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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Cold War

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Stan Lee suggested a central “gimmick” in his original 1961 synopsis for the Fantastic Four:

“let’s make The Thing the heavy—in other words, he’s not really a good guy … Let’s treat him so the reader is always afraid he will sabotage the Fantastic Four’s efforts at whatever they are doing—he isn’t interested in helping mankind the way the other three are … the other three are always afraid of The Thing getting out of their control some day and harming mankind with his amazing strength … The Thing doesn’t have the ethics that the other three have, and consequently he will probably be the most interesting one to the reader, because he’ll always be unpredictable.”

Although Ben Grimm is an “ex-war hero,” Lee describes him as “surly,” “unpleasant,” and “brutish,” even before radiation transforms him “in the most grotesque way of all,” making him “more fantastically powerful than any other living thing.” Early issues emphasize the same qualities. While Kirby and other artists had previously drawn superheroes as uniformly handsome, the Thing is “a walking nightmare” with a misshapen body and a face as unattractive as Moleman’s. In the second issue, Sue whispers to Reed: “Sooner or later the Thing will run amok and none of us will be able to stop him!” and Ben, “a juggernaut of destruction,” confesses: “sometimes I think I’d be better off—the world would be better off—if I were destroyed!” Many readers felt the same about nuclear weapons.

Even aside from the Thing, Kirby and Lee portrayed the Fantastic Four as superheroes who produce rather than assuage anxiety. Kirby opens the first issue with an image of frightened pedestrians pointing at the flare Reed has fired to gather the team; police officers remark that “the crowds are getting’ panicky!” and that “[r]umors are flyin’ about an alien invasion!” During their origin sequence, Johnny calls both Ben and Reed “monsters,” before uncontrollably transforming into a Cold War version of the pre-Code Human Torch and accidentally starting a forest fire. “Together,” declares Reed, “we have more power than any humans have ever possessed,” a familiar superhero refrain now given new nuclear-era meaning.

The second issue opens with a three-page sequence of the Fantastic Four committing acts of sabotage, causing news agencies to declare them “public enemies” and “the most dangerous menace we have ever faced!”—an opinion repeated in #7 when a “hostility ray” turns the world against them as “four monsters,” “the worst menaces ever to threaten this land!” The acts of sabotage were actually performed by shape-shifting Skrulls, and though the Fantastic Four are not powerful enough to defeat “the mighty invasion fleet menacing Earth,” they end the “stalemate” by showing the Skrulls other Jack Kirby drawings from Strange Tales and Journey into Mystery and so convincing them that humans have armies of “monstrous” warriors ready to protect them. The first cover features one such monster, only now the Fantastic Four serve as monster-fighting monsters trying to protect the city from it—a defining introduction for the MAD-era superhero type.

The Fantastic Four’s early antagonists evoked similar atomic fears with striking repetition. Moleman targets “every atomic plant” (#1), the Skrulls attack a “new rocket” test site (#2), Miracle Man steals an “atomic tank” (#3), and the 1940s Sub-Mariner vows revenge on the human race when he finds his underwater city destroyed: “The humans did it, unthinkingly, with their accursed atomic tests!” (#4). Dr. Doom, after bringing “forth powers he could not control” (#5), stokes the Sub-Mariner’s hatred, describing “that monster of a bomb” that destroyed his civilization (#6). The Thing mistakes an alien spaceship for “a new missile test,” while on Planet X, “Driven by fear and panic, our people are turning against each other! Soon nothing will be able to stop the riots nothing except the doom which is hurtling toward us!” (#7). Finally, the Puppet Masters controls his victims by carving their likenesses in “radioactive clay” (#8).

Lee’s “gimmick” to include a bad guy within a team of good guys altered the standard superhero plot structure by splitting the heroes’ focus between fighting external threats and containing an internal one. Alan Moore, reading The Fantastic Four #3 as a child, had “the impression that [the Thing] was on the verge of turning into a full-fledged supervillain,” not “the cuddly, likeable ‘Orange Teddy-bear’ of later years. Stan Lee recalls writing the character in a 1981 interview:

“I tried to have Ben talk like a real tough, surly, angry guy, but yet the reader had to know he had a heart of gold underneath … People always like characters who seem very powerful yet, you know they are very gentle underneath and you know they would help you if you needed it.”

Lee’s recollection is of the later characterization, not the Thing of 1961, whose surliness was not a disguise. When Ben says to Sue in the first issue, “Now let’s go find that skinny, loud-mouthed boy-friend of yours!”, Lee scripts her response at face value: “Oh, Ben—if only you could stop hating Reed.” According to Lee’s original synopsis, Ben “has a crush on Susan,” “is jealous of Mr. Fantastic and dislikes Human Torch because Torch always sides with Fantastic,” and “is interested in winning Susan away from Mr. Fantastic.”

