By Joshua Hernandez, Oct. 26, 2021
The comics industry and its adoring fans were thrown for another loop once the news dropped that Superman was coming out as bisexual in the fifth issue of “Superman: Son of Kal- El.” The story broke on National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11 and in typical fashion, fans were divided over how they reacted.
Some people were excited and others did not care, but, predictably, quite a few are outraged.
Why are people outraged? Because, to them, DC is injecting “woke” politics into their books and not just any character, but Superman, a legacy who, in their minds, should be out fighting imaginary bad guys rather than opining on topics that affect our reality.
I love and hate living in a post-Dark Knight/ Marvel Cinematic Universe world. I bring this up because for the people who do not read comics religiously like I do, the ones who probably grew up watching “The Dark Knight,” “Justice League: Unlimited” or the Marvel Cinematic Universe and who only look toward caped crusaders for action and escapism, I have some bad news. Whether you like it or not, comics were always woke.
As a fan of comic books for many years, I still remember when liking comic characters was poison to a healthy social life. Heck, even friends who shared my interest could not match my enthusiasm. Nowadays, everyone has an opinion on their favorite character, a phenomenon I attribute to the barrage of cape flicks and TV shows from the late 1980s to the present day.
Today, you no longer need to read the comics to like these characters because the movies are more accessible and they are usually designed to appeal to people of all ages, optimizing and updating the characters for modern audiences.
This is a shame because reading comics is like reading the book that your favorite movie was adapted from; it adds perspective to the media you already love and in some cases, it’s even better than the adaptation.
Again, as a battered comic book fan for several years, I heard this argument against progressivism in comics many times before by many people in many different contexts.
The first time I remember hearing this argument was when it centered on Kid Flash in 2014. Long story short, DC’s “Flashpoint” event comic reset its stories’ fictional history, or continuity. One of which was Wally West, the redheaded Flash that most people probably recognize from the mid- 2000s “Justice League” cartoons. West was reintroduced as an African-American Kid Flash, who shared some of the original character’s family dynamics but none of the backstory.
Not all fans loved it, with many decrying the change as an example of tokenization and an insult to West’s decades-long history. A few years later, DC caved and brought the old Wally West back as a separate character, with the new Wally now going by Wallace to set them apart.
During the heat of that controversy, a common complaint was that DC only changed Wally’s race for inclusionary brownie points and that if they wanted to write stories about a Black superhero, they should just create a new hero instead of changing a classic character to suit their agenda.
If I am being honest, I could see where those fans were coming from at the time.
I knew enough about Wally West from the shows I watched as a child to know that he was an established hero with a rich history, so finding out as a teen that his history was erased in order to start fresh seemed less like a political blunder and more like a storytelling one.
DC essentially said the storylines fans followed for decades no longer mattered because the canon, or official timeline, was reset, implying that fans wasted their time reading what amounted to fan fiction.
If they kept West’s character development and the personality he had for decades and the only difference post- Flashpoint was his skin color or his racial background, would it have made a difference?
Apparently not, because in the days following Superman coming out, I still see this same argument cropping up almost as if people did not read the previous issues of the book or its title.
“Superman: Son of Kal-El” does not follow Clark Kent, mild- mannered reporter, but his son, Jonathan Kent, a character who, until recently, was written as a pre-pubescent boy with little-to-no defined orientation. Now that he is older and his dad is out of town fighting a space tyrant, Jonathan is filling in for Clark as Earth’s main Superman.
DC recognized the problem in rewriting an old character’s story and did as the fans supposedly asked by creating a new character with their own unique backstory and personality to explore. Yet the members of the community are still mad (sorry, “disappointed”) because a Superman just so happens to have a boyfriend.
This idea that comics should not be woke is frustrating because not only does it wrongly imply that non-heterosexual people are weird and icky, it misleads people into thinking their hero is being replaced or co-opted. It also assumes the classic stories were never this controversial, even though in many cases, they were very progressive for the times they were released in.
If we look at Golden Age icons from the 1930s and 1940s like Wonder Woman, Captain America and Superman himself, it is easy to see the political intent behind their heroics. Wonder Woman was created by William Moulton Marston, the psychologist who invented the lie detector, to show readers how heroic and respectable women could be. Her Lasso of Truth was also a metaphor for the virtue of submitting to the truth.
Captain America was originally a pro-war propaganda mouthpiece dreamt up by two Jewish- Americans, Joe Simon and Jack “the King” Kirby (aka the artist who made Stan Lee a household name). Cap was designed to whip up support for the Allies before the U.S. officially joined World War II. On the first issue’s cover, Cap famously punched Hitler on the jaw, rather than a fictional villain which could invoke plausible deniability.
I could go on about how Marvel’s Silver Age heroes worked around the restrictive Comics Code Authority to give us the X-Men, a team of feared and hated outsiders standing in for Civil Rights activists of the 1960s, or how the Black Widow was reworked from a stereotypically- evil Russian spy into an honest hero through her team-ups with the Avengers and Daredevil, despite her Communist background.
I could talk about the Bronze Age of the 1970s and 1980s which saw Captain America defeat a censored version of President Richard Nixon who led a criminal cabal from the Oval Office called the Secret Empire, or how the Punisher was originally conceived as a Spider-Man villain symbolizing both the failure of the justice system and the hypocrisy of the tough-on-crime mentality, which is still currently infecting our society both in our police stations and our military bases, symbolized by co-opted Punisher skulls.
We see these themes of disillusionment culminate in modern- day classics like “Watchmen” which criticizes vigilante justice and equates it to right- wing authoritarianism, or “Kingdom Come,” my favorite Justice League story, which emphasizes the need to forgive ourselves and those who have wronged us and to rehabilitate criminals and vigilantes rather than simply locking away every perceived threat to our safety.
And the Superman you think you know and love? He started out fighting greedy white- collar criminals who preyed on honest, hard- working people before he ever went rounds with Brainiac, General Zod, Darkseid or even Lex Luthor. Superman was also created by two Jewish-Americans, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and was written as an illegal immigrant who desperately wanted to make his new home a better place for everyone.
Comic companies, committees and self- entitled “fans” do not create comics. They can try to impose all the rules they want, but ultimately writers and artists are the lifeblood of the industry and they should be allowed to share their ideas in good faith, just as we are allowed to choose what to read.
So, if the source material is too woke for you, stick to the action- centered movies and stop ignorantly telling people how to “respect the character’s legacies.”
The creators behind our heroes looked at their society and saw potential for something better, so they used their feelings and opinions to create icons who embodied their ideals and fought the injustices which they thought inhibited progress. They were not power fantasies because they could leap tall buildings in a single- bound, they were power fantasies because they entertained the idea that evil in all its forms could be opposed by goodness, or as Jack Kirby once put it, that we can all do better to become the people we lionize.
Regardless of how you look at it, this radical streak is not a new trend; it is the entire point.
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