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English 391: Superheroes: History, Theory and Practice

Getting Started

In this class, you will be researching the fictional biography of a superhero and writing an essay about a superhero you create. Here are some research tips to keep in mind while you're working this.

This guide assumes that you already understand the basics of literary research. For more, please see:

Works without Criticism

For many heroes and readings, you may not find a lot of criticism specifically addressing your writing! This is for a few reasons: many of these works are considered to be for children or "low culture," which often results in less critical attention, and additionally, you may also be focusing on contemporary works! 

Here are some ways to deal with a shortage of criticism on your chosen works:

Focus on the larger conversation about heroes or about the genres/media in which they appear, and apply insights to the work in question.  This works very well for a class like this, in which you are considering the larger cultural phenomenon of superheroes and how they've changed over time. Any context you can garner will help you to make these arguments. 

Apply some kind of larger framework. How do superheroes look through a feminist lens? A postcolonial lens? What if you apply genre theory? You may find it useful to look for some writers who establish theories of understanding that sort of work and see how it provides a useful context for your own analysis.  You may end up tweaking their approach slightly -- this is fine and also common.

Bring in other kinds of sources. Notice that this does NOT absolve you of the need to use scholarly secondary sources! However, when looking at works contemporary authors, it's very common for critics to refer to interviews with authors.  When looking at works of popular culture, it is sometimes useful to look at non-scholarly or fan writings to understand their cultural meanings. When using these sources, remember that the author does not get final say on the meaning of a work -- but their insights and the context they provide can certainly be useful.

Finding Books

Unless you're writing about a handful of especially famous characters (Superman, Wonder Woman, perhaps Captain America), you probably won't find a whole book about the heroes that are the subjects of your writing! 

However, books may still be useful in your work. You will be looking at the development of a superhero and developing your own, so some context may well be useful! about the history of superheroes and some analysis of the work they do in culture may well be useful! 

You might want:

  • Books about the history of superheroes and how they've developed over time
  • Books that provide a broader theoretical framework from which to understand the cultural work that superheroes do

Subject terms can help you. 

Some examples:

  • Comic books, strips, etc -- History and criticism
  • Comic books, strips, etc -- United States -- History and criticism
  • Heroes in literature
  • Myth in literature
  • Popular culture -- United States
  • Science fiction, American -- History and criticism
  • Superheroes
  • Superman (Fictitious character)
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Literature and the war

Many of these have to do with the format or the genre in which heroes are likely to appear, because this helps establish context and the history of superheroes is deeply entangled with the history of, for instance, comic books. Depending on the hero that you've chosen, other formats/genres may also be of interest! 

Note that most superheroes don't have their own headings, and we don't have many books about most of the major figures involved in the development of superheroes. 

However, we do have a lot of books that deal with superheroes generally, and they are likely to address both of these. 

The Advanced Search is especially useful when considering how these many factors may overlap. 

Searching for Articles (and other Materials)

Literary Criticism

Interdisciplinary Databases

Evaluating Secondary Sources

Evaluating sources is tricky! There is no one test that will tell you whether a source is a good one or not. I can, however, suggest some questions you might ask:

Is this a scholarly source? Scholarly sources are those sources written with a scholarly audience in mind.  These can often be identified based on where they are published (in a journal focused on a specific field? in a book by a scholarly publisher?) and are usually characterized by their depth of analysis and their copious bibliographies.  If you're not sure, check the publication or publisher.

Is this source part of a relevant conversation? "Relevant" is difficult, of course, because it depends on what you're doing rather than what the source is doing!  However, there are some elements that you should consider, including recency (articles older than a couple decades are likely to be part of a different conversation), the perspective from which the author is operating, and the kinds of sources that an author cites.

Does this source make me look good or bad? When you cite a source, you're not necessarily agreeing with the author, but you are identifying the author as someone worth listening to.  This means you need to stay aware of the scholarliness of a source, and where and how it was published. Sometimes students stumble on (for example) old student projects, and if they cite these projects without appearing cognizant of the difference, then it can create the appearance that they don't understand the scholarly conversation. These sources may not be without merit, but you need to show that you understand what you are looking at.

How you shouldn't evaluate a source

Convenience. You are an experienced and sophisticated student -- so you should choose the best sources available. You've grown beyond the point where you can expect to find everything you need available locally. Fortunately, we have Interlibrary Loan and CLICS to ensure that you can access the best scholarship whether we have it here or not -- so please avail yourself of these services if you see a source that we don't have!

Misplaced Aggression

Amber from Dumbing of Age saying, "Oh! Uh. M-Me and superheroes? Oh, no. No, Th-there's too much...misplaced aggression?"

Amber O'Malley aka Amazi-girl

Willis, David. "Misplaced Aggression." Dumbing of Age, May 23, 2013. 

Interlibrary Loan and CLICS

Recommended Books