Jersey Reflections: Mini-Histories


Jersey Reflections

By Vince Farinaccio

A Columnist for the Grapevine

Comics have always exhibited an awareness of the era in which they were created.
Popular culture has a way of chronicling history that is so distinct from academic studies. It absorbs actual events, using them as backdrops for its fictional accounts and preserving the context as a mini-history lesson. And there is no better evidence of this than the recent Comic Con held two weekends ago in Philadelphia.
It has been reported that attendance at comic-book conventions is on the rise, and with tens of thousands visiting the four-day event in Philly that seems accurate. Largely sporting a Marvel Comics theme, the convention featured appearances by Chris Evans (Captain America), Anthony Mackie (Falcon), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), and Hayley Atwell (Agent Carter). They are all part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the TV/film counterpart of the company’s print offerings, which was represented by Spider-Man group editor Danny Fingeroth.
Comic books and graphic novels have always exhibited an awareness of the era in which they were created, and the convention continually acknowledged that time-capsule quality. A panel discussion titled “Civil Rights and Social Justice Issues as Reflected in Comic Books” examined how immigration was reflected in comics. The workshop explained how Joe Simon, son of an immigrant father, created Superman, the Krypton-born superhero who is sent to earth where, as one participant explained, he “lives out his dream as an immigrant.” The panel traced the theme to more recent times with Marvel’s allegory about mutant heroes settling in the “sanctuary city” of San Francisco where their backgrounds wouldn’t be questioned.
Recently, Marvel luminary Stan Lee explained how an era could be inspirational. In his forward to Travis Langley’s Captain America vs. Iron Man: Freedom, Security, Psychology, he wrote, “Captain America was the quintessential World War II hero and then Iron Man came out of a different war [Vietnam] with a different generation. I wanted to have fun with Iron Man. I took all the things the hippies hated and I let Iron Man represent them. He was a guy who made munitions. He helped the nation’s war effort.”
The Vietnam War was only one social issue incorporated into Marvel comics at the time. Feminism was also examined and a significant number of superheroines began to populate comic books by the late 1960s.The recent television series Agent Carter, set in the immediate aftermath of World War II, has spent its two seasons on ABC addressing the discrimination women experienced in the workplace during the decade in which Captain America first appeared. At Comic Con, Hayley Atwell made it a point to note the difficulties her character faced as a woman.
The 1960s and early 1970s also witnessed the introduction of African-American superheroes that included Black Panther, whose alter ego is the king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, and Falcon, who shared equal billing with Captain America in a series of releases. This year has seen a rebooted Black Panther comic written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a 2015 National Book Award winner.
Despite the respectability comic books have earned, there are always those who prefer to treat them as second-rate or even as a danger to be neutralized. In 1954, the Comics Code was developed in order to protect juveniles from turning delinquent from reading the so-called unsavory material contained in comics. According to Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics—The Untold Story, for the next two years “the number of titles produced by the comic industry was halved.”
Today, the Marvel Cinematic Universe regularly comes under attack by critics who group together all action and computer-graphics-laden films. The New York Times, forgetting that Marvel can be traced back to World War II when it introduced what has become an ongoing threat from fictional Nazi organization Hydra, complained that 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron “opens with one of those Bond-style blowouts that’s so old-fashioned it even includes a Nazi-type villain...” This year, it dismissed Captain America: Civil War as “a very expensive, perpetually renewed workplace sitcom.”
The Times seems to have missed what was apparent to both stars and fans at the Philadelphia Comic Con, the fact that, as one young woman acknowledged when asking Chris Evans a question, the films, like the comics, reflect the social and political issues of today. That probably explains why another fan, who posed a question to one of the celebrities, teaches a college course in this particular field of pop culture.