Report on the Superheroes Beyond Conference (December 2018)

22 Apr

By Vincent Tran


On the 6-8 of December 2018, the Superheroes Beyond Conference took place at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne. Organised by the Superheroes and Me research group of Angela Ndalianis, Liam Burke and Ian Gordon, and part of a larger project funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC), the conference was built on the crux of going “beyond out-dated definitions of superheroes”, stemming from the costumed heroes of the 1940s. Running alongside the conference was also the exhibition on Cleverman (2016 -), an Aboriginal superhero television show as well as the Superheroes: Realities Collide virtual reality experience, also organised by Superheroes and Me, allowing participants to explore the streets of Melbourne as a superhero in VR. Across these three days over 50 presenters expanded and enriched the dialogue on superheroes, all in a collaborative effort to hopefully shift the direction of future research to new uncharted ground. Through exploring international examples, historical antecedents, real life super-heroism, on top of a multitude of perspectives, these presentations opened up the discussion beyond the white male caped crusader.

Embodying the spirit of the conference, the esteemed Trina Robbins gave the opening keynote. Acclaimed for her activism for women in comics, inductee of the Will Eisner Hall of Fame and the first woman to draw Wonder Woman, Robbins gave a stimulating presentation brazenly titled “Wonder Woman: Lesbian or Dyke? – Paradise Island as a Woman’s Community”. Robbins’ keynote would be indicative of many of the presentations to come as she traversed through the portrayal of Wonder Woman through her long publication history. Robbins charted the shift from the lesbian undertones infused in Wonder Woman’s conception to her depowerment in the 1970s, to the overt sexualization of the character in the 1990s. Coupled with her own experiences both within the mainstream industry and underground comics, Robbins’ keynote called for a re-examination of these iconic heroes through a vast array of perspectives, whether historical, academic or anecdotal. This, in turn, would be the ethos that the speakers would continue to expand on and explore over the following days. Whilst unapologetically scathing of aspects of both the comic book industry and community, Robbins ended her keynote in an uplifting declaration that there exists no better time than now to be in comics for women and men alike, whether as creators or consumers. In doing so, Robbins’ finished in superhero fashion: with a statement that through the adversity of change, there comes a brighter tomorrow.

Following Robbins’ keynote, parallel sessions would run for the rest of the day, covering a vast array of topics, ending with a Cleverman panel. Bertha Chin, Taylor Hardwick and John McGuire followed Robbins’ suit in their panel titled simply “Superwomen”. Together, the three exposed the complex representations of women as super: from the analysis of social media and the interactivity between fandom and actor to the stereotypical and oversexualised representation of women in Japanese manga as well as the reduced role of female superheroes following 9/11. Alongside this, Andrew Lynch and Jared Orth explored the visual representation of the superhero on television in their panel. Lynch argued that superhero TV tended to eschew the colourful comic book costumes for a more subdued “realistic” representation across Smallville (2001 – 2011), the Marvel Netflix shows, the CW Arrowverse and FX’s Legion (2017). Similarly, Orth used Legion to suggest the show built a lexicon of colour from its sets to costumes as a means of conveying the varying mental states and emotions that the show often blurred between.

The sessions that continued would equally break new ground. Emil M. Flores, Maria Lorena Santos and Ana Micaela Chua Manansala, all hailing from the University of the Philippines, would elucidate the under-researched topic of Filipino superheroes. Each cross-examined the importance of textual examples within the political and historical landscape of the Philippines, expounding the importance of their superheroes with national culture and identity. Octavia Cade, Ian Gordon and Henry Kamerling focused their efforts on the monsters depicted within comic books. Cade’s research brought up the moral quandary of economic responsibility, recontextualizing the portrayal of the mutant from monster to defender. Gordon reviewed the limited attempts at satire in superhero comics of the 1950s and 1960s with Bizzaro, while Kamerling used the backdrop of the repeal of the Comics Code Authority to call for a redefinition of monsters and superheroes. Together, these two sessions illuminated these relatively under-researched fields, both transnationally and historically.

