Category Archives: People’s History of the Marvel Universe

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

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

The Uncanny X-Men #141

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

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

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

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

How Is This Day Different All From Other Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Terminator Scenario[4]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Senator Kelly a Good Man?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Revolutionary Mystique

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Dystopian Trap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Powell, loc. 1272.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[10] Powell, loc 1311.

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


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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.”

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. 

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.

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

Face front, true believers!

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

Read more

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

Face front, true believers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the other hand, it’s hard to make a judgement about depiction vs. endorsement – Lee and Kirby show American families at home and the American public on the street outside the storefront window reacting unfavorably – questioning whether Xavier is a mutant, dismissing the “egg-headed old stuffed-shirt,” angrily resentful that one of their children might be a mutant or that they might be ignorant. (It is interesting, however, that they can’t make up their minds as to whether he’s a “communist” or a “right-winger”- possibly a sign that Lee and Kirby were trying to straddle political divides there.)

By contrast, Trask is all emotion and ad-hominem attack, especially in his McCarthyesque (if true) insinuation that “perhaps the professor has an ulterior motive for his defense of mutants.” On a far more important point, Trask has no intent of having the issue be decided by the political system – well before the debate, Trask has clearly decided that “whether I win or lose this debate does not matter,” because he’s going to use his robots to squish his opponent. Thus, the Sentinels:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion:

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

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

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

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

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

So what did the “mutant” metaphor mean initially?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Face front, true believers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magneto as Milton’s Satan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magneto as Holocaust Survivor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ideology of a Mutant Revolutionary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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