The other day, veteran comics writer Bill Willingham (also co-author of the recent and justly berated DCU: Decisions, and one of the relatively few outspoken conservatives in the industry) wrote an online essay about the current state of super-hero comics. He complained of some recent trends… but also took things a step further, equating his complaints with political allegiances, and setting off a bit of a tempest in a teapot.
From his original essay:
…DC’s greatest icon, Superman, one of the handful of fictional characters known throughout the world, no longer seems to be too proud of America. He still finds occasion to mention he fights for truth and justice, but no longer finishes that famous line with, “…and the American way.” …
Marvel’s legendary patriot Captain America, in a comic book story published shortly after 9/11 spent a good part of the issue apologizing to the super terrorist he was battling about all of the terrible things America did in its pursuit of the cold war against the Soviets. “(But) we’ve changed. We’ve learned,” he whines. “My people never knew!” Then again, at least ol’ Cap was fighting the bad guy, so maybe there’s still hope.
Except that In another later appearance, in a different title (same company) Captain America willingly goes along with a government cover-up of a incident that resulted in massive civilian casualties. He not only goes along with it, he doesn’t even bat an eye when asked to do so. …
Those are but two examples of the slow but steady degradation of the American superhero over the years. The ’super’ is still there, more so than ever, but there seems to be a slow leak in the ‘hero’ part. … Old fashioned ideals of courage and patriotism, backed by a deep virtue and unshakable code, seem to be… well, old fashioned.
Full disclosure time. I’m at least partially to blame for this steady chipping away of the goodness of our comic book heroes. In my very first comic series Elementals, first published close to thirty years ago, I was eager to update old superhero tropes, making my characters more real, edgier, darker — less heroic and a good deal more vulgar than the (then) current standard. Elementals was one of the first of what was later dubbed the ‘grim and gritty’ movement in comic books. And to complicate my confession, I’m still proud of much of that early work. At least my crass and corrupted Elemental heroes still fought, albeit imperfectly, for the clear good, against the clear evil.
What can I say? When I was young and foolish I was young and foolish. In hindsight I should have realized then what is so obvious today. In any industry, especially one as inbred and insular as the comics world, one excess feeds another. Of course we didn’t think of it as excess. We called it stretching the boundaries. Pushing the envelope. Doing a bigger and better car chase in this one than they did in that one. And every other cliche we could summon to our defense. “If they got away with having their hero accidentally kill his opponent in that book, then we’re going to outdo them by having our guy purposely kill someone in ours!” And so on, until today an onscreen (and quite graphic) disemboweling of a superhero’s opponent is not only allowed, it’s no big thing.
Don’t get me wrong. All is not completely dire in the comic book industry. For the most part superhero stories still involve the good guys battling the bad guys for identifiably good causes. And even in that story mentioned above where Captain America participates in the sinister cover-up, under the pen of the same writer, a few issues later he resurrects a shade of his former self (summons his inner John Wayne if you will) and tells an evil alien invader he’s fighting, “Surrender? Surrender??? You think this letter on my forehead stands for France?” (The letter is an ‘A’ for America, of course.) Good one, Cap.
Along with many others, I’ve come to the conclusion that we’ve gone too far, but not irreversibly so.
So, finally to the point of this note. … It’s time to make public a decision I’ve already made in private. I’m going to shamelessly steal a line from Rush Limbaugh, who said, concerning a different matter, “Go ahead and have your recession if you insist, but you’ll have to pardon me if I choose not to participate.” And from now on that’s my position on superhero comics. Go ahead and have your Age of Superhero Decadence, if you insist, but you’ll have to pardon me if I no longer choose to participate.
No more superhero decadence for me. Period. From now on, when I write within the superhero genre I intend to do it right. And if I am ever again privileged to be allowed to write Superman, you can bet your sweet bootie that he’ll find the opportunity to bring back “and the American way,” to his famous credo.
For now, I invite others in my business to follow suit, as their own consciences dictate. We’ll talk more about this later.
As I said above, not all comic stories are about superheroes. Comics are a medium, not a genre. There’s still plenty of room for gray areas, stories of moral ambiguity, and the eternal struggle of imperfect people trying to find their way in a bleak and indifferent world. I plan to continue all of that and more in my Fables series. But for me at least the superhero genre should be different, better, with higher standards, loftier ideals and a more virtuous — more American — point of view.
As you might expect, this definitely got people talking. Lots of fans, a few industry pros… and also quite a lot of folks (clearly Willingham’s intended audience) who aren’t familiar with comics, beyond what they’ve picked up from his essay, or perhaps filtered through Hollywood.
