Transmyscira: Comics, Culture War, and “¡No Pasarán!”

Ten guys jump one, what a man
You fight each other, the police state wins
Stab your backs when you trash our halls
Trash a bank if you’ve got real balls

– Dead Kennedys, Nazi Punks Fuck Off


In a since automatically deleted tweet, Vox journalist and podcaster Matt Yglesias replied to the perceived conservatism of the MCU by claiming that despite notable attempts at liberal intervention, super-hero comics have always been a conservative endeavor. It was an off-the-cuff remark, but worth digging into for a few reasons.

The first is that Yglesias’ reputation as a journalist is as a moderate liberal “policy wonk” who co-hosts a podcast that enables his white paper fetish. Which makes him an irresistible target for ribbing by leftists who have no time for his skepticism of policy planks like the abolishment of ICE. It’s a dynamic that Yglesias maintains good humor about, characterizing his relationship with The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald as agreeing on some issues, disagreeing about others and “in exchange, he sometimes willfully slanders me, and then sometimes retracts the slanders under pressure and then does it again.”

But, super-heroes. Yglesias characterizing super-heroes as being a conservative project is part of a much broader and wider phenomenon of people on the left conceding — or at least being pressured to concede — ground to the right in “culture war” issues as a matter of course. It was a major cultural force during both of George W. Bush’s terms, during which the conservative establishment worked overtime to marry neoconservative ideals — especially the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive military strikes — to patriotism, painting anyone who disagreed as an un-American traitor with near McCarthyesque fervor.

If super-hero comics had first hit the scene during this era, especially with Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s intentionally apocryphal The Ultimates, Yglesias would have been entirely correct, given their portrayal of Captain America as a xenophobic, paternalistically sexist bully and its literal invocation of George W. Bush. Which is worth noting because of the outsized influence of The Ultimates on the MCU and its uncritical fixation on the military industrial complex.

But Captain America didn’t emerge in the wake of 9/11. He arrived months before the Pearl Harbor attack that pulled the United States into an active role in World War II. The conservative position at the time that Steve Rogers hit newsstands was isolationism. The kind of non-intervention that Ron Paul has long preached and Candidate Trump alluded to, but clearly has no interest in pursuing after the installation of neocon hardliner John Bolton in the role of National Security Advisor.

The concept of America as globetrotting policeman that makes Captain America #1 feel so obvious in hindsight didn’t exist until the inception of the Marshall Plan at the close of World War II. Instead, the animating spirit behind Captain America was the same kind of anti-fascist solidarity that propelled George Orwell to enlist as a soldier almost immediately after arriving in Catalonia as a journalist during the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Or Pablo Picasso, who painted the now iconic Guernica to spread awareness of the brutal, civilian targeted bombing tactics executed by the fascists with the aid of Nazi Germany.

For Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, Captain America slugging Hitler wasn’t a jaded call for police action aimed at expanding American influence abroad, it was a plea of last resort from a pair of American Jews desperate to stop a campaign of genocide that enjoyed enough domestic support to fill Madison Square Garden for Nazi rallies. And when they did publish it, they got a flood of death threats and shady characters lurking around the lobby of the building Marvel occupied at the time, famously prompting Kirby to go down in search of them.

It’s a history that has necessitated reiteration since Marvel published the bitterly divisive Secret Empire event that retroactively cast Steve Rogers as a sleeper agent for Nazi aligned Hydra, but it also has much wider applicability in understanding the political and historical moment that birthed the American superhero.

Superman co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, themselves also Jewish, faced similar circumstances to Kirby and Simon, but were somewhat less overt in their ambitions for political expression. The golden age is defined by a populist Superman intervening on behalf of the marginalized: exposing corrupt politicians, protecting women from abusers, leveling slum housing to force the construction of better, and even forcing an arms dealer selling weapons to both sides of a war to enlist in the conflict he was fueling.

Despite all that, the greatest, most lasting achievement of that formative era was defining Superman as an immigrant and a refugee in particular at a time of heightened nativist rhetoric. Merging critical aspects of both Jesus and Moses into his origin — being sent as a kind of savior figure by his father and being sent there in the science fiction equivalent of a basket down a river — is powerful enough all on its own, but the combined total is an exceptional statement about the place and value of immigrants, particularly refugees in American society.

