published because academic publishers found it too personal and publishing with the majors these days is almost by invite only. Focused on five Marvel Comics (Thor, The Invaders, What If?, The Human Fly, and The Eternals, as well as the Marvel house 'zine, FOOM) from the summer of 1977 through 1978, I explore how Marvel stories functioned as myths for me. The time frame follows a school year and the Marvel comics are examined in the context of other myths being transmitted into my seventh grade life; for me, these included myths of religion, history, family, neighborhood, and popular culture. The book came out of one chapter in my dissertation in which I examined how superhero comics used the structures of comics to create very specific kinds of myths.
What follows is an excerpt from the conclusion of my book which seems relevant to our new political landscape. Though the story I discuss is not within the book's specific time frame, I did encounter it as a reprint. Older stories could always be found in this era.
Even as some of us struggle today with a new, regressive, and antagonistic president, we wonder why and how such pessimism and vitriol could be expressed by a US president and why it is so extensive in modern society. I wonder why the obvious examples of better behavior we find in countless myths go without so many of us learning from them.
Below is a vivid memory of a story in which I learned about hatred. It is clearly as relevant today as it was then.
"[From earlier Marvel comics] there is one story in particular that should be singled out, both for its relative significance to the Marvel Universe and for its relevance to the world today. Its storyline could easily be set within the current political and cultural narratives we view and read about wherever we find our daily news. In Giant-Size Fantastic Four #3, dated November 1974, I came across this cornerstone of the Marvel Universe, originally published in Fantastic Four #21, dated December 1963. The tale is titled “The Hate-Monger!” and for me it’s a clear example of the ability of comic books to present narratives able to function as a myth within a mythology, achieved through a combination of its words and its visual art. The splash page is somewhat harrowing, featuring a purple-hooded Hate-Monger, clothed in a ragged tunic over what looks like chain mail and jack boots. He stands amidst rabidly burning flames and barbed wire, with the faces of each of the four Fantastic Four surrounding him. However, each of their faces is depicted as hatefully insane. Reed and Sue Richards both look particularly mad, while The Human Torch fully appears to be a demon.
What starts out as a bucolic day in their high-rise headquarters becomes darker when The Thing is found getting angry as he reads the newspapers. His concern: “That crumb who calls himself The Hate-Monger has been causin’ trouble wherever he goes, and nobody can stop him because he’s too smart to break any laws!”[i] Reed casually responds, but it is an impressive line for its matter-of-fact delivery and, in the light of the type of coded dialogue and comments we often find in today’s news and commentary, it is direct analysis. Reed says, “He’s the most dangerous type of menace! He preaches class hatred, race hatred, religious hatred!” In response to Ben’s continuing anger, Reed responds, “Don’t worry, Ben! He’ll get what’s coming to him sooner or later! Bigots always do!” As I write this, Donald Trump is running for President and riding rough-shod over the nation’s media coverage, preaching both race and religious hatred, even while he says he does not, often without even taking a break between his comments to breathe. Do bigots always get what they deserve? Obviously not, but perhaps less people would be influenced by such speech – perfectly equivalent to the hate-ray in use by The Hate-Monger – if they had been reading about better ways to approach life in such comics like this one, from 1963.
Marvel Comics – supposedly for children – taught me valuable lessons not only about the world, but also about the moral possibilities inherent in learning how to approach one’s life. As a myth, being held up to examine real life, this comic allows us to weigh the behavior of, say, a Donald Trump, against statements about the evils of the world, like Reed Richards espouses. Perhaps even more telling is the following dialogue from the followers of The Hate-Monger, which could easily be seen at many political rallies today: “Long live The Hate-Monger! He’ll clean up this country for us!” and “Down with all foreigners! Down with everybody who disagrees with us!”[ii] As these sentiments are still heard, the question is, why? Why is there so often little recognizable progress through history, with lessons of learning about others and accepting differences while honoring similarities seemingly never being taken to heart? Though myths do tell us about very good ways to live our lives, we also see opposing knowledge within them, about how the vicious and the petty always co-exist with the good. Is it possible to extinguish the beliefs of separatism when those who spout them have no interest at all in acceptance?
