***Disclaimer: This article contains more adult content than other articles on this site- including sexual content, language, and sensitive topics for some parties.***
Many people look to stories of superheroes and supervillains as an escape from their world and day-to-day lives. However, many stories and heroes were written as a direct reaction to the fears of their society. Throughout American history, writers have written comics to help frame those fears through a different lens, either as a suggestion to the audience of what they should consider, or a personification of those fears onto which you can focus your thoughts.
The late 1930s into the 1940s. Young Stan Lee is making war propaganda with Dr. Seuss, he has not yet entered the world of comics. However, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon are at the forefront, watching America do nothing about the second Great War across the pond from their New York office. So they create a man who is literally dressed in the American flag, and punches Adolf Hitler across the face. Many people think that that is where the design really ends, but they forget, Cap has blond hair blue eyes, literally Hitler’s perfect design. He is the epitome of the “Perfect Aryan Race” that the Führer was desperate to achieve, which makes it so much more powerful when Steve Rogers is against everything he stands for. Nine months later, the US joins the war.
World War II ends with the dropping of the ultimate bombs on the island nation of Japan. It destroys the very earth around it in ways never seen before. Then, in the 1950s, we enter the Cold War, with our new enemy holding the same power. A power none of us truly comprehend. Then in the ’60s, the Hulk and Captain Atom are made. The Hulk gets hit with Gamma radiation, and he turns into a monster, who causes extreme destruction when he’s angry. Captain Atom’s entire body is destroyed, then rebuilt out of pure atomic energy (the idea behind Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen). Both are heroes born out of radioactive destruction.
Note: Japan at this time created Godzilla, a city destroying monster. It’s almost like we have different perceptions about Nuclear power and fallout.
Mutually Assured Destruction
The bombs never dropped. No bombs have dropped since WWII, and there’s a reason for that. Mutually Assured Destruction. The idea that if one of us goes, we all go. So we all just sit on our bombs, not getting rid of them of course, just letting them gather dust. The tension that hangs in the air is too great to not be addressed. So Marvel comes up with an ultimate alien power, Galactus. Galactus could end all life on Earth as we know it, and he wants to. Why doesn’t he? Because the Fantastic Four have a device called the Ultimate Nullifier. With the flick of a switch, Galactus would cease to exist. Neither one ever destroys the other, but they could.
What is interesting with this however, is that Galactus (Russia) is seen as a threat, who doesn’t act out of fear, whereas the Fantastic Four (USA) don’t act out of mercy. No story with reflections on the world exist without bias.
The 1960s arrive, we have quelled the major foreign threats (just ‘Nam is left, but most agree that was a mistake). We decide it’s time to take a look inward, and focus on each other.
Black Civil Rights
The 1960s we see two sides of the Black Civil Rights movement, peaceful and not so peaceful, as exemplified by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X respectively. People that weren’t born like the majority of Americans in charge, but fought to change that. The X-Men went through a similar struggle in the comics. People saying they are barely even human, and the response being split into two schools of thought. One being peaceful coexistence, led by Charles Xavier (Professor X), and the other being a violent response to violent actions, led by Max Eisenhardt (Magneto). All mutants don’t consider each other villains, just people who are too naive or cynical, respectively. But they both agree that things need to change.
Then, both King and X were assassinated. Shot down by those that wished to keep the status quo. As a response, Marvel created a character for those mourning. An African-American who could not be shot down, a powerful Black man with impenetrable skin. Luke Cage. While Cage was no substitute for actual civil rights leaders, and was victim to the Blaxpoitation entertainment, he was still a hero in comics who was stronger than the hatred that ended the two great civil rights leaders.
Overtime, the X-Men became a representation of not racial minorities, but homosexual ones. We see that a lot with the first trilogy of films from the early 2000s, with mutant characters “coming out” to their parents, who believe it to be against God and the natural way of things, saying it comes from the mothers side of the family, etc. We also see an interesting conversation between Rogue and Storm.
An interesting commentary on this scene, is how their powers manifest, and how homosexual people have identified themselves. If a gay man living in an area in which homosexuality is seen as something to be attacked, he might be looking for a way to “cure” himself. Agree to gay conversion, cover up their desires, try to be “normal” out of protection for themselves and those around them. Rogue was seen as a villain by her family and peers. However some homosexuals were surrounded by love and acceptance, allowed to be happy with who they are without fear of danger. Storm was seen as a goddess by her people, sees her powers as a gift of who she was meant to be. Your surroundings and how your peers see your differences majorly affects how you see your differences.
