A significant American art form, previously shunned to the margins of society, is again captivating the national public’s eyes.
The comic book – a revolution popularized by such Jewish-American authors and artists as Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Bill Finger and Bob Kane, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby - captivated the minds and shelves of both children and adults in their heyday, but were later delegated to a corner-space of our minds. Much as the pulp fiction and paperback romance fads, the comic book had its time in our culture, but later became a niche interest catering to the demographic most loyal to it. In this case, children and speculative fiction fans. Then came the 1990s, a decade where television programs like “Batman: The Animated Series” and “X-Men” dominated children’s programming. Slowly, comics began to recapture the public’s attention.
The success of the Marvel trilogy, “Blade,” laid the groundwork for later Marvel films which would be produced by Disney under the collective story of a Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU. These MCU films would not only routinely beat out box office records and cinematic award expectations, they would also lead to our current state of media: one in which comics and comic-related tropes inspire a continuous stream of superhero television and movies. The golden age of comics may have long passed, but today we are in a new age of comics and comic-inspired media.
What’s most fascinating about American comics are the commentaries they provide as political and cultural mediums. Fans of the X-Men comic and movie franchise would know that the central conflict (the struggle for mutants to gain acceptance in a society determined to see them exterminated) has direct parallels with the Civil Rights and LGBTQ Rights movements, respectively. Titles like Wonder Woman similarly tell stories which reinforce themes of gender equality. Such commentary isn’t always immediately obvious, however, as is the case with one of the most iconic comic book characters, Superman.
Throughout its 81-year history, the franchise has engaged in discourse regarding immigration, nationalism, totalitarianism and other complex political and philosophical debates through chronicling the adventures of a displaced extraterrestrial with demigod-like strength. The social discourse present in comics can take any number of perspectives from across the political spectrum, allowing a free exchange of ideas and (at times) a front-row seat to social debate regarding such ideas. For example, a 1970s magazine published by DC Comics in which the conservative-leaning Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) and liberal-leaning Green Arrow (Oliver Queen) teamed up to fight crime and address the social issues of the day. The diverse perspective of comic artists and fans are often reflected in the characters and stories they craft, creating a medium which provides a look into the diverse ideologies of American citizens with each turn of the page.
Additionally, comics can be used as a tool to study marginalization in our society. Comics have historically featured negative and offensive representations of minorities and women. The adventurous themes of past generations of comics put heroes in foreign environments and in league or battle with people the average reader had little to no contact. Such excursions by comic heroes to the jungles of Africa and Asia often portrayed the native peoples and their beliefs as primitive others to the American standard. As a genre largely marketed toward males, women in comics were frequently represented as love interests and damsels. Few women led their own titles as the active agents in their own stories.
Marvel Comics' Fu Manchu and Man-Ape are notable examples of the industry’s history of racial stereotyping, the former based on 20th century anti-Chinese propaganda and the latter evoking images of anti-black sentiment. While the industry at-large has moved forward from the tired trope of white damsels in distress screaming for rescue from black or Asian ‘savages,’ there are still issues of marginalization in comics and comic-fan spaces. Today, female characters are often designed and positioned in overtly sexual fashions by male artists. DC Comics, specifically, has a tendency toward creating villains who suffer sensationalized mental illnesses. Its most famous are Two-Face and The Joker.
More characters of color exist in the comic industry, yet there are still the occasional vaguely Middle-Eastern terrorists or black and Latino street criminals. In fan spaces (colloquially referred to as ’fandom’), reception of diversity in comics is varied, with some welcoming the diversity while others decry it as forced pandering. Naturally, the pitfalls of comics in navigating a global landscape are not uniquely characteristic to the art form itself. Similar difficulties arise in other arts as well.
There are multiple reasons why Amistad has elected to cultivate a collection of comic and graphic novel materials. The history of comics is relevant to the history of American culture, with comics having influence over said culture for decades. No art form exists in a vacuum, and through reading comics and studying the historical context in which each was published, one can see how comics interact with their environment. The political discourse in comics, as well as their representation of marginalized communities, are relevant to Amistad’s commitment to “collecting, preserving and providing open access to original materials that reference the social and cultural importance of America's ethnic and racial history, the African Diaspora, human relations and civil rights.” The insight that comics can provide in analyzing America’s past and present social climate should not be ignored or underestimated. It is in recognition of the significance of this form of artistic expression that we collect and preserve these materials.
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