Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Comic Delusion

So the other day I watched Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics.  It's a solid documentary.  I learned some new things about DC's history and how the major comics and characters came to be.  It also includes some great interviews with a number of different creators and their perspectives on superhero comics.  Especially eye-opening was the strange personal life of Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston, and the S&M that was not so subtly displayed in the panels of the early Wonder Woman comics.

But what really stood out watching this documentary is the discussion over the direction of comics in the 1980s, focusing primarily on Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's Watchmen.  Mark Waid, a great writer and someone who I have tremendous respect for as a creator, begins the discussion like this: "In the 80s, there's a whole new Conservative grip to the nation.  Some of the younger comic book creators weren't too keen on that."

Apparently, to Liberals, having a Republican President represents a "Conservative grip" over the country.  As they begin discussing The Dark Knight Returns, Waid goes on to describe his interpretation of the story as though it was the objective and widely accepted view: "The whole climax of the book ends up being Superman and Batman literally trading blows, as Batman reigns upon him with Kryptonite gloves, and really in that moment, you're seeing the fire of Liberalism pound the crap out of the staid Conservative era of the 1980s."

Take that, you right-wing stooge!

I've read numerous reviews, interpretations and discussions of The Dark Knight Returns, and that has to be most idiotic, simplistic mischaracterization of I've ever heard.  Nowhere have I seen Miller's story described as an illustration of Liberal vs. Conservative worldviews. Most conspicuously, Miller himself has never characterized his book that way.  I don't know if DC was trying to cling to a particular narrative during this portion of the documentary, or if these were Waid's actual views, but he presses on with this theme as the discussion moves to Alan Moore:  "The whole concept of Watchmen is a reaction to Thatcher's England, that very Orwellian sense of government power, and sense of censorship, and sense of personal freedoms being curtailed."

Good grief.  You'd think we were behind the Iron Curtain during the 80s.  And when did Thatcher come to be viewed as such a tyrant?  I guess helping to win the Cold War and defeating communism doesn't count for much these days.

Alan Moore (self-proclaimed anarchist), speaking at the time, describes his views this way:  "It seems to me that anything these days which is slightly to the left of Ghengis Khan is immediately labeled as subversive.  If, in this current time, tolerance and sensitivity of any kind are labled loony left or subversive than I would be quite proud to be considered a subversive."  Wow. That's ballsy.  And profound.  To stand up to the fascist, authoritarian regimes of England and America during the dark, dystopian days of the 1980s took real courage.  All I can say is, if the left-wing delusions of these writers help them create good comics, more power to them.

One other segment of the documentary left me mystified.  While discussing the pathetic Death of Superman storyline, writer Louise Simonson actually moves herself to tears.  No, not tears of shame, but of genuine sadness and mourning.



Anonymous said...

Wait, ultra-rich old white guy Bruce Wayne is the symbol of liberalism? And the altruistic journalist and helper of the weak Superman is the symbol of conservatism? Whatever.


James Wood said...

Interpreters of anything tend toward the absurd and sensational. The most talked-about interpretations of Mark Twain, Shakespeare or the Bible are all about two-thirds crazy. And that's what gets people to talk about them.

It dawned on my in my junior year of high school. Literary interpretation is a load of crap. I haven't seen much since then to convince me otherwise.

The League said...

DKR is rife with political satire, and I don't know how you can read the book without raising an eyebrow at the presentation of the Reagan stand-in and Superman's kowtowing to him without getting some political spin from the book. Certainly the presentation of Corto Maltese is also reflective of the various incursions of the US military or US support into small countries during the Cold War.

I don't know that its so much about anti-conservativism so much as a reflection of the times, which is why I think the 20-somethings have a hard time grappling with the book. Like Watchmen, its entirely steeped in Cold War thinking and logic. They worried about Al Qaeda growing up. We worried about a nuclear weapon going off over our elementary schools.

I agree with ted that in general seeing Batman as the super-Liberal and Superman as the conservative is generally wrong, but as we saw with the release of the movie The Dark Knight, both parties were claiming "I'm Batman" as both wanted to be seen as the misunderstood warrior fighting for the common good.

Waid has a point, but given Miller's personal politics, for a long time I've seen the DKR Batman as a push back against a corruption of politics and systemic breakdowns that were occurring while Reagan was in office. (And, btw, I know the man is considered a minor deity now, but he wasn't everyone's cup of tea during the 80's).

And, yeah, the reason there's a movie called "The Iron Lady" about Margaret Thatcher that's out right now starring Meryl Streep is that England is still wrestling with the government they elected for a few years in there. It was a time in England of economic uncertainty, and is not considered by all parties as a period in which things shook out particularly well for England's lower classes, with dissent ending poorly for many. I'd check out info on stuff like the Poll Tax Riots to get a feel for what was going on in England at the time.

Moore comes from working class roots, which means something very different in the UK than it means in the US. And I imagine as an up and coming writer in the 1980's, he did have the freedom to say what he wanted, but economically, a lot of Brits were feeling ground beneath the heel of those in power.

Jake Shore said...

League, of course DKR is full of politics, and wrapped up in Cold War themes. I'm not arguing that, only Waid's simplistic reduction. I have no doubt Miller was critical of our government and its policies at the time. That seems pretty clear. But Waid doesn't even attempt to make a more thoughtful or nuanced argument, and since I can't imagine him going along with some contrived narrative put forward by the director of the documentary, I must assume that's how he reads the book.

As far as Thatcher, just as there is tendency to view Reagan in an increasingly positive light, there seems also a growing narrative that views the Iron Lady in more negative light. We can argue whether that's fair or not, but what doesn't seem debatable is the notion that Thatcher's England represented a fixture of Orwellian oppression (especially since the real thing lay only a few hundred miles east). Regardless of what one thinks of her policies, Thatcher generally sought reduce the size and scope of government. That wasn't popular for some in a country that was moving toward becoming the social democratic state that it is today. The popularity and success of Moore's work in the UK makes the case for curtailment of personal freedoms a dubious one.