Here is an excerpt from a proposal I've written for a senior thesis about the literary value of comics and the role of the superhero/vigilante, including a very brief overview of the superhero and of comic book criticism:
With an absurdly caped superhero typically the first thing imagined when one hears the words “comic book,” it isn’t entirely shocking that many people misguidedly think of comics as frivolous. Comic books have hardly been considered a genre worth serious study. If a person goes to a large local or university library that may have entire sets of shelves dedicated to critical analyses of individual authors, that person will find it difficult to come by many analyses of comics.
Despite the lack of thorough academic attention to them, comics play an important role in society. The superheroes and glorified vigilantes of comic books are much more overt than the hero that exists in mythological and literary works. Yet, that explicitness of the hero in the medium, which also gave rise to the anti-hero, is thoughtfully used to comment on and allegorize society and culture by being placed in the forefront of historical events.
I plan to analyze superhero and masked vigilante comics as pieces of heroic literature, looking for their themes and literary devices, and to examine individual characters. I will do this in the form of a review of past and present comic book criticism, as well as in a series of individual critical analyses of more significant comic books and graphic novels. For this, I have chosen comic books that have been major benchmarks of the superhero genre or contain meaningful social commentary.
Therefore, the first part of my research will be in the study of epic and hero comic books. Familiar with many different forms of literary criticism, I would like to learn more about some methods, particularly deconstruction and cultural studies. Cultural critics have done the most to include comic books in literary criticism, so I think that I must fully understand the perspective and apply it in my own readings of different comics. I also would like to become more knowledgeable about deconstruction, because the critics that have discussed the significant comics books of the 1980s have talked about them from this viewpoint. I wish to analyze comics of the 1980s and onward by discussing the change of the standard superhero, because the characters I will mostly focus on are the anti-heroes and the flawed heroes, individuals alienated from the rest of society. Among the many critics and cultural theorists that I plan to study are Stephen Kershnar on Batman’s dark motives for vigilantism, Scott McCloud who has written many books about comics as a distinct literary form, Iain Thomson on the deconstruction of the superhero, and Bradford Wright on the cultural value of comic books.
I intend to explore the origins and importance of the hero in mythology and literature, especially the epic hero and the tragic hero (by both Aristotle’s and Arthur Miller’s standards). Many of the traits of comic book characters have been drawn from those in myths, folklore, and literature; for example, Newbery Award winner Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman is filled with characters from myths. Also, just as the traditional hero in literature has changed throughout the history, the traditional superhero of comics has changed. Different ages such as the Gold and Silver Ages (each dominated by separate comic publishing giants with their own directions) have carried with them changes in styles and themes.
Comics and their heroes have changed tremendously since the 1930s, but the 1980s are generally seen as the major turning point, marked by the acclaimed graphic novels Watchmen by Alan Moore and Batman: the Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller. I’ve chosen these two limited series comics published by DC Comics to start the bulk of my literary analysis because they are considered to have brought on the maturity of the genre with their further development of the anti-hero that had only been introduced to comic books in the previous decade. These comic book heroes exhibit nihilistic views of life and morality, presenting a world where the heroes cause nearly as much trouble as they resolve. Watchmen, in particular, has altered the notion of the hero by intertwining the lives of some of the most seriously and normally flawed characters with only one all-powerful superman. This has added a great amount of depth to the genre and its characters because the function and responsibility of the hero or vigilante in society seems to be in question within the genre that created him or her.
A recent example of this theme is Marvel Comics’ crossover event Civil War. This a culmination of previous crossover events (the most important of them was House of M) also led to its own significant changes in the Marvel Universe, not least of all the death of the ideal American hero, Captain America. Both Watchmen and Civil War involve legal Acts made to outlaw the anonymity of the masked vigilante and forces characters to face their own senses of morality and values and to decide whether or not to compromise those values. The characters also have to face their own identities: Are they masks or men?
Watchmen, Civil War, and Superman: Red Son, among many others, also place their heroes in the midst of major historical events. The heroes of Watchmen and Red Son live under the two opposing world powers during the Cold War, and history has been rewritten to accommodate them and to show the negative impact that people can have in power. Civil War focused on that same theme by writing a new history in which the fear of terror has turned against the heroes on the home front. Certain comic book writers have an uncanny ability for commentary of different political and social situations.
Finally, after my analyses of these selections, I would like to discuss the role of comic books as source material for films. It seems as if these films may not always be based on long-existing materials. Marvel Comics published the first issue of a new comic titled Kick-Ass under its Icon imprint in April of 2008, and the film adaptation is currently in post-production. This could lead one to wonder whether this comic was tailor-made for the big screen rather than as its own form of art. Some of the movies based on comic books, such as Spider-man, have severely missed the mark when it comes to the morals and values behind the stories they draw from. Their heroes are reduced to having to simply beat the bad guy and win the girl. If writers begin to create comics to be adapted for the spectacle of the movie screen, there could be a complete lack of depth in the original writing.