How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Cape
On the political function of the Superhero Aesthetic, and the radical possibilities of the Supervillain.
by Ronald Wimberly
A while back I attended a talk Frank Wilderson III gave at Columbia University in which he compared and contrasted Django Unchained and Manderlay. At the time, I was unfamiliar with Wilderson’s work. He mentioned repeatedly that for anti-blackness to end, the world itself would have to end.
Referencing Alexandre Koyre’s The Astronomical Revolution, Fred Moten compared Black studies with Copernicus’ radical astronomical re-configuring of how we perceive our solar system. Both, Moten suggests, are “concerned with the radicalization of the earth’s foundations…the re-configuration or destruction of the world.”
After nearly 15 years of working in comics, I’ve come to accept that when Americans say “comics,” they mean “superheroes.” And when they mean “superheroes” they mostly mean the assorted media and merchandise featuring the iconic products of the two largest comics publishers, Marvel and DC. While these cultural products are not representative of the medium or even the genre as a whole, one cannot disregard their cultural weight. They regularly command the most at the box office, and they are an aesthetic vanguards of western ideals around the world.
But what are those ideals? Superheroes often “save the world”. But for the Black radical imagination, the destruction of the world is a more productive speculative project. And that is the work of the supervillain. The supervillain’s creative work is destructive.
The following article is an exploration of the function of the superhero aesthetic, particularly as represented by Marvel and DC comics. Does the superhero aesthetic inherently reproduce the dominant values of the western world (racial capitalism, heteropatriarchy, etc…)? How does the Superhero genre represent the Black radical tradition and how might the Black radical imagination harness the superhero? Can the supervillain embody radical transformation?
But first: what even is a superhero? I’d argue three elements are essential (or at least overwhelmingly common) to superhero aesthetic: Dual identity, an outstanding visual brand, and the ability to unilaterally exert, with spectacularly violent force and exceptional will, their moral imperative and agency.
Superheroes emerged from comic pulps in the beginning of the twentieth century but have moved beyond that native medium. They come in all types of identities and are of nearly every economic background. They work within and against civic authority and governments; for free and for hire. The greatest, most iconic superheroes and their stories are corporate intellectual property; unlike myth or folk heroes, their stories do not belong to the people. Superheroes were born in United States during the great clash of ideologies of the modern age, and embedded in them, unchallenged, are the American ideals of capitalism and individualism. The ideology of this aesthetic regime continues into the present, even notably taking a post-modern turn with the advent of the superhero teams.
Superhero comics are political art. But why don’t superheroes end wars, slavery, etc…? Because ultimately superhero comics’ political stance is capitalist and the creators of superhero comics’ primary objective is to sell more comics, not express a radical imagination.
How Grendel killed Batman (for me): The political function of the superhero.
I first encountered Superhero products in what must have been the golden age of merchandising, the ’80s. Long before I would ever peel open a superhero comic for the first time, my toes had poked through the well-worn bottoms of a pair of Spider-man pajamas; I had flexed in an Incredible Hulk t-shirt; I had coveted the Superman and Batman toys that punched when you squeezed their legs together; and I had watched a live-action Batman, played by Adam West, punch his way through an endless parade of colorful deviants on TV reruns.
Batman was the superhero. Just in case you are a child who came from another planet and landed somewhere in the boondocks, Batman is the superhero alter ego (or vice versa) of Bruce Wayne, a wealthy man who lost his parents to street violence as a child, and vowing to do all he could to change the world, shaped himself into the world’s greatest detective, and a nearly unmatched fighter to boot. He was unique among superheroes because he was just a regular human being with wit and grit. In ’89, Tim Burton’s film adaptation of Batman would debut, and shortly after, an animated series would put Batman on primetime television alongside the great American sitcoms and game shows.
Meanwhile, I was growing up in Anacostia, Southeast Washington D.C., where my great-grandmother would look after me while my mother worked. Once I started Kindergarten, I’d often catch a school bus from my great-grandmother’s porch on Martin Luther King boulevard. Once the Anacostia Metro station opened, I’d escort my sister and my little cousin out to a private school in Montgomery County, Maryland. Anacostia was the type of neighborhood where I imagined criminals would go to elude Batman. The goons and thugs Batman would punch through on his way to more colorful deviant supervillains were a lot like the people I saw on the street, or even at the cookout.
