Marvel Comics and History

From World War II to the Great Recession, we look at how Marvel's heroes and history have collided.

Fear Itself, Marvel's latest major event comic, is poised to debut later this month with Fear Itself: Book of the Skull. While this storyline will pit Marvel's heroes against the combined threat of The Serpent and a newly empowered Red Skull, one of its more intriguing characteristics is the way in which Fear Itself aims to capitalize on the various real world fears people have about things like the economy and the War on Terror.

Fear Itself should be a thematically relevant book, but this wouldn't be the first time a Marvel comic has aimed to capture the tone of the times. Dating all the way back to the beginning with heroes like Captain America, Marvel's books have used real world conflicts as inspiration for fictional storytelling. This feature examines how that relationship between fiction and reality has evolved over the decades, culminating with recent events like Civil War and now Fear Itself.

World War II

The Golden Age of comics and the rise in popularity of costumed superheroes coincided with the beginnings of World War II. Unsurprisingly, many heroes of the day were directly influenced by the events unfolding in the European and Pacific theaters. Easily the most iconic and enduring WWII superhero is Captain America. Cap debuted in the pages of Captain America Comics #1 in March 1941. Though this issue appeared months before the US entered the war, its cover featured Cap storming a Nazi stronghold and socking Hitler in the jaw.

Cap wasn't quite the first patriotic red, white and blue-clad superhero to hit the stands, but he quickly became the most popular and inspired legions of imitators. Meanwhile, other superheroes began to enter the fictional battlegrounds of WWII. Even the likes of Batman and Superman traded battling mad scientists and rogue criminals for Nazi spies and death machines.

Superhero comics are often accused of serving as thinly veiled male power fantasies. The comics of this era were perhaps a little more guilty than most. Rather than providing an even-handed look at the conflict, many comics featured politically incorrect racial stereotypes that served no other purpose than to be walloped by Cap or Namor. Hitler or various fictional Nazi villains would be regularly defeated in the name of freedom, only to return to menace the superhero population again.

One can respect the enthusiasm of comic creators of the time, if not always their methods of creative expression. The early comic industry featured a high number of Jewish creators who were highly opposed to the actions of Hitler's Nazis. Some, like Jack Kirby and Will Eisner, were drafted into the military and fought the Axis more directly. Those who remained on the home front looked to their comics as weapons.

When the war ended, superheroes were suddenly lacking in high profile villains to tussle with, and this contributed to the temporary collapse of the superhero market and the rise of other genres. In the decades since, various writers have revisited World War II from a more modern context. Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos retroactively chronicled the characters' exploits during the war. Creators like Garth Ennis and Joe Kubert have devoted much of their careers to telling war stories that strive to depict the realistic trials, tribulations, and hardships of the time. Superhero comics depict battles between good and evil, and WWII was perhaps the last conflict in history where it was so easy to draw lines between one side and the other. Thus, the storytelling attraction will always remain.

The Civil Rights and Counterculture Movements

Few periods of American history were as chaotic and culturally rich as the 1960's. The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. Repressed minorities, war protesters, and free thinkers marched in the streets. And just as musicians and filmmakers expanded the artistic boundaries of their media, comics began to evolve in this period.

This is most directly seen in the underground "comix" of artists like Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman. These comics weren't bound by the Comics Code Authority and weren't afraid to showcase sexually and graphically explicit material. Superhero comics were still comparatively tame, but they were clearly influenced by the time all the same.

At the time, mainstream comics tended to feature very quaint and and unrealistic views of American life. Children were clean-cut and respectful of authority figures. Men were square-jawed and confident. Women were submissive, and characters like Mister Fantastic weren't afraid to slap a female companion if they grew hysterical in the heat of danger.

That all slowly changed throughout the '60s and '70s. Characters like Black Panther and The Falcon paved the way for other strong, capable, minority superheroes. Heroines like Wasp and Invisible Woman received feminist overhauls. Subjects like drug abuse stopped being taboo subjects.

