The Revolt of the Comic Books

A superhero killed the president this summer. Moments later, a shocked White House press corps watched as John Horus, his gleaming white-and-gold costume still soaked in blood, explained why. Because "the war in Iraq is illegal and predicated on lies," because "our people and theirs are dying for corporate gain," because of the "use of torture by our elected authorities," and because the president "stole the last two elections," the most powerful member of the Seven Guns could no longer "stand by while this administration commits crimes." In response, a terrified government imposed martial law, launching a nationwide manhunt for Horus' estranged teammates, whose reactions to the act ranged from horror to sympathy.

That bit of propaganda-by-the-deed launched acclaimed British scribe Warren Ellis' Black Summer, an eight-issue comic book miniseries from Avatar Press. And though heroes at industry giants DC Comics and Marvel have shown more restraint -- even after Superman's Lex Luthor won the Oval Office in 2000 -- the post–September 11 era has seen an explosion of politically themed storylines in mainstream as well as independent comics. While real-world presidential candidates invoke supercop Jack Bauer, of the TV series 24, as a guide to national security policy, a more nuanced debate about preemptive war, warrantless surveillance, and the responsibility that comes with great power is taking place in an illustrated universe.

In one sense, this is nothing new. The very first issue of Captain America (1941) showed the star-spangled super-soldier punching out Adolf Hitler, prompting criticism from both Nazi sympathizers and those who considered der Führer Europe's problem. Superman and Batman hawked war bonds while facing down monstrous racist caricatures of buck-toothed Japs. Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's Watchmen -- works that transformed comics in 1986 by proving that illustrated tales of men in tights could be serious, adult art -- were both steeped in their Cold War milieu. (Moore took his title from the Roman poet Juvenal's famous query about political power: "Who watches the watchmen?")

Nevertheless, the politically inspired stories of the "War on Terror" era have been remarkable not only for their ubiquity and sophistication, but also in the way they have exposed -- and sometimes exploded -- the political ideas embedded in the superhero genre itself. A famous 2002 cover of the German news magazine Der Spiegel depicted members of the Bush cabinet dressed as Rambo, Batman, Conan the Barbarian, and the "warrior princess" Xena, suggesting that neoconservatism is just comic-book logic applied to international affairs. But the efforts of comics writers to grapple with current events raise a corollary question: Is the superhero a natural neocon?

Probably the most widely read of the recent crop of political comics has been Marvel's "Civil War," a massive 2006–2007 crossover story line spanning the company's main superhero titles. The story begins when the members of a young team of C-list heroes get a bit too big for their spandex and challenge a group of powerful supervillains living incognito in Stamford, Connecticut. The ensuing battle leaves more than 600 civilians dead, and public outcry prompts the hasty passage of the Superhuman Registration Act, which requires costumed heroes to be trained and licensed -- and to disclose their secret identities to the government. The "powered community," heroic and villainous alike, is riven by the act: Iron Man and the Fantastic Four's stretchable supergenius Reed Richards rally support for registration, while Captain America goes rogue and begins building a dissident underground. The stand-in for the conflicted reader in this debate is Spider-Man, who is initially so convinced of the wisdom of registration that he unmasks on national television. When he sees the extradimensional Guantanamo being built to house resisters, however, he defects with a dramatic speech about the folly of trading liberty for security.

As the Abu Ghraib scandal unfolded in the news pages in 2004, the DC Comics universe found itself in the throes of Identity Crisis, in which it is revealed that a cabal of heroes affiliated with the Justice League superteam had been tampering with the memories of captured baddies to protect their own identities. An outraged Batman, who discovers that his own memory has been altered to cover up these acts, begins tracking superhumans via a vast satellite surveillance network -- which, naturally, falls into the wrong hands. Meanwhile, the Arab antihero Black Adam overthrows the tyrannical leader of "Khandaq," then kills the entire population of Bialya in retaliation for a terrorist attack on his country.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about these stories is why they fail. For as much as they seek to tease out the complexity and moral ambiguity of their themes, the authors of most of these tales clearly mean to convey a liberal or civil libertarian message. So much so that in 2003, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies released a screed titled "The Betrayal of Captain America," by right-wing pundit Michael Medved, decrying leftist infiltration of comics; that same year, professional bluenose Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center condemned Superman as a Ba'athist sympathizer. Yet when these stories go beyond leftish imitations of a previous generation's simplistic propaganda comics, the allegories tend to collapse under the weight of their own internal contradictions. There are, of course, openly conservative comics -- ranging from the ludicrous Liberality for All (starring a cyborg Sean Hannity!) to Bill Willingham's brilliantly layered Fables. But there is often a strong (if unintended) neoconservative subtext even in stories by left-leaning authors.

