We’ve seen an explosion of political “gimmicks” in comics this week, and that’s a good thing. Here are three reasons why.
Earlier this week it was announced that Archie Andrews would meet his death on the pages of Life With Archie taking a bullet intended for a gay friend. It’s a shocking and, I think, bold way to bring the series to an end, but given how it intersects with two issues currently causing much strife – gay rights and gun control – it’s understandable that many people see this as nothing more than a cheap gimmick.
And you know what? It is a gimmick. Events like this are intended to drum up interest in comics and, hopefully, lead to increased sales, which is why they happen so often, and with such fanfare. But frankly, who gives a damn? Gimmicks aren’t inherently bad, after all. No artist, no matter how serious their subject matter or nuanced their approach, is immune to the need to eat. But more importantly, one can be completely sincere and still be obsessed with the paper chase. If you can make money and shine a light on the conflicts and tribulations that vex you, all the better.
But what’s more, the comic book medium is uniquely suited to tackling issues of social justice and controversy in “gimmicky ways.” Comics involve the adventures of colorful characters living in fantasy worlds – even Riverdale is a fantasy version of the American suburb, by the way – and as such do not need to conform to notions of literary restraint or subtlety in order to work. Further, the monthly publication schedule of most mainstream comic titles lends to them a curious, soap-opera quality, and what good is a soap opera if it can’t embrace the melodramatic potential inherent in every crisis, every controversy, every social problem?
And besides, it’s not like this is anything new. Comics have for more than 40 years delved into the trickiest issues we fight about, with gimmicks that are as over the top as anything we’re talking about now, and even if it doesn’t always work, it does explain the continued relevance of the medium as both entertainment and art. You want proof? Great, because today is as good a day as any to talk about previous instances in which comics waded into political minefields and managed – though yes, very awkwardly – to advance the discussion instead of making a mockery of the topic at hand. Read on then, and let’s see just how the industry has been doing it since before most of you were even reading comics.
Lois Lane Tries To Understand Racial Prejudice Firsthand
Story: “I Am Curious (Black)”
Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane issue 106, Nov. 1970.
The second best thing about this absolutely crazy attempt by DC to explore the racial divide in post-Civil Rights movement America is the title, which does double duty as a reference to to things the average comic book reader’s parents would NEVER have wanted them to see. Most directly, it may refer to Redd Foxx’s 1970 comedy album “I Am Curious, Black”, but it also calls back to Swedish film director Vilgot Sjöman’s groundbreaking duology, “I Am Curious (Yellow)” and “I Am Curious (Blue)”, which both viciously skewered reactionary politics, and featured extremely explicit nudity and sexuality (including one scene in which the protagonist kisses her lover’s flaccid penis). The more you know!
The best thing about it is that it has Lois Lane using a machine built by Dahr-Nel, a time-traveling Kryptonian scientist who previously tried to woo her away from Superman, to turn herself into an African American woman.
At the start of the issue, Lois finds herself walking through “Little Africa,” Metropolis’ black neighborhood, which is plagued by poverty and high crime. She passes a man delivering a speech to fellow residents about black pride, and is called out by him for being representative of the socioeconomic reality which privileges the white majority at expense of the black majority. Shamed by the association (“he’s wrong about me, but right about so many others!”), Lois decides she needs a firsthand look at the black experience in America. Emerging from Dahr-Nel’s device in the height of 1970s fashion, she is given 24 hours to live as a black woman. She returns to Little Africa where she meets the activist, who turns out to be a reasonable guy named Dave Stevens.
Dave, it turns out, is a constantly vigilant activist who, when he isn’t delivering MLK-cum-Malcolm X style speeches, works tirelessly to combat the influence of criminals in his community. Noticing some local boys skipping school, he follows them, only to stumble upon some local mobsters responsible for flooding the ghetto with drugs. Thinking he’s a cop, they shoot him. He survives, barely, thanks to a blood transfusion from Lois. The next day, once Lois has become caucasian once again, she and Dave reach an understanding, with Lois learning how hard it is to be black, and Dave learning that not all white people are bad AND YES THIS IS DEEPLY UNCOMFORTABLE.
