Escapism, Engagement, and the Dialectic of Excitement in Marvel Comics, 1961-1966
[Personism is] a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre syle, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages. In all modesty, I confess that it is the death of literature as we know it.
–Frank O’Hara, “Personism: A Manifesto” (1961)
The Marvel Universe exploded into being, with an ironic, self-aggrandizing bang, in March, 1962 (captioned by “The Greatest Comic Magazine in the World” blurb on the cover of the otherwise-unheralded Fantastic Four #3). This declaration of principle-your-leg was promptly incorporated into the comic’s logo, and, over the course of the next five years, would flower into a reasonably accurate appraisal of the state of the art in America (at least in its “above ground” manifestations). Marvel built up its readership during this period by reconstructing its (implied) readers; inscribing the new model “Merry Marcher” (conceived as a combination of revival convert, interlocutor and ”editor-at-large”) into the scripts of its “realistic fantasies” through a variety of textual interfaces and initiatives. This process was both nurtured and constrained by generic, commercial, cultural, ideological, and world-historical imperatives that intersected most revealingly in the Marvel fan page.
The fan page—or “lettercol”—had been a staple public relations strategy of “pulp” (and, later, comic) magazine publishers since the 1920s (particularly of those companies which serviced the unusually self-conscious science fiction fan community). Initially, Marvel deployed the device in its standard “bouquets or brickbats”/”letter to the Editor” guise. However, audience response (called forth by the increasingly conversational/hyperbolic narrative/editorial style adopted by writer Stan Lee) soon dictated a change in policy, epitomized by the metafictional bleed between “story” and letters in Fantastic Four #10 and #11 (Jan and Feb, 1963). Even Lee appears to have been staggered by the degree of enthusiasm elicited by the material that he, Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby were creating; and his 1963/1964 editorials betray a certain uneasiness with the possibility that readers might well be more excited by their own role in fomenting “The Marvel Age of Comics” than by the nominal “content” of the books themselves. These qualms would soon evaporate under the glare of national scrutiny, as the company furled its banner around the nexus point between narrator and narratee, “reality” and “fantasy”, parody and epic, “high” and “low” culture, student and G.I., radical and conservative, producer and consumer, publicity and public, professional and fan.
Science fiction fandom, which coalesced into a demographic to be reckoned with in the 1920s, established a model for consciousness-raising that would serve as both an inspiration and a foil to Marvel in the 1960s. Sam Moskowitz traces the origins of the subculture to the “Discussions” column of Amazing Stories, the first magazine devoted entirely to the genre (Moskowitz, 5). This immensely popular venture, the brainchild of cost-conscious publisher Hugo Gernsback, anthologised public-domain classics by the likes of Poe, Verne, and Wells alongside the tentative first efforts of their epigoni. The lynchpin of this low-overhead (and, by all accounts, low-yield, at least by aesthetic criteria) marketing strategy was the fan forum, which debuted in the June, 1926 issue. Gernsback printed the correspondents’ full addresses, thereby generating the connective tissue between fans who shared the publisher’s belief that every reader of these stories was a potential scientist, and a potential “scientifiction” writer (Tymn, 14-49).
In the past few decades, the theorization of mass culture has moved (although far from unanimously) away from an “effects” paradigm toward a discourse of “use”/“appropriation” (Brooker and Jermyn, 91-93) that Gernsback’s audience would certainly have understood. Subcultural insider Sam Moskowitz’s The Immortal Storm: A History of Science Fiction Fandom, published in 1954, provides a textbook account of the ways in which “some individuals may seek to express their otherwise silenced identities through a common interest in a symbol, icon, or text, and, then, redress their alienation through the social nature of fan practice” (Alexander and Harris, 5). Of course, Moskowitz’s particular fan/subjects owed their group allegiance to “science” (defined as “progress”) itself, and their sense of “empowerment” derived as much from a perception of intimacy with “the future” (would Bourdieu call this predictive capital?) as from the communal ties they often forged.
