Darby Ratliff ’16, stumbled into her honors thesis topic during her freshman year in Dr. Robert Butler’s Honors 101 course. He offered his class a variety of topics for a final paper but encouraged fresh ideas. Darby came to him with the idea of writing about Captain America as the embodiment of changing American ideals and values since World War II. Dr. Butler didn’t hesitate to approve her rather unorthodox final paper and off she went. In the following semesters, he reminded Darby that the subject would be a good focus for an All-College Honors thesis and so as she prepared for her thesis, “Captain America: The Hero with a Thousand Masks,” Dr. Butler was the natural choice for her thesis advisor.
Doing research for her thesis involved paging through hundreds of Captain America comics, from their beginnings in the late 1930s and early 1940s to contemporary issues. The star-spangled hero has been explored before in critical theory and so Dr. Butler encouraged her to explore what makes his story so appealing. Why was he, as a superhero, more important to consider within American traditions than Superman? What draws people to Captain America? Dr. Butler pushed Darby to dust off her knowledge of mythology, wondering if there was a relationship between Captain America and the traditional tales of mythological heroes. Sure enough, it was clear from Joseph Campbell’s text The Hero with a Thousand Faces, that Captain America was consistently undergoing many of the trials and tribulations faced by his ancient counterparts while at the same time serving as an embodiment of what this nation values. In order to better help her understand, Dr. Butler offered a number of literary examples to operationalize the ages in which Captain America lived and at the same time Darby was taking a course he was offering on modern heroes and antiheroes.
The mentoring and collaboration between faculty and students at Canisius can lead to exciting opportunities beyond the classroom. In April of this year, Darby will present a modified version of her thesis titled “Redefining a National Hero: Captain America as an Indicator of Nation-State Relations in the U.S” at the New York State Political Science Association Conference at SUNY New Paltz.
Submitted by: Sara Morris, PhD, associate vice president, academic affairs