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Adventures in history [Commentary]

Although the summer season still has a few weeks left, the box office take thus far suggests that Hollywood's string of consecutive records likely ended last summer.

While consumer tastes are notoriously fickle in the entertainment industry, I do give credit to Hollywood for trying to give consumers more of what they have wanted in the past. So, this season, we welcomed back old friends in new displays of derring-do as they saved humanity from various foes.

There was Captain America appearing with the Winter Soldier, Falcon and the Black Widow. We cheered Wolverine and his fellow X-Men and rooted for Spider-Man over Electro, Rhino and the Green Goblin. Meanwhile, Optimus Prime and the Transformers effectively countered some threat of extinction, and, beginning Friday, Sylvester Stallone will again lead the Expendables in a show of macho muscularity.

I personally had a blast with all this slam bang fun. However, this summer's poor numbers suggest that Hollywood may need to expand and diversify its hero portfolio. I doubt this is news to the producers of the Hollywood dream factory. I just hope that in their search for heroes to dramatize, they eventually turn to some very overlooked candidates.

This was brought home to me in a very personal way this spring when my children started American history in school. They were learning important facts, to be sure, but I noticed that they weren't appreciating the true heroism and greatness of many historical figures.

I resolved to remedy this by putting American history into a form they — and many other children — enjoy reading: adventure stories. That way, even as I promote their general literacy, I can instill a patriotic literacy.

The obvious first hero in my mind was George Washington. Think Wolverine's battle was tough? With his anger issues, he couldn't possibly have led an unstable army across a frozen Delaware River. Admire Captain America's patriotism? The captain is honorable, but it's no contest between him and the General (later President) Washington. (Note of trivia: "Captain" America's rank is honorary at best. Comic-Con types know that there has never been a storyline of Private Steve Rogers receiving an officer's commission. Cap'n Crunch, similarly.) Appreciate Spider-Man's underdog valor? Could Spidey have defeated the greatest military power on earth with just a ragtag band of amateurs and volunteers under his command? Definitely not with his constant pining for Gwen and Mary Jane.

Early this summer, with my children providing motivation and nearby Mount Vernon providing inspiration, I made my first foray into writing young adult historical fiction. In "Fighting for Freedom and General Washington," I whisk young readers back over 200 years to join General Washington in his war for America's independence.

The "father of our country" was imperfect of course. He was human. But then again, every dramatist knows that any memorable character must embody both flaws and virtues. For instance, two perennial fan favorites at Comic-Con are Batman and Wolverine, neither exactly Boy Scouts.

Fortunately for us, Washington was never quite that anguished. I shudder to think what a Wolverine-ish General Washington might have done to the British and to his legacy. Fortunately for the British, Washington was gallant in victory and did not eviscerate his enemies with adamantium claws. Now there was a real superhero.

My initial writing results have been very gratifying, and I'm therefore encouraged to continue. The next three volumes will involve World War II, the Civil War and World War I, respectively, to dramatize real life American superheroes, some well known, others less so.

So, what do you say, Hollywood? Interested in the movie rights?

Michael Justin Lee is a lecturer in the University of Maryland's school of business. His first young adult historical fiction novel, "Fighting for Freedom and General Washington" is a recommended book of the Mamie Eisenhower Library Project. His email is leem@umd.edu.

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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