Comics and culture

Comics and culture

Lippert, David

In current studies of comic books, or “sequential art” as many comics scholars now call comic books, there indeed exists a debate of which this is part. On one side a group of conservative critics wishes to ennoble comic books by creating a complex academic discourse that focuses on the relationship of the art in the comic to the text proper and how the two are inseparable; on the other side is a public that studies the cultural context which surrounds comic books and which the comic books reflect.

As a liberal English scholar, I fall into the second category; I look at the text of the comic books as I would any book, closely read and analyze it, attempt to realize the cultural context in which the text has existed, and finally theorize about all this with my own Marxist bias Part of the popularity of cultural studies is the ability of the critic to take his own biases and still find revelation in “foreign” places. This essay will look at the early issues of a comic book series, The Fantastic Four, in particular issue #12 of that series, to get at the culture of the period in which it came out of, the early 1960s. By analyzing these texts, I hope that readers will enter into this academic discourse if they are so inclined and also gain a greater appreciation of the significance of comic books and many other popular-culture artifacts in all intellectual discourses.

The Fantastic Four

The Fantastic Four #1 premiered in November 1961 and is considered a turning point in the evolution of comic books. With this series, writer Stan Lee and artist lack Kirby began the creation of a pantheon of characters who broke the mold by bringing realism to the spandex-clad realm of super-heroes: the members of the group–the Human Torch, the Invisible Girl, Mr. Fantastic, and the Thing–had problems such as social acceptance, internal disagreements, financial shortcomings, and romantic triangles. This innovation, however, did not occur spontaneously but was necessitated by the comic industry’s forced acceptance of self-censorship that resulted in the Comics Code Authority (CCA) in 1956. The code explicitly stated, “In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal (sic) [be] punished for his misdeeds.” This code created one obvious problem: if the outcome of every comic was already known, how could the writer keep the comic interesting? One way was to circumvent the code by problematizing notions of good and evil, and this goal was accomplished in The Fantastic Four and other comics by problematizing the notion of “hero” in the texts.

Issue #12

The audience of The Fantastic Four would know from codes within the comic discourse (for example endorsement of the Fantastic Four by a government official at the end of issue #1 and the Fantastic Four’s title status) that the Fantastic Four are the protagonists and the “good” of these texts and that their opponents are the “evil.” However, in issue #12 of the series (March 1963), the principle antagonist is the Hulk, a Jekyll-Hyde figure who is the title character of another comic book; the Hulk is attacked by the Fantastic Four as a villain throughout the text until the capture of a Communist saboteur leads the Thing, the strong man of the group, to say, “Then what the heck was I fightin’ the Hulk for?” (23).

In three of the first twelve issues of the Fantastic Four, the equation of “antagonist = evil” quite obviously is challenged in the overt text, and this problem not only furthers the debate about what is “good” in these texts but also calls into question blind, prejudicial judgments based on rules like those posited by the CCA by pitting characters that are not evil against one another. For example, The Fantastic Four #2 (January 1962) has the Fantastic Four unwillingly become social antagonists through their impersonation by aliens, and issue #4 (May 1962) has the SubMariner, a World War II hero, become the antagonist of society and the Fantastic Four because of the destruction of his homeland by underwater nuclear testing. These comics show not the evil of outside forces, but the crisis brought out by internal systemic contradictions.

This problem is best typified in issue #12, with the Hulk as the initial antagonist as a result of the impersonation of his actions by the real antagonist, the communist Karl Kort, aka The Wrecker. In all three of these instances, the reader’s ability to distinguish between good and evil is made more difficult, and the principle repressive state apparatuses make their presence felt but not in the positive, just manner one would expect from a cultural apparatus that would logically endorse a strong code of law and order. In this issue a rift between notions of good and evil develops, but more importantly society is criticized in a way that causes the readers to distrust the institutions that surround them.

