Category Archives: History

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. 

3) I DON’T THINK WE’RE IN KANSAS YET, KRYPTO.

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.

4) YOUR PAL CLARK

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
Iconoclastic

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.  

5) I WANT TO CONNECT BUT THERE NEVER WILL BE A BATMAN

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. 

6) MILLICENT AND CEDRIC 

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).


I’d like to thank my Patrons: Beth Becker, Anonymous, Steven Xue, Gabriel Nichols, Casso King of Seals, Stephan Priddy, Sister Winter, Alistair, Aweseeds, Quinn Albaugh, James Tuttle, Hedrigal, Jeremy Alexander, Clint Woods, Dan Kohn, Donald Newell, joannalannister, Abel Savard, Quinn Radich, Emmett Booth, Leonard Wise, Kelly, Andrea Krehbiel, Courtney Simpson, Will Pepperman, Angus Niven, Lauren Combs, Amanda Marie Ford, Danil Koryabkin, John Pharo, Darby Veeck, History of Westeros, Joshua Imboden, Imriel, Adam Blackwood, Greg Sanders, Alex Chiang, William Griese, NotAPodcast, Chris Reid, tomsevenstrings, Timothy Upton, Patrick Donohoe, Willie Frolik, Micah Bouchard, Lucas Fyten, Gabriel Mallows, Paul Connolly, Brett, Michael Aaronson, Nina Friel, Christine Higgins, Jason Reilly Arends, Jim Tripp, Eric Benjamin, Sara Michener, Dave, James Keene, and Martina Consalvi.

If you’d like to become a Patron and support Race for the Iron Throne, see here.

A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 15: Cap Meets the Falcon on the Isle of Forbidden Love

The story of this essay is one of my own hubris. In November 2018, I started to write about the importance of Sam Wilson, both to Steve Rogers personally and to Captain America as a concept; the notes for that document ran to 36 pages, and yet the document remained incomplete. Sad to say, given how long the process of clipping panels was taking, I hit a wall and gave up on the endeavor. Clearly, I don’t have quite the same tenacity as Steve Rogers himself.

However, the very length of that outline speaks to the hubris of my initial idea. The reality is that Sam Wilson as a character is far too important to be covered in only one essay. Consider that Sam Wilson’s introduction led to the very title of the comic changing for 88 issues – or 47% of a Claremont – in a row. For more than seven years, then, Captain America was not a solo character but one part of a duo.

In this essay, I want to begin our examination of Sam Wilson’s role by, appropriately enough, starting from the beginning. The broader context and environment is crucial here, because Sam Wilson enters the narrative at one of the lowest points in Steve Rogers’ life: the Red Skull has regained possession of the Cosmic Cube (which is way more powerful than any mere Tesseract),  which in this story functions as a cross between the literal Demiurge and an infinite wishes genie:

Captain America, being who he is, decides not to “pay homage to your acknowledged master” and instead chooses to fight God barehanded. As one might expect, this doesn’t go so well, but as with most existential struggles, the point is that Cap refuses to give in to an unjust God or to break when subjected to mind-bending Lovecraftian torture:

Like the top-quality supervillain he is, the Red Skull isn’t satisfied with the mere physical victory of flinging his opponent “a thousand dimensions away”[1] So in order to finally break Captain America’s indomitable spirit, he hits on the most terrifying torture known to man: identity theft.

For once, this strategy actually makes a lot of sense. As an inherently ideological hero, there is little that Captain America fears more than an attack on his reputation among his fellow citizens. The Red Skull’s Grand Theft Me plan threatens to weaponize that very bond with the common man, turning Cap into a vector for Nazi ideology. Making it all the worse is that Rogers can’t really fight back on the battlefield of public opinion while wearing the Red Skull’s face. (People who made it through Secret Empire will note that this Cap-turns-evil storyline is surprisingly familiar; I would argue that this version is way more meaningful on a psychological and political level than what Nick Spencer put together.)

