I often wonder about what’s going through the heads of the everyday average non-superpowered crowd member in Marvel’s New York City, particularly the ones with very strong political beliefs.
Wait, that’s not quite right. I do wonder about that, but Marvel has published series dedicated at least in part to providing a bystander’s-eye-view of things like superhero wars and alien invasions. I guess I’m more interested in what Marvel’s editors and creators think of what’s going through these characters’ heads, and what they’re trying to say about the world we live in when depicting crowds on Marvel main street, holding signs and shouting about this or that.
I think I know the answer already, and it’s that the comics-makers aren’t actually ruminating on how depicting a crowd of people doing and saying this or that about a Marvel plot event reflects on our world.
The crowds are either just window-dressing, details to either simply add a touch of realism, or employed as a storytelling shortcut to symbolize the political mood in the Marvel version of the city or country during a particular story. Take the angry crowds in Civil War, calling Johnny Storm a baby-killer after the Stamford incident: Mechanically, it was simply a way to make clear that public opinion had shifted against the superheroes.
But given that the event that that crowd (and those that other crowds) was demonstrating about was based on a real-world event, than it’s hardly unreasonable to wonder what Marvel is saying—consciously or unconsciously—about those events and our reactions to them.
Examples, conjecture and swear words, after the jump…
I’ve always had a hard time trying to wrap my head around the precise politics of Marvel, especially as expressed through Civil War, which offered an extremely dismal view of the American people. Were writer Mark Millar and Marvel holding up a funhouse mirror and saying, “Look how you’ve all overreacted to 9/11 and swallowed this ‘War on Terror’ nonsense, you fools!”…?
Because, you know, that’s pretty ballsy.
It wasn’t until I read one of Abhay Khosla’s indispensable Secret Invasion essays that I started groping toward a solid answer though.
In his review of Secret Invasion #6, Khosla took some time to ridicule a scene in which some New Yorkers are marching around with signs chanting “Embrace Change,” having evidently been won over by those creepy Marvel house ads showing Skrulls Photoshopped into stock photos.
Finally! Finally, we get page after page attacking the true enemy: LIBERAL PROTESTERS.
Where the fuck did that shit come from??
Page after page, not of the first or second or even third issue, page after page of the SIXTH ISSUE– it wasn’t spent escalating the stakes of the comic, it wasn’t spent dealing with characters we care about, it wasn’t spent paying off earlier scenes. The fucking SIXTH ISSUE was spent introducing an entirely new cast of straw-men liberal characters, and then attacking them for being naive about the nature of evil.
First, let me just say, on a political level, this comic can go fuck itself. You know– one pretty easy way a person could read this comic if they were so inclined is that it equates protesting wars with supporting terrorism. I don’t think the people who made the comic think that. I don’t think they were thinking at all. I don’t think they made a big priority of thinking.
And that’s why I guess it’s best to let Millar, Marvel, Bendis and everyone else that goes to these summits and kicks these ideas around off the hook when it comes to the politics being expressed in these things.
Even when there’s a very, very clear one-to-one relationship between a Marvel Universe element and a real world issue—Civil War’s Stamford as our 9/11, World War Hulk’s Hulk invasion as military hubris coming back to bite you in the ass Iraq War-style, Secret Invasion’s holy warrior Skrulls on suicide missions as Muslim jihadists—the story gets so diluted as it gets bigger and bigger that the symbolism is essentially more of a suggested-by-the-headlines kind of flavoring than a coherent statement.
And, of course, since these things never really end-end, just stop so the build-up for the next one can begin, whatever Marvel might have been trying to say about these events never reaches a conclusion; if there’s a political statement to be made, it always ends in an ellipsis rather than a period.
Maybe Mark Millar, in his heart of hearts, started pitching Civil War as a broad criticism of post-9/11 America, and Marvel didn’t want to spend the time, money and goodwill on a political polemic, but thought the security vs. freedom idea was great, and would set-up a bold, new playground for future stories.
Maybe World War Hulk was simply intended to be about the Hulk smashing the Marvel heroes, and it was simply a fluke of the publishing schedule that it didn’t actually happen until after Marvel had transformed Iron Man and his allies into symbols of the Bush Administration worldview.
Maybe Brian Michael Bendis did set up Secret Invasion as a bit of jingoistic War On Terror super-comic catharsis cleverly disguised as your typical aliens invade story itself disguised as a game-changing, status quo realigning Event Comic, but his execution was too poor to realize it. (Or maybe it’s just an alien invasion comic that coincidentally has parallels to current global conflicts and I’m reading too much into it).
One political ideal of Marvel Comics at the moment is perfectly clear, however: They hate hippies.
It was the bottle-throwing, “baby-killer”-shouting demonstrators that attacked Johnny Storm and put the momentum of Marvel America behind Superhero Registration Act, and it was a Cindy Sheehan-like grieving mother who acted as Tony Stark’s conscience, as he embraced his emerging fascism (The trappings of these characters are those of the anti-war left, from the Vietnam war and the Iraq War, but, oddly, they were pushing rightward rather than to the left).
The crowds in World War Hulk who refused to abandon New York City and instead embraced the Hulk’s position that Tony Stark and his fellow heroes really oughta have their asses kicked were presented as your typical mass demonstrators: They had a myriad of causes and points of view, they seemed more of an irritation to the powers that be than a force of change, and they were rather easily dismissed. These folks seemed to run the gamut between people with axes to grind (Tony Stark built a cyborg that killed my uncle, The Hulk saved me and Stark shot him into space, etc.) and loons who thought it would be kinda cool to be ruled over by aliens. Most were presented in a negative light; they were just getting in the way and constantly needed saved from the danger they were putting themselves in by the heroes.
And then there are the “Embrace Changers” of Secret Invasion that Khosla pointed out in the passage I quoted above; rather than rallying behind the superheroes that want to fight off the alien invaders, they want to embrace them and welcome them. Do they want to roll over and let the Skrulls rule us as benevolent masters, or maybe just join us?
These peaceniks are rewarded by being slaughtered by the Skrulls. See, they thought you could live peacefully alongside religious zealots from beyond, but it’s just not so: The only good religious zealot from beyond is a dead one, I guess (This was one of the things I found hardest to understand about SI, just how bloodthirsty all the heroes were. I understand it may be more realistic to kill enemies than arrest and capture them in a war-like situation, but is a Marvel Universe Event Comic any place for realism?)
Those damn hippies were again causing problems for the Marvel heroes in Avengers: The Initiative #19, a story entitled “V-S Day,” dealing with the end of the Skrull threat. A Washington mob was swarming Jocasta and a partially surviving member of the Skrull Kill Krew, stopping them from taking down the Skrulls in their midst.
Peace signs, beads, braids, beards, John Lennon glasses, “Make Love Not War”…there’s nothing subtle about the depiction of the Embrace Changers in the scene. (Two pages later is an angry, apparently conservative anti-Skrull mob, with funny signs like “Embrace This!” and, my personal favorite, “Get ‘Em!” I think those are the same guys who are always throwing bricks at the poor old X-Men).
Why does Marvel Comics have such a blatantly anti-hippie agenda?
I don’t know.
But as strong as their hatred of al things hippie may be, it still pales in comparison to Golden-Age Sentry’s distaste for beatniks: