In A Nutshell
Comic books are way more than just colorful stories about superheroes. They actually have the power to change the world. Whether they’re fighting sexual violence, taking a stand against extremism, or helping a kid come to terms with a disability, comics are definitely making the world a better place.
The Whole Bushel
Movies and novels can change the way we see the world, but what about comic books? Can stories about superheroes really impact how people think? Well, the answer is an emphatic “yes.” Artists around the globe use comics to influence society and change cultures . . . or help just one little kid.
In 2012, four-year-old Anthony Smith decided he wasn’t going to wear his hearing aid anymore. This was bad news since Anthony was deaf in his right ear and suffered from hearing loss in his left. His hearing aid (which he’d nicknamed the “blue ear”) was all that connected him to the world of sound.
Anthony was upset none of his favorite superheroes wore hearing aids, so his mom sent Marvel Comics an email, asking for help. Amazingly, the folks at Marvel responded. Not only did they explain Hawkeye (played by Jeremy Renner in The Avengers movies) wore hearing aids in the ‘80s, they created a new hero especially for Anthony.
Marvel sent Anthony two pin-ups of a crime fighter named “Blue Ear,” a masked vigilante who uses hearing aids to listen for people in distress. Inspired, Anthony decided his hearing aid was actually pretty cool after all.
But Marvel took things further when they teamed up with the Children’s Hearing Institute to create an actual comic book where Blue Ear joins Iron Man “to educate the world about the hearing impaired and also share a preventative warning about the dangers of loud audio.”
It’s a sweet story that shows the real-life power of superheroes, but sometimes, comics are called on to tackle subjects even heavier than hearing loss. In 2012, artist and filmmaker Ram Devineni was horrified when a 23-year-old Delhi woman was gang-raped and killed in India. But when he visited the city to witness the subsequent protests, he discovered something incredibly disturbing.
While interviewing an Indian police officer about the attack, the cop claimed “no good girl walks home alone at night.” Devineni was also shocked to find many rape victims were shamed and threatened into keeping quiet by the police and their families. The victims were actually blamed for provoking the attacks, and the rapists often got away scot-free.
Suddenly, Devineni realized sexual violence was just a symptom of a culture where women are often viewed as second-class citizens. Hoping to change how Indian teens think about rape, gender, and equality, Devineni created Priya’s Shakti, a comic about a girl named Priya who dreams of becoming a teacher. Unfortunately, she lives in a misogynistic society where she’s forbidden from going to school and eventually kicked out of her family’s home after she’s raped.
That’s when Priya meets the Hindu goddess Parvati, who gives the young woman a magical ability to change people’s minds. After taming a wild tiger, Priya rides back to her village on the big cat and uses her gift to teach the villagers to respect women, encourage education, and stand up for justice, no matter the gender. Hey, everybody listens when you’re riding a tiger, but this awesome Indian superhero isn’t the only character who’s changing the way kids think about their society.
Over in Jordan, Suleiman Bakhit is using comics to fight against religious extremism. His origin story starts in the US, shortly after 9/11, when he was beaten up for being Arabic. Realizing many people associated “Arabs” with “terrorists,” Bakhit began traveling the US and sharing his story with kids, hoping to give them a different impression.
During one of his talks, a girl asked if there was an Arabic Barbie. Other kids wondered if there was an Arabic Batman or Superman, and that’s when the wheels in Bakhit’s head began turning. He realized there was a shortage of Arabic heroes in pop culture, and according to this Middle Eastern artist, that’s a really big problem.
According to Bakhit, quite a few Jordanian kids admire terrorists like Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Why? Well, the kids hear these guys are freedom fighters, defending their homeland against the evil West. The terrorists present themselves as good guys, and since there aren’t any heroes to counteract their claims, kids idolize these real-life supervillains. “Right now,” he told Vice, “all governments are saying is ‘Don’t be a terrorist.’ The extremists are saying, ‘Be a hero.’ ”
That’s when Bakhit decided to fight back with pen and paper. He founded his own company and created several comic book series like Element Zero, a story that focuses on a Jordanian Special Forces operator who’s billed as the Middle Eastern Jack Bauer. Other comics include an Arabic Popeye-like character, and there’s also a modern-day retelling of One Thousand and One Nights.
The stories were so popular that they sold over 1.2 million copies. Currently, Bakhit is working on a new project called “Hero Factor.” He describes it as an “Arab Disney” that’ll provide teens with positive role models via movies, TV shows, and even more comics. And according to Bakhit, he’s already starting to see a change in the way Jordanian kids view these extremist groups.
Evidently, the terrorists see it too. In 2008, Bakhit was attacked by a razor-wielding radical who left a long scar across his face. But according to Suleiman, that means his plan is working. “I realized their attack meant I was doing the right thing,” he told NPR. “I kicked the hornet’s nest.”
Show Me The Proof
My Fox Boston: Marvel Comics creates superhero in honor of NH boy
Marvel: Iron Man Introduces Blue Ear
The Guardian: Indian comic creates female superhero to tackle rape
NPR: India’s New Comic Book Hero Fights Rape, Rides On The Back Of A Tiger