HOLY TERROR and Propaganda vs. Storytelling

16 Nov

by Mike Hansen

Official presidential portrait of Barack Obama...

Can this guy be in a comic book without it being one-sided propaganda? (Hint: YES) (Image via Wikipedia)

There’s a really interesting discussion going on over at the Marvel Masterworks Fan Site forums (in which I’ve participated a bit) over Frank Miller’s Holy Terror and whether it, or Miller, are offensive.

My post there today ended up being much longer and more time-consuming than I’d intended, so there probably won’t be as many site updates here today. I’m going to be lazy and just share some of what I posted there, since I do think it’s worth further discussion (either there or here, whatever you feel like).

Unlike Miller’s comments section (or most comments sections on the ‘net), this thread has inspired a lot of great ideas and points of view about politics and propaganda. And the discussion has broadened into whether comics and other popular media are appropriate tools for depicting polarizing/political figures, or groups of people (like, say, Muslims), and whether said depictions are inherently biased.

From my last post:

Yes, Alex Ross’s Bush/Obama paintings are obviously ridiculous, editorial works that fit perfectly with his approach to superhero cover art and his work on Uncle Sam (the American Dream vs. the cynical, imperfect reality). Ross works in symbols and iconography; I don’t see why anyone would be offended by an artist having a point of view in his work, especially when it’s making a statement about a public figure. To me, that’s the beauty of free speech in America: any public figure deserves all of the praise and criticism people convey in their editorial work, because they’re asking for it. No other country has the same absolute guarantee of this sort of criticism, and that’s the one thing I value about America more than any other.

But editorial cartoons aren’t comic-book stories. The stories need multiple characters, with multiple points of view, with their own personalities and goals. If President Obama was depicted as indecisive or a weak leader or politically corrupt, it wouldn’t bother me in the least, as long as it’s a good story and the characters within it act that way for a good reason within the context of the story. Like every politician, there’s plenty to criticize about Obama: look at how he’s showing ridiculous favoritism to a big party donor, former Marvel owner Ronald O. Perelman: http://www.latimes.com/ne…20111113,0,4293298.story

Cover of "Uncle Sam: Deluxe Edition"

Is criticizing America inherently anti-American? (Hint: NO) (Cover of Uncle Sam: Deluxe Edition)

My biggest problem with Holy Terror isn’t that it’s “racist,” as some are saying (I find all of the characters to be ugly and repugnant); it’s that it’s just a really bad comic: bad storytelling, paper-thin characters, Miller ripping himself off in the most lazy way imaginable. I’m always willing to give creative works the benefit of the doubt on offensiveness, because the characters and the storylines have to have a point of view, and that POV isn’t necessarily the creator’s. Look at The Ultimates: it’s blatantly right-wing and might-makes-right, but Mark Millar has said he’s more left-of-center. Its depiction of President Bush isn’t an attack on right-wingers; it’s how Millar and Hitch thought Bush the man would react in a world of superhuman weapons of mass destruction engaging in international acts of war. That’s it. Same with President Obama in Godzilla or Youngblood: they’re obviously fictionalized and cartoonish depictions that are consistent with the rest of those books’ contents. Calling the creators one-sided or propagandists for these depictions in crazy, fictional stories says more about the reader than the work or the creators.

And regarding Marvel’s Siege: Embedded, which featured a Glenn Beck-type character:

…That character needs to be one that Osborn – a genius who can read people like a book – can easily manipulate. So: make up the most self-serving, opportunistic TV propagandist in the Marvel Universe. That makes perfect story sense; it’s believable and based on real-world ideas taken to extremes, like all the best speculative fiction. And it makes it about the characters and their personal points of view and agendas, rather than any larger ideology. Saying that this story bashes “right-wingers” is like saying that depicting a positive gay character promotes “the homosexual agenda,” or that Frank Miller’s depiction of the evil and corrupt Cardinal Roark in the original Sin City (“The Hard Goodbye”) is anti-Catholic. That’s the difference, and that’s what I meant earlier about some people looking for “hidden messages” in their media. People need to recognize when they bring their own baggage to how they experience the story.

Amazing how one kooky rant from a famous figure can inspire so much dialogue. (Not just from ME; I mean in general!) Check out the Marvel Masterworks Fan Site; the community is an interesting group of folks, and unlike most comics sites’ comments, the ones here are often worth reading.

Apologies to anyone who thinks this cut-‘n’-paste post is lazy; I’ve only got so much time in the day! More stuff later today.

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  1. I read MYSTIC #1-4 « All Day Comics - November 17, 2011

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