It’s time to really figure out if superheroes belong in the political arena.
It can be difficult to find quality discussions on the role of politics in comic books. In the last year, there have been three articles of varying quality that have attempted to address this very divisive issue.
Back in October, Sara “Babs” Lima of ComicVine.com posed the question to readers as to whether or not political content in comic books alienates readers. While Lima’s article does not attempt to answer the question, she does point to some seminal works in the medium where politics are undoubtedly central to the books’ stories and underlying foci.
The real flame war amongst liberal and conservative comic book fans began when Darin Wagner, a writer for Bleeding Cool, penned a narrowly focused article asserting that the comic book industry was overtly liberal and that this “liberal bias” was hurting sales.
The Bleeding Cool article drew attention far and wide, even accruing input from such luminaries as creators Chuck Dixon (an avowed conservative creator who agreed with the article) and Peter David who attempted to counter by stating that the political content of comics is actually balanced, but only those things that readers disagree with draw and retain their attention.
Joe Patrice of Recess Appointment did a pretty good job of refuting the factual errors in Wagner’s piece, so I will not attempt to go over that same ground again.
Superheroes are at their best when they are relevant to the world surrounding them. Sure, Superman smashing alien overlords bent on the subjugation of the human race can be fun reading, especially if there are massive spaceships being hurled into each other in wonderfully drawn art. I do not mean to say that escapism does not have its place and its value, but superheroes are more than fictional characters to a lot of people, they are role models.
In a media world packed with far more vapid reality-TV stars than upright citizens, superheroes serve a need in their role as providers of moral lessons to young people, in the same way that fables and parables have in decades and centuries past. Limiting these heroes to dealing with nothing less than Earth-shattering events is akin to stating that the almighty-deity-of-your-choice doesn’t care what’s going on in your life, he/she/it has bigger fish to fry.
Another way of looking at it is that as the readership matures, they want more out of the comics than brightly-colored cops & robbers tales. As comics have gone further and further away from being “kids books” and deeper into the realm of “literature,” supporters of the medium and advocates of its place in literary circles want to see more than simple punch-em-ups. They want content that speaks to the problems that they confront. They want work that makes them feel something other than the satisfaction that Batman once again locked the Joker away or solved the mystery of the day.
Layering in legitimate social commentary is one way to accomplish this. It allows a monthly book to speak to the real problems faced by those who occupy the real world. Eventually readers tire of seeing the same sorts of stories over and over again. As the rise of the 24-hour news networks has proven, people never tire of seeing debates over the issues of the day, and comic books that approach realistic subject matter will have a decided advantage over those that don’t in terms of attracting and retaining new readership.
For decades now, Green Arrow has been a decidedly liberal character. His verbal sparring with unabashedly conservative character Hawkman was part of what made the Justice League comics of the late 1970s and early 1980s so much fun to read. Being a child of the 1980s, I didn’t immediately understand what terms like “bleeding heart” meant, what “hippies” were, or why every problem couldn’t be solved by bashing someone’s head in with a mace. Comics, probably more than any other medium, introduced me to the marked differences between various political ideologies.
As Lima’s article points out, some of the most highly-regarded works in comic book history have definite, overt political messages. There is not a single work by writer Alan Moore that does not contain page upon page of commentary on the nature of the United Kingdom’s political debates. Frank Miller’s neo-conservative Batman featured in The Dark Knight Returns proved not only a sales monster but provided the road map for much of the work done on the character over the next decade. Ultimates, the comic book that field-tested many of the character concepts that feature in this summer’s Avengers, was fearless when it came to addressing concepts such as media saturation, celebrity, government budgets, and the international me-too-ism of arms races. The list goes on and on.
Each of these series proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that while critics may scream (and scream loudly) when comics delve into the realm of political reality, those are the comics which attract real attention and, in turn, create entire new generations of readers.
In order to continue to push the boundaries of the medium, writers must have the courage to open their characters up to the concerns of the day, address them, and deal with the consequences. The characters will be richer for it, the stories will be more resonant, and the fans will either love it or hate it, but they’ll sure be talking about it, and that’s an end in and of itself.
Now, Flame War On.