Twitter was interesting yesterday for a number of reasons, one of which was an argument that Nick Spencer got into with a few different people about the merits of “topical” or politically engaged comics. As far as I can tell, the conversation seemed to come down to whether or not people want “escapism” in their comics, or if they want comics that engage with contemporary political issues.

From Captain America: Sam Wilson #17

Spencer seemed to be arguing that comics have a responsibility to engage with the real world and that people look to comics to help them understand their world—including (maybe especially) politics. His interlocutors seemed to be arguing just the opposite: people read comics in order to escape the real world.

You might argue that the debate finally came down to a simple matter of reading preferences. Those of us who like for our comics to raise social, moral, political, and philosophical questions gravitate toward books like Spencer’s Captain America, The Dark Knight Returns, Civil War, Green Arrow, and others. And those of us who want simple “escapism” (whatever that means) tend to read other kinds of books. No problem, right? You do your thing, and I’ll do mine; live and let live; etc.

The problem is that this debate might lead us to believe that there are only two possibilities for comics:

  1. The book is topical (meaning it incorporates current events and politics into the story), therefore it engages with or addresses “real life.”
  2. The book is not topical (meaning that it doesn’t address current events); therefore it is mere “escapism” and doesn’t deal with “real life.”

This is a false dilemma; it offers us only two alternatives when there are more than two. All good stories (even the ones that we call “escapist”) are about real life. All good stories have some sort of moral, political, or philosophical implication, and this is especially true of superhero comics because they are the modern American mythology—meaning that they encode and dramatize everything important about being human.

But the point that some people seem to miss is that a story can have political implications without being a direct allegory or specifically incorporating real-world issues, people, movements, parties, etc. into them. One of the best examples of this is Kingdom Come by
Mark Waid and Alex Ross. It’s a damn good superhero romp, and those who want “escapism” can certainly enjoy it without having their political sensitivities troubled. But it’s also a thoroughly political book—just not in the same way that Captain America: Sam Wilson, Green Arrow, or Occupy Avengers are political. There are no analogues to Fox News or to the Tea Party in Kingdom Come. You can’t say, “Okay, Superman represents Democrats,” or anything like that. Batman and the Outsiders aren’t Social Justice Warriors. Luther and the MLF aren’t right-wingers. But the book does explore serious philosophical questions that have a direct bearing on the politics of any time: what is freedom? can you enforce peace? is having good examples enough to make people more virtuous? For readers who who care to think about them, those kinds of questions have real consequences for how we order our lives together—and that is the very definition of politics.

And if Kingdom Come is a bit too heavy an example (it is a pretty serious book), what about books like Superman and Action Comics? Both of the current Superman-related titles raise interesting questions about what it means to be a father and what it means to be a mother and about what it means for a child to be “different.” They’re not “topical” in the sense that Captain America: Sam Wilson is “topical,” but they do have political implications. People who want to think about those implications can do so, and people who just want to be entertained by good stories can be entertained.

From Green Arrow: Rebirth

All of this is not to say that comics don’t have a political problem. You could make a good argument that they do have a political problem, especially Marvel. That problem isn’t with any single book or creator, however. And as Spencer pointed out yesterday, the problem isn’t that people who want escapism don’t have options. They have plenty of options.

But more on that issue in a later post.