Capping off the final sessions of the day, Liam Burke, Lars Konzack and Angela Ndalianis began the first of two panels centred on superheroes around the world. Lead by interviews with over 100 fans, Burke’s research questioned why local Australian creators avoided the creation of Australian superheroes, also identifying a shift towards Australian-created superheroes that challenge the typical and prolonged stereotype of Australian characters in superhero comics. Both Konzack and Ndalianis took their research past local shores, with Konzack detailing an untranslated Danish Superman story contrasting the differing ideologies between American and European superheroes. Ndalianis sought to explain the lack of American style superheroes in Italian media, by describing how Italian heroes sought to be more trans-genre, often being genre hybrids. Concurrent to this, Katherine Cox, Adam Daniel and Julian Novitz interrogated the notion of life, age and death across superhero comics, film and literature. Cox revealed the paradoxical logic of superheroes fighting for a future they can’t live in and used All-New Wolverine (2018) as an example of superheroes moving past this crisis. Daniel investigated how modern superhero texts modify and recapitulate the ideas of the death of superhero characters through their tendency to never die and the subversions within the genre. Tying together these papers, Novitz carefully articulated and contrasted the approaches of aging in popular superhero comics with the inevitable pessimism of aging and super heroics found in superhero literary novels such as Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity Rainbow (1973), Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children (1981) and Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude (2003).

What the papers of the first day showed was a dedicated and persistent approach to move research to more inclusive representation, transhistorically and transnationally. This was arguably shown best by the first public event of the conference, with the cast and crew of the Aboriginal-led Australian superhero series, Cleverman (2016-). Creator Ryan Griffen was joined by actress Tamala Shelton (Alinta West in the series) and Uncle Gary Williams, who with many others, worked on the translations for Cleverman into the Gumbaynggirr language. Griffen discussed the importance of maintaining cultural integrity to his people and the inspirations he drew from to make the series. Uncle Gary brought forth both the difficulties of the translation process and the bridge which the series created between the Aboriginal elders and youths. Alongside the Cleverman exhibition, all three echoed the sentiment that the story of Cleverman “had to be told”. This served as a great finale for the first day, pushing the presenters to continue to explore what was always there, but not seen.

The second day of the conference began very much like the first, with a keynote that campaigned for moving beyond the dated interpretations of superheroes as a means of transformation and exploration. Award winning scholar, writer and documentary filmmaker Dr Sheena C. Howard took the stage with infectious energy that first advocated the ability of comics to explore social issues and change. Howard journeyed through the difficulties of researching The Boondocks (1996 – 2006) comic strip from an academic standpoint due to the lack of recognition and legitimacy of the comic academic field. Howard also lamented the sheer difficulty of finding any literature on African Americans in the comics field, which prompted her to forward the notion that African Americans had to be represented within the history and tapestry of American comics. The discussion that followed explored the perceived lack of diversity within DC Comics and Marvel relative to the large gamut of non-superhero comics. In closing, Howard emphatically pushed for passion and acceptance in the field, reciting the mantra that so long as one believes in oneself, one can achieve anything.

Continuing from the work and tone set by the speakers of the previous day, the second day saw a just as diverse range of panels. Sameera Durrani, Esther De Dauw, Enrique Uribe-Jongbloed, Hernán David Espinosa-Medina and Brian Yecies began the discussion in the second of two panels on transnational superheroes, exploring the dynamism of change and representation of superheroes from Pakistan, Belgium, Colombia and Korea. Similarly, Djoymi Baker led her group in a dialogue on superheroes as mythology. Baker reflected on the challenges and benefits of teaching Wonder Woman as an interdisciplinary subject, crossing both classical and screen studies. Neal Curtis illustrated the ways in which we can redefine superheroes under a mythic lens through the use of origin stories and meta-textuality. Luke Stickles gave a comedic and energetic paper on the power of historical documents to transform into myth with Brad Webb similarly giving an illuminating examination of the metamorphosis of Australian icon Ned Kelly from ruthless criminal to pop culture hero.

