Comic Books and the War on Terror

For universal icons, albeit fictional ones, to suddenly become partisan props is a bit sad.

Julian Sanchez has an excellent piece at The American Prospect on “The Revolt of the Comic Books.” It discusses the active engagement of superhero comics in the post-9/11 debate.

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.

FILED UNDER: Comic Books, Popular Culture, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Triumph says:

    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.

    Actually the great downside is when the President uses simplistic comic book logic as the basis of his foreign policy that fights the “evildoers” while “freedom is on the march.”

  2. James Joyner says:

    Actually the great downside is when the President uses simplistic comic book logic as the basis of his foreign policy that fights the “evildoers” while “freedom is on the march.”

    Let’s not confuse rhetoric with policy.

  3. Triumph says:

    Let’s not confuse rhetoric with policy.

    I’m not–how else can you explain the decision to invade Iraq other than by comic-book theorizing?

    The scariest thing about Bush is that he seems to believe his rhetoric and, in turn, acts on it.

  4. Kirk KImball says:

    YOU FORGOT TO USE POW BAM ZAP AS YOUR HEADLINE.

    This article is very sadly misinformed on the state of the comic book industry today. The truth is that the war has been all but ignored in modern comics.

    There are 2 main companies, Marvel and DC. They put out HUNDREDS of titles a year. Of these hundreds, less than 1% deal with the war, or mention politics at all. THE ACTUAL TRUTH IS THAT COMICS ARE A.W.O.L. FROM THE WAR!

    And far from “pushing liberal ideas,” most comics “push” horribly written stories that center on endless fight scenes. Crediting the writers with “ideas” is a complete joke, as most of the stories are mindless rehashes of decades-old plots.

    Funniest part of this ill-informed article: you said, “iconic figures like Captain America and Spider-man become spokesmen for a political cause…”

    I hate to be the one to tell you, but Captain America is DEAD. He got FATALLY shot. HE’S DEAD. So he’s not really representing much of anything. OOPSIE!

    I hate to say it, but your piece is a “drive-by media” classic. You know virtually nothing about modern comics, but so what. That didn’t stop you from doing an article on them! Oh wait, I forgot, you read a few comics 40 years ago. You’re an expert! POW BAM ZAP!

  5. James Joyner says:

    I hate to be the one to tell you, but Captain America is DEAD. He got FATALLY shot. HE’S DEAD. So he’s not really representing much of anything. OOPSIE!

    Right. I reported on that here and here. That came in the midst of a very political storyline. (And, pssst: Comic characters, especially iconic ones like Cap, seldom stay dead long.)

    I hate to say it, but your piece is a “drive-by media” classic. You know virtually nothing about modern comics, but so what. That didn’t stop you from doing an article on them! Oh wait, I forgot, you read a few comics 40 years ago. You’re an expert! POW BAM ZAP!

    I’m commenting on an article published today summarizing the modern comics scene and drawing on lessons from years of reading the books. It’s been over a decade since I read comics regularly, as I acknowledge in the piece.

  6. Like James I was serious collector for a while, but stopped many years ago. I still thumb through the comics at the local bookstore and have noticed, especially in Marvel titles, the influence of the GWOT and the current political climate on the stories.

    And in re: the previous post, Cap is coming back, which should hardly surprise anyone. Although it would appear that Steve Rogers is still dead.

  7. The Sanchez piece is quite good and it worth a read, so I second James’ on that count.

  8. I’m dismayed if someone from Dial B for Blog, of which I’m a big fan, thought my piece came off as a “Pow! Bam!” style drive-by, but frankly befuddled at the assertion that the war has been “A.W.O.L.” from comics. The article mentions quite a few overtly War-on-Terror-related storylines that spanned all the most popular titles of the two major comics publishing houses, as well as a number of ancillary books. And I could have mentioned quite a few more, such as the ongoing World War Hulk storyline, which is a pretty clear allegory about blowback. I’m happy to entertain disagreements with my take on the phenomenon, but a little perplexed by the suggestion that it isn’t real.

  9. Fersboo says:

    ….his platform for espousing mainstream liberal ideals, like …… or the dangers of drug addiction.

    emphasis mine

    Interesting, I’ve always seen the anti-drug stance as a conservative position. Would you perhaps elaborate or point me to where the theory behind it resides?

  10. James Joyner says:

    I’ve always seen the anti-drug stance as a conservative position.

