Socializing Character Through Popular Comic Books

Fill in the blank: “With great power _______” If you know the answer to this, you’ve been exposed to American comic books. “With great power comes great responsibility” is the lesson that a young Peter Parker ignores from his uncle who subsequently dies from a fatal gunshot wound that Parker could have prevented. So what’s sociology have to do with this? Maybe I’m just trying to rationalize something I just enjoy, but I do think comic books are a window into social life. And believe it or not, they can sometimes illuminate aspects about religion we would not normally think about.

Comic books have received surprising new attention in part because the current President of the United States has stated publicly that he enjoyed them while growing up. Yes President Obama has gone on record as saying that his favorite comic book characters are Spiderman and Conan the Barbarian. Marvel Comics ran with this and showcased Spiderman with the new president:

and an independent company went so far as to mythologize the 2008 election campaign as the adventures of “Barack the Barbarian”

The primary audience for comic books as we all know is males of nearly every age now it seems; the incredible disproportion of male heroes to female heroes demonstrates this. The male heroes usually exhibit power manifested in superhuman and sometimes unearthly form. Strength, speed, invulnerability, energy- all of these are part of the world of super heroes. But since these stories of grown men and women are geared primarily at youngsters, they serve as moral narratives that inform young minds about life. This is not all that shocking to most of us; we understand how this works in any story we share with children from Grimm’s Fairy Tales to Harry Potter. Mainstream comic books simply offer another world (or worlds) in which these same dilemmas of right and wrong, good and evil, trust and betrayal, competition and cooperation, choice and action are all worked out in dramatic fantasy. In sociological terms media like comic books usually (not always) narrate moral values and become part of the socialization experience of many. Parents are always the number one source for modeling morality since they are usually the most visible to children. But comic books and other media can also be a means of socialization.

That said, I was hooked when I discovered this PBS documentary called “Wham! Bam! Islam!” It was a delightful narration of a dream that one Kuwaiti Muslim psychologist, Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa shared with the world: to make his faith accessible to familiar and new audiences through the medium of comic books.

The comic books that most readers of this blog are familiar with are nearly entirely based in America (and almost exclusively in New York [even in DC comics, Gotham City and Metropolis are just “New York by day” and “New York at night”]). And the heroes are almost entirely white and/or American. Interestingly most of our mainstream characters are actually religious and specifically Christian (mainly Catholic and Protestant forms as seen in this list online [hat tip to the individual or group to construct this]).

What’s a Muslim kid (or adult) to do when there’s nary a character in mainstream comic books that he can identify with? Indeed this website of superhero religious affiliations shows a list of Muslim heroes and if you look carefully you will notice that none of the 55 or so are clear central characters in the Marvel and DC Universes. Thirteen are particularly new and appear as a result of Dr. Al-Mutawa’s efforts. 

The aim was to create a world in which 99 superheroes emerged from a series of events linked to an archaeological object that’s significant in Muslim history. Each of the 99 represents an aspect of Allah’s character (technically 99 names of Allah). Through this story, the author can then portray Muslim virtue through the behavior and perhaps powers of superheroes that align with basic Muslim theology. As with any form of art that is intended for broad and young appeal, the specifics and accuracy of theology are tempered by clarity of narration. So it’s not surprising that Dr. Al-Mutawa has not gained sympathy from the most orthodox of Muslim theologians.

But for me, what’s so interesting here is not the theological content and whether it’s true to Islam. It’s about the social implications of this. As the second largest religion in the world, Islam has not had a positive portrayal in western cultures. Through the use of comic book superheroes that relate a relatively unheard of Islamic concept in Christian/secular environments, Al-Mutawa helps affirm Muslim identity for youngsters who might feel insecure about their faith in environments where they sense hostility. Imagine the Muslim kid who feels embarrassed about his Muslim faith in Iowa or Paris picking up an issue of The 99 and finding a new way to validate his culture and faith. And for those avid non-Muslim readers of comic books, we’re invited into this new world where heroism is linked with Muslim virtue.

So here’s my main and final point: why hasn’t any Christian thought about doing this with major characters? As the superhero religions website shows in the blurbs on the right, of the 14 “most consistently religious” only Wonder Woman stands out to me as a widely known character and her religion is “Greco-Roman Classical Religion” (she is Amazonian after all). From my experience, Daredevil’s Catholic background stood out to me as the only one among the pantheon of heroes to wrestle with his faith and his behavior. We have little evidence of comic book characters that portray Christian beliefs in ways that might model for young men and women the virtues described in the Christian traditions. Perhaps Christians who are concerned about the socialization of the next generation can learn from this new venture from a Muslim fan of comic books.



