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Superhero Sauce: Blending Pop Culture & Academic Disciplines in Nonfiction (+ a Quiz!)

In his book 'Superhero Ethics,' Travis Smith blended his knowledge of political philosophy with superhero mythos. By outlining his writing process and what he learned, he demonstrates how combining pop culture topics with academic disciplines can make for fun and accessible nonfiction books.

In his book Superhero Ethics, Travis Smith blended his knowledge of political philosophy with superhero mythos. By outlining his writing process and what he learned, he demonstrates how combining pop culture topics with academic disciplines can make for fun and accessible nonfiction books. 

(Plus take our “Which Superhero Do You Most Resemble?” quiz at the end of this post to determine which superhero you most align with, ethically speaking.)

by Travis Smith

In Superhero Ethics (Templeton, 2018) I mash up my interests in political philosophy and superhero stories, melding heavy and light for an accessible nonfiction read. It’s like Led Zeppelin, theoretically.

I take a Socratic attitude toward popular culture. We can ascend to a discussion of what’s highest from a consideration of what’s commonly conceived of as lower. We can take things we enjoy more seriously than usual and criticize them (and ourselves) in the process.

I cannot offer a universal guide for conducting analyses like mine, but I can recount how Superhero Ethics was composed, in case that helps you battle the villainous voices of vexation or the dastardly discouragement of detractors should you wish to embark upon a similar adventure.

On Concept, Structure and Approach

Having a classic work to riff on but not slavishly follow helped me organize the book conceptually. As Nicholas Antongiavanni’s The Suit mirrors Machiavelli’s Prince, the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? relies on Homer’s Odyssey, and Liz Phair responded to the Rolling Stones in Exile in Guyville, I took inspiration from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, a book I teach to college freshmen every year.

My chapter-by-chapter pitting of characters against each other was inspired by the way superheroes usually clash before they team up. I wanted readers with basic familiarity with the most well-known superheroes and some concern for questions like “Who is a good role model?” to find the book interesting and accessible.

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Eschewing ideological fashions, I opted against being politic. I didn’t include an equal number of Marvel and DC characters, let alone favor them equally, even though I personally enjoy both companies’ stories immensely. Some imperious conception of fairness did not govern my decisions or conclusions.

Doing the Research

The Internet abounds in lists that can help you get started in finding out what you need to find out. But read and watch things for yourself!

Because the facts are already meticulously curated online by fanatics, I felt free to focus on interpretation and analysis without supplying onerous exposition.

In order to compose arguments that are worth making, you have to offer more than an emphatic assertion of your personal tastes. There is no shortage of people capable of expressing personal preferences loudly. Therefore, if you are inclined to like or approve of something, be tougher on it; if you are inclined to dislike or disapprove of it, be as generous as you can. Be open to changing your mind.

Because political philosophy is my professional field, I drew on that tradition for resources on which to base my analyses. I didn’t want to alienate readers who are not students of those texts with excessive scholarly apparatus, so I often left readers steeped in those works to infer my influences. Other disciplines could be equally good at offering lenses through which to approach another pop culture subject matter.

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In tackling the pop culture source material, pay attention to details. Observe context. Watch the background. Unexpected discoveries and inferences are made by constantly asking oneself, “Might this be relevant to that?” even when things seem unrelated. Suppose that seemingly insignificant things might be essential. Be inventive in hunting for metaphors, ambiguity and irony even in the most literal, obvious and sincere places. Sometimes stupid gags prove revealing. Watchwords are hidden in throwaways. You want to find yourself shouting, “How come I never noticed that before?”

Keep a notebook on you at all times. Insights, questions, connections, and bon mots strike unexpectedly. Keep track of all your ideas, however unlikely, distressing, or wacky. Nine out of ten quips, hunches, and hypotheses won’t pan out, but the few that do are invaluable.

Drafting the Manuscript

I wanted my arguments neither dumbed down nor arcane, neither wishy-washy nor belligerent. With dozens of angles to explore, the hardest part is discerning a core argument around which to organize everything else. I used scraps of paper taped to oversized graph paper to arrange and grasp the entire structure of each chapter. I would try to draft a whole chapter through, mostly from memory, so that the prose would exhibit some flow. I then inserted the overlooked essential bits and supporting evidence.

As you start out, put no limit on whimsy and informality. Trimming silliness and adding gravity and decorum can wait.

Don’t worry about length at first; overwriting is okay if you’re prepared to raze it later. Knowing that you’re not committed to retaining anything you try out is liberating.

Most liberating is not having a stake in arriving at specific outcomes before you start. Avoid working with predetermined conclusions. Approach the material with wonder rather than resolve.

Don’t bother trying to tell your readers what you think they want to hear; passionate readers will tell you that you’re wrong anyway. Entertain the legitimacy of alternate views, too. That way hardly anybody is going to agree with you altogether.

Revising and Re-revising

I edit by hand on paper. I need pages spread out in front of me to decimate and recombine everything properly. You haven’t edited a draft sufficiently unless there’s more red ink on it than black the first few rounds.

Not everything needs spelling out. Long apologies, rationalizations, rephrased claims, and abundant examples are helpful in drafting things, but most of them ought to go. What digressions, jokes, and asides you retain should be purposive. Lampshading is useful for indicating that some point you’ve made is too pat. Enthymemes are handy, too.

Leave the reader with something to figure out. Stimulate critical thinking rather than demanding acquiescence. Overestimate your reader. Comic books do that; longtime collectors can provide lists of words, concepts, and narrative devices their hobby has taught them.

Editors and Editing

Work with an editor. Editors will sacrifice your mind’s most beloved offspring. In my discussion of Captain America, I wanted to observe that in the first Avengers movie’s post-credits scene, Cap isn’t joining the others in enjoying shawarma. Pointing that out was precarious, however, and justifying it became jesuitical. Depicting Batman as a lapsed Catholic postmodern messiah, I wanted to say that “all the redemption he can offer is beneath this dirty hood”—where the hood could be his cowl, the Batmobile, or Gotham City itself—but it couldn’t be worked in without feeling forced. Goodies like these can be saved for interviews.

Get non-professionals to proofread your text, too—especially people belonging to your intended audience. Some edits you will mourn. Condensing my discussion of friends and family in my section on Mister Fantastic resulted in a book that reads as more Platonistic and less Aristotelian than I’d like.

Finally, let go of any dreams of your text being perfect. You’re not Plato. Wolverine intentionally scratches the Blackbird with his claws before boarding it, knowing that it won’t return from the mission unscathed anyway.

Superhero Ethics: Which superhero do you most resemble?

Setting aside their fantastical powers and out-of-this-world adventures and thinking instead in terms of character, which superhero do you have the most in common with? Find out below:

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Travis Smith is associate professor of political science at Concordia University in Montreal and author of Superhero Ethics from Templeton Press.

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