Not that Good on Equality, Stan

The Stan Lee – Don Heck run on Avengers can be seen as a relatively short episode in Marvel’s redefinition of the superhero genre: whether Lee was finding the pressures of scripting multiple titles too much, or just decided to concentrate his energy on Fantastic Four, his abrupt departure from the title prevents it from becoming as vital as either FF or Spider-Man. Even his two ‘failures’, Hulk and X-Men (which only came to prominence in the 1970s, or ‘Bronze Age’) offer more in the way of Lee’s imaginative power. He offers little new in terms of the naturalistic characterisation and complex narratives that ultimately marked him out as comicdom’s most important writer.

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And yet… before it was okay to accept comic books as art, they were largely studied as socio-political documents, ‘soft’ evidence of historical values. Whether Lee is expressing his own political agenda, reflecting wider mores or second-guessing the market and the tastes of his audiences, Avengers has plenty of material for the historian. The appearance of communists as villains, the marginalised status of women, the emphasis on ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, the gestures towards civil rights and the positivity about scientific progress are all distinctive of Lee’s style and appear to speak of an America trying to reconcile a post-WWII optimism and anti-communist paranoia. It’s hardly surprising, but consistent and liberal. The broad sweep of the Lee-Heck Avengers fits with Lee’s later claims that Marvel was always woke.

In this context, the battle against the Sons of the Serpent (issue 32) is the most interesting interlude. An explicitly racist group, they are introduced beating up an apparent immigrant while a comfortable white couple look on, aghast but unwilling to get involved. Then they hold a meeting to proclaim their vision of a racially pure America. Later, they attack Bill Foster, the only African-America member of the comic book’s cast. After capturing Captain America (a nicely symbolic pawn in this game), the Serpents toy with the Avengers – who appear to endorse the organisation, as part of a frankly ludicrous series of conflicts – before being revealed as a plot engineered by an enemy power (it’s the Viet Cong).

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What the saga won’t accept is that racism is a North American problem. The final reveal locates the source of the evil as emanating from outside of the nation. Even if a few Americans do side with the Serpents and echo the leader’s rhetoric, the metaphysics of bigotry is Manichean and disappointingly under-developed. And of course, the whole problem is dealt with by white heroes (Bill Foster has pissed off in frustration long before the battle is closed).

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