Here’s an interesting item about comics as propaganda from the 1950s – with Captain America a possible victim of British publisher (and government) manipulation that some downthetubes readers may be able to shed further light on.
“Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist party?”
In the 1950s, thousands of Americans who worked for the US government, served in the army, worked in the film industry, or came from various walks of life had to answer that question before a congressional panel, after Senator Joe McCarthy began investigations into “communist infiltration” into public life. His hearings went on until 1954, until televised hearings of US army officials, including many decorated war heroes illustrated the mean-spiritedness of McCarthy’s campaign.
Elsewhere, the House Committee on Un-American Activities targeted the Hollywood film industry. Actors, writers, and producers alike were summoned to appear before the committee and provide names of colleagues who may have been members of the Communist Party. The UShistory.org web site notes unions were special target of communist hunters. Sensing an unfavourable environment, the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations merged in 1955 to close ranks.
Books were even pulled from library shelves, including Robin Hood, which was deemed communist-like for suggesting stealing from the rich to give to the poor.
Against this fractious background, it’s no surprise Marvel’s predecessor Atlas would delight in coming up with Russian communist super villains, and one of them was an earlier version of Electro, Who Captain America battled in Captain America Comics #78.
In the story – the writer uncredited – the Russians create a huge electrically-charged creature called Electro, who’s defeated through an unlikely combination of being hit by the workings of a giant typewriter and getting electrocuted himself after Cap releases a flood of water from a dam display.
Such a bonkers but patriotically-charged story (reprinted in Marvel Masterworks: Atlas Era Heroes Volume 2 back in 2007) clearly deserved a cover spot at a time when battling the communist menace was the “in thing” (and of course Marvel’s heroes continued to battle Soviet skullduggery well into the 1960s). John Romita Senior delivers a powerful cover featuring a hammer and sickle emblazoned Electro menacing a downed Bucky and Captain America as he battles his way through Red Army soldiers.
Strangely, however, by the time this story reached British shores, British publisher L. Miller decided to play down the Soviet connection. A rare copy of the British Captain America No 2 also published in 1954, recently sold at auction through ComPal comics for £310. It reproduced the US Captain America Comics #78 cover – but as you can see above, Cap’s protagonist, Electro, had his chest emblem Hammer and Sickle restyled to a meaningless blob for the UK cover.
Was this because, as Malcolm Phillips at ComPal suggested to me in an email, drawing attention to the sale, that unlike the US, communists were not given publicity in post-war Britain?
Certainly, there was a concerted effort by governments of all shades to discourage membership of the British Communist Party (its numbers in 1954 Still high, before Russia’s President Khrushchev revealed Stalin’s atrocities at 20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in February 1956).
Comics fan Alan Russell notes that the strap line “Commie Smasher” that featured on the US Captain America Comics #77 was swapped out on L. Miller’s Captain America No 1 for the more innocuous “spy smasher”.
Alternatively, could it be that by the time the story was published in the UK, McCarthyism had run its course when the US Army hit back hard against the way the senator had attacked its soldiers and war heroes – providing opportunity to close down the controversial hearings?
Are there any historians out there who can point to evidence of the British government put pressure on publishers to not feature the Soviet symbol? Do you know of other instances of such “air brushing”?
Either way, as Compal‘s “Market Report” illustrates, there’s clearly profit in communist-inspired comics… Although not, it seems, as much as there is in good old-fashioned comics fun, with a Beano No 1, accompanied by its promo eight-page mini-comic for £1480. Or pages of Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun’s often subversive “Charley’s War”, which sold for £960.
Captain America copyright Marvel. Item with thanks to Malcolm Phillips
The founder of downthetubes, which he established in 1998. John works as a comics and magazine editor, writer, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. He is currently editor of Star Trek Explorer, published by Titan – his third tour of duty on the title originally titled Star Trek Magazine.
Working in British comics publishing since the 1980s, his credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine, Babylon 5 Magazine, and more. He also edited the comics anthology STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War” and “Dan Dare”.
He’s the writer of “Pilgrim: Secrets and Lies” for B7 Comics; “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood.