Epic Disasters: Revisiting Marvel & DC’s 1980s Famine Relief Comics

In her 2017 public-facing exploration of the value of comics, Why Comics?, Hilary Chute asks a series of similarly framed questions about the medium in each chapter. The first such chapter asks, “Why Disaster?” In asking this question, Chute uses Art Spiegelman’s Maus and In the Shadow of No Towers to explore the question and to consider how comics are particularly suited to trying to express the inexpressible through the use of its hybrid form, the juxtapositions that hybridity makes possible, and as a “visual presence stippled with absence in the frame-gutter sequence” which “constantly calls readers’ attention to what they see and don’t see, and why” (34). Chute also makes the claim that “disaster is foundational to comics,” calling on familiar examples from the superhero genre to make her case: Superman exists because of the destruction of his planet, Bruce Wayne watched his parents murdered before his eyes, and so on. Furthermore, perhaps it is no coincidence that the comics boom often cited as the true birth of the form was concurrent with what would become known as World War II and the tragedies that would inspire work like Maus a few decades later. The post-9/11 boom in comics’ popularity might similarly be linked to the desire to incorporate and make sense of disruptions to the narrative of cultural normalcy through a visual medium in what is arguably the most visually-mediated era in history. Despite including a chapter entitled “Why Superheroes?”, Chute is not really concerned with the genre (definitely not as concerned as we tend to be here on The Middle Spaces). Anyone who spends most of a chapter on superhero comics talking about Dan Clowes and Chris Ware seems misguided at best, but her claim about disaster and the inexpressible gave me a framework for thinking about a couple of novelties of the 1980s: superhero comics published to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia. How could these comics represent what is too deep and self-contradictory to get a grasp on (sometimes even for people who have experienced it firsthand)? How might they express a complexity that defies expression? While superhero comics seem built around the personal disaster or the effect of global catastrophe on individuals, they are poorly suited for dealing with anything close to real-world complexity and unfortunately tend to reinforce the very ideologies that sustain global historical tragedy.

Anyone who was around in the 1980s or is familiar with famous benefits like the LIVE AID concert that saw the reunion of Led Zeppelin and that was used as the climax of the recent Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, knows at least something about the famine that was ravaging Ethiopia at the time. The famine, which occurred between 1983 and 1985 (one of several that affected the nation over the decades), led to over one million dead. In addition, over 400,000 people fled the nation, and 2.5 million were internally displaced. The famine was caused by massive drought and exacerbated by a civil war with Eritrea and other rebellious and/or separatist groups resisting the violent rule of the Derg (the provisional military government that overthrew Hallie Sallasie in 1974 due in part to his mishandling of yet another famine). While Ethiopia has a history of drought and famine, the particular famine that inspired westerners to send aid mostly affected the northern Tigray region. In other words, all of Ethiopia became conflated with the kind of abjection common to images of starving people, which in turn become a kind of synecdoche for a pre-existing Western notion of all of Africa as a backwards place of inherent suffering and lack of “civilization.”

[For those interested in my previous discussions of orientalist perspectives on Africa check out both my series of three posts on the X-Men’s Storm and “Life-Death” (part 1, part 2, part 3) and “Marvel Five-in-One: Prominent, Notorious and Invisible Black Lives of the Marvel Universe.”]

Inspired by efforts like LIVE AID, Marvel Comics decided (with a push from comic creators Berni Wrightson and Jim Starlin) to get into the action and put together a benefit comic addressing the humanitarian crisis and donating the proceeds. A few months later, in order to not be outdone by their upstart competitor and approached by the same pair of creators, DC Comics decided to do the same.