One of the most famous examples of superhero comics acting as social commentary was Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's The X-Men. Here, teenage mutants facing a hostile world became a metaphor for all minority groups who faced discrimination. The peaceful Professor Xavier and the militant Magneto were inspired by two leading figures of the Civil Rights Movement – Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X.

This metaphor didn't fully come together until a more diverse roster of X-Men were introduced in the mid '70s. But from then on, the X-Men have remained one of the most poplar teams in comics. Most would agree this metaphor is a major reason for that success.

Vietnam and the Cold War

Whereas superhero comics were happy to dive into the conflicts of World War II, the industry paid comparatively little attention to the Vietnam War. As mentioned, it wasn't the sort of conflict that lent itself as easily to battles of good and evil. However, several heroes had their origins in the war-torn regions of Southeast Asia. Tony Stark's original story has him injured and taken captive by Wong-chu, an Asian nemesis only marginally less stereotypical than the Japanese villains of the WWII-era. The Iron Man comics have since updated this origin and shifted Iron Man's debut to the modern Middle East.

The superhero most closely associated with Vietnam, though, is The Punisher. His origin story states that Frank Castle served valiantly in many conflicts in Vietnam and Cambodia, before coming home to his family and seeing them gunned down in the crossfire of a mob war. While the version of Punisher seen in the regular Marvel Universe has had his origin updated to suit the passage of time just like Iron Man, the version seen in Punisher MAX remains a Vietnam vet. As Garth Ennis showed in his copious Punisher work, only a conflict as horrific and dehumanizing as the Vietnam War could have birthed a killer like Punisher. Beginning with "Born" and ending with "Valley Forge, Valley Forge," Ennis book-ended his run with tales of Vietnam's lingering impact on the vigilante.

Marvel's comics weren't quite so afraid to tackle Cold War conflicts. Heroes like Iron Man began to square off with Russian villains like Crimson Dynamo and Titanium Man. Nuclear war became a frequent threat for heroes to avert. Nick Fury emerged as a stylish super-spy operating in the unpredictable landscape of post-WWII espionage.

In the '80s, Captain America began to reflect the growing sense of disillusionment with American government and politicians. Steve Rogers temporarily resigned his post as Cap, instead taking up the mantle of Nomad. Rogers made it clear he fought for the American ideal, not the American government, and this sentiment resonated with many readers.

The War on Terror

On September 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked several commercial airliners and killed several thousand Americans, destroying the two tallest structures in New York City in the process. Such an event might be par for the course in the realm of superhero comics. In these stories, power-mad supervillains routinely destroy entire cities and their inhabitants. In The Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos used the titular weapon to murder half the living beings in the universe.

But the 9/11 attacks didn't take place in the Marvel universe; they were real tragedies with real repercussions. Unsurprisingly, many comic creators turned to their work to express their shock, outrage, and grief. One of the most famous comics to hit in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 was J. Michael Straczynski's Amazing Spider-Man Vol. 2 #36. In that issue, a dumbfounded Spider-Man joins in the chaotic rescue effort at the wreckage of the Twin Towers. The comic features fictional Avengers and other superheroes working alongside police and firefighters while villains mourn silently in the distance. Some readers took umbrage at the fact that men like Magneto and Doctor Doom would shed tears over the attacks when they themselves had committed similarly horrific acts. But as Straczynski wrote, "Even the worst of us, however scarred, are still human. Still feel. Still mourn the death of random innocents."

This desire to make sense of the 9/11 attacks quickly spread into many other books. Marvel relaunched Captain America with a new and more grounded focus. In the wake of 9/11, Cap began traveling overseas and battling terrorist villains in lieu of Red Skull or Batroc. Marvel also published a set of mini-series called The Call of Duty which featured firefighters and emergency workers in the lead roles.

