The political leanings of superhero comics … revealed!

by  in Comic News Comment
The political leanings of superhero comics … revealed!

No, this isn’t another post about Captain America #602. It’s partly inspired by that, but it’s much more far-reaching than that. You recall that every once in a while I like to generalize about comics in such a way that it sends people into paroxysms of rage? Well, here’s another one of those posts! They’re always fun, aren’t they?

This post was inspired more by a response to the whole Captain America thing rather than the thing itself. Back when Bill Reed wrote his “open letter” to the instigator of the conservative rage, everyone’s favorite conservative CSBG commenter (and I don’t mean that facetiously; he’s certainly my favorite), T., wrote: “For a conservative, life is very different. Pro-liberal and anti-conservative rhethoric is thrown in your face regularly, in your comics, your talk show monologues, the stand up comedy you watch, dramas and sitcoms, the newspapers. … While I do think he’s right about the liberal bias being pervasive and comics [sic], and while I do believe that there is a good chance that this incident with Captain America may not be as innocent as the powers that be claim, I think his hypersensitivity to the issue is just hurting his cause and making him come off bad.”

T. is a very interesting dude (I ought to read his blog more often; he goes days or weeks without posting, and then suddenly there’s like ten new posts, all tens of thousands of words long, and I occasionally spend hours catching up), and he’s been making this point for some time here at the blog. I don’t have an issue with the “pro-liberal and anti-conservative rhetoric” that gets thrown in the faces of comics-reading conservatives, but then he comes to “I think he’s right about the liberal bias being pervasive [in] comics” (I’m going to assume that’s what T. meant to type, and the “and” is a typo). I have to disagree. Because superhero comics (which I’m going to assume we’re talking about, because that’s what Captain America is) are fundamentally conservative. I don’t think there’s really any argument about it, and I’ll tell you why (you just knew I was going to tell you why, didn’t you?).

Let’s consider what I mean when I use the word “conservative.” The labels “conservative” and “liberal” have become so bastardized over the years that no one really knows what they mean anymore. Liberals seem to define themselves by opposing everything conservatives come up with. Conservatives, on the other hand, claim that they want smaller government and fewer taxes … unless a candidate they support wants those things. Each side has lost any moral high ground because they refuse to stick to their guns when their candidate betrays their principles. If your party is in power, the minority party’s ability to use a filibuster in “unconstitutional.” If your party is in the minority, the filibuster is the only way to prevent tyranny. So the terms are essentially meaningless anyway. Which means I get to define them! Yay!

So let’s get rid of them, shall we? If you look at the so-called conservatives and so-called liberals in power in government, the differences between them are fairly negligible. They don’t want you to believe that, but they are. So the labels we attach to them are worthless. It’s too early in Obama’s presidency to really suss out what he believes or what he’s going to do, but consider President Bush, who many liberals consider an arch-conservative (it’s telling that many on the right don’t). He began two wars because “that’s what conservatives do,” but he ignored the political reality that fighting a war means raising taxes, because he was being “fiscally conservative.” However, being “fiscally conservative” doesn’t necessarily mean not taxing the people, it means spending within your means. If you start a costly war, you better be able to pay for it. If you can’t, you turn a huge surplus (which Bush inherited) into a crippling deficit. We got the deficit because Bush didn’t raise taxes. But he forgot the other part of being “fiscally conservative” – don’t spend a lot. But that’s just an example of a so-called “conservative” acting like a so-called “liberal” (in the increase in government size, that is). There are plenty. What do all these people in power have in common? They want to preserve the status quo. This is the real division in politics – those with power, and those without. Those with it become conservative, as they want to “conserve” what they have. Those without power become “liberal” – but that’s not a terribly good term. “Radical” might be better, because they want to change the status quo. Of course, if they change it to achieve what they want, they will become conservative. It’s just the way things are. The radical on the left and the right are far more similar to each other – they both think politicians are corrupt – than they are to moderate members of their own parties. Similarly, moderate members of opposing parties are far more similar to each other than they are to the lunatic fringes of their own parties. This isn’t a radical or original notion, but it’s worth pointing out.

