Comics are often products of the time they’re created in. From the gradual increase in representation to the appearances of political figures in storylines — comics provide reflections, parallels and commentary on the political climate they are conceived in.
What started as blatant representation of perceived socially correct values from superhero figureheads such as Captain America and Superman have not only changed over time, but developed into more complex ideas and stories. Now more than ever, for better or worse, grey areas and social issues we muse and debate over have seeped into our comics. Sometimes the political climate is mirrored, analysed and explored really well (see: Civil War, 2006) and sometimes they turn Captain America into a Nazi as a knee-jerk reaction to the Trump election and the increase of white nationalist sentiment. Glad that’s over — as it was terrible.
So, if we take the first example of Civil War and take a closer look we’ll see a great story and an engaging commentary on power dynamics and responsibilities of the state versus the individual. We are also given two sides to a coin and then the ethical complexities are layered on with consideration until you have a very political story that also holds up as a classic Superhero tale. Although Iron Man is given the role of the Heel in this arc, his cause isn’t inherently sinister, which lends it to situations we all find ourselves in these days. Two party systems where we don’t agree with the figureheads, but vote for them because they’re pushing things we need or want. On the reverse; Captain America is given the role of the resistant hero. However, the way he is forced to operate in order to fight for his beliefs lends itself to a place along the scale towards him being an anarchist.
Now, if we look at the second example of the whole Captain America “Hail Hydra” nonsense, it is not done well by any stretch of the imagination. Although, it is inspired by politics and the current political climate. In the wake of the Trump election people were understandably concerned about the increasing nationalist sentiments being displayed by some parties who endorsed him. On top of this, several individuals in his cabinet including Trump himself had displayed actions and opinions that were worrying for a lot of Americans and the world at large. Instead of creating a well-thought-out commentary we had: “What if Cap was a Nazi the whole time?!” While I understand the attempted commentary on this, it didn’t really make any sense to turn Steve into a Hydra sleeper. Now, I know it was done with the Cosmic Cube, but it seemed to only be done because it made Cap the opposite of what he usually is — which came off lazy. Steve himself is an immigrant who historically became disenfranchised by the corruption he saw in the government. This is partly why he sided with the regular heroes during the Civil War and refused to hunt his friends for the US government.
While Cap still does represent America and the American Dream, it is very much from a standpoint that he believes the country is a place anyone can come to and thrive. This is diametrically opposed to Hydra’s and Nazi values. I separate the two because in this same storyline they wanted to try and pull the“Hydra aren’t Nazis they were just working with them!” garbage.
A few years ago there was a period called Dark Reign where Norman Osborn became director of S.H.I.E.L.D and started abusing that power to be very, very evil. I mean, what did you expect from the Green Goblin? This was, mostly, a good narrative and it allowed one of my favourite X-men stories (Utopia) to happen. This would better mirror the way things are at the moment. So, rushing out the Captain America Hydra turn was entirely unnecessary in retrospect.
As bad as the commentary or issues are sometimes handled — I wouldn’t ever want to see politics removed from comics. For every bad decision, there’s an equally good one. More representation in recent years has been one of the aforementioned better decisions. Heroes from all walks of life now adorn stands and it’s slowly becoming a world more like the real world. In order to properly reflect the times — you absolutely must reflect the people. We also often forget comic books are for kids and young adults, probably even more than they are for adults. So, having these communities, people and cultures included in our comics helps educate further generations on the world around them.
Currently, in the Marvel universe my favourite superhero (Nova) is now a 15 year old Latino kid and the legendary sword Excalibur is wielded by a Muslim woman. We’re getting to a place where anyone from anywhere can be anything and that’s fantastic. We’ll always have people who complain and push against progress but if you really are a fan of the kind of comics that mirror our real world — you have to acknowledge different kinds of people are all around you. The first port of call is sometimes to call for the “This is political correctness gone mad!” brigade that used to pop up whenever someone mentioned a black Spider-man. Politics and the world outside cannot be hidden from you or these stories. Anyone could be Spider-man. He could be a black kid, he could be me. That radioactive spider could have also bitten someone who refuses to believe that anyone other than a white person could be Spider-man.
So believe me when I tell you that from Kamala Khan putting on the Ms. Marvel mantle to Peter Parker slapping Al Gore* in front of the world — You cannot keep politics out of comics.
*It was actually The Chameleon posing as Al Gore, just in case you ever get asked in a quiz.