Dissertation Progress: Frustration at the corner of identity and authority

So, as of last week my Prospectus was officially all signed by committee, my department head, and now by the head of the graduate school. So, even though I have already been working under the precepts that it would be accepted for over two months, now it is official official and I have a nice letter from the graduate school declaring that “Critically Understanding Inspired Emulation: Seeing the Man of Steel as a Rhetorical Model of American Arête” is a definite and approved TWU Doctoral Dissertation topic.

 

Now, all that being said, getting this thing off the ground the last 2+ months was not an easy trick.

 

For starters, there was the rush at the end of the semester (grading and what not) then holidays where my wife and I were traveling, and then there was cleaning up at the house and rearranging to prep for our own little blessing from Krypton arriving this summer. So, lots of preparation and planning that through a wrench into acting on the writing process itself.

 

Another element that got in the way of moving forward was: where to start?

 

Now, I know that should be an easy answer, “duh, at the beginning.” However, I knew what and how I wanted to start but my problem developed from the fear, one born out during my prospectus process, of myself becoming repetitive and overstating things (as I do when I teach). This left me at a big impasse, not to mention figuring out how and when to do my work, that I let build and build from a Hobbit hole sized issue into the Lonely Mountain itself with me desperately looking for the keyhole on the last light of Durin’s Day (yes, I saw the Hobbit 2 over the holidays). This left me with what looked like one hell of a climb, so, I did the smart thing and turned to the sage advice of my dissertation director.

 

So, the answer of moonlight came in the notion that a non-linear approach might serve me best and allow me to work directly on the area in my project I felt most comfortable and eager to engage: the Analysis Chapters. Specifically, I took from the example in my prospectus and applied myself to looking at Analysis Ch. 3 containing an examination of All-Star Superman.

 

Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s mythic and grand Superman narrative was what had created my own light bulb moment some years back and when I took note of it, it was that “duh” moment I had been searching for all along. All of sudden, a flood of ideas and information came pouring out of my head. I knew I wanted to look at All-Star Superman, Superman Birthright (Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu) and Superman: Secret Origin (Geoff Johns and Gary Frank), but what did not expect was the torrent that I had unleashed.

 

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I am not kidding when I say ideas came rushing out. I found myself attempting to limit myself to three examples from each and in that process I discovered the three primary points I wanted to make. For one, I specifically had chosen this analysis chapter to look at Bakhtinian theory surrounding the application of re-accentuation in the Superman narrative because the works here lent themselves quite specifically to that point. What ultimately came pouring out though lead to explorations of the identification (Burke), Aristotle’s points of noble virtue, and connections between ideas of self-fashioning (Greenblatt) and the model/anti-model idea of Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca.

 

But getting back to the three primary points I wanted to examine in the chapter, they were:

 

1.Specifically attempt to re-accentuate a classic element, image, or aspect of Superman’s iconography. In the case of Superman: Secret Origin, this fell to looking at Superman: The Movie and Christopher Reeves.

 

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2.Make a specific illustration of the model and anti-model relationship, particularly and defined in all three by the relationship of Clark Kent/Superman and Lex Luthor.

 

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3.Look for and illustrate Superman’s ability to embody Weldon’s concepts of the basic Superman characteristics – help others and never give up – as found in the sources as ways to which Superman inspires those both within and without the narrative.

 

supermanbirthright

 

Along the way, I had to add to this chapter and discuss the ramifications of these two audience perspectives along with the notion of how retrocontinuity or retcon functioned as a point within these three narratives I was examining.

 

So, altogether I have birthed a Leviathan and I hope I can survive it.

 

It will need revision and there is already a mountain of material I am starting to compile, not to mention visually mapping it out afterwards. Particularly, I need to investigate just how the external and internal audiences function.

 

Ultimately, what I am aiming to do, to keep myself poised on at all times, is the understanding of my central question: How does Superman maintain and enhance rhetorical persuasion? What is it about him that allows him to be as persuasive as he is?

 

So, now we move on to revision and more drafting. The next frontier lies with Analysis Ch. 2 and attempting the first major attempts to re-invent Superman and alter his narrative in order to update the changes in his identification and conceptions of virtue culturally (John Byrne’s Man of Steel). This will look at reinvention and exploration of Superman’s narrative when taken to extreme limits and appropriations in Superman: Red Son and Kingdom Come and what this reveals.

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Dissertation Hunt 2: Re-accentuation and Retrocontinuity

So, first, let me start with the term that is perhaps most unfamiliar to a comic book audience, re-accentuation. Russian scholar Mikhail Bakhtin postulated, in his work The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, in an analysis of the novel as a form of style and as a process of transformation as well. Bakhtin states that the

 

. . . process-re-accentuation-is considerably more complicated and may fundamentally distort the way novel style is understood. This process has to do with the “feel” we have for distancing, and involves the tact with which an author assigns his accents, sometimes smudging and often completely destroying for us their finer nuances. (419)

 

The reality at work here is that the idea of re-accentuation distance between an original incarnation of a concept from what it is now that it is applied. To think upon this with regards to Superman: if Superman is a conceptual embodiment is an embodiment of classical arête then one must acknowledge that time has put distance between what arête was for ancient Greeks (it even evolved for them) and what Superman has come to represent based on the application of such ideas when conceived Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

 

With the idea of Superman, one is dealing with both the written word and the visual image. Bakhtin is primarily focused on the “written word” and states that

 

For the word is, after all, not a dead material object in the hands of an artist equipped with it; it is a living word and is therefore in all things true to itself; it may become anachronous and comic, it may reveal its narrowness and one-sidedness, but its meaning-once realized-can never he completely extinguished. And under changed conditions this meaning may emit bright new rays, burning away the reifying crust that had grown up around it and thus removing any real ground for a parodic accentuation, dimming or completely extinguishing such re-accentuation. (419)

 

Bakhtin speaks of “emit[ing] bright new rays” and that under changed condition something like classical Greek arête may lose its original meaning based on its fixed and “anachronous” ideas, but this does not prevent the idea of virtue, of arête, from being extinguished completely, but may require a form of constant revision and reinvention instead.

 

Now, retcon (short for retrocontinuity) is something more familiar for the comic book fan and audience. Searching for a definition, I decided to not use the Wikipedia entry and chose to go with the Oxford English Dictionary online version instead. They define it as a noun and verb, as a noun, it is commonly seen as “a piece of new information that imposes a different interpretation on previously described events, typically used to facilitate a dramatic plot shift or account for an inconsistency” (oxforddictionaries.com). Basically, its something done or inserted in order to generate a change or revision of previous material, often to make it fresh or to correct some kind of error in continuity. This ties into it as a verb, where it is defined as being a form of revision, revision that is done “retrospectively,” by asserting its definition given for being a noun” (oxforddictionaries.com).

 

Now, here is where I am going with this: an example of a bit of retcon and a bit of internal re-accentuation of Superman. This is a re-accentuation as facilitated via retrocontinuity.

