Diving In To Examine the Potential Power of Images

FICTION SUITS

Grant Morrison, in describing, in a bit of existential retrospection, how people come to perceive or interact with the 2D world of superheroes and comic books from the “higher dimension” of the real world recounts how:

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby could send drawn versions of themselves into the created world of Fantastic Four, and those little drawings of Stan and Jack were like angels, UFOs, avatars from a higher universe, entering a world they’d made to interact with its inhabitants. They created, as I cam to call them, ‘fiction suits,’ like space suits for sending yourself into stories. (Supergods 226-7)

Let’s be honest…this sounds pretty freaking awesome. Morrison enacted a similar feat of sorts at the end of his run on Animal Man for DC Comics from 1988-90. The final story saw the character of Animal Man, who had already experienced (while on peyote) a breaking down of the 4th wall in his reality and realizing that he was a character of fiction, had the character arriving at Grant Morrison’s very door-step to confront his own creator. This meta-confrontation/discussion was the final issue of Morrison’s run and ended with the character of Animal Man receiving his life back, including his murdered family.

To step beyond Morrison’s “meta-narrative” a bit more, one can find a similar discussion perpetuated by Nick Sousanis. In his work Unflattening, describes the way humanity perceives things, in his opening, by recounting how:

…flatness permeates the landscape. This flatness is not literal… No. It cloaks its true nature under a hyper-real façade. This is a flatness of sight, a contraction of possibilities…where the inhabitants conform to what Marcuse called ‘a pattern of one-dimensional thought and behavior.’ Lacking ‘a critical dimension’ of potentialities to transcend their existing state, everything has its place. Here, even choices (of which there are seemingly many), are predefined. Forgotten is wonder of what might be. In this place, a single chorus… (Sousanis 5-7)

Sousanis’ Unflattening is a publication of his doctoral dissertation that is actually done in the form of a graphic novel. His statement appears in the vein of a warning about how human’s can and do limit ourselves in thought and ideas. This is something we need to break free. We have become the limited two-dimensional creations in how we think and the lack of any critical examination. We have forgotten Socrates and the need to examine life.

Of course, these are two different writers looking at similar material, but in two philosophically different ways. Morrison is looking towards a means of interacting with the comic book world by “entering it” on a hypothetical level. Sousanis on the other hand is speaking of an almost two-dimensional way that humanity, perhaps, has come to perceive the world around it.

Interestingly enough, one can argue that both are talking about the same thing. Morrison’s notion of the “fiction suits” is meant to express an idea of interaction and communication between the world of our reality and the world of the comic books and their characters. Sousanis speaks of the ways humanity is limiting its perceptions through a “flatness” or 2D method of thought. Both men are talking about perception; both men are talking about opening up the human capacity for expression, thought, and communication.

Its time we embrace more steadily the opening of the book on not only how we perceive the world, but also how we communicate in it. It’s not really a new idea. It’s just an old idea that needs revisiting, re-examination.

One approach already in existence is the one laid out by Scott McCloud in his work Understanding Comics.

“Amplification through simplification” is a key tenant of McCloud’s short hand for our cultural obsession with cartoons and the potential they have (30). He states that “When we abstract an image . . . we’re not so much eliminating details as we are focus on specific details by stripping down and image to its essential ‘meaning’” (30).

Later on McCloud points out that the simplification leads us, often in our younger years to identify with cartoons and their essential messages (36). He even illustrates this in the following image:

IMG_3956

He follows this up by expounding, “I doubt it! You would have been far too aware of the messenger to fully receive the message!” (37). What he is pointing out is that through the route of simplification, cartoons and comics are able to deliver messages visually in a way that amplifies the message without complicating it or letting the visuals get in the way.

APPLYING IT TO STUDENTS

So, what does any of this have to do with engaging students? Well, it goes back to what I called my idea for using images to engage students in the classroom: The Adaptation Approach. This approach centers upon:

Utilizing the creation of Graphic Narratives and other forms of Visual Rhetoric to communicate concepts, ideas, etc. found in the Composition classroom

 This approach has been something under thought and gradual process for several years now. Originally it was born out of a desire to convey or get across to my students the genres I was having them write about, in both Comp 1 and 2, out the St. Martin’s Guide to Writing during my PhD studies at TWU.

Initially I wanted to partner up with an artist, such as my friend Dave Andrews, but I dragged my feet on writing the scripts. The project eventually took a back burner to my dissertation.

However, I have now been looking to revive this project and apply my own artistic skills (dust them off from my high school days) and take it on both as an aid to students and as part of an overall visual rhetoric approach to the First Year Composition classroom that more or less defines part of my pedagogical identity.