However, the Red Skull is way too much of a vaudevillian villain to start with such a straightforward scheme. Instead, Schmidt’s initial plan is to force Sharon Carter to shoot her lover while Cap is trapped in the body of his hated enemy for maximum drama. (Not the last time that Steve and Sharon’s relationship will involve her pulling a gun on him under some form of “all-consuming compulsion.” If they ever go to a relationship counselor, that poor bastard has their work cut out for them.) In a twist that would surprise precisely no genre fan, the nigh-omnipotent Red Skull is foiled…by the power of love:

Outraged that he’s been defeated by the equivalent of the Care Bear Stare, the Red Skull banishes his body-swapped nemesis to a Caribbean island that has been conquered and colonized by his Nazi boy band, the Exiles, who are best known for outlawing love:

This is the context in which Steve Rogers meets Sam Wilson on the island of forbidden love: as far as he knows, he’s permanently trapped in the Red Skull’s body (for really stupid story reasons, it turns out that the titular cranium is “really just a mask,” allowing Steve to pass as a totally generic white dude, but with black hair) and will never be Captain America again, and suddenly he meets a freedom fighter seeking to liberate black people from Nazi oppression:

This meeting gives Cap a way out of his identity crisis: because he might not come back, either as Captain America or because he’s lowkey planning to die fighting God, he sees Sam Wilson as his replacement. (For his part, Sam Wilson’s relationship with Steve Rogers is permanently shaped by the fact that, virtually uniquely in the Marvel Universe, because of the body-swap, Sam got to know Steve Rogers the person before he met Captain America, the living legend.) Steve offers on the spot to train Sam to be a super-hero:

If all of this Grecian wrestling on the From Here to Eternity beach strikes you as a bit Tom o’ Finland, you’re not wrong. Whether intended or not, there is a robust queer subtext to Gene Colan’s pencils – from the “camera” angles and framing, to how Sidney Poitiers was the clear inspiration for the portraiture, to the composition of Sam’s frequently shirtless torso – that will only become richer in future installments of A People’s History of the Marvel Universe. Particularly significant for the purposes of this column is the fusion of the romantic with the ideological and super-heroic, as Steve and Sam’s relationship is forged in overthrowing a Nazi regime:

While Sam and Steve re-enact the Haitian Revolution, the Red Skull’s long con plan to destroy Cap’s reputation is undone by the fact that he can’t handle people liking him:

Once again, the Red Skull’s Nazi ideology – in this case, his anti-populist belief in social hierarchy (and no, it’s not an accident that Schmidt recoils from the admiration of a black family[2] and immediately begins reiterating his belief in the subordination of the masses by the master race) – proves to be his undoing, because he can’t deal with ordinary people. First, when Schmidt tries to ruin Cap’s reputation by making him look like a publicity-obsessed gloryhound, he freezes up when the free press asks him the mildest of questions:

Almost thirty years of experience in building doomsday devices and hiding out in volcano bases turns out not to be very good preparation for dealing with public relations. Second, the Red Skull is literally chased out of town by the sheer Beatles-like intensity of Cap’s fanbase:

Once again, the kids are all right. Foiled by a bunch of meddling kids, the Red Skull succumbs to a fit of villainous egoism and decides to use his godlike powers to revert the body-swap, thus giving Cap the ability to fight back:

And so where Cap failed on his own, Captain America and the Falcon unite against the psychological torment of the Cosmic Cube, using the power of teamwork – and some unseen assistance from M.O.D.O.K, who doesn’t like the Red Skull biting A.I.M’s style – to confuse and baffle the Red Skull until he bobbles the Cube and goes out like the Wicked Witch of the West:

And so, their friendship tempered in the heat of battle, Captain America and the Falcon are anointed as a superhero duo – with the Falcon, officially the first African-American superhero, declared the protector of Harlem and Steve continuing in his role the Man out of Time:

As the presence of the crowd suggests, Captain America and the Falcon’s partnership would be a way for Stan Lee and Gene Colan to Talk About Race in America – for good and ill. But that’s a subject for the next People’s History of the Marvel Universe


[1] Unsurprisingly, Stan Lee confuses dimensions with light-years or galaxies here. 

[2] While Some Anvils Need to Be Dropped, there is a certain awkwardness that comes with two white creators dropping a black character into the narrative for the sole purpose of saying that Steve Rogers is “one man with soul.” One of the running themes of this and succeeding essays about Sam Wilson is going to be the more than occasional awkwardness that comes from two well-meaning white liberal dudes in their mid-to-late 40s opining on race relations in late 60s/early 70s America. See also in this story where Sam Wilson describes himself as a “big city brother” from the “swinging slums of Harlem.”

Marvel Launches “X-Men: The Seminal Moments” Celebrating the History of the X-Men

In the lead up to July’s launch of House of X and Powers of X, Marvel is celebrating the history of the X-Men with X-Men: The Seminal Moments.

Running through the end of May, Marvel will release the four-episode series online to celebrate the X-Men series that changed the Marvel Universe forever: Giant-Size X-Men, 1991’s X-Men #1, Age of Apocalypse, and New X-Men.

