While most of the political world is following the likes of Hillary Clinton, Jeb(!) Bush and Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has been making waves in a few nerd realms. First came his Simpsons impressions, and then his assertion that Captain James T. Kirk was/is/will be a Republican. Now Cruz is listing Watchmen’s Rorschach as one of his favorite superheroes.
However, Cruz isn't the first candidate to invoke nerd culture. President Obama, himself a Star Trek fan, listed The Amazing Spider-Man and Conan the Barbarian as his favorite comics growing up, and was photographed in Metropolis, Illinois, imitating its Superman statue. In return, Obama was immortalized on a Spider-Man cover, and depicted in another Superman-inspired pose by painter Alex Ross.
For that matter, the election year of 2008 featured a couple of seminal superhero films with clear political overtones. The first Iron Man showed its hero working within the military-industrial complex, and The Dark Knight inspired pundits to compare Batman’s surveillance technology to government eavesdropping.
Before that, however, pundit Matt Yglesias had coined the “Green Lantern” theory of presidential power, in which any problem could be solved through the sufficient application of the president’s will. Yglesias used it to describe both the policies of the George W. Bush administration and, more generally, the political media’s approach to analyzing the Obama White House.
Naturally, these sort of references wax and wane as pop-culture tastes change (although it’s worth pointing out the Green Lantern theory emerged well before the Ryan Reynolds movie). The political messages of next year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War will no doubt work their ways into public discourse.
Nevertheless, despite the best intentions, sometimes a politician just steps in it when talking about his or her favorite characters. With that in mind, this humble voter offers some suggestions -- sadly, only from the DC Comics side, given my chosen corner of fandom -- about whom to cite and why if you’re running for office.
One last thing before we get started: Obviously, this is for entertainment purposes only. I’m not endorsing any candidates or suggesting that any of the fictional folks discussed below would support them. I’m not sure such a disclaimer is necessary, but people tend to get touchy around these sorts of things.
Superman: This one’s a no-brainer for pols of any ideology. Superman stands for the responsible use of immense power, a sentiment vague enough to be adopted in various permutations by a wide spectrum of candidates. He’s also the ultimate immigrant success story, landing in the American heartland and continuing to espouse its values despite all that exposure to Metropolis’ northeastern elites. What’s the matter with Kansas? Nothing, if you ask the Last Son of Krypton; and it’s certainly not “flyover country.” The Man of Steel started as more of a social-justice crusader before becoming an Establishment figure in the 1950s and ‘60s, but the bottom line is, Superman simply wants to do the right thing, just like any public servant.
Batman: Tough on crime by night but a generous patron of do-gooder social programs by day, the Caped Crusader can also appeal to both sides of the aisle. Arguably, there’s marginally more for conservatives to love, as lower taxes on both corporations and the wealthy would leave the Wayne Foundation and its figurehead with more resources for their respective missions. Indeed, the general failure of government to protect its citizens is practically baked into the modern-day premise of the Dark Knight.
Wonder Woman: With her ties to early 20th-century utopian feminism (not to mention the early reproductive-rights movement), the Amazing Amazon appears to have more to offer to liberals. I suppose male conservatives could say they like Wonder Woman because she comes from a warrior culture and isn’t afraid to do what needs to be done. Similarly, female conservatives could talk about her “independence” and her desire to shake up male-dominated systems. Still, they’d have to downplay a good bit of William Moulton Marston’s philosophy, while liberals could embrace Wonder Woman’s subtleties and (apparent) contradictions. She comes from a distinctly different culture specifically as an advocate for that culture, she’s unabashedly pro-woman to the extent that she upends patriarchal norms, and she’s got the power to back up her beliefs. She’s pretty much the Elizabeth Warren of superheroes.
Supergirl: I’m putting the Maid of Might in the top tier specifically because of the upcoming TV show, which seems as of it will use the “bridging two worlds” trope. Should a politician want to cite Supergirl as a role model and/or inspiration, I’d tell her to focus on that struggle between having a more mundane secret identity (whether it’s Linda Lee at the orphanage or Kara Danvers on TV) and needing to save the world. It’s hard to do that by yourself, so a support system is important, particularly for women in the workplace, etc.
The Flash: Likewise, the Scarlet Speedster’s TV fame bumps him into this top level, but I’m not sure there’s a lot of political hay to be made from his exploits. Both Barry Allen and Wally West (and Jay Garrick, too, but I doubt anyone will dive that deep) are solid Midwestern guys who just happen to tap into the infinite Speed Force. I could see someone saying they liked The Flash because he runs really fast, and that’s a power anyone can appreciate; but it’s not really philosophically resonant. (Maybe something like “If I could do that, I’d never miss a vote?”) As it happens, in the early ‘80s both Barry and Wally were portrayed as politically conservative -- Barry disliked working with the Soviets to stop the Shaggy Man in January 1981's Justice League of America #186, and Wally was similarly rude to the Russian hero Red Star in April 1982's New Teen Titans #18.
Green Arrow: Although television has raised his profile, too, Green Arrow has long been a liberal standard-bearer within DC’s superhero line. Ever since his fortune was stolen by a shady colleague (as revealed in November 1969's JLA #75), Oliver Queen has been the vocal conscience of the Justice League, keeping his colleagues mindful of more mundane issues and the concerns of everyday people. I could definitely see an old-school Democrat holding forth on the early-‘70s work of writers Denny O’Neil and Elliott S! Maggin (and artists Neal Adams and Mike Grell), which itself was inspired at least in part by the “New Journalism” of writers like Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe. Speaking of Grell, though, I could also see a conservative pointing out that when Ollie was confronted with the brutal realities of urban crime (starting in Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters), he became more brutal and harder-edged in response.
