We Need Inspiring, Introspective Superhero Comics Now More Than Ever
How Justice League & Captain America Address 2018 and Offer a Path ForwardMain Art by Jim Cheung/ Alex Ross Comics Features Comics
We need comics now more than ever. They’re not only a safety blanket to ease our minds—they often carry the messages we need to move forward. That’s especially true now, when it seems like the world comes closer and closer to imploding every day. Look no further than two of the superhero world’s flagship titles: Justice League and Captain America. Each of these titles, the former from DC Comics and the latter from Marvel Comics, is telling us about the state of the world and of ourselves with each new issue—and we should be listening.
Scott Snyder, along with a rotating team of artists and writers, is using one of the biggest criticisms of cape comics to his advantage in the pages of Justice League. Most of his Batman arcs teased utter doom for Gotham, and the fate of the universe has consistently been on the line since Dark Knights: Metal began last summer. Those stakes have stayed almost comically high all the way up through No Justice, which shattered the walls of the universe, and now Justice League, which kicked off with the moon being destroyed and has since seen the world flooded by evil ocean gods from outer space. That wild scale is exactly what makes Snyder’s most recent direction so important.
The first issue of Snyder’s Justice League, drawn by Jim Cheung, introduces a mysterious chunk of the multiverse called the Totality. Martian Manhunter is overcome with dread just by its presence, but no one is sure exactly what it is or what it might do. All the reader knows is that it’s dangerous and mysterious. Our heroes break up into sub-teams and each one plays a role in tackling the threat, all in an effort to save nothing less than the entire universe. The Justice League is also racing against the Legion of Doom, led by Lex Luthor. Those who haven’t read comics in a while might be surprised by the fact that Lex was, up until recently, one of the good(ish) guys. He fought alongside the League in the No Justice event earlier this year, but when the Totality showed up and he saw its potential, he stood in opposition to the Justice League and formed the Legion of Doom. Just as the heroes (and readers) began to trust him, Luthor flipped.
This premise has real-world parallels, outlandish as it may seem. After the 2016 election, there was a sort of hanging dread over friends and family. No one outside of the #MAGA crew wanted to find out their uncle or friend from high school voted for Trump. That revelation carried terrifying implications. Most of us can remember at least one moment where someone we thought we knew was suddenly standing across from us rather than beside us. That’s what happens with Luthor. Before the Totality showed up, he was in the trenches alongside our heroes. Now, inexplicably, he’s the face of almost incomprehensible evil.
Let’s zoom out for a second and consider 2018. The news cycle is inescapable, especially if you’re one of the millions glued to social media and the media’s necessary (yet exhausting) coverage of all the wild goings-on in the United States and beyond. For many of us, there’s a real feeling that there is no solution to the Trump presidency. He’s a hydra; even if we cut off the head, two more take its place, and we’re stuck in the same spot until we can radically retake the entire government. That’s not even considering the Mueller investigations, racial wealth gap, police shootings, climate change inaction—you get it. This year has often felt truly insurmountable. Even if we have the motivation to help, we may not know how, or feel that our efforts are meaningful.
For superheroes to feel that same desperation and near-hopelessness, the scale has to dial up significantly. When Snyder and his collaborators do just that—elevate the stakes to near-absurd levels—it’s a moment for readers to feel like they can actually relate to the likes of Superman and Wonder Woman. In that connection to an awe-inspiring character, readers can transpose these heroes’ positivity onto themselves. When we see icons overcoming unbeatable odds, with the entire universe hanging in the balance, we can more easily place ourselves in the same position. If a rich boy in a bat-suit can punch his evil doppelgänger in the face, I can tell my senator to stop taking the NRA’s blood money.
That empathy is the core of fiction, and especially superhero comics. We want to see ourselves in new ways. We want to see ourselves more positively, learn new things about ourselves—and discover hope in our darkest hours.
Across the way at DC Comics’ chief competitor, though, Captain America is critical of that same ideal and its negative effects. Earlier this year, MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient Ta-Nahesi Coates took over as the series’ writer. Even those who don’t read comics might recognize this widely praised writer for his work at The Atlantic, or from his books We Were Eight Years in Power and Between the World and Me. In short, he’s probably one of the smartest writers alive. Coates brings all his experiences to his Captain America run as one of the few black men to write the character across his storied history.
Some context before we dive into Coates’ run: a few years ago, during the Secret Empire event, Captain America was revealed as sorta-kinda a Nazi—or at least an agent of Hydra, long-associated with the Nazis within Marvel continuity up until this event, which unsuccessfully tried to distinguish between the groups. Although it turns out the “real” Captain America wasn’t actually a pseudo-Nazi, the uproar was loud enough to leave an impression outside of comic circles. Even Cap actor Chris Evans took to Twitter to question the move. As Coates and artist Leinil Francis Yu’s first issue opens up, Cap is dealing with repercussions from that debacle head on.
The world has totally changed as a result of Hydra coming into power. The baddies in this initial arc look and sound like the real-world villains of today—if a bit caricatured. They’re blond, rippling with muscles and, most crucially, white. Coates flips a racist status quo on its head here. Captain America is not fighting stereotyped foreigners or outsiders—he’s fighting stereotyped white men because that, overwhelmingly, is what villains look like in present day America. The KKK and “alt-right” groups are filled with people who look and act like the foes in Captain America. Even certain politicians fit the bill. For white male readers who have grown up thinking they’re infallible—who have seen themselves reflected in the vast majority of superheroes—this paints a different picture. In issue #2, Cap cites the root of his problems as “doing what men do.” He’s questioning what it means for him to be a man and second-guessing the violence he associates with that. Cap sees that violent extension of masculinity reflected in his enemies, and from there he becomes repentant.
Under Coates, Captain America is a stand-in for white male readers who could stand to reflect on their own culpability in how America exists in 2018. In contrast to Snyder’s Justice League, where readers naturally empathize with heroes facing insurmountable odds, Coates’ Cap run nudges harder for change. Snyder and his collaborators offer a comforting, “You can do it! This could be you!”—Coates and the rest of the Captain America team jabs the reader and says, “Look what you should be doing.” Fully recovering from being called a Nazi isn’t easy to do, nor should it be. After all, to repent from being a terrible person, you first have to realize you were making terrible decisions. That’s what Cap is doing, with the help of supporting characters Black Panther and Sharon Carter. He goes out of his way to ask for the opinions of marginalized voices. Take notes, fellow white dudes: if Captain America has room to improve, so do the rest of us.
We have to be prepared, as real-world stakes inflate, to see the negative sides of our opponents and of ourselves, but we should never come to consider the odds insurmountable. That’s how we make ourselves, and the people around us, better. We have to have the knowledge of our weaknesses and the hope to believe we can overcome them. One can’t exist without the other. That’s the epicenter of both of these comics, and loads of other superhero books. Evil exists, but there’s always a way to stop it. It might be hard—it might seem impossible—but our heroes don’t give up, and neither can we.