Hot Buttons: What Happened to SOCIAL COMMENTARY in Comics?

Comic books were once filled with social commentary. From heroes like Superman and Captain America fighting Nazis, to the stories of crime and political war, early comic books didn't back down from the social conflicts of their time.

Much of that changed in 1954, when the comics industry had to tone down its messages in response to a public outcry about too much sex and violence. The Comics Code Authority was created, with stringent rules that prevented publishers from approaching issues of drug use, crime, sex or violence.

Yet, as Newsarama has reported, the strict requirements of the Comics Code Authority are no more. So where is all the social commentary in superhero comics that one would expect from this new freedom?

In this installment of our ongoing series about hot-button topics in the comic book industry, Newsarama looks at the controversy surrounding real-world issues in comic books.

"I think you don't see very many real-world scenarios tackled in comics these days — or at least not superhero stories — because there's a perception out there that readers don't like that kind of story," said Judd Winick, who has written several comics that have tackled real-world issues.


But that perception was once the opposite. In 1970, writer Denny O'Neil and artist Neal Adams shook up the comics industry with the social commentary in Green Lantern #76, an issue that many comic book historians mark as the end of the Silver Age and the beginning of the Bronze Age. In the storyline that started with that issue, Green Lantern Hal Jordan is confronted with poverty, racism, crime and other real-world issues.

"What I had was a chance to see if I could combine my concerns as a citizen, and a father, and even a veteran — my God, I earned my stripes — with this funny little thing I stumbled into: comic book writing," O'Neil told Newsarama.


What followed that issue was an era of comics that trended toward tackling tough social issues. It was further driven by the publication of Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 in 1971, which focused on the negative effects of drug use. Although the Comics Code Authority refused to issue its seal of approval to the Spider-Man issues, Marvel went ahead with publication, and the high sales of those comics forced the Code to change its requirements.

But O'Neil told Newsarama he didn't intend to shake up the comic book industry. He just wanted to write stories that addressed some of the concerns he had.

"That was way too big an ambition, to change comics or anything else," he said. "What I wanted to do — if I had a mission — was to blow revelry. You know, 'Wake up! These problems exist!' I thought, well, it’s probably too late for my generation to solve them. I think I was in my early 30s. But if a kid is aware of these problems from age four, and grows up being aware of them, and is a smart kid, maybe he will figure out answers that people of my generation couldn’t. We never offered solutions to any social problem; we gravitized the problems."

O'Neil also remembered the effect of Superman's words on him when he was a kid. "The Superman radio show, I know, gave me my first peek into race situations because I remember, I was a avid listener of that show, if you can imagine little Denny O’Neil standing listening to mommy’s radio, every afternoon at 5: 15," he said with a laugh. "And Superman once said that the difference in skin color was only due to a chemical. And that was the first time I ever heard anything like that. It is now 66 years later or so, and I still remember it."

O'Neil is reluctant to take credit for changing the comic industry of the '70s, and he's quick to point out that not all historians look upon his socially relevant era with pleasure.

"One of the criticisms that I was half sympathetic to about our stuff was, you know, 'I don’t pick up a comic book to read about social problems; I pick up The New Republic or The National Review or The New York Times. And, well, that’s an almost fair criticism," O'Neil said. "My answer is that there should never be arbitrary limits on the medium. Comics should do anything that comics can do."

Yet O'Neil maintains that he still told stories that fit within the norms of comics about superpowered characters. "We did deliver superhero stories," he said. "There was everything that that kind of fantasy could initially deliver. We didn’t slight anything. If it’s Batman’s story, it should have Batman elements. It was a little tricky with Green Lantern/Green Arrow, because there is such a great gap in their powers.

"Here is a secret to writing this kind of thing: You have blown a gig if you don’t deliver what they print up, fantasy melodrama to do," he said.


And above all else comes the story, O'Neil said, and Winick agreed. "Denny and I have talked about this: First and foremost is the story," he said. "You can’t, you know, bring in socially relevant stories or come up with agendas or what not, just for the hell of it. It's more about looking at the characters, then figuring out, what will be an interesting story to tell? And a lot of times, those interesting stories are ones that actually reflect upon what goes on in reality.

"It's about writing a really, really good story, not just going out there and beating a drum," the writer said.

Winick, who currently writes the superhero comics Justice League: Generation Lost and Power Girl, won media attention in the 1990s for his stories about the AIDS virus in Green Arrow and "hate" crimes against gays in issues of Green Lantern.

