What is a Superhero?


It's easy to name a superhero--Superman, Batman, Thor, Spiderman, the Green Lantern, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Rorschach, Wolverine--but it's not so easy to define what a superhero is. Buffy has superpowers, but she doesn't have a costume. Batman has a costume, but doesn't have superpowers. What is the role of power and superpower? And what are supervillains and why do we need them?

In What is a Superhero?, psychologist Robin Rosenberg and comics scholar Peter Coogan explore ...

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What is a Superhero?

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It's easy to name a superhero--Superman, Batman, Thor, Spiderman, the Green Lantern, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Rorschach, Wolverine--but it's not so easy to define what a superhero is. Buffy has superpowers, but she doesn't have a costume. Batman has a costume, but doesn't have superpowers. What is the role of power and superpower? And what are supervillains and why do we need them?

In What is a Superhero?, psychologist Robin Rosenberg and comics scholar Peter Coogan explore this question from a variety of viewpoints, bringing together contributions from nineteen comic book experts--including both scholars in such fields as cultural studies, art, and psychology as well as leading comic book writers and editors. What emerges is a kaleidoscopic portrait of this most popular of pop-culture figures. Writer Jeph Loeb, for instance, sees the desire to make the world a better place as the driving force of the superhero. Jennifer K. Stuller argues that the female superhero inspires women to stand up, be strong, support others, and most important, to believe in themselves. More darkly, A. David Lewis sees the indestructible superhero as the ultimate embodiment of the American "denial of death," while writer Danny Fingeroth sees superheroes as embodying the best aspects of humankind, acting with a nobility of purpose that inspires us. Interestingly, Fingeroth also expands the definition of superhero so that it would include characters like John McClane of the Die Hard movies: "Once they dodge ridiculous quantities of machine gun bullets they're superheroes, cape or no cape."

From summer blockbusters to best-selling graphic novels, the superhero is an integral part of our culture. What is a Superhero? not only illuminates this pop-culture figure, but also sheds much light on the fantasies and beliefs of the American people.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"This collection is lively, insightful, thoughtful and often funny discussion of what exactly it means to be a superhero. What Is a Superhero? opens up the world of heroes to everyone and shows us what they truly mean in our lives." --New York Journal of Books

"What I loved was that none of the extraordinary essayists seemed able to restrict him or herself to WHAT IS A SUPERHERO without venturing into the WHY--why read them? Why write them? Why superheroes at all? And the consensus is a validation of all my hopes and suspicions about the genre: that like its cousins (opera, melodrama, Commedia dell'Arte and Greek myth, among them), the superhero genre has the ability to act as a cultural magnifying glass or perhaps funhouse mirror, connecting us to truths about our best and worst selves more viscerally than anything that can be accomplished by pure naturalism. Then, not content with just what and why, my favorite pieces braved the question of HOW too... I can't help but imagine my own craft will be deepened for having spent some time with these writers' reflections." -- Kelly Sue DeConnick, writer of Marvel's Avenge and Captain Marvel series

"This is a focused effort that advances understanding of comics from a psychological perspective. While the editors make clear that the book will not provide any definitive answer, the wide-ranging chapters push scholars to investigate superheroes and supervillains as cultural evidence about who we were in the past and are today. These two books are imprtant works in a burgeoning field." -A. W. Austin, Misericordia University, CHOICE

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199795277
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 8/29/2013
  • Pages: 200
  • Sales rank: 668,892
  • Product dimensions: 9.40 (w) x 6.40 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist. In addition to running a private practice, she writes about superheroes and the psychological phenomena their stories reveal. She is editor of Psychology of Superheroes and Our Superheroes, Ourselves.

Peter Coogan is director of the Institute for Comics Studies, co-founder and co-chair of the Comics Arts Conference, and an instructor at Washington University in St. Louis. He holds a Ph.D. in American Studies, and authored Superhero: The Secret Origin of the Superhero, a monograph on the development, history, and functioning of the superhero genre. He is a nationally known commentator on comics and superheroes, is a semi-regular pundit on the Major Spoiler Podcast, and is co-editor of this volume.

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Table of Contents

Michael Uslan

Robin Rosenberg and Peter Coogan

Part I. Super and Hero: Powers and Mission

1. The Hero Defines the Genre, the Genre Defines the Hero
Peter Coogan

2. We Could Be Heroes
Will Brooker

3. What is a Female Superhero?
Jennifer Stuller

4. Straddling a Boundary: The Superhero and the Incorporation of Difference
Clare Pitkelthy

5. Save the Day
A. David Lewis

Part II. Context, Culture, and the Problem of Definition

6. Superheroes and the Modern(ist) Age
Alex Boney

7. Heroes of the Superculture
Richard Reynolds

8. Superhero by Design
John Jennings

9. The Experience of the Superhero: A Phenomenological Definition
Dana Anderson

10. What is a Superhero? No One Knows: That's What Makes 'em Great.
Geoff Klock

Part III. Villains

11. Why Supervillains?
Paul Levitz

12. Superheroes Need Supervillains
Frank Verano

13. Superheroes Need Superior Villains
Stanford Carpenter

14. Super and Villain: A bad guy with superpowers
Chris Deis

15. Why the Villain Needs the Hero
Andrew Smith

16. Sorting Out Villainy: A Typology of Villains and Their Effects on Superheroes
Robin Rosenberg

Part IV. Professionals Speak

17. More Than Normal, But Believable
Stan Lee

18. Making The World A Better Place
Jeph Loeb

19. Nobility of Purpose
Danny Fingeroth

20. Superheroes and Power
Dennis O'Neil

21. The Importance of Context: Robin Hood Is Out and Buffy Is In
Kurt Busiek

22. Superheroes Are Made
Tom DeFalco

23. Extraordinary
Joe Quesada

24. The Superprotagonist
Fred Van Lente

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