Superhero comics – A left-wing agenda?

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It’s been an interesting few weeks. Those of you that have followed the mudslinging and hyperbole of the General Election campaign thus far may have noticed that a recurring topic has been the question of perceived bias, whether it’s on the part of the newspapers, the BBC or sections of digital media. While this site isn’t the place to discuss the rights and wrongs of such claims, it did serve to remind me that the comics industry has dealt with similar claims over the years, most frequently with the assertion that superhero comics tend to be written from a left-wing perspective. Such a sweeping statement leads to two obvious questions: is this actually the case and, if so, does it matter?

In 2014, Chuck Dixon, known for his work on Batman, Robin and numerous other comics in the 90s and 00s, co-wrote an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal which bemoaned the predominantly liberal bias of modern comics, arguing that it was doing a disservice to younger readers. Furthermore, Dixon claimed that his writing assignments began to dry up once he voiced his political views in the workplace. Dixon’s article caused a minor stir when it was published, with Tony Isabella one of many creators to debate the point, writing that “if there were an overwhelming anti-conservative bias in comics, Bill Willingham and Ethan Van Scriver would not be two of the most sought-after creators in comics.”

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While Dixon’s point about political views affecting employability may be challenged, it’s interesting to consider this in the context of British comics and the leading British names that have emerged in the last few years. Here we do seem to see a strong left-wing stance, with many creators in the 80s finding their creative sparks flamed by their opposition to Margaret Thatcher and what they believed her policies represented. 2000AD has always had an anti-establishment flavour and it’s notable that its most famous son, Judge Dredd, although perhaps appearing to the uninitiated as the hero of the establishment, has been described as a liberal creation with accidental appeal to conservatives. As his co-creator John Wagner admitted, the creators used to get letters from children that agreed with Dredd’s hard-right stance and therefore made the strip more explicitly political to highlight the fact that they did not share Dredd’s views.

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This engagement with politics and current affairs was perhaps most explicit with the publication of Crisis, a British comic that ran from 1988 – 1991 and was designed to provide a home for mature, politically and socially aware stories. I well recall picking up an issue in the late 80s and being rather confused by what I was reading, strips that were a world away from the Marvel UK titles that formed the staple of my comic diet at that time. Featuring a who’s who of British comic writing talent, including Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Garth Ennis and Pat Mills, the title was perhaps too uncompromising for a wider readership but it is notable how many of its creators later found a home in DC’s Vertigo imprint where they had more freedom to follow their own paths. Further proof that British creators at the time were markedly political in their work is within the unlikely pages of 1991’s The Comic Relief Comic (a.k.a. The Totally Stonking, Surprisingly Educational And Utterly Mindboggling Comic Relief Comic). As well as being utterly insane, U.S, British and children’s comic characters are all mixed together with British celebrities and real world events. I imagine that more than a few of the companies involved will have had palpitations when they saw the finished product and the company that their creations were keeping.

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It’s perhaps somewhat easier for a comic like 2000AD to feature political situations and concepts, with its publishers not having to share Marvel and DC’s preoccupation with selling character branded clothing and merchandise to small children. However, it would be wrong to suggest that Marvel and DC comics don’t also feature political overtones. The dawn of the super heroic age in the 1930s saw the creation of two of its most famous sons, Superman and Captain America, entwined with progressive and liberal ideals. From Superman’s early struggles for social justice and Captain America’s creation as a response to the Nazi threat, these early adventures regularly featured real world situations. The 1970s were also notable, a new influx of young writers turning out strips that reflected their take on society and its ills. From Green Lantern and Green Arrow’s American road trip to Captain America’s disillusionment with the Government, comics were challenging and, at times, outright subversive. Much has been made of Marvel’s success in the 1960s and 70s being driven by its popularity on College campuses and it’s easy to see how such series, and others such as Howard the Duck and Warlock would have generated discussion and broadened students’ horizons.

The question of whether a creator’s political leanings affects their writing is an interesting one. It’s fascinating to read Civil War and keep in mind Mark Millar’s early assertion that both pro and anti-registration sides would be presented in a fair and equal manner. A case could be made for this – to some extent – in the main series. While the pro-registration are guilty of some serious offences to civil liberties, anti-registrants are also linked to questionable acts. Tie-ins, however, are a different story. Pro-registrants, and Tony Stark in particular, are presented in a terrible light, with Tony suffering a multitude of blows to his character. Tom Breevort stated at the time that, for the most part, creators could choose the side of the argument that their titles would fall on, and it’s striking how few creators wanted to associate with the pro-registration position. While the assumption seems to be that Iron Man’s association with the government makes him the ‘bad guy’ in this situation, an interesting reading is that Iron Man is the liberal in the argument and that with his unblinking adherence to secret identities and the way that it’s always been done, Captain America represents the conservative view.

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Depictions in comics are of course more nuanced than all politicians are bad and all rich capitalists are untrustworthy, but it’s fair to point out that these are common portrayals. Is this a bad thing and does it matter how creators’ politics influence their work? For me, it comes down to the fact that a story can be enjoyable regardless of whether I agree with the message or tone that is being conveyed. More important for me is that the story feels organic and respectful to the characters involved and is not merely a platform for the creator to express their views, whether it’s on the left or the right of the spectrum. Will there always be bias? Of course there will, because no two readers will react in the same way to what they’re reading. Some will think the point has been pressed too far, others not far enough. In the end we should all admit that we have our own biases, however we try and dress them up and legitimise them. Perhaps then we can be free to appreciate things for what they are rather than decry them for what they are not.

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