Misericordia University Professors and Students Take a Critical Eye to Comic Books
Allan Austin and Patrick Hamilton, two professors at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa., have presented a colorful avenue for students interested in examining race in twentieth-century America: a critical study of superhero comics.
Their course, dubbed “Race and Graphic Narrative in the Postwar United States,” has been a favorite of Misericordia students since it debuted in 2008. Fusing the dual perspectives of Austin, a history professor, and Hamilton, an English professor, this team-taught class gives students a chance to observe and respond to shifting conceptions of race and ethnicity in the pages of Superman, Green Lantern/Green Arrow, and other graphic narratives.
The idea for the course emerged from a discussion of DC Comics' New Guardians series of the 1980s. “This was their attempt at a multicultural super-team, and it ended up a horrific train wreck in spite of the creators' intentions,” Hamilton explains. “Both the heroes and the villains were all horrible stereotypes, such as the Japanese human computer or the hyper-sexualized Chinese bombshell with the powers of feng shui.”
The New Guardians stirred Austin's recollections of Superman comics during World War II, which found the hero combating a cast of Japanese-American villains. “The Japanese-Americans in these stories were exaggerated stereotypes that drew on a long anti-Asian bias in the United States as well as wartime hysteria,” says Austin. “We started talking about Superman and the New Guardians, and all that came in between them. It certainly didn’t take long to fill out a syllabus of readings from the 1940s to the present.”
Other stops along the way include the 1970s, which found some comics drawing on a more progressive current. “Seventies comics like Luke Cage and Green Lantern/Green Arrow based themselves in blaxploitation films and civil rights discourses from that time,” says Hamilton.
To Austin and Hamilton, it makes perfect sense that DC Comics could frame a discussion of changing attitudes toward race in America. “All popular culture is selling something,” Austin observes. “It's not surprising that superheroes have been used to teach children prevailing racial norms.”
Hamilton notes that the booklist strives to be inclusive of graphic narratives outside the superhero-dominated mainstream. “Alongside the Superman comics and their skewed representation of Japanese-American concentration camps, we have students read Citizen 13660 by Miné Okubo, a Japanese-American who spent time in the camps and depicts her own firsthand experience of them.”
Both professors speak very highly of the ways students have responded to the ideas presented in the course. “The students are always coming up with new ways to interpret how the comics relate to their historical and social contexts,” says Hamilton.
Austin attributes this to the course's interdisciplinary approach and team-taught format, which encourages students to draw on a broader spectrum of ideas. “Although college curricula sometimes convince students that each discipline belongs in its own separate box, the world doesn't work that way.”
“Team-teaching provides for more dynamic interaction in the classroom,” explains Hamilton. “Students get to see how Dr. Austin and I approach the texts differently, and how we bounce our ideas off one another to improve those ideas collaboratively. Students who have taken the course have told us how much it prepared them for graduate school or careers in education.”
Of course, the class has shaped the academic careers of more than just its students. “After teaching the class a second time, [Hamilton] and I agreed that there was more than just a class here,” says Austin. “We're currently writing a book on superheroes and race that spins out of it.”
Hamilton remarks that, ultimately, their aim is to transform the way students approach not just comic books but all mass media.
“The course provides an unlikely and overlooked window into Americans’ attitudes towards race and ethnicity,” he says. “It leads students to think more critically about all forms of popular culture and how they reflect ideology rather than mask that ideology by simply being viewed as entertainment.”
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