Comic Book Foreign Policy? Part Three

Sorry for the wait, oh loyal readers of this here blog. But today, I am finally able to sit down and plow out the third installment of my series about how the comic book world has responded to 9/11 and the on-going War on Terror. Some of you will know that this was inspired by Michael Dean's "The New Patriotism" which was serialized in recent issues of Comics Journal and argued that comics were "circling the wagons" in response to the perceived threat to national security. As Dean puts it, "Now, some 60 years after the height of WWII and some 30 years after the end of the Vietnam War, mainstream comics seem to be making tentative gestures toward recreating the glory days of the wartime propaganda comic."

His primary exhibits are Freedom Time Three and Cobb (both from minor publishers), Marvel's Combat Zone: True Tales of GIs in Iraq, and reports that Frank Miller may be doing a Batman vs. Bin Laden book. What Dean has to say about the politics behind these particular projects is fascinating, including some interesting quotes by Cobb's Beau Smith about the politics of comics publishing today:

Like film and TV most think that since it [comics] is a creative community and business that it favors a liberal stance. Creativity has always been closely tied to a liberal base...even taken for granted. That's a mistake. That is what has kept comics in this sales slump for so many years. Most publishers in comics, like movie studios, haven't really cared or taken the time to find out who their consumers really are....I think the less liberal factor is the big silent majority of the comic-book-reading public. I think they are well aware of what is going on in the world and in Iraq. I think they would love to have an escape area where there are solid good guys defeating bad guys. I think people want that outlet to release the steam that has built up since 9/11.

But, I question whether these particular projects -- most of which are published by marginal presses and will never get into most American comics shops -- are somehow representative of a general ideological perspective within the comics industry. In fact, I have been surprised at how few comics have shown us superheroes bopping terrorists and how many of them have encouraged a deep reflection on the nature and ethics of power in the world post-911.

Over the past two installments, I traced the immediate aftermath of September 11 and the varied ways that comics took up the challenge of responding to these events. Today, I want to bring this discussion into the present moment by looking at four books I have been reading this summer (well, really, four storylines) that speak directly to the political upheaval in this country surrounding the Iraq War and issues of Homeland Security: DMZ, Ex Machina, Supreme Squadron, and Marvel's Civil War storyline.

In focusing on these books, I skip over a broader array of representations of the current debates that also might seem very relevant to this discussion, such as Rick Veith's Can't Get No (which I haven't gotten any of yet), Joe Sacco's various projects in using comics to report on life in the middle east, Ted Rall's book on his trip to Afghanistan, cultural theorist Douglas Rushkoff's strange fusion of politics and religion in Testament or Art Spigelman's In the Shadows of No Towers which used imagery for early comic strips to reflect on his own conflicting feelings at 9/11.

Part of what I want to suggest here is that individually, comic book writers and artists -- both mainstream and niche -- have used their work to encourage their readers to ask hard questions about contemporary society and that collectively, they have provided a more diverse range of perspectives on these issues than can be found within the mainstream media.


DMZ, published by Vertigo, is the work of writer Brain Wood and artist Riccardo Burchelli. Regular readers of this blog will note that this is the third shout out to Wood in the past month -- reflecting on three very different projects, his superhero series (Demo), his reflections on local culture (Local) and now his book depicting a domestic civil war (DMZ). Frankly, I regard Wood to be one of the best writers working in comics today -- someone who has found a way to infuse popular narratives with alternative narrative and political perspectives. DMZ drops a young reporter in training from Liberty Network behind the lines in a war-torn Manhattan. As Wood explains in a Comic Book Resource interview:

Middle America, literally, has risen up out of frustration, anger, and poverty to challenge the government's position of preemptive war and police action throughout the world. It's left America neglected and unattended, and also unprotected, at least from a major threat within its own borders. Then isolationist and religious militias get involved and arm the people, and then it's suddenly the Second American Civil War. They push to the coasts where they're stopped, creating a no-man's-land in Manhattan, with the 'Free Armies' in Jersey facing off against the US Army in Brooklyn....The politics of such a conflict are a little weird," Wood continued. "Initial reactions to the news of this book have made attempts to paint it as a 'liberal ranting against the conservatives,' but that's not actually possible in this scenario. Democrats can be and are every bit as hawkish as Republicans in times of war, and anyway, the two warring groups in 'DMZ' are just extremists fighting extremists. Homegrown insurgents fighting an extremist government regime, and it's the sane, normal people of all political affiliations that are caught in the middle.