It can’t be denied that the story is, especially to modern eyes, full of unfortunate implications. More than once, it relies on rather stale stereotypes of black masculinity (Dave is kind of sexist), features some very awkward use of “black” slang written by white writers, and of course is powered by the problematic notion that there’s a kind of exact middle ground in the struggle for racial equality. But all that is to be expected, given the time period and the restrictions of the Comics Code Authority. What makes it work is they way the story subtly portrays Lois as an unreliable narrator and makes the reader complicit.
When we first see Dave Stevens, he’s depicted as a somewhat scary depiction of black rage. However, when we meet Dave again after Lois’ transformation, he’s… different. Nicer. Yes, part of this is that he meets Lois as a black woman, and no doubt there were many white readers – or at least their parents – who heard shouts of “black is beautiful” in real life and recoiled in terror. Hell, it’s well-documented that Nixon’s appeal to the “silent majority,” a very, very current thing at the time this comic was produced, was in part rooted in stoking fear of unrest in the inner city. It’s possible that the writer of this story subconsciously absorbed some of that. But it’s hard not to feel as though we weren’t seeing “Dave” at the beginning of the story, but only Lois’ projected fears as she walked through an unfamiliar neighborhood.
Yes, there’s still the unfortunate problem of portraying the black experience as written by white people, and yes the dialogue and basic concept are absolutely hilarious now. But it’s a definite A for effort from DC Comics at a time when the industry was only beginning to explore aspects of American culture that weren’t lily white.
Green Lantern and Green Arrow grapple with drug addiction.
Story: “Snowbirds Don’t Fly”
Green Lantern issues 85 and 86, Aug-Sep 1971.
By the late 60s, Green Lantern sold poorly and DC was seriously considering cancelling the title altogether. As part of this, Green Lantern and Green Arrow (star of another low-selling title) were paired up on a recurring basis. Since the series looked headed for the chopping block anyway, writer Denny O’Neil, who by the way is an enormously important influence that helped the comics medium mature, was given a greater deal of creative freedom, and he decided to use it by tackling social issues.
“Snowbirds Don’t Fly” was the first of these issues-inspired stories, an attempt to dive into the issue of drug addiction head-on, and shockingly, in a way that doesn’t rely on judgmentalism to make its point.
At the start, Green Arrow is attacked by criminals who, he discovers, were using arrows he designed. He ropes Green Lantern in to help him figure out what happened, and they eventually discover a junkie den where, to their shock, they find Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy. At first, they assume Speedy is working undercover to bust a heroin ring, but it turns out that he’s become addicted to the drug, and sold his arrows for drug money.
As one might expect, Green Arrow is extremely angry with Speedy over this mess. We’ve all experienced our parents freaking the hell out on us for far lesser mistake “You’re a lousy junkie, no better than the rest of the sniveling punks!”, Arrow shouts at Speedy. But in an interesting inversion of the normal approach to anti-drug literature, this story takes great pains to present Speedy’s struggle sympathetically.
He throws Green Arrow’s rage back in his face, telling him “a big man like you doesn’t need drugs, does he? You get high on your own self righteousness!”, and storms out, and both are left with serious questions and deep self doubt. Green Arrow starts to consider whether or not he failed Speedy as a guardian in some way, though he ultimately decides he didn’t, that Speedy’s problem is that he didn’t “hang tough”. Soon after confronted by Green Lantern, Speedy lays into him too, telling him “Lantern, your generation has been known to lie, dig it? You’ve told us war is fun, skin color is important, a man’s worth is the size of his bank account, all crocks! So why believe your drug rap?”
