Texas Tech University

Villains and Heroes in a Modern World

Matthew Matherly

April 3, 2015

Two of Texas Tech's very own have published the first scholarly study on a supervillain by a university press.


In July 2008, Christopher Nolan's “The Dark Knight” was released into theatres. The movie featured the popular comic book character Batman and his most widely known villain, The Joker.

The latter is the topic of  a new book from Texas Tech University professor Robert Peaslee and librarian Robert Weiner, titled “The Joker: A Serious Study of the Clown Prince of Crime.”

From the Golden Age of comic books to the modern-day Marvel Cinematic Universe, superheroes and their villains have had a profound effect on modern culture. These characters have inspired TV shows, merchandise and, most recently, movies. From selling up to 8 million comics a year in the early 1950s to DC Comics' 1 billion for “The Dark Knight” or Marvel Comics' 1.5 billion for “The Avengers,” comics have taken their place at the forefront of popular culture, and even among all the noise, The Joker still stands out.

Weiner, a humanities librarian who frequently teaches honors courses for Texas Tech, came up with the idea for the book eight years ago; three years later he wrote the first sketch for a proposal and began working on it with Peaslee in 2011. Peaslee, the department chairman of journalism and electronic media and communication for Texas Tech's College of Media and Communication said The Joker is more relevant than ever.

Robert Peaslee

“Today, The Joker seems particularly relevant,” Peaslee said. “When we were writing the introduction we had the shooting at the Aurora movie theatre, where a man committed these crimes and essentially characterized himself as The Joker. That's hard to ignore.”

“From the very first Batman No. 1 in 1940, The Joker killed people, and they died with a smile on their face, and he's still doing that today. That's relevancy,” Weiner said. “The Joker is the quintessential villain in popular culture.”

The pair believes the character inspires a certain level of identification among audiences.

“I can only speak for myself and others I've heard from,” Peaslee said, “but there's no question that in ‘The Dark Knight' we're most engaged when The Joker is on screen.”

Weiner sees this desire to identify with a villain as a way of people expressing their inner demons.

“It's like we say in the book – ‘we get the monsters we need,'” Weiner said. “The Joker presents a catharsis for us. Nobody wants to meet The Joker in real life, but we certainly love to read about and watch his screen adventures.”

Despite the horrors The Joker has committed over the years, neither Peaslee nor Weiner believe the modern depiction of the character is about evil. Rather, he represents the feeling of chaos creeping into the western world.

“The Joker's beyond good and evil,” Weiner said. “He's just a force of nature like a hurricane.”

Robert Weiner

“He makes us conscious of things we thought were settled, such as class or political persuasion,” Peaslee said. “We can look at a cartoonishly evil character and say, ‘Oh well, we're not them,' but The Joker doesn't let you do that.”

Peaslee and Weiner proposed the idea for the book to one press, which fell through, then went to the University of Mississippi press, who loved it.

“Which is the press,” Weiner said, “in terms of comic books and sequential art, so it was a blessing the first choice fell through.”

A publisher showing interest is good, but the book still needs to be made to publish. First a call is sent to various channels asking for articles from independent researchers who then send in abstracts. Based off these abstracts, Weiner and Peaslee made their choices and asked for full articles. Texas Tech associate librarian Ryan Litsey submitted one of the articles that made into the final book.

Each of the articles takes a different approach to the subject and most of the work is text analysis. They provide a deeper analysis of certain aspects of The Joker and his personality, voice and actions in film and comics alike. There are also pieces that relate to how people interact with the character and how his personality caters to society as a whole.

Once the articles are compiled, chosen and edited, the book is sent out for blind peer review, and upon return, more revisions are made. Peaslee and Weiner note the whole process adds legitimacy to the book and its subject because of the rigorous measures taken to improve the book.

“Already the response has been incredible,” Peaslee said. “We just got a note from the publisher asking us to consider doing another.”

This was not Peaslee and Weiner's first book together. In 2012 they released “Web-Spinning Heroics: Critical Essays on the History and Meaning of Spider-Man.” Weiner also has been an author, editor or contributor to more than 25 other comic book-related or pop culture works. Weiner and Peaslee are underway on their next work about the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a third co-editor, Matthew McEniry.

“What can we learn about our society, about our history and about where we're going, based on the popularity of these kinds of stories?” Peaslee said.

“This is an axe I grind in every interview I give,” Weiner said “Popular culture, whether it's comic books, film, music, fashion or video games, is a form of social history. It tells us who we are at any given moment.”

The book is available through Amazon.com, the University Press of Mississippi, and in the Texas Tech University Library.