Before long my first white friend, John David “JD” Carling, introduced me to comics via X-Men #1, the 1991 Jim Lee reboot. X-Men #1 was a huge economic event, among the largest print runs of a single western comic in history. I had read manga before but this was something new and different. I was mostly hooked by the garish colors and the bikini clad characters. Back in junior high I had been made aware of allegory and metaphor in literature through the fantasy and sci-fi books of C.S. Lewis, and I had heard that the mutants in the X-Men were meant to be an analogue for the Black experience in the sixties, with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X supposedly corresponding to Professor X and Magneto respectively. This is obviously a problematic comparison, and if it is true that the various writers of the X-Men ever intended this (which I am not sure they ever did) it would indicate deep misunderstanding of the civil rights movement and black radical tradition as well as indirectly reinforce scientific racist ideology by comparing skin color to speciation. And what is the corresponding component in the analogy for the economics of race? At any rate, I was aware that superhero comics might contain attempts at metaphor and analogy.
On one of the occasions JD’s mom took us to the musty local comic book store I discovered a comic that would reconfigure my understanding of hero and villain: Matt Wagner’s Batman/Grendel.
Before Batman/Grendel I took for granted the hero/villain ideological paradigm. It was cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians. I grew up in a time when the same ideological paradigm was hyper visible in American political life. In the 80s, Reagan’s war on drugs, welfare queen rhetoric, and anti-homosexual HIV/AIDs policy was highly publicized. That is to say I was thoroughly indoctrinated in the ideology that there are good people who work hard, and bad people who are lazy and/or “criminal”; there are villains and deviants who do wrong, and heroes who fight the villains and protect the good. For those villains and deviants, suffering is the just outcome. I didn’t have the language for it yet, but I knew something was off. I knew users who were good people. I knew people on welfare who worked hard. I knew people who stole to feed their family. I knew that police officers shot innocent people. The stage had been set by my own double consciousness for a work of art to provoke an awareness of political subjectivity, of the politics embedded in the work.
Batman/Grendel is the story of how Grendel met Batman. I’ve already described Batman; here he reprises his recurring role of Zorro by way of Ayn Rand. Grendel, like Batman, has his own alter ego, the author and assassin Hunter Rose. Batman and Grendel both have considerable wealth. Where Batman inherited an industrial fortune, Grendel earned his money through his own criminal genius. Whereas Batman looks to save Gotham city from crime by fighting villains, Grendel is simply out for amusement in a fictionalized New York, and he finds it via sex and violence.
If the ridiculousness of these two characters from two different universes (one fictional and the other fictionalized) meeting weren’t enough to provoke Verfremdungseffekt in me as an adolescent, Grendel’s continuous references to the ridiculous theatricality of it all did the trick. While Batman plays his role, Grendel acknowledges the role play.
Even as a kid I began to interrogate Batman’s heroics and their ideological underpinnings. Why does Batman dress up and fight crime? Is it more about ego than justice or community? These questions lead to other questions about Batman’s world. Was it possible that the type of economic disparity that made Bruce Wayne so wealthy was the exact type of economic disparity that made a man desperate enough to shoot Bruce Wayne’s parents? The entire narrative of Batman obscures any role of the capitalist structures on public or civic life and presents an individualist bootstrap fantasy. In Batman/Grendel, Wagner’s positioning of Grendel as a counterpoint was a powerful artistic act that contributed to my lifelong aesthetic practice.
The superhero aesthetic, even as a fantasy for children in comics like Batman, reproduces capitalist ideology. The spectacle’s primary function is part of an economic model which converts emotional energy into profits for Disney or Time Warner. Recently, Marvel and DC comics’ superhero products employ the aesthetics of politics to obscure this political function. Many superhero comics and films share the aesthetic quality of what futurist Marinetti referred to as the “the dreamt-of metalization of the human body.” These particular narratives progress, linked by conventional plot devices, from one violent spectacle to the next, culminating in an elaborate spectacle of war before resolving with an advertisement for a subsequent product. Gleaming heroes and villains perpetually clash on glossy pages and IMax screens. Militaristic spectacle is on full display, embodied in heroes like Batman, Iron Man, and the Black Panther who are literally the metalized human manifestation of military industry. Is the audience more sure of why these heroes fight then they are sure of the reasons for the latest episode in the 24 hour news spectacle of Raytheon rockets fired off into a desert somewhere? How do these aesthetics inform each other and the audiences’ political consciousness? 
