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

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

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

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

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

The question was:

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

McCloud

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

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

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

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

What About the Rhetorical Side?

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

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

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

A Visual Turn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Power of Comic Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Synecdoche

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metonymy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Symbols and Sequence Metaphors

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

Let’s return to the question at the beginning:

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Snyder specifically points out that this notion, this

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Works Cited

 

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

 

Revision of the Fundamentals 2.0

So, last time, in preparation for really digging in deep and making Prospectus 3.0 be “the one,” I attempted to simplify and streamline the 4 basic elements: Research Question, Research Claim, Research Evidence, and Research Warrant. Interestingly, a lot of this is like a bit of archeology, going over an area, picking at it, digging more, and then finally pulling something out, deciphering it, and then communicating it to others.

If you don’t like that metaphor, then you can always fall back on the one I am using for my prospectus (which kind of ties in…it involves metaphysical “dirt”) of putting together and revising blueprints for constructing my “house” (dissertation).

Either way, what we had from last time (the previous post: Revision of the Fundamentals: Question, Claim, Evidence and Warrant) has undertaken more revision.

The idea of “identification” remains involved in the dissertation, but has become more of an inert or built in premise (unspoken to a degree) and the focus aim now attempts to level out a Research Question that can be more specifically answered.

Research Question

So, previously, we were here:

What is it about Superman that makes that particular character so culturally rich and interwoven with American culture that alterations and reinterpretations of him are met with major and dramatic reactions?

Unfortunately, upon reflection, this turned out to be a bit TOO abstract. It became a tough one to really be able to prove in fact.

Revising then, we come to this:

What aspects of Superman allow the character to function rhetorically as a model?

Now, we are reeling this in, tightening up the rhetorical focus that is what lies at the heart of this dissertation. In addition, we now have a question, which through research, can be made or attempted to be made answer to it.

Research Claim

 

Here is where we left off last time

Through a rhetorical analysis of Superman’s 75-year evolution, we can see a significant dialogic relationship with American culture that has provided, and continues to provide, a symbolic language for cultural cooperation that continues to both affirm and sometimes challenge the shape of perception of the character and what he represents.

Now, here, this turned out fairly well, but it remained clunky and a bit jumbled, not fully drawn out yet. So, with the new aspects of a new focused Research Question, there was a bit of making over to do here as well.

Although he began as simple wish fulfillment, through a rhetorical analysis of Superman’s 75-year evolution, we can see a significant, dialogic relationship with American culture that allows Superman to function as a model of American excellence. This model sometimes challenges the shape of perception of the character and sometimes affirms it. As a model, Superman operates as a secular, iconic image that symbolically affirms cultural cooperation.

 

Taking note here one can see that good bits and pieces of the previous claim were kept, moved, shifted, and repositioned to fit within this new focus and direction.

Research Evidence

Okay, so now that we have the question and the claim, where do we go to find the evidence, the proof to back up the claim in order to answer the question?

The old approach doesn’t quite fit as well anymore, and is a bit bulky:

By rhetorically examining the changes Superman underwent during the major periods of comic book superheroes – The Golden, Silver, Bronze, Modern, and, I would argue a new, Post-Modern – a pattern of evolution and adaptation emerges that reveals how Superman not only has operated to illustrate the presence desired by his writers and artists as part of the shift in the culture around him, but has been and continues to identifiably represent values that are at the core of what America desires to be and project to the world at large whether or not those “values” are what is known.

Evidence of Superman as a model is where we have to go looking, to find that is the aim. The approach I am leaning towards is one that attempts to examine Superman throughout the preconceived “ages” of comic book history in the 20th – 21st centuries. So, I want to keep parts of the evidence above, but fine-tune it.

There are two major things we need to prove or look for: 1) Superman as a model and 2) as inducing cultural cooperation in audiences.

Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca envisioned it in The New Rhetoric the idea of the “model” as “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). What actions then does Superman inspire in others, via conduct or inspired action? Superman, throughout his history has operated on many different levels and many different functions, mediums, or applications (usually determined by those who wrote for and/or publishers of Superman, as well as the events of American society) of generating selected cooperation among American youth who have read Superman comics.

