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Using Stories (or Comics) for Politics

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Sept. 24, 2022

So, fair warning, I was dead tired last night and forgot to write the blog post. I am slightly drunk now, so I've got no inhibition whatsoever. And I'm going to talk about whatever comes to mind. So, big shocker for anyone who knows me, I want to talk about politics.

Politics in stories. Politics in comics. The debate of “now you turned it political” or “you just worry about THE MESSAGE” that gets hurled left and right when a movie hits the cinemas (or streaming) or when the newest DC/Marvel comic makes an appearance on the shelves.

Keep politics out of my stories, says one side that longs for “better quality stories” and “better quality characters” and for existing characters not to get “bent out of shape for politics”.

Comics should be/have always been political, says the other side or opts for the “it's not for you” argument to shut down any discussion about why a story might potentially be bad.

Note I'm saying ‘story’ because usually the gripes are mostly on the narrative/character design/world building/ internal validity of the world in comics and movies rather than cinematography or anything else (and when that is the gripe, it eventually devolves into the former or is irrelevant for this post).

So which is it?

I would argue that there is NO story that is not political. Every story has politics ingrained simply because to write a story you need:
a. worldbuilding
b. plot
c. interaction of the characters with their environment and world
d. problems and solutions that carry the plot forward.

All of these elements are basically governed by politics. Take Superman. What character is more political than him!? His frigging motto was “truth, justice, and the American way”! How is that not a walking, talking, flying, eye-laser-beaming avatar of 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s American politics? The American way and the American Dream that goes with it was a battery of tennets and ideas closely intertwined with USA politics and mainstream positions on how people should live their life, in what system they should live it, and what they should be considering a threat (usually Communism ).

Ergo, we can easily conclude that the nostalgic Superman comics of the golden age were distinctly political, despite being mainstream and despite being extremely popular in the rough demographic that now calls for politics to be stripped from comics.

Superman is not a singular example, either. Comics have always been used for the expression of highly politicised ideas and positions, from Betty Boop to TinTin (just take a look at the panel of the main characters' plane landing in the Land of the Picaros and the panel of them taking off to leave the Land of the Picaros after the adventure is done, for a salient example).

So, what I'd argue (and probably die on that hill) is that there's no way for any story, no matter how innocent it might look, to be devoid of politics. Even children's stories meant to teach kids “stranger danger” are deeply political, as agents of a social situation that resorts to teaching children to defend themselves rather than society protecting them instead. Let alone children stories that teach children the norms of their society…

On the other hand, beyond the political facet of stories, there's also the creative one. You can have a story carrying political messages that is simply crap- no plot to speak of, cardboard characters, little internal validity to the world rules, etc. And there is a trend where the story's message is used as a shield to deflect criticisms on the creative front, in movies or comics that are mass produced as a cash-grab and bait to certain demographics, using notoriety as cheap advertisement in the meantime.

So what's the bottom line? What should we take from my slightly uninhibited, tipsy rant-esque post?

I won't tell you that, I'm not your mom!

But what I would suggest is to:
a. Stop whining about politics in comics and stories. They've always been there and it's impossible to take them out of a story and still have it be a story.
b. Don't immediately assume that someone who is complaining about “the politics” is a bigot. They might be, but they may also have a point on the creative value of the story. Political stories can be fascinatingly engaging, or they can be a preachy boring mess where nothing makes sense. If it's the latter, then own up to it rather than throw ad hominem attacks left and right to pretend the criticism isn't legitimate. If it's not the latter, present your arguments, and then assess if the person's real problem is “The Message”.

Yeah, that.

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TheJagged at 10:42AM, Sept. 26, 2022

I don't have a problem with politics, but i do take issue when over-doing it on "current events". If you heavily base a story on something so specific as say, an ideological trend, that might hit the nerve of the Zeitgeist but it also tends to age very poorly. And there's the aspect of escapism. I get exceedingly tired of any media that tries to "educate" me. At some point you just wanna stop thinking about the heavy stuff you get bombarded with every day on news etc. and just wanna sit back and be entertained. There's a time and place to discuss politics, but it doesn't have to be 24/7 for fuck's sake. If I come to ficiton to laugh and have a good time, I don't want a condescending finger wagged at me. And the absolute the last thing i need is something like a Hollywood action movie or an over-budgeted Triple A game giving me a lecture on feminism, racism, and general ethical behavior. I'd rather read a book from people who studied this and actually know what they are talking about.

