Monday, September 8, 2003

Looking To The Stars: The Global Picture Book

First of all, I am very disappointed that not one of you even bothered to submit a joke, tear-filled e-mail begging me please not to destroy your eyes and mind with naked pictures of Bea Arthur. I can only assume one of three things; nobody is reading my column, nobody cares enough to write me or all of you are some sort of perverts with a Golden Girls fetish that you were hoping I’d satisfy.

Fine. NOBODY gets the naked pictures of Bea Arthur!

Now, last time before we were so rudely interrupted by the empty, lame ass gimmick that is our second season-


Now, last time before we were so rudely interrupted by the empty, lame ass gimmick that is our second season, I was going to talk a little bit about the subject of comics and editorial commentary on current political situations being placed in them.

This all spun out of a conversation with 411 writer (and now assistant editor of the Reviews Section) John Babos regarding JLA #83, and its’ creation of a situation not unlike the current situation with the USA and Iraq. While we disagreed upon the appropriateness of the message, we both agreed that the discussion of such issues is important and should not be stopped.

Still, I feel it worth mentioning that Joe Kelly is not the first one to take pot shots at the current US administration in his work. Rising Stars, for example, had a remarkably George W. Bush-like figure addressing the public as President while lying about a covert program to kill off Earth’s superhumans being arranged as a preemptive strike against people who were moments away from killing normal Americans. This as the unspoiled hero Matthew Bright enters carrying a dying Patriot and screams "This man is a liar, and I can prove it!"

Bush hasn’t fared too well in the Marvel Universe, either. After being humiliated in the pages of Ultimate X-Men, forced to kneel naked before Magneto on the White House lawn, he and his staff were portrayed as wanting mutant-kind taken care of a similar fashion as to how the Nazis took care of the Jews. He was also portrayed as a dim-witted coward in Marvel Universe: The End when all the world leaders are kidnapped.

Still, this begs the question of appropriateness and one wonders if this kind of portrayal has always been commonplace in comics or if the current man in the White House is receiving some unusually harsh treatment. Of course, the comic has always been used as a political tool. Turn to the editorial section of today’s paper and you’re bound to see a few political comics.

Political cartoons were also used throughout Western history, from the invention of the printing press onward. Martin Luther, in an effort to communicate to the great masses that had not yet learned how to read, created political cartoons showing Jesus chastising the money-lenders in the temple and showing the Pope of the time as one of the money-lenders. Crude, but effective, it is speculated that Luther’s use of comics may have been of invaluable help in his Protestant Reformation.

America also has a long tradition of making political statements through comics. Ben Franklin’s newspaper started the tradition with a now infamous cartoon of a multi-part snake, each part baring the initials of a colony, which read "Join or Die". The snake became a symbol in of itself, inspiring the "Don’t Tread On Me" rebellion flag and represents one of the earliest examples of American political comics. Political cartoons mocking King George were also displayed and the hanging of such cartoons in a public place was specifically named as a treasonous act.

100 years later, the battle between artist and target would become personal; indeed the stuff of legends. Tom Nast, an artist famed and beloved for his work during the Civil War, turned his pencil and pad towards mocking William “Boss" Tweed ; the infamous head of the Tammany Hall Machine, which rigged elections throughout New York through the later half of the 19th century and into the early 20th century.

This tradition continued from the newspaper pages and into the comic books. The early Siegel and Shuster Superman stories often dealt with social issues like the workers’ right to form unions to wife beating. While we take such issues for granted today, this was very weighty stuff for the time- particularly for a kiddie book.

Things mellowed and yet became more extreme during WWII. Social issues were ignored, the closest thing being stories involving costumed heroes stopping robberies of scrap metal and other supplies needed for the war effort. Politicizing became all too commonplace, with caricatures of Hitler, Mussolini and stereotypical German, Italian and Japanese soldiers being mowed down by the thousands in war comics or beaten into submission by the newest Patriotic heroes. Perhaps the most infamous of these instances is a Captain America comic in which the man with the shield is seen pushing Nazis into an oven! A far cry from the peaceful patriot of later years.