    The traditional conservative stance was a crime-based approach. The comic book approach, at both Marvel and DC (thinking of the famed Green Lantern-Green Arrow stories of the early 1970s) was more sympathetic, focusing on addiction and treatment.

  11. Cernig says:

    Can you even have a real discussion about comics and politics anymore without mentioning “V For Vendetta”?

    V was only one of several political strips run by the UK’s 200AD magazine, though – others spun off into their own comics or to graphic novel. Judge Dredd is probably the best known but Nemesis, Halo Jones and others all qualify too. If anyone ever comes across “Third World War” or its follow-up “Finn” I heartily recommend them.

    A lot of the artists and writers for 2000AD ended up doing work across the pond. Moore, Wagner, Grant, Bolland, Ewins, Bisley etc.

    Regards, C

  12. Fersboo says:

    ……focusing on addiction and treatment.

    emphasis mine

    Thanks for the explanation.

  13. Kirk KImball says:

    I’m dismayed if someone from Dial B for Blog, of which I’m a big fan, thought my piece came off as a “Pow! Bam!” style drive-by.

    I am not “someone from Dial B For BLOG,” I actually AM Dial B For BLOG! My pen name there is Robby Reed. So there is the possibility that I know what I’m talking about.

    but frankly befuddled at the assertion that the war has been “A.W.O.L.” from comics. The article mentions quite a few overtly War-on-Terror-related storylines.

    Oh it mentions “quite a few,” does it? Please don’t make me list the HUNDREDS and HUNDREDS of current comic storylines that are NOT “related.” In my estimation, “quite a few” out of hundreds does not a trend make. The Justice League is currently fighting the INjustice League, and that is hardly political. Nor is “The Search for Ray Palmer.” None of the X-Men are running for office. I could go on and on and on for hours or days…

    The ongoing World War Hulk storyline, which is a pretty clear allegory about blowback.

    Haha! Yeah, right. And Infinite Crisis was really about tax cuts. And Civil War was really about healthcare. And The Initiative is actually about inflation. Right? Get real.

    I’m happy to entertain disagreements with my take on the phenomenon, but a little perplexed by the suggestion that it isn’t real.

    I repeat, you are crediting the comic writers of today with WAY too much. The vast majority are talentless hacks without an idea in their head. Their plots are simply endless rehashes of old comics, and reflect nothing about war or anything else.

    You lament that “icons are being used as props.” Trust me, they are not. No major superhero has a “position” on the war, and even if they make reference to it, it is quickly forgotten or replaced by the legion of revolving-door hacks that write the stuff.

    As for you being “drive-by,” let me ask you… do you intend to research this story by buying and actually READING some new comic books, and doing follow-ups to this story by reporting on what you read?

    If you do, great! But if you don’t, then just drive on by.

    KK aka “Robby Reed”
    http://www.dialbforblog.com

  14. Well, again, I’m sorry that that’s the view of the proprietor of a comics site I like and respect. I don’t, however, lament that “icons are being used as props” — you’re confusing me with the author of this blog post.

    And while my default presumption would be that the author of “Dial B” knows what he’s talking about, the previous post calls that into doubt. Civil War was *obviously* about civil liberties in wartime. World War Hulk and The Ultimates were *obviously* about blowback. Lots of the themes broached in Infinite Crisis were *obviously* commentaries on contemporary controversies over torture, surveillance, and the corrupting effects of power, even when deployed for well-intentioned transformative ends. I’m scarcely the first person to notice these things. (And yes, I’ve read every issue of the aforementioned storylines, and been reading comics for some fifteen years.) The fact that we can point to plenty of storylines that don’t deal with the war isn’t really to the point: Most articles in any given political magazine aren’t about the war either, but that scarcely means the issue is “AWOL.”

  15. Kirk KImball says:

    First you said: “The article mentions quite a few overtly War-on-Terror-related storylines.”

    Then you said: “The fact that we can point to plenty of storylines that don’t deal with the war isn’t really to the point.”

    Are you taking debating lessons from Hillary Clinton?

    And your take on the “obviousness” of comics secretly being political screeds is quite humorous. AGAIN, I must point out that the writers simply are not that smart, and are rehashing decades-old storylines. You consistently ignore this point!

    If “Infinite Crisis” was so OBVIOUSLY about torture, surveillance, and the corrupting effects of power, how do you account for that the plot of “Infinite Crisis” is a rehash of a story titled “Crisis on Infinite Earths” from 1985???? I suppose you’ll next tell me that Marv Wolfman, who wrote the story in 1985, was psychic, and was secretly commenting on events that would happen in 20 years?

