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A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 2

[ 45 ] February 3, 2016 |

peoples-history-week-2-featured

Face front, true believers!

Welcome back to A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, where I explore how real-world politics (and weird bits of pop culture) was presented in some of my favorite bits of classic Marvel comics.

Today, I’ll be exploring how real-world politics intersected with Chris Claremont’s classic run on X-Men. Now, Claremont X-Men is some of the richest source material imaginable, given the way that the mutant metaphor has been used to address contemporary social issues facing different minority groups.

So what ripped-from-the-headlines issue will be looking at this week? Canadian politics from the 70s!

Wolverine and Hulk

As many Marvel fans know, long-time X-Men artist John Byrne was a huge Wolverine fan who lobbied to keep him in the X-Men because he wanted to keep a Canadian superhero in the group, and who created Alpha Flight, Canada’s own superhero team.

What you might not know is that John Byrne really did not like Pierre Trudeau, who served as Prime Minister of Canada from 1968-1979 and 1980-1984. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that, judging from his artwork in X-Men #120 from April of 1979, he hates the man:

Canada Part 1 Canada Part 2

Start with the visuals – from the orange leisure suit/striped open-collar shirt combination (while Mr. Trudeau was a bit more of a “swinging young bachelor” than your average Canadian prime minister, I’ve yet to find any images of him in that ugly of a suit) to the rapidly-retreating hairline to the fearsome conk, the suggestion of the buck tooth and the Hapsburgian jaw, this is less the somewhat naturalistic Marvel house style (especially when contrasted against the Marvel house styled Guardian to his left) than a political caricature.

But let’s move on to the text, where the Prime Minister of Canada, a country that abolished slavery in 1833, is arguing that (because Wolverine’s adamantium-laced skeleton was funded by the Canadian government, or the US and Canadian governments) Logan should not be allowed to resign a commission in the Canadian military (even though James MacDonald Hudson’s response suggests that he should be able to). Following his orders, Alpha Flight basically kidnaps a commercial aircraft transiting between Alaska and the continental U.S, assaults a number of foreign nationals in the middle of Calgary International Airport and downtown Calgary, all to put Wolverine into a literal cage (X-Men #120-121).

Alpha Flight Death Star Technician

So why is Canada so evil that John Byrne depicts Canadian military backing up Alpha Flight in the same uniforms as the Death Star technicians? If I had to guess, I’d say that John Byrne was among those who objected to Pierre Trudeau’s decision to invoke the War Measures Act during the October Crisis in 1970, where Canadian military were put on the streets of Montreal and almost 500 people were arrested and held without charge.

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  • helkamet

    Canada & Cuba are next to each other! Okay not geographically, but alphabetically. Therefore Canada is evil (they sent their manchurian candidate Ted Cruz here to subvert the USA). Case closed.

    • Zoltar the Magniloquent

      I endorse this logic. Also, since Cuban immigrants have contributed significantly to my home state’s wingnut culture, I suggest that Canada also sending us a Cuban wingnut is an act of war, and that we should respond by sending them Sarah Palin.

  • OMG this explains so much. I was a mad reader and collector of the X men and of all things Wolverine when I was in graduate school in the 80’s. I must dig up my comics and reread them.

  • It was novel to see my own city depicted in a comic book. The mall scenes were accurate to the point where I could point out “This is the shop Storm trashed”. The mall still exists, but it’s gone through multiple renovations in the last 35 years, so you couldn’t do that now.

    As to hatred of PET, that would not be unique to Byrne in Western Canada in 1979. I doubt it would have much to do with the FLQ crisis (though that would be listed as a reason-why-you-suck in reference to Trudeau). They really hated him for the Liberals economic policies, though the hated National Energy Policy was still in the future. Also, there was simply a lot of knee-jerk hatred of the Liberals that was mostly tribalism rather than rational.

    • If I had unlimited free time, I would be tempted to do a tour of that mall.

      Yeah, the FLQ crisis was the closest thing I could find to his weird Wolverine-has-no-rights attitude in this comic, so I went with that.

      • The Temporary Name

        I agree with QJ. Alberta also has a lot of cowboy mythology, so “live free or die” attitudes are pretty common.

        The War Measures Act enabled authoritarians across Canada to round up undesireables if they liked, and some did, but it’s not like Albertans to care about the hippies.

  • Lee Rudolph

    Are you familiar with Angloman and his Fortress of Two Solitudes?

  • Murc

    But let’s move on to the text, where the Prime Minister of Canada, a country that abolished slavery in 1833, is arguing that (because Wolverine’s adamantium-laced skeleton was funded by the Canadian government, or the US and Canadian governments) Logan should not be allowed to resign a commission in the Canadian military (even though James MacDonald Hudson’s response suggests that he should be able to).

    The invocation of the date Canada abolished slavery is weird here, because almost every nation in the world maintains to this day that it has the right to force people to serve in the military against their will, including Canada.

