Limited Engagement:
The Super Powers in Vietnam

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2013, Volume 12, Issue 2
http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/fall_2013/vizzini.htm

 

Bryan E. Vizzini
West Texas A & M University


In a dramatic departure from the early 1940s, when comic books routinely featured a veritable pantheon of superheroes fighting the Nazis and Japanese, Marvel and DC from 1962 to 1974 together featured a total of six superhero stories set in Vietnam. Said Southeast Asian stories notwithstanding, the war proved to be a bit more common in Marvel titles, often showing up through indirect references to student movements or anti-war protests, though in at least one case (Spiderman 108, May 1972) the war came to America when Vietcong assassins targeted Spiderman's friend Flash Thompson, recently returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam (Wright 222). 

Particularly striking, publishers like Marvel were hardly shy when it came to incorporating the real world, in this case the Cold War world, into their stories. Indeed, as Matthew J. Costello has demonstrated, Marvel's superhero offerings from the 1960s themselves were products of, and responses to, the Cold War. The Fantastic Four's ill-fated trip into space, for example, was the result of rushing to beat the Soviets into space. The gamma bomb that transformed Bruce Banner into the Hulk similarly was just another step, albeit a fictional one, along a path already clearly defined in the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Villains like the Abomination (a Soviet spy exposed to gamma rays), the Crimson Dynamo, and Titanium Man (the latter two also Soviets), for their parts, helped to translate the global ideological struggle to the pages of the comic book medium. 

Tales of Suspense, starring Iron Man, notably featured a host of Cold War plots and villains, including the aforementioned Crimson Dynamo and Titanium Man, as well as lesser villains like the Scarecrow (a Cuban revolutionary) and the Black Widow, a Soviet agent prior to joining The Avengers. Iron Man's origins, moreover, lay in Southeast Asia. 

Tony Stark first appears in Tales of Suspense 39 (March 1963), serving as a defense contractor for U.S. troops and their South Vietnamese (ARVN) allies. A Vietcong booby-trap leaves Stark nearly dead, with lethal shrapnel inching ever closer to his heart, and in the captivity of Wong Chu, a Vietcong warlord noted for his cruelty and love of wrestling. When Wong Chu learns of his captive's identity, he offers to save his life in exchange for Stark producing weapons for the Vietcong. Stark shrewdly plays along, knowing full well that if Wong Chu were capable of saving him, he already would have done so. The deal struck, Stark locks himself away in a VC laboratory, ostensibly to produce weapons for Wong Chu, but in reality to construct the suit of armor with which he subsequently will be identified. 

With the aid of an elderly Vietnamese scientist named Professor Yinsen, Stark constructs a suit of transistor-powered armor capable both of preventing the shrapnel from reaching his heart and of ensuring Wong Chu's defeat. In a scene straight out of an old Universal horror film, Stark lies encased in his armor as electricity flows into the machinery, then takes his first tentative steps even as Wong Chu's soldiers gun down the elderly Yinsen. In short order, Stark bests Wong Chu in hand-to-hand combat, then puts on a display of American technological wizardry, using transistor-charged magnets to strip the soldiers of their weapons before utilizing the armor's oil pump and an acetylene torch to blow up the ammunition depot. At which point, Stark walks off into the distance, presumably to ponder his future.

In terms of political or military verisimilitude, Iron Man's debut completely (and not unexpectedly) fails the test, substituting a Manichean conflict between good and evil, much more reminiscent of America's battles versus the Axis powers in World War II, for  any meaningful discussion of what was happening in Vietnam and why. Marvel explains the presence of the Americans, and Stark, in classic containment terms. Just as the U.S. first provided financial and material support to anti-communist factions in post-war Greece and Turkey, it now employs the so-called Truman Doctrine to do the same for the South Vietnamese. The former colony's torturous history, its struggle for independence, and South Vietnam's failure to abide by the conditions of the 1954 Geneva Accords are all notable merely for their absence. Stark sums up the comic's grossly oversimplified reasoning quite nicely when he reflects that Wong Chu is merely "a heartless man of evil who is about to pay for his misdeeds!" (Lieber 10). That Wong Chu pays the price thanks to American technological superiority is part of an increasingly familiar narrative that readers likely never thought to question.

