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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Washington and Lee University

I teach genre theory.

Currently, my course North American Contemporary Fiction focuses on what I term “literary genre fiction,” the Venn diagram overlap of “literary” (which is itself a genre) and traditional “genres” (which include, for example, mystery, horror, romance, science fiction, post-apocalypse, and alternate history). My Advanced Fiction Workshop has the same focus, but from a creative-writing perspective.

I do not teach nonfiction, but nonfiction falls into subgenres too. For instance, a speaker appearing soon on my campus works in what I would term “extreme rightwing partisan political entertainment.”

I’ll try to clarify that.

Rather than Venn diagrams, picture circles inside circles, beginning with the largest outer circle labeled: “entertainment.”

Entertainment includes all kinds of overlapping subgenres, but focus on just one of those inner circles: “political entertainment.”

I use the term to distinguish content from political news. While it’s possible that all political commentary falls under “political entertainment,” and that all news sources suffer some level of bias (albeit in some cases minor), I define the category primarily by audience and so audience expectations, which are shaped by and in turn shape production intentions.

The goal of political entertainment is to please a specific political audience. This means that it is not primarily designed for accuracy or truth. That doesn’t mean that claims made within political entertainment are necessarily inaccurate or false. It means the claims are made without any regard to accuracy or truth. In philosophical terms, it’s bullshit. (If you haven’t read Harry Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit,” please do.)

Here’s an example from the genre of legal studies. When Tucker Carlson was sued for slander in 2020, his defense team successfully argued that Carlson is playing a TV persona who no “reasonable viewer” could take seriously and so is therefore incapable of committing slander. The court agreed that, as a political entertainer, Carlson “is not ‘stating actual facts’ about the topics he discusses and is instead engaging in ‘exaggeration’ and ‘non-literal commentary.” He is “simply bloviating for his audience.”

Most political entertainment is partisan, but there are probably exceptions. I don’t watch Bill Mahar’s Politically Incorrect, but it may be an example of political entertainment that doesn’t fall clearly into the next subdivision. Mahar has been described as “liberal” at times and “conservative” at others and, from what I can gather, his style of comedy and commentary cuts in multiple political directions.

Mahar’s neighboring circle, “partisan political entertainment,” is much larger. It divides into two further circles: “leftwing partisan political entertainment” and “rightwing partisan political entertainment.”

The first includes comedians such as John Stewart, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Trevor Noah, and Michael Moore. It also includes non-comedian pundits addressing similar leftwing audiences. I don’t watch MSNBC, but I believe there are a number employed there, perhaps most prominently Rachel Maddow.

The second, “rightwing” circle includes fewer comedians (I can’t think of any with weekly platforms), but the list of pundits is much longer and includes, for example, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Matt Drudge, Ann Coulter, Lou Dobbs, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck.

Both of the two circles within “partisan political entertainment” include one further inner circle each: “extreme leftwing” and “extreme rightwing.” Perhaps some of the names listed above belong in those innermost circles. While Fox News and MSNBC are explicitly and sharply partisan, they tend not to be rated as extremely biased as Breitbart, Newsmax, OAN, and Daily Caller on the right, or HuffPost, Daily Beast, or Daily Kos on the left.

InfoWars is so extreme it may deserve its own even further inner-innermost category, but certainly any commentator working at Daily Kos or Daily Wire falls into the genre of “extreme partisan political entertainment.”

That includes Markos Moulitsas on the far left and Matt Walsh on the far right.

In 2015, my small liberal arts university adopted the Chicago Principles, which state that “debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed” and that “fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.”

I strongly agree with those principles.

Which is why I dislike partisan political entertainment.

I happily admit that I have watched and enjoyed Stewart, Oliver, and Bee, though none recently. I got bored by each of their comedy styles. That means that as an audience member I understood myself to be consuming comedy. As a genre, comedy does not foster “deliberation,” let alone “in an effective and responsible manner.”

Neither does political entertainment generally.

So while my university’s administration evokes the Chicago Principles as reason for having to accept an extreme rightwing partisan political entertainer on campus, the invited speaker violates those principles. He impedes the ability of members of the University’s community to engage in debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner.

