COMICS CLASSROOM: The Role of Comics in Politics and Art [Part 2]

In the first part of this series, points were established about how politics and comics intersect. While it is understood that politics and social issues have been part of the Big Two since before some of their most iconic characters, i.e.: Superman and Captain America, were even part of these companies as we know them today, some readers will not find positive aspects to ‘hot button issues’ of the day in their comics.

Because comics are artistic productions on the part of their creators, specifically that they’re objects for sale, those who purchase these works have to decide when and where you’re able to distinguish commentary from entertainment.

With this all clearly in my mind, I want to acknowledge that concerns readers have in private about books they purchase is not something I am looking to critique. Rather, this article is going to address open statements made with political and social bias that have the goal of addressing the public. While I am not pursuing a criticism of private thoughts, as citizens we can and should engage with dialogue on things we are passionate about if and when such things are critiqued openly.

My goals in addressing some of the things that I want to talk about here is because I believe there are certain trends of criticism around certain comics that are simultaneously unproductive and even antagonistic to what certain comics have traditionally stand for. While I will focus on a recent critique of Superman, I hope to use a negative critique against a recent Action Comics as a way to open up more lines of conversation about immigrants in comics.

In a recent article from the Huffington Post, writer Ed Mazza comments how Fox News radio host and columnist Todd Starnes criticized Action Comics #987 for one aspect of its story while ignoring another. In the comic referenced, Superman engages in various acts of saving people across the world that have been externally influenced and/or guided by a villain to explicitly showcase the worst of human depravity, from the murder of doctors to the poaching of animals.

Starnes critiques Superman shielding a group of people, two of whom speaks Spanish (the other characters don’t have lines), from being executed by a laid-off factory worker who sports an American flag headband and spouts critical words concerning the state of his job. Starnes finds the sequence reprehensible and makes his views known, finding specifics about what happens to be in poor taste. Mazza’s claim is that Starnes “missed a big point” in issue #987.

Now, what, exactly, happened?

Interior art by Viktor Bogdanovic

The sequence in question from Action Comics #987 shows Superman shielding a group of innocent bystanders from the gun wielding man who, believing the group are illegally in the USA, tries to execute them. The white, would-be-terrorist was recently laid off from his job (the cause of which was cutbacks, although it is never said that anyone in particular took his job) and the man decides the individuals targeted fit a profile. Thus, possibly encouraged by the influence of an external villain, our gunman opens fire. Superman, being Superman, swoops in and saves the group.

Mazza’s article links to the page where Starnes exclaims how he is distraught that Superman is a “propaganda tool for the defenders of illegal aliens.” Now, in the comic itself, the characters who are assaulted are never shown nor presented as being either naturalized or undocumented. Starnes seems to be making a value judgement that, based on the diverse assemblage of characters and the fact that none are shown speaking English, they are at best stand-ins for those he might call illegal aliens.

Superman, then, by being used in the way he is, seems to be standing in as a direct political statement on behalf of DC Comics concerning a political hot button issue right now.

Art by Joe Shuster

Mazza points out how Starnes does not address Superman stopping a group of people from destroying mansions with arson, mansions owned by “one-percenters.” What Starnes may have been concerned about was that, proportionally, the focus on the disgruntled worker was a far bigger set piece than that of the arsonists. Had me made his parallel, perhaps he could have come across as more level-headed in his criticism, but he made no such parallel between how much time one story piece got versus another.

By offering up his public criticism of Action Comics #987, Starnes received a hefty dose of critique, not only from writers such as Mazza, but also from the comments on Fox’s page. While others have taken Jurgens and his presentation of the disgruntled worker as something worth criticizing, I think the critique of Starnes raises important questions that I want to talk about in Part 3 of this series.

It is probably not too hyperbolic of me to say plainly that I find Starnes’s comments about Action Comics #987 to be simplistic and, frankly, wrong; however, I also wonder if he even read the issue or possibly just say the panels with Superman and the gunman?

Regardless, Fox News commenting on a comic is not something surprising, but concern over Superman saving lives seems like a quick attempt to make a political message that finds those who point to that scene alone missing the forest for the trees.

Interior art by Miguel Sepulveda

Still, while I might personally find too many errors in Starnes’s point to say he was effective, his criticism of the comic in question did get me thinking. Jurgens made an explicit choice to pit his gunman against a group of people who are largely representative of the kinds of people those who are white supremacist and even many moderately right individuals speak out against. Are these characters or set-pieces?

I’d argue they are narrative elements that make a larger point, but could somebody accurately find fault with these characters being used as dramatic props to set up the gunman as nothing more than a would-be killer? I could see how such a case could exist, and that question of ‘how’ immigrants are brought into public consciousness through comics got me examining many different ways authors chose to engage in representation of immigrants.

I hope by examining some alternate representations in different comic titles, we might come to appreciate all the myriad ways that the medium of comics in the United States presents immigrants.

Next: Engaging with stand-out depictions of immigrants in comics. You’re up next, Yusuf and Muneeba Khan!


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