Here are some sample images I am using, as well as an example of some of my creations:

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Me, Overwhelmed

 

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Me, as Jedi Master of Composition

frustrated

smirk

ENGL1301-Description

Page_1Page_2Page_3

 

STAY TUNED to find out how this goes over when I apply it this Spring.

Neil Cohn: Rhetorical Implications and Visual Lexicon

For this post I want to take a step over, just a bit, and introduce a new theorist who’s work I am recently becoming acquainted with: Neil Cohn.

Up until this point I have made a lot, and I mean a lot, of heavy use of Scott McCloud. This in many ways has a lot to do with my own familiarity with him.

However, as I begin to expand my interests and investigations into Comic book narratives, theory, and particularly the cognitive responses of individuals to the visual forms of comic books and other graphic narratives, Cohn’s work began to really appeal to me.

INTRODUCTIONS

So, who is Neil Cohn?

Well, just for a start, he his currently a member of Department of Cognitive Science at the University of California, San Diego and the proprietor of the Visual Language Lab (www.visuallanguagelab.com). He “received his PhD in Psychology from Tufts University” where he worked “with Ray Jackendoff, Gina Kuperberg, and Phil Holcomb. He is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at UC San Diego” (visuallangauge.com). Neil Cohn is also the author of several books, Early Writings on Visual Language and The Visual Language of Comics: Introduction to the Structure and Cognition of Sequential Images. As well as the editor of: The Visual Narrative ReaderHe is also the author of many articles discussing the visual narrative and structure and its cognitive effect on its audience.

Now, what does Neil Cohn have to do with graphic narratives and comics?

Well, for that, I think I will let Neil “speak” for himself (well, visually speak in a way):

Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 6.21.58 PM Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 6.22.08 PM Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 6.22.20 PM

The images above are screen captured from Cohn’s website’s homepage. I am, myself, very interested in the directions his line of research is going.

I guess a good place to start, for myself, as I found when I was exploring (as he says to “Please enjoy the site!”) would be with what I am most familiar with: comic books.

Now, to make sure this has some focus, I want to look closely at and relate how some of what Dr. Cohn has to offer feels applicable to research and things that I am investigating.

SOME SUMMARY AND ANALYSIS

Under the Research section of Neil Cohn’s website, there is a listing of types of research materials he has to offer. One of these is listed as “Introductory writings by Neil Cohn.” In this section, first up is a set of writings entitled “Comic Theory 101.” That is where I would like to engage and take a closer look.

“In Place of Another”

The first writing posted, chronologically (it appears as the last one) is entitled “In Place of Another.” This article opens up by discussing Scott McCloud’s work Understanding Comics and the concept of “closure” (“In Place of Another”). Now, where McCloud, as Cohn recounts, defined this concept as a process of “filling in,” done by the mind between comic book panels, Cohn has some points of disagreement with this definition. Cohn specifically notes that he has “argued that any linear panel-to-panel explanation of how people understand sequences of images has multiple problems . . . in this piece, [he aims] at one particular example of McCloud’s . . . to illuminate a broader phenomenon that occurs” (“In Place of Another”).

He focuses on this example, the one that McCloud uses:

Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 6.59.01 PM

He then quotes from McCloud, on a subsequent few pages later, and specifically pulls the reader into the story being told by the two images above: one of murder. Here is the quotation:

“I may not have drawn the axe being raised, but I’m not the one who let it drop or decided how hard the blow, or who screamed, or why. That, dear reader, was your special crime, each of you committing it in your own style. All of you participated in the murder” (Understanding Comics 68).

Cohn points out his disagreement that what really transpired was a rhetorical move by McCloud that creates “ambiguity.” The audience is able to infer from what transpires and “understand that the murder occurs . . . But, that murder doesn’t creatively happen in our minds [as McCloud asserts] because of the space between the panels, it happens in our minds because McCloud chose not to show it in the panel directly” (“In Place of Another”). This is McCloud’s use of the rhetorical figure of metonymy.

Cohn points to the use of metonymy in the second panel of the illustration from McCloud seen above and he goes on to provide his own definition of it as well. Cohn sees “metonymy [as] creating the meaning for something by showing a related thing” and then proceeds to provide several examples “highlighted” in example sentences (“In Place of Another”).

One of the examples is: “The White House leaked a story to the Times” (“In Place of Another”). The actual White House did not leak a story, that title of the building is standing in for the people and administration currently residing there.

