Comics : ACS - Smokescreen

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This story is part of a Lookback Series: A Word From Our Sponsor

This review was first published on: 2005.

Background...

Spidey, Storm, and Power Man take on cigarettes in this American Cancer Society book. This time, the origins of our heroes are reduced to one panel apiece on the inside front cover. Again, the story is uncredited but who the writer and artist are for this one, I can't even begin to guess.

In Detail...

ACS - Smokescreen
Year 1982 : SM Title
Publisher:  Marvel Comics Group
Sponsor:  American Cancer Society
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 Reprinted In: Amazing Spider-Man Fights Substance Abuse

Luke Cage, known as Power Man, is acting as a volunteer coach for a track team for teenagers. The "big event before summer vacation" is a race that "brings together youths from all neighborhoods". Peter Parker is there, too, "covering the human interest angle for the Daily Bugle".

As the runners come to the finish line, Bret Jackson, a young black man who is considered to be the best racer of the bunch, folds up in the stretch. Luke asks him what's wrong but Bret just tells him he "stayed out late last night and didn't stop to eat anything today". Bret's girlfriend Carol comes up to defend him. She tells Luke that "Bret can outrun any of the other kids! He's just taking it easy!" But another reason for Bret's loss is revealed when he whispers to his girlfriend, "C'mon Carol, I need a cigarette!"

After Bret and Carol leave, Peter approaches Luke to talk about the young man. Luke tells him that "Bret used to be the best but he's got some real problems with himself!" He then asks Peter to leave it out of the newspaper. "Give me time to handle things my way!"

The racers clean up and get dressed. A blonde-haired participant named Danny asks Bret and Carol if they are going downtown to hang out. He wants to come along. Bret invites the others to join him as well. A pony-tailed young woman named Amy tells him "No thanks!" She has homework to do and, besides, "I don't think smoke-filled rooms are very nice!" Still, a group of the kids do join Bret and Carol. They walk to the "South Side Social Club". Snoopy Luke Cage follows them. He hopes to see why "Bret's been acting so weird lately".

The inside of the Social Club is a bit seedy. There is a pinball machine, two video games, and a pool table. Bret introduces his friends to a balding man wearing a green jacket and green-checked vest. The man offers cigarettes to all the teens.

Meanwhile, Luke Cage has climbed to the roof and is spying on the group by leaning over the edge and peeking in a window. He is startled when someone approaches him up there. "It's just your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man wondering why [Luke is] following a bunch of kids around."

Luke tells him that he started working with Bret Jackson "this past autumn" and that Bret was a gifted athlete with dreams of the Olympics. Soon after, though, he met Carol, started "hanging out with some strange friends of hers, keeping late hours and skipping practice, and he started smoking." Spidey interrupts Luke. His spider-sense is warning of danger. The wall-crawler and Power Man hide as two hoods check for the source of a noise they heard on the roof.

The hoods leave but their very presence makes Power Man realize that the situation is worse than he thought. Spidey tells Luke he is "too well-known to keep an eye" on things. But he knows someone else who may be able to help.

Spidey takes Power Man to meet the mutant X-Man called Storm. When Cage implies that Storm will not be able to take care of herself in a dangerous situation, she uses her wind powers to blow him across a field and into a tree. Luke is convinced that Storm can provide adaquate surveillance.

Now for the lesson of the day. The teens are in science class the next day and are studying the circulatory and respiratory systems. The teacher tells the students that "exercise opens blood vessels" which provides increased blood flow, making oxygen available to the muscles. Smokers, however, have carbon monoxide sticking to their blood cells, preventing oxygen conveyance and nicotine in their system that "constricts the blood vessels, reducing the flow". She then shows a chart in very tiny print showing the short and long term effects of smoking. Bret Jackson shakily stands up, his head aching. (Maybe he tried too hard to read that tiny print.) He tells the teacher that he's not well, that he stayed out too late the night before. The teacher warns him that his grades are slipping. She tells him to "give some thought to the way your decisions are affecting your life".

