Nearly eighty years after Superman first appeared on the explosive cover of Action Comics #1 in 1938, the superhero has grown far beyond the realm of comic books to become a pervasive pop cultural colossus: an internationally-recognised paragon of benevolent power, moral righteousness and ideological fortitude. The bold insignia of Batman and Superman are amongst the most recognisable symbols in the world and the superhero’s current dominance of blockbuster cinema, notably via the interconnected films of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, places these caped wonders and masked avengers at the forefront of twenty-first century pop culture.
Aggressively merchandised and with forthright presences across multiple media, the superhero can lay claim to being a modern form of folklore. Yet, the notion of the supernatural hero figure has formed a core element of storytelling since time immemorial. Joseph Campbell’s theory of the “Hero’s Journey”, posited in The Hero of A Thousand Faces (1949), provides a framework for understanding contemporary superhero narratives, the hero struggling with identity and destiny. To quote Spider-Man’s signature lesson, the superhero is forged with the notion that “with great power, comes great responsibility”.
The enduring power and appeal of the superhero and their associative values has ensured that they have been appropriated culturally in diverse ways: President Barack Obama was depicted by comics artist Alex Ross in a classical Superman pose, ripping his shirt open to reveal a red “O” emblazoned on his chest ; comedy troupe Monty Python parodied the superhero’s secret identity trope in their sketch “Bicycle Repair Man”; UK pressure group Fathers4Justice dress up as superheroes to protest their violated parental rights; the halls of comic conventions are filled with fans dressed in elaborate and sophisticated homemade costumes of specific versions of their favourite superheroes; Russian punk duo Pussy Riot adopt colourful masks, tights and superheroic poses to enact political dissent.
Core Themes for Development:
This inter-disciplinary project aims to explore the superhero in incarnations ranging from the demi-gods of ancient mythology, the supernatural and mutant heroes of contemporary comics and film and real life vigilantes, addressing issues such as:
• Secret identities, transformation / becoming
• Social responsibility
• Gadgetry and cyborg prosthetics
• Gender & fetishisation
• Parodies & satire
• The hero’s role in war and conflict
• Real-life costumed vigilantes
• Globalisation, revival and adaptation of the comic book superhero
• The superhero as corporate brand
• The superhero in childhood play
• National personification / patriotism
Related themes will also be identified for development and exploration. Out of our deliberations it is anticipated that a series of related cross context research projects will develop.