Funnybook Babylon

January 11, 2009

“Get your politics out of my superheroes!” “Get your SUPERHEROES out of my POLITICS!”

Politics! Superhero comics! THE TOPIC OF TODAY!

Superman #24

Superman #24

Anyone reading comics news sites has surely seen the 175-car pile-up that is the Robot 6 comment thread to Bill Willingham’s article on politics and superheroes. (I love how the Superman picture chosen there is the Alex Ross pose that mirrors the famous Alex Ross Obama t-shirt.) The comment thread is a completely unjustifiable clusterfuck, the kind of thing Internet bingo cards were invented for, that’s pretty quickly devolved into the standard ideological baiting and namecalling you always get when people talk politics on the Internet, with poor Kurt Busiek standing in the middle as an oasis of sanity.

The timing of Willingham’s article was especially prescient, though, since it hit around the same time as the Obama in Spider-Man news, panels from which I’ve now managed to see on the TV at bars, on elevator ad LCDs, on every damn news website imaginable… for some reason, regular people are really, really, really interested in a throwaway five-page story where Obama shares a fistpound with Spidey. Personally, I’m going for the regular cover, which (sorry for the small image) looks like a masterpiece. (I can see now why Mark Waid was talking it up – “Face it, COUGARS!”)

But this all reached a critical mass for me when my mom sent me a link to an article about it on Christian Science Monitor. Somehow, this debate is reaching my mother. This has gone too far.

Do comics lean left? I’m gonna go ahead and say yeah, they do, just like the vast majority of creative media these days. This isn’t an indictment, or a statement that this is the way things should be; it’s just a fact. The thing is, though, I’ve never really felt like superheroes lean left on particular issues. Any writer worth hiring is more than aware that the viewpoints held by the characters s/he writes don’t necessarily represent his/her own, and really when working with longstanding corporate properties any bleed-over between the two is inappropriate. Of course there are exceptions, like Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, but Superman is so adverse to getting involved in partisan politics that he refused to even get involved when the winner ended up being Lex fucking Luthor!

What Willingham seems to have a problem with, in his original editorial, is the fact that Superman is no longer distinctly American; that seems less like a defense of conservatism than it does of nationalism. He states that he wants “and the American way” returned to the character’s masthead, and I realize what Willingham is trying to say here: that the way Superman has always acted has always been the American way at its purest, that there’s nothing more American than being non-partisan and using your gifts selflessly for the benefit of those less fortunate. Superman is that gung-ho, “I don’t care whether you think it’s my business or not” crusading power but with the means, ability and purity of heart to actually pull it off. What bothers me about Willingham’s statement more than anything is the conflation of America with moral righteousness. When you restrict the origin of Superman’s selflessness and moral code to within the borders of the United States, you effectively devolve him into a nationalist character in a decidedly globalized era. Superman isn’t the Man of Yesterday, he’s the Man of Tomorrow, and he should always represent the forefront and peak of human possibility. Perhaps this is just because I’m a liberal, but I hope that pissing matches over flags and borders aren’t the ideal we get to be pointed towards by the foremost avatar of human progress within the DC Universe. (I realize he’s not human, but as it’s always been stated, he shows the way.)

It’s not any different at Marvel, with their character Captain America, who they have clearly not divorced from the concept of America due to the fact that I still buy a comic book called “Captain America” every month that features a dude wearing the American flag as a bodysuit. I’m sure it’s a shining example of what Willingham considers wishy-washy gray-area superheroics, even though he’s (as demonstrated in the Robot 6 comment section) friends with Ed Brubaker, but it’s a shining example of how to intelligently tell a superhero thriller surrounded by the trappings of American politics without ever giving in to unnecessary partisan debate. While I don’t at all doubt that Marvel as a whole is a liberal company, with liberal editors and largely liberal writers and artists, I also think they’re all smart enough (and their publishing records back this up) not to have Iron Man stop mid-fight to berate the reader on stem cell research.

