One of the major arguments of my book Titans is that comics can help us make sense of our politics. Often they do this by giving us dire warnings about the consequences of our political choices, “principles,”1 and attitudes. Sometimes comics can offer us solutions to our political disease, but often they simply diagnose the problem.
Looking at my Facebook news feed (which gets more and more difficult to do as we get closer to November 8th), I keep thinking of two scenes from two of the most important comics written in the last thirty years.
The first scene is from Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come, which describes a dystopian future in which the heroes of yesterday (represented by Superman, Wonder Woman, and the rest of the Justice League) have left public service and been replaced by a new generation of “heroes” who fight simply for the sake of fighting and have no principles or regard for the safety of civilians.
The reason that Superman withdrew from heroics is that the public turned against him in favor of a new metahuman called “Magog.” Before Kingdom Come begins, the Joker came to Metropolis and killed ninety three people. Batman and Superman tried to find him and stop him, but Magog got to him first and murdered him (even though he could have easily apprehended him).
Superman argued for his guilt in a court of law, but Magog was found innocent of murder. The public decided that it preferred Magog—a “hero” who would cross any line in order to “protect” the people—to Superman, who still operated by principles.
What brings Superman, Wonder Woman, and the rest of the old-guard heroes out of exile is that when Magog leads an assault on a supervillain named Parasite, the attack goes badly and results in the entire Midwest being reduced to an irradiated, barren wasteland. The question that preoccupies the rest of the book is whether or not the old heroes can heal the world and restore the values that they represent without becoming tyrants.
I don’t mean to suggest any direct parallels between Magog (or Superman) and any real-world politicians or movements (personally, I would prefer just about any presidential candidate to the two that we’ve been saddled with). But I think that Kingdom Come does correctly diagnose much of our political malaise: we get the leaders we deserve because we get the leaders that we choose.
The second scene that I keep thinking of is a moment in the first issue of Marvel’s original Civil War crossover series. At the beginning of that story, a group of young and inexperienced heroes called the New Warriors go after a group of supervillains who are hiding out in a house in Stamford, CT. Their actions result in an explosion that kills hundreds of people, including children at a local elementary school.
As is typical of people, the public turns against all superheroes because of what happens in Stamford. In one particular incident, Johnny Storm gets brutally assaulted and put into the hospital—not because he’s done anything, but because the public now associates him with the actions of the New Warriors.
If my Facebook news feed in any way represents the state of public opinion, we are too ready to think the worst of people who disagree with us and too ready to turn on our fellow citizens because of the actions and opinions of a few. If we want to hold on to our freedom and to remain a good nation, we have to change. It isn’t simply a matter of changing who gets to occupy the Oval Office or senate seats; it is we ourselves who have to change.
1 Since so few politicians have principles, I use this term half ironically.