Though I read them occasionally as a boy, I have never been overly interested in comic books, especially the American sort, the ones featuring superheroes dressed in super-tight costumes fighting super villains, none of whom ever seemed to receive super-long jail sentences for attempting, yet again, to destroy Our Way Of Life. A junior realist, I tended to read, instead, the British-produced, four-times-a-month Commando comics, which were generally set during the Second World War.
Commando–whose fabulous titles included Hun Bait, Iron-Cross Yankee, Ghost Stuka, and the unforgettable Deserters Deserve Death!–abjured those pathetic ads one saw in the trans-Atlantic comics for Charles Atlas bodybuilding manuals, Sea Monkeys, and those pervy X-Ray Glasses that unfortunately never worked. No, Commando offered helpful and educational schematics of, say, the Panzerkampfwagen IV (the version sent to the Afrika Korps between 1941 and 1943, and armed with the 75mm KwK 40 L/48 gun).
Working with a somewhat limited set of plotlines, Commando writers churned out thousands of stories featuring buff, manly English Tommies fighting merciless SS colonels who called them “Schweinhund” and shot prisoners with a cruel laugh (Wehrmacht officers, on the other hand, were depicted as honorable soldiers who obeyed the Geneva Conventions and said, “For you, Englander, ze war is over” and offered a cigarette when Tommy surrendered). When in triumphant mood, the Jerries, in their fiendish way, exulted in the kill, “Feuer!” But when their Messerschmitt 109s were shot down by the patently superior Spitfires (of course) piloted by chaps named Jenkins (commoner) and Greyshott (gentry), they cried “Gott im Himmel!” as their flaming crates streaked into the drink. In this age of moral uncertainty and nihilistic abandon, you’ll be relieved to know that Commando comics are still selling well.
What the American and British comics had in common was their utter predictability and dialogue so wooden it was an insult to furniture. You always knew that the grizzled sergeant (all sergeants were grizzled) from Yorkshire would eventually come to appreciate the gallantry and prowess of his effete Old Etonian lieutenant (Coward in Khaki!, shrieked one Commando title), who would inevitably sacrifice his life for the good of his platoon. Over here, you always knew Batman (or Spiderman or the Green Lantern, etc.) would never stoop to kill the baddie when the cops weren’t looking, even if by doing so he could save himself a lot of future headaches. They also tended to have suspiciously drawn-out conversations with themselves as the panes advanced, and one thing American comic-book guys never mastered was the art of convincingly summarizing a back-story (“Clark, I know that you’re in love with Lois Lane of the Daily Planet, but Professor Lex Luthor has discovered how to weaken your powers by using Kryptonite stolen from your home world,” exclaimed Jimmy Olson).
Unlike the Commando hacks, writers, pencillers, and inkers at DC and Marvel, the two venerable American houses, have in recent years tired of the traditional storylines. How many more times, after all, can they rehearse the hackneyed Peter-Parker-gets-bitten-by-a-radioactive-spider routine? As a result, they’ve begun experimenting with alternate histories of the superheroes, and are re-imagining the great icons of American kid (and now adult) culture.
The most recent of these efforts toys with the story of Captain America. Traditionally, Cap was a World War II warrior who enjoyed stoutly biffing erring Nazis, but who was frozen and then re-animated in the 1960s, when he joined the Avengers. Captain America, as Michael Medved pointed out on NROlast year, has suffered the indignity of being reinvented as Captain Anti-America by Marvel’s in-house team of Chomskyites, but that sort of wholesale, mea culpist revisionism is not quite what I meant by writing an “alternate history.”
