Sunday, September 9, 2012

Cry for the Commentary

With the exception of the 1968-70 run of The Silver Surfer, the publication of "message" comics--comics which attempt to make the reader more aware of social issues--have been few and far between. Different from "educational" comics in that they're more social commentary than instructive, such comics have proven best in small doses. The fate of The Silver Surfer series (Vol. 1) probably gave pause to anyone thinking of ramming social commentary down the collective throat of comics readers. Stan Lee, the writer of the book, used the Surfer to bemoan the lost potential of humanity--a race of childlike savages who couldn't see their own grand destiny because they were too mired in their own primitive conflicts and degrading prejudices. Observations which wouldn't have been so bad, in a story here or a few panels there--because it's how the Surfer evolved, as someone who had seen the Universe in all its glory.  And as an alien trapped on Earth, it wouldn't have been out of the ordinary to hear him objectively critique humanity's failings.

The problem, as readers of the series know, is that Lee never gave it a rest. These weren't just the Surfer's observations--they coalesced into a state of mind for him that virtually turned into the book's theme.  How much fun do you think it is for a kid to pick up one issue after another of a series and read about what a shitty world they live in? Contrast that with The Amazing Spider-Man, where we all knew that the title character seldom caught any breaks from playing the hero--he was regularly dumped on by the public, and even his friends. And in the early days of the X-Men, they were heroes-in-hiding, always having to conceal their status because they were "different"--the public's fear and hatred of "mutants" wasn't a door that had been opened yet by the writers. But these characters and their isolation were different than the morose, pessimistic theme that dominated the Surfer's book. It served to drag down the book, and the reader, to the point where it didn't matter how big of a draw the foe was that the Surfer faced--it was just too damn depressing a read.

When the Surfer was appearing in Fantastic Four, his musings were tempered by the FF, who took center stage for the majority of the book. But in the Surfer's own title, it was all Surfer, all commentary, seemingly all the time. When he wasn't putting down humanity, he was moaning about his imprisonment. And woe be to the kid who thought he'd be reading a super-hero comic. It's hard to warm up to a character who wants nothing more than to get away from you. Comics, in those days, got you so excited about the storyline that you were on pins and needles waiting for the next issue--but you never felt that way about the next Silver Surfer book. With the Surfer's constant pessimism, it became clear after the first few issues that this was the way it was going to be all the time--and there was nothing to look forward to but more of the same.

But the lesson learned from that series by Marvel writers wasn't forgotten. From time to time, there have been issues which have strayed into social commentary, but thankfully never lingered (though on rare occasion it may have taken more than one issue to make the point). And they've been notable, partly for that very reason--they stood out among the other stories, and were better remembered as a result. Here are a few that come to mind:

Fantastic Four #119
"Three Stood Together!"

The Torch and the Thing are asked by Wakanda to investigate the Black Panther's disappearance in Rudyarda, a stronghold of so-called white supremacy, where he's pursued thieves of a Vibranium-enhancing device called a Vibrotron. During the duo's investigation, writer Roy Thomas has several opportunities to detail the racist atmosphere they encounter. Even the Panther can be used in that sense, when he's apprehended because he neglected to forge an identity card, the possession of which is mandatory for the city's black population--a detail which is hard to believe the Panther overlooked, given that he probably received a thorough briefing beforehand. We also learn that the Panther is calling himself the Black Leopard now, noting the political connotations the "Black Panther" term has in the U.S. and wishing to retain his unique identity.

Thomas does a good job with the racism theme, in that he mostly makes offhand references to it, yet numerous enough to make it stick in the reader's mind. And the telling graphic of the final page leaves no doubt just what he wants the reader to focus on in this story.

Iron Man #128
"Demon In A Bottle"

This issue brings the complications in Tony Stark's life to a head, culminating in an imminent takeover of controlling interest in Stark International by S.H.I.E.L.D. Stark's alcohol abuse has been increasing as the events unfolded--and as he begins to lose control of his business, he sees his last anchor slipping away and he reaches the breaking point. Enter his girlfriend, Bethany Cabe, who convinces him to lean on his friends and begin the long road to recovery.

This was a fascinating storyline, as Iron Man--one of Marvel's flagship characters--becomes an admitted alcoholic, a condition which cannot be swept under the rug whenever a new writer comes on board and wants to change the course of both the character and the book. It humanizes Stark to a great degree, in addition to the great job writer David Michelinie has done in expanding Stark's character during his tenure on Iron Man. Stark's battle with alcohol is one that will never end--and that adds a vulnerability to his character that makes a welcome replacement for that of his former heart condition.

