According to a recent bit of market analysis, 24 million Americans on Facebook identified themselves as fans of comic-books. This doesn’t come close to grasping the reach of the comics industry, which spans far beyond the books. Film adaptations dominate the box-office, superhero merchandising is everywhere, Comic-Con creates a national frenzy of attention in every corner of our culture, be it online, on The Big Bang Theory, even in the new Zach Braff movie. The world of comic-books no longer lives on the sideline of American interests.
It’s no surprise then that comics invade our political interests as well. Since the medium came about the question of their political power has been central to the industry. This is why the government censored, and why the industry later created the Comics Code. Why Wonder Woman became a Feminist Icon. Why the X-Men exist at all. Comics are, in one way or another, all about politics.
Odds are that this week, wherever you get your news, you saw at least one, if not more, political story about comic-books.
Here are four stories from the world of comic-books you might have come across. Each has consequences beyond the source material and target audience, and are worth considering collectively.
From Marvel Comics came two big announcements regarding popular characters:
4. A new female Thor will replace the original Thor
3. Sam Watson will become Captain America
Two of Marvel’s most recognizable heroes will be getting new identities this fall. Come October, Thor will be losing his hammer and a new Thor will replace him. The new Thor will, notably, be a woman. We covered this story earlier in the week, and don’t have much to add beyond this tweet from Joss Whedon.
Then, in November, Steve Rogers will lose his powers and with them his long-standing role as Captain America. Sam Watson, heretofore known as Falcon, will assume the role under Rogers’ leadership and tutelage. Watson is, notably, black.
Non-comics readers may know Falcon from Captain America: Winter Soldier, where Anthony Mackie played the role.
It’s a little strange to get two “major announcements!!!” from Marvel in the week before Comic-Con. Comic-Con has become the official “major announcements!!!” platform for all things comics, movies, television and genre culture. What should be cause for celebration–increased diversity in a medium that desperately needs it–is instead being met with skepticism from many fans.
Molly Lambert at Grantland, for example, worries the Thor story is little more than Marvel’s way to calm the clamoring for a stand-alone female superhero film. “It makes me worry that the company (which, like Grantland, is a Disney property) is giving us this news as a door prize before we find out at Comic-Con that there are still no immediate plans to make any female stand-alone superhero movies.”
Over at Wired, Graeme McMillan says that changing Thor and Captain America into Female Thor and Black Captain America simply is not enough. McMillan sees the changes as a consolation prize for minority characters (“both got the job because of the failings of their white predecessors rather than on their own merits”), and like so many changes in comic-books, temporary (“Do you really believe the comics won’t bring back the old Thor or Cap to tie in to the next movies?”).
Whether Lambert and Graeme are right or not (both acknowledge the credit due Marvel), the timing certainly seems strange for such announcements on national television (Thor was announced on The View, Captain America on Colbert Report). The entire world knows that comic-books as an industry has a diversity a problem. This is includes Marvel. Bringing these stories to the news, if nothing else, lets us know that Marvel is beyond the “acknowledgement phase” and is looking for solutions.
So far we’ve only seen the PR and marketing push. The new Thor and Captain America are yet unwritten and thus we have no way to know how if these books are good, or how these changes will manifest in the Marvel Universe. But even just in the marketing phase, the Avengers are looking significantly more welcoming.
2. NBC’s Constantine will feature a straight John Constantine
DC/Vertigo’s Hellblazer is great detective fiction. Hard-boiled supernatural noir stories like this have become relatively familiar on television, and it’s not a huge surprise that NBC would look to adapt the title. (It was adapted previously for the big-screen, with Keanu Reeves in the lead role in a so-so 2005 film).
Hellblazer, and presumably NBC’s Constantine, is the story of John Constantine, a British con-man turned crime-fighter caught up in the goings on of the demon world of London. Constantine the characters is known primarily for being a smoker (honestly), but he is also, if less centrally to the character’s stories, bi-sexual. When NBC’s Constantine debuts this fall he will not smoke–network television rules and all–and he will also be, to the frustration of many fans, straight.
