Rhetorical Tropes and the Man of Steel: Morrison and Quitely’s All-Star Superman

So, anyone who knows me a bit, or has read back posts in this blog about my dissertation process, knows that I am a fan of Superman. I only really became a fan of Superman after I read Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly’s All-Star Superman.

Morrison’s depiction of Superman helped change my entire perspective on the man of steel and directly helped inspire my dissertation: American Arête: The Man of Steel as a Rhetorical Model.

What Morrison did was open my eyes to the deeper elements found within Superman, to the deeper, archetypal, and intangible but infinite potential of inspiration existed within the figure of Superman.

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So, coming at things from this new, enlightened angle, and digging deeper into the structure of comic books formatting – how it works to communicate with its audience – I eventually, figuring that my degree is in Rhetoric, came to a question (well, really many many questions).

The question was:

Can recognizing comic book superheroes as forms of visual stylistic figures and tropes add a greater rhetorical understanding of their potential to persuade an audience?

McCloud

To try and answer this, I started by falling back on what was my very first bridgehead between comic books/graphic novels and literary and rhetorical scholarship: Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.

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In this work, McCloud notes that comic books have the singular ability to act as “a form of amplification through simplification” (30).

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In other words, it can be asserted, if applied to comic book superheroes, that they have a built in use for tasks often performed by the simplest metaphors, analogies, or any form of figurative language. This of course is determined by the author and the message he or she wants to convey. Superheroes can then act as stand in’s for concepts and ideas and express them with new meaning or message, or even remind the audience of elements and ideas that are right in front of them.

Speaking of “right in front of them,” having returned to this text after years of studying rhetorical theory, this statement was like uncovering a hidden gym. It was, quite figuratively and almost literally a skandalon, or stumbling block. This “stumbling block” caused me to take notice of something, McCloud’s statement as quoted above, and see it differently even though I had “walked” past it time and time again.

What About the Rhetorical Side?

So, one might wonder at this point, “I see a lot of talk about superheroes, images, cartoons, and what not, but what about rhetoric?” Well, the answer for that can be found when one considers or asserts, as I am, that superheroes can and do function as a form of rhetorical (visual) style.

When discussing style, rhetorically, one can turn to the Rhetorica Ad Herennium, which discusses (as Cicero does also) three types of style. In particular, when dealing with comic book superheroes and their big, larger than life outfits and struggles one is most likely applying the use of grand or high style. The Rhetorica Ad Herennium defines grand style, when employed by an orator (or in our case a writer or artist) as seeking to use “the most ornate words that can be found for it, whether literal or figurative; if impressive thoughts are chose, such…are used in [the use of figures, such as] Amplification…” (248). This idea of “grand style” and its application gets leads one into an attempt to understand rhetorical figures, among them, and connecting back to what McCloud was asserting to a degree, the idea of amplification

Rhetorical figures, such as amplification, aim to help impress upon an audience the message of the speaker via language or some form of communication. Figures are themselves “tools” at the disposal of a rhetorician/writer/artist to enhance and/or project a message to an audience.

A Visual Turn

Now that I appear to have addressed the rhetorical aspects of style and figures a bit, one might still not see the connection. One could be justifiable in saying: “Okay, I see superheroes and comic books and I see rhetorical style and figures, but I don’t 100% see how they connect. I mean, you have McCloud mentioned here, but is that enough? Are these even the same?”

Again, this is not an unfair question. How and where can we find connection for the classical ideas and elements of rhetoric and the modern conception of graphic narratives? One place might be found is in the writings of the early common era writer and teacher of rhetoric Longinus.

Longinus, in his work On The Sublime (a work focused on good writing) notes that something that lends itself well to notions and “production of grandeur, magnificence [grand style?] and urgency…is visualization (phantasia)…what some people call image-production” (356).

Longinus was not specifically referencing the Grand style of rhetoric or the use of images as per say comic books, but the notions he expresses here do reflect well on the depiction or production of images as beneficial to one wishing to convey elements that would be found in a grand rhetorical style. More importantly, the creation of visualization or phantasia, “image-production,” is a crucial element in most “good” writing. It is also a crucial component of the ability found in graphic narratives to make clear and effective use of communication of ideas as well.

To take this further into a connection with graphic narratives and comic book superheroes, it might help to turn to one Douglas Wolk. In his book, Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean, he relates, referring to the genre, that:

“Superhero comics are, by their nature, larger than life, and what’s useful and interesting about their characters is that they provide bold metaphors for discussing ideas and reifying abstractions into narrative fiction” (92).

