Like every other kind of fictional genre, comics have the power to spark the imagination and restore a sense of beauty. Their fantastic heroes, villains, and sweeping mythologies have become for us a paradigm for how we can find goodness in a world that often seems bleak.
For one comic fan, the English Catholic intellectual and author Stratford Caldecott, those values became a real life joy when his daughter Sophie began the #CapforStrat campaign to bring a screening of Captain America: The Winter Soldier into the Caldecott home during the last days of his life and struggle with prostate cancer. The campaign has garnered interest when images of Robert Downey Jr, Mark Ruffalo, and Samuel L. Jackson began tweeting selfies of themselves offering support for the Caldecott family.
Why are so many celebrities and news outlets, as well as total strangers, piling on the support for a scholar to see a comic book film?
The story of #CapforStrat is what many of the finest comics try to embody: the human struggle to find goodness even in the midst of great suffering; to bring joy where one would least expect it. In this mode, the stories of Captain America, Spider-Man, and Iron Man each become part of our common mythology and are very often our first glimpses in overcoming our own natures and limitations while using whatever powers we have for the good of all.
In the finest tales of Marvel and DC Comics, the heroes are keeping us safe from dangers such as world-eating machines and malevolent aliens. In some ways, they are a secular spin on the Christian cosmology of angels who protect us while giving us something to aspire to. Each hero has a different struggle. Batman and Iron Man are merely human with a drive to bring justice to the world by way of their sharp intellect; Superman and Captain America are truly superhuman with unimaginable powers who struggle with using their powers for the good of all; meanwhile the Hulk is a reluctant hero whose exposure to radiation has twisted him into something ferocious and tragic, surely something many cancer patients identify with. In all cases, their struggle is not just with the rogues gallery of villains but within themselves.
Similar to G.K. Chesterton’s fine defense of fairy tales, it is not hard to find a defense of the classic comics that first spark many a child’s imagination and teach him virtues such as kindness, fortitude, and strength in adversity. Comics, like the older brother fairy tales, contain, as Chesterton quipped, more truth than many modern novels. “Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey,” Chesterton remarked, “What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey.” In the same way that a child doesn’t need to be told about suffering and adversity, they know it far too well, but they are often introduced to how to overcome it and turn it into something beautiful on the colourful pages awaiting them at a comic shop.
This is why Chesterton could see grace in the background of fairy stories or detective fiction. He certainly had the mind to read and write about theological and literary figures but his childlike imagination found great joy in the adventures of a detective or brave knight. In those pages one can find the real examples of characters who stand strong against impossible odds and find courage, and perhaps even something beautiful and encouraging, when few would ever even begin to look for it.
Mr Caldecott knows well the lessons of friendship and courage that haunt the background of superhero stories. While he has made a name for himself for writing about Tolkien and Chesterton, as well as subjects such as the role of beauty in education, and his most recent work on Catholic social teaching, he is quite possibly the most erudite comic book fan. Like Chesterton, his are truly catholic tastes that find beauty and goodness abounding in both the writings of von Balthasar and Stan Lee.
I personally have great memories of how Mr. Caldecott could weave conversations between literature, theology, and comics. While undertaking a summer program in Oxford I had the pleasure of being a guest of he and his dear wife. While the coursework they were teaching involved the Catholic Literary Revival, we often found time to discuss our most beloved story arcs from Marvel and DC. I even had the pleasure of seeing The Dark Knight with the two of them. As a fellow convert to Catholicism with a love of Chesterton and Tolkien, as well as Stan Lee and Neal Adams, it was not at all difficult to have many great conversations with him.
In the face of his death, his family found the strength and courage that they read about on the pages from Marvel to find a way to give him some comfort. Given his love of Marvel, they wanted to find a way to let him watch the latest Captain America while he fights his last battle. The movie is still in theaters, but he is not able to make the trek and the DVD might well be released when it’s too late.
Sophie, his daughter, launched the #CapforStrat campaign to try to petition Marvel to give Stratford a private viewing of the film. Not only did Marvel agree, but many of the actors from The Avengers films tweeted images of themselves to give him support. They may have never heard of Stratford Caldecott and not all of them are Catholic, but they knew that a fan needed comfort and they reacted with the kindness and resolve of a Marvel hero.
The Caldecotts are, no doubt, overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from all corners of the internet. However, they also hope that this campaign serves as a reminder of the goodness of humanity that comics always try to portray. They also hope that this will raise awareness for all who are at risk of cancer or who are bravely struggling against it.
Mr. Caldecott, meanwhile, summed up what he hoped his legacy and this campaign will be remembered for in a single panel from the Silver Surfer. The Surfer is shown proclaiming, “But I must not lose hope! No matter what the threat…The Surfer must face it…unafraid! For I do not fight for myself alone.”