Happy days? (Part 2)

See Part 1 of this post for my examination of how comic books published in the 50s and 60s portrayed contemporary cultural and political values.

In this second part I provide examples of how these decades have been portrayed in comic books published during later years.

Generation gap
It didn’t take long for the orderly and authoritarian world of the late 50s and mid 60s depicted in Leave it to Beaver and Happy Days to begin falling apart. By 1968, young people around the country and the globe were waging a worldwide rebellion against political and social repression and the cultural status quo.  By the time the Bronze Age of comic books began in 1970, less than ten years after the Fantastic Four’s race to beat the Commies into space had ushered in a superhero comics Renaissance, Marvel Comics was already having second thoughts about the ideals its characters had so recently championed.

With the Marvel Comics superhero revival in full swing, Stan Lee decided to bring Captain America back again in 1964, despite the failed attempt 10 years earlier when the company was going by the name Atlas (see the “Battling super powers” section in Part 1). In The Avengers #4, written by Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby, Iron Man, Thor, Giant-Man and the Wasp recover Cap’s body from arctic waters, discovering that he has been frozen in suspended animation since the end of World War II. While readers were happy to have the Sentinel of Liberty back, his supposed twenty years on ice didn’t explain the “Commie Smasher” incarnation that had briefly returned to comics in 1954.

Captain America recovered

Panel from The Avengers#4. Written by Stan Lee and Drawn by Jack Kirby. Copyright Marvel Comics.

Captain America Commie hater

Panels from Captain America #155. Written by Steve Englehart and drawn by Sal Buscema. Copyright Marvel Comics.

Cut to 1972 and Captain America #153, where the title character’s African-American superhero partner, the Falcon, encounters an ultra-right wing, racist Cap, mercilessly beating residents of Harlem. Over the course of four issues, writer Steve Englehart and artist Sal Buscema reveal that this is the McCarthy-era Cap, who had been chosen by the U.S. government to adopt both the civilian and costumed identities of his presumed dead predecessor. Unfortunately, this new test subject was slowly driven insane by a flawed version of the super soldier serum that had turned Steve Rogers into the original Captain America. Faced with this second Cap’s increasingly paranoid and violent behavior, the government put him in suspended animation until a cure for his deteriorating mental condition could be found. Years later, a technician angered by President Nixon’s recent trip to communist China revived the 1950s Cap, who set out to take back his title from the person he assumed was his own, left-leaning replacement.

This story line essentially denounced as madness what had once been the commonly accepted anti-Communist ideology in comics (and the country). It also treated 1950s racism, sexism and nationalism with the same contempt EC Comics had in Shock SuspenStories (see Part 1, “Mad men”). To leave no doubt as to which era held the moral high ground, Englehart has the real Captain America of the 1970s defeat his 1950s impostor in a dramatic battle on the grounds of Miami’s Torch of Friendship monument. (The 1950s Captain America recently returned to comics, causing quite a bit of controversy last year when he seemingly associated himself with the Tea Party. See the “Tea for two” section of my previous post on censorship.)

Captain America 153-156

Fantastic Four #136

Panel detail from Fantastic Four #136. Written by Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas and drawn by John Buscema. Copyright Marvel Comics.

The following year, Marvel published a more lighthearted but no less critical look back at the post-war past  in issues 136-137 of The Fantastic Four (cover dated July-August 1973). In part one of the story, “Rock Around the Cosmos,” written by Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas and drawn by John Buscema, the FF enter an alternate reality created from one man’s  nostalgic recollections of the 1950s. In this pocket dimension, The Nation, an ultra-authoritarian and conservative regime, is run by the Patriots, whose mission is to protect society from the chaotic influence of a band of juvenile delinquents. Known as the Wild Ones, these young rebels ride around on flying motorcycles wreaking havoc.  In a parody of the witch hunts carried out by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the Fifties, “Protectors of the Nation” Senator McHammer (representing Joseph McCarthy) and Joe Kone (standing in for Roy Cohn) interrogate Mr. Fantastic and the Thing to ensure their loyalty.

Fantastic Four #137

Fantastic Four #137. Cover art by John Buscema. Copyright Marvel Comics.

In part two of  the story, “Rumble on Planet 3,” the Fantastic Four combat Warhead, a physical manifestation of Cold War nuclear anxieties in the form of a giant gorilla with a laser beam-shooting, Sputnik-like satellite for a head. The Patriots and the Wild Ones temporarily put aside their differences to help the FF force this B-movie monster back into the drive-in theater screen from which it had broken free. Finally, a group of African-Americans, who until then had been treated as second-class citizens known as “the Invisibles,” confront the leaders of the Nation to announce that they are taking their rightful place as fully empowered members of society. By forcing social change that conflicts with the consensus reality, the Invisibles cause this faux-Fifties universe to dissolve. When the Fantastic Four find themselves back in the “real” world, the Thing seems far less certain than Captain America did about which decade he prefers, complaining to the Human Torch about 1970s problems like “riots, pollution and Women’s Lib.”

Comic books since then largely maintain the position that although the optimism and innovation of the Fifties and early Sixties contributed much to our nation’s progress, our society is better off having left behind many of this period’s restrictive, repressive and discriminatory cultural attitudes. Recent works during the current Modern Age of comics, which began in the mid-1980s, have continued to cast a critical eye on nostalgic misperceptions of these still idealized “happy days.”

happy days 2 golden age cropped

Panel from The Golden Age written by James Robinson and drawn by Paul Smith. Copyright DC Comics.

Super hindsight
Despite it’s title, the four-issue 1993 DC Comics miniseries  The Golden Age is set entirely during the Atomic Age of comics (see Part 1). Taking place from 1946-1950 (with an epilogue in 1955) this “imaginary” story by writer James Robinson and artist Paul Smith depicts what might have happened to comics’ very first superhero group, the Justice Society of America, after its members (supposedly) hung up their capes at the close of WWII. Ted Knight, who once used the gravity rod he invented to soar through the night skies as Starman, suffers a deep depression over the knowledge that his scientific theories were used to develop the atomic bomb. Radio station owner Alan Scott, who formerly wielded limitless mystic power as the Green Lantern, feels helpless against the House Un-American Activities Committee’s efforts to ruin his employees’ careers over their past political affiliations. Retired masked hero and Nazi hunter Mr. America, now a U.S. Senator, urges his past colleagues to publicly reveal their secret identities and swear an oath of loyalty to the government. With its open condemnation of both McCarthyism and the Nuclear Age, like the other modern examples that follow, no company, except perhaps EC Comics,  would even have considered publishing this story during the actual period in which it is set.

Darwyn Cooke‘s 2004 six-issue miniseries, DC: The New Frontier, presented another reimagined superhero history. Spanning comics’ Golden, Atomic and Silver Ages from 1945 to 1960, it was inspired by John F. Kennedy’s presidential acceptance speech. The snappy writing and retro art style in this revisionist tale of superheroes during the Cold War perfectly captures the idealism that exemplified post-WWII America. At the same time, like The Golden Age, The New Frontier also examines the darker aspects of this period.


In this version of DC Comics history, Superman and Wonder Woman are agents of U.S. foreign policy. Making clandestine trips into Vietnam as America’s involvement there escalates, Wonder Woman has to rescue an air crew and their downed plane from Cambodia, to make sure the Pentagon’s illegal incursions there remain a secret. During this trip, she discovers a jungle camp where women  are being kept as sexual slaves by the Viet Cong, and returns to free them and let them take their revenge on their former captors (read this entire scene here). Later, when she attempts to share her concerns about the Vietnam conflict publicly, the Amazon princess is silenced and then patronizingly dismissed by President Eisenhower.

new frontier

Panel from DC: The New Frontier by Darwyn Cooke. Copyright DC Comics.

new frontier john henry

Page from DC: The New Frontier Volume 2, bt Darwyn Cooke. Copyright DC Comics.

Another subplot of the story involves one man’s quest for justice after his family is murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. Becoming a hooded, sledgehammer-wielding vigilante known as John Henry, he embarks on a mission of violent retribution across Tennessee, crippling dozens of Klansmen and killing two before racist mobs finally bring him down. In a eulogy delivered on national television, a newscaster reminiscent of  Edward R. Murrow points out the hypocrisy of a nation that proclaims itself the defender of democracy around the globe while its own citizens are still denied basic human rights (read the entire John Henry saga here).

The Kennedy administration and racism were also focal points of Wildstorm Productions’ 2006 eight-issue miniseries, The American Way, written by John Ridley and drawn by Georges Jeanty. Taking place during the Silver Age years 1961-62, it’s the story of Wes Chatham, an out of work ad man who’s offered a job, by former college roommate Robert Kennedy, to head the public relations department for the government’s superhero agency, the Civil Defense Corps. After learning that some of the CDC members’ abilities are no more than special effects, and that all of the team’s major battles against alien invaders and communist super villains are actually staged propaganda pieces, Wes is determined to make the CDC a positive force for social change.

Wes recruits the first African-American member of the CDC, the militant Jason Fisher, with the understanding that his race would initially remain concealed until he gained enough public approval and trust. Granted super strength and physical invulnerability by government scientists, Fisher retains the ability to feel pain (making him a metaphor for the centuries-long perseverence of blacks through slavery, lynchings and Jim Crow laws). Dressed in a full spacesuit and helmet and equipped with a jet pack, as the New American he quickly gains the admiration of both the public and his fellow CDC members, until his tinted visor  is shattered during a televised battle and his race is instantly revealed to the world. This causes a schism between the main body of the CDC and its subgroup, the Southern Defense Corps, that eventually escalates into a super civil war, ending in a fiery battle to the death between Jason and SDC member Southern Cross (a racist version of the Fantastic Four’s Human Torch).

The American Way 5-7

American Way #6

Panels from The American Way #6. Written by John Ridley and drawn by Georges Jeanty. Copyright John Ridley.

In the course of all this, Jason also tracks down a psychopathic super villain, Hellbent, who has murdered a busload of Freedom Riders, including Jason’s brother (Hellbent was deliberately released from prison by the government to provide a spectacular battle to entertain the masses and restore their faith in the CDC). When Jason finally captures Hellbent and beats him into submission, the killer explains that his higher purpose has merely been to expose the American people to their own hypocrisy and wake them up from their blind obedience to authority.

That is essentially the same function served by series like The Golden Age, DC: The New Frontier and The American Way. Without negating the scientific achievements or cultural progress of the 1950s-60s, they remind us that our nation also has a long-established history of both institutions and individuals using technology and political power without regard for the consequences—whether here at home or throughout the rest of the world. For all our deserved pride in our accomplishments as a nation and a people, this dark legacy is something we should never forget. Because if you believe your country has done no wrong, it’s easy to believe it can do no wrong.

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Happy days? (Part 1)

The recent deaths of actors Barbara Billingsley and Tom Bosley, who played iconic television parents June Cleaver and Howard Cunningham, got me thinking about the idealized era during which they both raised their respective sitcom families. Billingsley’s Leave it to Beaver ran from 1957-63, and has ever since remained a nostalgic symbol of the innocent, idyllic existence that many associate with this period in American history. Bosley’s Happy Days, which premiered more than a decade after Leave it to Beaver left the airwaves and ran for 10 years, was set roughly from 1955-65.

These shows aired or were set, a least partially, during what is known as the Golden Age of television, which Wikipedia places between the late 1940s and 1961. Perhaps not coincidentally, TV’s Golden Age began just as the Golden Age of comic books was drawing to a close. During this first comic book industry boom, monthly titles published in the millions featured hyper patriotic propaganda stories in which multitudes of superheroes dispatched Axis soldiers and Fifth Column saboteurs in droves. With the end of World War II, superheroes quickly fell out of vogue, and comic book sales plummeted. This led to a transitional period when genres like crime, horror, western, humor and romance grew in popularity with comic book readers (just as they soon would with television audiences).

Some comic book historians refer to this period from about 1945-1955 as the Atomic Age. During these early years of the Cold War, like most expressions of pop culture, comics reflected both the promise and the anxiety of the nuclear age.

Blasts from the past
World War III #1As the name Atomic Age suggests, the growing nuclear arms race between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. was a frequent theme of comic books published during this period. Ace Magazines put out two titles from 1952-53 that mingled their warnings against Soviet nuclear-armed aggression with an oddly optimistic faith in the power of atomic weapons to prevent radioactive Armageddon. The cover of World War III #1 showed an atomic strike on Washington, D.C., with the ominous disclaimer, “The War that Will Never Happen if America Stays Strong and Alert.” Similarly, the cover of Ace’s Atomic War! #1 showed New York City going up in nuclear flames, something which the heading above the title warned, “Only a Strong America Can Prevent.”  Issue #3 showed an equally horrifying retaliatory strike against Moscow. But issues #2 and #4 depicted conventional looking warfare where the U.S. military was able to defeat the Red army through the liberal deployment of a diverse atomic arsenal. These fantastical portrayals of relatively benign nuclear warfare may not have been enough to offset readers’ latent fears of the grim reality, as both these comics titles only lasted for a combined total of six issues. (For an examination of a comic book series that depicts the only real-life use of nuclear-weapons against civilians, see my post on the manga epic, Barefoot Gen.)

