Saturday, May 30, 2009

We need Captain America

For some reason, I found myself wrapping up with my usual lesson plans a little bit early. Usually I have a day or two to play around with at the end, so I throw in a short lesson on comics. This year I expanded it quite a bit. While part of me was constantly second-guessing myself - wondering if perhaps I was indulging myself a bit too far and confusing my hobby with my job (what's next? a lesson on homebrewing?) - I ultimately wound up feeling pretty justified with this lesson.

As I explained to my students, I told them that I was teaching them about this stuff for the same reason that I taught them things like mythology and the works of William Shakespeare. Basically, the stories that came out of the comics have embedded themselves in our culture, and just as somebody understands what an "Achilles Heel" is, they understand the concept of kryptonite.

With many of the characters, I found myself talking about what they represent symbolically and psychologically. In a way, it's not too different from how I explain pretty much everything else. What's better is that most of them are already familiar with many of these characters, and when my students can see the symbolic potential in them, then maybe they will think a little more thoroughly to all of the other symbols around them.

Anyway, while doing this whole thing, I found myself going on with a particularly long bit of pontificating when it came to Captain America. Personally, I think that more than any other hero right now, he's the symbol that this country needs. I pointed out to my students that they were working on a movie, and I told them that I hoped that they get him right the same way they got Spider-Man (in the first two, anyway) Batman and Iron Man right.

For those of you who don't know, Captain America was just another patriotic superhero in the days of World War II. His first appearance, which came out months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, featured him punching Adolf Hitler on the front cover. Shortly after the war, his popularity waned, and for the most part, he disappeared for the next couple of decades.

He was brought back in the early 60s in the pages of The Avengers. The story went that he had been frozen in ice since shortly before the end of the war, but he was back and ready to fight for what's right yet again. This, to me, is where he gets interesting. I don't know what it was like to live in the 60s, but I know enough history to know that the mood of the country had changed quite a bit from the 40s.

I'm as cynical as the next guy, and I'm aware that even World War II has its grey areas. Still, when compared to what we were up against with both the Nazis and the Empire of Japan, I feel pretty safe in calling us the good guys in that one. In many ways, it was a simpler time, and long after "the greatest generation" completely passes away, it will always be remembered as such. It's almost as much legend as it is history by this point, and Captain America represents that time period along with its spirit of heroism and selflessness. The great thing is that the story works whether you bring him into the 60s or the present day - in fact, it probably works even better right now.

Cap's not only great because he represents a more heroic age of America, but he's apolitical as well. This is something that the comics writers have managed to get right up to the present day. I don't want an issue where Cap gives his stance on abortion or some other issue that divides the country. He represents the best potential that resides in all of us. Not only that, but both liberals and conservatives can relate to him, as there have been quite a few stories where has taken a stand against the government and resigned his duties as Captain America. Obviously, conservatives probably relate to that sentiment a lot better right now and liberals related to it better during the Bush years.

Captain America was shot and "killed" in the comics a couple of years ago now only to be replaced by a new Captain America - his former teenage sidekick, Bucky. It looks like things are gearing up to bring the original back (I don't think that there's a comic book fan alive who thought that the death would be permanent).

It's about time. We need Captain America.

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