"You Cannot Defeat the Supreme Soviets!": Soviet Transformations in Marvel Comics
für das Themenportal Caricature & Comic
The Supreme Soviets were the main governing bodies of the USSR and its constituent republics. Those American teens who read Marvel Comics in the late 1980s, however, encountered the term in a different context. The Supreme Soviets was the name of a team of Soviet superhumans in the service of the government. Looking at the representation of Soviet superheroes and the USSR in general in the comics of 1989 and 1992, this blog entry explores how the intricate late Cold War politics was interpreted for a young adult audience.
Both Marvel Comics and DC, the largest superhero comic book publishers, have introduced a large array of Soviet characters, ranging from Cosmo the Space Dog to Soviet Superman. Until recently, however, Soviet characters remained rather marginal, with the exception of the KGB-trained spy Natasha Romanoff (aka the Black Widow), who is played by Scarlett Johansson in the multibillion-dollar film franchise. There seems, however, to be a resurging interest in Soviet characters, perhaps, owing to the current state of global affairs. In 2020, together with the introduction of the Red Guardian, the Soviet and post-Soviet counterpart of Captain America, in the Black Widow film, the Soviet iteration of Superman will appear in the animated film Superman: Red Son. Whereas the former has a post-socialist setting, the latter takes place during the Cold War.
The Soviet Red Guardian and the Crimson Dynamo appeared in Marvel comics already in the 1960s. Since then, these and other Soviet characters (which often had multiple people performing the same role) had been included in numerous comic books, and made prominent appearances during the Soviet and post-Soviet transformations of the late 1980s–early 1990s. This blog will discuss two comic books, which were set in the USSR.
The cover of Captain America #353 (May 1989), authored by Mark Gruenwald, Kieron Dwyer, and Al Milgrom, introduced the Supreme Soviets, a pro-government team of heroes, which pursued another team, the Soviet Super-Soldiers. The latter team, consisting of Vanguard, Darkstar, and Ursa Major, was introduced earlier, in Incredible Hulk #258 (April 1981). In the 1989 story, which spanned across Captain America #352–354, the Soviet Super-Soldiers were pursued for their defection from the USSR to the USA. The story followed the Cold War tropes, seen in other popular media, and appeared uninformed of or disinterested in the Perestroika’s democratic reforms, which had been taking place since 1988.
Captain America #353 dealt with the aftermath of a supposed Soviet attack on the Soviet Super-Soldiers, who had previously requested political asylum in the USA. The supposed Soviet attack, which left the members of the team in a near-death state, was a reference to the confirmed assassinations of emigrants and defectors, which Soviet agents had carried out abroad, for instance, those of Leon Trotsky (1940), Walter Krivitsky (1941), and Abdurrahman Fatalibeyli (1954).
The simultaneous reception of Captain America in the USSR engaged with further Cold War motifs, including those of the hypocritical official talks, especially during the period of Détente, and of the collegial Soviet ruling bodies. The applauding leaders seem to include Mikhail Gorbachev, but he is not singled out specifically.
Despite offering the cooperation of the Avengers, however, Captain America’s ulterior motive of coming to the USSR was again representative of Cold War politics and its clandestine aspects, since he planned to find out if the attack on the Soviet Super-Soldiers was “officially sanctioned and undertaken by Soviet agents.” Captain America considered the possible motives of the Soviet authorities: the defectors might have revealed intelligence and generated negative publicity.
During his stay, Captain America was surveilled, as was common for foreign visitors, and, after he engaged in fighting a mysterious monster, he was assigned a liaison officer. The Red Guardian, who took the position, and Captain America had a stereotypical tour around Moscow. Just like other foreign visitors, Captain America was taken to the Red Square, but expressed his desire to see how common people lived.
The walk was interrupted by the same mysterious monster, and the American and Soviet superheroes fought it. The image of the Red Guardian and Captain America fighting side by side is symmetric and displays official symbols, which is reminiscent of the images of the US–Soviet joint space flight of the Apollo–Soyuz Test Project of 1975. Visually, the Red Guardian is very similar to Captain America.
In a later sequence, the renewed attack of the same monster made the Soviet authority, which has a stereotypically lengthy bureaucratic name of the “Directorate of the Special Powers Committee,” order the engagement of the full team of the Supreme Soviets, thus revealing their existence to Captain America. The team included Fantasia, who had surveilled Captain America earlier in the story, Perun, Sputnik, and Crimson Dynamo.
Just like the Red Guardian, who was a direct counterpart of Captain America, some of the other Soviet characters were localized versions of the better-known Marvel characters. Perun, for instance, used the name of the Slavic god of thunder, had a “thunder axe,” and was referred to as the “Lord of the Storm,” which made him a local version of Thor. Crimson Dynamo was in many ways a Soviet version of the Iron Man. Sputnik, an android, is similar to Vision. Fantasia, a sorceress, may be compared to the Scarlet Witch (who herself comes from a fictional Eastern European country).
The mysterious monster turned out to be produced by the consciousnesses of the Soviet Super-Soldiers, who sought to restore their own lives by draining the Supreme Soviets of their “life force.” Although the Soviet Super-Soldiers revealed that it was indeed the Supreme Soviets who almost killed them in the USA, Captain America defended the pro-government team, invoking their right to life. Captain America succeeded in saving the Supreme Soviets, but the Soviet Super-Soldiers also made a recovery. The comic concluded with Captain America’s moral victory. In practice, it could be interpreted as teaching both the superhero’s code and, more generally, the human rights to the Soviet characters.
