26 Comics (and 2 TV Commercials) Starring Superheroes Struggling Mightily to Rid the World of Drugs, Sexual Abuse, Landmines, Illiteracy, Famine and Cavalier Attitudes About Gasoline Safety
1-3. The New Teen Titans (1983)
So, which deserves more of our thanks for eradicating drug abuse among young Americans in the 1980s: First Lady Nancy Reagan’s guest appearance on a very special episode of Diff’rent Strokes, or this trio of well-meaning anti-drug comics? Better question: where the hell is Robin, and who’s the dork in the red-and-purple outfit? Glad you asked! As it turned out, Robin wasn’t available for the Keebler-sponsored comic because his likeness was licensed to Nabisco at the time, so “The Protector” — a generic replacement that made very few appearances elsewhere — subbed for him in all three books. All three were written by Marv Wolfman, the same writer behind the (at the time) hugely popular New Teen Titans series, with artwork by the likes of George Pérez and Ross Andru, so DC can’t be accused of being chintzy with the talent involved in producing these books. Still, while Speedy’s past as a heroin addict may give the Titans a little authority on the subject, it’s hard for any of the books to rise above the preachiness that tends to be the norm with these PSA efforts (“Beer and pot will lead you straight to uppers and PCP, kids! Titans, go!”).
4. Spider-Man and Power Pack (1984)
Hey, while we’re staring at a family of prepubescent youngsters in form-fitting outfits, let’s talk about sexual abuse! As you can see from the cover, this giveaway book was produced in co-operation with the U.S. National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse and the National Education Association, and while it’s hard to make light of such a worthy cause… well, let’s just say the fact that Peter Parker was once the victim of sexual abuse has never, ever been mentioned in any Spider-Man book again (and let’s not even get into the slightly homophobic idea that a man would use girlie magazines to entice young Peter to “touch each other like the people in that magazine”). After Spidey reveals his dark secret to help a young boy named Tony (“I’ve never admitted it to myself before, but for years I’ve been haunted… ashamed of that part of my past!… It wasn’t until tonight and Tony’s similar experience that I finally realized that what happened back then wasn’t my fault! It really wasn’t my fault!”), a second story finds the Power Pack siblings taking in a young girl who runs away from home to escape abuse; thankfully, their mother has a number she can call for help. Now, if only there were a phone number for readers left traumatized by this comic…
5. Captain America Goes to War Against Drugs (1990)
Written by Peter David and produced in cooperation with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, this PSA comic starts with Cap receiving a note from a member of his Teen Brigade who’s concerned about Mitch, a teammate he thinks is using (silent whisper) drugs. Knowing the big championship game is at stake, Captain America takes a break from battling Hydra and the Red Skull to go have a chat with the troubled lad, who promises (after a few altercations with drug dealers and members of the opposing baseball team) to swear off drugs for good. So, all is well and good thanks to… oh, right, the aliens! I almost forgot about the aliens! See, the whole “Mitch gets addicted to drugs” thing was actually part of an alien plot to make humans easier to conquer, and Mitch’s drug dealer was actually one of the aliens in disguise. Mitch’s promise to get clean doesn’t just save his own life; it saves the lives of everyone on Earth. So yay Mitch! Not that anyone figures this out, since Cap never investigates and the alien drug pushers are never seen again. Doesn’t matter, because the important thing here is: kids, don’t do drugs. Unless the army asks you to take them as part of a top-secret super-soldier program. That’s totally different, y’all.
6. The Amazing Spider-man vs. the Prodigy! (1976)
Darn those evil alien conquerors – if they aren’t trying to get our kids hooked on drugs, they’re trying to get them to have lots of sex. No, really! Sponsored by Planned Parenthood, this obscure mini-comic tried to prevent STDs and pregnancies among teenagers by – I kid you not – suggesting that having sex plays right into the hands of smooth-talking aliens who need babies for slave labor. Suspicious that a group of teenagers are boarding a private helicopter, Spidey follows them to a secluded estate where he learns that a mysterious figure has brainwashed thousands of kids to carry out his plans. The villain – in reality a green-skinned, balding alien from the planet “Intellectia” — has a magnetic voice that causes people to obey him, and his message is simple: have lots and lots of sex, kids! “How else can you prove you’re a man? How else are you going to get a man?” he tells his teen audience. “Pregnancy’s good for you… helps your hormones, even clears up acne.” Spidey can’t believe the “jive stuff” he is hearing (you go, Superfly!) and figures “there’s gotta be some way these kids can get the right info.” Luckily, there is – right after the part where Spidey clocks the alien inside his own makeshift TV studio (all the better to spread his message of free love to the masses) and saves the day, there are two pages of information about pregnancy, STDs, and how to contact a Planned Parenthood Center for help. No number to call in case you fall prey to alien mind control, but that was probably just an oversight.
