Thesis Review Part Two: Superheroes, rhizomes, representation and ideology

Welcome to part two of my thesis autopsy, where I pick apart the first draft of my PhD and try to remember just exactly what it was I was trying to study when I began. As always, this is the blog and not the thesis itself so while there’s a lot of references in what follows its also likely to slip into a more conversational style. Let’s just jump straight in.

My thesis began with two broad questions: what could the development of the superhero tell us about posthumanism, and how did readers of superhero comics relate to the posthuman? In Part One of this thesis review I pointed out that answering those questions first required clarifying the epistemological and ontological assumptions underlying them. So it was that Part One introduced several concepts borrowed from Delueze and Guattari that served as the theoretical guide for undertaking this research project. In this part I want to re-introduce Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the rhizome (touched on briefly in part one) and how it differs from traditional models of thought and culture.

 These ideas will then be illustrated through a discussion of the filed of Comics Studies as rhizome, and also how many scholars approaching the superhero have relied on structuralist analyse (often accompanied by an ideological critique). Such approaches, whether positive or negative in their final reading of the ‘meaning’ of the superhero, are presented as arboreal or tree-like. I argue that such approaches can be characterised as Humanist. The rhizome is then offered as an alternative, Post/Humanist model for thinking about superheroes.

The article then goes on discuss how Foucault’s notion of discourse operates within a rhizome. Several theoretical (and occasionally methodological) objections are raised to move comics analysis away from questions of representation and identity politics, and an argument put forth for the production of a rhizomatic cultural history of the posthuman superhero body.


The rhizome describes a certain way of thinking. Since the Greek philosophers the dominant Western model of thought is that of the tree: “The image of roots and shoots emerging from a horizontal stem…is causal, hierarchical, and structured by binaries (one/many, us/them, man/woman, etc.) “ (Sutton and Jones, 2008:3). This model of thought creates one, single version of the truth, “from which the ‘Other’ is then defined-the space around the tree, or that which is ‘not tree’”. The rhizome is not the opposite of the tree, however, but more an invitation to reconsider how we think. Sutton and Jones (ibid) are worth quoting at length here to clarify:

This difference is perhaps easiest to understand if we consider the image of the tree in the context of a forest. In the forest there is no single truth, no singular cause and effect, no one ‘true’ tree. Rather, the forest is a single entity made up of numerous trees, or, numerous ‘truths’. It is also impossible to posit one origin to a forest, and not simply because you cannot tell which tree came first. Any one tree is a product of an assemblage, of water, sunlight and soil, without which there would be no trees at all, regardless of whether a seed exists or not. To consider a tree in isolation, then, Is erroneous, because everything is in fact the product of an assemblage with various different elements, and is not simply attributable to one cause. Everything is, in this sense, rhizomatic, and to think in the manner of the tree is only to use one aspect of the rhizome…For this reason they attempted to discard the hierarchical image of thought of the tree as somewhat illusory, and replace it with the horizontal image of the rhizome. Instead of tree, rhizome. Instead of one, one as many. Not one and its multiple  Others, but a singular multiplicity…[which] ‘has neither beginning nor end, but always a middle (milieu) from which it grows and which it overspills’

The rhizome has the potential to deterritorialise. To cause change. But there is also always a complementary movement that attempts to restore order.  To reterritorialise. As such

the rhizome is constantly creating a new ‘line of flight’ along which it has the potential to move into (and onto) new territories:

Lines of flight are created at the edge of the rhizomatic formation, where the multiplicity experiences an outside, and transforms and changes. At this border there is a double becoming that changes both the rhizome and that which it encounters (which is always, in fact, the edge of another rhizome)…Each of these becomings brings about the deterritorialisation of one term and the reterritorialisation of the other.’ As with all such encounters there is an assemblage created, and a double becoming between both aspects of the assemblage. (ibid: 11)


The remainder of the essay discusses the ways in which the rhizome can be useful to the field of Comics Studies generally and the superhero specifically.


Although ‘comics’ have existed for over a century, and the comic book proper for just less than  that, the academic study of comics can be said to be, in what Beaty (2004) calls a “generous reading”, a “state of infancy” (2004: Para 1). Indeed, Beaty (2010:2) has suggested that, “…one could argue that comics studies in 2009 exists in a state comparable to film studies in 1959”. In film it was the mutually reinforcing relationship between the auteur-driven cinema of the French New Wave and critical writing about them that, “…served to bolster both the growing international ‘art film’ movement and the critical and theoretical apparatus that would be mobilized around it” (ibid). Beaty sees the success of works such Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer prize winning Maus (1986/1991) and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2000) as potentially having the same effect on Comics Studies.

In fact, the last decade two decades have witnessed a substantial growth in comics studies. The International Journal of Comic Art  began publication in 1999 and has since been joined by the online journal ImageText (2004-), and in print, European Comic Art (2008-), The Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics (2009-)and Studies in Comics (2010-). The first Comics Studies Reader (Heer and Worcester, 2009) emerged at the end of the last decade and the growing number of academic studies of sequential narratives might suggest that the question comics scholar Thierry Groensteen asked at the beginning of the decade, “Why are comics still in search of cultural legitimization?” (2000), has become one of historical rather than contemporary interest. Never the less, Comics Studies is still young and has yet to be defined as clearly bounded discipline. This lack of definition is so acute that in much scholarly work on comics “…the attempt at definition,… by now constitutes a distinct rhetorical convention-a formula or strategy for, in essence, the initial framing of comics as an object of study” (Hatfield, 2010:5). The act of naming and identifying has been something of a recurring theme, with haggling over nomenclature plaguing both the subject (“what is Comics Studies?”) and its object (“what are comics?”).  In the meantime however both remain somewhat amorphous in both form and content.

