AN ARMY OF ONE

CAPITALIST SUPERHEROES –  Caped Crusaders in the Neoliberal Age

By Dan Hassler-Forest, Zero Books

Just read this excellent book which echoes my mind-set in Marshal Law.  Law  was always more than a satire on men in capes, it is also a critique on the fortresses of the establishment – hence the hero hunter’s attack on the US corporations trading with the enemy in World War 2 and the role of the US in Vietnam.

So it was good to see this book once again delineate how these costumed crusaders have a questionable and unwholesome role in society. They are so much more than a harmless power fantasy designed for our entertainment: in reality a disguise and an endorsement for much that is wrong on our planet, which is why I/Marshal Law loathe them.  I explore this further in the afterword to the Marshal Law deluxe edition due out this April, but in the meantime here are a few gems from Capitalist Superheroes:

*In 2002, Der Spiegel ran a cover featuring American president George W. Bush and four of his most prominent cabinet ministers depicted as comic book superheroes and action movie icons like Batman, Rambo and Conan the Barbarian.… The U.S. ambassador visited the editorial office to report that “the President was flattered” and subsequently requested thirty-three poster-sized enlargements of the cover for the White House. Apparently the notion that there was anything offensive about the depiction of American heads of state as bloodthirsty action movie icons and vindictive superheroes was completely alien to the Bush administration, nor was the ironic headline, “America’s crusade against evil” perceived as derogatory or sarcastic.

The 'Bush Warriors' cover illustration of Der Spiegel, 2002.

The ‘Bush Warriors’ cover illustration of Der Spiegel, 2002.

*Traumatic military conflict from the American point of view is presented as unavoidable, in which Americans are both innocent victims and heroic protagonists, for reasons that remain incomprehensible and, and ultimately even irrelevant.

*For the superheroes depicted on the page or on the screen provide fantasies that offer the illusion of momentary escape from the powerless nature of the modern subject, but do so in ways that are defined by their fundamental removal from historical reality, and in forms that are grounded in capitalist processes of passive consumerism.  This contradiction is recognisable at the narrative level as well, where characters like Batman, who are made attractive by the rebellious non-conformism of their vigilante behaviour , actually do “little to destabilize accepted notions of justice.”

*In spite of the film’s surface rejection of the military-industrial complex, Iron Man’s ideal soldier is presented as a cyborg figure who has incorporated this military technology into his outfit and made it into an essential, even natural part of his physique. As in Batman’s use of “immoral” surveillance technology, the film’s superficial rejection of the military-industrial complex is contradicted by its ongoing celebration of militarized (and privatized) cutting-edge technologies.

Such fantasies of masculine empowerment through the subject’s transformation into a technologically enhanced cyborg are not limited to the fantastical narratives of comic books and Hollywood action films.  The U.S. Army’s infamous 2001 advertising campaign that adapted the slogan, “An Army of One” tried to draw in new recruits on the basis of exactly this kind of image.  The text that accompanies the advertisement’s photograph of a lone futuristic soldier, all but anonymous in the heavily armoured and helmeted costume, runs as follows:

“What you see is a Soldier system that gives me 360 degrees vision in pitch black. Makes me invisible to the naked eye. Lets me walk up a mountainside. And run in a desert. You’ve never seen anything like me. But don’t worry. They haven’t either. I AM AN ARMY OF ONE.  And you can see my strength.

Right now, Marshal Law seems to be one of the few mainstream comic books that runs counterpoint to this stream of lethal and insidious jingoistic propaganda.  I only wish there were more.

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4 thoughts on “AN ARMY OF ONE

  1. “La Muse,” written by Adisakdi Tantimedh and drawn by Hugo Petrus, most recently continued the anti-capitalist superhero idea. It’s about a leftist activist who uses her superpowers to permanently disrupt the plans of a neoliberal cabal. Alan Moore wrote a blurb for the book. But the big two comics publishers stayed far away from it. Gee, you’d have thought witty violence and political critique wouldn’t turn off people…

  2. One title I think is worth a mention is ‘Zenith’, from late-80s, early 90s 2000AD.
    While few of the cast (beyond the two WW2 rivals in the prologue) resembled an official ‘super-soldier’, in the mould of Captain America/Iron Man/Nick Fury/S.H.I.E.L.D., there was a definite attempt to show how the establishment intended to train superhumans in that role. And got very angry when they refused to play along.
    Some (Zenith’s parents) were hunted down, as dangerous destabilising influences, some faked their own deaths, some turned to the bottle, and some faked the loss of their powers, to avoid being drafted.
    When the story resumes in the then-modern-day, the youthful idealism of the second-generation 60s metahumans had been replaced by cynicism, defeatism, and in the most extreme cases, a belief that their inherent superiority over humans justified culling them, to start afresh.
    Does that one count?

  3. I’ve often felt the same way, but really only knew of two comics that criticized this aspect of superhero culture – the dear old Marshal and Watchmen. Do you feel that this trend of “insidious jingoism” has intensified in recent years, perhaps the last ten since 9/11, or has it always been a part of superhero culture? I think that the only people who feel they can, or desire to, make such a statement in comics are those outside of the US.

    • Yeah, I think it has got far worse.

      You’re dead right. I’m only aware of Marshal Law and Watchmen really making the point with any vigour. You’d expect other UK writers to make similar points, but they haven’t to the best of my knowledge. I put this down to the deeply conservative nature of comics and comic people these days. It ain’t rock ‘n’ roll no more. Thatcher must take some of the blame. Life experience may be the other factor. Clearly, Alan, Kevin and I have been shaped by some interesting experiences in our lives! At the time, we – the 60s and 70s generation – were part of a large cultural movement, attacking the establishment, and to me it was quite normal. I thought it would all get heavier and more potent, not the reverse. It came as a shock to realise that some later generation creators seemed to have attitudes I’d associate with my accountant or bank manager.

      That’s why I rate this book. At least someone’s still writing about real injustice and the importance of genuine heroes.

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