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Comic Book Foreign Policy?

July 27, 2006

Henry Jenkins -

winter soldier - captain americaThe online edition of The American Prospect published an article comparing the Bush administration's current policy in the Middle East to comic books -- specifically, to the Green Lantern Corps. Here's what they had to say:

The trouble is that a broad swathe of hawkish opinion, taking in most conservatives and a tragically large number of liberals, have bought into a comic book view of how international relations works.

I refer, of course, to the Green Lantern Corps, DC Comics' interstellar police force assembled by the Guardians of Oa. Here's how the Corps works: Each member is equipped with a power ring, the ultimate weapon in the universe. The ring makes green stuff -- energy blasts, force fields, protective bubbles, giant hammers, elephants, chairs, cute rabbits, whatever -- under the control of the bearer. When it's fully charged, the only limits to the ring's power (besides the proviso that the stuff must be green) are the user's will and imagination. Historically, the rings couldn't affect yellow objects, but in recent years it's been revealed that this was the "parallax fear anomaly" (don't ask) and that the problem could be overcome by overcoming fear -- which is to say, with more willpower.

This is an OK premise for a comic book. Sadly, it's a piss-poor premise for a foreign policy.

Without getting into the specifics of Bush's current foreign policy (or for that matter, the current run of Green Lantern), this statement seems grossly unfair -- to comic books. I understand why Bush's world view full of its talk about capturing "evil-Doers" who are hell-bent on destroying the "American way of life" reminds some people of comic book superheroes -- it is colorful, broadly drawn, larger than life, and sometimes a little punch-drunk. But the reality is that contemporary comic books have offered a much more nuanced depiction of our current political realities and have adopted a pretty consistently progressive framing of these events than The American Prospect and its readers might imagine.

The American Prospect is not the only publication that has recently taken on comic books as a site for current foreign policy debates. Comics Journal (a publication which has never missed an opportunity to express criticism of mainstream comics) has been running a two part series by Michael Dean about the ways comics responded to 9/11 and its aftermath. You can see a small sample of what they have to say here:

The first part of this report noted a developing trend toward comics with a "superpatriotic" theme, setting square-jawed American heroes and superheroes on the trail of Osama bin Laden and other terrorists -- most notably Frank Miller's much-publicized plans for a Batman-versus-bin Laden showdown. Miller told the press that there was once again a need for the archetypal satisfactions of the classic 1940s wartime propaganda comic. The cover of Tightlip Entertainment's May-shipping comic, Freedom Three #1, is a recreation of the Captain America #1 cover showing the red-white-and-blue hero punching Hitler with Captain America replaced by one of the Freedom Three and bin Laden substituting for Hitler as the punchee. Fantasy tableaux of superheroic vengeance directed against demonic terrorist icons clearly offer a degree of gratification to comics readers today.

Dean does some interesting reporting here, arguing that ideas from conservative think tanks are finding their ways into some contemporary comics though his focus is on a small handful of examples that may not be representative of current industry practice as a whole. It is true, for example, that Marvel worked with former embedded journalist Karl Zinsmeister to produce Combat Zone: True Tales of GIs in Iraq, but that same publisher also launched a new 411 series which first hit the shelf in April 2003 even as American troops were marching into Baghdad. Taking its name from an old telecommunications code for information, the series expresses a belief that it is important to inform the public about alternatives to war and violence. As Marvel President Bill Jemas explained, "411 is about peacemakers: people who make sacrifices in the name of humanity. These are people willing to die to keep all of us - on all sides - alive... But the theme of sacrifice for the sake of peace, for the sake of all of humanity, is hard for many Americans to accept right now, with the hearts and minds of the body politics rising in a patriotic furor... These stories are neither anti-American nor anti-Iraqi, not anti-French, nor anti-Israeli. 411 is pro-human." Opening with an essay on "Understanding the Culture of Nonviolence" written by Mahanda Gandhi's grandson, the series included contributions by Tony Kushner (Angels in America), longtime anti-nuke activist Helen Caldicott and political cartoonist David Rees. Marvel's overt engagement with the antiwar movement was certainly rare among American corporations. How do we decide which book is more representative of Marvel's response to the War on Terror?

