The forthcoming book Marvel: The Golden Age 1939 – 1949 was scheduled to feature an introductory essay by Eisner Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and author Art Spiegelman. Spiegelman’s essay (which can and should be read in full here) draws a parallel between the rise of authoritarianism in Europe before World War II and its influence on early superhero stories and the political climate of today. However, he was told that Marvel “is not allowing its publications to take a political stance.”
Spiegelman’s essay deals with the explosion of the comic book art form in the late ‘30s and early 1940s, the Jewish identity of so many key creators (including, but certainly far from limited to, Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and Captain America’s Joe Simon and Jack Kirby), and even manages in one sentence to touch briefly, gently on the subject of how these creators were exploited and never reaped the financial benefits of their creations (a topic Marvel is also likely sensitive about). But the (ahem) offending “political stance” in question comes in this paragraph:
“Auschwitz and Hiroshima make more sense as dark comic book cataclysms than as events in our real world. In today’s all too real world, Captain America’s most nefarious villain, the Red Skull, is alive on screen and an Orange Skull haunts America. International fascism again looms large (how quickly we humans forget – study these golden age comics hard, boys and girls!) and the dislocations that have followed the global economic meltdown of 2008 helped bring us to a point where the planet itself seems likely to melt down. Armageddon seems somehow plausible and we’re all turned into helpless children scared of forces grander than we can imagine, looking for respite and answers in superheroes flying across screens in our chapel of dreams.”
Spiegelman told The Guardian he was asked to remove the “Orange Skull” sentence or his essay would be removed from the book. He refused. And rightly so.
It’s remarkable how Marvel’s suddenly “apolitical” stance manages to instead feel “ahistorical.” Less charitably, it can be read as “cowardly” in this context. The “golden age” of comics—that period that spans from the introduction of Superman in 1938 and stretching to roughly the end of the 1940s when superheroes fell out of favor and the industry shifted to other genres—was defined by the Great Depression, the anxieties surrounding the leadup to America’s involvement in World War II, and other explicitly political concerns. You only have to look at Superman’s earliest adventures where he routinely takes on foes like munitions manufacturers, stand-in fascist dictators, or corrupt fat cats who exploit laborers (in addition to the usual diet of mad scientists) to see how politics were baked into the concept of the superhero from the very beginning. Creators of the era didn’t wait for the United States government to issue formal declarations of war against Japan and Germany in December 1941 before sending their heroes to join the fight. As early as February 1940, Superman scooped up both Hitler and Stalin and dropped them off to stand trial for war crimes in a short story by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, while Marvel’s own iconic cover to Captain America Comics #1 by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, which famously showed Steve Rogers landing a sock on Hitler’s jaw, is dated March 1941, several months before the United States entered the war.
That distinctly anti-Nazi bent will surely be all over a book about Marvel’s own “Golden Age” comics of the era, especially since it was the success of that striking Captain America cover that helped propel the company to continued success throughout the decade and beyond. You almost have to wonder exactly who Marvel thought they had hired to write this essay in the first place. Spiegelman is the son of Holocaust survivors; his award-winning and celebrated Maus, based on conversations with his father, is considered to be one of, if not the single most consequential use of the sequential art form ever published. It is universally acclaimed and taught in classrooms worldwide. To expect Spiegelman to write an intro about comics of a certain era, many of which were expressly political, and not draw attention to the unfortunate parallels with today’s world seems, at best, like a case of self-deception.
Of course, while Marvel “is not allowing its publications to take a political stance” that doesn’t stop Marvel Entertainment chairman Ike Perlmutter from donating millions to Donald Trump and Trump-supporting candidates, “advising” on Veterans’ affairs (and we all know what great shape the VA is in), and hanging around Mar-a-Lago, where our work-and-facts-averse, TV-and-golf-obsessed President spends a significant portion of his time. The irony of a corporation that counts among its most celebrated iconography the image of a star-spangled hero punching a fascist dictator in the face, not to mention the company that published noted stand-ins for many groups of “othered” people, the X-Men, deciding they must remain anodyne and apolitical at any moment in history shouldn’t escape anyone.
This marks the second time in as many weeks that a major entertainment entity has caved in to fears of political backlash. Universal pulled the release of The Hunt, ostensibly because of sensitivity in the immediate aftermath of back-to-back mass shootings. Of course, The Hunt wasn’t scheduled for actual release until well over a month after those incidents. But if powerful media companies wait for an “appropriate” time (read: a period without a mass shooting) to release violent stories, we’ll be waiting a very long time indeed, as such tragedies continue to happen with nightmarishly increasing frequency. It is likely coincidental that Universal pulled the movie shortly after President Trump was spouting some especially vague and incoherent drivel about the “racism” of Hollywood, perhaps obliquely referencing The Hunt. Amusingly, it appeared from the trailer (which the studio has attempted to have scrubbed from the internet) that The Hunt is actually about “red state” type heroes being hunted by villainous coastal elites.
The President, whose behavior can charitably be described as “erratic” and who has spent the entirety of his brief political career propagating racist conspiracy theories, emboldening fascists at home and abroad, and cozying up to strongman dictators the world over, has yet to offer comment on anything specifically Marvel Comics-related, likely because he doesn’t seem to be much for reading of any kind and the topic of Spiegelman’s essay hasn’t come up yet on whatever piece of Fox News programming he is currently devouring via DVR. But rest assured, if he ever does hear about it, he will offer his usual calm and measured response via Twitter.
Marvel: The Golden Age 1939 – 1949 will now instead feature an introductory essay from Roy Thomas. Thomas is, of course, more than qualified to write such an essay. A legendary comic book writer, vast swaths of his career have been devoted to writing new adventures about superheroes fighting fascism during World War II, having done extended stints telling wartime tales in (among others) Marvel’s The Invaders as well as DC’s All-Star Squadron. Perhaps Thomas will be able to articulate the “apolitical” stance Marvel is looking for in a book about art that is, was, and always will be explicitly political. Or hopefully, Thomas finds a way to tell the same truth Spiegelman did: that we must heed the lessons our favorite stories and characters have been telling us from their very creation.