Closing the Comics-Gate: On Recognizing the Politics of Comics

Editor’s Note: And with this contribution from Martin Lund, we dig into the Comicsgate imbroglio in order to resoundingly shut the door on their complaints, but also to consider the overly-generous view of superhero comics’ history of “inclusive” politics. I have gotten to know Martin over the last couple of years via the wonders of social media, but he also served as co-editor on Unstable Masks: Whiteness and the American Superhero to which I contributed a chapter on the constitutive whiteness of the Captain America identity. I was honored to have an opportunity to return the favor and help shape this guest post.

Thor smashing Soviet planes in  “Prisoner of the Reds” from Journey Into Mystery #87 (December 1962) [Words & Art by Lee & Kirby]

Comicdom in the US is currently embroiled in a fight about the meaning and purpose of comics. The skirmish is commonly known as “Comicsgate,” because back in the 1970s our collective imagination dropped itself into a time-loop and now we’re stuck with scandals affixed with a hotel-based suffix for everything. A charitable person might classify “Comicsgate” as a debate about the role of comics; an honest one could call it an aggravated clusterfuck. On one side are people who take as genuine and significant the hesitant and provisional moves mainstream comics have been taking in recent years toward a more inclusive, realistic representational range within their products; on the other side—the side responsible for the overwhelming majority of the aggravation and the lion’s share of clusterfuckery—are people who see comics groaning and dying under the weight of “Social Justice Warrior”-brand “political correctness.”

An oft-touted line among self-described “Comicsgaters” is that “we just want comics to be good again.” This is about as substantial and meaningful a slogan as the nonsense one that helped bring the incumbent president to the White House and adorns red baseball caps all over the US. “Good” is a subjective evaluation that on its own has no meaning (nor, incidentally, does its inflated cousin “great”). What you think is good, I might find crappy; what you find pedestrian, I might love. We all make subjective value judgments. That’s unavoidable. But it’s something else to turn those judgments into a slogan and organizing around them. If your campaign is based on something as nebulous and fluid as a vague judgment of taste, it doesn’t matter how loud your followers are: you’re just talking out of your ass and blowing smoke. Another claim that is central to the “Comicsgaters” is seemingly that there was a time, long ago, when comics “weren’t political,” which goes far to uncover the profound ignorance that the movement is based on.

The response to this cover for Mockingbird #8 (December 2016) was an early flashpoint for what would come to be called “Comicsgate.” (cover art by Joëlle Jones and Rachelle Rosenberg)

What’s worse by a factor too large to calculate is that the people who claim to “just want comics to be good” are showing their supposed dissatisfaction with the quality of current comics by harassing creators of the comics they claim aren’t “good.” The people doing the targeting are mostly white, straight boys and men. Those they’re targeting are mostly anyone who doesn’t fit that description: women, comics creators of color, LGBTQIA+ creators. No surprise there, because I don’t think many people actually believe that the stated motivation is the real reason for the hate and vitriol; it’s a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic assault.

Before we get any deeper into this, I want to make just one small clarification: when we are talking about comics here, “comics” that used to be good, “comics” that were (or weren’t) always political, “comics” that are being “killed” by diversity, we are talking almost exclusively about superhero comics. I can only speculate as to why it is specifically around this genre that the storm has gathered, but it most likely has to do at least in part with the still simplistic moral narratives of superhero stories, with the general aversion to change that the genre is built upon (and that is exacerbated by the demands to stick to formula that indefinite serial publication fosters), the historically overwhelming whiteness and maleness and straightness and middle-classness of the genre and its imagined audience, and the often gung-ho machismo and close-to-jingoism of so much superhero fare. Whatever the reason for it, however, it is clear that the ongoing struggle for interpretive power is taking place mostly, but not exclusively, in the orbit of that genre (even though plenty of people from outside it have been pulled into the fray against their will).

