The Liberalization of Mainstream Superheroes: Myth or Truth?

By Adam Theisen

One

Since World War Two spurred the identification of most popular superheroes with specifically American ideals, there has been a strong undercurrent of conservatism present throughout superhero comic books. In many of these stories, a powerful, often privileged and wealthy hero works outside the jurisdiction of government or law enforcement in order to improve the world and dispense justice how he sees fit. These superheroes can be interpreted as symbols of individual rights, self-reliance, powerful justice over criminal rights and meritocracy — all pillars of traditional conservatism. As Salon writer Richard Cooper puts it when paraphrasing Steven T Seagle’s “It’s a Bird…,” “Superman triumphs by being able to move faster and hit harder than everyone else: essentially a fascist concept.”

Recently, however, many conservatives have bemoaned the “liberalization” of comics. Increased representation — including Miles Morales as a Black Hispanic Spider-Man, Jane Foster as a female Thor, and Kamala Khan as a Muslim Ms. Marvel — have been controversial flashpoints, because conservatives believe comic book companies are changing the core basis of classic characters simply for the sake of “political correctness.” Additionally, storylines like Superman’s renunciation of his U.S. citizenship or Captain America fighting anti-immigrant terrorists have been perceived by conservatives as having a liberal bias. Writes conservative blogger Rich Johnston, “It’s happening more and more over the last dozen years: The people behind the scenes allowing their personal politics to bleed through into the stories of otherwise apolitical superheroes whose adventures are meant for everyone to enjoy.” He continues, “This in-and-of-itself wouldn’t be quite so bad if it weren’t always the same political views repeated over-and-over ad nauseum. Simply put, there’s too much liberalism in comic books today.”

But are the characters really changing? Are these new stories truly indicative of a shift towards liberalism in comic books, or are they simply modernized versions of the classic tales readers have enjoyed for decades — old heroes with a more diverse coat of paint?

Two

At a glance, superhero comics appear to be much different than they were in, say, the ’60s. However, despite some superficial changes, there’s little evidence that superhero comics lean more to the left now than they did in the past. While some may believe a company like Marvel is using its editorial power to push a specific agenda, in reality, mainstream superhero comics are a commercial, not a political enterprise. It’s certainly true that the creators of art will often draw from real world issues, or even occasionally write their beliefs into storylines, but no giant company wants to alienate one whole side of the political spectrum, and the political interpretations of these stories almost always depend on the reader. A more diverse cast of heroes now exists in the Marvel and DC universes in order to appeal to more non-white, non-male readers, but this increased representation has not intentionally killed comic book conservatism.

Let’s start with Miles Morales, the Black Hispanic Spider-Man created not long after the election of Barack Obama, who caused controversy with the announcement of his arrival. Some fans were simply upset about the death and replacement of Peter Parker (though Morales was only becoming Spider-Man in Marvel’s alternate line of “Ultimate” comics), but others saw Morales as a politically correct publicity stunt or even an aggressive act against the old guard, with conservative pundit Glenn Beck explicitly connecting Morales to a comment Michelle Obama made about “changing traditions.”

But if we actually look at Morales’s character, aside from the color of his skin, he doesn’t change the tradition of Spider-Man in the slightest. He’s bitten by a modified Spider, initially doesn’t use his powers to fight crime but becomes compelled after seeing a death he could have prevented (in this case Peter Parker’s), and, like the original Parker, tries to balance his normal teenage life with his secret identity as a superhero. Look at these two Spider-Men and see if you can spot which one is “promoting the liberal agenda.”

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Peter Parker
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Miles Morales

Let’s actually see how much of a difference there is between any of these new versions of old heroes.

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Steve Rogers, the original Captain America
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Sam Wilson, the current Captain America
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Classic Thor
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Jane Foster, the current Thor

Frankly, Morales and these other different incarnations of heroes are simply non-white or female versions of the classics we all love. They’re new faces, but they’re not radical new characters, and in practice, they’re almost exactly the same as the superheroes they’re replacing.

Three

Another classic superhero recently under fire for his perceived “liberalization” is Superman, primarily when he appeared in a story that showed him renouncing his U.S. citizenship and traveling to Iran to try and promote peace between the military and protesters.

supermanrenouncescitizenship

Some, like Dixon and Rivoche in the Wall Street Journal, criticized the hero for what they perceived as a loss of his moral compass and a decent into what they identified as liberal moral relativism and political correctness. They claim that “ ‘truth, justice and the American way ‘ ” have lost their meaning.”

However, Janelle Asselin rebuts this argument, pointing out that it would be perfectly natural for Superman care about what helping the world beyond just American borders. She continues on to attribute the tonal shift towards moral ambiguity in comics not to a lack of conscience or conservative values, but to an older reader base looking for more complex stories.

“The tonal shift had less to do with politics and more to do with fashion and an aging audience,” she writes. “To assign a political bent towards these changes because of ‘political correctness and moral ambiguity’ is like accusing anyone who believes in tolerance of actively encouraging crime.”

In the same vein as the Superman-in-Iran story, some recent Captain America stories have drawn fire for featuring anti-immigrant extremists as its villains. In this case, like Superman, critics misunderstand writers as having a “liberal agenda,” when they’re often simple variations on the standard villain formula with certain aspects taken from the real world to appear to more mature readers.

serpent supreme
The Serpent Supreme, one of Sam Wilson’s villains, isn’t that different from your normal Cap baddies

These critics also ignore some of the original aspects of the character. As Steven Attewell points out, the original Steve Rogers Captain America was almost definitely a Democrat. He was a fine arts student and a child of New Deal New York City, born to a single mother during the rise of labor unions, and his entire superhero identity is initially defined in opposition to fascism.

