Search This Blog

Friday, 15 December 2017

Sympathy for Amerika: The fall of the US and the rise of Trump explained through superhero comic books

Fiction is like a spiders web, attached ever so slightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible - Virginia Woolf

Its a tough time being Amerika these days, its no longer as popular abroad as it once was and it cant seem to get its act together at home either, what with all those mass shootings, sexual scandals and racial tension.

It seems like every time I call my brother and friends in Amerika or read the news the sureality of the situation just vomits in my lap as I try to compare what I hear and read about there with what I take for a relatively sane and stable life here in New Zealand.

And the figurehead for all of this Brand-X crazy is President Donald Trump.

However for those readers who are expecting me to now spazm out into some frothing liberal beat-up of Trump and the situation are going to be sorely disappointed as I am in fact going to revisit some of the sentiments from my now infamous rant from my Kiwipolitco days titled Watching it Bern: Why its OK to vote for Donald Trump* and specifically the linkage of ideas that I set down in the final paragraphs to describe the rise of then candidate Trump before his eventual election to El Presidente.

In short it’s the Arab Spring, US style, writ large across Western Democracies as average citizens come to realize that those who are supposed to represent them are not fulfilling the task they were elected to do and are now expressing extreme discontent by delivering spoiler candidates into the fold, not as a genuine alternate (although I think Sanders could have pulled that off until he turned Judas) but as a resoundingly Joker like solution to the failure of the system. As Alfred says in the Dark Knight, “Some people just want to watch the world burn”

And its that weird intersection of comic books and the decline of US democracy that I want to explore a bit further in this post.

So as I sit here sipping a cold Speights to help ward off the residual heat of the day and with the Doobie Brothers and Herbie Mann on the turntable let us go deeper into the initially bizarre idea that the US now has a comic book villain for president but that no hero or heroine in tights and a cape is coming to save them.

Our guide for this acceptably twisted excursion into the tenuous is the idea that fact and fiction has blurred and in the paraphrased words of Marshal Mcluhan the medium has become the message as democracy in the Home of Brave has withered to such a point that a hyper-real media being (that being Senor Trump of the reality TV show The Apprentice fame) has ascended to the top job of president in a such an appropriately bizarre set of circumstances as to be worthy of the plot of a comic book.

And if you think that I am the only one making this connection then guess again, as even if you exclude the obvious form of political cartoonists who must be thanking their lucky stars for being sent such an obvious muse in the form of Trump, there is a whole other range of people who are either noting the repeated appearances of Trump in comic books or using old comic book covers in juxtaposition with actual Trump quotes to highlight how much he actually sounds like a stock comic book villain.

So just as the superbly surreal use of stock cartoon images in David Rees's Get Your War On was used in the 2000s to pick apart and mock then President Dubya Bush and all of US foreign policy in places like Iraq and Afghanistan (hence the cartoons title) so too are the paradoxically subtle, yet obvious, links between Trump and comic books, and specifically those featuring super heroes and villains, are being used to highlight the dark state of the Land of Free in a way that simply speaking truth to power could never achieve.

And it seems highly appropriate that the Fugs Exorcising the Evil Spirits from the Pentagon Oct. 21, 1967 has just kicked in on the stereo as its exactly that kind of comedic and satirical tone, which has become the tone for the Trump Presidency (as well as its commentators), and the now assured decline of Amerika, that should be kept in mind when trying to fathom who or what Trump is.

Because as much as people like to blame Trump for all the evil in the US today the brutal truth is that Trump is not the cause but the symptom of the disease (as I noted in my KP post) that has consumed The City on the Hill and left it hollow.

And through the medium of superhero comics we can chart the rise and fall of Amerika, Donald Trump and the super-hero comic medium itself by examining the genre, its history and those that were involved in it.

And for me personally, comics, both super-hero and otherwise, were a major part of my youth, teens and early 20s, as they, along with books, music and video games, were the staple diet of my mental life at that time and continue to exert an influence on me (as anyone who has ever visited my house can attest) so to help illustrate my point I will be drawing on four comic book writers/artists who not only had a major influence on me but also the genre.

