Monday, January 12, 2009

Bill Willingham: Comics Conservative?

Big Hollywood is a entertainment website with a decidedly more right-of-center spin. One of its initial "selling points" was that the site would be a sort of conservative Huffington Post, giving big-name entertainers a chance to "come out of the closet" about their political and ideological preferences.

Enter Bill "Fables" Willingham.

In a post entitled "Superheroes: Still Plenty of Super, But Losing Some of the Hero," Willingham cites Superman as not being proud of his country, Captain America as an apologist for terrorists, and even quotes Rush Limbaugh. He closes with a pledge:

"No more superhero decadence for me. Period. From now on, when I write within the superhero genre I intend to do it right. And if I am ever again privileged to be allowed to write Superman, you can bet your sweet bootie that he’ll find the opportunity to bring back “and the American way,” to his famous credo.

For now, I invite others in my business to follow suit, as their own consciences dictate. We’ll talk more about this later."

The question is -- will Willingham face fallout by going out on a limb and making this post?

He later answers such a question in the comments section:

" reflects no courage on my part that I happen to be in a situation, through dumb luck mostly, where I can speak openly about my politics, without too much fear of reprisals and career sabotage. You and I both know that isn’t the case with everyone in our business, which perfectly mimics in that respect the situation in Hollywood (though on a more intimate scale)."

Later in the comments, Chuck Dixon makes an appearance:

"You and I both know that there are plenty of comic creators who feel the way we do but are fearful of speaking up as it will adversely affect their career."

I brought up similar questions a month ago, and was told there was no fear of reprisals for such views in the industry -- that my concerns were nothing more than baseless paranoia.

Well, which is it?

Postscript: I ultimately place the blame for the difficulty of moderate conservatives within the industry like Willingham & Dixon to express their views with the two or three extreme radical-psycho-bipolar conservatives who ruined it for everyone by being insufferable racist and sexist dicks. Not all "conservatives" (label) are the same, just not like all "liberals" (label) are the same; both have the right to express their views without the torch-and-pitchfork brigade. Not that this has stopped that brigade from dogging on Willingham, though the discussion on Robot 6 is so relatively orderly and without the usual Alien-grade acid slime that either teh internets have grew up a bit, or they just have really good mods.


  1. It's bad enough that creators who dislike the "superhero decadence" can't create the type of material that would counterbalance it. Now it seems that they're not even allowed to speak against such policies without fear of losing their jobs now or in the future. It's horrifying to think that such things are still going on today.

  2. Yeah, I agree somewhat with Willingham, and feel he was being attacked a little unfairly.

    That said, I don't think we need to go *back*. I'm always leery when people talk about going "back to the way things used to be" for some obvious reasons.

    I'd rather we (and by we, I mean comic book creators, including yourself) just did new things, while building on the foundation built by comic book creators of the past. You can be patriotic in a new way, or write positive heroes who love their country and aren't sociopaths in tights and capes, but also speak the language of a new era. That's what I always loved about Steve Rogers as Cap...he was unabashedly positive, even in the face of overwhelming odds or outright hatred. He always found a way. That's the type of character I want to read about.

    And they could be from ANY country. Not only America.

  3. Considering that Watchmen, in which Alan Moore may as well have inserted a final page that said, "P.s.: Superheroes are fascists.", and The Dark Knight Returns, in which Batman runs around being basically exactly the kind of superhero Watchmen was deconstructing and criticising, are treated with equal reverence in the comics community, I'd say there's plenty of room for all kinds of political viewpoints in comics. Provided that they're executed well, that is.

    And therein lies the problem. Usually, jingoism just makes for bad comics, and that goes for whatever political ideology you're pushing. I mean, nobody holds up that old "Slap a Jap" Superman as a classic example of the comics art.

    Somehow, though, the pendulum of whinging has swung over to the conservative end of the spectrum. I'm sure liberals saw things the same way in the late 80s and early 90s when mainstream comics had a stronger conservative inclination.

  4. And who was it who told you there was no basis in this "fear of reprisal"? Was it someone in a Management position or a creator? One would expect a Manager to say there was nothing wrong while the building burned down around them but a creator could also want to appear to be a "team player" to guarantee future work.

  5. Anonymous3:05 PM


    Like the top comment at Robot 6;

    "Tying partisan politics into the eternal fight over how superheroes should be portrayed in comics seems like a pretty unnecessary and irrelevant complication."

    That basically sums it up. As long as Willingham continues to write quality books as he has, then good for him for feeling however he does and wanting to be proud of it. Whatever, I don't care, just don't do a Spawn/Fables crossover or whatever.