In this respect, science fiction fandom could be described as having some of the characteristics (in hyper-teleological form) of what Theodor Adorno (1994), in his analysis of faddish interest in astrological columns, calls “secondary superstition” (48-49). Gernsback’s slogan, after all, was: “Extravagant Fiction Today—Cold Fact Tomorrow” (Tymn, 16). However, Moskowitz’s typical actor is, in many ways, the exact opposite of Adorno’s simultaneously passive and calculating recipient of messages from the Irrational Beyond. While science fiction fans did (and do) tend to see a kind of providential logic in the vagaries of technological development, they most certainly did not commonly defer to “expert” forecasts of the trajectory of Absolute Science; and they were even less likely to wish to use “information” gleaned from the hobby to their material or social advantage. To be a fan was to contribute to a group hypothesis concerning the destiny of the human race, purely for the pleasure (or, in some cases, the displeasure) of the thing. Conscientious participation in the dialectic entailed a duty, on the part of each fan, regardless of his or her status within the community, to scrutinize and pronounce upon the plausibility of the narratives that emerged from the process. Consequently, the lettercol, as the institutionalisation of this imperative, retained its importance within fandom long after its catalysing role had been played out; although Moskowitz maintains, quite convincingly, that the most vital fan activity had moved on to other fora—i.e. the “fanzines”—by the late 1930s (13).
Be that as it may, Julius Schwartz and Mortimer Weisinger (charter members of New York’s “Scienceer” fan club in 1933) brought the lettercols with them when they acceded to editorships at DC Comics, just a few years after Moskowitz published his chronicle, and the move is generally seen as one of the key contributing factors in the revitalization of the superhero genre in the late 1950s (Pustz, 44). However, while the lettercols in Flash and Superman magazines undoubtedly did stimulate a certain amount of fan interest, they interfaced with the community in a markedly different way than their pulp predecessors had. In the first place, these books featured the adventures of continuing characters, rather than anthologized material, with the result that the letters tended to focus upon the imagined worlds contained therein, rather than the creative personnel (the majority of whom received no by-line) responsible for their production. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, DC’s (accurate) construal of its readership as largely composed of young children inevitably fostered an asymmetrical power dynamic between the editors and their correspondents. Older fans of these characters (in both their emergent “Silver Age” and World War Two Era—or “Golden Age”—incarnations) did exist, of course, and many of them wrote letters of comment to DC, but their concerns (and characteristic modes of expression) fitted awkwardly into the fora presided over by Schwartz and Weisinger. By 1961, fan publications such as Roy Thomas and Jerry Bails’ Alter Ego (Schelly) had arisen to capture the reactions of this estranged segment of the community on paper, but the peripherality of these glosses prevented them from performing the (potentially) heteroglossic function of letters imbedded within the primary texts themselves.
Moskowitz’s history abounds with precedent examples of this diversion of fannish energy into parallel (and parochial) publishing schemes. Fandom has always been as productive of schism as it is of community, and subcultures, like Protestant sects, are unstable by nature. Indeed, the argument can be made that, if the American public has been “defanged” politically by the “culture industry”, it is not because citizens have been reduced to mute simulacra of humanity by its machinations, but rather because they are too busy discussing the meanings and minutiae of its products to bother with anything else.
In this sense, mass culture merely stole the spotlight from bibliocentric Christianity upon the country’s psychic stage. The difference, of course, is that while religious disputes in the 18th and 19th centuries generally paralleled and reinforced political divisions (thereby helping, at least in some cases, to force a resolution), movies, comics, pop songs, and bestsellers have dwelled far less relentlessly upon questions of individual and collective morality. Moreover, these diverse entertainments (Adorno and Horkheimer to the contrary) cannot be made to cohere into a monolithic conversation piece capable of drawing audience members from across the ideological spectrum into one spirited and potentially politicizing debate. The importance of the Marvel Universe, as it evolved into a collaboratively imagined (and maintained) textual playground, lay precisely in its growing serviceability as a venue for this kind of notional pastime (albeit on a miniature scale) during a crucial period in American history. The remainder of this paper will concern itself with an analysis of the formative stages (1961-1966) of this unique narrative structure.
