Capes and Flags, Part 1: What do Superheroes and American Nationalism Have in Common?

Over the next few weeks, I hope to post a series of articles on the relationship between superheroes and American politics and nationalism.I want to discuss how superhero comics and movies follow a common trend of commenting and embodying the political struggles going on in the world. More particularly, I want to ask, “What effect do these widely watched and read movies and comics have on our political ideas and allegiances?” This question is equally important for Christians, especially concerning how we are formed and that which forms us. Is there a connection between the TV and the Church? Both are altars at which we worship; both have an effect on its attendants; both lay claim to our time. More particularly, have superheroes become our saviors, television our way of dealing with our anxiety and the text through which we make our political and moral decisions?

We will talk about Iron Man and Obama’s Drones. I will try to show you the connection between Superman and the Industrialism in the early 1900s, how Spider-Man and New York are vital to one another, how the Hulk embodies Cold-War anxiety, and what the X-Men and the Civil Rights movement have in common. All along the way, I want to suggest that ideas of the church, Jesus, and theology are working behind the scenes.

These are but a few of the questions and topics I hope to jab at the next few weeks. I hope you’ll join me. This post is both an introduction to what I am interested in looking at, while also detailing how superhero colors effective the way we view superheroes and how we interpret them through nationalistic lenses.

So let’s jump in.

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American Nationalism and comic books have always been involved in a love affair. Whether it was Captain American fighting the Nazis or the Avenger going after Al Qaeda in the early 2000’s, superhero capes and American flags both blow in the same breeze. This connection may seem obvious to some, while shocking to others. Nevertheless, what does it really mean that we have a “Captain America?” In what ways is this connection obvious or subtly working underneath the surface?

When reading about these mighty superheroes, these adult themed and politically heavy comics often overshadow the mediums’ humble and comedic beginnings. What is easy to forget is that comics find their origin in the Sunday funny papers in the early 1900s, a section of the newspaper that was anything but adult-themed and politically suggestive, at least on the surface. “The funnies,” as they called them, was a place for adolescents and the family alike to escape once a week from the busy world to read the silly tales of  Popeye or the adventures of Tarzan or Buck Rodgers. As the industry grew, comic strips morphed into comic books and heroes like Buck Rodgers into superheroes like Superman. These superheroes were not explicitly “political,” but that does not mean there were not more subtle ways that nationalistic principles and political motifs found their way into these serialized books.

As social psychologist Michael Billig theorizes, a sense of national belonging is not necessarily something that citizens must be beat over the head with for it to be effectively instantiated within the population. “[N]ational identity,” Billig suggests, “in established nations is remembered because it is embedded in routines of life, which constantly remind, or ‘flag’ nationhood. However, these reminders, or ‘flaggings,’ are so numerous and they are such a familiar part of the social environment, that they operate mindlessly, rather than mindfully.”[1] Billig uses the example of the national flag hanging outside of a public building – it may hang there limply, but it still does work in reminding us of our allegiance and national identity. These daily routines and practices, however peripheral, help concretize and constantly remind the citizen of her political and social place in, and allegiance to, her country.

Are American comics books any different? Do they subtly ‘flag’ allegiance to the United States? Comics have always been embedded deeply in the routines of American life; by the end of the 1920s alone, over forty million newspapers featured comic strips in their weekly publications.[2] Newspapers and radio shows, both of which featured superhero stories, were part of the daily diet in the 1930s and 40s. Regularity and serialization aside, there are other features within the content of comics that point to Billig’s banal nationalism. Simply look at the colors that deviate superheroes from villains. Darius A. Monsef IV, head blogger at COLOURlovers.com gives us this extensive infographic on how comics portray good and evil through color:

Monsef IV argues that, however small these details seem, the use of colors “drastically affect your experience as a reader.”[3] Heroic coloration most commonly includes some combination of the American Red, White, and Blue. The villainous colors are interesting in their own right, and not just as secondary colors that present a visual difference between the primary ones used to signify heroism.[4] Juxtaposing those colors used for villains within American’s historical political enemies yields interesting results. The “villainous” Nazis and the USSR used black and red flags, while the combination of red, black, and green is used in several Middle Eastern countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. In this way, colors of superheroes’ costumes and capes pose as ‘flags’ that reinforce and make American readers think, however subconsciously, about our identity as Americans. Where the American Flag outright states American nationalist identity, the popular colors of superheroes and their detested villains serve as a subtle reminder of the relationship between the comics and politics.

 

[1] Michael Billig, Banal Nationalism (London: Sage Publication, 1995), 38.

[2] Lawrence Maslon, and Michael Kantor, Superheroes!: Capes, Cowls, and the Creation of Comic Book Culture (New York: Crow Archetype, 2013), 14.

[3] Monsef IV, “The Colors of Good vs. Evil: Comic Book Color Palettes [infographic],” colourlovers.com (Sept 15, 2011; http://www.colourlovers.com/business/blog/2011/09/15/the-colors-of-good-vs-evil-comic-book-color-palettes-infographic) ; assessed April 19, 2014.

[4] Tim Leong, Super Graphic: A Visual Guide to the Comic Book Universe, 8-11. Leong’s research also reveals that locales for important cities from which heroic figures emerge are almost universally absent from the Middle East, Asia, and Russia. See Leong, 22-3.

One thought on “Capes and Flags, Part 1: What do Superheroes and American Nationalism Have in Common?

  1. Pingback: Capes and Flags, Part 2: “Men of Steel: The Superhero bodies and Industrial Crisis” | Barn Burners

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