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Summer superhero fare includes IUPUI course on history of comic books


INDIANAPOLIS — This is the summer for superheroes.

Movie theaters have “Iron Man 3,”  “Man of Steel” and “The Wolverine.”

And Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis has Mark Harper’s class on comic books and graphic fiction.

“We spend a great deal of time on superheroes,” Harper said of “The History of American Comic Books and Graphic Fiction,” the three-credit, upper-level course he will teach June 24 to Aug. 5, during IUPUI’s second summer session.

Class discussions are far more than musings about men in costumes, with or without tights.

For example, “We discuss superhero characters as commodities,” Harper said. “Superhero comics are probably the strongest genre of comics ever produced, certainly the most lucrative. These are bankable products.” 

This is the first summer offering of a college course Harper has taught twice before. Student reception has been enthusiastic, as reflected in high enrollments for two previous spring semester classes, said Harper, an associate instructor for the Herron School of Art and Design at IUPUI.

Herron lists “The History of American Comic Books and Graphic Fiction” among its advanced classes in art history. Course content falls within various academic categories.

“In the classroom, comic books are like mercury or Jell-O: hard to pin down!” Harper said. “The storytelling element of this medium encourages us to categorize comic books as literature, but the vibrancy of the artwork and the accentuation on action and figure suggest we study comic books as art,” said Harper, who also teaches English in the School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI.

“Meanwhile, the ‘form’ of comic books, usually sequential panels, is similar to cinema and television.  And the pacing of the panels almost looks and reads like musical bars. Furthermore, the subject matter brings in multiple genres in both fiction — horror, crime and fantasy — and nonfiction — autobiography, political argument, history and science.”

In addition to the D.C. and Marvel superhero comics, Harper’s class also looks at the underground comic movement spearheaded in the late 1960s by R. Crumb, studying those comic books as social commentary and political expressions of their time.

“Those books were avant-garde,” said Harper, who holds a doctorate in film studies from Indiana University and a master’s degree in comparative literature from Texas Tech University. “Comic books would explore visual stereotypes, racial characterization and gender stereotypes.”

While the 12-week spring course requires reading as many as 30 comic books, students must be prepared to discuss context of a much more complex level than it may seem.

“As an art form, comic books might appear to be simple and one-dimensional, but they play on deeper ideas,” Harper said. “Superhero comics have roots in ancient Greek theater and epic poetry. Funny animal comics may reveal how Americans feel about racial, gender and class identity. Crime comics can channel feelings of political and social dissent. And most comic books rely, in some way, on the use of ‘caricature,’ which carries its own powerful ambiguity of intention and meaning.”

Harper said his course typically draws Herron art history students but is open to any IUPUI student.

Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith’s “The Power of Comics: History, Form & Culture,” published in New York by Continuum in 2009, is the main textbook. In addition to abundant readings, assignments include two exams and two 1,500- to 2,000-word essays.