PK Note: This is not an endorsement of violence, but an exploration of the history of heroes in comic books resisting government tyranny.
The past day has been interesting. The United States government has given the military the ability to arrest and detain any American citizen suspected of terrorism. No trial.
American citizens held without trial for being a suspected threat to the existing order. Read that again.
It got me thinking about an essay from Captain America and Whiteness: The Dilemma of the Superhero about the interesting history of the government passing laws against vigilante actions in the pages of comics and the heroes who resist capitulating to such legislation (the whole reason they exist is because the government has failed to provide adequate resources in fighting criminality). The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen , and Marvel’s Civil War story line all deal with the government passing laws outlawingvigilantism(those who challenge the state monopoly on violence).
Interesting, this writer recently finished reading a graphic novel on G.I Joe: A The Real American . After seeing the story from Zero Hedge that dealt with an episode of the 1980s GI Joe cartoon revolving around a plot by Cobra (the enemy of GI Joe) to burn all the money held by Americans and restore the gold standard, I became interested in the actual origins of Cobra.
I picked up GI Joe: The Worst of Cobra Commander and learned that the origins of Cobra were from a mild-mannered American upset with big government! (p. 88). The eventual Cobra Commander launches his political party (which eventually becomes a terrorist organization) with this speech in Springfield, Illinois with these words:
War is an extension of politics and politics is an extension of economics! If the government says an honest man can’t work as much as he wants to and earn as much as he wants to — it’s wrong! And we have a right to fight back if we want to!
Wait a second… is Cobra a right-wing populist movement? Could Cobra be the motivation behind the Tea Party Movement? It should be noted that G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero – from which this graphic novel is collected – was published back in the 1980s.
Anyways, it’s always interesting what a little intellectual curiosity will help you uncover. Who knew that the origins of Cobra (the comic, not the cartoon or the 2009 movie) would be a right-wingpopulistmovement?
Let’s get to the essay at hand, which is on the interesting tradition of beloved superheroes like Batman and Captain America fighting back when the government decides to enact laws that target those who dare challenge the state monopoly on violence.
Just like the Voldermort was Right piece, SBPDL will occasionally publish articles that dare ask why the so-called villains in a movie are wrong. At some point soon, an article stating Why the Empire from Star Wars is Right will be published. Tomorrow, an article detailing why Bane Must Break the Bat: Why the Dark Knight Rises Must End With the League of Shadows Winning will be published.
Yes, this site is still SBPDL. But you have to add some variety every now and then. The Atlanta/ Walking Dead piece will be published soon too.
Now, in honor of those superheroes who participate in true civildisobedience, let’s take a quick look at the healthy tradition of masked heroes fighting to save America from itself.
Mark Millar’s Civil War storyline is one of those rare occasions where comic books transcend into real world situations and serve as a metaphor for all that is wrong with national politics. After a horrific accident (part of Stamford, Connecticut is destroyed in a battle between superheroes and villains), Congress decides to pass a Superhuman Registration Act:
The Bush Era of the early 21st century was another politically contentious time in American history. The Marvel Universe and Captain America , once again, were not immune to the times. It was the age of the War on Terror, post-911 jitters, the Patriot Act and controversial presidency of George W. Bush. It was also the age when Marvel launched their epic Civil War saga.
In events that mirrored the highly controversial Patriotic Act, the U.S. Government passed the Superhuman Registration Act. The Act required that all persons with super powers register with the government as “a human weapon of mass destruction” (the real world political lingo of five years ago is still very familiar). The superhumans were also required to reveal their true identities and submit to government training.
Today, in the era of Tea Party politics, such an act would no doubt be seen as ‘big government trying to run the lives of good decent American superheroes’. But during The War on Terror era things were different. The unofficial motto was, ‘You are either with us or against us.’ Captain America was most decidedly on the ‘against us’ side.
Captain America vehemently opposed the Act and refused to register. He argued that such legislation was an infringement of American civil liberties. Actually, he didn’t just argue. He fought. Hard. And a lot. And against his former friends and allies, like Iron Man.
Iron Man, Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic of the Fantastic Four), Henry Pym, Spider-Man – who would unmask to the public in the process and reveal himself as Peter Parker – and other heroes decide its best to side with the government; Captain America and a ragtag group of heroes decided against such actions and refuse registration. Tony Stark (Iron Man) is named head of the government’s security wing – called S.H.I.E.L.D – and an actual Civil War is waged between the heroes of the Marvel Universe.