Popular Civil Religion and the Making of a Texas Convert

On our trek across the mid-Atlantic states recently, I experienced what I might describe as a new awareness of my Texanization (new word, copyright pending). We were at the National Harbor (near Washington DC), a neat plaza-like area flanked on 3 sides by streets and stores and 1 side facing the harbor (I still prefer to say that word like I remember hearing it from locals in South Bend, IN: “hhar-ber”). I was looking down the pier and gazed up at the many flags waving in the soft breeze. And it was at this moment I realized that something in me had changed.

I started looking for the Texas flag.

It took 8 years but who’s counting? Truth be told, understanding Texas culture was a part of my daily experience as the many symbols I saw seemed to add-up to what I describe as a popular civil religion. Civil religion is as Margarita Mooney pointed out earlier, quoting Robert Bellah:

“from the earliest years of the [American] republic is a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity. This religion-there seems no other word for it-while not antithetical to and indeed sharing much in common with Christianity, was neither sectarian nor in any specific sense Christian.”

It is a way of describing the kind of sacred qualities that imbue much of our national culture, from invoking God in speeches and anthems to the use of Biblical allusions and imagery in monuments, memorials and film. With the infusion of the sacred in our national pride we tend to associate American-ness as a kind of semi-religious experience. Indeed many modern nations have some examples of civil religion if one looks closely enough.

But Texas is unique in this regard. It’s not that its civil religious sensibility with respect to the US is so much greater than any other state. It’s that its civil religious sensibility with itself is so remarkable. Texas has its own heroes (e.g. Davy Crockett, Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin), its own sacred sites (e.g. Alamo, San Jacinto) to be sure. My emphasis here is on the popular dimension of civil religion, which I describe as the everyday faith of civil religion. Texas has this in spades. Much as “God bless America” pins would be an example of popular American civil religion, “God bless Texas” would be a similar example for this state. To point out how unique this is, can you name one other state that with this kind of religious infusion?

This popular civil religion is bundled together with other examples of how the state identity is so deeply emblazoned (sometimes literally on the body) in the everyday experience of Texas life. I often like to use my home state of Pennsylvania as a counterexample. I have never seen:

Pennsylvania shaped ice cube trays

Pennsylvania shaped tortilla chips



Pennsylvania shaped handicap-parking symbols (!)

The other image that one sees with remarkable frequency is the state flag. It’s not just that car dealerships seem to compete for the biggest version of the state flag, it’s that the flag is visible in all manner of clothing and art (note the tattoo above).

It would not surprise me one bit if young Texans could well draw the shape of their state AND the state flag given the way these images are branded everywhere. I know of no other state with this degree of commitment to brainwashing, er, socializing the residents and visitors with Texas pride. Indeed I’ve grown so accustomed to these popular civic symbols that I now look for it (or even other state equivalents) whenever I am traveling.


What other states emphasize their identity in ways that resemble the Lone Star state? Any curious examples of Texas tchotchke come to mind?

Of Institutions and Communal Memory

It’s been a tough week here in Waco. I hope readers of this blog will pardon my tendency to “read sociology” into my personal experience-maybe it’s how I cope sometimes. I’m currently a member of a local church as well as a faculty member at Baylor University. Both of these affiliations reflect an important connectedness one feels with others who also share these same identities. So it was doubly hard to hear on Sunday morning the news that a fellow church member and colleague passed away after a 6 month battle with lymphoma. Her memorial service was beautiful and I was struck by the mass of people who made it out to remember her in this moment. She was not even 40 but already her impact had extended well beyond her family.

And prior to this announcement I spent the previous week at court for the first time in a jury. I’ve always known in the abstract the duties of being on a jury, but as with participation in any organization and institution, one understands these responsibilities in a deeper way when called to serve. This was all the more pronounced for me since the case was one of the most pernicious: child sexual abuse. The prosecuting team did well in conveying the evidence, but the evidence, and the narration of events that connect the evidence together jostled me to the core. I could hear and see with my mind’s eye the multiple generations of dysfunction in this victim’s social context. It would take Child Protective Services, the police department, a local clinic, and lawyers to intercede and end over a year of abuse. But after the sentencing I still wonder whether (no, I hope) the resilience she showed in calling the cops the day that ended the abuse will carry her further still.

As organizations and institutions created by people, it struck me that churches, colleges, hospitals, law enforcement, social and legal services draw us into each other’s lives. We meet people we would not otherwise have ever known. And while in these institutions, whether for many years or a mere 3 days we share the experience of being embedded together. This I think invites us to remember the people who shared that same institutional space. Moreover it’s important that there are others who are also in this space with us to help remember together. It reminds me of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s concept of the plausibility structure (see their highly readable The Social Construction of Reality). Organizations and institutions help remind us of what is real and they help define how we are to relate to one another.

For my part, I will remember my church sister and colleague, and I will remember this young girl. Participating in these institutions of church, education, and law grant me, and others, the privilege to meet them as time and circumstance allow -and remember them.