So, I think Dean may oversimplify a much more complex history of the ways that the comics industry has responded to American foreign policy since 9/11. As it happens, I recently published an essay on this topic, "Captain America Sheds His Mighty Tears," which can be found in the book, Terror, Culture, Politics: Rethinking 9/11. Here, I am going to lay out some of my key arguments from that essay. I will be back soon with an update suggesting how some more recent comics -- mainstream and midstream -- have tackled the long-term consequences of the war on terrorism upon American society.

Comics and War: A Brief History

The first thing that should strike anyone who has been reading mainstream comics over the past few years is how few of the kind of images Dean is describing we have actually seen. Witness the fact that he has to go to a bargain row publisher --Tightlip Entertainment -- to find an example extreme enough to illustrate his point.

Of course, we have to keep in mind that these images of superheros tackling the enemy were most common during World War II. Today, it is easy to read such images as simply hawkish and blood thirsty but read Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay book (one of my all time favorite novels), and you get a better sense of the cultural context in which those first wave of images were produced. Chabon suggests that the superheroes were, in a term which Joseph McCarthy would use against progressive, "prematurely antifascist." That is to say, they were battling Nazis before an isolationist country was ready to join the fight. And their early anti-Nazi stance reflected the significant number of Jewish writers, artists, and editors working in the comics book industry during that period.

Comics have shown a great deal more ambivalence towards other armed conflicts. One need only cite for example the dark and gloomy images of the Korean War found in Harvey Kurtzman's Two Fisted Tails or the thorough critique of American culture in the midst of the Vietnam War found in Neal Adam and Denny O'Neil's Green Lantern/Green Arrow series. It may be true that the most aggressive anti-war sentiments emerged through the underground comics of the 1960s which had split from the mainstream precisely so that they could be more outspoken in their critique of American society but we have seen in recent years a growing reintegration between mainstream and indie impulses in American comics, an integration that came to a head in the wake of 9/11. What follows are some excerpts from my published essay on this topic.

The Tribute Books

Post September 11, there were some remarkable collaborations between mainstream and alternative publishers which were only possible, because the artists, writers, and publishers knew each other, have worked together in the past, and had discovered compelling reasons to pool their efforts. Artists who have spent their lifetime producing superhero stories found themselves, for the first time in some cases, exploring autobiographical or real world themes, much as alternative comics creators were introducing new themes into the superhero genre.
We really cannot understand how American media responded to September 11 from an institutional perspective alone. This was deeply personal.

Manhattan has historically been the base of operations for the mainstream publishers. The corporate headquarters of DC and Marvel are within a few miles of ground zero. Some of their employees lost friends and family. Some found themselves, for whatever reason, in the general vicinity of the WTC as the towers collapsed. Marvel felt especially implicated since its stories had always been set in New York City, not some imaginary Metropolis. Captain America, Spiderman, Daredevil, The Fantastic Four live in brownstones or sky-rise apartments; they take the subway; they watch games at Yankee Stadium; they swing past the World Trade Center (or at least, they used to do so); they help out Mayor Giuliani.

These companies saw publishing comic books to raise money for the relief effort as "our way of lifting bricks and mortar" - using their skills and labor to make a difference. Marvel published a series of September 11 themed books, including Heroes, which billed itself "The World's Greatest Superhero Creators Honor the World's Greatest Heroes," and Moment of Silence, which featured more or less wordless stories depicting the real life experiences of people who gave their lives or miraculously survived the events of September 11. DC, joined forces with Dark Horse, Image, Chaos!, Oni, Top Shelf, and several other smaller presses to produce two volumes, 9-11: The World's Finest Comic Book Writers & Artists Tell Stories to Remember and the more modestly titled 9-11: Artists Respond.

Many of the alternative or independent comic artists also lived in or around Manhattan, participating in the New York underground arts scene. The Small Press Expo, one of the major showcases for alternative comics and a central source of their income, was being held in Bethesda and thus got caught up in the panic that hit Washington, DC following the Pentagon attack. Jeff Mason, publisher of Alternative Comics, organized a benefit project, 9-11: Emergency Relief, which brought together some of the top independent and underground comics artists. In all of these projects, the artists donated their time and labor; the printers donated ink and paper; the distributors waived their usual fees; and the publisher contributed their proceeds to groups like the Red Cross. Many comic shops and patrons saw purchasing these books as their way to show their support. Several New York galleries displayed and sold artwork from these projects. These projects drew tremendous interest from readers. On the chart of 2002 best-selling graphic novels, the 9-11 tribute books held first and second place, Emergency Relief held 20th position, and Marvel's Moment of Silence ranked 15th in the list of top-selling single issues for the year.

