Superhero comic books have always served as a popular lens through which we can view our own society. They have chronicled characters’ journeys through (largely) American history in the years leading up to and through some of the largest armed conflicts in human history, intense social turmoil, and the present malaise that has afflicted much of the world as nation after nation faces economic crises and austerity measures. With that longevity and their place in Americana comes great responsibility. Mainstream comics do have the ability and, in certain cases, a duty to deal with relevant social issues.
In the past, when conflicts were largely outward, protracted, and situated in distant locales, comics were able to address them while maintaining a respectful distance from the core issues underlying those conflicts. In World War II, comic book characters like Captain America and members of the Justice Society participated in the war, but were not pivotal to the actual battles that made up its bulk. Instead, they focused their efforts on “stand-ins” such as Captain Nazi, the Red Skull, and Vandal Savage. Often, these characters would represent the enemy being faced in the real world, but would contrive plots that were outside the scope of the reality-based conflict, allowing the characters to achieve victory while not unduly influencing the results of the ongoing war.
One argument against the use of mainstream comic book characters as social avatars is that they are simply too fantastic to be believable in real-world situations. Characters like Thor or Superman exist at the far end of the spectrum of realism in which modern comic books operate. These are characters whose abilities and origins are so fantastic as to be completely separated from what most of us would consider “reality.” For the God of Thunder or the Last Son of Krypton, solving problems like global hunger, homelessness, or even climate change are well within reach. In this case, the argument revolves around that ease. For them and characters like them, there is no real conflict in these problems, and any attempt to create one typically involves setting up “normal” humans as roadblocks, utilizing a bevy of bureaucratic barricades to prevent our do-gooders from, well, doing good. In that respect, there is little value to be derived from such stories, as the reader is left simply thinking “wouldn’t it be nice?”
Another question that should be asked is whether or not it is disrespectful to readers for comic books to solve real-world problems in a fictional universe. While it is clear that there are things that superheroes could do in their own universes to solve the pressing issues of the day, it is valid to ask whether or not there is any societal value derived from solving those problems in a fictional universe, while the real world must continue to contend with them.
From an escapism standpoint, allowing the residents of a comic book universe to go about their lives without the concerns that face the rest of us may seem attractive. However, those self-same utopian environments that are presented in Metropolis, Themyscira, Asgard, or the far-flung future could do us poor readers a service by addressing why and how these problems were solved there.
In this way, not only do the books themselves return some value to society, but they enrich their own worlds in the course of drawing the roadmap to the future.
The stories that comic book writers pen come both from the world the scribe sees around them and the world they wish it were. The very things that separate most mainstream comics from reality are those contrasts which drive our interest. The “extraordinary” conflicts that form the larger narratives within mainstream comic universes can be used as metaphors for the social issues being faced by rea-world society. Is it any coincidence that Marvel, who fashion themselves the purveyors of the finest “street-level” comics, has centered its events over the last half decade around various versions of “our heroes fight each other”? America is a nation in political turmoil, a more distributed version of the Spring movements well underway in many cities. The partisan divide that has infected the national consciousness can be seen to have echoes in these events, and even the upcoming X-Men vs Avengers story that will dominate Marvel over the next several months.
Some might say that a call for the comic book industry to utilize its top-tier characters to address social issues is redundant. For the last thirty years, there have been iconic stories which have captured imaginations, dollars and, most importantly, the spirit of the eras whose firmly rooted problems they attempted to address.Watchman captured the post-Vietnam malaise of the United States,V for Vendetta the jingoistic nationalism of Cold-War England, and Ex Machina the shell-shocked anger of post 9/11 America.
I say that those people are wrong. At a time when reality is short on heroes addressing truly tremendous societal issues, the world is just waiting for those famous words: “This is a job for…”
Josh Epstein is the Publisher for the Capeless Crusader website.
He’s a lifelong comic nerd, and “Superman” is the first word he ever read aloud. He is also an actor, singer, and resident of a real-world Smallville.