Author Archives: stevenattewell

Would Captain America Approve of Punching Nazis? (YES.)

As would surprise absolutely no one who’s followed my People’s History of the Marvel Universe series, I’m a strong believer in the idea that our pop culture is both influenced by our political culture and can have a strong influence on that political culture. Thus, it’s a major problem when the author of both of Marvel’s current Captain America comics gets all pearls-clutchy about whether it’s ok to punch Nazis.

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(credit to Shop5)

While people who’ve followed this spat on comic book twitter are familiar with this particular debate, allow me to clarify for everyone else: Captain America, as a pop culture icon, was designed to punch Nazis. And not merely in a cheeky, subversive symbolic, let’s-make-fun-of-Hitler way; the first Captain America comics were very clear in their argument that Nazis were a real threat to the United States both abroad and at home (with Jack Kirby and Joe Simon calling out real organizations like the German-American Bund, the Silver Shirts, and the America First Committee), and that we should go and fight them now (a year before Pearl Harbor). Nazis didn’t like this argument and they didn’t like Captain America as a pop culture icon – hence why they sent death threats to Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, threats that Jack Kirby met by being ready to punch Nazis at a moment’s notice.

Current Cap writer Nick Spencer’s stance doesn’t show a great understanding of the characters he’s working with or the spirit in which they were created, but that wouldn’t be so much of a problem…except that Spencer’s online conflicts with critics and fans are starting to bleed over into his comics, denying people a useful symbol for resistance in an era in which we really need them.

NaziCap and the “Alt-Righting” of HYDRA

Now, I’ve already talked about why NaziCap is a terrible idea – not only is it deeply insulting to the creators of Captain America and the various writers and artists who worked for decades to establish Steve Rogers as a consistent character, not only does the whole story only work by leaning on played-out non-mind control mind control gimmicks that relied on outright lying to your customers, but so far the only up-side is that Nick Spencer gets to write stories for months on end where Steve Rogers becomes a straight up supervillain:

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Now, it would be bad enough if Spencer’s problematic story resulted only in bad writing. But the problems go far beyond that, because Spencer’s Steve Rogers has an undeniable and inescapable political line. Take for example, Cap’s extended speech in Civil War II: The Oath:

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Let’s be clear: this is not just a comment on Marvel’s Civil War II; this is a blatant copying of post-2016 election hot takes blaming liberal coastal elites for the election of Donald Trump due to their lack of empathy for Trump voters in the heartland, bootstrapped into an anti-superhero and pro-HYDRA rant. Now, leave aside for the moment that this whole scene is jarring and awkward in the extreme in that Captain America is completely contradicting himself from Marvel’s first Civil War event – and remember, Nick Spencer’s non-mind control mind control retcon means that Cap still did and thought everything he did and thought in that series. (After all, Civil War II is absolutely cluttered with examples of characters from Tony Stark to Carol Danvers forgetting what they thought and did during Civil War I and before.)

The bigger problem is that Spencer is trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, he’s constantly riffing off of the rhetoric and imagery of present-day white nationalist and neo-Nazi movements to elicit controversy and give his story some “subversive” heft. On the other hand, Spencer constantly runs away from the implications of his own ideas by trying to de-Nazify HYDRA (which not-coincidentally prevents Steve Rogers from crossing a line that might harm his value as a brand):

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Once again, let clarify the comic book history: HYDRA was created as a Nazi organization, as part of an argument by Jack Kirby that the true believers in the Third Reich were still out there, ready to strike back against their enemies in the name of Nazism. HYDRA’s leader, the Red Skull, isn’t just a COBRA villain who hates freedom, equality, puppies, and sunshine in a generic Saturday morning cartoon way. From the beginning, the Red Skull has been not just a Nazi but a personal acolyte of Adolf Hitler:

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Indeed, the Red Skull is such a massive racist that he was once successfully distracted from his master plans by the fact that Peggy Carter was in an interracial relationship with another SHIELD agent:

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Likewise, the Red Skull’s chief subordinates in HYDRA were quite emphatic about the fact that they were actual and current believers in Nazi political ideology.

Now, Spencer isn’t the first person at Marvel to try to de-Nazify HYDRA – Brian Michael Bendis and Jonathan Hickman’s Secret Warriors story about HYDRA being an ancient organization that dates back to the Third Dynasty in Ancient Egypt set the pattern for fandom arguments that HYDRA wasn’t “really” fascist. But in the current political environment, it is especially tin-eared for Nick Spencer to “alt-right” HYDRA: we live at a time when we have actual Neo-Nazis in the White House working references to America First into Inaugural Addresses and dog-whistling to their fanbase by removing references to Jews and anti-Semitism from Holocaust Memorial addresses, all the while trying to use weasel-words to rebrand themselves as members of the “alt-right” so that they can normalize themselves in the media and the broader political culture. Indeed, Richard Spencer (who led crowds in throwing Nazi salutes at the alt-right’s election celebrations in D.C) was giving an TV interview about how the “alt-right” weren’t neo-Nazis when he got punched.

Sam Wilson as Sockpuppet and SJWs Are the Real Threat:

At the same time that Spencer has mired himself in a political quagmire in Captain America: Steve Rogers, we’re starting to see some of the same problems crop up in Captain America: Sam Wilson, which I used to enjoy because the book seemed to be grounded in a sincere love of Captain America comics from the 70s through 90s, what with Cap-Wolf and the Serpent Society showing up almost immediately. But given the tight-rope walk that always comes when a white writer is writing a highly political comic by speaking through a character who’s a black man, it’s a very bad sign when Nick Spencer’s twitter fights over the right and wrong ways to protest start coming out of Sam Wilson’s mouth:

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Leave aside that portraying Sam Wilson as the “both-sides-do-it” moderate clashes with the book’s raison d’être of Sam Wilson as the more militant political version of Captain America. Far worse is the actual content of the issue, which presents as its villains a group of campus left terrorists who use bombs to enforce “safe spaces:”

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Now, all of this would in normal times be painfully awkward, what with the white guy in his late 30s trying to do Tumblr-speak. But to push the idea that campus leftists are the real danger at a time when anti-fascist protesters have been shot by fans of neo-Nazi Milo Yiannopoulos, who deliberately targets critics for harassment and deportation, and when campus recruiters for the “alt-right” turn out to have past form for burning down black churches, comes across as pushing “alternative facts.”

Conclusion:

So why should we care, why does all of this comic book stuff matter when compared to the real-world political side of things?

As I said at the time, the “subversive” reimagining of Steve Rogers as a fascist was never ok, but there is far less leeway for it in a world in which Donald Trump is president. We have actual Neo-Nazis at the very top of the Federal government, directing government policy to enforce religious bans on Muslim immigrants, refugees, and permanent residents, to build border walls and prepare new offensives against young formerly undocumented immigrants given legal status and low-income immigrants. The “contrarian” fantasy of NaziCap has been lapped by reality and thus no longer serves any satirical purpose.

But on a more serious note: far from being emboldened by being punched in the face, Neo-Nazis are already emboldened by the fact that they have one of their own in the White House. Hence the burning of mosques in Texas and the Quebec mass-shooting , hence the constant drum-beat of bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers, hence the rise of hate crimes and random incidents of aggression from racist assholes who think that Trump has legalized bigotry.

A small part of this is an attempt by Neo-Nazis to claim cultural spaces and symbols, whether we’re talking about fights over Twitter access, the appropriation of memes like Pepe the Frog, the appropriation of language from sexual subcultures, attempts to recruit right-wing anime fans, Gamergaters, and furries, and most worrying of all, the attempt to reframe anti-corporate works like They Live to fit anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. And it’s not like Marvel has been immune to this: “Hail HYDRA” and HYDRA iconography has been a favorite of Neo-Nazis online as a way to get around bans on outright Nazi imagery, and defenses of the HYDRA secret agent Grant Ward on ABC’s “Agents of SHIELD” have sometimes blended into defenses of fascism more generally.

In the face of all of these, people really need anti-Nazi symbols to inspire and rally them. Captain America ought to be one of these symbols, but he can’t be as long as Steve Rogers is a HYDRA agent and Sam Wilson is more worried about the campus left – i.e, as long as Nick Spencer is the lead writer of all of Marvel’s Captain America comics. So here’s my pitch to Marvel Comics: hire Brubaker, hire Rucka, hire G. Willow Wilson, all writers who’ve shown a grasp on both storytelling and politics, or hire someone new with fire in the belly, and give us a Cap who will fight for us.

The Killing Joke: How the Adaptation Made it More Problematic and Less Fave

Despite the Killing Joke‘s place in the history of fridging women in superhero comics, I still have a great fondness for the Alan Moore/Brian Bolland story (in fact, I’ve often thought that the story could have been done without fridging Barbara Gordon at all) and so when I heard that it was going to be turned into an animated movie with Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and Bruce Timm, I was thrilled and I got myself a ticket. (I even accidentally showed up a week early because I forgot which Monday the screening was…)

And then came rumors about the adaptation, and then came SDCC. I felt genuinely torn about whether to go ahead – if it was as bad as it sounded, I didn’t want to support the film; on the other hand, I hadn’t seen the film and wanted to be able to judge from primary evidence. Plus, I’d already bought the ticket and a bunch of my friends were going, so I waffled my way into going.

So is it as bad as people at SDCC thought? In some ways no, and in some ways it’s worse.

WARNING: Spoilers in full for the Killing Joke, which involves violence against women.

The Prologue:

So first let’s talk about the not-as-bad. Some of the reviews and first impressions that have come out suggest that “we meet Barbara Gordon as a young librarian who has started donning the Batgirl costume in order to attract the attention of Batman.” While everyone’s experience of a film is subjective, I think this reading is based on a mis-reading of one particular line.

There’s a scene in the Prologue where Batgirl is arguing with Batman over being taken off a case and she yells at him that she “got into this because of you.” (By the way, all of these quotes from the film should be taken as paraphrase from memory because I didn’t have the opportunity to take notes and there’s no script available) The context of her line is that Batman’s just told her that he doesn’t trust her because costumed crime-fighting is just a game for her, whereas Batgirl is pointing out that she became Batgirl because she was inspired by Batman and he’s been acting as her mentor. The two of them don’t have a sexual relationship at this point nor is Batgirl actively trying to start one, so I find this reading strange because it pushes the (arguably rather sexist) narrative that Batgirl is some sort of crazed groupie.

