My name is Steven Attewell and I like to write about the intersection of history, politics, and pop culture. You may know my blog, Race for the Iron Throne, where I write about Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire. In my day job, though, I have a PhD in the history of public policy and I teach public policy at CUNY’s Murphy Institute for Labor Studies.
In A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, I’ll be exploring how real-world politics (and weird bits of pop culture) was presented in some of my favorite bits of classic Marvel comics, starting with Claremont’s run on X-Men and Captain America from the Timely Comics through the 80s.
Today, I’ll be talking about the politics of Captain America, something I’ve discussedbefore. Political nerds and Marvel fans are probably aware that the original Captain America comics from the 1940s were explicitly political, as Joe Simon and Jack Kirby took an explicitly anti-fascist and anti-Nazi position in March 1941, ten months before the U.S was attacked at Pearl Harbor.
What they might not know is that that Captain America was also explicitly political – and progressive – on domestic politics as well. As proof, I present this panel from the very first page of Captain America #2:
Meet the villains of the very first story to feature Captain America’s now-iconic round shield – two corrupt bankers trying to evade Federal corporate income taxes. Now, yes, Benson the corrupt banker on the right happens to use “Oriental giants” he discovered in Tibet who are impervious to everything but sonic weapons to “raise havoc with the city – the nation! I want money-money!” but at the end of the day, he’s still a corrupt banker who kills people to hide his income tax evasion.
Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s point couldn’t be clearer – wealthy businessmen who avoid paying corporate income taxes (and these would be FDR’s “Soak the Rich” taxes, specifically) damage America’s ability to wage war on fascism and require the same two-fisted justice that Captain America deals out to “Ratzi” spies, storm troopers guarding a concentration camp in the Black Forest, Adolph Hitler himself, and the evil Wax Man (who kills people with wax masks of themselves for some reason).
Then again, it’s also the issue where Captain America cross-dresses…to fight fascism.
Welcome back to People’s History of the Marvel Universe, where I explore how real-world politics (and weird bits of pop culture) was presented in some of my favorite bits of classic Marvel comics.
Today, I’ll be exploring how real-world politics intersected with Chris Claremont’s classic run on X-Men. Now, Claremont X-Men is some of the richest source material imaginable, given the way that the mutant metaphor has beenused to address contemporary social issues facing different minority groups.
So what ripped-from-the-headlines issue will be looking at this week? Canadian politics from the 70s!
As many Marvel fans know, long-time X-Men artist John Byrne was a huge Wolverine fan who lobbied to keep him in the X-Men because he wanted to keep a Canadian superhero in the group, and who created Alpha Flight, Canada’s own superhero team.
What you might not know is that John Byrne really did not like Pierre Trudeau, who served as Prime Minister of Canada from 1968-1979 and 1980-1984. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that, judging from his artwork in X-Men #120 from April of 1979, he hates the man:
Start with the visuals – from the orange leisure suit/striped open-collar shirt combination (while Mr. Trudeau was a bit more of a “swinging young bachelor” than your average Canadian prime minister, I’ve yet to find any images of him in that ugly of a suit) to the rapidly-retreating hairline to the fearsome conk, the suggestion of the buck tooth and the Hapsburgian jaw, this is less the somewhat naturalistic Marvel house style (especially when contrasted against the Marvel house styled Guardian to his left) than a political caricature.
But let’s move on to the text, where the Prime Minister of Canada, a country that abolished slavery in 1833, is arguing that (because Wolverine’s adamantium-laced skeleton was funded by the Canadian government, or the US and Canadian governments) Logan should not be allowed to resign a commission in the Canadian military (even though James MacDonald Hudson’s response suggests that he should be able to). Following his orders, Alpha Flight basically kidnaps a commercial aircraft transiting between Alaska and the continental U.S, assaults a number of foreign nationals in the middle of Calgary International Airport and downtown Calgary, all to put Wolverine into a literal cage (X-Men #120-121).
So why is Canada so evil that John Byrne depicts Canadian military backing up Alpha Flight in the same uniforms as the Death Star technicians? If I had to guess, I’d say that John Byrne was among those who objected to Pierre Trudeau’s decision to invoke the War Measures Act during the October Crisis in 1970, where Canadian military were put on the streets of Montreal and almost 500 people were arrested and held without charge.
Welcome back to People’s History of the Marvel Universe, where I explore how real-world politics (and weird bits of pop culture) was presented in some of my favorite bits of classic Marvel comics. In this issue, I’ll be discussing how Captain America made the transition from his Timely Comics incarnation to the Marvel era.
Timely Comics’s version of Captain America was (to be kind) rather crude, still in that stage where superheroes as a genre are still emerging from pulp, so there’s a lot of repetitious scenes where Cap and/or Bucky get tied to chairs because that’s the only way the author can think of to get to the plot exposition, most of the villains are pretty generic mobster types, and so on. However, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee were able to go back and sift through the old material to find the stuff that worked – Steve Rogers as Captain America, the uniform and the mighty shield, the Red Skull, Agent 13 – while ditching the stuff that didn’t work (the secret identity, Bucky to an extent, etc.).
At the same time, there were a number of strategies that Marvel used to make the transition work. First, in the very act of updating Captain America from the 1940s to the 1960s, Kirby and Lee made Steve Rogers a man out of time, giving a previously rather thinly-sketched individual a rich source of Marvel-style pathos and interiority. The Steve Rogers who emerged in the pages of The Avengers, Tales of Suspense, and Captain America is a veteran haunted by the memory of his losses during WWII, a rare example in which PTSD is given its place in that conflict. (Indeed, a lot of stories from this era involve Cap having vivid flashbacks or hallucinations that make him question his sanity.)
And that’s what I think people often get wrong about Captain America: while he was born into the “Greatest Generation,” he’s not an old man. Rather, because of his variable number of decades frozen in the ice, he’s a young man who’s traveled through time, bringing the passion and idealism of youth into a new era.
Second, Kirby and Lee kept much of the political edge of the original comics by making a foundational element of the new Cap comics that Nazism was not dead, but had continued into the present day as a hostile force that threatened liberal values, often hidden beneath reactionary causes and movements (hence the usefulness of HYDRA as a dark mirror through which to question and explore the national security state in Captain America: Winter Soldier). For example, early on in Tales of Suspense, they posited that Nazi agents were at work in modern Germany:
To argue that Nazis were hidden in German society, as if Himmler’s Operation Werwolf had really come to pass, was a pretty bold political statement in a Cold War world only five years past the construction of the Berlin Wall and in which the Western German government had yet to publicly grapple with the legacy of the Holocaust. But Kirby’s political acumen shines in these issues, grounding these stories in contemporary politics, as with this reference to West German laws banning the display of Nazi iconography:
Third, another thing that Marvel could bring to the table is a fully matured Jim Kirby. As I mentioned above, the Timely Captain America comics were too close to the pulp era to really be distinctively superheroic. But by the 1960s, Kirby was Kirby. And so what the Red Skull’s sleeper agents were out to awaken was not merely a coup against the Federal Republic of Germany, but a giant Nazi robot:
The Timely Comics version of the Red Skull had been a petty saboteur and sometimes assassin, very much within the wheelhouse of pulp antagonists. The new Red Skull (who’ll be explored in future installments) was reimagined as a full-on supervillain with a flair for giant robots, doomsday devices, world conquest, and grandiloquent speeches complete with cigarette holder. And so Kirby gave the world not just a giant robot menacing the free world, but a Nazi Voltron:
This was the secret alchemy that brought Captain America into the contemporary world of Mighty Marvel Comics: on the one hand, Jack Kirby’s larger-than-life visuals and Marvel’s attention to interiority gave Captain America new life, but on the other, the original political spirit of the Timely Comics was carefully preserved, so that what made Captain America unique is a superhero is that his power is essentially weaponized progressive ideology:
As is no surprise to anyone who read Week 2’s issue, ClaremontX-Men is a huge touchstone for me, one of the few comics runs I re-read annually. However, it took a while for Claremont’s X-Men to feel like X-Men. Issues #94 and #95 focus on Count Nefaria, who’s really more an Avengers villain than a X-Men villain. Issue #96 gives us the demonic N’Garai, and while I love the Cthulhu references, it feels a bit like Claremont borrowed them from a Doctor Strange spec script.