Superman, too, was initially presented as “Champion of the Oppressed,” and spent his strength helping the voiceless and powerless in society (abused women, for example, or the wrongly accused on death row). In both of these Superman and Captain America stories, perceived “liberalization” often refers to actions that are actually quite in line with a character’s roots.

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Pages like this one aren’t revisionism, but rather the original ideal of the character.

In some ways, the newest iteration of Ms. Marvel might be the closest thing we’ve seen to a “liberal” superhero. As Noah Berlatsky writes, Ms. Marvel isn’t defined by her power, but by faith, empathy and a desire to help those around her. In her stories, fighting is presented as a last resort. “Violence here isn’t truth, but aberration,” he writes. “A fissure in real life rather than real life itself.”

But Ms. Marvel isn’t an especially radical twist on the old stories. If we look at her journey through the first few years of her series, we can see that her heroine’s journey (as defined by Joseph Campbell) isn’t all that different from a classic hero’s, like Superman or Spider-Man.

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Her Ordinary World
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Refusal of the Call
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Crossing the Threshold
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Tests, Allies, Enemies
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Meeting Mentors

Of course, in a never-ending serial story, there’s no conclusion to the journey, but even those Ms. Marvel is one of the most radical versions of a mainstream superhero we’ve seen to date, her stories still follow the familiar beats of all the established heroes who have come before her. The “liberal slant” of modern stories is typically a superficial makeover, not a fundamental change to the way comics work.

 

Four

More often than not, interpretations of supposed liberal stories aren’t very clear cut, with the ultimate stance the book is trying to take overshadowed by two dudes with super strength trying to punch each other out in the middle of New York City. For example, though Mark Millar’s “Civil War” series for Marvel could be interpreted as having an allegory for the Patriot Act, with superheroes forced to register with the government, Millar said “I think you don’t want to think of your superheroes as being liberal or conservative. I think those guys should be above that” (Maslon ). As comics writer Grant Morrison said, the interpretation of right and left even shifts over the course of the storyline: “ ‘Civil War’ starts with Captain America on the right and Iron Man on the left and, by the end, they’ve swapped places” (Maslon).

Most comic books and superheroes actually serve as a unifying force in a split country, enjoyed and cheered by both sides, who each consider them heroes for different reasons. As DiPaolo writes of Marvel’s ’60s comics, which could be interpreted as Cold War propaganda by some, “Many of the young people who read Stan Lee … related to all that was subversive in the content, and chose to deliberately overlook anything that was a product of half-baked, reactionary politics” (29).

Wright adds that, since the ’60s, “In an America society facing deepening political divisions, Marvel’s superheroes worked to preserve what remained of the vital center” (235). He notes, too, that characters like Spider-Man remained apolitical by being moderate, and “endorsed liberal solutions to social problems while rejecting the extreme and violent responses of both the left and the right” (235), most notably in a 1969 story about a campus protest. If one doesn’t think superheroes still hit a unique middle ground among American today, he or she can simply look at this decade’s box office receipts, where many of the movies most people are seeing feature Marvel and DC properties.

In the end, what the vast majority of these superhero comics do is take the fairly apolitical stance that good guys are good, bad guys are bad, justice triumphs over evil, and we should all be happy about that. It’s very difficult to make a specific political point while still adhering to that constant dynamic of the superhero comic. While some comics writers have undeniably tried to push certain agendas — some liberal, some conservative, some in-between — with their runs on characters, these stories are more often attempts to put superheroes in the “real world,” or create more compelling storylines, rather than indoctrinate readers. Even heroes that do push the boundaries of tradition, like Ms. Marvel, are still in step with the rhythm of classic comics.

So some conservatives may perceive certain story decisions or increased representation as liberal microaggressions towards classic characters of their youth (just as some liberals may see the actions of classic heroes as too right-wing, or even fascist, for their tastes), but these are still the same characters that have been embedded in American culture for generations. There might be some differences, but with an iconic costume on, everybody still looks the same.

Works Cited
Asselin, Janelle. “What Dixon And Rivoche Get Wrong About The Comics Industry.” Comics Alliance. N.p., 10 June 2014. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.
Attewell, Steven. “Steven Attewell: Steve Rogers Isn’t Just Any Hero – Lawyers, Guns & Money.” Lawyers Guns Money. N.p., 30 Oct. 2013. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.
Berlatsky, Noah. “What “Ms. Marvel” Gets Right About Comic Book Violence.” Comic Book Resources. N.p., 02 Jan. 2015. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.
Cooper, Richard. “Superheroes Are a Bunch of Fascists.” Salon. N.p., 30 Nov. 2013. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.
Dixon, Chuck, and Paul Rivoche. “How Liberalism Became Kryptonite for Superman.” The Wall Street Journal. N.p., 8 June 2014. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.
Hudson, Laura. “Drudge Report Thinks New Spider-Man ‘Could Be Gay,’ Glenn Beck (and Colbert) Protest Diversity.” Comics Alliance. N.p., 4 Aug. 2011. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.
Johnston, Rich. “How Liberalism May Be Hurting Comic Book Sales by Darin Wagner – Bleeding Cool Comic Book, Movie, TV News.” Bleeding Cool Comic Book, Movie, TV News. N.p., 05 Jan. 2012. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.
Maslon, Laurence, and Michael Kantor. Superheroes!: Capes, Cowls, and the Creation of Comic Book Culture. N.p.: Crown Archetype, 2013. Print.
Paolo, Marc Di. War, Politics and Superheroes: Ethics and Propaganda in Comics and Film. Jefferson, NC: McFarland &,, 2011. Print.
Vogler, Christopher. A Practical Guide to Joseph Cambell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 1985.
Wright, Bradford W. Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2001. Print.