What makes superheroes popular, and how can their stories answer enduring questions about identity, power, disability, symbolism, law, and the state?
What’s a hero? What’s a superhero? Who gets to be one, and who decides? Why are superheroes so popular now? What do their stories tell us—casual viewers and devoted readers, fans and non-fans and aspiring writers-- about how power works, about its social, emotional, material and economic dimensions, and about how we represent power in art? This course looks at superheroes, famous and infamous, old and new, in comics, on TV, in movies and novels and poems, as ways to answer questions about how power operates in our society and in others: power and violence, power and persuasion, power and social cohesion, power and disability, power and the sources of the self. You’ll read great and not-so-great superhero and superhero-adjacent stories from Gilgamesh to Wolverine, Wonder Woman to Ms. Marvel by way of John Milton. You’ll learn how to see the shape of a story, how to consider form style, technique in comics and other media. You’ll learn how to look at markets, at states and at the law, at fan communities and fan cultures, at the kinds of power stories and characters exercise in the real world. You’ll discover thinkers from politics, psychology, literary studies, and religion, among them Hannah Arendt, Max Weber, and Rosmarie Garland-Thomson, with something to say about power. You might even create some superheroes yourself. This course will show you not just how to read a set of very complicated, often underrated, influential modern stories, but how to think about power in public, in fiction, and in everyday life: who decides how others live, who decides what’s normal, who gets to make, and who gets to break, the rules.