WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Year of the Villain: Black Adam #1 by Paul Jenkins, Inaki Miranda, Hi-Fi and Tom Napolitano, on sale now.
American superheroes as we know them today were conceived at a time where civil liberties, and the very notion of freedom, were at risk. As the Nazi war machine took over most of Europe, superheroes on the home front sought justice against oppressors, fair play for all people, and protection of the innocent. World War II may have produced its fair share of propaganda, but the spirit of those first comics became the backbone of an entire genre.
Why is it, then, that in 2019 -- and for much of comic book history -- do we have so many superheroes with absolute power over the people they were initially created to protect? As benevolent and inspiring and heroic as they are, noted good guys Black Panther, Aquaman and Namor are often depicted as the monarchs of their respective societies. Regardless of how good they look, they still wield power that goes against everything the superhero was meant to represent.
But why is this relevant now? Surely, this is nothing new. Aquaman and Namor have been the kings of their respective Atlantis since the 1940s, while 2018's Black Panther saw massive success in theaters without anyone batting an eye at the very dangerous ruling system depicted in the film.
Well, this topic is relevant again because DC Comics has made it so with the publication of Year of the Villain: Black Adam #1, where the titular character is the absolute ruler of Kahndaq, yet is somehow coded as the hero of the story within.
WHEN VILLAINS ARE HEROES & HEROES ARE VILLAINS
This title takes place within the context of the ongoing story from Superman/Batman in which The Batman Who Laughs has turned several superheroes into Jokerized versions of themselves. Year of the Villain: Black Adam #1 sees an infected Billy Batson travel to Kahndaq in order to fight its ruler, Black Adam. Since this is a superhero comic, the confrontation quickly becomes physical, but there is also a strange intellectual battle that takes place.
This evil version of Shazam arrives as the colonizing white savior, denigrating the people of Kahndaq with racist language and insulting their way of life. It is something truly ugly to see as a noted hero becomes the corrupted villain. However, between the truly heinous remarks only a bad guy would make, Billy dishes out a lot of truths that the comic has a hard time answering. As villainous as he is meant to appear, he still points out that the people live in poverty: the country's infrastructure is crumbling, they have no rights under Black Adam's absolute rule, and yet the country grows rich off the oil trade.
Despite introducing these issues into the comics, writer Paul Jenkins can't seem to address any of them in any meaningful way. Perhaps the whole thing was intended as a discreet dig at America's own troubles. Maybe Billy's words of building skyscrapers, hospitals and bringing a universal basic income to Kahndaq is meant to ridicule the politics of... someone. However, the simple message on the page fails to come through.
The comic puts Billy's horrible comments in their place, but essentially ignores Black Adam's own problematic situation. Black Adam dismisses Billy's critique as the prattling of a child who doesn't understand how the world really works. At the same time, though, he also seems to confuse democracy with capitalism; American jeans with basic human freedoms; Starbucks with voting rights.
For all the nuance Black Adam suggests his situation requires, he's dangerously blind to everything going on around him. The people may see him as their protector, but he is also their master. His generals are afraid to discuss civil liberties in front of their ruler for fear he will kill them out of anger. Add this to the very clear poor state of the country, despite its wealth of resources, and it's clear that Black Adam has no idea what he's talking about.
By the end of the issue, his big lesson learned is that the people he has sworn to protect actually have value on their own, independent of him. They are instrumental in defeating Shazam and saving their leader from death, so Black Adam finally sees that they aren't as pathetic as he believed. It's the lowest possible bar a leader can overcome.
There's no reconciliation with how he has treated his people or what role he will play in the country moving forward. Instead, it would seem that the status quo will continue without much actionable change, and for a comic that poked so many important holes, that's rather disappointing.
SUPERHEROES SHOULD NOT BE RULERS
The story in Year of the Villain: Black Adam #1 has Black Adam coded as the hero and is told from his perspective. While Black Adam has never really been considered a hero in the traditional sense, he is also not depicted as a tyrant the same way Doctor Doom is either. This depiction stops us from outright dismissing his rule over Kahndaq as unjust and opens the door to criticism of other comic book characters who claim to rule in order to protect their people. After all, if Black Adam's rule is at least semi-legitimate to DC and the reader, whose else is acceptable?
Heroes like Aquaman, Namor and Black Panther may show themselves to be fair and compassionate rulers, but at best they are supporting a problematic ruling system and at worst they are totally negligent of their duties. All three spend so much time running around the world and punching super-powered bad guys that it's hard to see how they have any time to actually rule justly over their people, or assure that future generations will continue to prosper.
A major portion of the Rebirth run on Aquaman was devoted to the character being unfit to lead his people because he often cared more about the surface world than Atlantis. As a result, he was usurped by a right-wing fanatic. Namor is so aggressive to the outside world that he endangers his people by making them a target. And the Black Panther film seems to suggest that Killmonger is somehow wrong in wanting the world's most advanced country to give a damn about the people suffering in the world.
Obviously, each of these characters come with noble intentions. They all want to do good by their people and the world, but because they are forced into the endless churn of the superhero soap opera, there's hardly ever a chance to do any good at all. That fact underlines the problem with superhero comics in general: in an effort to stabilize continuity and avoid change at all cost, DC and Marvel have allowed outdated concepts to continue unabated in order to sell comic books.
But what's the solution? Should the Wakandan monarchy be abolished and its vast resources be redistributed for the greater good? Should Aquaman run for President of Atlantis under a new democratic state? Maybe, but there's no perfect answer, and that's okay to admit -- democracy is hard! It has faults and problems of its own that we can all see playing out in the real world right now, but it's not like letting go of their power would make these heroes any less heroic -- just ask the X-Men.
At the very least, we should all be able to agree that one ultimate ruler is not the solution to anything. Unfortunately, Year of the Villain: Black Adam #1 isn't even willing to admit that much because it continues to insist that Black Adam is actually a good person worth rooting for. But this should be a moment for all of us to step back and reflect at the media we consume and the world we live in today, and wonder: what do we stand for?