The hype behind superheroes

Denise Wright

Photo illustration by Daniel Doherty.

Credit: DKS Editors

She’s “not what you would call a fan boy” of superheroes and comics. Yet she teaches a class about them and has even participated on panel discussions at DragonCon, one of the largest comic book conventions in the world.

Traci West, adjunct faculty in Journalism and Mass Communication, said she became interested in superheroes primarily by watching comic book films.

“Even people who aren’t fans know (superheroes) by watching the movies,” she said.

This might explain why West and her husband, Bob, emeritus professor in Journalism and Mass Communication, formed the Comics Into Movies course about five years ago.

“We always try to develop courses we think the kids will be interested in,” she said.

West said a great deal of class time is spent dissecting themes of films based off of comics and graphic novels.

The novels tend to have more mature themes because they are not limited by the Comics Code Authority.

Examples of such works are “300,” “V for Vendetta” and the recently released “Wanted.”

West said she especially enjoys graphic novel films because they tend to have more interesting storylines.

Good superhero movies are founded on good stories, she said.

“They say ‘If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage’, and that’s so true,” she said.

According to West, a superior superhero film not only needs a first-rate storyline, but it must also use the right amount of time to develop the storyline.

“A lot of superhero movies have to do a balancing act,” West said. “They have to show the back story to the non-fans, while not dwelling on it so much that they alienate the fans who already know the story.”

“Spiderman” is one of West’s favorite superhero films because she said she felt the film demonstrated a good balance.

As for the current trend of comic book films, West said she doesn’t see it slowing down.

She said since Superman put comics on the map in the late 1930s, they’ve steadily gained popularity.

With comics bridging several decades, West said social contexts of the time periods in which they were created have had an effect on their popularity.

Nevertheless, the fascination with superheroes seems to withstand the test of time.

“The appeal of superheroes lies in them representing a moral standard we’d like to see in ourselves,” West said. “They do what we can’t because they don’t have constraints that the rest of us have.”

West expressed personal admiration of superheroes by providing her definition of a hero.

“To me … a hero is someone who runs toward danger rather than away from it for the sake of something that is greater than himself,” she said.

A superhero-savvy student

It’s a well-known fact that fashion students enjoy making costumes. But one freshman fashion design major creates costumes that are a little more than ordinary.

Aside from reading comics and watching superhero movies, Amanda Carto relishes in designing superhero costumes.

So far she’s made Poison Ivy from “Batman” and Jubilee from “X-Men.”

Her next project will be Harley Quinn from “Batman: The Animated Series.”

Carto developed her pastime from another, lifelong interest.

Although she’s only gotten heavily interested in superheroes in the past three years, she said she’s been watching superhero cartoons since she was a kid.

“I can see how a kid would look up to a superhero as a role model when they are young, but honestly superheroes in general really don’t have any greater significance to me,” she said.

Carto said her interest lies more in the genre itself.

“It’s a fictional world about guys and gals in tights against psychologically deranged villains,” she said. “I love hearing the explanations and origin stories behind the villains, especially because it has to take a lot to bring a person to that point.”

Carto said she can see how various comic book heroes have an influence on the lives of others.

“As a kid, Superman might be your guy to look up to because he has the classic superpowers of flying and x-ray vision and beats up the bad guy,” she said.

But she said superhero tastes can change with age.

“As an adult, you want to see someone who is easier to relate to — who is just an average guy with a bad past (like Batman) and wants to help clean up his home city from evil scum,” she said.

Carto cited Batman as her favorite superhero.

“I love the dynamic between him and the Joker… because one cannot live without the other,” she said. “Joker would have never risen as a villain if Batman didn’t exist, and I always enjoyed (the) concept of Batman creating one of the most notorious villains in Gotham City.”

Perhaps that’s part of the reason why Carto said “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” are two of her favorite superhero movies.

“They stand out as excellent comic book movies, because it sticks true to the source material,” she said. “The director, Christopher Nolan, understands that Batman is in a complex universe with a city that is overrun with mob wars, corrupt officials and mad men in costumes committing crimes.”

She said she enjoys Nolan’s versions because he makes a point to show the complexity of not only Gotham City, but of Batman himself.

She said past interpretation of Batman conveyed him as more of “a black and white character.”

Nevertheless, Carto said superheroes, as a whole, could still use some work — at least in the fashion department.

“I think superheroes usually get the short end of the stick when it comes to costume design,” Carto said.

She said the villains are the ones who always look stylish.

“Sure, the bat suit is great to look at, but you wouldn’t want to dress up in it like you would if you had a female-version of the Joker’s vest,” she said.

Carto said she prefers villains to superheroes and not only when it comes to fashion.

“Superheroes are great and all, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that I find villains to be far more interesting,” she said.

Contact general assignment reporter Denise Wright at [email protected].