This week’s comic is RED SON, an Elseworlds alternate reality that imagines the consequences of Kal-El‘s rocket crashing in the Soviet Union rather than Kansas. The 2003 graphic novel caused some controversy and won awards even as it gave Scottish writer Mark Millar more fame and acclaim. Still, the comic raises intriguing issues about superheroes and American exceptionalism outside of simplistic moral binaries. Has Superman always been a class warrior? We will be interested in examining the risks of political comics as we also review some of the superhero scholarship readings!
This week we’re reading Kingdom Come as we further contemplate the comic’s “monomythic credotainment” and pseudoreligious commentary on the superhero mythos. Is there a more democratic and egalitarian ethos possible in these tales of superheroic redemption? Can these “Elseworlds” tales explore an interpretive ‘multiplicity‘ that challenges the ‘monomythic’ formula, and to what effect? What kind of “Better World” do these alternate realities imagine?
Finishing our exploration of “The Myth of the American Superhero,” we will examine Lawrence & Jewett’s critique of crusading fascism, redemptive violence, and the anti-democratic invitations of monomythic credotainment. In class, we’ll balance this critique with our other readings as we ponder more egalitarian and democratic possibilities of a “Better World” that comic book superheroes may reflexively offer thanks to the ‘multiplicity‘ that Jenkins posits.
The Grim-and-Gritty 90s ‘Dark Age’ would spark a nostalgic Renaissance from creators and fans yearning for a return to superheroic nobility. The readings for this week and next, MARVELS and KINGDOM COME, are works that are a very deliberate interrogation of the ends and means, meanings and values championed by superheroes during cynical times. As the comics take a Postmodern Turn of critical reflexivity, so too shall we consider how superheroes reflect, adapt, and respond to changing cultural conditions and challenges… sometimes for better or worse.
This week we begin reading Jewett & Lawrence’s Myth of the American Superhero (discussion items here), which diverges sharply from both Reynolds and Coogan in offering a critical examination of the superhero’s distinctly American mythos. Our comic of the week is Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s critically-acclaimed deconstruction of the superhero genre. Through these texts, we will begin reflecting upon the more troubling issues of redemptive violence and antidemocratic vigilantism that superheroes express and explore. As myth, these stories don’t just invite reflection upon the purpose, function, and consequences of the superhero, they demand it!
MoreFun Tim’s Soapbox: What the heck do Hello Kitty, Venom, and Rorschach have in common? And is The Incredibles a better translation of Alan Moore’s vision than the film? ‘Understanding Comics‘ Scott McCloud helps explain! In other news, the DC Comics new 52 revamp is a home-run for retailers.
This week introduces superhero comics as ideology, so let’s clarify a few big-word college concepts that will help guide discussion. “Ideology” has long been used to conceptualize a dominant system of ideas or beliefs that coalesce into a more-or-less unified and unifying “worldview” (i.e. political, religious, ethnic, national, etc.), but the term takes on connotations as “false consciousness” within the influential class critique of Karl Marx. As most know, Marx is formulating a critique of Capitalism (the Gilded Age variety). Crudely put, Marxism posits how the dominant economic overclass and their middle-management Bourgeois keeps their worker-serf Proletariat underclasses subservient and docile by controlling the “superstructures” of economic production, meanings, and ‘common sense’ beliefs that prevent solidarity and revolution against economic exploitation. (One of my favorite definitions of Ideology is an “asymmetrical interdependence” of “common sense meanings in the service of power”). An example might be how big business Hollywood blockbusters tend to shape audience expectations and imitators with formulaic narrative commodities that ‘naturalize‘ a misogynist hero journey, racial stereotypes, and patriarchal power. This is the “Rich White DudeBros own everything and reproduce what they like” argument that often misses Marx’s more crushing insight that these practices become institutionalized into a structure of commodity reproduction that continues despite the intentions of producers and workers (i.e. less by mustache-twisting supervillains than cinematic conventions of the Male Gaze). For a smackdown, see the comments for a breakdown of Eco’s infamous “Myth of Superman” critique.
Even briefer still is Philosophy Bro’s profanity-laced breakdown of Marx‘s central beefs during the Gilded Age, the ideological implications of such commodity production (“It’s the structure, stupid!”) illustrated with our New Gilded Age‘s terrifying “5 ugly lessons in every Superhero Movie,” which pretty much explains Lincoln’s insistence that “Myth is ideology in narrative form.” Holy Hollywood Hegemony!
