Post 1 – Dylan Koury – Analyzing Political and Social Messages in Comic Books

Two weeks ago I attended Boston Comic-Con, which I attended for two days. This is the third year I have gone but the most involved I have been at the convention. I spent my time visiting the writers and artists and inkers of comic books which I believed to have an important place in the social and political world today.

Many of these writers and artists have done work on titles that I have been researching, such as Black Panther, Captain America, and newer titles like Harley Quinn and Midnighter. Overall I found that each of them approaches dealing with these current issues in different ways. Some prefer not to touch them, seeing their work as an escape from reality. Others felt that they had a duty to address these issues, even revolutionizing the industry to fix the ignorance of the past.

The first person I interviewed was Brian Stelfreeze, an artist who worked on Black Panther for a number of years. Although writers may have more direct influence on the stories they tell and the messages that are sent to readers, comic books rely heavily on the artwork. Every artist has a unique style and the ability to capture so much without saying a single word. Superheroes with their bright costumes and logos are often used as metaphors, such as Captain America’s red white and blue shield, used to convey to readers that America is a protector, not an aggressor.

When asked if current issues affected his work, Mr. Stelfreeze told me he was influenced all the time. He believed that he had the ability to “say so much while not actually saying it”. While working on Black Panther he found that issues like police brutality affected the emotion in his art and he was able to use it to capture his frustration. Stelfreeze also showed me a very powerful drawing he had done of Emma Gonzalez while watching the March for Our Lives on the television. Similar to his own profession, Emma Gonzalez had given a speech where she never said a single word, and still was able to convey her message to her audience. Similarly, Stelfreeze’s drawing of her was able to capture all of that emotion.

I also talked to the writer/artist duo Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner, who worked on Harley Quinn. One of the usual staples of this character is her abusive relationship with the Joker. However in their run, Palmiotti and Conner decided that it was time to “take Harley out of Gotham”. This allowed her to break away from her past and build a new identity as an independent woman. Palmiotti addressed the political relevance his writing, saying “the politics are always there, you’re writing about good and evil.” He mentioned how Harley’s story connected with the Me Too Movement and believed that he and Conner have been “writing strong female leads since the 90s”. Even though the politics are being discussed now more than ever, writers may have been addressing political and social issues for much longer.

Two writers I talked to that had different perspectives on getting political with their comics were Donny Cates and Nick Spencer. Cates worked on cosmic stories such as Doctor Strange and Thanos, while Spencer did a run with Captain America. Cates believed that his work was not at all political and saw himself as a “digger of escape tunnels”. This attitude of making work to be an escape from reality is similar to that of comic writers during the Great Depression. Superman, unlike many men during that time, was anything but weak and helpless. This in itself is a message about the society and its political, social and economic climate at the time. Unlike Cates, Nick Spencer does not write to provide an escape from the harsh reality. He said that at Marvel Comics they “talk a lot about the world outside your window”. He believed he had a “responsibility to reflect on real world issues when it’s appropriate.”

One of the most interesting parts of my time in Boston was talking with Steve Orlando. He invited me into the “green room” where the writers and artists would go to escape crowds and eat lunch. Orlando is a DC exclusive writer that has done a lot to change public views on the LGBTQ+ community by mainstreaming queer superheroes. In his run of Midnighter, an openly gay superhero, he brought back Extrano, the first openly gay superhero from the eighties who had a knack for flamboyant clothing and called himself “Auntie”. His arch nemesis was called the “Hemo-Goblin”. Orlando saw it as his job to “step outside of these stereotypes” and “make the characters more grounded”. He saw early writers as having ignorance due to not really knowing what a queer person was like. Orlando felt like political messages showed up in everything he does, and mentioned that he was working on a story with two lead queer characters of color. Ultimately, the message he stressed was that “representation is important to all of us.” If he was working on a character that he couldn’t personally identify with, he would take the time to do the work and the research necessary to create something that wasn’t just a “token character”. The comic industry in the last few years has been pushing to reach out to a wider audience, and doing so means more diversity because people feel more connected to characters with whom they can relate.

Ultimately, I found that writers all have very different styles, and very different messages that are important for them to share with readers, and that what they say tends to relate to current issues in the world we live in.

Comments

  1. mjminogue says:

    Hi Dylan!

    I love your topic of study–comics are often frowned upon as a object of the ‘lower culture’, however there is such an extensive history in the United States of comic books acting as agents of social change, especially recently. It’s also super interesting that you got to interview actual artists and comic book creators as a means of understanding how they understand their own work. It’s interesting that each of the artists seemed to have a clear understanding of how they wanted their books to reflect their own beliefs. I’m curious to know if you also talked to fans to see if the artists intent translated into the fans understanding their beliefs, and excited to see how your project develops!

Speak Your Mind