If Marvel, or in this case editor Stan Lee and writer Larry Lieber, saw the Vietnam War through a similar lens as they did World War II and Korea, why then did they set no additional Iron Man stories in Vietnam for more than a decade? In 1975, Lee reflected:

Now it's important that you bear in mind that this yarn was written in 1963, at a time when most of us genuinely felt that the conflict in that tortured land really was a simple matter of good versus evil and that the American military action against the Viet Cong was tantamount to St. George's battle against the dragon. Since that time, of course, we've all grown up a bit, we've realized that life isn't quite so simple, and we've been trying to extricate ourselves from the tragic entanglement of Indochina. (Son 45)


In Lee and Leiber's defense, Iron Man's origin story appeared months before South Vietnamese President Diem's overthrow and assassination, and at a time when the Kennedy administration, publicly at least, offered high praise for the war effort and had even begun to discuss the prospect of shrinking the U.S. presence in Vietnam. Less than six months after the story's appearance on newsstands, the picture in Southeast Asia was proving to be far less clear and far more grim (Olsen and Roberts 92-100).

Captain America's January 1965 appearance in Vietnam came hot on the heels of a contentious presidential election campaign between President Lyndon Johnson and Republican candidate Barry Goldwater and a summer of intensifying conflict that had culminated with the August Tonkin Gulf Incident and Resolution. Cap's trip in many respects mirrored President Johnson's decision to deploy nearly 185,000 U.S. troops to South Vietnam. After all, if America were going to war, would not its patriotic supersoldier be part of the effort?

The first few pages alone proved that Stan Lee and, in this case, Jack Kirby had not yet completely disabused themselves of the kinds of assumptions Lee noted above. Quite the opposite -- the recent deployment of marines to South Vietnam seems to have emboldened Lee and Kirby with respect to how they saw the conflict subsequently playing out. 

The comic opens with Cap inexplicably surrendering to uniformed Viet Cong, several of whom appear to be holding German Lugers. He then accompanies the troops to a military compound where he is pitted against an enormous, muscle-bound, bald-headed Viet Cong. After dispatching his opponent in short order, Cap finds himself in an unnamed Vietnamese city, where, surrounded by uniformed soldiers, he attempts to rescue American P.O.W. Jim Baker. The Viet Cong general, an enormous sumo wrestler, temporarily puts a stop to Cap's rescue efforts, pointing out, "I am twice your size!  Three times your weight!" As Cap employs combat judo to best his much larger opponent, he responds, "Size and weight can be great assets -- but look what a little leverage can do!" Just two pages later, Cap and Jim Baker are en route to freedom on a stolen VC aircraft.

Like Iron Man's debut story, Captain America's Vietnam adventure made no effort to understand Southeast Asia's political realities. The story was another effort in which the central conflict or tension never developed beyond a simple us versus them dynamic. Unlike the Iron Man story, though, which featured a similar share of omissions, Lee and Kirby's latest tale was rife with sins of commission, beginning with the Viet Cong themselves.

The Viet Cong, as opposed to the NVA (North Vietnamese Army), were guerrilla fighters, whose strength lay in their ability to pass unnoticed among other Vietnamese. They typically did not wear uniforms, as such a distinguishing feature would rob them of their greatest assets -- surprise and anonymity. While both NVA and VC units fought in the war, Lee and Kirby conflate the two, with the end result being a more conventional (and consistently so) opponent than that which U.S. soldiers in fact faced. The presence of German weapons reaffirms the tale's World War II underpinnings and assumptions as does the appearance of enormous muscle-bound soldiers and sumo wrestlers. 

Finally, American exceptionalism is on full display as a time honored substitute for strategy and/or understanding. Lee and Kirby treat Cap's lack of knowledge with regards to Baker's whereabouts, and the absence of any plan should he find the soldier, as minor details. As Cap himself makes abundantly clear, there is simply no substitute for American know-how and resourcefulness, the combination of which allow him to beat the sumo at his own game. Still, the editorial leadership at Marvel hardly rushed readers back to Vietnam. Captain America's next appearance in Southeast Asia would not occur until 1970, Cap spending the bulk of the interlude fighting his World War II nemesis the Red Skull. 

