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A ‘Very Special’ Era of Marvel Comics: Why It Didn’t Work

Spider-Man is Marvel’s flagship character. The Webslinger is so central to Marvel’s legacy that his visage appeared on company payroll checks for three solid decades. So, in the 1980s, when the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse approached Marvel about doing a PSA comic, Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter saw the perfect opportunity to tie in Spidey with new superhero kid sensations Power Pack.

Thus began a somewhat ill-conceived “very special episode” in the world of comics…

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Before Shooter signed off on the PSA giveaway comic, Shooter was involved in a micro controversy surrounding the publishing of a standalone Rampaging Hulk comic about four years prior. Rampaging was a mature Hulk title that found its place among the far more expensive books on the direct market. It was a place to try something new and interesting. That’s when Shooter decided to write about a fugitive Bruce Banner nearly being raped by two male attackers at a YMCA.

The Rampaging Hulk issue was an attempt to tell a brave story with an insanely popular Marvel comic and TV star. While it’s interesting to see Shooter gravitating towards two different stories on similar subject matter, one has to wonder why at all?

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Jim Shooter has gone on record saying that his Hulk piece was meant to use a powerful male figure to sympathize with the guilt felt after a sexual attack. An attempt to show that it could happen to anyone regardless of their nature. But, the positioning of the attack and Banner’s response drove many LGBT media outlets of the early 80s and now to question the move.

Jim Shooter has said this about the issue: “The attack at the “Y” was likewise based on an actual incident. A friend of mine at the age of 15 — maybe 16, not sure — had been attacked in exactly the same way at the McBurney ‘Y,’ and escaped, as Banner did. That scene was a small bit, not by a longshot the focus of the story”. While personal experience is a good teacher, there comes a time when intentions fail and an artist creates a piece that makes an audience do a spit take.

What makes these moments stick out over time is the rather ballsy approach to serious subject matter in broad entertainment. Sitcoms of the same era would have Very Special Episodes where they would tackle social issues. Diff’rent Strokes went through molestation, drugs, smoking and kidnapping in the span of two seasons. Why shouldn’t Marvel allow its popular characters to tackle heady issues?

Well, time has taught the world that some subject matters don’t sound right coming from a five year old that can shoot energy balls out of her chest. Marvel wasn’t trying to trivialize the subject matter of sexual abuse, but there is talking to kids and talking down to kids.

The way Spider-Man shares a story in passing about being touched in an improper manner plays incredibly odd in modern context, especially because he’s swinging around a Latino kid above NYC skyscrapers while relaying the story. At best, the kid feels that he’s not alone. At worst, it’s the scene in Airplane! where Peter Graves asks the child if he likes Gladiator movies.

But, what do you do? Do you ignore societal ills and keep writing stories about Electro and the Shocker? Well, for Spider-Man and the Hulk you do. Kids needs to hear about these issues, just not in passing from Avengers members.

 


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