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Things That Turned Out Bad – Marvel’s Strange Celebration of the First Martin Luther King Day

In this column, I will spotlight plotlines by writers that probably weren’t a good idea at the time and have only become more problematic in retrospect. I’ll try to stick with stuff that’s more ill-conceived than flat-out offensive (like racist stereotypes of characters during the 1940s).

Today, we take a look at the odd way that Marvel handled the first year that Martin Luther King Day was celebrated as a federal holiday…

Written by Steve Englehart and drawn by Richard Howell and Frank Springer, Vision and the Scarlet Witch was a year-long maxi-series that takes place over the course of one calendar year (much of which is taken up by the conception, pregnancy and birth of Vision and Scarlet Witch’s children). Like The Long Halloween, each issue took place around a holiday. For the January 1986 issue, Vision and Scarlet Witch #8, the holiday was Martin Luther King Day, which was being celebrated as a federal holiday for the first time that year (after being approved as a federal holiday in 1983).

The issue sees Power Man and Vision and Scarlet Witch continue from a previous team-up they had had in an issue of Power Man and Iron Fist, involving some demons. Quicksilver ends up taking Iron Fist’s place in the adventure, which begins with Power Man being attacked by a demon in Manhattan, so he goes to Vision and Scarlet Witch for help…

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Kind of a ham-fisted way of working that in there, but okay. Now, before we look at the next page, note that Steve Englehart always disliked Quicksilver and regularly tried to turn him into a villain. Along those themes, he has Quicksilver drop some weird pseudo-racist stuff here…

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“Some of my best Inhumans are dusky.” I see the bumper sticker already!

So they go off on a mission to find some idols before the bad guys, and in the process, there is a hurricane where Luke tries to grab hold of Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver to anchor them down…

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In the end, it turns out Scarlet Witch was tricking the bad guys the whole time and the idols they were seemingly racing the bad guys to find were always back at their house, where Crystal was busy using her powers to destroy them.

Once it is all settled down, though, that racist Quicksilver has a problem with Luke Cage touching him…

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This lead’s to the end of the issue…

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“I’m real proud us blacks finally got a holiday for one of our own”? I know Englehart meant well with this issue, but it really seems a bit patronizing, especially because nothing else in the issue is even ABOUT MLK Day, besides Quicksilver suddenly being a racist moron out of nowhere.

That said, compared to some of the stories I’ve featured in this column, this is pretty darn tame. It’s still ill-conceived, though.

39 Comments

To be fair, Quicksilver’s supposed to be a jerk, that’s his entire character template. Still, a bit weird to go out of their way to replace Luke’s best friend with the one superhero in the Marvel universe you expect to hear crap from about a “controversial” new holiday.

You’d think that they wouldn’t have to mangle Quicksilver’s character this way with Hate Monger and Red Skull running around.

“I’m real glad us blacks got a holiday of our own.” Cripes. That’s patronizing as hell. I’m surprised Englehart didn’t follow that up with “And I’m real glad we got us a Black History Month too, but there should have a White History Month to make it fair.”

Urgh, rather clunky and painfully politically correct 30 years on… On an unrelated subject: good job on selecting and cropping the images relevant to the story instead of just putting up page after page!

One thing never made sense to me about this story- was there a reason Wanda could tell Crystal what the real plan was but not Luke or Vision or Pietro? It didn’t seem like the villain had a way of monitoring their conversations, and if he did, wouldn’t it be possible he “heard” the true plan when Wanda talked to Crystal? Pietro was right in that there was no reason for Wanda to lie to them but Englehart expected us to ignore it because Pietro was a racist jerk.

Really awkward. And not much of an MLK story, as you note. Heck, Luke doesn’t even offer an opinion on MLK (does he admire the guy? Prefer Malcolm X?).

But Tracer, I don’t think sticking Hate Monger or Red Skull in to vent about a holiday for a black guy would have been a better choice. There are a lot of non-Nazi, non-KKK guys who grumble about celebrating MLK Day, just as a lot of people condemned him when he was alive (I read an article once quoting several prominent politicians after his assassination, expressing the view that “Well, when you go around calling for disobedience to the law, it’s not surprising if someone breaks the law and shoots you.”). Though that doesn’t make this story good (Englehart did a better job portraying “nice” anti-mutant bigots earlier in the series).

