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New Weekly Feature: A People’s History of the Marvel Universe

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Hey folks, so I’ve been feeling the blogging bug recently, and while I’ve got some long form stuff in the works, I’m waiting for a few things to happen before some of those posts can go up, and they tend to take longer to write anyway. In the mean time, I’ve decided to do some shorter pieces that I can do on a regular basis. And since it’s me, they’re going to be about the intersection between politics and comic books.

In A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, I’ll be exploring how real-world politics (and weird bits of pop culture) was presented in some of my favorite bits of classic Marvel comics, starting with Claremont’s run on X-Men and Captain America from the Timely Comics through the 80s. And thanks to my friends Brett and Elana over at Graphic Policy, which covers comic books from a progressive viewpoint and which you should be reading regularly, I’ll be posting them both here and there.

 

CaptainAmerica

Today, I’ll be talking about the politics of Captain America, something I’ve discussed before. Political nerds and Marvel fans are probably aware that the original Captain America comics from the 1940s were explicitly political, as Joe Simon and Jack Kirby took an explicitly anti-fascist and anti-Nazi position in March 1941, ten months before the U.S was attacked at Pearl Harbor.

What they might not know is that that Captain America was also explicitly political – and progressive – on domestic politics as well. As proof, I present this panel from the very first page of Captain America #2:

incometax

Meet the villains of the very first story to feature Captain America’s now-iconic round shield – two corrupt bankers trying to evade Federal corporate income taxes. Now, yes, Benson the corrupt banker on the right happens to use “Oriental giants” he discovered in Tibet who are impervious to everything but sonic weapons to “raise havoc with the city – the nation! I want money-money!” but at the end of the day, he’s still a corrupt banker who kills people to hide his income tax evasion.

Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s point couldn’t be clearer – wealthy businessmen who avoid paying corporate income taxes (and these would be FDR’s “Soak the Rich” taxes, specifically) damage America’s ability to wage war on fascism and require the same two-fisted justice that Captain America deals out to “Ratzi” spies, storm troopers guarding a concentration camp in the Black Forest, Adolph Hitler himself, and the evil Wax Man (who kills people with wax masks of themselves for some reason).

Then again, it’s also the issue where Captain America cross-dresses…to fight fascism.

capcrossdressing

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  • Murc

    Oh man, original flava Bucky.

    He was all kinds of problematic, as the young-child sidekicks of that era tended to be.

    And they were young. To the extent that they’re a going concern these days (they largely aren’t) “sidekicks” tend to be in their teens and even twenties. Robin is the strongest remaining extant “classic” sidekick and ever since Dick Grayson stopped wearing the tights (and that happened in the 70s; Dick Grayson hasn’t been Robin in a meaningful sense since before I was born) I don’t think there’s been one younger than 16. (I forget how old Damian Wayne is and I don’t actually care because Damian sucks and should die.)

    That didn’t used to be the case. You’d have these eight-to-ten year olds fighting crime alongside their adult mentors, and it’s kind of creepy to see these days.

    • Yep, especially because Kirby draw Bucky with these exaggerated doll-like features. Made him look like something out of a horror movie.

    • heckblazer

      FWIW, Damian Wayne did die.

      • NonyNony

        And then came back. Because comics!

      • Murc

        heckblazer, you are my favorite one. When did this happen? He was showing up in Gotham Academy very recently.

        • heckblazer

          Damian Wayne was killed by an older clone of himself in Batman, Inc. #8. As NonyNony notes, it didn’t stick (and hence my “FWIW”).

          • NonyNony

            Yup – Grant Morrison killed him off. As he always intended when he first introduced the character.

            Stuck for a while though – almost a full year I think.

        • Which, btw, is a delightful series.

          • Murc

            Literally the only DC book I’m reading right now, although I’ve heard good things about Harley’s book and the miniseries she and Power Girl just concluded.

            • I’m liking Batgirl.

              • Murc

                If it’s anyone but Barbara I’ll consider it!

                (Oracle 4 lyfe, yo.)

    • NonyNony

      Damian Wayne is, like, 2 years old or something. Because he was an experiment performed by Talia al’Ghul and artificially aged to the point where he could be a sufficient pain in Bruce Wayne’s ass and so he didn’t have to grow up the normal way.

      Mentally and physiologically I believe he’s supposed to be 13 or 14. A very screwed-up 13 or 14 given that his grandpa is Ra’s al Ghul and his mother “raised” him to be a pain in the ass to Batman, but 13 or 14 nevertheless.

