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A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 14: Chris Claremont on the Mutant Metaphor (The Hellfire Club)

When Chris Claremont was handed the reins in Uncanny X-Men #94, he took the opportunity to put his stamp on almost every facet of their world – and the mutant metaphor was no exception. Given his xtra-ordinarily long tenure on the X-books, it would be impossible to cover his contributions in one essay, so this will be the first in a series of essays exploring how Claremont mutated the metaphor.

As I mentioned way back in Week 4, it took a while for Claremont to bring in the metaphor, and even then the issue is more of an homage to Uncanny X-Men #57 (which he had helped with as an intern) rather than a fully-fledged creation of his own. His “voice” begins to really sing with “the Phoenix Saga” (#97-108), but as I’ve talked about elsewhere, the Phoenix Saga really sings more as a space opera and personal drama rather than a story about what it means to be a mutant.

However, I will argue that Uncanny X-Men #129 is where Claremont really starts to say something about the mutant metaphor with the introduction of his first new mutant antagonists, the Hellfire Club.

So what is the Hellfire Club and what does it stand for?

Filthy Rich, Emphasis on the Filthy

First, and most importantly, they are the 1%. Indeed, the Inner Circle of the Hellfire Club are a diverse array of different kinds of wealth: Sebastian Shaw is a 19th-century robber baron brought into the 20th century, a “self-made man” who thinks only in terms of dominating other people yet hides his feelings of cultural inferiority behind the façade of an emphasis-on-the-rugged individualist; Emma Frost is New England old money, although to be fair her inheritance of Frost Industries from her emotionally-abusive WASP father was in addition to her own fortune earned through her own business savvy (supplemented with telepathing insider trading); Harry Leland is a corrupt corporate lawyer who used murder to move up the ladder; and Donald Pierce is a mutant-hating cyborg industrialist (presumably one of the left-overs of Edward Buckman’s human-only Council of the Chosen).

This is, incidentally, why I’ve previously referred to the Hellfire Club as “neoliberal” as opposed to your classic country-club type: they have both human and mutant members (despite the fact that a lot of their human members are violent eliminationist anti-mutant bigots), they’re racially integrated (Emmanuel da Costa, Sunspot’s father, an Afro-Brazilian businessman, becomes the White Rook; Sebastian’s half-Japanese illegitimate son, becomes Black King for a time), half of their Inner Circle are women (although I’ll get to their issues with gender later). Indeed, the Hellfire Club is almost a classic Marxist’s view of the bourgeoisie; that all other considerations – race, religion, nationality, gender – have been subordinated to capital:

But for all that the Club is open to self-made “powerful industrialists,” the Hellfire Club is distinctly not Silicon Valley “disrupter” types or Sunset Belt ultra-conservatives: they are the Establishment. As Neil Shyminsky describes them, the Hellfire Club “isn’t planning to take over the world. One gets the impression that they don’t need to because they *already* control it.”[1] This is why their headquarters isn’t a secret volcano base on Skull Island but rather a mansion on Fifth Avenue with a view of Central Park, and why the Club’s organizational manifestation is not an evil corporation (a la Roxxon or Alchemax) but rather a social club which hosts the most exclusive parties in New York:

The insidious, all-encompassing influence of the Hellfire Club – the fact that their membership includes not only the “economic elite” but also the “social [and] political” elite[2] of both the first and second worlds (as Colossus’ comment indicates) – is what makes them truly dangerous to the X-Men, who for all their power have almost no cultural capital in human society. Thus, in the wake of their climactic showdown in #134, the Hellfire Club uses public relations and insider influence as one of their main weapons against the X-Men:

The Hellfire Club’s establishment status is also linked to their motivations as antagonists. Unlike the Sentinels, the Purifiers/Stryker’s Crusade, the Friends of Humanity, or the Genoshan Magistrates, the Hellfire Club isn’t motivated by anti-mutant prejudice, but rather by the single-minded pursuit of power in all aspects of life.

Rather than being existential opponents, therefore, the Hellfire Club view the X-Men as merely instrumental. As Cyclops puts it in #132, they’re “a group of industrialists out to rule the world. They view mutant-kind – and the X-Men – as a means to achieving that goal.”

The Hellfire Club’s commitment to capitalist ideology shows itself in their internal organization, which closely follows the precepts of social Darwinism. For all that the Inner Circle might cooperate for mutual profit, they ultimately view one another as competitors in a winner-take-all struggle for power:

The looming conflict between Sebastian Shaw and Jason Wyngarde is hardly an exception to the rule: Shaw achieved his position by killing Edward Buckman and Emma Frost by killing Paris Seville; Emma Frost and Shaw will conspire to try to assassinate Selene; Sebastian Shaw will later be ousted by Magneto, Shaw, and Selene; Shinobi Shaw will challenge both his father and Selene for leadership; and most recently, Emma Frost manipulated the X-Men into helping her overthrow Shaw and become the Black King.  Indeed, one could think of the history of the leadership of the Hellfire Club as so many hostile takeovers and corporate mergers (in the case of the X-Men’s later alliance and temporary membership as White Kings).

Fais Ce Que Tu Voudras

Not everything about the Hellfire Club can be explained by capitalism, if only because something has to explain why their uniform trends less toward business casual than the bondage section of Fredericks of Hollywood. So if the first thing about the Hellfire Club is that they’re neoliberals, the second thing is that they’re hedonists:

Nor is this attitude confined to the guests whose privilege the Inner Circle seeks to exploit: to the extent that we get inside the heads of the Hellfire Club’s leadership, we learn that Jason Wyngarde believes that “in all our souls lurk a devil, a yang counterpart to the surface yin” which he seeks to free “from its moral cage”; similarly, Emma Frost thinks to herself that “in this, as in all things, my pleasure will not be denied.”[3]

This belief that the rich and powerful should be free to throw off the bonds of morality and taboo, but safely behind closed doors so that their position in society won’t suffer from public disapproval, makes Marvel’s Hellfire Club very much the intellectual heir to its real-world counterparts. There were, in fact, two 18th century British social clubs that operated under the name of the Hellfire Club. The Duke of Wharton’s Hellfire Club was noted for its satirizing of Christianity – members claimed to be devils, conducted mock religious ceremonies, and dined off a menu that satirized transubstantiation – and the fact that it included men and women as equal members. Sir Francis Dashwood’s Hellfire Club (which included the notorious gambling addict and culinary inventor the Earl of Sandwich, the artist William Hogarth, and the radical journalist and politician John Wilkes) had its anti-clerical elements – Dashwood rented out a former abbey and brought in sex workers dressed as nuns for entertainment – but leaned heavily in the direction of paganism, worshipping Bacchus and Venus and Priapus through the usual methods of fermentation and fornication. Crucially for this point, Dashwood’s club took as its motto “fais ce que tu voudras” (do what thou wilt), which they borrowed from Rabelais and which would in turn inspire Aleister Crowley. 