Matty, a young journalist in training --raised in sheltered Long Island in a wealthy family, interned with Liberty Networks -- finds himself stranded in the demilitarized zone where he has access to partisans and insurgents of all stripes and becomes their only means of communicating their perspectives to the country at large. The result is a classic story of political awakening. At first, he clings to the simplified version of the war that has been communicated through the national news media but increasingly, what he sees and experiences forces him to rethink the propaganda machine which has shaped public understanding of the conflict.

Wood has described the world he is traveling through as equal parts Escape From New York, Falluja, and New Orleans right after Katrina." He adds:

Manhattan is a city largely abandoned and the people that have stayed are the very poor who had no hope of fleeing on their own or being part of anyone's evacuation plan. A lot of snipers and insurgents have moved in and there are AWOL military who are hiding out. Add to that a whole mess of kooks and crazies and holdouts.

The current storyline, "Body of a Journalist," which has been running for the past few months, is clearly informed by the kidnapping and hostaging of journalists, such as Daniel Pearl, during the current military conflict as Matty becomes a pawn for both sides and ultimately finds himself a target from government forces who want to silence his broadcasts before he becomes too much of an icon of the opposition. Wood has finally taken us deeply into the backstory of the conflict:

The wars were a million miles away. We had troops on the ground in four separate conflicts on three continents. There was never a draft so no one I knew went...I remember when the Free Armies formed a government in Helena. And spread out from there. No one could grasp how it could happen...There was just no one to stop them. The national guard, the ones that were still here, just took off their uniforms and got out of the way....All these guard bases, flush with Homeland Security funding, were pit stops for the Free Armies....Pilots weren't about to bomb small-town America. It all happened so fast that the Pentagon didn't have time to whip up a propaganda campaign to paint the Free Armies as traitors.

As described by Wood, the Free Army resembles some of the forces that have got America is confronting elsewhere in the world "The Free States are an idea, not a geographic entity. The same asymmetrical, insurgent warfare that bogged down the U.S. military oversees is happening here."

His description of what happens to a besieged Manhattan owes a lot to recent experiences in New Orleans. As a survivor tells Matty:

We were supposed to have M.T.A. workers running the subways, Metro-North, L.I.R.R. and the busses to get everyone out, but they all just took off on their own. If you had a car, you were good. If you had money or friends in the right places, you were set. If you were poor, you were fucked. The Army shut the bridges and tunnels down after only four hours. Tough luck. Some people tried to swim or sneak past the roadblocks. They probably didn't make it...I bet you didn't see many refugees in your town, did you?

Wood takes advantage of the power of speculative fiction to transform current events an\d let us look at them with fresh eyes: we are perhaps more open to understanding the motives of an insurgent in a fictional conflict or to question a fictional government authority's motives than we are to ask such hard questions about the actual war. As he noted above, I don't see this book as fitting comfortably within a red state/blue state political structure. If anything, it is about what happens when American politics becomes too polarized and the public becomes too apathetic, allowing extremists of all ideological colors to take over the political debate.

