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World Spider-Man in Comic to Bolster UN Image

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The following article appeared in the New Zealand Herald this morning.

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Spiderman's toughest rescue mission
5:00AM Thursday January 10, 2008

Spider-Man's challenges have so far been pretty small beer. Since he first spun his web in the 1960s, he has squared up to a gallery of rogues, from the multi-limbed Doctor Octopus to the shape-shifting Sandman. Yet so far he has only had the task of rescuing the citizens of New York.

Now he is set for the big time. In a story out this year, the Marvel hero will be called upon to rescue the battered image of a very real-world institution - the United Nations.

In a move that will add grist to the mills of critics of the UN, who say the New York-headquartered international organisation is ineffective and has a communications crisis, particularly in the US, the body is joining forces with Marvel Comics, home to a stable of superheroes.

The partnership will create a new comic book that will include UN characters working alongside "Spidey" and other superheroes to settle bloody conflicts and rid the world of disease.

The comic is expected to feature heroes including Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, as well as workers from UN agencies such as children's charity UNICEF and blue helmets of the peacekeeping forces.

Eventually, the work will be translated into several other languages and widely distributed, but it is US schoolchildren who the UN plans to target first in a bid to rescue its image.

The comic will be distributed free to a million American school children late this year.

The UN says on its website: "By making the complex UN system accessible to youth, the partners hope to teach children the value of international co-operation and sensitise them to the problems faced in other parts of the world."

The website makes no mention of the UN's troubled image, but the initiative can only serve to bolster the organisation's reputation, which has become embroiled in accusations of corruption and ineptitude.

Relations between the UN and the US have become particularly tense during the presidency of George W. Bush.

More than 10 years ago, former US ambassador the UN, John Bolton said there was "no such thing" as the UN and called the US the world's "only real power".

He also declared that if the 38-storey UN building "lost 10 storeys today, it wouldn't make a bit of difference".

Marvel Entertainment, New York company that that owns Marvel Comics, is known in the publishing industry for zealously guarding its brand, usually declining tie-in and licensing opportunities.

Many will raise an eyebrow at the firm's apparent UN love-in, but a look at the comic company's history reveals a long tradition of promoting political causes, and acting as a touchstone for American ideals and patriotism. In Spider-Man, the international body may have found a public relations supremo worth a thousand besuited Manhattan marketing executives.

Marvel burst on to comic store stands in 1939, on the eve of World War II, as Timely Publications.

Founded by a magazine publisher called Martin Goodman, its first hit superhero was Captain America, who wore his politics on his star-spangled sleeve more overtly than any of his Marvel successors.

Created by Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby, the first edition was published in March 1941 - nine months before Pearl Harbour. It featured "Cap", as fans came to know him, the alter ego of sickly Steve Rogers, punching Adolf Hitler on the jaw.

Such gung-ho scripting sent circulation of wartime editions spiralling to more than a million a month, outstripping news publications such as Time. Today, more than 200 million Captain America comic books have been sold in more than 75 countries.

A post-war lull in sales followed Captain America's heyday but, in the 1960s, other characters who walked out of the Marvel stable continued to reflect the politics of the day.

The early 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, saw the emergence of a new generation of superheroes, including a quartet called the Fantastic Four.

Channelling Cold War and nuclear paranoia, the work, created by Kirby and comic book legend Stan Lee, featured four Americans who gain super powers after being exposed to solar rays on a scientific mission to outer space.

Spider-Man was not immune to political influences.

In one story, published in 1971, Lee defied the Comics Code Authority with a story about the perils of drug taking.

Responding to a request from the US Government to highlight the destructive force of narcotics, Lee penned a tale in which Spider-Man faced up to the Green Goblin's son, Harry Osborn, who was hospitalised after taking LSD.

This went against convention because the story depicted drug use, but Lee published anyway, and the CCA subsequently loosened its code to permit the negative depiction of drugs.

One of Marvel's most politically astute superheroes also appeared in the early 1960s.

First seen in 1963, Iron Man was at first an anti-communist. In his first incarnation, the patriotic engineer Anthony Stark travels to wartime Vietnam, where he is captured by an evil warlord called Wong Chu, but creates an iron suit of armour that gives him super powers and enables him to defeat the communists.

Iron Man's anti-red stance softens as opposition to the war grows and in subsequent storylines he turns his attention to Iraq in the first Gulf War.

This year, a mega-budget film version of Iron Man, starring Robert Downey Jr, will appear in cinemas.

Produced by Marvel itself, the film shows Iron Man travelling to Afghanistan to introduce a new missile design to US Air Force chiefs. This time, he is captured by Afghan rebels and is ordered to make a missile for them.

Instead, he conceives his indestructible iron suit and saves the day.

Back at the UN, bosses will be eagerly awaiting the latest attempt to restore the organisation's reputation. They will also hope that the characters based on UN staff fare better than the character who started it all - Captain America.

Marvel killed off the Captain last April - with an assassin's bullet 66 years after he began battling villains.

Commenting on the hero's demise, Marvel writer Jeph Loeb said: "Part of it grew out of the fact that we are a country that's at war, we are being perceived differently in the world. [Captain America] wears the flag and he is assassinated - it's impossible not to have it at least be a metaphor for the complications of the present day."

Co-writer Ed Brubaker also alluded to the superhero's role in a more complicated political climate.

"What I found is that all the really hard-core left-wing fans want Cap to be standing out on and giving speeches on the street corner against the Bush administration," he said, "and all the really right-wing fans all want him to be over in the streets of Baghdad, punching out Saddam Hussein."

- Independent
 

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