‘Renaissance’ is Pi Comment’s culture column, taking a closer look at popular culture and fresh takes on the humanities. Enora le Masne analyses the political nature of superheroes since their inception, whose larger-than-life personas and causes reflect the societies from which they emerge, but also increasingly tackle global issues.
If someone were to ask you what, in your opinion, is the most politicised form of art, what are the odds that you would reply, “Comic books, obviously”? And yet, the politicisation of comics is often much less subtle than you might think. In March 1941, almost one year before U.S.’s official entry into WWII, the cover of the first Captain America Comic was a drawing of the superhero throwing a punch at Hitler’s face. Such a message has the merit of being straightforward.
Then — assuming this information has triggered your interest — if you dig a little deeper into the mounting coincidences between political events and their reflection in the comics, you might find that the “Justice Society of America”, precursor of the Justice League and embodiment of the motto United we stand, divided we fall, was also created in the 1940s. And that Wonder Woman first appeared in 1941, at a time when a massive government and industry campaign was launched persuading woman to enter the workforce; and that the Black Panther was invented in the 1960s, at the same time as the Afro-futurist impulse in music with Sun Ra.
If you still think that such evidence is too flimsy to conclusively claim that superheroes serve as a massive hotbed of political ideas, let me quote Captain America who said in 2001 (thus in the light of Bush’s USA and the Patriot Act): “This isn’t freedom. We’re holding a gun to every citizens’ head and calling it security” and a bit later: “Doesn’t matter what the press says, doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mobs say, doesn’t matter if the whole country decides something wrong is something right. (…) When the whole world tells you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth and tell them: no, you move.” I won’t insult your intelligence or waste time trying to prove that those words are not coincidental. This was indeed not just a subliminal message; it was the affirmed wish of the restoration of the American promise of liberty that was seen to have been betrayed.
Those are just a few examples of how superheroes are utilised by American authors, who choose to mobilise their fiction against global or national events. Superheroes have sometimes been perceived as the incarnation of an overwhelming patriotism, whose destiny is to satisfy American imperialism; that claim is certainly legitimate when considering the name “Captain America”. His figure has been long associated with the image of the reactionary patriot. Admittedly he has reached some kind of balance in the tug-of-war from right to left at the hands of many authors; but what cannot be forgotten is that he was created by two Jewish authors (Jack Kirkby and Joe Simeon) who feared Nazism and wanted to insist on the necessity to fight it. Captain America is first and foremost a progressivist, an anti-fascist and anti-Nazi.
Comic books can be said to offer an image of the evolution of American society that, if far from accurate, at least has the advantage of being distinct from that of classical sociology. These larger than life creations are a magnifying glass to society, allowing us to scrutinise an author’s vision in a more colourful and tangible way than an ordinarily dry book treating social phenomena would do. I have focused more specifically on American superheroes for the obvious reason that the USA is the cradle of the most celebrated superheroes, whose international fame became incontestable with the Marvel films. But super-heroes permeate beyond the American soil. An increasing number of authors are emerging from various horizons to offer stories of their own heroes, and allowing us to understand more broad and complex issues in contemporary society — for example growing groups of superheroes tackle and pose various questions around ecology and the planet.
The relationship between superheroes and society is neither more complex or uncertain than that between any other art form and society. Superheroes can certainly be exploited by governments as a channel for propaganda like any other media communication or art; but they can also be used by society as leading figures of their protest — at the forefront of my mind is that demonstration for women’s right in January 2017, in which Captain America became the symbol of the anti-Trump fight. Stan Lee, father of the Marvel generation, once said, “The world has always been like a comic book world to me”. When we acknowledge the fact that comic books are a mirror of the world seen from the author’s eyes, we can boldly say that superheroes are as political as Picasso’s Guernica, and today can make even more of a statement with their worldwide popular appeal.