What might have led people to that conclusion is that after this line, Batgirl and Batman have sex. Now, I don’t necessarily have a problem with this in the abstract. While some might feel that “Batman has had a primarily parental relationship with Barbara, which makes this scene problematic for many fans on its most basic level,” I don’t agree. Having watched a lot of the Adam West show where Batgirl was substantially older than Robin and Batman would go into these rhapsodies about the perfume of this mystery woman, the idea isn’t without precedent.

However, the handling of this plotline is horrible, in ways that do minor damage to Barbara’s character, but arguably way more damage to Batman’s character. It’s bad enough that there is this framing of Barbara being hot for her yoga teacher, although her line that she has “a man in her life” is as much to try to fend off her camp gay coworker who might as well have stepped out of Patton Oswalt’s sketch on the “Gay Best Friend” as it is a statement of her interest. But what’s much worse is that the act itself is a horrible cliche slap-slap-kiss moment, where Batgirl is fighting Batman on a roof because she’s hit her limit with Batman’s bullshit, judo-flips him into the ground, and then pins him, and then they fuck. While a gargoyle watches.

(Poor guys can’t even close their eyes…)

In the sold-out screening I was in, this was a moment where the entire audience erupted in groans and laughter, because it was such a cheesy scene and didn’t fit Barbara Gordon’s character at all. The rooftops location, the fight-fight-kiss dynamic, the costumes – this is a Catwoman scene and it’s a played-out Catwoman scene at that.

Is what follows accurately described as her “using sex and then pining for Bruce,” as Jeremy Konrad said in that now-infamous Comic-Con panel? No. In fact, it’s kind of the reverse (and this is why I said the Prologue does more damage to Batman than Batgirl). Batgirl handles the event like an adult, telling Batman that “it’s just sex, it doesn’t have to be a thing,” rather than trying to manipulate him in any way. It’s Batman who acts like an immature asshole, refusing to work with her or take her calls, and generally acting like a remote, emotionally-stunted jackass.

All of which reinforces the basic problem with Batman in the Prologue: he’s a giant control freak who literally tells Batgirl that she has to do everything he says, who orders her “off the case” like some grizzled police captain in an 80s buddy-cop film, and who tells Batgirl he doesn’t trust her because she hasn’t stared into “the abyss… where all hope dies.” (which is a really hoary 90′s grimdark anti-hero trope, lands with a thud in the moment, and arguably contradicts the thematic thrust of Moore’s story), and who literally mansplains objectification to Batgirl. (Yes, at some level he’s explaining it for the audience, but it’s still fucked up that it’s him doing it rather than Barbara, who as a grown woman knows far better than he what being objectified by a man is like.)

Needless to say, this doesn’t fit the Batman of the Killing Joke, who’s in an unusually introspective, empathetic, and contemplative mood – meeting with Joker in Arkham Asylum because he’s worried he’s going to end up killing him, rushing to comfort Jim Gordon, offering to rehabilitate the Joker. More on this when we get to that part of the movie. So there’s a really weird disconnection between the two halves of the movie, as we’re really getting two Batman, one written by Brian Azzarello and Bruce Timm and one written by Alan Moore, and the two don’t feel like they’re the same person.

Speaking of Azzarello and Timm, we have to talk about the source of the conflict between Batgirl and Batman, the main bad guy of the Prologue. He’s a brand-new villain named Perry Franz (mon dieu), a would-be high-tech crime-boss who becomes obsessed with Batgirl (to the point of hiring a sex worker to wear a Batgirl mask while they have sex) when she foils an armored-truck robbery. This guy is clearly meant to be a parallel to the Joker – he’s got the whole Xanatos Gambit thing going, he plays this cat-and-mouse game where he’s leaving messages for Batgirl with the cops and taunts her over the phone, and so on. Batman argues that Batgirl is letting Perry get to her and she’s underestimating him, and she rightfully takes this as Batman thinking she’s not up to the task.

However, Perry is just not that impressive, ultimately nothing more than the shallow “punk” Batgirl pegs him as when they first meet. In addition to the thing with the sex worker and the messages, his go-to move when they first fight is to roofie her (it’s not just a knockout gas, he talks about having “fun” with her after she passes out, although thankfully Batgirl manages to save herself). When you get right down to it, he’s a date rapist whose master crime come down to a failed bank robbery and stealing his uncle’s online banking password.

Now, I disagree with those who’ve argued that, in the film, “the damnable part is that Batman is proven right” about Barbara not being ready. In the final clash, Batman is the one who underestimates Perry, who hits the Batmobile with a couple RPGs, wounding him and forcing him into a desperate struggle to survive against machine-gun wielding thugs. Batgirl is the one who saves him with a motorcycle-and-steverdore’s hook combo, and she’s the one who takes down Perry. This is probably where Azzarello and Timm were coming from with the “she’s a strong character” argument.

But where they fall short is the follow-through. Even though Batgirl saves Batman, we don’t get a scene where he thanks her or admits that he was wrong and learned a lesson – the “strong female character” stuff that Azzarello and Timm argued they were doing isn’t incorporated into the text. Instead, Batgirl beats the living shit out of Perry because “you ruined everything” – and this, rather than the scene where she has sex with Batman on the roof is where she sounds like a crazied groupie – and this is her moment of staring into the abyss. Because she loses her temper and administers a beating far less egregious than many that Batman has handed out (which I think is what Timm was gesturing to with his comment about “pining over the violence”) because of this penny-ante and flimsy one-shot villain, she decides to hang up the cowl and stop being Batgirl. (Which again, kind of works against the Killing Joke’s story..)

It’s far too inconsequential and disconnected from any core elements of Barbara’s character – her family or friends, her motives for fighting crime, a more established villain with a stronger personal connection – to carry the weight of what should be a momentous decision. And that, rather than the fact that she has sex with Batman, is what weakens Batgirl as a character.

The Killing Joke:

What makes all of these creative choices so strange is that it’s not like the controversy over the Killing Joke was news to anyone involved. Everyone on the creative team knew very well that the problem with the Killing Joke is the Joker shooting and paralyzing Barbara Gordon in order to motivate Jim Gordon and Batman. It’s a classic case of fridging, and the gendered nature of the event is further emphasized by the Joker taking nude photos of Barbara to use in his haunted house ride.

No matter whether you think that Barbara becoming Oracle was an important moment for the representation of the disabled or whether you prefer the New 52 or Batgirl of Burnside as a reclamation of the character, the moment is still ugly, feeding into the worst aspects of 90s comics, and is ultimately unnecessary. There’s quite a few ways to make the story work without that scene, and it oddly contradicts the moment at the end of the comic where the Joker turns the joke-flag gun on Batman.

So you think they would have approached the adaptation with that in mind. Instead, as I’ve already suggested, the two halves clash. Given that in the comics, Barbara’s paralyzing was the moment where she had to stop being Batgirl and become Oracle instead, the Prologue has her retired when she’s attacked. Likewise, given that Batman’s had a much closer relationship with her than he did at this point in the comic, the fact that they decided to do the comic essentially page-for-page makes Batman’s very limited interactions with Barbara and muted emotional response both to the physical damage done to her and the Joker’s sexualization of the attack read like a non-response to what should be a huge deal. Moreover, it conflicts with Batman’s major arc in the story – his attempt to reach out to the Joker, even in the end, makes him seem completely uncaring about his former lover.

And of course, there’s the moment itself, which you’d think the creators of the film would treat with heightened sensitivity. Instead, the moment is intensified (in what is otherwise a very faithful adaptation of the comic) in two ways: first, the “shot” is held on what is the second-to-last panel on the right, with the Joker slowly moving his hand down Barbara’s chest and then the “camera” showing us Barbara’s opened shirt and bra. Second, later on when Batman is canvassing the city for the Joker, there’s an elaboration of a single panel where Batman’s interviewing a group of sex workers where we learn that the first thing that the Joker does when he gets out is to make use of their services, but this time he hasn’t and maybe he’s found a new girl. Now, you can argue that the Joker hasn’t come by because he’s busy with his quasi-suicidal mission to break Gordon and Batman, but the text leaves itself open to the interpretation that Joker did something more than just photograph Barbara.

As I’ve said above, the above page is my least favorite part of the comic, and even the people who don’t have a problem with that section will generally agree that the heart of the comic is in the hypothetical backstory for the Joker, his argument to Jim Gordon that madness is the only rational response to an irrational and random universe, his attempt to prove that any ordinary person is capable of turning into the Joker as a result of “one bad day,” Jim Gordon’s defiant hold on his sanity and his belief in the capacity of human beings to create meaning through institutions like the law, and Batman’s attempt to reach out to the Joker. So how does the film handle that?

The answer is that it does only an okay job, there’s a few moments where it becomes something special (I especially love this shot of the Joker watching the carnival lights come on, because it has some energy that’s often missing), but nothing near good enough to make up for everything it gets wrong that we’ve already talked about. Kevin Conroy is fine, Mark Hamill puts in a great vocal performance, but the art and direction fall short of what Moore and Bolland and John Higgins (the colorist) accomplished on the page. For example, let’s take the famous last page of the comic, shown above. There’s a lot that can and has been said about these nine panels – the use of the palette of reds and purples and oranges and yellows that runs throughout the comic, the way that the headlights turn into the flashlight beam from the joke (which Moore has already set up from the scene where Batman goes to the lunatic asylum, which he further emphasizes with the use of repeating dialogue), the ambiguity of the laughter and the siren that convinced Grant Morrison that Batman killed the Joker, and on and on.

In the movie? It’s just a shot of a puddle. No beam of light, no paralleling, nothing of what made this comic special in the first place. Maybe Alan Moore was right – there are some things comics can do that movies can’t.

Captain America: Steve Rogers #2: What We Talk About When We Talk About HYDRA

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About a month ago, there was a huge controversy when Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 revealed that Steve Rogers was a HYDRA agent and had always been one. A lot of people, myself included, really didn’t like this retcon. Some other people rather condescendingly said that this was just comic books, it was clearly mind control, or false memories, or some other trick, it’s all been done before, and you’re all getting mad over nothing. Now, that kind of missed the point – that Nazism is maybe something more serious that shouldn’t be handled like a Silver Age Superman story where Jimmy Olson is forced to marry a gorilla – but now Issue #2 is out…

…and lo and behold, the Red Skull did indeed use the Cosmic Cube to rewrite Steve Rogers’ memories. So were all us who didn’t like the change a bunch of SJWs who need to Get Good at comics?

