The Wednesday Waffle - Issue Seven: Pushing an Agenda

October 10, 2018

As we established last week, politics has always been a part of comics. So now, let's take a look at some of the comics currently available that tell stories from a political standpoint.

 

Although before we start, a caveat. There is an issue of inherent bias in comics - and most areas of creative and artistic expression - that I think has probably always existed, and certainly exists today. The kind of people who dedicate their lives to such pursuits tend to lean to the left of the political centre, which means comics (and movies, and TV, and so-on, but comics in particular because they are such a maverick medium and they tend to attract rebels) also tends to be slightly left leaning.

 

That's not an absolute, of course. You only need to look to such giants of the industry as Frank Miller and Steve Ditko to find creators who lean to the right, but they are very much in the minority. This means that all the comics that will be discussed today come from the left of the political spectrum. Believe me, I looked for more right-leaning work that I could recommend, but what I found was, frankly, not very good. (We may touch back on that later...) Desties is always open to suggestions however, so if you know of something we've missed, let us know.

 

But for now, let's get started with a comic that not only began as a reaction to political events in the United States, but wears its political zeal very firmly on its sleeve with recommended reading lists and op/ed pieces at the back of each issue.

So imagine, if you will, an authoritarian fascist regime taking over the U.S. Presidency. Yes, we know, incredibly far-fetched, but that's the premise of Matt Pizzolo's Calexit.

 

In reaction to this the state of California secedes from the Union - or at least the progressive city bits of California do. The more right wing areas remain loyal to the Federal Government and right-wing militias form to resist California's resistance.

 

All of this, sadly, is all too plausible. Indeed, since the election of the 45th President of the United States, a movement called Yes California has proposed exactly such a Californian exit from the Union, or a "Calexit", if you will, with the predictable negative response from the more conservative rural regions of the state.

 

Pizzolo's comic is a thoughtful response to this "Calexit" idea, but - and this is important - it's also a gripping read. This matters because you can be as on point with your politics as much as you like, if your comic is bad, well then it's still a bad comic.

 

Another title that examines the stark differences that currently divide American society but also manages to weave a compelling human story is Ales Kot and Danijel Zezelj's Days of Hate from Image Comics.

The backdrop is somewhat similar to Calexit - it's 2022 and a right wing authoritarian administration has taken control of the United States Government provoking violent resistance and equally brutal retaliation.

 

The story though is much more personal and in many ways it's less clear who the good guys are.

 We open with a couple investigating the firebombing of a gay nightclub. Our detectives are clear about who is responsible for the atrocity and revealing themselves not to be the police officers we might first have presumed, they extract vengence which is every bit as savage. The story asks the reader to decide - do they really have the moral high ground?

 

Kot also humanises both sides. Our investigative couple are part of the resistance, but we spend a lot of time focusing on their personal lives. Arvid has a family he cannot risk going to see. He misses them, he worries for them. As a reader you cannot help but to empathise.

 

His partner in crime, Amanda, has a backstory with even more emotional punch. She almost had a family too, with her wife Xing. But the baby was lost, and that loss became a wedge which drove them not only apart, but to opposite sides of the political lines. Neither wants them to be apart, but neither can stand to be with the other anymore.

 

Now, while Amanda works with Arvid to fight the government, Xing is a part of the team hunting the resistance down. The relationship between Amanda and Xing is a pretty unsubtle metaphor for the state of American society to be sure, but it's also the emotional heart of the book.

 

Both women have arrived where they are as a result of the same traumatic event. Both earnestly believe that what they are doing is for the best. As a reader, it's easy to empathise with them both - and perhaps that is the key difference between Days of Hate and Calexit.

 

Calexit is an angry warning shout - a scream of frustration and rage at the position American society has gotten itself into and the politics that drove it there. Days of Hate is no less angry - there's an underlying fury behind the narrative that is palpable on every page. But ultimately Days of Hate is a much more hopeful story. The divisions in Calexit seem un-bridgeable, but Kot's script makes you think that however bad things are now, there is a real possibility that the wounds - and perhaps divisions - could be healed in the end.

 

Of course, there is more to politics than the divisions between left and right, and it's the politics of being part of a marginalised minority that are explored in Matt Johnson and Warren Pleece's powerful Incognegro graphic novels. In the first, entitled simply Incognegro we meet Zane Pinchback, a New York based reporter who, like author Matt Johnson is an African-American man who is so light skinned he is often mistaken for white.

The narrative takes us back to the 1930s, where Pinchback uses his ability to "pass" as white to investigate the lynchings of African Americans that were all too common in the former slave states back then. His light skin enables him to infiltrate white communities that would have been closed to a person of colour - which in turn enables him to uncover the truth and perhaps obtain some measure of justice for the victims.

 

He's about to retire when his own, much darker skinned, brother - who remained in Mississippi when Zane left for New York - is accused of the brutal murder of a white woman. Knowing that his brother is likely to be lynched by a mob long before he can ever stand trial, and that even if he isn't the chances of a black man getting a fair trial in such circumstances are slim to none, Pinchback embarks on one final investigation to find the real killer.

 

The follow up graphic novel, Incognegro: Renaissance is a prequel, telling the story of the first time Pinchback masqueraded as white to investigate the murder of a gay black writer at a party in the house of a prominent white novelist.

Between them the stories explore racial identity, segregation, cultural appropriation, corruption, racism, bigotry, "white knight"ism and many of the other less savoury aspects of human interaction. There is always a danger that books like these can become a little "preachy", but Johnson deftly avoids that trap.

 

Pinchback is no holier than thou hero - he comes complete with the kinds of prejudices and presumptions that you might expect from a man living in mid-twentieth century America. While his journalism is about black and white, his world is appropriately coloured in shades of grey. (Both metaphorically and literally, the art is shaded grey-scale...)

 

Don't get me wrong - there is no attempt to present some misguided sense of "balance" by pretending that the people behind the lynchings and racism are in some way misunderstood, or worse that there are "good people on both sides" - the villains of these stories are very villainous indeed.

 

But, at the same time, the bad guys are not simple sheet-wearing racists or moustache twirling sadists. Some genuinely believe in what they're doing, some act out of fear, some out of greed, some out of hatred - but like racists and bigots everywhere they all believe themselves to be the oppressed party, that they're the ones with the real grievance that they're just trying to put right.

 

The Incognegro books feel like an honest exploration of their themes - stories that work as gripping detective novels, because that's exactly what they are. But they also tell a deeper story about the way life is experienced by people who have a particular skin tone - not in a "look at me I'm so oppressed" kind of way, but it a "dude, you don't know the half of it" kind of way. 

 

They're excellent examples of tackling a complex, contentious political issue through the medium of comics, and we heartily recommend them.

 

The first part of Calexit is ava