Jul 19 2008 3:02am

Superhero Politics: The Art of the Impossible

Elliott Serrano of Newsday wants to give all the lazy bloggers (me! me!) some easy material, offering up a presentation on the politics of superheroes. People and institutions publish these things so other people will complain about how wrong they are, with links. Call me Pavlov's Dog and call Pavlov at the number on my tag here. Meantime, let's correct some misimpressions, shall we! For the record, in cases where Serrano and I disagree, I am right and he is wrong. But before we even get to that, the correct answer is that all superheroes have the politics of whoever is writing them at the time, unless management at the corporation that owns them pulls rank. For instance, if DC hadn't gone and killed off the real Question, I'd want to write him as Radley Balko: The Comic Book. But the nearly as correct answers follow:

Superman - Serrano: Reagan Republican, cause that's how Frank Miller wrote him in Dark Knight Returns. The history of Superman's politics is genuinely interesting. In Action Comics #1, his first appearance, he's a dedicated isolationist. His enemies are a Senator and a lobbyist pushing a bill that will “embroil us with Europe.” He solves the problem by, well, kidnapping them, dumping them in the middle of a pointless war between two Central American nations. Add to the stories about corrupt mine bosses and such and you have a populist crusader on the left wing of the New Deal - with, in those early stories, a mean streak the width of the Ohio River. A couple years after creators Siegel and Schuster had Superman keeping America free of European entanglements, he was showing up Bundists in Ubermensching contests. Over the decades, the constant has been Superman's personal resistance to the temptation of solving all humankind's problems for us, except in alternate-universe stories where that's precisely what he does.

Captain America - Serrano: Libertarian. No no no no no! Believe me, I know from libertarians, and this is absurd. Steve Rogers origin is fixed in time: the months before World War II when he volunteered for the Super-Soldier experiment so he could fight Nazis and Japs. Interwar libertarianism, from Rose Wilder Lane to Robert Frost, was anti-interventionist at its core. Steve Rogers only makes sense as a New-Deal Democrat. In continuity, Captain America spends the fictional time from the very end of World War II until, effectively, a sliding 5-10 years prior to the comic you're reading this week, frozen in an ice floe. He spends the bulk of his time since being unfrozen as a government employee (Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.). It's an interesting question whether such a man turns conservative, like his Reagan-Democrat age cohort, even if he doesn't live through the intervening history. Opinions will differ. In practice, Cap was written by cold war liberals in the 1960s and was a cold-war liberal; by hippies in the 1970s and engaged seriously with hippie values; and since the atrocities of September 11, 2001, by a bunch of clowns who can't figure out what the hell they're doing, but never mind that. Point being, Captain America has never been remotely libertarian.

The Thing - Serrano says, “Independent.” Man, whatever. He's a Jewish New Yorker who has never written for Commentary. You have to assume he's a Democrat until proven otherwise. (Not a socialist. He was able to get the security clearances test pilots would need in the 50s/60s.

Wonder Woman - Serrano says, “Democrat.” If this keeps up, I'm going to just ignore his part. (Yes, I'm live-blogging. It's Friday night! I'm married and I have two kids. You think people like me go clubbing?) She's royal blood from an ancient monarchy, but her Golden-Age enthusiasm for bondage makes me think she's got an anarchist streak. More seriously, in the last several years, she's been promoting peace and love through a chain of nominally Themiscyran “consulates” that do seem devoted to the idea of giving women avenues for self-liberation outside the channels of the state. But for long stretches of her early career she appears to have been happily royalist.

Batman - Serrano calls him a Democrat based on his opposition to gun ownership and the death penalty. I think of him more as a transpartisan, Bloombergian goo-goo type. A couple side notes: 1) Batman was created in the late 1930s, when, in large cities, the distinction between the local Democratic-Party organization and the local organized-crime syndicate was hard to parse. That in combination with Bruce Wayne's wealth would tend to give the Golden-Aged Batman Republican leanings. (He would be the Wallace Stevens of superheroes!) 2) A common complaint about Batman is that with his vast wealth and knowledge, all he does is beat up crooks, when he could do “so much more.” The comics have made clear for decades that Bruce Wayne makes wide-ranging philanthropic efforts, but never mind. I always thought it would be fun to have some young critic in a Batman story upbraid him for “just beating up crooks instead of solving the real problems,” at which point Batman would turn that thousand-yard star on his critic and say, quietly, “Are you saying you want me running the place then?”

Silver Surfer - Serrano, somewhat shiftily, says his “cosmic power would appeal most to Neo-Con Republicans.” Which is a massive cheat, since he's supposed to be telling us what the Surfer's own politics are. Dude: the Surfer's a hippie. He dropped out of the war (finding planets for Galactus to eat) and tried to bring peace and love. Of course, recently he's gone back to finding planets for Galactus to eat, so, Yuppie I guess.

Spider-Man - Serrano: Independent with liberal leanings. They don't get easier than the politics of Spider-Man. “With great power there must come great responsibility” is as pure a distillation of Great-Society/New-Frontier liberalism as you'll find. It's like, find Objectivism on your political map; now go to the opposite spot.

The Punisher - Ultra-Right-Wing Republican, per Serrano. That's if he votes.

Iron Man - Serrano calls him a Republican. Maybe a PJ O'Rourke-style Republican-Party Reptile. In his current incarnation, he's a managerialist. (Or a Skrull!) In the early 1960s, when JFK and LBJ were miring us in Southeast Asia and prosecuting the most intense phase of the Cold War, he could have been a Repub or a Dem. Like Captain America, Iron Man has tended to take on the politics of his authors, foreswearing the munitions business for years when written by post-Vietnam liberals.

Green Lantern - A right-wing Republican, per Serrano. Did Snowbirds Fly in vain? Besides, his name now attaches to the core theory of neoconservatism, so let's give the Newsday blogger this one. Plus, I don't really care.

Wolverine - Serrano has no idea, so he settles for a Canadian joke. I was never that into Wolverine, so I'm gonna pass.

Daredevil - Serrano says Democrat. That's about right.

The Hulk - Serrano says, Ron Paul Republican. That's not only perfectly reasonable, it's funny. I'll go further and say, Anarchist. The good kind.

Kitty Pryde - Serrano says, Democrat. Demographically (Pryde is a Jewish woman and a mutant), this makes sense. Within continuity, I don't think we have much indication one way or the other.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Serrano says, Democrat. I say, if she's not an anarchist, I'm a member of the Kurdish Workers' Party. (Really, though, her creator is a liberal Democrat, so the safe assumption is that Buffy is too.)

The Flash - Serrano says, Eisenhower Republican. This makes sense to me. Barry Allen also worked in the law-enforcement bureaucracy, so “law and order” conservative makes intuitive sense.

Wow. That's one boy-heavy list. I invite readers to expand on the politics of female superheroes in comments. The Wasp? Black Canary? Jennifer Jones?

Avram Grumer
1. avram
Didja see the first ep of Buffy's third season? The one where she frees a bunch of unfree workers from a demonic factory? At one point, during the big fight, we see her dramatically poised holding a pair of the workers' tools -- a hammer and something that looks a lot like a sickle.
paul wallich
2. paulw

isn't the whole superhero credo pretty much "from each according to their ability"?
Pablo Defendini
3. pablodefendini
Batman, a Democrat?? Riiight.

Bruce Wayne probably writes out sizeable campaign contributions to the Democrats, but to me, Batman is one of those rabid 'don't tread on me' libertarians. He and Ollie Queen will be spending their retirement years in a bunker in the hills somewhere, shooting trespassers and being cranky.
will shetterly
4. willshetterly
Jim and commenters, y'all are so much smarter than the inspiration for this post.

