Superhero Comic Books and Ideology - The Intrepid

Monday, September 22, 2008

Superhero Comic Books and Ideology

Since the release of comic book inspired movies like Spider-Man, X-Men, and The Dark Knight, pundits and academics have tried to decode the ideological values in these movies. While the origins of these heroes have led some writers to conclude that superhero mythology is steeped in conservative values, this assessment is misguided. Conservative values have only dominated comics for brief periods. For the most part superhero comics have expressed liberal values.

Depression Era Comics

Comic books first emerged in the 1930s as cheap knockoffs of popular comic strips. Poor teens were often paid pennies to create comic books that mimicked Popeye, Dick Tracy, Superman, and other popular characters. For the most part, early comic books were meant to be “comic”, or funny, as their name suggested.

In 1937, the fledgling comic book industry changed when Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, Harry Donenfield, and Jack Liebowitz founded Detective Comics. DC was the first company to feature comics that focused on adventure, mystery, and drama. At the forefront of this change was Superman. Superman had been rejected as a newspaper strip, but DC decided to take a chance on Joel Schuster and Jerry Siegel’s creation and launch Action Comic’s first issue in June 1938 with Superman on the cover.

Superman was an instant hit. The first issue of Action Comics outsold supplies, and was constantly being reprinted to meet demand throughout 1938. Although Superman is often associated with “Truth, Justice, and the American way,” the original Superman was gritty and occasionally dark. With the persona of a hard-boiled detective, Superman constantly insulted his opponents and cracked wise as he thrashed them.

The early Superman tales reflect the struggles of working class Americans. In the third issue of Action Comics, Superman saves a miner during a cave-in. The miner then informs Clark Kent about the unsafe working conditions, and how the cave in could have been avoided had the owner heeded warnings. When Kent questions the owner on the mine’s safety, the owner responds, “There are no safety hazards in my mine! But if there were… what of it? I’m a businessman not a humanitarian.” Superman later traps the owner in the mine and simulates a cave-in. The owner discovers that his safety devices fail to operate. Reduced to tears, he laments and promises to make the mine the safest in the U.S.

In these early tales, Superman often challenged corporate greed and mismanagement, defended the rights of workers, and advocated social reform. In another story Superman brings the president of a tunnel construction company to justice after discovering the company used faulty materials to save costs.

More superheroes quickly followed Superman’s popularity. In 1939, Bob Kane created Batman, a wealthy billionaire by day, and a masked crime-fighting vigilante by night. Although, Batman was not a champion of the powerless like Superman, early stories emphasized social issues like poverty and corruption. Between 1938 and 1941, dozens of superheroes began to appear comics. In 1941, DC launched another groundbreaking superhero, Wonder Woman. Created by William Moulton Martson, Wonder Woman has been both praised and heavily criticized by feminists. While Wonder Woman premiered as a strong, independent female character, many of her stories included bondage and other sadomasochistic elements.

Throughout the 1930s, and into the 1940s there was a distinct connection between superheroes and Roosevelt’s New Deal. Heroes like Superman and the Green Lantern frequently defended the liberalism of the New Deal against crooked local politicians and businessmen. In one Green Lantern adventure, he uses collective action to rally a group of citizens to take on a corrupt Mortgage in Loan Company. In another tale, he frees a group of slaves from a villainous business tycoon who kidnaps the unemployed and puts them to work on a Caribbean Island. As comic book historian Bradford Wright argues, “Superheroes repeatedly sounded the warnings that business dealings free of public scrutiny and government regulation inevitably led to corruption and crime.”

World War II

As the U.S. entered the Second World War, comics began to change. Stories of patriotic heroes clashing against ideological and racially inferior enemies replaced accounts of New Deal liberalism. At the forefront of this change was the embodiment of patriotism, Captain America. Created to fight Nazi’s through a secret Super Soldier Serum, Captain America represented America’s virtue and impressed upon readers the necessity of buying war bonds, watching out for saboteurs, and collecting materials for the war effort. Captain America was not alone either. Superman, Batman, and most of the other heroes created during the depression changed their tone to a patriotic one.

In fact, this change had begun even before the U.S. entered the war. Many of the comic book writers at the time, including the infamous Jack Kirby, were disgusted with the Nazi's actions. Kirby, the son of Austrian-Jewish immigrants, helped bring Captain America to life with his artwork and later went on to create the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and the Hulk. Kirby, and writer Joe Simon, used Captain America to attack the Nazi ideology and stand up for their political beliefs.

