Tuesdays & Wednesdays: The ComicsAlliance Roundtable On Politics & Comics
Does politics belong in comics? Can comics influence politics? And what impact do we expect the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States to have on the comic industry and on the stories it tells over the next four years?
ComicsAlliance contributors Elle Collins, Kieran Shiach, Tom Speelman, and Tara Marie join editor-in-chief Andrew Wheeler for a roundtable discussion about the relationship between politics and comics.
Andrew: I want to start by asking a question that I think we're all afraid to ask each other, but one that's going to prove very important over the next four years. How are you doing?
Elle: It's been a rough week. I think we all thought the election was going to turn out differently, and it was devastating. I don't know what the future holds --- of course, none of us do --- but I'm pretty concerned about it.
Tara Marie: I live in Florida so watching it turn red hurt, a lot. It was so close! My only solace is that the county I'm living in is blue. Next month I'm taking trips --- planned a while ago --- to Austin, Chicago, and New York City. I'm trying to figure out if I should join the protests or just hide. That's basically how I feel right now --- should I attempt to do something, or run away?
Tom: I'm stunned, frankly. I honestly thought this country knew better; I thought our innate capacity for goodness would help us realize what a nightmare awaited us, and we stumbled into it anyway.
If you were watching the returns come in on Tuesday, you probably noticed that Illinois, where I live, was a lone blue state surrounded by red. In macro, that's how I feel; alone liberal in a sea of conservative suburbanites between the Illinois and Indiana borders. I know people who probably voted for Trump that I respect, and that terrifies me more than anything.
Kieran: I'm English, living in England, but what happens in America affects the whole world. We just had the Brexit referendum recently, so it breaks my heart to see things go down pretty much the exact same way in America. After our vote, there was a sharp spike in hate crimes, and it's already begun to happen over there too, and it feels like the worst is yet to come.
What scares me most is how this wave of nationalism is taking over everywhere, in England, America, France, Australia, etc. It feels like there's nothing we can do.
Andrew: I have the privilege of watching both this election and the Brexit result from my home in Canada, but I'm British, my employer and most of my friends and colleagues are American, and the fact that I'm governed by problematic Disney prince Justin Trudeau doesn't feel like much solace right now.
Elle: When the Brexit vote was such an unfortunate surprise, I remember people on both sides of the Atlantic basically saying, "Watch out, this could happen with Trump too," and I don't think I really believed that, but here we are. On the other hand, I'm not certain what I could have done at that point to help stop it if I had believed.
Andrew: We're here today to talk about comics, and specifically politics and comics, so here's the first question for the room; is there a place for politics in comics?
Elle: It's not a matter of "is there a place." All art, personal or commercial, contains politics.
Is that a good answer?
Kieran: Absolutely. Captain America was created by two Jewish artists to fight Nazis. People have tried to tell me that wasn't a political statement, which is one of the dumbest things I've ever heard.
Tara Marie: One of the things people don't seem to get is that almost all art, in at least some way, is political. And comics are art.
Tom: Yes absolutely. All art makes a statement, and comics have from the very beginning. From the earliest political cartoons, to golden age Superman being a walking, talking New Deal reformer, comics have always been and will always be political.
Elle: If you don't deliberately put your ideology into the work you're making, you just end up unconsciously reproducing whatever ideology you're steeped in. It's all political.
Andrew: Yeah, if you think your work isn't political, it's upholding the status quo, and that's political.
Tara Marie: Comics, it seems, aren't supposed to be political because they're "lowbrow." But honestly, lowbrow art is where dissidence often expresses itself most clearly: in bad comedies, in terrible music by equally terrible musicians, in silly color drawings of people in capes.
Elle: This is something that's come up a lot recently, where a big comics company will do something that people object to for its politics, and then the creators will try to say there are no politics. And that just means they didn't put enough thought into the politics, not that they aren't there.
Tom: The "low culture" of popular things has always been where the most radical messages lie, I think.
Andrew: This is a very queer room of people, so here's an apt example we can all recognize; people say that putting queer characters in comics is political. But creating a fictional world in which queer people do not exist is a concession to a society that would prefer that we not exist, and it's putting those people's interests ahead of those of the queer kid who needs a hero to identify with. Well, that's hella political. Making all your kisses and romances heterosexual is a political statement.