As a young adult I began to see the superhero as a symbol of everything that I disagreed with in my world, and the superhero comic as another mechanism by which power tells stories about itself. I began to wonder how Batman would have helped Commissioner Gordon break up the local chapter of the Black Panther Party. What was the Brotherhood of Mutants’ stance on prison abolition? If Superman could see what I see, why was he so conservative? I imagined that if I transposed myself and my real life political heroes into the DC or Marvel universe, surely they and I would be villains.
The avoidance of all but the aesthetics of politics in superhero comics explains the recent sentiment from Marvel’s conservative audience that Marvel’s comics had become too political. Until recently, Marvel’s heroes’ aesthetics quietly reproduced the aesthetics of America’s cultural conservative and neoconservative values (strong white heterosexual men steering the world towards a just and beautiful future) enough to avoid criticism, but as American political discourse increasingly framed its most recent democratic struggle as a battle between identities, conservatives and liberals fought proxy battles over how their favorite cultural commodities were used to tell the corresponding essential narratives. I.e. Must Spider-man be a working class white man from Queens, or could he also be be a working class Afro-Latin teen from Brooklyn? Must Iron Man be an old white alcoholic or could Iron Man be a black teenage girl?
Our work is not the replacement of the aesthetics of one ideological regime with the aesthetics of another. Our work is to provoke, through aesthetics, an awareness of the art’s and the audience’s political subjectivity. A worthy goal is for our aesthetic practice to provoke, as Pauline Johnson wrote, “the recipients’ own dissatisfaction with his/her alienated consciousness.”
So: is it possible to use the superhero aesthetic to provoke a Verfremdungseffekt?
I see a radical possibility in the supervillain.
First, a new definition of the supervillain. The supervillain differs from the antihero in that they contradict the idea of the superhero and the world and the political stance inherent yet invisible in the superhero universe. The supervillain’s positioning adjacent to the superhero carries in it the potential disassociation of the audience from the hero. Just as the supervillain’s mischievous spectacle liberates the superhero from his secret identity, the supervillain liberates the reader from the ideological farce of the story. A true supervillain must present a true ideological counterpoint to the superhero, one that cannot and will not be vanquished when the superhero inevitably overwhelms the supervillain with a fantastically violent display of individual power. A supervillain must provoke political subjectivity, a critical awareness of the Superhero aesthetic, and by proxy the values and ideologies presented by the superhero comic, as well as the economic relations of the parties involved in producing the Superhero aesthetic.
In contemporary superhero comics, often the validity of a villain’s ideological position, if there even is one, is subverted by an egoistic psychopathology that ultimately compels the villain to violence. This delegitimizes the villain’s ideology and validates the superhero’s violent response. I posit that a true supervillain’s ideology is not be undercut by egoistic psychopathology; a true supervillain is more than a villain because ultimately it is ideology that drives them.
As it stands, the vast majority of comics criticism and coverage that uses “comics” as a stand in for “superheroes” fails to acknowledge the political subjectivity of the works and tends to focus on political aesthetics such as representation. The ultimate function of this type of criticism, despite intent, is market research and PR. Criticism often centers around auditing the brand for the guilt-free consumption by liberals rather than analysis of the function of the aesthetics. For example, comics journalism critiques the aesthetically illiberal quality of Marvel comics via a critique of the lack of diversity of its heroes. Marvel responds (like Preggo Spaghetti sauce) by diversifying its IP products. A couple of shrewd journos read the label and find that the creators don’t match the characters (never mind the content of the stories) and put Marvel on blast. Marvel responds with high profile hires (celebrity chefs who’ve never worked in the kitchen) to assure a liberal readership that their IP products are, in fact, “all-natural” and safe to consume.
And here is where the critical analysis of the comics end. This is disrespectful to the work, the creators, and to the audience. E-flux is not going to cover Ta-nehisi Coates’ Black Panther (much to Marvel’s chagrin), though they should. Brandon Graham isn’t going to offer any deep political discourse regarding the function of superhero comics besides a jenga of 140 character screeds. So it is up to serious comics journalists to task and cultivate a critique of the form. This is also essential to the comics medium as a whole.
Ultimately the role of rehabbing the superhero as a progressive icon will fall to critics acknowledging the political subjectivity of the works, and creators cultivating aesthetic regimes that do the same, while also engaging the political imagination of the reader.
This article originally appeared in LAAB Magazine #0: Dark Matter, published by Beehive Books, 2018.