but seem to get more right than Hollywood by most accounts.
National Public Radio commentator John Ridley critiques Hollywood for being even less diverse than the Big Two when it comes to diversity in lead characters, and demolishes their blame-the-audience theory that white people won’t go to see a movie with a black lead by pointing to a study by Indiana University professor Andrew Weaver: “Weaver found that white audiences tended to be racially selective with regard to romantic movies, but not necessarily when it came to other genres. So, sorry, Hollywood. You can’t blame it on the ticket buyers.”
Meanwhile, in other superhero news, a first look at Christopher Nolan’s vision of Superman, and leaked pics of Bane and Catwoman from the Batman sequel, Alan Moore defends alleged Wikileaks whistleblower Bradley Manning, and Grant Morrison talks about his plans for Action Comics, and Anonymous threatens to “kill” Facebook!
The MYTHIC RHETORIC OF SUPERHEROES course (Comm 4849 Special Topics in Rhetoric, TuTh 9:30-10:50a) is coming back to UNT this fall! Tell your friends and register soon, seats go fast!
2011′s superhero summer continues as Captain America prepares for international release (and, somewhat surprisingly, only has its title changed in 3 countries) and the Spider-Man reboot generates buzz. In other comics news, the Dallas Cowboys get some Marvel Superhero support, the naked-when-not-invisible superheroine finds her answer in the Heroic Womanthology that is a kickstarter success story, the 2011 Harvey Award nominees are announced, and #ComicsDidAGoodThing storms Twitter.
Around the web, superheroes have been in the news in a Russian monument make-over, some backlash over the superhero movie blitzkrieg, fanboy theatre in NYC, the death of the Marvel Ultimate Universe Spider-Man (sorta), Neil Gaiman gives an impassioned defense of Free Speech, and a last-minute Superman story switcheroo that keeps getting more bizarre. Meanwhile, comics legend Gene Colan passes.
The big news lighting up the fanboy blogosphere, however, is the unprecedented DC Comics Relaunch that intends to reboot their comics universe in September. By all accounts, this is no mere PR stunt or cosmetic “RetCon” being planned by DC, but rather a revamped business approach to comics storytelling. Says DC’s Dan Didio:
“This is a refocusing of the energies of the company into a way that really pushes the medium toward the widest and best audience possible. This isn’t about turning around a single character or telling a new story. This is about repositioning the company for the future. What we’re trying to accomplish is to widen the breadth of our stories and the appeal of characters and go after different distribution systems.”
The last bit on the controversy around digital comics formats spurred a lot of reactions from creators and retailers (I’m eagerly awaiting MoreFun Tim’s take). Comics fandom also expressed anxiety over the changes to characters like Barbara Gordon a.k.a. Batgirl/Oracle and other favorite characters (you can see a break-down here). This shake-up at DC is creating a tsunami of ripples throughout the comics industry, and we’ll be keeping an eye on developments.
A troubling article at SALON examines the functions of the new film X-MEN: FIRST CLASS as Pentagon propaganda, raising some fairly disturbing connections between Hollywood superheroes and the glorification of American militarism. While this trend of increasing “militainment” is not new, and post-9/11 American consciousness seems to have embraced the Superhero Zeitgeist, it should give us pause to reflect on the mythic payoff and price of such moralizing melodramas of redemptive violence (and identity politics) when they deny or deflect the harsh realities of both present and past.
As one entry on the Green Lantern Corps smirks: Space isn’t as dark as you think it is. Indeed, a very interesting American Prospect article on “Masked Identity Politics” similarly opens with a provocative rhetorical question about the upcoming Green Lantern film: “In a world with billions of people, what are the chances that the ring’s next owner is a white American dude? Pretty high, apparently.” Although the article goes on to note the 1960s hit-and-miss social consciousness of the comics, its pretty clear that an interplanetary (and inter-species) group like the GLC raises interesting questions about the racial politics of American superheroes. As Marc Singer explains in his essay “Black Skins and White Masks“:
“Comics rely upon visually codified representations in which characters are continually reduced to their appearances, and this reductionism is especially prevalent in superhero comics, whose characters are wholly externalized into their heroic costumes and aliases. This system of visual typology combines with the superhero genre’s long history of excluding, trivializing, or ‘tokenizing’ minorities to create numeorus minority superheroes who are marked purely for their race: ‘Black Lightning,’ ‘Black Panther,’ and so forth. The potential for superficiality and stereotyping here is dangerously high…”
As we have explored in this blog numerous times already, minority superheroes face several problems and paradoxes in their historically shaped media representations aside from even overt racism. Recently, the casting of British actor Idris Elba as a Norse God in THOR sparked racist backlash and controversy. And just this week, Prof. Cornell West’s stinging critique of President Obama’s NeoLiberal policies further stoked examinations of Identity Politics.
