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The Politics of the Superhero
January 14, 2014 1:36 PM   Subscribe

"This symposium explores the relationship of superheroes to questions of power, ideology, social relations, and political culture. It represents the first time that a political science journal has devoted sustained attention to the superhero genre as it is reflected in the pages of comic books and graphic novels, and on the big screen." -- PS: Political Science & Politics holds a symposium on The Politics of the Superhero.

The articles:

“A Is A”: Spider-Man, Ayn Rand, and What Man Ought to Be
Hell's Kitchen's Prolonged Crisis and Would-be Sovereigns: Daredevil, Hobbes, and Schmitt
Negotiating the Third Wave of Feminism in Wonder Woman
Men of Steel? Rorschach, Theweleit, and Watchmen's Deconstructed Masculinity
The Imperial Superhero
Superheroes in Hong Kong's Political Resistance: Icons, Images, and Opposition
Fighting the Battles We Never Could: The Avengers and Post-September 11 American Political Identities
posted by MartinWisse (43 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
I wonder if it wouldn't be more accurate to talk of the "anti-politics" of the superhero. Superheros are, by and large, a wish-fulfillment fantasy about ways to avoid or circumvent politics (and when the stories get "gritty" or "realistic" it usually involves the hero being mired in the petty and cynical world of politics). Politics is all about finding ways to balance the competing interests of groups of people with often radically incompatible desires and worldviews. Politics requires recognizing that you can't talk simply about what is morally "right" and "wrong" (or, at least, that you might do so, but that you are doing so to some extent as a means to an end that is not simply the pursuit of the "right" and an assault on the "wrong.).

Superheros offer us the primal fantasy of simply being able to shape the world according to our understanding of how it ought to work. Of course, we very quickly come to realize that that's a rather disturbing and fascistic fantasy, so we immediately set about qualifying and constraining the hero's power to do what s/he wants ("with great power comes great responsibility"). But nonetheless, at the heart of the superhero narrative lurks that essentially anti-political desire to simply wipe away the inevitable compromises and half-achievements of real political processes and reframe the world as simply the Good Guy who gets to beat up the Bad Guy. Truth, Justice and the American Way.
posted by yoink at 1:49 PM on January 14 [14 favorites]


The premise of any Superhero tale, and I'd probably include attempts to get away from this like Watchmen and Kick Ass, is that it's set in a world where dressing up funny and going out to fight wrongdoers is a thing that makes sense - something that makes them inherently unrealistic and attempts to discuss them, or even make them, in terms of pure realism dubious at best.
posted by Artw at 2:06 PM on January 14 [3 favorites]


Well the things that create and legitimize the superhero stories--people--are real, so it certainly is a worthwhile and feasible project to analyse these forms of literature in an attempt to illluminate how people view the world.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 2:12 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


There are people who dress up funny and go out to fight wrongdoers in the reality too, but I suppose that whether or not they have any sense is up for debate.
posted by Jacqueline at 2:22 PM on January 14


That A is A article is pretty awful and was clearly written by someone who cares more about Ayn Rand's legacy than about comics history. I had to go looking for more info about Ditko's Mr. A elsewhere.
posted by painquale at 2:23 PM on January 14 [2 favorites]


it certainly is a worthwhile and feasible project to analyse these forms of literature in an attempt to illluminate how people view the world

Sure, but that's pretty trivially true of any cultural artifact. And the actual arguments being advanced about the relationship of comics to politics in most of these articles are quite feeble in general, and surprisingly unreflective about genre, just as Artw was suggesting. They're mostly just variants on "look, comic A reflects contemporary political/cultural trend B" — that is, they're basically just historically describing the content, rather than bringing anything much by way of critical insight into the form or the genre. To me only the Wonder Woman essay was very near to real critical reflection.
posted by RogerB at 2:25 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


The premise of any Superhero tale, and I'd probably include attempts to get away from this like Watchmen and Kick Ass, is that it's set in a world where dressing up funny and going out to fight wrongdoers is a thing that makes sense - something that makes them inherently unrealistic and attempts to discuss them, or even make them, in terms of pure realism dubious at best.

You obviously have never heard of Brampton Batman, Phoenix Jones or the Real Life Superhero Registry...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 2:26 PM on January 14


Yeah, um, I have...
posted by Artw at 2:28 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


They're mostly just variants on "look, comic A reflects contemporary political/cultural trend B" — that is, they're basically just historically describing the content, rather than bringing anything much by way of critical insight into the form or the genre.

That's because the people writing these essays are political scientists, who by and large do not do textual analysis of of cultural artifacts. And PS is not a typical journal, but rather a state-of-the-discipline type publication.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 2:30 PM on January 14


There are people who dress up funny and go out to fight wrongdoers in the reality too, but I suppose that whether or not they have any sense is up for debate.