So what on earth does this have to do with superhero comics? Superhero comics, in the medium of American comics, represent the status quo. Therefore, they don’t change. At all. This is, again, not an original notion, but when people on the right talk of comics pushing a liberal agenda, they’re missing the point. Yes, most comic book writers are liberals. I can think of two conservative ones off the top of my head – Bill Willingham and Chuck Dixon (Frank Miller falls into a whole separate category – “batshit insane”). I imagine there are others, but those are the famous ones. So these liberal comic book writers have their characters spout liberal propaganda (if you’re a conservative) or common-sense wisdom (if you’re a liberal). But this isn’t about what a particular writer has a particular character say or do. Unless it’s a creator-owned property, some other writer can come along and use the character to spout different propaganda. Now, given the propensity of liberal writers, the propaganda will probably be the same, but it’s not necessarily true. Good writers can get away with changing Peter Parker, say, from a brain-dead liberal to a mouth-breathing conservative fairly easily. It’s when the propaganda is blatant that the other side gets upset. Of course, superhero comics aren’t known for their subtlety, so very often, the propaganda is blatant, which is what upsets the other side – in this case, conservatives.

But should they be upset? Yes, they’re “bombarded” by simpering lefty propaganda, but that’s just text. Everything has subtext, even superhero comics, and the subtext is all conservative. Let’s take Captain America as our first example. I haven’t read the infamous issue because I buy my Brubaker Cap in handy, Giant-Sized Omnibus form, so I’ve only read through issue #42 (and they’re already up to #602? shit). But let’s consider the run in general. I like it a lot, but it’s extremely conventional. It maintains the status quo. The two big baddies in the run are a Nazi and a Communist. Come on, that’s a conservative’s dream villian match-up! And they share a body, too! Although Brubaker stretches things out over several years, it’s interesting how “superheroic” the run really is – despite all the machinations, Steve and then Bucky simply end up punching people out. Bucky himself, one half of the bête noire of Captain America #602, rebels against the Communists. I mean, can you get more American and therefore traditionally “conservative”? I’ll get back to the fact that Lukin/Skull uses a capitalistic corporation in an attempt to destroy America, because it’s important. But for the most part, Brubaker’s Captain America, like every other superhero comic, is about maintaining the status quo.

Maintaining the status quo has been what conservatives claim to favor for years, but as I’ve argued above, it’s not a conservative/liberal thing. The reason the Tea Party isn’t conservative is because what they are advocating isn’t conservative, it’s radical. From their mission statement: “The impetus for the Tea Party movement is excessive government spending and taxation. Our mission is to attract, educate, organize, and mobilize our fellow citizens to secure public policy consistent with our three core values of Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited Government and Free Markets.” Those three things sound perfectly groovy, but here’s the point: the way they lay them out and claim what they want is extremely radical. There’s never been a country like it in the history of the world, even in the glorious days of the Founding Fathers (which they reference often). The closest, perhaps, that anyone has ever come is the pre-Constitution days of the Articles of Confederation, and that almost destroyed the country. What the Tea Party wants is a complete utopia, as utopian (and therefore as unsustainable) as the craziest hippie commune of the 1960s. They aren’t conservatives. They’re radical idealists. There’s nothing wrong with being a radical idealist (I would love to have true anarchy in this world, for instance), but you can’t have any sort of government based on it. Ask the French of the early 1790s about it. Or the Chinese of the 1960s.

But back to superhero comics. No superhero comic from Marvel or DC is liberal in the truest sense of the word, challenging the status quo. Occasionally writers from outside the mainstream superhero world write a superhero comic that does challenge the status quo. What do they often come up with? A left-leaning dictatorship, much like Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China. This is perhaps the consequence when superheroes take over – they are really the ultimate in “governmental involvement” in people’s lives, because they are, by their abilities, “better” than everyone else. So they set the rules, usually very undemocratically (they can’t trust the regular folk to know what’s good for them, can they?). They take resources away from the few and distribute them, free of charge, to the many. And guess what? They never last. Something happens to corrupt them. The superheroes may be the “good guys,” but they come to realize that taking over is not the way to go and the people have to decide for themselves. Why, that’s the very essence of the conservative ideal! The status quo, in other words, must be sustained. When superheroes challenge it, things go to pot rather quickly. The one change to the status quo that I can think of that didn’t lead to counter-revolution and disaster is Joe Casey’s in Wildcats. Why? Spartan challenged the status quo by using a corporation. His business practices changed the world, and conservatives love when new business opportunities bring about positive change.