The afternoon would see the dialogue shift towards gender and reality. Francezca C. Kwe, Julie B. Jolo and Clem Bastow took to pioneering representations of resistance against oppression. Kwe and Jolo brought forth the usage of Filipino heroes as a symbol and voice of oppressed women in the face of a fascist regime. Following them, Bastow emphasised how the ultraviolence of R-Rated superhero movies such as Deadpool (2016) and Logan (2017) was a site of gender liberation for female and queer characters. Meanwhile, John McGuire presented his joint work with Vlad Iouchkov on a detailed comparative study of the real-life superhero movement and superheroes on the page. Martyn Pedler inquisitively showed the growing trend for screen representations of superheroes to regularly abandon the trope of the secret identity whilst Bailey Smith also tackled superheroes on the screen, revealing how these characters explore the dichotomy of everyday heroism and epic heroism. Closing the panels of the day, Jack Teiwes provokingly demonstrated how films such as Kick-Ass (2010) and Super (2010) enable representations of marginalized groups suffering from mental illness.

The second day would end with two public events, first with an industry panel of Australian comic creators. Moderated by Liam Burke, the panel was comprised of DC and Marvel writer, Tom Taylor; editor-in-chief of Australian publishing house Gestalt, Wolfgang Bylsma; comic book artist Nicola Scott; and interactive comic creator Sutu. Discussion pivoted around the differences between working from Australia and outside Australia and, more poignantly, the representation of Australia within comics both locally and abroad. Each and every one of them lamented the fact that few Australians are represented on screen or on the page in superherodom and therefore the importance of representation each one of them contributed. This was followed with an extended interview with the opening keynote, Trina Robbins, conducted by fellow Wonder Woman artist Nicola Scott. Robbins took the audience through an eclectic history of her career, befitting of any epic origin story. This journey through Robbins’ first encounter with comics, to working in underground comics and drawing Wonder Woman and finally to her creation of the Wimmen’s Comix anthology and co-founding the Friends of Lulu group for women in comics, was a small glimpse into the life of a pioneer and activist. Robbins’ interview concluded the day in the manner in which Howard had started it: with an enthusiasm for the future and change.

Heading into the third day, the panels coalesced many of the points highlighted throughout the conference. Mitchell Adams, Max Bledstein, Aidan Diamond and Darren Fisher led the Comic Book Heroes panel. Adams engagingly examined the complex nature of intellectual property with regards to DC and Marvel, whilst Bledstein illuminated the 1950s Abraham Lincoln comics as a means of mythologizing the late US president. Diamond and Fisher would close the panel, examining the ways in which superheroes recontextualize notions of the socio-political landscape and the fluidity of identity respectively. Taking things to the big screen, Jessica Balanzategui began the superhero movies panel, unwrapping M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable (2000), compellingly arguing it as a millennial puzzle superhero film. Hollie Fitzmaurice persuasively delivered a paper contrasting the effects of a non-traditional origin story in Mark Millar’s Kingsman (2012 -) and in its American mainstream contemporaries. Tara Lomax’s work traced and charted the history of superhero film serials. Lomax demonstrated the long tradition of adapting superheroes from the classical Hollywood era and called for a recontextualization of study in this under-researched field. Like Lomax, Thomas Stockdale presented on the woefully research-deficient topic of fight choreography. With his experience as a fight choreographer, Stockdale laid out a foundational framework for how to conceptualize fight choreography: he suggested that rather than mere spectacle, fights convey character meaning.