 

I am a big fan of Grant Morrison as a writer, and Frank Quitely as an artist, and a really big fan of their collaborations, particularly their 12-issue self-contained epic of All-Star Superman. Particularly, there is a page where Superman saves a young girl from killing herself; however, he does it in perhaps not the most “expected” of ways. He saves here by imparting to her an inner strength she already has but by functioning as a model, an outward manifestation of that inner strength. It is a brilliant page and perhaps my favorite moment in comic books of all time, definitely it is what I feel is the “essence” of Superman.

 

So, what is all this to do with re-accentuation and retrocontinuity (retcon)? Well, it is worth noting that this page I admire so very much plays upon a similar premise to one found in one of Superman’s earliest adventures. In Action Comics #9, entitled “Superman: Wanted,” there is another such scene of Superman saving someone who exhibits suicidal thoughts. Now, unlike the depiction in All-Star Superman, and roughly seven decades later, this version of Superman catches a man after he has jumped and just in time before he meets an unfortunate end with the pavement below.

 

Even more striking is the juxtaposition of these two similar but differently accentuated depictions of Superman’s powers. To begin, the Superman found in Action Comics #9 (February 1939) is a character in his own infancy but one who is also aimed more directly towards an audience of kids. He is appearing in a title billed to be full of “action” and his stories, written and drawn by his creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, speaks in direct, overt language and actions that leave no mystery to what he is out to do – save people’s lives. This kind of character works for the audience he is aimed at, but what happens to characters like Superman after decades of time and changes in the audience.

 

Well, that is where retconing becomes important.

 

Its through retconing characters that they are kept viable. They need to be reinvented and Superman has had plenty of them himself – most recently the New 52. Morrison and Quitely’s depiction in All-Star Superman (though technically separate from the normal continuity) is no exception. Morrison and Quitely are performing their own grand style, epic retcon of Superman. This maxi-series brings together many different and divergent elements of Superman’s seven decades of history in order for Morrison and Quitely to spin together a magnificent story of Superman facing his own mortality and the choice he makes in the face of death: to continue doing what he always does, save the day. Superman does not abandon his own ethos, in fact, Morrison and Quitely are able to in fact draw out and highlight, relying on Superman’s own complicated and previously retconed universe, the essence of Superman, distilled into a 12-issue series.

 

What Morrison and Quitely masterfully are doing is re-accentuating chosen elements of Superman’s continuity and developing their own compressed (and separate) retcon of his very essence and displaying it.

 

If one examines Superman from the Action Comics #9 story with that in All-Star Superman (issue #10) what is revealed is essentially the same character, just different levels of complexity that reveal the evolution of his audience over the decades and the complications/tensions/ expanded abilities of Superman himself.

 

First, there is the depiction and evolution of mental illness on display. The man who jumps in Action Comics #9 is seem to be outside the window of a sanatorium or mental hospital. This implies overtones of how mental illness was seen, though we are not told how serious his condition was, to be something of a dangerous social stigma. This contrasts with the girl in All-Star Superman #10 who is obviously in a form out-patient care of a psychiatrist, and appears to suffer from depression, to which Superman appears both sympathetic to but also acknowledging a far more common and slightly-less stigmatized view in turn.

 

Second, and most importantly, in the original story Superman catches the mental patient after he has jumped (Action Comics #9) while this young woman he helps before she attempts suicide and jumps (All-Star Superman #10). Most interesting here is the contrasting of overt vs. covert, explicit vs. implicit powers concerning Superman. In the former, Superman demonstrates his powers openly and without any particular complication or sub-text, no message to pass on other than “someone” might save you too. The later is more powerful because of its complexity. This is an evolved Superman who is able, through the comic book medium, to express more implicit and inspirational powers rather than the traditional overt ones. It is a masterful encapsulation and reveal of the essence of Superman, an essence that existed even in the Action Comics #9 of 1939.

 

The beauty of this is just how complex and complicated superheroes really have the power to be along with the acknowledgment that they are not static creations, but rather ever-evolving, continually retconed characters who have the power to accentuate or re-accentuate elements of the real world through “living myths” that convey and communicate deeper needs and truths.

 

Works Cited

 

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Trans. Michael Holquist and Caryl

Emerson. Austin: U of Texas P, 1982. Print.

 

Morrison, Grant and Frank Quitely. All-Star Superman. New York: DC Comics, 2010. Print.

 

“Retcon.” Oxford Dictionaries. Oxforddictionaries.com. 22 Nov. 2013.

 

Seigel, Jerry and Joe Shuster. “Wanted: Superman.” The Superman Chronicles, Vol. 1. New

York: DC Comics, 2006. Print.

Superman as Necessary Agent of Current Zeitgeist or Something More?: Zack Snyder’s Weak Defense for Superman Killing

In a recent Q&A with Zack Snyder, Michael Shannon (Gen. Zod), Henry Cavill (Superman), and Amy Adams (Lois Lane) on Yahoo hosted by Kevin Smith, a young woman asks “why have Superman kill” when it goes against the common assumption? Snyder and Shannon address this issue and question, but not as directly as say, someone like me, would want.

 

Snyder specifically points out that this notion, this

 

…idea of Superman never taking a life is a notion that has come from ‘the way he’s been popularized in movies and television. That “rule” doesn’t exist in the comics — in the comics, he’s actually killed Zod a couple of times. In the comics he’s more of a “practical” hero — his aversion to killing won’t stop him from doing it if it’s the only solution. (“11 Super Things We Learned…”)

 

This is where I feel like he goes off track for me … in a big way. Now, I am not disputing this kind of particular interpretation of Superman. Part of me completely understands and accepts the rights of filmmakers to bring their own interpretation to characters. However, I have some problems with his justification he puts forth here.

 

First, I can accept the idea that the idea of Superman “not killing” as being popularized by his depictions in radio, television, and movies over the last the years. I am perfectly willing to accept this idea, however, I disagree with the notion that the “rule” does not exist in the comic books. I disagree not on any particular grounds – since Snyder offers up no real examples of Superman basically committing justifiable homicide in order to be practical – but Snyder appears to be exploiting a lack of a “letter” of the rule to the “spirit” of the rule that has existed in Superman since his earliest conceptions in modern comic book mythos. Superman, as a character, was created to embody the paradigm of human ability and spirit. The idea that such a paradigm would intentionally kill represents a rather poor critique of humanity I feel. Superman may have not saved those who were his enemies, but Superman’s ethos lies in his ability, because he has extraordinary abilities, to find better ways than killing – this is part of his “spirit.

 

Superheroes who “kill” stop being superheroes and become vigilantes instead. Now, it is obvious and Snyder admits that they intentionally forced Superman into a situation where it was Zod or the innocent family. When they did this though, I feel, they are attempting to apply modern, post-9/11 zeitgeist incorrectly upon a character in order to force identification with an audience. However, this forced identification with the audience in fact poisons the well for what Superman stands for. It poisons his ability to inspire by forcing him into a moment of human weakness.

