Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Tie-ins, Part XXVI: Spider-Man, Storm and Power Man Battle Smokescreen

 Some random Spider-Man books, Part 7
Is it wrong to want to set an anti-smoking book on fire?

Asking for a friend
Writer –
Art –
Letters –
Colorist –
Editor –
Editor-in-Chief –

When you open a book and find no indication of who wrote or drew it… well, in Crapbox terms you know you’re about to experience a once in a lifetime thrill. Something so horrible that no one wants to have their name associated with it.

This was a free giveway comic that the American Cancer Society and Marvel Comics worked hand-in-hand to create. It is supposed to warn of the dangers and perils of Smoking, which it sort of does and to tell a story of three heroes confronting a bad guy who is the personification of those evils. Now my mind goes immediately to thinking this should be Spider-Man punching the crap out of a Phillip Morris or RJ Reynolds Tobacco company CEO or marketing person. I mean THEY are the real bad guy, right?

Instead we get a doofy supervillain who wants to use kids to become the king of illegal sports betting. Lame.

Not only that, but this book never slams smoking with all the hard and fast data available even back then about its link to cancer, birth defects, emphysema and how it is the LEADING CAUSE OF PREVENTABLE DEATH.

Yeah, this kind of soft balls all the things bad about the multibillion-dollar industry. Sports betting, heh. Tobacco company executives make supervillains look lame. I mean they know they are responsible for producing a product that causes nearly 6 million deaths per year. On average, smokers die 10 years earlier than nonsmokers. Not to mention that more than 16 million Americans are living with a disease caused by smoking. For every person that dies, 30 more are going to have a decreased quality of life due to a smoking related illness. As I mentioned, it is a known cause of cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung disease, diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

SoC doesn’t abide smoking. It is a nasty habit that takes people away before their appointed time. And you can argue from so many angles about over-eating or not following a healthy exercise regimen or whatever false parallel you care to make, but the absolute truth comes down to this: smoking kills you. It literally fucking kills you.

And companies provide you something that is both lethal and highly addictive to turn a profit. There isn’t a supervillain in either Marvel or DC’s universe that can compete with a guy who has a product that is legal to sell and will account for one out of five American deaths every year.
This book does a horrible job of persuading youth, or anyone for that matter, from smoking. It doesn’t inform nearly enough and it doesn’t hammer the message home the negative long-term effects of smoking in such a way that your final year on this Earth will be a living death most don’t want to contemplate. And I know because I’ve seen it three times now in family members who wouldn’t put down cigarettes and paid the price.

Sorry for being somber. This issue is one I don’t joke around with.

The comic below, on the other hand… well, we’ll see.

The inside front cover is a kind of “who are these guys, anyway” page, with a panel devoted to each of our principle heroes. I’m down with using two of Marvels only African-American super-people as 17 out of every 100 Black people smoke, which is over a full percentage point higher than the average of all adult smokers. If you are going to call this racist or what-have-you, don’t. The Cancer Society simply targeted a group that has a higher risk of being smokers to convince them to quit.

Moving on we see that page one has horrible art. Just terrible. I’ve never looked at a page an though someone cut and pasted superheroes into the frame before. But, look at Power Man standing to the side of the race track and tell me if he doesn’t look like he’s gotten the old Colorforms treatment. His feet don’t even touch the ground. And that goes double for the final right panel. Makes me want to strangle the artist doing this work.

Our story is that Bret, track star and Power Man’s pupil, has a future that might include racing for America at the Olympics. However, recently he’s been losing matches, as he does above to that scrawny white dude. Little does coach Power Man know, but Bret has been smoking with his girlfriend Carol. How are these underage teens (who look much older. Carol looks to be 30’ish in the shot mid-page) getting cigarettes? Power Man follows them, attempting to find out. 

What he comes across is the group going to a place called The South Side Social Club, and as anyone could see from glancing in there that we’ve got trouble. With a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for “Prick handing out free cigarettes.”
When I first read this I thought for sure baldly here would end up being part of a tobacco company doing the only “first pack’s free” thing to get the kids hooked. I couldn’t be more mistaken. Chrome dome is part of an even MORE elaborate and convo-fricken-louted plot than I could even imagine. And he isn’t even the leader of this group.

Trying to get a peek in on the action, Power Man has somehow snuck up to the roof of the social club. For a second there it looks like whomever is doing the art has gotten confused and drawn Power Man instead of Spidey. I mean look at that wall-crawling pose. That is the web-swinger's cue to show up and we get a recounting of how Bret was doing so well until he met Carol and started smoking.

With that Spidey brings in his good friend Storm to keep tabs on the South Side Social Club. How does Spider-Man know Storm so well? That isn’t made clear. They probably met in a Marvel Team-Up but why he pulls her in instead of Daredevil or the Black Cat is again tied to appealing to a demographic known to make up a larger than average proportion of smokers. This also marks the first time Ororo and Luke have actually met apparently.

One major gripe here because the text of the short and long term effects of smoking is so small that no one can read them. This book is supposed to have the facts front and center which means this page should have room for a couple of panels going over these in detail. Instead blink and you’ll miss their inclusion completely and if you wanted to know, you better bring a magnifying glass. The only thing I can figure is that we are getting the skinny on smoking from Bret’s actions and Luke’s investigation of Carol, but lots of those issues stem not from smoking but from hanging out all night. I mean smoking doesn’t lower your grades and making that argument part of this narrative is stupid.