  6. This whole debate, to me, goes to one of the interesting tensions about writing superhero books.

    Being a superhero, it seems to me, is a fundamentally conservative thing to do.

    You have to have strong identification with individual rights and the right to bear arms to want to supercede the state authority and venture out to fight crime.

    So it would be axiomatic, one would think, that superhero book writers would skew conservative because of those very sympathies.

    On the other hand, artists/writers/creative types are noncomformists and (broadly) skew more leftward than the rest of the populace.

    One need only look at the reaction within the industry to the witch-hunts of the 1950s (beautifully and intelligently rendered by the "Ten-Cent Plague") to have that truth brought home to you.

    Just an observation, I suppose to get things going.

  7. There are also a lot of posts over on CBR that have addressed this as well, and appear to be pretty civil as well.

    My opinions

    First, I would differentiate between industry reprisals and audience reprisals. Now, if people stop buying your comic because of your politics (idiots) and a company decides not to employ you based on ACTUAL sales numbers due to audience drop off, that would be an example of business, not oppression.

    Second, having superheroes be "Heroes" is not a conservative position. I suppose one could argue that superheroes who take the law into their own hands are proto-fascists, but I do not believe conservatives would appreciate being linked to that concept. I believe having superheroes act like heroes is a concept both liberal and conservative readers of comics could get behind.

    Third, this comics degradation has in part been an evolution from the beginning. If you want to go back to the beginnings of grim and gritty, you have Alan Moore and Frank Miller. Most would consider Alan to be a liberal, but Frank is at best a libertarian. Don't see a lot of liberalism in his work.

    Fourth, and most importantly, Bill's politics are not plainly symbolized by his work. I am a bleeding-heart liberal and I have enjoyed all of Bill's Vertigo work over the years. And I have never been offended or otherwise perturbed by a perceived ideology.

  8. I did not realize I "Robot 6" was the CBR column I read.

    One final thought. As far as the American Way goes, that was added for the TV show in the 50s when we were desperate to distinguish ourselves from the evil commies. What is the American Way. Is it the ideals of our founders, or is it the realitry of or global policies? If it's the latter, then greed, elitism, and brutality would technically be the American Way.

  9. And as responders at both Big Hollywood and CBR have pointed out, both Grant Morrison and Geoff Johns tend to write unabashedly good characters vs. bad characters and Grant at least comes across as very liberal. I have no idea what Johns' politics are (although his sometimes collaborator, Van Sciver, has some scary beliefs.

  10. I'm a bit biased here, being Willingham's friend, but I've worked on a couple of projects with Willingham including a pitch using the VETERAN character he introduced in his run on ROBIN. (That VETERAN pitch was shot down because we did not have enough characters that would act as a 'balance' for the conservative hero of the series. At least that was the impression that I came away with after the meeting with Didio.)

    Due to the success of FABLES, he has a little safe harbor in Vertigo. That won't keep him from getting a side project shot down over there, but he has steady employment. Chuck Dixon, as a guy who has to keep pitching, does not seem to enjoy that same luxury. That is the difference between the two. Bill has an ownership stake in FABLES that affords him the luxury of being able to speak his mind.

  11. Man, could you add an edit function?

  12. GroovyDaddy,

    Superman was created as a socialist hero of the people against the forces of government corruption. But, I agree, when you break it down, they do come across as a conservative concept.

  13. I don't understand why making superheroes "virtuous" is inherently a Conservative value.

    I'm pretty damn liberal (despite being related to someone who has direct responsibility overseeing Guantanamo Bay) but i like my superheroes virtuous and without the all crap that's been piled on them over the years. Does this make me Conservative?

  14. Anonymous4:09 PM

    You know, it's a f***** comic book, and to have the actual creators saying this kind of s*** is lame.

    Yes, of course there will be retaliation, because it is a formula that makes money.

    But it's NOT REAL.

    It's FICTION.

    It's bad enough that we have readers acting like this cr*p is The Most Important S*** In The World.

  15. Worth mentioning that BIG HOLLYWOOD is run by Andrew Breitbart, Matt Drudge's BFF.

  16. Willingham's mistake was adding politics to his essay. If he had stated it more in storytelling terms (idealistic superheroes with well-defined, unbending moralities), then it wouldn't have attracted the nutballs who troll for keywords.

    I don't care, really, if heroes have flaws or are paragons of virtue or vice, as long as the story is good.

    That said, it will be interesting to see what he does with Justice Society of America.

