With the release of Black Panther in February, Marvel waded into many topical and familiar points of debate regarding race. The predominantly black cast and the fact that it was written and directed by African Americans was an immediate discussion point in response to the often whitewashed Hollywood blockbuster. The story treads lightly, but not timidly, over hundreds of years of Western colonization and enslavement of Africa. Notably, a Wakandan character sardonically labels a white character a “colonizer.”
The antagonist, Erik Killmonger, exemplifies a complicated discussion of what ends justify the means of correcting social injustice. But in order to even get there, the story accepts as fact that modern-day African Americans are at a socioeconomic disadvantage due to a history of discrimination and racism. This is a concept that is still not accepted by many Americans, especially white Americans. Black Panther flung its political net far enough to cover both Africa and the United States.
In fact, though a huge commercial and critical success, one of the most prevalent criticisms of Black Panther is that it was simply “too political.” These critics indicate, expressly or by implication, that comics and superhero movies are for fun, not for politics. It’s the “shut up and dribble” mentality applied to a new entertainment medium. However, these critics ignore the deeply political history of comics.
Captain America was a deliberate political invention. On the cover of his debut comic book, Captain America was featured punching Adolf Hitler. Bear in mind, this was printed one year before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the U.S. was not yet directly involved in World War II. The nation was divided on entering the war and was coming out of a lengthy period of isolationism. Hitler was not the historical boogeyman he is today, but a living political leader of a major European country with many sympathetic ears in the U.S.
Imagine this was printed today and Kim Jong-un was on the cover instead. We don’t have to look so far to imagine what that might be like. Now imagine that scenario again, except this time there is a sizable base of Americans supporting the North Korean regime. Now you are closer to the political climate of pre-WWII America. Creator and writer Joe Simon later said about the creation of Captain America, “The opponents to the war were all quite well organized. We wanted to have our say too.”
In his initial run, Captain America fought Nazi spies and other Nazi agents, a political statement that was not without consequence. Captain America artist, Jack Kirby, later told an interviewer, “I once got a letter from a Nazi who told me to pick out any lamppost I wanted on Times Square, because when Hitler arrived, they’d hang me from it. It was typical of a genre of fans who have long since died out.”
Not long after World War II, a human rights activist named Stetson Kennedy infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Unable to make traction with local authorities and governments, which Kennedy suspected of being influenced by Klan members, he approached the Superman radio serial. The result was a 1946 series of episodes titled Clan of the Fiery Cross wherein Superman, the very symbol of All-American small-town goodness, battled an organization with an uncanny resemblance to the KKK. The series trivialized the Klan’s rituals and, though denounced by Klan leaders, led to a significant drop in their ability to recruit. In doing so, DC Comics took a stand against what had been a historically robust political force that sought to consolidate power along racial and religious lines.
Meanwhile, comic books took a leap off the pages into the real world of politics during the mid-1950s when the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency put comics in its sites as a potential corrupter of America’s youth. At the time the American Civil Liberties Union stepped in to defend comic books from censorship and sales bans.
After World War II, the KKK aside, comics found a new political foe: communists. A.V. Club relatively recently wrote a detailed and interesting article on the history of comic books and anti-communist sentiment, including the creation of Iron Man, who became Marvel’s de facto crusader against the “red menace” in addition to numerous superheroes battling communist operatives.
At the same time, the creation of the X-Men echoed the racial strife of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. Introduced in 1963, the X-Men’s resemblance to the content and structure of the Civil Rights movement was intentional according to co-creator Stan Lee. Lee told The Guardian in 2000
(I)t occurred to me that instead of them just being heroes that everybody admired, what if I made other people fear and suspect and actually hate them because they were different? I loved that idea; it not only made them different, but it was a good metaphor for what was happening with the civil rights movement in the country at that time.
There is no shortage of articles comparing the methods and ideologies of Charles Xavier and Magneto to those of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X respectively, and some criticizing the comparison. And though the exactness of the allegory is open to debate, the X-men were designed as a political statement on racial bigotry reflecting the social upheaval occurring at the same.
More recently, the 2006 Civil War crossover event, and the subsequent 2016 Captain America movie of the same name, highlighted the ethical Rubik’s Cube posed by the inevitable trade off between freedom and security. These storylines mirrored recent debates on gun control and other forms of government regulation and surveillance. Other comic book movies have had their own political perspectives. 2008’s Iron Man had its criticism of the military industrial complex and 2016’s unassuming Ant Man had it’s protagonist’s Robin Hood-eque whistle blowing of corporate wrongdoing.
Those comparisons just scratch the surface of the approximately 80 year history of comic books. It is perhaps not incidental that the single-frame comic has been a staple of political commentary for even longer.
The lengthy marriage of comic books and politics indicates that it was not the political-consciousness of Black Panther itself that made some audiences uncomfortable. Those same audiences have been swallowing politics with little complaint in this and similar mediums for decades. It was the specific type of political statement being made, contrasted against the social climate, that made some critics uncomfortable. This is partially because Black Panther delivered its politicking in a highly consumed medium, the blockbuster film, with no pretext or historical degree of separation for modern audiences. It didn’t exist in just a niche entertainment medium, easily ignored by large portions of the public. It doesn’t concern itself with a foreign war receding into public memory. It doesn’t tackle a sinister, secretive organization crippled in its current iteration. It doesn’t introduce us to a fictional metaphor for racial strife. Instead, it plainly presents modern racial concerns that are complicated and difficult to discuss because they challenge long-held belief systems and self-identity. Still, many comic books dealt with the sensitive political issues of their time.
The earnest, modern point-of-view on race and racial issues made some critics uncomfortable, not just the purported “politics.” Recognizing this distinction through the lens of the lengthy political history of comic books, which contains more examples than would fit in this article, gives us a starting point to recognize and discuss how we react to racial and political discussions in comic books and other entertainment. This is a discussion we intend to have at greater length in future articles.