The “Fantastic Four Fan Page”, featuring reactions to the title’s premiere issue (cover-dated November, 1961), debuted on page 20 of FF #3. The early columns adhered, in most respects, to industry standards laid down by Weisinger and Schwartz. Letters are addressed to “The Editor” and generally confine themselves to “knocks” or “boosts” of the material. Fans are identified by name and place of residence, but their full street addresses are withheld. Only the editor’s somewhat “wackier”-than-usual responses (later credited to Stan Lee himself) convey any sense of the possibilities that would soon open up. Lee’s tone, clearly recognizable in the very first exchange printed in a Marvel fan page, owed a great deal to the public relations style pioneered by William Gaines’ EC comics in the mid-1950s:
I think the Fantastic Four will become a great success. The Thing and the Torch are very new and different. I would also like to know what the name of your artist is.
Las Vegas, Nevada
[Ed:] It’ll become a success?? What do you think it is NOW? Chopped liver?? Considering that our artist signs the name JACK KIRBY on everything he can get his greedy little fingers on, I think we can safely claim that that’s his name! (FF #3)
As in this instance, reader response tended to emphasize the novelty and “realism” of the characters (particularly of The Thing, whose “cosmic ray”-born powers came yoked to a rocky, orange body that set him apart from his colleagues and all previous protagonists of this type of story). In actuality, the Fantastic Four was conceived primarily as a generic segue between Marvel’s (and artist Jack Kirby’s) then-house speciality (the one-shot “monster tale”) and the atomic-age superhero trend launched by DC in the late 1950s. While some correspondents, notably Bill Sarill, deplored this “creeping monsterism” (FF #3), most of them keyed in approvingly on the elements of these stories that distinguished them from those published by the company’s chief competitor. If readers chose to interpret the Thing’s difficulties as a nod toward “realism”, Lee was not about to correct them.
In the flattering post-script to FF #3’s column, the editor noted that: “unlike many other collections of letters in different mags, our fans all seem to write well, and intelligently. We assume this denotes that our readers are a cut above the average, and that’s the way we like ‘em”. During the course of the following year, Lee and Kirby strove to bring the title into a closer alignment with the expectations evinced by (and raised by the previously unsuspected existence of) this audience. The series was reset from “Central City” to New York. Protagonists that had been conceived as icons (leader/father figure, female love interest, hot-headed teen, anti-hero/outsider) were suddenly subjected to the canons of a very different type of storytelling. “Character development” (along with its corollary: “continuity”) was placed at a premium. In deference to the older superhero fans who played an increasingly large (and increasingly valued) role in fostering the early success of the book, the stories were infused with a sense of the genre’s history (epitomized by the resurrection of the Sub-Mariner, created by Bill Everett for Marvel in 1939, in FF #4). Most importantly, the jocular tone of the first lettercol deepened into a more purposefully ironic style, and spread to the text proper, encouraging responses in kind from the readers. The product of these changes (and dialectical exchanges), motivated entirely by commercial considerations, was a brand of “realistic fantasy” (bordering on the grotesque) that resembled nothing so much as a more philosophically optimistic variation upon the works of Nathanael West.
Stan and Jack
Sales and fan enthusiasm escalated throughout 1962. After beginning at a bimonthly publication rate, The Fantastic Four “went monthly” in September of that year, prompting the beleaguered editor to beg his readers to keep their letters short. No matter how preoccupied they became with plans for new characters—such as Spider-Man (who debuted in Amazing Fantasy #15, cover dated August, 1962), and the Incredible Hulk (who first appeared in issue #1 of volume #1 of his own—ultimately unsuccessful–magazine in May 1962)—designed to flesh out (and capitalize upon) the world that had sprung to life within the pages of the FF, Marvel’s creative personnel (primarily Lee, Kirby, and Steve Ditko) understood their sacred obligation to the proselytizing readers who were conducting the company’s advertising campaign on their own free time.
