Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Dan Dare

Having written about American superhero comic books last time, I can't resist mentioning some rather different English comics many of us grew up with in the 1950s and 60s (reprinted in various forms ever since). These were immensely popular. The first issue of the weekly Eagle in 1950 sold nearly a million copies, and it ran for 991 issues. Frank Hampson's exquisitely realized drawings of spaceships and alien worlds in the Dan Dare serials no doubt inspired many a future boffin, adventurer, and artist. To find out why, explore the links. Dare was intended to be an explicitly Christian hero, in fact had originally been "Chaplain Dan Dare of the Inter-Planet Patrol", before finally appearing as the ace pilot of futuristic (and very English) Space Fleet. Eagle was founded by an Oxford-educated Anglican clergyman, Rev Marcus Morris, with its name inspired by the symbol of the Evangelist on a church lectern, and this and its sister papers Swift and Girl contained comic-book versions of the adventures of King Arthur, Robin Hood, and sundry modern missionaries, as well as sporting heroes and explorers. An education for heart, mind, and eye.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Comic book salvation

… Stand up and keep your childishness:
Read all the pedants’ screeds and strictures;
But don’t believe in anything
That can’t be told in coloured pictures.

Chesterton would not have liked many of the stories told in coloured pictures by American comic books, which these days tend to dystopia and sado-eroticism – an all-too predictable reflection of the present state of our culture. But some he wouldhave liked, and I dare to think I could show him my own comic collection without (much) embarrassment.

My personal golden age of comics was in the late 60s and 1970s, when I would roam the streets of London looking for the latest American imports: Batman or Green Lantern, The Fantastic Four or The Mighty Thor, and a dozen other titles, illustrated by such artists as Neal Adams, the Buscema
brothers, Jack “King” Kirby, or Jim Steranko. Kirby it was who, in partnership with Stan “the Man” Lee, gave us most of the great Marvelheroes, including the Hulk, Thor, Captain America, and the Silver Surfer, and his heavily emblematic and dynamic style influenced generations of later artists. A quick scurry through Marvel-related entries in Wikipedia will explain what I am talking about, if you don’t already know. You’ll find plenty of coloured pictures, too.

True, nearly all the comics I’m talking about featured punch-ups between costumed heroes and villains, and yes, there was an assortment of buxom females in tight costumes, but the appeal of the comics went deeper than that. It was the brilliance of the artistry (despite the muddy inks on cheap paper), and the way the caped crusaders tapped into archetypal, almost mythic stories, not the display of anatomy, that appealed most to me. Honestly, it was. Kirby in particular mined ancient mythology without apology to construct pantheon after pantheon of super-powered beings, ending up (at Marvel’s rival DC, publisher of Superman and Batman) with a race explicitly called the New Gods.

Superman, the progenitor of all these characters (eventually Kirby got to draw him too), was Samson and Hercules in coloured tights. After his debut in Action Comics in 1938, it didn’t take him long to become a cultural icon. If the “superman” of Nietzsche transcended conventional morality, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster’s Superman, adopted refugee from the planet Krypton and avowed defender of peace, justice, and the earth itself, accepted and upheld the moral code taught by his adopted parents in Smallville, Martha and Jonathan Kent. Right up to today, he is one of the few superheroes who remain relatively untainted by moral compromise. He doesn’t even kill; he puts villains in jail.

It has taken until now for CGI to catch up with the comics. The new wave of superhero movies, especially those from the Marvel studio, boast special effects that make the earlier Superman films starring Christopher Reeve look like vintage episodes of Doctor Who, with monsters of cardboard and cellophane. One film in particular, the recent Avengers film (titled Avengers Assemble in the UK), is widely described as the superhero film that comic fans have been waiting decades to see. Anyone who sneers at it has simply never enjoyed a comic book. Up until now, superhero films have focused on one hero at a time; now the movies can do what has long delighted the fans of the comic: create teams of heroes and villains, and crossovers between one comic-book franchise and another. “The Avengers is what we call ourselves. Earth’s mightiest heroes type thing,” explains the billionaire genius philanthropist Tony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man) to the villainous Asgardian god Loki, moments before being thrown through a skyscraper window.

The Avengers are assembled by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Director of the secret agency S.H.I.E.L.D., with the aim of defending the earth against the alien army commanded by Thor’s brother. They include Captain America (Marvel’s moral equivalent to the early Superman), Iron Man (billionaire inventor in a flying suit), the Hulk (Bruce Banner, a scientist who bulks up big and green when angry), the god of thunder on assignment from Asgard, and two normal humans with heightened abilities, Hawkeye (archer with trick arrows) and Black Widow (former Russian spy and martial arts expert). The first half of the film shows our heroes squabbling, but the self-sacrificing example of a secondary (human) character, Agent Coulson, gives them the “push” they need to become a team capable of setting their egos aside and saving the world – represented, of course, mainly by Manhattan.

“There is only one God, Ma’m, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that,” quips Captain America, in reference to the Asgardians. The line is a suitable one from the “old fashioned” Captain, who last saw action in World War Two (against a much worse villain than Hitler) and has only recently been thawed out of the polar ice where he was buried after saving the world the last time round. But, as Coulson says, “the world needs a bit of ‘old-fashioned’.”