The Marvel comic Heroes for Hope stars the X-Men and its proceeds were donated to the American Friends Service Committee (Go Quakers!) to help with their efforts at famine relief in Africa. I was unable to determine where the money raised by the DC Comics version ended up. Both comics are “jams,” that is to say, they feature a bunch of well-known writers and artists doing different pages of the same story. The creators were recruited for the Marvel version by Chris Claremont, who co-edited it with the great Ann Nocenti. There are too many writers and artists involved to list here (20 of each) but includes writers like Alan Moore (a rare Marvel credit outside of his Marvel UK work), Stephen King and G.R.R. Martin. Among the artists are luminaries like Howard Chaykin, Richard Corben, and Bill Sienkiewicz. Heroes Against Hunger has even more creatives involved, but none from outside comics, and few people who worked on both (despite being the brainstorm of the same pair, Starlin and Wrightson) but does include some well-known DC mainstays like José Luis Garcia-Lopez and Curt Swan.

As with most jam comics, the artwork in Heroes for Hope is uneven and a little raw and hurried in places, but none of it seems like hackwork. Despite the wide stylistic range, the book tends to keep to a visual tone that helps it cohere in ways the writing cannot seem to manage. The dialog and narration can be disorienting as if each writer were trying to figure out an approach that works on the fly. Some rely on explanatory thought balloons that has readers speculating as to the nature of the peril along with the protagonists, others use third-person narration in caption boxes full of florid description and melodramatic musings. Heroes Against Hunger—like its protagonists, Batman and Superman—has a much more homogeneous and traditional DC visual style. The dialog also seems inconsistent. Superman sometimes coming off as petulant and defensive in the face of criticism. Regardless of the mess of their creation, in bringing “real world problems” into their superheroic universes, Heroes for Hope and Heroes Against Hunger both work as meditations on helplessness in the face of those problems. Both comics make those problems seem intractable and inevitable, thus unintentionally erasing the actual contingent historical causes and attitudes that make such famine and other similar tragedies possible, and thus potentially undermining their very cause.

In Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the events of his father retells are visually juxtaposed with the current setting of the telling.

Hillary Chute’s examination of disaster as inspiration and subject of comics like those by Art Spiegelman focuses on the artist as auteur, an easy place to fall back to when examining autobiographical comics put together (for the most part) by a single person with a single vision. She spends more pages of “Why Disaster?” recounting Spiegelman’s biography than with his comics, and through her focus on a singular figure’s take on disaster makes the mistake of inadvertently equating the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11th with the Holocaust since Spiegelman’s own relationship to disaster (his parents being Holocaust survivors, watching the Towers collapse from his lower Manhattan home) becomes the focus rather than the disaster itself. In the case of the two comics I am writing about here, however, the individual relationship of creators to the disaster is basically irrelevant in that it is impossible to glean. Instead, in the collective effort to depict disaster as to persuade the audience to not only care but to donate to a cause there is a reflection of attitudes about the people and places needing aid and the value of that aid. Chute explains that Spiegelman, in Maus for example, tries to create the “mental zone” of the Nazi death camps not by visually representing the camps to create the kind of immersion films on the subject often try to do but by entwining past and present visually, so that Spiegelman’s conversations with his father in the present are always adjacent to the scenes of Nazi brutality of the past. The distinction of these worlds and times is blurred, thus reinforcing how in the words of William Faulkner, “The past is not dead. It isn’t even past” (49-51).

In the case of Heroes for Hope and Heroes Against Hunger, however, rather than cross a generational divide, the comics must thread a story together over a genre gap, incorporating the news of the day into a superhero narrative as to make it a recognizable part of the genre within which the characters’ whose popularity is being used to sell charity exist. As such, rather than challenge ideas about how we can ameliorate these humanitarian crises, it must incorporate into the superhero framework pre-existing and recognizable attitudes and images regarding such things as famine in Africa. Such pre-existing notions are too often paternalistic and fail to differentiate among the diverse people that make up the so-called abject “Other.” These shortcomings are exacerbated by their inclusion into the discourse of superhero comics—a discourse which resists change in terms of both the in-text consequences of its narratives and their publication history.

