Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Communists of the Marvel Universe: Introduction

So I had an idea for a new ongoing feature based on an unusual interest of mine. It’s not like Seven Films for Seven Batmen or the Seven Soldiers posts, where there’s a specific end point in mind. This one’s open ended; something I’d like to come back to now and again, or not do it for a couple months if I don’t have any ideas, or abandon it entirely if it turns out to be thoroughly uninteresting and unworthy of the time investment.

I’d like to talk about the role of communism in the Marvel Universe.

But not, you understand, from an explicitly political or philosophical standpoint. I mean, I’m certainly not equipped to speak insightfully about communism, and I’m not sure it would be of much value anyway; there’s not much under the surface aching to be explored from Spider-Man wrenching the door off the Chameleon’s helicopter and shouting, “End of the line for you, commie!”

Rather, I want to look at communism contextually, in the greater scheme of a shared comic book universe. Specifically, how it’s been phased out since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I don’t have to go into this in too much detail, right? If you want to play along with comic book continuity at all (and it is part of the fun, let’s be honest with ourselves), Peter Parker can’t have become Spider-Man in 1962 or else he’d be old as Uncle Ben today, so we have to say there’s a “sliding timescale” in effect, and that it’s been ten to fifteen years since Fantastic Four #1 (as a wretched teenager, I decided on a 4:1 year ratio based on what was going on in Spider-Man comics at the time, and today that puts us at 12.25 years).

So if Marvel’s Silver Age begins no earlier than 1995, that makes a bunch of topical references invalid (Spider-Man couldn’t possibly have teamed up with John Belushi on Saturday Night Live, for example), but it also means that the Marvel heroes have always existed in a post-Cold War environment.

Which wouldn’t be a problem, except that Marvel stories are crawling with communists, some in actually very important roles (for continuity’s sake anyway).

We could fanwank this away pretty easily, of course. When Captain America mentions one president, he means another; the Avengers go on The Late Show with David Letterman instead of Late Night; and the Soviet Union just collapsed later in the Marvel Universe (a bit after Jim Lee launched the second X-Men title, I think; less than five years ago if you use the Teenage Justin Method, or TJM for short).

Or you could just, you know, stop mentioning it.

The latter is the approach most writers seem to take, and I think it’s the right one. I mean, continuity is nice and all, but you’re just gonna look ridiculous if you keep hammering on about the Red Menace in 2010 (not to mention, politically, it’s pretty uncool). All this superhero business isn’t meant to be taken so literally anyway; relevancy is more important than consistency, and The West vs. The Soviet Union just isn’t all that relevant anymore. So yeah, next time you retell the origin, just leave all the commie spies out.

It’s the right move … but the removal of communism from the backstory of the Marvel Universe doesn’t only change stuff on a facts-‘n’-continuity level. Sometimes it actually affects things at the level of character and theme, and this is what I’m really interested in.

For example, let’s start, fittingly, at the beginning of the Marvel Universe with the origin sequence in Fantastic Four #1, where this exchange appears on page 9:

BEN GRIMM (to Reed Richards): If you want to fly to the stars, then YOU pilot the ship! Count ME out! You KNOW we haven’t done enough research into the effect of cosmic rays! They might kill us all out in space!
SUE STORM: Ben, we’ve GOT to take that chance … unless we want the commies to beat us to it! I – I never thought that YOU would be a coward!
BEN: A COWARD!! NOBODY calls ME a coard! Get the ship! I’ll fly her no matter WHAT happens!!

So in 1961, you understand why Reed wants to go through with the launch without having done proper tests on cosmic radiation and the appropriate shielding: There’s no time, man, don’t you know there’s a Space Race on? Reed is portrayed as a patriot, putting his personal safety (well, and the other three but youknowwhatever) at risk to conquer “the stars” in the name of his country. Ben, in context, doesn’t actually come off all that great. He’s not the selfless patriot Reed is supposed to be; it’s not the threat of Sue’s “commies” that gets him in the ship, it’s Sue impugning his pride.

But remove the Soviets, as we do now, and it’s a completely different story. Because without the Space Race context, why is Reed in such a hurry to get up there? It’s no longer an act of patriotism, so it’s got to be hubris; it’s inconceivable to Reed that he could have made a mistake. I don’t know what the in-story reason they’re using these days for why he took his girlfriend and her kid brother along on the flight, but I think the relevant thing to do would be to cast it as a guy trying to make space flight accessible to the common man: “Look, I’ve made this ship so easy to crew, Johnny can do it, and he’s just barely legal to drive a car.”

