Dissertation Answers: Why Superman?


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)


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


3. Self-fashioning – Stephen Greenblatt


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.



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.



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.


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.


Comics and Moral Ethics, Part 1


Before I begin, I want to give credit to my friend Samantha LeBas and her blog: Comicsonice http://comicsonice.wordpress.com/. It reminded me of some thoughts I was kicking around in my own head about the role of moral ethics: particularly Kantian deontological and Mill’s utilitarian approaches.

Shout out to my Philosophy professor from my undergraduate, Dr. Snowden, for introducing me to these theories.

* Spoilers *

In Marvel Comics New Avengers #3, there is an impending trans-universe cataclysm coming and its up to Capt. America, Namor, Mr. Fantastic, Iron Man, Beast (in for the deceased Prof. Xavier, Black Panther, Black Bolt, and Dr. Strange – members of a secret cabal known as the Illuminati.

It’s quite obvious that Capt. America, being who he is, is uncomfortable with this whole situation (more on this).

Following their failed attempt to deploy the Infinity Gauntlet (well slightly successful but at a price), and its subsequent and apparent self-destruction (that’s right, they broke the Infinity Gauntlet but that might have been because they were no longer in their own universe and all), the group comes to a major turning point – after Namor goes nuts a bit and wails on Capt. America too.

The “turning point” leads to a major ethical dilemma.

Capt. America’s dilemma is one that forces him to confront the fact that there are those in his group (Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic, etc.) who are willing to do “whatever it takes” to make sure the outcome is one that favors the most amount of persons (particularly the humans and life-forms of “their” universe versus the intruding, dangerously squeezing in, parallel Earths).

The confrontation is one that leads Capt. America, in an impassioned speech to implore the others in the Illuminati, among them Black Panther who himself turns on Capt., to steer away from the courses of action they are moving towards – drastic and perhaps dangerous (morally) ones. This confrontation then leads to Dr. Strange, to prevent the escalation, wiping Capt. America’s mind, removing him from the argument and the group itself.

So, was Capt. America right? We don’t know. It does leave some questions on the perceptions at work though –

* The Theory *


Deontological Ethics

As espoused by Immanuel Kant and others, and accounted for by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy…

“…is one of those kinds of normative theories regarding which choices are morally required, forbidden, or permitted. In other words, deontology falls within the domain of moral theories that guide and assess our choices of what we ought to do (deontic theories), in contrast to (aretaic [virtue] theories) that—fundamentally, at least—guide and assess what kind of person (in terms of character traits) we are and should be. And within that domain, deontologists—those who subscribe to deontological theories of morality—stand in opposition to consequentialists(http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-deontological/).

What is at work in this theory, in summation, is the idea that when faced with a moral or ethical situation, one prescribes to choose to do what is right. Action chosen is the right action, sometimes disregarding the value or minimizing the value of consequences.

To put it in every day terms, if you follow this theory and you find out something horrible, like a friend’s husband is cheating on her, you would tell her, hands down, regardless of perhaps the devastating consequences that might erupt because you are doing what is considered the morally right thing.

In relation to Captain America, one has to ask, is his feeling that other members of the group, who appear willing to “sell-out” their moral ethics to do what is best for everyone “or for the greater good” make him a deontological thinker?


I would argue that Captain America’s personality, as depicted fairly consistently in the Marvel Universe (can go back to the Civil War between him and Iron Man and still sees this) places him in the camp as a deontological thinker. Captain America believes that doing what is morally right is the best choice to create the best outcome, long-term for everyone. He is not one who is willing to give up his moral beliefs or views in order to achieve a promise of long-term possible outcomes.


You can say he has integrity and that he won’t sell out.

However, one must consider, in Hickman’s depiction of Capt. America in this situation, his unwillingness to bend may be something that could possibly jeopardize the entire universe.

So, perhaps Dr. Strange’s tactic of “removing” him from the situation was the best move after all. We’ll see.

Utilitarian Ethics

In opposition to deontological thinking there lies the theories developed by Jeremy Bentham and later John Stuart Mills in 19th century England.


“…though there are many varieties of the view discussed, utilitarianism is generally held to be the view that the morally right action is the action that produces the most good. There are many ways to spell out this general claim. One thing to note is that the theory is a form of consequentialism: the right action is understood entirely in terms of consequences produced. What distinguishes utilitarianism from egoism has to do with the scope of the relevant consequences. On the utilitarian view one ought to maximize the overall good — that is, consider the good of others as well as one’s own good” (http://plato.stanford.edu /entries/utilitarianism-history/).

In summation, this theory’s primary aim centers around the idea what is in the best interest, the “greater good” for everyone. One can think about the movie Hot Fuzz if you like your pop-culture movie reference and imagine Sgt. Nicholas Angel as Capt. America and the Town Council as Iron Man and everyone else.

Or, to put it in everyday terms take the previous scenario of you finding out that your friend’s husband is cheating on her. Instead of coming right out and telling her you would stop, take into account perhaps the best situation to approach this. How can you let her know in a way that does not blow things up? Perhaps, for the sake of better “consequences” you might not even tell her. Instead you might confront her husband, get him to tell her or knock it off. Ultimately, the aim is do what is best for everyone, the “greater good.”

This is where Iron Man and the others in the Illuminati are. I don’t think they like being here, but even the Black Panther (who was against all of this) acknowledges his role as a leader of a whole nation – other people he must do what is best for. This is why he turns on Capt. America. He is not willing to risk their lives to be “morally right” or “pure.”


By these standards the rest of Illuminati are not “immoral” people, but like modern political leaders they are forced to think beyond their own selves (not that Captain America is not) but with a realization that to achieve the “greater good” for everyone they may have to resort to methods and ideas that are not “above board.” They have to be willing to do whatever is necessary to achieve the best possible outcome – the saving of their universe, their Earth.

It will be interesting to see where this willingness on the part of Illuminati leads them. If, like in the past, Iron Man shows the willingness to go “wherever” the consequences could be damaging.

* Summation *

What is worrisome is that Hickman has chosen to remove Capt. America from the equation, the counter-balance to Iron Man. In Hickman’s other Marvel Comics title, The Avengers, at the end of issue #3 he labels, in a omniscient narrator mode Captain America as “life” and Iron Man as “death” setting them up in a cryptic but intriguing binary position to one another.

It should be interesting to see how this plays out.

Newspaper Comic