Several days ago, before the very tragic events in Aurora, Colorado at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, the biggest news surrounding the film came from conservative radio show host Rush Limbaugh and his suggestion that Bane, the supervillain of the film, was some sort of symbol for Bain Capital. For those unaware, Bain was the firm presidential candidate Mitt Romney worked for at one time, and Limbaugh's assertion was that the character was somehow a symbol of attack against Romney and his association with the firm. While our own Russ Burlingame dispelled that idea with an interview with Bane co-creator Chuck Dixon, the parallels between the real-life problems and political hot issues of our day and our comic book fiction are clear. The Dark Knight Rises isn't the first piece of comic book fiction to deal with symbols and politics. After seeing the film myself I can say that there are definitely political and cultural symbols present, but let's take a look back at some other comic book storylines that are also political in nature.
Secret Invasion (Marvel) In a post-9/11 world, fear of those not like us, secret identities, and the betrayal of people we've known forever were on the forefront of many Americans minds. These all became manifest in comics in a highly symbolic way with the event Secret Invasion. The apparent death of Elektra turned out to be a Skrull in hiding, one of a member of shape-shifting aliens who had replaced Marvel heroes and villains in an attempt to take over the Earth. The plot was engaging: who exactly was a Skrull? How long had then been replaced? Would any characters thought dead or missing return? Who could be trusted? The unfolding of the event detailed all this and more, showing how certain characters were replaced and how the heroes were finally able to root out who the real Skrulls were. The overtones of terrorism were clear, with part of the Skrulls' basis at looking to conqueror Earth rooted in faith, similar to some cells of terror today. Their fanaticism led them to wage all out war on the Marvel universe, and they were more than happy to die for their cause. Sound familiar?
Superman Renounces American Citizenship (DC Comics) Superman has long been an instrument of politics, whether we as a culture want to admit that or not. How else do we explain the vehement reaction to Superman's suggesting that he would renounce his American citizenship? In the landmark Action Comics #900 , Superman makes a plan to tell the United Nations that his actions should not be viewed as an endorsement of U.S. policy and so forth, effectively ending a tense fight he had with the federal government. The story got lots of press attention, and lots of backlash as well. Even the old phrase "truth, justice, and the American way," was revisited here, with Superman questioning his allegiance to that statement. If there was ever a case of politics coming into play, this was it. A lot of the attention focused on this action was knee jerk, with many calling the move unpatriotic and un-American. A lot of the point of this issue makes sense. Superman is considered the first superhero, and for many, comic books and superheroes are a very American art form. Any action he takes in a global situation could be viewed as an "American stance". The whole issue was neatly resolved just a few issues later, and with the DC relaunch, but the controversy it created stirred political debate in real and fictional realms.
Civil War (Marvel, ) Talk about political! Marvel took a radical step with its 2006-2007 Civil War, which saw the heroes taking sides over a controversial piece of legislation entitled the Superhero Registration Act. The Act would require all superheroes to register their identities with the federal government. In a surprising twist for some, Captain America led the anti-registration forces with Iron Man leading those on the pro-side. The Act saw passage after tragedy befell a small town in Connecticut, when the stars of their own reality show, the New Warriors, were busting in on a nest of villains and got more than they could handle with Nitro. When Nitro exploded, he took many members of a nearby elementary school to an early death. As in much of America today, there are quick public discussions on a national level about safety whenever a tragedy hits. The story arc also touches on personal freedoms, with those heroes not giving up their identities considered traitors and outlaws to their country. Teams were split down the middle, families even in some cases, and friend turned on friend in this seven-issue series. As always, this story went deeper than just teams of heroes forced to choose sides, but it also speaks to our interest in where our personal freedoms intersect with public safety and to what degree.
Judge Dredd (2000 AD) The mainstream publishers can't have all the fun with politics! Starting back in the late 1970s, the strip, appearing in the British publication 2000 AD, became a hit. The future depicted in Judge Dredd's comics is dystopia at its best. Because of severe conflicts between various nations, the remains of the Earth lie in waste and "mega-cities" have formed as a response. Justice is now embodied in the strict, authoritarian figures of Judges, who serve as the judge, jury, and even the executioner of criminals if need be. The story was very heavy on action and violence, and some of our world's biggest fears were addressed throughout the various story lines that came through the book over the years. Nuclear weaponry, the after effects of war, and even biological warfare were all used and on the table, with the survivors having to deal with the fallout, typically with horrific results. While the stories in Judge Dredd might be a bit of an exaggeration of what-if scenarios in our own world, it still paints a disturbing picture of what could be if certain conditions continued. The fascination with the character is still relevant. If you don't believe me, then you'll note that a new movie with the character is scheduled for release soon.