  17. To hear conservatives tell it, they're persecuted at every turn in this country. I've no doubt that political discrimination exists to some extent (from all sides), but it would take more than the word of somebody who actually takes Limbaugh seriously and a foaming-at-the-mouth reactionary (Dixon knows how to present himself most of the time, but I've seen him at his emotional worst) to convince me that the comics industry is so hostile to conservatives.

    Any kind of discrimination in the workplace is 100% wrong. I don't know the answer to eliminating it. However, when I hear conservatives tell others how to deal with such things, their answer is (surprise!) The Free Market. If the demand is there, entrepreneurs *will* fill the conservative-friendly hole. Again, I would never suggest this as the proper solution, but that's the solution I hear conservatives provide for similar situations. The Market's good enough for the rest of us but not for them?

    Will Willingham face fallout? I hope not, but I think the only people qualified to answer that are those who know well his current and prospective employers. I doubt he'll suffer any noticeable fan alienation (perhaps he might even pick up a few conservative readers or others intrigued by this semi-controversy)

  18. My thing is, I don't care to support conservatives.

    I don't want to give money to people who may give it to people who will adamantly oppose my rights.

    But Fables is damn good and that's the only Willingham thing I read. So fuck it.

  19. How can *any* piece of fiction (not to mention, non-fiction) be free of the "taint" of an ideological slant?

    Wasn't the Denny O'Neil Green Lantern/Green Arrow full of ideological slants? Doesn't it permeate Transmetropolitan? How about Battlestar Galactica? Should we strip that show of all political subtext? Where are all the calls for that?

    "Keep politics out of our comics?"

    Starting what? NOW?

    "Keep Bill Willingham's politics out of comics. Other politics okay."

  20. That's interesting. I guess I agree with the substance of Willingham's point of view, but not his personal political justification. For example, Captain America should be a forthright, square-jawed, almost corny, can-do patriotic type guy. He should seem out of step with the rest of the world but that doesn't necessarily mean I think he would've voted for John McCain or supported the Bush administration wholeheartedly and without questioning...

    Because I don't think he would particularly be what we think of as "conservative" these days. More old school if anything. Like my dad, who was a hardcore isolationist of a bent not seen much post-WWII. And always anti-war.

    But then again, Cap's a member of a generation that grew up under FDR's policies and went to war against fascism. Plus, as Steve Rogers, he was an artist to boot. He might have his own personal way of expressing his love for America that wouldn't always sit well with either the left OR the right.

    And Superman? Superman is an immigrant, the son of two worlds. One of which is the American heartland, with farm parents. So I can see him representing to a certain extent those values. He'd also be pretty upright and Boy Scout-ish. But his other culture is Krypton and who knows what "conservative" and "liberal" mean there? And if he was raised to always help the underdog or the ones who need help the most, he's not going to be flying around doing things that would always please Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter.

    I guess where I differ with Willingham and Chuck Dixon is I don't necessarily see there being just one view of what America should be that's correct, and I don't necessarily view any of those Captain America or Superman traits as intrinsically conservative as the right exists today. So while I agree Superman and Captain America should be above all the "superhero decadence," I don't think so due to partisan politics.

    Anyway, I think Hysan put it best.

    But this "not being able to speak out for fear of reprisals" stuff, complete with the mandatory dig at all those weirdos out in Hollywood? I'm not sure I buy that at all. They're not convincing me.

  21. I'll read an anti-immigration, pro-gun conservative Captain America. But as a hipster douche I'll read it ironically, standing in the aisle and then buy something else. In reference to another post I would love to see that socialist anti-corruption Upton Sinclair inspired Superman again. Just really nakedly political.

  22. Anonymous8:25 PM

    I think Alan Moore's Exit Interview is now officially the best money I spent on a book about comics as an industry last year.

  23. i don't have a problem with conservative politics. I may not agree 100% with them on everything but they do make some good points as well as the liberals do as well. But When the right wing whackos and Left wing Progressives get involved in a slap fight it becomes impossible to see which way is up. I consider myself a moderate. That being said it's a shame that anyone who considers themselves to be a conservative should be afraid of expressing their views.

  24. Well, somebody on Twitter just called Willingham a "Nazi" --

    So does Godwin's Law come into play now?

  25. I was appreciative of Willingham's Art from his TSR and Elementals days.

    I'm not sure though, how someone who does porn, and really wierd fantasy porn (Ironwood), gets to be a "conservative".

    Libertarian, maybe. Or I guess "South Park Conservatives" are the vanguard now.

  26. I think the conservative VS liberal war of absolutes is a pretty ridiculous idea, and always have. Think about how many people you know that live a life that realistically stays 100 percent inside of one of those sorts of labels.