Partisan politics, as in the Democrat versus Republican fight, really don’t have that much of a place in superhero comics; DC Universe: Decisions, cowritten by Willingham himself, is a pretty convincing argument against ever doing anything like that ever again. The reason it doesn’t work is purely story-based: superheroes are above all this crap. Stories like Civil War work by recontextualizing the ethical and moral arguments that form the basis of partisan politics into situations that can provide metaphors for the current political situation, but also simply serve as springboards for the characters to do what’s natural to them. Bringing real-world politics into superhero comics without the layer of obfuscation provided by metaphor is never a good idea; as bad as “Our Worlds at War” was, it was still a more sensible reaction to 9/11 than Doctor Doom crying next to the rubble of the World Trade Center.

More than anything, it comes down to this: the characters in superhero comics shouldn’t support individual politics, the politics in superhero comics need to support the stories of the characters. Then everybody wins.

23 Comments »

  1. I agree with you on your main point here – partisan politics have no place in the comics industry at all, even though I think it’s due to the limitations of the creators involved.

    I’m pretty disgusted with Willingham’s article, though. I don’t think that bad-faith cultural conservative screeds deserve a response. This is classic, old-school baiting. It’s the kind of shit that Agnew and Buchanan did in the late ’60’s – ’70’s. It’s a tactic to get us to defend moral complexity (which they define as the worst dreck produced by Millar and Loeb) and cede any/all moral clarity to them. Because you see, heroes are conservative. That’s the point of the article, really.

    The most hilarious part of this tempest in a teapot is that the superhero comics mentioned in these debates are rarely truly complex or feature any real shades of grey.

    Comment by Jamaal Thomas — January 11, 2009 @ 3:45 pm

  2. I can’t agree that the Robot 6 thread was so bad. I saw a number of extreme, abrasive statements on there, to be sure. But I also went back and forth with Busiek at length. He seemed genial even as we disagreed. However, there were a number of people with interesting and perfectly polite things to say; I really can’t see how Kurt was some lone voice of reason there, David.

    I note the quality and tenor of that thread because I think the issue of politics in comics needs to be discussed and discussed well. Just how comics take up social and political issues and how we judge them for this is a pretty substantial critical question. I was glad that there seemed to be at least some people over at Robot 6 that were reasonable and engaged in a lively, friendly discussion.

    Comment by nick — January 11, 2009 @ 5:57 pm

  3. Accepting that relatively neutral media corporations are “Liberal” is what the this willingham / o’reilly style baiting is usually about. This is the classic ‘playing the ref’ routine that the modern right has used ad-nauseum.

    And for that matter, for all this praise of Brubaker for not including ‘unnecessary’ partisan politics, Couldn’t ignoring what was the most collosal failures of government in living memory partisan in itself?

    This irational fear of things getting ‘political’ in our entertainment is a little extreme. Politics are usually poorly done in comics (and most entertainment for that matter), but I think that’s due to the storytellers bringing one-sided, non-nuanced viewpoints to the situation.

    Personally I think that “partisan” politics does have a place in comics, just like every where else. Why should such a thing be verboten? You can debate issues in comics. Or is “partisan” just a euphamism for douchebag oversimplification at this point.

    Comment by Joseph Mastantuono — January 11, 2009 @ 6:47 pm

  4. I haven’t read the Robot 6 comment thread (it’s getting a bit late here and I have little inclination to read through a barrage of e-shouting and posturing. Perhaps I’ll do it in the morning), so I can’t comment on that. However, Willingham’s article strikes me as somewhat silly. But the man has the right to his opinion, and if he wants to act on it in his writing, more power to him.

    I agree with a lot of what you write, David. However, I’m not sure I completely agree with your final (and central?) point about the politics of characters. I feel that writers should be able to express their viewpoints, partisan or not, through characters, if they choose to do so. It’s all down to interpretation in the end anyway. If writer A sees Batman as a clear conservative, he should write him that way, and if writer B sees him as a clear liberal, he should write him that way. All I would ask is that the writers do a good job (which is where this would go wrong 90% of the time, I guess).

