Since their inception in the depths of the Great Depression, American superhero comics have always been about standing up for the little guy against the arbitrary power of bullies and malevolent power-seekers. They are also largely the product of first-generation Jewish American creators who had no affection for fascism, either European or homegrown, and little sympathy for anti-immigrant sentiment. With all of that coded into their DNA, it’s no surprise that comics have been a vehicle for anti-authoritarian themes over the years, rarely veering into outright political advocacy but nevertheless standing for cultural values associated more with tolerance, hope and inclusion than fear, bigotry and nativism.
The tumultuous first 10 days of the Trump administration, following an unsettling transition after the election, have moved increasing numbers of creators and even long-standing corporate-owned properties off the sidelines and into the political fray. In many cases, the visual style and substance of superhero comics are being appropriated by fans and artists to criticize the approach of the new president and his team.
Over the past several months, artists have been adapting Jack Kirby’s iconic cover of Captain America Comics #1 (1941), showing Captain America punching Hitler in the face months before America officially entered World War II, with Hitler’s face replaced by Trump, Steve Bannon or other members of the incoming administration. One popular version of this depicts Ms. Marvel, a current-day teenage Muslim Pakistani-American heroine, delivering the punch.
None of this work is sanctioned by Marvel Comics, whose President, Ike Perlmutter, is a prominent supporter of Donald Trump. However Marvel has been teasing a storyline called “Secret Empire,” which will apparently be the basis for a cross-company publishing event later this year. The original Secret Empire storyline by writer Steve Englehart and artist Sal Buscema, took place in Captain America during Watergate, and featured a massive conspiracy that eventually led all the way to the Oval Office. The stunning finale led Captain America to question the basis of his patriotism and hang up his trademark red-white-and-blue costume until his faith was restored. Marvel has been characteristically quiet about details of the new Secret Empire story, so it is not clear whether it will dig into the same thematic territory as the original, but the timing of the revival seems significant.
Another superhero-based meme circulating over the weekend showed DC Comics’ headliners Superman and Wonder Woman, captioned “refugee” and “immigrant” respectively in solidarity with protests of the Executive Order banning entrants from certain Muslim countries, including refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria. Both Superman and Wonder Woman have taken positions supportive of refugees and immigrants many times over the decades, and with DC’s current focus on presenting “classic” versions of its characters in its Rebirth initiative, it seems likely that political themes may emerge, at least subtly, in books whose characters are so closely connected to issues of being “strangers in a strange land.”
Then there is the case of Superman's arch nemesis Lex Luthor. In the 1980s, Luthor had been recharacterized from an evil scientist into a predatory businessman who eventually gets elected President of the United States. The cover of a special one-shot issue from that era giving Luthor’s biography, with a design clearly based on Donald Trump’s best-selling The Art of the Deal, has shown up in a lot of Twitter feeds and Facebook timelines recently.
Mass market publishers like DC and Marvel need to tread carefully taking on political issues explicitly, even if progressive sentiments are widely shared among their creative and editorial staffs. They are the faces of multibillion-dollar pop culture brands sold to fans with political beliefs across the spectrum, doubtless including many who see President Trump as the crusading superhero and his opponents as the scheming villains. They are also small cogs in media giants Warner Bros and Walt Disney, respectively, whose fortunes now depend on favorable policies from the new administration.
Those constraints don’t apply to independent creators, however. One of the most interesting and subversive uses of superhero iconography to critique Trump and his policies is a series called “The Unquotable Trump” by Robert Sikoryak. Sikoryak is best known for works like Masterpiece Comics, which depicts great works of literature in the visual style of comic artists from the 1940s and 50s, and iTunes Terms and Conditions: The Graphic Novel (both published by Drawn & Quarterly), which appropriates the styles of dozens of famous cartoonists from R. Crumb to Frank Miller, accompanied by the impenetrable legalese of Apple’s end-user license agreement.
“The Unquotable Trump” uses this same technique to illustrate actual sayings of the President as the covers to various recognizable comic books including Hellboy (“Hellguy”), Wonder Woman (“Nasty Woman”) and The Walking Dead (“The Walking Donald”) among others. The effect not only calls up nostalgic memories and chuckles of recognition among generations of comics fans, but also recontextualizes Trump as literally a comic book villain whose utterances and ideologies are firmly in the tradition of bad guys ranging from Doctor Doom and the Joker to the bullies and buffoons who bedevil Archie, Little Lulu and Richie Rich.
Considering how the recent rise to prominence of comic book superheroes in all of pop culture coincided with the administration of our first openly nerd president, noted comic fan Barack Obama, it’s not surprising that the genre is overloaded with tropes and memes ready to deploy against someone whose world view is so diametrically opposed to all that Obama stood for. But as these current examples show, the roots of resistance go far deeper than the past eight years, back to the origins of the superhero ideal. It will be interesting to see how a storytelling style so deeply anchored in both American culture and opposition to “might makes right” morality will adapt to an American government that seems eager to elevate that to a guiding principle.