It’s a message that remains resonant to this day as the election of Donald Trump has precipitated another rise in anti-immigrant, nativist rhetoric witnessed most acutely in the Trump administration’s ever evolving “Muslim Ban” and ongoing pattern of slandering and slurring Latinx migrants.

The most radical of all Golden Age creators whose creations remain prominent today is, of course, the man behind Wonder Woman: William Moulton Marston. Repelled by what he described as the “bloodcurdling masculinity” of the dominant culture, he set about creating a character motivated by love informed by both his wife and lover. Asserting that one of the founding fathers of the American superhero was a polyamorous, queer positive man who cited feminist birth control activist Margaret Sanger as a key influence probably makes the salient point without the need to even discuss his creation, the world’s most recognized and beloved female superhero.

Thus did Wonder Woman arrive into a world in the midst of a global war, preaching loving submission as the matriarchal alternative to the bloody, patriarchal ideology of the day. Wonder Woman and her creator may have had an eccentric worldview that more or less advocated for bondage play as a means of deprogramming toxic masculinity and recovering from gendered violence, but it’s fundamentally inarguable that she emerged onto the scene as an explicitly anti-fascist corrective for an overwhelmingly violent world consumed by totalitarianism.

Captain America, Superman, and Wonder Woman are some of the oldest, most venerable superheroes to ever see print, but they’re also the most consistently political and internationalist in presentation. There certainly are superheroes who could be argued to have emerged with more conservative sensibilities, but these are the most explicitly political superheroes who have been leveraged to deliver progressive messaging with the most consistency over the years. The fundamentally anti-fascist, anti nativist nature of these characters and their influence on the medium preclude any kind of overarching conservative origin story for the American superhero.

If anything, it’s been conservative interventions into the medium that have interrupted that tradition of progressivism, most notably the Freudian quackery of one Dr. Fredric Wertham that lead to the adoption of the Comics Code Authority. As famously elucidated by Saladin Ahmed (Black Bolt, Abbott), the adoption of the CCA strangled the life out of the progressive, diverse, and experimental edge of Golden Age comics, bowdlerizing the medium in specifically white supremacist terms.

Among other things, the CCA proscribed that comics couldn’t disrespect “policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions” and further stated that “ridicule or attack on any religious or racial group is never permissible.” In practice, the latter provision meant that Christianity could not be challenged and that white supremacy was sacrosanct. Hence CCA ringleader Charles F. Murphy making an example of EC comics for reprinting a now infamous comic featuring a Black astronaut (that was uncontroversial prior to the code’s enactment) and effectively running them out of business over it.

This is all critically important information to internalize for a lot more than just the smug satisfaction for dunking on Matt Yglesias for making an off-the-cuff tweet in line with a popular, but mistaken, assumption about the political history of comics.

The project of diversifying comics that more or less began in the late 1980s when major publishers flauted the declining CCA wasn’t a sudden attack of conscience aimed at reversing a history of unblemished whiteness, maleness, and straightness. It was a project of recovery, an attempt to return the industry’s output to where it was prior to the suffocating intervention of the CCA.

It’s a historical perspective in desperate need of internalizing thanks to the rise of reactionary agitation in comics advocating for an explicitly white supremacist norm typically referred to as “comicsgate,” in reference to “gamergate,” the campaign of violence that ravaged social media throughout 2014 and 2015, eventually metastasizing into what we now know as the alt right.

“Comicsgate,” or the amorphous mob of social media focused harassment that it embodies, represents the nominally successful result of years of trying to spread the gamergate campaign within video game circles into the comic book industry. Depending on how you look at it, “comicsgate” more or less began with an intentionally inflammatory petition in defense of a withdrawn Batgirl variant cover and the revival of Chris Sims’ never really secret history of harassment against Valerie D’Orazio on the occasion of Sims being named as the writer on X-Men ‘92. But it didn’t take hold until the emergence of would-be YouTube firebrand Richard C. Meyer who uses the handle “Diversity and Comics” to rail against inclusion and forment targeted harassment against industry professionals with emphasis on trans women, whom he and his followers take particular pleasure in invalidating and misgendering.