In the comic book, The Hate-Monger turns his hate-ray on the Fantastic Four. The superhero family members battle each other, effectively splitting the team (and family) up. It is only their anger over not knowing what the others are doing that leads them back together, if only to fight again. In the end, they recover in time to stop the villain, but his hate-ray is accidentally turned on his minions. With their hatred for him turned up to a rabid level, they shoot The Hate-Monger dead. In a sequence that would never be forgotten by the nine-year old reading this story, The Hate-Monger’s hood is removed and it is revealed that he is Adolf Hitler. Reed mentions it might be “one of the many
doubles the Feuhrer was reported to have!” but it’s not resolved whether it’s a double or the real Hitler. Reeds’ words end the story in the last panel: “Until men truly love each other, regardless of race, creed, or color, The Hate-Monger will still be undefeated! Let’s never forget that!”[iii] I find this relevant and not at all a trite sentiment, but perhaps in our current world where cynicism runs rampant, I could see adults reading this story finding it to be so.
However, as a nine-year old in 1974, the real moral, ethical, and social lessons Reed Richards’ delivers throughout this tale had real resonance. Racial separation is still mostly normal for much of my hometown, the city of Chicago. Adults in the neighborhood I grew up in were certainly part of the problem. Spouting racial slurs of all kinds was pretty common, similar to those we found in Chris Claremont’s reply to that letter in FOOM. I remember finding this uncomfortable as a child: you were taught to be good so that God would love you, or be good so that you learn in school and the teachers don’t punish you, but out in the real world, intolerance of all kinds was rampant. When faced with “do as I say, not as I do,” the tendency is almost always to do as they did, even if it makes you uncomfortable.
Hearing Reed Richards speak wisely and true about these ideals that we should be taught – how America stood for and was founded on the acceptance of all classes, races, and religions – in the face of adult hypocrisy, this comic book made this young reader feel better. And stronger, because here was someone talking about others in ways that did not make me wince uncomfortably. I was able to hold up this myth of The Fantastic Four to my real life and decide that maybe acting like Reed Richards was a better option than acting like certain priests, teachers, or most of the parents in the neighborhood.
Even more, giving this myth a serious tone that made this specific narrative unforgettable, The Hate-Monger is revealed to be the ultimate real-life villain, Adolf Hitler. Though discussion of racism today has become more public, with historical revisionism to soften Hitler’s name being spouted even in American mainstream politics, such public preaching of hatred was only heard in 1974 at events like Ku Klux Klan rallies around Chicago. At least that I was aware of, and when I did hear of such rallies, I found them terrifying. Terror is, of course, the intent of such speech. By wearing hoods and gowns marked with arcane symbols, like The Hate-Monger, they intend to raise the level of terror amongst those they hate, but they also intend to terrorize people that might be like them to get them to join their hate group. There are other horrible villains in world history, but perhaps none as recognizably nauseating as Hitler: his militaristic appearance and bullying personality, entwined with an ability to turn his countrymen against others while making a savior out of himself, created a visual that even now is able to make us feel sadness and disgust. As a child, I believed he was the ultimate evil, and not only because comic book heroes often fought him. His was a viscerally upsetting countenance to anyone who believes in the uplifting of social good rather than a denigration into rabid hatred. So revealing The Hate-Monger to be Hitler was a powerfully visual talisman, forming a myth that would last forever in my mind.
When Donald Trump recently suggested all Muslims should be banned from America; or suggested protesters against his candidacy should be beat up, that this was what they deserved to get; or that a giant wall (straight out of a Dr. Doom scheme in a Marvel comic) should be built between Mexico and America, it was The Hate-Monger that came immediately to my mind. The tale could be retold today, with superheroes removing the hood and unveiling the face of this man running for President of the United States. Perhaps the visual of pulling the hood off of him could begin to convince those who think he is so splendid to see a little deeper into what is going on: he does not hide his face in any way, so people seem to think he is serious, an actual candidate representing the interests of the people. Just like Hitler did as he turned the harsh conditions imposed upon Germany after World War I into an us versus them confrontation – “them” meaning everybody who wasn’t German enough for Hitler. A visual of Hitler, accompanied by visuals of the atrocities he directed, seared a narrative within us, allowing us to imagine forever, in this case, what evil can look like. From there, we can extrapolate a narrative from that core image of evil into a mythological insight that becomes a tapestry unfolding its tale whenever we need to refer to it, or revel in it, or simply use it, to understand what is going on in our lives."
If you liked this and want to explore some of Marvel's interesting comics of the era, please consider getting a copy of the book.
[i] Lee, Stan and Jack Kirby, “The Hate-Monger,” reprinting Fantastic Four #21, MARVEL MASTERWORKS: THE FANTASTIC FOUR VOL. 3, Marvel Comics, 2003, 4.
[ii] Ibid., 5.
[iii] Ibid., 23.