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  • Anshu Chowdhury

The Comic & The Politic

What if I claimed that those colorful comic strips you read in the newspaper were political? What if I say that the much-acclaimed French comic series Tintin contains egregious racial caricatures and politically replete depictions? What if I claim that comics have always been political and dichotomous relations between the two? Would you believe me? So, to back up my claims (and keep you interested enough to read on), allow me to elaborate on the basic framework and terminologies needed to understand the world of the comic. It is important to note that I am subscribing to Mainstream thinking, which tries to divide modern history into three distinct periods, namely the Golden Age, the Silver Age, and the Bronze Age. Although this periodization is limited to a series that spans multiple decades, it is imperative to avoid confusion and keep the length of this article as concise as possible.

Typically considered the beginning of modern comics, the Golden Age (1930s-1940s) saw comics expand from strips to comic books. Male characters were very generic in character depth, as they would be overtly masculine, having unrealistic amounts of muscle and usually a “V” shaped body frame. Great examples of such atypical characters include Superman and Batman, which appeared in the 1st half of the 20th century. The Anti-Nazi Captain America appeared at the later end of this period, a deliberate political undertaking because its writers Simon and Kirby were stridently opposed to the actions of Nazi Germany and supporters of U.S. intervention in World War II, with Simon conceiving of the character specifically in response to the American Non-interventionism Movement.

However, the glamor of the Golden Age began to dull in the 1950s as the public became aware of comic books’ “harmful” effects on American youth. Senator Robert Hendrickson, a Republican, had taken point in holding public hearings to address accusations brought up against the comic industry. These allegations were that comic books were racist, desensitized youth to violence and gore, gave girls unrealistic ideas concerning body image, taught kids how to commit crimes, starred superheroes who were fascists, promoted illiteracy and homosexual behavior, and contained subliminal sexual messages. Hendrickson eventually led to the establishment of the Comics Code Authority (CCA), a self-regulatory code for content admitted in mainstream comic books that gradually made comics subservient, paving the path to the Silver Age. Reader, pay close attention to the above instances. While the former portrays how comics play into and depict popular political allegories, the latter instance depicts how politics itself ends up influencing comics; thus their dichotomous nature.

The Silver Age (1956-1970) marked the beginning of a new era of comic history, with social, cultural, and political issues becoming more dominant across the Bronze Age (1970-1985). Reaching a mass audience across the United States, the Captain America series during the 1970s drew an interesting parallel between the events of the Watergate Scandal and the reader's feelings towards the American Government at the time. Thus, a series that spanned multiple decades embodied the attributes of two very distinct periods in American history. Furthermore, within the series Teen Titans (which ran between the 1960s-1970s), there is a plethora of evidence of cultural links to not only feminist movements but also the Civil Rights Movement and the Counterculture movement. Also take the X-Men for example, whose “mutants” swiftly became a metaphor for inequality, and over the decades the X-Men's pursuit for mutant rights has been conflated with the fight against racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of prejudice.

And it is not just American comics that were pitching into, popular European comics also began showing a similar trend. Take for example The Adventures of Tintin, a series of adventure comics created from 1929 to 1976, which became increasingly popular throughout the 20th century. Its creator Hergé (Georges Prosper Remi), is still a subject of intrigue in the press and among Tintinologists. Recent work in popular geopolitics has pioneered the use of these comics as source material in critical geography because these adventures often address colonialism, the rise of the USSR, organized crime, capitalism, international drug trade, alcoholism, racism, coups d’états, the Cold War and arms race, space travel, modern slave trade, the fight for control of oil and I can go on. The first Tintin album in the Land of the Soviets was crafted on the orders of Hergé’s superiors to be anti-Soviet propaganda.

On the other hand, the theme of The Red Sea Sharks (another Tintin album) is international trafficking and slavery, and Hergé was criticized for his depiction of black victims in this album. These overlapping trends amount to different facets of a single discourse, which places European ideologies at the center of its worldview. Meanwhile, the comic book industry was about to witness a revolution. The year 1986 is unanimously considered to be the seminal moment in the history of comics.

Let’s get this double-whammy out of the way. 1986 saw the release of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, and Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Both these comics are a deconstruction of the superhero concept, and each elevated the medium to new levels of respectability. Both texts reject the traditional, often campy, conception of the superhero, in favor of darker, grittier alternate realities. These two texts, published in the final years of the Cold War during the Reagan/Thatcher era, reflected not only the then-current cultural and political realities such as nuclear proliferation but also offered a critique of the legitimate use of force by the state and the decay of societal institutions.

Furthermore, independent comic creators began to experiment and tackle political subjects at this time. The most notable being Art Spiegelman’s Maus which used the medium to tell deeply personal and historical tales about the Holocaust. Not only did it go on to become the first comic to win a Pulitzer Prize, but also demonstrated the emotional depth and narrative power of comic books in addressing complex political themes. Also, Marjane Satrapi’s French graphic novel Persepolis offered a poignant account of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. The book, like Spiegelman’s Maus, was not only a personal memoir but also a political critique of the Khomeini regime’s authoritarianism. Moreover, contemporary comics have played a pivotal role surrounding LGBTQ+ rights, with characters such as Batwoman (DC) and NorthStar (Marvel) being the first openly gay superheroes.

Now that I have illustrated surplus evidence as to how comics are political, the question naturally arises as to Why comics are Political. Here it becomes critical to remember that writers are part of the larger society. In fact, in the words of Aristotle, “Human beings are by nature political animals, because nature, which does nothing in vain, has equipped them with speech, which enables them to communicate moral concepts such as justice which are formative of the household and city-state.”.

Ultimately what this theory of Political Naturalism implies is that consciously or subconsciously our entire creation reflects our political compass. Writers as mere mortals are certainly no exception to this rule. In the end, I hope I have been apt in convincing you (reader)that comics are not simply an entertainment-focused media largely devoid of messaging as the popular narrative goes. Luckily the chronicle of comics and the way they approach our world has never completely been divorced. Politics are indivisible from comics and will continue to remain so.

By- Anshu Chowdhury


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