Drawing The Line

Drawing The Line

Fed up fans sick of SJWs wrecking their beloved comic books have turned into superheroes valiantly fighting to save a much-loved pop culture institution, argues IPA Research Fellow Morgan Begg.

Superheroes are almost omnipresent in our culture. With films such as Captain Marvel, Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War just some of the films dominating the box office since 2018, and with no fewer than 10 superhero series broadcast or streamed throughout the year, it has been nearly impossible to avoid the genre.

But the print medium which gave birth to them—comic books, magazines and graphic novels—is in a state of terminal decline as it battles the combined forces of predatory publishers and propagandists in an industry now more committed to intersectionalism and identity politics than to aspirational themes and good stories.

With 2018 also marking the death of comics legend and figurehead Stan Lee at the age of 95, parallels were drawn between Lee’s departure and the declining health of the comic industry. Now the only hope for reviving the industry is a so-far successful movement resisting the mainstream industry by returning the medium to escapist and aspirational entertainment.

Superhero comics are a niche hobby nowadays, but the stories and ideas within those books directly feed into more mainstream cultural products such as film and television. As noted by Michael Critzer— scholar of persuasive writing at James Madison University in Virginia and author of Heroic Inspirations—these products have a more pervasive impact than mere entertainment:

Comic books are our mythology. They’re supposed to recontextualise the discussions a society is having about the fears and anxieties and values… in a fictional setting so that we can gain deeper insights and really understand what to do with these situations in ways we wouldn’t had we just been having a discussion of the facts.

Indeed, many of the issues addressed effectively by superhero stories are those around personal responsibility, selflessness, good judgement and justice. Travis Smith, associate professor of political science at Concordia University in Quebec, Canada, noted in his 2018 book Superhero Ethics:

Treating superheroes as metaphors turns them into examples of power and freedom that we can use to improve our own lives. Cultivating responsibility in others and ourselves is our duty, and this is done not only by providing living examples to emulate but also by telling stories to educate; we are more receptive to analogies than commands.

Few writers could write the aspirational hero better than Stan Lee. The manner in which his characters strove to do the right thing— where the right thing was a universal ideal, in contrast to the subjective morality of today— made the characters cultural touchstones.

Lee’s creations—including Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, and the X-Men— have infused western mythology with a simple approach to making a positive contribution to modern popular culture. In a short essay to readers in a 1967 Spider-Man issue, Lee wrote: “We do have a motive—a purpose— behind our mags! That purpose is plain and simple: to entertain you!” Lee concluded that essay with: “… in the process of providing off-beat entertainment, if we can also do our bit to advance the cause of intellectualism, humanitarianism, and mutual understanding … and to toss a little swingin’ satire at you in the process … that won’t break our collective heart one tiny bit!”

But the comic book industry has proven no better than other cultural institutions in surviving the influx of leftist ideologues, and the heroic mythology of Stan Lee has been undermined. This deprives the populace of something that contained joy and meaning, and also lays the groundwork for achievement of the progressive political program. From universities and news media to mainstream popular culture and entertainment mediums such as comic books as well as Hollywood, sports and video games, the left has occupied prominent positions on mainstream platforms to advance non-mainstream cultural agendas.

The modern American superhero periodical originated with the first appearance of Superman in 1938, during a period which came to be known as the Golden Age of Comics. In the 1950s, as a reaction to alarmism from politicians about the supposed perverted impact of comic books on young readers, the major publishers established a guild regulator, the Comics Code Authority, to issue rules on what content should be printed. In order to display the CCA Seal in its earliest iteration— and hence be marketed as appropriate for all ages—a publisher was required to uphold strict moral standards and not “create sympathy for the criminal”, nor “create disrespect for established authority”. The code read: “In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal be punished for his misdeeds.” The idea was to protect the industry’s main audience from storylines that glorify violence, drug use or criminal behaviour.

The code continued to operate with some amendments over the following decades, but not so much that the line between the good guys and the bad guys was dissolved. During the 1980s the success of adult-oriented series such as The Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns arguably led to a major change in the industry in favour of more morally conflicted, adult content.

By the 1990s the industry began to disregard the Comics Code. Indeed, how can a code which mandates the triumph of good over evil apply when an industry becomes more confused about how to define good or evil?

