Evan Henry / July 31, 2019
When the “Marvel Age of comics” dawned in the early 1960s, the era of the Cuban Missile Crisis and Tsar Bomba, many of the new slew of superheroes embodied a politicized mutagenic anxiety surrounding the very real possibility of nuclear conflict. Throughout the decade, Lee, Kirby, Ditko, Heck, and others illustrated a bewildering array of physical monstrosities and curiosities, named (appropriately) like freakshow attractions—the Incredible Hulk, the Man without Fear, the Human Torch, the Thing. Similar sci-fi visions of the unknowable horrors made possible with the advent of nuclear geopolitics had previously been expressed in early body horror films like Invasion of the Body-Snatchers (1956) and The Blob (1958), whose literal red menace descended from the stars less than a year after the launch of Sputnik.
Yet Marvel’s heroes offered a means of recuperating the strange, still poorly understood horrors of radioactive isotopes, denying their apocalyptic ontology at the same time the comics reveled (like world leaders) in their supposed capacity to grant nigh-unlimited power. The X-Men, self-described “children of the atom,” return to the correlation between biological deviance and nuclear weaponry throughout their early adventures: Magneto’s first terrorist act, in the title’s September 1963 debut issue, is against ICBMs being tested at the American missile base at Cape Citadel, a fictionalized Cape Canaveral. Professor X later boasts to new student Jean Grey that he himself was perhaps the first Homo superior (the “scientific” term for mutants), “born of parents who had worked on the first A-bomb project.” The solar-powered mutant Sunfire, who modeled his costume on the flag of Imperial Japan, was born Shiro Yoshida, just weeks after his mother suffered radiation poisoning in the American bombing of Hiroshima.
Soon after Marvel’s not-quite-nuclear first family, the Fantastic Four, are treated to a high dose of cosmic rays while on a test flight of Reed Richards’ (civilian) space rocket, they find themselves thrust into their first adventure, as sinkholes created by the villainous Mole Man begin to swallow nuclear reactors around the world. Less than a year later, Tyrannus, yet another hitherto-subterranean tyrant, would seek to use the Hulk as a gamma-fueled deterrent against “the armed atomic might of the land called America.” Outside the fantasy worlds of Thor and Dr. Strange, nuclear power provides both the inciting incident and the physical arsenal for a plurality of early Marvel stories.
Bruce Banner himself stands as perhaps the most explicit monument to Silver Age Marvel’s fascination with the terrible power(s) granted by nuclear weaponry. Dr. Banner, “the man whose genius created the G-bomb,” finds himself transformed into a walking, gamma-powered natural disaster when he is caught in the wash of radiation emanating from his own experimental gamma bomb. Thaddeus Ross, the bull-headed commanding officer of the base hosting the test, dismisses Banner’s safety concerns prior to the explosion: “A bomb is a bomb,” Ross bellows at the nebbish scientist with an unintended pun. “The trouble with you is … you’ve got no guts! They should have put me in charge of this test!” Throughout the title’s early numbers, Ross, a blustering, hyper-masculine Barry Goldwater figure, pursues the Hulk (and his “accomplice” Banner) with all the zeal of a McCarthyite investigation, collateral damage be damned.
Bruce Banner, in the course of his physical mutation, embodies Oppenheimer’s lament after Trinity. In body, Banner/Hulk is become death, “a living engine of destruction” emitting man-made radioactivity and inflicting mass damage in his periodic irrational rampages against innocents (usually provoked by the U.S. Army or by other villains). Where the various mutations affecting the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and the X-Men indulge in an escapist act of denial, imagining a world in which nuclear power can enhance individual agency rather than, say, increase an individual’s risk of cancer, the Hulk is, as J. Hoberman writes of Godzilla, a “primordial force of nature… a living mushroom cloud.”
