As superhero comics creators will tell you, their medium has a proud history of getting political.
Captain America punched Hitler in the face while the U.S. was still officially neutral in World War II. Batman was born of senseless gun violence; he’s hardly a cheerleader for the NRA. Superman is literally a refugee created by Jewish immigrants. The X-Men often parallel the struggles of the LGBTQ+ community.
But there’s been a lot of talk lately in the industry about de-politicizing comics — especially after Marvel’s internal creative summit in February, where the comic giant reportedly discussed backing down from divisive topics.
Some fans were overjoyed about the possibility, such as YouTuber Mundane Matt. The desire to send a message is hindering good storytelling, they say. Even some who agree with politically-motivated writers say they want a distraction from political madness.
Catching up on Arrow, and they’re heading the same way that made me stop reading the comics. Full on lefty politics in the show. Sad.
— Mike Becker (@Laz3rPanth3r) February 27, 2017
But politically-charged storylines are some of the best in the business. Captain America, for example, has one of the most anticipated arcs of the summer with the “Secret Empire” event.
This event will likely bring an end to Steve Rogers’s controversial story arc in which he is working as a double agent for both S.H.I.E.L.D. (a U.S. government agency) and Hydra (a rather anti-American organization.) This arc brought into question what it means to be American, and has been so divisive that writer Nick Spencer has received death threats. At the same time, sales for this book have been stellar.
Another Marvel character with political roots is Kamala Khan, or Ms. Marvel. Writer G. Willow Wilson, a Muslim woman herself, is bringing much-needed representation of her community to the page — not to mention proudly supporting U.S. democracy.
To delve deeper into this issue, and the various topics being covered in comics right now, we reached out to some well-known writers and artists – Scott Snyder, Ben Percy, Mark Russell, Cecil Castellucci, Marley Zarcone and Jimmy Palmiotti – who are putting their political hearts on the page.
Jimmy Palmiotti, Harley Quinn
Jimmy Palmiotti has feelings and he isn’t afraid to share them:
I get a list each week of people that unfollowed me. Hundreds this week. Sorry, but I am not a fan of Trump. It happens. Bye.
— Jimmy Palmiotti (@jpalmiotti) February 28, 2017
Palmiotti is pretty blunt on Twitter, but he’s also pretty bold in the Harley Quinn series, which he writes with his partner in work and in life, Amanda Conner. “In my work, hiding in plain sight, is always how I feel about the world,” he says.
In a recent issue, Harley took a subtle but deliberate dig at a certain resident of the White House.
Palmiotti says that asking artists to leave their opinions off the page is absurd. He feels that the state of the world will always influence artists, and that will always manifest itself in some way. “It would be impossible to avoid [politics] and expect the reader to be engaged,” he says. “One of the functions of art is to show the world the way an artist views it, and maybe not how you see it.”
Cecil Castellucci and Marley Zarcone, Shade the Changing Girl
Though Shade the Changing Girl is a wild, out-of-this world book, it is based in modern-day America. To remind us of that fact, writer Cecil Castellucci and artist Marley Zarcone put something extremely jarring in a recent issue.
The word “madness” is used a lot in Shade, and it’s a painfully appropriate descriptor of the election cycle during which Castellucci was writing this script. She wanted the president on the TV screen in the background, but it was Zarcone who decided to draw Trump. She had just seen They Live!, the 1988 horror movie in which the president is possessed by an alien.
Castellucci says that even though the book is pretty wild, she “wanted our world to leak in.” Zarcone agrees with Palmiotti that removing politics from comics is “impossible.”
“Strip a comic down to its lightest fluffiest basics, but it’s still going to be filtered through a creator’s personal lens,” she says.
“All the arts are political by nature,” Castellucci says. “Stories are created in a time and we are influenced by the times in which we create.”
The pair say they will be exploring social issues going forward. “Teenagers are thinking, radical people who are passionate about the world,” Castellucci says. Shade and her friends will also have those conversations.
Zarcone thinks it’s an especially ripe time to be working on a book about an alien who possesses the body of a teenage girl. “At this moment, there are politicians actively labeling women as ‘host’ entities. They’re making legislation about it!”
Castellucci says their message is simple: “Peace. Tolerance. Being awake.”
Scott Snyder, All-Star Batman
Scott Snyder has been writing books about Batman for years, and politics have always been subtly present. While he’s very vocal about his convictions on social media, he strives to find a balance within the books.
“It’s very hard to tune out these things that are hitting nerves all over the place,” Snyder says. “Every day there’s something to get upset about, regardless of what side you’re on.”
Again, curious. Not attacking. Does the “winter white house” not make you upset? 3 trips in 3 weeks -WE pay millions for him to MAKE $ there
— Scott Snyder (@Ssnyder1835) February 18, 2017
Snyder makes a point of translating the real-world issues he cares deeply about – such as police brutality, environmentalism and gun violence – into comic book language. He wants the character to have meaning.
