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A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 4

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People's History Week 4

Face front, true believers!

As is no surprise to anyone who read Week 2’s issue, Claremont X-Men is a huge touchstone for me, one of the few comics runs I re-read annually. However, it took a while for Clarmont’s X-Men to feel like X-Men. Issues #94 and #95 focus on Count Nefaria, who’s really more an Avengers villain than a X-Men villain.[1] Issue #96 gives us the demonic N’Garai, and while I love the Cthulhu references, it feels a bit like Claremont borrowed them from a Doctor Strange spec script.

Where it really starts to feel like X-Men is issue #98 (April 1976), where the Sentinels return and ruin the X-Men’s Christmas in order to abduct them to Stephen Lang’s space base. To begin with, the Sentinels are one of the only explicitly and specifically anti-mutant threats that the original X-Men fought, so a lot of the mutant metaphor is grounded in those wonderful purple and pink Kirby robots. And Claremont sharpens the analysis by having these genocidal robots be built by a racist lunatic working within the U.S military (which is something that the U.S Army-aficionado Stan Lee wouldn’t have allowed back in the day), giving added emphasis to the “world that hates and fears them” part of the X-Men’s story that was largely lacking in the original 93 issues:

antimutantprej1

Second, the Sentinel attack sets up the disastrous space shuttle landing that turned Jean Grey into the Phoenix, the first example of Chris Claremont’s epic long-form storytelling that will define the X-Men for 18 years.

But the other reason that this issue stuck with me is that, far more than anything in the original X-Men’s run, this issue made the X-Men feel like a part of New York City. The issue opens with the X-Men at the ice-skating rink at Rockefeller Center on Christmas Eve, which is a little touristy, but before the sentinels attack on page X, we get to see the X-Men out on the town:

nyc inflation

And critically, the town is there for more than window-dressing. A lot of ink has been spilled in the years since Fantastic Four #1 about how Marvel’s decision to have their comics be located in New York City made it a more realistic shared universe, how it reflected a generation of post-WWII second generation immigrant/”white ethnic” artists and writers, and so on.

In this panel, however, we can also see that it  also created a keyhole through which real-world politics could enter. Claremont’s word balloons set the scene of New York as a place grappling with “default and layoffs and garbage and politicians who couldn’t care less” – referring to New York City’s fiscal crisis that brought the city to the brink of bankruptcy in 1975 and led to the layoffs of tens of thousands of city workers, an eleven-day garbage strike that took place in December of 1975 and led to “70,000 tons of trash, most of it lining mid-Manhattan curbs in piles as high as six feet,” and Mayor Abe Beame, the hapless and hated mayor whose one term included both the 1975 fiscal crisis and the 1977 blackout and who was the model for the hated mayor who can’t set foot outdoors without getting booed in The Taking of Pelham 123.

These are the worries that the X-Men are trying to put out of their minds with a night on the town, and by extension it implies that one of the real daily annoyances that New Yorkers had to deal with in the 1970s  – along with the 1973-1975 recession, the oil crisis, and skyrocketing inflation – was Sentinel attacks in Midtown. In fact, we know that these were real problems for New Yorkers because Issue #98 shows us that Jack Kirby and Stan Lee exist within their own Marvel universe and have run into the X-Men[2]:

stanandjack

In turn, it also suggests that the same real-world problems facing the X-Men are also some of the problems facing Marvel Comics in the 1970s. And indeed, if you’ve read Sean Howe’s excellent Marvel Comics: The Inside Story, you know that one of the big 70s issues that affected Marvel was 70’s inflation. Comic books, after all, were bought primarily by young people without a lot of disposable income who might respond to 1975’s 9% inflation rate by cutting back on non-essentials. Hence, the cover of X-Men #98 prominently displayed that this issue would still cost only 25ȼ (or $1.05 in 2015 dollars, which is a steal, compared to $3.99 an issue today).