Where it really starts to feel like X-Men is issue #98 (April 1976), where the Sentinels return and ruin the X-Men’s Christmas in order to abduct them to Stephen Lang’s space base. To begin with, the Sentinels are one of the only explicitly and specifically anti-mutant threats that the original X-Men fought, so a lot of the mutant metaphor is grounded in those wonderful purple and pink Kirby robots. And Claremont sharpens the analysis by having these genocidal robots be built by a racist lunatic working within the U.S military (which is something that the U.S Army-aficionado Stan Lee wouldn’t have allowed back in the day), giving added emphasis to the “world that hates and fears them” part of the X-Men’s story that was largely lacking in the original 93 issues:
Second, the Sentinel attack sets up the disastrous space shuttle landing that turned Jean Grey into the Phoenix, the first example of Chris Claremont’s epic long-form storytelling that will define the X-Men for 18 years.
But the other reason that this issue stuck with me is that, far more than anything in the original X-Men’s run, this issue made the X-Men feel like a part of New York City. The issue opens with the X-Men at the ice-skating rink at Rockefeller Center on Christmas Eve, which is a little touristy, but before the sentinels attack on page X, we get to see the X-Men out on the town:
And critically, the town is there for more than window-dressing. A lot of ink has been spilled in the years since Fantastic Four #1 about how Marvel’s decision to have their comics be located in New York City made it a more realistic shared universe, how it reflected a generation of post-WWII second generation immigrant/“white ethnic” artists and writers, and so on.
In this panel, however, we can also see that it also created a keyhole through which real-world politics could enter. Claremont’s word balloons set the scene of New York as a place grappling with “default and layoffs and garbage and politicians who couldn’t care less” – referring to New York City’s fiscal crisis that brought the city to the brink of bankruptcy in 1975 and led to the layoffs of tens of thousands of city workers, an eleven-day garbage strike that took place in December of 1975 and led to “70,000 tons of trash, most of it lining mid-Manhattan curbs in piles as high as six feet,” and Mayor Abe Beame, the hapless and hated mayor whose one term included both the 1975 fiscal crisis and the 1977 blackout and who was the model for the hated mayor who can’t set foot outdoors without getting booed in The Taking of Pelham 123.
These are the worries that the X-Men are trying to put out of their minds with a night on the town, and by extension it implies that one of the real daily annoyances that New Yorkers had to deal with in the 1970s – along with the 1973-1975 recession, the oil crisis, and skyrocketing inflation – was Sentinel attacks in Midtown. In fact, we know that these were real problems for New Yorkers because Issue #98 shows us that Jack Kirby and Stan Lee exist within their own Marvel universe and have run into the X-Men:
In turn, it also suggests that the same real-world problems facing the X-Men are also some of the problems facing Marvel Comics in the 1970s. And indeed, if you’ve read Sean Howe’s excellent Marvel Comics: The Inside Story, you know that one of the big 70s issues that affected Marvel was 70’s inflation. Comic books, after all, were bought primarily by young people without a lot of disposable income who might respond to 1975’s 9% inflation rate by cutting back on non-essentials. Hence, the cover of X-Men #98 prominently displayed that this issue would still cost only 25ȼ (or $1.05 in 2015 dollars, which is a steal, compared to $3.99 an issue today).
However, even Mighty Marvel couldn’t resist the forces of stagflation forever. By October of 1976, when Jean Grey emerged from the waters of Jamaica Bay as “now and forever – the Phoenix,” an issue of X-Men was up to 30ȼ an issue; and when Jean Grey was buried in October of 1980, the regular price went up to 50ȼ an issue, double what it had been four years ago. To try to hang onto their readers, Marvel enlisted the Incredible Hulk to sell subscriptions that came with discounts:
No wonder then, that Chris Claremont started coming up with some unusual solutions to New York City’s economic policy woes:
 On the other hand, you have to give Nefaria credit for his commitment to supervillainy for supervillainy’s sake: he’s an Italian aristocrat whose last name means evil and who joined the Mafia seemingly for the lolz, the opera cape, monocle, cane, and tuxedo combo is kind of charmingly vaudevillian, his ludicrously over-the-top plans to encase Washington D.C in a crystal dome or capture Cheynne Mountain always boil down to rather modest ransom demands, and his Ani-Men are totally random.
 To get even deeper into the meta rabbit hole, there are various issues of X-Men that show Kitty Pryde reading Marvel’s Star Wars comics, which makes me wonder whether in the Marvel Universe, there are X-Men comics labelled as non-fiction.
As I mentioned in Week 3, Marvel had a lot of work to do to update Captain America for the 1960s. That was true enough for the early 60s, when the U.S Army was the undisputed good guy in the comics, when Professor X worked with the FBI to track down mutants (more on that in a future issue), and when beatniks were an easy comedy bit. By 1968, when Captain America graduated from Tales of Suspense (where he double-billed with Iron Man) and got his own book, things had changed even more so. The comics industry had to deal with the counter-culture’s influence on visual media (both through hiring a new generation of writers and artists influenced by the counter-culture, but also as older creators like Jack Kirby got interested in surrealism, mixed-media, and other trends), and at the same time the counter-culture started to show an interest in comics.
And what was true for the industry and Marvel as a whole was even more so for Captain America; as the super-soldierly representation of all that’s best in the U.S, Cap had to respond to changes in America’s political culture. So how did Cap face the 60s?
To begin with, by experimenting artistically so that Cap’s image kept pace with the times. Jack Kirby continued to draw giant robots and intricate machines, but he also pushed his art to become ever more elaborate and strange – the Cosmic Cube allowed him to bring in some of the cosmic weirdness that we associate more with his run on Fantastic Four and MODOK (more on that in a future issue as well) continued his interest in giant Olmec heads. In addition, Jim Steranko was brought in as a regular artist and brought with him a new interest in psychedelic art and surrealism, an emphasis on flowing and contorting movement, and experimental paneling:
Counter-cultural art can only get you so far when that art is depicting a man literally dressed as the American flag in the midst of the Vietnam war (more on which in future installments). So Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (and Jim Steranko, and so on) had to deal directly with how Captain America was viewed by the new generation:
Between Captain America #120 and #130, Steve Rogers is suddenly made aware of the generation gap, the counter-culture, and that he himself is viewed as a giant square. But where most people opining on Captain America go wrong is that Marvel didn’t have Cap respond to this by becoming a reactionary, lashing out at the damned hippies. Rather, Lee et al. leaned into their already-established trope as Cap as a man out of time in a different way, as Steve Rogers takes the critique seriously:
This is how Captain America engages in political analysis. Rather than writing off the baby boom generation, he draws a direct link between the “injustice, greed, and endless war” that he has observed in this new world and the rise of the “rebel and the dissenter,” taking their complaints seriously. Moreover, as a good ally should, Steve Rogers doesn’t stop at the structural level but also absorbs the counter-cultural critique on a personal level, asking himself why he hasn’t been more of an individualist and a dissenter rather than just a soldier.
On a meta-level, I think we can also see this as a kind of generational reckoning as well, with Steve Rogers standing in for the Marvel staff in their 40s who had spent their youth in the U.S Army in WWII, confronting a new culture that valorized the “anti-hero” rather than Marvel’s more straightforwardly earnest style of protagonist. Without backing down on his insistence that the values he believes in are timeless and that there is important things that his generation has to offer the youth – in #122, Rogers will namedrop Martin Luther King Jr., JRR Tolkien, the Kennedy brothers, and Marshall McLuhan as examples of “establishment” types who have influenced the youth movement – Cap nonetheless starts to experiment with a more counter-cultural way of life, suggesting that the counter-culture might be right about his generation.
Not only will Captain America begin questioning authority (usually in the form of Nick Fury of SHIELD) more, but he’ll also take to the road on a motorcycle to carve out an identity as Steve Rogers apart from the mantle of Captain America, setting up a big part of his Easy Rider-inspired Nomad persona in the 1970s:
When Steve Rogers rides off into his bike, looking for the Real America, he finds not just open road and existential quandary but the radical student movement of the 1960s. And both Rogers himself and his creators interact with the student movement much in the way that mainstream liberals at the time did, sympathizing with student demands but viewing radical direct action as dangerous and illiberal:
Thus, Steve Rogers in his civilian guise goes into action to protect a professor from being kidnapped by dangerous radicals, but also takes the campus administration to task for not listening to their students. Meanwhile, Stan Lee and Gene Colan depict student radicals as unrepresentative of their peers and threatening the destruction of the larger institution. At the same time, however, when it comes down to a clash between campus protesters and the police, we know which side Captain America will come down on, and it’s not the police:
While this might not rise to the level of Denny O’Neill on Green Lantern and Green Arrow, it’s still an important symbolic statement. Despite how wildly unpopular the New Left had made itself by the late 1960s (71% of Americans believed that the “country would be better off if there was less protest and dissatisfaction coming from college campuses” in 1968) here’s Captain America siding with the kids against the cops – as we’ll see, an association that will be enduring across issues.
