Syllabus for POS 230: Superheroes and American Political Culture

Below is the course description, list of required texts, and course plan section for my POS 230 syllabus. Any and all feedback on the syllabus would be great, as I am still working and developing this syllabus…and will hopefully turn this into a more permanent intro to cultural studies type class.

POS 230: Superheroes 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, movies and TV series.

From the darkened movie theater to the covers of graphic novels, to videogames, cartoons, lunchboxes, and almost every form of media and merchandise imaginable, superheroes are a ubiquitous presence in popular culture. Yet, while most know what it means to find someone’s “kryptonite” or to stay away when someone is “hulking out”, the political and philosophic content that is so intrinsic to the genre is often ignored. Much like other forms of movies, television, and literature superhero narratives—whether in comic books or in film—provide insight into aspects of cultural values and politics. This course will centralize superhero narratives and explore the complex political and cultural values that be found within the genre. Using the techniques and skills developed by Cultural Studies and American Studies, this class will provide a means for students to plumb the depth of movies, graphic novels, and other forms of media for political meaning.

Required Books:

All required books can be ordered on Amazon and other online book services (such as Powells.com or Amazon.com, which can be much cheaper) 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 the books can be purchased digitally from multiple sources (I recommend Comixology) and read using a CBZ (or equivalent comic app reader). 

Graphic Novels:

  • Mark Millar, Dave Johnson, and Kilian Plunkett, Superman: Red Son (2014)
  • Ta-Nahisi Coates, Black Panther vol. 1
  • Kwanza Osajyefo, Tim Smith 3, amal Igle, Khary Randolph, Black Vol. 1, Black Mask Studios (2017)
  • Kelley Sue Deconnick and Valentino De Landro, Bitch Planet Vol. 1
  • Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, We3
  • Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda, Monstress Vol. 1: Awakening

Class Schedule

Part 1: Introduction to Cultural Studies and Superheroes 

Week 1:

Tuesday, January 16: Intro to the class

Reading:

  • Read the syllabus

Thursday, January 18: Introduction to Superheroes

Reading:

  • “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 23rd: How to do Cultural Studies and Criticism

Reading:

  • Iam Bogost, How to Talk about Videogames, Intro: “Nobody asked for a toaster critic: Doing Videogame Criticism.”
  • Ian Bogost, How to Talk about Videogames, ch 3 “The Blue Shell Is Everything That’s Wrong with America”

Thursday, January 25th: Doing Cultural Criticism, examples

Reading:

  • Stuart Hall “Coding and Decoding
  • 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

Film

  • Avengers (2012)

Week 3: What is a superhero?

Tuesday January 30th: The early history of comics

Readings:

  • 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 February 1st: Superman

Reading

  • Action Comics #1 (first appearance of Superman and first official superhero comic) found at
    http://www.reading-room.net/Action1/Action1Cover.html
  • Ben Sanders Do the Gods Wear Capes?: Spirituality, Fantasy, and Superheroes 1 “Superman: Truth, Justice, and all that stuff?”

Film:

  • Superman (1978)

Week 4:

Tuesday February 6th: Complicating the Superhero

Readings:

  • Ian Gordon, Superman: The persistence of an American Icon,, ch. 2 “Ideology and Morality”

Thursday February 8th: Superman as nationalist hero?

Graphic Novel:

  • Mark Millar, Dave Johnson, and Kilian Plunkett, Superman: Red Son (2014)

Reading:

  • Fredric Wertham, “the Superman conceit” from The Superhero Reader by Charles Hatfield, Jeet Heer, and Kent Worcester (eds)

 

Part 2: The Superhero, Political Nationalism, Imperialism, and War

Week 5: Superhero as nationalist icon

Tuesday, February 13th:

Readings:

  • Jason Dittmer, Captain America and the Nationalist Superheroes, ch 1 “Introducing Nationalist Superheroes”

