Are superheroes fascist?
[Note from the editor: This review is by prospective staff writer Jonathan Campbell. Enjoy!]
An argument that I’ve seen cropping up over the last few years in the odd video or article is the idea that superhero comics are somehow fascist in nature. Specifically, this argument seems to have reared its head in response to the way superhero stories have been told in the context of the War on Terror.
Whether it be from Marvel’s multi-volume crossovers like Civil War (an analog for the Patriot Act) or Secret Invasion (an analog for terrorist sleeper cells), or the Dark Knight/Man of Steel movies made by Warners/DC, many people seem to be under the impression that modern superhero comics are fundamentally nothing more than male power fantasies (with some token women thrown in) about violent Übermenschen going around imposing their will on the world through force and terror.
This isn’t actually a new criticism; in fact, it’s almost as old as the genre itself. In 1954, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published his book Seduction of the Innocent, which claimed that comic books were filled with elements of fascism (as well as bondage, homosexuality, anti-Americanism, etc.); even Wonder Woman, a superhero originally conceived as a pacifist, feminist counterpart to more masculine and (at the time) violent heroes like Superman and Batman, who defeated her enemies through the Power of Love rather than the Power of Beating the Crap Out of People, was also accused of fascist tendencies (though admittedly, the Lasso of Truth can come across as mind control at times). But with the rise of the Internet, and thanks to the way certain stories have been received, Wertham’s arguments are starting to find new life.
You can have this debate about individual superheroes, and it’s easy enough to portray each of them in one light or another. Take Captain America. Cap was created in the ‘40s by Jewish writers Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, and he was explicitly meant to be an anti-fascist superhero. Simon and Kirby eyed the rise of Nazi Germany and made Steve Rogers a hero who represented everything the Nazis supposedly worshipped—and then turned it against them. Cap was a blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryan who personified the ideals of America and wanted to punch Hitler in the face. He stood for liberty, democracy, and freedom, and against oppression, dictatorship, and tyranny.
Except Cap was, and remains, a blond-haired blue-eyed superhero who personified the ideals of America. He was also one of the most successful and enduring pieces of war (or pre-war) propaganda ever seen in print, and after the Axis powers were defeated, writers pitted him against dirty Communists and other evil foreign enemies before literally putting him on ice in a retcon so that he could be brought back to lead the Avengers, whose job is… avenging things. Come the ‘70s and ‘80s, he was increasingly pitted against the (democratically elected) government, which was variously either corrupt or controlled by an evil, shadowy, wannabe dictator who was totally not Richard Nixon, who could only be defeated by Cap punching people. The post-9/11 era saw him become the chief opponent of the Superhuman Registration Act, which again pitted him against in-universe popular opinion and gave him one of his most famous speeches… on how it doesn’t matter what the press, the government, or the public say.
Then you’ve got Superman, another creation of Jewish writers who embodies truth, justice, and the American way, who spent much of World War II fighting Nazis… and who’s also a member of a superior race who’s taken it upon himself to “guide” humanity down the “right” path using his vast, godlike power. Is he a pure-hearted boy scout who uses violence as an absolute last resort and champions global peace and prosperity, or is he the Superdick puppet of the Pax Americana who routinely violates international sovereignty and carries a veiled anti-intellectual message? (Oh sure, he’s a scientist when the story calls for it, but Lex Luthor is a scientist 24/7; obviously, he’s the jealous bad guy.)
And Batman… Oh, Batman. He’s been called a neo-conservative’s wet dream, and with good reason: he’s a rich playboy/industrialist who uses terror, training, and his enourmous wealth to beat the living hell out of mentally ill costumed criminals, who uses every means short of murder—including spying, torture, and breaking and entering—to get revenge for a childhood trauma, all in the name of justice! Since he’s not-so-secretly allied with the Gotham City police force and takes it upon himself to do things and go places they (legally) are unable to, you could argue that Batman is basically a one-man secret police force. Except you can’t, because he sort of uses child soldiers, too.
Like I said, it’s easy enough to portray these heroes in a sinister light, especially when they’re being written poorly. But it also overlooks how three-dimensional these characters can be when written well, and how their comic books can and do handle social issues and challenge the existing status quo, like the classic ‘70s Green Arrow/Green Lantern team-up which tackled issues such as racism, corruption, war, and drugs, or the Superman story “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?” which was all about justifying Superman’s traditionally non-violent, non-forceful approach to superheroics.
Particular writers can come across as fascist, with varying degrees of justification. Alan Moore wrote works like Watchmen which tried to show that superheroes in real life would be a bunch of violent or unbalanced sociopaths, yet failed to avoid making characters like Rorschach look damn cool while doing so. But he also wrote The Killing Joke, which starts and ends with Batman appealing to the Joker’s conscience and asking him to accept medical help for his insanity, and is not just another story where Batman wins by beating the Joker up (though admittedly, that’s in there, too).
Frank Miller, on the other hand, seems to embrace the idea that heroes are power fantasies and thinks Superman is a dick for not using his superpowers to enforce his will. After 9/11, Miller started to take to the idea that superheroes can and should be used as pieces of vitriolic propaganda to rally the population against its enemies, starting with vaguely jingoistic works like 300 (if you take the view that the Spartans are a stand-in for America, and the Persians are a stand-in for Iran and the Middle East in general) and culminating in the viciously racist (and just plain badly written) Holy Terror, which was originally intended to be a Batman comic.
The recent Nolan Batman movies used the Caped Crusader and his world to ask whether kidnapping foreign criminals (rendition), chucking people off buildings (enhanced interrogation), or hacking every cell phone in Gotham City (mass-scale illegal wiretapping) were necessary evils in the war against Clown Princes of Crime (terrorists—which the Joker is actually called in the movie), and seems to answer the question with “um, maybe?” This, along with the Nolan-produced Man of Steel, led to the accusation that he’s a right-wing proto-fascist himself, rather than someone trying to present both sides of an issue.
The real problem with these kind of arguments is one of definition; back in the ‘40s, George Orwell wrote that “fascist” was the most widely abused word in the English language, and had basically been degraded to a synonym for “bully”. And nothing has really changed since then. Calling these works “fascist” is using the term as nothing more than a pejorative for any type of authoritarianism or any kind of violence, rather than for a particularly nasty and distinct political creed that to this day is still only vaguely defined, partly because fascists themselves historically liked to be as vaguely defined as possible. Using it as a slur against whatever you don’t like that sort of resembles fascism just cheapens the word, and the end result will be more people beginning to think of fascism as not so bad after all.
So, are superheroes fascist? Only if you want to use that term in a very, very broad sense, and interpret certain stories in very specific ways. Personally, I’m leaning towards “no”, because saying this writer or that hero, or this genre or that medium is somehow fascist (unless it’s a blatant example) only serves to diminish the word; but then again, fascism was always whatever you wanted it to be.