Class began last Tuesday, August 24, with a whirlwind session, breathless and over-full (and me over-anxious to make sure it all went well). Seventeen of us spent about two and a half hours discussing the superhero genre, and looking forward to what the course will entail. A very promising session, and hopefully not too disorienting!
Here are my notes about what went down:
1. The students divided into groups at random by picking panels from cut-up comics pages out of an envelope, then joining with classmates to re-assemble the pages. (These were all scans from fairly recent superhero comics, from the Straczynski/Kramer et al. Wonder Woman to Brendan McCarthy and Steve Cook’s Spider-Man: Fever.)
2. I then asked each group to tell something essential about the backstory or mythos of the hero depicted on its page. For some folks, this was second nature; for others, more difficult. Not a problem from my perspective, since part of what I was hoping to get across here was the difference between feeling like an “insider” and an “outsider” to the comic book collecting culture. I can’t be sure whether the exercise was revealing or simply bemusing to the class, but I was very interested in the results, and especially the way blockbuster superhero movies seemed to inform the responses (among the examples were Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the X-Men).
3. I asked each group to read, in B&W photocopied form, four comic book stories from the years 1939 to 1947. These included origin stories for Superman (Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, 1939), Captain Marvel (Bill Parker and C.C. Beck, 1940), and Captain America (Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, 1941), plus a Phantom Lady caper by Matt Baker (1947). The stories originally came from the following comic books:
4. We then discussed common generic elements in all these stories, using a whiteboard to sketch out some notes. This was most interesting, with comments on topics ranging from nationalism and propaganda through emphasis on technology (rocket ship, serum, radio, etc.) to the physical handsomeness of the characters. I remember that we talked in particular about identities, costumes and titles, and the trope of what we called “the weakling empowered.” Part of what I was hoping to do here was establish, inductively and without any prior definition, a working blueprint for the superhero genre. We spent a lot of time here, very profitably I thought.
5. I then showed and re-showed the opening title sequence of Batman: The Animated Series and we talked in particular about its graphic qualities and its depiction of the city, adding this to our generic blueprint.
6. I hastily explained, as much as the remaining time allowed, certain aspects of the class, including our online resources. In the process, I gave out our first reading assignment, which concerns Superman and his antecedents:
- Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, The Superman Chronicles, Vol. 1
- Tom De Haven, Our Hero: Superman on Earth (first half)
- Philip Wylie, Gladiator (Chapters 1-5, via online e-text)
- Jean-Paul Gabilliet, Of Comics and Men (Chapters 1-2)
- Kent Worcester, “Superman, Philip Wylie & the New Deal,” Comics Forum 1.6 (Spring/Summer 1994)
Looking forward to next week!