7-8. Captain America Meets the Asthma Monster/Captain America: Return of the Asthma Monster (1989)
At least “don’t do drugs” or “wait for someone special” has a modicum of dignity to it; here, Captain America is reduced to shilling for Big Pharma in the guise of providing health “education.” This giveaway comic was distributed to doctors’ offices by Marvel and Glaxo (now GlaxoSmithKline) in Britain and the U.S. to educate kids about the causes of asthma. Apparently, someone was pleased enough with the first issue (in which the Captain battles a villain who, for whatever reason, is determined to make children cough and wheeze by spreading asthma triggers) to warrant a follow-up, making Captain America Meets the Asthma Monster the first (as far as I know) medical PSA comic to be followed by a sequel. Oh, and we also learn in the first issue that Cap once suffered asthma himself, but the Super-Soldier serum that turned him into a superhero also had the side benefit of curing his asthma. Gosh, is there anything that super-steroids can’t do?
9. Batman: Seduction of the Gun (1993)
Batman’s views on guns are well-known, so no surprise he and Robin were tapped to star in this story focusing on the damage that guns can do to young people. When the son of a Warner Brothers executive was murdered in 1990, DC responded with this special one-shot, donating all proceeds to an educational gun-control foundation. For a PSA comic, it’s actually not all that bad, telling a story that’s not too preachy and fits perfectly within the Batman continuity. And unlike other PSA comics, the “villain” is not some cartoonish personification of a larger social issue, but the social issue itself (though it’s a little hard to believe the high school that Robin attends undercover is home to daily gun battles between students). The book was slammed as too pro-gun control by some commentators when it came out, even though it’s clear at the end that even Batman doesn’t believe tighter laws are the only answer (“No law passed can change the human heart or open up a mind that is closed. We must give up the guns in our hearts and minds first”). And while it’s hard to imagine anyone arguing with the sentiment that maybe we should make handguns just a little harder for kids and criminals to find, you can be sure someone down at the NRA will oblige.
10. Daredevil Vs. Vapora (1993)
The biggest knock against superhero PSA comics (aside from the fact that masked vigilantes are probably not the most suitable people to advocate for crosswalk safety or good dental hygiene) is that the medium tends to favour simplistic answers, turning complex social ills into easily identifiable villains in order to give our heroes something to punch (“eat fist, bulimia!” Wait, no…). And while it’s comforting to think that one lone villain is responsible for, say, polluting our oceans, it’s highly debatable whether deploying such a tactic encourages readers to fully understand the issue. Case in point: Daredevil vs. Vapora, a book about the dangers of gasoline fumes produced by the Gas Appliance Manufacturers Association. Granted, it may otherwise be difficult to capture the concept of “insufficient ventilation” in a comic book aimed at the under-10 set, but still… Vapora? So all deaths by gasoline fires can be traced back to a crazy-talking ghost in a muumuu? The story also isn’t helped by the fact that everyone in this book, with the exception of Daredevil and assorted emergency responders, are probably the dumbest Darwin Awards contenders ever conceived — witness the mother who cleans gum off her floor with gasoline and then leaves the open container within arm’s reach of her toddler’s playpen while she relaxes nearby with a cigarette. Come to think, who knew that gasoline was so versatile? Forget the Pine-Sol — I’m stocking up on premium unleaded right now!
11-12. Heroes For Hope (1985)/Heroes Against Hunger (1986)
Marvel’s Heroes For Hope and DC’s Heroes Against Hunger, though printed about a year apart, were similar in many ways. Both books were “jam sessions” featuring the talents of dozens of A-list writers and artists, and both were intended to raise awareness of hunger in Africa (assuming there was any left to raise after the “We Are the World” and Live Aid efforts of the mid-‘80s), with the proceeds from both books donated to famine relief efforts. They also both sucked, although that wasn’t entirely their fault. The problem with using superheroes to highlight a very real-world issue like famine is that it’s just too complex an issue, and reducing it to something bad caused by an ancient entity that feeds on despair (as we see in Heroes for Hope) doesn’t really help anyone. At least Heroes Against Hunger didn’t go down that path, choosing instead to have DC’s heroes go up against the unimaginatively named Master — a generic villain who doesn’t cause the famine, but stops by to enjoy the human misery while Batman, Superman and Lex Luthor try (and fail) to make crops grow in the desert. Both teams come to realize that hunger is bad, but for all their powers they’re helpless to prevent millions of people from dying of starvation, and that’s a damn depressing note to end on. It’s enough to make a hero wish for an alien drug dealer or two to rough up.
