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: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1631 Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.