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Tapping into Parallel Universes: Using Superhero Comic Books in Sociology Courses

Author(s): Kelley J. Hall and Betsy Lucal


Reviewed work(s):
Source: Teaching Sociology, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Jan., 1999), pp. 60-66
Published by: American Sociological Association
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TAPPINGINTO PARALLELUNIVERSES:
USINGSUPERHEROCOMICBOOKSIN SOCIOLOGYCOURSES*
KELLEYJ. HALL

BETSYLUCAL

Collegeof WilliamandMary

Bend
IndianaUniversity-South

TEACHINGSOCIOLOGYREMINDS US in each issue


that sociology instructorsneed not follow the
traditionalteaching model of lecturing to a
captive audience. Fiction, film, and music
are popular culture media that have been
suggested as means for establishing links
between sociology and the "real world"
outside our classrooms (Laz 1996; Loewen
1991; Martinez 1995; Pescosolido 1990).
Given the visibility of comic book characters
in American culture, it is surprising that
more sociologists have not looked to comic
books as anotherresource for teaching.
A common goal in teaching is to connect
the parallel universes of sociology and everyday life to show studentsthe relevance of
the sociological perspective. Sociology provides a unique perspective on popularculture items such as comic books. By using
comic books in class, instructorscan provide
students with an illustration of how sociology is applicable even in places where they
may least expect it to be relevant. As a
"universe" within everyday life, and an
accessible medium, comic books can provide illustrationsof a variety of sociological
concepts and topics. Their stories and settings parallel life, offering an analytical

milieu that, while exaggerated in some


ways, shows some of the same phenomena
that exist in contemporaryculture. Incorporating the exercise we present below provides an easy way to give students some
hands-on experience "doing" sociology and
some further insight into the pertinence of a
sociological perspective.
In this note, we provide objectives and
guidelines for preparing and executing a
classroom exercise using superhero comic
books. We describe variations of the exercise and make specific suggestions about
how to use it in different sociology courses.
Finally, we discuss where to obtain comic
books and the costs involved in purchasing
them.

thankLauraNichols,RebeccaErickson,
"*We
ChristineRobinson,EmiliaLombardi,and the
anonymousreviewers for their comments on this
note. A previous version of this paper was
presented at the annual meetings of the North

CentralSociologicalAssociationin April 1995.

Please address correspondenceto either Kelley


J. Hall at the Departmentof Sociology, College

VA 23187;
of WilliamandMary,Williamsburg,
or Betsy Lucal
e-mail:kjhall@facstaff.wm.edu
of Sociology,IUSB,P.O. Box
at theDepartment
7111, SouthBend,IN 46634;
e-mail: BLUCAL@IUSB.EDU
Editor's note: The reviewers were Cheryl

andLinHuff-Corzine.
Laz,AnnaKarpathakis,

COMIC BOOK GENRES


What comes to mind when someone mentions comic books?' Archies. Dennis the
Menace. Horror. Superheroes. Westerns.
Several different genres of comic books are
available to use in sociology classes. Some
genres contain sophisticatedstories tied into
mythology, literature, or philosophy and
include themes that may be appropriatefor
discussing the sociology of science or
knowledge (e.g., Vertigo titles from DC
'For some people, "comic books" or
"comics"may conjureup imagesof newspaper
comic strips, like Blondie or Calvin and Hobbes.
Unlike comic strips, which consist of a few
panels in a daily newspaper,comic books consist

of multiplepagesandpanelsthattell a story,or
at least a series of vignettes,from monthto
month. In this article, we use "comic books,"

to refer
"comics,"and "books"interchangeably
told by a sequenceof picto those "narratives
tures, with the dialoguein the form of speech
balloons" (Harvey 1996:3) that are published

monthly.

Teaching Sociology, Vol. 27, 1999 (January:60-66)

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60

COMIC BOOKS IN SOCIOLOGY COURSES


Comics). Others, like Richie Rich and Uncle
Scrooge of Walt Disney cartoons, include
themes of class, capitalism, and privilege.
While these genres (and others) may be used
successfully in sociology courses and are
certainly worthy of analysis, our discussion
will focus on the genre that we have used in
our courses: superhero comics. We do not
intend to present an exhaustive report on
comic books-the medium is too expansive.
(See Benton 1989 and Harvey 1996 for
histories of comic books.) Rather, based on
our experiences, we suggest that instructors
of sociology can utilize superhero comic
books with some creative effort to obtain
positive outcomes, including imaginativesociological insights and lively discussions.

