Comic Book Foreign Policy? Part Four

This is the final installment (at least for the time being) of a series I have been doing about how the comic book world has responded to September 11 and the politics of Homeland Security. I wrote it in response to several recent essays that have offered somewhat stereotypical versions of how comic book superheroes relate to the current policies of the Bush administration. I wanted to show that comic books have, in general, avoided jingoism in favor of a more thoughtful engagement with the ways what happen at the World Trade Center have changed the society we live in. In Part Three, I discussed three contemporary comic books -- DMZ (published by DC's Vertigo imprint), Ex Machina (published by Wildstorm) and Squadron Supreme (published by Marvel) -- which suggest the lasting impact of September 11 on comics culture. The three books take somewhat different strategies for dealing with the current political landscape-- DMZ is speculative fiction about a future American Civil War that results in part from over-extending U.S. military presence overseas; Ex Machina offers us a political drama where the Mayor of New York City happens to be a superhero; and Squadron Supreme represents a team of superheroes whose pursuit of American foreign policy objectives pose a series of ethical concerns.

What these three books have in common is a refusal to offer easy answers or paint black and white pictures. All three suggest that there are multiple sides for any issue and try to constantly force readers to rethink our own assumptions. These books are hard to classify in left or right terms -- they are certainly critical of many aspects of current policies, especially those that involve violations of civil liberties, but then, only about 30 something percent of the American public might be described as enthusiastic about those policies on any given week. A large number of libertarians and traditional conservatives are raising serious concern about our current Homeland Security policies along similar lines. Each of these books tap the genre conventions of popular culture but use them to focus attention on crucial social and political concerns.

Near the end of Convergence Culture, I speculate that popular culture may provide a common ground for us to explore important policy issue precisely because we are often willing to suspend fixed ideological categories in order to explore its fantasies; because we don't define our relationship to popular culture exclusively or primarily in partisan terms; because it offers a shared set of metaphors to talk about things that matter to us; and because it brings together a community that cuts across party lines. As Barrack Obama might have said, we watch West Wing in the red states and we watch 24 in the blue states, and if we can talk together as fans, maybe we can rebuild a basis for communications on other levels. In this context, popular culture has a vital role to play as civic media. As a comics fan, I am proud to see the comics industry rise to the occasion perhaps better than any other entertainment medium (well, excluding the fine work going on over at Comedy Central.)

That's why I am so excited about Marvel's Civil War project this summer.

Civil War

For one thing, the comics I discussed above, though released by major publishers who have good distribution, still represent relative niche products. They don't involve any of the major franchises at DC or Marvel that account for the overwhelming majority of sales of American published comics in this country (I phrase it this way to separate out the huge success of manga which is a separate story for another day.) Civil War, by contrast, involves Spiderman, Iron Man, Captain America, The Fantastic Four, and every major figure in the Marvel universe. And it is an epic story that is going to occupy much of the Marvel universe for the better part of six months.

Here's how the core premise of the series gets described in a recent recap:

After Stamford, Connecticut is destroyed during a televised fight between the New Warriors and a group of dangerous villains, public sentiment turns against super heroes. Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, is attacked outside a nightclub and beaten into a coma. Advocates call for reform and a Superhuman Registration Act is debated, which would require all those possessing paranormal abilities to register with the government, divulge their true identities to the authorities and submit to training and sanctioning in the manner of federal agents. One week later, the Act is passed. Any person with superhuman powers who refuses to register is now a criminal. Some heroes, such as Iron Man, see this as a natural evolution of the role of superheroes in society, and a reasonable request. Others view the Act as an assault on their civil liberties. After being called upon to hunt down heroes in defiance of the Registration Act, Captain America goes underground and begins to form a resistance movement.