The retrospectives will take both longtime and new X-Men fans back to some of the greatest moments in the Marvel Universe, setting the scene for the most important story in the history of mutantkind.

X-MEN: THE SEMINAL MOMENTS Series Release Schedule:

  • 5/20 – X-MEN: THE SEMINAL MOMENTS Episode 1: Giant-Size X-Men (1975)
  •  5/22 – X-MEN: THE SEMINAL MOMENTS Episode 2: X-Men #1 (1991)
  • 5/24 – X-MEN: THE SEMINAL MOMENTS Episode 2: Age of Apocalypse (1995)
  • 5/28 – X-MEN: THE SEMINAL MOMENTS Episode 2: New X-Men (2001)

Investigating Informational Comics Part 1: The US Government, World War II and Post-War era

For the past nine years I’ve taught high school English.  And–more important to this article and Graphic Policy’s focus in particular–for the last three years I’ve taught a graphic novel class that I created.  (See here and here for past writings on that experience).

Throughout that time, whenever I’ve seen students read graphic novels in either class, (they read Maus in connection with Night in the non-graphic novel classroom), I saw greater student engagement, greater understanding, and greater confidence from all students.  This was true of fictional comics, but I found that it was truer for nonfiction comics, informative comics.

Students don’t like to read textbooks, complex articles, big biographies and the like: but they would gobble up graphic novels about these same topics. 

Some preferred the dark My Friend Dahmer.

my friend dahmer

Others steered towards comics that were more positive and empowering, like Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World;

brazen gn

and others chose some more theoretical work that made it easier to understand abstract ideas like Logicomix.

logicomix

This interest in informational comics, along with my interest in history, led me to create my own informational comic about the Standard of Ur (found here).  Here’s a short preview of one page.  Yes, it’s not drawn the best–I’m a pro writer and an amateur artist (which shouldn’t be a bad thing, to pursue something for passion, not pay)–but there is some intriguing info here and some innovative designs that make it worth checking out this and the other pages.

standard of ur p 1

The more and more I saw this trend of love for nonfiction comics from my students, and a rising love in myself, the more I wanted to know about this genre within the medium. Sure, I’d read a few bios here, a few memoirs there (something I’m not going to tackle in this series unless there’s a significant amount of information presented). But I hadn’t jumped into informational comics the way I dove and swam through super hero comics, the way I took leaps of faith by following certain creators from project-to-project, from publisher-to-publisher.

I took that plunge, though, and ended up loving informational comics.  More importantly, I came to this realization, the subject of this post: Informational comics have existed for most of comics’ history, and their unique evolution has increased their appeal and audience in a way that other genres of comics haven’t.  

Before we begin our historical journey, though, there are a few important details to note:

  • Even though I am a history major (and English teacher–I try not to limit myself into one field, which might be why I don’t like to limit myself to one genre), I don’t know the whole story.  Even though I’ve done research for this article and paired that with my own background knowledge and historical academics, I am sure I’m missing part of the story.  So–in the comments section–if you note an error, a missing piece that needs to be added, or details that should be downplayed or played up: please let me know.  We’re all learning on this planet and respectful interactions like that help all of us, right?
i read the comments meme
  • Secondly, while political and propaganda comics were around earlier and more frequently (generally speaking) than informational comics, I’m going to start with the rise of informational comics in the US and only touch on propaganda comics of that time period for proper context. This isn’t too downplay any works focusing on the earlier, political and propaganda pieces: it’s just to have a clear boundary to avoid my tendency to digress. These are some examples of what you’re missing out on given those self-imposed guidelines:
punch1
cartoon-book-1918
boston_massacre_s3

Instead, I am going to focus on the first big surge of informational comics in the US, a surge that coincided with World War II and government-backed comics. Seeing the previous use of comics for propaganda–especially in World War I, comics which were partially collected in the above Cartoon Book by the US government–the US government decided to pursue that path again.

But this time they didn’t just use comics for propaganda: they used them to inform their citizens–at home, in basic training, and abroad.  And this time, they brought some of the most popular comics artists of the time to help them create these comics.

Primarily, they were used to inform military members proper procedure, smart tactics, health prevention, and equipment maintenance.   This could cover the simple message–like this comic by Al Avison, co-creator of the Whizzer and noted Captain America artist, from Military Courtesy on how to salute:

gov comics how to salute

It could cover more complex scenarios of life and death–like this comic about bomb safety procedures from Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon creator Milton Caniff:

gov comics bomb control Milton Caniff

Dealing with explosives was a common thread among military comics, and this next example shows a similar content–

gov comics a dud bomb comic

–with a very different artistic style, opting for a more cartoonish and humorous approach (artist credit not found on site I obtained this image):

Others could cover strategic insights that would need to be acted on by instinct when in combat–

gov comics how to spot a jap milton caniff yeah its racist

–like this other piece by Milton Caniff, that has some dated, loaded language. Comics and other media of course were subject to prejudices of the time, reflected in language and stereotypical images.  This was true for all comics, not just military and government funded ones: Walt and Skeezix, great in many other ways, had the stereotypical large lips and noses that artists used to portray African Americans.