After Pearl Harbour, superheroes became direct participants in the fight against Nazism. While superheroes did not lose their New Deal origins, and continued to fight against corporate greed, evil businessmen often had ties to Nazi organizations or threatened the U.S. war effort in some way.

While Germans were still portrayed as humans within comic books, the Japanese were portrayed as grotesque evil savages. Wright argues that “Japanese were portrayed appeared subhuman, inhuman, or even superhuman, but never simply human.” Embodying every conceivable negative element derived from the “yellow peril,” Japanese characters were relentlessly cruel.

The war era of comic book history is often referred to as the Golden Age of Comics. Comics had a simple undeniable message of American superiority. While Depression era comics challenged American excess, war era comics flaunted America’s superior ideology and moral stance. Although many innovative characters were created during this period, the blind racism and hatred that permeated these comics tarnishes the periods “golden” image.

The 60s and Beyond

Post-war world was a complicated era for comic superheroes. The war had expanded the comic market, but superheroes were no longer in vogue. Only major established characters like Batman and Superman continued to eek out an existence on the shelves. New comics starring characters like Archie, that harkened back to the “funny days” of comics prospered.

The superhero comics that endured adopted an Americanist vision of the world. America had triumphed over its enemies and stood in position to define a new world order based founded upon American ideals of justice, liberty, and equality. Increasingly, social commentary was abandoned in comics in favour of fantastical stories of magic and fantasy. Batman, once the dark vigilante of the night, became a protector of the elite and the status quo.

Superheroes continued to decline in popularity until the 1960s, when they were rejuvenated by new work by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. Together the two created the successful Fantastic Four. Unlike previous comics, the Fantastic Four featured superheroes with more human attributes. As Stan Lee commented, people wanted to see superheroes with “doubts, fears, and insecurities.”

While Superheroes did not challenge social inequalities to the same extent that they did in the 1930s, certain books like X-Men challenged racism with an obvious mutant allegory. Even Spider-Man played upon struggle to find acceptance, through the trials and tribulations of Peter Parker. However, racist and bigoted attitudes continued to permeate comics. Thor’s enemy, the Enchantress was portrayed as an evil feminist, and the Black Panther regularly defeated civil rights activists. (Stan Lee created the Black Panther in 1966, only months before Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party)

In the 1980s, comics became darker. At the centre of this transformation was Frank Miller. Plots became darker and more absorbing, and the actions of characters became more violent. The gritty, violent, redefining Batman: Year One and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns are often considered Miller’s greatest work. These works also sparked new interest in the Batman franchise, which eventually led to the Tim Burton movie in 1989.

Miller also ushered a new era of conservatism into comic books. A self described conservative and proponent of the Iraq War, Wright argues that Miller’s re-characterization of heroes such as Batman and the Daredevil strongly reflected Regan-Era America. These heroes took matters into their own hands out of frustration with government’s inability to deal with crime.

However, this argument is flawed. Conservatives do not hold a monopoly on individualism. The fact that these characters act outside of the government does not make their deeds conservative. Like 1930s Superman, these characters take matters into their own hands to defend the weak and powerless. While they don’t actively campaign for New Deal style government regulation, most superheroes continue take up liberal causes. Bruce Wayne pledges money to save the rain forest, Green Arrow believes that governments do what people can’t do for themselves, and Clark Kent is part of the Liberal media establishment.

Even though writers often try to inject comic books with political debate, it is clear what side they come down on. In Marvel’s Civil War storyline writers tried to balance the “security versus freedom” debate taking place in America through a Superhero Registration Act. However, the writers come down on side of freedom, as Tony Stark and Reed Richard’s pro-registration actions, include trying to start a war and building a prison for renegade heroes in another dimension. Even though the pro-registration forces win, their efforts are portrayed as totalitarian.

Based off the success of Civil War, Marvel and DC have both tried to inject political controversy into their comics. This year, DC is launching a series of comics concerning the upcoming Presidential election. Considering the liberal history of comic book characters and today’s writers, it would be shocking if the Democrats lost.

For more information on the history of comic books I recommend reading Bradford Wright's Comic Book Nation and listening to this "Sound of Young America" podcast about Jack Kirby.