The one thing they do get right is how young people like Bret feel overconfident in their own abilities sometimes. Bret doesn’t see how anything he’s doing could affect his track performance or his grades. There is a feeling of invulnerability that comes with youth and Bret embodies that to a “T”. It’s these feelings that make them ignore the dangers of smoking and the effects that it has on their body. At least they do until the nicotine addiction has taken hold and then they are both physically and psychologically in the grip of a lethal habit.

Storm decides to inspect the Social Club and meet the boss that all the guys keep talking about. She sneaks down to the basement. The panel on the top right is so horribly done that it alone is possibly the reason why no penciler or inker is listed for this issue. I am not sure why the heavy had is used on the shadows around Ororo’s cheeks. Or why her neck is so out of proportion to the point of her looking like a human giraffe. Whatever the cause, it is so ugly that the editor sleeping on the job should be fired for letting it slip through. Anyway, Storm is overcome by “smoke gas” and falls to the floor unconscious. Our big bad is still hidden in shadow, an artistic effect I like and would have won some praise from me had it not been directly under that abomination above it.

And then the next page we meet him and he has the goofiest chest symbol I’ve ever seen. He starts to lay out his grand plan, which is to get Bret to throw the marathon, hurting both his teammates and his own chances to compete in the Olympics because…what? Because he can come to the club and stay out late to smoke and shoot pool? This is the WORST plan I’ve ever heard. They are in New York. There’s like a million places there where they could go that would let you in with a fake id. Or in Jersey, which you can get to by train. What the actual heck?

But Smokescreen’s goons are nothing if not blindly loyal, so they approach Bret with this. He grows a spine and rejects it. In response, they take Carol hostage to force him to throw the race. But Bret has unexpected help as Spider-Man and Power Man destroy private property and intrude. They mention they bad guys have said “enough” so I assume they were listening at a window or something.

Two panels later the crooks are defeated. They have no backup because Smokescreen must have left to his betting house with Storm. That part isn’t shown, but later Luke and Spider-Man mention they still have to find her and I have to believe they wouldn’t rescue the kids and not comb the building for her. As Power Man and Spidey race off to find her, Bret commits to winning the race and quitting smoking. Power Man warns him about “over training” which I guess means pushing himself too hard.

Cue montage of Bret training while throwing out all his ciggies. The day of the race comes and Bret approaches the starting line…

Meanwhile, Storm has come to at the illegal sports casino of Smokescreen finally. She’s been knocked out for three days and is a bit groggy, but manages to lightning bolt the door open. Bret meanwhile is running a good race and looking like he has a chance.

But No. Because Bret is a loser. A big, fucking loser. Fuck you, Bret. That’s what you get for smoking.

Storm arrives to get help (sheesh, she doesn’t need help. She’s goddess of the winds, for goodness sake.) taking down Smokescreen. The costumes run off and leave Bret to wallow in his shame and self-loathing.

The trio break in and capture all of the bad guys. When Smokescreen tries to “butt” out, Spidey webs him up. He’s unaffected because he’s wearing an oxygen filter under his mask, which is the first time I’ve ever heard of this Spidey-device, but whatever. Let’s wrap this up.

Bret is now the loser of the schoolyard and the neighborhood. He will possibly be pelted with rocks everywhere he goes…at least that looked likely until Power Man and Spider-Man put in good words for him. Then it’s okay he caused his own team to lose because of his bad personal training habits and smoking.

I’ve had enough of this mediocre art and stilted storylines by now. This book was too much for me. Let me give you the three pages of non-story that were in the issue:

Fill in Brian’s speech balloon with as many curse-words as possible, kids!

Spider-Man could be helping Luke lift this heavy block of smoking facts, but he isn’t because he’s being a jerk.

And if you have a million hours to spend, try out these “fun” activites.

I’ll admit this one shocked me. You come to these freebee stories thinking they will present a brief moral tale with a happy ending. I believe there is a Teen Titians one on drug addiction that has a less than “all smiles” ending as well. But mostly you are expecting a story of “don’t do this and you will succeed.” This tale flies in the face of that by making Bret lose after he’s stopped smoking.

There is a problem with this.

Sure, this might dissuade a potential smoker from ever taking a puff, but for someone already in the cycle of addiction, this provides a positive reinforcement to the idea that even if they quit they can’t achieve their former good health.

So why quit? Quitting is hard. I’ve watched my parents do it and it is the most frustrating and upsetting thing a person will go through. The book never focuses on how quitting is worthwhile for the health benefits you will get back over time. It could have stated that efficiently during the montage moment but instead it focused on giving all three heroes something to do.

The book should be building up both groups. By only showing you should never start (and you really shouldn’t) it doesn’t send a good message to those who already have. It isn’t really a fun read, nor do I think it sells the message to not smoke effectively. However, the American Cancer Society begs to differ, having issued reprints of the book several times through-out the late 80’s.

My take is don’t take up smoking or even consider it and don’t waste your time on having to read this book. Done deal!

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