Magazine article Geographical

Jason Dittmer

Magazine article Geographical

Jason Dittmer

Article excerpt

Jason Dittmer is a political geographer at University College London. More than a decade after reading Captain America comics as a teenager, he returned to the subject as an academic to discover how consumption of these comics, and other forms of popular culture, help to shape people's views of the world. He talks to Olivia Edward about the link between superheroes' powers and geography, and why he doesn't believe in looking at the big picture

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The state has only existed for a couple of hundred years, but we still tend to think of ourselves as fundamentally national peoples. If we know states aren't natural or pre-existing entities, why do we think of ourselves as British or American? I'm interested in denaturalising that thought process and questioning how we came to think like that.

Most of my research focuses on the way popular culture intersects with people to produce our visions of the world or geopolitical imaginations. The movies, books, news and comics we consume don't tell us how to think, but we do use these cultural resources, often unconsciously, to help compose our views of the world.

The idea to research the national superhero comic-book characters came to me during a long-distance drive across the USA. I suddenly remembered reading Captain America comics when I was about 14 or 15. I could remember entire storylines and speeches, and it struck me what a powerful socialising mechanism this had been in my early adolescence.

Even now, when I write critically about Captain America, he still represents the America that I wish existed. That's still my dream, that America would be colour blind and dedicated to fairness and equality. I realise that reading those comic books at a fairly young age clearly shaped my outlook on life.

Captain America is one the most famous nationalist superheroes. Superheroes appear in a certain genre of literature and films. They are heroes who wear a costume, have superpowers and defend a society. Nationalist superheroes are a sub-genre whose costume, name and values are tied to a national mythology.

A flurry of them appeared at the beginning of the Second World War. They were clearly a cultural response to the politics of the time. Some of them were quite proactive--the creators of Captain America both wanted the USA to enter the war, so they created an alternative world in which Nazi spies were blowing up US munitions factories. It's activist creativity; it isn't just reflecting the times, it's helping to produce them.

Later, other nationalist superheroes began to emerge. Marvel Comics thought that a good way to break into the British market would be to create a British superhero. …

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