Wednesday, April 27, 2005

My comics, right or wrong?

Pol's excellent post about the "darkening" of the DCU and its connection with September 11th, and the subsequent comments that followed, especially T's, made me think about what role politics have in comics. I'm not going to get too much into a political rant, since this a comics web site and we're all friends here, but I'd like to address T's comment about "progressive liberalism." Go read his comment, it's very interesting!

Okay, now that you're back, I'll lay my cards on the table. I'm one of those progressive liberals T doesn't like - although I don't "blame America first," as he puts it, so maybe I'm not. In his response, Michael asks when "progressive" became a dirty word, and I wouldn't call the kind of people T is talking about "progressive," but it's just a label, so I'm not going to worry about it too much. It's the kind of people T is talking about, and their effect on comics specifically, that I want to address.

T claims that the liberals who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, hijacked educational institutions, and always blame America for the world's ills are what has changed comics, because they are now the writers of these comics (Winnick especially) and they have that mindset and they bring it to their work. I won't argue his politics or his history (that "progressives undermined the Vietnam War" is debatable, since it was one of the most poorly fought and poorly run wars in human history), but I will question his take on superheroes. I would argue that superheroes, by their very nature, are the most conservative characters you are going to find in popular culture. He cites Denny O'Neil turning Green Arrow into an unapologetic liberal who "makes sure he's ALWAYS right." He cites the fact that Superman has become an object of derision because he represents the American ideal, while Batman is lauded because he represents hating America. He points out that moral relativism has replaced black and white morality, and that in the aftermath of September 11th, there was much hand-wringing among the comics elite about how America brought it on itself, and that this sort of introspection would never have happened in the 1940s, when Captain America gleefully slaughtered Nazis left and right.

Well, he's right. That doesn't change the fact that superheroes are conservative. Batman - liberal? Superman, with his restraint in using his power (even back in the "good old days,") and respect for the common man, has always been far more liberal than Batman, who is almost fascist in his belief that things are right and wrong. Frank Miller certainly portrayed him as a fascist, and if I'm not mistaken, the promotional material for the Batman black and white books was "There's black. There's white. And then there's Batman." (Or something to that effect.) Batman has no time for moral relativism. He has shut out any human emotions in his quest for justice. Who's married? Superman. Who has a job that allows him to interact with the people he cares for? Superman. Batman, living in his mansion like a plutocrat, has never had to deal with what makes a man steal a loaf of bread for his children. He just dispenses justice to lawbreakers.

Most of the most popular comic book characters in recent times have been "take-no-shit-and-screw-the-reasons" kind of people. T probably doesn't like The Authority, since they represent the ultimate "hating America" kind of superheroes. Well, what if they were American, and went out and kicked all kinds of ass and made every other country fall in line? Would they be okay then? The Authority is the fascist superhero triumphant, just like Miracleman was, just like Adrian Veidt was, just like the Squadron Supreme was. You may argue that they are "liberal" dictatorships, but technically, so was Stalinist Russia. I say that most comics writers working today are more concerned with showing that their heroes take no shit from anyone, and that it's their brand of justice or you die. The darkening of the DCU, I would argue, stems from Reagan's America (1986, the year of Dark Knight and Watchmen, after all) when civil liberties were curtailed in the name of law and order, and also from Bush's America, where even more civil liberties have been curtailed. Yes, we see lip service paid to the "feelings" of the terrorists, and every writer these days wants to make Hydra a sympathetic organization, but how often has Captain America fought actively against the United States? How many superheroes have joined Hydra? Cap freakin' kills the terrorists these days, when back in Lee and Kirby's time, he wouldn't dare. Cap has gotten darker, not because he's more liberal and there's cultural relativism, but because in the current zeitgeist, people don't want to face what's out there and are yearning for a time in the past - the essence of conservatism, not liberalism.

T, yearning for a time when comics portrayed things in stark black and white, ignores that every art form, when it "grows up," must necessarily begin viewing the world in shades of gray. He took me to task for viewing the early Batman comics through a cynical eye, and I can buy that, because they were written for children. Bob Kane and Bill Finger and the rest could not but have been aware of the many nuances in America's relationship with Nazi Germany, but they didn't put that stuff in the comics because they didn't think children could handle the fact that the world is a subtle and sometimes unpleasant place, and America is not always right. Go back and read Beowulf or the Song of Roland. These are like early comics - everything is in black and white, and the hero kills the monster and gets the girl and dies tragically but heroically, and the status quo is reinforced. Unfortunately, especially in regard to Roland (since it was based on a historical event), it's complete bullshit. But that was literature, not for children, but for conservatives, and literature today is much more nuanced (and better, I would argue). Real life is messy, and the United States isn't always right, and our government has betrayed our ideals more often than we want to think. If comics wants to remain a medium for telling stories to children, then that's fine, and that what we will get. I don't watch the superhero cartoons, but I would bet Superman is well respected in them, because he's the hero. I watched some of the Batman cartoons years ago when they first started, and although Gotham was all very gloomy, they weren't nearly as dark as the comics. If comic books are to be an adult medium, they need to address these things. It sounds as if T doesn't mind that, as long as there are counterbalances to the "cynical, self-hating" crazies who are currently running DC. Well, the next time a superhero joins the Taliban or fights our troops in Iraq or tries to have the president (the real one, not Lex Luthor) impeached, he can point that out and laugh. Until then, I have to disagree with him.

