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Welcome to another edition of “Back Issues”, the weekly column where I examine a character, concept or theme making waves in comics today through issues from the past.
In the aftermath of November 8th’s presidential election, which saw Donald Trump emerge victorious, dozens of protests erupted across cities and communities across the United States. Protestors were reacting not just to their preferred candidate losing, but to Trump’s platform, which had been built upon what they saw as bigoted rhetoric targeting Latinos, undocumented immigrants, Muslim-Americans, African-Americans, LGBTQ, people with disabilities, and women. Some wanted to spur some kind of change in the outcome, but most saw the protests as a form of standing up against hateful speech, as well as against Trump’s proposed policies that are drawn from what they see as hatred. To many, the election of Trump represents an endorsement of intolerant speech and actions against whole groups of vulnerable people who often find themselves targeted for discrimination and disenfranchisment. The protests send a message that they’re watching the President-Elect, and they’re standing with those he might seek to take action against.
Even comics have not been immune from protest, with Mark Waid, Gail Simone and Nick Spencer being among some of Twitter’s most outspoken anti-Trump comic creators. And artists Humberto Ramos and George Perez have both announced they will stop making appearances in states that went for Trump. As Ramos put in a Facebook post:
I know when I’m not welcome and I won’t expose myself to be offended or mistreated, there is no need.
So, in this edition of “Back Issues”, I’ve decided to take a very small look at protest in comics. Comics have long taken on social issues, from Superman’s early battles on behalf of the oppressed, to Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ legendary socially conscious Green Lantern/Green Arrow run. But this article is going to focus on some examples of actual organized forms of protest as depicted in comics. I know I can’t possibly cover them all in this limited space, but hopefully there are some examples here that you haven’t encountered before.
Martin Luther King & the Montgomery Story (1957)
Arguably, this sixteen page comic, published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation and distributed to churches, schools and civil rights groups around the world, might be the first comic book overtly about civil disobedience and nonviolence resistance. Written by journalist and activist Alfred Hassler, with contributions by Benton Resnik, the artist remains unknown. The content of the comic is simple and direct.
The story starts with a brief biography of Dr. King’s life until 1957, before segueing into telling the story an African-American man named Jones, living under Jim Crow laws in Montgomery Alabama in 1954. Jones tells the story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus boycott, with a focus on the importance of nonviolence as a tactic. The latter third of the issue then focuses on the roots, practices and methods of nonviolence as a form of protest.
Though the book didn’t make any waves in the professional comic industry at all, and despite being pretty crude as a piece of art, the fact that it was so widely distributed to churches and schools meant that it certainly had an impact. One of the things that it does put across is how incredibly hard the practice of nonviolence resistance was. To maintain calm and a hyper-attention to acting within the law while being beset by people who are irrationally hateful and in flagrant disregard of said law must have taken incredible strength.
Weirdly, I’m kind of struck how an unintended consequence of Dr. King’s method might have been to reinforce the idea that protest that is actually angry and aggressive is inherently less justified. Despite the effectiveness and morally superior stance of his approach, did his form of protest working so well ensure the privileged would regard any other kind as inherently “wrong” or illegitimate?
Amazing Spider-Man #38 and #68 (1966, 1969)
Peter Parker has a checkered past when it comes to politics and political dissent. It’s kind of an odd thing, really. Here’s perhaps the definitive young hero in comics, the one who should have been, especially in his 1960s heyday, “down with the kids.” But in his two most notorious interactions with the protest and counterculture movements of the era, Peter comes off at best as hopelessly square, at worst as an objectivist nutter-butter.
Let’s take Amazing Spider-Man #38 from 1966. This just happens to be the final issue worked on by co-creator, penciller and co-plotter Steve Ditko. There are a few things about Ditko of which we can be certain. First, he was inarguably one of the best comic book artists of all time. His style was very much of its time, but he was superb at telling a story in the medium, and not even Kirby could get as downright moody and weird as Ditko at his best. Second, he was also one of comics’ most devoted recluses. And this is an industry that had more than its share. Ditko believed that his work should speak for itself, and to this day doesn’t speak publicly about much of anything. This leads into the final thing we know about Dikto, and that is that he is a devotee of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy. Which goes a long way as to why Peter Parker, when confronted by protestors in this issue, reacts like this:
Things don’t get much better once Ditko leaves, as they replace Peter’s contempt for the protestors with something more resembling Stan Lee‘s comfortable, middle-of-the-road, mushy privilege. In Amazing Spider-Man #68, he can’t even get on board with advocating for low-cost university housing for his fellow students, which has to be the most milquetoast protest possible in 1969. When Stan the Man has Peter say, “Okay, that’s your side of the story! What does the Dean say?” you realize he’s being written at this point by a fortyish white man whose main concern is that the kooky kids and the grownups aren’t just getting together and rappin’, you dig?
And then there’s Prez. Prez is a concept so off the charts bizarre that it could only have been dreamt up in the height of the Bronze Age. The Bronze Age was a glorious time for comics, frankly. There was a growing social conscience that was being introduced more and more often in stories, but the mainstream industry had yet to ditch the goofy thrills and chills of the previous era. When you combine that with a new crop of creators who are comfortable with having had their, um, consciousness expanded, you can get some truly amazing concepts.
Enter Prez! After a Constitutional Amendment to lower both the voting age and the age at which Presidents can be elected to office, a nation of then teenage baby-boomers elect Prez Rickards to the highest office in the land. Prez was created by Joe Simon (yes, the Joe Simon who created Captain America) and Jerry Grandenetti. Once again, a youthful counter-culture movement was being depicted by two middle-aged white guys. So, on the one hand we get to see someone from the protest generation reach a position of power, to find himself protested by an older generation. That’s a nice reversal. And Simon and Grandenetti kind of tried to include what they saw as issues relevant to the protest generation.