Tara Marie: One of the weird things is that my very existence is considered political. There's a somewhat popular shirt for trans girls, by the amazing comic creator Isz Janeway, that says, "I'm a divisive issue," and the sad part is that's true. If someone like me even shows up in a comic, it gets accused of being "politically correct." I'm sorry that, for me, existing is a political act.
Andrew: That sounds like a great t-shirt.
Tara Marie: A huge problem is the fact that there's no solid line between what's moral and what's political. Comics --- at least cape comics --- to me, should be big ol' moral tales, and it's near impossible to do that without it becoming "political." For instance, the very first issue of the New 52's Action Comics has Superman beating up rich people who steal from the poor. Is that political? Is it moral? Where the heck's the line?
Elle: One thing that lots of research has found is that conservatives and progressives see morality differently. And one of the key differences is that conservatives tend to attach a moral value to an abstract concept of purity. And in my view, as a queer progressive, that's the thing that makes deliberately excluding people you don't like seem like a moral thing to do.
Tom: From a lifetime of living among conservatives, that's very true. Purity is, ironically, fetishized in the same weird way it is in a lot of fiction, and that's troubling in fiction just as it is in the real world.
Andrew: Next question: I assume we would all agree that the new president is both a manifestation and escalation of an ugly political climate around the world, marked by a surge in nationalism, protectionism, xenophobia, and white supremacy. That's going to have an impact on every part of our lives, but were focusing in on comics. What impact do we expect this to have on the comics industry specifically?
Tara Marie: I have no idea, honestly. I have zero idea. I want to say that it'll create an urgency around diversity, that the pressure will be on for them to fight back against this. That, for instance, an industry with a super popular character who is Muslim, will attempt to fight back against the face of Islamophobia, racism and hatred, but I do not know.
I just keep thinking about the whitewashing in Doctor Strange, and how upset fanboys get whenever you turn a white character black. Is the whitewashing going to become more or less common? I have no idea.
Kieran: This is the point I'd like to mention Ike Perlmutter's contributions to the Trump campaign. I don't want that to ever be forgotten.
Tom: No, never. That viscerally disgusts me.
Kieran: Marvel has done some really great comics that fly in the face of Trumpian ideals, comics like Nighthawk and Mockingbird, but the man at the top is a big time contributor and supporter of President-elect Trump.
Elle: I'm very concerned about the reactions of corporate-owned publishers to this rising tide of white nationalism. Perlmutter personally liking what Trump has to say didn't stop Marvel from not only publishing Ms. Marvel, but having Sana Amanat, a feminist Muslim woman of color, go on television and promote the book.
But I worry that a cowardly sense of "this isn't what Americans want anymore" may make it harder for things like that to happen in the future.
Andrew: Marvel really feels like a house divided. People like Sana Amanat and Wil Moss are pushing for progressivism in comics, and providing a platform for a lot of creators to do the same, from Ta-Nehisi Coates to G. Willow Wilson, but then you've got guys like Axel Alonso and Tom Brevoort, who seem to always want to pick fights with progressivism. And they're the more influential voices.
Editorial cowardice is exactly what I'm concerned about. Publishers weren't wrong to see that the market is shifting away from straight white male dominance towards diversity. A lot has changed, and the next generation of creators is going to be more female than male. If the industry panics and tries to pander exclusively to a protectionist fanbase, I think it's going to wither and die.
More people voted for Clinton than Trump, and almost half of all eligible voters didn't vote; those Trump supporters are not the majority.
Kieran: I don't trust publishers to be progressive anyway, to be honest. I trust people to be progressive. Marvel will do what makes it money. Axel Alonso refused to confirm Angela as a queer character the same week she shared a kiss with her girlfriend on the page.
Andrew: Oh, absolutely, but I think the profit motive and the progressive motive have become more strongly aligned, and Marvel and others might no longer be sure of that. Their instincts are to be conservative. They understand conservative.
Elle: I think "Marvel will do what makes it money" is oversimplified. Marvel will follow the path of least resistance to money. There's more money in building for the future, but they need/want the easiest money right now. And sometimes to them that looks like not offending the kinds of readers who currently support the direct market.
Kieran: There is no way in hell we would have World of Wakanda if Black Panther wasn't a huge success for Marvel, and by all indicators Coates had to twist some arms to get them to hire a black queer woman to write it.