Cohn goes on to discuss metonymy more, relating how it “can take on various characteristics” of a whole and express them through parts or vice versa. As referenced from another post of my own, metonymy comes:

“from the Greek μετωνυ^μ-ία , (μετάὄνομα) means a ‘change of name: in Rhet., the use of one word for another, metonymyCic.Orat.27.93, Ps.-Plu.Vit.Hom. 23Quint.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).” (“Rhetorical Tropes and the Man of Steel”).

The quotation above provides both a formal (classical and oral/written) version of metonymy, as well as a definition more skewed towards the visual arts as well.

For Cohn, he notes that McCloud does make effective use of the figure of metonymy as seen in the example above. In particular, Cohn notes that “Metonymy can be used in all sorts ways, graphically [and in particular] It can provide a creative and evocative technique to graphic rhetoric, not to mention providing us with good food for thought” (“In Place of Another”).

Though Cohn appears to have a specific or certain complaint with McCloud’s example, he does appear to, in many ways, wish to explain how and what McCloud is doing (pulling back the curtain) to show the audience the rhetorical moves at play. These moves have traditionally applied to the realms of oral and written expression. Cohn’s aim appears to show how it can work in a graphic form. A form, in fact, perfectly suited for the use of metonymy in fact.

“Visual Poetry”

Another of Cohn’s articles in the “Comic Theory 101” vein that I want to examine is the second to last one in chronological order (second one listed on the website) entitled: “Visual Poetry”

Cohn states a question “if we would like to formalize certain tropes for visual language poetry, what structural features are available to us?” (“Visual Poetry”). He is referring a bit back to a visual poem he created in another Comic Theory 101 article. More importantly, Cohn notes that “In previous articles, I’ve mentioned that we can quantify types of panels by the amount of ‘entities’ in them — the ‘characters’ engaged in an action” and this is where this article attempts to go (“Visual Poetry”). Cohn lays out 5 types of panels to help “quantify” this idea of visual expression and structure.

Polymorphics

This is the highest level. It is the highest level because it “contain a full action, by repeating entities over and over again” (“Visual Poetry”).

Here is the example that Cohn uses to illustrate this idea:

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Here is another example, of sorts (uses a bit of multiple panels spread over a page that overlaps but one that does communicate full action), from Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye run:

hawkeye_dog_graphic_h_15

Macros

Cohn points out that this kind of panel or scene “hold[s] a full scene, [but has] more than one “entity” in them (“Visual Poetry). Here is the example that Cohn himself presents:

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And though this a meme now that has been abused quiet a lot, I feel it also meets the criteria for a macro scene:

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Monos

This here is a scene that, as Cohn points out, “contain[s] only one entity (“Visual Poetry”). So, where a “macro” has a full scene with more than one figure, a “mono” contains only one “entity.” Here is the example that Cohn offers:

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Here is another example taken from the cover of Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man:

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Micros

This type here is one that “contain less than one entity – often through a ‘close-up’ shot” (“Visual Poetry”). Again, Cohn provides a specific close-up of someone’s mouth:

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Here is another example, again taken from Hawkeye (issue #14), again written by Matt Fraction, with artist Annie Wu this time on interior art. Here we are treated to a close up image of Kate Bishop’s face.

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Before moving on, I want to take a bit of account here of Cohn’s choice of terminology with Macro, Micro, and Mono.

Of course, looking at the three prefixes you have:

Macro – Large

Micro – Small

Mono – One or Singular

Now, Cohn uses Macro/Large to describe a whole scene with more than one entity in the scene. Micro is smaller and contains only one entity in it. Mono focuses on a close up element of “one” entity. It is an interesting choice of terminology. One can hopefully assume that Cohn is in particular, considering the other terms: Polymorphic and Amorphics, that Cohn’s primary focus in this terminology is the scene itself and not, in particular, the number of entities present in them.

Amorphics

This is an example where there is no entity present in any way in the scene. The scene could be seen as an empty street scene or city scape, most likely aimed at helping to set up an event or orientate the reader.

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City

Cohn notes that there is a form or order to “graph these descending panel quantities in what I call the ‘Lexical Representational Matrix’ or ‘LRM'”:

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The “Lexical Representational Matrix” (LRM) is something that Cohn defines in an article as being “Based on the amount of positively charged entities they depict” (“A Visual Lexicon”). In other words, what is represented in a panel or scene is defined by how many are depicted taking part in a positive action.

What Cohn aims to demonstrate in his article “Visual Poetry” is the ways that these different types of “levels” can in fact

“be utilized in the same manner of syllables; they allow for a quantity of “beats” depending on how much information they hold. Let’s pose a hypothetical poetic line: 

Polymorphic – Micro Refiner – Macro – Micro Refiner – Mono – Micro Refiner 

Here, the poetic aspect would come from traveling down the LRM, with an alternation of Micros between each panel. By “Refiner,” I indicate that the Micro plays a grammatical role of “zooming in” on an aspect of whatever panel it follows (see my [EDIT: book The Visual Language of Comics for further] discussion of this)” (“Visual Poetry”).

