Zeitgeist ’60: Ten Comic Book Characters That Embody the 1960s
Like any great medium, comics has a give-and-take relationship with the zeitgeist. Comics can shape fashion, culture, and even politics -- but the industry is always changed by those things as well. Sometimes that creates amazing new characters and concepts - and sometimes it creates weird little ideas that wither and die.
In in this first part of a series, ComicsAlliance looks back at some of the quintessential creations of each decade; creations that perhaps could only come from that decade. We begin with the 1960s, a time of counterculture, social change, and scary Commies.
First appearance: Fantastic Four #48, Marvel Comics, March 1966
Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
The end of the world is an old school concept, and one that used to primarily involve theology. All that changed in the 20th century, when mankind conceived of exciting new scientific ways to wipe out all life on Earth. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 brought the USA and the USSR to the brink of a doomsday war that only resolved itself thanks to the threat of mutually assured destruction -- a doctrine of war that cast a shadow over the world for a generation.
Existential anxiety is a big concept to squeeze into a superhero comic, so Stan Lee and Jack Kirby dressed it up in a big purple hat and called it Galactus. The space giant that threatened to devour the world in "In This Be Doomsday" was only chased away thanks to the Fantastic Four's acquisition of the most devastating weapon in the universe; the Ultimate Nullifer. The threat of mutually assured destruction once again saved/ruined the day.
First appearance: Teen Titans #7, DC Comics, February 1967
Created by Bob Haney and Nick Cardy
The Beatles, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones; in the mid-1960s these dangerous youths brought their insidious British take on rock 'n' roll to the U.S. so they could poison the minds of wholesome American teens. The British Invasion.
Around the same time the Teen Titans debuted at DC; "a crazy teen scene" who represented '60s youth culture. It's no surprise that one of the first foes they fought was the Mad Mod, a Carnaby Street fashion designer who smuggled drugs in the clothing of a British rock star and used words like "ruddy" and "mate" and "duckie" and "yoicks." Thankfully he was defeated, and the youth of America was saved from the invading Brits.
DC also gave the world two other notably wicked mod characters: The Mod Gorilla Boss in Strange Adventures, and the Mad Mod Witch in The Unexpected. Because, mods: threat or menace?
First appearance: Barbarella comic strip, V-Magazine, spring 1962
Created by Jean-Claude Forest
Sexual liberation was a major theme in the 1960s, brought about on the one hand by changing attitudes to women's roles and sexuality, and on the other hand by the introduction of the contraceptive pill, which gave women the same sexual freedom as men for the first time in history. As much as the phenomenon was welcomed by women, it was also encouraged by men who saw how they might benefit from the new arrangement. And that's where Barbarella comes in.
The 1968 movie Barbarella starring Jane Fonda is regarded as a camp celebration of women's sexual liberation -- most notably for the scene in which Barbarella and Dildano take "the pill," which allows them to experience hair-curling sexual ecstacy just by touching hands. (Dildano, of course, wears a glove.)
The comic that preceded the movie is also a celebration of sexual liberation -- but from a man's perspective. Jean-Claude Forest's story is a weird jumble of adventures that sees "Earth girl" Barbarella get into steamy clinches with men and women alike, not to mention an angel and a robot. It's a sex romp that undoubtedly embodies the changing attitudes to women's sexuality -- but of course it was still all about the male gaze.
First appearance: My Greatest Adventure #80, DC Comics, June 1963
Created by Arnold Drake, with Bob Haney and Bruno Premiani
The nuclear age conjured up all sorts of new and interesting anxieties about radiation - and there hasn't been a human anxiety yet that someone couldn't make a superhero out of. Radiation was a common trope in the origin stories of several' 60s superheroes -- especially Marvel heroes like Spider-Man, Hulk, the Fantastic Four and the X-Men.
So why have I picked a DC hero to represent the era? For a couple of reasons. First of all, Negative Man remained radioactive, and covered himself in special bandages to protect those around him. Second, as a member of DC's outsider super-team the Doom Patrol, he represents a rare countercultural twinge at the generally pro-establishment DC Comics. Like late '50s hero Hal Jordan (the Silver Age Green Lantern), Larry Trainor was a military test pilot imbued with strange powers. Jordan became a handsome space cop; Trainor became a bandaged freak, with powers of astral projection that directly associate him with New Age ideas about parapsychology.
First appearance: Fantastic Four #13, Marvel Comics, April 1963
Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Comics had no shortage of Red Scare villains throughout and even beyond the Cold War, from the Radioactive Man to Omega Red. Among the best and most revealing is Ivan Kragoff, the Red Ghost.
Kragoff is another enemy of the Fantastic Four, and in classic Stan Lee mode he and his Super-Apes offered a dark reflection of the heroes. A cruel and power-hungry man, Kragoff deliberately exposed himself and his captive apes to cosmic rays while racing to claim the moon for Russia, giving himself "ghost" powers, and his apes shapeshifting, super-strength and energy manipulation powers.
The story not only positioned Red Ghost and his Super-Apes as sinister and inhuman emissaries of Communism, it also served as a sort of narrative referendum on the Cold War itself. No less an authority than the Watcher (in his first appearance) stepped in to demand that the FF and the Space-Apes fight it out. The winner would get to claim space on behalf of the US or the USSR. rule on whether the US or the USSR. And that's how America won the Cold War, kids.
