The essence of superhero storytelling for a long time has felt mostly about just good, fun stories about the fantastical. It’s always been about exploring the untapped well of goodness lying in everyone, the potential for heroism.
But another whole aspect to comic stories have always been the political overtones. It’s always been there within the comic industry yet has flared sharply in recent times, coinciding during a time of social unrest and political division which have never felt more starkly apparent.
In a time of Donald Trump, the idea of the KKK being in the White House, gun brutality on black people, deportations of immigrants, the wall, the Muslim ban – and that’s just America. Around the world, the xenophobic far-right have been climbing back into the mainstream of society, unfiltered, normalised. It’s coincided with the comic industry attempting to tell a powerful story of diversity and tolerance countering hatred. Within the comics themselves, and the controversy from this has been sky-high, have been the gender transformations of Iron Man and Thor, Captain America and Spider-Man being black, a Muslim Ms Marvel.
These stories have focused on LGBT issues, structural racism but also alluding to something else: the white man finally losing power. We’ve seen it across Hollywood where attempts to diversify with more women and ethnic minorities has prompted outrage and fears of some white genocide. The loss of power has felt like the loss of identity because for so long to be a white man was to have power. Now it’s starting – or should be – to feel like everyone else.
Comics exploring political and social themes through subtle storytelling has always been part of their fabric. Ironically, though its TV adaption is determinedly apolitical for a show where the main character is a mayor, the Green Arrow in the comics has hailed from progressive, socialist roots, often adapting anti-authoritarian ideals set against the American establishment. Supergirl and Wonder Woman have always embodied female empowerment whilst Superman as both an alien and American patriot has symbolised the American Dream and the immigrant. DC have not traditionally held a monopoly on this and though today the Avengers are the most recognised superhero team in their brand, for so long the X-Men were the most gripping team. The storylines could be outlandish and about space travel but where they were most absorbing were the gritty struggles of mutants facing prejudice, fear and hatred from the human population. It was an analogy for the racism and homophobia that characterised America for so long. Charles Xavier and Magneto were their respective Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
Today as superhero material floods the big and small screen, it’s arguably the TV shows that offer powerful stories. DC’s Legends of Tomorrow is a story of time-travellers who in their visits to both the past and future encounter the worst of humanity, including slavery, racism and political corruption. Supergirl is a story about an alien woman, and it has never shied away from its liberal, feminist roots. Season two in particular is about exploring the immigration status of undocumented aliens and sexuality, in an undisguised show of contempt for the Donald Trump establishment and his supporters. It’s a powerful feminist story, arguably inspiring for anyone.
Even within the Netflix Marvel universe, the political undertones, though much less clear, are there. Season one of Daredevil isn’t just Matt Murdoch against Wilson Fisk but ordinary people battling gentrification and faceless corporations hiding in the backgrounds. It’s about an estate mogul swallowing up helpless towns whilst the law does nothing to stop them.
People will frown upon this and conservatives will regard it as ideological brainwashing. But comics have always told stories that reflect reality to some level. There is nothing political or unpatriotic about stories which push against racism, misogyny or homophobia. These also tend to make for some of the best stories. And moreover, there is something uplifting in watching Supergirl as a show deal with anti-migrant hatred, watching the show provide the response that our politicians cannot. This is a political climate of hostility and fear. A white supremacist is in the White House after the first ever black President. Theresa May lacks courage or resolve to criticise a President who supports Nazis and bigots. So instead we turn to shows like Supergirl and Legends where they fight Nazis and racists, where the American President is a woman and where the show Supergirl is really a metaphor for defending immigration.
For so long, the comic story that sat on the fence was the one that favoured the conservatives. The absence of criticism against the established norm that comics must always cater for white men only damaged the comic industry by alienating away women, people of colour and anyone who identified as gay or transgender. Now it questions why the white privileged heterosexual man should have everything, and we should be glad it does that.