Superman vs. the War Party
I was sitting with my feet up on my desk in an empty newsroom at the Daily Planet. I had just started watching the new Jessica Rabbit video when Editor in Chief Perry White stormed in.
"What's this nonsense about Superman being anti war?"
I jumped up and headed for the door saying: "I don't know, but I'll get right on it Chief."
As I got to the door I could hear Perry bellowing: "Don't come back without the story, and don't call me Chief!"
I've known Superman almost all my life, but I haven't kept up with his doings lately. I missed out on his death and resurrection, and frankly, I've been out of the loop.
I caught the Red Eye out of Metropolis to San Francisco, where I could get some objectivity. Before I could settle in with my beverage of choice, I got an e-mail from Perry. But before I could read it, I was interrupted by an incoming Video Instant Message through iChat, also from Perry.
Perry was complaining that there were already two articles making a ruckus about Superman being anti war. "Where is my story?," boomed Perry through the iChat on my Powerbook, his cigar falling out of his mouth as he angrily signed off.
Was I going to be scooped by The Gotham City Gazette, or the Center City News?
Sipping my Shirley Temple, I started to read.
These articles didn't appear in papers I was used to reading; both these articles had been posted to the Internet. Both articles attack the same issue (#83) of the Justice League of America (JLA). They each make slightly different attacks, but both, in short, are wrong wrong in their political views, and wrong about comic books and their characters.
The Justice League of America is a team of super heroes made up of DC Comics best characters: Superman, Atom, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, the Martian Manhunter, and other lesser known superheroes. While the League of course protects entire earth against invading alien hordes from outer space, its main loyalty is to the USA.
I was curious about what the writers of the two aforementioned critical articles would say about the JLA.
The first of these articles was from Joshua Elder, posted to Front Page Magazine's August 8, 2003 issue, and titled: "A Hate-America Superhero?"
First of all, Elder is sloppy. Because he bought the comic book in July, he calls it the July issue. But Elder only would have had to read the cover to see that he is referring to, #83, is actually the September 2003 issue of the JLA. (Comics appear on the stands two to three months before their calendar date on the cover.)
The story of Issue #83 of the JLA is titled STREAM OF SUBCONSCIOUSNESS! It begins with a chemical terrorist attack in London. Luckily, the Justice League of America is there to to contain the Napalmetto (trademark problems with Dow?) attack to a four block radius. The President of the United States, Lex Luthor, tells the world that the attacks came from the tiny Middle Eastern country of Qurac, but the JLA find through the evidence that the true perpetrator of the attack was Super Villain Professor Ivo.
When captured in his hideout and confronted by the JLA, Professor Ivo lawyers up and shuts up.
Having Professor Ivo in custody the JLA informs President Luthor, but he refuses to listen, and continues to hold Qurac responsible. President Luthor also ignores the millions of people around the world who are protesting his planned retributive attack of Qurac. Luthor: "I would rather be judged by history as having moved too soon, rather than too late. That would be a nightmare." (When President Luthor speaks it sounds remarkably like George Bush, but it is probably better in the original German.)
There is a protest in New York, where Special Forces dressed as NYPD try to keep protesters from going downtown to their rally by claiming a fire on the subway tracks. Wonder Woman asserts this is a political trick, and an attempt to stifle Free Speech. Superman uses his X-ray vision to see that the tracks really were on fire, and tells Wonder Woman that the police are only doing their job.
Batman jumps one of the cops and produces Army dog tags. Superman remains unconvinced: " A lot of policemen were in the Armed Forces. It doesn't prove a conspiracy."
Batman and Wonder Woman are trying to get Superman to see the truth, but Superman is dazed and confused. Then, both Batman and Wonder Woman mysteriously disappear. There is no one left to advise The Man of Steel.
Superman tells Luthor that no one supports his planned criminal attack on Qurac: "Why can't you just wait until you have more proof? We've lived with this problem for years already..."
Finally Superman confronts President Luthor saying he must know the truth. Luthor answers Superman with: "The Truth is that I'm the President. And it is my duty to protect you people! That is exactly what I'm doing! Where do you get off questioning me?!?"
Luthor tells Superman he is too late, the war has begun
Superman took too long making up his mind. Seeing that Superman is coming to his senses, Luthor hits superman with lethal dose of green Kryptonite. It is then that Superman wakes up from the Martian mind machine trance he has been in, screaming it is "never too late".
It has all been a dream. Superman talks about it: "This dream...things spun completely out of my grasp. Luthor took the U.S. to war, despite our protests, the U.N.'s...He killed everything we stand for. And I let it happen because I couldn't make up my mind."
The obvious moral of the story is that the truth will always come to light, but what if comes too late?
Before Joshua Elder launches his attack on Superman in this issue, Elder first offers the synopsis of another fantasy story, from a 1940 issue of LOOK magazine.
