Heroes that we love, stories that we enjoy, art that we all work to collect—it’s all political, guys.
Right now, I’m reading the Mass Effect Omnibus Vol. 1 for review and, of course, to write a column about it while working on a couple other things (How is it already time for Year in Review articles? Like, seriously, where did the year go?) like an interview, hopefully, soon. Anyways, something that’s been coming up in one of my Facebook comic circles is that comics aren’t political. It’s repeated like some mantra, like people are trying to tune out the fact that they’re interested in a medium of art that is directly impacted by politics—maybe not every issue is political, but you get the idea. Heroes that we love, stories that we enjoy, art that we all work to collect—it’s all political, guys.
This year, we’ve seen a lot of politics coming out in comic books. After Secret Wars, it was clear that our new Captain America was going to be Sam Wilson, who was also known as Falcon, one of Captain America’s best team-ups. I saw firsthand some racially-charged anger over the fact that Captain America was going to be black. I had to check out what Sam Wilson, Captain America was going to be about and I fell totally in love with it. Sam was the Captain America that America needed (and, I’d argue, still needs) to reflect its now extremely diverse population—not that we haven’t always been diverse, it’s just that I don’t think Steve Rogers is necessarily the best representation for America. The idea that Sam Wilson “Isn’t my Captain America” was rampant and was cheekily address in the first issue of All-New All-Different Avengers when a wife chastised her husband for uttering it. Steve needed to serve a new purpose—and some of the fans rallied behind him as a representation of how good things “used to be” and what the “real Captain America” was. Sam possesses the same sort of homegrown values that Steve does—after all, they worked together quite well. So what was really at the core of this rejection of an African-American Captain America? I’ll leave those dots for you guys to connect.
Steve, then, was a voice for unity of the Unity Squad of Inhumans, Mutants, and Avengers in Uncanny Avengers, but still there seemed to be this impatient voice that was simply waiting for him to become young again and pick up the shield, take it back from Sam (#takebacktheshield, anyone?). Clearly, Marvel had other plans for the character of Steve Rogers, and The Assault on Pleasant Hill event saw the return of Steve’s youthful outside, but the inside of him was changed dramatically by his interaction with a Cosmic Cube—his very core was altered. Steve Rogers #1 introduced this new Steve, a Steve that was a double-agent and, oh yeah, also working for HYDRA—and people went ballistic. HYDRA, Steve’s longtime nemesis, was now a place that he also reported to—and Nick Spencer, the writer for this comic, got what is becoming the normal slew of backlash from fans: death threats, insults, Twitter temper-tantrums, and the bashing of the title. They called this move for Steve anti-Semitic and disrespectful, among other things. This makes Captain America an excellent character for this study on comic books and politics.
Captain America was created by two Jewish men who were looking to rally America into getting involved in World War II to save Europe from the murderous rampaging of Hitler.
That feels like a whole truckload of politics.
Bucky Barnes took up the shield and became Captain America after Steve was killed in the aftermath of Civil War because of his active attempts to undermine the Superhero Registration Act—yes, Captain America is killed for defending the rights of superheroes to privacy… Just let that sink in for a moment. Bucky Barnes, the solider turned Russian tool turned mercenary, becomes the defender of America and bears the mantle of Captain America—bringing a new set of morals and values to the role that reflected the post-9/11 world that the Captain America comic now resided in.
That feels like a whole truckload of politics.
Sam Wilson, an African-American, picks up the shield after Steve Rogers’ age finally catches up to him and he’s shifted to a glorified public relations deskjob for the Unity Squad. Fans are outraged that an African-American is now carrying the shield and is Captain America.
That feels like a whole truckload of politics.
Captain America is just one character in a universe that also houses the X-Men, an allegory for the struggle towards equality for all people. I think that people embraced these comics, initially, because they resonated with their political message. Captain America was a hero who fought Nazi Germany, which was something that felt American because Hitler was obviously the bad guy and America was supposed to be the good guy! People loved the X-Men and knew the Brotherhood of Mutants were the bad guys because the X-Men fought to protect humanity and hoped for a future where humanity would accept them, and the Brotherhood of Mutants believed in Mutant superiority over all else—including humanity. These feelings were second nature and the politics in comics were embraced, and later studied as comic books made their way into academic circles. And it’s not just something that is present in Marvel. Superman, the world’s favorite alien, also was also a Jewish creation and served as an altruistically good foil to the wholly American vigilante, Batman.
At some point, readers understood that partaking in comic books was also partaking in politics and they didn’t mind. Remember the hype around the first gay marriage in comic books? Thanks, X-Men.
Gender and sexuality are also important centers for political discussions in comic books. A lot of women that I knew stopped reading DC comics because of how women were portrayed throughout all of the New 52—and clearly DC realized that it had made a major misstep because DC Rebirth narratively undid all of the damage that the New 52 had done to the DC Universe by blaming Dr.Manhattan (I dislike Alan Moore, so this narrative worked for me! >.>;) for tinkering with it. Taking things one step more, DC announced earlier this month that a season 3 of Young Justice is in the works—the series was rumored to have been canceled because it too popular among female viewers, and women shouldn’t be involved in comics because we do things like demand equal gender treatment and want female heroes to more than just TnA in tight costumes, among other things.
At some point, supporting a comic book stood for supporting its cause. Buying an issue of Captain America was supporting our boys across the pond. So when did we stop acknowledging the politics in our comics?
My generation, to quote a soundbyte in a Macklemore song, is “the generation to be offended by everything” and I think that this does a disservice to my generation. My generation has more access to higher education than I think any generation before it—and we want that education (and the ridiculous amount of debt that comes with it!)—but we’re now, more than ever, motivated by reasons that extend past educating ourselves for a wage increase. We’re getting degrees in the liberal arts to learn about the world around us. Because we care. Because we see something that we think is broken and we want to change it, but first we have to learn about what came before it (which is why everyone should be required to study history, at the very least). In studying the world, we begin to see the flaws in it. Really, when you learn about anything intimately, you see its flaws and you see what makes it amazing.
You learn how to critically analyze it, because now you know it. The same idea applies to comics—or at least it should.
More and more I’m finding people who just want to look at the colors and the words on the page or the screen that they’re reading on. They actively remove the political commentary from their comics. I think that this does a disservice not only to the comic, but to the reader themselves. If you’re not properly interacting with whatever you’re doing (and I think that critical thought is part of that interaction) then you’re not really enjoying it for whatever it is, flaws and all. I’m sure you have your reasons: comics are too political these days, you’re not a SJW (so you don’t see what’s wrong with it, anyways, they’re just whining to whine), and the list goes on and on and on. But, you’re not taking the politics completely out because your choice not to buy Steve Rogers because that’s “Supporting a Nazi!” is political, your choice to defend J. Scott Campbell when he oversexualizes a young girl on a variant cover is political, when you choose to buy all of the DC Superman books except New Superman because that Superman is Chinese and isn’t Clark Kent, you are making a political choice, and when you tell yourself that the choices you are making aren’t political, you are removing yourself from an important conversation that you should be having.
Choosing to partake of the medium without acknowledging the power of its contents does a disservice to everyone involved in its production and everyone involved in its consumption—and it’s just so… lazy. I, for one, will never be a lazy comic consumer, and will own the creations that I love, even when they’re flawed, because their strengths and weaknesses force me to critically consider them.
I encourage those of you who are actively choosing to ignore a facet of your comic consumption to stop and sit with the great things about your comics, but also the bad things – because ignoring the flaws of something don’t make them go away, it just allows their perpetuation. And that’s never a good thing. | Catherine Bathe