Politics in comics has become a bit of a "hot button" issue. "Keep politics out of comics!" cries one side, "Comics never used to be political!" "Nonsense!" Cries the other, "Comics have always been political!" Logic dictates both sides can't be right, so let's take a look, shall we?
Of course there is also some disagreement about what counts as "politics in comics". I have, for example, seen some negative online comment about the Heroes in Crisis series which features a mental health facility for superheroes along the lines of "As if Batman needs a safe space - why is DC pushing this political agenda?" and confess it baffled me because I genuinely don't see what the "political agenda" would be there.
And I guess that's the point. One reader's perfectly sensible plot point is another reader's source of political outrage. For the purposes of this discussion, we'll define "political" as "stories that comment on controversial issues of the day".
Now, one of the things people will point to when they argue that comics have always taken a political stance is stuff like this:
...in which Captain America punches Hitler, while over at DC Batman, Robin and Superman exhorted readers to "sink the Japanazis" by buying war bonds and stamps.
Is this really "political" in the way the term is used in discussions about comics today though? I would say not. While government propaganda aimed to appeal to patriotism in time of war is most certainly political, it's not the kind of tribal politics we're dealing with today.
Back in the nineteen forties, as the Second World War raged, it seems to me unlikely that anyone would have complained about anti-Axis* bias, so while there is a political motivation behind these covers it would not have been seen as "political" or even controversial at the time.
So what would I class as politics in comics?
I'm glad you asked!
This whole post was inspired by an exchange I saw on Twitter between a well respected comics writer, and an individual who identified themselves as a "comicsgater".** The comics writer had written something that the "comicsgater" felt was political, and with which they disagreed. They suggested that the creator should concentrate on creating good stories and abandon what they described as "tribalism" and "identity politics". They also suggested that bringing politics into comics was a new phenomenon - a claim I have seen made online rather a lot over the past year or so.
And you see, the thing is, whatever the merits of the political arguments and standpoints you see in comics today it simply isn't true to claim that comics have never discussed controversial political issues through their stories in the past. I can't claim that the comics I was reading in the eighties were hotbeds of dissent, but one example immediately sprang to mind, so we'll take it as a case study.
Spectacular Spider-Man #138 dated May 1988. Yes, I bought it new off the rack in Nostalgia and Comics in Sheffield, which was my LCS at the time. Yes, I am very old.
In this issue the evil Tarantula, a spider-themed enforcer from a Central American dictatorship (I honestly can't remember whether it was named or not - the comic is still in my personal collection, but since I've been putting off cataloguing that for more than a quarter of a century I have no idea which long box it's in...) teams up with an increasingly uncomfortable Captain America to take out opponents of his government who Spider-Man is trying to protect.
At the same time Peter and Mary Jane are trying to help a friend of theirs who has been living in the U.S.A. for many years, but does not have legal status, labelled then as now as an "Illegal Immigrant" get their papers.
This example sprang to mind because although I probably haven't read it for more than a decade, it had a real affect on me back when I first read it in 1988. Sixteen year old me was just beginning to get interested in politics, and the issues addressed in this comic made me think.
So how was it political exactly? Well. Aside from the fact that it dealt with immigration - and the situation of immigrants who had not entered the United States legally from a point of view that was sympathetic to the immigrants and directly critical of U.S. Government policy of the time, (an issue that remains a hot button topic to this day in the U.S. Europe and elsewhere...) take a look at these panels from the opening of the issue.
Here we see Gullivar South, a Government Agent, welcoming
Tarantula and instructing Captain America to assist him. Cap follows orders, because he's Cap, but already there's an indication that he's not happy about it.
Three things stand out here. The fact that Tarantula, an agent of a brutal human rights abusing regime is being given assistance by agents of the United States, that a clear signal is being sent to the reader that we're not supposed to support this (there is never any question about Tarantula being a good guy - he's painted as the villain from the start) and that the agent is called "Mister South", a clear slight on the character by Captain America, who does not recognise the man's military rank, but also a direct reference to a specific and (at the time) current controversy.
