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Review of Caped Crusaders 101: Composition through Comic Books

By Michael Dean

Kahan, Jeffrey and Stanley Stewart. Caped Crusaders 101: Composition through Comic Books. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2006. Print.

Jeffrey Kahan and Stanley Stewart’s text, Caped Crusaders 101: Composition through Comic Books, promises to save young Americans from the oft-feared clutches of growing illiteracy and educational apathy. These dark forces, unprepared for the cultural worth of costumed crime fighters, would grovel in resignation, release their disillusioned captives, and stand aside for a new era of intellectual prosperity. Those aims are as daunting a challenge as deflecting a bullet barehanded or lifting a car from the path of a runaway train. Nevertheless, the book makes a serious attempt to live up to the lofty example of its super-heroic subjects. From racial divisions to sexual politics, Caped Crusaders 101 showcases how comics mirror and critique American society. Though their goals may be at times suitably idealistic, Kahan and Stewart still provide a substantive reader for any composition course willing to take the plunge.

The book is divided into chapters featuring a thematic approach for analyzing a selection of super heroes. The chapters are likewise divided into subsections, allowing an instructor to break chapters into more specific readings for an individual class. A “Thinking, Debating, Writing” section follows each chapter, providing a list of questions and prompts for students to consider. Images of comic panels and covers related to each discussion appear throughout the various chapters. Though limited to grayscale reproductions of the originals, the images help to reinforce or amplify the analytical progress of the section. In this capacity, Caped Crusaders follows the standard format of most composition readers. What does define the text as innovative, however, is the exhaustive effort through which it analyzes and questions the roles of super heroes in a cultural context. Yet before arriving at that point, the authors feel the need to justify using “low-brow” characters like Marvel’s Captain America or DC’s Green Lantern.

In their introduction, Kahan and Stewart make a case for the inclusion of super heroes in the classroom. Comic books, more than just a hot commodity in modern media, possess dedicated readers, “readers hooked on character and plot, readers who weigh virtues…readers who take pleasure in the suffusion of ethics and aesthetics” (2). Though the study of composition involves instruction of grammar, usage, and correctness, the ability to analyze and argue stands as a primary consideration. The implicit logic is clear. If comics are a medium that engender passion and critical thinking, appropriate them for the classroom. Teach students with what captivates. Trick them—if needed—into learning. But to the extent that the authors believe that “comics offer serious intellectual arguments on the problems we all face” (4), they seem equally concerned with showing how “[they’re] not arguing that comics can or should replace Milton or Shakespeare—or even Stephen King” (2). While, undoubtedly, comic books will never supplant the position of literary titans like Milton or Shakespeare, trying to justify the use of comics in the classroom alongside such apologetic language undercuts the purpose of the text. As the chapter discussions later establish, comic book heroes act as a peculiar standard for American culture. Essentially, comics reflect the prevalent anxieties of the society that created them. To waffle on this point jeopardizes much of the text’s educational prospects. Understandably, students may approach the task of analyzing Spider-Man with a healthy dose of uncertainty. The instructor, however, must maintain the validity of such an exercise for the effort to succeed.

Fortunately, Kahan and Stewart dispense with such anxieties when tackling the bulk of their material. In the initial chapter, the authors jump headlong into explaining the historical development and context of race in comic books. The first half of the chapter focuses on the evolution of Luke Cage, a “black Everyman for black readers” who contends with the difficulties of a criminal past and urban racial conflict (11). The other half of the chapter deals with Captain America’s ill-fated sidekick, The Falcon, and his struggles with black identity and his relationship to his idealized, white partner. For students, this first conversation models the kind of objective scrutiny that will be expected of their own writing. The development of these black heroes represents a surprising spirit of progressiveness in early comic books despite, as Kahan and Stewart describe, the problematic nature of their representations. This exploration wonderfully highlights the role of comic books throughout the subsequent chapters. Comics behave as an artifact of society while simultaneously critiquing it, allowing the canny reader to draw countless interpretations from the examples in the text as well as other related documents.

Later chapters continue the pattern of the first, examining a number of comic book heroes from the standpoint of a central theme. In the chapter titled “The Comic Book Code and American F-agg,” Kahan and Stewart explore the role of sexuality in society. Unlike previous chapters, the analysis includes a wider range of super heroes. Though shorter in length, these small sections deliver examples of where comics engage, critique, and sometimes reinforce social stereotype. In the case of the Marvel superhero, Northstar, dealing with a gay identity becomes a central issue. Though a competent, powerful superhero in his own right, Northstar is plagued by his identity as a gay man. Unable to live in a truly open fashion, Northstar must limit his behavior or “at least tone down a lifestyle that many see as offensive” (121). The unfortunate resolution of Northstar’s identity crisis exemplifies one of the harsher debates in the cultural zeitgeist and demonstrates that the debate is far from over. Consequently, because students are expected to engage societal issues of this sort, Northstar’s story and others like it create an effective springboard for class discussions.

But like any classroom textbook, the hefty chapters of Caped Crusaders need to be carefully implemented to avoid overloading the typical composition student. Not everyone in a classroom will be as familiar with the characters as an avid comic book fan. Nor will the plot line summaries in the individual chapters be sufficient to introduce students to the full scope of the medium. To be most effective, the book should be paired alongside many of the comics mentioned in its chapters. This presents a difficult obstacle for many instructors as many of the more promising but obscure titles might be difficult to obtain and distribute to students. Even the lack of availability, however, becomes less of an issue as comics become digitized and available through online channels. As with all things, creative solutions exist.

In the final section of their book, Kahan and Stewart cannot help but return to the nagging issue of the literary validity of comic books, and perhaps with good reason. As they attempt to defend their subject, the authors note that “even after expressing how empowered students feel when reading and discussing comic books, scholars traditionally conclude with an apology” (226). The guilt of dealing with comic books infects even the most sympathetic mind. Literary critics and English professors have published harsh criticisms of using comic books in the classroom. But as Kahan and Stewart finally declare, the time for such sentiments has ended, “the war has begun” (226). While the bold, overly dramatic language may be off-putting, detractors should take heed. Literacy is a dwindling skill in these dark, apocalyptic days, and comic book fans are an established culture of astute readers. Caped Crusaders may not solve all the world’s literacy ills, but the book stands as a staunch ally for those who would join its cause.

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