 

Now, what I just said: “It poisons his ability to inspire by forcing him into a moment of human weakness” is not meant to say that I do not think one can depict Superman in this manner if it is what is needed – and from some I have spoken to, it worked – to have modern young people really identify with Superman. This Superman is a reflection it brings to our modern world. However, I am put off by the shallow attempt that Snyder made to deflect such a depiction by using the comic book medium that spawned Superman as his weak defense.

 

Michael Shannon noted that, as he saw it, he was not surprised that Superman had to kill Zod and he did not see why people took issue with it. Snyder then notes, as pointed out above, that he sees Superman as a “‘practical’ hero.” Its not surprising to me that he calls Superman a “hero” and not a superhero because the version he has created is no longer really “super” because of the interpretation he has undertaken. He continues by noting that Superman looks for solutions and this was the only one available to him. Again, I take issue that this is a mishandling of Superman as a character. This is lowering of what he can be. I understand the need to do this in a practical sense, but Superman is not a “‘practical’ hero” as Snyder notes, he is something far far more than that.

 

Superman, in the comic books, is a character with many layers and dimensions. Comic book continuity has been twisted and turned, rewritten and evolved in ways where the mere navigation of it is less like taking a ride down the Mississippi River as it is navigating rivers and rapids of the entire United States in order to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean – a trying and difficult undertaking. To simply skate over the justification Snyder makes by deflecting at the comic books feels rather insulting and demeaning to the comic book medium itself. This is the heart of my problem with his statement – the arrogance of it.

 

Without those lowly “comic book creators,” those bullied boys from Cleveland, Ohio who dreamed up Superman, Snyder would not have the material he has to work with. I want to think he has more respect for the comic book medium, but his rather passé answer does leave me with that impression. Many comic book writers, among them Mark Waid (who know Superman as a character far better than Snyder), have had problems with this ending. If Snyder wanted to make a better case, simply making what felt like a lazy deflection to complicated comic book continuity was not a well thought out choice.

 

Superman, the spirit and essence of him, is not some simple plot device that when you find it difficult to utilize you short curcit the situation in order to make it play “your way.” If you want to deal with the character then you need to understand what the character is and what it can be. You are playing with the raw material, the mythos and essence of culture and ideals – take a bit more care before you use it like some kind of supped up wrecking ball Snyder.

 

Now, Snyder hinted at elements, ones he should have lead with, that these actions demonstrated by Superman in Man of Steel will have repurcussions. The article notes that “Snyder also hinted at the possibility of Kal-El facing the repercussions of taking Zod’s life in the next film” and I’ll be curious to see what he comes up with (“11 Super Things We Learned…”). Ultimately, this all flows down to the fact that many times those who are appropriating characters like Superman are doing so without really and strongly reaching an understanding of the character and what it was that both created them and has allowed them to endure. Failing to do this and then appearing dismissive to those forces really does not help one appear to be the kind of stewart I can feel confident in having control over such an iconic character.

 

 

Works Cited

 

Enk, Bryan “11 Super Things We Learned from the ‘Man of Steel’ Live Fan Q&A Event” Movies Blog. Yahoo.com. 9 Nov 2013. Web. 10 Nov 2013.

 

Dissertation Answers: Why Superman?

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Part of what I have to be able to do in order to “defend” my dissertation prospectus is to answer questions, to my committee, regarding my choice of topic, provide a justification for the theories and theorists I am aiming to use in my dissertation itself, and help make the case for my actual argument. So, where do I start…

 

1.Why Superman?

 

Why not? He is the modern manifestation of America, of modern myth. He is one particular interpretation for what America can be for the rest of the world, and in this world’s current state of the world and United States today, it seems to be something even more relevant than ever. Of course, there is more to this answer. This is just a start.

 

2.Why use the theorist you are using?

 

Currently I am working with the following (primarily):

 

1. The Rhetorical Model – Chaim Perelman and Laurie Olbrechts-Tyteca (primary)

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2. Identification and Cooperation – Kenneth Burke (persuasion and rhetoric)

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3. Self-fashioning – Stephen Greenblatt

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4. Dialogism and Reaccentuation – Mikhail Bahktin

 

The rhetorical role model is persuasive because it is self-fashioned to a form we (as a society) can identify with – both as an ideal (Superman) and as an everyman (Clark Kent) – and this identification allows the persuasion of the model to take hold and promote, inspired emulation, cooperation as found as part of Burke’s definition of rhetoric.

 

“self-fashioning” — “Identification” — “rhetorical role model” — “cooperation”

 

The dialogic and reaccentuation element develops via aspects that Superman and how he is connected to American culture and American culture is turn influenced/shapes Superman the character – it helps determine parts of the self-fashioning and choices that make Superman identifiable. Part of what of the achievement that also aids Superman in his identification comes from the ability also of the character to tap into reaccentuated, appropriated, identifiable elements of myth and heroism that are embodied in Superman.

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3.What is my major argument?

 

I think I may have just found what I really REALLY want to be as part of my opening introduction to my dissertation. In the opening segment of the October 19, 2013 episode of the NPR program “This American Life,” John Hodgman discussed a choice in superpowers. The debate surrounds a choice between the powers of flight versus that of invisibility. In the closing of segment, Hodgman summed up the discussion with a question by acknowledging he himself has trouble choosing and that it boils down to a question of choice: “who do you want to be? The person you hope to be or the person you fear you actually are?

 

This, for me, was a seriously compelling moment.

 

Superman flies. Superman goes without a mask; he acts with nobility and openness – exposed. This would not be everyone’s choice, but Superman does this because he is a hero – a superhero.

 

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Superman is the modern embodiment of the person who we all hope or want to be. That is what makes him, like all superheroes, different from you and me. This ideal of who we want to be, of inspiration and emulation that helps conform Superman so perfectly to Chaim Perelman and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca’s notion of a rhetorical model as laid out in their work The New Rhetoric.

 

In Ch. 3 of The New Rhetoric, titled “The Relations Establishing the Structure of Reality” and part of the first section noted as “Establishment Through the Particular Case,” Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca define what a model (by their definition) is for them. They define it as, that “In the realm of conduct, particular behavior may serve, not only to establish or illustrate a general rule, but also to incite to an action inspired by it” (362). This is definition of the model is something or someone that establishes a rule or code of conduct that then generates some kind of imitation inspired by it.

 

Say, for example, one applies Superman just to this initial example of the “model,” one can point out that on one level Superman is the template for all modern comic book superheroes. His creation, abilities, and conduct serve as the original template for all subsequent superheroes that followed, from Batman to Captain America, Spiderman to the Justice League. On another level, Superman, within in his own universe within the comic books established a model for how other heroes wanted to behave, he wrote the rules, and he served as the guarantee for the maintaining of those rules as well.

