Stage 1: Prospectus…Version 2.0

So, piecing it all together for the first time here in its new version, let’s see what falls out.

*Kept the title I originally had, for now.

Jonathan C. Evans

June 2013

Dissertation Prospectus


Graphic Narratives as Rhetorical Artifacts: Bridging the Divides Between Words and Images, Pop Culture and Literature, and Dramatic Unforeseen

Statement of Purpose

In an ever-growing visual culture, it is becoming more and more important for our culture to come to a deeper and more detailed understanding of how visual imagery and narratives can and do impact cultural expression, growth, and communication. The continuing popularity of superhero comic books and adaptation of properties into motion pictures demonstrates the potential cultural and rhetorical power encapsulated in these graphic narratives and the deeper impact such visual narratives are having in our current cultural zeitgeist. As human beings, we have a strong inclination to respond to visual/symbolic forms (signifiers) that often communicate complicated abstract ideas and values (signified). This propensity is reflects both a visual and dramatic orientation of human communication, and within modern American culture such communication lies at the heart of popular forms of entertainment from movies, to television, to comic book superheroes. This impact of popular culture, visually, upon the human imagination and the way we communicate complex ideas leads to an important question: How can one reach a better understanding of why society, particularly American society, is so susceptible to the application of visual rhetoric and signifiers in the rendering and expression of our beliefs, values, and ideas? To answer this question, I am aim to hypothesize that through an understanding of how Kenneth Burke’s concept of the dramatic pentad and close application of rhetorical tropes and figures to the analysis of cultural signifiers, such as comic book superheroes, a greater understanding of how symbolic and visual communication can impact the shaping and development of human ideas and values will emerge. This dissertation will attempt to do this by drawing upon theories and methodologies found in the works of Kenneth Burke, Chaim Perelman, Umberto Eco, Roland Barthes, Scott McCloud, Will Eisner, and Hans Blumenburg.

Statement of Significance

Will Eisner told a story from his childhood, recounted in David Hajdu’s book The 10 Cent Plague, where his father took him to the Catholic Church “Our Lady of the Assumption,” not far from where he grew up. Hajdu relates that Eisner noted that his father brought him here because “‘He wanted me [Eisner] see what he had done when he was an artist’” but more importantly to “‘to experience the power of visual imagery as a tool for communicating ideas and doctrine and so forth’” (71). This anecdote denotes a long and direct connection between the ability of visual images to convey and connect with a potential audience. There is a profound and powerful ability within visual images to communicate and persuade, to move, an audience that often goes unnoticed until someone comes along and points it out, and then, others often react in agreement.

Eisner, in his own book Comics and Sequential Art, points out that imagery, like written language, serves and acts as a communicator. He notes that  “Comprehension of an image requires a commonality of experience…the success or failure of this method of communicating depends upon the ease with which the reader recognizes the meaning and emotional impact of the image” (7-8). The power of visual images lies heavily within the folds of collective values and recognizable concepts – often unspoken – but very important to exchange and interaction within those groups that accept those shared values and concepts. Chaim Perelman and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca, in their work The New Rhetoric, identify that when looking for objects of agreement, values fall within a second grouping, “concerning the preferable, comprising values, hierarchies, and lines of argument relating to the preferable” (66). These ideas are ones that foster agreement within their conception of a “universal audience,” one that is unknown, but also malleable. Expanding on how values work, they note that “Agreement with regard to a value means an admission that an object, a being, or an ideal must have a specific influence on action and on disposition toward action and that one can make use of this influence in an argument” (74). Superheroes, if one is the identify them as clear symbols of human potential, have the potential rhetorical power to act as visual communication and persuasion of inherent cultural values that they, in turn, represent or embody.

In his book Supergods, Grant Morrison offers a popular culture view and take on the superheroes by noting, in his assertion, that superheroes are “not afraid to be hopeful, not embarrassed to be optimistic, and utterly fearless in the dark [and that] the best superhero stories deal directly with mythic elements of human experience that we can all relate to, in ways that are imaginative, profound, funny, and provocative” (xvii). For Morrison, via his claim, superheroes are part of the human experience, and as Morrison’s final statement invokes, they can affect their audience on a number of levels. From their very beginnings, particularly in what is called the “Golden Age” of comic books and the comic book superhero – Action Comics #1 appearance of Superman in June, 1938 – superheroes have continued (though often repressed, hounded, dismissed, and ignored) to play and have an impact on human understanding and interaction.