Tom: Yet at the same time we have World of Wakanda, we also have Marvel hiring Dwayne McDuffie award winner Nilah Magruder to work on A Year of Marvels, and barely promoting it. That's a mixed message at best.
In terms of other impacts, I noticed right away that comics creators were scared for their lives about health insurance. Unless you're on the business side of a publisher/company, rather than just a freelancer, the seemingly immediate repeal of Obamacare puts you and your family at risk.
Andrew: It's notable that there's a disproportionate number of comics creators coming out of Canada, given the size of our population, and I think it's absolutely not a mystery. Canada has a healthcare system. It's not great, but it provides enough of a safety net that artists can pursue a career in art. That makes a huge difference to an industry like this one.
Tom: To another end, I think what's going to happen is more comic shops are going to close. All economic forecasts point heavily towards another, seven times worse recession, and given that comic shops are to a man small businesses, they're going to suffer.
Andrew: You're right, another financial crisis is very likely, and retailers' chances of survival look grim. The direct market is not a robust model.
Tom: There was a big discussion about the direct market's viability in recent months as regards the Nighthawk and Mockingbird cancellations. I think we're going to see that collapse sooner rather than later, particularly as bookstores make more money from comics.
Andrew: One idea that I've seen circulating is that political adversity creates great art. It's an idea that gets expressed as, "Now fascism is on the rise again, we'll finally have some good music." The counterpoint is that this is a glib way to romanticize suffering. Where do we fall on that question?
Elle: I just don't buy into that. There was a ton of great art during the Obama administration. What's going to happen is that there's going to be more protest art, more angry art, more punk songs about the president. And some people prefer that kind of art, so I guess to them it will look better? But it's still not a worthwhile tradeoff.
Tom: I get the sentiment, really, but great art can occur in happy times and bad. I understand the "any port in a storm" mentality, but it's pretty mean to turn to artists and say, "Hey! Make us feel better."
Kieran: I'd rather have hopeful art than angry protest art. I'd also rather see all my friends survive the next four years without persecution.
Tara Marie: Casablanca is a great film but it's not worth World War II. Great art can be inspired by great terror. Guernica is an amazing painting, but I'd rather the city had not been bombed. Godzilla is my favorite monster, but I would have much preferred Hiroshima and Nagasaki to not have been nuked. Horrible things can inspire great art, but focusing on that is so callous and cruel.
Andrew: It's very much the socio-political version of "depression makes great comedians", or "alcoholism makes great writers".
Andrew: Depression makes bitter comedians, and alcoholism makes nihilistic writers. These aren't the only values. Maybe what we need is better infrastructures in place to support depressives and alcoholics and writers and comedians?
Elle: There will certainly be hopeful art too, and art about how the future will be better if we stand together. All-Star Superman came out under Bush. But again, it's still not worth things being terrible in real life.
Tara Marie: It's such a weird, dry take on this all. It's like seeing a mass murder and going, "Wow, the movie they'll make about that is going to be great." David Fincher's Zodiac is a great film, but I'd rather the Zodiac Killer not have existed in the first place.
Andrew: Poor Ted Cruz.
Tara Marie: It's better for there to be no, or bad, art than for their to be real human suffering. People are more important than things.
Tom: I'll admit one of the more cynical post-election thoughts I had was, "Gee, I guess a population that loves dark grim Superman movies really would do this, eh?" That's mean, but I feel it does speak to something.
Kieran: What's the best piece of art that came out under Reagan? I'd trade it for the life of one person who died because of his AIDS policies.
Andrew: I think Reagan gave us Jeff Koons. What even is he for?
Elle: But it's a false trade off. I don't think art gets better under fascism. It just gets more visceral, maybe?
Tom: Can you explain what you mean by "visceral," Elle?
Elle: I guess I mean that an artist who, in carefree times, might make contemplative, peaceful art, in troubled times may be more likely to make art about punching a dictator in the face.
Tara Marie: I think when there are bad times, art can get more pointed. It can have more weight. But it doesn't necessarily get better.
I just keep thinking of Stephen King's quote, "Life isn't a support system for art. It's the other way around." Art is there to help us get through stuff like this, but honestly, I'd much rather us not have anything bad to get through. Captain America wasn't worth the Holocaust. That's basically my entire take on the idea of, "hey, at least bad times will make great art."
