There seems to be a spreading fear that Social Justice Warriors (SJW) sit in comics planning meetings, plotting to drop poison into the water supply and bring ruin to Gotham City, like some mad collective of anarchist villains.
As I scroll through the endless labyrinth of internet message boards, specialized Facebook groups, and the ethereal Twitterverse, I have found myself dumbstruck by a single phrase in relation to my most beloved medium:
“Keep politics out of comic books!”
Since first noticing this unsettling upwards trend, it has become inescapable. I see it everywhere, sometimes with a precognitive force in which I see it before it actually manifests. There seems to be a spreading fear that Social Justice Warriors (SJW) sit in comics planning meetings, plotting to drop poison into the water supply and bring ruin to Gotham City, like some mad collective of anarchist villains.
“I read comics to escape the everyday world.”
There is nothing inherently wrong with a little well-timed escapism. We all feel the need to slip away, be it into a fantasy world of elves and dwarfs or a video game set in WWII. What I would like to argue here, however, is that comics have never been a place in which escapism offers a protection from contemporary politics. The superhero genre, in particular, is simply incapable of shielding itself from the happenings in our world. What people are reading today as a push towards “political correctness” at the hands of SJWs is merely an extension of what has always been in the genre, in one form or another.
“Why can’t they just leave politics out of superhero comics?”
I’m not alone in the assessment that the comics superhero is akin to mythology in modern culture. These spandex clad beings are a modern-day pantheon, some more literal than others. The question less often answered, however, is what is the relationship between myth and society? In The Power of Myth, scholar Joseph Campbell discusses two orders of myth: one order that “relates you to your nature and the natural world, of which you’re a part,” while the other is “strictly sociological, linking you to a particular society” (page 29 in the First Anchor Books Edition from 1991). The key to both orders is you. Myths connect us to that which surrounds us, be it physical or social. Achilles does not rage against his foes as a form of escapist art, but rather each of his victories and defeats speaks to the nature of humanity. So too does the sacrifice of a young and frail Steve Rogers in service to his country, or the responsibility in the name of great power by Peter Parker, or the never-ending battle for “truth, justice, and the American Way” fought by Superman for nearly 80 years (popular consensus places the origin of the phrase early in the Superman radio show, circa 1942).
As time marches ever onward, our societies change. As our societies change, so too does the sociological link provided by our mythologies. As we navigate through the 1960s, we see the reformation of the Jim Crow laws, and shortly thereafter, in the heart of the Civil Rights era in our history, arrives T’Challa, the Black Panther. This arrival is not a coincidence, and while a reasonable argument can be made that it was a money-making gimmick, I believe the necessity runs deeper than Capital. New mythological links are established to keep us connected to our society at large. Once connected, these links do not stay static. They are not consumed and discarded. They evolve, they continue, they persist. They match us, step for step, as we move through time. Or perhaps if we think of time non-linearly, they may have always been with us, waiting for us to discover them.
As we delve deeper into the 21st century, we will continue to see more and more of what some condemn as “social justice” in comics, because it is a new reality. Trans, queer, minority members of the United States social structure have always been here, as they have been a part of every society in human history. Now they are visible, and with the digital age firmly entrenched, that visibility will continue to spread. The mythology, our comic book superheroes, will continue to connect with them because they have to. Because that is what heroes do.
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