Superheroes and the Civic Imagination


In early December, I delivered -- via Skype -- some opening remarks for the Superhero Identities Symposium at Melbourne's Australian Center for the Moving Image. Angela Ndlianis, one of the event organizers, has let me know that an audio podcast version of my remarks and those of some of the other sessions are now available online. You can access my remarks here.


My remarks built upon Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Liana Gamber-Thompson, “Super-Powers to the People!: How Young Activists are Tapping the Civic Imagination,” in Eric Gordon and Paul Mihalias (eds.) Civic Media: Technology, Design, Practice (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016), 295-320.

Here's the abstract for the talk:

“What Else Can You Do With Them?”: Superheroes and the Civic Imagination

By Henry Jenkins

“If a superhero can be such a powerful and effective metaphor for male adolescence, then what else can you do with them?” -- Kurt Busiek, AstroCity

In his 2015 book, On the Origin of the Superheroes, Chris Cavalier traces one origin story of the superhero back to the figure of popular rebels, such as Robin Hood and Guy Fawkes, suggesting the ongoing struggles to contain these larger-than-life protagonists operating outside the system into the constraints of corporate ideologies and political institutions.  From the start, the superhero had a politics and from time to time -- when Superman was “Champion of the Oppressed” rather than the defender of “Truth, Justice, and the American way,” when Green Lantern and Green Arrow set out to discover a troubled 1960s America, when Captain America questions the military-industrial complex, and when Wonder Woman inspires the birth of Second Wave Feminism -- that politics threatens to get out of hand. It is one thing to kick Hitler’s butt and another to stand up for GLBT rights, challenge Islamiphobia, or support African self-determination.

My interest here, though, is not first and foremost in the way politics is depicted in superhero comics, but rather the ways superheroes are stepping off the page and the screen and becoming resources for the Civic Imagination. Around the world, activists are struggling for immigrant rights, battling rape culture, questioning the police state, asking for homes for Syrian refuges,  or condemning wealth inequality while deploying iconography and mythology borrowed from the American superhero tradition.  Before we can change the world, we need to be able to imagine what a better world might look like, we need to believe that change is possible, we need to see ourselves as agents of change, and we need to develop empathy for the plight of others whose experiences are different from our own. The Civic Imagination refers to the often shared mental constructs and rhetorical devices through which we inspire these potentials for social and political change.

Recent research on participatory politics in the United States suggests that more and more the Civic Imagination is being fueled by popular culture, especially among youth, and we have begun to see such patterns elsewhere around the world.  There is a blurring of the lines between fans and activists as characters from popular culture are being reimagined, redrawn, and re-performed to speak for non-dominant peoples who often want contemporary heroic narratives they can pass along to their own children and help them imagine a different role for themselves as political and civic agents.

And this process has gone global as the success of the Marvel franchises has introduced the superhero genre to countries, especially in the global south, which have had limited exposure to it before. As countries seek to create mythologies that place them on the map of an increasingly transnational culture, as they seek narratives of personal and collective empowerment, they are seeking to insert their concerns into the framework the superhero genre provides us.

In this talk, I will provide an overview of this phenomenon, situating it within the larger contexts of participatory politics and the Civic Imagination. I will consider what about the superhero has made this popular culture trope such a flexible and generative tool for sparking the Civic Imagination. And I will close with some reflections on the strengths and limits of conceptualizing struggles for social justice within the terms the superhero genre offers.


You can go here for information about the conference and links to other presentations, including featured interviews with Hope Larsen, Paul Dini, Nicola Scott, and Tom Taylor,  among others.


Angela also shared with me some great videos produced for the event interviewing Australian fans and artists from local comics conventions. Enjoy!