The politics of comic books
September 11, 2019
“The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”
~ George Orwell
This year marks the 80th anniversary for Marvel Comics and, in celebration of eight decades, it has put together a special 1000th issue. As part of that issue, Marvel asked for submissions from famed comic book writers and artists. Recently, however, the company has been getting into some hot water over it’s political stance or, rather, it’s attempt to maintain an apolitical stance.
One of the biggest problems about this is that it goes against the very history of the company and its origins.
Marvel Comics has countless heroes and villains that have come and gone, and returned, over the many decades of the company’s existence. The two original characters to debut for Marvel Comics were the original Human Torch and the anti-hero Namor the Sub-mariner. People may however be more familiar with Captain America. The character, created by Joe Simon (born Hymie Simon) and Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg), made his first appearance in a self-titled comic book a year before Pearl Harbor and showed Captain American punching Adolf Hitler on the front cover.
One of the famed comic book writers asked to contribute to the special issue for Marvel was Art Spiegelman. Spiegelman is the author of “Maus,” a graphic novel that depicts the author interviewing his father about his experience as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor. The book was the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize.
After Spiegelman submitted his essay for the special publication, he was contacted by an editor from Folio Society, the company publishing the special edition, and was informed that Marvel Comics was trying to stay apolitical. Due to the apolitical stance that Marvel Comics is currently attempting to maintain, Spiegelman was asked to remove a sentence in his essay. The author, instead, pulled his essay and it was subsequently published by The Guardian.
In that essay, Spiegelman delves into the history of comic books and it’s political beginnings. He notes that a number of the artists and writers who founded the superhero genre as it is known today were Jewish or from other “ethnic minority backgrounds.”
“Enter Jerry Siegel, an aspiring teenage writer, and Joe Shuster, a young would-be artist—both nerdy alienated Jewish misfits many decades before that was remotely cool,” Spiegelman wrote. “They dreamed of the fame, riches and admiring glances from girls that a syndicated strip might bring, and developed their idea of a superhuman alien from a dying planet who would fight for truth, justice and the values of President Roosevelt’s New Deal.”
In that same essay, Spiegelman writes that the debut of Captain America, the one in which he decks Hitler, sold approximately a million copies a week until the end of the war. Despite this seeming popularity, Captain America was not without his detractors, such as the German American Bund and the America Firsters, who sent hate mail to the publisher’s office.
The sentence that the author was asked to remove comes near the end of the essay, as he writes about the Red Skull, a foe of Captain America, being alive on screen. He also makes mention of an “Orange Skull,” which, in an epilogue to his essay, he confirms is a reference to President Donald Trump.
“I’ve also had to learn, yet again, that everything is political … just like Captain America socking Hiter on the jaw,” writes Spiegelman.
While Spiegelman removed his essay rather than rewrite it, another author had a piece on Captain America rewritten for the same special issue. Mark Waid is known in the comic book industry for his work on the star-spangled hero. For the 1000th issue, Waid wrote a piece that was considered critical of the United States.
“The system isn’t just,” Waid writes. “We’ve treated some of our own abominably. Worse, we’ve perpetuated the myth that any American can become anything, can achieve anything, through sheer force of will. And that’s not always true.”
The author continued, writing “America’s systems are flawed, but they’re our only mechanism with which to remedy inequality on a meaningful scale.”
The special issue that eventually came out had a different take, one that was considered less critical than the original. A section published online reads “It’s a commitment to fight every day for justice, for acceptance and equality, and for the rights of everyone in this nation. At its best, this is a good country filled with people who recognize that those—not hatred, not bigotry, not exclusion—are the value of true patriotism.”
The removal and rewriting of these two essays are not violations of either author’s freedom of speech. Marvel Comics has every right to take whatever stance it wants, just like any business.
It should be said, however, that art is not apolitical. At some level, all art is political. Like anything that is created, the personal feelings of the creator find their way in. Sometimes it is a conscious act, other times not.
Simon and Kirby, a year before the United States entered World War II, made the conscious decision for their newly created hero to punch the leader of the Third Reich. Many years later, following the events of 9/11, writer John Ney Reiber and artist John Cassidy had Captain America kill a terrorist by the name of Faysal Al-Tariq. The hero then unmasks himself on live television to show that his decision was a personal one and not representative of the United States.
While comic books are often considered to be only for entertainment purposes, they can be powerful works of art and literature. As such, they allow us a chance to look into our own souls or the soul of our society.
When that happens, it can be difficult to remain apolitical.