Steve Englehart and the Quest for Selfhood
On the Road to Find Out
For a company so committed to its vision of humanism, Marvel Comics had a complicated history when it came to the question of enlightenment. The characters co-created by Lee, Kirby, and Ditko were defined by their inherent, personal flaws, leaving ample room not just for interpersonal drama, but personal growth. The serialized nature of Marvel’s storytelling, however, led to a widely-recognized problem: if characters are allowed to change too much, they could depart from their initial premise and foreclose the possibility for future storytelling. Critics and comics professionals often point to Lee’s dictum on the “illusion of change” over actual change as the moment when Marvel veered off course, but emphasizing this alleged shift is to play down the conservative impulses that had already guided Marvel’s storytelling. Things certainly happened to the characters whose adventures appeared under Lee’s bylines: Reed and Sue got married and had a baby, and Peter Parker went to college. But these events fit squarely within the respective series’ metaphorical frameworks (the Fantastic Four is a family and Peter Parker gets “A”s in school and “Fs” in work/life balance).
What these characters were not allowed to do was to surmount their own psychological barriers and become more psychologically healthy or spiritually enlightened. Enlightenment for Marvel superhero comics was like marriage for the classical comedy: it marked the end of the story. When the mysterious Conclave engineers an artificial being who is supposed to outclass all of humanity, the man known only as “Him” kills his creator and immediately leaves Earth to explore the universe.1 The High Evolutionary, a scientist whose experiments in accelerated evolution create bizarre humanoid animals, turns his science on himself and becomes a bodiless spirit that also leaves Earth behind.2 This trope of transcending the human only to abandon the planet becomes a commonplace (Alpha, the Ultimate Mutant in Defenders 16), even speeding beyond the confines of the Marvel Universe (the newly transfigured Rhea leaving Earth behind in Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol Volume 2, Issue 24).
In other cases, enlightenment is part of the character’s origin. Stephen Strange set out in search of a cure for his damaged hands, but what could anyone really expect from a trek to a Tibetan mountaintop and an audience with a mystic calling himself “The Ancient One?” Stock tips? Strange’s enlightenment was an inevitable byproduct of the overdetermined path he chose.
Lee & Kirby’s recurring or headlining characters were more often godlike beings who could gain wisdom from slumming with humanity. Thor was consigned by Odin into the identity of Dr. Donald Blake in order to teach him humility, while the Silver Surfer becomes a better person when he sides with mundane humanity and is trapped on our planet. Lee, at least, preferred to have his characters learn from their earthly experience rather than leave the planet behind.
In this, Lee and his collaborators were at something of a remove from the young adult audience that flocked to Marvel comics in the 1960s and formed the readership for the underground comics revolution during the same decade. The trippy visuals of Ditko’s Doctor Strange and the cosmic weirdness of a silver bald spaceman on a surfboard struck a chord with readers who might have been toying with the idea of tuning in, turning on, and dropping out, but the comics creators were middle-aged (mostly) liberal white men from the outer boroughs of New York. For all their attempt at being “hip,” Marvel comics were, at best, the product of the product of the audience’s cool uncle who tried to prove that he was cool with what the kids were doing while still holding down a nine-to-five office job.3
It would fall to the next cohort of Marvel comics writers to weave their generation’s concerns into the Marvel fabric. These included conscientious objectors, pot smokers, and spiritual seekers. Or, to put it more simply, Steve Englehart.
We have already mentioned Englehart briefly as the co-creator of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung-Fu, who remained with the book for only a few issues before being replaced by Doug Moench. It was Englehart who came up with not only Shang-Chi’s name, but the specific English interpretation of that name that has stuck with the character ever since: the rising and advancing of the spirit. Setting aside the question of linguistic accuracy, Shang-Chi’s name is a handy encapsulation of one of Englehart’s primary themes: the quest for enlightenment and personal growth.
Throughout his Marvel work, Englehart appeared to be interested in his characters only to the extent that he could show them growing and changing before the reader’s very eyes, preferably in a manner that required a great deal of introspection and, not infrequently, esoteric or pharmacological assistance. Englehart’s drama was that of self-development, but that did not mean that all his characters advanced along the same, predetermined path.4 For some of Enlelhart’s characters, the self was something to be altered and reaffirmed, using super heroic adventures as a crucible (Captain America); transcended entirely (Mantis); extended and explored (Wanda and the Vision), reforged through partnership (Doctor Strange and Clea; Captain Marvel and Rick Jones, among many others), or utterly annihilated in the name of an ego-less enlightenment (The Ancient One and, to a lesser extent, Doctor Strange). At the same time, Englehart also explores the more harmful results of obsession and compulsion (Drax and Kang), of selves who are doomed to repeat the same patterns again and again.
Doctor Strange and Self-Denial
Englehart’s successful career at Marvel (1971-1976) was a turning point in the redefinition of the superhero mainstream. On the one hand, we have the well-known stories of Englehart and his Doctor Strange collaborator dropping acid and wandering around Washington Square Park as they planned the Sorcerer Supreme's’ latest adventures. On the other hand, Englehart not only crafted exciting and complex superhero stories in The Avengers and The Defenders, he is also the writer who turned Captain America from a failing title with limited appeal to a best-selling and timely comic. Even more intriguing, he took the flag-wearing hero seriously as a symbol of American idealism while challenging his worldview in an extended Watergate-inspired storyline that ended at roughly the same time as Richard Nixon’s presidency.
Doctor Strange is a good place to start examining Englehart’s Marvel career. It is not his earliest contribution to the company’s titles, but his work on the character (in Marvel Premiere from 1973 to 1974, then in the Doctor’s own series until just before his departure from the company in 1976) coincides with his most productive Marvel years. More to the point, long before Englehart took over his adventures, Doctor Strange had been coded as the company’s most countercultural character. This is due primarily to the art by co-creator Steve Ditko, whose surreal depictions of alternate magical dimensions overlapped nicely with the psychedelic aesthetic of the burgeoning hippie movement (never mind the fact that Ditko’s own libertarian politics made him an unlikely idol for the new youth culture). A baby boomer, Englehart (b.1947) was part of the generation that had the chance to read the Lee/Ditko Doctor Strange stories in their teens and move on to Carlos Castaneda while in college. And perhaps even subsequently embark on a career making odd, occasionally trippy comics of their own.
By 1973, when he took over Doctor Strange’s adventures in Marvel Premiere, Englehart already had some experience with the character. In the first 11 issues of The Defenders, Strange was one of several characters Englehart juggled over the course of two years. But as Englehart himself puts in multiple interviews [SOURCE], he had treated the sorcerer as simply a superhero who could shoot rays from his hands. When he got the assignment to write Strange’s solo book, Englehart set out to determine exactly what kind of person a mystical superhero would be. Immersing himself in various esoteric traditions, Englehart also changed the course of his own life, or at least his career; the modern occult would become an important part of some of his most significant writing, including the four-volume series of prose novels about Max August (starting with The Point Man in 1980).
In Doctor Strange, Englehart gave his readers a hero who undoubtedly “rose and advanced;” by his second issue, Strange had moved on from being merely “Master of the Mystic Arts” to “Sorcerer Supreme,” and his knowledge, power, and perspective would continue to grow throughout Englehart’s tenure. But unlike Captain America or the members of the Avengers over whom he had the greatest creative control (Mantis, the Scarlet Witch, and the Vision), Stephen Strange’s journey was less explicitly about self-discovery and self-actualization than it was about understanding and accepting his place in the universe. Most of his Marvel characters followed paths that had a distinctly American feel to them: they learned who they were and tried to be all that they could be. Strange did that, too, but in a manner that is more Taoist. Stephen Strange sought the way of the universe; a way that, despite needing the occasional course correction, was a path for Strange to join more than to forge.
But first, Englehart had some housekeeping to do. As was fairly common at the time, his initial script for Marvel Premiere was part of a story that had been going on for some time— in this case, the penultimate installment in a plot that had begun exactly one year before he took over the book. To muddle matters further, the first chapter was written by Stan Lee and Barry Smith and the second by Roy Thomas and Archie Goodwin; only with the third (Marvel Premiere 5, November 1972) did the title get a “permanent” writer, Gardner Fox. Strange was battling a menagerie of enemies rooted in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, led by the mysterious Shuma-Gorath. In Englehart’s hands, the battle becomes as much about acceptance as conflict: Strange’s mentor, the Ancient One, had been starving himself to death in order to foil Shuma-Gorath’s plans and resist being brought into the fray. But he casts a spell to save Stephen, giving the enemy the foothold for which he had been waiting. The last page of Marvel Premiere 9 revealed that Shuma-Gorath has taken up residence in the Ancient One’ psyche, and is now free to act.
In the final chapter of the story, we see that Shuma-Gorath has transformed himself into a “negative image of the Ancient One,” after burrowing into the old man’s soul. Now Stephen Strange’s fight against Shuma-Gorath accrues added layers of significance: since Shuma-Gorath is based within the Ancient One, Strange’s mentor becomes the battleground for the fate of the universe. Moreover, the very nature of the battle is self-referential: the Ancient One had almost defeated Shuma-Gorath through passive resistance and self-abnegation, but now Strange is forced to do active battle according to the typical heroic paradigm. Once inside the Ancient One’s mind, Shuma-Gorath, now in control of the man’s consciousness, forces Strange to fight simulacra of his familiar enemies, before finally revealing his true, Lovecraftian form. Strange realizes that all these battles have been a distraction, giving Shuma-Gorath time to carry out his plan and drain the Ancient One of all his strength. Strange must finish the job that his mentor had begun: he must kill the Ancient One.
It is not the act of ending the Ancient One’s life that is important here, but the nature of this particular mercy killing. Strange finally arrives at a glowing polyhedron he describes as “The Ancient One’s Ego!” Inside is mostly darkness, save for a small glowing light that turns out to be “the Ancient One’s conception of self!.” We see an image of the Ancient One in silent meditation, maintaining, as Strange notes, “an inner peace” in the face of death. Strange hesitates, but in a full-page spread we see him hurl a spell at this ego image, shouting “He saved my life so that I could end his!”
A despondent Strange leaves the crypt in which he had found his master’s mortal body, cursing himself as a murderer. But then he hears the Ancient One’s voice speaking from a tree. The Ancient One has “become one with the universe!”:
“Hear, Stephen Strange—until now, everyone’s universe has been divided into two parts:
“Himself…and everything else!
“But when you destroyed my ego, you destroyed my conception of self—and also my conception of what was not myself. “
For Stephen Strange, the result is an advancement in his station, from Master of the Mystic Arts to “this realm’s new Sorcerer Supreme!” For the Ancient One, it is an obliteration of his sense of individual self, but one that leads to a stage of enlightenment that he himself could never have anticipated. It is fitting that Strange is so passive and confused in these last few pages, even as the Ancient One informs him that he has bequeathed all his magical powers to his former pupil. The Ancient One has shown him that the path forward required that he take on a new and crucial role without exalting his own sense of self-worth.
Indeed, after the resolution of the Shuma-Gorath storyline, Strange spends much of the next four months of real time in a state of confusion and self-doubt. Issue eleven is mostly a reprint, but with a framing story about Stephen’s brief return to the Ancient One’s temple and his fears that he is not up to the demands of his new role. Issue 12 begins with Strange floating in the desert in the lotus position, as his lover Clea and servant Wong try to snap him out of his trance. Strange holds a lizard in his hand, and explains to Clea, with tears in his eyes, that he now feels a connection to (and responsibility for) all living things: “For a few seconds, I held the life of a sacred being in my hands. What an awesome responsibility.”
