Comic Book Foreign Policy? Part Two

Responding to recent essays in The American Prospect and Comics Journal which link comic books to the Bush Administration’s foreign policy, I have been running some segments from an essay I published in the recent book, Terror, Culture, Politics: Rethinking 9/11. about the ways the comics industry responded to 9/11.

A central theme here is to suggest that the representation of the War on Terror in American mainstream comics has been more ambivalent and complicated than most people who don’t read comics might have imagined. While there have been some images of superheroes bopping terrorists, there have been fewer of these images that you might imagine. Yesterday, I walked through the tribute books produced immediately after the attack on the World Trade Center and the ways that Spider-man, Superman, and Captain America were used as vehicles to ask some hard questions about the costs of war. Today, I want to pick up where I left off with some reflections on the shift in the conception of the heroic in comics during the immediate post-9/11 period.

Rethinking the Hero After 9/11

Building on public interest in emergency workers, Marvel launched three new titles – The Precinct about cops, The Brotherhood about firemen, and the Wagon about an ambulance driver – which collectively formed the Call of Duty series. Lest anyone miss the point, “911″ was embedded in their logos. Of these new series, The Brotherhood was the most fully grounded in ethnographic detail — the tools of the trade, the hazards of putting out blazes, and the comradery of the firehouse. The opening issue makes vivid use of reds, oranges, and yellows, bringing us into the perspective of a firefighter making his way through a burning building in search of survivors. The stories construct these characters with surprising nuance and realism, dealing with their frazzled finances, their estranged relationships, their professional disillusionment, and their depression after watching so many friends die at the WTC. The interweaving of the characters and plots across the three series proved an effective means of examining the collaboration between police, fire, and medical workers. Yet, Marvel never fully trusted itself to build reader interest in ordinary heroes, adding supernatural and science fiction elements to the mix. The characters confront the ghostly figure of a young girl who has been sent back in time by her grieving father to warn of a forthcoming terrorist attack on the Statue of Liberty that had claimed the lives of his wife and sons. They also must deal with a strange cult that distributes what one character calls “cellular napalm,” turning junkies into human bombs that can be detonated on demand.

Searching for a different kind of hero, Paul Chadwick’s “Sacrifice” documents what we know about the uprising on the Pennsylvania flight. Chadwick takes us behind the scenes showing us images that couldn’t be seen on television, but could only be reconstructed after the fact. We watch the passengers compile information from their cell phone conversations, hatched a plan, and give their lives trying to insure that the plane never reached its target. Chadwick shows us knife blades slashing through the seat cushions the passengers use as shields and the struggle in the cockpit as they overpower the highjackers. Chadwick often uses his self-published comics, which deal with a self-doubting superhero, Concrete, as vehicles for exploring what communities can accomplish when they work towards a common cause. One of Chadwick’s earlier Concrete stories had offered a painfully complex account of environmental terrorism, questioning the human costs of spiking trees but ultimately not rejecting such tactics. Here, he celebrates the passengers’ willingness to sacrifice their own lives rather than allow innocents to suffer, a trait that distinguishes them from the terrorists they defeat.

What Chadwick takes several pages to do, Marvel’s Igor Kordey accomplishes in a single image. Kordey was born in Croatia and fought in the Balkan wars, before moving to Canada with his wife and children, hoping to escape the destruction he had seen around him. Kordey was the only artist in Heroes who directly depicts the terrorists and he chose to do so in a morally complex fashion. As Quesada explained, “He knows what it’s like to live in war, and he doesn’t want to sweep anything under the carpet.” The image is framed over the shoulders of the panic-striking terrorists who are clustered together as passengers come storming up the aisles. It is a haunting image because Kordey invites us to see the events from the terrorist’s perspectives and encourages us to dwell for a moment on their vulnerability and humanity.

Why Comics Matter…

Utopian rhetoric can seem, on first blush, naïve, yet what it establishes is a set of ideals or standards against which the limits of the present moment can be mapped and a set of blueprints through which a future political culture might be constructed. In this process, the comics are perhaps little more than a relay system, communicating messages from one community to another, taking ideas out of the counterculture and transmitting them into the mainstream. We can see this process occurring in several stages – first, the movement of ideas from counterculture into comics-culture (itself fringe, but defined around patterns of consumption rather than political ideologies). Here, the fusion of alternative and mainstream publishers meant ideas that once circulated among the most politically committed now reach readers who would not otherwise have encountered them. As such, these comics do important cultural work, translating the abstract categories of political debate and cultural theory into vivid and emotionally compelling images.

