Phillip Thurtle

Philip Thurtle

Last week the Davies Forum hosted its last speaker of the semester: Phillip Thurtle. As a Sociology student (soon to be graduate!), his talk was fascinating.

Phillip argues that we can explore both the present and the future in comic books. Comics show us what we fear as a society, and it also shows us how society could one day be.

Although I agree with his latter point, it is the first one I am more immediately interested in. Sociologists study the crap out of everything in order to learn what the norms, values, and ideologies are of a society, and fear is an important part of this. One of the more omnipresent fears is that of new technology; society feared the radio, the television, and now it fears the Internet. And I am sure at some point we feared the book, which is now the most holy form of media and the only one that schools spend an inordinate amount of time promoting. Ah society, how constantly you change...

But back to comic books! So what exactly does Phillip argue we fear? Technology and the industrial age. Spider man had his radioactive bite, Superman was spurred on by organized urban crime, and the X-Men (and women, really X-People) are all products of overexposure to radiation. As a group, we are worried that technology is going to change us all into weird people, mutant people, half people. We fear that technology is going to replace our humanity.

Ok, so you don't have to read comics to find out that society is freaked out by technology - just turn on your local news. This is where the second piece of the beauty of comics comes in. The news will tell us what is happening today, but comics can tell us what can happen tomorrow. They can speculate as to what our future will be.

I like to focus on the optimistic futures found in comics. Rather than worry about the Magnetos of the future world, I hope we will be like the X-Men (seriously, the gender bias has got to go): one big, happy, fucked-up family.


indil said...

In the X-Men universe, mutant powers stem from DNA mutation, not radiation. This was chosen deliberately because the creators wanted the moral dilemma of whether to treat mutants like regular humans to be richer than if they had just fallen into radioactive goo. If anyone can be born a mutant for no apparent cause, then we must morally treat them the same as us.

Did Phillip mean that comic books are unique in their ability to forecast future society, or merely point out how it can do so, as well as pretty much any other form of expression?

Sara said...

IF I am remembering what Phillip said, the mutations in the X-Men stem from radiation, not necessarily of the individual, but of his/her mother/father or society in general.

He focused mainly on contrasting comics to print journalism, but I am not sure how far he would his argument about the uniqueness of comments.

indil said...


"The central basis of the series is that these are superheroes who acquired their powers from birth rather than through incident or design, like the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man or Captain America.


The X-Men are fictitious mutants who, as a result of a sudden leap in evolution, are born with latent superhuman abilities, which generally manifest themselves at puberty. In the stories, many ordinary humans harbor an intense fear and/or distrust of mutants (often referred to as Homo superior), who are regarded by a number of scientists as the next step in human evolution and are thus widely viewed as a threat to human civilizations; mutants who use their powers for criminal ends exacerbate the tensions."

Not that this invalidates his general thesis, but X-Men does not support his argument.