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People’s History of the Marvel Universe, WandaVision Special: The Difficult question of Jewish and Romani Representation

The following is originally a Tumblr post from a couple years back (as you can see from some of the contemporary references) that I held back from publishing because I wanted to have a Roma sensitivity reader take a look at it first, and then never got around to finishing when other things came up despite their very kind assistance. However, the popularity of WandaVision brought back some pre-existing discourse around Elizabeth Olsen’s casting as a non-Romani actress and Joss Whedon and pre-Feige Marvel executives’ decision to reimagine Wanda and Pietro Maximoff as radicalized Sokovian nationalists rather than Romani.

This reminded me of the unfinished post I’d written about the difficult question of Romani representation in comics rooted in problematic decisions made during Marvel’s Silver Age and its particular relationship to subtextual Judaism in the work of assimilated Jewish creators. So after the break, I’ve posted an edited and elaborated version of my original post.

One comics related question, Victor von Doom is Roma, a poor Roma in his origin at that, but he has “Von” in his title? Is it that Lee-Kirby never consulted the Almanach de Gotha, a reference to Erich von Stroheim (who was after all a Jewish haberdasher who passed himself as a aristo in hollywood and popularized the “von” concept)? But more importantly how does Doom being a proud Roma with a fake Junker aristo name work as a concept? Is Doom appropriating the Nazi-aristocratic culture?

Ok…this is a tricky topic, because I really don’t want to undercut any of the people pushing for better Roma representation in comics, especially with everything going on with Secret Empire and Peter Alan David’s rant at NYCC. However, Silver Age (and later) comics creators hadn’t usually done much cultural research with regard to the Romani, and tended to base their portrayals in the kind of tropes set out by Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Universal Pictures’ Wolfman films. These tropes tended to traffic in both Romantic exoticism and anti-Romani stereotypes, and (as I’ll explain when I get into some examples) were used by Marvel creators in a way that arguably involved ethnic erasure, which raises questions about how we think about these characters as positive or negative representation.

To answer the original Tumblr ask, with Victor Von Doom, honestly I think the process didn’t go much further than: repeated Vs sound good and while Doom makes no sense as a last name that would exist in reality, there’s the repeated D’s of Doctor Doom, and “von” sounds Junkerish and (thanks to American propaganda from WWI and WWII) we all know the Junkers are bad guys – without any real reference to the sociocultural meanings of European naming conventions and ethnicities.[1] Then Stan Lee and Jack Kirby probably moved on from a name to the character concept of Victor Von Doom as a tyrant (in the original Greek sense of the term) who overthrew the traditional order; why would Victor hate the old order, well he was persecuted, what’s a group that’s persecuted, Romani are persecuted, so go with that. In Von Doom’s case, things get even more problematic, because von Doom’s Romani heritage was used as a way to explain why Doctor Doom has mastery over magi as well as super-science:

Where I think things become even more complicated is when we get to characters like Magneto, Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver. Because whereas Romani identity probably wasn’t a major element of the character creation process for Von Doom, here I feel like Romani was used as a background as a way to bring up Nazi racial ideology and the Holocaust without explicitly labeling anyone as Jewish. Despite the fact that Magneto, Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver’s creators Jack Kirby and Stan Lee were Jewish and had (Jack more so than Stan) progressive anti-Nazi politics, there was still something of a tendency in pop culture of that era to keep Jewishness subtextual to which the original generation of comics creators was no exception – something that is explored in excellent detail in Abraham Riesman’s True Believer.

Thus, it wasn’t until the Bronze Age of comics where a younger generation of Jewish creators like Chris Claremont took over the franchise that Magneto was revealed to be Jewish. As a result, some awkward retconning took place, such that Erik Lensherr (or Magnus or Max Eisenhardt) now had escaped Auschwitz and joined a Romani caravan, where he met Magda and then fathered Wanda and Pietro and then left. Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t Romani of Jewish faith or people of mixed Jewish/Romani ethnicity, but given that what little use of Romani cultural identifiers there is in these cases – which generally boils down to the stereotypical caravans of painted wagons, men wearing vests, and an ill-defined state of persecution – makes no reference to the Zhutane Roma, I don’t think that’s what Lee and Kirby were going for.

Rather, I think creators reached for Romani backgrounds because these creators thought that Roma shared tropes associated with European Jews – Eastern European origins, oppressed minority status, an “otherized” cultural difference from the perceived mainstream – so that they could stand in for Jewish, without running into the problems with either management or the consuming public that Jewishness was believed to run afoul of, while adding exoticized elements that might move more sales units.

And it’s this assumed sameness and safeness I have a problem with, because embedded in there is an assumption that Romani aren’t a real living people and culture, that they are instead a stock trope of fairytales and Gothic horror and thus can be used as a costume, whereas Jews are a real people and culture and thus it would be inappropriate or bad business to depict them directly.

That’s always stuck in my craw when it comes to some of these characters because I’ve never been quite sure whether Erik, Pietro, and Wanda are really supposed to be Romani representation or whether these characters are Jews in Romani-face. Making it all the more complicated is the fact that Marvel doesn’t seem to be comfortable with the situation either; hence the large number of retcons that have taken place that revolve around Wanda and Pietro’s parentage and Magneto’s own ethnic heritage. Are Wanda and Pietro ethnically Romani, or merely adopted? Are they the biological children of Magneto or not, and what does that mean for their Jewish identity? Is Magneto himself a Jew from Warsaw or a Sinti Romani from Gdansk? It all depends on when and which creators one asks.

This uncertainty, however, leaves some significant questions unresolved: is it better, given the fact that almost no minority-group representation in comics (Silver Age or no) is that good to begin with, to have bad representation or none at all? How do we deal with situations in which members of one minority group are appropriating the culture of another to smuggle their own experience into the dominant narrative?

In the end, I think that it can never be satisfying for either Jews or Romani to have one group play-acting as the other – but the real issue is that neither should have to settle for that simply because there’s so little representation for either group that the two groups find themselves fighting over scraps. The answer is that comics companies need to commit to more robust representation both in quantity and quality, such that we don’t have characters having to shoulder the entire weight of being “the” representation for an entire group, let alone more than one.

[1] The Junker class were hereditary landed nobility in Prussia (more specifically from the north-eastern regions of Prussia) who had something of a lock on military and administrative positions, first within the Kingdom of Prussia and then within the German Empire of 1871-1918. The Junkers tended to be actively pro-monarchist and anti-democratic, and bitterly hostile to both free-market liberalism and Socialism, and because of their dominance within the German Army became stock figures (think buzz cuts, monocles, and dueling scars) of German militarism in both WWI and WWII. More to the point, a Junker would always have the noble title of “von” in their last names, no Romani would ever have been allowed the honorific under the pre-Weimar monarchies, and the Junkers were generally pretty hostile to Romani in much the same way that they tended to be hostile to German and Polish Jews.    

Workers of the world! Here’s a list of comics to celebrate your Labor Day

Ah, the pleasures of having Labor Day off to celebrate work. It’s a contradiction as old as time, where honoring work means taking a (well-deserved and utterly necessary) break from it. After all, most workers have jobs that go year-round and the daily grind does take a toll. A day off is the least that can be afforded to them.

Recognition is the other thing we should doling out in industrial quantities during this federal holiday. As such, comic books are filled with stories about the fruits of labor, both in a literal and a politically figurative sense. Be it by actually exploring the hardships of being a worker to acknowledging the monumental task that is organizing movements in support of them, labor is central to the motivations behind some of comic’s best stories.

Here’s a short list of comics that either directly or indirectly showcase the roles workers play in keeping life and society functional. These comics dive headfirst into the specifics of what ‘putting in the work’ means, recognizing that everything that’s done in the service of others usually rests on human struggles both painful and exhausting. The comics below give workers their time in the spotlight so we can appreciate just how much it takes to go out and keep the world turning.

Labor Day Comics

1. Trashed, written and illustrated by Derf Backderf

This book can best be described as a sobering love letter to one of the most underappreciated and openly repudiated jobs known to humankind: garbage collection. Following Backderf’s critically-acclaimed My Best Friend Dahmer, Trashed is based on the author’s time as a sanitation worker himself, surrounded by other workers just as enthused about collecting trash as he was (which wasn’t a whole lot). The inner workings of sanitation are presented through a combination of autobiographical anecdotes and well-researched facts and data that reveal just how complex, dangerous, and even clumsy picking up and storing trash can be. It’s a funny but scary look at how sanitation can save the world while also turn it into a ticking time bomb.

Damage Control

2. Damage Control, originally created by Dwayne McDuffie (W) and Ernie Colón (A)

A superhero’s job is to save the day, crumbling infrastructure be damned. With them, though, comes a unique concern for property damage, mostly focused on the inevitability of mass destruction. In comes a company solely dedicated to cleaning up after extinction-level battles and then putting the pieces back together called Damage Control. In essence, this Marvel comic is about unsung heroes. It’s about doing essential work knowing there’s no glory waiting at the end of it (much like Trashed, in some respects). McDuffie’s scripts are a masterclass on chaos and property politics, but it’s Colón’s attention to detail amidst the chaos that sets this story apart. The original series (there are a total of 4 series published) takes to a kind of MAD Magazine-style approach to comedy with visual gags and crude humor leading the charge, but it’s all well-orchestrated and it makes for reading that rewards those who scan comics pages whole multiple times.

Labor Day Comics

3. She-Hulk: Law and Disorder, written by Charles Soule and illustrated by Javier Pulido

At a glance, Soule and Pulido’s She-Hulk gives the impression of being a kind of ‘slice of life’ story about a superhero that chooses law as her preferred battleground. The book, however, is about so much more, and it might have more in common with Damage Control than an actual legal drama. She-Hulk takes the anger-filled superhero and turns her into a working-class woman that’s trying (and struggling) to make her own legal services business work. She puts it all together from the ground up but is immediately confronted with the hardships of balancing work, heroics, and the semblance of a personal life on an even keel. One of the greatest, and most entertaining, aspects of the comic lies in the formation of the character’s legal practice and how at odds it can be being both a superhero and a normal person with other interests. It dives deep into the complications of working multiple jobs, but it shows an appreciation for those who lead their lives under that predicament. Soule and Pulido create a story that supports and applauds those who undertake the task of holding several jobs at once, honoring the sacrifice it requires of one’s self to survive it.

Labor Day Comics
Ex Machina

4. Ex Machina, written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Tony Harris

While aggressively political and metaphorical, Ex Machina does something few other stories on governmental responsibility manage to achieve: make the role of an elected official look and feel like a real job. The story follows Mitchel Hundred, a man that renounces his superhero persona to become mayor of New York city. After only managing to save one of the Twin Towers during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hundred realizes he can do more good as an elected official rather than as a superhero. Vaughan and Harris take full advantage of this setup to go beyond political speeches and discourse to get Hundred’s hands dirty with the real act of running a government. Hundred has to address the legality of surveillance in times of crisis, protocols for public demonstrations, controversial content in city museums, infrastructure, and police freedoms all while controlling the urge to use his still functioning superpowers to speed the process up. As is the case in She-Hulk, Hundred also attempts (with few successes) to balance his personal life with the job. Problem is, the job demands too much of his time, hence the temptation to use his powers. Ex Machina is a stark reminder that being an elected official actually means holding down a job with real consequences attached to it, something many politicians seem to have lost sight of.

Gotham Central

5. Gotham Central: In the Line of Duty, written by Ed Brubaker & Greg Rucka and illustrated by Michael Lark

The profession of law enforcement is under serious scrutiny at the present moment, and rightfully so, but it’s still a job certain men and women take on despite the complexities of outdated and dysfunctional practices that are in desperate need of revision. And that’s on top of the racial problems that have shaped its many, many systems. However, there are those who do take the job seriously and work hard to ‘protect and serve’ with the best of intentions under the law. Gotham Central prioritizes this viewpoint, focusing the cops and detectives that work in Batman’s Gotham City. Without the resources or the exceptions afforded to the Dark Knight, the GCPD is still tasked with responding to criminal activity, regardless of whether it’s of the supervillain type or not. Main characters René Montoya, Crispus Allen, Marcus Driver, and “Josie Mac” MacDonald, among others, are divided into day and night shifts in a city that is in a constant flux of crime. The job takes its toll on a personal level and there’s an emphasis on how much one gives in the line of duty, but there’s also an appreciation of honest cops walking the line in the face of overwhelming police corruption and abuse. It’s a complicated and sometimes contradictory read, but it makes no excuses while confronting the damning inconsistencies of the job.

Labor Day comics
Wooblies!: A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World

6. Wooblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World, edited by Peter Buhle & Nicole Schulman

The Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, has a wild and exuberant history, to say the least, which makes it the ideal subject for comic book storytelling. The IWW was created in Chicago, Illinois in 1905 as a union for marginalized workers led by Marxist principles. Miners, lumber workers, immigrant workers, indigenous workers, non-white workers, severely underrepresented female workers, and workers all over that had no rights or protections saw in the IWW as the means to fight towards better working conditions. Wooblies! (alluding to the nickname given to the members of the union) enlists the talents of cartoonists such as Peter Kuper, Harvey Pekar, Trina Robbins, Sharon Rudahl, Sue Coe, Carlos Cortez, among others to tell the story of how forgotten and underrepresented workers rose up against the odds to gain the rights and respect owed to them. The anthology has a very underground ‘comix’ feel to it, but it’s allegorical and metaphorical inclinations do a better job of capturing labor struggles better than a traditional story ever could. This might be the quintessential Labor Day reading right here.

Workers, laborers, holders of jobs, these comics honor your contributions, your efforts, and the near impossible feats you pull off. Read and relax, but overall, enjoy your hard-earned Labor Day holiday.

Bury Me Furiously: Death of X and The AIDS Epidemic

Death of X #3 cover
Death of X #3 Cover by Aaron Kuder. Written by Charles Soule, Published November 02, 2016, Marvel Comics

I take this discourse on with utter admiration for those who fought to break the silence surrounding the AIDS crisis, some of whom I’ve been honored enough to know, and be mentored by. 

Content Warnings: Police Brutality, Images of Tear Gas, White Supremacy, Transphobia, Workplace Discrimination, AIDS & HIV, Homophobia, Ronald Reagan, the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and, Rayshard Brooks.

“…out of love and rage.”

I’ve been thinking about how the structures of power that we place our trust in are designed to leave us to die. Amidst a global pandemic, we’ve lost many communal assumptions about the security and protection we should expect from “our government”, though many marginalized folks have seen the cracks for ages. It’s not the first time that the United States government has left thousands to die from a virus though. Nor is it the first time that a virus has been then inappropriately politicized by the established right. Marvel’s Death of X (2016) is a comic mini-series that revealed for readers the events that catalyzed a protracted conflict between the Inhumans and the X-Men that defined the books of its time. 

Death of X presents mutants with yet another extinction-level threat, the Terrigen mists, which are both garden of Eden and the grim reaper. This series is not shy about establishing a juxtaposition between Inhuman prosperity and propagation at the cost of mutant annihilation. It’s baked into the art, the dialogue, and even page layouts. In Death of X, mutants aren’t fighting for dominance over the Inhumans, they aren’t even explicitly fighting the Inhumans in this series, they are textually fighting against extinction itself. This isn’t an attempt to vilify the Inhumans or to suggest that the Inhumans don’t deserve to have their story told or see their culture thrive, but it’s simply an untenable and indefensible model of prosperity if it involves the destruction of the mutant race. 

Death of X #4, Jeff Lemire, Charles Soule, and Aaron Kuder, November 23, 2016, Marvel Comics

The imagery of the Terrigen cloud itself feels more politically charged in the summer of 2020 than it did in 2016. The sight of a pale, toxic cloud, rolling over the entire planet, carries an entirely new association for me. It feels like a haunting nod to the world right outside our window, as protests continue to erupt in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and, Rayshard Brooks. While the conversation on how Black communities are asymmetrically subjected to police brutality & murder may be new to some, I want to acknowledge that these are only four of the most recent losses in a long line of deaths that continue to shake Black Communities. 

Tear gas rises above as protesters face off with police during a demonstration outside the White House over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police in Washington, DC, on May 31, 2020. Photo by Samuel Corum AFP

Racist violence is baked into the very DNA of the Amerikkkan police, which grew out of slave-patrols. Now, rallying behind the strength and dedication of the Black Lives Matter movement, many are engaged in a nation-wide protest of white supremacy and police brutality and the intrinsic connections between the two. Nearly every social media platform seems to be flooded with images of protesters, taking to the streets to stand against the history of racist, police brutality, and the white-supremacist government that perpetuates and accelerates this violence and injustice. A massive amount of these images show protesters engulfed in massive clouds of pale tear gas, deployed by militarized police forces, which is known to be lethal, as well as an abortifacient. My implicit image of the streets is no longer full of cars or bicycles but consumed by a cloud of pale toxic gas. The Terrigen cloud now feels tied to the cruel and oppressive police-state we have always lived within. The Terrigen Mists are not only a direct threat to mutants’ lives, but are also a controlling element in how they navigate public spaces. Like the many clouds of tear gas that roll throughout our street, Terrigen Clouds determine who, when, where, and how a person can navigate the world. Mutants have to live in certain places, they need to restrict their travel, Terrigen-proof bunkers are built by the privileged elites; every aspect of public mutant life is impacted by their presence.

A protester tries to talk the police back amid tear gas in downtown Atlanta, Sunday, May 31, 2020. Ben Gray Atlanta Journal

“A Silent War”

Demonstrators from the organization ACT UP protest in front of the headquarters of the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA opened up access to experimental drugs soon after.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Death of X  is a story that for me, has been transformed into an allegory for the AIDs and HIV epidemic, and the fierce battle against the institutions who allowed the virus to wreak havoc on marginalized communities. It’s certainly an unexpected interpretation of the story, given that there have been previous attempts to tell similar stories through the use of the Legacy Virus. I could go on for another 2000 words discussing how often the use of the subtextual virus falls shorter than the typical mutant metaphor tends to. But this isn’t that kind of essay. This is my attempt to share some of the internal transformations that this series has taken on for me. This is not an assertion of the hermeneutical veracity of my interpretation, but perhaps an opportunity to provide another facet to your own.