There was little political commentary in the comics in the immediate post-war era. A lack of scandals and a general sense of prosperity left very little audience for satirical jibes at the way things were. This wasn’t helped by the now infamous efforts of Dr. Fredric Wertham to clean up the comic book industry; an effort which, like the McCarthy Hearings at about the same time, put thousands out of work. With the reputation of comics being dragged through the mud, it would be quite some time before anyone would dare risk doing anything that might tarnish what little image comics might have as a wholesome, All-American item.

That time came in the late 60′s and early 70′s. Along with the Sexual Revolution and British invasion, comic books underwent a revolution of their own as serious, topical discussion of current events and politicians came back into comics. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Denny O’Neil’s run on Green Lantern/Green Arrow.

The first issue, #76, opened with a bang. Green Lantern stumbled upon a man in a suit surrounded by a group of younger men, threatening violence. GL stepped in, sent the fighters flying and then informed the crowd of on-lookers that there was no need to thank him. They don’t. In fact, they start throwing garbage at a stunned GL. Luckily, Green Arrow shows up to explain that the young men were angry because the man in the suit is a slum lord and he just elected to sell all the people in the neighborhood out of their homes with no notice or warning. And then an elderly black man walks up to Green Lantern and says some of the most famous words ever printed in a comic book...

"I’ve been reading about you. How you work for the blue skins, and how on a planet somewhere you helped out the orange skins. And you done considerable for the purple skins! Only there’s some skins you never bothered with- the black skins!"

Combating the orders of the "blue-skin" Guardians of the Universe, which are more concerned with the letter of the law than the spirit of goodness, GL would travel across the country with GA- the two heroes dealing with big problems on a small scale. Think globally act locally. Almost any story from this run can be taken before a social studies class to make a point. Pollution, overpopulation and even the plight of the Indian in modern society were addressed in these stories. But the most infamous of these stories, well-recounted elsewhere, involved Green Arrow’s discovery that his own sidekick had become a heroine addict. More, that he had turned to drugs because of Green Arrow’s only negligence as a father!

This was a stunning development and helped to balance the character of Green Arrow after some of the more one-sided stories where the worldly and wiser Green Arrow wound up explaining away the "error of your ways" to the honest but naive Green Lantern. This story showed that the hero could screw up in unimaginable ways and things could be forever changed for it.

While not as often praised as Denny O’Neil, Stan Lee would tackle the same issues in his work on The Amazing Spider-Man but with not nearly as much depth. Whereas O’Neil went into detail describing the street culture of dealers and users and used specific drug examples, Stan limited his anti-drug commentary to stories where Peter Parker had to save a stoned Harry Osborne from jumping off a building after taking some unnamed pills and thinking about how very stupid and uncool he was for taking drugs. Stan also started working more minority characters and issues into his writings, revealing that #2 man at The Daily Bugle was black. He also discussed minority unrest, with Gwen Stacy urging Peter to attend an Equal Rights march with her and Spider-Man having to step in and save the day when trouble broke out between a racist cop and a protestor.

Of course specific political commentary was limited to certain characters. Green Arrow, for example, was the only person who could get away with referring to Nixon-style dirty tricks or calling uptight officials Nazis. It would be some years before Superman would be voicing his opinions against capital punishment or Batman would be fighting landmines. But the works of Lee and O’Neil undoubtedly set comics upon the path to where they stand today. Where Joe Kelly’s JLA can not-so subtly slam the bloody and pointless war in Iraq as Chuck Dixon’s Birds of Prey can not-so-subtly slam Bill Clinton for being a weak-willed fool who has to call Hillary to get advice on how to deal with a crisis.

Bottom line? Everyone has the freedom to write what they want. We also have the freedom to not read what they write. However, I hope that all of you out there will not exercise that freedom in the future in so far as it regards to my column.

Tune in next week. Same Matt Time. Same Matt Website.


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