With a new president comes a new era in the American story, and a perfect opportunity to reexamine our culture and governmental systems. Or, if you’re in a more cynical mood, to mock them mercilessly. Comics have been taking swipes and providing social commentary since the birth of the medium, in both the savage and profane satire of underground works and glossy books from big publishers that have often had to be more sly in delivering a message (superheroes not excluded).
Only a few of the comics and graphic novels below are about politics in the obvious sense: people in government working to create policy or get reelected. But they are political in a broader sense: after all, the personal is never not political, in America nor elsewhere, and these books are about the ways in which we interact within and between our communities. What they have in common is the fearlessness of their arguments. None of the creators involved are afraid to court controversy by shining a light on our social and governmental politics. We often complain when entertainment gets “too political,” especially when we’re not crazy about the point of view being represented. (“I just like good stories!”) It takes guts to wade into those murky waters and make art or entertainment that also has a message.
Hellblazer, by Jamie Delano and John Ridgway
Time and mainstream credibility have dulled a few of John Constantine’s rough edges, but Alan Moore and Stephen R. Bissette’s ’80s creation was, for a time, the perfect distillation of a gloriously punk era in comics. The (still-running) British anthology 2000 AD provided underground writers and cartoonists a moderately respectable outlet, which many (Moore, Morrison, Gaiman, Bolland, etc.) used as a springboard to bring new ideas and new heat to stateside comics.
The first writer of Constantine’s solo series, Hellblazer (initially called Hellraiser), Jamie Delano, was another Brit, handpicked by Moore to continue John’s mature-reader adventures for DC Comics. Under Delano’s pen, the character developed into an anti-hero extraordinaire: a hard-drinking, hard-smoking prat who’s not opposed to using his gifts to help people, but only when pushed. His first storyline tackles global inequality in the most grotesque way possible with the story of an African hunger demon who leaves even the most gluttonous victims skeletal and emaciated. If that was too subtle, his third issue tackles Margaret Thatcher head-on: in the wake of Tory election victories, the demonic market in souls is doing brisk business, what with souls going so cheap. Mags even puts in an appearance, and the storyline seethes with righteous anger. Maybe the fact that it was dealing with a British vote dulled the impact for a primarily American audience, but it’s hard to imagine a mainstream comic today taking such a vicious swipe at contemporary politics and getting away with it.
See also: V for Vendetta, Alan Moore’s tale of anarchist V, who brings down a fascist British government in that now-famous mask. It’s a bit more balanced, and a hair less angry than Delano’s Hellblazer, which could be interpreted as a credit or a demerit.
Ex Machina, by Brian K. Vaughan
Brian K. Vaughan is one of the biggest names in the biz these days, with Image’s Saga and Paper Girls simultaneously serving as two of the most thoughtful and entertaining prestige books on the shelves. All of his work blends the personal and the political, but you have to go back a few years in his bibliography to find a book that remains a personal favorite. Ex Machina, with art by Tony Harris, is the story of former New York City civil engineer Mitchell Hundred. The explosion of an alien device leaves him scarred but gives him the ability to communicate with and command machines, both simple and complex (though not always reliably).
Inspired by the comics of his youth, as well as by his politically active single mom, he becomes the superhero The Great Machine, pretty much making a mess of it and turning himself a punchline. Until September 11, 2001, when his selfless act makes him a hero and, ultimately, a winning candidate for mayor of New York. Using 9/11 as a springboard for a superhero book could have been rightly considered tasteless, but Vaughan and Harris manage to craft a thrilling and thoughtful prologue around it in one of the best constructed first issues of a comic series full stop. The book presents Mitchell’s turns as mayor and superhero as similarly doomed from the start, veering into West Wing-territory with the big-city politics of the 2000s. It takes on gay marriage, abortion, and the limits of free speech over the course of its run, never flinching from the difficulty of doing “the right thing” in a politically charged environment.
See also: Y: The Last Man, Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s action/gender-satire about the literal last man on Earth. Also also: We Stand On Guard, the writer’s clearly Canadian collaboration with artist Steve Skroce, set a century in the future, when our neighbor to the north must defend itself from invasion by a violent nation ruled by a despot—that would be the United States.
Citizen Jack, by Sam Humphries and Tommy Patterson
Dancing between the sacred and the profane, political commentary is probably best served with a smirk. Which is a polite way of suggesting that Sam Humphries and Tommy Patterson take a bulldozer to the idea of modern political celebrity. Less concerned with issues, Sam and Tommy are (largely) equal-opportunity offenders with the story of snowblower salesman Jack Northworthy, an everyday (in the worst possible way) Joe who winds up as the nation’s leading candidate for the American presidency via a deal with a particularly vile demon named Marlinspike.