Fan letters also began to play an important role in shoring up continuity glitches that might otherwise have damaged the fictional integrity of the emergent Marvel universe. Bruce Fogel’s mock-irate letter in FF #4, which complained about the inconsistent presentation of Sue Storm’s powers, instigated a primitive version of the “No-Prize contest”, in which readers vied for the honour of sparing Marvel’s creators the disgrace of being proved incompetent storytellers. In this case, a bounty ($5) was offered—and subsequently awarded to Jonathan Latham, one of 73 readers to come up with a plausible solution to the problem, in issue #6. However, Lee quickly deduced that fans enjoyed these opportunities to co-write the stories to such an extent that no further financial incentives would be necessary—and so the “No-Prize” was born.
The Bakhtinian carnival within the lettercols finally spilled over into the main feature in early 1963. The cover of FF #10 depicts the artist and scripter standing with their backs to the reader, marvelling at the raucous situation they’ve concocted this month. An arrow-shaped blurb drives home the point, announcing: “In this epic issue: surprise follows surprise as you actually meet Lee and Kirby in the story!!” The much-anticipated event comes to pass on page 5, which shows the pair in their Marvel office, surrounded by images of the company’s other properties and sacks labelled “fan mail”. The diegetic Lee and Kirby agonize over their incapacity to create a more interesting villain than Dr. Doom, a character they regret exiling to space in a previous issue (a footnote—the first of its kind, and destined to become a trademark aspect of Marvel continuity-consciousness—reminds the reader that this event occurred in issue #6). Their problem is solved when Doom himself wanders onto the scene, barking: “you are searching for a story—well, I shall give you one! Here, phone Mr. Fantastic—say what I tell you if you value your lives” (FF #10, 5). Naturally, they do, and the rematch proceeds apace.
The lettercol of this same issue serves notice of two far more important innovations, from our point of view. It begins with this disclaimer:
Hi fans and friends! Look—enough of that “Dear Editor” jazz from now on! Jack Kirby and Stan Lee (that’s us!) read every letter personally, and we like to feel that we know you and that you know us! So we changed the salutations in the following letters to show you how much friendlier they sound our way!
As promised, all of the letters (with the exception of one missive directed to the “editors of the greatest comic mag”) are addressed: “Dear Stan and Jack”. This became the standard form of address at Marvel, and it did indeed attest to a growing sense of solidarity between creators and fans. Secondly, in response to “literally hundreds of requests,” the editors announce their intention to expand the lettercol to two pages.
FF #11 (Feb 1963) yielded even more interesting metafictional commentary upon the “lettercol effect”. The two stories contained within the issue certainly made good the cover’s promise to deliver “offbeat” entertainment. The first of them, “A Visit With the Fantastic Four” was billed as a “special bonus to our readers…the type of story most requested by your letters and post cards” (1). The “splash” page shows a mixed (by age and gender, but racially homogenous) group of New Yorkers lined up at a newsstand on the most important day of the month—i.e. the day the new issue of Fantastic Four appears. Meanwhile, in the foreground, a Kirby youth crows: “Hey Charlie look! I just got the latest copy! And my letter’s on the fan page!” The vignette demonstrates that while, even at this early date, Marvel no longer conceived of its customers as exclusively male and under 13, the company still expected its most vociferous champions to hail from this segment of the population.
Support for this conviction abounds in the story itself, which features the characters’ responses to representative reader questions about the daily lives of Fantastic Four. The most jarring episode of the encounter centres upon Sue Storm’s reactions to her “fan mail”:
Reed: We’ve come a long way since those early days… and had many almost unbelievable adventures!
Sue: But they were your adventures—the three of you—much more than mine!
Reed: Sue! What are you talking about? What do you mean?