A point: that's not to say there's not raging liberalism in comics. However, he was looking just at the DCU and its mainstream superheroes. If he had said, "Look! Mark Millar is humiliating the president on the White House lawn!" I would have agreed with him and pointed out that Millar isn't American, so he can hate us without loathing himself. Yes, there's raging liberalism around in comics, but I think that it simply reflects the tastes of the reading public. People who read comics like their boutique titles liberal and their mainstream superhero comics conservative. That's why Chuck Dixon (to use one of T's examples) gets work in superhero comics (I don't know why he's "nowhere in sight" at DC these days, although he hasn't been for a while, so it probably has nothing to do with the "darkening" T talks about), but his other stuff doesn't sell. I read Iron Ghost last week, and was intrigued, but it's the ultimate conservative fantasy - killing Nazis, but not even bureaucratic Nazis, but Nazis actively involved in war crimes! We'll see how it goes down with the reading public. Maybe it could be a test case.

Anyway, that's my two cents. As I said before, interesting take, T, even though I disagree. The history of America through comics - who'd have thought?


Blogger Shaenon said...

T.'s essay is obviously impassioned, but it seems only tenuously connected to the post to which it's ostensibly responding. Liberals are singlehandedly responsible for the darkening of the DC Universe? Batman is a more liberal-friendly character than Superman? Judd Winick determines editorial policy at DC? I don't think so. It feels like T. just wanted to bitch about progressive values, and this blog got caught in the crossfire.

As far as I can tell, the "darkening" at DC has to do with fans, liberal and conservative alike, being unable to accept that the characters they love are designed for children's stories, and rushing to embrace anything that promises to slop the grey patina of maturity over their colorful kiddie fantasies. Politics has nothing to do with it.

And as a staunch liberal, I refuse to accept responsibility for these boring, depressing "adult" superheroes. I only like "Plastic Man."

4/27/2005 08:34:00 PM  
Blogger T. said...

Okay Shaenon, I just want to reiterate that I don't blame ALL liberals, just a certain type: the Air America janeane Garofalo, Ward Churchill, ACLU, Michael Moore, Noam CHomsky, Barbara Boxer loving, cynical America-hating liberal that despises America because of its power and the view that it doesn't do enough to help people given its power. Maybe "modern progressive liberal" was the wrong term, if so choose a more appropriate term: "far leftie," "radical egalitarian," "moral relativist," whatever. The main thing is to realize the particular type of radical bourgeous bohemian of which I speak and not get hung up on labels.

I don't think all liberals are bad, and targeting the type of liberal I speak doesn't mean I'm indicting all liberals. There are plenty of moderate liberals that hate the type of cynical liberal I was describing. There are many moderate classic liberals like JFK, RFK, FDR, MLK (lots of initials here, huh?), Joe Leiberman, Mark Warner, Christopher Hitchens Thurgood Marshall and others that aren't apologists for fascism, that realize there's a time to be a dove AND a hawk, that realize the best race policy is a color-blind society rather than the treatment of race as an eternal special interest group to be pandered to for political favor.

You as a liberal can be free to hate these cynical, self-loathing dark preachy liberals the same way I as a conservative hate the extremists on my side as well.

4/27/2005 09:19:00 PM  
Blogger Christopher Burton said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

4/27/2005 09:58:00 PM  
Blogger Christopher Burton said...

I removed my previous knee-jerk post because it was specious at best and relied too much on hyperbole. I do believe that the market generally determines what comics get made but that this idea can be a bit of an oversimplification. There are probably a few other motivating factors. All you have to do is look at Previews. Things sometimes get published without regard for the presence of a readership.

On the topic of "conservative" comics, I'm betting that if Focus on the Family began publishing comics that appealed to their proponents and marketed these comics in a way that made them relatively easy to obtain and at a price that potential readers were willing to pay, they'd have a success on their hands. These wouldn't be comics I'd necessarily want to read, but there are a lot of so-called liberal comics I don't like either.

4/28/2005 07:15:00 AM  
Blogger T. said...

Great response, Greg.

