Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Intrinsically Political

Well, this is interesting.

It reminds me a bit of the debate that broke out in March between the Dixonverse board and Peter David’s blog concerning, among some other things, the subject of politics in comics which, in Chuck Dixon’s words, are not “intrinsically political.”

Chuck Dixon (I tried to find a direct link to the message board, but it was a while back and the Dixonverse board archive keeps “only 300 messages at a time”):

”There’s a lot of beautiful books out there. But I won’t buy them if I have to read a political message along with the story. ANY political message even one (God forbid!) that agreed with me. Unless you’re writing an intrinsically political comic, keep your views to yourself. Don’t use comic icon costumed heroes to espouse your views.”

Peter David:

”As for politics in comics, Chuck, it’s easy to make sweeping statements. But let’s say I decided to revisit the Hulk as a boss of the Pantheon. A commander in chief of a military organization that goes wherever it wants and does what it wants, up to and including overthrowing foreign dictators . . . If I do that same story now that I did ten years ago, is it a politicized commentary on Bush . . . Should I studiously make sure that no comic have the slightest real world ties since just about everything winds up being politicized these days?”

Years ago, I was a little confused by the audience members on an episode of Oprah. Oprah had brought the audience to a screening of a Tom Cruise film, then brought them back to the studio to speak to Cruise himself. Not a few audience members commented negatively about how shocked they were at the amount of violence in the film. The film in question? Interview with a Vampire.

I have the same reaction I did to a group of people who were surprised to find violence in a film called Interview with a VAMPIRE, as I do to those who say personal politics should not be expressed in comics which are not “intrinsically political,” and among those comics that are considered to not be “intrinsically political” are those featuring “comic icon costumed heroes.”

You do not need any complex literary theory to agree with what I’m going to tell you. You don’t need any dense academic texts or any classes on the subject. You really don’t even have to be anything resembling a regular comic book reader.

Superheroes are intrinsically political. They always have been. They always will be. It’s so obvious, I feel silly writing it. It shouldn’t even be an argument. It goes without saying. You don’t need a college degree to know it. Fucking toddlers know it.

As soon as someone like Spider-Man or Batman pulls on his mask, he’s making powerful political statements:

A) Crime is a problem.

B) Agents representing official law enforcement are either unwilling or unable to significantly deal with crime.

C) Lawless vigilantism, completely ignoring most if not all of the rules governing law enforcement, is justified if its goal is to hinder crime.

D) The vigilantes in question are so justified in their actions that they should not be legally held accountable for the laws they ignore (with the possible exception of murder, though this is not always an exception for characters like the Punisher).

While I hope we would all agree with A, and suspect at least a healthy chunk of us would agree with B, C and D are both radically political statements and most of us would expect people adhering to such philosophies to be found in isolated mid-western compounds surrounded by massive arsenals. I would never argue that Stan Lee or Bob Kane necessarily agreed with these last two statements, but that doesn’t mean the statements aren’t there. They’re wearing costumes and, without any official sanction (at least originally, in the case of some), are illegally dealing violence to criminals. The statements are there, like it or not.

The only thing most shy from (though obviously a lot more since the 80's and 90's haven’t been shy about it at all) is killing. That, in and of itself, is a powerful political statement, especially considering the characters ignore almost all the rules of law enforcement, except that one..

What’s interesting to me isn’t the existence of a comic like Liberality, but the fact that - assuming it is taking an extreme pro-conservative stance - it’s considered at all unique. The concept of the superhero is one of fanatical conservativism, so much so that I’m willing to bet even most conservatives would reject it. The disregard of individual rights and due process for the sake of law and order is absolutely integral in the superhero world, and no, not just in extreme cases like The Authority. Batman doesn’t ask for a warrant before he breaks into an office or home to capture a criminal or search for evidence against him. No criminal in the U.S. would be convicted of a crime after being wrapped in webs, left hanging from a streetlight, put there by a man who won’t even reveal his name (the guy can’t even cash a check). The fact that some superheroes have obtained an official or semi-official status as law enforcers only proves the point, because it’s an example of people who are given special exceptions from the document that everyone in America’s political spectrum refers to in any legal debate - The Constitution - based solely on their natural abilities. And if/when they do achieve that status, their actions don’t seem to come any more closer to mainstream law enforcement than before. Batman may have a badge, but that doesn’t stop him from hanging people off the edges of tall buildings in order to squeeze info out of them (something that finds an easy home in the realm of “cruel and unusual”, in fact I’d wager that most lawyers would argue that simply being chased down by a man dressed like a bat would constitute “cruel and unusual” treatment).

So all of this is a long way of saying that simply because something doesn’t scream “THIS IS POLITICAL COMMENTARY!” doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a political impact or that it has no origin in the creators’ political beliefs. Our politics are a part of us and there’s no way for those politics to completely escape a writer’s work. In the case of superheroes, you don’t need some pretentious critic to look at the comics with a literary microscope designed to find Christ figures and Freudian connections in order to see the politics at work. They’re there and they’re glaring.

I love superhero fiction, but my ongoing interest and study of the genre has revealed a lot of things I don’t particularly like. There is something political about the relatively small amount of comics devoted to minority superheroes; about the ultraviolent depiction of most black superheroes, about the pseudo-porn sexualization of female superheroes as well as female supporting characters; about the relatively small number of homosexuals in comics, about the fact that the only established character to die in Wolverine’s “Enemy of the State” was Marvel’s most well-recognized gay superhero; about the rape-fantasy images of Identity Crisis; about the fact that Bill Jemas ordered the creation of new ongoing series for characters like Namor and Ant-Man simply because films about the characters were in development, while the first Marvel character whose film adaptation found any kind of commercial success - Blade, perhaps the most recognized African American superhero in the world precisely because of those films - has enjoyed three movies and an upcoming TV series but still has no ongoing monthly; about the connection between the very concept of the superhero and supremacist ideology; and saying these things doesn’t suggest any kind of conscious conspiracy on the part of any comic company, but rather a lack of consideration and a healthy amount of apathy. There’s a lot of ugly shit going on in the genre I love, and before people start understanding that superhero comics are “intrinsically political” there won’t be hope for change.

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