Heroes and Superheroes in Culture

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Project Humanities at Arizona State University will launch its spring kickoff series “Heroes, Superheroes, and Superhumans,” February 10-16 to examine what constitutes heroes and heroism in pop culture and everyday life. Tony Parker, a Marvel and DC Comic artist and professor of Art at Phoenix College, will discuss the series and the topic of heroes.

Ted Simons: ASU's Project Humanities is conducting a week-long series of events titled "Heros, Superheros, and Superhumans." It's a look at what constitutes heros and heroism in popular culture. Tony Parker, a Marvel and D.C. Comic artist and professor of art at Phoenix College is hereto discuss the series.

Tony Parker: I think it's really important to know and study what you're working with. I'm also a working professional, and I know exactly what I can take from the academic knowledge and use that for my professional side.

Ted Simons: So basically use it as a grounding for your art and your stories.

Tony Parker: As well, know more what works on a subconscious or academic level.

Ted Simons: What is a superhero?

Tony Parker: Someone who stands up for what they believe in and what is right. Within comics, with metaphor, it's much easier to digest. Batman works so well because he's mostly masked, in a costume. Same with Spiderman. Therefore anyone can identify with them.

Ted Simons: Interesting.

Tony Parker: The villains aren't just there to beat people up. Batman's Rogues' Gallery, each one is a metaphor for something that could be considered negative to society. You have Bane, a criminally intelligent drug dealer on steroids. You have the Joker, who is instability. There are so many of them that work on a metaphoric level, as well.

Ted Simons: Isn't that -- I never thought of the mask as being something that would allow to us better identify. I thought they just wore masks.

Tony Parker: In the story, it's so that they can keep themselves safe and friends and families safe. From a viewership standpoint, it's much easier to identify with someone. It's one of the reasons the NFL is so popular.

Ted Simons: So with that in mind, does a hero have to be exceptional? If we're identifying with them, are they doing something we either wish we could do or --

Tony Parker: There has to be a concept, but it doesn't have to be pure physicality or one aspect. It has to be the spirit of the hero. The X-men, Charles Xavier, he's been wheelchair bound. He's got a disability, but he's found his own way to make things work for him.

Ted Simons: Again, is the concept of heroism and the concept of people who can take a limit or some sort of a liability and make it work for them, has that changed over time?

Tony Parker: In specifics, yes. In general, no. Specifically, the early superheros, the Batman, Superman, were very iconic characters, very easy to identify with. What made Spiderman and the X-men so popular, they were troubled people. They were trying to figure out their place in the world. Spiderman had lost his family and was bullied a lot. They were much more well-rounded characters.

Ted Simons: We have a still of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. This was adapted into "Bladerunner."

Tony Parker: It was a loose adaptation of it. The project was up for one of the top comic book awards, essentially the Oscar for comics. We worked with the Philip K. Dick estate to do an adaptation of that novel.

Ted Simons: That's remarkable work and it's a remarkable piece of work.

Ted Simons: It's very different than, I'm going to go get the Joker at Gotham City.

Tony Parker: It's a great way to get people to read a great sci-fi book. Every word in it is in the graphic novel. It's a way to introduce people to science fiction, as well.

Ted Simons: How do science fiction and heroes and the whole nine yards, how does that fit in with myth?

Tony Parker: They are the modern myth. They are the people that do the things we can't. If you go with a Gilgamesh, half god and half human, they do these things normal people can't do. It shows that impossible odds can be completed and done usually with a virtuous spirit and aspirations.

Ted Simons: That looked like myth and then some.

Tony Parker: My friend did an absolutely beautiful job with it.

Ted Simons: It's King Conan. Again, you say Conan and you used to say the barbarian. Now a host to talk about, as well. Talk to us about this particular character, this particular series. Can you change someone as familiar as Conan?

Tony Parker: You can't. The best metaphor is the suit. You can change the lapel or the collar or take it in and out, but you can't change the suit altogether. You can find the primal aspects that work. Conan is still very much a survivor. You modify them to fit what the modern guys did.

Ted Simons: The modern Zeitgeist in terms of pop culture?

Tony Parker: If you go to other parts of the world and go to Japan and Europe, they are a much more respected art form than just the genre. Once things are worth so much more than that, it's one of the reasons the Avengers movie, the Batman and Superman movies are so popular. They are recognizable. They translate throughout.

Ted Simons: What do you want folks to take from the week-long session?

Tony Parker: I want them to ask questions, think more about graphic novels as so much more than they walked into it with.

Ted Simons: Fascinating stuff, good to have you here, thanks for joining us.

Tony Parker: Thanks for having me.

Tony Parker:Marvel, DC Comic Artist and Professor of Art, Phoenix College;

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