The subsequent panels would heavily expound on ideas of diversity and representation. Steven Conway and Sebastian Svegaard tackled the digital representation of masculinity. Conway insightfully revealed the reinterpretation of toxic masculinity of Kratos and Baldur in the God of War (2018) video game, whereas Svegaard presented his work on “vids” (remixed music videos in fandom) to critique the various presentations of masculinities in Marvel fandom. Mike Cooper and Darshana Jayemanne rounded off this panel with Cooper probing the difficulties of creating superhero video games in which players have the agency to create their own super-characters and Jayemanne thoughtfully presenting the intersections of diachronic and synchronic temporality in digital games and the ways in which they represent refugee stories. This panel ran parallel to the equally thought-provoking panel on diversity in superheroes. Andrea Chan discussed the lack of Asian representation within the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), revealing that the strongest representations were found on Marvel’s television series instead and provocatively asking “will Asian superheroes ever have their Black Panther moment?”. Naja Later engaged with the cyclical nature of comic book seriality and Marvel’s recent advocacy for diversity of non-white female characters taking the mantle of their white male namesakes. Later questioned whether the push for a reestablishment of the status quo would ever allow sustained modes of diversity. This panel would be closed by Alexandra Ostrowski Schilling, who moved the focus from gender and race to disability. Schilling outlined the MCU’s prevailing tendency to treat disability as a weakness, with it being a rite of passage before one acquires their superpowers. In doing so Schilling emphasized that the MCU reinforced damaging narratives of disabilities.

Heading into the final panels of the conference was the much-anticipated Black Panther panel. John Craig brought forth a loud declaration that in each one of numerous African American institutions existed their own individual “Wakanda”. Drawing on the theory of Afrofuturisim, Craig powerfully argued that these different Wakandas enable the African American diaspora to do more than just struggle against oppression: they also make it possible to build a better future. Dan Golding expertly examined the music of the movie, revealing the hybridity of cultures, styles and genres, as well as the history of homogenising African music across Hollywood often performed by white musicians. Aaron Humphrey paralleled the publication of The Black Panther, a weekly newsletter of the Black Panther Party, and the rise of the Black Panther superhero. Humphrey showed how both texts shared a push for heroism, struggle and conflict, with both uniting in their construction of African American identities. Diana Sandars concluded the panel with a detailed study of the film’s chief antagonist, Erik Killmonger, arguing that the villain was representative of the monstrous child in a post-colonial context. Meanwhile, three papers comprised the other panel on shared universes. Michael Kobre argued that the emergence of the shared universe in early superhero comics was a key convention of the genre, going on to explore how the shared universe of comics have transformed into the most self-reflexive genre to-date. My paper, which dealt with the history of shared universes, followed, arguing that there is an academic tendency to overstate and over research shared universes in superhero comics and eschew the many other examples of shared universe in other media and genre. Tomasz Zaglewske tied together the panel, through a thorough examination of the Hanna-Barbera shared universe which revealed the parallels with Marvel and DC’s universes, the animated adaptations as well as the change in the contemporary Hanna-Barbera universe.

Wrapping up the conference was the public Superheroes Identities panel. Sheena Howard and Trina Robbins were joined by Aboriginal cosplayer and Indigenous Comic-Con Coordinator Cienan Muir and Theatre performer Brian Tilley. The fruitful discussion which followed asked the panel to consider what their “origin stories” were with superheroes, their positions as outcasts and using comics as a medium to find themselves. In a declaration surmising the conference, Howard emphasised, rather than representing the extreme ends of the spectrum, a more diverse variety in between was what would move the medium and genre forward for everyone involved.

The three days of the Superheroes Beyond conference held true to its namesake. Academics from around the world crystallised the transnational, transmedial and transcultural nature of this genre, pushing forward with research that brought into the limelight what was under-researched and gave a voice to what was under-represented. Like the very heroes this conference attempted to move beyond, the conference ended with a ringing endorsement for wider study and appreciation.

Vincent Tran is a PhD candidate at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. He completed his Honours thesis at the University of Melbourne, researching into the construction of The CW’s Arrowverse and examining the translation of the shared universe from comic book to television. His doctoral research focuses on the history, rise and proliferation of the shared universe from 19th century literature to the current day. His investigation looks into the strategies through which shared universes have been developed throughout modern history and texts, as well as building a framework to classify the shared universe and its many different permutations.


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