Through the mirror of my mind / Time after time, I see reflections of you and me / Reflections of the way life used to be / Reflections of the love you took from me • “Reflections,” by Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland, and Eddie Holland, recorded by Diana Ross and the Supremes, 1967, Motown Records
Like every other art form, comics – or more accurately, the creators of comics – reflect the times in which they live.
I started reading comics in the Silver Age, when superheroes were manufactured like products in factories, conveyed along conveyor belts of post-World War II American middle-class morality, which ensured that everything but the packaging was the same. Each hero kept their true nature hidden behind a pair of glasses, or a secretary’s typewriter, or a desk in a high school classroom. Each hero lived a lonely life, because to reveal their secret would only endanger their loved one. And each rose above their personal traumas and tragedies to fight for “truth, justice, and the American way.”
And we felt good about our heroes, and about ourselves.
Then, while Mississippi burned and Vietnam raged, “let it all hang out” and “tune in, turn on, drop out,” became the mantra of a generation. The real world intruded onto the four-color page as mutant X-Men fought societal preconceptions of race, religion, and gender roles, Speedy, Green Arrow’s sidekick, became a drug addict, and alcoholism consumed Tony Stark.
And even though our heroes suffered, they rose above their personal battles and we felt good about them, and about ourselves.
Then came the “Brit Invasion” of comics, and writers like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Peter Milligan, Grant Morrison, and Jamie Delano turned comics inside out and upside down. Our heroes became just like us, only more so; questions about identity and debates about right and wrong plagued them. Nothing was black-and-white in the four-color world, anymore; doubts and uncertainty ruled decisions, and outcomes were often ambiguous.
But we still we rooted for our heroes, because through their problems, we understood our problems, and so we felt good about our heroes, and about ourselves.
But now I wonder… yes, comics still reflect the real world, but now it too often feels like I’m leaning over the railing of a ship and spitting in the wind. The realism flies back in our face.
The world seems to me uglier today than it ever was. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda and ISIS have made the Crusades and the Inquisition footnotes in a text on religion as an excuse for totalitarianism and war. Cyber terrorism raises the specter of a war between creative freedom and potential lawsuits, and creative freedom loses. Racism is alive and well again as acts of violence and death are perpetuated by those who wear a uniform that is supposed to stand for protection against such acts. The so-called leaders of our country are unfunny clowns in a thunderdome of viciousness and ugliness, and a vice-president, the man-who-would-be-king, defends torture as the American way. And hardly anybody votes, because hardly anybody cares.
And we no longer root for our heroes, who are us, but only more so, because, you know, all art is a product of its society, and comics are an art form, and comics are created by artists who are can’t be blamed for reflecting the society in which they live.