Thursday, April 1, 2010

Communists of the Marvel Universe #003: The Red Ghost

(Part three of an ongoing series analyzing the role of communists in the early Marvel Universe and how they have been adapted - or, in some cases, how they glaringly haven’t been adapted - by comics creators in a post Cold War climate.)

That’s the Red Ghost as in “The Red Ghost and his Super Apes,” of course. He turns intangible - hence the “Ghost” bit in his name - as a result of flying through a cosmic ray storm in order to recreate the circumstances under which the Fantastic Four got their powers, except he used a spaceship with no shielding in order to increase the exposure. Started out as an FF villain and has become sort of an all-purpose Marvel baddie.

Let’s see what Wikipedia has to say.

Ivan Kragoff was born in Leningrad, in what was at the time the Soviet Union. Before becoming the Red Ghost, Ivan was a Soviet scientist bent on beating the Americans to the moon and claiming it for the Communist empire. He assembled a crew of three trained apes — Mikhlo the Gorilla, Igor the Baboon, and Peotr the Orangutan — which he subjected to specialized training regimens of his own design, then took off on his lunar rocket trip on behalf of the USSR...

Hell, I got this one, you guys:

Ivan Kragoff was born in Leningrad, in what was at the time the Soviet Union. Before becoming the Red Ghost, Ivan was a Soviet scientist bent on beating the Americans to the moon and claiming it for the Communist empire. He assembled a crew of three trained apes — Mikhlo the Gorilla, Igor the Baboon, and Peotr the Orangutan — which he subjected to specialized training regimens of his own design, then took off on his lunar rocket trip on behalf of the USSR...
Right, that’s wrapped up! (Checks watch.) Hm, and quicker than usual…

Actually, no joke, in most of the Red Ghost’s appearances, I think that’s all you really need to do. Most of the times I've ever seen the Red Ghost in a comic, it’s not because the guys who were doing the story needed a commie bad guy, it’s that he’s a.) an evil genius, b.) a guy who turns intangible, and c.) OH MY GOD YOU GUYS MONKEYS AWESOME. If you’re going to do Spider-Man or the Hulk fights the Red Ghost in a contemporary comic book, it’s no sweat, there’s no need to bring up all that messy communist stuff; he's a mad scientist who happens to be Russian.

The messy communist stuff is, however, acutely important in his first appearance.

If you haven’t read Fantastic Four #13 … well, you should. Ditko inks Kirby (it results in a magnificently monstrous Thing), and you get this panel, which in black and white is absolutely stunning:

But anyway, here’s a summary. Reed Richards is again trying to get to the moon before the Soviets do, and he finds a new fuel source (Tunguska-derived, it appears – that’s right, Warren Ellis, Stan Lee totally beat you to this one!) with which to accomplish this. However, the Red Ghost and his simian crew also blast off at that very moment to conquer the moon in the name of Mother Russia. They both make it to the moon and start to fight, when suddenly, The Watcher makes his first appearance. He does his whole “I am bound never to interfere in mortals’ affairs, except this time” speech because the US/USSR conflict, no longer confined to Earth, now potentially threatens the rest of the universe. So he transports them to the Blue Area of the Moon where there’s breathable atmosphere and the ruins of an ancient civilization (it’s where the X-Men fought the Imperial Guard at the climax of the Dark Phoenix Saga, you’ll recall) and says to fight it out there, and whoever wins will win the space race for their side. The Fantastic Four, of course, beat the Red Ghost and claim the moon for freedom and democracy. “Space is your heritage,” the Watcher tells them. “See that you prove worthy of such a glorious gift!”

Okay, so right off, Marvel Time makes the “first men on the moon” thing an anachronism (though I guess we haven’t actually had a woman or apes up there yet). As for the Red Ghost himself, we can’t just cross out the communist references because they’re actually important in this case. The Red Ghost here isn’t just any mad scientist to fight, he has to represent something that the Fantastic Four would oppose ideologically; otherwise, it’s just another supercharacter scuffle and not the event of cosmic significance that Lee and Kirby are trying to sell us on in this story.

