This month, the news broke that Marvel’s latest event will have a series of variant covers of HYDRA-styled bad guys. Included among the lineup will be Magneto, a character whose origins as a Jewish Holocaust survivor should set him in direct opposition to the Nazi-influenced HYDRA. As we enter the cycle of discourse around why this is not OK or why this is so typically Marvel, I find myself once more compelled to write about politics, comics, and the world presented by Nick Spencer.
In my last post, I discussed how Spencer has been building a long-form narrative across both his Captain America titles—Sam Wilson and Steve Rogers—that asks us to consider progressive politics at one end of a reasonable spectrum with fascism and Nazism. The Magneto cover is a variant for Spencer’s new event, Secret Empire, and predictably follows his trajectory of HYDRA (and Nazis) being not so bad, really. This time, I want to look at a bigger picture of how these conversations fall into patterns and hierarchies with far greater implications than outrage at an inappropriate variant cover.
Think of times a dude says something completely inappropriate. If people don’t like it, he turns around and says, “Just kidding. Calm down, it was a joke.” Then you’re the asshole for not getting a joke. You’re still being targeted, but now you’re also someone who doesn’t get his edgy sense of humour. It brands you as the outsider for not following the subtle (even Schröedinger-like) cues of his satire.
This is how dangerous people test the water. This is exactly how the 2016 US election campaign went. You say, “That’s fascism,” and you’re overreacting. You say, “Oh, he can’t be serious,” and he will keep telling it to people who do take it seriously until it’s the law. Regardless of whether it’s a joke, as Jess Plummer wrote last year, it is not funny.In comics, this game enforces the knowledge hierarchy of geekdom, where your progressive beliefs are at odds with the traditions of comics. It’s a strategy that shuts down the legitimacy of fans’ activism. The “it’s just a joke” argument structures bigotry in a way that says: a real comics fan would know that bizarro worlds and red herrings are always appropriate and never overused, especially not as vehicles for the argument, “Isn’t it intolerant not to tolerate my intolerance?”
Obviously, bizarro thought experiments can be done brilliantly. Think of the moment in the X-Men: First Class movie when Xavier says, “They’re just following orders.” The words of a Nazi earlier in the film coming from a hero’s mouth causes us to confront the problem of how dangerous it is to mistaken the status quo for peace. When bizarro tropes are poorly executed, you’re asked to laugh along with the dude joking that Magneto is HYDRA, and the joke is “Aren’t Jews the real baddies?” When the red herring is overdone, you’re asked not to take anything seriously—so what’s the point in following the story?
You don’t want to be the one left holding the bag when it turns out this dude was joking, and you just didn’t get it. You’re being encouraged not to react, in case it turns out you were hysterical, so you just nod along with the idea that Nazis aren’t that bad. You’re being asked to act wise to the wacky tropes of superhero comics, and not listen to that sick feeling in your stomach. But every time we play this game we’re playing into a narrative where bigots get it, and we don’t. We need to pull this bullshit up at the roots.
This status quo, in which punching-down humour and exploitation tropes are the norm, is a bubble (one of those bubbles we keep being told are making us precious). Superhero comics are not inherently exploitative or conservative, but skimming comics from the last 30 years might make you think so. The ’90s beat some super-tropes to death to keep things running. Along with the bizarro-switches and red herrings, we got more than enough clones, whatever-it-takes anti-heroes, and cheesecake. Sure, there have been some great comics from the ’80s to the 2000s, but it’s undeniable that creators in the “Dark Age” were hedging their bets in a difficult market. This is why we see some of the most repulsive comic art, HYDRA-Magneto being the latest example, coming from variant covers. They’re a symptom of the collector culture that kept the industry alive in the 1990s.We need to shake the mindset that this period should be the status quo and—like the best of bizarro tropes teach us—and stop assuming the status quo is worth maintaining. Instead, we need to understand that these trends became the norm due to a number of social and economic factors over decades that led to comics becoming homogeneous stories and insular communities. None of this is how comics are. It’s how comics were for a short period in their history, for one genre, in response to some catastrophic circumstances in politics and economics that no longer apply. It’s understandable that groups cling to these strategies because they saw comics through one of its direct economic struggles. Many creators, critics, and distributors of comics cut their teeth in this era, giving us an impression that this is the old school, and that bad habits are proud traditions. It’s comics culture trying to make a very small room where everyone laughs at that dude’s joke, because it’s an old in-joke now, and nobody ruins the fun. But the edgy tactics Alan Moore once used for superhero comics have grown blunt.It’s why we need creators who aren’t numb to these tropes and their implications. We need people from outside the bubble, whether because they weren’t welcome before, or the bubble was never appealing. We can keep supporting writers, like Yona Harvey, Ta-Nehisi Coats, Roxane Gay, and Chelsea Cain, who are making their first forays into superhero comics. We have artists like Kevin Wada, Adrian Alphona, and Nicola Scott redrawing the lines of super-bodies in ways that don’t assume there’s a fixed style. Beyond that, there’s a generation of fanfiction writers and fan artists who aren’t waiting for contracts from Marvel and DC to continue serial storytelling. This is a boat worth rocking and a bubble worth bursting. When we look at histories being recovered by writers like Saladin Ahmed, we start to see a far greater diversity in popular comics, from creator to content to reader, stretching much further back than the recent steps being made in visibility.
If we begin to see the progressive, insightful, and diverse history of superhero comics as the continuity of the genre, we are better equipped to escape circular logic where comics are naturally conservative. We have the weight of readdress who is reactionary, what is to be expected, and where comics can go from here. When we stop calling this typical, we can make a new typical. There are a wealth of more creative and challenging possibilities for comics before, outside, and after the Dark Age. For those of us arguing that superhero comics can do better, we can draw strength from the knowledge that they have done better and they will do better. We have something I think many of us came to the worlds of superheroes looking for: a place where we belong, and the power to make the world better.