Literature Review:

In his Grammar of Motives, Kenneth Burke conceptualized life as a form of drama, Dramatism, consisting of the five elements of a kin to the basic journalistic questions of who, what, when, where, why, and how. These elements are: Act, Scene, Agent, Agency, and Purpose. These elements serve as a way of examining human relationships, a meta-method. It was, according to Burke, a “method of analysis and a corresponding critique designed to show the most direct route to the study of human relations and human motives…” (Overington). Turning this back then, what is Grant Morrison’s motivation, his dramatic move in his book Supergods. The Act (1) is a rhetorical analysis of the first appearances of Superman and Batman at the dawn of what is called roughly the Golden Age of comic books.  The Scene (2) is a reflection upon events coming out of 1930’s America and the Great Depression as an impact in our modern times. The Agent (3), as Morrison is illustrating are the characters of Superman and Batman, their creators, and Morrison himself. Their role form of tiers: creation, creators, and analyzer (who is himself a modern day comic book writer). The Agency (4) here calls upon a rhetorical analysis that dissects the roles that occur with the interaction of all three tiers, covering decades of time and analysis. Finally, there is the Purpose (5), and Morrison this purpose comes the direction that comic books have a way of communicating with an audience on levels that sometimes, and most times, are overlooked by many – legitimacy.

Applying Burke to what Morrison is doing conveys the place of visual rhetoric as it holds a place, worth noting, for how such an artifact, as a comic book cover, can come to embody, reflect, and identify the values that would appeal to young boys during the late 1930’s and 40’s. Morrison is pushing for the recognition of what is often seen, comic books, as a “popular medium” as a more serious, philosophical and even rhetorical, medium and mode of expression, by drawing upon Burke’s notions of the dramatic pentad for analysis, as well as Burke’s notions of identification to lay out the beginning framework of his personal accounting and exploration of the history of superhero comic books.

Furthermore, comic writer/artist and theorist Scott McCloud, in his work Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art ascribes that “we [humans] see ourselves in everything. We assign identities and emotions where none exist. And we make the world over in our image” (33). McCloud’s assertion points to humanity’s prominent role in shaping reality in its own image and suggests a very relativist perception of how instrumental humanity is in creating the boundaries and definitions of everything. Since “we see ourselves in everything” one might conclude that of course we see ourselves in Superman, in Batman, in Iron Man, in Captain America, and so on. So why do we not readily admit it? There is a rhetorical, personal, element to be found there in the superhero narrative.

Statement of Research Methodology

To begin a close examination of the rhetorical impact of symbols upon human interaction and communication first requires an understanding, a definition and approach to symbols and how they function within the realm of human interaction and communication. Umberto Eco defines symbols as “something representing something else by virtue of an analogical correspondence [a logical picture of elements in question]” (Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language 130). The conception of symbolism offers up a need for distinction between what makes something a “sign” and what makes something a “symbol.” Superheroes may act then as signs of something more symbolic – Superman : Truth, Justice, and the American Way. For Carl Jung, symbols and signs interlinked and operated in reversible roles. For Jung, “living symbols become signs when read as referring to something known…A sign [in turn] becomes…a symbol when it is read as pointing to an unknown” (Portable Jung XXVIII). One could point to Superman as a sign in the form of a man, but with powers beyond ours and abilities that are aspirations and “unknown” or symbolic. The human fascination with the unknown drives the internal expression of signs as symbols in order to understand that beyond human understanding. It is “the study of [symbols that] enables us to reach a better understanding of man – of man ‘as he is’, before he has come to terms with the conditions of History” (Eliade 12). Once again, the very fundamentals of humanity rest in symbols and any quest to uncover such “fundamentals of humanity” requires that one study and understand symbols – to study Superman is to understand his function, perhaps, to inspire humanity.

Kenneth Burke, in his work A Rhetoric of Motives, noted that “the role of rhetoric…is rooted in essential function of language…a function that is…the use of language as symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols” (43). What better place to begin by examining the uses and capabilities of comic book superheroes to carry out that expression. The approach here will be to apply rhetoric, primarily through the lens of Burke and Chaim Perelman (along with L. Olbrechts-Tyteca with The New Rhetoric) to examine the ways that individuals and groups can come to identify with superheroes, how these superheroes embody rhetorical potential – as demonstration, amplification, illustration, and via presence. Understanding the potential of the superhero as enthymeme as a tool for communication, a function of language, and what Ann Barry, a perceptional theorist, noted as a potential “visual turn” that “it is images, not words, that communicate most deeply” (Visual Intelligence 75). In an increasingly visual age, with movies and advertisement growing – even literature itself is being reformatted into graphic novel form – it is important to realize the power of symbolic images as superheroes and the power they can have to teach, delight, and persuade.

To examine the role of the superhero as meaning communicating symbol, I will attempt to rhetorically analyze, visually, the functions of iconic superheroes. I will turn Grant Morrison’s Supergods as a launching platform for this visual rhetorical analysis, as well as engage specifically chosen forms of comic book superhero narratives – including Mark Miller’s Superman: Red Sun and Superior, Alan Moore’s Watchmen and V for Vendetta, Morrison’s All-Star Superman and Flex Mentallo, Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers and New Avengers, Frank Miller’s Batman Year One and Dark Knight Returns, Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come, and Kurt Busiek’s Marvels – to unpack the ideas, concepts, and rhetorical potential found within.