The “ACT-UP” movement, was a “ …diverse, non-partisan group of individuals, united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis.” ACT UP played a crucial role in breaking public and institutional silence surrounding AIDs and HIV, in the process likely saved thousands of lives. At a time where the dominant systems of power wanted to either ignore this epidemic or falsely politicize the virus to support their own bigotry (not much has changed) ACT-UP (short for AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) led the fight for survival.

Death of X opens with a team of mutants led by Scott Summers, Emma Frost, and Magick, investigating a disturbing distress call from Muir Island, sent by Jamie Madrox. What the reader and the X-Men both quickly learn is that Muir Island has become a graveyard. They stumble upon an abandoned research facility and a dead mutant. It’s not long until the team discovers a mass grave just down the hill from the research facility, filled with the corpses of Jamie Madrox. It’s here that Scott and Emma learn that the Terrigen Mists, the cloud that essentially (re)births an Inhuman, catalyzing the manifestation of their abilities, is deadly to mutants. From this point on Muir Island becomes a geo-political flashpoint for the mutant struggle in this story. Aside from being the base of operations for the Uncanny X-Men throughout the story, Muir Island becomes a place of mourning, a place of loss, as it transforms quite literally into a graveyard. There are a few panels in both the first and second issues that show this quite literally. 

Death of X #1, Jeff Lemire, Charles Soule, and Aaron Kuder, October 5, 2016, Marvel Comics

In the first issue, we confront truly grim images such as a landscape covered by piles of Jamie Madrox’s corpses, who has succumbed to the M-Pox virus. We literally see the landscape of Muir Island itself, covered in death. In the second issue, we see mutants traveling from far and wide to pay their respects to fallen mutants laid to rest in unmarked graves. The somber visual of this pilgrimage to Muir Island, to mourn fallen friends, family, and comrades feel conceptually and visually evocative of Hart Island. Some may be familiar with Hart Island from the second season of FX’s POSE, (season 2, episode 1) when Praytell (Billy Porter) and Blanca Evangelista (MJ Rodriguez) travel to a stark, remote island to pay respects to a friend and lover who died of HIV related pneumonia. The episode accurately depicts Hart Island as it was; a remote island where hundreds of New Yorkers who died of AIDS and HIV related causes were isolated and buried if their bodies were unclaimed or if a burial could not be afforded. 

Hart Island from “Pose” season two (image via FX)
Death of X #2, Jeff Lemire, Charles Soule, and Aaron Kuder, October 19, 2016, Marvel Comics

In 1985, the first 17 bodies were interred in a quarantined location at the southernmost tip of Hart Island. As nonsensical as it may sound, each body was buried in an individual 14-foot deep grave for fear that the disease could “contaminate the other corpses”. Soon after, bodies were buried in mass graves, as the AIDS epidemic reached new heights in the city. The stigma associated with AIDS and the stigma surrounding queerness of the time left many patients prone to being estranged from loved ones, often leading to their burial on Hart Island. Although the precise number remains unknown, it’s estimated that the number of AIDS burials on Hart Island could reach into the thousands, making it perhaps the single largest burial ground in the country for people with AIDS. Tragically, a trip to Hart Island was not nearly as simple as it’s depicted in POSE. It was only in 2015, after a class-action lawsuit, that Hart Island “opened” for public visitation of the gravesites themselves, which was not possible prior. And visitation is still contingent on navigating demoralizing and labyrinthine procedures to arrange for passage of the ferries.

NY Post Archive Photo. Hart Island. June 14, 1979. Photo New York Post staff Frank Leonardo.

The queer community didn’t choose this dreary, remote island to become a part of our history. We didn’t choose this island to become a reminder of our perceived disposability but an oppressive cishet world. Violent institutional neglect on the part of our country’s political elites and the US health-care system forced the queer community to make this island a grim part of our collective history. Mutants too will forever associate Muir Island with a period of tremendous loss and turmoil for their community. And in both cases, this personal, mournful visitation takes place amidst a much larger conflict against the institutions that continue to allow the virus to claim more and more lives. 

In the comics, it’s the Inhumans [specifically Medusa and the royals] that allow the Terrigen Cloud to put the mutants of the world at risk. In the real world, it was the negligent and torpid non-response of the homophobic Raegan-era, including Raegan himself who continued to ignore the countless deaths for which he was responsible. It wasn’t until September 1985, four years after the crisis began, that Reagan first publicly mentioned AIDS. But by then, AIDS was already a full-blown epidemic. In truth, US health officials were aware of the AIDS virus, its method of transference, and the nature of the virus’s impact on the body, by late Spring of 1981, when the first “official case” of AIDS was “reported” on June 5, 1981. But the virus existed on the global stage in 1920 and had made the jump to the US by 1970 when cases first began to emerge. But because the virus was largely affecting a “convenient” population, resources were not committed to studying the virus until 1978, and it was only in the fall of 1982 that the CDC released its first definition of the AIDS virus. 

The CDC itself estimated that at the time of this definition’s release, it was likely that 42,000 people had already been living with AIDS and HIV, with an expectancy to see approximately 20,000 new cases within the year. Of course, this definition of AIDS and HIV initially defined the virus as a “syndrome”; a confluence of multiple symptoms and tertiary health impacts, as they were observed in AMAB people (assigned male at birth). For this reason, HIV positive AFAB people were not able to access the same drugs, the same healthcare, the same disability support, and the same social security support, because the definition prevented them from being diagnosed with the virus that they had in an official sense.

Beyond silence in the media, erasure around discussing AIDS was evident during press conferences and among government officials at the time. At a White House press briefing on October 15, 1982, when questioned by right-wing journalist Lester Kinsolving, Raegan’s Press Secretary Larry Speakes went on a cruel string of banter together, referring to the virus as “the gay plague”. By the time that Raegan publicly addressed the virus in 1987, approximately 27,000 people had already died. This weaponized inaction and misinformation resulted in the approximate 40,000 deaths that occurred between 1981 and 1987. It’s because of that many refer to the AIDS epidemic as a genocide, which is defined as defined as the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such”, killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, and/or, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part to the group. 

Death of X #1, Jeff Lemire, Charles Soule, and Aaron Kuder, October 5, 2016, Marvel Comics

The level of inaction on the part of the Inhumans is certainly several measures less negligent than the Raegan administration, though still worth examining. The comparisons to Raegan are rooted in an evaluation of how figures in positions of power, by their inactivity, can do harm. It would be negligent though to ignore the fact that across this series, Medusa does take steps to attempt to support the mutants, but they’re ultimately plagued by a privileging of Inhuman interests over mutant safety. Far from simply slow-moving, Medusa proposed to Black Bolt in private that they must also begin to consider “how they might win” a war with the X-Men. Make no mistake, for Medusa Inhuman prosperity, is only ever just over the fence from Inhuman supremacy throughout this and some of the ensuing stories. If pushed, she would rather fight the X-Men than compromise the Terrigen Mists. Medusa is first and foremost, considering what is in the best interest of the Inhuman people. It never occurs to her to eliminate the mist, but instead to move the mutants, placing the responsibility on the mutants to not be where the cloud is, rather than taking responsibility for the toxicity of the cloud. The onus is not on the mutants to evade the cloud, the onus should be on Medusa to remove the threat. 

Readers may not have access to the histories of the ACT-UP movement (which are sadly out of the mainstream historical pedagogy) but they can look at this and other X-Men stories to see the way that the Inhumans, or S.H.I.E.L.D., or the Avengers have looked the other way when it comes to the suffering of mutants. That’s a role that stories have always played in our lives, especially during formative periods of our development, to instill values within us that we may not be able to access otherwise. In this case, it’s planting the seeds that may grow into a more rigorous critique of the dominant structures of power that are purported to protect and support us.

“Everytime a shell explodes…”

“ …living with aids is like living through a war which is happening only for those people who happen to be in the trenches. Everytime a shell explodes you look around and you discover that you’ve lost more of your friends but nobody else notices, it isn’t happening to them.

Vito Russo Speech, May 7 1988, Protest at the state capitol in Albany NY 
Death of X #1, Jeff Lemire, Charles Soule, and Aaron Kuder, October 5, 2016, Marvel Comics

Issue 1 of Death of X establishes a juxtaposition between mutant death and the celebration of inhuman prosperity. On one page we see the X-Men stumble upon the horrors of Muir Island and on the next we watch the Inhumans celebrate the Terrigen Cloud as it passes through Japan. In later issues we watch the ranks of the Inhumans grow by minor numbers while we watch droves of mutants being buried on Muir Island. We see one new Inhuman, Daisuke emerge from a pod while countless mutants are buried. This oppositional relationship is in the DNA of the text. It’s this corollary that has led some fans to also interpret the terrigen mists as a metaphor for white-supremacy and/or the violence, erasure, and destruction of culture inherent in colonization. Despite the violence of the story, it feels quiet in a way. The story feels isolating, walling off the mutants from the rest of the world, almost in an attempt to hide their struggle from the world. It’s the kind of silent genocide that ACT-UP organizer Vito Russo’s quote is getting at, a silence that the ACT-UP movements fought so hard to break. 

Perhaps the most accessible manifestation of this work is in ACT-UP’s famous “ Silence=Death” poster, which has gone on to define the iconography of queer liberation to this day. ACT-UP’s mission was to break the silence surrounding the AIDS epidemic. They weaponized the truth against an otherwise unaware and complacent public, whose ignorance opened the door for a bigoted government to deny those affected by AIDS & HIV the resources they needed. 

Getty Images Archive, Bettmann

I’d like to focus on two particular events, where ACT-UP broke the membrane of mainstream ignorance, forcing their plight to be witnessed by the world. The first is a die-in protest at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on December 10, 1989. The action itself was multifaceted, with over 4,000 members of ACT-UP and the WHAM! (Women’s Health Action Mobilization) demonstrating outside of St. Patrick’s, while a smaller contingent of activists entered the church, appearing to members of the church’s congregation and in one or two cases posing as church volunteers. Their larger goal was to highlight the struggles of those living with HIV and AIDS at a time when the government, religious, and public health leaders remained lethargic and ignorant in their response to the epidemic. Activists targeted the church particularly Cardinal John O’Connor for preach abstinence instead of the safe-sex use of condoms while the epidemic ran rampant, and for his insistence that homosexuality was a sin. 

A protester is carried away during an ACT-UP Stop the Church direct action at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on December 10th, 1989. Photography © Brian Palmer

In the middle of mass service protesters staged their die-in, leading chants ranging from “Act Up, Fight Back, Fight AIDS!” to the famed, succinct and visceral cries “ Stop Killing Us!”, while protesters disguised as members of the clergy handed out ACT UP leaflets disguised as mass-pamphlets, providing church-goers with information debunking the lies being perpetuated by church leadership ( John O’Connor) and the government. Some activists cuffed themselves to pews and others lie on the ground, prostrated across the aisle. This is probably among the most famous of the ACT-UP actions, as it was concisely emblematic of their overall mission, to disrupt the quiet status quo that was painting over the thousands of deaths at the hands of this virus.

The second action is known as the Day of Desperation, which began on the evening of January 22, 1991, and continued throughout January 23, 1991. This action was designed to target every aspect of public life in New York City, making the plight and suffering of those with AIDS and those with loved ones with AIDS impossible to ignore. The goal was to ensure that no matter where a New Yorker was or what they did, they could not avoid confronting this grim reality any longer. The “Day of Desperation” as a protracted series of political actions began the night of the 22nd, although the “Day of Desperation” as a is typically said to have taken place on January 23rd. It technically began when activists invaded PBS and CBS Evening News broadcasts on the night of the 22nd. During this action, activists ran into the camera-line and shouted “AIDS is news! Fight aids, not Arabs!”. These invasions of live news were simultaneous disruptions of the public consciousness and breaking the silence surrounding the AIDS epidemic. It was nearly impossible to ignore as once it had aired, as the story was subsequently picked up and reported across a wide range of news outlets within minutes in some cases. This became an international disruption of the public consciousness in less time than the commercial break that followed. This action alone resonates along the same line as Scott/Emma’s telepathic message to the world at the end of the first issue. Which we’ll refer back to shortly.

On the 23rd, the “Day of Desperation” officially* begins with a morning “demo” begins on Wall St. and more than 2000 protesters marched with coffins that were delivered to City, State & Federal officials responsible for perpetuating the AIDS epidemic. An action at the State Office building in Harlem demanded an end to the City homeless shelter system. The housing Committee joins “Stand Up Harlem”, “Emmaus House” and various Harlem religious leaders in protesting the lack of housing and services for people with HIV. A march goes down Martin Luther King Blvd, to the State office building, carrying coffins to a demonstration occurring at the plaza. At 5:07 pm, Grand Central Station was the setting for a spectacular and massive act of civil disobedience as ACT UP took over the station. A banner announcing “One AIDS Death Every Eight Minutes” was hung over the arrivals board. 

These two particular ACT-UP actions are just a few of the many protests and civil disobedience employed in their mission to break the “business as usual” narrative of mainstream society and force the world at large to come to terms with this silent genocide. This mission folds into the sort of telepathic interruption that Emma Frost employs at the end of the first issue of Death of X. The goal is not an overt declaration of war, it’s instead bringing a silent genocide into the forefront of the public consciousness, which would much rather turn a blind eye to the deaths of the mutants, much as the US public & government would have preferred to just let millions die of the AIDS virus. Much like the day of desperation and its inaugural CBS disruption, regardless of who and where you were, you were going to be forced to confront this harsh reality. Emma’s acts can show us the value of an activist tactic that dates back to the Civil Rights Era, to take over the platforms of social-dissemination in order forefront a political struggle that is otherwise being erased in those spaces. There’s of course variance between the two, but it provides a roadmap for the viability of tactics of disruption and deconstruction of access and visibility as strategies of political dissent. 

“Bury Me Furiously”

Death of X #4, Jeff Lemire, Charles Soule, and Aaron Kuder, November 23, 2016, Marvel Comics

Death of X is a story about loss, and burying your dead mid-battle, and how you find the strength to carry on the fight for however long you can. Emma and Scott play out a tragedy that became a heartbreaking norm during the AIDS epidemic, as activists embattled in the fight against this virus and the oppressive structures that allowed it to kill thousands, lost their lives, their lovers, friends, and family to the very disease they were fighting. Emma and Scott’s story is borrowed, stolen even from the many thousands of real people whose relationships were torn apart by the AIDS virus. Emma and Scott’s story will never adequately stand-in for those real experiences, nor should they be expected to. That’s not always the role of the stories we consume, to recount events 1:1, but to repackage their lessons and to make them accessible in the media that we consume. The stories we consume exist for us to unpack deep and complex social and ethical issues through the safety of fiction. They exist for us to relate our own experience to, to feel seen, to inspire, and to repackage events to make them more accessible outside of their normal contexts. 

Allegory is never a substitute for explicit representation and  X-Men stories have a history of skating by on subtext and fan-interpretation, failing to depict the real identities & experiences that the metaphor stands-in for. It’s worth noting that stories about mutants who are explicitly HIV positive and/or have the AIDS virus were rendered impossible by notorious fuck-up Chuck Austen, who “confirmed” in Uncanny X-Men #421 & #427, that mutants are incapable of contracting the AIDS virus. This is yet another example of stories that borrow from the struggles and trauma of queer and trans people for the sake of driving their stories but fail to provide explicit representation for our identities. It’s a trend that’s certainly not exclusive to Austen and is more endemic in cape-comics as a medium (see events like Rosenberg’s flagrant misappropriation and recapitulation of anti-trans slurs and “trans-panic” acts of violence).

Death of X #4, Jeff Lemire, Charles Soule, and Aaron Kuder, November 23, 2016, Marvel Comics

This series arguably pivots on a third act twist that fundamentally recontextualizes Scott and Emma’s story as one not purely about survival, but also about loss. In the final pages of Death of X, the reader alongside Havok (Scott’s brother) learns the truth about the death of Scott Summers. You see, Scott didn’t die in a stand-off against Medusa and Black Bolt. For the sake of accurately and honestly characterizing Black Bolt & Medusa, we should note that  Medusa and Black Bolt made their choices under the impression that Scott really would die then & there. Therefore, from an ethical observation of the situation, Black Bolt still did kill Scott Summers. In “reality” though, Scott died in issue #1. He died unceremoniously and without warning in the arms of his lover, after asking for “help” for possibly the first time (see Cyclops’ defiant declaration that he’s fine in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary). The love of Emma’s life, [who as she says at Scott’s funeral on Muir Island was “…the only man I ever wanted to give a damn about me…”,] dies of the very virus that they will be fighting against. 

Death of X #4, Jeff Lemire, Charles Soule, and Aaron Kuder, November 23, 2016, Marvel Comics

Throughout the rest of the story, the Scott we see is a living monument to the man Emma loved, one defined by her admiration for his tenacity and his uncompromising devotion to the mutant cause. “Scott” becomes a source of strength for Emma, tackling the conversations that she can’t bring herself to have and making the choices that she cannot.  Her characterization of Scott’s tenacity escalates commensurately to Emma’s increasing exhaustion & desperation. She deploys Scott in her weakest moments, drawing the strength he gave her to quite literally handle the challenges in her path. She projects everything onto this “Scott’, even her insecurities regarding Jean surface during his final speech claim he “lost the only person I ever cared for.”  We see “Scott” play out the very moment that Emma comes to terms with his passing, as “Scott” says “ I’m gone. All that’s left is the idea of me. But here’s the nice thing…ideas never die.” 

Scott’s death, like many deaths at the hands of the AIDS virus, was unexpected and unceremonious. Living with AIDS was like “living with a time-bomb but never knowing where the timer is”. It was a cruel reality, you could look healthy as can be one day, and then by the end of the week, they could have passed from the virus. You had to live with the constant looming knowledge that any moment, the virus could claim your life or somebody you cared for. It is a tragic and human story, within a larger battle for the survival of an entire community. The series is not gentle about the comparison and juxtaposition of mutant suffering, with the celebration and prosperity of the Inhumans. It’s the type of framing that comes to mind whenever people refer to “the 80s” as this monolithic era defined by synthesizers, bright colors, big hair, Flock of Seagulls, shoulder pads, members-only jackets, and angsty teen movies. Mainstream pop-culture formulates an image of the 80s as something exciting and kitschy, but for many, the 80’s are a reminder of when our government allowed a virus to kill tens of thousands from marginalized communities, while the world looked the other way. The flashy pop-culture image of the 80s & 90s sits in stark contrast to the silent death of the AIDS epidemic.

