Posted by: Doc Comics | February 4, 2010

Defining the Superhero

How does Coogan characterize generic distinctions for superheroes?  In what ways does his emphasis upon “mission, powers, & [costumed] identity” differ from Reynolds’ 7 mythic characteristics of superheroes?  What are his reasons for excluding The Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, The Phantom, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer from his generic categorization as a bonafide superhero?  Why is the superhero’s chevron important?

All this will lead to a central issue: What is a “superhero” and how do different definitions reflect different perspectives for understanding and studying them? What’s so darned American about superheroes?




    In class we watched the documentary “Superheroes Unmasked” that focused on the origins of the American Superhero genre and looked at some of the ways in which the idea of the superhero appears, reappears, changes, and develops over time. The documentary contends that these comic superheroes have become American cultural ICONS—symbols that take on a special, cultural significance as representations for American identity…that these popular, readily-recognizable symbols express something important about American ideals, perspectives, beliefs, and values.

    SO…your task is to write a short 5-7 page paper that identifies and argues for your favorite or most influential American Superhero Icon. What superhero has influenced you most, and how or why do you identify with them? What characteristics and values make this character your favorite and worthy for consideration as representative of American culture? As a paper, you should use Hart’s “Cultural Criticism” approach (discussing myths, narrative, and fantasy theme analysis) to apply concepts and arguments from readings thus far, especially those criteria of Reynolds and Cooghan. That is, to make your argument, you should consider your favorite superhero as a symbolic for some particular “rhetoric” (offering delineations of “the good,” resonance with a particular audience, and clear or clearly implied policy recommendations for action; p.17). Using Hart’s narrative probes in the course reading packet, identify the central values, myths, and fantasy themes which your American Superhero Icon embodies (esp. “Critical Probes for Fantasy Theme Analysis” on p.336). Ideally, you can use this paper to do background research on a superhero you may explore further in later analysis.

    Once you’ve selected your favorite or most influential superhero icon, work through your ideas in a series of steps that should all become part of your paper:

    1) Briefly DESCRIBE your icon for readers who may not be familiar with him/her. Try to be as concise as possible with your description. Include a picture of your superhero on your title page. Do some research using on-line resources and/or traditional library work. What are the secret origins of your superhero? What have creators, commentators, or scholars observed about your icon’s ‘meanings’ for audiences? Be sure to keep a careful record of what you found and where you found it (you will need a works cited bibliography at the end of your paper) and be sure when you write to let readers know which your original ideas are and which you have borrowed from your sources.

    2) INTERPRET the symbolic meanings, significance, and mythic values that your hero champions. Draw upon the works of Reynolds and Coogan as you follow Hart’s critical probes. How is it connected to powerful American myths or fantasies? Is your superhero indebted to archetypal predecessors? Here is where you use Hart’s probes to interrogate the deeper social values and mythic truths within your superhero’s story.

    3) Next, EVALUATE how your icon represents American beliefs, values, and identity. Reflect upon what significance/use this icon has for you personally (using Rushing & Frentz’s Mythic Perspective). Why did you choose it? Why is it significant to you? What does your choice say about who you are and what your worldview? About your identity and cherished values? Always consider the payoff and price of the mythic fantasy, what it reveals and conceals or what “realities” it celebrates and represses.

    4) Finally, extend your analysis one step further and THEORIZE your superhero’s significance as an allegory for American cultural identity — What’s so darn “American” about your icon? Do you think your superhero has staying power or enduring potential as an ICON? Will your superhero become one of those American popular culture items/artifacts that will stand the test of time, or are they a “cult” hit? Why or why not? Remember, the primary goal of this assignment is to demonstrate your grasp of the readings in the course and offer a critical application of concepts. The better papers will be reflective and analytical rather than merely descriptive — that is, they will get below the surface to address some of the deeper issues and meanings or significance of your hero.

    Reference at least FIVE sources—be sure to cite your sources using proper APA or MLA citation format. The paper will spark in-class discussion on the due date next Friday.

  2. Here is a starter list of some DC Comics characters that should be relatively easy to research…I’ll check for other options and post them as well.

  3. Followup, here is the “official” central database for Marvel’s cache of characters:

  4. Image Comics – Here is the website for runner-up distributer (behind Dark Horse Comics). While Image doesn’t have a large “Universe” of characters, the was a DC or Marvel does, they still have several viable (and popular) options for you Superhero/heroine of choice!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: