(DM) – Tuesday February 2, 2016 It’s easy to say comic books are affected by the climate of today’s cultural demands. We’ve seen the impact on characters from super hero appropriation like switching up a character’s gender to changing sexuality and race. Characters have also changed levels of aggression and overall agenda – much of it due to outcry from the millennial generation. But this get’s bit ahead of the discussion. To best understand the politics of comic book super heroes it’s helpful to get the right mental model of super heroes in comics.
Super heroes are created for a publisher under work for hire contracts. When it comes to the big two publishers DC and Marvel, the creator doesn’t own their character. Just search creators like Jack Kirby, (Fantastic Four, Hulk, Silver Surfer and more), Bill Finger (Batman), Joe Simon (Captain America), Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (Superman), Bill Mantlo (Guardians of the Galaxy), Alan Moore, (Watchmen), you’ll learn how publishers swindle creators out of both ownership and revenue sharing.
With the publishing rebellion in the 1990’s more friendly independent publishers like Image mandated a creator kept ownership of their creation, yet once a character enters a publishers universe, every writer leads a tough stewardship as multiple influences force change.
The points-of-view of the publisher, the public and the writer clash. Later, as new writers enter the picture and take over stories, the end result is that writers become caretakers of something that feels like it is publicly owned. So while you think it would be nice to see Hulk smash or Wonderwoman be more or less aggressive, all these hidden elements are at play.
While this may all seem new, it is not. Comic books have been a reflection of society since their inception. From Superman as a solution to Nazi hate towards Jews to Captain America’s creation for pro-war propaganda and the sale of war bonds.
Pacifism in Comics
Pacifism and super heroes make little sense. The pacifist may take offense to this revelation but consider that all super heroes were created to take on aggressive evil with equal and greater aggressive strength. Is it any wonder that we have super heroes at all when they have powers that can kill any average human being? Yet they do not kill, not most. The exclusive non-kill club seems to be locked up by the big two publishers, DC and Marvel. One example is Wolverine with his razor sharp claws. When is the last time you saw him impale an adversary that died? If he stabs anything it’s in a battle with a robot an inanimate object or at best a self healing adversary such as Deadpool. Hulk can smash, yet that seems to be all he does. Hulk’s constraint and inability to kill is a reflection of our culture.
When it comes to modern values, Superheros carry many torches, but all fall strangely under the control of pacifism. Superheroes are restrained because our society demands it. A writer may want his hero to make a vital life making decision but the character will be condemned if their vigilante cause crosses the line of taking a life. It’s for this reason The Punisher has so few fans and writers have a hard time painting him as a sympathetic character. Of course he’s under Marvel which also impacts any story he’s a part of. Contrast Punisher with any other character and he doesn’t fit.
There are exceptions to every rule. Enter Deadpool. He escapes judgment as his antics are written tongue-in-cheek and have long been under the radar of Marvel editors. As his popularity increases, his ability to kill in a comic decreases as to meet the needs of societal expectations.
Characters must meet social requirements in order to be acceptable heroes. If they don’t, political groups with clout or a comic’s dismal sales will either end the character run or cause change to the super hero’s characteristics.
This baseline requirement opened the door for society to expect more and more of super heroes. While sales have the final say of a character’s success the modern day Internet has brought about change in comics through the power of social justice warriors. These small disaffected minority groups use media outlets like Twitter and Tumblr to ‘wag the dog’, that being both Marvel and DC as these once impotent publishers have become powerhouses in contemporary entertainment, and still they live in fear. Marvel and DC fear any misstep while also pandering to the next generation of readers as older heritage generation readers are the only print media buyers left.
Super Hero Re-appropriation
The big twos’ hope is to remain relevant for the next generation of readers by re-appropriating long standing characters.
The question of right or wrong is not a question. It is capitalism in the purest form. Comic books and comic book characters don’t belong to any one creator, the publisher pays for their creation and artists have come to learn creating a new character not in their personal best interest. The creators of Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man have little to gain from their original creations and the huge loss of money to those creators have taught new artists to never provide Marvel and DC with their best ideas. To this end creators have only to use existing characters to spawn new characters or – re-appropriate an existing character.
Couple this working model with artists that are by and large liberal minded and you have a brew for character changes that provoke and insult just about anyone that has ever read a comic. There are winners and losers in the game of comic books. Today’s winner is tomorrow’s loser.
The latest rage in political correctness is ‘cultural appropriation’. The young white male student at a community college sporting dreadlocks of Rastafarian culture is attacked verbally by a female black staffer and told he can’t wear dreadlocks as it is culture appropriation. What she fails to realize is that almost every artistic expression is a form of cultural appropriation. Research this phrase, “Good artist copy, great artist steal.”. You’ll be surprised who said this, but most importantly it is true.
Often comic book super heroes become a reflection of the current writer, but generally an entire staff shares a similar world view and those writers then hand down their beliefs to the world by way of how they portray a character or universe the character operates in. This has taken place since the dawn of comics but was highly evident in the 1970's (Bronze Age of comics) through both character building and world views.
