Friday, 6 April 2018

The Cold War and Comic Books

The period of 'The Cold War' and the mounting tensions between the empires of the USSR and the USA after World War II provided the world with an iconic dualism, between Communism and Capitalism. While many of the moments that expressed this conflict - such as the 'kitchen debate' of 1959 between Nixon and Khrushchev  - have
disappeared from public memory, the atmosphere of paranoia, the imperialist propaganda and the articulation of ideology from both sides determined the context for the theatre and comic books of the post-World War II era. Just as WWII had inspired Superman's messianic status, the Cold War inspired the Silver Age, and the heroes and villains bear the imprints of what could be considered a polarisation of good and evil that compares with the Manichean outlook of some medieval Heresiarchs

Ironically, the Silver Age heroes of Marvel rapidly outgrow this simplistic dualism. The Fantastic Four may have been created by Reed Richard's enthusiasm for beating the Commies into space (the justification he gives for stealing a rocket and taking his best mate, his girlfriend and a teenage boy into outer-space), but they quickly became more concerned with fighting Dr Doom and each other than the Red Menace. The Red Ghost (pictured above) did have a crack at defeating the FF for the Soviets (he trained his apes in Marxist dialectic, but the combination of a bad haircut and the apes staging their own little revolution at the end ensured that this ersatz Fan Four didn't stick around to trouble the Capitalist Heroes for long.

This talk of dualism makes me wonder whether the Marvel Age of comic books ought to have happened. The development of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's books in the early 1960s displays a movement away from the pure melodrama of the Golden Age towards a more sophisticated (and serialised) structure, with character becoming as important as plot (and often driving the narrative). Melodrama thrives on dualism: it is usually a symbolic playing out of the classic form, good versus evil. If I take a doctrinaire Marxist view (the economic and historical superstructure defines the work of art), or even a strictly structuralist vision (more or less the same as the Marxist one, with less shouting about the dictatorship of the proletariat), Lee and Kirby ought to have written a series of self-contained melodrama, in which villains (usually allegorical communists) were dispatched by the Four, who were a picket-fence perfect family unit and not a bunch of squabbling misfits. 

But they didn't, did they? 

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