Atomic War! issues 1-4

Sitcoms like Leave it to Beaver helped relieve anxiety over a possible nuclear holocaust by focusing on the domestic tranquility and prosperity of post-war home life. But while the media largely tried to put a happy face on nuclear families and the communities they lived in, some comic books, like some television dramas of the period, revealed the dysfunction and fear covered up by polite smiles.

Mad men
When Educational Comics publisher Max Gaines died in a boating accident in 1947, his adult son William took control of his father’s company. Formerly known for comic book titles like Picture Stories from the Bible, beginning in 1949, William Gaines introduced titles dealing with horror, suspense, science fiction, military fiction and crime fiction. Changing the name of the company to Entertaining Comics, better known as EC, Gaines published horror comic books—including Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear—that became notorious for their lurid stories and gruesome art. But EC had some of the best writers and artists working in comics at the time, and they often put their talents to telling all too realistic horror stories taken from current events.

Shock SuspenStories #6In addition to EC’s signature tales of crime, horror, and science fiction, the company’s Shock SuspenStories, published from 1952-1955, also contained stories exposing the ugly truth behind the myth of the American dream. The anthology tackled controversial issues including racism, anti-Semitism, lynching, rape, anti-communist hysteria, fanatic nationalism, mob vigilantism and police corruption. Rather than exploiting the irrational violence of certain angry white men merely for shock value, these were strongly moral tales meant to open readers’ minds, broaden their perspectives, and inspire them to reevaluate what it means to be a true American. Below are samples of these stories by regular EC contributors, writer Al Feldstein and artists Wally Wood and Jack Davis, with links to sites where you can read the complete stories.

Panels from “The Guilty!” Art by Wally Wood. Read the entire story here.

Panels from “In Gratitude.” Art by Wally Wood. Read the entire story here.

Panels from “Hate!” Art by Wally Wood. Read the entire story here.

Panels from “The Patriots!” Art by Jack Davis. Read the entire story here.

Unfortunately, EC’s horror and crime comics drew the attention of parents, psychologists and legislators who feared the effect they were having on the psyches of America’s youth. In order to avoid congressional oversight, in 1954 comic book publishers imposed their own restrictions on content that made it impossible for EC to continue the kind of storytelling that had made it famous (see my previous post on censorship for more about the congressional crusade against comic books and the stifling effect it had on creative expression). Despite the collapse of his comic book publishing empire two years later, William Gaines was able to continue his social commentary through a humor magazine he introduced in 1952, with editor Harvey Kurtzman, called Mad.

Without EC to cast a critical eye on well-accepted social values of the time, virtually every comic book for sale on newsstands presented a unified front promoting the status quo. Foremost among these nationally held beliefs was a paranoid fear of communism and its assumed goal to conquer and enslave the world.

Iron Curtain call
While superheroes had been the primary comic book opponents of Nazi and fascist aggression during the industry’s Golden Age, when the communist threat reared its ugly head, comic book creators initially turned to regular people (pretty much all men) to hold back the Red hordes. Cold War comic book heroes included members of the U.S. military, the FBI, and yes, the Treasury Department.

From 1951-56, T-Man, a Quality Comic Publication, related the hair-raising adventures of Treasury Agent Pete Trask, “World Wide Trouble-Shooter,” as he traveled the globe thwarting the nefarious schemes of “Iron Curtain tyrants,” “merciless Red killers” and, appropriately,  a “commie paymaster.” Although it was the threat of Soviet expansion that every issue warned its readers to beware, one notable story foreshadowed a blow against international democracy struck by the United States.

T-Man triptych

Panel from T-Man #3.

Panel from T-Man #3.

In T-Man #3, cover dated January 1952, Trask travels to Tehran where the U.S., British, and Iranian governments are negotiating an oil treaty. In the midst of the proceedings, someone appearing to be Pete Trask bursts into the room to heap outrageous anti-Muslim abuses on the Iranian diplomats who abruptly end the negotiations. Of course, the real Trask eventually arrives to reveal that the meeting crasher was a disguised Soviet spy sent to stop the treaty, which is subsequently signed. (You can read the entire bizarre story here.)

In reality, it didn’t turn out to be the KGB that subverted the will of the Iranian people. Less than two years after T-Man #3 was published, the intelligence agencies of the U.S. and U.K. orchestrated a 1953 Iranian coup d’état that overthrew the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, who had recently nationalized the country’s oil industry. Mosaddegh was replaced by U.S.-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whose rule was so unpopular it lead to the 1979 Iranian Revolution that put Ayatollah Khomeini‘s Islamic Republic in power.

With so many upstanding civil servants making a name for themselves by taking on the Reds, it was only a matter of time before comic publishers got the idea to bring some of their forgotten superheroes out of retirement and send them into the fray.

Battling super powers
Hopping on the anti-communist bandwagon, Atlas Comics attempted a revival of some of its WWII-era superheroes in 1954. After being out of print for more than four years, Captain America, Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch made a tentative attempt to recapture the hearts and minds of our nation’s youth.  Now proudly billing himself as a “Commie Smasher” rather than a “Sentinel of Liberty,” Captain America led his two cohorts on a full scale land, sea and air assault against Soviet and Red Chinese forces.  But the alleged communist threat didn’t seem menacing or exciting enough to peak readers’ interests, and no one really missed these characters when their titles were canceled again after just a few issues.

Commie Smashers

The world wasn’t quite ready for superheroes again, but it soon would be.

Showcase #4

Showcase #4. Cover art by Carmine Infantino. Copyright DC Comics.

The second universally recognized era in comic book history is known as the Silver Age. It is generally agreed to have begun with the appearance of a new and improved Flash in the October 1956 Showcase #4, published by DC Comics (one year before Leave it to Beaver first aired and one year after the first season of Happy Days supposedly took place). The Flash was the first of several superheroes introduced by DC that were based on Golden Age predecessors. These characters exemplified the trust in government and fascination with science that most people shared at the time. The Flash’s alter ego, Barry Allen, was a police scientist, Green Lantern belonged to an intergalactic police force and Hawkman was a police officer from another planet. Soon, these and other new and old DC Comics superheroes joined forces as the Justice League of America, to better protect the public and preserve established authority.

Inspired by DC’s success, Atlas Comics, now going by the name Marvel Comics, began a superhero Renaissance that revolutionized the comic book industry. And it would never have happened without communism.

Fantastic Four #1

Fantastic Four #1. Cover art by Jack Kirby. Copyright Marvel Comics.

The title that began it all was the November 1961 Fantastic Four #1, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. It tells the story of scientist Reed Richards, his fiancée Sue Storm and her teenaged brother Johnny, and Reed’s pilot friend Ben Grimm, who gain unique super powers from cosmic rays they are exposed to during the test flight of an experimental rocket. Richards recklessly took the ship up without adequately testing its radiation shields because of the urgency of beating the Russians into space.  The following year, Lee and Kirby told the tale of scientist Bruce Banner’s transformation into a monster in The Incredible Hulk #1. Banner turns into the Hulk after a Russian undercover agent causes him to be caught in the blast from a gamma radiation bomb test. In 1963, Lee and his brother Larry Lieber, with artist Don Heck, told the origin of Iron Man in Tales of Suspense #39. It begins when millionaire munitions manufacturer Tony Stark is mortally injured by a landmine while conducting a field test of one of his latest weapons in Vietnam. Captured by communist Chinese guerillas, Stark pretends to go along with their demand that he build them weapons. In reality, he secretly constructs a mechanized suit of battle armor he uses to make his escape.

Communist origins of Marvel Comics

Just as Soviet Russia and the People’s Republic of China played a role in the origins of the Fantastic Four, the Hulk and Iron Man, they also provided a steady source of super villains for them to fight. These included the Red Ghost, the Gargoyle, the Abomination, the Crimson Dynamo, Titanium Man, Radioactive Man and the Black Widow (who later became a superhero). But as the Marvel Universe expanded, communism began to be seen as less of a threat than America’s overreaction to it, and superheroes started finding their rationale for existing, and their foes, elsewhere.

By the mid Sixties, the world of the Cleavers and Cunninghams was beginning to change. As television exposed viewers to the Civil Rights movement and expanding Vietnam War, people gradually grew more questioning of the government institutions they had trusted for so long. By the time the Silver Age of comics drew to a close around the end of the decade, comic book creators and readers were beginning to see the past 20 years of American history in a new light.

In Part 2 of this post I look at how the 1950s and 1960s have been portrayed in comic books written and published years later.

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Warriors of the People

Native Americans in Comic BooksIn honor of November being Native American Heritage Month, and Thanksgiving allegedly commemorating one of the few positive interactions between Native Americans and European-American settlers, I thought I’d share some information about a few Native American comic book characters—from a variety of genres—known for fighting against injustice. The title of this post is taken from the fact that the names by which Native Americans often called their own tribe was the word in their language that meant “people.” For more information on the portrayal of Native Americans in comic books see the appropriately titled, Native Americans in Comic Books, by Michael Sheyahshe.

The last character on this list is one I created for an as yet unexecuted graphic novel.

(Click on the character images to enlarge.)

Genre: War
Tribe: Navajo
First appearance: All-American Men of War #82, December 1960
Creator: Robert Kanigher (writer) and Irv Novick (artist)
Nickname: “The Navajo Ace”
Origin: Johnny Cloud was a U.S. Army Air Corps pilot during World War II who initially met with prejudice from the white soldiers he served with, until he earned their respect by single-handedly taking out a squadron of Nazi bombers. Johnny went on to serve with a four-man outfit that also included Captain William Storm, a former PT Boat commander with a wooden leg and an eye-patch; “Sarge” Clay, one of the oldest serving Marines; and “Gunner” Mackey, one of the youngest. They named themselves “The Losers” because each member had suffered the deaths of personnel under their command for which they felt responsible. The fifth, honorary member of the team was Gunner’s dog, Pooch.
Abilities/Resources: Johnny was a remarkable pilot and skilled armed and unarmed combatant. He also had a recurring vision of cloud formations resembling a Navajo warrior on a horse (like the one his father saw at Johnny’s birth) that would spur him onward when the Losers’ outlook for success or survival looked bleakest.
Commentary: Of course, there are no greater enemies of justice in comics or anywhere else than Nazis, and Johnny Cloud distinguished himself as a comic book war hero by remaining a constant thorn in the side of the Axis Powers, like many real life Native Americans who served during World War II. These included the Navajo code talkers, who sent strategic messages translated into their native tongue that stymied Japanese attempts to decipher them.

Genre: Superhero
Tribe: Cheyenne
First appearance: Daredevil #9, December 1999
Creator: David Mack (writer) and Joe Quesada (artist)
Alter ego: Maya Lopez
Origin: Maya Lopez was raised by New York City crime lord Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin, after Fisk killed Maya’s father, a Cheyenne gangster. Because she was deaf, Maya was first thought to be mentally handicapped, but her superhuman abilities soon revealed her to be a prodigy in music, and many other fields. As an adult, she was told by the Kingpin that his arch nemesis Daredevil had killed Maya’s biological father.  Initially using her abilities to try and kill Daredevil, she soon falls in love with the hero’s alter ego, Matt Murdock, and learns that it was the Kingpin who was responsible for her father’s death. After taking revenge against Kingpin, she begins using her abilities to protect the innocent from others like him.
Abilities/Resources: Echo can duplicate any physical action that she sees, ranging from musical performance and ballet to martial arts and weapon use. Echo is able to mimic the fighting styles of others much stronger than herself. Because of her superhuman powers, she is an Olympic-level athlete and a highly talented pianist, music composer, artist, ballet dancer, boxer, martial artist, and markswoman. Echo typically uses a pair of nunchakus and a standard katana blade. She has also used pistols and other weaponry in the past. Because she is deaf, her reliance on visual cues renders her vulnerable in the dark. Since she reads lips, she has difficulty communicating with people who are wearing masks or are not in direct visual contact.
Commentary: A fairly straightforward superhero character whose primary focus is conventional street crime, I wanted to include Echo on this list as a member of the minority female superhero community and because, being deaf, she is one of very few superhero comic book characters with a physical disability. And unlike her former lover Daredevil, whose blindness is offset by superhuman senses that essentially render sight unnecessary, despite her other extraordinary abilities, she faces the same challenges from her inability to hear that any real person would. Her character is also unique because it’s the only one on this list whose identity as a Native American is not directly related to her powers or costumed persona.

