Superhero families have always been something of a mystery. As most serious readers of comics know, the 1955 Comics Authority banned virtually all sexual activity from comics, and even within the bounds of marriage, sex has, until recently, remained a problem. The Fantastic Four’s Reed and Sue Richards offer us a great example. In Fantastic Four King-Size Special #6 (1968; Lee/Kirby), the married Sue is about to give birth to a boy, Franklin, but she is in grave danger. The radiated microbes in her blood that give her superpowers are now endangering both herself and her unborn child. Since Sue was in no danger prior to impregnation, it seems that the issue is the combination of Reed’s radioactive sperm and Sue’s radioactive eggs. Sex between Sue and Reed is not X-rated, it’s radioactive and deadly. To save his son, Reed, Johnny and Ben travel to something called the “Negative Zone,” then trek down a long round tube—a birth canal— to retrieve the “Cosmic Control Rod.” This phallic device is in the hands of Annihilus —who kills all life forms for fun. So, basically, we have a womb called the Negative Zone, where a creature, Annihilus, is killing /aborting everything. They get the phallic-shaped “Cosmic Control Rod,” after Ben cracks a joke that size isn’t everything, steal one of Annihilus’ long phallic rockets, and head back through the birth canal. But Annihilus intercepts and pleads for the object’s return. Without his rod, he’s powerless. (You should be chuckling, here.) Reed agrees to return Annilihus’ rod, but he needs some of the antimatter, which will be injected into Sue’s womb. Annilihus agrees and Reed and company head back to the hospital, where Annihilus’ killer sperm dampens the cosmic energies in Franklin just enough to allow for a normal birth. The child has now been reconceived without Reed’s genetic material. It’s as though they, Sue and Reed, never had sex. The story is helpful because it demonstrates the fear of sexuality in the comics, and the lengths to which even sex within marriage is reorganized and neutered to create the impression of an immaculate conception.
That was, of course, back in the 1960s. Now, it seems, every cape and cowl is having sex and babies. But Cap, Marvel’s old fashioned hero, and now just old hero, has a suitably old family dynamic: His child, Ian, is not his at all; Ian is the son of Armin Zola, kidnapped and raised by Steve, who is now also the guardian of Ian’s sister, Jet, who is now dating the Falcon, Steve’s partner, or, in the popular parlance, his “brother from a different mother.” Adding to the complexity is Steve’s own love life, which included Peggy Carter and then, decades later, Peggy’s younger sister, Sharon. But it is the present that concerns us here: In issue #24, Ian refers to Sharon as “mom” and to Steve as “dad,” though the monikers are subject to debate. Adoptive parents at least know they have both adopted a child; in #24, however, Steve only now finds out that Sharon has raised Ian in Dimension Z. Time flows differently in that domain, and Ian was a kid when Steve returned to Earth. So really, Ian had two adoptive parents, first Steve, then Sharon, but the designations signal two different parts of Ian’s life.
The complexities of this moment were anticipated in my Capital Thoughts: Captain America #10:
And as for Cap, he need not grieve too much over Ian, for it seems that the boy survived, albeit in Dimension Z, where he takes the name Nomad. … And what of Ian/Nomad? In the last issue, we discussed the idea that Zola would be immortal because he implanted his consciousness in his super-soldiers. Those same solders also have Steve’s DNA. So Ian is fighting a triple Oedipal war:
(1) he assumes his father’s [Steve’s] Nomad identity;
(2) he fights his biological father’s mind/consciousness;
(3) he fights his step-father’s [Zola’s] biologically-infused clones.
But Oedipus does more than kill his father; he also marries his mother. Since Ian grows up to be Nomad, is it implausible to imagine that Sharon and Ian eventually hookup? Or are we to blink and now find that Sharon, like Cap, has now aged 60 years in Dimension Z? Perhaps she can come back as a matronly partner for Steve? But that leaves Peggy. If Nick is ageless, then why not Peggy? Now that they are roughly the same age, perhaps Cap can reestablish a relationship with her. If Sharon and Ian somehow return from Dimension Z, it will make for an uncomfortable Thanksgiving Day meal around the Rogers homestead.