Portrayal of the Military

In issue #12, the military is portrayed as hyper-reactive from the start. After a man accidentally bumps into the Thing and the Thing shows of this strength, a soldier is shown saying, “Hey! He’s strong enough to be the one we’re looking for!” Someone then commands, “Surround him!” (2). The military is focusing on strength in this text, so the Thing implicates himself as a threat by using it. Without taking time to judge the situation, the military reacts by firing a “specially prepared bazooka” and gas shells at the Thing to stop him. Thinking him the Hulk, the military is interested at this point in subduing the Thing at any cost, including his life.

The immediate escalation of conflict through the use of force that is not guided by thought is crystallized in the last panel when he says: “All right, wise guys, the fun’s over! Now it’s my turn to start getting rough!”(3). It is not until a captain comes that the attack on the Thing is called off and explained: “My apologies, sir! My men mistook you for the Hulk! There is a national alarm out for him!”(4).

Even though army brass seems more apt to think than the common grunts in this first case, as shown by the captain’s actions, the reader knows that the grunts take orders from the chain of command and that the hierarchy of the military also is being implicated. General Ross, the person in charge of the expedition to dispose of the Hulk, is portrayed as an old yet juvenile buffoon, an exemplification of the attitude toward the military in this text. The General’s lack of intelligence is shown through his explanation of the mistaken attack on the Thing: “You see, an alarm has gone out to catch The Hulk at all costs! And the one way to recognize him is by his superhuman strength!”(5, my emphasis).

Even though the General has a picture of the Hulk, who is squarish, green, and has hair and smooth skin, he fails to notice these distinguishing characteristics because the military is so focused on issues of strength. Thus the Thing, who is round, orange, bald and rocky, is mistaken for the Hulk. Fortunately the only result of the military’s error is property damage, but the implication is that the military could, through its single-minded focus, accidently kill an innocent.

Further examples of the military’s lack of thought are shown in the discussions of the Hulk: the General implicates the Hulk by saying, “Our missile installations in the desert have been sabotaged…and he is the only one who could have done it!”(30). No conditions or explanations of this statement are made, and fans of the time would hark back to issue #2, where they would compare these situations and realize that a mistake probably has been made. In issue #2, it was inconceivable that anyone could mimic the powers of the Fantastic Four, yet the villains, shape-shifting aliens called the Skrulls, did. Some one here is impersonating the actions of a hero, the Hulk, and in the end Kort is found to be guilty. The text sets up numerous situations parallel to the mistaken Thing episode, such as when the Fantastic Four get to the missile base in the desert and the General says, “Look at the tangled steel! No one else has the strength to do that!”(9). The implications of this can be generalized to a rule that when one characteristic of a person is used to implicate him or her in an action, the identification is inevitably wrong.

And the consequences of such a judgment are life-threatening; General Ross wants the Fantastic Four to “find, and destroy the Hulk” (5). Society, through the repressive state apparatus of the military, is willing to mete out the ultimate punishment, death, for aberrant behavior directed towards itself. Unfortunately, the military, and thereby society, leaves no room for error in judgment; death is final.

Abandoning Reason

If voices of reason were not evident in the text, such force-motivated action would be understandable; without social intercourse the basis for reflections on morality is instinct. But the military is informed of problems in its argument through the rational objections of Dr. Bruce Banner, a scientist and The Hulk’s alter-ego: “But, General, I still maintain that The Hulk is not our man! All our missile apparatus was destroyed from the inside out! I’m convinced that a rampaging creature like The Hulk would have torn the devices from the outside in!” (9). This reasonable analysis begets the General’s counter, “Banner, I’ve told you our mission is to catch The Hulk! We’ll listen to your theories after he’s put out of action!”(10), representative of a “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality that will only beget a tragic solution.

In a significant panel, Reed asks, “Dr. Banner, I don’t understand! How do you know [that the Hulk is innocent]? What proof do you have?” To which Banner replies, “None! You’ve got to believe me! How–how can I convince you?”(16). This brings up the question of who is in control of knowledge and perspective in the text, and the answer seems to be, resoundingly, the military. The Fantastic Four are willing to believe the powers-that-be without any proof, while Dr. Banner, who has the closest thing in the text to an actual supported statement in his “inside out–outside in” explanation of the sabotaged sites, is immediately suspect In fact, when trying to set things right by usurping the power of perspective, Banner is seen as malicious and suspicious. When he tries to gain the Fantastic Four’s trust, the belligerent Thing says, “Y’know somethin’? I don’t trust that guy!” The adolescent Torch concurs, “Me neither!”(16).