Here is the formal explication of what I have already been asserting. More so, here is the tie in point. Superheroes, such as Superman, have evolved to become something more than the sum of their parts. They are archetypal elements that stand in for cultural touch points and ideas embedded and engrained into our society. It is through these superheroes that these cultural and societal tropes, norms, mores, etc. “take flight and expression.” Our culture is reaching a point of coming to terms and accepting this. As a rhetorician though, what I want to know, is really, how does it work?

The Power of Comic Books

In their work, The New Rhetoric, Chaim Perelman and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca mention that one of the most powerful, and overlooked, ways for a rhetorician/writer/artist to gain the attention of their audience in the conveyance of their message is through presence. Presence stems from the conscious choices someone makes on what to present to their audience. It is that “choice [that] endows these elements [whatever they have chosen to grant a face to] with a presence, which is an essential factor in argumentation and one that is far too much neglected in rationalistic conceptions of reasoning [perhaps because it] acts directly on our sensibility” (116). So, what the author wants the audience to see becomes part of a clear rhetorical choice based on what will garner the best reaction. It is noted that here and by many others, including Robert E. Tucker in his article “Figure, Ground and Presence” that the idea of presence is too abstract a concept for many who want to identify a more concrete term or trope. Tucker particularly states that the idea of presence has been much maligned and “Criticized as ‘ambiguous’ and ‘nothing more than a psychological concept’ …abandoned by rhetorical scholars” (396). However, the realization, however abstract or intuitive it may be, remains something of importance even if one wishes to ignore it. Its’ [presence’s] power to impact arguments and ideas remains. Simply because one cannot physically identify or pin it down does not discount something, like presence’s, value. Looking at images, for instance, which are able to randomly generate pathos on a viewer, sometimes in unintended ways, and yet their power is acknowledged.

Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, in The New Rhetoric, conceive many elements of rhetorical argumentation that aid in promotion of presence. One such element is illustration. They state that

“Because an illustration seeks to increase presence by making an abstract rule [selfless hero] concrete by means of a particular case [Superman], there is a tendency to see an illustration as ‘a vivid picture of an abstract matter.’” (360). I have inserted the idea of Superman into this quotation because of just how well that superhero fits as a particular case.

Superman is a powerful image, a vivid image, brought to life on the pages of the medium of comic books. He is a metaphor. Comic books are themselves keen upon the use of metaphors in the visual sense.

In their Power of Comics, Randy Duncan and Michael Smith note: that “The most prevalent reductive device [remembering that comic books demand “economy] in comics is synecdoche [or the] using [of] a part to represent the whole or vice versa” (133). This statement in many ways plays on and expands what McCloud noted in this statement of “amplification through simplification.”

Page 96 of Vol. 2 of All-Star Superman provides, one of many but, the best opportunity to witness how the essence of Superman generates presence via the use of rhetorical figures in visual form as given by Duncan and Smith:

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This opening sequence, elongated panel, sets up the scene for the audience with a clear display of what McCloud refers to as Picture Specific. This means that the images do the major communicating of meaning. In this panel, of course absent of words, that is ALL one has is the images.

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The panel provides an opening context for what follows. In particular, this panel establishes for the audience that this young woman is not simply standing on the street corner, but obviously on a building of some height. One can, looking closely, gain a hint of the distress to be revealed by the young woman’s body language and what appears to be, in red, a cell phone falling from here hand.

Synecdoche

On the right hand side, running parallel, down the page, are 4 panels opposite this long opening panel.

The first two vertical sequential panels on the right-hand side of the page provide a good illustration of the rhetorical figure of synecdoche. This term comes from the Greek συνεκδοχή synekdoche , meaning “simultaneous understanding” or rather to understand or comprehend something as a whole by only a part. The Greek-English Lexicon highlights that this figure stands for “understanding one thing with another: hence in Rhet., synecdoche, an indirect mode of expression, when the whole is put for a part or vice versa, Quint.Inst.8.6.19, Aristid.Quint.2.9, Ps.-Plu.Vit.Hom.22.” (Liddell and Scott). In other words, this classical rhetorical figure is employed to show us “a part of something” that can be then inferred by the audience as a whole that the “part” represents or vice versa.