Sue: I-I hadn’t wanted to mention it Reed, but I’ve gotten a number of letter lately—some disturbing letters… There! A number of readers have said that I don’t contribute enough to you…you’d be…better off without me! And perhaps they’re—right! (FF #11, 9)
The creators’ attempt to settle this controversy, which had been brewing in the lettercols for months (and which definitely savoured of homosocial playground logic), tells us more about their own limited understanding of the relationship between gender and genre than the implied reader’s. Reed delivers a paean to Lincoln’s mother (“who didn’t help him fight the Civil War…[but who nevertheless was] the most important person in the world to him”) and Ben Grimm (the Thing) exclaims: “if you readers wanna see women fightin’ all the time, then go see lady wrestlers!” (10).
Almost as an afterthought, Reed points out that Sue had, in her invisible way, contributed materially to the group’s battlefield triumphs. This aspect of the defence elicited the most satisfying comments from readers, with the result that, one year later (in FF #22), Sue acquired extra powers which enabled her to do more of the fighting that (Ben Grimm to the contrary) superhero fans (including the women who composed between 10 and 15% of the letters published in Marvel fan pages between 1962 and 1966) could be forgiven for wanting to see all of the protagonists engage in.
By this point, it had become clear that, when readers clamoured for “realism”, they meant something more akin to the “reality” of a close, responsive relationship between narrator and narratee than to “psychological realism”. These people craved the assurance that their concerns would always be faithfully noted, translated and inscribed into the fantastic terms of the text. To the extent that Marvel succeeded in upholding its end of the bargain, it defied both the Adornian and the De Certeauan models of the relationship between cultural producers and consumers. Marvel readers were more likely to be the co-producers of—rather than “produced” by—the stories they consumed; and graffiti becomes impossible when the owner of the building hands you the pen (even if he or she never hands over a share of the profits).
This is not to say that the company always practiced what it preached—particularly in 1962/3, when the small operation dangerously overextended itself in an effort to broaden the scope (and the profitability) of the Marvel universe. Of the new superhero titles that appeared during this period, only The Amazing Spider-Man received its own lettercol. Readers of the other books (Journey Into Mystery, Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish, Tales of Suspense, and the short-lived Incredible Hulk) were expected to send their comments to the “Fantastic Four Fan Page”. Even more telling was this editorial plea from the “Special Announcements” section of ASM #7 (Dec 1963):
Here’s our most difficult announcement: we want your permission to discontinue [“The Spider’s Web”]! Now hold on, before you hit the ceiling! We KNOW you enjoy these two pages! We enjoy’em too! But, they take HOURS to put together—to select the letters, write the copy, etc. and we’d rather spend that time producing new strips for you. We feel it would be best to have only one clearing house for all Marvel Mail, and that would be the FANTASTIC FOUR mag. So how about it? Suppose all the mail for all Marvels is sent to FF? That’ll give SPIDER-MAN two extra pages for longer stories, features, or what-have you! We’ll do nothing till we hear from you, so let us know. But, as a special favor, we hope you’ll tell us you don’t mind.
Needless to say, the respondents did mind. In fact, they were so insistent that, by May 1964, all of the Marvel titles (including new additions The X-Men and The Avengers) had been granted lettercols.
Hand in hand with this initial incapacity (due to understaffing) to fully implement its lettercol strategy came a more philosophically motivated reluctance on the company’s part to engage readers intelligently on subjects considered tangential (or even hazardous) to the maintenance of a “shared universe” that came preformatted to the ideological specifications of the Kennedy sixties. As one might expect, the most glaring failure, in this regard, concerned Marvel’s penchant for casting Communist agents as villains.
The Fantastic Four’s showdown on the moon with the self-explanatorily-named Red Ghost in issue #13 (April 1963) provoked an uncharacteristically circumscribed debate in the lettercols. The printed objections to this type of story tended to deplore them as clichés, rather than as instances of Cold Warmongering:
Come on now! You have a good thing going and what do you do? You introduce an Ivan What’s-His-Name? What I mean is that issue #13 was very much under par!! Now that the Russians know that they can get cosmic powers, guess what’s gonna happen? The Earth’s gonna be run over by Super-Russians!
