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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: syllabus

We do seek out new Avengers!

As a kid reading comics, I loved when superhero teams scrambled their rosters. For The Avengers No. 137, “We Do Seek Out New Avengers!,” Vision and the Scarlet Witch left on their honeymoon, Yellowjacket and Wasp rejoined, and Moondragon replaced the recently deceased Swordsman, leaving Hawkeye’s spot (he went off in a time machine to find the Black Knight) to be filled via an open call at Shea Stadium, where only the Beast showed up. Sounds easy, but when the Defenders televised a similar recruiting call three years later, the team was inundated with 23 would-be members, from canonical crushers Captain Marvel and Iron Man (cover appearance only) to inspired backpagers White Tiger and Prowler.

The Defenders No. 62 cover features team leader Nighthawk holding his apparently throbbing head and roaring at the impressionistically pint-sized heroes buzzing around him. Which is how I feel as I juggle the roster for a would-be course on the recent American novel. Even my open call “I Do Seek Out American Novelists!” attracts trouble, since that Canadian crusher Margaret Atwood showed up in the Shea Stadium of my brain (so does that mean I have to add “North” to the course title?). I already sent her Nobel-winning countrywoman Alice Munro home on a technicality (“Novel” not simply “Fiction”), which still leaves over twenty superpowered authors buzzing across my cover.


Writer Steve Englehart and editor Marv Wolfman weighed a dozen factors when revising the Avengers in 1975. It must be hard tossing out fan favorites like Wanda and Vision, but see how they replaced them with another married couple? And notice how they improved gender distribution by swapping in Moondragon?  (Though, okay, the female count plummeted back to one when Wasp gets hospitalized in her return issue). Of course you still want some of the old standards, Thor and Iron Man, while leaving room for an unexpected choice like the newly blue-furred Beast. And what happens when you put all these costumes in the same room? How do they get along?

Syllabus-assembling makes the same demands: are these powerful books, a balanced range, what story do they tell when they stand shoulder-to-shoulder? By balanced, I mean are half by women? Are half not by white authors? It’s not political correctness but good storytelling. If a course representing the last sixty or so years of the American novel consists mostly of Caucasian men, the story is: white guys write the best stuff. That’s a stupid story, so I know four of my roughly eight slots are going to be filled by women, and four by non-WASPs. Though that doesn’t reduce the swarm of authors in Shea Stadium much.

The Englehart-Wolfman Avengers range from the team’s oldest character (Henry Pym was buzzing around in 1962) to the two-year-old Moondragon (plucked from the 1973 pages of Daredevil). When I taught a 21st century American lit course, I had about the same age range and so felt free to juggle the reading order by convenience and whim. But a span of sixtysome years requires a more disciplined time machine. Start in the 50s and bound forward decade by decade. That draws attention to gaps though, so suddenly distribution matters too. That’s one of many good reasons that Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony made my first cut, as a rep of my underpopulated 70s favorites (I prefer that decade’s short stories).  It also means my overpopulated 80s is a problem, so DeLillo’s White Noise could be in trouble.

And what about genre types? In addition to two insect-sized humans, the 1975 Avengers include a mutant, an alien-trained telepath, a cyborg, and a god. So I should probably hit the key literary schools too. Pynchon is an easy pick for Metafiction, though Nabokov’s Pale Fire is even more fun. New Journalism’s “nonfiction novel” list is harder to prune: Capote, Mailer, Thompson, Didion, and of course my college’s beloved alum Wolfe. But if experimental memoirs are fair game, then I want Kingston’s Woman Warrior on my team (okay, maybe I do like the 70s). So maybe it’s better to swat away all things nonfiction?

I called my 21st century fiction course Thrilling Tales and focused on the pleasant collision of traditional literary novels with the formerly lowbrow genres of scifi, fantasy and mystery. I could make the second half of the 20th century an Old Testament to that thesis. Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is an alternate future, and Morrison’s Beloved a ghost story. Chabon won his Pulitzer for transforming superheroes into literary subject matter, and what’s The Crying of Lot 49 but a riff on thriller conventions? Egan’s genre-splicing A Visit from the Goon Squad could cap it all, and, for a truly blue-furred freak, I could shoehorn in Watchmen (I know, Alan Moore is British, but his and Dave Gibbons’s collaboration was very American, which, by the way, made Time’s ALL-TIME 100 Novels, thank you, Lev Grossman).