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Certainly these atomic-powered Marvel characters had their analogues at DC: Captain Atom and Firestorm, most obviously. In the decades since the 1960s, certain works, like Darwyn Cooke’s The New Frontier and Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class, have made the analogy between superheroes and nuclear power still more explicit. A fascination with nuclear war, and with radiogenic mutation, runs throughout Cartoon Network’s Justice League (2001-2004). Other issues of state violence recur in the comics of the late 20th century, too, including the Mutant Registration Act of Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men run, and the later, broader Superhuman Registration Act that sparked Marvel’s first Civil War. Both of these repressive laws imply not just a eugenic system of control—a classification based on bodily difference that justifies limitations on “abnormal” people’s civil liberties—but a worldview in which superhuman bodies are seen as literal weapons of mass destruction.
But nowhere in late-Cold War Marvel is the familiar fear of impending nuclear Armageddon more apparent, and its attendant anxiety surrounding bodily mutation more prominent, than in the ending stages of then editor-in-chief Jim Shooter’s pet imprint—the New Universe (1986-90). Originally conceived as “the world outside your window,” the New Universe offered a set of “realistic” superhero stories across eight ongoing titles (later whittled down by half). Paranormal abilities having been ushered into this world by the mysterious “White Event,” a sudden global whitening of the sky on June 22, 1986, the imprint was guided by an attention to geopolitical detail and a thoughtful exploration of how the appearance of “paranormals” (the imprint’s term for super-powered individuals) would change a world otherwise like our own.
The New U’s flagship title, Star Brand, penned initially by Shooter and later by John Byrne, featured Pittsburgh native Ken Connell, an all-American college dropout. During the White Event, the almost unbearably average (but already superhero-buff) Connell had been visited by a mysterious old man. With little notice and less explanation, the Old Man grants Connell the title object, a mysterious, transferable tattoo giving its bearer virtually every power imaginable. Connell, over the issues that follow, grapples with the mechanics of having superhuman abilities—navigating in deep space, breathing while moving at supersonic speeds—as much as his everyday difficulties juggling two on-again off-again girlfriends and a job as an auto mechanic.
Throughout the series, Connell carries out both preemptive and retaliatory strikes on threats to US interests in Iran and Libya, at the time the biggest bugbears of American foreign policy outside the Soviet orbit. The title Merc likewise followed former American Marine Marc Hazzard and his brigade of non-paranormal mercenaries as they meddle in Latin America and, later, Afghanistan on behalf of US actors. When Connell goes public in Star Brand #11 as the costumed superhero Star Brand, he describes himself as a registered Republican and a Reagan voter.
Ronald Reagan looms, usually invisible but ever-present, in the political dynamics at play during the latter stages of the New Universe. Ken Connell, convinced that the Brand has brought only suffering and violence to those around him, determines to purge it from his own body and transfer it into an inanimate object. Unfortunately for Connell, the physics of power on Earth-148611 don’t allow for that—the dumbbell into which Connell hoped to place the Brand explodes with the force of a hydrogen bomb, creating a fifty-mile-wide fireball that destroys the city of Pittsburgh and launches America into a full-scale nuclear panic. The U.S. Army dubs this apparent attack, none too creatively, “the Black Event.”
Though the president of the New U’s United States looks a lot like Ronald Reagan when Ken Connell lands on the East Lawn in Star Brand #11 (see above), by the time of The Draft (1988), one of the prestige-format one-shots that helped tie the disparate ends of the imprint’s storylines off in an apocalyptic bow, he is more generic in appearance. We next meet the chief executive when Harlan Mook, a disaffected academic, launches his own paranormal incursion on the White House. Alias “Blowout,” Mook has the terrifying ability to teleport vast distances with a high degree of accuracy, leaving a powerfully destructive explosion behind at his origin point. On a wildly erratic campaign of terror, Mook manages to nearly provoke a war with Iran, makes himself a prime suspect in the destruction of Pittsburgh, and reveals to the American public that the president himself possesses a paranormal ability (either invulnerability or healing-based).
