Remember when, as children, we thought super hero comic books were merely fantastical escapist fiction? We beheld with childlike wonder the women and men with improbable physiques swooping towards ravines or collapsing bridges at super speed to save busloads of people. Costumed vigilantes bust thieves breaking into bank vaults. Teams of extraordinary beings defend the Earth from invading predatory aliens.
Many of us were understandably focused on the adventures of our costumed heroes and likely glossed over the serious social issues these comic books tackled.
In 1941’s Captain America #1, Steve Rogers led the fight against fascism. The 1971 “Snowbirds Don’t Fly” story in Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85-86 confronted the issue of drug abuse. Tony Stark battled alcoholism in “Demon in a Bottle,” an 8-part 1979 story in the pages of The Invincible Iron Man.
Marvel’s 2005’s critically-acclaimed House of M arc shines a discomforting light on mental disorder. And the massive, Marvel Universe-wide cross-over event Civil War, from 2006-2007, spotlighted the issue which had defined modern comic books almost from its inception: should self-interested governments be allowed to control super heroes and their near limitless power?
Over the last year, these critically-acclaimed comic books have brought to the fore serious social issues while entertaining us in a way that only super hero exploits can. By doing so they provide innovative and illuminating stories, showcasing the best of modern comic book storytelling:
Daredevil (Marvel, from 2019, ongoing series)
The Man Without Fear is one of comic books’ quintessential vigilantes.
But in Chip Zdarsky and Marco Checchetto’s fantastic ongoing run on the Daredevil, the very concept of vigilante justice is on trial. After a near-fatal accident, Matt Murdoch decides to retire his super hero alter-ego. Wilson Fisk aka The Kingpin is now the Mayor of New York and has seemingly been able to keep criminality to an all-time low. But Matt Murdoch can’t seem to let go of his role as Hell’s Kitchen’s self-appointed guardian. His continued exploits send him on a collision course with the new Mayor and his police force.
The series threshes out difficult questions about the nature of power and corruption, the extent of each person’s responsibility under the law, and the difference between what is legal and what is right. It dares to ask us if we would bring to justice someone whose very vigilantism has personally done us good.
Zdarsky challenges our preconceived notions about Daredevil, his secret identity Matt Murdoch, and even his arch-nemesis The Kingpin. While there is enough super hero action to cater to even the most die-hard fans, Zdarsky focuses on the internal struggles and inter-personal dynamics of the characters.
When combined with Checcheto’s dynamic and expressive art, this series is thrilling and unputdownable. Daredevil is definitely a must-read (and that’s coming from readers who did not start out as Daredevil fans).
Joker: Killer Smile (DC Black Label, 2020, mini-series)
This three-issue mini-series is technically a “super-villain” story. Batman makes nary an appearance in Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino’s chilling exploration of the nature of sanity and addiction.
Published under DC’s Black Label for mature audiences, Joker: Killer Smile sees psychiatrist Dr. Ben Arnell face off against the Clown Prince of Crime in a series of therapy sessions designed to understand and, hopefully, “cure” the Joker of his psychosis. There are no super hero hijinks here, only a battle of wits and a test of nerves, as Dr. Arnell wades into terrifying psychological territory where his other colleagues dared not wander.
Lemire and Sorrentino, the team behind the critically-acclaimed series Gideon Falls, reunite in this probing case study of criminal psychosis, recidivism, and the effectiveness of psychiatry and the criminal justice system. Lemire shows full control of the narrative and despite the limited 3-issue run is able to plumb the depths of the Joker’s motivations.
Sorrentino’s textured art creates an eerie atmosphere with slanting shadows, uncomfortable close-ups and a generous showing of the Joker’s eponymous killer smile.
While chaos has always been the Joker’s modus operandi, here he is unnervingly restrained, sometimes even thoughtful. His calm demeanor belies the true danger he presents, and the Joker becomes a mirror through which Dr. Arnell sees himself.
Joker: Killer Smile is haunting and creepy, and is all the better for it.
X-Men (Marvel, from 2019, ongoing series)
This is the X-Men like you’ve never seen them before.
For decades, our merry band of mutants have often preferred a more reactive strategy in protecting mutantkind, with a few notable exceptions (the Avengers vs X-men arc is a classic example).
Following the events of 2019’s House of X/Powers of X relaunch, mutantkind finds itself fed up with hiding in the shadows. In Jonathan Hickman and Filipino superstar comic book artist Leinil Francis Yu’s groundbreaking new ongoing series, all mutants band together to create their own nation of Krakoa and demand international recognition and respect.
Aside from their already considerable combined might, mutants now possess a new ace in the hole: a flower endemic to their island nation which, when processed properly, becomes medicine that can cure a multitude of diseases or even prolong life. They offer this medicine to countries who recognize Krakoa’s sovereignty and form politico-economic alliances with the new mutant nation.
This X-Men story arc has become more visceral and discomforting these days, when headlines are filled with news on the pandemic and vaccines. It tackles the morality of taking what should be a global public good and using it to achieve political ends. What makes it all the more unnerving is how this story predates by more than a year the current controversies surrounding how countries allegedly employ “vaccine diplomacy” to gain strategic advantage.
Hickman seamlessly weaves international politics with super hero fare. And by creating a tenuous alliance among erstwhile enemies like the X-Men, Mr. Sinister, and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, he effectively sets up double-dealing and secret machinations. Coupled with Yu’s kinetic and amazingly detailed art, this new X-Men book considerably raises the stakes.
Superhero comic books have, almost since its inception, been a powerful and accessible platform for discussing serious social issues. Modern comic books continue this tradition and have even expanded its scope by campaigning for or supporting causes like gender equality, indigenous people’s rights and cancer or AIDS research.
In this way, comic books have cemented its importance, both as a venue for dialogue and as a mirror through which our society can gauge its progress.
All in all, not too bad for a story-telling medium which many dismiss as escapist fiction for children. – Rappler.com
Rory J. Bolivar is a registered microbiologist, educator, and writer. Robespierre L. Bolivar is the recipient of the Gawad Mabini, one of the highest Presidential honors bestowed upon Filipino diplomats.
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