13. Target Presents Reading to the Rescue! (2005)
Lest you think PSA comics are a relic of some bygone past when superheroes weren’t ruling the multiplex, here’s a joint effort between Marvel and Target to set you straight. In this story, which highlights the importance of reading to… kids reading comic books (a tough sell, that), the evil Loki attacks a local amusement park by reading an ancient scroll that causes everyone in the park to become illiterate. Naturally, this leads to mass confusion and chaos as people are suddenly unable to count change (although… aren’t coins kind of easy to recognize on sight?) and the ride operators are unable to stop the rides (although… do they really need reading skills to notice the big red buttons on their control panels?). While the heroes on the scene do squat, a suitably multi-ethnic group of students discover that Loki’s spell has no effect on words seen through a digital camera(!), and so they take a picture of Loki’s scroll (apparently, English is the lingua franca of the Norse gods) and cast the spell that reverses Loki’s magic. Obviously, no one expects PSA comics — especially PSA comics that double as ads for Target’s Marvel-related merchandise — to be good, but even the six- and seven-year-old kids in the book’s target audience can see the gaping plot holes here. (Then again, the same could be said for most Marvel books these days.)
14. The Amazing Spider-Man: Adventures in Reading (1991)
In 1990, Marvel released a PSA book titled Adventures in Reading Starring the Amazing Spider-Man; one year later, it released The Amazing Spider-Man: Adventures in Reading — same book, different cover, and it picked up a corporate sponsor (Squirt) along the way. The story in both is the same – a suitably multi-ethnic group of inner-city kids is caught up in a battle between Spider-Man and a super-villain that somehow transports them into the storylines of classic books (The Lost World, The Jungle Book, War of the Worlds, etc.). Like the Target-sponsored book above, it’s hard to tell just who this book was aimed at, since kids who read comics like this already know how to read comics like this, and a journey through famous books doesn’t scream “fight illiteracy” as much as, say, a story in which a tearful Aunt May tells her nephew about her lifelong battle with dyslexia. Adding to the book’s list of sins is the egregious ad copy on the back cover which reduces Spidey to shilling for a carbonated beverage: “Take it from Spidey and Squirt – reading is a lot more than a school subject. Reading lets you meet new people, go places you’ve never been before and think things you’ve never thought before. Just open a book and a can of Squirt and find out.” Yessir, drinking Squirt and reading books go together like… uh…
15. American Honda Presents DC Comics’ Supergirl (1984)
Just to be nitpicky for a second: Did they honestly believe it was necessary to refer to her as “DC Comics’ Supergirl” here? I mean, even if the DC bullet in the corner didn’t tip off the reader re: whose character this is, it’s freakin’ Supergirl, all right? You know, the gal who was starring in her own movie the same year this book came out? I guarantee her cousin never had to deal with crap with this. Anyway. This comic from Honda and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Safety Belt Campaign introduces us to Steve Gordon, movie buff and boyfriend to Linda Danvers (Supergirl’s secret identity). When his younger sister asks him to put on his seat belt, he – oblivious to the fact he’s starring in a PSA comic – says he “drives much better without it.” Sure enough, a car accident leaves him in a coma and it’s up to Supergirl to fly to her cousin’s Fortress of Solitude and borrow some alien mind-reading machinery to bring him out of the coma. Inside his subconscious mind, Steve casts himself in one movie role after another, and it’s only when one of his characters realizes the importance of wearing a seat belt that he is able to come out of his coma. It’s not particularly bad as PSA comics go, but it took four writers to come out up with a story that hardly needed 28 pages to tell. And heck, after getting a gander at Steve’s movie-inspired adventures, spending some quality time in a coma looks like fun… which is probably not the message the writers were going for.
