August 13, 2013

Political messages in comics now vs. then

Noah Berlatsky at The Atlantic takes issue with Todd MacFarlane's (and others') statement that "political messages don't make good comics." These creators did so at a forum, where we noted writer Gerry Conway got grief from his "progressive" cohorts for his comments.

Berlatsky has a beef with the "politics" statement. He writes,

There are various problems with this statement. The main one is that "historically," it is complete and utter hogwash. It simply is not true that superhero narratives with political messages have been unsuccessful. On the contrary, the most lauded, and really most popular, superhero stories of recent times have embraced explicit political content and controversy. With its fake Mandarin, Iron Man 3 is explicitly about Orientalism and prejudice. The Dark Knight Rises exploited the Occupy movement and class tensions. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, perhaps the most successful new superhero of the last 20 years, was a feminist model and dealt with feminist themes throughout its run.

As a fairly quick aside, Iron Man 3 was nothing about "Orientalism" and prejudice. I cannot imagine how anyone could claim that the film was "explicitly" about such; indeed, if anything, the tongue-in-cheek Mandarin (played by Ben Kingsley) was sort of a "this former Iron Man arch-nemesis has to go because he's a product of a geopolitical situation that doesn't exist anymore" character. Only people with way too much time on their hands (like, obviously, Berlatsky) could state the film's concentration was on something it clearly wasn't.

Of course, IM3 and DKR etc. are movies. What about comicbooks? The best Berlatsky comes up with are Sailor Moon and Wonder Woman because of their "feminist" themes. But the definition of "feminism" is so wide-ranging, and encompasses so many ideas, that calling these two books "political" is very debatable. Berlatsky even says that fighting the Nazis and Japanese was "political." If this is the case, then hell -- even Superman battling a clearly evil alien monster is "political." But even allowing Berlatsky's point here, he attempts to bolster it -- wrongly -- by saying that "Back in the 1940s, these issues moved hundreds of thousands of copies each -- dwarfing sales of all those present-day non-ideological superhero comics that Todd McFarlane draws." Well, actually, that may technically be true depending on how you look at "present-day." But MacFarlane at his peak (the 1990s) sold over a million copies of [usually non-ideological] comicbook. That is a lot more than "hundreds of thousands." Not to mention, Berlatsky is making an unfair comparison. Paper publishing is going the way of the dinosaur with the Internet and digital publishing, so comparing 2013 with the 1940s is, in many ways, just silly.

But let's use Berlatsky's formula for a second: How many overtly ideological comics are being sold these days? The top sellers -- ideological or otherwise -- usually number between 100-200 thousand. But, aside from the top two or three, the figures are below 100K. How do these fare to those 1940s figures, Mr. Berlatsky?

Lastly, as we've noted many times here and elsewhere, the big difference between "political" comics now vs. then is that contemporary ones have veered hard left in orientation. Many have taken viewpoints shared by a minority of the country and glorified them, all the while demonizing the other side. Even with issues that have more or less a 50-50 split among the populace, you wouldn't know that by reading the work of certain creators. It was difficult to find a sizable portion of the public which would have had a problem with Captain America socking Hitler in the kisser; modern Captain America, on the other hand, goes after a popular political movement (the Tea Party) because it's radical and racist ... while DC comics glorifies an opposing entity which actually is/was radical, not to mention destructive and violent (the Occupy Movement) ... by giving it its very own title.

(Thanks to Nate Winchester for the tip!)

Posted by Hube at August 13, 2013 09:16 PM | 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.)

Yeah, this guy sounds like a total idiot and absolutely clueless about comics. MacFarlane is absolutely right. Political messages more often than not don't make good comics. There are a few exceptions, obviously (the Secret Empire storyline comes to mind), but in today's comics from Marvel and DC this junk is everywhere. Hard-left politics in comics over the past decade or so (I started noticing it about five to six years ago) are what lead me to stop buying contemporary comics altogether. That, and publicity stunts like overdrawn crossovers and the nastiness certain comics creators exhibit toward their fanbase....

I think the final straw for me as far as contemporary comics go was the Cap vs. the Tea Party storyline from 2010. I really started to question, at the time, why I was giving people like Ed Brubaker money when they constantly spit in my face. Interestingly enough, it was your Newsbusters article, Hube, where I first discovered the truth about that storyline. A friend had posted it on his Facebook page at the time and I discovered Colossus through that.

As for Gail Simone's Movement, no one even READS that comic. It's not doing well, critically or financially. I suspect sooner or later, it will be cancelled, the latest casualty of a failed reboot.

Posted by: Carl at August 13, 2013 10:35 PM

Carl, thanks for reminding me to thank Hube for the link to my CA204 post way back when. Still one of my fifteen minutes of fame. XD

Anyway, I found a site breaking down sales numbers:

So... yeah. Just take a look. Seems to me a lot of apolitical comics are at the top.

Now if we look for the specifically political ones we know came out.
May 2013- Movement #74, Green Team #77 (note that MLP:FiM is number 68!)
June 2013 - Movement #120, Green Team #147
July 2013 - Movement #164, Green Team #198

That is... a pretty bad drop.

Oh, and for those curious? Issue 1 of MLP:FiM back in Nov 2012? Placed @ #15.
(then #54, #45, #55 AND #65, #65, #68, #66, #66 counting subsequent issues, not reprints) Now THAT is some consistent showing and settles the issue I think (unless you REALLY want to argue that ponies are political).

And I think it proves both people wrong. Politics don't sell, but there is room in comics for some diversity in the storytelling too (even for "girlie" stuff like ponies). The key factor is, and always, GOOD STORYTELLING!

Want to kill the "politics sell" theme further? Guess what was the #1 trade paperback sold in may of 2013.
"Adventure Time Original Vol. 1 Playing Fire"

Q.E. f'ing D.

(in fact, that was a good month for independents as 5 out of the top 10 sold TPB were NOT by Marvel/DC)

Posted by: Nate Winchester at August 14, 2013 10:14 AM

Indeed, Nate. The key factor for me is definitely good storytelling, something that has been non-existent at Marvel and DC for quite some time.

I'm not into Adventure Time or MLP, but obviously both have big fanbases and their comics seem to sell better than the Big Two's comics do. The independents, while not immune to political propaganda (see Think Tank from Top Cow and Image's Big Lie, to name two recent examples), seem to understand that good storytelling is the key, NOT diversity and pandering to political correctness.

Posted by: Carl at August 14, 2013 02:51 PM

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