The Social Justice League

Did the age of progressive politics in American comics really end in the 1990s?
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Did the age of progressive politics in American comics really end in the 1990s?
The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics. (Photo: New York University Press)

The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics. (Photo: New York University Press)

The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics
Ramzi Fawaz
New York University Press

It’s an old saw that superhero comics spike in popularity during times of national crisis. Just look at the first and most iconic superheroes: They arose during the Great Depression and World War II—Superman, Batman, Captain America, and Wonder Woman among them—when an estimated 70 million people read comic books. Yet equally interesting are the superhero stories we get when the country is not fighting foreign powers—stories that turn their national focus inward and champion the oppressed and forgotten American populations that most need a hero.

This progressive strain in post-war comics is the subject of the New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics, which documents the period that gave rise to social purpose in American comics: the end of World War II to the mid-1990s. Ramzi Fawaz’s book charts how the comics re-invented the superhero from his origins as a macho, pro-war patriot to an unlikely activist and metaphor for social justice. Fawaz also argues that today’s heroes, though perhaps a more diverse lot at face value, have lost the progressive energies of old.

Some of that old-time radical spirit remains in the most common superhero archetype today: the vigilante. Batman is perhaps the single most famous incarnation of the renegade hero. These outlaws are now culturally ubiquitous, but the mainstream superhero wasn’t always such a rebel: During World War II, DC Comics and Marvel Comics enlisted their heroes to fight on the side of America; they even encouraged readers to buy war stamps and bonds. What happened to turn this one-time instrument of the state into today’s perpetual outlaw? Fawaz identifies an unlikely pioneer: the Justice League of America.

Comic book lovers are a diverse lot, racially and socioeconomically. If a narrative's any good, it's likely to stick around.

When DC Comics writer Gardner Fox debuted the Justice League in 1960 in the Brave and the Bold #28, the series was an inventive and subversive choice for Cold War America. Amid the rise of the security state, McCarthyism’s domestic panic, and communist-containment policies abroad, the comic re-envisioned America’s saviors as a band of international immigrants and exiles. Most members of the Justice League worked for the state; yet they were often misunderstood or oppressed by the very organization they believed in. In “nearly every instance” of conflict between the JLA and official representatives of the law, Fawaz writes, the government was portrayed as a bumbling, bureaucratic dinosaur. This wasn’t the only sly anti-administration subtext for discerning readers. The villains were often portrayed as evil because they were abusing scientific talents to develop weapons for the military—a moral argument against the military-industrial complex that preceded Eisenhower’s famous speech about the associated economic perils.

In the 1960s and ’70s, the comics fleshed out what it meant to be “super”— and how it often meant being a cultural outsider. Unlike Depression-era comics, which emphasized the gee-whiz aspects of superhuman capabilities, the Fantastic Four, X-Men, and other series came to portray these powers as a metaphor for the experience of minority populations, and could even reflect what it meant to be black, or gay. Take Ben Grimm, a.k.a. the Thing, who was persecuted and bullied for his rocky orange epidermis, the result of a cosmic accident; or the X-Men, who faced social prejudice and systemic oppression because of their mutated genomes. The very foundations of their physical identities made them outcasts.

Once the hero understood what it meant to be a cultural minority, he naturally made common cause with the movements that advocated for his rights. The “messianic melodramas” of the 1970s, like the Silver Surfer, channeled environmentalist hippie culture, while space operas like the X-Men echoed women’s and gay liberation. Throughout the decade, “urban folktales” like the Green Lantern/Green Arrow crossover series addressed racial and economic inequality in post-civil rights America. In the 1980s, “demonic possession tales,” such as Spider-Man’s epic struggle with the alien symbiote Venom, spoke to the decade’s moral unease about how people might be similarly “consumed” by capitalism. By the mid-1990s, one X-Men imprint was critiquing identity politics in line with the tenets of third-wave feminism.

For his more creative extrapolations, Fawaz, a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, draws on close reading and sharp analysis. While some of the symbols he unearths from the dialogue and illustrations are logical (it’s hard to argue that Captain America wasn’t speaking up for the homeless when he abandoned his cowl and took a new name to describe his stateless hero identity in “Nomad: Man Without a Country”), in other moments, his conclusions seem preposterous. How does the Human Torch of the Fantastic Four embody both the period’s concerns with teens’ excessive heterosexuality and with the “flaming homosexual”?

Perhaps the most persuasive evidence for Fawaz’s arguments comes in the fan letters he excerpts. “I am always happy to see a modern Indian shown as being something besides a poor relic of the past,” one reader of Native American ancestry wrote in a letter praising the Fantastic Four character Wingfoot. It’s in these letters that the attempts by series creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to attract more college-age, female, elderly, and minority readers become clear.

But why stop there? Over the last few years, DC and Marvel have aggressively diversified their line-ups by introducing standalone heroes drawn from underrepresented populations—including a Muslim Ms. Marvel, a disabled Batgirl, and a gay Green Lantern, among others. Fawaz argues that these inclusivity campaigns are commercial gimmicks, introduced in a short period of time and attached to no distinct political movement. To Fawaz, this can only mean that the comics industry will capitalize on progressive postures as long as it remains profitable to do so, after which time the females and heroes of color will be demoted once more to sidekick status.

But progressive storylines aren’t always at odds with the bottom line. Just as demographic targeting shaped the character of the letters column in the Fantastic Four, commercial interests today can generate legitimate creative improvements, however cynical the motive. Besides, given their commercial success, there’s no reason to imagine these changes will be as temporary as Fawaz fears. Comic book lovers are a diverse lot, racially and socioeconomically. If a narrative’s any good, it’s likely to stick around.

There’s something vindicating about the deliberate diversification of the comics—especially knowing how that diversification came to be. It’s been a long walk for the hero, one that has often put her at odds with social and political norms. But now that the comics are a multibillion-dollar industry, it’s in the creators’ interests to recognize that more progressive content can turn a profit. It’s fair for an academic like Fawaz to fret that the comics are losing their sophisticated subtext. Us fans, though? We’re happy seeing something simpler. Namely, more heroes who look like us.

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