To be clear, the issue is not whether the invited speaker expresses ideas that are “offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” He does. But so does philosopher Kathleen Stock (who believes “many trans women are still males”). Stock, however, expresses offensive ideas in a manner that does foster deliberation. That’s because she’s working in the genre of philosophy, not political entertainment. If the student organization that invited the speaker actually wishes our campus community to deliberate the question “What is a woman?” (the title of their speaker’s presentation) then they have failed overwhelmingly. Their spectacle instead achieves the opposite.

And, disturbingly, that is its goal.

The presentation is funded in part by Young America’s Foundation, an organization that Amy Binder and Jeff Kidder discuss in their 2022 The Channels of Student Activism: How the Left and Right Are Winning (and Losing) in Campus Politics Today:

“Many outside organizations encourage students on the right to plan events specifically designed to incite outrage among their left-leaning peers. Once outrage is successfully sparked, and progressive students demand that administrators do something in response, the front line of conservative politics shifts to protecting the speech rights of reactionaries and provocateurs…. Ultimately, it is the influence of outside players—such as the Leadership Institute, Turning Point, Young America’s Foundation, PragerU, and Young Americans for Liberty, as well as local donors helping to fund their preferred campus clubs—that make speech uniquely effective in reactionary mobilization.”

(Please read Henry Farrell’s “Conservatives on campus” for more on the above.)

Young America’s Foundation, the invited speaker, and the student organization (to the degree that its members accepted the outside funding to host the speaker) are intentionally undermining the principle of careful and meaningful deliberation that is at the heart of their institution’s educational mission.

And there’s nothing to be done about that.

The next question before that student organization, the university administration, and the overall campus community is:

What practical steps can we begin now so that this doesn’t happen again?

Or, in terms of genre, can we please cut the bullshit?

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Last winter an alumni group distributed an essay titled “The ‘Dumbing Down’ of the Curriculum at W&L” to their mailing list. My courses Creating Comics and Superheroes were in the top two slots for courses that the unnamed author considered “of dubious academic value, dedicated to the espousal of a political agenda, trivial, inane, or some combination of the above.” The author suggested eliminating these and other courses and also “eliminating some of the professors who teach them.” I responded in my blog post “Why I Shouldn’t be Fired for Teaching Comics.”

The author of “Dumbing Down,” Neely Young, emailed me in September with multiple attachments including a “response to your post of May, 2019. As we say, we would have responded sooner but we were not aware of your post.” He added: ” I really think we all should realize that, at this point, any communication between us should be considered as in the public domain. That is, unless both sides agree to confidentiality in advance.”

I wrote back: “I would be happy to sit down and chat. Shall we get coffee some time?”

Neely: “I would be more comfortable meeting with you after you have had a chance to read over all of the material. I think it would make our conversation more productive. I’m not saying that you have to respond to anything which I have written prior to our meeting, although you are free to do so. I’m saying that some of my ideas about how we might move forward in increasing communication between the various parts of the W&L community are sort of embedded in my letter. We can talk further about this when we meet.”

Chris: “I had already read the newsletter and I read your letter to me and the short essay regarding Chavis and Robinson before responding. Since you said you didn’t want “to litigate past differences of opinion but to discuss ways to improve communication,” I didn’t respond to any of the content. I can of course respond to the content in person or by email, but my main interest is in finding common ground and that’s probably done best by sitting down together.”

Neely: “I couldn’t agree with you more. Just let me know when and where you would like to meet.”

We met at Lexington Coffee. Neely emailed afterwards thanking me, saying he “enjoyed our conversation,” and suggesting that we meet again with other members of his alumni group: “I am thinking the focus should be on possible public, on campus meetings to discuss recent developments at the university and its future direction. I am also thinking that it would be good if we could find some topics to discuss initially where compromise or agreement could be reached among the various university constituencies. I welcome your thoughts on this. As I said previously, if you would like to ask another faculty member to accompany you to our next meeting, that would be fine.”

Chris: “I’m glad we met for coffee, and I hope to continue to expand our better understanding of each other. With that goal in mind, will you do me the honor of reading some of my research? I’ve attached two articles that I think might provide some sense of the work I’m doing in relation to your “Dumbing Down the Curriculum” paper.”

Neely: “I will certainly read it, but I am not sure I am qualified to comment on it. I am sure there is something to be learned from any area of study.”

Chris: “As a published historian with UVa Press, you should be more than qualified.”

The essays I gave him were “The Well-born Superhero,” published in the Journal of American Culture, and “The Ku Klux Klan and the birth of the superhero,” published in the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics. Both trace the development of the superhero character type through the eugenics movement in early the 20th-century U.S.