At the same time though, Marvel also finessed this potential controversy with some rather strange symbolic politics. That long-haired, pink-panted gentlemen standing next to Mart Baker and the megaphone isn’t actually a bona-fide student…he’s an undercover agent of AIM. AIM is secretly infiltrating the student movement and deliberately intensifying conflict in order both to weaken American society, but also as a cover for the abduction of various professors in the sciences whose research AIM wants to steal:
If you strip out the inherent Marvel wackiness of MODOK’s giant baby head and AIM’s beekeeper helmets, this isn’t too different from contemporary conservative arguments that the student movement had been infiltrated by Soviet agents. At the same time, though, Lee and Colan frame the situation as AIM having seized upon “legitimate grievances” and show the students as unwitting tools rather than actively disloyal, and when AIM’s involvement is unmasked, Cap and student radicals team up to take them down:
It’s hard to look at this particular storyline and not see the whole thing as condescending at best, but Marvel Comics didn’t leave it at that. Hot off the heels of his intervention in campus politics, Steve Rogers gets approached to become the TV pitchman for a “law and order” backlash against the New Left that’s hiding sinister motives:
And because he’s Captain America, and Captain America’s secret super-power is weaponized morality, Cap sees right through the slogans of “law and order” to the sinister plot of men wearing white hoods over their faces (not hugely subtle symbolism there, but some anvils needed to be dropped in 1968):
This is what I mean when I say that Captain America is a progressive: he’s reframing patriotism and American national traditions as inherently radical and de-linking the defense of the status quo from the defense of the values that the status quo supposedly embodies, while taking a strong pro-non-violence line with regards to protest.
So in the 1960s, Captain America becomes the defender of youth (in a future issue, I’ll discuss how Captain America saved rock music by fighting the Hells Angels at Altamont). And it’s just in the nick of time too, because as it turns out, the man in the white hood pushing for “law and order” backlash politics is none other than actual, factual Nazi, Baron Strucker of HYDRA:
So there you have it, folks. The political movement behind Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan is secretly being run by a Nazi cabal, MODOK is heightening the contradictions, and Cap says the kids are all right. However, we really can’t talk about Ca in the 1960s without talking about one Sam Wilson, better known as the Falcon, which we will tackle the next time A People’s History of the Marvel Universe covers Captain America…
When it comes to the intersection of politics and Marvel comics, the X-Men’s “mutant metaphor” is justifiably at the forefront. Up until now, I’ve danced aroundthe topic a little because I lost a detailed set of notes that I had made on the original Stan Lee and Jack Kirby X-Men and Chris Claremont’s entire run and am still in the process of reconstituting my research.
This means that my discussion of the “mutant metaphor” will have to build gradually, which is actually rather appropriate because I intend to argue in several succeeding columns that the “mutant metaphor” was something that took a good bit of time to emerge in the X-universe and as a theme ultimately owes far more to Chris Claremont’s work than to Lee and Kirby.
One example of this is the character of Magneto, the X-Men’s original antagonist who is often held up as the Malcom X to Professor Xavier’s Martin Luther King. There’s a lot of problems with this analogy, as I’ll discuss in future issues, but to the extent that there’s any truth to it, it’s entirely the result of Claremont’s run, because the original Magneto from the Lee and Kirby years is unrecognizable from his appearance in X-Men #114 through #161, and is frankly not that great a villain.
To begin with, Magneto’s motivations in the Silver Age are so generic and opaque that he decides to name his mutant revolutionary group the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. This kind of stuff is the weakest part of the Silver Age, because the adage that “everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story” speaks to a truth of human nature. Almost everyone, even sociopaths and sadists, feels the need to construct ideological frameworks and narratives which justify and legitimize their actions. But the closest that Silver Age Magneto gets an ideology is a crude Social Darwinism which posits an inevitable race war between humans and mutants in which mutants must rise up and subjugate humanity (which becomes more problematic when you consider the Silver Age depiction of anti-mutant prejudice…more on this in a future issue):
Despite these shortcomings when it comes to motivation, Silver Age Magneto could have been a more impressive antagonist if he was presented as a figure with some dignity (like Doctor Doom) or wit (like Loki). Unfortunately, Lee and Kirby depict the Master of Magnetism, the would-be messiah of mutantdom, as a straight-up Snidely Whiplash villain. To begin with, Magneto is repeatedly and habitually abusive to his underlings, especially to the cartoonishly obsequious Toad, who he makes wear a metal belt specifically so that Magneto can torture him with his mutant powers.
In addition, he’s also a lousy manager. He shows a blatant disinterest in his subordinates’ safety, makes it blatantly clear that he will throw each and every one of them under the bus the moment it can gain him the slightest of advantages, and repeatedly abandons them in moments of peril to save his own skin:
It’s not that these qualities can’t be part of a villainous background, but it doesn’t particularly fit a villain who aspires to be the leader of an entire race of people. At the end of the day, there’s just not enough Toads in the world who would be willing to follow someone who calls them cannon fodder to their face. The only way that Lee and Kirby explain why anyone would ever follow this guy, especially why they would continue to follow him after the first time that they get foiled by the X-Men, is that he’s a consummate gaslighter and emotional manipulator. Hence his long history of constantly holding over the heads of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch the one time he “helped” them, as well as pretending to be the father of both (plus Polaris):
Again, this isn’t adding to the portrait of a villain who impresses anyone. Add onto that the way that Magneto compounds this callousness with a sadistic streak that runs to the quasi-genocidal (which I think is where, if we’re in the mood to be charitable, Jeph Loeb got his idea from for Ultimatum), and you’ve got a real heel:
But of all of Silver Age Magneto’s personal behaviors, I find none so foul as the occasion where, to put it bluntly, he decides to pimp out the Scarlet Witch to Namor to gain his support.
There’s not really another way to interpret this scene, especially with the way that Kirby depicts Magneto pawing and leering at a shrinking Scarlet Witch in the manner of a cliffhanger serial villain tying a damsel in distress to the train tracks. All of this is truly despicable on a personal basis, but the reason why I argue that, in all the ways that really matter, Chris Claremont created Magneto as we have come to know him, is that Lee and Kirby’s Magneto is a Nazi (and I don’t make that claim lightly):
As I’ve mentioned before with reference to Captain America, Jack Kirby especially was not a man to make such comparisons lightly or accidentally, given his anti-fascist sympathies and service in the European Theater in WWII. Each visual detail – from the goose-stepping soldiers wearing M armbands and knee-high patent leather boots to the WWII era Stalhellms and forage caps and submachine guns – is meant to evoke not just fascism generally but Hitler specifically. And this is simply not compatible with the identity that Chris Claremont would develop of Erik Lensherr, the Holocaust survivor who bases his belief that humans will inevitably attempt to exterminate mutants on the fact that he saw genocide against supposedly dangerous genetic minorities first-hand. (Arguably there’s an interesting story to be told of a survivor so traumatized by their experiences that they seek to become the figure of their own nightmares, but that’s not a story that Lee and Kirby were telling.)
However, there are a few redeeming virtues of Silver Age Magneto that explains why he was revived when other antagonists like Unus the Untouchable were left in the circular file of history. The costume’s red with purple accents and the distinctive helmet are an iconic Jack Kirby design that would be carried forwards for decades (although in recent years he’s been rocking an all-white variation of same). And while Stan Lee didn’t have that good a fix on Magneto’s political ideology, he did have something that almost made up for it – a complete lack of understanding of how magnetism actually works. This allowed for some truly wacky moments while giving Magneto a useful power set for a powerful villain:
While the Magneto-turning-guns-against-their-wielders trick is a good one (that predates X-Men: First Class and Days of Future Past by several decades), this is basically magnetism-as-telekinesis, which Magneto will use to block Cyclops’ eye-beams or fly through the air. And it only gets goofier from there:
While I’m willing to grant Lee and Kirby that there might be enough dust with a high content of iron or nickle or the like to spell out a giant skywriting message (and the cursive signature is an uncharacteristically dashing touch), Magneto’s hypnosis-by-magnets is clearly a callback to the long-discredited ideas of Franz Mesmer, who believed that you could use magnets and one’s own “animal magnetism” to cure diseases and mental illnesses.
However, a snazzy costume and a lack of understanding of magnets work is a thin reed to build a major antagonist on, which may be one reason why Lee and Kirby kept marooning Magneto on alien planets or de-aging him into baby. To make Magneto something more than a Snidely Whiplash, Chris Claremont would have to do some rewrites…which we’ll discuss the next time A People’s History of the Marvel Universe covers the X-Men!