I’m not going to delve into the details of those comment threads. They’re the usual mix of signal and noise… a few insightful observations, intermingled with a lot of nonsense… and they’re there for the interested reader. As for my take on things:
At the most basic level, Willingham makes a valid observation… and one that’s been an oft-discussed commonplace in the industry for years now. The trend toward “grim and gritty” antiheroes, fresh and innovative when it began, has long since passed into overuse and become a cliché. However, there are two main problems with where he takes this observation.
One—although to be charitable, this may be a side-effect of writing the piece for a non-comics audience, rather than deliberate distortion on his part—is that he oversimplifies the situation. The stylistic trends that began with Dark Knight and Watchmen in the mid-’80s and spread through countless comics that followed—and are just now making the leap to mainstream perception of comics heroes, courtesy of Hollywood—produced their own backlash within the industry several years ago. The most notable example of the counter-movement was 1996’s Kingdom Come, a critical and popular success by writer Mark Waid and artist Alex Ross, and a proudly anti-dystopian work celebrating idealistic heroes.
He elides other key distinctions as well. The Captain America examples he raises actually involve two entirely separate characters, published under two different Marvel Comics imprints. As he is surely aware, the version of Cap he describes fighting the terrorist is distinct from the version he describes battling the aliens, every bit as much as Tim Burton’s cinematic Batman is distinct from Christopher Nolan’s. Moreover, the “Ultimates” version of Cap, the one with the jingoistic “France” line Willingham celebrates, was actually written by a Scotsman, Mark Millar, whose politics are not merely liberal but radical—and the entire story in which that scene appears is clearly political satire, critiquing the excesses of American power and the self-righteousness that comes with it. Readers who take the cringeworthy “France” line at face value are completely missing the author’s point.
All of which leads into mistake number two—Willingham’s inclination to equate storytelling styles with politics, and thus to step from an aesthetic critique to an ideological one, equating liberalism with nihilism, decadence, and a lack of ideals and principles. This is, obviously, a gross distortion.
At a conceptual level, super-heroes arguably express conservative, even fascistic themes—given how they use force to preserve and enforce a social status quo. On the other hand, they just as arguably express radical themes—given how they take forthright stands for justice and freedom in the face of powerful opposition. There are no simple equivalencies to be drawn.
Willingham’s preferences notwithstanding, “the American way” (a phrase attached to Superman by the 1950s TV show) is not necessarily synonymous with ideals like truth and justice. “Patriotism”—love of the place one happened to be born and raised—while perhaps an understandable emotion, is not necessarily a virtue. And a “more American” way of looking at things is not necessarily a “more virtuous” one.
As a thoughtful, principled left/liberal/progressive type, the only way I can possibly enjoy a character like Captain America, who actually wears an American flag as a costume(!)—and I do enjoy him—is if he’s written as smart and self-aware enough to be willing and able to question what that flag actually stands for, compared to what it should stand for. Doing so is not “dark” or “decadent”; it’s an expression of the very ideals the character embodies.
Most writers—and readers—of comics clearly understand this kind of distinction. Indeed, Mark Waid and Alex Ross, the creators of the abovementioned Kingdom Come, with its celebration of the heroic ideal, are themselves both unapologetic liberals. And Willingham cannot possibly be unaware of this: indeed, his essay is illustrated with an iconic image of Superman painted by Ross…
…which the artist evoked during this past campaign year with an equally iconic image of Barack Obama.
So, at the end of the day, do comics lean liberal? Perhaps, but it’s a phenomenon independent of the kind of characters they tell stories about, and it’s certainly just as true in any other area of the arts or popular culture. I’m tempted to suggest that this is because it takes thoughtful, creative people to create art, and thoughtful, creative people are naturally more inclined to embrace a liberal worldview… but that might be taken as a cheap shot.
Nah, the hell with it: it’s true. 😎 “Reality,” as Stephen Colbert famously observed, “has a well-known liberal bias.”
By the way: 100th post!
Addendum: Veteran comics writer Steven Grant has now addressed the subject with far more more thoroughness and eloquence than did I (or, needless to say, Willingham), exploring the last 40 years of developments in both the comics industry and our general culture to make the point that the entire situation Willingham attempts to describe (just like the comics themselves at the center of it) is unavoidably far more complicated and nuanced than the black-and-white picture Willingham prefers.Tags: Bill Willingham, Captain America, conservatism, DC Comics, Marvel Comics, super-heroes, Superman