As someone who discusses superhero comics at conventions, in stores, and on message boards, I’ve noticed certain statements that pop up more frequently than others. At the top of that list, somewhere between “One More Day sucks” (it does) and “Superman is boring” (he’s not), are the words “why is this writer getting so political?”, often accompanied by audible groans of disapproval. This is sure to be the case whenever a comic tries to be topical by addressing a controversial issue. But is this a legitimate complaint? Should comics be the domain of escapism and mindless entertainment, or is there an insidious anti-intellectualism at play in these remarks?
First off, there’s nothing wrong with, as the tired phrase goes, “getting political.” Politics is a fundamental pillar of society. A divisive and often dirty one, but that’s just the way things are. Avoiding it, in my opinion, only leaves us worse off. The role of art, in fact, is to expand our mental horizons, to make us think about things we perhaps would not have thought of otherwise, or to think in ways we had not considered. That’s why so much of the best art, whether visual or narrative (or, in the case of comics, both) conjures the uncomfortable, the uncanny. In Watchmen, Alan Moore explores the psychological turmoil that, as he sees it, must be lurking inside the mind of any caped crusader who takes the law into their own hands. Warren Ellis explored the fascist tendencies within the superhero archetype in the pages of The Authority. Those are among the best works the genre has ever produced.
Secondly, readers very often complain simply because it’s not their own brand of politics being reflected in the work. But one is not required agree with the central thesis of a work to appreciate it’s artistic value. I think The Dark Knight is a fantastic movie, while I wholeheartedly disagree with its politics. I don’t need to approve of mass surveillance and vigilantism to appreciate a Batman story. I abhor both those things in any real-world scenario. And, of course, no one is forcing anyone to buy these comics. If you find political disagreements with a work or a work’s author(s) a compelling reason to avoid consuming that work, you are free not to purchase it, not to consume it.
This phenomenon was particularly evident when I was perusing the comments under articles about Red Skull’s anti-immigrant speech. It reflected recent tensions in the United States and, judging by the vitriol it received, was perhaps too spot-on in capturing the spirit of the times. It wasn’t a particularly offensive caricature; the speech itself was, in fact, anodyne compared to what the alt-right often espouse publicly. Sadly, Red Skull happens to be far more erudite and well-spoken than his real world counterparts.
However, that speech still caused fanboy outbursts to the tune of “why is Marvel being so political?” That struck me, it goes without saying, as an asinine complaint—especially considering that it happened to be a Captain America comic. The cover of the first Captain America comic had Steve Rogers slugging Hitler right in the jaw (months before the US actually entered the war against the Axis). Three decades later, he gave up his hero identity because of Nixon. He wears the American flag, one of the most politically charged symbols in our contemporary world. I feel I’m stating the obvious at this point.
My other gripe about this discussion is that it requires a brazen disregard for comics history. Comics have always been political. The X-Men allegorized the struggle for civil rights and, later, LGBT rights. And as I argued in my recent series, it’s a hard to find a single issue by renowned master of the genre Alan Moore that doesn’t carry heavy political undertones. It’s rather late to start demanding comics put aside the political commentary. Comics, whether static images or narrative tales, have a storied history of political critique. Although that has come out most notably in satirical ways (see the controversy over such periodicals as Charlie Hebdo), there is much to be said for the kind of analysis a well-told superhero story can present.
There was a time when superheroes shied away from politics, though, during the heyday of the absurdly stringent Comics Code Authority. These were the same industry standards that barred Stan Lee from even mentioning drugs in a seminal Spider-Man story. Lee ignored the “don’t get political” sentiment, much to the dismay of CCA, and it resulted in a story that has been considered a classic (and twice loosely adapted in animated form).
For me, the very nature of superheroes demands that their stories be politically self-aware. Not every comic needs to be overtly political, but if you have a character who uses violence to uphold the law, you’ve made a political statement whether or not you meant to. To leave an area so ripe with possibility untouched is bad writing.
More fundamentally, though, one should never criticize a work of art for what it “should have been.” Instead, criticize it to establish whether it accomplished what it set out to do. The purpose of fiction is to reflect our surroundings—and to enable us to reflect on them, to examine the world from a safe distance. Decrying political comics as a bad thing both disrespects the variety of human perspectives, and does a disservice to the purpose of art itself.