This short sequence is merely a transition from one storyline to another, but it serves as something of a mission statement for the new Sorcerer Supreme, as well as a reminder of the challenges of conveying Zen-style enlightenment within the trappings of a genre that privileges conflict above all else. He needs to combine enlightenment with action, and soul-searching with a self-denying humility. Strange ends his musings by saying, “I have dwelt inside myself long enough!” Yet this is not actually the case: for the remainder of Englehart’s tenure, Stephen Strange will “dwell inside himself” rather frequently, even if it is in the name of transcending ego.
Doctor Strange Confronts the Infinite. Then He Does It Again
One of Stephen Strange’s more frequent lamentations is “Curse me for a novice!” which he usually exclaims when he has failed at a task he considers to be simple or has missed the obvious. It only works because Strange is not a novice: when Lee and Ditko introduce him in Strange Tales 110 (July 1963), Dr. Strange has already established himself as the Master of the Mystic Arts, defending humanity from within his Sanctum Sanctorum in Greenwich Village. By the end of the same year, Lee and Ditko reveal his origin (in Strange Tales 115), going back in time to Strange’s years as a surgeon and his eventual quest for the Ancient One. Doctor Strange is then cemented in the reader’s mind as both hypercompetent (his first appearance) and a man on a journey (his fourth appearance).
Englehart sustains both aspects of Stephen Strange’s persona over the course of Marvel Premiere and Doctor Strange. This is particularly fitting, since Englehart himself only started to explore the occult as a response to this new assignment. Englehart wants Strange to be powerful, but it seems that he also wants Strange, like the writer himself, to be learning about magic along the way.
Over the nearly 60 years since his creation, Doctor Strange has lent himself to a variety of types of stories, from team books to adventure tales to superheroics, all of which have their roots in the early Lee/Ditko days. Englehart was not alone in emphasizing the “cosmic” nature of Strange’s stories (does anyone really want to watch the Sorcerer Supreme stop bank robbers?), but he was the first to pick up on one the key elements of the doctor’s classic adventures: the confrontation not just with the cosmic, but the infinite and ineffable.
Lee and Ditko set the standard here with the introduction of Eternity, an anthropomorphic embodiment of all of creation. It says a lot about Doctor Strange that Eternity has appeared so many times since that one could almost call him a supporting character. Englehart takes some time before bringing Eternity back. In his first solo Doctor Strange storyline (and the last one to be published in Marvel Premiere), he nonetheless raises the stakes for the Sorcerer Supreme. In a multi-part confrontation with the wizard Sise-neg, Strange and his archenemy Baron Mordo follow their antagonist back to the beginning of time, where Sise-neg plans to supplant all of creation with a new version made by him. Along the way, Sise-neg attains godhood, reverses the spelling of his name to become “Genesis,” and realizes that the best thing he can do is “recreate the universe—exactly as it was before!” (Marvel Premiere 14).
Witnessing this event causes Mordo to go mad, but Strange merely muses on the paradox before realizing that, having returned to his own time, it is New Year’s Eve (1974). The revelation of the iterative, cyclical nature of all creation gets folded into the very human ritual that recognizes the iterative, cyclical nature of our calendar. This, in Englehart’s hands, is Stephen Strange’s greatest gift: his capacity to confront the ineffable and return to the human world, changed and yet the same.
“Changed and yet the same” describes not just Strange, but the world itself: by issue 10 of his own series, Strange will see the Earth destroyed and recreated, a perfect replica of the original that is somehow different for not being the original. The metaphysics of Doctor Strange also resonates with the basic temporality of Marvel Comics: the iterative present that Stan Lee referred to as “not change, but the illusion of change.” Englehart’s Doctor Strange is, perhaps in spite of itself, a perverse justification of Lee’s dictum, showing that even when the status quo is apparently regained, something is learned along the way. And the hero can grow from it.
This, in fact, is Englehart’s masterplot for Doctor Strange. The first sequence of Strange’s new solo title has him nearly killed by a Christian, magic-wielding anti-magic zealot calling himself the Silver Dagger. To escape death, Strange enters the Orb of Agamatto, the crystal ball that had featured prominently in many previous adventures. Over the course of four issues (with a reprint in the middle), Strange find himself trapped in a realm of unreality, meeting Lewis Carroll's caterpillar, dining with bizarre simulacra of his fellow super-heroes, and having his very sanity challenged by what he sees. The only way for him to escape is to confront Death itself. The encounter does not go well; no matter what he does, there seems to be no escape from death (pictured as a giant skull hanging in space). The only respite is provided by a humanoid hole in space, whose outline is that of Eternity.
Death has no hold over Eternity, but the Eternity shape provides only a brief respite: Death distorts the space around Eternity, leaving Strange potentially vulnerable to Death’s touch. Typically for an Englehart Dr. Strange story, the hero’s victory comes not from violence, but from contemplation and wisdom. Strange thinks:
“Perhaps this is only the dulling of my will again—but I know it is not! I have seldom felt so lucid!
“The Ancient One told me that no man ever believes his time has come—but I am forced to believe!
“Death is a part of life, just as life is a part of death. Escape—attack—these are born of the instinctive fear and anger death breeds on his approach.
“But death though remorseless is not evil. When the time comes, death is only an experience for the soul-=-one unlike any other, but an experience nonetheless. And fear and anger only confuse perception.
“I have feared death, deep inside, though my arts have taught me much about the mastery of my mind. Despite the arts, I am a man, and men do not wish to die. Thus, I have fought every step of the way!
“But I fight no longer!
“I fear death no longer!
“I am ready to die.” (Doctor Strange 4)
At that point, Dr. Strange expands his body to fill up the entirety of the Eternity-shaped hole in space, “to feel death’s touch on all of him at once,” and dies.
Of course, this is comics, and mystical comics, at that. Doctor Strange is not permanently dead; instead, he has yet another encounter with the floating head of the Ancient One, who explains that this was the greatest trial of the Sorcerer Supreme, and that he shall be reborn “with no physical fears to arrest your development,” and with an ankh symbol appearing on his forehead whenever he faces death.
Stephen Strange has yet to defeat Silver Dagger; that’s a matter for the next issue. What he has done, however, is confront the truth of his existence, experience annihilation, and be reborn as a new iteration of his previous self. In other words, the second iteration of the Englehart Doctor Strange enlightenment plot.
After a four-issue battle with Dormammu, Lord of the Dark Dimension, and his sister, Umar (defeated by the combined mental energies of every living being on earth, including the readers of that particular issue of Dr. Strange), Nightmare, Lord of Dreams, hatches a convoluted plan that threatens to destroy the world. He has trapped Eternity in a nightmare, but Eternity’s nightmares have a way of becoming a reality. Eternity forces Stephen to confront versions of himself from his past (the surgeon the drunk), as well as others that never existed (including one disguising himself as Richard Nixon).
At first none of this makes any sense on the level of plot: Eternity has rendered himself visible to the people of Earth, and told Dr. Strange that our world is coming to an end. Strange pleads on humanity's behalf, which then leads to Eternity’s arrangement of the doctor’s encounters with his various incarnations. But, as Eternity reminds Strange in issue 13, he is Adam Qadmon, the blueprint of humanity, or the universe in anthropomophic form. He embodies the very notion of “cosmos,” that is, of a universe that is understood as a homology between the human and the reality that contains it. Strange’s exploration of his own multifaceted humanity is analogous to Eternity’s plight as he himself explains it: Eternity was subject to Nightmare’s influence because of the effect of the ever-growing human race on his own consciousness: he became introspective, and subject to dreaming. He was behind the creation of plants, mammals, primates, and “man”:
“All this did I do, to advance myself…but as the distance between their level and mine lessened, and their numbers increased…
“Their effect on me grew more pronounced!"
Thus we see how a story that, on the surface, seems astonishingly egocentric (just how many times is Stephen Strange going to encounter someone wearing his face?), is, like the Ancient One’s ascension, about exploring the ego in order to move beyond it. Just as Strange had to let death touch him “everywhere at once” in order to experience and transcend death, now he has to wallow in externalized self-absorption in order to learn more about the universe (that is, about Eternity). For Stephen Strange, the way out is almost always through.
But Strange is also at loggerheads with Eternity, because the anthropomorphic embodiment of the cosmos did, in fact, destroy the Earth at the end of Issue 12, and will not undo the damage done while under Nightmare’s sway. Sorcerer Supreme or no, Stephen Strange is clearly out of his league. Moreover, a “physical” confrontation with Eternity would be a step back from all the progress he has made (observing creation, meeting God, accepting Death).
Engelhart finds a solution that is consistent with the central metaphors of the book while verging on a parody of fanboy expectations of superhero conflict. Out of nowhere, a giant-sized version of the Ancient One appears, grabs Eternity by the hand, and then body-slams him into submission. The caption explain:
“By now, Dr. Strange has seen everything!
“Two titans grapple with each other, but not as they appear!
“There is no need of human form here—not for them! It is just what he sees!”
That is, once again, a metaphysical conflict plays out through human metaphors, abstraction rendered as the banal. The captions tell us that this is about the limits of Dr. Strange’s perceptions, but it is also a clever concession to medium (comics are ill-suited to depict the abstract directly) and genre (superhero stories require a fight scene).
Yet there is another reason that this fight scene is not what it seems. After the conflict is resolved, and after the Ancient One has, for the third time in Englehart’s run, explained the story to its protagonist, he shocks his disciple by stepping inside Eternity, his face replacing the one Eternity usually wears:
“But what is this your face betrays? Surprise?
“Did I not tell you that now—
“—I am one with the universe?”
The battle between the Ancient One and Eternity, like Stephen Strange’s confrontation of his doppelgängers, was a battle with his own self. The story is a set of concentric circles: Eternity embodies the harmony between the human and the universe; Dr. Strange must learn about himself to understand the universe better; Eternity must fight himself (the Ancient One) in order to decide the fate of the earth. This particular Dr. Strange storyline is designed like Eternity, collapsing the human and the cosmic into one.
Though it is an unusually efficient summation of Englehart’s agenda for Doctor Strange, the end of the Eternity plot manages to be both familiar and novel. Certainly, there is nothing new in Stephen’s confrontation with a cosmic abstraction followed by a post-game conversation with the Ancient One. But where previously the lessons involved a fundamental advancement in Strange’s own consciousness, this time, the springboard for future stories is that Strange is the only thing that has not changed. Under Nightmare’s influence, Eternity destroyed the world (Issue 13 is even titled “Planet Earth Is No More!”) Eternity will not undo the past, he agrees to “re-create the planet Earth,” from its earliest days up to the moment before its destruction:
“Now, it continues…without Mordo, without Death. It continues as the first Earth would…
“…for it is in all respects identical.
“No mortal knows of his first self’s demise—to them, there is still but one reality.”
"’Everything?' breathes Dr. Strange 'Everything is the same?””
“‘Everything!' rumbles Eternity.
“…with one exception!
“I left no second Dr. Strange!”
After a brief crossover with Tomb of Dracula (Dr. Strange 14/Tomb of Dracula 44, in which Stephen Strange yet again dies and comes back to life), issues 15 and 16 deal with the fallout of the earth’s destruction and recreation. Strange cannot forget that everything around him is a recreation:
“Everything is the same, and yet different! I cannot tell it is different—it looks and feels the same—
“But I know! I know so much that other men could never even suspect—and I worried before—
“—that I had opened myself too much!
“What sort of victory did I win, when Eternity re-created the world?
“I knew reality was an illusion, but to be reminded every moment, by everything I see—!
