Report on the Superhero Identities Symposium (December 2016)

27 Feb

By Naja Later

Organised by the Australian Research Grant-supported Superheroes & Me research team, the Superheroes Identities Symposium ran at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne on 8-9 December 2016. The symposium hosted over 50 speakers whose research questioned what defines superheroes and how superheroes define us. With a wide range of panels, speakers, events and attendees, the symposium created a dynamic environment in which new frontiers of superhero research collided and collaborated with wonderful possibilities for the future.


The symposium began with two rousing keynotes. The first was from Professor Henry Jenkins—rather an academic superhero himself. Jenkins described how superheroes could engage with civic imagination. From Robin Hood to Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel), Jenkins brought forth the heroic in superheroes. Jenkins charted how fans are appropriating the social justice ethos and imagery of superheroes as tools for activism and he argued that the imaginative genres of superheroes and science fiction are essential to conceptualising a more just society. He emphasised that superheroes have made us think about both powers and responsibilities. This keynote set a scene for all speakers to highlight in their work how we might understand the subjects of our research as socially powerful. At the beginning of the symposium and the end of 2016, Jenkins could not have chosen a better moment to remind us that in the face of irresponsibility and powerlessness, we need superheroes more than ever.

Following Jenkins’ address, Batgirl writer Hope Larson gave a keynote as a Q&A with writer and critic Martyn Pedler. Larson shifted the perspective to the creative and the personal, tracing her own creative history and process across a number of genres. As she described her work retrospectively, she noted the challenges in recognising one’s ‘signature,’ but remarked upon the striking recognition she had of herself coming forth through her stories. She reframed the potential limitations—working for a large company, writing stories for a long-standing character, sustaining genre conventions—as helpful for creativity. Both Larson and Jenkins illuminated and framed for the symposium the connections between the personal and the public through the superhero.

The sessions that followed organised panels dynamically: some on regional identities; some on media; some grouped by tropes of the genre. Only one panel was unified by a single superhero: Jessica Jones and her eponymous Netflix series (2015-). Papers by Nicholas William Moll, Grace Gipson, Verity Trott, and Andrew Lynch examined how the show engaged with issues of abuse and rape culture through the lens of the superhero genre. Gipson and Trott presented compelling close studies of the parallels between real trauma and the narrative of the first season of Jessica Jones: Gipson traced the aftermath of trauma as played out across the episodes, while Trott highlighted the subtext of rape culture personified by villain Kilgrave. Moll and Lynch approached the television series in relation to the comics and to quality television respectively.

Leading comics scholars Bart Beaty, Ian Gordon and Ben Saunders delivered a panel on the untold histories of superhero comic books with papers that provided fresh insights into the early years of costumed crime fighters. The following session’s papers ranged from supervillains to global superpowers. Jason Bainbridge led the supervillain panel in defining the archetype on legal and ideological lines, while Jessica Balanzategui followed with a study of aesthetic transformations from beautiful actors into grotesque supervillains onscreen. Meanwhile, the first of two panels dedicated to national and regional identities contrasted studies of Captain America by Neal Curtis and Joyleen Christensen, with Australian superhero culture researched by Aaron Humphrey and Amy Louise Maynard. Curtis’ work interrogated the meaning of patriotism, contrasting Captain America’s New Deal Democrat ideologies with the rise of fascism in the character and the country he represents. Christensen researched the role of the fan in using Captain America for his or her own purposes, constructing his or her identity as the character has evolved over 75 years. In the panel on fandom, Angela Ndalianis demonstrated the growing number of female superheroes and female fans, calling for further scholarly attention in this area. The papers of the first day built a framework for approaching superheroes in ways that connect representation to identity, medium to content, history to future, politics to entertainment and genre to ideology.

