What Superheroes Can Teach Our Students

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Despite differences in generational tastes, most Americans will readily discuss comic book characters and their enduring legacy. In 2016, the film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice proved its namesakes’ lasting intrigue by setting the record for being the most profitable March film release in history. That’s not bad for characters that were created in the 1930s—nor is their success anomalous amongst caped crusaders. The Avengers and their peers should be blissfully applying for AARP cards, yet the wealth of blockbuster films, episodic television, and tried and true graphic novels reveals that although these characters are supposed to be entering their golden years, America is entering its golden age of superhero consumption. This timeless vitality is rooted in the franchises’ willingness to continuously evolve, adapt, and be reimagined to mirror our ever-shifting society. Bringing these fictional stories into our classrooms can help students legitimize their emotional investment in this too often dismissed form of entertainment. So have you ever discussed superheroes in your classrooms? You should, because analyzing generational variants in superhero depictions is an engaging way to chart America’s social evolution. Currently, American Indian characters, illustrators, and writers are finding unprecedented success in the “comic universe,” and it’s time we tribal college and university (TCU) educators reap the benefits of joining the conversation.

When taken as a whole, it’s easy to recognize that each incarnation of a superhero mimics the convictions of the contemporary society that produced them. In the 1966 film Batman, the caped crusader fought against Cold War inspired villains; in the 1989 version he was caught-up in the trappings of post-Reagan Era excesses; and by 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises he was facing a hostile lower class uprising that resembled a violent version of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Captain America went from punching Hitler in 1941, to leading the super group the Avengers against global threats from 1965 to 2016 when he was reimagined as a shield-wielding soldier playing the role of a sleeper agent. By analyzing the fluidity of the characters, we educators we can focus our students’ critical mindsets on both the complex issues America has faced and the way the art has depicted them.

TCUs are especially ripe for modern superhero inspired discussions, because we’re living in a time where Native comic book characters, writers, illustrators, and publishers are enjoying unprecedented success. While some of you may be aware of the positive depictions of the Cree character Equinox in last year’s Justice League United series, or the Hollywood actor Ethan Hawke’s heralded 2016 graphic novel, Indeh: A Story of the Apache Wars, the best place to find talent in the Native comic community is to attend—or at least peruse the website of—the 2016 Indigenous Comic Con to be held in Albuquerque from November 18th through the 20th. The special guest list is not only a who’s who of the Native comic community, it’s also a listing of art producers who are depicting Native stories through the power of illustrated media.

Today’s Native comics are representative of the Indigenous communities our students call home. The stories are not tired rehashes of lonely heroes avenging their people like the old Billy Jack films did in the 1970s, rather they depict Natives working together to better their people. Jon Proudstar’s Tribal Force did this in 1996, and creators such as Arigon Starr (Kickapoo) have continued the tradition with her Super Indian series. They are not alone, and sites such as www.nativerealities.com offer readers a range of pro-Native stories to choose from.

Of course, the most financially successful depiction of a Native person in a comic universe was Adam Beach’s turn as Slipknot in this summer’s Suicide Squad. This film about super-villains released from prison to save America struck a chord with audiences to the tune of becoming the most successful August film release in history. Yet at its essence, the film asks its audience to root for a diverse collective of people who’ve broken our country’s laws and conventions. As members of a society who’ve been forced to ponder complicated issues such as individual privacy in the face of terrorist threats, protests during our national anthem, and how best to stand against fossil fuel extractions that will violate treaties and decimate Native lands, we’re becoming accustomed to actions that challenge long-held conventions of societal expectations. Our superheroes reflect this reality.

Yet perhaps the easiest way to utilize the power of superheroes is to ask our students to elaborate upon which superpower they’d choose for themselves. The answers we receive will likely include remedying injustices, preserving Native lands and resources, and ensuring a future for their families. In most cases, completing their degrees will help them realize these ambitions—and that’s a point we must strive to articulate.

Twenty-first century America faces a lot of stubborn obstacles, but I firmly believe that TCU graduates will have the keys to overcome them. Let’s use America’s continuing infatuation with comic book characters to remind our students that like any great power, a great education comes with great responsibility. Still, the choice of whether or not to wear a cape as they solve the problems they face is one they’ll have to decide on their own.

Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communication at College of Menominee Nation, where he has been recognized as the American Indian College Fund’s Faculty Member of the Year.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Inquisitive Academic or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.



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