But they also made Prez’ sidekick a Native American man called Eagle Free, who was made head of the FBI and as far as I can see, never appeared in anything other than traditional Native American garb. I can’t decipher if that decision is truly racist or not, since Prez himself never appeared to have worn anything other than a white bell-bottoms and a red turtleneck sweater that actually had the presidential seal embossed on the front, along with the words “Prez” and “USA”. And while Prez would tackle issues such as gun control and right-wing militia groups, he would also fight vampires for some reason.
Prez didn’t last long, the reason being that that the concept was too silly to older readers, too square and lame for its target teenaged audience, and not adventurous enough for younger kids. But the idea of a teenager somehow elevated to the presidency remains intriguing, both as a vehicle to examine social ills and the protest movement, and also as an example of the goofy high-concept craziness of the period. Prez has returned a few times over the years, mostly in a metatextual or deconstructionist context. Neil Gaiman had Prez pop up in “Sandman,” while one one of Ed Brubaker’s earliest comics work featured the character. Frank Miller used a thinly veiled version of the character in “The Dark Knight Strikes Again.”
Recently, the concept was relaunched in a 12 issue limited series by Mark Russell and Ben Caldwell that starred a young woman elected to the office in 2036 via Twitter. Though critically acclaimed, the series has struggled to find readers.
V for Vendetta (1982-1989)
In the early 1980s, the UK comics industry began a renaissance that would eventually inform and completely change comics across the globe. In the pages of British comics such as “2000 AD” and “Warrior,” readers were finding material displaying a growing complexity, innovation and subversive tone. The art became more and more detailed and rich, while the writing focus on elevating prose and dialogue as well as using high concept and fantastical elements to reflect life in a troubled Britain labouring to survive after economic doldrums and a new socially conservative and repressed Thatcher government.
From this wave came a new generation of talent that would dominate the industry for years, some of whom continue to be legends today. Artists such as Brian Bolland, Dave Gibbons, Steve Dillon, and Dave McKean emerged as new visual stars, while writers such as Grant Morrison, Jamie Delano, Neil Gaiman, Peter Milligan and Warren Ellis were soon making waves. But, by far, the biggest new discovery was Alan Moore, who soon became the most acclaimed writer in comics in decades.
V for Vendetta, by Moore and David Lloyd, is one of the signature works of British comics. Beginning in the pages of “Warrior,” the story takes place in the near-future, where Britain has devolved into a fascist totalitarian surveillance state straight out of George Orwell’s worst nightmares. We follow Evey, a young woman saved form the State Police by the mysterious V, a theatrical revolutionary with a shadowy past who hides his identity behind a smiling Guy Fawkes mask. V’s goal is to completely bring down the state, replacing it with what he calls the “Land of Do-As-You-Please”, which is basically functional anarchy. To that end, V begins a series of revolutionary actions, culminating in blowing up the Post Office Tower before being mortally wounded.
But the central tenet of V for Vendetta is that ideas are more powerful than individuals, that symbols matter more than identity, and the series ends with Evey donning V’s costume and destroying 10 Downing Street, which in turns inspires the oppressed masses to rise and up and begin a total insurrection that will bring down the corrupt and repressive regime.
V for Vendetta remains a powerful and uncompromising work about the power of protest, especially armed and at times violent civil disobedience. There’s much in it to make your average citizen a bit uncomfortable. V could just as easily be labelled a terrorist as he could be lauded as a freedom fighter. But by making the regime they’re working to topple so repellant, Moore brings us on side with a character who at his heart, is pretty troubling. But while the regime Moore and Lloyd depict is unreal, it’s also not very far away at all from the kinds of conservative policies that were floated and in some cases enacted during the Thatcher regime. And what makes the work resonate still is that the England of the story doesn’t look all the different from the far-right ideologies you might see held up for glory on Breitbart, and could conceivably be terrifyingly close to what could happen in Trump’s America.
As a form of protest, V for Vendetta reminds people that though nonviolence may be an effective method, and certainly has the benefit of maintaining the moral high ground, there are things that need to be resisted more aggressively, that require a level of vigilance in order to protect those targeted by a bigoted powerful few. Whether or not those aggressive, and even destructive methods are justified can largely be a matter of prospective.
As I write this article, a comic book has won a National Book Award for the first time. March: Book Three is the third instalment in a brilliant series detailing the history of the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, as told through the perspective of then activist and current Congressman John Lewis. Written by Lewis and Andrew Aydin, with art by Nate Powell, March uses Lewis’ unique position at the centre of one of the most courageous and effective social justice movements in history to craft a compelling and unforgettable story. Lewis’ journey from protestor and activist to dedicated and revered public servant and national conscience is a story that should be required reading.
And, tying it all back to the very beginning, Lewis’ inspiration for the project, and indeed how he became involved in civil rights in the first place, stems from a thin, 16 page comic book he read as 15 year old in rural Alabama. That comic? Martin Luther King & the Montgomery Story. And now, decades later, the life that John Lewis has led has made this country a better place and he’s able to publish his own story in the same medium that provided inspiration to him. Who knows what March will offer to young people who read it today, and who know what lives they will lead and how they may make our society, which is ever on the path to a better place (sometimes with setbacks, true), a more just place? Not bad for funny books.
That’s it for this week. Feel free to get out from behind the quarter bins, pick up a sign and march for what you believe in. It’s your right.