Longtime observers of American pop culture will have noticed by now that the storytelling geniuses at some comic book companies seem to have an overriding obsession.
No, it's not the tortured hero whose powers come as more of a burden than a joy. Nor is it the alienated protagonist whose freakish powers (say sociologists) represent the way that the teenage comic-book reader sees his or her own suddenly-estranged pubescent body: the boy who wakes up and finds himself a clumsy, chubby, enraged Hulk; the girl who suddenly (like Sue Storm) feels invisible.
To be sure, all of those are recurrent tropes in Marvel Comics' many influential series, which helped revive the stagnant superhero-comic industry in the 1960s, went on to influence a generation of filmmakers and writers (from Buffy creator Joss Whedon to Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon and literary heavyweight Jonathan Lethem), and conquered Hollywood with the mega-successful X-Men, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and Iron Man films. (And Howard the Duck--but let's not mention that.)
But what's really weird is the obsession with cigars.
Think about it: there's Spider-Man's choleric, Morton Downeyesque, stogie-chomping editor J. Jonah Jameson, who, while conducting an editorial anti-Spider Man crusade, unknowingly employs the webslinger (in the guise of his alter ego, nerdy Peter Parker) as a photographer.
Then there's General Harold Ross, the corrupt militaristic nemesis of the Incredible Hulk. Complicating things, Gen. Ross is also the father of the Hulk's unfortunately-named love interest, Betty Ross. (Does she sit around knitting flags in her spare time?)
Gen. Ross's cigar fetish didn't escape notice during the summer of 2008, when the story of the Hulk was brought to the silver screen. These are anti-smoking times in many ways, and anti-smoking groups raised a minor furor over The Incredible Hulk's true-to-the-comics, cigar-intensive portrayal of Ross. Critics called for the film's PG-13 rating to be raised to an R on this basis alone.
But it isn't only Marvel's villains and heavies who can't seem to leave a good cigar alone. Wolverine, of the mutant-superhero team the X-Men, has often been portrayed smoking a thick cigar, as has Ben Grimm, the (literally) rock-ribbed tough guy who fights crime with the Fantastic Four under the unflattering name The Thing. Tony Stark, AKA Iron Man, smokes a cigar occasionally, as does his archenemy Obadiah Stane. The list seems to go on and on.
Why the persistent use of a cigar to characterize a hero--or villain? Comic book artists have only so many penstrokes to work with on each page in making the heroes not only fascinating, larger-than-life, but also (if possible) adding depth. Cigars wouldn't show up so often in Marvel characters' mouths if they didn't mean something.
In this case, the comic creators seem to be banking on two different, and somewhat contradictory, associations that have attached themselves to cigars in American visual media--in advertising, TV, film, and especially in the history of the cartoon.
On the one hand, cigars have long symbolized (excessive) wealth and power, as in the many early-twentieth-century Progressive Era editorial cartoons that depict wealthy capitalists lighting their fat cigars with $100 bills. Ever since those days, we've often pictured cigars as the luxury of choice for fat cats, Godfathers, and the influential, and so they end up in the mouths of the Hulk's comic characters, General Ross and J. Jonah Jameson--powerful men who (unlike Spidey and the Hulk) neither deserve nor make good use of their own power.
But cigars have also long been associated with the bohemian, free-thinking life, with the person who puts craftsmanship and good taste ahead of social respectability. The free-spirited, existentialist smoker. (See Hollywood in the 1940s, passim.) For this reason, such anti-authoritarian heroes as Wolverine and the Thing take up cigar smoking, lighting the symbols of their disobedience in the faces of the world's General Rosses.
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