This plays out in the first panel shows a close up depiction of a young girl, apparently in distress. Though you have seen her whole body in the first, left hand panel, you can infer that her entire body has become clinched together in some anxiety before what very well be the prelude to a leap from this building by the way that her hands are clasped tightly and her eyes are shut, with her shoulder hunched up. Here the figure of synecdoche is working within another picture specific panel. There are no words. All information must be inferred via body language and previous knowledge stemming from the elongated panel to the left.

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One does not have to see the rest of her to infer the notion that she is in pain and distress, though the specific reason remains unknown. The next sequential panel below it again utilizes synecdoche, but this time with the focus being drawn to the chest emblem of Superman, his “S” and his most identifiable feature other than his cape.

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The “S” is partially obscured by the young girl’s head, but it is recognizable and along with his hand, placed upon her shoulder, as well as his calming words, one can immediately distinguish a change in the young girls entire mood and posture.

The scene in this panel would fall closely into what McCloud calls an Additive type of panel. Here, the use of words are implemented and imposed as a way of providing amplification and elaboration for the audience’s reception and interpretation of the image.

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The role of synecdoche between these two panels is, for the audience, a condition of understanding a larger concept communicated by the author. This concept centers upon the idea that no matter how bad life appears to be, it is never so bad as to end one’s life. One is never really alone. This is implied both in the words Superman, who in panels 2 and 3 (those right above), is not fully scene, but his presence is felt. His words, plus the placement of his hand upon the young girls shoulder represent a clear choice by the author to wish to convey a sense of hope and paternal encouragement both to the young woman and to those who are reading. Synecdoche, its application particularly here, serves to help reinforce a kind of guardian angel or supportive figure, a reassuring voice, for the audience to see.

This notion of protection and the communication are affirmed in the subsequent 2 panels that follow:

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This entire sequence contains a total of five panels on the page. One panel, the long opening on, allows for an initial set up of the scene for the audience. What Morrison and Quitely do with panels that follow is communicate a deeply imbedded aspect of Superman that is often overlooked: his ability to inspire us. They do this by flipping the standard trope of “how” Superman “saves the day.” Instead of waiting for her to jump, and Superman swooping in to save her, Morrison and Quitely have Superman save this young woman, who feels despair and unable to cope with the world, in a different fashion. Superman saves her by giving her part of his strength, his hope. Appearing behind her as she is getting ready to jump, Superman tells her that “Your doctor really did get held up Regan. It’s never as bad as it seems. You’re much stronger than you think you are. Trust me” at which point she hugs him (All-Star Superman vol. 2, 96). This one series of panels alone is a powerful and moving illustration of the strength that Superman has, not physically, but as a model and “hope” for humanity instead.

The economy of imagery here, for one this entire scene is depicted in one page and only five panels helps illustrate the encapsulation of Superman’s essence, his willingness to help others, selflessly by how he himself acts and acts towards others, generates a strong emotional appeals via the audience’s ability to both identify with the superhero and perhaps even the young girl too.

Metonymy

The second trope discussed by Duncan and Smith is metonymy. Metonymy, from the Greek μετωνυ^μ-ία , , (μετά, ὄνομα) means a “change of name: in Rhet., the use of one word for another, metonymy, Cic.Orat.27.93, Ps.-Plu.Vit.Hom. 23, Quint.8.6.23” (Liddell and Scott). Duncan and Smith define metonymy as “the use of an associated detail to represent the whole [and its most commonly] used in the depiction of part of a physical manifestation of an emotion” (134).

Returning to the page from All-Star Superman, there are two close-ups and one full away examination of emotions on display.

Starting again with the panels of the top right of the page, the first panel allows one to infer the depiction of intense pain

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Looking at McCloud’s charts of facial expressions, the image of the young girl’s face falls most closely to “pain empathy” made up of “disgust” and “sadness” (Making Comics 85). The emotions one can infer, also drawing on body language and the left-hand panel of her standing on a ledge leads one to a notion that she is in such emotional pain that she appears ready to take her own life.

The panel after it, with the emergence of Superman directly behind the young woman portrays an expression of surprise/astonishment/etc.

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This depiction immediately changes in the next vertically sequential panel where Superman arrives, with his hand on her shoulder. Her facial expression becomes one of mild surprise with aspects of revelation, perhaps from Superman’s words about the misunderstanding that lead her to feel she should take her own life.

Finally, in the third panel on the right hand side, Superman’s face is finally seen for the first time on the page as the image pulls away. One can slightly confer an expression of calming sympathy and reassurance on his face as it leads to the final panel and her embracing of him in a hug.

