Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Comic books do not exist in a vacuum. Unless you screwed up while housecleaning

Superhero comic books, like any form of art, do not exist on a spiritual plane untouched by the real world. Sometimes, like Hawk and the Dove or Brother Power, the Geek, they’re blatantly drawing on some aspect of the world around them. Other times it’s more muted.

The Cold War shaped comics a lot; Marvel’s Silver Age heroes, in particular, were enthusiastic Cold Warriors. As I mentioned recently, however, by 1968 international tensions had lessened. Marvel was showing us with Russians who were loyal Soviet citizens yet also sympathetic; just a few years earlier, the only good Soviets were defectors like the Black Widow or the first Crimson Dynamo.

In late 1968 DC took it further, giving us a Russian superhero.“Eye of the Beholder” is Marv Wolfman’s first work on Teen Titans (cowritten with Len Wein and drawn by Bill Draut). It’s a dull, static story in which the Soviet hero Starfire and the all-American Titans glare at each other sullenly before realizing that hey, you aren’t so bad after all. Rereading I found myself wondering if someone with no knowledge of the Cold War would have any idea why they were so hostile.

The plot involves the Titans and Starfire protecting some jewels from master thief Andre le Blanc. Le Blanc implausibly takes down the TT before Starfire rescues them off-panel (as Wolfman observed when he brought Starfire back in New Teen Titans, he hardly uses his powers at all). While it’s true Bob Haney often pitted the Titans against foes they should have beaten easily, he and Nick Cardy made the action fast and lively. This one’s lifeless. Reading it, I would never have imagined what Wolfman would do with the team 12 years later.

Then there’s bikers. Mainstream America’s fear of bikers goes back to the 1950s, tying in with the decade’s general fear of juvenile delinquency. By the late 1960s, motorcycles could be cool (Peter Parker had one) but bike gangs like Hell’s Angels seemed lawless and malevolent to a frightening degree. Exploitation biker movies were in, including biker/horror films (1971’s Werewolves on Wheels and 1973’s superior Psychomania). In 1968, bad bikers also cropped up repeatedly in comics. Battling Brother Power as you can see on the cover above. Battling the Teen Titans. Battling Robin. And battling Deadman, who takes time out from hunting the Hook in Strange Adventures #215 to save a hot-dog vendor from some bullying bikers.Comics creators also respond to things that are new and hot in other media. Jim Shooter has talked about basing the Fatal Five on The Dirty Dozen, for instance; the book and the movie also inspired TV’s Garrison’s Gorillas, DC’s Hunter’s Hellcats—

— Marvel’s Deadly Dozen and (I assume) the 1980s Suicide Squad. In Adventure Comics #374, Jim Shooter borrows from another pop-culture sensation, TV’s Mission: Impossible.“Mission: Diabolical” by Shooter and J. Winslow Mortimer has most of the team captured by Scorpius, an international crime cartel. The five remaining members have no choice but to work in assumed identities against Taurus, Scorpius’ arch-rival. It’s a fun story despite absurdities (why exactly does Scorpius think Matter-Eater Lad should be on the strike force?) and some hand-waving: the Substitute Heroes take down Scorpius at the climax and explain they found the secret headquarters with “detective work.” Uh-huh.

I doubt I’d have seen it as a Mission: Impossible riff if not for the title but the influence is there.

Fantastic Four #80 is not good but it’s interesting in light of what I’m discussing here. Wyatt Wingfoot returns to his tribal home where his people’s legendary guardian, Tomazooma, has turned up for real, and he’s waging war on them. The villains behind it? Red Star, a Soviet oil company (yeah, the cold war hasn’t completely gone away, has it?) out to control the rich oilfields on tribal land.

What’s interesting is that in 1968, the evil oil company has to be communist; a half-dozen years later, after the oil crisis exploded, that wouldn’t have been necessary. Capitalist American oil companies were all presumptively evil, jacking up prices and cutting dirty deals with Arab petrostates to screw over Americans. It was completely unsurprising when Marvel made Roxxon Oil a recurring Bronze Age villain.

Times change. Inevitably comics change with them.

#SFWApro. Cover art (top to bottom) by Joe Simon, Nick Cardy x2, Neal Adams, Joe Kubert, Curt Swan, Jack Kirby.

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