This was the time of the "Iran Contra" scandal, in which the Reagan Administration had sold arms to Iran - which was subject to an international arms embargo and was regarded as an enemy of the United States - and used the proceeds to fund the anti-communist "Contra" rebels in Nicaragua. The guy who was at the centre of that scandal? A Lieutenant Colonel in the US Marine Corps called Oliver North. Colonel South and his anti-communist friend from Central America are surely no coincidence - I mean, that's not even subtle...
Then there was this exchange:
Peter and MJ learn that their friend - who fled her homeland in fear of her life - isn't eligible for the "Illegal Alien Amnesty" that would allow her to remain in the US because she cannot prove she meets the "continuous residency" requirement. This is directly political, in that it criticises something that was an actual United States policy at the time. It would be like 2000 AD doing a Judge Dredd strip criticising Brexit****- it can only be seen as an overtly political comment.
If any doubt remained about where the creative team wants our sympathies to lie, I offer you this:
Tarantula threatens Elvira Corona's children if she doesn't betray
Spider-Man. Could he be more evil? We are clearly not supposed to be on Tarantula's side - but he's aligned with the US government. Which means this comic is suggesting that the US government is wrong.
So. Comics didn't used to be political eh?
I mean, there are countless other examples I could draw from - whether it's Denny O'Neil using Green Lantern and Green Arrow to comment on race relations:
or Black Panther taking on the "Clan" (They changed to spelling, but c'mon...)
...to Batman taking a stand on gun laws in a comic that not only strongly advocated gun control, complete with editorial at the end of the story, but also donated a percentage of the cover price to anti-gun causes.
So no. Politics in comics is not a new thing. Writers and artists have always addressed political issues in their work.
Which means the only question remaining is "is this a good thing or a bad thing?"
In the end, I tend to the view that the answer to that question is "neither".
A good story which has a political bias is still a good story, and good stories are - by definition - good. In the same way, a bad story with a political bias is still a bad story. Political stories - done well at least - also make you think. In the current climate it may seem hard to believe, but it is perfectly possible to enjoy a story whose political bias you disagree with...
Of course, there will never be universal agreement about which stories are good and which are bad, but I'd council against dismissing a story just because its political outlook does not mirror your own. It does us good to experience the world from a different point of view, and stories are a great way to do that.
So, next time we'll take a look at some current comics that most definitely take a political position. See you then!
*Note to non-historians (because I genuinely don't know if we teach this in school these days), the "Axis" was the name given to Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Japan and their allies in the Second World War. If you all know that and this footnote is condescending, please ignore it.
**And at this point, two things. We're not getting into the whole Comicsgate thing here, it would take too long***. Also, I'm not labeling this individual, that's how they chose to describe themselves. And no, I'm not naming either the professional or the twitter commenter because they're both well known online and even being identified on one side of the argument or the other can bring down an avalanche of abuse. We prefer not to bring that down on anyone - from either side.
***Although Desties does have a very firm position on the subject, which we'll state here for the record in case we haven't made it clear elsewhere in the post: To be honest we sort of think this should be everyone's default setting.
"It is fine to dislike any comic (or indeed anything) that is not to your taste. Like what you like. Ignore what you don't. If your reason for disliking a comic is because of the ethnicity, religion, gender, nationality, intellectual ability, physical ability or sexual orientation of either the characters or creators associated with said comic, then you might want to take a look at yourself, and we might even judge you for it, but that is still your prerogative. It is OK to enter into POLITE discussions around why you do or do not enjoy a particular comic, or the work of a particular creator. It's fine to respectfully disagree. (Heck, that's been the essence of fandom for as long as I can remember.)
It is NOT fine to harass, threaten, taunt or otherwise attack the creators or fans of work you dislike - physically, verbally, online or in person. It is not fine to accuse female comics creators of using sex to get their jobs. It is not fine to accuse LGBTQ+ creators of faking their orientation in order to benefit from some imagined diversity policy. Doing those things is inherently bad and we deplore it."
****I'm a long way behind on my 2000 AD reading. I suspect they probably have...