“The mind of man needs the illusion! I—“ (Doctor Strange 15)
Stephen is interrupted by Clea’s appearance, which is, in turn, a reminder that she herself is a recreation unaware of her strange ontological status. At first, Stephen cannot bring himself to tell Clea the truth; instead, he confesses to a pair of (older, male) magicians who had been staying at his house. Even they have difficulty accepting that they are not “originals” (“I recall my life clearly—my childhood—“_ Their consternation allows Strange to regain some of his composure:
“What is memory, anyway? Yesterday’s reality is no more tangible—
“—than last night’s dream!
“Gentlemen, I fear for my sanity!”
“Then, Doctor, you have done the right thing in telling us—for sanity in its practical application is shared reality! Keeping this to yourself only worsens the crisis!”
“But even you were shaken! How can I tell those less advanced?
“How can I tell Clea?”
“The question, doctor, is how can you not?”
Predictably, Clea does, in fact, fall to pieces at the news (to be fair to Englehart, Strange paves the way with observations about her vulnerability to the news that are not based on her sex: “But though she was born to magic, she still has had little formal training! The concept could still be too much—“). But her breakdown, combined with the intervention of a suicidal heroin addict whom Strange gave shelter earlier in the issue, literally drags Strange and Clea down to hell, to do battle with Satan himself.
After a series of torments, Strange manages to free himself and Clea not through power, but through a triumph of will, concentration, and self-discipline. He essentially ignores Satan, refusing to grant him a foothold in his psyche (or, as Strange’s magician friends had put it, refusing to make Satan part of his “shared reality”). On the last page of issue 16, Stephen explains to Clea that he had been vulnerable to Satan because of “having [his] self-confidence shattered when [he] failed to save the world!” But Doctor Strange has now realized that “I was the one who insisted on seeing everything darkly, even when the world rolled on as bright as ever!” From the moment of his return to his Sanctum Sanctorum after Eternity’s recreation of Earth, Strange had been hesitant, self-absorbed, and brooding. Yes, he fought Satan, but the storyline, complete with Strange’s regaining of his former confidence, was the metaphorical rendition of Stephen Strange’s battle with depression.
Clea, too, has learned from her time in hell; in the following issue, she resolves to get on with her life: “Your example in defying Satan showed me the folly of such negative thinking. / The revelation of my death and resurrection was a shock, to be sure—but in the final analysis, I still exist! That is what matters.”
The battle with Satan is followed by one more (incomplete) storyline before Englehart’s abrupt departure, but by this point, the writer has already not just stated the comic’s thesis, but restated it several times: enlightenment is a rite of passage as iterative process, involving revelation and disillusionment that inevitably require the hero’s return to his previous existence, changed by the experience yet obliged to reincorporate with the reality he had (temporarily) left behind. Though Englehart never overtly gestures in the direction, Stephen Strange, with one foot in the mundane and one in the divine, could just as easily be Earth’s Shaman Supreme as Sorcerer Supreme.
Earlier I called this approach “deconstructive” because it necessitates a dual consciousness unafflicted by cognitive dissonance. The hero knows that his everyday reality is contingent, and that the insights he has achieved reveal the limitations of conventional understanding; but he is obliged nonetheless to live within that reality even after his enlightenment. This is no easy task, even for the Sorcerer Supreme; hence his very human bout of depression after the world has been destroyed and recreated. Unlike the comic book heroes who achieve godhood and leave Earth behind (including some characters penned by Englehart himself), Dr. Strange must both transcend and remain.
The Marriage of True Minds
So far I have approached transcendence in Doctor Strange as an entirely individual issue, which, given the series’ emphasis on moving beyond the ego, is rather ironic. On the other hand, it is a solo book, so one could reasonably expect its attention to be focused almost entirely on the eponymous hero. But there is one aspect of Englehart’s Doctor Strange stories that widens the focus: Stephen Strange’s relationship with Clea.
This would seem to be an unlikely avenue for exploration, given that the immense power differential between the two of them is both figurative and literal. Clea is both lover and disciple, an arrangement whose potential pitfalls are obvious enough. Yet despite the disturbing gendered implications, it was a step forward for the character. Clea had been introduced years ago by Lee and Ditko as the mysterious “girl” in Dormammu’s Dark Dimension, who went from aiding Strange to becoming a perennial damsel in distress. Once she moved to his Sanctum Santorum, the only role available to her was that of girlfriend. To make matters worse, leaving her homeworld deprived her of most of the magic she previously wielded.
But one of the first things Englehart did was to kill off the Ancient One and promote Stephen Strange to Sorcerer Supreme, thereby opening a vacancy for a disciple. Clea had aptitude but little training—just what a senior wizard might be looking for in a student. Now Clea had more of a reason to be prominent in Strange’s adventures, and if the first few issues of his new series had hero once again play the hostage, at least she was targeted by the Silver Dagger more as the magician’s apprentice than as his girlfriend.
In fact, her captivity at Silver Dagger’s hands proved to be the first step in a reconfiguration of her relationship with her mentor and love. When Stephen returns to reality after his confrontation with Death, he is a disembodied spirit, who in the throes of panic, mistakes a wax mannequin for his own abandoned body. When Clea touches the mannequin, she makes contact with Dr. Strange:
“She sense it! She knew! And as she touches the torso, Doctor Strange senses her!
“Clea gives him a point of reference—something to build his reality around! Instantaneously—
“—he surges gratefully into her willing mind!
“Once there, his excess energy is shared between them—
“—so that he can recover coherency—
“—and she can recover her strength.
“The reunion that follows is completely unparalleled.
“The two are one—and the one is whole!”
The sexual implications are a bit obvious, if not retrograde, with Clea as a receptive vessel waiting for Strange to fill her; but they are also consistent with the essentialist cosmologies that animate so many occult traditions, not to mention Englehart’s own comfort level with generalizations about men’s and women’s “nature.”5
Clea is now stronger (“The power is more easily mine!"), and it is only when the two of them work together that the defeat the Silver Dagger decisively. Though still her teacher, Strange now takes for granted that they are a team. In Issue 6, when he resolves to go fight Umar in the Dark Dimension, Clea shocks him when she refuses to accompany him to her former home. He agrees not to press her for more information, but laments to himself that”I shall be that much more sorely best in the Dark Dimension without her.”
There is no need to go into detail about the convoluted, but clever, four-part story. Suffice to say that Clea ends up confronting Dormammu in the center of the Earth while Doctor Strange fights Umar in the Dark Dimension, and that Clea is obliged to return to her home in order to save Stephen from certain death. Dr. Strange has lost his powers, and it is only by working together that they can restore his might—but to Clea, not to Dr. Strange (if only temporarily). Again and again, we are told that Stephen and Clea are more than the sum of their parts: Strange cannot accept other magicians’ help in the fight against Dormammu, a god-like being whose essence is “too alien for any of us to know him exactly as he is,” making it impossible for their spells to work in concert. But this is not the case for Stephen and Clea; as he himself affirms, “you and I are in perfect harmony.”
Within the confines of a book called “Doctor Strange,” not “Doctor Strange and Clea,” Englehart implicitly argues for the power and utility of a love that submerges the individual ego. But it can never be a merge of equals, both because of their status as teacher and novice and because of the patriarchal values that structure their relationship. Still, Strange and Clea are only one example of a dyad that simultaneously erodes the barriers of selfhood while reinforcing the strengths if the self. The multiple, overlapping connections between Stephen and Clea make them a poor test case. But what if the bond were between two men?
At roughly the same time Englehart was writing the Doctor Strange solo title, he was also scripting, and eventually, plotting another cosmic hero: Captain Marvel (1974-1976). Created in 1967 by Stan Lee, Captain Marvel was initially more important as evidence for a copyright claim than as an actual superhero.6 The history of the various Captain Marvels is quite convoluted, and we need not go into it here. The original Fawcett character was no longer being published, and Marvel Comics had an obvious incentive in owning a character with “Marvel” in his name.
Lee and Kirby had just introduced the alien race known as the Kree a few months earlier, in Fanatstic Four 65 (August 1967), and now this new character was part of a Kree mission to Earth: Captain Mar-vell (get it?) arrived on our planet to spy for his people. His early adventures have little to recommend them on their own merits, but did introduce or develop concepts that proved important to Marvel in general and the present study in particular.7 The Kree proved to be one of the most important alien empires in the Marvel Universe, playing a crucial role in Englehart’s own adventures.
It took years for the character to catch on, and his book was plagued by poor sales. Roy Thomas and Gil Kane modernized his costume and changed his status quo in issue 17 (October 1969), but the series was cancelled a few issues later (issue 21, August 1970). Mar-Vell and his new sidekick (more about him in a bit) played a key role in the classic Kree-Skrull War (Avengers 89-97, also written by Thomas). The series was revived with issue 22 in March 1973, but only hit its stride once writer/artist Jim Starlin took over (issues 25-34) (March 1973-September 1974).
The key feature of Thomas’ revamp would be an important part of most of Mar-Vell’s adventures in his solo title: the inclusion of eternal Marvel sidekick Rick Jones. Initially attached to the Hulk before doing a stint as a replacement for Captain America’s long-dead partner Bucky, Rick became molecularly bonded with Mar-vell thanks to the intervention of the Kree Superme Intelligence. Mar-Vell was trapped in the Negative Zone, and the only way to free him was to don a pair of golden “Nega-Bands,” clap them together, and change places with him for a period of three hours.
To comics readers, this new status quo was suspiciously familiar. Roy Thomas was fixated on Golden Age superhero characters (eventually writing World War II superhero adventures for both Marvel and DC), and he seems to have found the parallels between Mar-Vell and the original Fawcett Captain Marvel too hard to resist. That Captain Marvel was actually a boy named Billy Batson, who, when he said the name “Shazam,” turned into a super-powered adult whose powers and physique were so reminiscent of Superman as to spark a lawsuit.
Starlin used Captain Marvel as a vehicle for delivering a number of concepts he had been developing on his own for years, most notably the series’ new villain, Thanos (now world-famous from the Avengers movies). Suddenly Captain Marvel was an exciting and unpredictable title whose scope far exceeded that of the standard superhero fare. “Cosmic” in its subject matter (interstellar warfare), it shared Englehart’s own interest in expanded consciousness and higher realities. Starlin, who had already worked with Englehart on Master of Kung Fu, was initially uncertain of his writing abilities, and asked Englehart to script his last two issues on the book (the end of the Thanos storyline, plus an earth-bound adventure that sowed the seeds for the next storyline). When Starlin left the book altogether, Englehart took over, with Al Milgrom on the art chores (and also serving as co-plotter).
Starlin had elevated Mar-Vell from his status as ex-solider to the more exalted title of “Protector of the Universe;” a godlike being named Eon granted him new abilities, including something called “cosmic awareness.” But Englehart, though an admirer of Starlin’s revitalization of the Captain's comic, still felt that there was room to develop Mar-Vell further. In particular, as he writes in his introduction to the Marvel Masterworks edition containing his stories, he found the protagonist to be too “reactive.” Meanwhile, he was fascinated by the relationship between Mar-Vell and Rick Jones, who did more than take each other’s place in the Negative Zone; their minds were linked together, which meant they never had any privacy. This would be Englehart’s hook: the bond between Rick and Mar-Vell, and its effects on their very selfhood.