Well, it turns out to be even more complicated than that! Steve has aged about 60 years, Sharon only 20, so, in effect, Steve is now the grandfather, Sharon the sexy mom, and Ian the stand-in for his adoptive father. Got it? It’s as if Oedipus were rewritten so that the erstwhile tragic hero marries his mom and has a child, but they all lived happily ever after, not because the incestuous dynamics of the family have been conveniently suppressed, but because the incestuous activity has been redoubled and scrambled along emotional continuities and biological discontinuities.
Jet’s presence complicates the dynamic still further—if that’s possible! Jet is Ian’s sister and lives with Steve, who seems to accept her into his family, in the same way that he accepts Sam. Replacing emotional for biological ties, Steve is father and, now, due to sudden aging, grandfather to Ian and Jet and Sam; brother, father, and grandfather to Sam who is having sex with his sister, Jet.
And then there is the biological matter of Zola and (gulp!) Sharon. Steve’s “children” (Ian and Jet) are really Zola’s. But who was their mother? Given the genetic experiments Zola (aka, the Bio-Fanatic) has undertaken to create his mutant army, it seems that mothers are not necessary. Or are they? In the middle of #24, Ian rescues Sharon, who was about to be subjected to a Zola “experiment.” Are women captured and then used as part of the cloning procedure, or does Zola just prefer old-fashioned rape? Given that Sharon has been Zola’s prisoner for years, isn’t it likely that she is the genetic mother of Steve’s mutant offspring? True enough, she states that Zola had “other plans for me. Fortunately, [Ian’s rescue means that] I won’t have to find out what.” Then again, given the Bio-Fanatic’s gift for experimentation, that sounds a bit too pat. He’s had her chained up for some time, possibly years. Considering she was fertile when he captured her, and that he has the tech to wipe her memory, isn’t it safer to assume all sorts of unpleasant scenarios?
Zola’s army isn’t statuesque and blonde; they are not the soldiers Steve might have had with Sharon. Rather, they are the monstrous, genetically damaged mutations of Lovecraftian nightmare. This from HPL’s “Lurking Fear” (1922):
God knows how many there were – there must have been thousands. To see the stream of them in that faint intermittent lightning was shocking. When they had thinned out enough to be glimpsed as separate organisms, I saw that they were dwarfed, deformed hairy devils or apes-monstrous and diabolic caricatures of the monkey tribe. They were so hideously silent; there was hardly a squeal when one of the last stragglers turned with the skill of long practice to make a meal in accustomed fashion on a weaker companion. 0thers snapped up what it left and ate with slavering relish. Then, in spite of my daze of fright and disgust, my morbid curiosity triumphed; and as the last of the monstrosities oozed up alone from that nether world of unknown nightmare, I drew my automatic pistol and shot it under cover of the thunder.
Blasting all of Steve’s mutants (like Sharon’s memory) to bits looks to be a convenient solution here, but Remender has something else in mind. The Falcon discovers a bomb that can kill them all, and, flying into the stratosphere, he symbolically cleanses Steve of the Lurking Fear. He does so by becoming the patriarch of the family, the wise elder who tells his stand-in son, Steve, how to live his life: “promise me you’ll find some time—you know—smell the flowers–… Be with your son—marry Sharon—because I promise—if you don’t—” and then the explosion….
Let’s assume that Steve dutifully does as he is told. Let’s assume that he does marry Sharon, goes for long walks with her, takes up gardening, and buys Dodgers season tickets for the family. All those activities will hardly sort out the practical complexities of his continued relations with Ian and Jet, or the nightmare clones that still threaten New York City. And readers of Captain America can hardly believe that Sam is really dead. Steve, Sharon, and Ian have all returned from the dead. Why not Sam?
Sam’s act is brave. It’s probably the bravest, noblest thing he’s ever done, but he’s still leaving a terrible mess behind.