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Before a twist of fate transformed him into Spider-Man, Peter Parker was a bookish teenager whose classmates mocked him as "puny Parker." Captain America was too scrawny to pass an Army physical until he took a special serum. Even the ultra-powerful Hulk was once an abused child.
In October those characters will take a break from fighting super-villains to battle a more insidious evil: bullying. In coordination with national anti-bullying group STOMP Out Bullying, Marvel Comics is publishing special variant covers spotlighting the issue.
"Many comic book superheroes, and particularly those in the Marvel universe, were victims of bullying, felt isolated, and were ridiculed and shunned as kids and teens," STOMP Out Bullying president Ross Ellis told TODAY.com. "It made perfect sense, therefore, to reach out to Marvel to gauge its interest in a partnership. And Marvel was immediately receptive to the idea, and its commitment to the issue is evident in its work."
"We jumped at the chance to work with them to bring awareness to this growing problem," said Axel Alonso, Marvel's editor-in-chief. "So we enlisted some of our top talent to create emotionally charged covers that send a clear message about how our heroes feel about bullying in all its forms."
On one cover, Captain America intervenes in a locker-room beating. But others portray more subtle forms of bullying, like isolation: Gamora of the Guardians of the Galaxy befriends a lonely child watching other kids play soccer, while her teammates Rocket Raccoon and Groot join a boy exiled to his own table in the school cafeteria.
"The covers show the power of standing up for others, for being a friend, for having empathy, for being kind to others, for being tolerant, and for having understanding," Ellis said.
One cover, revealed exclusively to TODAY, specifically addresses cyberbullying. It features Medusa, queen of a superhuman race called the Inhumans, who has an unusual superpower: prehensile hair.
"I wanted to play off of Medusa, and that's how I landed on a little girl who had lost her hair. I wanted to put an uncomfortable amount of text boxes around her, to show off how claustrophobic the constant onslaught can feel," artist John Tyler Christopher told TODAY.com. "Physical bullying results in bumps and bruises, but the psychological effects are what really stick with you."
"Bullying transcends all boundaries," Ellis said. "However, research suggests that boys are more likely to engage in physical aggression, while verbal aggression, often called relational aggression, is more common among girls."
"Having two young daughters, physical bullying doesn't really cross my mind, but just overhearing other kids talk makes me cringe," Christopher agreed.
Ellis said the covers are designed to raise awareness that October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and to "convey the message that no matter who you are, you can be a superhero in your own right by standing up and taking action by joining the fight to eradicate the bullying and cyberbullying epidemic."
"Public-service messages in comic books can be very effective," said Gerry Gladston, co-owner of Midtown Comics, New York City's largest comics retailer, pointing to anti-drug story lines in Spider-Man and Green Lantern/Green Arrow comics of the early '70s. "Those comics struck a powerful chord with the public and remain in great demand to this day."
A more recent example, Gladston said, was Face Value, a comic about autism that was released last month and quickly sold out. "Marvel is onto something big with the anti-bullying covers," he said. "It's too early to gauge public reaction, but we have high hopes for them."
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