The New Rhetoric goes on to say that “Persons or groups whose prestige confers added value on their acts may be used as models. The value attaching to the person, which is previously recognized, is the premise from which will be drawn the conclusion encouraging some particular behavior” (363). Superman has served to promote many things. At the tail end of the Great Depression, Superman offered an escape by depicting a hero who stood up for the common man against those who oppressed them, whether corrupt politician or businessman. In WWII, he told Americans to “Slap a Jap” and fought on the home front to fight off saboteurs and raise the morale for the men fighting abroad. Through constant transformations, re-launches, and adaptation, Superman has been shaped by many writers/artists/editors/publishers to assert American values and exceptionalism of what is right and good about humanity.

This “exceptionalism” can and has been a double-edged sword for Superman though – hence Superman’s role as one who affirms and sometimes challenges the notions of these ideas.

There is a passage in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods that quite aptly points to one of the challenges that has presented itself as Superman’s most challenging – his identity, what he is. The character of Mr. Wednesday makes the statement that “This is the only country [America] in the world…that worries about what it is…The rest of them [countries of the world] know what they are. No one ever needs to go searching for the heart of Norway. Or looks for the soul of Mozambique. They know what they are.” (116).

It is this notion, this true notion about America, of its amalgamation and cross-working nature that lies at the heart of any question about “who or what is Superman?”

Evidence of Superman’s role as a model – throughout the major comic books periods –can be found in the ways that he has defined and helped redefined what American excellence, identity is about. Superman represents a concrete construction; a bringing together a multitude of abstract ideas and values that make up America. Superman as a model both embodies and challenges the ideas of what America is while constantly providing a model for what it means to do the right thing, to fight for truth and justice, and when they are aligned, the American way as well. It is this essence of Superman that makes him identifiable and allows him to draw together, in cultural cooperation, the diversity and multiplicity that has created America.

 

Okay, let us try on this cape, let us go out in the sun, and see if it flies.

Research Warrant

Now we have to ask the critical questions: So What? Who Cares? Why is it important that we attempt or even bother to answer the Research Question that we have posed?

In order to address these, questions, let us start with the old assertion/assumption:

Superman is not merely an American cultural icon but has become a projection of what America aspires to be and projects that image to the world at large in an identifiable message.

Not quite there, a bit of the “so what?” but not really a “who cares?”

 

Superman is an American cultural icon who projects the very best of what America is all about to the world around us. Through studying Superman, we can reach a point of greater understanding about the history of America and the values, ideas, and ideals that have made America great.

 

Okay now, wow, that was longer than I expected. Let us see where this one goes – down the rabbit hole…again.

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.

Stage 1: Prospectus, Section 4

Now we reach the part of the dissertation prospectus where one attempts to project a possible (tentative) organization.

To the best of my ability and to avoid that death spiral followed by an ejection that I mentioned last time, I am and will do my best to stick to this organization with some deviation but for my sanity, as close as I can.

So, again, here is the original version, this one longer and centered upon the original superhero as enthymeme idea:

Tentative Working Organization for the Dissertation 1.0 (OLD)

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. This requires an understanding, as I will approach it, of discussing the both the history of the superhero in modern times, but also drawing connections to both the appearance (at the tail end of the Great Depression), denigration during the 1950’s, and then slow rehabilitation since (particularly its even stronger growth post-9/11). 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. This will be couched within a close examination of visual rhetorical analysis, building off of Grant Morrison’s attempts found in Supergods, while attempting to draw connections to Burkean notions of the dramatic pentad, as well as the role of symbols as essential elements of human interaction and communication.

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, The Language of Comics: Word and Image edited by Robin Varnum and Christina T. Gibbons Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean by Wolk, Douglas. Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium edited by Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester, and of course 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. This chapter will attempt to understand and examine the choices of the main character, a twelve-year old by, Simon Pooni, who is struck down by multiple sclerosis, but escapes into comic books. He is eventually granted the wish of becoming is favorite fictional superhero: Superior (a analogue of Superman). The teaching ability here is that even with this power, similar powers are given to a bully who becomes Superior’s arch-enemy Abraxas. After their showdown, Simon opts to return to being himself, having come to accept who he is. The superhero as enthymeme 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). This chapter will attempt to look specifically, via example, the ways that superheroes truly embody and express a type of rhetorical enthymeme as laid out by Aristotle and revised by Chaim Perelman and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca.