    The level of writing in comics today is pure grade school or worse. Do you know how ridiculous you sound when you try to assign them deep existential meaning?

    P.S. Did you know Casper the Friendly Ghost is really a socio-economic commentary about the realities of life after death?

  16. Kirk KImball says:

    Here’s the plot for PLANET HULK, a comic you describe as being “*obviously* about blowback.”

    “After the events of Planet Hulk, the Hulk returns to Earth. And he’s pissed. If you recall, Hulk was exiled by the secret enclave of Earth heroes known as the Illuminati (comprised of Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic, Professor Charles Xavier, Dr. Strange, Namor, and Black Bolt, though not all agreed nor were present for the decision). Though the Illuminati meant to sent Hulk to a lush world where he could be alone, an accident landed him on the war-torn planet Sakaar, where he became a gladiator. Hulk led a rebellion of his fellow fighters (now called his Warbound) and apparently fulfilled a prophecy by becoming King. Hulk took his new Warbound love, Caiera, for his queen, and they were quickly expecting a child.

    Then, disaster. The ship that had brought Hulk to Sakaar exploded, essentially destroying the planet and killing millions, including his wife and unborn child. Blinded by rage, Hulk decided to take his Warbound and come back to Earth with one goal: Smash.

    After a brief stop at the Moon to take apart Black Bolt, Hulk issued an ultimatum to evacuate New York. He soon clashed with, and handily defeated, many X-Men and Iron Man. Hulk and his Warbound next ripped through the combined Avengers teams and other assembled heroes. The extended membership of the Fantastic Four fell, as did a demon-powered Dr. Strange. Hulk’s people turned Madison Square Garden into a Great Arena so that Hulk could publically humiliate the Illuminati. Forced to fight, Reed Richards is poised to kill Iron Man. Meanwhile, the Sentry finally shakes off his agoraphobic attack and makes his way toward the city . . .”

    That’s it so far.

    OBVIOUSLY about “blowback”??????

    HAHAHAHAHHAAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!

    Know any other good jokes?

  17. Look, I’d love to walk you through remedial literary interpretation in baby steps, but I’ve devoted more time to this exchange than it merits already. If you prefer to think it’s just impossible for former Rhodes scholar and Yale polisci grad Greg Pak to have written anything more subtle than a showy slugfest, be my guest.

  18. Kirk KImball says:

    Wow! Instead of responding to my points, you said I was a stupid waste of time! Name calling usually signals someone has lost an argument. The Shakespearian talents of Greg Pak not withstanding. *Obviously* the man is a transcendent genius, and please forgive me for questioning his immense talent, which has somehow led him to write Hulk comics, the pinnacle of success for any writer! Oh well…

    Buh-bye!

    DRIVE ON BY, JUST AS I PREDICTED YOU WOULD!

    Kirk Kimball
    http://www.dialbforblog.com

  19. Kirk KImball says:

    By the way, since readers of this site have probably never heard of Greg Pak, here’s Pak himself describing PLANET HULK (which according to you, is *obviously* about blowback):

    “The Hulk’s never been a murderer. He loves to threaten murder. And he’s killed before, in wars or in self-defense or when he was driven mad. But he’s never knowingly killed an innocent in cold blood. Furthermore, his experiences fighting alongside the Warbound and the people of Sakaar during Planet Hulk changed him — he became the Green King, the liberator of Sakaar, the hero protector of entire world. Given that context, his sparing the Illuminati makes sense — he’s showing them what he and believes a true leader does. And even if you still want to think of the Hulk as a monster, sparing the Illuminati can make sense — a really vicious person might actually take more pleasure from watching his enemies humiliated and hated than dead.

    And let me also take a second to plug the World War Hulk: Warbound miniseries, which debuts in December, written by me with blisteringly awesome art by Leonard Kirk. The book will focus on the Hulk’s Warbound companions Korg, Hiroim, Brood, and Elloe as they escape New York and find themselves in the middle of a new crisis in the New Mexico desert featuring one of the Hulk’s former loves and one of the Hulk’s greatest enemies. The book will carry through on big threads from World War Hulk while laying critical groundwork for future stories. The book will also feature “Tales of the Warbound” backup stories that will shed additional light on these Warbound heroes and continue to build the history and mythology of Planet Sakaar — again, not to be missed if you dug “Planet Hulk” and “World War Hulk.”

    Well, obviously, this is all political commentary of the deepest kind.

    *Obviously.*