When President Bush is talking with his advisors about the registration act, he worries that having a symbol like Captain America leading the rebellion against registration will embolden those heroes who refused registration:
President Bush: Cap going underground means every super hero who disagrees with us suddenly has a figurehead.
Iron Man: Then we find ourselves a leader of our own, sir.
President Bush: What are you suggesting, Mr. Stark?
Iron Man: You push ahead with registration as planned, gentlemen. Leave Captain America to us [the panel shows Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic and Henry Pym staring ominously at the gathered politicians].
Prior to Captain America going rouge, he has an important conversation in one of the S.H.I.E.L.D Helicarrier’s with a Commander Hill regarding how he will help the government round-up heroes who refuse to comply with the Registration Act:
Commander Hill: This proposal goes to a vote in two weeks’ time and could be law in as little as a month. But we can’t go in half-cocked. We’re already developing an anti-superhuman response unit here. But we need to make sure the Avengers are on ourside and that you’re out there leading the Avengers.
Captain America: Forget about it.
Captain America: You’re asking me to arrest people who risk their lives for this country every day of the week.
Commander Hill: No, I’m asking you to obey the will of the American people, Captain.
Captain America: Don’t play politics with me, Hill. Super heroes need to stay above that stuff or Washington starts telling us who the super-villains are.
Commander Hill: I thought super-villains were guys in masks who refused to obey the law.
At this point, scores of S.H.I.E.L.D agents turn their guns on Captain America, which leads to his immediate decision to join the rebellion. 
The decision by CaptainAmericato side with those who refuse to obeyWashington’s call for transparency in superhero actions became one of Marvel’s most successful comic storylines to date. Funny that it should mirror earlier storylines in two of comics – and all of recent literature – most important titles, where the government dictates that superheroes must either work within the system (Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns ) or retire completely (Alan Moore’s Watchmen ).
Moore’s Watchmen is yet another story where the whiteness of the characters is overwhelming, as every superhero is a white male or female. The 2009 Zack Snyder film gave white actors like Patrick Wilson (who played Night Owl II) and Jeffrey Dean Morgan (who played The Comedian) opportunities to be action stars in an industry that is doing everything possible to remove these types of parts for actors of their similar racial hue.
Thomas Jane was originally cast in the role of The Comedian and we have learned that he was deemed too white to star opposite Sylvester Stallone in a 2012 action film.
The plot of Watchmen would take a long time to try and summarize, but the graphic novel/film are both set in an alternative 1980s America where comic books actually inspired normal people in the 1930s and 1940s to become heroes. The group – called The Minutemen – actually battled crime, becoming celebrities in the process.
The later incarnation of the group, led by Ozymandias, Night Owl II, Rorschach, and the Comedian face a much different challenge then the original Minutemen group did as America has evolved into a much more dangerous place. Eventually, ‘masks’ as they are called (heroes) are outlawed through the passage of the Keene Act (similar to the Superhero Registration Act of Millar’s Civil War story):
The Keene Act was a national law passed in 1977 by the United States Congress that outlawed “costumed adventuring“. Passed by a United States senator named John David Keene, it immediately made illegal any form of vigilantism by costumed adventurers, except for the few who worked solely in the remit of the United States government. Although the Act had been on the table for some time, it was finally rushed through as an emergency law following the police strike on America’s east coast, which was itself a reaction to the extreme methods employed by costumed crimefighters (notably Rorschach) who used excessive force when punishing criminals.
Passage of the Keene Act seems to have ended the strike action. Only Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian chose to continue to use their careers in service of the government (although both had in fact been working for the government for some time previously). Although Laurie Juspeczyk‘s identity had been public knowledge throughout her career, and although she entered government service at this time (largely as Dr. Manhattan’s lover), she nevertheless chose to retire her Silk Spectre identity. Dan Dreiberg also chose to retire, but without revealing his identity. Adrian Veidt had retired from superhero work and made his identity public two years before the passage of the Act, thereby paving the way for the foundation of his multi-billion dollar corporation.
Rorschach refused to comply with the strictures of the Act. Shortly after the Act was passed, he left the dead body of multiple-rapist Harvey Charles Furniss outside a New York City police precinct with a note bearing only his symbolized signature and the word “neveR!”