For all that these groups were more about over-intellectualizing wanting to drink and have sex more than the church would approve of, they struck something of a chord in the public imagination and so the Hellfire Club stuck around in sensational literature and media throughout the 19th century, eventually leading to the “A Touch of Brimstone” episode of the U.K Avengers show which inspired Claremont and Byrne to create the first half of the Dark Phoenix Saga:

(costume designed and worn by Olenna Tyrell)
(costumes designed by John Byrne)

At the same time, there’s something very safely heteronormative about the Hellfire Club’s particular brand of hedonism: only the women are dressed up as fetish maids or dommes (and its noticeable that the putative female leaders of the Inner Circle differ from the help only in that they get to wear capes over their corsets), whereas the men remain fully covered-up in their faux-regency knee britches and tailcoats.[4] (One wonders whether Emma will change the dress code to something more authentically BDSM now that she’s the Black King.) It’s very reminiscent of the way that Hugh Hefner tried to cash in on the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s without incorporating women’s liberation or the gay rights movement into his worldview. No wonder then, that even Warren Worthington III who’s hardly the wokest of X-Men even on his best day, sees the Hellfire Club as not much of a radical challenge to conventional morality:

Indeed, Claremont even addresses the blatant sexual imbalance in the Hellfire Club’s presentation and practice in Classic X-Men #34 [5], when Emma Frost has a changing room heart-to-heart with an unnamed Hellfire Club waitress about systemic sexism:

While her argument isn’t exactly persuasive – the waitress has much less of a choice in her choice of “weaponry” – it’s almost over-determined that this era of Emma Frost would lean much more in the direction of Camille Paglia than Gloria Steinem, or that her particular line would focus so heavily on the uses of “weaponized sexuality” and her own personal rise to power as both a survivor of sexist institutions and a superior being (both because of her appearance and her mutant power), rather than a systemic critique or collective attack on said institutions. One can only imagine what Emma Frost’s Lean In circle meetings are like.

In addition to the issue of gendered self-presentation, there’s something else problematic in the way that the Hellfire Club practices kink. Even taking into account that the fictional scenarios of BDSM aren’t the same thing as the praxis of the community and that the Hellfire Club are fictional antagonists, it’s interesting that the members of the Hellfire Club don’t practice kink among themselves; it’s only their employees and their prisoners who get stripped down and tied up. In other words, Hellfire Club kink is done entirely without negotiation, consent, or trust. While Jean Grey’s extended gaslighting/mind-control is the more famous case, one of the creepiest examples comes in Uncanny X-Men #152, where it’s implied that Sebastian Shaw and Emma Frost have sex using Storm’s body:

While this does prompt the normally-pacifist Ororo Monroe to try to kill both of them immediately after she reverses the mind-swap, I’m surprised that we don’t see more callbacks to this profound violation. However, the fact that Emma and Sebastian choose Storm specifically speaks to a broader attitude of privilege and entitlement to the bodies of people they view as “lesser.” In turn, I think this explains a lot about the particular Mills and Boon scenario that Jason Wyngarde puts in Jean Grey’s head:

A Better Sort of X

The third key ingredient that goes into making the Hellfire Club is that they are (mostly) mutants, and yet are largely unaffected by their X-gene status. Unlike pretty much every other mutant group (regardless of their ideology), from the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants to the X-Men or even the Morlocks (another subject I’ll get to in the future), the Hellfire Club elite not only don’t experience anti-mutant prejudice, but they neither live openly as mutants nor go to particular lengths to hide their mutant identity, and don’t think of themselves as mutants who are part of a broader community.

If we try to describe Hellfire Club ideology on the mutant question from their actions, we see a perverse equality. Rather than showing any kind of solidarity or fellowship, the Inner Circle treat mutants like any other member of the 99% who they are happy to exploit, rule over, and abuse. For me, the key imagery here is that, before we see any of them as individuals, Anglo-American Chris Claremont depicts them as Tory fox-hunters pursuing the most dangerous game[6]:

As social commentary goes, a bunch of rich Tories literally hunting the poor is pretty blunt. However, almost 50 issues later, Claremont returns to the same imagery, but the victim changes from an otherwise-naked man in pseudo-pagan headgear to Mystique in her true form:

At this point in the comics, Mystique’s blue skin hadn’t quite been the synecdoche for mutant pride that it became in the movies, but the implication is clear: to the Hellfire Club, humans and mutants are both inferior kinds of animal, and the Inner Circle are the gentry who use them for sport. It’s as about as strong a denial of solidarity and group identity as one can imagine.

When the captured X-Men actually ask the Hellfire Club why they’ve gone to the effort of tracking down and capturing the X-Men, we get a peek at their super-villainous business plan, and it turns out that they don’t see our merry mutants as an existential or even incidental threat to the Hellfire Club. Rather, they see the X-Men as a valuable source of intellectual property:

You can’t really get more neoliberal than isolating, synthesizing, and patenting the X-gene while turning mutant bodies into unwilling test subjects: what the Hellfire Club really want is to turn mutantcy from a random accident of evolution that can empower the poor as well as the rich into a private market commodity that they can monopolize. As Emma Frost puts it in Classic X-Men #7, all of this is a mere “means of enhancing the Hellfire Club’s wealth and power,” since “whoever controls mutantkind will also control the world.” The Inner Circle’s plan may have inspired the master plan of Dr. Zander Rice of the Transigen Corporation from the film Logan, where the existential threat to mutants came not from personal bigotry but an industrial strategy of turning mutants into a product that can be manufactured on demand in the maquiladoras of northern Mexico for the U.S military-industrial complex. 

As one might expect, this plan relies upon the Inner Circle having a great deal of confidence that as mutants, they won’t personally become fodder for the mutant exploitation industry. As with everything else – the confidence that they can get away with kidnapping mutants off the street, assassinating U.S military intelligence officers, or various forms of sexual exploitation of staff and prisoners alike – the Inner Circle are so convinced that their wealth and power completely insulate them from the effects of anti-mutant prejudice that they not only work with bigots like Donald Pierce or Stephen Lang, but go to the ultimate length of bringing the Sentinels back:

We usually think of quislings as being motivated by fear, cowardice, and an attempt to placate a new ruling power; it’s pretty rare to see quislings who are confident enough to believe that they are powerful enough to turn the government and the military-industrial complex into their pawns. This over-confidence doesn’t so much stumble into hubris as leap into it with both feet, because Sebastian Shaw, Emma Frost, and Harry Leland should know better from bitter experience. As we learn in Classic X-Men #7, Sebastian and Emma’s coup against Edward Buckman was sparked when they learned that “Project Armageddon[‘s] true purpose [was] to bring about the total eradication of homo sapiens superior.” In this coup – which happened before the Hellfire Club first tangled with the X-Men – Emma was attacked by Sentinels and Shaw’s lover Lourdes Chantel was killed by a Sentinel.

Despite this foreknowledge, the Inner Circle believe themselves to be literally shielded from the threat of genocide-robots:

Unfortunately for the Inner Circle, they are no more immune from ultracrepidarianism than any other billionaire, and thus didn’t really think through the fact that the Sentinels have turned against 66% of their creators. In this case, the fatal flaw was not thinking through the long-term consequences of their actions, that while current-day Sentinels might be under their loose control, they can’t guarantee that Sentinels will remain under their control in the future. Thus, when Rachel Grey travels from the alternate future of Earth-811 (the “Days of Future Past” timeline) to the present-day of Earth-616, the ruling Sentinels send back their most advanced unit Nimrod after her. When the Hellfire Club runs into Nimrod while hunting for Rachel themselves, they are hoist by their own petard:

To an extent, the Hellfire Club’s story ended there, with being forced into solidarity with their fellow mutants out of enlightened self-interest. While the X-Men would be in alliance with the Hellfire Club for some time, there wasn’t really much done with that story hook beyond being background noise during events like the “Mutant Massacre,” “Fall of the Mutants,” and “Inferno.” Since then, it’s not that the Hellfire Club hasn’t been around, it’s just that it’s been used more as a villain-of-the-month than having a starring role in a story which had something new to say about them. 

On the other hand, this is the comics industry, where making something new out of an old idea that hasn’t been used much in a while has been the wellspring of critical and commercial success since the 80s. And with Emma Frost as the new Black King, there might well be an opportunity for her (and the reader) to look back at the institution she now rules and think more critically about what it’s all about.

But that would be a topic for another People’s History of the Marvel Universe…


[1] Neil isn’t far wrong. For example, in issue #182, we learn that the Hellfire Club has double agents working within SHIELD whom they can order to assassinate U.S military intelligence operatives without any fear of retaliation from the U.S government.

[2] Uncanny X-Men #130, p. 8.

[3] Uncanny X-Men #129, #151.