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Symbols and Sequence Metaphors

The third trope discussed is that of the sequence metaphor, and this is perhaps the most crucial combination of this particular page from All-Star Superman’s ability to help generate a deeper sense of meaning beyond what is simply depicted.

Duncan and Smith note that “Symbols are another means of economy of expression in comics [and these] can manifest as a sequence metaphor [or] two juxtaposed images that together create a meaning not present in either image alone” (The Power of Comics 134). There are several levels on which to look at this page of All-Star Superman as acting within the bounds of sequence metaphors.

The first comes by looking at this page in reference to the entire work of All-Star Superman and noting that of all the acts of heroism portrayed within, this particular and rather simple page is perhaps the most revealing. The revealing quality comes from the two panels found in the right hand side of the page, again. Focusing on specifically “two juxtaposed images” brings about an examination of impact Superman has as a symbol.

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From his absence in the first panel to his then appearance in the second, it is incredibly powerful to witness what Superman, as a symbol, has the ability to do in helping this young girl. What is even more telling is the fact that the essence of Superman has a twist here. Instead of “typically” performing the act of saving this girl after she has jumped, Superman’s essence shifts slightly to Morrison’s intention to have him act as a symbol of inspiration. His words are able to move this young girl, his hand on her shoulder gives her hope, and ultimately provides her with a chance to change her own life for the better by knowing that there is someone out there looking out for here.

CONCLUSION

Let’s return to the question at the beginning:

Can recognizing comic book superheroes as forms of visual stylistic figures and tropes add a greater rhetorical understanding of their potential to persuade an audience?

Like the graphic narrative itself, there is a visual ability and component within the superhero narrative to represent deeper, complex visual figures and tropes that can perform on an audience in a rhetorical fashion.

This is not to say that all comic book superheroes operate in a deep rhetorical fashion, but as a form of communication they can in fact all convey some form of persuasion. There is though an ability for superhero narratives to operate in a grand style of rhetorical persuasion and to make use of rhetorical tropes to communicate powerful messages.

Works Cited

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

Liddell, H. G. and Robert Scott. English-Greek Lexicon. 9th Ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.Print. Perseus Digital Library. Tufts University. Web. 31 July 2015.

Longinus. On the Sublime. Trans. D. A. Russell. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. 2nd edition. Ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg.Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001. 346-358. Print.

McCloud, Scott. Making Comics Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels. New York: William Morrow Paperbacks, 2006. Print.

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

Morrison, Grant and Frank Quitely. All-Star Superman, Vol. 1 & 2. New York: DC Comics, 2007. 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.

Rhetorica ad Herennium. Trans. Harry Caplan. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. 2nd edition. Ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg.Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001. 243-282. Print.

Tucker, Robert E. “Figure, Ground and Presence: A Phenomenology of Meaning in Rhetoric.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 87.4 (2001): 396-414. Print.

Wolk, Douglas. Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean.Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2007. Print.

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Application Approach 2.0

Entering into Week 2 of my Composition 2 applying the use and having students argue for graphic novels, students are working on their Literary Analysis papers of their graphic novels. Many of them are choosing to approach the graphic novel as either Appropriate for the College Classroom or as Worthy to be a Work of Literature.

The Literary Analysis Paper is serving for them as a kind of “rough” Rough Draft of their ultimate research paper. The analysis will act as a kind a close reading of their graphic novel that should help solidify their thesis positions, provided background and research source material for their Research Paper, and spark ideas for elements to explore further for their research.

 

CLOSE ANALYSIS OF WORDS AND IMAGES

We began by reviewing Scott McCloud’s Ch. 6 of Understanding Comics. This chapter in particular is where McCloud discusses the different kinds of interrelationship that words and images can share.

Intro

Specifically, McCloud highlights SEVEN combinations:

  1. Word Specific
  2. Picture Specific
  3. Duo Specific
  4. Additive
  5. Parallel
  6. Montage
  7. Inter-Dependent

Part 1: What McCloud says

Word

Word Specific basically relies on the words to tell the narrative while imagery acts as a kind of ornamentation.

Picture

Picture Specific is the inverse of Word Specific. Here the use of words acts as ornamentation to the imagery or pictures that are conveying the actual narrative.

Duo

Duo-Specific acts as a situation where words and images are complimentary to one another in the fact that they basically convey “the same message.”

Additive

Additive is where the words serve as a means of amplifying or elaborating on the image that is communicating the narrative.

