My Hero

Henry Gannett, 3, is dressed as "Super Henry" and his brother Finn, 1, wears a Superman cape as they go to the "My Hero" exhibit at the Yellowstone Art Museum with their parents Tucker and Kristin Gannett on Thursday, August 24, 2017.

CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

In the midst of a 130-piece exhibit of superhero-inspired artwork, a local professor will deliver a lecture Thursday night at the Yellowstone Art Museum exploring the concept of the antihero in graphic novels and comics.

The lecture, titled "The Antihero in Contemporary Comics," will look at some of the connections between depictions of antiheroes and the rising popularity of the graphic novel.

Aaron Rosen, a professor of religious studies and director of international and cultural projects at Rocky Mountain College, guessed that most people don’t have a firm understanding of what an antihero is.

“It’s someone who isn’t perfect, who doesn’t have super strength or super abilities, and yet is somehow the protagonist in their struggle,” Rosen said.

Not unlike the antiheroes featured in some contemporary graphic novels, the origin story for Rosen’s interest in graphic novels is more grounded in reality than romanticism.

“I’d like to think I was one of those true believers who grew up collecting comic books. It’s really not the case,” Rosen said. “I really don’t like fantasy that much. I was never into superheroes or anything like that. It was only as an adult, as an academic, that I realized how much I was missing in some of these different media.”

The work of graphic novelist Art Spiegelman will likely be play a role in Rosen’s lecture Thursday night. Spiegelman's "Maus" was the first graphic novel Rosen read that opened his eyes to the potential of the medium.

“That you could tell the story of the Holocaust literally as a cat-and-mouse game, and that that could be so much more complex than the readings I’d done as a child," he said. "There's almost no limits to the serious subject matter that people can explore through graphic novels."

The degree of complexity in graphic novels is something that Rosen believes people may overlook. Currently teaching his first semester of a course at Rocky called Religion, Philosophy and Comics, Rosen said early discussion in class focused on preconceptions about comic books. Some students have been surprised at the power graphic novels have to tell stories and explore ideas, he said. 

Graphic novels and the antiheroes that inhabit them can be “morally withering, self-critical,” and can “really deconstruct a lot of our ideas,” Rosen said. “I think that’s where the idea of the antihero is really useful.”

“Comics and graphic novels can work so well because they have the iconography of good and evil, so they can use those symbols and then they can deconstruct. So they can use those binaries and then deconstruct them,” Rosen said.

According to Rosen, the striking artwork of graphic novels can sometimes disguise their intellectual weight. He said he hopes any educators who attend might see ways in which they can "kind of smuggle in really complex, interesting material and trick people into being interested."

Rosen's lecture will be from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 Thursday night at the Yellowstone Art Museum. The lecture is included with an admission fee and is available free to YAM members and High Five Pass cardholders. 

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Night Reporter

General assignment reporter for The Billings Gazette.