Return from a long sojourn and copy of my syllabus!

Wow, so one should not start a blog right before finals week, working on a book manuscript and leaving for Winter break. Sorry about the long delay. Moving on I hope to update this blog at least once a week and regularly twice a week. Until then, I am going to just post my Comic Studies class syllabus. What do folks think about the syllabus? Did I miss any good articles or books? What comic series would you have included? Did I miss any (I am sure I did).

PS 301W: Superheroes, Villains, and American Political Culture

Course Description:

Umberto Eco, the famous Italian philosopher, once referred to superheroes as the quintessential American myth. To Eco, superheroes represented American liberalism—from their rabid individualism, commitment to the protestant work ethic, moral certainty and grandeurs of greatness. In this course we will complicate Eco’s claim and explore superhero narratives and stories in order to understand what they tell us about American politics and culture. We will focus our attention on graphic novels and comics but also explore movies, TV, and other cultural mediums as well.

This course will be broken into six sections. The first section will introduce the concept and history of superheroes and also provide the analytic tools needed to do close readings of graphic novels. The second section explores the comic revisionist movement, where authors like Alan Moore and Frank Miller brought moral ambiguity, political complexity, and adult themes into superhero comics. For this section we will read Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, two of the most critically acclaimed graphic novels of all time. The third section will examine the relationship between superheroes and gender politics. Historically, superheroes have been connected to male fantasies and as such have problematic gender politics. Feminist analysis provides a lens to explore these stories and allows us to examine the underlying patriarchal cultural narratives of US politics. In exploring this, we will discuss the relationship between Wonder Woman and feminism and then read the critically acclaimed Ms. Marvel, the first Arab American female superheroine, in order to discuss the intersections between gender, religion, and identity. The fourth section explores the mutant metaphor found within the X-Men comics and movies. The X-Men have used the mutant metaphor to explore a range of social and political topics related to exclusion, persecution, and discrimination and as such the metaphor has been used to discuss civil rights, queer rights, and religious freedom. For this section we will read the classic X-men story God Loves, Man Kills which looks at the politics of hate and religious fanaticism as the X-men fight against a genocidal plan organized by a religious zealot to rid the world of Mutants. The fifth section looks to examine racial politics by exploring one of a range of black superheroes—from the Black Panther to Luke Cage to Blade and Storm. The exact series we will read will be determined at a later date. The final section will cover US political culture in a post 9/11 world by discussing Marvel Civil War, a comic that serves as an allegoric discussion of the US Patriot Act and the tension that exists between security and freedom.

In addition to leaning how to read and analyze superhero comics and movies you will spend the course developing research and writing skills. Each person will conduct research on a specific topic and by the end of the term write at 20 to 25-page research paper and give a 5-minute presentation about your research and findings. During the course we will go over how to conduct academic research and write an academic paper. This discussion will include going over what is a good research question, what is the role of a literature review, where can you find academic sources on the topic etc.

Aims and Objectives:

  • Students will develop and expand their understanding of the relationship between culture and politics.
  • Students will explore issues of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and other important social topics.
  • Students will gain the skills needed to critically examine movies, comics, and other cultural mediums.
  • Student will develop their research and analytic writing skills.
  • Students will develop the skills needed to conduct further research into the topic.
  • Students will develop formal presentation skills.


The course will include both lectures and discussions, but will be run more like a seminar. This means that lecture will be a part of each class but overall the course will be discussion heavy, so every student needs to come to class prepared to discuss the topics at hand. I expect every student to have completed the assigned reading and to be ready to discuss, reflect, and engage the material.

Required Books:

All required books are available at the NAU bookstore but can also be ordered on Amazon and other online book services (such as and might also be available at the local comic book store CAB comics (1471 S Milton). Please make sure you have the books by the time they are being used in the course. In addition to the books below you might have to purchase and read a few single issues, which can be purchased digitally from multiple sources (I recommend Comixology) and read using a CBZ reader.

Alan Moore and David Gibbons Watchmen

Frank Miller and Klaus Janson Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona Ms. Marvel: No Normal

Chris Claremont and Brent Anderson X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills

Mark Millar and Steve McNiven Marvel: Civil War

One more TBA

All academic readings will be available on Blackboard.


  • Class Attendances and Participation (10%)

I expect this class to be rather interactive and discussion-based. As such you are expected to be involved in discussions and involved in the class more generally. 10% of your final grade is based on your involvement in the course.

  • Three Short Papers (5-7 double-spaced, typed pages each) (30%).

You are required to write 3 short papers for the class. These papers will serve as the basis for the final, longer paper. These short papers/first drafts count for 10% each for a total of 30% of the final grade.

