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Joss Whedon in Classics and Comics: Examining the Hero

Saturday 26 February 2011, by Webmaster

What do Achilles, Ajax, and Wolverine all have in common? Can one read Sophocles’ tragedies, and see the same archetypes in Chris Claremont’s revival of the Uncanny X-Men series? That is what Peter Belmonte ’11 and the 15 students in his forum, “CCIV 420: Defining Heroism: From Antiquity to the Astonishing X-Men,” are hoping to find out. To them, the epic scope and heroism of Homer’s Iliad and Joss Whedon’s “Astonishing X-Men” may not be so dissimilar.

“We are exploring the constitution of heroes through the narratives of ancients like Homer, Sophocles, Euripedes, and contemporaries [two X-Men writers] Chris Claremont and Joss Whedon,” Belmonte said. “The premise of the comparison is to study the characteristics of these somewhat parallel examples of cultural concepts of heroism.”

As of right now, however, connections among these texts have not yet been fully illuminated. The forum has only read ancient literature, and it will not reach the more unconventional comic book texts until after spring break.

“We split the semester in half,” Belmonte said. “I always thought about trying to read them in concert, but it seemed more straightforward to examine one set of material and then the other. So far we’ve been reading the Iliad and secondary material sources, basically one per week, and then the two tragedies, Ajax and Medea, to get a broader spectrum of the archaic hero.” According to Belmonte, the ideas central to the forum spawned in a class he took last semester—Gender in Ancient Greece, with Assistant Professor of Classical Studies Eirene Visvardi—but he’s been ruminating on the foundational concepts since childhood.

“A lot of what we discussed last semester about gender dynamics involved conceptions of manhood and heroism,” Belmonte said. “The heroics of the X-Men, however, have been an interest of mine since I watched the cartoon as a kid. I also found myself drawn to literature like those from ancient Greece, and classes like the Epic Tradition, so I started drawing conclusions about the similarities between the two. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to get some authority behind my musings, so I thought, ‘What the hell?’”

Belmonte, however, has other objectives in mind beyond exploring the connection between Achilles and Cyclops.

“My goals and hopes for the forum are to share my passion for these kinds of texts with my friends but also explore and develop some kind of central, collective thesis,” Belmonte said. “A thesis not only about what kind of themes these texts portray, but also what purposes they serve for their audiences and cultures, from any era.”

The diverse group of students enrolled in the forum, which is at maximum capacity, share in Belmonte’s vision. He said that not everyone who wanted to get in was enrolled—some are auditing, and he expects more to come once they reach the X-Men portion of the class.

“It’s an interesting mix,” wrote Jacob Kleinman ’11, a student in the forum, in an e-mail to The Argus [Kleinman is an Executive Editor of The Argus]. “A lot of Peter’s friends from WesCrew got into the class, so I’m learning a lot about Greek heroism and a lot about bro culture as well.”

Students are responsible for completing weekly readings on the dense Iliad and other ancient tragedies. As daunting as the thought of reading a 700 page poem, plus weekly responses, may seem to many, the students in the forum eagerly took on the challenge. Many professed that they are as excited for the opportunity to read about Achilles and Hector as they are to discuss Professor Xavier and Magneto.

“I am a diehard X-Men fan, so it was a no-brainer,” said Nick Huston ’13. “I also really enjoy Greek tragedy and am really interested to see how the heroes from all these stories compare to each other. I’ve also never read any of the Greek literature we’re covering, but I’ve read the X-Men several times, and I’m excited to look really well-read to all the other students.”

The format of the student forum is not too dissimilar from traditional courses taught by professors. Belmonte certainly helps to direct the conversation—he asks probing questions and brings up points that students might have missed—but there is no lack of enthusiasm from the participants, who he calls his peers. The atmosphere may be casual up in PAC 402—“Oreos galore,” Huston said, in reference to snack time scheduled midway through the class—but everyone is serious about the subject.

“The students also do a great job of asking challenging questions and putting well-thought ideas out on the table for others to answer and respond to,” Huston said. “People participate often, and the first week we made it through almost all three hours. Last week was a little slower, but the reading has been dense so far, so I’m optimistic about future classes. Reading the Iliad in three weeks is a lot to ask, especially of a student forum.”

Belmonte also hopes to bring in other interpretations of the texts. He plans on playing at least one of the recent X-Men movies, as well as “Troy.”

“I think it would be an interesting comparison,” he said. “What kind of effect does the medium have on audience perception of heroism and romantic conflict?”

The students are also happy with Belmonte as the forum’s facilitator, and with the quality of the class dynamic.

“The conversation has been good,” Kleinman wrote. “Peter shines as a teacher. He comes to class with a set agenda of things he wants to talk about and he leads discussions on each topic. We’ve been acting out a lot of scenes from the Iliad—not any battle scenes though, just dialogue.”

Oren Finard ’14 agreed with Kleinman and echoed the opinion that Belmonte is an excellent instructor. A first-rate discussion and Belmonte’s extensive knowledge of heroes helped overcome his original skepticism.

“No one knows his heroes like Peter,” Finard wrote in an e-mail to The Argus. “Peter is a really great teacher. The atmosphere is more relaxed than that of any of my ‘professor’ classes, but in a really positive and constructive manner. The relaxed atmosphere and the use of vernacular language in the classroom makes the communication and discussion of ideas a much more fluid and enjoyable experience.”

Belmonte is excited to move on to the X-Men after break, but he loves both the classic and modern texts. When pressed, it was difficult for him to pick a favorite.

“I’d have to go with the X-Men but not by a long shot. They are related. I think they serve a similar function for a contemporary audience.”

But the full-sized tattoo of Nightcrawler on his back seemed to suggest it was not so close of a tie.

“When it came down to it, I figured I might as well go all the way and took on the whole thing,” he said. “In the end I’ve realized, ‘What could be better to tattoo onto yourself than the distinguishing characteristic of your number one hero?’ I guess that relates it, in some way, to my class. The word hero, at the most basic level, is just someone that stands out of the crowd and sets an example to be admired, looked up to, idealized. I wouldn’t call it coincidence, but it’s significant that the character died in just the past year, making his character that much more inspiring and his remembrance that much more important.”