If you want to push the genre angle even further, swap out Flannery O’Connor for Patricia Highsmith. Or revise the subtitle to “Since World War 2” and open with Wright’s Native Son. Trade Pale Fire for Lolita and suddenly the course opens with a legion of supervillains: Bigger Thomas, Mr. Ripley, Humbert Humbert. Maybe I need to read Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho next? Baker’s The Fermata is a bound too far, though White Noise and its “Hitler Studies” is back in the running. I was thinking about Jones’ The Known World, but I just finished Whitehead’s Zone One, and all those zombies pair so well with the horrors of Beloved and the shadowy PTSD of Ceremony. Maybe the name of this course is American Monsters?

I was nine when I started reading The Avengers. My students are about nineteen, but they have something in common with my former Bronze Age self. Englehart and Wolfman mixed and matched their roster, knowing theirs was just the latest incarnation of a team other writers would continue to juggle for decades. But No. 137 was the first Avengers comic I ever saw. This wasn’t one version of an evolving team. This was THE Avengers. And for the students on my would-be class roster, this is the only American Novel Since 1950 course they will ever take.

And at the moment it looks something like this:

1955       Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley

1966       Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

1977       Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony

1985       Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

1987       Toni Morrison, Beloved

1986       Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons, Watchmen

1999       Michael Chabon, The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

2010       Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad

2011       Colson Whitehead, Zone One

Avengers 137

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What do you want to be when you group up? My daughter, like lots of teens, has been fielding that question since she was two. She’s looking at colleges now, so the question has morphed into “What do you want to major in?” But she told me that her answer, her secret answer, the heart of hearts answer she’ll never write on any application form, hasn’t changed since she wore big girl pull-ups:


That’s still the first word that pops into her head. “Astronaut” is the second. But Batman is better. “He doesn’t have X-ray vision or any other crazy powers,” she says, “but he still spends his life and money helping people.” Also the Batmobile is really cool. And his ears. My daughter has always thought the bat ears on his hood were cute. She used to chew on them. The dolls in our attic have her teeth marks.

Several graduate and undergraduate programs in comic book studies have popped up since she stopped hosting tea parties with action figures, but to the best of my knowledge, no school offers a major in Batman. Not even mine. We live a five-minute stroll from campus, so my daughter would rather blast off to an alien planet than stay in our Virginia smallville for college. Her brother is still in middle school, and still peruses the occasional comic book from my childhood trove. He’s gnawed on his fair share of attic superheroes, but I suspect he’ll be feeling the warmth of alien suns soon too.

Which means neither will get to take my Superheroes course. I’m teaching it for the fifth time this spring. It spawned back in 2008 when a group of honor students were scouring campus for a professor willing to design and teach a seminar on superheroes. They’d suffered a few rounds of blank stares and grinning rejections when they wandered into my wife’s office. She was chairing our English department at the time, and you’ll never guess whose office she sent them to next. I said yes. Of course I said yes. I’d always enjoyed comics as a kid and then with our own kids. Now I’d just augment that with a bit of research.

My wife doesn’t regret her choice, but neither of us predicted the black hole-sized obsession the topic would open in me. Conference panels, print symposiums, international journals, radio interviews, cybercasts, newspaper op-eds, lit mags, one-act festivals, my appetite for cape-and-mask forums keeps expanding. When my wife and another good friend spurred me to start a blog, neither had superheroes in mind then either. I could blame those meddling honors students, but that first class of sidekicks flew off to solo adventures years ago. I’m the one who keeps offering revised versions of the course every year while posting blog links on campus notices once a week.

The first day of ENG 255 usually begins with some polite but bemused variation on “Why superheroes, Professor?” Colleagues ask me the same, only with the preface “Don’t take this the wrong way but.” The short answer is easy. Superheroes, like most of our pop culture productions, reflect who we are. And since superheroes have been flying for decades, they document our evolution too. On the surface of their unitards, they’re just pleasantly absurd wish-fulfillments. But our nation’s history of obsessions broils just under those tights: sexuality, violence, prejudice, politics, our most nightmarish fears, our most utopian aspirations, it’s all swirling in there. But you have to get up close. You have to be willing to wrestle a bit. I think we should pull on Superman’s cape. I think we all need to sink our teeth into Batman’s head.

Spring registration at Washington & Lee University starts soon. I have yet to work visiting superhero poet Tim Seibles into the schedule yet, but for interested students and the occasional scholar who’s asked me for a copy, here’s the syllabus-in-progress:

ENGL 255: Superheroes

The course will explore the early development of the superhero character and narrative form, focusing on pulp literature texts published before the first appearance of Superman in 1938. The cultural context, including Nietzsche’s Ubermensch philosophy and the eugenics movement, will also be central. The second half of the course will be devoted to the evolution of the superhero in fiction, comic books, and film, from 1938 to the present. Students will read, analyze, and interpret literary and cultural texts to produce their own analytical and creative works.


