Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Politics and Comic Books

Darin Wagner of Bleeding Cool wonders if liberalism is hurting comic books. Albert Arthur has more thoughts on this.

Personally I think that overt references to current politics should be avoided in comic books. It seems dumb to alienate half of your customer base. But it is nothing new.

One big irony about superheroes is that they are inherently conservative. Simply owning a handgun in New York City can get you a minimum two-year sentence but most superheroes heroes operate outside the law and have powers and weapons far more dangerous than any gun. Some heroes operate within the law. These are usually groups like the Avengers or the JLA. Many of the most popular heroes are outside the law.

In his first couple of appearances, Superman was very much a vigilante. Among other things, he drove a corrupt Congressman out of town.

The Human Torch started out as a menace but quickly joined the NYPD and fought the Sub-Mariner who was an early terrorist.

Most other heroes were fighting crime out of a moral responsibility.

After World War II broke out, there were no more heroes with questionable motivations. They were pro-America. Many comic books became little more than propaganda with Nazis and Japanese looking less than human.

Most superhero comics were cancelled at the end of the war, replaced with crime and horror comics. I don't remember much bias in any of those or in the early DC Silver Age comics.

Stan Lee insists that he is apolitical but most of the early Marvel heroes spent a lot of time fighting communists. All of the original Avengers, individually and as a team fought communists at least a few times. The Hulk and Iron Man were accidentally created by communists. Henry Pym's first wife was killed by communists. The Black Widow was threatened with the death of her parents (who were later retconned out of existence) if she defected. Moreover, communists were represented as treacherous, always planning on eliminating each other.

These stories were printed during the height of the Cold War and communists were an easy target. After the first few years, Stan stopped using communists as catch-all villains. By the late 1960s, the main messages that Stan promoted were wholesome - anti-drug and anti-racism.

During the 1960s, Stan Lee and Roy Thomas wrote most of the Marvel comics. In the early 1970s, Stan eased out of writing and a new crop of writers appeared. Many of these did have strong ideologies. Message stories began appearing. She-Hulk did an anti-power line story. Iron Man did an anti-evolution story. Howard the Duck had an anti-nuclear story that was so strident that the writer (Bill Mantlo) was taken off of the comic.

In addition to message stories, certain themes crept into Marvel. Steve Gerber used Howard the Duck and the Guardians of the Galaxy to criticize modern civilization. In one episode, the Guardians of the Galaxy happened on a planet just like 20th century Earth except populated with a variety of alien species. It turned out that this was an insane asylum and the patients had been allowed to create any civilization they wanted.

When Iron Man was created, Tony Stark made weapons for the US government. This was handy since it made him a target for communists. By the late 60s, he was out of munitions and trying to atone for his past by dating an anti-war activist ten years his junior.

Big business took over from communism as the generic enemy, especially Roxxon Oil. All of Tony Stark's competitors were corrupt and most rich men turned out to either be supervillains or to be financing them. An organized crime group known as The Corporation also appeared regularly. By the early 1980s, Marvel was sending the message that rich people and corporations could not be trusted. Not surprisingly, fandom began to turn against Marvel for being a large corporation.

DC was late to do message stories but came out swinging. Green Lantern teamed up with Green Arrow for a series of message stories that beat the reader over the head with a green bat. Batman and other characters also had occasional message stories. Still, DC never jumped on the big-business-is-bad bandwagon like Marvel did. Since the DC Universe does not mirror the real world as closely as the Marvel Universe, it has not engaged in as much political commentary until recently.

The treatment of presidents deserves special mention. President Kennedy met with Superman and gave him some special missions - things like promoting physical fitness. Kennedy was the only real president I can remember appearing in a regular DC comic book. Reagan made an appearance in The Dark Knight Returns limited series, ordering Superman to arrest Batman after Batman was accused of murdering the Joker. This is a special case since it took place outside of normal DC continuity.

Marvel was not so shy. When Bruce Banner was arrested as a communist spy, Rich Jones explained to LBJ (who was off-panel) that banner was really the Hulk and LBJ cleared Banner. In Captain America, Nixon (also off-panel) revealed that he had tried to take over the world and shot himself. Ford was kidnapped in the Defenders by the Headmen. It was undignified.

During the 1980s, a small group working from the basement of the White House ckaimed trademark on the costume and name "Captain America". Steve Rogers became the Captain while a different hero became Captain America. This was put to right when Reagan wondered into the basement office and ordered the staffers to give the Captain America identity back to Steve Rogers.

I don't remember the first Bush or the Clintons appearing but the Hulk was offered a pardon after saving Chelsea Clinton (actually it was a private fight but the Secret Service assumed that it involved Chelsea).

For the last decade or more, Marvel has been making political statements, usually anti-government. The Super Powers Registration Act which caused the Civil War event was meant as a proxy for the Patriot Act. At the same time, it was handled more evenly than you might expect.

Three years ago President Obama received an unheard of tribute in a special issue of Spider-Man. Obama appeared on the cover and Spider-man stopped a plot to disrupt the inauguration. This was the most flattering appearance of  a president since JFK.

Bottom line - comic books have been pushing political messages for 40+ years, usually pushing a liberal cause. This used to blend into the background. I think that overt political messages are few enough that they are few enough to stand out.

This is not the cause of declining readership.

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