Superheroes or Supergods? Syllabus

by Salvatore Pane

This fall, I’m teaching a course entitled Superheroes or Supergods? I’m beyond excited to run the class and designing it was an absolute pleasure. It’s part of UIndy’s First Year Seminar series, in which interested freshmen regardless of major can take a course related to a specific interest area in order to fulfill a core requirement. I hope these kids want to talk about superheroes.


FYS 110 01 Superheroes or Supergods?
MWF 9:00-9:50am
ESCH Hall 254

University of Indianapolis
Assistant Professor Salvatore Pane
Credits: 3.0


Course Description

Superheroes or Supergods is a course that will interrogate the link between modern day superhero stories and the global fears that fuel them, not to mention their connection to ancient Icelandic myths and other religious tales. We’ll closely analyze graphic novels, critical essays, films, and myths stretching all the way back to the 11th century and culminating in the present day.


Welcome to Superheroes or Supergods

Over the last decade, superheroes have attained a level of mainstream success not seen since their origins in the 1930s. Some believe this is because film technology has finally caught up to the imagination of comic writers. Others believe that in an age of fear—of terrorism, economic meltdown, and even the death of the planet itself—people are subconsciously drawn to stories about god-like beings with the power to save us from ourselves.

In Superheroes or Supergods, we’ll discuss whether superhero comics are unconsciously raiding religious and pop culture iconography, or if, like the Vikings’ Norse gods, superheroes are a conscious reflection of our desire to be delivered out of a trying time by deities. Bolstered by a series of critical texts, we’ll discuss whether these are simple escapist power fantasies, a broader statement on the nature of faith in a post 9/11 world, or something even more complex.


Required Texts

Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God From Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human by Grant Morrison

All Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar and Dave Johnson

Kingdom Come by Alex Ross and Mark Waid


Course Objectives:

• To develop our skills as critical writers, readers and thinkers, and to understand the interdependence of these three skills

• To improve our writing skills in several genres, including the research essay

• To develop our appreciation for literature and the thoughtful discussion of texts and ideas through multiple theoretical perspectives.

• To discuss the ebb and flow of superhero popularity and why exactly we seem to rely on them in times of intense political turmoil

• To discuss the religious symbolism in superhero stories and whether or not that shared iconography is moving toward something resembling Norse mythology, i.e. is there a major difference between those gods and the pantheon of heroes in the Justice League


Our course meets the following UIndy Learning Goals:

• Critical Thinking – by challenging students to analyze texts through literary, religious, and other intellectual and theoretical perspectives. Through short writing assignments and four critical papers, this course requires students to think critically about their relationship to texts and the texts’ relationships to broader social movements and climates.

• Performance – by challenging students to add thoughtful and complex commentary to each class discussion. Through discussion and presentations, students will have to display acute understanding of texts and the various intellectual lenses with which they may be viewed and communicate their findings to others.


Turning in Your Writing

It’s important that you turn in your writing on time, as late work cannot become part of class discussion. Likewise, because the Essays and Exercises build upon one another, turning in late work means you miss out on comments that would help you with the upcoming assignment. Since you will regularly revise your work, make sure to keep electronic and paper copies. All papers must be written in Times New Roman 12 with one inch margins. Also, please title your work. Do not generically title your papers, “Essay 2” or “Essay on All Star Superman.” Papers turned in late will receive a full letter grade penalty. Papers turned in over 24 hours late will result in an automatic failure. These penalties will factor into your final grade.


Readings and Quizzes

It is your responsibility to read every assigned reading. These readings will come from the required texts or ACE. You must print out the readings we will focus on in any given class session. Everything you will need is explained in the Course Sequence. If you do not bring print outs of the readings, I will mark you absent. Also, there will be occasional pop quizzes to make sure you’re reading the assigned homework. Quizzes will be one or two questions at most and will be impossible to pass if you haven’t read the material and impossible to fail if you have. Read the homework.