[4] Although given Sebastian Shaw’s penchant for taking off his shirt and getting punched by well-muscled men, it’s not entirely straight.

[5] Since Classic X-Men were reprints with edits, interpolated panels, and new back-up stories written by Chris Claremont about a decade after the originals came out, this moment can’t help but have the air of a correction issued by a creator with a track record of listening to and responding to feminist critics of his work.

[6] For those unfamiliar with British politics, this form of hunting – pursuing foxes from horseback with hounds – and the uniform of red coats and black top-hats is associated with a particularly aristocratic tradition in the U.K that become popular in the 18th century and increasingly controversial up to the present. Both out of animal cruelty concerns and because of the quasi-feudal nature of the hunt, where upper-class horseman run literally roughshod across other people’s lands, there have been a number of attempts to ban fox-hunting, eventually leading to the Hunting Act of 2004 under New Labour. Notably, the Tory governments of David Cameron and Teresa May have proposed repealing the ban due to pressure from rural Tory voters, although no legislation has yet been brought forward. 

All You Need to Know About Captain Marvel (And Some Stuff You Don’t) Before Her Movie

Captain Marvel

There’s a movie coming out in March 2019 that you may have heard about. Captain Marvel, starring Brie Larson as the titular superhero, is an origin story for the character prior to her appearance in the next Avengers movie. As the second high profile female led solo superhero movie of the modern era, this is a film that has a lot of potential to bring in those previously unfamiliar with the character and the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself (more on this later). The first question to answer is a simple one…

Who is Captain Marvel?

That’s an interesting question, with no real easy answer. There have been numerous characters using that name over the past seventy years, one of whom was created by Fawcett Comics as a Superman analogue which is now owned by DC. You may have seen a trailer for Shazam starring Zachary Levi, the current name the character has taken to avoid a lawsuit with Marvel Comics who got the copyright for the term in the 1960s despite the character predating Marvel’s first Captain Marvel.

That’s right. Marvel’s first Captain Marvel.

You see the character appearing in the movie isn’t the first, or second, person to wear the mantle. She’s the seventh. Yup. Carol Danvers has a lot more history than you would expect, but before we get to her, let’s take a look at the other six Captain Marvels from Marvel Comics (there is a very good chance that some of these will be included in the movie, even if just a wink and a nod).

Captain Marvel: Mar-Vell

First appearing in the 1960’s, Captain Marvel was created by, who else, Stan Lee and designed Gene Colan, taking advantage of the lapsed “Captain Marvel” trademark from the Fawcett/DC character. This Captain Marvel was from a fiction alien race called the Kree,  whose real name was Mar-Vell. The character became a member of the superhero teams the Defenders and the Avengers, before eventually succumbing to cancer in the 1980’s. Significantly, this is a death that has never been permanently undone (a rare occurrence in comics), though his ghost has made a few appearances. Mar-Vell briefly returned to life twice in the 2010’s sacrificing himself to save lives both times. Mar-Vell makes a surprise appearance in the Captain Marvel film.

Captain Marvel: Monica Rambeau

Debuting in 1982, Monica Rambeau is a former New Orleans police officer who, upon developing super powers in an accident, used the moniker to fight crime until ceding the name to her successor and took on the name Photon. As of this writing, she is still alive and goes by the name Spectrum.

In the film Captain Marvel, Monica Rambeau is played by Akira Akbar.

Captain Marvel: Genis-Vell

Originally appearing in 1996 as Legacy, Genis-Vell is the son of the original Captain Marvel conceived through genetic engineering with DNA samples of Mar-Vell and his lover and artificially aged to maturity. Look, it’s comics. Not everything makes sense, but the Powers That Be probably wanted a biological link to the original character. Genis-Vell eventually turns insane and threatens to destroy the universe. He is currently dead, having been killed in 2006.

Captain Marvel: Phyla-Vell

Genis-Vell’s younger sister was created in 2004 in a very convoluted and confusing way (because it’s comics). She fights with her brother during his period of insanity, restoring his mind in the process. At some point she adopts the name Martyr and joins the Guardians of the Galaxy before sacrificing herself for them in 2010.

Captain Marvel: Khn’nr

A sleeper agent of an alien race, the Skrulls, who are the enemies of the Kree. He was brainwashed into believing he was Mar-Vell and subsequently dies shortly after he is introduced in in 2007. Not really worth including here.

Captain Marvel: Noh-Varr

First appearing in Marvel Boy #1 in 2000, we have Noh-Varr, another Kree soldier and crew member of the space craft The Marvel which is shot down and brought to Earth with only one survivor. Noh-Varr eventually joins a (secretly) evil team of Avengers where he takes on the Captain Marvel mantle in 2009. Upon discovering the true nature of the team he leaves and becomes The Protector.

Captain Marvel: Carol Danvers

Finally. Carol Danvers. The current Captain Marvel took up the mantle in 2012, but first appeared as a colleague of Mar-Vell in Marvel Super-Heroes #13, published in 1968. After her DNA was fused with Mar-Vell’s in an explosion, she became the first Ms. Marvel in 1977 after she developed superhuman strength, flight, stamina, durability and endurance. Carol Danvers has had a long history, often intertwined with the Avengers, the X-Men and sometimes Spider-Man. But it hasn’t been without its controversies; in an issue of Avengers dated 1980, she was kidnapped, brainwashed and married off to a villain, subsequently giving birth to his child. It was, and remains, a gross abuse of the character. In 1981, Chris Claremont took aim at those who allowed this to happen during Avengers Annual #10, and in a scathing sequence had Ms. Marvel rage at both her teammates and also the Marvel editorial that allowed the story to happen. And then he turned Carol Danvers into one of Marvel’s most powerful and interesting characters by telling some fantastic stories, taking the character to incredible heights. He also took her to some pretty devastating lows, such as when the X-Man Rogue stole her powers and memories (the memories were later restored by Professor X).

Carol Danvers became Binary in the early 80’s, when she was able to draw on the power of a cosmic phenomenon called a white hole (a reverse of a black hole) which in addition her Ms. Marvel power basically turned her into a godlike being (she was able to manipulate and absorb various types of energy and travel beyond light speed). Although it never happened, had she gone toe to toe with Superman at this time, I’d have put money on Carol Danvers. Her tenure as Binary lasted for around a decade, when the source of her powers was cut off, severely limiting her Binary abilities. With her cosmic powers gone, Danvers took up the name Warbird when her life would once again take a darker tale as she found solace in alcohol as the loss of her powers and memories caught up to her.

The early 2000’s saw an increased use of Carol Danvers as she featured prominently in several high profile crossover stories, leading the comic book commentary magazine Wizard to label her “[Marvel’s] premier heroine”. Which bring us to 2012, the year that Carol Danvers accepts the Captain Marvel name. In the past six years Captain Marvel has spent time grounded in New York City, has had adventures in space alone and as a member of the Guardians of the Galaxy, and currently serves as the commander of Alpha Flight, the team that protects Earth from all the nasties in space.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)

Oh boy. Where to start? There have been a lot of movies released under the Marvel Cinematic Universe brand (a complete and continuously updated list can be found here), and doubtless you have heard about one or two of them. But do you need to see any of them prior to seeing Captain Marvel? Well technically yes if you’re looking at things chronologically: Captain America: The First Avenger. But that’s honestly it if you want to know what happened before the movie and while not necessary, it does provide a bit more information about certain plot points in the film.

However, Captain Marvel does have a character that longtime viewers of the MCU will be familiar with; Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury, the future Director of the global peacekeeping entity SH.I.E.L.D., who has been involved in numerous movies thus far in the franchise. None of that is relevant for Captain Marvel as Fury is still a young agent when he meets Carol Danvers, so while some will find it interesting to see where Fury began, where he ends won’t be a major plot point. That’s not to say the writers won’t throw in a wink to Fury’s future, however.


