Our century has been a war of dreams.
The 20th Century really began in 1896, when Sigmund Freud coined the term psychoanalysis. The great empires of the previous three centuries were already crumbling, and about to death throe through two world wars, as Freud introduced dream interpretation, formerly the province of fortune telling hucksters, as a roadmap through the psychosexual repression often crippling his patients. (His original theory - probably accurate - that his upper class female patients were sexually repressed because as girls they'd been molested by their well-to-do fathers was so socially repugnant he had to drop it or be drummed out of the business.) But opening the door on the terra incognita of the human psyche inadvertently bared a new land full of riches and ripe for colonization.
Which has been going on ever since.
Western civilization has always had a love-hate affair with imagery, both visual and poetic. Whole cultures have built around suppressing it. Christianity has waffled between condemning imagery and iconography as idolatry and sacrilege, and building elaborate cathedrals and commissioning the ceiling painting of the Sistine chapel. Dreams and dream imagery are nothing new, and weren't remotely new in 1896. What was new was the suggestion this territory could be mapped, catalogued and mined, at a time when technology was becoming the dominant feature of society.
We now live in a world defined by mass media. In THE MATRIX, the Wachowski brothers, frustrated comics creators turned filmmakers, postulate a world wherein "reality" is pumped directly into the brains of unwitting, sedated humans who think they're living in that "reality" when they're nothing more than fodder for a vast, insatiable machine - widely popularizing an idea that's been a strong undercurrent in modern fiction, including Phil Dick's UBIK; Grant Morrison's THE INVISIBLES; and works of William Burroughs. It's the metaphor of the American century.
Europeans have been grousing about "cultural colonialism" at least since the end of World War II, and probably since radio started to wipe out indigenous folk music as a living art in the 30s. To American ears, such claims sound tinny - sour grapes from those who once ruled the world but let it slip from their grasp - but when you think of the universal icons in the world today, you can see their point. Mickey Mouse. Tarzan. Superman. Ronald McDonald. Bugs Bunny. JR Ewing. Baywatch. When you think of the onslaughts of Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers and Pokemon on American soil, you can feel some of the horror and panic Europe must have felt for the last 80 years in wave after wave of American product flooding their shores, from movies to pop music to TV shows. We haven't exactly been eroding their national characters, but we've - unintentionally, for the most part - forced them, in a sort of cultural cold war, to absorb our influence and retaliate with our own weapons. Chuck Berry is transmuted and regurgitated as The Rolling Stones, HILL STREET BLUES and LEGION OF SUPERHEROES as Alan Moore's TOP TEN.
Not that there isn't a colonization going on, nor does it hold such pissant concerns as geopolitics. It's a marketing thing, built around product placement and brand names. These are the colonists of inner space. In the late 50s, English author J.G. Ballard coined that term to refer to the unknown reaches of the human imagination, but, like the Wild West before it, those reaches have been fenced in and made about as unknown as your average suburb. Freud braved the unconscious as a therapeutic technique, but the "science" of advertising and marketing (not to mention the somewhat more sinister sciences of propaganda and mind control) has attacked the unconscious (with resources that would have had Freud weeping like a baby in envy) for the purpose of figuring out constantly more effective and efficient ways to sell you things.
Mass media daily barrages everyone in western civilization with thousands of images, trying to sell us dreams. To tell us, literally and figuratively, what our dreams should be. Television, able to broadcast the same image worldwide virtually simultaneously, is the key delivery system, but all media, which in practice can be defined as delivery systems for advertising, play a role. To some extent there's such an oversaturation of images that a large part of them cancel each other out. But what they're really selling you, what spreads over most of the images, is an attitude, constantly reinforced, that is so much a part of our environment that we rarely even notice it: a "normalcy" to aspire to, the absence of which creates a tension that only a return to "normalcy" (ie, the purchase of the suggested product) alleviates.
Comic books - rarely much of a place to question consensus reality - are as much a party to this as any other medium, though its outlaw status gives the comics medium a certain leeway. In their nascent days, they were flat out propaganda, carrying little more than simplistic messages to hate Nazis and support the war effort, or that criminals are always caught and punished. The tradition of comics, still strongly in force today though things have gotten more complex, is that stories always return at their climax to a nearly inviolable status quo, much like most (non-soap opera) serial TV shows. With minor variations, virtue triumphs, villainy is punished, and all is once again right with a world where you're free to go out and buy things, and all the popular landmarks like the Daily Bugle are still reassuringly there.
In other words, your basic conservative vision, though "image" is a more applicable word than vision.
Even the dystopia supports this. The dystopia is posited on a catastrophic rupture of social or technological norms, resulting in a very bad place, and they were once all but unheard of in comics. It's significant they came into their own during the Thatcher-Reagan regimes. Dystopias suggest that progress must come to a halt, the present is comfort while the future is pain and suffering, and the system we have is far preferable to whatever else might come. It's a philosophy tailored to justify the status quo, and it's amusing that it was often used by writers who viewed themselves as progressive and liberal. Even THE MATRIX follows this pattern, choosing 1999 as the year when everyone was comfortable, happy and fulfilled. Alone among dystopias, only Howard Chaykin's AMERICAN FLAGG stands out as a future that would be fun to live in despite its downsides.
But while comics are very dedicated now to replaying imagery from familiar television, movie and other comics sources, their "sanctioned" existence is as franchise machines now, to pump out more product that can be turned into bedspreads, underoos, Saturday morning cartoon shows, candy bar sponsors, etc. Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, The Hulk, The X-Men and others have been transformed from individualistic creations to products of our shared psyche. That's what the corporations that own them want them to be: icons, imagery that can be recycled over and over to a predictable profit. What new companies we see starting up mostly follow this same pattern. All work is product, and the product that can infiltrate the shared psyche becomes the franchise. Image is everything.