You will receive provisional grades on each of the essays you turn in, but you will have a chance to revise those essays throughout the semester. At your mid-term conference you will receive a provisional grade, which is in no way final and is not factored into your final grade. Rather, this mid-term assessment is intended to give you a sense of how your writing is being evaluated and of your progress in the course. You are always welcome to stop by during office hours to talk about your writing or your grade. You are encouraged to keep on reworking essays that you like throughout the semester.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Classroom participation will affect your grade. Lack of engagement or preparation will lower your grade. Regular comments and involvement with moving the ongoing conversation of the class forward will increase your grade.

Midterm and Final 60%
Class Participation and Exercises 30%
Presentation 10%


Optional Revision

At the end of the course, you will have an opportunity to revise, cut, and expand your midterm paper for a higher grade. This is completely voluntary, however, and we will discuss this in more detail as the semester progresses.



During the first week you will sign up for one of five presentation groups, each with its own topic. Your group will be responsible for leading one class over the course of the semester. You will be asked to give an overview/history of your assigned topic. Lead us into territory that you most care about. Feel free to be creative. Use technology, come prepared with a game, discussion questions, or whatever you feel is necessary to best serve the material being presented. We’ll talk about this more as we get further into the semester.



Turn off all cell phones, laptops, tablets, and whatever else is invented before this semester ends BEFORE class begins. If, at any point during class, you look at any of this technology, you will be marked absent. I will not disrupt class. You will just be automatically marked absent. Don’t check your phones if you want to pass this class. Don’t look at the readings on phones and laptops. Print them out.



If you miss class five times, you will fail. The ONLY excuses I will accept are a doctor’s excuse or some kind of family emergency.

You should always be on time for class. If you are late, you will not get credit for attending an entire class. If you are absent, it’s up to you to contact me to find out what you must make up.

If you are unprepared for discussion or workshop, I cannot give you credit for attendance that day.



The syllabus is subject to change. I will only push assignments and readings back however. No assignment will ever be due earlier than it’s listed here.


Special Assistance

If you have a disability that may have some impact on your work in this class and for which you may require accommodations, please inform me immediately so that your learning needs may be appropriately met. Students with a disability must register with the Services for Students with Disabilities office (SSD) in Schwitzer Center 206 (317-788-6153 / for disability verification and for determination of reasonable academic accommodations. You are responsible for initiating arrangements for accommodations for tests and other assignments in collaboration with the SSD and the faculty.



Intellectual theft, like any other kind of theft, is a crime, and is especially dangerous on a college campus. Plagiarism is defined as any use of another person’s thoughts or words as your own. I don’t expect to see plagiarism in this class, and if I do each case will be dealt with on an individual basis, but the MINIMUM penalty will be failure for the assignment in question. Failing the entire course is not out of the question. If you are doing research and are unsure how to incorporate someone else’s work into your own in a valid manner, please ask—I’ll be more than happy to help you out so that there’s no danger of confusion.


Course Sequence

Week One
August 26
Syllabus and Introductions
Action Comics #1

August 28
All-Star Superman Chapters 1-3

August 30
All-Star Superman Chapters 4-6


Week Two
September 4
All-Star Superman Chapters 7-9

September 6
All Star Superman Chapters 10-12


Week Three
September 9
Icelandic Myth Lecture

September 11
“The Sun God and the Dark Knight” in Supergods Presentation 1

September 13
“Batman Crucified: Religion and Modern Superhero Comic Books” by Bruce David Forbes
Discuss Midterm + Research


Week Four
September 16
“Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? Examination of the American Monomyth and the Comic Book Superhero” by Jeffrey Lang and Patrick Trimble Presentation 2

September 18
Watch Thor

September 20
Watch Thor


Week Five
September 23
Watch Thor
Abstract Due

September 25
Superman: Red Son Chapters 1-2

September 27
Superman: Red Son Chapters 3-5


Week Six
September 30
In Class Writing

October 2
In Class Writing

October 4
2 Page Draft Workshop


Week Seven
October 7
Watch Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods
Midterm Due

