With a little bit of savvy, one could choose almost any aspect of post-World War II American culture as a lens through which to view the culture as a whole. Whether it’s fashion, the idea of “cool” or the decline of bowling’s popularity, even the most minor facet of the American cultural landscape can, under the hand of the right author, expand to explain sweeping trends in politics, both personal and national.
In Secret Identity Crisis: Comic Books and the Unmasking of Cold War America, political science professor Matthew J. Costello uses comics books to explore ideas of personal and political identity in America through the latter half of the 20th century. More specifically, he uses Marvel comic books. Even more specifically, Marvel superhero comic books. And even more specifically, Marvel superhero comic books featuring Captain America, Iron Man, and Nick Fury.
Costello makes a strong case for why these artifacts are particularly suited to express and respond to the political climate in America following World War II. For one thing, the superhero genre is often seen as an outgrowth of the War itself. While Superman predated the outbreak of World War II, the character spent most of the war fighting Nazi saboteurs on the homefront, while Captain America made his first cover appearance clocking Hitler in the jaw a year before America’s official entry into the war.
As America forged a new consensus identity for itself in the ‘50s, one tied in equal parts to the conflict with Russia and a spike in consumerism, comic books helped develop the idea of a “youth market” as one with consumer desires different from the adult market years before rock and roll showed up on the scene. By the mid-‘60s when Stan Lee and various artists created the Marvel stable of superhero characters, the audience for comic books extended beyond the youth market onto college campuses.
Marvel in particular was tied to the real world of the latter half of the 20th century, both in its decision to set its stories in “real” cities (New York rather than Gotham City or Metropolis) and the company’s responsiveness to the questions and concerns of fans. Stan Lee in particular created the idea of an open relationship between the publisher and the scores of readers, and as a result, Marvel characters, more than the iconic characters of its competitors at DC, reacted to the changes in the political and social opinions of the readers.
Focusing on Captain America as the bearer of the idea/ideal of American democracy and Iron Man as the poster boy for American business and anti-Communism (and, to a lesser extent, Nick Fury as a representative of the military intelligence complex), Secret Identity Crisis begins the period of what Costello calls liberal consensus in the early to mid-‘60s, when America defined itself as a unified front against the forces of communism. Fittingly, Marvel superheroes fought against the forces of communism, whether in the attractive guise of Russian superspy the Black Widow or the disfigured commie science experiments that faced off against the Hulk. Many Marvel heroes got their powers directly from conflict with the Reds: the Fantastic Four were exposed to cosmic radiation while trying to beat the Russians into space, while Iron Man’s armor was developed to help him escape from Viet Cong captors.
As the liberal consensus in America breaks down in the face on the civil rights movement and the ongoing war in Vietnam, so too does the strong sense of purpose and identity possessed by Marvel heroes. Political authorities are called into question and characters are met with their images in a glass darkly: Captain America sheds his costume (albeit briefly) to become the dark, brooding Nomad and Tony Stark questions the need for Iron Man and the military industrial complex he represents. As the American political landscape becomes more and more fragmented, the moral ambiguity of superheroes becomes more and more pronounced, with the characters constantly questioning their loyalties and ultimately their identities.
In a move fairly common to comics scholarship, Costello at times overstates the case for superhero comics as a product of their times rather than a product of a particular individual’s creative choices. He does deal somewhat with the influence of writer Steve Englehart, but for the most part, the characters seem to be acting of their own accord in response to social trends. The collaborative nature of comic books has made it particularly easy to make this elision of the creator in favor of comics as some kind of direct result of social forces. Costello also lacks a strong language for discussing the visual side of comics narrative, but he is open about this shortcoming in the introduction and the fact that few works of comic scholarship have managed to give equal weight to writing and illustration only illustrates (sorry, bad pun) that it’s easy to write about writing.
In the later sections of the book, particularly those dealing with the ‘90s and onward, Costello acknowledges but fails to recognize the implications of the fact that the audience for comics had shrunk to a fraction of its old size and that the resulting market (myself included) often came pre-equipped with an encyclopedic knowledge of superhero continuity, not to mention a sense of other aesthetic developments within the medium. The fact that Alan Moore and Frank Miller had far greater impact on superheroes from 1988 onward than Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan runs counter to Costello’s argument and is thus largely ignored.
Overall, the book makes an interesting case for the course of development in the character histories of Cap, Iron Man, and Nick Fury as being inseparable from the cultural climate of the late 20th century in a way that is arguably not true of characters like Batman and Superman (Costello does make mention of the “gritty, real world” road adventure taken on by Green Lantern and Green Arrow in the ‘70s, which bears a closer resemblance to the arc of Marvel heroes). He blends interpretations of larger trends in the character’s development with canny close readings of individual issues that highlight his arguments. While after the introduction, the reader may feel they’ve gotten the whole argument of the book, the chapters move smoothly and at a brisk clip, bringing to life the vibrant medium Costello is working with, if only to hammer home points the author has made in the opening pages.