      (Damian Wayne as Robin to Dick Grayson’s Batman was brilliance. The role reversal of a happy Batman and a grumpy Robin was just hilariously done. Damian Wayne as Robin to Bruce Wayne’s Batman is just redundant – nobody needs grumpy teenager when grumpy-teenager-trapped-in-a-35-year-old-man’s body is the star of the book…)

    • Ramon A. Clef

      He was all kinds of problematic, as the young-child sidekicks of that era tended to be.

      A trope not limited to superhero stories. My wife gave me a collection of the first two years of Terry and the Pirates, and I find some of the interactions between Pat and Terry to be downright creepy.

    • Halloween Jack

      Which is probably why Ed Brubaker aged Bucky up to about sixteen or so when he started the whole Winter Soldier thing in the comics (IIRC, Bru also made the point that teenagers fought quite a lot in WWII, not just in last-ditch defense efforts by the Germans but also in various resistance movements, which was good for his storyline, because he had Bucky basically doing throat-slitting black ops stuff while Steve drew aggro in his bright costume and shield.) This eventually led to movie-Bucky being not only the same age as Steve, but also his protector in the ‘hood.

  • Ken

    Looks cool, and thanks for the pointer to Graphic Policy – I hadn’t heard of it. But I find I can’t concentrate because:

    I’m waiting for a few things to happen before some of those posts can go up

    So is blogging like movie newspaper offices, where the editor has both “Superman Dies” and “Superman Lives” front pages ready to go to press? Except yours are, oh, “How Trump Won Iowa” and “How Trump Lost Iowa”?

    • In my case it’s waiting on an academic journal so that hopefully I can link to my own article when I write the blog post version.

  • Hogan

    wealthy businessmen who avoid paying corporate income taxes (and these would be FDR’s “Soak the Rich” taxes, specifically) damage America’s ability to wage war on fascism

    Not only that–they’re rooting for the fascists. (“Don’t forget–THEY’LL be here soon.”)

    • CP

      In other words, much like many of the 1%ers of that era in real life.

      The Indy trilogy did this too. The bad guy in the third one was easily the blandest of the three, but I loved that he was a wealthy American industrialist neck-deep in Nazi ties – in other words, the in-universe version of your Henry Fords and Fred Kochs and Prescott Bushes and Joe Kennedys.

      • If for no other reason than he’s also Maester Pycelle, I actually like Julian Glover’s evil industrialist as an Indy villain. He’s no Belloc, but he’s a lot more interesting than Mola Ram.

        • CP

          There’s not much to Mola Ram other than being your basic charismatic cult leader. (Which Amrish Puri pulls off perfectly well, in fairness).

          Belloq and Donovan are both more interesting as foils for Indy who basically share his obsession with the past, but without the humility, or the people to ground them and keep them from going too far.

          And while I called Donovan “bland,” I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, if only because that’s how plenty of the more skilled villains are in real life. I liked his James Bond character too precisely because he was so low-key – not trying to start World War Three or nuke Fort Knox, just go on doing business in the intelligence world and occasionally tricking his spy patrons into sorting out local power struggles for him.

      • Sly

        In other words, much like many of the 1%ers of that era in real life.

        Entirely unsurprising, given that superheroes and supervillains are best viewed as commentaries on the widely perceived institutional failures of the era in which they are created. Organized crime, war profiteering and crony capitalism, belligerent militarism – these were the problems of the 1930s that “normal people,” operating in existing institutions, seemed either unwilling or incapable of solving. Ergo, the superhero; someone with a superhuman ability – and, more importantly, a superhuman morality – to fight these ills.

        And the supervillain, which debuted later, comes to personify the very evil that the superhero was created to destroy. Shiwan Khan was a superhuman hypnotist who stole aircraft from the U.S. Army. Ultra-Humanite was a mad scientist / racketeer who wanted to seize control of Metropolis’s taxi cab companies, while Hugo Strange was a mad scientist who created a weather machine to help his gang rob banks around Gotham City. Lex Luthor (originally just Luthor) invented high-tech weapons in order to surreptitiously guide various countries into war with one another. And the Red Skull started out as an American war profiteer who ultimately wanted to overthrow the U.S. government before being revealed to be the puppet of the real Red Skull, a Nazi agent.

