Communication studies seminar engages students in real application of popular culture

June 08, 2010

Marcus Shepard didn't think too much about comic books — but then he signed up for the seminar "The Rhetoric of Superheroes" and discovered a hero he thought was pretty super.

The senior communications studies major adopted Luke Cage, also known as Power Man, as his new favorite comic hero. The character was a man wrongly convicted of a crime who gained superpowers from an experiment he agreed to in exchange for his freedom. The character relocates to Chicago to be a "hero for hire." Inspired by "blaxploitation" films of the 1970s, Luke Cage was the first Black superhero to gain his own comic.

"Therefore, he is my favorite because he broke boundaries in the comic book world," Shepard said.

From comic books to action figures to blockbuster Hollywood movies, pop culture is literally brimming with superheroes, and it's not just a modern day phenomenon. Superheroes of various forms have been prevalent since the mid- to late-1930s when a character by the name of "Superman" first appeared in comic books, said communication studies professor Irving Rein who taught the spring quarter seminar.

"At that point in history, fascism was a global threat," Rein said. "This coincided with a surge in sales of comic books, particularly with superheroes at the center of the market."

The comic book superheroes, Rein said, were well-suited to fight the battle against the Germans and Japanese during WWII. Millions of copies of these comic books were shipped overseas and distributed to the GIs as well as sold to Americans at home.

The origin story of the superhero was just one topic of Rein's class, a class that was so popular last year Rein decided to teach it again.

"It's really rewarding when you can engage students in such an exciting and contemporary subject," Rein said. "They are studying something they are interested in that has real application to popular culture."

Other topics in the class included character and type, distribution channels (how the superhero has evolved from the comic book page to the silver screen), the marketing of the superhero, female superheroes, and the future of superheroes.

The new technologies available to filmmakers today, including the "ability to execute fantastic stunts," make superheroes ideal content for contemporary film, Rein said, referencing recent hits like the Iron Man and Dark Knight series. "You see that in the blockbuster area — superheroes dominate."

Shepard said even the average, everyday man can relate to superheroes. "Although these masked crusaders have superpowers, at the end of the day, the essence of their storylines deal with issues that are prevalent in everyone's lives," he said.

Senior communication studies major Melissa DeLeo said she enjoys Captain America, who was "built specifically for the audience" and shows the "development of culture in his storyline."

Senior communication studies major Alexandra Hunstein said she prefers Batman, calling herself a "sucker for vigilantes."

A key theme Hunstein has learned in Rein's class is that superheroes evolve over time.

"Some of the most classic superheroes have been reinvented multiple times based on the people involved in producing the new comic book/film," she said. "I think that superheroes have remained popular because they have been cleverly reinvented to remain salient to audiences today."

Fittingly, the students' final project for the class involved either reinventing a past popular superhero or creating a new one from scratch for 2010 and presenting that new concept to the class.

One student created a brand new film character called "Backlash" who needed to act as a vigilante to soothe painful slash marks on his back leftover from childhood beatings from an alcoholic father. Another student chose to update American Western heroine Annie Oakley to be more of a modern day vigilante superheroine.

Shepard and Hunstein collaborated — as a dynamic duo, of course — to update Flash Gordon. They envisioned him as a Hispanic high school junior who happens to have high-speed superpowers. The new Flash would be animated and speak both English and Spanish, making him the perfect addition to networks broadcasting in both languages.

Could the new Flash save the world? Shepard used to think comics were "low-brow entertainment," but now he thinks they have a more important role in society.

"I've learned so much about how comic books were often ahead of their times in terms of the imagery and subject matter that they dealt with," he said.

Hunstein agreed. "I don't think I'll ever look at a comic book or hero movie in the same way again."

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