Neely contacted me again in October. After describing the Generals Redoubt’s new website, he wrote:

I have now read both of the essays which you sent me, and I am afraid that I am in pretty much the same position that I was before you sent them to me. That is, I have almost no familiarity with the subject/s upon which you are opining and do not feel qualified to comment. I will say that I think your research and writing are excellent and that you are certainly qualified from a scholarly perspective.

This is not the same thing as saying what or what should not be included in the curriculum. But that is a subject for another day. Indeed, I would like to meet with you again at your convenience and would like to bring a friend with me. Barry Brown lives in Lexington and is a former parent. Her family has been involved with Washington and Lee almost since its inception, and she is a member of the Executive Committee of The Generals Redoubt. The main thing I would like to discuss is how we might move forward in setting up some on campus forums, panel discussions, etc. involving various elements of the W&L community. However, I am open to discussing any other issues which you like. I am also open to your bringing someone else with you if you like.

I would also like to say that I have revised my essay on “Dumbing Down the Curriculum” to delete any mention of eliminating faculty positions. This is not my place or concern. Otherwise, the essay is pretty much the same. I will be publishing the revised edition in upcoming material on our website.


Good to hear from you. Congratulations on launching the website—I know personally the challenges involved—and I look forward to reading your new essay “Ideological Diversity.” I’m also pleased to hear that you have decided to drop the part about eliminating faculty positions from your “Dumbing Down” essay.

May I ask if my courses will still be featured at the top of the “Dumbing Down” list? While I acknowledge there are some differences between scholarship and teaching, W&L as you know encourages a teacher-scholar model, and my work especially reflects that. The idea for “Superheroes” came from a group of honors students who sought out a professor willing to develop and teach a syllabus on their behalf. When they found me, I had done no research into superheroes or comics, but I said yes, and that has since led to four books, two from the University of Iowa Press  and two from Bloomsbury. I also have a contract under way from Routledge for a fifth.

If you consider my research and writing to be excellent, it would seem odd if you maintained that courses based on that research could be “of dubious academic value,” “trivial,” and “inane” as you previously stated. At that time your opinion was based only on the names of the courses—which is why I accurately accused you of conducting “shallow research” last spring on my blog. Having read the two essays I forwarded, you now know at least some elements of actual content covered in the courses. When we met for coffee last month, you seemed like a reasonable person, and so I find it difficult to believe that you could still characterize my teaching as “dumbing down” W&L’s curriculum. Am I mistaken?


Thanks for your prompt reply. It is my opinion that the courses which should or should not be offered at W&L is a discussion we can save for another time. I am thinking that this can be a part of the public forums which could take place on campus. When I say a part, I mean that there could be a broad conversation about what constitutes a quality liberal arts education. As I said, what I would like to do is set up another meeting with you and my colleague, Barry Brown, to talk about the possibility of setting up these public forums and discussing what topics might be discussed at these forums.


I agree course offerings is a general topic that can be discussed in a public forum, but my concern is more specific and immediate. Honestly, I’m startled that you want to include “Dumbing Down” on the website. I thought you’d let that one quietly go. It is not very good. I don’t mean that I disagree with its opinions (which, as you know, I do); I mean its opinions are poorly presented. I disagree with opinions in your other essays, but they don’t suffer from the same weaknesses. Your writing in your summer newsletter, for example, might earn a B in my Writing 100, but “Dumbing Down” wouldn’t receive a passing grade. This is because, as I explained in my blog post, it shows “bias, shallow research, inadequate argumentation, and hypocritical rhetoric.”

You objected to that assessment when you wrote me last month, implying it was based on my disagreeing with your opinions. I disagree with many of your opinions, but the assessment applies only to “Dumbing Down” for the reasons I carefully detailed. You also wrote: “I have read your arguments for maintaining courses in Comic Books and Superheroes, and, although I appreciate your perspective, I am not convinced by your arguments.” But I explicitly stated: “I do not feel the need to present counter arguments.” Since I didn’t make any arguments for maintaining my courses, it is not possible for you to have been convinced or not convinced by them.

That you could imagine that you read such arguments does not reflect well on your reading skills, but I have a much larger concern. You have now read two of my “excellent” essays that emerged from my superhero and comics courses, but you still intend to keep those courses on your “Dumbing Down” list, continuing to call them inane, trivial, frivolous, and of dubious academic value.