In an attempt to overcome weaknesses and shortcomings of hackneyed extrapolations of ‘vulgar’ Marxist critique, Antonio Gramsci develops the notion of Hegemony to explain why the exploited underclass willfully participates in and reproduces the dominant ideology of the overclass even when it goes against their own material and economic interests (and thus “participate in the conditions of their unhappiness“). That is, a ruling ideology doesn’t reproduce illusory “false consciousness” only through coercion and domination, but this ‘historical materialism’ also operates through socialized values and consensual participation that operates as “common sense” that’s-how-things-really-are (think about the voluntary Comics Code here and reasons we often ‘go along’ with dominant ideas). Heck, as I write this off-the-clock for class while enjoying a cold beverage outside, I want to shake my fist at the sky and cry “Darn you Hegemony!!! Is there no escape?” But more on these topics later as we synthesize some of the contradictions and debates over myth, genre, and the payoff & price of Counterhegemony or Utopianism in superhero stories. And where better to start than the OG of comic books’ crusading masked vigilantes, the Bat-Man!?
THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS is Frank Miller’s deconstruction of the Batman mythos that offered an Elseworld’s story that almost single-handedly changed comics storytelling and markets (discussion items are here). Also especially interesting for class purposes is how TDKR gives ammunition to Jenkin’s “Men in Tights” argument contra-Coogan for superhero comics as fostering multiplicity over continuity, and thus illustrates the dynamics of Gramscian hegemony and the politics of cultural representation. Or, as Grant Morrison puts it, it’s a telling difference that “Bruce has a butler, Clark has a boss” (but if you’re into class warfare, check out Iron Man’s union-busting past and Spider-Man as working-class Proletarian superhero).
This week we’re considering Rushing & Frentz’s “Mythic Perspective” and Peter Coogan’s “Superhero Genre” approach, which make for an interesting contrast. While Rushing & Frentz have us reflecting upon how we can find and make meaning from these tutelary archetypes, Coogan argues for Mission, Powers, and Identity (and Supervillains) as unique and distinguishing literary elements of superhero narratives (with notable challenge by Henry Jenkins to his historical typology).
Our comic of the week is 1979’s X-MEN: THE DARK PHOENIX SAGA, a Marvel epic that raises fascinating issues about Superheroines and superpowers, the lines between superhero and supervillain, and X-Men editor Jim Shooter’s intervention into the ending of this now-classic tale! Be sure to follow the ‘comments’ section in the above link for discussion questions!
EXTRA BONUS: MoreFun Tim’s Soapbox!!
In class we’ve discussed 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. It’s perhaps easy to contend that these fictional superheroes from popular culture [esp. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, & Captain America] have become Mythic 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 ideas, perspectives, beliefs and values. But what do they reveal about YOU?
SO…your task is to write a short 5-7 page paper that identifies and explores your Superhero icon through the “Mythic Perspective” of Rushing and Frentz. What superheroes have been most meaningful to you, and how or why do you identify with them? What characteristics and values make some character(s) your favorite and what did you learn from them? If you had to pick a favorite superhero icon, who would it be? As a paper, your discussion should be informed by ideas and concepts from course readings thus far. That is, drawing upon ideas discussed in class and gleaned from the course readings, identify the central mythic values and culturetypal fantasy themes which your Superhero Icon symbolizes.
Once you’ve chosen your icon, work through your ideas in a series of steps that should all become part of your paper:
1) Do some research using on-line resources and/or traditional library work. What is your superhero’s history, from first appearance to various iterations? What have commentators, creators, or experts observed about your icon’s ‘meaning’ for themselves or 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. Find at least FIVE good sources—be sure to cite your sources using proper Chicago-style or MLA citation format.
2) Briefly describe your earliest or most influential icon for readers who may not be familiar with it. Try to be as concise as possible with your description, perhaps even using an outside source. Include a picture on your title page!!
3) Reflect upon what significance/use superheroes have had for you personally. Which ‘version’ did you encounter early, and why was this character(s) memorable? What was so appealing about him/her?
4) Next, try to extend your analysis one step further—Why 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 as a MYTHIC icon (i.e. Doty’s defining functions)? What archetypes can you distinguish as influences? How does your superhero size-up with Reynolds and Coogan’s criteria?
5) Finally–What does your icon say about America and American identity? How is it connected to powerful American values? Is your superhero a variation of archetypal predecessors? Why is this superhero significant to you? What does your choice say about who you are and what you value? Here is where you interrogate the deeper social values and mythic truths within your superhero’s story.
Remember, the primary goal of this assignment is to demonstrate your grasp of the readings in rhetorical criticism and offer an application of concepts. The better papers will be thoughtful and analytical rather than merely descriptive — that is, they will get below the surface to address some of the deeper issues and significances of your topic. The paper is due in-class on the syllabus due date.
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!