PaulEberhardt at 3:48AM, Sept. 26, 2022

The challenge for an author with a political message firmly in mind is that either half of your readers will beg to differ, no matter what it is - or you risk that less-discerning readers overlook it. Either way you won't reach those you set out to convince. Authors trying too hard not to be politically preachy may find that readers accuse them of having no spine. Authors trying too hard to avoid any of this by catering for what they think their crowd approves of - "Hey, everyone look how modern and enlightened my company is!" (see the Black Mermaid post) will also make people pin you down as a selling-out invertebrate. All of this can be easily avoided by just writing/drawing what you feel and without being afraid of having some edge and keeping in mind that "some edge" is not something you can create artificially. Having your views potentially challenged is the whole point of communicating them, also through art: "No man (or woman) is an island." It's a chance to grow.

PaulEberhardt at 3:03AM, Sept. 26, 2022

You can never quite take politics out of the equation - true! This whole political or not thing is very much down to each reader's interpretation, so if you really set your mind to it, you can find political messages in "The Tiger Who Came For Tea" - just as a random example. And boy/girl/diverse, what deep dark abysses some people manage to see in it! It's valid - all interpretations are (except for jumbled nonsensical hate speeches found on the internet sometimes, but that's beside the point), that's where the beauty of fiction lies. However, there IS such a thing as over-interpretation and there IS a difference between holier-than-thou moral/political preaching and art. I don't think I'm whining when I say I very much prefer a well-crafted story mostly created for its own sake to one that just keeps trying to force upon me somebody's political view. I dislike those for the same reason I click "Skip Ads", no matter how noble the intention behind them (in some cases).

bravo1102 at 10:30PM, Sept. 24, 2022

All human interaction is political. It's how the species interacts. We set up hierarchies and tribes (us/not us) and that is reflected in all our associations. We are a social species and that society is political. You can keep out obvious emotionally charged references like the EU or the GOP but can't keep out how people react with one another. Even if you're writing about anthropomorphic characters they still have the hierarchies and tribes that make them political. One of the great things about fantasy and science fiction is that you can a make all kinds of political observations without being overtly political.

hushicho at 3:29PM, Sept. 24, 2022

This is such a solid post and so moving that I would never have imagined you wrote it drunk after a restless night! Fantastic work, agreed completely. Especially when one is a part of various minority groups and subcultures, it becomes impossible to separate any kind of politics from one's work. It makes a statement just by conveying one's circumstances, in that case. Humanizing the characters sometimes can be an incredibly controversial statement, but it's just reasoning that these other humans...are also human.

marcorossi at 10:01AM, Sept. 24, 2022

There is a general view about how the world is, and how it should be, that in general terms is "politic" but we can also call it "moral", and this can't be avoided. There is also a more restrictive sense of politics, roughly "I'm part of this political tribe", and this should be avoided unless you want to write a specifically political story. This is because you generally would want to speak also to people of different political tribes, and also because it is often "though not allways) reductive to squeeze the first level of morality into the second level of party politics.

Ozoneocean at 6:55AM, Sept. 24, 2022

There's politics and politics XD I suppose when people complain about "politics" in stories what they're really complaining about is what they see as the comic taking sides with the current hot-button culture issues of the day, rather than just generally being "political". I think the cries of "politics" in relation to pop-culture and hot-button culture issues are a modern North American phenomenon because they imagine those things are ties to the left and right of actual politics... When they're really not. But modern American media loves to make it seem that way and because of that it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy when the politicians take advantage of this stuff.

Commissar_Tarkin at 6:20AM, Sept. 24, 2022

I guess that, for the "let's keep politics out of X" crowd, politics is something that's either debatable or controversial in the current political climate, or simply diverges from their own worldview. The mainstream positions don't draw such attention, because a lot of people tend to view them as "common sense" and not "politics". "Politics" is something debatable, whether they agree with it or not, "common sense" isn't. Of course, there are very few really "non-political" issues and topics in reality: some people, for example, manage to take issue with depictions of the Earth as a roughly spherical body. This is less on the "politics" and more on the "crackpot" side of things, but the line between "political views" and "crackpot fringe beliefs" is also a political issue in itself. Goddammit. There's no escape, it's like a snake eating it's tail.

Ironscarf at 6:00AM, Sept. 24, 2022

A very salient drunken rant! What people mean when they say 'keep politics out of comics' is really 'keep politics I don't personally agree with out of comics', as if their own world view is somehow not related to politics. My other takeaway from this is that Tipsy Rantesque would be a great character name/twitter handle.

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