The X-Mansion lawn transformed into a desert (from Heroes for Hope. Art by John Romita, Jr, Al Gordon, Daina Graziunas, and Tom Orzechowski. Words by Stan Lee)

For example, in order to make a story involving Ethiopian famine cohere within the context of an X-Men comic book, the Heroes for Hope opens with each of the X-Men suffering some disturbing personal visions of pestilence and famine that assaults their dignity and sense of humanity, providing personal motivation for seeking out the entity responsible both for their assault and, as it turns out, feeding off the misery of the people the comic book itself is meant to aid. In brief two-page episodes, each by a different creative team, a range of horrors beset the X-Men: the front lawn of the X-Mansion (famous for its games of mutant sports during superhero downtime) turns into a sweltering desert, afflicting anyone who goes out into it with the effects of famine; later the mansion transforms into a steel castle with metallic and soulless versions of the X-Men that try to convince Colossus that he too is soulless; Kitty is fed rotten food by a robed figure of death while she wastes away to nothing… Each X-Man suffers a vision that leaves them physically unscathed but psychologically unsettled. Among the most interesting are the Richard Corben drawn/Alan Moore written pages depicting Magneto (at that time filling in for a Professor X who was hanging out with his space-bird girlfriend in Shi’ar space) facing the consequences of his mutant supremacist efforts in the form of Adolph Hitler congratulating him for “clear[ing] out the genetic deadwood.” The most problematic vision (by Chris Claremont and Brian Bolland) is Storm made to wander a funhouse of distorting mirrors depicting her in a range of black and/or feminine stereotypes, like the Welfare Queen, the Jezebel, and the Happy Homemaker. It is as if her very fears can only take the shapes of stereotypes legible to white men.

Storm faces distortions of her black woman identity. (Art by Brian Bolland, Craig Russel, Glynis Oliver, and Lois Buhalis. Words by Chris Claremont).

After all the X-Men have had to face the invisible entity’s power (save for Rogue) they head for “Africa” since Magneto and Rachel can sense the origins of the visions from there. Of course, given the historical context and the inspiration and goal of the comic’s publication we can guess that they arrive in Ethiopia, but Ethiopia is never named. Instead, draped in Bedouin garb, the first words we hear from the mutants upon arrival are, “This is Africa? I’ve never seen anything so barren–.” As I suggested in the introduction to this post, the comic falls into the common and troubling mistake of conflating the image of one area with a continent that is over 11.7 million square miles in size and with four different major climatic zones. Even more troubling is that while the X-Men decide to put off hunting the entity that drew them there in order to help the starving locals, those locals are depicted as a teeming voiceless mass who are so desperate they nearly push into the still spinning props of a supply plane bringing bags of grain and other resources. Not one of them gets a line of dialog or gets to explain their perspective on what is happening to them or why. Furthermore, it is a small point, but I also noticed that the uniformed security guards trying to hold back the starving crowds are all depicted as white. I guess the colorist for those pages, Glynnis Oliver (or her editor), could not imagine authority without recreating typical (and in this case, likely inaccurate) notions of power.

The X-Men arrive in Africa (Art by: Bret Blevins, All Williamson, Daina Graziunas, and Janice Chiang. Words by: Denny O’Neil)

But what is most crucial to the depiction of this scene is that the X-Men’s working all day into the night and for days on end to unload plane after plane of supplies for the starving people, while also tending to the sick and dying, makes no discernible difference. The situation is unchanged despite the application of super strength, god-like resilience, and mental powers to this task. The people are helpless, the situation hopeless, and the X-Men know it. In this scene, we get the first suggestion that the lesson to be learned here is that our differences (in this case between mutant superhero and starving African) do not matter in the face of such tragedy. This lesson seems to trump the notion of effective material aid for the suffering.

The Entity inhabiting Rogue’s twisted form and addressing Storm (Art by: Alan Weiss, Joe Rubinstein, Christie Scheele, and John Morelli. Words by Jim Shooter).

