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superman comic Action Comics #1 Image: Jerry Siegel/Joe Shuster/DC Comics

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Superheroes fought for the people — then money got in the way

A comic writer reflects on the political history of caped crusaders, and what needs to happen next

Whether in comics or film, television or video games, most contemporary superheroes maintain a consistent moral code: liberty within rigidly defined boundaries, outside of which punitive violence is necessary and justified. In 2020, superheroes are less interested in improving the world than in defending the status quo, neatly aligning them with the right-wing politicians to which executives and board members donate as well as the toothless corporate liberalism their companies espouse.

Judging from the current landscape, it’s easy to assume that superheroes have never been anything more than corporate-owned supercops, reactionary power fantasies cloaked in liberal signifiers. But that generalization obscures the truth: Superheroes used to be about helping and protecting people, not the systems and hierarchies holding them down.

Though heavily concealed over the course of generations, that radical, anarchic strain has been a part of the superhero genre since its beginnings, with Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s 1938 creation of Superman. As originally envisioned, the character was a far cry from the gleaming piece of intellectual property we know today; Superman was a populist champion, pushing back against predatory criminals, corrupt politicians, and greedy landlords.

Like all superheroes, Superman was of and for his time. The character’s creators had lived through the Great Depression, witnessing the catastrophic failures of U.S. economic and political systems firsthand. Siegel and Shuster had watched working class people — like their Jewish immigrant parents — bear the brunt of those failures, while the country’s robber barons remained as wealthy and powerful as ever. Just as significantly, as children, they had also seen a potential alternative to a nation ruled by the rich: the successful socialist worker’s revolution that led to the establishment of the Soviet Union in 1923.

Superman stops a predatory man from beating up his wife
Action Comics #1 (1938)
Image: Jerry Siegel/Joe Shuster/DC Comics

This was the cultural milieu from which emerged not only Superman, but the rest of the first wave of superheroes. Rivaling Superman in popularity was C.C. Beck and Bill Parker’s Captain Marvel (now Shazam), who combined the original superhero’s populist appeal with a fantastical childlike whimsy. Meanwhile, William Moulton Marston and Harry G. Peter’s Wonder Woman was a profoundly radical character, one Marston — a polyamorous psychologist and self-help author — used to explore feminist ideas that wouldn’t become mainstream until decades afterward.

But for all the working-class, egalitarian populism on display, early superheroes also featured a reactionary impulse, most clearly displayed in Bill Finger and Bob Kane’s Batman. The powerful benefactor who uses his wealth to save the poor from themselves grew to become one of the genre’s most enduring archetypes, as exemplified by weapons manufacturer Iron Man and monarch Black Panther.

This conflict between populism and authoritarianism runs throughout the superhero canon; more often than not, whenever superheroes fight one another, this is what the struggle is about. But as contradictory as these impulses seem, they share something crucial: Superman and Batman both acted outside of established hierarchies to effect the change they wanted to see. Whether populist or authoritarian, superheroes were still largely anti-hierarchical. That all changed, however, in the 1960s, with the momentous collaboration between Marvel Comics editor and figurehead Stan Lee and one of the medium’s most important creators, cartoonist Jack Kirby.

The difference between Kirby and Lee was stark. Kirby grew up in the rough tenements of New York City’s Lower East Side, a neighborhood that housed recent Jewish immigrants, many of whom worked in factories owned by more well-to-do Jewish families of the Upper West Side, where Lee was raised. In comics, Kirby continued to experience the travails of the working class, grinding out countless characters and stories of which he held no ownership. Meanwhile, Lee was management; at the tender age of 19, he became the editor of Marvel’s precursor Timely Comics, which was owned by Lee’s cousin-in-law Martin Goodman.

Cover of Forever People #3
Jack Kirby’s Forever People #3 (1971)
Image: Jack Kirby/DC Comics

For Kirby, life was a struggle to elevate himself while beset on all sides by oppressive and exploitive systems; in the 1970s, his populist, egalitarian leanings would be given free expression in his magnum opus, the interlocking DC series comprising his “Fourth World” storyline. But for Lee, the system was working as intended, a meritocracy that led not only to him editing an entire line of comics, but writing many of them and taking an amount of credit that remains heavily debated today.

The juxtaposition of Kirby and Lee resulted in an astounding number of superheroes: the Hulk, Thor, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and many others. Described as having “feet of clay,” Marvel superheroes were designed to be more human and relatable than the godlike figures populating other comics. In practice, this meant that Marvel superheroes, instead of squaring off against oppressive systems, began to operate within them; many were even created by hierarchies of business, government, science and academia. With the triumph of post-war liberalism, Kirby’s working-class point of view was subjugated to Lee’s post-war middle-class sensibilities; there was no longer any room for radical, populist heroes.