The Scarlet Pimpernel, Baroness Orczy

The Adventures of Jimmie Dale, Frank L. Packard

Gladiator, Philip Wylie

Superman Chronicles, Vol. 1, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster

Batman Chronicles, Vol. 1, Bob Kane, Bill Finger

Wonder Woman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told

Marvel Firsts: 1960s

Soon I Will Be Invincible, Austin Grossman

Missing You, Metropolis, Garry Jackson

Additional texts: 

Spring-Heeled Jack, Anonymous

(excerpt from) Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Frederick Nietzsche

“The Revolutionist’s Handbook,” George Barnard Shaw

(excerpt from) Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs

(excerpt from) A Civic Biology Presented in Problems, George Hunter

“The Reign of the Superman,” Jerry Siegel

(excerpt from) The Clansman, Thomas Dixon, Jr.

“A Retrieved Reformation,” O. Henry

(excerpt from) The Curse of Capistrano, Johnston McCulley

“The Girl from Mars,” Jack Williamson and Miles J. Breuer

(excerpt from) Alias the Night Wind,

“Don’t Laugh at the Comics” (1940), William Moulton Marston

“The Sad Case of the Funnies” (1941), James Frank Vlamos

“Why 100,000 Americans Read Comics” (1943), William Moulton Marston

(excerpt from) Love and Death: A Study in Censorship (1949), Gershon Legman

Comics Code Authority Guidelines

“Secret Skin: An essay in unitard theory” (2008), Michael Chabon

VQR Spring 2008 Superhero Stories


The Mark of Zorro (1920)

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

The Gladiator (1938)

Look, Up in the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman (2006)

Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked (2003)

Unbreakable (2000)

Hancock (2008)

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (2008)


The Shadow, The Blue Beetle

Writing Assignments:

1. Two 4-page analytical essays examining assigned texts on topics of your design.

2.  A 6-page essay combining creative and analytical writing. You will invent superheroes and discuss the characters’ relationships to the history of the genre, responding to specific literary and cultural elements of the evolving formula.

Week One


*early afternoon film: Look, Up in the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman (2006)

Tues     Superman Chronicles; “Don’t Laugh at the Comics”

Wed    eugenics chronology; Nietzsche Zarathustra (excerpt); Shaw Handbook (excerpt); Tarzan (excerpt); Civic Biology (excerpt); “The Reign of the Superman”; Nazi response to Superman; selected historical newspaper article

Thurs   Spring-Heeled Jack; The Scarlet Pimpernel (chapters 1-14);

Fri        Scarlet Pimpernel (complete); The Clansman (excerpt);

*early afternoon essay conferences

Week Two

Mon     rough draft of 4-page essay due

Radio serial: The Shadow

* optional paper conferences after class

Tues   Jimmie Dale (Chapters 1, 2, ?, 11, and one additional story); “A Retrieved Reformation”;

“Murder by Proxy”

* early afternoon film: The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

Wed    final draft of essay due; The Curse of Capistrano (excerpt)

Early morning film: The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Thurs   Gladiator (Chapters 1-11); “The Girl from Mars”     

Fri        Gladiator (complete); Alias the Night Wind (excerpt)

* early afternoon film: The Gladiator (1938)

Week Three

Mon     Batman; “The Sad Case of the Funnies” (1941); “The Shadowy Origins of Batman”

Radio serial: Blue Beetle

Tues     rough draft of 4-page essay due

*early afternoon film: Hancock (2008); begin superhero project               

Wed    NO CLASS; individual essay conferences

Thurs   final draft of essay due; “Secret Skin”

            morning film: Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked (2003)

Fri        Wonder Woman; “Why 100,000 Americans Read Comics” (1943)

Week Four

Mon     Marvel Firsts (selections); Comics Code; preliminary draft of superhero

*early afternoon film: Unbreakable (2000)

Tues     Soon I Will Be Invincible (Part One, to p. 153) [BEGIN CLASS AT 9:00]**

*7:00 Austin Grossman reading, Northen Auditorium

Wed    Soon I Will Be Invincible (complete)

Austin Grossman class visit

presentations of superheroes

*early afternoon conferences

Thurs   VQR Spring 2008 Superhero Stories

presentations of superheroes

Fri        Missing You, Metropolis

presentations of superheroes

* Superhero poster exhibition at the library during the Spring Term Festival from 12-3

Sat       Final draft of project due 12:00 at my office




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