Some supported health education, especially new health concerns inherent in that new environment or inherent in activities soldiers commonly do overseas–

–like this cartoon by Arthur Szyk about the dangers of venereal disease and prevention options:

gov comics vd prevention

Even Dr. Seuss jumped on this health bandwagon, although the “comics” he created are more similar to the formats of children books made by him and others like him:

seus gov comics malaria
seus gov comics mosquito

Most of these above comics are pretty boring and straightforward, but many comics of the time created salacious narratives out of their informational agendas.  Some added sexy images (that have since been limited and removed from contemporary military comics) and some added action and humor to engage the soldiers reading the piece, thinking that more excitement would lead to better education.

As a teacher, I’ve found this to be generally true, but–honestly–sometimes work ethic matters more.  That being said, this approach was successful, as seen by characters like Tex Lane–a comic only circulated on the Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska it was created, offering more of a unique and personable approach to its readers:

gov comics tex lane aircraft accidents

And, yes, sometimes these comics mixed the information with some patriotic propaganda–like Charles Biro, creator of Airboy did with this comic about a payroll savings plan, making citizens save smarter for the long haul of the war.  The left two panels push the patriotic agenda heavily and the last panel offers some informational guidance to balance it:

gov comics propaganda mixed with informative Charles Biro creator of Airboy

Sometimes, due to the patriotic appeal taken precedence (and a desire for stronger images), comics would inform in a less direct, more implied way, instead of explicitly offering information like the above ones do.  One such example of this type of comic is from Robert Osborn, showing (without telling) the proper technique to save a fellow soldier from drowning:

gov comics robert osborn propaganda informative mix

And, of course there were comics that were purely for propaganda, like this one by industry great Harvey Kurtzman:

gov comics pure propaganda Harvey Kurtzman

The government even reached out to Marvel and DC comics for help pushing this patriotism, because–after all–who’s more patriotic than Captain America, Wonder Woman, and Superman? And who can so no to that appeal, especially when the creators of these icons were involved, like Siegel and Shuster were in the image below?

gov comics air force enlists comic aid
gov comics superman propaganda

I briefly touch on this propaganda for a few reasons:

  1. To remind us that it still existed and was probably the biggest type of government-funded comics during this era.  While it’s not my focus for this piece, it would be less than honest to give this proper context.
  2. To show that sometimes  propaganda and informational purposes mix.
  3. And to transition into this last example, a piece of propaganda by an artist that would go on to have a drastic impact on military informational comics.

Private Will Eisner, famed creator of The Spirit and, later, A Contract with God arrived at his boot camp in 1942, where he was enlisted to create comics.

gov comics joe dope part propaganda precursor to PS
gov comics joe dope sand in tank PS precursor

Some of his earliest military comics work was for Army Motorsoften starring Joe Dope, a soldier who suffers for not following proper procedure (thus showing the procedure that should be followed and the reasons for following it).

After World War II, Eisner would be responsible for one of the military’s biggest pushes into informational comics.  This time he wasn’t enlisted, though, having left the military to start American Visuals Corporation. AVC was soon contacted to produce PS, the Preventative Maintenance Monthly, the comic that rose from Army Motors’ ashes in 1951.

ps 1

PS–a postscript of sorts for other technical manuals and preventative maintenance guides published by the military–used comics to once again inform the everyman in the military.  Comics showed soldiers how to properly take care of equipment and prevent equipment failures that would be costly, both in bucks and bodies.  And Joe Dope was back to help instruct as the, well, Dope who did everything wrong.

ps infographic

PS often used infographics (infographics being one of the most widely used ways that comics can deliver information clearly and concisely) like the one above.  As many comics and other media of the time period, women were portrayed in a sexualized way to grip the interest of the males reading the comic. Of course that still applies to media today, but PS has moved away from portraying women in this way.

comic burning newspaper

Part of what makes this move so surprising, is that PS was gaining steam just as comics in America were blazing out: Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent and Congressional Committees were portraying comics as corrupters of youth, leading to laws against comics, comic burnings, and the Comics Code Authority.  (All that’s a story for another time, though). Simply put, as many times in the past, the government fought against a media at the same time it was co-opting it for its own purposes.

more comic burnings
PS promo

Not only did PS stick around through the Comic Scare, it has stuck around to today.  Like many paper periodicals, though, it has gone digital. The 771st issue (November, 2017) was the last print copy.  But soldiers can still read comics that inform and entertain them on the PS magazine app, available on smartphones.  The evolution of PS is a story for another article, though.