Comic Book Recommendations

I lied earlier. I have only one recommendation for you if you want to read some Captain Marvel: The Life Of Captain MarvelThe book is a retelling of her origin, and by all accounts is remarkably good.

A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 13: Cap/Nixon

In a weird way, I feel like I’d almost written this essay before I’d even started. Throughout previous discussions about why Captain America would rebel against unjust authority, or how he’d react to modern culture, or what his political orientation would be, one thing kept coming up: in Marvel continuity, Captain America brought down Richard Nixon.

To people who haven’t read classic Captain America from the 1970s, that factoid might seem outlandish on its own. But the details of how the saga actually unfolded are so baroque that they demand an in-depth exploration.

Rather that starting with an action sequence (as one might expect from a superhero story) or intrigue in the halls of power (as one might expect from a 70s paranoid thriller), Captain America’s struggle with Richard Nixon begins with a slice of life interlude in Captain America and the Falcon #166[1]:

In the midst of everyday class struggle, Steve Rogers notices a full page advertisement – on the back page of the Daily Bugle, no less! – attacking Captain America as a lawless vigilante, seeking to raise doubts in the minds of the Daily Bugle’s urban working-class audience (given the Bugle’s status as a stand-in for the New York Post and the New York Daily News) as to whether Cap defends them. Steve Englehart and Sal Buscema hint at the ads’ ultimate author through the Daily Bugle’s front-page headline on a presidential address from Nixon, positioning him as Cap’s opposite number both in the media and in morality.

Starting the story off this way is an interesting choice for a genre generally dependent on punching to advance the plot, as Cap can’t really hit back at a foe which is incorporeal, insidious, and above all immaterial. What’s at threat isn’t Cap’s person but his reputation, and more broadly Cap’s vital connection to the American public. We see this much clearer in Captain America and the Falcon #169, where Englehart and Buscema give us a full-page example of the propaganda campaign being waged against our hero:

This television commercial makes the political allegory clear: here, the Committee to Regain America’s Principles (CRAP) is an obvious stand-in for the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (which everyone in 1974 knew better as CREEP). More than just Nixon’s re-election campaign, CREEP was the crucial financial link between the Watergate burglars and the White House through which Nixon not only paid the legal fees for the men arrested in the break-in but used campaign funds to attempt to bribe them into not testifying about the White House’s involvement.

The style of this attack ad – which positions Captain America as a dangerous vigilante acting against “recognized legal agencies” like SHIELD, subtly suggests that Captain America’s Nazi punching (note that the “private citizen” shown being attacked by Cap is actually HYDRA psychologist Doctor Faust) should be condemned, raises ominous questions about whether the super soldier serum has driven Captain America mad (shades of faux-populist attacks on “elitist” experts, from anti-vax to Brexit there), and once again raises the question of whether Cap fights for the “law and order” America of the “silent majority” or the America of the student movement and the counter-culture – would also have been familiar to readers in 1974. Only two years earlier, many of them had seen on their television a deluge of attack ads created or funded by CREEP against George McGovern’s campaign[2], as a part of a deliberate strategy of “positive polarization”:

(in case that embed doesn’t work, see
http://www.livingroomcandidate.org/flash/player.swf?id=4039)

While this liberal critique of political advertising might seem like an odd choice for an antagonist in a superhero story, this isn’t the first time that Captain America has run afoul of the advertising industry. In issue #157, Cap had already clashed with the ad executive turned snake-branded supervillain Viper and his Serpent Squad (later re-branded as the Serpent Society and later as Serpent Solutions), who’ll get name-checked later in this storyline.

Moreover, this focus on the media, advertising, and public relations was a common preoccupation of Marvel creators in the 70s and 80s, whether we’re talking about Steve Gerber’s run on Howard the Duck, Jim Shooter and Ann Nocenti’s take on Hollywood phonies in Dazzler, Ann Nocenti’s Longshot miniseries, or Louise Simonson’s run on X-Factor. This common thread wasn’t because Marvel creators were huge fans of the Frankfurt School, but rather because comics writers and artists were working in the broader media industry (Marvel Comics was located on Madison Avenue, after all) and were writing from their personal experience.

The media angle is particularly appropriate for this storyline, because there were deep connections between the advertising industry and the Watergate scandal. We see this more clearly when Cap goes to confront the bryl-creamed man behind CRAP’s ad campaign:

Quentin Harderman would have been instantly recognized by a 1974 audience as a stand-in for H.R Haldeman, “the President’s son-of-a-bitch.” An ad man at J. Walter Thompson for 20 years, Haldeman had managed Nixon’s failed gubernatorial campaign in 1962 and became Nixon’s Chief of Staff in 1969. Known to history more as the man who Nixon turned to threaten the CIA into pressuring the FBI to drop the Watergate break-in and the other man in the missing 18 ½ minutes of Nixon’s Oval Office tapes, Haldeman had previously been known for bringing Madison Avenue techniques to the White House, organizing tightly scripted public events, establishing the Office of Communications to coordinate messaging, and installing his fellow J. Walter Thompson alumni Ronald Ziegler as Nixon’s Press Secretary.

Not exactly Jon Hamm, is he?

After this tense confrontation, Harderman and CRAP set the next phase of their conspiracy into motion by luring Captain America into participating in a charity boxing match where his opponent turns out to be the Tumbler, a petty supervillain whose robberies Cap had foiled. When Cap pursues the Tumbler, an assassin hiding in the rafters (shades of the second shooter on the grassy knoll) makes it look like Cap has murdered the Tumbler:

While the Watergate scandal never quite made it to the level of assassinations, both CREEP and Nixon’s “plumbers” were known for using false-flag operations as part of a broader campaign of “ratfucking.” Originating in the fraternity politics of USC where Donald Segretti (future mentor of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove) and the future “mad men” Ronald Ziegler and H.R Haldeman got their start. “Ratfucking” started as a combination of opposition research, ballot-stuffing, and “dirty tricks” aimed at discrediting opponents. As was gradually revealed during the Watergate investigations, CREEP and the U.S Attorney General John Mitchell spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in a campaign to disrupt the 1972 presidential campaign – this included “false flag” operations where Republican operatives like then-20-year-old Roger Stone would steal stationary from the campaigns of Senator Edmund Muskie, Senator Hubert Humphrey, and others in order to create forged letters attacking other Democrats or people of French-Canadian descent.

Similar to his real-world counterpart, Harderman’s objective isn’t to use the legal system against Cap – after all, an autopsy would raise unwelcome questions about the real cause of death – but to discredit him in the court of public opinion. In a truly baroque complication to an already complicated master plan, Hardeman organizes a “false flag” jailbreak and deliberately avoids killing Cap when he gets the chance (something else he shares with other supervillains).

As the bottom two panels emphasize, the point of all of this is to produce images – both of Captain America as a fugitive criminal and Moonstone as the hero bringing him to justice – that can shift public opinion in CRAP’s favor. (We also see Englehart elaborating on his media critique by pointing to both the prurient-yet-prudish audience and the passive news media who let themselves get worked by the Nixon Administration.) It’s also a good opportunity for some costumed fisticuffs in a storyline that is heavy on the talking and light on the usual super-heroic fare:

As antagonists go, Moonstone is almost painfully generic – the costume lacks any visual distinction, the light blue/purple/yellow color scheme doesn’t exactly pop, and the helmet takes away any distinctive facial features without adding anything to compensate – but deliberately so. It’s visual evidence (along with the fact that the reader has already seen Moonstone shoot the Tumbler on behalf of Harderman) that the man who intends to “replace” Captain America is a fraud, an uninspired phony cooked up by Madison Avenue hacks who lacks the deeper ideological commitments that Cap clings to even in his lowest moment.