    Officers are usually allowed to quit, however, under the premise that even the greenest lieutenant occupies a leadership position and it is unwise in the extreme to put the lives they’re responsible for in the hands of someone who is actively trying to get out of that responsibility.

    A more logical tack to take would be that Logan is in possession of Canadian military property and is not allowed to leave the country while still in possession of it. It’s equally cartoonishly evil and far more logical.

    • ThrottleJockey

      Officers in good standing…officers in bad standing may have their resignation letters ignored…and even sent to Alaska while they’re being ignored.

    • Officers have been stop-lossed just like enlisted personnel.

      As a member of the “retired reserve” I can be called back to active duty until I turn 60.

      Very unlikely they would actually do it, but I had to agree to that condition otherwise I wouldn’t get my retirement pay at age 60 (I have a reserve retirement).

    • Logan was an officer, tho – a captain, specifically.

      And Guardian seems to think he has the right to resign, so…

    • Duvall

      A more logical tack to take would be that Logan is in possession of Canadian military property and is not allowed to leave the country while still in possession of it.

      What, his skeleton? I guess that does have a evil bureaucratic air to it.

      • Murc

        Right? Like, “you can leave the country when you give us back all our adamantium.” “It’s fused to my bones!” “Whining is unbecoming of a soldier, son.”

      • And then there’s the uncomfortable issue of the fact that Department H is kidnapping Canadian citizens and performing experiments on them against their will.

  • NonyNony

    To be completely fair to Byrne – the choice of orange for the leisure suit may have been the choice of the colorist (Glynis Wein if my Google-fu is working) rather than Byrne. At the time it would have been typical to make the suit some kind of bright color rather than a sensible black or brown.

    The design, OTOH, is pure Byrne, and orange as we all know is a villanous color – like purple and green – only worn by heroes who are supposed to have a dark side. So it would not be outside the realm of possibility that Byrne put a note in there suggesting orange.

    (The idea that Byrne might have disliked Trudeau suprises me not at all given what I know of his own politics these days.)

    • True.

      And just wait until we get to depictions of Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan!

    • King Goat

      What are Byrne’s politics these days? Honestly curious.

    • Bill Murray

      and orange as we all know is a villanous color

      This explains quite a bit about Johnny Football and the Cleveland Browns

    • JMP

      I wonder if Byrne was always a racist crank, and just hid it better while he was younger, even while making his name working on the X-Men, of all books – or if he just got that way as he aged. By all accounts, he was always a grouch who could be hard to work with, even back then.

      Though the X-Men’s use of mutants as metaphor for minority rights didn’t really become central until “Days of Future Past” Byrne’s penultimate storyline, and the Magneto story culminating in #150 (which gave us Magneto’s history as a holocaust survivor) that came after he left. But even when Byrne was with the book, it had a highly diverse cast for its’ time.

      • Oh, so many weeks are going to be about the Mutant Metaphor.

    • CJColucci

      When I was a lad, Marvel listed the writer, artist, inker, and letterer, but not the colorist. I used to think that the inker was responsible for the color, and used to be a big fan of what I thought was (inker) Vince Colletta’s work, which I thought I could recognize across titles. Turns out that, strictly by coincidence, those titles had the same uncredited colorist, who was, in fact, responsible for the style I recognized and wrongly attributed to Colletta.

  • The Temporary Name

    Byrne lived in Calgary, where there was much more resentment for Trudeau because he was a Liberal and everyone voted Tory. Since he had few (if any) Liberal MPs in Alberta, any move at all by the federal government was viewed as some assholes from the east imposing their stupid ideas on the west. Which, too, the feds did with the National Energy Program, (the goals of which I sympathize with, but it sure wasn’t a political win) but that happened in 1980, the year Byrne moved.

    Image.

    • Calgary seemed nice enough when I was there, but it’s very much the Texas of Canada.

      • wjts

        I was there once for a conference. My (extra-cheap) hotel was situated next to some very picturesque railroad tracks, housed an exceptionally loud and talentless bar band, and a previous guest had very obviously kicked open the presumably locked bathroom door at some point during their stay. In conclusion, Calgary is a land of contrasts.

        • The Temporary Name

          It’s near nice mountains.

          • wjts

            Yeah, the nicer parts reminded me a little of Denver. Most of the place reminded me a lot of Lubbock.

            • The Temporary Name

              It’s a pretty good example of urban planning gone wrong. A once-lively downtown area scoured out by office-buildings, ridiculous suburban sprawl. Last time I was there for a conference I was in a very nice hotel and there was nobody outside. Spooky.

              I think some developers are trying to put living space downtown again, which would be nice.

    • Good point. As I said above, I went with the October crisis because it was more specifically a civil liberties issue.

