Sunday, February 21, 2010

Conservatives Hate America.

Captain America, that is.

In a desperate effort to revive partisan zeal among the critically stupid, a few political activists have once again resorted to their favorite half-wit dodge: the so-called "culture wars." We're sure you remember how well this worked for Dan Quayle when he bravely took on a sitcom protagonist.

The current target, however, is especially ironic: Captain America. Created in the run-up to Word War II as a super-patriotic superhero fully employed by and answerable to the US Army, Captain America fought spies stateside, the Wehrmacht in Europe, Commies during the Cold War (although -- nerd alert! -- those stories aren't what we call "canonical." Seriously, we talk that way). Since then, he has also taken on his share of extraterrestrials, terrorists and at least one evil psychiatrist. (To be honest, though, it is still mostly about Nazis.) He is, as comic-book readers are assured every month, "the living embodiment of the American spirit."

So what went wrong?

Apparently, in one recent issue of his comic-book, Cap showed up at a protest rally. And although the object of the protest didn't feature in the storyline, Cap says it's an "anti-tax thing," and his black partner the Falcon mutters something about "angry white people." The protesters are holding up signs with anti-Tea Party slogans. Well, imagine the hoo-ha, not to mention the folderol.

See, Fox News picked it up, and got some juicy quotes from the usual suspects. nationwide Tea Party Coalition board member calls the dig "juvenile," claims Marvel is making supervillains out of patriotic Americans, and that this will all hurt Marvel's brand. (Hey, did you know there's a Nationwide Tea Party Coalition? Or that they have a board? You do now, because Fox just found a way to give them some free publicity). And so the comics industry is part of a "systematic" effort to undermine the supposed movement -- because who knows unlikely conspiracies better than a bunch of guys whose professional lives were determined by watching the X-Files?

Now, according to the the official line from Marvel Comics boss Joe Quesada, this was all a big accident. A letterer (that is, not the fellow who wrote or drew the strip, but another artist responsible specifically for drawing or pasting letters into blank spaces) thew in some anti-Tea Party slogans on the signs. An apology is offered, and the signs will be altered in future reprints. (Aside to other nerds: but of course Quesda is the genius who arranged for Peter and MJ to not only end their marriage but kill their own children, so we aren't sure whether we can believe anything he says).

Well, maybe. But let's also be honest. Comic books, especially superhero comic books, have often had a political perspective. In the 1930s and 40s, they offered Jewish kids (like Captain America's own creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, not to mention the creators of Superman, Batman and especially the Spirit) a chance to do some home-front anti-Fascist propaganda, while also indulging in fantasies of power and assimilation. As Jules Feiffer says, it's no accident those heroes all had prep-school names like Bruce Wayne and Steve Rogers.

By the early 1970s, when the Egg's pop-culture department first began reporting, the agenda has changed a bit. You might have expected Russians to figure more frequently as bad guys than they actually did, for example. But a generation of writers formed by the Civil Rights movement were often quick to make their villains white supremacists (anybody remember the Sons of the Serpent, a Klan-knockoff that was actually led by a black man?), or Strangelove-level representatives of the military-industrial complex (Thunderbolt Ross). On the other side of the aisle, though, there were the Red Chinese, who featured frequently as villains, not mention crude racial stereotypes.

Zooming forward a bit, we get Frank Miller, whose revolutionary 1980s take on Batman is often accused of having a rightist law-and-order spin, which supposedly bled over into the last movie. Whether that's true or not, his Sparta-vs-Persian epic 300 certainly struck the modern Iranians as a bit of Persia-bashing. All of which brings us to Ed Brubaker, the current Captain America writer and, as Fox News demonstrates, a liberal. It wouldn't surprise us a bit if Brubaker's politics occasionally came through in his writing, although we have never noticed this ourselves.

But why shouldn't it? Does anybody think that the other characteristics of the guys who put comics together don't come through? Because if you doubt that they are overwhelmingly male, straight, and a little repressed, you haven't noticed the costumes on the ladies. Writers and artists, even the ones who write and draw juvenile fantasies of power, have no particular reason, apart from a commercial one, to filter out their own humanity, which includes among other things their feelings about modern society.

And, nota bene, a political perspective is not the same as a political agenda. In forty-plus years of reading comics, we can't recall ever being told how to vote. (Apart from electing Howard the Duck and rejecting Lex Luthor in their respective bids for the presidency). On the other hand, churches all over America have spent years distributing "voter guides," intended to tell the faithful exactly who supports their own vision of "Christian values." So on balance, we have to say that American comics are demonstrably less political than American churches.

Despite Quesda's [quite possibly bogus] apology, neither the hoo-ha nor the folderol has ended. (Complete coverage from i09, for the seriously geeky). A couple of liberals have dissected the recent Civil War storyline and determined that Cap was actually on the side of anarchy against social order. A very strange blogger named Warner Todd Huston has made the breathtakingly original argument that comics aren't high art. He's entirely correct, at least regarding superhero comics, although as a conservative he ought to show more respect for business. We doubt the Middlemarch movie will earn 5% of Iron Man's opening weekend.)

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