25cents

However, even Mighty Marvel couldn’t resist the forces of stagflation forever. By October of 1976, when Jean Grey emerged from the waters of Jamaica Bay as “now and forever – the Phoenix,” an issue of X-Men was up to 30ȼ an issue; and when Jean Grey was buried in October of 1980, the regular price went up to 50ȼ an issue, double what it had been four years ago. To try to hang onto their readers, Marvel enlisted the Incredible Hulk to sell subscriptions that came with discounts:

inflation ad

No wonder then, that Chris Claremont started coming up with some unusual solutions to New York City’s economic policy woes:

NYCfiscalcrisis

 

 

 

[1] On the other hand, you have to give Nefaria credit for his commitment to supervillainy for supervillainy’s sake: he’s an Italian aristocrat whose last name means evil and who joined the Mafia seemingly for the lolz, the opera cape, monocle, cane, and tuxedo combo is kind of charmingly vaudevillian, his ludicrously over-the-top plans to encase Washington D.C in a crystal dome or capture Cheynne Mountain always boil down to rather modest ransom demands, and his Ani-Men are totally random.

[2] To get even deeper into the meta rabbit hole, there are various issues of X-Men that show Kitty Pryde reading Marvel’s Star Wars comics, which makes me wonder whether in the Marvel Universe, there are X-Men comics labelled as non-fiction.

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  • Stephen Frug

    “…which makes me wonder whether in the Marvel Universe, there are X-Men comics labelled as non-fiction.”

    You say that as if it’s a far-out possibility. But the presence of Marvel comics in the Marvel universe is well-established cannon. You show they include Stan & Jack, but a lot of such appearnances also show them making comics, e.g. John Byrne went to the trial of Reed Richards (via the Watcher) to document it.

    • No, I get that. I’m just wondering whether in-universe, they’re classified in the publishing world as non-fiction, because we don’t exactly have a lot of non-fiction comic books in ours.

      And yes, there’s a whole thing about them being legal precedent in She-Hulk, but how much of that is meant to be taken seriously.

      • Stephen Frug

        “we don’t exactly have a lot of non-fiction comic books in ours”

        But we totally should. Someone needs to get on that.

        (I kid, but there were non-fiction comics back in the day. I’ve seen ones about both Martin Luther King & George Wallace floating around on the web. And Pat Boone, for some reason.)

        “…but how much of that is meant to be taken seriously.”

        Which is where the question (which, don’t get me wrong, I delight in) falls apart: pretty much every in-universe appearance of the Marvel comics & writers are tongue in cheek. The whole thing is not really meant to be taken seriously. It’s all just fun. (And bless ’em for it.)

        • CP

          But we totally should. Someone needs to get on that.

          Agreed.

          When I was in fourth grade living in Geneva, the school library had an awesome five-volume history of Switzerland in graphic novel format. Easy to read, I blew through it in very short time and still think that if you’re trying to get kids to like and remember history, that was definitely the right format for it.

        • I have seen some amazing ones, but they’re very niche.

          True.

        • Russell Arben Fox

          pretty much every in-universe appearance of the Marvel comics & writers are tongue in cheek. The whole thing is not really meant to be taken seriously. It’s all just fun.

          I can think of one very major exception, Stephen: Mark Gruenwald’s long run on Captain America including an extended period of time when Steve Rogers–who, for a long time anyway, was a professional draftsman and artist in his civilian life–actually drew the Captain America comic book for Marvel, and it was played entirely straight. Mark once responded to a reader’s question about what on earth the in-universe Captain America comic book was like by saying that it’s a “true crime”-type of comic book, with no reference whatsoever to Cap’s civilian life, because (obviously) the in-universe Mark Gruenwald knew nothing about that.

          • Russell Arben Fox

            And, it looks like Outside Counsel already spotted that, down below.

          • Steve Rogers was also a comic book artist back in the 30s/40s, before he became Cap.

            • Russell Arben Fox

              I didn’t know that detail about the character, Steven–interesting.

        • J. Otto Pohl

          Joe Sacco’s Palestine is non-fiction.

          http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/769712.Palestine

          • Hob

            Sacco has published at least eight books of non-fiction comics since then. If you’ve only read Palestine, you’ve got some good reading ahead of you.

      • snarkout

        There’s an issue of Kurst Busiek’s Astro City about “Bulldog Comics”, a third-tier publisher that, unlike Marvel or DC, can’t afford to license the exploits of any of the really good superheroes and instead relies on making up stories about people they don’t think will sue. (A Nightcrawler-ish supervillain, the Glowworm, shows up to beat the holy hell out of the publisher for a story asserting that he’s a member of the KKK.)

        • Yet another reason why I love Busiek.

          • deptfordx

            My absolute favourite is The Confessor and Altar Boy arc (Volume 2 collection) with the multiple twists, that are too good to be spoiled here. Highly recommended.