Prior to the passage of the act, Night Owl II (played by Wilson in the film) and the Comedian try and put down a riot in New York City, and this poignant exchange of dialogue transpires:
[Dan and The Comedian, in the midst of a riot] Dan Dreiberg: But the country’s disintegrating. What’s happened to America? What’s happened to the American dream?.
The Comedian: [brandishing shotgun] It came true. You’re lookin’ at it. Now c’mon… let’s really put these jokers through some changes.
As in the Civil War story, Captain America channels the character of Rorschach who refuses to comply with the decree from Washington D.C. that ‘masks’ stop their extraordinary, vigilante actions and come work within the system.
Only – perhaps only – Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns illustrates a vigilante’s extraordinary crusade to go outside the law and fight for justice better than the Watchmen . Set in the Ronald Reagan’s 1980s America and 10 years after Bruce Wayne has retired his cape and cowl, the Dark Knight Returns the Batman story that all others are compared to and Richard Spencer, the editor of Alternative Righ t, understood this when he wrote these words:
Perhaps the best elaboration of the tensions inherent in the Batman character can be found in Frank Miller’s masterful graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns (1986). The conceit here is that after spending a decade in unpleasant retirement, a fifty-something Bruce Wayne is driven to once again to go kick ass on the streets of Gotham. But when the Dark Knight returns, he encounters none of the brightly dressed mafiosos of the original comic but instead a gang of teenage punk rock sadists, “the Mutants”—’60s counter culture with a gun.
Ruling the city is an effete liberal elite that offers the few remaining good people of Gotham barely a semblance of order. Among them is Dr. Bartholemew Wolper, a psychologist who’s been “rehabilitating” and subsequently releasing the Dark Knight’s archenemies, who, of course, quickly return to murder and mayhem. On television, Dr. Wolper refers to Batman as a “social fascist,” then as a “social disease.” Comissioner Gordon—Batman’s only real ally in law enforcment—goes into mandatory retirement and is replaced by the post-feminist Ellen Yindel, whose first act on the job is to issues a warrant for Batman’s arrest.
There is some hope in Gotham. Carrie Kelly, a young girl who eventually becomes Batman’s new “Robin,” decides to join the Dark Knight after listening to her baby-boomer parents prattle on about the caped “fascist” who’s “never heard of civil rights”—“America’s conscience died with the Kennedys.”
The ultimate villain in The Dark Knight Returns is in fact Superman—whom America’s folksy, patriotic president sends off to fight the commies, deflect a nuclear weapon, and finally bring down the ungovernable Dark Knight. At the close of the novel, Batman is so alienated from civil society that his only recourse is to, in fact, “go underground,” where he plans to train an army that might one day “bring sense to a world plagued by worse than thieves and murderers.” The Joker being dead, one senses that Batman’s referring to the Wolpers, Yindels, and the rest of the establishment.
All of the heroes in the DC Universe have been driven underground or forced into retirement. Superman – always the Big Blue Boy Scout – can “never say no to a badge” and becomes the United States governments primary weapon for keeping the peace. Recall that Captain America refused to comply with the Superhuman Registration Act, stating that he could never allow Washington to dictate who the villains are.
In The Dark Knight Returns , the ultimate villain – in the eyes of the government – is Batman himself, and it is the United States Government that orders Superman to ultimately stop Bruce Wayne in his quest to rid Gotham City of crime once and for all. As Superman does the bidding of the government and destroys numerous Army divisions and Naval Aircraft carriers of the Soviet Union, he contemplates to himself the reality that he will soon have to put down the Batman:
Superman: You were the one they used against us, Bruce. The one who played it rough. When the noise started from the parents’ groups and the sub-committee called us in for questioning—you were the one who laughed… that scary laugh of yours… “Sure we’re criminals,” you said. “We’ve always been criminals.”
“We have to be criminals.”
Juxtaposed in the comic panels during Superman’s destruction of the Soviet Union’s military, is Batman trying to thrwart the Joker from killing hundreds in Gotham City. Superman continues to think to himself about his impending confrontation with the Batman, all the while casually dismantling the Soviet Union’s military might at the behest of the government:
Superman: We almost threw a party when you retired. Do you remember why you retired, Bruce? No—just ok at you—you’d do it agin- and like a murderer, you’d cover it up again. Nothing matters to you – except your holy war.
They [the government] were considering their options and you were probably still laughing when we came to terms. I gave them my obedience and my invisibility. They gave me a license and let us live. No I don’t like it. But I get to save lives—and the media stays quiet. But no the storm is growing again—they’ll hunt us down again—because of you. 