The purpose behind Harderman’s build-up of Moonstone in the public eye becomes clearer when the pseudo-hero makes an appearance on television (which I’m almost certain is meant to be NBC’s Today Show, then hosted by Frank McGee, although it could well be a pastiche):

This is where Englehart moves from mere allegory to direct political commentary, directly commenting on the Watergate scandal.[3] What this page suggests is that, in Earth-616, Nixon tried to distract the country from the unfolding Watergate scandal through engineering the downfall of Captain America, in the hopes that political whataboutism would tar his opponents or at the very least that Captain America would be unable to speak out about the crisis at the heart of government. In this broader conspiracy, Harderman engineered Moonstone as “the stranger in the midst” who would replace Cap in the imagination of a public desperation to find something to believe in – and at this pivotal moment get “regular Americans” to focus on the conservative goal of “keep[ing] the ship of state afloat,” rather than getting to the bottom of political corruption.

Here we see Englehart and Buscema’s media critique at its sharpest, seeing the media as a passive, spin-regurgitating machine easily manipulated by political operative like Hardeman, and the audience as eagerly “lapping” up vapid celebrity gossip and mild titillation rather than paying attention to the real issues facing America.

Now that the Watergate issue has been brought to the fore, we get to the part of all of the best Captain America stories where Steve Rogers learns to connect his own struggles to broader issues of systemic injustice. And this being the Marvel Universe, the minority group bearing the brunt of repression from Nixon’s campaign and Administration is everyone’s favorite metaphorical minority:

A year before Chris Claremont’s run on the X-Men begins, we see an interesting extension of the mutant metaphor – not just “hated and feared,” mutants are being hunted like animals, not merely by prejudiced mobs but by a corrupt establishment. Indeed, the very language used by Professor X has some interesting connotations within the broader Nixon allegory: the term “open season” was used to describe a series of police shootings of Black Panther Party members which culminated in the shooting of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in December of 1969.

Beyond a mere cameo, Professor X’s intervention is crucial for getting Captain America to see that “the group that hunts you is the same group that hunts us” – the foundational element of solidarity. Moreover, Professor X’s more direct experience with persecution means that he can provide critical context linking Harderman and CRAP to the real enemy, the vast conspiracy at the heart of everything:  

While hardly a perfect person – Cap is understandably preoccupied by the being-framed-for-murder thing – this does demonstrate why Steve Rogers is a good ally. Not because he’s perfectly informed or fully enlightened (after all, he does start from a position of asking “how are your problems connected with mine”) but because when he’s confronted with new information or new perspectives, he doesn’t react defensively but rather instantly takes it on board and then acts in solidarity: 

As someone who hasn’t exactly been thrilled by how Captain America’s been characterized in crossovers with the X-books from Avengers vs. X-Men up through last month’s Uncanny X-Men #11, I’d like to point out this scene specifically to Marvel’s writers and editors who might think that Cap’s position would be the reflexive defense of the status quo. We already know which side Steve Rogers will come down on in a conflict between mutants and the state, even if it comes down to blows with Nick Fury and SHIELD, because he made that decision forty years ago. Nor is Steve the type to sleep on pressing issues of social injustice – if anything, his instincts are to act in a decidedly militant fashion. (Not that he’d always make the right decision, but rather that his “sins” would be of the “warm-hearted” rather than “cold-blooded” variety, to borrow a phrase from FDR.)

After coming to blows with SHIELD, Cap and the X-Men succeed into breaking into the Secret Empire’s base and learn that this “silent, subtle, and sinister war” against mutants has been launched for the purposes of literally weaponizing prejudice:

Operating on the (sadly, probably accurate) assumption that no one will miss mutants, the Secret Empire has been abducting heroes and villains alike to power their doomsday devices, treating mutant bodies as nothing more than living batteries for their engines of war.

All of which brings us to the question: what is the Secret Empire, and what do they want? As Cap learns shortly before he goes undercover to infiltrate the Secret Empire, he learns that they “like AIM, were originally an arm of HYDRA” who “broke away from the big boys, to try to conquer the world on their own.” This is a particularly significant association, because contrary to what Nick Spencer might argue, HYDRA is an inherently Nazi organization.

Add on to that already foreboding backstory the particular iconography and rhetoric of the Secret Empire, a group of white dudes who like to dress up in purple hoods and robes, stand in orderly ranks and throw one arm up into the air in the direction of their leader, and plot the overthrow of the United States:

The symbolism might mix and match a bit between Nazism and the Klan – with just a soupçon from the Prisoner in the way that they all go around with numbers on the front of their hoods which they use in place of names when addressing one another – but the overall political direction fairly straightforward. Englehart puts even more of a point on things when he has the leader of the Secret Empire refer to his organization as the “invisible government,” paralleling the Klan’s self-appointed title of the “invisible empire.” As allegory goes, this is hardly subtle, but I don’t think Englehart and Buscema are trying for subtlety; rather, they’re grabbing up the most charged imagery of the worst enemies of America from without and within and hurling it in Richard Nixon’s face.

Beyond being totalitarian anti-mutant bigots who want to take over the world, the Secret Empire have a broader plan which ties into what we know about the Harderman/CRAP conspiracy already:

As it turns out, the Secret Empire’s plan turns out to hinge on that peculiar neuralgia of the 1970s which Jimmy Carter so fatefully termed “malaise.” In part reacting to an unforeseen revelation of a real crisis – the Watergate break-in – and in part manufacturing a false crisis – the framing of Captain America – the Secret Empire is deliberately attacking America’s ideals and its faith in its of own institutions. In such a state of division and despair, the Secret Empire seeks to use the public’s “desire for a new, untarnished hero” to legitimize a fascist coup.

Because this is still a superhero comic, however, said coup takes the form not of a military junta but rather a mutant-powered flying saucer:

Fortunately for the survival of American democracy and unfortunately for the Secret Empire, Cap’s infiltration of their secret base allows him to first thwart their doomsday device and then pummel Moonstone into turning state’s evidence against CRAP and the Secret Empire both:

The result is a kind of liberal fantasy of how the Watergate scandal should have ended:

Like something out of Aaron Sorkin’s fantasies, the news media does its job and beams the unvarnished truth straight into America’s living room. And unlike the deeply conflicted outcome of the actual Watergate scandal, which saw relatively light sentences and the political rehabilitation of many of the Watergate conspirators, here the whole of the Secret Empire – notably including the “sanitation squad bombers,” a pretty clear reference to the White House “plumbers” – are brought to justice. This time, the long hand of the law reaches all the way into the Oval Office:

While Buscema never shows us Number One’s face – possibly for libel reasons? – Englehart’s portrayal of Nixon’s character is worth commenting on. In some ways, I think Englehart has a surprisingly canny angle (given the comic book nonsense he surrounds it with), describing Nixon as a man who could never be satisfied (after all, Nixon did his level best to steal an election he was always going to win handily), as a man who refused to accept the constraints of legality (hence the creation of the enemy’s list as a way to use the government against his domestic critics, hence the creation of the “plumbers” to pull “dirty tricks” that the CIA and FBI wouldn’t). And while it never came anywhere close to a coup in real life, there was a moment when Nixon was ordered to hand over the tapes where it could have come down to a conflict between the U.S Marshals Service executing a warrant and the U.S Secret Service obeying the orders of the president to block what he considered to be a violation of executive privilege. Finally, Englehart’s use of a poker metaphor as Nixon chooses to commit suicide rather than stand trial (speaking of something that would change America forever) even evokes Nixon’s skill at the game which made him enough money as a Navy ensign in WWII to finance his first red-baiting campaign for Congress.

Despite this complete triumph over the forces of reaction, though, Englehart realizes that Steve Rogers’ idealism has been strained to the breaking point. Thus, rather than exhilarating in his restored reputation or basking in the adulation of the American people, like many of the American people in the 1970s, Steve Rogers has to take his motorcycle and go in search of the American people once again as Nomad…but that’s a subject for a future edition of A People’s History of the Marvel Universe.



