Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Nationalist Superhero

I feel kind of bad.

During one of my many online searches for Canadian heroes, I came across Jason Dittmer's book "Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero".  In his book, Dittmer studies the significance of the flag-wearing comic book characters (including Captain Canuck) in society.
Amazon: "He argues that these iconic superheroes contribute to our contemporary understandings of national identity, the righteous use of power, and the role of the U.S., Canada, and Britain in the world."
The book was recently reviewed by Noah Berlatsky for In his review, Berlatsky suggests that such characters have been increasingly irrelevant for some time.
From the '60s to the present—the period on which Dittmer focuses most of his attention—superhero comics have been a more and more marginal, subcultural interest.
Dittmer speaks approvingly of subverting nationalist superhero archetypes, oblivious to the extent to which globalization has subverted sovereignty. Nationalist superheroes aren't what they once were. And that, contra Dittmer, is why more people focus on fantasies and/or nightmares about power without borders.
I directed the review to Mr Dittmer as an opposing viewpoint, somehow not taking into account that he might find it disappointing. In this case, perhaps ignorance would have been bliss. If so, I apologize for that.

I haven't read Mr Dittmer's book (yet) so I can not comment directly on his position.  I do know that I largely disagree with Noah Berlastky's.

I think it is more accurate to say that the significance of nationalist characters has shifted. They are no longer used as inspiration, but they can still be reflective of a country's general mindset and as such be culturally significant.

I can only base this on my own experience. I recall watching the Vancouver Olympics in early 2010. As Canadians loudly and enthusiastically celebrated the country's success through its athletes, one announcer said something to the effect that "Canada has finally come of age".

Wow. That sounded a little heavy considering that it was in reference to a sporting event.

But it does seem, at least in my day-to-day experience, that displays of Canadian pride are more common of late.  Suddenly, Captain Canuck, and similar characters, started to be seen more frequently.   A movie based on the Captain is finally starting to get legs. An animated version of the character was recently revealed.  Canadian actor Nathan Fillion dresses as "Captain Canada" for Halloween, and the handful of pictures are displayed on many entertainment sites and social media.  We can now look forward to an anthology comic (True Patriot) and book (Masked Mosaic).

I don't credit the increase in expressive pride specifically to Olympic results, of course.  That was just an easy outlet.  I expect that the cause goes much deeper.

Whatever the exact cause, I struggle to assume that the increase in visibility and acceptance of patriotic characters in the last 2-3 years is coincidental.  It may not always be in comic book form, but the actual format is irrelevant.  So long as the character's primary appeal is his nationality, then that should speak for itself.

The national superhero may no longer be used as a rallying point.  He is no longer a tool to increase patriotism.  I would suggest that he is now the result of it.  Simplified, when Canadians feel good about Canada, Captain Canuck (and similar characters) is cool.

1 comment:

  1. You've piqued my interest on Dittmer's book, and I'm keen to go track it down now. I really hope he doesn't throw the word "nation-state" around as heedlessly as Berlatsky does -- neither Canada, nor Britain, nor the United States are nation-states, and it's just wrong to conflate our superheroes (which embody civic nationalism) with ethnic nationalist heroes like, say, Asterix in France or Tarkan in Turkey. There's nationalism and then there's nationalism.

    As for Berlatsky, you're right: His thesis is totally wrong. Nationalist superheroes didn't die in the '60s; quite the opposite. The early '70s to the late '80s was the golden era of nationalist superheroes in the English-speaking world. Canada had Captain Canuck, Alpha Flight and Northguard; Australia had Southern Squadron; and the U.K. had Captain Britain, the Alan Moore Marvelman stories and the general Marvel U.K. renaissance.

    I haven't found a convincing explanation for why there were so many nationalist superheroes in that period, aside from the fact that some were just copies or direct commentaries on each other (Northguard as a commentary on Captain Canuck and Alpha Flight, for instance). Maybe there's a broader cultural explanation. Maybe the final demise of the British Empire in the '70s, which forced both Britain and her colonies to re-examine their cultural and civic identities, just meant more comics creators were fixated on national questions. I'd love to read an analysis of comic-book nationalism that contrasted those heroes with earlier ones like Johnny Canuck and Captain America, and if that's what Dittmer has to offer, so much the better.