 

One could argue that Superman, as a “model,” would fall within the area where “imitative behavior” acts as part of a “rule of justice” (363). This rule is itself based on the fact that Superman acts as the guarantee of the model, of the conduct of a superhero through his prestige. It is through his recognizable standing that Superman is also able to portray and project the status of a model. His “prestige confers added value on [his] acts” and allows those acts themselves to become models for other superhero creators and superheroes creators to emulate (363). Take for instance, and Michael Chabon notes this in his novel (Amazing Adventures of Kavilier and Clay) that recounts fictional comic book creators operating around the same time as Superman’s creation, that Superman himself spawned many a copycat and still does. Superheroes such as Captain Marvel (Fawcett Comics), Hyperion and Sentry (Marvel Comics), and more recently Mark Millar’s Superior (Marvel Comics) and Utopian (Image Comics) are just a few of the many Superman analogues that have appeared over the past 75-years. Each of these analogues is, of themselves, homage to Superman and the power of the idea of that model. Superman’s nature as a superhero in his own comic presents inspired actions that model for other heroes the kind of behavior that, in fact, defines what a superhero is suppose to do and act like.

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Superman is an illustration. For, it is the “model shows what behavior to follow, and serves as a guarantee for an adopted behavior” and for this service, they are burdened with “an obligation which more often than not will determine his behavior” (364). One can see that the superhero, like Superman, is confined within a box. This box, to be the model, requires not only inspired action worthy of emulation, but can be seen as “imprisoning” the superhero in a position of extreme responsibility. It is a bit like Spiderman and Stan Lee’s wonderful line: “with great power comes great responsibility” magnified exponentially. It is fortunate then that Superman has chosen this mantel and is in fact able to project those qualities worthy of a model, but somewhere, on some meta-personal level, one might find it really hard to truly envy a life more inundated that any modern celebrity.

 

Ultimately, and perhaps thankfully, Superman is fictional. However, just because he is fictional does not render the power of him as a model inert. In fact, like any other fictional character, Superman’s popularity has transcended many mediums and has served, interpreted, as a kind modern mythical figure – paradigm – of human potential. He is the thing, to return to John Hodgman’s segment from “This American Life”: the person we hope to be.

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Prospectus 6.1 – On to Oral Defense

Jonathan C. Evans

October 1, 2013

Dissertation Prospectus

 

Title

Inspiration and Emulation of an American Icon: Critical Thought and Analysis of the Self-Fashioning of a Rhetorical Model out of the Man of Steel

 

Statement of Purpose

Ever since Frederic Wertham published his work Seduction of the Innocent in 1954 attempting to warn parents of how comic books help contribute to juvenile delinquency, we have acknowledged as a culture the power of comic book superheroes, such as Superman, to serve as models. This dissertation will explore the phenomenon of Superman as a cultural and rhetorical model by attempting to answer two primary questions: how does Superman (the first modern superhero and representing others) function as a rhetorical model – someone or something able to inspire emulation and action –, and what is the significance of Superman as a model with regards to its influence and interaction with American culture? My first, and primary, approach to answering these will involve Chaim Perelman and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca’s definition of a model as found in The New Rhetoric. This definition states, that “In the realm of conduct, particular behavior may serve, not only to establish or illustrate a general rule, but also to incite to an action inspired by it” (362).  Therefore, we can see that Superman inspires actions, specifically, by reinforcing behaviors such as being honest, doing the right thing, and helping others who are in need. As a model, Superman both reinforces commonly held ideas of cooperative behavior within society while also illustrating those rules and behaviors by turning them into demonstrated actions. His heroic deeds are able to promote and demonstrate to an audience the kind of conduct that should be ideally emulated, emulation that Kenneth Burke might call “cooperation” (A Rhetoric of Motives 43). The second approach, related to the definition of the model, consists of two parts. The first part emerges in Stephen Greenblatt’s concept of self-fashioning. In Renaissance Self-Fashioning, Greenblatt describes how individuals have used influential models to construct identity. By symbolically representing the American Dream, Superman embodies and communicates values critical to American self-fashioning of cultural identity. The second part draws upon Kenneth Burke’s concept of identification. It builds upon the idea of self-fashioning as a means to form a “construction” of identity, as Burke notes that human’s desire to find identify, with the character of Superman in his desire to identify with humanity. This identification empowers Superman’s quest and shapes his ability to function, as a rhetorical model worthy of emulation by fashioning identity humanity wants to emulate.

Statement of Significance

As a rhetorical model, evidence of Superman’s role can be found in the ways that he has shifted with American identity over much of the 20th century. He has been a champion of the oppressed ever since his first appearance in Action Comics #1 (1938). From his conception, Superman has stood as a bulwark, a force, against the threats from beyond and within that threaten humanity. He did all this while helping to inspiring boys and young men, such as comic book writer Grant Morrison, to be less afraid of nuclear weapons, the idea of “the bomb” because the idea of Superman was greater than it (Supergods xv). Superman represents something timeless and interwoven in American culture, and at the heart of the character’s stories and popularity, there remains this connection between the character of Superman and American culture, particularly during times of change and transition.

Understanding Superman’s ability to function as an effective model – able to inspire action and emulation – requires an understanding of the idealized view, an immigrant-orientated view, of the American Dream that Superman has come to embody. Superman embodies a self-fashioning, a formulation, of an identity that tapped into the perceived social standards around him in 1938 America and continues even today. Self-fashioning, as Stephen Greenblatt notes, requires certain conditions, such as the submission to an authority and the notion that it is always rooted, “though not exclusively, in language” and “occurs at the point of encounter between an authority and an alien” (Renaissance Self-Fashioning 9). Superman best embodies a self-fashioned version of the American dream, as an “alien” who has assimilated, through his ability to serve as a “representation of one’s nature or intention in speech or actions” (3). Superman can do this, break down and reinvent boundaries, because he is an amalgamation, a coming together of different traditions and ideas, like America itself, to form something that, as Greenblatt points to as “functioning without regard for a sharp distinction between literature and social life” (3). Superman is not limited in his “identity” to the original goals of his two poor Jewish-American creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster; instead as a model, he taps into the deepest aspirations of the American Dream – of reinvention and acceptance.

Superman embodies the idea that America is a land of the free, a land of opportunity, and welcome to all those who have made it what is and can make it better. Superman is a symbol. Kenneth Burke would assert that Superman is symbolically persuasive because “rhetoric. . .is rooted in an essential function of language itself, a function that is wholly realistic, and is continually born anew; the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols” (A Rhetoric of Motives 43). What makes Superman so “super” is his ability to incorporate and express the melting pot of American culture via symbolic action that is malleable while retaining an original essence. Symbolically, Superman exemplifies the “best” of American (drawn from Enlightenment) values – truth, justice, fairness, and freedom. What comes out is an idealized narrative of America that is representative, “continually born anew,” into what those who have come to America have always wanted to believe was possible – an idea given form, like the Statue of Liberty that can move, fly, and save us.

