Recently at WonderCon 2017, Alex Cox, Deputy Director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), led a revealing panel on the history of comics and their impact in changing the world. He gave an image-filled walk through more than a century of comic book content that fueled calls to action and activism in the real world. In his discussion, he clearly demonstrated how comics have indeed changed the world both as a force of good and as a force of evil.
Throughout the history of activism, various forms of media have been used to push specific narratives. For over the past 100 years, comic books have been effectively used to highlight, showcase, endorse, and even crucify social objectives. In fact, comic books and strips have long been recognized as a powerful means to not only send a message to the masses, but it can also be used to sway the masses into thinking one way or another.
In the 1920’s and 1930’s, for example, comic strips detailed the working person’s struggle and how large corporations kept the masses from understanding the benefits of frugality, savings, and the avoidance of impulse spending. As Alex Cox pointed out at his panel discussion at WonderCon, the narrative may not always be glamorous but the message itself can still be important.
Cox continued his presentation by showcasing how, in the 1940s, comics helped unite America against the Nazis, convince our citizens to contribute to the war effort, and motivate our troops to win the war. He also pointed out that those same comics also fed into the underlying racism of America by dehumanizing people who were Japanese. Just as Captain America was punching out Hitler on the cover of one issue he was also attacking a demonized version of Japanese soldiers on another.
Cox continued the discussion by pointing out how negative stereotypes were fed to the masses as evidenced by anti-Semitic comic strips in the 1950s. In the 1960s, however, the narrative for comics as a whole changed. It was during this time that the underground movement of comics began, as evidenced by the character of Lenny of Laredo. Joel Beck created the character as a child named Lenny, who achieves fame and fortune by uttering “obscenities” such as “pee-pee thing,” only to find his career in the dumps when the public became satiated with his naughtiness.
The 1970s brought the comic book to the arena of social awareness. Comics such as Abortion Eve and Slow Death – a comic book discussing the environment were launched to stir the masses into considering new societal norms as well as to take up the fight in the environmental protection arena. The 1970s also saw the rise of heroes such as Luke Cage and John Stewart as Green Lantern, the latter being DC comics first African America super hero.
Cox then maneuvered the discussion to the 1980s, where iconic comics such as the Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns served as a mirror to America’s current political climate. The Boondocks, which ran in syndication from 1996 to 2006 as a comic strip satirizing African American culture and American politics as seen through the eyes of a young, black radical character named Huey Freeman. Cox mentioned how this strip enabled all of its readers to see politics from a distinct perspective.
Get Your War On was briefly discussed by Cox, who described it as a satirical comic strip about political topics in the 2000s. The comic initially focused on the effects of the September 11 attacks on New York City, but switched its focus to other topics, such as the War on Terror. Cox also brought to light the fact that Get Your War On ended its run on January 20th, 2009, right around the time Bush Jr. ended his second term as president.
In the end, Cox detailed how comic books will only inevitably become a stronger medium for activism in its various forms. Topics such as social Justice, terrorism, and the rise of technology will surely populate the pages of our favorite comics.
The question remains, however, will the comic book medium be used to inspire activism responsibly or will it be used to force a shadowy agenda? What will our current era bring?