Good Data, Confusing News and the Reinforcing of Stereotypes: Reporting on The Pew Asian American Survey Report

Over the past year I have had the privilege to work with the Pew Research Center on developing what I believe is the most rigorous survey sample of Asian Americans. Given the deep pockets that form the financial base of Pew, I had high hopes that this survey would indeed help us pinpoint better what we can know about Asian America. Indeed, this survey, while smaller in sample than the National Asian American Survey 2008 (3,500 compared to over 5,000), improves upon it and its predecessors in sampling methodology and in simply asking a lot more questions of a random sample of Asian Americans.

“Asian American” is a weird term in the sense that it assumes a commonality among Americans of Asian descent when in fact it’s a massive amalgamation of no less than 20 different nationalities. This dual tension of perceived commonality and diversity is a hallmark dilemma in the social sciences, especially when discussing minority groups. How similar are Asian Americans and how diverse are we? A good survey of Asian Americans needs to account for both.

One of the major problems facing Asian Americans today is the proverbial “positive stereotype” called the “model minority myth.” It asserts that Asian Americans are a racial minority group that embodies American ideals of hard work and discipline and the concomitant material rewards of more (and prestigious) education, greater income, desirable jobs, as well as the social reward of receiving praise from the dominant group. This would overemphasize commonality and de-emphasize diversity.

Why is this a problem? Because a closer look at data on Asian Americans reveals that this myth applies only to very select cuts of the Asian American population and yet is applied to all. In a media-saturated environment like ours, such perceptions are amplified and sow seeds that help grow racialized beliefs about Asian Americans. And anyone who grows up in this culture is susceptible to it.

So survey research and the reporting of such research is not necessarily absolutely neutral; it’s possible that unclear reports of survey research can distort the very reality it supposedly portrays. The recent reporting of the new Pew Research Center’s Asian American Survey (2012) is one powerful illustration of how this plays out.

For example, the Pew study rolls out this statistic we see a lot: Asian American household incomes are higher than the national average. In fact it’s not even just higher by $1000-$2000, it’s almost $15,000 higher (see p.29).

screenshot p.29 Pew Asian American survey report

The report notes a couple of important qualifiers with a couple of cites for readers to reference. Based on the largest Asian ethnic groups, 2 are even higher than the Asian American median. The other four are below that median, and in fact Koreans are just $200 on average higher than the national average. Scholars have also stressed a few other pieces to the puzzle over these high figures, and the Pew report mentions these without putting the parts together.  Asian Americans today are largely immigrant (p.24), but specifically “highly-skilled” immigrants. This means these immigrants have more education (p. 25), and possibly more work experience than other immigrants. In fact the Pew report notes that Asian immigrants even differ from their peers in their countries of origin. For example, 27% of adults (ages 25-64 specifically) in South Korea had a bachelor’s degree, whereas 70% of Korean immigrants (in the same age range) had the same. With such high level of education we should not be surprised that we find a larger proportion in management and professional level (i.e. mostly white-collar) occupations (p. 27). These kinds of jobs usually offer better pay and more consistent pay than most other jobs and about half of Asian America are in this sector compared to about 40% for the rest of the country. Later on (p.33), the report mentions that nearly half of Asian America (47%) resides in one region (and most of these very specifically in one state, California). One of the highest cost-of living regions is the West, and California, and Hawaii exceedingly so.

When we stop to put these parts together, Asian American household income appears higher but no other group in the US has the same internal social dynamics like what we see among them. No other group is dominated by high-skilled immigrants, high educational attainment (acquired largely before arrival to the US), more fulltime workers per household in one of the most expensive states to live in. The report does not apply this degree of rigor, but more importantly we see examples like the following in major news outlets:

“The Pew report, titled “The Rise of Asian Americans,” finds that Asians are the highest-income and best-educated racial group in the U.S. Nearly half (49 percent) of Asian-American adults have a college degree, and they boast a median annual household income of $66,000 (versus the U.S. median of $49,800).” ( 6/19)

“Positive stereotypes about Asian Americans are rooted in reality: They are more educated, wealthier and value work, marriage and family more than Americans as a whole, according to a Pew Research report out today.” ( 6/18)

The lack of nuance leaves us with the impression that Asian Americans have it pretty good. What’s so bad about a “positive stereotype?” It allows us to dismiss the concerns of the vulnerable among these so-called model minorities.

Advocacy groups took notice and acted fast. Groups like the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (an umbrella organization of over 30 groups) have now expressed concern publicly over these gross generalizations that have not furthered the conversation but instead may contribute to further misunderstanding Asian America.

So even a report based on census data and a a new state-of-the-art survey of an understudied group can still lead to erroneous reporting from mass media outlets that can reinforce myths.

As part of my calling as a social scientist, its important to address stereotypes with data. What’s challenging is dealing with the media patterns that undermine good data such as running stories that minimize complexity as witnessed by the recent reportage of the new Pew report on Asian Americans.

How else might social scientists help media to make appropriate narrations based on survey data?