All-Star Superman, written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Frank Quitely provides a powerful example of how Superman functions as an effective rhetorical model. Within this story, Superman is faced with the reality that he will die. Faced with his own mortality, Superman embarks upon a series of heroic deeds, like the mythical Hercules and his twelve labors, before his time is up. Superman’s ability to act as a rhetorical model becomes explicit in one specific moment that encapsulates just how Superman can provide real hope and inspiration to others.

The page opens with a long shot of a young woman on the edge of the building, with the obvious implication that she is thinking of jumping to her death. Instead of seeing Superman swoop in and save her after she jumps, the audience witnesses a series of panels where he lands behind her, puts his hand on her shoulder, and reassuringly tells her that her doctor really was “held up” and that “It’s never as bad as it seems…You’re much stronger than you think you are. Trust me” (All-Star Superman, Vol. 2 96). Superman is not only modeling strength that can be seen by others, but also attempting, as Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca note, “to incite to an action inspired by it” (The New Rhetoric 362). He is attempting to impart strength, and one can infer by their hug in the final panel of the page, to this young woman, to present her with a feeling that if he can help her, she too can help herself, and that life will get better. This is but one of many examples of how Superman has and continues to function as a rhetorical model worthy of notice and imitation.

Statement of Research Methodology

An examination of the classical Greek notion of arête or excellence will help define Superman, as he can be understood, as a bridge between modern and classical mythological heroes. Examining Aristotle’s notions of attaining the “good” will be undertaken via his Nicomachean Ethics. He states that “if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else it is clear that this one ultimate End must be the Good, and indeed the Supreme Good” (Nicomachean Ethics 4). This idea of seeking the “Supreme Good” as a model – found in Superman – offers a connection and a grounded classical reasoning for Superman’s sustainable ability as a modern rhetorical model. Thomas Frentz notes that Joseph Campbell helped “show that myths, properly understood, were not faculty accounts of social history, but rather accurate…accounts of a culture’s unconscious” (“Memory, Myth, and Rhetoric” 244). Superman embodies the same ability as myths, and it could be argued that his power stems directly from his ability to tap into some “unconscious” essence of American culture. Frentz quotes Campbell, from his Myths to Live By, by noting that such a connection comes “Through a dialogue [and that] we can learn to know and come to terms with the greater horizon of our deeper and wiser, inner self [through understanding them]” (13). Through an investigation of these elements in relation to Superman, we will attempt to intertwine and analyze just how the formulation of such classical elements of Greek myths and ideas help manifest in Superman the ability to project and embody enduring elements of American culture.

The primary lens for this examination will stem from the ability of Superman to function as a rhetorical model. This will be aided by understanding Burke’s concepts of “identification” and cooperation, which play a crucial role in allowing Superman to be relatable and therefore allow him to properly function as a paradigm of Perelman and Olbrecht-Tyteca’s version of a rhetorical model. The cooperation Superman is able to generate operates as a means of a dialogic exchange between Superman the character and American history and culture. Superman’s direct connection to the American values and dreams allows him to act as a force for betterment of those same values and dreams while also helping to shape and define them as well.

Special attention will be given to Superman’s history and changes within the comic book medium. The reasoning for this emphasis lies specifically in the ability of comic books, published in recent decades in a monthly fashion, to keep up with in a timely manner the changes and shifts in American culture. This is to say, unlike television or movies, comic books have, with the exception of perhaps radio and news, the unique ability to redress and pointedly mimic the subtle shifts of popularity and the cultural zeitgeist around them. Works, such as Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art: Principles and Practices from the Legendary and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art will help reveal the theory of the art form, medium, in its ability to communicate such complex ideas, and why we are “so involved” (McCloud 30).

Books, such as the Ages of Superman, edited by Joseph J Darowski, will help provide and identify key points within Superman’s own history as it relates to the American and world history he has “lived” through. Grant Morrison’s work Supergods will in turn help illustrate the ways that superheroes, particularly Superman, have in influencing the lives of young people and serving as creative vehicles of the expression and excavate deeper and more complex ideas. Mikhail Bakhtin’s idea of the dialogic and reaccentuation will be examined, primarily through his work The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, Michael Holquit’s Dialogism, and Gary Morson and Caryl Emerson’s Mikhail Bakhtin, and how this concept applies to the ways that Superman has interacted with American culture and history, and how they have affected each other.

Tentative Working Organization for the Dissertation

 

Introduction:

This section will attempt to elaborate specifically on how and what helped shape and establish Superman as a rhetorical model in relation to American history and culture. Superman exists within a popularized American medium and even his own motto “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” speaks to how connected the icon of Superman is to American culture and values. These very ideals have not remained static, nor has Superman. For this reason, Superman has himself had to adapt and shift, to reinvent himself to stay relevant. These reinventions and shifts functioned as a two-way street, both being influenced by American culture and history, and then influencing that same culture and history in turn. What emerges is an identifiable symbol of what is best in the American ideal- timeless – regardless if it is sometimes dismissed or ignored.

Literature Review:

Through a bibliographic excavation of the aspects of Superman’s own comic book medium history, as well as its dialogic connections to American history, a picture of how and why Superman has become the iconic figure he has will emerge. Beginning with Aristotle and Campbell’s conceptions of the power of myth, a deeper exploration of how modern myths like Superman function to project arête via his presence as a model will be undertaken. The application of The New Rhetoric, along with Greenblatt’s “self-fashioning” and Burke’s “identification, will help reveal just how engaged and intertwined American culture is with Superman. Other sources aimed at aiding this investigation are Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero by Larry Tye, David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, and The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture by Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith among many.

Method:

The history of Superman as a rhetorical model is the history of American culture through much of the 20th and into the 21st century. The scope of this dissertation will attempt to examine how Superman, as a rhetorical model, represents a self-fashioned and identifiable icon that can inspire actions worthy of emulation in others. This ability is linked to Superman’s ability to tap into a mythical and iconic needs of America and has continued to shift and change with American culture while also has in turn been affected by that same culture that created him. It is by understanding that complex dialogic relationship that allows Superman to operate as a rhetorical model that will help cast light on to what helps him maintain his relevance even 75 years later. Analysis:

Chapter 1: This chapter will attempt to specifically analyze and critically understand the complex aspects centered upon Superman’s position as a rhetorical model – the good and the critical. Focus will be given to how this model of Superman has held up to criticism and has become engrained in American culture over the past 75-years.

Chapter 2: This chapter will attempt to specifically explain dialogism and examine the dialogic connection between Superman’s history of reinvention, self-fashioning, in relation to the desired and continual need for relevance in a shifting and changing American culture.

Chapter 3: This chapter aims to place the rhetorical model of Superman and his dialogic relationship with American culture and history into an analysis of the impact such an understanding can provide towards a deeper understanding of what American dream can potentially embody and represent for those who recognize Superman as a worthy model.