    In the same vein, I also think there’s certainly a place for overtly political stories in comics, as long as they’re done well. Meaning: more like Frank Miller and Alan Moore than like Willingham and Winick. In The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Strikes Again, to name just two well known examples, Miller was able to craft stories that were intelligent, interesting, entertaining, overtly political, and which contained clear messages. It can be done. It just takes a good writer to do it.

    I very much agree with Joseph when he writes that “‘partisan’ politics does have a place in comics, just like every where else. Why should such a thing be verboten? You can debate issues in comics.” Ultimately, comics, like all art, can be used to discuss issues big and small, and I see no reason to disqualify overtly partisan politics.

    ” …as bad as “Our Worlds at War” was, it was still a more sensible reaction to 9/11…”

    Our Worlds at War ended a little while before September 11th, the similarities between the events in the story and on 9/11 are actually a somewhat eerie coincidence.

    Comment by Derk van Santvoort — January 11, 2009 @ 8:02 pm

  5. Isn’t there a pretty significant difference between ‘politics in comics’ and ‘politics in mainstream superhero comics published by the Big Two that take place in their shared universe(s)’, though?

    In the latter, which seems to be what Willingham and his supporters are primarily concerned with, there are more than just artistic concerns that come into play. In a very real sense, the creator is less able to express their viewpoints or explore these issues in a regular series that is within continuity.

    So, that leads me to two places. One, Alan Moore and Frank Miller were given more freedom to go as far as they went re: politics(in Watchmen or the two Dark Knight books) because the stories didn’t ‘count’ (they don’t affect branding/marketing of the ip, and there’s no need to refer to this in the future). Two, when politics does rear its head in a mainstream comic that ‘counts’, the cautious culture of both companies will render it incoherent.

    Comment by Jamaal Thomas — January 11, 2009 @ 10:05 pm

  6. “Stories like Civil War work by recontextualizing the ethical and moral arguments that form the basis of partisan politics into situations that can provide metaphors for the current political situation, but also simply serve as springboards for the characters to do what’s natural to them.”

    That’s certainly the best way to do it, but there’s quite a bit of cognative dissonence to call Marvel a liberal company in a piece that acknowledges the existence of Civil War. CW and to a lesser extent Secret Invasion are both very pro-Bush war on terror series.

    Endorsing specific canidates is a bit much, but I’ve got no problem with politics being brough in, particularly if it’s handled as well as say Green Arrow is at times, who may be liberal in a lot of ways, but he’s also shown to have a strong conservative streak when it comes to women. That’s far better than say, Spider-man, who’s basically been written in an apolitical manner for too much of his existence.

    Comment by Joe Gualtieri — January 12, 2009 @ 7:41 am

  7. (Nick, so that I can stop wondering about it, are you the Barbelith Nick? Probably not, but I feel compelled to ask)

    Comment by Zom — January 12, 2009 @ 8:46 am

  8. Rich Johnston pointed out at Robot 6 (and it’s a point so common it hardly deserves citation) superhero comics are an inherently conservative genre. I’ll broaden that and say it’s inherently political: the notion of the Charismatic-Great-Man-Who-Will-Save-Us is at least as vaguely fascist as it is vaguely Christian. I think that was one of the points of Watchmen.

    That also means that broadly political (if not partisan) elements are scattered throughout every superhero comic. I think your point about Willingham being more of a nationalist than a conservative has some merit, David. It’s also why every issue of JSA, say, with its umpteen America themed characters is at least partaking of those political elements and shaping them in a particular way. But nationalism is still a political matter.

    Incidentally, this is also why I loved the Africa story in Superman: Birthright. It reset Superman’s inherent nationalism by suggesting he was influenced by Africans as well as Kansas and demoted the Great-Man-Save-Us bit by showing how sheer power isn’t effective. That’s all very political, even if Waid doesn’t come out and say “Vote Democrat.” Explicit statements about party affiliation seem a bit unnecessary to me (there just going to alienate readers), but superhero comics always exist in relationship to politics broadly conceived.

    (Zom: Nope, I’m not that guy!)