Even Sue takes a hit; in the original, she’s trying to get Ben to do his patriotic duty by reminding him of the communists, and only when that doesn’t work does she appeal to his ego; the modern version, one imagines, goes right for the emotional manipulation.

Ben, meanwhile, goes from the worst portrayal to the best. Because, of course, Ben is 100% right and Reed is 100% wrong, he gets cajoled into it by Sue, and Ben’s the one who ends up paying for everyone else’s mistake by becoming the Thing.

So in this case, the removal of communism makes the relationships in the Fantastic Four conceptually stronger; it multiplies and multiplies again the sympathy we have for Ben, and patriotic scientist Reed is a far less interesting character than the guy who thinks too much of himself and makes a terrible mistake he’ll spend the rest of his life trying to make right.

That’s the kind of thing I want to get into in future installments; going through and picking apart how Soviet saboteurs don’t really factor into things anymore sounds like extremely micro-level stuff, but as we’ve seen from the example above, it can have some unexpectedly macro-level implications.

So I’ll begin next time with a character who’s arguably one of the most important figures in the Marvel Universe, yet has been all but forgotten; in fact, he had a thirty-year gap between his first appearance and his second (and last).

21 comments:

plok said...

Motherfucking 4,096 character limit of Blogger.

I'll skip the preamble for now, and the proper explanation of what comes after the preamble, and just say: one of the things that's interesting about this is that Ben is not quite as much of a high-road taker in the non-Cold War scenario as you describe -- in the original story it wasn't his pride Sue wounded but more specifically his courage, however not merely his courage but his courage in service to his patriotism. This makes his anger and his acquiescence something we can sympathize with equally: poor slob really has no choice but to prove he's a man at this point, but proving he's a man in this case is dependent on a certain conception he must have in his head of what a man is...but without the WWII/Cold War background what happens to him is all his fault for letting Sue goad him, right? Because there's nothing else backing her up. In the original she says "I always thought you were a brave man, but you're going to save your own skin instead of doing what's right, that's not what a brave man does."

But in the sliding-scale version she just says "you're a pussy, Ben" and then suddenly he's THERE. That doesn't look good on him.

Sigh, I suppose it'll soon be retconned into "let's go, Reed...we can find someone else" and then Ben realizes he's such the best pilot who ever lived that they'll probably just all blow up on the launchpad without him...

Which would make him just as bad as Reed, right?

Without the Cold War background, the brave thing for Ben to do is alert the MPs, if he's 100% right and Reed's 100% wrong.

plok said...

Sorry: "but more specifically his pride in his courage".

plok said...

Is what I meant to say.

Justin said...

You know what, actually, that interpretation had never occurred to me at all, and it's weird that it hasn't. I'd always read the "commies" line and the "coward" line as two separate thoughts, and I suppose the reason is that I was assuming this was a remnant of Stan Lee's original FF proposal notion that Ben was in love with Sue all along.

It *kinda* makes sense, right? The "heavy" Lee wanted originally might not be particularly driven to beating the Soviets, but he gets desk-smashing mad at the idea that the girl he's sweet on thinks Reed is the brave one here.

I don't even known if Ben's attraction for Sue has ever been officially canon, but I've always read it as though it was. Not aching, burning, resenting-your-oldest-friend-in-all-the-world *love*, but this sort of nagging ache in his chest. He'd never in a million years get in the way of Reed and Sue -- the real tough bit to swallow is that he can't even wallow in a bit of self-indulgent "He doesn't deserve you" thing because Ben believes that of *course* Reed is the man for Sue.

So to have her say, basically, "Well, Reed's going up in this thing, what's *your* problem?" she's pouring salt on the wound she doesn't even know is there.

Although I will concede, your interpretation does make more sense with the text. You know, *cough*, the stuff that's actually IN the comic and not possibly imagined by me.

(And the idea that Ben probably should've turned Reed will be an interesting one for me to mull over on my drive home tonight.)

plok said...

