Comics Are Politics: What Color is Your Cape?

Spider-Man, Barack Obama

My apologies if there’s some repetition in this article that’s been covered by my esteemed colleague, Daniel K., in his article, but the history major in me just won’t let sleeping dogs lie. A professor I worked with in college once told a group of freshmen that everything is political. In many ways, I’m inclined to agree. And it’s not just party association or the books you put on your shelves to display when company comes over. Everything from the clothes you wear, to the food you buy, and even the television shows you watch can be considered a political act. And it’s not a fluke that politics goes hand-in-hand with consumerism. Why? Because consumerism is one of the most overt political actions a person can perform. For those in the states, think Boston Tea Party. That’s at least one of the most well-known acts of consumer politics, but it definitely wouldn’t be the last. Sometimes we fight with guns, other times we fight with our wallets.

The point is that comic books are a product to be purchased, one that has been part and parcel of the political atmosphere since its very inception. You cannot separate comic books from politics because comic books ARE politics. Comic books are not created in a vacuum, they are a product of their time and the people who create them. It’s when we try to rationalize that the two are separate that we run into trouble. No matter which character, no matter what era, you can trace comics back to one particular group that’s always at the center of the political sphere: the children. Cue Helen Lovejoy…now!

The “stigma” that comic books are for kids remains to this day because comic books did start as compilations of cartoon comic strips as well as illustrated pulp stories marketed towards children. For a nickel, a kid could buy stories about detectives, horror, action, romance, westerns, etc. It was pure escapism and considering the political, social, and economic climate of the 1930s, escapism was welcome by all. Enter Superman (Action Comics #1, 1939), champion of the common man, the immigrant, and the embodiment of American values all wrapped up in Superman Appeals to the Judgea strongman’s uniform and a cape. As Daniel pointed out, Superman’s early adventures were not cosmic, but societal. Superman battled gang bosses, slum lords, pretty much anyone who tried to take advantage of common, decent folk. He was a shining beacon of hope in the ugly world inhabited by the readers.

The popularity of Superman and fellow heroes like Batman (Detective Comics #27, 1940) and Wonder Woman (All Star Comics #8, 1941) among children made them the primary method of crafting political messages, rallying the heroes behind the war effort and thus encouraging little Johnny or Jane Q. Reader to buy war bonds, plant liberty gardens, and collect metal for the soldiers fighting for their freedom overseas. At the same time, comics were being sent in care packages to soldiers during WWII, giving them a slice of home where Superman was pummeling Nazis and dropping Hitler off at the United Nations while they were fighting the same fight on the battlefield. Never before or since were politics and comics so easily united.

Then Seduction of the Innocent happened. If you really want a good example of how children, politics, and comics are intertwined, then here’s your evidence. Written by “Dr.” Fredric Wertham and published in 1954, Seduction of the Innocent was a product of the post-war period when the subject of juvenile delinquency was seen as a serious problem that needed a solution. Rather than look at urban sprawl, economic disparity, or rapid social change, Wertham decided to blame comic books for corrupting the youths with their tales of horror, violence, crime, Comics Code Authoritydrugs, homosexuality, and thoroughly un-American values. We now know that Mr. Wertham was a liar, liar with his pants very much on fire, but, at the time, his supposition and “authority” through “research” presented an easy solution to a far more complicated problem. As a result, Congress instituted the Comics Code Authority designed to censor and regulate what was and was not appropriate for children and teenagers to read. Basically no sex, drugs, or ultra-violence could be depicted and Lord help you if you said anything against the government!

Our champion for freedom of expression in the face of the Comics Code Authority? Marvel Comics and the idea-man himself, Stan Lee. Marvel, in many ways, benefited from being the younger company compared to DC even if many of its creators and editors had been in the industry since the 30s. Marvel didn’t have characters like Superman and Batman who, under the Comics Code Authority, were stripped of their previous social commentary in favor of moralizing rhetoric. Marvel under Lee, editor Martin Goodman, and artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, bucked the system by creating more complex and relatable characters like Spider-Man, the Hulk, and the X-Men who functioned more like the readers. They were also the fortunate benefactors of timing, bringing these characters into the tumultuous world of the 1960s when pretty much every social convention was being questioned and protested, primarily by teens and young adults. The Hulk could still fight the government because the government thought the Hulk was a villain. The X-Men were a direct parallel to the Civil Rights Movement’s differing philosophies in the face of a world hellbent on destroying them for being different.

It wasn’t until 1971, however, when Stan Lee was commissioned to write a story for the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare about the dangers of drug use that the Comics Code finally proved its uselessness. Over a three-issue arc of Amazing Spider-Man (#96-#98), Lee had Spider-Man saving teens from various, un-specified drugs while Harry Osbourne fought his own addiction. Unfortunately, the Comics Code rejected the story and refused to put the stamp of approval on the comic. Irony and the government don’t exactly get along too good, do they? Lee and Goodman, however, decided to make the momentous decision to publish the comic regardless of the stamp, which led to the eventual lifting of the Comics Code when other publishers began submitting stories concerning mature subject matter that was designed to reach the readers rather than talk down to them.