Green Lantern: The aforementioned “Green Lantern Theory” does have some appeal on a purely academic level. Certainly everyone wants to think they can do anything if only they focus hard enough. However, just as the four Lanterns of Sector 2814 each bring a different perspective to ring-slinging, they carry some political baggage. The O’Neil/Adams “Hard-Traveling Heroes” stories definitely opened Hal Jordan’s eyes to more liberal concerns. They also introduced John Stewart, an African-American architect who recognized the ring’s potential and exploded Hal’s prejudices in the process. Kyle Rayner received the last power ring and was charged with upholding an eons-old tradition, whereas Guy Gardner’s career has veered between juvenile selfishness and simple pragmatism. Stepping outside the sector for a bit, Katma Tui was forced to choose between the Corps and her husband, and chose the latter. (Hers is probably more of a “she rose above it” cautionary tale.) In any event, candidates who cite a Green Lantern as their favorite superhero should be prepared to defend their choice succinctly.
Captain Marvel: The kids’ fantasy of saying a magic word and transforming into an omnipotent adult might seem like an odd choice for a politician, but bear with me: Not only does Billy Batson (or Mary, for that matter) gain a nice suite of powers, he also taps into the Wisdom of Solomon. That seems like it would appeal to conservatives, because after all Solomon is an Old Testament figure (appealing to both Christians and Jews), and what better source of wisdom is there? Moreover, the young Billy/Mary arguably doesn’t have the worldly experience to rationalize away such ancient advice, so they can apply it in a more unfiltered fashion.
The Atom: A little guy is still powerful (and smart, too, but that’s part of his “power set”). ‘Nuff said.
Oracle: At the moment DC has her back in the Batgirl costume, but for a long while one of its most successful character makeovers was Barbara Gordon’s second identity. Batgirl had all but retired in the mid-‘80s when she was brutalized as part of The Killing Joke graphic novel. However, she returned to the superhero realm not long afterward as an omniscient information broker -- an ex-librarian taking her skills to the nth degree, providing invaluable assistance to Batman, the Justice League and the super-world at large. Oracle showed readers everywhere that one bad night could be turned into a great opportunity, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s some politician’s favorite.
Black Canary: Speaking of reinvention, Black Canary has gotten good at starting over, no matter who’s wearing the fishnets (or whether they’re fishnets at all). After losing her husband to a star-creature during a Justice League/Justice Society team-up, BC met Green Arrow, left the JSA and became a valuable part of the League. Later, after breaking up with Green Arrow, she partnered with Oracle in the Birds of Prey. Most recently, she’s fallen in with a hard-living rock band on the run. Throughout it all, she’s stayed true to herself, refusing to take a back seat to any man or woman. That’s pretty inspirational for anyone.
Cyborg: While Victor Stone’s superhero origin involves overcoming adversity, it’s also a tale of world-bridging. Embracing athletics to rebel against his scientist parents, Vic had to depend on his once-distant father when he suffered the accident that resulted in his cybernetic parts. Nevertheless, Vic rebuilt his life on his own terms, both by joining the new Teen Titans and reconciling with his dad. Certainly Vic’s is a story a candidate could love.
Robin (Tim Drake): If Batman is the ultimate example of a self-made superhero -- albeit one backed by old money -- the third Robin may be the ultimate self-made sidekick. As originally conceived, young Tim not only deduced Batman and Robin’s identities, he pinpointed when Batman was starting to go off the deep end following Jason Todd’s death. Tim then basically talked his way into the job, even jump-starting his costumed career by saving his mentor from the Scarecrow before his training was officially complete. Tim had the potential to be a very Mary Sue-ish character -- not that a candidate should try to explain “Mary Sues” -- but he avoided that trap nicely, and became a successful member of the Bat-clan.
If every character is someone’s favorite, then presumably some aspiring officeholder loves a superhero you wouldn’t expect. Here’s a brief list of super-folk and the traits they might emphasize in a candidate.
Animal Man: “I love my family more than existence itself.”
Black Lightning: “I give back to my community.”
Starman (Jack Knight): “I have embraced the family business.”
Swamp Thing: “I am strong on environmental issues.”
Adam Strange: “Don’t worry, I have established residency in the appropriate district in this state.”
Aquaman: Sure, many readers are coming around to the Sea King, but for now, the general public still thinks he’s a punchline.
Red Tornado: Who? His origin is too complicated, and you might as well just cite the Vision for whatever it’s worth.
The cast of Watchmen: With all due respect to Ted Cruz, comics fans understand the importance of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ work to the superhero canon, but nobody else really does. None of the characters in Watchmen are that well known, and they’re all deliberately reminiscent of more popular characters (and not always in the best ways). For any candidate, the cardinal rule of comics references should be don’t pick a complicated one. We readers know Rorschach is a collection of tropes culled from antiheroic elements and designed to parody “hardcore” characters like Batman, Wolverine, and the Punisher. At the risk of insulting one’s constituents, I daresay the vast majority of them don’t appreciate that.
Pick a character who’s fairly well known, or at least one who can be described quickly. You’re not on a convention panel, you’re trying to earn votes. Don’t spend time explaining Watchmen when you should be talking about the Affordable Care Act, the Export-Import Bank or whatever else really matters to the people you represent. As The Atlantic noted four years ago, your favorite superhero is just as much an insight into your personality as, say, your favorite musician. If you like Power Girl because she’s no-nonsense, Catwoman because she’s cool, or Starfire because she cares, don’t be afraid to say so, and leave it at that.
Let your geek flag fly -- but, as Cruz is no doubt learning, be prepared if you’ve got some counterintuitive choices. Railing against The System is one thing; boring people with superhero minutiae could stop a campaign dead.