Amazing Spider-Man #s 96-98
"...And Now The Goblin!"

This three-part story was best remembered for the conspicuous absence of the Comics Code Authority stamp from the issues' covers, because of the story's focus on drug abuse--a subject not specifically against CCA policy, but in conflict enough with its intent. (Curiously, though, look how the stamp has been added back to Marvel's digital cover here.)

To have the story last three issues without beating the reader over the head on the issue, the Green Goblin is brought back to fight Spider-Man. Interwoven in the conflict is Peter Parker's friend and roommate, Harry Osborn, who turns to drugs in order to handle the rejection by his girlfriend, Mary Jane (who is flagrantly playing up to Peter). Harry's subsequent overdose serves as the catalyst to get Peter personally involved--and in so doing, he brings us along in his observations and frustration about what drugs are doing to people. It's a very skilled way of dealing in the Spider-Man/Green Goblin conflict in order to shed light on the drug abuse issue, and shows not only Harry's struggle with drugs but how widespread the problem has become.

Thor #154
"...To Wake The Mangog!"

In the midst of Thor's search for Loki, he encounters a group of kids who represent the trend of "dropping out"--withdrawing from participation in the establishment, which included pursuits like education or employment. (You can see the full scene in the story here.) These kids, who see Thor as the protector of that establishment instead of in the greater role he plays, clearly just want to razz him for pursuing a futile cause.

Thor gets their attention when he challenges them to lift his enchanted hammer, a task at which they of course fail. But afterward, he gives a graphic representation of what they can truly aspire to, if they have the strength of character to try. And writer Stan Lee gives one of his best quotes: "'Tis not by dropping out--but by plunging in--into the maelstrom of life itself--that thou shalt find thy wisdom!" By the time the lecture is over, these kids not only were left with a lot to think about--but probably a few pair of soiled pants, as well.

Hulk #131
"A Titan Stalks The Tenements!"

The Hulk, newly separated from Bruce Banner and hiding out in the slums of Los Angeles, meets his long-time friend Jim Wilson for the first time. Wilson, broke and hungry, is a petty thief, stealing to survive, and is guilt-ridden about the type of person he's become--which gives writer Roy Thomas plenty of leeway to pad on the social commentary about kids who have no recourse when they commit such actions--that it's the system that's failed, not them. But the true compelling part of the issue is when Wilson meets and befriends the Hulk, and the two find they have much in common.

The Hulk, with his long experience with betrayal and being misunderstood, senses a kindred spirit in Wilson--while Wilson is happy to commiserate with someone he can identify with, someone who will take his mind off of his circumstances. The two realize how much the same they are--ironically, because they're "different."

Uncanny X-Men #122
"Cry For The Children!"

Though this issue is a sort of interlude story, you can probably tell by its title where writer Chris Claremont wants to focus. Claremont combines the same elements from the Hulk's story--kids with, as Luke Cage puts it, "no homes, no decent schoolin', no money, no jobs--no hope!"--with the drug abuse elements of the Spider-Man story, and frames it brilliantly by making Storm its focal point. She goes to Harlem to visit the home of her parents (and where she was born), only to find it turned into a gutted refuge where junkies go to shoot up. Artist John Byrne frames a stark contrast between the regal beauty of Storm and the filthy environment of the addicts.

Storm is obviously out of her element here, but Cage is Claremont's interpreter for her--though with Claremont's parting comment about "society [being] more concerned about cagin' 13-year-olds for life than tryin' to give 'em a decent chance," it's clear he had more of a message to present than story space would allow.

Heroes For Hope Starring the X-Men #1

Coinciding with the famine relief and recovery efforts in Africa in the mid-'80s, this story finds the X-Men under attack by an entity which uses food, or the lack of food, in its assault on their individual psyches. They trace the entity to Africa, where they encounter relief planes delivering food supplies. Putting aside their search for the entity, they aid in unloading and distributing the food crates, which serves to educate the reader on the starving people via the reactions and comments of the X-Men. The resolution of the story comes from Rogue, whose direct contact with a starving, dying child spurs her to absorb the abilities of her fellow X-Men in order to track down the entity she believes is responsible for all the misery and suffering of these people. Eventually, the other X-Men join her in battle against the entity, who taunts them with despair, until it disappears. The team discovers that it's a mutant scavenger that lives off human suffering--the suffering that's already present in these starving people.

To close the story, an analogy is made between the team's struggle against the entity and the collective efforts to help the starving. It's a fine effort to raise awareness of this issue--and all profits from the book's sale were donated to relief efforts.

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