So to that end, we can ask, “What is it that ‘Soviet-ness’ represents here that the audience is to be repulsed by?” In other words, what exactly is Stan Lee’s beef with communism (other than that he’s an American citizen in the early 1960s)?

Well, it turns out in the story that the Red Ghost treats those apes pretty badly. He calls the gorilla “My monsterous slave,” and in the next panel shouts, “No food for you yet, comrade baboon! It is important to me that you remain hungry – I want you to be mean, vicious, dangerous!”

Later in the story, the Red Ghost captures Sue and imprisons her behind a force field guarded by his Super-Apes, and she thinks, “If I could only find a way to eliminate this force field – to free the Super-Apes! I would take my chacnes with them, rather than the Red Ghost, for they are like the communist masses, innocently enslaved by their evil leaders!” Sue manages to knock the force field out of commission, but they don’t attack her. “Just as I expected! They’re so ravenously hungry that they don’t even notice me in their frantic attempt to get the food which Kragoff had left on the other side of the force screen!” The gorilla punches out a wall. “And now,” Sue thinks, “no longer under the Red Ghost’s mental control, they want their freedom!

At the story’s end, they leave the Red Ghost on the moon to the mercies of the Super-Apes, who have rebelled against their cruel master. “Wait!” Kragoff says. “Why are you staring at me that way? Aiming the [paralysis] ray at me?? Your eyes – they’re gleaming with hatred – with vengeance!”

So stripped of era-specific politics, what “Soviet-ness” seems to mean for Stan Lee here (and elsewhere, notably in a Captain America/Hawkeye/Quicksilver/Scarlet Witch Avengers story with a Vietnam analogue) is exploitation, and that’s something you can always find a relevant outlet for. In fact, it’s interesting to see how Marvel’s anticommunist themes of the early 60s morph into the antiestablishment themes of the late 60s – they’re both about taking a stand against The Man, whether that Man is an American establishment figure or the Soviet high command keeping the little guy (or ape) down.

So there are any number of ways you could make this story relevant, to find a new way for the Red Ghost to be The Man. Perhaps the most mischevious would be to take the Soviet boogeyman and turn him relatively seamlessly into a ruthless, total free-market industrialist. Maybe he’s headed to the moon to strip it of its resources, to ransack the wonders of the Blue Area – you could play this as a guy who wants to own the moon, who wants to privatize Earth’s satellite. The Super-Apes are, as you will, his corporate drones or his underfed and underpaid working class. The FF, then, fight him to protect the moon from being divvied up like it was just another chunk of unclaimed geography; that space exploration is about something finer, something to bring humankind together, despite whatever differences we might have had on Earth. All that idealistic 60s Star Trek stuff, right? There’s a philosophical/ethical/ideological conflict that would make this important and not just another bad-guy fight, worthy of the Watcher’s interference.

Well, whatever way you do it (I'm sure there's a better way I haven’t thought of), again, it generally doesn’t matter for 99% of the Red Ghost appearances past, present and future. But then again, if you committed to the Red Ghost as a symbol of exploitation, maybe you could get more out of the character than just a mad monkey wrangler...


Bill Reed said...

The Red Ghost is a favorite of mine based on the idea alone; I don't think I've ever seen a comic he's appeared in. He would definitely be one of the few old baddies to make it into my FF run, albeit with a coat of revamp.

Justin said...

Whoops ... I spoke (or posted, I guess) too soon, going on about how communism isn't important to the Red Ghost after his first appearance, because I'm totally wrong.

See, I re-read his *second* appearance in Fantastic Four today ("It Happened On Yancy Street!"), which I had foolishly not done before investing time into writing a post, and there's a bit that's not relevant to the plot, but very relevant to the Red Ghost as a concept and character:

"Think my pretties! Think of our rewards when I announce to our totalitarian masters that we have defeated the Fantastic Four!"

Lee does not quite hit you over the head with it the way he does about "Super Apes = oppressed masses", but he does highlight that this guy who cruelly controls his apes is himself under the thumb of "totalitarian masters". He is at once master and servant, superior and subordinate, owner and pet, etc. etc.