We all need guardian angels. In fact the Catholic Church teaches that we each have one – a supernatural entity assigned at conception, not to dominate us, but to prevent us being dominated; to defend us against our supernatural enemies, giving us the space to live our human lives in a world that is much bigger and scarier than we think (what the Rangers do for the Shire in The Lord of the Rings). Comic-book superheroes and supervillains are the angels and demons of this cosmic spiritual warfare reinvented for the secular imagination, and they resonate with us because on some level we know that we need them. At the same time, they give us something to aspire to (the corresponding Christian doctrine is theosis or divinization by grace). These are not all protectors sent to us from outside – like the boy from Krypton, or Thor – more often they are ordinary human beings (Peter Parker, Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, Hal Jordan) who by providential accident or brilliant design find themselves possessed of a power beyond the lot of mortals. And “with great power comes great responsibility”, as they quickly learn. These are flawed human beings who have to become heroes, fighting alongside the guardian angels for the right of human beings to live a meaningful life. (“I have come to set them free,” says Loki. “Free from what?” asks Fury. “Freedom,” comes the reply.)

The story that these “coloured pictures” are trying to tell us is certainly old-fashioned enough, but we never tire of hearing it. It is, as Chesterton would say, a fairy tale that holds more wisdom than most modern novels. Good and evil are real, and we define our identity and free our souls by becoming identified with the good.  Heroes are not made by a burst of gamma radiation or a fancy metal suit; they are forged in a moral struggle, and the true hero is the one who is prepared to give his life to save others. And there is another way in which the coloured pictures tell the truth. Alien hordes and false gods are out there, waiting for their chance; waiting for someone to open the door to them. There is a spiritual battle going on all around us, and everyday life is part of something much bigger, something cosmic. Avengers, assemble!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Recent additions

Tow recent additions to the links column on the left: under our "Useful articles and links" see Mathematics as Poetry, and under "Fun and educational" see Learn Chemistry through comics! Thanks to readers for these tips.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Announcing a new book

BEAUTY IN THE WORD, published by Angelico Press, offers a new Catholic philosophy of education, completing the retrieval of the seven liberal arts begun in Beauty for Truth's Sake by examining the language arts, the "Trivium", which Dorothy L. Sayers made the basis of Classical Education in her famous essay, "The Lost Tools of Learning". But this book tries to go further than Sayers. Order from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.

New opportunities for school reform and the creation of new schools encourage radical thinking about education. We need a philosophy that can guide us as we found these new schools, or enrich and improve existing schools, or attempt to design a curriculum for teaching our children at home. Catholic educators are particularly concerned with the question of what constitutes a "Catholic ethos."

The curriculum has become fragmented and incoherent because we have lost any sense of how all knowledge fits together. What kind of education, based on what understanding of the human person, would enable a child to progress in the rational understanding of the world without losing a sense of the whole, or a sense of the sacred? We must make an effort to overcome in ourselves false ideas inculcated by the education that we ourselves received, before we can understand the elements that would make a better education possible for our children.


Here are some comments on the new book:

J. Fraser Field (CERC): "Speaking as a former Catholic teacher, this book has been a revelation to me. I wish I had read it before embarking on my teaching career. Beauty in the Word should be required reading for anyone aspiring to teach in a Catholic school as it should for anyone considering teaching their children at home."

James V. Schall SJ: "Everyone recognizes the centrality of education, of introducing what is known to the one capable of knowing. What is often lacking is some sense of the whole, of some orderly way to think about the whole. It is not that we do not have a tradition that looks after the basic things and their order. It is that we have replaced what we need to know with a methodology that is based on a narrow concept of what constitutes knowing. In this insightful book, Stratford Caldecott has presented a way to understand education in a sense that includes philosophy, theology, the arts, literature, the studies of beauty and truth and what is good. It is a rare book that understands the unity of knowledge and what we want to know. This is one of those rare books."

Aidan Nichols OP: “Beauty in the Word is the fruit of a lifetime's thinking about the relation between faith and life by a cultural entrepreneur who is also a parent and knows what, educationally, can actually work. Most Catholic education has been confined not only externally, by State regulation, but also internally, owing to an inadequate philosophy of the human being in the full (and I mean full!) range of his or her capacities and needs. Now that successive governments in the UK have freed up the institutional constraints, those responsible for new initiatives in Catholic schooling have a chance to recreate the inner spirit of education and not just its outer frame. They will not easily find a programme more inspirational than the one presented here.”

Reviews so far:
Image Update

Anthony Esolen describes the book's purpose as laying the foundations of "an education that penetrates the heart and the mind with light." The Trivium represents the first or foundational stage of the liberal arts, understood broadly as an education for freedom. It gives us grounding for greater freedom and responsibility in three ways; that is, by developing our ability to imagine, think, and communicate. The child needs to grow in these three dimensions to be fully integrated with society. If any of the three are lacking he or she will be cut off from society and become an isolated and rather lonely particle, frenetic or depressed; one lost fragment of a broken puzzle.

In educational wisdom, the traditional "arts of language" (Grammar, Dialectics, and Rhetoric) have a key role to play.To discover this role, we need to penetrate into the deeper meaning of the "three ways" (trivium = "place where three roads meet"). As Anthony Esolen says, these reflect the three primary axes of Being: "of knowing, that is to say giving; of being known, that is to say receiving; and of the loving gift." I have referred to them under the headings of Remembering, Thinking, and Speaking, corresponding to MythosLogos, and Ethos. John Paul II described "the incandescent centre" of all educational activity as "co-operating in the discovery of the true image which God’s love has impressed indelibly upon every person, and which is preserved in the mystery of his own love." The whole educational process comes reaches its consummation in the liturgical act, the act of worship.

This all sounds very theoretical, no doubt – and so it is, in the original sense of theoria as "contemplation". But I have tried to show that it can be eminently practical as well, by showing how these ideas can be used to construct a curriculum. I refer in passing to the St Jerome Academy in Hyattsville, Maryland, whose "Educational Plan" (available online) has a very similar inspiration. Sequels to Beauty in the Word will include practical resources for parents and teachers, and we are looking for collaborators and advisers to join our working group in the coming months.

To read about the companion book on education, go to Beauty for Truth's Sake.