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Tights and the Good Fight: Politics and Comic Books

Jul 02, 2008 Summer 2008 - The Protest Issue Bookmark and Share

Politics long ago found their way into comic books. A few of many examples: Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1973) tackled his father’s experience with the Holocaust; Joe Sacco’s brilliant Palestine (2001) and Safe Area Gorazde (2000) are beacons of the graphic novel as journalism, covering the Israel-Palestine conflict and the Bosnian War, respectively.

And while there is often a divide between “literary” and indie comics, and the more mainstream superhero rags, our tights-wearing friends needn’t shy from heady subjects. Think of the unspoken fears they historically addressed: our own powerlessness or mortality, the ineptitude of our governing bodies. Superheroes were happy to step in as the “us” in “us vs. them.” Think of Captain America punching Hitler in the face. Feels good, doesn’t it?

In the ’80s, superhero books began to take a more explicit turn toward adult themes and political nuance. Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1986-1987) and V for Vendetta (1982-1988) dealt with the threat of nuclear war and a future fascist state, respectively. Frank Miller’s Give Me Liberty (1990) dripped with political satire. In the ’90s, the Berlin Wall came down, leaving an anxiety vacuum where the Cold War once uncomfortably sat.

September 11th changed that. Look at Captain America. This once-Hitler-puncher found himself in a stint as a sort of ACLU figure, albeit one with superpowers. In Marvel’s Civil War series, written by Mark Millar, superheroes found themselves subject to registration with the government and forced to reveal their true identities. Cap led the opposition against these Patriot Act-esque infringements. Millar agrees that comics allow readers to explore their own feelings and political beliefs with a little subjective distance. “Books like Watchmen and [The] Dark Knight [Returns] toyed with the big political issues of the day, but dressed them up as mainstream entertainment,” says Millar via email. “We don’t get too uncomfortable when the lines are delivered by a man in a cape, but we do pay a little more attention.”

With Millar’s new series for Image Comics, War Heroes, the superheroes are soldiers. The U.S. government designs drugs that grant them superpowers, hoping to break through the fatigue of what seems like a never-ending war, and enlistment spikes. “First and foremost, it’s an entertaining story. But secondly it’s a chance to say something in the mainstream about the war. It’s just been trundling along for half a decade now and the only time we even talk about it anymore is when a worthy, depressing movie appears in our cinemas for two weeks,” says Millar. “I wanted to do a big, mainstream summer movie of a comic that takes a look at all sides in the conflict and aim this squarely at the Spider-Man demographic. I don’t want to take the Robert Redford route and just preach to the converted.”

In Brian Wood’s ongoing DMZ series for DC/Vertigo, the war abroad is brought home—a civil war is taking place between the U.S. and the “Free States,” a sort of separationist militia gone big-time. The front line? Manhattan Island. Wood has essentially created a Baghdad in NYC, and focuses his story, through the eyes of a naïve photojournalist named Matty Roth, on the day-to-day lives of people caught between the warring parties. Wood’s first book, Channel Zero, also focused on dystopian New York, but he finds it a bit heavy-handed in retrospect. “It was very much a product of being an angry art student in New York. It was pretty preachy, very amateurish,” says Wood from his home in Brooklyn. With DMZ, he backed off a bit. “I wanted to construct a fairly mainstream action-oriented story around it, try to be accessible,” he says. “So it was this balancing act; trying to write at the commercial level and the political level.”

With his DC/Wildstorm series Ex Machina, Brian K. Vaughan decided to put a superhero in office. “I was living in NYC during 9/11, and my wife and I watched the towers fall from the roof of our apartment in Brooklyn. Like all writers, I was eager to respond to that in my writing, but comics seemed kind of like an ill-suited medium to discuss something like that,” he says from his current home in L.A. “As months went on, and I saw stuff like [John] Kerry running on his war record, or Schwarzenegger getting elected as Governor of California, it seemed like in this post-9/11 world people were really hungry for heroes as leaders. It seems that comics have always been the best medium at exploring the myth and reality of heroes, so it felt like the right place to do a political parable.”

Ex Machina opens with Mitchell Hundred, aka The Great Machine, preventing the plane from hitting the second Twin Tower. He’s elected mayor, ostensibly leaving his power—the ability to communicate with machinery—behind. The series then follows Hundred through a whirlwind of local politics and events related to his powers, with the snappy dialogue of a great TV show. Vaughan actually writes for ABC’s Lost, it should be noted, and he shared a sentiment that both Wood and Millar touched on as well: It’s the very nature of comics that allows them to be a bit more subversive in a mainstream entertainment business. “It’s largely because the audience is much smaller, so the threshold that’s necessary to recoup your investment—just on a purely mercenary business level—is so small that you are much more free to take chances, and to do things that if you were going to do on television might make the network uncomfortable,” he says.

At the end of the day it’s all about the story. “I don’t write about politics because I feel I have a moral obligation to address what’s going on, I just think it’s a fascinating time, politically, to be living in, and how could you not want to address something so interesting in your fiction?” says Vaughan. “It has nothing to do with me being a good citizen, and everything to do with me just looking to exploit and steal from whatever’s cool that’s going on in my world.”


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October 10th 2009

Nice article. Quite insightful indeed. i enjoyed it very much. Thanks a lot for good work.

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