Reading comic books growing up made me politically progressive. Superhero comics particularly sparked my interest in politics as a young child and shaped my world view. I think, to some extent, they still do.
It was because of my belief in truth, justice and the American way as a child that I grew up to be progressive leaning and vocal, believing that the people who want to legislate through the principles of love and justice need to be just as loud as the bad guys. I owe a lot of that to the legendary comic book team-up of O’Neil and Adams.
To shut me up at a flea market when I was about four years old, my mom spent a few dollars and got me a big box of old comic books. I’d only recently taken up reading, though I had long been a fan of superheroes. I was particularly fond of Superman and the Incredible Hulk. I sort of liked Green Lantern, Green Arrow and Doctor Strange as well. I suppose I liked green and red.
None of us knew what a treasure would be found in that weathered, grass-stained yet still mostly white pull box. A kindergartner was about to spend the summer binging on the legendary run of Green Lantern and Green Arrow by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, where the two heroes travel the country fighting real-life criminals like slum lords and drug dealers. This was the run that challenged the Comic Code Authority and the industry’s self-imposed censorship. As I became an adult comic book fan, I learned that I was indoctrinated into both comics and politics by what many still regard as some of the best work the medium ever produced. One of the highlights of my adult life was at a comic convention, when I got to see these two great artists speak about this run, shake their hands and thank them.
I was hit by a drunk driver while playing in the yard one afternoon soon after that flea market score and spent the dog days of summer in what was basically a body cast. With a broken arm and a leg broken in two places, I had two pastimes: playing fetch from my chair with Duchess, our loving black Labrador who was recovering from her own car accident and reading comic books.
Social conservative Hal Jordan and liberal idealist Ollie Queen were portrayed differently than any superhero story I’d ever seen. Green Lantern is challenged on issues of poverty and race. Green Arrow is challenged on issues of crime and the corporate corruption that exploits the left. Many of the stories took place without costumes and told tales of American poverty, the heartbreak of addiction and social injustice.
Though I obviously hold that run in highest regards, I don’t believe O’Neil and Adams were reinventing superhero stories entirely. I think they were using the platform in a grittier way, but that superhero stories had long been confronting these sorts of politics. O’Neil and Adams shined a spotlight on a longstanding plot point of the medium. Nonetheless, I was fully indoctrinated.
Nobody ever questions the storyline of Superman, with all his fantastic superpowers, always busy fighting billionaire human Lex Luthor, who has no special abilities, but is always trying to exploit the less fortunate. When Spiderman takes on Norman Osborn, a billionaire who has gone crazy with greed and is now threatening the lives of average citizens, we never think twice. Adams and O’Neil just moved the money and the politics to the forefront.
Things work a little differently in the real world. There aren’t heroes in tights to fight corruption. When an average looking, older fellow without fantastical gifts of flight or laser eyes from Brooklyn by way of Vermont sights billionaires as the bad guys, those billionaires get extra airtime on television to call him “Crazy Bernie” at their rallies. Truth is stranger than fiction. At least in the comics, the reporters are usually on the side of the good guys.
The Democratic Party, who spent decades telling us that healthcare is a right of the people have decided it’s better to force us to do business with a private insurance industry than to stand up to a fight, just as polls show that most Americans want universal, single-payer health-care. The Republicans finally got the health-care plan they’ve wanted since Bob Dole, and see the Democratic lack of backbone as an excuse to make it even less helpful to the American people than the Heritage Foundation would have allowed. So, when Doc Brown lookalike Bernie Sanders gets people excited about the prospect of a future with the same level of health care the rest of the industrialized world already enjoys, the political establishment rallies the troops to hit the airwaves and scare the American people. I don’t find the newspaper’s pages so funny when I see that Democrats attacking this former Democratic principle are usually on the take from the insurance lobby themselves.
They tell us that the man in front of the most popular Presidential campaign in history (based on crowd turn-out and individual contributions) can’t be elected, despite political scientists predicting he’d win by the largest electoral landslide in decades. They tell us that it’s too hard to get the things done he proposes, despite the fact that hundreds of Congressional seats are on the down ballot and voter turnout could actually be decent for such a candidate. Then they tell us he doesn’t go far enough, that he’s not for things like slavery reparations, even though no other candidate has made that a platform issue, let alone things like criminal justice reform and economic inequality which at least one candidate is making issues of. He doesn’t stand up to Israel, nor does any other candidate, but he’s the only one who stands against perpetual war and war powers to spy on and monitor the citizenry. Let’s not forget it was Batman’s billionaire secret identity that funded Brother Eye, which had to be taken down by all of the other heroes. Alright, maybe I’m getting too nerdy now.
Non-profit organizations with CEOs on the board and children who work for the establishment candidate don’t endorse the hero who has championed his causes for his entire career. They carry the establishment flag in hopes of staying in good graces with the power structure. There is a reason that most heroes have origin stories that involve taking on the corruption in their own backyard.
Despite the Lex Luthors of the world teaming up with the J. Jonah Jamesons of the world to put the Norman Osborns and Granny Goodnesses of the world into office, there IS hope outside of the panels, in this alternate Earth we all share. There are heroes in the world, standing up against poverty, exploitation and destruction of our planet and its resources. There are activists taking to the streets against police militarization and corruption. Somewhere, right now, as you read this, someone is campaigning for Bernie Sanders. They are giving leaflets to neighbors and phone banking from their cell phones. They are making memes, blogs, tee-shirts and noise. You see, wild-haired Bernie Sanders does have a superpower. He has the power of millions of Americans organizing behind him and other Progressives running for office this year, who believe that, “enough is enough.” The pathway to defeating Citizens United is by getting the citizens united. The Social Justice League is real, and there are heroes in every community ready to fight crime.
Maybe I’ve read too many comic books, but I can’t help but think that after this Social Justice League raised wages, built an infrastructure jobs program, provided education to our people, provided healthcare for our people and rejuvenated the shrinking American middle-class, we could afford to take on other issues. Personally, I’m all for reparations. Let’s get everybody talking about it, like we’re all talking about Wall Street reform and health care right now. If you ever read team-up issues, you would know that some of the most interesting problems our heroes take on are when they work together and have each others backs, even when the villainy they fight may not be of common interest in the beginning.
In the comic books, when the bad guys infiltrate the Avengers or the Justice League, the heroes have to clean up their own backyard before fighting the villains on the other side of the aisle. The corporate funding infested Democratic Party could stand to learn some lessons from those stories. You can’t take on the Legion of Doom when Maxwell Lord is plotting from within the Hall of Justice.
In this analogy, Lex Luthor is portrayed by Donald Trump, and the rest of the GOP candidates are the Legion of Doom. When a billionaire props up villains for the sake of spreading hatred and fear, what else is a comic book nerd to think of?
No great hero story involves doing what is easy instead of what is right. Captain America doesn’t compromise with the Red Skull, selling out the rights of the citizenry just a little bit, because it’s better than a full-on Nazi take-over. He rolls up his sleeves and fights. Other heroes join in. Secretary of State Red Skull loses. That’s how a good hero story goes. As far as I can tell, Bernie Sanders is the only hero in the fight, and we all have to have his back, because establishment characters like Pant Suit Lady don’t want to fight. They just want to compromise and get some of that sweet Hostess Cupcake endorsement money.
The current lineup in the Social Justice League looks pretty good to me. Dr. Cornell West, Nina Turner, Sean King, Killer Mike and many more are standing with Bernie, as so are millions of non-super-powered, regular Americans. I hope other heroes like Elizabeth Warren come on board soon. I for one can hardly wait for the next issue and hope that just like in the comic books, the good guys win.
Originally published for theElizabethian