Why Middle Schoolers Should Study Batman

At some point or another in their education, practically every student in America will read Homer’s Odyssey.  For some students, this will mark the beginning of a longer unit in which they study Greek mythology as a whole.  Of course, there are plenty of reasons why someone should study Greek myths.  They help introduce students to ancient Greek culture, teach us some timeless lessons about human nature, and are also simply wonderful examples of well told stories.  However, in their excitement for the stories of Ancient Greece, teachers so often overlook another set of stories that could enrich our study of these myths for a few reasons: comic books.

To begin, most of the timeless themes that are so prominent in Greek mythology are reflected in comic books.  The idea that our heroes have just as many (and sometimes far more) flaws than the rest of us can be found in the stories of both Hercules, who was arrogant, violent, and selfish, and Batman, who suffers from PTSD and struggles to form a meaningful relationship with his son Damian.  We can learn the dangers of Hubris from both Bellerophon, the hero struck down by Zeus for trying to fly Pegasus all the way up to Olympus, and from Daredevil, who almost dies trying to fight crime alone.  Medea, who murders her ex-husband’s new wife after giving up her family and home only to be callously tossed aside a few months later, and Mr. Freeze, who robs banks in order to continue researching his wife's fatal illness, can teach us about that sometimes villains turn to villainy because they think it’s their only choice.  The same themes that captivated the ancient Greeks still sell comic books today and that, to me, seems like the stuff of incredibly interesting classroom discussions

On the other hand, though, comic book stories can lead to discussions of current issues in a way Greek mythology simply can't.  The X-Men movies are very much an allegory for the struggles of the gay community.  Characters like DC’s Cyborg bring us face to face with the place technology has in our world today, and makes us wonder just how much it might one day be integrated into our bodies and lives, while those like Marvel’s Vision force us to consider just how powerful artificial intelligence could one day become.  Marvel’s new Ms. Marvel, Khamala Khan, represents a desire by Marvel writers Sana Amanat and Stephen Wacker to “explore the Muslim-American diaspora from an authentic perspective.”  The important issues of our day are reflected in comic books, and studying comic books can give make us think about these issues in unique ways.

Finally, comic books are simply easier to get than Greek mythology.  The worlds and cultures that form the backdrop of these stories are much more familiar to us than Ancient Greece, and thus we can simply dive right into studying comic books and understand them in a way that's impossible with the Greek myths.

In short, comic books send us the same timeless messages that Greek mythology does, address current issues in a way Greek mythology can't, and are simply easier to understand that Greek mythology is.  Am I suggesting that schoolchildren stop learning about the ancient gods and heroes all together?  Of course not.  I think there’s huge value in learning the culture of Ancient Greece and in having to work at understanding a text’s cultural background, and I’ve loved Greek mythology for practically my entire life.  I do think, however, that studying comics alongside the legends of the ancients could make for a richer, more entertaining, and ultimately more meaningful experience.