This lack of disciplinary boundaries means that comics scholars are always reliant to some extent on the work of fans or fan scholars when compiling, say, historical or autobiographical material. Indeed, Hatfield has noted, “…academic comics study derives from a vast, heterogenous tradition of popular writing about comics” (2006: 368). For Smith (2011:140), such non-academic work remains useful because as fans and writer-artists, “…they pay close attention to the production, distribution and circulation contexts”.  As such, any

                  Academic study draws from, and to a degree depends on, this enormous fund of             fan material…yet, as it consolidates and…repurposes such fan scholarship,       academic study offers opportunities for greater methodological rigor, a new kind          of critical attention, and a wider relevance (Hatfield, 2006:368)

This paper would suggest that this lack of disciplinary boundaries can potentially be one of the great strengths of comics studies, facilitating the same sort of generic and even stylistic promiscuity displayed by the medium itself. Rather than fuzzy disciplinary borders making comics studies a ‘critical backwater”, comics studies:

Might take part in the ongoing and essential reexamination of how, by whom, and under what                auspices knowledge is produced in academe…. [with a] commitment not simply to multi- but to interdisciplinarity (Hatfield, 2010:14)

As such, this paper promotes Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the rhizome (and their ideas generally) for use in comics studies. Deleuze is deeply sympathetic to the notion of interdisciplinarity, and speaks of a, “…fundamental rapport between the arts, sciences and philosophy. There is no privilege of one discipline over the other. Each is creative” (cited in Perry, 1993: 181 n17). The concept of the rhizome is but one way of expressing this. As Ramier and Varshney point out in their edited volume of essays on the rhizome and interdisciplinarity-

just as a rhizomatic plant grows multiple roots and offshoots extending in all directions, interdisciplinary work is constantly redefining its structure and proposes new and original ways of carrying out research…’multidisciplinaroty’ and ‘interdisciplinaroty’…signal an important and tangible evolution of the way that academic research is undertaken in the new millennium: dominant disciplinary organization is challenged as issues falling across several disciplines become the focus of interest (Ramiere and Varshney2006: vii-viii)

Such a structure may be a result of the fact that most comics scholars, as Fischer points out, are actually “labourers in other fields” such as film and literature studies. As well as a conceptual model of interdisciplinarity the rhizome may also prove useful to comics studies as a paradigm for the inevitable “cross hybridization” between the spheres of fan appreciation, essayistic criticism and academic criticism endemic to comics studies (Fischer, 2010:25-28). Adopting the rhizome as a model of thought and research could encourage such boundary hopping without posing an existential threat to the identity of comics studies.


The earliest moments of sociological interest in comics were not of a positive bent, as evidenced most clearly in the ‘comics controversy’ of the 1950s, which has itself been the subject of much scholalry attention (Nyberg, 1998; Lent, 1999; Hadju, 2008; Beaty, 2005).  Fuelled by the 1954 publication of The Seduction of the Innocent by Dr. Fredric Werthem, who alleged links between comic books and juvenile delinquency, this moral panic spread as far as the comics themselves, manifesting not only in America but also Britain and Australia (Barker, 1984).   In an effort to protect their industry from the ensuing moral panic the various publishers decided to regulate themselves through a self imposed, and stringent, Comics Code.  The imposition of the code can be seen to have ghettoised comics as children’s literature, and the ensuing to have impeded the medium’s development as an art form (McCallister, 1990; Lopes, 2006) and, by extension, as object worthy of academic attention.

One result has been a dichotomy in the study of comics between arguments that comics are ideological products of socio-economic hegemony and, in contrast to this, scholarship that, “…celebrates the diversity and complexity of issues raised in comic books” (McAllister, 1990: 55). The latter position has resulted in various attempts to form a recognisable canon. A number of the works fit creators of superhero comics into an aueterist mould. As Smith (2011:139) points out, book length ‘auteur studies’ are a “time-honoured scholarly tradition to uplift a popular object”.  Such works focus on key creators such as Alan Moore (Di Liddo, 2009), Jack Kirby (Ro, 2005; Hatfield, 2012) and Stan Lee (Raphael and Spurgeon, 2004) or Grant Morrison (Singer, 2012). Meanwhile, Klock draws on the literary theories of Harold Bloom to explicitly create a “superhero mini-canon” (2002:16). Such works are invaluable but Smith’s (2011:) criticism of Klock’s theoretical structure as too far removed from sociohistoric and psychological contexts in favour of presumed ‘literary’ features can be applied to many of them.

Bongco (2000) and Kaveney (2008)  deal specifically with the genre’s development. Several authors focus on specific charcetrs from a variety of popular and critical perspectives. Superman is the subject of DC-sanctioned histories (Daniels, 2008) as well a collected book of scholalry essays (Yeffeth, ed. 2006). Captain America (Weiner, ed. 2009), the X-Men (Wein, ed. 2005) have also been the subject  of  essay collection while Batman has inspired popular histories (Daniels, 2004), essay collections (Pearson and Uricchio, 1991;O’Neill, ed. 2008) and book length studies (Brooker, 2001). More generally, Fieffer (2003) and Simon and Simon (2003) both give some insight into the ‘Golden Age of Comics’, while Jones and Jacobs (??) and Schumer (2003) focus on the Silver Age of the 60s/70s. Voger (2006) offers an interesting, if not theoretical, overview of the 1990s and the “Dark Age’ of superhero comics. Meanwhile Coogan’s (2006) history of the genre usefully situates the superhero in an evolutionary line that takes in earlier characters such as The Shadow and Tarzan.

One recurring approach to superhero comics has been to emphasize their apparent mythological aspects. Hardly surprising given that, “…heroic narratives have a history that’s as old as that of the establishment of human socialization” (Ndalianis, 2009:3). Reynolds (1994) seminal work was the first book-length argument for considering superhero comics as a modern mythology, an idea since expanded upon by others (see Ndalianis et al. Eds., 2007). Perhaps this explains why some  have linked the superhero comic with the history of magic and religion. Kripal (2012), Wright (2007) and Knowles (2007) have drawn attention to the “surprisingly intimate ties” superhero comics have to, “…the histories of occultism, psychical research, and related paranormal phenomena” (Kripal, 2010:6). Others have found in superheroes a more generally religious symbolism.