That bond turned out to have a great deal of untapped potential. The analogy to Billy Batson and Fawcett’s Captain Marvel is obvious, but the Marvel Comics version added several layers of complexity. Billy Batson and the “World’s Mightiest Mortal” are simply different manifestations of the same consciousness, while Rick Jones and Mar-Vell each have well-established separate identities before they are forced together. The great cliché of the superhero’s secret identity is that the civilian and the hero cannot be seen together (“Clark, why is it that you’re never around when Superman is here?”); in this case, the cliché is made literal: Rick and Mar-Vell have to take turns leaving the Negative Zone and wearing the Nega-Bands. At the same time, they are in near-constant communication; the artists often draw one of them in the positive cosmos and the other as a head floating over his shoulder, seen only by his partner and the reader.
Starlin leaves the book with Mar-vell lying unconscious, poisoned by nerve gas8 Engelhart turns a comatose protagonist into a narrative opportunity: with Mar-Vell unconscious until the very last page, Rick is left not only to carry the story, but to animate the hero. Rick discovers that, through their mental link, he can make Captain Marvel’s body move, deploying his powers in one fight in the Negative Zone and another in our world. Considering Englehart’s later complaint that Mar-Vell was too reactive, it is fitting that Englehart’s first post-Starlin story requires that the hero’s partner use his mindless body as a puppet:
“I saw very clearly that Mar-Vell had a reactionary nature—not in the sense of right-wing politics, but in the sense of…reacting. He rarely seemed to take the initiative in situations, preferring to remain primarily an observer while others did things to him, until he was pressed so hard he had to fight free. This was primarily a function of his being joined at the lobe to Rick, so he was unable to make any decision without taking Rick’s well-being into account."
Though the contrast will only be explored in subsequent stories, Issue 35 is an exaggeration of the dynamic underlying the Rick/Mar-Vell relationship. Mar-Vell is mature, deliberate, and controlled, while Rick is impulsive and overactive. Though the context could not be more distant, the opposition between Rick and Mar-Vell resembles the master plot of Soviet socialist realism, as elaborated by the scholar Katerina Clark. Socialist realism allegorizes the dialect of spontaneity and consciousness. Spontaneity is the active, impulsive efforts of a protagonist whose general goals align with socialism, but who has not developed a sophisticated understanding of the system, and has not fully incorporated himself within the structures that govern his world. The supervisory authorities and bureaucracy represent consciousness, the full understanding of socialism’s mission, but have a weakness for procedurals and a tendency towards inertia. The socialist realist master plot uses the hero’s journey from spontaneity to consciousness not only as an example to the reader, but as a metaphor for the revolutionary process itself,
Of course, Captain Marvel is not socialist realism; if it were, its sales would have been even lower. But the spontaneity/consciousness dialectic, despite its roots in Soviet socialist thought, is surprisingly applicable to American mass culture, in particular to trends that took off in the 1970s. One of the most successful formulae for wedding activism to crowd-pleasing is the story of the lone crusader or whistleblower who starts out apolitical, discovers an injustice, starts out fighting for a relatively narrow cause before joining or founding an organization to combat the problem on a larger scale (Norma Rae, Silkwood, Erin Brockovich, dozens of televised “Movies of the Week”). In American entertainment, the role played by socialism in Soviet culture is filled by environmentalism, feminism, civil rights, or the fight against corporate or governmental corruption.
Englehart’s first Captain Marvel storyline dealt with this dynamic on two fronts. First, it put Captain Marvel in conflict with the Marvel character who superficially embodied passivity, but who observed the ideal of non-interference primarily in the breach: Uatu, the Watcher. Introduced by Lee and Kirby in an early issue of the Fantastic Four, Uatu is a member of a godlike race whose disastrous history led them to swear off all direct involvement with other species, choosing to observe them instead. Motivated by jealousy of Captain Marvel’s heroism, Uatu lets Mar-Vell’s enemies, the Lunatic Legion, use his home on the moon as a base from which to launch their attacks. Once the Legion is defeated, Uatu returns to his homework for judgement, followed by Mar-Vell and Rick, who want to defend him at his trial.
As is so often the case in Englehart’s “Cosmic” adventures, the real drama here is both interpersonal and, thanks to the strange bond between Rick and Mar-Vell, internal. Mar-Vell can fly to the moon under his own power, but he has to switch places with Rick every three hours. The trip will be long, Rick might miss an upcoming performance (he’s a budding rock star), and Mar-Vell gets him a space suit so he can survive during the Captain’s intervals in the Negative Zone. Before they depart, Rick complains to Mar-Vell that he has lost all privacy, to which Mar-Vell responds “It’s only that our minds seem to be growing more closely linked, more symbiotic, as time goes by—and I’m beginning to truly know you.” Rick does not want this kind of closeness, and resents both the imposition on his time and the fact that the more mature Mar-Vell is “always right.”
Their argument is sparked by an intriguing exchange between Rick and his back-up singer, Dandy, who gives him a pill as a present (“in case your ‘personal thing’ gets boring!”). Rick hems and haws, and Dandy responses that it is “Vitamin C, Kid. What do you think it is ?” Later, overcome by boredom in the Negative Zone, Rick finds the pill: “Wellll…she said it was Vitamin C!” And takes it.
Obviously, the writer who dropped acid to plot Doctor Strange stories had something else in mind. But despite all the winks and nods accompanying the repeated invocations of “Vitamin C,” the story somehow got approved by the Comics Code, and soon Rick’s journey to the moon became a trip through the doors of perception.9 Unfortunately for Mar-Vell, the drug also has an effect on him. When he lands on the moon, he stumbles. Or, in other words, he trips. At first he thinks he might be coming down with something (“Perhaps I should have borrowed Rick’s Vitamin C”), but soon he is completely incapacitated by the disorienting visual imagery and debilitating physical sensations channeled coming at him through his link to Rick. The Watcher defeats him in a one-sided battle.
When he awakens, Mar-Vell quickly throws off the effects of his contact high thanks to his cosmic awareness, and discovers that he and Rick are now fundamentally changed: “We’re more than the same person! / We’re the sum of our parts—/ and then some!” When Rick also wakes up, Mar-Vell explains their new status quo while still engaged in a physical battle against the Lunatic Legion. The ensuing two pages are quintessentially Marvel: drawings of punching and kicking accompanied by a complex dialogue on an unrelated topic. Rick and Mar-Vell talk about their enhanced bond and even make their peace with it while Mar-Vell simultaneously hits one opponent in the head, elbows another in the jaw, and kicks a third in the face. The (temporary) resolution of the Rick/Mar-Vell conflict plays out against the backdrop of intense physical violence.
Just as Doctor Strange’s path to enlightenment is more of a spiral than a straight line, the bond between Mar-Vell and Rick strengthens thanks to continual rupture. No sooner have they reached a greater mutual understanding than do they discover the ability to break free of the Negative Zone and co-exist in the positive cosmos (Issue 39). They are both present at the Watcher’s trial (for breaking his people’s law against interfering with less advanced civilizations), and both continue to behave in keeping with their customary roles. Mar-Vell is reactive, while Rick is the one who talks him into following Uatu in the first place and also comes to Mar-Vell’s rescue when he is attacked by a local monster.
Being Rick Jones
The remainder of Englehart’s run on Captain Marvel works within a new status quo: Rick and Mar-Vell can co-exist in the positive cosmos, but also can merge at will when it is more convenient for Captain Marvell to function alone (when flying in space, for instance). The Kree Supreme Intelligence, who reveals himself to be Mar-Vell’s stealthy arch-nemesis, complicates things further in Issue 41 when he divides the Nega-Bands between Mar-Vell and Rick, thereby also giving Rick access to some of Mar-Vell’s power.
From an editorial standpoint, it was a foregone conclusion that Rick and Mar-Vell would stick together after their release from the Negative Zone, but motivating their continued collaboration within the logic of the story took some effort. After the trial of the Watcher, Issue 40 shows the two men back on earth, each reveling in their newfound independence:
"And all they want to be is free of each other. Oh, they try to tell themselves that they’re sorry to leave each other—that their shared history was, for all its problems, an era of glory, never to be forgotten—
“—but then they remember that their minds hold no secrets from each other.
“The truth is, they’re glad to be single men again! They crave privacy! Solitude! LONELINESS!
“Anything but togetherness!
“And so, they speak no words. They simply say goodbye, as men will…
“…and they go their separate ways.”
By the end of that same issue, they are standing together against the backdrop of a sunset, each with their hand on the other’s shoulder, and Mar-Vell with his hand on Ricks’ wrist. Mar-Vell has just resolved to leave Earth, to which Rick responds:
“My destiny’s not here either, man. I’m just as out of place as you.
“Take me with you, Marv!”
What leads them to this decision is a parallel set of emotional traumas and failed attachments. Rick has arrived just in time for his gig, but is functionally a man displaced from time. He no longer recognizes young people’ fashions, and is still wearing the space suit he used for his trip across the galaxy. His performance on stage is greeted with laughter:
"The 50s haircut—the 60s ballads—the 70s spacesuit—!"
“He’s the renaissance man of decadence!
“Instant time warp!”
Infuriated, Rick harnesses the power of his spacesuit’s exoskeleton to tear up the stage before storming off.
Meanwhile, Mar-Vell’s lost love, Una, killed years ago by his enemy Yon-Rogg and reanimated by Eon as a mindless, aggressive zombie in Issue 29 (he had his reasons), has been possessed by a roving space parasite. Returning to Earth, she seeks out her lost love, first attacking a not-yet-superpowered Carol Danvers, who had been set up as a possible rival for Mar-Vell’s affections in the early issues of the series. Mar-Vell has no choice but to kill her again, which is when he decides to leave Earth.
With decades of slash fiction and queer theory separating us from these stories, it is tempting to see the Rick/Mar-Vell relationship in terms of unacknowledged homoeroticism. And far be it from me to try to “rescue” a fictional male friendship from queer subtext. But what is going on in these stories is actually more interesting than that. One of the reasons that final panel of issue 40 is so memorable is that the novelty of seeing Rick and Mar-Vell in physical contact is a function of their unusual bond: until now, their connection has been a matter of minds, more metaphysical than physical. There is love here, to be sure, but it is based on hyperconnection and identification rather than eros. Their relationship is to actual homoeroticism what René Girard’s homophobic theories are to real, lived homosexuality; Girard explains away homosexual feeling as the desire to resemble the object of desire, while Rick needs to be Mar-Vell.
Within their storyworld, Rick and Mar-Vell complement each other in a fashion that mimics the editorial rationale behind putting them together in the first place. On their own, neither of them showed much promise as full-fledged characters. Captain Marvel was terminally bland, while Rick, the eternal sidekick, only made sense when paired with a superpowered hero. The star of Englehart’s Captain Marvel was neither Rick nor Mar-Vell, but Rick-and-Mar-Vell. This does not mean that there was no conflict between the two; quite the contrary, that conflict was the heart of the story. The intermingling of their minds that began with the “Vitamin C” incident rendered the distinction between internal and interpersonal conflict almost meaningless.
Englehart’s last Captain Marvel storyline (Issues 41-46) turns all the subtext of the Rick/Mar-Vell relationship into text. The Supreme Intelligence reveals why he has been manipulating Mar-Vell for all the hero’s adult life. The Captain had become the greatest of Kree warriors, but this was despite his own personal flaws:
“You had one fatal weakness: an utter lack of personal ambition! You were a product of my space corps, content to climb the ladder of rank like any other officer—
“—and that could not be!”
“I was obliged to prod you!”
From the 1980s on, major comic book crossover events tended to feature adversaries who were stand-ins for editors: The Anti-Monitor in Crisis on Infinite Earths destroyed alternate universe because the powers-that-be wanted a single universe; Parallax messed with time in Zero Hour because the editors want to fix DC’s timeline, and the Beyonder in Secret Wars set all of Marvel’s heroes against all of Marvel’s heroes because that was the primary mandate of the series. Now the Supreme Intelligence lays bare Englehart’s narrative agenda, explaining the need to combine the unambitious Mar-Vell with the unpredictable and imaginative Rick Jones.
