CSUN Professor Signals DC Comics Superhero in Pop-Culture Studies Class

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English 313 “Studies In Popular Culture” Fall 2017.

(NORTHRIDGE, Calif., Aug 7, 2017) — Condensing the monumental impact that popular culture has on consumerism into a single-semester syllabus is nothing short of a superhero feat.

Charles Hatfield, professor of English at California State University, Northridge, has done just that by enlisting the help of DC Comics superhero Batman for the English 313 class he will be teaching this fall, “Studies in Popular Culture.”

“After teaching Batman in my comics and graphic-novels course this past spring, I was thinking, ‘I’m teaching Studies in Popular Culture for the first time in a while. What can I do to keep things fresh, to challenge myself and to draw students by reaching where their interests are?” Hatfield said. “I thought, ‘Batman! That might do it.’”

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English professor Charles Hatfield holds up a Batman novel inside his office in CSUN’s Sierra Tower. Photo by Lucas Wiggins.

The class — designed to explore the way audiences interact with and use mass culture and the possible social and political meanings — gives students the opportunity to critically analyze transmedia marketing by studying popular art forms such as comics and movies.

“The idea is not just comics, it’s Batman in all media: music, TV, games, toys, etc.,” Hatfield said. “In the study of mass culture, there’s the argument of structure versus agency. If you’re on the agency side, then you would be inclined to say that the consumers of mass culture are not just passively absorbing whatever the culture industries provide. However, the structure side denies that we have agency, that as individuals or as communities, we don’t have the power to resist whatever is being given to us.

“Is it a matter of dependence and absorbing what the big, monolithic corporate producers of this material give you?” he asked rhetorically. “Or is it a matter of using mass culture as a means of individual expression?”

Spanning generations, the long life of Batman has led to drastically contrasting interpretations. These clashing versions of the character take on different attitudes, providing topics for discussion on issues such as justice, economic and social class, crime and gender. The course objectives stress the influence that media marketing has on these issues, as well as how consumers and fans are affected, according to Hatfield.

“You have this trademarked character who’s been around for almost 80 years, but is still not in the public domain,” he said. “At the same time, there’s lots of unlicensed or frankly even illegal activity around the Batman character that you can see at events like Comic Con.”

Students enrolled in the course this fall can expect to leave the class with an understanding of the marketing strategies used by corporate media giants like DC Comics, and how consumer choices are influenced by them.

“Students will draw a lot of knowledge about the history of the Batman franchise, but that’s not the primary thing,” Hatfield said. “They’ll come away with a sense of what people call a transmedia franchise, or a cross-platform franchise, how that’s variously expressed and the fact that a franchise can move across media.

“They will have a sense of the social reach of transmedia-franchise marketing and how it can be many different things to many people.”

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