That's more life imitating art, though.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 2:37 PM on January 14


Looking only at the properties of big comics publishers is rather narrow minded, IMO.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 2:38 PM on January 14


Oh god, the Rorschach one... I may die from the pain.
posted by Artw at 2:47 PM on January 14


That's more life imitating art, though.

Or rather failing to imitate it. Phoenix Jones is not the protector of the city of Seattle, nobody is happy to see him turn up. He has left zero trussed up crooks for the cops with a witty little note - and the cops know who he is, and hate him.
posted by Artw at 2:49 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


Superheroes offer us the primal fantasy of simply being able to shape the world according to our understanding of how it ought to work.

I think that’s only half true. It’s true of oligarchical heroes who use their power to impose their values on the world. Some are so powerful that they can impose their will as an individual (Magneto), some avoid society’s rules by operating in the shadows (Rorschach). In either case, it's a fantasy about being an empowered member of an elite.

However, there is also a more democratic model of superheroism. Captain America has a vision of how the world should be, but he tries to bring it about through persuasion and by inspiring others. He's a paragon. He wins not by punching out the Red Skull but by convincing a whole army of people that freedom is worth fighting for. Heroes in this class think that anyone can and should be a hero and try to lead by example. Some of the most powerful superheroes fall into this camp, particularly Superman.

Superhero fantasies tell us something about class relations as imagined by comics creators. In the movies Nick Fury, Agent of the Secret Government, has usurped Captain America as leader of the Avengers. That is not a democratic dream.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:49 PM on January 14


Marshal Law will always be one of my favorite commentaries on the superhero genre. I read Watchmen too early to really grasp what it was going for. I kept wanting it to be more conventional as I couldn't put it down.

The Marshal came along in college for me, so not only did he really influence my thinking about superheros, but I was bordering on old enough to have an opinion about what the comic was aiming at.

Certainly not enlightened law enforcement or anything. But then, Dirty Harry was SFPD as well.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 2:59 PM on January 14 [3 favorites]


Some of the most powerful superheroes fall into this camp, particularly Superman.

Well, writers work hard to put him into that camp, at times, sure. But he's also the strongest and most decent man on the planet and he spends an awful lot of his time employing his strength to overwhelm people who want to do something he judges to be wrong. I would say that it is true that good writers of Superman stories recognize that there's a limit to how many compelling stories can be based on "invulnerable man punches bad guys," but I would also say that the primal appeal of Superman as a character--what sets him apart from characters who simply don't have the option of punching Hitler in the face without having to worry about retribution--is that anti-political ability to back up unimpeachable moral purity with irresistible physical force. That's what you see on the cover of Action Comics #1, and it is, I think, the core of the superhero appeal.
posted by yoink at 3:00 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


In the Hong Kong article, there's this fabulous photo of protestors using Joker imagery to represent local political villains.
posted by spamandkimchi at 3:06 PM on January 14


I'm enjoying the Hong Kong activists use of movies other than the Matrix and V for Vendetta
The Spartan example is also captured in an online mobilization image for the July 1, 2012. democracy march by the group Keyboard Frontline where the newly installed chief executive is kicked off a platform representing Hong Kong by a “Spartan” Hongkonger who shouts: “This is our HONG KONG!” Other renditions of this trope simply “photoshopped” the chief executive's head onto the body of the Persian being kicked into the pit by Leonidas.
posted by spamandkimchi at 3:09 PM on January 14



“A Is A”: Spider-Man, Ayn Rand, and What Man Ought to Be
Hell's Kitchen's Prolonged Crisis and Would-be Sovereigns: Daredevil, Hobbes, and Schmitt
Negotiating the Third Wave of Feminism in Wonder Woman
Men of Steel? Rorschach, Theweleit, and Watchmen's Deconstructed Masculinity
The Imperial Superhero
Superheroes in Hong Kong's Political Resistance: Icons, Images, and Opposition
Fighting the Battles We Never Could: The Avengers and Post-September 11 American Political Identities


No Buckaroo Banzai?
posted by philip-random at 3:13 PM on January 14


a world where dressing up funny and going out to fight wrongdoers is a thing that makes sense

Sooo... if a single person wears a silly looking uniform, it's non-sensical, but if entire police forces or armies of people wear a silly uniform, that's normal? Or is it just the spandex component that makes such a major difference?
posted by eviemath at 3:19 PM on January 14 [2 favorites]


yoink, I'd say Superman is so powerful that it's hard to tell a good raw power story with him. Unlike Batman, he's so irresistible that if he imposed himself on the world there would be no conflict. You get a much more interesting story when Superman's enemies attack his ideals rather than his body, trying to discredit or demoralize him. Obviously Superman's going to win a fistfight; the interesting question is whether he can inspire others to seek truth, justice and the American way.

