The first comic books had no qualms about being propaganda—Captain America punches Hitler on the cover of his first issue. Later comics faced divisive social issues, the type that couldn’t be stopped with a punch. Sean Howe, author of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (Harper), says Marvel—led by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (who quipped, “Comics is journalism”)—tackled these topics faster than rival DC Comics. “A lot of these social issues are philosophical matters that people struggle with,” says Howe. “Putting these conflicts into comics just makes for better, smarter comics.” Here, Howe takes us through some of Marvel’s punch-ups with society.
Marvel positioned Professor X and Magneto as analogs for the peaceful Martin Luther King Jr. and militant Malcolm X. Decades later, this influenced the X-Men movies as director Bryan Singer’s writing partner “was insistent that the metaphor was essential to the X-Men mythos,” says Howe.
“Vietnam was definitely one of the clumsier transformations,” says Howe. “The Spider-Man ‘Crisis on Campus!’ issue seems as though Stan Lee is rewriting things as he goes.” Peter Parker flip-flops between support of and contempt for the students—a representation of the country’s own indecision.
WAR ON TERROR
The Civil War series pits Marvel heroes against one another over a new mutantregistration law. “It doesn’t seem like it’s really taking a stand,” Howe says of the series’ take on the Patriot Act and civil rights. Instead, writers decided to leave readers with more questions than answers.
This year, openly gay Alpha Flight member Northstar married his longtime companion, demonstrating Marvel’s stance on the topic. It’s a long way from the days when a writer tried to make a character HIV-positive. Says Howe, “He was basically told, ‘We’re not going to do that.’”