Jewett and Lawrence (2002) describe superheroes as a modern mythology, claiming that superheroes fall within the remit of what they term ‘the American mono-myth’ (1977), a localized variant on Joseph Campbell’s cocept of the universal monomyth, a basic story pattern found in many tales throughout the world that for Campbell indicates a unity of human consciousness. They summarize the American mono-myth as  involving a community in a harmonious paradise being threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero then emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task, restoring the community to its paradisiacal condition; the superhero then recedes into obscurity. For Jewett and Lawrence mythology is ideological, and the prevalence of the American monomyth informs not just American popular culture but also its foreign policy-vigilante superheroes justify a vigilante superpower.

The superhero comic remains a target of such analysis. For Kahan and Stewart, “…the very idea of the superhero presupposes racial purity and ethnic inequality” (2006:7). Beaty makes an explicit link between Superheroes and ‘fascist wish-fulfilment’ (2004: 4), a position also taken by George Orwell (Jones, 2004). Art Speigelman has argued that the work of Jack Kirby, and arguably the single most influential artist in the history of superhero comics, is fundamentally fascistic in its, “…celebration of the physicality of the human body at the expense of the intellect” (in Knowles, 2007:192). Phillips and Strobl (2006) conclude that superhero comics express, “…fantasies about violent revenge” (328), while for Vollum and Adkinson (2003) superheroes are defenders of the dominant hegemony. Another, related strand in the diaspora of articles relating to superhero comics addresses the politics of identity and representation. Portrayals of race, for example, have been addressed frequently (Brown, 2001; Singer, 2002; Early, 2006) and feminist approaches to superhero comics are common. Peora (1992) finds that superhero comics present a ‘fundamentally patriarchal view’.  Frail (2004), Chenault (2007), Sievers (2003), D’Amore (2008) and Young (2006) all find superhero comics guilty of sexism to a greater or lesser degree. Other ideological critiques focus on the formal convention of continuity in superhero comics. These are addressed in Part Three. At this point we can note that as with the general discussion of comics studies above, the specific study of superhero comics also tends to fall into a criticism/legitimation dichotomy.

Thus, running counter to the works cited above are studies such as Palmer-Mehta and Hay (2005) who explored representations of homosexuality in Green Lantern and found, “… an example of a counter-hegemonic text created by a network of gay and straight allies” (401). An unsurprising finding if one concurs with Taylor’s suggestion that, “…the explicit eroticism in both superhero and super heroine points to a bisexual reader subjectivity” (2007:346). Despite her misgivings about continuity even Robson feels, “…Wonder Woman did pioneer  a kind of feminist questioning, however commercially packaged and conceptually limited, at a time when few other voices in American society were raising such questions” (2004:23). Singer, praises the superhero convention of the secret identity:

a convention that perfectly mimics the dialectical, existential or differential split which…[some] ascribe to racial and other categories of minority identity. The secret identity provides the perfect means for exploring these real-life split identities” (2002: 114).

Nor do formalist approaches necessarily have to imply that superhero comics are ideological suspect. For Reynolds (1992) the structure of the genre is such that minority characters are subsumed into the superhero narrative and its generic ideology. In short, there can be no exotic outsiders in a fictional world populated with exotic outsiders. A similar argument to that proposed by Barker (1989: 127) whose draws on the formalist ideas of Vladimir Propp to suggest that, “…a wondertale [Propps term for the folk tale genre] takes over elements that enter it and converts them into elements-in-a-wondertale”, as such, representations can only be understood within the “transforming lens and structure” of the genre they appear in and can “reinforce nothing”. Others point out that holding up comics like Watchmen as artistically and ideologically superior to serialized superhero narratives involves certain assumption about mainstream comics. As Jenkins writes of the so-called ‘deconstructive’ or ‘revisionist’ take on superheroes in Watchmen: “…calling such works revisionist makes no sense because there is not a moment in the history of the genre when the superhero is not under active revision” (2009:29). In short, the superhero comic book was, “…always intertextual, hypertextual and drew its power from the instability and ambiguity of word and image interactions” (Murray, 2007:15).


As has been shown above the specific study of superhero comics often tends to fall into a criticism/legitimation dichotomy. Here we can introduce Deleuze and Guattari’s distinction between tracing (which is arboreal) and mapping (which takes the form of a rhizome). To take an example from outside comics studies, Mercieica and Mercieca (2010) demonstrate how the influential model of emancipatory research has become dominant in disability research, “…but without the negotiation and questioning that brought about their initial development” (2010:85). As a result:

The researcher accepts or inherits the emancipatory paradigm as the correct way, thereby settling discussion rather than provoking it….terms such as the social model, emancipatory research, empowerment, medical model…have become fixed structures, which shape how we know and think about disability….the researcher is, therefore, tracing over structures that are pre-determined (ibid: emphasis added)

As a result of this, they argue, disability researcher is closed off to things that its current form would consider ‘side issues’ (ibid).  This is what Deleuze and Guattari mean by ‘tracing’. In the example above, “…this amounts to a tracing of disability, an understanding that perpetuates how we understood it before” (ibid: 87). Although this example is taken from disability research it can just as well be applied to other schools of ideological analysis. Consider those works that applied ideological analyses to superheroes. In Deleuze and Guattari’s terms these researchers reduced the rhizome to an arboreal model with a central explanatory trunk. As such:

The tracing has already translated the map into an image: it has already transformed the rhizome into roots and radicles. It has organized, stabilized, neutralized the multiplicities according to the axes of significance and subjectification belonging to it. It has generated, structuralized the rhizome, and when it thinks it is reproducing something else it is in fact only reproducing itself” (1987:13)

A rhizo-analysis, or mapping, of the superhero would, by contrast, imply“…not a different kind of reading but a transformation” (O’Sullivan, 2002:86). A rhizomatic approach to Cultural Studies becomes, “…a ‘voyage of discovery’, a journey which produces the terrain it maps” (ibid:84). Deleuze and Guattari urge the researcher to, “…Lodge yourself on a stratum, experiment with the opportunities it offers, find an advantageous point on it, find potential movements of deterritorialisation, possible lines of flight, experience them” (quoted in ibid: 90). This involves a move away from the ‘interpretation of culture’ and towards what O’Sullivan calls, “…a pragmatics which allows for a mapping of connections between different objects and practices, events and assemblages” (ibid:81). As Deleuze and Guattari themselves put it, “…a rhizome ceaselessly establish connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relevant to the arts, sciences, and social struggles” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1988:7). The posthuman body then can be understood as a rhizome, made up of discursive plateaus, or assemblages formed between art, science and society.