Death of X is an Emma Frost story, and I don’t know if we say that enough. It’s the pregnant pause before a heavy and profound punctuation mark on what I consider to be one of Marvel’s strongest relationships. And it’s not the end of Emma’s hurt; she will go on lead a full-scale assault on the Inhumans, yes in the name of all mutants, but deep down she’ll partly be seeking retribution for Scott’s deaths. Within this series at least Emma hopes to give Scott a “fitting death”, ensuring that his death “means something”. Emma’s public memorial is almost a eulogy, both displaying her rage & sorrow and instilling into this living memorial the very political message that his life was devoted to. I can’t help but draw parallels to the many political funerals organized by ACT-UP

David Wojnarowicz’s famous jacket, Act-Up Archives

These actions themselves are often associated with a specific quote by artist and activist David Wojnarowicz, which captures the desperation, love, and rage at work both in these political funerals, and in Emma’s actions.

“I imagine what it would be like if, each time a lover, friend or stranger died of this disease, their friends, lovers or neighbors would take the dead body and drive with it in a car a hundred miles an hour to washington d.c. and blast through the gates of the white house and come to a screeching halt before the entrance and dump their lifeless form on the front steps.”


It’s a famous quote that is often seen presented within a longer speech by Mark Lowe Fisher. Towards the end of the speech, there’s a specific line that best summarizes the impact of these memorials:

“I want my death to be as strong a statement as my life continues to be. I want my own funeral to be fierce and defiant, to make the public statement that my death from AIDS is a form of political assassination.”

Mark Lowe Fisher [Nov 17, 1953 – Oct 29, 1992]
Wednesday, July 29, 1992 8 p.m. , David Wojnarowicz’s Memorial Procession

The goals of these political funerals are so complex and varied that distilling them into something pithy feels ultimately reductive. In a general sense though, they were a simultaneous attempt to pay honor to a beloved individual while using the visibility of their corpse, this unshakably real consequence of the AIDS virus, as a viscerally politicizing image. You see, like Emma, ACT-UP realized that you could maintain a balance between a loving memorial and political action. ACT UP is known to have orchestrated a number of these “political funerals”, which ranged from processions down the streets of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington DC with real caskets, filled with real bodies, to the cathartic scattering of ashes onto the White House lawn.

sA political funeral for Steve Michael was held on Thursday, June 4, 1998 in front of the White House.

Among the first of these actions was a memorial procession for the body of David Wojnarowicz himself on Wednesday, July 29, 1992 8 p.m. at the intersection of 12th Street & 2nd Avenue [NYC]. From there, including the “White House Ashes Action” of October 11, 1992, ACT-UP accounts for a total of official seven political funerals. It’s notable though, that the exact estimates of how many individuals’ ashes were scattered on October 11, make the exact number of public memorials to victims of AIDs and HIV and governmental neglect, harder to estimate. Aside from the individuals whose ashes were scattered and whose bodies were carried down city streets, many more members of these actions carried banners, signs, and even constructed tombstones for loved ones who were lost to this virus. 

No death has any more value because of its visibility, but there is power in crafting a public memorial to your loved-ones, whom you lost as a consequence of a silent war that the world would rather ignore. The government and the American public alike wanted to ignore this virus, and so ACT-UP made sure this wasn’t possible. They carried their beloved dead through city streets, they scattered the ashes of the people they held dear on the front lawn of the very government that was killing them. They wanted to use these beloved bodies to shake the public and possibly the government out of ignorance and complacency, revealing the grim and human cost of the virus, and the government’s torpid response. 


I’ve re-written the coda of this piece once a day for  two weeks straight. If you’re expecting that to be a set up for a pithy yet nuanced conclusion to this work, I’m here to disappoint. There is so much to say in closing out this essay. 

I want to recognize the tendency to disproportionately credit ACT-UP with revolutionizing models of socio-political dissent, but ACT-UP drew an immense amount of their tactics and method from the Civil Rights Era. Without the creativity, dedication, and courage of BIPOC activists, ACT UP would not be possible. Not to mention that ACT UP was plagued by internal racism, transphobia, and misogyny that is often painted over and ignored. As much value as there is in recognizing the hard work and dedication of the movement, it was born out of a rage that came from the entitlement of white, cisgender, men and this entitlement would play a major role in the groups’ disillusionment. It’s a reality that is only briefly alluded to at the end of Jimm Hubbard and Sarah Schulman’s documentary, “ United in Anger: A History of ACT UP”. The group’s ferocity would wane, affinity groups would split off and form other organizations such as Housing Works, fighting for equity and access at the intersection of HIV/AIDS and houselessness. And it was the intense concentration of action in the 80s and 90s led to greater public health resources in the US, as well as directly lead to the focussed research that would develop preventative measures such as PrEP and treatment regimens like HAART (HIV & AIDS Anti-Retro-Viral).

I think this story is worth exploring solely for the unexpectedly nuanced characterization of Emma Frost. In a lot of ways, it doesn’t even feel like a superhero comic. It’s grounded and messy, characters make relatable, messy choices with major consequences on the world within which they live. It’s a story about a fight spent entirely on-the-ropes. It’s a story about how you process trauma without the space being held to do so. For that reason, I think it maps to desperate moments of our history such as the AIDS epidemic, to societies built on oppression & violence, and to pandemics.

As a trans person, (who began writing this on June 14, 2020) my interpretation of this story has continued to transform yet again. Only days prior to beginning this essay, amidst a pandemic, the Tr*mp administration finalized a ruling that could effectively strip LGBTQIA2+ people of their health-care rights and protections, placing trans people at greater risk of health care discrimination within a healthcare system already riddled with barriers to care for trans people. This extends well beyond just potentially cutting us off from live-saving gender-affirming related care; all forms of health-care could be refused to queer and trans people, which has grave ramifications for the healthy & safety of our community. 

The US healthcare system is already nightmarish for trans people to navigate, but without the minimal protections that we were afforded by Section 1557 of the ACA, many millions of trans people in the US will likely be refused care, left to die, refused care, and lose coverage for gender-affirmative care. This is but one of the many attacks made against the LGBTQIA2+ community, by the Tr*mp administration. With little time to fully process this attack, we brace for yet another. Just over the horizon, a few days from today  June 14, 2020) the Supreme Court will rule on the case of Aimee Stephens, which will have a massive impact on the employment and workplace rights of trans people in the US. We’re preparing for the horrific possibility that SCOTUS may de-facto legalize discrimination against trans people in the workplace. 

Update: On June 15, 2020, SCOTUS released a decision in the case of BOSTOCK v. CLAYTON COUNTY, GEORGIA which states “: An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender violates Title VII. Pp. 4–33.” I hesitate to call this a “victory” though; these are basic human rights that should never have been the subject of months of deliberation. It’s disturbing that we have to celebrate keeping rights we should never have feared losing.

Death of X  has become a hauntingly adequate allegory for my feelings of helplessness, walking off the wounds of the last attack, as I brace myself to take the next punch. It feels like I’m living between the two terrigen clouds. It feels like a heteronormative society upheld by the royals, is somewhere on the next page dancing over the trans graves that continue to be dug. It feels like each and every trans body will become fertilizer for somebody else’s prosperity. As I write this, I know that the trans community is not alone in feeling this fear, nor is this the first time the LGBTQIA2+ community has felt this level of dread.

People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 18: The Social Worker and the COP

When we last left our heroes, Captain America and the Falcon had returned to New York City after liberating a Caribbean island from Nazis and once again foiling the Red Skull’s Cosmic Cube machinations. Upon their return in #120, the question became what the status quo would be for the new partnership in their new environment.

(Pictured: two bros just broing around, casually shirtless.
It’s not like they do this all the time or anything.)

The new status quo would take a few issues to show up, but starting with #139, for almost two years – two years which saw Captain America and the Falcon handed off from Stan Lee[1] to Steve Englehart (by way of Gary Friedrich and Gerry Conway)[2] – Cap writers went back to one of the oldest scenarios in comics.

By night, Captain America and the Falcon would patrol New York City as vigilante superheroes. By day, they would adopt civilian identities that spoke to their ideas of civic engagement: Sam Wilson returned to his job as a social worker, Steve Rogers took up a new job as a cop. Both worked the Harlem beat.[3]

These are their stories.  

A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Primary Special: Krakoan Economics

(This is wildly out-of-order, but if you follow me on Twitter or Tumblr, you’ll know that these ideas are running around in my brain, and the only way to get them to stop is to write them up.)

There have been many x-cellent analyses of House of X/Powers of X and Dawn of X from many different perspectives – from nationalism and nation-states to queer and disability theory and the politics of “safe spaces” – but one relatively unexplored dimension is economics and economic policy. As Spencer Ackerman points out, while Jonathan Hickman may be familiar to many Marvel fans as the writer of Fantastic Four and Avengers, he’s also the author of Black Monday Murders, which presented economic theory and high finance as black magick. (Wait, wrong Image series.)

Is Hickman et al’s interest in economic topics just style and symbolism, or is there content to Krakoan economics? Do we have a mutant economic policy to go along with our mutant language for a mutant culture and a mutant nation-state?

People’s History of the Marvel Universe Holiday Special: The Education of Emma Frost

After this thread on X-Twitter, I was prompted to write down some thoughts I had after I made the dubious decision to not only read through all of the really questionably covered (see below) Emma Frost ongoing and track down Generation X -1 and X-Men: Origins Emma Frost to try to piece together her life story prior to appearing in Uncanny X-Men #129.

(This is the most tasteful of a really bad bunch of covers. Marville bad – and what do you know, it’s the same artist!)

What Was the Tulsa Race Riot and Black Wall Street from Watchmen?

Tulsa Race Riot

HBO‘s Watchmen debuted with an unexpected, and somewhat shocking, real-world event the Tulsa Race Riot. The use of the despicable and little known moment in American history grounded the show in many ways and rooted it in the systemic racism that permeates today.

But what was the Tulsa Race Riot and Black Wall Street?

The Tulsa Race Riot is also known as the Tulsa Race Massacre, Greenwood Massacre, and Black Wall Street Massacre. The event took place on May 31 and June 1 in 1921 when mobs of white residents attacked black residents and businesses in the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It’s considered the single worst incident of racial violence in American history. More than 800 people were admitted to hospitals, 36 were “officially” recorded as dead though that number was revised to between 100 and 300 in 2001. It also saw 6,000 black residents arrested and detained for several days.

The attack took place on the ground and by air destroying 35 square blocks in what was at the time the wealthiest black community in the United States, “Black Wall Street.”

Greenwood was a district that was organized in 1906 when segregation was common and enforced. Local black residents created their own thriving and prosperous community.

The riot began when 19-year-old Dick Rowland, a black shoeshiner, was accused of assaulting Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white girl. Rowland needed to use a local restroom and used the elevator Page was operating as the restroom was on the top floor which was restricted to black people. A clerk heard Page scream and saw a black man run from the building. The police were called thinking that Page was “assaulted.” At the time that word was often used to describe rape. No account or statement by Page as to what happened has been found. But, it’s accepted the police determined that what really happened wasn’t assault and Page didn’t want to press charges.

Rowland was arrested the day after the incident and while initially taken to one jail, he was transferred when a telephone call threatening his life was received by the police.

The Tulsa Tribune covered the story in their afternoon edition and ran an editorial warning of a potential lynching of Rowland. All of the original copies of the paper have since been destroyed and the microfilm of that issue is missing the relevant page concerning the column about lynching.

Several hundred white residents had assembled by the evening and the police feared the worst. And later, three white men entered the courthouse demanding Rowland be turned over.

The mob alarmed the black community though how to proceed divided them. A group of local black residents then arrived at the courthouse armed to support the sheriff. There’s conflicting reports as to whether the sheriff requested the help. This resulted in some of the white mob getting guns of their own. Tensions rose with shots being exchanged either by accident or intentionally. Ten white and two black individuals killed.

Mob violence was the rule as thousands of white residents attacked the black neighborhood on June 1st killing men and women, burning and looting stores and homes. Fires were set and bullets were fired into businesses and residences. There are conflicting reports that the mob fired upon firefighters when they arrived to put out the fires.

Watchmen depicted attacks from the air. White assailants were said to have dropped firebombs on buildings and fired guns from privately owned aircraft. Evidence though is flimsy when it comes to that and a commission later concluded it wasn’t reliable.

Martial law was declared and the National Guard was called in to restore order.

10,000 black residents were left homeless and property damage is estimated at $32 million in 2019 dollars. Many survivors left Tulsa.

No prosecution of any whites for actions committed during the riot took place.

The event was largely not mentioned in history books and classrooms and it wasn’t until 1996 that a bipartisan group was formed to investigate the events, interview survivors, and hear testimony from the public with the goal of preparing a report. That final report was published in 2001 and concluded that the city had conspired with the white mob to attack black citizens. It recommended reparations to survivors and descendants. Legislation was passed to establish scholarships for descendants of survivors, encourage the economic development of Greenwood, and the development of a memorial park to honor the victims.

Smallville ’58 – Stories You Told Me About The Future

This year, some of DC Comics’ biggest stories circle at a distance around a transformational moment in the story of Superman. This article gets in close.

1) Two Ways To Be Doctor Manhattan

It is 1958. Clark Kent is a lonely teenager. The girl knows his secret. She is joined by the two boys he saw earlier. The three begin to undress in front of him. Something has changed. 

It is 1958. Clark Kent has had a hard day at work, reporting for the Daily Planet. The buzzing penetrates his window. His parents step from the vessel. His heart is to be broken. 

Cosplaying Doctor Manhattan could either be seen as very brave or very lazy. Whichever it is, crafty old Geoff Johns has ducked the question. He’s finding another way to explore his personal relationship with the character. Eschewing the blue body paint and public indecency charge, Johns has instead written a series, Doomsday Clock. In it, various deficiencies in Johns’ earlier work are revealed to be the fault of this iconic fictional character. 

Doctor Manhattan
RIGHT: Johns, Frank and Anderson. LEFT: My friend Martin.

2019’s Doomsday Clock #10 tells the story of Doctor Manhattan visiting various different iterations of ‘the DC Universe’ and ‘Superman continuity’. He fiddles about with these nonsenses to make them worse. This ultimately creates the ‘New 52 Universe’, a fictional reality we saw ushered in by Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns in 2011. Many have found that universe unsatisfying and ugly and, since 2011, given some thought as to why it might be so. It’s now, in 2019, that Johns can, at last, reveal that full responsibility lies with none other than the dastardly Doctor Manhattan. One of Manhattan’s stops on this calamitous journey through DC history, was Adventure Comics #247, a Superboy comic from 1958. It’s one where he made a decisive and ruinous intervention.

It is a popular destination. Brian Michael Bendis began his stewardship of the Superman books with a ‘Man who Destroyed Krypton‘ storyline. Bendis’ menacing Rogol Zaar being the latest in a procession of baddies to have claimed responsibility for that one, starting with Klax-Ar back in a Superboy comic from 1958. 

Since then, Bendis has been busily and enigmatically moving around certain items of furniture in the current books. He made abrupt changes to one of the two Superboys in his care. Why he made them seemed a bit of a puzzle. The popular Jon Kent was ushered offstage to be abused for five years before being returned to the story’s present, aged-up and now lacking the key dynamics between him and certain other characters. But to what end? This seemed such a peculiar choice. Much was lost and nothing obvious was gained. What was Bendis playing at?

“[I]t’s not just a, ‘Ha ha we ruined your favorite thing.’” Bendis assured CBR in May, “There’s a story being told that we think will be additive to that thing you liked about him, a big one. And we haven’t gotten to the big reveals yet, but we’re getting there.”

We are there now. This has all been done to reenact and re-stage certain story elements from Adventure Comics #247, a Superboy comic from 1958.

Superboy, The Man of Steel, Adventure Comics, Legion of Super-Heroes Smallville
Various men and maniacs claim to have destroyed Krypton while various Superboys meet the Legion of Superheroes.

Frank Miller, meanwhile, is not interested in reenacting specific story elements from Superboy comics from 1958. But he’s on their turf, and not for the first time. The New Adventures of Superboy #51 collected the stories of a young Clark Kent bringing his time as Superboy to an end. Although perfunctorily followed by issues 52 to 54, it closed the book on Superboy as an ongoing concern. Frank Miller provided the cover. It’s no small thing when Miller comes to Smallville. Last time he was here he shut the place down.

Superman: Year One #1 deals with the same period in Clark Kent’s life that covered by the books Johns and Bendis are eyeing. Growing up in Smallville, being raised by Jonathan and Martha, having a relationship with Lana Lang, the broad strokes are all here. All part of the “child’s fairy tale” Miller flags up his first issue as telling. 

Like fairy tales, Miller’s Superboy story is full of vulnerable children, bullies, and rapists. Like fairy tales, the comic is aggressively didactic. Its world of victims and predators are arranged so Miller can discuss and negotiate how he feels the American superpower should best deploy violence in the great high school drama of the world. The post-911 anxieties that have dominated and soured Miller’s work are all here, running the streets and stalking the corridors of Superboy’s Silver Age.    

The DC Comics narrative tirelessly regresses, revokes, restores and recontextualizes. In the limited terms of that narrative, there’s something very current about Superboy comics from 1958. Enough so that I thought it might be fun if we all squeezed into one of those big glass time bubbles and popped back there to have a little nose round. 

2) The Cathedral of Cologne 

What happened back in Smallville? We have a powerful sense that some things did, but not many. A child was found in a crashed rocketship. He was inculcated with the old-timey values of an idealized America. Maybe he had a love interest? Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe a militia of radiant wonderfolk from a thousand years hence manifested across the time barrier, like hormonal angels, to announce that he was the center of Everything. Or maybe they told him the truth. Maybe his parents died. Maybe they’re fine. Between two and five things certainly happened in Smallville. But probably not more than five.    

Which is odd. First in More Fun Comics, then in Adventure Comics, then across both Adventure Comics and two volumes of Superboy, the adventures of a small town dwelling teen Clark Kent ran from 1945 to 1984. Thirty-nine years worth of comics, often coming out two a month, treating of the Superboy of Smallville. Something must have been going on in those thousands of pages of story. Something must have been happening.