Rogue, troubled by the fact that the Entity (now spelled with a capital “E”) never targeted her and frustrated with the limited aid she and the other X-Men can give—a child dies in her arms—decides to find out the cause of this suffering. Sensing that the other X-Men are on the verge of giving up due to the hopelessness of their cause, she goes hunting for the Entity by herself, using her mutant ability to absorb the powers of each of her sleeping companions—that is, save for Ororo, who, during this time in continuity, was without her weather-bending powers (with which she might have been able to too easily do something about the drought afflicting the area). Rogue is able to find the Entity lurking in a nearby half-buried temple ruin, where it takes the form of some kind of multi-armed and tentacled lizard-monster and attacks her. It then allows itself to be absorbed, its psyche overwhelming Rogue’s as to take over her body and make use of all the X-Men’s powers. Storm arrives soon after to face her teammate turned villain and from there the comic becomes a multi-page punch-up against the Entity as it loses a power at a time as each of the X-Men wakes up from the coma induced by Rogue’s power absorption. They are able to defeat it and determine that it is a kind of ancient parasite that feeds off human misery and darkness, having existed as long as humanity has “because of humanity’s very nature.” And here is where this comic falls short of actually addressing the issue it purports to tackle. Rather than consider the specific or even an analogous history of human action that causes or exploits such tragedy, it abstracts it into broad ideas that cannot actually be tackled in any meaningful way. Following superhero logics, the problem can only be personified and as such deferred by typical superheroic means: punched into submission.

In fact, Heroes for Hope goes a step further by suggesting that the Entity’s awakening may have to do with the arrival of mutants, representing a “new flavor” for it to sample and/or a potential threat to test. Immiseration is certainly part and parcel of Marvel’s mutant metaphor and all its permutations, but to make the real world issue the comic is concerned with a secondary aspect to the comic book franchise’s theme seems misguided at best and offensive at worst.

The lead up to Kitty’s conclusion to try not to think about the potential futility of their efforts. (Art by: Howard Chaykin, Walt Simonson, Leslie Zahler, and Ken Bruzenak. Words by: Archie Goodwin).

As usual, Kitty Pryde is given the words that really encapsulate both the comic’s good intentions and its inevitable failure. When Nightcrawler despairs that the Entity’s existence is just another terrible thing the living must endure, Kitty responds, “To really get rid of that monster we gotta eliminate all misery! Not exactly what the world has a great track record for so far–!” She goes on to add, “Maybe if you’re like Mother Teresa, you could spend your life here saving as many people as possible but most of us aren’t saints. I don’t know if there is anyway of winning…so maybe I’ll just keep unloading these planes and try not to think about it.”

“Trying not to think about it” does not seem like either a very hopeful message or an imaginative one in a genre that purports that anything is possible. But then again “trying not to think about it” also describes the customary way to address the ruptures common to both superhero continuity and real-world ethical consistency. While the comic ends on a message of hope and solidarity, of the necessity for resilience against an unending onslaught of human misery, it simultaneously reinforces the inevitability of a kind of misery that—while in some cases instigated by natural causes—is almost always exacerbated by human attitudes, actions, and policies. How long until benefit comics to raise money for human tragedies caused by unaddressed climate change? The potential power of superhero comics is to imagine another world, but too often all they do is maintain the framework of the world as we know it. In one of his all-too literal essays in Your Favorite Superhero Sucks, “If Superman Actually Cared About Saving People, This Is What He’d Do,” Noah Berlatsky considers how Superman and Batman might be able to do much more for the world by tackling the mosquito problem rather than foiling bank robberies or putting the Joker back in Arkham Asylum for the hundredth time.

Kitty explains that it is best to just try to not think about it.