Cohn begins by presenting us with a visualization of “what a poetic line” (“Visual Poetry”) in this format or “fashion” might look like:

reducto_flat

Now, this appears very basic, linear. Cohn goes on to ideally point out that often times poetry aims to make use of aesthetic arrangements to help provoke or “invoke certain feelings” (“Visual Poetry”).

Cohn postulates, based on a narrowing approach, that perhaps the use of certain elements, such as “the Micro Refiners can overlap the panels they modify — except at the end, when the Micro is still a Refiner but represents the bottom of the LRM. Here, the variance of the layout is modified to emphasize a different part of the structure” (“Visual Poetry”)

reducto_diagrammed

Notice that there are two main aspects heightened by the layout. Along the vertical plane is the reduction of the major categories of the LRM. Meanwhile, along the diagonal we find a row of Micros with similar content, but highly refined viewpoints. This diagonal emphasizes the feeling of narrowing of information. Both of these lines converge upon the Amorphic panel – reducing substance and refining substance, both focused down to a releasing point of no active elements at all.

reducto_arrows

All together my example from above becomes:

reducto_full

Cohn postulates this “visual language” and its application here as a “reducto” form (“Visual Poetry”). His closing remarks focus on the idea that such terms and ideas might be applied to inspiring people to engage more in this kind of creation, this visual poetry.

Conclusions

For me, myself, I find the ideas being enhanced, challenged, and expanded by much of what Neil Cohn has to offer. He not only makes close note, along with McCloud, of the possibility of rhetorical figures to be found in analyzing visual narratives and graphics, but even more so he applies and helps create a language for engaging and viewing visual narratives in congress with traditional written narratives. This is a concept that helps bridge the caps for some students and provide myself with more windows to peer through.

Works Cited

Cohn, Neil. “Comics Theory 101: In Place of Another” Visual Language Lab. Web. 07 August 2015.

—. “Comics Theory 101: Visual Poetry.” Visual Language Lab. Web. 07 August 2015.

—. “A Visual Lexicon.” Psu.edu. Purdue U. Web. 09 Aug. 2015.

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

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

1

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

2 

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

 3

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

 4

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

 5

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

 6

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

 8

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

 9

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

 10

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

 11

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

 12

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

 13

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.

Application Approach 1.0

The Application Approach as I have named it centers upon:

 

  1. Directly teaching and using Graphic Narratives such as Graphic Novels in the Composition Classroom

As of Monday, July 12, I am currently teaching at Composition II class centered upon the rationale of having students approach a graphic novel, of their choosing (from a provided list), and argue an answer to one of three proposed questions:

  1. Should _________________ (insert graphic novel selection) be considered appropriate for use in the college classroom (pick a type of classroom)?

 

  1. Should _______________ _ (insert graphic novel selection) be considered worthy of someone wanting to read it? For what purpose might someone want to read it? Does it have merit?

 

  1. Should _________________ (insert graphic novel selection) be considered or adopted as a worthy piece of literature based on its literary merit (you argue for it), universal themes, and/or longevity potential?

The inspiration for this approach stems directly from a story about a young woman referring to the graphic novels used in her classroom at Crafton Hills College this past spring (2015) as “garbage” and “pornography.” In response to this event I wanted to address her “weak” arguments and attempt to pass the buck for her assumption that because the class was asked to read graphic novels that somehow it was a “blow off class.” I addressed this story in a previous blog post: “Looking to Re-Think How I Teach Composition, Part 2 – Specific Course Design.” What I decided to take away from this incident was to, as a Comp II instructor, have my students examine the merits and value of graphic novels and in the process engage in more nuanced, informed, and in-depth arguments on the matter. Basically, I took a story and ran with it with the aim of using it to generate better researched and thought out debate on the topic.

Over the first week of the course I have put in my students hands a copy of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics to help formulate a theoretical background for the material in the course, along with links to how to read and why read graphic novels, and a list of potential graphic novels (running through different genres) that they will do preliminary research on and then select one to investigate for the course.

Over the course itself students will be asked to engage in primary, secondary, and tertiary research surrounding their graphic novel, as well as other elements of the question they strive to answer in their thesis statement.

Primarily students will be asked to do a Literary Analysis Paper on their graphic novel, submit an outline for their research paper, do an annotated bibliography of obtained research materials on their thesis, write an 8-10 page research paper on their selected graphic novel and thesis, and finally give a presentation of their research findings to the class.