Genre: Crime
Tribe: Oglala Lakota
First appearance: Scalped #2, April 2007
Creator: Jason Aaron (writer) and R.M. Guéra (artist)
Origin: Tribal police officer Franklin Falls Down, of the Prairie Rose Reservation in South Dakota, is assigned to investigate the murder of Gina Bad Horse, a former Native American rights activist who had been involved in the ambush and murder of two FBI agents who entered the reservation one night in 1975. Franklin’s wife, Sherry, was killed in a car accident by Parker Louvin, a notorious alcoholic on the rez.
Abilities/Resources: Franklin is the only honest cop on the Prairie Rose Reservation, which is under the control of corrupt tribal leader, Chief Lincoln Red Crow. Franklin’s deputy is Army veteran Dashiell Bad Horse, son of murdered Gina, who is actually an undercover FBI agent assigned to infiltrate Red Crow’s criminal organization.
Commentary: The plot of this ongoing series from Vertigo Comics is partially based on events that took place on the Pine Ridge, South Dakota, Indian reservation in the 1970s, most notably a 1975 gunfight between American Indian Movement activists and FBI agents that resulted in the deaths of one Indian and two agents and the imprisonment of AIM activist Leonard Peltier (after whom the Scalped character Lawrence Belcourt is modeled).

Genre: Superhero
Tribe: Hopi/Pueblo
First appearance: Peace Party #1, 1999
Creator: Robert Schmidt (writer/artist)
Alter egos: Billy Honanie and Drew Quyatt
Origin: Cousins Billy Honanie and Drew Quyatt had taken different paths in life. Billy became a lawyer, working in the big city, while Drew remained on the Hopi/Pueblo reservation where they grew up, working as an artist. Driving back to the reservation after spending an evening together, their car crashed, and the cousins found themselves in a mysterious void, where they were confronted by a mystical being who granted them superpowers and charged them to work to defend the world.
Abilities/Resources: Billy can now control the heavenly rains, Drew the beasts of the earth, becoming Rain Falling and Snake Standing respectively. Now the two unwitting heroes face a variety of problems, from prejudice and pollution to supervillains and the supernatural.
Commentary: Creator Robert Schmidt was only able to release two issues of Peace Party through his Blue Corn Comics before an economic slump in the comic book industry forced him to cease publication. Since then, he has used the Blue Corn Comics Web site to build fan and financial support for a proposed Peace Party trade paperback, and to serve as a forum for discussions about Native American rights and the portrayal of indigenous peoples in comics and other popular culture mediums.

Red Wolf and LoboRED WOLF
Genre: Western
Tribe: Cheyenne
First appearance: Marvel Spotlight #1, November 1971
Creator: Gardner Fox (writer) and Syd Shores (artist)
Alter ego: Johnny Wakely
Origin: After his tribe was slaughtered by U.S. soldiers when he was a child, the Cheyenne boy was saved and adopted by Martin and Emma Wakely. Raised as Johnny Wakely, he was taught to farm, read, and to fire a gun, eventually becoming skilled in the ways of both whites and Indians. Eventually, Johnny’s parents are slain by a renegade party of Indians. Having lost both sets of parents to racial violence, Johnny decides to promote peace between Indians and whites in order to stop the bloodshed. While serving as a scout for the Army, Johnny was shot by some Comanches and fell off of a cliff. He awoke uninjured in the tomb of his ancestor, the first Red Wolf. It was then that the god Owayodata appeared before him and instructed him to go forth and fulfill his destiny as a force for peace on the Great Plains.
Abilities/Resources: Red Wolf was an outstanding horseman and scout and was an expert with various throwing weapons. He was a skilled fighter with much experience in armed and unarmed combat. He was skilled in the use of his coup stick, bow and arrows and a tomahawk. He initially avoided using the tomahawk’s cutting edge on opponents. He was also assisted in combat by his faithful wolf ally, Lobo.
Commentary: Red Wolf is an interesting Western character in that his goal was to bring peace between Indians and whites, leading him into conflict with members of both his biological and adoptive races. However, Red Wolf eventually came to the conclusion that white men would not be satisfied until all Indians were exterminated, and from that point on he only fought on the side of Native Americans against their white enemies. The exception is an adventure set in 1885, as told in the three-issue Marvel Comics miniseries Blaze of Glory, published in 2000, when Red Wolf temporarily joins forces with a group of white Western heroes to protect the mostly African American town of Wonderment, Montana from the sadistic Nightriders.

Genre: Science Fiction
Tribe: Apache
First appearance: Scout #1, September 1985
Creator: Timothy Truman (writer/artist)
Alter ego: Emanuel Santana (war shaman)
Origin: At the close of the twentieth century, the United States is shut off from most of the world, the once-great nation’s allies having bled her dry of resources and turned their backs. Now a third-world country—where ration cards are doled out, and poisoned farmlands produce toxic food—only the few rich fare sumptuously, while the majority starve and waste away. In the Arizona mountains, Apache ex-Army Ranger Emmanuel Santana is contacted by a spirit guide called the “Gahn.” The Gahn explains to Santana that he has been chosen to rid the world of the Four Monsters of Apache legend, who are living disguised as humans with powerful political influence. Santana sets out across the bleak American landscape to fulfill his quest by carrying out a one man war against the corrupt and failing U.S. government.
Abilities/Resources: Scout’s Army Ranger training makes him a skilled survivalist, tracker, and unarmed combatant. He is proficient with most conventional military firearms and explosives, as well as traditional Apache weapons such as the knife and bow and arrow. Scout is also well-versed in traditional Apache folklore and customs and is the only person who can see the Four Monsters in their true form.
Commentary: Timothy Truman‘s Scout, is a wonderfully plotted, scripted, and illustrated series that had a huge impact on the independent comics market when it was originally published in the 1980s, and is a cult classic today. I love its dystopian vision of the (then) future, its Native American mysticism (especially, the Gahn, who usually took the form of a wisecracking chipmunk), and its complex portrayal of the title character who, after reluctantly dealing with the Four Monsters, grows into his new role as a hero for the oppressed and disenfranchised (tragically, I lost all but the first issue of this series—which I have signed by Truman—when my basement flooded last year). Fortunately, the first 15 issues (out of 24) are available in two remastered, recolored trade paperbacks. The first series was followed by the 16-issue Scout: War Shaman, which follows an older, wiser Scout, ten years later as he treks across America with his two young sons in tow. Native American readers and educators have applauded Scout for its respectful, but non-patronizing portrayal of Southwestern Indian culture and beliefs.

Genre: Superhero
Tribe: Inuit
First appearance: Uncanny X-Men #120, April 1979
Creator: Chris Claremont (writer) and John Byrne (artist)
Alter ego: Narya/Anne McKenzie-Thompson
Origin: In ancient times, the Inuit Gods of the North battled the mystical Great Beasts for the fate of the world. Ultimately both parties were exiled from Earth, and as such the Gods sought to create an agent to prevent the Beasts’ return. To that end, Nelvanna, goddess of the Northern Lights, mated with a human. With the midwifery assistance of Sarcee mystic Michael Twoyoungmen, Nelvanna gave birth to a daughter, Narya. Michael bound the infant to the lands of Canada, allowing her to assume human form; however, she would weaken if she left Canada’s borders. Michael raised the rapidly maturing Narya as his own daughter, and both were soon recruited into the Canadian super team Alpha Flight as Shaman and Snowbird. Narya was given the human cover identity of Royal Canadian Mounted Police Records Officer Anne McKenzie. Working for the RCMP she met, fell in love with and eventually married fellow officer Doug Thompson. Snowbird and her teammates protected Earth from the Great Beasts and other threats.
Abilities/Resources: Snowbird can mystically assume the form of a female human being, as well as that of any animal native to northern Canada, gaining each animal’s special abilities. If she holds an animal shape for too long, her personality may become animalistic. Snowbird also has mystical senses that allow her to detect magical energies, sense the presence of great mystical evil, and achieve limited visions of the past. Furthermore, Snowbird possesses superhuman strength and is capable of flight. Snowbird transformingCommentary: Snowbird is a rare example of a native hero based on Inuit culture, although, as far as I can determine, Nelvanna is not actually part of the pantheon of Inuit goddesses (but she was a short-lived 1940s comic book superhero). I’ve always been a fan of this character and her ability to assume the forms and abilities of animals.

Genre: Superhero
Tribe: Sioux
First appearance: Shaman’s Tears #1, May 1993
Creator: Mike Grell (writer/artist)
Alter ego: Joshua Brand
Origin: Joshua, the son of a half-Sioux father and an Irish mother, returns as an adult to the reservation he ran away from as a child. There he is chosen by the Great Spirit, Wakan Tanka, to serve as a protector of his people and the planet.
Abilities/Resources: Stalking Wolf shares a mystic connection to the natural world that gives him the powers of all animals (strength, keen senses, stamina, agility, flight, etc.) and the ability to control the elements (in one instance, he summoned a flash flood to wash away his enemies).
Commentary: Mike Grell was one of my favorite comic book creators of the 80s and 90s and I was very excited about the release of Shaman’s Tears, which unfortunately only lasted about a dozen issues. One appeal of the series was its focus on environmental and animal issues and the ethics of tampering with nature. The chief adversary of Stalking Wolf was a corporation creating augmented human soldiers by splicing their genes with those of other animal species.

Genre: Superhero
Tribe: Sarcee
First appearance: Alpha Flight #19, February 1985
Creator: John Byrne (writer/artist)
Alter ego: Elizabeth Twoyoungmen
Origin: Elizabeth was born in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, the daughter of Michael Twoyoungman of the Canadian superhero team Alpha Flight (see Snowbird entry above). She became estranged from her father at the age of four after her mother died from illness. Michael, a physician, had promised to save her and his failure led Elizabeth to be bitter and resentful toward him. As a college archeology student, Elizabeth was excavating the site of the original Fort Calgary when she discovered a skull. When she touched it an apparition appeared that only she could see. Frightened, she sought out her father, whom she recognized as the superhero Shaman despite a spell he had cast to prevent this. Together they investigated the skull, determining that it was the source of ancient anger or ancient evil. Soon afterward, Shaman and Elizabeth were attacked by Ranaq the Devourer, one of the Great Beasts of the North. Under Ranaq’s barrage, Elizabeth found herself growing stronger until she was able instinctively to turn the force of Ranaq’s attack back against it. Shaman launched an attack on Ranaq as well and together they defeated the beast. Shortly thereafter, Elizabeth reached into Shaman’s mystical medicine pouch at his bidding and withdrew the Coronet of Enchantment. Placing it on her brow, she was transformed into Talisman, with the power to manipulate vast magical energies and command the spirits of nature to do her will. Talisman joined with Alpha Flight, only to be horrified to later learn that she was unable to remove the Coronet without enduring unbearable, agonizing pain.
Abilities/Resources: Much of Talisman’s powers stem from the ancient Coronet of Enchantment, which she wears on her forehead (although even without the Coronet, she has shown to possess the ability to absorb and redirect magical energy used against her). Talisman possesses vast supernatural powers, primary among them being the ability to command the Spirits of the Land. This makes her literally part of the Spirit World itself. Her other abilities include astral projection, exorcism, matter manipulation, the ability to see prophetic visions, telepathy, teleportation over vast distances, animating the dead, generating wind blasts and lightning, summoning air spirits, calling forth spirit animals, creating magical shields of light, and generating blasts of magical energy.
Commentary: Like Snowbird, Talisman is a rare example of a Native American superhero character from the northern most part of North America.

Genre: History
Tribe: Shawnee
Born: March 1768
Died: October 5, 1813
Biography: Tecumseh was the leader of a large tribal confederacy that opposed the United States during Tecumseh’s War and the War of 1812. He grew up in the Ohio country during the American Revolutionary War and the Northwest Indian War, where he was constantly exposed to warfare.His brother Tenskwatawa (see below) was a religious leader who advocated a return to the ancestral lifestyle of the tribes. A large following and a confederacy grew around his prophetic teachings. The Native American independence movement led to strife with settlers on the frontier. The confederacy eventually moved farther into the northwest and settled Prophetstown, Indiana, in 1808. Tecumseh confronted Indiana Governor William Henry Harrison to demand that land purchase treaties be rescinded. Tecumseh traveled to the southern United States in an attempt to unite Native American tribes in a confederacy throughout the North American continent. Before he left, he warned his brother against fighting the Americans. His brother ignored him. While Tecumseh was traveling, Tenskwatawa was defeated in the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe. During the War of 1812, Tecumseh’s confederacy allied with the British in Canada and helped in the capture of Fort Detroit. The Americans, led by Harrison, launched a counter assault and invaded Canada. They killed Tecumseh in the Battle of the Thames, in which they were also victorious over the British. Tecumseh has subsequently become a legendary folk hero. He is remembered by many Canadians for his defense of the country.
Commentary: The life of Tecumseh was depicted in two graphic biographies by Scout creator Timothy Truman. The first was the 1990 Wilderness: Bloody Ground, the second book in Truman’s two-volume black and white biography of 18th century frontier guide Simon Girty (which includes the page pictured above). The second was the 1992 full color Tecumseh!, based on a play by historical novelist Allan W. Eckert.