Having forged a strong grounding in researching superheroes and identities, the symposium’s second day explored how this work could be used to develop the field going forward. Chris Comerford and Matt Nielsen outlined projects to trace Marvel’s growing representations of diversity in comics and cinema. Both are initiating research to closely trace how new female characters of colour such as Ms Marvel and Ironheart are reaching and impacting on new audiences. Mitchell Adams and Tara Lomax highlighted the significance of intellectual property law and its impact on the future possibilities of superhero franchising. Lomax used superhuman law in the She-Hulk and Spider-Man comics to discuss how Marvel’s licensing laws continue to shape our understanding of Spider-Man today. A fascinating close study of feminist and ecofeminist ideology in the character of Poison Ivy was offered by Victoria Tedeschi, demonstrating the critical attention necessary to accurately follow the changing role of women in superhero comics. Tedeschi drew on contrasts between Batman and Poison Ivy in comics, suggesting intersectional ways in which environmentalist and feminist ideologies are put forward in the comic, but still controlled and defeated by Batman.

A panel on superhero bodies brought a similarly focused approach, exploring intricacies and intersections of genre tropes to discuss their impact on fluidity, hybridity, and futurity. Moving from the grotesque super-body to utopian and dystopian world-states, Henry Kamerling discussed his research on zombies, superheroes and zombie superheroes. Evie Kendal presented a reading of Superman from the perspective of a bioethicist, focusing on ectogenisis (‘growing babies in tanks’) and how, through its conflation with eugenics in superhero narratives and popular discourse, the process comes to be perceived as ethical or unethical. Michael Kobre’s work traced the history of superhero bodies using theories of monstrosity. Kobre discussed how the popular tropes of transformation, and anxiety over the fluidity of bodies, might be read as a defiance of stasis and fixity. Kobre and Kamerling’s concern was over the status quo and whether its restoration suggested a conservative ideology or whether the boundaries pushed by the narratives of monstrosity embedded the potential for change. Recalling Jenkins’ argument that imaginative genres are essential tools for exploring and mapping our real futures, all three papers considered how superhero media allows for the pushing of boundaries in both genre and society.

The final session of the symposium began with Pia Pandelakis, whose design project looks at the significance of the super-object. Pandelakis presented a compelling analysis of identity construction through the costumes, weaponry and set dressing of superheroes. Pandelakis’ work on materiality traced the costume’s transformation from ink (in comics) to fabric (in movies), emphasising design as a key field in the fundamental superhero narrative of making the impossible possible. Following this were two papers on Batman from Martyn Pedler and Matt Halton, engaging with complex issues in comics continuity surrounding memory (for both the reader and the superhero), trauma and temporality. My own paper followed similar trends in Captain America, tracing the trope of unreliable narrators and its potential to invite progressive readings, thus shifting the narrator’s identity from writer to character to reader.

Following the sessions, two public events closed the symposium. The first was a ‘Women In Comics’ panel, discussing ways to further represent women as characters, creators, critics and readers in the medium of comics. The panel included Hope Larson; Wonder Woman artist Nicola Scott; All-New Wolverine writer Tom Taylor; PhD researcher Sarah Richardson; and myself (in my capacity as organiser of the Women In Comics Festival). Discussion focused on how to make women welcome in comics spaces, from comic book shops to conventions and major publishing houses. Larson and Richardson highlighted comics beyond the genre of superheroes and how their approach to representing women is moving steps ahead. Scott and Taylor discussed integrity as creators, contrasting ways to approach projects to get the best from them. Batman: The Animated Series writer Paul Dini was the focus of a public interview (chaired by conference organiser Liam Burke), which closed the symposium. Longtime fans were able to ask Dini about his creative processes and the legacy characters such as Harley Quinn have had in pop culture since he introduced them. The Q&A was an excellent demonstration of how superheroes come to shape our personal identities and, in doing so, our culture.

The plurality of the symposium’s titular ‘identities’ was fundamental in conceptualising the cornucopia of research presented during the sessions. Approaches that were international, inter-disciplinary and intermedial created highly dynamic and productive intersections for future research in the field. The symposium promises to return as a conference in years to come, leaving the delegates on a truly superheroic note of a field only just beginning to discover its true powers.

Dr Naja Later is a researcher and sessional lecturer at the University of Melbourne. She researches intersections between pop culture and politics, with a focus on superhero and horror genres. Her most recent publications study this phenomenon in NBC’s Hannibal, Blade (1998), Captain America comics, and the Slender Man folklore. She organises the All Star Women’s Comic Book Club and the Women in Comics Festival.


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