A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 8: Cap Saves Altamont

Face front, true believers!

As I discussed in Week 5, a lot of work had to be done to make Captain America work for the 1960s. But in addition to the political work I talked about (and will discuss a lot more in the future), it also meant a good deal of cultural work as well.

Sometimes, this could be rather awkward, as Stan Lee (48 at the time) hustled like hell to keep Marvel comics relevant in an industry whose primary consumers were teenagers in the midst of one of the largest generational divides in U.S history:

people's week 8 1HideAnd as my colleague Elana notes, it often takes comics a decade or more to catch up to cultural changes, which can lead to awkward juxtapositions where characters like Nightwing are rocking a 70s disco v-neck costume well into the 90s (oh no! I just got DC in my Marvel!)

But sometimes, sometimes, even the squarest comic book writers and artists can catch onto a wavelength from youth culture and create something fascinating. Hence why in Marvel continuity, Captain America saved the Altamont Free Concert from the (copyright-friendly equivalent of the) Hells Angels:

people's week 8 2Captain America is kind of an interesting choice for this storyline, because you have a member of “the Greatest Generation” (albeit one who is mentally and physically in his mid-20s rather than almost in his 50s) stepping in-between a conflict within the Baby Boomers between hippies and bikers. At the same time, as I discussed before, Cap was in a searching and receptive mode as he sought to find a new identity for Steve Rogers, and that brought him in synch with both aspects of the counter-culture:

people's week 8 3On the one hand, Cap basically agrees with the hippie’s critique of his generation; on the other, Cap’s solution for how to find his identity is to get a motorcycle and go looking for America. And sure enough, the moment Cap gets onto a motorcycle, he gets arrested by cops who are hassling bikers and mistake him for a member of the Satan’s Angels who they are arresting on sight (which is surprisingly sympathetic to the perspective of the biker gang who are the antagonists of the issue). In turn, the Satan’s Angels decide to break Cap out of prison out of a commitment to the code of the road:

people's week 8 4Incidentally, I love that the visual reference for the leader of the Satan’s Angels has some pretty strong resemblance to Marlon Brando in the Wild One. Unlike in classic biker films, however, the Satan’s Angels aren’t the antagonists of Cap #128 because they are threatening the values and mores of Square America, but because they are threatening that most precious and beautiful of things, a hippie rock concert:

people's week 8 5 people's week 8 6In another case of Captain America comics being surprisingly positive about the counter-culture, Stan Lee and Gene Colan present this hippie rock concert as an unambiguously positive force, preaching the message of peace and love, and who share with Cap a common belief in the universal equality and brotherhood of mankind. Part of the reason for this positivity is that Issue #128 came out in August of 1970, less than a year after the Altamont Free Concert. As with the historical concert (which featured Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the Rolling Stones, and where the Grateful Dead were supposed to appear), this concert is publicized as a free concert and open to all comers. And as with Altamont, which was supposed to be a “Woodstock West,” this concert is clearly more about spreading a cultural and political message.

And as with Altamont, the concert is threatened by the disdain that the Satan’s Angels have for hippies, centered around their anti-war politics. Here, the biker leader “Whitey” expresses a very specific hatred of “peaceniks” and the “yella-bellied,” and threatens violence against his own kid brother if he tries to become a “flower child.”

people's week 8 7Given that Stan Lee is writing this issue, this is pretty savvy cultural commentary. For all that Ken Kesey and Allan Ginsburg thought that the Hells Angels represented fellow spirits – chronicled in Tom Wolf’s Electric Koolaid Acid Test – there was very little in common between the Hells Angels and the hippie movement beside their mutual alienation from mainstream society. Indeed, much of the Hells Angel’s membership were military veterans who found the biker lifestyle an alternative to transitioning back into the civilian world, and were actively and violently anti-anti-war.

As Hunter Thompson describes in his book, Hells Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, the combination of close quarters and intellectual mis-understanding between the Hells Angels and the hippie movement was a lethal combination:

The Hells Angels’ massive publicity – coming hard on the heels of the widely publicized student rebellion in Berkeley – was interpreted in liberal-radical-intellectual circles as the signal of a natural alliance. Beyond that, the Angels’ aggressive, antisocial stance – their alienation, as it were – had a tremendous appeal for the more aesthetic Berkeley temperament.

…The honeymoon lasted about three months and came to a jangled end on October 16, when the Hells Angels attacked a Get Out of Vietnam demonstration at the Oakland-Berkeley border. The existential heroes who had passed the joint with Berkeley liberals at Kesey’s parties suddenly turned into venomous beasts, rushing on the same liberals with flailing fists and shouts of “Traitors,” “Communists,” “Beatniks!” When push came to shove, the Hells Angels lined up solidly with the cops, the Pentagon and the John Birch Society. And there was no joy that day in Berkeley, for Casey had apparently gone mad.

