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How the Cold War saved Marvel and birthed a generation of superheroes

Comic book superheroes are inherently political creatures. The genre is devoted to the adventures of powerful individuals compelled by circumstances and inclination to use their abilities to impose personal morality on the world through violence. The political possibilities are hard to miss.

At the genre’s beginnings, little attempt was made to hide this. The first Superman story does not show the Man Of Steel foiling mad scientists or alien warlords, but (in order): saving a falsely accused woman from the electric chair, saving another woman from an abusive husband, saving Lois Lane from kidnappers, and then foiling the plans of a crooked lobbyist. He was a “social justice warrior” avant la lettre, and an organic response to years of societal upheaval during the Great Depression. Wonder Woman came from an island nation of women warriors to spread the message of peace to Man’s World on the eve of America’s entry into World War II—dressed, of course, in a bathing suit modeled on the American flag. Perhaps most famously, Captain America introduced himself to the world by socking Adolph Hitler in the jaw on the cover of his very first comic book, published a year before Pearl Harbor.

Even though these early stories have never really gone anywhere, its easy for the political charge that animates so many superheroes in their earliest adventures to fade. Curious readers can easily find a copy of Superman’s first adventure in dozens of reprints, but the character’s early activism seems like a quaint relic compared to the vast majority of subsequent Superman stories, which are far more likely to feature the aforementioned mad scientists and alien warlords.

Just as with Superman and Wonder Woman, the origins and earliest adventures of the most famous Marvel superheroes are often just as deeply enmeshed in the politics of their era. But rather than responding to the conditions of the Great Depression or World War II, the characters that rose to prominence in the “Marvel Age of comics” were situated in relation to the overriding political conflict of their own era, the Cold War. Much of this history is deemphasized in modern retellings, particularly in cinematic contexts where references to long-defunct conflicts would likely inspire bafflement. But regardless of whether or not it is currently relevant, the Cold War remains a kind of phantom limb in the early history of the Marvel universe: although it might seem like the characters get along fine without it, there’s still something missing.


“Unless we want the commies to beat us!”

Marvel’s story has been told and retold enough times that, despite the many controversies, the general outline is burned into the memory of even the most casual comics reader. Marvel Comics was a failing firm at the dawn of the 1960s, crippled by years of setbacks. Although publisher Martin Goodman’s magazine line remained profitable, the comics division—overseen by Goodman’s nephew Stan Lee—languished, buoyed in the late 1950s by a handful of mildly successful monster, romance, and Western titles.

Supposedly inspired by DC’s success with a reinvigorated superhero line, Goodman asked Lee to launch a new superteam inspired by the best-selling Justice League Of America. Although the precise details of the genesis remain in dispute, the immediate result of Goodman’s request was The Fantastic Four #1, cover-dated November 1961. Scripted by Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby, the book was a strange generic hybrid that bore only a glancing resemblance to DC’s streamlined space-age superhero books. The heroes inside were argumentative, self-pitying, and occasionally mean. Their powers were grotesque and even painful. The Fantastic Four fought among themselves, expressed regret and recrimination, and even (for the first two issues, at least) declined to wear costumes. No one buying comics in 1961 had seen anything quite like it, and it was an overnight success.

One of the immediate selling points for Marvel’s new books were their supposed connections to the “real world,” as opposed to the slight remove of their “distinguished competition.” Certainly the presence of interpersonal conflict, as well as the occasional nod to the “man on the street” perspective, gave the stories—even in their earliest and most primitive form—an evolutionary advantage over DC’s clean-cut and relatively tame fare. But there were other aspects of the “real world” that Lee chose to emphasize in his stories as well.

By the early 1960s the Cold War was an omnipresent fact of life for just about every living person. Not even DC, as generally depoliticized as its books were, was immune. Its newfound success with superheroes is commonly regarded as a reaction to the political and social climate of the early Cold War, in much the same way as the first generation of superheroes arose as a response to the challenges of two decades earlier. Accordingly, the new breed of retooled heroes were scientists and military men. Barry Allen was a police scientist transformed by a lab accident into the new Flash. The new Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, was a test pilot. These new heroes wore streamlined costumes, quite unlike the fussy and theatrical outfits of their 1940s predecessors, influenced by the flight suits of hero pilots such as Chuck Yeager.

The new Green Lantern premiered in late summer of 1959, in issue #22 of DC’s Showcase anthology. Hal Jordan was an ace test pilot summoned by dying alien Abin Sur to receive a magic ring to use as protector of space sector 2814. The Sputnik launch of 1957 had focused attention on an (entirely fictional) “missile gap” that supposedly existed between the United States and the Soviet Union. Politicians warned of dire consequences if the United States did not take serious steps to bolster science and technology education. Right before being carried away by Abin Sur’s green light, Hal Jordan is seen tinkering in a stationary flight trainer, musing that “This flightless trainer will help turn out space pilots of the future!”