You also expect me to help you organize campus forums and panel discussions with faculty. To do that, I would have to assure my colleagues that you are a reasonable person who is sincerely open to meaningful conversation. But a reasonable person would not draw conclusions about courses based only on their titles. A reasonable person would also not continue to malign a professor after acknowledging the excellence of his research and writing.

You said in your letter that “we will have to agree to disagree.” I had hoped that we could instead develop common ground and bring opposing sides of the W&L community into better understanding and compromise. But if you can’t change your stance about the comparatively inconsequential issue of my courses, then continuing our conversations seems pointless.


I do not intend to argue with you about all of these points. It seems to me you are getting into a lot of semantics here. For example, when I said that I was not convinced by your argument, perhaps I should just have said that I am not convinced at this point that such courses should be taught. What difference does it make how it is stated? At this point, I am still not convinced that such course should be taught. But I would rather focus on some things about which we might be able to find agreement rather than on things about which we disagree. For example, I can see a series of public forums taking place on a series of topics such as ideological diversity, curricular matters, the legacy of Lee, freedom of speech and expression, etc. You use a lot of strong language like saying that I lack “reading skills” and am attempting to “malign” you, that I am not a reasonable person, etc. It is almost as if you are seeking excuses for not having another meeting. If you would like to meet with me again to discuss how we might move forward in creating a dialogue between faculty, students, alums, and other members of the W&L community, I am glad to do so. If you do not, then I suppose that is the end of our conversation. However, I will note that you are the one ending this conversation, not me. We will continue to work with others to create dialogue among the various elements of the university.


You said you “would rather focus on some things about which we might be able to find agreement rather than on things about which we disagree.” I shared my articles with you in the hope that we would come to that sort of agreement. I thought that because your initial claim was made in ignorance (I mean that literally not pejoratively), once you learned something about my actual course content, your opinions would evolve. You said you’re “still not convinced that such course should be taught,” but there’s quite a distance between that position and your continuing claim that my courses are inane, trivial, frivolous, and of dubious academic value. In what sense are you not disparaging me? Why do you object to my “strong language” but not your own?

You said you want my help organizing “public forums” on topics including “curricular matters.” Why do you want to discuss these matters publicly but not privately with me? My goal is to bridge differences between opposing viewpoints in our community. If the forums would help achieve that, then I would support them. But your emails suggest that you are not interested in bridging differences but only in maintaining and more widely espousing intractable opinions.

Looking over your previous email, I hear the unpleasant echo of a reading quiz where a student creates the impression of having done the homework but on rereading I see there is not a single reference to content of any kind. I selected those two articles because their arguments are historical, and you are a historian and so should “feel qualified to comment.” How is it possible to feel unqualified to comment on my essays to me privately and yet continue to feel qualified to comment to your 8,000-member mailing list on my courses (about which you know only their titles)?

Instead of taking insult at your “Dumbing Down” essay, I have been trying to engage with you personally. The so-called inanity of my courses seemed like an ideal side topic because it has nothing to do with the main focus of the Generals Redoubt and so I thought with a little mutual effort and openness we would arrive at a better understanding, one that could be a stepping stone to wider growth. You said to me over our first coffee that your essay “wasn’t personal,” meaning you had no idea who taught my courses when you wrote it. You no longer have that luxury. We know each other. We sat and talked for 90 minutes. That should have been the first step toward something better.

And perhaps it still will be. I am happy to meet with you again, and with Barry Brown (I hope she has made a full recovery from her surgery). But please understand that my goal is actual conversation. I have no interest in helping you build a soap box to espouse opinions that you maintain in the face of greater counter evidence. That is my working definition of “unreasonable.”


Here is what I am willing to do; I hope you are willing to do the same. If not, I will understand. I am certainly willing to meet with you again. I am willing to discuss further with you the topics which you raise in the email you sent to me, but I am not willing to do so ad nauseum. It is possible that at the end of the day, we will still disagree on some of these issues. Even if we do, I don’t see why we can’t move forward in setting up some public forums to discuss these issues on campus and involve people with different points of view. You may see it as a “soapbox”, but I see it as an opportunity for all sides to discuss issues which I feel were not adequately discussed before the issuance of the History Commission report and the directive of the Board in fall, 2018.