Meanwhile, Luke Cage is in the principal's office, snooping into the files on Bret Jackson and Carol Hunter. He learns that both were once "straight A" students but have slipped down to Cs and Ds. The principal tells him that Bret has slipped so badly, he may have to be taken off the track team.

Later, leaving school for the day, Bret is approached by Danny and Amy, who ask if he's ready for the "big relay competition" that is coming up in a few days. Bret boasts that he'll "be a hero and the dean will get off my back about grades". Amy remarks that "You used to be a hero but you didn't brag about it all the time!" Bret calls Danny and Amy "losers", then he and Carol head for the Southside Social Club. They are met there by the two hoods and the man dressed in green (who is now completely bald. See what cigarettes can do to you?). They tell him that he is just more mature than his schoolmates. After inviting Bret and Carol in, the three men go to an alley where they enter a door leading to a basement. They have decided to give a progress report to their boss. Unseen above them, Storm spies. She decides it is time she got a look at their boss.

Storm follows into the dark basement. Inside the three men call to their boss, telling him that everything is set. Bret is sure to lose the race and their betting operation can clean up. A mysterious voice tells them that they have been careless and let company sneak in. Suddenly the room fills with smoke. Before Storm can use her powers to blow the smoke away, she is struck from behind and knocked unconscious. A shadowy figure in a cape stands behind her. He's not ready to reveal himself "but soon enough the world shall hear of the man called... Smokescreen!"

Chapter 2: Where There's Smoke...

Smokescreen reveals himself to be a dopey-looking guy in a black costume with mask, cape, and armbands. Smoke swirls around him. He's not ready to reveal himself to the world but he has a chest emblem of a big puff of smoke with the letters "SS" written inside. The bald thug, who is looking more like Lex Luthor with every panel, tells his boss that they didn't realize they were followed. Smokescreen knows if one super-hero is on to them, others may be as well. He decides to change the plans. To be certain of the bets, he decrees that Bret Jackson must throw the race. "Lex" doesn't think Bret will go for it. "Our plan is working because the kid can't see what's happening to him", he tells Smokescreen. "One bad habit leads to another. We got Carol hooked and she got Bret smoking and hanging out... but neither kid really understands!" Smokescreen is unmoved by this. "You must convince them", he says, "or else!"

The three crooks return to the clubhouse. They tell Bret he must throw the race and Bret goes from thinking "You guys are tops" to realizing "You guys aren't really my friends... You're a bunch of hoods!" He tries to leave but the thug that wears a hat stops him. Behind him, "Lex" grabs Carol. They tell Bret to do as he's told, that they will hang onto Carol to make sure he does. Then, the door to the club is shattered. Spidey and Power Man have been outside listening. Now, they've heard enough and are charging in!

"Hat" pulls a gun but Luke smashes the firearm with one bare hand. The other hoods try to flee but are snagged by Spidey's webbing. Just like that, it's over. Later, back at the track, Luke and Spidey explain that they came to the club to take a look because they hadn't heard from Storm and just happened to stumble on the strongarming. Carol takes all the blame, saying the men at the club made her feel grown-up. But Bret won't let her assume full responsibility. "It was my own fool swelled-head that got me into this", he says, and he vows to train hard in the next two days to be ready for the race. Luke tells him not to overtrain, else he'll be worn-out come race day. Then he and Spidey leave to see if they can find out what happened to Storm.

Over the next two days, Bret finds out how out-of-shape he has become by pushing himself harder than he ever has. He lifts weights, does stretching exercises, jogs, and throws his cigarettes away. The day of the track meet arrives. Luke (who has apparently given up trying to find Storm) tells Bret to do his best... "part of growing up is accepting your mistakes and learning from them". But Bret wants to win. The runners line up for the race and the starting gun goes off.

Back at the Social Club, Smokescreen has an illegal casino running in the basement. In another room, Storm finally comes to. (Apparently, she was unconscious for two days after one simple crack on the head.) The door is locked but she uses her weather-powers to unleash some lightning which obliterates the lock. She sneaks a peek into the corridor. "The coast is clear." It's time to report to Spidey and Power Man.