Sure, there are lots of raw power Superman stories, like the time he unilaterally stole all the world's nuclear weapons in Superman IV. Those stories tend to be pretty bad.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:22 PM on January 14


Can I just take a tiny moment here to feel a little vindication of my very first metafilter comment?
posted by eviemath at 3:24 PM on January 14


Sooo... if a single person wears a silly looking uniform, it's non-sensical, but if entire police forces or armies of people wear a silly uniform, that's normal?

Police forces are a thing that can exist in this world and Batman is not, draw your own conclusions.
posted by Artw at 3:29 PM on January 14 [2 favorites]


Sooo... if a single person wears a silly looking uniform, it's non-sensical, but if entire police forces or armies of people wear a silly uniform, that's normal?

Could you be more specific, because I'm having trouble sifting through what you mean. Like, in Marvel and DC there are already literally armies of people who wear different costumes, and some belong to the equivalent of police forces (like Green Lantern). And the word "uniform" usually means clothing you put on for a job or an organization (like the USPS), which goes against the popular definition of superhero as a volunteer who operates alone.
posted by FJT at 3:39 PM on January 14


Sooo... if a single person wears a silly looking uniform, it's non-sensical

How can a unique costume worn by one person be a uniform? This is actually kind of the koan of superhero politics. But the answer isn't necessarily that it isn't a uniform, since you might (if you were more reflective about psychology and representation than most of these political scientists) think of a superhero as the condensation of a social fantasy into a single individual.
posted by RogerB at 3:40 PM on January 14


Our wold also has had groups of people in silly uniforms dispensing vigilante justice and that REALLY didn't go so well.
posted by Artw at 3:41 PM on January 14 [4 favorites]


"Real life superheroes" are a thing, but as Artw noted, there is no hard and fast basis of comparison between them and their fictional counterparts. Leaving aside people like Phoenix Jones for a moment, there's the woman whose alias escapes me who was for some time handing out condoms in bars (I don't know whether this is still a thing for her), the man in the DC area who dresses like Batman to entertain sick kids...people like that who basically use their costumes to draw attention to a cause, or to entertain. Those are pretty much Cosplayers for Happiness, I guess, and more power to them...but they aren't superheroes in the sense that they go out and battle Darkseid. Even the ones who regularly get into physical confrontations with people are only emulating acts that simply cannot take place in the real world, by their very nature. You can't become a Green Lantern any more than you can take the ring to Mount Doom. It's not a life option. I'm sorry. I was also extremely disappointed.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 4:19 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


You can't become a Green Lantern any more than you can take the ring to Mount Doom. It's not a life option. I'm sorry. I was also extremely disappointed.

I have noticed recently an almost 'pataphysical trend towards defictionalization, so this might be one of those things where we look back in 30 years like "wow what a boner that was with hindsight."
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 4:59 PM on January 14


How can a unique costume worn by one person be a uniform? This is actually kind of the koan of superhero politics.

Many superhero stories of the late 1930s and early 1940s actually use the word "uniform" instead of "costume" because the genre conventions haven't solidified yet. In fact, the early years of the 1956 reboot of the Flash has the character refer to his outfit as a "uniform," partly because the strip used Golden Age veteran writers and perhaps because the character was remained as a police scientist.
posted by kewb at 5:12 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


a world where dressing up funny and going out to fight wrongdoers is a thing that makes sense

Sooo... if a single person wears a silly looking uniform, it's non-sensical, but if entire police forces or armies of people wear a silly uniform, that's normal? Or is it just the spandex component that makes such a major difference?


I saw some Sydney cops in some sort of summer uniform - polo shirts and cargo shorts - today. Because the shirts were baby blue and the cops were a bit rotund, they looked like giant toddlers with guns. So I don't think its the spandex.

Don't even talk to me about how stupid the bike cops look.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:31 PM on January 14


yoink, I'd say Superman is so powerful that it's hard to tell a good raw power story with him.

Oh, absolutely. But that's my point. Here we have this character about whom it is difficult to tell a compelling story, and yet we keep being drawn back to tell stories about him. I mean, it's not like it's hard to tell stories about people with less than insuperable might, is it? Pick any human character at all and voila--no need for ridiculous contrivances about Kryptonite or "oh, look, there were actually more survivors from Krypton" etc. etc. But we keep being drawn back to the character of Superman (and other superheroes) despite the fact that the very thing that makes them compelling to us also makes them extremely difficult to write compelling stories for. So what is it that draws us back to them and makes them seem such a compelling idea? It is the idea of "super-ness," of somebody who can just physically (and morally) compel the world to take the form we believe it ought to have.
posted by yoink at 5:32 PM on January 14


yoink, I'd say Superman is so powerful that it's hard to tell a good raw power story with him.