First appearance: Brother Power the Geek #1, DC Comics, October 1968
Created by Joe Simon, with Al Bare
San Francisco, 1967. The Summer of Love brought tens of thousands of people together to celebrate free love, social progress, and the profligate consumption of psychedelic drugs. It was the high point of the hippie movement, which, as movements go, was sort of slow sway from side-to-side.
It took a little over a year for the Summer of Love to find its own comics superhero, and somehow it showed up at DC. Brother Power the Geek was a mannequin infused with hippie blood and motor oil and bought to life by a bolt of lightning. Brother Power the Geek was a flower power philosopher who rejected "the lazy ways of the hippies" to become a sort of wandering agitator for peace, love, and hard work. Despite his utilitarian approach to peaceniking, he lasted only two issues, reportedly because Superman editor Mort Weisinger lobbied against the book.
The second issue of Brother Power the Geek saw him shot into space by Ronald Reagan. On reflection, that is probably exactly how a DC comic about hippies was always going to end.
First appearance: The Amazing Spider-Man #78, Marvel Comics, November 1969
Created by Stan Lee and John Buscema
The Civil Rights Movement was one of the great forces for social change in the 1950s and '60s, and it manifested in comics in some unusual ways. It was present in the central conceit of the X-Men; in the creation of the first black superhero, the Black Panther (who only coincidentally shared a name with a Black Power organization); and there in the creation of the first African-American superhero, the Falcon, whose existence artist Gene Colan said was inspired by news headlines about civil rights protests.
At the tail end of the '60s, and two months after the Falcon debuted in Captain America #117, Marvel's second African-American superhero made his first appearance. The Prowler, aka Hobie Brown, was perhaps the rawest example of the civil rights struggle to appear in the comics of the day.
Hobie Brown wasn't a mutant, or an African prince, or a Harlem social worker trying to organize a revolution on a tropical island run by Nazis. (That was Falcon's original story; he was later ambiguously and awkwardly retconned to be a former gangster.) Hobie Brown was a brilliant young inventor from a poor background who turned to crime out of desperation. His sinister mask and codename turned him into a cartoon of white fear about black urban youth, but he really represents the inequalities and injustices that helped spark the Civil Rights Movement. Hobie Brown shows us how hard it is for a young black man to succeed in a society slanted against him, whatever his gifts. To this day, Hobie Brown has not been given his due.
First appearance: Strange Tales #110, Marvel Comics, July 1963
Created by Steve Ditko, with Stan Lee
Strange Tales had already been running for over a decade before it introduced the world to the hero who shares its name. LSD had been around in the United States for about as long, chiefly as a therapeutic aid. Perhaps it's just good fortune that the good doctor came around just in time for the wondrous heyday of the acid trip.
Doctor Strange doesn't come from drug culture, exactly. He comes from the 1960s fascination with mysticism, especially Eastern mysiticism, which provides the throughline the spiritualists of the early 20th century to the New Age movement of the late 20th century. Stephen Strange was a man who went east to find his purpose, and learned to move past his ego with the help of a wise old mentor -- slightly anticipating the journey of fellow '60s mustache legend George Harrison.
But Doctor Strange became part of drug culture, regardless of the authors' intentions. His ability to leave his body to explore the psychedelic Astral Plane had obvious resonance for the counterculture. As Tom Wolfe wrote of author and LSD enthusiast Ken Kesey, he would spend hours "absorbed in the plunging purple Steve Ditko shadows of Doctor Strange." Doctor Strange was part of the scene.
First appearance: Modesty Blaise newspaper strip, Evening Standard, May 1963
Created by Peter O'Donnell, with Jim Holdaway
The Cold War turned the world into a chess board for two grandmasters, and spy fiction entered a new golden age, lead by Ian Fleming's James Bond novels. Bond became a comic strip hero in the late 1950s, and one of the artists responsible for the adaptations was Peter O'Donnell. In 1963, O'Donnell was invited to create his own comic strip super-spy for London's Evening Standard newspaper, and Modesty Blaise was born.
Modesty Blaise exists at the intersection of establishment geo-politics and swinging youth culture. A wealthy globe-trotting Continental criminal mastermind who tired of crime and turned to espionage to combat her boredom, Modesty embodied European glamour and the fantasy of jet-set affluence. Modesty's world was the world of Federico Fellini movies and Diana Vreeland's Vogue. As Jim Steranko also proved with his work on Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD, few things could ever be more '60s than a stylish spy.
First appearance: The Brave and the Bold #57, DC Comics, January 1965
Created by Bob Haney and Ramona Fradon
Marvel was the upstart punk kid of 1960s superhero comics, and it had many of the great counter-cultural creators and creations, but this was the Silver Age; there was enough weird to go around. Over at DC, Bob Haney stood out as one of the masters of peculiar ideas. Whether it was Satan, weird science, or super-teens, Bob Haney loved his crazy.
By Haney's own admission, his greatest creation was Metamorpho the Element Man. He was a shapeshifting elemental hero whose powers -- from the radioactive orb of the Egyptian sun god Ra -- turned him into a sub-human freak. Metamorpho was a perfect cocktail of '60s ideas: the Atomic Age search for scientific advancement combined with the counter-cultural search for spiritual meaning filtered through the persona of the outcast in a time of social upheaval.
The '60s was a decade of political empowerment for women, for black people, for young people. With change comes uncertainty; what will I be, and what will the world be, when we are both re-made? Metamorpho was a hero born of both that power and that fear of change.