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Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Power of "What If..?"

As a child of the 1970s in Leaf Rapids, Manitoba, I loved making trips to the Town Centre's drug store, where a spinner rack of comic books awaited. My weekly allowance of one dollar allowed me to purchase three comics, which at the time typically cost 35 cents each - Mom or Dad always threw in the extra nickel. 

 One day, probably during the late winter or possibly the Star Wars Spring of 1977, I bought an issue of All-Star Comics - number 66, to be precise, cover-dated June 1977. This issue cost 30 cents, not 35, so perhaps my memories are from slightly further into the future, after a price increase, or maybe All-Star was simply a little cheaper. Whatever the price, my eight-year-old eyes devoured the images and the story. And there's one panel in particular that stands out to this day:
By the age of 8 I'd already been exposed to the concept of parallel universes many times over, but this panel was the first time I stumbled over the idea that not only could there be worlds where Superman was older and Green Lantern wore a different costume than on "our" world, but the politics of such alternate Earths could be entirely different. I was floored by the idea that the South Africa of Earth-2 had moved past apartheid. And then I was profoundly depressed, because I was, after all, reading a comic book; it was only imaginary.

But less than two decades later, the courage and dedication of real people on our own Earth put an end to apartheid and began the work of reconciliation between the diverse peoples of a divided country.

I was reminded of this comic because, stuck on the couch with a head cold, I've been resting and watching movies. Today I watched Invictus, Clint Eastwood's 2009 film about Nelson Mandela and the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Anyone who knows me know that I'm not a sports fan, generally speaking. I am, however, a fan of Clint Eastwood's filmography; whatever the subject, he rarely disappoints. Invictus takes its name from the nineteenth-century poem by William Ernest Henley, which apparently inspired Mandela during his decades-long incarceration:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Henley's poem helped drive one of the era's most important political figures to lead a nation from segregation to reconciliation. While there's no doubt that South Africa is still beset by many problems, that nation's story remains hopeful, thanks in great part to Mandela and the millions of citizens - including the Springboks, the national (and almost all white) rugby team - who worked together, and continue to work together, to build a better country.

Aside from the connection to South Africa, what does a classic poem have to do with a one-off reference in a mostly-forgotten comic book?

It's this: hope is important. To dream of a better world, no matter the medium, is to instill in our minds the notion that the world may be imperfect, but it needn't stay this way. Just as Henley's poem inspired Mandela, I have no doubt that that panel from All-Star #66, or some other pop-culture reference with the same message, inspired others to work for a better world. Maybe that's too much import to impart upon a thirty-cent comic book, but I appreciate its message of hope nonetheless.


Totty said...

Your post is timely in a way I am sure you didn't realize: the world cup of rugby is currently being contested in New Zealand (literally, the final starts in about 2 hours). In a perfect literary world South Africa would be in the final but they were eliminated a couple of weeks back.

Earl J. Woods said...

You're right, I did not know that! New Zealand's team, the All-Blacks, was the final antagonist in Invictus, a film I'm sure you'd enjoy. I have no idea how accurate the rugby action was, however.

Stephen Fitzpatrick said...

Wow, I'm also glad I don't index my kids allowance to comic books. That'd be over $100 a month!

Totty said...

I have actually seen Invictus, I recall enjoying it.