Brian M. Puaca writes for Bleeding Cool:
Remember Leon Trotsky? No? Not really? Well, the odds are pretty good that many of the young Soviets growing up in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s didn’t remember him either. Many may well have never come to learn of his existence at all. The reason? Joseph Stalin systematically sought to remove him from the collective memory of the Soviet population after he came to power. While there were a variety of methods to achieve this goal, the most visible example of this policy was the airbrushing of the Red Army leader from photos taken during and immediately after the Russian Revolution.
Now why, you might ask, would a Bleeding Cool contribution start with a paragraph about Leon Trotsky? Well — and this is an awkward comparison to make — Marvel has begun to literally erase vestiges of the X-Men and the Fantastic Four from important historical moments in the Marvel Universe. Powerful leaders have long sought to control the collective memory of those they ruled, and albeit for different reasons, Marvel has recently engaged in efforts to manufacture a new official memory of its past. In particular, this effort to manipulate the past has been in regard to the Secret Wars series of the 1980s.
As has been detailed here and here, there are now multiple examples of Marvel not only erasing the involvement of those they wish to deemphasize but also inserting alternative figures they hope to promote. Most notably, the X-Men and Fantastic Four — characters that do not feature in the Marvel Cinematic Universe because the rights were sold during the dark days of the 1990s — have been removed from images used on t-shirts. Simply deleted. And these are not just random pieces of comic art. These characters have been deleted from iconic covers (Secret Wars #1 and #8) that are well known to fans of a certain age. Alternatively, Marvel has added characters in what can only be seen as an effort to increase their visibility. Daredevil was notably absent from the entire Secret Wars miniseries. And yet he appears on a reimagined cover used on a shirt.
Is it fair for Marvel to do this? Sure, it is. These are Marvel products and the company is free to do with them what they wish. The goal, of course, is to maximize profit. Someone who makes marketing decisions clearly decided that uniting a popular historic series (one that is, not incidentally, seeing its title used again this summer at least in part as a nostalgia ploy) with the current hot properties of the Marvel Universe made good sense. One can almost hear the word “synergy” being used in a corporate meeting to explain the way the past and present are being united — and manipulated — for selling merchandise.
Is it a good idea for Marvel to do this? That is a different question altogether. Judging from the products that have so far popped up with this, ahem, revised version of the Secret Wars covers, one can assume that they are being marketed at adults familiar with the original series. Or better yet, they are being sold to those unfamiliar with the actual books who are buying them for fathers, husbands, uncles, or sons. Therefore, it is safe to assume that the target audience for these products are those who have a personal recollection of the original books. Again, Marvel is likely playing on a sense of nostalgia for the Secret Wars series of the 1980s that are remembered fondly by many in their thirties and forties.
And here is where one has to wonder if this is a wise move by Marvel. Those being targeted by Marvel as customers are precisely those who have the strongest memories of the original series. It would, therefore, be particularly difficult for an airbrushed version of the Secret Wars covers to go unnoticed by these consumers. If they notice in the store, they may well pass on buying the shirt. If it is a gift, it may be returned. Clearly, Marvel is gambling on the fact that it won’t be a problem, or if it is, it will have only a minor effect on sales. That, at this point, is an open question.
So is there a bigger effect of this clear manipulation of the past for present and future commercial purposes? Maybe. Some consumers might not give it another thought. Others, however, might find it to be a crass commercial decision that makes a lasting impression. This is not merely an example of a screenwriter taking liberties with a character or storyline for the silver screen. It isn’t a question of interpretation. Instead, this is literally the manipulation of the past, and specifically the iconic art of some of the most popular comic books of the 1980s, for profit. This may well irk many of those who recognize the changes and consider their purpose.
In thinking about this even further, it is fascinating to consider the fundamental underlying tension here between nostalgia for a distant comics past and contemporary financial considerations. Marvel is banking (pun intended) on the fact that the images are instantly recognizable to its target audience. Likewise, they presume that these images will be remembered fondly by those who know them and will appeal to them in the store or online. Yet there is also the hope that the images won’t be remembered too completely, as this might stop one from making the purchase. Worse still, it could frustrate or anger a fan who is precisely the same person likely going to Marvel movies, streaming Daredevil on Netflix, and/or buying Marvel Unlimited subscriptions.
Admittedly, this would be a forceful (and unlikely) response from fans. But as many political elites have learned the hard way, the long-term effects of manipulating memory can be highly unpredictable. At the very least, when the collective memory is altered in such an obvious and heavy-handed way, it usually reveals the true interests of those pulling the strings. So, too, does it in this case. These instances — and one can hardly doubt there are more to come — underscore Marvel’s willingness to dispense with the past in order to make a quick profit.
To return to the revolutionary, Trotsky, who opened the essay, it is worth noting that his ideas remained a threat long after his murder (ordered by Stalin in 1940). Trotskyism became a derogatory term used by Communist regimes around the world as a way to denote those internal enemies deemed especially dangerous. And one of the most serious threats one could pose in these states was to reject the official memory crafted for public consumption by the elites. Perhaps Reed Richards would today be the one most likely to question this new presentation of Secret Wars. Marvel might have to fear the spread of Richardsism (Reedism?) among its customers. Well, it’s an entertaining thought. Let’s just hope Mister Fantastic doesn’t wind up with an ice pick in his head.
Brian M. Puaca is an associate professor of history at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, where he teaches a course on the history of comic books and American society. He can be reached at email@example.com.