Originally published in (the BSFA's critical journal) Vector #280 last year, my regular column turned the spotlight on the political side of sci-fi which is a subject that really deserves its own full length book!
Still, even in this short space I delve into the history of SF comics - from Buck Rogers to Judgement Day, through Dan Dare and 2000 AD, peering past Le Transperceneige and Transmetropolitan, before heading on to Bitch Planet and Letter 44, and arriving at our final destination, Zero.
Hit the jump for the full article!
While political thoughts and ideas are expressed across all genres, it’s well known that science fiction in particular provides a perfect platform for theorising on political futures and extrapolating on present trends. Comics on the other hand are perhaps a little more overlooked when it comes to the ability to hold complex ideas despite having their roots in easing the communication of political issues.
Long before Superman crash-landed in Kansas, the advent of political cartoons in newspapers had heralded the dawn of an era in which poverty, and therefore illiteracy, was no barrier to communicating the topics of the day to the masses.
Science fiction comics were not long behind, with the earliest serial strip starring one Buck Rogers in the 25th Century A.D in 1929. Philip Francis Nowlan’s creation came to prominence in this format, ably illustrated by Dick Calkins, and the popular strip was quickly followed by Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon in ‘34. The new format was ideal for the various futuristic tales that followed.
These pre-Hiroshima heroes extolled the virtues of atomic power, although neither promise a utopian future, rather that of battles forever more.
The superheroes of course arrived soon thereafter, often incorporating SF elements in their super-powered or alien characters waging war against US enemies, but the political content of all US comics became heavily restricted by the authoritarian Comics Code in the ‘50s. This self-regulation spawned from the scare tactics of the decade, that comics were corrupting the American youth, particularly the superhero and horror titles.
The Code decreed, that “[i]n every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds,” as well as prohibiting glamorizing crime or sympathizing with lawbreakers, and removing all horror, nudity and hints of sexual “perversion”. But in reality, as well as torpedoing the massively successful horror comics industry, the Code was also used to police progressive politics.
Women were shown as dutiful housewives with no drive of their own – Catwoman disappeared completely from comics for 13 years as the character simply could not exist under the Code. DC added their own rules, saying, "inclusion of females in stories is specifically discouraged... Women, when used in plot structure, should be secondary in importance".
There was some amount of backlash from within the industry but it was soon quashed. EC Comics publisher William Gained waged several battles in the courts, most famously over the SF story “Judgment Day” from Incredible Science Fiction #33 in 1956. It had been printed pre-Code, in 1953, but the reprint was objected to.
The story, by Al Feldstein, Joe Orlando and Marie Severin, follows Tarlton, an Earth-born astronaut of the Galactic Republic visiting a robot-ruled planet. The robot population had divided itself in two, blue and orange, with the former having less rights than the latter. This allegory of the segregated society in the US at the time, was deemed by the helmeted astronaut as not qualified to join the enlightened Republic but he leaves them with the hope that they can change, as his planet once did.
In the last panel, back aboard his ship, Tarlton finally takes off his helmet to reveal that he is black. The Comics Code administrator demanded that they could not have the character be black, with which Feldstein and Gaines gave a hearty “fuck you”. The comic was printed, but it was the last comic the former juggernaut of EC ever published. (Gaines focused solely on Mad magazine thereafter.)
The UK had its own witch-hunt to deal with but had far fewer homegrown comics to punish. When the acceptable, middle-class Eagle dawned in 1950, it announced Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future proudly upon the front cover. As the Eagle was built upon good old Christian values, it’s no surprise that Dan Dare is frightfully English, showing that good old chaps save the world with their plucky working class sidekicks. And yet this was also a liberal publication managing to both banish racism from Dare’s world while simultaneously falling into racist tropes along the way.
The Silver Age of superhero comics in the ‘70s oversaw both adherence to the Comics Code slowly fading away and a surge in superhero stories losing elements of fantasy and magic in favour of SF-based origins and skills. It is perhaps not a coincidence that political issues returned once more to the pages, from the subtle textual layers of the mutant X-Men outcasts to the more brazen drug warnings from Green Arrow and Spider-Man, while Wonder Woman left her days as the males superheroes’ secretary far behind in her new role as an icon of the feminist movement.
The UK science fiction anthology comic 2000 AD debuted in 1977, coming to prominence during the Thatcher years with punkish digs at the dark future of society. The infamous Judge Dredd, patrolling the mostly automatized Mega-City One with its 100 million bored citizens, provided a perfect stomping ground for playing with issues of authoritarianism and police states. Along with his fellow judges, Dredd, created by John Wagner, Carlos Ezquerra and Pat Mills, is charged to convict, sentence, or execute perps on site – not least for expressing art in one of the few ways available, graffiti!
2000AD, and UK science fiction comics in general, tended far more towards the leftwing end of the spectrum than their American peers, and it was the influx of British creators into the US comics industry in the late ‘80s that helped tip the balance. Truthfully though, many of the later American superheroes, created as they were by second generation immigrants and during the Civil Rights movement, had a fairly diverse foundation to build upon.
Science fiction has remained at the forefront of mass-market comics today, with dystopian and post-apocalyptic futures particularly popular, alongside space exploration and alternate worlds. The space opera Saga by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples is perhaps the most popular original series since The Walking Dead, while new reads like the psychedelic gender-swapping retelling of Odysseus, ODY-C, by Matt Fraction and Christian Ward are melting eyeballs across the globe.
