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Secret Identity Crisis: Comic Books and The Unmasking of Cold War America


By Andy Frisk
Jun 14, 2009 - 22:31

Matthew J. Costello, PhD, teaches Political Science at St. Xavier University in Chicago, so he has a pretty solid knowledge of pre and post Cold War American and international politics. What he also knows a lot about are comic books, and he proves this by writing this well researched, well written, and intelligent work. In particular, he knows Marvel, the publisher whose characters he focuses specifically on as allegories for the American identity, which has been reflected and commented upon in the pages of Captain America, The Invincible Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and the various Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD books. He takes into account all volumes and various series that starred these characters, from their very first Marvel series in the 1960’s thru their latest incarnations. He shows how writers at Marvel, over the past 50 years or so, have used the real world setting (most Marvel characters operate in New York City) to create a grounded realism that allows them to react to, and reflect, changes in the American socio-political landscape, culture, and climate. 

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He begins by demonstrating that many characters inhabiting the Marvel Universe, including Captain America, Iron Man, The Hulk, Nick Fury, and to a lesser extent the rest of the Avengers, Spider-Man, and The Fantastic Four, all reflected the status quo of the American political consensus of the early Cold War. All their villains were, either“Godless Commies,” or “Godless Commies” with ties to fascism and Nazism, while the heroes were the champions of a morally righteous America. This status quo of the American political cultural consensus is defined, with the help of various scholars and historians, as a “common identity” where “freedom, progress, and providence-would become the common language of American community.” As time passes though, it becomes very apparent that the hyped external threat of the advance of “Godless” Communism around the globe would not be sufficient to maintain this cultural consensus of American identity, birthed from the rhetoric of early Cold War US Presidents, Truman and Eisenhower. It became very apparent that in America, there was a lack of freedom for all of its diverse citizens, a lack of progress towards equal rights for many of its citizens, and a very widening distrust of the government professed consensus with the advent of the atrocities and lies surrounding the Vietnam War propagated by those in power in the US government, the Watergate scandal, and the lack of government sponsored progress on civil rights for minorities, at least at first. This deterioration of the myth of the consensus was reflected in Captain America and Iron Man’s titles specifically as the years rolled by.

 

As time progressed, and the reality that the American identity is a multifaceted one that is not always united in one voice, or supportive of its government’s policies, and actions became clear, Marvel’s heroes would go through many allegorical changes. They both had to question their own identities and their relationship with a US government that wasn’t always honest or morally motivated in its actions, come to terms with the fact that they cannot represent the will of the people all inclusively when it is so multifaceted, make the switch to heroes for the people rather than for those in power, and often take sides against the powers that be to help Americans left behind by the march of the American Empire, all of which caused confusion and lead to numerous identity crises. Specifically, Costello follows Captain America and Iron Man, from their initial portrayal of the representatives of the illusion of the cultural consensus as envisioned by the early Cold War Presidents mentioned above, to their battles with their own identities, and how to pursue their goals of doing the right, and heroic thing when the ideals, in Captain America’s case, and the military industrial complex, in Iron Man’s case, are perverted by the self serving men in power which corrupts the images they both reflect and represent. The journey Costello takes us on, as he meticulously details and follows Captain America and Iron Man’s battles, transformations and crises of identity over the course of their histories, is a highly educational one on just what the American identity is, was professed to be, and can be.

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Of particular interest to younger readers of this book, and Marvel Comics in general, during the past decade or so, is Costello’s brief, but clearly stated analysis of how Captain America and Iron Man, again in particular, are portrayed, pretty nearly from the first few months after the attacks of 9/11, as allegories for a concerted US response which often falters and stumbles over the lack of moral authority the nation needs, in the world’s eyes, to pursue its goals of retaliation as its government sees fit. Costello also briefly covers Marvel’s Civil War, and the death of Steve Rogers, as an allegory for “The War on Terror” and the US Patriot Act.

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Overall, for anyone interested in American politics, the quest to establish an American identity free of an imposed government and military industrial complex influence, and how Marvel Comics reflected the social and political issues raised as a result of the cultural clashes which lead to progressive change, which occur due to inherent American diversity that asserts itself time and time again, this is one of the best books you can read on the subject. It also though, is a great read for those who are simply fans of comic books, Marvel Comics, or Captain America and Iron Man. The beauty is that you don’t have to be a political science major to understand Costello’s arguments.

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While the idea of a united American consensus or identity still seems elusive and problematic, Costello ends on a note of hope.  He states, in regard to the quest for an American identity that is all inclusive: “The dream has not died with Steve Rogers, but it has indeed been revealed to be a dream, an aspiration rather than a description…Like President Clinton, we see the collapse of the myth of consensus as both frightening and an exciting opportunity to engage the reality of a multicultural America.  Like President Bush, we aspire to promote progress around the world…We mourn the dying fire of that faith but nurture an ember of hope that we can reignite the flame to burn more brightly, free of the blinders of myth, and open to the faith that ‘out of many, one.’” (241)   


Last Updated: Sep 9, 2014 - 14:43
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Steve Rogers' Return Begins Today
So Marvel is bringing back Steve. I really thought they would take the opportunity to create a new allegory for the American Identity with the introduction of Bradley. This looks to not be the case. I will be interesting though to see how Rogers reflects the new face of America as an allegory, or at least the new face, politically and literally, of the new Presidency which is a pretty drastic change, at least in rhetoric (this is a good thing) from the last Presidency when he died. I wonder, is it going to be the super soldier serum that saved him, like a healing factor? Either way...stay tuned to these new developments as we see how this new allegory plays out...
#1 - Andy Frisk - 06/15/2009 - 11:46
X-Men?
What is Costello's take on the X-Men? They, unlike may other Marvel Comics' properties sure did not stand with the status quo.
#2 - Herve St-Louis - 06/15/2009 - 22:14
Didn't really get into...
the X-Men. He focused on Captain America and Iron Man as the two main allegories for America. It would be interesting to see what he would come up with regarding the X-Men. Maybe a great place for another writer to pick up the conversation?
#3 - Andy Frisk - 06/15/2009 - 22:46

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