Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Why do comic book writers hate democracy?

I've mentioned the phenomenon before, and was reminded of it last week with issue #5 of The Twilight Experiment: comic book writers, it appears, hate (or at least don't trust) democracy.

Let's look at the evidence. Whenever a superhero or superhero group takes over the world, they institute a kind of vague left-wing dictatorship. It's true! Miracleman: check. Squadron Supreme: check. Watchmen: check (okay, the heroes didn't take over, but the concept is there). The Authority: check. Doom Patrol: check (well, it was in the Painting that Ate Paris, but still ...). Kingdom Come: check. The Twilight Experiment, the latest one ... check. I know I've missed a bunch that I'm either forgetting or haven't read (what was Loeb's take on it in Superman/Batman? didn't they take over? was it a left-wing dictatorship?), but you get the idea. Now, they are too left-wing in varying degrees, some ultra-left-wing, some not so much, but ultimately, they're left-wing. So let's examine this.

The obvious reason for this is that most comic book writers are liberal. That's perfectly fine, as I would venture that most artistic people are pretty liberal. Heck, I'm liberal! But are comic book writers so cynical that they don't believe people can run things? Is that what they're saying? Obviously, these dictatorships don't last long - they're either against the status quo that must be reinforced in comics or the run ends - and so comics writers can use the old "it's just a metaphor" kind of excuse, but I'm just wondering why the heroes don't simply upend the status quo and give everyone the right to vote and make sure the elections aren't fixed. That would seem much more with a hero's mantra of uplifting the little guy, unless I'm missing something.

I'm also wondering why these heroes are all left-wing, meaning they believe in government involvement in every aspect of peoples' lives. Are these writers so naive that they think any government can come in and make lives better simply by handing things out? Now, the heroes who make sure everyone has food - great. But like the saying goes, "Give a man a fish, he eats for a day, blah blah blah." Are these heroes really that scornful of humanity that they think we need a babysitter? You could argue that we give ample proof of needing a babysitter, but I thought the point was to improve us, not to give us an all-seeing, all-knowing overlord.

Is it because a lot of the writers of the comics from above are not American? I don't know. Europeans seem much more comfortable with government intrusion in their lives, possibly because their governments seem a lot more inept than ours does.* They are also raised with it, and if you are raised with something, you're a lot more accepting of it (which is why Manimal is an awesome television show that deserves a deluxe box set - contradict me at your peril!). It's very interesting to me to read Europeans commenting on American institutions from the vantage point of an outsider. They have unique views that I can't have, as a native. I'm just wondering if the fact that most European countries as far more left-wing than we are and also have a lot more government involvement in the lives of their citizens colors what these people write. I should say of course it does, because we're shaped by the forces around us, but are they even aware of it?

I'm just wondering why it's so difficult for these writers to write a good, right-of-center story. They can imagine what it's like for two aliens to have crazy sex or what running really fast does to the Flash's lips (does he have super-Chapstick?), but they can't imagine a right-wing dictatorship that actually tries to help people? All the corrupt governments these superheroes overthrow are right-wing, but it doesn't matter what side of the political spectrum you're on - you can be corrupted by power. The Soviet Union was pretty left-wing, after all. How about a superhero team that takes over and institutes totally free markets (with no government subsidies)? Or a superhero group that takes over and makes abortions illegal and makes everyone attend church (because, you know, you're killing innocent fetuses and spirituality is good for you). Or a superhero group takes over and let the people decide and the people vote a right-wing government into office? It's not going to last anyway, so why not? Is it because these writers really don't trust democracy and really want a left-wing dictatorship in place? There's always an element of sadness when these things fall apart, as in "If only those lousy right-wingers hadn't messed everything up, we'd be living in a Golden Age!" Hell, Gaiman even called his Miracleman arc the Golden Age, and I'm really wondering if he was being ironic (it didn't seem like a Golden Age to me, at least).

So what's the deal? Can anyone name an utopia in comics that leans to the right? Can anyone explain this better than I can? (Probably, since I'm often incoherent.) Does anyone want to tell me to go back to the Cato Institute and shut the hell up? Just wondering.

*I don't mean to offend anyone. I would love it if our government was more inept. That would mean less of all the crap we hate about it. It just seems like European governments are better at not being so intrusive, even though they're built to be intrusive. Does that make sense? See what I mean about being incoherent?

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Blogger Mark said...

