Last week, Marvel Comics set the Internet ablaze. Steve Rogers: Captain America #1 continued an avowedly political trend in writer Nick Spencer's stories, with Cap revealing himself as a HYDRA agent. The political implications were spelled out by HYDRA leader the Red Skull, whose populist speech in the comic was not a little reminiscent of Donald Trump. It's led to an inferno of fury on the Internet, with Spencer even receiving death threats, and many fans are arguing that comics just shouldn't do politics.
Here's the catch, though: comics have always done politics. Here are some examples:
1. The Creation of Captain America!
The cover of Captain America #1 is legendary. It introduced readers to Captain America, a brightly-clad superhero designed to be a symbol of American national identity, and showed him socking Adolf Hitler on the jaw! The irony is, comic book fans have tended to look back at this through rose-tinted glasses, and forget their basic history lessons.
Captain America #1 was published in March 1941. The United States didn't enter World War II until after the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941. Joe Simon and Jack Kirby purposefully created a superhero to represent what they believed the US should be doing already. In Captain America #1, Abraham Erskine gives voice to their hope.
2. Superman and JFK
In the 1960s, Superman editor Mort Weisinger was a huge fan of JFK. So much so that, in the August 30, 1963, issue of the New York Times you get the following startling announcement:
"Superman has volunteered to help flabby Americans regain their stamina and muscle tone. The cape-clad comic book character, who doubles as a crack reporter for The Daily Planet, has answered President Kennedy's call for more exercise and has enlisted in the President's Council on Physical Fitness."
The 10-page story was finally published in Superman #170. It wasn't the last time Superman would cross paths with JFK, either. In Action Comics #309, Superman revealed his secret identity to Kennedy.
There's a tragic irony in that Action Comics #309 was still on the newsstands in November 1963, when JFK was assassinated.
3. The Themes of the X-Men
The X-Men have always been tied to themes of equality, with writers Roy Thomas and Chris Claremont tying them particularly strongly to the quest for racial equality. This was a dominant theme in the 1980s, when Claremont created the nation of Genosha, a country that was prosperous due to a mutant equivalent of apartheid.
Into the 1990s, though, Marvel began to broaden the theme out. The above panel is from Uncanny X-Men #294, and features Charles Xavier's speech drawing a direct throughline between the quest for mutant equality and racial and sexual equality. It received a fairly strong backlash at the time and, to their credit, Marvel's editors chose to publish some of the detractor's letters in the letters column. They gave a spirited defence of their decision, refusing to back down.
4. Captain America's Response to Watergate
In 1974, Captain America writer Steve Englehart faced a crisis. In the face of the Watergate scandal, he realised that he had no choice but to take the book in a strongly political direction.
What followed was one of the most politically aware plots in Captain America history (and that's saying something). Closely mirroring the Watergate scandal, Englehart's plot featured Cap uncovering a conspiracy involving the Secret Empire. To his horror, Cap pursued this conspiracy all the way up to the top, with events culminating in the President committing suicide.
Disillusioned, Cap abandoned his symbolic role, and took up a new identity - Nomad. The name was deliberately chosen, as Cap took it to mean "a man without a country".
5. Gun Control and Civil War
Moving on to some more modern examples, Marvel's famous "Civil War" plot was one of the most overtly political of all time. Although it's typically discussed in relation to the Patriot Act, the comics themselves draw a lot more parallels with the debate over gun control.
The question is simple: should superheroes register with the government? The superhero community split along ideological lines, with Iron Man arguing for registration and accountability, and Captain America insisting on individual freedom. Iron Man won, and the result was a database of registered superheroes.
Although the concept of registration was relegated to a background issue in Captain America: Civil War, it's still there, over in the MCU.
