A Reverse Dr. Wertham?


by

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


The panel used as an illustration in the original New Guard article. From Tales to Astonish #60; written by Stan Lee, penciled by Dick Ayers, inked by Paul Reinman.


Bigger than the Birch Society, YAF and the Americans for Constitutional Action all rolled into one, there has recently emerged on the contemporary scene a new potentially right-wing organization of formidable power—the Merry Marvel Marching Society. This extremist group, cleverly disguised as an innocent venture in comic-book publishing, is busily undermining the minds of our nation’s youth and indoctrinating them in a set of beliefs which can only be described as patriotic and wholesome. As Perry White of the old Superman comics would say—“Great Caesar’s Ghost!” What is the world coming to?

Yes, unbeknownst to the Liberal Press, the minds and hearts of America’s college youth are being subtly spirited away by a group of tongue-in-cheek artists and writers in New York City.

Thanks again to the indefatigable researches of Sean Howe, another historical oddity has been drawn to our attention: a 1966 piece on the (admirable, in the author’s view) right-wing subtext of Marvel Comics. It was originally published in The New Guard, the official publication of the Young Americans for Freedom, and the author, David Nolan, went on to co-found the Libertarian Party and is currently campaigning for a senate seat in Arizona.

This is interesting from multiple angles, whether considered in the context of Marvel legend Jack Kirby’s JFK liberalism, Alan Moore’s condemnation of superhero comics as connected to American militarism, or the current climate of “realistic” superhero comics—to name just a few possibilities.

The full article can be read after the jump.

From The New Guard, June 1966:

BIGGER THAN BATMAN

Bigger than the Birch Society, YAF and the Americans for Constitutional Action all rolled into one, there has recently emerged on the contemporary scene a new potentially right-wing organization of formidable power—the Merry Marvel Marching Society. This extremist group, cleverly disguised as an innocent venture in comic-book publishing, is busily undermining the minds of our nation’s youth and indoctrinating them in a set of beliefs which can only be described as patriotic and wholesome. As Perry White of the old Superman comics would say—“Great Caesar’s Ghost!” What is the world coming to?

Yes, unbeknownst to the Liberal Press, the minds and hearts of America’s college youth are being subtly spirited away by a group of tongue-in-cheek artists and writers in New York City. This seduction into the ranks of the right-thinking is being accomplished by the insidious use of the most dangerous weapon available to any propagandist—humor. For the Marvel Madmen have managed that most difficult of all tasks—encapsulating their message in an irresistible package of entertainment. Every month, they are flooding our nation’s newsstands with not one but seventeen twelve-cent packages of palatable patriotism, and selling their pulp masterpieces at the staggering rate of 33 million issues per year. These Technicolor extravaganzas, ladled out with a generous ring of ridicule, are snatched up practically before the ink is dry by hundreds of thousands of readers, mostly college students, and absorbed with undisguised glee.

Produced by an uninhibited bunch of writers and artists who kid each other (and their readers) mercilessly, the Marvel Comics, as their efforts are collectively known, are both suspenseful and amusing, combining the best elements of science fiction and Mad magazine into a single package.

Their basic formula is simple—good-old-time slam-bang action, pitting superheroes against super-villains. But unlike “straight” superhero comics (e.g. Superman, Batman, etc.), Marvel Comics are funny as well as epic. Their characters are human, as well as superhuman, and their dialogue is peppered with wisecracks. The characters refuse to be stuffed shirts—and when an unwary Marvel hero assumes a “holier than thou” attitude, his colleagues are not the slightest bit reluctant to take him down a peg.

But despite their lightheartedness, the heroes are indeed heroic, and the villains villainous. This in itself is not amazing—but the fact that the heroes run to being such capitalistic types as arms manufacturers (Tony Stark, whose alter ego is Iron Man), while the villains are often Communists (and plainly labeled as such, in less than complimentary terms) is a breath of fresh air in a world such as ours, where all too often “good guys” and “bad guys” are portrayed as being indistinguishable.

And it is in their frank recognition of the difference between good and evil that makes Marvel Comics, at least in my opinion, “right wing” in tone. The “Bullpen Gang,” as the Marvel staffers refer to themselves in print, is not afraid to say that good and evil are mutually incompatible. Furthermore, they equate good with freedom and evil with totalitarianism, whether Communist, Nazi, or inhuman in origin. This is the “message” so assiduously repeated in all their sagas—and with such a message, no YAF member should have any quarrel.