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Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 and Subtractive Retcons (Spoiler Warning)

Captain_America_Steve_Rogers_1_CoverAs long as there have been comic books, there have been retcons. For all that they have acquired a bad reputation, retcons can be an incredibly useful tool in comics writing and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. Done right, retcons can add an enormous amount of depth and breadth to a character, making their worlds far richer than they were before. Instead, I would argue that retcons should be judged on the basis of whether they’re additive (bringing something new to the character by showing us a previously unknown aspect of their lives we never knew existed before) or subtractive (taking away something from the character that had previously been an important part of their identity), and how well those changes suit the character.

To give some Captain America-based examples: Ed Brubaker’s “Winter Soldier” storyline was a great use of additive retconning, turning Bucky Barnes from a rather mawkish attempt to ape the popularity of teen sidekicks in the 1940s into a compelling Manchurian Candidate-inspired anti-hero who has become the dominant vision of the character to this day. And it works incredibly well in no small part because of how it uses the silences in the text, the white space in between the panels if you will, to explain why a twelve-year-old was allowed to hang around a US Army Base and to show us what could have happened while Captain America was frozen in the ice.

Unfortunately, Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 is one of the worst examples of subtractive retconning imaginable. In this comic, we learnt that Steve Rogers is a HYDRA agent and has always been one (indeed, the comic goes out of its way to say that it was HYDRA that inspired Steve Rogers from the beginning):

cap retcon 1And lest anyone be confused about what’s going on, the comic makes very clear what this revelation entails – not only is the Red Skull going around recruiting HYDRA suicide bombers using real-world white nationalist rhetoric about the refugee crisis in Europe, in case anyone was confused whether HYDRA is a racist organization or just generically totalitarian, but we see Steve Rogers cold-bloodedly murder a fellow super-hero and SHIELD operative in the furtherance of HYDRA’s agenda.

Now, the comic does go out of its way to provide some background here – many pages go into exploring how Steve and his mother joined the organization back in the early 30s when a HYDRA recruiter rescued his mother from her abusive husband, how the organization used the social and economic dislocations of the Great Depression to recruit desperate people and give them a sense of purpose. (There’s a slight problem about all of this in that this is basically Red Skull’s origin story, as set out in Tales of Suspense #66) On the surface, this seems like a rather slick and cynical way to grab the readers’ attention and make us wonder what we really know about Steve Rogers. Phrased less politely, this is trolling meant to serve as click-bait.

Because the problem with this reading is that it undoes everything that comes before it. If you enjoyed watching Steve Rogers fight to his very last breath to protect Kobik from Crossbones, only to be brought back to his youthful prime just in the nick of time? Too bad, Steve Rogers is a Nazi. If you’re now wondering why a HYDRA agent would spend 75 years stopping every last HYDRA plan for world domination and/or destruction, that cognitive dissonance is the price paid for this kind of subtractive retconning. And if you’re wondering why Marvel would decide to turn their billion-dollar-grossing hero into a Nazi, so am I.

And this is my problem with Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 – this retcon works against the very concept of the character. Ever since 1940 when Jack Kirby and Joe Simon dreamed him up, Steve Rogers has been an anti-fascist, someone who was so convinced that fascism was an existential threat to his ideals that he signed himself up for a dangerous experiment that could have easily killed him in order to fight back:

cap retcon 2Turning Steve Rogers into a fascist shorts out the character by negating his origin story, his entire back catalogue, and his political ideology – essentially telling the reader that the Captain America they’ve been reading about for 75 years never existed. In the same way that turning Superman into a villain sounds like a clever concept on paper but doesn’t work as a long-term story vehicle, because once he’s a villain there’s only one story left to tell, this kind of storyline just isn’t going to work.

Now, it may be the case – as many fans have already speculated – that HYDRA Steve Rogers is in fact a false memory implanted in his brain as part of some sinister plot. If that’s the case, it’s still not a very good idea. To begin with, it means starting off a new series with your protagonist acting like a Nazi until the reveal, at which point both Rogers and the readers will be stuck with the memories – not a very promising foundation for getting your audience to root for their hero.

Moreover, there’s still a bunch of plot holes that are still there even if you pull off the reveal: why didn’t any HYDRA agent use these embedded memories before, in any of the myriad scenarios in which doing so could have won them the entire world? If Steve Rogers’ body (which includes his brain) was essentially re-created by Kobik, why did the HYDRA conditioning stick? Given that Steve Rogers has spent quite a bit of time around telepaths, why didn’t any of them notice that the Sentinel of Liberty was thinking like a fascist? Unless Rogers is also a world-class actor, how exactly did he maintain a close friendship with a politically-engaged black man like Sam Wilson without slipping up?

But most importantly, it’s still a twist that doesn’t fit the character. In the comics, Captain America has repeatedly fought off false memories and other forms of mental conditioning implanted in him by HYDRA agents like Doctor Faustus. It’s part of his character – the same sheer determination that made him keep fighting the Red Skull even when the Cosmic Cube gave the Red Skull the powers of God allows Captain America to resist psychological stresses that would break anyone else.

So yeah…if Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson are supposed to be the new Peter Parker and Miles Morales, this is an incredible misstep. I don’t think I’ll be picking up any more issues of Captain America: Steve Rogers, and I’d recommend the reader pick up Captain America: Madbomb instead.

A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 11: The Mutant Metaphor (Part III)

Face front, true believers!

In Week 9, I discussed the link between “the mutant metaphor” and 1950s and 1960s science-fiction. One of the most important of these links was the overwhelming presence of the nuclear threat in the post-WWII world – almost as soon as the atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, sci-fi creators began to think about the dangers of the new atomic age, and whether mankind’s future was to travel the stars in ships powered by atomic energy or to see their species and their civilization end in nuclear fire.

And the X-Men are part of this tradition, as the so-called “Children of the Atom.”

phomu 11 1When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were designing the X-Men back in 1963, the original idea was to have mutants be an unintended consequence of the nuclear age – having been changed in-utero starting with the first atomic bombs in the 1940s and then the prevalence of nuclear tests throughout the 1950s, nuclear energy would explain the common origin of Xavier’s team and allow for the creation of new mutants as needed:

phomu 11 2 phomu 11 3Eventually, this close of a connection to atomic energy was moved away from when later writers and artists realized that having every mutant’s backstory involve parents working in the nuclear power industry was actually somewhat limiting, but it was very much a part of Silver Age X-Men comics. What persisted from the Kirby/Lee era through to the Chris Claremont era was the fear that mutants would take over the world after a nuclear war. For Magneto, and indeed with other “evil mutants,” the idea of a nuclear war took on the same significance that colonial wars would for revolutionary Marxists.

While the X-Men frequently fought evil mutants, there was really only one particular arc where the conflict was both political as well as physical; namely, the Factor Three arc. This arc is largely disappointing in classic Silver Age over-promising fashion – the Factor Three had been acting from behind the scenes for months, sending Kirby robots and a kidnapped Banshee and a jailbroken Juggernaut after the X-Men, only to turn out to a bunch of characters we’d already seen before: the Blob, the Vanisher, Mastermind, and Unus the Untouchable, plus the mysterious Changeling and the Mutant Master. However, in issue #37, Factor Three capture the X-Men and decide to put them on trial for betraying mutantdom:

phomu 11 4Like all trials, this judicial process raises political questions as well: here, the charge against the X-Men reflects the political ideology of “evil mutants,” who believe that solidarity between mutants requires a united front against humanity. And it raises the central problem of the Silver Age X-Men – that with the exception of their fight against the Sentinels , they primarily fight against other mutants on behalf of that world “that hates and fears them.”

Similarly, when the Mutant Master passes sentence against the X-Men, his peroration reveals a good deal about both the political ideology of “evil mutants” and the role of atomic weapons in both their thinking and in the “mutant metaphor:”

phomu 11 5The dominant mode of “evil mutant” political thought is a kind of cod-Darwinian logic that sees the struggle for survival as a zero-sum game in which only one species can win.  Hence the idea that “too long has the inferior species called homo sapiens held sway on the earth,” and that in order for that species to be replaced so that “homo superior shall inherit the earth,” it is necessary that “there must be a total destruction of the power of the human race.” Now there’s a lot to be said about how Marvel’s idiosyncratic grasp of science has shaped the X-Men (I’ll get into this more in a future issue where I discuss the Neanderthal/Cro-Magnon analogy in X-Men comics), but there is a certain resonance here to the use of quasi-Darwinian arguments for eugenics and racial nationalist politics.

However, it is the “evil mutant” embrace of the atomic bomb as the instrument of natural selection where we can see the strongest link between the mutant metaphor and anti-nuclear science fiction. The mutant threat, called into existence by atomic weapons, will use “their own mightiest weapon – the hydrogen bomb!” to bring an “end for all time of the civilization of homo sapiens.” The analogy between the plans of the Mutant Master and the potential outcome of Mutually Assured Destruction is hardly subtle, but there is a crude power in Ross Andru’s pencils and Don Heck’s inks, of cities falling into a Miltonian lake of fire, of the planet itself cracked open by a mushroom cloud.

