Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2016

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In


First Advisor

Landon, Brooks

First Committee Member

Adams, Bluford

Second Committee Member

Bolton, Linda

Third Committee Member

Creekmur, Corey

Fourth Committee Member

Glass, Loren


Comic Book Realism: Sincerity, Ethics, and the Superhero in Contemporary American Literature reads a trio of recent American novels in the context of superhero comics, the influence of which looms large over these texts but has for one reason or another been largely neglected by critics. Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, and Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao feature protagonists whose immersion in their comic book collections translates into their lives by allowing them to comprehend and interact with the world in the language of the superhero metaphor.

I argue that these texts should be studied because of, and not despite, their affiliation with superhero comics, against what seems to be a latent critical bias which has led many to overlook or disregard the superheroic elements of these texts. Understanding how Chabon, Lethem, and Díaz engage with the superhero genre is essential to understanding their engagement with issues of identity, ethical responsibility, and masculinity. Daniel Bautista has read Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao as a work not of magical realism but of something new, “comic book realism,” which blends a realist approach to literature with popular culture citations in order to represent with accuracy the myriad cultural influences coming to bear on his characters’ lives. I suggest that Bautista’s label should be extended to Chabon, Lethem, and a variety of other authors who are engaging with the genre as Díaz does; in so doing, I connect a variety of novels which have either seldom been studied before or have never been studied in connection with each other.

I begin by examining comic book realism’s affinity with emerging theories about the literary movement following postmodernism, which some have dubbed “post-postmodernism.” I argue that comic book realism’s approach to questions of identity, as informed by the dynamic between superhero and alter ego, aligns with Adam Kelly’s sense of a post-postmodern New Sincerity, which rejects any ironic valence between identity and mass culture; consequently, the novels of comic book realism unironically engage with superhero comics as tools for identity formation. I then turn to Levinasian ethics in order to address the charge that superhero comics are solely escapist; instead, I argue that escapism in these novels necessitates an act of memory, an ethical awareness of the absence from which these characters are attempting to escape. These texts, then, are not unethical in their attempts to escape historical atrocities like the Holocaust. Rather, they constitute an ethical act of remembrance in foregrounding this absence.

In my penultimate chapter, I take up the question of masculinity, so central to the gendered space of superhero comics, arguing that the novels of comic book realism reject the hypermasculine standard of the superhero in favor of what I call an ideal of “mild-mannered masculinity,” after the superhero’s alter ego. Compared to the virile and confident Superman identity, Clark Kent represents a model of masculinity that is weak and timid, a model valorized by Chabon, Lethem, and Díaz. In my final chapter, I take stock of the contributions of women writers to the genre of comic book realism, whose work is overlooked by the presupposition that superhero comics are a boy’s domain. Here I find that the women writers evince a need to create their own space in the superhero genre, while I suggest that recent trends in the genre suggest that the next generation of women writers may engage with the genre in a different, somewhat unpredictable way.


American literature, comic books, superhero


xii, 300 pages


Includes bibliographical references.


Copyright © 2016 Zachary Harrison King