Due dates are:

Paper I: Historical overview and Context (due February 12th)

Paper II: Close Reading of Comic or Movie (due March 12th)

Paper III: Theoretical Analysis and discussion (due April 16th)

  • Annotated Bibliography (10%)

Starting week four, and ending week 14, you will be doing additional outside research to better help you answer your research question. For this assignment, I expect you to find, read, and add one article or book chapter your annotated bibliography. This means that by the end of the term you will have 10 articles/book chapters read for your research paper. These assignments can and should be used for your short papers. You will hand in your annotated bibliography three times throughout the term: February 10th, March 3rd, and April 21st.

  • Final Paper (20- 25 double-spaced, typed pages) (30%)

You are expected to use the three short papers as the foundation for your final paper, however, regardless of the extent to which you use these short papers, the final paper will require some additional work and editing in order to make the piece a cohesive and well-structured research paper. The final paper is due during your scheduled final exam time.

  • Movie and Discussion (attend and discuss 2 of 4 monthly movie showing) (5% each movie, total of 10%)

Once a month I will organize a post-class movie showing. Each student is expected to attend 2 of these during the entire term. For these film showings we will watch a film and then have a 20-30 minute discussion about the political and social relevance of the film. In addition to the discussion you will write a short 1-2 paragraph overview of your thoughts regarding the political and social aspects of the movie. The dates for the movie showings will be discussed in class, and the films shown will be announced prior to the showings.

  • Presentations (10%)

During the last two weeks of the term students will give a 5-minute presentation (using PowerPoint or some form of mixed media). In this presentation you will provide an introduction to your topic and assignment and provide a cursory discussion of your analysis.

For your final grade assume: A=90-100%, B=80-89.9%, C=70-79.9%, D=60-69%, F=0-59.9%.

Class Schedule:

Section 1: An Introduction to Superheroes

Week 1

Tuesday January 13th: Introduction Day

  • No Reading

Thursday January 15th: Introduction to Superheroes

  • “Our Fascination with Superheroes” in Our Superheroes, Ourselves (eds.) Robin Rosenberg
  • Matthew Costello and Kent Worcester “The Politics of the Superhero” in PS: Political Science & Society, January 2014

Week 2

Tuesday January 20th: Super Villains

  • Paul Levitz “Why Supervillains?” in What is a Superhero? , Robin Rosenberg and Peter Coogan
  • Frank Verano “Superheroes need villains”
  • Stanford Carpenter “Superheroes need Supervillains”
  • Chris Deis, “The Subject Politics of the Supervillain”
  • Robin Rosenberg “Sorting out Villainy: A typology of Villains and their Effects on Superheroes”

Thursday January 22nd: Learning to Read comics (Draft research question brought to class)

  • 1 “What’s in a page: Close-Reading Comics” in Studying Comics and Graphic Novels by Karin Kukkonen

Week 3

Tuesday January 27th: The founding of the Superhero Genre (Research Question handed in)

  • Bradford W. Wright Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America, ch. 1 “Superheroes for the Common Man: The Birth of the Comic Book Industry, 1933-1941”

Thursday January 29th: What does Superman Represent?

  • Action Comics #1 (first appearance of Superman and first official superhero comic) found at
  • Ben Sanders Do the Gods Wear Capes?: Spirituality, Fantasy, and Superheroes 1 “Superman: Truth, Justice, and all that stuff?”

Week 4 (Begin Annotated Bibliography Assignment)

Tuesday February 3rd: The Comic Backlash and the Comic Code

  • Bradford W. Wright Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America, ch. 4 “Youth Crisis: Comic Books and Controversy, 1947-1950”
  • Fredric Wertham, “the Superman conceit” from The Superhero Reader by Charles Hatfield, Jeet Heer, and Kent Worcester (eds)

Thursday February 5th: Comics and Cold War Identities

  • Matthew Costello, Secret Identity Crisis: Comic Books & The Unmasking of Cold War America, ch. 2 “The Enemy Without: 1961-1968”

Week 5

Tuesday February 10th: Comics meet social justice (HAND in Annotated bibliography)

  • Bradford W. Wright Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America, ch. 8 “Questioning Authority: Comic Books and Cultural Change”
  • Excerpt from Green Lantern/Green Arrow TBA

Section 2: The Revisionist Movement

Thursday February 12th: Watchmen (FIRST SHORT PAPER DUE)

  • Read Watchman

Week 6

Tuesday February 17th: Watchmen

  • Rafaela Hillerbrand and Andres Sandburg “Who Trusts the Watchmen?” in Supervillains and Philosophy: Sometimes, Evil is its Own Reward Ben Dyer