I think that the Ben/Sue thing was first retconned in via a "What If?" sometime in the Eighties, then somebody (probably Byrne?) ran with it for a couple issues sometime later. But to be fair, it didn't come out of nowhere-at-all: after the crashlanding in FF #1, Ben says something like "why would you want to be with this pencilneck, when you could have a real man?" as he's turning into the Thing and ripping up a tree. Personally I've never thought that was necessary to read it as anything but blustering jock anger, particularly since the Lee/Kirby FF drops that angle like a very hot potato in something like record time. You totally could have it there in the background, though -- "Ben wants to push Namor's face in to be Sue's white knight" is a nifty reading, for example. And I'm not sure if it's in the original typewritten FF proposal, but it very well could be.

And, having said all that about the Ben/Sue thing...canon or not, James Sturm goes to town with it in "Unstable Molecules" -- have you read that? One of my favourite FFs ever, and he makes a wonderful thing from it all.

Justin said...

It *is* in the proposal (bought myself that Marvel Vault book last Christmas and it's got a facsimile of it): "Ben is huge, surly, unpleasant guy who doesn't want any part of project until he sees Susan. He falls for Susan, and she manages to coax him into piloting ship." But there's also a hell of a lot in that proposal that didn't make it anywhere near even the early product - Sue as an actress, stuck invisible, wears a mask that resembles what her face used to look like and so on.

Pretty much all that survives is that bit you mentioned and which I forgot about. Then again, Grant Morrison pointed out that the whole deal with Alicia in that first Puppet Master story is that she looks a lot like Sue... I don't know, I'd hate to make a big deal out of it in the text, but that's the reading I personally like to bring to it (I'm no slave to author intent, you know) and I think I'd keep it in mind if I was writing any Sue-Ben interactions in the book; they're both aware of it now but don't talk about it, not because it's remotely a sore spot still, but just because he's a little embarrassed. Almost like a boyhood crush kind of thing, you know.

I need to get around to ordering Unstable Molecules next time I'm doing a big Amazon purchase. I'm never going to find that in a store, am I?

Justin said...

Hm, looking back I feel the need to clarify to anyone reading that I wrote the contradictory "Not aching [...] but this sort of nagging ache in his chest" not in some clumsy stab at poetic meaning, but becaus I was eating a hamburger at the time and got a little distracted, honest.

plok said...

"To anyone reading"...you're funny.

I'm gonna try this again (for like the twentieth time here), but more in precis form so I can be sure it'll fit:

The sliding timescale doesn't work in at all the same way it did when it was originated. Now we take a span of X years and slide it up, to account for Captain America being unthawed in 2002 or something: and "Marvel Time" itself grows "longer" at a slower rate than the one at which it slides up through the decades. This has become like a cosmological feature of the MU.

But that's not how it started, and it actually doesn't work at all in its current form. Not that it ever worked, or was going to work -- this is exactly what Roy Thomas was pointing out when he thought it up, and he's turned out more obviously right than he probably could've hoped. We can get rid of Reed Richards the OSS officer in WWII, but we're never going to have an eighty year-old Reed; however some "hard" internal details still can't be gotten rid of in the calculation of Marvel Time, and that means it isn't just "alternate" time. Sue spent nine months pregnant, Peter Parker graduated high school and attended university on a full-time basis probably for no less than two years. He spent some time being depressed about the death of his girlfriend. Later he went on to do post-grad work. Franklin Richards has actually gotten younger at times within the last decade or two. Luna Amequelin is less than ten years old. Julie Power is like twenty. I've been reading Fantastic Four comics since the early Seventies. Johnny Storm attained the age at which he could legally marry. Chris Claremont's captioning informed us that three months had passed between X-Men #138 and #139...meanwhile at the same time Spider-Man went on for six months of publication that covered a subjective three days of Peter Parker's life.

It never worked. Inside the relation of the milestones of Marvel Time, cosmological recociliation is not possible, and has never been possible: rather it relies on the reader's willingness (and ability) to hold four or five different valuations of this fictional "time" in his or her head at once, and not have a problem with it.

Okay, let's try that.

plok said...

OH MY GOD IT POSTED.

plok said...

So the way the sliding scale used to "work" is that extra time had to be added in between panels and issues in order to bring the MU from (say) 1972 to 1976. This was all by the reader's sufference anyway, though: there was always a place where one milestone said "10" and another said "8". Sometimes "5". And the subjective time created by buying and reading (or making and selling) was always subtly acknowledged in the comics: the time of the comics, the time of the abstract episodic "history as reading-time" duration, that was built-in. I can read every FF comic there ever was in a weekend -- but that isn't the "real" durational time of FF comics. Englehart had Ben Grimm in his human form act in a blase heroic manner because he was so damn used to changing and changing back...but he wasn't used to it in the "this fucking happens every twenty minutes" sense that you get from reading the entire FF run straight through in a weekend...

