Lawman. That’s a curious term. It’s one that comes loaded with implications. Here, in this series, we’ll be taking a good, long look at the very idea of this figure of law and how it ties in with the nature of the modern hero. Where does the lawman stand in the nexus of superhero mythology as we know it?
Moving through various ages, movements, influences, and works, the series will eventually culminate at the current state of The Green Lantern, as molded by Grant Morrison and Liam Sharp, which serves as the focal point for a lot of the ideas that’ll be explored here. We’ll be diving into everything from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and sci-fi television to Grant Morrison and the overall macro-narrative of modern superhero stories, sparing no medium. Even if you have absolutely no interest in a property like Green Lantern, there’s likely gonna be enough of superheroic history here to keep you reading.
It’s gonna be a long ride. But stick around for the whole thing if you’re into Borges, religious ideas, chivalric romance, Don Quixote and wanna know what any of them have to do with a space cop in superhero comics.
Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals.
Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority. – The Comics Code Authority
Part I – For A New Age
While a great many often discuss Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns, and their effects on comics (which we’ll also be doing a lot), it’s often done as though these works have banished away the innocence and wonder of the past. That these books are responsible for some grave loss and are symbols of a great darkness. Let’s not do that — let’s do something different. Instead, let’s frame the two texts not as collective beings that descended down to reshape the world such that they also annihilated the past, but as part of a larger, grander tradition, one to fully establish a true sense of comics’ history and tie it into what we’ll be digging into here.
There’s a sense of idealizing the past, particularly The Silver Age. And while there’s heaps of imagination, fun, and weirdness to be loved in that period, that notion or approach to the age doesn’t quite track with the reality. It was never really the “good old days,” and it was never a more innocent or simpler time. Even the fondest of fanboys will agree, that yes, the Silver Age is problematic, largely in the same way a lot of old comics were terrible in representing anyone that wasn’t a straight white dude. But even that admission doesn’t even begin to scrape the surface of how truly harmful, and insidiously messy, that period proved to be. Knowing what it was and did is enlightening, as it matters incredibly to the subject of law and lawmen.
People discuss Alan Moore and Frank Miller as having rewritten the lovable nature of what was, this deeply saccharine age gone-by. That, and they did it by bringing to it a measure of “realism” and a murkiness that is now everywhere. Fingers are pointed, like by Geoff Johns, a nostalgic of the Silver Age period, with DC Comics publishing a whole book laying the blame for their The New 52 upon Doctor Manhattan and Watchmen. But that’s not what either Watchmen or TDKR were or are — that’s never what they have been about. They weren’t a project to re-write the superhero from their “innocent” roots: they were a project to reclaim the superhero, and to recover from past damages.
The Golden Age saw a number of political works with real personality. Superman arrived on the scene as a socialist hero taking down corrupt businessmen and as the immigrant hero imagined into life by two Jewish kids. Wonder Woman arrived as an explicitly radical feminist text, rewriting and subverting sexist myths of the past, building off the iconography of 1910s suffrage cartoons and Utopian fiction. Diana Prince was far, far more political than she even is permitted to be now, her very origin being explicit parthenogenesis, born of two queer women via the literal power of love. She was created of queer conception by a poly-amorous psychologist and stood for the end of the patriarchy itself. Captain America was a giant middle-finger to the Nazi rhetoric of the time and was, much like the above two, explicitly anti-fascist, punching Hitler in the face on his debut cover, advocating action over the conservative position in America at the time.
For all its flaws, for all its messes and mediocrities and its deeply problematic material, from its jingoism and racial caricatures of black people to dreadful yellow peril material, the Golden Age is also a period where tons of black artists and creatives could band together and do their own comics under one banner:
This was a period where you could freely tell tales of black astronauts who held power and rights in a big, meaningful way. It was an age where there were terrible, sexist depictions of women, but it was also an age of Diana Prince, an age of original characters like Lady Satan, The Spider Queen, and Lady In Red, who all spoke truth to power, took on corruption and oppression, and did remarkable things. It was a time where creators were playing into the worst biases and assumptions of their period, but it was also a time where others could express alternative viewpoints from the norm and build new narratives. Sexist cops and troublesome authority figures were protested and challenged, and art had a freedom of expression. Lawmen could be stood up to and criticized. The institutions of law could be questioned.