One thing that is happening, in the year we’ve set the dials for, is the Silver Age, although it doesn’t know that yet. ‘Ages’, times and periodization are important yet strangely mutable here. It is 1958. 

Say “Silver Age Marvel!” to someone and they’ll probably start thinking of Fantastic Four and a shift towards superhero drama that arises from relationships between differentiated characters. Say “Silver Age Batman!” to someone and they’ll probably start thinking of psychedelic conflicts on alien worlds and large versions of everyday objects, even though they know perfectly bloody well that those Bat-Things predate the Silver Age and they’re just being obdurate. But what happens if you just yell “THE SILVER AGE!” at someone? 

Chances are they’ll start thinking of Weisinger-era Superman. The Silver Age Superbooks, edited by Mort Weisinger, built things to last. They demonstrated a commitment to both invention and consolidation that exemplified the Silver Age as a whole. Here is the new, and here are the mechanisms by which it will endure to be old. That trait makes the books that came out of Weisinger’s office a reliable map with which to explore the territory. Alan Moore’s Supreme was more illuminating than his 1963.

When Marvel wants to investigate what characterized their comics of the period, or sometimes what those comics lacked, they’ll do it by creating a Sentry or a Blue Marvel. When the door opens to welcome you into this resurgent and reinvigorated era of comics, it is Curt Swan’s Superman holding it open for you with a wink and smile. With as close to those expressions he can muster should he have the head of an ant or lion at the time.

Presumptuous, really, because Superman got to the party a little late himself. The Silver Age is generally taken to have started with the debut of Bartholomew ‘Flashy’ Allen in 1956 and to have started for the Superman books at some more ambiguous point in 1958. Action Comics #241 is a popular choice, but I’d go for something from a couple of months earlier. I’d go for Adventure Comics #247. 

June 1958’s Action #241 sees the return of the frosty hideaway that would become the Fortress of Solitude, a celebration of Superman’s place in our world, false jeopardy as part of a ruse, and some buddying around with Batman. In its structure, tone, and concerns it is unquestionably a Silver Age Superman comic. I don’t know how you can say it’s the first when Adventure Comics was introducing the Legion of Superheroes back in April. If you’re looking for a punctuational moment that marks the start of something new and different, that would seem to be your best bet. 

Except that Action is a Superman book and Adventure is a Superboy book. It would be strange to think of this era of Superman as beginning in Superboy, wouldn’t it? No, it wouldn’t. It’d be fine. For two reasons. One being that the Superboy stories are simply an integral part of the world-building project underway. As well as the Legion, the Superboy comics of 1958 introduce Bizzaros and Red Kryptonite. Both are crucial parts of the era’s lore and emblems its interest in the strange and wrong. The elements that make Weisinger-era Superman look and work the way it does are being developed right here. The other reason is a little more abstract. It has to do with the results of a beauty pageant that took place five years earlier.  

Lana Lang isn’t who you think she is. She’s certainly the winner of the ‘Miss Smallville’ contest that took place in Adventure Comics #172. The decision was unanimous and she was duly adorned with the victor’s sash. “Miss Smallville 1952,” it read – the year of the comic’s publication. These ‘Adventures of Superman When He Was a Boy” were set in the present day. As were the stories of the adult Superman simultaneously appearing in Superman and Action Comics.   

“The Adventures of Superman When He Was a Boy” was an unlovely and inelegant tagline. It feels awkward to say out loud. But it endured because it made the purpose of these stories explicit. We’re not traveling to the time in which Superman grew up out of any interest in that time. We just want to see Kid Superman. Children who better identify with a hero closer to their own age are the demographic being served here. Not anyone nostalgically misty-eyed for the rolling cornfields and down-home mannerisms of pre-war America.        

“Some time ago, in the cathedral of Cologne, I saw the skull of John the Baptist at the age of twelve.” 

“Really?” I exclaimed, amazed. Then, seized by doubt, I added, “But the Baptist was executed at a more advanced age!”

“The other skull must be in another treasury,” William said, with a grave face. I never understood when he was jesting. 

 – Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose.

See here the skull of John of Baptist! See here the skull of John the Baptist at the age of twelve! Thrill now to the adventures of Superman! Thrill now to the Adventures of Superman when he was a boy! Both occupy the same present, just different treasuries. Perfectly reasonable as both skulls, like all of Superman’s adventures, are imaginary stories.   

But that was 1952. Check the sash. This is 1958 and Mort Weisinger is bringing the mixed blessing of internal consistency to Superman’s world. Smallville, and Clark’s youth have officially been pushed back to the 1930s. Not in a big way, just in an “if anyone asks…” way. If a visitor from the future came from “a thousand years from now” that still means the year 2958. If people wrote to the letters page wanting to know why everyone in this pre-war town had televisions then the editors would be like “Ugh. FINE. No more tellys. I GUESS.” Should Lana have earned that sash five years later, it would have carried an earlier date. She’s allowed a Polaroid camera though and I doubt she’s surrendered her television. The sense of Superboy occupying the present wasn’t lost. It was just brought about by a different mechanism. 

In 2012, Jason Aaron started writing a very long Thor story and occasionally he threatens to stop. That he’s out after this year’s King Thor is his latest threat, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Since the start, a feature of his run has been the involvement of three Thors who are all the same fella. They are Thor as a callow youth from the Viking Times, Thor as a superhero from the Hollywood Times, and Thor as an aged and embittered king from the End Times. Thorboy and Thorking’s appearances aren’t so much ‘flashbacks’ or ‘flashforwards’ so much as strands of story that each drive and reveal events as they seize and occupy the present of the narrative. There’s also a bunch of time travel. One memorable scene sees the three iterations fighting side by side as their enemy taunts them, “You should have brought more Thors.”    

On telly, excepting anniversaries and oddities, successive actors form an orderly queue and take their turn to play Doctor Who, a time-traveling show-off. In audio dramas then everyone plays him all at once. Big Finish Productions release ongoing adventures for the Fifth Doctor, the Sixth Doctor, the Seventh Doctor, two supporting characters from a super-racist seventies story with a giant rat, and any confused franchise-related actor they can get to uncomprehendingly read a few words into a microphone. And these stories interact; A companion of the Eighth Doctor can walk out of his time machine and into an earlier version of the same vehicle to join the Sixth’s Doctor’s crew. The actions of later and earlier incarnations of the character carry consequences for each other to the extent that none can be thought of as the ‘current’ Doctor, and as narratives emerge across Big Finish’s output, they are narratives in which each Doctor occupies the present. On television then Peter Capaldi was the Doctor and Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor. In the audios, we have the Adventures of the Doctor When They Were Boys.       

The Silver Age Superman books are very much like Big Finish’s Doctor Who or Jason Aaron’s Thor. Breaking the ‘Time Barrier’ is a very casual matter for the Super Family, and traveling back into the past via Carter Nicholls’ magic hypnotism is as every day for the Bats as popping down the shops. This ease of movement across the fourth dimension allows Superboy to function as a character who is an autonomous member of the Super Family rather than just a phase Superman was going through. In the comics we’re going to talk about below we’ll see him team up across time with Robin, as the Boy Wonder just blithely visits the past to avert dangers with future knowledge. Why not, eh? For the heroes of this era, the past is not another country, their childhoods are their next door neighbors.    

For the clearest example of how causality and interpersonal relationships work for this crew, it’s best to look ahead to when Supergirl joins the Legion of Superheroes. Supergirl lives under, and defers to, the weird oversight of Superman’s patriarchal cousinhood. He’s an authority figure in her life who sets very definite limits on her freedom and self-determination. However a lot of her time she spends in the Thirtieth Century, with her friend and peer, Superboy. The same guy! She’ll be pals with this kid all day, then he’ll head back to the sort-of-30s and she’ll head back to the sort-of-60’s where he’s her sort-of-dad. She has two, ongoing and developing relationships with the same dude at two different times in his life. Nobody lives and loves as eccentrically as the Super-Family.       

Through their contributions to the unfolding mythos, through the lingering historical power of John the Baptist’s skull, and through the revolving door of the time barrier, then the Superboy stories of this time are forcefully set in the present tense. It is 1958, they are set in the 1930s, and they are happening now. 


Two mountains hold two magnets. The region is generally craggy, and not one of its mountains are unremarkable; One has been moved into place to bury a petrified forest of pure kryptonite, while another has been chiseled by lightning into the face of Bizarro. But it is the twin magnetized mountains that are useful to us right now, as their opposing forces suspend a metal beacon at a point equidistant between them and impossibly high above. “Smallville,” reads the beacon, “100 miles below.” There’s an arrow. Follow it down.     

We’ve arrived. 

So let us put Lana’s sash and Supergirl’s Legion membership behind us and live in the moment. Adventure Comics #244-255 and Superboy #62-69 were the issues cover dated to 1958, so we shall concern ourselves today with those alone. Countless details from comics published before them and after contradict everything we’re about to say, but hopefully that will prove to be the point. Those nineteen issues alone shall be our canon, no matter how much I’d like to tell you the amusing tale of how young Oliver Queen moved to town the following year and disappointed everyone.

Largely written by Otto Binder, Jerry Coleman and Alvin Schwartz, with George Papp, Al Plastino, and John Sikela most often found holding the pencil, this year’s worth of tiny adventures is offering us a tiny world, so let’s take them up on that and see what we can we learn about this town that attracts so many time travelers, revisionists, and time travelers who are metaphors for revisionism. 

Appearing on the light entertainment show ‘Unmask the Truth’, three Superboys are questioned by a panel trying to discern which of them is the genuine article (Superboy #67). One panelist invites them to talk about unique ways in which they’ve recently used their cape – stopping elephants, making bridges, etc. Fun! Another panelist asks about giant objects they’ve recently constructed – giant umbrellas, giant pots of stew, etc. Fun! Lana Lang is the third panelist. She asks Superboy to relive the death of his birth parents, destruction of his home planet, and extinction of his race. Lana Lang isn’t who you think she is.        

But Smallville, to the extent that the ‘Unmask the Truth’ broadcast reveals, is just what you think it is. It is where a rocket crashed and a kindly local couple found a space baby to adopt. It is the home of Superboy. 

The world where that rocketship came to rest is one which sees the arrival of matchlessly puissant alien life as a matter of principally local concern. When this god-child from the stars works his wonders in the big city then the headline reads “METROPOLIS THRILLS TO SUPERFEATS OF SMALLVILLE YOUNGSTER.” The world knows of him, just as the galaxy knows of him thanks to interplanetary telecasts, but they know who he belongs to. He’s a Smallville thing. 

 So what does that do to a town? Perhaps less than you might think. You’re welcomed to town by a “You Are Now Entering Smallville – Home of Superboy” sign, but once you’ve passed it then you’ll find his residence hasn’t much deformed the community in any of the more obvious ways.

There is little evidence of excessive media or tourist activity. Reporters will certainly show up if something spesh is going on, like Superboy spending a couple of days staging an unexplained mid-air sit-in, but then so will a life-drawing class on top of a bus. No journos seem to be camped out on the Superboy beat. The crowds are there for the various cultural events that involve the lad being handed trophies, but the crowds are also there for the kite-flying contest and the reception ceremony in honor of visiting pen pals. Sometimes children will just decide to dress up as mice and march through streets which will fill with delighted onlookers. Smallville people love to get out of the house.

And they love Superboy, I think. A monument marks the spot where he landed. Sculptors chisel away to make stone Superboy busts in the hope of pleasing him. Parents make ornate little model bank vaults to inspire their children by reminding them of that time he saved someone from inside a bank vault. Bit weird that one. Public trust in him, however, is very all or nothing. He is judged never to have made a single mistake in his career and, when he briefly appears to have slipped up then the people wail “We’ll never be able to have complete confidence in him again!” before remembering his super-hearing and silencing themselves. It is ambiguous if they do so out of fear or politeness.

Other shared values of the town include deference to authority that perhaps supersedes respect for the law. Everyone involved in its justice system is cool with staging a fake trial to protect military secrets. Smallville can show tremendous generosity to its own, promptly raising twenty thousand dollars for those in need, but shows that generosity in strange ways, allowing a family to independently discover that both their store and house had burned down before jumping out with the cheque and going “Surprise!” On the outskirts, a trailer camp houses several Native Americans – Chief Red Stag and his family – who Superboy recently saved from wolves. It is unknown if the wolves menaced anyone else on the trailer park. Their many children attend the school, bringing the only detectable racial diversity to the area.

As well as the plot-relevant mountains and the rolling hills visible in the panel backgrounds, there are many other things we know about Smallville’s geography. The town has a large working harbor joined to the nearby river by a canal. Should the dam break then the river will flood the town, but even restrained it offers dangers aplenty to those who would traverse it. Nobody in these stories dips a toe in the water without requiring some super-intervention, and nobody is said to have ever gone over Roaring Rapids and survived. Fast-moving and rocky, the river’s bed is thick with centuries of shipwrecks. There has been brisk, if perilous, trade through this region for hundreds of years even though the town itself is only this year celebrating its centennial, marking the occasion by having Superboy put on a really stupid hat and pretend to be a firework. The railroads are falling into abandonment, while the town is very proud of its new highway.

The city of Metropolis comes up all the time. The only other American locations mentioned in these stories are Hollywood, New York (where Lana has a cousin) and Midvale, the next town along, which gets mentioned quite often for a place that won’t really hold any significance until 1959. Is Metropolis nearby, or the center of all national life? It’s unclear. “Once a week,” we’re told, “the Kent family reads the Sunday edition of the Metropolis Daily Planet, as well as their own Smallville news” and many Smallville kids have pen pals from there, who visit like exchange students. There’s evidently some association between the two places, whether it’s cultural or just simple proximity, that means if you live in Smallville you need to keep up with what’s happening in Metropolis. We know you can drive there, perhaps along that fancy new highway, but it’s more usual to take a plane.  

Smallville has its own airport and aeronautics seems to be of particular local interest, as we also see used plane lots, a competitive air racing scene and private companies like Wilton Experimental Air Projects launching actual rockets into actual space. On the subject of rockets, there’s a nearby army base where nuclear weapons are stored inside a canvas tent. A small wooden sign outside the tent cautions, “WARNING – ATOMIC BOMB.”      

Scientific and technological research are very much part of Smallville life and appear to drive its economy. Local employers include the steel mill and the glassworks and we see that both are innovating, the steel mill by experimenting with different minerals to produce new varieties and the glassworks by discovering that, treated in a certain way, ordinary glass becomes a terrible explosive that threatens the world. These discoveries may differ in how socially useful they are, but science marches ever forward and science is the business of Smallville, from its museum to its Science Fair, an event so “colossal”, and of such international importance, that it requires Smallville’s “largest stadium.” I have not been able to find any clues as to how many other stadia it has.       

‘Gem shops’ prosper here. There are at least two, in addition to a more conventional Jeweller’s. The town must be known for them as, when a bunch of crooks in a submarine discovers a cache of gem-stealing weaponry on a desert island, it is straight to Smallville they dash from such tropical climes. These gems, what we know of the steel, glass and aeronautic industries here, and the size and importance of the local scientific community, strongly imply that this is a town with mineral wealth that has made it an attractive place to do your Mad Science, and that the technological applications of that science are driving industry. There’s certainly no evidence here that Smallville’s economy is based on agriculture. One farming couple, Hiram and Hilda, briefly appear for one page in these comics to ‘adopt’ Bizarro, and that’s your only glimpse of anyone working the land. These Kents run a general store and flashbacks suggest they were never anything other than the mercantile petite bourgeoisie.

People are getting rich. Some suddenly, like Neighbour Smith who gets made an Oil Baron by Clark’s clumsy underground tunneling, but others less remarkably. It’s not unusual for classmates of Clark such as Jimmy Greeves to live in a mansion, but even so, the wealth of the Van Dyke family is viewed with awe. Their mansion stands high above the town, overlooking it from within a vast, retractable glass dome. Apparently, its swimming pool is shaped like Superboy, but I’ve stared at the thing and I just can’t see it myself.   

Perhaps the Van Dykes had better keep their dome tightly sealed as the gem thieves are everywhere. Dazzler Dyke and Sparkler Smyth may well both be “notorious” in the community, but they are far from lone, ruby-hungry wolves. Crime here is organized and ever so bold. Hoodlums will think nothing of carrying out daylight public assassinations in the middle of the children’s mouse parade, and racketeers like Ace Grimes walk the streets, gloating openly of their crimes. This being the home of Superboy is no deterrent to these mobs, who’re threaded tight into its institutions. Their gambling rings drag pillars of the community down into infamy, and they even operate in the schools, helping wicked children cheat on tests by sending answers via semaphore from the windows of their smoky dens. Less brazen is the “bandit leader” Superboy knows as ‘Young Luthor.’ Appearing unmasked in only one panel, this one keeps to the shadows.


So in one sense, we know quite a lot about the people living in this, frankly enormous, small town. But in another sense, we know very little because there aren’t any. Elsewhere in mythologized comic book America then, by the late fifties, Riverdale was filling up nicely. If Archie goes for a walk he’s going to run into Betty, Veronica, Jughead, Reggie, Moose, Dilton, Midge, and countless other peppy recurring teenagers and suspicious recurring adults. The streets of his imaginary town throng with them. Smallville’s are deserted. 

The storytelling needs of Archie’s ebullient romantic comedies have generated a persistent cast. Superboy’s fretful, secretive yarns generate disposable teens. If an Archie story of this time needs the school’s top athlete they, hey, here’s Moose Mason! If a Superboy story does, and a couple of these do, then we’ll meet an all-new top athlete who’ll evaporate at the end of the story to be replaced next time by another incumbent of that precarious position. Even that Weisinger world-building project that’s contemporaneously bestowing Bottled Cities and Frosty Forts on adult Clark is slow to give his teen self any enduring peers. Adventure Comics #246 and Superboy #62 both feature a fabulously wealthy heiress called Gloria and a practical joker called Alvin. The two Glorias are different characters and the two Alvins are the same, even though they’ve different surnames. 