Okay...post?

plok said...

POST...!

plok said...

...So part of the reader's active construction of Marvel Time includes the sense of interval-in-reading as well as the tolerance for the inclusion of real time passing...as readers, we broker Marvel Time's relation to real-world time. Marvel Time can't exist without our deliberate indulgence...even, our forgiveness? The sliding scale doesn't of itself work any better than just setting all the goddamn things in Sixties Haircut Time even right up 'til today, in total defiance of topicality. Either way, it's not strong enough to stand on its own. As a singular timescale it's an abject failure: it can't cohere at all without the reader's ability to navigate its most basic contradictions in a playful manner. And part of that play is in working to reconcile its non-basic contradictions, developing elaborate fanwank, No-Prizery, etc: a species of silly fun.

So, now Captain America was thawed out in 2002 -- this "sliding scale fact" is stupidly dismissive of the reader's active participation. With the reader's particpation, Cap can have been thawed out in 1964, and now it's 2010, but that doesn't have to matter...and all the stories count both as relics of their time, and the record of Cap doing this-and-that within them. But without the reader's participation in excusing inconsistencies, the ship of Marvel Time's already foundered on the rocks of cosmological conceit, and every epicycle just makes it sink that much faster.

Post?

plok said...

AWESOME.

So it's a matter of the limits of retcon. You can retcon a lot, and in the name of cleverness besides: you can make art from it. The 50s Captain America is a great example. Great story.

But it's a story of the Seventies only. Obviously it doesn't work as a story of the 2010s! "Cap vanished in the Forties, then there was another Cap in the Fifties who was a racist asshole, then in the Seventies there was...NO CAP WHATSOEVER...!" Doesn't work. At that point you might as well introduce an Eighties Arbitrage Cap with Power Suspenders instead of a shield.

See, right there's the expression of how the whole model of "Marvel Time" breaks down. If Cap was thawed out in 2002, then who and when was the "other" Cap? You can't make it make sense. It was a fun fix for an inconsistency. But now it's inconsistent as a fix: its very "fix-ness", its very nature as a RETCON puts it in need of being retconned...and yet there can be no retcon for it in the MU of the modern sliding scale.

What I'm talking about here is BIG META SHIT, isomorphism of different invented histories as a model for the way we read our fiction. And that's why I think your nitpicking at communists is going to be extremely interesting, and extremely instructive.

POST!

plok said...

Sweet, I'm in the groove now. Anyway, like what about that Iron man movie? After I saw it I said "brilliant way to reimagine the Titanium Man, as a distorted reflection of Tony's greed...in the comics you could have a post-Soviet Titanium Man who just walked off with the technology and put himself on the market as a terrorist." In the movie the armoured representation of Greed is Jeff Bridges because, but in the comics you could do it as a representation of the post-Soviet geopolitical decoherence, new landscape of threats, etc...

Then I was informed that Jeff wasn't supposed to be the Titanium Man, but some latter-day Nineties Bigger-Armour-Dude that Iron Man had to fight. And I thought...

"Oh, way to dump what was GOOD about the "commie threat" in Iron Man comics, you assholes!" No, he's the movie version of the Titanium Man -- he's an updated Titanium Man. Okay, we're not Red-bashing anymore, but can't we try to preserve the dynamic, that the Red-bashing was window-dressing for? NO. Someone got to this first, and did to it what current-day Marvel did to Roy's "Marvel Time"...

...Took out the cleverness and the self-referentiality, the winking, the playful fun. Stan started it with the No-Prizes: "oops, we fucked up! But why not make a game of it, acknowledge it, hang a lantern on it, see what we can squeeze out of our creator-fan communication." People may hate Stan, but no one ever says he wasn't FUCKING CLEVER...!

Okay, now I've had too much beer, so I'll stop.

POST!

Your move, Justin.

Justin said...

I *am* funny.

But oh man, the bar's been set a little higher than I intended, because I was hoping I could pull off "interesting." But "instructive"? Hoo, only if I don't try too hard, maybe.