Despite Lee’ stated intention, his and Kirby’s rendering and readers’ perceptions of Ben grew more sympathetic. Ben complains to Reed: “At least you’re human! But how would you like to be me?” and Sue herself is sympathetic: “Thing, I understand how bitter you are—and I know you have every right to be bitter!!” When Ben returns to human form for a few moments after passing through the radiation belt again, Torch consoles him too: “She’s right, pal! That was just a start!” In #3, despite renewed fighting with Torch, Ben intervenes to save Reed’s life: “Reed can’t dodge those dum-dums forever, I gotta do something!!”

By #6, Kirby and Lee are no longer portraying overt conflict between the characters, and with #8—coincidentally on sale during the Cuban missile crisis—Ben’s “crush” ends and his character is redefined by the introduction of an alternate love interest. The Puppet Master’s blind step-daughter, Alicia, disguises herself as Sue, fooling all of Sue’s male teammates. Though Ben suffers another temporary transformation to human form, Alicia’s love is permanently transforming: “This man—his face feels strong and powerful! And yet, I can sense a gentleness to him—there is something tragic—something sensitive!” The Thing transfers his affection to Alicia, who reciprocates and humanizes his previously inhuman character: “the clinker is—she likes me better as the Thing!” In the following issue, Alicia calls Ben “my white knight! You are good, and kind, and you will never desert your friends when they need you most!”, prompting Ben to hug his teammates: “us white knights don’t desert their companions in arms! I’m with ya, gang!”

Marvel began with a Cold War plot gimmick that resulted in unplanned character complexity and then ad hoc revision, producing the unified family-like Fantastic Four that would define the series and a new superhero character type that would define the Marvel universe.

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POP QUIZ: What do zombies and superheroes have in common?

A. Zack Snyder

B. Shaun of the Dead

C. Marvel Zombies

D. Mutating radiation

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If you said A, then you must be pretty excited about the new Superman movie Man of Steel coming out next June. You must also know that director Zack Snyder shot the 2004 remake Dawn of the Dead. I’ve not seen it, but I still lose sleep over his disappointing Watchmen adaptation, so it’s probably just as well. (Don’t even get me started on 300.)

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If you said B, then you’re even more excited about director Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man movie (sadly not slated till November 2015). Since you loved his zombie parody, Shaun of the Dead, you can’t wait to see what he does with the superhero genre. Also, you’re probably aware that Wright’s go-to actor Simon Pegg is the model for Wee Hughie in Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s anti-superhero diatribe The Boys. (Don’t get me started on that either.)

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C is a no brainer, so to speak. ‘Nuff said.

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But my favorite answer is D. With great radiation comes great mutation. That’s the Cold War talking. And both Stan Lee and George Romero were listening. They took their sorry little genres, bombarded them with radiation, and watched them mutate into things far far better.

“Lee and Kirby,” a New York Times reviewer recently wrote, “pulled off the comics equivalent of the literary shift from Victorian melodrama to Chekhovian realism.” If that sounds a bit overblown, Romero’s earned similar hyperboles. “Night of the Living Dead,” wrote one commentator, “is to modern horror what Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is to the modern theatre.”

So how’d they do it?

The Fantastic Four were on their way to Mars when Stan clobbered them with radiation back in 1961. The result? “You’ve turned into monsters!!” shouts Johnny as he bursts into flames, “It’s those rays! Those terrible cosmic rays!”

Romero’s zombies (he called them “ghouls”) hail from outer space too. As survivors battle the living dead, experts debate on the radio: “the space vehicle which orbited Venus and then was purposely destroyed by NASA, when scientists discovered it was carrying a mysterious, high-level radiation . . . is enough to cause these mutations?”

In other words, superheroes are from Mars, zombies are from Venus.

But the radiation is the same. And though in one case it bestows freakish superpowers and the other it animates flesh-devouring corpses, the revolutionary mutation for both the superhero and horror genres was the same:

With great radiation comes great in-fighting.

As Lee explained in a 1968 interview:  “I think we were the first outfit to break the cliché of all the superheroes being goody-goody and friendly with each other. We had our Fantastic Four argue amongst themselves. They didn’t always get along well.”

Romero’s radiation has the same effect on his cast. The 1968 Night of the Living Dead isn’t the first horror film with characters not playing goody-goody with each other, but no film had pushed it quite so horrifically far. Almost every scene features at least one pair of survivors battling not the dead but each other. And it ends with its hero shot in the head by a passing police patrol.