Comparing the goals editors set for these various projects suggests the very different ideological climates shaping mainstream and alternative comics. Here's Alternative Comics publisher Jeff Mason: "I am really shocked and dismayed by some of the rhetoric and behavior I've seen from some in the guise of patriotism and I think that a book that promotes an alternative to xenophobia and antagonism would be a good thing." And here's DC Publisher Paul Levitz: "We aspire to use comics to reach people; to tell tales of heroism and the ability of the human spirit to triumph over adversity; to extol the unique virtues of the American dream, and its inclusive way of life; to recall that the price of liberty is high." Levitz reaffirms what he sees as the American spirit, Mason critiques prevailing values and assumptions.

To some degree, those different political agendas are reflected in the books themselves, but less than one might imagine, since mainstream and alternative creators contributed to both projects and since most of the contents could be loosely described as progressive. A few of the submitted pieces are out and out reactionary: one of the Heroes posters depicts the Hulk, his green muscles bulging, waving an American flag as fighter jets fly overhead, bound for Afghanistan, with the slogan, "Strongest One There Is." Adopting a similar theme, Beau Smith imagines the thoughts of a Reservist, helping emergency workers today, off to fight tomorrow: "This isn't my grandfather's war. This is a war of rats. There's only one way to hunt rats that bite and then scurry off into dark holes. You send rat terriers into those holes after them, and they don't come out until all of the rats are dead. We are those rat terriers." Yet, these militaristic images might exist, side by side, with something like Pat Moriarity's caricature of Uncle Sam, praying on bent knee, "Dear God, Allah, supreme spaceman, great pumpkin, whoever you are - please stop the cycle of hatred!" One would be hard pressed to see such ideological diversity anywhere else in an increasingly polarized and partisan American media.

A Job For Superman?

Time's Andrew D. Arnold summarized concerns that dogged the various projects: "For some this will come across as a gross commodification and trivialization of an awesome, unspeakable tragedy. These characters are arguably more corporate icons than meaningful characters - like seeing Ronald McDonald and the Keebler Elves giving succor to victim's families." Often, Superman or Spiderman function as brand icons circulating with little or no narrative context, deployed in cross-promotions with fast food restaurants, amusement parks, soft drinks, and breakfast cereals. For those only peripherally aware of comics, this may be all they are. Yet, for regular readers, these characters have greater depth and resonance than almost any other figures in American popular culture. The most successful comic book franchises have been in more or less continuous publication since the 1930s and 1940s; their protagonists have become both vivid personalities with complex histories and powerful symbols with heavily encrusted meanings.

For some, superhero comics hark back to simpler times and get consumed as comfort food. Yet, several decades of revisionist comics have questioned and rethought the superhero myth and its underlying assumptions. Shortly after 9/11, Silver Age artist Jim Steranko offered a blistering rebuke of revisionist superhero creators, calling them "cultural terrorists" who had chipped away at national monuments until nothing of substance was left. The result was a flame war that almost ripped the comics community apart. Nobody ever made that same kind of emotional investment in the Keebler Elves.

As comic book artists and writers re-examined these familiar characters in the wake of September 11, they became powerful vehicles for re-examining America's place in the world. When, for example, Frank Miller depicts Captain America's shattered shield, which we once naively believed to be indestructible, he provides a powerful image of the ways the attacks had demolished America's sense of invincibility. When J. Michael Straczynski and John Romita Jr. depict Spiderman clutching a young boy who has just seen his father's body carried away from the WTC wreckage, they evoke Spiderman's own origins (where his unresolved guilt over the murder of his Uncle Ben motivates his endless war against crime). But he does more than that. It seems to be one of the great unwritten rules of comics that superheroes are orphans and that the moment of truth that makes or breaks them is the moment when their innocence is first violated. Most comic characters - good guys and villains - go through a crucible of pain and suffering; what matters is what they make of themselves in the face of adversity. Read through these genre conventions, the suffering child embodies the choices the nation must make as it works through its grief process and defines its mission for the future. When Straczynski and Romita depict Doc Octopus, Doctor Doom, or the Kingpin, lending their resources to the relief effort, they evoke real world political realignments and moral reawakening: "Even those we thought our enemies are here because some things surpass rivalries and borders." When Straczynski and Romita depict a perplexed Spiderman looking upon the pain-stricken Captain America, they connect the events of September 11 with a much larger history of struggles against fascism and terror. The two characters embody the perspectives of two different generations - Captain America, the product of the Second World War, Spiderman, a product of the early 1960s (though portrayed here as a contemporary teen and thus made to embody the current generation of youth).