But among the accolades Winick has won for tackling such issues, he still runs into backlash from some fans. "Every single time I come out with a comic book, I have to hear the same old chestnut that, 'Oh great, a Judd Winick comic: Who’s gonna be gay or who’s gonna get AIDs?'" he said. "If I have to hear that, just because I’ve done this a few times over the past 10 years — I don’t know, three or four times? — so be it. One time in my decade of writing superhero comics have I had someone actually test HIV positive, but every time I get onto a new book, you hear the blogosphere ask 'how long before somebody gets AIDs?' I’ve done it one time."


Winick said he believes much of the criticism of socially relevant comics is motivated by readers who disagree with the message, or are uncomfortable with confronting the issue. "There is a very vocal, yet small, minority that says they don't want their comics to be messed with," Winick said. "They scream and cry that it's about escapism. 'This isn't about telling real-world issues. I read comics to escape.'

"But that's bull. It's not why they read comics. They don't read comics to escape," he said. "They read comics to be entertained. As long as that comic still tells a story, as long as it still tells a superhero story and tries to entertain with that story, then showing the heroes dealing with a problem shouldn't be an issue. I think it's usually because they don't agree with the social message that we're bringing across there. Or at least, it makes them uncomfortable."

But for publishers, the line is often drawn when issues might affect sales. Greg Rucka, who recently co-wrote with O'Neil a modern issue of his once-socially-relevant The Question, said the decision to make Green Arrow markedly liberal in O'Neil's comics was one that worked at the time, but he understands why publishers shy away from introducing political motivations to other characters.

"I think publishers are more frightened of political backlash than they are of issue backlash," Rucka said. "I do think that yeah, if you introduce political stances for your major characters, you have opened up a can of worms there. If you're telling stories in a shared universe about heroism, you don’t want to imply that X hero is only a hero for the Republican party, and is therefore not going to be doing heroic and noble things for everybody else You never what to establish a risk of status quo that makes them less heroic.

"There are great stories to be told about politics," he added. "You can do it. But you need to do it without ideology, and I think the problem comes when publishers don’t want to introduce ideology for a very simple reason: You don’t want to lose sales. You don’ want a provide a reason that people are going to say, 'I hate this book now.'"

Rucka said superhero comics are also limited because they usually take place in a shared universe — and those issues now affect the entire universe.

"If you open that door you open that door for the whole universe," Rucka said. "You can’t close those things again, you know?

"If you introduce homosexual characters into a universe, that to me does not damage the nature of the universe; all that does is make the universe more inclusive, right?" he said. "That is different than introducing, say, a storyline that says, well, our heroes got their powers because of the threats of steroid use and roidrage is now running epidemic. That changes the whole universe.

"You need to look at your issues and figure out how they’re going to affect universes that are shared, where the actions of one book are, in theory, having a bearing on totally different books, and you have to deal with repercussions," he said.

"I think one of the things that’s happened a lot in the last decade or so, is we confuse our tones," Rucka said. "I think in comics, there’s a lot of that. I mean, just a lot of, 'this will be cool, and then they don’t think it through.'"

O'Neil also believes writers should try to stick to social issues that they not only feel passionate about, but that they understand. "[There's a danger in] writing about stuff that you don’t have a genuine concern regarding," he said. "The stories might come off just a little forced. [In] Green Lantern/Green Arrow run I did one story that — I cross my heart — I thought was a feminist story. But I was terribly wrong... Emotionally I was five years away from being able to deal with it.

"With one exception, all of those stories concern things that I was really shook up about. So it was honest," he said. "I found out that if you’re writing about something real, the story tends to be better."

Winick agreed that sometimes real issues make better stories. "I believe that characters live not only in their world, but they live in our world, a world of our readers, a world with which we can identify," Winick said. "So they’re going to progress, they’re going to change, and they're going to come across different problems. And some of those will be problems we're facing too. And I think that only makes the comics more interesting and more entertaining."

O'Neil also cautions about shying away from real-world issues too much, because he remembers what mainstream comics were like in the 1950s and '60s. "The Comics Code said you couldn’t show any authority figure as mistaken, much less corrupt," O'Neil pointed out. "Comics had delivered a message that, by that point in my life, I found distasteful and possibly socially harmful. And nobody complained about those messages where they were delivered year after year after year after year.

"So many of the comic book stories in the '50s were not about real things," O'Neil said. "They had to do with Lois trying to find out if Clark is Superman, or, you know, the Joker is going to find the bat cave. Those are not real problems.

"But maybe we helped open the door," he said. "And if people are now writing about gay problems and AIDS and things like that, I say hooray. They’re using a medium, why shouldn’t they? They’re using what’s available to them."

Previous Hot Button 2011 installments:

Also: The Comics Code Authority - DEFUNCT Since 2009?

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