I've been really enjoying the new season of Collective Action Comics, a new-ish podcast that closely examines superhero comics from a radical leftist perspective. While the first season looked at DC Comics' Justice League International storyline from the late 80s, Season 2 explores a comic book that's much closer to my own heart: The Ultimates, Marvel's re-imagined version of the Avengers from the turn of the millennium. Written by Mark Millar with art by Bryan Hitch, the smash-hit Ultimates would go on to serve as a major blueprint for the Marvel Cinematic Universe version of the Avengers — all the way down to the introduction of a new version of Nick Fury specifically drawn to look like Samuel L. Jackson.
The first issue of The Ultimates came out in March 2002, and remains a fascinating cultural icon of those early days of the War on Terror. These superheroes are government-sanctioned and jingoistic. Captain America, for example, is no longer this idealist, inspirational icon, but your typical hard-ass "Greatest Generation" grandpa, completely with all the bigotry, waking up abruptly in a post-9/11 world.
Reading The Ultimates as a fledging teenage punk rock nerd, it was clear to me at the time that writer Mark Millar (a Scot, curiously, and not an American) was trying to satirize the machismo of Bush-era hawkishness. But something about the book never sat right with me back then … and as an adult, I can look back and see how Millar's send-up gleefully embraced the very same tropes it claimed to be criticizing.
And it's in this contradiction where Collective Action Comics does its best work. Each episode of the podcast focuses on a different issue of the comic, keenly analyzing its role in the immediate cultural context, as well as the ways in which the story reflects the broader, uglier history of US Imperialism. I typically like to think of myself as being pretty informed when it comes to US national security issues, but I've genuinely learned so much from listening to Collective Action Comics. Host Nat Yonce has a clear and unabashed love for the superhero genre, and he brings that passion and deep understanding to his discussions … even as he points out just how much fucked up propaganda fits inside those 4-colored pages. He draws fascinating parallels between seemingly-throwaway lines on the page and the real-life horrors of the US military industrial complex — connections that are simultaneously direct and accidental, as if Millar bumbled his way into an allegory that he never even knew about.
Basically: if you like the idea of super heroes, and you're fascinated by Anarcho-Marxist-type cultural analyses, Collective Action Comics should absolutely be at the top of your podcast streaming list.
Image via YouTube