As I discussed last issue, Silver Age Magneto was a very different kind of antagonist than the ones that fans of the X-Men are familiar with today, due to changes put in place by Chris Claremont. It’s surprisingly how quickly this happened; only eleven issues into his run, Claremont had begun a conscious and sustained effort to transform the character. (Then again, that was very much his style, with Jean Grey dying and coming back as Phoenix all happened within the first eight issues of his run.)
So how did Claremont turn Magneto from a Silver Age Snidely Whiplash into this?
Magneto as Milton’s Satan
First and foremost, Claremont invested Magneto with a sense of personal presence and dignity that made him a villain to be respected rather than despised. Rather than a cringing coward who ran at the first sign of danger and who primarily relied on his bullied subordinates to fight the X-Men, Magneto was re-imagined as a fearless antagonist who would fight the whole team by himself:
Both writers and artists were key to this change – in X-Men #111, Claremont has Magneto politely wait for the X-Men to free themselves from the thrall of Mesmero (indeed, he casually defeats Mesmero off-panel just to get him out of the way) before challenging them himself. At the same time, John Byrne depicts Magneto as a powerfully muscular figure who looks like he could put up a challenge to an entire team of superheroes. Indeed two issues later, Magneto will actually trade punches with Colossus himself and hold his own.
In addition to his physical improvement, the un-de-aging of Magneto (one of the stranger but ultimately highly productive ret-cons in X-Men history) enhanced his mutant powers to the point where, rather than being repeatedly foiled as he was in the Silver Age, he defeated the entire team on his own, making him an adversary to be feared:
Power level is enough to make a villain a genuine threat, but it’s not enough to make a villain memorable – Doomsday is a powerful villain, but he’s not exactly a villain that anyone really cares about. Equally important, therefore, is creating a personality that makes the villain a memorable character. And Claremont went out of his way to make Magneto not only compelling but almost admirable. Firstly, he removed Silver Age Magneto’s sadism (a trait that works for a lot of villains, but isn’t suited to a villain who’s supposed to be Xavier’s ideological equal and opposite number) and emphasized Magneto’s idealism:
Secondly, he emphasized Magneto’s willpower as a core part of his personality. Whereas previously Magneto’s ability to fight off Xavier’s telepathy was explained by Stan Lee’s lack of understanding of magnetism, now Magneto was simply so strong-willed that he could go up against the strongest telepath on Earth and hold his own:
Willpower is a great attribute of classic arch-enemies. While you can have good weak-willed enemies (think Bizarro or Juggernaut), their more straightforward natures limit the kind of stories you can tell about them, which makes them better secondary threats. But to give your heroes (and your readers) an arch-enemy they can really sink their teeth into, you need someone with iron resolve who will keep on fighting to the bitter end. It’s probably the main reason why Doctor Doom is one of the best villain characters ever created, because no matter how despicable he may be, there’s still something admirable about him. (Incidentally, one of the best Doctor Doom moments ever was that he defeated the Purple Man through sheer willpower, because Doom kneels to no one!)
Thirdly, and this turned out to be the most fruitful change, is to give Magneto emotional depth. Whereas Silver Age Magneto wanted only to be feared rather than loved, Claremont’s Magneto had a tragic backstory (at this point, confined to a lost love) that showed he had a softer, one might even say, human, side:
What all of these categories have in common is that they’re ideal for a Villain Protagonist, a character who could share a stage with Professor Xavier in political debates, who could challenge the X-Men not only in combat but also to reconsider their previously held notions, and who could change in interesting ways throughout the course of Claremont’s run.
The difference between the two versions of Magneto is akin to the difference in the portraits of Satan in Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost. While both epic poems depict Lucifer as a powerful figure, the former is far more limited than the latter, not only because Dante’s Satan is literally stuck in the lowest ring of hell, but also because there’s a limit to the kinds of stories you can tell about Satan as a giant red monster with giant wings and three faces. By contrast, Milton’s Satan is imbued with a strong sense of individualism and drive that he can function as the protagonist of Paradise Lost, and such a rich and complex personality that William Blake argued “the reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”
Magneto as Holocaust Survivor
In addition to these changes, most famously, Magneto’s backstory was given a central focus that has defined his character to the present day. While earlier generation of Marvel creators like Jack Kirby had been passionately anti-Nazi in the 1940s, Chris Claremont was part of a younger generation of New York Jews (Kirby grew up on the Lower East Side in the 1920s, whereas Claremont grew up on Long Island in the 1950s) who were more comfortable with describing characters as Jewish or discussing the Holocaust. And so, starting in Issue #150, Magneto was revealed to have been a Holocaust survivor – and this wasn’t an incidental reveal but something that would be developed substantially over time:
Rather than a coded or vague allusion, Magneto’s identity was made clear in both visuals and text – not only did he bear the tattoo of a concentration camp inmate, but he named the most famous death camp of them all, Auschwitz, as the place where he “grew up” and where his family died. And while there’s always been a degree of ambiguity to his coding as Jewish, the fact that this detail is revealed when Magneto meets Xavier in Israel as an immigrant volunteering in a psychiatric hospital for survivors made it fairly clear at the time.
To me, this is an example of why retcons can be a positive force in comics writing. By placing Magneto in a historically-specific environment, not only does it has significant implications for his political ideology (more on this in the next section), but it also provides a much deeper connection with Professor Xavier. The man whose political opposite he now embodies was once a friend and colleague in a common project aimed at healing the wounds of the most profound act of violence directed at a genetic minority in modern history. And to me, this is how the “mutant metaphor” works best – not with mutancy acting as a stand-in for real-world hatred, but rather historical examples of oppression (for both us and characters in the X-Men universe) providing context for mutants dealing with anti-mutant prejudice (as I’ll discuss in the next section).
For Magneto, this element of his backstory ties together all the other elements of his new personality. He is fearless because he’s already experienced the worst fear imaginable and survived it; he’s powerful because he’s profoundly driven to never be powerless again; he is strong-willed because if he wasn’t, he would be dead. And finally, his experiences add to his emotional depth by making a personal loss something more universal – in contrast to the “inciting incident” for most comic-book villains.
And for Chris Claremont, who wanted organic character development – where, rather than being trapped in status-quo stasis, characters would mature and change even to the extent of leaving the X-Men – Magneto’s new past was something that could motivate him to change:
In X-Men #150, when Magneto constructs a volcano-machine on his island fortress (which I’ll discuss more later), Kitty Pryde disrupts the machine with her phasing power and “Magneto ruthlessly responds, ending a lethal charge of electricity through her.” Magneto immediately recoils, realizing that realizes he has become what he has hated and feared, having (seemingly, because this is still Comics Code era Marvel) killed a mutant child. And it’s not an accident that the target of his wroth and the reason for his change of heart is Kitty Pryde, who isn’t just a mutant but is also openly Jewish. It’s not a particularly subtle scenario, but it lends the scene a certain energy and power.
It’s also a scene that the Silver Age Magneto simply wasn’t capable of acting in. However, the question remains, what is the reason for this change?
The Ideology of a Mutant Revolutionary
The purpose of all of these changes wasn’t to make Magneto so sympathetic that the reader would view him to be the hero (although as we’ll see in the future, it did put him in a place where he could become the headmaster of the Xavier School), but rather to make him a villain of prominence who could function as Xavier’s ideological equal and opposite. When Claremont had Magneto move from confronting the X-Men to once again engaging in super-villainy, he presented him as a revolutionary extremist:
The costume – red jumpsuit, purple gloves, cloak, and briefs, stylish helmet – is the same, and the demand for world conquest and threatening global destruction is the same as Silver Age Magneto, arguably a direct homage to his public addresses in X-Men #1. What makes the difference is that Silver Age Magneto was a plain and simple tyrant whose thinking went no further than crude Social Darwinism, whereas Claremont’s Magneto has a larger political agenda driving his demands:
There is a lot to talk about with this page, which is rather unusual for Marvel Comics (and not just because it does really weird things with the 180 degree rule). To begin with, it depicts actual politicians – Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Leonid Breshnev, and Zhou Enlai (although it should be Ye Jianying and Zhao Ziyang) are all recognizable (although the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Kenya seem more generic) – positing that Magneto is an actor in real-world global politics. Moreover, the layout of his speech posits that different nations are being singled out for Magneto’s particular political issues – Magneto points the finger of blame for anti-mutant prejudice at the United States and Great Britain (possibly a reference to Reagan and Thatcher’s less than friendly policies to racial and sexual minorities), of nuclear war at the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, and lists his demands for disarmament with leaders of the third world.
