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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.