But then the ’50s came along, and with it Fredric Wertham, who brought his crusade against comics to a culmination in the form of his “landmark” book, Seduction of the Innocent. Placing the idea in the American public’s mind that it was the comics that were harmful and ruinous to youth, Wertham did irreparable damage. His comments sparked book-burnings, as he went off about how Batman and Robin were gay and comics were responsible for a lot of the problems of America’s youth, rather than virtually anything else under the sun in the real world.
Following the book’s publication and the controversies thereafter, the Comics Code Authority was formed in 1954. It stood as the lawmen of comics, enforcing the principles devised by Wertham. All of his bigoted nonsense and lunacy became the basis for a conservative cleansing of comics, as the group, led by raging racist Charles Murphy, set about their goal of stamping out anything that wasn’t remotely straight or white and didn’t conform to the “family values” (i.e., mostly regressive nonsense).
Two years after the CCA’s formation, Barry Allen (The Flash) would arrive, heralding the Silver Age. And the thing about Barry Allen? He was a cop. Hal Jordan, the new Green Lantern, would soon follow, alongside Katar Hol, the new Hawkman, in hot pursuit. And both of them? Cops, too, albeit from space. Notice a trend? It’s not nothing, nor is it an accident. And that brings us, finally, to the quote above. One of the CCA’s key rules was that forces of law and institutions of power just couldn’t be questioned. They could not be presented as anything short of heroic. The new, oppressive conservative law of the land deemed that all institutions of law be treated with not a hesitation of doubt. The cops were to be taken as all-good and heroic, these idealized bastions of heroism.
These revamps, these “new” characters, were very much a product of the period they were forged in, the zeitgeist they emerged around. And so Green Lantern, the most famous lawman, is that of the unquestionably good policeman. You weren’t allowed to critique authority or challenge it, so how could anyone in this age of unrelenting cop worship?
While some laws of the CCA might even seem benevolent on the surface, they were anything but. Claiming to be against attacks or ridicule of racial groups might seem like an evolution from the racist messes of the Golden Age, but that could not be further from the truth. The truth was more horrifying still. What that actually meant in practice was that White Supremacy could not be questioned. And given the inherent and systemic problems and links between institutions of law and bigoted movements, like White Supremacy, throughout history, the problem becomes apparent. Lawmen were to be idealized, made absolutely heroic, with even the slightest hint of criticism being seen as a sin.
Perhaps no better example exists of the CCA’s oppressive law than the case of the aforementioned Golden Age tale of the black astronaut. Titled “Judgement Day,” the story by Al Feldstein and Joe Orlando was a very clear critique of the institutional racism that was pervasive in America, albeit set on a planet with orange and blue robots. The robots hoped to join The Galactic Union and the decision lay in the hands of this astronaut. He held that power, and bore that with great responsibility. And ultimately, he decides, no, they may not join until they fix their prejudice, which looms large over all. The man with that power, that decision, who stood for this union, was black. The story had originally been published in 1953, without any controversy or problems. It was now 1956, The Silver Age had begun and the CCA was here. The now iconic publisher EC Comics wanted to simply reprint the story. By god did they face hell for it.
A tale starring a black man in a position of power, which criticized the institutional racism and thus challenged white supremacy explicitly? Charles Murphy and the CCA were fuming. And this was a period where, if the CCA wouldn’t approve your comic, the distributors wouldn’t carry it. You literally could not get your comic out there without the stamp of approval. They were the law, and could not be questioned. The institutions they were inexorably linked to were thought untouchable. These groups built an atmosphere wherein institutions they championed in their conservatism had to be idealized and mythologized. In the end, one particular exchange between Larry Stark (a journalist and EC Comics expert) and Feldstein circa 1956 is truly telling:
Stark: “What the hell did they want you to change?”
Feldstein: “Well, they wanted a white man.”
Stark: “Oh, great, we’ve got bigots for censors now. White supremacy.”
Murphy told EC he would permit the reprinting of the story, but only if the black man were changed into a white man. EC Comics would not relent and would, with great difficulty, manage to finally get it published anyway. But the price was too high. EC Comics would go out of business sometime later. Murphy and the CCA really had it out for EC after that incident. They made an example of the publisher and it is said Murphy personally reviewed all their submissions. EC would meet an ignominious end, for all its efforts.
