Category Archives: People’s History of the Marvel Universe

A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 6: This Man, Magneto!

Face front, true believers!

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 around the 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!

A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 5: Captain America vs. the 60s

Face front, true believers!

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…

A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 4: The X-Men Fight Stagflation

Face front, true believers!

As is no surprise to anyone who read Week 2’s issue, Claremont X-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.[1] 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[2]:

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:

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 3: Making Cap Marvel

Face front, true believers!

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.)

However, with Kirby there as the keeper of the sacred flame to ensure that the original spirit of Captain America wasn’t lost, Steve Rogers’ status as a man out of time was never an excuse to position him as a conservative or reactionary figure. Rather, Captain America’s position was that he would embrace these changes and fight for the same progressive change that he had back in the New Deal:

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:

A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 2: John Byrne’s Hatred for Pierre Trudeau

Face front, true believers!

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 been used 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.

A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 1

Face front, true believers!

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 discussed before. 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.

Recent Entries »