These are the people for whom the mistaken idea of super-heroes being a fundamentally conservative project is an organizing principle. Of course to what degree this is a genuine ideological belief is debatable, especially in light of Meyer’s latest imbroglio.

On May 9th, Antarctic Press announced that it would be publishing Meyer and Jon Malin’s crowdfunded comic Jawbreakers with an expected shipping date of September. On May 11th, they reversed course in a strangely worded Facebook post with a seven day shelf life.

It’s a familiar pattern both within and without comics, most notably in the vaporizing of Milo Yiannopoulos’ book deal with Simon and Shuster earlier this year, and Drawn & Quarterly’s 2017 about face on publishing Berliac’s Sadboi. All three instances revolve around activists working to prevent the publication of material by people with very public histories of bigoted speech, and all three have ignited debates around freedom of expression and the ethics of boycotts and/or no-platforming.

There definitely is a time and place for the discussion of what constitutes a “diversity of expression” in comics and what the limits of speech ought to be. It’s a topic that’s rightly been litigated in the recent instances of Jason Karnes’ Fukitor, James Robinson and Greg Hinkle’s Airboy, Mark Waid and J.G. Jones’ Strange Fruit, and, of course, Howard Chaykin’s The Divided States of Hysteria.

Meyer and Malin’s Jawbreakers, however, is not one of those instances.

The content of the comic itself is largely unknown, but a work in progress offered by Meyer last August points towards an unremarkable GI Joe riff shot through with references to Watchmen, putting it in league with two thirds of Image Comics’ output since its founding in 1992. The proof follows the eponymous group of mercenaries with corny nicknames, one of which belongs to an esoteric cult of ninjas, because everyone just has to have their own Snake Eyes. Other than the intentionally tone-deaf portrayal of the lone black character in the group and naming a defunct superhero team “The Millennials,” there’s little worthy of discussion or analysis.

What’s actually in the comic doesn’t even really matter. Jawbreakers, like anything else that Meyer has monetized under the “Diversity and Comics” monicker, is a grift. It’s a point that Chew co-creator John Layman made in his own, typically vulgar way, but points to the time honored tradition of huckster conservatism that Meyer belongs to. If you’ve ever seen InfoWars’ Alex Jones shirtless imitations of a honey baked ham in the oven, then you probably already have some idea of what I’m talking about.

It’s no accident that the most egregious forms of “One Weird Trick” clickbait that infest the internet can be reliably found in the margins of fringe conservative outlets like InfoWars and Breitbart, or more immediately relevant, Gamer/ComicsGate magnets like One Angry Gamer (that swaps dubious supplements and hair loss remedies for anime titty statues and sexually explicit mousepads).

As bestselling chronicler of movement conservatism Rick Perlstein (Nixonland, Before The Storm, The Invisible Bridge) noted in an indispensable essay for The Baffler originally written to make sense of Mitt Romney’s unusually mendacious campaign for President:

The strategic alliance of snake-oil vendors and conservative true believers points up evidence of another successful long march, of tactics designed to corral fleeceable multitudes all in one place—and the formation of a cast of mind that makes it hard for either them or us to discern where the ideological con ended and the money con began.

As with an alarming number of the features of the Trump era, the symbiotic attachment of snake oil salesmen to movement conservatism traces its roots to Barry Goldwater’s insurgent 1964 nomination for President. Using a list initially cobbled together in large part from congressional records of campaign donations, conservative operative Richard Viguerie became a legend in Republican fundraising by monetizing his database of the most ardent supporters of movement conservatives.

He charged a significant overhead for deployed targeted marketing to his list, which grew from an initial twelve thousand in the 1960s to over twenty five million by 1980. According to Perlstein, Viguerie “raised $802,028 for a client seeking to distribute Bibles in Asia—who paid $889,255 for the service.”

