The intersection of the superhero genre and politics dates back to the dawning Golden Age of Comics. In the first issue of Action Comics #1, Superman stops a wrongful execution and stopping domestic violence, implying a strong concept of what justice meant and who was at fault for these issues. Captain America Comics #1 provided a much more explicit political message less than 3 years later when it featured Adolf Hitler as its central villain, receiving a sock in the jaw on its cover. This came prior to the United States joining the war, when Congress was still pursuing a policy of neutrality, and resulted in several Nazi sympathizers threatening Captain America co-creator Jack Kirby on the telephone. There’s simply no extricating politics from superhero comics, but that doesn’t mean this crossover hasn’t changed across 80 years. To the contrary, reading superhero comics today reveals that both the issues and creators’ styles of addressing them have evolved a great deal.
Two new comics published by Marvel and DC Comics on July 3, 2019 (perhaps falling, appropriately on the eve of Independence Day) offer two very different styles on this topic. The Punisher #13 and Lois Lane #1 both directly confront controversial issues that are currently in the news and related to the characters depicted on the page. While many superhero comics handle current events and controversial political matters in a primarily implicit fashion, this pair makes for an excellent case study in how different creators and publishers may choose to confront complex issues when required.
So let’s take a look at the topics, approach, and outcomes in both of these comics and what they tell us about the historically significant intersection between superheroes and the political.
The Punisher #13
The Punisher #13 is primarily focused on an ongoing plot in which Frank Castle is battling Baron Zemo and various Hydra forces left over from the “Secret Empire” event. However, there is a three-page detour about midway through the issue wherein Castle is stopped by two cops after murdering a mugger and his intended victim, an agent of Hydra. The police initially seem prepared to arrest Castle until they see the skull logo on his chance, leading them to reveal they are fans of The Punisher and release him. The Punisher responds by destroying a punisher sticker on the police car and clearly stating that they are enforcers of the law and should not admire him nor his methods.
This brief incident seems to be a clear response to the increased use of The Punisher’s skull logo both in police forces and the armed forces throughout the United States. Over the past several years this has resulted in several local controversies, including an incident in which one Kentucky police department chose to remove the logos from their vehicles due to its violent implications. The additional detail that police are part of a secret Facebook group of fellow officers who endorse The Punisher’s brutal methods ties into recent revelations about a similar group of border officers, although the publication timeline makes this connection a matter of prescience, rather than a purposeful connection.
The continued use of this character and his symbols makes it impossible for either Marvel Comics or creators working on The Punisher property to ignore that their stories have real world implications. Comics featuring The Punisher reveal a complex character who endorses an ideology based on fear and violence in order to maintain order, one that comes with particularly chilling connotations when applied to law enforcement.
Writer Matthew Rosenberg and artist Symon Kudranski opt for a didactic approach in addressing this topic. The three-panel sequence has little to do with the ongoing plot, besides implying that The Punisher has lost some police support, but it does provide an unmistakable message. That message has been effectively communicated, as well, with many popular culture news outlets covering this particular section of the issue. While that choice of presentation may not make for a natural reading experience, this sort of message-centered digression is a very effective messaging technique. When The Punisher’s narrative is being co-opted by outside events, it may be more useful to offer a blunt response like this one than risk further heroizing a mass murderer with no regard for the legal system. While it’s unlikely to stop all use of The Punisher as an icon amongst law enforcement, it certainly makes it clear that Marvel Comics does not endorse this usage.
Lois Lane #1
Lois Lane #1, on the other hand, provides a model for addressing natural political intersections in a more natural and integrated fashion. The first issue of the series uses an expose penned by Lois Lane as its central story, while simultaneously establishing sub-plots and characters for the series to come. The expose in this issue focuses on the mistreatment of immigrants along America’s southern border, pulling directly from recent headlines like ProPublica’s revelation of a secret Border Patrol Facebook group mentioned earlier. Lane begins the story by submitting her story to her editor, commenting on her sourcing and facts to establish its veracity, and ending with the White House press secretary (who resembles Sarah Huckabee Sanders who held the same role until last month) avoiding questions on the topic from other reporters.