        • CP

          I’d say originally it wasn’t even “commentary” so much as power fantasy, in an age (the Great Depression) when the average American was probably feeling about as powerless as ever. Living vicariously through superheroes meant you could fantasize about punching out the crooks who controlled your world, be they slum lords or corrupt politicians or profiteers (Superman) or the neighborhood gangsters (Batman).

    • Good point!

  • Murc

    Also, the bullet that Nazi goon is firing on the cover is fucking magical. Look at that trajectory!

    Seriously. I firmly believe that after going off-panel that thing went through a wormhole to Dallas and killed Kennedy.

    • Been reading a lot of pre-Code comic books on the iNternet of late, & noticed that the bullet trajectory is often shown going right into someone’s body, something I don’t remember from the Code comics of my youth.

      I also remember a Cap storyline in 1970/1 in which the evil organization he’s fighting is called the “Committee to Restore America’s Principles”.

      I sent a letter saying “ha ha I know what that spells”, & they acknowledged (but didn’t print) my letter in a letter column, saying yes you’re right, but we can’t print that word.

    • Yeah. Jack Kirby is god, no question, but his artwork in the 40s is really rough and very non-Kirby-esque. Still very much learning the trade and copying that early DC style.

  • Aaron Morrow

    Captain America from the Timely Comics through the 80s

    Does that mean it’s off-topic to ask Steve Attewell’s take on “Captain America: Patriot”? (I enjoy it for more than the liberalism promoted within, but I think it is very good regardless of its politics.)

    • Not off topic. I used the 80s as a marker there because that’s when I was reading Captain America as a kid and remember stuff like Modoc, the Serpent Society, Cap-Wolf, etc. I can go later than that, but I’m less interested in going into really 90s comics, let alone recentish Marvel stuff like Civil War.

  • Mike in DC

    The original Superman comics had a similar tenor to them. He took on wife beaters, corrupt business men and war profiteers, among other things.

  • Gareth

    The modern Captain America, frozen in ice for 60 years, is a bit of an awkward fit with the progressive origins of the character. Anyone who’s skipped so many decades is going to be reactionary about something. But of course this wasn’t part of the original character, and even the Silver Age version was only frozen for 19 years.

    • Murc

      This annoys me a bit in modern MCU fandom. People go apeshit when Cap is depicted as anything other than completely on the right side of history re: everything. You try and discuss what potential problematic attitudes he might potentially have and its all “WHY DO YOU HATE CAPTAIN AMERICA.”

      • Craigo

        A politically-active Brooklyner from the 1930s might some have outdated views, but they’re more likely to be about how the Moscow show trials were the people’s justice and that FDR was a warmonger for not supporting Molotov-Ribbentrop.

      • I think the point that a lot of people make is that Steve is a kind, thoughtful man. So even if there were things about the 21st century that shocked him (and as noted below, a lot of those things would actually be how we’ve moved backwards from progressive ideals that he would have taken for granted), he would try to listen and understand, rather than have a kneejerk negative reaction.

    • I disagree. See the two essays I linked up above, or read Historically Accurate Steve Rogers, who’s pointed out that Steve and Bucky’s apartment in Brooklyn in the 30s was in a gay neighborhood, for example.

      The idea that the present is inherently more progressive than the past is a really problematic one, that erases a lot of the people who might not have been in the majority in their own time, but without whose activism we would not be here today.

      • Gareth

        In the real world, are there any public figures over the age of 80 who are totally progressive by modern standards? Bearing in mind that they’ve actually lived through the decades.

        • CP

          Not that she’s a public figure, but at the time she died last summer at the ripe old age of 91, my grandmother was still well to the left of the median American. On just about every issue I can think of – the wars, torture, gun rights, the death penalty, police violence, universal health care, the safety net, and I believe even abortion and gay rights. Actually, I’m trying to think of a single issue on which she could be said to be “reactionary,” and I’m drawing a blank. Sure, I suppose she had her “kids these days” moments like everyone else, but I can’t think of a single time that translated into her taking the right-wing side of an issue.

          I’ll let other people speak to the “public figure” thing, but on the broader point, it’s not like these people don’t exist. Cap may be statistically less likely (though as Steve points out, less so when you factor in his origins – working-class art student from 1930s New York City raised by a single mother and in a time when his ethnicity still marked him as “other”), but hardly implausible.

