Rave : 2013 : Why I Love Comic Books: Reflections on Society

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“Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life,” according to Oscar Wilde. I have to disagree, in the world of comic books, anyway. Artists have always been inspired by the world around them, hence why many need a muse to stimulate creativity. Societal attitudes, world politics, war and peace have all been fodder for writers since the beginning of time. As the world changes, art changes with it. In a long running series, attitudes and values are preserved in a sort of time capsule. Last year, Spider-Man reached a fifty year milestone. Looking back, a half century of history is seen in the pages of Spider-Man comic books.

While it is not as difficult to separate Spider-Man from the Cold War as it is to remove Captain America’s origins from the Second World War, there is still a close connection between the webhead and the Atomic Age. After the launch of Sputnik in 1957, tens of thousands of demonstrators marched in England to protest war and nuclear technology. Sociologists at the time found these protesters “tended to translate the general anxieties arising from the dangers of nuclear war into a full scale critique of contemporary society.” Five years later, Stan Lee published a story in Amazing Fantasy #15 about a New York teenager named Peter Parker who gained super powers from radiation and a spider. The young man learned a lesson about power and responsibility and soon faced off against other such enhanced humans, also endowed with unnatural abilities due to radiation. His very first adventure pitted him against a Soviet agent sent to America to steal missile plans. As the appearance changing Chameleon escaped, he attempted to rendezvous with a submarine emblazoned with the hammer and sickle. Other radioactive foes followed: the mad radiologist, Doctor Octopus, the mentally unstable Scorpion, the Russian mercenary called Rhino, the metallic Molten Man, the Sandman and others.

Tied closely to the fear of atomic energy was the Red Menace: global Communism. Many of the enemies that challenged Spider-Man came from Russia and were Party members. They include Chameleon, Rhino and Kraven the Hunter. (Sergei Kravinoff was actually a leftover from the Czarist era of Russia, driven out of his homeland by the Revolution. Still, he was Russian so that’s pretty close.) While much of the Old World came under Communist rule, China was oddly under represented when it came to supplying foes for the Amazing Spider-Man. However, when Peter Parker joined the student body at Empire State University, his classmate, Harry Osborn, commented that Parker was “as popular here as Mao Tse-Tung.” (Amazing Spider-Man #34, March 1966)

The turbulence of the Sixties was further mirrored in later issues of the Amazing Spider-Man as Peter attended college. In one such issue, Peter learned that a dormitory that was meant to be used for low income students was instead going to become a private dorm for visiting alumni. Later in the issue, the students organized a demonstration against the change in plans for the building. The scene is rife with racial tension. When Peter spoke with his friend, Randy Robertson, an African American student, Josh, tried to pressure Peter into joining the protest. Peter was still uncertain about joining and Josh goaded him by saying “Look, whitey—How much do you have to know?” After Peter left in a huff, the protest continued but another black student chimed in, saying “Doesn’t Robertson’s father work for the Daily Bugle? Who wants the son of an Uncle Tom marchin’ here with us?” When Randy started to lose his temper, Josh calmed him and said “Randy’s a soul brother—and don’t forget it!” (Amazing Spider-Man #68, January 1969)

A similar dispute played out in real life in 1968 and 1969, between Columbia University and the residents of Harlem. The university planned to build a private gymnasium in Morningside Park, which bordered school property and Harlem. Black students protested the expansion and were violently opposed by the police and other students. The African American community and black students stood up to the powerful Ivy League university through protest and militancy.

Black militancy was again a subject in the Amazing Spider-Man when Randy was arrested by the police at Empire State University. It seemed that the students had stolen a valuable relic, which had actually been taken by a mobster named Wilson Fisk. At the police station, Joe Robertson came to talk to his son about the robbery and Randy felt that he was being treated unfairly. He snapped at his father, telling him “Don’t you see? Can’t you even understand? I have to be tougher—I have to be more militant—because of you! You’ve become part of the establishment—the white man’s establishment! I’ve gotta live that down!” (Amazing Spider-Man #69, February 1969) The theme of race and racism was further explored when a police officer named Sam Bullit ran for District Attorney. He portrayed himself as a candidate that would be tough on crime but secretly had ties to racist groups. After Joe Robertson uncovered those connections, he was kidnapped by Bullit’s cronies. Robertson, naturally, was saved by Spider-Man. (Amazing Spider-Man #91 and #92, December 1970 and January 1971)

While a progressive message was often seen in the pages of the title, sometimes stories were told that would be seen as offensive today. When Peter’s friend, Eugene “Flash” Thompson, joined the army to fight in Vietnam, he met a wise old man in a jungle temple. Soon after, the American military accidentally bombed the temple and the holy man was kept in a magical state of suspended animation. The members of the temple traveled to New York and kidnapped Flash, who was home on leave. Their plan was to sacrifice him in order to return their leader to them. He was rescued with the help of Spider-Man and the magical Doctor Strange, who set everything right. In the end, Flash started a relationship with the daughter of the holy man, the oddly named Sha Shan. (In the 2008 Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon, Sha Shan was renamed Sha Shan Nguyen.) (Amazing Spider-Man #109, June 1972)

