Cold War Supervillains

Cold War Supervillains

(pop culture)
Dark forces conspired against democracy in the decades following World War II, or so paranoid Americans were led to believe. A tentative peace existed between the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union and its bloc of nations, with each side believing that the other had its collective finger on the atomic-bomb button. Pop fiction personified the “Red Scare” through a new breed of Communist spies and cold war supervillains from whom no neighborhood fallout shelter or “duck and cover” classroom drill could offer refuge. Marvel Comics, searching for a post–Golden Age (1938–1954) trend to cultivate, took the Red Scare seriously. Marvel Boy, a space-age teen titan who in 1950 received his own title for a meager two-issue run, fought various outer-space invaders that substituted for Communists—he even called aliens “Commies” in one story and nuked their desert base. The Star-Spangled Avenger became “Captain America … Commie Smasher!,” according to the tagline of Captain America #76 (1954), the title's first revived issue after its 1950 cancellation. “Cap” and his sidekick Bucky returned to action with the fervor they had once directed at the Führer (the hero punched Adolf Hitler in the jaw on the cover of his first issue in 1941) now aimed at the Russians, and the Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch, Marvel's other major Golden Age stars, were also revived, all for short runs. Cap fought Electro (no relation to the Spider-Man rogue), a green beast with a pink hammer-and-sickle chest emblem, and the Torch battled Comrade X, an extraterrestrial from the “Red Planet.” Captain America creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's Fighting American began a seven-issue run in 1954 from Prize Comics. Simon and Kirby bit into the cold war with tongue planted firmly in cheek, creating a Communist rogues' gallery for the hero his young cohort Speedboy featuring overthe- top characters including Russians Gnortz and Bohltz, Poison Ivan and Hotsky Trotski, and Rimsky and Korsikoff. A real-life cold war supervillain all but toppled comic books in the mid-1950s: psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham, whose 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent, a peremptory indictment against “the influence of comic books on today's youth,” sparked U.S. Senate subcommittee hearings against the industry. Ensuing negative publicity forced smaller publishers into bankruptcy and neutered the remaining houses, with the contentgoverning board the Comics Code Authority implemented as a standards watchdog. The Soviets' October 4, 1957, launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite propelled the Russians and Americans into the “space race,” and each nation fired rockets, chimps, and eventually men into orbit in a mad dash for aerospace dominance. With the advent of the Marvel Age of Comics in 1961, as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four #1 steered the publisher back into the superhero arena, Communist paranoia, the threat of nuclear radiation, and space exploration provided a blueprint for several of the supervillains in the publisher's emerging line. The Fantastic Four, whose cosmically imbued superpowers came from their own participation in the space race, first met Ivan Kragoff, aka the Red Ghost, in Fantastic Four vol. 1 #12 (1963). A Soviet scientist given the power to become a phantom from radiation exposure, the Red Ghost is best known for his unusual “henchmen,” his Super-Apes. The Red Ghost also appeared on the 1967 Fantastic Four television cartoon. In the vein of the Red Ghost was the Space Phantom, from the planet Phantus, who infiltrated Marvel's mightiest super-team by impersonating some of its members in The Avengers #2 (1963). Since radiation spawned the Incredible Hulk, it should come as no surprise that it also created the Green Goliath's first super-foe: the Gargoyle, the Russian physicist mutated into a pink-skinned, pint-sized monstrosity with a giant cranium in 1962's The Incredible Hulk #1. (The Gargoyle's son, the Gremlin, inherited his dad's augmented intelligence and attacked the Hulk with cyborg Super-Troopers eleven years later.) Boris Monguski, the mace-wielding Soviet soldier aka Mongu, took on the monster-hero later in 1962. The cold war was an integral element to Iron Man's mythos. His Soviet counterpart, the Crimson Dynamo, was introduced in Tales of Suspense #46 in 1964 (the same year that saw the premiere of Russian spy Natasha Romanoff, who would later defect to the U.S. and become the superhero Black Widow). Inside Dynamo's jetbooted, arsenal-loaded red armor was scientist Anton Vanko, although other Soviets succeeded him. A Crimson Dynamo miniseries, starring discontented Russian teen Gennady Gavrilov, was published in 2003. After creating the Dynamo's armor, Vanko produced the laser-firing “power horn” worn by Czech Milos Masaryk, a Russian espionage agent, who became the Unicorn in Tales of Suspense #69 (1965). The original Titanium Man, first seen in 1965, was Boris Bullski, a Soviet nationalist who defended his country's honor in high-tech metal gear. Also, Spider-Man's master-of-disguise foe the Chameleon, debuting in 1963, had links to