Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Comic Book Superheros and Why We should Care About Them

Recently I had the chance to attend  a lecture at my public library given by Dr. Erin McMann on the topic of comic book superheroes and why we should care about them.  Dr. McMann is an instructor at Wilfred Laurier University in the Departments of English and Film Studies. The following is some of what I learned about the value of Comic books and the superheros they follow.

Often the characters, and specifically superheroes, represent what not just what humans could be but they also represent what we should be in an idealized society. They are something that is greater than the individual, the person on the street, the bystander. That is why the stories are told in such a way that the reader identifies with the superhero and not the bystanders. The opponents are battling over, and for, the welfare of the  bystanders, but those bystanders are never really considered in the story.  They exist to provide a purpose for the actions of the of the hero or antihero.  This helps develop the idea that it is these few, the stronger superheroes and super villains, that are able to handle challenging situations.  Since the bystanders don't have the ability or the awareness to do something, it models a world where we, the bystander, are stripped of power and become willing to allow a representative to take care of the problem for us.  In the comic, we accept that we could not possibly handle larger situations on our own. The great irony is that it never occurs to us that, if all the bystanders grouped together, they could take care of the villain solve the problem. Readers also don't easily recognize that the superheroes are actually merely a stop gap in their own story. It is the superhero who must fight the villain. That villain, who is often punished violently, is put in jail only to escape again and again.  As the situation repeats, the core of the situation is never really addressed.  Poverty, starvation, inequality, oppression - none of these are dealt with at the ground-level but are used as means to groom both the hero and the villain into action. 

What we may not realize at first is that it is the villain who seeks change in society, although almost always via criminal acts and use of force. It is the superhero that strives to maintain the status quo which is often seen as a good thing.  In this way, comics allow the reader to feel comfortable with challenging the way things area because it is the villain who is trying to make the change happen and the reader can chose to cheer him or the hero without drastically altering their own beliefs immediately.  This subtext allows readers time to mull over situations and different perspectives as they wait for the hero to find an ethical and virtuous way to affect social change, while the villain makes the same attempt through violence and anti-social methods. Comic books are able to bring these ideas to us without forcing them upon us noble ideas and demanding that we run to the front door and take action.  The allow us to participate in social debates through their story lines, encouraging us to consider what's wrong with the world, what causes it and what changes could happen. 

While subtle in their attempts to challenge the social consciousness, comics have often been viewed by watch groups as a direct threat to traditionally accepted beliefs and behaviours. The comic code was established in 1954 with the purpose of protecting young minds from the evil influences of violence, anarchist ideology, and exposure to sexual or immoral situations.  The code demanded strict adherence to what was considered acceptable content in comic books.  The Comic Code can be read here.  A few highlights from the General Standards- Part A include:

(1) Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals.
(3) Policemen, judges, Government officials and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.
(4) If crime is depicted it shall be as a sordid and unpleasant activity.
(5) Criminals shall not be presented so as to be rendered glamorous or to occupy a position which creates a desire for emulation.
(6) In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.

In order to publish the story lines and ideas as the creators desired, they had to be creative in the presentation.  Often the writers wanted to make people think, question the status quo and consider different perspectives.  Scratch beneath the ink and the cell lines of each panel and you are going to find humanity exploring itself.
Wonder Woman #1, 1942

Social, political, and  psychological foundations are explored within the pages of the comic book. You won't find a masters thesis or university dissertation just laid out word for word. It is much more subtle in that  - as a reader you have to dig.  If writers were to lecture the audience on societies shortcomings or fallacies, people will ignore or reject the message due to the preaching tone. But when you introduce new views slowly, issue by issue, the stories will bring up concepts, theologies and  ideologies that people will consider because it has slowly worked its way into the characters. The new viewpoints flow into the story lines and inform readers in a nonthreatening, nonjudgmental way.  This allows us to process these ideas and form our own opinions about issues,  where society tends to dictate what our acceptable responses should be.
Yellow Kid #2, 1897

Social divisions and stereotypes have been popular topics in comics since the beginning including gender, nationality and ethnicity, sexual orientation, and class. Social issues such as international conflicts, conservation, pollution, corruption, addiction and abuse soon worked their way into the stories. Here are some examples of comics challenging societal norms:

  • The Yellow Kid character in the 1895 Hogan's Alley satirized poverty and realistically showed the lives of poor living in the slums. Beneath the humour was a commentary on urban poverty.
  • Early issues of Superman saw the hero taking on slum lords, corrupt businessmen and other symptoms of the Great Depression 
  • American superheroes started fighting against Hitler and the Axis powers well before the USA entered the war
  • Wonder Woman first appeared as a  proto-feminist figure, fighting for wronged women in a man-made world. Until that point, the women of comics were mainly girlfriends or secretaries looking to be rescued.
  • 1957 saw a comic dealing with the civil rights moment and integration. It was called Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. You can imagine how controversial it was as a source of inspiration for some and a threat to the status quo for others. The comic was seen to promote nonviolent methods of creating social change.
  • Spider-man in the 1960s showed a young man who was flawed, insecure and often had to fight against authority figures.
  • The Falcon, one of the first African-American superheroes, is Harlem social worker Sam Wilson, who has a civil rights platform that discourages black separatism and militancy
  • The conservative Green Lantern was often challenged by the Green Arrow to look at the validity of those in authority while facing issues such as racism, corruption, pollution and the treatment of Native Americans.
  • X-Men deals with various forms of discrimination as they are persecuted for their differences from humans.
  • LGBT characters start to be introduced in mainstream comics challenging views and intolerance. FANTASTIC FOUR #251 (1983) contains the first use of the term “gay” in mass-market comics; DEFENDERS #134 (1984) character Cloud is revealed to be transgendered; SUPERMAN (v.2) #15 (1988) features Maggie Sawyer, clearly indicating that she is a lesbian and the first gay parent in mass-market comics.
Captain America #1,  March 1941
"Comics can be about superheroes, battles with evil exes or autobiographies, but they have an amazing potential for social commentary. They combine protest art, visual documentation and text in very interesting ways, and under the best of creative teams, social commentary can fuel exciting stories instead of feeling preachy. Comics have been calling out injustices for decades" - Nicholas Slayton, from his article Comics provide space for social commentary (April 2012)

Comic books are important because the scenarios that the people face exhibit situations where confrontation isn't necessarily the only answer. The quandaries faced enable a person to see a situation and how it is dealt with. Comic books allow people to create their own versions and see how different scenarios are played out, which can result in new ways of defusing stressful situations. It may permit a person to see situations in life differently and hence; think outside the box when warranted. (via http://comic-books.itsbobsfault.com/index.php)

Check out this list of the 26 most important comics by Christa Wagner at Mental Floss.com

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