Big Question ♯18

This week, I want to talk about comic books and politics. Should comics be influenced by politics? And have comics lost some of their sense of social justice?

Now, to get to the bottom of this, I have to go back to the Silver Age of Comics, the late 50's to early 70's, a time of great social and political reform and upheaval, especially in America. The prevalent black civil rights movement saw the birth of the first black superheroes, such as Black Panther and Falcon at Marvel and Black Lightning at DC. But even before then, there were some instances of comics favouring civil rights. For example Real Fact Comics issue 5 (DC, 1946) ran a highly favourable piece on Paul Robeson, a black actor/ singer/ athlete, which included the phrase "He already, by example, has taught the world, as well as his race, that color has nothing to do with greatness." which was hugely progressive for a time when there was still segregation in federal buildings. Also some comics featuring white protagonists came out against racism, such as Green Lantern/ Green Arrow, The Avengers and Captain America (admittedly the later two really only came out against racism when they had the two aforementioned black heroes amongst their rooster of characters). However, whilst black people seem to be doing well in comics now, I still think that some ethnic groups are being left out. For example, whilst I can think of a few Asian superheroes, I struggle to think of many Hispanic heroes and I can only think of at best 3 representatives each for any religion that is not Christianity. I can't name any explicitly Muslim heroes apart from Dust from the X-Men (Simon Baz is never said to be Muslim as far as I'm aware, just Arab-American, but feel free to correct me if I'm wrong) and I can't think of any Hindu heroes off the top of my head.

Then we come to more a political side. Whilst I am glad to see a decent proliferation of LGBT heroes and heroines in comics today, I can't help thinking that the writers are actually shying away from any big political story-lines that might result. This is also now true about dealing with racism. It's almost as if they are denying that these problems exist. I know comics are still meant to be aimed at younger people (some might say kids), but surely that's a good enough reason to do it. By including any character specifically as a "good guy" (Batwoman, Hulkling and Wiccan from the Young Avengers, etc.) you are saying that it doesn't matter who they love, hopefully making an impression. So why is the bad side being ignored. They're saying "this isn't something that is wrong" about being gay, so why are they not saying "this IS something that is wrong" about the hatred and violence directed at people just for being different.

Anyway, that's my two pennies worth. I'd like to hear what you guys think about this subject. However, be warned. I want a fair and reasonable discussion, so if I see anyone being unreasonable or being intolerant towards any group mentioned above, I will be removing your comments.

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9 Responses to Big Question ♯18

  1. Personally, I stay away from just about anything and anyone who is pushy and/or preachy. Especially pushy. I’m more into the escapism of comics not any specific agenda. Noted exception is the cartoon SheZow, which tickles my own gender dysphoria. Even then, the show is just plain silly.

    There are comic titles that have an explicit agenda. Then there are story arcs that telegraph a message or try to raise awareness. Comics can easily address real-world issues through metaphor, allegory, etc. It doesn’t always have to be “in your face.” If you can read a comic and relate the characters’ problems and aspirations to your own, that’s good storytelling.

    When I read X-Men on a regular basis, I thought that the writing achieved a balance of escapism while giving the reader something to contemplate or take away. Bottom line is freedom of choice. No one is forcing me to read comics. That sounds close-minded, but it works both ways. If the writers want to move in a new direction or advocate a certain cause, I am just not their target audience.

  2. William Peterson says:

    It’s a bit of a tight-rope act… For instance, I remember the issue where Captain America discovers that the leader of the secret organization he’s been fighting is a highly-placed, unnamed Gov’t official (later retconned to be… Nelson Rockefeller?), and the next issue, he was “Nomad, the Man without a Country”! Terrible…
    Cap’s one most notable feature is that, no matter how bleak things look, he never gives up! {Yeah, they did it to him in Civil War, too!} You really need to avoid making radical changes to the character like that… But Heroes are supposed to be Heroes, and SHOULD be fighting injustice, even if it’s something that they’ve never fought before.
    The other place that the Nomad storyline went wrong (along with many others) is that it named names… The Comics work much better with fictional Presidents and officeholders, than when they use ‘real’ people… {Sorry… quick flashback to Jane Byrne giving Thor the keys to the City of Chicago… shudder!}
    And, of course, there’s the ‘tokenism’ problem… Having every third superhero team throw in a token gay member is NOT about fighting injustice, it’s pandering to a market segment, I’m sorry!
    You want to make a statement about LGBT issues, have a straight hero come in and save an ‘unconventional’ member of society from a beating at the hands of thugs, goons, cops, or whatever, and go from there. THAT would make for a good story, and quite possibly let you tie it back into a HYDRA plot, or whatever… {Hey, hatred is hatred, right?}

  3. Katmir says:

    I say politics-shmolitics is what insipres comics… Overall, comics *showcase* characters that act above, below, around and hardly through the “law of the land”, because there is no other way for these stories to be told. The multicultural, LGBT, “racism, what racism?” trend is pretty late in the mainstream comics industry, honestly. The year 2013 is coming to an end, and Spider-Man is now printed in several particular reading tastets (Spidey for elementary school kids; Peter is dead; Parker is not dead; Peter is cloned; hello, Miles Morales; Let’s consider Mary Jane as a.. boy?)

    All the changes the Spider-Man product has gone through, for example, including teaming up with President Obama hasn’t revolutionized the culture or political outlook of comics from my point of view. It’s just not Spidey’s underarm webbing suit Day, today.

