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Comics For Extra Credit

Jun 1, 2008
Last week, I was one of the first to see Ironman, the first summer blockbuster movie and the next hero in the Marvel Comics universe to come to the silver screen. I like the movie so much I went to see it again in an early morning matinee.

Although I loved the movie, I must admit that Ironman was not one of the heroes I followed regularly when I was into comics. I can't explain my nine-ten year old tastes, as it's been nearly 40 years, but I would guess that I was drawn more to the art and dialogue in the DC comics: Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, and the rest of the Justice League of America.

If I were ten today, and I'd seen the more recent comic movies, I'd be comparing Ironman to Batman. Both have wealthy alter egos with consciences to clear and bones to pick with their enemies, both had weapons in the family business--we learned that for Bruce Wayne in 2005's Batman Begins--and both have a loyal, trustworthy confidential assistant. Then again, the Marvel and DC universes have heroes created through accidents (Spiderman and the Hulk versus Green Lantern and the Flash) as well as heroes who live underwater (Namor and Aquaman) and heroes who come from other worlds (Thor and Wonder Woman).

If I had taken my 11 year old nephew to see Ironman, I would have hoped that he paid some attention to Tony Stark's basement workshop. I know when I was 11, I would have drooled over the possibility of having my own personal sanctum with robots, computers, virtual reality, stereo and sports cars to play with. And that would have been one of the lessons that I would hope my nephew learned from the movie: that smart people can do great things if they apply themselves. My nephew will not become a super hero, but he could work with robotics or virtual reality--considered "cool jobs" by young people today-or he could design my next car. I know that some parents may dismiss Ironman as a violent movie, but Tony Stark has made science cool for kids.

There are more advanced lessons we learn from comics too. The original Ironman was penned in 1963, and it was a reaction to America's growing involvement in Vietnam. While the 2008 movie shows Tony Stark captured by Afghan guerillas, the 1963 comic has him captured by the North Vietnamese--after he's seen that his weapons have fallen into their hands. Until then, Tony had thought of himself and his father as heroes. Their weapons were used to defend American interests, and now they were being used to arm less responsible dictators. There are a lot of ethical, political and psychological lessons to learn from Ironman. The artists and writers who pen comics know this well. That's why, at four bucks a pop, you see auto ads in comics; they're reaching the adults as well as the kids. It's also why noted fiction authors such as Brad Meltzer and Jodi Picoult have moved into the medium, penning graphic novels of the Justice League and Wonder Woman.

If I taught language arts, social studies or science, I would use comics to illustrate points in the textbooks or classical literature. Comic heroes face very similar conflicts and the younger audiences have some familiarity with the characters. The best comic writers have, in fact, based their work on more "sophisticated" literature; they have made it easier to understand. It just takes the right teacher to know that.

I know this will draw chuckles, but don't underestimate the power of the comics. Superman, in print and radio, was a symbol for America as we fought the Nazis during World War II and so was Captain America. Captain America comics sold over 1 million copies a month during the war, outselling national news magazines such as Time.

And c'mon, admit it, you go to the comics in your local paper before you check out the news.

(Originally published at Educated Quest blog and reprinted with permission of the author, Stuart Nachbar).
About the Author
Contact Stuart Nachbar at Educated Quest, a blog on education politics, policy and technology or read about his first book, The Sex Ed Chronicle, a novel on education and politics in 1980 New Jersey, at Sex Ed Chronicles.
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