Date of Award




Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Department of English

Content Description

1 online resource (vii, 228 pages) : illustrations (some color)

Dissertation/Thesis Chair

Laura Wilder

Committee Members

Tamika L. Carey, Reza Feyzi-Behnagh


comic books, feminist rhetoric, rhetoric and composition, rhetorical genre studies, superheroes, visual rhetoric, Feminism and rhetoric, Women superheroes, College students, Reading, Comic books, strips, etc, Comic books, strips, etc., in education

Subject Categories

English Language and Literature | Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Rhetoric


This dissertation uses feminist analysis and rhetorical genre studies to analyze the strategies used by college-aged students to read female superhero comic books. The dissertation responds to the growing trend of literature and writing instructors assigning comic books and graphic novels under the untested assumption that these texts are readily accessible to college students. This assumption contradicts what we have learned from studies of rhetorical reading strategies that found that readers analyze texts most effectively when readers are familiar with the text’s genre. In addition, the assumption ignores the specific rhetorical contexts of comics, including a problematic but powerful narrative that comics readers are primarily straight white men. This dissertation presents an exploratory study of the actual comic-book reading practices of a diverse group of eight college-aged students gathered through a combination of surveys, eye-tracking, and interviews using cued retrospective reporting. Its findings firmly position comic-book reading practices as a form of rhetorical reading that is dependent on genre knowledge and shaped by a rhetorical context that frequently excludes marginalized readers. The dissertation begins by articulating key formal conventions and ideological contexts for the comics medium. Then, it argues in favor of analyzing comics through the lens of feminist imagination, a form of rhetoric that persuasively uses creative texts to serve feminist goals. The dissertation offers an analysis of feminist imagination in Batwoman: Elegy and Captain Marvel: In Pursuit of Flight that explains how the comics work against existing tropes and expectations within the comics medium to produce complex, powerful female superhero protagonists in both the text and the images. The dissertation then compares the author’s feminist reading with data gathered empirically from the study participants. Participants read excerpts from both comics while using eye tracking technology that pairs an infrared sensor, which tracks how students’ eyes move as they read, with software that overlays a map of their eye movements onto an image of each comic-book page. Recordings of these gaze trails facilitated cued retrospective follow-up interviews in which participants watched portions of their eye tracking maps to cue a reconstruction of the thought process they had used when they first read the comics. Participants’ expertise as comic book readers had impacts on their reading practices. Those with prior experience as comic book readers stood out as skilled rhetorical readers through their knowledge of genre conventions. They had a stronger sense of agency as readers than the novice readers, having greater confidence in their interpretations while accepting that processing both the images and the text on each page would take time. Additionally, these expert readers had a wider range of evidence available for assessing the presence of feminist imagination in the comic books. Novice readers identified their beliefs about gender and comics as a reason they had not read comics prior to the study. In comparison with the study author’s positive feminist analysis of the comics, participants were more ambivalent in their response to depictions of gender. The participants’ interest in gender analysis and ability to locate evidence to support their analysis were affected by their individual subjectivity, including demographics, comics reading experience, and fields of academic study. The findings caused the author to develop a more complex understanding of feminist imagination, in which feminist imagination can originate from both authors and readers. The dissertation concludes with recommendations for teaching reading strategies based on these findings that seek to ensure that all students can effectively read and respond to comics texts. The project demonstrates the importance of genre specificity within the study of visual and multimodal texts. It also models eye tracking and cued retrospective reporting as feminist research methods that facilitate collaborative research with study participants.