Costume Culture: Visual Rhetoric, Iconography, and Tokenism in Comic Books

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D)



Date of Award

Spring 2017


Superhero comic books provide a unique perspective on marginalized characters not only as objects of literary study, but also as opportunities for rhetorical analysis. There are representations of race, gender, sexuality, and identity in the costuming of superheroes that impact how the audience perceives the characters. Because of the association between iconography and identity, the superhero costume becomes linked with the superhero persona (for example the Superman “S” logo is a stand-in for the character). However, when iconography is affected by issues of tokenism, the rhetorical message associated with the symbol becomes more difficult to decode. Since comic books are sales-oriented and have a plethora of tie-in merchandise, the iconography in these symbols has commodified implications for those who choose to interact with them. When consumers costume themselves with the visual rhetoric associated with comic superheroes, the wearers engage in a rhetorical discussion where they perpetuate whatever message the audience places on that image. Such messages can be especially problematic if they are informed by tokenism, and have sexist, racist, or other offensive associations that comic companies ignore in favor of producing mass merchandise. This dissertation examines the power of costume iconography, especially from superhero characters impacted by tokenism, and the implications of comic companies favoring merchandising over meaning—resulting in racist, sexist, or otherwise negative undertones seeping into products in a commodified world that support or maintain destructive, stereotypical understandings of marginalized peoples.


Christopher Gonzalez

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | English Language and Literature