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Review of War, Politics, and Superheroes: Ethics and Propaganda in Comics and Film

By James E. Siburt

DiPaolo, Marc. War, Politics, and Superheroes: Ethics and Propaganda in Comics and Film. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2011. Print.1

Examining cultural texts, such as film, literature, or comic books, requires an understanding that the resulting product is not the sole creation of an individual or a specific group of individuals, but rather the product of all participants within that culture. This is a crucial point in understanding Dipaolo’s sociopolitical perspective. The study of a society’s cultural texts primarily provides insight into the society’s understanding of how it believes the world operates and secondarily provides an understanding of what significant signs are being impressed upon the cultural-cognitive structure. These products both reflect and impress an understanding upon the culture that is manifest through regulative, normative, and cultural-cognitive paradigms. Hence the reason the study of cultural artifacts as simple and mundane as popular culture films, television programs, graphic novels, comic books, video games, and various forms of pop-culture media provides invaluable insight into the formation and function of the ideologies and mythologies that impact socially understood norms.

DiPaolo’s social commentary on the Western political landscape engages many of these cultural texts, primarily those surrounding the superheroes found in comic books and films, and explores the ethical dilemmas confronted through these modern mythologies. He provides the reader with strong academic insights that should satisfy any cultural studies scholar, all the while remaining accessible to the serious fan of various superhero genres. Although primarily focused on the superheroes of comic books, no pop-culture trope is considered off limits, and all serve to support the value of cultural texts to provide insight into the societal understandings of socio-political issues. DiPaolo’s primary—as well as consistent—focus throughout the book is the socio-political events that shape, and at times are shaped by, the superheroes from Western pop-culture texts.

War, Politics, and Superheroes: Ethics and Propaganda in Comics and Film comprises a collection of previous works, updated for this book, and several new chapters, all of which are richly laced with supporting examples from a plethora of popular culture sources: television, film, literature, and comic books. Each chapter focuses on a specific superhero and/or a particular socio-political issue. While each of the chapters may be read independently, the book, read in its entirety, sheds light on the ethical dilemmas being faced in the socio-political arenas of the world stage.

Like the very authors he studies, DiPaolo uses the various comic book stories, their characters, and his own enthusiasm to create immersive character studies that provide a synoptic overview of several foundational superheroes in the comic book genre. One of DiPaolo’s many strengths is his understanding of both the superhero genre and the historical context from which he consistently draws direct correlations to the political climate which initially informed the stories. Richard Reynolds in his 1992 book Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology brought the world of comic book superheroes into conversation with contemporary theories on mythology and semiotics. While Reynolds focuses his book on the continuity of the superhero as mythological figure, DiPaolo focuses on the continuity of cultural relevance. For DiPaolo the superhero changes ideologically with the times and events of the culture, all the while remaining symbolically true to his or her origins.

DiPaolo’s introduction, “Are Superheroes Republican?,” acknowledges the existence of various ideologies, as well as the call for social responsibility, that is present within comic books. Addressing the issues of violence, sex, and drugs, the author strives to show that, while comic books, primarily marketed to children and adolescents, do imitate real sociopolitical issues, they can also demonstrate prudence and sound judgment. DiPaolo asserts that the various stories that drive the visual action within comics come from both the conservative as well as the liberal ends of the political spectrum. The question raised by this assertion, and I believe left unanswered, is why some comic books have impacted the way we look at the world, while others silently find their way to the bargain box at the local comic book shop.

What makes reviewing this particular collection of works by DiPaolo so difficult is that, as is the case with many anthologies, each chapter is largely independent or self-contained. Although the chapters work well as a collection due to a common theme, they each address a singular topic—terrorism, feminism, racism, nationalism, British Relations, Gay Rights, and President Obama—that is introduced and concluded within that particular chapter of the book. Every chapter does a decent job of providing a thorough background on the superhero or group of superheroes being studied, as well as providing insight into the sociopolitical theme of the chapter. For instance, chapter one’s look at Batman as terrorist, chapter six’s examination of the American and British relationship through Doctor Who and James Bond, and even chapter seven’s look at torture through Jack Bauer and Wonder Woman are all examples of how world events are reflected, and sometimes shaped, by Western pop-culture media.

The concluding chapter of the book, “In Brightest Day, in Darkest Knight: President Obama vs. the Zombie Apocalypse,” examines how President Obama has been portrayed in various comic books, all of which were deemed to show him in a positive light. The chapter further addresses how other political figures have been negatively portrayed, without offering any assumptions on why this has occurred. The chapter then segues into a brief discussion of Western culture’s zombie infatuation before returning to more discussion about President Obama’s comic book cameo appearances. As with most of the other chapters in this book the political perspective is unashamedly liberal Democratic without providing a balanced perspective for moderate or conservative readers. Although the final paragraph in this chapter attempts to tie together the entire book, it falls flat. What would have made this book more impressive would have been an equally strong concluding chapter to match the introduction: a bookend to a collection of works that speak to the importance of cultural texts that serve to both inform and reflect.

The overall tone of War, Politics, and Superheroes: Ethics and Propaganda in Comics and Film is like having a conversation with your geek friend at the local comic book store. And, like any conversation with a friend, the book is not afraid to be opinionated, follow rabbit trails, and jump on the next pop-culture reference, all the while faithfully remaining connected to the chapter’s main topic. While each chapter is well organized and follows its beginning premise, the book in its entirety eventually becomes repetitive and formulaic. This is primarily due to the fact that there is no overall main idea woven throughout the book and then brought to a satisfying conclusion.


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