Comics are the funny books, the home of people in tights fighting each other, yet they are a great medium for social commentary and protest.
Since their inception, comic books have challenged the established system and worked to highlight injustice around the world. Comics created the space for activism because they were the underdog of media.
When they started in the 1930s, they were heirs to the pulp fiction legacy and favored by children, not influential adults. The writers were urban and influenced by the world around them. If cities were at the forefront of social and economic progress, then the comics that came out of them were timely and well aware of the troubles facing contemporary society.
Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel initially created Superman not as a defender of truth, justice and the American way, but as a defender of the New Deal. Accordingly, Superman spent his early issues taking on slum lords, corrupt businessmen and other symptoms of the Great Depression.
It was only in the 1950s that comics found their soapbox kicked out from under them. A mix of Congressional pressure and self-imposed censorship in the form of the Comics Code nearly killed the industry, and the remaining series in publication turned to camp and silly stories instead of social commentary. EC Comics cut back drastically on its sci-fi and horror series. For a few years, comics were essentially neutered.
That is, until the start of the 1970s. A new group of writers, influenced by the counter culture and political unrest of the 1960s, took over. Stan Lee, who revolutionized comics by focusing on heroes with personal issues — as opposed to the shining beacons of heroic perfection from the 1940s — decided to tackle drug use.
In the Amazing Spider-man arc “Green Goblin Reborn!” Spider-man confronted his best friend who had started using drugs. The arc took a strong look at the issue, but the Comics Code did not approve. As a result, Marvel published the issue without the code’s seal of approval, deeming it a story worth telling.
Meanwhile at DC, the creative team of Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams teamed up the outspoken man of the people, Green Arrow, with space cop Green Lantern. The two heroes traveled across the United States, confronting poverty, racism and, ultimately, drug use when Green Arrow’s sidekick was revealed to be a heroin addict.
Comics work as a form of commentary because the medium itself is so vast. Art and the written word have been a part of revolutionary movements and activism for centuries, and the 20th century saw a wave of more abstract protest art. Comics allow for vivid images to capture the reader’s focus and for strong stories to point out faults or injustices.
Because comics are aimed at youth — the people who are most likely to be the most socially conscious — there’s a greater impact. Why should students support equal rights? Read X-Men to discover varying forms of discrimination and you’ll see why people should take action.
The 1970s-revived activism in comics took a new spin as British writers took over American series. Dark titles such as Hellblazer took on the politics and conservatism of the time; a number of these series eventually ended up under DC’s mature Vertigo line. Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta was a direct reaction to Margaret Thatcher’s conservatism, and ended up as a prescient title with CCTV cameras everywhere in London.
And in the new millennium, that social activism is stronger than ever in comics. The underground and local zine scenes throughout the country influenced the new wave of writers coming from a new DIY mindset.
In the last few months, a group of writers and artists — including David Lloyd, the artist behind the V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes mask — used Kickstarter, a large funding platform, to support Occupy Comics. It’s very much in the zeitgeist, but it also aims to capture the spirit and motivations of the Occupy movement by providing a form of documentation for the ongoing protests.
But beyond the more oblique protest works like Occupy Comics, there are more subtle works. For instance, Brian Wood’s recently concluded DMZ was a sharp critique of the post-Sept. 11 world and an increasingly radical and distant political world, turning New York City into the front lines of a second American civil war. And there’s Scarlet, Brian Michael Bendis’ title about a revolution against today’s society.
Comics can be about superheroes, battles with evil exes or autobiographies, but they have an amazing potential for social commentary. They combine protest art, visual documentation and text in very interesting ways, and under the best of creative teams, social commentary can fuel exciting stories instead of feeling preachy. Comics have been calling out injustices for decades and hopefully will for many more to come.
Nicholas Slayton is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column “Panel to Panel” runs Thursdays.