20th Century Men brilliantly flips the Cold War on its head, with superheroes

20th Century Men is a sprawling new alternate history comic book series from Deniz Camp and S. Morian. The official synopsis gives you a vague idea of what you're in for:

At the end of the 20th Century, superheroes, geniuses, madmen and activists rush towards WWIII! A Soviet "iron" hero; a super-powered American President; an insane cyborg soldier; an Afghan woman hellbent on building a better life for her people―these strange yet familiar beings collide in a story that mixes history, politics, and comic book mythology into something totally new. Welcome to 20th CENTURY MEN, where the edges of our reality and fiction touch, overlap…and then explode.

…but none of that quite prepares for the multilayered narrative that unfolds within the pages of the book (the first 5 issues of which are currently available, with the trade paperback collection due in April). This isn't just a "What if superheroes fought in the Cold War?!" power fantasy story (although it's not not that, either). It's a brilliant deconstruction of Empire, told through a delightful pastiche of American superheroes and Soviet propaganda — and all of which centers the experiences of the Middle Easterners caught in the middle.

While the story of 20th Century Men covers the entire century, the main forward thrust of the story involves the Soviet-Afghan War in the 1980s. Except, in this world, the US President is basically Captain America, who did plenty of Horrible Things during the War, including nuclear tests that created a monster not unlike the Hulk. The superhero allusions aren't limited to the US, either; the main Soviet protagonist is a man in a giant iron suit, who has a certain sense of sympathy for the people of Afghanistan despite the fact that he is literally an enforcement machine for Imperialism. Sound familiar?

But again, 20th Century Men isn't just a "What if superheroes were real and also horrible people?" story. That's been done before. And Camp and Morian clearly know that. The deconstruction of that trope is but one of the many storytelling tools they use in the nesting narratives of this book to look at the full scope of a century that has been largely defined as a struggle between two industrialized empires. There are propaganda posters; there are prose recreations of government documents and private diaries alike. There are of course epic battle scenes involving super soldiers. But where the book really shines is in the nuanced ways in which it depicts the role of news media and capital in the conflict between the US and the Soviet Union. This is perhaps most brilliantly on display in issue #4, which takes a sort of "found documentary" approach to depicting a brutal battle. Camp and Morian juxtapose visuals of the bloody conflict in action with narrative captions from various journalists and historians reflecting or reporting on the events. But each of these recollections has its own unique blindspots regarding the actual horrors of war that we see playing out before our eyes. It's a visceral, heartbreaking way of dramatizing the idea of history being written by the victors — how even the most well-intentioned journalist or historian can still find themself turned in an unwitting pawn to perpetuate the narrative of their respective empire.

Because despite what all that US Cold War propaganda taught us believe, there's really not much difference between empires. Camp and Morian know this. They understand that any alleged ideological difference between US Imperialism and Soviet Imperialism is mostly just window dressing. But that both sides were so convinced of their propaganda of that narrative that they simply could not let any other socioeconomic options exist beyond their binaries. An Anarcho-communist community thriving in the mountains of Afghanistan, for example, without relying on capital or statist industrialization? No empire worth its weight in blood could allow for such a thing, regardless of that empire's underlying ideology. 20th Century Men uses its multi-pronged narrative recursion to demonstrate these ideas deftly.

Come to 20th Century Men for the alternate history super-soldiers. Stay with nested narratives that spill out into scathing indictments of war and imperialism in whatever forms they manifest. (As you read, I would also advise checking the brilliant academic analyses that Sean Dillon and Ritesh Babu have been doing on the book for ComicsXF. They do it so much more justice than I could ever hope.)

20th Century Men [Deniz Camp and S. Morian / Image Comics]