During WWII and the Korean War, superheroes fervently proclaimed our country’s moral infallibility (while the non-superhero stories of disreputable but brilliant EC Comics exposed the nation’s seedy underbelly). The 1954 comics industry-imposed code that prohibited any show of “disrespect for established authority” forced superheroes into service as unquestioning cheerleaders for U.S. foreign and domestic policy. But because superheroes were born out of disrespect for established authority, this indentured servitude was ultimately doomed to failure. As the 50s gave way to the 60s and 70s, and Americans were asked to fight in yet another Asian war, questioning authority soon became the norm.
Super power to the people
The first sign of change came in 1961, when Marvel Comics revived its superhero line with the release of Fantastic Four #1. Creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced a dysfunctional team of characters more in touch with the real world than the staid and virtually interchangeable superhero personalities of DC Comics, which had initiated the Silver Age superhero Renaissance in 1956. The headliners for the “Distinguished Competition” (as Stan Lee referred to Marvel’s chief competitor) were all staunch supporters of the status quo and law and order. Some—including the Flash, Green Lantern and Hawkman—were actually law enforcement officers (either in their costumed or civilian identities). Marvel, on the other hand, was fast developing a reputation for characters who behaved more like James Dean than John Wayne.
Created in 1962 by Lee and artist Steve Ditko, Spider-Man was the most popular Marvel superhero because he was the one with whom readers were most able to identify. Peter Parker was a high school student when the bite from a radioactive arachnid gave him the proportionate strength and agility of a spider. What made him unique among superheroes was that he was often just as concerned with getting a date or good grades as he was with defeating super villains. But as Peter grew up, along with his audience, his personal concerns became more political. In The Amazing Spider-Man #68 (January 1969), he lends his sympathies, though not his actual support, to fellow college students holding a protest for affordable campus housing.
But while Marvel may have made the opening bid in what’s known as the “relevance” trend in comics, DC quickly upped the ante.
Green Lantern was one of several Silver Age superheroes DC created by borrowing the name of a fallen Golden Age star and applying it to a wholly new character. These revised editions reflected the idealism and fascination with science that exemplified post-WWII America. While the Golden Age Green Lantern had wielded a magic ring, the ring of his Silver Age successor was created by an advanced alien race that enlisted him into their intergalactic police force. When sales of this new Green Lantern’s comic book began to falter, DC Comics brought in writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams to try a radically new storytelling approach.
O’Neil first added Green Arrow, turning the formerly nondescript superhero into a revolutionary, more in keeping with his Robin Hood roots. Using Green Arrow as a cranky liberal foil to Green Lantern’s traditional law and order morality, O’Neil began a lively debate on a variety of pressing social concerns.
It started in 1970, the year many comics historians mark as the beginning of the more mature Bronze Age of Comics. In Green Lantern #76, an elderly African-American gentleman poignantly asks the title character why he devotes so much time to protecting the many-hued inhabitants of planets throughout the universe while ignoring the plight of people of color on his own world. Bowing his head in shame, Green Lantern is really taking the fall for comic book publishers, writers and artists who had failed for decades to reflect the racially diverse reality of the world in which comic book readers lived.
From there, Green Lantern spent the next two years addressing such topics as political corruption, Native American rights, sexism, overpopulation, and pollution, and introduced a militant African-American Green Lantern, John Stewart. In one issue, O’Neil and Adams presented veiled commentary on the trial of the Chicago Eight, who had been charged with conspiracy in the aftermath of police-incited riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
During the convention, the evening news televised nightly scenes of cops brutalizing protesters—along with journalists, convention-goers, and anyone else who carelessly got within nightstick-reach. The defendants accused of deliberately orchestrating the riot were social justice activists and community organizers David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, John Froines, Lee Weiner, and Bobby Seale. During the trial, Black Panther Party co-founder Seale was gagged and bound to his chair after repeatedly disrupting the proceedings by demanding (in a sometimes less than respectful manner) his right to represent himself (he was eventually removed from the proceedings entirely, leaving behind the Chicago Seven).
The trial concluded February 18, 1970, with all seven defendants being found not guilty of conspiracy (but convicted of contempt of court and other charges). The cover of Green Lantern #80, which went on sale about six months later, showed its title character and his two companions bound, gagged and also on trial for conspiracy. (A similar image that appeared two years later on the title page of The Incredible Hulk #153 made doubly sure the allusion wasn’t lost by including lyrics from the Graham Nash song about the Chicago Eight trial.)