But, as the Marvelites are quick to point out, their primary purpose is simply that of entertainment. In keeping with this goal, they have come up with an unending succession of both heroes and villains over the paste few years, using such science-fiction devices as mutation (both natural and atomically induced) time-travel, space-travel, and magic.

These characters, hero and villain alike, flicker from one to another of the Marvel titles (almost every major character has appeared in almost every other major character’s adventures), and it is all but impossible to keep track of what is going on without reading all the different titles regularly; hence, the real devotees do just that. More than once I have seen a bunch of Marvel Maniacs sit and talk for hours about the “world” of the Marvel characters.

Of all the Marvel comics, my own favorite is X-Men, primarily because of The Beast, a semi-simian genius given to remarks like, “Personally, I have always felt that violence is the last refuge of the incompetent” (delivered in the midst of a pitched battle with some cavemen), but many of others are almost as much fun: Fantastic Four, Spider Man, Daredevil, The Avengers, Strange Tales, The Mighty Thor (with his long blond hair, he looks like a girl) … the list is nearly inexhaustible.

Next time you have twelve cents to risk on a wild fling, cast your fate to the wind and buy yourself a Marvel comic. If you get really hooked you can always send Stan Lee a buck and become a member of the Merry Marvel Marching Society—without any fears that it will conflict with your YAF membership.

David F. Nolan is a recent graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is now a communications research analyst in Boston.

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8 Responses to “A Reverse Dr. Wertham?”
  1. brynocki C says:

    I’ll read all this in a minute but I have to say today’s Google ball logo is awesome.

  2. Joe S. Walker says:

    They didn’t realise that Stan was just a salesman whose political ideas were shaped by not wanting the kind of trouble he’d had in the Fifties. That said, Marvel’s Commie villains were always fun.

  3. [...] Venerable Comics blog ComicsComics has proof that the annoying tendency of modern conservatives to see evidence of conservative values in any halfway popular media phenomenom. But whereas today it’s television series like South Park, Lost or even The Wire they like to claim for the rightwing, back in 1966 it was Marvel comics: [...]

  4. Earl Wells says:

    The piece from The New Guard was mentioned appreciatively in the Bullpen Bulletins back then — see Fantastic Four no. 58, January 1967. It was described — without reference to the political or philosophical points — as an “adroit appraisal of the Marvel Mystique which really set us back on our heels!”

    It’s funny — if memory serves, by then communist villains were much less prevalent in Marvel comics. A couple of years before, a letter was printed in Fantastic Four no. 25, April 1964, complaining about the frequent use of communist villains. The response, presumably by editor Stan Lee, was: “We spend billions for national defense, Jim. Who do you think we’re concerned about — the Eskimos?? Anway, how do the rest of our readers feel about this?”

    The response was summarized in Fantastic Four no. 29, August 1964. Even though the readers who responded favored communist villains, they became condiderably scarcer. If I recall correctly, the Red Ghost, the FF’s only overtly communist adversary, made his last major appearance in no. 29.

  5. [...] David Nolan sees a strong anti-commie streak in that era's Marvel super hero comics, dug up by the Comics Comics web site. An [...]

  6. Scott Bieser says:

    Anti-Communism was just as popular with mainstream liberals as it was with conservatives in the ’50s to mid-’60s. JFK won election in part by claiming a “missile gap” vis-a-vis the Soviet Union, implying that the Eisenhower administration was too soft in dealing with the Russkies.

    It wasn’t until the escalation of the Vietnam War in 1965, producing the large numbers of U.S. soldiers returning home at room temperature, that things began to change, largely on the left and among Democrats (although not exclusively). By 1968 LBJ announced he would not run for re-election. Richard Nixon campaigned as the “peace” candidate. In 1969, the youth wing of the conservative movement split over the war, with the anti-cold-warriors forming what was to become the modern libertarian movement. It was, all in all, a weird decade with more twists and turns than a season of Lost.

  7. [...] Tim Hodler shares a find– the Anti-Wertham, the co-founder of the Libertarian party (for really reals), David Nolan, who once promoted [...]