Category Archives: People’s History of the Marvel Universe

People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 20: The (Mutant) Registration Act(s) Analyzed

In his sixteen-year tenure of the X-line, Chris Claremont put his own spin on the mutant metaphor any number of ways, but one of the longest-lasting and most influential has been the idea of a Mutant Registration Act. In the original Days of Future Past storyline, Claremont first mentions the Mutant Control Act passed by a “rabid anti-mutant candidate…elected president,” as a reaction to the assassination of Senator Robert Kelly.

In this issue, Claremont doesn’t mention what the provisions of the Mutant Control Act were, only that they were struck down by the relatively liberal Burger Court, presumably on 14th Amendment Equal Protection grounds. The Supreme Court’s thwarting of populist overreach unfortunately gives rise to the dark future of Earth-811, as the new president authorized Project Wideawake to send the Sentinels to hunt down mutant-kind, only to find that (once again) the Sentinels decide to accomplish this by conquering humanity and installing an apartheid state to root out carriers of the X-gene from the human population.

It’s worth taking a moment to parse the iconography of this populist anti-mutant movement, enshrined in the slogan “America! It’s 1984! Do you know what your children are?” Deliberately evoking the public service announcements that were introduced to back up youth curfews in Los Angeles in the 1960s that asked parents “it’s 10pm: do you know where your children are?,” this line turns the child-centric paranoia of the moral panics of the 1980s like the McMartin day care scandal or the Satanic Panic on their head; instead of children being the threatened object of outside threat, here the children are the subject of threat, the threatening outsider within. Moreover, this line clearly captured the imaginations of Claremont and Marvel editorial, because in X-Men #223 they took the unusual step of reproducing that line in an in-universe advertisement in the issue’s back matter:

This ad is worthy of some close analysis: by displaying an African-American child and an Asian boy alongside two fair-haired white children, the ad’s designers emphasize that mutant status exists on a parallel plane to race. While the mutant metaphor often is used to equate mutancy to real-world minority statuses, here it’s being demonstrated that that metaphor only goes so far. Next, by scrawling the racial slur of “mutie” across the face of an innocent child, the power of anti-mutant bigotry to stir up fear and hatred of even the most innocuous of targets is emphasized. Finally, and most importantly for the purposes of this essay, by having the in-universe commercial be “paid for by citizens in support of The Mutant Registration Act,” the ad’s creators tied together the Mutant Control Act from the dark future of Earth-811 and the Mutant Registration Act introduced by Senator Kelly in the present of the main 616 timeline in the wake of Days of Future Past.

Speaking of which, we see the “Mutant Control Affairs Act” introduced in the final pages of X-Men #181, which features a debate between Senator Kelly and an older, mustachioed Senator. This debate gives us one of the longest discussions of the Mutant Registration Act that Chris Claremont featured in the pages of X-Men.

As we can see from this dialogue, there’s not a lot of detail about concrete provisions of the Mutant Registration Act and, as we’ll see later, this vagueness is a deliberate choice by Claremont to suggest the broad strokes of discrimination while leaving the details up to the individual imagination. We know that Senator Kelly remains as concerned about human supremacy as he was back in Days of Future Past – although the national security angle is new (probably relating to his partnership with the new administration’s Project Wideawake) – and its atomic undertones are oddly reminiscent of Silver Age X-Men. The closest we get to specifics is Senator Phillip’s description of the MRA as not “far removed from legalized slavery.” As I’ll discuss in more detail later in the essay, this seems to be code for provisions relating to a special military draft– reminiscent of how the human supremacist state of Earth-811 used the Hounds to hunt down other mutants – which would have particular resonance only a decade after the end of the Vietnam War.

One piece of specific evidence about the bill that we do get is a half-page panel where John Romita Jr. gives us the title page of the actual legislation:

It’s a particularly ominous sign that the “Mutant Affairs Control Act” is titled as S.1; in both the House and Senate, early numbers in each legislative session are reserved for marquee bills that majority leadership want to highlight as a major priority for that session as a standard bit of legislative public relations. This is an early signal that the Mutant Registration Act will become law despite the best efforts of Senator Phillips and others like him. Another nice little touch is the effort to maintain verisimilitude: the second session of the 98th Congress really did begin on the 23rd of January, 1984, giving the impression that this is all happening in the present – X-Men #181 hit newsstands in early February 1984 – something that Claremont did quite a bit in the days in which Marvel Comics was a bit more “the world outside your window” than sliding timescales.

However, that’s really all we get on the specifics of the Mutant Registration Act. Rather than spend page space laying out the details of fictional legislation, Claremont instead used the Act as a recurring background element that could highlight aspects of characterization and plot development as needed. For example, Claremont used the MRA to emphasize Rachel Summers’ role as a time-traveler from a different future:

As we can see, Claremont is primarily interested in using the Mutant Registration Act as a synecdoche for the dystopian future of Earth-811: in the first panel, Claremont has the news broadcast end the moment as it’s about to describe the “draconian provisions” of the bill, partly because he wants to leave those details up to the reader’s imagination, but mostly because the important thing about this story beat is that the newly-arrived-in-616 Rachel recognizes the proper name of the legislation from her own past, raising the specter that the X-Men’s sacrifice in Days of Future Past failed to avert the Terminator scenario which is inevitably going to come to pass. In the second panel, the psychic impression of Scott Summers merely refers obliquely to “grim bills” without describing what those bills are, because what’s important in this scene is how Rachel associates those bills with a moment of fragile (and ultimately, futile) hope for her childhood, emphasizing the way she feels torn between the hope that the Sentinel takeover has been prevented and the somber realization that this may mean that her birth, and thus her identity as a “real” person, may have been forestalled by the rewriting of the timeline.