In Jerry Coleman’s ‘The Super-Clown of Smallville’ Alvin Smith/Wilson is there to enable a “What if Superboy did jokes?” story by being a kooky funster who Superboy is compelled to impersonate. By the end of the story, Alvin says he’s learned his lesson and renounced fun, so you’d have thought that’d be the last you’d hear of him, but then Otto Binder brings him back to be one of three teens suspected of being Smallville’s local hero in ‘The Girl Who Trapped Superboy.’ He meets a functional requirement of each story – the first just needs a practical joker and the second just needs a kid Clark’s age – but the interesting thing is that in the second story Alvin retains a character trait not necessary for the plot. He’s back to being a practical joker, down to perplex girls with stretchy arms and scares them with mechanical mice, unleashing those japes simply because he’s that Alvin rather than because the plot needs him to.   

I think that’s the last we’ll see of Alvin. That little experiment over, the creative team make no other moves this year to make anyone happen. When Clark is warned in Adventure #250 that a villainous time traveler is disguised as someone he knows well then he has a good think about all the people who meet that criteria. He manages to list four. His dad and three other blokes he might accidentally call dad – Professor Lang, Mayor Brooks, and Principal Sands. Are these mighty patriarchs then our principal cast? The movers and shakers of this community whose high-stakes power games decide the destinies of the Smallville small folk? No. Sands and Brooks are unnamed in any of the other comics and Brooks only ever turns up to dish out trophies. 

Lang’s inclusion, however, personalizes the list a little, as Adventure Comics 245 shows an interesting response from Clark to seeing the Professor in danger. Up until that point he’d been conservatively managing the threat of a giant flying centipede whose legs each had the powers of a different element, but on clocking that it was menacing members of the Lang family he gets quite aerated. He even ends up saying “Yipes!” in the next panel. It’s a stressful situation. “Lana Lang and her father are my dearest friends!” he flaps.

His dearest friends. His girlfriend… and her dad. These, outside his family and a couple of civic dignitaries, are the people Superboy holds closest to his heart. Two-thirds of the Lang family. What a snub to Ma Lang. It’d be a bit of a snub to the brothers too, but one evaporated circa 1956 and the other in ‘51, so it’s really just Lana’s mother who is of no interest to Clark. 

Lana herself should be boring. She should be two boring things, but thankfully she isn’t quite either.  We remember that Lana lived next door to Clark in a small town and was his high school girlfriend so, wow, there are enough cultural associations right there for us to already suppose we know this character. These are all signifiers of a ‘sweetness’ and ‘innocence’ that arise from male-centered nostalgia and cluster together as the ‘Girl Next Door’ archetype. But remember that these stories aren’t written for nostalgists. They’re written for people whose adolescences are exploding around them as they read, and consequently, there is no wistful misogyny attached to Lana about how much nicer girls were before they had make up and money worries. She is mercifully neither sweet nor pure.              

Superboy Vol 1 #64 Smallville

Check her out on the cover of Superboy #64. The Boy of Steel watches aghast as Krypto the Superdog smashes through a statue of his once-beloved owner. Lana stands there, her posture relaxed, her eyes far away and her smile wide. “Forget him, Superboy,” she advises, “Krypto hates you! He’s MY dog now!” In the story itself, she doesn’t actually say those words or command the destruction of any statues but, in a very real sense, that cover is exactly who Silver Age Lana Lang is. It is someone glorious.   

The other boring thing she should be is woman-as-problem, an othered figure who presents obstacle and nuisance to the male with whom the story is aligned. And is she that? Yes, she is that. These are grossly sexist stories and this character exists to serve a grossly sexist function within them and I’d be chatting bollocks if I tried to suggest otherwise. She serves the same unlovely purpose in these stories as does Lois Lane in the Superman stories of the time. That’s something Teen Clark immediately apprehends when he catches his first sight of Teen Lois, recalls Lana, and froths up a thought bubble to the effect of “Same energy.” 

I’m glad he does because the comparison to Lois moves us on. We all get that the character of Lois Lane is to some extent detachable from the narrative function of Lois Lane, and the evidence suggests that Superboy’s contemporary female readership was performing that operation on Lana. Girls were reading these comics – whenever Superboy addresses his audience, normally at the top of an activity page suggesting something wholesome to make or do, it’s always as “fellers and girls” – and they were writing to the letters pages. Three topics mostly occupied them; “Why haven’t you invented Supergirl yet?”, “I should like to date Superboy please” and “Give Lana a break.”. One such correspondent in Adventure #253 was Dorothy Watson of New Jersey or ‘Dotty’ as the editor decided to rename her while issuing the condescending reply “You girls stick together, eh?” Too fucking right. Girls liked Lana and were on her side. 

And why wouldn’t they be? When you gather together all the details about Lana then you’ve everything you need to create a fascinating and sympathetic character. Except that we know not to gather those details together. In Superboy #66, Clark does horribly in a test and his humiliating results are posted on a board. “Look Clark! You’re the only one in class who failed this EASY exam!” Lana says as the two stand there regarding his public shame, “Aren’t you embarrassed?”  We understand this sort of storytelling, so we know that the reason she’s saying this is to economically establish that Clark has failed an easy exam and should feel embarrassed. We are not being invited to think about what sort of a person would talk to their dearest friend like that or what she gains by doing so. As competent readers we know to disregard most of what these characters say and do when considering what kind of character they should be taken to be.

Sod that. I am an incompetent reader. Lana’s in the details. 

“Gosh these Geography questions are hard,” she says, boldly chatting away during one of Superboy #66’s many tests. We glimpse her marked paper in the corner of the next panel. She got 96%. Lana is someone who is both very clever, and very concerned with managing her own reputation. It takes some managing. At the social center of Smallville’s teen life, she knows everyone but can be overconfident in how she applies that knowledge; one day Clark shows up at her door wearing his uncle’s jacket and she is unable to recognize him as Clark, Superboy, or anyone from the town because she is so utterly certain that nobody in Smallville has a jacket like that. 

Just as she has thoughts on everyone’s jackets, everyone has thoughts on her. The gossip around town (according to Superboy #64) is that she’s always getting into danger, which is kind of unfair on the evidence of these mostly low-peril stories. She works on containing that one, swearing people to secrecy about the time she drove her boat backward (Superboy #63), but there’s no keeping a lid on that other thing they say about Lana Lang. They say she’s in love with Superboy.

Which she is. She’s also dating mild-mannered Clark Kent. She very much is. They attend parties together, walk home together, go to the movies, go to ‘teen dances.’ He is absolutely Lana Lang’s Boyfriend, Clark Kent. She keeps several “cute” photos of him on her bureau, while on her wall she keeps pin-ups of Superboy. After all, she suspects to the point of certainty that the two are one and the same. She’s seen enough staged simultaneous appearances of Clark and Superboy by this point that such performances are no longer going to put her off the scent and is deeply unimpressed by would-be teen detectives like Gloria van Dyke trying to whittle down a list of suspects to arrive at Superboy by process of elimination. She knows perfectly well who Superboy is and that she’s dating him. Except when the most extreme circumstances cause her to doubt herself then her agenda is never to discover the identity of Superboy, but just to possess tangible proof that he is Clark.  

Her priorities become very clear when she comes into possession of a magic Polaroid camera that lets her take pics of whatever Superboy’s looking at. Obviously, this gizmo is a sure-fire way to prove his secret identity, and obviously Lana cottons on to that after it’s rattled out a couple of evidential snaps, but it’s far from her first thought. Her first thought is “Golly, it’s exciting to have a super-camera like this!” because she’s thrilled at the thought of “seeing the world through Superboy’s eyes.” Using this opportunity to corner Superboy is lower down her list than using it to experience that Super life. 

Which is what she’s really after. She’s one of the smartest kids in school and is especially invested in the social dynamics of her peers, but the biggest social fact in her life – my boyfriend is Superboy – is one she’s expected to pretend, even to him, that she doesn’t know. Her situation is a very specific kind of disempowerment; She gets the thing she wants, a relationship with Superboy/Clark, but at the cost of the things she values about her own identity.

So whenever there’s an opportunity to empower herself, Lana’s there. When Superboy’s trying to bestow super-speed on her father then she’s going to be using a recording of his voice to steal the power for herself and whizz about until her roller-skates catch fire. If Superboy’s super-dog has fallen out with him then she’ll be adopting that pooch and directing him to do her fearsome bidding. There’s a bottle of super-power pills on the table? She’ll neck the lot and make all her friends watch as she apprehends fugitives and chops down really big trees. Her main goal is always to correct the power imbalance in her weird relationship and to get to do awesome shit while doing so.

On a day to day basis that means torturing Clark Kent; Putting him through hell on quiz shows, mocking his exam scores, quasi-diegetically smashing up his statues. I’d say the narrator has a line in Superboy #63 that perfectly sums up their relationship (“Yes, Clark, you’re at Lana’s mercy”) if Lana didn’t have a line in the same story that captures it even better – “Put that piano down and remove your shirt.”  

When the Kents are impoverished, Lana is there to make Clark mend her roof while she watches. When Clark is amnesiac, Lana is there to make Clark wash her dishes while she watches. The fellers of the fifties are not the only ones being offered power fantasies here, and Lana’s wider behavior contextualizes all her efforts to prove that Clark is Superboy. She doesn’t need that proof herself and there’s nothing to be gained by showing it to others, so she isn’t really trying to find any so much as cheerfully bullying Clark with the possibility that she might.

How ugly or cute all of this is depends on whether or not Clark’s into it, and while he’s unreadable on most of the torments Lana subjects him to, the game of Lana trying to prove his identity is one they both seem to be enjoying equally. Clark’s full of smiles and winks on the matter and, when a day goes by without her accusing him of being Superboy then it’s enough to make him suspect that she’s been replaced by a time-traveling descendant who’s come back to steal some cobalt. Superboy #63 ends with a Lana who came very close to ending the game conceding that she’s not smart enough to have the proof and that she’s glad she didn’t find it. I buy one of those two things. 

Neither Lana nor Clark have the vocabulary to articulate what they’re doing here, and obviously, they’d be headed towards something less risky if they could, but they can only work within the conceptual framework available to them. Lana is someone who’s socially competent and practically powerless in a relationship with someone who’s socially isolated and practically omnipotent. That’s not an easy thing to make work, and I’m not going to suggest that what Lana’s found is entirely healthy. But they both look like they’re having fun.    

Moving on to Superboy’s other bestie, Lana’s father, Professor Lang. Another misunderstood figure. For example, people say he keeps a tiger in his shed on which to conduct experiments. Even Lana gets that wrong about him in Superboy #62. Rubbish. He keeps a succession of tigers in his shed, replacing them as they grow “old” and “sick.”

A collaborative worker, Lang participates in Science Clubs and Explorer’s Clubs and sometimes they give him shiny medals. Unlike some of the petulant boffins we meet, such as Professor Dalton who stroppily decides it’s no more science for him after his gizmo breaks in Superboy #68, Lang is all about this life. Tiger abuse is only one string to his bow, with his main expertise being in archaeology, a field he understands as involving jaunts to ‘the jungle’ and ‘the Orient’ to steal various cursed artifacts before bringing them back to laugh at the superstitious ways of the people he’s robbed. There are plenty of reasons he might of settled in Smallville – the museum, the thriving scientific community, the abundance of Native American artifacts and ancient alien bug-monster eggs for him to dig up – but fewer apparent reasons why young Clark would count this geezer as one of his two dearest friends. As we’ll come to later, that may tell us more about Clark than Lang.          

Clark’s extended family all live out of town, from the rheumatic grandfather to the widowed aunt and her many children, to Uncle Frank. That one sometimes visits though, and I choose to believe he’s a time-traveling Frank Miller on a fact-finding expedition. But other than him, and a couple of fake phone calls during ruses, the Smallville Kents potter along alone. The nostalgic small town myth we’d expect of these stories implies a family rooted into its community by generations of blood ties, but there’s not a bit of it. The immediate Kent family unit are the only Kents in town.      

They are a slick operation. You remember in the nineties when there used to be all those little books about what Winnie the Pooh could teach you about different management styles, or how the real secrets of the X-Files related to improved team-building? There’s one to write on how the Kents run their shit. They are on this. They have identified three ongoing concerns –

  • Running a grocery shop.
  • Keeping the house nice.
  • The Superboy project.

And each brings all their skills and resources to all three. Clark’s got specific responsibilities with regards to dusting, we see Pa getting busy with a mop and bucket around the house, and just as the housework isn’t demarcated as being Ma’s Job, so being Superboy isn’t Clark’s job. They’re in this together. They chose the name together, Ma made the costume, and they negotiated how it would mean reducing the time Clark works in the shop to just a few hours after school. The Superboy Project isn’t even dependent on the presence, or indeed existence, of Superboy. They have a bunch of Superboy robots which Pa is adept at remotely piloting when his son’s incapacitated. In the event of Clark’s death, Pa intends to carry on operating the robots in his memory, with Smallville never even needing to know he has died.

Ma Kent is a tough customer, easily mistaken for Grandma Molly, the international gem thief. When she finds herself with super-powers there’s no note of comic incompetence to how she employs them; presented with a car about to crash into a train and only x-ray vision with which to prevent it, she’s shown to be competent and quick-thinking, arriving at a classic lateral Silver Age Superman solution with time left over for the narrator to proudly declare she’s “doing fine.”   

She keeps up to date with the weird science experiments Clark is performing down in the basement. Not just to the extent of making sure that he’s not borrowed a tiger from next door – She’s properly paying attention. If he’s working on a new kind of lightning rod then she’ll know what it’s composed of. Pa’s in on this action too, even knowing enough to be able to work out how to reverse the effects of Weird Basement Science. In fact, it was Pa that first puzzled out the mystery of Kryptonite.

Admittedly, they can both be a little forgetful. Pa can forget to send off completed insurance forms, forget about secret cameras he has mounted in nearby trees and forget he’s been told not to open the door in the middle of weird basement science.  Ma can forget which box contains the super-power pills. But whether it’s deceiving the school when necessary for super-business, providing the attention to detail necessary to maintain the secret identity, piloting robots, using their own temporary super-powers, or doing super-science, Ma and Pa can be relied on. When circumstances occasionally force them out of the loop, like the secret reasons for Superboy’s mid-air sit-in, then it’s confusing and upsetting for everyone. 

So, that’s the Kents considered as a shopkeeping/housekeeping super-team. What’re they like just as a family? The idea of a Superman whose values come from having been raised in the pure simplicity of a bygone America would seem to demand they be in a position of moral authority over their child and be busy instilling him with their wisdom and homilies, like Jonathan Hickman and Scott Synder’s sagacious dads do in the funny books of today. Come to think of it, one of the most recent comics in which I’ve seen Pa Kent was Snyder’s Justice League #25. There he was teaching us some important life lessons via instruction on how to make paper lanterns. Will we, or Clark, be on the receiving end of any similar practical, hands-on parables today?

Absolutely not. Nobody can tell this kid anything. Nobody, as far as these stories are concerned, needs to, as Superboy is presented as the moral and intellectual superior of his parents, his parents are presented as fully accepting of this, and the household is presented as one in which Clark holds patriarchal authority. “Other boys look up to their fathers as ‘heroes’!” reflects Clark in Adventure #249,  “But I’M the ‘hero’ in this household, because of my secret career as Superboy!” 

One of the biggest power fantasies these comics are selling to teenagers is simply “What if I was in charge around here?” In Superboy #69, Clark says “I’ll tell you what to do, Dad… and you must follow my instructions exactly.” There’s a lot of dialogue like that, a lot of talk of how the adults must follow Clark’s plans and abide by his rules. This is a fantasy of the child as the head of the house, a note which sounded ominously in Miller’s Superman Year One where it was suggested that, from babyhood onwards, Clark was calling the shots through telepathic manipulation of his earthly hosts. Nothing here suggests quite that horrorshow. It’s just that the Kents defer to Superboy because he is Superboy and because there is nothing in his behavior for them to correct and no gaps in his understanding that they can fill. 

The tabula rasa Superboy who arrives amnesiac at Lana’s door needs no kindly parents to arrive at his fundamental moral position, he just gets there from first principles. Lana tries to cut his hair, the scissors aren’t up to it, and straight away he’s like, “Amazing! I must learn more about myself! Such powers as mine should be used to their utmost to help others who are weaker!” Ready to leap up, up and away to take on whatever bullies he’s hypothesized using nothing but the might of untrimmable hair.         

Stories where Clark is in dispute with his parents, like Superboy #66, end with them coming to understand why their son was entirely right. Stories where Pa seems jealous and unaccepting of Clark’s authority, like Adventure #249, end with this being revealed as a cunning ruse to trick mobsters. These comics are clear that Clark needs his parents’ love and practical support, but are profoundly hostile to the idea that there’s anything he can actually learn from them. 

This is a loving family, they’re all proud of each other and they tell each other so, but like every component and iteration of the Super-family, it’s full of strange and terrible behavior, at times emotionally distant and at times oblivious to boundaries. The Kents take two vacations without Clark this year, and Ma will think nothing of reading his diary. There’s a scene early into the Bendis run where Lois Lane drives a stake into the heart of the assimilationist Tomasi run that preceded it. Her monologue feels to me like the key to understanding anything the Superfamily do in any era. “Normal life rules do not apply to us on any level,” she says, “We will not have normal family responsibilities to each other or to ourselves.” What might seem like our basic expectations of behavior and basic minimums of decency don’t map that well onto these impossible people in their impossible world.  

It’s still shocking though. The choices Lois is justifying in that speech are shocking and a choice Ma Kent makes here is even more so. When a ruse Mobster-fooling ruse of Pa’s demands that she be fooled into thinking the Kents are disowning Clark and swapping him for her nephew Freddy, Ma is super-into the idea. For one panel she has a genteel  sob into a hanky, then in the next, she’s smiling adoringly at a photo of Freddy, as Clark’s is removed from the mantelpiece, delighted to be having a son who’s her “own flesh and blood.”

The Kents’ slick and mutually supportive operation, using the resources available to the three of them to pursue their shared and individual goals, is in stark contrast to the unfortunate life of Krypto Mouse, a briefly empowered rodent under the thumb of the vile Tommy Ewell. The Ewell child lives out his own dreams of being Superboy by directing his confused and unhappy captive to perform acts of heroism his mouse-brain cannot fathom, then punishing and admonishing him when they are not performed to his satisfaction. The amoral little tale ends with Tommy being rewarded with a big diamond. Ugh. 