  4. Herr D says:

    Various topics:
    Hurtful -isms might be ignored rightfully in escapism. That IS an escape, to think that humanity’s social conscience is that far along. Some people would say that it’s not just escapism but setting more of the right example.
    I was under the impression that the X-men’s political issues were a metaphor for how we do tend to ‘other.’ When we stop othering women, various races, creeds, ages, religions, cultures, etc., next will be the less healthy, beautiful, and non-standard thinkers. Then it will be people who disagree? Then the adopted? The home-schooled? I somehow doubt we’ll ever run out of differences, so I think the best way is to teach dealing with being mistreated without fighting or being over-flamboyant as the first choice.
    I might point out that there IS a cultural difference that should prevent superheroes from certain groups–some political / religious paradigms would make it harder to separate superheroes from superlative levels of pride / treasonous thought. In nations that thrive on the idea that EVERYONE should do whatever they can, it might come more natural that some one person may be able to do something no one else can.
    As far as superhero characters being ethnocentric, it’s a fact of life that diversity spreads along characters slower than it spreads withing a pool of writers. It may seem as though minority group organization representatives care less about superficial representation because the gradual fractionalization of the writing industry has not sped up diversity in characters–that is probably illusory.

  5. Arioch says:

    That’s a good question.

    In a way, it’s a question of how much do we want comics to be akin to science fiction (explore the what if?, shed insight on our society) or fantasy (provide escapism).

    But comics are a strange mix. They can talk about ourselves by analogy (AIDS and the Legacy Virus), yet they are often very, very conservative, always coming back to the status quo.

    There’s also the funny question of what happens when a writer is racist, or sexist. Do we really want our (so often male) heroes to be surrounded by weak, stupid damsels in distress while facing horde after horde of arabic ennemies?

    In the end, setting aside moral issues, I think that, if comics ignore social issues, they just become cliched, black and white slugfest, because that’s all you can tell. These are cool, but if you’ve got nothing else? Please, no. A villain you can sympathise with is, IMO, much more believable and interesting than the 859th guy who wants to destroy the world “because”.
    And if a comics questions you, makes you think after the fact, it becomes a much better experience.

  6. KBell says:

    Thank you so much for writing this first of all! And I’m super sad about the low number of comments.

    Comics absolutely should address issues that come in their story lines, or rather, should come up. Ignoring issues and pretending they don’t exist really takes me out of the story.

    I think gender issues are also something that need to be addressed, the number of over sexualized women in comics is not okay.

    Its fine for a woman to want to express her sexuality, and its fine (well, not irl, but in comics) to use her sex as a weapon.
    But its not okay for virtually ALL of them to do it. It’s ridiculous.

    I’d be please even if all that happened was the disappearance of the ‘boobs and butt’ spine-breaking poses that women are always put in.

    I think its super good that you’re thinking about this issue.
    Don’t let the lack of comments here turn you off. Keep bringing the subject up. Pretending it’s not here isn’t gonna solve anything.

  7. Arioch says:

    Agree with Kbell.

    And if I may, given all the sexism I find elsewhere on the net in what one should think nerd circles, it’s very, very refreshing to see it being brought up here.

  8. Timedrop23 says:

    Can a medium that was born (and re-born) in several ages of social and political upheaval become so political that it’s ruined by its own foundations? Yes, but society cannot exist without government, and (as shown by vigilantes like Batman and Green Arrow–not to mention the real vigilantes in our own histories, like the Boston Tea Party, Simon Bolivar, Che Guevara, etc.) proper government cannot exist without society to keep its more questionable motives in check. The hard thing that must be done is to avoid politicizing and socializing ourselves into countries of one just because the search for a common ground is so difficult. Comic books provide that common ground by having billionaires like the two aforementioned vigilantes that fight for the safety of the little guy. They give us Spider-Man to show us that power comes in many forms, and if used properly, can make the most bitter of enemies put aside their differences. Just look at the ever-present nerd VS bully conflict that resolved into Peter and Flash becoming friends.
    The only thing that matters is that we’re all human and we all like comic books. But that also brings up the question of non-human heroes like Superman. Can we trust that someone, however humanoid, with so much power at their command, will do right by us until the bitter end? I mean, they’re aliens. They could just be here to lure us into a false sense of security until we wind up kneeling at their feet amid a pile of smoking rubble. And what if the alien hero in question looked like Kilowag or Hellboy or the Man-Spider? Would we be just as trusting if our lives were in the hands of some scary-looking freak? Probably not, but these are just larger scale representations of problems we Earthlings face every day.
    So I guess what I’m saying is that comic books provide a way for us to put our problems in some faraway galaxy where we can decide from a 900-light-year view what kind of society we want to make for ourselves. The hard choice will always be there. But we don’t need the world’s first Independent, septi-racial, omni-sexual, parapelegic, manic-depressive, conjoined octuplet, drug-addict, foster child super hero with a gluten allergy to help us make it. We just need to get uncomfortable every once in awhile. If we can survive stumbling through every awkward moment that life has to offer (which seems to be the requisite for becoming better people), we will be better people.

  9. Doornik1142 says:

    My answer is 100% ENH! OH!

    Comics should be influenced by one thing and one thing only: Good storytelling.

    Politics, especially contemporary politics, serves largely as a hindrance to good storytelling. Unless you have an extremely good writer at the helm, trying to make a story “politically relevant” only succeeds in making it preachy and condescending.

    Moreover, trying to make a story “relevant to the times” only makes it seem dated that much faster. Comics in my opinion should have a timeless quality to them, and inserting a political message hurts that. Because politics will inevitably change, and a story that seemed “edgy” and “topical” at the time now becomes archaic and out of date, of interest only to historians. Future generations will be unable to relate to the story because they never felt a connection to those politics. In fact the political message/themes of the story may be so different from what they know that the story is incomprehensible to them.