The content of his speech is also worthy of discussion. First, Magneto presents himself as a mutant nationalist, who believes that his powers “set me apart, and above, humanity” and who will act to safeguard his people from the threats (both intentional and inadvertent) that human beings pose. To this end, Magneto also presents himself as a non-aligned political actor, taking on both the Western world, the Soviet bloc, and the developing world, at a time when the Cold War was in one of its most tense periods. Second, Magneto takes a strong anti-nuclear stance at a time when the nuclear freeze movement was at its height in the U.S and Europe, but again from a perspective of mutant nationalism as his primary concern is that “in the process, you might destroy my people as well.” Magneto’s aims go even further than nuclear disarmament, however, demanding total disarmament of conventional military weaponry as well as the threat of obliteration by volcano.
Moreover, as we learn from Magneto’s conversation with Scott Summers and Lee Forrester in the same issue, Magneto’s agenda goes further than just being a really militant anti-nuclear activist. His demands for total political control of the earth are not merely a reverse Cincinnatus drive to eliminate war and then resign:
Rather, Magneto sees himself as an enlightened tyrant, uniquely capable (due to his mutant powers) of bringing about a global golden age by redistributing the peace dividend to end “hunger, disease, poverty.” At the same time, so convinced is he of his own righteousness and capability that Magneto sees no need for compromise, dissent, or even the formalities of democracy. Again, we see the strains of extreme individualism and pride of Milton’s Satan at work, shaping his vision of utopia. The purpose of all of this is to create a villain whose goals are so admirable that we can’t help but feel that he has a point, but whose methods are so extreme and flawed that the X-Men can not only fight Magneto, but also offer a philosophic critique:
Thus, not only do the X-Men swing into the fray to face down Magneto and destroy his volcano-machine on Octopusheim, but Magneto has his “what have I done?” moment that makes him question his actions, because the best X-Men stories are about more than punching people.
At the same time, in order to make Magneto’s newly-developed ideology seem authentic, Claremont also tied in his backstory as a survivor to explain why he “believes that homo sapiens and homo superior can never live together in peace:”
As Claremont’s narration makes explicitly clear, Magneto’s political beliefs are founded in his experience in Auschwitz – he’s seen human beings hate and fear a racial minority to the point of genocide, so it seems perfectly reasonable that the same could happen with mutants, a racial minority with actual super-powers. As I said above, I think this is a case of how the mutant metepahor functions best with using the real world to provide context for mutancy; in Lee and Kirby’s run, anti-mutant prejudice was an infrequent and poorly-explained element of the X-Men’s story, especially in a world when superpowered beings like the Fantastic Four and the Avengers were enthusiastically embraced by mainstream culture. But anti-semitism is a real social and cultural phenomenon that has shaped world history both in our universe and in the Marvel Universe, so it gives weight to Magneto’s beliefs.
This is especially the case when you consider that in the Marvel Universe, Nazism is a far more persistent threat than it was in our history. In the same issue in which Magneto and Xavier meet in Israel and set out their ideological disagreements, Baron Strucker of HYDRA attacks the mental hospital in which they work, in order to abduct Gaby, a Jewish concentration camp survivor who is also a mutant whose power is to turn things into gold, in order to use her powers to finance the Fourth Reich in a plotline that has strong allusions to gold stolen by Nazis and hidden in Swiss bank accounts or abandoned in train cars in Poland. Xavier and Magneto thwart Baron Strucker and HYDRA, Xavier because that’s what heroes do and Magneto because no matter how much of a villain he might be in the moment he’s anti-Nazi first, but in a way that elucidates a lot about Magneto’s worldview and the roots of his ideology:
To begin with, we can see that Magneto holds a profoundly cynical view of “the essential goodness of man” rooted in his experiences that “hate is more popular than love, fear more prevalent than trust.” The extent to which this attitude and the attendant belief of the inevitability of genocidal conflict between humans and mutants are rooted in his experience of the Holocaust is made explicit by his parting words to Xavier that “mutants will not go meekly to the gas chambers – we will fight and we will win.” Magneto’s vision of the future, therefore, is essentially his past rewritten, with humans taking the position of the Nazis and mutants of the Jews. (And as we’ll discuss in future issues, given the dystopian futures of a Sentinel-driven mutant Holocaust predicted in Days of Future Past and future comics, he’s not far wrong.)
One of the themes that will be explored periodically in X-Men comics, therefore, is the fact that Magneto seems to have internalized much of the worldview thrust upon him in the camps – the major difference between Magneto’s and Strucker’s view of racial conflict is that Magneto takes the side of the mutant and will work to see their victory. To that end, he’s willing to use any means necessary – including here stealing Nazi gold to finance his revolution. At the same time, there seems to be an unexplored contradiction in Magneto’s thinking – for all that he claims to “care nothing for…homo sapiens,” Magneto clearly had enough of an attachment to his Jewish identity to move to Israel in the 1950s, and in X-Men #199 we find that he participates in annual gatherings of Holocaust survivors. Does he view those survivors as homo sapiens who he must destroy lest they destroy him?
In spite of what some people have argued (and smarter people have corrected), very little of this resembles the ideology of Malcolm X, outside of the fact that both are drawing from nationalist thought traditions. If anything, Magneto’s ideology is much closer to some of the more militantly right-wing tendencies of Revisionist Zionism that emerged in the 1930s and 1940s – the belief in an inevitable racial conflict for control of territory, the disdain for democratic systems, and especially the rhetoric of the gas chamber and other symbols of the Holocaust used to justify violent action.
But to see how someone with those views could later become Headmaster of the Xavier School, you’ll have to wait until A People’s History of the Marvel Universe covers…the Trial of Magneto!
 Which makes it interesting that most of Magneto’s aggressive actions in the Claremont run are directed against the Soviet Union, which liberated Auschwitz on January 27th, 1945. Something that might be interesting for writers to explore.
 Incidentally, one of the things that I’d love to see developed more in comic books is the exploration of how world politics is different in the Marvel Universe, given the presence of powerful non-aligned nation-states like Namor’s Atlantis, the Black Panther’s Wakanda, Doctor Doom’s Latveria, and the Inhumans’ Atillan.
 One could also argue that Magneto’s experiences also lead him to believe in the inevitability of all forms of conflict – hence his identifying nuclear war as a present danger to mutants. Indeed, the idea of a nuclear apocalypse is a running theme in the X-Men, a subject I’ll be addressing in a future issue.
As I discussed in Week 5, a lot of work had to be done to make Captain America work for the 1960s. But in addition to the political work I talked about (and will discuss a lot more in the future), it also meant a good deal of cultural work as well.
Sometimes, this could be rather awkward, as Stan Lee (48 at the time) hustled like hell to keep Marvel comics relevant in an industry whose primary consumers were teenagers in the midst of one of the largest generational divides in U.S history:
And as my colleague Elana notes, it often takes comics a decade or more to catch up to cultural changes, which can lead to awkward juxtapositions where characters like Nightwing are rocking a 70s disco v-neck costume well into the 90s (oh no! I just got DC in my Marvel!)
But sometimes, sometimes, even the squarest comic book writers and artists can catch onto a wavelength from youth culture and create something fascinating. Hence why in Marvel continuity, Captain America saved the Altamont Free Concert from the (copyright-friendly equivalent of the) Hells Angels:
Captain America is kind of an interesting choice for this storyline, because you have a member of “the Greatest Generation” (albeit one who is mentally and physically in his mid-20s rather than almost in his 50s) stepping in-between a conflict within the Baby Boomers between hippies and bikers. At the same time, as I discussed before, Cap was in a searching and receptive mode as he sought to find a new identity for Steve Rogers, and that brought him in synch with both aspects of the counter-culture:
On the one hand, Cap basically agrees with the hippie’s critique of his generation; on the other, Cap’s solution for how to find his identity is to get a motorcycle and go looking for America. And sure enough, the moment Cap gets onto a motorcycle, he gets arrested by cops who are hassling bikers and mistake him for a member of the Satan’s Angels who they are arresting on sight (which is surprisingly sympathetic to the perspective of the biker gang who are the antagonists of the issue). In turn, the Satan’s Angels decide to break Cap out of prison out of a commitment to the code of the road:
Incidentally, I love that the visual reference for the leader of the Satan’s Angels has some pretty strong resemblance to Marlon Brando in the Wild One. Unlike in classic biker films, however, the Satan’s Angels aren’t the antagonists of Cap #128 because they are threatening the values and mores of Square America, but because they are threatening that most precious and beautiful of things, a hippie rock concert:
In another case of Captain America comics being surprisingly positive about the counter-culture, Stan Lee and Gene Colan present this hippie rock concert as an unambiguously positive force, preaching the message of peace and love, and who share with Cap a common belief in the universal equality and brotherhood of mankind. Part of the reason for this positivity is that Issue #128 came out in August of 1970, less than a year after the Altamont Free Concert. As with the historical concert (which featured Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the Rolling Stones, and where the Grateful Dead were supposed to appear), this concert is publicized as a free concert and open to all comers. And as with Altamont, which was supposed to be a “Woodstock West,” this concert is clearly more about spreading a cultural and political message.
