Politics in Comic Books

These days, the nature of political participation in comics is much more sophisticated than past cartoons, such as Captain America punching Hitler in the face, and much more based in the area of social commentary than that of propaganda.
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The world of comics has grown up substantially since the days when the cover price was less than six minutes in a parking meter today. One of the biggest changes is the influence the world of politics has on comics.

At first, comics, and the cartoons derived from them, were used as patriotism instilling propaganda tools, from Superman's early days fighting Japanese saboteurs in World War II, to for years, starting with his first appearance in 1941.

These days, however, the nature of political participation in comics is much more sophisticated and much more based in the area of social commentary than that of propaganda. These commentaries have a lot to do with the popularity of the leaders depicted, to be sure, but also the political stances of the writers and even those of the characters themselves.

A lot of the lasting presidential cameos from comics are fairly lighthearted. In the 70's Former President Jimmy Carter attended the Superman/Muhammad Ali charity exhibition-boxing match. In the late 80's, Ayatollah Khomeini was portrayed in the pages of Batman, offering The Joker an ambassadorship to the United States in a bid to kill the leaders of the world. Batman foiled that attempt, but Superman was assigned by the CIA (at the behest of former President Ronald Reagan) to make sure Batman didn't lay a hand on the Joker at the risk of causing an international incident. In the early 90's Former President Bill Clinton attended Superman's funeral with Mrs. Clinton and offered a eulogy for the Man of Steel.

More recently, though, the portrayal of our own leaders, politicians and even the political climate has been bent toward much more interesting forays into the realm of biting social commentary. A lot of people in the world of politics don't seem to realize how much the world of politics pervades the world of comics.

In 2000, in the lead up to the most contentious election in history, DC Comics opted to run Lex Luthor for president instead of George W. Bush. Superman's arch-villain ended up winning the Presidency, causing all sorts of strife for do-gooders across the DC Universe with the citizens in the country unable to see Luthor for the villain that he was. With the electorate and Congress unable to remove him from office, Superman and Batman went to work removing him from office (this story was running concurrently with the build up to the Iraq War.) They exposed him to the world as the villain he was and he fled the country in disgrace.

As George W. Bush's popularity dwindled after the events of September 11, 2001, writer Mark Millar started two bestselling Marvel comics, Ultimate X-Men and The Ultimates. In these books, he cast Bush as the president. This version of Bush matched the public perception of him being a well-meaning but severely misguided bumbling old fool. The culmination of these stories ended with mutant terrorist revolutionary Magneto taking over our nations capital, stripping Bush to his birthday suit and forcing him to literally lick Magneto's boots on national television.

Though I think this graphic depiction of the leader of the free world rubbed some people the wrong way, it captured the mood of most progressives and comics readers, selling out issue after issue.

Another excellent example of the effect of politics in the world of comics can be found in Brian K. Vaughn's series "Ex Machina". Launched in 2004, it's a book that those of us interested in both superheroes and politics should be required to read. It's an alternate history where a superhero prevented the second World Trade Center tower from collapsing and then gave up his heroics to run for Mayor of New York City. The book is a perfect blend of insider politics and comic book, while at the same time shedding symbolic light on our current political climate in a post 9/11 world.

Even British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, holding a generally popular standing, has been nabbing headlines in recent weeks for his decisive leadership in dealing with the Skrull Invasion in the Marvel Universe.

But I think the most decisive act of political commentary in the pages of comics in recent memory was the assassination of Captain America last year, symbolizing, in my view, the death of the old American way. (I wrote about this instance at length here.)

Who knows what turn things will take if Obama wins, or McCain. Hell, in the Marvel Universe, even Stephen Colbert has a shot at winning, only time will tell.

There are dozens more examples I could offer here, but my hope is that the readers of this column will seek out more and more comics in search of these political parables and understand that comic books can be a useful tool for gauging the political climate of the pop-culture and can offer a satisfying glimpse into the world of politics with a different pair of eyes.

(Bryan Young is the producer of "Killer at Large" and blogs daily about comics at Big Shiny Robot!)

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