Conservative writer Chuck Dixon, who was a major writer in the 1990s for DC Comics and Marvel, co-wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2014 that this was also the time that the industry began to politicise:

The 1990s brought a change … editors began to resist hiring conservative artists. [Dixon] expressed the opinion that a frank storyline about AIDS was not right for comics marketed to children. His editors rejected the idea and asked him to apologise to colleagues for even expressing it. Soon enough, [Dixon] got less work.

As Dixon explained, and as history has demonstrated, the loss of the Comics Code did not necessarily lead to renewed artistic freedom across the board. As Dixon noted, “A new code, less explicit but far stronger, replaced the old; a code of political correctness and moral ambiguity. If you disagreed with mostly left-leaning editors, you stayed silent.”

Over time, non-left writers and artists in the comics industry have been scared into staying silent. Meanwhile, committed progressives have been encouraged to be outspoken about their political beliefs, both within and outside of the magazines. Social media platforms—Twitter, in particular— presented an unfiltered line of communication between creators and comics consumers, and many creators have been willing to lambast any fans who disagree with the inclusion of identity politics into their favourite titles.

The election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency in 2016 brought much of the industry’s political bias to new light. In October 2016, a Marvel editor posted on Twitter: “Make no mistake: even if Trump loses, we will remember who supported him.” The message of the post—which was never deleted—is clear: political affiliation would be a factor at industry leader Marvel Comics.

Political discrimination usually occurs behind the scenes by chilling the speech of conservatives or those opposed to identity politics, but there have been instances where it was highly visible. Industry veteran artist and outspoken Trump supporter Ethan van Sciver was branded a Nazi and white supremacist by industry figures, including former close colleagues. Artist Mitch Breitweiser was ejected from the mainstream for drawing an innocuous sketch on the night of Trump’s electoral victory with the caption: “Congratulations President-elect @realDonaldTrump. I wish you the very best in your effort to Make America Great Again for ALL Americans.” Following this, Breitweiser’s wife and professional colourist Elizabeth claimed the pair had been “harassed, threatened, libelled in [the comics industry] for almost two years”.

Leftists within the comic industry don’t merely use their platform to virtue signal on social media. Politics now determine what books are allowed to be published and the books themselves have become a platform for political proselytising. A symbolic turning point occurred in 2011’s Action Comics #900, where Superman renounced his US citizenship. While the writer of that issue, David S. Goyer who also wrote the Dark Knight film trilogy, is likely not a radical, the reader was nonetheless left to assume the industry no longer saw any worth in aspiring for the ideal of “truth, justice, and the American way”.

After that, comics increasingly lectured readers with cheap political shots. By 2015 the problem had become so prevalent that some commentators labelled it the beginning of the SJW (social justice warrior) era of comics. Formerly mainstream titles such as X-Men have become a hotbed of left-wing politics, with Spider-Man mired in moral relativism and Captain America revealed to secretly be a member of the crypto-Nazi organisation, Hydra.

The progressive fixation with surface level traits has seen many characters abruptly replaced to increase “representation” within the medium. Major characters guilty of the crime of being white men —Iron Man, Wolverine, the Hulk, Hawkeye and others—have been replaced to increase diversity representation. Iceman was a founding member of the X-Men and unremarkably heterosexual for decades before he was abruptly transformed into a gay man, and every opportunity taken to highlight that he was gay, as if this was now the only interesting thing about his character. Thor was incoherently written out of his own book and replaced by a female character.

In 2018, DC Comics launched the Vertigo Imprint, which became a home of woke comics tackling such themes as “white supremacy”, “sex workers”, and a scripturally illiterate new title about Jesus Christ coming to Earth to learn from a superhero how to be the messiah. (Another Vertigo series set on the US-Mexican border, with predictable political moralising, was abruptly cancelled in December after the co-creator was accused of sexual abuse). Meanwhile at Marvel, creative teams that shared the politics of the editorial staff but failed to sell books have consistently found new work. Iceman under gay writer Sina Grace was cancelled in late 2017, only to be resurrected under the same creative team in June 2018. Kelly Thompson, whose female Hawkeye series was cancelled after 16 issues, launched a new series in August starring the same unpopular character. Chelsea Cain’s feminist Mockingbird series from 2016 was cancelled by Marvel after just eight issues, only for the writer to be given another new series— which in turn was cancelled after the writer only managed to hand in four scripts over a period of two years.

