The problem with any book focusing on comicbooks is that either the authors are going to be long term comicbook readers or going to have to cherrypick as they get up to speed on the topic they want to discuss. With nearly eighty years of super-heroes now and impossible to have read everything, the difference between the two sorts of people is actually going to be very slight. The real problem is missing anything that will add to your argument or make it fall apart by missing it. In other words, don’t expect authors of such books to be perfect. There will always be people like me pointing out the things they missed.
In many respects, author Marc DiPaolo doesn’t do a bad job with his book, ‘War, Politics And Superheroes’ as be examines how comicbook material is influenced by our own reality and in some cases, as with ‘Watchmen’, when it looks at itself. Throughout the nine chapters in this book, DiPaolo isolates and mixes and examines all of these subjects. There are some odd omissions. I’m surprised he didn’t include writer Steve Gerber as amongst the radicals, especially as through ‘Man-Thing’ and especially ‘Howard The Duck’ raised it to a new level of satire at the time. Then again, there is no mention of the independent and underground comicbook writers who were also radical in their time although I suspect DiPaolo could counter with them not being read by a larger audience which is probably true as well.
Something he doesn’t cover is why not don’t all comicbook writers use their political or at least reactionary leanings in their writing? In many respects, all comicbook companies have allowed their writers a lot of freedom to cover all kinds of issues in their stories, even when the material was perceived as more child than adult entertainment. When statistics showed it was moving towards more adult readers, it just opened the gates to do more as long as they didn’t remember that they were also supposed to be telling a story.
DiPaolo raises an interesting point about why we don’t find the super-hero or super-villain costume or zoot suit as being that outrageous or unbelievable. Those of you who remember an article I wrote on the subject a few years back, I pointed out that there was a need for fighting togs that would make the super-hero the target for aggression as well as wearing something a little more flexible to wear for fighting. Mind you, it still doesn’t explain why the darkly dressed Batman would choose to dress his various Robin sidekicks in colourful attire that would make them costly targets to his enemies.
Where busty super-heroines are concerned, they weren’t a manifestation of the 90s but started in the late 70s with Charlton’s ‘E-Man’ character ‘Nova Kane’ and DC’s original Huntress, Helena Wayne. I had a chance to interview their artist Joe Staton around that time and he told me that depending on which editor he worked for made them either a bust or legs man to get instant approval for his art. Don’t know whether that applies to all editors but it ended up becoming something of a norm as the sales went up. Logistically, giving woman larger bust measurement might look good on paper but must be a hazard for running.
A lot of these chapters are insightful with information that I didn’t really abstract at the time as to the characters political stance. I mean, I hardly saw Wonder Women as a feminist when she would take all villains of either sex. Considering that there are more male than female villains, you can hardly expect Wonder Woman to stop fighting someone before it’s against her or anyone else’s political stance. Something DiPaolo missed out on that when Wonder Woman first joined the Justice League, she was also its secretary, hardly the role for a warrior Amazon but no one thought it demeaning or out of the ordinary at the time in the early 60s. Then again, there were only two female artists and no female writers in the comicbook trade until the late 60s. If memory serves, the first female comicbook writer I came across was Linda Fite.
It’s rather interesting that throughout his examination of the Punisher that DiPaolo doesn’t know that he was based on Don Pendleton’s character ‘The Executioner’. It was only the Punisher’s odd contrast to the goody-goody super-heroes that attracted interest than ensured that he wasn’t a one-hit (sic) wonder. These days, there are a few more extreme characters, although I would hesitate calling them heroes or even anti-heroes but can understand why people are fascinated by them. You only have to witness the general public’s interest in murderers both in fiction and reality to realise they are interested in something outside of their normal box but not necessarily to emulate it. In many respects, the Punisher was there to make a point at the time as to why don’t the heroes step over the line when they capture murderous villains and all they do is see them get locked up and see them escape again to continue their carnage. It was only the Punisher’s sales popularity that kept him going. Unusually, it doesn’t appear he’s been diluted over the years. If anything, this brought a great deal more heavy thinking to the comicbook reader as to the morality of the characters they read about.
Something I hadn’t realised before was the introduction on real Ku Klux Klan information to the radio Superman Show succeeded in disbanding some chapters of that group.
Another area that DiPaolo isn’t familiar with is an article that SF author Larry Niven wrote about Superman called ‘Man Of Steel, Woman Of Kleenex’, pointing you the futility of the Kryptonian mating with a normal human. Then again, he also thinks the Elongated Man aka Ralph Dibney had a secret identity when in fact he was one of the first to shed his mask and go public. The reason I have to be so critical over these kinds of points is because he’s so accurate on the rest that it wouldn’t have helped had he had someone with such background knowledge doing a final check for him. If I can spot them, then others will as well.