Conclusion:

The primary goal of this endeavor aims at revealing that Superman’s function as a rhetorical model dialogically intertwines with American history and through this exchange is created a concrete and self-fashioned representation of American ideals and values – a crystallization of the abstract. Through the comic book medium, Superman has developed and channeled innate “abstract ideals and values” of the American dream and potential into an icon worthy of praise and imitation. He represents the best of American ideals, an arête, while helping to shape and inform those ideals throughout most of the 20th century and into the 21st.

 

 

 

Working Bibliography

 

Andrae, Thomas. “From Menace to Messiah: The History and Historicity of Superman.”

Discourse 2 (1980): 124-138. Print.

 

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. 2nd ed. Trans. H. Rackham. Cambridge: Leob Classic Library,

1934. Print.

 

—. The Rhetoric. Trans. W. Rhys Roberts. New York: The Modern Library, 1984. Print.

 

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Trans. Michael Holquist and Caryl

Emerson. Austin: U of Texas P, 1982. Print.

 

Barry, Ann Marie. Visual Intelligence: Perception, Image, and Manipulation in Visual

Communication. Albany: State U of New York P, 1997. Print.

 

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972. Print.

 

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

 

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

 

—. Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: U of

California P, 1966. Print.

 

Campbell, Joseph. Myths to Live By. New York: Bantam Books, 1972. Print.

 

Daniels, Les. Superman: The Complete History–the Life and Times of the Man of Steel. San

Francisco: Chronicle, 1998. Print.

 

Darowski, Joseph J. Ed. The Ages of Superman: Essays on the Man of Steel in Changing

Times. Jefferson: McFarland & Co, Inc., 2012. Print.

 

Doty, William G. Mythography: The Study of Myth and Rituals. 2nd Edition. Tuscaloosa, U of

Alabama P, 2000. Print.

 

Duncan, Randy and Matthew J. Smith. The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture. New

York: Continuum, 2009. Print.

 

Eco, Umberto. “The Myth of Superman.” Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular

Medium. Eds. Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. Jackson: U P of Mississippi, 2004. Print.

 

Eisner, Will. Comics and Sequential Art: Principles and Practices from the Legendary

Cartoonist. New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 2008. Print.

 

 

Engle, Gary. “What Makes Superman So Darned American?” Superman at Fifty. Dennis Dooley

and Gary Engle, Eds. New York: Collier, 1987. Print.

 

Fingeroth, Danny. Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us About Ourselves

and Our Society. New York: Coninuum, 2004. Print.

 

Frentz, Thomas S. “Memory, Myth, and Rhetoric in Plato’s Phaedrus”. Rhetoric Society

Quarterly 36.3 (Summer 2006): 243-263. Print.

 

Gross, Alan and Ray D. Dearin. Eds. Chaim Perelman. Albany: State U of New York P, 2003.

Print.

 

Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. Chicago: U of

Chicago P, 2005. Print.

 

Hajdu, David. The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed

America. New York: Picador. 2008. Print

 

Holquist, Michael. Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World. 2nd Ed. New York: Routledge, 2002.

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.

 

— and Frank Quitely. All-Star Superman, Vol. 2. New York: DC Comics, 2010. Print.

 

Morson, Gary and Caryl Emerson. Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics. Palo Alto: Standford

U P, 1990. Print.

 

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.

 

Perelman, Chaim. The Realm of Rhetoric. Trans. William Kluback. Notre Dame: U of Notre

Dame P, 1982. Print.

 

Reynolds, Richard. Superheroes: A Modern Mythology. Jackson: U P of Mississippi, 1992.

Print.

 

Tye, Larry. Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero. New York:

Random House, 2012. Print.

 

Varnum, Robin and Christina T. Gibbons. Ed. The Language of Comics: Word and Image.

Jackson: U P of Mississippi, 2001. Print.

Prospectus 5.5 has arrived

So, this is the one, this is the one going to committee. There will probably be some minor changes and a tad more revision to it, but the ideas are in place – though I am working on and will continue to try and bolster my understanding of dialogics as I continue this journey. I am currently already excavating classic Superman stories through the lens of my theories and making notes, points of reference, and areas to build on. Beast 2.0 here we go (and for reference to Beast 1.0, I, of course, am referring to that MA thesis that now seems like a decade ago…well, 6 years and boy has a lot changed. So, without further ado…

 

Jonathan C. Evans

August 27, 2013

Dissertation Prospectus

 

Title

Self-Fashioning a Rhetorical Model from Another World: Understanding the Dialogic Relationship between American Culture and the Man of Steel

 

Statement of Purpose

Ever since Frederic Wertham published his work Seduction of the Innocent in 1954 attempting to warn parents of how comic books help contribute to juvenile delinquency, we have acknowledged as a culture the power of comic book superheroes, such as Superman, to serve as models. This dissertation will explore this phenomenon and begin by asking two questions: how does Superman (the first modern superhero and representing others) function as a model rhetorically, and what is the significance of Superman as a model? There are two approaches that offer insight into these questions. The first approach develops out of the definition of a model offered by Chaim Perelman and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca as envisioned in The New Rhetoric that “In the realm of conduct, particular behavior may serve, not only to establish or illustrate a general rule, but also to incite to an action inspired by it” (362).  By this definition, Superman inspires actions, specifically reinforcing behaviors such as being honest, doing the right thing, and helping others who are in need. As a model, Superman both reinforces commonly held ideas of cooperative behavior within society while also illustrating those rules and behaviors by turning them into demonstrated actions. His heroic deeds, in turn, promote and demonstrate to an audience the kind of conduct that should be emulated, emulation that Kenneth Burke might call “cooperation” (A Rhetoric of Motives 43). The second approach, related to the definition of the model, emerges in Stephen Greenblatt’s concept of self-fashioning. In Renaissance Self-Fashioning, Greenblatt describes how individuals have used influential models to construct identity. By symbolically representing the American Dream, Superman embodies and communicates values critical to American self-fashioning. Through the application of these two theoretical orientations a deeper understanding of how iconic figures function in correlation with the culture that creates them will reveal that Superman is more than mere entertainment, and in fact, impacts and shapes the American culture that birthed him.

Statement of Significance

Understanding Superman’s ability to function as an effective and sustained rhetorical model requires an understanding of the idealized view, an immigrant-orientated view, of the American Dream that Superman has come to embody. What Superman embodies is a kind of self-fashioning, a formulation, of an identity that tapped into the perceived social standards around him in 1938 America. Self-fashioning, as Stephen Greenblatt notes, requires certain conditions, such as the submission to an authority and the notion that it is always rooted, “though not exclusively, in language” and “occurs at the point of encounter between an authority and an alien” (Renaissance Self-Fashioning 9). Superman best embodies a self-fashioned version of the American dream, as an “alien” who has assimilated, through his ability to serve as a “representation of one’s nature or intention in speech or actions” (3). Superman can do this, break down and reinvent boundaries, because he is an amalgamation, a coming together of different traditions and ideas, like America itself, to form something that, as Greenblatt points to as “functioning without regard for a sharp distinction between literature and social life” (3). Superman is not limited in his “identity” to the original goals of his two poor Jewish-American creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster; instead as a model, he taps into the deepest aspirations of the American Dream – of reinvention and acceptance.