While the character Jessica Jones has been around since early Spider-Man comics, the Jessica Jones of the modern age is very different. In late 2001 Brian Michael Bendis took Jones, who at the time was a happy go-lucky purple haired superhero named Jewel, and turned her into an alcoholic private investigator, who’s main antagonist was a metaphor for rape culture. The Purple Man. We really see this side of the character in the Netflix show. Zebediah “The Purple Man” Killgrave has the ability to make anybody do anything just by telling them to. The only thing he can’t make them do is kill themselves, so he usually has other people kill one another. This does mean however that if he wants someone to sleep with him, they don’t have a choice in the matter.
Kilgrave: “We used to do a lot more than just touch hands.”–Jessica Jones 1X08 “AKA WWJD”
Jessica: “Yeah. It’s called rape.”
Kilgrave: “What? Which part of staying in five-star hotels, eating at all the best places, doing whatever the hell you wanted, is rape?”
Jessica: “The part where I didn’t want to do any of it! Not only did you physically rape me, but you violated every cell in my body and every thought in my goddamn head.”
Kilgrave: “That is not what I was trying to do.”
Jessica: “It doesn’t matter what you were trying to do. You raped me again and again and again—”
Kilgrave: “How am I supposed to know? I never know if someone is doing what they want, or what I tell them to.”
Jessica: “Poor you.”
Kilgrave: “You have no idea, do you? I have to painstakingly choose every word I say. I once told a man to go screw himself—can you even imagine.”
This also plays into the power imbalances that lead to a number of other sexual assaults from the #MeToo movement. Men that have power, either physical, social, career-based, and don’t necessarily use it to get sex, but women that are afraid that he will, don’t fight back. Just because someone doesn’t say “No” doesn’t mean they are saying “Yes”. There is a really great article on this topic specifically here on Tor.com.
The largest terrorist attack in US history, September 11th, 2001. President George W. Bush, nine months into his eight year presidency, signs a bill called the Patriot Act. Paraphrasing here without going into the specificity of the bill- the gist is that Americans give away some of their privacy in phone and digital communication, so that the government could try to know about terrorist attacks before they happen. The American people were largely in agreement that we were willing to give away some of our personal freedom, privacy, and liberty, for security.
Five years later, Mark Millar writes Civil War, in which the government decides to crack down on superhero actions. Unregulated superheroics have become so rampant, that a group of teenage superhumans attempt to stop supervillainy, but in the process kill 600 civilians, many of which are school children. The Superhuman Registration Act is passed, forcing any superheroes to either register with the US Government, or retire. Tony Stark sees this as a necessary sacrifice, in order to save the day without killing everyone. Steve Rogers sees this as restraining the personal freedoms of superhumans. Once again, this is freedom vs. security.
The interesting thing, is that the end of the movie and the comic are very different. While they both start fairly neutral, the movie ends with Tony Stark going against the direct orders of the Secretary of State General Ross (agreeing with Steve), and the comics end with Steve turning himself in to be arrested because of the damage caused by the fighting (agreeing with Tony). Either way, there is no wrong or right answer. It only depends on your personal view on what the public is owed from their government.
This last one wasn’t based on a specific event, as opposed to how people react to oppression and political disagreements. There are a series of comics featuring Green Arrow and Green Lantern teaming up. However as they see social injustice throughout a road trip across America, Green Arrow wants to get into the thick of the fight, whereas Green Lantern wants to make changes through the proper systems and channels. It’s interesting because Green Lantern was gifted his power and abilities by the system (The Guardians of Oa), whereas Green Arrow earned his powers (not his money, that was inherited, but his superhero-isms).
Every time in American history, whenever people want the status quo to change, there are those on the bottom of it react in radical ways, and those on top who wish people wouldn’t react so radically. Of course we look back with pride on one major part of American history in which we reacted in a way that was not necessarily productive, but it got the attention of those on top.
The Boston Tea Party was a major destruction of property, was not directly about changing the actual laws of the Tea Tax, it was just dramatic so people would pay attention. Now during the Black Lives Matter movement, people blocked highways and held major protests, but those on top complained about their styles of protest.
Many of the best comics are about social commentary. Stories don’t exist in a vacuum, and are never pure escapism. Every story you’ve read was written through the filter of the author’s world view in some way. Next time you love a story, try to see what is the political/religious/social message the storyteller is trying to convey, and you might learn about an issue in a context that helps you see a different side of the story.