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  • Writer's pictureAvery Polinori

Agendas in Comic Books

The comic book industry has always been a house built on the sand rather than one on the rocks. That fact has remained true since the end of WWII. Every decade has introduced its own problems that have nearly wiped comic books from existence. The 2010's and the start of the 2020's have come with their own set of issues. Some vocal Wednesday Warriors and problematic Comicsgate community have offered their own solution to saving comics: get rid of political SJW agendas. And sure, they might have a point when Marvel announces characters like Safespace and Snowflake. But what these fans don't seem to realize is that comics have always been political. They just didn't realize it.​

On April 18 of 1938, the world was introduced to the first real comic book superhero... Superman. If you've never heard of him, he's a pretty popular character. Writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster were both sons of Jewish immigrants growing up in Cleveland, OH. Both of them tried for years to get their Superman character to the newsstands. But early attempts at a scientist using his powers for evil seemed to have something missing. The Superman we'd end up coming to know was one that came a little closer to home for Siegel and Shuster. Superman was a being from another world just trying to use his skills to do good for his new home. And just like Siegel's parents changing their names to avoid anti-semitism in the States, Superman had to live as mild mannered Clark Kent to implement himself into all areas of society. While readers fell in love with Superman over nearly a century for a plethora of reasons, the character at his core is the story of an immigrant.

In 1940, a year before the United States entered WWII, another pair of Jewish creators were thinking how they could make a political statement with their comic books. The first issue of Captain America saw the super soldier punching Adolf Hitler in the face. Today's readers might see that and say, "Hell yeah, Murica." But the US was not at war with Nazi Germany yet. Imagine if someone published a comic with someone punching Kim Jong-un or Putin. Such an artistic statement could be dangerous at worst and controversial at best. But Joe Simon and Jack Kirby had an agenda against Nazi Germany. So they used comic book heroes to sell that agenda. Superman, Batman, and just about every other superhero would follow as champions of war propaganda in the fight for freedom and justice.

1941 saw William Molten Marston push his own social agenda into comics. He created Wonder Woman, a warrior princess born of a race of all-warrior women. According to Marston, Wonder Woman embodied the 20th century's "unconventional, liberated woman." And to this day, she continues to be one of DC Comics most popular characters.

The 60's were a troubling time in the United States. Jim Crow laws fueled a desire for racial integration and civil acceptance. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Marvel Comics' top creative team, saw that the world should reflect the shifting culture. Lee's and Kirby's X-Men told the tale of young teens born with powers. The X-Men lived in a world that was afraid and hated them because they were different, echoing how racist white supremacists in the US would use fear-mongering to sway public opinion against black communities. To this day, X-Men has been an allegory for social oppression with any group of marginalized people. Remember that movie X2 that comic book fans say is the perfect X-Men movie? If you didn't realize Bobby Drake coming out to his parents as a mutant was meant to echo a gay kid coming out to his parents, you might be living in a bubble.

Lee and Kirby did not stop with the X-Men. In 1966, their flagship Fantastic Four heroes faced off against the mysterious Black Panther. Also known as King T'Challa, the African royal warrior was created to show that Africans were just as capable physically and mentally, if not more so, of anything their white counterparts could do. While T'Challa's costume hid his African features, that didn't stop him from becoming a staple of Black comic book characters.

Everywhere you look, the world seems to be getting overly politicized. Social justice is at the forefront of every online discussion. Sometimes, it feels like we need an escape from all these complicated topics. Comics can and should supply an escape. But that doesn't mean they can't have an agenda.

Comic book creators have always had an agenda. And that agenda was to let readers feel seen. This is how they supplied escapism. It wasn't so straight cis white male readers wouldn't have to think about social agendas. It was so kids who were immigrants, nerds, queer, poor, female, black, and brown, could escape from a world that told them they didn't matter. They made comics so others could begin to see themselves as powerful and heroic. We will always need the traditional heroes that have kept the Wednesday Warriors going and comic book stores alive. But we'll also need marginalized groups to find heroes they can rally behind. There's room for all of us. That's the agenda of comic books.

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