The story shows how Superman would end World War II which was raging in Europe without direct US participation. Elder summarizes the story as "the steely-eyed hero charged into Germany to capture Hitler and then into the Soviet Union to apprehend Stalin. He then dragged both tyrants before the League of Nations to be tried for their crimes against humanity. And he did it all with a smile."
Elder somehow sees this as being in conflict with what he finds in Issue #83, Although the capture of Professor Ivo is exactly the same act as rustling up Hitler, and Stalin.
Although Elder recognizes the comic as an allegory, he misses the tree for the forest. Elder thinks the allegory is the mere substitution of Lex Luthor for George Bush, Qurac for Iraq, and Dr. Ivo for Osama bin Laden. The obvious substitution of characters has made Elder miss the more pertinent allegory. In this modern story, Superman is the most central and important allegorical character. He represents all of us in the US and around the world who want to believe that the president is acting in America's best interest, but haven't yet seen a shred of evidence to support the president's violent and destructive actions.
Elder has also taken the Issue #83 out of context. He doesn't look at what Superman has been through in the previous two issues of JLA. Superman is not his usual self coming into this story.
Superman is usually instantly decisive. He can weigh out a problem, come up with the solution, and execute that solution all at the speed of light. Superman is crystal clear on right and wrong, and never unsure about what to do. But in this story Superman is more like Stuporman when it comes to mental processor speed. In fact, Superman is so unlike himself in this story, I found myself wondering what kind of medication he was on. But of course, Elder sees none of this.
Elder fails to realize that Superman is not anti war throughout the story; he is undecided. It is rather Batman and Wonder Woman, and the rest of the JLA, who are trying to open Superman's eyes to the truth.
The big thing that bothers me is Elder's lumping Superman with the Left. While it is true that the authors of the story are admitted Kennedy style liberals, who believe in the UN as a source of world peace, law and order, I can't find any other leftist clues. Elder's sole proof of Leftism is Superman's saying; "Armed conflict may be an option, and I will support it... if the truth is clear, and the cause is just. But I will know the truth, and I will not be ashamed or be called un-American for demanding it."
So now a desire for truth is a Leftist-only value?
Elder actually puts Superman to the Left of Howard Dean for agreeing with George Bush 41 that removing Saddam would be a bad idea: "While [Howard Dean] may believe the invasion of Iraq was a bad idea, at least he doesn't claim that removing one of history's most evil regimes will lead to the downfall of Western civilization."
But the simple truth is that Superman isn't leftist; he's just like all confused Americans whose President... "took the U.S. to war, despite our protests, the U.N.'s...He killed everything we stand for. And I let it happen because I couldn't make up my mind."
The more recent criticism of JLA Issue #83 (and Marvel Comics in general) is from L. Brent Bozell III, in Insight on the News Fair Comment Issue: 11/25/03, titled "Antiwar Critics Get Superhero Status in Comic-Book Scripts."
Bozell chooses to label the story Pacifist instead of Leftist.
His big complaint is that comics are being political at all.
Instead he asks "Why the blatant (or if the word fits, cartoonish) propaganda?"
Bozell says the DC writer Joe Kelly admits his agenda by saying: "I think that comics are a much more powerful medium than people imagine and, in certain circumstances, it's appropriate to use them to discuss political issues."
Nevertheless, Bozell is more compassionate towards Superman's position than Joshua Elder was: "Superman laments being 'paralyzed with indecision ... and the world paid the price.' Superman shouldn't be so hard on himself. Being paralyzed by indecision is how the United Nations usually responds."
It's funny how he blames the UN. Bozell too misses that Superman is standing in for Americans! Of course, neither of these writers got into JLA Issue #84; where President Luthor is in a coma, and the Justice League are the only folks trying to help him out of it.
Bozell also laments Marvel Comics: "Sadly, DC Comics is not alone in the liberal-revisionist, comic-book world.
"The other giant, Marvel Comics, has transformed Captain America, the former Nazi-fighting hero, into a brooding listener to a series of post-Sept. 11 lectures against America's 'empire of blood.'"
Mostly, Bozell appears to think that this story line isn't appropriate for children: "Ten-year-old Johnny must be on the edge of his seat reading this, don't you think?"
Bozell seems to want simple uncomplicated action heroes who don't ask questions. Maybe this issue of the JLA is the first comic book he ever read.
I finished the articles, took a small nap and prepared for final approach.
Once I landed in the Golden State; I headed down to Al's Comics to get the 411 on the Man o' Steel's latest flight path. The picture was not as clear as I'd hoped.
Al was surprised by the naiveté of both these articles, and their authors.
"I am shocked at how little these writers understand Superman," said Al, "and I am surprised at the people who are surprised that comic books can be political. Imagine being surprised that comic books are political! Why, comic books have been political forever."
Al was right.
Comics were certainly political in what is known as the Silver Age of Comics (roughly 1956 to 1969). The Silver Age of Comics is when Marvel Comics comes back from the dead to become the dominant comic book company in the 1960s.