In June 1965, Lee and Kirby set one final story, this one featuring the Mighty Thor, in Vietnam before taking a several year hiatus from tales set in Southeast Asia. Like both the Iron Man and Captain America comics discussed above, Thor may have ventured to Vietnam, but it was a Vietnam that many servicemen would have had difficulty recognizing. 

The tale begins on a familiar note, Thor competing against his evil half-brother Loki in a test of wits and abilities. When Thor discovers that Loki is using a bag of magic stones to cheat his way to victory, Odin grants the thunder god twenty-four hours to recover the stones lest his charges be dismissed as unfounded. Over the course of the next several pages, Thor travels across the globe in search of the magic stones, eventually passing over South Vietnam and coming under fire from a VC anti-aircraft battery. Brought to earth, Thor makes short work of a uniformed squad of Viet Cong firing World War II era weapons, before himself being knocked out by mortar fire. When Thor comes to, he finds himself in a nearby village. Despite the need to move on and complete his search, Thor remains after learning of the guerrillas' "evil," and of the villagers' belief that "Buddha has answered our prayers," sending [Thor], "to destroy the guerrillas" (Lee, Journey 117).

Thor defeats the guerrillas but not before their leader, Hu Sak, begins to execute Vietnamese hostages with what appears to be a German Luger, apparently the bad guy weapon of choice. When Thor confronts Hu Sak, the latter experiences a change of heart, reflecting, "It was communism that made me what I am -- that shaped me into a brutal, unthinking instrument of destruction!  To communism, then -- may it vanish from the face of the earth and the memory of mankind!" (Lee, Journey 117).

Like Iron Man and Captain America before him, Thor combats an enemy whose motivations are rendered in terms little more complex than evil for evil's sake, and who operates in the manner of a conventional army, one the weapons and uniforms of which clearly hearken back to those of the Germans and Japanese in World War II. Similarly, Thor has little difficulty mopping up the enemy and, in a departure from his aforementioned counterparts, even convincing him of the error of his ways. A little ingenuity, along with superior military technology and the inherent righteousness of the American cause, Lee and Kirby seem to suggest, and the enemy will soon submit. Perhaps Lee and Kirby envisioned a future in which the Vietnamese guerrillas, like the Japanese, eventually would renounce their militarism and embrace Western values. If so, they were sadly mistaken, as these were not the Japanese and this was not the Second World War.

Marvel's writers clearly preferred the narrative safety of World War II to the chaos and uncertainty of Vietnam. Sergeant Fury's August 1967 Annual is a case in point. Nearly four years after Iron Man's Vietnam debut, Gary Friedrich and Dick Ayers brought World War II hero Fury and his Howling Commandoes into the modern era for a single issue. While the resulting story is rife with the kinds of narrative assumptions that plagued earlier such forays, Friedrich and Ayers reflect a sharper understanding of the kind of combat that Americans faced. The story opens with Fury under attack from two members of the National Liberation Army (the official name of the Viet Cong) who spring their trap from so-called spider holes. Granted, Fury's use of judo to defeat his opponents reeks of now familiar cliche, but at least Friedrich and Ayers understand the differences between the conventional warfare of World War II and Korea on the one hand and the guerrilla insurgency in Vietnam on the other. The brief moment of realism, though, quickly passes.

The story cuts to a flashback of Colonel Nick Fury, serving in his modern capacity as the head of S.H.I.E.L.D., agreeing to lead the Howlers on a mission deep inside North Vietnam, which is building a hydrogen bomb. As the president of the United States explains, "The future of this country...and of the world rests in your hands" (Friedrich and Ayers 4). Reunited with the Howlers, Colonel Fury leads his team first to South Vietnam, where they briefly encounter the Viet Cong before setting off upon a mission that clearly draws its inspiration more from the wartime thrillers of Alistair MacLean (The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare) than the realities of Vietnam. 