Genre: Fantasy
Tribe: Shawnee
First appearance: Red Prophet, 1988
Creator: Orson Scott Card
Alter Ego: Lolla-Wossiky
Origin: Lolla-Wossiky, troubled, one-eyed, Indian drunk, leaves General William Henry Harrison’s fort and heads north in order to find his “dream beast,” the spirit that can save him from the pain of his memories. On his journey, he meets young Alvin Miller and assists the boy in making an ethical decision that will shape his life forever. In appreciation, Alvin heals Lolla-Wossiky’s painful memories, allowing him to give up alcohol and become in touch with the land once again. Lolla-Wossiky grows into “the Prophet” although he prefers to be known as Tenskwa-Tawa. He preaches both pacifism and separatism, believing that “Reds” should live west of the Mississippi and “Whites” should live east of it. After Harrison and a band of white settlers massacre some of Tenskwa-Tawa’s followers, the Prophet curses the white men and creates a mystic barrier along the Mississippi River that prevents European settlers from travelling any further west across North America.
Abilities/Resources: Like all Indians, Tenskwa-Tawa can hear the beautiful green music of the Land. By the sound of that green music, an Indian can run all day and all night without catching his breath and live in harmony with the earth and all its beings. Tenskwa-Tawa also possesses extremely heightend empathy (as a boy, he used to cry each winter as he sensed the dying off of the bees). His remarkable connection to the Land grants him prophetic visions and the ability to move unhindered through the natural world (for example, he can walk on water).
Commentary: This fictionalized version of the Shawnee prophet first appeared in the second book of Orson Scott Card’s fantasy series, The Tales of Alvin Maker. The series is set in a pioneer America where folk magic works, resulting in an alternative history to our own. In this world, hex signs are powerful, good and evil presences roam the land, and many people have special talents, or “knacks”—uncanny abilities to do such things as start fires, find water or sense life. In 2006-07, Marvel Comics adapted  Red Prophet as a 12-issue comic book series written by Card and Roland Bernard Brown and drawn by Renato Arlem and John Rhett Thomas. The series has since been collected in two trade paperback editions (the image above is taken from the cover of volume 2).

Genre: Superhero
Tribe: Oglala Lakota
First appearance: Unpublished (see Commentary below)
Creator: Richard De Angelis
Alter egos: Mary Wakinyan/Rachel Tatankawin (college student/forest ranger)
Origin: Born on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Mary Wakinyan and her brother John were raised in the traditional ways by their grandfather, until they were sent away to a U.S. government Indian school. Once home again, Mary enrolled in college while John became depressed with life on the reservation and joined the Army. Troubled by the war and the disintegration of her family, Mary embarked on a vision quest, and after three days alone in the Black Hills without food or sleep, she received a vision of Ptesan-Wi (White Buffalo Calf Woman). Holding the wotai (sacred stone) given to her by this spirit and speaking the words “Awanyanka Ina Maka” (“Protect Mother Earth”), she becomes Totem Woman, the chosen champion of Wakan Tanka (the Great Mystery). Fighting mostly in the Pacific Theater during WWII, Totem Women argued against the U.S. military’s confiscation of reservation lands for sites such as the Badlands Bombing Range. Working today as forest ranger Rachel Tatankawin, as Totem Woman, she often uses her gifts in the service of groups like AIM and Earth First!
Abilities/Resources: Although Totem Woman always possesses superhuman strength, endurance, and resistance to harm in this form, as long as she is in contact with the ground, her physical power is virtually limitless, she stands over seven feet tall, and no force can move her against her will. She can also communicate with animals, mimic their senses or mode of travel, and summon the Master or Mistress of each species. Her arrows unleash the powers of earth, air, water, and fire, and the smoke from her chanunpa (sacred pipe) causes anyone who breathes it to speak the truth.
Commentary: Totem Woman is a character I created for a proposed graphic novel titled The Good War.  She is a member of the Spirits of ’76, a World War II era team of seven super women that the rest of the public believes were just characters in old comic books and movie serials (In the story, Wonder Woman co-creator Harry G. Peter drew Totem Woman in comic books and Loretta Young played her in movie serials and USO shows). In fact, the War Department had kept their real existence secret for reasons of “national security” (mostly fear that the Spirits’ exploits would deflate the morale of male soldiers and foster feelings of independence in female civilians). The Spirits’ aided the Allied war effort as part of their mission to preserve FDR’s Four Freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, freedom from fear. The Nazi’s eventually found a way to immobilize the Spirits, whose bodies remained frozen in time for 70 years. When the Spirits reenter military service, the War On Terror brings back memories of objectionable U.S. policies during WWII.

Posted in Character lists, Events, Fiction, History, Non Fiction, Superheroes, War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Dereliction of duty

Wars are ugly, and so is the way our government often treats the men and women it sends to fight them. On this Veteran’s Day I’d like to share some examples of the history of veterans affairs as it has been covered in several comic books over the years.

Call to arms
Of course, before someone can become a veteran, they have to join the military. Getting recruits has never been much of a problem for the government, which offers a number of enticements to young men and women considering the armed forces as a career option (and when all else fails, the draft provides the ultimate motivation for enlistment). But recruiters can be like used car sellers, often promising a much sweeter deal than often turns out to be the case. As a warning to buyers to beware, doctor of sociology Joel Andreas created a comic book users manual in 1991 to help educate potential consumers, and the taxpaying public, about the true cost of war.

Addicted to War: Why the U.S. Can’t Kick Militarism has been updated twice since it’s original 1991 publication to include information on the 9/11 attacks and the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. More than 200,000 copies have been sold in English and it has been used as a history textbook in hundreds of high schools and colleges (it’s one of very few comic books to contain footnotes). The illustrated exposé combines simple black and white drawings and archival photographs to demonstrate the high price everyone pays for militarism, including those in the military. This starts at the recruiting process, during which prospective enlistees are often promised advanced training and education during their tour of duty that never materializes.

Addicted to War 1

Panels from Addicted to War. Copyright Joel Andreas.

Another reason many people are attracted to the military is the lack of good paying and secure jobs elsewhere (certainly a problem now). Addicted to War points out the disparity economic hardship causes in the makeup of the military and its casualty figures.

Addicted to War 2

Panel from Addicted to War. Copyright Joel Andreas.

But during times of war, promised financial and educational advancement is not always enough to ensure sufficient troop levels. That’s when presidents and members of Congress appeal to patriotism and the American people’s sense of justice or desire for security to convince them of the need to risk their sons’ and daughters’ lives in armed conflicts overseas. But politicians have a long history of holding back vital information when making the case for war.


 Real War Stories 1

Page from the story, "War is a Racket," in Real War Stories #2. Words by Smedley Butler, art by Wayne Van Sant. Copyright Eclipse Enterprises. Click on image to read.

Real War Stories was a two-issue comic book anthology published by Eclipse Comics from 1987 to 1991 and edited by Joyce Brabner (wife of the late American Splendor creator, Harvey Pekar). The second issue features a graphic adaptation of the words of Major General Smedley Butler, one of the most decorated Marines in U.S. history. Butler served from 1898 to 1931, during which he participated in military actions around the world. By the end of his career he had received 16 medals, five of which were for heroism. He is one of 19 people to twice receive the Medal of Honor. The effect of all the combat he witnessed, and participated in, was to turn Butler into a pacifist. His 1935 book, War is a Racket, revealed that the real reason American troops were deployed to places including Honduras (1903), Nicaragua (1909-12), Mexico (1914), the Dominican Republic (1916) and China (1927) was to expand the markets and secure the profits of American businesses. Butler also appears in Addicted to War, and both comics include his lament for those deceived by their government about the reasons they were sent into combat.

Our boys were sent off to die with beautiful ideals painted in front of them. No one told them that dollars and cents were the real reason they were marching off to kill and die.

Real War Stories 2

Panel from "Tapestries," published in Real War Stories #2. Copyright Eclipse Enterprises.

It’s often a specific act of aggression against the U.S.  by a foreign power that’s given as the justification for war. When one doesn’t exist, the government sometimes makes one up. The Spanish-America War was instigated largely over the 1898 explosion and loss of the USS Maine in Havana harbor, even though the cause has never been determined (most scholars agree it was unlikely the work of Spain). Similarly, President Johnson sent U.S. troops into Vietnam based in part on two alleged August 1964 naval skirmishes with North Vietnamese forces in the Gulf of Tonkin. It is now known that the first skirmish was instigated by the U.S. Navy and the second one never occurred at all.  These and other secrets about the cause and escalation of the Vietnam War were revealed to the American people in 1971 when high level civilian military analyst Daniel Ellsberg released classified government documents, known as the Pentagon Papers, to the public. Vietnam veteran W.D. Ehrhart shares the betrayal he felt upon learning about this deception, through writer Alan Moore and artists Stan Woch and John Totleben, in the story “Tapestries,” published in Real War Stories #1.

The false information about Saddam Hussein’s stockpiled weapons of mass destruction and implied connection with 9/11 given by our government to justify our war in Iraq continued this tradition of deceiving the public, as well as Congress.

Unfit to serve
Of course, not everyone has always been equally welcome in the military. African-Americans served in segregated regiments until 1951, and were often subject to unfair treatment by their superiors. Real War Stories #2 contains a history of racial discrimination in the military, written by Joyce Brabner and illustrated by Dennis Francis,  that focuses on an explosion at California’s Port Chicago during World War II. Munitions detonated while being loaded onto a cargo vessel, killing 320 sailors and civilians and injuring 390 others. Of the naval casualties, 202 were African-American (particularly hazardous jobs were often given to black sailors). When African-American survivors of the explosion were ordered to resume loading the munitions under the same hazardous conditions, more than 200 refused, and 50 of them were brought up on charges.

Real War Stories 5

Panels from "The Home Treatment," Real War Stories #2. Copyright Eclipse Enterprises.

Women have also been historically treated as second class citizens in the military, facing sexual discrimination, harassment and assault, often with little or no action being taken against the perpetrators. A story in Real War Stories #1, “False Note,” written by Joyce Brabner and illustrated by Rebecca Huntington, relates one woman’s experiences with sexism in the U.S. Army.

Real War Stories 6

Panels from "False Note," Real War Stories #1. Copyright Eclipse Enterprises.

Today, of course, the personas non grata in the military are gays and lesbians who continue to be denied the right to serve their country openly because of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, despite recent efforts of the courts to overturn this discriminatory and unconstitutional policy.

Friendly fire
Welcome or not, once in the military, men and women in the service should be able to trust their government to provide them with the equipment they need to protect themselves on the battlefield. Once again, this is often not the case. In Real War Stories #2, writer Jim Naureckas and artist Bill Sienkiewicz provide a long list of faulty vehicles and equipment kept in military service for years, despite causing hundreds of deaths among U.S. troops, before corrective action was taken.

Real War Stories 3

Panels from "Bodywashing," in Real War Stories #2. Copyright Eclipse Enterprises. Click on image to enlarge.

This pattern was repeated during the early years of the Iraq War, when troops were forced to travel in unarmored personnel carriers, called Humvees. At least 275 troops were killed in Humvees from 2003 to 2004, often by improvised explosive devices triggered by their vehicles. But enlisted men and women are not always exposed to dangerous equipment through Defense Department negligence. Sometimes the exposure is deliberate.

An estimated 220,000 U.S. soldiers were allegedly exposed to radiation in the 1940s and 1950s either at Hiroshima and Nagasaki or during atomic bomb tests, as shown in “Pool of Tears,” by writer Greg Baisden and artist Stephen DeStefano, also from Real War Stories #2. Many of these “atomic veterans” are still suffering from radiation induced illnesses, with no relief from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Real War Stories 4

Panels from "Pool of Tears," in Real War Stories # 2. Copyright Eclipse Enterprises. Click on image to enlarge.

Today, veterans exposed to depleted uranium shells in Iraq are also suffering symptoms of radiation poisoning, as are many Iraqis still being exposed to shells left behind on former battlefields.

Conduct unbecoming
In addition to denying veterans medical assistance for injuries and illnesses inflicted by their own military, the government has a history of denying them financial support. In fact, it’s a history that goes all the way back to our nation’s very first veterans.

Uncle Sam

Page from Uncle Sam. Copyright DC Comics. Click on image to read.

Uncle Sam, by writer Steve Darnall and artist Alex Ross,  was originally published as a two-issue miniseries in 1998 by DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint. In it, a homeless man dressed as the title character stumbles through an unnamed American city struggling to remember who he is, while experiencing vivid flashbacks of being present at various moments throughout our nation’s past. One of these moments is the 1786-87 Shays’ Rebellion, named after Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shays, who led a thousand-man uprising to forcibly close Massachusetts courts that were seizing property from indebted farmers—many of whom were fellow veterans. The militia was eventually called in to stop Shays’ army, resulting in four rebels being killed and 20 wounded. Several rebels were arrested and convicted of treason, although most, including Shays, were pardoned. Two of those convicted, John Bly and Charles Rose, were hanged on December 6, 1787.

Slow Death

Panels from "Bonus Army," Slow Death #7. Copyright William Wray and Ben DeCaprio. Click on image to read.