But yeah, Marvel Time doesn't work in any way as an objective structure. That it doesn't bugs some people, I know ... Bendis will write "six months later" in one of his comics, and trying to reconcile all this stuff will make you a Lovecraftian madman.

I'm getting on the communists because it's not so easy to separate from matters. Like, the Captain America vs. Secret Empire with the guy who's clearly identifiable as Nixon but who is not explicitly Nixon ... it's reductive when the Handbook to the Marvel Universe or whatever has to refer to him as "a highly-ranked official" or whatever to adhere to a sliding timescale. But it doesn't really matter because Handbooks don't matter, and in actual *stories*, they don't bring it up all that often, so it stands as a product of its time all very well and good. I think even the most obsessive continuity fiend *does* read 1964 Cap as historical record.

But the Evil Soviets are often so integral that something *has* to be done about them. The Black Widow, right, WHAT IS HER DEAL, how does she matter, what is her purpose, because she's not a storyline that happened decades ago, she's still there, but her whole raison d'etre has been made obsolete. Actually, I shouldn't go on too much about BW here because she's a whole post at some point, I'm sure, but it seems like the policy is to just ignore the context in her case, but context is really the driving force behind the character in the first place, so what is she even doing here?

I have to get to work on profile #001 soon (and hope it turns out instructive despite long odds).

plok said...

Forget the Black Widow, what's the deal with fucking IVAN?!

Or does Ivan even exist anymore, in this brave new MU. A pug-nosed brick-shithouse Alfred to her Batman, instead of Etonian Anglicisms he talks like Jimmy Cagney filtered through a bowl of borscht...man, NO ONE riffs on classic DC characters like Marvel...!

Sergei and the Red Guardian are extremely problematic too, but holy shit what about that guy, what was he called, the guy whose superhero weapons were a HAMMER AND SICKLE?!?!? Jesus, what in the HELL do you do with that.

Crimson Dynamo's a problem too, obviously.

The Gargoyle? The Gremlin?

Now that I think about it, it's a bloody long list.

Josh said...

Although I respect the Ironman movie for what it is nothing would make me happier than seeing a period based Ironman movie following the original origin story where we track forward in time and he fights the Crimson Dynamo in a cold war setting. Call me crazy but the heart wants what it wants.

(apply the same thing to any future Bond flicks)

Justin said...

I know, there's a bit of me that wants that too from the TOTAL FAN standpoint - New Frontier shows it can be done well - but in the end, I reckon it's best for the movie, like in the public consciousness, to get updated for relevancy's sake. The Vietnam-to-Afghanistan works surprisingly well; the details are all changed and some of the resonances shift a bit, but for the most part it's the same story fairly seamlessly.

To date I it is the only superhero movie Alison really likes. Well, I guess that and Batman '66. She thinks Tim Burton Batman movies and Dark Knight were okay enough, but those two are the only ones she'd watch if she wasn't married to me.

Justin said...

Oh, and James Bond: he totally does suffer from being taken out of the Cold War, although I think GoldenEye gets some good mileage out of it by actually *engaging* with that - everything Judi Dench says about Bond being a dinosaur and a relic, the villain having come from *inside* MI6.

It kind of worked as the "last" James Bond movie for me (too bad it was supposed to reinvent Bond for the 90s, right?), and it is my favorite. Committed to a post-Cold War Bond, I think all you could really do is get as far away from politics as you can and end up with something that looks like a "serious" version of Austin Powers - supervillains living in hollowed out volcanoes and all that (I actually liked Die Another Day).

Dean said...

The fact of the matter is that some characters are period specific.

James Bond is a perfect example, actually. The guy plays one way from 1962-79 and totally differently in stories set outside that time frame.

Marvel is in a similar position with a goodly percentage of their stable.

Justin said...

So do you reckon Bond is totally unsalvagable in the 21st century, Dean? I didn't like Casino Royale, and didn't bother with Quantum of Solace. Since the success of Batman Begins, Hollywood keeps trying to sell us on what these adventure-story icons would "really" be like, but in that case, a real guy's unlikely to survive almost *anything* James Bond has to do.

I do think Marvel weathers the storm of decades fairly well, though, because once the "Marvel Age of Comics" really starts going and they have the style down pat, they ease off a bit on the commies and stuff - they seem to realize there's bigger fish to fry.

Welcome aboard, by the way, unless you've commented before and I somehow missed it.