January 16, 2006

Comics and politics

Inspired by Bronwen's "Which Superhero Are You?" link, I mentioned in the comments section that I could write quite a bit about how comics (in particular Marvel) over the last 5-10 years have taken on a decidedly leftist tone in their storytelling. And indeed I could. One little known tidbit about me is that I was once a contributor and editor-in-chief of a famous Marvel Comics character fan magazine (dubbed "fanzine" -- and had no official connection to Marvel). I was in the "thick" of the thoughts behind Marvel's creative processes, and numerous Marvel creators were happy to share their views and ideas (not always political, mind you).

First, one thing that annoys me is when creators get facts dead wrong. Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada (then a writer) once wrote in a particular issue that the "United States did extensive atomic [bomb] testing during World War II." I wrote a letter to the editor of that character's comic correcting this silly error, and they published it. And Quesada, once when discussing the controversial Captain America series The Truth, claimed that "most of the [US] military is black." The editor-in-chief of one of the biggest literary outlets on the planet doesn't have a basic grasp of history, in which his creators dabble constantly. Nice.

But the real issue is the current political bias. I actually have little problem with the whole "bias" issue for two main reasons: One, the comics creators can do as they wish -- I just don't have to buy what they put out; and two, I will buy 'em if the stories are intelligently written (which is a rarity these days, believe me). But this doesn't address the fact that there is a prodigious quantity of center-left bias prevalent in modern comics. One of the more prominent liberal writers these days is the Scot Mark Millar. I have bought -- and continue to buy -- Millar's stuff because he is a great writer. His Superman: Red Son is sensational; it imagines the Man of Steel as a Soviet superhero, and he masterfully reworks virtually all of DC's major characters into the storyline, including Batman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern. The overall story is probably good enough to enable one to overlook Millar's anti-US bias. (The most blatant example of it in Red Son is when Supes, even though the epitomy of Stalinism, is cheered on by a crowd of Londoners when he takes on the Lex Luthor-created Superman analogue.) Still, that is unless you don't read between the lines -- or elsewhere on the Internet or print, in this case -- for a dissection of Millar's thinking. For instance, regarding Red Son, he said "Texans are invulnerable to Kryptonite, unfortunately." He also refers to the Batman character in Red Son as "an al-Qaeda-like figure" which is simply amazing to me, since Bats clearly fights against Soviet tyranny. The implication of this Millar statement is that al-Qaeda's "grievances" against the US are analogous to those of Soviet dissidents' against Stalin, et. al.

Millar currently works on Marvel's The Ultimates, which is a re-imagining of the famous Avengers superhero team. The Ultimates is a fast-paced book, and very realistic by today's standards. But, when speaking of this book, Millar once said

"I don't think there's such a thing as a hero. It's a lovely idea and this isn't meant to be cynical, but I think people are just people who are capable of very good of verry bad things.... (The Ultimates is) really more like an ensemble cast of characters (as we'd find in "Oz" or "ER") interacting with each other as opposed to the traditional superhero vs supervillain thing."

This may seem a gray area, but Millar has compared the United States to Nazi Germany (Wolverine #32) by featuring a camp guard stating:

"I took no pleasure in our camps or our preemptive strikes, but recognized that it was necessary to fight this terror abroad just as we had done for the security of our Homeland....The jews might have started this war when they brought down one of our finest buildings, but it's the duty of all patriots to finish it."

