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Can Comics Matter to Our Politics?

By | April 25th, 2017
Posted in Longform | 6 Comments

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In the news today: campuses prepare for pitched battles over “hate”/”free” speech as partisan groups incite debate by booking provocateurs. The US Congress prepares for its own contentious bouts in impending budget battles over border walls, climate change, and life-and-death access to health care.

Meanwhile, in other news: yet another Marvel event promises to deconstruct an evil Empire and to satisfy old and new Generations, while DC’s Rebirth fervor pushes its Button towards coming Dark Days and Nights.

Do superhero comics matter in times like these?

Multiversity enjoys a broad readership in geography, origins, and beliefs. So I won’t assume that you felt the same way I did on US Election Day 2016 (sick to the stomach) or Inauguration Day 2017 (horrified; outraged; mobilized). But speaking for myself, at several moments in the past few months, I have paused and asked myself: What am I doing reading comic books?

That uncertainty in the pit of my stomach is where this piece comes from. That, and the fact that as a researcher, I study the relationships between our reading and our civic engagement. Despite all the doubt I’ve felt about the worthiness of spending so much time with the cataclysms of Central City, the warfare of Phang, or the policing of Earth-65, the comics themselves have repeatedly overcome their own stigmas (and my anxieties), proving  again and again that they can indeed matter in our times.

They matter because we escape to comics to re-experience core narratives, and our reflexive responses to those narratives color how we perceive self, community, identity, fears, threats, power, and complexity in our world.

Approaching the 100th day of the Trump Administration,  I’m consuming more news, opinion, information, and research now than any prior period of my life. Social media, smartphones, and the politics of our moment conspire to make that so. But unlike other times in my life (after 9/11, immigrating to the US), comics won’t be displaced by my civic or intellectual reading, because I now see ways they overlap with those interests. My understanding of comics and how they function in our lives has evolved. A faith in something powerful about comics has matured and solidified, so that I am more prepared than ever before to argue this case:

Comics matter. They can and they do.

Comics Matter? Or Mere Escapism?

And by “mattering,” I mean the crazy notion that these imaginative and often speculative genres make a material impact in our world. I mean that they matter to our cultural lives and institutions, to our reading and thinking about the world, to our perceptions and decisions, and therefore they matter to our politics and civics.

But I wouldn’t just argue that comics matter in general, but specifically within this historical moment, in a political culture riven by discord, reeling from the shock of an election that upended common sense and reason, a bellwether of a Western reactionary turn.

From Flintstones #5, by Russell, Pugh, Chuckry, & Sharp (DC Comics).

By saying comics matter, I mean comics like Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” and, from those deeply personal explorations of transnational identity to those acerbically satirical cartoon salvos. But I also mean comics like Abnett’s Aquaman’s Atlantis, the Wall Street of Hickman’s “Black Monday Murders”, and whatever is going on in Spencer’s Steve Rogers’s “Secret Empire.” Even the quasi-real flights of comics fiction matter, I am suggesting.

I’m not claiming comics have a greater role in our political life than film, television, music, or social media. Certainly not a greater importance than our legislation, textbooks, or news media. But I’m convinced that among media, comics have a unique role. I suspect it’s why the artists, storytellers, and creatives who work in the industry are often so politically engaged, whatever their orientation.

I realize this may sound overblown, like a “The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth” power fantasy. Some might react, “Comics are escapist entertainment. Just let us enjoy our fun for what it is. Stop trying to make them more serious to make yourself feel important.” Given the often marginal social status of comics, I share some of that skepticism myself. Despite comics’ slow crawl to respectability, I see what a tough case I’m making, even among the comics cognoscenti that are Multiversity readers.

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I agree completely that comics are escapism, as are video games, action movies, and romance novels. I disagree with the notion that because they are escapism, they don’t matter to real world issues. In fact, perhaps it’s exactly their status as escapist entertainment that give them a certain potential to influence how we think and act on our politics. This isn’t to diminish their value as a source of fun or to judge anyone for uncritically enjoying their comics without introspection or self-awareness.

And I’m not arguing conspiratorially that comics are propaganda masking as escapism, as if covert political agents insidiously implant subliminal ideologies in kids cartoons and lunchboxes. At least, not always. We should recognize that comics have always been politically engaged in various ways. (For just a few examples, see here, here, here, here, and here… , the list goes on….) As one of our crucial contemporary creative media, one evolved to leverage optics and archetypes, alternatives and fantasies, powers and people types, to provide epic stories with personal stakes, comics have always been very fertile soil for the kinds of art and expression that both reflect our times and influence them. Not just not-just-for-kids, comics are a pop cultural force on our imaginations of society and power, morality and heroism.