    • CJColucci

      When I was last in Canada, in Vancouver some years back (my wife and I will be in Montreal next weekend for our anniversary), there was an earnest debate about whether the individual provinces had to approve a global warming treaty, with that position pushed most aggressively by Alberta provincial officials. At first I thought it absurd that Alberta would have any more say on whether Canada could enter into such a treaty than Texas or Oklahoma would have in the United States. Then I thought some more and figured that, silly as I found it, it was Canada’s business if it wanted to do things that way. Then I thought about it still more and concluded that, more important than what the correct answer was was that the question seemed to be honestly debatable. It seemed to me to be the sort of thing there ought to have been a clear answer on.

  • JDM

    Fuddle duddle.

  • King Goat

    Wasn’t Byrne’s Alpha Flight character Northstar depicted as having a past involving terrorist Quebec separatists?

    • Mike in DC

      Yes.

  • AR

    I don’t think the suit is on Byrne, since he was not the colorist and he is is partially color blind. That might have been a very old fashioned way to show light brown, since it was my understanding that orange was cheaper to print than brown, so it was the stand in for it, like with the original Sandman’s orange hat (similar to the way Spider-Man’s costume was originally supposed to be black and red, not blue and red, but years of printing blue for black forced the official colors to change).

    I honestly don’t know Bryne’s politics. Reading his works over the years, they seemed fairly apolitical, or at least the outright politics of a lot of his peers after they went into the creator owned market, though I know from the Marvel oral history a few years ago, he was apparently an incredibly disagreeable person to work with, who stopped at nothing to help himself and did basically nothing to support other creators.

    • Woodrowfan

      that’s too bad, I loved his version of the X-Men.

    • The Temporary Name

      There’s an interesting issue of the Fantastic Four in which Byrne makes an explicit case for Dr. Doom’s totalitarian rule.

      • CP

        That I’d be interested in reading.

        (Although I’d be even more curious to see the case made for the Black Panther or Namor’s, being that unlike Doom they’re nominally a good guy and a chaotic neutral, but in both cases equally autocratic if benevolent rulers).

        • JMP

          Well Namor is Chaotic Neutral; I’d say T’Challa is definitely Lawful though.

          • CP

            Lawful Good though, right? I think even outside of his own comic he’s mostly portrayed as a good guy, as opposed to Namor who everyone else definitely seems to view as a wild card.

            I should add that I’ve never actually played D&D – I found the character alignments on TVTropes and they’re just too damn convenient not to use. (Just before my master’s thesis defense the other month, a friend and I actually spent ten minutes arguing over which character alignment each of the three professors on my committee would turn out to be… :D )

            • JMP

              Lawful Good, yeah; unlike Namor, who continually shifts between hero, villain and anti-hero, and is more of a true neutral on the good-evil axis. Though T’Challa is not perfectly altruistic; after all, he originally joined the Avengers to spy on them and determine if they posed a threat to Wakanda’s sovereignty, so probably more on the Arcadia side of the Great Wheel than the Twin Paradises/Bytopia.

        • The Temporary Name
          • CP

            Thanks!

    • junker

      That blue for black thing happened to Beast as well.

    • Bruce B.

      It used to be, like in the ’90s, every so often he’d come out with something oddly racist-seeming, in interviews, the Next Men letter columns, and such. The rate of flow has been escalating ever since. He objected to Jessica Alba’s look in the 2005 Fantastic Four movie: “Personal prejudice: Hispanic and Latino women with blond hair look like hookers to me, no matter how clean or ‘cute’ they are.” And more like that since.

      (Side note to Steve Attewell: If you’re not reading Mike Sterling’s Progressive Ruin blog, the source for that link, do. It’s low in volume, high in mellow cheer, and Mike’s an amazing researcher happy to dig up covers and such.)

  • Halloween Jack

    WRT the art, yeah, he doesn’t really do a flattering Trudeau here, but sometimes his art tends toward the caricaturish, especially if he’s drawing non-heroic characters, and sometimes will even mix styles in the same comic. (See, for example, this page from True Brit, a comic co-written by John Cleese, of all people, about Kal-El’s rocket landing in Great Britain; contrast with how he draws Lois Lane in the same comic.)

    WRT the writing, I’d attribute at least a part of this to it being the seventies, and Chris Claremont adopting the general Marvel attitude of not trusting the government. This was six years after a very-thinly-disguised Richard Nixon was revealed as the head of the Secret Empire, and IIRC it was around this time that there was a storyline in Iron Man about SHIELD attempting a corporate takeover (via shell organizations) of Tony Stark’s company. Henry Peter Gyrich from the NSA was interfering with the Avengers. The Canadian government may have been Canadian, but they were still a national government, in a country adjacent to one that had a growing number of superhumans (many of them malevolent) living in it. (A few years after this, Alan Moore would revive a mostly-forgotten Captain Marvel knockoff, and give him the backstory of being the product of a British superhero skunkworks project.)