    Comment by nick — January 12, 2009 @ 10:53 am

  9. I just wanted to add. This call of ‘Partisan Politics’ is just a euphamism for saying a certain group of people don’t want you to have a Nationalized Healthcare system, Infrastructure spending, Gay Marriage, or Education Spending or a Proper Living Minimum Wage. And that another group waffles around like a bunch of scared children unable to get shit done. These are complex issues, and maybe the latest issue of Teen Titans isn’t the best place to argue how right-to-work legislation and Unions can negatively or positively affect growth.

    But to ignore Policy and Politics, because it’s politics is sticking your head in the sand. Politics and Issues shouldn’t be done badly, and allegory is usually a better way to handle most of it.

    Mainstream books are hard to incorporate politics in, and I agree that it’s a difficult line, because you’re speaking through an institution, but that’s always a problem with speaking through an institution. Not just Superman.

    But to make blanket statements that politics should stay out of comics is sticking your head in the sand. Politics is everywhere and in everything, and ignoring that is foolhardy.

    Comment by Joseph Mastantuono — January 12, 2009 @ 12:45 pm

  10. Let’s face it. It the attitude was neo-conservative we wouldn’t be having this discussion. I even hate to use labels but we’ve become such a divided country where having a different point of view automatically labels you a “liberal freak show”. It’s either my way or the highway. Love it or leave it. One of the founding principles of this country was tolerance. Where did that even go?

    Comment by dave fernandes — January 12, 2009 @ 5:52 pm

  11. Politics can be done as long as they aren’t done in a crass fashion. Alex Ross has certainly been guilty of the latter with that painting for the Village Voice showing Bush as a vampire sucking Lady Liberty’s blood. As a left-winger, I still winced at seeing someone I respect doing something that cheap for “my” side. When political art preaches to the choir, it’s not only of little use, but also invokes little pride in the ideas it endorses.

    As someone who’s worked for the ACLU, I’d offer Civil War as an example of comics doing politics well (in ideas if not necessarily in execution): a fictional law that registers superhumans is a good way to address issues across the board from gun control to Guantanamo without providing an overt parallel to any one issue.

    The worst parts of Civil War were, sadly, more well-meaning apparent-left-wingers (JMS, Jenkins) devolving the idea into heroic liberal Captain America vs. villainous fascist Iron Man. The real lost opportunity, in my opinion, was New Warriors. I was waiting for a comic to show us the young radical superheroes who were even more anti-registration than the New Avengers: the “student activists” of the Marvel Universe. Such a book should have shown us the triumphs and perils such groups face: ideological purity on one hand, infighting and dependence on charismatic figures on the other. I thought NW was it, but it ended up being terrible instead.

    Comment by P_B — January 12, 2009 @ 6:05 pm

  12. Right, I’ve now read (well, looked over) the comments on Robot 6, and it’s much like I thought, a lot of e-shouting and posturing (although there were also some thoughtful comments in there).

    However, one of the things that struck me as strange and interesting was actually written by Ed Brubaker: “As a friend of Bill’s, I’ve always thought it was the mark of his skills and vision as a writer that his personal politics were not visible in his stories.” I’m not sure how that can be seen a mark of ‘skill and vision.’ I always believed that self-expression was one of the main components of art. I imagine Brubaker is talking about superhero books and not high art, but still, ‘skill and vision’? Perhaps I misunderstand his point.

    Jamaal Thomas: “Isn’t there a pretty significant difference between ‘politics in comics’ and ‘politics in mainstream superhero comics published by the Big Two that take place in their shared universe(s)’, though? [etc]”

    Well, yes, you’re quite correct. I was being philosphical/idealistic, rather than practical. The inherently commercial nature of mainstream and ‘in-continuity’ comics results, most of the time, in the stifling of artistic vision and expression. Is it any wonder that virtually all ‘great’ comics are either out of continuity (Watchmen) or so far removed from it that they might as well be (Sandman), and almost always on the fringes?

