Are Comic Books Propaganda?
HOW FAR should one take politics in art?
The question arises with the ongoing “comicsgate” controversy which has split the comic book publishing world. (Background on the issue is available here and here. Debate has raged across the internet, especially on twitter, for weeks.
A point made by those on the social justice side of the issue is that superhero comics have always been political. Nazis in particular have been socked by superheroes for decades.
They’re right. Superhero comics have been political almost from the start. The kicker is they’ve been more than political. From World War II through the Cold War they were outright propaganda. Cheerleaders for American empire.
WORLD WAR II
The Second World War was a battle for civilization– a no-holds-barred fight to the death, during which all rules of civilized behavior were broken, by all sides. This was reflected in the propaganda.
Comic books were a big part of this– including “Superman,” fighting for truth, justice, and the American Way.
STAN LEE AND JACK KIRBY
The two great creators of Marvel characters and storylines during its formative years were both New York City natives who fought in World War II. Both firmly bought into Franklin Roosevelt’s ethos of America saving the world. Given the nightmarish regimes on the other side of the oceans, this was an understandable, even necessary viewpoint.
Kirby and Lee retained this ethos after the war. (Evidence suggests that Stan Lee retains it now.) In the 1960’s they launched “Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos,” refighting the same battles.
NOT that this was unusual– Germans continued as cartoonish villains across the culture, from movies to television shows to professional wrestling, which featured arrogant Nazi bad guys such as the nasty “Baron Von Raschke.”
ALL’S FAIR in love and war, as they say, even when the war’s long over. Or even when it’s a Cold War. So, while Sylvester Stallone fought cartoonish Russian movie monsters like Ivan Drago–
— Marvel’s Captain America battled his Soviet nemesis, Red Guardian.
The question can legitimately be asked: When were superhero comic books not outright propaganda for Pax Americana– usually of the most jingoistic variety?
MANY of Marvel’s recent superhero movies– the “Captain America” and “Iron Man” series come quickly to mind– have continued this mindset. Always with a global, America-running-the-world mindset. One “Iron Man” flick had the character outdoing drone missiles in blowing up bad guys in Afghanistan. (See this Noah Berlatsky review of it.)
THE SURPRISE is that today’s social justice warriors in the comic book realm, ostensibly on the left, use these precedents as justification for their political aesthetic now.
(It could just be that “left” and “right” are obsolete concepts for truly understanding today’s world.)
When dealing with issues like fascism and anti-fascism, one will always run into a host of contradictions. A good example is recently deceased award-winning novelist Philip Roth. Roth’s 2004 novel, The Plot Against America, depicts a world in which Charles Lindbergh has become U.S. President and imposed a fascist-like regime, with Franklin D. Roosevelt offstage as ostensible good guy. Kind of a misguided slant on history, in that Lindbergh was politically inept and non-interventionist. The contradiction is that FDR himself came closer to being a dictator than any President before or since. Elected for four terms; hyper-devious and charismatic; a popular demagogue; knew how to use media, particularly radio; built America’s military-industrial complex and empowered giant corporations in order to do so; put an unpopular ethnic group into concentration camps; tried many maneuvers to get around the U.S. Constitution; etc. etc.
THIS was the offstage ideologue and ideology which comics creators like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby explicitly followed– a worldwide American interventionist viewpoint.
The big comic book companies today have a different agenda– or are pandering to a different agenda. As before, the goal is some level of social engineering– real life masters of the universe deciding from above what the brave new world should look like. Art usually gets lost in the process, and always has.
ART AND PROPAGANDA
CAN art be polemical and at the same time, important art?
THAT Frank Norris’s populist novel The Octopus, and Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead— the first from the left, the other from the right– are both polemical, yet two of the best American novels ever written, says the answer to the question is “Yes.” But there are lines to be crossed. (Rand crossed them herself in her next major work.)
In this critic’s opinion, two major comic book superhero series have crossed into the realm of important, even mythic, art: “Batman” and “Spiderman.” Most of the rest have either been harmless entertainment or indoctrination pamphlets.