More commonly, Claremont used the Mutant Registration Act as a motivating force for plot, animating events across multiple issues, as part of his trademark style of gradually developing stories across years of continuity. In X-Men #158, the pending MRA prompts the X-Men to repent of their days providing information on mutants to the FBI by raiding the Pentagon to purge that data from government computers, thematically drawing a bright line between the more assimilationist politics of the Silver Age X-Men and the more radical direction that Claremont would be taking the book in the 1980s.

While the X-Men are successful in purging their data from Pentagon servers, impeding the efforts of the Federal government to surveil mutant citizens, the resulting melee between the team, Rogue and Mystique, and the U.S military begins the process that sees the X-Men labelled as outlaws by the U.S government – an important transition that Claremont will use to guide the book through the next several years. For example, in #182, Rogue attempts to rescue Colonel Mike Rossi from Hellfire Club double agents on a SHIELD Helicarrier, which gets misinterpreted as an unprovoked assault that prompts an APB[1] from Nick Fury for Rogue’s detention or execution. This then leads to issue #185, where Valerie Cooper and Henry Peter Gyrich – the chief Federal enforcers of the Mutant Registration Act – use the opportunity afforded by the APB to go after Rogue with an experimental weapon designed by Forge that removes mutant powers (inadvertently depowering Storm in the process). In #193, the Hellions provoke an incident at Cheyenne Mountain that leads to a “nation-wide manhunt for the mutants known as the Uncanny X-Men.” In this fashion, the X-Men gradually slide from a standard superhero team (albeit one devoted to protecting a world that hates and fears them) to becoming a group of outlaws, on the run from Federal authorities that is both driven by and acts as further justification for official anti-mutant prejudice.

To the extent that Chris Claremont devoted an entire arc to the Mutant Registration Act, it would come in the 1988 crossover event “Fall of the Mutants.” While the climax of the event is focused on the supernatural – the scheming and intrigue of demons and goddesses, interdimensional portals opening in the skies above Dallas, death and resurrection – one of the major throughlines is the Mutant Registration Act and the Federal government’s efforts to enforce it against the X-Men. It begins with X-Men #206, where the X-Men find themselves the unlikely heroes of San Francisco after having defended the city from Omega Sentinels and the Beyonder. While recuperating from those fights, the X-Men find themselves coming under attack from Freedom Force, a super-powered Federal task force created by Special Assistant to the National Security Advisor Val Cooper[2] to enforce the Mutant Registration Act.

In another sign of how mutant politics were shifting under Claremont’s pen as he moved towards the end of his first decade on the book, Freedom Force was formed out of Mystique’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, so that we have a group of former mutant radicals who once staged terrorist attacks on the U.S Capitol turning quisling to protect themselves from human authorities while the X-Men make the transition from former collaborators with the national security state to fugitives living underground. In the ensuing brawl, the X-Men find themselves firmly on the back foot, thanks in no small part to Freedom Force’s cavalier willingness to inflict collateral damage on residential neighborhoods of San Francisco. Ultimately, our heroes are rescued by the unlikely intervention of the San Francisco Police Department, who act to stop the fighting and the property destruction:

Especially in the contemporary context of the late Eighties, this confrontation between agents of the Federal government – visually if not textually identified as the Reagan Administration in X-Men #201 – and officers of the city of San Francisco had real-world political resonance. At this time, the public perception of pre-tech boom San Francisco was that of a center of left-wing politics and especially a center of the gay rights movement and very much diametrically opposed to Reagan’s conservative politics and his administration’s vocal hostility to the LGBT movement during the AIDS epidemic. Notably, here we see Lieutenant Morrel of the SFPD acting as the voice of civil libertarianism, emphasizing the need for warrants, documentation of presidential pardons, and other accoutrements of due process against Freedom Force’s paramilitary flaunting of constitutional rights.

The thread is picked up again in X-Men #223, where once again the X-Men find themselves in San Francisco, where “people here don’t seem to mind the X-Men’s presence – they consider us heroes.” In this issue, we see Freedom Force expanding by drafting the heroes-turned-murderous-vigilantes Super Sabre, Crimson Commando, and Stonewall. During the ceremony where these three receive their presidential pardon, Destiny receives a vision that Rogue and the “X-Men are going to die!” This prompts Mystique to choose further confrontation with the X-Men on the grounds that if Rogue is arrested under the Mutant Registration Act, she won’t go to her prophesied death in Dallas.