Berlatsky is right to suggest that such a story would never happen in a superhero book because it is not exciting enough for the genre. He goes on to make the provocative claim that U.S. presidents choose how to use American power in much the same way­—spectacle over moral efficiency—because actually saving lives is second to appearing active (and violence is much more visibly active). I remain unconvinced that such literal-minded superhero stories would succeed at imagining a better world (not to mention who knows what the unintended side-effects of killing off the world’s mosquito population might be—eradicating malaria or no). It is not difficult to imagine an allegorical story depicting the X-Men actually combating the human causes of misery by taking on a corrupt state and using their powers to feed people in a sustainable way, rather than just performing philanthropy. Let us see them battle the power of the status quo, even if they fail, rather than making them agents of despondent nihilism. Charity is certainly needed in the world, but as Kitty inadvertently makes clear, it mostly functions as a way to “not think about it” while feeling like you are doing something. The illusion of change is not only the Marvel method but is also a capitalist logic tied to consumption. Meanwhile, the fundamental causes remain unchallenged, and if mutant outcasts and sometimes insurrectionists like the X-Men are unwilling to do it, I am not sure who would be.

It’d be too pat and probably offensive to have superheroes simply “fix” poverty and famine in their comic books given the very inexpressible complexities that both precipitate disasters and describe the experience of living through them but personifying them into something to beat up is hardly any more satisfying. Heroes for Hope makes that apparent regardless of how we are meant to take an ending that suggests hope itself is the goal of its efforts. DC Comics’s Heroes Against Hunger makes that dissatisfaction even clearer.

Superman attempts to address the drought and resulting famine in a direct and practical (for him) way. (From Heroes Against Hunger. Art by: Paris Cullins, Tony DeZuniga, Michele Wolfman, and Caris Spiegle. Words by: Cary Bates).

Heroes Against Hunger opens by addressing Superman’s inability to make a sustained difference even with all of his power—as the captions read, “Today he will learn the limits of a superman.” As a western reporter narrates his efforts, Superman works to dump tons of fresh topsoil (an acre’s worth) on the arid Ethiopian landscape (unlike Heroes for Hope, this comic actually names the nation). It quickly becomes apparent that even with all his powers this is too difficult a task even at superspeed. With hundreds of thousands of acres to cover and the African wind blowing away at least a fourth of what he dumps each time, it becomes a futile effort. Superman realizes this quickly, but even if he hadn’t, he is reminded by Lee Ann Layton, a member of the Peace Corps who has been in the area for “over a year,” and seems to be the stand-in for a local voice. And while she is depicted as a black person (with various degrees of success depending on who is doing the art on any given page on which she appears), that is not a substitute for an actual Ethiopian giving their opinion. Furthermore, as a representative of the Peace Corps, she can also only provide the perspective of an outsider. In a flash of cognitive dissonance, she berates Superman for looking for “easy answers,” while also complaining that it will take him 20 years to finish this job. Defensive and dismissive, Superman goes back to his effort while thinking what I consider to be some very un-Superman-like thoughts (provided by writer Eliot S. Maggin), “Should’ve asked her if she thinks her year in the Peace Corps is somehow nobler than a lifetime doing my job.”

It soon becomes clear that someone does not want Superman (or anyone) to try to fix the problem, because his next cargo container full of topsoil is blown out of his hand by an explosion, and we quickly find out that recently six Wayne Foundation planes of relief supplies and food have also been shot out of the air before their cargo could be delivered. Batman is on that case. Soon they team up. Who is behind this sabotage? Is it a local government or rebel group seeking to take advantage of the famine for their own ends? Could it be the U.S. government or the Soviets playing with people’s lives as proxies for their ongoing Cold War? Nope. Superman’s microscopic vision quickly determines that a particle beam weapon is being used to destroy the planes (and his efforts). It must be aliens! In a typical World’s Finest Comics type of way, Batman and Superman decide to swap missions. The former is going to seek out Lex Luthor who once invented some kind of device for accelerated plant growth (as an alternative to replacing all the topsoil) and the latter looks into who might be leaking information about the relief efforts to the technologically advanced saboteurs.

“The Master” explains why he loves Ethiopia, depicting a problematic view of that country and the continent it resides in. (Art by: Carmine Infantino, Murphy Anderson, Tom Ziuko, and Milt Snapinn. Words by: Roy Thomas).