[1] An issue that otherwise focuses on a rather problematic Yellow Peril villain bringing mummies to life in the Museum of Natural History, but I digress.

[2] Incidentally, Roger Ailes of Fox News infamy got his start putting together Nixon campaign ads in 1968…

[3] Which at the time that Captain America and the Falcon #174 went to print in June of 1974 was in a highly delicate state, with the House Judiciary Committee beginning impeachment prosecutions against Nixon but before the Supreme Court ruled that Nixon had to hand over the tapes which would already bring him down. As late as June of 1974, Nixon’s approval and disapproval ratings remained tied, and support for removing Nixon remained below a majority and had actually slightly declined over the spring.

All You Need to Know About Captain Marvel (And Some Stuff You Don’t) Before Her Movie

Captain Marvel

There’s a movie coming out in March 2019 that you may have heard about. Captain Marvel, starring Brie Larson as the titular superhero, is an origin story for the character prior to her appearance in the next Avengers movie (don’t take this as confirmation of her appearance, rather an educated guess based on the proximity of her movie to the reported release date of the as-yet untitled fourth Avengers movie). As the second high profile female led solo superhero movie, this is a film that has a lot of potential to bring in those previously unfamiliar with the character and the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself (more on this later). The first question to answer is a simple one…

Who is Captain Marvel?

That’s an interesting question, with no real easy answer. There have been numerous characters using that name over the past seventy years, one of whom was created by Fawcett Comics as a Superman analogue is now owned by DC. You may have seen a trailer for Shazam starring Zachary Levi, the current name the character has taken to avoid a lawsuit with Marvel Comics, who got the copyright for the term in the 1960s, despite the character predating Marvel’s first Captain Marvel.

That’s right. Marvel’s first Captain Marvel.

You see the character appearing in the movie isn’t the first, or second, person to wear the mantle. She’s the seventh. Yup. Carol Danvers has a lot more history than you would expect, but before we get to her, let’s take a look at the other six Captain Marvels from Marvel Comics (there is a very good chance that some of these will be included in the movie, even if just a wink and a nod).

Captain Marvel: Mar-Vell

First appearing in the 1960’s, Captain Marvel was created by, who else, Stan Lee and designed Gene Colan, taking advantage of the lapsed “Captain Marvel” trademark from the Fawcett/DC character. This Captain Marvel was from a fiction alien race called the Kree,  whose real name was Mar-Vell. The character became a member of the superhero teams the Defenders and the Avengers, before eventually succumbing to cancer in the 1980’s. Significantly, this is a death that has never been permanently undone (a rare occurrence in comics), though his ghost has made a few appearances. Mar-Vell briefly returned to life twice in the 2010’s sacrificing himself to save lives both times. Mar-Vell will be played by Jude Law in the 2019 movie.

Captain Marvel: Monica Rambeau

Debuting in 1982, Monica Rambeau is a former New Orleans police officer who, upon developing super powers in an accident, used the moniker to fight crime until ceding the name to her successor and took on the name Photon. As of this writing, she is still alive and goes by the name Spectrum.

Captain Marvel: Genis-Vell

Originally appearing in 1996 as Legacy, Genis-Vell is the son of the original Captain Marvel conceived through genetic engineering with DNA samples of Mar-Vell and his lover and artificially aged to maturity. Look, it’s comics. Not everything makes sense, but the Powers That Be probably wanted a biological link to the original character. Genis-Vell eventually turns insane and threatens to destroy the universe. He is currently dead, having been killed in 2006.

Captain Marvel: Phyla-Vell

Genis-Vell’s younger sister was created in 2004 in a very convoluted and confusing way (because it’s comics). She fights with her brother during his period of insanity, restoring his mind in the process. At some point she adopts the name Martyr and joins the Guardians of the Galaxy before sacrificing herself for them in 2010.

Captain Marvel: Khn’nr

A sleeper agent of an alien race, the Skrulls, who are the enemies of the Kree. He was brainwashed into believing he was Mar-Vell and subsequently dies shortly after he is introduced in in 2007. Not really worth including here.

Captain Marvel: Noh-Varr

First appearing in Marvel Boy #1 in 2000, we have Noh-Varr, another Kree soldier and crew member of the space craft The Marvel which is shot down and brought to Earth with only one survivor. Noh-Varr eventually joins a (secretly) evil team of Avengers where he takes on the Captain Marvel mantle in 2009. Upon discovering the true nature of the team he leaves and becomes The Protector.

Captain Marvel: Carol Danvers

Finally. Carol Danvers. The current Captain Marvel took up the mantle in 2012, but first appeared as a colleague of Mar-Vell in Marvel Super-Heroes #13, published in 1968. After her DNA was fused with Mar-Vell’s in an explosion, she became the first Ms. Marvel in 1977 after she developed superhuman strength, flight, stamina, durability and endurance. Carol Danvers has had a long history, often intertwined with the Avengers, the X-Men and sometimes Spider-Man. But it hasn’t been without its controversies; in  an issue of Avengers  dated 1980, she was kidnapped, brainwashed and married off to a villain, subsequently giving birth to his child. It was, and remains, a gross abuse of the character. In 1981, Chris Claremont took aim at those who allowed this to happen during Avengers Annual #10, and in a scathing sequence had Ms. Marvel rage at both her teammates and also the Marvel editorial that allowed the story to happen. And then he turned Carol Danvers into one of Marvel’s most powerful and interesting characters by telling some fantastic stories, taking the character to incredible heights. He also took her to some pretty devastating lows, such as when the X-Man Rogue stole her powers and memories (the memories were later restored by Professor X).

Carol Danvers became Binary in the early 80’s, when she was able to draw on the power of a cosmic phenomenon called a white hole (a reverse of a black hole) which in addition her Ms. Marvel power basically turned her into a godlike being (she was able to manipulate and absorb various types of energy and travel beyond light speed). Although it never happened, had she gone toe to toe with Superman at this time, I’d have put money on Carol Danvers. Her tenure as Binary lasted for around a decade, when the source of her powers was cut off, severely limiting her Binary abilities. With her cosmic powers gone, Danvers took up the name Warbird when her life would once again take a darker tale as she found solace in alcohol as the loss of her powers and memories caught up to her.

The early 2000’s saw an increased use of Carol Danvers as she featured prominently in several high profile crossover stories, leading the comic book commentary magazine Wizard to label her “[Marvel’s] premier heroine”. Which bring us to 2012, the year that Carol Danvers accepts the Captain Marvel name. In the past six years Captain Marvel has spent time grounded in New York City, has had adventures in space alone and as a member of the Guardians of the Galaxy, and currently serves as the commander of Alpha Flight, the team that protects Earth from all the nasties in space.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)

Oh boy. Where to start? There have been a lot of movies released under the Marvel Cinematic Universe brand (a complete and continuously updated list can be found here), and doubtless you have heard about one or two of them. But do you need to see any of them prior to seeing Captain Marvel? Well technically yes if you’re looking at things chronologically: Captain America: The First Avenger. But that’s honestly it if you want to know what happened before the movie. However, Captain Marvel does have a character that longtime viewers of the MCU will be familiar with; Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury, the future Director of the global peacekeeping entity SH.I.E.L.D., who has been involved in numerous movies thus far in the franchise. None of that is relevant for Captain Marvel, as Fury is still a young agent when he meets Carol Danvers, so while some will find it interesting to see where Fury began, where he ends won’t be a major plot point. That’s not to say the writers won’t throw in a wink to Fury’s future, however.


Comic Book Recommendations

I lied earlier. I have only one recommendation for you if you want to read some Captain Marvel: The Life Of Captain MarvelThe book is a retelling of her origin, and by all accounts is remarkably good.

People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 12: The Mutant Metaphor (Part IV)

Face front, true believers!