Nothing more is heard of Krypto Mouse. The character’s wikia page only wants to tediously insist that Crisis on Infinite Earths would have scrubbed the wee beastie from existence and assure us that, since mice have a short lifespan, he would have expired off-panel some time before Superman reached adulthood anyway. The things that the internet’s collective memory wants to be sure you know about Krypto Mouse is that he never existed and that he died. Never mind though, there’s also a Krypto Dog, even though nobody ever makes any connection between the two. 

Krypto the Superdog is not part of the Kent family unit. He doesn’t live with them, preferring his ‘space roaming.’ In the letters pages, the editors assure us that this is perfectly normal; Since earth dogs like to run free and frolic through meadows, naturally superdogs prefer lives of near-total isolation in the trackless void of space. The logic is sound, but nevertheless, there’s something just a little uncomfortable about the life of Krypto as it’s presented here. He takes the lead in three 1958 stories and they’re all about the absence of trust.    

The people of Smallville do not have confidence in this dog. The boy with the power to end the world, they trust. The matching dog? No. That is asking too much. In Superboy #67’s ‘The Execution of Krypto’ they need little evidence before immediately believing that he has killed a child and calling for his extermination, almost as if they’d been waiting for the day to come.

Superboy’s plan in Adventure #254 seems eccentric – convincing the populace that Krypto is hypnotizing him to give his powers away one by one so that the hound, now possessed of the greater number of powers, will be ‘master’ – until you see how the locals eat it up with a spoon. “I can see the headline!” enthuse the gentlemen of the press, “Krypto Wants To Be Top Dog!” Even Ma Kent buys it. Jealously hypnotizing Superboy into divesting himself of his powers is something they think absolutely fucking typical of this dog.

Krypto does not especially trust Superboy. That Superboy #67 story sees him absolutely convinced that his master has ordered and is enabling his execution. And that cover to Superboy #64, the one where Lana is crowing about how Krypto “hates” Clark now? That is no misrepresentation of the story within. No mind-control, no red kryptonite, no cunning charades. It’s straightforwardly a story about Krypto being furious with Clark. There is a misunderstanding involved – Krypto believes a trophy the Mayor has awarded him has instead been given to Superboy – but his feelings and behaviors all stand without it. Krypto is jealous of Superboy’s status and the misunderstanding was just the final straw, causing him to resolve to never again bark hello to him and to defect to being Lana’s super-pet.             

Clark’s response is brutal. He acquires an ordinary sausage dog and uses it to shame the renegade Krypto by proving it a more effective crime-fighter than he. ‘Hot Dog’, the dachshund in question, is wrapped in foam rubber and used as a shield to stop bullets then rolled into a hoop and hurled at ne’er-do-wells. We don’t have enough textual evidence to say if ‘Hot Dog’ was as miserable as that mouse was, but what we can say is that any inanimate object could have performed those functions as effectively. We can also note that a bulletproof teenager probably doesn’t even need a foam-wrapped dog as a bullet shield. Krypto notes none of this, falls for this attempt to convince him that he isn’t shit without Clark, concedes that ‘Hot Dog’ is “the better dog”, and abandons both his rebellion and self-respect.    

At this point, we really need to start asking ourselves what’s going on with this Clark Kent character. I think we’ve all got quite strong ideas about what we want from a portrayal of a young Superman, and the failure of several movies this decade suggests that ‘nothing edgy, please’ is high on most of our lists. We are now resistant to the idea of Young Clark as an alienated and socially isolated figure because we’ve seen it done very badly and/or by people like Max Landis who we might be disinclined to trust to tell us the tale of the man who stands apart.

Nobody with any interest in Superman has a neutral reaction to the sullen, slouched and hooded Clark on the cover of Shane DavisSuperman: Earth One. It’s fascinating how that image shifted so many units in the book trade while how so many Superman fans recoil from it in atavistic revulsion.  

Superman Earth One
These wounds they will not heal.

There’s nothing slouched or sullen about the Superboy of 1958, and any question of if these stories are ‘edgy’ is preposterous. But look, every day at school the kid excuses himself from his peers, proceeds to a secluded spot and takes his lunch hour alone. We do need to talk about that.          

How his classmates feel about him is hard to read. When he’s seen to be persecuted they’re heard to say “Shame on you for picking up Clark! He’s the weakest boy in our class!” so they’re at least protective of his person if not perhaps his feelings. What we can be certain of is that he can leave a Clark-shaped balloon sat in class while he goes off on a mission and be confident that nobody will try and interact with it while he’s gone. In the social sphere of his school, Clark is 100% interchangeable with a balloon. That’s a bigger deal than a dachshund. We see him attend two parties this year and at both, he seems to be there mostly as Lana’s plus one and is only seen talking to her. On the walk home, they discuss how the others made him feel uncomfortable. 

Talking to another child is something we see him do far more often as Superboy than as Clark, and naturally, those conversations are all about teaching them important lessons and protecting them from harm rather than just shooting the shit. The Boy of Steel persona is not one capable of maintaining a friendship, and ‘Superboy’s Unknown Rival’ from Superboy #64 hinges on that idea. There we learn that having a personal friendship with Superboy would be seen as social capital in Smallville High, and we watch poor little rich boy Jimmy Greeves flounder as he’s hoodwinked by crooks into thinking he has one.

The story works because it’s taken as absurd that Superboy could have a young, bow-tie-wearing friend called Jimmy. Extraordinary, given that issue 28 of Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen was on the racks the same month. It feels like a very crisp contrast; Superman may have pals while Superboy may not. Even if the story does end with Superboy telling his Jimmy that they’re friends, he does so while explaining that this is a reward for Jimmy having learned an important lesson and because publicly displaying their friendship will teach Jimmy’s classmates a secondary important lesson. The last panel sees Superboy fully in pedagogic papa mode, not buddying around with a new chum.              

Teaching important lessons to his classmates comes naturally to Clark, while humor does not. When a story in Superboy #64 compels him to spend its duration performing practical jokes, he can only breakthrough that personal barrier by making his gags also serve some other, more practical, function. That’s no trouble as his habitual ‘lessons’ and ‘ruses’ both structurally work like practical jokes anyway. Elaborate deceptions to convince one of the Glorias that she dreamt the several days she spent as his sister, or to convince Lana that he’s dying, nobody will listen to her, and that she’s going mad, are all part of his daily routine but he’s uncomfortable trying to make a funny. The immediately following story bears this out as he awkwardly tries some light tomfoolery in front of a safe adult, Professor Lang. Lang doesn’t laugh and the town is almost destroyed.  

Hollywood is another thing Clark’s not so sure about, and his telescopic vision keeps the place under close surveillance. Its film stars are his rivals in the scrapbooks and hearts of several girls, but that doesn’t seem to be his issue so much as how hard it is to tell their world from reality, whether they’re faking mobsters or giant creepy-crawlies. Clark almost derails a happy ending by ranting against the falsity of the movie people, but Pa puts him right. This is one of the only examples in these comics of Clark’s parents providing him with direct moral instruction, and the instruction is that the entertainment industry does valuable work.

His own work, or the parts of it other than housework and shopkeeping, the parts that constitute ‘Being Superboy’, has a number of elements. There are lots of little helpful tasks to do around town like fixing fire hydrants and carrying neighbors’ houses to more desirable locations, and part of the phenomenon of the ‘Superboy of Smallville’ seems to be that he is committed to this being a town in good repair and to carrying out general acts of maintenance. Involvement in research is another of his roles, usually by bending big metal things or having them a shot at him. Some of this, like the steel alloys he tests in Metropolis, seems to be on behalf of private industry, but mostly it’s for the army, who maintain a Department of Unusual Weapons.

Following ‘Fixing stuff’ and ‘Testing stuff’ then the list of Superboy activities is completed by ‘Generally keeping an eye on stuff.’ Smallville expects a daily patrol from Superboy and worries that something’s up if he doesn’t show, even though they know perfectly well that sometimes it’ll just be a robot flying about, because Lana’s told them. Magazines may run articles on ‘How Superboy Broke Up a Crime Ring’ but he doesn’t take a particularly investigative role in these stories.

We never see him try to solve a crime or dismantle any mobs, just have a look round with his telescopic vision and his flyovers to see if there’s anything immediate that needs doing. Which raises the question of why if he can monitor the planet, as he’s shown to do, his exploits almost all take place in Smallville. Since we see that he does leap into action when there’s a famine that needs alleviating somewhere and that he is prepared to absent himself from a major plotline when zoo animals are escaping in Metropolis, all we can assume is that this doesn’t come up very often. He is mostly active in Smallville because that’s where the action is, while the rest of the planet’s fairly quiet. Certainly, Smallville has an above-average number of wild animals on the loose. In Adventure #247 alone it suffers its own zoo breakout AND a derailed circus train. Lang must never have to look far for a tiger.

Whatever the problem, it’s rarely solved by violence. When, towards the end of ‘58, Superboy comes up against a problem that can’t be solved by gaslighting, boy-balloons, or digging little tunnels, and decides that the time has finally come to do someone some physical damage, his first instinct is not to roll up his sleeves and start swinging punches. He calls in the army. Fighting is their job. It’s not part of Superboy’s. 

Superboy has got enough to do, but he also finds time for the things he wants personally, and his relationship with Lana is one of those. It’s not part of a cover story or a ruse to keep his persecutor close. He pursues and enjoys social time with her and, during the amnesia story, is jealous of the other him that she’s into. Clark likes being Lana’s boyfriend. Almost as much as doing Mad Basement Science, which he is so excited about.

Repeatedly he complains that he wishes he had more time for the experiments and his contraptions he’s got stashed under his house, and he’s always anxious to get back in the lab. What he’s building down there is telling. Many of his experiments are about overcoming personal limits, like becoming immune to Kryptonite or able to see through lead, but others are about seeing the future. I’d like to be able to tell you the amusing tale of how, in one of 1959’s comics, he invented a time-space visualizer to gaze upon the wonders of the world to come, only to disappoint everyone by displaying the adult Oliver Queen, but even here in 1958 his “favorite invention” is the Oracle Computer, which gobbles up today’s headlines and gives you tomorrow’s.    

Like the archetypal young man of Aristotle’s On Rhetoric, Clark lives “not in memory, but in expectation” yet the past does weigh on him. He can get wistful thinking about everything that was lost with Krypton and when apparently confronted with the planet’s destroyer, become so upset that he starts having rare lapses in judgment and observation. The plot of ‘The Man who Destroyed Krypton’ is unusual in that it depends on Clark’s emotional state to work.

Most of these stories would play out the same no matter what mood he was in because he’s not really living in the present. He knows his name will be ‘Superman’ one day. He knows he’ll live in Metropolis. He’s resolved to be a reporter for the Daily Planet because he’s tried it as an intern and been terrible at it – as with seeing through lead and resisting kryptonite, anything that Clark learns he can’t do goes straight on his To-Do List.  

Kozz of Mars is a very petty Martian, and, had Superman III steered closer to its source material from Adventure Comics #255, Richard Pryor would have been hilarious in the role. Splitting Superboy and Clark into separate entities just to prove a point, Kozz then buggers off smugly in his flying saucer, happy to have won his argument and with no concern at all for the really tedious argument he’s lumbered us with about what it means for Superboy and Clark to have been split into separate entities. It hasn’t been something Superboy/Clark has thought about much.

In Superboy #65 much misunderstanding occurred between Superboy and a further alien visitor, Dworn, because our hero failed to understand that Dworn would respond to him differently in his two personas. Dworn answers a question from Clark differently than he would have answered it from Superboy, and Superboy spends five pages flapping about, his mind blown. 

Talk of Clark/Superboy dichotomies are not the sort of thing our Boy of Steel is immediately equipped to engage with, so before Kozz the Pettiest Martian zaps him in twain, he turns his red Kryptonite rays on a couple of other beasties by way of example. A caterpillar “instantly splits into its other form as a butterfly while its original form also remains!” while red Kryptonite “makes a tadpole form out of [a] frog! See — Now both forms of the same creature exist!” Not sure these work exactly the same, Kozz. Butterflies aren’t known for transforming back into caterpillars after they’re done testing military hardware and tadpoles rarely have to make sure that Lana Lang can’t prove they’re frogs. To follow the Martian’s analogy is to assent to the idea that either Superboy or Clark is a larval state. 

Which would be an interesting idea to try and puzzle out, but neither Superboy nor Clark is inclined to. Superboy is adamant that he is simply real and that Clark is merely “the disguise I used at times” while Clark is having none of it. There’s a fantastic panel of him saying, “Stop telling me I’m your ‘secret identity!’ I’m Clark Kent, that’s all! Get out or I’ll call the police!”

All this is our first chance to see how the personas differ, Ma Kent may sometimes say she feels like she has two sons but that feeling rarely reaches the reader to whom Clark is mostly just a good boy and Superboy an airborne good boy, but that chance is quickly snatched from us. The red kryptonite has warped the extracted Clark’s sense of RIGHT and WRONG and left him naught but a conniving crook with a lust for snazzy ties, useless for making subtle comparisons with Superboy who isn’t a crook and doesn’t wear a tie.

One significant that does happen though, since before Bad Clark eventually carks it, Superboy starts referring to him as “the second Clark” implying himself as the first. Over the course of the last Superboy story of the year, Superboy moves from thinking about Clark as merely a disguise to thinking of him as the life he’s living. A life in a Smallville that is and isn’t 1958, growing up in a Tech Bro Nightvale with his lonely lunches, a fraught relationship with his dog, a fragile sense of self, no idea how to talk to people who aren’t parents or parent-shaped, and a girlfriend with no model for how to be an ethical domme.  

Something around here needs to change.

Long live the Legion.  


Superboy’s mid-air sit-in goes on long enough for him to become quite bored, so he remotely seizes control of two of his robot duplicates and makes them play chess. Or rather, plays chess against himself by taking turns as each of those two replicas. A solitary self refracted then reflected. Like Bizzaro, a less compliant duplicate, who caught sight of himself in a shop window and immediately smashed it, appalled at its ugliness. Throughout these stories, Superboy is forever being splintered and thrown back at himself.

“It’s all about living in the ocean, being wild and free” insists the theme tune to H20 Just Add Water but, for the three mermaids of that teen drama, life was anything but wild or free, as they spent their heavily restricted youths having to avoid the slightest contact with the earth’s most common substance or face being dissected by Australians. Secret identity stories offer a lot to teenagers, as they’re equally useful for providing empowerment fantasies and for giving voice to anxieties.       

We’ve talked about the story where Ma and Pa get X-Ray vision, the story where Smallville High’s students receive invisible messages from the criminal underworld via special glasses, and the story where Lana’s magic camera shows her whatever Clark’s looking at. Those three stories all come back to back in Superboy #66, and any attempt to read that comic in one sitting ends with the reader rolling around on the floor screaming, “The Eyes! The Eyes! Stop looking at me! Stop looking at me! The terrible, terrible Eyes!”

Adolescence, for many of us, is the time where we stop having one consistent one-size-fits-all personality and start to become acutely aware that we’re displaying a different range of behaviors with our parents, our teachers, and different groups of friends. That we’re even talking differently. It’s frightening, moving from a sense of just being one person to a world where we’re losing count, as we step out of childhood and into, well, into the Spiderverse. Into a great big web of versions of oneself. These stories are interested in that. Superboy #65 has an incredibly blatant one about post-masturbatory guilt, ‘Superboy’s Moonlight Spell,’ where Clark’s mind goes places he feels it oughtn’t whenever darkness falls, his mother makes appalling discoveries while putting away his pajamas, and he’s left lying sad and flat in bed asking himself, “Why am I only bad sometimes and good others?” The story ends with Clark saying, “Now I’ll bottle up the volcano — and bury that danger […] forever!” Good luck with that, kid.

 ‘Moonlight Spell’ is unusual in that the good Superboy and the evil wanking Superboy occupy the same body, Jekyll and Hyde style. The normal tendency is to slice Clark up into as many little bits as possible. The second Clark created by Kozz of Mars survives the iconic cinematic showdown in a junkyard, only to die in a remarkable conflict later on. Evil Clark and Superboy decide to duke it out by proxy, each controlling a Superboy robot. Two Clark Kents fighting each at the command of two other Clark Kents. Eventually, the evil Clark, wearing one of his ill-gotten snazzy ties, decides to cheat and make all the spare robots attack Superboy. Two Clark Kents battle using two other Clark Kents while five Clark Kents attack one of those Clark Kents at the command of the other Clark Kent. The control box overloads and kills the wicked one. 

Clark must always feel a bit like overloading in the face of all these externalized selves. “There isn’t room on Earth for two Superboys,” says Dworn, an inverted Superboy who’s strong in the presence of Kryptonite, as he abandons the planet based on that reasoning. But there seems to be room for dozens of them! Clark has seven robots, one evil doppelganger, life-sized balloons of himself and a plastic dummy of himself that was once thrown over a waterfall by a dog dressed up like him. Clark’s lost in a maze of himself, of pin-ups and statues and billboards. The anxiety here is solipsistic – Clark’s secret puts him in a psychic space where there’s nothing but Clark, a world of Clarks. Corrupt, uncanny, robotic and inflatable. 

The queer reading hangs low, despite occasional heterosexual rubbish from the narrator like, “Would you think it great fun to have a double identity like Superboy, keeping your secret from all the world?” Nah, mate. Not so much. A secret isolates Superboy from the world and so he spirals inwards. His motorized and inanimate duplicates both live in a closet in his room, which Adventure #251 sees his parents show up to tidy. “Your secret storeroom needs cleaning too, son” advises Ma. 

But Clark cannot keep his secret storeroom clean. Out tumbles piles of alien bric-a-brac as an embarrassed Pa says “Looks like there’s…er…too much stuff in there! It’s crammed with Superboy trophies and whatnot!” Superboy needs all this Superboy. The story ends with him deciding he needs to keep all his robot duplicates as they squabble among themselves as to which it to go out into the world, pretending to be him.

But sometimes the double must die. There are no tears for the death of the Clark in the Snazzy Tie, and Superboy is resolute in his intention to kill Bizzaro. Created by a duplicator ray accident, the Bizzaro of Superboy #68 isn’t an inversion or mirroring of Superman as later Bizzaros will be. He doesn’t speak in words with opposite meanings, just in a childlike, Hulk-speak. He is simply an imperfect replica of Superboy. His up is not down, it is just a less good up. And everyone absolutely freaks out. It’s a Frankenstein story, right down to the kindliness of the blind, but one totally reluctant to indict its baying mob.