Superman’s hunt for who is sabotaging relief efforts leads him to androids secretly working at the Wayne Foundation and eventually an alien—with the generic name, “The Master”—in a ship buried beneath the “arid wastes” of Africa where Superman and Batman had just been. It seems this “Master” feeds on entropy (somehow), gaining sustenance from desolation, thus his attempts to undermine relief efforts. He explains, “I find my greatest strength is gathered in places that once supported life, but now have died. For that reason…I just love Ethiopia.” He goes on to add that “It is the nexus for an entire continent slated for death and despair.”

If I were feeling generous, I might take the fact that it is the villain who holds this not uncommon orientalist attitude towards Africa that conflates it with perpetual abjection as a suggestion that the story is asking us to reject that conclusion. However, that attitude seems to be a given in both heroes and villains in both comic books. The heroes are concerned with (and eventually feel despair over) the inevitability of suffering and starvation. Throughout both books (but explicitly in DC’s Heroes Against Hunger) there is a suggestion that there is something about the continent of Africa itself that makes all of it doomed to share the same fate as Ethiopia. While I don’t necessarily expect a charity superhero comic book to go into the details of Africa’s colonial history and its geographical ecological range, the fact that such contexts are not mentioned (save for a bit at the very end, which I will return to), suggests that the inevitable failure and suffering associated with an entire continent emerges from the inability of its people to take care of themselves. In other words, there is a paternalistic and racist attitude threaded through even the most generous acts of charity and relief.

Lex Luthor faced with the human tragedy of starving people (Art by: Barry Windsor-Smith, Jeff Jones, Tatjana Wood, and Todd Klien. Words by: Gerry Conway).

Furthermore, much like Heroes for Hope, Heroes Against Hunger provides no opportunity for a local to speak for themselves. In fact, there is only one page in the entire comic that even depicts any starving locals (if you don’t include the cover). In it, Barry Windsor-Smith puts his fantastic, detailed, and visceral art to work in depicting his version of stereotypical images of children with bloated bellies and skin and bone babies desperately trying to suckle at the dry breasts of their suffering mothers. Windsor-Smith has depicted Africa before (which I wrote about in part two of my series on X-Men’s Storm), but in the jam form of comic, the possibilities of his evocative art is wasted, undone by the silence of those figures. In the scene only Batman, Superman, and Lex Luthor get to react, the last of which is driven to near tears in his disgust at what he sees. It seems that such suffering can soften the hearts of even the worst supervillains, and yet the actual villains who might be exploiting this drought and famine go unnamed. In depicting Luthor’s reaction, the comic creators take a lazy approach to depicting the depth of tragedy, by making even the most evil and self-serving characters react with anomalous emotionality. Consider for example, a teary-eyed Dr. Doom amid the rubble of Ground Zero after the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001’s Amazing Spider-Man #36. Not only is it a laughable choice, but even if taken as symbolic of the range of people reacting to those awful events as artist John Romita, Jr—who, by the way, also contributed to Heroes For Hopehas claimed in retrospect, what it also works to do is dehumanize people. To cast Al Qaeda as “worse than Dr. Doom” is to make them into a cartoon, and, via popular bigoted imagination, Muslims are subsequently dehumanized by association. Such a scene limns the border between memorial and propaganda (if there even is one). It may be difficult to imagine a grief so deep that Lex Luthor or Victor Von Doom might break their usual cold and analytic composure, but by depicting that grief it becomes a touchstone for the inexpressible. What does remain legible, however, is that the conscience of a white mass-murdering supervillain is easier to imagine than the voices of the very people the readers are meant to sympathize with. In this specific case, Lex Luthor’s reaction stands in the only opportunity the comic’s story provides for the very people affected to express their feelings, their desires, their understanding of their plight.

Doctor Doom cries in response to the events of 9/11 (from Amazing Spider-Man vol. 2, #36 [December 2001]. Art by John Romita, Jr, Scott Hanna, Dan Kemp, Richard Starkings, and Wes Abbott. Words by: J. Michael Straczynski).