    I imagine it’s difficult to do anything of real-world importance or artistic value with big characters in the MU or DCU, because these things are almost by definition controversial and/or difficult to understand.

    Joseph Mastantuono: “But to make blanket statements that politics should stay out of comics is sticking your head in the sand. Politics is everywhere and in everything, and ignoring that is foolhardy.”

    Quite right, I believe that same thing. I remember reading an interesting essay by Edward Said in which a very similar point is made (but about colonialism, imperialism and views on race, instead of politics). Through a reading of some of Jane Austen’s works (especially Mansfield Park, I think) Said argued that colonialism, imperialism and views of race always influence what people write, even in stories (like Austen’s) that don’t actually have anything to do with them directly (of course, what Said meant was more complicated than what I just wrote, but there we go). At least that’s one of the things that I remember taking away from the essay (it’s been a few years), and the same is true for politics, I think.

    Comment by Derk van Santvoort — January 12, 2009 @ 6:06 pm

  13. […] “Do comics lean left? I’m gonna go ahead and say yeah, they do, just like the vast majority of creative media these days. This isn’t an indictment, or a statement that this is the way things should be; it’s just a fact.” – David Uzumeri […]

    Pingback by Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Jan. 13, 2009: Ruining everything — January 13, 2009 @ 10:20 am

  14. “As a friend of Bill’s, I’ve always thought it was the mark of his skills and vision as a writer that his personal politics were not visible in his stories.”

    Holy shit, that’s practically an outright lie. Willingham’s personal politics have shown up in Fables plenty of times.

    Comment by Dan Coyle — January 15, 2009 @ 2:54 pm

  15. I just want to say: s/he is s/hit. Just say “they”. It’s okay. Miss Havnaebran will not travel through time from the third grade to mark points off because you used “they” as a singular gender-neutral pronoun.

    Comment by DensityDuck — January 16, 2009 @ 1:56 pm

  16. The thing that always irked me about eliminating “…and the American Way” from Superman’s motto is that I never got the idea that it was political–rather, that it was more of a marketing move. It’s difficult to sell books overseas if the character is overtly American; ergo, overtly-American references are eliminated. See also “G.I. Joe, INTERNATIONAL hero”.

    Derk: Politics may “be everywhere, in everything”, but that doesn’t mean we have to turn every single issue of every single book into a soapbox. Dirt is everywhere, too, but I don’t go wallow in the mud every time I step outdoors.

    Comment by DensityDuck — January 16, 2009 @ 3:01 pm

  17. DensityDuck: “Derk: Politics may ‘be everywhere, in everything’, but that doesn’t mean we have to turn every single issue of every single book into a soapbox. Dirt is everywhere, too, but I don’t go wallow in the mud every time I step outdoors.”

    I agree, not everything HAS to be about politics all the time, that was never my point.

    My main points were that I believe that writers should be free to discuss or not discuss politics of any kind as they see fit in their work (although this is obviously hampered by the commercial nature of mainstream publications), and that the political views (in the broad sense of the words) of writers will inevitably find their way into their stories, whether they mean to include them or not.

    Comment by Derk van Santvoort — January 17, 2009 @ 10:13 am

  18. @ P_B: Totally agree with your ‘Civil War’ comments, and your disappointment with New Warriors, I was thinking almost the same thing. I think in many ways it was a bit sneaky for Marvel to present NW as a kind of ‘radical’ result of CW, it was a much more conventional young superhero narrative about the enthusiasm and naivette of youth… shame, could have been really interesting.

    This is also why I disagree with the idea that comics lean left, this would have been the clearest example of it, but I think there really wasn’t much political substance to the story in the end… The Order was seemed, IMHO a more ‘political’ story as it dealt with the bureaucracy, public relations project, and control procedures that are part of working for any kind of public body, or law-enforcement agency. I’m a bit disappointed it didn’t last.

    I was a repeat responder on the Robot 6 ‘blog, and I found that the debate was interesting.

    I think it was interesting that the debate ended up as a kind of political referendum, even though there wasn’t an explicitly or directly overt political statement being made.