Across the Marvel Universe

Normally, I am skeptical about these large scale events that cut across the entire universe of a particularly publishing company which often represent a better marketing strategy than they do storytelling practice. The goal is to get readers buying more books in a given month by dribbling out bits of the story across as many different titles as possible. Yet, Civil War demonstrates to me the power of this mode of expanded storytelling. For one thing, the issues raised by this book are big and they demand a large amount of development if they are not going to be dismissed with some simplistic swat of the hand (this could still happen before everything is over with). But seeing them unfold across close to a hundred issues allows them to be explored with a depth and scope that few other media systems could accommodate.

For another, Civil War exploits this transmedia system's ability to show the same events from multiple characters' points of view and thus to invite us to reread it from conflicting (and self-conflicted) political perspectives. In one book, we may see what an incident means for those, such as Iron Man or Spider-Man or Mr. Fantastic, who are supporting the registration act. In another, we may see it from the perspective of Captain America and the others who are resisting it. in another we may see it from the perspective of the X-Men who are trying to remain neutral or the Thing who seems to be really struggling to do the right thing without any strongly developed political sense. New titles such as Civil War and Frontline have been created to bring together the conflicting perspectives within a single issue. Frontline shows the story from the perspective of two reporters -- Ben Ulrich whose editor wants him to improve their readership by stirring up anger against unregistered superheroes and Sally Floyd whose publisher sees the act as the latest intrusion of the state into the lives of its citizens and who thus has special access to the underground resistance movement. This storyline suggests the degree to which news agencies are shaped by the agendas of their editors and construct different representations of the news -- starting from whom they talk to, what questions they ask, and what ends up getting into print. Marvel has even published a special newsprint edition of the Daily Bugle that shows us how these events play themselves out across all of the different beats in a major newspaper.

This ability to spread the story across all of these different vantage points also increases the likelihood that for at least some readers, their favorite hero ends up on an ideological side different from their own, opening them to listening more closely to the arguments being formed out of sympathy for a character they have invested in for years and years. Finally, given the ways comics publishing works with different books appearing each week, this strategy insures that we live with the Civil War storyline every week for months on end, where-as if it were contained in only one series, we would reconnect with it once a month. (DC has solved this problem with 52, a series that comes out every week but this is regarded as a special event in its own right.) All of this uses the potential of a publisher-wide event to intensify debate and discussion about core issues, such as liberty, privacy, civil disobedience, and the power of the state, that could not be timelier in our current political context.

Comic Books Meet Political Reality

Of course, comic book superheroes, per necessity, deal with these issues at one level removed from our actual political reality -- so much the better if it breaks us out of fixed and partisan categories of analysis and opens us to explore these issues from new points of view. Keep in mind though that Marvel uses many real world references to anchor the stories in our reality so Jonas Jameson is seen getting ready for an appearance on O'Reilly where he will speak out in support of the law and Luke Cage compares the threat of political violence directed against superheroes to what happen to blacks in Mississippi during the civil rights era. Each issue of Civil War ends with a short segment that introduces readers to one or another political debate from world history that offers some parallels to the concerns being discussed -- including one discussion of the relocation of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

And, as reader Tama Leaver notes at his bog, there are strong parallels drawn between what happens to Speedball, one of the young superheroes most centrally involved in the incident, as "an unregistered combatant" and the various prisoners at Gitmo, who have neither been accused of crimes nor treated as war prisoners:

Speedball's experiences have marked similarities with the experiences of 'enemy combatants' (as opposed to prisoners of war) held (illegally) in the US "facilities" in Guantanamo. As Robert Baldwin is carted off to jail, he's told that a purpose-built prison is being constructed to indefinitely hold superhumans who refuse to register and follow government directives, a plot point echoing the 2002 construction of the Camp Delta detainment facility in Guantanamo Bay. While the Civil War story isn't completely black and white--Peter Parker's own deliberations certainly give the pro-registration side a humane voice--the critique of many aspects of the current War on Terror and the illegal detention and torture of untried 'enemy combatants' is bold and blatant on the part of Marvel's storytellers. Personally, I'm heartened by Marvel's stance and hope empathy with their comic book heroes will give readers a moment to think further about politics in the wider world.

