Last week in the Wall Street Journal, Chuck Dixon and Paul Rivoche presented a small article called “How Liberalism became Kryptonite for Superman: A Graphic Tale of Modern Comics’ Descent into Moral Relativism”. Chuck and Paul are excellent comics’ professionals. I’ve read many a Chuck Dixon story and they well-plotted and engaging. I want to be clear about that, because I don’t want to attack these two authors’ excellent talents. In particular, the way that Dixon wrote Oracle in Birds of Prey, a well-written and powerful female character, is admirable. Instead, I want to talk about their intentional misrepresentation of comics and art in the Wall Street Journal, a misrepresentation so egregious that I was surprised.
The first argument that they make is that comics have become morally relativistic and have embraced a left-wing ideology. They cite the example of Superman giving up his U.S. citizenship in Action Comics 900–they quote Superman saying that “truth, justice and the American way–it’s not enough anymore” Of course, they provide no other argument or context for why this represents moral relativism or leftist ideology, but implied here is that if it’s not American, it’s not moral and it’s leftist. One has a difficult time even listing all of the logical fallacies. A definition here is important. The authors use moral relativism as a cipher, but fail to define it, leaving it out as an ambiguous strawman. Moral relativism is defined several ways across history, but means, in essence, that there is not an objective right or wrong. Having gone back to my short boxes and read Action 900, it’s clear that the issue isn’t that Superman thinks all values are without objective fault, but rather that he questions limiting his moral purview to a nationalist agenda. This story then isn’t moral relativism, it just disagrees with what Chuck and Paul believe.
The sleight of hand here is that Superman is renouncing his citizenship because he doesn’t want his actions construed as U.S. policy–he does this after taking a walking tour across the United States to reconnect with people. His actions are not morally relativistic; they are complex and represent the comics’ medium maturation. Comics exist in a complex world that is not easy to suss out–good art attempts to allow people to look at and think about that world. Will Eisner, the godfather of graphic novels and one of the greatest comics’ writers ever, wrote exactly about this change in the medium in his books Comics and Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative. He knew in 1996 that that comics were adding literary sophistication that he traced to the proliferation of underground comics. It isn’t that they merely became liberal–it’s that they lost their naivete and became a space where issues were discussed and wrestled with on the page.
Chuck and Paul also whitewash the Comics Code Authority in their small piece, and they neglect to mention the events that led to the comics code authority at all. There are lots of terrific sources about this, but short primer is that the Comics Code of America (CCA) was adopted in 1954 to avoid regulation by government forces. In essence, the comics industry self-censored so that others wouldn’t censor them. The CCA came about in an era of paranoia and censorship and is most famously embodied in the book The Seduction of the Innocent by Fredric Wertham, which raised alarmist concerns about comics and prompted congressional hearings. A great read about this is Carol Tilley’s book called Seducing the Innocent where she compiles all of the bad science and manipulations that Wertham used in creating his text. Chuck and Paul tell us that the CCA was there to save kids “from storylines that might glorify violent crime, drug use, or other illicit behavior. They fail to mention the censorship that the code represented or how the code oppressed creativity and sophistication in the medium. They fail, too, to mention that the code was racist, not allowing some stories because of black characters. Again, merely having a story about crime or drug use or sex does not make it bad or morally relativistic. They can be, but they might also be critical explorations of social problems designed to create awareness.
One of my favorite examples of this is a comic book called Blazing Combat, which ran for four issues in 1965. It contained what some believe to be one of the first protests against the Viet Nam war. The title was cancelled because news stands and PXs (places where soldiers get their goods) wouldn’t carry it and began complaining. The comic in question is tame by today’s standards but certainly questions the need for war and the United States’ role in it. While this might have been a “left of center” position, I find the censorship of it much more troubling than the attempt of a piece of art to have a place within a democratic debate.
Another claim that Chuck and Paul make is that comics used to be “beyond politics.” This claim, while perhaps the one in the article that will go most unnoticed, is in fact the most problematic one of all. One of my favorite cultural and educational critics is a man named Ira Shor. In a chapter called “Education is Politics” in a book called Empowering Education, he tells us that “in forming the students’ conception of self and the world, teachers can present knowledge in several ways, as a celebration of the existing society, as a falsely neutral avoidance of problems rooted in the system, or as a critical inquiry into power and knowledge as they relate to student experience” (15). I use comics in my classroom all of the time. They let me get to important contexts and the mixture of visual and textual literacy allow my students to learn at an advanced rate. I use comics as that the critical inquiry. The comics writers and artists who have written the great comics stories do too. And I don’t just mean the Watchmen or other brooding tales. Kurt Busiek does this work with Astro City in a deep and sustained way–he reimagines comics stories in ways that are contextualized by our 21st century reality. What Chuck and Paul are proposing is that we embrace that false neutrality, which isn’t a neutrality at all if it reifies the status quo. Chuck and Paul want readers to be “beyond politics” and to accept the “truth justice, and the American way” of Superman without engaging in what that means.
When I think about keeping my children safe, it isn’t by teaching them blind acceptance–it’s about making them critical thinkers. The same goes for my students as well. I wanted to argue that it is naive to claim that something can be beyond politics, but it is worse than that; it is the adoption of a worldview where any view that does not embrace “a celebration of existing” society can be pilloried with terms like morally relativistic and leftist. We must remember that ideology is a powerful thing–and that while Paul and Chuck are uncomfortable with the ideas and systems that have questioned and challenged their systems, it is still dishonest to say that they were beyond systems in some sort of utopia or golden age. It’s a terrible argument, as untrue as it is fallacious.
Darin Jensen is a teacher, a scholar, a comic fan, and the smartest person Joe Patrick knows. For more of his writing, visit his blog Teaching the Work.