    I agree with Hysan about not liking the 'good old days' concept. Make something new and make it better. Just make good comics. If you want your stories to feature heroes that embody true heroism, then write them like that. If one does that well, then it is liable to catch on to some degree. There may also be a need to look in new places to find those things that you think are important. If Superman, Batman and Captain America aren't doing it, what about Atomic Robo? There's a heroic character who seems to have grown and changed in the course of his existence, etc. There are probably a lot of comics out there that we could be reading that show whole ranges of the human condition that would appeal to us if we just looked harder for them.

    I don't think that values and heroism and morality are conservative ideals.

    Val is a good example of someone who has seemed to be a fairly liberal thinking sort of person who also embraces some strong morality and values. I view myself the same way. A label of conservative vs liberal almost needs to be reconsidered at every point. I don't think labels are really the best way to go.

    Some day it would be great if people could speak their conscience about something publicly without it turning into a shitstorm. At least Willingham didn't condemn child porn... or speak out for creators going the creator owned comics route vs the big two... right?

  27. Anonymous11:37 PM

    "Well, somebody on Twitter just called Willingham a "Nazi" --

    So does Godwin's Law come into play now?"

    I think the Internet needs to upgrade Godwin's Law to challenge people more in the interest of making sure that Internet discourse doesn't lose any potential comedic value.

    More pressing for me as a reader is my continued amazement that Fables is printed on a wonder in substandard shit for a color comic in any format in this day and age, as Valerie pointed out in another post regarding Vertigo books.

    Ex Machina at Wildstorm gets quality paper treatment, as it should, and it sells. Don't get it.

    With apologies to a standup comedian I was watching last night, Vertigo paper is a recipe for tears.

  28. Anonymous2:35 AM

    "How can *any* piece of fiction (not to mention, non-fiction) be free of the "taint" of an ideological slant?"

    Not sure if my comment is a part of this, but:

    It can't. But FICTION shouldn't be taken as seriously as it is being here. I have no problem with the slants. It's the attitudes being thrown down that are my concern.

    That being said, I really do enjoy the BS that the readers are spouting. It makes for hilariousness and great comedic material.

  29. This is a little off topic, but may address something Willingham didn't think of; we aren't all Americans. I'm Canadian, and that whole "American Way" thing is a big turn off. The name "Captain America" is a big turn off. There are a lot of reasons for this - you people are scaring the shit out of the rest of the world with your politics, especially the conservative kind. I'm not saying that I think you're all the same, or that all "conservatives" are evil - I grew up in a pretty conservative place and I tend to come right up the middle politically myself. It's just that I hear the words "American Way" and hear the undercurrent of "force the planet to eat McDonald's and drink Coke and then completely disrespect their sovereignty on a shaky pretext because we want their oil."
    And I wouldn't listen to anything Willingham has to say. I had to stop reading Robin comics because of that hack.

  30. Oh yeah, a pretty big percentage of comic buyers are gay, especially for titles like Wonder Woman. DC can't really let Willingham push his openly conservative views (read: conservative disregard for human rights re gay marriage being a BIG news issue these days) in that face of those customers' dollars.

  31. When did Emily Post go out the window?

    This is something that's annoyed me for some time, now. Caveat, first: as far as any creative expression goes (movies, comic books, documentaries...whatever), those works that best hit home are the ones that deal with common themes and emotions. Rather than having a story where Rush Limbaugh and Trent Lott get super powers and beat the crap out of Al Franken, do what Willingham has done in his books...establish a story that has a strong emotional core.

    Tolkein said that the One Ring in his story was not analogous to nuclear weapons, as was generally believed. He said it was not analogous, but "applicable." Personally, I think that's the best way to tell stories.

    Fables is easily applicable to Jews, prior to the founding of Israel. But it also works when applying it to almost any story of the dispossessed.

    Anyway, that's the caveat. Here's the (short) rant.

    When did it get okay to talk about politics and religion with your coworkers and think it's okay?

    Why do you think that's considered "impolite"? Is it because a bunch of stuffed shirts don't know any better? No. It's because you'll piss people off! And those people that you piss off may be in a position to not call you when they can call someone else that DIDN'T piss them off.

    Just use some f**king sense.

  32. Fuck Emily post.

    I won't force my views on anyone, but I am not afraid to go where a conversation leads. It's all in how you do it. I get something out of such discussions because I get to hear what others have to say and reconsider my opinions. It's a difference between dialog and lecturing.

    Also, I agree that everyone has a spectrum of views. Some of my views would be more moderate to right, but on average are to the left.