This gets back to the Kronas Corporation and Lukin’s attempt to “buy America.” I’m sure many conservatives would look at this as an anti-business screed by Brubaker, and maybe that’s what he intended it to be. But it’s not. I’ve often pointed out that business, the conservative’s best friend, is poorly represented in comics, but I’ve been convinced otherwise. Big business itself is rather neutral. The Kronas Corporation isn’t evil because it’s a business; it’s evil because it’s run by an evil dude. Brubaker might be pointing out that all big businesses are run by evil dudes, but that’s a stretch. All the evil corporations in Marvel and DC might partake in evil things, but it’s all because the people running them are evil, in a completely comic-book way – that is, ostentatiously evil. And the good corporations in Marvel and DC are good because good people are running them. We don’t really get a good portrait of big business in superhero comics, because they’re so closely tied to the people who run them that we can see them as “good” or “evil” based on the person in charge. Consider the two big moguls in Marvel and DC: Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne. We know very little about the day-to-day running of their businesses – probably a bit more about Stark, because his business is a bit more tied to his superhero identity – but it seems like they’re typical, relatively conservative businessmen. Yes, they do business as imagined by a “liberal” writer – they figure out ways to work “green,” for instance – but they always have an eye toward making money, and from what little we know about Bruce Wayne, he believes in the “conservative” way of charity – that it comes from rich people who have good hearts, and not from the government. Many rich folk in the Marvel and DC worlds make their money by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps – obviously, this doesn’t hold for someone like Bruce Wayne, but a lot of the other people in the two universes are smart people who succeed in business because the capitalistic society in which they live allows them to succeed. If that’s not something conservatives believe in, I don’t know what is. So while we hear a lot rhetoric from the liberal writers of superhero comics about how horrible big business is, once again the subtext bears out that it’s mostly veneer. At their core, the businesses of the Big Two are neutral – it’s all about who’s in charge. If it’s Justin Hammer, the business is eeeeeevil. If it’s Ted Kord, it’s good.

Marvel has always been a bit more concerned with “real-world” stuff than DC, and this decade they’ve tried to be even more “relevant” (as relevant as superhero comics can be, that is, which isn’t much). The axis around which the Marvel Universe has revolved for most of the decade is Civil War, which many people read incorrectly. It’s not traditional right-wingers who “won” the Civil War, it’s traditional left-wingers. This may sound insane to you, but it’s true. Many people read Civil War as a parallel of Bush’s expansion of governmental power due to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, which isn’t a terrible interpretation. However, it’s not the best analogy. While the terrorist attacks occurred in the Marvel Universe, they had absolutely no impact (Civil War, you’ll recall, began five years after 2001 and two years after the Iraq war began, and jokes about Steve McNiven’s slowness aside, that’s too long to draw a completely accurate parallel). Civil War was spurred on not by a terrorist attack, but by a supervillain losing control of his powers. The closest analogue in the real world would be gun control. People have guns and many of them have no idea how to use them. So the government wants to control the flow of guns and people’s ownership of them. Who is in favor of gun control? Liberals. So the government in Civil War is, despite being headed by George Bush (or someone who looks a lot like him), doing what today’s liberals want: Controlling things that are “too dangerous” for people left to their own devices. Conservatives should have been on Captain America’s side in Civil War: The government has no right to step in and control these people, especially because guns (or superpowers) aren’t inherently evil – it depends on the person using them. The triumph of Iron Man and the government in Civil War is a triumph of the nanny state. I remember some of the kerfuffle over Civil War when it came out. Conservatives whined that Marvel was showing the government of George Bush as fascist. Perhaps they should have thought about it a bit more. Civil War is a classic example of a government that thinks it knows best trying to regulate what people can do with their lives. And yet conservatives thought Marvel was picking on them. A bit silly, really.