Moreover, we can see in Roy Thomas’ writing a view of the Cold War that comes straight out of the anti-nuclear science fiction of “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Rather than a struggle of ideologies or a struggle between Good and Evil, the Cold War is seen as a dangerous weakness that a third party (or maybe a third factor…) can manipulate through “an infallible plot which shall soon lead east and west into a vengeful and destructive nuclear war,” thanks to a series of false-flag operations designed to convince the US and the USSR that the other is to blame.

phomu 11 6The contrast with Stan Lee’s rah-rah all-American leanings, back when the Fantastic Four went into space to “beat the commies” in the Space Race, is quite striking. And while I doubt that this particular issue was in the minds of Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman when they were writing X-Men: First Class, the resonances between the plans of the Mutant Master and Sebastian Shaw to escalate US/Soviet tensions and bring about mutant ascendancy through nuclear war are strong.

phomu 11 7However, there is a flaw at the heart of mutant extremism in Silver Age X-Men. Because of the relative absence of anti-mutant prejudice in early X-Men comics, we don’t’ really get a context for why “evil mutants” view humans as their enemies, let alone why they should describe themselves as “evil.” (This is much the same problem that the original Magneto had. Hence in these issues, we see the members of Factor Three describe in vague and nebulous terms that their “hatred for normal humans” stems from humans’ “fear and hostility toward us,” but we don’t really see mutants suffering the kind of oppression associated with this kind of radicalization.  Thus, we as readers side with the X-Men’s arguments that nuclear obliteration is a bit of a steep punishment for “mistrust of mutants” by humans, which strikes me as a bit of a strawman to say the least.

phomu 11 8And this weakness is a continuing problem, because it means that there isn’t really a foundation for why “evil mutant” politics should exist. And a result, you get a half-hearted and ultimately condescending end to the story; the X-Men free themselves and thwart Factor Three’s plans for nuclear holocaust by showing that, just as the US and USSR were being egged on by a third party seeking to profit from their conflict, the “evil mutants” conflict with the X-Men was due to them being misled by an alien “outside agitator.” (Which clever readers might have guessed from the earlier page that suggested that the mutants would only inherit the “remains of the earth”) And at the end of the day, “my ideological opponents are dupes of evil aliens” is still an ad hominem attack rather than a full response to the arguments of mutant extremists.

phomu 11 9On the other hand, there’s more than just condescending paternalism that emerges from this reveal. For all that Professor X. gets criticized for his high-handed approach to politics, it is interesting that in this moment, Xavier saves the world through an appeal to mutant solidarity, convincing his former enemies to band together with the X-Men, as “there is no need for mutant to battle mutant.” Moreover, once the X-Men and the former Brotherhood of Evil Mutants have defeated the evil alien from Sirius, Xavier’s closing dialogue looks to the possibility that the dichotomy between good and evil mutants might be transcended, as long as we “remember the day when there were no evil mutants, no good mutants, only a handful of men fighting side by side to protect our planet from a common foe.”

This ending probably owes more to JFK’s argument for a nuclear test ban that “our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal,” than it does to a fully-thought-out vision for Professor X’s mutant politics. However, it is good to see Xavier thinking and talking in these kind of terms, because it’s something of a rarity in Silver-Age X-Men comics.

Indeed, as “blinded by hatred” the ideology of the “evil mutants” might be, they do kind of have a point in their indictment of the X-Men, in that the Silver Age X-Men are an organization acting primarily in defense of human interests by defending them against “evil mutants.” This is a major problem with the Professor X as MLK analogy, because however committed he was to non-violence as a tactic, King was always engaged in political activism on behalf of African-Americans. And while King was surveilled and harassed by the FBI, Xavier works with them:

phomu 11 10I’m sort of surprised that this wasn’t entered into evidence as Exhibit A in the case against the X-Men, because here we have Xavier proposing to “help you…and the human race by tracking down myself the mutants in this country.” On the other hand, we do see that Xavier is trying to shift government policy as a result – he’s actively trying to persuade the FBI that “mutants may be either good…or evil,” and that “if [mutants] are hounded…persecuted…they may band together to become the very menace that you fear,” and that there is a better way for humans and mutants to interact.

One could also interpret this interaction tactically – through this cooperation, Xavier (rather than the FBI) is the one tracking down mutants, and then enrolling them in a paramilitary organization. And in an era before Cerebro, Xavier’s collaboration gets him access to files about emerging mutants across the country:

phomu 11 11And here’s where the protean nature of the “mutant metaphor” kicks in – Xavier’s dialogue that “the anger of society turns him into the very menace it fears” is far more reminiscent of a liberal social worker or psychologist arguing for gentler treatment of juvenile delinquents in the 1950 than anything having to do with civil rights, or indeed atomic weapons and science-fiction.

It’s all a bit of a mish-mash, which both offered an opportunity and provided a pressing motive for Chris Claremont to put his own stamp on the “mutant metaphor” – but that’s a topic for another People’s History of the Marvel Universe

A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 10: The Mutant Metaphor (Part II)

Last time, I talked about the “protean” nature of the “mutant metaphor,” its roots in science-fiction of the time, and how at least initially there was relatively little mention of mutant identity and anti-mutant prejudice.

Speaking of which, one of the curious things about the original run of X-Men, especially from the “mutant metaphor” angle, is that their mission to “protect a world that hates and fears them” means that the X-Men spent a lot more time fighting “evil mutants” (more on this next week) than defending mutants against those who “hate and fear them.” However, the major exception to this rule in the Lee/Kirby era, the one place where the X-Men confronted anti-mutant prejudice head-on, was the Sentinels:

pomu 10 1Even when it was discussed, the “mutant metaphor” tended to be mostly back-material in the original run of X-Men. Issue #14 was an exception, where the metaphor took center stage: the issue opens with a startling revelation, as the existence of mutants shifts from urban legend and occasional siting to public knowledge as Bolivar Trask outs all of homo superior:

pomu 10 2There’s a lot to unpack here: first, I find it curious that an anthropologist (as opposed to a geneticist or a demographer or what have you) is making this announcement, and curiouser still that an anthropologist somehow developed the advanced expertise in mechanical engineering and robotics necessary to build the Sentinels. (A clear case of the Omnidisciplinary Scientist there…) Second, as I discussed last week, the allusions here to the Cold War are much stronger than to the Civil Rights Movement – Trask namechecks “cold wars, hot wars, atom bombs and the like” (more on this next week), rather than “states’ rights, outside agitators, forced integration, etc.” Even more so than last week, the emphasis is on the mutant as Fifth Columnist – there is a resonance here between Trask’s seemingly unsupported claims that “mutants walk among us” and Joe McCarthy’s dramatic but numerally vague claims about Communist infiltration of the U.S government. The headlines that blare “Mutant Menace” could equally read “Red Menace,” suggesting a critique of a mass media more interested in shock and sensation than careful investigative reporting. Third, Trask introduces a new theme when it comes to the “mutant metaphor” – the idea of an inevitable unavoidable conflict between mutants and humans – which will continue throughout the original appearances of the Sentinels and will be continued in the Claremont run. The now famous invocation of Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens, in all its archaeological anthropological inaccuracy, has yet to appear, but you can see some of the origins of the idea here.

No matter how you analyze it,Trask’s press conference accomplishes something pretty unusual in Marvel Comics history – it gets Professor Xavier to actually engage in mutant rights politics. As I’ll discuss more next week, one of the problems with the version of the “mutant metaphor” that sees Professor X. as a Martin Luther King Jr. is that Professor X doesn’t spend that much time doing social movement work – preferring instead to train teenage mutants to act as a paramilitary force that engages in an oddly liberal version of the anarchist practice of propaganda of the deed. But here, Bolivar Trask’s call to smash the “mutant menace” drives him to action:

pomu 10 3To begin with, given the many well-founded critiques of Silver Age Xavier’s character, it is interesting that Trask’s press conference strikes an instant nerve – clearly Charles has been waiting for the day that mutants are out for some time, and for all that he may disagree with Magneto about the possibility of human-mutant coexistence, it’s interesting that he expects this revelation to lead to a “witch hunt for mutants” and the “wheels of persecution” beginning to grind, without his intervention. And speaking of the sci-fi roots of the “mutant metaphor,” the page to our left really makes this clear with the “artist’s interpretation” of Trask’s remarks. Big-headed widows-peaked aliens wielding the whip over human slaves, being carried through futuristic cities in palanquins, and re-enacting the gladiatorial combat of the Roman Coliseum – this dystopia owes far more to Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and John Carter of Mars than it does the racist paranoid imaginary of the 1950s and 1960s.

However, it is the theory of politics here that I am primarily interested in, because Xavier here is depicted as practicing politics in an extremely establishment fashion. Rather than engaging in public protest, direct action, or a media campaign, Xavier’s understanding of politics begins and ends with a “public televised debate” between two academics. And indeed, in both appearance and his debating style, Professor X resembles nothing so much as the arid intellectualism of Adlai Stephenson-era liberalism. Acting (somehow) as the “spokesman for America’s intellectual community,” Xavier’s argument is pitched less on terms of human rights or moral calls or the Constitution than a general statement about the dangers of “ignorance” and “unreasoning fear.” (There might be a link here to Gunnar Myrdal’s famous description of American racism as a mental pathology, but it’s a stretch.)

On the other hand, it’s hard to make a judgement about depiction vs. endorsement – Lee and Kirby show American families at home and the American public on the street outside the storefront window reacting unfavorably – questioning whether Xavier is a mutant, dismissing the “egg-headed old stuffed-shirt,” angrily resentful that one of their children might be a mutant or that they might be ignorant. (It is interesting, however, that they can’t make up their minds as to whether he’s a “communist” or a “right-winger”- possibly a sign that Lee and Kirby were trying to straddle political divides there.)
By contrast, Trask is all emotion and ad-hominem attack, especially in his McCarthyesque (if true) insinuation that “perhaps the professor has an ulterior motive for his defense of mutants.” On a far more important point, Trask has no intent of having the issue be decided by the political system – well before the debate, Trask has clearly decided that “whether I win or lose this debate does not matter,” because he’s going to use his robots to squish his opponent. Thus, the Sentinels:

pomu 10 4 pomu 10 5In classic sci-fi fashion, Trask’s robotic creations turn on their creator the first time they are used, because you don’t mess with the Frankenstein formula. And so, the threat of mutant superiority is trumped by the rise of the machine: as with other stories of the robot uprising, the Sentinels’ rebellion is founded in the fact that their superior robotic intelligence makes them more suited to be the master than the slave; at the same time, in deference to their programming, the Sentinels justify their future overlordship over humanity by arguing that in order to protect humanity they must rule humanity. And in one last nod to the original, Trask remains useful to his creations only because they need his mastery of reproduction to propagate their species.

What elevates the Sentinels beyond mere sci-fi pastiche, however, is their visual aesthetic. Without a doubt the most recognizably Kirbyesque element of the X-Men Universe, there is something about the design that makes it instantly iconic in a genre not lacking for giant robots. The red-and-purple (later changed to pink-and-purple) onesie and boots and gloves aren’t particularly memorable on their own – the secret is in the stocky, short-limbed proportions that make them look like action figures come to (malevolent) life, their increasing scale (first generation Sentinels stand at 10 feet tall, making humans seem like children; later generations will start at 20 feet tall and only get bigger from there) and of course Kirby’s enduring obsession with the Olmec head that arguably reached its peak with Master Mold:

pomu 10 6There is something genuinely uncanny about the frozen, disapproving visage of Master Mold, which towers above the Mark I Sentinels even as they tower above Bolivar Trask, assuming both the pose and position of some dark Olympian god, even as it demands the secrets of life while threatening death.

