Iron Man Marvel: Julian Chambliss Explores the Meaning behind the Masks

May 13, 2010

Chambliss was interviewed about Iron Man 2 on The Daily Buzz on the movie’s opening day, Friday, May 7. The Daily Buzz airs in 141 markets around the nation. Special thanks to The Daily Buzz for permission to post this segment.

A superhero fan since age 10, Associate Professor of History Julian Chambliss not only enjoys comic books for entertainment but also for their social and historical value. By co-teaching “American Graphic Media,” he’s encouraging his students to do the same. His class offers an in-depth study of U.S. history as seen through the comic-book lens.

chablissUsing Iron Man as an example of how shifts in perception often transform the views of comic book heroes, Chambliss cites the current incarnation of Tony Stark as a man who propagates the American viewpoint that weapons should be used in the “right” way as opposed to the view that they shouldn’t be used at all.

“Stark is characterized as a cool executive with a heart of steel fighting for justice in a high-tech suit of armor,” says Chambliss. “The irony is that Stark is a weapons manufacturer who designs tool to kill, yet he is still lauded as a ‘hero.’”

Iron Man, suggests Chambliss, depicts America’s approach to conflict, how we use our weapons and how we justify their use.

It’s discovering and analyzing these types of threads that exist between comic books and American culture that make Chambliss, his research and his class so fascinating.

To learn more about Chambliss’ American Graphic Media course, visit his class blog at

Chambliss has studied and published scholarly articles about social and political themes in comic books for years. Some of the topics his research and class are designed to address include:

  • How stories explore the issues of race. Towards the end of the civil rights movement, the X-Men characters were portrayed in tales about the dangers of bigotry against “mutants” and the importance of tolerance. As an African American, Chambliss takes particular interest in exploring the role of race in comics.
  • How culture influences context. Latin American comic books, for example, don’t promote “one” hero; rather, they portray the community coming together to fight evil – a more collective experience that emphasizes the importance of community strength.
  • How the personas of villains and superheroes change with the times. In the 1950s, Superman’s Clark Kent was a gentlemanly-yet-struggling journalist; his archrival, Lex Luther, was portrayed as a Cold War scientist villain. Jump ahead to the 1980s, and Kent embodies a successful “yuppie” journalist while the villain transforms into an evil “corporate” type.
  • How comics reflect shifts in the geo-political landscape. When the Iron Man series debuted in 1963, protagonist Tony Stark focused his efforts in Vietnam. In recent issues, he battles evil elements in the Middle East and power-hungry politicians in the United States. The same super heroes who fought Adolph Hitler and the threat of nuclear disaster decades ago now tangle with cyber terrorists.
To read his view on the current Iron Man Franchise, visit USA Today

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