Comics Aren’t Political (and Other Myths)
Earlier this year, a comic book shop owner in Florida took comic publishers to task for being too political. His argument is comics should be an apolitical space, where no one needs to worry about “left” or “right.” Comics, he argued, needed to provide a comforting embrace for everyone, rather than adding fuel to the fire of divisive politics.
Back the fuck up, please. Comics are a safe space? Publishers need to get their politics out of his store?
Has he ever read a comic book in his life?
Comics Are Political Tools
Let’s start with the basics. Captain America has been punching Nazis since the 1940s. He also punched Japanese people, because the Japanese were part of the Axis. His greatest nemesis appears to be his compatriot Bucky Barnes, who was kidnapped and brainwashed by the Soviets to do horrible things.
What about Black Panther? The guy is king of a peaceful African nation, but the country is isolationist. They have advanced technology, but they don’t want to share. They don’t really want to play on the world stage. How is that not political?
How about Tony Stark’s involvement with the government, or that of his father? The Starks made their money by developing weapons of war. So did Hank Pim. The FBI, government agencies, the KGB—all of these entities play a role in comics. Even various presidents have shown up at various times.
Controversial and Subversive
Comics have also been a controversial, politicized medium. As they existed outside the mainstream, comics have generally been the domain of leftist thinkers—although not always. In the 1950s, people thought comics caused “moral corruption” among teenagers. There was a Congressional hearing about how awful comics were. Government officials treated comics much like works of pornography. Owning and reading comics was a site of resistance against conservative social tendencies, much like rock music was a site of rebellion about the same time.
Rock music is a political statement. So are comics. It’s little wonder feminists, Black thinkers, and others have adopted the medium.
The Medium Is What You Make It
Comics have also been used to support nationalistic sentiment. See above, with Captain America’s plotlines involving him punching Nazis—enemies of the American state—during the Second World War. See how some of his plotlines have centered around rescuing his American compatriot (Bucky) from the clutches of evil. Eastern Europe exists sometimes as “Soviet,” sometimes as “Russian,” but always as a bastion evil and mind control. It’s almost like comics have something to say about politics! It’s almost like it’s trying to suggest that American values, capitalism and freedom, are better than Communism and state control!
This leaves aside more blatant examples, such as Art Speigleman’s Maus, which examines facism. Gee golly gosh. Looks like comic books are kinda political—and they have been for a while.
Not Just Comics
Even more broadly, publishing is a political act. Publishers are gatekeepers. Publishers decide what constitutes “art” and what doesn’t. Writers, authors, editors, and publishers all take gambles. George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm have both been banned. Orwell is a controversial writer. He took gambles writing such politicized books.
But his publisher also took a gamble publishing them. So publishing isn’t necessarily apolitical. In most cases, it’s inherently political. If you don’t agree with an author, you’re unlikely to publish them. People describe many magazines and newspapers as “left-leaning” or “right-leaning.” Some publications make their political stances boldly known. It may even be in their mission statement.
Writers and artists themselves are not apolitical creatures. Their work is almost invariably imbued with some sort of political message. When an editor asks for revisions, that’s political as well. When a publisher agrees to publish a book, that’s also a political act. It’s an endorsement of either what the author believes or what the publisher believes.
The Art of Subtlety?
Perhaps the latest rash of politicized comic books covers seems overly … overt. It’s like being conked over the head with a two-by-four. If publishers remove politicized works, they won’t have much left to sell.
Or perhaps the issue is less about politics in general, and more disagreement with the particular kind of politics comic book publishers seem to be pushing. Take another look at the medium’s history. Yes, comics have gone to the right. Yes, they have advocated heavily nationalistic and racist attitudes. But they’ve also swung quite far in the opposite direction as well. Don’t forget that Captain America punched Nazis as much as he punched Soviets. Much as the guy isn’t defecting to Soviet-era Russia or peddling Karl Marx to kids, he’s also not (usually) plugging for the right wing.
Some comics have most definitely decried mainstream rhetoric. X-Men asks the reader to explore the themes of “self” and the “other.” The mutants might be heroes or villains. The government sees all mutants as freaks who must be regulated, controlled, assimilated, and/or annihilated.
Look at the Marvel Civil War arc, which pitted Ironman’s pro-government registry faction against Captain America’s anti-registry group. Ironman argued that it would be easier for superheroes–freaks, outsiders, “others”–to operate within the bounds of government. It would be easier to work within the existing power structures of their oppressors. Captain America argued this would limit the superheroes’ autonomy, their ability to act.
Who does that sound familiar to? For me, as a Canadian, it sounds eerily similar to government policy around Indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples have been oppressed, assimilated, and annihilated. They’ve split into various factions supporting or decrying the government themselves.
The storyline echoes with any population discriminated against by a colonial power. I also hear echoes of feminist debates. In short, Civil War uses a fictional group of outsiders to explore social realities faced by “others.” Ultimately, Captain America’s group–the group arguing superheroes can’t be subjected to a government regulatory agency because it limits their power and right to self-governance too much–wins the day. Othered groups, the argument goes, are better off working outside of government structures. They should collaborate only when it’s beneficial to both groups. X-Men delivers much the same conclusion.
Complicating the Narrative(s)
If you’ve read those threads as support for the right’s argument about individual self-determinancy, limited government, and freedom, that’s your interpretation. From the stance of virtually anyone standing in a traditionally “othered” group, the echoes are too loud to ignore. The reading of a “leftist” argument that says all peoples are equal is arguably the stronger interpretation. It’s an argument against things like the Nazi registry of Jews and Blacks. It’s an argument against discrimination. It appears fundamentally left-leaning.
That doesn’t mean comics are inclusive or non-racist. Certainly, they’ve had their share of racist caricatures presented as “heroes.” The fact most heroes continue to be white and male suggests a fundamental feedback loop between creators and audiences who presumably share a similar identity.
The Problem of Comics
And this is part and parcel of the problem with comics. People have assumed comic book readers are white males. Creators are very often white males. Comics culture was able to cocoon itself somewhat in a white male culture, which became increasingly conservative over time.
All you have to do is listen to nerds argue about depictions of particular characters. They argue about who can and can’t portray certain characters. Superhero identities have proven very flexible over the years, with various characters taking up the mantle of this identity or that. In some ways, superhero identity is an exercise in the politics of identity. This should mean less debate over who “can” and “can’t” assume an identity, but this hasn’t been the case.
The overwhelming identity, however, remains white male. Both readership and authorship have tended to form a tight circle around those identities. The comics community has adopted identities like “nerd” and “geek.” Such identities are largely assumed to be “white male.”
An Unfinished Dialog
More open and more closed places exist within the realm of comics. Comics isn’t uncontested ground–nor should it be. Art is necessarily political, polemical in nature.
And even if you want your work to be entirely neutral? Someone will read something into it. So Philip Boyle’s plea for comic book publishers to stop parading their politics around and create a “safe space” for everyone to enjoy is necessarily dead in the water. A leftist will interpret a comic book one way, a right-winger another way, and the artist will have a third interpretation. And in between, there will be a hundred more interpretations, all varying degrees of correct and incorrect, and all of them necessarily political.