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February 18, 2012

Abraham Lincoln, America’s first superhero?

Posted in: Movies

abraham lincoln Abraham Lincoln, Americas first superhero?

Abraham Lincoln echoes in pop culture in surprising ways -- and, according to guest essayist Christopher Farnsworth, he might be viewed as America's first superhero.

abraham lincoln vampire slayer Abraham Lincoln, Americas first superhero?

Director Timur Bekmambetov and actor Benjamin Walker deliver "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" to theaters on June 22. (20th Century Fox)

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Daniel Day-Lewis will portray the 16th U.S. president in Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln."

abe lincoln Abraham Lincoln, Americas first superhero?

Kelsey Grammar channeled Honest Abe on "30 Rock" this season. (Ali Goldstein/NBC)

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Abraham Lincoln made a memorable visit to the future in the "Star Trek" episode "The Savage Curtain." (CBS)

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Abraham Lincoln has been a favorite of comic book writers and artists for decades. (DC Comics)

lincoln spiderman Abraham Lincoln, Americas first superhero?

Abraham Lincoln was a powerful man in real life and that informs his comic book portayals. (Andy MacDonald / Marvel)

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One of Abe Lincoln's odder comic-book appearances was in Mike Mignola's "The Amazing Screw-On Head." (Dark Horse)

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Lincoln is key figure in Christopher Farnsworth's "Blood Oath" and "The President's Vampire." (Putnam Adult)

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Gamers could play as Abraham Lincoln in Civilization: Revolution, the fourth installment in the video game franchise.(2K Games)

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The cover for Seth Grahame-Smith's book, "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter." (Hachette Book Group)

This Presidents Day, almost 150 years after his assassination, Abraham Lincoln is poised to become the breakout star of 2012.

In June, he will fight the undead in a movie adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s bestselling novel, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” Later this year, Steven Spielberg will offer a more historically accurate – if disappointingly vampire-free – biography of Lincoln starring Daniel Day-Lewis. And (ahem) in my own upcoming novel, “Red, White, and Blood,” Lincoln gives advice from beyond the grave in order to save the current president’s life.

But these are, honestly, just the latest additions on Lincoln’s post-mortal resume. Long before Paul Bunyan swung his axe or Superman battled Lex Luthor, Lincoln was America’s first superhuman.

lincoln Abraham Lincoln, Americas first superhero?

Illustration by Sean Hartter/For The Times

He’s partied with Keanu Reeves in “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and fought alongside Captain James T. Kirk of the U.S.S. Enterprise. He has appeared in so much science fiction that it appears to be a rule: travel through time, meet Lincoln. The Grand Comics Database lists dozens of appearances by Lincoln, including his battles with zombies and werewolves and team-ups with Captain America, the Flash and Jughead. (Not all at once, sadly.) Walt Disney built a robot version of him to teach kids about history at Disneyland. He’s had a cameo on “The Simpsons” and was played by Kelsey Grammer just a couple of weeks ago on “30 Rock.”

In one comic, Lincoln has even punched out Hitler.

Of course, in real life, Lincoln wasn’t always viewed with rose-tinted 3D glasses. During his campaigns, he was called a clown, an incompetent, a tyrant, and even a Satanist for his wife’s involvement with spiritualism. His constant oversight of the Union army was blamed for prolonging the war, and he survived several assassination attempts before John Wilkes Booth finally succeeded in killing him. But something about Lincoln still speaks to us despite the distance of time. His biography includes several elements that Joseph Campbell would tag as common to all mythical heroes.

Grahame-Smith, while researching Lincoln’s life for his book, noticed that it is literally a hero’s origin story.

“Here was this guy who came from absolutely nothing – no connections, no money, no education – and through the power of his sheer intellect and determination, achieved the highest office in the land and then saved that land,” he says. “He is as close to an actual superhero as this country has ever seen.”

nuclear lincoln hartter Abraham Lincoln, Americas first superhero?

Illustration by Sean Hartter/For The Times

This isn’t on Campbell’s mythological checklist, but it probably helps that, at 6 feet 4 and massively strong, Lincoln could also kick butt. At his first debate, Lincoln saw one of his supporters in the crowd being attacked. He picked up the attacker and physically hurled him away.

So it makes sense that Lincoln has become an action hero at the same time he’s become a folk hero. Maybe that’s why even students who can’t place the Civil War in the right century recognize Lincoln as an unambiguous crusader for truth and justice.

lincoln cover 2 hartter Abraham Lincoln, Americas first superhero?

Illustration by Sean Hartter/For The Times

And in that way, in spite of Booth’s best efforts, Lincoln has filled the last requirement on Campbell’s list. He’s managed to overcome death.

Almost all of our national icons have collected their share of tarnish. Washington and the other Founding Fathers are tainted by their ownership of slaves. Both Roosevelts, Teddy and Franklin, have been reviled by right-wingers lately for their interference in free markets. And let’s not even start on JFK.

But Lincoln is the president everyone still admires in our hyper-partisan country. He is the one Republican even Democrats are willing to claim. He’s become a symbol of the fight for equality across the lines of color, gender and sexual orientation. He’s a hero to both Barack Obama and Bill O’Reilly.

Maybe that’s why we’re looking to him again right now. We’re about to head into what will be an ugly and toxic election. People are going to say and do things that will make us doubt we really are one nation, indivisible.

But compared with what Lincoln endured, a few snide comments on a blog or the blather of a CNN debate doesn’t seem like much of a cross to bear. Lincoln preserved the union and freed the slaves. Despite the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans, he fulfilled the promise of the Constitution to millions more. Except to a few mouth-breathers still wrapped in Confederate flags, these are unarguably good things. More than any other president, Lincoln reminds us that we can rise above our differences and respond to the “better angels of our nature,” as he once said.

We call it Presidents Day now, but we are still celebrating Lincoln’s birthday. Washington fathered the nation, but Lincoln rescued it. That’s what heroes do. Abraham Lincoln can still teach us something about what it means to be an American. Even when he’s not fighting vampires.

– Christopher Farnsworth

Christopher Farnsworth is the author of “The President’s Vampire” series and a former investigative journalist.

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