Are superheroes just cops in capes? A recent article from Time Magazine would suggest that they are. “We’re Re-examining How We Portray Cops Onscreen. Now It’s Time to Talk About Superheroes” suggests that the role of the superhero is to “…enact justice with their powers…” leading the author to conclude that superheroes are just “…cops with capes.” There are a handful of examples given, dominantly derived from cinematic versions of superheroes, as to why the lack of diversity in superhero narrative leads these narratives to be about the enforcement of justice without taking time to evaluate who decides what is just. In the end, the suggestions for a way forward spring forth from the Black Panther film, which employed a number of black creators behind and in front of the cameras, leading to a box office smash and critical acclaim. If Hollywood were more diverse then the superhero wouldn’t fall victim to the same sorts of systemic racism and white male patriarchy that have stricken series blows to our police forces in the United States.
And this, dear reader, is what happens when adaptation supersedes source material. The proliferation of the superhero in Hollywood—particularly over the past twenty years—has opened the superhero up to mass media criticism. The vampirism of the superhero by Hollywood has been such that many core principles and themes fail to transfer intact, leaving the final product—that which the author is actually analyzing here—a pale reflection of the stories being adapted. The examples given in the article are all from cinematic versions of superheroes which are predictably gutted of all their historically constructed nuance. When I speak of vampirism, I speak to the ways Hollywood latches onto the neck of these intellectual properties and sucks the lifeforce out of them in order to distill them into easily consumed products. Christopher Nolan’s Bane in The Dark Knight Rises is a particularly interesting example of this distortion. Bane is presented as a survivalist dissident, synonymous at the time with the Occupy Wallstreet movement that swept the nation. The conscious vilification of that movement along with the white-washing of this latin character, in the end, serves only to reduce the character to easily digested morsels—he breaks Batman’s back and he wears a mask—in order to mobilize something else. This conscious and consistent flattening of the superhero into what we have seen on the silver screen over the past few decades does a disservice to comics industry which has spent nearly a century creating characters with pro-social missions, using the varied powers they have at their disposal for betterment, for better or worse.
One of the most prominent examples of the relationship between superheroes and the police involves the Punisher, a brutal anti-hero that takes vigilantism to the highest degree, killing those he deems immoral. The article notes that Punisher is an anti-hero yet still conflates the term with superhero out of, what I can only assume, is a child-like sense of wonder and naivety. It also, interestingly, is one of two cited comics stories discussed. The other was Civil War, in which the author makes note of the fact the comics version was far more nuanced and critical of power structures than the cinematic adaptation.
In a 2019 story, a group of police fanboys run up to the Punisher and say, “We believe in you.” One shows off a Punisher skull sticker on his car. The Punisher rips the sticker off and says, “We’re not the same. You took an oath to uphold the law. You help people. I gave that up a long time ago. You don’t do what I do. Nobody does.” Another cop replies, “Like it or not, you started something. You showed us how it’s done.”
-Quoted from the Time Magazine article, uncited but from The Punisher #13 (2019)
This single instance is a perfect illustration of how a full lack of understanding of comics can turn into an utterly failed critique of superheroes. This instance—the only comics iteration examined and not from a superhero series—is clearly cherry-picked to support the article’s narrative and the reading is a surface level one at best. Perhaps in a film or television example, the critique could have worked but comics is far too complex a medium to reduce critique to text extracted from panels with no context or nuance. This series, critically acclaimed and written by Matthew Rosenberg, was very much invested in divesting Frank Castle from the glorification that has come with the expansion of “nerd culture” into the mainstream, instead returning Castle to his roots as a generally unlikeable, single-minded, and brutal person. Marvel Comics, headquartered in New York City, cancelled this series shortly after this moment. Since, Punisher co-creator Gerry Conway, has gone to great lengths to distance the character from police admiration. It doesn’t take a particularly close reading to work out that the character is specifically pointing towards the difference between what he feels is right and “uphold[ing] the law”. And there is the real catch.