Comic book artists rejected fisticuffs or vigilante justice in favor of depicting the superheroes as nurturers and healers. They are more likely to be standing tall against domestic racial violence than punching out terrorists. In a Static Shock story, Dwayne McDuffie depicts the African-American superhero and his girl friend sitting in a coffee shop, discussing when and where military response to the attacks might be justifiable. If he knew who was responsible, Static Shock says he might use his superpowers to "take the bastards out myself," but should one attack a nation for the actions of a few individuals. Using criminal mastermind Lex Luthor as an example, he asks, "What if to get Luthor I had to kill some of his family? Or some of the people who live nearby? Or not so near? There's a line there. I'm not sure where to draw it." Virgil doesn't trust himself to do the right thing and he trusts the government even less. The philosophical debate gets disrupted by flag-waving, baseball-bat yielding youth who smash through the shop's window and threaten its Arab-American owner: "Pearl Harbor yesterdays, Kristallnacht today." In a rhetorical move that mirrors the Popular Front's attempts to link Fascism abroad with struggles against segregation in the States, Static Shock learns that his fight isn't overseas but in his own community.

Geoff John's "A Burning Hate" uses superhero comics to defuse the tensions between native-born and immigrant school kids, reminding readers that DC's Justice League of America is full of "foreigners" - Superman from Metropolis, the Martian Manhunter, Wonder Woman from Paradise Island, and Aquaman from Atlantis. The superhero mythos was defined, in large part, by the sons of immigrants working through conflicting investments in assimilation and ethnic pride. DC Superheroes almost always come from elsewhere but they have chosen to be defenders of the American dream; sometimes they blend in, trying to pass as mild-mannered reporters, sometimes they stand out, wearing their colors on their chest.

Comic book artists, from Jack Kirby to Todd McFarland, love to draw splash-pages or whole books full of nothing but bone-crushing, muscle-stretching, building-shattering, fist-flying, slobber-knocking action. Troubled by that legacy, Superman: Day of Doom returns to one of the most controversial chapters in the genre's history - the much hyped death and resurrection of Superman following a world-shattering battle with Doomsday. In November 1992, DC had announced the death of Superman, only to bring him back from the dead some months later. Following September 11, DC asked its original author, Dan Jurgens, to revisit this landmark event in the Superman franchise. In the earlier story, the civilian populations had been simply extras in an epic battle between two superpowers. The Post-9/11 Day of Doom made their loss, fear, and suffering its focal point. Paralleling Jurgens's own reassessment of the earlier series, Daily Planet reporter Ty Duffy is assigned the task to write a report re-examining those traumatic events some years later. Publisher Perry White evokes the wide-spread assertion that September 11 took away the perception of America's indestructibility as he summarizes what Superman's death meant to Metropolis: "Superman had done so much. Conquered so many dangers... that we took him for granted. So long as he was around, I think we considered ourselves invincible. When he died, we all lost something precious...If a superman could die, how could any of us feel safe?" As the story continues, Duffy shifts his investigation away from the Man of Steel and onto the civilians who got caught in the crossfire. Clark Kent scans through old microfilms with tears in his eyes, realizing for the first time how many people died when Superman wasn't there. Yet, Kent is sobered up by a new threat that is terrorizing Metropolis - the "Remnant." A kind of crazed victims rights advocate or perhaps an embodiment of Kent's survivor guilt, The Remnant challenges Superman to justify his own existence when so many others have died: "I am the memory of what you did. A ghost of tragedies past. A remnant of the chaos you heaped upon the world... The drifting wind that hears the moans of the forgotten. I do this for them." Superman, like his readers, must confront the consequences of mass destruction and wrestle with the complex range of emotion it provokes.

