When I first learned I'd be teaching the genre course again, I started thinking about how to update my last syllabus--one that strikes me now as trying to cover too many different bases and sacrificing a certain amount of depth in the bargain. I was mulling over my dissatisfaction with that reading list when I realized I shouldn't be trying to teach it at all.
I'm tenured. I've already taught two comics courses on the respected literary giants of the medium and the department hasn't kicked me out. And I spent last spring researching the history of the superhero genre for an upcoming project. I had no reason not to go for broke and teach the kind of class I'd always wanted to teach. I had a syllabus on superheroes ready within days.
I decided to open with the stories that established the genre and its conventions, the early adventures of Superman, Batman and Robin, and Wonder Woman. That might seem like a natural enough starting point, though there's nothing natural about designing a syllabus. I've seen others that open with the prehistory of the genre, but I was less interested in tracing antecedents or excavating origins than seeing what happens once all the elements come together. So with Jules Feiffer as our snarky, idiosyncratic guide to the early development of the comic book, we plunged straight into Action Comics #1--or rather, its reprinting in Superman #1 a year later, since I figured my students might actually want to read the first six pages for themselves.
I'd taught some of this material before, in a very abbreviated fashion, as part of the set-up for my last pass at Watchmen (in what was arguably an ill-advised attempt to shoehorn a little genre history into a class that was supposed to be surveying the graphic novel). This was my first chance to let it breathe a little and stand on its own; this was also my first chance to branch out beyond a very basic structuralist analysis of the genre conventions and discuss these comics in terms of their historical contexts, production history, and industry practices. (Which should be mandatory when you're talking about comics by Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, and Bill Finger.) Teaching Batman #1 also let me talk about the development of the supervillain and the publishers' reaction to the first moral panic against comics, when they started cleaning up the superheroes and instituting their own in-house editorial codes.
It was primarily a discussion of comics history, in other words, and not the kind of close textual analysis I prefer. Rudimentary as they are, these comics don't offer a whole lot to work with in those terms--until you get to William Moulton Marston. Our discussion included Marston's retelling of the origin story from Wonder Woman #1 and the Paula Von Gunther story from Wonder Woman #3, the one with the Amazon deer hunt that set the internet on fire. These were the first comics we've read that demanded the kind of careful parsing normally reserved for canonical literary masterpieces--not because Marston was writing them with that kind of formalistic subtlety, but because sorting out their fetishistic sexuality and Marston's slippery, anti-essential gender essentialism requires nothing less than our fullest attention. I have a feeling it's going to be a long slog until the comics begin courting (to say nothing of rewarding) the kind of literary analysis I was trained to do, but Marston's work was a big step in that direction.
Oh, and one other note. I teach at an historically black university. All but one of my students in this class are black; the majority of them (as at most universities nationwide) are women. Whether they read comic books or not--and most don't, not on a regular basis--they all know these characters from movies and television and they can speak with great familiarity and conviction about them. Everybody already seems to have their favorite superhero. (And, based on their choices for the class presentations, that superhero is Batman.)
There is a huge audience here, if a publisher's willing to try it.