Marvel Team-Up

Age of the Geek Column: A lot of stories came out of the New York ComicCon this week, but the weirdest by far has to be the short-lived partnership between Marvel Comics and defense contractor Northrop Grumman.

This partnership included using Marvel characters in recruitment advertisements for Northrop Grumman and the creation of a promotional book that saw The Avengers team up with the "Northrop Grumman Elite Nexus," (N.G.E.N.) a team of young Northrop Grumman employees decked out in high tech gear.

These type of promotional partnerships are hardly unheard of. Everybody has fond memories of 80s super heroes defeating their foes with Twinkies and Hostess Fruit Pies and there is an entire series about the "Tandy Computer Whiz Kids" foiling criminal plots with the power of their personal computers.

The N.G.E.N. kids aren't any different than the Tandy Whiz Kids, except that instead of promoting Radio Shack they're promoting a company that makes military drones and nuclear weapons.

It seems we'll never know exactly what else this partnership would have entailed though. Within 12 hours, public backlash caused Marvel to reverse course, wiping any trace of Northrop Grumman from their website and canceling an event scheduled for later at the convention.

Was this an appropriate move?

On the one hand, Northrop Grumman is, by strict definition, a war profiteer. They don't make candy or sneakers. They make stealth bombers. They are part of the military industrial complex. The products they make are designed to kill people. It's understandable that directing their recruitment efforts towards children makes people feel uncomfortable.

What's next? Spider-Man teaming up with the Anheuser-Busch Teen Detective Agency?

This is a company that has a vested interest in perpetual war and they're targeting children to enhance their public image.

What kind of sense does it make to use Iron Man to promote a military contractor anyway? This is a character whose defining story is literally about realizing the dangers of creating weapons of war and taking responsibility for putting profit over lives.

On the other hand, is it really fair to blame Northrup Grumman for tooting their own horn?

Yes, Northrup Grumman designs weapons of war, but they are also responsible for the postal vehicles widely used by our neighborhood mail carriers. They make fire trucks, busses, and canoes. If Hostess can use Marvel characters in advertisements, why shouldn't the company that makes Hostess delivery trucks?

Moreover, it can't be denied that the technological advancements developed by military contractors have benefited the general public. Much of what we enjoy in our private lives can be traced back to military research projects. When Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, the lunar module that landed him there was built by Grumman Aircraft. There are surely worse companies to aspire to work for.

I certainly wouldn't mind if more kids had posters of airplanes and satellites on their walls if that's what it takes to keep them interested in STEM fields.

It makes sense for Northrup Grumman to target fans of super-heroes for their recruitment efforts. Characters like Iron Man and Batman depend on their fictional companies to keep them outfitted in the latest in technology. Companies like Northrup Grumman are as close as you can get to working for Stark Industries or WayneTech.

It's also not like real world military contractors haven't graced the pages of Marvel comics either. The X-Men have been flying around in a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird since 1977 and nobody seems to have a problem with that.

On the other, other hand, even if you're okay with encouraging kids to keep military contractors in mind when thinking about career options, the method being used raises issues of its own.

The idea of a fictional team of heroes employed and armed by a multi-billion dollar private company should make anybody cautious. Especially when it's in an advertisement book commissioned by that multi-billion dollar private company.

I don't think Northrup Grumman is going to actually equip a handful of teenagers in sci-fi gear, but it's not unheard of for large corporations to hire private armed forces to act on their behalf. Considering the obscene amount of power large corporations wield already, normalizing the use of private militaries is probably something the general public should probably be vigilant about.

In the meantime, Marvel should probably stick to promoting M&Ms.

Travis Fischer is a news writer for Mid-America Publishing and actually did get into journalism to emulate comic book characters.