Superman: Red Son ( DC ) Need another example of how Superman is viewed as an American symbol? Consider what would have happened politically if Superman had crash landed in the U.S.S.R when he was a baby and not the United States. That was just the very subject of Superman: Red Son. It's just the kind of premise that is obvious. What if Superman was raised in a totally different environment? In this three-issue series, Superman goes on to uphold the ideals of Communism and is an instrument of Stalin. In a twist of history, the Cold War changes from being centered around nuclear weaponry to super-powered beings. Scientist Lex Luthor creates a clone of Superman named Bizarro, and after a series of events, Superman takes control of the country. Taking the story even further, and also spanning several decades in history, Superman's state becomes a model of peace, but at the expense of several personal freedoms and liberties. Furthering the tale is threats of invasion, political brinksmanship between Superman and President of the United States Lex Luthor. Several characters from the DC universe and several Superman villains make appearances, all with a greater purpose. The tale is a fascinating look at how power can corrupt and the ideas behind just what is sacrificed for safety and peace.
V for Vendetta (Quality, Vertigo ) Perhaps one of the best known examples of direct discourse on politics in comics and not just politics disguised as superheroics, Alan Moore's famous work take a square look at anarchy at its finest. Spanning ten issues over seven years in the 1980s, V looked at what happens when a soulless, totalitarian government emerges. This series also addressed the very real nuclear war panic that was present in the 80s, as the threat was very real for many given the tense relations between the USSR and the United States. This book examines life in Great Britain and the severe destruction wrought upon the country by nuclear war and its after effects, even managing to allude to the Nazi Holocaust with its look at how the government eliminated many of its political and social enemies. The text is still revisited and revered to this day, and the 2005 film version dissatisfied a lot of fans of the book, in no small part due to Alan Moore's very public comments on the nature of the film and what it shied away from rather than embraced about the book. The comic series' examination of anarchy and the liberation of the self spoke to many people, and the character of V and his connection to revolutionary Guy Fawkes no doubt inspire and reach others to this day.
Ex Machina ( Vertigo ) Another more direct examination of the politics of superheroes is this Brian K. Vaughan series that directly addresses 9/11 and the effects of government on the American public. This series tackled many themes in its exploration of one man, Mitchell Hundred, who stops the second of the World Trade Center towers from falling on that fateful day. As the series progresses, it shows Hundred's ascension to first the Mayor of New York City, then an ambassador and eventually he ends the series as Vice-President of the United States under President John McCain. One of the major themes explored in this series is how government and its citizens exist together, with Vaughan showing a penchant for depicting the failure of government in general, not just one party or another. While many comic books touched on the events or effects of 9/11 in a special issue or two, or a feature, but Ex Machina was rare in its use of the event in a way that helped to boost a superhero into a different level of political use and how that use is reflected in our own culture.
Barack the Barbarian (Devil's Due Publishing, ) Not all political commentaries have to be serious and heavy with leaden allegory. Some can even manage to be laugh out loud funny, too! Devil's Due Publishing released the limited series Barack the Barbarian in 2009, and the results were definitely worthy of attention. The plot was a complete send up the of 2008 presidential race, and characters such as Red Sarah were along for the ride in this tale set in a barbaric landscape. Everyone from Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Rahm Emmanuel, George Bush, and others. The parody is rife, as Barack fights his way through Warshingtun and the likes of Hilaria, all in an attempt to see what Boosh has hidden in his tower. The series even spawned a one-shot focusing on Red Sarah. In a sea of terrorism, intrigue, spies, presidential scandal and so much more being focused on in comics, it's a nice change of pace to see that there can be humor in comics when it comes to politics. The series is collected in trade paperback form, so be sure to check it out!
Watchmen (DC Comics) Another of one of the more iconic series in regards to politics and comics, Watchmen hit readers like nothing they had read before in 1986 through 1987. Detailing a world in which nuclear war with the Soviet Union seems inevitable and where superheroes helped win the Vietnam War, Watchmen invited readers to examine the psychological aspects of superheroes even more with a government hand in everything. What was going on behind the scenes with characters such as Ozymandias, Rorschach, The Comedian, and Nite Owl revealed a deeper and more disturbing reality. The series featured one of the best examples in fiction of what people with power are willing to sacrifice in order to preserve a greater good and the moral complexity of our heroes and leaders. The series still resonates, and interest in the series remains high for the trade paperback even after all these years in print. Some themes are just universal. Throw in the fact that Richard Nixon was still president during this series, and you have even more to ponder about the political and social landscape of America in the 1980s!
Honorable Mention: X-Men (Days of Future Past), Batman: A Death in the Family, Captain America and the Red Skull candidate, Transmetropolitan, Lex Luthor becomes President