Jack Kirby
First up is Jack Kirby (1917 – 1994) who is one of the true creators of the medium. And while you may not know who Kirby is its more than likely that you know of the characters that he created, or co-created, such as The Hulk, The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, Ironman, Doctor Doom and many many more from watching their exploits on the big screen via the movies of the Marvel universe.

Kirby worked through the gold, silver, bronze and modern ages of comics and was one of the defining creators and shapers of the medium who not only drew his characters but also wrote many of the stories to go with them (my favorite being The Eternals). Kirby was also part of the generation that served in World War Two and helped to draw the famous comic cover of Captain America (another character who Kirby also helped create) punching Hitler.

The impact and importance of Jack Kirby on the medium of comics and super-heroes cannot be overstated and even today in movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor:Ragnarok his influence can be seen in both the bold use of colors and visual style (a Kirby trademark) as well as many of the ideas and aspects of the stories.

However, at the time Kirby was helping to create the Pantheon of the super-hero universe, comic books in general were not seen as a respectable medium to work in, or read, and were in fact viewed by 1940s and 1950s Amerika as a dangerous and corrupting influence on youth, as detailed in Fredrick Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent.

Comics as a threat to youth

At that time super hero comics were not the dominant part of the comic book medium (that would come later) and characters like the newly created Superman (the first American Jesus) and Batman had to compete with a variety of other characters and comics which covered genres like crime, horror, romance, science fiction, war and westerns and which often included rather dark and adult subject matter in their art and writing.

And in early 1950s Amerika, with McCarthyism, the second Red Scare and the rising specter of the Cold War, its seemed only appropriate to the authorities to clamp down on what seemed like a dangerous threat to the nation’s youth with the introduction of the Comics Code, an ostensibly voluntary code for publishers to adhere to but in reality, for nearly 30 years, a de-facto censor of almost all comic content in the US.

The Comics Code toned down, or removed, all content which was deemed sexual, violent, portrayed drug and alcohol or any issue not deemed wholesome to 1950s Amerikan morals and was used to both suppress and homogenize super-hero comics into a format which often could lapse into stale and generic formulas/plots with cookie cutter villains, and a somewhat boring succession of costumed hero's, each with some gimmick or power but otherwise little else to distinguish them.

An example of this is how Batman was reduced from the hyper violent, ultra-rich, playboy vigilante that he started out as (including using guns), who was himself a toned down copy of another comic book and radio serial character called The Shadow, into the safe, trad and non-threatening character which was portrayed by Adam West in the campy 1960s TV show Batman**. 

The shift from darker and edgier to safe, clean and neat was seen across the comics format at the time and it took over 20 years for the first real breaks with the code to occur which happened in parallel with the social and sexual revolutions that were taking place in the US at that time and while comic creators were always able to find ways to sneak in supposedly subversive content, it was not until the 1970s that the code was first challenged in the mainstream.

Yong Donald

It was about this time that a young man named Donald J Trump was making his first steps into the world. Born in 1946 Trumps formative years were during the 1950s and early 60s and while there is no evidence I can find to show that he read comics what is clear though, from his twitter and TV statements, is that Donald is a creature of media (remember Marshal McLuhan) and not only the medium but also the message with a near 24/7 twitter stream, claims of fake news and a galaxy of statements which bear little connection to reality.

Growing up in 1950s Amerika as the scion of the privileged elite means that Trump not only has those aspects of the baby-boomers which saw them called the "Me Generation" but also was insulated from almost all of the upheaval of the 50s, 60s and 70s by his families wealth, which enabled him to do things like avoid the draft and get the kind of head start in life (a million dollar loan from his father) that only those born with a silver spoon in their mouth can have.

Steve Ditko
While it’s not known if Trump read comics as a child, if he did it is more than likely that he would have been read one of the most famous comics of all time, that of the teenage superhero Spiderman which was created by Steve Ditko (born 1927) and Stan Lee.

Spiderman was a hero unlike many of his contemporaries, who were obvious alpha males, as his secret identity, Peter Parker, was a shy, bookish high school student who would be considered a nerd by any standards and Spiderman himself was often mocked by his foes as weak and hounded by the press as a menace to society.