I will say that my language was not directed at you personally, but at the course which you are teaching as well as some other courses. I do not see this as disparaging you. I am interested in a broader discussion of what a quality liberal arts education should look like. The question of which courses should be taught is a part of that discussion but not the only part. I am willing to change my language from “trivial and frivolous” to something like of “questionable academic value” I say this because this is how I feel at this time. You say that my emails indicate that I may not be interested in bridging differences. I am interested in bridging differences where I can, but, frankly, I am more interested in the truth and in helping to make Washington and Lee the best place it can be. It may be that in this process, some people’s feelings may be hurt. That is not my intention nor the intention of the Generals Redoubt; neither is it our primary concern.

I suggest than we meet we have a discussion on how we can do more to bridge differences while still maintaining our particular points of view. I suggest we spend as much time as possible focusing on how we can set up public forums where all of these issues can be discussed among the various elements of the W&L community.


As I said, I’m happy to meet. Feel free to suggest a time.

I’m glad you’re removing “trivial and frivolous,“ but you continue to miss the key question: on what basis are you making any judgement? If you instead wrote that my courses were excellent (as you said of my research and writing), that statement would be equally uninformed. You only know the course titles. You wrote in “Dumbing Down”: “Do we really need classes in comic books with so much great literature to study?” Creating Comics is not focused on the study of literature because Creating Comics is not a literature course. You would know that if you had done even the very most basic step of research and read the course description. It is a joint creative writing and studio arts course co-taught with a drawing and printmaking professor. Do you know literally anything about drawing and printmaking? Are you also unaware that Superheroes is a section of Writing 100 and so also not a literature course? Writing instruction is an enormous, decades-old field of study. Have you read literally anything in the field? You said you don’t want to discuss these issues ad nauseam, but you have yet to take even a first, rudimentary step.

My hope was that you would demonstrate intellectual curiosity about things that you know nothing about and yet feel qualified to judge publicly and loudly. In doing so you would demonstrate your ability to learn. Obviously, my courses have nothing to do with the History Commission report and the Board’s directives. If you are incapable of engaging meaningfully with the content of my work, how can I hope that you will do any better on issues of actual significance to our shared community? Your “truth” regarding my courses is based in willful ignorance. You said, “I don’t see why we can’t move forward in setting up some public forums to discuss these issues on campus.” This is why.

Please demonstrate that you are an individual capable of open-minded conversation who cares more about learning and bridging differences than creating a platform for espousing uninformed opinions.


Thanks for your response. I have spoken to Barry Brown, and we can meet with you any time on Thursday or on Friday morning. Why don’t you pick the place and time? We can meet  with you anywhere that you feel comfortable. Perhaps Barry can help us bridge our differences. I think we can discuss all of the things which you mention at our meeting.

We have our second coffee scheduled for later this week.

Wish me luck.

[The saga continues here.]

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Some of my favorite comics growing up were the oddball superhero pairings Marvel would throw together: Spider-Man and Scarlet Witch, Thing and Black Widow, Thing and, well, Thing (that was an odd issue). So I’m delighted that the marvels of the publishing universe have thrown together my two most anticipated new books with the same fall 2015 release: Lesley Wheeler’s Radioland (Barrow Street Press) and my own On the Origin of Superheroes (University of Iowa Press).


Obviously I’m anticipating my own book. Publishing means organizing readings, reviews, interviews, and every other kind of publicity. But it’s the poetry collection Radioland that I’ve actually looked forward to, that I can now sit back with a pre-release copy in my lap and sincerely admire. I already read it in multiple manuscript print-outs, but there’s nothing quite like the authoritative aura of a glossy-covered book fresh from its publisher’s packaging envelope. I’ve read all of Wheeler’s previous books (her scholarly Voicing American Poetry and The Poetics of Enclosure, and her collections Heathen, Heterotopia, and The Receptions and Other Tales), but Radioland is my current favorite. And not just because I teared up when I opened to the surprise dedication:

for Chris Gavaler

and other good fathers

I should acknowledge that I’m Wheeler’s spouse. We’re professors in the same English department too, so our professional identities team up constantly. But you never know which student or non-departmental colleague is going to give a startled blink at the discovery of our two-in-one domestic life.  Aside from our three-sentence wedding invitation, we’ve officially collaborated on only one scholarly article (about poet Marianne Moore) and two children (a first-year in college and a first-year in high school). But our co-editing is invaluable.

