Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Moving Image Studies

First Advisor

Greg M. Smith

Second Advisor

Jennifer Barker

Third Advisor

Ethan Tussey

Fourth Advisor

Jason Bainbridge


This dissertation takes advantage of comics studies as a relatively young field of research to conduct a needed phenomenology of the industry’s universe-oriented practices and how they require and elicit cognitive activity from the reader. Where world-building scholars have studied the narratological construction and serialization of superhero universes in relation to similar fictional constructs, this dissertation’s intervention is to foreground the cognitive phenomenology of the reader as they engage with these industrially motivated techniques.

My argument begins from the assertion that our own universe’s history and geography are directly imperceptible to our bodies, meaning any attempt to conceive of its totality relies on mental representations (mental-images) interrelated in a cognitive act Edward S. Casey calls imagining-that. Since the universe contains everything, any attempt to conceive of this “nexus of relations” is unachievable. Over their histories, DC and Marvel’s narrative universes have expanded to impart a similar experience to readers. Comprised of evocative aesthetic-images, superhero comics have marshalled the industry’s resources to construct vast narrative universes from interconnected texts and paratexts. I propose six components born out of these resources that use aesthetic-images to encourage readers to make connections across texts, IPs, publishing eras, and authors to build a sense of the universe in readers’ minds. Designed like a hyperlinked series of cross-references, these comics encourage readers to conduct research deep dives that generate the daunting cognitive connections which resemble the unachievable feeling of the actual universe. The conclusion suggests the “universeness” of superhero comics as an instructive model for understanding the present-day dissemination of misinformation online.

Thick description case studies of the Marvel crossover event Secret Wars and my own deep dive through various DC comics starting from Suicide Squad #5 enable me to show how the sense of these universes rely upon an exchange between the aesthetic-images on the page and the mental-images in our minds. Casey’s phenomenology of memory in Remembering and imagination in Imagining serve as scholarly support.


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