PCUL 3V90: The Superhero in American Culture

This course investigates our longtime love of superheroes by exploring the conventions and cultural resonances of American superhero comics, television shows, films, and animated cartoons from 1938 to the superhero-saturated present. Special attention will be paid to the relationship between form and content within these distinct visual mediums. We will also explore the influence of political, social, and intellectual movements and interrogate representations of gender, class, race, and sexuality, among other dynamics.

SUPERHEROES ARE HAVING A MOMENT

 

Superhero films have become staples of the blockbuster economy, and superhero television series continue to multiply on both cable television and streaming services. Characters known only to dedicated comic book fans as recently as a few years ago have become household names, and comic book publishers, such as Marvel, who were bankrupt not long ago, have become major players in the global media marketplace.

But this moment has a history. The superhero genre began with the 1938 creation of Superman and achieved nearly instant popularity thereafter; within three years of his creation, Superman was a transmedia property, appearing in comic books, newspapers, animated cartoons, and advertising, and dozens of imitators had taken root, many of which are still appearing in comics and films today. Though the superhero genre has had peaks and nadirs, it has been a staple of the popular American consciousness for the past 80 years.

LEARN ABOUT THE COURSE FROM PROFESSOR ANNA PEPPARD

What does the course aim to achieve for students?

The course aims to introduce students to the history, themes, conventions, and contexts of a popular genre that’s occupied significant space in the American (and global) popular consciousness for more than 80 years. Understanding the cultural contexts that gave birth to the superhero and have informed the evolution of the genre over the decades will give students a new perspective on American social, political, and artistic movements. It will also teach students about the operation of popular culture. Because superheroes embody cultural ideals in especially flamboyant and contradictory ways (they preserve social order and traditional gender roles by functioning as suggestively queer outsiders, for instance), they’re an excellent resource for thinking through the ways popular genres negotiate cultural conflicts, within specific eras and over time. In addition, because superheroes have been transmedia characters almost since their inception, they’re ideal for talking about the mechanics of adaptation and the birth of “convergence culture,” in which fans are encouraged to be active participants in creating the meaning of a text.

WHAT ROLE DOES ESCAPISM PLAY IN THIS COURSE?

Our lectures and discussion forums will interrogate the uses and politics of escapism. There’s a passage from the influential pop culture scholar John Fiske’s book Television Culture that I often return to when thinking through the value of escapism. Fiske argues we shouldn’t ever dismiss a story as a “mere fantasy.” Doing so presumes that representation and fantasy are opposite things – that fantasy is wholly divorced from reality. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As Fiske writes: “escapism or fantasy necessarily involves both an escape from or evasion of something and an escape to a preferred alternative: dismissing escapism as ‘mere fantasy’ avoids the vital questions of what is escaped from, why escape is necessary, and what is escaped to.”

In other words, escapism is indelibly tied to real life, since it’s real life that informs what we escape to and why. Certainly, escapism can be dangerous; we’ll be having plenty of discussions throughout the course about the moral implications of the superhero genre’s violent and often exclusionary power fantasies. But figuring out why we want to escape into certain fantasies can be incredibly productive. In addition, fantasies are often more complicated than they might initially appear.

What key changes has the course undergone to be a successful online course?

Adapting the course to an online format presents both challenges and opportunities. Thankfully, digital comic book platforms have grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, alongside film and music streaming platforms. The students will be able to access all the course texts through digital platforms such as comiXology.com, with movies and television shows available either through the Brock library or Google Play. I’ll also be making use of the online platform to include some exciting guest speakers (both academics and comics creators) who would not have been able to make the physical journey to the University.

I’m very sad I won’t be able to laugh in person with my students at the Bat-Shark-Repellent and cartoon bombs of the 1960s camp classic Batman: The Movie, but it’s a small price to pay to keep everyone heathy and safe. And we can certainly talk about the Bat-Shark-Repellent in our online discussion forums! (Spoiler: It’s both an ideal symbol of the technological mastery that makes Batman a superhero and a near-perfect distillation of the camp sensibility comic book superheroes are especially suited to).  

What will the delivery method look like?

Students will read historical and contemporary comic books (both single issues from long-running series and stand-alone graphic novels), and watch animated cartoons and films. The course is composed of lectures and discussion forums, both of which occur twice a week (it’s a compressed 5-week session).

We’ll encounter multiple versions of well-known characters such as Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, the X-Men, Ms. Marvel, and Spider-Man, alongside lesser known ones such as the Green Turtle, Squirrel Girl, and Harvey Birdman.

When we look at iconic characters, we’ll try to compare conventional and unconventional contexts: we’ll see Superman in his first comic book appearance, and as the second-billed co-lead of the 1990s television romantic comedy Lois & Clark; we’ll see Batman as both a Depression-era gangbuster and a comedy foil; we’ll see Spider-Man as both a white teenager in the 1960s and an Afro-Latino one in the 2010s; we’ll see Ms. Marvel as both a Gloria Steinem-inspired feminist magazine editor and a Pakistani-American teenager from Jersey City. We’ll use these comparisons to talk about the mechanics of adaptation and the importance of representation; superheroes aren’t real, but stories that show the world doesn’t always have to be saved by straight white men can inspire real change.

