Kapow! A hero for our troubled times

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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 been tasked with rescuing the citizens of New York.

Now he is set for the truly big time. In a story out later 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-based international organisation is ineffective and is suffering a communications crisis, particularly in the US, the body is joining forces with Marvel Comics, the creative force behind a stable of superheroes that includes Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk and the X-Men. The unlikely 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.

Details of the plot have not yet been released but, according to the UN Office for Partnerships, the script is being written and the final storyline is set to be approved next month. Cartoonists and writers are working for free. The comic is expected to be set in a war-torn fictional country and 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 American schoolchildren who the UN plans to target first in a bid to rescue its image; the comic will be distributed free to one million US school children later next 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."

There is, of course, no mention on its website 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 Bush. More than 10 years ago, former US ambassador the UN, John Bolton went so far as to say 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, the parent company based in New York that owns Marvel Comics, is known in the publishing industry for zealously guarding its brand, regularly 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 as the Second World War, 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 that of news publications such as Time.

To date, more than 200 million copies of 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 Jack 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. In one story, the foursome must do battle with the Silver Surfer, whose presence on Earth threatens the future of the planet.

Spider-Man, easily the most successful of Marvel's gallery of superheroes, was not immune to political influences. Another Cold War-era hero Peter Parker's alter-ego first appeared in the comic book Amazing Fantasy in 1962 Spider-Man also reflected American city-dweller's increasingly angst-ridden relationships with their metropolises. Here was a hero who could single-handedly rid the streets of crime.

In one controversial story, published in 1971, Stan 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 that saw Spider-Man facing up to the Green Goblin's son, Harry Osborn, who is 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.

The early 1960s also saw the launch of one of Marvel's most politically astute superheroes. 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 later creates an iron suit of armour that gives him super powers and allows him to defeat the communists.

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

This year sees the release of a mega-budget film version of Iron Man starring Robert Downey Jr. Produced by Marvel itself, the film sees 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.

The film can expect to be greeted by huge audiences at US military bases on its release next May. Back at the UN, chiefs have been quick to point out it was not they who came up with the idea for the new comics. That distinction lies with French filmmaker, Romuald Sciora. But a close look at his CV shows him to be something of a UN loyalist his portfolio includes "À la maison de verre" (In the glass house), a series of short documentaries looking at the leadership and accomplishments of the last four UN Secretaries-General.

UN bosses will be eagerly anticipating 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. In an apparent shift from the tradition for getting behind American causes, Marvel killed off the Captain last April. He is felled by 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, where the increasingly blurred line between good and evil has become more of a struggle for comic book cartoonists to draw. "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."