“What country you from?” “”What?” “What ain’t no country I ever heard of. They speak English in what?” Samuel L. Jackson’s memorable phrase from Pulp Fiction is humorous but also highlights an interesting aspect of pop culture when it comes to our own perception of other places in the world, including through the medium of comics.
In the ongoing wake of All-New Marvel NOW! the first issue of Storm was recently released (the second issue is in stores this week), the first for the heroine in her own self-titled series. After surviving a brief encounter with a tidal wave, Storm finds herself in the small country of Santo Marco. Santo Marco has some history with the X-Men and by extension Storm, having been the small country which the Brotherhood of Mutants once overran and ruled before being driven out. Storm arrives to find herself welcomed by the locals, some of whom seem to worship her. Soon the army show up and engages in some subtle sabre-rattling against the heroine informing her that she cannot use her mutant name, as mutant names are not allowed, and then informs her that mutants aren’t allowed either. This leads to her departure and inevitable return to stand up to the army brutes.
It is an interesting episode and one which digs a little deeper than most comics do for context. Instead of some supervillain having a plan to destroy a city (or the world) the threat here is not something which can be easily overcome. There is no power punch or melding into shadows which will help the island of Santo Marco, instead it requires a long-term approach, and to its credit that is part of what Storm returns to do. Before the army intervenes she is seen helping to clear the beach of the village from debris.
An interesting question though is where is Santo Marco? The medium of comics has a tendency to make up places as a necessity to replicate modern conflicts, but is there any benefit in that? Based on its name and the representation of its setting, Santo Marco would appear to be either in the Caribbean or in South America somewhere, but its name is generic enough, as is its setting, that it could really be anywhere in the region (or even potentially further away.) DC Comics does a similar thing with some of its own countries – in the 1980s Kahndaq became a substitute for Iraq and later the home of Bane became an equally obscure and non-existent country known as Santa Prisca.
In current events right now, the world is seeing a fairly tumultuous period, with tensions running high in Gaza, Iraq and Ukraine, while in North America, usually considered benign by world standards, the race riots in Ferguson are igniting an underlying dialogue which is rarely spoken about the state of racial relations in the United States. Ferguson is an especially interesting case though, as many have heard of Ukraine, Iraq and Gaza, but how before last week had ever heard of Ferguson? Other than residents of Saint Louis, the name probably meant nothing and might have been mistaken for a number of other things than an actual place.
Comics is perhaps more than most mediums one of absolute escapism. There is very little basis for superheroes exhibiting super abilities as it relates to the modern world in most senses. Is the realm of escapism so entrenched though that it is unable to tackle current events in their actual setting? In a historical perspective of the medium, the answer would be no. One need not look farther than the first appearance of Captain America to see that heroes could and did attack real world problems (even if at the time that this was being used partially as a propaganda tool.) There are two approaches to the problem of the non-places. The first is that they don’t exist and therefore they don’t actually represent real-world problems, and by extension that they are more easily disregarded as just more comic fluff. The evil dictators and army generals are just exaggerated versions of real life people, and the caricatures are so over-the-top as to be unbelievable. The second approach to this would be that the in being nowhere that these places could in fact be anywhere. That Santo Marco could be Gaza or Crimea and that it forces people to think outside the box of what they perceive to be the ills of the world.
Of the two approaches, the end result probably comes down to the individual reader. Some readers look for pure escapism in comics and don’t want to face real world problems when trying to escape. Others look for something deeper in their reading and look for more connections. Interestingly though, that both possibilities exist is an indication that the comic book companies are trying to play the middle ground, being neither too ignorant nor to divisive. Perhaps once again the bottom line determines the finished product, but I think in either case that it is time for the valuable medium to stop playing pretend and to get real.