When it comes to rewarding failure, few titles can top Captain Marvel. Between 2012 and the end of 2018, no fewer than five Captain Marvel titles featuring Carol Danvers were launched. Marvel has been insistent that Carol Danvers–Captain Marvel—a standalone superheroine—become Marvel’s flagship character, on the same tier as Spider-Man.

With no publishing success or substantial fanbase, Marvel Studio’s nonetheless produced and aggressively promoted a Captain Marvel film adaptation. The hunger for superhero films and its connection to the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe will undoubtedly see the film turn a handy profit for the studio. However, its embrace of the same progressive literary tropes reflects the same issues befouling the comics industry.

The comics industry was built on Lee’s principle of providing entertainment and escapism, but ideologues have complicated what is a very simple product. Few people connect with political commentary as a form of entertainment, which is only really appreciated by the already-converted. As apologists for the status quo inevitably note, comic books have historically portrayed political themes, but as Critzer noted, modern writers are employing rhetoric rather than telling stories: “Marvel isn’t recontextualising any of the issues of today—instead they’re just thinly transferring them over into the Marvel Universe … that’s not storytelling, that’s allegory.”

As a result, many consumers have simply walked away from the hobby. While sales to consumers are not calculated, the frequent reports of specialty retail outlets closing down indicates an industry in free fall. One of the reasons sales to consumers is not calculated is because it doesn’t really matter. While most magazine distribution deals include the provision for returnability—where the retailer is effectively able to get a refund from the publisher for unsold product—comic book retailers are stuck with the risk of holding low-quality stock. The publishers, who only need to sell products to the retail outlets, have adopted increasingly predatory practices to sustain revenues. Rebooting series (issues with #1 on the cover often have a higher cover price) and special “variant” covers for collectors leave retailers with misleading information about how much demand there actually is for a title and inevitably leads to shelves remaining filled with stock that has no long-term value as back issues.

Richard C. Meyer emerged in the context of this decline. His YouTube commentary on the comics medium quickly developed a following for highlighting the industry’s myriad issues. His channel name, “Diversity & Comics”, referred to the prioritisation of progressive identity politics in modern comics, which stand in stark contrast to the organic diversity which previously had been a feature of the industry since the 1970s, when the industry promoted and appointed people on the basis of merit and always regarded enjoyable stories as the primary objective.

In 2018, Meyer and other critics were told to put or shut up. They did. With resounding success. Utilising YouTube as a promotional tool Meyer, disaffected professionals, and amateurs as a part of the “comicsgate” movement raised approximately AU$3 million in preorders on the crowdfunding website Indiegogo over the span of a few months.

Meyer’s Jawbreakers book raised about A$560,000, while Ethan van Sciver’s Cyberfrog: Bloodhoney raised just over A$1 million, making it the most successful crowdfunded comic book of all time. Industry professionals Mitch Breitweiser, Doug Tennapel, Jon Malin and Mike S. Miller collectively raised nearly A$850,000 for their books.

The comicsgate movement is unique among backlash movements in creative industries. Too often the response to left-wing political correctness is to commit to producing content from an opposite ideological viewpoint. This may be marginally successful. For instance, a musician may find considerable success in Christian music or Christian films, but that content will have no impact outside of committed Christians. Instead, comicsgate has a simple platform: prioritise quality, treat customers with respect, and leave politics at the door.

Superhero fiction is not likely to go away anytime soon. As Travis Smith notes in Superhero Ethics, the ongoing appeal of superhero stories:

…indicates that some appreciation remains within us for the kinds of lessons that they tend to communicate. There is something about their ethical appeal that is ineradicable despite prevailing tendencies within the broader culture to denigrate or dismiss ethical imperatives.

The enthusiasm for the message of comicsgate should give observers hope that in an industry in decline, some part of it will be preserved to provide escapist entertainment and possibly make a positive contribution to modern western mythology.

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