Now at the end of the last one of these I said, since Vietnam is coming into the story now let’s find out what Stan Lee actually thought about the Vietnam War. And that’s the thing, that information is kinda hard to find. There’s an extent to which Lee has sort of I guess been a bit lionized over the years and plenty people think he was labelled more of a progressive than he really was. But I think he was progressive for his era, it’s just that that doesn’t always mean, “was good.” It means… well, it means they were progressive in the original sense of the word and that’s that. So that Washington Post article linked to there, here’s the cached version which isn’t behind a paywall, it says,
In the midst of the antiestablishment riots of 1968, he convened a panel for a failed talk-show pilot in which he repeatedly denounced radicalism; asserted that Black people needed to respect the law; and said the Vietnam War may have been immoral, but had to continue for the greater good.
But we don’t have any direct quotes from this so it’s still hard to pin down his exact opinion on the war and those fighting it. Now on this Marvel site I found this quote from Lee:
Now it’s important that you bear in mind that this yarn [Iron Man] 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 dragons. 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 in Indochina.
And these comics we’re talking about here were written in 1967. Enough time for Lee to have grown up post-Iron Man I guess. And in the Stan’s Soapbox columns he apparently expressed hopes the troops would come home. Do any of the characters in these issues serve as his mouthpiece re Vietnam then? Does Harry? Well, let’s find out.
Here’s issue #44, where Harry and MJ meet for the first time. This one little scene and everything within it is going to have massive ripples throughout the Spidermanverse, many of which continue to this day, for better or worse. (Usually worse, let’s be honest.)
Harry is friendly here and Flash is…Flash, as has been the case for the past 4 or so issues. But the spectre of Vietnam is hanging over all this.
On to #45. Awww, all the boys have colour-coordinated their outfits, that’s nice.
Here we begin a long, nice tradition of Harry being super generous dude frequently prone to giving out jobs and, as we’ll see in a minute, apartments. Yes this lasted into the ’00s comics which I was always glad about, it’s a very intrinsic part of his character.
Now Harry appears to be dating MJ, or at least getting close to her. The first days of the Harry/MJ romance are actually something I don’t think ever got delved into that much in later comics, despite all the potential for great character moments there. The 1963 audience didn’t know it at this point and possibly neither did Stan Lee, but both are abused and damaged children frantically putting on masks.
This one little panel here sows the seeds for so much stuff that happens later. But more on that (and more on how even to this day MJ and her perceived shallowness is blamed for Harry’s downward spiral) in the future.
Now we’re in #46 and Harry has now secured Peter a job offer and a free apartment. Nice. Their friendship is cemented by this point, as you can tell, and it took under 15 issues! God I miss the much, much faster pace of Old Comics.
The gang exchange some wonderful 60s slang and plan a going-away party for Flash. “He’s the first one of the crowd to be drafted,” Harry says. But that makes me wonder, and bearing in mind that this is an era I know very little about except what I got via cultural osmosis… Did Harry and Peter expect to get draft notices too?
So, time to cram my brain with information about the draft system. The draft lottery didn’t start til 1969, so going back from that… If you were in full-time education, as Harry and Flash and Peter all are here, you didn’t necessarily have to serve… if you were a good enough student.
These thousands weren’t selected at random. Instead, the Selective Service System (SSS) instituted a system of academic evaluation under which local draft boards would defer students based on intellectual ability. This ability was determined by two factors: class rank, and score on a national aptitude test known as the Selective Service Qualification Test. Undergraduates with a high class rank, or a test score above a certain cutoff, were draft-exempt. Everyone else could be sent to the front.From here
So I suppose the implication in these Spider-Man comics is that Flash wasn’t a good enough student to avoid military service. Peter as a science genius I guess probably would have been. (Remember this panel from last issue?)
But Harry… was Harry a fortunate son?
“It ain’t me, I ain’t me, I ain’t no millionaires’ son…”
But Harry probably was. Norman’s exact wealth wasn’t actually stated in the early days I think, but it’s safe to assume he’s pretty dang rich. And, says the New York Times (surprisingly one of the sources of Vietnam War draft info not outright blocked or paywalled in the UK, christ I hate the modern-day Internet)-
It was no coincidence that those men who already fit the middle-class mold of domestic masculinity — those men who were college students or teachers or scientists — received deferments.
It was a very classist, racist system. I feel like writing anything more along the lines of “So how did Spider-Man and his best friend avoid the draft?” trivializes that in a way, so we’ll be back to business in a minute.
Now comics-wise Spider-Man: Life Story tackled Vietnam quite a bit, but due to the Marvel sliding timeline Vietnam just doesn’t factor into the Spider-Man story anymore. Flash didn’t fight, Iron Man wasn’t there. And I sort of think that’s a shame, and one of the reasons I have very conflicting feelings about ongoing comics as a medium. If you’re going to tackle very real, very bad things that happened in real life you should commit to them, you know?
So back to Harry. For whatever reason you want to have in your head – his status as a student, his father’s wealth, something else (it actually feels pretty in character, at least eventually, for him to be an objector?) – he’s not going to Vietnam and neither is Peter.
But of course, even that one specific part of the story is far from done.