Martha Thomases: We CAN Be Heroes

I’m pretty much out of the closet when it comes to my love of superhero comics. The appeal of the “super” part is pretty obvious (flying! telepathy! shrinking!) but I also enjoy the parts about heroes.

Recently I read two graphic novels that dealt primarily with that last, non-powered part, and it made me ponder the distinction between “someone I admire” and “someone who is a hero.” This is not going to be a tirade about how we idolize sports stars but what about the teacher at the school, buying food and pencils for her students who can’t afford them. That can be an interesting conversation to have, but it’s not what I mean.

NBM recently published an American edition of Girl in Dior, by Annie Goetzinger. Through the eyes of fictional character Clara, a journalist who becomes a Dior model, we see the life of Christian Dior, starting with his historic “New Look” collection in 1947. Clara introduces us to the man who designs the dresses, his middle class background and his commitment to beauty. We also meet the small army of (mostly) women who help him create the gorgeous gowns and run his business.

After the deprivations and rationing of World War II, the New Look was, in its way, revolutionary. The full skirts used yards and yards of fabric, and the small waistlines required (for most women) extensive undergarment technology, using a lot of materials (like rubber and metal) that had most recently been used for weapons.

What wasn’t exciting and new and different was the customer for these clothes. Haute couture has always been expensive, requiring hours and hours of human labor for each opulent outfit. The styles we see in this book – day dresses, cocktail dresses, evening gowns – are appropriate to the needs of a woman whose life is all about being seen, how she looks, not what she does.

This isn’t to say that Dior is not a genius, nor that his work is without meaning. Like a painter or a sculptor, he works with color and shape to express a vision of life and what it means. And, like so many artists of all kinds on our modern world, his success depends on how well he can sell his vision to the ruling class.

I very much admire his talent, and the work he created. I would love to be, just for one day, the kind of woman who wears those clothes and looks good in them. That would be a true fantasy adventure. But he’s not a hero, nor do I think Goetzinger presents him as such.

To see a real hero, check out the second volume of March, the autobiography of Representative John Lewis (with co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell). Like the first, this goes back and forth from modern day (the inauguration of Barack Obama) to the struggles for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. “Struggles” is too mild a word. In their attempt to be treated like humans, the African-Americans marching for their rights (along with their white allies) are attacked with hoses, fire, bombs, guns and cars.

Even more than the last volume, I was struck by Lewis’ great generosity of spirit. He takes great pains to include all sorts of people who fought the good fight, even if he, personally, did not always agree with them. He says respectful and admiring things about Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X, for example, two men who did not follow the non-violent principles so important to Lewis. No, he doesn’t ignore their disagreements, but he disagrees with their tactics and not their goals.

That’s a lesson too many of us need to learn.

This is a thrilling story. For every bit of progress made by the movement, there are more than a few pushes back, often with violence. The faces of the white crowds, so threatened at the thought that a black person might use the same door as a white person, are contorted with rage and hatred, truly frightening.

John Lewis was a college graduate who could have taken a job that paid better and didn’t require him to put his life on the line. Instead, he devoted himself and his abilities to making the world a better place, not just for himself but for all of us.

That is a super power.