But where Millar really gets his leftist views across is in Wildstorm's title The Authority. Co-created by another leftist comics writer, Warren Ellis, The Authority is a radical's comic come true: A team of wildly powerful beings impose their world order on the entire planet, and guess what sort of "order" it is? Yep -- that of a typical protestor at an anti-WTO rally. Millar picked up on Ellis' genesis, and did so quite well. The team eventually institutes a coup d'etat against the United States government for essentially failing to do as the group wishes. Authority leader Jack Hawksmoor becomes US (and world) dictator, spouting Democratic talking points at press conferences. The Authority is brutal and relentless; negotiation isn't in their lexicon. Their whole existence is a radical's wet dream. Personally, I enjoyed their initial books mainly because the art (done by Bryan Hitch, who also currently draws the aforementioned Ultimates) was spectacular, but also because it was a completely different type of superhero team. They actually, by brutal force, impose their will on society. This idea had certainly been touched on in comics before, notably in Mark Gruenwald's Marvel Squadron Supreme from 1985, and more recently the spectacular DC Kingdom Come. But in either case, the "utopia" envisioned was either tempered by the inherent wrongness of the philosophy, or dissension in the ranks of the "do-gooders." No such "waffling" in The Authority. Still, after a while, the constant denigration of all things "conservative," and elation of all things "liberal," becomes tiresome. In a separate Authority volume, Jenny Sparks: The Secret History of the Authority, the literal embodiment of the 20th century is shown to have engineered Gerald Ford's 1976 election defeat (because he pardoned Nixon) and that Ronald Reagan, despite his popular election, "will be taken care of" by Ms. Sparks.

A side note to The Authority's Coup D'etat book: it was co-written by Micah Wright, who falsely claimed that he was an Army Ranger after first "admitting" he "outed himself," but it was clear others had discovered his fables. He went so far as to rip into "fellow veterans" thusly during his charade:

"Another West Point Butterbar who can't read my bio page and figure out that while he was playing Mario on his Super Nintendo, I was shooting people for George Herbert Walker Bush the 3rd. Been there, done that, newbie. Lecture me after you've seen piles of dead people who stood in the way of a Bush President. For the last time, I'm a (expletive deleted) veteran. None of these posters mock the men and women in uniform. How is it that people are so stupid that they can't look beyond the image and understand the message?"

Isn't that "nice"?

Authority co-creator Ellis has currently been working on my favorite Marvel character's title, Iron Man. Much like his Authority work, Ellis doesn't even try to be subtle. He has a "journalist," named John Pillinger (patterned directly from British radical John Pilger) grill Iron Man alter-ego Tony Stark about what he does with his wealth. (Gee, isn't it enough that Marvel quickly turned the Cold Warrior into the epitomy of the compassionate capitalist in the early 1970s? That he pays his employees far above what any other industrialist does, that his billions and inventions have gone towards the betterment of mankind, let alone that he puts his own life on the line constantly as Iron Man to save the friggin' planet??) His stint on the Armored Avenger's title is, thankfully, brief, so we won't be "treated" further to such completely gratuitous scenes like where a girl pontificates about how "bad" conservative America is -- she's wearing a T-shirt with an American flag on it, but in place of the 50 stars there's a swatstika -- as happened in volume 4, #4.

Even the pages of the most "patriotic" of comics' characters, Captain America, aren't immune. Besides the "America-as-Nazi-scientist" Truth, (at left) Cap's own book has been a deluge of post-9/11 political correctness. Film critic Michael Medved even co-wrote a "white paper" on the state of Captain America a few years ago. "Cap" was shown to wonder about whether the US "deserved" the hatred of Islamic radicals, and even equated the Allied firebombing of Dresden, Germany during World War II with the al-Qaeda World Trade Center attacks of 9/11.

This kind of thinking spills over into DC's Justice League America, where in issue #83 creators Joe Casey and Chris Cross have the super group challenging President Lex Luthor about intelligence regarding the use of a biological weapon on London by the nation of Qurac (Qurac? What's that sound like phonetically, huh?). The parallel is overly obvious between the heinous villain Luthor and President Bush, and check it -- no one knows Luthor is really a horrible villain, so he somehow manages to get elected chief executive -- what's that tell 'ya?

The supremely talented artist Alex Ross, whose paints graced the previously mentioned Kingdom Come and the spectacular Kurt Busiek-written Marvels (not to mention the opening mattes of the "Spider-Man 2" movie) is of like mind. He says:

"Uncle Sam represents the government. And our current government is giving us the finger. But you can turn that around and see the true spirit of the nation giving it back to a government that is telling its citizens, 'We know what's best—don't question us.' That finger is definitely a fuck-you back at this government."

