COMICS CLASSROOM: The Role of Comics in Politics and Art [Part 1]

A question I come across rather frequently on the internet while reading reviews and commentaries of recent comics is the following. “What place is there for comics in political discussions?

I’ve always been more than a little baffled by this for a few reasons, chief among which are:

  1. the two iconic standard bearers of both Marvel and DC Comics, Superman and Captain America, are both immigrant characters,
  2. Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, Jerry Siegel, and Joe Shuster were Jewish creators who had obvious opinions about social and martial affairs in the United States, and
  3. Kirby, Simon, Siegel and Shuster were all the children of immigrants.

Kirby’s family were Austrian immigrants, Simon’s family had immigrated from Leeds, Siegel’s family had immigrated from Russia (then the Russian Empire), and Shuster’s family had come from Rotterdam and Ukraine.

Well, sure, the backbone of important creative talent in the comic industry were the children of immigrants, and they were Jewish, but that isn’t answering the question. What place is there for comics, cartoon funnybooks, in serious, US political discussion?

I can understand the oftentimes natural inclination to ignore or (in worse cases) reject the author’s role in the equation of what makes their creations popular. After all, both Captain America and Superman, as just two examples, are both now far removed from the intentions and dreams of those who made them due to legal issues and, simply put, time.

Superman and Captain America are trademarked, iconic symbols who have been written by scores of people with all manner of different political opinions, racial and religious backgrounds, and social/martial concerns.

An important point to the “comics + politics” questions is still rooted in the fabric of their creators because their creators used both Superman and Captain America as ways to talk about the politics of their time, i.e.: both were used to address concerns U.S. social and political policies as well as the state of America during World War II.

Superman’s initial depiction as a comic character was undeniably socialist in his politics, for example. Both Superman and Captain America were also used as propaganda, with Joe Simon commenting as follows, saying “Captain America was the first major comic book hero to take a political stand. […] Hitler was a marvelous foil; a ranting maniac.”

My repetition of the fact that origin stories and creator influences play a role in understanding ‘how’ comics can be political is to try and explain that, in a very practical sense, they always have been. From their popular conception as United States entertainment, they served no less a political and social purpose than, say, newsprint or TV. They’re simply an alternative delivery system for ideas with a different series of audiences they’re intended to reach. Yes, comics are marketed for children, but this has never stopped them from also being popular with adults.

Again, sure, I’ll concede that comics can serve a political agenda, but does that mean they should? Again, what role do comics need to play in our contemporary political culture? “Not everything has to be so damned political. Let cape comics be cape comics!” some could, in some ways, rightfully argue.

Interior art by Gary Frank

I am not going to deny that comics have a complicated role with political issues; however, as comics are art, I don’t think their role in being both a statement (of the political/social variety) and entertainment is any different than, say, paintings, film, or other artistic outlets. There can be a rightfully nauseous reaction to seeing creators use characters we enjoy reading for escapism and pure entertainment as mouthpieces for views we disagree with.

Recently published material involving Captain America has generated tremendous amounts of reactions based on:

  1. the political agenda of creator(s) who have used the character and
  2. the ‘rationale’ behind stories Cap has been put in.

If you want to enjoy a comic about Cap being purely heroic, there is going to probably be complications if and when you care to take into consideration certain creators political leanings and if you think recent political events are the reason a comic story is what it is.

Ultimately, you, the reader, are always within your rights to stop reading something you disagree with and to cease providing your income to a medium that isn’t giving you what you want to read as either entertainment, social commentary, or both.

Interior art by Sal Buscema

Likewise, to return to the importance of Superman and Cap’s creators, those men had every right to say what they wanted to say with their characters and subsequent writers and editors similarly have the right to use comics to say what they want. To reiterate the point, probably to some groans and eye-rolls from those who might think I am excusing authors and creators you personally disagree with, comics can and should be social and political vessels. They’ve always been that way, it is part of why our cultural and entertainment mediums in the US is great.

I am proud that Superman and Captain America were outlets from the concerns of their creators even as I also decry the blatant racism that Superman was used for against the Japanese.

There is a difference, in my opinion, between valuing the freedoms a medium is allowed in our culture and approving of the things said medium is used for on a case by case basis. I can love certain comics with Superman in them as individual works with value in and of themselves while actively being disgusted with propaganda works Superman was used for.

Being critical enough to embrace the positive aspects of a character while also lamenting their failures is important because it means, as a reader, create a kind of “value context” for what I can and cannot stand.

Cover art by Chris Samnee

I stand for Superman and Captain America when they’re representing what I value in the United States. This is why, as a comic reader, I stopped giving Marvel my money for content after a certain point in their narrative when I was unable to see value in financially embracing Captain America’s story. When and why I did this is a story for another time, perhaps, but I can say I am excited for seeing what Mark Waid and Chris Samnee do with the character in November when Issue #695 comes out.

Buying and ignoring comics is a statement we are allowed to make, one which we are free to broadcast or keep private at our personal whims.

So, to return to the adjusted question of “What place is there for comics, cartoon funnybooks, in serious, US political discussion?”

My final answer for this might be as follows.

Comics, like any artistic outlet, can be a mixture of entertainment and commentary that we, as active readers who are presented this material for sale, can and should interrogate. We can and should be concerned for what politics our comics present to us, or what politics we read into from a comic, because that is the best purpose of art. Comics are one of many avenues of criticism and social interrogation, one that can be created and sold, and then subsequently bought or boycotted, for an infinite number of reasons specific to artists and customers alike.

Interior art by Viktor Bogdanovic

Art can and should be observable in a variety of ways and be open for criticism on the part of those who make it and on the part of those who take it in.

People should be encouraged to explore their own critical borders for when and where something begins or ends as entertainment, a political message, social commentary, etc… It is in that spirit that I want to explore an issue related to somethings brought up here, and I want you to know where I am coming from when I publish the next column.

To recap:

  1. Comics can serve as entertainment and as commentary for both the political and the social.
  2. As art, comics can be examined for either entertainment or commentary on a work-by-work issue, thus meaning we can see something in one book or image that is not explicitly tied to another book or image.
  3. Readers have the freedom to decline approval of stories that do not deliver expectations in what they want from a work; however, this is in no way related to what creators are expected to make since what they create as individuals or collaborate on is their own prerogative.

Next week: “Immigrant Heroes: The New Generation” will shift focus from Superman and Captain America to examine characters such as Kamala Khan and Nadia Pym.


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