In the next issue, we see Val Cooper and Freedom Force return to San Francisco “hunting for X-Men’s scalps,” posing both a physical and political threat to the countercultural heroes of the City by the Golden Gate. We see this most clearly as Valerie Cooper mounts a press conference in front of a damaged San Francisco hospital to announce the formation of Freedom Force and the passage into law of the “Mutant Special Powers Registration Act.”

This sequence is particularly significant because it introduces the parallel between superpowers and handgun licensing – a real-world political analogy that will be alluring for Marvel creators for decades, as we’ll discuss later. Here, though, the handgun issue is treated as a relatively minor element compared to the broader question of civil liberties, and the extended discussion of whether the “good of society, the defense of the many” takes precedence over the rights of the minority. This is a good example of how the mutability of the mutant metaphor continued during the Claremont years; rather than making a more concrete analogy to a real-world minority as he does in other places (such as in “God Loves, Man Kills”), here the “few” whose rights are being curtailed by the Mutant Registration Act could be any minority facing official discrimination from the “many.”

On the following page, we see the impact of Cooper’s speech on the body politic, as a number of patrons of a San Francisco gym where Rogue is exercising debate the issue:

One of the lesser talked about aspects of Chris Claremont’s writing is the skill with which he can quickly sketch background characters to give a picture of the internal life of the “man on the street.” Here, we see a public divided on their attitudes toward the Mutant Registration Act: one man raises the historical parallel of the Holocaust (a frequent thematic angle in Claremont’s writing) to frame the MRA as a potential genocidal threat. His interlocutor denies the threat, distinguishing between racist threats to “normal folks” and the legitimate oppression of “muties,” again showing how Claremont can turn on a dime between leaning on the parallels to real-world bigotry that the mutant metaphor was based on and pointing out the ways in which in-universe minority politics might fail to intersect.[3]

On the next page, we see a disguised Mystique arrive to clandestinely warn Rogue – a sign that Mystique’s participation in Freedom Force is very much an act of personal survival rather than a sign of an ideological shift, as Mystique is very much using the government to further her own interest – that the X-Men are going to die in Dallas, telling her to leave them so that “you won’t share their fate.” As in any proper tragedy, this warning falls on deaf ears as Rogue refuses to abandon her comrades in arms, choosing instead to go with them to Dallas to confront the threat posed by the Adversary. Before they can make it into Forge’s Eagle Plaza tower and their eventual confrontation with the embodiment of cosmic chaos, the X-Men once again find themselves by Freedom Force and the threat of imprisonment under the Mutant Registration Act:

In addition to providing an excuse for super-heroic fisticuffs, the confrontation gives a rare instance where Claremont provides some insight into what the Mutant Registration Act specifically does – clarifying that the MRA criminalizes using mutant powers rather than “simply being born a mutant.” At the same time, Claremont has Havok immediately question the “credibility” of this statement. After all, the Registration Act already criminalizes mutant citizens by forcing even children[4] to register with the government when their human peers don’t have to. Moreover, many mutants have “always on” powers that they don’t have a choice whether to consciously activate or keep hidden, making Mystique’s distinction between the two as one without a difference.

Through their trademark collaborative use of mutant powers, the X-Men manage to fight their way past Freedom Force and into Eagle Plaza, activating the Adversary’s trap which opens an inter-dimensional portal in the skies above Dallas that begins summoning threats from the prehistoric time of dinosaurs all the way to the Wild West of Texas’ past. Witnessed by real-life NPR reporters Neal Conan and Manoli Weatherell, the X-Men answer the call to defend the world from the supernatural threat pouring through this rip in the night sky above Dallas:

This scene shows the continuation of the X-Men franchise’s fascination with the role played by mass media in the propagation of – or challenge to – popular prejudice and mob panics. Here, Conan and Weatherell act as ideal journalists, challenging the statements of Federal authorities and raising uncomfortable questions about Freedom Force’s role in enforcing the Mutant Registration Act against superheroes presently engaged in self-sacrificing defense of civilian communities. More importantly for the purposes of this essay, they amplify the voices of “outlaw mutants” who are otherwise excluded from the mainstream, allowing them to spread an anti-MRI message directly to a mass audience.

And that’s really where the Mutant Registration Act plot line ends in Claremont’s run, with the X-Men dying to save a world that hates and fears them, only to be reborn by the grace of a goddess figure who grants them invisibility from the technological eyes of the surveillance state and transports them to the Australian Outback where they can continue their lives as outlaw heroes free from the efforts of the U.S government to arrest them. It’s a momentous change of status quo for the X-Men themselves, but as regards the MRA itself, there’s not the kind of climax where the reader sees this vile legislation struck down by the Supreme Court (as happened in the Days of Future Past storyline) or repealed by Congress in light of the X-Men’s actions in Dallas (or X-Factor saving New York City from Apocalypse over in their book).

It’s possible that this is intended to be some kind of statement about the possibilities (or lack thereof) of achieving progress for visible minorities in American society. If that’s the case it’s very much a statement that exists in the absence of the text rather than in its presence, because Claremont will move on to new plots that will explore other angles of the mutant metaphor – as we’ll discuss in future installments of the People’s History of the Marvel Universe.

