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I've got you, Abe

Who needs comic-book superheros when you have the origin story of our nation's 16th prez?

  • Daniel Day-Lewis plays Abe Lincoln in "Lincoln"
Daniel Day-Lewis plays Abe Lincoln in "Lincoln" ("Lincoln" )
November 08, 2012|By Georgia Garvey, @gcgarvey | RedEye

He's emo, he was steampunk before steampunk was even a thing, and Daniel Day-Lewis plays him in a new movie. He has a totally bitchin' beard, kills vampires and, oh, yeah, he freed the slaves, too.

Meet the new Abraham Lincoln, hipster hero.

"He is already the American with perhaps the most astounding, almost mythological, life story," said James M. Cornelius, curator of the Lincoln Collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield. Lincoln, Cornelius said, was born in a log cabin with a dirt floor and rose, "largely by his own efforts," to the highest office in the nation. "I don't know why you'd need to fictionalize the great American story, but it's because it's already so astounding that he has our attention."

Yet fictionalize we do, as with the new "Lincoln" movie headed to theaters this weekend, and with the "Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter" book-turned-movie earlier this year, which made more than $109 million at the box office, according to boxofficemojo.com. Filming also has reportedly started on a movie called "The Green Blade Rises," about Lincoln's early years. It's scheduled to be released next year.

What's driving the cool-ification of a president who for years represented to most people a dusty character in a high-school history lesson? Maybe, say some experts, it's because he actually was a really interesting guy, one who wrestled and had a frontier childhood, in addition to leading the nation during the Civil War.

"It's interesting why it's taken so long" to create this new version of an actual American hero, says Mark Pohlad, associate professor of art history and architecture at DePaul University and an expert on Lincoln. Pohlad said the 16th president was a dude who could seriously hold his own. "He really did have this reputation for being kind of an ass-kicker."

Honest Abe was, in addition, really buff, Pohlad said. After he was shot at Ford's Theater in 1865, and his clothes were removed, the president had more of a tough-guy physique than most would have imagined, Pohlad said.

"Apparently people kind of gasped to see how strong he was," he said.

Pohlad guesses that perhaps, while we deal with empty pocketbooks, economic instability and international strife, maybe that ass-kicking Lincoln is exactly what our country wants to see.

"People think, 'We really need a man of action to lift us out of the doldroms,' " he said. Lincoln's greatness, partly as a president who could speak to the masses and get things done, came at a time of huge tension with the Civil War and the end of slavery, one of the darkest periods in American history. "He was living in the most violent time our country has known."

The Steven Spielberg movie "Lincoln," which promises to be a bit more authentic than the vampire-slaying portrayal, raises historians' hopes for more attention to the man who often tops lists of the greatest presidents in history.

"This is a great thing. I have no doubt there will be fictionalized parts of this movie," Cornelius said. But those fictionalization are "not a new thing."

There were comic books about Lincoln in the '50s and the character of Abraham Lincoln has been featured in movies as long as they've been made. His traditional stovepipe hat is still gracing graphic novels, fiction books and TV shows, as well as innumerable nonfiction works.

There are always new areas of Lincoln's life to explore. Cornelius points to the newest Lincoln movie for myth-busting one thing about the former president: his voice. Day-Lewis has reportedly said he purposely didn't make Lincoln's voice booming and deep, instead choosing what experts say is a more accurate tone.

"Lincoln had a high, thin, reedy voice with a very noticeable Kentucky twang his whole life," Cornelius said. "And the voice is going to sound very unexpected to the public."

Regardless of whether historians approve of every moment in the new flick—or whether they say the vampire hunter version of Lincoln is so absurd as to be laughable—they also say the more frequent pop culture appearances for Illinois' main man are a very good thing.

"At least people are starting to think of this history as just not engraved in stone," Pohlad said, adding that the 200-year anniversary of his birth sort of "came and went quietly in 2009." The renewed interest is totally welcome, he said. "It takes a minute for the country to say, 'Oh, yeah. Right. It's about time we re-examined Lincoln.'"

Pop culture's landscape of Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln has been dead for more than 147 years, but our endless obsession with all things Abe hasn't waned over the years. If anything, we just want to see more and more of Lincoln.

The recent "Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter" book and movie spawned a comic book, and the character of Abraham Lincoln has been played at least 300 times in movies and TV shows, according to IMDB listings. Here are some of the former president's weirdest appearances in pop culture.

"Star Trek"

Year: 1969

He gets full honors from an awed Capt. James T. Kirk, who also takes time to explain the beaming-aboard process to the president.

"Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure"

Year: 1989

He helps stoner protagonists Bill and Ted with a history project. His sage advice: "Be excellent to each other and party on, dudes."

"Zoolander"

Year: 2001

He's capped by the first in a long line of male-model assassins in U.S. history, John Wilkes Booth. Spoiler alert!

"National Treasure: Book of Secrets"

Year: 2007

He's played by Glenn Beck. No, not that Glenn Beck. The actor Glenn Beck. They look nothing alike.

"Batman: The Brave and The Bold"

Year: 2011

He teams up with Batman to vanquish a cyborg John Wilkes Booth.

"Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies"

Year: 2012

In this b-movie slasher pic, he takes down a horde of zombies that start with him beheading his own zombie-fied mom. Yuck.

ggarvey@tribune.com | @gcgarvey

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