Deleuze and Guattari describe the rhizome as made of plateaus, which they describe as any “multiplicity connected to other multiplicities by superficial underground stems in such a way as to form or extend a rhizome”. Honan elaborates on this concept, helpfully suggesting that each plateau composing the rhizome be considered as discursive plateaus. To fully clarify this it is first worth clarifying what is meant by discourse and how this too differs from the concept of ideology. Graham (2002) describes how Foucault’s

Models of ‘archaeology’ and ‘genealogy’ privilege representation, language and imagery and recognize the importance of popular and scientific discourses in the formulation of hegemonic notions of what it means to be human. Foucault argues that’ human nature’ is historically conceived and emphasizes the symbiosis between the centre and peripheries of cultural discourse in constituting what counts as authoritative ‘truth’ about identity. (2002:39)


Foucault method consists of trying to identify the specific interstices of discourse and social organization and how these fuse to create particular technologies of the self…Foucault’s analysis sets out to subdue ‘the kind of history that is concerned with the already given, commonly recognized ‘facts’ or dated events…in favour of a critical approach that defies a totalizing or authoritative telos… to question what is ‘natural’ and, particularly in later work as the genealogical replaces the archeological, to esquire into the actual mechanisms by which ‘knowledge’ produces ‘normality’. (Ibid: 43)

In short, “…there is no ‘natural’ or a historical self awaiting liberation from oppressive social structures, or a subject who exists independent of constitutive discourses” (Graham, 2002:42).  For Foucault’s critics, “…his resistance to any kind of normative principles regarding human nature is ultimately an invitation to nihilism” (ibid: 55). Graham suggests, however, that Foucault’s work is in fact ‘a form of ideological critique’, because, “…in order to act differently, it was necessary to think differently” (ibid). Thus, unlike structuralist ideological readings, post-structuralist or post-modern theories tend to emphasise how discourses privileged certain modes of knowing and being while oppressing others and, “…underlining the existence of plural narratives, identities and cultures in any given society” (ibid: 42). In contrast to the structural Grand Narratives of positivist social research, society was instead, “…not presented as a fixed and unchanging entity, ‘out there’ somewhere and external to the person, but is a shifting, changing entity that is constructed or reconstructed by people themselves” (ibid: 211), and not by external and universal laws. In other words, while structuralist textual analyses aimed to uncover the true meaning of representations-and by extension the illusory subject positions they offered- post-structural approaches do not assume:

that there are real interests that are concealed: that women, say, really want to be liberated but are duped by ideology. Ideology also has to assume some normative form of the individual who awaits liberation from the imposed illusions of culture… [But] we cannot assume real interests, nor some pre-social and essential individual that we might discover underneath power and images” (Colebrook, 2002:91)

This has particular implications for the research undertaken in this thesis.  As Barker has noted the last 30 years have produced a ‘motley domain’ of sometimes-conflicting theories and approaches yoked under the rubric of ‘discourse analysis’. Barker warns that this sometimes amounts to a reiteration of ideological analysis, but termed ‘discourse analysis’: “it is possible to find repeated instances of words assuming specific kinds of causal relations at work within culture: people are apparently ‘constructed’, ‘impelled’, constituted’, ‘interpellated’, and so on” (2008: 155). The result of this is the generation of ‘images of the audience’ that remain untested, and are not dissimilar to the image of the passive receiver of media discussed in greater detail in Part Three.

Hall writes of discourses taking shape at particular periods, arguing that, “they leave traces of their connections, long after the social relations to which they referred have disappeared…[furthermore] these traces can be re-activated at a later stage, even when the discourses have fragmented as coherent or organic ideologies” (1985: 111). Thus, for Hall, such a discursive ‘chain’ becomes the site of ideological struggle:

A particular ideological chain becomes a site of struggle, not only when people try to displace, rupture or contest it by supplanting it with some wholly new alternative set of terms, but also when they interrupt the ideological field and try to transform its meanings by changing or re-articulating its associations, for example, from negative to positive (ibid: 112)

However, discourse should not be understood as the same thing as ideology. As Hall (1985:94) points out, “…the classical formulations of base/superstructure which have dominated Marxist theories of ideology represent ways of thinking about determination which are essentially based on the idea of a necessary correspondence between one level of a social formation and another”. Discourse theory, by contrast, does not recognize any ‘necessary correspondence’: “…the notion essential to discourse- [is] that nothing really connects with anything else” (ibid). So that, “even when the analysis of particular discursive formations constantly reveals the overlay or the sliding of one set of discourses over another, everything seems to hang on the polemical reiteration of the principle that there is, of necessity, no correspondence” (ibid). In the rhizome, by contrast, everything is connected to everything else, but these connections are multiple and shifting, but not necessarily corresponding with the ‘superstructure’. Not reducible to a central trunk. A rhizo-analysis draws attention to just such “overlays or the sliding of one set of discourses over another”, viewing these instances as forms of re and de-territorialisation.