Superheroes’ standard operating procedures became liberal ideals by fascist means, enacted within and in defense of established structures. But in the 1970s, superheroes began to grow more skeptical of hierarchies, mirroring the skepticism of the U.S. as a whole, as the country grappled with the Watergate Scandal and the Vietnam War. Then, in the 1980s, with President Ronald Reagan in the White House, superheroes went through another massive change.

With their anarchic populist strain sequestered away and their idealistic faith in hierarchies of business and government shattered, there was nothing left to animate superheroes but rules for the sake of rules and the violence necessary to enforce them. Nowhere is this clearer than in a pair of seminal works: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. The comics are shockingly different; while Miller indulged in superheroes’ fascist elements, Moore & Gibbons issued an anarchic broadside against the genre’s authoritarianism. Both works, however, hold up a mirror to Reagan’s anti-worker, tough-on-crime, austerity politics and, significantly, the nihilism that comes with the acknowledgement that the only truly inviolable law is might makes right.

In the 1990s, that nihilism was joined by gleeful fatalism. With Bill Clinton’s Democratic party embracing the neoliberal politics of Reagan, superheroes, like much of the country, acknowledged that there was no other option but the way things are. The mere potential for transformational, revolutionary, populist politics was stomped out of the genre, as superheroes became meaner, more violent, and more authoritarian in their defense of the status quo.

This trend has continued into the present day. While many Marvel and DC superheroes have shed the outward signifiers of violent, fatalistic nihilism in favor of optimism and hopefulness, it’s nothing more than a costume. Superheroes, their stories, and the assumptions they’re predicated upon remain rooted in authoritarian impulses and nigh-fascist logic; contemporary superheroes dedicate themselves to protecting oppressive hierarchies from people, not the other way around. Perhaps this should come as no real surprise, as Marvel and DC are owned by two of America’s biggest media conglomerates, Disney and AT&T, respectively.

The political evolution of superheroes formed the background of Tyrell Cannon and my initial discussions about working together. In talking through our complicated relationship with superheroes — adoring the genre trappings and idioms but cringing at the politics, loving the aesthetic but hating the ethos — we wanted to take everything we love about those genres and mediums and strip away what was ugly and hateful, and return the superhero comic to its original intent, evoking the working-class populism of Superman, the aspirational whimsy of Captain Marvel, and the radicalism of Wonder Woman.

Out of that desire sprang Tyrell and my aspirational, leftist superhero comic BEEF BROS. Our bodybuilder heroes, Huey and Ajax Beef, base their actions not on the mandates of oppressive hierarchies of government and business, but rather, on a simple, foundational truth that many of us learned as children: If you can help someone, you do it. But as uncontroversial as that maxim appears, when taken to its extreme — as Huey and Ajax take everything — it puts the Beef Bros in conflict with the entirety of modern, capitalist society, from cruel cops and greedy landlords to corrupt governments and omnipotent corporations.

Beef Bros
BEEF BROS (2020)
Image: Aubrey Sitterson/Tyrell Cannon

The world is grim. We’re in the midst of a global pandemic with climate disaster breathing down our necks. Income inequality runs rampant and a militarized police force stands ready to defend the hierarchies that have failed all of us. In this dire moment, we need something aspirational; we need superheroes who believe a better world is possible, who recognize that humanity’s natural state isn’t competition, but cooperation. It’s our hope that BEEF BROS is a righteous comic book to read, one that proclaims, in a loud and clear voice, what we believe to be good and true. But more than that, by reaching back and taking inspiration from the origins of superheroes, we hope that it illuminates a new way forward.

The comic book industry is a profoundly exploitive place, dominated by two of the world’s biggest media conglomerates, the exact type of oppressive hierarchies that the Beef Bros proudly stand against. Marvel and DC pay work-for-hire freelancers a relative pittance, then turn their creations into massively successful movies, television shows, video games, and merchandise that, instead of benefiting the creators themselves, further line the pockets of wealthy executives and shareholders.

By contrast, BEEF BROS is completely creator owned, with any money raised above our funding goal split equitably among the creative team and used to get started on the next issue; there are no corporate entities or unscrupulous bosses skimming off the top. We don’t have to be alone here: The hope is also to inspire other comics creators, showing that there’s a way to ethically produce books without placing yourself in the thrall of glorified intellectual property farms. As ever, any type of meaningful, lasting change will come, not with the permission of bosses and companies, but from the communities we build ourselves. Comics can be about that.