His day job as a pilot for defense contractor Ferris Aircraft Company allowed Jordan access to some of the most cutting edge military technology of the day, and many of his earliest adventures were devoted to stopping saboteurs. But the kind of industrial espionage that Jordan encountered came not from Soviet agents, but from competing firms and megalomaniacal scientists determined to steal Ferris Air’s technological advances. Although the initial premise was permeated with Cold War national paranoia, the “Red Menace” was not explicitly named.

Contrast this with the first issue of The Fantastic Four. Reed Richards and his three cohorts are granted strange abilities by a belt of Cosmic Rays encountered during the test flight of an experimental space rocket. The reason why they were flying a dangerous experimental rocket into space in the first place was because they had to beat the Soviet Union—as the normally level-headed Sue Storm says to Ben Grimm after he expresses his unwillingness to risk the launch, “We’ve got to take that chance... unless we want the commies to beat us!”

For readers picking Fantastic Four #1 off the rack in the late summer of ’61, these words spoke to more than an abstract concern. The Soviets had succeeded in putting the first man into orbit in April of that year. Reed and his crew were determined to be the first Americans in space, in a piloted rocket ship far more sophisticated than Yuri Gagarin’s remote controlled Vostok 1. Even though the Space Race was everywhere in pop culture at that moment in time, the early Green Lantern stories still trafficked in euphemism, whereas Stan Lee gave direct voice to the concerns of millions of Americans who lived in active fear of Soviet technological superiority.


“The most feared man in all of Asia!”

After sales figures for Fantastic Four came back, Marvel moved quickly to capitalize on the success. The second new character launched was the Incredible Hulk, who first appeared in his own self-titled magazine in spring of 1962. The outline of the Hulk’s origin is simple: American atomic scientist Bruce Banner is accidentally exposed to the blast of his own creation, the “gamma bomb,” while saving a teenager who stumbled onto the test site on a bet. The gamma radiation saturates Banner’s body, transforming him into the rampaging Hulk, Dr. Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s monster in one, a Jekyll and Hyde for the nuclear era.

This guy really looks like a giant... pain in the ass.

Less well remembered is the reason why the gamma bomb test was not halted the moment Banner left the control room: the test was sabotaged by Banner’s assistant, who just happened to be a Soviet secret agent named Igor. (The name should have been a dead giveaway, in hindsight.) Igor was taking orders from behind the Iron Curtain, where the dread spymaster known only as The Gargoyle conspired to steal American nuclear secrets.

A few months after the Hulk, Marvel premiered both Spider-Man and Thor. While both hero’s origins were blessedly free of Soviet interference, it’s worth noting that Spider-Man gained his powers while observing a public demonstration of atomic science. Spider-Man made his first appearance in the last issue of a canceled anthology named Amazing Fantasy, and would not receive his own book until the end of the year. His first proper supervillain was a Soviet spy named The Chameleon, and his first adventure involved saving the life of an American astronaut whose capsule was almost destroyed due to a malfunctioning guidance package.

Lee’s skill as a marketer was predicated on a shameless willingness to follow every popular trend to the most absurd conclusions. The early Marvel superheroes were, to a man, hardened Cold Warriors. Nuclear science, the space race, and Soviet spies were everywhere. In October of 1962, as the world veered unimaginably close to nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, issue #87 of Journey Into Mystery advertised the Mighty Thor as “Prisoner of the Reds!” Just a few months later the Fantastic Four finally finished their previously interrupted voyage into space when they reached the moon—and there encountered the Red Ghost and his Super Apes. The Red Ghost was, you guessed it, yet another Soviet spy.

That’s not how any of this works.

The fiercest anti-communist in the Marvel stable, however, was Iron Man. Originally premiering in issue #39 of Tales Of Suspense in December of 1962, Tony Stark was then, as now, a billionaire industrialist who had made his fortune in arms manufacturing. At the very beginning of his first adventure Stark is seen demonstrating a remarkable invention, a miracle transistor capable of increasing the power of magnets “a thousandfold!” (Lee understood transistors about as well as he did nuclear science.) This development, according to Stark, was sure to aid the United States—as Stark asks a stunned general, “Now do you believe the transistors I’ve invented are capable of solving your problem in Vietnam?”

Later, on a fact-finding trip to Southeast Asia, Stark is injured and captured by communist forces under the leadership of the fearsome Wong-Chu, both a “Red Guerrilla Tyrant” and repulsive racist caricature. It is only thanks to the aid of the heroic Professor Yinsen that Stark is able to construct the first rudimentary Iron Man armor, which he uses to defeat Wong-Chu and escape his captors.

Ew.