As the market responds to these ideas, they become more deeply embedded within the genres that constitute the bulk of contemporary comics publishing. Much as the depression, the Second War II, and Vietnam left lasting imprints on the superhero genres, giving rise to new characters, plots, and themes which were mined by subsequent generations, September 11 shows signs of altering the way the genre operates. As I am writing this essay (Late 2002), the tribute books have just now moved into the remainder bins at my local comics shop and every month seems to bring new projects which in one way or another have been shaped by the political climate of Post-9/11 America. The comics industry still seems to be engaged in an extended process of self-examination, still questioning their longstanding genre traditions, pondering the nature of the heroic and of evil, reinventing their hero’s missions for a new political landscape, and trying to figure out how to absorb the realism and topicality of alternative comics into mainstream entertainment. Some titles, like Captain America, are permanently altered. Cassaday and Reiber are still circling around issues of guilt and responsibility. A new miniseries, Truth, uses Captain America to re-examine the racism that shaped the experience of American GIs during World War II, suggesting eerie parallels between the “super soldier” serum tests that created Captain America and the experiments at Tuskegee Institute; and includes the astonishing image of the American army systematically slaughtering hundreds of African-Americans in order to protect their secrets. Other books have gone back to business as usual. In The Ultimates, Captain America, Giant Man, Wasp Woman, and Thor smash half of Manhattan, demolishing Grand Central Station, all because Bruce Banner turns into the Hulk when he gets jealous that his girlfriend was going out with Freddie Prince Jr. One would describe the book as totally untouched by 9/11 if the artist didn’t draw so heavily on what we had learned about what happens when real world skyscrapers come crashing down. These shifts do not need to be uniformly felt across all comics to make a difference. Not all superhero comics — not even all mainstream titles — embrace the same ideologies, tell the same stories, and represent the world in the same terms. But, enough creative artists from enough different sectors of the industry have been impacted by September 11 that these influences will be felt across a range of different titles for some time to come.

The long-term impact of September 11 can also be seen in the emergence of new comic book series that celebrate the heroism of average citizens. For example, Warren Ellis’s Global Frequency, which Wildstorm, a smaller independent press, launched in Fall 2002, depicts a multiracial, multinational organization of ordinary people who contribute their services on an ad hoc basis. Ellis rejects the mighty demigods and elite groups of the superhero tradition and instead depicts the twenty-first century equivalent of a volunteer fire department. Ellis has stated that the series grew out of his frustration with the hunger for paternalism expressed by superhero fans in the wake of September 11, his pride in the civilian resistance aboard the Pensylvania-bound aircraft, and his fascination with the emerging concept of the “smart mob” – a self-organized group who use the resources of information technology to coordinate their decentralized actions. As Ellis explains, “Global Frequency is about us saving ourselves.” Each issue focuses on a different set of characters in a different location, examining what it means for Global Frequency members personally and professionally to contribute their labor to a cause larger than themselves. Once they are called into action, most of the key decisions get made on site as the volunteers act on localized knowledge. Most of the challenges come, appropriately enough, from the debris left behind by the collapse of the military-industrial complex and the end of the cold war–”The bad mad things in the dark that the public never found out about.” In other words, the citizen solders use distributed knowledge to overcome the dangers of government secrecy.

The next step is what happens if and when these changes get absorbed into the mainstream of the entertainment industry. Comics function today as a testing ground for new themes and stories for the rest of mass media. Hollywood or network television are not likely to absorb the specific stories which emerged in the immediate aftermath of September 11, but in so far as those changes get felt in the underlying logic through which the comic book industry operates, in so far as those changes get institutionalized within the conventions of the superhero genre, then they will likely have an influence on the films and television series that emerge over the next few years. One could, for example, compare this reassessment of the heroic in comics to the revision of the superhero genre which took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s, resulting in a darker, more angsty, more psychologically complex, more physically vulnerable conception of the hero. This rethinking of the superhero impacted not only future comic books but can be seen at work, albeit in a somewhat watered down form, in the big screen adaptations of Batman, Spiderman, and Daredevil. There, the influence is apt to be more implicit than explicit, a shift in tone or the “structure of feeling” as much or more than a shift in ideology.

Let’s be clear, though, that superheroes don’t have to conquer the world for the political expressions we’ve discussed here to make a difference. What they do in their own space, in their own communities, matters. Popular culture is the space of dreams, fantasies, and emotions. In that space, it matters enormously whether Captain America stands for fascism or democracy, whether Wonder Woman represents the strong arm of American cultural imperialism or whether she respects and understands third world critiques of her mission, whether Superman is more important than the average men and women who are accidental casualties of his power struggles, or whether everyday people have the power to solve their problems without turning to superheroes for help. It is important to remember, from time to time, that popular culture is not univocal; that it remains a space of contestation and debate; that it often expresses messages which run counter to dominant sentiment within the culture; and that it often opens up space for imagining alternatives to the prevailing political realities. It is also worth remembering that people working within the cultural industries exert an active agency in shaping the ideas which circulate within popular culture and that on occasion, they may act out of political ideals rather than economic agendas.

Coming Soon: How current comics are dealing with the War on Terror