Viguerie made himself a wealthy middleman, but he also helped to usher in a particular kind of politicized feedback loop that is more or less the analog predecessor to the much ballyhooed “siloing” effect of social media. The entreaties that his clients sent out were typified by what critics referred to as “fright mail,” alarmist messaging intended to induce the recipients to donate money to fund a lobbying campaign on their behalf, typically targeting seniors.

Whether through Viguerie himself, or his many imitators, this became a significant means of mixing profit with furthering conservative culture war narratives without having to adhere to conventional journalistic standards or be exposed to significant public scrutiny. While the particular topics and focuses have changed over the decades, the messaging has more or less maintained the kind of strident surreality that would be at home in a typical Chick Tract, like this gem sent out by Free Congress Research and Education Foundation:

Dear Friend:

Do you believe that children should have the right to sue their parents for being “forced” to attend church? Should children be eligible for minimum wage if they are being asked to do household chores? Do you believe that children should have the right to choose their own family?

As incredible as they might sound, these are just a few of the new “children’s rights laws” that could become a reality under a new United Nations program if fully implemented by the Carter administration. If radical anti-family forces have their way, this UN sponsored program is likely to become an all-out assault on our traditional family structure.

It’s exactly the kind of “White America Under Siege” that Meyer gleefully traffics in and the Trump campaign ruthlessly exploited, finally bringing the grift ridden underbelly of movement conservatism into the forefront, bringing us full circle from Barry Goldwater’s defeat in a way that George Carlin predicted in 2007.

What differentiates Meyer’s attempt to parlay his agitating on social media into a Kickstarter campaign from Viguerie’s legacy of graft or the Trump campaign micro targeting alarmist, bigoted rhetoric to highly suggestible demographics is that Meyer’s base aren’t rubes or vulnerable seniors dipping into their Social Security cheques to enrich him. Their attachment to the truth is just as fungible as his. No one has any illusions about Jawbreakers being high art, and it’s unlikely that many of its backers are invested in the actual content of the comic.

Instead, they rely on Meyer to function as what former independent Presidential candidate Evan McMullin, in a recent appearance on Real Time With Bill Maher referred to as a “disinhibitor” in characterizing the way that President Trump has emboldened white nationalists and other bigoted individuals since his election. He’s selling them a series of lies that they’re happy to buy into: Meyer has value to his followers insofar as he gives them a target for their frustration, anger, and probably even just plain boredom.

As reported by The Daily Beast, those targets are predominantly female, transgender, and POC industry professionals that Meyer rants about at length on his YouTube channel and encourages the targeting of on Twitter. It’s a pattern of behavior that cannot be divorced from his Kickstarter campaign to get Jawbreakers published because there was never a single degree of separation between the two. The successful backing of the campaign relied upon the base that his ranting and targeted abuse activated, employing a brazenly cynical twist on classical huckster conservatism by playing into the idea that supporting him monetarily would upset his victims and opponents.

It’s a dynamic that, for whatever reason, Antarctic Press was willing to turn a blind eye to until they received overwhelming pressure to drop Jawbreakers. There’s no possible way that even a bit player like Antarctic Press would be unaware of Meyer’s activities, especially given their recent history of publishing comics pandering directly to Trump supporters.

But there are consequences to trying to profit from an unruly hate mob, as they soon found out. People riled up by white grievance politics can be useful and especially disruptive towards certain aims, but the scope of that usefulness is incredibly narrow. The Dead Kennedys song I used to open this piece alludes to a particularly difficult time in the punk scene that points to both that fact and our current predicament.

Skinheads and adjacent troublemakers infested punk shows across the United States, Europe, and Australia throughout the 1980s, turning the scene into a battleground for years that made going to a punk show frequently untenable for anyone who wasn’t ready to bleed for the ability to see the likes of Black Flag, The Swans, or The Dead Kennedys. If they weren’t being pandered to, they would violently disrupt the concert and sometimes they’d do it on general principle. It’s a history prominently and presciently alluded to in Brenden Fletcher, Annie Wu, Steve Wands, and Lee Loughridge’s recent Black Canary.