For much of my life, Captain America was my fave superhero for lots of reasons, not the least of which is he's a socialist. He was created by the government. He was funded by the government. He goes out and does good because it's the right thing to do. He doesn't worry about money. He's what you'd get if you let a rodeo cowboy and Karl Marx update Jesus: flashy clothes based on the US flag, a fondness for fights in which a lot of things get broken, and no room for private enterprise in doing what's right.
5. BruceB
The Batman of my heart is the Engelhart/Rogers one, where Bruce Wayne was a very socially engaged sort of uber-rich guy. But there wasn't a partisan flavor to his engagement, except insofar as there's a category of Republican that disapproves of disengagement at all. If Perot were sane, maybe. :)
6. rogerothornhill
The writer matters but more than that the generation. Serrano's takes seem all fixed on the 1970s and 1980s, from the GL/GA teamups through the Miller/Moore reimaginings.

What really intrigues me are the recent film reimaginings of these characters. The climaxes of both Batman Begins and Iron Man are premised on their protagonists' reworkings of their father's well-intentioned liberal projects. Despite the release date, Nolan's version of Bruce Wayne's parents seem to have been New Dealers, while Favreau et al's Stark Sr. seems to have been a Bobby Kennedy-esque liberal who made nice with eco-hippies.

So, if 1980s mainstream male American film heroes needed to come to term with their father's emotional distance, their 21st century counterparts apparently need to make their father's idealistic dreams more pragmatic.

Not that I agree with all any of these films, but it's still interesting to see how it changes. Me, I'm a well-intentioned John Stewart man, ready to see Mosaic fall apart for my good principles.
Justin Slotman
7. justinslot
I think Ben Grimm has Harvey Pekar's cynical yet active and engaged politics.

Wasp supports Republicans because that's what people in her family do.

Canary has center-left politics that have been sharpened over the years due to arguing with left-left Ollie (kind of the way I think Moore had her in that Twilight of the Superheroes thing that never got produced.)

No idea about Jennifer Jones, but Jen Walters probably has a well-read, nuanced, middle-of-the-roadish belief system that isn't wedded to either major party--she's a gamma-irradiated independent voter.
Jim Henley
8. Supplanter
The writer matters but more than that the generation.

Ooh, good point.

Justin, thanks for doing the assignment ;)

Avram: I haven't gotten that far in my Buffy-viewing yet. Sounds like a cute scene, though. But as I understand it, in the final episode, she solves the problem of the requirements of her role as a slayer by radically upending the established order and diffusing the function, does she not? It sounds functionally anarchist to me.
9. Rasselas
He would be the Wallace Stevens of superheroes!

Amusingly, I just finished telling a friend of mine that The Dark Knight was about as good a Batman movie as you could get from a committee of skilled professionals instead of the poetic misanthrope the subject requires.
10. Greg Morrow
As we argued about on Curmudgeons last week, Superman's politics are complicated.

But what I'll take anyone on in a cage match over is this: Taking any of one's intuitions about Superman from Frank Miller's DKR is horribly inapt. DKR is deeply infused in parody and if-this-goes-on style skiffy futurism, and its presentations of its characters are deliberately exaggerations of their basal DCU characterizations. All one needs to know about DKR's portrayal of Superman boils down to: In part 4, he's the antagonist.
11. ryanp
"He's what you'd get if you let a rodeo cowboy and Karl Marx update Jesus: flashy clothes based on the US flag, a fondness for fights in which a lot of things get broken, and no room for private enterprise in doing what's right."
Um, except he spends a lot of time working for Tony Stark as part of the Avengers---which is the first Private Military Company in comic books, which, last time I looked, because of the whole private thing, private enterprise.

I think you have a better case with original leader of Alpha Flight than Cap though. You know, the guy who turns his back on a big capitalistic company job to develop a super hero team for his gov't.

