Ugly, inside and Out: A Critical Sociological Analysis of the Comic Book Villain

Albert Hawks, University of Michigan

Almost anyone in American society, young and old, could likely describe a super-villain like Lex Luthor or The Joker. Yet how such popular culture villains shape social life through affecting, for instance, our conceptions of good and evil, moral and immoral has not been studied in depth. Cultural sociology and religious studies offer significant insights, however. Initial analyses in cultural sociology pointed out that social life is situated within a horizon of affect and meaning. Recent studies have focused explicitly on the production and reproduction of the aesthetic public sphere in society, namely on that popular space where fundamental social meanings and moral values are negotiated. Likewise, recent studies in religion underline the vast complexity of the religious experience within society at large. Scholars state that our contemporary secular thoughts and actions in general and conceptions of good and evil, and right or wrong are fundamentally shaped by religion. In this paper, I build on these insights to critically analyze the aesthetic public sphere in the US through a historical investigation of the visual history of super-villains in DC comics. I argue that these comics contain strong visual cues associated with evil that become dominant in the aesthetic public sphere and such an association suggests a fundamental problem with existing conceptions of religion and secularism at large.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 114. Religion and Culture