The true failing of this cop-to-superhero comparison is the narrow vision of justice taken here. What is legal is not necessarily justice and what is illegal is not necessarily injustice. It is injustice that the police that killed Breonna Taylor in her bed back in March are still free. But it is technically legal. They broke no actual laws, at least at the time. It has been deemed legal for various police to use tear gas on peacefully protesting United States citizens. It is still an injustice. In fact, direct conflict with the law and other legal structures is far from uncommon in the comics superhero narrative. Take, for instance, David Walker’s Nighthawk series from 2016. In this series, Nighthawk—essentially a black interpretation of the Batman archetype—finds himself operating in a space between obeying the law and protecting people the laws aren’t designed to protect. Similarly, in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Captain America series we see the good Captain, himself a fugitive from the law at the time, battling border patrol over the violent and racist treatment of immigrants. The lawyer-by-day, superhero by night trope deployed by Dwayne McDuffie’s Icon and Marvel’s Daredevil is another common and longstanding trope that points towards the superhero’s drive to do what is right over what is correct.
The article specifically calls for greater diversity on both the screen and on the set as the way forward, sentiments echoed recently by MCU actor Anthony Mackie. For the Hollywood superhero, the lack of diversity behind and in front of the camera is notable (with the obvious and perhaps insidious exception of Black Panther) but for the comics superhero, the march of diversity is far more advanced. Black writers and artists found voices in the comics industry as early as 1944 with Matt Baker. In 1979, Christopher Priest became the first black editor in mainstream comics (although his treatment by mainstream comics is certainly a discussion to have). In 1993, four black creators— the aforementioned Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, and Derek T. Dingle—founded Milestone Media, a publisher focused on bringing black superheroes to the forefront, printed and distributed by DC Comics but notably DC held NO editorial control over the content. There is always growth to be had, particularly in the comics mainstream. We are seeing the last vestiges of white patriarchy in these institutions crumble as we speak. But as a whole, the comics industry was born out of a place of diversity and has proven itself time and again to be ahead of many other forms of media over the decades in terms of giving strength to varied voices.
If the superhero is American mythology, which I firmly believe it is, then these stories are about far more than simple “law and order” but about how we, as a society, view our current situations, our histories, and our futures. These mythical narratives aren’t always perfect. They sometimes miss the mark. The constant contemporary interpretations of sociopolitical constructs and phenomenon always carry the inherent biases and spheres of knowledge of their author but in the varied and diverse voices within the industry, the general trends are often far closer to a sense of right than wrong. Superman, our first superhero, is a consistent example of working through time, adjusting the discourse, and doing whatever possible to side with justice. Superman has stood for desegregation, for treating others with common decency regardless of whether you agree with them, for the plight and struggles of immigrants, for ending government corruption, and yes, for ending police brutality. An illegal immigrant himself, Superman has many times over the years illustrated the difference between law and justice. For more than eighty years, the spandex-clad gods have been reacting to us, mobilizing the voices of the subjugated and disenfranchised, to create stories meant to lift us up, to inoculate us against hate, to teach us how to be human. Superheroes aren’t cops with capes. That may be what the Hollywood adaptation of superheroes is veering towards portraying but Hollywood doesn’t have final say over what superheroes are and aren’t. Superheroes are manifestations of what we need, when we need them.
The question posed by the article was ultimately “what is the way forward?”. This question is currently permeating nearly every aspect of society in the United States and far beyond as we as a people deal with the unimaginable in 2020. For comics, I believe the way forward is to continue to diversify both in creation and on the page. Supporting such initiatives as #ownvoices and #blacklivesmatter is a step in the right direction, as is holding our own accountable for their actions. The power of storytelling should not be ignored as we look to the future. The corporate structure of the Big 2 publishers should not be an excuse as to why certain stories can’t be told but used as a platform to make your truths heard at the highest of heights. Use our superheroes—our myths—to push the discussion forward rather than cover it up or hold it back. Defund the Gotham City Police Department. Explore that. Look at the pros and cons. Dissolve ICE in the Marvel Universe. See how it could play out. Give the citizens of Greendale the right to mail their ballots in to Riverdale in the Archieverse. Use these platforms to show how things could be. Just like comics have done for the past 82 years.
*Featured image from Action Comics (2011) #42 by Greg Pak, Aaron Kuder, Tomeu Morey, Hi-Fi, Blond & Steve Wands
Are Superheroes Cops in Capes? A Response.
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