In Part One it was said that the rhizome cosnists of plateaus. It is possible to consider the plateaus that make up the rhizome as discursive realms. As Honan and Sellers point out:

rhizomatic research points to new understandings of the interaction between discursive systems within any rhizome. Discourses do not operate as straight lines through a text: rather, they merge, connect, and cross over each other. We, as rhizo-analysts, can map discursive journeys through a text and such mappings can illuminate the moments of convergence, when connections allow reason(able) readings of contradictory and conflicting discourses. This provides a constructive and transformative approach discourse analysis, perhaps replacing that kind of analysis that has previously focused on the deconstruction rather than transformative possibilities that are produced through a re-construction. (Sellers and Honan, 2007 emphasis added)

Utilising discourse analysis this thesis then understands these discourses as functioning rhizomatically, not existing in a vacuum but merging, connecting and crossing over with each other. In some sense this is what the history of the comic book posthuman offers. An unbroken chain of posthuman representations put to very different uses and given different meanings at certain times and by certain authors. Yet ‘traces’ remain, hence the comic book posthuman body still regularly manifests itself as a white, male, muscular body. For Deleuze, as for Foucault, there is no underlying power behind texts/images waiting to be discovered using these texts to mislead us. Rather:

Desire itself is power; a power to become and produce images. Desire also has the power to produce images that enslave it: images of a moral ‘man’ obeying his social duty. But the task is not to get away from images so much as to reveal and intensify their production: why limit ourselves to the image of man and woman as social citizens, why not become other? Deleuze’s political critique does not begin from a power that opposes desire but from one single univocal flow of desire that produces the very terms that enslave it…power does not oppress us; it produces us. Cultural forms, like literature, do not deceive us; they are ways in which desire organises and extends its investments (Colebrook, 2002:94)

Obviously, a rhizo-analysis of superhero texts and readers does not involve forming structuralist arguments about the ‘truth’ or ideological ‘meaning’ of them. It is not a ‘tracing’ but a mapping. Such an analysis does not start out knowing what it is looking for, or even knowing how to look for it. As O’Sullivan reminds us, “…the rhizome is anti-hierarchical and a-centred”, therefore, “…no single organising principle predetermines the consistencies and compatibilities between the network of its elements” (O’Sullivan, 2002:84). As such, contra ideology, we cannot assume:

That there are real interests [organising principles] that are concealed: that women, say, really want to be liberated but are duped by ideology. Ideology also has to assume some normative form of the individual who awaits liberation from the imposed illusions of culture…we cannot assume real interests, nor some pre-social and essential individual that we might discover underneath power and images (Colebrook, 2002:92)

I want to suggest ideological readings of the posthuman body, which usually, as has been shown, tend to rely on a tree-like model of thought can be broadly considered as Humanist (they don’t call them the Humanities for nothing). The explanatory trunk of the tree and the rational, unified, autonomous subject of Humanism are interchangeable. After all, there has to be a unified, rational self in the first place to uncover, through rational analysis, the hidden ideological meanings of a text. Adopting the rhizome in my research was an attempt to apply Post/Humanist ideas to the figure of the posthuman. Having already highlighted a number of structuralist and ideological interpretations of the superhero earlier, we are now able to consider how the question of posthumanism has been raised in relation to superhero comics.


Given Haraway’s assertion that “the cyborg is a creature of social reality as well as creature of fiction” the genre of science fiction, whether in cinematic, televisual or literary form has been the subject of much scrutiny from the posthuman gaze and the quest for, “…positive social and cultural representations of hybrid, monstrous, abject and alien others in such a way as to subvert the construction and consumption of pejorative differences” (Braidotti, 2006:11). This postmodern blurring of theory and fictions is indicative of the way in which, as Miah puts it, “…the philosophical and the cultural are interwoven within the history of posthumanism” (Miah, 2007:9). McCracken summarises why the cyborg metaphor is useful to the study of popular culture and its difference from earlier approaches to the study of mass culture noting:

A tendency in mass culture theory to conceive of the subject as powerless in the face of a great wave of pap. It denies the crucial role of fantasy in the formation of critical subjectivity…the transformative metaphors of the cyborg permits a different, more complex understanding of the relationship between reader and text than that provided by mass culture theory                                        (McCracken, 1997:297-298)

McCracken’s insists that mass culture should not be seen as a ‘total system’ but a ‘contested terrain’ (ibid). He goes on to suggest that cyborg fictions actually provide, “…the kinds of transformative metaphors through which…cultural conflicts…are mediated”, and that, “it is through such forms that new kinds of consciousness (both empowering and disempowering) arise” (ibid: 289). Klugman makes a similar point when he suggests that cyborg fictions “…motivate the reader to consider the social and ethical implications of new technologies” (2001:40).

I suggest that the corpus of superhero narratives provides many such avenues for investigation. As Locke writes, “…super-hero comics deal with questions about the social and cultural meaning of science that are constituted out of the same basic stuff as academic concern-that is, available cultural resources that provide the means of thinking” (2005: 26). While the genre of superheroes deals with posthuman bodies, the medium itself might be said to embody some of the qualities exhibited by Post/Humanist thought, especially e blurring of categorical distinctions. For instance, Groensteen (2000) suggests that comics suffer from their ‘hybrid’ status as neither art nor literature. This ‘hybrid’ status extends further, blurring the distinction between fan and consumer. Brown (1997) and Barker (1989) and Jenkins (2009) all concur that the relationship between fans and their corporate comics is to some degree interactive and collaborative rather than an antagonistic power struggle.  The question of readers will be addressed in greater detail in Part Three.      For the remainder of this section I want to highlight those few works that have already viewed superhero comics through the lens of posthumanism.

Nowhere is the posthuman body (and indeed the ethical dilemmas that come with it) more often represented than in the superhero comic book. Indeed, in the universe of Wildstorm Comics, superheroes are designated by the term ‘Posthuman’ (DC comics use the term ‘Metahuman’, while Marvel uses the designation ‘Superhuman’). More specifically, Taylor suggests that although:

Superheroes were probably the last thing Haraway had on her mind while composing her manifesto […]  their polymorphous perversity and androgynous bodies are well suited to her utopian ideals. They are strange farragoes of science and the arcane, individual will and artistic invention, subject to authorial whimsy and socio-political inconstancy (Taylor, 2007: 358)

Never the less, perhaps because the study of both comics and the posthuman remain relatively specialized (though growing) academic concerns, there have been surprisingly few investigations of this sort, and no sustained studies as yet. A sample of the few studies that do exist goes some way to illustrating the potential superhero comics have in contributing to the discourse of the posthuman body.