Superheroes
Superherocomics are the most widely published and familiar type of comic book.
Batman, Spider-man, and Superman are a
few of the most familiar examples. Superhero comic books tend to focus on the
exploits of one character and her or his
supporting cast (e.g., Wonder Woman,
Spawn, and Incredible Hulk) or a team of
superheroes (e.g., Justice League, X-Men,
and WildC.A.T.S.). Superhero team books
work especially well for this exercise because they include a variety of charactersfor
students to analyze. Regardless of the number of main characters, superhero books
tend to focus on adventure, including scenes
with physical action (i.e., battles, chases,
etc.), violence (i.e., fighting, punching,
kicking, etc.), weapons (i.e., blasters,
claws, fists, swords, etc.), and good versus
evil (or good versus good until they learn
they are fighting the same enemy). The
characters featured in these books tend to
wear colorful, tight, or armored costumes,
and they typically have bulging muscles and
oversized body parts. We have found that
superherocomics provide a wealth ofpossibilities for sociological analysis.2 The next
section discusses the specific ways that instructors can use these books in their
courses.

61
USINGCOMICBOOKS
IN THE CLASSROOM

The overarching goal of using comic books


in sociology courses is to engage students'
sociological imaginationwith an overlooked,
accessible cultural artifact-a comic book.
As part of our culture, comic books (and the
industry itself) present a number of social
phenomena, including gender, race, and
sexual inequality or stratification, and violence. Intentionallyand unintentionally,superhero comic books also reflect cultural
assumptions about gender and American
values (e.g., individualism). In this section,
we offer suggestions for using comic books
in a variety of courses. Since we first developed our approachto using comic books in a
course on the sociology of gender, we describe two versions of an exercise we used
in this course. Then, we give suggestions for
using comics in courses on inequality, methods, and introductorysociology.

Sociologyof Gender
We first developed this exercise as a means
for studentsto examine portrayalsof gender
in popular culture. We have found that this
exercise gives students an opportunity to
consider the social construction of gender.
Questions that studentscan address include:
How would you characterize the male and
female characters' appearances? How are
2A second,extremelypopular,genrethat instructorscouldalso use is the "badgirl"genre.
Frequently
producedby smallcompanypresses,
thesebookshavethe sameadventureandaction
of superherocomics, but the maincharacteris
always a busty, thin-waisted,scantily clad
woman. The "bad girl" women are usually
ninjas, sorceresses,vampires,or vigilantesof
some sort. A few "badgirls"are: LadyDeath,
Vampirella,Shi, and Dawn. "Badgirl" books
frequentlydepictwomenin sexualposes (i.e.,
receptiveto sexual advanceswith legs spread)
more so than mainstreamsuperherobooks
(though mainstreamsuperhero books have
tendedtowardthesedepictionssince "badgirls"
hit the scene). We have not used "bad girl"
comicsin ourclasses.

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62

TEACHINGSOCIOLOGY

their appearances comparable to cultural


expectations for feminine and masculineappearance? How are cultural assumptions
about the qualities that characterizewomanhood and manhood reflected in the portrayals of the characters?
The exercise can also be used to examine
portrayalsof gendered sexuality. Depending
on the comic book, the women may portray
stereotypical, seductive, submissive, or innocent "feminine"sexuality, while the men
may portray stereotypical, confident, aggressive, and violent "masculine"sexuality.
Also, superhero comic book characters are
nearly always depicted as heterosexual.
Only on occasion is a supporting character
openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Using
course materials as a guide (e.g., Connell
1995; Disch 1997; Lorber 1994), students
could read comic books with an eye toward
cultural assumptions about sexuality. Questions that studentscan address include: How
do the depictions of femininity and masculinity correspond to the prevalence of
heterosexuality in the comic book? What
roles do characters' sexualities play in progressing the story?
Our main objective in using this exercise
in courses on gender is to provide students
with the opportunity to examine popular
culture's depictions of gender. We also use
the exercise to complementclass discussions
of cultural images of women and men. The
exercise gives students a chance to see the
relationship between information presented
in class and an actual culturalartifact.Completing this exercise shows students that the
informationthey have learned in the classroom does exist in the "real world."
We have used two different versions of the
exercise in gender courses. The first version
is fairly structured, involving response
sheets and multiplecopies of the same comic
books. The second version is more openended and does not require multiple copies
of the same books.3
3If youchooseto havemultiplecopiesof a few

differentissues,eachcomicbookshouldhavea
page numbersomewhereon each page. Since
pages are frequentlynot numbered,you may

