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Commentary : The Temptation of Comic Books

March 22, 1987|JERE WITTER | Jere Witter is a free-lance writer living in Huntington Beach.

The mission of the Legal Aid Society of Orange County is to provide civil representation to people who can't ordinarily afford a lawyer. This year Legal Aid embarked on a program unauthorized by any of its funding sources, unspecified in the society's charter, unconnected with law and employing such unlikely volunteers as Lightning Lady and Firestorm.

The program began as a noise-abatement project. Clients bring their children to our waiting rooms. The kids get bored and, as kids will, make a racket. This annoys parents and bothers paralegals and attorneys as they sort out the heavy issues of law. Paints and crayons would interest the kids, but we can't afford to redo the walls every three days. Heavier toys are used as weapons. So we hit on the idea of adding comic books to the magazine racks.

(I work for Legal Aid so I can use the word "we" while telling this tale out of school.)

The pilot project featured Cobra Commander, Donald Duck and Cat woman, and all three disappeared in an hour. The next day we offered five more superheroes and all five had been kidnaped by sundown.

One of our senior attorneys explained that if you put good magazines in your waiting room, they get stolen. (This explains the quality of reading material in the dentist's office.) Our magazine rack has ancient copies of McCalls and Sunset that go unmolested, and an issue of Harvard Magazine that hasn't been touched in years.

But the comic books went fast. Tomorrow Boy vanished from Legal Aid in full uniform. Wonder Woman was next on the casualty list, and even Superman--impervious to everything but Kryptonite and Lois Lane--was helpless against the tiny abductors.

These titans presumably got passed from brothers to sisters to cousins and perhaps to uncles and fathers. It occurred to some of us that this mightn't be a bad thing. Our clients are worthy folk and are the reason we are here, but a fair percentage do not read English, and a scary fraction read no language at all. Those of us who cut our literary teeth on comics and pulp magazines might agree that it's better for people to read something than nothing, even if the something is trash.

Under the frail guise of "community education," we committed superhuman reserves to the battle, buying their four-color adventures for 75 cents a copy at Osco Drug. When the out-of-pocket cost of the anti-illiteracy campaign approached a staggering $15, we begged Drown News Agency in Westminster to donate their unsold returns. (Comic books aren't big sellers; kids read them at news racks but rarely buy them.) Drown said the returns had to be destroyed, by contract with the publisher, but if we could get permission from a publisher, the returns would be cut loose for us.

Vice President Ed Shukin of DC Comics in New York took very little persuading. He authorized the Drown Agency to spare us a cartonful of comics every month, 150 books under 30 different titles. The supertroops were deployed not only in Santa Ana but also in the waiting rooms of Legal Aid offices in Norwalk and in Compton, where the directing attorney told us: "We'll take all you can get your hands on."

Thrown into combat against the archfiend illiteracy were such DC old-timers as Superman and Batman, along with Sgt. Rock, Sensor Girl, Cosmic Boy, Captain Atom, Captain Marvel and Emerald Empress (whose power lies in a Seeing Eye eyeball that tags around after her like a toy balloon.) The intergalactic federation includes too many other heroes to credit, all of them in a single carton. We understand Marvel Comics is considering adding its stable of titans to our promotion of the written word. Censoring the magazines for content was not planned, and would be impossible anyway, because the plots are far too complex for the adult mind to grasp.

The story lines, and their concepts of good and evil, are better left to the subtle perceptions of the 9-year-old. In one episode, Green Lantern (who wears the colors of Oregon State and has rescued the Universe any number of times) suffers a mutation that turns him into a murderous vigilante; he has to be zapped back to his senses by Dr. Fate, Black Canary and Batman. The supertitans pass through time warps and cosmic planes that invert their morality, and they borrow each other's bodies a lot. You never know if Emerald Empress is acting on her own or at the internal bidding of Brainiac Five.

One issue will feature a couple of dozen superheroes and superheroines, half of them under some evil influence and half in their right mind. Most are wholesome and harmless stories of the kid next door, like Billy Batson, a 97-pound weakling who turns himself into a mountain of reinforced muscle by uttering "Shazam!" In Tales of the Teen Titans, the principal teen titan is a tanned and statuesque redhead named Koriand'r who has green eyeballs, appears to be wearing a D-cup training bra, and fires laser bolts from her ruby finger.

We suspect Koriand'r was stolen by one of our adult clients, who will be disappointed to learn (while improving his reading skills) that her virtue is unassailable. In this case, the educational aid may trickle down from father to uncle to sister to brother. But one way or another, by two weeks' end, the carton of comic books had disappeared from Legal Aid into the thrifty neighborhoods we serve.

Our comic book project began as an effort at noise abatement, you remember, and I asked one of our Legal Aid receptionists if the kids in the waiting room had been any quieter lately.

"No," she said, "They're as noisy as ever."

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