So you wouldn't just make him an independent free-market industrialist, or at least you wouldn't if you wanted to keep this clever little pinch of spice in the original. The Red Ghost would have to be, in essence, MIDDLE MANAGEMENT, and that'd be DAMNED INTERESTING, I think.

Well, I missed it, but Bill, if you ever get to do that revamp, KEEP IT IN MIND.

And well done, 1964 Lee and Kirby! Despite my Stupendous Futurebrain From The Year 2010, you guys still go above and beyond my initial expectations and show me up as the chump I am.

Justin said...

Man. That's "It STARTED On Yancy Street," not "It Happened on Yancy Street!"

This post, man ... everybody pretend like I still sound like I know what I'm talking about okay?

plok said...

Will do.

It occurs to me that a handy "Ultimization" of the Red Ghost might have something to do with making him a committed fascist, rather than an evil Soviet scientist -- fascism being really all about the middlemen, the chain of pain that goes all the way down from the guy with the biggest beat-stick to the most defenceless blackmailed scapegoat, like an evil Mandlebrot Set. Somewhere in here is probably something Stan and Jack would've found to be an acceptable substitution; as well as something you and I might find an acceptable characterization of the very worst of the exploitive free-marketeers -- a cautionary tale about calling a spade a spade, about noticing there's no difference between Us and Them. Of course since it's the FF...then there would be a difference, and it'd be a plot-important one, and good ethical food for the kiddies.

I'm interested in that intangibility, though...that Kragoff's not just the Red Ghost, but he's the Red Ghost...and yet again he's the Red Ghost. I suppose one could go symbolically nutty on that, in the same manner as Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The (pant, pant) Crystal Skulls (why in God's name is that title so long, anyway?)...sure, the enemy within, you can't come to grips with them...but MAN that just doesn't work as well without the Soviet thing, eh? And it doesn't really work well with the fascist thing either...and besides the name "RED GHOST" is really too good to lose, it's really the whole point of the guy completely. Without it he might as well be the Vision. I mean, not to be too funny, but What Is To Be Done, you know?

Plus, he gets his powers the same way as the FF do -- out of the mysterious, impersonal forces of Science that lurk out in space, and he takes a bigger risk than they do: a crazy super-mad-scientist type, he usurps the uniqueness of their "good" powers. Hmm, didn't the Abomination pretty much run this one as well? Becoming stronger than the Hulk, basically by being exposed to gamma rays while being also utterly lacking in ethics, and he should've died but was saved at the last instant by total accident...because Science is impersonal? And instead of the Watcher, he had the Stranger...

It's the same sort of thing, perhaps: the enemy within, only it isn't political as much as it's personal. You really sort of want to say Kragoff couldn't've lived, because it's not right for the FF's powers to be so casually duplicated...really, it almost ought to be like the first Diablo story, Kragoff thinks he's a ghost and needs Reed Richards' technology to "come back to life"...the apes survived the exposure to cosmic rays but he "didn't", in some sort of Cruel Irony. It's something like that, right? Say he goes off and crashes on the Moon -- he can't get back to wherever he came from, he's stranded in the Blue Area until the FF arrive.

Huh. But it's already a lot of rewriting, isn't it? I seem to be saying he's best understood as an actual relic of the Soviet Union, or something?

That he doesn't work without it, at all?

Needs further thought...

Justin said...

Yes, on the one hand I'm tempted to say "So what if he's the RED Ghost? It's not like Green Arrow is an environmentalist." But of course now there's a hole that wasn't there before.

I think, really, any process of updating these characters is one of acceptable losses. Even in a case like the Chameleon, where he might seem better off without the communist stuff ... you still lose Lee & Co.'s authorial intention (of course, whether or not that's something to be strictly adhered to is up for debate, but again, I personally feel one ought to try and capture the spirit of their concepts if not the concrete details).

Of course, "The Soviet Union collapsed later in the Marvel Universe" is still on the table. What do you think of that? It solves everything very tidily, but I hate it. I feel like we ought to have better things to think about, y'know?

plok said...

