Tangled Webs: Politics and the Spider-Man Comics


For the latest Tangled Webs entry, I looked at how politics has been depicted in the Spider-Man comics.

As a Republican, I’m slightly wary of depictions of politics in popular culture, due to the left-leaning slant of most writers and editors. Some writers seem unaware that those on the other side truly believe that their solutions will do more good than the alternative. It’s easy to demonize the people you disagree with because the stakes are high, and mistakes in policy will mean that some people will die and that others will never be achieve their true potential. But functioning in a pluralistic society requires civil interactions with people who honestly believe that if everyone who thinks as you do would only come to their side, the world would be a much better place.

Given all the times elected officials, political candidates and political issues are mentioned on the front pages of newspapers, politics should probably be a bigger part of the Spider-Man comics than it is. However, there are incentives for Marvel employees to avoid taking political stands in the pages of the comics. Readers will hold myriad  irreconcilable political views (Ted Cruz is right! Elizabeth Warren is right! Ted Cruz is right on some things, and Elizabeth Warren is right about other things!  Ted Cruz and Elizabeth Warren are both wrong!) in addition to those who don’t vote, or don’t participate in politics in an American context. This complicates matters for anyone trying to deal with serious topics in a series that is meant to be set in a world that is similar to our own.

As a result, when controversial topics are brought up, it’s usually as a way to raise questions rather than provide answers, or to present an extreme version of a situation which doesn’t really address anything about contemporary debates. Readers could disagree on gun control, but we’ll hope that Spider-Man can save schoolchildren from a shooter. There may be disagreements on the role of churches in family life, but there’s a general consensus that cults are bad. Religion and politics can always be incorporated into the A-plot, since ministers, rabbis and politicians can always be attacked by criminals, and rescued by superheroes. However, there is a tremendous potential for intellectual dishonesty, as the writer gets to determine the outcomes on issues that are usually much more opaque in real life. A conservative writer could depict a voter fraud conspiracy by crazed environmentalists, while his liberal counterpart could pit Spidey against Republicans introducing drugs to a primarily African-American neighborhood.

When a politician appears, Spider-Man generally respects the office, which is a bland and inoffensive position to take, and not a neutral one. Often the officeholder’s role is nonpartisan. Sometimes a real-life political figure offers advice on how to avoid drugs, or how to find help if you’re unemployed. If a fictional official abuses his power, it’s not meant as an ad hominem attack on all politicians or against all members of a particular political party. We would all agree that it’s not acceptable for a city councilman to take bribes from the Kingpin, or for a district attorney to order a witness killed. There are obvious exceptions, due to occasional parodies, although there is always the possibility that a writer will have a tremendous blind spot, and be ignorant of the appeal of a political figure they’re mocking, which can turn off some readers.

More at the link.

About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
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