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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Course Description for Spring, ENG 140J

Here's the course description for my next class at UCR, running in the Spring for ten weeks.

THE SUPERHERO NARRATIVE


This course examines the story of the superhero in many mediums. We will begin by dividing this story into two-week chapters: Origin, Enemy, Love, Teammates, and Death. Then, over the course of the quarter, we will read comics and novels, watch films and television episodes, and engage with other manifestations of the superhero from video games to Broadway musicals or the Real Life Superhero movement. With each of our "chapters" we will ask ourselves: How does the narrative of the superhero change when the form changes? That is, if we take the superhero narrative as presented in comic books as a baseline, how do films, television, and other forms alter that baseline narrative? Along the way, we are tempted to ask larger questions about the superhero itself and its waxing and waning popularity from 1938 to the present.

A reading list is still being collected, but the course will draw extensively on UCR's comics collection housed in the Eaton Collection. Many of the comics we will want to read are simply not available outside of rare collections. In addition, students should expect to spend some time each week watching films or television episodes placed on reserve at the Media Library. In addition to comics, we will read Michael Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay". Students should also be familiar with Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics" and should have read this book prior to the beginning of the term. Additional theory and criticism on the superhero in specific and comics in general will be made available through reserve copies.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Thoughts on the premiere episodes of The Cape

I watched "The Cape" last night and I have to say I enjoyed it a lot. Now, I may be an easy audience for a superhero show, I don't know. But I liked it far more than "No Ordinary Family" and I may have liked it even better than "Heroes". It was certainly worlds better than any episode of Smallville you would care to name. Here are some thoughts on The Cape, in no particular order.

The character of the Cape is heavily influenced by the Shadow, which I liked. The Shadow was written by Walter Gibson, who was also a stage magician, and originally he had no psychic powers like he later demonstrated on radio shows and in film. Rather, his "invisibility" and his ability to "cloud men's minds" were a combination of stage illusions and hypnotism. It isn't hard to imagine how the Shadow came to be such a big influence on the Cape; when you look at successful superheroes in film and comics, one of the first names on your list is Batman. And Batman was so clearly inspired by the Shadow that Bruce even admitted it in an old issue of Detective.

"Do you think the raccoon acted alone?"
"Probably not, sir."

Our show creators have also read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. The character of the Escapist in that book is a sort of blend of Mr. Miracle and the Spirit, but it is worth noting that he gets his start in a circus and is trained in the ways of escapology by an old mentor figure named Max. I was very glad to see Max become a recurring character in the show; when he appeared to die, my wife let out a "That's it?!" of dismay, thinking the character's death had been wasted, but it became all the more worth it when he made a hacking cough and rolled to his feet. Superheroes have a long connection to the circus, as Chabon reveals in Kavalier & Clay and which we can see for ourselves in comics like Avengers #1 (by which I mean the original, first, Avengers #1). If you can't have your hero trained by ninjas -- and Batman Begins has done that, so we can't do it with the Cape -- then the logical second place to go is the circus. And the delivery of the Carnies was refreshingly good. I loved the fact that our hero got beat up by a midget not once but multiple times. I do wish the beautiful girl had a beard though. The circus should be made of freaks. There should be no non-deviants in its ranks. But hey, I'll take what I can get.

The story is moving very fast, which is surprising to TV audiences who expect "the next Lost", but which comics readers will take in stride. We remember that Spider-Man's entire origin story was told in one issue long before Bendis re-told it in six. I think this is a pretty straight forward example of, "It took too long to get to the island." That is, the creators are afraid that they will lose the audience if they do not get right to the superhero part. Now that the Cape is established, now that Vince Faraday is in the cape, he has an adversary, a supporting cast, and a goal, we can slow down and tell episodic plots which are all fairly self-contained.

This episodic nature of the story seems a wise decision to me; this is not an attempt to be Heroes, a drama with a dozen plots all intertwining and intersecting. This is one man's story. He has a wonderful supporting cast -- Jennifer Ferrin and Keith David are especially good -- but everything is wrapped around one central plot and that can only be a good thing. You will not need to watch this show with the passion of a completist. Each episode you turn it on, there's some freaky villain in town, and the Cape has to stop him. And there will be some other B-plot going on, which will hopefully be interesting, but basically we know how this show works. Good guy, bad guy, struggle to redeem his name, attempts to connect with his son, roll credits, tune in next week.

The show's creators seem to understand the importance of a large Rogues Gallery. We need to see a new villain every week, at least until a few of them catch on as fan favorites. Then these can begin cycling back through for return appearances. Stan & Jack had this down to a science in 1963. Cram the pages with more imaginative characters than  you could ever need and then see which ones caught on and floated to the top. Those became recurring characters. Personally, I would not mind if Chess got pasted in the season finale and we got a new mastermind next season. This is a lesson we learned from Buffy. The Master was fine, but comic writers know that the first stories are about setting up your character, and an overpowering villain can distract from that. You need a villain who is dangerous, of course, but don't get too attached to him. Fantastic Four #1 is not about the Mole Man. It's about the Fantastic Four. Dr. Doom came issues later. And so it can be with the Cape. Remember, Spike didn't show up for a while in Buffy. Who will be the Cape's Spike? His Dr. Doom? Maybe we have yet to meet him. That would not necessarily be a bad thing.

Monday, January 3, 2011

ENG 176T: "Studies in American and British Literature"

Today was the first day of instruction for my course on American and British comics and "graphic novels." I have a full room of almost 60 people, including one old gaming buddy who is sitting in out of sheer love of comics.

We're beginning with McCloud, since he is as good a guide to reading comics as I am likely to find. As Amy Nyberg and others have said so well, comics literacy is a skill that must be taught and trained like any other kind of literacy. We do not pop out of the womb with the ability to read comics. Even someone who is well-read can be confused when confronted with a comics page. And even if you disagree with everything McCloud has to say -- or find it too simple, or just the beginning of a very long conversation -- his book is a great way to learn how to read comics.

I collected a few other resources on McCloud and his work to help my students, including his presentation for TED, his website, and an interview he did when the collected ZOT! was published a couple years back. I wanted to show them the interview Charles Hatfield did with Scott for Comics Journal, but it does not appear to be online.

If anyone else out there in comics-land has some great McCloud resources they would like to send along, I'd be grateful and delighted to look at them.