Before we leave our first foray into informational comics, specifically government-backed informational comics, there is one more topic to cover: government comics that were created outside of the military, available and intended for all citizens.  Seeing the success of the military comics, the US government decided to distribute comics on a bunch of other issues of national concern: health, education, safety, and more.

Smokey Bear (not Smokey the Bear, as he is commonly misidentified) was one of the first public-funded comic characters created, helping spread a message against forest fires that still resonates with today’s citizens, albeit in a different way and for different reasons.  The above slogan–the most familiar to Americans–was created in 1947, but Smokey Bear was created in 1944 by artist Albert Staehle and writer Harold Rosenberg. He was created for a U.S. Forest Service ad campaign and became the longest running PSA character and campaign.

smokey bear ad
youth you supervise comic

Like military comics, the government continued these educational comics even in the midst of the comic scare amplified by Wertham. Trying to help anyone working with adolescents and children–educators, coaches, and parents for instance–the government created a manual that offered comic advice. “The Youth You Supervise” was released in 1954, and, like many military comics, it drew on established comic creators and figures, featuring Al Capp’s Li’l Abner.

blondie mental health comic cover
blondie mental helath comic strip

Most of our focus in this article has been on comics from the federal government, but states jumped on this bandwagon too.  The New York State Department of Health, under the Department of Mental Hygiene, published a comic that focused on tips to maintain positive mental health.  Like with Li’l Abner, they decided to use a popular comic strip character: Blondie and Dagwood.

johnny gets the word splash intro page

The Health Services Administration in the Department of Health in New York also made comics about sexual health a priority, as seen in the Health Department’s comic “Johnny Gets the Word”, published in 1957.  The “word”, in this case, is syphilis. And STDs in general were tackled in infographics like the one below:

johnny gets the word infographic

The sexual nature of this comic–including discussing that teenagers might have mutliple sexual partners–marks a controversial topic that Wertham might have campaigned against; maybe Wertham was more concerned with superhero comics and EC comics, comics that were marketed towards children and made a profit.

PS may 2004 harry potteresque cover

After an onslaught of military comics, the government had decided to use comics for other purposes, a use that would only continue to expand.  And it would expand outside of government: Marvel and DC would join the game, using superheroes to educate their readers; traditional book publishers would also get on the board, giving rise to biographies and other traditional nonfiction graphic novels.  But those are stories for future installments.

A preview of some of those comics that will be studied in future installments.  Note: they don’t represent my views (I was never a fan of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” for instance).


CJ Standal is a writer and self-publisher.  He is co-creator of Rebirth of the Gangster, which has been featured in Alterna Comics’ 2017 IF Anthology; he has lettered the webcomic Henshin Man; and he has written for online sites like Graphic Policy and the now-defunct Slant.  Follow him on Twitter and Instagram (@cj_standal), Facebook, and visit his website: cjstandalproductions.com.


Bibliography

Campbell, Colin. “World War II-Era U.S. Army Comics on Display at Baltimore Museum.”

Military.com, The Baltimore Sun, 2019, www.military.com/off-duty/off-beat/2017/03/06/ world-war-ii-era-us-army-comics-display-baltimore-museum.html.

“Don’t Be a Dope! Training Comics from World War II to the Korean War.” Pritzker

Military Museum & Library Chicago, Pritzker Military Museum & Library, 2019, www.pritzkermilitary.org/explore/museum/past-exhibits/dont-be-dope- training-comics-world-war-ii-and-korea/.

“PS, The Preventive Maintenance Monthly.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Feb. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PS,_The_Preventive_Maintenance_Monthly.

Sergi, Joe. “Tales From the Code: Welcome to Government Comics.” Comic Book Legal

 Defense Fund, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, 12 December 2012, 2019, cbldf.org/2012/12/tales-from-the-code- welcome-to-government-comics/.

Sergi, Joe. “1948: The Year Comics Met Their Match.” Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, 12 June 2012, 2019, cbldf.org/2012/06/ 1948-the-year-comics-met-their-match/.

“Smokey Bear.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 24 Apr. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Smokey_Bear.

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 telepathic 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.

« Older Entries