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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

That isn’t the name of my first-year writing seminar, but I considered it when revising my syllabus for the upcoming winter term.

I’ve taught my “Superheroes” section of WRIT 100 for years now, making incremental syllabus changes but never an outright reboot. I invariably begin with the first year of Superman, beginning with Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Action Comics No. 1 (1938). I originally followed that with the first year of Batman in Bill Finger and Bob Kane’s Detective Comics (1939), establishing the cornerstones of the comics genre. After that I’ve swapped around a range of other media.

For films, I’ve always liked M. Night’s Shyamalan’s 2000 Unbreakable (though absolutely not his recent sequel Glass). It paired well with Peter Berg’s 2008 Hancock, especially the contrasting roles of Will Smith’s hero and Samuel L. Jackson’s villain. But the homophobia (not just Hancock’s casual insults, but the use of sitcom-style music playing after Hancock apparently shoves a man’s head into another man’s asshole) was just too much. At my daughter’s much appreciated insistence, I replaced it with Patty Jenkin’s 2017 Wonder Woman. (And if you think the gender of the director is insignificant, compare how Justice League director Zach Snyder centers his camera through Gal Godot’s thighs.)

For prose works, I started with Austin Grossman’s 2007 Soon I Will Be Invincible (still one of my favorite novels), but soon swapped it for editors Owen King and John McNally’s 2008 collection Who Will Save Us Now? Brand-New Superheroes and Their Amazing (Short) Stories (assigning literally all of the female authors, to balance the all-male authors of the early comics).

For poetry, Gary Jackson’s 2009 collection Missing You, Metropolis (which won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize) is unbeatable. (And as a happy result of teaching him, I also just completed a chapter on Jackson for the essay collection Mixed-Race Superheroes forthcoming next year from Rutgers University Press.)

At the end of each semester, I would return to comics for a contemporary look at superheroes. G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona’s 2014 Ms. Marvel: No Normal was always on the top of my and later my students’ favorite lists. Greg Rucka and J. H. Williams’ 2010 Batwoman: Elegy got more mixed reviews the more times I taught it, happily because the presentation of the first lesbian hero to star in her own series grew more dated as students questioned why the writer was making such a big deal about the character’s sexuality.

I like to assign a range of secondary readings too. Editors Robin S. Rosenberg and Peter Coogan’s 2013 essay collection What is a Superhero? (from Oxford) and Matthew J. Smith and Randy Duncan’s 2011 Critical Approaches to Comics (from Routledge) are useful. The gender balance in comics scholarship is not great, so I tend to highlight female scholars. Claire Pitkethly’s “Straddling a Boundary” is one of my all-time favorite essays, and Jennifer K. Stuller’s “What is a Female Superhero?” and “Feminism: Second-wave Feminism in the Pages of Lois Lane” have been equally helpful. Kara Kvaran’s “Super Daddy Issues: Parental Figures, Masculinity, and Superhero Films” was key for Unbreakable and Hancock. And how could I not include the introductory essay “Representation Matters” from Carolyn Cocca’s 2016 Eisner Award-winning Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation?

This year I’m adding an excerpt from Rachelle Cruz’s textbook Experiencing Comics (even better, Cruz is also joining the editorial board of my university’s literary journal Shenandoah as guest comics editor this winter). I’m also adding Kenneth Ghee’s “Will the Real Black Superheroes Please Stand up?! A Critical and Analysis of the Mythological Cultural Significance of Black Superheroes” from Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation. That’s from Bloomsbury, an increasingly impressive home for comics studies, since they also publish Carolyn Cocca and Neil Cohn. (Happily, my and Leigh Ann Beavers’ textbook Creating Comics will be out from Bloomsbury next month, and I just signed a contract with them for my next book, The Comics Form, for 2022.)

In the past, I’ve tended to change one primary text at a time. For the section that starts in January, I’m adding works by three new authors: Nnedi Okorafor’s 2019 comic Shuri: The Search for Black Panther and her 2015 novella Binti (which won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novella);

Eve L. Ewing’s 2019 comic Ironheart: Those With Courage and her 2017 poetry collection Electric Arches (Ewing, who has a Ph.D. from Harvard, also wrote the 2018 Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, which I considered excerpting, but a syllabus only has so much room);

and Ta-Nehisi Coates 2017 comic Black Panther and the Crew: We Are the Streets. I am also adding an excerpt of G. Willow Wilson’s 2010 memoir The Butterfly Mosque.

Okorafor’s Binti is not a superhero text, but I’m looking forward to reading the science fiction story about a young Black woman from a futuristic Earth traveling across the galaxy to attend a university against Okorafor’s portrayal of Shuri, the sister of the original Black Panther. Ewing’s Electric Arches is not superhero text either, but it should also read well against her portrayal of Riri Williams, the young Black woman who assumed the renamed role of Iron Man in 2015. It will also be nice to give Gary Jackson some poetry company. Wilson’s The Butterfly Mosque describes her conversion to Islam, which should add an interesting angle of analysis to her portrayal of Ms. Marvel, AKA Kamala Kahn. (Unlike previous years, my students should enter class with plenty of exposure to the correct pronunciation of her first name.)

Ta-Nehisi Coates is best known for Between the World and Me, which won the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Marvel Comics responded by offering Coates a new Black Panther series, which premiered in 2016. Black Panther and the Crew is one of his short-lived but therefore stand-alone spin-offs, featuring a range of Marvel’s Black superhero characters. I suspect it will especially resonate in our current Black Lives Matter context. (Unfortunately, my college announced after I placed my book orders that our winter calendar will include three “class free” days TBA, requiring some scheduled syllabus content to be cancelled. Since Coates is flying solo, his comic is a potential sacrifice–though I really hope not.)

I’m also adding a collection of William Moulton Marston and Harry Peter’s early 1940s Wonder Woman comics to pair with Superman (though the creators are all still male). In total I’m keeping three primary texts (Superman, Ms. Marvel, Gary Jackson) and adding six. That’s the most I’ve shaken up my WRIT 100 since I switched the course topic to superheroes five years ago (it used to be called “I see Dead People” and featured a lot of Henry James and zombies). An alumnus wrote and distributed his opinion essay to the W&L community two years ago, advocating that, based solely on my title “Superheroes,” the course and I should be “eliminated” for “dumbing down” the curriculum at W&L. Since my revised syllabus adds a National Book Award winner, a Nebula and Hugo Awards winner, and a Harvard Ph.D, in addition to a pre-existing Cave Canem Poetry Prize winner, I hope I am safe from that criticism this year.

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