Unlike events in The Punisher #13, this is not a necessary response to real world events utilizing superhero characters or iconography. There is no issue with ICE agents appropriating Superman’s shield or asylum seekers asking reporters to be more like Lois Lane. The connections here are thematic in nature. Lois Lane has been presented to readers for decades as an elite reporter and Lois Lane appears to be a series focused on the value of journalism in a free society. Series co-creators Greg Rucka and Mike Perkins appear to be addressing this value by tying it directly into current events that speak directly to the impact of journalism.
While it might have been possible for Rucka and Perkins to create an entirely fictional incident for Lane to expose, Lex Luthor’s construction of a new battle suit, for example. Any story based purely in fantasy would destroy any connection between Lane and an investigation of journalism. This is not a dichotomous decision either, not purely a choice between inserting realistic events and fantastic ones, but one that negotiates the line between those extremes. Rucka and Perkins could have engaged in metaphor and sought similar examples which audiences could read current events into. Lane and her expose are related to current border issues, but are not specifically restating facts or any stories. They lie closer to the realist end of the spectrum, but are still adapting those political ties to integrate them more naturally into DC Comics’ tone and style.
That spectrum of choices makes it clear that Rucka and Perkins are not choosing to make Lois Lane #1 political; they are making a decision about what kind of politics it will project. No matter what sort of story Lois Lane covered, there would be an embedded message, as journalism is not a fantasy-based career like serving on the Justice League. Making Lane a ProPublica reporter would have just as much political messaging to it as having her solely invested in discovering who is building kryptonite battle suits. The nuance with which a realistic understanding and assessment of journalism is integrated into the pages of Lois Lane #1 makes it clear how superhero creators can effectively navigate the politics inherent to the stories they are telling without engaging in the didacticism found in The Punisher #13—leaving additional room for nuance and interpretation, while still taking a clear stance on relevant issues.
A Question of “How,” Not “If”
Examining both of these issues (and their related issues), what becomes clear is that they did not choose to include politics. Politics were present in both The Punisher and Lois Lane before either series was even pitched to an editor. Police were utilizing the symbol of a murderous vigilante and confidence in the press was under attack before either issue was published. Even if the creators chose not to address these topics, that unwillingness to acknowledge the topic would project a lack of concern, not an impossible stance of neutrality. While it may be easier to assess and critique the relationship between gun violence, ideology, and policing in The Punisher #13 than an issue where he does not interact with the police, those issues remain and provide a different form of messaging. The same applies to Lois Lane #1 and the role of the press.7comments
That is not a new or shocking concept to anyone who reads superhero comics. This article began by looking back at the origin of superhero comics and two of the most iconic characters to ever represent American values: Superman and Captain America. Their creators acknowledged from the start that the power imbued in these heroic individuals would impact society. It’s not surprising that Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, both the children of Jewish immigrants, would signal their political ideology with Captain America. While it’s easy to look back on the cover of Captain America Comics #1 now, it should not be forgotten that it was very controversial in its time, as many American icons like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh sympathized with Adolf Hitler. If Kirby and Simon had chosen to have Captain America remain out of world affairs, that would have borne every bit as powerful of a message as the iconic one they chose to deliver instead.
It’s not only that superhero comics have always been political and that they cannot be divorced from politics; superhero comics remain an ideal genre for investigating politics. All of these modern and historical examples reveal how easily readers’ values can be mapped onto these larger-than-life metaphors for virtue and power. When neutrality is not a real option, it’s better to consider the approaches and ideas that go into these comics. The Punisher #13 and Lois Lane #1 are just two examples in a modern pantheon of fantastic tales that help us grapple with the most important political concerns of our day. It would be wise if we read superhero comics for what they’ve always been and started spending more time discussing questions of what, how, and why, rather than asking if they could be something they are not.