A 1975 issue of the underground political comic book anthology Slow Death, published by Last Gasp Books, told the remarkable story of another instance when U.S. troops were sent up against impoverished former soldiers. In 1924, World War I veterans were promised bonus payments for their service, but Congress delayed distributing them. During the Depression, encouraged by none other than Smedley Butler, veterans demanded the immediate disbursement of these funds. Approximately 43,000 people—17,000 WWI veterans and their families—marched on Washington, D.C., in June 1932 and set up camp along the Anacostia River. In July, after two veterans were shot and killed by D.C. police, President Hoover ordered U.S. troops to forcibly evict the “Bonus Army.” Under the command of Douglas MacArthur, with a fleet of six tanks commanded by George S. Patton, cavalry and infantry drove the veterans and their families out of the nation’s capital at bayonet point and through clouds of gas. In the end, the camp was burned to the ground, 55 veterans were injured and 135 arrested.

Today, there are more than 100,000 homeless veterans in the United States. Homeless veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are increasingly women, many of them single parents. And veterans who are wounded during their service, whether by the enemy or our own military, may find themselves in for even greater hardships when they return home.

Walking wounded
All Star Comics 27The Justice Society of America was the world’s first superhero team, making it’s debut on the cover of All Star Comics #3, published by DC Comics in the winter of 1940. While promoting the Allied effort during WWII as earnestly as any superheroes, the JSA also focused on war orphans and the starving masses of occupied Europe in stories that pointed out the cost of war on civilians. All Star Comics #27  (Winter 1945) contained the story “A Place in the World,” about  disabled veterans being accepted as equals when they return home from the war (it actually advocated on behalf of all people with disabilities). The cover shows a G.I. who lost an arm in combat being saluted by JSA members Dr. Mid-Nite (who can only see in darkness), Wildcat, Wonder Woman, Hawkman, Green Lantern, Johnny Thunder and the Flash.

Addicted to War 1

Panels from Addicted to War. Copyright Joel Andreas.

Addicted to War takes a dimmer view of society’s treatment of wounded veterans. A case in point concerns a condition known as Gulf War Syndrome suffered by approximately 200,000 veterans of the 1991 war in Iraq. Symptoms have included fatigue, loss of muscle control, headaches, dizziness and loss of balance, memory problems, muscle and joint pain, indigestion, skin problems, immune system problems, and birth defects. The exact cause is unknown, but scientists consider the most likely culprits to be pesticides and pills given to protect troops from nerve agents. For years, the Department of Veterans Affairs denied claims from soldiers with this condition, and it was only this past February that VA Secretary Eric Shinseki instructed that these cases be reopened.

But the VA continues to fail the increasing numbers of disabled veterans returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The scandalous conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and other VA hospitals reported in 2007 made international headlines and disgraced our nation. And specific conditions have continued to remain untreated at all. It was only in July that the government announced it would make it easier for veterans to received treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Real War Stories 7

Panel from "Bodywashing," Real War Stories #2. Copyright Eclipse Enterprises.

Unknown soldier
Even in death, fallen veterans are often let down by the military they gave their lives to serve. In Real War Stories #2, Jim Naureckas and Bill Sienkiewicz reveal the military practice of “bodywashing.” This is when military personnel are killed while conducting covert operations, and the circumstances, and possibly the location, of their deaths are falsified to conceal their activities.

In the Iraq War, deaths have been embellished, possibly to serve as propaganda garnering public support for the war effort. The most famous of these cases is that of former professional football player Pat Tillman, who gave up his lucrative career to join the military after 9/11, serving as a U.S. Army Ranger in Afghanistan. He was killed by friendly fire in April 2004, but the military reported that he had died heroically while engaging the enemy. Similarly, Iraq veteran Jessica Lynch, who had been captured by the Iraqis after a fire fight, testified before Congress that the Pentagon had erroneously portrayed her as a “Rambo from the hills of West Virginia,” when in fact, she never fired a shot after her truck was ambushed.

Sadly, it turns out the military can’t even be trusted with the remains of fallen military personnel. This year it was revealed that hundreds of graves at Arlington National Cemetery have been unmarked or mislabeled and at least four urns were unearthed and dumped in landfill piles.

Code of justice
All wars are inherently unjust because, in every case, they cause civilian casualties and massive destruction to civic infrastructure and the natural environment. But before any of these crimes occur, the first victims of war are always the enlisted men and women who volunteer, or are forced, to wage them.

They are misled by recruiters about the benefits of military service and lied to by politicians about the reasons they are sent into combat to risk their lives and take those of others. Some of those who serve must endure betrayal by both comrades-in-arms and commanding officers who consider them unfit for duty because of their race, gender, or sexual orientation. Once on the battlefield, the very government they have sworn to protect denies them the equipment they need to survive, deciding to sacrifice a few lives to save a few dollars. Many of those who do make it home alive, wounded and traumatized, are abandoned by the system that has promised to provide them with medical care and financial assistance in honor of their service. Adding insult to the final injury, those who don’t make it home alive may have their deaths used as propaganda tools and their bodies misplaced.

The world deserves a better alternative to solving conflicts than war, and veterans who serve honorably deserve more than just having a day named after them.

Major General Smedley Butler’s Marines are known for their motto Semper Fidelis, “Always Faithful,” which is displayed in part by their battlefield pledge to leave no comrade behind, living or dead.

It shouldn’t be too much to ask the U.S. government to show the men and women who fight its wars the same commitment.

Posted in History, Non Fiction, Superheroes, War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Voice of the people

In recognition of our latest exercise of the electoral process and this evening being Guy Fawkes Night in the U.K., I would like to examine both a graphic literary masterpiece that offers an alternative to our democratic system, and the failure of the movie based on this book to do the same.

V for VendettaV for Vendetta, masterfully written by comics genius Alan Moore and moodily illustrated by David Lloyd, was originally published as a ten part mini-series completed in 1990. Fortunately, most of Moore’s dire predictions about its now outdated setting of a 1998 post-Apocalyptic Britain under fascist rule have not come to pass (like the limited nuclear war that obliterated most of the other world powers). Still, this Orwellian vision of a xenophobic, homophobic and intolerantly “Christian” regime may seem frighteningly similar to the “ideal” America promoted by some of the candidates who were just campaigning for public office.

Thankfully, Alan Moore offers his readers a cure for the type of social disease spread by such divisive hatemongers.

Anarchy from the U.K.
It is the tale of the mysterious V, who haunts the pages of this book masquerading as Guy Fawkes, who was part of a thwarted 1605 plot to blow up Parliament. The anniversary of Fawkes’ failure has since then been commemorated with annual bonfires, fireworks and a poem recited by V at the beginning of the book:


V picks up where his predecessor left off, almost single-handedly bringing down the State using extraordinary physical and mental abilities gained through experiments performed on him while in a government concentration camp.

His mission is to replace fascism with anarchy—not in its commonly accepted meaning of “chaos,” but in the form of the political ideology also known as anarchism. This philosophy considers the State undesirable, unnecessary and harmful, and instead promotes a stateless society, seeking to diminish or even abolish all forms of coercive authority in the conduct of human relations. The idea was eloquently expressed by British native and American Founding Father Thomas Paine in his Revolution-inspiring Common Sense:

Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one: for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries BY A GOVERNMENT, which we might expect in a country WITHOUT GOVERNMENT, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver . . .

The State vs. V
V gives an equally eloquent defense of a stateless existence in an imaginary conversation he has on the roof of London’s Old Bailey, where he explains why he’s abandoned Justice for Anarchy. It is one of the greatest monologues in graphic literature (despite some of the misogynistic terminology V uses).

[You can read this entire scene here.]

To make the case for anarchy to the British people, V addresses the nation via the State’s own pirated airwaves, delivering a stinging indictment of political apathy and a rousing appeal for personal responsibility. While traditional superhero comic books teach lessons in learned helplessness in which humanity can only be saved through the divine intervention of super-powered beings, V places the blame for his country’s troubles on the voters who are so eager to put their lives in the hands of others.

[You can read this entire scene here.]

V acts as a Robin Hood for the new millennium, redistributing the only wealth of importance in the Information Age. Knowledge is not only power, it is freedom. As people become self-aware, they become self-reliant, and soon they become unwilling to prostrate themselves before the trappings of authority.

Unfortunately, the 2006 film based on the book ultimately dumbed down this message for a more mainstream audience.

Lost in translation
V for Vendetta dvdI should start by admitting outright that I did enjoy many parts of the V for Vendetta movie (primarily those that remained truest to the source material). I think it is probably the best film version of an Alan Moore work to date (the movie Watchmen was a more faithful adaptation, but I don’t think it worked as well). In fact, had I never heard of the book, I would have probably enjoyed the film much more than I did (and I did appreciate it much more when I watched it for the second time on DVD). I am always impressed when any mainstream, major Hollywood studio produces something that encourages audiences to question authority, however timidly.

But while I am willing to overlook some of the cinematic alterations made by the films producers, the Wachowski brothers, as fairly harmless and perhaps even justifiable, the movie completely fails to accurately convey the political ideology of its title character.

I was horrified when the Old Bailey was blown up in the first 10 minutes of the film. This wasn’t just because V, played by Hugo Weaving, had inexplicably forgotten—despite his urging for us all to remember—that the target of the Gunpowder Plot had been Parliament. Even worse, I realized in that terrible moment that one of my two favorite scenes in the book had just been mercilessly obliterated. Without it, the audience is left only with V’s televised address to the nation to understand the rationale behind his actions.

Regrettably, that scene is a pale imitation of the one in the book. The choice V offers to the British citizens in the film, and the audience watching it, seems to be one between democracy and totalitarianism, which for most moviegoers means nothing more than preserving the status quo.  I can’t help but note that in the case of our nation’s much praised two-party system, that’s a government that essentially offers its citizens one more political option than a dictatorship.

In the graphic novel, V presents readers with “another way” that offers “new life [and] hope reinstated.” Through anarchism , V is promising society a complete paradigm shift. (Granted, he contradictingly tries to fulfill this promise, in the book and movie, by the very anti-anarchist method of violently forcing his point of view on both the government and the people.)

This shows that it’s not only the message of the book, but also its messengers, who are changed for the worse in this movie adaptation.

Character assassination
In the book, Britain is under the rule of Norsefire party leader Adam Susan, who Moore shows to be motivated by an absolute devotion to his country, and an unfaltering conviction that fascism is the only way to save it from destruction. Susan sacrifices his own freedoms to serve his people (at least the white, straight, Christians among them) and is willing to tolerate dissenters within the government as long as they continue to serve the needs of the State.

[This is from the same section of the book as V’s Old Bailey soliloquy.]

In the movie, High Chancellor Adam Sutler, played by John Hurt, comes across as an almost laughable caricature of a raving, frothing-at-the-mouth tyrant. This demonizing of the character completely robs him of the psychological complexity found in the book. Sutler and his fascist henchmen are further vilified by the insertion of a cumbersome and confusing conspiracy plot.


It is eventually revealed that the ruling party orchestrated the nationwide plague that precipitated its rise to power years earlier (this event replaced the limited nuclear war of the book). It was as if the Wachowskis were afraid their fascist state wouldn’t be frightening enough to audiences if it was only responsible for killing civil liberties, so they had to pin the mass murder of 100,000 people on it as well. This changes the party leader from someone—right wing nut job though he may be—who heeds the call of his country in its time of need to pull it from the brink of the abyss, into someone who is motivated solely by the desire for power and a narcissistic need to have the world shaped in his image. In other words, it casts Sutler as the most clichéd type of “comic book” supervillain. (It also affirms the real-life paranoia and polarization that played such an important part in Tuesday’s election results).*

And while the Wachowskis chose to demonize their movie’s version of Adam Susan, they also decided to subtly humanize V.  It’s as though they were trying to make his character seem more heroic to audiences through such changes from the book as narrowing the focus of his vendetta to the party elite and those who personally wronged him, instilling him with a reluctance to killing their cronies (except when necessary) and introducing a love interest (who thankfully remained out of his reach). Although less offensive to my intelligence than the over the top evil of Adam Sutler, this softening of V’s much more cold and Machiavellian  character nonetheless detracts from the brilliance and uniqueness of Moore’s story. The struggle between an all too human villain and a monstrous hero is much more thought-provoking than the black and white morality presented by the movie. Such moral righteousness and certitude alleviate the audience from any need to question V’s tactics or feel pity for any of his victims.  (A bad habit shared by far too many real-life shapers of public opinion and policy.)

Power to the people
In our democratic republic we enjoy more freedoms than the citizens of most other countries. But not all of them. The U.S. ranks below multi-party parliamentary democracies Norway, Australia and New Zealand in the United Nations’ 2010 Human Development Report that measures factors including inequality and security. And for all the benefits they bestow to so many of their people, by design democracies subject their minority members to the tyranny of the majority. Under a democratic system of government, the rights of millions can be stripped away by consent of just 51 percent of their fellow citizens. It took our democracy nearly a century to abolish slavery and nearly 150 years to grant women suffrage. And today, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people continue to be legally denied fundamental human rights.

For a government to sustain a truly free society, and not just the freest one available, it must protect the rights of every individual. And neither democracy nor anarchism can achieve this goal without a citizenry that is well-informed, engaged and committed to the ideal of liberty and justice for all.