The Supreme Intelligence needs the Mar-Vell/Rick Jones connection in order to make it possible for him to assimilate the very un-Kree mind of the young Earthman. During the Kree-Skrull War, the Intelligence had explained that the Kree had reached an “evolutionary dead end”, while Jones himself turned out to be the key to ending the war.10 Jones, like all Earthpeople, has the potential for greatness inherent in a species that is so prone to mutation, accident, and a myriad of other means for developing superpowers.11 Prodded by the Supreme Intelligence, Rick used his latent mental powers to summon simulacra of the superheroes whose comics he (and writer Roy Thomas) had read in his youth.
If the Supreme Intelligence is a stand-in for the writer, Rick is a surrogate for the avid comics reader, whose well-trained imagination is ready for any heroic battle. Now armed with a Nega-Band, he is far more creative with the power than Mar-Vell ever was. After learning to fly within minutes of gaining the band, in Issue 42 he realizes that he can use the power to transform his clothes into costume more suited for outer space. Mar-Vell is stunned:
“incredible! I never thought to use the power to change matter—
“—and this crazy youth intuits the possibility while semi-conscious!
“That leads to frightening conjectures—!”
Perhaps it does, but one that appears to escape Mar-Vell is Rick’s choice of costume: it is the same color scheme as Captain Marvel’s, only reversed: with the exception of the solid-red tunic and the lack of a mask, every other element is blue where Mar-Vell’s is red and red where Mar-Vell’s is blue. Rick is simultaneously imitating Mar-Vell, complementing him, and setting himself up as the Captain’s opposite number. Issue 42 takes place on a planet where everything resembles the Old West, and the default narrative pushes them into particular roles: the star on the Captain’s chest leads one of the inhabitants to assume Mar-Vell is a marshall (“You called me Mar-Shall. That is not my name…”) Soon Rick is joking referring to himself as his partner’s deputy, but he will not be satisfied with a subordinate position for long.
Immediately after wondering to himself what else he can do with is new power (“I don’t have to play second fiddle any more”), Rick spies a beautiful woman in a saloon. That woman, whose name is Fawn, will follow him to other planets over the next few issues, until it is revealed that Rick had created her with his mind. Mar-Vell never used the Nega-Bands to create an imaginary friend, but Rick does so without giving it any conscious thought. Though they share Captain Marvel’s power, and though Mar-Vell is undoubtedly a more formidable warrior, Rick brings with him the power that stopped the Kree-Skrull War: his imagination. And it is one power that Mar-Vell sorely lacks.
Over the next two issues, while Rick is learning more about Fawn, Mar-Vell is forced to battle a former ally, Drax the Destroyer. Drax had been created by the god Chronos (and the writer/artist Jim Starlin) as the ultimate adversary for Thanos, and now that Thanos is (presumed) dead, Drax has been wandering the galaxy without purpose. He blames Mar-Vell for killing Thanos and depriving Drax’s existence of any meaning.
The fight is complicated by Mar-Vell’s reluctance to do battle, and by the fact that he and Rick are inadvertently siphoning power from each other, along with personality traits (giving in to his fury, Mar-Vell starts using Rick’s slang). Though Drax is not evil, he is the perfect opponent for Mar-Vell: single-minded, unimaginative, and forced to play out the same behavioral loops again and again. Mar-Vell only starts to win when he inadvertently steals so much energy from Rick that the young man nearly dies, and when he also starts to talk and act like Rick. Drax is an extreme version of what Mar-Vell could have been without Rick: a consummate warrior who is unable to think outside the framework within which he finds himself.
Fortunately, Mar-Vell is in no danger of becoming so limited, because he has Rick. Rick, however, is both solution and problem rolled into one. Even though they can co-exist in the positive cosmos, their interdependence has only increased. The Supreme Intelligence declares his goal of merging the two men in order to assimilate Rick, and merger is a very real threat. The storyline is built on three concentric circles of conflict and merger: the Supreme Intelligence’s agenda, Rick’s and Mar-Vell’s problem, and the battle between the indigenous population of Deneb IV and the genocidal Null-Trons encountered by the heroes in Issues 44 and 45.
After narrowly escaping the Null-Trons, Captain Marvel is subdued by a band of Denebians, who bring him and Rick to their General: a humanoid head grafted to the body of a Null-Tron (itself a giant, stony head with mechanical arms). The General is only the most extreme case of the problem that has best his race: over the course of the war, most of the Debians have lost limbs and become cyborgs, while the General has lost his entire body.
Somehow, the General know all about Mar-Vell’s and Rick’s problem: as he explains:
“If you do not do exactly as I tell you, you are doomed—and who should know better than I—?
“—for your two separate identities are on the verge of merging—into one!”
Conveniently, the General has a giant soul gem that can absorb the two men into itself and serve as their final battleground.12 His is not helping out of the goodness of his no-longer-existent heart; as Mar-Vell and Rick battle within the phantasmagorical realm inside the gem, everything they do is reflected by the two warring armies on the surface of Deneb. The General, part humanoid, part Null-Tron, cannot decide where his loyalties lie, so he has set up a proxy war in order to determine which side will win.
Their fight ends abruptly, much as the entire storyline would (with Englehart on his way out of Marvel and the last issue assigned to newcomer Chris Claremont for scripting). Fawn, Rick Jones’ dream girl unconsciously created by his psychic powers, enters the soul gem and “opens” their mind to the truth:
“Your obsessions with winning, one over the other, are irrational!
“Granted, that only makes them stronger—
“Especially here, at the cores of your beings—
“but believe me, should either of you win, he’d be much the poorer for it!
“Yes, you’ve changed from before you were linked, and you’ll continue to change—
“but change is life, and life is always preferable to death!
“You won’t merge—not if you don’t want to! Make use of your unique abilities! Don’t let them make use of you!”
It’s not the most satisfying resolution for a conflict, relying as it does on a Fawn-ex-machina. Her powers of persuasion immediately put an end to the fighting, so they can confront (and defeat) the Supreme Intelligence in Issue 46. Fawn conveniently dies, in a moment that at least has the virtue of symmetry: Mar-Vell resolves to leave Earth in Issue 40 when forced to kill the parasite-controlled body of his former love Una, and now Rick has to watch Fawn die before he and Mar-Vell resolves to return to Earth once more.
Captain America: Symbol and Cypher
Captain America’s revival in the 1960s was a key event in the development of the Marvel Universe; the character quickly became a mainstay of the Avengers, and eventually got his own series. His inclusion, along with Namor the Sub-Mariner’s, was a sign that Marvel was not only a reboot of old Timely Comics concepts (such as the Human Torch, a Golden Age character who appeared decades before the Fantastic Four's Johnny Storm), but a continuation. Bringing in Captain America gave Marvel a long history.
It did not, however, promise anything resembling depth. As a person rather than just intellectual property, Captain America was one of the blandest characters in 1960s Marvel. The problem goes back to the character’s purpose and his design: wrapping himself in a flag, Captain America was more symbol than man. He did not need superpowers, nor did he require an inner life. From the cover of his first appearance, which famously depicted him punching Adolph Hitler in the face, Captain America was an external embodiment of an outward-looking, anti-fascist American ideal.
His return after an absence of nearly two decades could have provided the perfect opportunity to develop the character’s subjectivity.13 After all, he was, as the comics of later decades would so frequently put it, a man out of time. Culture shock alone could have made him interesting, but it took at least another decade for later writers to take advantage of this dilemma. And by that point, it was too late to make this issue central to Cap’s character, since he had been around in the Marvel Age for longer than his adventures had lasted in the Golden Age.14 It was only when Captain American was moved into other media (the Avengers film franchise) or alternate comic book universes (the late 1990s “Heroes Reborn” experiment, and, most notably, the Ultimate Marvel line) that his status as a temporal refugee would be exploited for greater effect.
Imported into the Silver Age, Captain Marvel never hid his Golden Age roots. He was a terrible fit with Stan Lee’s injunction to find the man behind the mask. While Captain America’s secret identity was technically Steve Rogers, this fact meant little when Steve Rogers was left so underdeveloped. It is telling that a 1978 storyline featured Captain America's realization that he had no memories of his life before the super-soldier serum. His memories restored, he (and we) soon learn about his childhood, his older brother who died during the attack on Pearl Harbor, and his life-long dream of being an artist. Only the art would survive the next several decades of retcons (Rogers was a commercial artist in the 1980s). All of this was in stories that appeared 15 years after Captain America was rescued from suspended animation on ice, and yet there was little Silver Age canon to reverse: nobody cared about Steve Rogers.
Indeed, even Steve Englehart, whose run on Captain America (from 1972 to 1975) rescued the book for the doldrums and transformed it into a bestseller, did little to establish a “Steve Rogers” who was in any way different from is costumed alter ego. If anything, Englehart took a step backwards, dispensing with Rogers’ job as a police officer. Instead, Englehart gave his protagonist a sense of subjectivity by doubling down on the very idea of Captain America: what did it mean to be a person who served as a country’s symbol, when the country was changing in ways he was only beginning to understand?
In order to do this, Englehart would have to pay attention to the gap between Captain America’s “natural habitat” (World War II) and the Vietnam War-era America in which he lived, all without pretending that the hero was such a recent arrival as not to understand basic facts of 1970s life.
In the first year of his tenure on the title, he paved the way for exploring Captain America’s complicated connection to the 1970s by displacing his culture shock onto others. In issue 161 (May 1973), Steve learns that his girlfriend, Shield Agent Sharon Carter, has a secret: an older sister named Peggy who has lived in an asylum for decades.15 Peggy was Captain America’s lover while undercover in France during World War II, but he never knew her real name (she only briefly appeared in two Lee/Kirby stories published in 1966). Catatonic for decades, she finally awakens as a woman out of time, physically older than Captain America and unaware that her sister is dating him. Peggy’s confusion about the new world in which she finds herself and her dated cultural references simultaneously remind the readers that Captain America is the product of a different world while also showing how far he has come since he was defrosted by the Avengers.
Peggy’s story progresses at a measured pace, allowing readers to follow her development from total bewilderment to competent SHIELD agent, not to mention the maturation of her emotional ties. After accepting that she and Steve have no future, she gets involved with fellow agent Gabe Jones. A World War II veteran, Jones was her contemporary and, unlike Captain America, he had aged at a natural pace. They relationship was one of Marvel’s first interracial romances (Gabe is Black), another sign that Peggy is not stuck in the past. In one of Englehart’s last issues (185), both Peggy and Gabe are captives of the Red Skull, a Nazi who is disgusted by their bond, not to mention their defiance. It is a scene involving three former World War II combatants, all al least in their fifties, as the Red Skull himself notes:
“Ah, such insolence! Were we all not thirty years older, I could believe this was the war once again!
“But I have those thirty years of hatred to drive me now…”
To which Gabe replies: “Yeah, and I’ve got thirty years of life to drive me!” before spitting in the Red Skull’s eye. This is a double rebuke. Gabe’s words exemplify a healthy acceptance of the passage of time, as opposed to a sick obsession; in switching her affection from Cap to Gabe, Peggy is making the same choice. Her presence in the present day is a sign of strength and perseverance. The Red Skull expresses his surprise that Peggy has withstood seven hours of Nazi torture, and promises to keep it going for “seven days if necessary.” Peggy’s reply: “Well—still be here, creep—/ —and we’ll still spit in your eye!” Even in chains, Peggy is no longer the helpless woman who had been hiding for years in an asylum. Still fighting the good fight, she is exactly where she is supposed to be.