And as with Altamont, the concert is threatened by the disdain that the Satan’s Angels have for hippies, centered around their anti-war politics. Here, the biker leader “Whitey” expresses a very specific hatred of “peaceniks” and the “yella-bellied,” and threatens violence against his own kid brother if he tries to become a “flower child.”
Given that Stan Lee is writing this issue, this is pretty savvy cultural commentary. For all that Ken Kesey and Allan Ginsburg thought that the Hells Angels represented fellow spirits – chronicled in Tom Wolf’s Electric Koolaid Acid Test– there was very little in common between the Hells Angels and the hippie movement beside their mutual alienation from mainstream society. Indeed, much of the Hells Angel’s membership were military veterans who found the biker lifestyle an alternative to transitioning back into the civilian world, and were actively and violently anti-anti-war.
As Hunter Thompson describes in his book, Hells Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, the combination of close quarters and intellectual mis-understanding between the Hells Angels and the hippie movement was a lethal combination:
The Hells Angels’ massive publicity – coming hard on the heels of the widely publicized student rebellion in Berkeley – was interpreted in liberal-radical-intellectual circles as the signal of a natural alliance. Beyond that, the Angels’ aggressive, antisocial stance – their alienation, as it were – had a tremendous appeal for the more aesthetic Berkeley temperament.
…The honeymoon lasted about three months and came to a jangled end on October 16, when the Hells Angels attacked a Get Out of Vietnam demonstration at the Oakland-Berkeley border. The existential heroes who had passed the joint with Berkeley liberals at Kesey’s parties suddenly turned into venomous beasts, rushing on the same liberals with flailing fists and shouts of “Traitors,” “Communists,” “Beatniks!” When push came to shove, the Hells Angels lined up solidly with the cops, the Pentagon and the John Birch Society. And there was no joy that day in Berkeley, for Casey had apparently gone mad.
The attack was an awful shock to those who had seen the Hells Angels as pioneers of the human spirit, but to anyone who knew them it was entirely logical. The Angels’ collective viewpoint has always been fascistic…The Angels, like all other motorcycle outlaws, are rigidly anti-Communist. Their political views are limited to the same kind of retrograde patriotism that motivates the John Birch Society, the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party. They are blind to the irony of their role…
Hence why it was a historically bad idea for the Rolling Stones’ manager Sam Cutler to hire the Hells Angels to be security for a hippie rock concert, and then to pay them in $500 worth of beer, which they proceeded to drink on the spot. Mutual antagonism between the crowd and the Angels lead to escalating violence – with the Angels chucking full beer cans and wielding pool cues and motorcycle chains, initially to keep the crowd away from the stage, but increasingly in a series of tit-for-tat fights. The violence escalated – Denise Jewks of the Ace of Cusp had her skull fractured by a thrown beer bottle, Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane got knocked unconscious by an Angel, Mick Jagger was punched in the head, and Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death by Hells Angel Alan Passaro. (As all of this was filmed by a documentary crew at the time, you can watch the whole event here.)
Altamont was almost instantly turned into a symbol of the excesses of the counter-culture, the dark shadow of Woodstock, and a sign of the end of the hippie movement. As Richard Brody argued much later, “What emerges accursed is the very idea of nature, of the idea that, left to their own inclinations and stripped of the trappings of the wider social order, the young people of the new generation will somehow spontaneously create a higher, gentler, more loving grassroots order. What died at Altamont is the Rousseauian dream itself.”
But in the Marvel Universe that didn’t happen, because Captain America was on the scene to stop the Satan’s Angels and save the day:
If you step back and look at it, not only is this a fight of motorcycle vs. motorcycle, but also a fight between two veterans over how to deal with the counter-culture and the related anti-war movement. And not only does Captain America oppose the Satan’s Angels physically, but as is appropriate for a character who would absolutely play a Warlord in D&D 3.5 Edition, Cap’s example inspires the gentle hippies to enter the fray in defense of their new defender:
The implicit argument is rather interesting, suggesting that the hippie movement’s non-violence is simply because they disagree with the cause that violence is being urged for. It’s an interesting little bit of culture-jamming, positioning Captain America as the Hippy Defender and suggesting that the kids are alright, because with the right symbol and the right cause to fight for, they’ll engage in all-American fisticuffs. However, the hippies can’t take down the sheer power of a motorcycle gang on their own, so there will always be a need for Captain America’s mighty shield:
On its own, Captain America #128 is a rather disposable one-shot. But what interests me is the broader cultural impact of Cap’s intervention in the Marvel Universe. For example, if Altamont is seen as a success in Earth-616 due to Captain America, does Don MacLean still write “American Pie” as a despairing elegy to the lost innocence of rock and roll? Is Peter Fonda’s character in Easy Rider named Captain America not as a satirical jab at 60s Americana but rather because Captain America is seen as a protector of the hippie movement and an endorsement of the counter-culture from the living embodiment of American idealism?
Speaking as someone who loves the fact that Marvel’s shared universe was set in the real New York, one of the things that I’ve felt hasn’t been done enough in the Marvel Universe is an exploration of how the presence of superheroes since WWII had influenced American culture, especially not in comparison to Alan Moore’s Watchmen or Publick and Hammer’s Venture Brothers. We know that Janet Van Dyne is a renowned fashion designer, but we rarely see ordinary people in street scenes wearing Van Dyne-inspired ensembles. We know that the beatniks down at Coffee A Go-Go became enthralled with Beast’s enormous feet, so show me Alan Ginsberg’s ode to Hank’s hoofs.
In other words, if Captain America is a symbol, show us what that symbol came to mean for the generations who grew up with him after his rebirth from the ice in the Mid-60s…
This particular issue is a long time coming – and fair warning, it’s going to be part one in a multi-part series; this topic is way too big to be covered in one go – because the “mutant metaphor” is absolutely core to the intersection between politics and Marvel Comics, and thus to the brief of this series.
A lot of people have discussed the manifold ways in which the “mutant metaphor” is problematic, but what I’m going to argue in this issue is that a big part of the problem with the “mutant metaphor” is that it wasn’t clearly defined from the outset, in part because it wasn’t anywhere close to the dominant thread of X-Men comics. While always an element of the original run, as much time was spent on fighting giant Kirby robots or stopping the likes of Count Nefaria from encasing Washington D.C in a giant crystal bubble. And this was always problematic, because in the shared Marvel Universe, you need to explain why it is that the X-Men are “feared and hated” and must hide beneath the façade of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters in Westchester, whereas the Avengers and the Fantastic Four were treated as celebrities and could live openly on Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue, respectively.
So what did the “mutant” metaphor mean initially?
One of the best ways to understand how the “mutant metaphor” was originally understood is to look at depictions of anti-mutant prejudice. In the early Stan Lee and Jack Kirby run, anti-mutant prejudice is described almost entirely as a mass phenomenon, a collective hysteria that takes hold of large groups of people. You can see this especially in the way that crowds of humans descend into violence in contexts that you wouldn’t normally expect them. Like sports events:
I haven’t been to many track and field events, but the normal reaction to record-breaking accomplishments is usually excitement rather than blinding rage. Likewise, what college football fan’s first reaction to a star running back’s Conference Championship-winning drive would be to assume that they must be super-powered, rather than be overjoyed. The text here suggests that part of the underlying psychology of anti-mutant prejudice is a kind of tall-poppy syndrome, where mutant abilities threaten the collective ego of humanity in ways that other superhumans do not. The Fantastic Four and Avengers et al. are largely the provenance of accident or super-science, which means that your average man on the street can either chalk them up to the whims of chance or aspire to join their ranks. But mutant abilities suggest that some people are born better than others. And this theme of popular resentment of those with superior abilities was a common theme of 1950s and 1960s science fiction that Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” was satirizing, and certainly found its way into Marvel Comics via Steve Ditko’s objectivist approach to Spider-Man.
However, anti-mutant prejudice goes further than mere envy of this kind, to the point where it manifests instantly in situations where mutant powers have literally just been used to save human lives:
Especially in a world in which superheroes are a common occurrence, especially in New York City, it’s highly unusual that saving a child who’s trapped on top of a water tower or preventing an air conditioner from falling down onto a crowded sidewalk (albeit accidentally due to Scott’s mutant powers) should elicit such instant violence. Why is it that New Yorkers would react this way to Beast and Cyclops when they don’t toward Daredevil or the Human Torch?