In full scuba gear, Fury and company arrive at their destination in Haiphong via river, at which point, in an act that demands far more than the usual suspension of disbelief, they proceed to disguise themselves as Vietnamese. They then infiltrate the secret weapons factory, battling North Vietnamese Army regulars en route to their destination, North Vietnam's own hydrogen bomb, which they proceed to destroy. Of course, the story demands still more action (it is a double-length annual after all), in the form of the Howlers' capture and subsequent escape, all of which is par for the proverbial course for readers familiar with Fury's comic book escapades. The tale ends in success for the gritty Howlers, who escape the carnage virtually unscathed. 

What makes the Fury adventure particularly noteworthy is the ease (and speed) with which Friedrich and Ayres abandon the chaos and realities of guerrilla warfare (something absent from the abovementioned stories) in favor of a plot drawn straight from the colonel's fictional WWII past. While the war they depicted might have proven to be unrecognizable to Americans serving there, their readers likely found it reassuringly familiar, albeit perhaps disconcerting since by 1967 most Americans found themselves inundated with conflicting images and commentary about the war. If readers (and writers) in 1963 or early 1965 had little knowledge or understanding of the conflict in Vietnam, this was not the case in late 1967, shortly after General Westmoreland had made a long-awaited appearance in Washington, D.C. to discuss the conduct and course of the war. 

When fans of Marvel's superheroes next found themselves transported to Vietnam, in the January 1968 issue of Daredevil, the war remained in the distant backdrop. Indeed, in this particular outing (like the Spiderman issue cited earlier) the war serves merely as a plot device. 

The story opens at a U.S. military base in South Vietnam, where GIs have gathered to see Daredevil in action, and it is told from the perspective of Sam, a recently wounded African-American soldier whose head injuries will lead to blindness. Midway through the performance, Sam loses his eyesight permanently, becomes disoriented and ends up back at the base hospital, where he receives a surprise visit from none other than Daredevil. In the course of their discussion, Daredevil commends Sam, whose injuries stemmed from having gone after an enemy grenade tossed in the midst of his squad. "At least you didn't lose your sight in vain," Daredevil points out. "You managed to save the lives of your entire squad." "Yeah," Sam responds, "I'm sure to get me a nice shiny medal -- when they send me back -- to nowhere!" (Lee 7). The stage is now set for a far more traditional tale to take place stateside, one revolving around Sam's efforts to come to grips with his blindness. Vietnam and the war disappear completely after writer Stan Lee and artist Gene Colan return Sam, and Daredevil, to the states. 

Marvel's very sparing use of Vietnam as a set piece for super powered exploits fast was coming to a close. The sheer ignorance and naivete on display in the earlier adventures (Iron Man's 1963 origin story, along with the 1965 episodes featuring Captain America and Thor) gave way to tales that deliberately, and in hindsight rather obviously, adopted the narrative conventions and assumptions of earlier wars (all on full display in the 1967 Sergeant Fury Annual.) By 1968, Marvel had begun its own process of Vietnamization or disengagement, the war now serving as little more than a plot contrivance, responsible for the blinding of Sam, or the threat of retaliation against Spiderman's high-school friend Flash Thompson. But what of DC's stable of superheroes?

Marvel's chief competitor, DC had avoided the mere mention of Vietnam in both its superhero and war comic lines, no mean feat at a time when war coverage and protests increasingly filled the news. Like Marvel, this evasion had not always been the case. 

During World War II, Direct Comics' Superman waged many a battle against America's enemies, as did newcomer Wonder Woman. Moreover, like Marvel's Captain America, they wore their patriotism on their proverbial sleeves, Superman standing for "truth, justice, and the American way," and Wonder Woman decked out in red, white, and blue. The fun, though, was just beginning. To the mix, Direct Comics added Uncle Sam, the Star Spangled Kid, and a host of other "B" team heroes who went on to comprise the Seven Soldiers of Victory. Twenty years later, DC's heroes were nowhere to be found, at least if one were looking in Southeast Asia. 