There’s no denying that the sexual orientation of John Constantine has been a minor feature in the 25 or so years since he first appeared. Only a handful of references to the fact have made it into the books. Constantine’s image is far more defined by smoking cigarettes than by being bisexual (for the record, a non-smoking John Constantine is not John Constantine).
But there can also be no denying that John Constantine, the hard-ass demon-world inhabiting noir detective Englishman , is bisexual.
That NBC would go out of the way to denote the fact that John Constantine is not bisexual seems a curious decision, especially coming from a network currently running Hannibal and Dracula. i09 makes this point well: “It looks as though Constantine is taking over the Friday night slot previously occupied by Dracula, a show in which it appeared as though every single character was A) bisexual and B) into some pretty weird edgeplay.”
It’s worth pointing out that while LGBT characters have become more common on network television, adding a character like John Constantine to the list would be a unique contribution from NBC.
1. Archie Andrews was killed
News came in April of this year that Archie Andrews, the freckle-faced red head from Riverdale first introduced to the world in 1942, was going to die. An assassin, targeting Archie’s friend Kevin Keller, an openly gay senatorial candidate, instead shoots and kills Archie Andrews.
And so the biggest story in a pretty big week of comic-book news comes from the little read Life with Archie. Archie’s death is quite political, both literally in the pages of the book itself, but also in our own culture of social divisions over guns and homosexuality. As such it’s no surprise that many folks were upset at the news. Mother Jones’ Jenna McLaughlin tracks the conservative freak-out that followed.
The reactions are pretty standard freak-out material. “Death by Homophobia” is what the American Conservative called it. Liberal brainwashing and radical politics directed at youth. Nothing you haven’t heard before. It’s just politics.
This is a recurring theme in many of the reactions all of these stories. It’s just politics. A politically correct society run amok, pressuring companies to force political decisions into the pages of comic-books. Appeasing the feminists or the gun-control crowd or whatever boogey-man the conservatives are fearing at the moment. Just playing politics.
I guess it merits saying: you’re right. It is politics. Issues of representation, diversity, sexual-orientation in popular culture, these are always political decisions. Sometimes they are made in earnest sincerity and sometimes they are manipulative stunts, meant to drum up a little PR attention before returning to the status quo.
The decision to kill Archie in the first place is political, let alone in the manner in which his death is carried out. Regardless of what Archie Comics publisher John Goldwin might say, this is all political.
Likewies the decision to make Thor a female, to replace Steve Rogers with an African American Cap’, to take a bisexual comic-book character and make him heterosexual for television, these are all political decisions. Each choice reflects a very specific political decision-making process on the part of Marvel, NBC, Archie Comics to convey a audiences a specially designed worldview to be shared.
But who cares? Seriously. Isn’t that exactly what our stories are for? We are a culture made by our consumption, and we are fools to think that the women and men who are making culture are not deliberately political in their choices. That’s not the issue at hand. Alyssa Rosenberg this week discussed how the killing of Archie is not a stunt, but a strategy and that seems to be the question that deserves our attention.
Politics change, audiences change, times change. Comic-book audiences in the mid-20th century reflected a range of class and age and genders. It hasn’t been that long since comics were relegated in popular culture to the fantasies of white male nerds; and today, the market is far more diverse than it was a decade ago. Of the 24 million comic-book fans mentioned above, for example, 46% are female.
So don’t complain that Marvel is making political choices in the midst of demographic change. Or that Archie Comics is building a world based on contemporary social division. Or even that NBC is straightening a bi-sexual Constantine. Do not complain that these choices are political. They are.
Complain if the political choices result in bad comic-books. Complain that by trying to satisfy everyone, our culture becomes saturated with low quality artistry and uninspired stories. Of if, by making John Constantine straight, Constantine results in a unwelcoming world, which uses an inclusive character to create and exclusive network television program. THAT is worth all the complaints we can muster.