For Bukatman (2003) the spectacle of the superhero body is a means by which “the fear of instability induced by urban modernity” can be converted, “…into the thrill of topsy-turveydom” (Bukatman, 2003:3). Thus the superhero makes his first appearance in the modern, industrial age because: “only the Man of Steel has the constitution, organs and abilities equal to the rigors of the Machine Age” (Bukatman, 1994: 99). Similarly, Thurtle and Mitchell (2007:286) argue that superheroes, “…embody industrial-sized bodily capacities without sacrificing embodied human perceptions…[providing] readers with a means for exploring the forces and potential of industrial society” (ibid: 286).  Oehlert (2000) marks an early attempt to categorize the cyborg types in superhero comics.  More (2006) delivers a more prosaic version of this in his elaboration of how many of the X-Men’s abilities may be made available if Transhuman technologies continue t be developed. Heggs (1999) goes into greater depth in his analysis, stating that superheroes, despite their transgressive potential, remain, “…open to naturalization, for example, around the thematic of masculinity” (1999:185), and are therefor poor examplars of Haraway’s cyborg.

Conversely, Taylor (2007:358) suggests that superheroes offer a, “…culturally produced body that could potentially defy all traditional and normalizing readings” (ibid: 245). Rivera (2007) provides a positive step in this direction by reading the Marvel comic Deathlok (the story of an African-American man whose body is enhanced with robotic parts by a corrupt corporation), as an intervention, “in a medium with a troubling hegemonic past by appropriating a white cyborg narrative to dramatize the diasporic dimensions of black subjectivity” (2007:105).

Emad (2006) explores related ideas in her analysis of how the shifting depictions of Wonder Woman’s body over time articulate cultural mythologies about nationhood. In fact, capes and spandex form the semiotic function as military uniform-“power must display itself on the surface of the body” (Armitage, 2005: 82). Meanwhile, Gray (2003) has described the use of human-machine weaponry as a key feature of (post) modern warfare. Moreover, their origins in the Second World War mean that superhero comics were adopted for propaganda purposes very early on (Murray, 2000), a practice which continues in different forms today.

For instance, Milburn has detailed the ‘nonlocal cultural mythologies that frame both military technoscience and comic books’ (2005:80). Milburn’s article uses the case of an MIT grant proposal to the US Army that utilized copyrighted images of a comic book super-soldier to illustrate the advances in military nanotechnology that it proposed to develop. The proposal was awarded $50 million to set up the MIT Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN). Milburn suggests that the drawing served as, “a conceptual bridge between the actual and the possible within the area of nanotechnology” (ibid: 79), the understanding of which was facilitated by a shared understanding by military and scientific personnel of the tropes of comic books. The science-fictional status of nanotechnology and militaristic visions of the supersoldier have come to, “…rely on cultural familiarity with comic book myths…to suggest that nanotechnology, in replicating or materializing these myths at the site of the soldier’s body, can create “real” superheroes” (ibid: 85). Milburn’s fascinating article demonstrates brilliantly the contention in my thesis that the superhero is best viewed as a rhizome or assemblage: collectivity that is historically situated, alive, decentralized, and constituted of the human and non-human, the material and immaterial.


I wanted to treat the posthuman body as a rhizome in my thesis. A rhizome is made up of discursive plateaus. As such, I argued for utilising many of the techniques of discourse analysis but within the framework of the rhizome. I wanted demonstrate how the posthuman body emerges from the relations between forces. The seventy plus year history of superhero comics provides a unique opportunity to consider how the how the superhero body has been deterritorialised and reterritorialised. As stated already though, the rhizome of the posthuman body consist of overlapping discursive plateaus, of which the superhero comic is just one, I suggest that the posthuman body can also be found in the discursive realms of Transhumanism and Post/Humanism. Deleuze and Guttari urge the researcher to:

 Lodge yourself on a stratum, experiment with the opportunities it offers, find an advantageous place on it, find potential movements of deterritorialization, possible lines of flight, experience them, produce flows of conjunctions here and there, try out continuums of intensities segment by segment, have a small plot of new land at all times

 Using the plateau of the Superhuman as my initial ‘small plot of land’ I wanted to understand how these three discursive realms interacted-were the territorialisations apparent in the Superhuman also happening in Transhumanism and Post/Humanism? Where did they connect and where did they diverge? As rhizomatic research is necessarily experimental I used it as a framework through which to use and present two more recognisable methodologies-cultural history and discourse analysis.

I felt that one advantage of the cultural historic approach is its ability to highlight posthuman discourse (that is, discourse as a system of representation) as a matter of both language and practice:

Discourse…constructs the topic. It defines the way that a topic can be meaningfully talked about and reasoned about. It also influences how ideas are put into practice and used to regulate the conduct of others (Hall, 1997: 72).

In the case of the discourse of posthumanism, this involves highlighting not just its linguistic representations, its semantic and semiotic forms, but also material practices. For example, the Holocaust of World war 2 provides a stark example of a form of posthuman discourse (eugenics, notion of a ‘Master Race’) manifested as a material practice, discourse written upon the body.

Mixing a discourse analysis with a cultural historic approach is not a radical move. As Hall points out, discourse is already ‘historicized’ by Foucault. So for example:

Mental illness was not an objective fact, which remained the same in all historical periods, and meant the same thing in all cultures. It was only within a definite discursive formation that the object, ‘madness’, could appear at all as a meaningful or intelligible construct…and it was only after a certain definition of ‘madness’ was put into practice, that the appropriate subject-‘the madman’ as current medical and psychiatric knowledge defined ‘him’-could appear (ibid: 74)

For ‘mental illness’ and ‘madness’ we could replace ‘posthumanism’. A cultural-historic approach then, informed by rhizomatic thinking, would trace the discourse of the posthuman body across seventy years of superhero comics, placing these discourses within wider discursive formations of posthumanism.

