Comics, like the majority of artistic mediums, have a history entrenched in the politics of the time in which they were written. From early satirical cartoons, to the major comic houses of DC and Marvel today, politics and political commentary have been a key aspect to a lot of people’s understanding of the medium. However, when it comes to the comic book industry, this political undertone has been absent for the majority of the mid to late twentieth century, only returning in the early 2000s.
Captain America was first and foremost a direct response by two Jewish-American comic book writers to what was happening in Europe
The giants of the comic industry all originate in the early twentieth century, with Detective Comics and Action Comics at the helm. The earliest ‘Superhero’ comics, the ones by which we have come to create the modern standards for what a comic book is and what it entails, held a wide scope for what they dealt with, while still retaining a universal appeal. Captain America, an iconic and staple character for Marvel Comics, made his debut in 1941. This debut was incredibly politically charged. While it remained targeted at all ages, Captain America was first and foremost a direct response by two Jewish-American comic book writers to what was happening in Europe, before America had joined the war. Jack Kirby and Joe Simon were both children of immigrants and were witnessing how their community overseas was being treated during World War II. They created Captain America to represent how they felt America should be reacting, how their America would react to the threat of fascism, even before it had reached American shores.
In its early days, this was easily done by comic creators, and both political messages and challenges to authority were often central in the overall narrative in these major stories. However, this changed, as most media credited primarily in the U.S. did, during the era of McCarthyism. There were no legal censors put in place in the comic book industry, unlike other forms of print media, as in 1954 the industry elected to self-police and subsequently self-censor what work was distributed. This was done by the creation of the Comic Code Authority, a governing body which screened all comic books which went to print. Unlike other governing bodies at the time, they did not have the authority to prevent the printing of any book which did not align itself with the code. This code forbade a surprising amount of seemingly innocuous things, such as including the words “horror” and “terror” in the titles of work. However, the majority of comic distributors and stores would not stock any comics which did not carry the authorities seal until the late twentieth century, with a few exceptions being made for major titles.
What was addressed in mainstream fare had to be done in allegory
This narrowed the scope for emerging writers to engage with political climates, to assess systems and structures through narratives and provide new perspectives, or represent new groups. Any boundaries that were pushed and any risks that were made were done by established writers with a large backing, who were reasonably assured that their work would be sold without the Comic Code Authority seal. What was addressed in mainstream fare had to be done in allegory, particularly with long running series such as Marvel Comic’s X-Men, who have represented pretty much every minority group at some stage since their conception.
This continued until around the 1990s, ending in Marvel withdrawing from the Comic Code Authority in 2001, with DC and Archie Comics following suit in 2011. The Code still exists, but is now entirely defunct as both comic creators and comic sellers no longer acknowledge it. This move coincided with a liberalisation of the type of stories depicted by major retailers, with both Marvel and DC running several titles with LGBTQ+ leads, something which was explicitly forbidden by the code. It also allows for criticism of individuals who hold power, such as judges, police officers and elected officials, who previously could not be “presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority”, allowing for titles such as Ms Marvel (2017) that critique the powers that be, returning mainstream comics to their origin as an artistic field with the power to examine and pursue politics just like any other.