April 20, 2013
Posted by Danny
It’s been three years since I first I first entered the world of Academia as a lecturer for the University of Hertfordshire and, I have been progressively embracing a key concern of career academics: Research. Broadly speaking, I would like to pursue a PhD in the future, but, if my greatly desired plan of achieving a fractional post at UH comes to fruition, then annual “research outcomes” – which is to say publication of academic articles and presentations at academic conferences – will be a part of the deal. One of the particular appeals of Academia is the opportunity to engage in concerted exploration of specific subject areas and, right now, I would like nothing more than to do that with my undiluted passion for Superheroes.
Consequently, my first big stab at this is via a book – exploring Superhero costumes – that I am currently writing with a colleague, Dr. Barbara Brownie, who teaches Design and Fashion at UH’s School of Creative Arts. The book, will in turn, generate a number of potential academic papers that can be presented at Comics-focused academic conferences, be they national or international. Rather excitingly, last week, Barbara and I received word that a paper we submitted had has been accepted for presentation at the 2nd Global Conference on Graphic Novels, to be held in Oxford, , from Sunday 22nd September to Tuesday 24th September. Hurrah! Here’s the abstract we submitted:
Negotiating Ordinariness and Otherness: Superman, Clark Kent and the superhero masquerade.
Superhero narratives are distinguished by the hero’s negotiation of the relationship between two constructed identities, one ordinary, one extraordinary. The superhero, whose costume emphasizes otherness, shelters in the guise of a civilian, in a performance of ordinariness.
Prompted by Jacob Riis’ invitation in How The Other Half Lives (1890), journalists of that era engaged in performances of ordinariness in search of trans-status empathy. These journalists cloaked themselves in a ‘signified cloth granting liberation and opportunity.’ The clothes reduced their status, masking profession or prestige, and they found themselves empowered. The disguises gave them a peculiar normalcy and anonymity, allowing them to partake in relationships and activities previously out of reach. Dressing down in civilian wardrobe, the superhero engages in similar trans-status disguise. By concealing otherness, he is liberated from the superhero lifestyle’s responsibilities and the extreme attention it garners.
Superman’s civilian masquerade provides the freedom to engage with normal society. We can consider his Clark Kent persona in terms of the trans-status observations emerging from social experiments that utilise disguise to enter a closed social group. Kal-El of Krypton is a ‘covert operative’ who originates from outside the subject of his study, and disguises himself to infiltrate the group. He learns their costumes and customs via his rural Kansas upbringing, and then, in adulthood and the urban sprawl of Metropolis, positions himself as ‘one of them.’ Superman’s relationship with his alter-ego differs from other superheroes, who previously existed as civilians before acquiring their superpowers. Spider-Man, for example, can be equated to a ‘retrospective participant observer’: he is able to model his civilian disguise on his own experiences of ordinariness.
This paper will compare trans-status disguise in superhero comics to the activities of undercover journalists and social scientists, exploring the concealment of otherness through the performance of ordinariness.
Keywords: Superman, Clark Kent, secret identity, ordinariness, otherness, Jacob Riis, outsider, disguise, alter-ego, undercover.
So, very pleasing news – and a good start, I think. It’s also rather nice to be presenting this subject in the 75th anniversary year of Superman, as well, so am very much looking forward to doing this. Onwards and upwards!