Thursday, April 28, 2011

Superman Renounces US Citizenship and Other Political Moments in Comics

I wrote not so very long ago that I don't particularly care for discussing politics (and religion) online. That statement needs a little clarification. I don't like debating about, or putting my personal political philosophy out there for public reactions. Refusing to talk about politics at all while commenting on any kind of culture, even geek culture, would be like covering my eyes and ears and pretending it doesn't exist. If I did that, I don't think I could approach any subject that crosses over into real-world issues in games, movies... or comics.

Now we get to the heart of the matter. What has me thinking about politics in geek culture and frantically insulating myself against accusations of hypocrisy? Action Comics #900. Even if at heart, I'm a Marvel fanboy, a story like this from DC can't escape my attention. It makes for a great headline: “Superman Renounces United States Citizenship.” I'll get back to that, specifically in a bit, but this sort of story in superhero comic books has been increasingly more common these last few years. American media is becoming increasingly polarized, with extreme viewpoints politically to both the left and right projected as the norm, even if most people see themselves as “moderate”. Comics are a form of media that has not proven itself immune to this effect.

Expect this guy in the news Real Soon Now.

When a reader encounters politics in comic books, it is likely to manifest with comic characters interacting with political issues in their own stories, political figures represented in comic book form, or a combination of the two. Though there's been a lot more of this recently, this isn't really a new phenomenon. All the way back to the 1940s we had Captain America punching out Adolf Hitler. It might be fair to say that in times where the culture is politically charged and propaganda is a useful tool, these elements are a lot more likely to turn up in comic books.

More than a few comics have stories based on real world issues. Political issues have turned up frequently in the X-Men which tackles the stories of mutant superheroes head-on as a discussion about race relations and civil rights in America, sometimes subtly, other times... not so much. Batman has dealt with privacy and surveillance issues in the “Brother Eye/OMAC” plotline that had Batman's own spy satellite turned on heroes as a means to track and wipe them out, culminating in Wonder Woman snapping the neck of the villain responsible for it... and the footage of the “murder” broadcast round the world. Captain America and Iron Man found themselves on opposite sides of Marvel's Civil War, with the government requiring heroes to unmask or register by law, and some fighting back by going underground. This story famously ended with the assassination of Captain America by sniper's bullet after turning himself in.

Don't worry, he got better.

In a different light, American political figures have been cast as comic book characters in several ways. In the 2008 presidential election, comic books were released for both John McCain and Barack Obama, discussing their lives in mostly non-partisan ways. Since Obama's election, he's turned up in multiple comic books, most notably on the cover of Amazing Spider-Man #583 as the focus of the story “Spidey meets the President.” Sarah Palin, McCain's running mate and former Governor of Alaska has been in many, many comic books as herself, as a zombie, and perhaps most unusually... as a steampunk hero fighting against the evils of Big Oil.

I totally didn't make that last bit up.

The news about Action Comics #900 breaks at a time where social issues and politics are a normal part of major comic storylines. “Fear Itself” promised to touch on real problems and the role of comics and the politics of their creators has been a frequent news item. Superman is something else. He was born on Krypton, but raised in Smallville, and his motto has been to fight for “Truth, Justice and the American Way.” This aspect of his character had a future Superman re-imagined as a tool and puppet for a corrupt dark future American Government in Frank Miller's “The Dark Knight Returns.” The current situation stems from the story “Grounded”, where Superman decides to walk across America, thinking about what he does and whether he's making any difference at all. He's been disillusioned by the US Government's anger when he appears in Tehran to non-violently support protesters there, and his presence is considered by Iran as an Act of War by the US.

I wonder what Perry White would have to say about this. Probably "Great Caesar's Ghost!"

Fans of comics have had decidedly mixed feelings on these sorts of stories. There has been criticism of comic books as a medium in the past as stagnant. Superhero comics marketed toward a fanbase that has grown up and who want mostly more of the same proved profitable. This led to nothing else being released, little innovation and no effort being made to reach out to new potential fans. The long-term consequences to the medium of this short-term profitable strategy changed comics, and many think the changes weren't for the better. Telling new sorts of stories publishers are trying to remain relevant by telling “not the stories that comics want, but the stories comics need.” Fans criticize the current trend with the argument that comics are escapist entertainment, and injecting real-world issues into them diminishes their power in that role.

What do you think?
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Biff Tanner said...

Great little article, thanks.

The Angry Lurker said...

I have to agree that real world issues be kept out of the comics because they are escapist and we do not have these people in real life, it is one of the reasons I stopped collecting comics. I liked comics for a good story and character and very little superpowers, Batman, Wolverine, Punisher etc....real life sucks so we used comics for adventure and fantasy.

Alpha said...

So, what sort of 'way' will Supes enforce now?

G said...

yep totally agree...comics should be set away from the real world issues....sure reflect the themes but don't mirror the events

Jay said...

if for now other reason, these tie ins with reality make the comics more interesting.

DocStout said...

I like that we've got some differences of opinion on this point. I was careful to actually not reveal my position on my final question.

=dgrphx= said...

sarah palin looks so hawt

Bard said...

I have somewhat mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I use comics and other media to escape. I get enough of the real world, well.. in the real world. On the other hand, comics are an art form, and inevitably art forms engage with the real world, sometimes evolving from that engagement, and sometimes affecting public opinion through that engagement. I guess my wishy-washy answer is I'm okay with political reflections in comics as long as it's kept to a "reasonable" (whatever that means) level.

Kelly said...

I like the idea of putting political figures in the comics. Though I don't care for Sarah Palin in real life, she looks hot here. Well, she does in real life, too, but she's dumber than a box of rocks.

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