Comic Books and the War on Terror
For universal icons, albeit fictional ones, to suddenly become partisan props is a bit sad.
In one sense, this is nothing new. The very first issue of Captain America (1941) showed the star-spangled super-soldier punching out Adolf Hitler, prompting criticism from both Nazi sympathizers and those who considered der Fuhrer Europe’s problem. Superman and Batman hawked war bonds while facing down monstrous racist caricatures of buck-toothed Japs. Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen — works that transformed comics in 1986 by proving that illustrated tales of men in tights could be serious, adult art — were both steeped in their Cold War milieu. (Moore took his title from the Roman poet Juvenal’s famous query about political power: “Who watches the watchmen?”)
Nevertheless, the politically inspired stories of the “War on Terror” era have been remarkable not only for their ubiquity and sophistication, but also in the way they have exposed — and sometimes exploded — the political ideas embedded in the superhero genre itself. A famous 2002 cover of the German news magazine Der Spiegel depicted members of the Bush cabinet dressed as Rambo, Batman, Conan the Barbarian, and the “warrior princess” Xena, suggesting that neoconservatism is just comic-book logic applied to international affairs. But the efforts of comics writers to grapple with current events raise a corollary question: Is the superhero a natural neocon?
I was an avid collector and reader from my junior high days all the way through college but lapsed into former collector status soon thereafter, never finding the time to rekindle my interest despite a few brief flirtations. The genre had a tremendous resurgence in the mid-1980s, as D.C. finally joined Marvel in writing “serious” comics and a slew of independent publishers joined the fray.
From Julian’s piece and other articles I’ve read, I gather that the industry is less concerned about alienating readers by taking sides on controversial issues and rather more heavyhanded in tackling them. That likely makes the books much more interesting, especially to the adult readers who are increasingly the target audience.
The down side of this, though, is that iconic figures like Captain America and Spider-man become spokesmen for a political cause, giving great power to the writers, editors, and publishers. Stan Lee, who founded the modern incarnation of Marvel Comics in 1961, never shied from using his platform for espousing mainstream liberal ideals, like sympathy for the poor, anti-racism, or the dangers of drug addiction. There was also a vague noblesse oblige in the idea that great power came with great responsibility. Taking an in-your-face stance, though, on the seminal issues which divide our country is certainly leaps and bounds beyond that.
In many ways, this is a welcome development. It has the potential, though, of tarnishing brands that have been built up over decades by a long line of creators. For universal icons, albeit fictional ones, to suddenly become partisan props is a bit sad.