Hank McCoy (Before the Fur)

You ever notice that comics were, for a really long time…


And sexist?

Or, er, at the very least- political commentary of the propaganda-sort?

Well to be fair, Marvel and DC were always a little bit ahead of their time. Lois Lane didn’t exactly embody the most stereotypically feminine traits (progressive, for the thirties, I think). And Marvel always had a knack for showing you just how complicated issues like war and prejudice really are. Still, somewherebetween the titanic masterpiece of X-Men’s social commentary and Cap shouting things like ‘Take that, Gerry!’, Marvel evened out as, well, much like they are today, really. Kind of like 'we’re just stating the issues, discuss amongst yourselves' kind of thing.

Still, a couple of bits and pieces got through that just weren’t right. Take Radioactive Man.

No, not the Simpsons’ version (you dork!).

One of Thor’s long-time villains, Radioactive Man, despite EASILY being one of the most powerful superhumans in the Marvel Universe, has never exactly been the threat that you kind of imagined he would be. A Chinese nuclear physicist from the People’s Republic of China, Chen Lu willingly exposed himself to a lethal dose of radiation. The goal was to find a way to stop Thor, who at the time, was singlehandedly threatening the Marvel Universe’s China’s plans to invade India (I’m not making this up.)


So, COMMUNIST-Chinese guy, got a big dose of NUCLEAR ENERGY so that he could help invade FOEIRGN COUNTRIES. Laying it on a little thick, huh, Stan? I mean I know it was 1963 and it was a different time. But…

Yeah, as far as embodying bad ethnic stereotypes, Radioactive Man isn’t exactly going to winning any cultural sensitivity awards. The fact that he always seemed to speak like a generic stooge and seemed like a bumbling idiot, despite being a physicist and controlling one of the most terrifying powers in all of Marvel-616, wasn’t exactly ramping the character up for greatness. NOW here’s the thing.

It’s a great time, in the history of comics (and-the world- I think) for diversity. I like to think that all those X-Men comics paid off and taught somebody, somewhere, something. And I think a lot of those culturally insensitive mistakes are getting reclaimed. And I kind of have a secret love for that process, really. It’s like Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne. For years, Hank ran around saying things like ‘Oh Jan! You silly GIRL! When will you ever learn!?’ So what do the writers do with a relationship like this?

WELL…You make it what it IS, I think.

Hank and Jan had a terrible marriage (as indicated by every outraged fan’s angry letters to the writers and illustrators of Marvel comics). It was abusive and dominating in every sense of the word, culminating in a re-telling of their marriage coming to actual, physical blows. It was PAINFUL. But it made sense. So- Radioactive Man. Now, my favorite anti-hero figure in the entire Marvel U., suddenly in the last five years Chen has received more character development than he did in FIFTY. And what has that entailed?

Well, to begin with Chen’s powers are off the frickin’-wall dangerous! I mean, it's RADIATION that we’re talking about. The kind of isolation that he’s experienced, walking around knowing that he’s a living reactor of the kind of energy that most people fear the entire world will get wiped out with at the press of some lunatic’s button? No, it isn’t an easy life. Of course, the icing on the cake is Osborn insisting that Chen wear a radiation suit. Not because he needs to but because it will put people at ease. OH- and, in Osborn’s words, it will cover up Chen’s ‘clearly Asian features’.

Thunderbolts is filled with little, sick, ignorant bits like this. I mean, when you’ve got a team headed up by open racists like Baron Zemo and psychopaths like Norman Osborn- you’ve got to expect it, right? But that’s why I LOVE Thunderbolts because somewhere out there, in the history of America, stuff like this has happened. And I think Thunderbolts makes you wonder- has the world become a better place? Or have we just gotten a lot savvier about giving the public what they expect? Racism is off-camera these days. Everyone knows that diversity is synonymous with sensitive, but do we really seek to understand each other, or does diversity just get boiled down to a sound bite to help whatever television show or press event look good?

Part of where this is all coming from is my fascination with Thunderbolts a comic that I think is all about this kind of "greasing the wheels" politics. Originally I conceived as Thunderbolts as kind of a filler comic that Marvel threw together at the last minute to stand in for the Avengers during the whole Onslaught/Heroes Reborn business (which was risky, but I give them some credit for going there even if they reneged). After all, the comic is LITERALLY about the Avengers replacements; they just happened to be a bunch of opportunistic former Avengers enemies who saw a chance to ingratiate themselves with the general public and took it.

But it’s become such a great book about…politics, I think? And some of the dirty, not so enlightened things that the American media, military, and people are capable of? The Thunderbolts are not exactly the pony show that the reality television public get exposed to by their exploits. They’re hardened, violent criminals who Osborn is teaching to ‘work’ the system. STILL there’s that COUPLE who you see some potential in, you know? And therein lies the brilliance of the comic:

Songbird, Swordsman (now deceased, alas) and Chen, of course…you’ve seen them want more. Want to do better with their lives and maybe become those heroes that they’ve been pretending to be? Sure, they’ve got shady pasts, but maybe they could really BE the heroes that they’re playing at? Now, long story short- Radioactive Man. I’m thinking limited series, with him in the star role? Anyone else see the potential here?