Steve Englehart has no clear recollection of inventing the suicide bomber.
“Two factors come into play to limit what I can give you here,” he writes in response to my e-mail. “The story’s over 30 year[s] old, and, it was, as noted, not one of the AVENGERS stories that’s garnered a lot of attention in those 30+ years, so whatever memories I may have have not been jogged much in the interim.”
The story in question appeared in Avengers 113, dated July 1973 and titled “And Your Young Men Shall Slay Visions,” during Englehart’s lengthy stint as scripter on what was then Marvel Comics’ flagship superhero team. (The now-wildly popular X-Men were then obscure.) Given Englehart’s workload in those days, it’s not in itself surprising that a single issue of a single title should slip his mind.
Between my own thirty-year-old memories and Englehart’s official gallery of every comic he ever wrote, I estimate him as writing five comic issues a month in 1973, and that’s probably missing one or two. Such a workload is rare in today’s comic book industry, where writers get royalties, titles are fewer and an order of magnitude more expensive, and stories are written with an eye toward paperback reprint collections.
This pace was common back in the mid-seventies, but Englehart’s work stood out. His books were popular. In addition to solid story values and a palpable fondness for his protagonists, he specialized in earnest social commentary and the kind of Asian-inflected mysticism that would in after years go by the trade name New Age.
Just as Steve Englehart wrote a lot of comics that faded from memory, I’ve read a lot of comics that faded from memory. But Avengers 113 stayed with me for thirty years, because of its villains, the Living Bombs.
The story opens with two superheroes, the Scarlet Witch and the Vision, kissing in public. Because the latter is an android, bigots fear the romance will legitimize artificial intelligences and lead to the eventual displacement of humanity by synthetic beings. Some protest. A small number determine to kill the Vision before things can proceed any further.
The problem is that he is a tremendously powerful android with super-powered friends and they are fleshy civilians who can’t even spell very well, as we learn from the hate mail Captain America opens. Their solution is direct, ruthless and, as it turned out, eerily prescient: They strap explosives to themselves and go boom.
They also, in a fashion lapse, choose to detonate their explosives with plunger-helmets, so the visual effect is unfortunately silly. But the idea itself was chilling as a story then, and chilling as reality now. Even the rhetoric echoes: The Living Bombs specifically refer to themselves as “martyrs.”
The comics of the time were full of stories “torn,” screamed their covers, “from today’s headlines!” But Avengers 113 was something different. Suicide bombings were not common features of real life back in 1973. Terrorists tried to get away. There had always been suicide operations in wartime, however ad hoc, finally systematized in Japan’s kamikaze program. But there is a qualitative difference between flying a plane into a warship during a battle and walking up to someone on the street and blowing you both up. In 1973, suicide bombing as we know it existed purely in the imagination of a comic book writer. The real world waited until 1980 for the Tamil Tigers to use it as a terror tactic.
I’m not stupid enough to waste effort trying to find out if some Sri Lankan kid paged through Avengers 113 and grew up to put his reading into practice. Save that blind alley for some latter-day Frederick Wertham. I was more interested in whether Englehart was drawing on some concrete real-world example that had somehow escaped notice.
“The reason for doing it,” he responds, ” — fanaticism great enough to die for — is a trait of human nature that I’ve long been aware of, having come of consciousness during Vietnam and the various political assassinations, when passions ran higher in America than they do today…My feeling is, it was my simple attempt to provide superhero-level power for non-super people.”
The writer, that is, was engaged in the same sort of gruesome problem-solving that must have animated the real-life authors of the coming atrocities: How can we damage our much more powerful opponent? Was the Englehart of 1973 aware of the Viet Minh “death volunteers” who obliterated themselves along with the barbed-wire fortifications around Dien Bien Phu? Were the Tamil Tigers of 1980? If so, who inspired the Viet Minh? Who turned a traditional tactic of desperation into a system?
The answer, I think, is that it doesn’t matter who. Suicide-murder will present itself as the logical solution to anyone who values the destruction of something else more than his own life. That it provides the perpetrator with momentary “superhero-level power,” in Englehart’s words, terrifies us.
We assuage our terror by pretending to find insanity in the killer, and the people behind him. But we only mean that suicide-killers are insane who aren’t going after the bad guys. We root for the suicide mission of the Dirty Dozen to succeed. And, not to violate Godwin’s law or anything, but, in 1944, Klaus Schenk von Stauffenberg left a briefcase bomb near the Führer during a military briefing. Too much of the heavy oak table got between Hitler and the blast. Had Stauffenberg detonated the briefcase while shaking Hitler’s hand, making sure of the kill at the cost of his own life, who would be demented enough to hold him up as an example of German culture’s “deep disregard for life?”
The historian Gerhard Weinberg pointed out that Japan’s kamikaze program was a rational response to the country’s inability to train qualified pilots. By late in the war, the average new bomber pilot died on his first mission anyway. The Divine Wind was simply a way to salvage something from that death.
The despicable thing about the Hamas shahid is not that he kills himself, but that he kills restaurant-goers and bus passengers. The targets make him evil. The method simply makes him powerful, for the terrible moment of his conflagration. Super-powerful, as Steve Englehart understood 31 years ago. We can only trust that his understanding ran even deeper: in the end the Living Bombs lost.