Andrew: I think fascism makes us more conscious of the realities of fascism. It's easy for these things to become abstract, for Nazis to become rent-a-villains in our fiction, to the point where we've watered the idea down enough for it to come back again. Fascism will change the urgency and tenor of some of that work. it won't make it de facto better work. Maybe just more vital to the discourse in that moment?
Elle: I do wonder, whatever the plan has been to resolve the "Hydra Cap" story currently running at Marvel, if there is talk of changing it. Because whatever ending it was going to have is almost certainly going to read differently than it would have in a world where Clinton won.
Andrew: I really hope Marvel can read the mood and make changes to that story, but the editors didn't seem to understand the mood when they commissioned it. Now is not the time to glamorize a Nazi under the guise of critique. It's entirely the wrong approach, and it empowers the wrong people and grinds down the right people.
Tom: Something the writer Laura Sneddon was pondering on Twitter the other day is whether or not our modern craving for dystopias has had a negative psychological effect. I'd tend to agree with that, for the same reason I don't think Superman should brood all the time.
Tara Marie: Grant Morrison --- who we all know is one hundred percent a head-in-the-clouds optimist --- argued against dark visions for that exact reason. He talks about in Supergods, how the bomb started out as an idea, and became real. He says that we should, instead of focusing on dystopias, work on making utopias in art, and then making them real.
Andrew: On that point; Art can be a form of escapism, as well as a form of protest. Do you think there's a case for going lighter rather than darker in fiction now? What do you think people will want to see?
Kieran: Elle already mentioned it, but I went straight to All-Star Superman as a way to cope.
Tara Marie: I don't think we should go "lighter" rather than "darker." I think that idea is wrong in the first place. I think that we should be aiming for hope. Lord of the Rings is incredibly dark, but at the end of the day good wins out. Final Crisis is one of the darkest comics I've ever read, and it has the single brightest panel I've ever seen. "To Be Continued."
Kieran: "Trump... always hated music."
Tom: Hope is certainly a keynote that pops up in several monthly comics I follow, and there's a reason for that. We live in uncertain times, and as a post-graduate drowning in debt, I'm in the most uncertain time of my life. But I look at Kamala Khan and Doreen Green beating the odds, and that gives me hope.
Tara Marie: Creating works that reflect the darkness we're living in, and showing that, "there is a crack in everything / that's how the light gets in" is what artists, I think, should be doing.
Elle: I think escapism is incredibly important. I've found myself wanting to rewatch Sullivan's Travels, which is a movie about this exact thing. A director of comedies thinks his art isn't important, and wants to make something big and dark and "meaningful," and then he realizes that people living in dark times often need something to laugh at and enjoy.
That's not to say that darker stories (especially with hopeful endings like Tara points out) aren't also really important. I just don't think they're more important.
Tara Marie: I have been listening to music almost non-stop since Trump won. I'm watching cartoons because it helps get me through.
Andrew: I started watching Teen Titans Go.
Tom: I watched the two most recent episodes of The Middle --- the most true sitcom about the Midwest I've ever seen --- on election night because I needed a break.
Tara Marie: Amanda Palmer has a song called "Ukulele Anthem," where she sings about how playing happy songs seems like a naive and simple way to improve the world, "but people for millennia have needed music to survive," and that's so true.
Kieran: There's a panel from the late Darwyn Cooke's New Frontier where Superman stands up and says, "I will not countenance any evils that threaten the constitutional freedoms of this great nation's people, whether they come from outside or within," and I just keep staring at it every now and then.
Elle: I rewatched the entirety of The Good Place --- probably the best new show of this fall, by the way. It's literally a show about Heaven, but it's also a little bit about the fear of Hell.
Andrew: I think what the world needs right now is a new Channing Tatum movie. They have to do that Splash remake stat. And the odds of me re-binging Kimmy Schmidt for the third time this year look pretty high.
Tara Marie: It's really interesting to see people on social media attempting to balance between "hopeless despair" and "look at this silly picture of a cat." Resistance is important, but also sometimes you need to watch Animaniacs.
Tom: I might have to print that out and put it on my wall, Tara.
Andrew: Yeah, I think this is all to say; we should not be ashamed of the need to balance our anger with our need for a release valve. I watched a terrible movie on Netflix last night because it was terrible and I needed it. That doesn't make me less angry about what happened, but it allows me to keep going.