Back at the race, Bret is pushing toward the home stretch. (Hey! Wasn't this supposed to be a relay? Looks like Bret ran the whole thing.) He tries to reach within himself but his lungs feel like they're on fire. In spite of Luke's cheers of encouragement, Bret can't muster up the strength. He falters and comes in second.

After the race, Luke comforts Bret by telling him he gave his best. Bret doesn't agree. "My best went up in smoke!", he says, "I'm just a second stringer." Before this conversation can go further, Storm arrives and tells the others about the illegal gambling operation. All three heroes head for the Southside Social Club.

Minutes later, Spidey, Storm, and Luke bust in on the club. Luke uses a pool table to pin the three hoods against the wall. Storm uses her powers to create an indoor rain storm. The gamblers slip and slide in all the water. Spidey goes after Smokescreen. The villain tries to escape by emitting a huge cloud of smoke but it does him no good. The wall-crawler's spider-sense allows him to navigate through the smoke. He also tells Smokescreen, "I'm wearing an oxygen filter under my mask, just like you!" (Except Smokescreen has one of those half masks that doesn't cover his mouth and reveals his nose, so where his oxygen filter would be is beyond me.) The web-slinger slings his web and easily captures the fleeing Smokescreen.

The police arrive to take all the bad guys away. The three heroes join up with the teens. Danny is upset at Bret for letting them all down. Bret assumes responsibility. He has learned that even long before smoking can give you cancer it can effect you with shortness of breath and a faster pulse rate. He knows he has screwed up but is ready to change his ways. All he asks is a chance to prove himself. Luke and Spidey tell the other kids that Bret deserves that chance. "After all", the webhead says, "he helped us round up the biggest bunch of crooks this city has seen in some time!" The teens also decide that Bret deserves that second chance and the story finishes up with Carol (who, last I looked was still a smoker) saying, "Welcome back, Bret... to the winning team!"

On the inside back cover is a one-page story called Brian's Decision.

Brian is new to the neighborhood and the teens at his school offer him a cigarette. Brian knows that cigarettes are bad for you. On the other hand, he wants new friends and he doesn't want these kids to ridicule him. On the other hand, if he smokes, he won't do as well at sports. Finally, Brian makes a decision. What is it? A blank word balloon hangs over Brian's head. "Write in the answer you think Brian should give", the caption says.

On the back cover, Storm, Spidey, and Power Man present twelve nasty facts about smoking. The conclusion according to Power Man... "Smoking is too big a burden to bear, even for a super-hero!"

Overall Rating...

As a non-smoker, I still remember the days when I basically couldn't go to most bars or restaurants without feeling nauseous from the smell, and without my clothes stinking of cigarette smoke. The world has come a long way in getting this crazy, dangerous habit out of public places, and comics like this have played their part.

As social awareness comics go, this one is pretty palatable. The story flow is better than most comics of this time, even though the corny-factor of the tale is still cranked up pretty high, the book makes it clear what's scientific fact and what is just story-telling.

Add the fact that there's no ads in this comic, throw on the high collectibility factor of the various releases, and I think we're looking at four webs here.

Footnote...

This comic was released eight times in its original format. Dedicated collectors try to acquire all the different variants. Then in 1998 the comic was re-drawn with entirely new art (including computer shaded coloring). The new version has been released four times to date, most recently in 2002.

In the reworked version, the plot and script remained basically unchanged for the most part. The number and layout of the panels on the page typically stayed the same, as well as the general plot and script for each panel. However the relative size of the panels often changed, and the all-new art often used different perspective and character positioning.

Additionally, Luke Cage was renamed from "Powerman" to "Cage" for the new version. I did notice some other changes... a detailed list of increased chance of various medical problems was removed. Also, a page of classroom activities of experiments and exercises has been removed and replaced with an advertisement for www.cancer.org (which also advertises www.marvel.com in shameless self-promotion). Finally, the "list of facts" on the back cover has been reworked, thought the general thrust remains the same.

The back cover credits David Tanta, Norman Lee, and Dickey. Presumably these are the artist credits for the new artwork version.