continued from here and its discussion of what was revolutionary about the Marvel Revolution, and why it was that Atlas Comics never seemed to grasp how to productively appropriate the new approach that Lee, Kirby, Ditko et al’s developed during the 60s;
This was not how the superhero genre was held to work. Most especially in the years since 1954’s formation of the Comics Code Authority – the industry’s self-censoring body – the problem of evil in the superbook was discussed only in the mildest terms and purely in the context of individual choice. At DC Comics, and whether in the few surviving franchises from the Golden Age such as Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, crime when it occurred was committed by blameworthy freaks, without whom the idealised conservative world of Eisenhowerian America might have proceeded in peace and justice forever. While it doesn’t appear to have been the conscious intention of Lee, Kirby and Ditko to deliberately, directly and fundamentally challenge, that was the effect that was achieved. As time passed, the company’s creators recognised more and more of the opportunities this approach offered, and they pursued it in the light of a generally liberal humanist approach. Yes, often the individual rule-breaker was to blame, and often still the largely monolithic hive-mind of international Communism was clearly a representative of evil. But in the typical human beings who willingly mobbed together to attack mutants in The X-Men, or subscribe to the populist demagoguery of J Jonah Jameson in Spider-Man, or continued to cold-shoulder The Thing, Marvel’s readers could see a broader truth. Individuals could be corrupt. Institutions could be corrupt. States could be corrupt. The world as it was known wasn’t the best of all possible worlds, only threatened by this sinner and that madman. It and its citizenry were prone to the very qualities that were supposedly exclusive to The Bad People.
In this, Marvel Comics was sidestepping decades of mainstream comics tradition and, in essence if not design, returning to a single, brief aspect of Superman’s origin as retold in 1948. Therein, the learned elders of Krypton’s Imperial Council refuse to heed Jor-El’s warning that Krypton is doomed. As a result of their hubris, the prophecy is tragically fulfilled without hope of its mitigating or organised escape, beyond, of course, that of a single small child. Had the Imperial Council been but a single ruler, it would have been easy to regard the fatal failings of Krypton’s political system as being rooted in a lone individual’s flaws. But the suggestion instead is that the Imperial Council represents institutional incompetence and arrogance, and perhaps even jealousy and corruption. In every version of Superman’s origin, extending right back to Siegel and Shuster’s first published version, we can see how random and, in effect, cruel the universe is. No matter how quickly the origin tale moves on from Krypton’s destruction, the truth remains that an entire planet, and every single aspect of its eco-system, has been wiped out. Unless we take Krypton to be the homeworld of a uniformly sinful culture, that world-ending catastrophe cannot in any way be just. But to add to the origin’s first version with the sins of systematic political failure suggests not just a meaningless universe, but one in which human beings conspire with it in order to make an absurd existence a tragic one.
That daunting air of political conceitedness and catastrophic negligence in Superman’s origin could, when on rare occasion referenced, make the Man Of Steel feel as if he were an even more tragic figure than Batman, who had similarly been orphaned in appalling circumstances. Yet the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne by Joe Chill was an example of a single individual behaving in a dire manner. It was not the consequence of a fatally flawed political system, of an entire species prone to the worst of sins and errors, of a universe that would wipe out an entire planet and an entire civilisation without any reference to their rights and virtues. To pity young Bruce Way is to pity a single lost boy and his slain parents. To pity the baby Kal-El is to be faced with even more disturbing issues.
Of course, Krypton was an alien planet hosting an alien species, no matter how similar they appeared to the readers of Superman’s adventures. The truth about Krypton’s extra-terrestrial elite need not be the truth about our own fellow citizens. But Marvel’s adventures took place in a recognisable version of America, and an America which became more complex and fascinating as Lee and Kirby and Ditko’s comics began to be woven together into a mostly-coherent shared universe. And so, in Marvel’s pages, the enemy wasn’t a simple matter of this criminal or that, of Lex Luthor or The Joker or The Cheetah. The enemy is, ultimately, existence itself, is the society of this very moment, is the human beings next door, is our very selves.
No wonder the counter-culture fastened enthusiastically onto Marvel’s adventures. It wasn’t just the freedom to engage with and interrogate children’s fancies that psychedelia demanded, or the fond respect that Pop Art enabled towards mass culture, or the growing sophistication and ambition on show in the company’s comics. It was also the confrontational essence of the Marvel Revolution’s titles, that demanded, after one fashion or the other, that nothing was in itself trustworthy and good and no-one could be relied upon to save us all from evil. Even when the comics themselves appeared to be saying the opposite to those things, even when the stories were extolling the inextinguishable virtues of human nature and the United States Of America, the deep structure of the new storytelling tradition insisted, in the words of Walt Kelly, that we had indeed met the enemy and it was indeed us.
to be continued, as I continue to cycle back to Atlas Comics and the shortfalls in its appropriation of the Marvel method …