16. Death Talks About Life (1994)
“Hello. On the pages inside you’ll find important information — pretty important information — about… well, about sex, mostly. It’s perfectly possible that you may not be interested in this. It’s every bit as possible that you suspect you’ll be offended by any mention that human beings have things under their clothes, let alone that they do anything interesting with them.” So begins Death Talks About Life, an eight-page PSA published by DC/Vertigo in 1994. Aimed at adults instead of children, it features Death (the Goth girl version from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series) talking for seven pages in a very straightforward manner about HIV and AIDS, followed by a page listing HIV/AIDS resources. And… that’s it, really. Gaiman provides the words and Dave McKean, the main cover artist for the Sandman series, provides the pictures for what is probably the most grown-up example of what a PSA comic can and ought to do. And to all those people squeamish about discussing condoms and sex, Death offers these words of wisdom: “Now this comic contains words, concepts and maybe a few images that some people might find offensive. If you suspect you’re going to be one of these people, there’s a really easy solution to this. Don’t read it. It’s as simple as that. Just don’t read it. After all, the most it could do for you is to save your life.” Beauty.
17-20. The Amazing Spider-Man: Skating on Thin Ice/Double Trouble/Hit and Run/Chaos in Calgary (1992)
In the early 1990s, Marvel published a quartet of loosely related PSA comics in Canada; they were later reprinted and sold in the U.S. for $1.50 each. Thin Ice has Spidey in Winnipeg to teach junior hosers the dangers of beer, cigarettes and, um, test tubes (seriously, why did McFarlane put one on the cover?); Trouble flies him to Fredericton (on Canada’s East Coast) to help a teenaged drug abuser; Hit and Run puts Parker in Toronto to cover a baseball game while he and Ghost Rider rap about bicycle safety; and Chaos sees Spidey at the Calgary Stampede with a bunch of über-lame Texas-based heroes to prevent a kidnapping and spend all of five seconds discussing bicycle safety. Really, aside from the thrill that Canadian readers might get from recognizing the people and places mentioned in these issues, there’s really not much to say about any of them, although Hit and Run has the honor of being one of the few – if not only — PSA comics to resort to a direct threat, as seen here. So wear your helmet, kids… or suffer the infernal vengeance of the Ghost Rider!
21. Spider-Man and the New Mutants Featuring Skids (1990)
Never let it be said that only the A-list superheroes get tapped for PSA glory. This giveaway comic from the good people at K-Mart and the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse stars Spider-Man and Skids in two separate stories about physical abuse. In the first story, Spidey helps young Billy deal with abuse from one of his teachers; the second story finds Skids helping a mother learn the right way to deal with a misbehaving child (hint: it doesn’t involve a sock full of doorknobs). A mutant with the power to generate a force field, Skids was a member of the New Mutants team who was abused by her father when she was a young child, so her appearance in a book about preventing child abuse certainly makes more sense than, say, Peter Parker suddenly remembering (and then never again mentioning) his own past as a sexual abuse victim. Still, to quote Arrested Development’s Michael Bluth: “Her?”
22-23. Superman: Deadly Legacy (1996)/Superman & Wonder Woman: The Hidden Killer (1998)
Some PSA comics are designed to spread a particular message to the general comic-reading public, while others have a more specific target audience in mind. In 1996, the U.S. government and the United Nations teamed up with DC Comics to produce Superman: Deadly Legacy, part of a landmine awareness campaign for children in the former Yugoslavia (which at the time was still recovering from a brutal civil war). Printed in several languages to reach Serbian, Croatian and Muslim children, half a million books were shipped to Bosnia and Kosovo with a simple message: Superman helps the children of the world, but when he can’t be there, you can keep yourself safe from landmines. In the comic, Superman protects two young children from mines, while the dog of one child is severely injured. They also meet a boy who has lost his legs. And if that’s not depressing enough, check out the outfit the UN forced Wonder Woman to wear for a follow-up issue aimed at children in Latin America. (All right, tasteless jokes involving war-scarred children, that was uncalled for.) While some praised the books as a worthwhile endeavor that brought the U.S. military and corporate sectors together in an effort to… um, save children from the endeavors of the U.S. military and corporate sectors working together, others felt the use of American superheroes to reach children in decidedly non-American regions of the world was at best just a little culturally insensitive, and some UN observers voiced concerns about the message the books were sending to children. A third book targeting children in war-torn sub-Saharan Africa was proposed but, as far as I can tell, it never came to light, presumably because of those same cultural concerns.
24. Batman: Death of Innocents (1996)
Apparently, DC was so moved by the plight of children in landmine-afflicted countries that it also felt a bit of education was needed stateside, as well. Around the same time they published their first landmine awareness comic book for the military, DC published Batman: Death of Innocents, a graphic novel written by Batman veteran Dennis O’Neil with art by Joe Staton and Bill Sienkiewicz. In the story, Batman is drawn into a civil war in the fictional country of Kravia when a Wayne Enterprises employee on the scene is killed by a landmine; while rescuing a little girl, Batman learns that using hidden weapons designed to kill indiscriminately is A Very Bad Thing. The book also came with text articles from various landmine activists explaining the dangers and how Americans can help landmine victims, so in that sense the book rose above the usual PSA trap of introducing superheroes to an evil they can’t defeat and not offering any suggestions for how people in the real world should respond (I’m looking at you, Heroes for Hope).