As the months went on, Lee doubled-down on Iron Man’s status as an anti-communist crusader. His rogues’ gallery became populated with the likes of the Titanium Man and the Crimson Dynamo, armored villains under the employ of the Soviet Union. The Black Widow, in her earliest appearances, was a Soviet spy who bedeviled Tony Stark. And most significantly, Iron Man’s arch-nemesis was the Mandarin. A Chinese nationalist at odds with the Communist regime, the Mandarin had tremendous personal power which he put to use in his many schemes of world conquest. He was also a bundle of every conceivable “Yellow Peril” stereotype, put through the filter of Cold War anxiety at the rise of Red China.


The superheroes who came in from the cold

Eventually Marvel eased up on the commies. Ever conscious of changing headwinds, Lee and his collaborators deemphasized the “Red Menace” as the ’60s wore on. Tellingly, after Captain America was resurrected in 1964 the villains he faced in his own solo stories were not predominantly Soviets but Nazis, unreconstructed bad guys who had, like Cap, survived the intervening decades and emerge to find a changed world.

Marvel’s politics changed from enthusiastically anti-communist to a more general engagement with the so-called counterculture. With John Birch Society-types on the cultural decline after their rout in the 1964 election, Marvel moved more in the direction of the college kids who were reading the company’s magazines in increasing numbers. As the Vietnam War became more unpopular, so too did Marvel’s superheroes stop trying to win it. Gone was much of the overt jingoism, replaced by a more genial liberal humanism that seemed to more accurately reflect the world views of Lee and Kirby. Steve Ditko, Lee’s co-creator on Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, was a committed right-winger and anti-communist, but seemed less concerned with the existential menace of the Soviet Union as a military threat than with the moral hazards represented by creeping collectivism in domestic politics. He left Marvel in 1966 after falling out with Lee over money and credit, as did Kirby in 1970.

Again, ew.

As the decades wore on it became easier, in most instances, to overlook the hysterical anti-communism of the early Marvel books. Although every Marvel story still “counts” in canon—the company has never committed to a wholesale reboot of their continuity in the manner of DC—many older stories are rarely mentioned. When old bits of continuity do pop up in the present, it’s easy enough to recontextualize them to account for the sliding timescale. A reference to President Nixon in 1969 is easily rewritten as a reference to President Bush for a story that happened “10 years ago.” References to the space race in the first Fantastic Four story can be gingerly massaged into something more current. It’s only a matter of time before the Reed Richards in Fantastic Four #1 becomes a scientist in pursuit of the X-Prize.

Of all the Marvel heroes, Iron Man has had the hardest time adapting. In order for him to be in his mid-30s today, Tony Stark must have been waylaid in Central, not Southeast, Asia, during the Afghan conflict and not the build-up to the Vietnam War. That’s the angle adopted by 2008’s Iron Man film. Presumably, if Iron Man is rebooted again in 20 years, Stark will need to have been involved in whatever America’s next conflict will be.

Tony Stark kidnapped by the “Ten Rings” (a.k.a. the Taliban), not the Viet Cong

But despite Iron Man’s success, his status as an avatar of American technological prowess remains problematic. The character as created was just short of jingoistic propaganda, representing American exceptionalism as defined by technological and economic superiority, and it’s hard not to see those attitudes still reflected in Robert Downey Jr.’s version. Additionally, without a Cold War to frame him, he loses a large chunk of his rogues’ gallery: No Soviet Union means no Crimson Dynamo or Titanium Man, and a general resistance to offensive racial caricature makes the Mandarin an extremely problematic character in the 21st century. The character hasn’t gone anywhere in the comics, where successive creators have devoted much time and effort to fixing him by pulling him out of his Cold War context and eliminating the noxious racist overtones that defined his earlier appearances. But there’s a reason why Iron Man’s movie enemies have been so underwhelming: his true arch-enemy, the Lex Luthor to his Superman, is a Cold War-era racial stereotype, and the effort required to rehabilitate him for contemporary film audiences as anything more than a joke (as in Iron Man 3) could be prohibitive.

Iron Man faces the end of an era in 1992

The Cold War faded to the background of Marvel books throughout the ’70s, just as it did for many in the real world. It never really went away, but it was easier to pretend it wasn’t quite as important in the era of détente and superpower engagement. Things got a bit more heated in the ’80s, before finally fizzling out at the dawn of the 1990s. Characters such as Captain America and Iron Man dealt with the fallout of the end of the Cold War in their books, before eventually moving on to other battles. These stories, too, remain frozen in amber, artifacts of specific moments in real-world history which will fade from each characters’ personal history as more and more years pass.

According to Marvel’s current reckoning, Captain America was fished out of the North Atlantic by the Avengers around 12 years ago, during the Bush administration, long after the fall of the Soviet Union. Currently, Tony Stark’s dad fought communists. Eventually, it will have to have been his granddad.