Capes and Crusades: A Look at How Society Influences Comics

By: Cassie Burris

“If my books and my stories can change that, can make people realize that everybody should be equal, and treated that way, then I think it would be a better world.”- Stan Lee

In this time of strongly divided politics, people are calling for a form of escapism. One of those forms has been the rise of superhero media. From movies and games to TV shows and books, the superhero genre has exploded onto the scene in the past two decades. As the superhero genre grows in popularity, so does the scrutiny of the original source material and the politics of comics. New fans came to read comics with stories covering politics, such as race issues and corrupt governments. People then started creating blog posts titled, “Why Can’t Marvel Keep Politics Out of Their Comics?” or an article from Liberty and Law, “Is Political Correctness Hurting Marvel Comics?”. But how did comics become political in the first place?

In my previous blog post, Origin Story: The Creation of Superman, I explained how Superman was the very first superhero and how his origins were very much affected by the politics of the time period. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s stories were influenced by the anti-Semitism that the Jewish community was experiencing. They also wrote many stories where Superman defeated Hitler. Siegel never strayed from telling real stories with a super twist. He would often pull from old news that happened around Ohio. He thought it was important to tell stories about real people. Because Siegel and Shuster were brave enough to tell stories about people who were oftentimes overlooked, that allowed other comic book writers to step onto the scene to tell similar stories. Some of those stories came from what would eventually become DC’s rival in the comic book industry, Timely Publications, now known as Marvel Comics.

In 1941, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon created an iconic image, a superhero dressed in red, white and blue punching Hitler in the face. That hero was Captain America. Captain America was created as a political figure. He burst onto the scene to promote the war efforts during WWII and to give hope to the American people. When young writer Stanley Martin Lieber, better known as Stan Lee, was asked to take over writing for Captain America, he continued with the same politically charged concepts.

Lee saw the importance of telling real stories with characters that had human flaws. He found it was easier for people to relate to heroes that would go through everyday issues. Those issues included political strife. The X-Men were created to highlight why racism and segregation was wrong. A number of X-Men serve a metaphorical function as their powers illustrate points about the nature of the outsider. The X-Men also showed two different ways of confronting an issue, including pacifist Professor X and militant Holocaust survivor Magneto, which were influenced by the philosophical dichotomy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. The goal of the X-Men was to fight for peace, justice and equality for all people, mutants or not.

In 1966, Lee and Kirby created a new superhero that become the first standalone black superhero that did not work together with a white superhero. Starting off with the Fantastic Four, T’Challa, or Black Panther, had found success while working with the Fantastic Four, and the Avengers, so in 1977 he was given his own standalone comic. When asked what inspired Lee to create Black Panther he said, “It wasn’t a huge deal to me. It was a very normal natural thing. A good many of our people here in America are not white. You’ve got to recognize that and you’ve got to include them in whatever you do.” Lee also created Falcon, the first African American superhero, in the Captain America serial where together they fought racism and helped out the exploited.

Characters have even been changed based upon the political climate of the era in which it was written. After the Nixon Watergate scandal Marvel released a Captain America comic where the villain of the story was the President of the United States, and because Captain America was in shock he gave up the mantle of Captain America and became Nomad, a man without a country. Together with Falcon, he promoted helping the poor. More recently the title of Ms. Marvel was passed on to Kamala Khan, a Muslim teenage girl, who highlights how Muslims are treated. She was created by Sana Amanat, who wanted to give young Muslim girls a hero to idolize, since she felt pressured to idolize white women as a girl.

Before Spiderman in 2002 and taking off with Iron Man and The Dark Knight in 2008, superheroes were seen as very niche, something that only “nerds” would enjoy. The people who read comics mostly kept their thoughts and stories within the comic community. Mainstream culture didn’t know just how political comic books were. As the popularity of superhero movies increased, so did the critical eye of the source material. Comics Vine, a site for comic book fans recently had a discussion going with the users asking the question, “Should comics be political?” People filled the discussion with opinions such as, “Comics are an escape/template for what it means to be better (and should primarily be for children) so they should not mix in something that divides us and drives us apart. These heroes should be for everyone,” and “I think if they are trying to sell an agenda that is close to something that is currently happening, it can come off as preachy. But if they have political themes and maybe even elements of past historic events (like the Cold War) it can be very interesting.”

Some people say that they cannot enjoy a comic book when it highlights things such as racism or religion. On the other hand, one can argue that all fiction is littered with opinions and politics. Newer comics touch on a lot of these current issues. Miles Morales’ Spiderman comics highlight racism that still happens today. Ms. Marvel shows how people are still not accepting of the religion of Islam. Batwoman came out as a lesbian in recent years, while Bunker, a member of the Teen Titans, is also coming to terms with his sexuality. Reviewers on Goodreads when talking about Ms. Marvel Vol 1, said that including different types of social issues, such as the treatment of Muslims, is a new thing that comic books are trying out in order to be politically correct, but having contemporary issues covered is not a new thing. The character Northstar was introduced as gay in 1992, although Marvel wanted to say he was sooner, but was restricted by the Comics Code Authority. There were even moments in comics where current Presidents were included in stories. The Death of Superman saw Bill and Hilary Clinton at Superman’s funeral and Spiderman did an inauguration special for Barack Obama, a lifelong fan.

Even Stan Lee believes that one cannot separate reality from fiction. In a letter to his readers he wrote, “They take great pains to point out that comics are supposed to be escapist reading, and nothing more. But somehow, I can’t see it that way. It seems to me that a story without a message, however subliminal, is like a man without a soul. In fact, even the most escapist literature of all—old time fairy tales and heroic legends—contained moral and philosophical points of view. At every college campus where I may speak, there’s as much discussion of war and peace, civil rights, and the so-called youth rebellion as there is of our Marvel mags per se. None of us lives in a vacuum—none of us is untouched by the everyday events about us—events which shape our stories just as they shape our lives. Sure, our tales can be called escapist—but just because something’s for fun, doesn’t mean we have to blanket our brains while we read it! Excelsior!”

In the end it is a matter of one’s opinion. Do comic books work too hard to include politics within their pages? Or are social issues an integral part of comic books? Comic books have their roots based in politics, especially when it comes to the superhero genre. From Superman to Captain America, politics permeates the genre. But what do you think? Should comic books show politics and social issues through a creative lens or should that talk be left out?

We hope you’ll make the Ohio History Center part of your school year! For field trip reservations please email [email protected].

Activity (all ages)

Think of a problem you would like to solve. Create a superhero that would help solve that problem or bring the issue to light.

Draw a picture of your superhero saving the day or write a comic about them!

Discussion Question (9-12th Grade)

How have comic books influenced society?

Do you think comic books should be telling stories about social issues? Why or why not?

Posted February 15, 2018

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