Parallel

Parallel demonstrates a situation where the words and images appear to be conveying “parallel” but separate narratives. This can be more easily identified or isolated often times when one is only shown a page or panel or two of a comic or graphic novel without knowing the entire context. It can also represent some esoteric storytelling too.

Montage

Montage is where the words and images are part of the same framework. This is where the words in particular become part of the actual image.

Inter-Dependent

Inter-Dependent is noted by McCloud to be the “most common” combination. This is where words and pictures/images convey different meanings separately but in combination convey a meaning that neither has without the other.

Part 2: Putting McCloud Into Practice

After we reviewed this section, I then presented my students with a completely random selection of images that I had put together from digital graphic novels that I own, mainly from the superhero genre, and asked the to look at each and using McCloud’s definitions, define which combination each image appeared to embody.

The images I showed the students were selected at random:

Images 1-3

Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow by Alan Moore and Curt Swan

Images 4-5

Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

Image 6

Justice League #1 by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee

Images 7-9

Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross

Images 10-11

All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

Image 12

Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland

Here is what the students came up for as a consensus as combinations after reading McCloud and examining the following image:

IMAGE 1

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This image after close examination of wordy introduction was ruled to represent a “Word Specific” combination because of the way that the imagery acts as a kind of ornamentation to the introduction to the story of Superman’s “death.”

IMAGE 2

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The image of Superman crying as Krypto stands by him is a “Duo-Specific” combination for the way what is said, briefly “He looked as if he’d been crying.” This could also be argued to be perhaps a “Picture Specific” combination as well.

IMAGE 3

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For this panel shot, I asked students to focus on the last 3 panels of the page. The first panel it was decided to be a “Duo-Specific” combination for the way that the words and images complimented one another

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The second panel provided an “Additive” combination. It was decided to be “Additive” rather than any other for the presence of the sign on the door helping establish the words as helping elaborate or amplify.Screen Shot 2015-07-21 at 7.41.59 PM Finally, the third panel was ruled to be another example of “Duo-Specific,” where the words compliment and demonstrate exactly what the imagery is showing the audience.

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IMAGE 4

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This example was quickly and clearly ruled to be an example of “Picture Specific” for the use of almost no dialogue or caption and the illustration driving the narrative.

 

IMAGE 5

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The image here, with its lack of context to the complete narrative, presented the students with an example of a “Parallel” combination. The words and images appear to be conveying separate meanings and ideas that are not complimentary or related unless further context of the narrative is known.

 

IMAGE 6

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Batman on the run from gunfire in a splash page by Jim Lee helps provide an illustration for the “Montage” combination. This is made possible by the placement of sound effects given off by the impact of the bullets hitting Batman’s cape and the ground, as well as the sound of helicopters. In particular, the entire wording is incorporated into the picture itself.

 

IMAGE 7

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Again, lacking the specific or larger follow-up context of the overall narrative, this image provides another example of “Parallel” combination. The words of the Biblical Book of Revelation are here juxtaposed with violent, dream-like imagery with no specific or obviously established connection.

 

IMAGE 8

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At first glance this image appears to be and can be argued to be like Image 7 and be an example of a “Parallel” combination. However, if one goes deeper and looks more closely, there is potentially a case that this image is perhaps an example of “Duo-Specific.” This case exists if one makes a case that the worded description of “seven angels,” “golden censer,” and “filled it [the censer] with fire” are correlated with the seven shadowy figures in the image, the torch as censer, and the fire burning in it.

 

IMAGE 9

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After close discussion it was decided that this image represented either an “Additive” but more likely a “Duo-Specific” combination example of words and images.

 

IMAGE 10

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This was another example where the first impulse of the students was to look at it as “Parallel” but more likely as “Duo-Specific” but upon close examination, particularly looking closely at the two middle panels on the page, the general consensus came out at “Additive” combination choice. Of course, since McCloud’s combinations apply to panels, it is in fact both in all likely-hood.

 

IMAGE 11

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This is perhaps one of my favorites, and I consider it incredibly powerful, image from any graphic novel. With the lack of words throughout, most of the panel is “Picture Specific” in its presentation of imagery. The two panels that do have words though serve up an “Additive” combination.

 

IMAGE 12

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A great deal of this panel puts into practice a combination of “Picture Specific” and “Montage” combinations. The use of words in this page and in the panels is spare at best and acts as ornamentation, while the visual use of laughter “Ha Ha Ha” worked into this scene definitely places a shared enface between words and images but with the words acting in onomatopoeia fashion as actually part of the overall image.