I don't feel that Superman/Batman can apply to this situation - for OR against. They were a dictatorship, sure, but it was really a time travelling plot by the Legion of Super-Villians (the pre-Zero Hour version, if I'm not mistaken) to try and prevent them from being wiped out of history. The Legion acted as their parents, so even assuming complete control had been ceded to Superman and Batman (I don't recall if it was or not...), it was alternate universe bad guy versions of them doing it.

In addition, I don't recall seeing much about specific policies they dealt with - there isn't enough evidence to place where on the political spectrum they fell.

6/07/2005 07:09:00 PM  
Blogger Will said...

In Watchmen, the left-wing dictatorship (if you can call Veidt's behind-the-scenes manipulation of the world governments that) isn't implied to be the best solution (in fact, the opposite is quite heavily stressed in Dr. Manhatten's comments toward Adrian about nothing ever ending).

Kingdom Come revisits the thesis of Gruenwald's Squadron Supreme: superheroic fascism. Neither treatment seems to laud this form of government over democracy.

I think you are mistaking the causality behind these stories. More likely it is the overtones of fascistic dictatorship inherent in the superhero that is coming to the fore in these stories, rather than any artistic bias toward such a situation (especially considering the negative repercussions caused by the loss of representational government).

In any case, most often these types of stories seem to be cautionary tales about the corruption inherent to attaining and wielding power (reflecting the dark flip-side to the poignant ethos of superheroism: with great power comes great responsibility).

6/07/2005 07:14:00 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Ah, true, they're fascist (maybe), but as I mentioned, a left-wing dictatorship is still a dictatorship. It's the dictatorial portion I'm interested in, as well as the left-wingedness. And I like your reading, Will, which is what I'm trying to get at here. Are they cautionary tales about what happens when you lose representational government, or are they wishful thinking and yearning for something that can never be?

6/07/2005 07:50:00 PM  
Blogger Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...


(which is why Manimal is an awesome television show that deserves a deluxe box set - contradict me at your peril!)

Who could possibly contradict such a true statement? Besides ultra-left wing fascists like Mark Millar, I mean?

Pop quiz: What was the lead actor's name? Answer.

6/07/2005 08:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the left-wing dictatorship is just a logical extension of comic book fiction in general, not a symptom of a particular writer's sensibility.
If you want to tell a story about democracy then the spotlight isn't going to be on the hero anymore, it's going to be on a group. If you have to keep the story about a specific "hero", then he's got to be in charge.
"Democracy Comics" would never have the same cast twice.

6/07/2005 09:00:00 PM  
Blogger David Campbell said...

Word! Manimal truly does rule - as does Automan.

6/07/2005 11:37:00 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

"Are they cautionary tales about what happens when you lose representational government, or are they wishful thinking and yearning for something that can never be?"

Cautionary tales. You'll note that very few of these dictatorships are still in place at the end of the story. (Even the cooperative peace in Watchmen is implicitly threatened by the last panel of the story.)

6/08/2005 08:11:00 AM  
Blogger Loren said...

Interesting thoughts. I'd never really looked at it that way.

On the flipside, the place in comics that I've always seen right-wing dominance is in terrorist organizations. "Right-wing terrorists" is a relatively common conceit, but where are the left-wing terrorists?

I can only think of two. One was the 'Left Hand of Justice' in a Waid Flash issue. The other was an environmental terrorist group that played a role in the first "Astronauts in Trouble" mini.

And the funny thing? Both organizations turned out to be fake, and were revealed to actually be creations of the stories' real villains (in the latter case, a billionaire industrialist who wanted to control the world).

or are they wishful thinking and yearning for something that can never be?

That may not describe the rest, but it sure fits Alan Moore's finale of "Miracleman" to a T.

6/08/2005 10:36:00 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

Yeah, I hadn't thought of that, Loren, but you're right - the bad guys are always billionaire industrialists. I'm not saying they're not evil, but it would be interesting to see some evil group be a good left-wing terrorist group. Off the top of my head, the closest anyone has come to that is Morrison's excellent issue of Animal Man when Buddy doesn't want to set off the bomb at that lab.

6/08/2005 02:06:00 PM  
Blogger Harvey Jerkwater said...

Don't forget about another British comic creator's Fascist America and its superhero: Judge Dredd. Dredd didn't build the machinery of the state, but lord knows he does his best to maintain it. He served as a satire of both the intrusion of the British state and the yahoo cowboy culture of the US.

