By Kevin M. Brettauer
Jack Kirby once commented that comics should be a vehicle for journalism. After all, why wouldn’t he? In March, 1941, he and co-create Joe Simon unleashed Captain America Comics #1, just a few short months before Pearl Harbor forced America’s hand and the US entered World War II. The cover alone was daring, as bold as Charlie Chaplin’s film of the previous year, The Great Dictator. The comic featured what is now an iconic image: a man, wrapped in the flag of, at the time, an unaligned nation, flat-out socking Der Furher in the jaw. This was a bold stance. Simon and Kirby, two young Jewish Americans, wrapped their hero in the American flag and had him fight fascism nine months before FDR declared war on the Axis Powers.
Comics, of course, were political before then, and they have long continued to be. Last year, Sam Humphries and Tommy Patterson released Citizen Jack #1, the first issue in the story of a failed, overweight businessman who makes a pact with a literal demon to put him the White House, long before Donald Trump garnered the Republican nomination. I’ve written extensively about Warren Ellis in the past in this column, but it’s worth at least briefly mentioning some of his more brazenly political work, like Transmetropolitan and Black Summer, the former begun before the George W. Bush administration, and the other a direct response to it. Both told very political stories from terrifically different angles. Transmet told the story of the reporter on the street, staring the political system in the eye and daring it to blink first. Black Summer showed just what would happen in a world where Bush 43 had to share his America with Avengers and Justice League analogues who decided it was time that he pay for his war crimes.
In the previous decade, DC Comics, for a time, saw Lex Luthor rise to the office of the President, with many storylines being downright eerily prophetic of events that were still months, and sometimes mere weeks or days, away. Similarly, Marvel put Norman Osborn, Spider-Man’s arch-nemesis, in charge of a new organization designed to replace SHIELD as the government began to remove even more personal liberties, rights that had slowly been revoked or outright obliterated starting from the original Civil War.
But perhaps the best – and, sadly, the most timeless – example of political comics is Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta, now known more for the film adaptation that helped give recognizable iconography to the Anonymous movement. But the original V, the printed version, is a different animal. While the film depicts a very American dystopia in a post-9/11 world – of course it would, being made by and for American audiences, despite being about Britain – the comic extrapolates what could have happened if Margaret Thatcher’s turn as Prime Minister had given way to a fascist party wrestling control away from both the Conservative and Labour parties. Purges begin. Camps are opened. Undesirables vanish. And then, of course, in 1998, a political insurrectionist named V blows up several London landmarks in one go, issuing a very public ultimatum that echoes throughout the corridors of power. It’s heartfelt, terrifying, tragic and all too resonant.
Writer Brian Wood’s heartbreaking DMZ is the Man in the Glass Booth of comics, telling the story of embedded reporter Matty Roth in the demilitarized zone of Manhattan following the Second American Civil War. While trying to remain impartial, Matty gets more and more drawn into the lives of those around him, including a young medic named Zee, a militia group known as “the Ghosts” who congregate in Central Park, and a political hopeful named Parco Delgado who has more in common with the villains in the Netflix adaptation of Luke Cage than he does John F. Kennedy or Abraham Lincoln.
In current comics, wife/husband team Corrina Bechko and Gabriel Hardman’s Invisible Republic, inspired in parts by Thomas Malory and Genghis Khan, tells the story of the rise and fall of brutal dictator Arthur McBride on the planet Avalon, hundreds of years in our future. It also tells the life story of his dear cousin, Maia Reveron, his comrade in arms since childhood, her erasure from the history books, her imprisonment, and the discovery of her journal by hungry, desperate reporter Croger Babb. In this election, when a male candidate wants to imprison his female opponent simply because he doesn’t know how to deal with her, it couldn’t be more important. Letter 44, created by writer Charles Soule, tells the story of a “hope and change” President being inaugurated and discovering the dark secret of his warmongering predecessor: that everything he did was for the good of humanity, to prepare them for an impending alien invasion that only very few know about, forcing the new President to reconsider everything he thought he knew about the world around him, especially as a secret NASA crew heads ever closer to the impending visitors’ ship.
And, really, that’s just the start. This entire column could have been about Captain America. How he watched a President commit suicide rather than be arrested for his crimes as Watergate unfolded in the real world, and how he subsequently became Nomad, the man without a country. How he stood up to Tony Stark’s technofascism on more than one occasion. How HYDRA so quickly turned from a commentary on the Business Plot of 1933 to an outright stand-in for the growing Neo-Nazi movement in the United States. How both the current series have dealt with issues of illegal immigration, American hate groups, racial profiling, Internet social justice, cable news talking heads and even experimentation on undocumented persons. But there’s always been more to comics than just Captain America, even if, as a young soldier in World War II, Jack Kirby was “handed a chocolate bar and an M-1 rifle and told to go kill Hitler.”
But comics have always been political, and the day they stop being political is the day they die.