Science Fiction in all of its formats is the perfect medium for political metaphor and the fact that so many stories resonate over the years, long after their original antagonists are no longer in power is because the themes are still there and, if anything, unlikely to change. Oddly, despite my own ability to deep think, I don’t tend to read or watch SF material to say, ‘Oh, you’re referring to this or that real life political regime or policy’, but see it as a separate entity. Any analysis tends to come much later. Reading the interpretation is quite an eye-opener but to think all writers are writing as political activists than interpreting society around them might not be totally accurate. This is mostly, in part, that it’s all very well pointing out the futility of certain actions but there’s rarely a result when to say do nothing or offer a better choice. Writers can rightly say that they aren’t politicians but, equally, politicians who turn into writers don’t tend to write solutions neither. This doesn’t mean fiction or even non-fiction books can’t make you think. I do that myself and even in writing reactionary reviews such as this which gauges how much I’ve taken in the material I’ve read than just tell you it has such and such content.
Interestingly, when it comes to DiPaolo’s depiction of ‘The X-Men’ and the specifics to Jewish and gay rights that although he gives a good case, also tends to be one-sided. After all, this tends to neglect the fact that there are many heterosexuals and people of all kinds of religious beliefs who read ‘The X-Men’. Back a couple decades when I was running a fan club devoted to them, I made a rather acute observation that the reason why so many people read them is because they represent the unloved outsider who grouped together and had their own community. Despite successful super-hero film adaptations, comicbook fans are still seen by the general public as geeky outsiders so it’s hardly surprising that they would be drawn to ‘The X-Men’ or even DC’s ‘Legion Of Super-Heroes’ when you have a strong feeling of family that you wouldn’t get in the real world. It can hardly be surprising that any minority will find some attraction to such books. I suspect the groupings that now exist in the various fandoms are a reflection of this and people attending conventions and such, apart from buying product, also see it as a means to affirm that they aren’t alone in their interest.
As to Magneto’s sexual persuasion. There are marked differences between the comicbook and film versions but in the former, DiPaolo neglects to mention that Magneto was once married and fathered two children, who grew up to become Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, and briefly had an affair with Rogue. As to his religion, at least in the comicbooks, the reason Magneto was interned in the Nazi concentration camps wasn’t because he was Jewish but because he was gypsy. The Nazis imprisoned and killed a lot of people who didn’t fit into their ideals. When I interviewed Chris Claremont back in the early 80s, I think I initiated the germ of that idea with a discussion about Magneto’s age and where he would have been in World War Two.
The predominance of white or at least the lack of black super-heroes or super-villains come to that in comicbooks tends to be a reflection of the basic colour of the writers and artists, although there are probably more in the industry now than a few decades back. When white writers write black characters, they don’t tend to do it very convincingly. When black writers write black characters, it tends to become issue driven and which rather colours (sic) all they go on about rather than the only difference they really have is skin colour. There are some comicbook characters that were happy about their skin colour, at least when I was reading a lot of them, with the likes of Storm (although it wasn’t until Uncanny X-Men # 122 that she saw an American ghetto), Luke Cage, the Falcon and Jim ‘War Machine’ Rhodes who tended not to make issues of it or if they did, not for long. If you want to extend this further, it’s also understandable why there are few if any Muslim or other religion-orientated characters out there because unless its applicable to the character, writers are more likely to think they might not do it properly or with some justice, let alone sustain an issue run.
When it comes to Sherlock Holmes, even watching actor Jeremy Brett playing the part, I never had any thoughts that any of the stories had anything to do with his sexual nature. All I saw was this rather eccentric obsessive self-appointed private detective doing his job and we never saw him getting his fee for solving the crime, although it was hinted at on a couple occasions.
With Nick Fury currently shown to be black in the films, DiPaolo neglects to remember that there is an American law to ensure that there is at least one major role for people of colour in films to ensure they get work. That is probably why we had a black Heimdell played by Idris Elba in the ‘Thor’ film. In many respects, I tend to think this works against the cause, especially as it isn’t as though there aren’t films available with larger black cast in them. When you look at the comicbook reading community, the white readership outnumbers any other colour so it’s hardly surprising that the addition of black characters took so long to happen and DC Comics sorely lagged behind Marvel Comics in both that and taking on black creators. If anything, I would like to see this type of tokenism kicked into touch simply by having more than one black, oriental or Asian character in the cast to show its people not colour that counts.
Although I don’t necessarily go along with everything that DiPaolo writes, his book does make me think and that’s the important thing. For the comicbook fan wanting to know or explain to others that super-hero comics aren’t just about fighting, this book will balance things out. A very depthy read only marred a little by not showing anything to balance his arguments.
(pub: McFarland. 330 page indexed partially illustrated medium softcover. Price: £40.95 (UK), $45.00 (US). ISBN: 978-0-7864-4718-1)
check out websites: www.mcfarlandpub.com and www.eurospanbookstore.com