Thursday, February 15th:                    FIRST FILM CRITICISM DUE

Film:

  • Captain America: The First Avenger (2014)

Reading:

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

Week 6:

Tuesday, February 20th: Gender and American Nationalism

Reading:

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

Thursday, February 22nd:

Film:

  • Wonder Woman (2017)

Reading:

Week 7:

Tuesday, February 27th: Imperialist Superheroes

Reading:

  • Chris Gavaler, “The Imperial Superhero” from PS: Political Science 47, Issue 1 (2014)

Thursday February 29th: Military Industrial Complex and Iron Man

Film:

  • Iron Man 3 (2013)

Readings:

  • Scott Jeffery, “The military-Industrial Body” from The Posthuman Body in Superhero Comics (2016)

Week 8:

Tuesday, March 6th: Terrorism and the Superhero narrative

Readings:

  • Jerrod S. MacFarlane, “Desperate Times and Desperate Measures: False-Representation and distortion of Terrorism in Post-9/11 Superhero Films” from Critical Studies on Terrorism 7, issue 3 (2014)

Thursday: March 8th: The Animal-industrial Complex

Graphic Novel:

  • Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, We3

Readings:

  • Allison Dushane “We3 and the Violence of Sentimentality” from Superheroes and Critical Animal Studies: The Heroic Beasts of Total Liberation

Week 9: Gender and Horrorism and the Trauma of War

Reading:

  • François Debrix, “Horror beyond death: Geopolitics and the Pulverization of the human”, New Formations: A journal of Culture/Theory/Politics, vol 89-90 (2017)

Thursday, April 19th: War, Trauma, and Agency

Graphic Novel:

  • Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda, Monstress Vol. 1: Awakening

Readings:

Week 10: SPRING BREAK

Part 3: Superheroes, Race, and Agency

Week 11:

Tuesday March 27th: The Black Superhero

Reading:

  • Adilfu Nama, Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes 1 “Color them Black”

Thursday March 29th:                                    SECOND FILM CRITICISM DUE

Graphic Novel:

  • Ta-Nehisi Coats, Black Panther: A Nation Under our Feet

Readings:

Week 12

Tuesday, April 3rd: Race

Readings:

  • Adilifu Nama, Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes, ch. 2 “The Birth of Cool”

Thursday, April 5th: A bullet proof black man

Graphic Novel:

  • Kwanza Osajyefo, Tim Smith 3, amal Igle, Khary Randolph, Black Vol. 1, Black Mask Studios (2017)

Reading:

  • 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

 

Part 4: Superheroes, Gender, and Resistance 

Week 13

Tuesday, April 10th: Gender Violence and Women’s Agency

Readings:

  • Carolyn Cocca, Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation, introduction “Representation Matters”

Thursday, April 12th:                                      THIRD FILM CRITICISM DUE

Film

  • Jessica Jones (2016) first three episodes

Reading:

Week 14:

Tuesday April 17th: Feminism and Superheroes

Reading:

  • Neal Curtis and Valentino Cardo, “Superheroes and thirdwave feminism” from Feminist Media Studies

Thursday April 19th: Gender, Prison and Dystopia

Graphic Novel:

  • Kelley Sue Deconnick and Valentino De Landro, Bitch Planet Vol. 1

Reading:

  • Ellen Kirkpatrick “you need to learn to see yourself in your fathers’ eyes’: Feminism, Representation and the Dystopian Space of Bitch Planet” from Feminist Review 116, No. 1 (2017)

Part 5: Class, Inequality, and Migration

Week 15

Tuesday April 24th: Class, capitalism, and Inequality

Readings:

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

Thursday April 26th:                                       FOURTH FILM CRITICISM DUE

Film:

  • Batman: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Readings:

Week 16:
Tuesday May 1st: Catch-up Day

  • NO ADDITIONAL READINGS

Thursday May 3rd:

Film: Logan

Reading:

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