But Fraser, choosing an Eastern European like Quicksilver for the role also isn’t much better. It plays into liberal stereotypes that the problem with prejudice is those darn backward Eastern Europeans.

The funniest thing about the “I totally have black Inhuman friends!” remark is I don’t think we ever saw Inhumans of color until relatively recently. Well you know what I mean, like actually human skin colors instead of like green and purple and such.

Oof. Steve, ya meant well, but that did not work at all.

Michael –

“liberal stereotypes that the problem with prejudice is those darn backward Eastern Europeans.”

Can you explain it? I never heard of such stereotypes. If there is any liberal stereotype is that liberals blame 5 groups for everything: Christians, Southern whites, capitalists, Republicans, and (for non-Jewish liberals) the State of Israel.

Another liberal stereotype is that they can’t think anything bad about people who come from poor countries, including Eastern European ones.

“Taking new ‘days off’ when CRIME NEVER SLEEPS leads to a weakening of moral fiber”? Did Quicksilver turn into Batman all of a sudden? Certainly, there are superheroes for whom that attitude wouldn’t seem out of place, but… Quicksilver? (Especially at a period when he spent most of his time in Attilan on the moon. Do the Inhumans have a massive crime problem we’ve never been told about?)

(I mean, I could buy that Quicksilver might be dismissive of MLK Day, especially under Englehart, but… “crime never sleeps”?)

“Some of the best Inhumans have dusky skins.” Holy crap!

Nice. Written by a white guy of course. And Luke is the only black person in the entire series except for, if I remember correctly, the guy who dresses like a white ape and the guy who dresses like a voodoo chicken! And a black-haired, white-skinned black woman whose powers derive from hate. This was not a subtle time for Englehart.

Added hilarity is that he couldn’t even say something like, “Some of the best mutants I know…” but instead he has to go for what at that point was literally an alien society he married into that was almost completely divorced from humanity.

@Rene- there’s definitely a tendency to view Eastern Europeans in a similar way to the way Southerners are viewed- backward, and racist. Look at Polish jokes, for example. I admit that Pietro doesn’t completely fit the stereotype, since he’s raised by Gypsies but studies have found that even Germans Jews viewed Eastern European Jews as backward, for example. So I probably shouldn’t have used this as an example, especially since Wanda is portrayed positively.
The real problem is that we’re supposed to be seeing Pietro going evil as a result of the Inhumans treating him as inferior due to being non-Inhuman, Pietro throwing himself into the militia to prove himself and neglecting Crystal and Luna as a result. The problem is, we’re not SHOWN any of this. We have to basically take Crystal’s word for it that this is what’s happening. Pietro’s racism towards blacks has nothing to do with this but that’s what Englehart insists on showing us.

I dunno… Wanda and Pietro’s Eastern European/Gypsy heritage gets brought up every so often in a story, but it’s not like it’s a particularly identifying characteristic for this story. I think it would be different if Pietro talked about skin color in the old country. In short… it doesn’t seem like it was on Englehart’s mind here.

Speaking of Pietro’s bigotry which mainly was focused on his sister marrying Vision and not real minorities… he had his mind scrambled by Moondragon that supposedly made him more enlightened in this regard (176?). Avengers used to be appalled at Pietro’s negative attitude towards his sister’s marriage, but once Vision was dismantled during Byrne’s WCA run the team seemed to just regard Vision as a toaster in retrospect. They were oddly indifferent to a teammate they treated as a human…. only really bugged that it upset Wanda.

With the proviso that many of today’s attempts at “diversity” are going to look painfully dated as well, Englehart always strikes me as particularly – as the catchphrase goes today – tone-deaf on this stuff. Whether it was having a Jewish character call Cage a “schwarze” (soon after it ran he found out this was an insult in Yiddish and apologized for it) or the infamous revelation that the Falcon was a drug-dealing pimp, he seemed like a white liberal trying to prove he was with-it and inadvertently being insulting.

