The Commies of Comics!
Our Story Thus Far:
The players: The United States and The Soviet Union.
The conflict: A fundamental clash of ideologies and the overarching threat of Mutually Assured Destruction.
The result: Nearly forty years of international tension.
The side effect: A gold mine of comic book villainy.
Which brings us to Part Two of the Cold War of Comics (click here for Part One).
As the late 1960’s rolled around, second-generation comic creator Roy Thomas introduced a note of ambiguity to the Cold War’s stark morality in Avengers #43 (1967). While still ostensibly a “villain”, the Red Guardian was positioned as the Soviet answer to Captain America and, as such, fought with a sense of honor not seen in previous agents of the U.S.S.R.
Further thawing the icy relations between the superpowers (at least in the comics) was Starfire, comics’ first official Russian superhero. Gaining superpowers from a crashed alien spaceship in Teen Titans #18 (1968), Leonid Kovar later changed his codename to Red Star after a future Titan adopted the name Starfire.
Joining the ranks of Russian good-guys was Colossus, who made his debut in Giant Size X-Men #1 (1975). Piotr (Peter) Nikolaievitch Rasputin was a mutant whose super strength and “organic steel” skin were enlisted to rescue the original X-Men.
Despite the nobility of Colossus, the vast majority of Soviet characters remained villains far into the 1980’s, as President Ronald Reagan renewed the U.S. commitment to Soviet containment, vowing to confront the U.S.S.R. wherever it sought a new foothold. This introduced the period some have dubbed “The Second Cold War”, as the political and ideological tension dial hit the red zone.
As in the past, the heightened threat level found its way into superhero comic book stories…but this time with an interesting twist. Instead of fighting merely one or two Soviet operatives at a time, heroes now faced groups, or…in true Communist fashion…collectives of state-supported superhumans.
Showing this new group dynamic in action, the cover of The Incredible Hulk #258 (1981) featured the Soviet Super Soldiers, a band of mutants lead by the powerful Professor Phobos (sort of a Communist version of Professor X). As was often the case with international characters, the powers and codenames of the S.S.S. derived from various cultural icons and myths. From left to right, the hammer and sickle-wielding Vanguard, the brutish Ursa Major (a bear being a common national symbol of Russia), a fourth Crimson Dynamo, and the energy-manipulating Darkstar.
When many of the original Soviet Super Soldiers defected from Mother Russia, their Moscow masters sent in The Supreme Soviets to retrieve them. Appearing in Captain America #353 (1989), the line-up included (from left to right) the android Sputnik, Crimson Dynamo (number five), Red Guardian III, Perun (basically a Russian Thor), and the sorceress Fantasia (not to be confused with the winner of American Idol Season Three).
DC Comics rolled out their own collective of Soviet heroes in Firestorm #70 (1988). As with Marvel’s Soviet Super Soldiers, the members of Soyuz (meaning “Union” or “Alliance”) were mutants whose powers and codenames matched up with Russian mythology. Once again, think “Russian X-Men”.
Assisted by the Green Lantern Kilowog, the U.S.S.R. created the armored Rocket Red Brigade to protect Soviet interests worldwide. With shades of the real-world Chernobyl disaster the previous year, the elite squad enlisted the aid of Western heroes to prevent a nuclear meltdown in Justice League #3 (1987).
In Flash #6 (1997), the Fastest Man Alive joined forces with a trio of genetically engineered Soviet speedsters named Red Trinity to defeat Blue Trinity, the freakish “prototypes” of the speed-enhancing experiments.
In Batman #417 (1988), the rogue Soviet agent KGBeast shows up in Gotham City to assassinate ten people connected with the so-called “Star Wars” defense program...including the visiting President of the United States!
Even the grim (yet darkly humorous) future world of Judge Dredd had to deal with the Communist threat of East-Meg One, a city in the Sov-Blok portion of the planet ruled by Soviet descendants. In Judge Dredd #23 (1985), East-Meg One initiated The Apocalypse War on Mega-City One, which naturally lead to their own nuclear annihilation at the hands of a vengeful Judge Dredd.
X-Men #4 (1992) revealed the existence of Omega Red, a Russian mutant transformed (Weapon X-style) into a Wolverine-wannabe.
It should be noted that even though X-Men #4 was cover-dated February of 1992, it’s actual publication date fell somewhere in November of 1991.
Why should that matter?
Well, the very next month, on Christmas Day, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics officially ceased to exist.
Torn apart by a failed economy, a dilapidated infrastructure and the shedding of its freedom-hungry satellite countries, the shambling zombie that was the Soviet Union finally collapsed onto the junk-heap of history.
What did that big chunk of history mean for comic books? Well, outside of losing a reliable source of international-flavored villainy…not much.
Oh, there were a few attempts to revisit the post-Soviet landscape, such as Marvel’s Soviet Super Soldiers one-shot (1992), in which the “orphaned” operatives reform as The People’s Protectorate (and recently The Winter Guard)…..
…or Wally West’s newly entrepreneurial pals The Kapitalist Kouriers (formerly of Red Trinity fame) in Flash #12 (1988)….
…but those attempts seemed half-hearted at best, as it became apparent that the comic book “front” of the Cold War had also come to an end. To be sure, Russian characters have continued to pop up in the years since. However, like present-day Russia itself, they seem more like bystanders or bit players in their world, and not the formidable foes of old.
Do I miss them? Not really.
However, the villainous Soviet proxies that populated the comic books of forty or fifty years ago were not only entertaining but, on some level, instructive as well. Not as authentic representations of the Soviet people, but rather as symbols that conveyed at least an inkling of the threat their government posed to the world. Though a child of the Cold War couldn’t fully comprehend the complexities of the conflict (I know I sure didn’t), a treacherous Black Widow or a mighty Crimson Dynamo did made it clear that there were governments that not only did not like the United States, but were prepared to do something about it.
Thankfully, we had heroes (both real and imaginary) willing to stand up to them.