Another unusual element of the Sentinels is that they are a threat the X-Men themselves could not directly defeat – while the X-Men successfully penetrate the secret base of the Sentinels and manage to escape once captured, they never manage to come to blows with the Master Mold himself. And part of the reason why is that, following the conventions of science-fiction, Trask has to sacrifice himself to destroy Master Mold and prevent the Sentinels from propagating.

pomu 10 7However, the Sentinels can never be destroyed forever – sooner or later, they will return to threaten mutantkind. In issue #57, less than 10 issues away from the series’ decline into reprints, the Sentinels return, and so do the themes and allusions of the original:

pomu 10 8Here, the parallels to McCarthyism which had previously been more of a matter of tone than content all of the sudden become text, with Judge Chalmers’ Federal Council on Mutant Activities being an obvious play on the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Which I suppose makes Larry Trask, the younger, flashier, and more emotional assistant to Judge Chalmers, the Roy Cohn stand-in. The manila folders of evidence that Trask slams down on the table similarly resemble the leaked FBI reports that were key to the careers of both Senator McCarthy and HUAC.

pomu 10 9On the other hand, Trask brings a starkly personal edge to his political argument that doesn’t particularly fit the metaphor – rather the allusion is more to the feud and the vendetta and their eternal cycles of retribution. Similarly, Larry Trask’s description of the mutant threat bears little resemblance to the idea of the mutant as the unknown Other – the mutant threat he sees is out in the open and more active than hypothethical, and so he gives it a new term:

pomu 10 10The term “mutant war,” reminiscent of predictions of “race war” in the racist paranoid imagination, suggests a very different direction for the mutant metaphor, one that will be built on later to imagine mutant future dystopias that will almost always revolve around the presence of the Sentinels – more on this in a future People’s History of the Marvel Universe issue where I’ll discuss “Days of Future Past” and how Chris Claremont invented the Terminator franchise.

Also in this second outing, we see a renewed focus on the way that media shapes political debate – or if I’m being cynical, the way that the media allows comic books to present politics through a simplified image rather than trying to depict the complicated process of political organization. Hence the use of talking heads:

pomu 10 11 pomu 10 12For those of you born after 1970 (which includes me), these two individuals are Chett Huntley and David Brinkley, who chaired the Huntley-Brinkley Report as NBC’s answer to Walter Cronkite between 1956 and 1970. This rare example of real-life figures making an appearance in X-Men comics is intended to give verisimilitude to the political news, which shows the meaning of the Sentinels shifting.

As already suggested by the Federal part of Chalmers’ Council on Mutant Activities, where the Mark I Sentinels were the rogue creations of an individual mad scientist, the Mark II Sentinels are hunting down mutants on behalf of the U.S government. This represents an entirely new paradigm for the X-universe, and foreshadows the X-Men’s outlaw status in Claremont’s run. Whereas in 1963 Professor Xavier could work comfortably with the FBI (more on this in a future issue), by 1969 the reading public was perhaps more willing to consider that the government might employ genocidal robots to hunt down American citizens for “the indescribable sin of being…a mutant,” in what Huntley and Brinkley describe as a “familiar” reaction to the “mutant problem.” Given the more overt comparison to the Holocaust, I’m not surprised to learn that then-Marvel-intern Chris Claremont offered story advice on these issues.

At the same time, we also see a rare departure for the X-Comics when Huntley an Brinkley explain that “Americans begin to question the wisdom – even the constitutionality – of this modern witch hunt.” We’ve seen anti-mutant prejudice described before, but we haven’t yet seen it be described as an explicitly political controversy, with the issue being raised of whether the U.S Constitution (presumably the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection and due process) protects mutant citizens against the state. Given that we almost never see mutants being discussed in political terms in the Lee/Kirby era, let alone in such similar terms to the Civil Rights Movement, this feels much more like the Claremont era’s discussion of the Mutant Registration Act (another topic for a future issue) than anything else from the original run.

Unfortunately for my purposes, as soon as we get this soupçon of politics, the whole thing veers back into sci-fi, albeit more reminiscent of high-concept shows like the Twilight Zone or Roddenberry’s Star Trek. Once again, the moment that the Sentinels are used, they rebel against their masters. It really makes you wonder why people keep building them. (Incidentally, this is one aspect of these characters that I wish had been used more in later years, especially in Morrison’s run, the aftermath of M-Day, and so forth). Here, the ironic twist is that mutant-hating Larry Trask is himself a mutant:

pomu 10 13As morals go, it’s a bit on the nose – a little bit closer to The Scary Door than Twilight Zone. On the other hand, it’s not like the idea that a rabid ideologue secretly is what they most despise, their passion reflecting both intense denial and projection, is at odds with realism.

And it has one other advantage – with Larry Trask sidelined, there’s no Trask available to sacrifice their life to stop the Sentinels, which means we get the best moment in the whole of the original X-Men run (link), where Scott Summers executes a perfect Logic Bomb that convinces the Sentinels to make war on “the very heart of the raging sun itself!”

pomu 10 14 pomu 10 15Conclusion:

As blunt as a metaphor for weighty themes like genocide, bigotry, and oppression they might be, the Sentinels were pretty much all the original X-Men had in the way of anti-mutant antagonists. And if you’re going to be fiddling with “mutant metaphors,” you’re going to need them around, otherwise people might start to ask uncomfortable questions about why the X-Men spend all of their time hunting down “evil mutants” on behalf of J. Edgar Hoover, rather than fighting their own oppression.

But that’s a topic for…next issue of A People’s History of the Marvel Universe!

David Goyer v Comics: Rise of the Anti-Hero

unnamed(1)This is a bit of a correction to my earlier piece about Zack Snyder. Not that I think I was inaccurate in anything I said there, but I do think it was a bit unfair of me to put all the problems with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (pronounced buvvis-doge, I think?) on the shoulders of the director. The auteur theory of film criticism is a deeply flawed one, after all. And in addition to having a director who really doesn’t seem to understand the comic books he professes to love, the film also has David Goyer as its screenwriter.

And David Goyer doesn’t understand superheroes. Which I understand is kind of a bold statement, given that David Goyer is responsible for making the modern era of superhero movies possible.

But bear with me.

Background

As I said above, Goyer is the most prolific screenwriter of the modern era of superhero films. He wrote all three of the Blade movies (and directed the last one) in the late 90s, before the modern superhero boom, and their success allowed projects like Singer‘s X-Men movies and Raimi‘s Spider-Man movies to go forward and prove that the public’s appetite for costumed heroes hadn’t been killed off by Joel Schumacher. And before the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born, Goyer was writing Batman Begins and the Dark Knight, which at the time were seen as the future of the genre.

On the other hand, few people think of the scripts as the major virtues of any of these projects. Now a largely forgotten franchise with only one decent entry, almost nothing in the Blade movies made sense and the movies largely thrived on Wesley Snipes‘ presence and a cheerfully gonzo approach to gore. The Nolan Batman films are called Nolan films for a reason, and there’s a whole cottage industry of Youtube videos and articles pointing out the logical problems in the Joker’s plan in Dark Knight or how there’s no way Batman faking his death in Rises would have worked.

But if there’s one thing these films have in common, they all feature dark anti-heroes. But most superheroes aren’t dark anti-heroes, which might explain why, for all that Goyer’s career has been founded on superheroes, he doesn’t particularly understand the characters or like the people who like them very much:

Goyer: I have a theory about She-Hulk. Which was created by a man, right? And at the time in particular I think 95% of comic book readers were men and certainly almost all of the comic book writers were men. So the Hulk was this classic male power fantasy. It’s like, most of the people reading comic books were these people like me who were just these little kids getting the shit kicked out of them every day… And so then they created She-Huk, right? Who was still smart… I think She-Hulk is the chick that you could fuck if you were Hulk, you know what I’m saying? … She-Hulk was the extension of the male power fantasy. So it’s like if I’m going to be this geek who becomes the Hulk then let’s create a giant green porn star that only the Hulk could fuck.

As many people before me have said, this betrays not just a creepy attitude to sexuality, but a fundamental misconception of both the character’s backstory (She-Hulk and the Hulk have never been romantically linked, because they are first cousins) and thematic import. To quote the Mary Sue, “since her introduction, She-Hulk has been a woman of agency and strength, one who quickly took control of her mutation to become a hero and who has never let herself be held back by sexist double-standards and the expectations of others who can’t handle her power, intelligence and sexual confidence.”

But What About Superman?

Thankfully, however, David Goyer hasn’t been approached to write a She-Hulk movie or TV show (seriously, the character would work wonders as a legal/comedy/action show, what are you waiting for Marvel?). The problem is that he doesn’t understand Superman either and he’s the guy that DC and Warner Brothers approached to write Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman:

“And it occurred to me that it’s one thing if you have super powers to say I’m going to be a good Samaritan and help people. But it’s another entirely, and in fact a little presumptuous to just put on a costume and call yourself Superman, and say I’m going to appoint myself the saviour of mankind.” (source)

If you have a problem with someone putting on a costume and trying to save the world, you probably shouldn’t be writing a movie about the character who created an entire genre around doing just that. And the problem is that, in addition to not liking the basic concept of superheroics, Goyer goes on to explain that he doesn’t get Superman’s  character specifically:

“And so this story was why does he become Superman? And we decided early on that’s not a choice he makes, but a choice that’s imposed on him.”

“The movie is about him deciding am I going to be human, or Kryptonian, to pick which lineage to follow. We wanted to give him this Sophie’s Choice of you can be human, or you can have your Kryptonian world back, but you can’t have both. If you have your Kryptonian world, humanity is going to suffer. He has to decide which world he wants to plant his feet in.”

“The whole raison d’etre of the movie is that choice. It’s nature versus nurture. And that’s why he puts on the glasses and becomes officially Clark Kent at the end of the movie.” (source)

There are a huge number of problems with this. First of all, it’s a terrible writing move for your characters to not make choices but have choices happen to them. It’s lazy Campbellian Chosen One handwaving and it makes your protagonist horribly passive when making choices is what makes them interesting.