The final scene of the V for Vendetta movie was a typical Hollywood feel good moment that fell short of its assumed intention to raise cheers from the audience. It reminded my wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley‘s “The Masque Of Anarchy,” except without the sense of exhilaration. It’s a shame the movie, unlike the book on which it was based, ultimately failed to evoke the same spirit as this poem’s closing lines :

And these words shall then become
Like Oppression’s thundered doom
Ringing through each heart and brain,
Heard again – again – again –

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number –
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few.

*The movie’s conspiracy plot also further distances the story from reality and the kind of actual evil usually encountered in the world. Hitler didn’t orchestrate the economic collapse of pre-WWII Germany; he just exploited it.

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Behind the mask

Last night, like most Halloweens, superhero costumes were a popular choice for many Trick-or-Treaters (we had two Iron Men and a Spider-Man come to our door).

This is a departure from the original concept behind Halloween costumes, which was to disguise as one of the ghouls, goblins, ghosts or other malevolent supernatural beings thought to roam the mortal world this night, so as to escape their notice. Eventually, the holiday became an occasion for general dress-up, with many Halloween celebrants choosing to masquerade as characters from the fantasy lives they imagined for themselves. Rather than sneaking past evil spirits, the appeal of adopted personas  like pirates, gunslingers, and ninjas might be that they can face these creatures head on, and vanquish them. And no characters would be better equipped for such a challenge than superheroes.

Superheroes offer children (and adults) the dream of unlimited power to overcome any threat or obstacle. But by itself, possessing amazing abilities only emphasizes the “super” part of these characters. What makes them truly worthy of admiration is the “hero” part of their description. And that comes entirely from the people they are underneath their costumes.

Secret origins
After gaining the proportionate strength, speed and agility of a spider from the bite of a radioactive arachnid, teenager Peter Parker initially uses these abilities for personal gain. Then one fateful day, he lets a robber run past him and make good his escape because he can’t be bothered to stop him. Hours later, that same robber murders Peter’s beloved Uncle Ben, teaching Peter the painful lesson that “with great power there must also come — great responsibility.”

As a young Clark Kent grew to adulthood, he gained nearly godlike abilities due to the reaction of his Kryptonian physiology to the rays of Earth’s yellow sun. But it was the values instilled in him by his adoptive human parents that have forever since guided him to use those super powers in service of “the oppressed” and “those in need.”
The most admirable and inspiring quality of Superman is not super strength, invulnerability, heat vision or flight. It is his ability to remain incorruptible in the face of his own absolute power.

Days after “normal” human child Bruce Wayne witnesses the murder of his parents, he makes a solemn vow to avenge their deaths, not by bringing their killer to justice, but by devoting his life to ensuring that no one else suffers the loss he has. He then sets out to make that promise a reality by embarking on a decades long path of relentless, grueling training to achieve the physical and mental perfection necessary to wage his lifelong war on crime. Despite the personal sacrifices and hardships he must endure, he remains committed to keeping his word, even though he’s the only living soul who knows he’s given it.

Desperate to do his part for his country during World War II but too frail for military service, Steve Rogers volunteers to be used as a human test subject for an experimental Super Soldier serum. The drug grants him the mind of a tractical genius and the body of an athelete in peak human condition. Equipped by the Army with a red, white and blue costume and indestructable shield, Steve is deployed against the Third Reich as Captain America.
Although he was created to be a living weapon and propaganda tool, Steve began to see himself as more than that. He saw Captain America not as an instrument of his government, but as a living symbol of the best ideals of the American dream. Twice, he gave up his costumed identity, once in the 1970s, when the crimes of his president shook Steve’s faith in the institutions he served, and once in the 1980s when the Pentagon demanded that he follow its orders rather than his own conscience. Throughout his career as Captain America, he has represented the power of the people to expand and defend freedom and justice for every citizen, no matter how many stand in the way of liberty.

Call to duty
The lesson these comic book characters have to offer us is that the key to being a hero lies in living your life with integrity.

Most of us will never make the kind of vow young Bruce Wayne did, but all of us make promises, and then have to decide how important it is for us to keep them. Whether it’s simply doing chores, taking care of family members, or doing a favor for a friend, people depend on us every day to be the type of person we present ourselves to be. And we make promises to ourselves as well, to be better, kinder, more compassionate, stronger, braver, and more just than we are now. And then we break those promises, sometimes when we encounter the slightest difficulty in keeping them, and usually much more quickly than we would ever think of breaking a promise we made to someone else. But when we fail to live up to our own expectations of ourselves, we can follow Peter Parker’s example by taking what lessons we can from the experience and moving forward with the determination to do better next time. We have to remember that saving ourselves is the first step in becoming a hero to others.

Of course, one solemn oath that many of us do make is our marriage vows, which call on us to be better people and require the highest degree of integrety to uphold. But the laws of our country still don’t recognize the right of every American to enter into such a commitment. And that’s where Steve Rogers’ idealism comes in.

As long as the American dream continues to be denied to some of this country’s citizens, each and every one of us has to pick whose side we’re on.  We don’t have to face Nazis on the battlefield, we just have to speak up against the Reich-like values of racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance and hate mongering that some among us are still trying to keep alive. Our nation’s experiment in democracy is far from being called a success, despite all the advances it has brought to so many people both in this country and around the world. And it never will be, unless we are all willing to do our part.

Most of us don’t believe we have the power of superheroes to change the world. But we do.

Virtually every great advance toward justice in the history of the human race has been conceived in the minds of one or more normal persons and carried out by larger groups of other normal people. Sojurner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Sanger, Martin Luther King, Jr., Daniel Ellsberg and César Chávez to name a few, were all just people who followed their convictions wherever they led, despite the personal sacrifices and risks, to save lives, free the oppressed and uplift the downtrodden.

Again, most of us don’t envision such grand accomplishments for our lives, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have decisions to make about how we exercise what power we do have. As Jon Stewart pointed out at Saturday’s Rally to Restore Sanity, every day our society carries on and achieves great accomplishments through a million acts of compromise and teamwork between people of different races, genders, religions, sexual orientations and political ideologies. I think we do this because, like alien immigrant Clark Kent, we recognize that underneath the “masks” we show to the world, or the ones others thrust on us, we are all basically the same and we are all in this together.

That’s why we mustn’t underestimate our ability as individuals to make a great impact on the world. The decisions we make about how to vote, what to buy, where to live, what to wear and what to eat can be matters of life or death for people, animals, and the planet. If you don’t believe that, or want some guidance on how to make those decisions, try visiting the websites of some of the organizations on my Justice Links page.

The power and the responsibility rests with us.

And the world can always use another hero.

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Coming out for justice

Yesterday was National Coming Out Day, an annual event when thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and allies hold workshops, speak-outs, rallies and other kinds of events all aimed at showing the public that LGBT people are everywhere. Each year on October 11, everyone is encouraged to come out as an active voice for LGBT equality that will result in real political and social change.

And as a recent string of tragic and increasingly horrific events has made disturbingly clear, our society desperately needs to change.

Raging bullies
In less than a month, five incidents of teen youth suicide have made national headlines. Billy Lucas, Tyler Clementi, Seth Walsh, Asher Brown and Raymond Chase all decided that killing themselves was a preferable alternative to enduring the bullying of classmates who find homosexuality a source of disgust, contempt, or amusement. Each of these victims was singled out because others disapproved of the most personal, intimate parts of their being. In other words, for things that were none of their tormentors’ business.

Models Inc #1

Models Inc #1. Cover art by Phil Jimenez. Copyright Marvel Comics.

In response to this epidemic of homophobic harassment and the needless deaths it’s causing, a number of celebrities have produced video messages of hope for the Trevor Project’s “It Gets Better” campaign. The Trevor Project is the leading  national organization focused on crisis and suicide prevention efforts  among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth. Among the “It Gets Better” contributors is Project Runway mentor and dapper gentleman Tim Gunn, who is not only a long-time comic book fan, but was once portrayed in a Marvel comic book where he got to don Iron Man’s cybernetic suit of armor. Proving himself a real-life hero, Gunn shares his personal story of teen despair to help convince LGBTQ youth that mustering the courage to reach out for help and overcome what now seem like hopeless situations will be rewarded by future lives of happiness, acceptance, and success.

Bullying is one of the basest forms of injustice. The belief that might makes right is one of the things modern civilization was created to challenge. The reason bullying has continued to thrive over millennia of human existence is because its perpetrators victimize the weakest members of society. Childhood bullies target peers who aren’t physically strong enough to defend themselves–any potential victim who presents even the possibility of a fair fight is ignored in favor of easier prey. But even more appealing to a bully on the prowl than a victim without physical strength is one who lacks political power, someone who has been disenfranchised from mainstream society. In fact, this emboldens bullies who see ample evidence from friends, family, teachers and the media that these outsiders are less worthy than others. From the evidence all around them, bullies have every reason to believe that not only will no one stand up to defend these outcasts, but that their abuse will actually be condoned–or even praised.

And the more support bullies feel from those around them, the more brutal they are likely to become.

The ugly face of intolerance
Yesterday was a day to celebrate LGBTQ members of society, but today is a much darker anniversary. October 12, 1998 was the day 21-year-old University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard finally succumbed to the fatal injuries inflicted on him six days earlier by two homophobes in a field near Ft. Laramie. The trial of Shepard’s murderers brought national and international attention to the issue of hate crime legislation at the state and federal levels. It also inspired Judd Winnick, a writer for DC Comics, to address the issue of gay bashing in Green Lantern.

Green Lantern #154

Green Lantern #154. Cover art by Jim Lee. Copyright DC Comics.

Winnick was the creator of the graphic novel, Pedro and Me, about his friendship with gay AIDS activist Pedro Zamora, who he met on MTV’s Real World in San Francisco. Pedro and Me won a Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation Media Award, among many other honors. Winnick was moved by the deaths of Matthew Shepard and Brandon Teena (portrayed by Hilary Swank in the film Boys Don’t Cry) to write the 2002 two-part story “Hate Crimes”, drawn by Dale Eaglesham, in issues #154-55 of Green Lantern. In the story, Terry Berg, Green Lantern’s friend and assistant (in the superhero’s day job as a commercial artist), is savagely beaten into a coma by two homophobic thugs after they see Terry kiss his boyfriend in public. When one of the attackers is arrested, Green Lantern visits him in jail and uses his considerable super powers to torture the location of Terry’s other assailant out of him. The Green Lantern story also won a GLAAD Media Award for shining a spotlight on the ugly reality of homophobia.

As much as public attitudes toward homosexuality have advanced during the eight years since “Hate Crimes” was published, recent events in New York tragically prove that there are still those among us who believe it’s open season on anyone whose sexuality doesn’t match their own hyper-macho extremes.

Last week nine New York City gang members abducted, beat and tortured two 17-year old boys and a 30-year old man for being gay. The brutal, sadistic acts committed against the victims were as horrific as something from the latest Saw film. NYC Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said “These suspects employed terrible, wolfpack odds of nine against one, odds which revealed them as predators whose crimes were as cowardly as they were despicable.” Putting aside the commissioner’s presumably unintentional slander against wolves and other true predators, his statement is further evidence that bullies are most dangerous when they travel in mobs. The combined roar of their intolerance, ignorance and hate drowns out whatever muffled part of each individual’s conscience might still be crying quietly to be heard.

And when communities and governments fall equally silent, or even imply, however vaguely, that people who fall (or have been pushed) outside the boundaries of mainstream society are somehow less deserving of its compassion and protection, they set the stage for the next teen suicide or savage attack.

In this case, the head cheerleader for this particular team of nine thugs is New York gubernatorial candidate Carl P. Paladino.

Teaching hate
Over the weekend, even as the investigation into this brutal hate crime continued (fortunately, all nine suspects have been arrested), Paladino made a campaign speech to a group of potential voters in which he said, “I don’t want [my children] brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid and successful option — it isn’t.”

Other comments in his prepared written remarks, but not said by Paladino in his speech, include, “There is nothing to be proud of in being a dysfunctional homosexual,” and “That’s not how God created us.”

To clarify his position, he told reporters at the gathering, “Don’t misquote me as wanting to hurt homosexual people in any way. That would be a dastardly lie.”

Or at least a half-lie.

On The Today Show yesterday he told Matt Lauer he is not anti-gay and considers discrimination against gays to be “horrible … terrible.” Yet he has also repeatedly pledged that as governor he would veto any same-sex marriage bill that came across his desk. How is that not discrimination? And how does that not hurt gays?

You can not identify one group of people as being less “valid” than another and expect them to be treated with an equal amount of respect. Every time a politician, or religious leader, or entertainer, or athlete portrays bigotry as fair, or moral, or funny, or cool they make discrimination acceptable. And that makes bullying inevitable.

The Amazing Spider-Man on Bullying Prevention

The Amazing Spider-Man on Bullying Prevention. Copyright Marvel Comics.

