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ND alumnus uses comics to promote change

Aubrey Butts | Thursday, November 3, 2011

Marvel comic books editor and Notre Dame alumnus Bill Rosemann knows that with great power comes great responsibility.

“One person can change the world, and by the way, that person is you,” he said in a lecture at the Jordan Hall of Science on Thursday.

Marvel employees have made it their responsibility since the 1960s not only to entertain their readers, but also to teach them an important message about overcoming personal struggles and making a positive change, Rosemann said.

“It’s not about the costumes or the masks,” he said. “Our comics are about saying that one person with problems, choosing to use their gifts to do good, can make a difference.”

While the costumes, masks and fights draw readers into the world of the comic, Rosemann said these elements pale in comparison to the person underneath the powers and masks.

“The powers and costumes are extensions rather than disguises,” he said. “It’s about the person under the costume, and these are the people readers continually identify with and the reasons they return to the comics over and over again.”

Rosemann said Spider-man was an example of this connection. The reader not only cares about the hero Spider-man, but the common man Peter Parker.

“The costumes and names grab your attention, but you care about Spider-man because you care about Peter Parker and his struggles, whether it be dealing with his boss or showing his feelings to Mary Jane,” he said. “Every Spider-man story is a Peter Parker story.”

Besides dedicating itself to creating authentic and identifiable characters, Rosemann said Marvel also embodies the dominant aspects of the comic books industry and society itself.

“The comic books industry is many fields coming together at once,” he said. “It’s never been just about art. Instead, it’s this glorious American collision of art, commerce and history.”

Rosemann said the dichotomy between Professor X and Magneto in the “X-Men” series illustrates an intersection between commerce and American social history.

“Professor X enters the picture and assures [the characters] that their perceived curses are actually gifts they can use to save the world, while Magneto emphasizes survival over morality for the mutants,” Rosemann said. “Who do these two actually represent? Think Martin Luther King, Jr, who advocated peace, and Malcolm X, who supported survival over all.”

Rosemann also said the source material, or the social circumstances surrounding the comic, helps explain the lasting appeal of comics.

Marvel’s latest endeavor, “Ultimate Marvel,” plays on changing the traditional circumstances of comics, and encourages readers to think beyond the usual comic book realm.

In “Ultimate Spider-man,” Marvel takes the traditional Spider-man story line and changes its social context.

“In the Ultimate Spider-Man, Peter Parker dies and Miles Morales, a half-black, half-Hispanic teenager becomes the new Spider-Man,” Rosemann said. “After launching the story, we received hate mail, [but there] can be a Spider-man that is not white.

“While remaining true to the original characters, Marvel comics always reflects what is going on in the world.”

Rosemann said he encourages Notre Dame students to respond to the constantly changing aspects in their world in a positive way.

“Use your brains to do good,” Rosemann said. “Just as the characters confront questions over and over again, we must also ask ourselves how to face the challenges unexpectedly thrown at us in our personal lives and how to strike a balance between our personal and social responsibilities.”