Tony Norman: Comics make issue out of dealing with news

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

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-ga­zette.com or 412-263-1631 Twit­ter: @TonyNor­manPG.

Join the conversation:

Commenting policy | How to report abuse
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to socialmedia@post-gazette.com and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.
Commenting policy | How to report abuse

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here