8 Comic Book Heroes That Spread Progressive Ideals
Since 1932, Superman has been a torchbearer for our country’s progressive ideals, standing for "truth, justice and the American way” and acting as a symbol of hope through our darkest times. He was borne of the Great Depression -- so it makes sense now, that during one of America’s gravest eras since, Superman is opting to shrug off the burden. And it’s because he's a patriot.
Last month, in the 900th issue of Action Comics, Superman -- who, as a reminder, came here as an immigrant from the planet Krypton -- appeared before the UN to officially renounce his United States citizenship. “I’m tired of having my actions construed as instruments of US policy,” he said, after an appearance at a nonviolent protest in Tehran was viewed by the Iranian regime as an act of war. In the prior comic, Superman had just done a foot-tour of the flyover states in order to reacquaint himself with everyday Americans. There he encountered fellow immigrants who were, literally, alien; intervened during a domestic violence incident (where he lectures cops on the bystander effect); grappled with environmental preservation vs. job preservation; helped save people from a flood a la Katrina; and defended an archaeological site from a nuclear corporation, among other things.
In short, Superman dealt with issues that very closely mirror real-life events. His verdict to renounce after 80 years was based on his lifelong concept of “truth, justice, and the American way.” Yet, in the comic, the media didn’t see it that way, and promptly vilified the man who had protected so many citizens for decades. For his part, Superman has become a citizen of the world.
Clearly, the storyline was incisive, pointed commentary on the part of the writer, David S. Goyer. But Superman isn’t the first long-lasting progressive in the world of comics. Here, a selection of progressive heroes in pictorial form, from the dawn of the superhero age to the peak of the literary graphic novel.
1. Wonder Woman. We take for granted now that this Greek-Amazonian beacon is one of the most quintessential symbols of female empowerment in America, on par with Rosie the Riveter. Her name is invoked not only as noun but as metaphor, and has permeated pop culture so thoroughly she needs no introduction. But in 1941, when she was first created, American women had only been allowed to legally vote for 20 years, and second-wave feminism was more than two decades to even germinate. In tandem with Rosie, who was running things at home during WWII, Wonder Women represented a sort of projected fantasy of women who wanted to be fighting in the fields. She was depicted as the antithesis to dainty and impotent, delivering powerful blows to Axis powers using her indestructible bracelets, and wonderfully, her projectile tiara. Even more incredibly, considering the year, her powers would be revoked by her great creator -- Aphrodite -- if she was ever bound or possessed by a male. And, of course, she was Ms. Magazine’s first-ever cover star, captioned by Gloria Steinem, “Wonder Woman for President.”
2. The Black Panther. The first black superhero was an African-born immigrant to New York City, and while he was created a year before the formation of the Black Panther Party in 1966, he became a powerful symbol among comic enthusiasts for the quest for Civil Rights. Born T’Challa, a king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, he was recruited by the Justice League for his strength and intelligence, sparred against violent revolutionaries, and fell in love with fellow black comic icon Ororo Munro (the X-Men’s Storm). As with lots of firsts, his existence was a little rocky on the progressive front; in 1972, Marvel Comics temporarily changed his name to "Black Leopard" to avoid association with the Black Panther party. But this didn’t sit well with fans and by 1976, he was battling the Ku Klux Klan in a storyline that is widely considered one of the best superhero epics of all time. And this year, he was reintroduced in DVD form, an icon’s triumphant return, and voiced by actor Djimon Hounsou.
3. Green Arrow. Ever conscious of economic inequity and social ills, this arrow-wielding superhero is widely held to be the Robin Hood of the comic book world (at least in comics that do not feature the actual Robin Hood). Using his smarts and trick-arrows as instruments for social change, he evolved throughout the hippie era in sync with American activists and antiestablishmentarians (in the ‘70s, this dude even visited an ashram). In 1970, Green Arrow was paired up with establishment liberal Green Lantern as a foil to his advocacy, which allowed author Denis O’Neil to explore issues like racism, environmentalism and poverty. They even explored drug abuse, in a storyline in which Green Arrow’s sidekick, Speedy (ha), was addicted to heroin, and in later years, HIV positive.
