Tony Norman: Comics make issue out of dealing with news

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I was on va­ca­tion last week, so I missed the chance to com­ment on the down­ing of the Ma­lay­sian pas­sen­ger plane by Rus­sian sep­a­rat­ists in Ukraine and the es­ca­lat­ing con­flict be­tween Is­rael and the Pal­es­tin­ians that has re­sulted in hun­dreds of deaths in Gaza.

The un­re­lent­ing aw­ful­ness of the news cy­cle isn’t some­thing most peo­ple want to dwell on, any­way, I sus­pect. The long his­tory of tribal ha­tred in the Mid­dle East and in the for­mer So­viet re­pub­lics re­in­forces a ten­dency to re­treat into es­cap­ist fare rather than spend the time de­con­struct­ing an­cient blood feuds.

Most Amer­i­cans couldn’‍t tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween Sun­nis and Shi­ites or point to Donetsk on the map or haz­ard a guess as to whether in­vad­ing Gaza is in Is­rael’s stra­te­gic in­ter­ests, but there is a con­sen­sus that U.S. mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion in any for­eign con­flict is a non-starter af­ter the Iraq and Af­ghan­istan de­ba­cles.

So as bad news gushed out like wa­ter from a hy­drant last week, I was struck by break­ing news on the pop cul­ture front. Marvel En­ter­tain­ment an­nounced that Steve Rogers, aka Cap­tain Amer­ica, would be re­placed as the lead in his comic by Sam Wil­son, aka the Fal­con. Be­cause Sam Wil­son is black, sat­i­rist Ste­phen Col­bert won­dered aloud whether it would be more ap­pro­pri­ate to re­fer to him as “Cap­tain African-Amer­i­can.”

That same week, Marvel also an­nounced that Thor, who was turned into a ham­mer-wield­ing frog at one point and pro­nounced “dead” more than a few times dur­ing his nearly 50-year run in com­ics, will be re­placed by a woman who will in­herit the name, ham­mer and pow­ers of the for­mer god of thun­der.

Not to be out­done in grasp­ing for the elu­sive cul­tural mo­ment, the lat­est is­sue of “Life with Ar­chie” fea­tures the mur­der of the eter­nally young red­head star of 74 years’‍ worth of comic books. It comes at the hands of a gun-wield­ing ho­mo­phobe who was stalk­ing Ar­chie’‍s gay friend. Once the news broke of Ar­chie’s un­timely de­mise, that is­sue sold out na­tion­wide, mak­ing it an in­stant col­lec­tor’s item un­til the pub­lisher or­ders an­other print run to cap­i­tal­ize on its pop­u­lar­ity.

Ar­chie’s death, like the changes made to two iconic Marvel char­ac­ters, is what comic fans call a “gim­mick” — a trans­par­ent at­tempt by pub­lish­ers to juice flag­ging in­ter­est in books, char­ac­ters and story lines that ha­ven’‍t been fresh in de­cades.

The story in “Life with Ar­chie” takes place in the fu­ture, when the char­ac­ters have fi­nally “grown up” and Ar­chie is/​was mar­ried to both Betty and Veron­ica. Mean­while, the bulk of Ar­chie sto­ries con­tinue to take place in the “pres­ent,” with Ar­chie and his friends re­main­ing fatu­ous teen­agers in pur­suit of he­do­nis­tic plea­sure that some­how never in­volves sex.

“Life with Ar­chie” should not be con­fused with the crit­i­cally ac­claimed se­ries “After­life with Ar­chie,” fea­tur­ing the Riverd­ale gang on the run from zom­bies. The break­out star of the se­ries, of course, is the flesh-eat­ing “Un­dead Jug­head.” Yes, se­ri­ously!

Mean­while, com­ics afi­cio­na­dos aren’t fall­ing for the mar­ket­ing hype. They re­mem­ber Marvel beat­ing a hasty re­treat from even a hint of con­tro­versy a few years ago when it was ac­cused by Tea Party ac­tiv­ists of por­tray­ing the move­ment in a neg­a­tive light in a sin­gle panel of Cap­tain Amer­ica.

Fans also re­mem­ber that Sam Wil­son had a pre­vi­ous run as the black Cap­tain Amer­ica in 1998, so the cur­rent story line isn’t some un­prece­dented pro­file in cour­age. And in a 2003 mi­nis­er­ies that slyly evoked the eth­i­cal mal­prac­tice of the Tuske­gee Ex­per­i­ment, Isa­iah Brad­ley, a black World War II sol­dier, was given the first ver­sion of the su­per sol­dier se­rum that would even­tu­ally turn Steve Rogers into Cap­tain Amer­ica. Brad­ley was por­trayed as one of the Army’‍s des­ig­nated hu­man guinea pigs be­fore the se­rum was judged safe enough to test on whites.

The ra­cial and gen­der re­as­sign­ment of comic book char­ac­ters is triv­ial stuff given the mag­ni­tude of events last week, of course, but it does say some­thing about our di­min­ished ca­pac­ity to think big about the world even in pop cul­ture, where there should al­ways be a pre­mium on brav­ery. It’s eas­ier to make a Thor with breasts than to use the char­ac­ter to ex­plore the real-life in­san­ity of the Mid­dle East.

Tony Nor­man: tnor­man@post-ga­ or 412-263-1631 Twit­ter: @TonyNor­manPG.

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