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Life lessons from comic books

04/08/2014
Andrew Milliken
Staff Writer

Two Indiana University of Pennsylvania English Department faculty recently published “Enter the Superheroes: American Values, Culture, and the Canon of Superhero Literature,” a book that makes a case for including superhero literature in the academic canon.

The authors, Drs. Gian Pagnucci and Alex Romagnoli, said they hope their book can offer a deeper examination of the men and women with incredible powers and tight, colorful outfits that currently dominate the silver screen.

The idea for the book first came to the dynamic duo of Pagnucci and Romagnoli when they attended a pop culture conference in Philadelphia to give a presentation on one of Romagnoli’s papers.

They received an email from a publisher shortly before the conference asking if they were interested in turning their presentation into a book.

“We had always been writing the book in our heads,” Romagnoli said.

Romagnoli, who recently received his doctorate, said he hoped the book – though its focus was primarily on superheroes – would be able to reach a wider audience than fans of DC and Marvel comics.

“The book is really about more than just superheroes,” Romagnoli said. “The book is for anyone who writes about or fights for art forms they feel should be included in academic discussions but aren’t. This book could be a way to make a case for that.”

The pair said that while a majority of graphic novels and comic books never see the inside of a classroom, the ones that do are usually heavily grounded in reality.

Both cited “Maus,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning mixed-genre Holocaust account, and “Persepolis,” an autobiographical account of a childhood in Iran during the Islamic Revolution, as two graphic novels that are mainstays in the academic community.

Pagnucci, however, said he believes that comic books and graphic novels dealing with superheroes like Batman and Superman deserve serious study in academic circles.

“You’ve heard of these characters,” Pagnucci said. “They’re so iconic that even if you’re not a Superman fan, you know what the ‘S’ means. You can recognize the bat symbol.

“We ought to think about why those things are so recognizable.”

Pagnucci said writing superhero literature is a little more difficult than traditional literary forms.

Reboots, essentially starting a superhero’s story over from scratch, are a unique challenge faced by comic book authors.

“How do you tell a story in a fresh way when we already know the story?” Pagnucci said.

Pagnucci also mentioned an offbeat aspect of writing comics – not typically found in traditional literature – that involves continuing a story that was previously written by several other authors.

These writers are often caught in a clash between the traditional traits of the character that he or she is working with and any new direction the writer may want.

The relationship between fans and publishers can often be calamitous, Pagnucci said.

Pagnucci cited a specific instance of a Wonder Woman television show that was shelved because the creators intended the lead actress in the show to wear pants as Wonder Woman instead of her traditional costume.

The backlash from fans of the Wonder Woman of days past was so forceful that the show didn’t happen.

Pagnucci and Romagnoli’s book raises questions applicable to academic discussion. Moral responsibility, crime and punishment, government control and personal privacy are just a few of the concepts explored by comic books and their authors, the duo said.

“Enter the Superheroes” probes deep into these issues and attempts to examine why figures like Superman, Batman, Daredevil, Iron Man and Captain America currently have a tight grip on our collective attention.

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