I think before the modern age of comics, superheroes were what you could call moderate liberals or compassionate conservatism. They had the best elements of patriotic hawks AND progressive doves. In the Batman Chronicles example, for instance, notice that when the villains were evil maniacal killers and real fiends, Batman was willing to kill. Not to Punisher extremes, but he didn't have a "avoid killing at any cost" policy either and didn't lose sleep when they died. When Batman became more wholesome, the villains became less murderous too. The Joker went decades without killing for example. The early creators apparently believed in the punishment fitting the crimes, even if the punishment ended up being death.

In the modern age heroes have the same inflexibility toward killing but combined with villains more murderous and dangerous than anything in the darkest golden age comics. So now you have a serial killing Joker and an impotent Batman. Batman's basically a ineffectual dove now. That's not saying I want Batman to be the Punisher, but the original creators realized that hero's methods had to match the crimes. Today's bleeding heart creators want to show heroes that bend over backwards to protect criminals' lives no matter how heinous they are, even at risk to their own lives.

And Christopher, I wouldn't like it if comics swung too far in the optimistic conservative direction either. Sanctimonious preaching makes for boring comics no matter what the ideology, even when I'm a part of the choir. Just some diversity of worldview or at least balance would be good. The Incredibles was a surprising movie for example because instead of cliched extreme right-wing consipracies being the villains, it had a surprising twist of having a conspiracy of egalitarians conspiring to take heroes down. I think the magic of early Marvel was that it wasn't as cynical as later comics but wasn't as jingoistic and naively optimistic as silver-Age DC.

4/28/2005 08:08:00 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

We could argue about this until we're blue in the face, and it would be fun, because this is America! I will point out something about what Christopher said, and that is that Time-Warner cares about money like good old-fashioned capitalists and doesn't care what kind of stuff they're selling, as long as they're selling it. That's a good point, and that's why I think the "boutique" titles and independents skew liberal - because most people who read comics are liberal politically, T notwithstanding. Comics readers are also conservative when it comes to their superheroes, because a good part of reading superhero comics is the nostalgic experience, which is a big part of conservatism - I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but it is a true thing. So the reading public wants their superheroes like they were when they were kids, and DC continues to give it to them. I like what you said about Batman killing in the early comics, T - it is interesting to note when he actually does it, as opposed to the somewhat indiscriminate killing that Frank Castle engages in. If someone hasn't written a doctoral thesis about it, someone will - it could take its title from Batman #1, when he kills Hugo Strange's monsters!

4/28/2005 11:22:00 AM  
Blogger Shaenon said...

Superhero stories are, at their core, conservative: they're predicated on the idea that the world is a scary place, the government is powerless to protect us, and it takes individual, vigilante action to get anything done. Add the fact that most superheroes, despite being vigilantes, work to maintain the social status quo, and you've got a near-perfect right-wing fantasy. Some superhero characters are of a liberal bent -- I think of Superman as an old-fashioned New Deal Democrat, and Spider-Man is a classic East Coast liberal -- but the core story is all about defending traditional values from scary outsiders and impotent authority figures.

I don't see this basic fantasy changing significantly in the current "darkened" DC comics. In fact, I agree with this blog's original thesis that "Identity Crisis" is a neocon fantasy born from 9/11 paranoia: the heroes now have to do whatever it takes to win, even if it goes against the values they supposedly embrace, because the world is just that dangerous. Sure, they may stand around pouting and feeling sad about it, but it has to be done, and anyone who questions their actions just doesn't understand how tough their job is. That's not a liberal point of view; liberals would push for empathy, consensus, and communication (and probably be destroyed by the scary new DC universe as a result). That's the Bush Administration up there in the JLA satellite.

The fact that, at the same time DC editorial is promoting this vision, we have Judd Winick off on the sidelines trying to be the next Denny O'Neil, pushing the hot-button lefty issues of his choice, doesn't make the "darkening" a liberal thing. I still think that for the most part it's nonpartisan; everyone feels insecure right now, even reactionary man-children who have studied opinions about the fate of Blue Beetle, and comics reflect that.