In May of 1969, with the Tet Offensive a year in the past and with the United States already beginning to draw down its troop levels in Vietnam, DC finally weighed in on the war. Superman 216 finds newspaperman Clark Kent surreptitiously reading letters to the Daily Planet's editors. "I don't have to open the notes to read their contents," Kent states, "My x-ray vision tells me they're all the same...complaints against Superman for not helping the troops in Vietnam" (Kanigher 4). The letters are especially damning since the Viet Cong have just created their own superhuman soldier -- a veritable giant of a man, capable of upending tanks and deflecting bullets -- and are using him to good effect. 

Kent subsequently gets editor Perry White's permission to cover the war in Vietnam as an embedded reporter or, in this case, as a medic since Kent abhors killing. For several pages, Kent's powers get a workout of a different sort as he struggles to prevent army doctors from discovering his true identity during a routine physical. The real action, though, is just around the corner, as Viet Cong anti-aircraft fire strikes Kent's plane. The Man of Steel saves the plane and its occupants without blowing his secret identity, then switches to his more familiar garb as the downed soldiers come under intense enemy fire.

Superman first uses his super speed to dig a series of trenches for the besieged troops, then, having provided some cover, turns his attention to destroying the incoming barrage of artillery shells. Finally, he steps into the foreground to confront a line of approaching enemy tanks. As one soldier points out, Superman is "the only anti-tank power we have" (Kanigher 9). 

After a dazzling display of heat vision destroys the enemy tanks, Clark reassumes his civilian identity and begins acting in the capacity of medic. Wounded soldiers and shell-shock victims fill out the panels of the next several pages, leading the man of steel eventually to a Vietnamese orphanage where he reunites with fellow reporter Lois Lane, who has just helped the kids finish a life-size drawing of Superman. "Their one wish," she explains, "is to meet him" (Kanigher 14). The second half of the issue focuses on Superman's pending battle with the super-soldier, who U.S. troops have nicknamed "King Cong," now revealed as the brainwashed son of an American general. 

Having avoided the war entirely for the better part of the decade, Superman's lone foray into Vietnam suggests that the writers of the Man of Steel's 1969 adventure had little more willingness than their counterparts at Marvel to provide an even quasi-realistic setting for embedded reporter Clark Kent. Tanks, heavy artillery, uniformed soldiers, and a super-soldier menace reflected more the fears and anxieties of conventional, as opposed to guerrilla, war. The Vietnamese children's love of Superman, the quintessential symbol of all things American, for its part, was little more than a subtle statement of American exceptionalism. Not as insulting to the reader's intelligence, granted, as Hu Sak's belated conversion in Thor's 1965 Vietnam escapade, but striking nonetheless. 

Captain America's 1970 return to the battlefields of Vietnam marked the last time that any of the major comic book publishers would set a superhero comic against the backdrop of Southeast Asia while the war still raged. A marked departure from previous outings in Vietnam, Captain America 125 takes a decidedly less propagandistic tone, one that suggests the various combatants are themselves merely pawns of those who profit from war. The story revolves around Cap's efforts to find and rescue Dr. Robert Hoskins, a "peacemaker" who helps the sick and wounded on both sides. As Cap reflects, the doctor is "a fighter for peace in a land at war.  A healer, amidst the carnage and the pain!  If he isn't found, then both sides may use his disappearance as an excuse to intensify the fighting!" (Lee, Captain 4). In this case, it is the Mandarin, descendent of Genghis Khan, who is responsible for escalating hostilities in order to eliminate both East and West from the field of battle so that he might rule. 

While the U.S. had reduced troop levels from 475,200 in 1969 to 334,600 in 1970 as part of President Nixon's Vietnamization plan, Cap's later reference to the combatants as the North and South Vietnamese, with no mention of U.S. troops and/or involvement, suggests that any earlier jingoism had long since faded (Olsen and Roberts 292). The goal of peace with honor, or American disengagement, had superseded the earlier objective of stopping the fall of "dominoes" in Southeast Asia. Gone, too, was the image of the beloved American (most recently noted in Superman's foray to Vietnam). As Cap concluded after a rapid-fire succession of violent encounters, "It was a mistake to wear my costume!  It stands out like a beacon here" (Lee, Captain 11). Finally, in noting that "My biggest problem is...I don't really know the terrain," Cap began putting to rest the fiction that American exceptionalism alone would suffice in bringing an end to the hostilities and realities of guerrilla warfare (Lee 11). Perhaps most telling is Cap's concluding soliloquy:

