A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 4: The X-Men Fight Stagflation

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 Claremont’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:

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:

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]:

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).

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:

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

[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.

One comment

  • I think the advantage Marvel had over DC was being set in a real-world city…yet at the same time it does tend to feel overly provincial, whereas in DC each superhero is a city-unto-himself and it feels more diverse and bigger somehow. That said, I never really accepted Marvel’s New York as authentic in the way movies in New York are authentic, like Cassavetes’ Shadows or Taxi Driver and others.

    One thing that bothers me about Marvel set in New York is that you had [http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ComicBookTime] set in the 70s so the New York of that time plays a part in it, but that implies the existence of a changing diverse city-life in the real-world. Yet the changes that happened in the real city don’t affect the characters. Like Daredevil still haunts Hell’s Kitchen when it became really gentrified and the crime problem died up. It should have actually made property and rent expensive so logically, Spiderman should have moved out of the city long time ago.

    I guess the X-Men could have continued since Xavier’s rich and his institution is private funded, which politically would make the Mutants less a hostel for outsiders and more an elite preppy private school.