North Texas Daily

Class explores real-world lessons in comic books

Class explores real-world lessons in comic books

July 13
11:31 2012

Ben Peyton / Staff Writer

The epic struggles of heroes and villains with colorful names and outlandish costumes haven’t always been a subject of academic study.

However, students in a summer class at UNT are turning to the fantastical pages of comic books to explore a wide variety of real-world issues.

“Mythic Rhetoric of the American Superhero” is an interdisciplinary course taught by communication studies professor Shaun Treat, who uses comics as a lens to magnify academic discussion that runs the intellectual gamut from philosophy to economics to women’s studies to art.

Professor Shaun Treat sits surrounded by some of his favorite comic books. Treat is the instructor for the Mythic Rhetoric of the American Superhero class at UNT.Photo by Desiree Cousineau/Senior Staff Photographer

“I can take the same ideas and dress them up in tights, capes and masks and have them fight it out, and they [students] love it,” Treat said.

The class offers a Socratic-style of learning that encourages students to interact with each other and have fun engaging theories and topics.

“This is what education needs to keep up,” Treat said.

Only about half of the enrolled students had ever read a comic book before taking the class, which draws graduate students from a wide variety of majors looking to learn about higher communication theories.

Political, philosophical and social issues can all be found in American comic books: The Flash has a drug problem, Lex Luthor is a power-mad capitalist with questionable business ethics and Batman’s brand of vigilante justice exists in a legal gray area.

“One of the beauties of comic books is the fact that it sits in-between being literature and being a movie,” Evans said. “There’s a spectrum that you get to play with.”

Treat said comic books encompass a wide variety of genres, styles and stories. The proliferation of comic book movie adaptations has shed more light on the medium and helped cement superheroes in American culture.

“Mythic Rhetoric” and similar classes have proven to be popular with students and a great educational vehicle, said Keith Brown, manager at the Center for the Study of Interdisciplinary Programs.

“There is significant return on investment for these kinds of programs for the university and the students,” Brown said.

The idea for the class began gestating in the fall of 2011 at the UNT Symposium for Comics Studies, an event that attracted scholars from around the country.

“It’s something you can talk about with your friends,” Brown said. “It becomes a channel for real discussion.”

The senior-level class is currently a special topics course but will be integrated into the Communication Studies department and requires no pre-requisites for fall enrollment. Treat and students cautioned that it is by no means a blow-off class – required reading material is expensive, discussions are in-depth and assignments are challenging.

“Mythic Rhetoric” wrapped up for the summer at the beginning of July, but is open to all students for the fall semester.

Treat likened the modern perception of comic books to the low-culture stigma that surrounded Shakespeare and the theater district in his era. Shakespeare is now legitimized in the academic community and comic books appear to be repeating history, he said.

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