But just because Chris Claremont had tired of the Mutant Registration Act as a theme doesn’t mean that the Marvel Universe was done with the idea. A year after Claremont concluded the “Fall of the Mutants,” his close friend, colleague, and sometimes collaborator Walt Simonson would take up the concept in Fantastic Four #335-6, a two-issue arc devoted to exploring the political implications of Registration Acts in the Marvel Universe:

In these issues, the Fantastic Four travel to Washington D.C to testify in front of a House committee that is holding hearings on a proposal to enact a Superhuman Registration Act. The bulk of the first issue sees the First Family largely sitting in the audience as a series of witnesses testify in front of the committee for and against the legislation. The first to testify before the committee is a “General Neddington,” who’s there to provide the views of the Pentagon:

Here, Walter Simonson makes explicit what we’ve previously seen only alluded to in Claremont’s and  Louise Simonson’s[5] writing – the purpose of the Superhuman Registration Act is to draft superpowered people into the U.S military, not only to defend the country “in times of crisis” but also to ensure U.S dominance in “the balance of military power in the world.” In another example of how Simonson brings political subtext into text, Simonson also has an unnamed black Congressman bring up the real-world racial disparities in military service in the Vietnam War. This history was very much in living memory in 1989 – after all, the military draft had been ended in 1973 and then re-instated quite recently in 1980, when Jimmy Carter had re-instated the requirement to register with the Selective Service Act as a response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. As we’ll see later, the politics of the draft were very much on Simonson’s mind here.

From Cold War politics and the legacy of the Vietnam War, Simonson takes up another of Claremont’s themes – namely, the parallel between Registration and the licensing of firearms:

Building off what was a passing reference in Claremont’s work, Simonson puts the analogy of gun control front-and-center by having an NRA spokesman testify before the committee. (Simonson shows his research by paraphrasing the National Rifle Association’s catchphrase that “if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.”) Here, the NRA are an interested party because they believe that the 2nd Amendment’s right to bear arms applies to superpowers as well as firearms. By extension, the NRA sees a Federal attempt to register superpowered Americans as the “first step on the road to an eventual ban on superpowers” – and logically fears that the same thing might happen to gun owners – just as the real-world NRA catastrophizes modest efforts at gun control as mass confiscation.

Having a notably partisan conservative organization like the NRA testify on behalf of the Fantastic Four must have produced a certain amount of tension for both Simonson himself and Marvel as a whole, given the historic tendency of its creative workforce towards somewhere between the center-left and the left (depending on which generation of creators one is talking about). A good deal of – as the People’s History of the Marvel Universe has demonstrated, inaccurate – ink has been spilled about the supposedly inherently fascistic politics of superhero comics, but the more accurate label is that vigilantism has been part of superhero comics’ DNA from the beginning. If a superhero is anything else, they are ultimately a costumed adventurer who steps outside of their everyday life that’s sanctioned by society in order to exercise powers that are normally monopolized by governments. To an extent, there remains something of an uncomfortable parallelism between the NRA’s “good guy with a gun” mythologizing around crime and the tradition of costumed crimefighters.  Simonson vocalizes the tension he’s feeling through Ben Grimm, the Lower East Side-born Jewish superhero who more than any other character symbolizes the cultural and political wellspring from which Jack Kirby’s decidedly left-wing approach to superheroism always drew inspiration. For the ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Thing, having to be on the same side as the NRA is a “revoltin’ development” – which gives a certain amount of consolation to liberal readers.

After these two witnesses have set out the real-world political implications of the Superhuman Registration Act, Simonson dives into the in-universe politics, and in the process establishes a vital link between his SRA and Claremont’s Mutant Registration Act by using a character who just so happens to straddle the divide between the X-line and the broader Marvel Universe:

Contrary to what many writers in both fandom and academic circles have argued, Gyrich’s testimony demonstrates how the mutant metaphor works best in the broader context of the Marvel Universe. Henry Peter Gyrich opposing the registration of super-humans while supporting the registration of mutants (presumably a sign that he’s adopted the party line after the events of X-Men #176) is not only a perfect example of the hypocrisy and irrational double-standards inherent to bigotry, but also a straightforward statement of that prejudice. To Gyrich, it is unacceptable for the Federal government to register super-powered humans because they are “entitled to the equal protection of the law,” but acceptable for the Federal government to do the exact same thing to super-powered mutants, because they’re not human in his eyes and therefore aren’t entitled to constitutional rights under the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment.

