I’ll be the first to admit that, as a writer who looks at the intersection of comic books and politics, I am occasionally guilty of projecting my own biases onto characters and stories which seem to carry certain themes. It’s something you’ve probably done yourself when reading fiction, particularly when a character or story resonated with a thought or idea of your own.
Like most faults, it’s one that’s usually easier to notice in others than in myself, so when reading Mark Judge’s piece in the Daily Caller, “The conservatism of comic books,” my considerable eyebrow went up immediately. Though I’m not ordinarily one to make it, there is a good case for a strong conservative presence in the comic book industry. Over their extensive lives, the characters who have been written by a collection of tremendously talented people have explored nearly every facet of the American psyche. Watchmen‘s Rorschach or Hank “Hawk” Hall of Hawk & Dove are an extreme example, while more subtle ones have included Hawkman, Green Lantern, and even Nick Fury.
I read the piece, hoping that Judge would put forth a compelling argument, such as this one regarding the political affiliations of Spider-Man and Batman, but found myself somewhat disappointed. He starts by suggesting that comic books might someday be banned by leftists when they “complete [their] revolution” for being too conservative.
Now, the writer admits that he is only a sometime reader of comics, so his failure to dig into the library of comics to find those stories where characters espouse all manner of political beliefs is only a big deal if you’re really invested in wanting most people to have an encyclopedic knowledge of comic books.
What is of concern is how he frames the piece as an either-or proposition. Readers can have either primal appeal or moral complexity. Batman can be conservative or he can be a dark and ambiguous anti-hero. I would agree with Art Spiegelman in saying that Frank Miller’s representation of Batman in The Dark Knight Returns contains quite a few elements that are “rather fascistic.” Bruce assembles a paramilitary force and knocks a lot of heads on a night when there are a lot of shattered windows. That’s an easy argument to make. What’s important to remember is that Batman does all this and he also exerts a great deal of his life and treasure in seeking to save people from what happened to him. He takes solace in exacting revenge and pleasure from helping people live safer lives.
Regarding the motivations of super-heroes, Judge makes a terrible generalization when he states “for most super-heroes, the driving motivation is a hatred of crime.” Such a reduction minimizes the complexity and breadth of character that makes up the tapestry of comic history. While most every super-hero contends against crime to some extent, to characterize these motivations as being driven by nothing more than hate dismisses the impact of Spider-Man’s guilt over his own self-aggrandizement and role in the death of his uncle, not to mention a host of character origins which provide motivations that run the entire gamut of human emotion.
When, near the end of his piece, he finally arrives at an analysis of Watchmen, Judge’s tunnel vision is in high gear. He calls Ozymandias the villain of the tale, “a classic Cold War utopian liberal” despite his status as the wealthiest man on Earth and his role as controller of the world’s largest corporation, which parents with the military on every manner of project.
In the end, what Judge is obviously trying to do is capitalize on the current popularity of comics as a medium by reaching for ways in which to graft his own political philosophy onto well-known characters without any real regard for the rich histories that these characters possess—with the obvious exception of Batman, someone who most definitely does fit into the conservative headspace. For the most part, comics have tended towards a very liberal philosophy. Spider-Man’s whole origin is centered around the results of his attempts to use his power for his own benefit rather than that of society as a whole. Though Judge attempts to dismiss Superman’s role as an avatar for immigrants throughout American history, the importance of that aspect of his character cannot be understated. Neither is it appropriate to ignore the extensive history of Superman’s activities as a crusader for the average person.
While there definitely are cases in which one could point to characters who doalign with conservative philosophies, it is far from the norm and far from the defining characteristic of any great segment of comic-dom. If anything, a writer who is inclined to find those instances should be encouraged to dig a bit deeper. The arguments between Hal Jordan and Ollie Queen in the Adams/O’Neill era certainly cast Hal as the law-and-order heavy as a contrast to Ollie’s bleeding heart liberal. In Kingdom Come, Superman embraces a level of moral absolutism which would seem quite normal at a Tea Party rally and leads to the major conflicts of the story.
The unforgivable aspect of Judge’s piece is that it attempts to make comics simple. It tries to say that they are wholly one way, when the truth lays somewhere in the middle. Comics are a complex artform which have, over their eighty-plus-years history have included characters of every philosophy and background. That diversity of opinions—and, more importantly, the characters’ ability to put those philosophical differences aside and achieve common goals—are the real message of the medium.