I see it more and more often these days. I see it on Twitter, on Facebook, and sometimes even in the real world: People complaining about politics in a creator’s stories. Usually, they’re offended because the creator’s politics don’t align with their own, but sometimes, they’re offended because there’s politics in there at all. Oh my God, this comic contains a Muslim! Oh my God, this comic has someone expressing a political belief! Oh my God, this comic references God!
Inevitably, someone will complain that politics don’t belong in superhero comics, and that all these pesky writers and artists should just keep their opinions to themselves and just tell some superhero adventures, already.
It’s a stupid thing to say. Because, and I can’t believe that I actually have to point this out to people…
Politics have always been a part of superhero comics.
Politics were there from the very first Superman story in Action Comics #1, that started with Superman racing to the Governor’s mansion to save a falsely condemned man, continued with him roughing up a wife beater, and ended with him terrifying a corrupt lobbyist.They were there from Simon and Kirby’s first issue of Captain America in 1941, where Cap was shown punching out Hitler before the U.S. entered World War II.They were there in the original Wonder Woman stories of William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter, where Wonder Woman preached female equality to her readers, decades before the E.R.A.They were there during World War II, when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster did a piece for Look magazine about how Superman would end the war by bringing Hitler and Stalin before the world court in Switzerland.They were there in 1946, when Stetson Kennedy and the producers of the Superman radio show used secret KKK passwords on the show to expose the KKK as the racist fools they were. There’s even been an entire book written about it, Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan.
They were there in the 40s and 50s, when National Comics put socially-conscious ads starring Superman and Batman into their books.They were there in the early days of Marvel Comics, where the heroes were fighting dirty commies and every other villain was taking his orders directly from the Kremlin.
For crying out loud, Iron Man’s origin has an American munitions manufacturer fighting an evil warlord in Vietnam. You don’t get much more political than that.Stan Lee and Steve Ditko had Peter Parker encounter some campus protesters in a mid-60s issue of The Amazing Spider-Man. This is a very interesting sequence for what it reveals about Steve Ditko and Stan Lee’s contrasting political beliefs, by the way. If you just look at the art, you can tell that Ditko clearly intended for Parker to be looking at the protesters with disdain, while Lee’s dialogue has Peter greeting the situation with more general bemusement, only becoming irritated when the protesters start hassling him personally.
In the early 70s, Steve Englehart wrote a story arc where Captain America discovered that the leader of the evil Secret Empire was actually a high-ranking government official, paralleling the country’s disillusionment post-Watergate.The X-Men only became more political with time, as the subtext of anti-mutant prejudice became more pronounced and Professor X and Magneto eventually evolved into the Martin Luther King and Malcolm X of the mutant world.Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ Green Lantern/Green Arrow tackled a whole host of political issues and social ills.The Dark Knight Returns is as much about the Reagan era as it is about Batman.Commissioner Gordon even makes a speech about FDR and Pearl Harbor.Watchmen looks at the political ramifications of superheroes, with fifth-term President Richard Nixon using Dr. Manhattan to win Vietnam and keep the Russians at bay.John Ostrander’s version of the Suicide Squad showed that the politicians of the DCU had their own Iran-Contra style shady dealings, with the U.S. government authorizing the use of supervillains as a dirty tricks squad.And let’s not forget all the political superhero comics we saw in the wake of 9/11.
Ex Machina, which I really should do a full column about one of these days, had politics weaved into its DNA, as New York City Major and ex-superhero Mitchell Hundred saved one of the Twin Towers on 9/11 and dealt with issues ranging from gay marriage to school vouchers.
Hell, 16 years later, we’re still feeling the effects of 9/11 in superhero comics, with titles like Civil War and Identity Crisis reflecting the unease the American people feel with our own government.
One of the books I grew up reading was Mike W. Barr and Jim Aparo’s Batman and the Outsiders. Barr was never shy about tying his stories in with politics or the events of the day, and it made the series all the more interesting. Sometimes readers took Barr to task for this on the letters page, where he was even more outspoken. Barr’s response to one such letter has stuck with me ever since I first read it 30+ years ago, and I looked it up again in The Outsiders #4 so I could quote it here:
Sorry, Bob, but comic books are written by people–at least, this one is–and people have opinions, some of which are bound to pop up in their work now and again, as mine did in the story for BATO Annual #1, which started all this mess. A writer who doesn’t have opinions isn’t writing stories, he’s making pablum.
So no, you can’t get politics out of superhero comics. Politics are baked into the genre. Superheroes were the original Social Justice Warriors.
So can we please stop pretending that politics don’t have a place in comics?