By examining the text of these pages, I think we can get a better understanding of how the “mutant metaphor” originally functioned. On the left, the woman in the crowd says that mutants are in hiding among the human majority, “waiting to take over the world.” (A theme I’ll discuss in more detail in a future issue on the relationship between the “mutant metaphor” and especially the ideology of “evil mutants,” and the nuclear age) A man brandishing a fist puts forward the bizarrely illogical argument that Beast saves children as part of a nefarious plot to convince the human race that mutants are benevolent. Likewise, on the right, a crowd of people who were previously seconds from being squashed to death suddenly decide that their savior is “far more dangerous than a falling crate” and immediately try to murder him.
This particular line of dialogue speaks to a more specific form of mass hysteria and moral panic, a frequent theme of 1950s and 1960s science fiction (Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, Day of the Triffids, Day the Earth Stood Still) reacting to the Red Scare of the 1950s, where commies were supposedly lurking around every corner ready to sap the vital fluids of god-fearing Americans. And indeed, mutants share a key aspect with the feared commies – in the minds of ordinary humans, they are the hidden enemy who disguise their identity behind a façade of normalcy, and are plotting to overthrow . Indeed, this is one of the ways in which the link between the “mutant metaphor” and the Civil Rights Movement doesn’t quite work – outside of the phenomenon of passing, the visibility of blackness was one of the chief mechanisms of maintaining the color line.
On the other hand, this same hidden, underground quality gives rise to other meanings of the “mutant metaphor.” As many other writers have talked about before me, long before the idea of the X-Gene entered into the Marvel lexicon, mutancy’s grounding in inherited physiology gave it a link to adolescent sexuality. Ditko and Lee’s Spider-Man had already began Marvel’s link between super-powers and puberty, but whereas Peter Parker’s mutation had an exterior cause and had no visible signifiers (prior to the time Parker accidentally gave himself four extra arms), homo-superiority came from within and had to be hidden away. Thus the birth of the mutant closet:
Both the Comics Code and the generational politics of the original creators meant that any link between Warren and Hank’s realization that their mutant bodies have to be hidden from human society and the experience of LGBT teenagers coming to grips with their sexuality in the 1960s and feeling forced into the closet by heteronormative society had to remain sub-textual, one can see the foundations that Chris Claremont would build on in the 1980s (more on this in future issues) and that Bryan Singer would gravitate to in the early 2000s. In this sense, the protean character of the “mutant metaphor” works to its advantage, allowing the X-Comics to contain multitudes.
At the same time, I don’t want to leave you with the idea that the “mutant metaphor” had nothing to do with race or the Civil Rights Movement (my opinion about Magneto to the side). Given that the first X-Men comic was published in 1963, it would have taken some deliberately unobservant and disconnected creators to prevent there from being any allusion. Rather, I would argue that the connections were gradual, building (over the course of five years) on initial resonances through a series of back-matter stories from issue #38-49 focused on exploring the origins of the X-Men. And one common thread in all of these stories is the omnipresence of anti-mutant prejudice – Scott Summers running from a mob hurling the newly coined epithet of “mutie,” Beast’s parents worried about their son being perceived as a freak, and Bobby Drake facing a form of mob justice when he defends himself and his date from bullies:
Whereas the travails of Scott Summers or Hank McCoy often featured lone individuals against anonymous mobs, Bobby Drake’s story shows an evolution of the theme. Iceman’s origin story roots itself in the story of a rural community that embraces a familiar form of vigilantism:
A mob of rural whites whose first response to an incident between a young minority man, a young woman from the majority who he’s dating, and a group of toughs is a “lynching,” a sheriff trying to stand up for the rule of law being dismissed as a “mutant-lover” – literary post-modernism be damned, there really isn’t any other way to read this scene than as an explicit reference to racism in 1960s America. And if there’s going to be a “mutant metaphor,” far better that it be a metaphor with some real teeth than a vague hand-waving in the direction of prejudice.
Trying to make the “mutant metaphor” into a vehicle that could explore race is obviously a task that is beyond what could be done in the back-matter of a comic book on the decline. And so much of the work of developing the “mutant metaphor” would fall to Chris Claremont, which is a subject for a future issue. But at least the original run gave us a teenage Bobby Drake as James Dean:
And given the importance of Rebel Without a Cause to the gay canon, both for the themes of the movie and James Dean’s own bisexuality, it’s kind of amazing that people ever thought Iceman was heterosexual…
 After constructing a Zotero database of the original 93 issues (keeping in mind that issues #67-93 were reprints and not original stories), it’s noticeable that depictions of anti-mutant prejudice only appear in 21 issues, and discussions of mutant identity only appears in 25 issues.
 While there are some who argue that the different reactions to mutants and other superheroes mean that the X-Men don’t really fit in the Marvel Universe, I’ve never been of that opinion. We can see many examples in the real world of celebrities who are considered to be exceptions to public attitudes toward their ethnic or religious group or their sexual or gender identity. Rather, I think there’s room for stories that confront that differential treatment – that raise the question of why the Fantastic Four haven’t been more vocal about mutant rights given that Franklin is a mutant, and so forth.
Last time, I talked about the “protean” nature of the “mutant metaphor,” its roots in science-fiction of the time, and how at least initially there was relatively little mention of mutant identity and anti-mutant prejudice.
Speaking of which, one of the curious things about the original run of X-Men, especially from the “mutant metaphor” angle, is that their mission to “protect a world that hates and fears them” means that the X-Men spent a lot more time fighting “evil mutants” (more on this next week) than defending mutants against those who “hate and fear them.” However, the major exception to this rule in the Lee/Kirby era, the one place where the X-Men confronted anti-mutant prejudice head-on, was the Sentinels:
Even when it was discussed, the “mutant metaphor” tended to be mostly back-material in the original run of X-Men. Issue #14 was an exception, where the metaphor took center stage: the issue opens with a startling revelation, as the existence of mutants shifts from urban legend and occasional siting to public knowledge as Bolivar Trask outs all of homo superior:
There’s a lot to unpack here: first, I find it curious that an anthropologist (as opposed to a geneticist or a demographer or what have you) is making this announcement, and curiouser still that an anthropologist somehow developed the advanced expertise in mechanical engineering and robotics necessary to build the Sentinels. (A clear case of the Omnidisciplinary Scientist there…) Second, as I discussed last week, the allusions here to the Cold War are much stronger than to the Civil Rights Movement – Trask namechecks “cold wars, hot wars, atom bombs and the like” (more on this next week), rather than “states’ rights, outside agitators, forced integration, etc.” Even more so than last week, the emphasis is on the mutant as Fifth Columnist – there is a resonance here between Trask’s seemingly unsupported claims that “mutants walk among us” and Joe McCarthy’s dramatic but numerally vague claims about Communist infiltration of the U.S government. The headlines that blare “Mutant Menace” could equally read “Red Menace,” suggesting a critique of a mass media more interested in shock and sensation than careful investigative reporting. Third, Trask introduces a new theme when it comes to the “mutant metaphor” – the idea of an inevitable unavoidable conflict between mutants and humans – which will continue throughout the original appearances of the Sentinels and will be continued in the Claremont run. The now famous invocation of Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens, in all its archaeological anthropological inaccuracy, has yet to appear, but you can see some of the origins of the idea here.
No matter how you analyze it,Trask’s press conference accomplishes something pretty unusual in Marvel Comics history – it gets Professor Xavier to actually engage in mutant rights politics. As I’ll discuss more next week, one of the problems with the version of the “mutant metaphor” that sees Professor X. as a Martin Luther King Jr. is that Professor X doesn’t spend that much time doing social movement work – preferring instead to train teenage mutants to act as a paramilitary force that engages in an oddly liberal version of the anarchist practice of propaganda of the deed. But here, Bolivar Trask’s call to smash the “mutant menace” drives him to action:
To begin with, given the many well-founded critiques of Silver Age Xavier’s character, it is interesting that Trask’s press conference strikes an instant nerve – clearly Charles has been waiting for the day that mutants are out for some time, and for all that he may disagree with Magneto about the possibility of human-mutant coexistence, it’s interesting that he expects this revelation to lead to a “witch hunt for mutants” and the “wheels of persecution” beginning to grind, without his intervention. And speaking of the sci-fi roots of the “mutant metaphor,” the page to our left really makes this clear with the “artist’s interpretation” of Trask’s remarks. Big-headed widows-peaked aliens wielding the whip over human slaves, being carried through futuristic cities in palanquins, and re-enacting the gladiatorial combat of the Roman Coliseum – this dystopia owes far more to Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and John Carter of Mars than it does the racist paranoid imaginary of the 1950s and 1960s.
