In this column I will dive into times, throughout superhero history, that comics got political. There seems to be a constant debate if political discussion has a place in the medium. I hope to show that politics and superhero comics go together. This time we pull back from looking at a single comic and look at the DC Trinity as a whole.
The DC universe has always been built on the backs of three major characters, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. This is partly due to their introduction, being three of the earliest superheroes, and partly due to their ongoing popularity. DC has kept these three characters in continuous print since the late 30s/early 40s and I do not believe there is any other superhero on the stands today that can claim that uninterrupted popularity. More importantly, for this article, is how these characters have kept consistent political overtones throughout the decades.
We will start with the one hero people do not always associate with political messaging. In fact many people reduce Batman to, “rich man who beats up the mentally unstable and poor.” If you boil the character down to the simplest parts you would get that understanding, but there is so much more to the message of Batman. More so than any other hero in the Trinity he has changed the most. At the start Batman was a simple detective comic, a villain shows up Batman figures out his plan then kills him. While Batman was a killer at first this was quickly thrown away (partly to appease the comics code, partly to allow for returning characters) and eventually his aversion to murder became an essential aspect of the character. Many writers brought this further and made Batman anti-gun because his parents were killed from gun violence (which is why I want a Batman vs the NRA comic). An important aspect of the character is that Batman is just a man. He has no superpowers, and instead uses his place of privilege to fund his vigilante activities. Jim Gordon may be a good cop, but Gotham has dealt with police corruption in many stories and Batman knows not to always trust the police. In a lot of ways Batman has power that we would want no one in real life to have, but trust him in the comic since he is benevolent. There is a reason he isn’t The Punisher. If he crossed the line regularly and became an executioner he would lose most of his appeal. His intellect is his greatest strength and power to know the right path. Batman always has a plan and can get out of any situation. If murder was the right way he would do it, and if brandishing guns was the right way he would use them. In a trinity of characters that has a super powerful alien and a demi-god he is actually the most unbelievable. A regular person that manages to still fight alongside impossible people with impossible odds and stand to a strict moral code that is unwavering. Batman is a message and the only one we can directly relate to as a human.
Superman was created as a socialist superhero. I’ve already discussed how his first appearance was all about taking on toxic masculinity and corrupt politicians. Seigel and Shuster even made a political statement by naming him “Superman.” Hitler, and the Nazi party, had the idea of the “Ubermensch” which directly translates from German into English as “Superman.” The Nazi ideal of their Superman was a perfect Aryan that would be the pinnacle of the white race. Seigel and Shuster were Jewish and didn’t really hide their hate for Nazi Germany or their support for WW2. By making their Superman a refugee immigrant from a broken planet, having him fight for the common person, and go against everything fascism stood for they told the world what a “Superman” would actually be like. Superman was an American immigrant and grew up in the most stereotypical middle American town of Smallville. He incorporated all the great things about American values and used his elevated status to help everyone. To make the political messaging even more clear, his arch-villain Lex Luthor changed from a Mad Scientist to an evil Corporate Capitalist, jealous of everything Superman had. With is main antagonist and foil becoming a symbol of American/corporate greed, Superman’s socialist leanings became even more apparent. Superman was better than us but never acted that way. Grant Morrison showed this perfectly when Lex Luthor gained Superman’s powers and learned that his greatest strength was Superman’s super-empathy.
He is a hero that could control the entire world. If he was selfish there would be no stopping him from becoming the worst force the universe has ever known. But Superman uses every power he has to help the people, without making them feel he is better than them. From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.
Wonder Woman is another character that was created as an overt political message. While the other heroes here have had stories that could be seen as apolitical, the same cannot be said for Wonder Woman. Everything she does is a feminist message as that is the ingrained thesis of the character. Wonder Woman comes from a Utopian society that consists of only women. She leaves that society to help and make “the man’s world” a better place. Her creator’s were both men but were proud feminists and were part of the women’s suffrage movement prior. Since the 40s the character has been used to show the strength of women and dealt with many women’s issues. In the 40s the comic has an unabashedly feminist agenda that also had tones of sexual liberation. Eventually the title turned into a more straight forward action/adventure title, but by having a female lead it still was a strong message to male and female readers alike that a female character could work in a genre that was typically male dominated. Wonder Woman was even part of the women’s liberation movement later in her career. Lately she has been shown to be a strong warrior in both the Greg Rucka run (which is incredible) and the recent film. Even when taking on these roles she still stands as benevolent and feminine and brings a much needed twist to the genre. I would much rather read or watch a Wonder Woman war story than a Sgt. Rock one. Wonder Woman is a feminist icon and that will never change.