In discussing the concept of a law “restricting a limited section of the nation’s population,” Simonson shows an impressive level of research for a superhero comic. When Gyrich responds to questioning the constitutionality of the Superhuman Registration Act by bringing up the example of women not having to register with the Selective Service System, he’s actually referring to what was then very recent developments in constitutional law. While the draft was ended in 1973 due to its deep unpopularity in the midst of the Vietnam War – which we’ve already seen very much on Simonson’s mind – this state of affairs would only continue for a few years. In a response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Carter re-established the draft in 1980. During the Congressional debates over the re-authorization of the draft, the issue of whether women would be subject to registration was raised, in light of the ongoing national debate over the Equal Rights Amendment and the broader acceptance of the principle that gender discrimination was unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment. A year later, in Rostker v. Goldberg, the Supreme Court was asked to rule on this point when a group of draft resisters challenged the draft on the grounds of gender discrimination, ruling 6-3 that the Selective Service System’s male-only registration could stand because of the armed service’s bans on women serving in combat roles.[6]

Finally, Henry Peter Gyrich’s testimony makes it very clear that both the Mutant and Superhuman Registration Acts’ purpose is to put superpowered beings under government control, so that they can be used as agents of oppression. While he speaks of “super-human individuals or groups of an altruistic nature” being merely “persuaded to aid the government in tracking down and registering any individuals or groups who refused to comply,” Simonson throws doubt on the voluntary nature of this assistance, implying that superheroes would be forced into service under the Superhuman Registration Act’s conscription clause. More troubling, Gyrich demonstrates a consistent inconsistency as a supposed conservative who’s concerned about the rights of the individual opposed to the interests of the state when he opposes the extension of “the same constitutional guarantees that the police must follow” to these new federal agents. In a display that again echoes the real-world stance of “law and order” conservatives on police brutality, Gyrich sees any limitations on both superpowered federal agents or human police officers as “tying the hands of law enforcement” and “aid[ing] the criminal element.” By implication then, the Superhuman Registration Act would lead to a lawless paramilitary force completely unanswerable to any authority other than a “human czar” of “a bureau of superhuman affairs” – much in the same way that Freedom Force demonstrated a complete disregard for civil liberties while enforcing the Mutant Registration Act.

In between fist-fighting supervillains who’ve showed up in trench coats and fedoras to infiltrate the Congressional hearing, the Fantastic Four get their chance to testify against the Superhuman Registration Act. Their arguments come from a number of different political angles – Sue Storm talks about wanting to ensure that her son grows up in a free country, Johnny Storm points to the practical impossibilities of registering “Dr. Doom or Annihilus,” and good liberal Ben Grimm decries the contrast between the ease with which “crooks can go out and buy assault rifles” and the proposed restrictions on the superheroes who try to stop them. As we might expect from the FF, though, the majority of page space is given to Reed Richards, who delivers a filibuster-worthy speech that spans issue #335 and #336. Mister Fantastic presents many arguments against the Superhuman Registration Act – one of the more troubling one being that non-superheroes lack the ability to second guess split-second decision making by experienced superheroes, which echoes uncomfortably with defenses of police shootings – but the one that ultimately convinces the Congressional committee to shelve the SRA is a perfect blend of politics and superhero science-fantasy:

Ultimately, what gets the Congressional committee to shelve the Superhuman Registration Act is an argument centered on the impossibility of defining who is a super-human and who isn’t – because people’s abilities and genetic heritage vary so much from individual to individual, an arbitrary cutoff like a “variation of greater than, say, 15% from the norm” would sweep up many false positives, such that the discriminatory impact of the SRA would be felt by Congressmen themselves. Taken together, Claremont and Simonson’s work is a classic case of a slippery slope argument applied to civil liberties – the denial of the rights of any minority becoming a precedent that creates a precedent for further authoritarian encroachment onto the rights of increasingly larger segments of the population, eventually ending in a general tyranny.

This all must sound eerily familiar to people who were reading Marvel comics circa 2006, when Mike Millar was handed the reins to a line-wide crossover in Marvel’s Civil War, which likewise centered on the Federal government passing a Superhuman Registration Act. Despite the several decades between the work of Claremont and Simonson and that of Millar, there’s more than a little bit of thematic and rhetorical overlap between them: we see similar analogies to gun control and the draft, similar debates about individual agency and vigilantism versus collective security and democratic legitimacy, and even similar mentions of the Mutant Registration Act as a model for official discrimination that’s still floating around out there in the Marvel Universe, still on the statute books ready to be picked up by forces in power.

When it comes to the political stance taken by the creators, however, we see a clear difference. Both Claremont and Simonson make it quite clear that registration is an unjust act of oppression that exists for the protagonists to struggle against. By contrast, putative leftist Mark Millar was so convinced of the correctness of the Pro-Registration side of the debate that, in the development process, he swapped the position of Captain America and Iron Man as leaders of the opposing camps. Millar’s logic was that Marvel couldn’t maintain the “choose a side” fan engagement that would be key to the crossover’s success, because it would be self-evidently obvious to everyone that the Pro-Registration side was right if it was led by a pillar of moral authority like Steve Rogers. (Full disclosure: I’m basing my claim for this on my memory of having read that the swap happened during development, but I can’t find the article that I originally read. Feel free to disregard this point.)

Here is where I think we can see the broader cultural impact of 9/11 on the politics of the Marvel Universe: on paper, a story in which a horrific tragedy is turned into a rhetorical bludgeon in order to justify the radical transformation of the status quo, and in which the Superhuman Registration Act, like the Patriot Act, becomes a mechanism for the destruction of civil liberties all the way up to indefinite detention without trial in black site prisons, would seem to be a powerful critique of the War on Terror. But while the creators who were brought in to write the tie-in issues did advance that kind of criticism, Millar’s main event book continued to present the actions of Tony Stark and Reed Richards as the wise decisions of enlightened futurists that was making the United States a safer, happier place – culminating in the thuddingly obvious visual symbolism of Captain America getting tackled by a group of NYC first responders at the height of his duel with Iron Man.

