Sometimes, The Bad Guys Are Real.
I’ve avoided being political for the entire summer. With that said, we not have today’s art.
I had dinner with some old friends the other night, and one of them recounted a disturbing incident. He was just having lunch, on the West Side of Los Angeles, and encountered a couple of guys wearing clothes that could only be described as “white nationalist” in nature. Before anyone thinks that maybe he just “read into it”…no, he just read the t-shirt. Somehow, in Los Angeles, it’s possible to buy and wear a t-shirt with an image and a slogan extolling the virtues of killing non white people.
Now…we know these people exist. Certainly. In fact, we know that they are on the rise. It’s just shocking that in LA, a very diverse and cosmopolitan, notoriously liberal city, that you might see that at all. Even more interesting was that these guys wore their gear, spoiling for a fight. Spoiling for a fight in the same “What do you mean, that’s offensive?” mentality that Chris Cuomo was approached over the past weekend. They engaged my friend, who miraculously received a cell phone call from his mother, interrupting the incident.
When the call was over, they were gone. Usually the way of those kind of provocateurs. Not a whole lot of courage or attention span. If they don’t immediately get a rise out of you, they move on.
This week, going about my business in West LA, I’ve been only too aware of that sort of thing. I’ve been paying attention to hats and t-shirt slogans, and honestly, it’s troubling the traction that the worst part of American culture has gained in the last couple of years.
It’s a depressing truth of Free speech that people get to have ugly bigoted ideas, and get to say them. They can even print them on t-shirts and hats, make pamphlets, and have web sites. All of that, if it isn’t a call to violence or actual violent action, is legal. And believe me, the ugly, bigoted parts of America have learned those rules well.
Hence the preponderance of people that say racist things, or wear clothes with slogans that are clear bait…and then wear the smug look on their face knowing that they are offending someone.
We don’t live in comic books, so no, you can’t just smack someone like that, no matter how much it feels like they might deserve it. I’m Jewish, and I have a pretty diverse friend group because I live in LA. All of this racist white nationalist nonsense that is on the rise makes me crazy as hell, but again…only in comic books can you just smack around someone who is a “bad guy.” The real world has rules about it.
Sometimes, comic books instruct us about those rules as well.
Well, comic books and radio.
In the 1940s, The Adventures of Superman was a radio sensation. Kids across the country huddled around their sets as the Man of Steel leapt off the page and over the airwaves. Although Superman had been fighting crime in print since 1938, the weekly audio episodes fleshed out his storyline even further. It was on the radio that Superman first faced kryptonite, met Daily Planet reporter Jimmy Olsen, and became associated with “truth, justice, and the American way.” So, it’s no wonder that when a young writer and activist named Stetson Kennedy decided to expose the secrets of the Ku Klux Klan, he looked to a certain superhero for inspiration.
In the post-World War II era, the Klan experienced a huge resurgence. Its membership was skyrocketing, and its political influence was increasing, so Kennedy went undercover to infiltrate the group. By regularly attending meetings, he became privy to the organization’s secrets. However, when he took the information to local authorities, they didn’t really car at all. The Klan had become so powerful and intimidating that police were hesitant to build a case against them.
@#$%ing bullies. Bullies that can bully cops. Pretty @#$%ing scary.
Struggling to make use of his findings, Kennedy approached the writers of the Superman radio show. It was perfect timing. With the war over and the Nazis no longer a threat, the producers were looking for a new villain for Superman to fight. The KKK, a crowd of evil @#$%ing bigots, was a great fit for the role. They had a whole lot in common with Nazis, so Superman was on pretty firm ground.
In a sixteen episode series called “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” the writers put the Man of Steel directly against a bunch of men in white sheets and hoods.
Nice. That’s what “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” should be about.
As the storyline progressed, the shows exposed many of the KKK’s most guarded secrets. By revealing everything from code words to rituals, the program completely stripped the Klan of its mystique. Within two weeks of the broadcast, KKK recruitment was down to zero. And by 1948, people were showing up to Klan rallies just to mock them.
There’s a point here. We all have these power fantasies of somehow leaping into action, and doing “the right thing.” There’s all of this talk on the internet for the past couple of years about punching Nazis and white supremacists in the face. It’s all about physical action, as if that solves the problem.
Mental action is where smart people should be. It’s where the writers of the Superman radio show were. If you smack one bigot, he (or she) doesn’t learn anything at all, and they become afraid of you…because in that minute, you were the bigger threat. Big deal.
The MAGA hat crowd? they are aggressively using their free speech these days. They are “out” about their ideas, and understand that if they don’t take the first swing, the rules protect them. They have gotten smarter.
People that don’t have those kinds of bigoted views…more than ever, need to take to their various creative media, their own methods of free speech, and stand up just as much as the newly re-empowered white nationalists. We need to make them look as ridiculous as the writers of Superman did, and as ridiculous as they actually are.
The power fantasy that someone like Captain America or Superman is going to come forward and stop all of this divisive nonsense isn’t entirely stupid. Really. It’s not wrong, because in the 1940s, Superman did in fact do exactly that. He did it by a concerted effort of the creative team making Superman’s inclusive views (as an immigrant himself!) the positive, the role model…and the hatred and bigotry of white nationalism the very definition of the bad guy. Literally everything that you DIDN’T want to be.
I’ll tell you…it is hard drawing a superhero fighting a @#$% ton of white nationalists. Even though they are getting @#$%ing worked…it was disturbing and uncomfortable drawing their suits. It’s just such awful, ugly symbolism…it doesn’t sit well. It’s also important to note that the idea of those guys makes me so @#$%ing mad, Cap is simultaneously choking out one guy, punching another, and kicking a third one. It’s important, though…she’s not just mad here.
She’s protecting someone. See that? That’s important.
That’s what Superman does, and it’s what we should all do, if we listen to our better angels. I felt that was important for the art. Not just the catharsis of illustrating bad guys getting their due, but the idea that when bad guys are going to be violent in their hate…we do what we can to step up.
For most of us, that’s words, art, and things like voting.
I’m going to get off the big preachy soapbox now. Thank you.