At the end of last month, my efforts in Academia took a pleasing development when I delivered my first ever piece of academic research – suitably, on Superman – at the 2nd Global Conference on The Graphic Novel. Organised by Inter-Disciplinary.net and held at the exceedingly convivial location of Mansfield College in Oxford, my UH colleague Dr Barbara Brownie and I presented our examination of trans-status disguise in relation to Clark Kent and Superman, entitled “Negotiating Ordinariness and Otherness: Superman, Clark Kent and the superhero masquerade.”
Our paper – part a larger exploration on the role of superhero costumes in both fiction and fact – sought to explore one of the core dynamics of the superhero genre, the notion of a dual identity, and how the concept of “trans-status disguise” relates to the activities of undercover journalists and social scientists in the 19th century, exploring the concealment of otherness through the performance of ordinariness.
In the case of Superman, the archetypal superhero, this is especially true: Clark Kent is a constructed persona that allows Superman to not only integrate with the human society he protects but also be liberated from the superhero lifestyle’s responsibilities and the extreme attention it garners. We found this a particularly interesting area to explore because it highlights the sheer importance of Clark Kent and the vital conduit he provides for Superman’s heroic function.
Thrillingly, our effort stoked a pointed enthusiasm in others. Our presentation, delivered near the end of the final day of the conference, was very well received by the assembled delegation of international academics, prompting a lengthy Q and A session. Indeed, I took the opportunity to deliver a passionate defence of the character, whom I feel is habitually and chronically underestimated, despite his prominence in pop culture. As one delegate kindly put it, the conference “ended with a notable air of enthusiasm thanks in so small part to your commitment to Mr.Kent.” Well, “Hurrah” to that!
Best of all, afterwards I was approached by a number of delegates who told me that I had convinced them to revisit the character with a new perspective more open to seeing the details that Barbara and I had highlighted. This, for me, was a particular triumph as I strongly feel that, only too often nowadays, Superman is regarded with a distinct air of apathy and dismissed all too quickly as lightweight and inconsequential, despite his sheer prominence in pop culture. However in my view, it is quite, quite to the contrary: Superman is a nuanced character with profound inspirational qualities and there needs to be a forthright reminder of the sheer elemental power he possesses and which has allowed him to thrive through 75 years with very little alteration. Indeed, doing a presentation like this in Superman’s 75th year was a particular pleasure. Amusingly, the fact I wear glasses, my hair is parted Superman-like and the notable showcase of red and blue in my attire – let alone the more direct reference of my Superman S-shield belt buckle – was not lost on my audience and, indeed, prompted this delightful little sketch by Sarah Edmands Martin of Notre Dame University in the USA. Not bad, eh?
The conference overall was a hugely enjoyable experience. Professionally organised by Inter-Disciplinary.net, it was wonderful to spend time in the company of like-minded individuals passionately devoted to the exploration of the Comics medium and in such a gorgeous environment, too. The papers were consistently strong, but I was particularly engaged by John McGuire (University of Western Sydney) and his thoughts on Batman comics post-9/11; Amy Maynard of University of Adelaide on Batman’s cultural capital ; John Harnett of Ireland’s Mary Immaculate College, dissecting the narrative Alan Moore’s From Hell in a very expert manner ; York University’s Jilynn Quek exploring the female protagonist’s on Vertigo’s Fables series; Brighton University’s Louisa Buck on political cartoons ; the aforementioned Sarah Martin of Notre Dame on fairytale narrative presented on tablets ; Cambridge University’s Annie Burman on code-switching in the Chris Claremont run on X-Men and, Texas Woman University’s Jonathan Evans – a fellow Superman advocate – on the rhetorical power of Superheroes, about which I couldn’t agree more.
Here’s all the delegates outside the gorgeous main building of Mansfield College:
Great people and a great time. I couldn’t have been more satisfied with this formal debut in to the realms of academic research and I am incredibly grateful to Barbara for accompanying me on this first outing. Onwards and upwards…!