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?

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