For readers, the teenage challenges of high school, social pressures and romance were often mixed in with normal super-hero fare where the greatest threat to Spiderman was not always some new villain but whether Peter would be able to take his date to the high school dance.

This youthful focus helped readers identify with Spiderman in a way that they never could with Ubermench characters like Superman or Batman who were clear specimens of peak masculinity, seemingly unbeatable and also untroubled by any morally ambiguous thoughts regarding the worthiness of their cause (as happened more than once with Spiderman).

This combination of teenage struggle and the more normal superhero antics gave Spiderman a depth which was often much greater than characters like Superman or Batman where the action was almost relentlessly on their hero antics with only a bare nod to their characters “normal” lives. Peter had to worry about getting good grades, looking after his aging aunt and later paying the bills as he went to university and worked as a freelance photographer.

And Ditko, like Kirby, worked through the various comic book ages and also like Kirby served his country in the Army before going into comics and while Kirby's visual style was bold with strong colours and simple lines Ditko had a surreal style which often placed the characters he created deep into the uncanny valley but could also burn those images into ones memory, especially in his work in the areas of horror and suspense.

Finally, like Kirby, Ditko had a hand in shaping not only many of the characters of the Marvel universe but also that of Marvels rival DC as well as many smaller comic publishers and helped to make the comic book super-hero genre what it was.

Comic book Super-heroes as Amerikan Gods

Super-hero comics are a uniquely Amerikan art form, similar to Jazz and mass shootings, which are not only a reflection of the culture which created them but also of the time and circumstances in which they were created.

And with the turn of the 20th century and the monstrous catastrophes of the First World War, the Wall Street Crash and the great Depression, traditional American religious figures such as Jesus and God seemed no longer sufficient avatars to the younger generations and so the time was right for new gods to rise and take their place.

Early super hero comics were almost exclusively devoted to fighting crime and the fact that they wore masks and costume, had miraculous powers and acted outside of the law clearly made them vigilantes in an intoxicating image of an individual taking (back) power into their own hands when the situation demanded it.

But just as in science every reaction has an equal and opposite reaction so to for all the costumed do-gooders out there with each hero or heroine having an equally powered nemesis’s in the form of super-villains. Batman has the Joker, Superman has Lex Luthor, Spiderman has the Hobgoblin and every other cape wearing character worth their salt had someone who acted as their moral opposite and in doing so filled out the pantheon of gods and demons that super hero comics had become.

The decline, fall and rebirth of superheroes

By the 1970s superhero comics were on the wane from their heyday in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. The dynamic of men and women in tights and capes fighting the same endless roster of criminals was stale and comic writers were starting to introduce topics such as drug use, sexuality and racism; issues which the US was then facing, but which were all flying in the face of the comic’s code restrictive dictates.

In 1983, Superman was now 45 years old, so to speak, having first been published in 1938, and the intervening 45 years had seen Amerika shift from Franklin Delano Roosevelt leading the US out of the Great Depression and into World War Two to 1980s Corporate Amerika, the lingering stench of failure in Vietnam, Watergate and the Cold War antics of Ronald Regan yet Superman was still battling Lex, dating Lois as he always had despite the massive cultural and social shifts that Amerika had been through in those 45 years.

The result was the Bronze Age of comics (the period roughly form 1970 to 1985) saw declines in sales and interest as other media, like video games, captured the imaginations of youth while comics and their often staid stories and formats seemed boring as at the end of each story (or story arc) nothing had changed and the comic book dynamic seemed trapped in a limbo of endless repetition.

By the early 1980s comics superhero comics and comics in general seemed to have become mired in a time and space which, while looking modern, seemed to come from the 1930s; with the two big publishers Marvel and DC Comics now corporate entities in themselves and seemingly more worried about the bottom line than their characters or their stories and with the genre, now firmly established and having no new stories to tell, was thusly sliding into boring cliché.

