In loving memory of the Red Menace – The Avengers #43
We here in the West have been lacking a superpower boogeyman since the Soviet Union collapsed a quarter of a century ago, a real life ideological threat that always looms, never hits too close to home, and is therefore perfect for serving as an umbrella foil for all levels of fiction. Al-Qaeda and Islamic terrorism have somewhat filled that breach in tragic ways, but their antagonism is all too real. Yes, the Cold War flared through proxies, but those happened oceans away. East vs. West always had a cloak and dagger quality about it which signaled that it was partially a game, something worthy of the machinations of a John le Carre novel. It’s hard to think of 9/11 and ISIS as games.
This bipolar world of old naturally found its way into countless movies, TV shows and comics. Even (especially?) superhero comics. In these very virtual pages we’ve looked at a rather delightful Thor vs. Communism tale, in which Jack Kirby’s rendering of Soviet apparatchiks turned them into craggly, gnomish brutes worthy of Asgardian nether regions. Of course that wasn’t the end of the line, and we all know how the Russkie tendrils worked their way into the costumed side of the ledger — and in not-too-subtle ways. This was perhaps most prominent in Iron Man’s rogue’s gallery (he himself being a product of the Vietnam War), with the Crimson Dynamo and Titanium Man battling him armor for armor.
And things could get even more blatant, as they did in this Avengers issue, penned by Roy Thomas and illustrated by John Buscema. The Red Guardian was the Soviet Captain America, complete with a red star on his chest and a magnetic disc on his belt that could be hurled like Steve Rogers’ shield. Alexei Shostakov by day, he was also the husband of the Black Widow, a key fact revealed in this very issue. Both made him very much entwined with the Avengers team of this era, and more keyed for mayhem than the normal anit-imperialist-pig worldview would demand. He was the very embodiment of the arrogant, duplicitous caricature cooked up in the Free World to portray those behind the Iron Curtain.
Here he is demonstrating his abilities for Chinese and Russian military bigwigs:
No shrinking violet, the Red Guardian could bandy boastful imprecations with no less than Hercules himself:
As an aside, can me maybe work Hercules into the Marvel movies one of these days? The MCU could use a well-intentioned braggart god. Thor is too humble.
You couldn’t expect a commie to play fair, could you? Here he is goading Hawkeye into a trap (okay, this has more to do with Hawkeye’s stupidity, but you still get the picture):
The Red Guardian only had a brief two issue run for a debut, but the character popped up again and again over the years, with retcons, new carriers of the mantel and all the other accoutrements of comicdom. The character was by no means the most successful capitalist imagining of a communist paragon, but he was about as pure a one as you could imagine.
No one wants a return to nuclear sabre-rattling. Vladimir Putin disappearing for a week and a half and his statements in interviews that he was willing to up Russia’s nuclear readiness over the Crimea are both unsettling things, echoes of days when kids drilled to hide under their desks and Kremlinology was a legit field of study. But there’s been a readiness in recent years to return to Cold War tropes. One could even call it nostalgia, as it least the Soviets didn’t behead people on camera. The Americans is a successful spy drama, and professional wrestling, always a canary in the zeitgeist coalmine, has a current East vs. West angle: one of the primo events for this year’s Wrestlemania pits a hero of the Russian Federation against an All-American everyman. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, and in the past. Or redder, as it were.
It seems improbable that we’d yearn for the days when we lived under the Nuclear Bombs of Damocles, but there you are. For the fertilizer it provided — and continues to provide — to all levels of enjoyable fiction, the Red Scare wasn’t all bad.