Green Lantern doesn’t lash out at him like Arrow did, however, only offering support. This leads to Speedy collapsing, weeping, in the arms of Dinah Drake (aka Black Canary), which inspires him to go cold turkey. Once he cleans up, he confronts Green Arrow once more, only this time he shames Arrow for not having provided the support Lantern and Canary gave him, then punches him. “I’m sharing a very small piece of the pain I’ve just gone through…” he says. “The kind of pain thousands of kids are going through every day because an uncaring and unthinking society turns its back on them.” Damn, that’s cold medicine.
Meanwhile, Green Lantern and Green Arrow devote themselves to breaking up the drug ring, eventually discovering the kingpin of the operation is a corrupt pharmaceutical executive who is publicly involved in anti-drug efforts. So, basically, the story was 40 years ahead of its time.
It contains the usual problems with such stories during the period, most obviously the hilarious attempt to write hip slang, but it’s a remarkable tale that manages to tackle the horrors of drug addiction without relying on shame and punishment as the solution, and in case it wasn’t clear, it even villainizes the pharmaceutical industry, decades before the oxycontin epidemic would begin to ravage the American heartland. Beautiful stuff, even when it’s heavy-handed.
The HIV epidemic inspires Northstar to come out of the closet
Story: “Northstar as you’ve never seen him before.”
Culminating in Alpha Flight #106, 1992.
Northstar is notable for possibly being the first openly gay superhero in mainstream comics, but the process by which Marvel allowed him to finally come out of the closet is a tortured affair that perfectly mirrors the progress of the gay rights movement during the 1980s.
As I noted back in March, Northstar was from the start conceived of as a gay character. However, Marvel initially resisted all attempts by its writers to officially identify him as such. As a result, during the 80s, when (so it’s rumored) Jim Shooter had a “No Gays in the Marvel Universe” policy, Northstar’s sexuality was only hinted at, largely via his lack of interest in women which, it was explained, owed to his dedication to professional skiing (relationships would get in the way, you see.)
That kind of thing is maddening of course, but when Marvel finally decided to stop suppressing the character’s sexuality, it did so in a way that almost made up for more than a decade of enforced invisibility. Initially, Bill Mantlo wanted to write a story in which Northstar became infected with HIV and developed AIDS. Marvel quashed that, though elements can be seen in the storyline directly preceding his coming out that saw him facing an unspecified illness that prevented his mutant powers from healing him.
That illness was eventually cured, but soon after, during a battle with Mr. Hyde, Northstar comes across an abandoned baby who, it is soon discovered, was infected with HIV in the womb. He adopts the infant, and she becomes a national cause celebre when her condition becomes public knowledge. One of Northstar’s enemies attempts to murder her, but though that attempt is foiled, the baby’s condition is too far advanced, and in issue #106 of Alpha Flight, she dies from AIDS-related complications, with a devastated Northstar cradling her in his arms. Inspired by the death of his adopted daughter, and lamenting the stigma of AIDS, Northstar decides right then to come out, and he announces to the media that he is gay.
This story did two things very well. First, it portrayed HIV as a disease that anyone can get, directly confronting the still-lingering idea that it was a gay disease. The earliest version of the so-called “cocktail” of drugs that now can keep the onset of AIDS at bay indefinitely was still more than four years way, so it’s difficult to overstate how important it was to treat the sufferers of the disease in a sympathetic way (this was a year before Philadelphia even!). Second, it somewhat – and I stress only somewhat – captured the importance of the idea the gay rights movement had long advocated, that only by making themselves known could gay people combat the stigmas associated with homosexuality. It hardly needs to be said that in 1992, being openly gay could potentially ruin one’s career, no matter your job. It’s difficult to remember but it was only after Northstar came out that we began to see the beginning of the wave of openly gay public figures that we now take for granted.
No, I’m not suggesting that Marvel comics is responsible for the successes of the gay rights movement. But it is fair to say that this storyline is an important step in helping mainstream the concept that gay people are normal. Even if, you know, it involved a super powered mutant.
Author’s note: article slightly edited for clarity after publication.