All this time Dr. Banner’s assistant, the communist Karl Kort (whose name even sounds communist, arid who carries a Communist party membership card), has been manipulating perspective (as did the Skrulls) and the military’s culpability to his advantage. In the panel where the reader meets It, he says exactly what the General wants to hear: “Every minute counts, General! How does the Fantastic Four propose to catch the Hulk?” (9). This meshes well with the General’s “shoot first–ask questions later” mentality, seen through his response, “That’s the kind of talk I like! Action talk! Let’s plan our campaign!” (9). Kort has the upper hand because he knows more than anyone else; he knows who the Wrecker is (himself) and that the Hulk is innocent, and he is able to manipulate the two “good” sides into a fight that will protect him. Kort even knows that Rick and the Hulk are in league, so he is able to manipulate the Hulk into fighting the Fantastic Four through a letter: “To the Hulk! Rick Jones is my prisoner! Unless you drive the Fantastic Four from this area you will never see him again! The Wrecker!”(16).

Of course in the end Kort is discovered, communism is defeated, and the now anti-hero, the Hulk, escapes. The Fantastic Four has the patent response, essentially the same one they had with the Mole Man in issue #1: Reed says, “In a way, I’m glad! That means he’s recovered from Kort’s ray gun and left under his own power!”(23) And then the Thing adds, “Then what the heck was I fightin’ the Hulk for?” The obvious answer is that, in this text, society is so rigid and paranoid about regulating itself internally and repressing that which it does not like, namely, the aspects of society which the Hulk resembles, that it fails to see the threat of outside forces, in this case Communism.

Superhuman as Different

In these comics “superhuman” becomes a metaphor for difference. The portrayal of superhuman characters as mutations, like the Hulk and the Thing, becomes important because they are so obviously visibly different, especially in terms of skin color. Looking at the major superhero comic companies of the 1940s, comicdom’s “Golden Age,” we find that not one had a hero whose skin was black or any other color; the first major “colored” superhero I have found reference to is the Martian Manhunter, a green superhero who first appeared in Detective Comics #225 (November, 1955).

The emergence of characters like the Thing, the Hulk, and the Martian Manhunter in the period between the late 1950s and early 1960s, a time of great racial unrest in America, and the emergence and subsequent problematization of the status of these “colored” heroes unconsciously mirrors the misunderstanding white middle-class American society had, and still in many ways has, of its minorities. These texts imply that if we constantly worry about the people within society harming society, outside forces will gain a foothold. Viewed in terms of a cultural artifact, this text overtly calls for an acceptance of diversity and our various strengths so that our society can be a unified whole against the threat of outside forces. America should accept its Hulks and Things and put its energy into fighting the Korts. But the subtext of these comics dramatizes the difficulty in ascertaining just who the outsider is.

What these comics call for as a whole is analysis by society of the trope of “seeing.” “Seeing” is often used as a metaphor for knowing, and definitions of “good” and “evil” are generated from sensory data, of which seeing is one of the most profound. What characters believe they “see” in these comics is often shown to be “reality” constructed by a powerful group to manipulate the gullible into internal conflict. Concepts of right and wrong are defined by those in charge and are not engraved in stone, an apt clich in terms of morality and sin. These comics look at how a society, in many respects like our own, deals with internal and external differences, and they reveal the extent to which ideology governs the perceptions of these differences. It is only by going beyond seeing and examining these comic books through the specific critical lens we as readers have acquired through experience that we are able to avoid the repetition of such mistakes.

David Lippert currently is pursuing a Ph.D. in English at Auburn University, specializing in Victorian literature. This essay comes out of his Master’s thesis, Alienation and Comic Books: The Construction of Good and Evil in The Fantastic Four. He has been an avid comic collector for more than twenty years.

Copyright National Forum: Phi Kappa Phi Journal Fall 1994

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