Media such as film, television, and comic books are frequently held to have an influence on the way we think and act. How can we understand the impact of media on us? There are numerous ways of doing so, but for a historian tracing the impact of one comic book character over a period of time offers an insight into how a culture understands itself.
A/P Ian Gordon's research looks at the ways in which the comic book character Superman lets Americans think about themselves, the history of their country, and what it means to be an American. His approach is to examine the different versions of Superman from his origins in comic books in 1938, and then through various other forms of media in which he has appeared such as comic strips, radio serials, movies, and television series such as Lois and Clark and Smallville. He is interested in how a commercial product can become not only an American cultural symbol, but one rich in meaning for both Americans and the international community. A/P Gordon is working with the hypothesis that nostalgia for the character helps create a sense of history and in turn gives Superman cultural significance. Superman offers many possibilities for storytelling focused on what is morally right or virtuous, but Superman's virtue is set by the social conditions in America at the time when a particular version is created. Moreover nostalgia can be commercialised as a form of intellectual property and the Time-Warner has generated billions of dollars of profit from Superman.
A/P Gordon's interest in comics and American culture stems from his childhood reading and watching of American media in his native Australia. As a historian he has long been interested in the interaction of different cultures and the role of the media. He believes that to understand America's impact on the world one must first understand America the way it understands itself.
He earned his PhD with a doctorate on the role of comic strips and comic books in creating a culture of consumption in the USA. His book Comic Strips and Consumer Culture published by the Smithsonian Institution Press in 1998 deals with early aspects of this process. This book is on the American history syllabus at both Oxford and Cambridge. Since then he has worked on Superman and published two articles “Superman on the Set: The Market, Nostalgia and Television Audiences,” in Mark Jancovich and James Lyons (eds), Quality Popular Television: Cult TV, the Industry and Fans (London and Berkeley, 2003) and “Nostalgia, Myth, and Ideology: Visions of Superman at the End of the American Century,” in Matthew McAllister, Edward Sewell and Ian Gordon (eds), Comics & Ideology . (New York, 2001). His most recent volume Film and Comic Books was published in 2007. One of his articles on Superman appears in the 2008 cultural studies anthology, Cultural Studies edited by Michael Ryan. A/P Gordon is at work on a book about History, Memory, and Nostalgia that will use Superman as the focal point of analysis. In this research he is looking at comic books, television series, films, and web sites created by fans to understand how Superman plays a role in shaping Americans' sense of themselves.
Superman related Web sites