By Benjamin J. Villareal

While droves of comic book, movie, television, video game, and toy fans roam the San Diego Comic-Con floor booths and exhibit halls, university professors and students are upstairs tackling the big questions through their ongoing research. The Comics Arts Conference is an academic conference that runs in conjunction with both Comic-Con International and Wonder-Con.


On Saturday, Dana Anderson, John Jennings, Stanford W. Carpenter, Robin S. Rosenberg, and Peter Coogan, discussed their contributions to the upcoming book What is a Superhero?—a collection of essays by scholars and industry heads (including Stan Lee and Danny Fingeroth) attempting to answer that very question. For the panel, the presenters gave brief overviews of their chapters.

Dana Anderson, a phenomenologist (one who studies experience) from Maine Maritime Academy, looks at how fans’ first experiences with superheroes determine their subjective definitions and expectations of the genre. During the panel, he cited his own personal experiences, giving the audience a phenomenological tour of what superheroes have come to mean to him. On the other side of the spectrum of academia, John Jennings (an art history and design professor at the University of Buffalo) discussed how the standard poses of individual superheroes define them and their persona as much as anything else.

After, Stanford Carpenter, an ethnographer from the Institute of Comics Studies, explained that what superheroes don’t do with their powers is as important as what they do, exemplifying the mutant Professor Xavier not using his telepathic ability to control others’ minds despite trying to change perceptions of mutants. Robin Rosenberg from Huffington Post and co-editor of the book, however, argued that it’s the kinds of villains who superheroes face define their actions and development, citing four basic types into which everyone from Magneto to the Joker fits.

Finally, Peter Coogan (a founding member of the Comics Arts Conference) laid down the definition of superheroes as he sees it, making the careful distinction between “superhero” and “super hero.” And while audience members were quick to question and debate the various assertions of the presenters, the panel showed the important research being made (and soon to be published) into why superheroes permeate our culture, regardless of how we define them.


Benjamin J. Villarreal is a Doctoral Candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University, and an Instructor of English at Kingsborough Community College. Read more of his work at The Daily Pugle


  1. ‘…making the careful distinction between “superhero” and “super hero.” ‘

    Wouldn’t it be helpful to briefly state what that distinction is?

    I take it the “super hero” is not the superhuman in an outlandish costume who battles injustice, but when is the phrase “super hero” ever used?

  2. ‘…making the careful distinction between “superhero” and “super hero.” ‘

    Wouldn’t it be helpful to briefly state what that distinction is?

    I’d guess that Batman or a superbly developed martial artist is an example of a super hero. No paranormal powers–paranormal can be a synonym for superhero or supervillain–but still set apart from normal people. The context of the story is important, since if a paranormal has a power due to an explicable cause, and faces an opponent with rational motives, the story is SF.


  3. Is Coogan still insisting that you can’t be a superhero without a specific kind of costume, preferably involving an identifying chest emblem (e.g., Superman’s “S,” Batman’s bat-symbol)? That particular nitpicky point really stuck in my head from his otherwise fascinating presentation on one panel back when they’d just started having Comics Arts Conference sessions at San Diego Con years ago.

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