It was spring of 1941 and all of Europe was at war. Germany, Italy, and Japan were marching all over the Eastern hemisphere, invading southern France, Greece, China, Poland, and waging brutal war wherever they went. As the Axis powers grew, more countries joined in the Allied cause, pushing back against the invasion.
The United States, however, sat back, declining to join the fray and declare war against Germany.
On March 1st, Timely Comics - the comic book publisher that would later come to be known as Marvel Comics - took the first step in what would become part of #Marvel's very DNA: addressing the politics and current events of its time. On that day, Captain America Comics #1 was released, introducing the world to its newest superhero and leaving no doubt where he - and subsequently, they, a company of mostly Jewish men - stood on the issue of America refusing to enter the war. With a now-iconic cover that depicted Captain America punching Hitler right in the face, it was hard to mistake which side of the debate they were on.
Now, it's simply part of pop culture history. But at the time, it was a bold and controversial statement for the comic book publisher to make. Though the first issue sold an astronomical million copies, not everyone was happy with the message it sent. Many agreed the United States should sit out the war, no matter how bad it was getting on the other side of the world. So severe was the backlash that Timely had to hire extra security outside its 42nd Street offices in response to the threats pouring in.
It was the start of Marvel's long history of directly addressing current events in its comics. During the 1940s, #CaptainAmerica was the spearhead of it all, with his comics being war stories that dealt directly with him fighting his greatest nemesis. Red Skull was a malevolent Nazi sympathizer that became the symbolic embodiment of the pure evil of Hitler and the Nazi party. But Cap's comics weren't just about Steve Rogers' role in fighting against evil and oppression; Marvel propaganda comics like his and the Young Allies series regularly reminded readers to be ever-watchful, and keep their eyes peeled for suspicious activity on the coastlines and borders of the United States, as well as remain vigilant of the threat of enemy spy rings. It was a way for the kids who read the comics to feel they were concretely contributing to the war effort, and Captain America helped them make sense of an incredibly scary and uncertain time in our history.
Eventually, the war came to an end, but that didn't mean Marvel's commentary on current events did. In the Silver Age of comics, new characters like Spider-Man, the Hulk, and the #FantasticFour were flawed and full of self-doubt and real-world struggles, concepts the more god-like Golden Age and DC characters never wrestled with.
The change in Marvel's characters synced with the rise of the youth countercultures and sparked a revolution in the way comics were viewed by the public. Rather than focusing on international conflict, the issues simply shifted to domestic social issues. It became even more pronounced with the beginning of the Bronze Age of comics in the '70s, when Marvel went all-in on timely, relevant story lines that directly addressed the biggest social issues of the day, with the comics of the ground-level characters of the Marvel universe doing the heavy lifting. Falcon, the world's first black superhero and #LukeCage, who was not far behind, often dealt with themes of racism. The struggles of the mutants of the X-Men were a direct allegory for the Civil Rights Movement. Female superheroes like Ms. Marvel, Spider-Woman, and She-Hulk became pop culture symbols of the second-wave feminist movement sweeping the country at the time.
But it was fitting that it was Spider-Man, Marvel's flagship character, that had the most tangible effect on public perception at the time, with his comics dealing with the issues that mattered to the younger generation more than any other. All through the '60s and into the '70s, his comics addressed everything from the Vietnam war and campus protests to prisoners' rights to racism and civil rights. It was because of his role as the avatar of a generation and Marvel's willingness to push the envelope that helped to reverse part of the restrictive rules the Comics Code Authority established in the puritanical '50s after fears that comics contributed to juvenile delinquency led to strict censoring of comics.
In the early '70s, when drug use in the U.S. was on the rise and running rampant, Marvel was approached by the government to do a story about the dangers of illegal drugs. Though the depiction of drugs in comic books was expressly forbidden by the CCA, then-Editor-in-Chief #StanLee defied the censorship rules and published a 3-issue Spider-Man story, Green Goblin Reborn!, in which Peter Parker's best friend, Harry Osborn, overdosed on drugs. It was the first comic book to ever portray drug use and - more importantly - condemn it in no uncertain terms. The story sold so well that it forced the CCA to repeal the part of its censorship rules that dealt with drugs, provided they were portrayed in a negative light and then later, relax its censorship rules entirely.