He elaborates: "Everyone's asking why are we in Iraq? We were sold a bill of goods. This is a show of strength to scare the rest of the world—go after the obvious bad guy. It's like Batman going after the Penguin because he can't find the real villain, the Joker. Batman would never do that just for show—that kind of thing only works for lone justice anyway, not with countries. [The administration] is feeding its ego by trying to send that kind of cowboy justice out into the world. You can't take vigilante philosophy onto that kind of scale."

You might think, of all characters, Marvel's Punisher might be immune to politics on a global scale. Nope. Writer Garth Ennis had him -- two months after the 9/11 attacks -- threatening the life of President Bush:

The story portrays the President as a slobbering belching incoherent drunk, gleefully itching to launch nuclear missiles. The Punisher breaks into the Oval Office, tosses a nine-millimeter bullet before the President and warns ominously, “I can get in anywhere …Nine millimeters. I’m never further away than that.”

Marvel also published a popular series featuring many of its more popular characters, dubbed "The End." In The Punisher -- The End, the US is responsible for the destruction of the planet:

In The Punisher – The End we find our hero in an America totally devastated by nuclear war caused by – of course – American militarism and corporate greed. We are treated to a pedantic “progressive” discourse by the enlightened Punisher: “Once upon a time there was a bunch of evil f-cks. [fully spelled] Hardly anyone knew, because they were so good at keeping it quiet. But these particular evil f-cks owned the world. And they made the world a cruel and terrible place. They ran the great industries that poisoned the air. Their businesses turned whole countries into slaves. … They made puppets out of presidents and started wars for profit. Eventually, they came to believe that there was nothing that they couldn’t do. And so one day – inevitably – they pushed the planet’s luck too far."

The Punisher explains how the end will come, “Ten bad years. Iraq was one thing. North Korea. Even Pakistan. You shout War on Terror at the Chinese and they laugh so hard the world blows up in your face. That’s the trouble with a war you never want to end.”

This is almost exactly like the language in The Authority, by the way. (Hey! Ennis actually wrote an Authority book! What a surprise!)

More currently, noted creator J. Michael Strazynski (of "Babylon 5" fame, to name one) showed his political colors in the pages of Supreme Power (which is a re-imagining of the previously mentioned Squadron Supreme). In it, the Superman-like Hyperion has become a potential menace. Pres. Bush is shown giving a speech/press conference where he proposes conscripting (i.e. drafting) super-powered beings to work for the US government. In one panel, we see former President Bill Clinton and wife Hillary sitting on a couch, Bill saying "Here we go again," while Hillary states (to the TV), "Dick."

Just off the top of my head I can recall many instances of belittling President Reagan in 1980s Marvel comics (the 80s being my comics reading heyday). Mark Gruenwald, who wrote Captain America throughout virtually the entire decade, constantly portrayed Reagan as a buffoon, and even had Steve Rogers (Cap's alter ego) stripped of his role as Cap during Reagan's term, to be replaced by a -- you got it -- a mentally unbalanced conservative (John Walker, who saw continued existence as the US Agent). And just the other day I pulled out a What If? issue (one of my favorite Marvel titles) where the hero The Vision was attempting to take over the planet's computers. We're treated to a scene where President Reagan says to an aide (paraphrase) "Well, if he's taking over all the pewter, why don't we switch to plastics?"

But maybe there's hope. Maybe. Currently there's a Marvel title called Ultimate Iron Man and it's written by conservative -- and noted sci fi author -- Orson Scott Card.

Posted by Hube at January 16, 2006 08:44 AM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

I noticed the distinct leftward tilt ages ago. By the time I couldn't afford to purchase comics any more, I wasn't all that sorry--it gets so old reading liberal good/conservative bad.

I do have several issues of a superhero comic book named "Liberal Man"--a hilarious take on the excesses of the liberal side of things. I'm not sure if it's still being pubished.

