Before Spider-Man: Homecoming stuns you with its John Hughesian teen banter, take a moment to appreciate a character who won’t be popping up to spit rapidfire phrases like “vigilante,” “public menace,” and “What do you want, a raise? Get outta here!” around his cigar stump.
I’m just stating a fact here: J Jonah Jameson is Marvel’s greatest supporting character, whether in print and on film. J.K. Simmons stole all three Sam Rami Spider-Man movies with his barking portrayal of a character ripped straight out of 1960s-era Stan Lee and Steve Ditko comics. I could seriously watch this guy all day.
But why is newspaper editor J Jonah Jameson the world’s most loveably hatable deluded reactionary authority figure? What makes the character so larger than life?
Probably the fact that he’s pulled straight out of real life. Headline: J Jonah’s relationship to Spider-Man is a not-so-subtle encapsulation of the rocky history of censorship in mid-century comic books.
To explain, let’s flash back to the early 1950s, where the concept of a “teenager” is still fresh, and cold war paranoia is brewing. All that fear had to go somewhere, and comic books took the fall.
If you’ve ever heard about the backlash against the supposed promotion of occult witchcraft in nerd staples like Dungeons and Dragons in the ’80s and Harry Potter in the ’90s, then you already know the rough trajectory the public opinion of comic books followed in the ’50s. Plenty of comics at the time were packed with sexy damsels, shady drugrunners, and the decaying corpses of those they’d betrayed coming to exact revenge from beyond the grave. The case against comics—one worn threadbare by many a book banner since—argued that this content would corrupt the impressionable teens reading them. And no one argued louder than the sociologist Frederic Wertham.
The title of Dr. Wertham’s 1954 anti-comics diatribe says it all: Seduction of the Innocent. He painted a lurid picture of innocent school kids brainwashed into delinquency.
The American heartland clutched its collective pearls. Comic books picked up a long-lasting stigma that impacted the imaginations of even the greatest science fiction authors of the age: Octavia Butler grew up reading comic books in secret. After all, she said, they were supposed to “rot your mind.”
By 1955, the industry needed to create the self-censoring Comics Code Authority in order to survive. Ridiculous rules like a blanket ban on the words “terror” or “horror” in the title on a comic book cover led to the rapid death of comics publishers like EC Comics (the publisher that inspired horror greats from George Romero to Stephen King) but boosted the three publishers that remain in power to this day: Marvel, DC, and Archie.
The massive shakeup was mirrored in the creation of Marvel’s biggest superhero ever, Spider-man. Peter Parker was the first teenager to be a superhero rather than a sidekick, and he appealed to the very demographic Wertham had tried to protect. Teenagers were hungry for a relatable role model, and Spider-man was a smash hit. His boss at the newspaper where he worked as a photographer, J. Jonah Jameson, appeared in 1963, in the very first issue of Amazing Spider-Man, as a now-classic character in any teen coming-of-age story: the misguided authority figure.
J. Jonah immediately latched on to Spider-man for a weirdly specific reason: he feared the young hero’s violent actions would lead children to idolize him, and they’d get themselves hurt in the process. “He is a bad influence on our youngsters” is a direct quote from page five of Amazing Spider-Man #1, and a direct summation of Wertham’s views. The parallels get stronger from there: while Wertham compared superheroes to the “Nazi myth” of the Ubermensch, J Jonah contrasted Spider-man against his own son, all-American astronaut John Jameson. Wertham called for comic censorship, and J. Jonah called for Spider-Man to be “outlawed.”
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But J. Jonah Jameson’s favorite insult, repeated over and over, from his first appearance on the page to his film debut, is the most obvious reference to the Wertham upheaval: he really, really loves the phrase “menace!” So did Wertham. In Amazing Spider-Man #4, J. Jonah runs a series titled “The Spider-Man Menace!” Wertham ran the lecture series “Comic books: the menace to American childhood.” And the title of the short-lived comic book horror anthology Stan Lee edited in 1954? Menace.
In my knowledge, Stan Lee has never publicly admitted to creating J. Jonah to lampoon Wertham, but I’m far from alone in making the accusation. As far as I’m concerned, every “menace” that escapes J. Jonah Jameson’s lips is a direct rebuttal to the attitudes that shut down Lee’s Menace.
The parallel between Dr. Wertham and J. Jonah was further crystallized in 2013, when researching professor Carol Tilley examined the book behind the CCA, Seduction of the Innocent, and found Wertham had “manipulated, overstated, compromised, and fabricated evidence.” She told The New York Times she considered Wertham to have gotten, “carried away with his own preconceptions.” A more succinct summation of J. Jonah’s core character traits would be tough to write. Six decades after the fact, it’s official: Wertham was just as big a fraud as J. Jonah.
I hope J. Jonah will appear to rail against Spider-Man in future MCU films—hopefully reprised by J.K. Simmons (No, I don’t care that Simmons is now Commissioner Gordon; I need Simmons playing J. Jonah the same way the newsman needs fresh pictures of Spider-Man).
J. Jonah is an essential part of the Spider-Man mythos. Dr. Wertham’s biggest sin was to bowdlerize the literal sex and violence in comics, rather than examine what they communicated to readers. By sticking a version of Wertham into Spider-man comics, Lee gave comic fans a heads-up on the misguided, self-righteous authority figures they could expect to deal with in real life.
Wertham never rid the world of sex and violence by censoring comics. But by adding a little unfairness to the pages of their stories, Lee and Ditko did manage to capture a little reality—and create one of the most vibrant supporting characters in superhero history.
Spider-Man is a menace!