An Introduction’s Inevitable Conclusion:

Art Spiegelman: Golden Age Superheroes were Shaped by the Rise of Fascism

It’s hard to believe that it’s been over a year since the Folio Society published Marvel: The Golden Age 1939–1949 as compiled and edited by Roy Thomas. I saw it as a sponsored Facebook advertisement on August 15, 2019. I’m not sure when I realized that Art Spiegelman had been asked to write the collected works’ original introduction, only that he withdrew it due to some political comments that he refused to retract.

I do know, now, that it had been around the time I found the Folio Society’s ad that I also found Spiegleman’s intended introduction to the text which he posted, with some modifications, to The Guardian entitled Golden Age Superheroes Were Shaped by the Rise of Fascism. For a little bit of personal background, I am a fan of Art Spiegelman, particularly some of his earlier comic strips, and his seminal masterpiece Maus. As both a scholar and an enthusiast of his work and the comics medium itself, I wanted to see what he had to say about a formative period in the history of the superhero genre and how it applies to contemporary times.

I’ll admit that I already knew just why the Folio Society and, in particular, its co-publisher Marvel Comics didn’t want Spiegelman’s introduction such as it was, or without the excising of that one phrase: “an Orange Skull haunts America.” I was fascinated with the book itself, edited and compiled by the Marvel Comics veteran Roy Thomas complete with a few of the old comics that informed me through my childhood collecting two series of Marvel Cards and the Marvel Universe at large. But I was also disappointed that Spiegelman didn’t have his say, or have his writing placed in the book; especially when the Folio Society had been the one to initially seek him out to do so.

So after I read Spiegelman’s article on The Guardian — and liked it for its caustic wit, its fond irreverence, and its sense of historicity and perspective – I couldn’t help but mention that he had almost written the introduction to Marvel: The Golden Age 1939–1949 in the Facebook post’s Comments section.

I’m not going to lie. I had a feeling there was going to be some kind of reaction.

It began when another commenter acknowledged my observation, and added that he withdrew it due to Marvel asking him, a visibly political creator, “to revise a sentence.” While this comment is factually correct, there was just something about it that glossed over the meat of the entire matter, and didn’t seem to recognize that he had published this introduction — with some modifications — elsewhere.

So, of course, I went out of my way to take the article and post it right in the comments section of the Folio Society’s ad for Marvel: The Golden Age 1939–1949, clarifying which sentence they wanted him to revise, and elaborating on just how much World War II politics informed the creation of some Golden Age comics such as the ones collected in this book.

And that’s when it really started.

There weren’t too many commenters in this Comments section, and it didn’t reach the point of all and out vitriol, but the lines were clear. Some believed that Spiegelman had displayed an immaturity, or a false equivalency, in comparing Trump and the Republican Party’s policies affecting America’s contemporary civil unrest to the fascism of the 1930s and ‘40s. Others wondered just how relevant Spiegelman was as a viable choice to talk about Marvel Comics at all.

That last point almost makes sense. Spiegelman has long made his foundation in Underground Comix, a countercultural scene or body of thought encompassing both pornography and highly controversial subject matter towards the social status quo of North America and its comics industry. Even in Spiegelman’s article, he confesses that the genre of superhero comics are something of “a blind spot” for him due to what seems to be his own dislike for Jack Kirby’s sense of anatomy and comics aesthetics that have informed comics since, something that acted as a “methadone” for his own “addiction” to “satire magazines such as Mad, and the old newspaper comics” he found in his public library’s bound volumes along with “more mature fare like Donald Duck and Little Lulu.” These examples in particular, these “animal funny comics” are the aesthetics and sensibilities that had led to Spiegelman’s “Maus” contribution in Robert Crumb’s Funny Aminal anthology and, eventually, Maus itself. Even his quote at the beginning of Part II of Maus references Disney’s Mickey Mouse and Nazi Germany’s hatred of that character as “vermin.”

However, Spiegelman very clearly has more than a passing knowledge of Jack Kirby’s artwork and the history he and Joe Simon — the creators of Captain America — shared especially with regards to the threats they and Timely, Marvel’s predecessor, received from the German American Bund and the America First group in 1941. This zeitgeist is corroborated by such works as Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and even Will Eisner’s unsentimental semi-autobiographical comic To the Heart of the Storm. These things happened, and unfortunately they continue to happen in other places and other times.

It also stands to reason that a man who studied the Holocaust that so affected his family would have researched this period of time considerably, especially with regards to the rise of fascism to such superheroes like Captain America were created to combat, if only on a spiritual level of moral support. This is an argument a few other commenters broached on the Facebook Comments section on a post meant to advertise a book gathering stories from the rise of the Marvel Golden Age of the superhero genre that would lead to the formation of the contemporary ethos and world of that universe such as it is. They even went as far as to be amazed that Spiegelman didn’t become furious or more aggressive over being asked to remove a relatively minor comparison between the Red Skull supervillain and a contemporary politician after being consulted over his scholarly and personal expertise over what fascism did to his family, both then and throughout the generations afterwards. It all comes back to the idea that Art Spiegelman, an arguably countercultural cartoonist and creator, is vocal in his political views and it makes me wonder if the Folio Society and, by extension, Marvel had read any of Spiegelman’s works — not only the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus, but also his 9/11 piece In the Shadow of No Towers — and believed that this would have gone any other way.

