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Saturday, 16 May 2015

The Politics of Batman: Are Superheroes Inherently Right-Wing?

I recently lent a friend at work my copy of the Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller's seminal Batman story that launched decades of grim and gritty superhero stories and revitalized the genre. After he gave it back, I decided to have a look at it myself - I've been reading some more recent Batman stories, particularly the Grant Morrison run that started in 2006 and culminated in Batman Incorporated, so I wanted to go back to an old favorite.

Now, the narrative is that Miller's gone pretty clearly right-wing since then. He denounced the Occupy Movement in 2011, for instance, calling them "louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid self-righteousness". He then brought in the War on Terror, suggesting that America's enemies were getting a "dark chuckle, if not an outright horselaugh" at the sight of people demanding accountability from the folks who'd wrecked the world economy (disclosure: one of my sisters marched in the initial wave of Occupy Wall Street, and was arrested on completely frivolous grounds).

He then released Holy Terror, a story that began as Holy Terror, Batman, but took him about five years to write, during which he decided to have his own original hero running around rooftops, beating up Muslim terrorists and generally advancing racist stereotypes of Middle Easterners. I haven't read it, but the consensus seems to be that it's a pretty awful story.

What's interesting, though, is that this side of Frank Miller has been around for quite a while. We just never noticed because, at the time, all of pop culture was reflecting the idea that society was going to hell in a handbasket. DKR came out in 1986, and Robocop 2, for which he wrote an early draft, came out in 1990. Media at the time was full of portrayals of cities turning into war zones, police being unable to stop the flow of drugs into the streets, and law-abiding normal (ie, white) families being subject to rape, robbery, murder, etc at complete random.

I'm not arguing that American cities weren't awful, of course. I wasn't around then, but I'm aware that New York in the 70s and 80s was pretty dangerous and sleazy, and that some cities were worse (East St Louis was the basis for Hub City in Denny O'Neil's acclaimed run on The Question - incidentally, created by the well-known Objectivist Steve Ditko).

But it does seem that a lot of the people writing these urban types of comics swallowed some sort of Kool-Aid and filled their stories with a sort of perpetual left-wing straw man - a big part of chapter 1 of DKR involves leftwing people calling Batman a fascist and arguing against his methods. We as readers are meant, instead, to root for him because he gets results and he's sick of standing by and letting Gotham City go to hell.

Batman in particular can seem like a law-and-order right-winger's dream. He's meant to be this avenging angel, taking on crime that the police are too corrupt or ineffective (because of pesky rules) to tackle. This portrayal, however, ignores the fact that initial versions back in the 40s were more of a masked adventurer type, like the Scarlet Pimpernel or Zorro. That then turned into the crazy psychedelia of the 60s, of which the Adam West TV show is the best example. While the back story remains the same - parents killed by mugger, young Bruce swears revenge, etc - the execution isn't nearly as dark or tortured.

On his more recent run, Grant Morrison tried to re-introduce some of the earlier playfulness of the 1940s-60s Batman, while at the same time having Bruce Wayne form a foundation to help tackle the root causes of crime. It's telling that Batman as written by Morrison (whose parents were anti-nuclear campaigners in Scotland) spends more time going after people like Ra's al Ghul or the Joker, than common street criminals.

Similarly, Superman started life as a sort of proto-Occupy figure, bringing slum lords and corrupt billionaires to justice in the 30s and 40s, before being coopted for propaganda purposes during World War II. Morrison also tried to incorporate that into his own reboot of Superman in 2011, as part of the New 52. But the intervening decades did leave Superman as more of a fusty, establishment-type figure, prompting former Punisher writer Steven Grant to wonder whether Superman would have marched with Martin Luther King Jr at Selma, or if he'd have been holding one of the firehoses instead.

The simple answer is that these characters are mirrors for the creators' own preoccupations. Your definition of truth, justice and the American way may differ from mine; likewise, you may prefer stories where Batman beats up street criminals to ones where he tackles international baddies like Ra's. I just think it's a shame if we let a single, narrow definition of Batman (ie, Frank Miller's right-wing and slightly racist one) stand as the definitive statement on a character that could be a lot more interesting.