“I often think it comical
That Nature often does contrive
To make each boy and ev'ry gal
Who's born into this world alive,
Either a little liberal
Or else a little conservative.”
– W.S. Gilbert
Some years back, I came across a piece whose author contended that comic book superheroes were by their very nature intrinsically conservative. I no longer remember where I read it, alas, nor do I recall the author's reasoning, but it made me think. I considered writing a piece of my own for a blog I contributed to at the time, and went so far as to ask a few comic book professionals a friend introduced me to for their opinion on the subject. Only a few responded, and about the most useful reply came from Mike Grell, who wrote and drew the excellent JON SABLE FREELANCE back in the '80s and the graphic novel GREEN ARROW: THE LONGBOW HUNTERS. He said: “Liberal hero = Green Arrow written by Denny O'Neil. Conservative hero = Green Arrow written by me.”
I set the idea aside because I had trouble organizing my thoughts on the subject. But every once and a while I pick it up again, and maybe this time I'll get somewhere with it.
The biggest problem, of course, is first defining our terms. Ambrose Bierce defined a Conservative as “A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.” Which is pithy, but not particularly helpful. Trying to get more specific, I find myself careening into one type of strawman or another. For example, some have embraced THE INCREDIBLES, one of the best superhero movies ever, as a conservative film because it rails against the mindset that “everybody gets a medal” and that those who excel at anything ought to be punished for their success. Which is apparently supposed to be a fundamental tenant of liberalism. But you could just as easily point to Bob Parr's boss in the movie, who chews him out for putting his customers ahead of the company's bottom line, as a critique of conservative-style Free-Market Capitalism. But that's a simplistic caricature, you say? Yes, it is.
I suppose one argument on the conservative side of the superhero question is that heroes are all about Fighting Evil, while everybody knows that Liberals are Soft On Crime. There's a bit in Frank Miller's BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS in which Batman is pressuring a henchman for information. “I got rights!” the crook bleats. “You've got rights. Lots of rights,” Batman replies in a Clint Eastwood rasp. “Sometimes I count them just to make myself feel crazy.” But you could also say that heroes are all about helping people in need and that this runs counter to the Gospel of Selfishness preached by the disciples of Ayn Rand. Yes, more strawmen.
Perhaps a better argument would be that in the world of comic book superheroes, the Government, as represented by the police, is incapable of fighting evil by itself and needs the help of the Heroic Citizen-Super, the Rugged Individualist who asks for no Government Handouts. And there are heroes who fit this view; but are they intrinsic to the genre?
Superman would seem to be the perfect example of the Republican Super-Hero. Raised with small-town Midwestern values, he represents authority and fights for the American Way. He's been called a Big Blue Boy Scout, and he neither denies the charge, nor considers it an insult. In recent decades, it's been fashionable to contrast his politeness and willingness to work with the Authorities with Batman, who follows his own moral code and whose relationship with the police, outside of Jim Gordon, is decidedly touchy. ; and many writers have followed that characterization.
Some critics have seen in the early Superman a personification of FDR's New Deal, swooping down to defend the Little Guy being pushed around by the Big Shots. In one early story, Superman helps a group of striking miners by grabbing the mine owners and bringing them down to the mine, forcing them to negotiate.
Others have gone as far as to label Superman a fascist, mostly because of his name and it's association with Friedrich Nietzsche. “You always say yes – to anyone with a badge – or a flag...” Batman grumbles to Superman at one point in THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS; and the movie trailers for BATMAN V SUPERMAN certainly play up the the idea of Superman as Creepy Übermensch . But I think that's a glib and superficial reaction too. Apart from the name, Superman shares none of Nietzsche's philosophy. I suspect that Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster chose the name mainly because it sounded cool.
During World War II, Superman and Batman, like pretty much all their contemporaries, set aside differences of Right and Left in order to help smash the Axis. After the War, some heroes went looking for other villains to fight. Captain America tried a brief second career as a Red Smasher. This didn't work out quite as well. Commies just didn't seem to make as good villains as the Nazis did. When Cap was revived in the '60s, this phase of his career was first ignored, then ret-conned as the adventures of another guy posing as Captain America. Superman briefly went after the KKK. A reporter had gone undercover to investigate the Ku Klux Klan, but could not find a news outlet willing to publish his story; so he approached the writers of the Superman radio serial. They did a lengthy story arc in which Superman battles the Klan, using information from the reporter's investigation.