In the last entry in this series, I was intending to write about Chris Claremont’s stamp on the mutant metaphor. However, recently I got bitten by a (non-radioactive) different idea and so instead I want to talk about another aspect of the mutant metaphor, a metaphor-within-a-metaphor, one that’s cropped up in many different eras of X-Men history: the comparison of humans and mutants to Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons.

Read more

Working-Class Comic Heroes & Populist Politics Get The Spotlight

In comics, superheroes are often also working-class individuals struggling to get by. Working-Class Comic Book Heroes: Class Conflict and Populist Politics in Comics examines working-class superheroes and other protagonists who populate heroic narratives in serialized comic books.

The book, out in May 2018, features contributions from Phil Bevin, Blair Davis, Marc DiPaolo, Michele Fazio, James Gifford, Kelly Kanayama, Orion Ussner Kidder, Christina M. Knopf, Kevin Michael Scott, Andrew Alan Smith, and Terrence R. Wandtke.

The book dives into the people behind the page too examining their working-class writers and artists who contributed to the creation of these characters. History, marketing, and the fan community are all topics for discussion.

Edited by Marc DiPaolo, the book is being published by University Press of Mississippi. You can pre-order the book now.

Marvel Comics the Untold Story, As Told to Graphic Policy Radio by Sean Howe on Demand

On demand: iTunes ¦ Sound Cloud ¦ Stitcher ¦ BlogTalkRadio ¦ Listed on podcastdirectory.com

Learn everything you ever wanted to know about the history of the business of Marvel Comics! We’re interviewing author Sean Howe, author of Marvel Comics the Untold Story.

“In the early 1960s, Marvel Comics introduced a series of bright-costumed superhero characters—including Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, and the Amazing Spider-Man—that would evolve into a modern American mythology for millions of readers. Over the last half-century, these characters have been passed along among generations of brilliant editors, artists, and writers who struggled with commercial mandates, a fickle audience, and, over matters of credit and control, one another. Written by Sean Howe, former comic book reviewer and editor at Entertainment Weekly, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is a gripping narrative of one of the most extraordinary, beloved, and beleaguered pop cultural entities in America’s history.”

 

Guest hosting is:

Steven Attewell writes about the intersection of history, politics, and pop culture in “The People’s History of the Marvel Universe” for Graphic Policy. In his day job, He teaches public policy at CUNY’s Murphy Institute for Labor Studies. He is the founder of Race for the Iron Throne.

Marvel Looks at Jean Grey Through the Years

In celebration of one of its most beloved characters, Marvel has released a new video taking a look at Jean Grey Through the Years: a look back at the iconic mutant’s history with the X-Men! Take a moment to relive all Jean Grey’s classic moments, from her debut in 1963’s X-Men #1 to the return of her adult form in the upcoming Phoenix: Resurrection.

The Wicked + The Divine 1831: A Review Of A Single Sentence

By Maya Garcia

When the creative team behind The Wicked + The Divine announced the The Wicked + The Divine 1831 special, the classic literature diehards in the fandom rejoiced. And we rejoiced by flocking to social media to post long threads about our hopes and predictions for the issue and dashing to the library to pick up biographies, poetry collections, and campy 80s movies pertaining to the English High Romantics.

I opened 1831, fingers twitching with excitement at the thought of seeing my old friends the Romantics in a strange new way, and was delightfully thunderstruck to find among them the Romantic nearest and dearest to my own Russophilic heart – Aleksandr Pushkin. His appearance in the comic is brief and oblique, consisting in fact of a mere ten words in a speech bubble.

pushkin-1

No unit of literature is too small to be given an in-depth analysis by a properly enthusiastic and imaginative reader. And I hope that by performing such an analysis on this single sentence (in the context of the comic up to this point) I can offer fellow fans entertaining and edifying insights into one of the myriad literary allusions in 1831.

Let’s have a go.

“Perun…” This is the name of an ancient Slavic sky god, the supreme deity in his pantheon. There are frustratingly few sources of information on the gods of the ancient Slavs as they had no known systems of writing before the 9th century C.E., when Greek Orthodox monks invented the Glagolitic and later Cyrillic alphabets to aid in bringing Christianity to the region. Much of what we know about Slavic mythology is extrapolated from visual artifacts and reports by monks. Perun is one of few figures who emerges from this tradition with a relatively clear image, that of a kingly, bearded warrior who commands stone, fire, and above all, lightning.

pushkin-2

This image doesn’t call any 18th or 19th century Russian writers to my mind (other than maybe Tolstoy who had the long beard and patriarchal wrath thing going on, but he was just a baby in 1831 and wouldn’t be caught dead in a story about Romantic poets anyway). But why spend time wondering which Russian writer is best fit to wear the mantle of the highest god, because Russia has already chosen Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin.

There are endless fascinating cultural artifacts that one can point to illustrate the extreme degree to which Pushkin is venerated in Russia, and my personal favorite examples are: that time I was street drinking in St. Petersburg with a group of American college students and tipsily exchanged recitations of classic Pushkin verses with a couple of strangers we met outside a bar; the presence of civic artwork and/or tourist traps in every place the man ever set foot; and the fact that even the radically avant-garde Futurist poets and critics, who exhorted the Russian literary community to cast its old writers overboard from the “Steamship of Modernity,” still wrote essays and poems that praised Pushkin.

“…collapsed in Petersburg…” Ah, Petersburg! Petersburg! My favorite city for many reasons, one of which is the fact that you can’t go more than a few blocks without seeing the name or face of a dead poet. When I first saw the city in the fall of 2011, several metro stations had translations of verses by of the Romantic poet John Keats displayed in the big frames where metro stations usually hang advertisements. When I asked someone why the metro was advertising for Keats, their answer was “It’s pretty. It’s poetry.”

This is a city that may no longer be the political capital of the country, but proudly considers itself to be “The Cultural Capital of Russia.” This is the city to name drop when making a shorthand reference to Russian Romanticism. And yes, of course Pushkin died there. I’ve been to the lovingly preserved room where the tragic event occurred (a real must-see for melancholic comparative literature majors doing a year abroad in Russia).

“…pure language raging from his guts…” What a lovely turn of phrase, moving from the almost-Biblical mysticism of “pure language” to the (literally) visceral brutality of “raging from his guts.” The juxtaposition of these elements is very Russian Literature ™, but the resulting phrase is original and compelling enough to reach my ears over the din of lesser clichés one encounters daily in Slavic Studies. I can’t trace it to a quotation (though I’ve only been working it over for a couple days and I mostly work on 20th century literature anyway…), but I can see what moments in the Pushkin Mythos to which it could refer.

“…pure language…” Students of Russian literature learn to recognize the particular aspects of literature with which each canonical writer is most strongly associated – their divine domains, if you will. Dostoevsky is the Patron Saint of Unreliable Narrators; Pushkin is the All-Father of the Modern Russian Literary Language.

“…raging from his guts…” Unlike Shakespeare, Pushkin lived and died a well-documented and very public life. An incredible amount of detail concerning his day-to-day existence is available to the dedicated archival scholar and such major moments as his death are familiar to all. Pushkin’s death is such a well-known moment in Russian culture it is the subject of countless paintings and poems, and even has its very own Wikipedia page. It doesn’t get much more Romantic than dying at 37 (just a few months older than Byron) from a wound sustained in the course of a duel defending his wife’s honor against a dastardly French officer. While he did die in bed several days after the duel, the image of the poet collapsing in the snow, bleeding from his guts, is entirely true-to-life.

I think I’ve proven the connection here thoroughly enough to move on to examine the possible implications of Pushkin-Perun’s inclusion in the Wicked + Divine world. In particular, this implied character invites comparisons with a certain member of the contemporary Pantheon – Baal. Baal (the Sumerian deity) and Perun have very similar functions and imagery in their respect mythological traditions – it’s not too outlandish to posit that they, along with the other ruling sky-gods that appear in nearly every other Indo-European pantheon (i.e. Zeus, Jupiter, Indra) could perhaps be regional interpretations of the same figure.

