The Commies of Comics!
First, a little context from Serious Voice-Over Guy:
"Following their uneasy World War II alliance against Nazi Germany, the United States and the Soviet Union began a decades-long struggle termed “The Cold War”, a political, industrial, technological and military rivalry that stopped just short of a full-scale (or “hot”) war. At its core, the Cold War was driven by the radically incompatible philosophies of Soviet communism and the democratic capitalism championed by the United States. The Soviets sought to aggressively expand their empire into new parts of the world, while the United States used its power to contain and frustrate their ambitions…made all the more difficult when Communists gained control of China in 1949. Through it all, the ever-present threat of nuclear war (or “mutually assured destruction) kept the two superpowers locked in a virtual stalemate."
At this point, serious students of history may be wondering, “Yeah, but what did this mean for comic books?”
Well, I’m no Serious Voice-Over Guy, but here’s my take on it.
Nostalgic for the sales figures of the World War II years, American comic book publishers of the early 1950’s initially treated the Cold War as a “sequel” of sorts to their pot-banging propaganda comics of the previous decade. Like the wickedly caricatured Axis forces of WW II comics (particularly Japanese), some of the earliest Communist villains were either clownish cultural stereotypes or sub-human monsters.
A great example of this early approach is the cover of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Fighting American #3 (1954), as the buffoonish duo Poison Ivan and Hotsky Trotsky are easily foiled by Fighting American and Speedboy.
That same year, Captain America #78 finds our “Commie-Smashing” hero facing the shaggy green menace of Electro, as well as the proverbial “Communist Hordes”.
The Bluto-like Red Crusher takes a nasty swipe at The Big Red Cheese on the cover of Captain Marvel Adventures #139 (1952). Note to Cap: Muddy battlefields aren’t the ideal venue for bright yellow boots.
The Red Crusher paved the way for a host of caveman-like Bolshevik bruisers, such as Mongu, a Soviet-built “space gladiator” robot in The Incredible Hulk #4 (1962)….
…or the brutish Red Barbarian in Tales of Suspense #42 (1963).
Even the mighty Thor was overcome by the “electronically treated” treachery of a swarthy, bushy-browed Commie on the cover of Journey Into Mystery #87 (1962).
These broad, bumbling caricatures came to a screeching halt in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis of late 1962, perhaps the closest the Cold War had ever come to escalating into full-blown nuclear war. From that point onward, Soviet supervillains were upgraded to truly formidable figures that the American superhero had no choice but to take seriously…which eerily echoed the reality of American & Soviet relations.
An indication of this new sense of parity can be seen on the cover of Tales of Suspense #46 (1963), as Iron Man’s Communist counterpart The Crimson Dynamo sabotages an American missile test. However, Iron Man soon tricked the inventor of the armor, Anton Vanko, into defecting to the United States to work for Stark Enterprises.
A few months later in issue #52 (1964), the U.S.S.R. assigned a second Crimson Dynamo and a “gorgeous new menace” code-named The Black Widow to kill Vanko. The beautiful-but-deadly spy returned many more times to plague Iron Man, soon abandoning the firs and face netting for a more standardized gimmick-laced costume. The Black Widow eventually reformed and defected to the United States, and once again changed her look, this time to her trademark “form fitting” black costume.
After the failure of Crimson Dynamo II and the Black Widow to kill Vanko, yet another agent was dispatched to nab the elusive scientist in Tales of Suspense #56 (1964). This time it was The Unicorn, a Soviet agent equipped with a high-tech helmet that could shoot a variety of destructive energy rays, and a costume that inspired countless Power Ranger villains.
By now it should be apparent that Marvel’s Iron Man feature was the hot spot for Cold War action, which shouldn’t come as any surprise considering Tony Stark’s early role as a weapons contractor for the U.S. military.
Adding to Iron Man’s burgeoning “Russian Rogues Gallery” in Tales of Suspense #69 (1965) was The Titanium Man, a Soviet big-shot named Boris Bullski who commissioned a massive suit of armor he could use to defeat Iron Man on international television. As you might have guessed, things didn’t quite go according to plan.
Years later, in Iron Man #83 (1976), Shellhead encountered an old Fantastic Four foe named The Red Ghost, a.k.a. Ivan Kragoff and his three Super-Apes (one of whom shape-shifted himself into the buzz saw you see hurtling toward Iron Man’s chest).
Rest assured, Iron Man wasn’t the only Marvel hero to fight agents of the Red Plague. After briefly falling under the spell of Radio-Active Man in Journey Into Mystery #93 (1963), Thor conjured up a tornado to whisk Chen-Lu back to Red China…who promptly exploded upon arrival.
Next Friday, in Part Two of From Russia With Love, the comic book Cold War trudges through the 1970’s and 80’s, featuring a new “collective” style of confrontation and even a few bonafide Soviet good guys.
Oh, yeah…and the Fall of the U.S.S.R., too!