Teaching justice
My personal contributions to the battle against bullying were made as Director of the Doris Day Animal Foundation’s Comics for Compassion program from 1999-2006. During that time I worked with DC and Marvel Comics to produce comic books that promoted the humane treatment of animals to young readers. While advising Marvel Comics on the anti-animal cruelty story in X-Men Unlimited #44, I was put in touch with the organization Prevent Child Abuse America, which was working with Marvel on a public service comic book, The Amazing Spider-Man on Bullying Prevention. I wrote an article for DDAF’s member magazine comparing our comic book with PCAA’s to demonstrate the importance of teaching children that might doesn’t make right, and that bullying is always wrong, regardless of who the victim is.

That’s why justice is blind. The identity of neither perpetrator nor victim is relevant to the determination of who should pay for a crime, and how much.

But the crime itself always matters. There are crimes of passion and premeditation, of self defense and of cruelty, or necessity and greed. Then there are hate crimes that demean us all by appealing to the most primitive aspects of our shared humanity. They begin with words spoken out of fear, or ignorance, or intolerance. And when those words go unchallenged, they end in gay bashings, lynchings, rapes, religious terrorism and genocide.

That’s why it’s up to each of us to challenge hate speech and bullying whenever we encounter them. We have to let the victims know that they do not deserve this treatment and let their tormentors know that we do not respect or admire their actions. We have to take every opportunity to show the potential predators out there that there are no outcasts among us for them to prey on, that an attack against one is an attack against all. If we want justice for ourselves we have to ensure that there is justice for everyone.

Because things do get better, but they don’t get there by themselves.

Posted in Events, Fiction, LGBT, Personal heroism, Superheroes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Best in show

As promised in a previous post, here is my review of my prized purchase at this year’s Small Press Expo, Duncan the Wonder Dog.

Duncan the Wonder Dog

It is almost impossible to describe Duncan the Wonder Dog. This ambitious, nearly 400-page work by first-time graphic novelist Adam Hines presents a visionary, nonlinear story that is both challenging and fascinating to follow. It is set in a world much like ours, with the exception that all animals can speak human languages (at least English) and are capable of comprehending (to varying degrees) human social constructs and philosophical concepts. This leads some of them—as explained in the promotional blurb—to “form a militant group in reaction to how humans treat them.”

Duncan the Wonder Dog 1

Page from Duncan the Wonder Dog. Copyright Adam Hines. Published by Adhouse Books.

From the opening pages, the black and white images and innovative iconography drew me into a world that was both alien and familiar. One of the first scenes is a series of establishing panels of New York City circa 1954 that takes the reader from the Statue of Liberty to the June 17 boxing match at Yankee Stadium between Rocky Marciano and Ezzard Charles. Passersby in the background speak in word balloons containing muted gray symbols that give a sense of conversations without the unnecessary distraction of actual words. From the ringside announcer describing the boxing match we eventually transition to a group of circus workers listening to the fight on the radio and from there to the caged animals living in captivity as the circus’ forced performers. This is where the fantastic nature of this world is revealed.

Duncan the Wonder Dog 2

Page from Duncan the Wonder Dog. Copyright Adam Hines. Published by Adhouse Books.

A monkey is reading Metaphysics, by ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras (who was a vegetarian), and discussing the book with a tiger in a nearby cage. This scene establishes that animals in this version of reality have a very different mental life than in our world and shows that this has very little impact on the similar ways they are exploited by humans. This scene also reveals the artistic imagination of Hines, who uses different art styles (the tiger is drawn much more realistically than the monkey) and multi-layered and multi-print media collages to tell his story. (My words and these reproductions don’t do this scene justice. Fortunately, you can download a free sample of the first 28 pages from publisher Adhouse Books.)

This opening scene also highlights my twin fascinations with this book: Hines’ creative approach to storytelling and his insights into human/animal relations.

The length of this volume is one of its great strengths. Hines has the room to take things slow, and the many silent moments inserted into conversations and simple actions create a sense of realism that helps make the fantastical elements of the story ring true. In one scene, one of the story’s main characters rows wordlessly across a lake for several panels, exchanges “Hellos” with a Canada goose as he glides past a rock the bird is standing on, then continues rowing wordlessly to shore over several more panels. The encounter is so familiar and mundane that it seems totally believable.

The vast array of characters that move in and out of the book is also well suited to a work of this epic scope. There are so many memorable personalities, both human and animal, that I anxiously awaited each ones return to the story and to find out what ultimate role they play in the grand scheme of things (which I’m still not sure of). Some of the supporting characters lead to Arabian Nights-like stories within stories that are just as compelling as the main plot. In fact, probably my favorite part of the entire book is a 32-page sequence of diary entries relating, among other things, the relation between a human family and their beagle, Bundle.

Hines’ also makes Lost-like jumps from present to past and possibly to glimpses of the future that can illuminate the meaning of some plot element while simultaneously making the story more mystifying. The more surreal and metaphysical digressions in the book, usually involving the use of collages and seemingly random images, feel like unanswered riddles that I trusted would eventually make sense (not all of them did).

I have only two complaints about the technical execution of book. Although I think the black and white artwork enhances the storytelling, some of the darker panels seemed a little too dark. Also, the flow of the story is sometimes difficult to follow, although Hines provides assistance by numbering some of the panels.

For the most part, whenever I found myself baffled by a particular scene or image I got the impression it wasn’t due so much to Hines’ failure as a storyteller as to my inability to keep up with him.

Animal/Human relations
Hines handled the subject matter of his story as masterfully as he did its artistic execution.

Although the animals certainly speak and behave more anthropomorphically than the protagonists of my other favorite animal rights comics story, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s WE3, they still seem to maintain their essential animal character. On one page, eight witnesses shown in separate panels describe a terrorist bombing. The first seven witnesses are human and the last is a dog. The effect seemed both jarring and natural, as did the dog referring to his human owner as his “mom.”

Duncan the Wonder Dog 3

Panel from Duncan the Wonder Dog. Copyright Adam Hines. Published by Adhouse Books.

Hines takes it for granted that most people understand the non-status of animals in our society and the price they pay for it, and doesn’t subject the reader to graphic images of animal cruelty to belabor the point. In addition to the circus scene mentioned above, there is a heartbreaking scene involving a crippled cow, called a “downer” in the meat industry, being taken to slaughter. But for the most part, the oppression of animals by humans is depicted in much subtler terms. In the sidebar story I mentioned above, the family cat delivers a scathing rebuke of her human owner, who has been volunteering at a human shelter rather than spending time with her sick dog, Bundle.

But one of Hines’ most masterful strokes is his portrayal of animal terrorism, by which I mean animals committing acts of terrorism in the cause of ending the human oppression of other species. And I don’t mean the types of nonviolent acts often described as “terrorism” by the media such as breaking into laboratories, factory farms or fur farms to liberate animals, destroy the instruments used to torture them, or remove evidence of their abuse. I mean real, Al-Qaida-type terrorism in which many innocent people are killed. Although showing humans committing such acts would obviously cause most readers, including vegan animal rights activists like myself, to recoil in horror, I thought having animals carrying out these acts on their own behalf might seem slightly more understandable (perhaps like the difference between Nat Turner and John Brown). But the psychotic fanaticism of one of the terrorist leaders, a macaque monkey named Pompeii (fittingly prone to sudden eruptions of uncontrolled violence) makes it clear that terrorism can never be justified. It also helped create one of the most frightening and disturbing literary villains I’ve ever encountered.

Of course, despite some of Hines’ too human depictions of his nonhuman characters, it suddenly occurred to me while reading this story that the premise is not as fantastical as it seems.

Animals already can talk to humans, as anyone who’s ever shared their lives with a dog or a cat (or a hamster or a rat or a horse or a chicken or a pig, etc.,) can tell you.

It’s just that humans don’t usually listen.

Or, as revered American author, anti-imperialist and anti-vivisectionist Mark Twain once put it:

“It is just like man’s [sic] vanity and impertinence to call an animal dumb because it is dumb to his dull perceptions.”

Hopefully Duncan the Wonder Dog will help sharpen some of those perceptions.

Buy this book or I’ll shoot this blog
As big as this book is, it’s only just the beginning of the story Adam Hines’ is setting out to tell. It is “Show One” of a proposed nine volume series. This first book took Hines seven years to complete, and “Show Two” is due out in 2014/15.

Please help make sure that he is able to fulfill his artistic vision.

Whether your interest is comics, animals, great art, or great storytelling, this groundbreaking book offers a profound reading experience that will stay with you long after you finish it (and hopefully long enough to tide you over for the next four or five years).

Copies are available now from publisher Adhouse Books and will soon be available from  Amazon.com.

And no, I don’t get a sales commission.

I just want to see that this dog makes it all the way home.

Posted in Animal advocacy, Fiction, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Speak no evil

Today’s post is brought to you by Banned Books Week, which ends tomorrow. During this annual event, sponsored by organizations including the American Library Association and  American Society of Journalists and Authors, people are encouraged to read books that others have deemed too dangerous for society. For more than 70 years now, many have presumed that all comic books fall into this category.

The Huffington Post’s list of 10 banned graphic novels gives some recent examples of comics that teachers and librarians have sought to keep out of the hands of impressionable young readers. For information on court actions against questionable comics, visit the Web site of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (which I featured in my recent post on the Small Press Expo).

But rather than talk about the attempts of governments and educational institutions to stifle creative expression in comics form, I want to share a brief history of self-censorship in the comics industry. Sadly, there is a long tradition of comic book publishers giving profits and good public relations priority over the desires of writers and artists to tell good stories.

Senate hearing

New Jersey Senator Robert C. Hendrickson, Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, points out some of the comics accused of corrupting America's youth.

Enforced innocence
The most famous instance of comic book censorship resulted from a wave of anti-comics hysteria that swept the country in 1954. As I mentioned in my post on superhero role models, this is the year psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, his book charging comics with promoting everything from homosexuality, to murder, to fascism. This was also the year that Wertham appeared as a star witness before the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, which launched a congressional inquiry (more like Inquisition) into the allegedly corrupting influence of comic books on America’s youth. (In fairness to the prosecution, most of the attention was focused on crime and horror stories—deliberately being marketed to kids—that did contain lurid depictions of violence and cruelty.)

CCA seal of approvalIn November 1954, comic book publishers formed the Comics Magazine Association of America in an attempt to defend themselves against increasingly negative public opinion and to avoid feared congressional regulation of their industry. The CMAA’s first act was to immediately draft the Standards of the Comics Code Authority, which placed far greater restrictions on free speech than Congress ever could—without repealing the First Amendment. The CCA produced a mostly ridiculous list of decency standards primarily aimed at curtailing stories of crime, violence, sex and the supernatural. Publishers had to follow these standards to get the Comics Code seal of approval on their comic book covers. Newsstand and drugstore owners were unlikely to carry comics without the seal and parents were even less likely to let their kids read them.

(For an excellent in-depth account of the Senate hearings, the creation and enforcement of the Comics Code, and the history of government attempts to censor comic books, read  The Ten Cent Plague by David Hajdu.)

The Comics Code condemned an entire art form to being used solely for the purpose of entertaining children for nearly twenty years. And while prohibiting certain “adult situations” from being depicted in the pages of comic books was supposedly meant to eliminate juvenile delinquency, the CCA also sought to wipe out civil unrest through its General Standards Part A: #3, which insisted that “Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.”

Many superheroes had begun their careers protecting the oppressed and downtrodden from corrupt politicians and government officials. Under the Code they had no choice but to serve as unofficial spokespersons for the Establishment, defending its leaders’ infallibility and moral righteousness regardless of any real-world evidence to the contrary.

Over time, events in U.S. history from the Women’s Movement to the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement to Watergate made it impossible for comic book writers, publishers and characters to keep up this charade, and the CCA relaxed some of its standards in 1971 (and again in 1989) to create a slightly more open forum for adult themes and political debate. Today, the Code is mostly ignored by anyone wishing to create comics for mature audiences.

But this hasn’t stopped comic book censorship from recurring whenever publishers feel their creators are exercising their First Amendment rights a little too strenuously.

A higher Authority
The Authority was created for Wildstorm Productions in 1999 by writer Warren Ellis and artist Bryan Hitch. It followed the adventures of a former United Nations super team originally founded to counter extraterrestrial and paranormal threats to Earth. The series was known for its well-scripted dialogue and stunning cinematic layouts full of what has become know as “wide screen” action. However, although then-team leader Jenny Sparks had long claimed that the Authority’s purpose was to make the world a better place, it wasn’t until after her demise in 2000 that the group seriously began to fulfill this vision under new writer Mark Millar (acclaimed comics author whose works include Superman for the Animals, the comic book I worked on for the Doris Day Animal Foundation’s Comics for Compassion program).

The Authority #13

The Authority #13. Cover by Frank Quitely. Copyright DC Comics.

From the moment he took over the series at issue 13, Millar had the Authority going after the “real bastards” of the world—dictators and despots around the globe. Their first mission, drawn by new series artist Frank Quitely, was meant to be a coup d’état against Indonesian President B.J. Habibie, successor, protégé and former vice president to infamous human rights abuser Suharto. However, this idea did not go over well with Wildstorm’s parent company, publishing giant DC Comics (in turn a subsidiary of Time Warner). Apparently, although The Authority was published outside the jurisdiction of the Comics Code, and the government and politician being criticized did not represent the United States, DC thought that it would be too “disrespectful” to specifically identify President Habibie or his nation. Therefore the original panels that identified Indonesia’s capital and its president were ordered altered prior to publication to make the target of the Authority’s wrath more generic.

