Our pal Omar wrote this up at the Comics Should Be Good forum here, but I thought it was notable enough for it to appear here, too! Nice work, Omar!
Every so often, someone will ask, “Where is today’s version of a comic in which Superman or Captain America deck Bin Laden?” They point, with nostalgic pride, at the cover to Captain America Comics #1, or to Siegel and Shuster’s oft-reprinted Superman strip from a 1940 issue of Life Magazine featuring the capture and Hague-style trial of then-allies Hitler and Stalin. (As an aside, the crime for which they’re punished is “modern history’s greatest crime — making war on unarmed nations!” The news of Nazi and Stalinist genocide hadn’t made it big yet, apparently.)
I’m here to argue that we oughtn’t bother with such bizarre posturing by proxy. I’m here to argue for the long-overdue death of nostalgia for the WWII propaganda comic.
Portraying Cap punching Osama on the cover or interior of a comic, like Frank Miller’s recent announcement that he’s sending Batman after the murderous demagogue’s organization, seems quite silly and meaningless in a a world where the real Al Qaeda virtually daily blows up a bunch of civilians or soldiers.
And before you ask, I have some trouble with the Cap vs. Nazis stuff as well. And those problems are exactly those that’d inhere to nearly any direct portrayal of “Cap vs. Bin Laden” as well.
It’s the same problem one gets when one sees Kruschev comedically ranting about how he’ll destroy Iron Man and crush freedom in old Tales of Suspense issues, or in that awful West Coast Avengers story where historical monsters including Stalin and Himmler came back from Hell with costumes and powers and proceeded to run around having punch-ups with Wonder Man and Tigra. It’s just, at a certain level, deeply stupid and offensive.
It invariably amounts to the pretense that these guys are no different than comic-book supervillains and can be dealt with in the same way. Of course no one sane or decent likes Stalin, bin Laden, Hitler, or the rest. But most of those people don’t need a clumsy cartoon to make them feel better by having pretend heroes beat up unrealistic, pretend versions of real dangers to humanity.
At a basic level one has to remember that all of those old stories featuring a caricatured, cowardly, blowhard Hitler 1) came out before most people knew the extent of the Nazi regime’s anti-Semitism, and long before any of the creators or buyers of the comic knew of the Shoah; and 2) already seem rather trivializing of the monstrosity of the real Hitler and the deaths of real people when you consider that at the same time the average comics fan of the 1940s was reading about Cap punching cartoon-Hitler in the face, the real Hitler was oppressing millions and his troops were shooting real bullets at real troops; and 3) the average age of a comics reader at that point in time was somewhere between 6 and 10 years old; no one much older read the things until Stan Lee and the 1960s came around, and, if anything, comics had an even worse reputation as juvenilia back then than they have for quite a while now.
Does anyone read the vaudeville-accented, utterly silly Hitler of those comics — hell, of even a number of 1960s Cap comics — and think that caricature in any way resembles the real Hitler or does justice to the real sacrifices made to stop him, the very real horror he caused? Or is he at best a mere shorthand for “comic-book evil” requiring minimal work on the writer’s part and at best a madly errant effort to make people with minimal power and some degree of insecurity over the final outcome of a conflict feel as if they were winning all the same?
Viewed in that light, it’s at best misguided and at worst rather tasteless.
Consider also the general message one might take from such a comic: real soldiers are useless, and it would take a superhero to actually threaten these tyrants and terrorists. It elevates the enemy to the status of a grand super villain, when the enemy was never that grand or that omnipotent…nor, sadly, that absurd and comical.
More to the point, it’s a profoundly uninspiring message in today’s context, where it’s infinitely harder to simply pretend that a clash of symbols can solve a problem of reality. Such stuff provides imaginary, childish hope at the expense of practical, adult solutions. Patriotism is no longer interchangeable for most people with jingoism, and propaganda of that sort no longer functions even as working propaganda. Nor do most people read reality in the terms of heroic epic.
Bin Laden, like Hitler, will probably always stand in (in Europe, America, well, pretty much everywhere wihtout a significant population os Islamist militants) as a byword for unspeakable evil, but the binary doesn’t, for most today, automatically confer nobility and virtue on whoever opposes them. And that conferral of nobility is the other side of the allegorical transfer meant by pitting comics’ paragons of morality against reality’s icons of monstrosity and atrocity. That’s the danger of propaganda; it fools us into believing in our absolute virtue without being bothered to demonstrate it, without being forced to check it against our actions and their results.
Old-style propaganda comics aren’t bad because they’re anti-bin Laden or anti-Hitler, they’re bad because, like all propaganda, they at some level aim at producing psychological relief by way of the inherently disempowering impulse to avoid a real confrontation and real complexities in favor of a pretend showdown where victory is easy and the foe is both absurdly large-scale and inanely non-threatening.
In short, it’s not only kids’ stuff, but badly-done kids’ stuff. And I don’t think contemporary comics or their readers or the war effort will benefit from reviving any of it today.
I’m sensible enough to realize that Nazi iconography and, yes, comic-book Hitler are effectively now fictions almost totally detached from the original reality; that Hitler in the Marvel Universe really isn’t the real Hitler, but instead just one more super-villain who occasionally wears a colorful costume and spouts a melodramatic rant and wields a Kirby ray gun; but you see, that’s just about the only way he works in the MU: as something that really isn’t the real Hitler in any way, shape, or form, but instead as an astoundingly reductive allegory for prejudice that Captain America defeats by refusing to give in to his hate, or Nick Fury beats up and shoves through a space-station airlock.
Nor am I arguing that superhero comics can’t do real-world problems and threats; they do ’em all the time. What I’m arguing is that superhero comics generally have to do these problems as reductive allegories; that the price of bringing gun control into the Marvel Universe is that it becomes Superhuman Registration; that the price of writing a story where Batman confronts terrorism is that neither his methods nor his opponents will really be all that much like any real military operation or any real terrorist, nor will they wind up being all that distinguishable from his last go-round with Ra’s al Ghul (who is, really, already a vaguely Arabic terrorist, isn’t he?). Putting the face and name of the real enemy on such thin fictions is, at some level, profoundly dishonest. Pretending that pretend, often impossible methods have direct relevance to real problems likewise seems dishonest, and more than that, willfully stupid.
To do politics, let alone war, superheroes need instead to take into account just what the translation of those issues into the terms of the artifices of the genre will do upon what I might term a re-translation. There are stories that I think have done this aspect halfway well, to be sure. I won’t name them here, at the risk of sparking an even bigger and certainly more tangential argument than this post might.
No, I’m here to argue against the return of a type of story that really isn’t as inspiring or as clever or, ultimately, as good as some people seem to remember it.