When you consider the Civil War story, Captain America’s reaction to the registration of superheroes falls more closely in line with that of the Batman’s understanding of the criminal nature of his vigilante actions, as opposed to Superman’s submittal to allowing the government full power to direct and dictate his actions.
Batman and Captain America, plus the characters in Watchmen dare challenge the state monopoly on violence.
An essay in the book Superheroes and Philosophy , Aeon J. Skoble writes about his dichotomy between Superman and Batman’s decisions in the face of the government ultimatum to hang it up or come fight for them:
Miller’s Superman understands the resentment that at least partially fuels the anti-superhero movement: “The rest of us recognized the danger – of the endless envy of those not blessed… We must not remind them that giants walk the Earth.”
Batman regards Superman as having allowed himself to be co-opted, but Superman sees his decision to work for the government as justified in utilitarian terms, directed to the greater good…Both recognize that the nature of their distinctive activities make them ‘outlaws,’ regardless of the fact that their motivation is to fight crime and keep innocent people safe.
For Superman, this can only mean going to work for the government, more as a soldier in the Cold War than in the War on Crime. Batman’s interpretation of this is telling:
“Yes”– you always say yes — to anyone with a badge — or a flag — no good. You sold us out, Clark. You gave them the power that should have been ours. Just like your parents taught you. My parents taught me a different lesson… lying on this street… shaking in deep shock… dying for no reason at all. They showed me that the world only makes sense when you force it to.”
For Batman, the presence of a badge or a flag is neither necessary nor sufficient for justice. Laws may be unjust, politicians may be corrupt, and the legal system may actually protect he wicked, but none of this will deter Batman from his mission. ( Superheroes and Philosophy , Open Court, 2005; p. 30)
In the end, Bruce Wayne understood that those who took action against criminality “could have changed the world. Now… look at us… I’ve become a political liability and you… You’re a joke.
The Dark Knight Returns – like the Civil War story – deals with the extraordinary illegal lengths that heroes go to combating crime and the decisions they must make when confronted with a government ultimatum to come and either work for them or be hunted down by those who do. Either or with us, or against us.
Batman understands that his actions have always been criminal, a vigilante who takes the law into his own hands where others cower in fear as they live in a society overrun by criminals. Captain America’s actions in Civil War mirror this, but he ultimately comes to believe those actions carry too heavy a price.
At the end of the Civil War story, Captain America’s side has won the war but he inexplicably turns himself in to the police, allowing “Steve Rogers” to be arrested. Taking off his mask and throwing it on the ground, Captain America decides that no one can win that war, because much of New York City has been destroyed in the process:As Captain America is about to deliver a fatal blow to Iron Man, ending the Civil War for the anti-registration side, civilians attack him.
Captain America: Let me go! Please, I don’t to hurt you…
Civilian One: Don’t want to hurt u? Are you trying to be funny?
Civilian Two: It’s a little late for that.
Next panel of the comic shows multiple blocks of New York destroyed
Captain America: Oh my God.
Falcon: What’s wrong.
Captain America: [He has just dropped his shield] They’re right. We’re not fighting for the people anymore, Falcon… Look at us.. We’re just fighting. Human Torch: Cap, What are you doing? They’ll throw us in jail if you surrender.
Falcon: We were beating them… Man. We were winning back there.
Captain America: Everything except the argument. And they’re not arresting Captain America… they’re arresting Steve Rogers. That’s a very different thing.
The civilians they want to protect have had their lives put in danger by the ‘heroes’ actions. Captain America surrenders, but the final pages of the comic show someone else picking up his discarded mask.
That man is Frank Castle, a character whose actions don’t belong in a world where men can move buildings with their minds and shot lasers from their eyes.
 http://www.denofgeek.com/movies/984587/why_they_shouldnt_change_the_name_of_the_captain_america_movie.html  Civil War . Millar, Mark. Marvel. 2010  Civil War . Millar, Mark. Marvel. 2010  http://watchmen.wikia.com/wiki/Keene_Act  http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Watchmen  http://takimag.com/article/batmananarcho-fascist_or_unassimilated_jew  Dark Knight Returns. Miller, Frank. DC. 2002  Dark Knight Returns. Miller, Frank. DC. 2002
 Superheroes and Philosophy , Open Court, 2005; p. 30  Civil War . Millar, Mark. Marvel, 2010