The same cannot be said for the other temporally-displaced characters Englehart introduces to the series: the 1950s-era Captain America and Bucky, who are the antagonists in his first storyline (Issues 153-156, September-December 1972). Their backstory is one of the rare instances when an obsession with continuity advances a thematic and aesthetic agenda that looks beyond the world of comics themselves. Englehart’s hook was based on a contradiction embedded within Captain America’s introduction to the modern Marvel Universe in Avengers 4 (March 1964). In one of the first major retcons of the Silver Age, the reader is told that Captain America and Bucky were presumed dead in a battle with Baron Zemo in the last days of the war. Bucky, it turns out, is indeed dead (and would stay that way for over four decades before his retcon as the Winter Soldier), but Captain America was frozen in ice.
The problem, though, is one that would be readily apparent to a comics reader of Englehart’s generation: Captain America was published until 1949, well after the end of World War II. In addition, he and Bucky fought communists in adventures published in 1953 and 1954. Lee, who wrote the 1950s stories, was only too happy to ignore them ten years later. But Englehart, who was determined not to shy away from the political implications of a hero wearing the American flag, saw the existence of a commie-bashing Captain America as an opportunity.
Englehart reveals that the 1950s Cap and Bucky were fanboys who idolized the original heroes. The man who would be Cap (decades later given the name William Burnside; I will use it for convenience’s sake, even though it is anachronistic) was a history PhD whose research centered on “Project: Rebirth,” the program that gave Steve Rogers his powers in 1940. Burnside rediscovers the Super Soldier serum, and undergoes plastic surgery to make himself look like Rogers, whose identity he assumes. “Rogers” makes the acquaintance of a boy whose name would later be revealed as Jack Monroe; Monroe idolized Bucky. Burnside and Monroe work with the FBI to use the Super Solider serum to give them both the original powers of Captain America. Assuming their idols’ identities, they fight crime and sedition, but lose hold of their sanity (without the “vita-ray” used on Steve Rogers, the serum makes them psychotic). The FBI puts them into suspended animation, but they are awakened not long before issue 153 begins.
The false Cap/Bucky team provides an excellent story hook, but their real significance comes from their effect on Steve Rogers, and, equally important, the reader’s perception of Steve Rogers. The real Captain America brings the best values of his generation to 1970s America without most of the baggage one might expect. He has a Black partner whom he tries (not always successfully) to treat as an equal, and he works alongside women without egregious condescension. His adaptation to his new surroundings began long before this storyline, and continued throughout Englehart’s four-year tenure. Steve’s growth during this time, and the stark contrast with his replacement, exemplifies Englehart’s liberal vision: (Captain) America is not set in stone (or rather, not frozen on ice), but is instead a work in progress.
This is not the case with Burnside and Monroe. Whether due to their rigid ideology or the deleterious effects of the Super Solider serum, they are not just incapable of change, but incapable of even understanding why change might be a good thing. To Englehart, who came of age in the 1960s, a 1950s-era Captain America and Bucky was an irresistible opportunity. It is the conformity and conservatism of the 1950s that are the enemy here, not the bravery and self-sacrifice of the 1940s.
Burnside and Monroe are obsessed with “commies,” who they assume are pulling Steve Rogers’ strings (it never occurs to him that he’s actually the genuine article). Monroe in particular almost never misses the opportunity to use a racial slur around the Falcon or the other residents of Harlem, while Burnside is continually shocked that Sharon Carter knows how to fight.
Even the conceit Englehart and penciller Sal Buscema use to differentiate Steve Rogers from his physically identical imposter drives home the contrast between the two men.16 Steve and Sharon are vacationing in the Bahamas when Burnside and Monroe attack them, and after so much on the beach, they are both completely sunburnt. While this is a tad ironic— the Red-baiting 50s “heroes” battle the “pinkos” who have replaced them—it is also a reminder that the protagonists of the Captain America comic are influenced by their surroundings, while their antagonists resist anything that might change them.
The Invasion Is Coming from Inside the (White) House
Englehart’s Captain America is an ongoing argument against fixed identity. Again, this would seem to be paradoxical: in costume, Captain America is literally iconic, and his Silver Age backstory sets him up as a relic of simpler times. But by the same token, his underdeveloped personality and nearly non-existent secret identity make him a blank slate. What looked like a one-dimensional character actually granted Englehart a great deal of latitude.
By starting his run with a fight against Fifties Cap, Englehart showed what the real Captain America was not: narrow-minded, set in his ways, and anchored to a bygone era. Both Fifties Cap and Steve Rogers had been in suspended animation, but it is Rogers who unconsciously resolves never to be frozen again.
As the comic gears up for its classic “Secret Empire” storyline (169-175, January-July 1974), Captain America struggles against external forces that would define him against his will, from an accusation of murder to a PR campaign to have him replaced as America’s hero by the secretly villainous Moonstone. Meanwhile, he must also determine the identity and plans of his adversaries, the mysterious Secret Empire (which had been lurking around the Marvel universe in various forms for several years already). The storyline is quintessentially Seventies, a real-time reflection of the scandals and constitutional crisis of Watergate.
The Secret Empire worked to discredit Captain America behind a front whose name was an obvious reference to Nixon: The Committee to Regain America’s Principles had the never-mentioned acronym “CRAP,” only a vowel or two off from Nixon’s infelicitously named “Committee to Re-Elect the President” (officially the CRP, but often mocked as CREEP). Yet “CRAP” also emphasized what would turn out to be the main theme of the storyline. What, exactly, are (Captain) America’s principles, and how can they be regained?
Captain America was designed, in-universe, by concerned mad scientists, and in real life, by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, to rally Americans against external enemies (the Nazis and Japan). The false Captain America of the 1950s spent his brief career ferreting out both internal enemies (traitors) and the evil communists for whom they worked (the Soviets, the Chinese, and a strangely communist version of the Red Skull). The Secret Empire combines all these tropes into a mystifying plot that comes close to succeeding. An American cabal determined to seize power, they ruin Cap’s reputation and install Moonstone as a trusted American hero and agent of influence. Their machinations culminate in the landing of a flying saucer on the White House lawn, as though launching an invasion from outer space. But from within the spacecraft, the Secret Empire's leader, Number 1, announces his organization’s existence, stages a fight that Moonstone loses, and has Moonstone tell the American people that resistance is futile.
When Captain America defeats Moonstone and gets him to reveal the Secret Empire’s real plans on national television, Number 1 escapes into the White House. Captain America follows him, and unmasks him in the Oval Office. We never see his face, but Cap’s shock, and Number 1’s own words, provide enough clues for the contemporary reader: Number 1 is Nixon himself. The disgraced president, who could not stand the fact that “my power was still constrained by legalities,” pulls out a gun and kills himself before Captain America’s eyes.
As in World War II, an evil adversary threatens the country; as in the paranoid fantasies of the 1950s Captain America, the United States is vulnerable to internal enemies plotting against it; but now, these enemies are the country’s own leaders. When Captain America exits the White House, leaving Number 1’s body behind, the narrator gets the last word:
“A man can change in a flicker of time.
“This man trusted the country of his birth…he saw its flaws…
“…but trusted in the basic framework…its stated goals…it’s long-term virtue.
“This man now is crushed inside. Like millions of other Americans, each in his own way, he has seen his trust mocked!
“And this man is Captain America!"
This is the point when everything converges: Steve Rogers’ character arc, the problem of Captain America as a symbol, Watergate-era disenchantment, and the challenge of making a character like Captain America relevant again. It is the moment that confirms that Captain America really is not frozen in time, or at least, that he (and his writer) is fighting against the forces that would prefer his politics remain in the past. The country has changed drastically, and so he must change as well.
The following issue bears the far from understated title “Captain America Must Die!”, employing the typical language of superhero melodrama. But the title is uttered not by a cackling supervillain; Captain America himself bellows the words on the splash page. Almost entirely action-free, this issue takes the opportunity to retell the hero’s origin, something comics used to do fairly regularly in order to bring new readers up to speed. The retelling also has a thematic purpose. We see that young Steve Rogers was moved to enlist by watching the Nazis on newsreels (“They were suppressing—then murdering—the people of Europe, weren’t they?”), and Captain America cannot help but find parallels with 1974 America (“I’ve seen America rocked with scandal—seen it manipulated by demagogues with sweet, empty words—/ —seen all the things I hated when I saw those newsreels—).
Thor tries to comfort his comrade, reminding him that the fight against evil is “glorious.” The problem, though, is that Steve Rogers’ fight cannot be a generic battle against evil (“I’m Captain America, after all—not Captain Asgard!”). Peggy Carter, by contrast, doubles down on the patriotism inherent in his mission: “Lots of people fight crime, or provide inspiration—but only you do it for the United States of America!” But Cap argues that America is no longer “the single entity” to which Peggy refers. The country was unified against the Nazis, but now there are “a great many different versions of what America is.”
Such a realization is a serious obstacle to Captain America’s continuous existence. The confrontation with the Secret Empire caused a disenchantment about content (America and its leaders are not what he thought them to be); theoretically, this is not an insurmountable problem. If America has changed for the worse, it can also change for the better. But now Steve doubts the very form and structure of his superheroic identity. If America is truly plural, how can one man represent it?
The inertia of comic book history makes the resolution to this storyline a foregone conclusion: of course Steve will eventually become Captain America again. But the process that leads him there seems to take this representational problem seriously. Not only does Englehart start his run with a fanatical Captain America doppelgänger, now he has Steve replaced by two different Captain America wannabes before he resumes the role: an athlete named Bob Russo, who appears for exactly one page in Issue 178 and breaks his arm during his big debut (“So much for this Captain America,” concludes the narrator). The second one, a young man named Roscoe, is tortured to death by the Red Skull in the incident that spurs Steve into resuming his established costumed identity.
Thus while Englehart cannot replace Steve with an entire team of Captains America who will represent the broad spectrum of American-ness, his run on the book does actually feature different Caps who stand for different things. In refusing to be Captain America, Steve inadvertently prompts more iterations of the identity he has abandoned (the athlete; Roscoe), but none of them can fill his shoes. This was all several years before “the new guy takes over the mantle” became an overused trope, but it is consistent with one of Englehart’s own recurring motifs: the contrast between personal growth (leading to transcendence) and mere iteration (leading to stagnation). It is only a minor motif for Captain America, but will be key to Englehart’s Avengers stories.17
In his new costumed identity as Nomad: The Man Without A Country, Steve assumes that he can cast off the burden of symbolism and leave politics behind:
“Captain America lies behind him, buried in the rubble that is politics, 1974…
…but a life as a new breed of hero—a hero free to be his own man—ah, that lies ahead…”
This turns out to be a pipe dream: the Nomad sequence shows that there is no escape from politics. His primary adversary, modeled on the Symbionese Liberation Army (Patty Hearst’s kidnappers), is a fanatical group of snake-themed villains called the Serpent Squad. They are led by the new Viper, a woman who had previously been Madame Hydra. Her transformation, the reverse of Steve’s, is indicative; as a leader of Hydra, she ran a criminal organization whose implicitly fascist politics rarely contributed much to the stories. Now she is a militant anti-capitalist fanatic with an apparent death wish.