A year prior to Lee’s exploits, Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams over at DC Comics began their infamous run on Green Lantern/Green Arrow, an openly liberal book that resulted in one of the single most re-printed panels in comic book history. By making Hal Jordan the voice of the establishment and Oliver Queen the voice of the marginalized, O’Neil and Adams managed to address a number of social issues that were relevant to the time Green Lantern Green Arrowperiod: corruption, pollution, over-population, cultism, religion, and racism. In referring to the comic and the speech given by a hardened, elderly black man to Green Lantern, O’Neil said:

“My theory was that it was probably too late for my generation, but maybe you get a real smart twelve-year-old and get him thinking about racism…” (Source: Comic Book Heroes: Unmasked, The History Channel, 2003)

O’Neil, while also revitalizing Batman, was inadvertently responsible for the acquisition of Wonder Woman as the ultimate feminist icon. In trying to revamp the character for a modern audience in the 1960s, O’Neil made Wonder Woman into a mod ninja, taking all of her powers away and making her a student under a martial arts master. For women like Gloria Steinem, who’d read Wonder Woman growing up, the idea of stripping the most powerful female superhero of her powers was unconscionable and an insult to female readers and impressionable young girls looking for positive role models in the media. O’Neil admitted his failure to do right by the character later on, but it’s still important to note that he understood the power of comics in the same way that Lee did, in the same way that we all do who are avid readers and fans.

Comics are powerful tools for disseminating ideas, especially among younger readers. It’s the same reason that government officials and the news media attack comics when decisions are made concerning characters that appear to go against the “moral fiber” of American values. When we jump ahead to the current political climate, the same battles are occurring. In the wake of September 11th, comics have taken great leaps forward and several Nightrunnerjumps backward. Gay rights, religious persecution, and the depiction of women in comics are the current hot-button issues that continue to split readership and incite media scrutiny over whether or not comics are “corrupting” the youth. Superman renounces his American citizenship? Scandal! Nightrunner, the “Batman” of Paris, is a Muslim? Islamic agenda! Northstar, the first openly gay character in Marvel Comics, is getting married to his boyfriend? Kate Kane and Renee Montoya are lesbians? Alan Scott, the original Green Lantern, is now gay? Liberal mind-washing!

Are comics inherently liberal? Depends on who you ask and who’s writing the project. While mass appeal is always the goal, separating the writer, the artist, or the editor from the books they work on isn’t always easy. We may praise Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns as the books that made Batman a dark and imposing figure in the 80’s, but Frank Miller has endeared himself to no one by sticking to his Reagan-era, intolerant, sexist, and racist views in works like All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder and Holy Terror! Alan Moore has similarly ping-ponged amongst fans mostly due to his diatribes against adaptations of his work and DC Comics’ cringe-worthy Before Watchmen books, many of which seem to miss the point of Watchmen entirely (but that’s just my bias).

Most recently, the controversy over Orson Scott Card’s involvement in DC’s digital-first Adventures of Superman comics that will use a number of writers and artists to create stand-alone, out-of-continuity stories concerning the Man of Steel. Card, the author of the Enders Saga, is a well-known and outspoken homophobe, which has led to petitions to DC to fire Card from the project as well as prompt many comic book shops to boycott Card’s issues of the comic when they go to print. It’s a particularly perplexing situation given DC’s stance as being gay-friendly, yet hiring a man they had to know would create controversy. Then again, DC is no stranger to courting controversy for the sake of sales, so it should surprise no one that they’re standing behind Card’s involvement while issuing a statement that his personal views in no way reflect that of DC. Nice cop-out. The way I see it, the best thing you can do is protest like so many have before, with your wallet. It’s the best political tool you have in your arsenal and when DC looks at the numbers, they’ll see exactly what their decision to hire Card hath wrought.

DC Gets PoliticalWe’ve also entered an era where comics are capable of being immediate and timely…sort of. In May, DC will be releasing two books, The Green Team by Art Baltazar, Franco, and Ig Guara and The Movement by Gail Simone and Freddie Williams II, that have inklings of the Occupy movement, wikileaks, and Anonymous but are more concerned with the idea of power as a commodity. One viral video posted at the right time can destroy a person’s life or bring to light the shady dealings of corporations, but can the right amount of money stop the dominoes mid-fall? Plus, there are superheroes, so win-win, I say. If anything, these books are the successors to O’Neil and Lee in that they’re concerned with getting the germ of an idea into the minds of readers, asking them to rethink the nature of power and who is truly powerless in this politically charged environment. Will the readers necessarily be children? Maybe, maybe not, but if you get a really smart twelve-year old and you get him or her thinking about equality…

Like my professor said, “Everything is political.” We take a stance just as assuredly as comic books do within their pages. And even if comic books are no longer for kids, though some of them are, there’s an obligation to present them, and us veterans, with a worldview more in line with a mosaic – pieces of ideas, the parts of a greater whole that, when you step back, presents a thing of beauty. That’s where my money goes. I want to be challenged, I want to think, and I want my superheroes to do the same.

About the author

Samantha Cross

Sam is a self-described "sponge for information" soaking up little tidbits here and there that make her the perfect partner on pub trivia night! Hailing from the beautiful Pacific Northwest, she indulges her nerdy and geeky qualities by hanging out at the local comic book shop, reading anything she can find, and voicing her opinion whether you welcome it or not. An archivist and historian, she will research any and all things and will throw down if you want to quote Monty Python, Mel Brooks, or The Simpsons!

1 Comment

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  • Brava! Brava!

    Ive noticed a lot of conservative writers tend to get a ton of criticism compared to their liberal counterparts but I have a feeling why: they make the heroes act in a way that isn’t…well…heroic! Case in point: Frank Miller and his hateful POS Holy Terror. (Not to mention forgetting how to write Batman in regards to TDKSA and ASBARTBW, And I noticed certain hyper conservative bits in the animated TDKR)

    Many liberal and conservative writers write without injecting their politics (I love Chuck Dixon’s writing. His politics? Not so much.). Its HOW they inject it that can either make or break the story.

    Which is why I loved how writers and artists, from all sides politically, took Miller to task

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