Indeed. There's always the whole I LIVE. IN A WORLD. MADE OF CARDBOARD! thing. It even has its own TV Tropes entry.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:41 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


we keep being drawn back to tell stories about him.

Who is "we" here? I'm not sure how many new Superman stories would continue to be made if it wasn't in Warner Brothers' interest to try to keep him popular and relevant. It's not like there's a booming industry of Superman fanfiction out there.
posted by painquale at 5:43 PM on January 14


Not really sure that's true or actually a useful measure.
posted by Artw at 5:47 PM on January 14


Maybe not. But all sorts of writers have Batman stories and Spider-Man stories that they'd like to tell. I don't think you hear people say that about Superman. And writers are still telling fresh and new Batman and Spider-Man stories, but new Superman stories are almost always awful, and clearly not labors of love. Superman is like Mickey Mouse or Santa Claus to me; he's ossified into a kind of beloved icon. While I like Santa Claus, I'm not really clamoring for straight-up Santa Claus stories. I might be wrong, but I think this isn't just me.
posted by painquale at 6:25 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


Who is "we" here?

Vast swathes of the American popular culture consuming public since Superman's first arrival on the scene in 1938. Comics, TV, Radio, Film, animation, live action. You name it. There are precious few fictional characters with anything like that kind of cultural footprint over so many decades.

Your personal distaste for the character shouldn't blind you his extraordinary cultural impact and longevity.
posted by yoink at 6:36 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


Artw claimed that dressing up funny and going out to fight crime didn't make sense in the real world (implying I believe that thus political scientists analyzing superhero narratives was nonsensical, because these fictional narratives were so far removed from reality that they couldn't give us any information about real-world human political values and behavior). I was pointing out that pretty much everyone who goes out to fight crime in the real world dresses up funny to do it (so the fact that superheroes generally have costumes has no bearing on whether or not superhero narratives can tell us anything about real world politics).

I mean, come now. London Beefeaters? Military uniforms, especially dress uniforms, are the silliest, but I've seen pictures of some pretty silly looking police uniforms from around the world.
posted by eviemath at 6:57 PM on January 14


(To be clear, I was responding to the dressing up funny => nonsensical link. I'm not trying to claim that superhuman powers like Superman, Spiderman, X-Men, etc. have are realistic.)

(On the issue of what a uniform is, though it's a bit of a derail, I understand a uniform to be something standardized that you wear for a specific activity or to signal group membership (eg. work or team sport, but I've also seen the term used to refer to a standardized outfit that someone might wear for a leisure activity, or for individuals who wear essentially the same thing every day; as well as for modes of dress that are subcultural signifiers). So in the second usage, there's generally a group of people dressing alike, but in the first usage a uniform could be individual and unique. As well, even though each individual superhero has their own unique costume, I think there are enough distinguishing features that we can recognize superhero costumes as a mode of dress indicating group affiliation, and thus a uniform in the second sense as well.)
posted by eviemath at 7:12 PM on January 14


Ehh, it's less about costumes than excessive literalism where it doesn't make sense, but I suspect the point is lost.
posted by Artw at 7:47 PM on January 14


There are precious few fictional characters with anything like that kind of cultural footprint over so many decades.

Mickey Mouse is like that too, but I don't think there are many people who enjoy thinking up Mickey Mouse adventures.

Your personal distaste for the character shouldn't blind you his extraordinary cultural impact and longevity

I have no distaste for the character. I love Superman. But I don't think he incites storytelling.
posted by painquale at 9:10 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


Mickey Mouse is like that too, but I don't think there are many people who enjoy thinking up Mickey Mouse adventures.

Have you seen these?
posted by device55 at 9:35 PM on January 14


I'm a bit surprised that Anonymous hasn't come up much in this thread (related thread from today). Though they aren't an individual or team dressed in spandex and fighting crime in a vigilanti-style manner in the physical world (eg. through use of physical force), they might be considered in the same mode of crime fighting, no? (I'm thinking of Anonymous campaigns that have targeted law-breakers or alleged law-breakers specifically, like the Fullerton police beating case, or the Steubenville case.)
posted by eviemath at 3:29 PM on January 15


All the Winter Soldier Trailers You Can Shake a Shield At

All the screen-Caps you need from the new Captain America 2 trailer
posted by homunculus at 3:57 PM on February 3


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