4/28/2005 01:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really believe T. has been sold a bill of goods here; he seems to believe that Janeane Garofalo, Michael Moore, and Noam Chomsky are as similar as three different brands of vanilla ice cream, and Martin Luther King, George W. Bush, and Christopher Hitchens three types of strawberry. Which is ludicrous. He is making up sides that don't exist. Hey, I've got Jesus, Lincoln, and Shakespeare on my team! We're moderates! Well, no. Moderates don't bandy about propagandistic pieces of spin like "compassionate conservative" as though they were real poli-sci type definitions (they're not), nor do they identify hawkishness as a patriotic virtue while maintaining that pacifism is merely a progressive one. There's bias here: what is "hawkishness", after all, except the willingness and eagerness to go to war? So if that is patriotism, then pacifism or diplomacy or non-interventionism is NOT patriotism; while it may be a perfectly legitimate and valuable American political virtue, it isn't patriotism per se. Well, okay, whatever, if you say so, but this is obviously not an argument for all times and all Americas: in my opinion its terms spring from the current debate over Bush and Iraq, not from some idealized taxonomy of political viewpoints. This is a 9/11 thing, people, where progressives are accused of "apologizing" for fascism, but then paradoxically also are accused of demanding the government be more interventionist. Silly liberals: do they only want the U.S. to intercede on behalf of dictators? You know we couldn't do that...or could we? The government itself has always had to apologize for fascism far more often than any randomly-selected individual person would, no matter how progressive they were. But then, we should not admit that, because then we might have our artificial "sides" break down. And the worldview based on political spin subsists on sides, on "compassionate conservatism" not being just a bullshit propagandistic buzzword but a genuine political orientation, alignment, or theory (it isn't, though), and academic freedom being great for kids so long as it produces a properly worshipful respect for the grown-up authorities. But when academic freedom produces dissenting voices it has gone too far, obviously. Well, obviously. And equally obviously those dissenters can have nothing to say, because no one does, who's on their side. Yes, it's all about the sides, because if who you're with shows who you're against, then who you're against also shows who you're with, right?

But this is not a point of view worthy of respect, even if its author, T., is. T., you are like the guy who thinks everyone but him has an accent; you think you're a moderate because you FEEL moderate, and you think those that freak you out are extremists. But approving of the Bush administration's foreign policy initiatives never has been and never will be the litmus test for whether one's political thought is extreme or not, and everyone thinks they're a moderate in America anyway, so the yardstick you're using is all fucked up, and you need a new one.

Furthermore, this is just politics, and it's got jack to do with comics. You only see the liberalizing/darkening trend beginning in the 60's because you equate liberalism with dark impulses, which is a silly confusion. You are thinking like a post-9/11 person, you are talking like somebody who believes only in red states and blue, freedom and terrorism. By all means talk about whether Superman is an agent of the status quo and Batman is not, I mean if you really want to, but this time is not all times, and the Republican/Democrat divisions of 2005 are not the central issues in that ideological analysis. It IS a 9/11 thing you're talking here, just wearing a mask.

That's my opinion.

5/01/2005 06:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


5/03/2005 07:58:00 AM  
Blogger MarkAndrew said...

>>>I think the magic of early Marvel was that it wasn't as cynical as later comics but wasn't as jingoistic and naively optimistic as silver-Age DC.

Jingoistic? Naively?

You're describing the company that published ENEMY ACE? Now you can certainly argue that the DC superhero books didn't have much complex moral texturing, (... sorta) but certainly DC's Silver Age War Books, under Joe Kubert's editorship, DID. As much so as any Mainstream comic published today... And, in Enemy Ace, I'd say as much as any mainstream comic published, ever.

And, on a semi-related note, with the POSSIBLE exception of Steve Englehart and Sal Buscema(awesome! Best ever! Sooooooo good!) Run on Captain America in the seventies, the first few Seigel an' Schuster Superman stories are the most blatantly lefty comics I've ever read. So it's hard for me to buy the "Darkening of DC is due too liberal philsophy" argument.

5/03/2005 05:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Right on, markandrew! Let's tell it like it is, for Chrissakes! This "interpret-everything-in-the-light-of-George W." bullshit don't cut no ice with me, I am not prepared to say that the comics reading that exemplified true small-"l" liberalism to me was some kind of evil sweeping Commie or Mongol or Klingon tide that needed a super-right-wing Tom Clancy Richard Nixon Robert Heinlein CCA to check their excesses! Fuck you, you "darkening" bastards, the whole time that guy talks about was the LIGHTENING of comics, the LIGHTENING goddamit! Jeezus, should comics be good or shouldn't they? T. is an asshole, probably not personally but definitely intellectually, so fuck 'im. Ohhh, I hate this blog for not ridiculing this shit, shame on you all, yeah "good point of view", fuck off, it's a bullshit point of view, and you can come and suck my liberal dick for me, you troglodytes. Yaaah! Who made it about politics? Not me! DICKHEADS! I was happy talking about Moebius and Gwen Stacy and X-23, but you had to bring IRAQ into it! You can all kiss my ass, and fuck you, and fuck your god-damn ideology too! Oooh, Steve Englehart's a LIBERAL, he's darkening comics forever! BULL. FUCKING. SHIT. Did you really expect anyone who votes remotely Democrat to go along with this? Take the White House, take the Congress, but leave my comics alone, you suck and I hate you and I won't be back.


Way to make it political, assholes. No, really, congrats.

5/09/2005 06:20:00 AM  
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