Agendas. Messages. Themes. From the days of the Golden Age’s Hitler-punching propaganda to the we’ll-hate-mutants-but-not-cosmic-radiation-freaks racism allegories, reality has always had a place in comics. And in today’s age of “This Is The Internet So Any Moron Can Put Their Opinion Online” we also have no shortage of people trying to explain the meanings and intentions of these stories (plus why you are objectively bad if you disagree with them).
However, I’m not here to tell you whether you should lean to the Left, the Right, or the Red. My priority has been and always will be one simple thing: Does it make for a good story?
Well, get your animal suits out of the closet (don’t ask, I know you have them, you bronies, don’t deny it) and let’s take some recent examples from the men themselves: Black Panther and the Falcon!
Right. So, a crash course on the evolution of ‘social awareness’ in comics.
- Start with the Golden Era. Comics had less freedom and were just pulp adventures, often propaganda machines. So when you have the Nazi and Red threats, you got heroes being as AMERICAN as possible.
- Ah, now we’ve got some creative independence! Now you have the era of the X-Men and Spider-Man, which is all the explanation you…What? An actual explanation? Alright, now you’ve got comics to really talk about real things like racism, teen troubles, and drug addiction, albeit dressed up in fancy costumes and soap operas.
- Finally, comics had to get modern once they figured they could no longer avoid things like iPhones, Barack Obama, and the selfie stick. Issues were no longer ‘alluded to in stories’ but became separate independent entities, like the most boring crossover you could imagine. Spider-Man Meets The Gendered Pay Gap!
Now, before you roll your eyes at the idea of a writer pushing their agenda on you, I’ll speak frankly: ANY bit of writing is going to have a bit of the author’s message in it somewhere. Or, in the more cynical situations, whatever message the author’s sponsors want to push. Yes, even the most message-free nonsensical adventure has SOMETHING to say no matter what the author intended (for instance, they could be saying RELAX, MAN, IT’S JUST AN ADVENTURE).
Now, like I said, this post isn’t about whether the message is worth anything. Sure, I’ll probably rant about it at some point in the future, but like a true professional, I’m delivering what I promised: My insights into how these themes can help or dominate a story.
Mentioning the X-Men and Spider-Man is actually a pretty good way to give a control group of how social issues can colour a book for the better. The most obvious praise, of course, is that it creates stories which are more realistic, more emotional, and more compelling than your basic “Big Silicon Monster Arrives With A Toe-Stubbing Ray And Forbush Man Teams Up With The Thing To Stop Him.” And both franchises generally represent the two templates for how to do it: In-Universe, or Real-Universe.
Now, here’s what you came for: Elaborations, complete with more modern examples!
The In-Universe X-Panther
So let’s talk the X-Men. If you’ve grown up anytime in the 90s, you DEFINITELY know the premise of mutants defending a world that hates and fears them. And you can see how this would be the perfect vehicle to talk about racism. They evolved from awkward teenagers mentored by Sir Patrick Stewart to an international team
See, here’s the thing about how themes are presented in X-Men: They’re part of the characters’ DNA. They’re not dealing out Public Service Announcements where they address white supremacists, they’re living it out themselves: MUTANTS are the ones who live with it, not “some guy over there the mutants are dealing with.” Comparatively speaking, this is like writing speculative fiction or just outright building a world from scratch: You have your premise, your characters, and then things are built up from them as a result.
But everyone knows the X-Men. For a bit of variety, and because it’s in my mind, I’ll be giving you another more recent example: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Black Panther.
This title, I feel, is another example of how themes can be an organic component of a story, giving it depth and feeling. To sum up, yes, it very much deals with the following themes: African identity, the problems of a monarchy in the modern world, the will of the people.
But of all of Marvel’s properties, these issues are as great a fit for Black Panther as racism is for the X-Men.
Pictured above: You’re the king? Well, I didn’t vote for you.
The latest Black Panther series is one of the strongest examples of the synthesis of theme and character because, first and foremost, it also successfully tells a good story.
It’s not a good story DESPITE the theme or a good story that JUST HAPPENS to have a theme. No, quite the contrary: These themes are turned into personal, eloquent explorations of the characters. The anger of the people at their powerlessness, the despair of a king torn between modern diplomacy and his dynasty’s role as the Invincible Monarch.
