Because you are reading this column on Robot 6, which is one of the blogs attached to Comic Book Resources, which is a long-time website devoted to covering all aspects of comic books, from industry to fandom, it’s safe to assume that you already have the equivalent experience of a Bachelor of Arts in superhero studies.
Therefore, Oklahoma City University professor Marc DiPaolo’s War, Politics and Superheroes: Ethics and Propaganda in Comics and Film is probably going to be something you’ll enjoy curling up with or reading on the beach, even if it is a college textbook with the words “politics” and “ethics” right there in the title. (And, if you’re already pretty conversant in superheroes, it’s worth noting that DiPaolo never talks down to readers, so his work is easy to engage with even if a Superhero and Politics 101 book seems like something you’re well beyond).
DiPaolo defines “superhero” rather widely, including not only the capes and codenames crowd popularized by DC and Marvel, but also Captain Kirk, James Bond, Dr. Who, Rambo, Xena and Jack Bauer and other such idealized heroic figures from genre entertainment. His cast assembled, his book contains a series of chapter-length essays, each dealing with a particular character or group of characters and various political readings of their various adventures.
Broadly, the thesis is that superhero adventures comment on, react to and even shape American public opinion and government policy, a discussion largely divorced from the opinions or intentions of their creators (With a few obvious exceptions, like the way the various worldviews of Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and John Romita shaped the original Spider-Man comics).
The chapters can sound a little heady. Here, for example, are a few of the titles: “Batman as Terrorist, Technocrat and Feudal Lord,” “Spider-Man as Benedict Arnold, Objectivist, and Class Warrior,” “The Punisher as Murderous Immigration Officer and Vietnam War Veteran” and “The Special Relationship: Britain and America in James Bond, Doctor Who, and Hellblazer.”
But the arguments DiPaolo makes, and the examples he cites, are of the sort you’ve been reading on comics blogs and message boards for years, albeit more elegantly written, more reasonably argued and a good fifty pages longer.
The book’s greatest value is probably in its systemization, the way DiPaolo manages to boil certain aspects of certain characters and franchises down into bullet-points, organize them and set up a reasonable way of looking at the characters and their adventures in a new way.
In the introduction, “Are Superheroes Republicans?”, for example, he lays out four stages of narrative development that most long-lasting fictional characters go through:
1.) A passionate creator designs a superhero character for a publisher on a work-for-hire basis, putting a lot of work and creative energy in and infusing it with his or her personal beliefs.
2.) The original creator stops working on the character, and the replacements work o mimic the previous run, but generally watering down due to lack of passion and investment.
3.) The publisher notices this watering down, and allows a new writer to come on board “to provide a radical, deconstructionist take on the character.”
4.) At a loss, the publisher turns to “Fan writers, who grew up reading the characters and know by heart all of the adventures produced during stages one through three, and have a complete vision of the character as it was originally intended to be, as it was mass-marketed to parents and children, and as it was psychoanalyzed, killed and dissected during the 1980s.”(DiPaolo cites the likes of Mark Waid, Geoff Johns and Kurt Busiek here, and mentions “greatest hits” versions of the character).
You can probably plug any superhero that’s been around long enough into that system and find plenty of examples to support such a reading, and that is what makes this book rather useful to people who talk about superheroes. Beyond the specific points or arguments made, beyond the history offered (which is thorough and valuable, although because its secondary to the function of the book, there’s better books on different bits of history), I think perhaps the greatest value in the book is that it helps give us new ways to think about and talk about superheroes.
In that same chapter DiPaolo also defines three broad categories for politically-themed superhero adventures (establishment, anti-establishment and colonial), and the different ways in which ideology and subtext can be recognized and processed.
The main focus of the book is the millennial and 21st century boom in superhero entertainment, including the ongoing, second wave of superhero movies and the comics from that period, but the parameters are pretty wide, stretching back to the birth of Superman all the way up until Blackest Night and the then imminent release of the Green Lantern and X-Men: First Class movies.
It’s hard to get much more timely and relevant than that—at least in a book published on paper.
Before class lets out, let’s review some discussion questions that will be on the test:
—Was Zack Snyder’s 2009 Watchmen adaptation a “masterpiece,” as DiPaolo says, and did Roger Ebert “rightly” declare it one of the best superhero films ever made? Should DiPaolo’s high opinion of the film call into question his judgment on other matters?
—In his discussion of the history of Wonder Woman, DiPaolo notes that, “Since the dominant cultural mood of the McCarthy-era 1950s suggested that it was not possible to be both a progressive and a patriot, Diana chose patriotism over feminism and socialism. She fell silent on political issues and became more of a fickle flirt.” If this is true, which post-war villain is more responsible for ruining Wonder Woman, Fredric Wertham or Joe McCarthy?
—In the sub-chapter “Where are All the Black Superheroes?”, DiPaolo discusses Green Lantern John Stewart’s brief tenure as the Green Lantern of public consciousness in the first decade of the 21st century, and then writes this: “While Hal Jordan was written out of the Green Lantern comics for years, giving Stewart and Metrosexual Green Lantern Kyle Rayner the spotlight, Jordan’s return to prominence as the central Green Lantern in the DC universe in 2004 took much of the attention away from Stewart.” Is Kyle Rayner really metrosexual? His creation and heyday predate the existence of the term, and have you seen what he used to wear when not in costume? His closet is half t shirt and half flannel!
In the endnotes referencing chapter two, “Wonder Woman as World War II Veteran, Feminist Icon, and Sex Symbol,” DiPaolo mentions Donna Troy:
Some stories—in comics and in the 1970s television series—have featured Donna Troy, who is sometimes presented as Diana’s sister…but not always. The explanation for Donna’s presence has changed repeatedly and is, frankly, confusing beyond belief. In any event, the character more often appears outside of Wonder Woman comic books (as a major figure in the pages of The Teen Titans, for example) than she does in the Wonder Woman title proper, so I like to disregard her presence when I can.
Is this funny, and, if so, why? Will Donna’s existence be less confusing or more confusing after September, when DC kinda sorta reboots their comic book universe?
War, Politics and Superheroes: Ethics and Propaganda in Comics and Film by Marc DiPaolo, McFarland & Company, 330 pages, $45
This concludes the inaugural edition of “Balloonless,” my new books-about-comics review column, which will stick around if you guys like it. Publishers and authors can contact me regarding covering their books at firstname.lastname@example.org; readers can also feel free to make suggestions for books to cover.
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