Still, it is not as if Heroes Against Hunger makes no effort to explain the origins of the famine. After the Master is defeated and Lex Luthor’s accelerated plant growth formula fails to yield the giant tomatoes he promised, Lee Ann Layton shows up again to admonish the three super-beings’ efforts. She explains, “It took a century for man to ruin this land, and it’ll take more than a single afternoon of even super-heroic effort to restore it.” I understand the sentiment here is meant for our real world rather than for the DC Universe in that it reinforces the need for continued effort and long-term planning in addressing ecological and humanitarian disaster, but it unfortunately can be read as reinforcing the futility of trying to fix these issues. To the credit of the writers (specifically Doug Moench who wrote the dialog for the page on which this appears), Lee Ann Layton goes on to give a thumbnail sketch of the causes of the ecological disaster. She explains that “foreign interests” (which? when?) promoted peanut farming, which led to nomadic herdsman abandoning their previous customs. The lack of herds led to less fertilizer, which when combined with the heavy toll peanuts extract from the local soil nutrients, the degree to which topsoil was destroyed in the process of harvesting the nuts, the eventual drop in the price of peanuts, and the abandonment of farms (leaving land without vegetation to protect against the arid winds) all led to the crisis. She does not mention the wars and the efforts by the state to use starvation as a weapon against its perceived enemies which exacerbated all this, but she does mention “other even more complex reasons” and the fact that this suffering could have been avoided. That said, she goes on to repeat the unbelievable claim that the whole continent will eventually end up an arid wasteland of suffering.

Lee Ann Layton gives a thumbnail sketch of the causes of the ecological disaster (Art by Jim Sherman, Greg Theakston, Alan Weiss, Bob LeRose, and Todd Klein. Words by: Doug Moench).

Batman, Superman, and Lex Luthor leave without saying a word in response, but somehow the narration would have us believe Layton is filled with hope, certain “they will return with the aid needed to end this tragedy, and they will get it from people like you and me.” Yes, the comic ends with an indirect pitch for the reader to donate more money, after the reader had ostensibly already shelled out a buck fifty for it (twice as much as the typical cover price for a DC comic book at the time), but it remains unclear what that money can achieve given the futility depicted (and given the evidence that in reality aid money went to buying weapons rather than food and other relief). I hear Kitty’s advice to not think about it too much silently reverberate in any effort of this kind.

The hope at the end of both comics may feel misplaced, but maybe there was some reason to feel hopeful. According to the Marvel editor-in-chief at the time, Jim Shooter, Heroes for Hope did manage to raise at least $500,000 for the American Friends Service Committee (which is over a million bucks in current money). I could not find any records of how much the DC equivalent raised, but even if it was only half as successful, that is still a lot of money (though again I could not find out where specifically the money was donated, the cover simply says “All proceeds go to relieve hunger in Africa”).

And yet, as a cultural artifact, these comics give us less to feel hopeful about. Reflecting on Heroes for Hope, Shooter, writes on his blog about the problem Marvel had finding someone to donate the money to. Originally, the money was to go to Oxfam America, whose stated mission is “To create lasting solutions to poverty, hunger, and injustice…in more than 90 countries.” But as Shooter recounts, they ended up rejecting the comic and the donation, calling the former “unbelievably offensive” and suggesting that “the people of Marvel Comics, were racist, sexist and reprehensible” (again, according to Shooter’s retelling of the exchange). Given my analysis of both comics, I don’t find the fact that Oxfam’s representatives felt this way all that surprising, but Shooter­—even as recently as 2011 when he wrote the blog post—was clearly offended by this characterization, to the degree of using the experience to explain why he does not like Oxfam as an organization. He paints the representative they sent to explain why they objected to the comic as a kind of charlatan who was too well-dressed to be a worthy charitable worker. Shooter goes as far as to call him, “a guy wearing clothes and jewelry that at market price would feed a thousand starving people for a month.” He also claims the guy bragged about how good the Ethiopian famine was for the charity business. This may be true, but I can’t help but think that Shooter was predisposed to not like the guy given what Oxfam said about the comic and that the intervening years fortified the image of that avaricious charity man. But more important to me than speculation, is the fact that Shooter and company by his own words “didn’t see anything wrong with [the comic].” I know it can seem too easy to look back at the cultural attitudes of 35 years ago and condemn them from our contemporary sensibilities, but as I have written on The Middle Spaces and said in other places many times before, it is not as if the framework for thinking through this stuff politically did not exist at the time. Oxfam’s very objections demonstrate as much. Furthermore, at the very least, it is a great indicator of the results of producing work in predominantly white spaces. No one at Marvel may have thought that the depiction of Storm—as the Oxfam representative purportedly said—was “more than sexist, [but] a denigration of women of color,” but that doesn’t mean it didn’t lean into lazy stereotypes in depicting her version of personal trauma caused by the Entity. Not one person involved thought twice about failing to include a local voice and make it all about the experience of American superheroes? Shooter’s attitude towards the whole thing is especially telling when he writes, “I cannot begin to tell you all the racism, sexism, and hate that he (and Oxfam America) read into the words and pictures” (emphasis mine). In other words, twenty-five years later Shooter could only imagine that any racist or sexist images or ideas present in the comic had to be projected from the outside and not present in the words, images, and context. He could not even entertain their criticism as having any merit.