For what is escapism? Video games are addictively fun because they’re just the right amount of frustration and failure. Action movies feel good for the visual splendor of reaction, resoluteness, and mastery we ache for in an out-of-control world. Romance novels do much more than distract and entertain the stereotypical consumer of them. “Escapism” is often just a psychologically safer way of coming back to and dealing with the tough stuff we don’t want to confront directly.

From Ms Marvel #17, by Wilson, Miyazawa, & Caramanga (Marvel Comics).

So whether we are aghast or engrossed by Captain America’s “Secret Empire” plot against America, Marvel’s claim that they are simply weaving a story of gripping entertainment value fails the smell test. The times are too charged now, that a surreptitious takeover of the highest levels of governmental power doesn’t prey on our anxieties and implicate office-holding counterparts. But even lower-profile (at least on Earth-Prime, or IRL, or whatever) global-scale conflicts, like DC’s recent “Aquaman” run, leverage the fearsome tension of twitchy nuclear trigger fingers and temper-fueled breakdowns into super-powered belligerence. And what makes Jonathan Hickman and Tomm Coker’s “Black Monday Murders” worth all the mental labor of investigation it takes to understand that winding world of skullduggery, symbology, and Wall Street supernaturalism?

None of these works pedantically belabor an obvious and ham-handed political point (I hope). But they all understand that the most intriguing storytelling that comics can do often touches those save raw nerves that make up our political reflexes.

Politics By Any Other Name

Could it be that many of us go to comics to think about politics without the label and baggage of “politics” attached to them? Sometimes, I laugh at the irony of irritated readers who take exception to creators being overtly political in their work: “Stop bringing your politics into my comics. I want to read about representative heroes and villains battling and negotiating power struggles between different factions pursuing or preventing world conquest without it being stained by all that politics.”

I think it’s fairer to argue that however off-putting we may find politics to be, we often seek a form of escapism in comics that has us deal with questions of power and authority, stories of conflict and civilization, and themes of relationship and coexistence that are, in fact, inextricable from our politics.

From Monstress #11, by Liu and Takeda (Image Comics).

This isn’t to say that comics could be or have been good vehicles for policy arguments. They are patently caught up in similar politics — whether of the mudslinging variety or the partisan echo chamber variety — as our other media in a very catered and segmented media landscape. And indeed, political cartooning proper is losing eyeballs alongside its newspaper habitats. Editorial cartoonist Jim Morin, who just deservingly won his second Pulitzer, would be a Herblock-like household name in an earlier era, before the cable pundits and late night hosts and whatever Tomi Lahren is sucked up all the commentating air. I wouldn’t be shocked if someone produced evidence that the comics market today is just as divided and niche as Duck Dynasty and The Daily Show, or Kendrick Lamar and Kid Rock.

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Rather, my idea is that our political and civic views are often built on narratives that are more cognitively fundamental, sometimes instinctual, and connected to core narratives about ourselves and our world. And comics of many types both reinforce and challenge these core narratives, and they do so in ways that embed themselves deeply into our consciousnesses. This is more hypothesis based on anecdotal evidence than a researched and conclusive assertion, but I think comics are influential components of the streams of arts, literature, and culture that are politically and civically crucial in our times to provoke and change opinions.

And to anticipate one more objection, another one that I myself would voice:

“Are you really equating those commercial and tritely fictional properties you mentioned with political speech that mobilizes masses, the brave journalism that speaks truth to power, the dissident artists who are imprisoned for their heroic expression? Haven’t you seen enough offensive Pepsi ads and alarming Hollywood appropriation to know better?”

No and Yes, I hope. That’s why I wouldn’t replace, but supplement, Ta-Nehisi Coates on American politics in The Atlantic with Ta-Nehisi Coates on Wakandan politics in “Black Panther.” Coates combines a searing moral sense with a due vexation over political complexity in his longforms essays, and his “Black Panther” similarly refuses the temptations of oversimplification on one hand and inaction on the other.  And as much as I love the  expansive world-building Rucka, Lark, and Trautmann are doing in “Lazarus,” I dare not distract myself with the details at the expense of understanding NATO, ICE, or FOIA. Noam Chomsky used to be fond of saying that if Americans directed the kind of attention and scrutiny to politics that they did to sports, we would have a significantly more vibrant democratic culture. Maybe a similar charge can be made against us comics nerds for our long sojourns in fictional universes.

But from another perspective, isn’t there a huge segment of our population who’ve long since said “no thanks” to any knowledge of Noam Chomsky, The Atlantic, or NATO, but who are still heavily invested in Amanda Waller, The Avengers, or BPRD?

The Stories and Politics Deep In Our Heads and Hearts

The main source of my faith in comics’ significance is the notion that mythologies — not the ones we study in Edith Hamilton but the ones that we live in every day as part of our human cultural impulse to find ourselves in stories — shape politics. As complicated as the vagaries of the legislative process, nuclear policy, or the electoral college are, most everyday folks react to news, politicians, and media with basic and instinctual responses that are built on simple and core stories in our heads and hearts. Certain ones of those stories at least strongly influence, if not completely determine, how we respond to our perceptions of politics, motivating how we vote, how we tweet, how we act.

