Class on Marvel universe takes Trinity students to Comic-Con and beyond
by Jeremy Gerlach
Thousands of screaming fans. Face paint everywhere. Hometown heroes in iconic uniforms, displaying superhuman feats of strength, speed, and agility.
Sounds like your typical NBA or NFL game, but we’re not talking sports—this is the world of superheroes, and this is Comic-Con.
“Comic book fans aren’t freaks or weirdos: they’re normal people who enjoy a certain niche,” says Alexandra Parris ’20. “In pop culture, it’s the ‘nerds’ and the ‘geeks’ who like comic books and science fiction, but a comic convention doesn’t seem that much different from a football stadium full of people wearing face paint and giant cheese wedges on their head, like a Green Bay Packers game. That’s totally wild and crazy for me, too!”
And as crazy as Comic-Con can get, it’s just part of the classroom for Trinity students like Parris. A theatre and communication double major out of Incarnate Word Academy in Houston, Parris is taking Comm 3325 this semester, a class that digs into the Marvel Transmedia Universe. Taught by Dr. Jennifer Henderson, communication department chair, the course takes a deep, critical, and research-intensive look into the Marvel comics, movies, and media that have taken the world by storm over the past decade.
For Parris, a “huge Marvel fan,” this class has been just what the “mister doctor” ordered. She loves the Marvel cinematic universe (MCU) movies and comics, and even cosplays (dresses in costume) regularly. Like many kids coming of age in the 2000s, she fondly remembers watching the Tobey Maguire Spiderman trilogy, along with her whole family going to see the first Iron Man movie in 2008. She sees the whole Marvel fandom as a “mainstay, a story, a set of characters that have followed and been with me during the most formative years of my life.”
Who makes Parris’ top superhero list? Captain America, Iron Man—because a lot of Trinity friends remind her of the brilliant, cocky, but brave inventor who “grows and gets better as he gets older”—and Spiderman.
So, when looking through Trinity’s course of studies bulletin, Henderson’s class stuck out to Parris like Thanos’ sore thumb.
“I was like, ‘That’s so incredible—and I love Dr. Henderson, so this was an incredible opportunity to take one of her classes,” Parris says.
Reality, as the supervillain Thanos puts it, is often disappointing. But Henderson’s class, Parris says, has not been.
The core of the class revolves around big, cultural touchstones, like the recent Black Panther movie, the Avengers series of tentpole films, and even graphic novels, comics, and more “old school” comic media. And while plenty of schools offer similar, pop-culture-oriented courses, Parris says the class really delves “into the intricacies of Marvel, beyond the surface.”
At Trinity, our students aren’t passive observers. They don’t wait: they do. So, on top of this challenging curriculum, Henderson gave Parris and her entire class a dream assignment: head to Alamo City Comic-Con this October, and conduct ethnographic research on what they see.
“I’m asking them to produce a mini-ethnography of the Comic-Con,” Henderson explains. “We’re taking an analytical look at the convention as a gathering of people, exploring their tendencies and habits. What characters are you seeing cosplayed? What types of heroes are being represented? What merchandise are you seeing? Which celebrities have the longest visiting lines? Are there more Captain America t-shirts than Gamoras?”
That’s not to say Parris and her classmates were all work and no play: Parris got to complete her assignment in cosplay, dressing as a retro Captain America, complete with an iconic, star-studded shield.
In character, she found several other “Caps” and a Loki—an enemy of Cap in the first Avengers film—which was “very entertaining for us both,” but Parris says she had the most fun listening to what children told her.
“One six-year-old boy told me, ‘I’m sorry you didn’t get a chance to punch Hitler,’” Parris laughs. “That was the highlight of my weekend—it was just so sweet.”
But beyond socking Adolf, Red Skull, and other maniacal monsters, Parris took a lot more from her Comic-Con quest.
“I’ve been going to conventions for almost 10 years now, so I’ve seen everything and anything under the sun,” Parris jokes. “But things that stuck out to me: someone had a set of Captain Marvel plates—not decorative, but ones you can eat off of? Alright—and there were also cars decked out as heroes. One was a Deadpool car, a Captain America car, Iron Man. Just wasn’t expecting that. So we’re going to talk about the strategy behind all this merchandise.”
Parris and her classmates are still compiling their findings, and she says she can’t wait to swap experiences with her classmates.
“I can’t think of any other school that has such a focus on the experiential learning—getting out there to a comic-con and doing actual research,” Parris says. “Having the chance to look at this from a more critical eye, instead of just gawking at people and spending money, that’s uniquely Trinity. We’re not just theorizing about a comic convention or watching a documentary, but getting in the middle of things, immersing ourselves in an entire culture we would never otherwise be part of.”
Beyond the lenses of marketing, advertising, and commerce, the trip to Comic-Con also provided another lesson that can’t be fully taught in the classroom.
“Acceptance is a big theme of Marvel, and of comic books in general,” Parris says. “It’s a safe space for everyone, no matter who you are and who you love, or what you look like. And I think comic conventions are really great, real-life applications of that. Having a class at Trinity that allows us to immerse ourselves into that is really amazing and eye-opening for a lot of people.”
And even though the Comm 3325 class will wrap up well before the next Avengers movie drops, Parris says she already knows her studies will have a lasting impact.
“Marvel’s one of those things that connects me to my grandparents: my grandfather was reading Marvel comics before they were ‘Marvel comics’” she says. (The company was first founded as Timely Publications in 1939, then rebranded Atlas Comics in 1950, then became Marvel in 1961).
“This is a whole universe that my grandfather and I can connect, to share these stories, and to have this generational bonding moment.” Parris says. “Having the chance to go and officially study this? That’s something that’s beyond important to me—that really makes this class worth it.”
Jeremy Gerlach is Trinity's brand journalist, and like 'Cap, he can do this all day. Email him at jgerlach [at] trinity.edu or find him on Instagram @gerlachholmes.