Class reads between the lines of comics

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DRC/Al Key
University of North Texas professor Shaun Treat points to an image on the screen during his class on the “Mythic Rhetoric of Superheroes” on Thursday at the General Academic Building.

Superhero with a thousand faces

Half of the University of North Texas students in professor Shaun Treat’s summer class had never read a comic book.

“That’s kind of my ideal target audience,” said Treat, who’s teaching “Mythic Rhetoric of Superheroes” in the UNT Department of Communication Studies.

Comic books and graphic novels are the students’ textbooks and the lens through which they’re looking at political and social issues.

Students are also reading academic articles about issues brought up through comics.

Chase Hutchinson, a senior communications major at UNT, hadn’t read a comic book until he started the class, although he was familiar with the story lines from cartoons and movies. He didn’t want to take the class initially because of the cost of the required reading, he said.

While the class gets off topic at times, Hutchinson said, he finds it interesting how this genre represents different leadership styles. In the X-Men comics, he said, Professor X has the leadership style of Martin Luther King Jr., while Magneto can be compared to Malcolm X.

“I didn’t realize how much political and social undertones are in this stuff,” Hutchinson said. 

More than 20 students filled Thursday’s class on the third floor of the General Academic Building. April Murphy, a UNT doctoral student, led a discussion on Batwoman: Elegy and the role of feminism in comics.

After Murphy’s discussion, Tim Stoltzfus, owner of More Fun Comics & Games on the Square, shared his views from the business side of comic books. He talked about how comic books are typically marketed to white males ages 18 to 45.

Stoltzfus has been helping with the class since it was started at UNT four years ago. He was intrigued when Treat approached him about the idea.

“I generally aim to share with the class the business side of comics and how the economic realities of the business over the years have shaped the artistic side, both for good and for ill,” he said in an e-mail. “All the books we cover in the class have an element of the business within their back story that is worth sharing to help students understand how the works came into existence.”

Aida Ramadanovic, a UNT senior majoring in business and communications, said the class is really fun. She’d never read a comic book or graphic novel before taking the five-week class, which wraps up next week.

“Every topic relates to what’s going on right now,” she said, referring to current political and social issues.

The class is less structured than she expected, but it allows the discussion to develop.

“I was most surprised by how much I actually enjoy comics,” Ramadanovic said, referring to them as “superhero soap operas.”

Treat wears a different superhero shirt each day. On Wednesday, it was The Incredibles and on Thursday, it was Superman.

Superhero collectibles adorn the walls and shelves of his office.

Treat first taught the class on superheroes while he was at Louisiana State University, then brought it with him to UNT. It started as a graduate-level class, but he opened it up to undergraduates because of demand.

The class includes students from different areas of study, including history, art and English, and even from across town at Texas Woman’s University.

It’s more than men in capes and tights, Treat said. Students weigh their perspectives against the comic’s perspective, he said, adding that the class provides a safe place to engage their ideas about class, race and gender.

Treat likened the class to an introduction to intercultural studies. The same approach could be taken using other popular entertainment, such as music, movies and TV shows.

“Learning shouldn’t just be like going to the dentist,” Treat said. “It can be entertaining and challenging.”

RACHEL MEHLHAFF can be reached at 940-566-6889. Her e-mail address is rmehlhaff@dentonrc.com.


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