Superhero Scholarship: Doctor Plencner Earns His Cape
Dissertation: Four-Color Political Visions: Origins, Affect, and Assemblage in American Superhero Comic Books
Chair: Joseph Lowndes
Hometown: Fargo, North Dakota
“…and yeah, sure, some of us really do talk like that.”
Recently hooded Joshua Plencner’s research is anything but drab and dusty. Instead, it’s shiny, innovative scholarship that packs a superhero punch. Doctor Plencner took a moment to share more about his dissertation, the graduate school experience, and his thoughts on Spider-Man’s alter ego …
What made you decide to “break the mold” and focus on fictional super-heros versus historical political figures/events?
Here’s how it is: after starting graduate school, the more I learned about the discipline of political science—its history and development, its various methodological epochs and ground-shaking debates—the more I came to recognize what I saw as serious constraints on our collective thinking. There were some lights shining through the fog, for sure, but most of what constituted the discipline as such was, to me, really unsatisfying and limited to a very small set of questions. So when it came time to develop a research project of my own, I was very careful to seek out those lights in the fog as a kind of map to follow for my own questioning. If I broke the mold in some way by focusing on superhero comic books it’s because I was inspired by folks who understand politics through lenses that seemed—again, to me—much more alive and in tune with what people are actually up to in the world. Without folks like Joe Lowndes, Victoria Hattam, Anne Norton, Michael Rogin, William Connolly, and small group of others to look up to, I wouldn’t have been able to conceive of research on popular culture in political science at all, much less a project on the politics of superhero comic books. Superhero comics are weird and exciting and terrible and messed up, and yet despite that mess, people have deep attachments to them and their multimedia cousins in film and television. Myself included. I think the depth of those attachments is politically fascinating, and it’s worth exploring how those fictional characters can be, at different moments and in different ways, transformed into something very much like the historical political figures and events our discipline traditionally studies. I think that transformation—of the popular and commonplace to the historical and rarified—poses a basic challenge to how we do our work in political science, and exploring that challenge to see what more we can learn about politics is, at its core, the goal of my research.
This area of research is a growing field at the UO. In fact, the Comics and Cartoon studies minor at the UO is the first of it’s kind in the US and a lot of undergraduate Ducks are really excited about it… How did your undergraduate students react to your research? What about your PS grad student peers?
As an area of academic inquiry, Comics Studies has been caught in a long moment of arrival, a kind of birth-in-waiting, for more than 30 years in North America and a bit longer in other parts of the world. But thanks to the work of a dedicated group of scholars at UO, we’re now one of the leading institutions in the US that is actively shaping what the field will look like for years to come. It’s an exciting time, for sure, and I’m proud to play a role in that story. Back when I started working on this project in earnest, in early 2009, my undergraduate PS students were more curious about it than anything else. If they had any questions about my project at all, or just wondered how it fit into the study of government and law, I’d usually explain that it was a bit like studying film and politics, to which the PS department has an entire course dedicated, or the role of literature and art in political history, which also make appearances in various PS courses. By the time I taught my last class on campus, though, undergrad reaction was very different. Several students in my “Art and the State” course, taught last Spring Term, had already studied comics in other departments, and several more students sought out my class because they had heard about how I tend to teach material not usually found in other PS courses. Seeing that change over just a few years was really heartening. I can’t wait to see how undergrads develop their thinking on politics in relation to the Comics and Cartoon Studies program in the years to come.
As far as reaction from PS graduate student peers goes, the support was phenomenal. From talking through ideas to workshopping conference papers and draft dissertation chapters, I owe a huge debt to some really smart people that all came up together. I was really lucky to tag along with them.
Professor Ben Saunders is the Comic Studies program director, a leader in this scholarship, and served on your dissertation committee, correct? How did working with him, in conjunction with the PS faculty, help frame the interdisciplinary aspects of your research?
Yes, I worked closely with Ben in my research, which was absolutely essential to the overall success of the project. Ben is a leader in Comics Studies scholarship for good reason, and his encouragement was a boon, especially in those moments where I was wandering into research territory that was well outside of my training. Working with him in conjunction with PS faculty helped me identify the ways that I could build arguments that hadn’t been made before, in any discipline. Chasing after novel questions under the flag of interdisciplinarity can be fun, but doing good interdisciplinary research requires carefully situating your research amidst multiple broad literatures, which can be difficult and very time consuming. Learning how to do that, with guidance from all of my advisors, was an intense process, but it’s exactly the kind of challenge I needed to make it through to the end of the dissertation.
