In recent years, there’s been a lot of talk saying that the comics industry has shifted to making social justice a priority in its storytelling, and that “social justice warriors” are ruining comics by pressuring the industry into representing these issues.
What these folks fail to realize is that telling stories about current events and the changes we’re going through as a society has always been a part of comics – as a dated periodical, comic books are necessarily a product and reflection of the times in which they were created.
The earliest days of American comics coincided with the rise of Hitler and the beginnings of World War II, and the heroes of that era and the adventures they had are entirely reflective of that. When the war ended and the economy boomed, the stories became lighter and more imaginative. The 60’s and 70’s brought women’s liberation, the civil rights movement, and a growing sense of eco-consciousness, and characters like Diana Prince, Black Panther, and R’as al Ghul appeared in stories with those themes.
Recently, we worked with our friends at Comicazi to present examples of how comics have represented social attitudes and values, as well as how they’ve changed over the years. Called “Issues on Issues,” it was part museum-style exhibit, with comics from the golden, silver, and bronze ages on display, and part comic salon – an opportunity to discuss the books and their topics with others. Attendees were asked to consider – whose story is being told? Who is telling that story? And how would we tell it today?
Comics aren’t necessarily promoting a particular answer to social problems in America, but like all art, they reveal the hopes, fears, and dreams of the times in which they’re created. The comics displayed here are examples of how these themes have been portrayed in the medium throughout its history. Some of the books we displayed at the event have had a lasting impact, while others clearly missed the mark, or represent views we no longer ascribe to as a society. Still, others were misses in their first incarnations, but have changed and adapted from their well-intentioned but clumsy characters into nuanced, well-thought-out characters. As more people with different gender, cultural, ethnic, sexual, and religious identities are writing and drawing the stories we read, the perspectives and ideas being shown become more diverse and authentic. While this seems to dismay a small, vocal minority of fans, it’s also opening doors for new readers to fall in love with comics for the first time.