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Contexts Radical roots of the superheroes

The success of the film Black Panther has sparked interest in the progressive origins of comic book icons. ALEX MITCHELL delves into their history

BATMAN, Superman and Wonderwoman first saw the light of day in the late 1930s and it was in 1940 that Timely Comics – Marvel Comics' predecessor — launched Captain America. Illustrated by Jack Kirby and written initially by Joe Simon and later by Stan Lee, it went on to sell 1 million copies a month.


With the introduction of deeper characterisation and social commentary, it was Lee who transformed Marvel Comics into an iconic brand. He was from an immigrant working-class Jewish family in New York, where the left was well represented in the 1920s among garment workers. Many of them were Jewish and the community was at the forefront of the anti-fascist movement and radical politics.


Like others of his generation, Lee was an American “liberal,” with all the contradictions this entailed. He hosted a fundraiser for Bill and Hillary Clinton in 2000 but later denied ever having donated to her campaign. He fell out with some of his best artists, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko among them, and retired as editor-in-chief in 1972.

Lee nevertheless continued to be involved with the Marvel brand, taking a series of cameo roles in the Marvel films released from 2000 onwards. Most recently, by now in his nineties, he was accused of sexual harassment.

His progressive instincts had taken Captain America into battle against nazi spies and saboteurs even before the attack on Pearl Harbour which brought the US into the second world war.

In the 1960s, Captain America took on the fanatical fascist secret society HYDRA. Rather than endure capture, their operatives would bite a poison pill declaiming: “If one head is cut off, two more shall takes its place. Hail HYDRA! Ugh!!” Lee was, of course, writing for a secondary-school age readership.

HYDRA had emerged as a sect within the nazi party, led by Cap’s arch foe the Red Skull. After the war, it infiltrated the highest echelons of the US and Soviet security services to steal new weapon technologies and create as much mayhem around the world as possible. Thus the East-West antagonism of the cold war is portrayed in the Marvel universe as having been fostered deliberately by a fascist conspiracy.

To be sure, Cap was a patriot but he was always ready to defend democracy and the underdog. Nor was he portrayed as winning the war by his own efforts alone. In a 1941 adventure, he's assisted by a British special operative Agent X, whose character was later developed into Agent Peggy Carter. Played by Hayley Atwell in the Marvel films, she became Cap’s love interest.

At the end of the war, Cap’s aircraft crashes in the Arctic and he is preserved in a block of ice until his resurrection in 1964. Cap falls for Peggy’s niece, who's an agent for SHIELD, another secretive organisation set up to protect the world from global threats such as HYDRA.

In the Captain America stories that I grew up with in the 1970s, he teamed up with an African-American hero from Harlem, the Falcon, to struggle against racial discrimination, poverty and drug dependency.


In Marvel’s version of world history the heroes of the 1940s were mostly enhanced through the application of science. The super-soldier serum that turned weakling Steve Rogers into the powerful Captain America was developed by a Jewish scientist who defected to the US to prevent the formula falling into nazi hands.

And the ”atomic age” ushered in a new wave of super-powered men and women. Gamma rays transformed Bruce Banner into the Incredible Hulk, cosmic rays created the Fantastic Four and a radioactive spider transformed nerdy high school student Peter Parker into the Amazing Spider-Man.

A cohort of mutant X-Men were born as result of the radioactive fallout from nuclear weapon tests in the 1950s and early 1960s and their arrival came none too soon — radio transmissions from the first world war onwards had alerted predatory aliens to the existence of intelligent life on Earth.

Some extraterrestrials came to help, notably the Silver Surfer, but most were bent on conquest. Earth’s successful resistance came as a result of the efforts of the superhero groups like the Fantastic Four and the Avengers.

There were women superheroes too and not just as girlfriends of other heroes or even US citizens. Natasha Romanoff was a Soviet assassin known as the Black Widow until she joined the Avengers.

She was featured in her own comic book for a short run in 1970 and, like Captain America, tackled social problems as well as super villains. The character is played by Scarlett Johansson in the Marvel Studios films.

From 2000, Marvel's stories took a more libertarian turn, with Cap defending civil liberties from state encroachment. The mutants of the X-Men stories suffered from discrimination and compulsory “treatment” for being born different. US society turned against “the Gifted” and required enhanced individuals to register with the government.

Those refusing to register, like Captain America, were hunted down. In 2007, now aged 88 but still at his peak of physical fitness, Cap was shot dead by a brainwashed Sharon Carter.

But superheroes — and comic book characters — never really die and his story continued with the release of the hit films Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011 and Avengers Assemble a year later.


Alex Mitchell’s book Kick ‘em: Neoliberalism and the Working Class is available for download from Scribd.



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