Nomad defeats Viper and her Serpent Squad, of course; in Issue 182, Viper even fulfills the dream of many a fanatic as she appears to die a martyr’s death.18 But the next issue, which has Nomad searching all over New York to find the Falcon, shows that Steve Rogers has little cause for rejoicing. The real lesson he has to learn from the 1970s is not that politicians are corrupt, but that there is no escape from politics. It is his fantasy of an apolitical existence that truly made Captain America a relic. In the course of a few pages, Nomad is confronted by the Falcon’s bitter, militant girlfriend Leila, is attacked by a crowd of protesters who vow to carry on and “crush the corporate insect” in Viper’s memory, stumbles upon a bank panic, and is harangued by a passer-by who laments the downfall of the Committee to Regain America’s Principles (“Mark my words: Captain America was the biggest crook of them all!”). Finally, he discovers the Falcon, tied up and beaten, along with the crucified body of Roscoe, the fake Captain America tortured to death by the Red Skull.
When Steve does reclaim the mantle of Captain America, it is after a two-page spread in which he realizes that he misunderstood the lessons of his battle with the Secret Empire. If he neglected to see that there were people leading his country who were “every bit as bad as the Red Skull,” the problem was his own need for simplistic binaries: “I didn’t want to know about those people. The skull was okay to oppose and still is…/ but Number One wasn’t, because he was supposed to be on our side.” The White House suicide led him to think that “the things I believe in were thirty years out of date,” but the real problem was Captain America himself: “If I’d paid more attention to the way American reality differed from the American dream…”
And with that, Englehart resolves several problems at once. He reaffirms the value of Captain America as an icon, while redefining the relationship between the symbol and the entity it symbolizes. To pretend to be entirely removed from politics is to pretend that the value system he represents need not be connected with anything that is changing in the surrounding world. In forcing Steve Rogers to confront the politics of his day, Englehart gives Captain America a personal arc that, for once, has nothing to do with dead Bucky or World War II. He has also, over the course of his time on the book, shown precisely how a liberal conscientious objector can write Captain America without any objections from his conscience. Fifties Cap defined Steve Rogers in the negative: the real Captain America will not be a jingoistic, knee-jerk patriot who is blind to American injustice. Now Englehart has defined Captain America positively, as someone who has faced the challenges of his times and emerged all the stronger.
So much stronger, in fact, that Englehart can now finally have Captain America fight his Nazi archenemy, the Red Skull. This could have been a step backwards (“enough with the attempts at being relevant; let’s beat up a 60-year-old Nazi”). But the return to form is actually earned. Just as Doctor Strange managed to go through several quests leading to new forms of enlightenment, but still return to his Greenwich Village home, Captain America has returned to the iterative adventures of the modern superhero. Englehart was off the book before the Red Skull storyline could be resolved, but it seems likely that, had the writer stayed, the repercussion of Steve Rogers' personal and political development would have continued to be felt.
Kang Is a Strange Loop
In terms of sheer impact on the evolving narrative that is the Marvel Universe, Englehart’s most significant comics of the 1970s was his run on The Avengers. Taking over from Roy Thomas in 1972, Englehart stayed with the book until 1976 (the year he left Marvel). Thomas set up a number of through lines for his successor, most notably the mystery of the android Vision’s true origins. Englehart would later say that he only started to write The Avengers well once he stopped trying to imitate Thomas [find quote], and in terms of the complexity of the comic’s plot and the intricacies of characterization, that is certainly true. But, consciously or not, Englehart did follow in Thomas’s footsteps down one particular path: in order for his heroes to develop, they had to dig into their past.
As we have already noted, Thomas was a die-hard enthusiast of the Golden Age of comics; if there was a way to connect current Marvel stories to the ones he read in his youth, he would find it. The most obvious example in Thomas’s Avengers run was when Rick Jones stopped the Kree-Skrull War by manifesting psychic reconstructions of the heroes he (and Thomas) had read about in his childhood. And it was Thomas who came up with the idea that The Vision was not created by the evil Ultron from scratch, but was instead a drastically remodeled version of the Golden Age Human Torch (who was also an android).
While this led to some very good stories (penned by Englehart, since Thomas only had the chance to drop vague hints before leaving the book), the Vision’s 1940s roots would hardly be significant on their own. But they established the model for self-discovery Englehart would use in The Avengers. If in Captain America, the writer’s task was to find a way to make this WWII holdover contemporary and forward-looking, in The Avengers, his main characters could only learn about themselves through a combination of biography and archeology, facilitated by what would become Englehart’s master trope for the last half of his Avengers comics: time travel.
Time Travel drove the plot of The Avengers from issues 129-143 (plus three “Giant-Size” issues), but its lasting effects were only felt by those who were simultaneously The Avengers’ central characters and second-tier heroes. Team books such as The Avengers and, to a lesser extent, The Defenders posed a common challenge for all their writers. Unlike the Fantastic Four, whose membership was relatively stable, and whose characters solo adventures were always secondary to the team book, The Avengers and its ilk were designed to attract readers by featuring the company’s most popular characters.19 This meant that the Avengers's writer had little leeway when it came to the heroes who starred in their own titles; in fact, sometimes those characters would have to leave The Avengers due to circumstances in their own books.20
As a result, the very characters who drove the comic’s sales were rarely allowed to develop or change over the course of The Avengers' stories. This is where the minor characters came in: Iron Man and Thor might act within very narrow parameters, but the Vision and the Scarlet Witch, for instance, were entirely fair game. The Avengers shook up their roster on a frequent basis, but, for well over a hundred issues, these two characters were constants, while others, such as Hawkeye, would occasionally leave, but eventually come back. Marvel’s successful formula was the marriage of superheroes to soap opera, and in The Avengers, the soap opera could only center around the characters who did not have books of their own. At its best, The Avengers succeeded through the tried and true technique of the bait and switch: come for Iron Man, but stay for the Vision.
With the introduction of Mantis, a character Englehart created, the soap opera quotient increased dramatically: would Mantis abandon her lover, the Swordsman, in order to steal the Vision from Wanda, the Scarlet Witch, now that the synethezoid had finally confessed his love for her? Even more important than the love triangle/rectangle was that Englehart now had three compelling characters dealing with long-term identity crises.
Wanda’s problem was relatively straightforward, especially for a heroine created in the 1960s: she needed to gain self-confidence and discover her untapped power. Finally out of the shadow of her over-protective brother Quicksilver, she chafes at the limits of her mutant hex power and finds a new mentor in the figure of Agatha Harkness, an aged sorceress who had been the nanny to Reed and Sue Richards' recently comatose mutant child. Her studies with Miss Harkness create tensions with the Vision because of the competing demands on her time, but she rather quickly (actually, extremely quickly) masters “true witchcraft” and marries her beloved. Her path is not without its bumps, but it follows a pattern familiar from Englehart’s other work: self-discovery and a drive to move ever forward.
By contrast, Mantis and the Vision have no such clear path ahead of them. Each of them has mysteries in their biography that stretch back before their birth (or, in the Vision’s case, his creation), and each demonstrates the obligation to wrestle with the legacy of the past in order to create a future. Time travel will be the device that allows them to do so, but it also has significant thematic resonance, thanks to the antagonist who makes time travel necessary: Kang the Conqueror.
Kang was a Stan Lee-era Avengers foe who had not been seen in recent years, but he would suddenly become a fixture for over an entire year (in real time). Englehart wanted to explore the usually unacknowledged advantage a time-traveling enemy would have; in an interview [find], he pointed out that there was nothing stopping Kang from fleeing a losing battle with the Avengers, resting for a decade or two in the future, and then rejoining the fight only seconds after his departure. In the actual comics, Englehart did not go that far; instead, Kang was featured in issues 129 and Giant-Sized Avengers 2, followed by issues 131-132 and Giant-Sized Avengers 3, Giant-Sized Avengers 4 (at the end of a storyline running in issues 133-135), and 141-143. As one of the Avengers puts it in : “Again? This is getting monotonous.”
But the monotony was the point. With the resources of nearly all of time and space at his disposal, Kang was determined to resist change. Englehart built on the pre-existing Marvel mythology that, in the past of his own personal timeline, Kang had spent years in ancient Egypt as the pharaoh Rama-Tut, before returning to the future and taking up the mantle of conqueror. Now he added two presumably inevitable futures that Kang found repulsive: first, that he would grow bored and return to ancient Egypt as Rama-Tut, eventually ending up in the present to thwart his past self (Kang). The second was to tie Kang to an obscure Avengers villain named Immortus, the master of Limbo. As the story progresses, we learn that Rama-Tut is fated to eventually become Immortus.
On his own, Englehart’s Kang is not particularly interesting, but as a time-traveler fighting against his own future, he becomes thematically compelling. Rama-Tut and Immortus are clearly wiser than Kang, and their disinterest in expanding their power infuriates the man who insisted on putting “the Conqueror” after his name. Unlike all of Englehart’s other character, Kang has his path to enlightenment mapped out ahead of him. Granted, it is convoluted, but that is not the point. The point is that Kang rejects this path entirely. He does not want to rise or advance; he merely wants to win.
And this is what makes Kang such an appropriate antagonist in the last years of Englehart’s run on The Avengers. What could be a more fitting counterpoint to a story in which Wanda, the Vision, and Mantis all make huge strides forward than a man whose life keeps circling back on itself as he insists on remaining unchanged? In issue 143, Kang is finally not only defeated, but destroyed, eliminating both the future Rama-Tut and Immortus from existence.21 In his quest to conquer time and stave off his own future, Kang inadvertent chooses self-annihilation. This, too, is consistent with Englehart’s ethos: life can only be about moving forward.
Instead of progress, Kang always chooses iteration: another attack, another trip in time, even other Kangs from other points on his timeline to attack different Avengers simultaneously (Giant Size Avengers 4). Kang embodies the most retrograde tendencies in the Marvel comics of his time. Kang is not change, but the illusion of change. A backwards-looking time-traveler, he implicitly critiques the superhero temporality that, as Umberto Eco puts it, is trapped in an interactive present. He is the mainstream comics impulse to provide not better, but simply more.
Though rarely able to sustain a solo series, The Vision has long enjoyed popularity among Marvel readers. He is also a gift to writers, particularly in his early years. Here is a character who is underdeveloped by design, since he is an artificial life form created as an adult, with no past, only a future. Like Pinocchio, the Vision is on a quest to become, if not a real boy, at least a full-fledged individual. So what does Englehart do? He gives him a hitherto-undisclosed past.
Granted, this was all Roy Thomas’ idea. But Englehart was under no obligation to spend so much time on a dangling subplot consisting of only two hints: the Vision’s unexplained claustrophobia and an enemy robot identifying him as an artificial life form of “three decades’ vintage” when the synthezoid had only been active for less than a decade in real-time (and still less in Marvel time) (*Issue 102). Instead, Englehart uses Thomas’ retcon as the stimulus for, and gradual resolution of, The Vision’s identity crisis.
After a slow-burning near-romance that played out over several years, the Vision and Wanda the Scarlet Witch finally admitted their love for each other. The fact that he is synthetic and she is a mutant could have provided enough drama on its own, but now each of them could only move forward in their relationship by finally coming to terms with their own individual identity. Wanda gains power and assertiveness, while the Vision explores his past in order to see that he is justified in thinking of himself as a man.
In keeping with Englehart’s use of time travel as a metaphor, the Vision makes his initial discovery thanks to temporal paradox. Kang has taken over Immortus’s ream of Limbo and brought back heroes and villains from the past to fight the Avengers. Limbo, as depicted in these issues, is a timeless realm in which no events actually amount to anything. Theoretically, the Vision and the rest of the cast of characters could spend eternity there without aging or changing; even death is temporary. In other words, Limbo is the worst type of superhero comic book continuity: just a series of immediately reversible events that have neither ramification nor meaning.