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.

If one is paying close attention, you’ll notice abbreviated versions of Statement of Purpose, Signficance, and Methodology make appearances above via the Introduction, Literature Review, and Method.

 

Added to this we now have a tentative analysis section, where I, originally attempted to apply rhetorical style to the situation, and this is followed with a conclusion.

 

The point at stake here, and still in the revised version though its focus is changed (tweaked) and the new version is cut down, is that there are two aspects defined here – scholar and critic  (as Dr. Greer pointed to) – and both are important. I’ll elaborate on this more after the new version below:

Tentative Working Organization for the Dissertation 1.5 (NEW)

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.

 

This version, compressed for requirements, still attempts to retain the aspect of both scholar and critic.

 

The Scholar

The scholarly aspect is the historical digging, the research and background information that come out of the introduction and the literature review. Enjoy this metaphor to help: This are important because this lays out a strong foundation for you – think clearing the trees and leveling the land, surveys and historical investigation to make sure you aren’t building on some historical sight.

 

The Critic

This is comes out of the Method and Analysis. This is where you take the research and apply it, test it, and attempt to construct and challenge your own questions, warrants, and claims (see Road to Dissertation: Stage 1, Constructing a Prospectus for reference). This is where one departs from the original research and what others have said and moves forward into what you have to say about it, to contribute.

 

So, here we are, one last part to put in and then the dissertation is ready…to be torn apart by one’s committee in order to find out if it is really “road ready.”

 

Stage 1: Prospectus, Section 2

So, I am still kicking the title around a bit, but as I do I am becoming more and more sold on it…we”ll see.

Looking back at the last post I noted that the section 2 of the dissertation document is a what is called the “Statement of Significance.” Basically, this is where I sort of summarize what is known and out there regarding what it is that I plan to address from my “Statement of Purpose”

Now, with my old version I was originally going much broader and attempting to look at superheroes as rhetorical enthymemes.

Statement of Significance 1.0 (OLD)

Within the past year there has been a publication of works and parts of works of literature in a collection called the Graphic Cannon. This work, already in three volumes (3rd volume coming out in April 2013), produces graphic novel formatted versions of famous works of literature. In the Editor’s introduction to volume 1, Russ Kick notes that “We’re living in a Golden Age of the Graphic Novel, of comic art, and of illustration in general [and that] Each piece [found in the work] stands on its own, but taken together they form a vast, rich kaleidoscope of art and literature” (1). This is literature as art and art as literature, but not separate and distinctive, but interactive and consubstantial (to use a Burkean term). There is both a unique quality to both the art as expressed via words and vice versa, but there really should not be a division that precludes the interaction and combination of the two.

The “Golden Age of the Graphic Novel” is a statement that highlights the growing importance and realization of just how effective graphic narratives of both images and words can serve to relate and communicate language and ideas between individuals and groups. Collections like the Graphic Cannon highlight an appropriation by art of literary works. In fact, one might see this collaboration as a “re-appropriation” of the earliest form of human expression (image) of its more complicated offspring (language). The key-underlying element that is often neglected is the interconnection between the formations of language via symbolic use of image (letters) that create larger pictorial images (words, sentences, paragraphs, etc.). Language is the social creation and arrangement of images in recognizable patterns that allow for interactive communication. Symbols can be viewed as the “passive” element in human communication and interaction – on, like ethos in rhetorical persuasion that we recognize are not always in the active role, but remain fundamentally important. Language, from one perspective given by Robert Staintion, exists as “a system of symbols which we know and use” (Philosophical Perspectives on Language 13). Humanity builds, like blocks, language from simple to complex, utilizing symbols as the core. Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann point out that, “the symbolic universe is…constructed by means of social objectivcations…yet its meaning-bestowing capacity far exceeds the domain of social life” (The Social Construction of Reality 96). There are the deeper representations and meanings, that humanity gives objects, people, or places. The physical or tangible part of symbols – signs – operates in facilitating the construction and continuity of culture. 

For 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.

Superheroes, if one is the identify them as clear symbols of human potential, then what is the potential rhetorical power, the enthymeme, that they represent. In his book Supergods, Grant Morrison offers up the realization 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). 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 carried and delivered a continued (though often repressed, hounded, dismissed, and ignored) to play and have an impact on human understanding and interaction with both the world of the imaginary and the real.

