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.
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.