And there is a reason why 1985 is considered the year in which the Bronze age of comics ended and the Modern or Dark age of comics began, and continues to this day as it was around this time that two writers took it upon themselves to revolutionise comics as we know it by not only killing dead some of the core, but restrictive, mechanics of the super hero genre but also by revolutionising super hero comics and pave the way for the current climate where comic book sales can still be dicey but where superhero movies are a worldwide phenomenon.

Killing what you love

First up is Alan Moore and his seminal work Watchmen which is both a deconstruction of the whole super hero narrative as well as a warts and all celebration of what made them so exciting to read in the first place.

In short Moore torn down the very ideals on which superheroes had been built by showing how clichéd the idea of an individual dressed in a costume fighting crime had become and then gave it life again by creating his own superhero characters based of the now familiar archetypes of Jesus-hero (superman), detective-hero (batman), sexy-hero (wonder woman***), the Anti-hero and vigilante-hero; setting them in their own universe (as oppose to the standard practice of placing them in either the DC or the Marvel continuum) and then exploring the logical conclusions of each archetypes and by highlighting the thoughts and motivations of each archetype (for example, think of how young Bruce Wayne witnessing the murder of his parents would have shaped him into batman and what effect that had on his psyche).

By the end of its 12 issue run Watchmen had destroyed the status quo, even if the status quo did not know it, and heralded the end of the Bronze Age of comics. Also, for the record, Watchmen is possibly the first ever graphic novel and even made it onto the Times list of 100 best novels of the modern age. Its effect has lessened somewhat in this day and age by the Zac Synder’s unwatchable move based on the comic and the fact that the legions of comics that came in its wake have obscured that which blazed the trail.

Bringing back the Bat

However it was not Moore that delivered the killing blow to the medium but another writer, Frank Miller, with his explosive four issue series of Batman comics called The Dark Knight Returns.

In DKR Miller did something that was almost unheard of, by letting his character age, and portraying Batman as a 55 year old coming out of 10 years retirement to battle his equally aged foes before finally engaging in a showdown with Superman. In the story Batman is shown suffering the effects of his advanced age on his crime fighting abilities along with the kind of doubts and worries that any person dealing with the generation gap would have.

But Miller did not stop there, as he broke the long established comic book convention of heroes not killing their nemeses (one of the cardinal rules of superhero comics as in doing so it destroys the balance of the supposedly immortal pantheon) by having Batman kill the Joker before donning a robotic Batsuit to beat superman to a pulp (with the help of some green kryptonite) and thus symbolicly destroying another (that of the invincibility of such a character) unspoken rule of the medium as well.

Done in Millers signature style and overlaid with images of a world awash in hyper-media and uncontrolled violence (both crime and war) The Dark Knight Returns was highly influential and single-handeledly brought back Batman as the dark, brooding psychopath that he originally was and served as the inspiration for Tim Burton,s Batman blockbuster film that kick started the modern age of super hero movies.

A new/old model

By the mid-1980s the situation with comics had gotten so bad that many of the artists and writers who had helped create many of the most popular comics and characters of the medium had realized they were being ripped off and moved to form their own companies where they retained creative control and were aptly compensated for their work.

This led to companies like Image and Valiant entering the market and for the first half of the 90s challenging Marvel and DC for dominance before eventually falling back as the speculative comics boom of the 90s proved to be the death knell of super-hero comics until their partial revival in the 2010s with the explosion, and success, of the Marvel Universe movies.

And the 90s comics speculation boom is emblematic of the very worst practices of late stage capitalism which would be late seen in the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2008. 

In essence the creator owned studios had, for a time, “a license to print money” and did so by flooding the market with a horde of generic characters and stories which were often written and draw by those that had worked at Marvel of DC but were now simply using their creative freedom to churn out bland knock-offs of the characters they were working on when employed by the Big Two.

Making this worse was the fact that speculators were buying up first editions of these new comics thinking that they would turn out to be as valuable as first editions of Superman, Spiderman and Batman were, while missing the fact that it was often the rarity of said editions which made them valuable and rendered the value of the hundreds of newly printed comics and characters to less than the pulp they were printed on and a practice which remains to this day.