The true power of superheroes and superhero comic books, their enthymeme and argument lies in their potential as a tool, like rhetoric itself, and medium of expression where ancient Greek myths, Campbellian/Carlylean notions of heroes, philosophical ideas, and so much more can find a voice. Not unlike the written word, and literature, comic book narratives allow for just another medium, but one that can go just as deep, express just as much emotion, and create just as much movement and contemplation in the audience as any work of William Shakespeare or the Holy Bible. They are the secular gods and heroes of a society that is always searching for a higher calling.

Now, you can see that I was a bit all over the place there, and I like a lot of the ideas I was mixing, but again, what is above is practically 3-5 dissertations of their own. So, “FOCUS up!” is what my major professor kindly and constructively direct me towards and I, yelling, do to myself.

Let’s try this again…

Statement of Significance 1.5 (NEW)

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 up the 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 with both the world of the imaginary and the real.

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.

This time I dropped in more of what I wanted to say my taking note, adding, to my “Statement of Significance” a “Literature Review” section to try and add direction and points of interest/research to what I will attempting.

So, now it is on to “Statement of Methodology”…

Road to Dissertation: Stage 1, Constructing a Prospectus

Approaching a Dissertation Prospectus…

 

First, what is a prospectus?

 

To put it simply, as simply as it is possible, it is a research proposal.

 

What is a dissertation prospectus then?

 

It is a document that lays out a proposal for the actual dissertation. It typically lays out a working title for the dissertation, presents the research question and statement/proposal for why this dissertation needs to be written – a justification – both in purpose and significance. This document also presents the proposal research methodology, touches on a review of the literature that will be engaged, and gives a tentative outline for the actual dissertation itself. It usually concludes with a bibliography of potential sources.

 

Before jumping into writing this dissertation prospectus, I needed to address three things, three key elements that I needed to define for myself in order to fully feel confident to engage in creating my prospectus: my research question, my warrant, and my claim.

 

Potential Research Question

 

This is the question that I am looking to address and potentially answer, via my argument, when I complete my dissertation.

 

Research Question 1.0

 

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?

 

Sounds simple, but its quite complicated

 

Potential Warrant

 

For those of you who are not familiar with what a warrant is…it is not a, in this case, a court ordered appearance or a document seeking your arrest. No, a warrant in the sense I am using it is an underlying assumption that one wish to validate or challenge that might be accepted or acknowledged by a society.

 

Warrant 2.0 (It’s already gone through 1.0, 1.1, 1.2, and 1.3 versions)

 

Human beings 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.

 

Kenneth Burke, in his Rhetoric of Motives, notes that humans are, by our nature, “symbol using animals,” that is we respond in varied but quite powerful and distinct ways to the use of symbols as a means of communicating complicated meaning. It is said that a picture can say a thousand words, so a superhero can represent and embody a whole host of complicated and complex ideas, values, and beliefs and project those notions into a means of communication that has the potential to reach a varied audience on both conscious and unconscious levels.

 

Potential Claim

 

In this case, my claim is kind of another way of saying my thesis, or my argument. This is my central statement, in response to my research question and aimed at either promoting or challenging my proposed warrant, that my dissertation will ultimately rest upon.

 

Claim 2.3 (yes, there have been other already too)

 

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 can develop.

 

My aim is to apply the use of Kenneth Burke’s notions of dramatic aspect of human interaction and communication, its visual and symbolic potential, along with rhetorical analysis of selected representations of comic book superheroes to explore and flesh out just how superheroes act as cultural signifiers both the reinforce, express, and shape/change the development of our cultural ideas and values.

 

So, this is the starting block…now…revision, revision, revision…write, write, write…keep calm, and finish your dissertation.

 

Here we go…

Journal Exercise: Prompts and Questions of Relevance

This exercise represents a speculation on the goals and pursuits of my Journal article that I am working on pertaining to superhero narrative and its rhetorical function. These exercises were aimed at addressing prompts and questions that could help formulate possible approaches to an outline for the article itself.