But it’s not actually the people doing the yelling and harassing I want to talk about here. There’s already plenty of substantive stuff on that topic out there. No, it’s the people talking back at them that I want to look at. There is a good number of people who claim—rightly—that comics have always been political. But while pushback against the facile “Comicsgate” narrative about comics’ supposed onetime apolitical content is good in theory, in the shape it’s mostly taking I’m not sure it’s enough. Or even helpful. Some of the counter-arguments are based on what I would classify as a poor understanding of superhero comics history that might be counterproductive to the argument attempted. Claiming that (superhero) comics always already were about inclusion, as so many do, runs the risk of erasing the very people the claim is supposedly meant to defend or support. In short, while “Comicsgate” is not really about keeping politics out of comics, the most common responses to “Comicsgate” are not actually about letting the politics of those same comics come out into the sunlight, for good (in terms of recent advances in representation) and bad (the vaguely liberal status quo ante that needs to be confronted so it can be put to rest). Before we get into examples of what I mean, however, there are a few more preliminaries to get through.

Let’s get one thing straight right here, right now: despite what “Comicsgaters” claim to believe, it’s not as if superhero comics have just suddenly become political. That’s just not how art or popular culture work. As I was first starting to think about drafting this piece, musician, screenwriter, and filmmaker Boots Riley tweeted a perfect articulation of a point I wanted to make in it:

Just as there is no such thing as art for art’s sake, comics aren’t, never were, and cannot be, neutral. There are no comics for comics’ sake. Comics always contain a political point of view. It really is that simple. You may not notice it because the stories they tell, the claims they make, the ways they digest the world, reconstruct it, and hand it back to readers inevitably means that reality is filtered through not just narrative devices, but also through ideologies. As such, they might read as “natural” or “not political” to those who already agree with their politics. But they’re not.

Historian of religions Bruce Lincoln wrote his “theses on method” for the academic history of religions discipline, but the general lessons he wanted to teach are applicable far beyond that small area of study. His tenth thesis, moreover, are words to live by as far as this discussion is concerned:

Understanding the system of ideology that operates in one’s own society is made difficult by two factors: (i) one’s consciousness is itself a product of that system, and (ii) the system’s very success renders its operations invisible, since one is so consistently immersed in and bombarded by its products that one comes to mistake them (and the apparatus through which they are produced and disseminated) for nothing other than “nature”.

So, again: politics are everywhere in our comics. As you move further back into the past, the more clearly the contours of that time’s politics as they were filtered through capes and tights become. By the time you get to, I don’t know, the so-called “Marvel Age” it should become incredibly difficult for any honest observer to credit the claim that comics back then somehow weren’t “political.”

Evil communist Russians in Journey into Mystery #87 (December 1962)

Look at the earliest Thor stories. You can barely throw a rock in Marvel’s Midgard or Asgard without hitting a communist. Hell, look at any Marvel comic from those years: it’s all influenced down to its very core by the Cold War. This is politics. It may be politics that many of us were raised not to see as politics, even decades later. But it is politics. And much of US superhero comics history is political in this way, upholding a capitalist, white supremacist, patriarchal status quo – which is thoroughly unsurprising if you look at who has been at the reins throughout much of this history.

It is not that difficult to see the ease with which ideology can seep into our understanding of popular entertainment and make it seem like something it is not, if you start looking closely at the rhetoric surrounding “Comicsgate.” The grand self-delusions of WWII-era USA and the assumptions of the tepid post-WWII liberal consensus and its drawn-out death spasms are visible in both the defense against the vitriol and in the vitriol itself: one side does not see this ideology at all, because it is so lukewarm and inoffensive that it doesn’t register and the other side sees it as a progressive stance because it gestures, however briefly, towards something other than business as usual.

Let me clarify. “Comicsgaters” are complaining about things they see as recent in the comics they claim to love. They don’t complain about Superman comics of yore, when he just fought for truth, justice, and the “American way.” See, for them, somehow, there’s nothing political there at all. For me to agree with that assessment, however, I’d have to squint really hard, so as to not see the banal nationalism at the heart of that tagline nor the ways the Superman character in most iterations embodies a souped-up and idealized image of national identity. I would probably also have to disregard the fact that Superman—like all his superhero compatriots—has often fought villains who, to paraphrase Orion Kidder, are basically slobbering, maniacal personifications of distorted versions of progressive or radical ideas. Indeed, if one looks at them more closely, many supervillains old and new come into new, crisp focus as foils, whose primary raison d’être seems to be to discredit the ideas they are made to represent by making them utterly distasteful before they can even begin to be considered. This is an ok form of politics for “Comicsgaters,” a politics they might not see because it hits so close to home. But—and I can’t stress this enough—it’s still politics and it’s always, always been there.