Secondly, choosing between his human and Kryptonian nature is antithetical to what it means to be Superman. Our hero is an immigrant refugee who rather than be turned away (Action Comics #1 came out only 14 years after the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924) is welcomed into America’s heartland and is raised to be a good person by the Kents – which is why he chooses to become Superman and save people. But at the same time, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, adapting the Moses story (not the Christ story, Goyer!) have Superman discover and embrace his alien heritage – hence the Kryptonian baby blanket turning into his iconic cape – without rejecting his adopted culture either. Rather than bowing to the dictates of nativism or assimilation, Superman combines both cultures together: the Last Son of Krypton standing for Truth, Justice, and the American Way.

And finally, let’s talk about the neck-snapping, because man is Goyer defensive about the neck-snapping:

“The way I work, the way Chris works, is you do what’s right for the story. That exists entirely separately from what fans should or shouldn’t think of that character. You have to do what’s right for the story. In that instance, this was a Superman who had only been Superman for like, a week. He wasn’t Superman as we think of him in the DC Comics…or even in a world that conceived of Superman existing,” Goyer said. “He’d only flown for the first time a few days before that. He’d never fought anyone that had super powers before. And so he’s going up against a guy who’s not only super-powered, but has been training since birth to use those super powers, who exists as a superhuman killing machine, who has stated, ‘I will never stop until I destroy all of humanity.”

“If you take Superman out of it, what’s the right way to tell that story?” he continued. “I think the right way to tell that story is if you take this powered alien who says, ‘You can have your race back, but you have to kill your adopted race,’ the moral, horrible situation to be in is to actually be forced to kill, not wanting to, the only other person from your race. Take Superman aside, I think that’s the right way to tell that story.” (source)

To start with a seemingly minor point: Zod isn’t someone “training since birth to use those super powers,” because in Goyer’s own screenplay, Zod only got those powers when he came to Earth. (And then for some reason decided to terraform the planet so that the Kryptonians he’s genetically driven to protect would become weaker, but that’s beside the point.) Superman is the one who’s been training his whole life to use them because he’s the only Kryptonian who grew up on Earth. Which means he should be the one controlling the fight through his better understanding of his superpowers, which would hopefully avoid both the neck-snapping and the destruction of Metropolis (which is what people had more of a problem with).

But I want to circle around to something Goyer said, about Zod posing the choice of “you have to kill your adopted race” or let humanity die. The only reason that killing Zod equates to killing all of Krypton is because Goyer has Superman use his heat-vision to obliterate the “Genesis” ship that was carrying thousands of Kryptonian embryos, making Zod the last. And he doesn’t do it accidentally – Zod tells him what the ship is carrying and Superman says “Krypton had its chance.” And this is is the action of the supposed hero, of whom Goyer said:

“I think the movie is going to be the right movie for the times. I’m happy that movie is coming out in the summer, because I think it’s the kind of movie that the world needs right now.” (source)

unnamedNow He’s Gone Too Far

So imagine my surprise when it turns out that, back in 1986, David Goyer turned out to not understand Captain America. As this is my patch, allow me to preach for a moment:

“While reading Captain America, I find myself more interested in the villain and their exploits than in Cap himself. The basic problem stems from the fact that Cap isn’t a very interesting character. He’s a living symbol and aside from the problems of character development in a symbol, the fact that he is a symbol of the American dream creates a number of story problems.”

I’m beginning to see the underlying reason why David Goyer has a problem writing about Superman –  first, he gets distracted by surface issues (like red capes and blue tights) and misses the important character details. Here, the important detail is that it’s Steve Rogers who is the character, and his historical grounding makes him interesting. Second and more importantly, he fundamentally doesn’t grok ideological superheroes, and as a result sees story hooks as story problems:

“First of all, the America that created Cap in the ’40s no longer exists. To make matters worse, Cap was in suspended animation for the better part of two decades. What kind of effect does this have on a man? His “world” is gone. To the children of the 60s, the concept of a living symbol of democracy to boost war morale must have seemed totally outdated.”

Captain America being a Man Out of Time isn’t a story problem, it’s a great source of dramatic tension that Marvel has been using to fuel the comic ever since Lee and Kirby hauled Rogers out of the ice in 1964. And it works in two ways – first, it gives Cap a personal flaw that transforms him from the flawless Golden Age archetype into a properly angsty, interior Marvel-style character. Second, because Cap is an ideological hero, the contrast between his past and the new era automatically acts as a mirror with which we can examine the vices and virtues of both periods:

“Secondly, the Captain probably only appeals to part of the nation today. Most likely, he’s more popular with the conservative side, so his popularity is on the upswing now. but what about the people who resent what he represents? There must be people out there who are even insulted by his uniform. Some people see our country as an atrophied giant whose secretive diplomacy is thinly veiled behind a smile and a handshake. Our government isn’t nearly as upfront or virtuous as our elected officials would have us believe. What exactly does Cap represent? Everything that’s good in America? Does the Captain endorse every president that’s elected? Would he ever speak out against a candidate? Does the Captain acknowledge that there is corruption in the government?”

This really makes me wonder if Goyer ever actually read these comics, because literally every point here was answered in the pages of Captain America. Captain America isn’t a conservative, and in fact sides with the same youth who questioned America’s government in the 1960s. What makes Captain America a radical figure is that he represents America’s ideals and not its government.

As for speaking out against a candidate and acknowledging corruption in government, take the case of Richard Nixon, who in the Marvel Universe ran a smear campaign against Captain America and when the Watergate scandal threatened to unseat him from power tried to overthrow the government of the United States via giant Kirby flying saucer. Captain America stopped his coup and pursued him into the Oval Office to deliver him to justice, where Nixon took his own life rather than answer for his crimes. (For more on this, you’ll have to wait for an upcoming People’s History of the Marvel Universe…)

But as with Superman, David Goyer seems to have a problem with characters who think they’re better than he is, even if that’s not the case:

“On another level, one has to wonder what type of man would have the audacity to proclaim himself a living symbol of America. Was he elected by the common people? Is he a tool of propaganda, invested by the government to promote democracy? Does the Captain unquestioningly accept whatever the current American policy is or does he formulate opinions on his own? What would happen if someone convinced Captain America that socialism was a better way of life? Now, granted, as an Avenger, he’s been sanctioned by the government and given official status as a protector of the peace. Do you honestly expect us to believe that the government would enlist a masked crusader without even knowing his true identity?”

Again, this is basic origin-story stuff. Steve Rogers didn’t proclaim himself anything – he signed up for a dangerous super-science experiment because it was the only way for him to fight fascism. (Which answers the question about his “true identity” – Rogers’ military service is a matter of public record!) and when the experiment worked, the U.S government gave him his costume, his shield, and his rank so that he could be a symbol to boost civilian morale during WWII:

Inline image 2And yes, Captain America makes his own judgement about public policy – which is why he brought down three SHIELD helicarriers in the Potomac River rather than let HYDRA destroy our constitutional rights to due process, and why he’s going to go mano-a-mano with Iron Man in the upcoming movie.

And as for socialism…well, you already know my opinion about that.

Conclusion

So why go on this long rant? Because I love comic books and comic book movies, and I think they can be more than mindless popcorn-fodder and certainly more than the depressing and immoral mess that Goyer has given us.

And because David Goyer is Hollywood’s go-to man for most of these movies, his influence can harm an entire genre. Hence why it was problematic that David Goyer was the man who got the call to adapt Constantine for TV despite not wanting to have Constantine be bi. And why I am deeply depressed that, of all writers working today, David Goyer is the one adapting Sandman

A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 9: The Mutant Metaphor (Part I)

This particular issue  is a long time coming – and fair warning, it’s going to be part one in a multi-part series; this topic is way too big to be covered in one go – because the “mutant metaphor” is absolutely core to the intersection between politics and Marvel Comics, and thus to the brief of this series.

A lot of people have discussed the manifold ways in which the “mutant metaphor” is problematic, but what I’m going to argue in this issue is that a big part of the problem with the “mutant metaphor” is that it wasn’t clearly defined from the outset, in part because it wasn’t anywhere close to the dominant thread of X-Men comics.[1] While always an element of the original run, as much time was spent on fighting giant Kirby robots or stopping the likes of Count Nefaria from encasing Washington D.C in a giant crystal bubble. And this was always problematic, because in the shared Marvel Universe, you need to explain why it is that the X-Men are “feared and hated” and must hide beneath the façade of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters in Westchester, whereas the Avengers and the Fantastic Four were treated as celebrities and could live openly on Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue, respectively.[2]

So what did the “mutant” metaphor mean initially?

peoples week 9 1One of the best ways to understand how the “mutant metaphor” was originally understood is to look at depictions of anti-mutant prejudice. In the early Stan Lee and Jack Kirby run, anti-mutant prejudice is described almost entirely as a mass phenomenon, a collective hysteria that takes hold of large groups of people. You can see this especially in the way that crowds of humans descend into violence in contexts that you wouldn’t normally expect them. Like sports events:

peoples week 9 2I haven’t been to many track and field events, but the normal reaction to record-breaking accomplishments is usually excitement rather than blinding rage. Likewise, what college football fan’s first reaction to a star running back’s Conference Championship-winning drive would be to assume that they must be super-powered, rather than be overjoyed. The text here suggests that part of the underlying psychology of anti-mutant prejudice is a kind of tall-poppy syndrome, where mutant abilities threaten the collective ego of humanity in ways that other superhumans do not. The Fantastic Four and Avengers et al. are largely the provenance of accident or super-science, which means that your average man on the street can either chalk them up to the whims of chance or aspire to join their ranks. But mutant abilities suggest that some people are born better than others.  And this theme of popular resentment of those with superior abilities was a common theme of 1950s and 1960s science fiction that Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” was satirizing, and certainly found its way into Marvel Comics via Steve Ditko’s objectivist approach to Spider-Man.

However, anti-mutant prejudice goes further than mere envy of this kind, to the point where it manifests instantly in situations where mutant powers have literally just been used to save human lives:

peoples week 9 3Especially in a world in which superheroes are a common occurrence, especially in New York City, it’s highly unusual that saving a child who’s trapped on top of a water tower or preventing an air conditioner from falling down onto a crowded sidewalk (albeit accidentally due to Scott’s mutant powers) should elicit such instant violence. Why is it that New Yorkers would react this way to Beast and Cyclops when they don’t toward Daredevil or the Human Torch?