Tentative Working Organization for the Dissertation


This section will open up with attempting to draw out a general history and understanding of how symbols and signs function in engaging human reaction and communicating human ideas and values. The use of the comic book superhero will help draw in how this concept works and functions, dramatically, upon individuals and groups. I will lay out the argument that the superhero functions as a visual rhetoric that embodies real, human characteristics and ideas via close rhetorical analysis. The purpose aim is to show that via its role as a rhetorical artifact, the graphic narrative format of the superhero narratives, modern myths so to say, are valuable means for engaging audiences on many different stylistic levels that grant greater significance to this form of story telling than previously recognized.

Literature Review:

The literature review, partially demonstrated above, will open up and examine closely both the debates and discussions surrounding the role of symbols and semiotic relations in communication and language, but how the use of images, particularly the comic books superhero, have come to represent rhetorical tools for engaging and motivating audience in engagement. Examples of currently under investigation here are Visual Intelligence: Perception, Image, and Manipulation in Visual Communication by Ann Marie Barry, Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and A Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human by Grant Morrison, Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean by Wolk, Douglas. Finally, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud. These, along with other journals and works, will help develop both a framework of comic book history and development, but particularly look to reveal the growing mainstream acceptance of the medium and how this opens up greater opportunities to closely examine the deeper rhetorical meaning and potential existing within.


This section will be a direct application Burke’s theory of the dramatic pentad and Chaim Perelman’s updated conceptions of rhetorical figures and notions of rhetoric and its appeal to values to formulate and bring together the conceptions surrounding the strong formation of the superhero as rhetorical enthymeme. A groundwork will be introduced to allow for the responses of the audience and how the impact of the superhero is developing and exploring complex ideas and concept. More importantly, it will be important to set out a method of recognizing and decoding of the superhero as rhetorical constructs as presented in the comic book medium by close analysis. This will rely on turning to Umberto Eco and semiotic theory, as well as Douglas Wolk and the work of Scott McCloud, in addition to Burke and Perelman. The production will aim to layout the groundwork for looking at the superhero via the lens of visual and symbolic rhetoric.


  1. This chapter will to look at close visual rhetorical analysis aimed at understanding the ability of comic book superheroes to teach. Specifically targeted, so far, for this chapter is a close examination of Mark Miller’s Superior. The superhero as teacher here serves as a tool for acceptance, toleration, and doing what is right.
  2. This chapter will engage in a close rhetorical analysis of comic book superheroes and their ability to delight. It will focus on works like Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’s Marvels and Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come, as well as a variety of other books. This chapter will attempt to look at the superhero as enthymeme through the lens of the enjoyment of both the writing and artistic forms that can be presented. This will specially explore the aesthetic qualities found in the comic book medium.
  3. This chapter will turn back and attempt to look deeper at the rhetorical power found in the superhero to engage in high minded and deep philosophical debate. This chapter will focus on certain archetypal characters: Superman (Morrison’s All-Star Superman), Batman (Morrison’s Batman: Arkham Asylum), and Captain America and Iron Man (Mark Miller’s Civil War and Hickman’s Avengers).


The primary focus of this exploration is to offer up a direct and relevant understanding of how superheroes can and do function as potential rhetorical artifacts. The comic book/graphic novel medium has in fact become a sort of middle ground, a commonplace for the words of novels and books, and the images of motion pictures. The superhero narrative is one that carries specific rhetorical power due to its connection and formulation within symbolic communication. There should and needs to be a greater acceptance of this aspect of human nature and imagination that occurs subconsciously daily but remains consciously unnoticed.

Working Bibliography

Barry, Ann Marie. Visual Intelligence: Perception, Image, and Manipulation in Visual Communication. Albany: State U of New York P, 1997. Print.

Burke, Kenneth. Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969. Print.

—. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969. Print.

Eco, Umberto. Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1984. Print.

Eisner, Will. Comics and Sequential Art: Principles and Practices from the Legendary Cartoonist. New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 2008. Print.

Eliade, Mircea. Images and Symbols. Trans. Mairet, Philip. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1991. Print.

Hajdu, David. The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America. New York: Picador. 2008. Print

Jung, C G. The Portable Jung. Ed. Joseph Campbell. New York: Penguin Books, 1971. Print.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. Print.

Morrison, Grant. Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and A Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2012. Print.

Overington, M. “Kenneth Burke and the Method of Dramatism.” Theory and Society 4 (1977). 131-156.

Perelman, Chaim and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca. The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation. Tran. John Wilkinson and Purcell Weaver. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P. 1969. Print.


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