So, the “Comicsgater” claim that comics were non-political sometime back in the deep reaches of comics ur-time is nonsense. What about the other side? What are they saying? There’s plenty of examples I could use to illustrate the well-meaning type of claim we often see lobbed against “Comicsgaters,” but I’m going to go for a condensed volume here. Thus, let’s look at this Twitter thread (screenshot to the right) that made the rounds last year.

Granted, the thread includes examples from outside of comics, but the central thrust is clear, and the timing of its appearance is no coincidence. We can’t go through all the examples, and we don’t have to. Let’s look instead at the four examples named that have been most influential to US comics history and see what we can say about their politics in relation to the argument at hand: Superman, Captain America, Spider-Man, and the X-Men.

As I have written in my book, Re-Constructing the Man of Steel: Superman 1938–1941, Jewish American History, and the Invention of the Jewish–Comics Connection (2016), the original Superman was not a refugee or immigrant in any but the most superficial, default ways; his alien heritage had no significance in his early stories and many of them were caught up in a tangled discursive web of panic about the Fifth Column—primarily Nazi, but Soviet as well—that was supposedly operating in the US in the pre-Pearl Harbor years. Captain America may have punched Hitler in the face on that first cover of his, but that doesn’t mean that Simon and Kirby were calling for the US to enter the war. If one looks more closely at the cover, or reads the stories within the comic, it again becomes clear that what is being fought is not the war across the seas, but the covert one that many people believed was happening on American soil, in order to keep the enemies of freedom from crippling American readiness in case war would come to their shores. These early stories must be read in the context of the then-ongoing tug-of-war between US intervention and isolationism (and the simultaneous openness among Americans to mock dictators like Hitler). With that in mind, the Captain America Comics #1 cover appears less as the message of intervention it is often understood to be, but one closer to the more standoffish official White House line that other superheroes took. For example, a strip presented in a February 1940 issue of LOOK magazine featured Superman answering the question of how he would “end the war” by taking Hitler and Stalin to the League of Nations to be sentenced for their crimes, thus signaling clearly that the war was a European matter. As George Herring explains in his book From Colony to Superpower, in those days the League in the US was viewed unfavorably as something to stay out of. In other words, Superman’s message was one of letting Europe settle its own business.

Spider-Man—our third example—was co-created by Steve Ditko, an Objectivist who quite possibly would have retched at the idea of anyone wanting to “benefit everyone.” And lastly, the oft-promoted idea that Xavier and Magneto are, in some way, allegorized versions of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X is the product of (mostly) white people talking about white people talking about black people. It is a pretty good indicator of how successful the impugning of Malcolm X’s work and legacy has been that well-meaning liberals can nod their heads and agree that, obviously, the unselfconsciously evil Magneto—leader of the even more unselfconsciously named “Brotherhood of Evil Mutants”—is in some way comparable to Malcolm X. That someone as irredeemably evil as the original Magneto could be compared to Malcolm X betrays a deep ignorance about both men among those who claim that they are similar. (Some of Xavier’s continuing issues have also been well chronicled, showing just how much better a role-model Malcolm X was compared to Xavier.) The X-Men, in turn, have never been unproblematically about tolerance or marginalization. To the contrary, their mutant-as-outsider metaphor has often been tinged by reactionary politics or appropriation.