[Robert Caldwell in FF #18]
…in the last panel of issue 12, we are informed that in the next issue the FF will meet “one of the most powerful super-villains of all”. This turns out to be the “Red Ghost”. Never in my wildest flights of fancy did I dream “red” would refer to the communists! Nor did I imagine that the tale would take place on the moon. Both of these were disappointing.
[Steve Gerber—one of many future Marvel employees published in these early columns--in FF #19]
Supporters of the anti-communist adventures, on the other hand, tended to applaud Marvel for taking a “courageous” political stand in keeping with its reputation for “realism”:
I feel that you should definitely continue to pit your heroes against the forces of communism, which is a much bigger threat to our nation than crime is… One other company, when asked why it did not have its heroes fighting Communism, replied something about not involving itself in politics, etc. I felt that their approach is somewhat cowardly… [Communism] is a constant threat to our entire nation, and it should be dealt with accordingly. I am glad at least one company is realistic enough to call our attention to this threat and arouse our interest against it…
[Alex Nicholson in FF #29]
And there you have it. So far, the proportion is heavily in favor of calling a spade a spade, or a red a red.
[Editor’s reply to Alex Nicholson in FF #29]
“Communism” in these stories is barely distinguishable from Nazism as it was depicted in World War II-era popular culture (and in “retro” Silver Age titles like Marvel’s Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandoes). It is not treated as a competing ideological system (nor even as a potentially “subversive” one—as evidenced by the satiric vignette of McCarthyite hysteria on page 4 of FF #20); it is merely an “evil empire”, banal to some, transfixing to others. This would begin to change in the mid-1960s (at least in the lettercols), as Marvel’s cultural profile rose and its demographic support shifted leftward.
Pop Art Productions
From the beginning, Lee’s bombastic ironies, Kirby’s vorticist thriller tableaux, and Ditko’s clammy surrealism had encouraged the occasional slumming highbrow to make extravagant claims on Marvel’s behalf. Meanwhile, the company’s impresario adhered to a strikingly traditional conception of aesthetic hierarchy:
At school we wrote a paper on whether we like comic books or not and our reasons. Although I got an “A” my teacher wrote a note on my paper saying that I should be smart enough to realize that good books are better than comic books. I tried to tell her that comic books are good books… I would like you to print a comic in which the FF meets an educational villain…
[Billy Robbins in FF #29, Aug 1964]
Actually Billy, there’s much truth in what your teacher says. While we DO try to inject as much quality writing and fine artwork as possible in our mags, they can never replace “good books”, nor are they intended to. Comic books are like candy—strictly for fun. You still need a balanced diet of classics and other fine literature. Actually, we’re darn proud of our readers, most of whom are equally as conversant with Saroyan [a strangely “middlebrow” example] as with Stan Lee—and that’s how we want it.
[Editor to Billy Robbins in FF #29]
As the sixties progressed, however, this position became increasingly untenable, as Lee found himself deluged by media interest (a steady stream of “Comics! Not just for kids!” articles began appearing in The Village Voice, Esquire, and college newspapers across the country in 1965) and reports from fans more impressed by the author’s lyrical claims on behalf of the “Marvel Age of Comics” than he himself had ever been.