They're metaphors and to some degree you're going to see what you want in them.
will shetterly
12. willshetterly
ryanp, in my day, Captain America didn't work for Tony Stark. The charcter must've been neoconned in the last decade or two.
Eric Tolle
13. ErictheTolle
When it comes to vigilante style heroes like Batman or Daredevil, I have to wonder about the liberality of any character who has a hobby of beating up people without regard for civil rights or due process.

That said, I think the Batman from the Year One series had an interesting populist or socialist element to him, stemming partially from his targeting the rich and corrupt of Gotham and calling them parasites. This comes up in the latest movie as well, with his main focus being on corruption.
14. Marty Busse
During Peter David's run on his book, Bruce Banner convinced Betty to vote for Clinton, so that's evidence to suggest the Hulk is a Democrat.

Heck, that was after Reagan pardoned the Hulk!
15. Jon Hendry
"Um, except he spends a lot of time working for Tony Stark as part of the Avengers"

I don't think that's quite correct. Stark provided funding, housing, and gadgets, but it wasn't exactly an employment relationship. Heck, if Stark was "the boss", why would he have hired the various losers that joined the team over the years?

The Avengers would probably have been a convenient source of inspiration for Stark technology, and a convenient testbed for early models before selling them to the government.
16. Jeff Patterson
DC delves into the political leanings of its characters in the upcoming "Decisions" miniseries.

I have difficulty with the existence of the Big Two parties in either of the Big Two comic-book universes.
Both are regularly exposed to superbeings, powerful mutants, ex-pat extraterrestrials, and actual pantheistic gods. Their recent histories include multiple alien invasions and appearances by cosmic entities. That alone would derail the historical continuities that shape our world. Environmentalism would be a different animal in a world where the biosphere is known by all to be a sentient entity. Global warming would not be a number-crunching debate on an Earth that has been both hurled towards the sun and dominated by Frost Giants. Nationalism would short-lived in the face of pesky Atlanteans labeling us all as "surface-dwellers" and terrorizing our seas. Concepts of national security are dictated by super-terror-organizations with matching uniforms and massive flying war machines.
I cannot see either party remaining intact when children and teenagers routinely acquire superpowers, private spaceflight is a common occurance, history-altering time-travel is old hat, and parallel Earths are not only common knowledge, but occasionally appear in the sky.
17. David Barrett
Ed Brubaker's run on Captain America has been fantastic. Perhaps this is a difference of opinion, but if it's the case that you haven't read his run, I suggest you do. It's in trade now, with a big collection of #1-25 available.
18. Jim Teacher
Wolverine: Mercenary, part owner in a bar, guy who hangs out in the woods...hard to say.
19. Elf Sternberg
I could totally waste my day playing this game!

The Beast: Democrat. Scientist type dependent upon federal funding.

Cyclops: Kennebunkport Republican.

Nightcrawler: Andrew Sullivan Republican. (Yeah, the Catholic thing starts there, but it's also the way Kurt's all so touchy-feely.)

Ororo: Al Gore Democrat.

Emma Frost: Republican, naturally.

Nick Fury: Law and Order Republican.

She-Hulk: Democrat. While she's strong on national security, she has an anti-authoritarian streak a mile wide. Republican fund capekilling missions more than Democrats, so...

Angel: Another Kennebunkport Republican and primaries with the Republicans, votes Republican in local races but probably votes Democrat for national seats when he goes into the polling place.

Dazzler: relatively shallow, votes with her wallet. Republican, sadly.

Dr. Strange: Libertarian/Objectivist, and he "really knows what's going on."

Iceman: Democrat by familial habit.

Jim Rhodes: Hard to call, but I'd have to fall on "Republican by habit."

J. Jonah Jameson: Machine Democrat.
Sammy Jay
20. Malebolge
Ultimate Thor: Pacifist Hippy
Regular Thor: ... proponent for Constitutional Monarchies? Odin's like a king, right?
21. John Tabin
find Objectivism on your political map; now go to the opposite spot.

That's funny, since Spider-Man was co-created by Steve Ditko -- an actual Objectivist. I think Ditko had more to do with the look than the ethos, though.

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