When I look back at this spirited Comments section that I admit I (at least in the iteration that I know of) instigated — if only in beginning a discussion — there are two points that really stick out at me that I brought up at the beginning of this article, especially in light of current world events. They can be summarized thusly: (1) some people believed that Spiegelman’s tone was “crass” or “immature”; and (2) his current socio-political observations have nothing to do with the time period of comics with which he had been hired to write an introduction. I had some of my own words to say about that, at the time, but I will paraphrase here by answering these particular arguments.

First, I found it almost poetic in a rhetorical fashion just how Spiegelman was being accused of immaturity and bombastic language when you consider the diction and over-the-top monologues and dialogue used in those early Golden Age works, especially with regards to those super-villainous soliloquies. Look, for instance, at something a supervillain like the early, two-dimensional Red Skull (Captain America’s archnemesis and antithesis) would say, and you consider that these characters prioritize some lives over many others, and appeal to the lower common denominator of human behaviour in their nation and minions. Then look at the work of a demagogue and contemporary political leaders in America, and ask yourself: just how far removed are their words from that model of speech? Or action? And then also consider just which historical figures and behaviour inspired the creation of beings like the Red Skull.

And secondly, look at America now. Look at a political party and a government that won’t put white nationalists on a hate group list, that maintains detention centres for immigrants  — and their children — with such slogans as “Sometimes by losing a battle, you find a way to win the war,” that lets ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) hunt down undocumented immigrants, that profits off of Black police brutality, constant pro-Trump rallies where he either orders or quietly lets his supporters kick people out or commit crimes, and has been steadily attempting to erode separation of governmental powers and various Civil Rights.

Then, consider the misinformation and disorganization of the country with regards to COVID-19 — in the middle of a Pandemic — and how the USPS was ordered to remove mail-sorting and mailboxes with Trump himself showing clear disdain for mail-in voting, right before the election. Some of these issues have existed in America before Trump, of course, but the fact that they have been brought to light and exacerbated — even accelerated — under his leadership is hard to ignore. Combine this with phrases like “alternative facts” with regards to defending false political statements as spoken by Kellyanne Conway, the U.S. Counsellor to the President, and Trump intimating that he will refuse to concede power, and you have to wonder how many of the elements sound like they are part of a democracy anymore, and just how many of them we have seen manifest before in unstable governments and periods of cultural and civil turmoil throughout history.

And how many of these actions would a superhero like Captain America support, or a supervillain like the Red Skull undertake?

This is uncomfortably political now, but it has been for some time, and it’s impossible to shy away from it. I can see why, as Spiegelman stated in his article, he bowed out against having further conflict with Marvel. The fact that it claimed to desire to be apolitical not only contradicts the fact that Marvel’s chairman and CEO Emeritus Isaac Perlmutter is a close friend of Trump while he and his wife donated money to his re-election campaign is one thing that Spiegelman touches on at the end of his article, but it is also untrue in other aspects. After all, didn’t Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD have an entire arc — its Agents of HYDRA — that depicted a fascist dystopia with clever bits of dialogue working in statements and words like “nevertheless, she persisted,” “making society great again,” “fake news,” and “alternative facts” again, while Nick Spencer retroactively made Captain America into a HYDRA agent, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed superhuman — a biologically-engineered übermensch — wielding Mjölnir like some kind of Stormfront posterboy? Just how apolitical, how formal, how “polite” are these creative conceits by the same company that had an issue with the admittedly unsubtle phrase “Orange Skull?” And would it have made a difference if Spiegelman had written the same thing any other way?

A year seems like so long ago now, with a lot of global pain and suffering in its wake. And it makes me consider what will happen, when all of this over one way or another. What will later societies make all of all this? What will history say?

Of course, that will be determined by who writes that historical narrative. And perhaps something like Marvel: The Golden Age 1939–1949 won’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things; merely an expensive prestige item of nostalgia by a company that wants to placate and support the powers that be in the hands of a select few collectors. I recall in our posts at least one individual wanting to pass on reading or buying this book because of its moral implications. I wouldn’t go that far. As I said, a year ago in that comments section, I would have been — and I’m still — interested to see what Roy Thomas has to say in his introduction to the book about these early tales and their historical contexts, should I ever have access to a copy one day.

But there is this other part of me that hopes, one day, that scholars will take Art Spiegelman’s introduction, after discussion with Spiegelman, or his heirs, or his estate, and with a future Marvel pair it up with Thomas’ piece: perhaps with a foreword talking about the historical context of this addition, and what it meant that it was written in the time that it was. Certainly, I can see how the article in The Guardian can still be used as it was intended, especially if you end it at the sentence: “Armageddon seems somehow plausible and we’re all turned into helpless children scared of forces grander than we can imagine, looking for respite and answers in superheroes flying across screens in our chapel of dreams.”