an originally unspecified foreign power that was eventually revealed to be the U.S.S.R. The Russians did not monopolize all of the cold war villainy in the early years of the Marvel Age. Various Asian soldiers were occasionally depicted as enemies, and the Mandarin, premiering in 1963, became Iron Man's arch-foe. “The bloodthirsty scourge of Asia” General Fang and his army battled the title star of Hulk vol. 1 #5 (1963). In Iron Man's origin in Tales of Suspense #39 (1963), Vietcong villain Wong-Chu appeared. Chinese expatriate and volunteer guinea pig Dr. Chen Lu underwent radiation immersion treatments in Journey into Mystery #93 (1963), becoming the greenskinned human weapon the Radioactive Man. The popularity of the James Bond theatrical movies, starting with Sean Connery as agent 007 in Dr. No (1962), brought the Communist threat— generally depicted as Soviet agents—to popculture prominence in the 1960s. Fleming's criminal network SPECTRE paved the way for other evil organizations, whose agents were lurking around every corner, if one trusted television and film. TV's The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964–1968) featured the crime network T.H.R.U.S.H., with operatives like Comrade Voshnosh, and Marvel Comics' multiheaded organization Hydra took root. John Steed and Emma Peel, of the 1960s British TV spy series The Avengers, fought Boris Kartovski, a Russian spy with a mind-transference device. Kooky “Commies” were featured in campy spy spoofs, such as cartoon stars Rocky and Bullwinkle's enemies, Pottsylvanian agents Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale. Soviet or Soviet-like spies even popped up in prehistoric Bedrock, on The Flintstones (1964's “Dr. Sinister” episode, and the 1966 theatrical spin-off The Man Called Flintstone), and, of all places, the remote landscape of Gilligan's Island (1964–1967). With its utopian Silver Age (1956–1969) municipalities of Metropolis, Gotham City, and Central City mostly insulated from real-world threats, DC Comics rarely acknowledged the cold war. Notable examples include Egg Fu, Wonder Woman's absurd and politically offensive Asian foe; Batman's Fu Manchu–like enemy Dr. Tzin-Tzin, whose diabolical world threat was first witnessed in Detective Comics #354 (1966); and the original Starfire. Teen Titans vol. 1 #18 (1968) introduced superstrong Russian teen Leonid Kovar, aka Starfire, capable of generating white-hot flame. Ideological differences led to his verbal and violent exchanges with Kid Flash, although Starfire eventually became Red Star, an ally of the Titans. By the 1970s, the certainty of “mutually assured destruction” in a nuclear exchange began to thaw the cold war, even in the Bond movie franchise, which depicted the bedroom détente between 007 (Roger Moore) and Soviet agent Major Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach) in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). Supervillains, being a stubborn sort, refused to concede. Crimson Dynamo, Titanium Man, and Radioactive Man united as the Titanic Three in Avengers #130 (1974). The Soviet Super Soldiers, a gathering of previously introduced supervillains Crimson Dynamo, Gremlin, Darkstar (Laynia Petrovna, who created objects from “Darkforce” energies), Ursa Major (Mikhail Ursus, who could transform into an intelligent bear), and Vanguard (the energy-repelling Nicolai Krylenko, armed with a hammer and sickle), first teamed in Hulk vol. 2 #258 (1981). In the 1983 superhero satire Captain Klutz II, MAD magazine artist Don Martin trotted out a cold war supervillain that might have made Fighting American's Simon and Kirby proud: Comrade Stupidska, from “Soviet Brusha,” who tried to drop giant Alka Seltzer tablets into American nuclear power plants' smokestacks. DC Comics became more reality-minded in its post–Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985–1986) universe and frequently acknowledged the cold war. Hammer and Sickle (real names: Boris and Natasha), his-and-her superstrong Russian operatives, and the People's Heroes (superfast Bolshoi, explosive Molotov, and psychic Pravda) premiered in The Outsiders vol. 1 #10 (1986). During the 66- issue run of Suicide Squad (1987–1992), the Squad occasionally tangled with the Red Shadows, a similar Soviet organization of rogues for hire. Armored super-soldiers the Rocket Red Brigade premiered in Green Lantern Corps #208 (1987); while heroes, the Rocket Reds were disliked by some Americans, although one Rocket Red, Dmitri Puskin, eventually became a member of the Justice League (later appearing on the Cartoon Network's Justice League Unlimited, 2004–present). Anatoli Knyazev, the KGBeast, was a Russian super-assassin sent to the United States to execute his country's enemies, including President Ronald Reagan, in Batman #417 (1988). His protégé, the NKVDemon, followed the KGBeast's lead in 1990. After the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union marked the end of the cold war, Marvel published a Soviet Super Soldiers one-shot in 1992, and the NKVDemon has had two successors. Communist supervillains are usually portrayed satirically in post–cold war appearances, however, such as Boris and Natasha's return in a pair of live-action movies (1992 and 2000), and the Tick's foe the Red Scare.