          As you say, these people haven’t been frozen in time, so that’s a factor too. But also bear in mind that the shock of being revived in the modern era would cut both ways – things have gotten both more and less liberal since then. Sure, a guy from the 1930s/40s awokened in the present might be shocked by the progress made on civil rights for minorities, women, and gays. On the other hand, he might equally be shocked by the way the Overton Window moved on gun rights (it wasn’t controversial for most of history that these things should be regulated), or economic justice (the number of people gleefully tearing down what the Progressive and New Deal eras built), or the huge permanent military state (not historically a part of the American landscape), or the creeping fundamentalism (“under God” in the pledge of allegiance and “in God we trust” as the national motto were both added after Cap’s time and in defiance of secular civic tradition, to name only these). The shock of time travel could actually make such a person more liberal compared to his environment rather than less – it would depend on what his priorities were.

          • Gareth

            Fair enough, but if there isn’t some sort of conflict coming out of the ‘man out of time’ thing, you’re not really exploiting the setup. I suppose he could be too progressive, rather than not progressive enough.
            “Hi guys, feel the Bern! I’m so excited to be working for a real socialist. Now, here’s my proposal on nationalisation of the steel mills…”

            • CP

              The original script for Winter Soldier, I believe, had a scene with him commiserating with Peggy (one of the few people old enough to remember his time) and sharing his discomfort with the loss of the sense of solidarity and community and the safety net that embodied them.

              That got left on the cutting room floor, and in the end all you had was the vague “it was better in my day” pronouncements.

              • Gareth

                His objections to the SHIELD project in the same movie were vaguely associated with being from another time, but he didn’t end up appearing much different to say, Edward Snowden.

              • Actually, it was part of the first Avengers movie, but got cut.

            • That’s exactly how you handle it. Hence this delightful little fanfic about how Steve Rogers drove his PR Rep into a nervous breakdown.

          • bear in mind that the shock of being revived in the modern era would cut both ways – things have gotten both more and less liberal since then

            This a million times.

            One thing that I think someone from Steve’s time would be shocked by is the diminution of the social status of science and scientists. There’s that great line in Winter Soldier where he lists the things that are great about the 21st century, and near the top of the list is “no polio.” So I think he’d be shocked, first, by the anti-vaxxer movement (there are some great fanfics and pieces of fan art along these lines where he uses his public platform to get really pissed off that people aren’t vaccinating their kids), and second, by the casual way in which our culture dismisses science when it isn’t convenient for us, for example when it comes to climate change.

            • Gareth

              And perhaps that’s one way he’d be ‘reactionary’. Maybe he thinks every kid should lined up and vaccinated with whatever is medically recommended, and if the parents have any objections they can go to Hell.

        • Right, but there’s the thing – Rogers isn’t over the age of 80. He’s a 25-27 year old man who happens to have traveled in time. So he shouldn’t be written like an old man.

          And as I and others have gone to some lengths to point out, he was a young man who was way more politically active and aware than most of his peers – hence volunteering in 1940, well ahead of Pearl Harbor.

          So you combine someone who has the adaptability of youth with someone who would naturally seek out the cutting edge to begin with, and you get someone who might have a period of adjustment – I doubt he’d be au fait with the linguistic turn on the left, for example – but who will learn.

          • Gareth

            Someone really should write him meeting with an agender vegan pagan, who’s equally offended at enquiries about their biological sex, honey, and some alien superhero running around calling himself ‘Thor’. I’m sure he’d be sympathetic, but…

        • Jackov

          While engaged in some community organizing in the late 90s, I was quartered with a woman who was well into her 70s. Vi and her Gray Panther associates were consistently more liberal across the spectrum than any other group I interacted with during my stint.

  • J. Otto Pohl

    Here is a list of superheroes more in line with LGM ideology. ;-)

    http://comicsalliance.com/comic-book-communists/

    • Actually, I’ll be doing one of these on how Marvel depicts the Soviets. And one of the things I find really frustrating is that, despite the robust iconography of the Soviet Union, they don’t have any good, iconic characters.

      • J. Otto Pohl

        Seems like an unexploited niche. Maybe a Soviet superhero can join Kasril’s group and go to South Africa? Or one can help the NVA fight against the US in Vietnam? Fight against the Chinese during the border skirmishes? Afghanistan? Angola? Ethiopia? There are so many possibilities.

      • CP

        Didn’t Marvel end up shying away from Soviet villains for most of the Cold War?