Click on the images to enlarge.

The Authority censored 1

From The Authority #13. Written by Mark Millar and drawn by Frank Quitely. Copyright DC Comics.

The Authority censored 2

From The Authority #13. Written by Mark Millar and drawn by Frank Quitely. Copyright DC Comics.

The Authority #27

The Authority #27. Cover by Arthur Adams. Copyright DC Comics.

In Millar’s final story arc as writer on this series, the world’s seven wealthiest nations finally intervene to end the Authority’s meddling in global affairs. The G7 creates a monstrous assassin specifically bioengineered to neutralize and savagely defeat each member, and hires a more pliable group of similarly powered replacements willing to protect the economic and political interests of their native governments. In The Authority #27, artist Arthur Adams drew a collection of makeshift signs posted outside the quarters of the new team’s leader that demonstrated the character’s racist, sexist, anti-Semitic and homophobic attitudes. Because the editors at DC Comics felt these signs might be seen as offensive—which was precisely the point—they were removed from the panel that appeared in the published comic.

The Authority censored 3

From The Authority #27. Written by Mark Millar and drawn by Arthur Adams. Copyright DC Comics.

In another panel, the G7’s assassin is shown standing next to an unnamed U.S. president in a control room from which the brutalization and humiliation of the Authority’s original team members is being directed. The problem this time was that the president drawn by Adams bore a more than passing resemblance to then real-life Commander-in-Chief George W. Bush. On another occasion this might have been overlooked, but this issue was released shortly after 9-11. DC Comics could not allow the possibility of being perceived as unpatriotic, and so the president received a face lift before the issue went to press.

The Authority censored 4

From The Authority #27. Written by Mark Millar and drawn by Arthur Adams. Copyright DC Comics.

In an interview on the Sequential Tart Web site after leaving the series, Millar expressed his disappointment over the creative restraints put on him by DC Comics.

To be honest, I’d have serious reservations about working with any company which was under the DC umbrella while they’re under the current administration. The Authority was selling more than Superman by our eighth issue, we’d been all over the international press, we’d received huge critical acclaim and been nominated for a ton of awards. And they still dicked us around. How could you possibly trust them with another series when they could decide, on a whim, to do the same again? I should point out that I bear no ill-feeling towards Wildstorm. They fought our corner from the start and I still have a good relationship with all the people there.

The problem with working for corporate mainstream comic book publishers is that they are seldom willing to alienate any potential customers. This sometimes leads publishers to push for stories that will appeal to society’s lowest common denominator.

Captain America #602

Captain America #602. Cover by Gerald Parel. Copyright Marvel Comics.

Tea for two
In Captain America #602, released earlier this year, acclaimed writer Ed Brubaker and artist Luke Ross began a story arc called “Two Americas.” In it an ultra-right wing, racist Captain America impostor is leading a militia group called the Watchdogs in a plan to overthrow the U.S. government and restore America to its “true” values. (For the historic background on this false Cap, see part two of my post on comic book depictions of the 1950s-60s.) The real Captain America and his African-American superhero partner, the Falcon, travel to Boise, Idaho, looking to infiltrate the Watchdogs and capture their leader. Shortly after arriving, they come upon an anti-tax demonstration where outraged citizens are expressing many of the same opinions that we were all hearing on the nightly news at the time.

Captain America and the Tea Party

Panel from Captain America #602. Written by Ed Brubaker and drawn by Luke Ross. Copyright Marvel Comics.

When the issue was published, one particular sign in this panel—the one to the left of the large sign in the center—caught the attention of a conservative blogger. He immediately shared his own outraged post denouncing Marvel Comics for associating the Tea Party movement and its “reverence for the U.S. Constitution” with a fictitious group of violent, racist insurrectionists. The mainstream media picked up the controversy and soon Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada was issuing a public apology (which essentially described the scene above as a Tea Party demonstration while simultaneously denying that it was meant to be any such thing).

There was zero discussion to include a group that looked like a Tea Party demonstration. Ed simply wrote in an anti-tax protest into his story to show one of the moods that currently exists in America. There was no thought that it represented a particular group.

Claiming that the message on the sign in question was somehow the result of a typographical error, Quesada promised that it would not appear in future reprints of this story.

Implying that it is only acceptable to publish a comic book about the polarization “that currently exists in America” as long as you don’t actually identify one of the polarizing factions proves that our nation has devolved beyond the possibility for civil discourse (and sets the stage for second rate storytelling). Regardless of what was written on any of the signs in that panel, readers would have recognized the protest as a Tea Party Tea Bag signdemonstration. And Brubaker wasn’t equating the Tea Partiers with the fictional Watchdogs or their crazed leader. If anything, he was merely suggesting that this militia group suspected—rightly or wrongly—that a group of people with such fervent anti-government sentiments would offer a fertile environment to find recruits for their cause. An interview with Ed Brubaker on the Web site io9.com, suggests there might be some truth to this.

I had to shut down my public email because I started getting death threats from, y’know, peaceful protesters. That was really pleasant. [laughs] I guess they’re all for freedom of speech except for mine! What was really infuriating is that they’re weren’t reading the story, they were just reading some blogger. Has our media really come to the point where anyone can just blog about something and it becomes a news article that warrants death threats? We’re seeing this with Trey Parker and Matt Stone of [South Park] receiving death threats from Muslims. How is this any different from Tea Partiers telling me I should die in a fire because I wrote an issue of Captain America? It’s a little disconcerting to me.

Speaking truth to power
The adjective “comic book” is used as an insult to describe movies or books with plots and characters that are shallow, unsophisticated and unbelievable. This goes back to the decades of publishers’ self-imposed requirement that comics deal only in “good always triumphs over evil” morality, G-Rated subject matter, and “my country, right or wrong” nationalism. But from their beginning, comic books—including western, crime, war, and even horror titles—have instructed readers in the importance of obeying rules of civilized human behavior and the consequences of violating them, often in ways that weren’t suitable for children.

When they are given the same creative freedom as books and movies, even superhero comics can achieve artistic greatness. Watchmen, the superhero epic by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, is an unrestricted examination of human relationships, violence and politics recognized by Time Magazine as one of the 100 greatest English language novels of the last 87 years.

Ed Brubaker’s Captain America embodies the revolutionary ideals this nation was founded on, just as Mark Millar’s Authority spread that revolution to countries whose leaders were unwilling to experiment with democracy. But as long as corporate giants like DC and Marvel (which was recently purchased by Disney) put the drive for massive profits and mass appeal ahead of a desire for intelligent, critical, and sometimes controversial storytelling, works like theirs will remain the exception rather than the rule.

But the “never-ending battle for truth and justice” should never be censored.

[For a glimpse at the diversity of topics addressed in comics by small publishers and independent creators, see my posts on the Small Press Expo.]

Posted in Events, History, Superheroes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

The power of the small press

SPX logoLast weekend I attended the only comic book convention I go to every year, the Small Press Expo in North Bethesda, Md. It proclaims itself (and deservingly so) “North America’s Premiere Independent Cartooning and Comic Arts Festival.” Although I spend much of my comic book reading time in the world of mainstream superhero adventures from the Big Two publishers, DC and Marvel Comics, the SPX (as it is affectionately called) reminds me why I love both the art and business of comics. At the SPX you find hundreds of earnest writers and artists (or writer/artists) who are exploring the language of comics, experimenting with different styles of visual imagery, panel construction, storytelling technique, genres and book design in ways that most comics intended for mainstream audiences never do. The SPX also celebrates the egalitarian nature of comics that allows anyone with some paper, pencils and a copying machine to make their artistic vision a reality.

But as much as I could go on about the many creative and well-done examples of independent comics I saw at this year’s Expo (another affectionate nickname), as the title of my blog site suggests, I’m going to stick to highlighting just a few exhibitors who were promoting various aspects of comic book justice.

CBLDF logoFreedom of expression
Every year, proceeds from the SPX go to support the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which defends the First Amendment rights of comic book creators and readers.  When I went to my first Expo in 1997, the guest of honor was then-28-year-old comic book creator Mike Diana, who had been charged with obscenity in Pinellas County, Fla.  As disturbing as much of his imagery was—dealing with issues such as the physical and sexual abuse of children—it was meant to expose and condemn these crimes, not titillate readers. Despite being represented by the CBLDF, Diana was convicted on three counts. As part of his three-year probation, he was to avoid all contact with children under 18, undergo psychological testing, enroll in a journalistic ethics course, pay a $3,000 fine, and perform 1,248 hours of community service. He was also ordered to cease drawing “obscene” materials, even for personal use, and his place of residence was to be open to inspection by the police, without warning or warrant, at any time, so they could search for illustrations violating this ruling. Another notable First Amendment case was that of comics creator Kieron Dwyer, who was sued by Starbucks over his parody of the coffee empire’s famous logo (Starbucks’ zealous litigiousness sufficiently intimidates me that I’m only providing a link to the image rather than posting it here).

To further raise funds for its work, CBLDF hosts a table at every SPX where it sells autographed books and posters by famous supporters such as Neil Gaiman and Frank Miller (I forgot to take a picture of CBLDF’s table, which is why I posted their logo instead).

AK Press/PM Press/Microcosm Publishing table

The AK Press/PM Press/Microcosm Publishing table

The right to peaceably disassemble
One of my favorite discoveries at this year’s Expo was a table displaying books by three alternative publishers that share a goal of subverting the dominant paradigm. AK Press is “a worker run book publisher and distributor organized around anarchist principles.”  It publishes a number of comics works including You Don’t Have to Fuck People Over to Survive and Disaster and Resistance: Comics and Landscapes for the 21st Century by Seth Tobocman. In addition to prose books on subjects like anti-fascism, globalization, and green living, AK Press also publishes books such as Realizing the Impossible: Art Against Authority, that discuss the use of art as a tool for social change (the subject of my 2005 presentation, “Images of Liberation: Comics, Cartoons and Graphics”). PM Press seeks to “create radical and stimulating fiction and non-fiction books, pamphlets, t-shirts, visual and audio materials to entertain, educate, and inspire.” Among the several graphic works it publishes is The Real Cost of Prisons Comix, which “provides a crash course in what drives mass incarceration, the human and community costs, and how to stop the numbers from going even higher.” Lastly, Microcosm Publishing “strives to add credibility to zine writers and their ethics, teach self empowerment, show hidden history, and nurture people’s creative side.” One of  Microcosm’s titles on display at the table was the Ignatz Award-winning Welcome to the Dahl House: Alienation, Incarceration, and Inebriation in the new American Rome by Ken Dahl. This anthology includes the author’s experiences with “airport security, the demeaning experience of being arrested, having to sell off his earthly possessions at a yard sale to pay the slumlord, the creative process of trying to write comics about ‘important’ subjects.”

I unfortunately couldn’t afford all the books I wanted to buy but did walk away with a catalog from each publisher for future ordering.

Me and Adam Hines

Me (left) and Adam Hines

Justice for all
The main reason I was excited about going to this year’s SPX was to get a copy of the 400 page graphic novel
Duncan the Wonder Dog from Adhouse Books, and meet its author, Xeric Foundation grant-winner Adam Hines. The book is set in a world much like ours except that animals can talk (English I mean, animals have always been able to talk to each other). This leads to an inter-species movement to organize and rebel against human oppression. I will post a review once I’ve finished the book, but I’m already in awe of its charming and hauntingly beautiful black and white artwork and vast and intricate Duncan the Wonder Dogplot (for now, you can read an interview with Adam on the Newsarama Web site about his creative approach to the book). In addition to getting my signed copy, complete with cat sketch, I was thrilled to receive a free black and white poster of a burning car in the woods surrounded by a group of assorted animals, including a monkey armed with an assault rifle. 🙂


Page from the story “Roadtrip” from Old Man Winter and Other Sordid Tales by J.T. Yost.

My vegan T-shirt was a big hit at the Expo, and a great icebreaker. Vegan comics creator J.T. Yost used it as an opening to sell me his Xeric Foundation grant-winning anthology, Old Man Winter and Other Sordid Tales, published by Birdcage Bottom Books. While the title story and one other focus on inter-human relationships, the remaining three powerfully (and somewhat painfully) depict the mistreatment of animals by humans. The stories about vivisection and the circus are both moving, but my favorite by far, and I think the most powerful, is “Roadtrip,” which juxtaposes images of a young girl on a family outing with the plight of a calf taken from his mother and shipped off to slaughter. Even though the parallels should be fairly obvious, J.T. did an elegant job of bringing them home (he also pointed out some other vegans in the exhibit hall, including the two people staffing the AK/PM/Microcosm table).

Of all the comics conventions in the country, this year the Small Press Expo may be the one that best demonstrates that justice shouldn’t just be something you read about in comics.

Posted in Animal advocacy, Events | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments