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Comics and a higher purpose: Building fables and facing hard truths

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Comics and a higher purpose: Building fables and facing hard truths

It’s the discourse we share across superhero titles that really saves the day.

I’ve been watching an awful lot of TikTok in the last year.

I don’t know any of the dances, and I can’t lip sync to save my life. But I do enjoy some of the engaging political discourse that, against all conceivable odds, has emerged on this children’s entertainment app. Users like GoodTrouble and Logically.me have been a refuge in the snowstorm of s----y politics and bad policy that has permeated much of the last few years (but also, like, all of American history). They taught me that it’s not just enough to dunk on delusional Trumpies or those who’d weaponize politics to harm others; you also have to use your platform to explain, educate, and empower. And then dunk on those suckas some more!

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This is why, rather than making a pithy joke on Twitter, or simply ignoring them outright, I want to engage with Fox News about something important. In the last week or so, a couple of recent segments featured the likes of actor Dean Cain and comedian Michael Loftus, each lamenting the “politicization” of Captain America. Both men rallied against recent stories and other events as the acts of “woke” activists dirtying the otherwise pristine legacy of, um, politics-free comics. It’s an issue that’s seemingly trotted out from time to time, and it’s a great talking point for conservatives to rail against a media landscape that they seem to both misunderstand and mistrust. 

With that larger issue in mind, I want to speak directly to Fox News. Please pretend I’m wearing a red knit cardigan sweater and we’re sitting together on a park bench near dusk.

Hey, Fox News, how’s it going? 

I’m sorry about Trump — I know that’s still got you down.

And I’m sure, as much as these segments may boost traffic or help with your social media metrics, all those sweet liberal burns have to take their toll.

I get it. I really do. Let’s see how I can help.

Comics and a higher purpose: Building fables and facing hard truths

Courtesy of Justin Baragona (via Twitter).

Because it’s not enough to just present literal decades of evidence regarding the innately political leanings of Cap and other big-time heroes across Marvel, DC, and even other publishers. (Here’s a great Polygon piece about the differences in politically-leaning coverage at DC and Marvel.) Or to share the countless essays and think-pieces that similarly reflect the inherently political nature and inclination of comics. You’ve gotten enough of that from literally everyone on the internet, and so I instead want to tackle this from another angle. To offer up a perspective that makes you feel a little better.

Comics don’t have to be political.

But maybe they should be?

I get it — having watched enough of your programming, and also living in a formerly red, now slightly purple state (Arizona), I understand your key demographic. If any of your viewers enjoy comics — and that’s hard to confirm given that even some of your contributors may not have ever read a single issue — they don’t come for the subtlety. No, they’re more inclined to like The Punisher, bizarrely re-appropriating that vigilante’s image for their own deeply conservative take on issues like policing and law & order. And while that’s way off base — even the Punisher’s creator will tell you that much — I suppose you could ignore years of context (if that’s weirdly your thing). 

Because whatever surface-level readings someone may have of any number of comics stories, there’s ample evidence to accept that without the need for further digging. These are serialized stories about costumed adults (and sometimes their teen wards) fighting giant space aliens and golden skeletons. The dialogue tends to be heavy in exposition, the colors are bright and shiny, and everything seems to always wrap up nicely, no matter the world-ending crisis at hand; in short, comics are the perfect vacation from the rigors of actual existence. And that’s not even getting at how characters are passed down between creators, which means there’s no one definitive version. The socially-conscious Green Lantern of Denny O’Neil is just as valid as the dashing Robinson Crusoe version largely depicted by Andy Diggle. 

Comics and a higher purpose: Building fables and facing hard truths

From Green Lantern #76, written by Denny O’Neil. Courtesy of DC Comics.

Plus, any sort of platform these characters may ever attempt to occupy can be dismissed given that comics remain some “juvenile” artform. (Again, if you’re so inclined to be willfully ignorant.) Or, these same instances are later “erased” when someone new picks up the pen and paper. Comics are tailor-made to be consumed like so many sugary treats, and these disposable narratives and heroes make it so the reader can easily come and go as they deem necessary. Few other forms of media offer this specific function, and it’s something I think makes comics so powerful and utterly unique. 

But if someone makes these stories something more, why would you ignore them?

Yes, you have every right, you so-called comics “purists,” to live and read without ever engaging the political content within comics. But that doesn’t mean you have the same right to say that it doesn’t exist, or that it’s something new despite your last Captain America story having taken place on a movie screen. I’d make an argument that denying proof seems to be the misaligned M.O. for many folks these days (liberal, conservative, or otherwise), but then that’s just more of the same “bullying” that generates clicks and traffic for orgs like Fox News. So instead, I’ll once more ask the question:

Why don’t you want comics to be political? And, as an extension of that, why are comics just for kids?

There is a sense that, dating back to the early days of comics, most creators were liberal or left-leaning. Mostly famous, Stan Lee’s work, no matter what you think of it or the writer himself, echoed the ‘60s and the calls for social revolution. But as Comicsgate also proved, there’s a distinct collective of conservative voices in comics. And there are right-leaning elements in politics — see Frank Miller’s work with Batman — they’re just not always so well received.

So, given that dynamic, I understand the aversion by some towards politics given their likely, borderline inevitable bent. Yet to simply deny the sense of political history in (to once more tap a beloved target) Captain America stories seems plain silly. It’s just as much your history, and the kind of Nazi-punching, system-questioning tendencies in Cap (and other comics heroes as well) is something we all share. I don’t want to try and unite us across the political aisles (it’d be easier to bench-press an elephant at this point) but I do think it’s sort of obvious. Even if you don’t like the message, politics in comics is just a function of the medium.