Both Superman and Batman appeared in public service ads during the post-War era that seem pretty liberal these days. At the time, though, these sentiments were considered mainstream and uncontroversial. When Superman urged his readers to “Hop on the Welfare Wagon!”, as he did in one PSA about how public, private and charitable organizations all have a role to play in the health of American citizens; or when Batman reminds kids that treating others equally regardless of race or creed is the American Way, they were both promoting ideals of Good Citizenship, not partisan ideology.
It's been said that Stan Lee was politically in the center; too conservative for Jack Kirby, a working-class Democrat and child of the Depression who co-created Captain America, and too liberal for Steve Ditko, the principled Objectivist. But as he tried to incorporate real-world elements into the comics he wrote for Marvel, political themes came in as well. Tony Stark became Iron Man when he was captured by Communist forces in South East Asia and had to invent his way to escape. Many heroes of the early Marvel Age fought Communist villains such as the Red Ghost (and his Super-Apes!) in FANTASTIC FOUR, and the Abomination in THE INCREDIBLE HULK. But other heroes had WWII backgrounds; most obviously Captain America, but also Nick Fury and even Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four. In one early issue of FANTASTIC FOUR, the team fought a character calling himself the Hate-Monger whose incendiary oratory (and mood-altering H-ray device) inspired people to commit violence against immigrants. Unlike present-day nativists, the Hate-Monger wore a purple Klansman hood and when unmasked was revealed to be none other than Adolf Hitler. (Later this was ret-conned to be a clone of Hitler).
During the late '60s and early '70s a generational shift occurred at DC as well. I have a copy of AMAZING WORLD OF DC, the company's in-house fanzine which has an article about the history of the Justice League of America. The piece contains little caricatures of some of the creators who worked on the JLA, and you can see the shift. The old guard, men like Gardner Fox and E. Nelson Birdwell are white collar men in ties with neat crewcuts who would have looked perfectly at home in an episode of “Mad Men”. Then there were the new breed, like Cary Bates and Denny O'Neil, long-haired hippie radicals.
O'Neil in particular became an influential part of DC's “Relevance Era” during the early '70s. He re-cast Green Arrow, who had previously been a fairly lame Batman knock-off with an archery gimmick, into a latter-day Robin Hood, driven to pursue Social Justice. In a famous issue of GREEN LANTERN, he challenged the by-the-book space cop Hal Jordan to re-examine his priorities and for a while the comic, re-titled GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW, became a buddy book as the two heroes traveled the country in a pick-up truck searching for America and discussing politics. Similarly, during his run writing JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, O'Neil had Green Arrow argue politics with another Establishment figure, Hawkman.
This idea of using comics to express a dialogue on political views comes up every once in a while, but it's difficult to do well. During the Vietnam War Era, Steve Ditko created Hawk and Dove, personifying the Pro and Anti-War factions in the country as a pair of super-powered brothers with differing philosophies about violence. I think Ditko's intention was to show these characters complementing each other and finding a balance between the two views. Later writers pretty much turned them into Goofus and Gallant: Dove, the peaceful one, was intelligent and always right; Hawk, the violent one, was stupid and always wrong.
More recently, the Marvel cross-over series CIVIL WAR set out to dramatize the debate between Individual Freedom and Homeland Security through a proposed law requiring super-heroes to register with the Government, dividing the super-hero community between those resisting the law and those enforcing it. Marvel's intent was to have reasonable arguments on both sides, but as the story actually played out the pro-registration side wound up looking like the bad guys.
A 2008 DC miniseries, DECISIONS, tried to approach super-politics on a smaller scale. An unknown villain is trying to assassinate presidential candidates by mind-controlling members of their campaign staffs. After thwarting one of these attacks, Green Arrow makes a public comment endorsing a liberal candidate, sparking a debate among his fellow Justice Leaguers about super heroes and politics. In the end, Superman is the one to deliver the stern moral that super-heroes need to keep their opinions to themselves and just do their jobs.
I guess I keep coming back to Mike Grell's comment, that a super-hero's politics depends on whomever is writing him. But clearly the spirit of the times in which the story is written has a lot to do with it as well. I keep thinking of more examples of politically-themed comics and am no closer to organizing my thoughts. And I still haven't really addressed the question I started with.
Maybe one of these day's I'll write this thing.