October 9
Watch Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods

October 11
“Superman on the Couch” and “Star, Legend, Superhero, Supergod?” in Supergods
Presentation 3


Week Eight
October 16
Student Conferences

October 18
Student Conferences


Week Nine
October 21
Student Conferences

October 23
Kingdom Come Chapters 1-2

October 25
Kingdom Come Chapters 3-4


Week 10
October 28
Watchmen Chapters 1-2

October 30
Watchmen Chapters 3-4

November 1
Watchmen Chapters 5-6


Week 11
November 4
Watchmen Chapters 7-9
Discuss Final

November 6
Watchmen Chapters 10-12

November 8
“Fearful Symmetry” in Supergods Presentation 4


Week 12
November 11
Watch Avengers

November 13
Watch Avengers

November 15
Abstract Due
Watch Avengers


Week 13
November 18
“Nu Marvel 9/11” in Supergods Presentation 5

November 20
In Class Writing

November 22
In Class Writing


Week 14
November 25
2 Page Draft Workshop


Week 15
December 2
Volunteer Student Conferences

December 4
Volunteer Student Conferences

December 6
Final Due


Midterm (2000 words) Due October 7th, 9am

Already this semester, we’ve seen examples of superhero stories that use religious iconography. In All-Star Superman, Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly give us a Superman who dies for our sins and rises from the dead. In Thor, we are introduced to literal gods engaged in a struggle that bleeds over into our world. And yet, we wonder. Is this religious iconography purposeful, or is it a side effect of most superhero stories boiling down into quasi-simplistic good vs. evil tales?

For your midterm, you will choose a side. Do superhero stories raid religious iconography from a wealth of sources indiscriminately with no broader intent? Or, do you agree with this quote from Bruce David Forbes: “The supersaviors in pop culture function as replacements for the Christ figure, whose credibility was eroded by scientific rationalism. But their superhuman abilities reflect a hope of divine, redemptive powers that science has never eradicated from the popular mind (p. xii).” Are superheroes meant to be representations of new gods? Or are they simply good vs. evil stories with no deeper meaning? Pick a side and prove it by analyzing your sources.

To aid your argument, you will use a total of five sources. You must address and organically integrate All-Star Superman, Thor, “Batman Crucified: Religion and Modern Superhero Comic Books”, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? Examination of the American Monomyth and the Comic Book Superhero”, and one additional ACADEMIC SOURCE you will find on your own—we will discuss how to do this more in class. Remember, do not write your paper and then go back and add quotes from your sources. Your paper should always address your sources in relation to your argument in every single paragraph.


Final (3000 words) Due December 6th, 9am

Grant Morrison, along with many others, has made the case that modern superhero stories are merely reflections of American political fears. Watchmen envisions a world where the only way to prevent the Cold War from turning nuclear is a fabricated alien attack. Red Son imagines a Superman who lands in Russia and subsequently tips the scales of the Cold War into Communism’s favor. Kingdom Come focuses on military prisons not unlike Russian gulags or our own Guantanamo Bay. And of course, Avengers culminates with a sci-fi battle that eerily recalls images from 9/11.

But there are doubters, people who believe that superhero stories are merely adventure tales with no connection to politics or global events. For your final, you will choose a side. Are modern superhero yarns designed to reflect American political fears? Or are superhero stories simplistic tales with no deeper meaning? Pick a side and prove it by analyzing your sources.

To aid your argument, you will use a total of six sources. Three must come from Red Son, Kingdom Come, Watchmen, and Avengers. One must be a single assigned chapter of your choosing from Supergods. And two must be academic sources you will find on your own—we will discuss how to do this more in class. Remember, do not write your paper and then go back and add quotes from your sources. Your paper should always address your sources in relation to your argument in every single paragraph.