Comics and a higher purpose: Building fables and facing hard truths

From X-Men: Gold #16. Courtesy of Marvel Comics.

Does that mean I want to see some alt-right hero named Captain Stars and Stripe, who was bitten by Donald Trump, Jr. while he was high on magical coke? No. (Well, maybe?) But I love this medium so much, and I easily recognize why people with a message to share, especially those addressing politics or other socio-economic issues, would want to turn to comics. It’s a medium that touches and impacts all ages, lifestyles, and backgrounds; it’s as much an American form of storytelling as jazz is of music. When you dismiss comics’ larger capabilities, you ruin its impact for all of us. Instead, when you engage with what’s been done across countless books for the last 70-plus years, you add to the larger narrative power of comics as a medium for both entertainment and social change. To feign shock at a political Cap is to pretend not only that we haven’t already been telling these stories, but that there’s no way to combine these messages into a format that appeals to all of us at our core. Comics are political because we all are, and even though we can de-emphasize that, to deny its existence does irreparable harm. 

Again, you may not like the message, and think these liberal values/ideals are ill-informed, but you still have to recognize that these kinds of stories are an achievement of the highest order. Not only in combining entertainment with serious policy discussions, or discussions on race and economics but that we as a country have mastered this format as a whole. Those comics are often the way we’ve chosen to tell the story of this country, from the patriotic highs to the realities of our flawed and imperfect systems. Great comic stories have been a way to measure our progress as a society, and to understand that greatness isn’t a destination but a journey we’re all taking together (for better and worse). It’s that combination of grit and imagination that has made comics what it is today: a force for shared stories like few others. 

To an extent, I think the reaction of countless conservatives makes some sense. Especially when you consider this latest comics-centric “controversy” comes at a time when so many politicians, activists, and average citizens have also come out en masse against Critical Race Theory. It’s not just that Fox News and throngs of conservatives don’t like the messages being perpetuated (understanding how American law, history, and race intersect paints a picture of America’s flawed relationship with racial justice and pushing any meaningful reforms). It’s also that this same context is somehow more terrifying. That, if we lay out the entire history of our country, the good will inevitably be swallowed up by the bad. That the nightmares of conservatives will come true and white Americans might experience some awful reckoning.

Politics

Courtesy of Vox.

And, at least with comics, that’s not at all the case. For as many stories there are lambasting certain political instances and decisions, there are just as many stories celebrating America. Tales about uplifting what actually makes us great: an openness for new ideas and voices, and a desire to confront the evils of the world and bring about more justice and decency. If you want hope for America, reading these “liberal” stories about Cap and Green Arrow shows that change happens when decent folks stand up for all of us and ring the bell for meaningful reform and greater accountability and a system that is generally equitable. It’s not about condemning us to our history but carrying it like a shield or sword toward something more than this. 

I understand that I’m less likely to influence people who champion Fox News for speaking some truth about the degradation of comics into something unrecognizable (i.e., a thing they don’t like or support). The fact of the matter is, some of those same viewers/supporters cling to this campaign of rhetoric because they further reinforce how they already feel about the culture and left-leaning politics. But if I’ve learned nothing from both TikTok and comics, it’s that sometimes the fight is all we ever really have. You may, to borrow a comics-inspired analogy, be fighting a 500-foot dragon with a sword made of old tin, but there’s something inspiring about that decision. 

Whether you win, or just end up as dragon chow, comics have taught me time and time again that the best thing you can do is stand up for what you believe and hope for the best. And it often does — even if that just means you held on to your principles in the face of countless fiends and villains. That means talking about politics, and doing so in a way that isn’t meant to infuriate or anger (though life is often hard and scary, so wear a helmet), but to show us the past and its larger scope before providing us with the heroes to blaze a better path forward. 

Comics and a higher purpose: Building fables and facing hard truths

From Drax #4. Courtesy of Marvel Comics.

Again, political themes in comics aren’t meant to single out people for wrongdoing; using the example of CRT again, this “shift” isn’t about promoting anti-whiteness. Instead, in regards to just comics, I think it’s about making change through ideas and inspirations that we can all relate to — heroes whose only real power is that they’re not happy with a world where people suffer needlessly, and they’re willing to put their lives on the line to save even one person. That’s a fable for a better world for all of us, and one we achieve by facing hard truths and reacting accordingly from a social, political, and economic level.

Creators often champion these “leftist” ideals because they want to tell stories that do more than tickle some nerdy itch; they want something better than what we’ve had. Some people are inclined to come along, and others just might have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the future. Whatever happens, comics can be the way we tell the stories about our past, present, and future, often in a way few other mediums can ever duplicate. I love movies and TV like most folks, but I doubt they can combine politics, art, storytelling, and history in such an efficient and effective way to promote things like greater civic awareness and basic human rights. To deny the power of comics is to deny ourselves and hamper whatever’s left to come. 

If that’s what you want, conservatives or other folks lambasting politics in comics, you have every right to enjoy these stories however you choose. Do I think you’ll still get some kind of joy from these stories? Of course, because comics are always about empowering people, even if you ignore more meaningful context. Facing the truth about the world means making hard decisions, and I get why some folks want to leave comics as some personal celebration of strength and a means to escape the noise of our busy society. Or even to perpetuate ideas you think don’t have a place among the crowds (maybe ’cause they’re kind of s--t?) 

The rest of us, meanwhile, will be busy building worlds so fantastical that they’d make even New Genesis seem tiny and quaint. 

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