Magneto, the man some people like to claim was inspired by Malcolm X. Really? I mean, really? (from X-Men #6 [July 1964])

But you might object, “We’re not talking about any particular Magneto or Spider-Man or Superman or Captain America when we say this! We’re talking about the core of the character!” If that’s your objection, I hate to break it to you, but such an idealized version of a character that isn’t bound by any single creator’s conception or editorial regime—that exists outside of history—is transcendent nonsense. These characters don’t exist in any meaningful way without the people who send them into action on the page. And many of those creators were deeply flawed. For example, maybe Stan Lee was a champion of diversity and inclusion, as was claimed by many after his death, except for when he wasn’t. And the X-Men have been used as an allegory for difference and marginalization, but in a way that has often helped promote rather than counter inequality and that now has self-identifying “geeks” identifying with mutants as victims and outcasts in a way that trivializes the plight of actual victims and outcasts.

Yes, all of these characters—all the franchises mentioned—have at some point or another promoted ideas about compassion, inclusion, social justice. But they also, each and every one of them, have done the opposite. They are rooted in history, created by specific people at specific times. That’s ok. We don’t need to burn it all down. But we need to be aware of this history, at all turns. We are not collectively on a trip from bad to good, from unequal to equal, from injustice to social justice. We’re not seeing that journey inexorably playing out before us. What we’re seeing today, and what some so-called “Comicsgate” people are getting aggressively up in arms about, is a handful of people trying to help get us all moving towards a brighter tomorrow, in however small a way. That’s how history happens. That’s how the space for inclusion grows. It’s not already there and it’s never guaranteed. It requires work. And it needs to be actively sustained.

But the task these creators have taken up is not easy. There’s an anthology of stories by queer creators in the making right now that has had to be willed into existence through hard work because, as its editor says: “The comic industry doesn’t give nearly enough opportunities to LGBTQ talent, because the industry’s not as bold as it pretends to be.” And queer characters don’t just “organically” show up in stories. Importantly, all of what is happening in the work-for-hire mainstream could go away any day, if the wrong sales person decides that “diversity” isn’t selling and takes action on that idea.

Let’s not fool ourselves here. The US (superhero) comics industry and its fandom are not going to spring into action to help those targeted. Just consider how long it took for some of the “big” names to say much of anything on the topic and how tepid the response has been from the more established quarters of the superhero industry, to the extent that there has been one to speak of at all. It is, of course, the artists, writers, editors, and companies’ prerogative if and how to respond. And it is important to protect creators who have yet to come into the sights of this hateful movement. But let’s not pretend that the who and what and why of the eventual response does not support the thesis that maybe “comics” isn’t so bold and progressive after all. As Marsha Cooke—whose harassment inspired some of these “bigger” names to finally say something against the “Comicsgate” movement—remarked: “Hopefully this is my last comment on the subject but I agree with everyone saying it is annoying that people didn’t get on board the reality of what these idiots are doing until it was a white wife attacked. I don’t think as many people would care wtf happened here except they were thinking of me as an extension of a man, so take that how you will.” It is true, as some have pointed out, that there are creators from all areas of comicdom who have been vocal in their support of the victims and condemnation of the perpetrators—some, like Mark Waid, at significant personal cost—but the norm has been silence.

In the end, it took a long time before high-profile comics professionals eventually started peeking out at what was going on and delivered what has been touted as a strong refrain. A line that has been seen again and again—and that’s shown up in most “Comicsgate” search result previews I’ve seen in writing this piece—reads: “There is no place for homophobia, transphobia, racism or misogyny in comics criticism.” A noble enough sentiment, to be sure, but it’s also bullshit; there has always been room for this in comics criticism, and in the comics themselves. Saying that there isn’t doesn’t help, least of all those targeted by homophobia, transphobia, racism, and misogyny. As comics writer Aleš Kot pointed out in a tweet that now seems to have been deleted, Comicsgate “capitalized on mainstream comics creators largely ignoring queer voices speaking up about being targeted for years.” Standing up, Spartacus-like, to say that there’s “no place” for something there is clearly plenty of space for and that there’s always been plenty of space for, just continues to erase the embarrassing history of US comicdom and it continues to erase the experience of the very people it’s supposed to defend.

How can “Superman’s Mission for President Kennedy” in Superman #170 (July 1964) not be “political?”

