Yesterday, we celebrated the patriotic superheroes of the USA on Independence Day. Coincidentally, yesterday it was announced that British troops are to be deployed by NATO to “deter any Russian aggresion”, in the words of the Defence secretary. I would argue that many of the comic book characters featured in this post were born of the thawing of relations between the USA and the former USSR during the Seventies.
So, if the Russian soul is a dark place, as Dostoyevsky said, what can we make of its superheroes?
“I was ready to love the world, but no one understood me, so I learned to hate.” Mikhail Lermontov
The Cold War politics of early Marvel comics depicted the Red Menace as devious, pompous but brutish. When these stories were reprinted in the early UK Spider-Man comics, the “Reds” became shifty, Eastern Europeans from “Bodavia”. By the mid-Sixties, Red China had replaced Russia in Marvel as the home of fiendish plots, as reflected by masterminds like the Yellow Claw and the Mandarin.
Crimson Dynamo is the first of the Russian superheroes to appear at Marvel. In his first incarnation, looking like a walking carburetor, he is a saboteur turned defector who goes to work for Tony Stark. The next notable incarnation was a Soviet exile named, ironically, for a prince and a saint. Implicated like the monstrous Titanium Man in the death of Janice Cord, he was the first Dynamo to join a super-team: the Vietnam-based Titanic Three.
There have been thirteen Dynamos in total but the character has links with Marvel’s most famous tsarina, the lethal Black Widow.Madame Natasha is Marvel’s foremost movie super-heroine: an assassin and expert hand-to-hand combatant, she has been portrayed as having a Beauty and the Beast relationship with the Hulk.
In the Seventies, the Widow was re-positioned as an adventuress in the Modesty Blaise mould, in part thanks to her partnership with Daredevil. To my mind, the 21st century Black Widow is a darker, more conflicted but less appealing character than the leader of the Champions in the 70s.
The Red Guardian was first introduced as the Black Widow’s missing husband: a Soviet Captain America and an Avengers antagonist. The second version was glamorous brain surgeon and dissident Tania Belinsky- a blink-and-you’ll -miss- her Defender. Tania later became a cosmic being called Stardust in a storyline we’ll recount shortly.
The current Red Guardian calls himself less euphoniously “Steel Guardian” which wouldn’t be a bad sobriquet for Colossus. The organic metal X-Man never became the star Len Wein conceived him to be. Developed from a Cockrum design for the Legionanire Ferro Lad, Colossus defected to Magneto and later sacrificed himself (temporarily!) in an heroic act, not unlike his 30th-century “forebear”.
Peter Rasputin ( a great comic book name) has never been a major player at Marvel; indeed the Deadpool movie suggests that he would be more successful as comedy relief.
More Russian mutants were introduced by Bill Mantlo in the 70s. The mysterious Darkstar and her brother Vanguard starred in stories with the Champions, Iron Man and the Hulk. With their shape-shifting ally, Ursa Major and the longest-serving Crimson Dynamo, they formed the Soviet Super-Soldiers.
A kind 0f USSR take on the X-Men, this group had been formed by a parasitic version of Prof. Xavier, who fed off their mutant energy. A number of Russian characters are also victims of nuclear accidents, like the enigmatic Presence who transformed the female Red Guardian into his cosmic consort.
With the fall of Communism, the group was later renamed the Winter Guard. Other members are analogues of Thor, Vision and the Scarlet Witch. This imitation of US heroes implies a lack of originality in the Russian personality.
DC’s Russian heroes follow a similar template to those of Marvel. The New Doom Patrol’s Negative Woman (Valentina Vostok) has had a lengthy supporting role in comics and seemed inspired by Barbara Bach’s Spy Who Loved Me.
Starfire- the first of three DC characters with that name- was a generic strongman who largely inhabited Teen Titans titles. his transformation to an equally generic energy-being wasn’t as appealing as his dinky military hat in cartoons.
Rocket Red is an enduring DC hero- originally, one of a brigade of Iron Man-substitutes created by the alien Green Lantern, Kilowog. The best known Rocket Red follows a comics tradition since he’s named after the novelist Pushkin. By this logic, Captain America should be Steve Steinbeck and Iron Man, Tony Vidal. Like too many cheerful characters, both heroic Rockets have been killed off, unfortunately.
The comical People’s Heroes- Bolshoi, Sickle, Hammer, Molotov and Pravda- were first seen in one of my favourite 80s comics: (Batman and) the Outsiders. They’re an outrageous counterpart to the US Force of July. They also mirror the belligerent Soviet Super-Soldiers as unquestioning tools of the state.
Russian superheroes tend to eschew individualism. They’re unquestioning, naive and brutal. Most often, they represent authoritarian viewpoints- although I suppose the same could be said of billionaires like Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne.
It seems that suspicion and posturing colour the development of the Russian superhero. Probably the most famous of all is this one:
I think a great deal of this imagery made its way into Man of Steel, ironically enough. We’ll note similar stereotyping in upcoming posts, where we’ll revisit the superheroes of China, Korea, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Japan.
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