      • David Hunt

        I don’t recall detail of comics coming up very often. The previously mentioned Trial of Reed Richards is the most detailed that I can recall. It gave the impression that the comics were of the “based on true events” sort of fiction. We see Byrne talking with his (assistant) editor about how the FF haven’t contacted him in some time and they HATE it when he makes up a story instead of getting it from them. Later, when Byrne shows up at the trial, Ben Grimm spots him and snarks that he must have decided “to get things right this time” so we’re led to believe that the residents of the MU are getting a the stories of our heroes as if told via a game of Telephone.

        I’d also expect that Marvel stories published in the Marvel Universe about heroes with Secret IDs have made up identities and plotlines for their private lives.

        • Stephen Frug

          In the 19th century, there were a lot of adventure books loosely based on real people — eg that’s how Buffalo Bill got famous. Real people, fictional stories. Maybe the Marvel comics are basically like those. (I suppose that, what with secret identities, they can’t sue, which is presumably what shut the trend down… although that leaves the FF question open, since their identities are public.)

          • Hob

            There’s an amusing throwaway joke on the “Agent Carter” show where Howard Stark, having gotten into the movie business like a delayed Howard Hughes, is directing a movie version of Kid Colt— which he insists isn’t a “comic-book movie” because the comic was about a real (within the Marvel universe, that is) historical character.

        • Halloween Jack

          There are earlier examples; there’s one from the seventies in which the FF visit the Marvel Comics offices and talk with whomever was doing the strip at the time (I think that Roy Thomas was writing; Perez may have been on art, but it was during the Joe Sinnott era, in which he helped the art maintain a certain consistency from artist to artist). Of course, the Impossible Man shows up to wreak havoc. And there was also an early issue of Nova in which he shows up to talk to Marv Wolfman and John Buscema about doing a comic.

    • Steve Rogers worked on Captain America for a while…

    • Timurid

      Marvel Comics exists in-universe as works of “non-fiction” or at least “based on true events” stories.

      DC Comics also exists (as fiction). There are occasional references to Batman, Superman, etc…

      • Latverian Diplomat

        It’s an interesting thought that an invented Superman could well be popular in a world full of real but flawed and complicated superheroes.

      • And that gets even weirder when you consider that there have been crossovers in which Batman has met Captain America or the Teen Titans have met the X-Men, and there there’s Amalgam…

        • Amalgam is still one of my favorite comic-book experiments. I wish they’d been able to continue it. There were plenty of crap comics they produced, but they also had plenty of character concepts that really hit the mark.

  • Stephen Frug

    Incidentally, anyone who likes these posts would like this podcast too:

    http://www.rachelandmiles.com/xmen/

    It goes through the X-Books in chronological order, disrupted only when they have a writer guest to talk about current work, so I recommend starting at the beginning.

    • I cannot recommend that podcast enough. Without it, I wouldn’t have done any of these.

  • JMP

    Now, Count Nefaria didn’t join the Mafia for the lolz. He joined the Maggia, a completely different grouping of organized crime families which just happens to be almost exactly like the Mafia (aside from the presence of super-villains among the leaders) because the Comics Code explicitly forbid mentions of the Mafia in comics; similar to how several Marvel villains could animate dead bodies to become zuvembies.

    • CP

      Is that why?

      I thought the reason they create the “Maggia” was that a bunch of the stores that handled comic book distribution were in fact owned by the Mafia in real life, whom the writers didn’t want to piss off.

      (Point of interest: the Maggia is, I believe, expected to make an appearance in this season of Agent Carter).

      • Hob

        I’ve heard the “they didn’t want to offend the Mafia” theory before— per Wikipedia, that comes from Scott Shaw, but I can’t find his original article so I don’t know if Shaw had any documentation for that. I mean, it’s true that there were organized crime connections in comics distribution (although the ones I’ve heard of were all part of the Jewish mob, not the Italian Mafia), but I think the idea that they cared what anyone said in those comics is speculative.

        In any case, JMP is wrong about the Comics Code; it did not forbid saying “Mafia” or portraying organized crime in general, as long as the gangsters weren’t “glamorous” or sympathetic characters.

        • Halloween Jack

          Well, I think that in general, they may have had the attitude of “well, maybe they wouldn’t care, but why piss them off?” The first appearance of the Maggia was in 1965, well after the Kefauver hearings and well before the death of J. Edgar Hoover, whose lukewarm prosecution of organized crime was well-known. It really kind of wasn’t a joke for them, but on the other hand, they wanted to stay relevant and not just have various animal-themed villains chasing Spider-Man around.