Now that both sides realize they were duped by the Mandarin, they can face each other at the peace table again. As for me, I've nothing to fact but...tomorrow!...And all the tomorrows to come...with nothing but loneliness...and strife...and the knowledge that, one day, even Captain America must surely face defeat! (Lee 20)

In the end, the notion that a beloved physician's disappearance might escalate the war proved no less mind-boggling than the stalling of negotiations in 1969 over the shape of the table at which the various factions would sit, or the slowly dawning realization that Captain America (as a proxy and symbol of the U.S.) was in no way sure of emerging victorious from Southeast Asia (Herring 217-219). Still, while the issue marked a clear departure from earlier Vietnam ventures, other longstanding perceptions and beliefs remained well entrenched.

Casting the Mandarin as the cause of the heightened fighting, for example, was not nearly so random a choice as present day readers might imagine. A late twentieth-century version of the seemingly ageless Yellow Peril (perhaps best exemplified by author Sax Rohmer's nefarious Fu Manchu) the Mandarin's role symbolized China's part in the Vietnam War, or rather what Americans believed to be China's role.

In hindsight, North Vietnam's acceptance of Chinese military aid was a case of expediency at its finest. The Vietnamese had waged centuries of conflict against their powerful, often imperialist, Northern neighbor and, in fact, would go to war against China once again in 1979, just four years after South Vietnam fell to communist troops (Herring 269-272). That China provided military and logistical support to the North Vietnamese remained a given; less certain, despite U.S. protestations to the contrary, was the belief that the war in Vietnam was but an opening gambit that would allow China to topple the various "dominoes" that comprised the region. Indeed, even ten years later few doubted the warnings that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had included in his 1964 report to President Johnson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff that Laos, Cambodia, Burma, India, even Indonesia, Japan, and the Philippines were at risk (Olsen and Roberts 110). In short, pitching the Mandarin as the source of chaos in Southeast Asia proved to be little more than a restating of the assumptions underlying America's containment policy.

In conclusion, neither Marvel nor DC showed much interest in the war overseas. Even in the early 1960s, when U.S. troop deployments remained limited and public support of containment in Southeast Asia remained fairly strong, the industry stalwarts shied away from the subject. That they chose to return very briefly to the battlefields of Vietnam in the aftermath of the 1968 Tet Offensive, when public support had virtually disappeared, was puzzling. So, too, was the apparent failure to take advantage of how much more the public (and presumably the publishers) now knew of the guerrilla conflict half a world away. Regardless of their publication dates, the relatively few issues devoted to Vietnam offered virtually no criticism (nor realism) with respect to events unfolding half a world away. Rather, comic book readers could expect to find the same platitudes, assumptions, and misperceptions driving national policy at the highest levels.


Works Cited

Costello, Matthew J.  Secret Identity Crisis:  Comic Books and the Unmasking of Cold War America.  New York:  Continuum International Publishing, 2009.

Friedrich, Gary and Nick Ayers. Sargeant Fury Annual. New York: Marvel, 1967.

Herring, George C.  America's Longest War:  the United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1979.

Kanigher, Robert. Spiderman 108. New York: Marvel, 1972.

---. Superman 216. New York: Marvel, 1969.

Lee, Stan. Captain America 125. New York: Marvel,

---. Daredevil 47. New York: Marvel, 1968.

---. Journey into Mystery 117. New York: Marvel, 1965.

---. Son of Origins of Marvel Comics.  New York:  Simon and Schuster, 1975.

Lieber, Larry. Tales of Suspense 39. New York: Marvel, 1963.

Olsen, James S. and Randy Roberts.  Where the Domino Fell:  America and Vietnam, 1945-2006.  Maplecrest, NY:  Brandywine Press, 2006. 

Wright, Bradford W. Comic Book Nation:  The Transformation of Youth Culture in America.  Baltimore, MD:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

 
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