Comic books and social justice
“Marvel's The Avengers” Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is the director of the international peacekeeping organization known as S.H.I.E.L.D in “Marvel’s The Avengers,” opening in theaters on May 4, 2012. The Joss Whedon–directed action-adventure is presented by Marvel Studios in association with Paramount Pictures and also stars Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner. Ph: Zade Rosenthal © 2011 MVLFFLLC. TM & © 2011 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.
Updated: June 11, 2012 8:50AM
On the opening weekend of the latest comic book epic, “The Avengers,” I read more than a few reviews referencing the writers’ own nostalgia for the comic books of their youth.
I can relate, but to me, the transcendence to mega-movie blockbuster status of the heroes and villains of our modern mythology from the cheap, pulpy four-color prints I grew up reading (along with persuasive ads for “X-Ray Specs”) is also cause for reflection.
Marvel Comics, the stable that launched “Spider-Man,” “The Fantastic Four,” “The Avengers” and many others, published my favorite titles. The core of Marvel’s much larger rival, DC Comics, “Superman,” “Batman,” “Justice League” and others were fun, but they focused on heroes defeating gimmicky super-villains, fanciful aliens and marauding monsters.
Of course, so did Marvel’s, but Marvel was different; Marvel super-heroes had actual problems. This was the chief issuance of genius from the mind of Marvel master, Stan Lee, now routinely seen among his creations in Hitchcockian cameos.
As powerful as they were, Lee’s protagonists were flawed. They could be blind, lame, self-conscious, insecure, have elder care issues, be flat broke or were born so mutated that they were outcasts feared or even hated despite their deeds. This is common knowledge to anyone familiar with the Marvel pantheon, but there was something else happening, something that rendered the exploits of Green Lantern and his DC pals trivial by comparison, even in the uncritical mind of a child.
I come from a time and place in which racial and religious animosity were abundant. My mother did a fine job of keeping the poison out of our home, but she wasn’t exactly pro-active at teaching me diversity and tolerance. When I first heard the word “bigot,” on an episode of Mod Squad, I had to ask her what it meant, and I recall receiving a less than accurate explanation. My public school was pretty slow to catch up, also.
I didn’t know why the mean things being said about other people were so natural to friends and relatives but so disturbing to me. Something had to be providing the antidote. In hindsight, lacking a decisive alternative, I give credit to the Marvel comics that were a daily part of my childhood. For me, those super heroes will always be more than an on-screen summer thrill-ride. They are a part of how I grew to see my world.
As Exhibit A, I offer my all-time favorite comic, “Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos.” I grew up steeped in World War II lore. Mom assembled the autopilots used with the advanced Norden bombsights that helped win the war in Europe. Dad, too old to serve, taught welding to other men unsuitable for active duty who rebuilt the Pacific Fleet in the Los Angeles shipyards after Pearl Harbor. I heard about their friends who came back from war, some missing body parts, and others who didn’t come back at all.
Instead of “Bonanza,” we watched “Combat,” “Twelve O’Clock High” and “The Gallant Men.” Meanwhile, I would eagerly fork over my 12 cents to see what Nazi evil the Howlers’ would vanquish each month. It took a long time, however, for me to realize the impact Nick Fury’s First Attack Squad would have on the man I became.
The Howling Commandos included the first recurring African-American character, Gabe Jones, and the first recurring, identifiably Jewish character, Izzy Cohen, I had ever experienced. More than that, I knew Cohen had a personal stake in the fighting. Somewhat later, I caught on to the significance of the friendship between Jones and another member of the squad, Kentuckian “Rebel” Ralston, in the then-segregated armed forces, their published story coinciding with emerging challenges to American inequality.
I never saw the Howling Commandos as idealistic. I had never heard the word, much less knew what it meant. Gabe and Reb were Howlers and that was enough.
Also, people actually died in the stories, and not just the obligatory, mostly off-frame enemy troops, but friends, allies, soldiers and civilians.
Men, women, and even a teenage resistance fighter, gave their lives, were missed, and often remembered in later issues. Death was a real and permanent loss, deeply felt. War, no matter how justified, was Hell.
In my adult years, Nick Fury was re-launched and embodied in film by Samuel L. Jackson, a guy Stan the Man would rightly call “Every inch a Howler.” Lee later described the only British member of the squad, Percival “Pinky” Pinkerton, as being subtly gay, although comic aficionados debate his sincerity. To me back then, Pinky was just a fancy Englishman — think David Niven or Trevor Howard in their war movies.
But, hey, a little kid self-learning social justice in the early ’60s can only absorb so much.
Brian Kibble-Smith is an Oak Park resident.