In an effort to catch lightning in a bottle, the company launched the Merry Marvel Marching Society (MMMS–an order of fandom that emerged as an extension of the convivial spirit of the lettercols) in January 1965. The MMMS inaugurated a campus craze (memberships were offered at a rate of 6 for the price of 5 for “college chapters” of the Society), and it became a (w)rite of passage for MMMSers to chime in with their personal impressions of the death knell of the high-low binary in art:
As Corresponding Secretary of Epsilon Chapter of Beta theta Pi Fraternity, I have been unanimously directed by the chapter to convey to you Epsilon’s approval concerning your superb monthly edition which your firm so modestly refers to as a “comic magazine”. Here at Epsilon, the Marvel Portfolio is infinitely more than a “comic magazine” meant for monthly amusement; it is a way of life… Needless to say, the brotherhood recognizes the deeper significance of the Marvel Portfolio. The chapter has supplemented its regular college curriculum (indeed, replaced!) with courses in “Thing, 269,” “Spider-Man Seminar, 672,” “The Fantastic Four as an Epiphany, 203,” “Concatenation in Captain America, 237,” and “Thoreau in Thor: An Act of Civil Disbelief, 313.” The chapter awaits your next monthly masterpiece to slake its literary thirst.
[Nick Henry, Centre College of Kentucky, in FF #38, May 1965]
…Instead of learning of insignificant persons such as Plato, Shakespeare and Freud, I am spending my time at college studying the real history makers like Ben Grimm!
[Lynn Wilson, Pitzer College in FF #41, Aug 1965]
A corollary of this type of adulation was an increasingly sophisticated scrutiny of the political implications of Marvel texts that often caught the management flatfooted:
As the Fantastic Four leave the domain of the Skrulls in issue #37, they say, “It’s a different galaxy… with a different race of living beings… and yet… it seems that ambition, and hate, and love, are the same everywhere in the universe! Perhaps we’re really not so different from others… either on earth… or in the void of space! And the day all mankind realize that lesson… we shall all come a step closer to brotherhood… and universal peace!” A fine sentiment! But, you aren’t as humane to Earth people! In [Tales of] SUSPENSE #64 [starring Iron Man and Captain America], a devilish dictator called “comrade leader” forces the Black Widow to carry out his “evil purposes.” Fighting against the Russian ghouls is one of the “richest, handsomest, most glamorous munitions makers of all time.” Iron Man says the Russian gunmen talk “like true Commie tintypes.” Man, the John Birch Society must love Marvel when you come up with something like that! Let’s face it, there’s no purpose behind that kind of anti-Communist tintype except promoting hate, and your FF speech is in direct contradiction to that. George Carter, the guy from England whose letter appeared in FF #37, said, “your magazines are intended to be used for entertainment, not for political indoctrination.” Yes! And your answer seemed to scorn his membership in a left-wing organization and said that your “democratic British friends would set him straight.” Well, Prime Minister Wilson is a member of a left-wing organization, the Labor [sic] Party, and I don’t think he is considered undemocratic by many responsible people. What I’m saying boils down to “stay out of politics.” I don’t think this is any moment to play games with super-patriotic heroes…
[Dan Clark in FF #41, August 1965]
Gosh, Dan, someone’s gotta be the villain, and we can’t use the Republicans just now—they’re having enough trouble! […] Anyway, we’re not sure that Britain’s Labour Party can accurately be called a “left-wing organization,” but after finishing the story we’ve just read, we’re too tired to argue!
[Editor to Dan Clark in FF #41]
The company’s popularity with a widening demographic was purchased at the price of its easy acceptance (and promulgation) of Cold War liberal maxims which, as in this exchange, were inevitably exposed as the melodramatic accoutrements of an ideological system as patently fictional as the Marvel Universe itself. Soon, readers would take Lee’s defensive statement that “someone’s gotta be the villain” more seriously than he had ever intended it—and would even begin to suggest that those responsible for the state of American society (including the Democratic and Republican parties) and the world in the mid-1960s ought to be the villains.
