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Comics, Diversity, & Social Justice

A few weeks ago some controversy arose after comments made by David Gabriel in general about slumping sales of Marvel’s diverse surfaced and were published on several comic sites. The following began as a cursory response to being frustrated by comments from people expressing negative opinions about diversity in comics and social justice (or specifically social justice warriors). It’s been expanded on to a small degree here and should by no means be considered as definitive and exhaustive though as an essay it may be exhausting to you. BA DA DUM! Nor should this piece be taken as an effort to sweep under the rug the numerous instances of racist stereotypes in portraying characters of color (“Chop Chop” from Blackhawk, Ebony from The Spirit, and every Asian villain come to mind) while imbuing virtues and powers solely to white characters in their comics.

I’d like to talk some about comics and social justice. The history of comics began 84 years ago with the appearance of the Famous Funnies #1 in 1933 which reprinted newspaper comic strips. Just a few years later publishers were searching for new content instead of repackaging comic strips, an idea which took off and in my opinion probably saved the new medium. America was in the Great Depression and Prohibition was just ending. Thanks to Prohibition, organized crime and gangs dramatically increased and made money hand over fist, but when it ended those gangs ventured into other shady activities. Slum lords come to mind.

Comic strips still had an influence on comics but so did pulp magazines with crime and detective stories and at some later point lurid sex pulps had some influence. Immigration issues and bigotry were at play in America too. Irish and Italians had both separately come to America in huge immigrant waves and were equally despised and allowed only menial positions. European Jews followed them and had the added burdens of not being considered white like “average” Americans (re: white) as well as “Christ killers”.

Enter Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Bob Kane, Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, and William Moulton Marston, six men who had an enormous impact on comics with Superman, Batman, Captain America, and Wonder Woman. All of them except Marston was Jewish. (And yes, Bob Kane is problematic since we know he used so many others without giving them credit.) When Batman wasn’t fighting the Joker or Catwoman he brought gang lords to justice, just as Superman often did. The same kinds of gangs that in the real world had made money during Prohibition and then became slum lords or shady construction businesses or sweat shops. In essence portraying the worst traits of people who knowingly and willingly abused vulnerable people. Everyone knows that Simon and Kirby’s most famous creation is Captain America, a young blond American male who punches Hitler in the face and fights Nazis before the United States had entered into World War II. Marston, in a polyamorous relationship with 2 women (something they had to keep secret for years), introduced feminism into comics with Wonder Woman. Certainly these elements changed and faded as years went by and the artists and writers associated with the characters adapted and changed with the times or left their creations altogether for one reason or another.

Another example of a comics story with a social justice element is Judgment Day from EC’s Weird Fanatasy #18, 1953. This is a good description: “This story depicts an astronaut from the future traveling to another planet to see if the inhabitants should be admitted into the Galactic Republic. During the astronaut’s visit, he realizes that the robots on this planet are segregated by color. The astronaut decides that, due to their bigotry, they cannot be admitted into the Galactic Republic. In the last panel of the story, the astronaut removes his helmet to reveal that he is a Black male…” Read more here.

Comics dumbed themselves down in large part thanks to Frederick Wertham, author of Seduction of the Innocent, and the Senate sub committee hearings on comic books led by Senator Estes Kefauver which led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority in 1954. Publisher participation in the CCA was said to be voluntary, but publishers who didn’t found themselves out of business. Two notable were Dell Comics whose comics were viewed as the definition of wholesome and EC which survived only by transforming Mad from a comic into a magazine and canceling the rest of its comics. The tone and direction of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Captain American had already been changing for other reasons. World War II was over but America began finding new superheroes in the military, thanks to the burgeoning Cold War. Timely canceled Captain America and the other creators had either been summarily dismissed, outsourced most work while claiming credit in the case of Kane, or had died as with Marston, leaving original Wonder Woman artist Harry Peter saddled with Robert Khanigar till Peter left in 1958.

This tendency began to change direction in my opinion because of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby throwing caution to the wind and creating comics and characters that appealed to colleged aged people as much or more than young kids which were comics’ typical audience. While still boxed in by contemporary social conventions, Sue Storm and Janet Van Dyne were heroes. African American faces were spotted in crowd scenes. Gabriel Jones was one of Sgt Fury’s Howling Commandos before the debut of Black Panther in Fantastic Four #52 (July, 1966). To place in a greater historical context, Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Martin Luther King Jr led march from Selma to Montgomery, AL happened in March, 1965.

