It occurs to me that this blog, charming as it is, is a bit weighted towards creative stuff at the moment, at the expense of any academic work. The question of whether academic work ought to be considred equally ‘creative’ in its way will have to wait for another post. For now, I plan to rectify the situation (I know, ‘finally’, I hear my legion-yes, LEGION-of followers say) by dusting down the three conference papers I have delivered this year and posting them.
As such, right now, I’m working on writing up a departmental presentation I did that outlines the main concerns of the thesis, namely, how we can read superhero comics as a posthuman body genre. Which is to say that the transformations (in every sense of that term) undergone by the superhero over the last seventy odd years reflect how the notion of the ‘posthuman’- the superior being that will potentially come to replace us mere humans-has evolved, through a series of socio-historic mutations, in philosophy, critical theory and, perhaps most pressingly, techno-scientific discourse.
That paper, “Producing and Consuming the Posthuman Body in Superhero Narratives” provides a pretty neat introduction to some of the main ideas , without posting any actual phd chapters (not entirely sure what the rules are there but seems a bit risky while the thesis is still ongoing). Here is the abstract for the version of it I presented at the 2011 British Sociological Asscoiation Annual Conference. (UPDATE! This paper can now be found HERE!)
For over seventy years the superhero comic book has presented narratives of the posthuman body. In these stories the posthuman body has been put to work as patriotic propaganda, used to explore notions of morality and identity, and, in more recent years, used to interrogate, however crudely, the workings of the military industrial complex.
These developments have been paralleled outside of comic books by a
wider discourse of posthumanism, which has taken both popular and
academic forms, but shares in both cases an emphasis on the impact of
science and technology on the human body. This paper highlights three of these intersections between the comic book posthuman and the wider discourse of the posthuman. The Golden Age of superheroes of the thirties and forties are understood in terms of the eugenics movement, the Silver Age of the sixties in terms of the psychedelic counter-culture of that time, and the contemporary superhero in terms of a globalised military/industrial complex and the emerging technologies it is funding and building. This paper demonstrates how the science-fictional discourse of superherocomics both influences and is influenced by these wider discourses.
That piece should be up in the next few days. Swiftly followed, all going well, by another paper I presented at this years Transitions conference entitled “The Silver Age Superhero as Psychedelic Shaman” (UPDATE! This paper is now available HERE!). Aspects of this will be touched on briefly in the first piece, but ‘Psychedelic Shaman’ goes into more detail about one specific type of posthuman body found in superhero comics, what I’m calling the Cosmic Body. here’s the abstract:
The Silver Age Superhero as Psychedelic Shaman
In this paper I present some preliminary work from my thesis on the posthuman body in superhero comics. It begins with a brief overview of the discourse of posthumanism, how it is used in three different but overlapping realms- philosophy/critical theory, techno-scientific practice, and speculative fiction. For instance the 1938 debut of Superman can be read as part of a wider discourse of the posthuman that takes in popularised Nietzschean ideas and the eugenics movement as a figuration of posthuman corporeality that my thesis ironically dubs, “the Perfect Body”. This paper however deals with Silver Age comics and the “psychedelic” or “Cosmic Body”. It first addresses how the nascent counterculture of the early sixties adopted Marvel comics. The increased use of psychedelic drugs by certain sections of this movement helped foster a vision of a psychedelically evolved post-humanity marked by a form of ‘cosmic consciousness’. Such groups ‘poached‘ the imagery of superheroes as evolutionary blueprints for this transformation as well as adopting terms like freak and mutant to designate their new posthuman identity. A mutual influence, psychedelic imagery found its way into the comics. Intuitively, in the cases of Ditko and Kirby, but apparently quite deliberately by the time of Engelhart‘s Dr. Strange and Starlin‘s Warlock and Captain Marvel in the early seventies. The paper then goes on to consider the superhero as shamanic figure, with particular reference to its influence on the Human Potential Movement that grew out of the counterculture. The paper concludes by discussing how this confluence of mysticism and science, or the modern and pre-modern, can still be found in the superhero comic book, and how the psychedelic posthuman body invites fresh consideration of the lines that separate the body from the mind, reason from irrationality, drugs from technology and the superhero fictions from reality
Once that one is up the plan is to post a paper entitled “Fans and Fiction Networks: A Rhizomatic Approach To Superhero Comics and Their Readers” which I presented at 2011’s Joint International Conference of Graphic Novels, Bandes dessinees and Comics.
Here’s the abstract:
Accepting that Comics Studies is still an expanding field, and arguing that one of its current strengths lies in its lack of a precise disciplinary boundary, this paper begins by noting that despite Barker’s thorough deconstruction of ideological readings of comic books, such approaches remain a regular feature of such work, particularly superhero comics. Going on to discuss how the rise of audience studies, and fan studies in particular, presented something of a riposte (to greater or lesser degrees) to such textually deterministic readings in the study of film, television and literature, the paper acknowledges the strengths but also the drawbacks of audience studies and notes the relative lack of literature of this sort on comics fans with irony, given that, perhaps more than any medium, the relationship between comic books and fans can be seen as ‘symbiotic’ (Barker, 1989). It goes on to discuss the concept of the ‘rhizome’ finding it particularly useful in overcoming deterministic theories of ideology but also in providing a model for describing the interaction between text and reader. Furthermore, it provides a model for understanding the complexities of continuity, those growing and convoluted ‘fiction networks’ that many superhero comics take place in, making particular reference to the origin story of Captain America , DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths and All Star Superman to illustrate these complexities. The paper concludes by showing how these ideas have affected the author’s research thus far, what this can contribute to existing research, and what further questions this poses.
Exciting stuff, I’m sure you agree. Anyway, all coming soon and hopefully all adding up to form a blog that is a brain-melting and unholy mix of academia and comedy. Which reminds me, I should get round to writing a post justifying that too…