Superman embodies the idea that America is a land of the free, a land of opportunity, and welcome to all those who have made it what is and can make it better. This idea of connection between Superman and America reveals itself via his iconic stature, where even today, he remains admired and acknowledged in a world that does not resemble America in 1938. Superman is a symbol. Kenneth Burke would assert that Superman is symbolically persuasive because “rhetoric…is rooted in an essential function of language itself, a function that is wholly realistic, and is continually born anew; the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols” (A Rhetoric of Motives 43). What makes Superman so “super” is his ability to incorporate and express the melting pot of American culture via symbolic action that is malleable while retaining an original essence. Symbolically, Superman exemplifies the “best” of American (drawn from Enlightenment) values – truth, justice, fairness, and freedom. What comes out is an idealized narrative of America that is representative, “continually born anew,” into what those who have come to America have always wanted to believe was possible – an idea given form, like the Statue of Liberty that can move and even fly.

As a rhetorical model, evidence of Superman’s role can be found in the ways that he has shifted with American identity over much of the 20th century. He has been a champion of the oppressed ever since his first appearance in Action Comics #1 (1938). He later tackled fears of the atomic bomb and radiation in Superman #61 (1949). From his conception into the 1950’s, it was Superman who stood as a bull-work, a force, against these threats from beyond. He did all this while also inspiring boys and young men, such as comic book writer Grant Morrison, to be less afraid of “the bomb” because the idea of Superman was greater than it (Supergods xv).

In the 1950’s and 60’s, Superman modeled our desires to explore new frontiers, such as outer space, but he also battled our fears of alien invasion as well in Action Comics #242 (1958) and #252 (1959). The comic book medium allowed Superman to show kids that even though there were monsters out there, that there were problems and issues, one could rest easy because there are men, like himself, who were out there battling to keep them safe. In the 1970’s and early 80’s, and onward, stories such as the “No More Kryptonite” storyline of Superman #233-8, 240-2 (1970-71) brought major changes to the character’s powers that can be seen to match up against America’s own waning power in the wake of the Vietnam War. Questions, such as: “If Superman Didn’t Exist?” in Action Comics #554 (1984) and speculation was made about a world after Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow (1986). All of these stories allowed for deeper speculation about Superman’s relevance and meaning in American culture during times of change and transition.

Superman endured. In the late 80’s to the end of the 20th century witnessed Superman’s ultimate “self-fashioning” as a character in a quasi-Campbellian hero cycle of death, mourning, replacement, and finally return in Death of Superman event (1992), Funeral for a Friend (1992), and Reign of the Supermen (1993) story arcs. Superman’s “Christ-like” performance was followed up by a return to Superman as a model for what Americans should do, and in Superman: Peace on Earth (1998), he attempts to wipe out world hunger. He served to remind us, always, of our “better selves,” while allowing the character to engrain itself deeper into American culture by tackling the issues of his own time and place.

Change is never easy, and the dark tone of Kingdom Come (1996) offers up a Superman who will not kill even when the world, public opinion, demands it. The story poses a self-directed questioning as to whether Superman is really needed or even fits the zeitgeist of late 20th century America. The 21st century poses new and old challenges to Superman. Attempts to point to Superman’s relevance has come via works such as Superman: Birthright (2003-04) in which his origin and back-story is revised for the 21st century. All-Star Superman (2005-08), which reimagines Superman in his idyllic mythos as a savior who offers up a “model” for how we can all be better amidst all this change, helps establish Superman’s constant as rooted in his dialogic relationship with American culture – between the fictional character and the reality of history. For since its earliest founding, America has struggled to fashion a true social and literary identity.

All-Star Superman, written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Frank Quitely provides a powerful example of how Superman functions as a powerful rhetorical model. Within this story, Superman is faced with the reality that he will die. Faced with his own mortality, Superman embarks upon a series of heroic deeds, like the mythical Hercules and his twelve labors, before his time is up. Within this narrative, and perhaps it is more telling of an example of just how Superman acts as a rhetorical model, there is a specific moment that encapsulates just how Superman can provide real hope and inspiration to others.

The page opens with a long shot of a young woman on the edge of the building, with the obvious depiction implicating that she is thinking of jumping to her death. Instead of seeing Superman swoop in and save her after she jumps, the audience witnesses a series of panels where he lands behind her, puts his hand on her shoulder, and reassuringly tells her that her doctor really was “held up” and that “It’s never as bad as it seems…You’re much stronger than you think you are. Trust me” (All-Star Superman, Vol. 2 96). Superman is not only modeling strength that can be seen by others, but also attempting, as Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca note, “to incite to an action inspired by it” (The New Rhetoric 362). He is attempting to, and one can infer by their hug in the final panel of the page, impart strength to this young woman, to present her with a feeling that if he can help her, she too can help herself, and that life will get better. This is but one of many examples of how Superman has and continues to function as a rhetorical model worthy of notice and imitation.

Statement of Research Methodology

An examination of the classical Greek notion of arête or excellence will help shine light on Superman as he can be understood as a bridge between modern and classical mythological heroes. In addition, examining Aristotle’s notions of attaining the “good” – for in the Nicomachean Ethics he states that “The good is that at which all things aim–all activities, choices, actions, investigations (seekings), arts or crafts or skills or trades” (1) – offers a connection and counterweight to negative attacks on whether Superman functions as an appropriate model at all. Through an investigation of these elements in relation to Superman, we will attempt to intertwine and analyze just how the formulation of such classical elements in conjunction with Superman’s creation function uniquely in relation to American history and culture.

Close attention will be paid to the ways that Superman has operated in the context of a rhetorical model to promote and facilitate cultural cooperation as found in Kenneth Burke’s definition of rhetoric. This cooperation operates as part of a dialogic exchange between Superman the character and American history and culture. Superman’s direct connection to the American values and dreams allows him to project a force for betterment of those same values and dreams while also helping to shape and define them as well. Application of Kenneth Burke’s notions of identification and its rhetorical role in helping persuade people will be examined in order to help facilitate the reasoning behind Superman’s continued relevance in our shared cultural imagination.

Special attention, as noted in the evidence above, will be given to Superman’s history and changes within the comic book medium. The reasoning for this emphasis lies specifically in the ability of comic books, published in recent decades in a monthly fashion (and previously in bi-monthly and quarterly fashion), to keep up with the changes and shifts in American culture. This is to say, unlike television or movies, comic books have, with the exception of perhaps radio and news, the unique ability to redress and pointedly mimic the subtle shifts of popularity and cultural zeitgeist. Works, such as Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art: Principles and Practices from the Legendary and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art will help reveal the theory of the art form, medium, in its ability to communicate such complex ideas, and why we are “so involved” (McCloud 30).

