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).