What I’m trying to say is this: the “Comicsgaters,” however wrong they may be about every single other issue, have a point when they say a certain kind of politics is being put into comics these days more than has historically been the case. And, that’s a positive development! Embrace it. Acknowledge it. And acknowledge the people who are actually doing it, instead of immediately putting on sepia-colored glasses that hide the fact that much of superhero history is a sexist and racist mess. Don’t try to counter “Comicsgaters” with some Grand Unified Theory of Superheroism-as-Inclusion. Don’t make some ostensibly cutting remark about how superheroes are Social Justice Warriors in spandex. If that were true, there wouldn’t be a need for people doing this type of representation in the first place, for people actually trying to broaden the scope and range of the genre and its definitions of who gets to be a hero. The artists being harassed and hounded are not doing the work they’re doing because comics is a welcoming big tent. They’re doing it because comics hasn’t been welcoming to them and they’re trying to change that, because nobody else will. They’re not doing it because previous generations were working to carve out a space for them. They’re carving out that space themselves, because that’s the only way it’s really going to happen. For that, they’re being wrongfully targeted, and more importantly, for what they’re doing they deserve not only our support but also our acknowledgment: what they are doing is something that very nearly nobody else has done before them and that nobody else can do half as good as they can. For that, they deserve to be heard and taken seriously. If we want to read their stories, the least we can do is admit their reality and not keep making the same mistakes.

Those of us who belong to superhero comics’ traditional audience have a stake here, whether we consciously or actively hold on to these politics or not. That’s how white supremacy, heteronormativity, and patriarchy work. That we are enmeshed in and profit by default from inequitable power structures doesn’t make us bad people despite ourselves and despite our best efforts, but it does mean that we need to acknowledge that we have biases we’ve been socialized into and work to counter them. By denying that these biases are a part of superhero comics, we risk perpetuating them. Getting out of ideological structures is hard work, and it’ll never be finished, but it’s worth doing and it has to start somewhere. So, to the new generation of comics creators, I want to say thank you for your work and for your strength; to everyone else—myself very much included here—I want to say: do better, deserve the new work that is breathing life into what has been white, tepid, and shapeless for too long. The new voices we are hearing are challenging both an oppressive history and a current reality. The least we can do is listen to what they’re saying and try to take it to heart, instead of embracing their work with one hand while brushing their concerns off with the other. The long-term effect of flat-out denying the centrality and pervasiveness of the homophobic, transphobic, racist or misogynist history of US superhero comics and comics criticism might be that all of these efforts wind up being for naught and that these writers and artists give up on us, as we continue to retread the same steps time and again. Saying “there is no place” for any of this nasty business, when there so clearly still is, doesn’t help. Denying that there’s a problem only risks reinforcing the problem and keeps us from working through it. That’s how ideology works on all of us and against us all.

In Captain America: Sam Wilson #17 (March 2017) Nick Spencer transforms campus protest against hate-speech into a violent grenade throwing threat. An example of “slobbering, maniacal personifications of distorted versions of progressive or radical ideas.”

Martin Lund is a comics scholar who specializes in studying the intersections of religions and comics, comics and identity, and comics and urban life. Recent and forthcoming publications includes Re-Constructing the Man of Steel: Superman 1938–1941, Jewish American History, and the Invention of the Jewish–Comics Connection (Palgrave 2016), Muslim Superheroes: Comics, Islam, and Representation (Harvard University Press/ILEX Foundation; co-edited with A. David Lewis); and Unstable Masks: Whiteness and the American Superhero (forthcoming from Ohio State University Press; co-edited with Sean Guynes). He is currently a senior lecturer in the history of religions at Malmö University in Sweden and desperately hoping to carve out some research time.

2 thoughts on “Closing the Comics-Gate: On Recognizing the Politics of Comics

  1. Pingback: “But We’re Out of Time”: Queer(ed) Nostalgia and The WB’s Birds of Prey | The Middle Spaces

  2. Pingback: On Boycotting Toys: Public “Nerd Rage” and a Mythology of Superheroic Authenticity – Martin Lund

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