You argue that superhero comics produce political understanding of the law but also of political founding, origin, and identification, correct? Can you give a quick example of this?
Sure. Take Spider-Man, almost universally recognizable. Within the history of superhero comics production in the United States, Spider-Man is most typically understood as a new kind of superhero, one that differed in origin and narrative substance pretty dramatically from popular characters of the previous era. Rather than simply arriving to Earth as an alien capable of overpowering any form of perceived injustice, or rather than being gifted an ancient magic word that can transform whoever says it with the powers of mythic gods, this new kind of superhero was almost accidental, stumbling into power instead of being born into it or seeking it out. And more often than not, the new superhero had very human problems. Instead of figuring out who can punch the hardest, the new superhero was trying to figure out how to make friends, keep a steady job, and pay the bills. This is exemplified perfectly in Peter Parker, Spider-Man’s alter ego and secret identity. He’s gawky, bookish, unattractive—what co-creator Stan Lee might describe as a quintessentially nebbish-y teenager, stuck with all the problems that might land in a nebbish-y teenager’s lap. In my work I write about how Parker/Spider-Man negotiates public and private identities using technology—namely his trusty “Spider-Camera.” By taking pictures of himself fighting bad guys and selling them to local newspapers and magazines, Parker/Spider-Man presents us with an interesting puzzle of telling one’s own story and navigating complex, inherently contradictory public interpretations of that story. To me, that conflict of identity is remarkably similar to the ways that we understand political foundings: complex stories about who a polity is and where they come from. Historically speaking, it’s the case that no matter how hard anyone tries, stories about foundings always seem to linger outside of total control. There’s always an element of doubt, of counter-narratives and alternative historical framing that undermines dominant political origin stories. That’s why struggling to define the terms of founding, of a stable origin story and identity, is an entirely political struggle. It’s all about power and the struggle for control. In the earliest Spider-Man comic books, this struggle plays out constantly as the story develops. Parker/Spider-Man seems split between two battling impulses—the public hero persona, and the private teenager trying to get by in the wake of tragedy. And this split is constantly emphasized in Steve Ditko’s art, often showing half of Parker/Spider-Man’s face masked, and half in a look of shock or anxiety. I argue that this tension in Spider-Man comics around identities—public and private, heroic and common—animates the public attraction felt toward the character in the 1960s and 70s, and teaches us a lot about what kinds of identities a polity desires. Spider-Man was hugely popular in the comics, and remains so through film and television cartoons today. Understanding how these visual narratives work is absolutely key to understanding what a polity wants, and how it uses pop culture to help get it.
Favorite superhero and why (we have to ask!)?
They make Wednesdays better.
When asked what the biggest highlight of graduate school was, Dr. Plencner referenced this moment, “Listening to Professor Gerry Berk, as my name was called during graduation, read the most amazing kind words written by my dissertation advisor, Professor Joe Lowndes. Hearing that said in front of friends and family—and on such a beautiful Oregon summer day—was really special to me. Something I’ll always remember.”
Doctor Plencner receives his hood from his dissertation adviser, Joseph Lowndes.
Josh doesn’t have one “most influential experience” that directed his education. Instead, Josh says, “I don’t have the kind of mind that is able to focus on big events as life changing or singularly influential. I’m just happy to have found support for my idiosyncrasies and meanderings throughout my education. Every teacher, advisor, colleague, and student I come into contact with changes me, even if ever so slightly, and I’m grateful to be more of a collection of others than anything else.”
Josh and Joe are all smiles after the ceremony.
When asked what he will miss about graduate school in Oregon, Josh replied, “The way the world ends under an inch of April snow.” Well said, Dr. Plencner.
As an undergraduate, Joshua attended the University of North Dakota (where they take ice hockey as seriously as we take track and football). The advice he would give his undergraduate self is, “Don’t sweat that F in calculus. You deserved it, but things will turn out fine.”
After graduation, Josh moved north to Portland and he’s pretty excited to be in a “phenomenal comics city” where he is continuing to write and publish. Dr. Plencner will be on the job market this fall looking for academic work, though right now he is happy to call Portland home along with “so many talented writers and artist” and feels really lucky to be able to take advantage of the different resources Portland has to offer…