History will likely say that the comic book industry was sunk by the repressive measures adopted to control the spread of coronavirus. In reality it is the industry’s bizarre obsession with identity politics that ensured the death of this classic storytelling medium was an inevitability.
The partial economic shutdown in the United States and other Western economies is wreaking havoc on comic book shops. One major retailers’ prediction of an ‘extinction event’ was seemingly confirmed only a few days later when Diamond Comic Distributors, the industry’s sole bridge connecting publishers and shops, announced it was ceasing operations indefinitely. Several publishers have already put out a ‘pencils down’ notice to their staff and contractors to stop work altogether.
An economic shock should be costly but shouldn’t kill an entire industry. Other print mediums are still publishing and distributing during this crisis and will survive. The distinction lies in the comic industry engaging in the kind of self-harm that only a growing economy could (barely) tolerate. The costs of allowing the medium to be hijacked by propogandists to treat the humble comic book like political pamphlets rather than heroic adventure stories are now being felt.
Market leader Marvel Comics’ tone-deaf announcement of a woke new series in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic has made the entire industry a laughing stock. In the face of retailers desperate to know what Marvel’s crisis plans were, the publisher in March revealed New Warriors, a reboot of a series which first launched in 1990 but now featuring characters with names such as ‘Snowflake’ and ‘Safespace’. The former was touted as the company’s first non-binary character and the latter described as a ‘big, burly, sort of stereotypical jock’ with pink hair and a matching pink onesie. Words alone can’t describe the visual cringe of the promotional material. This is not the work of a satirist mocking social justice—this is an actual entertainment industry in 2020. Unsurprisingly, this has garnered some attention in the mainstream press. Broadcasting to normal people that they should stay away from the market leader — and by inference the shops that sell their books — couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Unfortunately this is not a new development. In two articles for The Speccie in 2018 and 2019, I described how ‘a destructive force in a creative industry’ have reengineered the medium to prioritise ‘representation’ and to be a platform of social justice activism. Classic characters were reinvented with new gender or cultural identities and the stories were increasingly steeped in the post-2016 anti-Trump derangement of the artists, writers and editors.
The efforts have been commercially unsuccessful. Years of declining sales and closed stores—at a time when superheroes have dominated the box office—have not been addressed. This makes sense if the underlying agenda is not to generate sales and the major publishers are just small subsidiaries of corporate conglomerates who will absorb the cost as the price of showcasing their diversity.
The hidden cost of agenda-based storytelling is that an entire generation may grow up without the kind of stories of heroism that are important to a society. Addressing issues about personal responsibility, selflessness, good judgment and justice in a mainstream setting has significant cultural value. Travis Smith, the associate professor of political science at Concordia University in Quebec noted in his book Superhero Ethics that ‘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,’ Smith says.
The traditional superhero could once reliably exemplify or aspire to represent the four cardinal virtues: prudence (the ability to discern the appropriate course of action in a given situation), courage (the ability to confront fear, uncertainty, and intimidation), temperance (restraint, self-control and sound-mindedness) and justice (fairness and righteousness). But these ideas are incompatible with the moral relativism at the heart of modern progressivism.
Holding a relativistic worldview means rejecting objective truth. This is why progressives can’t tell heroic stories. Since they don’t believe in right and wrong, the only virtue their ‘heroes’ can possibly possess is their identity. They are heroic just by existing. Social justice, the progressive value which is concerned with the redistribution of wealth and privileges in society, is an inherently totalitarian ideology that elevates group identities and collectivism above individualism and freedom. Membership of the group identity comes with it the obligation to express prescribed political beliefs.
At Marvel the obsession with political activism is a company-wide commitment. In late 2019, the publisher released Hero Project, a documentary to showcase the ‘heroism’ of children advocating for political causes. Episode 5 featured a 12-year-old transgendered girl who ‘became actively involved in LGBTQ support when the Trump administration took a firm stance against rights for trans students.’ The person in charge of Hero Project is Sana Amanat, a mysterious senior executive at Marvel who was handed the mission to be the company’s political commissar. When Amanat was plucked from obscurity to be an editor in 2009, an executive told her she had ‘something different to offer’ and ‘they need her voice in order to change Marvel’. All the entertainment companies have their own Sana Amanat’s spearheading a range of new woke television programmes, films and literature designed to challenge the primacy of white males in society by giving representation to marginalised groups. Star Wars, Terminator, Ghostbusters, and Men in Black are some of the long-running franchises that have recently committed to representation but failed to inspire or entertain.
The market for comic books was an early adopter of woke entertainment but proved that the reinterpretation of heroes doesn’t sell. In November 2018, in this magazine, I noted that ‘the industry limps on, infected with an ideology that values propaganda over capitalism’. In 2020, this ideology may be a luxury that a post-coronavirus world will refuse to indulge.