But what of contemporary SF comics that contain more overt political thoughts? It’s been a long journey through the pulp icons, superheroes, witch-hunts and Thatcher rebellion, for us to land in a political landscape that is perhaps just a tad too familiar. Yet while the ‘80s gave us Le Transperceneige (Snowpiercer), and the late ‘90s brought Transmetropolitan, today’s comics seem a tad more hopeful.
Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette created their dystopian post-apocalyptic comic in 1982, with the premise that the remnants of humanity lived aboard a massive perpetually moving train. Carriage position determined class and rank, with one tail-dweller taking matters into his own hands to move up the train and claim his future.
In 1997, Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson brought forth the exploits of gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem as he harangues his way around the corrupt cyberpunk, transhumanist City of the future.
Transmetropolitan shows a future full of incredible technology and terrifyingly familiar greedy politicians who care nothing for the filth that much of the population lives within. In Le Transperceneige humanity is far past the point of no return, but even to the bitter end the rich are screwing the poor in an attempt to maintain their lavish lifestyles.
Their 2015 successors are of a different breed. Zero, from writer Aleš Kot and a rotating team of artists, fooled the world into thinking it was merely an exceptionally clever spy thriller. Letter 44, by Charles Soule and Alberto Jimenez Alburquerque, focuses on the contents of a letter left for the new, liberal president of the USA upon his appointment, explaining the previous war-mongering years. And Bitch Planet, a women in prison exploitation (WiP) riff from Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro.
In a move pioneered by Alex de Campi in her brilliant Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight series, WiP and science fiction collided in comics with Bitch Planet, retaining a similar feminist bent. Troublesome women in the near future are labelled as “noncompliant” and shipped off far from Earth at the titular location. What determines noncompliance? Murder of course. Or being fat. Or maybe just ticking off your husband.
DeConnick is well known for being outspoken on matters of sexism within the comics industry and here she is free to operate outside of all constraints placed upon her by the superhero publishers. Most of the inmates, as in real life, are women of colour and all the women are depicted realistically.
An example of the message within can be found with Penny Rolle, a “wantonly obese” prisoner who when charged to picture her ideal self while connected to a mind-reading device, laughs uproariously as the projected image mirrors her real self. Penny’s issue is by far the best thus far, as the strains of stories being constructed around political messages creaks a little around the edges elsewhere, but with such an important missive to convey, much can be forgiven.
The term noncompliant, or NC, has been openly embraced by the comics fandom as a whole, and female fans in particular as an iconic status.
Letter 44 launched in late 2013, introducing the character of Stephen Blades, the newly elected 44th President of the USA who finds a letter from his predecessor waiting for him in the Oval Office.
The previous president, who happens to have had very George W Bush type tactics, explains within the letter just why he spent his two terms lying to the American people, warmongering in the Middle East, and fibbing about WMDs – there’s some kind of construction in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter that didn’t come from Earth, and he wanted as many combat-trained soldiers to be ready for it. Nine astronauts are en route to intercept the construct.
Minimal time is spent on disbelief as Blades soon gets confirmation from the members of the White House situation room. Narrative swings between Blades desperate attempts to introduce his more liberal policies and disentangle the US from wars abroad, and the people aboard the spacecraft, 3 years into their mission to the asteroid belt.
It’s an interesting concept, taking the corrupt and bloody politics of the last decade and showing one particular misguided reason behind it all, ably mimicking the pressure put on more liberal US politicians who still stand far to the right by British standards. In fact the actual non-conservatives here are the astronauts aboard their craft, who have learned to operate a much fairer micro-society within their confined space.
Having the President as a main character gives Soule much to play around with here concerning our own current day politics, and like those comics that referenced the reign of Thatcher, Letter 44 will stand as a post-Bush science fiction comic for years to come.
Then there is Zero, Kot’s near-future, subversive and postmodern espionage series where every issue serves as a standalone story that builds towards a larger, unique narrative. Edward Zero, conditioned from birth to be the ultimate unfeeling superspy is neither monster nor victim, wielded as a weapon by the always-warring human race.
Zero hides the emotions he is not supposed to be feeling from his superiors as his soul slowly unravels through his bloody adventures. The opening pages are seemingly set after the spy has left the service and caused some world-altering change, before plunging him into the earlier chaos of the Gaza Strip. Kot doesn’t shy away from referencing current and on-going political situations, dipping into the grey areas of human morality, but slowly, creeping around the edges, the SF flavour takes a stronger hold.
To say more would spoil the experience of reading this multi-layered and deeply philosophical comic, but while it’s hailed as a revolutionary entry in the spy genre, less has been said about what it brings to the SF table. By combining speculative and trans-dimensional fiction with political commentary and espionage so subtly, sneaking the former in while readers are distracted by the post-James Bond antics, Zero has shown that SF comics don’t need to have superheroes, spaceships, or robots on the front cover. They don’t even need to label themselves as science fiction.
From Buck Rogers to Edward Zero, it has been a long and winding road with a million offshoots in every conceivable direction. Political content, when present, generally swings to the left in SF comics, not least due to British influence being so prevalent upon the US comics industry. But the days of pages and pages of space battles are perhaps behind us, with comics today leaning more towards multiple layers and philosophical wondering than pulp schlock.
To read a comic is to welcome the concept of change; there is no other medium quite like it when it comes to absorbing words and pictures alongside each other, the minds of readers required to fill in the gaps and do the critical thinking needed to complete the communications within. Perhaps it is this reason that has been the driving force behind the history of politics in all comic genres, but particularly in science fiction.
To look to the future and see progress and hope, rather than hoping the past will catch us again.