By examining the text of these pages, I think we can get a better understanding of how the “mutant metaphor” originally functioned. On the left, the woman in the crowd says that mutants are in hiding among the human majority, “waiting to take over the world.” (A theme I’ll discuss in more detail in a future issue on the relationship between the “mutant metaphor” and especially the ideology of “evil mutants,” and the nuclear age) A man brandishing a fist puts forward the bizarrely illogical argument that Beast saves children as part of a nefarious plot to convince the human race that mutants are benevolent. Likewise, on the right, a crowd of people who were previously seconds from being squashed to death suddenly decide that their savior is “far more dangerous than a falling crate” and immediately try to murder him.

This particular line of dialogue speaks to a more specific form of mass hysteria and moral panic, a frequent theme of 1950s and 1960s science fiction (Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, Day of the Triffids, Day the Earth Stood Still) reacting to the Red Scare of the 1950s, where commies were supposedly lurking around every corner ready to sap the vital fluids of god-fearing Americans. And indeed, mutants share a key aspect with the feared commies – in the minds of ordinary humans, they are the hidden enemy who disguise their identity behind a façade of normalcy, and are plotting to overthrow . Indeed, this is one of the ways in which the link between the “mutant metaphor” and the Civil Rights Movement doesn’t quite work – outside of the phenomenon of passing, the visibility of blackness was one of the chief mechanisms of maintaining the color line.

On the other hand, this same hidden, underground quality gives rise to other meanings of the “mutant metaphor.” As many other writers have talked about before me, long before the idea of the X-Gene entered into the Marvel lexicon, mutancy’s grounding in inherited physiology gave it a link to adolescent sexuality. Ditko and Lee’s Spider-Man had already began Marvel’s link between super-powers and puberty, but whereas Peter Parker’s mutation had an exterior cause and had no visible signifiers (prior to the time Parker accidentally gave himself four extra arms), homo-superiority came from within and had to be hidden away. Thus the birth of the mutant closet:

peoples week 9 4 peoples week 9 5Both the Comics Code and the generational politics of the original creators meant that any link between Warren and Hank’s realization that their mutant bodies have to be hidden from human society and the experience of LGBT teenagers coming to grips with their sexuality in the 1960s and feeling forced into the closet by heteronormative society had to remain sub-textual, one can see the foundations that Chris Claremont would build on in the 1980s (more on this in future issues) and that Bryan Singer would gravitate to in the early 2000s. In this sense, the protean character of the “mutant metaphor” works to its advantage, allowing the X-Comics to contain multitudes.

At the same time, I don’t want to leave you with the idea that the “mutant metaphor” had nothing to do with race or the Civil Rights Movement (my opinion about Magneto to the side). Given that the first X-Men comic was published in 1963, it would have taken some deliberately unobservant and disconnected creators to prevent there from being any allusion. Rather, I would argue that the connections were gradual, building (over the course of five years) on initial resonances through a series of back-matter stories from issue #38-49 focused on exploring the origins of the X-Men. And one common thread in all of these stories is the omnipresence of anti-mutant prejudice – Scott Summers running from a mob hurling the newly coined epithet of “mutie,” Beast’s parents worried about their son being perceived as a freak, and Bobby Drake facing a form of mob justice when he defends himself and his date from bullies:

peoples week 9 6Whereas the travails of Scott Summers or Hank McCoy often featured lone individuals against anonymous mobs, Bobby Drake’s story shows an evolution of the theme. Iceman’s origin story roots itself in the story of a rural community that embraces a familiar form of vigilantism:

peoples week 9 7 peoples week 9 8A mob of rural whites whose first response to an incident between a young minority man, a young woman from the majority who he’s dating, and a group of toughs is a “lynching,” a sheriff trying to stand up for the rule of law being dismissed as a “mutant-lover” – literary post-modernism be damned, there really isn’t any other way to read this scene than as an explicit reference to racism in 1960s America. And if there’s going to be a “mutant metaphor,” far better that it be a metaphor with some real teeth than a vague hand-waving in the direction of prejudice.

Trying to make the “mutant metaphor” into a vehicle that could explore race is obviously a task that is beyond what could be done in the back-matter of a comic book on the decline. And so much of the work of developing the “mutant metaphor” would fall to Chris Claremont, which is a subject for a future issue. But at least the original run gave us a teenage Bobby Drake as James Dean:

peoples week 9 9And given the importance of Rebel Without a Cause to the gay canon, both for the themes of the movie and James Dean’s own bisexuality, it’s kind of amazing that people ever thought Iceman was heterosexual…


[1] After constructing a Zotero database of the original 93 issues (keeping in mind that issues #67-93 were reprints and not original stories), it’s noticeable that depictions of anti-mutant prejudice only appear in 21 issues, and discussions of mutant identity only appears in 25 issues.

[2] While there are some who argue that the different reactions to mutants and other superheroes mean that the X-Men don’t really fit in the Marvel Universe, I’ve never been of that opinion. We can see many examples in the real world of celebrities who are considered to be exceptions to public attitudes toward their ethnic or religious group or their sexual or gender identity. Rather, I think there’s room for stories that confront that differential treatment – that raise the question of why the Fantastic Four haven’t been more vocal about mutant rights given that Franklin is a mutant, and so forth.

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…

A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 7: Magneto vs. Erik Lensherr

As I discussed last issue, Silver Age Magneto was a very different kind of antagonist than the ones that fans of the X-Men are familiar with today, due to changes put in place by Chris Claremont. It’s surprisingly how quickly this happened; only eleven issues into his run, Claremont had begun a conscious and sustained effort to transform the character. (Then again, that was very much his style, with Jean Grey dying and coming back as Phoenix all happened within the first eight issues of his run.)

So how did Claremont turn Magneto from a Silver Age Snidely Whiplash into this?

magneto 1Magneto as Milton’s Satan

First and foremost, Claremont invested Magneto with a sense of personal presence and dignity that made him a villain to be respected rather than despised. Rather than a cringing coward who ran at the first sign of danger and who primarily relied on his bullied subordinates to fight the X-Men, Magneto was re-imagined as a fearless antagonist who would fight the whole team by himself:

magneto 2Both writers and artists were key to this change – in X-Men #111, Claremont has Magneto politely wait for the X-Men to free themselves from the thrall of Mesmero (indeed, he casually defeats Mesmero off-panel just to get him out of the way) before challenging them himself. At the same time, John Byrne depicts Magneto as a powerfully muscular figure who looks like he could put up a challenge to an entire team of superheroes. Indeed two issues later, Magneto will actually trade punches with Colossus himself and hold his own.

In addition to his physical improvement, the un-de-aging of Magneto (one of the stranger but ultimately highly productive ret-cons in X-Men history) enhanced his mutant powers to the point where, rather than being repeatedly foiled as he was in the Silver Age, he defeated the entire team on his own, making him an adversary to be feared:

magneto 3Power level is enough to make a villain a genuine threat, but it’s not enough to make a villain memorable – Doomsday is a powerful villain, but he’s not exactly a villain that anyone really cares about. Equally important, therefore, is creating a personality that makes the villain a memorable character. And Claremont went out of his way to make Magneto not only compelling but almost admirable. Firstly, he removed Silver Age Magneto’s sadism (a trait that works for a lot of villains, but isn’t suited to a villain who’s supposed to be Xavier’s ideological equal and opposite number) and emphasized Magneto’s idealism:

magneto 4Secondly, he emphasized Magneto’s willpower as a core part of his personality. Whereas previously Magneto’s ability to fight off Xavier’s telepathy was explained by Stan Lee’s lack of understanding of magnetism, now Magneto was simply so strong-willed that he could go up against the strongest telepath on Earth and hold his own:

magneto 5Willpower is a great attribute of classic arch-enemies. While you can have good weak-willed enemies (think Bizarro or Juggernaut), their more straightforward natures limit the kind of stories you can tell about them, which makes them better secondary threats. But to give your heroes (and your readers) an arch-enemy they can really sink their teeth into, you need someone with iron resolve who will keep on fighting to the bitter end. It’s probably the main reason why Doctor Doom is one of the best villain characters ever created, because no matter how despicable he may be, there’s still something admirable about him. (Incidentally, one of the best Doctor Doom moments ever was that he defeated the Purple Man through sheer willpower, because Doom kneels to no one!)

Thirdly, and this turned out to be the most fruitful change, is to give Magneto emotional depth. Whereas Silver Age Magneto wanted only to be feared rather than loved, Claremont’s Magneto had a tragic backstory (at this point, confined to a lost love) that showed he had a softer, one might even say, human, side:

magneto 6What all of these categories have in common is that they’re ideal for a Villain Protagonist, a character who could share a stage with Professor Xavier in political debates, who could challenge the X-Men not only in combat but also to reconsider their previously held notions, and who could change in interesting ways throughout the course of Claremont’s run.

magneto 7The difference between the two versions of Magneto is akin to the difference in the portraits of Satan in Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost. While both epic poems depict Lucifer as a powerful figure, the former is far more limited than the latter, not only because Dante’s Satan is literally stuck in the lowest ring of hell, but also because there’s a limit to the kinds of stories you can tell about Satan as a giant red monster with giant wings and three faces. By contrast, Milton’s Satan is imbued with a strong sense of individualism and drive that he can function as the protagonist of Paradise Lost, and such a rich and complex personality that William Blake argued “the reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”

Magneto as Holocaust Survivor

In addition to these changes, most famously, Magneto’s backstory was given a central focus that has defined his character to the present day. While earlier generation of Marvel creators like Jack Kirby had been passionately anti-Nazi in the 1940s, Chris Claremont was part of a younger generation of New York Jews (Kirby grew up on the Lower East Side in the 1920s, whereas Claremont grew up on Long Island in the 1950s) who were more comfortable with describing characters as Jewish or discussing the Holocaust. And so, starting in Issue #150, Magneto was revealed to have been a Holocaust survivor – and this wasn’t an incidental reveal but something that would be developed substantially over time:

magneto 8Rather than a coded or vague allusion, Magneto’s identity was made clear in both visuals and text – not only did he bear the tattoo of a concentration camp inmate, but he named the most famous death camp of them all, Auschwitz, as the place where he “grew up” and where his family died.[1] And while there’s always been a degree of ambiguity to his coding as Jewish, the fact that this detail is revealed when Magneto meets Xavier in Israel as an immigrant volunteering in a psychiatric hospital for survivors made it fairly clear at the time.

magneto 9To me, this is an example of why retcons can be a positive force in comics writing. By placing Magneto in a historically-specific environment, not only does it has significant implications for his political ideology (more on this in the next section), but it also provides a much deeper connection with Professor Xavier. The man whose political opposite he now embodies was once a friend and colleague in a common project aimed at healing the wounds of the most profound act of violence directed at a genetic minority in modern history. And to me, this is how the “mutant metaphor” works best – not with mutancy acting as a stand-in for real-world hatred, but rather historical examples of oppression (for both us and characters in the X-Men universe) providing context for mutants dealing with anti-mutant prejudice (as I’ll discuss in the next section).