Finally, let’s consider the entire idea of costumed superheroes, which is based on the idea that you can’t trust the government to take care of crime. Batman, throughout his history, has always leaned a bit toward fascism, with his absolute black-and-white attitude toward crime. I’ve argued before that Bruce Wayne could do far more to stop crime as Bruce Wayne than Batman, but while, pragmatically, that wouldn’t work for DC’s bottom line, Bruce is also the classic “liberal who’s been mugged” type of conservative. He doesn’t trust the police to make the city safe, so he takes the law into his own hands. He’s not that different from the Minutemen, to use a recent example. Superman specifically adopts a “conservative” viewpoint that humanity needs to rise themselves, without help from outside agencies like a Kryptonian alien. As I wrote above, most liberal writers can’t come up with any better government when superhumans take over than a left-wing dictatorship, which is what would happen if Superman decided to fix all the world’s problems. He is conscious of this ideal and therefore uses a relatively conservative viewpoint – each according to his or her means – to justify not going around solving world hunger. Again, this is because of DC’s bottom line, but in this regard, fictional universe concerns overlap with real-world publishing concerns – the superheroes must remain “conservative” so that DC and Marvel can keep publishing them.

I’m not going to argue against the idea that superheroes often speak in liberal-talk. They do. With corporate superheroes, however, that doesn’t matter. Conservatives may feel “bombarded” by liberal propaganda in the media, but I would argue that the vast majority of Americans – and people in general – fall somewhere in the middle. If we imagine the political spectrum as a bell curve, the two extremes would be the Tea Party on the right and, I don’t know, ACORN on the left. Most people want nothing to do with either extreme. They want to be left alone to live their lives, and generally get along with a vast range of people with slightly different political views. The labels mean nothing because you can’t get a consistent answer from the two sides. Conservatives say they want government out of their lives but want government to tell women what to do with their bodies and who we can marry. Liberals say they’re more tolerant but shout down opposing viewpoints. Everyone wants more shit from the government but no one wants to pay for it. But most people fall in the middle, and the arguments they have are just spice. Those people – both “conservatives” and “liberals” – are the true conservatives. The people on the extreme are the radicals. Superhero comics reflect that. They pay lip service to liberals because artistic people tend to be more left-leaning. But they remain conservative because most readers are, by and large, happy with the status quo. Even the most radical of superhero books fall into a conventional framework. Even the most radical of comic books in general fall into a conventional literary framework – which is true of most art. Very little pushes the boundaries, and superhero comics certainly are not the place for it. The idea that superhero comics push a liberal agenda might make angry conservatives happy, but it’s just not true. Sorry!

I want to stress that there’s nothing wrong with comic book writers pushing liberal propaganda or superhero comics being relatively conservative. I suspect that most people who read this blog, like most of the population in general, believes in a mix of conservative and liberal ideas. I have no problem paying taxes, but I bemoan the bureaucracy that has been created that uses the taxes I pay idiotically. I think we’d all be better off if we got rid of income taxes, which is what the Tea Party wants, but I think we should raise taxes on other things to make up the difference. I am against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I believe that the United States should learn from our history in places like Haiti or Cuba and fight “small wars” better, because we often need to use military force. I think women should have the right to choose what to do with their fetus. I think gay people should be able to get married because there’s no reason they shouldn’t, and people who say it’s a threat to traditional marriage should probably check the history of marriage. I think government should try to help the poor, but they should also try to get them off welfare as soon as possible. I am firmly inside the mainstream of American society, leaning a bit to the left, but still very moderate. And that’s pretty much what superhero comics are. Writers definitely pick on the extreme right more than they do the extreme left, but that’s probably because the extreme right is currently more politically focused than the extreme left. It’s easier to make fun of the Tea Party than it is the mish-mash on the left. When the left was more focused, Marvel made fun of them – specifically, the anti-war protesters during “Secret Invasion.” Did they apologize for that?

I’ll wrap this up by saying that while I understand conservatives’ objections to the way they’re portrayed in superhero comics, that’s very much a facile reading of superhero comics. Conservatives will always be the butt of jokes in superhero comics because of the writers writing them and the general lack of subtlety in superhero comics. And I even understand that it can become annoying when it’s constant, even though I don’t think it’s as prevalent as some people do. The dichotomy between what writers say in superhero comics and what superhero comics actually are is fairly interesting, though. Writers can have superheroes spout liberal thoughts all they want, but they can’t change the fact that superhero comics are conservative, and always will be conservative. Conservative people should take comfort in that even if, on the surface, they’re getting picked on. Liberal propaganda will never overcome that, no matter how hard those socialists try!