Which brings up another similarity. A high dose of radiation requires a main character to be named Ben. I’m not sure if the Thing’s orange skin classifies him as a racial minority, but Romero’s Ben was also African American. Or at least actor Duane Jones was. The Ben of the original script didn’t mutate skin colors until the casting call.

Actress Judith O’Dea’s Barbra also bears on unfortunate resemblance to Sue Storm. Both heroines spend their plots as incompetently distressed damsels getting chased, captured, and, in the case of Barbra, eaten. When Romero revised the role for the 1990 remake, he mutated Barbra into a fatigue-wearing Ms. Rambo.  John Byrne did Sue a similar favor in his 80s run of Fantastic Four, rechristening her Invisible Woman and remaking her into the team’s mightiest member.

Sue deserves a comic of her own. Which is also the title of the University of Florida’s Graduate Comics Organization’s 10th annual conference last weekend, “A Comic of Her Own.” My thanks for inviting me there to talk about some zombies and superheroes. It turns out Cold War radiation is still inflecting Tony Kirkman’s The Walking Dead. Despite the long way Sue and Barbra have come, the 1950s throwback Lori reboots it all.

But more on that later.

A Comic of Her Own, UF conference program cover

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Picture American culture as an enormous sleeping brain. Movies, TV shows, comic books, those are the dreams and nightmares playing in its 24/7 unconscious. Like any sleeper, it wants to stay asleep. Which means inventing stories when outside noises—slamming doors, gunfire, the Rape of Nanking—try to disturb it.

When it feels threatened, the stories the great sleeping brain of America likes to tell itself often star a gun-toting cowboy or a caped crusader. Powerful heroes who use their powers to protect a vulnerable nation. I’ve been reading Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation lately, and I’m noticing how the paths of these two breeds of very American heroes weave in and out of our country’s 20th century anxieties.

When a fascist war loomed in Europe, comic books dreamed up Superman. The ultimate fascist-fighter, the Man of Tomorrow was a bit of a fascist himself, discarding due process for a vigilante’s dictatorial self-assurance. Hollywood responded with its own vigilante. The gunfighter, marooned in B movies during the Depression, leapt to feature films the same year Germany invaded Poland. America snoozed more soundly to the sound of superheroes Ka-Powing Nazis across newsstands and the thunder of cavalry hooves riding to matinee rescues.

The gunslingers usually hung out on America’s mythical frontier, that quasi-historical realm writers reinvented as soon as historians noticed the real thing had vanished. That may be why the cowboy had to bow out as soon as the U.S. started slinging real bullets. After Pearl Harbor, the gunfighter and the costumed crime-fighter parted ways. Hollywood’s western frontier gave way to frontline combat movies. But Superman and his superpowered platoon had always been about the here and now. Switching to active duty was easy.

Which might be why switching back was so hard. When the Axis started to fall, so did their overly authoritarian comic book kin. What had once calmed America’s slumber now disturbed it. Once a fascist always a fascist. Superheroes had to go. But not to worry, those sidelined cowboys were ready to tag back in. After Hiroshima, the frontier was once again the perfect escape destination. Just as the Golden Age of Comic Books petered, the Golden Age of the Western took off.

Superheroes tried to battle back in the 50s, but their Commie smashing violence was too direct, too like waking life to lull America’s dozing brain back to sleep. But that changed in the 60s. When Cold War fears turned MAD, the superhero returned. Mutually Assured Destruction was scarier than any enemy. War itself was now the monster, and Silver Age comics offered up a radioactive heap of ambivalent hero-monsters to reflect the mutating times. The Thing, the Hulk, Marvel’s entire radioactive pantheon literally embodies the national fear of nuclear fallout.

Superhero and cowboy battled side by side through the Vietnam War.  But after the My Lai massacre, old school American heroism collapsed. When that war ended, so did the western and its 25 year Hollywood reign. Superheroes survived, but they were changed. Further mutated. Comic books grew darker in the 70s. The Age was no longer Silver but Bronze.

I would have expected the cowboy to have battled back—maybe with the end of the Cold War when the whole comic book industry was in freefall—but that dream is apparently over. Marvel nearly ended in the early 90s too, their fate nearly tied to the vanquished Soviet Union, but they and their superheroes struggled through.

Now the superhero is more a figure of corporate enterprise than cultural soothing. America did not dream in comic book colors when the twin towers fell. Cowboys were not called back from their increasingly sidelined frontier to corral Afghanistan and Iraq.

We are currently living in the Golden Age of the Hollywood Superhero, though I’m not certain what that dream says about us. Like everyone else around me, I’m trapped inside America’s sleeping brain too. I can’t hear our national fears—of economic decline? of international irrelevance?—under the roar of all the flapping capes.