MADNESS, eh? What if the Soviet Union were part of the sliding timeline too. I think the Red Ghost does bring up the problem a little more sharply than Igor (well, I think the fix for Igor works okay, actually!) or the Chameleon who's Kraven's buddy, which if you think about it is damn odd, because as you just got finished saying the Red Menace thing just slides right off him in a very short space of time. By the Seventies he's just some dude who's got these weird apes. So it's very interesting, in the context of this overall discussion, that it's his particular Sovietosity that's the toughest to do a fix-up on, when as long as the USSR was there it got so easy to ignore, so fast.

Ha. Well, you do have these stories all loaded with Cold War stuff, they all require some fix-up or other...but maybe the Red Ghost was just less interesting a character than even Igor was, from the very beginning? Just an abstraction -- after all, who wasn't more interested in the apes, anyway?

I don't quite know what to do with all this...there must be something, but I don't know what it is. Actually the sliding-scale solution appeals to me just as a way of acknowledging how damaged Kragoff is -- like Marvel's own Cold War Hawkman, he's doomed to be a loose end forever, maybe...

But I'm sure we'll come up with something!

plok said...

Of course, there is that mangy white hair of his...he could just be really old, to go back to that again. Fits with the exploitation thing: evil father stuff, wants docile children, Soviet Prospero -- doesn't care about the politics, just the negative philosophy of power apparent in the actions of the Soviet leadership, rather than their words. That'd make him a pretty good anti-creative force as a mirror for Reed Richards a la the Mad Thinker...for his whacko crew Reed selects a pretty unusually lively and personable bunch of people, people not like himself...kicks himself over being so stupid as to almost kill them/accidentally make them freaks, but then they all go on to embody all this possibilistic American idealistic stuff. Kragoff takes apes, on purpose to make them useful superpowered tools, and that's the end of his story. He's the Red Skull of the late Cold War era, maybe -- note Sue saying the apes are like the Soviet people, I guess that means the Ghost is not...and he isn't, actually, because now that I think about it all the other Russian characters in Marvel's Sixties and Seventies, hardly any of them play the "Red Ghost" part. They're all duped or damaged, end up making heroic sacrifices once they see the evil of the system they're in, or squirm a little uncomfortably in their roles...not the Red Ghost, though!

Hmm, he could be up there with the Skull and Doom, theoretically.

However, all that stuff about the Moon and the Space Race, that still complicates things Apollo XI to be subject to the sliding scale too?!

More thought! Seems like to find an "acceptable losses" point here involves some heavy-duty rewriting no matter what...

Justin said...

The Space Race stuff I'm cool with ignoring (even the biggest continuity cop would probably admit Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon, and not Reed freaking Richards). To the 2010 reader, space isn't political anymore; the Red Ghost, however, might be *trying* to make the moon political again, and that could be where the Watcher comes in.

It all takes a lot of rewriting, of course; I don't think we'd ever come up with something totally seamless, and I don't need to take a bottle of White Out to my Essential FF volumes and write in continuity fixes, but I do feel like recontextualizing the Red Ghost's past might be the key to his future, if he has one.

Because he does endure; we haven't totally dismissed him, so what is it about him that's worth putting up with the Cold War stuff for? If only we knew someone who--Bill! *Waves hands* Bill Reed! Why do *you* think the Red Ghost is so cool? Is it the apes or that he's crazy enough to try to increase his exposure to cosmic rays even after seeing what they did to Ben Grimm, or what? Tell me in 4,096 characters or less! We need you to crack this thing wide open.

Also, Tom DeFalco suggested in an old Amazing Spider-Man that the Red Ghost might be agoraphobic, and I don't know if I even want to begin contemplating how or why that fits into the larger scheme.

Justin said...

But Plok, man, your comment about the Abomination got me thinking about that, too. Not every 60s Marvel hero had an "evil opposite", but the ones that did were Soviets. FF/Red Ghost, Iron Man/Crimson Dynamo, Hulk/Abomination. Of course, there's *ideological* opposites for most heroes, but I'm talking about the ones that are "My powers are like yours, but stronger and for evil."

It's for dramatic effect, of course, but I suppose beyond that it could represent a sense of American superiority coupled with Cold War paranoia - "The Soviets can only *copy* us, but when they do they make it more deadly and dangerous." If Venom had been introduced in the Silver Age, he might've been Russian, too.

plok said...

He totally would have!