The first version of the exercise uses a


response sheet prepared by the instructor
that guides students' observations of the
comic books. To create a response sheet,
look througheach comic book and select six
to nine charactersthat appear frequently or
look like they would generate critique from
students. If the book does not contain
enough characters,you may have to select a
minor character(e.g., a secretary in one or
two panels) or a generalized group of characters (e.g., women in a bar). The number
of different charactersthat appear is worth
considering when choosing books for the
exercise. You will, of course, need to prepare a response sheet for each differentbook
that the class uses.
Once you have chosen the characters, list
each character'sname, a brief descriptionof
her or his appearance,and the page of her or
his first appearance. For example: Female
Character 1 (Phaser-red/blue costume,
white hair; p. 1). Allow space for students
to write their observationsof each character
and for additional comments at the end of
the response sheet. Providedbelow is a copy
of our instructions:
Oneat a time, describethe designatedcharacters in the comicbook. Considertheirappearance, their actions, their dialogue, their
and any other facet of their
"super-power,"
depictionthatstandsout to you. Thereare six
characterswho may or may not appearmore
thanonce duringthe story. Eachcharacteris
listedon this worksheetin the orderof her or
his firstappearance.
After reading the instructionsand answering any questions, give them 25 to 35 minutes to read the comic book and to fill out
their response sheets. Spend the remaining
class time discussing their observations. In
longer classes (70 to 90 minutes), students
with the same book have time to gather in
haveto numbereachpageby hand.Numbering
characeachpagehelps studentsfind particular
ters or situations,and it facilitatesclass discusdirectattention
sionas the studentsor instructor
to specificpages.

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COMICBOOKSIN SOCIOLOGYCOURSES

63

varietyof applicationsfor researchmethods


groupsto discusstheircomicbooks.
In the open-endedversionof the exercise, courses.For introductory
sociologycourses,
students receive one or two books instructorscan use the exerciseto comple(dependingon the size of the course) to mentthe discussionof gender.
examine.Theymustconsiderthe imagesof
andwomen/femininity
that SocialInequality
men/masculinity
examine
Thereare a numberof uses for comicbooks
in
the
As
students
books.
appear
the books,theymaytalkin groups,showing in social inequalitycourses. If directedto
and/orsexualorientaeach other the images in their books and notetherace/ethnicity
comic
with
the
same
tion
of
book
others
books
to
look
characters,studentswill
directing
at particularpages. The instructorcan also noticethatthe charactersare predominantly
join this discussionand direct studentsto whiteandusuallyheterosexual.Withcourse
specificpages and images. Studentsreceive readingsas a guide (e.g., Andersenand
15 to 20 minutesto examinethe book and Collins 1995; Feagin and Vera 1995; Omi
make notes on their observations.After andWinant1994), studentscouldthengo on
completingthe exercise, studentsmay be to examine the assumptions,stereotypes,
askedto writeshortpaperson theirobserva- and relationshipsbetween different social
tions and relate them to course materials. groups.
Studentscan also examinediscrimination
Instructors
can also use the exerciseas part
of a class discussionof culturalimages of andprejudicethroughcomicbooks,particuwomenandmen.
larlyin X-Mentitles.Thepremiseof X-Men
Our students'responsesto the exercise is that some individualsare born with gesuggest that it works well as part of a netic mutationsthatgive themsuper-human
sociologyof gendercourse.Students-espe- powers. "Normal"humanbeings generally
andtry to avoid, control,or
cially those unfamiliarwith comic books-- fear "mutants"
senThe anti-mutant
are frequentlysurprisedto see the portrayal eradicatemutant-kind.
of women and men. Any time we have timentin X-Mentitleseasily correspondsto
facilitatedthis exercise, at least one student institutional and everyday racism,
in eachclassinvariablypointsout a detail--a (hetero)sexism, homophobia, and antisnippetof dialogue, a phallic logo on the Semitism.Possibly more useful in uppercover, the predominantlymale production level race relationsor gendercourses(e.g.,
staff,the sexualpositioningof weapons-we Carson et al. 1991; Frye 1983), X-Men
had not heard before. Withoutfail, class titles also demonstratethe politicsof sepadiscussionsareenergetic,critical,andenter- ratism and assimilationas various mutant
taining. Studentsenjoy this exercise and leaderstryto findsolutionsto thehatredand
consistentlymake insightful and creative ignoranceof "normal"humanbeings. Antithe manipulation
connectionsto masculinity,femininity,and mutantleadersdemonstrate
found
that
of
institutional
We
have
also
resources,
legislation, and
genderinequality.
studentsoften refer back to the exercise in violenceto rid the worldof mutant-kind.
other class discussions.For instance,in a
discussionof gender socialization,comic ResearchMethods
books (i.e., superherocomic books)some- Superherocomicbooksarenot limitedto the
times arise as an example of masculine illustrationof substantiveissues. We also
havea numberof suggestionsfor usingthem
socialization.
After successful implementationof the in research methods courses. The value of
exercisein gendercourses,we adaptedit for this exercise in a methods course is to
use in othercourses.For courseson social illustrate the methods sociologists use to
inequality,for example, superherocomic gather information. To date, three methods
bookscanillustratethemessuchas prejudice courses that have used this exercise have
anddiscrimination.
Additionally,thereare a focused on themes related to gender (i.e.,