So after all of that, what is a Registration Act? Beyond the specific details of fictional legislation that obsess a public policy nerd like me, I think we can think of it as a kind of narrative mirror that comic book writers can hold up to see the world around them and the place that their genre has in it. At the same time, it’s not a device that should be used cavalierly as an excuse to bang action figures together; the way that it conjures allusions to real-world politics make it far too charged for that.   


[1] All-points bulletin.

[2] Valerie Cooper is introduced in X-Men #176, where she leads a White House briefing on the national security threat posed by mutants like Magneto. While Cooper touches on the biological metaphor of the Cro-Magnon and the Neanderthal, she pivots from there to discuss the mutant threat from the perspective of international relations. As Valerie sees it, the existence of mutants means that “the virtual monopoly of super-beings…once enjoyed by the United States no longer exists.” Because of the willingness of the Soviet Union to recruit mutants into the Soviet Super-Soldiers, she argues that “mutants pose a clear and present danger to our country.”

Surprisingly, Henry Peter Gyrich (last seen heading up Project Wideawake, the Federal initiative to recreate the Sentinel program) challenges Cooper’s proposal to “fight fire with fire, counter[ing] foreign mutants with some of their own” on the grounds that Federal recruitment of mutants into the armed services would convince Magneto that his fears that “out of greed, humanity will use mutants – enslave them – and then, out of fear, destroy them” are coming to pass, risking an escalating confrontation with the Master of Magnetism.

While this scene predates the Mutant Registration Act, it’s nonetheless an important bit of context for understanding the goals and mechanisms of the MRA. While the main X-Men book itself doesn’t make mention of the Mutant Registration Act involving the forced conscription of mutants outside of Senator Phillip’s vague analogy to slavery, we do get an important clue in X-Factor #33. In that issue, the group of mutant supervillains known as the Alliance of Evil go on a rampage in front of Trish Tilby’s television cameras in order to protest their arrest and imprisonment under the Mutant Registration Act. Specifically, the Alliance of Evil mentions that they refuse to join “Uncle Sam’s mutant army” – implying that one of the major aspects of the MRA is to use forced registration, surveillance, and the threat of imprisonment to draft mutants into becoming unwilling soldiers in the national security state.

[3] Similarly, in X-Men #223, Claremont breaks away from the main action of the book to show an interlude in a Queens bar where a white working-class character defends himself against charges of anti-mutant racism by pointing to his close friendship with a black working-class character, arguing that “we ain’t the same color, but we’re still people.” By contrast (he explains), mutants are inhuman freaks who should be euthanized at birth by their own parents to prevent an “abomination” from walking the streets. In this instance, Claremont is arguing that anti-mutant prejudice exists at right angles to anti-black racial prejudice – something of a departure from his stance in “God Loves, Man Kills.”

[4] See X-Factor #33.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Interestingly, this constitutional position has continued to this day, despite the U.S military having eliminated gender restrictions on combat duty in 2015. In 2019, a District Court judge ruled against the Selective Service System under the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment, only to be overruled by the Fifth Circuit, which held that only the Supreme Court could overturn its own ruling in Rostker. Only last year, the Supreme Court declined to review the ruling, although three justices wrote that the draft likely was now unconstitutional.

People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 19: The Racial Problematics of “Snap Wilson”

As discussed last time, starting in Captain America and the Falcon #120, various Marvel writers[1] made a good deal of use out of the Falcon’s secret identity as Sam Wilson, social worker – Stan Lee used it as a vehicle for stories about youth problems, organized crime, and urban unrest (albeit ones that ended with costumed superheroes getting into punch-ups with similarly-attired supervillains), while Steve Englehart and Alan Weiss used it as a pretext to have Captain America and the Falcon investigate abuse in America’s prisons and encounter the Queen of the Werewolves.[2]

This changes in Captain America and the Falcon #186, where (in a follow-up to the original story that introduced Sam Wilson) the Red Skull reveals that everything we knew about Sam Wilson was a lie:

These four panels are worthy of some in-depth textual analysis. In the first, we see the young and innocent Sam Wilson on the rooftops of Harlem, complete with a thematic association between birds and freedom that we’ll later see embodied in his relationship with his falcon Redwing. (In future issues, this part of his backstory will be retconned to add in tragic violent crime-related deaths for both his mother and father that will inspire his vigilantism.) In the second, we see Wilson heading to Florida (like a lot of New Yorkers in the winter) only to be confronted with the specter of rural bigotry in Dade County, in a scene straight out of the shock ending of Easy Rider. By the third panel, we see that the experience has hardened our hero, and by the time that he gets to Los Angeles he’s learned to “get by” in the worlds of both street crime (as symbolized by the small crowd of black men standing on the corner) and organized crime (as symbolized by the white hand coming out of the car window). In the fourth panel, the transformation of Sam Wilson into “Snap” Wilson is complete – he’s now an L.A-based gangster complete with mob connections, a pimped-out Cadillac with vanity license plates, and some of the 70’s wildest fashions.