    • So does that make the Maggia the non-union equivalent?

      • Ahuitzotl

        Only until Gambino Local #45 catches up to them

      • JMP

        I believe it does.

  • Bruce B.

    Ahhh…this is where I came in as a serious, ongoing comics reader. As a life-long West Coaster (and a kid at the time), a lot of the NYC stuff passed me by. Interesting to look at it now.

    These days, Storefront Comics seem to publish a lot of bio books. I have to assume they make at least some money, or they’d stop.

    One of the best sources of inspiration for comics in worlds with supers is Howard Waldrop’s “Thirty Minutes Over Broadway!”, the story that opens the first Wild Cards volume. Kurt Busiek has cited it as an influence on Bulldog Comics in Astro City. The central character is Jetboy, who was (in that universe) an actual World War flying ace who spent the end of the war and a year after stranded on a Pacific island. Upon his return, one of the things he has to deal with is the company authorized to do comics of his adventures. It’s a hilarious moment, with more than a little of the real-life early Marvel style women in.

    (Being a Waldrop story, it ends tragically for a guy who meant to do good and got irreparably cut off from the world around him.)

    • Halloween Jack

      I used to be unhealthily obsessed with the Wild Cards books, although they seemed to run out of steam sometime in the nineties and even though GRRM is still editing the series, nothing I’ve seen in the occasional glances I’ve taken at subsequent installations has pulled me back in. I always liked the way that Jetboy (basically a riff on Airboy) was valorized by a nation and world ravaged by the Wild Card virus, even though he failed to stop its release; I could totally see him being idealized as the last fully human comic-book-type character in real life. (He isn’t–there’s a vigilante named The Archer–but that’s another story.)

  • Alex.S

    In the 2000s, She-Hulk’s law firm included a comic book section (run by Stu Cicero, which is the easiest way to Google for this).

    The comics (if they were published before 2002) were considered legal documents because they were approved by the Comics Code, which was a federal agency in the Marvel Universe.

    • Somewhere, somewhen, Estes Kefauver is happy. Him and his stupid hat.

  • Mike in DC

    I believe there’s a website about comics and the law, which is very good.
    I’m on the fence about Claremont. He’s a mixed bag. His initial 5-10 years on the book were quite good, then he started repeating himself, failing to resolve major subplots (people came to Prof X for help and he never seemed all that good at resolving their problems), etc. When he finally left after 18 years, I gave a sigh of relief.

    • There are more than one! Law and the Multiverse, Legal Geeks, etc.

      Claremont is something I’ll be talking about a lot once I finish rebuilding my notes on his entire run. Got another 80 or so issues to go – but there is some interesting stuff toward the end that I don’t think should be dismissed. (Although I will say that I don’t think the collaboration with John Romita Jr. wasn’t near as good his work with Byrne or Paul Smith, etc.) For example, the Mutant Massacre (1986) really made the mutant metaphor feel real; all of the Genosha stuff (that only gets started in ’88 and goes into ’91) is a fascinating storyline that resonates with the anti-apartheid movement in the U.S. And so on.

      Also, if we’re talking Claremont’s legacy, I think we have to acknowledge that while he was writing X-Men, he was also writing New Mutants, Excalibur, and Wolverine.

    • Halloween Jack

      Claremont was a victim of his own success. He was highly praised by fans for bringing added depth to his characters, especially female characters, who had not exactly been treated well by comics up to that point. (I think that it was Alan Moore who acerbically observed once–not really calling out Claremont or any of his characters by name, but pretty obviously including them–that claims that these characters were “three-dimensional” was exaggerated; at best, they were two-dimensional characters where once they’d only been one-dimensional.) Unfortunately, Claremont took exactly the wrong lesson from this praise, and started putting his characters, particularly the female ones, through all sorts of elaborate mindfuckery, because it made them more “complex”, you see. Even Kitty Pryde, who’d been introduced as a quote-endquote typical teenager, was revealed to be a genius, and shortly thereafter got brainwashed into becoming a ninja by one of Wolverine’s old enemies. Plus, everyone had a long-lost or even entirely unknown relative who turned out to be a powerful mutant themselves. (In fairness, the X-Men had already crossed that bridge with Alex Summers, but they really didn’t need to go to that well again.) I gave up the title well before he left.

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