Ex Machina

Imagine this: Mitchell Hundred (also known as the superhero Great Machine) saves thousands of lives during the collapse of the World Trade Center and helps to prevent another terrorist assault on the Brooklyn Bridge. In the aftermath, he emerges as a political symbol and decides to abandon his mask and cape and run for elective office. Campaigning as an independent candidate, he gets elected the Mayor of New York City. Ex Machina moves back and forth between flashbacks that show something of his crime-fighting past and more contemporary scenes which show his struggles to govern a city as complex and politically charged as New York. The Wikipedia entry on the series provides a pretty good summary of the key themes here:

Thematically, Ex Machina can be seen as perhaps an anti-Spider-Man. Spider-Man is a character with super-powers who feels a responsibility to work alone and to use his powers for the good of society while trying to maintain his personal private life separately from his super-hero life. On the other hand, Mayor Hundred has publicly declared that was in fact a super-hero, The Great Machine, and despite pressure from some to return to being a super-hero, he feels that he could do more to aid society as a whole (and his city in particular) if he works from within the system as a public servant rather than outside it as a lone vigilante. While it may be Mayor Hundred's preference that he not have to employ his super-powers in his day-to-day work as the Mayor, he has been shown to be more than willing to use those powers as needed in the course of his duties (and when he gets into various scrapes).

Created by Brian K. Vaughan (known for Y: The Last Man and Runaways, two other favorites on my current pull list), Ex Machina has the feel of a good Aaron Sorkin television drama -- The West Wing in particular -- in its mixture of character drama, political debate, and witty dialogue. Across the run of the series, Hundred has confronted a range of contemporary urban policy issues -- including public funding for the arts, gay marriage, and racial profiling.

A recent storyline, "March to War" depicts what happens when someone releases the toxic chemical Ricin during a march protesting the war in Iraq and Hundred's administration has to deal with the aftermath. In the course of four tautly drawn issues, Vaughan takes us through a range of political perspectives on Homeland Security, including a recurring focus on the need to balance a public hunger for security against our long-standing traditions of civil liberty. The story goes to some lengths to explore how Post-911 politics both complicates and is complicated by the multiracial composition of urban America. Vaughn shows us, for example, a hate crime directed against a Sikh taxi driver by white extremists who were themselves victims of the attacks on the World Trade Center; he shows a heated meeting where various religious leaders gather, including a Rabi who demands that his house of worship get the same police protection as the local Mosques.

Vaughan's characters challenge the idea that national governments are better able to protect citizens during terrorist attacks than local police forces. At one point, his police commissioner explains:

The last time we trusted our defense to the Feds, somebody flew a goddamn plane into one of our buildings...Fuck the Bureau! The entire outfit is half the size of the NYPF. I've got more officers who speak Arabic in one precinct than you guys have in the entire D.O.D. You boys are welcome to finally give us the cash you've been funneling into new hummers for sheriffs in bumfuck, Idaho but I'm not relinquishing jurisdiction to Washington probies who don't know uptown from their....

The Mayor gets into a knock-down drag out with his deputy mayor about the rationale for subway searches and faces an ethical dilemma because his secret powers might allow him to identify the cause of the incident but might result in any evidence he produced being thrown out of court. And there's a really uncomfortable sequence where a man flees the cops at the subway station and gets shot -- not because he was smuggling weapons but because he was carrying a stash of drugs.

Every page pulls us in a slightly different direction, complicates our feelings towards the issue of Homeland Security, as Vaughan introduces yet another perspective or raises another argument and in the process, pulls in most of the established characters and introduces some vividly drawn secondary figures. In Part Two, I suggested that the exploration of 9/11 in comics would ultimately inform how other media dealt with these events: in that light, it is interesting that NewLine has announced plans to turn Ex Machina into a film.

Squadron Supreme

Squadron Supreme was a long-ago comic book series published by Marvel and essentially modeled/plagiarized from DC's Justice League characters: it's not very hard to identify which of these characters is based on Batman, Superman, the Flash, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, etc. J. Michael Stracynzki (best known for Babylon 5) relaunched this franchise several years ago with the 18-issue Supreme Power series, much of which can now be read retrospectively as character buildup for the newly launched Squadron Supreme series.

