Comic Crusade

In January, Salon reported that drug czar Barry McCaffrey and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) had coerced television networks to include governmentapproved antidrug messages in prime-time shows. Under the arrangement, the major networks secretly submitted scripts to McCaffrey's office in exchange for credit toward public-service advertising that Congress had required them to sell to the government at half-price as part of a $1-billion ad buy in 1997. Working antidrug messages into scripts subject to ONDCP approval allowed the networks to recover some of the advertising time still owed to the government, and then to sell the ad slots to commercial advertisers willing to pay premium rates. By in effect selling their scripts to ONDCP propagandists, the networks have recouped at least $25 million in lost advertising revenue.

Widespread outrage may have spoiled the plan, but McCaffrey won't have trouble getting his antidrug message to kids. The same five-year, $1-billion program that funded the controversial television arrangement also provided Marvel Comics with $2.5 million to produce a series of antidrug comic books targeted at young readers. Marvel's writers and editors worked with members of the drug office and a board of media-literacy experts to create story lines deemed safely on message.

While he may no longer have the help of the Home Improvement cast or the stars of Beverly Hills 90210, McCaffrey can count on a hand from She-Hulk. The green, irradiated cousin of the better-known Incredible Hulk is one of a host of superheroes scheduled to appear with Spider-Man in the Marvel series, which commenced last September. Comic book luminaries such as Captain America, the Fantastic Four, and Wolverine and Storm from the X-Men will also make an appearance. ("Spider-Man can't do the job alone," explained a Marvel spokesman.) The series is currently being inserted into children's magazines including Scholastic, Boys' Life, Girls' Life, Muse, Contact Kids, and React, as well as Marvel Comics. All told, the White House and the ONDCP hope to reach 65 percent of the nation's children through this program.

Though the comic crusade wasn't orchestrated as surreptitiously as the television arrangement, the government in fact has a long and colorful history of spreading agitprop through comics. As far back as the 1940s, Superman and Batman were hawking war bonds and echoing the government line on subjects like spousal abuse, corruption, and drunk driving.

"Marvel has a long tradition of delivering pro-social messages by using the unparalleled equity of our superheroes," boasted a company vice president. The children are safe.