        They tried to turn Cap from an antifascist to an anticommunist crusader, but it didn’t really work and they ended up retconning that entire era away. Iron Man was supposed to be a military-industrial Cold Warrior, but they gradually backed off from that to the point where you got the kind of character you see in the movies (breaking with his arms dealer past and spending more time fighting corporate rivals than any foreign enemies). Etc.

        Like most of the spy shows of the same era, they ended up inventing Nebulous Evil Organizations to serve as the main heavies during that era instead of focusing on the Cold War. SHIELD’s main concern was stopping HYDRA and AIM and the Secret Empire, not the Soviets or the Chinese.

        • J. Otto Pohl

          I don’t know. I don’t follow comics. But, it seems like a missed opportunity. You could have an anti-communist superhero assisting the Forest Brethern in Lithuania in the early 1950s. He could fight in Korea. He could assist the Tibetan uprising in 1959. He could fight in Vietnam. There are all kinds of possibilities. I am now envisioning a series with a US and Soviet superhero fighting on opposite sides of all these conflicts. Each told from their own ideological point of view. If I could find a collaborator to do the drawings I might have something.

        • IIRC, the original comic book Iron Man got the shrapnel near his heart while in Vietnam. The current Marvel line is:

          Wounded, captured and forced to build a weapon by his enemies, billionaire industrialist Tony Stark instead created an advanced suit of armor to save his life and escape captivity.

          They don’t give more info on just who “his enemies” are.

          From a synopsis of the origin ish, March 1963:

          Across the globe, the evil Red tyrant Wong-Chu takes over another small village in Vietnam, defeating its strongest men in contests of judo. Meanwhile, Tony Stark has arrived in Vietnam to observe the testing micro-transistor-powered weaponry, which allow heavy items like mortars to be reduced in size no larger or heavier than a flashlight. Accompanying a squad of soldiers equipped with his weaponry on a patrol through the jungle, he accidentally triggers a tripwire that detonates a landmine. The wounded Stark is captured by Wong-Chu’s forces and taken to their nearby headquarters. Wong-Chu realizes his prisoner is a “famous Yankee inventor” and decides that he will put him to work in service of the Communist insurgency even though doctors determine the young inventor only has days to live before “shrapnel reaches his heart.”

          Hell, in 1963 even I, under the influence of evil parents, was more or less in favor of U.S involvement there. Things changed soon enough & no one wanted to court controversy even by mentioning it.

          Marvel did have some Commie supervillains earlier in the ’60s, I don’t remember DC having any. The crimson Dynamo, f’rinstance, who was pretty much a Soviet Iron Man. Or the Red Ghost & his super apes. Seems to me the Ghost went free-lance at some point.

          • CP

            Right, like I said, they had a phase where they tried to use Soviet villains (early Iron Man especially). It just didn’t stick. Ironically, the two most memorable villains of Iron Man’s Cold War days were the Black Widow, who defected and has been a good guy basically forever at this point, and the Mandarin who was actually a hardcore anti-communist.

            (Point of interest: they also tried to have a communist Red Skull. It also didn’t stick).

        • There were more than a few Soviet villains and even some Soviet heroes, but they weren’t particularly good or iconic characters, is my point.

          • Murc

            Does Colossus count as Soviet? He’s pretty iconic.

            Omega Red and the Crimson Dynamo are… not precisely iconic but at least well-known.

            On the DC side, I’ve always had a weird fondness for the Rocket Reds.

          • DocAmazing

            I remember the Red Guardian from both the sixties (male, boring) and the seventies (female, slightly less boring ‘cuz she hung out with the Defenders) as a Soviet hero; would you count the Black Widow as a Soviet hero?

      • Where does Black Widow fit into this? I know she’s not a terribly important character in the comics (and the movies have an obvious problem making her a product of the Soviet regime, though Agent Carter has revealed that the Black Widow program was up and running in the 40s), but she still feels like the most iconic representative of that setting in the Marvel universe.

        • CP

          IIRC, she was originally one of Iron Man’s commie villains – a femme fatale spy in the vein that was popular in the entertainment of that era. She eventually changed sides, presumably because the character was popular enough.

          And yeah, I’m still not clear how they’re planning to adapt a Soviet past to Scarlett Johanssen. Then again, the entire MCU timeline has some spots that have me raising my eyebrows in general.

          • Gareth

            I find it amusing that Melinda May from Agents of SHIELD is a field agent who often takes part in firefights and hand-to-hand combat, but it’s totally plausible that she was fighting Soviet agents thirty years ago.

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