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64

TEACHINGSOCIOLOGY

using the instruction sheets described cal perspectives.For example,the imagery,


above). Studentscould also, individuallyor storylines,and actionin comic booksproin groups, develop their own criteriaand vide a rich sourceof materialthat can be
conductcontentanalyses.They would need interpretedthroughsymbolicinteractionism
to discusssampling,operationalization,
and (e.g., symbols, meaning, and the social
of
coding-three importantcomponents re- constructionof images), conflict theory
search. They would need to address the (e.g., the conflictbetweengoodandevil and
followingquestions:Whatarethe limitations the conflictbetweendifferentsocialgroups),
of the sample of books providedby the and functionalism(e.g., what functionsdo
instructor(or broughtin by the students)? comic books and their stories serve?).Fiwithcontentareas
Whatindicatorswill be usedandwhy?
nally, used in conjunction
of
scales
such
as
violence, gender
Developing
gender,deviance,or socialinequalor
dethe
area
exercisecould providean example
stereotyping, measuringpage
ity,
voted to particulargenders could enable of how sociologistsdo their work through
of
insightfuldiscussionsof measurementand careful observationsand interpretations
of
categorizations the comicbooks. Students socialphenomenaandprovidean illustration
could countthe acts and types of violence, of themesand assumptionsrelatedto those
the ratio of male to female characters areas.
We have illustratedthe teachingpossibili(perhapsin termsof good versusevil), the
ratioof whitecharactersto otherraces, and ties comic books hold for severaldifferent
so on. Afterconductingtheiranalyses,they sociologycourses.While we have usedsucoulddiscusswaysto improvetheirresearch perherobooks, otherinstructorsmightfind
with a differentsample, improvedcoding, other genresmore useful and applicableto
their objectives.However,in order to use
andso forth.
In other words, this exercise providesa comic books in a classroom, instructors
good way for studentsto conducta small unfamiliarwiththemwill needto knowhow
research project in the classroom. This to obtain them. In the remainderof this
could be supplemented
by having students note, we describedifferentways to acquire
readsomeoutsideliteratureon comicbooks comicbooks.Giventhe potentiallyhighcost
(e.g., Pecora1992;Schmitt1992)or content of purchasingcomic books, we also offer
for obtainingthem.
analysis(e.g., Krippendorf1980; Neuman somealternatives
1994) so thatthey could get an idea of the
BUYINGTHE COMICS
typesof issuestheywantedto examinein the
books.In addition,theycouldwriteresearch
reportsbasedon theirfindings.
Findingcomicbooksis an easy task.Newsstands,pharmacies,grocerystores,and toy
storesfrequentlycarrythem. However,the
Introductionto Sociology
A numberof differentobjectives can be selectionis thinandthe totalcost is likelyto
achievedwhen using this exercisein intro- be higherthanif you wentto a comicbook
ductorycourses. First, comic books could shop or mail order company.In a comic
help studentsexaminegender,violence, or book shop,you will finda largeselectionof
some other theme (e.g., Americanvalues currentand back issue comic books. Emlike justice,freedom,or individuality).
Stu- ployees' assistancemay also proveimpordents could use comic books early in the tant, especiallyif you are unfamiliarwith
semester to receive a hands on example of
"doing" sociology. Second, after discussing
research methods and theoretical perspectives, instructorscould use this exercise to
illustrate qualitative research/contentanalysis or as an applicationof differenttheoreti-

comic books. For example, if a comic book


is fairly recent, a shop may reorder the
numberof comics you want; you might even
try asking for a discount as a teacher using
comic books in class. Although you may not
find multiple copies, you may also find