Ma is revolted by him, and Superboy just disgusted by his ignorance. All act as if he’s the most revolting thing they’ve ever seen even though, visually, the only difference between him and Superboy is a receding hairline and a lower poly count. Despite his evident consciousness and agency we’re repeatedly assured that it’s fine to kill him because his body isn’t made of organic matter. After driving him to suicide, Superboy does sort of say he’s sorry but only while explaining that he was right to do it and it’s for the best, so it’s not a great apology.

Perhaps the most visually upsetting depictions of Clark’s diminishing self comes from Superboy #69, where a sick and immobilized Clark watches his dad control one of the robots in a desperate battle against determined outlaws. The robot loses its arms, then its head, but carries on fighting the good fight, the sickly Clark glued to these images of his own fragmentation. The legs go next, and then the body. Until all that is left of ‘Superboy’ are three scraps of colored cloth, red, blue and yellow, fluttering before his eyes under the direction of his father’s jet tubes. Big mood. This lad desperately needs to get out of the secret storeroom and start talking to some boys his own age.    

Like Robin the Boy Wonder, who travels back from the future to help out in Adventure #253. It’s a touching story, as he brings real companionship into Clark’s life. Solving mysteries together as equals, having lunch with Ma and Pa, chatting about cute domestic trivia, the great tides of Atomic Age history, and their personal triumphs and tragedies. Robin looks like exactly what it was absurd to claim Jimmy Greeves was. He looks like a friend, and with him, he’s brought the promise of more.

Robin’s exposition about his journey to the past starts, “One day, when Batman was out of town, I was flying to visit you, Superman at your secret fortress, when suddenly…” Look how much is implied there! That one day a ‘secret fortress’ will be a place for friends to visit (exactly as it will be ‘Fort Superman’ is reintroduced in Action #241 as a social space) and that one day he’ll be part of a community with multiple moving parts. That one day there’ll be a Batman. That last thing is what little Clark really latches on to, despite the total relevance of Batman to this story, because Robin’s told him what Batman is. One day, Clark is promised, he will have a “best friend.”

The most heartfelt panel in any of these comics comes when Clark has had cause to doubt that. Or rather cause to doubt Robin’s whole story, but it’s the existence or otherwise of Batman that bothers him. The reality of Batman makes no difference to the immediate palaver with exploding clocks and flying battering rams, but it’s the one detail Superboy cares about.

Superman and Robin Smallville

“All those stories you told me about the future — and BATMAN! They’re all lies! You’re not from the future — and there never will be a BATMAN!”   

He turns his back to Robin, a vulnerable pout on his face. Clark simply cannot make the idea that he’ll ever have a best friend feel real to him. Robin tries to convince him by listing ‘great feats’ that Clark will perform as Superman. He has no idea what’s up. How could he? Robin’s Bat-family. He was never alone.

Clark does eventually accept that Robin’s on the level, but doesn’t bring up Batman again. I still don’t think he can quite take that into his heart. What he’s been offered is an ‘It Gets Better’ narrative, and they’re never sufficient. Never sufficient but not useless either. As Clark waves goodbye to Robin and the promise that one day he’ll be part of a community, his voice catches. “Thanks Robin, thanks for saving my future life! I’m — I’m sorry to see you go…” The World’s Finest team can offer him hope for tomorrow. If only there was someone that could offer him tomorrow… today.

It is 1958. Clark Kent is a lonely teenager. The girl knows his secret. She is joined by the two boys he saw earlier. The three begin to undress in front of him. Something has changed. 

The Legion of Super-Heroes changes everything. Their first appearance in Adventure #247 is that one precious detail that everyone’s after from the Superboy stories of 1958, those twelve pages are what Johns and Bendis et all want, but I hope that by contextualizing them in the three hundred and seventy-two pages of Superboy comics that were published around them they look even brighter and stranger. I hope it’s evident how exciting it is to watch this Clark roll the word ‘super-hero’ around in his mouth, thinking about what it means for that to be an order of being, for there to be tons of them, and for them to have a cute clubhouse in an upside-down rocketship.

Because the first thing they offer him is space. The “hang on in there for Batman” story is simply a time travel story – someone comes from the future with news about how that is. ‘The Legion of Super-Heroes’ is only a time-travel story in the most literal sense. The Legion takes Clark to the Smallville of the thirtieth century, sure, sure, but that’s not what’s really happening. The Legion is teaching Clark to see a different Smallville. 

“What a relief that my secret identity is still safe here in Smallville!” says Clark after his new pals have made it clear that they see him, making that link between different spaces and different expressions of the self, taking that step out of his hall of mirrors. They take him to their Smallville. Parts of it look the same. His house is still there, looking exactly as it was, but now a plaque outside declares it the home of “Clark (Superboy) Kent” and a robot factory stands next door. It’s his house, but in a Smallville where who he is isn’t secret or separated and where the robots have moved out.

Those robots, the artificial faces that stand in for Clark, are used so tellingly here. He attends the Legion’s school, identical to his own – desks, chalkboards, yellow walls – and watches a history lesson in which a robot is demonstrating super-strength. The robot clicks, whirrs and winds down, exhausted from a thousand years of duty. Clark rises from his desk and offers to stand in for the robot. His entire relationship to these figures inverts as the truth replaces the lie.

He’s then assessed for membership in the Legion through a series of rigged tests and brought to believe he’s been utterly rejected. Legion stories will grow to become their own thing, largely be about worries about inclusion, exclusion and the navigation of friendship groups, and that thing will have grown out of this one sequence. “Who gets to be in the gang?” is what writers will mostly use the Legion to talk about, and where they’re running a very specific test to see if Clark does.

They’re testing for humility. Testing for grace. They’re testing for a willingness to fail. Of course, Superboy can perform super-feats, that’s not what the Legion need to know about him. He’s a socially-isolated white male and DO YOU KNOW WHAT it probably isn’t a bad idea to have a check to see if he’s safe. How will he handle rejection? How will he handle being bettered by a girl? What does he believe he’s entitled to? The exciting thing is… we don’t really know this as readers either. We can’t get answers from any of those other eighteen comics about whether or not this lonely boy is prepared to do the work and take the risks. Does he want to connect?

“You’re a super-good sport, taking it all with a smile!” says Cosmic Boy. He’s in.

In with Cosmic Boy and Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl and crowds of silhouetted figures to be colored in by later stories. In with people dressed in colors other than his own, with names that don’t start with ‘Super’ and faces that aren’t his. Out of a legion of robots and duplicates and into a community of people who’re like him, but who are not him. 


A third way to be Doctor Manhattan is be Captain Atom, the character’s original inspiration, as he appears in Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s Pax Americana. There we find him explaining Morrison’s notion of hypertime with reference to the comic book he’s holding (Morrison and Mahnke’s Ultra Comics).

Captain Atom

“The story’s linear, but I can flip through the pages in any order, any direction. Forward in time to the conclusion. Back to the opening scene.” This is brane cosmology applied to comics. The issues are branes, objects with a given number of dimensions, floating in a bulk (or hyperspace) with a greater number of dimensions. Our three-dimensional world contains their two-dimensional worlds and so our greater freedom of movement gives us control over the passage of their time. The good people of Smallville must experience their lives in order from panel to panel, but I can decide which comic to pick up and bring into my present experience. Today I am reading some old Superboy stories and therefore, as has been mentioned…

It is 1958. Clark Kent has had a hard day at work, reporting for the Daily Planet. The buzzing penetrates his window. His parents step from the vessel. His heart is to be broken. 

… but of course, it isn’t as simple as that.

For one thing, these particular stories in the two-dimensional space rely on non-linear storytelling, and for another our higher-dimensional position isn’t really so privileged. Captain Atom concedes this, saying, “Complete yet always beginning and ending. Always different.” I can read these comics from 1958 but I can’t read them as they would have been read in 1958.

Demonstrably I’ve made absolutely no effort to do so. I’ve read them in a nerdy Watsonian way by pretending that all the isolated details cohere to make a consistent imaginary world, and I’ve read them by applying some basic ass entry-level queer reading to talk about what they mean to an awkward bisexual who grew up in South Wales during the 80’s and 90’s. There were other choices I could have made, but I couldn’t not have made choices. That’s just something we all have to do when we bring material from the past into the present.

Which is the theme of Action Comics #247. A Superman story. 

Throughout 1958, Superboy and Adventure Comics did the work to establish that their Superboy stories were the authentic past of the Superman appearing in Superman and Action Comics. In December of that year, Action Comics worked to establish the same and to ask a question; Does it matter?

Between two and five things happened in Smallville. An infinity of things happened in Smallville. This is a period of Superman’s life that is completely vague in all the stories that matter and minutely detailed in thousands of stories that don’t. Does all the granular trivia of Smallville really just lift right out?

That’s what Ma and Pa seem to be wondering on the opening page of Action #250. They’re stood looking at an adult Clark and at statues of his Kryptonian parents holding him as a baby. Clark was a baby in a world without them and is an adult in a world where they’re dead. Does it matter that, in between, he lived as head of their house, the child enthroned?      

It matters, most modern versions of the story would claim because that’s when he learned to be America. Six years ago, in her redemptive reading of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, Liz Sandifer wrote…

In most renditions of Superman, the character learns his flawless values of truth, justice, and the American way from his hardworking agrarian father. [G]iven that the American values of hardworking folks in rural Kansas are, not to oversimplify, responsible for almost everything wrong on the planet, I am not averse to this being interrogated a bit. The fact of the matter is that a Superman raised by hardworking farmers in Kansas who has fully adopted their values would, and we can state this as empirical fact based upon their voting patterns, be overwhelmingly likely to be a misogynistic, racist religious fundamentalist who actively supports regressive politics that leave the poor to starve so that the rich can get just that little bit richer. Perhaps the Kents are one of those handful of progressives that exist in rural Kansas, but with counties that went 85% for Mitt Romney last year, well, you know.

Oh, but they have done worse since.   

The Pa Kent we’ve been looking at in this article doesn’t come from Kansas, doesn’t come from a farming community and hasn’t once been portrayed as the source of Superman’s values. This body of work is simply not what we remember it as being, and the process by which we’ve come to misremember it is surely adjacent to the process that leads us to situate the origins of decency in such an incredibly implausible location as the white America of yesteryear.  

Action Comics #247 Smallville

In Action Comics #247 a time bubble arrives in Metropolis, looking just like the time bubble that brought the Legion to Smallville. Only while that one came from the future, this one comes from the past. Ma and Pa Kent, both long dead, have come to pay their grown-up son a visit.

For the first half of the story, we see how that plays out as he assures them that they did mean something to him and they continue to be valued, just not entirely without qualification. To this rendition of Superman, they are thought of not fully as parents but as ‘Earth parents’ or ‘foster parents.’  He does not see these guys as being where he’s from. Opening one last secret storeroom, in which replicas of Ma, Pa and Young Clark enjoy a meal together, Superman explains to the Kents who they were. They were people who made him feel happy, safe and loved.

Later, the telephone rings. The speech balloon which emerges from it is jagged and vicious, the words it carries are broken up by malicious cackles and mocking quotation marks. It is a terrible conversation. Millicent and Cedric are calling. Everything has been a lie.        

There was no Time Bubble. It was a movie prop. Ma and Pa never visited. These were actors on the swindle. They were Milicent and Cedric. Clark was right to distrust the movie people, wrong to let his guard slip. His heart is broken. Hollywood has had its revenge.

The rest of the issue is spent containing the threat of the False Kents, their stolen goods and secret knowledge, but by the end of it Clark is in no better place emotionally. His past was brought into his present and vandalized before his eyes. Haha we ruined your favorite thing. Looking sadly at a photograph of the Kents, Clark wonders what he can do to fix this. After all, when we bring the past into the present then we have choices to make. Clark makes one. “Regardless of how it turned out, I’ll just pretend Mom and Dad Kent DID visit me from the past!” he says and our story ends.    

He replaces this uncomfortable memory with a happier delusion. Just as we’ve done to Smallville over the years, through reboots, retellings, and adaptations. We’ve taken a weird place like nowhere on Earth where this character had a weird family life like nobody’s ever and decided, culturally, that we’d rather remember it as something else. We decided that it was more useful to us as Sandifer’s nightmare, a myth of truth and justice arising from an America that was great. 

These stories aren’t widely read and that doesn’t matter. The DC wikia pages are all out by two issues on when Red Kryptonite was introduced and, if anyone asks Reddit for stories of Superman’s adolescence then they’re going to get arms waved vaguely in the direction of this material and specific recs for the Jeph Loeb and Max Landis versions. But if it were not so then the world would not be other than it is.

If today’s schools taught the doings of the Superboy of 1958 as rigorously as do the schools of the Legion’s time, there’d still be a fascist in the White House. But the myths that put him there are within a milkshake’s throw of the myths we perpetuate when we privilege nostalgia with moral superiority. We’re not detached, higher-dimensional beings when we bring the past into the present. We’re making active choices, and making our own stories in which we must take care not to become the villain.

Which we needn’t. The key material that depicts Superman’s formative years isn’t interested in telling the story of his formation. Allowing the reader to decide what it all meant. Over the decades, we’ve perhaps not done a brilliant job of that. Putting it about that it tells the story of how moral certainty arises from a traditional family structure in a straight, white, monoculture. That big fib was built from fragments originally thrown down to meet deadlines, pander to kids, and supplement the writers’ therapy sessions. Those fragments can be rearranged into better shapes. They can tell stories of how queer kids need queer spaces. Stories of how much easier it is to understand and know yourself in a multicultural society. They can tell stories about the future. 

A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 16: Days of Future Past and the Dystopian Dilemma

After laying the groundwork for several issues, we’re finally ready to do a deep dive on Chris Claremont’s first[1] unadulterated statement on the mutant metaphor, the legendary Days of Future Past:

The Uncanny X-Men #141

The story came at a key, interstitial moment for Chris Claremont and John Byrne: they’d just pulled off a three-year, reputation-making story with the Dark Phoenix Saga, and the big question was whether that epic had exhausted all dramatic potential in the series. They fired back with a two-part story so powerful that X-Men creators and fans alike have been obsessing about it ever since (which, as I’ll argue later, has become part of the problem with X-Men).

Days of Future Past is a good example of the peculiar (and volatile) alchemy that was the John Byrne /Chris Claremont partnership. According to Jason Powell, John Byrne was the driving force behind bringing the Sentinels back as the primary and existential antagonists and the central time-travel hook was his unwitting homage to the Doctor Who serial “Day of the Daleks.”[2] However, as I’ll argue in this essay, a lot of the political and interpersonal story that the sci-fi stuff is wrapped around feels much more like Chris Claremont’s work, especially when it comes to the decision to center the story on Kitty Pryde.

This decision was key to making the broader transition from Dark Phoenix Saga to the rest of the Claremont run, because it comes only two issues after she’d joined the X-Men. Firstly, because her newcomer status perfectly positions her as the audience surrogate for the new, post-Jean Grey status quo, and secondly, because as the lone teenager on the All-New team, she makes for the better contrast with her no-nonsense veteran future self than anyone else. (This is somewhere where the 2014 film falls short, giving us a not-particularly-emphatic transition of Hugh Jackman going from one gradient of grizzled Wolverine to another.)

We can see the crucial clarity that Kitty provides in three panels, as she suddenly shifts from her initial fear of Nightcrawler’s appearance to her later warm and fuzzy feelings; similarly, the change from the uncertain, halting (“uh-huh”) speech patterns of Teenage Kitty to the matter-of-fact mission-briefing style of her adult self is immediately obvious.

How Is This Day Different All From Other Days

Another reason why Days of Future Past needs to be a Kitty Pryde is that (similarly to what he did with Magneto) Claremont made it into an inherently Jewish story. From the letters attached to clothing indicating which castes are allowed to “breed” in the Sentinels’ America, to the rows of identical graves near the gates of the “South Bronx Internment Center,” the visual and rhetorical signifiers of this particular post-apocalyptic scenario are uniformly that of the Holocaust:

In addition to the captions drawing meaning from Byrne’s discreet Hs and Ms on people’s jackets, we see Claremont’s sensibilities in Kate’s carefully-hidden thoughts – our first window into the Anti-Sentinel Resistance’s ideology. The similarity between Kate’s “we can try to ensure this nightmare never happens, never even begins” and the mantra of “never again” that became the definitive response to the Shoah is unmistakable. 

We can also see Claremont’s influence in what he did with the time travel plot, allowing him to show how the X-Men’s characters could be wildly different in the far future of 2013. As I’ve talked about elsewhere, one of Chris Claremont’s enduring frustrations with the comics industry was the eternal status quo of serial IP:

But because the conceit of the story is that 33 years have passed, Claremont can show Colossus as a retired farmer (who can be married to Kitty Pryde without it being creepy) who’s given up the superhero life, can show us generational change with a grown-up Franklin Richards in an adult relationship with Rachel Summers (making her debut appearance) , and most of all can show us Magneto as Charles Xavier. Several issues before he was to do his major retcon on Erik Lensherr’s backstory, and fifty issues before he was to put Magneto on trial, Claremont shows us a Magneto who – transformed by pain – now fights to ensure that both “humanity” and “mutankind” can survive to see the “day after tomorrow.” (Incidentally, we know this to be Claremont’s contribution because Byrne hated what he called “noble Magneto.”[3])

The ultimate example of thumbing one’s nose at the eternal status quo is the permanent death of characters, and one of the things that gave Days of Future Past its impact in 1981 is that the What If? nature of Byrne’s time-travel dystopia allowed for the shocking deaths of X-Men mainstays like Wolverine and Storm without damaging the X-book’s long-term brand:

At the same time, I think there’s more to these shocking deaths than the car-crash voyeuristic appeal of a “bad future” timeline, again due to Claremont’s spin on the story that we discussed above. The specificity of the apocalypse lends a specificity to the resistance fighting against it, and thus the Anti-Sentinel Resistance can’t help but take on some of the aspects of WWII resistance movements, which means also being influenced by the tropes of the cinema de résistance – films like Casablanca, Cross of Lorraine, This Land is Mine, Is Paris Burning?, and Army of Shadows. In this genre (influenced as it was by escape and heist films), the plucky Resistance fighters are generally outnumbered and outgunned, their best-laid plans are often undone by bad luck, and their ultimate victory is often the existential triumph of refusing to give in and collaborate.