25. The Amazing Spider-Man: Riot at Robotworld! (1991)
If it seems like Spider-Man is getting more than his fair share of these PSA appearances, keep in mind the sponsors behind these comics wanted to reach as wide an audience as possible, and so it only made sense for them to go with superheroes with a high profile. And given his origins as a high school science geek, Spidey’s appearance in Riot at Robotworld! is especially appropriate, given the aim of the book is to get more young people involved in science and engineering. Published by Marvel Comics and the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (with a grant from IBM to commemorate National Engineers Week), the story finds Peter Parker assigned to cover the opening of a new museum designed to educate the public about robots. When the robots come to life and start attacking visitors, it’s up to Spider-Man and a trio of science-minded students to save the day with their technological know-how. It’s hard to know what to think of this one. On the one hand, writer Dwayne McDuffie did a fine job of writing a better-than-average PSA comic, complete with allusions to the Terminator, Isaac Asimov and the Three Stooges. On the other hand… do I really want to believe an evil and indestructible robot like Ultron could be felled by three kids with a remote control? Ah well, at least it showed kids some of the real-world applications for a science degree.
26. Spider-Man, Storm and Power Man (1982)
Sometimes, the villains in PSA comics have very straightforward plans for achieving their goals: they cause famines so they can feed on the psychic energy of human misery, or they keep boxes of porn handy to expedite their diddling of little boys. Smokescreen will probably go down in history as the PSA villain with the most, shall we say, creative plan to achieve his criminal ends. See, he decided one day he wanted to control the local sports betting scene, and because every gambler knows the big money is in betting on high school track meets, he hatches a plan to get the star athlete on one inner city high school track team hooked on cigarettes. Because, obvioulsy, the kid will wreck his health and end up losing the race and Smokescreen will make tons of money by betting against him. Simple, right? Little does Smokescreen know that this particular athlete has Power Man for a coach (yeah, I don’t know why, either), who brings in Spider-Man (who just happened to be swinging by) and Storm (who just happened to be Marvel’s only prominent black female superhero at the time) to help set the kid straight while they battle the carcinogenic creep. This book sponsored by the American Cancer Society had its heart in the right place, but it might have been a little more effective with more emphasis on the true toll that smoking can have on your health (and your wallet) and a little less on the batshit-crazy schemes of a PSA comic-book super-villain, because how many of those are going to try and wreck the lives of the kids reading this comic with their tobacco products? Three, maybe four, tops.
27. “Captain America Teaches Energy Conservation”
For the longest time, I had the strangest feeling I had once seen Captain America in a TV commercial about wasting energy, but I could never remember where I saw it or what it was about. Then along came the Internet, and all was fine. The Captain first appeared in this public service announcement spot in 1980, encouraging young viewers to battle the Thermal Thief (he leaves doors wide open!), the Wattage Waster (the more lights on, the better!) and the Cold Air Crook (he leaps out of the refrigerator when you least expect it!). This ad from the U.S. Department of Energy finds Cap storming into some unsuspecting kid’s home to battle these energy-wasting monsters, and like any real American he doesn’t wait to be invited in — he punches first, delivers peppy messages later. But we’re pretty sure those crooks were wanted by somebody.
28. “Batgirl on Equal Pay for Equal Work”
By 1972, the Batman TV show had been off the air for four years, but that didn’t mean our heroes weren’t still battling the fight against evil – in this case, the evil of men and women performing the same job but receiving unequal salaries. The ad sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor starred Yvonne Craig (who played Batgirl) and Burt Ward as Robin, but Adam West (presumably tied up elsewhere) was unavailable and replaced by Dick Gauthier (best known to classic TV fans as Get Smart’s Hymie the robot). The PSA aimed to educate viewers about the Equal Pay for Equal Work campaign, an effort to promote awareness of the Federal Equal Pay Act that made it illegal for employers to pay men and women differently if they performed jobs that required equal skill, effort, and responsibility. It also marked the last time that Craig would portray the superheroine – at least, outside of the dreams of fanboys with a redhead fetish. Or, um, so I’ve heard.