By Hanna Rosin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 29, 2005
It's clobberin' time! How else to explain yesterday's midday appearance, down in the Pentagon basement, of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (normal human strength, no known superpowers), wedged between Spider-Man and Captain America, trying his best to melt that icy glare of his into a boy-am-I-glad-you-guys-showed-up kind of smirk?
Either Marvel Comics is really hard up for readers and needs an ultra-dynamic, Pentagon-heavy publicity gimmick to boost its sales, or Rumsfeld is finally ready to admit that only a superhero can extricate us from Iraq.
The official explanation for this partnership (The Titanic Three? The Terrific Trio?) is this: Marvel Comics has created a custom "Support Our Troops" comic book starring the New Avengers and the Fantastic Four for "America Supports You," a Defense Department campaign. One million copies will be distributed to service members in the United States and overseas. But as any friend of the Avengers can tell you, the official explanation sometimes can't be trusted.
From the military's perspective the benefits of the collaboration are obvious. According to a Marvel executive, soldiers in Iraq have written letters to Marvel complaining they can't get enough comic books. It makes a certain sense: If you are a soldier in Sadr City it must be soothing to dream that Spider-Man will swing down from a nearby rooftop and ensnare your unseen attackers in his web.
Or that you yourself are endowed with some superpowers. How useful would it be to gulp down some of that Super-Soldier serum that makes Captain America a master of hand-to-hand combat, able to lift 800 pounds and duck at the speed of lightning? Or to be able to stretch yourself into a thin-walled square like Mr. Fantastic does, should the Green Zone fail you?
From the Avengers' point of view the partnership is a little more tricky. Marvel plot lines tend to unfold in a real-ish world; the superheroes live in New York and work with various government agencies to combat threats. The U.S. government welcomes the Avengers' help, but only in a grudging sort of way. They were trusted enough to gain access to official U.S. military computer networks. But then in a later story arc the Senate held a series of hearings to determine whether they were a threat to national security. As far as the feds are concerned, a superhero sometimes can't be trusted either.
At one time the G-man assigned to oversee the Avengers was a humorless arrogant prig who was always lecturing them; at another, it was an affable functionary with a high tolerance for extralegal activities. Who, if either of these, better resembles Rumsfeld we leave for readers to judge.
Marvel has created custom comic books before for various causes, anti-smoking or anti-bullying. But this latest one is anti-didactic. "Pure escapism," says Robert Sabouni, a Marvel executive. "A touch of home," said Allison Barber, deputy assistant secretary of defense. The story opens with some soldiers who stumble on a UFO-looking ship and call for help. Iron Man and Mr. Fantastic, the two scientist-superheroes, show up. They pry open the ship to find hostile aliens inside, and then KOOM! THWIP! etc.
Yesterday's news conference unveiling the comic book had less of the KOOM! thrill and more of the Santa Claus-comes-to-the-mall feel. Hundreds of Pentagon employees brought their children down to the commercial mini-mall in the basement to "Meet the Superheroes," as the event was billed. Rumsfeld, after urging the young crowd to be "quiet, very quiet, very quiet," introduced the superheroes and said he hoped "we all remember what this is about: supporting our troops."
A man dressed in a Spider-Man costume gamely squatted and did that web-squirt thing with his hands dozens of times to pose for photographs, while the Captain America look-alike flexed his muscles and kept his expression deadly earnest. At some point Rumsfeld too did a little muscle flex for the cameras, only he couldn't keep a straight face.
Sam Burns from Arlington came with his aunt as a special surprise for his 13th birthday. He posed with both superheroes for photos in his white Oxford shirt and a tie. He used to read comic books but now he prefers novels such as "The Archer's Tale," about an English soldier in the mid-1300s who fights the French to avenge his father's death. His less literate friends prefer video games.
"None of my friends really read comics anymore," he says.