In writing a cultural history, the emphasis is shifted from trying to determine the meaning of text as if it, “…existed as an entity which has already been formulated within the text” (Murphy, 124), but rather to, “…reveal the conditions that bring about its various possible effects” (Iser, cited in ibid). Secondly, taking the moderate view that, “…not all interpretation is over-interpretation” (ibid: 131) this cultural history proposes to ‘read’ representations of the superhero body in terms of their socio-historic and industrial context and without recourse to presumptions about their ideological or psychological effects on the reader. This does not mean that no reference will be made to critical works that do make these claims. Rather, any such works will also be considered as part of the same socio-historic moment and posthuman discourse-part of the same rhizome- as the texts they critique. To quote Iser once more, “…the interpreter’s task should be to elucidate the potential meanings of a text, and not restrict himself [sic] to just one” (quoted in ibid: 133). This thesis understands other critical interpretations of texts as just such ‘potential meanings’, or ‘entryways’, in the language of the rhizome.

‘Cultural history’ is said by its supporters to, “…best combine the disciplinary strengths in writing history with the ferment of ideas associated with what might be loosely termed Critical Theory” (Luckhurst, 2005:1) and stresses the, “…importance of situating texts in a variety of historically informed contexts” (ibid: 2). For this project, that involves not just general social and political contexts, but also an attention to how the posthuman manifested at these times. As with Luckhurst’s cultural history of science fiction:

This necessitates an ambitious stretch of contextual material, ranging from the history of science and technology, via the softer social sciences, to the rarified world of aesthetic and critical theory. This will not, then, be a literary history as such, an exhaustive genre survey that visits every significant text for a brief outline…Instead I want to investigate… [Comics] that are rich and over determined objects because they speak to the concerns of their specific moment in history. (Ibid: 3)

A cultural historic approach to superheroes, then, would situate them within an always-shifting network of forces with, “…different emphasis at different times” (ibid: 6). This ‘always-shifting networks of forces’ can be reformulated in the terminology of this thesis as assemblages. The final section of this thesis review demonstrates how the assemblages that make up the rhizome of the posthuman body have exhibited ‘different emphasis at different times by considering the transformations undergone by the superhero in the Golden, Silver, Dark and Modern ages of comics. For the purposes of this essay the discussion will be brief. For a more detailed overview of the superhero and posthumanism see my article Producing and Consuming the Posthuman Body in Superhero Narratives.


The first comic book expression of posthumanity, manifested in the form of what I ironically dub the Perfect Body. The Perfect Body is an assemblage formed by several socio-historic and cultural trends, drawing together patriotism, Nietzsche, eugenics, physical culture, militarism into a particular form. The posthuman as Perfect Body is merely one particular assemblage within this rhizome. Rather than the essence of the posthuman body, the Perfect Body is the emergent result of particular links being formed, an assemblage of the posthuman AND eugenics AND Nietzsche AND Nationalism AND militarism AND so on. The meaning and practice of the posthuman body emerges from the assemblages it forms with wider social and cultural trends. The posthuman is a becoming, not a being.  Grant Morrison’s character Flex Mentallo embodies this idea. Ironically poaching Flex’s look and origin from the old Charles Atlas ads, Morrison has Flex reveal that there was more to learn from the Muscle Mystery book than simply strength. Flex discovers that his becoming posthuman requires

Techniques that I can’t even begin to hint at. Muscle power, developed to such a degree it could be used to read minds, see into the future, into other dimensions even.

The development of the Perfect Body for Flex, as for the genre, leads the body to other minds, futures and dimensions. In order to do this though the posthuman body would have to form new assemblages. It is interesting to note that following the war superheroes soon fell out of fashion and were replaced with other genres. Perhaps the knowledge of the Nazi concentration camps, the awful reality of the eugenicist vision, returned the Superhuman to its position as menace. At any rate, it would be almost fifteen years before the superhero comic regained prominence, and when it did, in what has become known as comics’ Silver Age, a new assemblage was introduced: a Cosmic Body.

Plugging itself into the counterculture assemblage the superhero now drew on evolutionary mysticism and the idea of an expanded ‘cosmic consciousness’ awaiting mankind. While the Cosmic Body had existed as a virtual tendency in the Golden Age it took the generational and cultural shifts of the Silver Age to actualise it. Just as in superhero comics the Cosmic Body manifests in Transhumanism and Post/Humanism as a pre-human form of shamanic irrationality (Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘higher disorder of thinking’) in the latter and a desire for apotheosis in the former. Following the Silver Age a reterritorialisation occurs and the Perfect Body returned in a more problematized form in the Military-Industrial body of contemporary comics. For Heggs (1999), “…the cyborg and the superhero resist the consequences of boundary transgression, and that the political affinities, so often desired of cyborgs, are open to naturalization, for example, around the thematic of masculinity” (1999:185). It would be disingenuous to try and deny that, in the Dark Age in particular, an image of the posthuman as militarised ‘hard body’ were dominant. However, these representations were aesthetic-assemblages formed of social, political and economic climate, industry pressures and practices, an increased emphasis on creator over characters, and a struggle to come to terms with the impact of Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns among other factors.

The contemporary Military-Industrial body has a relationship with the Perfect Body as an assemblage of am asseblage but cannot be reduced to it. They each take a different entryway into rhizome of the posthuman body. The patriotic militarism of the Perfect body is problematized and critiqued by the Military-Industrial body, as in the story Truth: Red, White and Black which ret-cons continuity to reveal the hidden history of experimentation on and murder of black soldiers in the race to develop the super soldier serum that created Captain America. Captain America’s origins presented him as the exemplar of the ‘perfect specimen’. The Military-Industrial bodies of Truth: Red, White and Black deterritorialise the Perfect body, altering its meaning and function within the network of comic book continuity.


In this part of the thesis review I outlined some of the approaches that have been taken to studying superheroes. I then went on to suggest that the concept of the rhizome provided a useful conceptual tool for overcoming some of the theoretical limitations imposed by the tree-like structure of such analyses.  I proposed a cultural-historic approach to the discourse of the posthuman body. Understanding the posthuman body to be a rhizome made up of discursive plateaus I argued that it was possible to map its discursive transformation through three overlapping plateaus-the comic book Superhuman, Transhumanism and Post/Humanism. Having discussed this in more detail elsewhere I ended this section of the review by briefly discussing the Superhuman posthuman body in terms of assemblages and territories.

