ENG480 202002 Undergraduate

Winter 2021
ENG 480
Applies To: 
Course Description: 

Examination of the path of the American comic book superhero and an exploration of the ways in which that journey reflects large processes of social change.

Modern American Superhero

Ben Saunders

Ben Saunders profile picture
  • Title: Professor
  • Additional Title: Director, Comics and Cartoon Studies Minor
  • Phone: 541-346-0062
  • Office: 273 PLC
  • Office Hours: Spring 2021: Wednesday 12 pm - 3 pm
Department Section Description: 

Once upon a time, the four-color world of the superhero was a comfortingly simple place.  Whether they came from distant galaxies or our home planet, the super-powered beings of the 1940s and 50s were secure in their sense of righteousness and generally saw no contradiction between truth, justice, and the American way.  But in the 1960s, superheroes experienced a crisis of confidence.  They became neurotic, more driven by guilt than moral absolutes, more likely to be feared and misunderstood than revered and admired.  By the 1980s it had become hard to tell the heroes from the villains.  In Watchmen (1986), one of the most influential comic-book narratives of the late 20th century, superheroes were variously reimagined as emotionally damaged and politically reactionary—symptoms of a broken society rather than symbols of fortitude, fairness, and decency.  In the 1990s, the American comic book industry came close to collapse; sales fell, and publishers and stores across the country closed their doors.  For a time it looked like it might be all over for the spandex set.  But today, thanks to the global influence of Hollywood, superhero fantasies are more popular than ever.

What can we learn from all this?  What are the key turning points in the progress of this curious, hybrid genre?  What are the most influential superhero stories, and why?  Who created them, and in what circumstances?  And what might the history of the superhero tell us about our culture, politics, and values?  In this class we will map the path of the American superhero and consider the ways in which that journey reflects larger processes of social change.  We will also analyze superhero comic books as significant aesthetic achievements in themselves: expressions of a misunderstood and often under-appreciated genre and art form.  We will try to formulate a suitable critical vocabulary to discuss this remarkable artistic legacy.  By the end of the class, we will better understand the extraordinary imaginative appeal of the costumed crime-fighter—an appeal that apparently overlaps significant distinctions of age, gender, nation, and culture, and which no amount of silliness or cynicism seems quite able to dispel.


C-Literature 1789-Present

Literature, 1789 to the present courses focus on literary work produced over more than two centuries -- from the period of British romanticism and the early republic of the United States up to now -- in order to foster familiarity with key works in British and American literary history.  Literary history illustrates how literary works reflect, address, and resist the social and political environments in which they are produced as well as other works that have preceded them.


Media, Folklore, and/or Culture courses focus on print and non-print media to explore culture and its processes of creative expression.

English Minor

English Minor courses offer students centuries of cultural experience and representation in poetry, prose, drama, film, TV, new media, and folk artifacts.  The English minor can focus and extend the values of a liberal arts education, while also providing extensive training in writing, speaking, and critical thinking.

Comics Studies Minor

Comics Studies Minor courses present students with an international, historical, and critical perspective on the art of editorial cartoons, comic books, and graphic novels, and how these forms communicate, inform, and emotionally engage their audiences.  Students will be required to think outside of accustomed disciplinary boundaries, and to analyze and experiment with the interaction of both visual and linguistic systems of meaning.