After dutifully reading my weekly superhero blog, Wheeler saw me through the surprisingly complex process of rewriting and reorganizing the pre-1938 material into a cohesive manuscript. When an Iowa acquisition editor read the blog and contacted me to ask if I wanted to convert it into a book, I said yes. Obviously. But it was Wheeler who suffered the first drafts of each reconceived chapter, helping me rethink, rework and eventually refine. As I explain in the penultimate paragraph:

Lesley Wheeler has no superhero scholarship I can cite either, but she’s seen me through each step of creation, critiquing everything from the first harebrained draft of that KKK essay to the thorniest midtransformations of this manuscript.

I dedicated my first romantic suspense novel to her (Pretend I’m Not Here is even set in the Virgin Islands where we honeymooned). But On the Origin of Superheroes is dedicated to John Gavaler, my father. He read comics as a kid in the 40s, fueling my comic book reading in the 70s. John is also one of the “other good fathers” of Lesley’s book dedication, a category that, when you read the collection you’ll see, doesn’t include her own. He’s more like the supervillain Nightmare haunting her sleep—no matter how many times she vanquishes him in real life. But her poetic superpowers more than make up for his failings when Radioland single-handedly realigns the universe into a better shape. “Gods and fathers,” her final poem concludes, “rarely signal / but rock vibrates /sympathetically. What else / could it say? Echo / a kind of love . . .”

Wheeler and I also appear together in last year’s superhero poetry collection Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comic Books, but our most superheroic successes are our kids. Oddly, that includes standing on the crumbling planet of their childhood and watching them blast away in private rockets. Madeleine is now adventuring in the distant solar system of Connecticut, and Cameron, while still homebound, is tearing Hulk-like through his adolescent wardrobe, poised to make the same single-bound leap into adulthood.

Meanwhile, we have our books. Not as brilliant and hilarious as flesh-and-blood children, but they are easier to read and to hand to a friend. If you’d like to meet them, they’re available for pre-order at Amazon and elsewhere. And, if you’re in Lexington, VA on November 4th, stop by the Bookery. We’ll be there, 5:00-7:00 pm, pens in hand.


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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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Is it bad etiquette to blog about your wife? If so, I’m requesting an exception. Lesley Wheeler just published the sort of book I most love, and I’m here to blab about it. The Receptionist and Other Tales is exactly the kind of boundary-bashing, genre-twirling, high-lowbrow mash-up that could save the antiseptically quiet world of literature from lapsing into a boredom-induced coma.

I teach a contemporary novel course titled “Thrilling Tales,” so I always have an eye out for literary writers willing to plunge head first into the deep end of the genre pool and splash around with zombies and superheroes and dark lords. And Lesley is swimming laps with them all.

I’ll get back to the main tale in a sec, but the “Other Tales” half of the title includes a sonnet that debates the relative durability of Captain America’s shield against Thor’s hammer, Hulk’s fist, and the Human Torch’s nova heat. Worshippers of the Weird should not miss the H. P. Lovecraft tribute (the speaker may or may not be devoured by an all-girl boarding school of fox-obsessed teens). My favorite is the T. S. Eliot parody that recasts “The Waste Land” as a George Romero zombie flick. (It’s also set during a Thanksgiving dinner, so the living dead are the least of the horrors.)

And that’s just the dessert tray. The main course is an even wilder array of literary risk-taking. The Receptionist is a fantasy tale inspired by Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland (required reading for even the most casual D&D tourist), which Lesley warps into a hybrid plot about evil deans and inner Yoda voices calling her heroine to action. It opens with the speaker reading bedtime books to her children—something Lesley and I spent a decade doing with our kids. All those alternate worlds—Oz, Narnia, Hogwarts—get ingrained in the brain, and soon the real world warps too. Even the mundane machinations of college politics can morph into fantastical proportions.

I should clarify: this isn’t autobiography. My wife isn’t an English department receptionist (though she was a chair while drafting), and the college faculty she creates aren’t the people we pass daily on our way in and out of class. The nefarious dean isn’t our dean either. The antagonist of The Receptionist is dashingly handsome and a sexual predator—descriptions I would not apply to our college administrator. That said, I do wonder if my wife has woven some real magic into her tale. The Receptionist ends with (SPOILER ALERT!) the vanquishing of the evil one. Is it mere coincidence that our real-world dean suffered a similar fate after The Receptionist was accepted for publication?