Meanwhile, the country almost immediately mobilizes for a war with… well, no one is sure. American paranormals (among them many of the characters we had followed in the titles DP7 and Kickers, Inc.) are forcibly conscripted. With longstanding disputes growing to a head between the US and Iran, and between South Africa’s Apartheid government and the growing African nationalist faction, the sudden creation of “the Pitt”—the vast mutagenic crater on the former site of Pittsburgh—has only fanned the flames. “Guess the war would’ve been a little different if they had folks like us around,” new Army recruit Garth “Gridlock” Mengeling muses about Vietnam, a war his older cousin fought and died in. He gestures around at the barracks dormitory packed full of his fellow paranormal conscripts. “What if the Viet Cong had to run into something like this in the jungle!”
Yet The War, the four-issue miniseries that brought the New Universe to a formal end, suggests that the existence of paranormal abilities in a world like ours could only exacerbate our conflicts. After all, a single impulsive decision by a superficially ordinary person has thrown the world onto the brink of World War III, while American military and political leaders remain convinced the creation of the Pitt was the work of a Soviet paranormal agent. Taking advantage of the chaos, rogue elements of the South African military fake a video of a Black South African paranormal seemingly claiming responsibility for the destruction of Pittsburgh. And thus the mobilizing American war machine is finally given a target, a year after the “Black Event.”
The event’s real culprit, meanwhile, has been driven mad with (nuclear) power, convinced that the Old Man who granted him the Star Brand was God, and himself the chosen messiah of a suffering Earth. Far from running from the power as he did mere months ago when he unsuccessfully tried to rid himself of the Brand, Connell vows to remake the world in his own image: “I have four thousand years of western civilization behind me,” the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Connell boasts. “Stand against me, and you stand against all that is wise and germane.” Just as American interventionism flexes its paranormal muscle abroad, Connell is at work remaking America at home, playing superhero in the outskirts of the city he destroyed. When we see him for the first time following the Pitt, he is implied to have kept a woman he “rescued” from bandits captive, raping her for three days as (he reasons) a way of repayment for his heroism.
Unbeknownst to Ken, though, his own unborn child has also survived the destruction of Pittsburgh, inheriting his father’s power—and more. The “Star Child,” not unlike its namesake from 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984), re-enters the narrative as humanity reaches the threshold of extinction. Over the course of John Byrne’s somewhat sadistic final nine issues of The Star Brand, the child, a young boy, ages from infancy to adolescence over the course of less than a year, learning about the universe from the ground up, even as he wields a purportedly infinite power. In the deus ex machina that concludes The War, the Star Child, now merged in essence with his own father, renders useless first the world’s atomic warheads, and later all weaponry.
Where superpowers had once served as metaphors for nuclear proliferation, the final story of the New Universe has “paranormal” power finally render conventional military power obsolete. There’s no hint whether, as with so many of Ken Connell’s previous uses of the Star Brand, this choice might ultimately backfire in catastrophic ways. But for the readers, at least, the New U ends with Armageddon (seemingly) averted. When we next see Earth-148611, in the pages of DP7 writer Mark Gruenwald’s Quasar, the Living Tribunal judges the Star Brand too great a threat to the fabric of reality, and the world of Ken Connell and walking nuclear weapon Harlan Mook is removed from its own universe and placed “in quarantine,” inside the world of Marvel’s mainstream continuity.
Rather than imagine a world beyond the end of the Cold War, maybe beyond the end of war itself, the New Universe instead collapsed. It is as if no superhero stories could be told about a world without militarism. Where the end of Watchmen looks forward to a potentially catastrophic violation of the ceasefire wrought by Ozymandias’ attack, The War chooses to give no hint of what will follow disarmament. If it’s a superhero utopia you’re looking for, this isn’t it. When nukes are obsolete, Marvel’s New Universe suggests, superheroes will be too.
Evan Henry is a journalist, critic, and writer living in Virginia. He has edited Black Ship Books, a blog of pop culture criticism, since 2014. Find him on Twitter at @evanbhenry.
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