4. Silk Spectre II and Ozymandias. Alan Moore’s Watchmen is widely regarded as one of the best, most complex and literary comics ever made, a satirical commentary on political extremism that even has one of its villains helping Nixon with black ops during the Vietnam War. (People who saw the movie without reading the book: read the book.) Amid its cast of unconventional superheroes sits Silk Spectre II, a feminist hero who follows in the footsteps of her mother (Silk Spectre I) in defending citizens from crime despite the illegality in Moore’s dystopian America. Ultimately, she is the reason her former lover Dr. Manhattan saves the world from nuclear disaster -- for now. Meanwhile, Ozymandias acts the perfect liberal -- vegetarian, outspoken, possibly gay -- though it’s a testament to the complex moral ambiguity of Watchmen that he might, in fact, be exactly the opposite.
5. Maggie and Hopey. With Love and Rockets, Los Bros Hernandez made vast inroads for progressive comic-lovers. Created in 1981 by California-based brothers Jaime and Gilberto Hernandez, they created a much-loved coterie of Mexicans and Chicanos who reflected the people they knew -- normal characters who loved punk music and their families. They created some of the earliest, most realistic depictions of Latinos in American popular culture, something they don’t get enough credit for in the mainstream, introducing a series of wonderful, playful women who remain some of the most three-dimensional female characters in comics. Among their biggest stars are Maggie and Hopey, two adventurous best friends who met at a punk show and have been occasional lovers ever since. From their actions and declarations, Maggie is bisexual while Hopey identifies as a lesbian, but their relationship is never too explicit, a storytelling device that renders them even more believably human.
6. Sandman. Beloved Sandman creator Neil Gaiman is quite open about his politics -- he’s plenty open about his views on his blog, where he’s at times been accused of communism. And through Dream, the complicated, goth reincarnation of an old Marvel character, Gaiman explores a multiplicity of issues told through global mythologies with a taut moral compass. Dream is also Orpheus, but he’s got the life-trials of a man -- love loss, life struggles -- and in his interactions with the human world, he engages with characters who are feminist, of varying race/ethnicity, gay or transgendered, drug-addicted, and more. This is unique in comics even today, but in 1989, when Sandman was created, it was pretty rare.
7. Huey Freeman. The protagonist of comic strip-turned-TV show The Boondocks is revolutionary in several ways; young, whipsmart, inquisitive and witty, he’s a vessel for series creator Aaron McGruder to unleash progressive black thought in an accessible, acerbically funny way, while questioning inequality as fiercely and adroitly as he does pop culture. Named after Huey P. Newton, clearly, and a staunch member of the hip-hop generation, Freeman often rants eloquently on his disdain for his mostly white suburban neighborhood as well the exploitative vagaries of commercial black pop culture (Tyler Perry, Cuba Gooding Jr and Oprah have all taken a hit). And he’s only 10! Meanwhile, a little kid going on racism polemics on the Cartoon Network? That’s gangsta.
8. Mike Doonesbury. This is a gimme, Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau having been a mouthpiece of progressive politics since 1968, but this list would be remiss without it. Mike Doonesbury’s musing on the news of the day cast him as a kind of anti-hero, the opposite of saviors like Superman. Rather than rescuing everyday Americans from the ills of the day, he was the everyday American, and his sardonic, sometimes silly observations of political hypocrisy transformed him into a character many people could identify with. He reflected the cynicism of the post-Vietnam years; we no longer believed an omnipotent alien would swoop down to save us from ourselves, but we could appreciate the plight of a person going through the same things we were.
This list is nowhere near complete -- comics, long thought of as an alternative aesthetic, have been a refuge and outlet for liberals since they first became popular in America. And while the internal debates rage on (Do comics glorify war culture? Do they encourage anti-social behavior? And why are all the women characters so busty?), as an art form, they harbor some of the best examples of progressive aesthetics in pop culture. Even though the "graphic novel" has now been legitimized by literati, and the most beloved superheroes now glean billions of dollars at the box office, most comics still essentially live outside the realm of the capitalist mainstream that dictates homogeneity. Luckily, they don’t live outside the political discourse.