Lynn Parramore looks back at the Great Depression to see the path ahead.
Hard times were made for heroes. We want stories of the fearless, the bold, and the incorruptible. We crave somebody who stares danger in the face and stands up to the bad guys. If those bad guys are nasty pirates straight out of a storybook, then so much the better.
That’s why the sea captain Richard Phillips, who offered himself to Somali pirates to protect his crew, is hailed as “Captain Courageous.” And it’s no surprise that the daring Navy SEALS who felled his captors are celebrated with glowing media profiles, their valor and marksmanship like salve in wounded national pride. Score one for America!
After saving the lives of 155 passengers with his spectacular Hudson River landing, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger got his own superhero nickname “Captain Cool.” The miracle-making captain was showered with media attention and got keys to New York City, a shout-out at the presidential inauguration, and a couple of book deals. Smiling from the cover of People Magazine holding infant-passenger Damien Sosa, Captain Sullenberger was everything we wanted to be – calm, professional, and magnanimous.
Fit of form and fair of face, President Obama is a hero for many. The man who overcame racial prejudice and a broken family to rise to triumph has won the hearts of schoolchildren all over the world. For many Americans, he is the first occupant of the White House to stir pride. Speaking as someone whose first political memory was watching Nixon getting booted out of office, I can tell you that it feels really, really good.
Heroes offer us escape from our struggles. We feel relieved to find a counter-narrative to the seemingly endless stories of villains who parade across our television screens. Whether real or fictional, heroes assure us that everything will be okay. Who didn’t cheer for the Slumdog Millionaire when he outsmarted a system stacked against him to win the prize and the girl? During a holiday season steeped in bad news, the brash kid from Mumbai cheered us.
During the Great Depression, Americans worshipped sports heroes like baseball star Babe Ruth and boxer Jack Dempsey. They looked to the skies for heroes, too, celebrating aviation pioneer Charles Lindberg and Amelia Earhart, who took off from Newfoundland for Ireland in May, 1932 to become the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. A few heroes weren’t even human. In 1938, the scrappy, knobby-kneed racehorse Seabiscuit beat War Admiral to become America’s great hope for the downtrodden. The media cast him as the working man’s horse – the equine answer to east-coast snobbery represented in his pedigreed rival.
The most memorable Depression-era heroes weren’t human or horse, but something more. They were imaginary men with chisled jaws and special powers who mostly sported tights. The most famous of the era’s caped crusaders is Superman, who leapt into our consciousness in 1938 and has never abandoned us. A do-gooder who fought against crooked politicians and fiendish businessmen, the “Man of Steel” not only saved America from the bad guys – he restored our good opinion of ourselves. Next on the scene was corruption-busting Batman, born in 1939 in the fictional, crime-ridden city of Gotham, a place laid to waste by the Great Depression. Also making their debut during the Depression were Captain America, Wonder Woman, and The Shadow, who knew “what evil lurks in the hearts of men.”
The entire comic book industry was launched in the wake of the country’s worst economic disaster. Erin Clancy, a curator of a current exhibit at LA’s Skirball Cultural Center on the golden age of comic books explained the phenomenon to CNN: “In the 1930s, the American Dream had become a nightmare, and I think comic books and superheroes in particular provided an escapist form of entertainment that allowed the American public to go into a fantasy world where all the ills of the world were righted by these larger-than-life heroes.”
America is waiting for the next heroes to steal our hearts. There are stories from history that some eagle-eyed writer will revive. When journalist Laura Hillenbrand investigated Seabiscuit’s story back in 1996, she thought she’d sell a book good for about 5,000 copies. Silly her – the paperback debuted on the bestseller list on April 14, 2002, and hasn’t left since. Comic books, with their low cost and the country’s nostalgic mood, are poised to make a comeback if they can give us a new superhero who speak to our hopes and fears. How about somebody super-smart and wildly-worldly who will take on greedy CEOs, sell-out politicians, and international pirates? ZAP! POW! BAM! The baddies will never know what hit ‘em.