The "Civil War" storyline may provide the clearest illustration of this. The Superhero Registration Act is a straightforward analogue of the USA PATRIOT Act; the rhetoric of its opponents could have been cribbed from an ACLU brief. But under scrutiny, their civil libertarian arguments turn out to hold very little water in the fictional context. The "liberty" the act infringes is the right of well-meaning masked vigilantes, many wielding incredible destructive power, to operate unaccountably, outside the law -- a right no sane society recognizes. In one uneasy scene, an anti-registration hero points out that the law would subject heroes to lawsuits filed by those they apprehend. In another, registered hero Wonder Man is forced to wait several whole minutes for approval before barging into a warehouse full of armed spies from Atlantis. Protests about the law's threat to privacy ring a bit hollow coming from heroes accustomed to breaking into buildings, reading minds, or peering through walls without bothering to obtain search warrants. Captain America bristles at the thought of "Washington … telling us who the supervillains are," but his insistence that heroes must be "above" politics amounts to the claim that messy democratic deliberation can only hamper the good guys' efforts to protect America. The putative dissident suddenly sounds suspiciously like Director of National Intelligence Mitch McConnell defending warrantless spying.

The problem of modern terrorism -- how to deal with small groups of individuals who can wreak the kind of destruction that once required an army -- is familiar territory for comics, as is the idea that heroes often inadvertently create their own worst enemies. Yet attempts to directly address the problem of blowback from military action exhibit the same sort of ambiguity. In the second volume of Marvel's Ultimates (2004–2007) -- a reimagined version of the classic Avengers superteam -- the heroes are being used to carry out covert military missions abroad. Their foreign interventions prompt governments hostile to the U.S. to send their own superteam ("persons of mass destruction" wryly dubbed "The Liberators") to invade Washington. After the inevitable victory, The Ultimates decide they must operate independently of the U.S. government, but the lesson remains that "the world needs looking after," presumably by the same mostly American heroes.

These mixed messages shouldn't be blamed (solely) on the comics' creators, though. As John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett argue in their book The Myth of the American Superhero, the premises of the genre itself demand that "total power must be pictured as totally benign, transmuting lawless vigilantism into a perfect embodiment of law enforcement." The hero, possessed of moral clarity, solves problems by force, yet (usually) without killing. Evil is depicted as personal rather than institutional: The problem is not that power is wielded by a small elite, but that the wrong people -- supervillains -- sometimes get powers. And when the only tool you have is Thor's hammer, every problem looks like a supervillain. Super-heroes don't form PACs; they have slugfests, because the narrative of the superheroic redeemer demands that more prosaic means of conflict resolution -- diplomacy, say -- prove ineffectual.

The simplest way for writers to escape the embedded politics of superheroism, of course, is by ditching the tights entirely. Brian K. Vaughan makes this rejection explicit by having Mitchell Hundred, the protagonist of Ex Machina, abandon his costumed identity as the hapless Great Machine to serve his fellow New Yorkers as mayor. And there are many spandex-free depictions of war in comics. Vaughan's simple but moving Pride of Baghdad follows a group of lions freed from an Iraqi zoo during an American bombing. (The liberated animals are eventually shot by frightened Coalition forces.) Rick Veitch lampoons the romanticization of war in Army @ Love, in which a Huxleyan Department of Motivation and Morale entices soldiers to fight in "Afbaghistan" by making conflict sexy and fun. Others, such as Brian Wood in DMZ and Anthony Lappé in Shooting War, illustrate the old adage that "when war is declared, truth is the first casualty" by following journalists into spin-riddled battle zones.

Yet however much some writers may lament the popular identification of comics with superhero tales, it is no accident: Iconic characters demand a medium that deals in icons, and their privileged place in the American Zeitgeist has given them a mythic narrative power that storytellers are loath to forsake, even as they seek to tame the genre's fascist undertones. Some film adaptations of comic book tales -- notably Superman Returns, V for Vendetta, and the first two Spider-Man films -- have attempted to democratize their protagonist by creating populist moments in which ordinary citizens must band together to save the hero. But rather than conveying a message of democratic empowerment, these scenes typically have more than a whiff of übermench-as-embodiment-of-the-volk about them.

Mainstream titles increasingly feature stories in which the traditional Manichaeism of the genre is countered by pitting heroes against each other rather than villains, emphasizing how evil can arise from well-intentioned efforts to use coercive power for good ends: "Civil War" falls into this camp, as does DC's Infinite Crisis (2005–2006), in which a group of erstwhile heroes discover that their scheme to remake the universe into a utopia has transformed them into monsters. Other titles, following in the tradition of Watchmen, create doubly allegorical worlds populated by close analogues of the classic DC stable of heroes, then use them to explode or detourn the tropes of conventional superhero comics.

The failures and successes alike show that if comics are to succeed as modern political allegory, comics writers cannot simply transplant real controversies into their fictional worlds. They also face the daunting task of inventing a grammar and a vocabulary for a new sort of superhero narrative -- one capable of telling us that, sometimes, great power comes with the responsibility to not use it.