 

Exercise Involving Murray’s 10 Prompts:

1.     This work needed to be done because…

The use and application of comic books/graphic novels in the classroom represent a growing tool that aids students in engaging in reading. Literature, such as the samples found in the Graphic Cannon, point out the innovative ways that literature is being adapted into a hybrid visual form of text and images. Even more so, the stories of superheroes represent something far more: a narrative reflection of the human experience.

2.     Those who will benefit from this include…

Individuals and social groups, from students in the classrooms to academic scholars, need to recognize that the comic book medium and particularly superhero comic books have developed into a legitimate form of expressing the struggles, questions, and issues faced by society.

3.     What I did was…

Look at Grant Morrison’s novel Supergods where he lays out a justification for the power of superhero comics and narratives. I wanted to build upon was just how important these narratives are to persuading and persuasively engaging larger audiences.

4.     How I did that was…

I took Morrison’s rhetorical analysis from the beginning of his work of the birth of the Golden age and sought to blend his commentary with an application that enhanced the status of comic book superheroes to as on par with mythical narratives (and modern) of our culture.

5.     When I did that what happened was…

An opening up those superhero narratives can act as skandalon or stumbling blocks that can draw a reader into a closer contextual reading of what it is that superheroes are and do, besides being pure entertainment. The narratives here have evolved in a way that retains them as entertainment narratives but with a layering that provides for room to use such characters as models and anti-models for our own behavior in the world.

6.     I worked out what that meant by…

Reading the research already done around comic book icons like Superman and Batman, engaging them as rhetorical models/anti-models for what Western society would deem as appropriate behavior but also as challenging mores and norms in a progressive light. Superheroes can embody the very best of human inspiration; they can drive us to contemplation and push us into action as well.

7.     I did what I set out to do to the extent that…

My initial intention was to articulate or begin to articulate an argument I want to continue to expand upon and I have. This experience has forced me to open up and engage my topic from new angles, bringing in academic elements that I previously did not consider – ethical philosophy.

8.     The implications for research are…

I feel that this kind of recognition does serve to trip up what people assume and think about comic books. They are popular, but are they more than that? I believe they are a medium, like the art of rhetoric is, that serves to embrace all kinds of genres and ideas.

9.     The implications for practice are…

As for practice, I would hope that the ideas here might become a source and benefit for helping individuals and groups realize the persuasive power of comic books. Elements like this could one stand beside novels and works of literary fiction as mirrors upon the human condition – not all, but some.

10.  What still needs to be done is…

How to translate and create awareness about what comics and superheroes can show us remains a challenge. Finding out how to broaden this sensibility and importance would be paramount.

Exercise Involving Brown’s 8 Questions: (p. 129)

1.     Who are the intended readers? List three to five of them by name.

 

The audience most likely would be academics and comic book readers who are interested in deeper implications and rhetorical properties found in the symbolic characterizations of comic book superheroes.

 

2.     What did you do?

 

I started with Grant Morrison’s book, Supergods, a reflection paper on why one should want to study comic books, and a paper I wrote on applying Perelman’s New Rhetoric to Morrison’s All-Star Superman.

 

3.     Why did you do it?

 

It is becoming more and more, besides a popular phenomenon, to recognize the benefits that comic books have to communicating messages, ideas, and increasing comprehension. If the Odyssey and Iliad are literature, mythic stories, then why not comic books as well – American mythology

 

4.     What happened (when you did that)?

 

What was discovered was far more complex and interwoven then I had anticipated. The result being that I cast a wide net that now I have to parse down and sort through.

 

5.     What do the results mean in theory?

 

The theory here is opening up on wider ideas of just how the “medium” of superhero comics can be overlaid, interwoven and applied to all kinds of genres and other mediums and theories as well.

 

6.     What do the results mean in practice?

 

In practice, there exists a broadening field of application waiting to have the lens of superhero comic books both appropriate and be applied to. Superheroes are reappropriation of mythic stories construed in a new and quite American medium of comic books.

 

7.     What is the key benefit to readers?

 

Ideally this examination would serve to open up a realm of possibility that allows serious scholars and thinkers to take heed of what a superhero narrative can incorporate and contribute to larger academic discussions.

 

8.     What remains unresolved?

 

Just how much influence the superhero narrative can attain? Is it something that remains and will remain relevant in our society? What might be the utilitarian function such a narrative can provide us with.

Murray, Rowena. Writing for Academic Journals. New York: Open U P, 2009. Print.