As we learn about on the next page, rather than arriving on the island of forbidden love as part of a vacation-turned-resistance-movement, “Snap” Wilson crash-landed on the island after attempting to hijack a small plane containing a “fortune” (presumably of drugs, given that the plane was returning from a trip to Latin America) belonging to the “Big Man,” his L.A-based crime boss.

More significantly, we learn that the social Sam Wilson that readers thought they knew was a creation of the Red Skull, a fiction specifically designed to appeal to Steve Rogers’ liberal values:

Steve Englehart, John Warner, and Frank Robbins had to lean heavily on the Cosmic Cube’s, well…cosmic powers here, because this is quite a retcon. Above and beyond the psychological impact on Wilson himself, the creative team had to explain how it was that we’ve seen Sam Wilson at work as a social worker – we’ve even seen his office with clients in it! – and it would be particularly odd for the Cube to somehow have also altered the memories of the entire “Social Admin” Department of New York City so that someone without official hiring paperwork or credentials would be given office space, a salary, and a caseload for several years.

This being a superhero comic, the retcon is then used by the Red Skull (once again using mind control) to pit the Falcon against Captain America in a lose-lose fight to the death. Naturally, Captain America triumphs and destroys the Red Skull’s HYDRA base, only for the Skull himself to flee to fight another day. Rather than resolving neatly in one issue like earlier “Cap goes evil” storylines, the dangling plot thread of “Snap” Wilson and the dueling backstories continues to dominate the book for the next several issues.

For example, in Captain America and the Falcon #189, Tony Isabella and Frank Robbins have Captain America once more fight Sam Wilson in a dubious SHIELD experiment to prove which is the real personality.

After a bunch of illusionary shenanigans, the Falcon snaps out of his “schizophrenic” state to reveal that, in fact, it is “Snap” Wilson who was the true personality and Sam Wilson who was the fake.

Tony Isabella, Bill Mantlo, and Frank Robbins would return to (and in their own words “bring to a close the end of an epic”) plot in issue #191, in which “Snap” Wilson is put on trial in Los Angeles County Court for the “importation and sale of illegal narcotics”: 

The Falcon is only saved from prison when, in a bid to prevent him from turning state’s witness against his former mob associates, the “Big Man” of Los Angeles hires, of all the many Marvel villains-for-hire, the Stilt-Man to attack the courthouse and assassinate the Falcon before he can testify. As one might guess, the ensuing action allows the Falcon to demonstrate his heroism to the judge, leading to a suspended sentence of parole (with Nick Fury of SHIELD standing in as his parole officer), thus demonstrating the fairness and mercy of the American court system when dealing with black defendants up on drugs charges in the first wave of Nixon’s War on Drugs.

The racial politics of this retcon are bizarre to say the least. The new “Snap” Wilson behaves like a quite different character than the one readers had known for sixty-nine issues: he’s more aggressive and violent both in interpersonal communication and combat, he uses stereotypical “jive” slang, and he’s far more cynical about white America and white institutions – an interesting departure for a character previously given to attempts at “cooling down” racial tensions. One could see it as an extrapolation of the “talker” versus “fighter” dynamic between Sam Wilson, social worker, and the vigilante known as the Falcon, if not for the charged nature of “Snap” Wilson’s gangster origin.

Two potential explanations for this change suggest themselves. The first is that we need to see this in the context of Marvel chasing the trend of blaxploitation, more prominently seen in the creation of the characters Luke Cage and Blade at around the same time. A streetwise gangster simply fits into the rather narrow schema of the blaxploitation genre better than a social worker out of a prestige “problem” film. However, Captain America and the Falcon was an established comic rather than a newer, more speculative venture like Power Man, and more importantly it was the comic of their flagship “flag suit” character, which tends to come with higher visibility and tighter editorial control within the company.

The second explanation, and one that has a certain amount of plausibility given that Cap #186 was authored by noted liberal Steve Englehart (just coming off of having Captain America go up against Richard Nixon), is that the retcon was prompted by a weird white liberal guilt trip that judo-flipped its way into being accidentally racist. Sam Wilson, as originally envisioned by Stan Lee, was an “articulate,” clean-cut, politically moderate black professional. It may have been argued at the time that the character of the Falcon was a paternalistically condescending bit of outreach to the black community from a bunch of white middle aged middle class folks at Marvel.  By contrast, a more “street” character, as we’ve already said more evocative of popular trends in black culture, who challenges the white establishment more consistently than before, may have been seen as a more “authentic” portrait of black masculinity in the 1970s. If so, it’s a very strange train of thought where an attempt to be racially sensitive boomerangs back around to being back-handedly racist.

The problem with this line of political logic is the question of representation. There’s nothing inherently wrong with an individual character having a backstory of coming from the “mean streets” of crime, but when you’re dealing with a situation in which there are very few characters of color in Marvel comics (especially back in the 1970s when the main struggle within Marvel was over introducing racial “firsts”), aspects of those characters become less individualized and more archetypal. When most if not all of Marvel’s black characters at the time came from “the street,” it starts to send a message that, according to Marvel creative and editorial (again, staffed almost entirely by white men), the “street” is where black characters come from. This becomes problematic when it means that having a black character with a different background – like, for example, a professional social worker – is seen as less “realistic” than an ex-hood.

