Comic books, like any other art form, can be used to make statements. After all, it is a medium where people can express their opinions through many different comics. Whether it’s through superheroes, westerns, fantasy, or sci-fi, this medium has the capacity to convey genuine emotion and have an impact on people if done correctly.
This is why there has been a tendency throughout the years of adding political commentary to comics: to make a statement and to have an impact on society. And while every case is obviously different, it can’t be denied that, for better or worse, political commentary in the medium, especially through the largest companies like Marvel or DC, has made an impact. That fact can’t be refuted.
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But I ask the question: Do politics in comics make the medium better? Have they improved the industry and helped us reach a greater level?
Let’s start with the very principle and goal of a comic book: to entertain through storytelling. That’s it. We can start dissecting the medium through hundreds of details, but at its core, that is the most important thing: to give people a story they can read and have fun with.
Understanding this should be the prime goal and aspiration of every comic book writer. If you can’t entertain, you can’t succeed in the industry, and you’re not going to have a positive impact on your readers. You need to respect the legacy of the characters, and you need to understand that you are here to tell a good story that people can enjoy.
So, do politics enhance a story and make it more entertaining? I think this is the question every writer should ask themselves before putting their words on the page. And I think if they are really honest with themselves, they are going to discover that politics don’t really make comics more entertaining.
This comes from a very personal perspective of mine: I think politics are something that you use to make a statement, rather than something that is actually enjoyable. It’s a way to inject your most personal and individualistic thoughts and perceptions of life, rather than providing something that the reader, regardless of who they are, could enjoy.
Now, this is where I would get the comment that “comics have always been political,” and that is fundamentally right. Since the days when Captain America punched Hitler and Batman, and Superman was drafted into the army in World War II, comic book characters have been used as a way to express the writer’s political thoughts and to make commentary on sociopolitical issues of our modern-day history. That is a fact, and no one can deny it.
However, that doesn’t make it good. And quality is the prime goal of every writer that has any degree of self-respect. You’re voicing your opinion, and that doesn’t make a story inherently good.
To be blunt about it, no one picks up a Flash comic and is looking forward to reading Wally West’s opinion on how taxes were raised or how the new President is senile. It might make you feel good inside, and you may even feel that you have made a great contribution to society, but the reality is that you are not going to achieve much with it in terms of society. Simply put: Your readers want to see Wally fighting the Rogues, not comments on Wall Street.
But here we can ask a very valid question: “Is every single political comic inherently bad?” Not really. While I have my own fair share of criticisms towards Denny O’Neil’s Green Lantern/Green Arrow run in the 70s in terms of how he introduced sociopolitical elements, I applaud the fact he tried to showcase Hal Jordan and Oliver Queen’s political differences as something that could be understood, rather than treating it as something they couldn’t get over. It showed that their friendship and heroic values were greater and more important than the opinions they have on politics. That’s a good way of adding social commentary.
As the years went by, I think comic book writers have fallen in love with the idea of being important rather than being good. Of gaining social relevance as self-impressed intellectuals that otherwise despise the medium, rather than writing for their loyal readership. And that is where another issue lies: when the goal of writing sociopolitical commentary is ego or simply disdain for a political opponent, you’re simply not going to write something that has enduring value.
There is also the fact that we need to understand the world we live in: we don’t live in an ideal context but rather an imperfect reality. Politics are incredibly divisive in this day and age and are handled with the tact of a jackhammer, often ending up with people sharing their vitriol, disdain, and sheer hatred on a regular basis. Just take a moment to check out your own social media accounts, and you will see what I’m talking about.
Comic book characters (and I extend this to storytelling as a whole) have the potential to unite characters and find our own common humanity rather than put so much emphasis on what makes us different. Mind you, I’m not talking about discarding our own sense of individuality, but rather finding a balance between being an individual and trying to discard and put down those that think differently to you. Because, like it or not, they are never going to go away.
What I’m trying to say is that the rewards of putting politics in a story are hardly ever going to be worth the effort, especially in the times we live in. Legacies are built through unity and by finding common ground. Superman didn’t become a symbol of Western culture because of his stories about fighting Nazis in WWII, but rather the hundreds of stories that showed his humanity, his kindness, and his willingness to give his all for the sake of the people he cared about.
And that’s something we should always remember.