Thursday February 19th: Watchmen

  • Robert Loftis, “Means, Ends and the critique of pure superheroes” from Watchmen and Philosophy
  • Marvi Miettinen “Men of Steel? Rorschact, Theweleit, and Watchmen’s Deconstructed Masculinity”

Week 7

Tuesday February 24th: The Revisionist Superhero Narrative

  • Read Dark Knight Returns
  • Tony Spanakos, “Governing Gotham” in Batman and Philosophy

Thursday February 26th: Discussion on Dark Knight

  • Marc Diapalo, War, Politics, and Superheroes: Ethics and Propaganda in Comics and Film, chapter 1 “Batman as Terrorist, Technocrat and Feudal Lord”

Week 8

Tuesday March 3rd: Batman and Watchmen: the rise of the antihero? (HAND IN ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY)

  • Geoff Klock, How to Read Superhero Comics and why 1 “The Bat and Watchmen: Introducing the Revisionist Superhero Narrative”

Thursday March 5th: Batman and Surveillance

  • Dan Hassler-Forest, Capitalist Superheroes, 4 “Surveillance, Control and Visibility in the Neoliberal City”

Section 3: Superheroes, Feminism, and Identity

Week 9

Tuesday March 10th: Wonder Woman and Feminism

Thursday March 12th: Historical project of Wonder Woman (SECOND SHORT PAPER DUE)

  • Ben Sanders Do the Gods Wear Capes?: Spirituality, Fantasy, and Superheroes 2 “Wonder Woman: Bondage and Liberation”

Week 10

Tuesday March 17th: Spring Break

  • No Reading

Thursday March 19th: Spring Break

  • No Reading

Week 11

Tuesday March 24th: Wonder Woman in recent decades

Section 4: The Mutant Metaphor

Thursday March 26th: X-Men

  • Read X-men God Loves, Man Kills
  • “‘Mutant Hellspawn'” or ‘More Human Than You?’: The X-Men Respond to Televangelism” in The Ages of the X-Men: Essays on the Children of the Atom in Changing Times.

Week 12

Tuesday March 31st: Mutant as Social Metaphor

  • Patrick D. Hopkins “The Lure of Normal: Who Wouldn’t want to be a mutant?” in X-men and Philosophy
  • Ramona Illea “The Mutant Cure or Social Change: Debating Disability” in X-men and Philosophy

Thursday April 2nd:

  • Marc Diapalo, War, Politics, and Superheroes: Ethics and Propaganda in Comics and Film, chapter 8 “Gay Rights, Civil Rights, and Nazism in the X-Men Universe”

Section 5: Superheroes and Race

Week 13

Tuesday April 7th:

  • TBA series
  • Todd Steven Burroughs “The Spy King: How Christopher Priest’s Version of the Black Panther Shook up the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” from The Ages of Avengers: Essay on the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in Changing Times (potentially might change)

Thursday April 9th: Race and Comics

  • Adilfu Nama, Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes 2 “Birth of Cool”

Week 14

Tuesday April 14th: Race and Comics

  • Kenneth Ghee “Will the ‘Real’ Black Superhero please stand up?!”: A critical Analysis of the mythological and cultural significance of black superheroes” in Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation (eds) Sheena Howard and Ronald Jackson III

Thursday April 16th: Civil Liberties and Post-9/11 Comics (SHORT PAPER #3 DUE)

  • Jeffrey Brown “Panthers and Vixens: Black Superheroines, Sexuality and stereotypes in contemporary comic books”

Section 6: Superheroes in a Post 9/11 World

Week 15

Tuesday April 21st: (HAND IN FINAL ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY) (Presentations Day 1)

  • Read Marvel: Civil War
  • Dittmer Captain America and the Nationalist Superheroes, 1

Thursday April 23rd: Comics in a Post 9/11 Era (Presentations Day 2)

  • Matthew Costello, Secret Identity Crisis: Comic Books & the Unmasking of Cold War America 7 “Civil War and the Death of Captain America”

Week 16

Tuesday April 28th: Comics in a post 9/11 Era (Presentations Day 3)

  • Jason Dittmer, “Captain America’s Empire: Reflections on Identity, Popular Culture, and Post-9/11 Geopolitics”
  • Annika Hagley and Michael Harrison “Fighting the Battles we Never Could: The Avengers and Post-September 11 American Political Identity” in PS: Political Science and Politics January 2014

Thursday April 30th: Animals, Ethics and Superheroes (Presentations Day 4)

  • Sean Parson, “For Truth, Justice, and Animal Liberation?”

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