So much for the “epic” of “Snap” Wilson. I know there are going to be some in the fandom who will say that, given the realities of a serial medium produced monthly over the course of almost fifty years by a variety of creative and editorial teams of varying levels of ability and care for the material, you’re going to get some bad stories worked in there. These stories – if left unchecked – can warp characters out of being usable recurring intellectual property, which is why retcons aren’t always a bad thing because they can right a sinking ship in the wake of a particularly ill-thought-out or poorly executed creative turn.

This is why, when we talk about the impact of a given story in comics, we can’t just talk about the aesthetic merit of a given panel or page or comic, but its longevity – did a given story have an enduring impression on the book and the larger Marvel Universe, or was it a flash in the pan that was swiftly cleaned up by the next team to work on the book?

The answer to that question is why the “Snap” Wilson retcon is such a big deal: it lasted for forty years, putting it up there as one of the longest-lasting retcons in Marvel history. It was the status quo when Steve Englehart left the book, it was the status quo when Jack Kirby returned to both write and draw the book (more on that in a future issue), it was the status quo for Mark Gruenwald’s classic run in the 80s, and it was the status quo for Ed Brubaker’s run that set the terms for the MCU Captain America films.

It wouldn’t change until 2015, when as part of the Avengers NOW! event[3] Sam Wilson was promoted to the role of Captain America for the first time (although not the first time that he’d worn the uniform) – a creative and editorial decision that would ultimately give rise to the Disney+ Falcon and Winter Soldier show. In All-New Captain America #3, intending to discredit as well as kill the new Captain America, Sin (the Red Skull’s daughter) and HYDRA engages in information warfare by releasing to the public the sordid details of “Snap” Wilson’s past:

To a significant extent, Remender designs All-New Captain America #3 to be in dialogue with Englehart’s Captain America and the Falcon #186 – no less than three pages out of the book are devoted to a beat-for-beat reproduction of the story of the Red Skull using the Cosmic Cube to re-write Sam Wilson’s backstory, for example. The major difference is that, rather than staying in a mind-controlled silent stupor while Steve Rogers plays the interlocutor to the Red Skull, here Sam Wilson is allowed to speak and he challenges Sin’s characterization of his past as a “liar, thug, and gangster” as “lies.” (Remender does his own editorializing by characterizing the “Snap Wilson” backstory as a “smear campaign” and presenting Sin as clearly an unreliable narrator given to monologuing about the victors rewriting history to suit their interests.)

In foiling both Sin’s smear campaign and (somewhat more importantly) her bomb plot, Sam Wilson defiantly asserts a brand-new status quo for his own backstory:

While Rick Remender is a writer whose politics I haven’t always agreed with – only two years before this issue, Remender had written Uncanny Avengers #5, which featured the now-infamous “M word” speech, and then reacted extremely poorly to criticism over how this speech handled the topic of minority identities and the mutant metaphor – I think he was on the right track in this case.

As I’ve suggested above in discussing the question of representation, “ex-gangster from the mean streets” was already something of a “tired stereotype” back in 1975, and it was only more of one in 2015 when you consider the increase in the raw numbers of African-American characters in big two comics, given how many of those new characters had been given “street” backgrounds themselves. By contrast, there is something innovative about a social worker backstory not just from the perspective of African-American characters but superheroes in general: whereas most heroes with secret identities are cops, private detectives, reporters (because those professions involve being “nosy” and thus lend themselves to story hooks involving investigations), or scientists (which lends itself to super-science story hooks), there really aren’t that many heroes who belong to one of the “caring” professions. As we discussed back in Week 18, social workers have a unique perspective on social phenomena, while still giving rise to sixty issues worth of story hooks.

Ultimately, however, the question of whether a given character’s backstory is innovative or stereotypical is rather subjective. Which is why the subjectivity of the creative and editorial teams matters – and why it mattered that for so long that the teams working on Captain America and the Falcon were all-white (as well-meaning as they might have been). Had there been more diversity in the room at the time, black creators might have been able to push back on the “Snap” Wilson retcon from the beginning instead of having to wait forty years for a white creator to decide it wasn’t all right.  


[1] Between Cap #120 and #186, there wasn’t a regular artist on the book on issues covering Sam Wilson as a social worker: artists ranged from Gene Colan on #120 and 134 to John Romita Sr. on #139 to Sal Buscema on #149 to Alan Weiss and John Romita Sr. on #164.

[2] A story notable for being the first but by no means the last time that CapWolf became a part of Marvel Comics. More on that in a future issue of People’s History of the Marvel Universe.

[3] Itself a continuation of the All-New Marvel NOW! event from 2013, which itself was a continuation of Marvel NOW! from 2012, but which shouldn’t be confused with All-New, All-Different Marvel which would launch later in 2015, eventually giving rise to the Secret Empire event. Needless to say, Marvel editorial hasn’t exactly made things easier for comics historians in their naming conventions in recent years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

These are their stories.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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, Ann Nocenti 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.

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