However, it is the theory of politics here that I am primarily interested in, because Xavier here is depicted as practicing politics in an extremely establishment fashion. Rather than engaging in public protest, direct action, or a media campaign, Xavier’s understanding of politics begins and ends with a “public televised debate” between two academics. And indeed, in both appearance and his debating style, Professor X resembles nothing so much as the arid intellectualism of Adlai Stephenson-era liberalism. Acting (somehow) as the “spokesman for America’s intellectual community,” Xavier’s argument is pitched less on terms of human rights or moral calls or the Constitution than a general statement about the dangers of “ignorance” and “unreasoning fear.” (There might be a link here to Gunnar Myrdal’s famous description of American racism as a mental pathology, but it’s a stretch.)
On the other hand, it’s hard to make a judgement about depiction vs. endorsement – Lee and Kirby show American families at home and the American public on the street outside the storefront window reacting unfavorably – questioning whether Xavier is a mutant, dismissing the “egg-headed old stuffed-shirt,” angrily resentful that one of their children might be a mutant or that they might be ignorant. (It is interesting, however, that they can’t make up their minds as to whether he’s a “communist” or a “right-winger”- possibly a sign that Lee and Kirby were trying to straddle political divides there.)
By contrast, Trask is all emotion and ad-hominem attack, especially in his McCarthyesque (if true) insinuation that “perhaps the professor has an ulterior motive for his defense of mutants.” On a far more important point, Trask has no intent of having the issue be decided by the political system – well before the debate, Trask has clearly decided that “whether I win or lose this debate does not matter,” because he’s going to use his robots to squish his opponent. Thus, the Sentinels:
In classic sci-fi fashion, Trask’s robotic creations turn on their creator the first time they are used, because you don’t mess with the Frankenstein formula. And so, the threat of mutant superiority is trumped by the rise of the machine: as with other stories of the robot uprising, the Sentinels’ rebellion is founded in the fact that their superior robotic intelligence makes them more suited to be the master than the slave; at the same time, in deference to their programming, the Sentinels justify their future overlordship over humanity by arguing that in order to protect humanity they must rule humanity. And in one last nod to the original, Trask remains useful to his creations only because they need his mastery of reproduction to propagate their species.
What elevates the Sentinels beyond mere sci-fi pastiche, however, is their visual aesthetic. Without a doubt the most recognizably Kirbyesque element of the X-Men Universe, there is something about the design that makes it instantly iconic in a genre not lacking for giant robots. The red-and-purple (later changed to pink-and-purple) onesie and boots and gloves aren’t particularly memorable on their own – the secret is in the stocky, short-limbed proportions that make them look like action figures come to (malevolent) life, their increasing scale (first generation Sentinels stand at 10 feet tall, making humans seem like children; later generations will start at 20 feet tall and only get bigger from there) and of course Kirby’s enduring obsession with the Olmec head that arguably reached its peak with Master Mold:
There is something genuinely uncanny about the frozen, disapproving visage of Master Mold, which towers above the Mark I Sentinels even as they tower above Bolivar Trask, assuming both the pose and position of some dark Olympian god, even as it demands the secrets of life while threatening death.
Another unusual element of the Sentinels is that they are a threat the X-Men themselves could not directly defeat – while the X-Men successfully penetrate the secret base of the Sentinels and manage to escape once captured, they never manage to come to blows with the Master Mold himself. And part of the reason why is that, following the conventions of science-fiction, Trask has to sacrifice himself to destroy Master Mold and prevent the Sentinels from propagating.
However, the Sentinels can never be destroyed forever – sooner or later, they will return to threaten mutantkind. In issue #57, less than 10 issues away from the series’ decline into reprints, the Sentinels return, and so do the themes and allusions of the original:
Here, the parallels to McCarthyism which had previously been more of a matter of tone than content all of the sudden become text, with Judge Chalmers’ Federal Council on Mutant Activities being an obvious play on the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Which I suppose makes Larry Trask, the younger, flashier, and more emotional assistant to Judge Chalmers, the Roy Cohn stand-in. The manila folders of evidence that Trask slams down on the table similarly resemble the leaked FBI reports that were key to the careers of both Senator McCarthy and HUAC.
On the other hand, Trask brings a starkly personal edge to his political argument that doesn’t particularly fit the metaphor – rather the allusion is more to the feud and the vendetta and their eternal cycles of retribution. Similarly, Larry Trask’s description of the mutant threat bears little resemblance to the idea of the mutant as the unknown Other – the mutant threat he sees is out in the open and more active than hypothethical, and so he gives it a new term:
The term “mutant war,” reminiscent of predictions of “race war” in the racist paranoid imagination, suggests a very different direction for the mutant metaphor, one that will be built on later to imagine mutant future dystopias that will almost always revolve around the presence of the Sentinels – more on this in a future People’s History of the Marvel Universe issue where I’ll discuss “Days of Future Past” and how Chris Claremont invented the Terminator franchise.
Also in this second outing, we see a renewed focus on the way that media shapes political debate – or if I’m being cynical, the way that the media allows comic books to present politics through a simplified image rather than trying to depict the complicated process of political organization. Hence the use of talking heads:
For those of you born after 1970 (which includes me), these two individuals are Chett Huntley and David Brinkley, who chaired the Huntley-Brinkley Report as NBC’s answer to Walter Cronkite between 1956 and 1970. This rare example of real-life figures making an appearance in X-Men comics is intended to give verisimilitude to the political news, which shows the meaning of the Sentinels shifting.
As already suggested by the Federal part of Chalmers’ Council on Mutant Activities, where the Mark I Sentinels were the rogue creations of an individual mad scientist, the Mark II Sentinels are hunting down mutants on behalf of the U.S government. This represents an entirely new paradigm for the X-universe, and foreshadows the X-Men’s outlaw status in Claremont’s run. Whereas in 1963 Professor Xavier could work comfortably with the FBI (more on this in a future issue), by 1969 the reading public was perhaps more willing to consider that the government might employ genocidal robots to hunt down American citizens for “the indescribable sin of being…a mutant,” in what Huntley and Brinkley describe as a “familiar” reaction to the “mutant problem.” Given the more overt comparison to the Holocaust, I’m not surprised to learn that then-Marvel-intern Chris Claremont offered story advice on these issues.
At the same time, we also see a rare departure for the X-Comics when Huntley and Brinkley explain that “Americans begin to question the wisdom – even the constitutionality – of this modern witch hunt.” We’ve seen anti-mutant prejudice described before, but we haven’t yet seen it be described as an explicitly political controversy, with the issue being raised of whether the U.S Constitution (presumably the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection and due process) protects mutant citizens against the state. Given that we almost never see mutants being discussed in political terms in the Lee/Kirby era, let alone in such similar terms to the Civil Rights Movement, this feels much more like the Claremont era’s discussion of the Mutant Registration Act (another topic for a future issue) than anything else from the original run.
Unfortunately for my purposes, as soon as we get this soupçon of politics, the whole thing veers back into sci-fi, albeit more reminiscent of high-concept shows like the Twilight Zone or Roddenberry’s Star Trek. Once again, the moment that the Sentinels are used, they rebel against their masters. It really makes you wonder why people keep building them. (Incidentally, this is one aspect of these characters that I wish had been used more in later years, especially in Morrison’s run, the aftermath of M-Day, and so forth). Here, the ironic twist is that mutant-hating Larry Trask is himself a mutant:
As morals go, it’s a bit on the nose – a little bit closer to The Scary Door than Twilight Zone. On the other hand, it’s not like the idea that a rabid ideologue secretly is what they most despise, their passion reflecting both intense denial and projection, is at odds with realism.
And it has one other advantage – with Larry Trask sidelined, there’s no Trask available to sacrifice their life to stop the Sentinels, which means we get the best moment in the whole of the original X-Men run, where Scott Summers executes a perfect Logic Bomb that convinces the Sentinels to make war on “the very heart of the raging sun itself!”
As blunt as a metaphor for weighty themes like genocide, bigotry, and oppression they might be, the Sentinels were pretty much all the original X-Men had in the way of anti-mutant antagonists. And if you’re going to be fiddling with “mutant metaphors,” you’re going to need them around, otherwise people might start to ask uncomfortable questions about why the X-Men spend all of their time hunting down “evil mutants” on behalf of J. Edgar Hoover, rather than fighting their own oppression.
But that’s a topic for…next issue of A People’s History of the Marvel Universe!