What remains to be seen, however, is how the conversations to follow seek to address or avoid the invisibility of White Privilege and the Colorblind Politics of Racial NeoLiberalism. As Kenneth Burke reminds us: “It is a principle of drama that the nature of acts and agents should be consistent with the nature of the scene.” More fodder for thought can be found in the infographic Superhero Movies By The Numbers.
Mother’s Day seems an appropriate time to critically reflect upon the long history behind this seemingly innocuous holiday and the contemporary perils of SuperMoms. Indeed, motherhood has always inspired awe and admiration, but the battles over women’s sufferage and feminism invited reinspection. The Oedipus Complex of most superhero “Daddy Trouble” is taken for granted these days, but many misperceptions about feminine representations persist: “Contrary to myth, The Feminine Mystique and feminism did not represent the beginning of the decline of the stay-at-home mother, but a turning point that led to much stronger legal rights and ‘working conditions’ for her.” The notion of the SuperMom, however, reflects and illustrates the contradictions that would consequently emerge from Feminism. As explored in A History of Impossible Motherhood:
“Newspapers and women’s magazines show that the term ‘supermom’ was in regular use by the early 1970s. The notion of the supermom combines the superheroine and the mother, re-defining what it means to be more than just a mom. It originated as a term that described women who straddled the separate spheres of work and home, and took on immense burdens in their struggle to be everything to everyone. Its origin was pessimistic, representing the impossibility of having or doing “it all,” in the same way that it was impossible for a mom to actually be ‘super.’ But it was quickly co-opted by the media as a symbol of empowerment, representative of women’s potential to accomplish anything…. Notions of superheroic capacity, via the supermom, altered the way that American culture conceived of motherhood, and in turn, the ways in which mothers perceived their experiences. The supermom is a critical and missing link in the history of American motherhood, because it represents a convergence of two historically competing ideologies—feminism and motherhood—and balances them within a model persona that is impossible to achieve.”
We’ve explored the feminist critiques of superheroines and the thorny issues of feminine representation of Wonder Women before, especially within media Patriarchy. In the comics, there is hardly any better example of this evolving role of mothers than The Fantastic Four’s Sue Storm, The Invisible Girl/Woman, and her seemingly endless trials and frustrations or wardrobe malfunctions. (Check out this excellent essay on Sue’s relation to Second-Wave Feminism by D’Amore!)
If superheroines have a difficult time making it in the superBoy’s Club, SuperMoms like ElastiGirl from The Incredibles also have to navigate daunting maternal feminist challenges… and partners that often behave like superjerks. As another excellent essay by D’Amore notes:
“While feminist rhetoric urged women to seek personal fulfillment and equality in the workplace, ideologies about women’s work, domesticity, and child-rearing did not accommodate that reality. Mothers who juggled their domestic responsibilities with work outside the home identified with the symbolism of the supermom as both empowering (mothers can do it all!) and overwhelming (mothers must do it all!). A post-feminist generation of women grew frustrated with the assumptions that they even wanted it all to begin with.”
May 7 is FREE COMIC BOOK DAY 2011 at MoreFun Comics on the Denton Square, so come by and pick up some cool swag and get your picture taken with the Ghostbusters car Ecto-1! Madness Comics is also hosting Wendy Pini of ELFQUEST fame and Denton’s own Sonny Strait from the graphic novel Rook (and the voice of Krillin in Dragonball Z).