There are two types of content: explicit and implicit. If Shlaes, Dixon, and Rivoche are only looking for explicit content, then comics about the free market, small government, “nudges,” and tax breaks to oil companies will be tough to find. Comics about good guys with guns taking out bad guys with guns, however: much, much easier.
Explicit content—a comic overtly about x or y—often sounds like preaching, and as a result its container (comics) underperforms: for example, Oklahoma County commissioner Brent Rinehart distributed a 16 page political campaign comic during his bid for reelection in 2008. With art by Shane Suiters, the comic is a dog’s breakfast of antediluvian thinking done up with cartoons of talking heads, fey sodomites, and trench-coat conspirators. A fleet-footed devil squabbles with a big-headed angel.
Strong conservative messages like gays are satanic or marriage is between one man and one woman are rendered as kooky fantasias. Look at how Suiters chooses to depict the “pedifile’s dream come true”: in a grove of trees, the outstretched arms of a toga-wearing dandy zero in on a button-eyed little boy.
On page 10, Rinehart pauses his odious psychomachia for a moment to elicit audience participation: it’s TEST TIME. He provides a checklist so that you can see whether your position aligns with the already-aligned average voter/Brent death pact. Surprise: I put down exactly one YES.
If the items on this list are what you want from comics, then good luck, free market competitors. Rinehart finished third in the election. Though it may read like a Mr. Rinehart’s Planet, a Saul Bellow he is not.
In the 1960s, Al Capp—who will be played by Ted Cruz in the 2016 Terry Zwigoff biopic, mark my words—traded his warmth for hillbillies for sourness about youth. He evolved from being a benign, hippie-bashing anti-radicalist into a serial rapist in about a decade.
Satire, though, isn’t the preferred vehicle for conservative content because satire mocks power, while conservatism, according to Corey Robin in The Reactionary Mind, “is a defense of power and privilege” (17):
Conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. It provides the most consistent and profound argument as to why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, why they should not be allowed to govern themselves or the polity. (7)
This animus is often coded and indirect: a push for voter ID laws imagines a future of transparent collective speech, free from imposture, but in effect these laws partition voters into citizens and undesirables—those who, without a birth certificate, for instance, might only have a home address. This focus on documents, therefore, obscures, as it restricts, poor and black voters.
A certain brand of conservative relies on misdirection because it cannot own up to its true content: “religious freedom” is one such smokescreen. This implicit content is also known as ideology. Jonathan Culler offers the following examples:
If stories take it for granted that women must find their happiness, if at all, in marriage; if they accept class divisions as natural and explore how the virtuous serving-girl may marry a lord, they work to legitimate contingent historical arrangements. (38)
Ideology makes the contingent into the natural—into what we take for granted as what always was and always will be. That your super- or spider-hero works for a newspaper is ideological. Web-slinging as a metaphor for the circulation of print in the public sphere is an educated and informed middle-class dream. A highly contingent one at that.
Culler makes clear that literature has a divided relationship to ideology: it is produced under its constraints, yet it also exposes what is taken for granted. Which is to say: your explicit content might be self-aware, but the implicit content escapes such exposure.
Implicit conservative content is as ubiquitous in comics as it in film. As an example, Roger Sabin argues that Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland “was intended in some ways as a middle-class response to ‘The Yellow Kid’: it used a more sophisticated rendering style, influenced by Art Nouveau, to tell the story of a well-to-do family, and the wild dreams he has when the lights go out at bedtime” (20). The Freudian mechanisms in the comic—id, death drive, Oedipal conflict—only ratify its bourgeois qualities. Backed by racist iconography, Little Nemo, for all its unprecedented experimentation, is still an ideological missionary.
In Melville’s “Benito Cereno” (1855), Captain Delano, the slow American, neutralizes all early signs of unease he sees as he boards a wayward Spanish slave ship. He interprets the dishevelment of the captain and ship as the manifestation of a general entropy (plus scurvy) that a crew experiences at sea: “In armies, navies, cities, or families, in nature herself, nothing more relaxes good order than misery.” His expectation of “good order” is an expression of Delano’s commitment to tradition, and his insistence that “armies, navies, cities, or families” obey the same natural laws renders the particularities of an economic disaster (a slave revolt) unimaginable. For Captain Delano, “all commanders of large ships” work at “transforming the man into a block”—an apt, though unrecognized, understanding of slavery. This philosophy of command is taken for granted, and those who chafe against block-of-wood status are barred from the natural order. Delano is the imperiled conservative, a proto-neocon who equates the army with the family and who is the voice of the animus against agency.
In 2009, countercultural cartoonist Peter Bagge made a comic for Reason.com called “Will Everyone Please Stop Freaking Out About Ayn Rand?!?” It is a welcome attack on the “the extreme overreactions” of any ill-informed blowhard, be they media outlet or partygoer. It’s also balanced—skewering the hypocrisy of devotees and detractors alike, as well as Rand’s own turgid prose—in a way that Rinehart could never be.
Where his comics about the same uninformed overreactions to Ta-Nehisi Coates or Thomas Piketty are, I don’t know.
Much less fair than Bagge’s to-the-point Rand comic is his written recommendation at Reason.com of Chester Brown’s graphic novel Louis Riel:
A casual reader might see the comic as the story of race-based conflict in the New World (Riel was the leader of the Metis, mixed-race Native American/French Canadians). However, once you are aware of Brown’s libertarianism, you can’t help but interpret his sympathies with Riel as being due to his defiance of all-powerful central government.
The two are not separable, Bagge. This skewed interpretation embodies Corey Robin’s diagnosis of conservative animus and also reproduces Captain Delano’s first impression the strange Spanish ship: it “appeared like a white-washed monastery after a thunder-storm, seen perched upon some dun cliff among the Pyrenees.” Bagge’s Louis Riel is likewise white-washed: with the storm in the past, he is given the illusion of holiness in the present.
Peter Bagge’s latest graphic novel The Woman Rebel (2013) celebrates a truly complex character: the anti-abortion, polyamorous, birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, who practically founded Planned Parenthood. We are already out of Rinehart and Shlaes territory.
My only (and big) complaint about Bagge’s book is that Peter Bagge drew it: Sanger’s fight against biological oppression becomes oddly hampered by Bagge’s predetermined, everyone’s-a-frog style. It’s a deep contradiction, but even the well-known floppiness of his figures isn’t enough to actually represent the liminal world of Sanger. It makes for a bursting, jovial world, which is a blessing for a biography, but not one in transition or out to erode rigid ideas of femininity or propriety. To do that, he’d have to explode his own style.
All of this to say: Bagge’s a libertarian, but he’s not your man, Amity Shlaes. The comic is in dialogue with too many bodies of thought for it to be a staunchly conservative messiah.
Footnote to Bagge’s Ayn Rand comic: if you are interested in the flip-side, that is, in explicit liberal content, then read Gabrielle Bell’s tussle with Valerie Solanas’ feminist ideas in her terrific comic “Manifestation.” Like Bagge, Bell engages with explicitly political subject matter, but she also seriously debates it.