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Comic-Book Liberalism

by Sonny Bunch

Movie studios move rightwardly away from their print sources

When the writers of the comic book Batwoman announced they were resigning from the series because the publisher, DC Comics, would not allow the titular character, a lesbian, to marry, the outrage against DC in the comic-book community was swift and fierce. Indeed, it was so vigorous that one of the writers, J. H. Williams III, felt compelled to tweet: “I’ve just been told that threats of violence have been issued toward individuals at DC comics. This is unacceptable. It needs to stop now.” The response was overheated and unwarranted (DC, which supported the sexuality of the character, simply has a blanket ban on any of its characters’ getting married), but not necessarily surprising. As the comic-book industry and its fans drift to the left, such outbursts are hardly isolated incidents.

For instance, earlier this year there was a flare-up when a (fictional) character held a (fictional) press conference in a comic book to ask the (fictional) media to stop referring to him as a mutant and instead call him by his name, “Alex.” Within the logic of the Marvel Comics universe, this comes across as a relatively reasonable request: For ages, “mutant” and its variant slurs like “mutie” have been synonymous with “monster.” What writer Rick Remender did not realize is that his commonsense notion violated the norms of the real-world Left.

“In that little speech [the character Havok] shredded the central thesis of minority identity politics,” wrote Andrew Wheeler of the blog Comics Alliance (angry emphasis in the angry original). “He is, definitively and explicitly, self-loathing about his identity. . . . That’s not a message of inclusion. That’s a message of assimilation. That’s a message of erasure.” Some went so far as to suggest that fans should call on Marvel to take action against Remender for his heresy because they were “offended” by “Havok’s ignorant stance toward minority status and assimilation.”

While Remender was able to survive the attempted purge, others have not been as fortunate. After it was announced that Orson Scott Card, author of the classic young-adult sci-fi novel Ender’s Game, would contribute to a Superman anthology, the activist Left sprang into action. More than 18,000 people signed a petition to get DC Comics to drop him. Comic-book stores refused to stock the book if Card was allowed to work on it. One of the artists contributing to the book quit in protest. Eventually, Card decided it wasn’t worth the hassle and dropped out of the project.

His crime? He has vociferously denounced gay marriage and President Barack Obama.

It’s worth noting that Card was not going to write a story about Superman stopping a gay marriage or deposing the president in a Kryptonian coup. His heresies took place entirely outside the realm of comic books; his thought crimes came in his personal, not professional, life. Whereas the Left once denounced efforts to strip artists of their livelihood for their political views, it now enforces orthodoxies through blacklists and boycotts all its own.

These crusades aren’t terribly surprising, as the industry and its fan base have been tacking leftward for decades.

The Uncanny X-Men, which debuted in 1963, was originally a metaphor for the civil-rights struggle; today it serves as a stand-in for the gay-rights movement. Captain America once proudly went to war against the Nazis, before such unabashed shows of patriotism became gauche: Steve Rogers famously ditched his star-spangled alter ego in the 1970s as Watergate roiled the nation; did so again in the 1980s; and actively fought the government in the 2000s to protest a Patriot Act–style law. DC tackled hot-button social issues like drug abuse throughout the 1970s, and the mid-1980s Watchmen, one of the two most important graphic novels ever written (along with The Dark Knight Returns), treated Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger as bogeymen content to bring about nuclear war.

More recently, the comic-book industry has engaged in what seems like an almost concerted effort to taunt the American Right. For instance, there was Superman’s renunciation of his American citizenship in 2011’s Action Comics #900: “Truth, justice and the American way—it’s not enough anymore,” Big Blue complained before announcing he was headed to the United Nations to give up his citizenship. Similarly, in an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man mourning the terrorist attacks of 9/11, writer J. Michael Straczynski explicitly compared American preachers who blamed the attacks on “the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians and the ACLU” to radical jihadist imams who supported the destruction of the Twin Towers.

It often feels as if the comic-book industry has moved to the left of Hollywood, long the nation’s most liberal industry. This is an intriguing turn of events, given that comic books are now little more than a pool of intellectual properties for Hollywood to raid. Warner Brothers owns DC Comics; Disney bought Marvel Comics and holds the film rights to the Avengers-affiliated properties (Iron Man, Thor, etc.); Sony owns the rights to Spider-Man; and Fox owns the rights to the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and several other properties. This doesn’t even account for independent movie studios and independent comic-book houses.

Barely a month goes by without one or more comic-book flicks’ hitting the big screen. This summer alone saw the release of Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, The Wolverine, 2 Guns, Red 2, Kick-Ass 2, and R.I.P.D. At least nine more comic-book adaptations already have release dates in 2014. As studios grow more reliant on existing properties (the “pre-awareness” of which supposedly helps keep advertising costs down) and big-budget spectacle (which supposedly sells better overseas), the studios are likely to lean ever more heavily on the comic-book industry.

Which is funny, because the most successful of the comic-book adaptations have been somewhat conservative. Comic-book movies are tacking to the right even as the comic-book industry veers left.

This is best seen in Christopher Nolan’s Bat-universe. Batman Begins is about the scion of a family of liberal do-gooders whose father and mother die before his eyes after being attacked on the street and who decides that, having been mugged by reality, he will fight evil in the world. Upon its release, I described The Dark Knight as “the first great post-9/11 film” for its willingness to grapple with, and support, issues like warrantless wiretapping, harsh interrogations, and extraordinary rendition. And The Dark Knight Rises could have come with the subtitle “Two Cheers for Capitalism” for its critique of anti-capitalist populism and its plea for captains of industry to use their wealth to help better society.

This summer’s Man of Steel could have been titled Neocon Jesus of Steel, given its religious imagery and its unequivocal rejection of isolationism and support for unilateral interventions. Director Zack Snyder’s Superman is no citizen of the world, telling a general at the end of the film, “I was raised in Kansas. I’m about as American as it gets.”

Marvel’s Avengers properties have shied away from such topics, more content to luxuriate in spectacle than engage with ideas. But Iron Man was notable for its decision to provide something for everyone, politically speaking: Tony Stark, patriotic billionaire, is arrayed against a band of al-Qaeda-like terrorists and the military-industrial complex. And Captain America is Captain America, hewing to an old-fashioned sense of American values—and the American responsibility to defend the defenseless—in both Captain America and The Avengers.

These artistic choices have reaped huge financial dividends. Nolan’s Batman films grossed more than $2.4 billion worldwide (The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises grossed a billion each). The three Iron Man films have racked up another $2.4 billion. Avengers grossed more than $1.5 billion worldwide. Man of Steel has grossed a relatively paltry $662 million around the world—a figure that nevertheless was more than three times its production budget.

Films that have hewed to the ideological ground from which they sprang have been far less successful. Consider Red and Red 2, based on the comic-book mini-series Red, which take a thoroughly skeptical view of America both at home and abroad. They have combined to gross just over $300 million worldwide, against a combined production budget of more than $140 million.

As film budgets grow bigger, studios are forced to cater to wider audiences to recoup their investments. The comic-book industry, by contrast, is a relatively insular community playing with a relatively tiny amount of money. It can afford to appeal to a core group of obsessive, angry enthusiasts who threaten boycotts at the drop of the hat—indeed, it almost can’t afford not to satisfy these hardcore fans who make up its base.

According to Comichron.com, over the last five years the comic-book industry has averaged roughly $260 million in sales per year on the 300 best-selling comics each month. To put that in perspective, Avengers alone grossed more than that in less than a week. When billions of dollars are on the line it only makes sense to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.

– Mr. Bunch is the managing editor of the Washington Free Beacon.

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