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Comics, politics and the world outside our window: Arising as a response to fascism, Captain America and superheroes have politics in their DNA


Captain America: The First Avenger (Marvel)

When you spend a decade making comic books, you can get a little jaded by fan debates, and nothing ever made my eyes roll faster than when comic book fans would debate whether or not Captain America was a Democrat or a Republican. I worked for Marvel for six years and heard the debate many times. For every conservative who argued that Cap embodied American self reliance there was a progressive who’d gamely counter that a man who puts on the flag to defend the least of us belongs to the left. You’d hope they would realize that if they both see their values reflected in a hero, then maybe the real lesson is there are noble qualities in most political ideologies. Ah, well.

From his first appearance socking Hitler in the jaw in Captain America Comics #1 to his last stand against Thanos in this summer’s blockbuster “Avengers: Endgame,” Captain America — along with every Marvel character — has spent nearly 80 years reflecting the cultural, emotional and, yes, political zeitgeist of our country. So it was distressing to read in Art Spiegelman’s recent piece for The Guardian that Marvel has adopted an “apolitical” stance. Spiegelman, one of the great comic creators whose work “Maus” tells the story of his father’s experiences during the Holocaust, had been invited to write the introduction to a compendium of stories from Marvel’s Golden Age. His essay on fascism included a reference to the current president whom he referred to as the “Orange Skull,” a nod to Captain America’s Nazi antagonist “The Red Skull.” The essay was pulled from the publication.

Setting aside any political leanings for a moment, let’s talk about Art Spiegelman. From his creation of the counterculture magazine RAW (where “Maus” first debuted) to his exploration of PTSD in a post-9/11 world in “In The Shadow of No Towers,” Spiegelman has always created politically charged work. I get that comparing the President to a Nazi supervillain could be controversial — but the idea that you’d hire him and not expect some controversy is pretty dubious.

In this 2003 file photo, Art Spiegelman, left, at meeting the press during the International Berlin Comic Festival.
In this 2003 file photo, Art Spiegelman, left, at meeting the press during the International Berlin Comic Festival. (ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

I have no idea what really went down behind the scenes and I certainly made enough comics to know that sometimes an anxious editor makes a decision to cut something “edgy” and then blames it on someone up the corporate food chain. (I was that anxious editor many times.) But the speculation is that the essay was pulled out of respect for Marvel Chairman Isaac “Ike” Perlmutter, a prominent Trump supporter and informal adviser to the administration. I don’t know Perlmutter at all. The most I ever said to him was, “Hold the elevator!” (He did, by the way). His involvement in the current administration, while certainly notable, has so far been his own business. If it’s true, however, that this essay was pulled and that the books now have an “apolitical” bent out of respect to Perlmutter’s political activities — and Marvel’s given no indication to believe otherwise — that’s a dangerous change for the company and the industry.

If you make Marvel Comics apolitical, then they stop being Marvel Comics. They have always been political. The Fantastic Four reflected the Cold War space race, the X-Men were a commentary on the civil rights movement, and the Avengers were eventually torn apart by a Patriot Act-inspired superhero civil war. Comics should reflect politics — and not just one side! The same Marvel Universe that saw Captain America turn his back on his country in response to Nixonian corruption also gave us books where Spider-Man criticized student protesters (See Amazing Spider-Man #38, True Believer!)

Spiegelman’s reflection reminds us that superheroes were a response to fascism. We need them as much today as we did in the 1940s, but only if they’re allowed to truly do their jobs. Marvel legend Stan Lee often said these comics reflected “the world outside our windows.” That world was political in 1941, it was political in 1962 and it’s definitely political today. If you only want to reflect the apolitical in 2019, then you’re reflecting nothing. And nobody wants to read nothing.

Brennan is a writer from New York City. He was an editor at Marvel Comics from 2007-2014.