Because they were such a poisonous, universally disruptive presence that destroyed the social conventions keeping punk shows from becoming bloody messes the only lasting solution was to run them out of whatever venue they showed up to. The tactics varied from retaliating physically to the kind of public shaming that Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins preferred, but the consensus was and still is that zero tolerance is the only proven, effective strategy. Which is a reality that many people in the industry, from creators, to journalists, retailers, and publishers have been slow to come around to. Especially Bleeding Cool, which has gone beyond publishing apologia for Ethan Van Sciver’s history of provocation through Nazi imagery and fanning the flames of Frank Cho’s infantile antics by including Meyer in the site’s annual power ranking, effectively normalizing him and his behavior..

When Antarctic Press dropped its plans to fulfill Jawbreakers’ kickstarter, they did so in the wake of a wave of intimidation that began at threatening the social media accounts of retailers who declared they wouldn’t be ordering the comic, doxing their staff, and possibly even breaking into a store in Canada. It’s a shift in tactics that has spilled over from making social media into a toxic mosh pit for fans and creators trying to form a sense of community online to sinister pressure tactics aimed at exerting control over the central social and economic institution of the industry.

The kind of abuse being funnelled towards retailers follows a very similar pattern to skinhead provocation at punk shows, which is probably what’s really at the root of Antarctic Press’ decision to drop Jawbreakers. Targeting individual creators with frothing YouTube rants or mounting disingenuous outrage campaigns against them — as in the case of Aubrey Sitterson — can fly under the radar of those inclined to apathy and fence sitting, but targeting retailers is a red line that cannot be crossed.

The relative ignorance that many in the swirling mass of vitriol around Meyer display towards the history and conventions of the industry is usually not much more than a particularly risible aspect of a movement with no ideology beyond white grievance, but if you want to pressure an industry you need to know which buttons you can push and which you can’t.

Either out of naivety, hubris, or both, those agitating for Jawbreakers seem to wrongly believe that the end-consumer matters most in comics sales, and can thus behave however they want as long as the demand for the product they want hits a certain threshold. Like that time people pulled their shirts over the back of their heads and writhed on the floors of McDonalds locations across America because of something they saw in a cartoon.

But, in a twist worthy of an M. Night Shyamalan movie, the fact that no one actually has reliable numbers about individual purchasers in comics has actually benefited the common good for once. Because the tracking of sales numbers in the direct market ends at orders placed by retailers. It is retailers and not individual buyers that publishers invest the most marketing, promotion, and general wooing into. Which means that a threat to the relationship between a low-tier publisher like Antarctic Press and the retailers who order from it becomes a life-or-death issue for the company.

Meyer was savvy enough to caution his followers not to harass Antarctic Press after they dropped Jawbreakers so as to not permanently destroy his prospects there, but he doesn’t seem to have understood how much of a liability he made himself to his prospective publisher when he stood by while people flooded retailers with abuse, ostensibly on his behalf.

In some ways, it’s a darkly humorous episode that illustrates just how esoteric the inner workings of the direct market are, but it’s also a deeply cautionary tale about a publisher that set themselves up to cravenly profit from a base cobbled together from open bigotry and harassment.

Captain America by Tristan Jones

What all of this, the sum total of the struggle to maintain community and culture in the face of fascist encroachment, tells us that we find ourselves in unique but hardly unprecedented place.

For those of us who are American, struggles over the purity of an original concept holds little appeal. Progressive causes can hardly be animated by appeals to history in a country founded on stolen land and built by chattel slavery, but superhero comics, while hardly unblemished, were born as an exceptional response to exceptional times and are chromosomally anti-fascist.

It’s a history that gives us something to fight for, a beachhead to be proud of and defend unapologetically. But it also gives us the responsibility to live up to it, to defend the bonds that hold our community together and stand in solidarity with the marginalized. Past precedent, whether it be in the highest stakes imaginable in besieged Catalonia or the much smaller scale and more intimate City Gardens, tells us that the kind of incursion of intolerance and aggression that we currently face as an industry must be met head on. Passivity, indifference, and normalizing are fertile ground for spreading an inherently violent ideology that cannot be mollified or bargained down.

The only path forward, as ever, is to say loud and clear “¡No pasarán!” in both word and deed.

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