6. Shadows of Guantanamo Bay
Not to say that the "Civil War" plot didn't feature other issues, of course. In the main Civil War comic, Reed Richards, Hank Pym and Tony Stark conspired to build an installation known as "Project 42". As I've written elsewhere:
"Project 42 was intended as a liberal criticism of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. Here, those believed to be terrorists are held without trial and interrogated for information on potential terrorist attacks. Regardless of your political views here (Marvel tended towards the liberal criticism of Guantanamo), the idea of paralleling anti-registration superheroes with imprisoned terrorists is a pretty startling analogy."
Captain America: Civil War pulls no punches in adopting this plot straight for the big screen. In the film, the pro-registration forces have the Raft - a prison based in international waters, ensuring prisoners have no rights to trial. It shows Captain America's allies imprisoned there (although the Raft's security is hardly up to handling Captain America).
7. Spider-Man Celebrates Obama's Inauguration
When Barack Obama became President of the United States, comic book publishers were ecstatic. The man was a self-confessed fan of superheroes, and publicly stated:
“I was always into the Spider-Man/Batman model. The guys who have too many powers—like Superman—that always made me think they weren’t really earning their superhero status. It’s a little too easy. Whereas Spider-Man and Batman, they have some inner turmoil. They get knocked around a little bit.”
It was fitting that Marvel Comics would honor his inauguration in an issue of Amazing Spider-Man! In a six-page story entitled "Spidey Meets the President", Peter Parker headed to the White House to take photos of the inauguration, and wound up in a fun team-up with Barack Obama. The two even shared a fist-bump!
8. "A bunch of angry white folks"
Perhaps one of the most controversial political statements was in Captain America #602, where Captain America and Falcon are touring the country, trying to work out what it means to be American (more on that later). The two see a protest march, and watch in shock. Falcon - who is, of course, black - described the marchers as "a bunch of angry white folks". But just look at what was on the signs!
It seemed like a pretty strong criticism of the Tea Party movement, and Tea Party supporters were furious. Writer Ed Brubaker even received death threats! Oddly enough, though, this was one political controversy that may not have been intentional. According to Marvel's Editor-In-Chief, Joe Quesada, on the first page the artist had drawn slogans into the signs to give them a sense of reality and set up the scene. On the second page, he hadn't; just before the book went to print, the editor asked the letterer to just fudge in some quick signs. He pulled slogans from real signs, not realising what a controversy he'd cause!
9. Superman Renounces the American Way
In modern times, more patriotic comics such as Captain America and Superman have reflected the challenge of modern American identity. It led Superman to an arc called "Grounded", in which Superman walked (not flew) across America, getting a sense of where the nation was at. That culminated in a controversial moment in Action Comics #600, where Superman's intervention in Tehran was seen as an act of war due to his American citizenship. In response, Superman renounced his American citizenship.
It's a powerful statement, but it reflects a growing distance between the idea of Superman and "truth, justice and the American way". Over in the films, Superman Returns featured a throwaway reference to "truth, justice, and all that stuff". The patriotic element is pretty much ignored by the DC Extended Universe.
When Nick Spencer launched Sam Wilson: Captain America last year, he kicked things off with a politically-inspired controversy. The villains were a group who were smuggling illegal immigrants into the country - and then killing them. Dialogue tied them to right-wing concerns about immigration, with explicit discussion of "the wall" (a nod to Donald Trump's policies). In short, the new Captain America was being designed as a liberal champion going head-to-head with exaggerated right-wingers.
It was a powerful criticism, and the howls of outrage were fairly predictable. Fox News was unimpressed, telling comics to stay out of politics (see the video above).
So there you have it! Ten cases in which superhero comics dared to step into the political arena. This is only a sample - broaden out the debate, and you have the X-Men's struggle against the AIDS-analogue Legacy Virus, drug use plots in Amazing Spider-Man, and of course the superb Maus. Often those political statements have been controversial - Nick Spencer, Ed Brubaker, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby have all received death threats! But whether you like it or not, there's a tradition of comics doing politics, and it's one that Nick Spencer seems determined to honor.