Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Reed Richards, veteran

Blogging about the Siancong War Monday put me in mind of something I’ve meant to blog about for a while, how unusual Reed Richard’s military service is by today’s comic standards.

Just the fact that Reed and Ben were old enough to have served in the war marks a big difference. Serving in WW II means they were in their late thirties or early forties in the early issues of Fantastic Four. I don’t see many heroes that old today, except for immortals such as Wolverine, Nick Fury and Natasha. Heck, when the New 52 launched one of DC’s selling points (I rather doubt it sold anyone) was that none of the superheroes would be older than 25.

In the 1960s, it was unremarkable for heroes to be thirty — I assumed most of the characters I followed were around that age or a little older, with obvious exceptions such as Johnny Storm and the Teen Titans. Since then, the youth market has become Hollywood’s dream demographic and comics seem to have bought in too.

Second, being WW II veterans never defined Reed or Ben. Despite bashful Benjy being “the hero of every American who could read a paper,” their military service came up in Fantastic Four #11 and almost never again. Reed does guest-star in Sgt. Fury #3; he and Fury later reference their meeting when Fury enlists the FF against the Hatemonger. That was about it (feel free to add more references if you know any).

That was normal for the Silver Age. Hal Jordan and Charles Xavier both served in the Korean War but neither one identified primarily as a veteran. By contrast, ex-military characters in more recent years — Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel, the animated ex-USMC John Stewart, Captain Atom or even Hal during Geoff John’s run — are all shaped and to a large extent defined by their military careers. I rarely see someone like the Bronze Age Carol Danvers, who walked away from the military and launched a completely different career.

I believe the reason for the difference is that we no longer have a draft. From WW II until Reagan killed the draft (I’m not a Reagan fan but that was one good thing he accomplished), it was routine for young men to have a “hitch” in the military, then go back to civilian life (though as Lawrence M. Baskir’s Chance and Circumstance shows, there were lots of legal ways to avoid serving). Even Rob Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show met his wife while he was serving stateside. Today’s military is all volunteer. The men and women in the service choose to be there, which creates a sharper separation between civilian and soldier than when FF #11 came out.

I sometimes think this is why the Silver Age assumed the JSA simply hung up their cowls and retired at the end of the 1940s. Like WW II’s citizen soldiers, they’d done their bit for America, now they were going to settle down and enjoy civilian life. When Paul Levitz wrote “The Defeat of the Justice Society” in 1979 (Adventure Comics #466 if you’re wondering), the idea the JSA would walk away and retire had apparently become unthinkable. They had to be hounded into retirement by overzealous anticommunists.

Returning to Reed, the third point is that he was working with the OSS, showing he was both a scientific genius and a two-fisted man of action. That’s something we don’t see much any more. If someone created Reed today, he’d be working on the Manhattan Project or cracking the Enigma Code, not risking his brain in combat. It’s hard to imagine Ioan Gruffuth’s big-screen Reed as a leader of men; he’s a nerd first and foremost. Even the comics in recent years sometimes portray Reed as an out-of-touch egghead, like one story where he admits he hates to read fiction — all he cares about is science.

Similarly, Brainiac 5, a brilliant but normal guy in the Silver Age, became way more obnoxious and short-tempered with the Legionnaire littlebrains in the 1990s reboot, then completely unlikable in the Threeboot. He’s a genius, of course he can’t also have social skills!

Like they say, the past is a different country.

#SFWApro. All art by Jack Kirby.


  1. David107

    Alex Raymond’s comic strip detective Rip Kirby, introduced shortly after World War II, was similarly a war hero who was also an intellectual, with a (presumably deliberate) contrast between him wearing glasses and being a two-fisted private eye. The military man past side of him gradually faded away, as you’d expect with a character who lasted over fifty years.


    1. Interesting. I’ve seen occasional Rip Kirby strips but I don’t know the character as well as Flash Gordon.
      There’s a good bit in the otherwise tedious John Travolta film Broken Arrow where one character tries to jump what they assume is a tech nerd. Turns out he’s a tech nerd but also a former SEAL.

  2. jccalhoun

    Interesting point. I think there is also the fact that both Kirby and Lee were WWII vets as were many creators. This meant they were reflecting on their own experiences as former military and back then the traumas of war weren’t something men talked about (I know Lee didn’t see combat but I think Kirby did?) so it seemed natural that their characters wouldn’t talk about it.

    1. Jeff commented on the Siancong post that very few creators have military experience any more, which may be one reason the topic is handled differently.
      It often seemed to me reading the Captain America Epic collections that Stan wrote Steve Rogers as if he were also a veteran in his late thirties/early 40s when he’s actually not much older than Hawkeye.

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