Books, such as the Ages of Superman, edited by Joseph J Darowski, will help provide and identify key points within Superman’s own history as it relates to the American and world history he has “lived” through. Grant Morrison’s work Supergods will in turn help illustrate the ways that superheroes, particularly Superman, have in influencing the lives of young people and serving as creative vehicles of the expression and excavate deeper and more complex ideas. Mikhail Bakhtin’s idea of the dialogic will be examined, primarily through his work The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, and applied to the ways that Superman has interacted with American culture and history, and how they have affected each other.

Tentative Working Organization for the Dissertation

Introduction:

This section will attempt to elaborate specifically on how and what helped shape and engrain Superman into a rhetorical model as in relation to American history and culture. Superman exists within a popularized American medium and even his own motto, “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” speaks to how connected the icon of Superman is to American culture and values. These very ideals have not remained static, nor has Superman. For this reason, Superman has himself had to adapt and shift, to reinvent himself to stay relevant. These reinventions and shifts functioned as a two-way street, both being influenced by American culture and history, and then influencing that same culture and history in turn. What emerges is an identifiable symbol of what is best in the American ideal- timeless – regardless if it is sometimes dismissed or ignored.

Literature Review:

Through a bibliographic excavation of the aspects of Superman’s own comic book medium history, as well as its dialogic connections to American history, a picture of how and why Superman has become the iconic figure he has will emerge. The result will aim to reveal just what it is that Superman taps into, what American arête he represents, and then projects into a concrete cultural icon that affects and is affected by changes in American history and culture over the past 75 years. Samples of sources under investigation here are including Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero by Larry Tye, David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, and The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture by Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith among many.

Method:

The history of Superman as a rhetorical model is the history of American culture through much of the 20th and into the 21st century. This dialogic relationship Superman shares with America and through the comic book medium follows his creation in 1938. It continued to emerge, as Superman became an icon that faced down the greatest threats one could imagine as America struggled during periods of social and political change. It was the ability of the comic book medium, but more importantly, the essence of what Superman was able to embody about “America,” which allowed the character to adapt and reinvent himself. It is by understanding that complex dialogic relationship that allows Superman to operate as a rhetorical model that will help cast light on to what helps him maintain his relevance even 75 years later.

Analysis:

Chapter 1: This chapter will attempt to specifically analyze and critically understand the complex aspects centered upon Superman’s position as a rhetorical model – the good and the critical. Focus will be given to how this model of Superman has held up to criticism and has become engrained in American culture over the past 75-years.

Chapter 2: This chapter will attempt to specifically draw a dialogic connection between Superman’s history of reinvention, self-fashioning, in relation to the desired and continual need for relevance in a shifting and changing American culture while retaining his core essence.

Chapter 3: This chapter aims to place the rhetorical model of Superman and his dialogic relationship with American culture and history into an analysis of the impact such an understanding can provide towards a deeper understanding of what American dream can potentially embody and represent for those who recognize Superman as a worthy model

Conclusion:

The primary goal of this endeavor aims at revealing that Superman’s function as a rhetorical model dialogically intertwines with American history and through this exchange is created a concrete and self-fashioned representation of American ideals and values – a crystallization of the abstract. Through the comic book medium, Superman has developed and channeled innate “abstract ideals and values” of the American dream and potential into an icon worthy of praise and imitation. He represents the best of American ideals while helping to shape and inform those ideals throughout most of the 20th century and into the 21st, and through an understanding of these elements a deeper realization of just how a fictional character can embody and inspire generations – even one’s yet to come.

Working Bibliography

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. D. P. Chase. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 1998. Print.

—. The Rhetoric. Trans. W. Rhys Roberts. New York: The Modern Library, 1984. Print.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Trans. Michael Holquist and Caryl Emerson. Austin: U of Texas P, 1982. Print.

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

Darowski, Joseph J. Ed. The Ages of Superman: Essays on the Man of Steel in Changing Times. Jefferson: McFarland & Co, Inc., 2012. Print.

Duncan, Randy and Matthew J. Smith. The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture. New York: Continuum, 2009. Print.

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

Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005. Print.

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

— and Frank Quitely. All-Star Superman, Vol. 2. New York: DC Comics, 2010. Print.

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.

Tye, Larry. Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero. New York: Random House, 2012. Print.

 

Its a Birth…Its a Plane…Its a Question of Secret Identity

So, after a meeting of the a group of my fellow Doctoral Candidates and Dissertation workers – our shared major professor has playfully dubbed us the Justice League of Rhetoric (love it) – I was returning home and Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack to the new Man of Steel movie came up in my iPod.

 

While I listened, I began to ponder some questions that had been posed to me.

 

First, before I jump into the questions, as a matter of focus, and this will come out in more clarity as I finalize Dissertation Prospectus 4.0, I have decided that focusing on the Superman in the comic book medium and how that medium, more so than television and movies, can adapt and shift with the cultural zeitgeist. I believe this will let me stay closer to my comfort zone and help focus my own research into something that can avoid taking a tangent into something sprawling and crazy.

 

Since I am focusing on Superman as a rhetorical model, it occurred to me, and was brought to my attention by the League, that there emerges a blemish to the “model” when you think about Superman and his secret identity from the point of view that this could be viewed, though it is done to protect those he loves, as lying or deceit. It is a tricky question and swings one into discussions of ethical morality (deontological vs. utilitarian) notions of doing the right thing or doing what has the better consequences. I get this, but what fascinated me more though was the reality that perhaps we often look at this TOO much from the point of view of adults.

 

What about a child’s point of view on Superman’s secret identity?

 

What if instead of focusing on Superman’s need for lying and concealment of his secret identity is less an adult utilitarian choice, and perhaps channeling Mark Miller’s allegorical/analogical representation in Superior, we see the choice of Superman as wish fulfillment. What if we look at it from the child point of view and the notion that a lot of children, but especially those who have suffered loss or pain or heartache for whatever reason often “wish” for an escape, to be someone else, who can make that loss or pain or heartache go away. Superman is that “wish.” He is that something beyond that kids can look to and think, if he can do it, so can I. He is something worth aspiring to imitate, perhaps not in superpowers and abilities (because that is where Fredrick Wertham would chide me as putting nonsense in a child’s head or tempting them to do things that are dangerous), behavior, character, and decision making – doing what is right and good. It is a desire in a child to be extraordinary. Superman can and does show a “model” for how one can, even as a “mere mortal” operate by a code that helps promote a better world.

 

In addition to that thought, listening to the soundtrack also provoked ideas about Superman and his “relevance” in our world.

 

My thought here is that Superman represents what we, as humanity, could be (potentially) and does it even when we ignore him or forget about him. He continues to endure, even when we don’t think we need him. That is perhaps what really makes him “super.”

 

Superman embodies the very best of American idealism, and even more importantly, he represents the very best of humanity too.

 

Ultimately, Superman embodies also the child-like belief that everything, anything, is possible. Nothing is impossible. He shows each new generation that there is a chance to be better than the one before, to start over or even more to build something better than what was before.