Superheroes superseded princesses as this year’s top Halloween costume, retailers announced Thursday. And so far “Captain America: Civil War” has the second-best box office in 2016. Indeed everybody, it seems, likes a hero.
Not all heroes, however, wear capes. In fact some just barely have the clothes on their backs, like the mother of five in the besieged Syrian city of Madaya that ABC News recently reported on.
But because cameras couldn’t get into the war-torn city, her story was depicted differently in “Madaya Mom,” a new online comic book from Marvel. Yes, the same publisher behind Spider Man, Captain America, and other iconic comic-book good guys.
The compelling collaboration between corporate cousins ABC and Marvel (both owned by Disney) began with a series of searing text messages Madaya Mom sent to ABC News producer Rym Momtaz. The mother, whose anonymity is necessary to protect her and her family from Assad regime forces, detailed a desperate struggle for food, heat, medicine and that rarest of wartime commodities — hope.
“Our bodies are no longer used to eating,” Madaya Mom writes. “My children are hungry but getting sick, severe stomach pains because their bodies aren’t able to digest and absorb the food because they were so hungry for so long.” Other panels detail death at the hands of the Syrian government, as well as the major powers’ paralysis. “I feel truly depressed and that the world has abandoned us because we are weak,” she wrote.
“What she was saying was incredibly compelling, but no one could get into Madaya,” said Dan Silver, executive producer for ABC News Digital. So Silver approached Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso, who instantly agreed, and then chose an illustrator familiar with warfare — Dalibor Talajic, who lived in Yugoslavia as the Balkans broke up violently in the 1990s.
Dalibor’s “Eastern European” style is “representational without being photorealistic,” Alonso said. The images’ impact is amplified by Madaya mom’s texts giving context to the ceaseless and senseless Syrian war, as well as some sparse narration, including the U.N. saying starvation is being used as a “weapon of war.”
“It started with the fact that we would be bringing ‘our camera’ into a war zone where cameras weren’t allowed,” said Alonso, a former journalist. “If we got our details right and our research right, which we did, we looked at it as a unique opportunity to show what couldn’t be shown. And in some small way the very fact that you can’t get cameras in this area makes these images all the more potent.”
The pictures’ potency is just the latest example of graphic novels bringing a new perspective — and a new audience — to a serious subject. The Pulitzer-Prize winning “Maus,” for instance, re-imagined the Holocaust story (Nazis are cats, Jews are mice). And “Persepolis,” an autobiographical coming-of-age graphic novel set during and after Iran’s Islamic Revolution, was made into an Academy Award-nominated film.
Alonso says he’s “counting on” more Marvel/ABC collaborations. “We can tell stories about the earth-shattering competitions between characters in spandex, and much more down-to-earth stories like this, stories that reflect on a different type of hero, a person who is willing to make dispatches from a war zone at no small threat to her own safety.”
There are scores of stories like “Madaya Mom,” since millions have been displaced during Syria’s descent. Some are trapped in towns like Madaya. Others are part of a global migration crisis convulsing countries and even continents, which will be among the topics at Global Minnesota’s Nov. 4 Great Decisions Conference on international migration and the changing face of America.
The conference, and the comic book, comes amid a time of growing global resistance to refugees and other migrants. Yet more than ever the worldwide problem requires a global response. So empathy must be emphasized.
“Superheroes are not defined by their powers or their physique. Superhero is in our heart,” said an emotional Dalibor in an ABC News report. “Madaya Mom fits in this category because she finds strength to be human and unhardened. Her essence is pure.”
In Madaya moM “you have a hero who is being forced through circumstances to be like a Marvel hero, but has very little power besides the love she has in her heart and the strength she has to hold her family together,” said Alonso. “Hopefully it speaks to people because of its universality. Hopefully we have enough common humanity that if we can’t relate we can imagine what she is going through.”
That’s the impact reading “Madaya Mom” had on my resident Marvel expert.
“Marvel does a really good job making their characters human and not just rushing in to save the day,” said my 11-year-old son.
“There are so many problems in the world. Focusing on this one city, one problem, one family, helps understand what’s happening. It’s a sad but interesting tale. But in some ways you are less upset to know that people can still get through this, can still survive, still have family, and be together.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board and Global Minnesota are partners in “Great Decisions,” a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to globalminnesota.org.