Of course, comic book superheroes deal with these issues in somewhat broad strokes -- often through fisticuffs -- and after all, this series, which pits superhero against superhero on every page, is an adolescent fan's wet dream. Comic books have long sought pretexts which allow us to find out (or usually leave unresolved) whether the Thing or the Hulk is stronger. And this series has had some amazing showdowns between Captain America and long-time allies such as Iron Man or Spider-Man. But, the heart of the series has not been about physical violence but about political debates that the characters have had with each other and with themselves. The slugfests include not the usual quips or monologues but an open debate about public policy issues in between hurling the mighty shield or spraying spider gunk. The various members of the Fantastic Four, for example, have been split asunder by these issues -- all the more so since Johnny Storm was a victim of anti-cape violence while Reed Richards has ended up using his simulation models to build the case for the registration act. As Sue Storm Richards protests, this act will mean jail time for "half of our Christmas card list" and creates a series of ethical challenges that make the McCarthy era seem like child's play as the protagonists not only decide whether to reveal their own identities but also whether to name names of their associates and even whether to use force -- even deadly force -- to bring them to jail when they resist the controversial law.

Complicating Our Positions

The book's refusal to offer simple feel-good perspectives on these issues is suggested by these comments by Mark Millar, one of the author's involved, during an interview at Comic Book Resources:

Some readers might be incorrectly try to frame the ideological split in Civil War as Conservative versus Liberal. It's really lazy writing to make everything black and white. I'm a politics buff and I really hate seeing America divided into red and blue states because I know people in red states who have blue opinions. And we're all very complex. No one person can really even be described as a liberal or a conservative. I'm a liberal but I totally believe in the death penalty on occasions. People are more complex than you think and I wanted to do the same thing with superheroes....

The most obvious thing to do would have been to have Captain America as a lap dog of the government. So, I've played around with everyone's personalities a little and really just tried to get in under their skin and have them feeling very confused about it, too. Some of them actually end up changing their minds and crossing sides because it's a very complex issue.

So, to polarize it in terms of Conservative and Liberal would have been a big mistake. And I think you don't want to think of your superheroes as being Liberal or Conservative. I think those guys should be above that. What I've done is made everyone sympathetic, but everyone pretty passionate about what they believe in.

As Millar continues, he makes clear that it would be too neat to read Captain America and his allies as either freedom fighters or terrorists. There is enough moral ambiguity to go around (and we see even some of the most partisan characters -- Spiderman for example -- anguish over the choices they are being forced to make.)

They will be a combination of both reactive and proactive. I didn't want to just have these guys in, say, like a terrorist cell or anything because fundamentally Cap's guys are superheroes. So, the rationale for the Marvel Universe shouldn't be that they're just underground guys who are constantly fighting the forces of the status quo. They've got to be superheroes. They've got to go out and actually fight super villains and, unfortunately, SHIELD and the other superheroes are after them when they're doing so. It's an added tension to the whole thing.

At the end of the day, the book isn't so much taking positions as raising questions that we as a society need to be debating. There has been a tendency in recent years to depict questioning government authorities as somehow unpatriotic or assuming that questions lead inevitably towards one or another partisan conclusion. But I think we are well served when our popular culture asks hard questions and I rejoice when it forces me to rethink my own political investments.

There's so much more that one could say about this series. I had planned to run a whole lot of examples of the political reflections of various partisans here to suggest the range of perspectives we encounter -- including the use of non-American characters like Black Panther or Namor to give us some sense of how the world sees America's political turmoil. But at the end of the day, the power of these speeches lies in their contexts. They mean more if you've read these characters for years, know their personalities and backstories, and can anticipate what some of this means for the future of their series. They mean more if you see them on the pages of a comic book coming out of the mouths of brightly colored superhero characters and realize what a statement it is for Marvel to be telling this particular story in the Summer of 2006.