With great power comes great responsibility….Part 1

This blog is going to serve as a vehicle for me to work out my own ideas around the relationship between superheroes and politics, theory and philosophy.  In exploring these ideas, I hope for this discussion to become the philosophic basis for my own academic work. Like all academic work this project is inherently social and communal. The dialogue, discussion, and debates that I hope this blog fosters are as much apart to the process of inquiry as is reading and writing. I really do hope that everyone feels free to write whatever they believe, to push me on my own ideas, and to express and create your own understandings of these topics.

So why superheroes?

This is probably the biggest question I get when I tell people that I am starting a project on superheroes, comics, and political culture.  People are confused as to what they can learn from reading Batman, Superman, X-men, or Daredevil that they cannot get from reading Kant, Spinoza, Marx, or any other great philosopher or social scientist. This is a fair question, and one that I want to, at least try, to answer.

Personally, the answer is really easily: I love superheroes and comics! I have been an avid reader of comic books ever since I was about 13. Since then I have regularly attended comic cons (growing up in San Diego had its perks here!), rummaging through thrift store comic book piles, and religiously showing up at the local comic store on Wednesday in anticipation for the new issues to arrive. Like a large number of other Americans I have loved the recent superhero films–from Batman Returns to Guardians of the Galaxy–and I love watching the stories of the Green Arrow, Flash, and members of SHIELD as they save the world each week on tv. While this personal history might explain why I think they are interested and exciting it is not enough to explain the importance to someone who does not love comics as much as I do.

In an attempt to answer more “academically” why comics help us understand politics I have come up with three primary reason (if people have others, let us know what they are!): the serial nature of medium, the dialogic nature of comic books and superhero fandom, and the importance of superheroes in American political culture and American myths around liberalism.  Over the next few days I want to try to explore each of these topics. To start, lets look at the serial nature of comic books.

Serial Nature of the Medium:

Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938.  This means that Superman has been fighting crime and protecting the world for 76 years. While we do not know the exact year that Superman was supposedly born, it was mostly likely during the 1910s. Yet if you go to your local comic book store right now and pick up the most recent issue of Superman from the shelf you will not see the epic battle of a geriatric 90 something year old flying around the universe with his walker fighting the 100 year old super villain Lex Luther, hooked up to his trusty oxygen tank.  Likewise, Batman, if he aged with this comic, would be a 90 year old man, dressed in a costume, fighting crime, and going to denny’s for the early bird special.  While some of us would purchase the adventures of super powered geriatric men and women (I know I would!) comics do not work that way.  Instead Batman and Superman have aged ever so slightly and depending on the author and artist there might be a bit of grey working its way into their otherwise perfectly coifed hair.

awold-man

Instead of the character aging in most comics the characters stay relatively the same and it is the world around them that changes. They dress in different style clothes. They use modern technologies. They deal with contemporary political events (like 9-11).  This provides a unique lens for us to explore politics and culture.

Unlike nearly any other cultural component of our society, comic books and superheroes, in being a regularly produce serial product, are mirrors for us to understand the changing anxieties, tensions, and political interests of our society. For instance, we can look at Captain America–the living embodiment of American values.  In the 1940s, when captain America burst onto the scene by punching Hitler in the mouth, he was a hero that fought against Nazi and Japanese super scientists and saboteurs. His primary villain, the Red Skull, was a nazi super scientists and founder of HYDRA, a group that represents the values of fascism.  Yet, in the 1960s reboot of Captain America it was not long before the Red Skulls mission changed. He ceased to be tied directly to Nazism but instead become more and more connected to global communism. By the 1980s he shifted again, moving from a communist guerrilla, to being a greedy corporate CEO.  What is important to note is Captain America did not drastically change. He always remained the defender of American liberalism. What changed was the “other” that American liberalism was fighting against. American values look different, and highlight different things, when faced with a war against nazism, communism, and corporate greed. Through Captain America we can explore the way that the “other” we face impacts and alters our national character. Our anxieties are directly mapped onto the struggles Captain America has with the world at large.
cap punching hitler
Overall, the serial nature of superhero comics allow us to explore the shifting political terrain of our country. If we look historically at the subject matter we can, hopefully, uncover anxieties and fears about politics, race, gender, and militarism, that we might have otherwise missed. This serial nature is unique for our culture–with the exception of something like the James Bond movies, which still does not have nearly as many different stories as Captain America, Batman, Superman, or even a more fringe character like Animal Man– and this uniqueness makes especially interesting for those of us who want to understand political culture. So, in other words, if people can look to novels, poetry, presidential speeches, as ways of exploring American politics, why not comics? If anything comics are a better medium to look at, due the timeless serial nature of the form, than presidential speeches.

Note:

Two additional points I want to make as addendum. First, I want to clarify what I mean when I say that the hero does not change over time. I meant to say the core concept that underlies the hero does not change. So, for instance, Cap represents American liberalism. He did in 1940 and he does today. In addition, the hero has changed a lot. At certain instances he has questioned American intervention and other times he rejects the idea of America more overtly (such as when he gave up being Captain America to be Nomad, a man without a country). His changes though tell us something about American exceptionalism, changing meanings of liberalism, the concern that people have over how (and if) the US represents the liberal values it supposedly holds.

Secondly, comics represents the political tensions and anxieties for a small subset of the American culture. They do not represent the whole of the American zeitgeist, since there is no one American culture (no matter what national myths say). If anything, comics represent the fears that white, middle class, men tend to have in the US. This has been pushed and expanded with certain titles (Black Panther, wonder woman, etc) but overall the medium represents the fears of if its readers.

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One thought on “With great power comes great responsibility….Part 1

  1. Here is a Facebook comment I got from my friend Josh

    “just read it. i have a ton to say and wish i had the time to respond in full. i have a chapter on captain america books in my diss that touches on some of these same issues. it seems like the way you talk about seriality, both in the body of the post and in your addendum, is engaging with two separate but very much linked narrative forces in superhero comics–seriality, sure, in the sense of temporal sequencing of story episodes, but also continuity, which has less to do with specific sequencing of episodes than it does with a kind of extra-diagetic cohesion–a sense that this version of the character you’re reading right now is the same as every other version of the character you’ve already encountered. you make a pretty strong claim concerning continuity when you say that the “core concept underlying the superhero does not change.” i’m not sure that’s true, even if we can reduce characters to a “core concept” at any given point in time. (i’m not interested in that kind of work myself, but maybe it’s possible.) i think what makes a character like cap so interesting is that despite his seemingly rigid iconographic/ideological presence on the page, the multitude of continuities that pile up around and within the character over time end up making him very very fluid in political orientation, especially on specific historical affinities and allegiances. the captain america of 1941 was a gleeful nazi-killing proto-fascist; the captain america of 1964 was a distrustful fogey; john byrne’s captain america was a somber statist; kyle baker’s captain america was a dupe of the military-industrial complex; mark waid’s captain america was a racial progressive; and ed brubaker’s captain america gets killed! (well, sort of). all of which is to say that, although i think continuity is a powerful diagetic force that we should take seriously (because writers and artists sure do), it’s also a powerful social force that we use to make sense of comics once they’re out in the world, carrying on in the way that they will. when we look at comics characters like captain america we choose the continuities we like, then work backwards in our making use of the continuity to guarantee ourselves that certain stories have always been true. everything else gets canceled out or forgotten. or, at least it seems that way to me. (and i didn’t even get to ret-cons! argh. back to the diss.)

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