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Fascists or Folk Heroes?

A column article by: Regie Rigby

We live in increasingly politicised times. On both sides of the Atlantic, across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, people who have never really directly involved themselves in politics beyond casting their vote* are stepping up and making their voices heard.

I can’t recall a time when there were so many political pressure groups with so much mass appeal – from the extreme right, like America’s “Tea Party” movement** to the more left leaning Occupy Wall Street movement , also in the US, to the even more left leaning “UK Uncut” anti government cutbacks movement in the UK. People aren’t just writing letters and tutting anymore, they’re getting out onto the streets, attending political rallies, starting up their own parties and generally getting more involved.

This is, to my mind, a good thing, and it got me thinking about politics in comics again. I know it’s a topic I’ve covered before, but since when has that ever stopped me? Besides, my attention was caught this week by a discussion with Marc DiPaolo, Assistant Professor of English and Film at Oklahoma City University on BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed***. The discussion centred on DiPaolo’s recent book War, Politics, and Superheroes: Ethics and Propaganda in Comics and Film, in which he muses on, well, the title says it all, really.

I confess that not only have I not read the book, given that Amazon currently has it on sale at £37.53**** I’m unlikely to ever get around it. It was an interesting discussion though, dealing with overarching political themes rather than specific examples. I’m not sure I agree with the case he put forward – essentially that Superheroes are basically fascists who push a liberal agenda – but he did raise some interesting points.

Much was made of the inherently Jewish nature of Superman – something else I’ve talked about here before***** - although I confess I hadn’t known****** that Reichsmarshall Goering had condemned the comic as “Jewish Propaganda”, replacing as it did the Aryan ideal of the blonde, muscular Ubermensch with a hero sporting much more semitic features (“that’s what the “S” stands for”, quipped DiPaolo). Much was also made of the generally left leaning immigrant nature of many of the big names from the golden age of comics – including Siegal and Schuster, of course.

So far so uncontroversial – I mean, two guys with a shared cultural background create a character, it’s surely not surprising that their character might also share that background. The fact that some people find this concept hard to grasp says a lot more about them than anything else.

The idea that Superheroes might be fascist archetypes pushing a leftist agenda is most interesting, however. That an inherent left wing bias is to be found in comics should be unsurprising – look at the people who make comics and you’ll see a bunch of free thinking radicals who don’t have a lot of time for the status quo – if they were otherwise they’d get a proper job. But if that’s the case, why would they create inherently fascist characters?

Let’s take the most obvious suspect in American comics and see where it gets us. Much as I despise him even I wouldn’t accuse Superman of fascist overtones. Batman however is a different kettle of fish. Given that he wears a black uniform and goes around the city violently intimidating people who disagree with him, I’d have to agree that the Bat is indeed vulnerable to the charge of fascism. But really?

Lets look at his background. His creator, the immortal Bob Kane, is from the same kind of immigrant Eastern European Jewish background as Superman’s. So if cultural background is so all fired important, why is Superman so light while Batman is so dark? There must surely be more to it?

Then again, what is so fascist, or even right wing, about a character like Bruce Wayne? His willingness to spend his money on the poor and vulnerable would surely make him unacceptable in Tea-Party circles, as presumably would his total disregard for the rule of law. Taking matters into your own hands because the authorities either cannot or will not do anything about it is surely a working class reaction to adversity. Could Gotham’s richest man actually be a working class hero?

DiPaolo’s choice of a Fascist Superhero wasn’t the Bat, however, it was Iron Man, who is “explicitly a product of weapons manufacture”. Like I said, I haven’t read DiPaolo’s book, and I hope that he’s explored this in much more depth than that quotation suggests. Because – at least in modern continuity – so far as I understand it, Iron Man is a manifestation of Tony Stark’s rejection of the arms trade, and is born out of his desire to use his wealth and technological expertise to do some good. Exactly like Bruce Wayne.

So. Comics. Left wing conspiracy?

Right wing conspiracy?

Or could it just be that some people tell some stories using characters the audience know, and that these stories are influenced by what the story tellers and the audience have experienced, and by whatever is going on in the world at the time they are written? I mean it’s surely no surprise that comics written in wartime often mention the war, and that comics written suring a time of increased terrorist threat might feature some terrorism.

I’m sure I’ve been guilty of reading too much into things myself in the past, but so far as I can understand it, I think DiPaolo might be over reaching his hypothesis.

Or am I being hopelessly naive?

Perhaps I’d better read the book after all…

*And indeed people who never even got that far, either because they never bothered voting, didn’t have a candidate they wanted to vote for or, in the case of large parts of North Africa and the Middle East, had never been granted that basic right.

**I’m sure there will be Tea Party supporters who would take issue with my description of them as “Extreme Right” – but trust me, when seen from the perspective of British politics, “Extreme Right” is one of the less inflammatory descriptions I could’ve used. Each to their own of course – from the perspective of an American Tea-Party supporter Europe must appear bewilderingly left wing.

***Thinking Allowed is a discussion programme focussing on sociology and sociological themes hosted by Professor Laurie Taylor. It’s rather more fascinating than I just made it sound.

****Which is an odd price – and the item is eligible fro free shipping. But to be honest for nearly forty quid they’d need the author to bring it to my house in person…

*****Although I’m buggered if I can find it in the archive. It was called “A Question of Religion” I think. But since I can’t find it, I guess I called it something else in the end…

******Or had forgotten.

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