And the best part, I feel, is that the book doesn’t place everything squarely on its title character’s shoulders. No, it actually makes ample use of multiple POVs, cutting to its vast cast of supporting characters to show what they’re going through in ways which are meant to compare, contrast, and allude to the future collision of these worldviews. And a vibrant supporting cast is among the strongest benefits a story can have.
I may not agree with everything Mister Coates does, and think his lesbian characters are a little TOO into their girl power that they turn into angry, shortsighted rebels who think being angry makes them right and nobody else can possibly have a valid point. But as a writer, he’s been able to create a work that doesn’t just tell the message he wants to deliver, but do so in a way that feels natural for the characters. More than that, it does so in a GOOD way that makes for a great read. And bonus points for the fact that he wrote something that has a political thriller feel, yet built it up fairly smoothly from the ruins of an alien invasion from previous events. In short, one of the things furthest from what he had in mind.
So I’ve talked at length about the benefits of making themes and agendas an in-universe, organic part of the world. It fits better, it can be used to move the story in a way that is interesting and sensible, etc.. But in fairness, there’s weaknesses to it, too.
Not everyone will get the association, just like how I an unable to get themes of African identity. Additionally, unless it fits really well, it can fall victim to being a completely unnatural fit, an example of an author just forcing it in because they really like the theme. When that happens, the author’s stated theme can seem utterly inaccurate, prompting readers to apply different ones. For instance: If I made a faction with the theme of being people of both faith and reason yet depicted them as unreasonable zealots (i.e. by poorly writing that their opponents are clearly being unreasonable idiots without nuance), readers would rightly conclude I was a hack who didn’t know what I was saying.
Now, keep that scan I shared in mind. Remember the hauntingly succinct musings of a king brought low by his own people, capturing both a greater theme and a personal struggle. Because the next example throws all of that right out the window.
The Real-Universe Spider-Falcon
Set aside the fact that a Spider-Falcon sounds TERRIFYING and let’s talk about when comics dip into REAL real life!
Now, this has been around since the Golden Age when Cap punched Hitler, but the basic premise is this: When fictional things address real things. This can mean many things: Real people, real places, real issues. But the thing is that it must EXIST. It is NOT about creating a universe and then crafting things out of that, but taking something from real life, giving it a fresh coat of paint if necessary, and transplanting it into the story.
Now, there are three main reasons for how and why these themes come about:
- There’s a political or business reason to do it, such as WW2 propaganda or a paid promotion crossover with a franchise or celebrity.
- The studio execs and/or writers decided they wanted to address a ‘real’ thing (or as real as they could make it without using the actual names and places). Such as a left-wing studio creating the literal Social Justice Warriors title.
- The comics realised they couldn’t stay in the 70s forever, as groovy as they were, so reluctantly transitioned into the age of smartphones, acknowledging the fact that their characters have aged.
So take Spider-Man. Spider-Man was revolutionary for being one of the first true Young Adult comics, as Stan Lee envisioned in the same vein of his dysfunctional heroes like the Fantastic Four. And further to Stan’s own axe to grind of writing things his way, Spidey ALSO got a number of requests for crossovers or special messages. Like say the time they implemented a subplot about drug addiction as part of a special request for an anti-drug message.
So, speaking objectively, ‘real world’ themes can work just as well as ‘in-universe’ themes so long as the writer handles it well. Additionally, because it resembles reality a lot more, that can lead to more visceral emotions. But here’s the problem: It relies on reality, and reality is MESSY and much easier to get wrong.
Spider-Man probably got it right because of a few reasons. Maybe it had more restraint (or restrictions), and so focused on creating a coherent and engaging story FIRST, then fitting in the subplots later. But this latest example is something I feel represents when real world themes WRECK a story.
So, Captain America: Sam Wilson. For those of you not in the know, Steve got turned old, so he gave the shield to the Falcon. Then he got turned young and had his history rewritten, but that’s not the topic for today.
For an overview…well, rather than giving you lengthy exposition on the structure and struggles of writing the Falcon and the difficulties of telling stories about social issues and race in a comic book medium, I think I’ll just start us off with this scan!
Pictured above: Basically the entire series in a nutshell.
So now for a proper overview. In its run, this comic has commonly dealt with a lot of things besetting America and the world. Things like immigration, nationalism, whether protests and activism should be peaceful or aggressive, the nature of compromise and the responsibilities of being a symbol, and so on.
