One of the best parts about being a comic book lover is the escapism they sometimes provide. Comics have told stories about mere mortals who can fly, swing from building to building, as well as garnering other breathtaking abilities. What has always been somewhat confounding, though, is that when issues facing the world become front and center in the headlines, there have been a few comic book fans that fully expect that these issues stay out of comics. For some, comics is their safe space and issues of the world should not affect the latest installment of Superman’s fight against Zod, or Spider-man trying to foil Doc Ock’s latest plot.
The problem is, many comic book fans seem to forget that comics, as well as nearly all forms of entertainment from gaming to movies, have at some point or another been a mirror of the sociopolitical climate that we live in. Some of the greatest key issues through comics history have been those that reflected the news of the day. Here is a reminder of a few comics that have done just that.
Captain America #1
Let’s start off with Captain America #1. Take a kid from New York, inject him with a serum and POW! The war will be won! Never mind the fact that America wouldn’t formally enter World War II until nine months after this comic was introduced. The world knew what kind of threat Hitler was, but America did its best to stay out of the way. After Pearl Harbor, it was on and Captain America epitomized the strength of a country that would not go down easily. Comics and war conflicts have gone hand in hand for decades as many were introduced to the American mainstream.
Giant Size X-men #1
So, a black woman, a Russian guy and a German guy, and a few of their friends walk into a bar in the 70s… The X-men was already making waves in the 60s because of its subject matter: teenagers who were born with powers and looked upon as misfits by the public at large for being different. When the book’s content took on a more international flavor, however, that’s when this title took off. No other team at the time was this diverse as this one. The centralized theme of diversity has always been a cornerstone from then to now in showing how the world has reacted to these differences – and not always for the good. From the X-men have spawned many books featuring some of the main characters, and of course another team of misfits known as the New Mutants.
Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #106
This was another book that came out in the seventies which attempted to address complex racial issues in America. While in some opinion, the attempt may have been well-intentioned, it really showed how little the writers of the book knew about black culture. What was even more interesting, is how some Kal-el’s dialogue seemed to sidestep the issue as he was asked by Lois to address his skin tone. The book in many ways is meta to how America has also side stepped the problems of race.
Some of you may at this point be tired of hearing about comics from decades ago so let’s move to something a lot more recent.
Marvel’s Civil War
This was one of the biggest comic events in recent history. If you were a Marvel fan and wanted politics out of your comics, then the only way to avoid this was to not buy Marvel comics for nearly a year. This comic answered a long standing question of what the United States government, once faced by a tragedy of a super powered nature, would do to regulate that community. You either register and do as the government tells you to do, or rebel and stand to be jailed or killed. There is even a very good working theory showing that you can trace this event back nearly 30 years.
Marvel’s Secret War
Prior to Civil War, Secret War was pretty controversial as well. What would happen when you try to get authorization from the US government to overthrow a dictator when you have evidence that the bad guy had weapons and was told no? You go do a black ops mission. Not only that you drag in a few people and keep them in the dark about what’s happening. Eventually, the repercussions about doing such a mission catches up and the people you dragged in all of a sudden are mistrustful of you and the government. Kind of sounds like some war we had in a foreign country over some WMDs that never existed.
A God becomes a Goddess and the Sidekick takes the mantle
If there ever was a way to piss those off that wanted separation of social issues from comics then this was it. Take two established white blond males and juxtapose them with totally opposite people. I can’t tell you how many times I saw comic fans whine and cry over the fact that “these weren’t their comics” and that they would quit because Marvel was pandering to people. Maybe they forgot that as comic book popularity has grown, so has the diversity of the readership. This inclusion brought about many more diverse characters including RiRi Williams, Kamala Khan, Dante Pertuz, Morris Sackett and many others.
A lot of fans tend to forget about a world with Lex Luthor as president, Wonder Woman for president in a world where the idea of a woman being president was laughable, or Superman being Reagan’s lackey, an alternate world where the Watchmen questioned the intent of humanity, or even a moment when comics paused to commemorate 9/11. Politics and social commentary has always been a part of comics with even more coming as time goes on. If you want to avoid them, your options are either stop buying them or create your own. However, to try and dictate how the Big Two tells stories reflecting life as we see it daily, is a disservice to all considering the diverse base of readers there are now, compared to even just 30 short years ago.
Despite these few examples shown (with so many more out there), there is still a huge gulf of what comics behind the scenes could be. While it’s great that comic books in and of themselves can be a mirror to present day events, behind the scenes, the Big Two is still slow moving in changing from a male dominated environment to a more diverse one. That’s not to say that it isn’t happening, but if comics wants to keep up with the world stage, the change that needs to happen is not just on the covers and inside comics but behind the scenes as well.