By the end of the 90s Marvel and DC had survived but more as copyright holders than producers of comics and upstarts like Valiant and Image had either broken up or been reduced to churning out the same old generic superhero crap that had proliferated in the 1970s with the big two and thus come complete full circle but with characters no one cared about and no Miller or Moore et al to save them as the public's taste for comics shifted to things other than people running round in their underwear to fantasy, horror and crime (as seen in popular comic lines such as The Sandman, Hellblazer and  the superbly excellent 100 Bullets) and away from the comic book format to graphic novels.

This economic dynamic, that of hype and marketing mixed with market saturation and lack of innovation, led to comics crash and the dotcom bubble at about the same time and were engineered by individuals and companies that might have been in different markets but marching to the beat of the same retarded drum.

So how do we explain the link between superhero comics and Donald Trump?

The answer to this question can be found in the economic dynamics that helped give rise to the artistic restrictions that Moore and Miller were destroying in Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, and which were the same waters from what would emerge the Donald Trump we all know and loath, which is, for want of a better word, neo-liberalism.

Leaving aside the cultural and artistic issues which have bedeviled comics since their inception the biggest problem which comics ever faced has been that of creators rights which do predate the rise of the cult of unrestrained capitalism but which came to the fore in that time, when dodgy business practices built up over the decades before saw publishers like Marvel and DC, as corporate entities, jealously guarding the rights to the characters, art and stories other individuals had created and actively screwing the writers and artists out of their fair share.

Or, in other words, not actually creating anything new but simply gaining rent off a property that they did not really own but had successfully stolen.

Both Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko (along with many others) had to fight to get back art work they created and receive full and fair credit for characters and stories they had a hand in, with both men changing between the big two more than once in their careers before either working with independent publishers or having enough clout to be fully acknowledged for what they brought to the medium.

Trump as comic book villain and comics as cultural capital

And it’s finally here where we can start to look at the larger economic and political system in the US and see the rise of an individual like Trump to president and the shift from comics as things that you buy and read to heavily trademarked and copyrighted characters as having connections and correlations.

Are they hard core links, no they are not but I as I have said before Trump is not the cause but the symptom of the disease, or to use a another phrase, Trump is blowback, Trump is the consequence of the gutting of both the US economy and political system for vested interests that operated like that of a parasite or cancer on its host just as the state of super hero comics today is a product of the industries own crappy dealings and practices.

Comics in this context are billion dollar industry today in every area except the actual sales of comics. The movies and the licensing of long established characters to products and games is a highly lucrative area but comics themselves are now a niche medium. With no new super heroes, and not even existentially god awful shows like the Big Bang Theory can fix that.

Comics have become a billion dollar plank that is helping to prop up a failing Hollywood studio system and US economy but is no longer creating anything new or innovating.

Comics, and their characters are an image, not a thing, they are an intellectual property that has morphed from something real that is produced or made to a highly restrictive intellectual property that no longer lives and breathes but is instead being milked, like a Fonterra dairy cow, for all it is worth before being cast aside.

And in this sense Trump is exactly the same, the idea of the presidency has be successively undermined over the last 50 years by dodgy presidents, their creepy minions and illegal acts that ate away at the trust of the public while money infested the system and left it a hollow image with no substance and ripe for buyout by large corporations that create nothing but simply exploit their property for the rent it can generate.

Just as comics were bought out and exploited for their image so too has the office of the president been bought out and exploited and Trump is just the poster boy for that, the Gordon Gecko for politics if you will.

The fact that Trump behaves and acts like a comic book super villain only just adds to the turgid image that the presidency has become.

*-And for those with the stomach I recommend the comments section of that little saga to actual see the verbal play by play as I effectively cross swords with Pablo from KP and blog my self right of KP, which in retrospect turned out as a good thing as otherwise I would not have started this blog
**-That said I grew up watching Batman and still love West’s both comedic and subversive portrayal of Batman and the show which could appeal to both children and adults.
***-whose image as an empowering superhero for women was undermined by her BDSM origins.




  3. Sie sagten, schreibt nicht über Trump und Comics in einem einzigen Post, aber ...

  4. Well good luck with that

    1. Why thank you very much, its so nice to meet people who support my work.

  5. A luke warrm tribute to the greatest USA President ever.