If DC's Justice League books have always been marked by a cheery optimism and a great deal of respect for governmental authorities, Stracyznski's Squadron Supreme is marked by a deep distrust of the motives and honesty of the American government. It depicts a world where governments tell truth to their citizens only as a last recourse and where they conspire with major news agencies to spin any information that slips through their tight controls. By the end of the first issue, we see the Squadron Supreme characters with a president who looks remarkably like George W. Here's how the series gets described in the opening text of the latest issue:

The Squadron Supreme is just that. Enlisted by the United States government to protect America's interests at home and abroad, this team of super-powered individuals has been trained to operate with extraordinary force and unified military precision. No quarter given, none asked. Secretly, however, it is comprised of a diverse group of individuals with separate -- sometimes sinister -- agendas.

Straczynski, long noted for his thoughtful genre fiction, has turned a super hero team book, which could have been of the most generic kind, into an ongoing debate about the responsibilities of America as a superpower within a global society. This comic comes as close as any of the examples I'm going to discuss here to scenarios where superheroes battle terrorists but as it does so, it complicates any easy black and white interpretation of what is at stake in those conflicts.

The team's first real mission was to deal with the genocidal General John M'Butu, the dictator of the African province of Salawe, a man possessed by super powers of persuasion who uses them to save his own hide and to manipulate his citizens into keeping him in power. Having dispelled the threat posed by this evil monster, the team members are then confronted by a group of African superheroes who force them to think about their own roles in the conditions faced by the region. They learn that:

It was the Americans who armed M'Butu to rule Uganda, gave him money, told him they would turn a blind eye to any of the unfortunate necessities of war. It profits American interests to see Africa destabilized, lurching from one conflict to another, always fighting among ourselves. You see all of your I.T. work going to India. Nations trading in Chinese currency instead of dollars, Ireland as the new silicon valley, America cannot afford a peaceful, united Africa with a growing economy. But then your people discovered that M'Butu was special, that he had the power to do what they feared -- he could win. To win defeats the notion of continued strife. He could become a power that would rise to challenge you.

They tell the superheroes that they have been yet another pawn in an international struggle and that they could have done nothing constructive in Africa since they are implicated in the systems and practices that continue to destabilize that part of the world. It is a perspective on America's role in the developing world that is rarely shown anywhere in our media -- let alone in a Marvel comic book.

Their second mission takes this critique of American foreign policy even further: the team is sent to dispatch insurgents in an unspecified middle eastern country and here, we see American superheroes literally wipe the desert with Arab military men. Emil Burbank, perhaps the most brutal and amoral member of the team, commits atrocities, slaughtering men who have already surrendered in violation of the Geneva Accords and frags his own attaché when he questions his actions. What follows is a thoughtful debate about what happens when one country becomes so powerful that it faces no meaningful resistance from its enemies. Blur, the African-American counterpart of the Flash, has serious questions about what has happened: "Doesn't what we're doing here bother anybody other than me? I mean, those guys we're fighting don't even have a chance. Does that seem right to anybody?" And Burbank sneers back:

If you want to give them a chance to kill you, all you have to do is slow down. War is always predicated upon who has the best toys. Did the native Americans have a chance against the greater technology the settlers brought with them from the old world....War is the implementation of policy by other means. We are that means...We can cut a swath across any country, same as we're doing right here.

Burbank, however, has little interest in simply submitting to any governmental authority -- including the agency which employs him -- speculating on what would stop such super powers from dominating the world. The others are horrified by this blunt assertion of their power -- power which is unrestrained by any greater civic responsibility. Yet it is pretty clear that Straczynski intends Burbank to stand in for the unilateralism in our current national policy. While the book stops short of pure agitprop, it does seem to be using superheroes to invite us to think about what it means for America to be a superpower that inserts itself into world-wide conflicts and demonstrates a power unrivaled by any other country.

I will be back soon with what I expect will be the final installment of this series, dealing with the current Civil War plotline, which is reshaping the Marvel universe this summer and reflecting on the shared themes across all four of these books.