My bias is obvious here, but I gathered these notions from my plebeian grasp of ideas from Berkeley professors like Robert Reich (former Labor Secretary and policy expert) and George Lakoff (cognitive linguist and sometime political consultant). Lakoff is a pioneer in studying and analyzing how the mind works with language and metaphors, and the key metaphors that shape Americans’ thinking about politics. But in a simpler rendition, Reich has offered four stories that encapsulate America’s “morality tales” or “cultural fables” in a framework that has been republished and repeated often since. These tales, or rough archetypal narratives, are woven into the fabric of American political culture, and their lasting appeal is why messages resonate, why people get whipped into passionate fervor about campaigns, and why even a preponderance of facts can get swept under the rug of a much-desired illusion.

What intrigues me about these four core stories Reich presents is how much they sound like the story-categories that comics traffic in. Here they are, via Robert Reich:

The Mob at the Gates: Evil armies or despotic forces or alien invaders bombard our island of sanity, civility, and hope.

The Triumphant Individual: The self-made success, often an outsider, by dint of rugged independence and self-mastery, conquers the rigged system through gumption and bootstraps.

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The Benevolent Community: The city on a hill offers the dream of unity and peace through equality, charity, and good-heartedness to all who flock to its shores.

The Rot at the Top: Corrupt elites, be they political, economic, bureaucratic, or social, conspire against the wider public and common good, orchestrating the machinery of power to carry out nefarious and clandestine plans to maintain their decadence and authority.

These four story frameworks are so simple — obvious, even — and yet so pervasive in political discussion and appeals that they are second nature to competent campaign or communications managers. They’re also the underpinnings of the engineered optics of political ads and the mob applause lines at campaign rallies. Fear the foreign invaders! Root for the maverick! Export our values! Drain the swamp!

(You’re already making the connections to common comics tropes: the Walking Dead knocking down the doors . . . the outcast hero alone until the end of the world . . . the magnetic team banded together for justice and goodness . . . the secret cabal of venal overlords . . . .)

Too simple? Too obvious? The power of these sticky ideas is their resonance with stories so deeply ingrained in our minds, particularly when it comes to society and politics as Americans, that many of us would hardly recognize politics without them. What is politics if it is not rewarding the Horatio Algers, if not overturning the crooked fatcats in Washington, if not protecting our children from encroaching foreign threats, if not allowing us to be good neighbors who demonstrate how great America is?

The answer to that question, by the way, could fill a thousand much longer columns — politics is much more than these myths about ourselves. But if elections were determined by political philosophers and social theorists, we would live in a very different world. Instead, as we were reminded last Fall, our elections are determined in large part by media consumers who are often disenchanted with political leaders and institutions, often reluctant to act or commit, often fearful of the mob at the gates or the rot at the top.

In a politically divided year, 2016, where it’s clear people voted based on deep-rooted mythologies and narratives, I’ve seen so little commentary about the fact that the number one grossing work of commercial art was entitled Captain America: Civil War. 

Serving and Subverting the Core Political Narratives

Our media landscape has trained us, and it demands using both visual and language channels to really captivate. Comics can reward active attention and engagement in ways that reading requires, while presenting the longer-form storytelling or high-volume information that can get short shrift in time-based media like cinema, theater, lectures, or other performances. They call forth our penchants towards language and poetry, dialogue and interaction, imagery and symbolism, fashion and action, the epic and the human, sensation and schema.

In other words, despite its stepsister status among the arts and media, or perhaps because of that status, comics are a unique hybrid medium that innovates and borrows from many others to burrow potently in our minds and imaginations. It’s why comics look like primitive cave paintings, or scribblings you etch in your classmate’s notebook, or the tools that airplane safety cards or Ikea instructions or storyboard artists use to communicate. We intuit comics, and they insinuate into our thinking.

From Justice League of America #4, by Orlando, Reis, Hanna, Prado, Maiolo, & Cowles (Image Comics).

As such, they have a way of awakening and nudging our core ideas about life and the world. They tap into what a powerful political speech does, or what a provocative commercial does. The post-apocalyptic future thriller pulls at the same inner child as the fiery barbarians-at-the-gates speech. The Old Man Logan or Jesse Custer attraction grinds into the same brain matter as the triumphant individual now asking for your votes. Visions of heroic societies and what it takes to save the world inspire both the crossover event and the party platform. And who watches the Watchmen?!?

Comics originate stories that get picked up in other media because they know how to touch those inner nerves, those deep-seated stories, the ones that end up determining our responsiveness to political appeals and civic ideals.