However, that would be disingenuous, even with a foreword explaining why that introduction had been rescinded from publication. Spiegelman’s point about Perlmann’s involvement with Trump, that last caustic remark is very much in keeping with the former’s style and tone: his spirit and that of these times. Perhaps there is something to be said about the article fitting into the overall theme of the book, and altering it would be like pretending its attempted censorship and removal — and its message and resonance as such — never happened.

I’ve been tempted to all but copy and paste my words from the Folio Society advertisement of August 15, 2019 comments section. I saved them as screenshots just in case it was lost or removed. The discussion itself — aside from some spirited debate — was fairly civil. The Folio Society never weighed in on the debate and, eventually, there was no further activity on the post: gradually and quietly getting replaced by a copy of that ad on Facebook on August 21th and then September onward when the book was finally published in October. The image section of the Folio Society’s Facebook page doesn’t list the picture from that date and, when I clicked on the link that I saved, I found that the discussions remained but were buried by time and other posts — and the link to the product had been removed.

I do think that if Art Spiegelman’s introduction is never added to Marvel: The Golden Age 1939–1949 that will be alright, so long as it isn’t forgotten and that scholarly and geeky debate can continue about it and its content, perhaps in the form of dissertations, essays, books, panels, and exhibits. I’m sure it will be just one more element in the discourse about this period. I’ve always been fascinated about the written perspectives of others with regards to works and events that happened in the same time period, like commentaries themselves. Maybe Marvel: The Golden Age 1939–1949 won’t be seen by many, but the ideas and popular cultural elements in there have informed much of our popular consciousness, our collective mythology, and sense of communal selves. I’d like to believe that, one day, we will look at works like Spiegelman’s and see that these themes and cycles are eternal, for good or ill, and that while it might be difficult, if not downright impossible to challenge a thing during the time of its greatest ascendancy, to defy senselessness at its height, it has and it still happens — and it can be done.

Or, to quote Captain America when facing the forces that would pervert authority and the very thing — the quintessential spirit — of what he believes in: “No. You move.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Matthew Kirshenblatt is a graduate from York University, Toronto, Ontario, and is a writer and blogger living in the city of Thornhill. He is a comics and mythology fanatic; having written his Master's thesis, "The Spirit of Herodotus in Gaiman and Moore: Narrative Spaces and their Relationships in Mythic World-Building," he also contributes science-fiction, horror, and revisionist short stories to Gil Williamson's online Mythaxis Magazine. Nowadays, he can be found writing for G33kPr0n, and creating and maintaining his Mythic Bios: a Writer's Blog, in which he describes his creative process and makes weird stories, strange articles, reviews, overall geek opinion pieces and other writing experiments.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for helping to preserve Art Spiegelman’s introduction. I suppose that it doesn’t matter, but I’m curious by whom it was commissioned? One would expect that Thomas would have been consulted if it came from in-house, if it wasn’t Roy, himself. Art was clearly self-conscious of his (colourful) politicization and was as unseated as the rest of us that he was asked to contribute in the first place, certainly knowing that he has a voice and uses it when called upon.

    I wonder whether a pressed Perlmutter-shaped thumb or a lack of moral certitude was required? As a Folio product, the “Golden Age” book seems by definition a timeless thing. Adding an in-the-moment political comment, no matter how well defined it’s lineage or how just, creates a sense of “timeliness” which, in this context, is simply unTimely. On the whole, I think that this answer saves the entire situation in a slippery, diplomatic way. The important thing is that, for now, we can read what Art intended. One hopes that we needn’t begin bowing toward the Guardian server to maintain the link.

    It is important for everyone for whom liberty, equality, and justice are held close to the heart and mind to understand Art Spiegelman’s position. Thankfully, we needn’t have suffered the same horrors of his own family to empathize with and appreciate that we exist in a dangerous and precarious world largely overseen by thugs and miscreants. It is equally important to understand that within democracies, the citizenry, with sufficient education and impetus can, via government, offset the worst of their, and our own, excesses. It’s difficult to straighten the road, as it were, via government, but it’s historically adept at smoothing the curves (as well as installing them).

    When you spoke of “zeitgeist”, I considered another: Art is damning of the way in which our modern myths and legends are born out on theatre screens – or now just home screens, which is much worse. He suggests that they have been rendered meaningless and impotent as they offer neither lesson nor succor. I often fret about the state of our modern myths. The legends of old, from a western tradition, provided a sense of permanence and context that aided in shaping civilisation. The things with which they’re being replaced appear hollow and transitory at best, no matter how well produced.

    As a further aside, I possessed, oh, issues three through five of “Raw”? They’re long gone, I’m afraid, along with their original inserts of the “Maus” mini-comic (technically “comix”). Maus was beautifully and simply produced. It’s treatment was as an artifact, so there’s no fair comparison to a mass-market comic book either then or today. This was at a time when I was producing or helping to produce a variety of little things, so Raw meant a great deal to me. The variety, beauty, insanity, and hand-craftedness were a terrific inspiration.

    Again, thanks much for this.

    /mjh.

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