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Comics: The Unsung Heroes of Political Thought

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With the ongoing global economic crisis, high rates of unemployment in the West, civil wars in Eastern Asia and central Africa, international wars, protests, and Occupy movements, a feeling of chaos has clutched its talons around the throat of international politics. It would seem we’ve reached the point in the narrative where a government official slowly puts down his phone, gazes somberly at his secretary and says, “We need a hero.”

During such periods, people find many ways to work through the confusion—to try and make sense of it all. While some do this through protest, writing, art, music, or activism, another highly undervalued medium for social and political commentary are comic books. The graphic novel genre has become a creative sandbox in which authors can play with political and social critique in the safety of a fictional world. Graphic novelists now frequently provide extensive critiques of social conformity and the claims to moral superiority made by Western powers.

Movie still from X Men: The Last Stand

Rob Spittall, owner of The Comic Book Shoppe in Ottawa, Canada knows the ins and outs of the impressively extensive universes in which big companies like DC and Marvel have dared to let authors attack some of the most sensitive issues in the modern political environment. “We can put all sorts of issues into [them],” said Spittall in an interview for Urban Times.

From same-sex marriages for homosexual heroes, to questions of ethics in violence and warfare, women’s rights, and anti-Islamic bias in the media (the recent Green Lantern series featured an Arab-American donning the power ring), graphic novelists attack it all. The only issue they generally keep away from, Spittall says, is religion. He suggests comic book authors can generally get away with more because “[they’re] dealing in a fantasy world that has already been accepted.”

image: DC Comics

Much more now than children’s stories, comics have over the last 70 years become a medium for political self-expression during chaotic periods such as the Cold War and the war in Afghanistan. For example, heroes like Iron Man and fictional government organizations such as S.H.I.E.L.D. (as featured in the recent blockbuster “The Avengers”) have come to embody ongoing debates surrounding nuclear weaponry, national security, capitalism, and government transparency.

In these multi-universes artists can explore political theory through the creation and degradation of their own fictitious landscapes. Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta is based, for example, in a post-nuclear war United Kingdom. Building off Hobbes’ theory of the “State of Nature” and the social contract, Moore creates a character who wishes to tear down the corrupt government thus pitting the police state against anarchy. In this series Moore invokes political theorist Michael Foucault’s “The Eye of Power” which addresses government surveillance and the police state within democracies.

V for Vendetta

The cover of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta

While graphic novelists have provided such intensive analyses they frequently deny readers easy answers to moral dilemmas that may have once been provided by older, simplistic versions of Superman. Spitall says it is this complexity and openness to exploration that draws in the graphic novel audience today.

Jaclyn Bates, avid graphic novel reader and employee at the same store, says it is often the critically insightful aspect of comic books that she enjoys. In a facebook conversation with myself Bates stated, “I do enjoy political critique, social critique, [and] art critique…all of which graphic novels can express”.

Despite what graphic novels have to offer however, they are not always seen as a mature medium. Although Hollywood recently revamped the superhero genre, producing blockbusters like the Dark Knight series, Iron Man, The Avengers, and many more, graphic novels are still popularly viewed as geeky, guilty pleasures at best. While comics may deal with the same subjects as books, and with the same level of intimacy, works of prose literature have a greater impact amongst a general audience and accrue more prestige academically. Why?

“The perception is still there,” Spittall concedes, “that comic books are for kids, so they’re not seen as viable media.” In addition to this, one could argue that the fantasy element of comic books makes it easier to treat the content with less weight; however, that fact that most comic stories are based in a fictional world is part of what allows Marvel and DC to address controversial issues.

via dccomics.com

Although the graphic novel is not always seen as a ‘viable medium’ it is clear they have the potential to be. As Bates noted “the medium lends itself well to illustrating concepts in an emotive and sequential way.” Certainly the ability for meaningful political and social critique is present even in the movies based on the graphic novels. The Dark Knight series and comic books like “Batman Earth One” by Geoff Johns are perfect examples, drawing on Gothic styles to compliment issues of corruption, widespread apathy, hopelessness and the ethical struggles which surround the vigilante who is an outsider to both the law and his own people. The question is, will viewers and readers apply the lessons of the story to similar social and political issues in real life?

Although at times underrated, graphic novels have developed into a medium for artists to explore political theory and critique their own government institutions. They have the ability not only to make readers evaluate their environment but also to cast a critical eye upon themselves. It is perhaps these qualities of indiscriminate analysis which make the comic artists true heroes.

Personally, I am currently enjoying a manga series called “Library Wars”, as interpreted by Kiiro Yumi, with a plot based on issues of government censorship (with a small love story on the side). Hey, graphic novels can be fun too, right?