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Even those who consider the possibility of the graphic novel as literature often tend to sweep superheroes under the carpet, defending comics with statements like, "Well, there are other things besides superheroes..." My basic goal in this paper is a defense of the superhero genre of comics as a legitimate form of literature.

            I'm sure that Watchmen will come into play, since it is essentially the only superhero comic that is well-regarded in literary circles. I'd also like to look at either Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns or Mark Waid and Alex Ross's Kingdom Come. But I would also like to closely examine some individual issues of major superhero comics like Superman or Batman to assess their worth (or lack thereof) as literature, something that the class title of "Graphic Novel" forces us to otherwise overlook. Unfortunately, I can't really go into anything much more specific until I start closely analyzing these texts, but a few possible points and/or arguments are as follows:

 -Superheroes, to an extent, reflect the conscience and social mores of the period of society from which they are produced.

-Denying superheroes literary status is like denying it to the western, or to science fiction- you can't just ignore an entire genre; you have to separate the good from the bad just like anything else.

-Saying that superhero comics are not literary because they are for entertainment, or because they are written with the goal of sales in mind, is not valid. Mark Twain wrote for the money, and his books were seen in his day as entertainment.

-Superhero concept dates back to Aristotle. He envisioned men possessing superior virtue and self-mastery who would necessarily transcend the external human bureaucratic-administrative framework. (May or may not be relevant).

Outside research beyond primary texts will also need to be done to see what has already been written on the subject. I would also like to tackle the common interpretation of superheroes as a sort of "modern mythology" - Superheroes, I would argue, are not at all analogous to myth in the traditional sense.

            Of course, somewhere along the line I will have to discuss exactly what defines a superhero as a superhero - and for that matter what defines literature as literature.

            Sorry if this is a little muddled and incoherent. I just wrote it this morning.

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3 Comments

  1. I think this is VERY coherent.  The various rebuttals you offer all are good, and your references to genre fiction like westerns makes a lot of sense.  Back in the 1960s, critics like John Cawelti were making a case for their inclusion in the literary canon; thus, perhaps the terrain of your essay has to do with the politics of canon formation as much as any particular text.  That (or they) would serve as a case to stand in for many others.  Obviously Watchmen figures in as the exception which proves the rule.  So how do you avoid a dynamic of bringing up some other, non-Alan-Moore comic -- Miller, Waid/Ross, etc. -- and arguing, in effect, Why Not This One?  That doesn't go anywhere.  Probably the language of reviews is part of your database, or the semi-patronizing articles "introducing" comics to mainstream audiences in Time, etc.  You should know that one of the tactics used by Cawelti and others was a mythological approach; to get a taste of that approach see this link to an excerpt from Will Wright's Six-Guns and Society.  If superheroes aren't analogous to myth, then you'd probably want to at least differentiate your argument from that.  My personal sense is that comics are becoming more and more mainstream, yet the superhero genre remains ghettoized as an adolescent boy preoccupation.  The most recent issue of the New Yorker contains a most snotty review of Watchmen by Anthony Lane that might well serve as your point of departure -- unless it's one of the many other snotty reviews I'm sure you could find.  I'd say make the release of Watchmen film work for you.  I'm glad that you decided to undertake this defence of superheroes!

  2. Unknown User (mkc4)

    I think you have the makings of a very strong paper.  My interest is already sparked.  There is definitely a lot of information available on your subject.  Like Cooper said, with Watchmen coming out, there will be a lot of articles and reviews doing nothing but bashing comic books, primarily super heroes.  All of your possible ideas hold a lost of promise.  I think that your wanting to show how superheores are a type of "modern mythology" can add quite a lot to your paper as long as it doesn't take the focus away too much from what you're trying to convey.  I know that I would probably get sidetracked with this, but I think as long as you apply it well to everything else, it well make for a very strong aspect of your paper.  Your first two ideas also very promising.  I'd say more on them, but I think Cooper's got me covered in his comment.  Again, I'm sure there is a ton of information you can find on all of this.  Best of luck!

  3. Unknown User (ktc3)

    Hey Nathan,

    It sounds like a really neat paper. You have strong ideas that I think will make for a good thesis. I like how you identify a goal ("defending the superhero genre") and outline a couple of interesting tactics to achieve it. I think your point about having " to separate the good from the bad just like anything else" is apt--I've read terrible so-called "literary fiction." One aspect you might want to consider is: what is the criteria for a work to qualify in the canon? Is it thematic? Or does it say more about a genre's readership? I'm not sure, but you could make a pretty interesting argument here, historically tracing how certain genres eventually won incorporation.

    I'm a little wary about your point about mythology. I guess I don't really know what "mythology" means in the traditional sense that you use. I see superhero comics as definitely creating a unique mythology--a distinct formal and thematic language that it applies to universes different from our own. I think describing it is as a modern mythology is quite flattering. Regardless, this seems to be an aspect that your paper ought to cover, whether you reject superhero fiction as mythological (because that sets it apart from the rest of the canon) or accept it.

    The most interesting point of this paper would be to identify which features cause superhero fiction to be exiled from the canon. Like I said, you have some great ideas, and this is flexible and fun paper you could take in a couple ways.

    Good luck! Let me know if need any more feedback.

    -Kevin