From the reader’s perspective, Jack’s pretty awful: slobbish, lazy, bigoted, and willfully ignorant. But to the voters? He’s a relatable straight-shooter who’s going to change the world with his plain talk and common sense, an anti-establishment type who’s poised to bring some real change. Readers are invited to draw any inferences about current events that they’d like, but the book’s less interested in particular polices or ideologies than it is in gleefully and profanely tearing down the entire weird process of modern American democracy.
See also: I’m stumped here. I’m not sure there’s anything quite like this one.
Wonder Woman by Greg Rucka, by Greg Rucka, J.G. Jones, and Drew Johnston
There’s probably no more essentially political superhero in the canon, despite the fact that Wonder Woman almost never gets to be political. William Moulton Marston’s World War II-era creation wasn’t conceived as a lady superhero just to get girls to buy comics, but as the exemplar of Marston’s radical vision for a female-dominated world. His idea wasn’t so much that women are equal to men, but that they are, in many ways, superior. (He also had some…let’s say interesting ideas about the virtues of bondage and submission.)
To call Diana a proto-feminist would be a vast understatement. Nevertheless, after Marston’s death, and for most of her history, WW has been portrayed as a strong, competent, but generally non-threatening presence on the superhero scene. In a subtle but significant way, once and current writer Greg Rucka changed that with his initial run on her flagship book, back in the early 2000s. He made some waves recently by declaring Diana canonically queer, but this earlier storyline anticipated that outcry: Diana publishes Reflections, a collection of essays and speeches espousing her particular worldview. The book inspires a following, and even some cult-like adherence, with many others turning on the Amazon for her very island-of-women-centric take on sexuality, for her religious beliefs (her powers come from some decidedly pre-Christian deities, after all), and for her views on things like capital punishment. A group euphemistically called “Protect Our Children” comes forward to oppose her, even as the bad guys look to take advantage. The book-within-a-book gives Wonder Woman a real voice again, while drawing some uncomfortable parallels with the ways in which we project ourselves onto our public figures, equally quick to lionize and vilify.
See also: Green Lantern/Green Arrow by Dennis O’Neal and Neal Adams. Arriving like a thunderbolt amidst DC Comics’ squeaky-clean 1970s output, this book teamed up the two heroes to tackle issues like racism, poverty, over-population, and drugs. This is the one where Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy gets hooked on heroin, and where Green Lantern famously gets called out for helping out alien beings of every possible color, but ignoring humans with black skin.
Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery, by Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece
Race and politics have been inseparable in America from the earliest days: the settling of the country, through the central debates over slavery during the Revolutionary era and beyond. Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece tell the story of Zane Pinchback, a light-skinned black 1930s-era reporter who goes undercover as a white person in order to investigate lynchings in the deep south. The story has roots in history: Walter White, head of the NAACP during the period, did the same thing, and African American writer Johnson has discussed his childhood fantasies about passing in order to infiltrate a white world. Pinchback’s already dangerous circumstances are made more so when his brother is accused of having raped a white woman, forcing Pinchback deeper into danger and into the racial politics of that era and our own.
See also: Black Panther, by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze. It’s a wildly different book, but Coates has as much to say about modern racial politics in his take on African superhero T’Challa.
Bitch Planet, by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro
Sometimes, satire works best as a blunt instrument. There’s very little that’s subtle about Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s collaboration, and that’s meant as a recommendation. Playing like a science-fiction version of one of those old-school women-in-prison movies, Bitch Planet tales place on the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost, an off-world prison for women who can’t or won’t conform to expectations of gender, religion, sexuality, or skin tone (women of color seem to be particularly vulnerable to the non-compliant label that lands you on the prison world). The set-pieces almost overflow: holographic nuns; gladiator games; broad parodies of modern politicians who attack oppressed groups in order to further their own agendas… It can all be a little overwhelming, but the weirdness revolves around very real and widely diverse characters, as well as an effort at outspoken social parody. It is written to be broadly and explicitly feminist, and the creators are very specific in that goal, but it also makes a broader case against trying to put any individual in a socially constructed box.
See also: ODY-C, coincidentally (or not) written by one Mr. Kelly Sue DeConnick, Matt Fraction, with art by Christian Ward. While less explicitly political, the book is a similarly savage take-down of traditional gender roles and expectations, a spin on Homer’s epic quest story featuring virtually no male-identified characters.
What political comics do you recommend?