I don’t think Quicksilver saying “dusky” is supposed to make him sound racist, though, just someone who uses archaic English terms. (Writers from Roy Thomas on occasionally played to the idea that Wanda had learned colloquial English and Pietro hadn’t.) Though it’s hard to tell because Englehart clearly wants Pietro to embody all the worst traits he could think of.

Michael –

Yeah, I know that there are stereotypes about Eastern Europeans being backwards and stuff, but I don’t think those are liberal stereotypes. Liberals are terrified of offending anyone from a different culture. If anything Liberals are tolerant to the point of being patronizing sometimes and turning a blind eye to anyone non-white, non-Westerner misbehaving.

Gurkle –

“Though it’s hard to tell because Englehart clearly wants Pietro to embody all the worst traits he could think of.”

I am surprised that Englehart didn’t reveal that Pietro was a child molester that abused Luna. I guess the editors nixed that idea, ’cause the theme was too strong for a superhero comic. But I’d not be surprised if Englehart suggested it.

@Rene- I was thinking of stuff like this:
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/04/opinion/who-invented-fortress-europe.html
I think Eastern Europeans have counted as “white” for several decades, so liberals feel free to stereotype them.
In any case, I regret bringing this up, since the problem is clearly Englehart’s personal conviction that Pietro is an avatar of Mephisto.
Regarding Pietro molesting Luna, we had just a few years before this had a story by Byrne where Pietro considered tossing Luna into the Terrigen Mists even though they might disfigure her, so clearly Pietro as bad father had already been done.

Actually, as someone old enough to have been an adult back in 1983, one of the arguments people, including African Americans, made for the holiday was the need for blacks to have a holiday of their own. The idea was that all the other holidays honored white role models.

Well to be honest, I feel like the whole Vision and Scarlet Witch series was a terrible idea. I mean, the conception of Billy and Tommy is ridiculous, Vision flirtling with Enchantress RIGHT IN FRONT OF WANDA and not even being sorry about it is in bad taste…and of course the complete character assassination of Pietro and Crystal.
This particular issue really goes out of its way to make Pietro detestable (and to the people who say Pietro always was a jerk, you need to read the early 1960s stuff where the “jerk” of the Avengers was clearly Hawkeye. Pietro was perfectly decent, with occasional bouts of cockiness and mistrust. Pietro’s personality problems clearly started when Englehart took over the Avengers)

Isn’t this entire mini series just odd all around?

Vision was really a favorite character of Englehart’s in the 70’s. Always portrayed as the coolest, toughest, and most angst-filled guy in the room… and even though his affection is reflected in this mini-series… can you imagine Claremont moving Wolverine to the burbs, giving him a couple of kids, and removing his angry personality so he’s just like regular folks?

The first Vision/Scarlet Witch mini was amazing. Beautifully written, beautifully drawn, it showcased Wanda’s false father, Vision’s brother, and finally settled that Magneto was Wanda and Pietro’s father (I refuse to accept that it’s been retconned).

The second one? Dear god, what a travesty. I still shudder.

But that first one, by Mantlo and Leonardi… that was amazing.

@ashram12- Pietro being a jerk really started with Thomas around Avengers 45.

Alas- someone should have consulted with Christopher Priest or Dwayne McDuffie about these issues before they came out. Clearly, it didn’t happen.

Jenos— I agree…the first Vision and Scarlet Witch Mini was well done though it ended on a strange note. Magneto is shown as a sympathetic character in line with the reconsideration of his methods from Xmen 150. But in this same mini-series he blows up Bova’s cabin and leaves her to die on a snowy hillside.

@Hypestyle- Dwayne McDuffie wasn’t hired by Marvel for another year-and-a-half, so that would have been difficult.

As Michael points out, Pietro’s jerk-hood began under Thomas, as he became increasingly prickly about how homo sapiens treated homo superior. But no question Englehart cranked it up several notches.

I’d say being Roma trumps the fact the Maximoffs were East European. The Roma have always been judged differently from others, wherever they live (as witness the current discrimination against them in a lot of Eastern Europe). And it’s still possible to get away with stereotypes about thieving Roma in comics (the retcon origin for Ice has a lot of that—Brian spotlighted it in another column) that wouldn’t fly with other minorities. Though I doubt Pietro’s racial attitudes were meant to be anything but Pietro.