State troopers swing billy clubs to break up a civil rights voting march in Selma, Ala., March 7, 1965. John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (in the foreground) is being beaten by state troopers. (AP Photo)

Of course, there is Marvel’s original minority as feared outsider metaphor the X-Men presented as an alternative family of choice — for the sake of survival, but a family nonetheless.

Stan Lee wrote an anti drug story in Spider-Man story in the 1960s and Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams teamed up to address social justice issues in their run on Green Lantern/ Green Arrow, which is my first comics introduction. I’m certain the stories haven’t fared as well as one might hope over the years but at the time they were gutsy. And yes, the series ended with their run, but the series was slated to be canceled before they were given their Hail Mary opportunity to save it.

The Sons of the Serpent is a villainous organization whose racist, anti immigrant/ populist ideology has been apparent since its first appearance in Avengers #32 published in 1966. Sam Wilson becoming the Falcon in Captain America #117 was an effort designed to piggy back on the success of Black Panther’s appearance while addressing the issues of race and racism in America.

You might not think of Luke Cage as an example of social justice in comics, but it is. It was the second time a publisher decided to print a comic about a solo lead black character, one whose skin deflects bullets, whose body can’t be harmed by brute forces that everyday African Americans might encounter in acts of violence. Civil rights protester (now Congressman) John Lewis had nearly been killed in that Selma March and Martin Luther King Jr had been assassinated only a few years before Luke Cage’s first issue. I say Luke Cage was the second try for a solo comic featuring a person of color because Dell attempted it in the mid 1960s with Lobo which ran for all of 2 issues.

Roger Stern gave Steve Rogers a girlfriend when he created Bernie (Bernadette) Rosenthal who first appeared in Captain America #247. The character was extensively used by writer J M DeMatteis during the first couple years of his run on the title and her character interacted with Arnie Roth, Steve’s retconned childhood best friend whom DeMatteis intentionally created and wrote as gay though Comics Code prohibitions still in effect at the time meant DeMatteis resorted to coding Roth, however thinly. DeMatteis sought to do in his Cap run just as Stan Lee did with introducing Falcon by broadening the idea of what it meant to be an American by including Jewish-Americans and a gay man in the cast. Arnie’s lover died tragically but DeMatteis explored the impact on Arnie’s life.

Readers have either forgotten or never knew that Valkyrie was an unapologetic feminist in the first years of her appearances in The Defenders.

The Comics Code prohibited any (positive) depictions of LGBT people so we have to look to underground comix (that era’s version of today’s self published and indy comics) to see LGBT characters and stories starting to appear with cartoonists such as Howard Cruse, Mary Wings, and Lee Marrs off the top of my head. Feminism found expression in comix too, with Wimmen’s Comix and Tits and Clits. Even then, these people took great chances at their work being rejected by underground publishers or not well received at all by readers or going bankrupt if they self published. And that’s assuming potential readers could even find these comics because underground comix were often subjected to local pornography laws which made distribution incredibly challenging. And I very much doubt that we’d have gotten LGBT characters in mainstream comics when we did, as late as it was, if it had not been for the risky and demanding groundwork that was laid by these and other cartoonists.

The Legacy Virus in X-Men stories from the 1990s is a metaphor for HIV and the AIDS Crisis from the 1980s and 1990s. Social Justice. The core concept of the X-Men as outsiders is social justice with lots of window dressing. I missed the Legacy Virus stories and that maybe just as well because in my mind nothing could stand up to the autobiographical story of David Wojnarowicz in 7 Miles a Second. That story is absolutely brutal in its honesty and scathing contempt of American political and social forces abusing and aligned against gay men.

I’ll end here because I think, I hope, the point that comics have had a social justice element from very early on has been made. Even at the height of my comics buying I understood and accepted that not every comic was made to appeal to me. You don’t have to like comics with social justice elements or characters. You’re not being forced to like them let alone buy and read them. Just please don’t think the two have never met before the past several years when you became aware of them. Please don’t think your comics enjoyment is being overtly targeted and threatened by social justice matters when it’s very likely that elements of social justice sustained and propelled forward some characters, comics, and the industry in general.

April 21, 2017
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