And it was Spider-Man whose comic most elegantly addressed the greatest singular tragedy that ever happened on American soil: September 11th. The Amazing Spider-Man #36, which later came to be known as the "Black Issue" for its all-black cover, found Spider-Man, New Yorker through and through, devastated as he helped emergency workers at Ground Zero the day of the attack. The imagery is some of the most poignant in comics, particularly the panel of Spider-Man clutching his head in despair as he watches the Twin Towers collapse, a visual representation of the horror and helplessness the world felt at that moment.
Aiding #SpiderMan in the effort were other heroes like Thor, Wolverine, Scarlet Witch and Vision, fellow New Yorker Daredevil, and, of course, Captain America. Even Marvel supervillains like Magneto, Kingpin, and Doctor Doom helped in the rescue effort, the comic book publisher's way of saying that some tragedies transcend sides to become the moments we set aside our differences in support of our shared humanity. Taking this a step further, the issue also expressly condemned the hate and fear with which Muslims were being regarded in the aftermath of the attack. Depicting not just the devastation of American citizens, but the violence perpetrated in mosques on the other side of the world with innocent Muslims just as heartbroken by the attack, Marvel stood firmly on the progressive side of the time: It was fanatic terrorism that was to be condemned, not all of Islam.
Unsurprising, then, that Marvel's most political story evolved from the social and legal upheaval in the years following 9/11: Civil War. The massive crossover event was built on a simple story that explored complex themes. After a superhero-villain showdown that ended in a tragic explosion that took the lives of 600 civilians, the Superhero Registration Act was passed, forcing all superheroes and villains to register their real identities with a U.S. government database as "living weapons of mass destruction."
It was an unmistakable allegory to the Patriot Act that had been passed after 9/11, and the publisher took a bold stance on the matter with America's greatest patriot, Captain America, surprisingly defying both the government and the Superhero Registration Act. It was an editorial decision that directly tackled the concept of freedom vs. security, and #SteveRogers was the mouthpiece for Marvel. In his eyes, the right to feel safe did not trump civil liberties being trampled.
Nor did the crossover event shy away from incorporating a fictional version of Guantanamo Bay, dubbed Prison 42, that paralleled the same civil liberties and legal rights violations as the U.S. prison. Like Gitmo, the prison was built an area (the Negative Zone) that operated outside American soil so the rules and regulations that governed U.S. prisons could be ignored. Just as the identities of the prisoners of Guantanamo were kept from the public, Marvel's heroes and villains who opposed the SRA found themselves thrown into Prison 42 in secret and without trial. Marvel's detained were also subject to various forms of illegal torture and human rights violations, including solitary confinement, being strapped down in restraints, and being suspended in virtual reality. Worse, the detention was indefinite unless the prisoner broke and agreed to register his or her identity with the government.
Once again, it was Spider-Man who reflected the feelings of the American public. When the existence of Prison 42 and the full scope of its violations were made known to #PeterParker, he was absolutely disgusted, unable to morally cope with or accept the various lines crossed by the detention of heroes and villains in the prison. It mirrored the collective horror of American citizens when Guantanamo became known to the world and its atrocities revealed.
And once again, it was Captain America who reflected the sentiments of Marvel itself. Just as it had all those years ago when Captain America punched Hitler in the face, Marvel weighed in on the politics of the time through the character who served as the living embodiment of the American ideal. Once Spider-Man's conscience drove him to switch allegiances and join Captain America's side, the two had a conversation about how to hold on to your beliefs and continue to do good in a world that had turned against you. Cap's "No, You Move" speech has since become iconic, and served to clearly outline not only his philosophy regarding personal responsibility, but the most idealized version of Marvel's political philosophy, as well.
Just as Marvel did with #TheWinterSoldier, its policy of addressing current events will continue to be explored on the big screen. With Civil War adaptation #CaptainAmericaCivilWar, Marvel once again made it clear as to where it stood in its most bold entry to date in its long history of political and social discourse.