Posted by: Cathy at January 16, 2006 01:36 PM

Very nice, Hube. I was a heavy comics purchaser all through high school, but now I can no longer afford it. I also noted the leftist tilt, which goes back to at least 1970 and Denny O'Neal's "Hard Travelling Heroes. Scott Tipton:

"Written by Denny O’Neil and drawn by Neal Adams, the famous “Hard-Traveling Heroes” series was O’Neil’s attempt at bringing a sense of real-world relevance to the comic-book page, as Green Lantern Hal Jordan, Oliver Queen and one of the Hal’s alien bosses from the Guardians of the Universe explore the back roads of United States in a beat-up pickup truck, off to “look for America.” To be honest, I’m a little on the fence about these stories. Historically, of course, they’re very significant – here was where the real baseline for Oliver’s characterization as a hardline liberal was created, a persona that would for the most part remain Green Arrow’s defining feature for the next three or four decades. This was also the basis for the Hal Jordan/Oliver Queen friendship that would become a staple of the DC universe for years to come. There are moments in these stories that have become powerful images from comics history, such as the scales falling from Hal Jordan’s eyes in the first issue, or the revelation involving Ollie’s ward Roy “Speedy” Harper. And of course, the gorgeous Neal Adams artwork is just beautiful, probably worth the price of admission all by itself. So what’s the problem? Unfortunately, the storylines themselves don’t hold up all that well.

As much as Denny O’Neil is a gifted writer, it must be remembered that these stories were the work of a young man, completely caught up in the firestorm of late-‘60s Vietnam-era America, who’s absolutely determined to make his points about social and political injustice, and often does so at the expense of character, subtlety, and occasionally even plot. The writing is consistently preachy, sometimes bordering on sanctimonious, with an overdone sense of self-importance that can make you cringe at the reading of it. More often than not, Hal and Ollie aren’t even really characters, merely mouthpieces for O’Neil’s political filibusters. The “liberal anarchist” Green Arrow in particular comes across as an arrogant, superior jerk, ready to climb down Hal’s throat at the slightest provocation.

Hal, as the puppet of authority continually being schooled by Green Arrow, is portrayed as either a mindless stooge of the Guardians, the government or any other establishment voice, or else a kneejerk rollover to liberal guilt, immediately shuffling to Green Arrow’s side of the argument whenever Ollie barks his latest lecture. It probably would have been more interesting had Hal Jordan voiced a genuine opposing viewpoint to Ollie’s, but that wasn’t the story O’Neil was interested in telling."

It won't let me post the link...the name of the website is slightly questionable: Movie Poop Shoot.

Posted by: Ryan S. at January 16, 2006 02:09 PM

Comics 101, from the December 1, 2004, TAKING AIM: GREEN ARROW AND THE SOCIAL CONSCIENCE article.

Posted by: Ryan S. at January 16, 2006 02:10 PM

Thanks, Ryan. :-)

O'Neil and Adams are awesomely talented. Adams did the Avengers' "Kree-Skrull War" back in the early 70s (some of best art I've ever seen) and O'Neil did a memorable run on Iron Man in the early-mid 80s -- the notable "Tony Stark falls into the gutter" alcoholism stretch. As I mentioned, if the stories are good (and not overly [liberally] preachy), I'll check 'em out.

BTW -- while doing research for this post, I discovered that there is an Authority volume that has the US population rebelling against the superteam for their coup against the US gov. I ordered it via Amazon. I'll let you know how it was. ;-)

Posted by: Hube at January 16, 2006 02:53 PM


Posted by: Ryan S. at January 16, 2006 04:44 PM

I haven't bought comics in a couple of decades, but wasn't it David Michaeleni (sp?) who made Tony Stark into a drunk?

Posted by: David Gerstman at January 17, 2006 01:47 AM

Sigh ..remember when you cheered Kirby's Captain America and reveled in Stan Lee's pro-American dialoge? Those days sure are gone.

Posted by: Libraryguy at February 15, 2006 10:00 AM

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