The first appearance of the cosmic entity Galactus in Fantastic Four #48 in 1966 is marked by a simple, yet ominous declaration: “This planet [Earth] shall sustain me until it has been drained of all elemental life!” The Fantastic Four, as advised by the cryptic Watcher, take these words as a grave, potentially apocalyptic threat against the planet’s survival that has to be countered with an equal show of deadly force. Meanwhile, the rest of Earth’s population sits and waits anxiously, completely unaware of the political machinations taking place beyond their view.
The Silver Age of superhero comics ushered in a number of Cold War inspired characters and plotlines – regular men suddenly gaining superpowers via various forms of radiation, or characters like Tony Stark’s Iron Man who were instrumental in a fictionalized version of the “arms race,” creating advanced technology designed to neutralize Communist threats. It is to be expected that, as an art form, comic books should draw their inspiration from the “real world.” And yet, Fantastic Four #48-50, commonly known as “The Galactus Trilogy,” not only draws on these themes, but in many ways draws parallels with one of defining moments of the Cold War era, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, which saw the Soviet Union place nuclear missiles in Cuba to both protect the country’s sovereignty and to deter the United States from expanding on its own military resources in Turkey and other countries in the Mediterranean Sea region.
Of course, being that Fantastic Four was an American comic book, written and illustrated in the United States by American creators (Stan Lee and Jack Kirby), one would assume that the book’s “good guys,” the heroic Fantastic Four, would symbolize the United States in this allegory. But in many sections of this three-issue arc, that is not the case. This Silver Age classic is as much of a statement against American imperialism and hubris as it is about the “doomsday” scenario feared by Earth’s inhabitants in the face of Galactus’ arrival and the international community after the Soviet’s game of nuclear “chicken” with the United States.
Galactus’ declaration of his intentions all but reads like the mission statement of Western imperialism: “This planet contains the energy I need to sustain me! I shall absorb it and will… as I have done for ages in countless galaxies throughout the cosmos.” Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the United States occupied territories such as the Philippines, Guam, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa and Puerto Rico. These territories have been used as homes for U.S. military bases and, while inhabitants were granted U.S. citizenship, they have no tangible say in American politics, being unable to vote for President and by having a non-voting member of Congress. In effect, the United States absorbed these countries and their resources in order to grow and then sustain itself politically and militarily.
Additionally, the Spanish-American War of 1898 was fought in part because of Spain’s inability to protect American business, initially mainly sugar, interests in Cuba. After the United States won this war, it allowed Cuba to function as an “independent” country, while also reserving the right to interfere in Cuban political affairs if there was further threat to American interests. This relationship was maintained until Fidel Castro overthrew the Cuban government in 1958 and installed a Marxist regime that was obviously an affront to U.S. capitalism and a violation of the long-standing Monroe Doctrine.
According to Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali’s 1997 account of the Cuban Missile Crisis, “One Hell of a Gamble,” beyond the threat of an American invasion of Cuba in an attempt to oust Fidel Castro and his Marxist regime, one of the major sticking points for Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union’s Premier, was the presence of U.S. missiles in Turkey. The placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba would not only protect the country from a potential invasion – which, after the failed Bay of Pigs debacle in 1961, was never truly a reality according to Fursenko and Naftali – but also demonstrate a political equality between the two superpowers.
During Galactus’ showdown with the Fantastic Four and Earth’s inhabitants, the planet eater’s herald, the Silver Surfer, emerges as a deterrent to his imperialistic plans. Initially, Surfer refuses to become emotionally invested in the exploits of Galactus and is reserved to serve his master, regardless of the heinous acts he commits. In conversation with the blind sculptor Alicia Masters, he tells her, “And the objects in this room… pictures, bits of sculpture… decorations… they are all wasteful. Before the great Galactus is done, everything shall be reduced to sheer energy.” When Alicia cries out that cosmic duo intend to destroy the Earth, Surfer counters, “We change elements into energy… the energy which sustains Galactus! For it is only he that matters!” But eventually, Surfer sees the errors of his ways and betrays Galactus to join in the fight on the side of the Fantastic Four.
Still, before the ultimate showdown between the Fantastic Four, the Silver Surfer and Galactus, Lee and Kirby describe the scene as “doomsday,” much in the way both Kennedy and Krushchev feared the Cuban Missile standoff could end in a catastrophic war. Kennedy’s address to the American people was a somber one: “The cost of freedom is always high, but Americans have always paid it. And one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender or submission.” Meanwhile, in Fantastic Four, Sue Storm says, “It’s like some mad, inconceivable nightmare… but one from which we can never awake!” Her husband, Reed, exclaims to the Watcher, “What we need is the power to stop Galactus!”
Beyond just the Surfer’s help, in the Marvel Universe, this “power” came in the form of a cosmic weapon known as the ultimate nullifier, something the Watcher describes has the power “to erase the entire solar system in one microsecond.” How the nullifier could be used to cause this massive destruction is never fully explained by Lee/Kirby, but Galactus immediately acknowledges just the sheer threat such a weapon can be in the hands of defensive individuals fighting for self-preservation: “You have given a match to a child who lives in a tinderbox,” Galactus screams at the Watcher.
Once the United States was aware that Cuba had obtained missiles that could be used in a direct attack, Kennedy’s options for a response were limited. A U.S. naval blockade of Cuba was initially viewed as the lesser of two evils because it would likely result in fewer causalities, but “It became apparent to some that Kennedy was not yet persuaded the a blockade would get the missiles out of Cuba,” Fursenko and Naftali write. The other option was an American invasion of Cuba – something the country had taken under consideration more than a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis began. However, that approach was certain to create a high number of American causalities and “end in a big war,” Kennedy said.
But, like the Fantastic Four with the ultimate nullifier, the Soviets and Cuba never sought a violent end to the conflict. “The thing is we were not going to unleash war,” Khrushchev told his advisors according to Fursenko and Naftali. “We just wanted to intimidate them, to deter the anti-Cuban forces.” Galactus withdraws his presence from Earth with a bit of a warning for humanity: “Be ever mindful of your promise of greatness!… For it shall one day lift you beyond the stars or bury you within the ruins of war. The choice is yours.”
In 1962, the Soviets and Americans had come to a rational agreement – the missiles would be withdrawn from Cuba as long as the United States kept its distance and promised not to invade Cuba. Kennedy would speak of invading Cuba as a way to “blow off steam,” and to prove to his cabinet that he was not soft on Communism, but the White House had thought that, “In social science terms, the Soviet leader had undergone some ‘nuclear learning’ as a result of flirting with thermonuclear war.”
These three issues of Fantastic Four were obviously not the last appearances of Galactus, but they do mark the closest he came to completely obliterating Earth in his quest to procure sustenance so that he could continue his demi-God lifestyle. The resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis did not mark the end of the Cold War, but rather its tensest moments when the world was on the brink of an apocalyptic war. It is only fitting that there is an uncanny number of similarities in how both these events have become known for their landmark societal and cultural impacts.