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But the most exciting potential of this close relationship I’m claiming between the political brain and the comics brain? Could comics have the ability to subvert, complicate, vary, rearrange, and maybe alter the shape of those deeply-embedded narratives?

Consider the comics multiverses that this site is named after. What fiction prepares you to grasp the multiplicity of possibilities of government, arrangements of power and authority, and contrasting configurations of alternate realities better than the labyrinthine macro-stories that are the DC and Marvel universes?

Or how comics train you to subvert expectations about who is good or bad, redeemable or retcon-able, heroic or conflicted? How deeply comics can sympathize with cynicism– and yet overcome it? Or how ably comics take us to the extremes of our ambitions and fears, and paint stark pictures we have to confront to remind us of the starkness of the reality we hide from ourselves? It’s true that other media may effectively take us into the inner psychology of individuals experiencing specific social milieus, but can any combine the physical/visual and the textual/psychological in quite the same way? And what about how the translatability of comics allows us to experience narratives that offer a glimpse into the perspective of the world outside our borders?

Wishful Thinking?

Even as I pen this piece, I doubt its boast. I can’t decide if comics have a vast cultural impact or a tiny one. On one hand, I preach to the Multiversity choir when I point out how comics properties have infiltrated TV, movies, toys, video games, and all kinds of entertainment media. This is not to mention their omnipresence in our cultural life, from New Yorker cartoons to religious tracts, from Tumblr-circulated strips to manga-filled libraries. On the other hand, there’s always the lingering cultural burden of proof against comics’ significance. The industry is comparatively undercompensated, always fighting for the legitimacy and prestige afforded other arts, and… I think you can probably fill in the blanks with your own examples here, O Multiversity Reader.

But I wonder. Could it be that it’s exactly comics’ marginal status that grants them political potential?

When it seems impossible to nudge our political orientations because they are so deeply held and wrapped up in our identities and beliefs, could the burden on comics to “show, not tell,” good stories make it a medium that avoids easy labels and pulls readers into different human perspectives? Maybe. Maybe not.

Could the most popular genres of comics be a comfortable ground for people to contemplate ethical and moral issuess that drive their thinking without smashing them over the head with politics like a Facebook post? Maybe. Maybe not.

Could the way comics portray, even as escapist entertainment, the extremes of our deeply-held narratives actually help to moderate our thinking, as some studies might suggest? Maybe. Doubtful.

Or could the status of comics as a medium and community of devotees who linger at the creative roots– rather than the commercial fruits– of pop culture, offer really powerful alternative communities, the kinds that convince people entrenched in certain beliefs to broaden and expand their thinking a bit?

The more encouraging aspects of the comics community give me reason for optimism.

Pamphlets of Political Power

I cop to being one of those coastal liberals currently and disgustingly gushing over Hamilton (worse yet– I am late to it!), but one of my favorite tidbits of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical mash-up masterwork is how it made the political pamphleteer sexy again. It reminded me of the role in every social movement I’ve studied of the power of print and publication, of paper and pictures. Screeds and credos flying straight from the pens of great minds and into the hungry hands of an information- and story-starved masses!

Could comics be the pamphlets of our times? Flimsy, perhaps, mostly disposable and disregarded, already outdated among technologies of art and communication… and yet doggedly persisting because something so basic, so simple, so accessible, but with such potential to transcend and elevate lurks in those pages, whether glossy and corporate or self-published and photocopied. A Taneka Stotts or a Dan Slott can make comics. A Julie Doucet or a Joss Whedon can make comics. And some of that creative energy cooked from feverish midnight oil sometimes strikes a chord and spreads like a virus, passed between eager readers, changing minds and hearts.

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I want to believe those kinds of romantic notions about comics, and sometimes, there are good reasons to. John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell’s March is not “Formation” or “13th,” but it’s also got to be a frontrunner for that book that fifteen years from now, twentysomethings say to each other, “Didn’t you read that in high school?” And whereas kids in Revolutionary Era absorbed their founding parents’ politics in anti-George III ditties or “Yankee Doodle,” today’s kids swim in words like “justice,” “virtue,” and “triumph” amid their Avengers library books and Lego Batman backpacks.

But I’m not naïve: a good Diamond sales number is still equal to a negligible number of Facebook shares for an article (real news or fake). Even the juggernaut “Walking Dead” comic’s most robust sales are only a decimal of the TV show’s viewership. Comics are still a stepsister medium.

Stepsister . . . like Cinderella.

A far too rosy faith in comics? Probably.

Will a comic book change the mind of a 54 year old voter, or even a 34 year old voter? Not likely.

Can comics present ways of thinking that would help a kid growing up with a minority opinion in a culturally homogeneous place feel not so very alone in the world? Yes, we can.

Paul Lai