“Behind this mask there is more than just flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea… and ideas are bulletproof.” ― Alan Moore, V for Vendetta
When most people think of comic books, the first thing most people think of is that the only people that actually came about them is socially deficient basement dwellers that go to Comic-Con every year dressed as Batman with a glandular problem. But like most things in pop culture, from “Twi-hards” and “Trekkies” to “Deadheads” and whatever nickname Justin Bieber fans go by, the fans, while well intentioned, make the thing that love so much look bad by proxy and comic books are no different.
What people miss though by and large when they dismiss things like comic books is that once you get past the spandex and the tired-but-true good vs. evil story, what you see is that for the past few decades, comics books have been at forefront of bringing political and social issues to the public eyes and forcing people to think about these different ideals in a new light.
In 1942, the creator of Wonder Woman , William Moulton Marston, who was a Harvard-trained psychologist who created Wonder Woman with the idea of evening out the ‘‘bloodcurdling masculinity’ of the comics of the time. The backstory of Wonder Woman goes that Wonder Woman, or Diana, is the princess on an island which consists of nothing but woman. Imagine the movie “300” but with female Spartans instead of male one. A male pilot named Steve Trevor crashed on to the island and in at the time shocking twist, Wonder Woman played the cliché hero role, being the protector of Trevor then falling in love with him.
In her article, “Reading Wonder Woman’s Body: Mythologies of Gender and Nation,” Mitra Emad delves into the idea of Wonder Woman being the symbol of the growing feminist move during World War II and the years that followed, much like the iconic Rosie the Riveter. Emad points out that in the beginnings of the feminist movement, femininity had to be “heroic, self-sacriﬁcing, and good” . Emad also point how feminist icon Gloria Steinem saying that Wonder Woman was a “feminist hero”.
The other things that Emad talks about in her article is how Wonder Woman was used as an advertising ploy to bring more girls into the comic shop in the 1980’s by being reimagined as someone who bridged the gap between the sexes and how her “her sexuality emergeas an in-your-face construct that raises questions about femininity and nationalism” in a post 9/11 world.
On the other side of the genetic spectrum as it were, another early ideal that comic books took a look at was the concept of the “Ubermensch.” Friedrich Nietchze, the German philosopher who came up the concept in the middle 1800’s. The “ubermensch,” in the eyes of Nietchze, was man’s next step in evolution and mankind’s eventual savior. The iconic Superman is a direct creation of this concept, right down to the fact the character’s name, which comes from a direct translation from “ubermensch,” “uber” meaning beyond or super and “mensch” meaning man. The conflict being Superman being that next step as it will, all the while trying to fit into society is something that Clark Kent/Kal-El has had to deal with it since issue number #1.
Captain America, much like Superman and Wonder Woman, was a tool used by Marvel as a way to comment of society, more specifically how it has evolved. In his article, “Holding out for a Hero: Reaganism, Comic Book Vigilantes, and Captain America,” author Mike S. DuBose shows how Cap, who as someone who was frozen under ice for decades and during his adjustment to these new times, had readjusted view for the country that he loves, saying that Captain America “recognizes his opinions as opinions, morality as being largely relative, and that being a dissenter does not itself make someone anti-American”. This lessening of his once-staunch patriotic views has made himself essentially more American.
The character of Captain America is essentially the perfect conduit for Marvel to which comment of events going on in America at the time. The post-9/11 Captain America is talked about by Jason Dittmer in his article “”Captain America’s Empire: Reflections on Identity, Popular Culture, and Post-9/11 Geopolitics.” In the article, Dittmer points how just how Captain America is essentially the barometer for how the country views its geopolitical goals. However, Dittmer does also point out the “disconnection between what Captain America is meant to represent (the idealized American) and the source of the geopolitical narratives in which he has to operate (the American elites of media and government)”.
The most visceral commentary that Captain America has been a part of was the “Civil War” story, which spanned across the entire Marvel universe in 2006. The story goes that after an attack by mutant Nitro, who killed the rest of his team, the team that he was a part of, the team chasing him and 60 schoolchildren when he blew himself up. The result of Nitro’s “terrorist” attack was that all superheroes had to register with the government. Captain America balked at the idea of rounding up heroes that refused to register, and decided to fight against the government, something which balks at the very notion of being Captain America. This was yet another example of how Captain America had to choose between which America that he served, the government or the ideal.
Another Marvel group that has been at the forefront of social commentary is the X-Men, who have been at the forefront of civil rights issues since their inception in 1963, during the high of the civil rights movement. The most notable of these storylines is called “Days Of Future Past”, in which the X-Men are trying to prevent a future which already consists of mutants being forced to be on the run from being captured, labeled and thrown into camps, much like the Nazis treated the Jews during the Holocaust.
Taking a much more visceral and darker look into political and social commentary is acclaimed writer Alan Moore, who created both Watchmen and V for Vendetta. Both of the comics are set in the 80’s but take two very distinctive paths but ultimately come back to the same idea, one where governments are no longer necessary and the people can rule themselves.
In Watchmen, Moore wanted to show the effect that superheroes had on society. By creating a parallel universe in which crimefighters helps the U.S win the Vietnam War. However, society grew to distrust the Watchmen, who they deemed to be above the law that they help keep and therefore couldn’t be trusted.
V for Vendetta takes a much more direct approach with its anarchistic message. The background is that England has being turned in a police state and a man in a Guy Fawkes mask is trying to get the people of England to fight to take back their country for themselves, much like the actual Guy Fawkes tried and failed to do back in 1605. The influence that this comic and the movie that came out in 2006 has had on various political movements over the past few years, from the “Arab Spring” and “Occupy Wall Street” to “Anonymous” can easier be seen just by the sheer volume of Guy Fawkes masks at every protest.
Another important aspect of social commentary that comics is the support of same-sex rights as well as interracial marriages. Most recently, DC decided to make Alan Scott, the original Green Lantern, gay. This past spring, gay X-man Northstar, Marvel’s first openly gay hero, married his lover, who happened to be black. Even the usually harmless Archie comics joined in on the commentary, having their first openly gay character, Kevin Keller marrying his African-American partner Clay Walker. However since Keller is also in the Army when he gets married, the topics of gays openly serving in the military was also brought out onto the table.
Comic book writers also felt it was their duty to help in the fight against drug and alcohol abuse. The vast majority of these attempts to use either Superman, Spiderman or Batman as PSAs usually came across as cheesy with the exception of two story arcs. One was a crossover called “Snowbirds Don’t Fly” with Green Arrow and Green Lantern trying to help Speedy, Green Lantern’s sidekick who got addicted to heroin. The artwork for the story has some for the time (late 70’s) images of Speedy with a belt around his arm, shooting up.
The other anti-drug and alcohol abuse story arc that worked was an Iron Man-centered one titled “Demon in a Bottle,” which sees Tony Stark loses everything his has due to his alcohol addiction. Over the span of a couple of issues, you can see Tony going from highly-successful billionaire to drunken derelict and his triumph over the bottle and the lifelong struggle he’ll have with his demons., showing that underneath the all-powerful suit of armor, there still is just a man.
We’ve only scratched the surface on how comic books have had such an impact of social and political commentary. It’s an impact and influence that simply cannot be overlooked. The next time you see a little kid reading the latest issue of Avengers, don’t be so quick to brush it off, you just might be looking at the next great political activist.
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