As of the end of week 1, students have been exposed to and discussed the following:

Week 1, Day 1:

What is literature? Are graphic novels literature? What does one expect to encounter in a high education classroom? Are graphic novels appropriate for the college classroom?

The answers to these above questions produced a general consensus that literature was a primarily written form (not limited to novels but also found in screen plays and theatre play scripts) that express universal themes worthy of merit about the human condition. Graphic novels, in some cases might be considered to be literature depending on the merit of their stories. Higher education classroom is about encountering advanced learning that challenges one’s beliefs and knowledge. Finally, graphic novels can be applied to almost any kind of college classroom setting – they are adaptable.

Week 1, Day 2:

After having students select their graphic novel and begin obtaining it for the class, I walked students through a PowerPoint discussing key elements from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics Chapters 1-3. After the discussion and checking to make sure the students had all chosen a graphic novel, I posed he following request to them to post in a discussion forum:

In a few sentences, I would like you to jot down your initial thoughts and feelings about what you expect to encounter in reading and researching your graphic novel here at the outset.

 

My hope is to gage the student’s conceptions and perceptions of their chosen graphic novel at the outset where they have only done the bare minimum research on the work (only enough to decide which one to pick). The further hope is that this approach can be used to measure how exposure to the graphic narrative form changes or evolves the student’s perceptions over the course of their construction of the research paper.

Additionally, I asked students, after seeing the above questions from Day 1 again on their Research Paper Assignment sheet, to begin formulating a thesis statement for their paper. This was presented to them as a tentative research thesis statement because they could opt to change it after finishing the reading of their graphic novel in Week 2.

I gave them the following example, pulling from and using selection 1:

Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman is [chose to argue the affirmative] an appropriate text for use in the first-year composition II classroom because the richness of the storytelling makes it an excellent work for students to analyze, discuss, and conduct research over.

I specifically divided this up, this thesis, into TWO parts. In BLUE is represented the first part of the thesis, the opinion or “what” the paper is about. This is the initial answering the question, but alone it does not offer up anything more than the opinion of the author. So, I point out that my students, and its marked in RED, need part 2 of the thesis or the “reasons.” The reasons help provide the elements that the students will elaborate on in their paper to back up and assert their claim found in part 1.

Before they left on Day 2, they were charged with coming up with Part 1 of their thesis. Part 2 would be completed at the beginning of class on Day 3 in order to move forward into working on their introduction portion of their research paper.

Week 1, Day 3

 

Along with students we critiqued and tweeked their thesis statements. Many of them took, and I was impressed, the tougher road of arguing for their graphic novels to be considered works of literature than I expected.

Students were introduced to their Literary Analysis assignment for their graphic novel. This is being done in only a single draft form but as I set it up, it is designed to serve the students as a kind of foundational draft that they can build their large research paper off of. It is even more particularly easier for students who decided to argue for their graphic novels as works of literature.

Students, the small group of them, have also settled on the graphic novels they wanted to read and engage:

Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan and Noah Stollman

519V0mgUGtL._SX359_BO1,204,203,200_

Death: The High Cost of Living by Neil Gaiman and Chris Bachelo

4116RT15R6L._SX307_BO1,204,203,200_

Daytripper by Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon

51feW5rJfwL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_

Night Fisher by R. Kikuo Johnson

31z-bwQHm0L._SX352_BO1,204,203,200_

Mother, Come Home by Paul Hornschemeier

41-aJy6w8tL._SX364_BO1,204,203,200_

Marvel: Civil War by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven

51ATs-DRbeL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_

I am very impressed by their selections and variety. Looking forward to seeing how this proceeds from here in Week 2.

To transition us into the Literary Analysis assignment, students were sent away from the class for the weekend charged with practicing this approach in short form by conducting a literary analysis of Chapter 2 of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. More to be seen where and how this turns out going forward.

Dissertation Progress: Frustration at the corner of identity and authority

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

All_Star_Superman_Covercomics-superman-birthrightSuperman_Secret_Origin_1B

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

imagesSMSO Cv4 ds

 

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

 

supermanversuslexluthor

 

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

 

supermanbirthright

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Prospectus 5.5 has arrived

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

 

Jonathan C. Evans

August 27, 2013

Dissertation Prospectus

 

Title

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

 

Statement of Purpose

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

Statement of Significance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Statement of Research Methodology

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

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

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

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

Tentative Working Organization for the Dissertation

Introduction:

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

Literature Review:

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

Method:

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

Analysis:

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

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

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

Conclusion:

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

Working Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

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

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

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