In a later issue, Spidey faced off against the inventions of Phineas Mason, the Tinkerer. Little did the webhead know, but Mason’s African American assistant, Toy, was really a robot. Even more off putting was the fact that the Tinkerer kept Toy in a box propped against a wall. Upon opening the box, Tinkerer asked if Toy was ready to assist him, to which the robot replied “Toy is always ready to help you, Sir.” (Amazing Spider-Man #183, August 1978)

Homosexuality in Spider-Man comics was never mentioned outright, only implied. Take, for instance, the fashion designer Roderick Kingsley. Kingsley had made enemies in the fashion industry with his unethical business practices and it earned him the wrath of Narda Ravana, who called herself Belladonna. While attacking Kingsley in his studio one night, Belladonna called him a “flaming simp.” The insinuation of Kingsley’s homosexuality was furthered by his open shirt, ascot and effeminate behavior. (Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #43, June 1980)

Roderick Kingsley continued to be a presence in the various Spider-Man titles in the 1980’s, but as the villainous Hobgoblin. Spider-Man’s perennial foe, the Green Goblin, was long since dead and the writers decided that a new Goblin was needed for the new decade. In the era of “greed is good,” the corporate manipulator was a strong archetype and (the now clearly heterosexual) Kingsley fit the bill. A member of an exclusive country club, Kingsley personified the upper class. Money was purely his interest and he resorted to blackmailing his fellow club members (Amazing Spider-Man #249, February 1984) and controlling New York’s casinos. (Amazing Spider-Man #259, December 1984) His attitude toward people beneath him was less than charitable, as he kidnapped his identical twin brother, telling him, “These accommodations are so beneath people of our class!” (Spectacular Spider-Man #260, August 1998)

In the new century, terrorism and government overreach became more visible in comic books. Soon after the September 11 attack on New York, a special issue was published that confronted the massive recovery effort of police, fire fighters, FEMA workers and super heroes in the Twin Tower wreckage. The author called for unity and reminded us of our basic goodness despite the art showing destruction, suffering and grief. It is a moving issue, powerful even years after the attacks. (Amazing Spider-Man #36 (vol. 2), December 2001) The social aftermath of the attacks were also mentioned in the Amazing Spider-Man, when Peter and his elderly Aunt May took a flight to California and they were stopped by airport security. Security found Peter’s web shooters in his duffel bag, as well as his costume, worn under his shirt. After those oddities were explained away (May claimed that the web shooters were geriatric gynecological devices), a security agent criticized Peter for carrying nail clippers. The agent remarked, “After all, these days, anyone and anything can be a weapon.” (Amazing Spider-Man #43 (vol. 2), September 2002)

Spider-Man’s publisher, Marvel Comics, again dove into social commentary in the late 2000’s with a company-wide story called “Civil War.” In the story, a group of super villains destroyed the city of Stamford, Connecticut, and the outrage over the event caused Congress to issue the Superhuman Registration Act. All super humans, hero or criminal, were forced to reveal their secret identities and join the Fifty State Initiative. (The Initiative would force super humans to form teams in all fifty states to guarantee their safety.) Any super human that did not comply with the order to reveal themselves would be hunted down and forced to join the Initiative. Spider-Man was coaxed into revealing his identity as Peter Parker on national TV by Iron Man, who promised him that he and his family would be protected. Many super human refused to join, which touched off the Superhuman Civil War. After all of the individuals had been brought under control, the program was hijacked by Spider-Man’s foe, Norman Osborn, for his own purposes.

In the current decade, the issue of gay rights has come to the forefront, socially and in comic books. There is certainly still work to do, considering that the Spider-Man villain Kangaroo was raped in prison as a throw away joke (Spider-Man’s Tangled Web #17, October 2002) and Felicia Hardy’s bisexuality is used to titillate the young male readers. (Spider-Man/Black Cat: The Evil That Men Do #1 August 2002) However, the image of gay characters has improved. In Scarlet Spider, Peter’s clone, Kaine Parker, is allied with a surgeon, Dr. Donald Leland. Leland’s husband, Wally Layton, is a Houston police officer. (Scarlet Spider #3 (vol. 2), March 2012) Peter’s current boss at Horizon Labs, Max Modell, is also gay and has a partner, Hector Baez. (Amazing Spider-Man #678) None of these characters play to stereotypes and have all been useful to their respective Spider-Men in times of crisis. Officer Layton helped the Scarlet Spider diffuse a bomb and Modell helped Peter confront Wilson Fisk and the Hobgoblin after Peter had been kidnapped.

There are, of course, many other examples of changing attitudes in the spider books, as well as across the titles that Marvel publishes, as well as in other companies’ titles. The science fiction of comic books may be a mainstay of the genre, but not at the expense of keeping the fictional world somewhat grounded in reality. Writers are a product of their times and the times are reflected in their stories. As these characters continue into the future, no doubt they will face situations that mirror the goings on of reality.