In Limbo, the Vision is mortally wounded, only to be saved by a revived (original) Human Torch, who discovers that the Vision’s synthetic interiors are identical to his own. That is to say, the Vision’s initial discovery of his past takes place because his prior iteration knows himself so well that he recognizes his own insides when wrapped in an unfamiliar exterior. The Human Torch thus function not only as the Vision’s previous instantiation, but as the incarnation of the very self-knowledge that the synethezoid so sorely lacks.
When Immortus sends the Vision on a journey into the past, the revelations about his life as the Human Torch are intriguing, but verge on the obsession with continuity often derided as “fanwank.” Yet the Human Torch’s life story does successfully prefigure some patterns in that of the Vision. A failed science experiment, the Human Torch is repeatedly awakened, captured, killed, and revived, framing him as a passive plaything in the hands of others. But when his deactivated body is taken by the villainous android Ultron 5, his story finally takes on a more individual and emotional resonance.
Ultron, accidentally created by a mentally disturbed Hank Pym (who, as Ant-Man, was one of the Avengers’ founders), is a robot whose first act was attempt homicide. Ultron is quite upfront about his “Oedipus complex—the hatred I harbored for my ‘father,’” but ultimately, rather than kill Pym, he erases Pym’s memory and embarks on a project of self-reconstruction: “In a mad orgy of transformation I spent a night and a day—/—in becoming the most perfect example of a robot in all the world!” In itself, this reconstruction is a symbolic parricide—by recreating himself, he becomes his own father.
In so doing, he also repeats his father’s mistakes, but where Pym’s motives are all subtext (creating artificial life could well be the sublimation of an unfulfilled desire to have the children he and the Wasp would never conceive), Ultron’s are pure text: “I am living out a full, normal lifespan—/—and I want to have a son!/ There must be someone who owes me his life—/so that I may have a trustworthy servant!” The fact that he could say such a thing shows the extent of his blind spot, since he himself responded to his “father" with violence rather than fealty.
After gaining custody of the Human Torch’s inert body, Ultron requires the help of the Torch’s inventor, Phineas Horton. Horton revives the android, but deliberately neglects to erase his memory: “I conceived him—myself, with no one’s aid! He come to life under my hands […] / I love him! / He’s the high point of all my days on Earth!” Horton dies, Ultron defeats the Vision and erases his memories, reconfiguring his mind with the brain patters of the dead Simon Williams (Wonder Man).
The Vision is satisfied with what he has learned about himself: “…now I know of the courage and love that comprise my heritage…and now I know that I have a heritage…/ that I did not spring full-blown from Ultron’s brow…but was, in fact, one of the greatest heroes the world has ever seen!”
These revelations are a clever rethreading of various skeins of Marvel continuity. But why should they be so crucial for the Vision’s sense of his own personhood? His satisfaction at learning his own backstory resembles that of an adopted child who, in adulthood, finally discovers the story of their biological parents. The mere fact of access to facts is important.
In the Vision’s case, there is the complication of not having biological parents at all. Just before embarking on one of the most important rituals of human adulthood (marriage), he finds out that, despite his artificial body, he is the culmination of a set of all-too-human neuroses: Ultron’s Oedipal conflict with Hank Pym and his resulting desire for a son; Horton’s dying acknowledgment that the Torch was his son in all but biology; and the complicated family ties that will arise from the use of Simon Williams’s brain patterns. The sheer messiness of his origin and the complexity of his extra-biological family ties argue in favor of the Vision’s essential humanity.
The Madonna-Whore Complex…in Sp-a-a-a-ace!
The key figure for any discussion of character growth in Englehart’s Avengers is also the most problematic: Mantis, the half-Vietnamese, half-white “bar girl” (i.e., sex worker) who joined the Avengers, was proclaimed the Celestial Madonna, and married a tree.
As Englehart himself admits in several interviews, Mantis was originally designed to be a “slut.” That is, she was attractive and sexually adventurous, and would sow discord on the team by hitting on all the men. And, indeed, very soon after becoming affiliated with the team thanks to her romantic relationship with their sometimes foe, sometimes ally the Swordsman, her eye wandered towards men who were stronger and more impressive than her current paramour. In particular, she flirted with the Vision, thereby complicating his budding romance with Wanda the Scarlet Witch.
Her attraction to the Vision made thematic sense; as it turned out, among the things they had in common was a set of mysteries about their own pasts. Libra, a former member of the villainous Zodiac cartel, not only declared himself to be her father, but claimed that she had been raised by the Priests of Pama, a mysterious sect who helped her develop both her martial arts and her “empathic nature” (a kind of generalized psychic talent). Initially convinced that Libra is lying (she remembers growing up on the streets of Saigon), she eventually comes to doubt her own memories. To complicate things further, a star appears above Avengers Mansion, which, according to Kang the Conqueror, means that one of the women residing there is the “Celestial Madonna,” who is destined to give birth to the next messiah. Mantis is revealed to be the Madonna, the Swordsman sacrifices his life in battle with Kang, and now she and the Avengers have to work out what it all means.
Mantis’s discoveries about her origins run in parallel to the Vision’s; each of them has been sent on a tour of the past by the time-traveling Immortus, guided by a “Synchro-Staff” whose job is to narrate the events. The Vision travels alone, but Mantis is accompanied by several of her teammates. And where the Vision’s origins go back decades before his activation, Mantis’s, much to everyone surprise, go back millennia. In order to tell her story, the Synchro-Staff has to show them the rise of the Kree from caveKree days to their never-ending war with the shape-shifting Skrulls. The result is more than the localized continuity implants that connect the Vision to the original Human Torch; here, Englehart develops a mythology that Marvel exploits to this very day.
The Skrulls, initially a peace-loving, scientifically advanced species, land on the Kree homeward of Hala, and offer the opportunity of uplifting the natives to their level. For reasons that are never explained, the Skrulls will only work with one species per world, so they organize a competition between the humanoid Kree and the telepathic plant people known as the Cotati. The Kree build the mysterious city on Earth's moon that later becomes home to the Watcher, while the Cotati grow a garden. When the Skrulls choose the Cotati, the Kree massacre them to the point of near extinction, slaughter the Skrulls, steal their technology, and initiate the endless Kree-Skrull wars.
What does all this have to do with Mantis? A few of the Cotati survived, allying themselves with a pacifist faction called the Priests of Pama. The Kree Supreme Intelligence allowed the Priests to disperse throughout the galaxy, bringing the plants with them on the sly. One outpost was on Earth; or, to be more precise, in Vietnam. Mantis was trained by the priests, and developed her empathic abilities under the influence of the Cotati. She was raised to be the "perfect human,” and therefore had her memories erased so she could experience humanity among ordinary humans, on the streets of Saigon.
In other words, Mantis has a destiny. Grand as that may sound, it also means that very little about the course of her life has to do with choices she herself makes. In this, too, she is like the Vision, who, in both his lives, has too often been a puppet in the hands of various Gepettos. But for the Vision, the exploration of his past teaches him that he can be more assertive and live as a “man;” Mantis, whose assertiveness has always been one of her most salient characteristics, must accept that she is the product of millennia of planning and fulfill her destiny. Earth's eldest Cotati has reanimated the Swordsman’s corpse (“a gift,” he says), and provides her one last lesson to which the reader is not privy: Mantis touches her forehead to the tree’s bark and suddenly understands everything. Of course she will marry the tree.
While Mantis’s story unfolds, Englehart is also writing Captain Marvel, a character whose passivity he found so frustrating that he wrote the problem into the story (the Kree Supreme Intelligence says that Mar-Vell’s lack of ambition forced him to be more active behind the scenes). Unlike all the others characters discussed in this chapter, Mantis is Englehart’s own creation; no one at Marvel could have cared about her as much as he did. But Englehart also has a high comfort level with gendered essentialism (see the discussion of “womanhood”in the Dormammu storyline of Doctor Strange, for example). Mantis grows tremendously from her first appearance, at least in part because all Englehart initially knew about her was that she was a “slut.” But everything about her destiny results from her femininity. She flirts with the various male Avengers in order to better understand her humanity, and her value as the Celestial Madonna is entirely dependent on men. She will marry a powerful man (not Kang, but the Cotati), bringing together two species, in order to give birth to the (male) messiah. In her early appearances, Mantis comes off as self-confident, if not self-absorbed (her bizarre verbal tic of referring to herself as “this one” in stead of “I” notwithstanding). Her path toward greater complexity is, unlike that of everyone else in this chapter with the possible exception of Doctor Strange, a matter of kenosis (emptying out). Her transcendence downplays her individual ego in favor of what she represents: a gender, a species, and a possible better future.
Eventually, he becomes Adam Warlock, but that was the work of other writers and artists. ↩
Though he does come back. ↩
See the notorious incident when Peter Parker expresses his disdain for campus protesters. ↩
This would be my critique of a talented later writer who is in some way’s Englehart’s spiritual heir, J. M. DeMatteis. Most of DeMatteis’ characters reach an important moment of self-discovery, but the form and content of that discovery never vary (it always involves a moment of sentimental satori). ↩
Footnote TBA with examples from Englehart’s writing↩
Gene Colan drew the comic, but denied any authorship of this character whom he didn’t particularly like.↩
Carol Danvers, who eventually became Ms. Marvel and, more recently, Captain Marvel, debuted along with Mar-vell.↩
Years later, it is revealed that the nerve gas gave Mar-fell cancer, causing his eventual death. ↩
Reading this story as a child, I assumed that the Negative Zone had unanticipated effects on the metabolization of Vitamin C.↩
Yes, this is terrible science, but the misinterpretation of evolution as teleological is a common trope in superhero comics and televised science fiction. ↩
This gem will eventually be revealed as one of the now-famous Infinity Stones.↩
This is not counting Captain America’s 1950s adventures, which will be discussed below.↩
Jodi Picoult tried to emphasize Wonder Woman’s alienation from “Patriarch’s World” during her brief 2007 run, showing the heroine in her civilian identity stymied by trying to go through a turnstile. But by that point, this particular iteration of Wonder Woman had been active in the DC Universe for 20 years (in real time), which made the scene rather jarring. ↩
Sharon Carter remains a mainstay of the Marvel Universe, despite her “death” in 1979 and return in 1995; Peggy’s World War II activities eventually made it impossible for Marvel to keep her and Sharon as sisters; in 2007, a retcon made her Sharon’s aunt. ↩
The real work would have fallen to the colorist, whose name is not listed in the comics’ credits. ↩
The iteration motif also plays a roll in issues 177 and 178, when the Falcon faces the former X-Men Foe Lucifer. Thanks to a complicated chain of events, Lucifer, who is trapped in another dimension bonds with two different men in our world, resulting in two different Lucifers. In Issue 179, Hawkeye briefly assumes the identity of the Golden Archer, an adversary from a parallel earth, himself a transparent stand-in for DC’s Green Arrow. In appropriating this identity, Hawkeye tacitly acknowledges that he is one of a series of heroic archer figures in the world of superheroes, at the same time that he reminds Steve Rogers that he doesn’t have to stick to one costumed identity to be a hero. ↩
Eventually, she gets better. These are superhero comics, after all. ↩
] Members of the Fantastic Four would leave and be replaced, but always temporarily; no experience reader doubted that the team would refer to its original membership of Reed, Ben, Sue, and Johnny. ↩
This was the case with Captain America during his Nomad days, but since Englehart wrote both books, coordination was presumably simple. ↩
At least until later writers decides to bring them all back. ↩