As with Part One, having compiled all the information together and (re)presented here, a creeping doubt and paranoia sets in: what if i have entirely misunderstood all of this? With the first draft done, a polish underway, and the mechanisms for arranging examiners and viva underway I am now locked in. Time will tell, but any comments and criticisms are welcome.

Next time, in Part Three: we extend our discussion of representation and ideology to the implied readers alleged to be influenced by them. A brief history of audience research is put forward before extending the concepts of the rhizome and machinic assemblages to text-reader relations, reconceptualising it as a ‘reading-assemblage’.


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About Scott Jeffery

Hello humans. I am Dr. Scott Jeffery. I do the following things (in no particular order): Research into Post/Humanism and Transhumanism and superheroes (seriously, I’ve got a PhD and everything) Stand-up comedy Compulsive rumination I blog about these things (plus occultism and all kinds of other lovely, strange topics) at NthMind. I also write regular short film reviews at Filmdribble. I can be contacted via twitter (@sjzenarchy) or at View all posts by Scott Jeffery

5 responses to “Thesis Review Part Two: Superheroes, rhizomes, representation and ideology

  • Thesis Review Part Three: Reader-text assemblages | Nth Mind

    […] the philosophical and theoretical concepts that guided the research undertaken in my thesis. Part Two elaborated upon these ideas- paying particular attention to the concept of the rhizome-and […]

  • Leif

    I’m enjoying these sections, I randomly stumbled onto your blog and am glad to see somebody out there who is trying to merge Deleuze and comics. Do you see the (future) transformation of the superhero as cyclical, teleological, or a rhizomatic amalgam of culture/media/discourse? Also have you read Rogan Gosh by Milligan and Brendan McCarthy?

    • Scott Jeffery

      Hi Leif, glad you are enjoying the thesis reviews! They’ve been quite helpful to write, I feel a little like some of the ideas are more fully worked out than others so it’s good to know people are digging them and so far no-one has suggested that they are entirely wrong-headed! I hope when I’m in a position to post some of my actual data from readers I can explain the idea of reader-text assemblages a little more clearly at least.

      As you might imagine I’ve given your question some thought and it is central to my much-delayed article on comic book continuity as rhizome so it would be the third option. It seems to me that the superhero genre has never been easily delineated from its ancestors (mythology, pulp fiction, sci-fi, horror, etc.) or from itself- we think of Superman as the ‘archetypal’ superhero but the Golden Age also gives us Robotman, Human Torch, Captain America, the original Vision and so on. All very different bodies. Continuity based ideas like Hypertime or the Omniverse also invite us as readers to consider the very different visions of say Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Adam West’s Batman and Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum as part of the same rhizome.

      There are still some Delezeuan ideas I’d like to work out more fully some day. Particularly the notion or repetition begetting difference in serialised narratives (see the ‘Batmen’ above) and the changes in superhero comics as forms of territorialisation and deterritorialisation. I think the superhero always, to paraphrase Deleuze, retains enough of the organism to reform each morning.

      I’m suspicious of superheroes being cyclical. I think the trend for cosmic superheroes in the late silver age (Warlock, Captain Marvel, Engelhart’s Dr Strange) was historically specific but also existed as a virtual tendency within the genre since the Golden Age in characters like Dr Fate. Similarly a violent vigilantism existed as a virtual tendency since the golden Age but it’s not until the late 80s/early 90s that this tendency was widely actualised in the comics. Again in response to wider historical-cultural-economic-social trends.

      So the short answer is yes, rhizomatic amalgam of culture/media/discourse!

      Sad to say that I’ve still never got round To Rogan Gosh. I love Milligan though and look forward to the time when comics scholars start discussing him as much as they do Moore and Morrison. Enigma, in particular, is the great forgotten Vertigo book and ripe for all kinds of analysis.

      Are you a comic scholar yourself Leif? Any further ideas on how we could plug the Deleuze-machine into the Superhero-machine?

  • Leif

    Thanks for the lengthy response, this is a facet of comic philosophy I didn’t really know existed here on the internet. I really recommend Rogan Gosh (moreso than any comic, especially given your interests) as it deals with a character who might be hallucinating a character and that character might also be a Indian god, etc. Its really beautiful stuff and the 2-page afterword by Milligan would be of interest to you because the RAW influences and 90’s quantum High Weirdness are evident in almost every sentence he uses to describe what he created in those 50-odd pages.
    I definitely don’t consider myself a comics scholar but you might be interested in a short assemblage/blog post I made for a friends comic site involving an imaginary comic book syllabus:
    My straight-laced comic friends found that post weird, “your deep-cuts”, as one of them described it.
    The distinction you made in pointing out how discussions of comics tend to be either Criticism/Legitimation helped me realize an aggravation I’ve had with the major comic websites (CBR, The Beat, etc.) and small blogs alike, it’s that feeling you get from reading a music site like Pitchfork here and there over the years: “this is cool, this is lame, this is cool because metaphor-metaphor-sounds-like-a-mix-between”.
    What came to mind in your discussion of thinking about comics as a rhizome was Geoff Manaugh’s ‘BLDG BLOG’ (
    Manaugh’s formula (which he may not have created but has definitely perfected over the years) involves an architectural factoid/news bit +literary/comic plot or style = an imagined landscape, not saying “in the future x will happen”, but, “imagine a future in which…..”. I know some hardcore Foucaldians don’t like his style but it’s an interesting assemblage style.
    As for any ideas that might help with your Deleuze/comic-machinic-phylum, I don’t have anything of significance to offer at the time (hence the late response, I was letting my brain stew but nothing arose). But here’s one I’ll throw out for you, do you know of any specific Jungian or Freudian readings of the Marvel or DC Universes? It seems like if it was attempted the Jungian would come across as legitimation (I’m thinking similar to Morrison’s ‘Supergods’ philosophy) and the Freudian as a criticism of normative culture and desire.
    Anyways, thanks again for the response. Keep it up. Cheers.

    Leif from Santa Cruz

  • Richard Reynolds

    Very intrigued to read that you are using Deleuze and Guattari’s work to interpret the superhero genre. I am currently trying to do the same thing myself. Maybe we can discuss this further…
    Richard Reynolds

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