O’Neil’s innovative writing and Adams’ realistic art received favorable reviews in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Newsweek, gaining national attention for Green Lantern and a new air of respectability for comic books in general. This led to something of a “relevance race,” where publishers tried to find more controversial social issues to tackle in their comic books. Nothing at the time was more controversial than the Vietnam War, which, as it happened, was directly responsible for the creation of what today is one of Marvel Comics’ most famous (and lucrative) superhero characters.
As I explained in my post on comics of the 50s and early 60s, anti-Communism was once the driving force behind the origins of many Marvel superheroes. In the case of millionaire munitions magnate, Tony Stark, he was mortally wounded by a landmine while conducting a field test of one of his latest weapons in Vietnam. Captured by Chinese guerrillas who demanded he make weapons for them, Stark instead constructed a mechanized suit of battle armor to make his escape as the invincible Iron Man. In his 1963 debut, Iron Man showed no mercy to the “Red Menace” and no doubt in his government’s noble intentions (and actions) in Southeast Asia. But by 1975, Vietnam protesters had gained the upper hand in shaping public opinion against the war, aided by disturbing events such as the My Lai Massacre and the release of the Pentagon Papers. Suddenly, Iron Man, the former poster child for the might of the military-industrial complex, was now deeply conflicted about his personal role in the war and his government’s true motives behind waging it.
The changed public attitude about the Vietnam War and the government expressed by Tony Stark were reflected in relaxed provisions adopted by the Comics Code Authority four years earlier. After Marvel editor Stan Lee accepted a request from the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare to have Spider-Man address the issue of drug abuse, he was told the CCA prohibited any mention of drugs, even if it was in a negative light. Lee decided to run the anti-drug story anyway, without the CCA’s seal of approval, in The Amazing Spider-Man #s 96-98 (cover dated May-July 1971). The positive publicity this brought Marvel finally forced the CCA to acknowledge that there were as many college students as kids reading comic books, and it revised its Standards accordingly. An addendum to the prohibition against encouraging disrespect for “policemen, judges and government officials” allowed it only on the condition that, “If any of these is depicted committing an illegal act, it must be declared as an exceptional case and that the culprit pay the legal price.”
But unlike the Manhattan-based “Big Two” publishers DC and Marvel, the independent creators of the Underground Comix movement that had sprung up on the opposite coast in San Francisco weren’t bound to the draconian dictates of the CCA. These twenty-something artists and writers used comics to promote their counterculture values of drug use, free love, rock music and rebellion against authority. Most of the stories they created didn’t deal with superheroes, and the few that did used them to confront the traditional values and institutions upheld by their mainstream peers.
Larry Welz’s Fillmore Grinchbottom is a powerless nobody until he chugs a can of magic beer and is transformed into Captain Guts, “raging avenger of the establishment.” For three issues (1969-71), Captain Guts brutally dispatched hippies, minorities and other imagined threats to straight, white, Christian America. In contrast, Spain Rodrigues‘ Trashman (1968-85), is a counterculture James Bond who uses mystic powers gained through his training by the anarcho-Marxist Sixth International to fight the fascist U.S. government of a near-future dystopia. Probably the most famous Underground comix superhero is Gilbert Shelton’s Wonder Wart-Hog (1968-90). This snout-faced, hyper-patriotic powerhouse satirically exposes the hypocrisy in our democracy by furiously defending it. In the 1970 story “Believe It or Leave It: You Don’t Know How Good You Got It Here in America, Bub,” Wonder Wart-Hog points out how lucky readers are to live in a country free of corrupt political bosses and secret police, while the panels his narration appears on show caricatures of then President Richard Nixon and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
Wonder-Warthog’s implied criticism of Nixon and Hoover was something beyond the capabilities of mainstream comics publishers at the time. The Comics Code Authority’s revised 1971 Standards still didn’t allow stories to “promote distrust of the forces of law and justice.” That’s one reason why, in Captain America #175, published in the wake of Watergate (July 1974), it is a fictitious, unnamed and unseen U.S. President who commits suicide after his part in a criminal conspiracy to overthrow the government is exposed to the public. This traumatic event leads a disillusioned Captain America to temporarily abandon his costume and name, adopting the identity of Nomad, The Man Without a Country. (For the full story, see the “Love it or leave it” section of Part 3 in my 2011 series of posts on Captain America.)
It wasn’t until 15 years after Spider-Man first loosened the Comics Code’s stranglehold on creative and political expression that mainstream superhero comics would portray Nixon, and another iconic Commander-in-Chief, in the less than flattering light many people felt they deserved.
Stay tuned for Part 7: All the President’s super men