MAN OF THE HAMMER & SICKLE
Take, for example, DC’s Superman: Red Son, an alternate history that has just appeared in “graphic novel” format; that is, DC has collated last year’s series of single issues, bound them, and kicked the price up to $17.95–which is more than you’d pay for a real novel. As “reimagined” by Mark Millar, the writer, the ship carrying baby Kal-El from Krypton lands twelve hours earlier than we have come to assume. Instead of crashing in the Midwest, and growing up wholesome and all-American, the man we know as Clark Kent comes down in the Ukraine, matures on a collective farm, and eventually arrives in Moscow, where he enthusiastically works for Stalin–the real Man of Steel–as a Sovietized Superman. “Superman: strange visitor from another world! Who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands…. And who, as the champion of the common worker, fights a never-ending battle for Stalin, Socialism and the international expansion of the Warsaw Pact,” blares one television announcement.
Passing over the Queen Mary 2-sized plot-holes, it’s a brilliant idea, and there is some fun to be had in cameos by Batman (now wearing a fur hat and working as an anti-socialist vigilante) and Wonder Woman, who plays a radical fellow-traveler fighting for women’s rights. There’s also some terrific artwork of Superman, a hammer-and-sickle emblazoned on his chest in place of the iconic “S,” wearing a Red Army uniform and encouraging his “comrades” to throw off their shackles.
Unfortunately, there’s an unnecessary pompousness to the proceedings. Mark Millar makes no secret of his Leftie views–he changed the storyline, he says, to genuflect on “unethical American foreign policy” (yeah, right on); Superman the Sov “is an allegory of George W. Bush and very like America,” you get the picture–and doesn’t bother mentioning the Gulag even as he paints Stalin as an avuncular fellow.
SUPERMAN, CAESAR, HITLER…
But before we get too worked up about Millar’s Walter Duranty-like fantasies about the CCCP, or grow purplish with rage over his tinkering with the hallowed tale of Clark Kent, it’s worth remembering, first, that it’s just a comic, and secondly, that the characters may be Red but their motivations and dialogue remain as unconvincing as ever. Most importantly, we ought to acknowledge that the kind of intellectual puzzle Millar’s playing is a worthy and interesting pursuit in its own right.
Alternate histories, sometimes known as “counterfactuals,” or the “What-If” school of history, enjoy a long tradition. Tactitus, the Roman historian, once wondered what would have happened had Germanicus, Augustus Caesar’s stepson and a first-class general, not expired young. Tacitus believed he would eventually have “outstripped Alexander in military fame.” More recently, there’s been a vogue for these counterfactuals: The perceptive historian, Niall Ferguson, edited a book entitled, Virtual History, whose contributors discussed such topics as what might have happened had the American Revolution not erupted, had Charles I avoided Civil War with Cromwell, and how long the Soviet Union would have existed had Gorbachev not given it an unwitting push. There’s also been the two bestselling What If? books, edited by Robert Cowley (NR’s Victor Davis Hanson contributed to the sequel a piece on Socrates dying early, before he’d had a chance to mold Western philosophy).
All this alternate history stuff is very interesting, but is it important? Yes. Thinking counterfactually makes history appear less pre-ordained, less determinist, less inevitable, less obvious, than Marxists (and theologians, progressives, and congenital foreign-policy optimists) lead us to believe. Which is precisely why humorless Stalinists like E. H. Carr called alternate histories a mere “parlour game,” and the less humorless (but more vulgar and equally Red), E. P. Thompson dismissed them as “Geschichtswissenschlopff.”
At any time, anything could have happened, and we can appreciate the value of contingency in human affairs. On a real-world level, we learn that history is important, but never omnipotent: The mighty torrent of events rushing forward can be slowed, or diverted, or it may end abruptly in a waterfall, or even be dammed. Chance, foresight, wisdom, and opportunism play their major roles, and there is no need to fear that history “must repeat itself” (a cyclical form of determinism recently resurrected in “Vietnam” analogies), or that nations “cannot free themselves of their pasts” (the post-1945 generation of Germans certainly has, and perhaps one day too shall Middle Easterners and Africans).
Only in comic books are outcomes inevitable and histories unbreakable, but maybe not forever.
–Alexander Rose is NR’s deputy managing editor.