Waiting for Stan and Superman

My growing up years were defined by comic books, laying on my bed in the sweltering August Illinois heat, reading stacks of Justice League and Fantastic Four. Stan Lee, the creator of of the comic Spiderman, defined for me the comic book story. It was one of the highlights of my Hill career, therefore, to recommend and sherpa Stan through the National Medal for the Arts award process two years ago. Walking on a cold day with Stan and his business partner Gil from POW! on the way to the White House, I asked what he would like his legacy to be.

"That kids learned to love to read," Stan answered.

At a Wedgwood Circle event a year later, Stan bared his soul a bit more: "Every story is a moral tale," he said. "The best heroes are flawed, but at the end of the stories I write they make the right decisions." And he wants his readers to want to make them as well.

Making goodness fashionable and reading short stories -- this is the formula that Hannah More, one of the central figures of the Clapham Group, employed in her effort to promote "the reformation of manners" in England at the turn of the 19th Century. Her Cheap Repository Tracks, short moral tales for the masses, sold at their peak 2.5 million copies a year for just a half penny each. That number of sales today would still be amazing, but when you consider that the population of England was only 8 million in 1801, the figure becomes astronomical.

This month we are proud here at Clapham to partner with Doug TenNapel, a remarkable storyteller and creator of Earthworm Jim, on the launch of his first online graphic novel, Ratfist. My friend Steve Garber reminds me often of the sentiment from Walker Percy's book Signposts in a Strange Land that good books tell the truth and bad books lie, mostly about the human condition.  This is our humble effort to create and shape "the moral imagination" through story, to tell the truth about the human condition to a visually narrative generation.

Next month the extraordinary documentary Waiting for Superman, about kids imprisoned in failing schools, releases on DVD (more on this in our next missive). One thing that struck me about the documentary was the role schools play to not just transfer knowledge but to shape the "moral imagination." This is what the best teachers do; and this is what C. S. Lewis was getting at with his important essay on education "Men Without Chests" in the book The Abolition of Man.

One of my passion projects is to work with Free Comic Book Day and Stan Lee to distribute a graphic novel to all public school libraries in 2012 during its annual effort to promote reading, furthering Stan's legacy and, through the love of reading, shaping the moral imagination.  If you are interested in supporting the effort, drop me a note. We need cheerleaders and a few funders. You may be the Superman that kids, like President Obama as a young boy, are waiting for.


Mark Rodgers