I agree with a couple of the posters here, that part of the problem is the inherent fascistic nature of the superhero. The problems of the world aren't solved by group action, dammit, they're solved by One Noble and Powerful Man, the Right Man, the Indispensible Man. -cough-

Exploring the tension between the fascist undertones of the Ubermenschen and the desire for a more pluralistic society can create some snazzy-ass stories. As you mention, there's Kingdom Come, which openly wrestles with these problems.

And c'mon, a major characteristic of superhero comics is that they're power fantasies. Take that just a bit farther than "Daredevil punches out the Kingpin," and you get The Authority.

(The Authority sucked. I just had to throw that in. As insightful and "transgressive" as a fart in a Taco Bell.)

6/08/2005 04:17:00 PM  
Blogger T. said...

You know my feelings on the saturation of rabid liberalism in comics (especially at DC lately).

6/08/2005 08:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your question answers itself.

Why do superheroes always set up left-wing utopias? Because they're (a) taking over, and (b) trying to Do Good. And you define left-wing utopia as dictatorship+do-gooder.

Look at the alternatives. If they were taking over and trying to, say, make a profit or force their religion on everyone or grind a personal axe, or just make the world conform to some principle other than helping people out, they'd be supervillians. In fact, the very best supervillians, like Doc Doom, Magneto, and Lex Luthor, are always shown doing exactly this. Granted, I don't think there's been a Laissez-Faire Man yet, but I question how interesting a visual story he would make anyway.

Or, if they were trying to Do Good and not Take Over, they'd be, um, ordinary superheroes on an ordinary day.

You're not making sense, sorry.


6/08/2005 09:28:00 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Ah, Mr. Trilobite, I don't mean to make no sense. Like I said, why is their utopia giving stuff away? Why isn't it a "conservative" position like not interfering in their lives? That's all I'm asking.

6/08/2005 11:29:00 PM  
Blogger Will said...

Ra's Al Ghul in some of his iterations has been a radical left-wing terrorist (in the uber-ecoterrorism mode).

And billionaire industrialists have also been cast as leftist (or at least liberal) crusaders in the DC canon: Oliver Queen, Bruce Wayne, and Ted Kord are the examples that come readily to mind.

6/09/2005 02:07:00 PM  
Blogger T. said...

" Granted, I don't think there's been a Laissez-Faire Man yet, but I question how interesting a visual story he would make anyway."

If you want to see that, check out The Incredibles for right-wing laissez-faire superheroes. Pretty interesting.

6/09/2005 04:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are two simple reasons for that.
a. It's easy to write
b. It sells, because it's easy to comprehend.

People are used to that direction in comics, and it serves the superhero right when nobody can do the job right but him. Take Dark Knight Returns: would Batman feel the need to return if the police could do their job right?
If democracy and our other ideals would work in the comicbook, there would be less of a need for a superhero - or rather the writer would have to think of a more complicated story.

6/12/2005 07:41:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, Mr. Trilobite, I don't mean to make no sense. Like I said, why is their utopia giving stuff away? Why isn't it a "conservative" position like not interfering in their lives? That's all I'm asking.
Because that's not what conservatism is about, nor has it ever been. No government will ever be "conservative" in that sense. Look at the US under Bush. Government spending goes up, he's launching all sorts of vast social programs, there's talk of state-funded marriage counseling, family counseling, etc.

There may be "conservatives" who really want a minimalist government, but those people never seek or gain office. And the people who do seek and gain office on "conservative" platforms never reduce the size of government (the GOP has been running that platform since Reagan, and we've yet to see any sign that they mean it).

Anyways, such a government wouldn't work. Not in the post-industrial age. Modern people expect their government to do stuff to solve problems. A government that said "Figue things out for yourself." would just create chaos and panic, if not outright class warfare.

Finally, any dictatorship that actually implemented the "conservative" agenda would be supervillanous. It would be Nazi style fascism. There would be no "benevolence" to the dictatorship, it would just be evil.

6/15/2005 08:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ummm..I read the post but not the comments so someone might have said this already, but I always thought that most of the "superheroes decide to exercise too much influence in human affairs" stories (Watchmen, Kingdom Come, Squadron Supreme, etc.) were critical of the heroes' actions and their distrust of democracy. The writers don't hate democracy at all--the right of the people to rule themselves is always affirmed in the end.

6/30/2005 12:57:00 PM  
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