Back in black

Saturday, November 23, 2002

PHILADELPHIA -- Marvel Comics is shaking up one of its iconic superheroes -- and some fans -- with a series that imagines the original "Captain America" as a black Army recruit.

Since 1941, the series has followed the escapades of Steve Rogers, the scrawny, white Army reject who gained supernatural powers after drinking super-soldier serum.

In the new prequel, called "Truth: Red, White & Black" -- which Marvel Comics feted at a launch event in Philadelphia on Friday -- the Army first tests the serum on three black recruits, one of whom gains superpowers.

"The concept is that basically these guys were sacrificed to create and shore up the whole 'Captain America' myth," said writer Robert Morales, who is crafting the series with illustrator Kyle Baker.

The story echoes the infamous Tuskegee Experiment, in which the U.S. government from 1932 to 1972 left poor blacks in Alabama untreated for syphilis in order to watch the disease's effect.

"What we deliver, really, is a tribute to black soldiers. The key is to get past the metaphor and down to historical facts, which is that black soldiers had a role as real heroes in World War II," said Marvel President Bill Jemas.

About 100,000 copies of "Truth" are being printed, Morales said. That's about 10,000 more than the usual run for "Captain America," which is the 10th-best-selling comic, according to a Marvel spokesman.

"We sold out of it the same day, about 200 copies," said Martin King, who co-owns Atomic City Comics in Philadelphia. "This is saying he owes his origins to a group of people who may have died being tested before he even put the costume on."

Before the book debuted, reaction to the idea of giving the superhero black roots was decidedly mixed.

"My understanding of things is that now that the book is actually out, the reaction is bizarrely positive," said Morales. "I think, much to their horror, they think that actually it's a pretty good book."

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