Consider that writers faced two concerns. One they wouldn't create a new super hero just to hand it over to Marvel or DC after decades of writers saw how the likes of legends Mike Ditko or Jerry Siegel were used up. In fact Siegel was so broke in his later years that he worked at Marvel under an assumed name. Staff there knew who he was and they learned from his experience. Writers built resentment for the publishers they created for and ultimately became very anti-establishment in their story telling. Howard the Duck was a masterful social commentary from an enraged writer Steve Gerber in it's early telling but was soon hijacked by editors that didn't care for the writer. It is infighting like this that often spawns other creative stories which ultimately always reflect the writers point-of-view towards their antagonists.
By the 2000's most of those writers were now sitting in editorial positions at Marvel and DC. Most at Marvel. When President Bush and the post 911 push for national security became a societal issue, Marvel used the age old device of which super hero would win in a fight to push their social agenda regarding civil liberties. Hence 2006/2007's Civil War where the big fight over super hero registration struck a cord with readers more so than the battles on the pages.
Sex in Comics
An old advertising adage is “Sex sells” and this was just as true in comics during the 1980’s and 1990’s. With a huge build up of female characters such as Shi, Lady Death, Vampirella, and other sex pot protagonists, they all shared one thing in common, skimpy revealing costumes. This design feature wasn’t lost on the Independent comics, both DC and Marvel got in on the act. Catwoman’s body suit was always in style but any new character received the same treatment. Fewer female readers were on board during this time, but as the 1990’s drew to a close the Internet era gave a voice to more than just outraged consumers, it gave a voice to anyone involved in any medium. The comic book industry was about to experience a seismic shift in power. That shift came about in the 2000’s and 2010’s with the rise of the Social Justice Warrior often referred to as an SJW. Read on to learn more.
The Power of Public Opinion
During the earlier era’s in comics such as the golden age (1940’s to 1950), the silver age (middle 1950’s through to 1970), until the end of the bronze age (1985), comic book readers had a puny voice relegated to the back pages of comic book comments, and they were primarily propaganda pieces for the publishers to hype what the publisher found most important. Why would a publisher print a comment that would hurt sales?
Prior to the Internet, publishers relied on the social conscience and agenda of it’s editors and writers. They made changes to their comic universes to meet social needs like adding Black Panther exclusively to meet the needs of black readers. Luke Cage and Falcon were also added. To publishers credit, these characters were created, no existing character was re-appropriated.
The Internet didn’t impact publishers much either until social media took root. From discussion forums to blogs, voices began bend the ears of writers and editors at publishers. By the 2010’s social media such as Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, and Tumblr became a powerful force publishers could not ignore. Even the smallest of outsider groups demanded and received changes. From changing characters sexes to their sexuality. While independent comic books would create openly gay characters first, Marvel was the first big publisher to add Northstar as an openly gay character. Add however is a bad term, Northstar existed for some years, he was in fact re-appropriated. This is key because it would be the means Marvel and DC utilized in years to come in order to re-build their comic book universes.
Authority as Influence
At one time what we read was self regulated by the Comic Book Code Authority (CCA). It began in the 1950’s. In response to US Senate hearings and worry whipped up by Fredric Wertham’s book “Seduction of the Innocent”, comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror (which were hugely popular) were essentially killed by the rules enacted in response. Without a Comic Book Code Authority seal, comic book publishers wouldn’t print the work.
Without the seal, comics couldn’t be sold and while most believe entities are the reason for a comic’s success or failure, it will really ever be about sales. The Comic Book Code Authority outright banned, everything to do with horror and drugs. Gone were Vampires, Zombies and everything in between.
As a result of this which-hunt by congress the Comic Book Code Authority was the cause of mass firings at publishers. Artists with years of experience were summarily fired.
On the rare occasion that Marvel wanted to work with the US government to print an issue with Spider-Man promoting an anti drug message, they could not because drug references were simply not allowed under the code. While the three part Spider-Man story (#96-#98) was rejected by the CCA, Marvel ultimately broke convention and published the series without the CCA seal.Comics had this odd internal system of control which took years of societal evolution to unshackle itself. As it is with most draconian laws and rules, they outlive their usefulness and become footnotes in history. Marvel broke with the code in 2001 while other major publishers walked away in 2010. Now defunct a new unforeseen force has risen to pro-actively affect what makes it to print as well as reactively change what is to be printed. That force is the Social Justice Warrior. The Social Justice Warriors of Tumblr are the new Comic Book Code Authority. The SJW’s rail against cover art, wording and even how altercations between those in battle may touch each other. SJW's shame and call-out anyone through social media to forward their agenda. Comic Books are not immune to their attacks. The attacks and shaming are all in the name of equality by the abstract and ever changing standards of the millennial youth. No longer are the conservative adults managing content, regressive liberals dictate social norms. The tail now wags the dog.
So while you read your comic book hoping for some fleeting fantasy getaway from reality, remember what you read isn’t just printed as a byproduct of creative flow. Creative tension from all sides affect what you read, and the politics of comic book superheroes is always changing.