2017-2018 James Erickson

James Erickson, LASURI Winner

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Supersemeiotic: A Semeiotic Approach to Superheroines and Sign-Literacy in the United States


Philip Jenks  and David Schaafsma


This research is concerned with the semeiotic of Charles Sanders Peirce and the development of progressive superheroines in comic books. Over the past decade, superheroines in comic books have evolved from sidekicks and romantic interests into top-selling superheroes, in addition to being used as a symbol for social change in the United States. In this paper, using the semeiotic of Charles Sanders Peirce, the character of Captain Marvel is examined as an object endowed with socially-symbolic signs. This research aims to determine the underlying qualities of Captain Marvel’s signification and why certain significations may have a meaningful impact on her popularity in the United States. The close examination of Captain Marvel’s symbolic makeup is meant to set an example for other superheroic interpretations. Furthermore, this paper argues that sign-literacy in the United States is essential in effectively interpreting comic book literature to its fullest extent.


The inspiration for this project was born out of sheer curiosity. As a consumer of comic books, I arrived quite late to the party, only picking up my first books when I was about 21 years old. I started out reading many of the classic superheroes such as Batman, the X-Men, Nightwing, and other male-centric titles. Then, one day, I realized that I had been neglecting a massive, though quite subtle, figure in the comic book genre: the superheroine. As I started reading titles such as Supergirl, Batwoman, Batgirl, and Ms. Marvel, I recognized the value these books could have on teaching social discourse to both young readers and old readers. These books convinced me that female-led titles had just as much to say, if not more to say, on United States social and political issues than male-led titles. Furthermore, after attending the Women’s March in Chicago, and after seeing the iconography of Wonder Woman, Ms. Marvel, and Captain Marvel being used so emphatically as a symbol of social and political progress, I knew there had to be more to these heroines than what the average consumer might take away from them.


I was in a unique position when I arrived at UIC because I already had the semblance of an idea for this project. Taking English 161 brought me into the presence of a brilliant social researcher, Dr. Philip Jenks, and with his guidance the project took off (he would become my project supervisor for English 398/399). What I would say about my experience working with faculty, especially with Dr. Jenks, is that I learned to be open and honest, curious and willing to make mistakes, even big ones.

Over the course of my research project I engaged with many other faculty members who were in different departments, such as Dr. Thomas and Dr. Vaingurt, simply to learn the techniques of being a successful researcher. So, the question then is, how did I approach them initially? Well, I did simply that, I approached them. If you’re someone who wants to do research, you must be able first and foremost to ask for help. Allow yourself to ask questions, even seemingly simple questions. Faculty members are there to help you, to guide you, to aid you in becoming a successful researcher. Some of my most ridiculous questions (and trust me, there were many) turned out to be the most useful questions, because my mentors were able to help me make sense of what I was asking.

A large part of my time at UIC was spent at office hours with my professors. This is an aspect which I neglected for much of my undergraduate career, but I cannot express how valuable one-on-one time with a faculty member is. The one-on-one meetings are were you get the multitude of your ideas out in the open and start to piece them together as part of the larger picture. The conversation you want to become a part of with your research is built upon the conversations you have with your professors. So, be brave, approach your professors with confidence, allow yourself to be wrong, and enjoy the process of research!


A goal of mine even before this project started was to design my own research method. With that said, my particular process was a bit out of the ordinary when you think about traditional, perhaps scientific, research. There were no focus groups or tests or questionnaires. Rather, I spent most of my time engaging with comics books and scholarly articles and books on comic book culture. The focus of my project centered around finding parallels between what was being written about superheroines and the symbology of the superheroine, herself. I employed the semeiotic theory of Charles Sanders Peirce to locate any discrepancies between the scholarly literature and the inherent meaning of superheroine symbology. What the project ultimately wanted to do was pinpoint exactly what scholars, and even some media outlets, neglected when analyzing superheroines as symbols and symbolic processes in United States culture.

Overall, my project method was quite abstract. It involved a lot of critical reading and philosophical analysis, the latter of which I did not expect to dive into when I first started. That’s not to say I didn’t have a plan for moving forward, but my plan was loose enough where I could add or subtract elements, such as social theories and philosophical concepts, at any point in the project and not have to start back at square one. That’s not to say I allowed confirmation bias, but I allowed myself ample time to fill any logical holes if I felt that my claims held enough intrigue and potential to move the project forward. Again, a huge reason this abstract process worked for me was because of the guidance of Dr. Jenks and my other mentors.


My advice to LASURI applicants is that you can even research something as seemingly absurd as comic books. I am proud of this project because I got to research and write about a topic that is such an integral aspect of my identity. And that is what I would say to any interested researchers out there, pick a topic YOU want to write about, that you believe in with unwavering certainty. And, truth be told, not everyone will see the goal of your research, but that is perfectly fine. If you can convince yourself that what you want to research is worth researching, even if it’s for your own benefit, then go full speed into it. If you can do this, in my opinion, half the research battle is won, because the hardest person you will ever have to convince of your own work is yourself.

With all this said, don’t be afraid to apply, and don’t worry about your topic being too abstract. If you truly believe in what you’re researching, others will surely realize the value of your work and appreciate your noble endeavor. At the very least you will have the joy of knowing you completed a project about which you were passionate. And that in and of itself is the greatest reward. Happy researching!