I don’t know what spells her terza rima encodes—only that the improbable complexities of the stanzas create a kind of aesthetic undertow that pulls you backwards as the storyline flings you forward. The effect is dizzying. Like existing in two dimensions simultaneously: a rompingly accessible plot somehow contained in an enchantingly intricate rhyme scheme. It shouldn’t be possible. Lesley’s speaker experiences the same world-split, the ordinary and the fantastic in constant collision, each transformed by the other, always both, always neither. It’s a one-of-a-kind hybrid form. It’s werewolf poetry. It’s cyborg literature. It’s damn fun reading.

I should also say that The Receptionist is published by Aqueduct, a press dedicated entirely to feminist scifi, which, be honest, I bet you didn’t know there was such a thing.  And did I mention it’s blurbed by Ursula K. Le Guin? Something that impressed both our kids, since Earthsea was another of their bedtime universes. (British readers will be equally impressed by Gwyneth Jones’ back cover rave.) My only complaint? Lesley’s author pic isn’t on the back.

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My son is obsessed with Marvel Heroscape. He ordered it himself with grandparent Christmas money. I’ve never seen him choose to play a board game rather than a video game before. And though I’m thrilled that his eyes are peeled away from his laptop, Nintendo, and Wii screens, it means I’m playing a lot of Heroscape too.

My university is also gearing up for its Mock Con right now. Every four years Washington & Lee simulates a Presidential Convention for the party currently out of the White House. Four years ago they predicted Hilary Clinton would edge out Barack Obama for the Democrat nomination. So did I.  But that’s only their second error since 1948. No one’s got a better record. And, hey, hypothetical match-ups aren’t easy.

Look at Heroscape. Their Marvel Mock Con requires a close analysis of a complex set of specialized abilities and frustratingly random dice rolls.

For the most part they get it right. The Abomination begins with a slight advantage over the Hulk, but once wounded, Hulk’s rage attack is unbeatable. Spider-Man and Venom, though bragging different attack and defensive Spider Sense levels, come down to a coin toss. Iron Man and Dr. Doom at first appear equally matched, but when my son and I faced them off, Iron Man’s double attacks bettered Doom’s higher single attack three times in a row.

The only upset was Captain America.

Though his physical abilities are capped more-or-less within human range, the guy’s unbeatable at close combat. That means face-to-face, like, say, on stage at a debate. With his shield deflection, he can actually get an opponent to kill himself. Sort of like Rick Perry’s campaign-ending “oops” moment during the Republican debates. Cap is also a brilliant Tactician with long coattails, aiding all adjacent candidates with extra die roll on attacks and defenses.

The best way to kill him is long range attack, AKA political ads. Red Skull also poses a problem. Sure, the super-Nazi is weak on defense (a measly three dice), but he’s also a Master Manipulator. He can control Cap’s mind once each round, making the emblem of Democracy do his evil bidding. (Which might also explain why President Obama has duplicated the Bush foreign policy since he took office.)

In the Marvel universe, Captain American led an underground resistance against the Superhero Registration Act (AKA the Patriot Act). But rather than see his country torn in half by partisan combat, Cap was ready to surrender to his adversaries. Unfortunately, a sniper (another form of long range attack) assassinated him first. A scenario I imagine has crossed the mind of the first African American President of the United States more than once.

Perhaps the cross-over series DC Versus Marvel Comics is the better political allegory. Cameron got that for Christmas too. The two parties evenly divided the first six battles, leaving the last tie-breaking five to fan votes. Marvel got more, but rather than allow one side to win, the two worlds merged into the Amalgam Universe. Here opponents were recreated as combinations of themselves. Batman and Wolverine became Dark Claw. Superman and Captain American merged into Super Soldier.

Which offers another explanation for the Obama Presidency: To defeat Bush, Obama had to absorb half of him.

Romney is a different kind of mash-up. He’s not the moderate center of two extremes. It’s as if the original Romney—the one who championed gay rights, abortion rights, socialized health care—was abducted and replaced by the Romney of some mirror universe. Newt Gingrich time-traveled from the 1990’s in attempt to defeat him, but to no avail. Now nothing stands in the way of Dark Romney’s plot to conquer the Republican party one Mock Convention at a time.

I predict Washington & Lee University will succumb to his Master Manipulation this Friday.

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