Friday, February 10, 2012

The Future of Comics and the Second World War

I was having a bit of a think recently, as I'm wont to do, about my two Marvel faves, Captain America and Magneto. It struck me that both of them are deeply mired in the events of the Second World War. Cap's origins are explicitly derived from the war, albeit from before official American involvement: the original depiction of him is from the cover of a 1941 comic punching Hitler in the face. Magneto, alternatively, wasn't given the backstory of being a Holocaust survivor until 1981. This, however, came to dominate much of Magneto's character, and was given widespread exposure through being fundamental to his motivations in the X-Men films. Captain America, by a similar token, is often defined by his experiences in the war. His major villains, notably his archenemy Red Skull, are usually former Nazis, and he often experiences blasts from the past relating to missions he underwent during the war. Brubaker's run has been obviously noteworthy for this.
Captain America and Magneto are similarly therefore men of questionable age. Given Marvel's "floating timeline" approach, it's easy for most characters' births to have occurred in a not entirely specific time twenty or thirty years ago. There are even convenient wars throughout the second half of the twentieth century in which Iron Man's origins can have taken place. However, Cap and Magneto are both grounded in the Second World War. Cap's a man out of time, and increasingly so. He's always meant to have been defrosted about ten years ago or more, and even so any unknown effects of the super-soldier serum can be concocted to explain longevity or lack of ageing. It's been more awkward with characters like his long term on-again off-again girlfriend Sharon Carter, originally the younger sister of his wartime flame Peggy and later retconned to being her neice. Of course in the recent comics Peggy died of nothing so much as old age, and her status as Sharon's aunt is becoming increasingly unrealistic. How long until she was Sharon's grandmother?
Similiarly Magneto has had to be kept youthful through a variety of implausible means, being de-aged and re-aged at various points throughout his life such that he has an at worst middle-aged body despite surely being going on for ninety now. This raises awkward questions about his friendship with Xavier and the ages of his children, for instance, among other things. The problem is that having Magneto as a Holocaust survivor is such a compelling origin story for him that it will be difficult to ever have it any other way. Similarly Captain America functions best as a man of such overt patriotic American symbolism when his beginnings lie in the Second World War, a time when such imagery was more commonplace and when the world really was embattled against heinous forces. There has been no such Western atrocity as the Holocaust to give Magneto an updated backstory, nor a human conflict where the lines between right and wrong seemed so clearly drawn as in the Second World War to make Captain America a plausible character. Of course Cap gets it lucky as he can be frozen for however long writers deem it appropriate, but this isn't an issue of the internal workings of the Marvel Universe. The functionality of both of these characters is heavily dependent on a specific period of history. It's an issue of ongoing relevance.
I'm no historian, so I'm not really in a place to make sweeping statements, but I've occasionally been heard to suggest that the Second World War may be the most important event in human history up until the present. Perhaps "biggest" or "most influential" event would be more appropriate. I'm not saying it was somehow good or impressive, but rather it was the culmination of a great deal. Human history has, unfortunately, been defined by conflict and violence. The Modernists saw the First World War as the great catastrophe of Western civilisation, but the Second World War was perhaps the true climax of societies in conflict. It was certainly, as far as we know, the grand finale of great powers being blatantly at war with each other. Throughout history major forces like Greece and Persia or Rome and Carthage or England and France to name just a handful of examples had crashed against each other enormously in war. The Second World War was the last and probably worst instance of the developed world or the first world or whatever you want to call it fighting amongst itself. It was the final instance of much of Europe, especially Western Europe, as a battlefield. Some element of this finality may possibly be attributed to the notion that industrialisation and modern technology had made war so devastating that the great powers utterly exhausted themselves in this last great conflict. Another, and the theory I think we'd all like to believe, is that this particularly high level of devastation caused such countries to wise up to the horror they had been involved in for so many hundreds of years.
I say none of this to diminish the seriousness of wars which have come since, but only to point out the Second World War's place as the last time of particular note, at least in the West, in which the most militarily and economically powerful countries moved against each other, rather than the habit which I may say sprang up in the Cold War of the great powers fighting wars by proxy against the forces and in the lands of economically and technologically weaker opponents regardless of their success. With all this in mind it's understandable why the Second World War is such a huge presence in the history of Western culture. As far as we're concerned in many ways it really was the war to end wars - not all wars, but at least that kind of total warfare between the most powerful and dangerous nations on Earth directly. It was the last time what we call the First World fought among itself.
However, the Second World War is rapidly passing from living memory. When I was growing up the survivors of the First World War were becoming rare and now the same is happening for the Second. The war ended nearly seventy years ago, practically a lifetime for some. Given the logic of comics it's easy for Cap to have been frozen for that long, or for Magneto to be a young man even when he's going on one hundred. But at what point does this unchangeable origin for characters start to lose its relevance?
X-Men: First Class and Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011 dealt with the origins of Magneto and Cap respectively, and given their reasonable success, particularly in the case of First Class, it seems that the events of the Second World War and the Holocaust still resonate with people. And to be fair, perhaps it's worth noting that while these great tragedies may have occurred nearly seventy years ago, that also means they were happening only seventy years ago. They're not ancient history. It's confronting to think that much of what we take for granted now was born of such a terrible period of history, and of societies from which we haven't progressed that much. Clearly these events are still important to us. Then again, a day may come when they seem incredibly distant. If comics are still anything like what they are today in a hundred years time will people still believe or even care that Magneto was a Holocaust survivor? Or would it be like him being a survivor of the Reign of Terror or some such now-antiquated atrocity to our time? Perhaps events like the War and the Holocaust were so profoundly shocking and so comparatively well-recorded due to technological advances compared to earlier horrors that they will persist with us for many generations to come. The old cliché regarding an appreciation for history is that those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it. Perhaps that's the importance of fictional characters of historical grounding like Magneto and Captain America: as essentially immortal figures they keep us aware of what has gone before. Maybe one day they will seem a bit like oddities for their historical situation but they'll be keeping people aware of what happened in this most climactic sequence of human conflict.
There's also the fact that these historical elements are just backstory. As I've mentioned in an earlier post a persistent question these days is whether Magneto is still relevant. Many see his traditional terrorist ideology as extremely unendearing and that his conversion to heroism has essentially negated any purpose his character had left. I can appreciate these concerns; if he was to go on as he used to he would certainly seem lacking in self-awareness. Yet I feel his new role is realistic development for the character. Magneto doesn't need the Holocaust to be relevant. I believe the characteristics of Ultimate Magneto have suggested this already. In addition, as long as anyone takes a challenging stance to support the rights of the oppressed he will be relevant, and as a member of Cyclops' Extinction Team I think he's exactly where he needs to be to still have something to say.
Captain America, for his own part, will be relevant for as long as there is an America. In fact I believe he'll be relevant as long as the idea of a utopian dream exists. He may be a man from the past but he embodies the yearning towards a future we still haven't achieved. Idealism may have seemed easier in the Forties but ideals themselves are just as futuristic now as they were then. As long as society in some way aspires towards such an ideal, or should aspire to it, Cap's our man.
The Second World War was big, and as it moves further into the past we're only reminded of what an example it is with ongoing problems in the world, not necessarily as the culmination or downfall of those problems. Militarism and persecution still exist. There will always be a need for hope in the face of adversity. While the war itself may one day no longer be part of our stories the issues that surround it will be, and in that way it will stay relevant, and hopefully so will the characters and stories it inspired.

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