From the beginning, Marvel was political in its treatment of nuclear power. Almost all the heroes and villains in the early years of the Silver Age, (with the notable exceptions of Dr. Strange and Thor), were a result of Government playing with matches.
The Fantastic Four was created because the Government was afraid that Cosmic Rays from the Van Allen belt were too dangerous for US astronauts. The US Government needed a test crew to go into space to find out if it was safe before they'd risk any US personnel. Well surprise, it wasn't safe! The result was the freaky group known as the Fantastic Four.
The origin of all of Marvel's mutants is nuclear power. That includes the X-Men, and all their mutant friends and enemies. The Hulk was created from an USAF testing of a Gamma Ray bomb, where nuclear physicist Dr. Bruce Banner takes the blast saving the life of teenager Rick Jones. Spiderman was born when Peter Parker, a sickly 90 pound weakling, was bitten by a radioactive spider in a government run facility.
But Marvel's stories discussed more than just nuclear power. The X in X-Men is not just about Professor X, or the mutants eXtraordinary powers. As in Algebra, the X is a place holder, for blacks, Jews, Palestinians, Catholics, gypsies, and gays. Anyone who has suffered oppression, persecution, or discrimination, can relate to the X-Men story line.
In addition to Marvel characters having to deal with timely social issues, they also fought the Cold War and the Vietnam War in the pages of Marvel Comics.
Most of the fighting against Communism was carried on by Iron Man and Captain America:
In Tales of Suspense #39, March 1963, Iron Man is born fighting Communists in Vietnam. Military industrialist Tony Stark makes a trip to test experimental transistor-powered weapons in the jungles of Vietnam. During his testing, a Viet Cong booby trap goes off and Tony is captured by the enemy. He is mortally wounded by a piece of shrapnel that is working its way toward Stark's heart.
Tony is ordered to make weapons for the Communists until he dies, but saves himself by creating a suit of transistorized armor that also serves as a pacemaker for his heart. He dispatches his foes and escapes.
Since the March issue of a comic book comes out in January, this comic is out on the stands eleven months before JFK is shot. That means the story for this comic was written in 1962. In 1962 we were reeling from the Cuban Missile Crisis, and we'd never heard of Vietnam.
Marvel Comics was dealing with Vietnam before most of the country even knew about US involvement.
I could go on and on about Iron Man's epic battles with Russian Communist Super Villains, and Chinese Communist Super Villains, etc. These battles always involved the spouting of ideological arguments by hero and villain as they fought: Capitalism and Democracy versus Communism and slavery.
The other big enemy of Communism was Captain America, whose second incarnation was brought about in The Silver Age.
Captain America originally belongs to the Golden Age of Comics, (roughly 1938 to 1945), when he fought the Nazis in WWII with his trusty young sidekick, Bucky. Then in the middle part of the Silver Age of Comics, Marvel resurrected Captain America to fight again.
In Avengers #4, March 1964; the Avengers find Captain America frozen in a block of ice and thaw him out.
Miraculously, Captain America wakes up like Rip Van Winkle from a twenty year nap. The Nazis appear gone. Now the enemies are Communism and Super Villains (a difference not as easy to keep straight as you might think). Captain America goes on to fight and defeat many Super Communist Baddies, including one representing Mao's Red Guard.
Then in 1973, Captain America is alone with Richard Nixon in the Oval Office when the President commits suicide over Water Gate.
Comics always do have better endings than real life.
I've read only three issues of Captain America in search of the truth, (@DotComics.com). Just three issues where Captain America really looks at US foreign policy. In these issues, Captain America starts looking at his role as a weapon of US foreign policy something Cap should have been doing all along. Comics have always voiced strong political opinions, and these opinions have often been dissenting from the governments opinions and actions.
But as I am a Daily Planet reporter it is only fitting that we wrap up with Superman.
It isn't such a shock that Superman has decided to be anti war. The surprise is that he has stopped being a hypocrite.
Superman's personal ethic is that he cannot harm human beings, (you know, us; earthlings).
In the Golden Age of Comics; Superman destroyed Nazi cannons, tanks, and planes however, Superman always let the crew out of the tank or plane before destroying it.
On the surface this seems admirable... until you realize that Superman's actions still paved the way for Allied bombing of civilian populations that led to the deaths of innocent women and children. (This is certainly a violation of two of Asimov's Laws of Robotics: Robots may not harm humans or allow humans to be harmed.)
So now, in these recent JLA stories, Superman is at last bringing his political views in line with his personal ethic. Superman's values are Truth, Justice, and The American Way, and it looks like Superman is finally trying to live up to those values.
I wonder what Perry White is going to think about this?
can hear him now; " Great Caesar's Ghost..."
Mike Mayakis has been a long-time libertarian activist from 1978 to 1988 and cofounder and three-time County Chair of the San Francisco Libertarian Party. He is co-author of the Express Hospital Emergency Room Admission & Survival Kit (protect you and your loved ones from medical mistakes).
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