The continuation of the story of the Soviet superhumans got a detailed treatment in Soviet Super Soldiers #1 (November 1992), authored by Fabian Nicieza, Angel Medina, Javier Saltares, and Jeff Albrecht.
Just like in the case of the 1989 comics, the 1992 one seemed to lag behind the developments in the USSR but did engage with the Soviet context in much more detail. Disregarding the changes, the USSR in the comic book (which is a prequel to several other comics) continued to exist in Cold War politics. The story nevertheless became more complex from social and political standpoints.
Vanguard, Darkstar, and Ursa Major, who were discussed as mutants, had been extradited back to the USSR. The three were taken to a research facility in Siberia, the ultimate carceral space of both the Russian Empire and the USSR. They were nevertheless promptly broken out by another group of mutants, who introduced themselves as Sibercat, the Iron Curtain, Mentac, and Concussion. The story revealed the existence of a mutant underground in the USSR, while the liberation of Vanguard, Darkstar, and Ursa Major was celebrated as a symbol of freedom for mutants and humans alike.
In this respect the mutant underground might be seen as a reference to the dissident movement and the opposition to the Soviet regime in general. It might also appeal to the broader topic of racism, especially since the mutant characters had numerous similarities to the X-Men characters, who had occasionally faced persecution in the USA as well.
The Soviet officials sent an assassin, Firefox, on their trail. He succeeded in defeating the mutants, but most of the group managed to escape from their hideout in Ukraine and proceed to a new hideout in Novosibirsk. It was revealed that the mutant underground had faced systematic persecution but nevertheless managed to survive.
The Supreme Soviets in the meantime continued to fight the opponents of the Soviet state, but nevertheless made ironic comments about the government.
Dealing with their story, the comic explored the ideas of misinformation and propaganda under the Soviet regime. The enemy they fought was either environmental activists or foreign saboteurs, who targeted a nuclear facility in Vyborg. In this respect, the comic reminded about the controversies of the USSR nuclear program. The fight scene also features a Soviet pop-culture reference, evoking the cartoon Nu pogodi! (a vernacular version of Tom and Jerry).
The Crimson Dynamo had then been sent to the USA on a mission to retrieve the remains of the Titanium Man, a Soviet supervillain, which led to a fight in Brooklyn after the latter was revived. It was revealed that a group of Soviet officials under Valentin Shatalov plotted to discredit the Crimson Dynamo (Dimitri Bukharin). The Crimson Dynamo’s mission indeed ended in a press campaign against him.
The rest of the Supreme Soviets fought Unicorn, a supervillain from a government program also overseen by Shatalov, in Leningrad. Unicorn was captured and taken to the Siberian research facility. His examination, which revealed a third eye, was accompanied by a comment on the suppressed religiosity in the USSR.
In the meantime, the members of the mutant underground had again been located by the government forces, but they managed to repel the attack led by Firefox. It turned out that Shatalov and Firefox supported hardline conservative policies and intended to make the USSR a Stalinist state again, with the latter supposedly even arguing for a mutant genocide. This plot referenced the conservative opposition to both Gorbachev and, later, Boris Yeltsin, which included Neo-Stalinists. In order to carry out his plan of reviving the Stalinist policies, Shatalov (as the new Crimson Dynamo who got the suit from Bukharin) united Unicorn, Firefox, and the Titanium Man into a hardline group, Remont 4 (“Reconstruction”). The authors hence played with the language of the Perestroika (also “Reconstruction” or “Restructuring”), with the villain group hoping for a different kind of restructuring.
The idea of dealing with the Soviet past and present was prominently featured in the comic’s conclusion. Perun got new weapons instead of his destroyed axe, a hammer and a sickle. At the same time, his organization, the Supreme Soviets (which still included Bukharin with a new alter ego of Airstrike), was renamed the People’s Protectorate to avoid any association with the crumbling government system.
Vanguard, then part of the mutant underground, by contrast tore the Soviet insignia out from his costume. Together with other mutants, he vowed to fight back against the oppressors. Appealing to the “winds of change,” sweeping through the USSR, the former Soviet Super-Soldiers established a new team of Vanguard, Darkstar, Sibercat, Ursa Major, and Stencil and declared their goal as “the unilateral and unequivocal overthrow of the Soviet socialist government.” The new group became known as the Siberforce.
The story of Soviet and post-Soviet superhumans was not continued as a standalone comic series, but the conflict was resolved in other Marvel titles. The continuity between the USSR and Russia was implied when some of the former Soviet superheroes, both pro-government and oppositional, united into the new state-backed team, the Winter Guard. In 2010, the new organization was featured in a three-part Darkstar & the Winter Guard, including the Red Guardian, Fantasia, Crimson Dynamo, and Ursa Major. As for Remont 4, it was later abandoned when President Yeltzin came to power.
Dr. Ivan Sablin leads the Research Group “Entangled Parliamentarisms: Constitutional Practices in Russia, Ukraine, China and Mongolia, 1905–2005,” sponsored by the European Research Council (ERC). His research interests include the history of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, the history of parliamentarism, and global intellectual history.
All images are courtesy of Marvel Comics. The author used multiple Wikipedia and Marvel Fandom Wiki entries for additional details on specific characters and comic book plots.