Don’t Believe the Hype: Comics Have Always Been About Social Justice

By Ben Boruff

Spider Jerusalem sits, feet dangling, on the roof of a strip club in a poverty-stricken district of the City and glares down at a bloody scene of misguided rebellion and police brutality—a situation that, according to comic's most famous gonzo journalist, is your fault. Surrounded by strippers and state-endorsed violence, Spider types an angry message—"If anyone in this shithole city gave two tugs of a dead dog's cock about Truth, this wouldn't be happening"—and his message reads less like the amusing monologue of a cyperpunk protagonist and more like an indictment of real-life ignorance, the type of tenacious apathy that condones police brutality and encourages xenophobic politicians to expel entire populations. Writer Warren Ellis yells at readers through Spider Jerusalem's mouth, and his message is simple: Humankind is filled with obtuse, narcissistic individuals, but there is hope. You can save yourself if you save others.

Spider Jerusalem is not alone. Transmetropolitan is one of many comic series that galvanize the efforts of activists and ethicists. A recent Breitbart article by Charlie Nash asserts that Marvel’s recent attempts at broader representation are damaging the company’s “creative integrity,” but the article fails to acknowledge the expansive history of successful, imaginative comic book characters that pushed readers to new levels of cultural awareness. Comics and graphic novels have always been about social justice, and modern discussions about comics and their extended universes should reflect that fact.

Though independent publishers showcase many of the more aggressive comic-based social commentaries, Marvel and DC have notable histories of socially responsible narratives. In the early 1970s, writer Dennis O’Neil took Green Lantern and Green Arrow on a socio-politically charged fact-finding journey across the United States. Hal Jordan and Oliver Queen debate the nuances of race relations, environmental issues, and corruption, and these storylines prove that major publishers are capable of approaching social issues with sensitivity, acknowledging complexity and avoiding polarization. This fact is most easily observed in the now famous "Snowbirds Don't Fly" story arc. In those issues, Oliver Queen discovers that Speedy, his sidekick, is addicted to heroin, but the narrative does not vilify Speedy. Instead, Hal Jordan and Speedy have a wide-reaching conversation about generational differences, and Speedy offers some thoughts about the nuanced nature of drug use: “Drugs are a symptom…and you…like the rest of society…attack the symptom…not the disease!” Eventually, the heroes discover that the drug kingpin is a crooked pharmaceutical executive who propagates anti-drug messages. O’Neil highlights the connectedness of different social issues—an act that is largely absent from modern political discourse—and his narrative encourages empathy toward those who are systemically disadvantaged.

Other comics from Marvel and DC have accomplished similar tasks. Grant Morrison’s revival of Animal Man includes discussions about animal rights; Alan Moore’s Watchmen is, in part, a critique of Reaganism; and most incarnations of the X-Men offer a connection between the misunderstood mutants and real-life marginalized groups, such as ethnic minorities and the LGBT community. Given that the social impact of a comic is difficult to quantify, it would be challenging to list every Marvel and DC comic that has contributed significantly to relevant dialogues about equality and justice, but even a cursory glance at the histories of Marvel and DC reveals one unmistakable fact: the collective oeuvre of these major publishers and their various imprints has helped shape the global zeitgeist.

Indie and alternative comics have the distinctive ability to discuss social issues in an even more targeted manner—and they often do so. Sometimes indie comics offer more candor than mainstream comics, and sometimes they shed light on underappreciated issues, important topics that have been relegated to the periphery of pop culture. As a reviewer for this website, I have encountered a number of social justice messages, including Past the Last Mountain’s sweeping commentary on tolerance, Warp Zone’s vibrant portrayal of Afrofuturism, Deer Editor’s clever analysis of prejudice, The Creators’ poignant approach to bigotry and propaganda, and Sara Rising’s satiric attacks on misogyny and xenophobia. Even Test Tube, the avant-garde epic by Carlos Gonzalez, offers some thoughts on society’s progress as part of its exploration of the human experience. Beyond this website, I have found social commentaries in comics such as Empowered by Adam Warren, Rat Queens by Kurtis J. Wiebe, and Lumberjanes, the award-winning comic from Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Shannon Watters, and Brooke Allen. All of these comics—and others like them—pick away at the hardened prejudices that obstruct progress.

The impacts of comic book activism are significant and lasting. The famous Bechdel test—the three-point assessment that shines a light on gender bias in film—was created by cartoonist and graphic novelist Alison Bechdel in 1985, and Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winning Maus has sparked meaningful conversations about racism around the world since its birth in the early 1980s. In light of such results, any boundary-pushing by Marvel and DC seems both socially justified and—quite possibly—financially prudent. Readers respond to relevancy. Characters like T'Challa (1966 origin), Hector Ayala (1975) Jamie Reyes (2006), Miles Morales (2011), America Chavez (2011), Kamala Khan (2013), Jane Foster as Thor (2014), and Riri Williams (2016) are symbols of progress, and they fit well in fictional universes that have encouraged understanding and social growth for decades.

The Golden Age promoted social and political engagement, so the activism of the Modern Age should not surprise comic fans. In 1939, Superman was created, in part, to attack corrupt businessmen and foolish politicians. He was as a symbol of New Deal ideologies. Superman fought against domestic abuse, lynching, and certain aspects of capital punishment. He even battled the Ku Klux Klan in 1946. If, as 21st century consumers, we plan to critique most decisions made by comic book creators, we must do so with an appreciation of the long-standing social relevancy of comic books and comic book characters—from Superman to Question to Kai-Ro to Bunker of the Teen Titans.

Or, instead of debating the merits of new Marvel and DC characters, you can, as Spider Jerusalem says, “look out of the window instead, and do something about what you see there.”