My New Academic Project–Graphic Ecologies: Superheroes, Political Culture, and Ecological Transformation

So lately I have been working on Fellowship and Grant applications to try to get some money to study superhero comics. That has, frustratingly, been a nearly full time job for the last week or so. I am putting here the project description I wrote so people can read it, and provide comments and feedback. This will, most likely, be my academic research project for at least the next year and probably the next two or so.  Let me know what you think. Does it sound good? Did I miss anything? Also the proposed chapter’s for the book are at the end of the proposal and I can always use help on chapter titles.


Project Description for Graphic Ecologies: Superheroes, Political Culture, and Ecological Transformation

Since their inception, the illustrated stories portrayed in comic books and graphic novels have grappled with social and political issues, often as their primary topics. Today, superhero narratives are so enmeshed in our society that it is doubtful that 99 out of a hundred people couldn’t name or recognize at least one if not more than one comic superhero. Yet often, the political content that is so intrinsic to the genre are ignored.

Of utmost importance in terms of urgency and scope is the complex project of examining the societal implications surrounding the ecological crisis the planet faces. Superhero narratives though have regularly addressed ecological issues from Aquaman’s campaign against off shore oil development and Swamp Thing’s work to halt housing development in marsh habitats to Animal Man’s liberation of farm animals from slaughterhouses. Even though most of the time the solutions these stories propose are more fantastical than practical, the way superheroes address ecological problems provides a lens for understanding our relationship with the natural world. In exploring these narratives, we learn not only about cultural assumptions and ideological biases that impact our thinking around ecological problems, but also due to the speculative nature of superhero narratives we can take current ideas to their logical conclusion and play with new ideas.

The overarching question guiding this project is:

  • What does an examination of well-known characters connected with fighting for nonhuman and ecological issues tell us about the ethical, political, and philosophic promises, contradictions, and tensions that exist in our relationship with the more-than-human-world?

1875898-the_swamp_thing This is an interdisciplinary project that seeks to combine two different fields of study: environmental political theory and cultural studies. Environmental political theory provides the philosophic and theoretical understanding about our political relationship with the natural world. This project will be an in-depth exploration of a range of environmental political theory topics, including: animal rights theory, biocentrism and deep ecology, eco-critical theory, ecofeminism, environmental activism, transhumanism, and new materialism. Cultural studies examines the relationship between cultural mediums—movies, comics, art—and political and social identities and institutions. Only recently has cultural studies started to examine comic books and superheroes and as such the work on superheroes is still relatively new. This project would develop a deep theoretical examination of how environmental political theory helps us understand superheroes, and how superhero narratives can be used to expand our theoretical understanding of how we connect with the natural world.

The first section explores what superhero narratives tell us about the complex relationships between ourselves and science and technology. Included in this section is a chapter examining the origin of superheroes and the way that the 1960s superhero concept was deeply connected to concerns over environmental destruction. This can be seen by the “mutant characters” in the Marvel Comics world who gain their super powers as a result of genetic changes brought about by the nuclear age, and also by the narrative of scientists turned into super beings due to lab accidents. In both cases, everyday humans are transformed by their interaction with the more-than-human world into somethideathlok-topng new and unique. In this transformation they gain great powers but also develop new problems—from debilitating deformities and crippling responsibility to, in extreme cases, the loss of their basic humanity. This section also explores the liberal figure of the “super scientist” and the way that superheroes reinforce the individualized conception of scientific advancement and intellectual property. In addition, the last chapter of this section complicates science and technology by discussing the techno-anxiety found in Superhero explorations of cyborg identity and the double-edged danger of our addiction to technological solutions.

The second section delves into the limitations and tensions that exist within attempts to expand our ethical and political world to include nonhumans. This section will start with a theoretical discussion of the strengths, weakness, and limitations of animal liberation theory by exploring the animal abolitionist heroes Aquaman and Animal Man. These figures use their powers to fight for nonhuman animals, and a regular theme within their stories is the moral and psychological tension they face in weighing human and nonhuman concerns. The next chapter will put Swamp Thing, Groot, and Black Orchid–characters that are all at lrocketandgrooteast part plant—in dialogue with work in deep ecology in order to discuss the difficulty and trouble that emerges when ethics and politics is expanded to include non-sentient life. The last chapter in this section explores the anthropomorphic project found in nonhuman animal superheroes such as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Howard the Duck, and Rocket Raccoon in order to determine what our anthropomorphizing says about own anxieties around the uniqueness of being human.

The final section connects the previous discussions and shifts the discussion towards political and social change. One of the focal points will be the problematic way that superhero narratives regularly define environmental activism as ecoterrorism and in doing so are one of the primary cultural mediums used in developing the concept of the eco-terrorism. In addition, this section will scrutinize the way superhero narratives reinforce the gender stereotype that females are more closely connected with the natural world by putting Poison Ivy, Black Orchid, Cat Woman, Shaman, and other female heroes and villains in dialogue with critical work in ecofeminism. Lastly, this section will include a chapter that will use critical theory to critique the liberal environmental solutions provided by series like Captain Planet. The book’s conclusion will tie the three sections together and provide a criticism of the way that both superhero comics and our dominant culture rely on silver bullet solutions, militaristic analysis, and individualist action to solve environmental problems.

Proposed Table of contents

Section 1: Science, Technology, and Anxiety During the Anthropocene

Chapter 1: They Came from the Toxic Lagoon: Origin Stories From Mutants to Swamp Things

Chapter 2: Doctor Doom’s Lab and Radioactive Spiders: Adventures in the Liberatory and Dangerous World of Science in Iron Man, Fantastic Four, and the Marvel Universe

Chapter 3: Souls of Cyberfolk?: Superheroes, Techno-Anxiety and the Pitfalls of Transhumanism

Section 2: Expanding our Ethical and Political World

Chapter 4: Thinking like a “Swamp Thing:” Swamp Thing, Groot and the Limits of Biocentrism

Chapter 5: The Animal Abolitionist Superhero: Animal Man, Aquaman, Catwoman and the Difficulty of fighting for the nonhuman

Chapter 6: Being Animal; Being Hero: The Non-Human Animal as Superhero

Section 3: Activism, Change, and Ecological Transformation

Chapter 7: Vandalism and Villainy: Activism and the Construction of Eco-Terrorism in Superhero Comics

Chapter 8: What Girl Doesn’t Love Flowers?: Ecosexuality and Superheroine Gender Stereotypes in Black Orchid, Poison Ivy, and Y-The Last Man

Chapter 9: We Need More Than a Captain Planet: Rethinking Ecological Activism in the Anthropocene

Chapter 10: What if the World Doesn’t Need a Superman?: Critiquing the Technological, Militaristic, and Individualist Solutions to Ecological Problems


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