“If Batman is this fictional character who does nothing for the real world,” he says, “why does he matter in a time when there’s so many entrenched and difficult issues to deal with?”
He’s been finding ways to make characters matter since before All-Star Batman. Snyder wrote over 50 issues of Batman during DC Comics‘s New 52 series, which took place before the recent Rebirth event.
In particular, Snyder wrote an arc called Superheavy, in which Jim Gordon was Batman. The story dealt directly with police brutality and class stratification.
The first story arc of All-Star Batman was a direct response to the rhetoric of the 2016 presidential election, which Snyder thought was “vile.” Throughout the story, Two-Face – a stand-in for the two sides of the political aisle – is trying to prove to Batman that all people are capable of this kind of vitriol.
Snyder says the villain is trying to send a nihilistic message about people: “Deep down … they’re ugly, they’re mean and they don’t want to get along.”
In the current All-Star arc, Ends of the Earth, four Batman villains are showing the Caped Crusader how the world will end in the next decade. The story addresses what Snyder calls “anxieties in the air” — biological warfare, climate change, isolationism and what the writer refers to as “the madness of subjectivity” where nothing matters.
Snyder says that he can’t be as openly political as he’d like with Batman, because that’s just not who the character is. “Captain America is a character who you can make political openly,” he says. “Batman’s a character who sits in the middle as an independent.”
Still, he found a way to make Batman meaningful in the midst of political tension. “Batman is always about saying, ‘We’re all in this – we’re in the same boat,'” Snyder insists. “Get your fists out, get your heart on your sleeve and let’s fight through this regardless of our differences.”
Ben Percy, Green Arrow
Ben Percy does not have the challenge of writing a character that is not politically inclined. Green Arrow’s base function is to be a “social justice warrior” — a loaded term that Percy stole back from Gamergate trolls and brought back to the page with pride.
“Politics are woven into the DNA of my series” Percy explains. “I couldn’t write Green Arrow without being political. It would be untrue to the legacy of the character.”
Green Arrow, or Oliver Queen, is a very rich white guy spending his life as a vigilante “who fights on behalf of the disenfranchised.” The fact that this character was born with privilege is not ignored. Fellow hero and partner, Black Canary, points this out in the first issue of Percy’s series: “How can you fight the man if you are the man?”
So far, Percy has addressed human trafficking, referenced the Black Lives Matter movement and introduced a character that he describes as “an analog for Trump.”
In the most recent issue, he showed an event similar to the protests surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline and the militia takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
In an upcoming arc, called The Rise of Star City, Percy will show readers a city he says is very similar to Detroit and Flint, Michigan.
This book is more overtly political that most others, and rightly so. But he isn’t just trying to spread one particular agenda.
“I’m trying to raise questions more than answer them,” Percy says. He wants to write about these issues from both sides, and have readers view it “through a speculative lens.”
“There’s something strengthening about fighting back through narrative, and navigating this uncertain landscape through story,” Percy adds. “Especially a story where everything turns out alright at the end.”
Mark Russell, The Flintstones and Prez
You wouldn’t expect The Flintstones to have a political message, but it does in the hands of writer Mark Russell. The book makes you think about everything from economics to gender roles.
Russell has also written political satire with Prez, a story about a teenage girl elected President of the United States through a series of loopholes and political SNAFUs that are just absurd enough to be realistic.
Prez takes place in an America years after a Trump presidency, and the effects are everywhere. There is a border wall between the US and Mexico. All other countries have isolated and distanced themselves from America, which has become “a playground for the rich.”
Even though the book is funny, Russell says, “We have to laugh a little uneasily … Every day that future looks a little more plausible.”
But Russell’s work in The Flintstones isn’t so topical. “I try to write more about general trends,” he says. “How we make ourselves useful to demagogues, or how good people can be coaxed into doing horrifying things.”
He’s also going to be writing a comic for another vintage cartoon character – Snagglepuss. This book is going to be more about the creative experience, but it’ll definitely have political overtones, too. Russell envisions Snagglepuss as a “gay Southern gothic playwright, in the vein of Tennessee Williams.” He’s going to insert popular figures from the 1950’s into the narrative, and include moments leading up to the McCarthy-led anti-Communist hearings and the Cold War.
The message Russell is trying to send is, he says, a pretty obvious one: “I just want the human race to place nice with itself.” He’s often surprised that this can become a controversial ideal in some eyes, and is fascinated by the “intellectual gymnastics people will go through” to talk themselves out of treating others with kindness and respect.
As for keeping politics and comics separate? “To expect writers to avoid subjects that gnaw at them is to not really understand what it is to be a writer.”