  33. I was with Willingham up to a point. Our heroes have been darkened and thrust into some morally questionable areas. Tony Stark seems positively villainous at times. But. Moral ambiguity and uncertainty are things we deal with every day. Yet, I must concede that Superman and Spider-Man and the rest are, at the end of the day, supposed to triumph over temptation and anger and destructive tendencies. So, yes, in this difficult time, heroes should be heroes.

    I'm not sure where political affiliation comes into this argument, however. The idea that Superman and Spider-Man and Captain America are conservative characters seems slightly off to me. Superheroes are, broadly speaking, anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment, and all about focusing on personal freedoms when power structure, hierarchy and the rules of society have let down the individual. Superheroes represent the rebellious spirit of the reader, turned on the world to change it for the better. In that sense, they generally are designed as characters who fit in the left of the political spectrum -- although giving the characters specific political parties seems unwise and missing the point anyway. Trying to decide who Captain America votes for is trying to find something that doesn't exist. And there are as many Captain Americas as there are writers who've written him anyway.

  34. Anonymous3:43 PM

    Val, on a side note, if you want to see some real conservative propaganda in modern day fiction, you should of seen the past four episodes of 24.

  35. Bill Willingham should get together with Kurt Busiek and do an Astro City spin-off. Do something sunny and idealistic about superheroes while at the same time questioning the very archetypes we hold dear and twisting them in new dimensions.

    Were there any series besides Astro City that did the Reconstruction thing in response to Watchmen?

  36. Reading Willingham's article a couple of times and most of the Robot 6 comments, especially Busiek's, I don't find Willingham's point offensive, even as a liberal. I just find it a mess.

    For example, how can you desire to have moral clarity when you quote Rush Limbaugh who, for the sole benefit of his partisan agenda, denies that there's a recession? (I'll give Willingham the benefit of the doubt that he's just playing to his conservative audience.)

    Willingham complains that Captain America apologizes for wrongs that America's government did in the Cold War. Then, Willingham criticizes a story in which Cap participates in a cover-up. If Cap finds bad behavior in America's policies, he's not morally clear, yet Willingham wants Cap not to be just a blind follower of his government.

    I don't find the exchange between Cap and the terrorist weak, or morally unfocused. In fact, the terrorist is correct that America has armed those who killed innocents. Should we just conveniently forget the U.S. support of Osama bin Laden and Sadam Hussein? Yet, that fact doesn't change the fact that the terrorist is wrong: any wrongs America has committed doesn't justify terrorism.

    Also, Willingham's interpretation of Cap's response seems dishonestly dismissive, as if Cap is whining rather than asserting a moral clarity and determination:

    "We've changed. We've learned...My people never knew. We know now. And those days are over."

    Cap asserts that Americans have changed and will not allow their government to support the murder of innocents. Where's the whining? Willingham apparently just took Michael Medved's description of the scene and changed "responds meekly" to "whines." Be morally steadfast, Steve Rogers, but don't ever admit America has done wrong.

    So, which is it? Stand against the murder of innocents or not? Willingham himself is confused about what he wants from superheroes.

    I have no problem with Willingham's initially stated point: I'd like to see more heroic and less dark characters. But that doesn't really seem to be his complaint.

  37. Anonymous9:28 PM

    You know what I just thought of?

    Just now, and I'm kicking myself for not getting to it before?

    Superman killed people in the first issues.
    He totally did.
    I have the first collection and it makes me giggle each time because I'm watching SUPERMAN willingly kill people.

    From juggling them until they have a heart attack, to reflecting their VIALS OF POISON GAS and then RUNNING AWAY, Superman was a menace.

    And has Willingham ever been to

    It seems to me that one of my favorite authors is picking and choosing from his bible.

  38. Unfortunately Willingham seems to have that dangerous 'golden age' mentality. I absolutely loved Fables up through issue 50. The marriage ceremony in that issue was just so overbearingly preachy and conservative that it turned me off of the series.

    Despite the characters in question (I'm being abstract so as to avoid any blatant spoilers) having never so much as mentioned religion to that point, 'god' (clearly meaning Christian god in context) is invoked multiple times in the painfully Protestant, WASPy ceremony and it even has the female character agreeing to "obey" her husband. That was almost laughably out-of-character for her.

    I'm going to make an educated guess based on his that Willingham is strongly against marriage equality. Not acceptable.

    Also getting back to the absurdity of 'golden age conservatism' he falls into the usual trap of his preferred 'tradition' being an artificial construct lacking the roots, which allegedly legitimise it. A medeival or even early modern European marriage (i.e. the cultural context of said fables) would be two people saying "I marry you" with or without witnesses. Willingham's vision is detached from reality and his own characterisation, which is of course the danger of preachy politics.