    Willingham did not seem to make any overt political references to either the politics he believed the creators of the comics to have, or the politics he believed the creators to be imbuing their stories with.

    Having said that, the issues he highlighted ARE political issues, especially in the context of how governments use moralistic, or values based, rhetoric to explain and/or justify their particular policies.

    Willingham adopted a rhetoric that alluded to, at least IMHO, the rhetoric that has been adopted by the outgoing political establishment.

    I would also point out that the incoming President is himself a user of values-based rhetoric, but he marshaled a different constellation of rhetorical flourishes, and so in many ways, appears to be adopting a different ethical/political position… in many ways I am skeptical of both styles.

    The issue for me is not so much a political one from the perspective of who supports whom, but the matter of what is disguised by the rhetoric of what is said. I think Willingham is savvy enough to know that there are people who will see the aspect of his contention as it relates to his own personal politics, and I also think that he is not making his statement in an ‘innocent’ fashion.

    The rhetoric of ‘values’ and the moral ideals behind it are inherently divisive, as the way one chooses to enact or support such a rhetoric is what is really at stake. To simply accept his definition of his values within the rhetoric of being, or possessing the quality of being, American is a very socially chauvinistic thing to do.

    It sets up a situation where allegiance to those ideals is implicitly encoded as an allegiance to the idea of the nation he presumes them to be an inherent quality of… I’m not saying that the ideals he argues for are not of value, but by making them explicitly American ideals, automatically establishes a limit to who can ‘truly’ participate in them. As a non-American this makes it feel like my own participation in the medium, and that of others who fall into this selfsame category, is being white-washed out at best, or somehow made into being the pathological condition that resulted in the current decadence he seems to be decrying.

    Whilst I am fully aware he includes himself in the process of this shift, it seems to me to be less of a “I stand by my convictions and support what I did” stance and more of a “I once was lost and have found my way” proclamation, which I think still allows he to stand by my contention that he doesn’t leave me much room within his rhetoric to find where I “fit in” to his mission statement.

    I feel I have been left out, in my capacity as a non-American, by the wayside, despite the vast degree to which I think the values he supports are important and necessary components of the superhero genre.

    Comment by Luke Evans — January 17, 2009 @ 10:22 am

  19. […] this story is not directly related to Obama but it does involve politics in comics. I find myself agreeing with what this guy is […]

    Pingback by The Sunday Stroll for January 18th, 2008 | — January 18, 2009 @ 11:04 am

  20. […] and interesting comments on this blog, on the original editorial, and is now filtering out to the blogging/podcasting communities. The comments that get my attention here are the ones wrapped up in losing “the American […]

    Pingback by Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources - Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment » Just Past the Horizon: Heroic appeal — February 20, 2009 @ 12:43 am

  21. Comics lean Left? You’d never guess it by entering my local Obama Shop, which happens to sell a couple of non-Obie-related items. Personally, I prefer comics to create their own worlds, so that depictions of Bush, Clinton, et al don’t automatically date the story (I’m thinking currently of the Superman/New Krypton, where obvious-Bush was Prez while Obie was in the actual White House. Poor timing or the inability of the creative team to portray one Prez as insipidly as another? Even in their attempts at ‘fiction’, does anyone really believe a Civil War or Luthor-as-President would have been permitted under an Obama Regime as it was under a Republican?
    Still and all, I’ll keep reading GOOD stories, no matter that Supes is a Liberal, Bats is a Conservative/Libertarian, and most others fall into gray areas of Liberalism.

    Comment by NorthstarATL — June 7, 2009 @ 11:10 pm

  22. […] “Do comics lean left? I’m gonna go ahead and say yeah, they do, just like the vast majority of creative media these days. This isn’t an indictment, or a statement that this is the way things should be; it’s just a fact.” – David Uzumeri […]

    Pingback by Journalista – the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Jan. 13, 2009: Ruining everything — March 7, 2010 @ 7:43 am

  23. Thx for information.

    Comment by Farrah Satre — May 19, 2012 @ 12:44 am

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