On Friday New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio met with protestors to discuss their demands for police reform after the shocking death of Eric Garner and the controversial grand jury decision that followed. The name of the activists’ organization will sound familiar to any comics fan: Justice League NYC.
That this prominent group of social justice warriors would share a name with DC Entertainment’s leading super-team is no coincidence. Just check out the group’s logo, which features two African-American superheroes flying out of New York City through a graffiti-style logo. Dig even deeper into contemporary activism’s history and we see even more connections: Ferguson protestors formed their own Justice League over the summer, a leading progressive journalist writes at JusticeLeagueTaskForce.wordpress.com, and as pretty much everyone here knows, the Occupy movement made the V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes’ mask a global icon.
The role of comics in recent protests will no doubt be the subject of any number of academic papers, most of which will bear a punny coloned title like “DC Nation: From Social Relevance Comics to Social Change.” Yet before folks explore what all this means at greater length, I want to offer a quick note on how this phenomenon ties into comics’ uneasy relationship with the law.
Before Photoshop and Final Cut made it possible for anyone to transcend their innate limitations, comics offered a cheap and easy way for people to give a visible form to their wildest thoughts. They became pop culture’s analogue to law as the magic mirror of society — photos may have showed us how the other half lives, but in comics we could create the world of tomorrow, free from the strictures of budget, politics, injury, death, and the real world’s ineffective legal system. What’s more, comics also did away with the shadows and fog that even today make inquiries such as the Serial podcast so frustrating — in the comics world we know who is good, who is evil, and who will win; the big question is how good will triumph.
That sensibility is in comics’ DNA, to both good and ill effect. An unreflective transfer of the comics’ approach to seemingly intractable problems would at its most extreme result in moral nihilism, as violence becomes the standard means of removing any obstacle to achieving what is right. At the same time, the comics’ metaphorical blend of constructive critique and unbounded possibility helps explain why the social relevance comics of the 1970s weren’t as much of a break from the past as some might think. We can draw a straight line back from the O’Neil & Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow through to the Justice League, Shock SuspenStories, Captain America and Wonder Woman — and the same is true moving forward in time to today. Comics have always had the power to show us who we are and what we can be, and they are at their best when they resemble the magic mirror as ideally envisioned by Oliver Wendell Holmes – reflecting not just our own lives, but the lives of all people who have been.