The scholarship of superhero construction

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Superman flying over city“I think the study of comics is a really cool entryway to explore literature,” says Doctor Andrew Deman, who will teach English 108A: The Superhero, a popular undergraduate course this winter term. He become deeply involved in comics scholarship during his doctoral studies with the Department of English Language and Literature, noting the many connections between comics and other academic fields such as visual semiotics, narrative theory, and multimodality. 

“A superhero is reflection of cultural values. Superman is what we want him and need him to be,” he says, explaining that before World War II, for example, Superman was rendered as a murderer, reflecting society’s need for superheroes to fulfill a protector fantasy. But after the war, “cultural values shifted and Superman became known as the big blue Boy Scout.”

As Deman will teach students next term, the superhero has a rich history that can be traced back to one of the first known books: The Epic of Gilgamesh. “That story is 4000 years old but it is very clearly a superhero story.” Evolving from that tradition, superheroes almost always served some sort of religious function, while in contemporary literature, the religious function is not as clear. As for the essential superhero formula? As Deman puts it, ”part power fantasy, part reflection of cultural values and part moral paradigm…plus tights.”

Andrew DemanSince completing his PhD under the supervision of professors Andrew McMurry and Heather Smyth, Deman has further developed his research on graphic narratives and the historical depiction of superheroes. He was recently featured as an expert commentator in the documentary series "INK: Alter Egos Exposed" and is the current president of the Canadian Society for the Study of Comics.

Comic books are a classic example of multi-modality, Deman stresses; they tell a story through both the illustrations and the text. “Contemporary culture is obsessed with comics and superheroes.” He references the Marvel and DC movie lineup, which boasts dozens of movie releases in the next ten years.

The sub-culture of comics has also been recognized in the literature world, says Deman, citing Art Spiegelman who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for his graphic novel Maus, and Time magazine including Watchmen in their All-TIME 100 Novels list. “While there may be a few people that oppose the notion of comics as literature, the academic word is very open-minded to the idea these days.”

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