The funny books aren’t funny anymore.
By this I mean that, excluding Archie and the odd issue of Squirrel Girl, mainstream comics haven’t been true to their name for years now. Whether you like it or not, gone are the days of the classic ten-cent The Beano and The Dandy your granny used to read down at the corner shop. This is no one’s fault, really, at least no one specific. The heart of this change is within our changing world.
Today in North America, the political world is vibrant and teeming. Not only are we in a time of great political change both in Canada and the United States, but we are also surrounded by numerous and increasingly frequent events and crises that many are all too eager to spin to fit their political viewpoints. From immigration to ISIS to LGBTQ+ rights and beyond, there doesn’t seem to be anything safe from the perusal of daytime news or the mockery of late-night talk shows.
So where do comics fit into all of this?
Author Nick Spencer and artist Daniel Acuña present their answer to this question in the form of Captain America: Sam Wilson, Marvel’s current Captain America title. Here they tackle issues such as LGBTQ+ rights, as well as building racial tensions, poverty and the shrinking middle class, and, most notably, the issue of illegal immigration over the Mexican border along with various reactions to it.
This isn’t the first time comics have been used as a platform to address political and societal issues; V for Vendetta and Watchmen did it in the eighties, as did Hellblazer in the late eighties and early nineties, and X-Men has been representing minorities for many years, to name a few. However, Spencer and Acuña’s new effort seems to signal a violent shift towards an even more culturally relevant title.
Captain America: Sam Wilson chooses to rest in the middle of this cultural spotlight, and is not afraid to tackle touchy subjects within its pages. The protagonist and namesake, Sam Wilson, the new Captain America, takes an active stance, frequently confronting the polarization of views towards cultural issues.
“Red and Blue, Black and White, Republican and Democrat, North and South—Feels like we’re constantly at each other’s throats,” he says in the first issue, in which this popular superhero makes himself incredibly unpopular literally overnight by “going partisan” and sharing his personal views on political issues. In the world of the comic, this action leads to the public questioning what role superheroes play in politics; in our world, this spurs our discussion of the political role of comic books.
Fox & Friends’ Elisabeth Hasselbeck believes she has the answer to this discussion.
“Keep politics out of comic books, that’s what I say,” she declared at the end of a segment focused on Spencer and Acuña’s new book, in which she and her two co-anchors Clayton Morris and Tucker Carlson expressed their extreme displeasure at the message that it attempts to present. The main focus of their disgruntlement was the main antagonists of the first and second issues, the Sons of the Serpent, who are portrayed in the books as American ultra-conservative extremists attempting to repel illegal Mexican immigrants through vigilantism. Though these villains have been a mainstay of Captain America comics since the sixties, acting as a Marvel Universe proxy for the KKK, the crew at Fox & Friends saw them as a display that “now the threat comes from ordinary Americans—probably some of you watching at home!”
It is unsurprising then, in the face of this real world controversy, that Spencer depicts a similar reaction to Sam’s actions in the world of the comic, as he is quickly dubbed “Sam Wilson: Captain Anti-America,” by a fictional news organization.
Furthermore, the comic adds another layer of depth to the question by highlighting the previous Captain America’s very reserved stance in the realm of politics, a thought that is echoed once again by Fox & Friends when they comment on how much they liked the older Captain America stories in which he did heroic things like punch Hitler in the face. Is good ol’ Nazi bashing fun not good enough for today’s modern readers?
The answer, unfortunately, is not a simple “yes” or “no.”
Punching Nazis, while an enjoyable pastime, was not necessarily “good enough” in the forties when the original Captain America was published, just as it is not necessarily “good enough” now. It is not a matter of whether it was good or bad content, but rather one of cultural relevancy. In a time of war and ten-cent The Beanos and The Dandys, people needed a fun dose of Hitler smacking. Today, when comics and other forms of graphic fiction have the capacity to be instruments of social questioning and change, rather than simple amusements, there is almost a responsibility to make use of the opportunity.
This does not necessarily mean that every comic book creator has to write about politically charged and controversial topics, likely to get them more hate mail than Eisner Awards. It does mean that creators should realize that these opportunities exist, and that using the same old bag of tricks on modern audiences may work about as well as promoting newsprint to a world of social media.
Ultimately, one’s own perception of what graphic fiction should be is vital to deciding what it can be, but in terms of having an influence on politics, it clearly has the ability to at least encourage readers to question their world and culture.
The funny books aren’t funny anymore, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
-Contributed by Stephan Goslinski