Now, keep in mind, this is all in the period when the civil rights movement was really starting up, as people of color stood up to the oppressive institutions, their discriminatory laws and their lawmen. In that same age, having the very laws of comics, the ultimate American art form, be such that lawmen and their institutions could not be critiqued in the slightest? It’s terrifying. Comics have long been political but they also were neutered in this fashion; there was this massive, regressive thing, that defined so much output, and we must always bear in mind. The very types of narratives you could build, quality aside, were controlled by a committee.
(All this isn’t to imply or say there weren’t black characters or they were totally banned in the age. There obviously were example, from Waku in Jungle Tales to Gabe from Howling Commandos, all of which would eventually lead to Black Panther and The Falcon. But the key is that there’s very much this recurring message and pattern of “know your place” and drawing lines on what stories could or could not be told and what people of colors’ roles could be. The latter heroes arrive much later in the age, a whole decade later, as the CCA’s power was slowly waning with time, right around the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement period. The moment just before a new age unfurled.)
So yes, there was a lot of lovely work done in the Silver Age by tons of names, including Jim Shooter, John Broome, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Bob Haney, Gil Kane, Carmine Infantino, Otto Binder, and Curt Swan. But it was work done not on its own, in some vacuum, but in the very face of this oppressive authority, this system of law that was a response to things like the very notion that Wonder Woman might be a book with queer women. It was creatives trying to create even as they were held tight in the fist of the CCA. It’s why, if you’ll notice, this is a period where Superman acquires a Super Family and is no longer the socialist. This is the period where Wonder Woman would run about, desperate for marriage, since another one of CCA’s stupid laws stated that any romance tale had to emphasize the “value of home and sanctity of marriage.” No longer the radical feminist icon of the original Golden Age, Diana Prince was reduced to a mere parody of herself.
Are there a number of factors involved in regards to some of these things? Absolutely. Is the CCA responsible or the sole reason for them? No, but the atmosphere they created, the laws they laid down, of what was favored and what was looked down upon, have their part to play. In a lot of ways, the threat and effect of CCA can seem distant now, a long detached, far away notion, too early to really see or understand in relation to our far more progressive world. There was a time when the CCA and its effects were a much more clear and harsher reality, especially for those having grown up with said insidious effects.
It was only in the ’70s, as the Bronze Age dawned, that people began to attempt to shrug away from this organization and its approval. Both Amazing Spider-Man and Green Lantern/Green Arrow kicked things off, tackling the very relevant issue of drugs and drug use in the period. The latter, in particular, also marked the first real time the lawman and his institution had been called into question and criticized in a big, notable way in quite some time. Then, the others picked up the baton from there. The marathon to the future had begun.
The period saw a whole new influx and rise of talent, including Don McGregor, Steve Englehart, Mark Gruenwald, Jim Starlin, Steve Gerber, and Chris Claremont. And they began to push things, too, from McGregor’s Black Panther to Englehart’s Doctor Strange dealing with the divine and Gerber’s satire. Even older figures like Kirby helped, arriving with new gifts such as The Fourth World. They all pushed and pushed, until things slowly bubbled to push us into the ’80s, wherein Alan Moore and Frank Miller would arrive in full force with an assortment of works that continued that trend. And Watchmen and TDKR become very much the final heralds of that movement. That movement of pushing things, breaking free, dealing with subject matter that had previously been forbidden or considered taboo, trying things in a way that the Silver Age made it difficult to do. They were the final, shining symbols of a movement of resistance that had finally reached a fever pitch. They were massive, explosive critiques of institutions and of law, and their utter, absolute failure and the the loss of faith in said institutions, as a nuclear apocalypse seemed perpetually around the corner.
This was a reclamation project, for the years lost and ideas and people suppressed, producing some genuine true breakouts. That is their nature, that is the tradition they were a part of, and that is the legacy they carried. It’s an essential bit of nuance that’s often missed. There could be various types of superhero stories now. The sky truly was the limit, they seemed to promise. You can critique institutions, you can question power and those in powers, the laws they impose, and stand up to them. They were meant to be heralds of variety, symbols of possibility in the rawest sense. Whether you resonate with the works or not, that aspect of them comes through clearly.
Their ultimate hopes weren’t quite fulfilled in the new world to follow, of course, as tends to be noted. But it’s crucial to understand the much broader picture of comics history, which is that of troubling institutions. They exist not alone, in a vacuum, but as part of a larger tradition of reclamation.
Next: Pouches. Lots of pouches.
Part II arrives next Thursday!