Baal (the comic character) and Pushkin-Perun might also be regional interpretations of the same figure: the Black superhero with lightning powers. Pushkin, like Baal, was Black – well, not Black like Baal as he was Black under very different historical conditions. He was a member of the nobility whose maternal great-grandfather, Abram Hannibal, was African. Hannibal was kidnapped from Central Africa as a child and held in bondage at the court of the Ottoman Sultan for a year before being bought by Russian ambassadors and given as a gift to Tsar Peter I. Peter made Hannibal his godson and gave him a nobleman’s education and military rank. Pushkin’s relationship to his African heritage, as understood from his poems, letters, and unfinished biography of his great-grandfather, is a complex topic of interest to many scholars. I have not (yet) studied it closely, but I am familiar enough with Pushkin’s heritage that imagining him with lightning powers brings to my mind a certain racialized superhero trope.

The “Black Lightning” archetype has a long history in superhero comics, and may have been propagated by a certain laziness among white comic book creators when it comes to making new and interesting roles for characters of color. As a non-Black person, I have a limited capacity to comment insightfully on this trope, and I hope that my writing here is just the beginning of a larger conversation that will prominently feature input from Black readers. Examination of archetypes and stereotypes is one of the main forces that drives characterization in The Wicked + The Divine, and it is up to people of color in the fandom to judge how sensitive and useful this examination is. Until there’s a Latinx character in The Wicked + The Divine (a moon goddess Selena would be fantastic!), I’ll be careful to stay in my lane. The comparative reading of Baal and Pushkin that I’m attempting here will be done from a literary criticism standpoint, but I invite other fans to bring the ethical questions to bear.

The gods of the contemporary Pantheon incarnate a range of pop star archetypes and Baal is one of the more easily identifiable of the group. The “elevator pitch” one might give for Baal could be “What if Kanye West really was a god?” Of course, both Kanye and Baal have a lot more going on beneath their cosmically egoistic personae. Baal’s character arc (in my opinion, one of the most emotionally compelling in the comic) explores the cognitive dissonances of being a self-aware celebrity, of having tremendous power, but still not being able to control how others will ultimately judge you. The dynamism of Baal’s character is built on a series of seeming contradictions in his personality and positionality in the narrative: he’s “bad” and revels in the label, but he is also a proud Sky God who (for most of the narrative so far) takes Ananke’s side in the fight she frames as being one of law, order, and light against rebellion, chaos, and darkness; he performs a particularly forceful type of straight masculinity, but is involved in one of the series’ most tender queer love stories; he’s a man of action and violence, but also a genuine poet (he briefly hints at having had an artistic career before he met Ananke – and he delivers some of the best one-liners in a comic full of quotable one-liners).

Baal’s character development seems to be in the process of undermining and overcoming these ultimately artificial contradictions, with the result being a more complex and human character. In this context, Baal’s being an instantiation of the comic-book cliché linking Black men and electricity might be another way of exploring celebrity persona as self-parody.

The Wicked + The Divine’s central conceit of Recurrence allows its creators to explore characterization and archetype in a way not confined to a single, linear storyline. The first tableaux of the comic features four gods of the 1920s and judging by the iconography (Baal’s sigil is a ram’s head), one of their number is also a Baal. The man whose place at the table matches the placement of the ram’s head in the pantheon wheel is Black, and while he doesn’t bear a strong physical resemblance to Baal or comport himself as flashily as Baal does, he does exude a similar strong, masculine confidence.

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Writer Kieron Gillen has said in interviews (and his notes to issue 4) that Baal is “inspired by the whole line of archetypes between Bo Diddley doing Who Do You Love? And Kanye West doing Power.” Now, Bo Diddley came too late to fit in the 1920s pantheon (and the man in the comic lacks Bo’s iconic glasses – you know the ones that Buddy Holly, Elvis Costello, and Morrissey all copied?), but if we trace the genealogy of the Blues back a few decades, there’s a wealth of iconic musicians who might provide inspiration for a Wicked + Divine character.

Robert Johnson leaps off the pages of musical history as an obvious choice for inclusion here (perhaps team WicDiv could deconstruct the rather patronizing legend about him meeting the devil at a crossroads and selling his soul for musical talent), but equally strong cases could be made for such other early blues and jazz pioneers as Jelly Roll Morton, W.C. Handy, and Lonnie Johnson. The creators may be going for a more composite character anyway (the other 1920s characters seem like they might not be as directly based on real celebrities as the 1830s characters were).

Going back one more saeculum (90-year cycle), we return to Pushkin-Perun It seems more than coincidental that we’ve been presented with another pantheon member who is a thunder god and a black male artist. Of course, one could say that he’s just a combination of the most prominent Russian Romantic with the most well-known East Slavic deity…but that would be boring. I personally would not have thought of Perun when assigning a god to Pushkin (in Russia he’s often compared to Apollo, and while I would rather not continue in the hellenocentric tradition, I would also have gravitated towards such a god of music and prophecy, or perhaps a messenger god with a mischievous streak).

But what fun would it be to read this comic if the creators thought the same way I do? I have enjoyed the chance to think about Pushkin in a different way by comparing him to the Baal archetype. To do this, I’ve considered how Pushkin (the myth if not the man) related to power.

Pushkin had a complicated relationship with authoritarian power that makes Baal’s relationship with Ananke look blissful. He was a rebellious youth who wrote politically charged poems that earned him repeated exiled from the capital in the early 1820s. He was welcomed back to Petersburg after the newly crowned Tsar Nikolai I squelched the Decembrist Uprising of 1925 (in which a large group of reform-minded officers refused to pledge allegiance to the conservative Nikolai). For the rest of his life he would be under close police surveillance and his works would be personally edited by the Tsar before publication. Despite having voiced anti-authoritarian views in the past, he would publish poems in praise of the Tsar. To what extent he was motivated by concern for safety, defeated resolution, and/or a real change in belief is unclear. Ultimately Pushkin, like Baal, had to negotiate having a fierce, iconoclastic spirit, with serving a violent, paranoid dictator who ruled by divine right.

Defiance of authority and social expectations is only one connotation of the versatile descriptor “bad” that Baal claims for himself in issue 4. It’s also a bold assertion of sexuality.

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In a society where the dominant group (i.e. white men) sees black male sexuality as threatening and deviant, to be a black man who revels in his own sexual power and refuses to apologize for being beautiful and aware of it is a radical provocation.  This framework doesn’t exactly map onto Pushkin, who could almost pass for white and lived in a society where aristocratic poets such as he were expected to be sexually voracious. Pushkin had many lovers and wrote a fair number of sexually explicit poems (my favorite is the one where Satan fingerbangs the Virgin Mary and she likes it so much that her eventual holy union with God the Father ends up being a real disappointment).

And what of the connection to power as visually manifested in the command of thunder and lightning? Baal characterizes his electrical abilities with the phrase “I do power,” which suits his magnetic charisma and assertive sexuality (lightning, once thought to be the literal “spark” of life, is a time-honored symbol of virility). Pushkin too had charisma and physical charm in spades. Moreover, I think inserting lightning into his mythos amplifies his association with nature, the vast, wild Russian nature into which this Romantic (and political) exile wandered when he needed (or was forced by the tsar to take) a break from being an urban dandy.

The future issues and special issues of The Wicked + The Divine will doubtlessly reveal many more facets and complexities in the characterization of the current Baal and his predecessors. If I have inspired even one reader to help pass the time until the next issue by reading some Pushkin, I have done my duty as his loyal follower.

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Maya Garcia is a recovering Romantic and current graduate student specializing in music, literature, and youth cultures of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Originally from Southern California, she currently resides in Somerville, MA, where the climate is much more suitable for melancholic brooding. She writes and draws things as @gothshostakovich on Tumblr and @otterhouse_5 on Twitter.

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