The attack was an awful shock to those who had seen the Hells Angels as pioneers of the human spirit, but to anyone who knew them it was entirely logical. The Angels’ collective viewpoint has always been fascistic…The Angels, like all other motorcycle outlaws, are rigidly anti-Communist. Their political views are limited to the same kind of retrograde patriotism that motivates the John Birch Society, the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party. They are blind to the irony of their role…

Hence why it was a historically bad idea for the Rolling Stones’ manager Sam Cutler to hire the Hells Angels to be security for a hippie rock concert, and then to pay them in $500 worth of beer, which they proceeded to drink on the spot. Mutual antagonism between the crowd and the Angels lead to escalating violence – with the Angels chucking full beer cans and wielding pool cues and motorcycle chains, initially to keep the crowd away from the stage, but increasingly in a series of tit-for-tat fights. The violence escalated – Denise Jewks of the Ace of Cusp had her skull fractured by a thrown beer bottle, Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane got knocked unconscious by an Angel, Mick Jagger was punched in the head, and Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death by Hells Angel Alan Passaro. (As all of this was filmed by a documentary crew at the time, you can watch the whole event here.)

Altamont was almost instantly turned into a symbol of the excesses of the counter-culture, the dark shadow of Woodstock, and a sign of the end of the hippie movement. As Richard Brody argued much later, “What emerges accursed is the very idea of nature, of the idea that, left to their own inclinations and stripped of the trappings of the wider social order, the young people of the new generation will somehow spontaneously create a higher, gentler, more loving grassroots order. What died at Altamont is the Rousseauian dream itself.”

But in the Marvel Universe that didn’t happen, because Captain America was on the scene to stop the Satan’s Angels and save the day:

people's week 8 8If you step back and look at it, not only is this a fight of motorcycle vs. motorcycle, but also a fight between two veterans over how to deal with the counter-culture and the related anti-war movement. And not only does Captain America oppose the Satan’s Angels physically, but as is appropriate for a character who would absolutely play a Warlord in D&D 3.5 Edition, Cap’s example inspires the gentle hippies to enter the fray in defense of their new defender:

people's week 8 9The implicit argument is rather interesting, suggesting that the hippie movement’s non-violence is simply because they disagree with the cause that violence is being urged for. It’s an interesting little bit of culture-jamming, positioning Captain America as the Hippy Defender and suggesting that the kids are alright, because with the right symbol and the right cause to fight for, they’ll engage in all-American fisticuffs. However, the hippies can’t take down the sheer power of a motorcycle gang on their own, so there will always be a need for Captain America’s mighty shield:

people's week 8 10On its own, Captain America #128 is a rather disposable one-shot. But what interests me is the broader cultural impact of Cap’s intervention in the Marvel Universe. For example, if Altamont is seen as a success in Earth-616 due to Captain America, does Don MacLean still write “American Pie” as a despairing elegy to the lost innocence of rock and roll?  Is Peter Fonda’s character in Easy Rider named Captain America not as a satirical jab at 60s Americana but rather because Captain America is seen as a protector of the hippie movement and an endorsement of the counter-culture from the living embodiment of American idealism?

people's week 8 11Speaking as someone who loves the fact that Marvel’s shared universe was set in the real New York, one of the things that I’ve felt hasn’t been done enough in the Marvel Universe is an exploration of how the presence of superheroes since WWII had influenced American culture, especially not in comparison to Alan Moore’s Watchmen or Publick and Hammer’s Venture Brothers. We know that Janet Van Dyne is a renowned fashion designer, but we rarely see ordinary people in street scenes wearing Van Dyne-inspired ensembles. We know that the beatniks down at Coffee A Go-Go became enthralled with Beast’s enormous feet, so show me Alan Ginsberg’s ode to Hank’s hoofs.

In other words, if Captain America is a symbol, show us what that symbol came to mean for the generations who grew up with him after his rebirth from the ice in the Mid-60s…

One comment

  • You know the counterculture was not always opposed to American icons. Abbie Hoffman for instance confessed a liking for John Wayne even if they totally disagreed with each other, and Wayne was at that time a persona who was very near a superhero, like Clint Eastwood today.

    The main thing why Marvel never had that fictional characters affecting reality was the adoption of Comic Book Time from the mid 70s onwards, this meant that Marvel’s characters stopped reflecting the changing times. Like Captain America took on Nixon, but didn’t go after Reagan for the Iran Contra affairs. The AIDS epidemic became the Legacy virus. The biggest issue of course with Marvel set in real New York is gentrification. Spider-Man shouldn’t be able to afford living in the city anymore, and student loans should put make it hard for him to be a science hero and remain working class. His Friendly Neighborhood would be the suburbs, the crime rate has reduced with Daredevil and other street heroes going out of business. The gun laws would make Punisher a sad embarassment.