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COMIC BOOKS IN SOCIOLOGY COURSES


usefulcomic books in clearanceboxes. For
our exercises, we used local comic book
shops to find the comics we liked, and we
purchasedthemthroughmail ordercompanies.
Mail order companiesare generallythe
most inexpensiveway to get multiplecopies
of comic books. Thesebusinessessell large
quantitiesof comic books so they tend to
have sizablediscounts(25%to 40%). They
usuallyrequirea minimumpurchase(e.g.,
$50) and/orthe numberof books you must
order (e.g., five copies per issue). When
ordering,have the title and issue number
(e.g., WildC.A.T.S. 19) available. Also,
have alternatechoices in the event that
certaincomic books are unavailable.Addresses and phone numbersof mail order
in
companiescanbe foundin advertisements
comic books, price guides, and the Comic
Buyer'sGuide,a weeklynews magazinefor
comicbookcollectors.
comicbooksarenot cheap.
Unfortunately,
Cover prices range from $1.95 to $2.95.
Consideringthat each issue may have a
differentcover price, a total cost of over
$100 wouldnot be unrealisticfor a class of
50 students,especiallyif you buy themat a
newsstand,pharmacy,or store. However,
there are ways to reducethe cost. Getting
comics from a mail order companyat a
reasonablediscountwill cost about$70 (50
books x $1.95 x 35% discount+ shipping/
handling).If your departmentsupportsinventiveteachingtechniques,you might ask
for reimbursement,
arguingthatyou can use
the comics as a teachingtool for a number
of differenttopics or courses. In addition,
because comic books are durableand the
genresare not undergoingany majorstylistic changes, you can expect to use your
comics for at least three to five years.
Instructors
canalso defraythecost by asking
studentsto purchaseone comic book and
bring it to class on the day of the exercise.
You may want to instruct them to find a
superherocomic, or you may simply want to
see what they bring. This could be an analysis of its own. Similarly, you might have
your bookstore order the comic books as a

65

course text so that studentscan purchase


themeasily. Finally,instructors
couldrevise
the structureof the exerciseto minimizethe
numberof books studentshave to purchase.
Ratherthanhavinga comicfor eachstudent,
studentscould examinethemin pairsor on
an overheadas a class (this may, however,
issues).
presentlegalreproduction
CONCLUSION
As sociology instructors,we are always
seekinginnovativetechniquesto use in our
classrooms.Based on our positiveexperiences using comic books in the classroom,
we believethatcomicbooksprovidea good
sourceof creativepossibilitiesfor a variety
of coursesandcontexts.We havehadparticularlygoodexperienceswiththisexercisein
terms of gender, with studentsfrom one
courseto thenextmakingcleverconnections
between the comics, course content, and
"reallife." Colleagueswho have invitedus
to guestlectureagree,commenting
that"this
exerciserevealsthe embedded[gender]messages in the imagesby havingthe students
actuallyparticipatein the deconstruction"
and that "studentsreally like it. They are
involvedandtakeit seriously-an important
criterionfor anyin-classexercise."
As part of the everyday world, comic
booksprovidea way for instructors
to make
their courses more relevantto the world
outside the classroom.Since comic book
universes so often parallel our own universe-in exaggeratedforms,perhaps-they
can provide studentswith sociologicalinsights, as well as a chance to apply the
knowledgethey have gainedin our courses.
Withsomeplanning,a comicbook exercise
can providea glossy, action-packed
application of sociology-one that studentshave
foundto be engaging,informative,andeven
fun.
REFERENCES
andPatriciaHill Collins.
Andersen,Margaret

1995.Race, Class,andGender:AnAnthology.

CA:Wadsworth.
Belmont,

Benton,Mike. 1989. The ComicBookin Amer-

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ica: An Illustrated History. Dallas, TX: Taylor.


Carson, Clayborne, David J. Garrow, Gerald
Gill, Vincent Harding, and Darlene Clark
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Feagin, Joe R. and Hernin Vera. 1995. White
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Frye, Marilyn. 1983. The Politics of Reality:
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Crossing Press.
Harvey, Robert C. 1996. The Art of the Comic
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Krippendorf,K. 1980. ContentAnalysis. Beverly
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Laz, Cheryl. 1996. "Science Fiction and IntroductorySociology: The Handmaidin the Classroom." TeachingSociology 24:54-63.
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Kelley J. Hall is a visitingassistantprofessorof
sociologyat the Collegeof Williamand Mary. Her
researchinterestsincludethe gendereddivision of
of genderin comic
familywork and representations
books.
BetsyLucalis an assistantprofessorof sociologyat
Bend. She does researchon
IndianaUniversity-South
of gender,race, andclass andon
the interrelatedness
teachingaboutinequalities.

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