Tom: I think that's something we'll be seeing over and over. One of the noted points of the last few DC reboots is to bring back optimism to the universe; with Rebirth, for all the pandering it's done, they appear to have succeeded.
Andrew: Despite all my reservations, Rebirth has struck a better balance than I expected between the old and the new, though I'll never forgive the "two Wally Wests" nonsense.
Tom: What so many of DKR's imitators failed to grasp is that it ends in uplift. "This will be a good life. Good enough."
Tara Marie: I realize Alan Moore would disagree with me, but even Watchmen ends with the implication that the villain will lose.
Tom: Oh, without question.
Elle: But also the implication that the villain losing might destroy the world.
Andrew: I think ambiguity tends bleak. Maybe that's projection. Maybe I tend bleak.
Tom: That's certainly been the swing of it since modernism began.
Kieran: I'm very much looking forward to Steve Orlando and Ivan Reis' Justice League of America, which is being billed as being a Justice League that reflects the true America, and only has one straight white guy on the team.
Elle: And sooner or later Marvel has to announce a creative team for Ms. America. That's an America (a queer, brown America) that I want to see.
Andrew: Here's the final question for the room: Do comics have political power? That is to say, do they have the power to influence politics?
Tom: Certainly! I know that, ever since I started reading More Than Meets The Eye, I've been leaning more anti-war and pro-compassion.
Elle: Not on any Earth-shaking national scale, because frankly, hardly anyone reads them anymore.
Kieran: V For Vendetta inspired Anonymous, for good or ill.
Tom: Mostly ill.
Kieran: There's a weird loop where V For Vendetta was created under an oppressive conservative government, and inspired Anonymous decades later, then Anonymous kinda led to WIkileaks, which influenced the election in Trump's favor, and now America is going to have an oppressive conservative government.
Tara Marie: I think all art can inspire, can change how you feel about things and people, but since comics aren't as big as they used to be, I'm going with "no" as a simple answer.
Elle: But I do think comics can make a difference for individuals, and that adds up to politics. As I've said before, reading Bill Messner-Loebs' Flash as a kid is literally the first time I encountered the message that being gay is okay.
I later found out my parents basically agreed, they just thought I was too young to talk to about that. I wasn't.
Andrew: Yeah, comics shaped my politics, for sure. The X-Men taught me about tolerance more than my Christian upbringing ever did. I think all stories have the power to teach empathy, which is hugely politically powerful.
Tom: The best political outreach comes from empathy.
Tara Marie: Yeah, I guess. I mean, comics are the first place I saw someone like myself.
And, yeah, you know what, I do take it back. Comics can influence people, so yeah, they can influence politics.
Tom: I know that, for me personally, webcomics have taught me a lot more about the world. Girls with Slingshots and Something Positive, along with simply getting out of the bubble in which I was raised, taught me a lot about the vast, wonderful spectrum of human sexuality and thought.
Any time comics are denounced as propaganda --- as in the days of Fredric Wertham, or the absolutely Chilean book in the 1970s that denounced Carl Barks comics as capitalist dogma --- or used as such in the case of the late Jack Chick, they fail. But when they're allowed to reach people on their own, they succeed
Kieran: I'm not just a better person because of comics. I'm a better person because of the people I met through comics.
Andrew: I think the greatest power that comics might have right now is to organise. Art creates communities.
After the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, I was in this numb state of shock. I belong to a gay men's chorus, and I had a rehearsal to go to the next day. And I was incredibly grateful for that sense of community, for the comfort that came with being surrounded by this queer family, bound together by music. We ended up singing a Melissa Etheridge song in tribute to the Pulse victims at our concert, two weeks after the shooting, and it was an emotional, powerful, unifying moment.
I think comics can do that too, because the medium has always been very community-oriented, very fan-driven. I think we find each other through comics.
Elle: I like that. I noticed earlier today that Sfé Monster was offering free copies of their queer sci-fi comics anthology, Beyond, to any trans youth who want it, just to show them that they're not alone. In times like these, that really really matters.
Tom: One of the best bits of the internet is fandom. For all the ill it can do, fandom has helped people find their voices, and find others who are like them. Comics can certainly do that, and I think they do it best.