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When I read that both President Obama and Mitt Romney are Star Trek fans, I pictured that episode where the aliens are half white and half black. Their bodies are literally divided down the middle. Except—and here’s the subtle civil rights allegory—the planet actually has two races: half of the population is black on the left side and white on right, while the other is white on the left and black on the right. Instant hatred! The episode ends with the two surviving aliens jogging in place with images of their burning planet superimposed behind them. Kirk mutters something profound, and then off zooms the Enterprise to its next FX-challenged adventure.

Although New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich didn’t pursue the Star Trek connection further, his description of both Romney and Obama as “shy” and “analytical introverts” does fit the Trekkie stereotype. I’m left wondering which series the President and the Republican nominee liked most.

Leaving Voyager and Enterprise to the Ross Perots and Ralph Naders of the Federation, I see a major political divide between Next Generation and the original. Maybe it was the result of changing Cold War politics (late-sixties MADness vs. the collapse of the Evil Empire), but creator Gene Roddenberry traveled light-years between his shows.

The Prime Directive (Thou Shalt Not Interfere) was originally a devil’s advocate position voiced by the devil-eared Spock whose inhumanness rendered him a cultural relativist incapable of passing judgment. Kirk, on the other hand, shot from the moral hip. Week after week, the captain of the space cowboys employed a kind of frontier vigilantism that, while technically violating Federation policy, put each episode’s hapless species on the right track.

Alien civilizations had a way of sacrificing noble individualism to evil collectivism, usually dedicated to a false god or a planet-dominating supercomputer or a planet-dominating supercomputer disguised as a false god. It could even be the result of good intentions gone very very bad, like those people who tried to make war more peaceful by firing pretend bombs at each other and then peacefully reporting to crematoriums when they were told they had “died.” Whatever the problem though, Kirk fixed it.

In the age of Glasnost, however, Roddenberry recast his Enterprise with a crew of Spock-minded relativists. Suddenly the Prime Directive really was Primary. Remember that planet where the inhabitants had to “retire” at sixty? That meant reporting to a crematorium so their children didn’t have to pay elder care bills. Barbaric, right? Kirk would have had that planet fixed in under 50 minutes. But Jean-Luc’s Enterprise sails off in the last shot, having supported the sixty-year-old alien guest star’s decision to accept his people’s custom.

Week after week, the Next Generation crew embraced the views of aliens. Remember when Riker dressed up in skimpy shorts as was the custom for males on the planet of the Amazons? When an Admiral’s son is raised by enemy savages, Picard disobeys orders and lets the boy stay with the adoptive father, siding with Nurture over John Wayne Nature. Even individuality-crushing technology was user friendly now, with a Pinocchio android and a Reading Rainbow cyborg. When Kirk encountered an android endowed with its creator’s consciousness, he set his phaser to kill. But TNG helped Data’s human mom live a happy and fulfilling retirement in her new android body.

So which of Gene Roddenberry’s universes do Romney and Obama endorse?

As far as I know, not even the Republican Party is considering replacing Social Security with retirement-age euthanasia, though it would certainly rein in health care costs (obviously the policy would not include 1%-ers who would instead opt to retire as immortal androids). Since Obama assumed charge of the military’s terrorist Kill List, I’m guessing he’s not about to start dropping pretend bombs on Afghanistan and wait for the Taliban to peacefully incinerate themselves. Both Republicans and Democrats vacillate on Middle East Prime Directive policy according to who happens to be sitting in the captain’s chair on the Oval Office bridge, but Republicans seem more prone to view Islam through supercomputer-posing-as-false-god glasses. They are also a party of Kirks when it comes to not embracing alien customs, whether Spanish-speaking or gay-marrying.

Bottom line though, both Obama and Romney prefer TNG‘s seven-season longevity, basically two terms in office. The original series barely survived three years, before achieving its godlike status in reruns (also a likely fate for the first African American President of the United States).

At least both candidates draw the line at campaigning in Amazon-tailored short shorts. We really don’t need to confirm which of their legs are all white and which are all black. But for a joint political ad, I suggest the two of them jogging in place with images of the U.S. economy burning in the background. At the very end, the electorate can zoom off to another galaxy in search of a less bold political environment.

One where Gene Roddenberry’s contradictory scifi vision doesn’t look like weak-minded flip-flopping, but a sincere desire and willingness to test new and old ideas, to look for compromise in an endlessly evolving universe.

Unfortunately, today’s voters would only want to know whether he’s blue on the right side and red on the left side, or red on the right side and blue on the left side. Instant hatred! Too bad we don’t have Captain Kirk to beam down and fix our divided-down-the-middle nation.

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