The Terminator Scenario[4]

Now that we’ve fully explored the inspirations and implications of Byrne and Claremont’s dystopian future, we need to dig into the “present day” events that are supposed to set the apocalypse in motion and how Claremont wraps all of these events in an analysis of 1980s politics.

Breaking with the conventions of Marvel’s sliding timeline, X-Men #141 starts with a very specific date: Kitty Pryde walks into the Danger Room on “Friday, October 31st 1980…the final Friday in one of the closest, hardest-fought presidential elections in recent memory.” For once, Claremont’s purple prose is not exaggerating: in the real-world presidential election of 1980, October opinion polls stood on a knife-edge with Reagan and Carter trading leads, often divided by as few as three or four points, with third-party candidate still holding onto a potentially decisive 8-9% of the vote. This choice of date isn’t a coincidence, because as Kate Pryde will outline to the stunned X-Men, presidential politics will play a central role in creating this apocalypse:

First, the revelation that the dystopia will be caused by a presidential assassination immediately placed in the world of 1970s “paranoid” conspiracy thrillers like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor, themselves a reaction to the world-shaking political assassinations of the mid-to-late 60s as well as the more general increase in distrust in government that accompanied the Watergate scandal. And given how often these thrillers combined fears of assassination and conspiracy with fears of nuclear devastation – think Day of the Dolphin, The Odessa File, Twilight’s Last Gleaming, and The China Syndrome – here the link between the mutant metaphor and nuclear threat is particularly appropriate.

Second, for the first time we have a partisan political edge for the often-amorphous “anti-mutant hysteria.” Here, Claremont directly criticizes the (often hard-left) political terrorism of the 1970s, arguing that it backfires, creating a groundswell of fear and hatred that sweeps reactionaries into office. By trying to eliminate the threat posed by Senator Kelly in 1980, the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants only ensures that “a rabid anti-mutant candidate” is swept into office. This demagogue’s campaign slogan – “it’s 1984! Do you know what your children are?” – is a clever riff on the 1970s/1980s public service announcement campaign that sought to scare parents about the threat of juvenile delinquency with the question “It’s 10 PM. Do you know where your children are,” suggesting a parallel between moral panics.

Third, we see from these panels why the X-Men are such a crucial part of the Marvel Universe, and why arguments that they should be kept separate always fall flat for me. I’ve discussed elsewhere why the disparate treatment of mutants and other super-powered beings is actually a rich vein of storytelling ideas about model minorities vs. threatening Others, and why origin stories that emphasize random chance or super-tech produce very different social-psychological responses than those that emphasize powers acquired at birth. But here we see a new angle: Days of Future Past reminds us that as waves of hatred against one minority are allowed to grow ever higher, eventually the surge will swamp over conceptual boundaries to include all who are not in the in-group. Here, we see anti-mutant hatred expanding to encompass first outcasts and marginal types like Spider-Man, the Hulk (although how much more the Federal government could pursue the Hulk is unclear), and Ghost Rider (I’m genuinely quite puzzled how the government would even go about eliminating such a blatantly supernatural entity), but then to include “model minorities” like the Fantastic Four and the Avengers who are initially loved by the public and treated as auxiliaries of the state, and then finally national sovereigns like Doctor Doom of Latveria and Black Panther of Wakanda. (The cynical part of my mind suggests that it was only after the Sentinels went after these last two that the nuclear powers of Earth-811 stopped and took notice.)

Fourth and finally, given when these comics were written and published, we really can’t separate out the fear of a demagogue president who could start a crisis that ends with nuclear war from the fear of Ronald Reagan as someone whose aggressive policies towards the USSR might end in the missiles flying that existed in liberal circles that lasted up until the Reykjavik Summit in 1986. Hence why Days of Future Past is so concerned with the character of presidential candidates whether we’re talking about the or the unnamed firebrand from 1984 or Senator Robert Kelly.

Is Senator Kelly a Good Man?

Speaking of which, let’s talk about the character of Senator Robert Kelly.[5] In what might be something of a surprise for those of you who are primarily familiar with Senator Kelly from Bruce Davidson’s oleaginous performance in the 2000 film, much of the plot of Days of Future Past turns on the question as to whether or not Senator Kelly – clearly taking on the role of Ser Reginald Styles from “Day of the Daleks” – is a good person.

Throughout the two-issues, we get testimony to the affirmative: despite having every reason to hate the registration system that he inspired, Kate Pryde describes him as  “a decent man” with “legitimate concerns about the increasing numbers of super-powered mutants;” Charles Xavier describes him as “scared” rather than bigoted; even the Blob, who’s literally there to assassinate him, calls Kelly “either the bravest man I ever seen or the dumbest.”

However, the broader context makes me question this informed attribute. After all, this isn’t the first time that X-Men readers have met the honorable gentlemen from the Acela Corridor – the first time we meet Senator Kelly is at the Hellfire Club, where he was a special guest of Sebastian Shaw. Given that Kelly was running for president at the time, it strikes me as very familiarly reckless to spend all of his time hanging out at an upscale sex club:

Kelly’s association with the Hellfire isn’t a one-off, but part of a longer pattern of behavior: not only does he return to the club in X-Men #246-7, but it turns out that Kelly’s wife Sharon is an ex-Hellfire Club waitress, which fact somehow completely escaped the national press corps during a presidential election and suggests a truly baffling campaign of Shaw’s to influence every aspect of his life. (And no, Kelly isn’t any more liberated about his wife being a former sex-worker than the IRL news media was about a certain Coloradan Senator’s open marriage.)

The Senator’s professional ethics are similarly questionable. Despite the fact that the ending of #142 establishes that Kelly serves on a committee with a national security portfolio, Kelly is the frequent guest of Sebastian Shaw, noted arms manufacturer with extensive contracts with the Pentagon. And while Kelly might not consider Shaw’s invites to be either an undeclared in-kind donation or some unauthorized lobbying, it’s pretty clear from the text that Sebastian Shaw absolutely does.[6]

Ethics aside, Kelly’s political ideology is way more troubling:

Kelly’s opening statement starts out as standard boilerplate establishment language – “we are gathered here to address an issue of critical national and international importance” – but then in the second panel veers straight into the insecurity-laden rhetoric of Bolivar Trask, which raises some questions about his objectivity. On a political side note, I’m utterly astonished that any campaign manager worth his salt would allow a presidential candidate to spend the last Friday before an election holding Congressional hearings, no matter how well-televised they may be.[7] No wonder Kelly doesn’t win the election.  

At least the witness list hasn’t been stacked with partisans of Kelly’s position, because the ludicrously well-educated duo of Charles Xavier and Moira McTaggart are the main experts due to give testimony – which makes me curious as to which senators invited them. I particularly like this scene because it lets us see real political differences between members of the X-family: showing that he’s learned absolutely nothing from the last time he was kidnapped on live tv, Charles puts an inordinate faith in the power of reason and persuasion. By contrast, Moira channels both Claremont’s Holocaust-inspired opposition to state-sponsored classification and monitoring of minority groups and one of the most famous of (first openly gay elected official) Harvey Milk’s speeches.  

Kelly gives the game away when he busts out his favorite Cro-Magnon/Neanderthal analogy, complete with an elaboration that situates his fear that there is no “place for ordinary men and women” in a world of superheroes – otherwise not that different from J. Jonah Jameson’s more targeted ressentiment – with a Madison Grant-esque fear of racial replacement, similarly founded on bad anthropology. Even his consistency that non-mutants like “Doctor Doom…the Fantastic Four [and] the Avengers” are also threats to the hegemony of baseline humans seems far less admirable, because we see the same list of names on the headstones at the South Bronx Mutant Internment Camp and in Kate’s description of the Sentinels’ future genocide.

Given the implications of Kelly’s beliefs, it becomes a little hard to buy his whole “just asking questions,” “this totally isn’t a witch hunt” schtick. I would argue eagle-eyed X-Men readers have good reason to question Kelly’s good faith, because this hearing is not the first time that Kelly has thought about “the mutant question.” As I mentioned above, Kelly just so happened to be hanging out at the Hellfire Club when the X-Men raided the place, and thus bought the party line:

Thus, well before any mutant hearings or attacks by radical mutant terrorists (more on this in a second), Kelly had already decided on the Sentinels as a solution to what he saw as the rampant criminality of “super-powered mutants” that conventional and Constitution-bound police forces “aren’t equipped to fight.” Note that the nameless NYPD captain’s mention of the Fantastic Four and the Avengers in this context suggests that Kelly’s inclusion of them in his testimony is perhaps due to the fact that these groups are neither “completely” nor “unquestionably under Federal government control.”

In the context of the dystopian scenario posited by Byrne and Claremont, it turns out that the supposed moderate option was the same agenda as that of the demagogue, just dressed up in fancier language. (This is not the first or last time that no-win scenarios will show up in Days of Future Past.)

So why don’t we see “Moira Was Right” T-shirts in the X-fandom?

The Revolutionary Mystique

But enough like the victim, let’s talk about the assassin, Mystique. Her inclusion in this story – indeed, Days of Future Past is Raven Darkholme’s first appearance as an X-villain – is clearly Claremont’s influence. Despite being a mutant from the jump, Mystique was originally a Ms. Marvel villain co-created by Claremont and Dave Cockrum. Mystique is a perfect fit for the paranoid thriller style, both because her mutant abilities mean that she could be anyone and anywhere, and because she’s already infiltrated the highest reaches of the military-industrial complex:

One of the confusing elements of Days of Future Past is that Mystique recreates the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, complete with its initial peculiar name, despite not having any connection to Magneto or any discussion of what her inspiration for the group’s name was. It feels as if Claremont missed a trick here by not having Mystique’s group be the first Mutant Liberation Front, which would be more evocative of similar groups from the 1970s, create some distinction between this and the first Brotherhood (which it has no overlap with). On the other hand, the fact that she kept the original name, and the self-marginalizing perspective it implies, does suggest that Mystique may be more of a fan of Magneto’s early work than his more sophisticated later years.

This becomes especially clear when Mystique and the Brotherhood arrive at the Capitol: in a scene that demonstrates that, often, hardliners on opposite sides are de facto allies because their mutual provocations lead to complementary radicalization, Mystique and the Brotherhood are in total agreement with Kelly’s eugenic philosophy, just with a different emphasis. Because they see themselves as the “first Cro-Magnon” to his “last Neanderthal,” they see it as less an existential threat as a prophecy of historical dialectic[8]:

Costumes and super-powers aside, Mystique’s approach here isn’t that different from the Red Brigades of the 1970s, whose kidnappings (and occasional assassinations) of political figures were carried out with a keen eye towards mass media through the granting of interviews with journalists and the issuing of manifestos and other communiques to be published in the world press. Here, Mystique’s plan is quite simple:  

Unusually for the Claremont era, the climax of Days of Future Past is a straight-up superhero fight between a team of “good mutants” and a team of “bad mutants,” with the X-Men in the position of having to once again fight for “a world that hates and fears them,” which is much more of a Silver Age paradigm. Where we see more of a Claremontian influence is around the margins of the wrasslin:

To begin with, we see Claremont’s fascination with fully-lived-in minor characters and the power of the news-media in the fact that he drops in a reporter to react to the burgeoning story.[9] In addition, the broader themes of post-Watergate political paranoia continues in the fact that the first reaction of bystanders to the bombing of the U.S Capitol – which was bombed by the Weather Underground in 1971 – is a false-flag operation by the White House.

But the biggest influence of all is that while Wolverine and Colossus team up to see-saw the Blob into Avalanche, Nightcrawler has a doppleganger fight with his mother, and Storm rains on Pyro’s parade, it’s Kitty Pryde who actually saves the day:

It wouldn’t be a Claremont issue if the climactic showdown of Days of Future Past wasn’t 90% political debate about whether political terrorism is ultimately self-defeating and only 10% action. (Another sign that this part of the story was Claremont’s rather than Byrne’s is that the latter hated what he called the “semi-incestuous lesbian kiss.”[10])

The Dystopian Trap

Unfortunately for Kate Pryde, it turns out that however personally brave (and/or bloodthirsty) he might be, it turns out Senator Kelly is both a committed ideologue (as we discussed above) and wildly ungrateful for her saving his life:

While I’ll get to the broader implications in a second, I did want to note some important elements of the content of this epilogue:

  • Firstly, Senator Kelly’s politics remain as baffling as ever: one month after an election he presumably lost despite the rallying effect you’d think would come from surviving an assassination attempt related to your number one issue four days before the election, Senator Kelly is working hand-in-glove with someone who would have been his presumable rival.[11]
  • Secondly, President Silhouette’s politics aren’t much better: despite arguing that Kelly’s proposal is “dangerous…unconstitutional, even criminal,” the President nevertheless decides to continue the same approach as a “covert” initiative outside of Congressional and judicial oversight, which seems substantially more unconstitutional and criminal than Kelly’s proposal, which presumably called for some form of authorizing legislation. (This is a topic I’ll get into in more detail when the People’s History of the Marvel Universe covers the various Registration Acts…)
  • Thirdly, we are introduced to Henry Peter Gyrich, future antagonist to both the X-Men and the Avengers. I find Gyrich endlessly fascinating, because I can’t think of that many real-life figures who spawned not one, but two, stand-ins. It’s almost like H.R Haldeman did something to really inspire antipathy in people of a certain generation.
  • Finally, it’s important to note that the main reason why Kate’s intervention “didn’t work” (more on this in a second) is because the Anti-Sentinel Resistance was so focused on the role of the Brotherhood and Senator Kelly that they didn’t see the more insidious threat of the quisling Hellfire Club.

So let’s talk about the Twilight Zone-style stinger ending – that, contrary to the previous page’s narration that Kate’s actions collapsed the Earth-811 timeline, and thus “reality twists inside out,” Kate’s intervention and the 2013 X-Men’s sacrifices have not halted the threat of the Sentinels. It is unarguable that the impact of this ending was a major reason why Days of Future Past was such an enduring success.

And that’s the problem: over the last almost-forty years, X-creators and fans alike have been so profoundly influenced by this story that we’ve become incapable of imagining a future for the X-Men that isn’t a dystopia. Part of this has to do with comics’ unfortunate tendency to repetition: since the original, we’ve had Days of Future Present, Days of Future Yet to Come, Wolverine: Days of Future Past, and Secret Wars: Years of Future Past, all of which explicitly continue, elaborate on, or reboot the Earth-811 continuity. (I would also argue that Age of Apocalypse and its successors are profoundly influenced by DOFP as well, since they also involve time travel, assassinations, dystopian futures, Sentinels, and nuclear threat.)

I would argue that this kind of enforced nihilism is creatively deadening in any case, but it becomes especially problematic for a comic book which doubles as a metaphor about oppressed minorities. The implicit argument is that there is no hope for the future, no possibility of either eliminating dismantling either cultural bigotry or systematic discrimination, no potential for progress either in reformist or revolutionary fashion, and given how often these dystopias involve worlds in which mutant hegemony is the oppressive force, that trying to change things only makes them worse.

If D.C can give us the Legion of Super-Heroes or the New Gods, it is not beyond the capacity of Marvel to imagine a future that doesn’t fall into the dystopic trap. While I understand that as action-oriented dramas, the superhero genre requires conflict, but there is a middle ground between utopia and dystopia. Here, the protean nature of the metaphor can be our guide: when in the history of the world has the success of a social movement or the liberation of a people from oppression not seen backlash, the rise of new issues, or the formation of new group identities?   

[1] Yes, I know I said during an earlier PHOMU that the Hellfire Club was his first statement on the mutant metaphor, but to be fair the Hellfire Club was introduced as part of a story that’s really more about space opera and cosmic weirdness, so I feel Days of Future Past qualifies as the first story that is about the metaphor above all else.

[2] Jason Powell, Best There Is At What He Does, loc. 1242.

[3] Powell, loc. 1272.

[4] While I didn’t want to let it overshadow the overall argument of the essay, I can’t let it pass without note that Days of Future Past eerily predicts many of the core plot elements of Terminator – genocidal robots, time-travel, apocalyptic scenarios, nuclear war, and so on – although unlike the celebrated legal case between Harlan Ellison and James Cameron, this is likely a case of parallel evolution.

[5] It’s really unclear in the main X-Men continuity what Senator Kelly’s party affiliation and state are. Only in X-Men: Noir is he described as a Republican, but the political context of 2009-2010 was very different from that of 1980-1981 and there’s really no signs of that in the original text. As for what state he represents, all I can say is that he seems to spend an awful lot of time in New York City (which is fairly standard for the Marvel Universe), which suggests he’s a Senator from somewhere on the Eastern Seaboard. 

[6] As a public service to my readers, I reached out to my friend and colleague Dante Atkins to ask him whether Kelly’s relationship with Shaw would violate Senate ethics rules. On the face of it, having Shaw guest Kelly at his incredibly exclusive club would generally be considered a gift worth more than $50, which could trigger all kinds of problems (not just with Senate Ethics, but potentially the FEC and the Public Integrity Section of the Department of Justice) if Kelly didn’t declare it on his forms, especially since Shaw definitely lobbies him on Project Wideawake. (More on that later.) Unfortunately, the fact that Shaw and Kelly are longstanding friends probably means that this would fall under the “personal friendship exemption,” unless someone could “prove that Shaw is offering this to Kelly not out of personal friendship, but because he is a sitting Senator, and would not do so if he weren’t.” Just goes to show that whether in Earth-616 or our world, Congressional ethics rules are in dire need of reform.

[7] By contrast, John McCain suspending his campaign in late September 2008 was way more reasonable, both in terms of distance from the election and the importance of the issue.

[8] One of the ironies of Mystique’s radical positioning in Days of Future Past is that she’s going to spend far, far more of her career as an agent both willing and unwilling of the human state than she ever did as a mutant revolutionary.

[9] Granted in this case, the reporter is a fictional one from Doonesbury, but you get the sense that this scene was something of an inspiration for his inclusion of the very real journalists Neal Conan and Manoli Wetherell of NPR in Fall of the Mutants.

[10] Powell, loc 1311.

[11] It is possible that President Silhouette is termed out and thus a political ally of Kelly’s, but that seems somewhat unlikely since Project Wideawake is clearly a personal initiative of his, and the clandestine scheme continues into the next administration (i.e, for at least 40 more issues).

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