For Magneto, this element of his backstory ties together all the other elements of his new personality. He is fearless because he’s already experienced the worst fear imaginable and survived it; he’s powerful because he’s profoundly driven to never be powerless again; he is strong-willed because if he wasn’t, he would be dead. And finally, his experiences add to his emotional depth by making a personal loss something more universal – in contrast to the “inciting incident” for most comic-book villains.

And for Chris Claremont, who wanted organic character development – where, rather than being trapped in status-quo stasis, characters would mature and change even to the extent of leaving the X-Men – Magneto’s new past was something that could motivate him to change:

magneto 10In X-Men #150, when Magneto constructs a volcano-machine on his island fortress (which I’ll discuss more later), Kitty Pryde disrupts the machine with her phasing power and “Magneto ruthlessly responds, ending a lethal charge of electricity through her.” Magneto immediately recoils, realizing that realizes he has become what he has hated and feared, having (seemingly, because this is still Comics Code era Marvel) killed a mutant child. And it’s not an accident that the target of his wroth and the reason for his change of heart is Kitty Pryde, who isn’t just a mutant but is also openly Jewish. It’s not a particularly subtle scenario, but it lends the scene a certain energy and power.

It’s also a scene that the Silver Age Magneto simply wasn’t capable of acting in. However, the question remains, what is the reason for this change?

The Ideology of a Mutant Revolutionary

The purpose of all of these changes wasn’t to make Magneto so sympathetic that the reader would view him to be the hero (although as we’ll see in the future, it did put him in a place where he could become the headmaster of the Xavier School), but rather to make him a villain of prominence who could function as Xavier’s ideological equal and opposite. When Claremont had Magneto move from confronting the X-Men to once again engaging in super-villainy, he presented him as a revolutionary extremist:

magneto 11The costume – red jumpsuit, purple gloves, cloak, and briefs, stylish helmet – is the same, and the demand for world conquest and threatening global destruction is the same as Silver Age Magneto, arguably a direct homage to his public addresses in X-Men #1. What makes the difference is that Silver Age Magneto was a plain and simple tyrant whose thinking went no further than crude Social Darwinism, whereas Claremont’s Magneto has a larger political agenda driving his demands:

magneto 12There is a lot to talk about with this page, which is rather unusual for Marvel Comics (and not just because it does really weird things with the 180 degree rule). To begin with, it depicts actual politicians – Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Leonid Breshnev, and Zhou Enlai (although it should be Ye Jianying and Zhao Ziyang) are all recognizable (although the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Kenya seem more generic) – positing that Magneto is an actor in real-world global politics. Moreover, the layout of his speech posits that different nations are being singled out for Magneto’s particular political issues – Magneto points the finger of blame for anti-mutant prejudice at the United States and Great Britain (possibly a reference to Reagan and Thatcher’s less than friendly policies to racial and sexual minorities), of nuclear war at the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, and lists his demands for disarmament with leaders of the third world.

The content of his speech is also worthy of discussion. First, Magneto presents himself as a mutant nationalist, who believes that his powers “set me apart, and above, humanity” and who will act to safeguard his people from the threats (both intentional and inadvertent) that human beings pose. To this end, Magneto also presents himself as a non-aligned political actor, taking on both the Western world, the Soviet bloc, and the developing world, at a time when the Cold War was in one of its most tense periods.[2] Second, Magneto takes a strong anti-nuclear stance at a time when the nuclear freeze movement was at its height in the U.S and Europe, but again from a perspective of mutant nationalism as his primary concern is that “in the process, you might destroy my people as well.” Magneto’s aims go even further than nuclear disarmament, however, demanding total disarmament of conventional military weaponry as well as the threat of obliteration by volcano.

Moreover, as we learn from Magneto’s conversation with Scott Summers and Lee Forrester in the same issue, Magneto’s agenda goes further than just being a really militant anti-nuclear activist. His demands for total political control of the earth are not merely a reverse Cincinnatus drive to eliminate war and then resign:

magneto 13 magneto 14Rather, Magneto sees himself as an enlightened tyrant, uniquely capable (due to his mutant powers) of bringing about a global golden age by redistributing the peace dividend to end “hunger, disease, poverty.” At the same time, so convinced is he of his own righteousness and capability that Magneto sees no need for compromise, dissent, or even the formalities of democracy. Again, we see the strains of extreme individualism and pride of Milton’s Satan at work, shaping his vision of utopia. The purpose of all of this is to create a villain whose goals are so admirable that we can’t help but feel that he has a point, but whose methods are so extreme and flawed that the X-Men can not only fight Magneto, but also offer a philosophic critique:

magneto 15Thus, not only do the X-Men swing into the fray to face down Magneto and destroy his volcano-machine on Octopusheim, but Magneto has his “what have I done?” moment that makes him question his actions, because the best X-Men stories are about more than punching people.

At the same time, in order to make Magneto’s newly-developed ideology seem authentic, Claremont also tied in his backstory as a survivor to explain why he “believes that homo sapiens and homo superior can never live together in peace:”

magneto 16As Claremont’s narration makes explicitly clear, Magneto’s political beliefs are founded in his experience in Auschwitz – he’s seen human beings hate and fear a racial minority to the point of genocide, so it seems perfectly reasonable that the same could happen with mutants, a racial minority with actual super-powers. As I said above, I think this is a case of how the mutant metepahor functions best with using the real world to provide context for mutancy; in Lee and Kirby’s run, anti-mutant prejudice was an infrequent and poorly-explained element of the X-Men’s story, especially in a world when superpowered beings like the Fantastic Four and the Avengers were enthusiastically embraced by mainstream culture. But anti-semitism is a real social and cultural phenomenon that has shaped world history both in our universe and in the Marvel Universe, so it gives weight to Magneto’s beliefs.

This is especially the case when you consider that in the Marvel Universe, Nazism is a far more persistent threat than it was in our history. In the same issue in which Magneto and Xavier meet in Israel and set out their ideological disagreements, Baron Strucker of HYDRA attacks the mental hospital in which they work, in order to abduct Gaby, a Jewish concentration camp survivor who is also a mutant whose power is to turn things into gold, in order to use her powers to finance the Fourth Reich in a plotline that has strong allusions to gold stolen by Nazis and hidden in Swiss bank accounts or abandoned in train cars in Poland. Xavier and Magneto thwart Baron Strucker and HYDRA, Xavier because that’s what heroes do and Magneto because no matter how much of a villain he might be in the moment he’s anti-Nazi first, but in a way that eludicates a lot about Magneto’s worldview and the roots of his ideology:

magneto 17 magneto 18To begin with, we can see that Magneto holds a profoundly cynical view of “the essential goodness of man” rooted in his experiences that “hate is more popular than love, fear more prevalent than trust.” The extent to which this attitude and the attendant belief of the inevitability of genocidal conflict between humans and mutants are rooted in his experience of the Holocaust is made explicit by his parting words to Xavier that “mutants will not go meekly to the gas chambers – we will fight and we will win.”[3] Magneto’s vision of the future, therefore, is essentially his past rewritten, with humans taking the position of the Nazis and mutants of the Jews. (And as we’ll discuss in future issues, given the dystopian futures of a Sentinel-driven mutant Holocaust predicted in Days of Future Past and future comics, he’s not far wrong.)

One of the themes that will be explored periodically in X-Men comics, therefore, is the fact that Magneto seems to have internalized much of the worldview thrust upon him in the camps – the major difference between Magneto’s and Strucker’s view of racial conflict is that Magneto takes the side of the mutant and will work to see their victory. To that end, he’s willing to use any means necessary – including here stealing Nazi gold to finance his revolution. At the same time, there seems to be an unexplored contradiction in Magneto’s thinking – for all that he claims to “care nothing for…homo sapiens,” Magneto clearly had enough of an attachment to his Jewish identity to move to Israel in the 1950s, and in X-Men #199 we find that he participates in annual gatherings of Holocaust survivors. Does he view those survivors as homo sapiens who he must destroy lest they destroy him?

In spite of what some people have argued (and smarter people have corrected), very little of this resembles the ideology of Malcolm X, outside of the fact that both are drawing from nationalist thought traditions. If anything, Magneto’s ideology is much closer to some of the more militantly right-wing tendencies of Revisionist Zionism that emerged in the 1930s and 1940s – the belief in an inevitable racial conflict for control of territory, the disdain for democratic systems, and especially the rhetoric of the gas chamber and other symbols of the Holocaust used to justify violent action.

But to see how someone with those views could later become Headmaster of the Xavier School, you’ll have to wait until A People’s History of the Marvel Universe covers…the Trial of Magneto!


[1] Which makes it interesting that most of Magneto’s aggressive actions in the Claremont run are directed against the Soviet Union, which liberated Auschwitz on January 27th, 1945. Something that might be interesting for writers to explore.

[2] Incidentally, one of the things that I’d love to see developed more in comic books is the exploration of how world politics is different in the Marvel Universe, given the presence of powerful non-aligned nation-states like Namor’s Atlantis, the Black Panther’s Wakanda, Doctor Doom’s Latveria, and the Inhumans’ Atillan.

[3] One could also argue that Magneto’s experiences also lead him to believe in the inevitability of all forms of conflict – hence his identifying nuclear war as a present danger to mutants. Indeed, the idea of a nuclear apocalypse is a running theme in the X-Men, a subject I’ll be addressing in a future issue.

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