Of course, ultimately McCloud’s method is meant to be put into practice per panel and some of the approaches used in this study with students was on a larger scale, incorporating the whole page. This works for some of the chosen images, while others would clearly have more and varied application of word/image combinations.

Part 3: Conclusions and Observations

As noted earlier, students are in the process of conducting Literary Analysis of their chosen graphic novel. The purpose of this exercise with the students was introduce and expand upon their own perceptions and vocabulary (to aid in their analysis process) of the combination of visuals and words they are encountering in their readings.

It is worth noting that the students took to this assignment quite eagerly and were willing and able to make small scale arguments for different types of combinations being at work in the image shown them.

I was happy to see both the level of enthusiasm that the students applied, along with the way that many of them continually glanced at their copies of McCloud and fact checking their assertions. The interchange of ideas and material was enjoyable.

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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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.

Updating the Revision of Fundamentals 2.0

QUESTION

 

What is the significance of Superman’s ability to function rhetorically as a model?

 

CLAIM

 

Superman functions as a rhetorical model that affirms cultural cooperation in a dialogic relationship with American culture. The significance of Superman, as a rhetorical model, is the characters ability to both affirm and challenge, even shape, the perception of what America is or can be, as well as represent an identifiable, iconic symbol of what is best in American excellence.

 

EVIDENCE

 

Evidence of Superman’s role as a model – throughout the major comic books periods –can be found in the ways that he has defined and helped redefined what American excellence, American identity, is about. Superman represents a concrete construction; a bringing together a multitude of abstract ideas and values that make up America. He has been a champion of the oppressed, Action Comics #1 (1938), and defend of American home front, as seen in Superman #23 and 29 (1943-44), and even tackled fears of radiation from atomic weapons, Superman #61 (1949), during what comics fans call the Golden Age (1938-50).

 

In the Silver Age (1956-70) Superman took on foes from outer space, battled our fears of aliens and invasion, Action Comics #242 (1958) and #252 (1959). He faced his own evil twin (Bizzaro) in Action Comics #254 (1959), made tough choices when visiting is own doomed home world in Superman #141 (1960), and even fought his nemesis and anti-model Lex Luthor in a “fair” fight, Superman #163 (1963).

 

In the Bronze Age (1970-85) and onward, Superman struggled to stay relevant as his powers and abilities became an inspiration and hindrance, “No More Kryptonite” storyline of Superman #233-8, 240-2 (1970-71). Questions were asked: “If Superman Didn’t Exist?” Action Comics #554 (1984) and speculation was made about a world after Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow.

 

The Modern Age (1985-2000) witnessed a continued struggle for relevance and more attempts to “depower” and reinvent Superman, John Byrne’s Man of Steel mini-series (1986). Superman became the poster boy for government stooge, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and even had his identity uncovered by Lex Luthor, Superman (vol. 2) #2 (1987). In his struggle to stay relevant, Superman even died, Death of Superman event (1992), and in reflection, mourned, Funeral for a Friend (1992). Eventually, Superman was replaced and then returned, Reign of the Supermen (1993), got married (finally), in Superman: The Wedding Album (1996), and attempted to end world hunger, Superman: Peace on Earth (1998). Attempts were even made to imagine Superman on the wrong side of growing public debate, such as in Kingdom Come (1996), where he went into self-imposed exile for not killing but returned to face his own demons and more.

 

 

 

The dark tone of Kingdom Come forecast questions of relevancy in Superman against the growing zeitgeist of late modern era. In Post-Modern Age (2001-Present), the challenges to Superman, as a model, have grown and a skewed in relationship to a growing divergence with the cultural zeitgeist and leanings with regards to superheroes. Superman: Red Son (2003) reimagined Superman as hero of the U.S.S.R. but even so, he remained a model of what was right and decent. In Superman: Birthright (2003-04) his origin and back story was revised for the 21st century, while All-Star Superman (2005-08) reimagined Superman in his idyllic mythos as savior. Finally, Superman Grounded (2010-11) again attempted to bring Superman closer to the people of Earth, to re-identify.

 

 

WARRANT

 

Since it’s earliest founding, America has struggled to find a true social and literary identity. Superman has provided that identity for the past 75-years by functioning as a rhetorical model of what American ideals and values are and communicating them to the nation and the world abroad.

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

Title

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

Introduction:

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.

Method:

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.

Analysis:

  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).

Conclusion:

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.

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