The ins and outs of superhero comic book continuity can be a Byzantine, esoteric labyrinth. As the industry’s audience continues to shrink and age, superhero comic book culture looks somewhat isolated and pointless: Who, after all, is reading the things at this point? Sales of print comics have taken a nosedive (combined comic sales were worth $635 million in 2010, down from $680 million in 2009) and digital isn’t close to filling that gap. This belies, however, the massive influence on popular culture consciousness still exerted by characters like Spider-Man and the comics in which his story is endlessly told and re-told. These days, that influence seeps into the zeitgeist primarily as follows: Comic books are mined for both their characters and stories by Hollywood, who incorporate those ideas into big-budget summer blockbuster action movies. Marvel Studios, in particular, have drawn on some of their most recent takes on Iron Man, Thor and Captain America to inform the hugely successful cinematic versions. And like any other major contribution to the zeitgeist, the stories told in these movies are worth critical, politicized examination (see the recent analysis of Captain America: The First Avenger by Alyssa Rosenberg and Sarah Jaffe, and X‑Men: First Class by Jaffe, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Seth Freed Wessler).
Marvel also recently made mainstream news with the unveiling of a new Spider-Man. Miles Morales, a half-African American, half-Latino teenager, will replace Peter Parker in a world in which the original Spidey has met a tragic end. Comics culture has an unfortunate habit of making the rest of American popular entertainment seem forward-thinking when it comes to gender, race and sexuality, so putting a non-white character into such a prominent role is to be lauded. Inevitably, the reactions triggered included some explicitly racist ones, but Marvel is unapologetic. Again, that’s a very good sign. So it was with some dismay that any left-leaning comic book readers who read an interview with Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada will have seen this words: “Now while I don’t want to give too much away, over the years I’ve been really intrigued by the revolutionary work being done by educator Geoffrey Canada, and as we looked deeper into Miles’ character, I suggested to Brian [Michael Bendis, Ultimate Spider-Man writer] that he watch the documentary, “Waiting For Superman” (ironic, I know!). Bri loved it, and the wheels started turning.” It’s a shame that the irony Quesada refers to here is only the fact that Superman is a character owned by a rival company. There’s also an irony here in that Peter Parker was himself a struggling science teacher. And, as such, he’s exactly the kind of person vilified by the steadfastedly anti-union Geoffrey Canada, by Waiting For Superman and by the so-called education reformers for whom the movie is a touchstone. Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress, while wondering if “a teachers’ union that’s secretly entirely made up of” aliens will be Spider-Man villains, says she’s “glad to see this kind of thinking be part of the comic book process.” Sadly I can’t share even her level of cautious optimism, and not just because it seems to set the bar incredibly low. The problem is that the right-wing attack on teachers’ unions and public education has been so insidious and effective that it isn’t even recognized as right-wing. Why should it be, when it has such bipartisan support: top-down corporate-style “reform” has been embraced by President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan; “reformers” like Canada and Michelle Rhee are feted by Democrats and Republicas alike; Rahm Emanuel has appointed Jean-Claude Brizard as CEO of Chicago Public Schools; and many social liberals have celebrated Davis Guggenheim’s privatization propaganda piece Waiting For Superman as if it was An Inconvenient Truth for schools. The skeletons in these crusaders’ closets seem to have done little to slow down the school reform juggernaut. Apparently it’s no big deal that when Brizard was superintendent of schools in Rochester, N.Y., 95 percent of teachers voted “no confidence” in his administration, or that the success of those wonderful charter schools is a myth, or that Rhee’s supposed success was based on fraudulent test scores. Those are just minor details seized upon by nitpicking lefties, apparently. The crusade is driven not by empiricism, but by ideology. Faced with this PR onslaught, vigilance is demanded of those of us who’d like to see popular culture not become further contaminated by anti-union sentiment and the insane belief that the private sector will save us all. Elana Levin, co-host of the comics and politics podcast Graphic Policy, says: “Teachers unions are like the X‑Men. They are not the Sinister Six. I am really glad that Marvel is looking at social issues in their comics—that’s been their legacy—but I hope they do some real reading into the real issues at hand (I could send them a reading list…) before buying the anti-teacher line that corporate interests who are trying to privatize education are selling. The business interests trying to privatize our education system through money and manipulation are just like the new incarnation of the Hellfire Club (as written by Kieron Gillen in Uncanny X‑Men).” It remains to be seen how much of the education “reform” agenda will seep into this new Spider-Man comic, but leaked art pages already seem to show a school lottery scene similar to those featured in Waiting For Superman, implying that this highly biased corporate shilling is indeed going to be a major reference point. It doesn’t have to be like this. By way of contrast, one of the famous names in comics, Alan Moore, this week declared his support for the release of alleged Wikileaks whistleblower Bradley Manning. The catch is, Moore is also a man who at this point seems to have nothing but dismissive contempt for the state of Marvel and DC comics. If the best comics can come up with is to look to right-wing corporate propaganda for ideas, then it’s hard not to share Moore’s opinion. It seems that when it comes to comics and politics, it’s a case of one step forwards, two steps back.
Joe Macaré is a writer, editor and development and communications professional, originally hailing from the UK and now residing in Chicago. His writing has appeared at In These Times, TruthOut, AlterNet, Dazed and Confused, The Times, Plan B and Stylus. He has appeared on WBEZ radio and Chicago Newsroom to discuss his extensive coverage of the Occupy Chicago movement.