The Spider-Man lettercols spoke most directly to this subject, especially after protagonist Peter Parker moved on to college in issue #31:
Now that your comics have become controversial enough to appear in The Village Voice and Cavalier, and to get Spider-Man’s and the Hulk’s picture in Esquire as two of the twenty-eight people who count the most with teenage and college rebels, I feel you should take a serious stand. My main concern is Spider-Man. Will he enter adulthood as a super-hero defending the United States, giving money to charities such as orphanages and hospitals? Or (as I desperately hope) will he go through college and become the first intellectual, left-wing liberal super-hero, helping to stop wars, supporting SNCC, CORE, and the NAACP, singing songs of Bob Dylan and every so often commenting on the works of Jean Paul Sartre? Spider-Man has the potential to become the greatest comic hero of all times! Already, his followers have disregarded the other group of phony [DC] super-heroes. As a member of the MMMS, I would like you to give Spider-Man a break. Don’t push him into manhood too quickly. Give him a chance to develop into a super-hero with a mind of his own, a personality, and, at least, a better judge of clothing. The choice, gentlemen, is up to you.
[Art Raveson, Stockbridge School, ASM #35, April 1966]
You present a powerful, persuasive case, Artie, but before we make a decision, we’d better hold off until the next mail arrives. We’ve got a hunch the John Birch Society may demand equal time.
[Editor to Art Raveson in ASM #35]
By this time, Marvel’s basic strategy for channelling the energy unleashed by this “dialectic of excitement” was firmly in place. The company dared not alienate its growing number of enthusiasts on the emergent New Left, but neither did it wish to repudiate its faith in the party of FDR, Kennedy and LBJ. The solution was to allow its characters to be all things to all people, and to insist upon this textual multivalence in the lettercols and editorial asides to the reader.
The most explicit gesture of this kind was Marvel’s decision, in effect between September and December 1965, to publish its comics under the “Pop Art Productions” banner. Reader Betty Ann Lopata took her cue from this move to expound upon the peculiar position of these texts in mid-1960s culture:
Have you ever considered the close ideological connection between your Spider-man and the Dadaist-Pop Art movement? The socially and psychologically conscious Spider-Man, albeit still somewhat adolescently naïve, who worries about alienation and questions his role as a superhero, who has financial and emotional problems, who knows and feels his own limitations, and who allows himself subjective thoughts and reactions to the world around him…what better way to advance the message of Dadaism and Pop Art than through this mock-serious commentary on modern American values and current new breed of Freud-inspired adventure fantasy indulged in by every young person in the country… Whether you realize it or not, your Spider-Man has become the “hipper man’s Playboy Magazine.” While Hefner has capitalized on the boyhood dreams of many men to consider themselves suave and sophisticated, Spider-Man calls up a different, much more subtle kind of sophistication; it caters to the young thinking man’s need to consider himself also a man of action… [ASM #32, January 1966]
Alongside this existentialist commitment to political consciousness/action devoid of any explicit political content (i.e. the FF lettercols gleefully printed readers’ interpretations of the “Galactus Trilogy” in #48-50 as, alternately, an allegory of Communist and American neo-Imperialism) came a deeply ironic declaration of equanimity in the “high/low” culture war:
On the surface, this may seem to be a super-hero action thriller. But, if you probe down deep, if you analyze each subtle nuance, if you dissect each philosophical phrase, if you study each non-existentialistic panel. You’ll discover that it actually is…a super-hero action thriller! (ASM #29, 1, October 1965)
This deceptively simple passing of the interpretive buck to the reader (the “credits box” of Avengers #18—July 1965—lists “you” as a part of the production team) is open to any number of constructions—not the least of which is the possibility that the Marvel “super-hero action thriller” was “always already” a philosophical tract.
The only certainty, by 1966, is that the new (implied) “you” constructed by Marvel Comics was a far cry from the youth who rejoiced merely to find his name inscribed into the lettercol on the splash page of FF #10. From the mid-sixties onward, letters from college students and GIs dominated the fan pages, and the Marvel Universe became a textual stand-in for the symbolic battlefield of America itself. Each of the participants in this conflict (which bore many similarities to the Gramscian struggle for “hegemony”) sought to establish whom the “villains” ought to be. The stage was set for an “organic intellectual” to emerge from the ranks of “Marveldom” to reshape the ideological terrain.
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