WHEN DID you first became interested in superheroes?

I first fell head-over-heels in love with superheroes when I fell head-over-heels in love with the television show Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Between the ages of eleven and thirteen, this show was my world. I often joke that I ended up studying superheroes so I could be more like Lois Lane – I’m basically living my childhood dream of getting paid to write about Superman. Why I wanted to write about Superman is maybe the more interesting question. A lot of my work on superheroes is about gender, sexuality, and the superhero body. (I’m the editor of an academic anthology called Supersex: Sexuality, Fantasy, and the Superhero, which will be released later this year.)

The superhero genre has historically been thought of as an exclusively male and defiantly patriarchal preserve. But I’ve always been drawn to the genre’s depictions of sensitive, potentially queer masculinities and empowered women as a counterpoint to hegemonic understandings of gender. My research interrogates things like the superhero genre’s objectification of both female and male bodies, and its depictions of non-normative physicalities and sexualities. This is a genre that often involves big strong (white) men beating up social deviants. It’s also a genre that involves exaggeratedly beautiful men in pink spandex working alongside women who can toss transport trucks into space. Superhero stories don’t always make the best use of their most subversive possibilities, but those possibilities intrigue me enough to keep me coming back for more.

What do you wish more people knew about superheroes?

I wish people knew how diverse the superhero genre is, despite its historical privileging of certain subjects. The superhero genre has always attracted female fans, Black fans, queer fans, and innumerable other fans whose histories and experiences continue to be sidelined in the media and, sadly to say, much academic scholarship. Similarly, despite its reputation for catering almost exclusively to “adolescent male power fantasies,” the superhero genre has also always included women in prominent roles, both on the page and in creative roles. For instance: Wonder Woman is often considered the first female superhero, but in fact, she was preceded by the character Miss Fury, who was created, written, and drawn by a female fashion illustrator-turned-cartoonist named Tarpé Mills. Uncovering these neglected histories is important to emphasizing the superhero genre’s capacity for diversifying in the contemporary era; the superhero genre doesn’t have to be exclusionary.

Why, in your opinion, has the popularity of superheroes/comic books/fantasy remained strong over the years?

There are many, many ways I might answer this question, but I think most answers come down to the superhero genre’s almost unique adaptability. Westerns have to take place in the American West. Action movies have to privilege action. Romance stories have to privilege romance. Monster movies have to include monsters. Superhero stories can be set in the American West or outer space; they can mix action and romance; they can include monsters who are also heroes. Superhero stories can be almost anything that you want them to be; they can be dramatic or comedic, serious or silly. Superhero comics have been showcasing this thematic diversity for a long time, and we’re seeing superhero films and television shows starting to do the same.

Who is your favourite superhero and why?

My personal favourite superhero, Daredevil, is beset with problematic ableist tropes; he’s celebrated for his ability to “overcome” his disability (blindness) through compensatory superpowers. Yet he also reflects my desire to escape from social anxieties related to things like crowds and my physical appearance; Daredevil, who’s dubbed “The Man Without Fear” in part because of a unique sensory experience of the world that extends from his blindness, exists holistically within busy urban spaces in ways I’ve never quite managed to do. Over the years, spending time with Daredevil has helped me understand and navigate my anxieties, and I know Batman, Spider-Man, and Ms. Marvel have done – and continue to do – similar things for others.

Any advice for students looking to follow in your footsteps?

I’m thrilled to say there are more and more possibilities for academic research in these areas. I’m at Brock as a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow, having received a substantial two-year grant to complete a project called “Sex and Fantasy in American Comics.” That the government would fund such a project speaks to how far Comics Studies (the official name for the academic study of comics) has come. When I first started studying superheroes and comic books a decade ago, I had to fight to get my comic book-based dissertation approved, and had read every academic book written on superheroes and comics. Now, I can barely keep up with all the books that come out in any given year. Scholars and research institutions are quickly realizing the tremendous value of studying superheroes and comics, and I think this interest will only increase in the coming years.

Can you also share a bit of information about the Canadian Society for the Study of Comics and your role?

I’m the VP of Communications (English) for the Canadian Society for the Study of Comics/Société Canadienne pour l’étude de la Bande Dessinée (CSSC/SCEBD). This academic society was founded just under a decade ago for the purpose of promoting Comics Studies in Canada. Last year, the CSSC/SCEBD became a member organization of the Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences. Our annual conference is now held within the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences. The society has many (very reasonably priced) membership options. Being a member allows you to participate in the conference and run for executive positions, and gives you access to perks like our yearly newsletter, Grawlix. We also work very hard to promote the work of our members. In my communications role, I’m always looking for comics-related research projects, publications, and calls-for-papers to share on our website and social media channels.

DR. ANNA F. PEPPARD

Dr. Anna F. Peppard is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Communication, Popular Culture, and Film at Brock University. She has published widely on representations of gender, race, and sexuality in superhero stories, comic books, and other popular forms, including action-adventure television and sports culture. She is the editor of the anthology Supersex: Sexuality, Fantasy, and the Superhero (University of Texas Press, fall 2020), and is currently working on a monograph about the 1960s television show The Man from U.N.C.L.E. She also co-hosts a monthly comic book podcasts called Three Panel Contrast, available on all major platforms.

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