Are You Now, Or Have You Ever Been? When Comics Meet PoliticsA column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Nicholas Slayton
For a long time, long before I was born; heck, probably long before you were born, comic books were created as escapist stories, intended to take you out of the real world and into a world of adventure and excitement. Today, comics still offer rousing tales of heroism, action, and crazy ideas. The only difference is that the real world offers some of the main inspiration to the stories.
A lot of Internet controversy lately has involved Marvel’s new miniseries Civil War and its use of modern day politics. The series deals with the rights of the people, the extent of privacy from the government heroes are allowed, and what happens when innocents are harmed in the service of good. Already countless readers are reading the miniseries as an analogy to the Bush Administration, the NSA Wiretaps, and the Second Persian Gulf War. Much of the praise and criticism comes from the inclusion of these political topics in comics. This idea has been called either revolutionary or thinly veiled attacks on current leaders, depending on your point of view.
What people fail to realize is that politics have been affecting comics for decades.
The start of politics influencing comics undoubtedly goes back to World War II. Prior to this, comics had dealt with issues like crime in the streets, or pulp style adventures with “hard-boiled gumshoes.” Yet, even before America slowly entered the war, a new theme appeared in the growing comic book industry: nationalism. Quite quickly, all the new superheroes carried the same theme of America. The first of these patriotic superheroes was the Shield, who appeared in Pep Comics in January 1940. He was interesting for the sole idea that he reported to none other then J. Edgar Hoover. There was also Uncle Sam, Mr. America (later the Americommando), the Force of July, and National Comics’ (DC to most) Freedom Fighters, led under the prior mentioned Uncle Sam. Then of course, there was the mack daddy of them all: Captain America.
The brainchild of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, the frail Steve Rogers was turned into a muscular super-soldier to protect the shores of America and its interests. Captain America could be considered the epitome of the patriotic comics of the era. Tough, fearless, enlisted, he used his shield to lay the smack down upon the enemies of the United States, in this case, Nazis. Lots and lots of Nazis. His main enemy was the Red Skull, a Nazi mastermind who adored Hitler himself. If that isn’t an ideological statement, I don’t know what is.
Yet, it wasn’t just patriotic based characters that were getting into the American politics game. Superman, the first superhero himself joined in, with what is still considered to be one of the most famous bits of propaganda from the forties: the cover of Action Comics #58, in which a caption proudly states that buying war bonds can allow you to “slap a Jap.” In fact, many comics of the day were used to advocate war bonds and like-minded products, with almost all of them saying that it can help stop the enemy.
Yet, when WWII ended, the comic industry was still going strong, even with the Nazis and fascists gone. For six years or so, things were hunky dory in the superhero world. Then, in an odd event, many superhero comics went the way of the Dodo in 1951 as anti-Communist McCarthyism grasped the world. A Communism-opposed Captain America was revived, but quickly vanished. With the exception of watered down versions of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, it seemed that the very thing that had helped propel comics to grand sales in the early forties were destroying the industry in the fifties.
Yet It wasn’t until the beginning of the Silver Age of Comics that politically themed characters returned to the pages. Marvel Comic’s Iron Man owed his very origin to politics. Injured by Communists on a trip to Vietnam, industrialist Tony Stark fashioned a suit of armor to save his life and fight bad guys. And who else would a man whose company was often contracted by the American military fight? You guessed it. Communists. The Kremlin would send characters like the Crimson Dynamo and the Black Widow after the armored playboy, although it was usually with little success as Capitalism and the American way won out. Another notable Cold War storyline appeared in a Bronze Age Batman tale. In it, then-President Ronald Reagan was the target of the Soviet assassin KGBeast. Yes, his name was KGBeast. Once again though, America triumphed.
However, while the direct Cold War approach in real world storytelling was fading away, a new attempt to mix politics and comics had emerged: spy thrillers. By the late eighties many comic book government sanctioned spy and soldier groups such as Checkmate and the Suicide Squad rose to prominence. Checkmate, with its roster organized in a pseudo chess piece hierarchy had a rather interesting way of calling its foot soldiers “Pawns.” The Suicide Squad took an interesting premise, using incarcerated supervillains as its members. Meanwhile, at Marvel, the original spy comic had existed since the 60s. S.H.I.E.L.D., headed by former soldier Nick Fury, was the staple of espionage and covert missions. Fury was pitted against the terrorist group HYDRA, and their leader, who turned out to be an ex-Nazi and an old enemy of Fury himself. Even the Justice League got into the mix, going “international,” with embassies in Europe and America, and a multinational roster.
However, the politics angle faded out during the 90s. Different trends and wild ideas took prominence in comics. It wouldn’t be until the sad event known as September 11, 2001 that politics really made a comeback in modern comics. With the exception of a somewhat over the top rendition of Captain America battling terrorists, sophisticated political comics began to emerge. Brian K Vaughan’s Ex Machina explores the life of a superhero-turned-politician after he helped to save countless lives during September 11. Ed Brubaker’s relaunch of Captain America is a tense thriller, utilizing subjects such as the Cold War, as well as bureaucracy, has captivated audiences since issue one. With its One Year Later jump, DC and Greg Rucka have relaunched the Checkmate series with a grand international approach, pitting the United Nations group against various countries such as China and North Korea. Then there’s, in my personal opinion, the best recent comic to tackle politics, if from a very pro-American way: Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s The Ultimates. This adaptation of the long running Avengers title sets familiar characters in the Ultimate Marvel Universe, but with different approaches to both the characters, but also the stories. Government-run S.H.I.E.L.D., in an effort to prepare America for upcoming conflicts on a posthuman genetic level establishes a combat team of super-human. The team is led by Captain America, who is perhaps even more patriotic, and possibly jingoistic, than his regular version. The team has dealt with a wide away of real world problems, from being called a waste of money from the taxpayers, to aiding the Armed Forces in strikes on opposing countries.
Yet It is, in fact, this very realistic action that has prompted an equally realistic reaction. Millar and Hitch play upon the current tensions between America and countries such as France, Syria, Russia, Iran, China, North Korea, and Iran to create the main story in the second volume of the series. In response to increasingly violent, and lawbreaking moves by the Ultimates, the coalition of countries created a similar team dubbed the Liberators, which along with a large army, invaded America. The story has not been concluded as of now, but is highly engaging and incredibly fun.
With a huge of mount of international tensions and conflicts, it appears that the comic book industry will have enough material to make political stories for years. Writers have evolved the standard America vs. Country X concept into fast paced thrillers utilizing the best, and sometimes the shady, aspect of modern politics. Where this goes from now, I don’t know. All I know is that I’m going to keep reading.