Comics have continued to deal not just with the 9/11 attacks themselves, but also the global War on Terror that resulted. Many comics have chronicled the battles taking place overseas in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the pages of Amazing Spider-Man, Flash Thompson enlisted in the military and lost his legs heroically saving his comrades during an attack. Sometimes super-powered characters enter the fray as they once did in World War II. In The Ultimates 1 and 2, Mark Millar depicted S.H.I.E.L.D. as an arm of the US military, deploying superhuman combatants to hostile countries. And much as the US attracted plenty of criticism for its military operations in the real world, retaliation came late in The Ultimates 2. A coalition of Russia, China, and various Middle Eastern countries assembled a rival group called the Liberators and invaded America.

Interestingly, The Ultimates also marked an increasingly prevalent trend of featuring real world American presidents in stories rather than fictional replacements. George W. Bush was shown several times in Millar's Ultimate stories, including unveiling a revived Captain America to the public and being attacked on Air Force One by the Liberators. Some argue that these appearances date the comics unnecessarily, but others feel that The Ultimates is such a product of its time that Bush's presence doesn't matter.

The War on Terror raised larger questions surrounding the nature of freedom and the need for security in an increasingly unpredictable world. Is it necessary to sacrifice some freedom for the safety of all? Civil War was one of many comics to tackle this issue. In that story, a battle between heroes and villains resulted in the deaths of 600 innocent civilians. A campaign supporting the registration and training of all superheroes was begun, and battle lines were drawn as these heroes fought for or against the idea of registration.

Civil War had a cascading effect across the Marvel Universe that lasted for several years. The image of Captain America's assassination was a powerful symbol of the darkness that had pervaded Marvel's books. Even as the Heroic Age later wiped the slate clean for Marvel's heroes, the question of freedom vs. security and the need for heroes to be held accountable for their actions remains.

The Great Recession

Undoubtedly the most pressing social issue of the past several years has been the so-called Great Recession. As world economies lay battered and millions remain out of work, a general sense of unease and fear has emerged.

These hard times have had a strong effect on comics as well, and not just in terms of higher cover prices. Many popular heroes have faced the effects of the recession firsthand. Always the everyman hero, Peter Parker spent the bulk of 2010 out of work and struggling more than ever just to make ends meet. Tony Stark faced the total collapse of his corporate empire, and like so many real life people who lost everything, was forced to reinvent himself. Meanwhile, Norman Osborn's rise to power during Dark Reign played on fears that those in power simply can't be trusted to do right by the public.

Ed Brubaker's Captain America stories have always been politically charged, and that's remained especially true during the recession. A controversial storyline from 2010 saw a character called The Grand Director assemble a militia of Americans fed up with the current state of the country. These militia members were inspired by real world Tea Party protestors, right down to the signs they carried in their marches. The resemblance was enough that some members took offense at the story and its supposed indictment and stereotypical portrayal of the Tea Party. If nothing else, this story proved that some superhero adventures can hit a little too close to home for some.

And just as George W. Bush began appearing in various comics last decade, it's become quite popular to feature Barack Obama in superhero stories both at Marvel and other publishers. Everything from Amazing Spider-Man to Savage Dragon to Bomb Queen has featured Obama's face on covers and in actual storylines. Again, some feel Obama's presence needlessly dates these stories, others feel that the timely subject matter makes his presence a vital one. It's notable to look at the sales numbers for Obama's Amazing Spider-Man issue, which went back to the presses multiple times.

No doubt the Great Recession will continue to impact comic book storylines as its effects linger. The sense of fear is still palpable – have we finally turned the corner into better days, or are we on the verge of total economic and societal collapse? Expect this fear to play a major role in Fear Itself. As Matt Fraction says, "Spider-Man can't punch a recession." The comic creators of the '40s may have seen their characters as infallible opponents of evil and tyranny, but today's heroes occupy a much more complicated and morally questionable landscape.

As always, that makes for some memorable storytelling.

Source: Jesse Schedeen, Marvel Comics and History, IGN Comics, 7 March 2011.