Despite its flaws, I really enjoyed the maxi-series, and watching the couple try to start a life for themselves. But yes, it had its share of flaws.

Pietro in the 1960s was not so different from Hawkeye, the Human Torch, the Thing, Iceman, and several other Stan Lee characters that were arrogant and jerkish.

The difference between Pietro and the others is that they all got character development and mellowed out. While with Pietro the opposite happened. He became more of a jerk with each passing decade, and arrogance became his schtick

Y’know, Englehart, when people wish for a white Christmas, they mean *snow*.

Rene, one word immediately springs to mind: Borat.

Rene, I disagree on Pietro. He could be arrogant but he accepted Captain America as a worthy leader early on and was a reliable team player. In contrast, Hawkeye constantly challenged Cap’s authority, ignored instructions and continued to insist he had no need to listen to anyone. As noted above, it wasn’t until the #40s that Pietro began becoming a problem.

Fraser, Pietro was less of a jerk than Hawkeye, but he was at least as much of one as the Human Torch. Cap’s Kooky Quartet had a sort of Fantastic Four vibe. Cap = Reed, Wanda = Sue, Pietro = Johnny, Clint = Ben.

Warren –

Borat and also the stuff on the link Michael posted are 21st century manifestations.

The Eastern European countries are now capitalist and a part of the European Union. I think that explains why liberal snobs in England and France feel free to say “Hey kid, you’re one of us now, so don’t screw up!” The same reason why Israel is criticized by Liberals: they’re seen as an outpost of the West.

But Englehart was writing in the 1980s. If Borat were made in the 1980s, he would have been a lovable weirdo without the offensive stuff, probably played by Robin Williams.

Anyway, I agree with Michael that Englehart was demonizing Pietro in particular, not Eastern Europeans.

Even by 70s/80s Luke Cage standards, that black dialect is awful. What’s strange is I read Englehart’s Cage in the 70s and I swear he handled the black dialect better then than he did in the 80s strangely enough. WTF?

Rene,

No, I think the Human Torch was worse than Pietro—always hot-headed, refusing to listen to reason, frequently wrong.

Most criticism of Israel I see is about specific policies: treatment of the Palestinians, restrictions on women to accommodate the ultra-Orthodox, etc. (and yes, Arab countries’ treatment of women gets condemned too). So I don’t think it’s just them being “an outpost of the west.”

Fraser –

I don’t know which was worse. Pietro was far more over-protective of his sister, for instance, and prone to get angry with anyone looking at her. I may be confrating him with later depictions, it’s been more than a year since I last read those, but a quick google search has Pietro calling Cap’s shield an “oversized trash can lid” and implying that Cap is far less formidable without it. Pietro was very much a member of Stan Lee’s arrogant/brash/hothead characters.

As for Israel… I think the Left in the 21st century has a real problem criticizing Arab countries. There is a fear of appearing racist or imperialist, or giving ammunition to right-wingers who are very much into the Clash of Civilizations lunacy. There is a bit of that “if Conservatives are saying this stuff, then we can’t say it too”, the Left is quick to equate any criticism of Muslims as Islamophobic. It’s the mirror image of some in the Right being quick to call Anti-Semitism when any criticism of Israel is made. With Israel, I think the criticism from the Left is far more free and vehement, because they don’t see Israelis as oppressed.

I read this miniseries back when it was published and it was kind of weird back then too. I also always laughed at the Scarlett Witch’s pregnancy period costume. It’s like they wanted to keep it as same as it was before but then they decided to throw in the odd expandable front piece.

Rene, I think the problem may be that the left stretches to include a lot of groups with different agendas. There’s no shortage of feminists criticizing sexism of the various Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia. Human rights groups have criticized both israel and the Arab states (and lots of other countries) for their policies. When you get to liberals who are actually in national politics, criticism of Our Friend Saudi Arabia becomes much more muted, ditto Israel.

T. –

Englehart lost a lot of his writting mojo in the 1980s. But I suppose a lot of it is that white guys usually write black characters better when the black character is the protagonist, instead of the guest star contrasted to white protagonists.

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