What Would Captain America Do?

Captain America was probably the superhero title most directly impacted by 9/11. John Cassaday, the book's primary artist, was on the pier just blocks from his upper west side apartment when the towers fell: "The streets were gray, all covered in dust. So were the people. Gray like ghosts." These impressions inspired the comic book's style and imagery. The first pages of his post-9/11 story are sparse in text and drained of color. The opening image shows the shadow of an airplane flying across the clouds, then rows of passengers inside, and finally an extreme close-up of a box cutter blade: "It doesn't matter where you thought you were going today. You're part of the bomb now." The Cap first appears several pages later, a blurry figure making his way across a colorless wasteland. Cassaday under-saturates his costume as if we were looking at it through a cloud of dust. Only in the book's final moments, when Cap resolves to take his fight to the enemy, do we see anything like his familiar red, white, and blue. Cassaday does the entire comic in shades of gray and tan.

His collaborator, John Ney Rieber, almost pulled out of the project after September 11, wanting no part of jingoistic militarism. He agreed to continue only if he could use the book to ask some hard questions about America's culpability in bloodshed around the world: "I don't know how you could write Captain America if you weren't interested in writing about America. I feel very strongly that Cap should be about the rough questions.... If it weren't controversial, if it were only fulfilling people's expectations or making them comfortable - I'd feel as though I'd let Cap Down. I'd be ashamed." The resulting series sets up a strong contrast between its retro-style covers strongly influenced by World War II recruitment posters and the stories inside which interrogate such patriotic rhetoric. When his commander, Nick Fury, orders him to head for Kandahar he refuses, saying that he has responsibilities at home helping the relief effort and battling hate crimes. Captain America was, in effect, created by the U.S. military during the Second World War. Military research developed a super serum that turned a somewhat weakly recruit into a mighty fighting machine. As Cap explains, he's "military technology." He has spent his career following orders and fighting wars. Now, he refuses to go into the trenches until he has answers to the questions that haunt him. Fury urges him not to pursue his investigation, but Cap refuses: "I'm here to protect the people and the dream, not your secrets."

By the time the series gives the Cap someone he can fight, terrorists have taken command of a small town some 200 miles into the American heartland, strewing landmines in the streets and holding hostages in a church. Centerville is far from an innocent community; the factories where the men work make landmines and cluster bombs or as one man insists in the face of his wife's moral scrutiny, "component parts." Every attempt to draw a clear distinction between America's global mission and terrorism proves futile. When the Cap tells the terrorist leader that America doesn't make war on children, Al-Tarq points to the men under his command, "Tell our children, then, American, who sowed death in their fields and left it for the innocent to harvest? Who took their hands? Their feet?"

After recapturing Centerville, the Cap discovers that the terrorists are wearing a high tech identification system being implemented by S.H.I.E.L.D., the American special ops force. Echoing the real world relations between Bin Laden and the U.S. intelligence community, the American government may be more involved with these terrorists than it wants to admit. Clues force him to retrace his own steps, returning to Dresden where he had fought some of his first battles. As he wanders among what remains of the old section of the city, Cap ponders the firebombing that occurred here half a century earlier: "You didn't understand what we'd done here until September 11...These people weren't soldiers. They huddled in the dark. Trapped. While the fire raged above them." Rieber never allows him to escape his personal responsibility and political culpability for the horrific acts his government had executed. He has been their tool and their apologist; now, he must face the truth. The terrorist leader offers to turn himself over if he can answer a simple question:

"Guerrillas gunned my father down while he was at work in the fields. With American bullets. American weapons. Where am I from? ...My mother was interrogated and shot. Our home was burned....You know your history, Captain America. Tell your monster where he's from." And it is clear from the Cap's pained expression that he recognizes that this story could be told over and over in countless parts of the world. He protests that these were the actions of a government that acted outside public knowledge and without democratic authorization. But, how could he be fighting to make the world safe for Democracy and defend a government that was hiding the truth from its own people? In the end, Captain America murders his antagonist in cold blood, recognizing as he does so that there is no way to wash his hands clean of his past actions.



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