In the comic’s final panels, Lee Ann Layton’s hope seems to come out of nowhere (Art by George Pérez, Kim DeMulder, Daina Grazanus, and Helen Vesik. Words by: Jim Starlin).

Nevertheless, Shooter’s post does help mitigate some of my criticism through his reprinting of the letter from the AFSC accepting the donation. The letter helps to explain why the comic’s proceeds are listed as benefiting “African famine” generally and not Ethiopia specifically. It explains how its efforts are focused on addressing famine and other issues throughout Africa and the world, and goes on to read, “We appreciate your willingness to designate your contribution to our entire effort in Africa, rather than limiting it to meeting needs in one place only.” I can imagine that when one humanitarian crisis gets a good deal of media attention other equally crucial causes can be forgotten. Nevertheless, the lack of specificity within the story, whether the X-Men are visiting Ethiopia or somewhere else does more to reinforce an all-encompassing perspective of Africa as a backwards place than get us to consider a variety of localized problems. Ironically, however, the specificity of DC’s Heroes Against Hunger does much the same by explicitly tying the arid fate and eco-terrorism of Ethiopia’s history to the entire continent.

It just may be that comics like these can’t help but fail given the tensions between the purported goal of the comics themselves (raising money to aid those in need) and the inevitability of disaster itself which suggests a hard limit to how much anyone (even Superman) can really help to change the world. The writers cannot solve the crisis within the narrative, and they cannot ignore it. Instead, it is transfigured into the narrative format of the superhero conflict: Hunger is personified, beaten up, and put off for now, leaving it to eventually return the way the Joker or Sentinels always return. We can be persuaded to care about suffering people and even work to alleviate that suffering, but only a naïve person thinks any fewer people are starving now than were in 1985. Instead, cultures also put off its concerns until spectacle can be fabricated to serve as a valve against despair. Even the oddly myopic lyrics of “We Are the World” seem to suggest this in its self-congratulatory effort at empathy. Heck, DC Comics vice president and executive editor Dick Giordano’s letter to readers on the inside back cover of Heroes Against Hunger betrays a certain lack of enthusiasm notable in the perfunctory rhetoric in describing the history and process of the project. It seems to say, “We are doing this because everyone else is,” doing their part to participate in what is a cultural effort to re-write the connections between us and humanitarian disaster into something we can feel good about.

Heroes for Hope’s lesson seem to be is that our differences (in this case between mutant superhero and starving African) do not matter in the face of such tragedy and we can feel good about that. (Art by: Herb Trimpe, Sal Buscema, Glynis Oliver, and John Costanza. Words by G.R.R Martin).

One thought on “Epic Disasters: Revisiting Marvel & DC’s 1980s Famine Relief Comics

  1. Pingback: Wednesday Links! | Gerry Canavan

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