And here’s the main problem: These issues hamstring the story. Badly.
If the above panel wasn’t enough, here’s basically what happens in this comic, not just for one story, but for all of it:
- Cap goes “Gee, this thing sucks. Wish I could do something about it besides just talking, but I have to represent AMERICA.”
- Angry Sidekick goes “Yeah, you SHOULD do something about it! You suck, Cap!”
- Racist Government Figure goes “No, you SHOULDN’T do something about it! You suck, and I think only white men can be Captain America!” (Note: That is a real opinion held by FOX News)
- Something happens that makes the situation worse. Cap considers maybe possibly potentially doing something about it.
- Find a new social issue and go back to step 1.
Captain America: Sam Wilson, from what I’ve observed, represents the main problems of giving agendas too much weight in a story.
Firstly, these agendas are given SO MUCH attention that the story is left pretty bare. Or rather, there IS a story, but it’s buried by a lot of politicising and angst. You are no longer making a story and fitting themes in it; you are selling a theme and picking a story to deliver it as an afterthought.
And because of that, a number of characters are no longer characters, but mouthpieces for opinions. Supporting Sidekicks and Conservative Assholes represent the worst of this because they have no other depth or diversity to their motives and contribute nothing except to remind Sam and the audience about their stance loudly. Compare this to Black Panther, or even Civil War, which have the most vital part of diverse characterisation: Making sure everyone has a convincing argument and depth.
Secondly, because the themes themselves are centered in reality, they can’t be tackled neatly or conclusively. Now, I must admit, I actually really respect the writing for Cap Sam himself: He’s a man of principles and wishes he could do more, struggling with being a symbol of unity, and coping with the temperance and patience he’s learned. However, the main problem is this: He can’t do anything about it.
Every issue he tackles is pretty much given a half-victory or a shrug because a conclusive victory would lead to massive political upheaval, which is why corrupt businesses are still standing and racist opponents are left to their own devices. And that’s made even MORE pressing because these issues are representative of REAL ones. A real sweeping victory would be like if you were running for president and published your memoirs of your victory only to lose.
In that light, I can respect the writer for capturing just how complex the situation really is instead of. But that brings us to the third problem: That’s great if you’re living in real life and having a discussion, but it makes for an absolutely miserable read. Grey morality, taken too far, results in apathy and a dragging plot that goes nowhere. If you spend too much time fixated on every point of view and moaning about them, you will lose the point you were hoping to make in the first place.
And that’s just not possible precisely because these themes are in real life. In a fantasy world, you can make a statement because you’re free to construct the story as you wish. Nature can triumph over industry, good can win over evil, and oranges can be better than apples. But in real life? You have to be mindful of people connected to it. You have to be mindful that it reflects reality, and can’t be given the same easy solution. And even if you DID reach a conclusion, you have to be mindful of what that conclusion says.
So there you have it. My two cents on what it means to have a message or agenda in a story, and what they can do for or to it. They could be a great enhancer, or the most forced millstone tied around the story’s neck. So what can I say in closing? With these things we’ve learned, what can we do about it as writers?
Ultimately, while no message will ever truly be a neutral tool, we also shouldn’t be afraid to use them. They’re inevitable, after all, so the least we can do is find a way to make them work to our advantage.
And that takes a lot of things. It takes meticulous crafting of the world and the plot to ensure the themes are a smooth fit. It also takes a great deal of passion, because an audience will likely smell out when you’re just giving a halfhearted endorsement (“Uhhh….Yeah…This story is about…Feminism? I guess? Whatever”). It might even take having to deal with REAL LIFE and figuring out how these ideas really work out.
But at the end of the day, I have two bits of surefire advice to give you:
Firstly, ask yourself what’s the message that you most wish to get out there. Or if you work with a story first, then look at the story and see what it’s saying. Either way, you then work out the best way for you to say it.
And secondly: No matter what you put first, ALWAYS MAKE SURE YOU HAVE A WORKING STORY. Build it on interesting, well-rounded characters, pace it to get the reactions you want, and give it an ending that resonates with what you wish to achieve, whether it’s victory, defeat, or uncertainty.
Because while your agendas might be unavoidable, good writing is ESSENTIAL. And that, I feel, is a stronger foundation for a story.