Conservative Comics Pros Bemoan Liberal "Kryptonite" In Industry

DC vets Chuck Dixon (of Batman fame) and artist Paul Rivoche (co-creator of Mr. X) have published an editorial in the Wall Street Journal (a cached version can be found here) accusing the comics industry of being overwhelmingly liberal, citing sex, violence, and moral relativism in mainstream superhero comics and the popularity of graphic novels based on the work of Howard Zinn and the life of Che Guevara as proof that the medium is controlled by the left. In response, they've collaborated on a graphic novel adaptation of Amity Shlaes' The Forgotten Man, a nonfiction history of the Great Depression critical of FDR and the legacy of the New Deal, which they hope will embolden conservative comics creators.

It's a rather torturous argument. On the one hand, they acknowledge that the Superman radio show helped expose the policies of the KKK in the '40s as an example of the character's "good" liberalism, but they ignore the fact that in the '30s, Superman was openly progressive and regularly on the side of the little guy, fighting against aristocratic fatcats as well as criminals. They cite the 1990s as the period in which comics creators turned decisively liberal, though arguably the shift had occurred as early as the '70s, with socially relevant comics like Denny O'Neill and Neal Adams' Green Lantern/Green Arrow and Steve Englehart's Captain America (which featured a storyline in which Cap's evil arch-nemesis was revealed to be none other than the recently impeached Richard Nixon). They also cite Art Spiegelman's Maus and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis as examples of good autobiographical comics that aren't "political," though neither artist is even remotely conservative — and they are political works, though they deal with historical periods in other countries. (The authors curiously fail to mention either Spiegelman or Satrapi by name, perhaps because curious readers might look them up and discover that they aren't the kinds of artists who'd produce comics based on the works of Amity Shlaes.) X-Men is cited as embodying "libertarian" values, though for the most part the writers have used mutation as a metaphor for oppressed minorities, not free market conservatism. Dixon also claims that in the '90s he was forced to apologize for suggesting that an AIDS storyline was unacceptable for a comic aimed at kids and teenagers, and that his editors began turning away non-liberal creators around this time.

Curiously absent, though, are the prominent works of non-liberal comics artists. Ayn Rand disciple Steve Ditko is never mentioned once, despite being the co-creator of Spider-Man and having produced a huge body of influential work. Frank Miller, who helped make comics more Hollywood-friendly and accessible to mainstream readers with Dark Knight Returns, is also completely absent. So is Larry Hama, a Japanese-American Army veteran who served in Vietnam and created most of the characters for G.I. Joe when the property was being developed at Marvel in the early '80s, and also wrote the bestselling The 'Nam. Mike Baron, an idiosyncratic conservative writer who created Nexus and the Badger, is also missing. And Peter Bagge, an outspoken libertarian cartoonist who created HATE and recently produced a critically acclaimed comics bio of birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger, is never mentioned, despite his many potshots at liberal and conservative orthodoxies.

Then again, Dixon and Rivoche aren't writing for comics fans, but people who may have read comics in their youth decades ago, or saw Captain America on cable, and vaguely remember uplifting stories about Batman and Superman vanquishing evil. It's easier to present the comics industry as a kind of mini-Hollywood selling moral ambiguity and AIDS storylines to little kids, even though the average comics fan has been growing older since the 1990s, and the bestselling graphic novels are decidedly morally ambiguous, or just plain weird works like Watchmen, V For Vendetta, and Sandman. It reminds me a bit of the moral panic "think pieces" that appeared in the mainstream press in the '90s that worried whether Catwoman was being drawn too sexy (in stories that Dixon himself probably wrote).

Even stranger is their defense of the (now-defunct) Comics Code Authority, which guaranteed "morally upstanding" stories until its power weakened in the '70s and '80s, and eventually died out a few years ago. The Code, after all, was voluntarily imposed by the comics publishers of the '50s on themselves for fear of Congressional action; it's rather odd to hear two principled, free market, "free speech" conservatives defending a pro-censorship organization designed to keep the petrifying influence of Big Government at bay. (And as comics creators, they seem rather sanguine about its catastrophically deleterious effects on the artistic and commercial growth of the medium.)

If Dixon and Rivoche did lose work because of their views, that's unfortunate, both for them and for their fans — though they don't substantiate their claims to being censured or blacklisted beyond vague mention of having to make apologies. But it seems hard to accuse the industry of having an ideological bias if there aren't that many conservatives working in the field, or at least, the type of conservative they seem to want more of. It may simply be that the very nature of the field, which tends to attract (and celebrate) oddballs, misfits, and non-conformists, isn't especially remunerative, and often deals with bizarre subject matter, just isn't too friendly to conservatism as they see it to begin with.